Monday, June 27, 2016

Race Report: Salida Big Friggin Loop (SBFL)

A Nervous Start

After racing for several years, I don't tend to get too nervous for races anymore, but the Salida Big Friggin Loop (SBFL) was different.  The SBFL is part of the Colorado Endurance Series, a series of bike races that have an underground feel to them.  The field sizes are extremely limited (most are no more than 74 riders), they are completely self supported (no aid stations), and there are no course markings so you are dependent upon a GPS to find your way.  No registration fee, no prizes, just a bunch of hardcore riders looking for bragging rights.

Nervously Waiting for the Race to Start (Mr. Kerkove on the left)
The thought of doing a self supported race made me nervous enough, but the fact that the loop was from Salida to Buena Vista (47.5 miles) and back to Salida (45 miles) with zero civilization between the two towns was terrifying to me.  From the time I signed up for the race in December, I couldn't stop obsessing over this race.  I lost many hours of sleep, but none more than the night before the race.  After months of obsessing though, as soon as I pushed my first pedal stroke to start the race, all of the anxiety faded away as my mind and body entered race mode.

The Race

The SBFL comes in two flavors; long loop and short loop.  I decided to do the short loop since this was said to be much easier to navigate and closer to the distance I train for.  The "short" loop was 89.3 miles originally, but days before the race we all found out that an optional segment of singletrack could be added.  The optional segment would take riders on Cotton Wood Trail and drop them into downtown Salida.  With this segment the short loop would become 92.5 miles, and anyone that took it would receive a 100 minute time bonus.  I decided this was the route for me.

Salida to Buena Vista

It was a 6:30am sharp start in Salida, and it was already getting warm out.  The start was the most enjoyable start I've ever done.  We all rode together neutrally for a good hour giving me time to chat with my racing buddies Ben Parman and Jeff Kerkove.  Both of these guys are fast as hell, and both were doing the long loop so I need not worry about them.  After the long neutral roll out, Jeff picked up the pace.  Ben and a couple other riders joined Jeff, and they soon pulled away from my still very sore/stiff legs from the Gunnison Growler I had raced two weeks prior.  Not to mention I was tired from not sleeping much the night before; luckily downing two Huma Chia Energy Gels in a row woke me right up.  I didn't try to chase.  This race wasn't about competing with anyone else but myself.  I put my head down and held a steady pace that I kept all day.

Neutral Rollout
The first climb out of Salida was a huge one starting with pavement (which was part of the neutral start) that turned into dirt road (were Jeff picked up the pace) and into the singletrack of the Colorado Trail which is ridden until you head east into Buena Vista.  Although I rode alone where the pavement ended and the dirt road started all the way to the Colorado Trail, once we hit singletrack I soon started picking riders off that may have pushed a little too hard early on chasing Jeff and Ben in the lead group.

The soreness/stiffness in my legs never went away the whole race, but it also never got worse.  I wasn't able to push hard, but at the distance I was riding pushing hard would have been a bad idea anyway.  I held a strong, steady pace on the Colorado Trail and just enjoyed the ride.  There was so much good singletrack to me ridden during this segment, and views were absolutely breathtaking.  It was easy to forget that I was racing at times.  It just felt like I was out for a big ride.  It's easy to get that feeling when you ride a bike as enjoyable as my SCOTT Spark 900.  Damn, I love that bike!

Once I made it to Buena Vista I made a stop at their local bike shop, Boneshaker Cycles, who had kindly setup a small aid station in the shop with water, sports drinks, and snacks.  The shop owner (I presume) let me know that I was the fourth rider to stop by, and I knew at least two riders in front of me (Jeff and Ben) were doing the long loop.  Therefore there was only one racer that could potentially be racing the short loop like I was ahead of me.   I filled up on water and was off right at 4 hours 30 minutes.

Back to Salida

The ride out of Salida started with the last bit of singletrack until hitting the optional Cottonwood segment near the end.  Honestly, I was happy to see dirt road after taking so much abuse on the Colorado Trail.  There was a lot of variation of "dirt" road to be ridden.  Most could be done with any vehicle, some only by a good all wheel drive vehicle (SUV/Truck), and some only could be ridden by an off road vehicle such as an ATV.

It was during a long, gradual, dirt road climb (the kind that could be done with any vehicle) that I felt myself losing focus.  I was 65 miles into the race I needed something more than an energy gel/sports drink.  I decided to take a KIND bar break.  It was one of their newest bars, a dark chocolate almond mint.  This bar is good any day of the week, but when you are deep into an endurance race it tastes AMAZING!!!  It was just what I needed to rejuvenate myself for the last part of the race.

