Summary: In this three-part blog-entry I recall my pre- and post-racing experiences at the 2017 editions of the Original Growler (Gunnison, Colorado), Salida Big Friggin Loop (Salida and Buena Vista, Colorado), and the Fat Tire 40 (Crested Butte, Colorado). I also share my motivations for entering the Fat Tire 40, a chance to race amidst an exceptional outdoor community with an exceptional mountain biking history and also very close to a community with the same priorities just down the hill in Gunnison, Colorado. Highlights include a first place finish overall in the ultra-endurance Salida Big Friggin Loop!
ORIGINAL GROWLER: 28 May 2017, Gunnison, Colorado
For the 2017 edition of the Original Growler, half (32 mile) and full (64 mile) routes, Gunnison Trails introduced a new course with even more single track than years before at the expense of (mostly dirt) road sections. Single-track has never been in short supply in this race. The addition of even more, including the technical, rocky, Graceland Trails, ensured that the experience would leave a long-lasting, positive, impression even among the most experienced participants.
I had a productive week leading-up to the event, as far as race prep on and off my Niner Bikes Jet 9 RDO. As in the past, this year I was registered for the Full Growler, about 64 miles of racing at Hartman Rock's Recreation Area, scheduled for 28 May. Prep encompassed three days in Gunnison including a visit with a friend, KAO Dave, at the clean, green, and friendly, Gunnison KOA. On the first full day, I rode the entire course (two laps) at (mostly) endurance pace starting from the main parking area at Hartman Rocks. The following day I used my 2002 Toyota Tacoma to access convenient entry-points to session the three most difficult sections of the course along Skull Pass, Josie's, and Rattlesnake Trails. No doubt, training and living at elevation for three days in Gunnison (7700 feet, 2350 meters) was beneficial. And rather than return to Fort Collins after my pre-ride / session work, I instead accommodated additional high-elevation acclimatization by staying in Salida (7100 feet, 2165 meters) for five days prior to the race.
Saturday, about mid-day, I returned via Monarch Pass to Gunnison from Salida. I want to thank two friends for their support, Andrew Mackie (Executive Director, Central Colorado Conservancy) for allowing me to camp-out in his living room from Monday-Friday and runner extraordinaire Ellen Silva for crewing for me on short notice including a quick visit on Saturday to transfer bottles, food, and strategy. Ellen was in town to crew for her freakishly fast (aka, "pro") boyfriend that was also competing in the Full Growler. She was very generous to wait close to 30 minutes for me to finish after her primary responsibility crossed the line, he finished 5th overall by the way, legit.
A neutral start from town got underway, following a Leadville 100-style shotgun blast, at 7 AM, Sunday morning. Just before the gun went off the pros, among others, were shedding arm warmers and vests. It's noteworthy, based on my experience, that some of these very experienced racers were visibly shaking because of the morning temperature, reportedly 30 F (-1 C) or possibly even cooler, at least one report suggested 28 F. A few degrees aside, it was certainly a cold start even for late May in Gunnison, Colorado. Unlike my neighbors on the starting line, I retained my arm warmers and vest, ultimately I was able to hand-up my vest to a volunteer as I exited Skull Pass on lap one. I held onto the arm warmers to the finish, so often I forget to ditch them when I have the chance, such as when I stopped briefly to resupply water from Ellen before starting lap two.
I felt good on the roll-out and stayed close to the police escort, just one bike between me and the bumper, close enough to the elite racers that I was able to listen-in on their conversation, a privilege that I wasn't able to retain for long. When the group reached the right turn onto the dirt at Hartman Rocks I was quickly dropped by the top fifteen or so riders as they raced towards the base of Kill Hill. With an average and max grade of 8% and 22%, respectively, Kill Hill is an effective obstruction for spreading-out the pack. At the top of Kill Hill, the race continued for about 1.5 miles on deeply rutted jeep road before descending onto the first section of single-track, Josho's Trail.
