By any of my measures of the day, the race was a success. So, that’s what an endurance mountain bike event is supposed to feel like. I get it now. I think. It only took 5 times at Dakota 50 and 5 times at the Firecracker 50 to have such a good experience.
My mantra going into this race was all about pacing myself. Coach Jason told me weeks ago he wanted to see a negative split for this race: he thought I should be faster in the last 25 miles than in the first. That seems a bit crazy to me… I always have good starts and then fade a bit. And at the end of every epic I always seem to be surviving and not really racing. I’ve even had some decent finishes when I’m just surviving. In fact, in long races in the mountains, its all I’d ever experienced, and it had shaped my notions of success…. if I was blown at the end, it means I went hard enough and left it all out there. I thought it was the norm…. until Sunday.
Friday we arrived and were on bikes by 4pm to get a warm up and show friends the start of the course. Climbing the gravel out of town, either my legs or my mind wasn’t happy, not sure which. It felt like I had one of two speeds, sprint speed or too slow speed- and neither was going to be a good option come race day. Even descending the singletrack back down felt awkward and uncoordinated. Saturday’s next bit of climbing warmup was a little better, but not much. I elected to seperate from the group and climb just the gravel roads for miles on end, shifting from an easy z2 pace, slowly ratcheting up a minute through each heart rate zone and just touching 178+ bpm for a few seconds. I tried to get a feel for what 1-2 mins constant z4 climbing felt like, but it was hard— and hard to fathom doing it for 5 hours the next day. Honestly, it kind of put me in a funk, making me a bit less social leading up to start time then I’d like to be. Thank goodness for good friends and an incredible wife that puts up with me.
Saturday eating was pretty typical, lots of fruit, some grilled chicken, and two boiled sweet potatoes, hopefully topping off the glycogen stores (I ate potatoes Friday too, as that was probably the more accurate window for topping off glycogen– in case any nutritionists are reading). Breakfast before a 7am start was going to be minimalist. Sunday morning wake up at 5am and it was good and cold, probably a bit below 50. A handful of grapes and a glass of water made it seem colder, so a boiled sweet potato helped to warm the body a bit. Thank goodness for Rafal’s coffee, his french press is on time. One good cup and I was almost warm. Almost.
By 6:30 I was kitting up in the Bike Masters threads, wondering how I was going to keep warm in an outfit designed to keep you cool when its 90. Movement was key. I found a short hill by the start line & did a few repeats, got the HR up, high cadence low force efforts, still shivering. Better go line up and get a good spot. Good to see Lucas & Mod lined up on the front row, where they belong. On a good day I might be able to outsprint them, but this was no sprint. Maybe next year I’ll line up with them but for now…. I line up about 3 rows back, next to Mike Miles, maybe even a bit more conservative positioning than last year. But I know the talent pool is deeper this year, as the field has grown by 25% and you can’t toss a water bottle without hitting a respectable Colorado racer. Standing next to me, Mike has had some impressive performances lately, and I know his endurance power numbers are very close to mine…. but I’ll be resisting the urge to keep an eye on him…. I need to race my own race. Smokey the Bear starts to roll out. I jump up positions a bit and settle into a spin. My HR monitor is set to buzz at me anytime I hit 178bpm or more, I’m hoping that will keep me in check.
First paved climb in town is short, and it feels way easier than the warmup spin just 36 hours ago. HR still in check, gained a few positions on that short climb, awesome, only 49.5 miles to go. Mike is still right with me. On to the steeper climbs, on gravel, no more pavement for another 45+ miles.
