(from L -R: Leadville founder Ken Chlouber, Bay Area phenom Meiling Yee with her Leadville entry, me, Leadville former race director Merrilee Mauquin)
I raced forty minutes SLOWER this year than last year. I was supposed to go an hour FASTER. Big disappointment. My weight is down 12 pounds and my aerobic fitness has improved. I’ve gone further and faster.I’ve thought about this race every day for the past year. I put the pressure on myself, and, I cracked. Complete gastro-intestinal meltdown. Dehydrated? I guess. Bonking? It appears so. How could this happen?
Well, the weather and scenery was gorgeous, another awesome Tahoe day. Seriously, as I finished, I couldn’t help but smile and feel good about myself, even though I had my worst race ever. How could this be? The disaster was only physical, and it was temporary. The beauty was mental, emotional, and spiritual. That lasts longer.
Well, not everything went wrong. The first lap went well. I passed some people, some people passed me. I felt reasonably strong and paced well. I found a group, and we rode together through the aid stations, leapfrogging our way around the course. It felt like I was going fast, though compared to last year, not as improved as I hoped. But I got into that zone where time sped up. I kept thinking, I’m already this far? Another aid station already? This climb is over? I get to descend so soon? Then halfway through the second lap, it crumbled beneath me.
So What Went Wrong
The Golden Rule of Racing:
Never change anything on race day! Make sure any equipment, nutrition, or hydration issues are thoroughly tested in training or low priority races. Never show up when it counts acting like it’s a lab experiment. I bent this rule (didn’t truly break it) without realizing it. I slightly changed my nutrition/hydration protocol, and it seems that is was just enough to cross a very fine, gray line into disaster. I used my usual blend of plain water, liquid Sustained Energy, and an occasional Hammer Gel.
But if I had my usual set-up of water and preferred fuels, and plenty of aid stations, how could I dehydrate and bonk? After reflecting, I figured it out. I didn’t use my Camelbak, which I use most of the time. I had forgotten how rough the course was, and was unable to get water consistently. When I did stop and try to catch up, I overdid the water and fluids.
About five hours in, I realized I was behind on fluids and calories. At the first aid station on the second lap, I tried to catch up. I was feeling tired, but I should have felt tired. Then, about 20 min. later, as the carbohydrate and caffeine hit me, I felt great! My energy was up and I passed people on a tough climb. I was even singing and rapping to myself! Then it all went sideways and the crash came. I started to feel worse and worse, and the nausea became so strong I could barely tolerate plain water in small sips. Trying to push hard on the pedals on climbs made it worse, so I was reduced to walking. I couldn’t eat. I could barely drink. I was pushing my bike and sweating in the hot sun all by myself. For about an hour I sank and wallowed in this until my gut finally started to settle down. By then I had lost enough time that I would not make the time cut-off for a Leadville spot.
Leadville Trail 100 founder Ken Chlouber always like to exhort people to dig deep. He told me that personally the day before after the racer’s meeting. I did. I felt so bad that I almost quit. Except that I was in the middle of nowhere. As I pushed my bike up climbs, coasted descents and soft pedaled the flats, I dug deep. I reminded myself that the climbs would end soon, replaced by a long, fast descent to the next aid station. I decided to see if I could bring my heart rate down and recover a bit. I told myself that I would decide at the aid station to continue or not. When I got into the aid station, I drank two big cups of Gatorade, which I usually detest, but it felt good. My stomach was better. I drank more water and waited. My stomach felt OK. I refilled bottles and decided I was going to finish. Either I finished or they scraped my carcass off the trail. I thought about the last demoralizing climb, and figured I could walk if I had to. I did. But by combining walking breaks with riding, I managed to keep my stomach from rebelling completely. And I kept moving forward. I vowed to keep moving forward until I couldn’t. I finished.
