Friday, September 23, 2016

Forget About Racing: Big Mountain Enduro Crested Butte

"The difference between try and triumph, is just a little umph!" as my blog header quotes.

This philosophy was put the ultimate test during this year’s Big Mountain Enduro race. With a visit to some dark corners of my mind, it was going to take a monumental effort to finish the first run, let alone the rest of the weekend.

Our trip to the Great Wide Open began with a multi-day stage race in the high mountains of Crested Butte, Colorado. It was just the Hubs and I (and #FRafal and the sheep) so we set up the Vamper and again were heading across I-80, just three days after returning from a wedding in Summit County. Such is the life of a Heartlander…

We stayed at an Airbnb for the first time. Being that we were racing, vamping wasn’t ideal as it gets pretty cold at night this time of year and last time Ryan got a pretty nasty sinus infection and he didn’t want to risk that again. Our hosts were long-time locals with a home in CB South. We lived in their basement and it was awesome. Huge basement, fully furnished with lots of room for our gear + garage + full use of their kitchen. It was less than any hotel or VRBO plus the hosts, Chuck and Olfra, were awesomely cool peeps with lots of stories and hospitality. 

At the racers’ meeting the night before, we were given a strict instructions: rain or shine, we were racing. The forecast was ominous at best. Lethal at worst but we are idealistic bike riders on an adventure. That night I slept horribly as the rain pattered down the spouts outside our window and the lightning brightened up our underground hostel. Doctor Park is going to be Doctor ER in this shit, I thought all.night.long. The next morning we were up way before the sun, heating up our oats and trying to calm our nerves. It was still raining but like the RD said, rain or shine so we kitted up and headed out to meet our destiny. “The race is cancelled for today” Huzzah! Yippee! Thank God, Mary and Joseph!! I was never been so happy to not race a $400 event in my life. Seems the race director, when he made his no exceptions declaration the night before, may not have taken into account that even though us racers could probably make our way up the mountain in crap-tastic weather, rental vans with thousands upon thousands of dollars worth of carbon wouldn’t be able to, nor could any support nor EMT vehicles. Oops. 

We cried tears of joy. We skipped around downtown CB like school children. “We’re going to live. We’re going to live!” We celebrated with Camp4Coffee even though we were already caffeinated to the hilt. To wear some of it off, we headed to Hartman Rocks in Gunnison for the day. It’s usually nice there when CB is not. We've raced there many times but don’t get to really enjoy the views, so Ryan and I took our time and rode to the high points to look around and spin out the legs. It was a fun day on bikes. We celebrated with a burrito.

Saturday morning, race day, welcomed us with more rain. Really? I thought monsoon season was over. But the race was on this time. We drove over to the staging area early to get more coffee and get in line for the shuttles. Our bikes were the first to go into the vans so I was almost last to leave the drop off point, which was fine by me.

Not 5 minutes after I started riding, we had to cross a shin-high rushing stream. Oh and it was raining. Off with the shoes and socks, shoulder the bike, step into fringed water without falling. Yeah, good times. This is enduro racing, I guess. We did this 2 more times and by the third time, I didn’t bother removing my shoes. The sun had come out and they would dry out. Maybe. Eventually. No not really.

Up, up, up. Climb, walk, hike, ride, it’s raining, too steep, get off, walk, hike, go pee, sun’s out, smiling. Wow, 2 hours of this? I see daylight, must be close. A saddle. The views were spectacular. I see people riding up ahead. Oh, now they’re walking. Where is the top??!! I finally round a bend to see other racers, Ryan too, getting ready to drop. I took off my shoes to dry out my socks and insoles more. I eat something and then went to find a tree. The crowd was thinning. A few ladies and juniors were all that were left. Then it was my turn. Honestly, it’s a blurry memory but the run started out not so bad because the sun had dried up some of the track but as soon as we hit the tree line, it was slippy sloppy all the way home. I dragged so much brake it’s pathetic BUT I only had to unclip once and had to run up a slippery power climb b/c I was in too big of a gear and with all the mud, I wasn’t going to have time to downshift and not rip my chain off. 

It was terrifying. 

Deep holes full of water that grabbed tires, roots glazed over with teeth-eating greasy mud, moto ruts up to my knees. It was a shit show but I made it down with all my limbs intact and bike in working order. Winning!

The transition to the next track was a gravel road that led us to a very merry and happy aid station. There were locals hanging out cheering us weary riders on, filling our packs with water and treats and our heads with good vibes and positive sentiments. But yet, people were already cracking. The news of the tracks to come and the transitions to get there unhinged some riders. One of the women from our age group quit after stage 1. The other, Carrie, was teetering on the idea. When I was ready to leave the aid station, she said she was having a moment. I said, I’ll see you at the next drop in on 409.5 trail. I knew what was coming. I had to hike it last time in the same monsoon conditions. Straight up was an understatement. My $9000 walking stick was the only way to get up and over some of the rocky switchbacks. It started on a sunny, grassy slope so the trail was tacky. As we got into tree line it was less so, but not as steep so we could ride and walk. Time passed really slowly. I started sinking into my head. Am I bonking on a hike? Really? Is this happening? I felt like crap. I had loads of bars but what I didn’t have was electrolytes. I didn’t put any in my pack. Hunger wasn’t the problem but I felt pretty weak and weary. Just keep moving. Just keep moving. I was around a bunch of Jr boys who were having a great time. They were suffering too but using each other to stay motivated. “Your mom" jokes were batted back and forth. My body really wanted to just sit down. I wanted to be warm. I wanted to be dry. I wanted to sleep. Anything but walking that damn bike. I started saying out loud “I’m not a quitter. I’m not a quitter. Just gotta walk. You can walk anywhere. I’m not quitting” This went on for a while, between cursing and loud sighs. At times I’d get into a rhythm with my breath. Breath in two steps, breath out two steps and so on. I forgot how hard this was.

