Sunday, September 29, 2013

Will the Vermont 50 MTB and Running Race go the Way of Leadville?

I first fell in love with the Vermont 50 MTB race way back in 2000, my first Expert category race. I raced VT50 in 2000/2001, before becoming mostly a roadie for a while. I never gave up on long dirt races. I raced Battenkill many times, as well as the 100km Ironcross CX race with over 7000ft of climbing. I came back to the VT50 in 2009, the year of the deluge of Biblical proportions. I was sidelined in 2010 with a fractured ankle and hit the VT50 again in 2011 in greasy conditions. The event was due for a pristine day, having so many nasty days over the past several years. And a fabulous day it was Sunday...

I forgot to book a room early and was relegated to the Super 8 in White River Junction. My room was grade level, and the exterior door was literally less than 10ft from where cars drive in off US-5. US-5 itself was less than 50ft from my door.  Retiring for the night before the race, I began to wonder if cars in Vermont were required to have exhaust systems. My room seemed to be a resonant cavity for noisy exhaust systems. I brought my white noise machine, turned it to maximum, which must have been 160dB sound pressure level (louder than jet engines). The cars still kept me awake most of the night. I worried I would not hear the two alarm clocks or wakeup call over my noise machine, which I sat on the bed right next to me.  I did manage a few brief snippets of sleep before my 4:30am alarm went off.

In 20 minutes, I made coffee, ate, kitted up and took care of business (disappointing performance).  It was wicked foggy out. Even though I was on the road early, I still worried about getting there in time. Sometimes traffic backs way up at the venue. Worries were allayed upon getting there.

I do not warm up for endurance events. It is still pitch back out at the 6am start anyway, and cold. I had two long layers on up top, shivering at pre-race meeting and staging. I knew in a few minutes into the race, we'd be climbing steeply. I didn't want to have to mess with dropping clothes later in the race, so I pitched my long layers just before we went off.

If I had a goal for this race, it was to break 5hrs. The last couple times gave challenging conditions. In fact, only four people broke 5hrs in 2009. The fields today were perhaps the most stacked I've ever seen at this event. A very large number of top-10 overall finishers from year's past were present, as well as many contenders in each age group. Ted King was here again, third year in a row. He's dominated the race the last two years. I caught up with Ted heading back to the cars Saturday evening at bib pick-up and asked if the four hour barrier was getting broken this year. He came close last year. Ted said "we'll see." Then he quipped, "I hope so, because I need to get back to Gloucester for the [UCI] race." I wasn't sure if that meant he was racing or spectating. I didn't dare ask.

My wave went off at 6:05am. I had a little nickel battery light on my bar. It was ok noodling around in the parking lot, but useless on the road going 30mph while shivering. There were many very bright lights in the field. Invariably, they'd get behind me and all I could see is my pitch black shadow.

We turned uphill into the woods. My glasses immediately fogged over. So now I had a useless light, riding in blackness, foggy, with fogged over glasses. I was blind as a bat. It sucked hard. The downhills were the most frightful ever. I'd basically just follow a stream of fuzzy bright spots ahead of me and hoped there was nothing like roots and rocks in the trail (there were). This went on for the first 40 minutes or so, when it started to become bright enough to see without a light in the woods. I still had the problem of glasses perpetually fogging over. I'd pass riders on the climb, only to have them and then some pass me on the descent because I could not see. I was going backwards. I can't see well enough off-road without my glasses, so taking them off was not an option. Eventually I resorted to constantly wiping them inside and out, which I hate doing, because it leaves them all streaked up and scratches them.

With some light and ability to see, I stopped hemorrhaging places and was able to actually start racing. One thing I focused on was to stand while climbing whenever possible. I theorized that maybe this would delay onset of hamstring cramping, as when you come up and over the pedals, it is almost all quads.

Upon summiting Garvin Hill, the view was heavenly. The valley was still cloaked in fog, so there was a sea of silver below, now that the sun had risen.  You almost hate to fly over the summit with such a grand view.

The next hour or two of the race was a blur. Seemed like we were going up 95% of the time. No rest for the weary! I stuck to my plan of climbing out of the saddle as much as possible, sometimes for several minutes at a time. I was feeling pretty good and not straining myself. There were a couple really steep, short sections where I chose to dismount, so I could walk while kicking me knees back to relax and stretch the hamstrings. This felt good. Instead of going 3mph on the bike, I was going 2.5mph walking, but for only a minute.

