I continued my love-hate relationship with endurance racing this past weekend with the Ironcross race in Pennsylvania. The weather was expected to be absolutely gorgeous, perfect conditions for an over-heater like myself. I love epic rides this time of year in the woods. The trees are turning color, the bugs are gone, and the trails tend to be dry. The terrain in south-central PA is a blast to ride in too. Long ridge lines divide deep valleys. The forest is decidedly hardwood and much more open than evergreen dominant forests in the northeast. The race is held in Michaux State Forest, and the Appalachian trail runs through the middle of it.
I had high expectations this year. Andy Applegate, who always wins the master's field, and a couple other strongmen weren't signed up. That meant not only was a podium finish a strong possibility, but potentially a win. Over one hundred were pre-registered in the M40+ field. I figured the racing and training I've done over the last couple months should have set me up well. The Vermont 50 and Hampshire 100 events are longer and more brutal than Ironcross. Just only if I could tame the cramping demon...
I mixed the highest concentration of electrolytes ever in my drink mix. Since wearing a Camelbak worked so well at the VT50, I was going to do that again. Start with 70 ounces, then mid race, swapped for a second Camelbak with 70 ounces. Only one stop needed. I had about 3000mg of sodium total in the two Camelbaks, more than twice what I've consumed during an endurance race before. This was 18 Tablytes tablets crushed plus what comes in Gatorade mix. I was sure to take a flip-top vial with additional Tablytes too. If I still cramped with this much supplemental electrolytes in cool weather, my problem is not electrolyte or hydration related.
I had a second experiment going for this year's race. I wanted to try a mountain bike again. In 2003 I used a hardtail with great success, but the course was much more rugged than today's course. In 2008 and 2009, I used a cross bike, doing well both times. I never flatted in these three races. I was brought my Superfly with beefy 2.25" Schwalbe Racing Ralph tubeless ready tires. I pumped them up rock hard to 40/42psi F/R. I figured with such voluminous tires, I was flat proof and even contemplated not bringing a spare with inflator. Silly thought...
I grabbed a Starbucks grande dark roast on my way to the venue in the morning. It's nice this race starts at a reasonable 9am time. Somehow I still missed my exit of I-81. It was 8 friggin miles to the next one and there were cops hiding behind every overpass. You couldn't speed and you couldn't cut through an emergency cross over. That killed 20 minutes. I wasn't too flustered. I still had plenty of time.
After a minimal warmup, we staged in a field about 30 across. About 100ft ahead, the course necked down to 5 across. Hmmmm, this ought to be interesting. We got a late start and all of us were shivering in short sleeves. I think this is the first time I started Ironcross without at least arm warmers on. The temp was about 50, expecting to go above 80F.
No call-ups this year. We were lectured on how to self-seed. Only if you finish in about 4hrs should you be in the front row. I was 4:09 last time, so I took front row. I had no delusions of claiming the holeshot. I expected carnage. We go. I stayed in top 20 guys or so, but there was healthy does of contact. I almost locked bars with guy on my right. We circle through the freshly cut deep grass, which with the dew, stuck to body and bike. The start-finish was new this year, and there was a brief run-up right away. I could easily have ridden it on my MTB had everybody in front of me not dismounted.
Very shortly we were into the first climb. It starts paved, then gated, bony fire road. Knowing I was on a heavier bike with slightly higher rolling resistance, I let the lead guys go. In prior years, I stayed with them on this climb. I figured I'll easily regain the lead pack on the Lippencote singletrack descent, since half of them will be walking parts of it and the others dabbing everywhere.
With less than 20 guys ahead of me, I counted no less than 4 flats in the first mile of fire road. One was Gunnar Shogren, who flatted again later in the race. I settled in with a pretty good group of 4-5 guys. We kept picking up others spewed out of the lead group. We had ourselves a nice chase group and everybody worked. Some rolling hills on pavement brought us to the base of the second climb, again, paved to start. A left onto another fire road continued the climbing. This road was chocked full of hazards too. The gravel here is more like broken glass than stones. It's all sharp, shaly stuff. Eventually we reached the Lippencote singletrack track. I've never cleaned this trail on a CX bike. Today I made sure I was first in my group and didn't back. Yeah, baby! A 29er made kid's play of this trail. I promptly dropped the gang I was riding with. I had fun! Before the bottom of this 2mi plummet, I caught riders from the lead group. This is exactly what I wanted to happen. Take it easier on the climbs, let the bike work for me on the technical bits, not worrying about finessing to avoid flats.
At the bottom, the SRAM neutral support vehicle was there swapping a broken wheel out for Derek Treadwell. He hopped back on just as I passed. We worked together on the pavement. Actually, it was mostly Derek working. He was on a cross bike and was wicked strong. I did not know it at the time, but he would be the eventual overall winner, even though he destroyed a wheel at the beginning of the Lippencote descent. We turned onto Rt 30, which is slightly down hill. Derek was drilling it at 35mph to catch the leaders just up the road. I turned myself inside out just to stay in his draft. He kept motioning for me to pull through, which I did a few times, but eventually threw in the towel. Bye-bye. Doing a little research on Derek shows he won the Mt Washington July 2011 race with a time of 57 minutes. Yep, he should be able to rip my legs off.
My legs suddenly weren't feeling so chipper anymore. I downed a bag of Gu Chomps. I still had a lot of fluids left in my Camelbak. I new the Wigwam "run-up" was coming soon. At the top, the mid point of the race, I'd swap out my Camelbak.
