Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"Enduroance Nationals" - Sun Valley NAET / Enduro Cup and Marathon MTB National Championships

All packed up and ready for a 650 mile trip with a three month old (and all the "equipment" that's needed), three bikes, tools, gear, clothes, and food for ten days.  

Yep, my Highball is in there somewhere, along with two spare wheelsets, a pack'n'play crib and a stroller.  I'd say my packing skills are pro.  Everything's ready, Logan's strapped in and asleep... perfect... ready to hit the road.  Get in, turn the key... "Click... click click click click."  Um, this isn't happening.  I turn to Jen, "I have no idea where the jumper cables are!"  The search begins and about fifteen minutes later we were finally rolling.  Thankfully there were no problems on the road for the twelve hours it took to get to Sun Valley (lots of stops for Logan!), but there would be more hiccups to come.

On Saturday morning we arrived at the race venue and Jen finally got to experience the drastic difference in ambiance between Enduro and XC racing.  It was about an hour before the "start" and instead of a full parking lot with riders warming up on trainers, and a general "nervousness" in the air typically found at an XC race, there was a nearly empty parking lot aside from a couple guys casually unloading their bikes while working on some large breakfast burritos.  #soenduro

We all got to ride the gondola up to mid mountain which was nice.

And then I went up to the top (9000ft) and waited around to do the mandatory preride of the flow trail which would be the second timed stage.

It was a good thing to send everyone down that trail to get a look.  It was very odd, hard to read, and seemed to lack real flow.  It even went uphill in parts.  I heard some call it the "anti-flow" trail and it required a ton of pedaling.  I put the preride knowledge in my back pocket and went back up to the top to wait around for the start of stage one down Bald Mountain trail.

I remembered this trail from previous years, for the most part.  It was rocky and loose, with high speed straights, blind wrap around corners and tight switchbacks down below.  

Very fun to ride, but very challenging to race because you're trying not to dab the brakes while thinking "do I REALLY remember this corner?"  The corners were so loose that if you tried to brake or make any adjustments in the middle, you went down.  A lot of people did.  I played it safe, going for consistency over two days and had a reasonable run even though I really didn't know where the finish line was (hidden in the trees).  

A comfy chairlift ride took me back up to the top for stage two (what happened to pedaling up for transitions?) and it was back onto the "anti-flow" trail.  At race pace it was better, and I felt like I had a pretty decent run.  I was able to get in and out of the corners much more comfortably than my practice run, but nowhere near the speed of the guys who can really ride this style of trail well.  

Stage three wouldn't start for a while so I took the opportunity to make a run down lower Bald Mountain Trail and River Run Trail which was really nice to see again before racing it in a couple hours.  Jen, Logan and I hung out at the bottom for a while realizing that start times are a very fluid concept in enduro ( which is better, #endurotime or #endurNOtime ).  Then I made my way up to the top and waited some more, enjoying the wonderful view.

Eventually I found myself in the start gate and then hammering again down upper Bald Mountain Trail.
Since it was the second time at race pace on this trail in a day, it went MUCH better.  And then onto the lower section which is even faster and wide open with very little traction.  As I reached nearly 40mph blazing through the trees over scree, the thought hitting something wrong that sends me flipping into the trees didn't really sound good, so yeah I dabbed the brakes.  I still found myself blowing through a couple turns and hanging the back wheel off the trail (Saved it!!!) which got the heart pounding for sure.  Down towards the bottom on River Run Trail, my tall frame found its way through the many switchbacks fast enough for the 9th best time on the stage.  And I was pretty stoked on that.  

Day two would start with a gondola ride to mid mountain, then a pedal powered transition stage up a steep, relentless fire road to the top.  The TALAS fork came in handy and I "won" that transition stage and got to the top with some time to myself in the start area.

The concept of the fluid start time bled into day two as we relaxed at the top and eventually started about an hour and a half after I got there.  The first stage of the day took us down the back side of the peak to Warm Springs Trail.  The upper part is still on the loose scree but as you make your way down past the tree line you get a little more dirt traction and a ton of real trail flow.
Warm Springs is a blast to ride and I felt great.  I rode both stages clean and fast, with times that made up for my day one sluggishness and brought me up to finish 7th overall!  I was very stoked on the result and had a blast as always riding the Tallboy LTc as fast as my skill and sense of self preservation would allow.  

Next up it was Marathon National Championships on Saturday.  The week in between was spent pre-riding and getting back into XC mode, while taking care of the little guy.  Here's a photo summary:

That last picture was one of the other hiccups in the trip... in addition to the car not starting a couple more times and having to flag someone down for a jump start.  I noticed the damaged rack on Friday as was heading out for my final pre-ride.  Thankfully the family of the elderly man who backed into it was there and took care of everything.  They knew the owners of the "Elephant's Perch" bike shop downtown and got us set up with a replacement rack so we could get the bikes home.  I was very thankful that they took such good care of us, but combining that with installing a new car battery definitely falls under "things I'd rather not do the day before a marathon xc race."

This year our start time was moved back to 1pm and it was toasty warm.  My Tallboy was all shined up and ready to go, with eleven Clif Shot Bloks stuck to the top tube for easy access.  Right before the start, a guy came up to me to say thank you because earlier in the week I had offered help to him on the trail when I was out pre-riding.  Because many other riders had just ridden on by, he really appreciated it and would be rooting for me in the race.  Cool!

