Monday, October 10, 2011

24 Hour National Championships

Since racing my first 24 hour race, well actually my first real mountain bike race ever, in February, where my teammate Jill and I finished in 3rd place amid some exchange and mechanical issues, a podium finish at Nationals seemed to be within our reach.  With numerous notable accomplishments in my very first season of racing, such as multiple 24 hour podium finishes, a 3rd place finish in the Arizona Trail 300, and a 10:30 finish in my first ever Leadville 100, I was convinced that my training had been paying off and that I would be ready to throw down hard at 24 Hours of Colorado Springs.

When the announcement was made that the race was going to be moved from the Falcon Trail on the Air Force Academy to the small urban Palmer Park, I was instantly convinced that the difficulty of the trail would reward riders who had knowledge of the course.  Granted the fastest of the fast riders would be able to put their head down and charge hard through whatever they faced, but for me after half a dozen laps in the middle of the night I knew that having put time in on the course would be hugely advantageous.

The course on the chaotic network of trails at Palmer Park

In the month prior to the race I spent hours mapping the course with a GPS and then riding laps, to the point that I had every turn, rock, drop, climb, and descent committed to memory.  I knew the fastest lines.  I knew when to go hard and when to recover.  I knew that getting ahead on the first lap would be critical, as the technical course could easily cause congestion as other riders were unprepared for surprise trail obstacles.

My first attempt to ride it was a failure...3 hours of riding circles.

The day before the race, I opted to take the day off the bike entirely.  I packed up the car with all of the usual 24 hour race gear and headed out to pick up some things that after a couple of previous races we had decided were going to be especially helpful in this race.

First was a small generator.  With more of the race taking place at night than during the day I was certain that the battery power that we had would not be sufficient to get through the night without a charge.  The generator would be crucial in making sure that nobody ran dark as I did in my first 24 hour race.  On this course that could be catastrophic.

Second was an RV.  Even though the weather forecast was to be the best of any of the 24 hour races I had attended, and nearly perfect for racing, after weathering a crazy Arizona winter storm in February and an endless onslaught of wind in New Mexico, having an RV would allow us to retreat from any weather involuntarily imposed on us.

After picking up the generator & RV and meeting up with Jeremy Young, a friend and fellow rider who, with his partner Michael Scott, was going to share the RV with us for the race, we picked up my wife Jen and my cousin Kristen, who were going to be our support crew for the weekend.

One of the best parts of 24 hour races is the village that comes to life in the days prior to the race filled with racers, support crew, volunteers, and spectators who all settle into their campsites filled with campers, tents, and even couches.  Unfortunately for us the town of Colorado Springs wouldn’t permit camping the night before so instead of setting up camp and hanging out with other racers and crews we were forced to spend the night away from the venue.

Fortunately for us Jeremy’s dad lives minutes away from where the race was taking place and in addition to offering to put us up for the night, his wife Tracy cooked up a wonderful pre race feast.  Consisting of shrimp and bread to start, grilled salmon, pesto pasta, and salad for the main course, and cake for desert, we all went to sleep well fed and well fueled for 24 hours of riding.
After some serious debating about what time we should get up in the morning, with me over emphasizing the importance of arriving early and getting a prime pit, and everybody else wanting to sleep in we finally settled on leaving the house at 6am. 

By 5:45 Saturday morning we were gathered in the kitchen downing piles of pancakes and eggs.  Minutes later we boarded the RV and were on our way to Palmer Park.

As we arrived to the race venue we were able to locate the area secured by Trek Bicycle Store solo racer Jonathan Davis, where the team mechanic Erick Erickson would be located, and parked the RV about 30 feet from his.  We began building out our campsite, which would serve continuously as a rest & recovery area for 4 separate riders as the race went on.   Soon after our arrival, Michael Scott and his wife Lacy as well as Jill Heuckman, my partner in the race, rolled in rounding out our crew for the race.

Start/Finish & pit area

The time passed quickly as we picked up our race packets and attended the pre-race briefing, and before I knew it we were lining up for the Le Mans start.  Opting to have me take the first lap because Jill and I both felt I would be able to turn a slightly faster time, I found myself lined up among a group of jittery riders all ready to get the race started.

My bike awaiting me after the run.

After a quick final briefing, and few moments of chatter among the pack, I was surprised when the gun fired, as I couldn’t see the starter and never heard a countdown.  Nonetheless, I furiously put one foot in front of the other moving up through the pack, surprised that the pace of the 100 yard sprint to our bikes wasn’t a little faster.  

The run!

A message was waiting for me when I hopped on my bike.  Thanks Jill!

