Sunday, September 6, 2009

Shenandoah Mountain 100

Tale of Two Experiments

As an engineer, I like to experiment with things. What makes a good experiment? Many things, among them are some knowledge of the process, a variable you'd like to twiddle, and an objective means of measuring the outcome. Last week, I experimented on Mt Mansfield. I have lots of knowledge of hill climbing. I twiddled with the weight of my bike (and drive train). I wanted to determine if doing such could capture a faster finishing time. It did, although I twiddled with two things (weight and going to singlespeed), so it was not a perfect experiment. I can't be sure it wasn't the drive train mods that made me faster. Don't confuse a successful experiment with one that produces desired outcome. Any experiment that answers a question whose outcome is not known is successful. Still with me?

Lets move to this weekend's experiment. I have never finished a race much greater than 5hrs. Two years ago I chalked up my failed Everest Challenge race to a sport drink (HEED) I was not familiar with. I figured if I could consume my familiar drink on a long course, the cramping demons would not surface. Simple enough experiment, yes? Hang with me a moment more, a race report is coming, I promise.

At bib pick-up the evening before the race, I dropped off baggies of Gatorade power with some added electrolytes to be strategically placed on the SM100 course where I anticipated needing them. They served HEED on the course, the product I am deeply suspect of. I figured I was good to go, and for such a long endurance event, cramping was unlikely. See where this is heading?

The Race

The drive down was not without incident. Seems in PA, every statie was on overtime this holiday weekend. I was with group of cars hauling-A. Deal was, the guy behind me stood on his brakes when we spotted the cop, opening just enough gap for the statie to pull in behind me. He did not find my suspicion of how on Earth his radar picked my speed out of that group. You know, the car in front or cars behind could have been going faster. His answer was "but it was you that I pulled over." Tempted to fight it, but they got you over a barrel. I'd probably have to drive to PA. Haven't even raced yet, and the event was now costing me more than Mt Washington's $350 entry.

I actually got some sleep at the hotel. I didn't not expect to. Dave Penney didn't even wake me up with his spooky sleep talk. One time on a trip, I woke to him saying "nasty, nasty, nasty" in his sleep. He had no idea what he was dreaming about. I got two cycles of deep sleep, maybe 3hrs each. Awesome. 4:45am was awfully early to get up. We get to the venue and it is still pitch dark. Race starts at 6:30 or as soon as it is light enough to see.

It hasn't rain in a long time down here. The air had a lot of crap in it. The dirt roads are essentially covered in a layer of talcum powder. It took next to no disturbance to kick it up. Send many hundreds of frantic mountain bikers down one of these roads, you kick up a dust storm of Biblical proportions.

I lined up somewhat towards the front. The deal was, riders kept filling in from the front and making more start lines to the side in the field, and all this had to funnel into a double track. By the time I started moving, there were at least 400 riders in front of me! The first couple minutes were stop and go. Sucked. Eventually we get out on a bit of pavement. Let the weaving begin. I passed Dave and wondered if I would see him again. He was singly geared, a 34x19 setup with 26" wheels.

The first climb gained about 1000ft, mostly on fire road. It would be the easiest climb we'd see all day. I passed upwards of a couple hundred riders I think. We get to singletrack that climbs the last bit of vertical. Transition from smooth fire road to bony ridgeline was harsh. Forgot to unlock my suspension. I found the descent hair raising. Many riders with pinch flats littered the side of the trail. The terrain was bone dry, dusty, essentially talus that moves all over under your wheels. Gets even trickier when the rider right in front of you kicks up a big slab right into your line. Survived the first little pimple of a climb just fine, but I was soaked in sweat and my legs were already black with dust sticking to them.

With a still full Camelbak, I blew past the first food stop around 14 miles in. The next climb, Wolf Ridge, got down to business. It gains around 1500ft, mostly on singletrack. I heard this is a conga line climb. A rider up there somewhere dabs, a wave of dismounts propagates backwards, until riders even at the bottom of the climb have to dismount because there's no way to ride through wheel-to-wheel hike-a-bikers. Well, I caught up to decent riders before we got here, and we rode most of the way up this sucker. Only when it got uber bony high up, did we start walking. If riding by myself, I could probably clean 99% of this thing. The last mile and a half averages 16% grade.