My ascent up Kill Hill was slower than my race performances in both 2015 and 2016, 4:34 min:sec versus 4:16 and 4:12, respectively. I didn't feel bad, it's possible I wasn't as warmed-up as years past, perhaps because I've become more efficient at staying out of the wind in a peloton. Despite my slower time up Kill Hill, on the fire road I passed far more than passed me. This set me up, at the intersection with Josho's, to descend onto the single-track with a comfortable space ahead and behind. However, I quickly rolled-up on a group of about five riders as we started the first single-track ascent. No doubt I lost some time getting around these initial riders, perhaps enough to decide my race fate, the 1 minute 24 seconds that I would eventually concede when I rolled over the finish line in 2nd place among 40-49 amateur males (geared).
Traffic aside, as I descended and then ascended Josho's, I settled-into an uncomfortable, endurance-tempo pace that I knew I could sustain for many hours with sufficient food and water. Whether or not that pace was faster or slower than previous years is difficult to say, perhaps impossible. My gut suggests I was slightly behind my pace from 2016 and possibly 2015, consistent with my times and overall placement (14th, 17th, 21st overall in 2015, 2016, 2017). Considering I lived for six months over the winter at sea-level, my performance even at the end of May was probably still being affected by an incomplete acclimatization to high elevation (ca. above 7000 feet). But living preferences and acclimatization aside, for the most part I felt strong throughout the race and for that I'm grateful. I'm also grateful that I pedaled away from a high-speed crash that I experienced on the descent of Skull Pass (lap two).
On lap two, following a fast descent (only 9 seconds off my PR) of the Graceland Trails, I rolled-up on the wheel of a racer, Andrew Feeney, that would ultimately finish three places ahead of me overall (inside of the top 20). More significantly, before reaching the finish line he'd pass two racers from my age class, one pro, and one amateur, the amateur would finish #1 in the male 40-49 class, which was my goal for the day consistent with my first place, age 40-49 (amateur, geared), finishes in 2015 and 2016. It's always easy, in hindsight, to question what you "should have" and "could have" done, in a race or any other situation that comes to mind. But as all of us eventually learn, as we age, perhaps supplemented by the fabulous book Stumbling on Happiness (2006) by Daniel Gilbert, "should have" and "could have" thinking is replete with pitfalls and misconceptions.
Respecting these caveats, I nonetheless cannot help concluding that I wish I'd dug deeper. Over the roughly four miles that remained in the 64 mile endurance challenge, I wonder, looking back, if I had the resources to take back what remained of the four minutes that Wesley Sandoval, #1 finisher in my age class, had taken from me on lap one, and then a bit more. Instead, I watched as Andrew rode away from my wheel shortly after we connected to a short piece of jeep road. As I topped the next hill, by this point on my own, I watched Andrew approach two racers as all three approached the single-track known as Top of the World. Based on finish times, Andrew likely passed them on that section or as he climbed The Ridge. In 2015, unknowingly, I passed my last age 40-49 competitor during lap two on The Ridge, and subsequently crossed the finish line 36 seconds ahead of that individual. My fate was different in 2017, 1 min 24 seconds off the back of Wesley, but that's racing, and #2, despite being the "first loser" as my former coach Alex Hagman once joked, is certainly something to celebrate!
SALIDA BIG FRIGGIN LOOP: 10 June 2017, Salida, Colorado
There's a lot that's tough about the self-supported (no aid stations, no course markings, etc) Salida Big Friggin Loop (SBFL). An event, like many others (perhaps all) from the Colorado Endurance Series, that's been described as ultra-endurance. As this implies, the SBFL is considered a step above, i.e., harder than, events that fall under the endurance category including the popular Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race. But rumors and opinions aside, whether or not the SBFL is "ultra-" versus within the "normal" range of endurance-style brutal is probably best decided by a participant that's competed in both events. That's what I signed-up for in 2016 (both events), in 2017 I returned to the SBFL (but not the Leadville 100) for a second time with a goal to win the event overall. This would be my first, premeditated attempt, at actually winning a bike race, part of an amazing, personal and athletic journey from 2013-14, "just finish without being run-over"; to 2015-2016, "see if you can win your age class"; to 2017, "lets see if you can win the whole thing!"