After grabbing my bike I settled into a position just off the back of a group of top riders that formed at the front.  We made our way around the parking lot and then uphill on a road for about a mile.  Instantly the race started breaking up and gaps started forming.  After making the right turn on to the familiar single track, as I suspected the very first obstacle in the trail caused the rider in front of me to come to a complete stop in the only viable line forcing me off my bike to get around her.

Starting up the road

Making my way around some riders and getting passed by others, I pushed on noticing that at times as far ahead and behind as I could see, there was nobody.  I felt as if my initial feeling had validated and that hitting the single track as far ahead of the main field as possible kept me ahead of the masses and on my bike turning the pedals instead of behind a string of riders struggling up the difficult trail.

One hour and three minutes after leaving the start I rolled into the exchange area with the 16th fastest time.  Jill was waiting for me as planned, and with a quick exchange of the ankle banded timing chip, she was on her way to complete her first lap.  I was off to chill at camp for an hour relaxing and recovering for what was to become a cycle we would complete 8 times over.

Finishing up the first lap.

Jill rocked the first lap, finishing exactly the same amount of time behind her counterpart on our primary competition as I had mine on the first lap. 

Knowing that they were a couple of pros paired exclusively for this race, it was highly unlikely we were ever going to be in a position to challenge them for the lead, but we were poised to take the advantage if they were faced with a race altering injury or mechanical.  

Recovering after the first lap.

Nevertheless, I mounted my bike and pulled my second lap in a respectable time that trailed the leaders pace by 8 minutes, upon my return Jill charged out of the transition and returned 1 hour and 17 minutes later with a deficit on the leaders’ lap equaling mine.  

The final short climb before dropping into the finish.

On my second lap, I was able to power the pedals, but was feeling totally out of it.  I wasn’t thinking clearly at camp felt slow and sluggish, and was just all mixed up in a weird way.  As I left the start area on my third lap, I seemed to have renewed clarity.  My mind was focused, my legs felt strong and I was charging the trail with renewed vigor.

Now 5 hours into the race, I was hammering at what felt to be a blistering pace.  I was tearing up the trail, and passing everybody that fell into my sights.  About two thirds of the way through the course lies the toughest climb, I pushed hard up it and as I reached the first summit, aware that the next section of the trail was difficult as is, but made even more challenging as it follows the long climb, I grabbed my water bottle to take a quick swig.

I knew I had seconds to pull off the drink as once you crest the summit, you plunge down a stepped rock face, and immediately into a hard left turn.  I fumbled with the bottle and instead of ditching it and grabbing the bars, I launched into the rock face descent gripping my handlebars with only my left hand. 

Instantly I flew over the front of the bike, came crashing to the ground on my back hearing a overly audible pinging sound as my bike came down behind me.  I jumped up, scraped and bruised, but otherwise in good shape, grabbed my bike and as I lifted it off the ground my beloved Ergon grip slid right off the end of the bar.  I picked it up to find that the ping I had heard was the metal bar end, which clamped the grips to the bars, snapped into two pieces.

Realizing that I would be riding the final 4ish miles without a grip, I shoved it in my back pocket, jumped on my bike, and took off down the trail.

A few pedal strokes in I really started to crank the pedals, leveraging the handlebars for more power.  As I did so, I noticed the left end of my bars were mushy, and loose.  Once I reached a smoother section of the trail, I slowed enough to investigate on the move to find that the bars had snapped off at the brake lever clamp, and were simply being held on by the clamp itself.  The end of my bars were completely unusable.

I rode the final 4 miles of twisty, rocky, rough, and technical trail holding the bars with my left hand inside the brake lever clamp, and feathering the front brake with my pinky and ring finger, which on more than one occasion caused some near mishaps of catastrophic proportion.

Uh huh...

I limped into the exchange area to find Jill with lights ready to tackle the evening twilight lap.  I let her know about my less than fortunate fall and encouraged her to be careful as she ripped out of the exchange on her way onto the soon to be dark course.

My first stop upon returning to camp was our team mechanic.  Having a mechanic was a first for Jill and I.  In previous races we had done all of the mechanical work ourselves taking away from valuable recovery time between laps, and putting us in jeopardy if we encountered a problem beyond our ability to fix.

In the weeks leading up to the race, knowing the venue and knowing what was on the line, I made a proposition to Trek Store Colorado, to race under their name and in their team wear, if they would provide mechanical support for the team.  They graciously accepted my offer; little did I know how important that would be.

As I rolled into Erick’s course-side repair shop, I was greeted with, “How’s the bike?”

I don’t remember my exact response, but it wasn’t exactly positive, and after going through what had happened, the next question was, “Are you OK?”  I hadn’t exactly been thinking about me, but more my bike, so I think the question caught me by surprise.

