Sunday, September 27, 2009

Mother of all Suck Fests

A sunny day MTB racer got a dose of what real mountain bike racers have been putting up with all summer. I hate riding off-road on muddy trails or in the rain. I hate racing in those conditions even more. The weather man was predicting rain, no chance for a miss even. If the VT50 didn't fill up in May and allowed day-of walk-up registration, I surely would have bailed on this one. It was my first Vermont 50 in eight years. The two times I did the VT50 in 2000 and 2001, we had pristine weather and conditions. What a welcome back greeting.

Dryness the night before

A long race deserves a long report, I suppose. So hunker down. A day of suckiness begins with a night of suckiness. I got minimal sleep. We had to get up at 4:30am and drive 30 minutes to make the 5:45am race announcements. Dave and Beth Penney and I stayed at the Super 8 in White River Junction. I was getting a little hungry, so I chomped a few Gu Chomps before bed. I almost fell asleep, but then I became restless. This wasn't regular pre-race restlessness. I pretty much already wrote this race off on the account of expected conditions. No, this was more like my heart pounding out of my chest restlessness. Then it occurred to me. Some flavors of Gu Chomps have caffeine. Normally, I have my last coffee before noon when I race the next day. I didn't get up to check the Gu Chomps. I just knew. What an idiot.

A couple hours go by, and I'm finally getting sleepy again. Then a freaking car alarm goes off right below our room. Wide awake again. Time passes, get dreamy, doze off, and the car alarm goes off again. Now I'm totally friggin BS. Of course, the three of us are awake. I said I was going to throw a brick through their window, give the alarm a reason to go off. The motel was packed, so there were probably a couple hundred angry awake people there. I wonder if somebody else "took care of it." It did not go off again.

I fell asleep for a little while. I awoke to a freaky dream. I dreamt that Dave had turned off the alarm clocks (I set two) and we woke up after it was light out. This meant the race already started. Dave was like oh well, we missed the race, might as well go down and get our free breakfast. We did, then went home. I think this dream was telling me to reconsider racing. I dosed off again, only to have the alarm awaken me. I thought I set buzzer, not radio. Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride" blasted me awake. Hmmm, I don't think we were in for a magic carpet ride. It was 4:30am, 48F and pouring buckets outside.

It was a mad scramble for three people to kit up, eat and poop in 30 minutes in tiny room. I gave my plate number at check-in and went back to my car and waited. I lined up with just minutes to spare. Zero warm-up. With such a long race, I did not plan to go hard enough in the first hour to warrant a warm-up.

My biggest fear was hypothermia. I heard other riders talking about Goretex or rain-proof shells. I brought neither with me. I had a very light and very liquid porous windbreaker. I wore IBC team jersey under it with arm warmers, team bibs with knee warmers below. I was getting cold fast waiting to start. Fortunately is was just drizzling at the time.

We go off at 6:20am, the second wave of experts with 45+, 55+ and singlespeed division. The first large wave of experts went five minutes earlier. There were about 835 riders pre-registered. Not sure how many showed up. We're neutral through the first mile of pavement, then it's race on once the we hit the gravel road. This dirt road follows a stream downhill, it's been raining for several hours, so you can imagine what riding in a pack of a hundred riders is like. In two minutes I was soaked, my teeth were gritting, and I couldn't see out of my glasses. Plus, it was still so dark that you were just following the shadow in front of you. You could not see the potholes. That would be the easiest part of the course for the day.

Three miles into the race, we turn left and go up. This was a greasy two-track. I dropped to granny ring and crunch. Crank stops dead. Chainsuck. Frick! I tried two or three more times, and my granny ring was not happening today. I thought about bailing right then and there. My prospects of cataclysmically cramping up before finishing just exponentially increased. I needed that granny ring in this peanut butter crud. I was bitching and moaning about my predicament when one of many riders passing me hollered "Quit yer bitching and suck it up like a singlespeeder." Yeah, I deserved that I suppose.

So the slog is on. By the time we got back to a gravel road climb, I think there were about a dozen riders from my field ahead of me. I could see most of them. I was still debating whether I was going to salvage anything from this disaster waiting to happen or just go into self preservation mode and finish so I don't have to take crap from Penney about DNFing.

About 25 miles in, my hamstrings were not feeling all that great. All that seated mashing in the middle ring was doing a number on me. I have a singlespeed, but I generally don't do hilly training rides with it. I'm a spinner. Time-trials and hillclimbs go better with some rpm's in the legs. So I was way deep into uncharted territory here.

Some of the descents were nuts. Guys were sliding out left and right. One guy caught a dead tree and took the thing down. Nothing looked to serious. To my amazement, guys were not queuing up behind me, as on the SM100 descents a few weeks ago. More often than not, I gained on the guys in front of me on the descents. I brought my hardtail with WTB Mutanoraptor tires, 1.95" width with low profile knobbies that were half worn. I ran about 25psi front, 28psi rear. These tires have pretty sticky rubber and don't last long. Even though I've been riding these for many years now, this is the first time I ever raced them in mud. They are a surprisingly good mud tire. No up hill traction, but they were not slipping on roots and rocks at all. Normally I'm the rider dabbing on root or rock outcroppings, but not today. Maybe my ramped up trail hours this fall has something to do with it too. There might have actually been a crack in the misery cave, where I enjoyed myself on one or two of these descents.

Not all was well though. The discomfort in my hamstrings was now become spasms. I hadn't really been drinking from my Camelbak much. I'm experimenting with weaker Gatorade mix, stronger electrolytes. It was cool out, so I didn't think I was loosing too much through perspiration. I began drinking it in earnest though. Perhaps too late. I began having major hammy and inner thigh cramps. They sent me right off my bike to walk them out on even modest grades. I wasn't even to the 30 mile mark yet. Keith Button (NorEast) told me the course changed a lot since 2001, and the last half was way harder than the first half. I figured I was doomed. I emptied my Camelbak, then hoped I got to aid station #7 where I dropped two bottles with very strong Endurolytes mix before I totally seized up.

