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.