I responded with, “Yeah, I’m fine,” chatted a little bit more about the bike and then left it in Erick’s hands to work his magic.  Maybe 15 minutes later, he rolled my bike back over complete with new bars and grips and brakes that weren’t rubbing.

The reality was that I was not prepared with an extra set of bars to replace the ones I had broken and would have been in a desperate situation had Trek Store Colorado not provided us with support.  In the end Erick actually cannibalized his personal bike taking his handlebars off and giving them to me to keep me going, an unexpected gesture I’m still trying to figure out how to repay.

As I waited for Jill to emerge from the complete darkness, our RV mates Jeremy & Michael made an exchange sending Jeremy out on his first night lap.  Minutes later I see Jeremy come flying through the transition area again heading back out on course a 2nd time in 10 imintes.  Apparently his lights had gone out almost immediately and he had to return to camp to diagnose the problem.

Moments later Jill emerged from darkness into the well lit transition area and after a quick exchange I was off on my first night lap. 

Unlike others, night laps are my favorite.  I get an increased focus, I race through time, and I can truly work the trail 30 feet at a time.   In general this is where I have the first chance to open up gaps on the other competitors.  Unfortunately, by this time we were already an entire lap down on the team in front of us and they were continuing to make time on us with every lap.   Unbeknownst to us however we were already 2 laps up on the next closest competitors.

My first night lap flew by, as did all three other night laps I did.  On each consecutive night lap I averaged less than 2 minutes slower than the previous lap ridden, indicating that I had sunk into my autopilot mode where my body knows exactly what to do without much thought going into it.  Jill maintained a strong pace through her first 3 night laps, losing only 2 minutes per lap on her previous lap time.  On her 4th and 5th night laps, the technical course and power climbs had caught up to her, really taking a toll on her super lean pure-climberesque body. 

The course was unequivocally hard.  There was very little time for recovery, the steep rocky descents required full concentration at all times, the endless step ups just drained your upper body, and the longer sandy & rooted climbs sucked power out of your legs with every pedal stroke.  This course was easy for no one. 

As Jill rolled in from the morning twilight lap, I set out on course once again in daylight.  Major timing issues throughout the night left me less than sure of our actual position in regards to our nearest competitors, so I rode as if we were still defending 2nd place.  Relatively sure we were 2+ laps back from first, and very likely at least 2 laps ahead of third, we seemed to be secure in second, however I had my doubts.  As I made good time around the course, I did the math in my head and figured there was time for Jill and I to both do another lap, and so I began the mental preparation to give it one more push before the end.

When I rolled back into the transition, Jill updated me on the most recent timing, informed me that we were solidly in 2nd place with no possible way of either gaining first or losing second.  She saw no reason to go back out on course, and had I been 100% sure the results were accurate I would have been in complete agreement with her.  Unfortunately, since the timing was off the entire night I wasn’t yet convinced.

After some discussion, and getting a USA Cycling timing official involved to pull the most recent results, it became evident that we indeed were going to finish the race in 2nd place regardless of what happened in the next three and a half hours.  Jill opted not to go back on course and I returned to camp to relax and recover.

After some time resting and reflecting, I came to the decision to head back out on course for a final lap.  One reason was that it was my last race of the season, and it simply felt unfinished.  Another was that I had mentally prepared myself for another lap, and for one reason or another, my mind wasn’t ready to stop just yet.  But I think most of all, I absolutely knew I had more laps left in my legs, and I wanted to keep pressing them to prove to myself that I could keep going.

I set out without any intent to ride hard, but after all it was a race so before long I was pressing just as hard as I had every other lap.  This time was different though.  I was calm, relaxed, and really just enjoying the ride.  The lap hurt, as much or more than any of the previous laps, but I didn’t care.  I just kept on pedaling with a big smile on my face reflecting on my season and how far I had come.  I knew when I crossed the line Jill and I would be standing on the podium, and the thought of having accomplished that in my very first season of racing kept me smiling all the way to the finish line.

Crossing the finish line on my final lap.

I rolled across the line, returned to camp, and relaxed for the next hour or so as the race wrapped up.  After results were posted and protests were addressed, the awards ceremony commenced.  In the end the Trek Bicycle Store team had a great showing with Jonathan Davis taking third place in the solo division, Jeremy Young & Michael Scott taking second place in the male duo division, and Jill & I taking second place in the coed duo division.

podium presentation
Taking the second tier on the podium and getting silver medals draped over our necks was an awesome experience and certainly one of the highlights of my racing career to date.  I walk away with a sky’s the limit feeling and a burning desire to really step up my game for 2012!

Had an awesome year with Jill going 3 for 3 on the podium as a 24 hour duo.