Monday, August 29, 2011

Putting Leadville to Rest for a While, or My Thoughts on Time

The Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race is a race against the clock that just happens to be long, on mountainous terrain, and at high altitudes. In my last post I commented that it seemed like race day would never arrive. Now it is already two weeks post-race. Time certainly has a strange way of making itself felt. The night before the big race? The clock ticked ever so slowly, but once the alarm went off the clock started racing, as it would for the rest of the day.

I was very fortunate to have some time to spend in Leadville before the race. My daughter MK and I drove in from Durango on Wednesday, found a beautiful campsite, and then went for a ride on the trail that winds around part of Turquoise Lake, only a mile from our digs. Seeing so much beauty in one day can be breathtaking. Witnessing it all at 10,000 feet takes breathtaking to a new level.

Our days leading up to the race were a nice mix of preparation and rest. We rode a bit on the dirt roads in the area in which we were camping, we hung out at our campsite, we went into town to hang out and get groceries, and we did a small bit of course inspection. MK did some trail running while I watched hummingbirds and tried to figure out what my split times would be. It was inexplicably dry the entire time we were camped; outdoor living was especially good.

Race day dawned clear and cool and I struggled to put my cycling clothing on over sunscreen. Well, it was not even dawn yet, but you get the picture. MK drove me into town, and then asked me where my cell phone was. Cell phone? I eventually remembered that I left it on the ground back at the campsite, so she agreed to go back and rescue it after my start. How could I just leave my phone on the ground? At least I had everything I needed to race, including MK, who would be my super-awesome support crew.

The start area was a mass of people and bikes. My starting corral was way, way, way in the back. Pros started first, and then those with finish times from prior Leadville races were lined from fastest, up to twelve hours. New racers, like me, had the last starting area, and folks had gotten there ultra early to have the privilege of laying their bike onto the pavement in order to save their spot while they walked around. Everyone else was walking around the bikes lying on the ground in order to cross the street to get to the porta potties, and they usually tried not to step onto tender bits, like derailleurs or brake levers, in the process. I just kind of straddled my bike next to my corral and waited the order from the officials to move into position. The scene was organized and chaotic all at once.

The gun went off promptly at 6:30 and it took me over a minute and a half to actually cross the start line. As I rode through the start area I could see riders on the road ahead, as far as the eye could see. That was truly remarkable, until I realized that most of the people in this race were on the road ahead of me! I dug deeper and tried to infiltrate into the crowd, which had slowed for a small climb, then it was a downhill, a corner, and more downhill. Despite wearing two pair of gloves my hands were freezing and everyone around me was busy shaking out their hands while trying to keep up on the fast pavement stretch.

The speedy portion came to an abrupt halt upon entering the first unpaved section, CR 103. Suddenly, I was mastering my track stand, trying not to dab, as I worked toward moving forward. The climb up St. Kevin’s loomed, and I was wondering how I would ever stay on the bike, given the mass of humanity around me. I was mostly successful, though, only getting off once for a few seconds to avoid a guy who had wobbled completely across my path. I got onto a train of people who were riding through the traffic and it felt good to be moving again.

So much of the race revolved around other people. With 1900 registered racers, I was never really alone. On the climbing sections I would continue to ride past so many of the competitors. On some descents those who could ride downhill faster than me mobbed me as they passed. When I climbed up the dirt road portion toward the 12,500 foot Columbine Mine check point, also the halfway point, I was passing people like crazy, while the race leaders and faster riders were already descending on the same road. This was not a lonely place.

Then, I hit the “goat trail.” I had seen photos of racers pushing their bikes near the top of this climb, but with still over two miles to go to the course's mid-point I was greeted with a hike-a-bike that went on and on. We were now above tree line, and as I rounded each curve I could see the course rising higher, with a steady line of people still pushing their bikes. I could not see an end. Climbers pushed and pushed, staying to the right, while the people who had already made it to the top were bombing back down. Yes, on the same little goat path! The irony was that when you got to the “top” you still had to actually ride down a bit to where the aid station and check point was set up. Which meant, yes, that you had to ride uphill again in order to start the journey back down.