I started noticing an inordinate number of flats during the race. I think there were two factors behind this. One was the course was fast. Fast means bombable descents, which increases risk of pinch flats. Nearly all of the flats were pinch flats, talking with people after the race. Now tubeless tires are supposed to be nearly immune to pinch flatting, and almost everybody runs tubeless these days, so what gives? Well, there's a trend to race the lightest, skimpiest tires. I can only speculate the reasoning that goes into this. It might go something like this. A heavier tire is slower. Slower means I have no chance at glory. A lighter tire is faster. I have a small chance at glory if I don't flat. And if I flat, I can just chalk up a poor result to "I flatted."

While I can understand this reasoning, I have a hard time subscribing to it. Maybe it is my conservative nature. As an engineer, I design margin into systems I design. I want some margin in the tires I ride.  Out of five VT50 races now, I haven't flatted, and the first two were before tubeless days.  I guess I value consistency more than an occasional exceptional result. Not that I can produce an exceptional result in a race like this anyway...

A week before the race I mounted Geax AKA TnT tires on my 29er hardtail. Those were by far the biggest SOB tires I've ever worked with. I've read some people give up mounting them to Stan's rims. I almost did. I broke both Park Teflon coated steel tire levers getting both beads over the rim!. I resorted to a f'n screwdriver! This chewed my rims up.  Then they would not inflate with 125psi compressor. I spent 15 minutes each, losing much of the Stan's sealant in the process, to get the beads to seat. If I flatted in the race, I'd never get those off with my plastic levers. The good thing is the sidewalls felt pretty beefy. They weighed >700g each, so they out to be sturdy, right? Dave Penney has had these on his new 29er rigid for a while now, and they roll incredibly fast on hard pack. He'd coast away from me while I was drafting him down hill.

At the Greenall's food stop, I swapped Camelbak's. I had about 70oz in my starter Camelbak and nearly emptied it. I had maybe 60oz in my second Camelbak. I mixed a moderate amount of electrolytes with my Gatorade. I ate a fair amount to this point, stuff I brought with me from the start.

The last 20 miles packed a lot of singletrack. In fact, it was almost all singletrack. There were lengthy sections I don't recall ever seeing in a VT50 race. Others said the same thing. I was running my Garmin 500 without a wheel sensor, so I wasn't sure how far we yet had to go. I figured it was going to be tight to finish in under 5hrs, as my average speed had dropped to less than 10mph.

Most notable during this race was I passed the 3hr mark with nary a cramping twinge. Hmm, will they come in a single, massive volley? I pressed on, standing on climbs when I could. I was hanging with the same group of guys for quite a while now, so my pace was holding steady as best I could tell. Normally my pacing falls off a cliff at this point in the race when cramping starts.

Four hours comes and goes, still no cramping. I was now in record territory, as I've never gone this far into a race without cramping. What was behind this? Was I going to finish with zero cramping? I was pretty stoked.

After some pretty sweet but challenging ledgy riding, I finally crossed over Rt 44. This meant the final climb of the race was at hand and the race would be over soon. It was also evident I would finish well under 5hrs if I didn't do something stupid. I was still feeling strong. I questioned why I didn't go harder earlier in the race.

Hitting the contouring singletrack on the mid flanks of Mt Ascutney was sweet. The work was done.  I just had to not die on the off-camber, grassy plummet to the finish line. The sweeping turns with dew still on the grass beg for spectacular wash-outs.

I crossed the line in 4:41:58, crushing my previous best of 5:02 from 2000. This might have netted fifth place in my age category.  The 2013 course is much more technical than the 2000 course too, which had very little singletrack. I was pretty psyched. PR on Mt Washington last month, now a PR finishing time in the VT50. No doubt a record number of people were going to finish under 5hrs this year. Only 4 finished sub-5hr in 2009. In fact, three people even broke the four hour barrier! Ted King just finished under 4hrs in 3rd place, with local strongman Mike Barton taking the win in 3:55. Just crazy.

