Thursday, May 29, 2014

A Memorable Memorial Weekend - Part 1: Growling in Gunnison

The beauty of high-desert terrain against a stunning mountain backdrop.
With snow capped peaks in the rear view mirror, we celebrated another Memorial Day remembering the previous two days of epic adventures with friends in the mountains. 

Our destination was Gunnison, Co., host to the Gunnison Growler mountain bike race. The MTBWagn crew was Larry "bacon quest" Kintner, Todd "Green Machine" Eyberg, Gnarly Carly, and new to the crew, Kaitlin "You Tube" Neary. This year the wagon became the wagon train as we had more riders than seats in the van so new crew member Amy Collison also drove which meant Ryan and I could bring our big bikes too. Eric O’Brien was her copilot, also a new crew member. The Stohls followed the train in their own car, because Gunnison was to be just the first stop on a multi-day trip to the Great Wide Open.

We left on Thursday night, making our way to a Super 8 in Ogallala. Normally this wouldn't warrant a mention but this particular hotel had a special host who took care of us at breakfast, making our waffles and attending to us like the tender hearted granny she appeared to be. “Grandma Jeannie” recommended going into town to get good coffee for the road. I think we made the baristas day, probably doubling their day's take in a matter of minutes. (Mental note: next year, skip the continental breakfast and get breakfast burritos at the coffee shop).

It was a long haul but we made great time. We stopped at the famed walk-up Tai restaurant off the highway. It's such an oddity but the food is legit and it's fun to bring new people there to experience sitting outside eating pad tai at a picnic table on the side of the road. Anything goes in Colorado.

Porch perfection.
Bike conga line?
Within an hour we were at our home away from home, a condo in town that as it turned out was right on the race course. We didn't waste time getting unloaded and kitting up for a recon of the start of the race. We took the crew up Kill Hill to give the new racers a sample of climbing at altitude and to shock our systems into race mode. We climbed a bit more and continued on a gravel road to the start of the single track. We descended for a short bit until the trail pointed upward where we dumped back onto the service road. Dark clouds were approaching and we didn't want to get stranded so we headed back to the house. The eminent rain finally hit as we walked to registration. And it was a good soaking, leaving us wondering what fate would have in store for us come race morning. Next was a trip to the grocery store and then dinner: naked burrito bowls courtesy of Larry. Par for the course we ended the day getting gear and bikes ready for our 9 am start, falling asleep to the pitter patter of rain on the roof.

The Race
Ten people getting ready for a race went pretty smooth. We had been having issues with the water heater not working and that morning was no different. I texted the owner about it asking if someone could fix it while we were racing. Instead she called and tried to walk us through a quick fix but no luck. Eyberg and I had to start getting ready so she sent someone right then. After a long day on the bike, a hot shower would be a necessity. By 8:15 we were all warming up on the street outside our front door. The streets were wet but it wasn't raining. The forecast was iffy which in the mountains, could mean anything. I dressed in my summer kit and stuffed a rain layer in my pocket just in case. There was no shelter whatsoever on course so I wanted to have something, even if it was for piece of mind. By the time we got to the start line, the sun popped out and everyone was stoked. One last bathroom break and I lined up a few rows back from the front. I scanned the crowd. Lots of pros. Time to bring my A game. It's always fun to see how us flat landers stack up to the locals. I was ready.

Photo courtesy of Matte Burt
Amazing race course views!

We got a 2 minute warning then a rifle shot into the air signaled the start. It came without any countdown so I took off and forgot to start the Garmin until a couple minutes later. The start was neutral with a police car pacing us through town towards the famed Hartman Rocks and Kill Hill. The pace was steady. 350 mountain bikers charging like a swarm of angry bees. Nobody was talking. It was a controlled chaos. Adam was just ahead of me so I paced off of him until the swarm swallowed him up. I picked others to pace off of, trying to avoid single-speeders spinning desperately. As we hit the last straight-away, the pace quickened. I had a 28 on the front and I was in my smallest gear in the back. I sat in for the most part but that didn't last long once we hit Kill Hill. Larry went around me. Locals charged while others went backwards. My goal was to hold my line and not burn too many matches. I was in the red but there would be some recovery until the next hill. My intervals were spot on for this exact start however, racing at altitude doesn't allow my heart rate to come down as fast as it does at sea level. Kaitlin was with me up the first climb but she was breathing pretty hard and was hoping she would have the ability to recover by the second climb. I got up the next big climb and then took a couple of moments to catch my breath before clicking up the cassette. Within a minute on the gravel road, I was on single track. I knew there was another big climb coming so I settled in. I didn't see anyone I knew. I put my head down and motored.