Mentally, I’m going hard, but not too hard. Not sure where Mike is, wait, I don’t care, right? I see Jay Chesterman roll by, faster than I want to go. I knew I had enough jump in my legs to get on his wheel, but I let him go. Race my own race. Maybe sprinting up to stay on him would toast me. I didn’t want to risk finding out. The first 10 miles of the race was nearly all climbing, and I wanted to be strong for all of it, not awesome for half of it. At the same time, I knew that if I went to slow on the opening 3 miles of steep gravel climbing, I could get stuck behind some slower folks that could fade badly on the singletrack, and it would be hard to get around them efficiently. Top of the gravel Jay has dropped me, Mike is somewhere behind, and there’s a steep kicker into the singletrack. Rox & friends are cheering for me, and sure enough my Garmin 500 starts beeping: I’ve hit 178+ beats per minute.
“It’s worth it” I tell myself, as it insures I have a decent entry into the singletrack, and also reminds me of what you can do when your friends are watching. Just need to make sure I don’t dip into the z5 book of matches too frequently.
HR dropped a bit once on the singletrack, and I was mostly diggin the pace. Two guys in front of me didn’t have the best rhythm climbing, and eventually they let me by pretty easily. Glancing down, I was settling into a low z4 climb with occasional spikes and it felt pretty good. I knew I could go faster, but I kind of felt like I could do this for a long time. I remember trying to guess my wattage based on feel. If it feels like 390, thats too much. If it feels like 290 with the occasional 400w burst, thats ok. That mental calibration would be well rewarded.
Ten miles in, hit aid station 1, time to see how much time I’d have to spend refueling. I had done a good job in the first hour drinking 24+ ounces of fuel, about 280 calories, perfect. Hop off the bike, one of many AWESOME volunteers takes my bottle and fills it halfway with wate per my instructions. I open a ziploc baggy and empty my drink mix into the bottle, shake to mix it up, then then a volunteer tops it off with water. Jump back on the bike, and I’m going again. Garmin data confirms, about 60 seconds spent at aid 1, perfect.
A mile later I see Jay Chesterman, hopping on his bike. Maybe he made an adjustment or was recovering from a crash, not sure, but he jumped right on my wheel. I also see gb Matt Gersib a bit up the trail. I’m near guys I know, and that means racing and ego might just get in my way soon. Thank goodness for that HR alarm on the Garmin, because I’m thinking its about to get interesting, or I’m about to get stupid.
Jay gets around me, cool, I don’t want to punch it to keep up. I’m climbing my own sustainable pace. Then I spent some time on Matt’s wheel. I think quite a bit about my position there, Matt’s a fast guy, and he’s got this a decade or two more experience than I do in the endurance stuff. Sitting on his wheel doesn’t seem too bad. Still, my rhythm of little wheels and punchy climbing isn’t matching his efforts too well, so I jump around him. Sure enough, next longish climb he is around me again– we would trade places a couple times while I could still see Jay Chesterman a hundred yards up.
Somewhere around mile 16-18 I think, I felt like the guys I was with were climbing at a reasonable pace, but I had more energy I wanted to use on the false flats and definitely on the downhills. Flat section, I pass Jay and keep motoring through a fast rocky downhill. Levels out flat again, I keep pushing. Then up, I settle into my comfy low z4 climbing pace. I get to the top, turn around and expect to see Jay gaining on the climbs…. but no one is there. Turn forward and keep drilling it. Heart rate in z3 to 4, steady, downhill skills feeling good, solid powering on the flats, climbing to keep the pace.
Aid 2, the halfway point: it was awesome to see some friends there yelling for me. Rox helped top off my bottles, I mixed a new batch of Infinit, and then, first time ever during a race, I had to pee. Awesome! I must by hydrating properly! Seriously, that never happens.
Back on the bike. I catch up with a few guys I hadn’t seen before. Am I gaining on people? I climb up to a guy sporting some Ft Collins sponsors, then to another rider from Boulder. I’m pretty stoked to be climbing past some dudes that live in the front range. I’m guessing I’m hovering around 50th place and hoping for a finish around 4:30 total time.
Topped off the bottles at aid 3, which came up really fast, not worth mixing in more Infinit mix. Aid 4 came up even faster; looking at my mileage, it looked like less than 7 miles before the descent into town…. thats 7 miles left of climbing effort… and I have probably 20oz of water left between my two bottles… I felt close to finishing, so I blew through Aid 4.
