A post-race-season ride in 2013 at Hartman Rocks (Gunnison, Colorado) was enough to convince me going into the Gunnison Growler a year later that this 64-mile, endurance race would be my most technically challenging mountain bike experience to date; and that intuition turned-out to be 100% correct. Even in the absence of continuous, soaking rain the night before that tumbled-down onto my tent at the local KOA campground and turned parts of the nearby race course into slimy goo or that sticky mud that quickly turns into concrete, the course presents technical challenges in any conditions, wet or dry, that shouldn't be underestimated. Steep drops on exposed granite slick rock and equally vertical technical climbs over steps, slopes, and combinations of features leave a deep impression that is amplified at race pace.
The night before the race, rain drove my camp-mates and I into our tents at 9 pm. Previously, I set-up what I needed for breakfast, including my MSR stove, within reach in containers stashed under the vestibule of my 3-season Mountain Hardware, Lightpath-3 tent. Nutrition starts early on race day, my preference has become 2.5-3 hours before the start. At 430 am, rain still falling, I sat up in my sleeping bag, grabbed breakfast in stages, and put down what I could. It's never an easy process, all I want in the first hour of a morning is a cup of coffee. After eating, I laid back down for about an hour. Less than an hour later, I lit the stove under my vestibule with care and soon was sipping coffee whilst enjoying a period of peaceful contemplation before the intensity of racing began. At 630 am, rain still tumbling down, I very reluctantly kitted-up and crawled out of my tent ... ready to roll to the starting line.
The race starts in the town center, downtown Gunnison, about 2.5 miles from the KOA Dave's campground. Just before I rolled-out, my buddy and crew chief, Andrew Mackie, asked me if I was going to put water in the bottles I had loaded on the bike! Don't underestimate the value of having a good friend watching-out for you on race day. Fifteen-minutes later, bottles topped-off including 2 scoops of Hammer perpeteum in each 28-oz Camelbak bottle, I was lined-up among 266 other racers as David Wiens, race director, founder and legend, gave us last minute instructions over the mic.
Ba-boom ... goes the hearts ... and the guns that signal the start of the Gunnison Growler. We rolled-out behind the safety of our escorts, the local police department with lights flashing, and a couple of turns later made our way along Route 50 through the traffic lights towards Hartman Rocks. If you've never heard the sound of 266 mountain bikes on pavement, rolling fast, then imagine a swarm of bees ... a close approximation. And now add to it, because our bikes were all equipped with some form of knobby tire, lots and lots of airborne water pulled-up from the road and thrown backwards. It was well into lap one that I was finally able to clear the road grime from my Native sunglasses. It seemed, over that period, that no amount of spitting and wiping would resolve the problem.
Kill Hill. That's the name of the section of two-track (dirt road) that racers are headed for when they leave town, the start of the 'dirt flying' on this race course. Kill Hill is normally a sufferfest for just one reason, a steep climb. However, in 2014, add goo to the lower section and grease to the steep bits. A fellow with the number 1 on his bike pulled-out in the goo section and was overheard saying, "I'm done." Apparently, he spent the next hour or so hanging out with the race crew at the nearby finish line. Many more decided to pull-out before finishing and many didn't even bother to show up to the start because of weather and trail conditions. In fact, out of 350 registered participants, only 266 showed up to the start line and many of those bailed on the first of two laps making up the 64 miles course.
As I slipped and otherwise struggled to navigate my Niner Air-9 RDO hardtail to the top of Kill Hill, I dropped back to a respectable, ca. 60th position behind the leaders which I could easily see as they topped they topped the summit. Directly ahead lay single-track. We lined-up, recovered, and let it play-out. Technical mistakes led to passing opportunities, but there were few of these. So I settled into a pace set by my peers at this point, focused instead on the many technical challenges and my first experience on a muddy race course.
My skills have improved over the years, including my technical skills. At this point, I can clean (roll over without touching the ground with a foot) many of the challenges that I've encountered to date. However, that's under ideal conditions, a dry trail, space, time to pick my line. During this race, a bike following and a bike ahead, slick rocks and mud substantially affected my performance. My guess is my technical blunders along the race course, especially lap one, cost me about 5-10 minutes. That seems minor given that my race time was 6 hrs 12 minutes, but for my placement among finishers it's substantial.
Out of the 266 starters, I finished, and note I'm psyched about this for sure, 40th overall, evidence that I passed many riders after clearing Kill Hill. Shave 10 minutes, and I'm a few seconds out of the top 20. And what about in my 40-49 age class? I finished 6th out of 75 starters, my best age class finish to date. Shave just 22 seconds and I'm in 5th place; shave about 3 minutes and I'm 4th. The mistakes I made in the technical sections were compounded when my shoes and pedals filled with mud. At that stage, my feet refused to go into/and out-of my pedals. Many falls ensued and frustration set-in. In the second half of lap one, I experienced my most significant mental struggle on the bike to date.
Bonus Link: If you're new to camping or curious about how many ways camping can contribute positive benefits to your life then I recommend having a look at this unique and very readable article from About Sports Fitness.
A few days after the crushing growler, I was headed to Cheyenne, Wyoming for my next race: the Gowdy Grinder held in Curt Gowdy State Park. Like the growler, the Grinder is a cross-country course with many technical challenges. The bedrock in the area is granite, another feature shared with Hartman Rocks. The result is a very similar course including fast, "marble" strewn corners. "Marbles" is the name mountain bikers have given to small, rounded chunks of quartz that naturally build-up in areas dominated by granite bedrock, Hartman Rocks and Curt Gowdy State Park among them.
Like the Growler, I can chalk-up many successes from the technical sections that I encountered in the Gowdy Grinder. But as I did in Gunnison, I also lost time in Wyoming due to mistakes in these sections. Over 2 hours and 1 minute of racing in the open class, I'm guessing technical blunders cost me about 2-3 minutes, maybe more. Out of 66 starters, I finished 27th. Definitely fast enough to celebrate and especially given I was racing in the open class. However, if I could have shaved just two minutes then I would have been close to 20th overall, a thought my racing future.
When I began racing on 13 August 2013 my goal was to survive. Gradually, my goal morphed, as I gained experience: to do well enough to qualify for the Leadville Trail 100. I reached that goal twice in 2013, at the Silver Rush 50 and the Barn Burner. Once qualified, my goal tracked towards the ultimate visualization that I had in mind when I started racing in 2013: to finish the Leadville Trail 100 in under 9 hrs. I finished in 8 hrs 28 minutes.
Moving forward, beyond 2013 and my rookie racing season, my goals will continue to evolve. In general, I hope to become a more technically savvy rider, and mentally strong competitor, goals that will no doubt improve my position among finishers in future competitive events ...