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 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