FINALLY after eternity had passed, I heard one of the juniors say we were practically there and within a few minutes of that statement, my surroundings started looking familiar. We'd reached the top so I got on my bike and spun to the start area. There were about 20 people or so. Ryan was about to drop in. We knew what was lurking in the woods, recalling two years ago at the Ultra Enduro, where at this very location, we had to wait for word back from an EMT who had to do a preride first to determine if it was safe to ride. Same conditions, if not possibly worse. This was a moto track after all and the muddier the merrier they say. 

I was glad to just get it over with. It was a short run but with knee to waist-high ruts that were coated in greasy mud. All I did was hold on and slide. I wasn’t really riding. When I arrived at the spot where all the moto spectators were (EMTs and photographers) I felt like I entered the forest of Mordor. It was dark as dusk and all these guys in moto kits were lined around the ruts. I tried. I really did but I haven’t a clue how to navigate ruts like those. I clipped out and ran that section. After that, though still muddy, was just pure speed riding and navigating the roots. I had a few of what I call ballerina moves where one foot came out and went into the air to counterbalance what was happening on the other side. But I stayed upright and popped out of the trees for the final plunge, literally, into a large puddle that was more like a pond. Luckily, the finishing shoot was right before it so I didn’t have to actually ride through it. I was partially dry and wanted to continue that way.

The final stage was a trail on Caves Trail. It’s a fast, switchbacking trail in open mountainsides, but with serious consequences if you blow a corner. The transition to it was rideable for the most part, that is if your bike shorts haven’t rubbed your girl parts so raw from being wet all day. Holy diaper rash, I was not in a good place on that transition. Walking was way worse which leaves me to believe it was the walking that caused all the chafing in the first place. It was probably a solid 1.5 hour ride/hike to the start chute. Normally I’d be so stoked on cruising through aspens and navigating rock falls but by then, my body was at war with me. My bike on the other hand was working wonderfully. My Trek Remedy was like a happy goat, just ready to ride wherever on whatever. Even it was out riding me! I did manage to catch up with Ryan and together we arrived at the start line for the last stage. We could see lightning and the curtain of pouring rain coming at us from across the valley. It was time to get the hell off that mountain. Ryan went first. Then I went. The track was dry but very pebbly and loose. The grass was high so no sight lines which meant good luck seeing the next switchback. Stutter bumps were the only clue. I took my time. I knew fatigue would be affecting my handling and I had made it this far without any issues so I wasn’t about to tempt fate. At the bottom Ryan was waiting for me. Someone grabbed my bike and stuck it on a truck. Ryan dragged my ass to the bus. I rode shotgun. We drove through heavy rain and all I could think about were the few still left on that mountain. But all’s well that ends well. They all made it back but we heard it was in a complete white-out downpour. Even the other woman in my age group, Carrie, through the encouragement of the younger female racers, got through the entire day. Winning.

When we arrived back at staging, the partiers from the first aid station were dancing in the rain while a DJ was spinning the tunes under a huge Dale’s Pale Ale tent. I felt like I was returning from the front lines, muddy from head to toe. The volunteers at the food tent were waving us over, steam coming off the fajitas. The beer tent folks were also waving at us. It was an oasis of awesomeness, despite that it was pouring like the end of days. Music was blaring, beer cans were opening and everyone, mud and all, still in their helmets and backpacks were shoving platefuls of food down their gullets, happy to be done. So done. After satisfying our hunger, Ryan remembered there was a bike wash at one of the bike shops and we had 15 minutes until they closed to get the bikes washed. but they still hadn’t come back yet because they were on the truck with the last of the racers. Once the truck arrived, ours were one of the last bikes to come off and we quickly got out of there and headed to the shop. On our way, we all were rewarded with a full double rainbow. Maybe Mother Nature was sorry for her shitty idea of race day weather.

By the time we got back to the house it was after 7pm. That to me is not the best event planning strategy. Getting done by 3-4pm makes more sense. We barely had time to take a shower let alone get our bikes ready for another day of battle with mother nature. We had second dinner at the house. Luckily the host’s laundry room also contained their radiating water heater that turned the tiny room into a sauna. I put all of our shoes, gloves and pads in the room to dry out. It worked like a champ! As we packed up the van and got it ready for the next day, I told Ryan to come outside. We could see the entire glow of the Milky Way directly above us. It was a dizzying sight to see. THIS is why we do what we do! With the gift of a clear night, the hope was the rain was done. 

The final day of the BME wasn’t going to be a walk in the park by any stretch. It included 4 stages: one backcountry and 3 bike park. I’m not a park girl and knew it was going to be my toughest day yet. Since the race was going to end at the bike park, we had to drive our van to it so I could change out my gear after the first stage. I could have lugged my full face for stage 1 but we thought this would be a better idea. Well, it was until the effing rain started again on our way down to the staging area. We were soaked through by the time we loaded up on the bus. Ryan didn’t wear his gloves so he’d have dry ones on the transfer up. I wasn’t that tough. 

The drive up to 403 was scenic. The caravan of racers pulled over at a popular camping spot for RVs. The sun had come out by then and layers were coming off. I rode with my gloves hanging off the ends of my bars to dry out. We took our time. I partnered up with Carrie so we could support each other. Both of us were nervous nellies about the bike park stages. 403 was a layer cake of ridiculousness: super steep, off camber, rooty with mud on top. The tracks were very narrow so when the super fast juniors went by, I had to pull myself and the bike off the track into the wet flora so I wouldn’t eff-up their run. Not sure what’s more worrying: crashing or causing another to slow down or crash. As the juniors came plummeting down the track, I started counting seconds in hopes I could anticipate when each one would arrive. (Yes, they should have gone ahead but they were dilly dallying around and I was ready to drop). So be it. My counting didn’t really work but they were great about yelling in plenty of time. And saying thank you. As I made my way down I could see Ryan waiting for me at the bottom. Carrie, too. It was going to be a long transfer back to the bike park along Gothic Road. Ryan sped off. Carrie switched out some gear at the aid station and we headed to the bike park where the van was parked where I was able to switch out my helmet and body armor. My stress level was torqued. 