You’d think that just coasting down the mountain back to the Twin Lakes checkpoint would be easy. In fact, it was so tiring. The goat path was quite rocky, and I had to make sure to not run over any of the folks still walking up that climb. The dirt road was just plain fast, with loose sand and gravel to make life interesting. I was definitely happy to find a few sections where I could pedal, and was thrilled when I finally arrived back at the Twin Lakes aid station where MK had been patiently waiting for me to return. She was at the crucial aid stations, zooming from place to place, with everything I needed, including a big hug and a good song to keep all the bad ones out of my head. Her support was invaluable and everything that she did to help would take another blog post! She was even keeping my Face Book friends posted on my progress because, yes, she did go back to get my phone.

It felt hot at Twin Lakes, and as I climbed the road out of there I do remember looking at the lakes and thinking how wonderful it would be to jump into one of them. I found out later that it was 92 degrees there, at 9200 feet, which was the lowest altitude on the course. When I met up with MK, just over an hour later, at the Pipeline aid station I was certainly getting finish line fever but I still felt pretty good. I had no idea how hot it was, though, because the dry air at those elevations just dried the sweat off me as soon as I was producing it. I just figured that in three hours or so I would be done. Yahoo!

I was not, however, prepared for the amount of hike-a-bike that climbing up "Power Line" would involve. This video of eventual winner, Todd Wells, shows him riding Power Line. Todd was one of only a few racers to ride this section, though. I walked this, hopping on the bike in random flatter spots, with the entire piece going on for four miles. It took forever! Yes, there were still people everywhere, and yes, I would eventually top this section out at over 11,000 feet. Finally, on the other side, I was greeted with a rough, rocky descent, which felt rough beyond words. I kept checking my fork to make sure it was not locked out, although it certainly felt like it was. Suspension, where were you? Was I tired or was my fork just a bit low on air?

I came off the rocky descent at 10:30 on the clock. I remember thinking that if I really motored I could make it to the finish line before 12 hours hit and I could still collect the coveted belt buckle. I knew there was some smooth dirt road and a good chunk of pavement ahead, and I was ready. Zoom zoom down the dirt and the pavement descents, then zip up the pavement climb. I climbed and climbed, passing several people along the way. But the climb kept on going and going and going, and zip definitely got zapped. A man standing near an aid station cheered me on, telling me that I had one more hour in which to collect that buckle. “Can I make it?” I asked him. “YOU can,” was his response. Hmm, he must have been saying that all day, it sounded very well rehearsed.

Well, I did finish, just a bit over the 12 hour mark. I was nauseous for the last 2-3 hours of the race and had to force myself to drink and eat. Time continued to fly by, while my body seemed to be standing still. I was beginning to feel miserable, yet I was so close to the finish line. The last 2 miles were the worst, still climbing and climbing to get to that finish line. When I hit the pavement with one km to go I just wanted to cry. I knew where I was, but could not imagine how I was going to get myself to that finish line. Up another small hill, down the other side, and the finish line finally came into sight. I lined myself up with the red carpet as I heard my name announced over the loud speaker. I crossed the line, found MK, and tearfully collapsed into her arms. Done! I was also given an official time and a beautiful finisher’s medal, designating an official finish. I did not even care that I had missed the belt buckle. I had done everything I could and I could now get off my bike.

At this point, I was expecting to start feeling better. There was food to be eaten, recovery drink to be had, and maybe, even, a beer. Instead, I spiraled from a post-race euphoria to a full-out shivering, cramping, nauseous mess, so I bypassed the food table and went to the medical tent. The unusual heat and dry conditions had caused me, and countless other racers, to dehydrate. A cot and sleeping bag combo was now mine to inhabit as I drank salty fluids and ate pretzels. But there was no improvement. I could not move without completely cramping, and MK and I both wondered, independently, how sleeping in a tent was going to work out for me that night.

