Sunday, August 12, 2012

Pushing Boundaries

For the most part, I've spent most of the spring and summer on road racing. Although when the opportunity arises, I've dabbled in the occasional XC race. On Saturday, August 4th, I tried something completely different. That being the Big Bear Ultra (enduro) XC race. For those that don't know, the event is a 50 mile mountain bike race that is almost entirely on singletrack. Since its Big Bear, the singletrack is also very rocky.

In terms of training, I was not even close to being "prepared" for this kind of race. Sure my base fitness from training for 50+ mile road races was there, but I hadn't done a 50+ mile ride since the Mapletown Road Race. Rather, being in contention to win the ABRA crit series, I had decided to go all-in on criterium training, so my training was spent more on short, high intensity efforts, as opposed to long steady miles. In addition, miles on the mountain bike are a completely different animal. Mountain biking makes more use of the upper body, especially on technical terrain. Also, technical skills need to be constantly maintained - Hike-a-bike takes far more energy than riding does. So comparatively speaking, given that my year-to-date time on the mountain bike equaled about 80 miles, I knew this was going to be tough.

Given how difficult I knew this was going to be, I still really wanted to do this race - for a few reasons. Personally, I love riding at Big Bear, and it is my favorite place to ride. Most importantly, I just wanted to say I did the race. Knowing this August might be my last in the area, I wanted to take a shot at it. My goal was to finish in 6 hours. It seemed like a reasonable goal. In 2011 I finished the "lite" version of the race, which is about 23 miles in 3:10:52. I was pretty sure my technical ability, despite my limited riding, had increased enough to shave off a good chunk of that time.

On the morning of the race, I arrived pretty early. Mostly because I hadn't been to Big Bear since April and thought it took a lot longer to get there. After a short pep talk with Todd Latocha, I filled my bottles with CamelBak elixir and ate a Honey Singer waffle and lined up.

Being somewhat familiar with the intro-prologue, I lined up pretty much in the back. I did this because the prologue is pretty technical, and I always feel bad on the mountain bike when I screw up and hold people behind me up. Also it was a long race, so I didn't see any reason to waste any energy early.

Once the race started, with about 75 people all starting at once, the initial bottleneck was pretty laughable. I went into the drop-in starting the prologue maybe 50th-ish wheel. Surprisingly got through it fairly well, definitely better than in the past and set off on "crack trail", which runs for about the first 10 miles and the "crack" for which the trail name is derived, is probably the most difficult feature in all of Big Bear.

Although I had no intention of going fast, right away I quickly found myself stuck behind people who were going slower than the pace I wanted to go. Not being in a hurry, I dealt with it for a little while, until I realized that these riders weren't significantly better at technical than I was and in fact, were really taking some terrible lines. Knowing I probably wouldn't slow them up later if I made an effort to pass, I did so and continued onward at a good steady pace.

Eventually I caught up to two other riders who I could tell were going slow, but they knew what they were doing. So I stayed behind them. They would gain time on me in the tougher parts, but not significantly. We went into the "crack" of crack trail together, and while I normally don't care how slow I go through here, our commotion had infuriated a nearby nest of bees. With me being the last to go through, their anger was directly unleashed on me and I got stung on the left thigh.

"Hey guys, do you mind picking up the pace? I'm getting stung by bees" were the words that immediately came out of my mouth, and fortunately we all got out fairly quickly after that. As I set back on the bike, the sting on the leg really started hurting. Not so much that quitting seemed like an option, but it was painful enough so that I had a hard time focusing and couldn't keep up with the two guys ahead. After maybe 10-15 minutes, I was able to refocus and settled in once more.

The crack trail section ends with a long fire road climb to Aid #1, which is the only fire road section of the course. I was still ok on water and gels, so I skipped the aid station and continued. In between Aid #1 and Aid #2 was a short, steep climb, which for the first time, I successfully completed, while making about 5 passes from people who couldn't make it. Afterwards, it seemed like I was riding the trails a lot better than in the past, which helped build confidence, which I knew I would need for "little Canaan trail".

Little Canaan trail is probably my least favorite trail, mostly because I have no idea how to ride most of it. I also don't have a good track record with it. As can be seen from this video. My time through here was not very good. The combination of being overly weary and not remembering it well made me go slower than I probably needed to. I also took a wrong turn and lost about 5 minutes before noticing something wasn't right. But, I came out unscathed, which was the important part. From here, it was only a short trip to mile 23 and the end of lap 1.

I finished lap 1 in 3:05:36, which I felt pretty good about. I was mostly happy that I shaved time off from a year ago while purposely going slower and losing time from a wrong turn. Knowing the second half was "easier" I was pretty sure I could make or come close to my 6 hour goal. I switched out my empty bottles, ate some food and set off for lap 2.

Lap 2 started with a bunch of trails I was pretty familiar with, and I pushed through these pretty well. However, soon enough the race continued into a trail section I had never done before, and I was not prepared for it. Underestimating the length this trail would run prior to reaching Aid #5 (the first since the start of lap 2), I slowly found myself in a position where water rationing became necessary.

This was not good.

I bonked hard from a similar situation at Tour of Tucker this year, and I didn't want a repeat of the same to happen again. As a result, I started shutting down my pace, but this was only having a limited effect. After being 30 miles into the race, my body was starting to get exhausted more from the terrain rather than the pace. Not before long, I was out of water and just hoping to make it to the aid station.

Eventually, I got to it and I took a much needed break. After resting for probably 10 minutes, I got going, knowing there was about 16-18 miles to go. At this point my time was nearing 4:30:00, and I knew my 6 hour goal was in serious doubt. Although I could still pedal at a reasonable speed, it was't easy to do so. Complicating the matter was that I was riding solo, so finding motivation to push on became increasingly difficult.

As the miles slowly went on, every little rock garden seemed to take more and more effort to get through. Every feature looked just a little bit harder. Every descent became that much more hand-numbing. Yet, just when morale had seemingly reached its lowest point, I hit a stretch of trails that I knew led back to the finish. With finishing being a sole motivator, I found some extra strength and pushed on to the finish, even putting in a little sprint at the end.

Afterwards, I promptly set my bike down and collapsed on the ground. I didn't feel as awful as after Tucker County, but my body was done. While lying on the ground, it wasn't long before I was presented with a "recovery drink", to which I naturally obliged, even though I barely kept it down.

Recovery drink.
In the end, I finished with a time of 6:33:43 and was 16th of 34 in my category (only 19 finished). Even though I didn't meet my goal, this roadie was happy to have finished one of the toughest mountain bike races in the region.