So while my physical performance was disappointing, I’m very proud of how I overcame that adversity. Although I think I could have gone a little faster at the end, I was worried about my stomach so I played it a little too conservatively. But I didn’t quit. I reminded myself that I only have three goals in a race: 1) Stay on course 2) No DNF 3) No DFL. I succeeded with all three, and it took a lot more than usual to get to the end, making my finish very satisfying indeed.
The usual answer is to get better, go faster, to see and mark some kind of improvement. But I didn’t improve in any measurable way this time, in fact did the opposite, yet I’m well satisfied. So I realized that maybe we race “to boldly go” some place uncharted. We hope that this will be a new level of performance, but it could just as easily be a new state of mind. The suffering I went through pushing my bike through sections I rode last year was new. But I realized that is just pain. Not all pain is significant. And it wasn’t really that bad. It wasn’t life threatening. Yeah, I was dehydrated, but a long way from true disaster. Ditto for calories. The brain protects itself in endurance events by gradually shutting things down. I still had a long way to go before complete physical failure. And it was a race, so somebody would help if I truly needed it. So I went to a place I’d never been before where everything went wrong. And not only did I survive, I finished with a smile.
My GI recovery continued after the race, and I ate, rehydrated as normal, enjoying the awards and cheering those people who got an entry into Leadville. That includes my friend Meiling Yee, who arm wrestled the women’s overall winner Rebecca Rusch for a win and an entry. My recovery continued over the following week, and now I’m back on the trail. All in all, my low point lasted about an hour before I started to climb back. Not too bad. It could have been a lot worse.
See? I finished with a smile!
Well, I didn’t know if I was going to able to survive 100K at high altitude, but I did. And I wasn’t completely wrecked either. Almost, but not quite. Since I am a true novice at racing, my goals for any mountain bike race are modest:
1. Finish (no DNF, unless it’s a GREAT story)
In this race I added another goal:finish within the time cutoffs so that I could theoretically qualify for the Leadville Trail 100 if I won the lottery.
I succeeded on all four counts. I did not stay around to try to win the qualifying lottery, since Leadville is out of the question this year.
The race had a 6:30AM start, and I was staying an hour and a half away, which meant getting up at 4AM, a truly ungodly hour. But I correctly reasoned that I wouldn’t sleep well anyway so it didn’t really matter. I was so nervous that when I did get up (before the alarm even)I think that my heart rate was already well into my aerobic training range. Since my heart rate monitor died on me, I never did know what my heart went through as I was reduced to RPE all day. Probably better that way. In any case, I made it to the venue with enough time to get ready, even though I had to stop for gas that I forgot the previous day. I saw lots of very fit, shaved legs at the start, and lots of $5000 bikes. I looked at my hairy legs and ancient bike still using V-brakes, and knew I was outgunned. Good thing I am only here for my own sense of accomplishment.
After a neutral roll out through the convoluted Northstar base area, the route hit gravel and dirt, and I dropped my chain. With my chain firmly wedged against my chainstay, I watched the field roll on by. Now I know I’m really slow, so I positioned myself in the back anyway, but I did not like the future that this omen indicated. I yanked the chain back into position and set off on the first of several climbs. I caught and passed a few people, especially during the Burton Creek section where I was already familiar with the trails, but mostly I rode on my own. Even the dust kicked up by the main field gradually faded away. I hit the first aid station at the halfway point feeling great and full of confidence. That was because I did not know what was coming next. All the hard stuff was in the second half of the lap. Lots of climbing, especially right at the end, some tricky sections, a fast downhill that had uphill car traffic, and lots of little leg sapping, chain throwing climbs. I finished the lap with a half hour to spare for the cutoff.