Fear of great bodily harm while descending ensued after gaining the summit. Very loose, always fast. A one mile segment averaged 15% grade. Lots of ledgy stuff, things to catch your tire and hurl you into a tree.

Food station #2 was my first stop. I refilled my Camelbak with my Gatorade/Endurolytes mix. Didn't eat a whole lot. Few hand fulls of grapes, Fig Newton's, and quarter of a peanut butter sandwich. Was in and out in less than two minutes. Average speed was over 12mph I think.

The Hankey Mountain climb was next, nearly 2000ft gain from lowest point since last climb to summit. First half is well groomed fire road, a segment we'd hit again at the end of the race. I don't remember much of the singletrack climb, other than it went forever and ever, but the descent was spectacular. Miles and miles of buff, benchcut, contouring singletrack descent. I got down to the bottom and commented to the rider that popped out behind me that it was just like stuff in Colorado. He said he just moved here from Colorado and he was thinking the same thing. It was that good. A lot of recent work was done on the trail, just for the race.

Climb number four, not sure of the name, entailed more tasty singletrack. It was steep, nicely doable and not too technical. The deal was, I was racing four hours now, and my legs were giving me the tale-tell signs that all was not well. You know the precursors to muscle cramps - the little twinges, the hot spots in the muscles. My mood soured very quickly. If this is starting now with five hours and the biggest climb to go, there was no way I was finishing this sucker. I motored on, but backed it down a notch. Thus far, I don't think anything I had done encroached on anaerobic territory. I felt quite confident I didn't start too hard. I couldn't really, getting stuck so far back. The cramping signs progressed to full-up cramping. I was going to have to drop at food station #4. There's no way I'd survive the 2500ft climb coming up that goes way out into the boonies.

Another ruckus descent on fabulous singletrack quickly brought us down to station #4. I had placed more of my special mix there. By now my stomach wasn't tolerating much. The fruit always seemed to hit the spot, but it doesn't exactly carry a high calorie payload. I told the volunteers I wanted to drop and asked how to get back to the finish from there. I couldn't find anybody that knew. Instead, they tried to coax me into not giving up yet. They had no idea how spectacularly I can blow up with spasms, potentially necessitating a rescue. They had chairs set up, so I sat. A long time. I thought I'd wait for Dave to come through to let him know I was bagging it. I watched at least 40 riders come through. After about 15 minutes I did not see Dave. I entertained the idea of trying to finish, as I had tons of daylight margin. I figured most of the big climb is not very steep, so I could just granny ring it at conversation pace and recover some more.

I got back on my bike to head back out on the course. This went against all reason, as when I got to this point in the Everest Challenge race, it wasn't that much later when I had a cataclysmic whole body cramping attack and laid in the road for 30 minutes unable to move. It was right at the finish, so there were people to help me. Here, in the George Washington National Forest, I could be completely isolated if something like that happened. How would they get me out of there? It was hugely risky.

A lot of riders passed me on this climb. I talked with a few. I even caught a rider or two also. I wasn't the only one in a world of discomfort. From food station #4 to high point of climb was 25 miles. That was a long way on cramping legs before obtaining the salvation of descent. Food station #5 was up there somewhere too. The ridgeline had numerous descents and re-climbs on it. I made it up to station #5, touch and go on the cramping front. I spent a while there to recover some more, no longer able to eat solid food. From this stop, there a big descent before climbing another 1000ft to reach the high point of the race around 4300ft elevation. This 1000ft took forever. Glimpses of the horizon from the ridge were spectacular. Definitely on one of the highest points in the area. There were very dark clouds to the west too. Looked like rain. I might actually have welcomed rain. No more dust, cooler, although it never got very warm today.

We cut in to the singletrack that takes us back towards Stokesville, the finish. The initial descent was total white knuckle material. The 32/34psi front/rear pressure I was running was clearly too high, but I wasn't flatting either. There were numerous, sustained steep drops, I bet well over 20% grade on talus. Scared myself silly the whole way down. The trail was marvelously brushed out so you could see the rock daggers and drops around blind corners. I was so far beyond blown by this point, it was hard to enjoy it. The Hayes Stoker brakes I have on the Titus really saved my wrists. They are one finger action even on the steepest stuff. Still though, my forearms were becoming so fatigued.