The good Dr. Matt, from Denver, eventually prescribed an IV of saline, that within three minutes stopped the nausea. By the time the bag was done I was up and walking, cramp free. I had also managed to stop shivering. It was absolutely miraculous! And I was suddenly ravenous, so MK ordered some burritos to take back to the campsite, and we had ourselves a yummy dinner underneath the stars. I think/hope that she had a well-deserved beer, as well. Yes, it was still warm out, and as we enjoyed our last night at camp we were just a little mystified by all the things that had transpired that day. I could not believe that after everything I had done I was feeling so good. How strange was that?

Many people need to be thanked for helping me get to this race and then for enabling me to finish it. MK, of course, was integral in all of this. Not only did she serve as race support, but she housed me in Durango for the week leading up to the race and the few days before I went home. (Imagine having YOUR mother move in for two weeks.) Her boyfriend Drew loaned us his awesome truck to make transporting all our gear a lot easier. Speaking of gear, I only supplied my sleeping pad, the rest of the camping equipment was courtesy of MK and Drew.

My sponsors also need thanking. They include Hammer Nutrition, Specialized, Stan’s NoTubes, Terry Bicycles, Sonne’s Cycling, and Dr. Norm and Val Cognetto.

Then there are the men that help me get the most from my cycling. My coach Mark Fasczewski gives me the work to do and helps me to emotionally get through it. My acupuncturist Mackay Rippey keeps my body and mind tuned up on a very regular basis so that I can keep up with the training and racing that I love to do. I continue to love to do it because I generally feel so very good. These guys provide an endless cycle that keeps me pushing toward my potential. Thank you both!

A thank you would be incomplete, though, without thanking the people who very patiently support and cheer from the sidelines. My husband Phil Thompson puts up with all of the things that I do, from the training, to the travel, to the recovery. I cannot even imagine what I would do without this. My daughter Melissa, my Dad, my sister Alison, my brother Steve, my extended family, my very good friends, everyone has been so kind and supportive. I am truly blessed!

So, while I was walking up Powerline, the “never again” litany started playing in my head. It got louder and louder as I dragged myself toward the finish. But time also has a funny way of obliterating discomfort, both physical and emotional. Within 24 hours MK and I were talking about ways to do things better “next time,” although both of us had sworn that that the very possibility of “next time” would never exist. Time, it sure is one strange dimension.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

I'm Almost to Leadville!

Five days until the Leadville Trail 100 Mountain Bike Race… Wow, how did it get here so fast? Conversely, will it ever get here? I am currently in Durango, staying with my daughter MK. She has very kindly opened up her home to me so that I could come out early to acclimate to the altitude. She has also offered to be my support crew for the race. Lucky me!

Leadville was not even on my radar when 2011 began. I was, however, thinking that it would be super to do the Mountain Bike Marathon National Championships in September, a 50 mile race. My body responds well to long hours of training on multiple days, so my coach Mark Fasczewski, who I’ve been with since 2004, sees that I get my fill of long long rides for most of the year. I figured that as long as I had built up lots of endurance I might as well do some long races.

But Leadville? Naw, that race seemed too hard to get into, you had to enter a lottery or something. It sounded like too much red tape for me. Still, I wanted to do some long races and kept my eyes open. Then, in late March, I was stunned to read that there would be three 100 km qualifiers for the Leadville race. One was in Lake Tahoe, one was in Crested Butte, but one was in Lake Placid. Lake Placid? Three hours from my house? It took me about 1.5 seconds to decide that I really wanted to do the race. What an experience! I would get in a long mountain bike race in preparation for the national race in September.

I called Mark the next morning, got his OK, and training was ON for the Wilmington/Whiteface 100km. My goal was simply to finish the race, nothing more, and to see if I really liked racing endurance events. Mark piled on the hours, I focused on the Lake Placid event, and visualized it with every ride and race that I did. Even when I flatted only 4.5 miles into the road race at the Killington Stage Race and endlessly chased the pack I was thinking that I had to ride hard and strong in preparation for “the qualifier.”

