Monday, May 27, 2019

Ironhorse MTB Race Report

Remember when blogging was a thing? Some even posted race reports on semi-regular basis. It didn't take long for soundbite social media to exploit weaknesses in human needs to form social bonds.  Posts longer than 140 characters can't feed the addiction and longer attention span content went by the wayside.  The snack food industry has done the same thing over decades to perfection, exploiting evolved cravings for calorie dense food sources.

Anyway, the Hill Junkie blog hasn't been put to rest yet. After a one year hiatus in racing, I finally built up enough motivation to pin a number on again. Last year was busy - buying a house, putting a house on the market, moving cross-country, and transitioning to less than full time employment. Racing just wasn't on my mind. Feeling settled in now, I couldn't let one of the premier Durango weekends slip by without engaging. The Ironhorse Classic race is in it's 48th year now. It started when two brothers challenged each other who could reach Silverton first, one by bicycle on road, the other as a brakeman on the steam train. The cyclist won. The event grew and now draws thousands to our small town each Memorial Day weekend.

I had hoped to race in both the road and MTB races for omnium points. I waited too long to register and all of the masters road race fields had filled. I didn't really want to pay $110 to participate in the untimed tour, so I signed up just for the MTB race on the second day.

After an abysmal weather week with lots more snow in the mountains and rain in town, the weather cleared for the weekend. It was killing me to not go out and do an epic backcountry ski on Friday and blow any chance of doing well in the race on Sunday. It killed me further to see a couple thousand riders head off to Silverton on Saturday on one of the nicest days in a good while. I had better not suck in my race!

Not having raced in almost two years and not having any historical reference to gauge my fitness, I had no idea how I'd do in the 55+ age group. Don't know anything about folks who race here either. In science, some of the best experiments are where the outcome is uncertain. That is where discovery is maximized.

After taking it pretty easy for a few days, race day comes. Trails are finally dry, it wasn't going to get too hot. I warmed up with my neighbor kid Jack whose family also recently moved to Durango. He is 14 but because he turns 15 this year, he had to race with the 15-18yr olds. He is strong and will surely be kicking my butt a year from now. Jack's dad also races, enduro style.

Lining up in the corral area, I was in fourth wave with one minute staggers. Ugh. This can't be good. I think the 45+ field in front of me alone had upwards of 50 riders in it. This isn't a road race where the pack leaves and you don't (usually) see them again. The first climb will fragment that pack, leaving many riders to pass. I would soon learn it was much worse than that...

Leading out the 55+ wave at the start
We go off and I bolt to front. The course does two 90deg right handers into a park with some taped-off side hill cyclocross material. If somebody bobbled in front of you, you were probably putting a foot down. Didn't want to deal with that. Got through clean, then onto pavement for a bit. Another came around and put the hammer down. About four of us started to peel away up a long gradual climb to the steep singletrack climb on edge of town. As the grade inched up, I came back to the front to maintain a solid pace. To my horror, we were quickly closing in on what looked like most of the two waves to start ahead of us.

We caught up to a very large pack of riders just as we got to the 300ft steep switched-backed climb. This was going to be a huge CF. The trail has many places to barely pass, but there was wheel to wheel conga line of riders as far as you can see. I kept calling out passes and everybody was pretty good about it. I heard others behind me from my wave doing the same. Then, about a third of the way up, I call out "on your left" and get an immediate "there's no room and no where to go." Well, maybe at the very second it was true. But when it widened a bit, I called out again and the same guy says "your gonna have to wait until we get to the road." Huh? WTF. I said "your kidding, right." I think he was dead serious. It took some "initiative" to get around this guy. I didn't kill myself to that point only to sit on a slow wheel and have my competition close any gained ground. I passed easily over 30 riders on that climb. Was definitely a different kind of MTB race for me. At least I knew I was leading my wave when I got to the top, so as long as nobody passed me the rest of the race, I knew my standing.

I hadn't breathed that hard in years. The air was extremely dry, and minutes into the race my throat was already so dry it felt like it was cracking. I didn't take water with me because I don't need it for one hour effort and I knew I would be breathing too hard to drink anyway. No rest on the rim either. Just a minute or two of contouring at all-out hammer pace brought you to a rocket decent that lasted fraction of a minute. Then right back into VOmax effort on the next multi-minute climb. It was all singletrack with limited opportunities to pass. The passing windows were so short riding on extremely steep benchcut terrain. When you are already max'd out, how do you jump to a whole 'nother level to explosively pass in those tiny windows? I was sure I would blow up before finishing the second lap. The effort was completely unsustainable.