I took my time getting to the chair lift. There was a huge line (it’s open to the public after all). As we shuffled our way to the front, we saw racers returning from the runs down Avery. Most said it was fine. Ok good. I knew I could do Avery. But the beta coming back for Captain Jack was our worst fears come true. Super slick and unrideable. That was from people who KNEW how to ride park. I was so nervous. My stomach was in knots. Carrie and I consoled each other and just said, ride what we can, walk the rest. None of this really mattered in the big picture. We got to the top of Avery. Carrie went first then me. There were a few junior girls waiting around for the rest of their category to show up. I lined up, took a deep breath and sped off. The track was in the sun, so mostly dry. Rough, of course. Got up the first bridge and glad it was dry. First rock garden was tacky and chunky but doable. The tracked opened up and I got up some speed. Things were going fine. I knew about a couple of tricky sections coming up but it’s been 2 years since we were there so it was hard to say (totally wished we would have pre-ridden). Yikes, it was rough and that effing tricky huge tree stump was still there before a very wet bridge. Got through it and it opened up again. But as I was anticipating the next section, I saw a ribbon across the trail and I’m going into completely unfamiliar terrain in a dark forest full of wet boulders. This is NOT Avery at all!!! So in my mind I’m thinking did I accidentally get onto Captain Jack, cuz this what CJ is like. I hopped of my bike and started running back up the track to make sure. As I sprinted up to the intersection, I was thinking maybe since we were so late dropping in that someone changed the tape. I got to the intersection. I had no idea what to do so I ran back to my bike and just started down the track on foot. Junior girls were starting to come by me so by then I knew I was at least on the race track. Bad, bad, bad. That’s what happens when you don’t pre-ride. After that section, the rest of the run was what I remembered and I arrived at the bottom kinda deflated at the whole situation and swallowing hard as I tried mustering up courage for Captain Jack.

Again the line was long. Again riders were coming back from CJ and saying “Stay high left. Stay high left. Do not go down to the right. Don’t go here. Don’t go there.” I was dizzy with nerves. My chest was tight. I had to slow down my breathing on the chair ride up. I knew already I would be walking so much of this track but hearing how hard it was just to stand up was making that option seem impossible also. The start chute was a wood ramp feature that got us up to speed right off the bat. Sitting on top, the last racer of the day, the entrance to the forest before me was dark, like the mouth of hell. It wasn’t getting any sun so I had to just stay loose and let the bike do what it needed to do on the wet roots and rocks. When I arrived at the advanced technical section (seriously, this was World Cup level terrain) I could see the rider straight down walking as well. At the boulder edge that signaled the drop in to this section, I put my bike down on the rock in front of it and slid down on my butt. I had no business being on this track. I had no idea how to ride it dry! As I made my way down, I could see the tape flapping around where riders had taken it out trying to stand up or ride. Nobody was around so I just hopped over the tape and walked through the woods that were adjacent to the track. Yes, I was bushwhacking down the mountain. I didn’t have a choice if I wanted to stay upright. Luckily that section wasn’t long so when it was back to pack fodder level riding and I could actually see the sun, I joyfully jumped on the bike, knowing I could finish this track, this day, this weekend after all. When I got to the bottom, Carrie was there. I gave her a hug. We were both happy and relieved to be done with the hard parts. It certainly wasn’t pretty but we didn’t quit and that wasn’t an easy thing to do.

The last run of the day was a blue track, very pedally and rough. I didn’t care. This was more my style and I was happy to oblige. The trail actually lead us off the mountain, south of town where we connected with another trail system and down to the staging area. Ryan met me at the finish line and he went off to go get the van that was still at the bike park. He’s such a great partner!!!

The rest of the day we hung out at the staging area, eating and drinking and chatting with other racers until the podiums were announced. The emcee was announcing finishing times of each podium and was hoping he’d stop when our group was called up. Nope. It took us twice as long to complete the entire weekend as many others and though I was kinda embarrassed to have my time called out, that soon was replaced by satisfaction after seeing the junior women giving us some big props and one of the race directors giving us a heartfelt thanks for coming and sticking it out to the end. 

It’s been a few weeks now since the race and I’ve had time to reflect even more on the event and why it is we do what we do. As racers, we suffer from race amnesia. It’s not until we’re in the thick of it that we start questioning again what the hell we were thinking. And my answer is hope. We do it because we hope we can be better this time. That we can be faster or clear a section or maybe even win. 99% of the racers who commit to events don’t get on podiums yet they stand around and cheer on those who do. It’s a race so there has to be a first, second, third and so on. But everybody knows, even though it’s cool to get on a podium and do the social thing and make a big deal out of it, that to finish an event as hard as this one, is a win for everyone. From bro to pro, we all had to ride the same track, in possibly the same conditions or worse so there was mad respect across the board. If it were up to me, I’d have everyone on the podium that weekend. I looked to so many others to get through it. I leaned on my husband, got some calming words from Carrie, got stoked by the juniors’ ju-ju (especially the girls who were absolutely killing it and beating many adults). It was truly the hardest thing I’ve done on and well off the bike. 

But I’ll probably forget about that part.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Half Growler, Full Fun

Memorial weekend was the 4th time we signed up at the Gunnison Half Growler, a 36 mile race around the high desert hillsides of Hartman Rocks in Gunnison, Colorado. Usually by the time we turn the van west to the Great Wide Open, we've competed in at least 2-3 marathon races and a couple XC races. This year, the hubs and I opted to stick around to do our Ride Right MTB School and keep the travel lighter since our fall schedule is going to be a baller of a good time. So needless to say, I felt a bit behind in my fitness. My coach assured me we were right on target to have a good race. I wanted a great race. I wanted to get on that podium this year. I've been 5th, and 4th twice and I was chomping.