It wasn't too long after my short break that I saw another rider far off in the distance.  Little by little on the gradual dirt climb I was pulling him in.  I wasn't sure if he was a racer or not since he wasn't wearing a hydration pack, and had on a wool athletic t-shirt with baggy shorts. I don't mean to discriminant as not all of use shave our legs and wear a team kit, but it just threw me off a little bit.  It wasn't until we reached a downhill section were I was able to still spin on my 2x11 drivetrain and he ran out of gears on his 1x11 that I caught up to him.

Once I caught up to this lone rider, we rode for a couple of minutes together both clearly happy to see anyone else out there.  I can't recall his name, but he was really nice guy from Durango and riding super strong.  He had hung with Jeff and Ben most of race; very impressive knowing how strong those two ride.  I could tell he was a little burnt hanging with those two beasts. He split ways with them when they turned off for the long loop and he turned for the short loop; thus he was the lone racer ahead of me when I left Buena Vista.  As we entered the last big climb, I was feeling strong.

To Cottonwood and Beyond

The last big climb was on a rutted ATV dirt road through aspen trees.  I upped my pace as much as I could without completely blowing up.  I didn't look back until the top, and by that time the lone rider was no where to be seen.  I didn't relax though as there was still the optional Cottonwood trail segment that he could still catch up to me on.  I knew I was about 15 minutes away from the trailhead so I downed a raspberry Huma Gel that contains 25mg of caffeine so it would hit my system right when I entered the singletrack.

After what seemed to be the longest 15 minutes in my life, I finally hit the Cottonwood trailhead.  At this point, the caffeine hit my system just as planned and I was ready to give it my all.  As stated early, the optional Cottonwood segment would give a 100 minute time bonus.  Jeff mentioned at the beginning of the race that the segment probably would take 60 minutes, so if it went as planned I would drop 40 minutes from my time.  Without taking the optional segment, you could finish the race in 20 minutes.  In other words, to make the optional section worthwhile I needed to do it in at least 80 minutes.

In the end, I didn't do the optional Cottonwood segment in 80, nor 60 minutes.  Between the caffeine and the adrenaline knowing I may be in 1st place, I sprinted the last segment in 55 minutes taking the win!

A Good Day on the Bike

I can't tell you how amazing it felt to take the win.  I went out there to race my race, and my race alone.  What I ended up with was a sub 9 hour finish over 92.5 miles, and 11,444 feet of climbing to take the win!  I found out that most riders, both long loop and short loop, skipped the last Cottonwood segment because they ran out of water.  Did I mention it got up to the upper 90's!?  Running out of water wasn't an issue for me as the over planner that I am had a 100oz hydration pack, and three extra bottles of water in anticipation for the hot weather.  Hell, I even dumped a water bottle during the second half since I knew I wouldn't need it and it was weighing me down.  There was one other person who did the optional Cottonwood, my buddy Ben Parman to take the long loop win!!!  Congrats to Ben on his big finish as well!

Ben & me on our Makeshift Podium!
Now that's a damn good day on the bike!  Happy Trails!

Celebratory Beer & Burrito

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Race Report: 2016 Gunnison Growler

I said it to myself: break six.  I said to my friends: break six.  I repeated it over and over again in my head on race morning: break six.  In case you're not catching my lingo, break six means getting a time of under six hours in a race.  That was my only goal for the Gunnison Growler, and it turned out to be quite a lofty goal.

Race Morning & Start

It was a cold morning in Gunnison for the Growler.  Nothing unusual there as it's always a cold morning in Gunnison on Memorial day weekend.  Without even a countdown, the shotgun to start the race shot off startling everyone.  After a neutral start, the race began on a steep hill lovingly called "Kill Hill".  I paced myself perfectly to keep my heart rate down on that first big climb, but it still wasn't enough to keep me from overheating.  I was wearing a skull cap, and by the time I was nearly to the top I desperately needed to take it off.  I used a trick I've done many times.  I took off my helmet while riding uphill, held my helmet in my teeth, and went to take off my skull cap.  Everything would have went smoothly if I had remembered to take off my sunglasses first.  Unfortunately, I did not and my sunglasses went flying off.  After dismounting, grabbing my sunglasses, and hopping back on my bike I was left with quite a bit a ground to cover to catch up to the front.  I knew right then that it was going to be a long race.