Since it was an XC race, we actually started at 1pm and rolled out down the bike trail towards the big Cold Springs climb.  When we hit the first upslope on the dirt road, I found myself at the front.  I wasn't pushing the pace but I think everyone just wanted to follow the human highlighter for a while.  That and I was the idiot who went to the front in the headwind! Oh well, it was fun to lead a race with such a high caliber field even if it was just for a quarter mile.  Once we neared the first steep pitch, others went around, which I was fine with.  There was just one line through the loose dirt and a rider about three spots up fumbled and stalled.  I sat up and held back so that it wouldn't bunch up and force me to dismount.  But in that process I shifted too quickly and the chain went over the cassette and stopped me dead in my tracks.  I tried not to stack the rest of the group and get out of the way.  I was "that guy" but there was nothing I could do about it.  The chain went back on quickly but I was already at the back of the field and my hopes of trying to stay with the front group were dashed.  Now it was a game of catch-up and just to do the best I could and see what happens.  I had a decent climb to the top and grabbed a neutral water bottle before heading down warm springs.  I'd been riding this downhill all week and had it pretty dialed so I could stay relaxed while being fast.  After the descent and a fire road climb, us pro's got a bonus section for this years course.  A half hour long, nose of the saddle climb UP Bald Mountain Trail.  Yup, that same trail we raced down twice in the enduro the week before.  Thankfully, the hiker traffic throughout the week packed it in some and repaired some of the blown out trail.  But it was a doozy to say the least.  Survival.  Just one pedal stroke after another.  I quit thinking about how hot it was, how the elevation was getting to me and how much it hurt.  Just get to the downhill.

I finally made it and railed the warm springs downhill, but I was a bit more out of it that the last trip.  I was beginning to think that I'd be OK if something on my bike broke and I had to DNF.  Oh darn.  I even tossed my CO2 to someone with a flat half way down.  If I got a flat I wouldn't mind the break until someone tossed me theirs (someone would, because most MTBer's are cool like that).

I was able to recover a bit after some time descending, and felt pretty fast on River Run Trail.  I had caught a rider in a Giant kit by the bottom but I thought "Nah that can't be Carl Decker, I'm sure I'm still at the back."  I rolled into the feed zone only slightly delirious and I spotted Jen.  Before the race I had given her two bottles and said I would tell her which one I wanted.  But I didn't anticipate my state of exhaustion.  She hurriedly asked "Which one do you want?!" I was just happy I spotted her!  "Oh... um, the black one!"  I wanted to quit.  But she was there with what I needed, ready to hand off as if it were a high intensity Pro XCT race feed.  And I was on my way.  I had to keep moving or else I WOULD quit, and I'd hate myself for choosing to quit when I didn't HAVE to.  So I pedaled off again through the start/finish line and the announcer said "And it's Clint Claassen out of here first!" excitedly like I was doing well or something.  It seemed odd since I was at the back of the pack right?

After taking down a lot of water and peeling off a few Shot Bloks from the top tube, and a mini Clif bar, I was climbing Cold Springs again.  Just to get through it.  That guy in the Giant kit caught me and as he rode up along side I turned to see who it was.  "Hey Carl!"  It turns out it was Mr. Decker.  Hmmm... we conversed a little about how much this sucked, and how about this time last year we were finishing which sounded nice.  He said "We're sitting in around 10th spot right?" "I don't have a freakin' clue" I said.  A couple minutes later we reached a small neutral feed area before the singletrack and a guy there said "You're 8th and 9th with about 90 seconds up on 10th!"

Me: "No $#!^ !!!"

Carl laughed.  So apparently I was doing much better than I'd thought!  That was a bit of a spark and I was able to keep up with Carl's pace for a couple miles, until I ran out of water and had to dial it back.  Unfortunately there was still a lot of climb left, and I was now all by myself with plenty of time to think about how much it sucked.  I looked at each water bottle that was discarded along the trail, wondering if there was wet goodness inside.  I couldn't bring myself to actually check, figuring I could get through the next 25 minutes without it.

Those 25 minutes were really hard.

The neutral feed water station at the top was a glorious sight.  I can't imagine what I looked like to them... if they could get past the florescent yellow.  I tried not to drink too fast, and kept railing down warm springs.  So happy that I didn't really have to think about the trail, except to miss the loose rock that had moved around from racers going off line throughout the day.  Both legs cramped in the inner thigh going up the middle climb on warm springs, and I wanted to keel over.  I tanked the last of my water and a couple extra salty Margarita Shot Bloks and after a few minutes of spinning up the trail in pain they went away.

With the carrot of a potential top ten finish dangling in front of me I hammered on.  Pushing it on the downhill as much as I could.  The comfort of the Tallboy and having reliable equipment didn't grant me a legitimate excuse to end my suffering early, and I am thankful.  Because I came across the line in 9th place, knowing that I gave everything I had to get my best pro finish ever at a national championship.  And my second top ten of the trip!

I just wish the race schedule was reversed with Marathon's first and the fun Enduro last.  When I rule the world...

Next up... after a mental and physical break.  Downieville!