On 26 July, 2014, just a few days ago, I lined-up in the open class for a 7 am start to the 11th annual Laramie Enduro. Close by were well known and accomplished racers, including Josh Tostado (Breckenridge, CO) and Steve Stefco (Fort Collins, CO). When I made the last minute decision to sign up for this race, about two weeks ago, I was thinking that this would be more of a local event with fewer of the elite rockets. My illusions dissolved in the line-up that morning, this would be a race against some of the very best, no different from my recent race experiences including the Firecracker 50.
The Laramie Enduro is a celebrated event on the Front Range of Colorado and Wyoming that draws a large crowd of contenders from the respected mountain biking towns of Laramie, Fort Collins, and Boulder among others. The races reputation (legit) also draws racers from the mountain towns, including Breckenridge, Gunnison, Aspen, and Leadville. Some riders race the event for the first time, others will return again and again, many will have a goal in mind. I resolved my goal the night before when a bar tender in a Laramie brewery by chance asked me, "what time are you hoping to finish the race in?" I responded without thinking, "under 5 hrs 30 minutes." And it was done! Definitely should have thought about that a little longer!? Nonetheless, the bar tender was impressed, he offered to buy me a beer after the race if I returned to the bar after successfully finishing in under five and half hours.
With a minimum, average, and maximum elevation of 7559, 8217, and 8856 feet (2304, 2505, 2699 meters), the Laramie Enduro is no doubt a high elevation race. And with 68 miles of single- and double-track to contend with, it's also without question an endurance race. Add to this the diversity of the course - from fast two-track sometimes with sand up-to 2 inches deep, to free-range cattle grazing throughout, to marsh crossings through thick black muck, to temporary bridges over creeks, to exceptionally long climbs on rocky single-track - and an image of the event begins to form in the mind. However, despite its difficulty, there is a reason why riders return year-after-year to the Laramie Enduro: it's epic fun on a mountain bike! Yes, there is the usual suffering to contend with that all racers experience, but the course delivers plenty of motivation to keep going ... and to come back the following year.
This somewhat grassroots event starts with a simple shout, "okay go!" And I was off with 80 other riders in the open class at 7 am. A few minutes later waves of sport and other classes were rolling behind us, in total 513 racers were on the course by 7:30 am. The race immediately ascends a steep hill on a dirt road, then turns right at the top of the hill into the forest and onto the single-track. A few miles later we were back on the two-track and descending fast. At the start, I decided that the race was long and hard enough that I didn't have to push too hard for position going into the woods. In hindsight, I think that was sensible. Nonetheless, I placed myself in about the top twenty before the first transition to single-track.
After the start, what was most important for me was trying to stay within the lead 20 riders all day. As it turned out, that meant holding myself in fast pelotons over-and-over again in the first 20-30 miles in a strong headwind, which I managed to do. However, at times I had to dig deep to pull myself back to the line. At times, I dropped far enough back that it's surprising that I was able to recover ... I kept going and tried not to think too much.
At the 3rd of five aid stations I made my planned stop for water. Five or six riders zipped past as I refreshed my bottles with water and Perpetuem. But that was unavoidable, I didn't sweat it, I enjoyed my visit with the awesome volunteers and was off in less than 2 minutes. For the remainder of the race there would be no stopping.
Before aid station four I managed to catch and pass 2 or 3 riders that passed me at aid station 3. Two or three more were behind me by aid five, the last just before I began to climb the dreaded Headquarters Hill. Fortunately, my grassroots race buddy Tommy gave me a heads-up that last year he had finished the climb and descent to the finish on the other side in 36 minutes. I kept this in mind as the hurt came on. By this time it seemed like I was spinning my legs by memory and habit rather than by muscle and strength. And the whole way up I was anticipating, given my slow pace, that I would be overtaken by several riders at any moment. In maybe my third ring from the easiest, I just tried to keep moving. I verbally assaulted the air as I went up, that helped a bit.
I'm nearing the top ... then here come more hills ... now the trail starts to roll ... and finally to descend ... last challenge is to not miss a turn! That thought kept me mentally busy over the last couple miles to the finish. I studied the bushes and trees ahead looking for course markers, at times I thought I might have gone off course ... that caused some anxiety until I spotted the next orange flag. Feeling as if I was stumbling down-hill as I had stumbled up-hill on my fully rigid bike, the road leading to the finish line a short 1/4 mile away was a much welcomed sight (fork remote hydraulic shifter housing was torn lose close to mile 35 by unknown means and this locked-out the shock for the remainder of the race). I buried the Niner Air-9 RDO, pedaled hard down hill, and then reluctantly peaked over my shoulder ... no bikes. Nonetheless, I kept the pace up, full speed, I wasn't going to lose my position, whatever it was, so close to the finish line.