After dropping back off the college mesa at insanely risky speed through rutted chicanes of loose on hardpack, you're back on pavement on a gradual downhill dragstrip to town. You can see a half mile back to see who might be coming up on you. Then you get to the Steamworks Brewery. You race through the brew pub! They built a narrow-ish wooden ramp up the back side to come in at second story level. There was huge crowd there with live band on a platform. Surreal! You come downhill into sharp right and hit the lower ramp at high speed. It is all you can do to not crash through the rail. Then abrupt right and up another really steep ramp, except now you've scrubbed all your speed and you are in a huge gear from bombing down into town. Oh the humiliation if you had to put a foot down with a couple hundred watching, ready for the bobble. I mashed it out. Steamworks is pretty big inside. At first the "trail" is defined by a keg barrier left and right. It is nearly pitch black in there with shades on. I couldn't see shit! Oh the horror if I crashed into the row of kegs with hundreds watching. Inside the brewery there were abrupt right-left turns that were tight and so hard to see. Then you get to a straight-away and see the street-level window they removed through which you exit. It is an abrupt ramp up and over the sill to sidewalk. I accelerated and almost overcook the back side ramp coming down hard on my front well. Another big crowd there too! The cheering crowd inside was deafening. Was a crazy experience, and I would get to do it again on my second lap.

Entrance ramp into back of Steamworks

Exit ramp out of Steamworks through window to street level
Heading back out to the dirt course, I had already passed most of the waves staged in front of me and those that were ahead were faster. Thus everything was spread way out now at the front of the race. It felt more like an individual time trail now. Just keep it steady, don't make a mistake, and everything will be ok. Funny how much less energy you expend and yet average faster pace when you don't have others interfering with your TT effort. Smoothness is energy conservation king. I think I may have passed only three more on my second lap, one of them being Jack who started in the first wave (three minutes ahead of me). I was impressed it took so long to catch him. He had a good race.

Finishing up second lap, dark clouds were building. Winds were whipping and huge amount of dust got kicked up. I'm still getting it out of my eyes. Felt a few drops too. It wasn't until the Pro race right after my race that the thunder and lightning started. Lap and a half in, the race director made a safety call to stop the Pro race at two laps. It didn't rain much, but you are exposed to lightning up on the mesa.

I finished in 1:05:33, which is right around my best times on Mt Washington. This MTB race was the most intense MTB race I've ever done. There is no recovery around the course and it is short. It is an all-out sprint race, really. I don't think any of my Mt Washington races hurt this bad or forced me to take such long, sustained deep digs. Results are live and 100% electronic now, no printing and posting. They post a URL at the finish for you to check your result on a smart device. As expected, I took the win in the men's 55+ field. That was pretty satisfying. I didn't suck. Age group winners received a massive chocolate trophy that must weigh two pounds. Made by local chocolatier Animas Chocolate Co. I think there are cash payouts too, which are mailed.

55+ Podium (third place didn't stick around)
The city of Durango goes all-in for this weekend. The state too. On Saturday, US 550 between Purgatory (just north of Durango) and Silverton is completely closed to autos in both directions for the race. This means the 2500 tourers and racers have the whole road to themselves. On Sunday, Main Street and other streets are shut down for the MTB race. There were spectators pretty much all the way around the course, which was so cool. Have never done an MTB race with even 10th as many spectators. There are all kinds of other events going on over the weekend too, a gravel race on Saturday, tons of kiddie activities, carnival and more. Everything was so well organized. Next year I will register right away to ensure entry to road race.

Winner's Trophy. Maybe 8" tall. That is not hollow. It is solid chocolate.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Unshackled Terrain

I completed another step towards taking in all that this great state of Colorado has to offer. I completed AIARE Level 1 avalanche training. It almost didn't happen. I was originally signed up with San Juan Mountain Guides in January. Then a tragic accident happened during an advanced avalanche training class where a student died in an avalanche. As an indirect result, my class, which was scheduled right after the accident happened was cancelled.

