Monday, September 25, 2017

2017 Vermont 50

Don't know why I keep coming back to this sufferfest. The VT50 is essentially a 4-5hr individual time-trial. I have never gotten through it without cramping. This was may 8th time in an 18 year span. My first expert class MTB race was the VT50 back in 2000.

I almost bailed on the race this year for multiple reasons. First, my main steed wasn't expected to make it back from Colorado until after the race. For some reason, FedEx thought it was economical to send my bike through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and North Carolina before heading up to New England. They did get the Tallboy back to me before the weekend. One excuse removed. I wasn't cherishing the thought of racing my 15yr old hardtail with barely any travel left in the fork...

Then the forecast was calling for record heat. High near 90F at the end of September? I have enough trouble with hydration and cramping when we start with frost on the ground, as in many times past. But how could I turn down a dry week and mint course conditions? To my amazement, I found White River Inn still had decent rooms available for a good price. I booked the day before checking in.

I posted an abysmal time on Mt Washington this summer. I've avoided structured intensity training pretty much all summer and it showed. I was at least five pounds above my "racing weight" too. Two weeks in Colorado took care of the weight problem. I ate a little more healthy than in trips past and had more volume of aerobic activity too. There is no training at 14,000ft though! A large majority of my activity was between 10,000-14,000ft. You go at best maybe half pace that high up. No air to do anything more. Like Washington, the VT50 was going to be what it was going to be. No goals or expectations.

It was very mild lining up at the start. No need for long layers for sure. I saw nobody with them on. It was around 60F. I had about 70oz of Gatorade with extra electrolytes mixed in on me. I would swap that out at the 31mi mark for a smaller 50oz pack. No fog on this warm morning. There was barely a hint of light in the east as we rolled out with LED lights on.

I quickly slid to the back of ~100 riders in my wave on the first super-steep punchy climbs on the road. I know how deep digs on these early rises do nothing but bring cramps on sooner. It meant I would be at the back of the pack on conga line hill where many walk. But today it was so dry and firm that most people were riding it. I was not forced to dismount. I rode the whole thing. Probably a first in eight times for me. For many others too, I suspect.

I was feeling pretty good but tried to keep a governor on deep digs. It sucks riding at 50% of your capacity, just knowing the cramping demon will surface at some point anyway. I had a pretty good average speed going half way in, 11+mph through the climbing loaded first half of the course.

Then it started. At 26mi, the first cramping twitches started. By mile 28, I was forced off the bike for the first time. I think it was the same hill I almost always first cramp on. This BS is so predictable. I was not happy, mostly like why did I sign up for this stupid race when exactly the same thing happens every time?! The next 22 miles were totally going to suck. Again.

There was a whole lot of deliberate walking up hills over the next few miles. I know from experience walking on off-road grades greater than 10% doesn't lose too much against the clock and it forces me to relax and recharge the imbalance in my revolting hamstrings. I can sometimes buy back an hour of moderate intensity on the bike with 10-15 minutes of walking. A lot of people passed me though, even though I was going just 1mph slower than they were up these steep grades.

I swapped packs at the 31 mile stop and was kind of going again. There were a couple more sustained steep climbs after that I walked. I always seem to walk some of the beautiful singletrack climbing up to below the deck on the house with music. Hate that part because I'm cramping. But the back 20 miles of the course has less climbing and a lot more singletrack in it. It means you are not on the gas all the time and can get bits of recovery. It is really fun stuff too. Lots of rock features toward the end.

A lengthy bit of descending pops you out in Brownsville just before the last climb of the race up the flanks of Mt Ascutney. I had passed a few people back just before this point and hoped to not hemorrhage any more spots. The cramping was barely holding off.

There's that saying the horse smells the barn. You definitely get that sense the last few miles on this course. It's partly you want it to be over, partly looking forward to the final ruckus descent to the finish. I could hear somebody breathing down my neck for the last two miles and gained on me as the descent began. No way dude, I'm on a Tallboy long-travel, you ain't passing me!. The off-camber side slope was nice and dry and I let it rip. Scared myself shitless on a few turns. Racing Ralph's are not the best tires for this! I held my spot to the line by just two seconds!

I finished with 4:48:29, about 7 minutes slower than two years earlier when I last did the race. Can't really complain about that. It was good enough to net second podium spot for the 55+ age group. My nemesis Stephen Wright showed up this year and claimed the top step, about 4 minutes faster. Could I have not back off quite as much when the cramping started and not given up those 4 minutes? I don't know. I have had experiences where that approach went spectacularly badly. Either way, a good clean race, and I didn't feel the heat was overly oppressive.

2nd place finisher's size Vermont maple syrup
I was curious to see Strava had me tied for eight place in the finishing descent out of over 700 over the years. How can this be, for a timid descender? Tied with Mike Barton, multi-time overall winner here?! I knew I finished strong, but dang. Must've taken some risk there. Have to chalk it up to riding the sofa bike. So many ride hardtails and short-travel dualies on this course. Others are probably tired too, and I don't think I'm ever fatigued finishing this race.  Cramping prevents me from getting tired. Ironic. The Santa Cruz Tallboy LTc is surely overkill, but it lays waste to anything going down, even for cautious me.

Post race, I got my first massage ever! Yeah, short massages are offered to racers free. I signed up, nobody was waiting, and I had two ladies working on me, uh-huh. My hamstrings were pretty sensitive so they kind of backed off there when I think I could have used the most work there. The shoulder/upper body massage sure felt great though!

Mighty fine but roasting hot day in late September
I thought it would be interesting to plot out my eight finishing times since 2000. In eight races, I have not flatted or had a mechanical here. Pretty amazing really, 400 miles and about 65,000ft of descending and no flats. I've had no serious crashes either. My slowest times were when I was younger and racing a 26" steep geometry hardtail. 2009 was the year with Biblical proportion rain fall, so can't pay too much attention to that outlier. I was probably the most fit that year, winning the BUMPS hillclimb challenge. The 29" hardtail brought a new PR in 2013, my first sub-5hr finish. But my fastests times came when I switched over to my behemoth Tallboy, weighing 4 pounds more than my hardtail. It's more relaxed geometry made the descents so much more fast and fun that it made up for the excess weight to haul up 8000+ feet of climbing. Regardless, it's still nice to see I can post times faster than almost 20 years ago and two age groups younger on this course. When May 25 rolls around next year, I'll probably forgot how much the cramping hurts and register again.


Expert 55+ Podium, David Boyce 3rd, Stephen Wright 1st and myself 2nd. Photo by Lara Gibson.

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