There were some steep rises along the way. Suffering up one of these, I hear a "Yeah Baby" screamed from below. It was Penney. He screamed it again, hoping to get a reaction out of me. I could almost hear him laughing. We ride with somebody else who gets irritated when yeah baby gets yelled as we unload punishment on steep grades. I wasn't surprised Dave caught me, maybe even more surprised it took so long. But how he blasted past me so decisively on such a steep grade 8.5hrs into this monster race is beyond me. He had way too much fun rubbing it in that he was kicking my butt with one gear. I got my laugh in a few moments later.

From Virginia Herpetological Society website.

A little further down the descent, I'm screaming down a loose steep section when I see Dave off his bike way off the trail, like 100ft off the trail. There was no way he could have crashed and ended up out there. What is he doing? So while I'm watching him, I realized I'm rapidly approaching something in the trail. It looked like a 29" MTB tire coiled up. Then it moved. I locked up my brakes so hard the three guys behind me nearly piled into me. There was the biggest, meanest black snake in the trail that I've ever seen. I came within three feet of riding over it. I thought it was a rattler. A local said it wasn't a Rattler, because rattlers aren't black. One thing was certain, it was coiled, head up in air, ready to strike any instant. It tracked my every movement. That fattest part was almost as big around as my forearm. I'd say it was at least four feet long. It was shaking it's tail, but I couldn't tell if it had a rattler on it or not. This thing totally weirded Dave out, thinking it might have little ones lurking around (it's not a bear, Dave), so he made a huge arc through the woods around the thing. He said he'll have nightmares about it tonight. I did a little research on Virginia snakes and found this. They do have black rattlesnakes [Sept 8 edit: I have to learn how to read. It is Ratsnake, not Rattlesnake] here, and this particular one is the biggest snake you'll find in Virginia. Record is almost 80" long. This precisely matches the snake I saw. I was so close I could see its large scales. And do you think Dave would warn me of impending death? Nooooo! Fortunately, snakes don't weird me out, but some snakes deserve respect.

The descent finished out on this wonderfully graded, abandoned fire road with a narrow ribbon of singletrack running down the middle of it. Insanely fast. Despite being on a dualie, I could not catch Dave. I did see Dave roll through the final food station, #6, without stopping. I had to stop. My legs have been right on the hairy edge of total seizure for the last 30 minutes. I needed time off the bike and try to force some food down. I only had 12 miles to go, but a thousand foot climb stood between me and the finish. It was fire road, the one we climbed earlier, but I was down to granny gear pace even on pavement.

Progress up the Hankey Mtn fire road climb was painfully slow. Once up top, we go left instead of right as earlier in the race. Then it was mostly downhill to the Stokesville campground. I got passed by police, rescue and ambulance vehicles on the way up. Report later was a girl augered in pretty badly. They could only get just so close to the mishap with vehicles. As long as I stayed below conversation pace, my legs kept making the pedals go around. I reached the top, and only then was I confident I would not go home with a DNF. Can't say I was enjoying myself, but I was glad I kept with it after all.

Caked in dust, bloated from junky carbs, and too spent to savor the finish.

The finish came much more quickly than expected. Maybe they cut two miles out of the last bit of the course from last year. The finish was rather anti-climatic. There weren't that many people there yet. I logged 95.5 miles in 9:11 riding time. There was no clock at the finish. I think they said my time was 9:25, which seems short to me, as I waited at least 15 minutes at one stop alone. Have to wait until results are posted. Dave was at least 5 minutes ahead of me I suspect. I was in so much hurt that I couldn't even enjoy that fact it was over. Cleaning up, I couldn't hardly do anything without my legs going on me. Couldn't tie my shoes either, else my hamstrings might have never let go again. Sucked.

