Race Anecdotes; Cactus Cup Stage Race

By Jessica McWhirt

Fountain Hill Az, March 2023–Somehow I let Marc convince me to register for the Cactus Cup 3-day stage race in Fountain Hills, Arizona. I can’t remember the last time I did a stage race, definitely not a 3-day mountain bike stage. I’ve done plenty of back-to-back road racing days, but this was different.

The Cactus Cup meant driving for 13 hours to get to our destination, racing for three days, then driving 13 hours back. And that’s something I’ve never done. To be honest, I hate leaving my routine.



Sleepy-eyed and cream-crackered, the race weekend started well before the race. We left Thursday at around 5:30 AM (I woke up at 3:45 AM). Before the sun came up. Before most people were on the road. Before we were bright-eyed awake.

GPS guides the way

Marc entered “Fountain Hills, Arizona” into the car’s GPS. 12 hours 45 minutes travel time. That wasn’t counting stops. I tried settling in for a long ride. I had my water bottle, comfy clothes, and Dramamine. Let’s fuggin’ go.

I’m not much of a road tripper, so I dreaded the drive. You’d think my body would be fine sitting as someone who’s physically fit, but it’s the opposite. My low back tightens. My knees hurt. It makes my head throb. I can’t stay still long. I walk in place during work, for fuck sake. My body doesn’t do well with idleness.

The drive out to Fountain Hills was uneventful. Marc set the cruise control and we’d listen to whatever his XM radio station played. I downloaded the Jeffrey Dahmer series by The Last Podcast on the Left. It only ate up (pun intended) three hours of the trip.


Luckily, we had snacks. Protein bars, popcorn, dried mango, salad, fig bars, candy, Red Bull, green juice, pistachios, and cookies. We didn’t even get through them all because we had so many. We also picked up more at our gas station stops. I remember wanting fruits and vegetables and all I could find were pickled carrots.


We finally rolled into Fountain Hills at around 8 PM-ish (lotta pee and gas stops). We dumped our stuff into our rooms (after dickhead Bill, the staff at The Comfort Inn, gave us our room key). Needing to stretch our legs, we walked a mile, weaving in and out of dark streets and parking lots. My father explained to us how much a cactus weighs and the legalities around them


I’ve never raced a mountain bike time trial before. Was it like a road time trial where we’re sent off in thirty seconds increments? Was it just as demoralizing?

It was.

Not having previewed the course beforehand made me anxious. Like, more anxious than before a normal race where I’ve seen the course. I like knowing the layout, what to watch out for, features to avoid or you know, praying to the bike gods I get through it without a trip to the hospital.

Like I told the guys, “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.” Not that I thought I’d fail. Actually, yes, I thought I’d fail. My idea of failure is coming in any other place than first. It’s something I started working on with my therapist last season—which I promptly forgot throughout the weekend.

I worried that not having seen any of the trails before the race would affect my performance. Not knowing the trails meant slowing down more than normal. It meant being extra-extra cautious on descents or blind turns. In turn, all that was bound to push my time back.

The Start

They assigned us a start time and we went off every thirty seconds (like road racing). I was the first to go in my category so I had to make sure no one caught me. The course was a little over 5 miles with a drop halfway through. There was an easy option to take which I was going to opt for since I hadn’t had the time to preview and practice the drop. Based on last summer’s fall down a giant boulder, I’m not good with not practicing over and over and over again.

I assumed 5.5 miles would take me about half an hour, not knowing the features or terrain. Of course, the terrain dug at my (many) weakness(es): sand. As the control freak that I am (and being a “roadie” at heart), I very much like feeling connected to the bike (and the ground).

I don’t like sliding around. I’m not Paul Walker in Fast and the Furious. I don’t drift, okay? Yes, it’s something I’m working on.

So, this was a time trial on loose dirt with sandy turns waiting to suck in your front wheel and spit you out sideways. At least, that was my experience—and what I convinced myself of.

As you left the start line, you had a bit of an incline that dropped into single track. You had a few twisty turns until you hit a climb. It’d drop again, you’d turn on loose sand, then climb again. It was ups and downs the whole way.


Halfway through was the rock drop. I chose the other line, the “easy” way, which added a few seconds to my time, but I assumed it was better to add time than eat dirt. Or break something.

We then had a helluva climb up and over a ridge with lots of loose rocks both on the ascent and descent. There were people walking their bikes at this point. Most got out of the way as I climbed by.

I caught up to a couple of 40+ women on the climbs, which was exciting since they started at least one minute ahead of me. I kept looking behind and couldn’t see any of my competitors either.

The ending

The course ended at the pump track. As I sprinted toward the line, there were kids biking on the finish line. They were in the way and put all of us at risk of getting hurt. I slowed down instead of racing across the finish line.

I yelled about the kids on the course as soon as I stopped. And when I say “yelled,” I mean I spoke loudly, like the passive-aggressive Karen that I am. “Why are there children playing at the finish line?!” The mother finally gathered them and took them somewhere else—not after having ruined other racers’ finishing times.

Time to kill 

We still had a couple of hours before Marc and Mike started so we drove back to the hotel to shower and eat. I kept looking for the live results and couldn’t figure out where to get them. When we got back to the Expo, I finally got the nerve to ask the announcer guy (who I’ll come to strongly dislike) where I could find results. He was able to pull up my group for me and I saw I came in first. I belted out, “Hell yes!” and gave him a high five.

Awards & dickin’ around

When we got back to the Expo, we still had some time to kill before awards. The guys wanted to find the rock drop and session it for Saturday’s race so we started heading in that direction. We couldn’t find it. And burned matches in search of it. Jackky and I headed back to the expo so we wouldn’t miss my podium.

We waited a very long time for them to call our category but it was awesome to hear my name for first place. I wondered if I went too hard for the next day’s 42-mile race, but I took the chance to see what I was capable of. And sure, this was a taste-tester for Breck Epic in August.


I tried my best to recover as efficiently as I could. I threw my legs up on the wall. I stretched. I massaged my muscles. I drank a ton of water and electrolytes and watched what I ate.

After-course thoughts

What I liked about this course was that I could see around most corners. There weren’t any technical sections outside of the rock drop (that probably wasn’t all that bad but I avoided it because I didn’t want to crash in front of the crowd who gathered around that exact spot).

There were great course markings which helped a ton not ever having been on the course before. The volunteers were great too.

Foods and stuff throughout the day

Breakfast    Mush & banana & almond butter, 3 eggs, pre-workout energy drink

Race nutrition: 3 scoops of Raspberry Lemon Flow Formulas Endurance Mix

Post-race nutrition  2 scoops of Vanilla Flow Formulas Recovery Mix

Lunch:  I Ate salad in our room before going back for awards.

Dinner:  We went to Sofrita and had chips and guac, and I had a quinoa salad.