Climbing "Kill Hill" Post Skull Cap Mishap
In the Thick of It

Even with my skull cap mishap, I was feeling pretty good.  In years past, the race would quickly transition from dirt road into singletrack making it hard to pass, but this year they started it with a much longer dirt road climb section so I was able to make quick work passing a large amount of racers.  I soon found myself within eye shot of Jeff Kerkove, a well known crusher in the endurance field.  I tried my best to catch up to Jeff to congratulate him on his recent engagement to another local crusher, Karen Jarchow (KJ), but the closest I got was still a bike length away.

Photo by Matt Burt
Even at that distance, I knew if I was keeping up with Jeff I was on a good pace.  I was able to hold on for about an hour before he finally rode out of sight.  That was enough to put in a good position before heading into Skull Pass, a mean two mile lollipop loop attached to the big thirty two mile loop.  Even for the best riders, there are some short sections where hike-a-bike is required on Skull Pass.  In years past, any time I stepped off my bike to hike my heart rate would sky rocket and I'd be winded for a couple of minutes.  This year though I have been hiking quite a bit with my wife Megan and my son Nolan, a twenty pound one year old, strapped to my back.  I was surprised that not only was I not winded, but I was running the hike-a-bike sections!

Photo by Dave Kozlowski

End of Lap One & Beginning of Two

After Skull Pass, I was at 1:40 and thought that if I could finish the first thirty two mile lap at 2:40, I would be sitting pretty good.  To my disappointment, at 2:40 I was still on lap one, and at 2:45, 2:50, 2:55.... Finally at 2:58 I rolled through the line to finish lap one.  After a two minute pit stop to shed some layers I started my second lap right at three hours.

Photo by Matt Burt
Endurance racing can be very emotional in the middle of a race when you still have hours to go, and I was feeling down on myself for not making lap one in 2:40.  I was still pushing, but I wasn't feeling overly motivated to push.  I thought that maybe I just needed a good shot of calories, so I downed a strawberry Huma Gel.  That did the trick, because by the time I got to Skull Pass for round two I was in a much better state of mind.  I completed Skull Pass just a couple minutes under 4:40.  Doing the math in my head (which is harder than you think four hours into an endurance race), I calculated that if I completed the last couple of miles about the same time I did on lap one I could still break six.  Right at 4:45 I downed a raspberry Huma Gel that has 25mg of caffeine so it would hit my system right at the last hour mark.  It was game time!

Photo by Matt Burt
The Last Hour

The last couple of miles of the Growler is a lot of mean technical sections and climbing.  You have to work hard for every inch.  I knew the pain that was coming, and I was ready to take the damage.  I over concentrated on the technical sections to clear everything I could while still pushing myself into blurred vision on the climbs.
Tech Section in Last Few Miles
Photo by Dave Kozlowski
I gritted my teeth, and counted every second.  Right at 5:57 I started the final descent.  Any concern for personal safety was out the window.  I knew I needed to complete that last section like it was an Enduro run.  After a brief, but scary couple of minutes of descending the finish line was in site.  I sprinted the last mile like a mad man.  With my head down, going full throttle I crossed the line at 5:59:40.  I broke six!

Full Throttle to the Line!
Mission Complete!

This was my third attempt at racing the Growler counter clockwise, the first two times ending in disappointing DNFs.  That made this victory even sweeter.  I was greeted by cheering team mates that I'm fortunate enough to call my good friends with hugs, and high fives.  I was also greeted by a sip of Colorado made Fireside Bourbon, and a growler for the Growler of Barrels & Bottles brew.  Hanging out while celebrating with friends made all the pain worthwhile.  I love my team, Pedal Pushers KIND Racing!
Seconds After Crossing the Line - Mission Complete!

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Race Report: True Grit 100

Ah yes, the True Grit 100, a mountain biker's version of March Madness.  When I stepped out of the motel door at 6am in St George, Utah it was lightly misting.  I shivered all the way to the race start located in the neighboring town of Santa Clara.  After a winter full of multiple colds and trips back to the Midwest so family could ogle over my incredibly adorable ginger-son, my only goal for the day was to finish while having fun.

I was still shivering when the race started at 7am.  Being that cold may have been why I started out so fast with the head of the pack.  After a good half hour of pushing my heart into the red zone (aka zone 5), my legs told me it was going to be one of those days.  Once again, like every first race I've had for last several years, I was feeling a bit over trained.  What can I say, I'm really good at beating myself up during winter training; perhaps a little too good.  Despite cutting back on training, it still wasn't enough.   I really needed an extra week of recovery.  Just something to remember for next year.

