Congrats to Leila Husain, the first woman to cross the finish line at this year’s Rockstar Trail 2023, a gnarly 276-mile course that runs from Harrisonburg to Roanoke, Virginia. Learn more about Leila’s ride in this recap…
Twenty-five-year-old Leila Husain from Brevard, North Carolina, decided to tackle her first bikepacking trip this year during the incredibly challenging Trail version of the Rockstar Challenge, an annual self-supported event that runs from Harrisonburg to Roanoke, Virginia. After a grueling 276 miles, Leila became the first woman to reach the landmark Mill Mountain Star in Roanoke with a finish time of 3 days, 12 hours, and 9 minutes (3d:12h:09m). To put the level of difficulty of this course in perspective, the Rockstar Trail racks up over 42,000 feet of climbing on a rugged mix of 65% burly singletrack, 20% gravel, and 15% pavement. Find Leila’s writeup on the ride below.
Words and photos by Leila Husain
I’d been planning on doing this race again for the past month and getting support along the way, mainly because I’d never gone bikepacking before and because the last time I did Rockstar Trail, it was hard enough without a loaded bike. Less than two days until race time, I decided it was time to set my bike up to tackle it unsupported. Somehow, between all my Brevard friends, we managed to strap things willy-nilly to my bike and cram a sleep system in my YT Izzo frame triangle. My sleep system? An emergency blanket, a sleeping bag liner, and a pillow. Cool. Paired with my Gulo wheelset, my setup weighed in at a whopping 33 pounds, and I was absolutely thrilled with how lightweight my 130/130 trail bike for bikepacking could be. I also carried a borrowed pack from Daniel Jessee with my trusty puffy jacket, some extra socks, and water. “Here we go,” I thought.
Blacksheep Coffee to Mountain House
My main goal of the day was to keep my warm clothes dry, which meant Reddish Knob in 45-degree rain and summer riding clothes. Descending Timber and Wolf was cold, and the trail was all standing water. I got soaked. My hands got so cold I could barely use them. I remember feeling my eyes starting to tear up when I was trying to open a pack of gummies because my hands would not do what my brain wanted them to do. I couldn’t put my warm gloves on, though, I needed them for the night when temperatures dropped into the low 30s.
Later in the descent, I about hit the ground when I put my right leg out with enough time to save the fall. I twisted up my knee, but I thought nothing of it, and I kept pedaling. Halfway up the next big climb of the day, my knee started giving me trouble, I couldn’t put much power out and was in my granny gear in places I wanted to be going much faster. I thought, “This is not good at all, but I don’t want to DNF yet. Maybe it will be better tomorrow?”
Once I got down Dowells Draft, my headspace was in a much better place, probably because Dowells is one of my all-time favorite downhills, and the sunshine had started poking through the trees. At the Braley’s Pond campsite, I got warmed up by a fire, dried my clothes off, and continued on to the bottom of Shenandoah Mountain Trail, where I camped with Phillip Reeves. We’d met earlier in the day. Phillip and I shared bike stories, joked about our mutual friends, and shivered as we drifted off into a very cold sleep. He was a hoot, and I was happy we continued to yo-yo with each other throughout the rest of the coming days.
Mountain House to Douthat State Park
My knee was not better; it was arguably worse. I started the day with a techy climb to a portion of singletrack that is uninterrupted for 30 miles. I quickly found out that I could not get up out of my saddle to pedal. “This is a problem,” I thought. I had to either adapt or quit this journey. I adapted, but never being able to relieve my chamois area quickly became bothersome. After Shenandoah Mountain Trail, the next bit of singletrack you hit is called Little Mare Trail. I call it Little NightMare Trail. It takes you from down in the valley up to the highest airport east of the Mississippi, which is very cool, but this trail is six miles of steep, unrelenting tech.
I started up it when my knee started to hurt with almost blinding pain, my vision blurred slightly, and I screamed aloud. I know, this sounds dramatic, but that is just how bad it hurt. I called a friend up on that mountain to keep my mind off the pain. I kept moving. It was warm out. I decided to stop during the day to put my legs up on a tree and relax in the sunshine. This was nice. Fast forward to that evening, I fell asleep in a bathroom, woke up at 4 a.m., and started on the next part of my journey.