But that was my thing.

Seven of our friends who we brought with us were also racing. Some were back to improve their time and a couple of them it would be their first time in the area. They were about to get their minds blown. No other race gives you money right when you cross the line into town so you can spend it on the local food and beer vendors that have set up in the staging area. This event is about those that support it; the racers, the volunteers, and the town. The promoters have a good thing going and they know it.

The MTB Wagon left Omaha on Thursday night in the pouring rain, followed by a few more in other vehicles. We stayed in Ogallala per the norm so we could get Jesus burritos in town the next day. Our hearts were a little sad though, because our good buddy Larry was not with us, still recovering from a extremely sprained wrist from a fall he took early in the spring. Coming to this event was his idea in the very beginning which started our love-affair with the sprawling mountain landscape that is the Gunnison Valley. We all felt a little off. Ryan was still healing from his bicep injury and Larry was his coffee-mate. Needless to say, we made a few less coffee and pee breaks this trip.

We did however pull into a scenic rest stop to view the Collegiate Mountains before finally arriving at our cabin around 2pm. We opted to skip road-side Tai and lunch altogether so we could get to the trail and pre-ride. We had driven through more rain and the skies were threatening to dump again. The house was probably one of the best in terms of views and amenities. It sat high above a 300 acre horse ranch with views to tomorrow at every vantage point. The deck stretched across the back of the entire house, like a welcome mat to the valley below. Needless to say, we spent as much time as possible out there.

With not much time to ooh and aah, we kitted up and headed for the start of the big climb. It began to pour again so we waited out the cloud burst in the van, watching wet riders hurrying to their cars or some shelter with urgency. After a few minutes it finally let up and we took to the Kill Hill climb. Not the greatest plan when you've been sitting for hours (sitting is the new smoking) but for those new to the race, it's good to ride it. We got up to the top and then did a small, easy loop back to the van. We weren't sure of the direction to take and just when we figured out the way, Ryan shows up in the van. The clouds were starting to look angrier so we needed to get down. We took the road down to Collar Bone, a flowy sliver of single track that has huge berms and ends at the parking lot. One time down wasn't enough for the newbies. Ryan shuttled them up for a second run. And just as they finished, it started to rain. We had sneaked in our ride after all.

Next we registered for the race, picking up sweet swag and our numbers. I got a pep talk from my coach and then we headed back for some grub. And you've never seen such hungry bikers. Going on breakfast burrito fumes and road snacks, I was lucky to get my appendages out of the way. I brought South Omaha carnita all the way across NE along with some legit salsa. Qdoba can suck it! The rest of the night was the ususal pre-race fiddling around and restless sleep. But there's one benefit to restless sleep in the big wide open: seeing stars, by the zillions, all at what seemed like only an arm's length away. I've never seen the Big Dipper so big and so close!

The morning came soon enough. The sun brightened up the room well before it was time to get out of bed, even though it hadn't crested the eastern mountains yet. Nobody went on the deck as it was in the 30s and ice covered from frozen left over rain drops. 

After a frenzied morning of coffee, oats and eggs and all iterations of carb loading, we were out the door by 7:15. Race start was 9am. We got the first parking stall next to the staging area and the porta potties. It was already a winning day!

The Race
The air was crisp and low wind. Bluebird skies kept the moods up. The start line was pretty calm. Good friends from KC, Julie and Terrie Higgins and 60+ Masters speed demon Doug Long were close to the front. Great to see co-flatlanders slugging it out. At 9am the shotgut blast signaled the neutral start to the race. It was a pretty calm ride as the parade of bikes, lead by a local police car, made its way to the dreaded Kill Hill. No frantic start/stops around me. I was kinda blocked in the middle but it didn't matter b/c the line blew up once the trail went skyward. I just found my rhythm and did my thing and motored to the top. I could hear my coach in my head. Just keep moving, don't freak out about the numbers on the computer. Just stay steady. And so, once I crested the hill, I kept moving. I kept it steady. People flew by left and right but those were matches I couldn't burn. There were several short climbs immediately ahead on the dirt roads and eventually into the single track, which wound up and around hills of sage. We rode this section the day before so I knew I would have a chance to recover on the first long, flowing descent. Which isn't easy to allow because the trails are cut such that you can keep speed in the corners and over whoops. It's so fun and just begs to be shredded. I held my spot behind a couple ladies that were killing it.

I caught up with some traffic on the next few sections and hand to practically stand in line as racers dismounted for technical sections. I felt the front leaving us in the dust but there's not much one can do but wait your turn. We got going soon enough and I put in some effort to try to make up some time. I got in with some guys who were racing at my pace and we'd switch around depending on the terrain. At one point though I had to be a jerk and pass about 3 guys who were doing nothing behind a rider who was taking too much of a sweet time and once past them I was able to get back on the gas and up to the guys I had been with earlier.

The track was dry - a total 180 from last year when we were trail side digging mud out of our arses half way through. Deep ruts on these same roads were baked into the dirt where not too long ago mud had been. And not much wind, unlike last year, where it was a force to be reckoned with and in a desolate place as this without shade or wind break, it'ss everyone for themselves. This year was way more manageable. Perfect, actually.