It's amazing the difference between how you're feeling as you approach the finish line and the calm on the other side. I let the calm settle-in and then slowly wandered over to the area where the other finishers were chillin. Water, then watermelon, then solid food, then a beer! Sometime during the solid food phase of my post-race recovery, the first set of results were posted. I didn't wander over right away, I think I was just feeling good. But wander eventually, I did, and came face-to-face with my best finish to date, 14th out of 513 overall. My goal of staying in the top 20 all day? I must have accomplished that, though perhaps I was 21st or 22nd for a while before I started passing riders between aid stations 3 and 5. And what about that free beer? Official Time: 5:27:22. Hell ya. I didn't return to the bar, probably a good thing! But meeting that goal still felt good ... and so far, three days later, the feel good hasn't let up a bit.
The conclusion of the Laramie Enduro leaves me with just one more challenge (that I'm registered for) before I contemplate coasting into the off-season, the Leadville Trail 100 on 9 August. Last year a flat cost me some time, yet I managed a strong rookie-year finish: 8 hrs 28 minutes. This year I'm shooting for under 7.5 hrs ... that'll take everything I've learned, all the strength I have, and some luck! Less than two weeks before the shotgun booms ...
As part of my training and preparation for the Leadville Trail 100, my coach encouraged me to race in three back-to-back endurance races: 28 June; 4 July; and 12 July. These events are the notoriously brutal '40 in the Fort' and the high-elevation, lung busting, Firecracker 50 and Silver Rush 50. The first event is nearly all single track. That's unusual, and the effect, at a respectable elevation above sea level (min, avg, max elevation (ft): 5455, 6132, 7090), leaves a mark on all of the competitors. Few return to race in this event a second year and many DNF (did not finish) in their first attempt.
The next two events start just under or just over 10,000 feet (3048 m) above sea level and climb from there. The Firecracker 50 climbs for 7.5 miles from the starting line before descending for the first time from a course high point of 11,145 feet (3397 m). And the Silver Rush 50, also known as the Leadville 50, ascends to over 12,000 feet (3657 m) six times along its 50 mile out-and-back course. Despite the combined miles from these three races being modest, just 140 miles spread-out over a few weeks, the climbing at elevation and at race pace is a significant challenge for even the best-trained athletes. Elevation climbed in these events is close to 7300, 6200, and 7600 feet, respectively. A total of 21,100 feet (6431 m) of climbing, much of it above 9600 feet (2926 m).
Let me try to put just the total climbing from these events into perspective. For readers from the northeast of the United States, to accumulate 21,100 feet (6431 m) of climbing hikers starting at the base of Mount Washington (White Mountains, New Hampshire) would have to repeat climb to the summit FIVE times. For friends closer to my home in Fort Collins, Colorado, 21,100 feet is equivalent to climbing from the Colorado River at Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon to the South Rim on Bright Angel Trail also nearly FIVE times.
And of course, racers have to descend what they climb to reach the finish line. Imagine descending sections of trail in the White Mountains or in the Grand Canyon? Five times? The heat of the Grand Canyon and the extreme rocky conditions of the White Mountains aside (neither apply to any of the races that I listed here), you get the idea ... descending thousands of feet of elevation, like climbing, is also a significant challenge on a mountain bike.
As of today, two of these races are behind me: 40 in the Fort; and the Firecracker 50. In less than one week, I'll be lined-up for the third and probably the most difficult challenge in the series, the Silver Rush 50 in Leadville, Colorado. The first two races left a very positive mark on my racing history. And since the Firecracker 50 on Friday last week, I've spent some time digging through my race data, and race results from the organizers, for little-bits-of-reasons to celebrate! Especially given all of the intensive training I've completed, sometimes reluctantly, since February 1st.
Most prominent in my accomplishments was my 6th place overall finish in the '40 in the Fort'. I raced in the open category in this popular local event, a category consisting of pros and fast experts. My finish in the male open category was the same as overall, 6th place. In third place was a national champ sponsored by Peloton Cycles and Specialized Bikes, he beat me by just 4 minutes. In between were two pro-level racers. In first place was the famous road racer and Fort Collins resident, Pat McCarty. And last in the top five was an up-and-coming local expert, he took second place.