Douthat State Park to the Bottom of North Mountain
This was my longest day out. I decided I needed to get moving early because I was not able to move as fast as my muscles and fitness could due to the knee. I started my climb up and out of Douthat fully outfitted in my puffy jacket and felt very warm in the 30-degree cold of night. I made it up and over Fore Mountain and to Covington by 9 a.m., where I feasted on a disgusting amount of Burger King. I got two more sammies for the road and hit the ground riding again. I stopped at Roaring Run waterfall, where I washed my bibs out on account of starting my period mid-race, the loveliness of womanhood.
Up next, Hoop Hole. Hoop Hole? It’s special. When I ride it on a regular day, it’s not easy. Today? It felt damn near impossible, about halfway down this descent, I flipped my bike over to find I was braking with metal. I stopped to put new brake pads in, and my bike felt much better after this. Once Hoop Hole was over, I decided to stop at the stream at the bottom of Price Mountain to collect myself. My friend Gracie Erwin rolled by on the gravel route! We chatted, got water from the stream, and then both continued on. I knew the next section of the trail, Price Mountain.
Price Mountain is just a hike-a-bike for four miles on some of the STEEPEST ridgeline where the trail seemingly disappears at times due to it being very overgrown. I was up there in the dead of night, terrified of getting lost. My only goal? Get the hell off Price Mountain, as I could not afford to sleep there in the night. At around 10 p.m., I called a friend who watched me on my SPOT tracker telling me how many miles I had left up there. I calmed myself down and kept moving. My feet were killing me, and every step was painful. I kept moving. When I finally hit Route 606 after Price, I damn near cried in joy. I pedaled over to the next patch of singletrack. I knew there was a group of people camping at the end of it and all I wanted was to make it to them. I was delirious at this point, and the Barred Owl screaming into the darkness did not make the woods feel fun at all that night. I fell asleep in a ditch on the side of the road.
Bottom of North Mountain to Texas Tavern
Hell or high water, this was going to be the last day I spent out there. The trip had taken much longer than I had originally wanted it to, but with my knee hurting in the way it was, I was just happy to still be able to make forward progress in any capacity. North Mountain is one of my all-time favorite trails. I set out on the 14-mile section of technical ridgeline singletrack, fully expecting it to take me 5 hours. In a heroic battle between my mind and my body, I finished that trail in under four hours. Now we are in the HOME STRETCH, BABY.
I set off toward Carvins Cove, where I wanted to pedal up the first trail climb, and the knee, once again, decided to act up. One pedal stroke sent a ping of pain so awful I started to see white stars in my vision. I got off my bike, defeated, and started walking. The theme until I reached Mill Mountain was, “just keep moving, no matter how slowly.” This was the most challenging day head-wise. The first three days, I was riding a really big high. I was happy-go-lucky despite the knee, singing along to music and talking aloud to myself (It’s just how I will be out in the woods alone. I tell myself it’s for bears).
Day four, not so much. It was solemn. The worst part was the never-ending stretch of Roanoke Greenway. By this point, my butt had taken so much abuse from not being able to pedal out of the saddle (I could stand when descending, thank god) that it hurt so much I would take 3 or 4 strong pedal strokes, then stand and coast as long as I could out of the saddle. It was a sad sight. I was beyond happy when I finally made it to the Roanoke Star. I did it. I really did it. I’m done. It’s over. I am here. I could have screamed out in satisfaction had it not been for all the other people up there who would have undoubtedly been concerned. At Texas Tavern, I spotted Phillip and his buddy. I threw the rockstar horns up for a photo, got my finishers cup, ate a lot of food, and slept even more.
The atmosphere of this race and the trail riding between Harrisonburg and Roanoke is truly unmatched. I’m forever grateful I called those mountains home for such a long part of my life. They will always be the peaks and valleys that made me the rider I am today. More importantly, the people you’ll find out on those trails on any given day are some of the most humble, down-to-earth, and certified badass human beings you’ll ever have the luck of meeting. I’m off to take another nap and rub some itch cream on this poison ivy I picked up en route!
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