In my first rendezvous with the Salida Big Friggin Loop. despite gong off-course for about 21 minutes, I finished 2nd overall just a few seconds ahead of the third place finisher. Ahead of me, by a convincing ca. 45 minute margin, was my good friend and mentor, Ben Parman (aka, "the Parmanator"). In 2017, I wanted to return to the event with the knowledge of the course that I had stock-piled in 2016. I also wanted to deploy a more aggressive, and hopefully effective, water and food strategy. Going into the 2017 race, I felt that if I could keep the air in my tires, stay on course, maintain an uncomfortable endurance-tempo pace throughout, and eat and drink sufficiently, then I had a chance to cross the line first overall.
As far as nutrition, plan and implementation, I consumed an original GU gel (not Roctane, too expensive) or Organic Honey Stinger Waffle every ca. 45 minutes. If my stomach was feeling a little too sweet then I went with the waffle, if it was feeling content, neutral, then I went with the gel. Importantly, I started eating right-away including a gel a few minutes before the neutral roll-out from town. At the 2017 SBFL, I raced for 10 hours and 2 minutes, so that's roughly thirteen feeds, combined gels and waffles. As far as calories consumed, my guess is I ate about nine gels and four waffles (total 13 feeds). GU gels are about 100 calories each, waffles about 140 calories, 9x100 + 4x140 = ca. 1460 calories consumed during the race. As of 2016, I've been using only water, no dissolvable mix of any kind, in my Subculture Cyclery (Salida, CO) bottles.
For hydration, I started with two 26-oz water bottles which were, in hindsight, not enough for the first 50 miles of the race, Salida to Buena Vista, via the Colorado Trail below Mounts Shavano, Antero, and Princeton. The summits of all three of these peaks exceed 14,000 feet, part of a stunning alpine backdrop that rises majestically from the floor of the Arkansas Valley (Collegiate Peaks Wilderness). If, in the future, I line-up at this event for a third time, I'll certainly stash a water bottle somewhere between Mount Shavano and the base of the Mount Princeton climb. I feel that the only mistake I made, as far as hydration, was not stashing a bottle in this section. The two bottles that I carried from Salida were essentially finished by the time I was part-way up the difficult Mount Princeton climb, a paved and dirt road climb that reconnects racers to the Colorado Trail.
Not dehydrated but definitely parched, I was finally able to resupply water at the local tennis courts east of downtown Buena Vista (BV). In roughly two minutes, I drank 20 ounces or more and then refilled my two 26-oz bottles. From here, I ascended to Trout Creek Pass, about mile 68 on the course, before descending to my first, 24-oz, water stash roughly two miles away. The day before the race, as I'd done in 2016, I spent some time stashing water on the back-40 miles of the race course. After a longer descent and some climbing, roughly twelve miles from Trout Creek Pass, I arrived to my main stash, two bottles + six original GU gels stuffed into a water bottle. Much later, at about mile 98 out of 108, I picked up my last 26-oz bottle before the final, significant, dirt road climb. Because of that last 26-oz stash, I had access to water during the hottest part of the day as I navigated (up and down) about 10 miles of single-track through the Arkansas Hills, eventually to the same location in downtown Salida where the race started at 6:30 in the morning, Cafe Dawn.
The neutral roll-out (not enforced but generally followed) ends when the pavement turns to dirt whilst ascending from Salida to about 10,000 feet on the slopes of Mount Shavano. Unlike 2016, I decided to keep this section of the race reasonable, not going too deep, but at the same time trying to keep the fastest riders within sight all the way to Blank's Cabin, the start of the Colorado Trail section. I met my goal and felt good on the climb. When I reached Blank's I entered the woods among the top four or five. Subsequently, I was quickly caught and passed before a significant hike-a-bike on a rocky, loose, and steep ascent. But at the top, I quickly regained that difference and rode on to the next wheel. I was probably a little too hot on the throttle after that ascent, but in hindsight I must not have gone too deep either because of how well I was able to maintain my pace late in the race. I caught the lead rider well before the descent into the Mount Princeton Valley, Part-way up the asphalt section of the Mt. Princeton climb the same rider came into view below, but I'd see him for the last time as I approached the Colorado Trail on the upper slopes of Mount Princeton.