The main aid station came into view around hour 2. I had two empty bottles with dry mix in them ready for a volunteer to fill up. The eager helper grabbed them and went to the water cooler. Apparently not satisfied with the speed of the spout, he took them over to a spray hose connected to a giant water tank in the bed of a truck. I lost count of the number of women that went by as I chomped on warm bacon wondering if I'd ever get my bottles back. Looking over my shoulder, the guy couldn't seem to be able to figure out the nozzle of the sprayer and water was going everywhere but in the bottle. After what seemed like minutes, I was off and headed down a two-way traffic dirt road that was the start of a loop that would bring me back to the same road so I could ride up it and past the same aid station. The section was pretty technical and I had to walk up and lift up my bike onto boulders that were probably meant to ride the other way. After a couple more hike a bikes I finally made it to the road and went up. I grabbed some more solid food (mine had ejected from the side pockets of my top tube bag) and I was off to take on the second half of the course.

It was all pretty straight forward. I was just having a good time. Before a super nasty dirt road climb up off a highway, Ryan and Jenny appeared, cheering us on. Ryan handed me a very cold Coke. It was like I had passed through an oasis and was a little bit more energized. As I began the climb, I recalled the last time I rode the entire grunt (say it with me, because I hate walking) and I burned some pretty valuable matches trying to stay with another woman and paid for it later, so I told myself that I'd walk if it got really, really hard. Well, that was the plan. I did get off for a few feet when the sandy soil was just too deep. But other than that, I pedaled up most of it, keeping it under control and trying not to go too deep.

The rest of the race was kinda just me doing my thing. I rarely saw any women (most of them I had seen at the start) but I had a pretty good idea I wasn't going to make my podium dream come true. The numbers were looking good so I just kept on going, kinda in a zone. Towards the last 1/3 of the race, we kept hearing "One more climb and you're done" I wasnt' the only one either. The others said the same thing. So after the 3rd time hearing it, I was like, I'll be done when I see the finish line. I could feel my body starting to tire out somewhere around the low 30-some mile mark. At the 3:30 mark, I just happened to look at my computer. Sub 4 hours seemed pretty unattainable from where I was physically. I was needing to go deeper on the climbs and recover longer. The trail got way more technical too with wheel drops and lifts that zapped any remaining energy stores. When I made the final turn down the flowing single track to the finish line, I was relieved. I kept on the gas and came across the line with seconds to spare under the 4 hour mark. Ryan and Jen were there with high fives and beer (what great people) but I was a little bummed with my performance because I had way more energy at the end, standing there, than I ever have had in the past. Usually I just want to lay down and I don't have an appetite either, kinda like when you get the body aches from the flue. But this time was different. Did I not go hard enough or was I in decent enough shape that of course I should feel fine?. The live results showed me in 9th in my age group. That really bummed me out. I was hoping for at least 3rd but it wasn't to be. So I rolled back into town with Julie who had pulled in some 20 minutes later. It was fun to not only start with her but also end the race with her as well.

Once back at in town, we got our loot and pigged out. Mark Sullivan and Stuart had come in around 3:45 or so, Mark bettering his time by 30 minutes and Stewart, being his first time, did great. Adam and Paul were next to arrive, followed by Amy and then father-daughter EOB and AOB. This being Abby's first time, Eric was a bit nervous having her ride it on her hard tail. Ryan being the awesome person he is, offered up his Remedy and she did great. Together they came in, bettering Eric's previous time of 30 minutes and I believe less profanity as well. Bringing people to these events is such a joy for Ryan and me and when a wonderful experience was had by a father and his daughter, well, I can't write a better life script than that. All the planning and preparation is completely justified knowing memories are being made and boundaries being pushed in positive directions.

Once everyone was back, we chowed down on some local noms and beer. We stuck around for the podium presentation for Abbey. She was the first female junior to complete the race! And on top of that she won her category and a coveted hand-made trophy handed to her by Dave Wiens himself! Such a delight and to see her, the only junior woman standing among the boys, made us all proud. We were sure to embarrass her with extremely loud cheering, which she accepted with her big Irish grin. So rad.

After the ceremony, we piled back into cars and returned to the house. Knowing we'd all want second dinner soon, we decided to get cleaned up first. Leisurely we all took our turns showering off the day's dirt and sweat. By later afternoon our stomachs were growling and we headed back into town in in search of burritos. Our regular stop was full so we went across the street, which had outdoor seating so we could be loud! We gorged on chips, dips and margaritas until our food arrived, which didn't have a chance either. I always say my favorite part of racing is being done, but I'm beginning to think it's really eating afterwards!

Post gorge, we took a stroll down main street. Everything was closed. The finish line was empty so we jumped up on the podium to commemorate the day. A tenacious and courageous group - but the photo wasn't complete. Our buddy Larry wasn't there, with his drunk glassy-eyed smile. Well, that's not exactly true.

The rest of the night we spent at the house on the deck or in the garage tinkering with bikes, getting them ready for the epic rides in Crested Butte the next day.

I got up early and started the pancake line. Ryan had bacon duty (subbing for Larry) and Stu jumped in making eggs. It was going to be a long day in the mountains so we needed a proper send off! By 8:30 we were locked and loaded, headed for the high country.

Ryan confirmed a couple trails were open and dry: Strand Hill and Upper Upper, trails that are accessible by way of albeit short for CB, 30-40 minutes of climbing fire roads and or single track. The whole crew dawned camel backs and snacks for a solid day on the bike. We cruised down a fire road, leaving Ryan and his bum wing once again. But he yelled at us until we were out of earshot, stoking the engines as he always does.

We reached the bottom of the climb. There were many riders out. The first of the dry single track and everyone was jonesing. Up up up we went. Taking our time. Trying not to burp up our bacon. We finally reached the top of the descent on Strand Hill. The sky sprinkled some rain but the tracks were crusty so I wasn't worried. Adam lead the group in place of Ryan, stopping every so often to group up. I had the pleasure of riding with Jenni and watching her confidently take on some seriously steep terrain that she would have walked a year prior. She took our clinic this spring and was doing everything just like we told her and she really did great. I was proud coach and friend. I love seeing more chicks on bikes gaining the confidence to come out on some of these rides in the mountains. Makes riding at home so tame too!