So what about the experiment? It's not the HEED. It's me. Since I may be blessed (or cursed) with a preponderance of Type-IIa muscle fiber, I blow through my glycogen stores in a hurry, I run hotter, and thus lose my electrolytes in sweat too. In other words, ultra endurance is not my thing. Fast twitch muscle is good for going really hard for short durations. Perhaps I should stick to my hillclimb races, short MTB races and hilly road races. I could really have fun with these long MTB races, but if it means every time I have to endure this over and beyond level of suffering, it isn't worth it. To think of it, I have never done an event over four hours without cramping. Iron Cross last year went over four hours and I nearly DNF'd it. Both times I did Vermont 50 several years ago I was deep into cramping before the end. The problem seems to have gotten worse as I've become more fit and gotten older. Really don't know what to do about it. Despite the difficulties, it was well worth coming out here. The event is superbly organized and well staffed with volunteers. At one stop, I noticed when I got back on my bike the chain wasn't squeaking anymore. They lubed my chain! They have look aheads at food stations, so by the time you get off your bike, your drop bag is in your hand. Amazing. I've wanted to do a 100 miler for a while now. I know I can do it, but it ain't pretty.


Glen said...

Doug, great report. What a monster that must have been. Certainly not the best photo of you that I've seen, though! I'd hate to think of what it would take for Dave P. to reach his limit, he goes on forever.

Dave said...

Nice! I cramped on the 2nd climb, recovered at station#3 still averaging over 9 mph and very quick stops. Dumped it on the rock ledge on downhill #2. But tanked hard after station 4 going to 5. I just wanted to lay down and sleep. Was gonna bail at 5 but Janet showed up and talked me into finishing. I ate some of those wraps and drank Coke and miraculously by legs came back online but I poked along with her cause she helped my motivation and I missed my goal time bad but did finish very strong, albeit slow. Next year again??

Alex said...

I'm impressed you finished with cramping legs for a couple hours... youch.

Have you experimented with training your body to accept real food while at race pace? Something like eating a pb sandwich at then end of an interval or during shorter mtb races. If you do think the cramping is caused because you're burning hotter, so to speak, it seems that if you were able to replenish along the way fully you'd be alright. I guess the other option is to ride so far below your LT that its not even racing...

Way to persevere, though!

Mookie said...

Great report, Doug, and congrats on keeping it together for the finish. You may/may not already know this, but I've read (and do in practice) that topping off of water, electorlytes, and glycogen is vitally important 4-5 DAYS before a long endurance event.

Hill Junkie said...

24hrs later and my body is wrecked. This one will take more than two days to recover from.

The deal with trying to take in real food at race pace is this. Even at sub-threshold efforts, I'll be burning 700-800 calories per hour easily. Digestive tracts can only absorb 250-300 calories per hour max. Thus a huge deficit soon builds up. There's no way to replenish at the rate of expenditure. If you try, you'll quickly run into major GI distress. I do generally tolerate real food during hard training rides quite well, but if I tried to take in the 7000 calories or so I burned during the race, I would be one bloated mess. I may experiment with higher doses of electrolytes though. I don't think there is upper limit on how much you can absorb per hour, but overdoing it is just as bad as not taking enough in.

I may escape cramping in a race like this at greatly reduced pace, but that's not racing. I'd rather focus my competitive efforts where I can be quite competitive, such as hillclimbs or shorter MTB and road races. I can do long non-race pace rides anytime without paying race fees.

I felt thoroughly topped off going into the race. Very light training week and some big meals over the three days prior. I don't think there was anything I could improve on there. I do not worry about the weight gain tapering for a major event at all, as some athletes do. Weight gain is simply a measure of topped off glycogen stores and hydration.

Dave - what was your finishing time? Saw numerous lights dropped for station #5, so I assume many riders were planning on finishing after dark. No next year for me, unless by some miracle I solve my cramping issues.

rick is! said...

man oh man, have I heard a lot of reports like these over the years. Everyone seems to go through either cramping or stomach issues at these races. I bonked so hard at the w101 that I couldn't even ride the flat single track stuff near the end.

good on ya for riding it out. I wouldn't write endurance off just yet. maybe you should try the pats peak 6 hr and hampshire 100 next year. they're shorter (and closer to home) so you get to acclimate at bit.

Big Bikes said...

Nice job pushing through, that's what I like to hear! It's so easy to drop out of one of those things. You picked a tough hundred to start with too.

What's next? Don't suppose you'll be running another experiment down at Landmine Sunday?


Anonymous said...

Doug, I take it you've already seen this but here it is. You're right it shouldn't be the Heed, unless you took in more calories than your body can handle. Enjoy the read.