When I heard the “citadel slide” portion of the course was being rerouted, I was kinda bummed. It was a super loose super steep downhill that I was always proud to ride, barely. Most people I know were glad to see it go. After riding the new portion, I’m a believer! The Ridge Riders know how to build trail. The new stuff is more dynamic, more fun, and equally technically challenging with the old stuff. Awesome sauce.
Somewhere in that new tasty goodness, I caught up to another two riders, and we rode together across the top of the ridge. When the trail pointed down, however, those two fine riders were coming between me and my beloved gravity. Both kindly let me by and I let off the brakes and let ’em rip. Got to the bottom, started climbing the last hot doubletrack ascent, looked back and didn’t see anyone. Sweet.
You know you’re having a good race when you’re more excited about looking forward then back. Farther up that last doubletrack ascent, I see another rider sporting a Colorado team jersey. I step on the gas a bit and I’m into a high z4 climbing pace. Maybe it’s worth burning a match to catch that guy…. I’m looking at our elevation, nearly 5500 ft and going up, and soon we’ll make a turn and it will be flat then downhill…. now might be the time to attack. Keeping it steady, I catch the guy, come around, and like any good racer he jumps right on my wheel. He sits in my draft and I can hear every pedal stroke. Now, I’m not going to bury myself just so he can pass me at the top. So I’m careful to find my sustainable climbing pace, a bit slower than what I used to catch him, and he still sits there, right on my wheel. Another minute or so and he’s had enough, he jumps around, he’s a skinny guy and has good climbing skills. I let him go, and ride my pace. Cresting the climb he’s got about 100 yards on me.
The next couple miles are flat to rolling. I know we’re at the high point of elevation, there’s no real climbing left, but there’s some flats and a tasty downhill. I’m stoked, knowing I’m going to beat my previous time, but not sure by how much. The flats feel like home, and I start motoring. Big ring, suspension in full effect, high cadence big gear riding, near threshold power. I couldn’t believe how fast the good climber and another guy came into view. I thought for sure they’d see me coming and it would get ugly. First guy I went by on the flats, he doesn’t respond. Next guy looks more serious, I speed up to pass him for the demoralizing effect…. it almost worked. He jumped on for about 20 seconds but decided flat big ring efforts must not be his thing. The trail started down and kept shifting up…. more gravity, more speed.
Last 5 miles into town are all downhill on awesome twisty singletrack…. I’ve crashed a few times here due to fatigue, cramping and the like. Mistakes here would mean those last two riders would catch me for sure. But those 5 miles of descending were probably the best I’ve had at the Five-O. I flew hard into every corner, lit up the brake rotors super late, and took every corner on the edge. Caught up to another rider taking it cautiously, I think I scared him a bit because he about jumped out of my way. Thank you sir, I’m on it.
Exit the singletrack, wow that was fun. 3 miles into town on downhill gravel roads, nearly 40mph. I pedaled the whole way. Back in town, there’s one short paved neighborhood climb left- as I approach the base, a rider 2/3 the way up looks back and sees me chasing. Now, unless he’s really, really, cracking, there’s no way I’m going to catch him, but damned if I don’t at least try. I’m out of the saddle, and he sees it, and he jumps out the saddle. He thought he was going to mosey on into the finish holding his position. Not if I can help it. Well, I wasn’t going to catch him, but it felt good to make him a bit nervous for a minute or so. Pushed it hard through the finishing straight, then slowed at the last 10 yards to give some kids a high five.
Rolled across the line to learn I’d finished 28th place overall in a field of 500+ riders. 4:25 total ride time. 35 minutes faster than last year on a course rumored to add approx 10 mins to old course records…. I’ll take it. Race file is online here, analysis to come later this week.
Big props to the Nebraska crew, representing well in the Black Hills. Racing is always sweeter with friends!