Throughout the day, even as I was approaching the finish line at Cafe Dawn, I was looking over my shoulder. Many miles before the finish, a look over my shoulder at Chubb Park, not far from the famous South Park, gave me a lot of encouragement towards the conclusion that I might be far ahead, perhaps enough to hold onto the win. Nonetheless, I remained vigilant and on the pedals throughout the day.
Because of careful planning, food and hydration, and perhaps backing-off on the opening climb, I suffered much less along Aspen Ridge, ca. miles 94-98, than in 2016 when I was barely able to rotate my pedals on what seemed like endless climbs and far-too-short descents between. For sure, I was hurting in 2017 through Aspen Ridge but it was a hurt that I could withstand without descending into mental anguish and a desperately slow, grinding, cadence. Knowing where I was, how much climbing was ahead, etc, was also a huge advantage relative to my previous experience.
At the top of Aspen Ridge, it seemed, based on what I hadn't seen behind me at Chubb Park or elsewhere, that the race was mine to win or lose, all I had to do to achieve the former was maintain a reasonable pace to the finish, enough to stay out front without seriously risking a crash. I wouldn't say I dropped Cottonwood Trail with extreme caution, but I certainly backed-off my fastest pace, especially when approaching rocks that could have easily been my tires undoing. Following that descent, a section that I enjoyed despite how many miles I'd raced that day, I rolled-out of the Arkansas Hills to the palatial view of the Arkansas Valley, Arkansas River, and Salida, below. Soon thereafter, I crossed the train tracks adjacent to town, navigated a fence opening, crossed the F-Street bridge, made a right, and finally, dodged traffic at the last street crossing before rolling to the finish.
When I began bike racing back in April 2013, three years after I'd purchased an entry-level mountain bike, my first bicycle since I was about 16 years old, I did not anticipate that I'd eventually find my way to bike racing, doing well as a bike racer, and certainly not winning an ultra-endurance mountain bike event. I'm grateful that chance navigated my journey to cycling and all that the sport has taught me along the way. No doubt, no matter what comes or goes in my life, a small part of that journey, winning the SBFL overall, will remain a fond and often replayed memory.
Note, I also won (overall) the FoCo 102 earlier this year, so technically the SBFL was my second overall victory as an amateur, endurance, mountain bike racer. Unlike the SBFL, the focus of the FoCo 102 for the majority of competitors is mainly social, hence my decision to focus, as my first win, more on the SBFL than the near-equal in difficulty FoCo 102. All that said, perhaps I should focus more on the 102 as my first victory? Preferences aside, there is no doubt that my overall win at the 2017 edition of the FoCo 102 will remain, like the SBFL, a highlight of my racing accomplishments and as such, a fond memory. I want to thank Road 34 for developing, organizing, and hosting the FoCo 102,
Lastly, I want to encourage any of my readers that might be living in or close to Fort Collins, Colorado, to add the FoCo 102 to their bucket list AND to sign-up for events, such as 40 in the Fort, that will be part of the upcoming, July 21-23, Tooth or Consequences Mountain Bike Festival. Local races are easy to attend, easy on our budget, and most important, they are easy on Planet Earth: far less fuel and other non-renewables are consumed to support our cycling passion when we race locally. Also, if we don't support our local events then those will eventually go away, a sad conclusion. Go online and sign-up today, and tell your friends to do the same. I'll see you out there.
FAT TIRE 40: 24 June, Crested Butte, Colorado
Crested Butte, Colorado, widely known for epic, high-alpine scenery, is equally well known for it's mountain biking community, including a very accomplished cohort of pro and elite-amateur racers. And not too far away, a few miles down hill on the only paved road that joins the two celebrated mountain towns, Gunnison is home to an equally respected community of mountain bikers that fill the spectrum from social to high-octane rockets.
Early in my mountain biking adventures, well before I initiated training and racing, a friend, Phil Street, generously invited me to visit him in Crested Butte. That was my first visit to the extraordinary backdrops surrounding the town, often referred to as simply "CB". Pretty quick, I was hooked on the views and what I sensed were the priorities of the town, which seemed to favor proximity to nature and outdoor recreation as a good life's highest priorities. Of course, if you favor both then you will likely be very good, given hours of practice, at whatever sport(s) you favor. When mountain biking came into being, in ca. the 1970's, Crested Butte and nearby Gunnison, where people share the same priorities, quickly developed and expanded the sport (Crested Butte may even be the origin of the sport itself, more details). Eventually, both towns would become famous for their feats on mountain bikes, both professional and amateur.
