Sunday, September 27, 2015

VT50 2015 - continuing my love-hate relationship with endurance racing

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.

Some of the team present today: Mike, Josh, PJ, Susan and Skip.

Susan won her age group. Wifey gives me dirty looks when I post
photos like these...

Doesn't get any nicer than this. No fall foliage showing yet.
Three years in a row!

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.


Peter Jantzen said...

Tell Wifey no dirty looks please, as I forced you to take that photo with your teammate Sue!
Bravo on a great race as 4:40 is just smoking!

Anonymous said...

This is out of left field here but here's something to chew on. I think in the neurological component to cramping being race excited does not help. Whether it causes you make more forceful and sudden contractions that you don't otherwise perceive because of increased arousal or what, many more people cramp in races than in training, even if they are pushing themselves to failure in the latter. Kinda like how many more people choke eating dinner out with someone than at home - it's because they subtly alter their eating patterns in front of others. I'm not sure how this can help beyond trying to be collected, calm and race like you are in a training ride. I used to cramp a lot and occasionally still do (lost Killington GC in 2013 because of it) and mostly it's just from being too excited and going over my limits of intensity + duration compared to recent training. A couple of really hard races or long hammer rides to failure sorts it out for me. -CC

Hill Junkie said...

Coach Andy mentioned this a while back when Brett told him how I cramp in races but never in similar training rides. Andy also said caffeine can exacerbate cramping. I no longer use fuel with caffeine, but I must have my strong coffee in the morning. It did seem the cramping started right after Camelbak exchange and I worried about catching back the guys in my age group that did not stop. Stress for sure. I was even aware that I can't panic because it doesn't help cramping. But how do you stay relaxed in such a situation? The whole point of racing is the adrenaline charged fight or flight emotions it induces. Something to work on for sure.

Unknown said...

Great job, keep blogging....Have you done a quad vs. hamstring strength test? If you have access to leg extension natilus equipment give it a try. Try the quad extension seated and hamstring lying down. See how much weight over 3 sets of 15 reps you can do. Worth seeing if you have a severe muscle imbalance.

Hill Junkie said...

Interesting. I recall in high school, when I was scrawny and essentially sedentary, I could push the entire stack on the weight machine. Obviously my quads are going to be much stronger than hamstrings. What is considered severe imbalance?

Cameron Cogburn said...

I definitely understand it's silly to try to stay relaxed in a race. The best thing is to try to prevent them in the first place. Quinine is something to consider if you are really prone to cramping. I've never tried it during a race but a lot of Euro guys will use it to prevent cramps at the end of the spring classics. I've found after a stage during a stage race it really helps calm down muscles that would otherwise be tense. Liquid Cal-Mag the night before and perhaps something that contains magnesium during the race (e.g. sportlegs) can help. As a last resort during a race, I've had a teammate who used a vinegar flask to good effect to stop cramps immediately (basically receptors in your mouth detect an increase in acidity coming in and release buffering agents in the muscles as a pre-emptive measure). Finally, the best way I've personally found to prevent them is to do a big, long and hard, race simulation type ride, and then at the end do a set of maximal 15 secs on 15 secs off (or similar) and finishing with a small (~1 min or less) climb or two, putting it in the big ring and just mashing up it as hard as possible sitting. If this does not cause twinges of a cramp coming on then do it again or go back to the house and do some one-legged squats and medicine ball hamstring curls. The key is to push to the brink muscularly like we push ourselves to the limit cardiovascularly. Oh yeah, foam roll and STRETCH after and of course the night before a race after a hot shower.

Anonymous said...

Solid ride Doug!

Bump that, Sports Legs pre-ride really do work for me and at least delay the cramping if not eliminate for me. No secret sauce in there it is just a supplement of calcium and magnesium, but my MD friends say most of us that are of Scandinavian descent are deficient so it actually can work.

Can't get over the whole LTc is faster than the hardtail thing. Shooting for my first VT50 next year and just built up a wimpy ~20lb hardtail for gravel grinding and stuff like the VT50. LTc is my main ride (mine is pushing 30 lbs) but I am still surprised you are faster with 2.35" fatties vs. your hard tail. You didn't even put Nano's or something on that LTc for race day? Really?

BTW my local bike shop says they are discontinuing the LTc next year. I called BS on him but he swore on his grandmother's apple pie. Shocking if true....


Hill Junkie said...

I've tried Sport Legs before, but for a different reason. I used it for short, intense hillclimb races. I noticed no difference and figured it was snake oil like most supplements. I do however take calcium and magnesium supplements daily for my low bone density problem.

I almost dropped the tires down to 2.25" Racing Ralph's, but the 200g savings just didn't seem worth it. Plus, the 2.35" RR's seem to corner so much better than the 2.25" version. Don't know why, they look almost identical. Those tires let me rail the descents and sketchy corners at VT50 though, which is so much fun. When I raced hardtail, I always got passed on the descents. Not on the Tallboy with 2.35's. One of my nemesis was racing a skinnier, minimalist tire at no doubt higher pressure than I and he was spinning out over roots and rocks all over and didn't carry near the speed I did on sketchy descents. Still maybe not a net gain over my much bigger tires with all the hard packed gravel climbing, but I think net loss is pretty minimal. I think taking 6lbs weight off bike by going to less burly 4" travel rig and carbon wheels would net a significant benefit, 4+ minutes by my estimate.

