Friday, August 19, 2011

8/7/11 Howell Mountain Challenge

Spend 15 hours on the bike, plus 4 days gym workouts, and 5-6 hours of sleep each night in a week and then race a tough 30 mile MTB race?  Mmmm... ok.  Oh and still be motivated to push it and try to win.  Uhh... raincheck?

I overcame the urge to stay in bed at 6am, even though that's sleeping in for me, mainly because I didn't get up at 3:45 with Jen to go work the TBF Tri 4 Real because I was racing.  Wandering around the house, gathering all the gear together and making the bottle mixes of HEED for a 2hr race, thoughts and excuses rolling through my head trying to justify not doing it.  But this is one of my favorite courses of the year, tough, but rewarding.  So I zombie'd around the house and before I knew it I was westbound for Angwin.  

The legs were pretty heavy feeling during the warmup, and even caffeine wasn't really getting me juiced to hammer.  Oh well, it's a pretty long race, maybe they'll come around in an hour or so and if I can manage to stay towards the front I'll still be in it.  Well the gun went off and up the dreadful start climb we went, with the Whole Athlete kids sprinting off the front.  Argh.  I was off the back of the lead group right away.  Up the climb and hike section to the top and then onto the flats for a half mile, I could already see there was a lead group of 4 or so breaking away, and another chase pack, then me, in about 11th place by the time we get into the first singletrack.  I tried to keep track of the number of riders in front of me as the plan was just to pick them off slowly.  Through the fun singletrack in the trees, drifting, twisting, climbing, where no matter how narrow your bars are the gaps in the trees still feel tight.  Super fun stuff.  Ok, starting to feel better.  I start to see some dust and then get into an open stretch and see some "rabbits" to catch.  Well here we go.  10...9...8... and then some more twisty singletrack and rocks.  I love my Highball... good choice... the bike was rockin' it.  7... steep climb, punch it, 6...  more singletrack and then a fast fire road descent... 5... climbing again, oops, 6... 7... good job guys.  Ok now the last descent before the steep climb, 6..., ....and up the steep climb we go into the granny and standing but it's too loose and I have to walk the last bit.  7... dang, nice job man.  But next up is my forte, the long gradual climb where the diesel power shines.  But I look down and discover a lap 1 casualty; lost the seat tube mounted water bottle somewhere.  Dang!  That was one of the good Camelbak ones, hopefully I can find it on the next lap because rationing just 1 bottle for this race is pushing the fluid intake limits.  Still climbing, 6... 5... 4... now lap two and I see Brian Astell up ahead with about a 30 second gap as we go into the trees for round two.  Riding by myself for a while, trying to stay smooth and on top of the pedals.  I finally catch Brian after going through the rocks, half way through the lap and as I go by, "there's three guys ahead right?"  Brian said he thought there was only two.  Guess I must have miss counted.  I was sleep deprived and trying to do high level math while racing, so it's a possibility.  I could see them riding together in the couple long stretches, maybe just 30 seconds up.  Down the hill I go again, keeping a sharp eye out for my MIA waterbottle... no luck.  As I get to near the top of the steep climb again, going around a lapped rider I slip out.  As I dismount I hear "Hey Clint!" from behind me.  Brian was at the base of the climb and as I look back "You're right, there are three guys ahead!"  Aha!  So I was right (and my math skills were still sharp)!  Cool.  But where was that leader?  

Time for the long climb again, what pops into my head? Dori from "Finding Nemo" singing: "Just keep swimming swimming swimming..."

Well, swap swimming with pedaling and DO IT!!!  The plan is working!  They're getting closer!  