At this point I was pedaling into uncharted territory. I had never raced this long, nor had I ever ridden my mountain bike longer than what I did lap 1. I may have ridden my road bike a little longer, but very soon I was riding longer than I ever have. And it was a race! Lap 2 started out with a lot more climbing than I remembered from lap 1. Did they sneak in an extra climb? I’m sure they did. While I pushed the first lap hard because of the time cutoff, I eased up for the second lap. I knew what I was in for at the end, and I anxiously did not know if I had it in me. I felt pretty certain that I could do it if I just stayed hydrated and kept the calories coming in. The “easy” first half was not nearly as easy this time around. The friendly aid station volunteers cheerfully pointed that I had “only” 25K to go. Yeah, I replied, the HARDER 25K! I definitely slowed down the second lap. I never had to walk, like a few others I saw, but I did stop a few times to recharge. The last climb dragged on and on, while it sucked my soul right out of me. But when it finally went downhill to the finish and I heard the DJ spinning my favorite U2 song, “Sunday, Bloody Sunday”, I knew that is was a good day. And I didn’t even have to use my AK.
What I Learned:
I can ride my bike for 7/12 hours, climb 7000 vertical feet, and live to tell about it. Ken Chlouber is right: You ARE tougher than you think you are, and you CAN do more than you think you can.
Things that worked well:
Build a big aerobic base, and these events are possible. I used the Maffetone Method.
Hammer fuels kept my carbohydrate stores high enough to keep burning fat. I never felt close to bonking, which I have always felt before in super long efforts. I used Hammer Gel, Perpetuem, and Sustained Energy. I carried single serving pouches in my pack and mixed new bottles at the aid stations.
Mental training pays off. Meditation and visualization kept me focused and positive even as I went much further than I ever have before.
Thanks Maffetone, Hammer, and meditation!
You don’t need a $5000 bike to do something truly amazing. You just need motivation and some base training. I still want one though. Hey Cannondale, want to sponsor me a new Scalpel as I quest for Leadville?
Race Report: Lake Tahoe Trail 100 Dave Wiens
Dave Wiens is the nicest pro mountain bike racer you are likely to come across anywhere. He came all the way out from Colorado to help direct the Tahoe qualifying race. He interrupted his own training to help us qualify for Leadville. And he lubed my chain for me. When is the last time a pro lubed your chain? That’s right, six time Leadville champion and Tour de France champion destroyer wrenched for me.
Actually, he was helping everyone out, and when you are as far at the back of the pack as I was, there was plenty of time to help slowpokes like me. But still, it was a nice gesture. Beyond his generous aid station help, Dave Wiens helped set the course, and he ran the pre-race meeting, giving us detailed knowledge of what to expect on the course. And everything he said was true and accurate. I was amazed at how as various sections of the course were revealed to me (I did not pre-ride the course) that it was exactly as he described. He even went on to say that were a lot of fun sections that made it even better than Leadville. What a guy.
Now, if only I could have borrowed his legs for that final climb. Or maybe borrowed some of his high altitude, high hematocrit blood. Hey Dave, what blood type are you?
Lake Tahoe Trail 100K
I’ve raced for four hours on a couple of occasions, so in my oxygen deprived brain that means I am ready for an marathon distance mountain bike race. Right? After racing for four hours solo in Tahoe and surviving enough to race a trail 10K the following day to conclude with a long course XTERRA triathlon the following weekend. So… Countdown to the Lake Tahoe Trail 100K. I think that it is comparable to a road century of 100 miles, which of course I have not yet accomplished. I plan to do that in October at Levi’s Gran Fondo. So what am I in for over 100K on a mountain bike? All I really hope to accomplish is to finish, and finish within the cutoff times. The race start is 6:30 AM, and you must start the second lap before 10:30 AM. That four hour lap time represents an average speed on eight miles an hour. My usual average on the mountain bike? Eight miles an hour. So, if I have a good day, I should finish within the cutoff times. But if something goes wrong, physically, mentally, or mechanically, it might be all she wrote. What’s at stake? Entry into the famous Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike race. There are fifty spots available for top finishers in the various age groups, and another fifty spots available by lottery to those who finish before 3:30 PM. So far, there do not appear to be many racers registered, so there are good chances to qualify. That is probably because this is the first year there is a chance to qualify at all, rather than take your chances in the lottery. The catch? If you qualify, by either method, you must pony up your $275 Leadville entry fee on the spot, and race this year. You can’t put it off until next year. So what do I do if I qualify by accident?