Two things can happen when you're in a very long endurance race and your legs are telling you "not today"; A) You can accept that it just isn't going to be a "competitive day" and back off early so you can at least enjoy the ride B) You can bury yourself and have a miserable day.  One way or another, you ain't landing a top spot.  During the first lap, I wisely choose option 'A'.  I may have got passed a lot, but I always had a good enough gap to enjoy the downhills.  The True Grit has so many oh so good downhills too.  Lots of fun was had the first lap.

I completed lap one in around four hours, and started lap two feeling good when it happened; mountain bike race purgatory!  What is mountain bike race purgatory you ask?  It's when you have one or more racers who are fast enough to pass you on the uphills, and then ruin you downhills with their lack of skills.  Sure, you may finally pass them on the downhill, but by that time most of the downhill goodness is over.  There was two of them riding together in my case.  After they ruined one of my downhills, I couldn't let it happen again.  Between the gap I put on them on the last downhill I was able to salvage and pushing the pace on the uphills, I was able to ward them off for all the good stuff.

All the pushing the pace on the uphills to get myself out of mountain bike race purgatory put me quite a bit over the edge.  Luckily though, there is a long rolling section between the good trails in the True Grit 100.  I was pretty gassed, so I very slowly pedaled through this section.  When you're that gassed, that's when experience really comes in.  I've done enough endurance races to know that when you feel like you can't go on, you still have more in you then what you think.  It's a nice metaphor to life.  You can't quit when the chips are down; that's when you just have to suffer through and believe it's going to get better.  It did get better, and I was smiling again by the time I reached the last bit of singletrack goodness.

Any day you can complete 10k of climbing in 100 miles (85 miles technically on the Garmin) is a victory in my opinion.  Having beers while chatting with new and old friends makes it even sweeter.  I can officially check the whole True Grit 100 off my bucket list.  After a couple weeks of training in Vegas/Phoenix, I'll be back in Colorado preparing for the Gunnision Growler.  Come ride and be warm with me if you can!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Finding the Balance

Three, the number of colds I’ve had since beginning training in November.  The last one lasted one and half weeks, and took me off my bike completely during what would have been a tough training block.  Years prior, either two things would have happened; a) I would have buried myself trying to train through it b) I would have lost my mind from stressing out about not training.  This year is different though… it needed to be different.

A Bad Balance

I put a lot of pressure on myself the previous race season to succeed.  I had the notion in my head that I had to prove to everyone that having a baby (my son Nolan was born in January 2015) wasn’t going to end my racing career.  I pushed hard to compete, and ended up having the most successful race season to date.  It came with great sacrifices though.  Sacrifices that were far from worth it.  I defended my training so fiercely, that I pushed away my family.  The worst I can remember is a time I had just brought my wife home from the hospital after having complications from child birth.  She was tired and desperately needed to rest, but in my mind I needed to train more.  I insisted on hopping on the trainer rather than letting my wife rest after a long day.  That is only one of many times I let my training take too high of a priority.  Biking used to be my number one stress reliever, but suddenly it became my number one stress.  I had become a monster.

Finding Myself in Spain

The month I spent in Sevilla, Spain from mid-October to mid-November may have been the healthiest thing I’ve done in the last six years for myself mentally.  I had my victorious race year, but there was no enjoyment in my success.  My marriage was in shambles, and I knew that this trip was more than just a vacation.  I needed to re-analysis what was most important in my life, and try to fix the damage I had caused.  I elected to stay off a bike for the trip, and just enjoy life with my family.  Letting go felt good, and for the first time all year I felt alive again.  I thought about the previous year, and couldn’t remember one time I enjoyed being on the bike.  It had become too much about competing and less about the joy of being on a bike.

A New Path

I contemplated quitting biking altogether.  When I got back on a bike for the first time in nearly two months in November, I knew biking needed to once again become a stress reliever, not my reason to stress.  I needed to rediscover my love for biking, but not let it consume me.  Biking needed to make me a better person, not an intolerable tyrant.

Finding the Balance

Between sickness, and traveling to see family, I have taken more training days off than I have in my whole endurance racing career.  Will it make me slower this season?  I don’t really care.  Life happens, and if I stress myself out over not training so much that it affects my mood which affects my home life then maybe I shouldn’t be training at all.  Doing badly at a race isn’t nearly as bad as letting myself become the monster I was.  Who knows, maybe this new stress free lifestyle will make me faster in the long run.  I don’t know if I’ll make it on the podium this year, but I do know that I’ll be a lot happier.  I also know my family enjoys, and deserves a better me.