Lap 3, no luck on finding the lost bottle and not much is left in the one I have.  By the end of the singletrack I'm seeing lots of dust and we pop out onto a road section and I've caught them.  Two Whole Athlete Cat 1 racers putting out a strong race.  I seesaw with them a bit and one gets a bit of separation from us.  Nice effort, I can't match it.  I just about catch back up to him on the long grinder climb though, giving it all I had, but there's just too much gap.  I get to the rocky "whoop de doos" and over the first one, down and up the second but when I stand up to power over the rocks the chain skips and I land on the top tube, ouch.  As I get my breath back from a crotch impact the next guy goes by, 3... and I still had to run up the rest of that whoop.  He put some time on me there, too much to get back with only about a mile to go and I eventually roll across the line 4th overall,  20 seconds back from 3rd, and another 20 seconds from 2nd.  Nice job guys.  But the winner, Will Curtis, crushed it and was three minutes up!  Turns out he was fully rested and in redemption mode after a bad race a couple weeks prior and really wanted this one.  And "wanting it" vs. "looking for excuses to stay in bed" equaled three minutes.  It would have been interesting to compare our lap times though, because my last one was feeling pretty good.  But I certainly didn't have the motivation to go ride for a couple hours after the race... took a little cat nap on the grass waiting for the awards instead :-).  

I'm happy though with the solid and consistent effort that I was able to put out, finishing as the 2nd place pro and a time over five minutes faster than last year's.  Must be the bike :-).

Thursday, August 11, 2011

2011 XC MTB National Championships Race Report

Just a few days after the Downieville Classic I loaded up the rental car and set off for Sun Valley, Idaho and this year's National Champs.  The drive would be about 650 miles from Sacramento and take me through country I'd never been, so I was pretty excited.
I think I did a good packing job!

Unfortunately Jen wouldn't be joining me this year, with all the time off work she's having to take to rehab her foot, tagging along for this trip wasn't going to happen.  So rollin' solo... across I-80 and norther Nevada where I learned there is NOTHING out there!  It's beautiful in it's openness, but my cell wasn't getting service so I felt a little isolated.  At least the car had XM radio and the comedy channel was great.  Oh and in my opinion roads that straight and flat shouldn't have speed limits!  Where there wasn't road construction that is... and there was lots of that.
I got stopped for about 20 minutes just north of Wells, NV to wait for construction.  At least there were some calves in the trailer in front of me that kept me entertained and I got some good stretching in...

So I finally made it to the race venue in Sun Valley at about 4:30pm, with the intention of getting a few runs in on the Super D course.  But I had forgotten that Sun Valley is an hour ahead and it was actually 5:30.  By the time I got all my registration stuff and got suited up, the gondola was shut down.  Bummer, well looks like I'd be riding the XC course.  I rolled out on the Tallboy to scope out the course and decided to see what pain this years race was going to bring.  Right off the bat we'd be climbing up a fire road and gaining about 620ft of vert.  Pretty much riding up a ski run, where I heard in places it got to a 27% grade.  I'm not sure if that's right, but it sure was steep in spots and the dirt was a little loose too which made standing up a bit difficult.  Once that climb was over, there was some fun to be had in the trees.  The trail turned to singletrack and wound back down the hill with a ton of tight switchbacks where the best way to get through them was to stick a foot out moto style and slid the back end around, then sprint out of the corner.  Pretty fun.  There were a few roots and rocks to go over but it was overall very smooth.  Down at the bottom they had one short downhill fabricated rock garden that was easy to roll (especially on the 29er!) once you get the line set up correctly.  Just let off the brakes and let 'er fly.  Unfortunately some people didn't obey the "speed is your friend" concept here and took some bad tumbles.  After that the course wound around the lodge and into the "River Run Rock Garden" which was a flat bit of dirt about 50yds long where they embedded a bunch of big rocks.  This section was just annoying to me and was there just to break the flow of the course.  But I eventually found a couple lines through it and got used to it.  After a couple laps on the pro course I decided to take a lap on the amateur course to change up the scenery and get some more sweet Idaho singletrack and views.

Thursday afternoon the Super D course was finally open for practice and I was enjoying not pedaling all the way up.
View from the Start of the Super D, looking down on Ketchum and Sun Valley.