Despite the number of racers being small (less than 150) in the '40 in the Fort' relative to events like the Firecracker 50, many entrants are Fort Collins residents, a mountain and road biking community that hosts many fast and accomplished riders. For this reason, doing well in this local 40 is definitely reason to celebrate! As the first place finisher among over-40 entrants, that celebration started with my first walk to the podium. In the image, above, on my left is a fellow Northern Colorado Grassroots Racer and an inspiration for anyone that knows him, Mick McDill. Mick took third place in the over-40 category. It was a great day for me and my grassroots racing team.
As of the writing of this post, racers that 'did not finish' (DNFed) have not been added to the list of results provided by the Firecracker 50 race vendor. (mavsports). The race was full to capacity, which means 750 racers were on the course on lap 1. However, that 750 includes one member from many male, female, and coed team duos. Until the DNFers are listed, the best I can say at the moment for an 'overall finish' is that I finished 63rd/750 participants (including teams), top 8%. Among solo finishers (about 400), I placed in the top 50. Within my expert male age 40-44 category I also finished well, another "best" for the history books: 5th/39. Hell ya. And just 4 minutes and a few seconds out of 3rd place among an elite group of expert racers. These finish placings are my best to date in an event the size of the Firecracker 50.
Despite the passing of a whole year, the 2013 Firecracker 50 left many impressions which I haven't forgotten. For example, the course includes ripping downhill sections on gnarly forest service roads. But despite being gnarly, there is a clean and obvious line around the obstructions (rock piles) and many water diversion mounds that are perfectly placed for launching a Niner Air-9 RDO mountain bike! It was, no doubt, on these sections that I managed my top speed along the course in 2014, just over 35 mph.
Another impression left by the 2013 Firecracker wasn't positive: I was quickly dropped by the main peloton in the first climb of the race, Boreas Pass.. That left a mark, and I've been waiting, and hoping, to resolve it ever since. So here's what happened in 2014: I rolled the neutral start from Main Street to Boreas Pass Road ... moved ahead of the 40-44 and 45-49 expert participants (we started together) ... and then .... I led the peloton that formed behind me for the first 2-3 miles. Another hell ya! Instead of being dropped and struggling, this year I set the pace for a significant portion of the climb, the fruit of many intervals and other training prescribed by my coach, Alex Hagman Despite gassing myself somewhat before I finished the 7.5 mile climb, I have absolutely NO regrets. When I faltered about 15 riders from the peloton passed me (I would eventually re-pass most of them). In the future, I'll recall the experience, stay in the peloton, and wait for an ideal time to give it some gas ... in the meantime I'm celebrating!
Some other details that I've dug into from the Firecracker 50 include lap times (race consists of two 25 mile laps) from the top five 40-44 expert male finishers. Here they are:
(1st) 1:58:13, 2:04:06
(2nd) 1:59:20, 2:13:52
(3rd) 2:00:38, 2:12:45
(4th) 2:02:12, 2:13:59
(5th) 2:05:07, 2:12:36
The 5th place times are my own. These lap times reveal at least three interesting facts: (1) Rob Batey (Feedback Sports), 1st place finisher, kicked our asses; (2), my lap 2 was faster than the 2nd-4th place finishers ... which means I was catching up to them. If the race had been a 100 miler, like Leadville, rather than a 50, then I might have caught them and finished even better than 5th place. Lastly, (3): I dropped myself to fifth place in the first lap and never recovered. Part of the reason is that I gassed myself somewhat on the first Boreas climb. However, that also gave me a lot of confidence because I knew I was much stronger than last year and that inspired me all day. But reasons aside, these lap times clearly show that if I could shave 2 minutes off my first lap ... I'm nudging up against the podium. That's certainly an attainable goal ... and something to keep in mind for both this race season and next.
When we make plans those plans have a habit of arriving. That's been the case for the '40 in the Fort' and the Firecracker 50. And now in just 6 days, I'll be lining up to attempt the Silver Rush 50 for the 2nd time in my life. Honestly, I wasn't sure I was going to survive the first two races ... and here I am feeling good, ready to recover and then race in the Silver Rush. I couldn't ask for more ... but that doesn't mean I won't hope to continue to improve ... my best finish to date in the Silver Rush? ... and then even better in the ultimate Leadville Trail 100? We will know very soon! Thanks for dropping in ...