Going It Alone: How Scotti Lechuga Won the 2021 Arkansas High Country Race

Scotti Lechuga has made a name for herself alongside her husband, Ernie, winning bikepacking races as a pair and setting Fastest Known Times (FKTs). In 2021, Scotti challenged herself to try her first solo race – a rugged 1,021-mile gravel race around her home State. Here, Scotti shares her motivation for riding solo and the full story of her winning ride at the Arkansas High Country Race (AHCR).

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Photography Kai Caddy

Scotti sits atop her bike in front of the White Rock Mountain sign

 

“I’ll never do that again!”

Those were my words after each of my rides around the 1,021-mile high country route as a pair with my husband, Ernie. Yet in September of this year, here I was again in front of the computer screen, researching each and every feature of the course.

I am no stranger to this route. The Arkansas High Country Race course is beautiful and brutal, and it takes no prisoners. The climbing starts from ground zero and pitches riders up and over gradients that devour legs one mile at a time. The descents are rough and jarring, and sometimes must be taken just as slowly as the climbs. The route is also home to some of the most serene, untouched forest lands in America — moody, dense green valleys where the fog eerily rolls in, enveloping the hillside in a cloud. The weather is extremely unpredictable, and the humidity levels are so high your clothes never dry.

As the race approached this year, it became clear the ARHC may be the most reasonable and sensible chance I’d have to break into the solo racing realm. I’d wanted to race solo ever since we’d dipped our toes into pairs racing, but I’d always had so many reservations — not being well-versed in bike mechanics, handling all the aggressive dogs I knew to be on the route, and quite honestly, strange men out in the backroads of Arkansas. But I knew the route well from my first two passes. I was familiar with the challenges, the resupplies, and exactly what equipment would be needed. With the pandemic still in full swing, this race required no travel. The start line is 20 minutes from my house. This was all making sense. But deep down, I was also scared of myself, wondering if I had what it takes to see something like this through to the end — alone, solo.

When I decided to enter, my goal had nothing to do with winning or setting records. I’d been toeing the line of a solo race for several years, and this was my first opportunity to step out and do it.

The goal was to find myself out there.

Scotti rides her mountain bike along a tarmac road during the Arkansas High Country Race

Endurance challenges can be a very long conversation with the voices of your “self”.  The physical sensations, aches, and pains of pushing the body that hard are a gateway into the psyche. Layer upon layer you get the opportunity to explore the depths of your true capability and realize your strengths and weaknesses, and you have the privilege of fixing what needs to be fixed if you’re patient enough to stay with it long enough.

This struggle between the mind and body connection has been where I’ve grown the most, and what has brought me the most satisfaction out of all my cycling experiences. Having come from UCI women’s road racing, I’ve pedalled my bike for years. I wasn’t worried about my fitness or bike handling ability. The challenge had more to do with inner strength and mental resilience, something I’ve worked on for years in pursuit of becoming a stronger woman on and off the bike.

At the start line, I was ready for this unique challenge of racing alone. I was ready to accept whatever this race decided to throw my way. I’ve done enough of these to know it will never be exactly how I envision it — and true to my experience, so many things happened that threw a wrench in the plan.

Scotti stands atop her bike on a section of dirt road during the Arkansas High Country Race

I had unexpected device failures. My cache battery that usually lasts four days was tanked on day two for unknown reasons. My front bike light charging port broke and rendered my light completely useless. The weather went from 90 degrees Fahrenheit on days one and two to two rainstorms that turned the roads into mush on the final day. I luckily only flatted once, and I had everything I needed with me to fix it.

I honestly never found myself wishing I had someone there with me — even among all the dogs and several strange men who asked questions like, “Are you alone?”  I’d already prepared an answer for that before the race — I always lied that there were other riders in the race coming right behind me.

One night when my front light had broken, I had to bivvy right on the gravel road. On each side of the road, there was a huge ditch full of weeds and earlier in the day I’d seen a snake and some huge spiders crawl out of there. Past the ditch was dense forest. So, I stopped directly on the road and set up my sleeping system and passed out with a gravel rock intentionally shoved under my shoulder blade to try and relieve a tight muscle.

I awoke to the sound of a large truck barreling down the road. I held up my hands so they would see me! The truck stopped, and four people got out. Oh God, I thought to myself. Why are so many people getting out of the truck? My heart raced as I saw they were all men. I couldn’t see their faces with the truck headlights shining in my eyes, just the outlines of their bodies.

They were speaking to each other in Spanish, too rapidly for me to understand what they were saying. One of them came closer and said, “Um…are you OK?… You need help?” From my sleeping bag, I tried to explain I was totally fine, just that my lights had died, and I was tired from racing my bike, so I had stopped here. I could tell they didn’t understand. “I’m OK,” I repeated. They seemed confused and prattled on to each other in Spanish. “You sure you not need help,” he said in broken English. “Yes, I’m good,” I assured them. They looked at me, then looked at my equipment, then said “Well, um, you move please?”  I was blocking their way.

It turns out all these encounters with “strange men” were just as confusing for them as they were for me — I looked a complete mess, and out of sorts. And at the end of the day, their questions and confusion were more out of concern than any intent to harm. They wanted to make sure I was alright.

Scotti rides away from the camera, heading into a dense fog on a gravel road

As I reflect on the race, I was so steeped in the moment of figuring things out for myself that I never felt the need for companionship. The continual problem-solving mindset this race afforded kept me ever-present and alert within myself — always thinking two steps ahead of where I was in the moment. I made time to stop more frequently than I had originally intended to charge devices back up. I used this time to multi-task — eating, changing clothes, and washing my shorts, showering if possible, cleaning and caring for my drivetrain. Even though in the race there was a high sense of urgency to move forward, I tried to always slow down my thoughts to do whatever it took to make the next segment more successful. This focus on process over result ended up being what fueled me to be first to the finish line.

I was by no means the strongest athlete on course. The two guys who were fighting each other for the lead throughout the first few days of the race were stronger riders, but these races require more than sheer physical strength. The two men ahead of me had put some serious miles on me by day four but had succumbed to the pressures and pains of the race — and those were just as real for me, too. I just knew to expect them.

In each moment I focused on making these aches and pains marginally better, to take away the edge of the exploding knees, the saddle sores, the pins and needles in my fingertips and feet.  This often required slowing down but caring for myself is what kept me in the long game.

On the last day, it rained on me for 17 hours straight. My chain sounded like a train wreck, and the roads close to the finish line were like peanut butter. My hands and feet were pruned so badly the skin had started to peel. Pedalling on already wasted legs, I turned on loud music to drown out the sound of my aching joints and muscles and powered through, averaging only 9mph on what was supposed to be a “downhill” — an absolutely epic way to end an epic journey.

I crossed the finish line in 5 days, 10 hours, and 49 minutes, the first-ever female overall winner of the race and with a new women’s Fastest Known Time.  Overwhelmed with fatigue, it felt surreal. Having never set out for anything other than to find myself, the results were a bonus. I’d lived what seemed a lifetime of emotion, misery, joy, pain, and triumph in these 130 hours of time on the bike. And I can say with certainty I’m looking forward to more solo racing in 2022.

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