SJMG offered me a hut-based course for same price later in season, but I feared going three days with little to no sleep. A crowded hut is not my idea of a good night's rest. As popular as the hut based training camps are, I just couldn't do it. Silverton Avalanche School, one of the oldest if not the oldest in the country, still had a non-hut based course available in February. It is based out of Silverton, so that meant an hour drive each way each day, which is fine when roads are good. The passes close regularly in winter, so it would be luck of the draw. It turned out to be a fabulous weekend.

We had five students and a fantastic instructor, "Ack." I think the next oldest student was half my age, the youngest still in high school. A great group that meshed well. Two were accomplished skiers, the rest of us various levels of noobs in powder.

The first day we learned how to use our rescue gear. We got to practice finding buried transceivers, probing, and digging. Digging in several feet of powder like someone's life depended on it at 10,000ft will have you gasping in no time! Day 2 focused on human factors, like where a bunch of dudes go out into sketchy terrain and nobody wants to be "that guy" to say this is stupid. So many have died when nobody spoke up. Our instructor has a saying "Ego is not your Amigo" when going out into avalanche terrain. That afternoon we went out to Red Mountain Pass with 6+ft snow pack to practice safe route finding and dig a snow pit to assess stability. The snow pack this year has been a disaster. Many unstable layers, especially near the ground, which when released, sends the entire season's snow pack down the slope. Day three we put everything together into planning and executing a tour. Instructor Ack turned it over to us, to plan a safe route at Red Mountain Pass using weather forecast, Avalanche conditions and CalTopo route planning. Conditions and plan are recorded in the "Blue Book." Post tour, observations are recorded. We spent most of the day above treeline. It was sublime.

The training was an eye opener. You may think you know some things, but there will be big gaps in knowledge. Level 1 is the first step. From here, there are recreational and professional tracks. I will probably take Level 2, but not right away. You are expected to have many backcountry days before taking Level 2 and be a proficient skier. I also need to take a two day wilderness first aid course and it wouldn't hurt to take a dedicated rescue course too. These are all essential tools when heading out into the back country, especially when leading others.

I've been to Wolf Creek front-side around 10 times now to skin. I've hit some powder days there. Still not the full experience I seek when heading outdoors. A week ago I bought afternoon lift pass after skinning a couple laps. Must've done 20 lift runs. Was amazed at how, in a few short hours, my ability to ski ungroomed terrain improved. I regularly do strenuously aerobic workouts in frostbite conditions but never have problems. Not until this lift day at Wolf Creek. It was sub-zero at summit with 30-below windchills. When the lift does all the work for you, you don't produce copious excess heat. I didn't know it at the time, but I got frost bite in four fingers and the tip of my nose.A week later, my finger tips are still numb and painful. They are not turning black though, so only level 1 frost bite. My nose lost some skin on the tip though. I guess that's my punishment for not earning my afternoon turns!

When I mountain bike through the San Juan mountains, I'm constrained to a trail. There are many trails to chose from, so many I haven't hit yet, but you are still confined to essentially a one-dimensional space. It's generally not cool to ride off-trail on alpine vegetation. This is where BC skiing comes in. The delicate terrain is blanketed under many feet of snow. You now can go ANYWHERE. It opens another whole level of creativity to explore. It comes with considerably more responsibility too. There is a dimension of consequences of poor decision making that does not exist mountain biking, or even for much of hiking. Perfect skiing terrain is also perfect avalanche terrain.

We are getting a real winter this season. I'd be screwed right now if I wasn't into snow sports. When there is too much snow to bike, too much new snow to effectively skate ski, there will be perfect snow for BC skiing. The mountains are draped with a white canvas. Your skis or split board are your artist's brush. What will you paint on the landscape today?

Day 1: Ack getting ready to show us how transceivers follow field lines. Town of Silverton in background.

Day 2: Test pit in 2 meters of snow pack. Took shit-ton of effort to dig that out!

Day 3: Heading up CR14 from Red Mountain Pass. One at a time, some potential avy terrain to left.

Day 3: group above treeline heading up to ridge between Red Mountain #3 and McMillan Peak.

Day 3: The Putney Pipe, our initial descent from 12,300ft. Exposed areas above tree line were wind hammered but not in the pipe. Telluride is just over ridge in distance.

Day 3: Ack popping out of the Casa Glade, fine powder near tree line

Day 3: Looking back at the ridge we came down from Carbon Hill, the Putney Pipe just left of center.

Day 3: Our group's tracks coming off summit of Carbon Hill

Day 3: Lorrea finishing descent on Carbon Hill