Sunday, September 27, 2015
Back in May was the race to get into the VT50 mountain bike race. Something like 750 spots sell out in minutes. I got in. That kept the door open for me to race it if I wanted to. I bail when conditions are greasy. Don't need a 2009 repeat.
The weather has been spectacular all week, and it was an off-Friday weekend for me. I seriously contemplated doing a big ride on Friday, big hike on Saturday, then another big ride on Sunday. There are so many things I haven't hit yet this season. Snow will be here before we know it.
But how could I abandon the VT50 with possibly the best course conditions and best weather ever? I just couldn't. I worried a little about my bike coming back from Utah in time. It arrived on Friday, just enough time to re-assemble it and make sure it still worked. The sofa bike (Santa Cruz Tallboy, a long-travel 29er) worked so well last year at the VT50 that I had to use it again. It was set up identically with 2.35" wide Racing Ralph tires. I went a little higher in pressure since I thought the course would be even drier, something like 21psi front/25psi rear. With saddle bag for spare and DiNotte light, it weighed almost 29lbs, a tank!
Lining up, some people's Garmin's said it was as cold as 32F. Think mine said 34F, but I don't trust my Garmin thermometer anymore. Regardless, it was freaking cold. I was shivering. I pitched my wind shell just before we went off, not wanting to shed layers later in the race.
It wasn't quite as dark as years past going off at 6:05am. Hint of morning light in the east, and more importantly, no fog. My 1200L light was total overkill, but it sure let me bomb the initial descents in the woods where it was still pretty much completely dark.
I tend not to get too excited at the start. Way too many riders go out too hard. At one point, I was very near the back of my wave of over 100 riders. I'll be seeing and passing most of you before the finish! There is a penalty for not going out too hard though. "Conga Line" hill early in the race becomes just that. Invariably, somebody will rub wheels, spin out on a wet root, or just plain peter out and start walking. This causes a backward travelling shock wave down the hill, forcing almost everybody to dismount and start walking. This climb is completely rideable, but I have never ridden the whole thing because of early race CF antics.
Shortly after this, my front brake started squeaking. Just a little chirp each revolution. Things like that get in my head and bug the shit out of me. Why now? I rode 50,000ft out west in two weeks with perfect brake behavior, and now they act up? As I started picking riders off, more than once riders looked down at their bikes to figure out what was squeaking, then go oh, it's you. Most of the time, this is just nuisance rubbing and deprives you of negligible kilojoules.
I was feeling pretty good, trading places with the usual suspects over miles 10-30. Steadily I was putting people behind me. I had no inkling of how I was doing compared to myself though. Didn't really matter. I try to ride the VT50 like it is a 4.5 hour time-trial. I could feel hamstring fatigue building though. Barely a moment to drink, as I was breathing so hard almost continuously.
I pulled into the Greenall's feed stop where I had a Camelbak dropped. Started with 64oz in my first Camelbak and had another 50oz in second. Took less than a minute to exchange, but at least three riders I had put behind me now had a gap on me.
Getting back to work, the first hamstring spasms occurred. Almost like clockwork. Suddenly, I knew the rest of my race would focus on damage control. There's a very steep, sustained climb at the 35mi mark. I walked all of it. I could not pedal while seated without my hamstrings locking up and the climb wasn't amenable to out of the saddle climbing. Bye-bye everybody. I've learned over the years that walking really helps to relax and recharge the abused muscles. I was hoping an extended walk would get me going for a while again.
While walking, I thought deep thoughts about why am I doing this again? A lot of endurance racers have dark spells during events. It's a question not easily answered and always forgotten once the suffering is over.
My brake chirp had turned into an incessant squeal by this point in the race. While off my bike, I checked it out a bit. I lifted the front wheel and gave it a good spin. Not even two revolutions! That was no nuisance rub. There was nothing I could do about it because I forgot to throw my multi-tool in jersey pocket. I did slightly loosen the thru-axle. That seemed to help a little. At least it reduced the amount of squealing.
The hike-a-bike did wonders for my legs, but I hemorrhaged many places, including Michel Lablanc from Quebec, who I just edged out by seconds last year. Did a podium spot just go up the trail?? Hmmm, that's not why I keep coming back to the Vermont 50, but I wondered.
My legs were touch and go for the rest of the race. I stood to climb everywhere possible. This is more like going up stairs or hiking, it is all quads and no hamstrings. Pushed a big gear too. Had to lock out the suspension while doing this, else wallow would just swallow up half my Watts.
With about five miles to go, I knew I would be slower than last year. I also knew that almost all of the finishing climb could be done out of the saddle, so I would probably not suffer any cataclysmic muscular lock-up. I caught glimpses of a Bikeway Source teammate further up. Who could it be? Hard to keep track of where everybody is in the dark starting out. It was Tom Casparis, who was having a good race. Tom let me by as I was emptying the tank on this last climb, as long as the spasms stayed at bay.
I had hoped to catch Michel after he motored ahead during my cramping episode. At one point, he dangled just 20 seconds ahead of me. But it wasn't in the cards. Once you top out above the finishing line on Mt Ascutney, the race is essentially over. It's nothing but sweeping switchbacks for a mile down to the finish. I finished in 4:40:42, about four minutes slower than last year.
When results were posted, I was shocked to see this was good for only 10th place in the Master I division, 45-54 year olds. Former pro-tour rider Andy Bishop won the age group with a time of 4:20. And to think I might have been chasing a podium spot. Silly me! Nobody broke four hours this year. Comparing to my peer group, I actually did pretty well relative to my PR finish last year. Came out a little further ahead against some, a littler further back against others. A wash, really. Have to be happy with that. I did move up four spots overall from last year to 26th.
So this cramping business. I've gotten so much advice from well meaning folks over the years. I can say this with no doubt. It is not hydration, electrolytes, nutrition, temperature, intensity or duration. So you may say "Come on now Hill Junkie, that rules out everything." Not exactly.
I cramp on hottest summer days and in frigid ski races. I cramp when I'm well hydrated and can't wait to pee at the finish like today. I've added all manner of electrolytes in all manner of concentrations. Today I used liberal amounts of "lite" salt, which has a lot of potassium in it. I can eat too much or nothing at all and cramp. I can do training loops many hours long, hitting every climb at high anaerobic intensity and not cramp. I can ride 6-8hrs and not cramp. What is the single best predictor of cramping? Riding at moderate to high intensity with zero recovery time. I think something electrically gets out of whack that can't be fixed just be digesting "electrical" type compounds. It's like a battery with too much load on it. You can bring a battery to its knees if you try to take too many amp-hours out of it too quickly. Give the battery short breaks, it has time to bounce back and do it all over again. I studied deep-cycle batteries back when I did robotics work, and my cramping problems mimic this behavior very closely. I'm a microcircuits electrical engineer these days. Wish I could apply that knowledge to biological circuits.