Two weeks before the big day Corning/NoTubes road racing teammate Paul Speranza and I met at Whiteface and did a preride of the course. The out and back course was challenging, but nothing that was beyond our abilities. The climb up Whiteface Mountain, at the end of the race, would be the icing on the cake, and it worried me the most. However, I was now very excited for race day to arrive, and for the first time I was actually thinking and hoping that I would qualify for the Leadville race.

The Wilmington/Whiteface 100km was the perfect race on the perfect day. I could not believe how good I felt or how happy I was riding my mountain bike in such a beautiful place. I found myself smiling a lot as I worked my way toward the finish line. I finished 5th overall for the women and 100th overall, winning a belt buckle in the process, and I had qualified, and registered, for the Leadville Trail 100.

OMG, now what? More training, more mountain bike racing. The next on my list was Race the World at Windham. Not my best race, to say the least. While my climbing was good my technical skills showed the lack of singletrack training. I had been focusing on road riding to get my endurance really up to par for the Lake Placid race and now it was time to get my mountain bike technical skills in order. I drove home from that race a bit disappointed, but determined to get my skills up to where they needed to be for me to race well at Leadville.

The following weekend was the Six Hours of Power in Ellicottville, NY, and it was another picture perfect day for mountain bike racing. Not only was the course dry, but it was fast, flowing and fun! I did not doubt my skills, I rode nice even splits, finished fourth overall for the women, and even got a compliment for my descending skills from a guy who knew me years before. OK, I guess I was on to something!

All that racing and training tires me out, though. That is where my acupuncturist Mackay Rippey comes into play. I go for regular treatments almost every week, and he has seen me through some pretty exhausted times. I dragged myself into his office the Tuesday after the Six Hours of Power and even Mackay had his doubts about how quickly I would recover. However, he came up with just the right combination of treatments and I recovered so quickly that I had my third fastest time trial ever on our local 10 mile course that evening. Wow! Needless to say, Mackay has been as integral in my training for Leadville as he has been for every other race and training session since 2003.

There are so many people who have been supportive of me in my push toward these endurance events. Hammer Nutrition has sponsored me since 1997, and these days I go through a lot of fuel. Dick Sonne’s Cycling, Fitness and Skis, my local bike shop, is always there for me. Specialized helps keep me in bikes while Terry Bicycles keeps me in saddles and clothing. Stan’s NoTubes helped me with wheels, tires and sealant. Dr. Norm and Valerie Cognetto have gifted me with lodging. My husband Phil and our daughters love and accept me despite this craziness! My family and friends put up with me being out of the area or too tired/busy/brain dead to get together on the spur of the moment. It all adds up to the supportive atmosphere that is necessary to enable me to reach such challenging goals.

So here I am in Durango! Friday and Saturday I did laps on one of my very favorite trails – the Dry Fork/Colorado Trail/Hoffhein’s Connection Loop, which tops out at 8500 feet. Sunday I rode up the Dry Fork Trail, turned left onto the Colorado Trail, and rode through the Aspen trees between 9000 and 9500 feet, riding up to the high point in that area three separate times. Once I got up there I did not want to head back down to the heat that would meet me at a mere 7000 feet.

Yesterday, MK and I drove up to Molas Pass, which is not too far from Silverton, and rode out and back on a section of the Colorado Trail from Little Molas Lake. That was the most spectacular trail I have been on yet. It is a flowing ribbon of singletrack flanked on either side by wildflowers, with vistas galore of peaks over 12,000 feet high. We rode for only two hours, but were riding the entire time at over 11000 feet. It was a magnificent ride, and thoughts of exploring more of the Colorado Trail’s 400+ miles danced through my head.

Today is a very much needed rest day. MK and I head to Leadville tomorrow, so I will start to pack for that trip in a little while. We will be camping at 10,000 feet or so, which should feel quite “interesting.” Fortunately, I have been back and forth to Colorado at least once a year for many years, so my body and brain knows how to deal with it. Still, it takes much longer than this to become fully acclimated, so I will just have to deal with things as they present themselves and be even more careful about how I pace myself during the race.

So that is it for now. I will try to update this with a short post when I reach Leadville. Now, time to start getting organized for the penultimate phase of my trip!