E W R said...

Great work! Thanks again for the advice last week. I ran front and rear 2.2" Continental Race Kings on my 6" slacked out Trek Slash 9.8 and I had an amazing race. I was surprised to see how many people were running huge knobby tires. The total weight was just under 28lbs. Two friends did it with me - one was a 2 time veteran on a 29" hardtail and the other a fly weight endurance junkie with a Specialized Epic. The discussion for weeks leading up to the race was which of the other two would finish first among the three of us (I was never mentioned). I beat them both finishing in 5:34 - not bad for expecting 7 hours and my first attempt.

Anonymous said...

Damn, I just broke the bank on some 2.25" RR's. Should have held out for the 2.35", those sound way more fun. Can't tell a huge difference between cornering on a 2.15 and 2.25 comparable tire, like more volume though. Sounds like I just missed the mark...

Good advice, thanks!


The Warrenator said...

Coincidentally someone just emailed this to me, not sure if you've seen it yet:

Nice job HJ, cramps and all.


DaveP said...

Don't panic! The answer is 42.

Hill Junkie said...

DaveP - you are the second person to say that to me today. When into a really smart guy's office with a question first thing today and he said "The answer is 42." I know where this comes from, but what does that mean if I randomly get it twice in same day?

Warren - Yep, saw that when it first came out. Total BS. I've commented on it elsewhere. It is quack science at best. They do not disclose anything, other than say "it's proprietary." Therefore nobody else can test or confirm their results. The original article in Outside was nothing more than an infomercial with fake testimonials and building hype. There might be a little something to it, as in an area worth more investigation, but the product they will be offering should be treated as any other snake oil remedy.

B - the trend is certainly toward bigger tires with all the plus-size bikes coming out now. With my 2.35" tires, I sometimes run as low as 15psi front, 18psi rear. They will still like glue to loose chunder, which I really like. I still run 2.25" tires on my hardtail though, better for a mostly gravel road race like the Wilmington race I did in June. I wouldn't sweat it. Wear the 2.25's out and get 2.35's next time.

EWR - glad to hear another testimonial that weight doesn't matter. For years, we were duped into counting grams. Stuff broke or wore out all the time. Plus you just can't build long travel on hardtail weight budget. You get a lot for that extra weight. Travel lets you carry speed with reckless abandon, the bike handles with more precision and you get less beat up. Nice work!

NH biker chick said...

42 is the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. From the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Earth was built to answer the question.

PatrickCT said...

Doug: For a short term, almost immediate help: drink pickle juice (8oz or so)...definitely works, but only for a time. I'd recommend you read this: ...including all the comments, if you have the patience.

Hill Junkie said...

Patrick - interesting reading. I read many of the comments. Can't help but notice a common thread in so many responses. "I stopped X minutes when I cramped and did Y. Cramps were gone when I resumed! Must have been the Y" What is common thread here? Stopping X minutes, not taking Y. I cramped so bad in the Shenandoah 100 that I sat in a chair for 20 minutes at an AS. I wanted to bail, but there was no easy way to get back from there. So I plodded on, hitting a 3000ft climb after that without cramping. Just relaxing for 20 minutes did the trick. I did cramp again later in the race, but hours later. I'll have to try the pickle juice sometime. Skeptical, but it can't hurt.

Anonymous said...

Doug, it's the vinegar in pickle juice. The body like homeostasis: witness the folk remedy of 2T of apple cider vinegar for heartburn. -CC

Anonymous said...

I don't know what would constitute a severe muscle imbalance between quads and hamstrings, I'm about 50% less weight on the hamstrings. The adductors and abductors are also commonly out of whack in the sports you do along with your core. A short weight circuit (not CrossFit) would probably help.

Anonymous said...

You're not kidding about the 2.25" RaRa's. Put them through the paces this morning and the front is a little sketchy around the corners. Otherwise they seem light, decent volume, awesome rolling resistance for a knobby but not so much in the corners (probably perfect rear tire though). I may be back to my Maxis Ignitor up front. Despite it's 2.15" width it really rails up front, is light and rolls well. Wish they made a 2.3" in that, haven't found one yet for 29". Odd...

Or do I double down and spring for a 2.35" RaRa upfront? It would have to be a lot better than the 2.25" around corners.

When I look at all the tires hanging over my workbench that "didn't work out" I feel like Cher gazing into her shoe closet each morning. It's an embarrassment. I have lost all moral authority with my wife for her excess wardrobe or home purchases...


Is there an AA for MTB tires?

Johnny White said...

Maybe you could try some "natural" solution next time, like bananas or something?

At least you got to finish four spots higher than last year, if it's any consolation. Hope you get to solve this cramping issue. Endurance racing can really be fun, as long as the body agrees with you.

Toma Rani said...
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