Before I departed CB on that initial trip, Phil led me on two rides from town. Despite my pace, well off his wheel most of the time, Phil encouraged me throughout. From CB we traveled down to Gunnison, spent a day riding at Hartman Rocks, where I would years later win my age class for the first time as an amateur, and then drove out to Fruita and Loma for more mountain biking adventures. The whole trip was a breathtaking eye-opener to the scenic splendor of Colorado and areas regarded as some of the very best in the United States for mountain biking. I took it all in, cherished it, and dreamed about the future including returning to Crested Butte.
Years later, as I improved as a racer and interacted more with the mountain biking community, I found myself thinking about what it would mean to me to race amidst the communities of cyclists that I'd come to respect, starting from those initial trips with Phillip, in the highest regard. Early-on, I satisfied that curiosity, in part, by competing in the Original Growler in Gunnison, Colorado, for the first time in 2014; and then returning to the Growler in 2015 and 2016, both years I finished first among age 40-49, amateur, competitors (geared). As these details reveal, I accomplished my wish to compete in Gunnison early in my racing career. Along the way, each time I returned to Gunnison, I remembered my similar bucket-list dream to race among the elite up the hill, in nearby Crested Butte.
One week before the event was scheduled to start, a teammate mentioned that she was planning to attend the Fat Tire 40 in Crested Butte, part of Crested Butte Bike Week, and she thought that I should come along and throw-down amidst the local and visiting, elite-amateur, mountain bikers. I don't usually race events as short as 40 miles, more typically I favor (and my finish placements do as well) much longer events (65-100 miles). But this was CB and I was eager, as I outlined above, to take part in an event in that valley. My schedule also was open on this weekend (June 24th), that too contributed to what happened next, a hasty decision, all in a day, to sign-up!
A comfortable 8 am start and neutral roll-out opened the 2017 edition of the Fat Tire 40. So comfortable that I was even able to weigh-in on a conversation with the fastest guys in the race, including number two finisher of the day Bryan Dillon, USA Pro Team Topeak-Ergon. As I'd done earlier in the year at the Growler, I stayed within the top few racers directly behind the neutral pace vehicle, that is until the car pulled-away and the pro and nearly-a-pro group increased their pace. Following that surge, I dropped, very quickly, to about mid-pack. Along the way, I tried not to think too much about it. Instead, I tried to focus on smooth, efficient, pedaling. Before the race transitioned from pavement to single-track, by now within Mount Crested Butte above CB, I'd made up some ground including a last minute 3-person pass just before my tires made contact with the dirt.
By the way, for this event I used the same tires (by now the rear showed significant wear) as the SBFL, Vittoria Saguaro 2.20 front and rear. Overall, I was impressed by their performance in both events, the non-aggressive tread pattern provided noticeably more grip than the tire I traditionally use for training and racing on dirt, Specialized Fast Trak Control 2.1-2.2. However, I'm not convinced that either tire is what I'll commit to moving forward. For the 15 July 2017 edition of the Durango Dirty Century, I'll be rolling with a Maxxis 2.2 Ikon EXO (rear) and 2.2 Ardent Race EXO (front).
When racing in a valley with the reputation of CB, no one should be surprised when the trail gets technical. Right away, the opening single-track (Upper Loop to Upper Upper) became festooned with rocks and roots, occasionally broken by short, anaerobic climbs, and longer sections of flow where the aspen trees closed-in and threatened to catch your handlebars. At times like these, when the trail gets technical, I'm fortunate to be from Fort Collins where the trails are often the same. The opening trail allowed me to pass many more competitors. By the time I reached the first section of dirt, I was warmed-up and feeling confident.