After a bunch of F-Yeah bombs we found the rest of the group and made our way up and down Strand Bonus. Adam's new big squishy made for some ribbing when he couldn't ride up hills that Jenni managed to climb. All in good fun. 

But then it was the downhillers' turn to burn. We made it back to the gravel road climb which was now very much a descent. We waved goodbye to the big bike boys while the rest of us took our time. We ended the first leg of the ride back at the van where Ryan was waiting with cold beers.

From there we let out to ride Upper Upper backwards which starts with stacked switchbacks to gain some quick elevation. Needless to say, I was out of breath pretty quick and made stops along the way. On top of that, it started to spit and the wind kicked up as well. Time to get ourselves butts and bikes back to town! Mark Sullivan was hammering the hills like a champ until he broke his chain. Without a 10 speed quick link, he was going to have to hail a ride back to town but Paul and Adam's quick thinking and muscles got him going again and he was able to ride the trails, minus a couple of cogs. Riding Upper Upper back to Tony's Trail is super fun and rowdy. Once we hit Tony's the wind was howling and we could see a wall of rain off in the distance. A few of us headed for the highschool where I knew there was a heated bathroom and a place to get out of the weather if we needed. (It's where we camped a couple years ago at the Ultra Enduro). The rest of the group headed straight for the visitor's center where Ryan and Jen were hanging out. We arrived within a few minutes, happy to have not been any higher as the weather turned.

What a day! And the only proper way to celebrate was to eat a very large pizza and drink very large beverages. We chose Secret Stash as our destination. We sat around a large round table that rotated in the middle so we could easily share appetizers and drinks. It was a setting for kings and queens. Warriors of the wilderness! Here, here! Barbarians of the backcountry! Here, here! Slayers of single track! You get the drift and for those that felt the amount of food wasn't enough, stuffed themselves silly with hand-made ice cream. Gluttons!

Tired, buzzing and bloated, we strolled the main street. Most of the shops were closed so we window shopped and entertained ourselves. We did manage to catch Ally from Big Al's putting away the day's demo fleet. It was good to catch up with her!

Finally, it was time to head back to the cabin. I was looking at my watch. It was just after 7pm. Perfect.

So we get back to the cabin and we're all hanging out on the patio waxing poetic about the day, gear choice, tires, a.k.a the usual when who in the hell walks out the onto the patio with a box full of beer - LARRY! The look on people's faces was priceless. It was as if they were seeing an illusion and realizing it in slow motion. I was giggling in my chair and once it dawned on everyone that Larry was actually standing there, grinning from just pulling off the greatest gag ever, the group erupted with hugs and laughter. I was crying from laughing so hard. It was a Hallmark moment if there ever was one. Cue the theme music! It was pretty hard not to tell anyone that Larry was going to be on this trip after all and the relief and utter joy of having him there made the trip complete! Good friends reuniting and celebrating a great trip full of firsts 

Monday, October 12, 2015

Monarch Crest Enduro - Rough and Rowdy Riding

When we heard about this event several months ago, we took about two seconds to say hellz yeah! Why? Because it was a new race on new trails that we've been meaning to get after for years. We drive over Monarch Pass every time we go to Gunnison or Crested Butte, gazing wildly at the high alpine, wondering what trails lay beyond the gift store parking lot on Monarch Pass. Now we know. (And you should too).

The Monarch Crest Enduro promised 3 days and 5 stages of massive elevation loss and some gain. Is it too soon to say the promoter approached it old school? They published the tracks so anyone could practice, they said ride any bike anytime, change out parts, whatever - just come race! They promised free beer (check), free food (check) and shuttle service (check). This was not a lift accessed bike park event. This was as back-country as you can get (within safety and forest service allowances of course) which is the main reason we didn't hesitate to sign up. When we pay big money, take time off work and go a long distance, we want an adventure. The MCE gave us that and more!

After almost finishing pimping the MTB WAGN, we grabbed the Todds and the Proper Asian and hit the highway late after work on Wed. We bedded down in good ol' Ogallala so we could partake in our regular stop for Jesus burritos and the Lamp Post coffee shop. By early afternoon we pulled into Salida and to our home away from home. Salida is a classic, slow cowboy town with many local art galleries and the house was a mini gallery of sorts. Lots of fun eye candy and a private backyard and full garage to get our bike shop on. 

We were a ride away from downtown so we unloaded and road a few blocks for some awesome local 'za and then hit up registration at Rivers Edge/Absolute Bikes. The promoter, former Omaha native (and Westside grad '82) Keith Darner, gave an inspiring talk about what to expect how to prepare. Beer flowed freely. We saw folks from other Colorado races we've done and not doing any of the other gravity focused events this year, it was good to see some friendly faces and as always happens at these races, meeting many new ones.

Starting the weekend out right!

DAY 1 
Stage 1 - Starvation Creek dropping some 2000 feet in a little over 4 miles.
Stage 2 - Silver Creek dropped just under 2000 feet in roughly 4.5 miles

Starvation Creek
Silver Creek 
The start of the day was perfect. Summer kit with a wind vest and all my Geoform armor was all that was needed. We took a transfer shuttle to stage one where we had to ride just a tad to the starting gate. 

Early start means eating on the shuttle ride.

The only thing I did to get ready were a few squat jumps to get the legs ready to burn. When you live at sea level sitting in a squat position for over 20 seconds is rare. Now do it for twenty minutes. Yeah, searing pain but a good kind. Starvation was a gorgeous ribbon of trail that pumped up and down a creek bed. The fall colors were starting to pop. I couldn't look around much but I could see the gold all around. I really wasn't on my game that run. This was the first time on my new PIKE fork so I was kinda testing the suspension, um, at speed. There were some pedaly bits and I never felt like I would fall to my death. It was a hard ride but a good first track for those of us just getting our legs under us.

