It was 40 degrees and raining at the start of The Mid South. About an inch of rain had fallen overnight, and if with a 30-minute lightning delay to 8:30am, you could barely tell that the sun had come up. A thousand-plus riders toed the start line with cold shivers and rain jackets. Amongst the coronavirus pandemic that had canceled so many other events, The Mid South would go on.
Many lined up with excited trepidation – a fear of the unknown – myself included. Although I had raced in the mud before, I had never gone longer than the 60 minutes it took to complete a cyclocross race. Today promised to be six, seven, even eight or more hours. The course was muddy, hilly, and ever-changing under the Oklahoma sky. Is this section ride-able? How deep is this puddle? Will my bike give up before I do?
Most set out with the goal of crossing the finish line. To do so at all, in these conditions especially, would be a feat. But a strong few – a world-class gravel racing line-up, if that is such a thing – set out to win. At the end of the day, over six and a half hours after departing Stillwater, OK, in the pouring rain, defending champion Payson McElveen rolled back into town with no one else in sight, becoming back-to-back champion of The Mid South. McElveen’s Orange Seal off-road teammate Hannah Finchamp was the first woman across the line, finishing in under eight hours and in 24th place overall.
Here’s what it took for McElveen and Finchamp to win the epic that was the 2020 Mid-South:
Rider stats: Payson McElveen
Weight: 70 kg (154 lbs.)
Rider stats: Hannah Finchamp
The power files from this year’s The Mid South are fascinating. They look like a five-hour time trial followed by a slow and painful bonk. Each metric line – power, heart rate, and speed – is basically flat, until the five-hour mark. At this point, roughly, each metric begins to angle in a downward slope. Fatigue has set in, both physical and mental, and gaps between riders are measured by minutes. But first, let’s rewind.
Over a thousand riders departed downtown Stillwater, Oklahoma with 104 miles of clay, gravel, and dirt ahead of them. The first gravel sector – East 19th Street – came just a few miles into the course. Riders hopped off of the pavement and dove straight into the mud. This four-mile sector was enough to split the entire race into bits and pieces, still with 100 miles to go. Big efforts were made in this sector, with Finchamp doing enough to stay with the front group.
McElveen (East 19th Street):
Avg Power: 321 W (4.6 W/kg)
Finchamp (East 19th Street):
Avg Power: 253 W
His strong start saw McElveen make the front group – that is, until around mile 20 when slick mud and a stick in the spokes meant that McElveen missed the front group of six, and lost a minute and a half.
With the help of his teammate Dennis van Winden – whose past race experience includes Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, and multiple grand tours – McElveen eventually made contact with the front of the race, all the while maintaining this high-powered effort for the best part of three hours.
From the first gravel sector to the checkpoint in the town of Perkins, McElveen’s average weighted power was an enormous 4.5 W/kg.
It’s a similar story for Finchamp, who fought hard to stay with the front groups for as long as possible, and was still riding in the top 20 riders overall as she entered the checkpoint in Perkins.
Keep in mind, at this point they still had about four hours to go.
McElveen (East 19th Street to Perkins):
Avg Power: 314 W (4.5 W/kg)
Finchamp (East 19th Street to Perkins):
Avg Power: 209 W
While the numbers are impressive, even world-class, they still don’t tell the full story. Anyone who has ridden in cold rain will tell you that 40F-degree temperatures and wet roads do not make for happy bike riders. And anyone who has ridden through slippery mud, deep ruts, and freezing puddles will also tell you that’s no fun either. Have you ever played hike-a-bike? How about in the middle of a seven-hour race?
What the numbers don’t tell you is how hard this race was, so much harder than power numbers reflect. Nearly every rider spent at least a few minutes hunched over their bike clearing out mud (the race provided paint stirrer sticks), and walking a mile or more in the sloppy mud while shouldering a mud-laden bike.
“The Mid South gravel race was physical, mental, and emotional. The thick, deep mud took everything out of you. It was relentless. There was no reprieve,” said Finchamp.
Nevertheless, Finchamp and McElveen were still going strong in the second half.
Coming into the final 20 miles, McElveen overtook former WorldTour rider Peter Stetina who had attacked at mile 60, but suffered a mechanical.
“By that point in the race, we could all pretty much only maintain whatever best high endurance power output we had left. It was a slow-motion drag race,” McElveen said.
“It was crazy how the heaviness of the conditions almost made it like one super-long hill climb effort. If you stopped pedaling for one second, you’d come to a stop,” McElveen said.
Throughout the race, McElveen rarely broke 400 W for more than a minute at a time. Here is a perfect example from the second half of the race:
McElveen (steady Mile 60-85):
Avg Power: 309 W (4.4 W/kg)
Finchamp (steady Mile 60-85):
Avg Power: 171 W
McElveen’s power barely began to drop off — the result of a careful pacing strategy and months of intentional training. His coach, Christian Williams, said, “Our training with Payson has emphasized repeated medium-long days this preseason, rather than seven-hour-plus days, here and there. You can actually increase depth of fitness a lot more by consistently layering on three to five hour quality days which include a lot of tempo [riding] and “sweet spot” [sustained efforts], rather than smashing enormous days that more closely mimic these races, but also require a lot of extra recovery afterward.”
But in the closing miles, Finchamp’s power saw a much steeper decline.
“I actually ran out of food around 6 hours. I didn’t anticipate the race lasting so long. I had a most spectacular bonk leading into the finish and finished in a mildly hypothermic state,” Finchamp said.
After the finish, Finchamp downed a burger and fries, and then went to a hospital for a warm shower and blankets as a precaution. She is doing just fine.
Keep in mind: she won. Imagine what it was like for every other rider, those who were hours behind her. This year’s Mid South was a race of attrition – a huge test of equipment, will power, physical strength, and mental toughness.
In the final miles, both McElveen and Finchamp hold a comfortable advantage over their closest competitors.
McElveen (final 10 miles):
Avg Power: 269 W (3.8 W/kg)
Finchamp (final 10 miles):
Avg Power: 133 W
As McElveen coasted down the finishing straight with no one else in sight, a smile emerged across his mud-encrusted face. In his post-race interviews, McElveen dedicated his win to Ben Sonntag, who was recently killed in a bike-car collision in Durango, Colorado.
Finchamp rolled across the finish line with just enough energy left to put her right arm in the air. She had executed a high-risk, high-reward strategy: ride very hard very early to build up as big of a lead as possible, and hold on for dear life, hoping that the finish line comes soon enough. In the end, it all paid off, and Finchamp joined her Orange Seal teammate on the top step of the podium at this year’s epic edition of The Mid South.
Payson McElveen full race:
Distance: 166 km (103.13 miles)
Moving Time: 6:20:01
Average Speed: 16.3 mph
Avg Power: 294 W
Normalized Power: 323 W (4.61 W/kg)
Average heart rate: 158 bpm
Max heart rate: 178 bpm
Work: 6704 kJ
Hannah Finchamp’s full race:
Distance: 168.9 km (104.97 miles)
Moving Time: 8:03:41
Avg Power: 172 W
Normalized Power: 202 W
Average heart rate: 152 bpm
Max heart rate: 181 bpm
Work: 4986 kJ