From Upper Upper the course transitioned to dirt road for a few miles before connecting to the Strand Hill (dirt) road climb. I settled-in as I monitored riders that were coming from behind, when I needed to I picked-up my pace to maintain the gap. The back-side of Strand Hill is a fast descent on mostly, non-technical, single-track. However, just before the exit above the same road, and nearly the same point, where the Strand Hill climb began, is a narrow, steep, washed-out gully in place of where a trail once descended. When I came face-to-face with this unanticipated gulch I was carrying a lot of speed. I tried to shave some of that whilst redirecting the bikes trajectory towards a deeply entrenched trail between two walls of stone. I'm not sure where I failed, but the next moment I was on my feet, the bike was laying between the walls, and I was focused on my right ring-finger. Somehow I'd dislocated the primary knuckle. Later, a teammate with medical expertise, advised that I might have also broken the finger and damaged a tendon. Back to the trail, I felt that I could ride on. I straightened my handlebars, not quite enough in hindsight, and remounted. For about 10 minutes my finger caused me a lot of pain. But as I approached the ascent that would lead to Deer Creek most of the pain subsided and I was able to refocus on the usual endurance-tempo discomforts.
Most of 20 minutes went by as I climbed the dirt road up to the Deer Creek Trailhead. From that point, another hour passed as I climbed and then descended Deer Creek through what must be one of Colorado's most spectacular, scenic, landscapes. On either side of the trail, wildflowers, dominated by mule's ear and lupine, inspired vast meadows with their colors as they held fast to steep slopes above and below the trail. Above this wildflower extravaganza, in the alpine zone, I could see deep pockets of late season snow interlaced with extensive talus slope and exposed bedrock cliffs. Below a green forest filled the valleys down to pastures and homesteads. In the same view, Crested Butte's namesake rose from the valley floor in majestic fashion. Despite all of this scenery, I managed to stay inside my endurance-tempo pain cave. And the descent down the back-side of Deer Creek was fast and fun (other than when I reached out to catch a slip and smacked my sore finger).
At the bottom of Deer Creek the course returned to gravel, busy Gothic Road. From here, I descended, whenever possible, in the super tuck on my top tube. Along the way I passed at least one more competitor, maybe two. And also, crossed paths briefly with my NCGR teammate, Bill Bottom. He was kindly hauling water bottles up for friends and teammates. Unfortunately, I passed him (opposite directions) with such haste that I missed the chance to get a bottle.
At the base of Mount Crested Butte the course returned to single track, and soon the final ascent before the final drop back to Crested Butte and a short road section into town. More than anywhere else on the course, I suffered on the Lower and Upper Meander climbs. I had gone into this race carrying a margin of fatigue more than I would have wanted, ideally, and I think that margin began to take affect on this climb. Nonetheless, I eventually climbed over the top, under idle ski lifts, and began the descent. Right away, my next competitor was directly ahead of me, but as I opened my suspension my rear tire suddenly deflated.
As we often do in a race, I tried to ignore my fate, and rolled on for about a minute before stopping to assess the damage. I wasn't carrying CO2 cartridges, only an exceptional hand pump from Lezyne Engineered Design. After searching for a side-wall tear, I didn't find one, I went to work partially re-inflating the tire. Unfortunately, that initial re-inflate didn't last long and I was off the bike a second time, swearing a bit, and trying once more to re-inflate without installing a tube. This one held, not completely but enough to get me to the finish line. At this point in the race, the final miles, it's a pity that I had to stop twice and, in between, shave so much speed to avoid damaging my rear hoop, I think I could have passed, certainly one, and maybe even a couple more competitors on that descent and ride to town. I was feeling good and my descending instincts were firing efficiently after the opening 35 miles of racing in technical terrain.
Of course, it could have been much worse, not only the tire incident but also my high-speed crash. So for these reasons, I'm grateful that I even finished, let alone in first place overall among amateurs aged 40-49. Even better perhaps, I finished second among all amateurs and just six minutes off the wheel of the first place amateur finisher. Adding to my accomplishments, I was 19th overall out of 122 including the freakishly fast pros. Getting back to my early experiences and bucket lists, racing in the Fat Tire 40 delivered what I'd anticipated all along, a very special day of racing, a fond memory, and plenty of inspiration for the future; a mangled finger, deflated tire, and other mishaps withstanding, it's all part of the process and part of racing.
Adventure Guide, Mentor, Lifestyle Coach, Consultant, Endurance Athlete