All morning, we kept hearing all about the shitty, long and relentless climb up to Stage 2, Silver Creek Trail. Well, it was long and relentless, but shitty? Hardly. It was all on wide double track service roads and the grade wasn't even enough to force us to walk. And with golden leaves falling like autumn snow and the sound of a bubbling creek constant, us low-landers were in bike heaven. 

Golden canopy of happiness!
Stage two, Silver Creek, was a bit of the same but with some additional rock out croppings and some crazy rock slides that you had to stay on top of else it was like walking on, well, a rock slide. I felt a bit better on that track and it was faster too. Aside from one stupid 45 degreee turn, it was a blast and I'd shuttle that shit all day! The Remedy was waking up! 

Photo Credit: Pink Bike
After Day one, I was happy to see I wasn't last. Blind racing on terrain is not part of my DNA. It's really hard. Especially for someone who's cautious like me and has control issues. Letting go (of the brakes) doesn't come naturally so I have to force myself to commit. Yay, head games.

That night we hit up the promised beer and buffet back at Rivers Edge. Pulled pork sammies? Sign me up! The rest of the night was spent dialing in bikes and preparing for the weekend's longest day.

Stage 3 - Canyon Creek dropped 4400 feet in over 10 miles!

You know how people thought the transfer between stages 1 and 2 sucked? They must have really had a hard time on day 2! Our shuttle was over an hour and then we had another 2-3 hours to pedal, hike and drag our asses and our bikes up to Granite Mountain's peak at over 12,500 feet. Blue bird skies blessed this day else there would have been some bailouts for sure. Not long into the ride, the promoter was handing out bacon to the riders. Unfortunately when I got there, they dropped a plate of them in the dirt and wouldn't serve them. What happened to the 5 second rule!!! 

Photo Credit: Pink Bike

Like everyone warned, it took somewhere between 2-3 hours to get to the top. About 1000-1500 below, I changed into my armor because from the looks of it, there wasn't going to be any barrier from the elements at that height. I dove into some trees and put on my armored shorts and then the rest of the ensemble trail side. The effort to get to the top was herculean. Like in previous races in Crested Butte, this was a track we wouldn't have done on our own. It was stupid steep. My bike became a carbon walking stick. At times I had to get off the trail because the rocks were more loose than the ground next to it. Switchbacks after switchbacks offered even more challenge as they were generally more rocky and steeper than the trails before and after. Towards the top it was steep enough that I could look straight up and see people above me. At one point, we could still see the moon in the sky. Finally on top, there was no hiding. In order to pee, you either mooned a couple people or everyone. The view was breathtaking (of the mountains, not moons). This was my and Ryan's 6th anniversary. And we were at the top of a mountain. Seriously, people, does it get much better?

Yes, actually.

You know the saying, what goes up must come down. After a couple hits off Wixon's sipper of vodka and Redbull it was go time. All the ladies lined up together so we wouldn't have as many dudes running into us. (Well, most of us :) We were told the pros would finish in 30ish minutes or more. That meant for someone like me, who knew, 60 minutes? The start was wide open, treeless terrain. The trail was cupped and we were told to watch for sniper rocks that would be in the trail ready to catch a pedal. That's all I thought about. Avoid the snipers. About 500 yards in, the trail went up slightly for 50 yards or so. I stood up but my lungs said no, no, no. So I sat and mashed at 12,000 feet. I turned a corner and the earth disappeared to my left. All I had to do was get down the narrow ribbon of death that lay before me. I really should call it the ribbon of life cuz that was the only way to get down alive. 

Photo credit: Pink Bike
Once down from the top, the exposure was minimal. The rest of the descent, which if you ask anyone, will be the same: blur, blur, blur oh shit! rocky section blur blur blur oh shit! fuck! hold on, blur blur blur, thank you God, blur blur blur how deep is this fucking water crossing blur blur blur camp ground, where the fuck am I?, blur blur blur, where is this rock wall? is it over yet? blur blur blur, oh thank god a trail marker, where is the fucking end? another water crossing? rock wall, fuck it I'm walking, I can't feel my hands, another marker, gotta be close, blur blur blur, seriously, where is the end, oh thank god the end! THAT WAS THE BEST THING EVER. CAN WE DO IT AGAIN?

I think something happens when mountain bikers get up to that elevation. The lack of oxygen instead of saying danger, danger, says total awesomeness ahead and we think we are super heros blasting down to earth. 

Yes, it was one of the most intense riding experiences I've ever had. Not stopping for 48 minutes is a long time! I've raced longer down the Whole Enchilada but this was different. The pure steepness kept us on the gas. I had to sit on the flatter sections so I could get feeling back in my trailing leg. (Again, seated squats. I know what I'm doing in the gym this winter!) Ryan said he lost feeling in his hands due to arm pump. He couldn't break nor hit his dropper post button easily. Adam yard sailed at some point. The Todds were just out of gas by the end, just like everyone. Nobody does that kind of riding regularly at race speed. It was kind of an equalizer. And it kicked major ass! 

The ride back to the van was a hoot. 2-3 miles of open gravel roads. We were probably hitting like 30-40 mph and smiling like a bunch of hooligans. What a ride. What a day. It was a night for celebration for sure. We found a local Mexican restaurant and ate our weight in chips and quac. Glasses clinked to a day of amazing experiences and a marriage of equal measure. We were in the moment, living a large and graced life.

DAY 3 
Stage 4 - Greens, dropped 3014 feet in roughly 6-7 mles
Stage 5 - Fooses Trail, dropped 2850 in about 7-8 miles

We arrived at around the time we thought we'd need to get on the last shuttle, after the pros. Well, we were literally the last people so we got to ride up with Keith in his SUV to the first stage. In the parking lot of the Monarch Pass gift shop I thought, I finally get to find out what's in back of the behind. Our bikes had gone up before us and when we arrived, they were propped up against the shuttle trailer. Being last of the last does mess with your brain. You have this hurry up mind-set and you can get panicky. It was important to stay calm and collected.