The finishing chute around 2pm in steady downpour. Half the riders/runners are still on the course.

There must have been 200 yellow drop bags at station #7. A spectator spotted mine for me. Wasted no more than a minute getting the bottles and wolfing down a few cookies. I forced myself to drink frequently from the bottles. I made a very weak Gatorade solution. Sure tasted salty though. I had to scale back to really not much harder than conversation pace for a while, choosing to walk the climbs to let the cramping muscles recover. Surprisingly, I was not giving up very many positions. Rich Brown came blasting by though, on his singlespeed. He said "I bet you're hating life right now!" Guess I have a reputation for whining about greasy conditions. We started together, but he sure had it going at this point in the race. And I was whining about being able to go down only to a 1:1 gear ratio. I'm such a wuss.

Shortly after Rich passed me, I'm riding this fantastic singletrack with another rider on my wheel. I'm looking down, and I don't see any tracks. Hmmm, it is harder packed here, but then I hit a mushy part. I was the first person to leave a 2" deep track. Oh man, that sucks. I rode off the course, and another rider followed me. A backtrakin' we go. The turn I missed was clearly marked. Must be the mud on my glasses. I have never finished a VT50 without going off course once. This one costed me at least five minutes and many hard earned positions.

Illustration of rate of electrolyte consumption (orange), power output (blue) and intensity of muscle spasms (red)

Around the 40 mile mark, I noticing less tendency for my legs to misfire. I'm able to start ramping things back up. When I cramp, my energy level and desire to hammer are still there. It's just the legs don't cooperate. I rarely bonk in these long races. I suspect the combination of backing down a bit and the strong electrolyte solution I was sucking down was bringing things back into equilibrium. I started ramping the power back up again. There was another guy in my wave that was just up, so I though I should at least try to reel him back in. The plan was to play conservative, stay with him until the final climb, then put a minute or so on him. With three miles to go, I decisively passed him and another rider from the first wave. I was actually feeling pretty good again. Maybe it was "the horse smells the barn" syndrome. Either way, I was pushing my highest intensity of the whole race and not cramping, clearly in my LT zone and breathing the hardest I had all day. I caught Rich Brown back and passed him about as decisively as he first passed me. That means I not only made back the time he put on me, but the time I spent off-course too. I had emptied my two bottles before I got to the base of Mt Ascutney. I became convinced I need to aggressively manage electrolyte intake during races. This means drinking drinking earlier and often.

I remember the switchbacks across the ski runs from eight years ago. Off-camber, wet weeds, can't see the deep divots. Surprised I didn't take a header in the last mile of the race. I did not look at my time at all during the race. I though maybe a little over 5hrs when I crossed the line. My computer said 5:48, not including the stops! Wow, was that slow.

My official time was 5:50 and change. Preliminary results gave me 4th place in the 45+ group. Alec Petro (Team Psycho) won the 45's. I think 67 were registered, no idea how many raced or finished. It was hard to tell where I was overall, as they had the running and riding times combined. Many of the 50km runners posted faster times than the 50mi riders. Maybe 26th place? When I registered in May, I was targeting something like a top 20. I was 10th overall in 2001.
The timing officials said the attrition rate was huge. Talking with several top finishers after the race, it was agreed this was the slowest VT50 ever. It never stopped raining during the race. At times it slowed to a drizzle, but it sure kept things juicy. The last 15 miles were particularly slippery. I found if I just like the bike find it's own line, I came out ok. I never went down. Dave Penney finished about 15-20 minutes behind me. When he registered, he was hoping for a sub-5hr finish this year. Instead, he went over 6hrs. Yeah, that's how slow the course was compared to last year. Despite my chainsuck issues, I fared much better than I thought I would in these conditions. Dave and Zane Wenzell (Benidorm) both beat me at the SM100, now I got to return the favor under much more challenging conditions. Maybe I'm not such a roadie after all.

Here's a summary of the good and bad from this race -
What went right:
Choosing Hartail - dualie is overkill, heavier, holds more mud, more to break
WTB Mutano Raptor tires - great in mud
Fender - my one comfort item. Kept grit out of butt crack for most of ride.
Clothing - finished in all the layers I started in, perfect for 50F rain
Temperature - Hard to overheat in 50 degree rain
Stayed upright - earlier this summer I couldn't ride over a dry rock without endoing
Descents - held my ground this time

What went wrong:
22t chainsuck - I kind of new this was a risk. Dualie drivetrain is newer.
Water bottles - why do mountain bikers use these? Horse frequent the VT50 trails. One time I went to get a drink and got mouthful of solid matter. Poop? Loam? Who knows.

Next off-road event is the Ironcross race in Pennsylvania on Oct 11. A lot like the VT50, except a little more road content, 62 miles, on cross bikes. It will seem easy after this year's VT50.


Big Bikes said...


Nice work surviving it, everyone was looking for an out.


plum said...

When even the weakest Gatorade tastes salty, that's when I know I have totally screwed myself. It's a very strange but predictable marker.

Dave said...

I enjoy reading about your suffrin cause my next big ride is
6 Gaps. After the S&M100 I figure anything will be easy for you. I will suffer in abstentia with you. See you in May.

rick is! said...

nice job pulling it out. If everyone listened to the little voices in their heads during these races, nobody would ever finish.

Mookie said...

Great job Doug! Let me tell ya, those post-race pics of you covered in mud are freakin' priceless. The scowl says it all.