I never lose time on Wigwam. Maybe nobody does. There is about 20 minutes of suckfest hiking. The lower portion is so steep it borders on rock scrambling. Indeed, several times I put a hand out to catch myself. Trees are handy to help pull yourself up too. This is anything but a "run" up. I averaged about 1.5mph and it was by far my hardest effort of the race. I was seeing cross-eyed, I was breathing so hard. I also learned my 29er is not very shoulder friendly. The cables run underneath, and a big cable boss is in the worst possible place. It was tearing a hole into my shoulder.
There's a brief lull in the Wigwam climb where you can actually briefly get on your bike. When I did, both inner thighs seized on me. WTF! I wasn't even two hours into this race. Where did that come from? There was no warning. That was soul crushing. Once this happens, there is no way to stave off the inevitable. I was right back into bike-carry mode on 30% grade loose cantaloupes to the top and was ok on my feet.
Talk about service, by the time I reached Checkpoint #2, a volunteer was putting my Camelbak on as fast as I could take the first one off! I had my race number on it, and they must have had someone calling out numbers ahead. Impressive, and much appreciated. I left CP2 in around 10th place overall, about the same as in 2009. I was psyched, as this was surely a masters podium position, but I now realized major disappointment was heading my way. I had no idea how much...
On the ridgeline, my legs didn't feel right. How could I go from feeling perfect to all crampy in just minutes so early in a race. I had plenty of fluids, tons of electrolytes, and it was still cool out. I soft pedaled the ridge and started to hemorrhage places.
I knew a fast descent was coming right up. Perhaps I'll recover some. This is another shaly stone road with many embedded rocks sticking way up. I ripped it, 40+ mph. I was thinking weeeeeee all the way down, until pfffffttttt, thump, thump, thump. What the... Stan's sealant spewed all over me and the bike. I quickly tried to get what Stan's was left to seal the hole. It was big enough to put a pencil through, right in the tread! Stan's wasn't going to cover that. I didn't even feel what did this. I started to go into hissy fit mode. I haven't fixed a flat on the trail in a long time, and during a race, even longer. Ironic, isn't it, that I bring burly MTB tires so I WOULDN'T FLAT?
Well, wouldn't you know it, as I'm contemplating throwing my bike over the edge, I notice a camera is in my face. Yeah, it was Thom Parsons with Cyclingdirt.com. That's just great, now the whole world will see my hissy fit. Perhaps my initial "frustration" didn't get captured. I show up about 3:40 into the highlights video below. Nice work, Thom!
Watch more video of NoTubes Iron Cross 2011 on cyclingdirt.org
Thirty riders must have flown past me by the time I was back on my bike. At this point, I went into get-this-suckfest-over-with mode. Another punchy climb ensued. I cramped spectacularly before reaching the top. Multiple times I had to jump off my bike and stand with both knees locked out. Even the slightest knee bend caused immediate inner thigh and quad seizure. F-bombs! Now even old guys packing girth and girls were passing me. I walked a while. From the top a long descent ensued. I was nervous, having used both CO2 cartridges and not having another spare tube. I feared the tube I put in could blow through the cut too.
The rest of the race became a blur to me. There seemed to be a lot more singletrack than I remember from prior years. This part of the course was pretty muddy too. With my granny gear, I was able to ride most of it without cramping. There was still one more hike-a-bike section, but nothing like Wigwam Hill. From the top of it, it was pretty much all downhill on paved road to the finish. I had to straight-leg it over the barriers at the finish, a rather anti-climactic finish to such a brutal race.
I finished in 4:31, good for 8th out of 85 M40+, 22 minutes slower than 2009 on a course that was slightly shorter this year. There were only three people to finish in under 4hrs this year though. I think maybe the muddy singletrack towards the end slowed things down a bit. I was way off the podium and not even in the cash. That was so far from my expectations at the outset of this race. I dearly love a course like this and used to thrive in events like these.
So is a MTB faster than a CX bike on this course? No! That part of my experiment was an epic fail. I think a mountain bike is a lot more fun, but you will be less competitive on one. It is much harder to stay with a group on the fast road sections. If I come back, it will be on a cross bike with tubeless wheels. Many of the leaders were running these. I have brand new wheels, I just haven't moved quickly enough to get tires in time.
So what about the electrolytes experiment? I've convinced myself hydration and electrolyte problems are not the source of my cramping. It is probably much more structural than that. Is it age related? Do I need add strength training to my routine? Jon Speer said he conquered cramps only by building up to very long rides at continuous 70% max heartrate. Perhaps my running is a factor. Although my cramping problems started building long before I started running. I feel running has degrade the quality of my hardest workouts this summer because I'm not getting as much recovery. One thing is clear: even though I've backed off some at the start of these endurance races, I am cramping sooner each year.
Why is it other guys like DaveP or BrettR can ride for hours much closer to their VOmax than I can to my VOmax? It just doesn't scale. Brett told me today he's cramped only once in the last several years, and that was at the Everest Challenge race, two back to back 6+ hour days of stage racing. I DNF'd the first day there due to cramping. I rarely bonk and never feel fatigued when I cramp. I'm still ready to rip, it's just the legs want to fire on their own.
I learned today that caffeine can cause muscle spasms in athletes. The Starbucks coffee I chugged right before the race had a staggering 330mg of caffeine. Then the Chomps I ate just before Wigwam Hill had another 40mg, and the Clif Mocha gel I had after Wigwam contained another 50mg. Oh, the coffee at the hotel too. I might have had 500mg of caffeine before my cramping peaked. A connection? I don't know. I'm done grasping for magic bullets on this one. If there was an expert out there that could diagnose my source of cramping with remedial course of action with 90% success, I would pay big bucks for this guy. Thousands maybe. Dropping five grand on a tricked out carbon cross bike doesn't mean squat when you lose 20 minutes due to cramping.