The crowd building at the finishing area

So I can claim a second PR in this race. I never cramped. Thinking about this a bit, I can only speculate the reasons why. Have I really cracked the cramping demon nut (yeah, that can be taken a couple ways)? At risk of making a long post even longer, here's a few things I've been focusing on:
  1. Limit caffeine intake before and during race. My worst cramping episodes were after consuming caffeinated gels and blocks. Caffeine can exacerbate cramping.
  2. Add generous amount of electrolytes to drink mix. I've done this in the past, and by itself has done nothing.
  3. Getting serious about stretching hamstrings. I've been doing the doorway stretch regularly now for about a year and have made considerable progress in how far I can stretch a leg back. A Hill Junkie reader suggested this one a while back.
  4. Stretching my hamstrings good before the race. Don't think I've done this before. I also stretched them during the race by dismounting a couple times to walk BEFORE cramping started.
  5. Week out west one week before race. Did huge amount of daily climbing. A lot of conditioning. Plus this summer, I've done more 40-60 mile mountain bike rides locally than ever.
  6. Standing while climbing at least 500% more than I have in the past. This one might be a biggie. Won't know until I repeat it a few more times.
In wrapping up, I need to address the question posed in the title of this post. Will the VT50 go the way of Leadville? Leadville started out as a grass-roots running race, then added MTB. Top pro's started showing up, then everybody had to do Leadville. Now there is a whole qualifier series just to get in. Race fees are ridiculously steep too. I got into Leadville in 2010 through the lottery system but had to abandon after I broke my ankle early in the season. It was on my bucket list at one time, but my desire to do it has diminished.

The VT50 sells out very quickly, both  MTB and running sections. I think Mike said there were 550 runners this year? That is just nuts. 800 MTB slots sell in about 10 minutes.  With upper tier riders joining the party, it's hard to say where things will go from here.  It is cool to participate in an event that draws talent, as long as the character of the event isn't lost.  Battenkill and Mt Washington are other events that have experienced wild success. The character of those events hasn't changed much, other than they are considerably more expensive now.  When I first did the VT50, it was a grass-rootsy thing part of the EFTA series. It still maintains much of the grass roots character. I hope that doesn't change.

The VT50 is the premier MTB racing event in New England.  It is a huge undertaking to put this event on, with police and volunteers spread out along a 50 mile course.  Mike Silverman has done an outstanding job running this event, hitting its 20th anniversary this year. It benefits a good cause, Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports.  I will surely keep coming back for end-of-season punishment.


PedalHead said...

Just a few comments Doug, regarding your cramping. After reading this my first thought was, why do you cramp??? Figure this out and maybe you can stop it from happening. 2 things I thought of. Maybe you need to injest more potassium through the week. Dates, figs and of coarse banannas are all good sources. 2nd, I have learned that stretching the hamstrings daily, as many times as possible, is OK to do. My doc prescribed this to me and after several months I gained more flexibility and less lower back pain. Best of luck...

dougyfresh said...

My philosophy as to why the VT50 sells out so quick is because it is probably the longest running 'ultra endurance' (I hate using those words) mountain bike event in new england. My first attempt at it was 2004 when I first moved to the 'expert' ranks. Last attempt was 2010 where I set a PR that I don't think I'll ever do better.

Anyway. The VT50 attracts a lot of people from all over new england where this is the only mountain bike race they do (or 1 of 2) for the year. Why? My guess is because they are not familiar with other such long events as the Hampshire100 and the WildCat100 and other 50-60mile events I can not think of off the top of my head.

I hope it does not gain popularity along the lines of the LeadVille100.

Great job out there this past weekend!

Hill Junkie said...

I counted about 20 states and provinces represented in the MTB race. Even more if you tally the foot race. The large majority are from New England, NY and NJ however. The Hampshire 100 has gained in popularity once it became part of the NUE series. Personally, I don't care much for the NH100 course. Not much inspiring content. The VT50 has grown in popularity after severing ties with EFTA, becoming a stand-alone event. It is well managed, and the course offers features for everybody to enjoy.

Maybe the foot and MTB races become independent events on separate days down the road? Doubles the logistics, and private landowners have two events on their property. This could potentially increase number of bikers if there are about 1200 bikers and runners participating on the same day right now. I know a lot of people that got shut out of this year's race because they weren't at a computer when registration opened in May. An organizer can also raise the entry fee to balance demand. This is what Mt Washington did. The August race still sells out at $350 a pop, but in days instead of minutes when the race was much cheaper. Nobody is getting rich. Proceeds benefit good causes in these races. Tough problem, but much better problem to have than some events that get cancelled due to lack of registrants.

Peter Minde said...

Good job with your result Doug. When I last ran the VT 50, there were maybe 150 runners total between the 50 mile and 50 km events. Hard to believe that even the running race sells out now at $125.00.