Until it starts to fucking snow. 

Ok, no big deal, I put on my rain jacket. Stop. Pull it out, people passing, including my riding buddies, husband, etc. I'll catch up in a second....
The snow is coming down harder now. It's sticking. Ok, no big deal. Now we can see "the line", I thought. 

Ryan is stopped up ahead next to a tree putting on gear. It was a solid 7 mile undulating ride to the start line from the drop off. We were at about mile 4 so I decided to put on all of my armor in case the weather got worse. They work as great insulators. Ryan headed up the trail. I had to take off all of my layers to put on my armor. Luckily it wasn't that cold or windy. After I put on all my upper body stuff, I started on my legs. Shoes off, hopping on one foot I tried to get my shin guard on but it won't go over my calf. Fuck, I put my shin guard on my elbow (they all look the same)! So I have to take off ALL of my layers AGAIN and swap out pads. I'm thinking, don't panic, things are fine. Adam rolled up during my clothing swap and he did the same. When he was ready, we continued on. Up and down, up and down. Where the hell is the start? The tracks were starting to get covered up with new snow and it was slippery! At about 6.5 miles in, after descending a few hundred feet, I start questioning if we missed a turn somewhere. He didn't think so, so we kept on and just as we came over a rise, we could see bikes across a meadow. Whew! And there was a shelter and a FIRE!!! Adam was so happy. His poor toes were numb. When we got there, only our crew was left to drop in. There was a light layer of wet snow everywhere. It was spitting rain. The rocks were black and angry looking. 

Photo Credit Sienna Martin

I said a little prayer, and dropped in. Adam was still getting feeling back in his feet. We were told this was a rowdy little bitch of a trail. Relentless, they said. Chunky. Roots at all angles ready to take you out. Well, those were all accurate statements about Green's trail. I have no idea to this day how I didn't yard sale it 20 times down that track. All I have to say is Maxxis Minions for the win! I didn't ride that track. More like I skidded, sledded, swerved, and slid every which way. My back end was sideways more than once and I had a few outloud PTL moments (praise the lord) when I made it through a sketchy section. There was one part where I had a flashback to several years ago when I drove myself into a tree a broke my clavicle in South Dakota. A similar situation happened on this run where, on a very flat transition to a short power climb, my tires hooked up in some really soft soil and the bike became possessed. For a few fleeting moments I couldn't steer and was heading for a very large tree. I super-manned it across the entire width of a double track section, off the trail and thank the lord almighty that I landed between two trees. I didn't know if I should get up and quit right there for living or keep going. Adrenaline kicked in big time and I ran my bike up the climb and hopped back on. For the rest of the race, it was fast and crazy. The sun came out at some point and the trail started to dry out. We ended on a thin bench cut ribbon next to a creek. When I popped out 30 minutes after I dropped in, I was so happy to be all in one piece and shocked that my bike was still in working order as well. That run could have gone bad at any turn but it didn't and I felt like I had won the damn World Cup.

We didn't have time to waste. We still had to get shuttled back up to the Pass for the last run. The van was waiting for us. Racers inside had shoes off, trying to dry them against the heaters. Not much chatter during the ride. People were f-ing exhausted for sure, but in a good way. Food was being consumed and most were just trying to rest. 

Up at the drop-off, Adam called it a day. He said he was too tired and getting too sloppy and didn't feel safe to continue. It was hard to leave him but only he could make that decision. We rode back up the same route. The sun was out now and the wind was howling. I was alone and in the moment. I stopped a few times to take one last look around. Amazed at the days past and present. And the same track was dry as a bone. You wouldn't have known it just snowed a couple hours ago.

We came to the start shoot. It was very windy and cold. Not a place to linger. The shoot down Fooses was no joke. Fault-line trail full of baseball sized rocks. 

I dropped in, sitting on my back wheel, surfing down the chute. I got hung up a couple times and had to stop. Not an easy thing to do on steep terrain. I got down the chute safely and continued on. It was dryer than Greens but rowdy none the less. It did flatten out for a bit towards the end so I was able to put it into a bigger gear and stand up a few times. I got passed by a few riders who caught me but I didn't care. I just kept telling myself positive reinforcements and to just get the hell off this mountain in one piece.

Soon into this stage, I was one with the pain in my back leg. The searing burn was just that, a pain. It didn't stop me from continuing. I had accepted it as part of my current state. Once I did that, it was less of a concern so I could focus on the trail and keep the rubber side down. 

I was tingling with happiness when I saw that last finish line 30 minutes later. One more high speed gravel ride down to the van and our adventure was over. We were all on such a high I was worried one of us would case it down the gravel road. But we made it just fine. 

Upon arrival back at the bike shop, we were dirty, beyond exhausted and kinda sad it was all over. We had taken so long that most of the racers were already cleaned up and partaking in the post-race festivities. Since the awards ceremony was coming up, we just decided to stay, dirty race clothes and all. We called Adam and told him to get his ass to the restaurant cuz it was time to eat and drink all the free beer. And we did. Mounds of fries and pints of beer were consumed before, during and after the awards ceremony. I think Wixon had at least 8 before the night was over. I got called up for women 40+. Though I was a lone soldier in my category, it was still pretty rad to be up there, knowing I had finished all of it, just like the fast chicks. 

Photo Credit: Pink Bike

I went back up one more time when I won a raffle prize. Eyberg got called up first and he took home the biggest prize up there, a set of wheels (not his size, though). It was fun to watch him try riding back with those things.

Back at the ranch the after party began. Wixon was a drum machine away from starting a rave. The rest of us watched and burned wood on the pit fire. So much radness. So much gratitude for what we all just achieved. We pushed ourselves out of our comfort zones time after time and we all came out better, more experienced riders. That to me is winning at life. To heck with the race.