The Super D course started off with about a 4 minute (at race pace) climb on a fire road that gained about 300 vert.  Then, whether you're ready or not you're shot into a singletrack chute and after a couple pedal strokes you realize you're going wayyyy to fast to make that first blind left corner.  Conditions were a little loose up top so you just feather the brake and find that line between drift and grip and hope you remember how tight that next corner is.  The top trails were technically easy, except for the fact you're going really really fast.  My first run down I qualified that as "scary."  But I got more and more comfortable and after 4 complete runs on the course I felt good about it.  I even caught the upper chairlift and took it to the very top of Bald Mountain (9000 ft.) to get some extra riding above the Super D start.
The Tallboy at 9000ft. atop Bald Mtn.
Friday morning I was at the venue early, around 6:45am with the Highball to ride the XC course again.  I was pretty certain that was the best bike for the race but my gearing was still TBD with that nasty climb.  The night before I had put on a 32t front ring instead of the 36t 1x10 setup.  Well one trip up the hill and I had my answer, I needed more gear.  Luckily I had brought my triple ring setup and shifter and as I was heading back to the car I noticed the Shimano support guys were up early, and Ryan was willing to help me switch it out... SWEET!
Of course though, I forgot the chainring bolts!  And the new XTR bolts are different than any others and they didn't have any spares.  He ended up scrounging some Ultegra bolts and had to file them down by hand.
Thankfully the bolts are aluminum so they filed away easily.  They worked perfectly and we got the triple setup working like a charm.  Thanks Shimano!  I took it for a spin and knew I was going to be very happy I made the change!  Mmmm granny gear comfort!

2pm Saturday was go time for the XC race, and I was lucky #13... at least I was hoping it was lucky!  Fellow Mad Cat Patrick Morin was also there with his family (kids Avery and Wyatt were racing Jr's) and he was willing to be my tech and feed support for the race... sweet!

I had a call-up in the mid/back of the pack, 47th I think, out of 65 racers starting.  Once the gun went off it was the usual start sprint and then straight up that climb.  It was a wide fire road so I wasn't expecting there to be a bottleneck but sure enough someone in front of me had to get off and therefore so did I, lame.  I love running in a bike race... Once I remounted after loosing some positions I set my "diesel" pace for the climb and slowly picked off riders handfulls at a time.  Some people were slipping out on the loose dirt in the steep sections but the Highball is so balanced and the WTB Nanos gripped just enough I could keep the steady power down.
I finally made it to the top of the first climb and then hit the singletrack gasping for air.  The first few turns were spent narrowly avoiding trees because I was so focused on recovering.  I caught up to a couple riders on the decent but there really wasn't anywhere to pass and honestly I didn't want to exert myself much anywhere else on the course except for that climb.  There was a big crowd at the bottom though which was pretty energizing as they watched everyone go down the last rock section.  Here's a video of that first lap descent:

And the "River Run Rock Garden" was filled with hecklers ready to raz or cheer everyone struggling through the rocks.

Lap 2 was a little bit of a recovery lap and I didn't push the pace too much on the climb, but there were already guys walking in a couple of the steepest spots and I still passed a few before making the turn at the top again.  I had another clean run down the switchbacks and when I got to the rock garden at the bottom I took my usual line which was a little different than most others.  I would cut across the inside diagonally from the top, squeak between a couple bigger rocks and then hit the smother line at the bottom.  But I caught my right pedal on one of those taller rocks on top which pitched my back end up and a little sideways.  The crowed let out a uniform gasp of "Oooohs" and it must have looked like I was going to cartwheel down the whole thing.  I stayed loose and it didn't feel to bad to me, I didn't touch the brakes and let the big wheels keep rollin' and the back end came down about half way down the rocks to the amazement of the crowd as the all let out a roaring cheer!  I busted up laughing before I got to the bottom and got a huge lift in spirits from the whole crowd cheering me on.  I've never had that, and it was awesome.  Oh and I took a different line the rest of my laps :-).
I set up the hill for lap three and like the previous two laps, refused the "feed" from the guy giving out marshmallows.  "MARSHMALLOW FEED!!!" He'd yell and hold one out, it made me laugh each lap.