The course was reversed from last year. Also, instead of finishing at the parking lot of Hartman Rocks, we would be racing all the way back to town. The first big technical section was Top Of The World trail. I remembered doing it last year. It's a stacked trail that takes riders up via a series of switch back trails that also included some rock climbing. I dabbled only a couple of times and one of those times a local woman went by. We yo-yo'd back and forth over the next several miles. She let me by one last time and I didn't see her again but knew she couldn't be far.

The climb up Top of the World

I made it!

The course was hero dirt. The rain from the day before had tamped down the dust and the corners were Velcro. So much of the course zig-zagged through hillsides of sage brush. The air was thick with its fresh scent. It was during these segments, with elbows out, that I was having the most fun, like skiing in the sand. It was also where I would try to recover from the punishing technical sections that really tested me. I was passed by a couple different ladies in these tetchy sections when I clipped out. I cursed in my mind. After the second woman went by I was mad and stayed with her. This was around mile 12ish. She was really strong and had a great pace and could pass the guys with ease, which sometimes left me behind them and having to flight my way back up to her.

At mile 15 I stopped at the first aid station. Adam was there recovering from cramps. I realized I could've stopped later because riders were going by it on another trail. The man helping me fill my bottle was struggling to get water out of the spout. Riders were flying by, including the woman I had been battling Damn! And like that she was gone. It was a two mile, extremely technical loop back to the same aid station. I had to pass many riders who got in ahead while I was at the aid station. Then it was a long climb back up to it, again passing riders to gain back my position. 

Racing with friends.
Not too long after, I saw Larry! I’m always happy to see him. He’s a great rider and always positive. We dumped out of the singletrack onto a dirt road where I rolled up on him and pointed at the woman up ahead and said, “We need to catch her.” And we did. The next section was a shitty, loose service road, that had ruts, rocks and more rocks. Everyone was walking, including me but as soon as it leveled off a smidge, I remounted. I hate walking my bike. It puts me in a bad mood. I’d rather turn myself inside out than walk one step. It was a tough battle but I put some distance on everyone. It would come at a price, however, because I started to lose some steam. Larry and the woman caught me and then the trail started to get really technical. She ended up walking down a large boulder where I was hung up and I couldn’t catch her again. She seemed to have just vanished. Larry and I were putting down some power but she was a ghost. We rode quickly and with determination the last 5 miles before we got back to pavement. Hoping we could reel her in, I got in behind Larry and it was TT all the way back to town. We thought we saw her up ahead, but it was a different rider in the same color jersey. I was deflated, so I looked down at the clock. I wanted to get in between 4-4:15 but it was looking like I’d be under 4 hours. Mush, mush! Pavement turned to gravel and sand for a short bit and Larry pulled away. My gearing was leaving me in the dust. I had it in my hardest gear and I couldn’t stay with him. We made our way through the edge of town, eventually going past the rental condo, then a right and then a left. I could hear the announcer call out my number as I approached the line. I was done. Larry was done. My favorite part of racing. ;) We had just made it under the four hour mark. I was super excited! We immediately say Ryan and Todd standing in line for pizza and beer. 

Mobile wood-fired pizza (aka water heater repair guy)
Only the good stuff @ the Growler 
Finishers' prizes
It turned out Ryan and been pulled up to Todd on the pavement and was just sitting in until Todd turned around to see that it was RF on his wheel. This was just before the final left turn. The story went that Ryan took the inside line and they both were dragging knuckles trying to get the advantage. They both stood up for the final sprint, with Todd taking the win by a few seconds. A perfect way to end a race! Not too long after, Kaitlin came in, then Carly and finally Adam. Everyone was beyond beat. Hollowed out by hard efforts at altitude. We all cashed in on the noms before making our way back to the condo to wash up. We kept an eye on the road for Amy or EOB. We saw Amy and ran outside to yell for her. As soon as she heard us, she sped up, shaking a rider off her wheel. It was much later that EOB made it in. He came down the street, all tucked, his big engine was bringing him home. We ran out in the street, ala TDF style, yelling his name. He gave us a mere turn of the head and motored on. We knew he couldn’t stop until the finish line or it would’ve been over right there. Later we found out it almost was over after an epic meltdown and some conversations with the Almighty. Sometimes races like these can show you what you’re made of and apparently EOB’s made of stubborness and tenacity.

The famous Dave Wiens
With EOB in, we all felt relief and joy. We headed over to the awards ceremony. None of us were on the podium but we wanted to find out if Omaha was in the top 15 cities. Nope, not this year. But Kaitlin won a year’s worth of Honey Stinger product in the raffle so that was the highlight.

After the ceremony, it was time to fill our bellies with proper Mexican food. We hit up a local place that had no wait and a table by the window. On tap were endless chips n salsa, strong margies and stories of a day on the trail. It couldn’t have been a better ending to a great day. The rest of the night was spent digesting and then eating again while we prepared for Day 2 of our memorable Memorial Weekend.

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