My 3rd and 4th laps were my fastest and I continued to pass quite a few guys on the the climb each lap.  I was so thankful to have that triple ring and it was really starting to sting and I was certainly using the little gears.  I had one more bobble during the race on my 5th trip through the lower flat rock garden.  I lost my balance and momentum in the rocks and popped my chain off trying to shift down.  It's such a slow section though I didn't loose much time and found a place to remount and ride it out and only had to run a few feet.
My final (6th) lap I put out a big effort on the last climb and passed 3 more riders before the top.  It was pretty spread out by then.  I caught another rider on the descent and was right on his wheel when he crashed on a switchback.  I ran over his back tire and kept on going as fast as I could to the bottom almost picking off one more by the finish but he got me by a wheel.
I finished up in 24th place and I'm really happy with my effort.  It's my first time in the top 25 at this level and at National Champs!  Positions 31 and back were lapped and pulled from the race.  Just goes to show you how tough the course was to race on.  Thanks so much to Patrick Morin for the awesome feeds, and the cold water splash on the back on the last lap, that felt great!  And thank you to Judy (Jen's Aunt, who drove down from northern Idaho to watch) for the cheers and lap times.
Here's my GPS data from the race:

Sunday morning it was time for the Super D throw down and I was up early to catch a 6:45am gondola ride to the top for one last preride.  But when I dropped into the singletack I discovered an "x-factor" I hadn't considered the day before, the sun.  The hillside we were blazing down was mostly east facing and the morning sun was glaring right in my eyes.  I switched to dark lenses on the goggles to minimize the squintage but since they didn't have polarization the glare was really bad.  Not being able to see really made it scary on those fast, loose, blind corners.  But everyone would have to deal with it.
Super D start area
I was one of the early start spots and had Alexander Grant and Adam Craig in front of me so I knew I wouldn't be slowed up.  My legs were feeling decently recovered from the XC race on Saturday so once I got going I was feeling good on the climb.  On the long part I could see Adam and Alex and I didn't seem to be loosing any ground really.  I got to the top, put the Tallboy into "shred mode" (opened the rear shock and extended the fork to 120mm) and dropped the hammer down the first descent and promptly overcooked into the first corner and slid my rear wheel off the edge of the trail but recovered.  I got back on the pedals for a long straightaway descent and boosted some air off of a rise.  That's not the "fast" thing to do but it's fun and helps me relax and be smooth for the rest of the run, which is faster overall.  I nailed the first right hand switchback which was the tightest of the course and kept on truckin' into the sun now.  I kept it clean on the top section and felt fast all the way down to the fire road.  I got in some good drifts around the corners on the road and pedaled wherever I could, hitting the singletrack corner at the bottom with a ton of speed pulled some good g's before heading back into the trees.  I came up on a rider who'd had a mechanical, he got off the trail and I made it by clean but after the next corner I heard an odd clanking noise from him down the hill.  I turned to look, not knowing if I was falling or something, and he'd just hopped on his bike to ride straight down for a shortcut.  That look back though pulled me off my line and I went off the trail and had to put a foot down and pull myself up loosing a couple valuable seconds.  A few more corners in the trees, one more fire road section and then a sweeping downhill turn, off camber and loose, to bring me into the top singletrack section of the prior day's XC course which I'd pretty much memorized by this point.  I let the Tallboy do the work and just stayed loose and off the brakes... for everything but the switchbacks of course :-).  No bobbles from here on out and I felt fast, clearing the final rock garden and coming across the line exactly 1 minute behind the winner Adam Craig.  I'm stoked to say that time put me in 8th place!!!  Also, with a new All Mountain category this year, combining the XC and Super D events, my placing in both of those got me 4th place!  Nice!

I'm really happy with how Nationals went this year, I gave it my all in both events and considering everything that's happened this year I think it was a big success.  I would have liked to stay and race the Short Track race as well, but it started too late in the day for me to realistically make the drive back and go to work the next day.  I didn't want to leave Sun Valley, it was absolutely beautiful.  Ketchum is a pretty cool little town and I really wanted to stay around there at least a few more days and just explore some of the great trails and places I heard people talking about.  I can't wait to come back next year.