Park City Point to Point: Do, or Do Not, but Do Not Try 

 

Suffering
“Oomph!  How much further to the summit?” – my tired legs

The guys at aid station #3 said I only had two more miles of climbing until the final 8-mile descent to the finish line.  I’m still climbing at snail’s pace, and it’s been over five miles since I left their false promises.  This has been a long day.  The Point to Point boasts over 15,000 ft. of climbing in the Wasatch mountains over the course of 76 miles, and I have been in misery since mile 25.  I am trying not to let the well-intentioned misinformation from the volunteers at aid #3 dim my spirits.  Just keep pedaling.

The Back-Story to This Moment

I lined up to race this morning with some amazing women I was thrilled to chase.  Not having raced this distance or elevation profile before, I knew this race would be a learning experience for me.  I had abandoned my warm-up routine when my hands, feet and nose were numb in the (very) early morning chill, and opted to regain feeling in my extremities huddled with several other racers in the heated women’s bathroom.  Park City has heated public bathrooms at trailheads; fancy!  No longer shivering, I rolled to the start line. An air cannon shot cereal into the air, beginning my Park City Point to Point escapade.

The Pro Women did not begin with a social pace that winds up to race pace over the first 20 minutes of racing allowing riders to warm-up in the actual race as is typical for ultra-endurance distances.  Normally ultra-endurance races begin at a social pace that slowly builds to race pace over the first 20 minutes of a race, which allows riders to warm up. But not today. Instead, we tore from the line sprinting in short-course fashion.  I love to jockey for a spot in the lead pack, so I gave chase but regretted not properly warming up.  We ripped through Round Valley, and I was in heaven nailing the loose switchbacks on the descents.  The lead pack broke up as we crossed into Deer Crest.  I slowed on this climb realizing I had gone hard off the start and needed to settle into my pace.  Typically, I am a diesel engine distance rider: I slowly build to pace and hold it for the duration.  This puts me behind the pack in the early part of the race, and I slowly pass up through the field to the finish. Today, however, I was a hot rod. I decided I would go fast off the start and hope to put enough distance between myself and the chasing women to hold my position.  This was new.

Bike Demo Pic (2)
A (brief) moment of descending. Photo: Park City Bike Demos

Having fun with elbow-bumping racing, opportunities to eat were few, and the cool early morning temps distracted me from my need to hydrate. By 10am and just 30 miles in to a 76-mile race, I discovered I had bonked.* Using my normal race strategy, I am a metronome for pace, hydration and nutrition, which keeps me from entering this sad, miserable state.  This was unchartered territory.  I replaced my hydration bladder, which was only half empty (bad!) but did not need to restock my gels because I had not taken a single one (very bad!).  I knew I needed to get some sugar smacks  running through my system ASAP if I was going to overcome the bonk.  I went to the feed station, and nothing looked good.  There were tasty options, but when you are that depleted nothing looks appetizing.  I was in serious trouble!  I tried to eat a cookie as I rolled away from the first aid station and was nauseous.  I am sorry to admit I fed most of it to the squirrels.  *See footnote at end of article for a definition of “bonked.”

Climbing Park City Mountain Resort was pure drudgery.  I was getting passed.  And passed some more.  It was heartbreaking, but I knew my current situation was my own doing.  Then finally, halleluiah! I reached John’s  99 trail, and the technical descent, a non-energy consuming strength of mine, restored my spirits.  I felt like I deserved the “pro grease”  number on my calf again until the next climb where my legs cramped and the men I passed on the previous descent enjoyed zipping past.  My mantra kept me going, “Drink. Eat.  Ride the efficient line. Keep pedaling. You’ve got this.”

At the bottom of Crescent Mine Grade, the second aid station greeted me.  I told myself that if I was not having fun I could call it quits here.  Cheering friends brought sanity back to my thoughts.  I was suffering, but I was not in danger of injuring myself.  I was not going to be on the podium today, but that is not why I race.  I had made a series of tactical mistakes, but this would be a point to improve upon moving forward in my career.  So, I left aid station #2 to climb Armstrong and knew I would see this through.  No excuses.

Rolling Home
Finally, the finish line is in sight!

Back to Now

With cheeks packed with potato chips from the third and final aid station (I was hoping they would dissolve and enter my bloodstream without my body realizing I was eating), I finally hit the descent from The Canyons to the Utah Olympic Park where the finish line mercifully received me.  Done. I got this done.  It was not pretty.  It was not a race to brag about.  I am proud to be a professional cyclist, but today was humbling.   With TUNA coach Chris holding my bike so I could dismount on wobbly legs, my sister eagerly embracing me despite a sweat-soaked kit and a thick coating of dust, my DH skills coach Brandon spraying me down car-wash style, and Summit Bike Team director Lori  enticing me to the ice cream parlor, I realized there was no embarrassment for me to hold on to.  Racing is an adventure, and if everything went perfectly it would be mundane.  Victory is not dictated by a number or the approval of others, it is marked by reaching beyond what feels possible.  Today I won by overcoming fear of perceived failure.  My podium was learning how mentally strong I am amidst physical meltdown. My award was the love lavished nonjudgmentally on me by my cycling community.   Define your own success.

Sister finish Love
My sister greeting me at the finish.  Love her.

*Definition of Bonking While Mountain Biking

  1. Going hard and getting passed by a rider I expect to finish ahead of. I’m convinced they are riding above their abilities and will blow up.  In reality, I’m crawling.  I have run out of fuel and my muscles can barely fire. 
  2. Cursing the rocks for being in my way, forcing me to maneuver my bike and put some heat into my pedal stroke so my bike doesn’t topple over. My adrenaline is spiking in a last-ditch effort of survival because my brain knows the end is near.
  3. Realizing I’m calorie depleted and trying to take in a gel, but it tastes like soggy socks instead of bacon. My ego no longer cares if I stop to look in my pockets for something edible.
  4. Tears. I’m understanding this mess is my own doing.  (Yes, I just admitted that.)
  5. Acceptance. Keep going.  Do damage control.

All photos unless otherwise noted are from Angie Harker at Selective Vision.

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“Carson City, So Hot Right Now. Carson City.” – Zoolander

xc 2 stan (2)Last weekend I headed to Carson City, Nevada to race the Epic Rides Carson City Off-Road Race.  It was the first time I have raced a 55-mile course with a women’s field this stacked, and I was stoked for a new challenge.  However, I never imagined my biggest challenge would be the extreme conditions.

course marker (2)
“More fun, hot, and exposed trail ahead,” Course Marker

Winter would not give in to spring this year in Bend, OR.  Much of our mountain bike terrain was under snow until I left for a few weeks of traveling and racing. I’ve been riding in leggings and sleeves to stay warm, and when I surrendered hope for the trails and hit the road, snow was in the forecast again.  Even my spring training week in St. George, UT was during a cold streak of rain and temps in the 60’s.  Needless to say, I do not have tan lines or acclimatization to the heat!  Arriving in Carson City I learned they too were melting out from an epic winter, and the course had to be modified to lower elevations: three loops covering 55 miles with over 7000ft of climbing on exposed terrain.  And then, last minute, the heat wave hit.  The temps rapidly went from the sixties to the nineties; I would be racing in ninety-five degree temperatures without tree coverage to stay out of the sun.  Gulp.  It was time to plan for how to race in the conditions when I was completely not acclimated to heat.  

Here is what I did to acclimate as much as I could in the days leading up to the race:

  • I pre-rode the course (about 19 miles) during peak heat every day except Saturday.
  • I drank as much water as I could all day, alternating water with electrolytes.
  • I avoided air conditioned environments, but kept cool with cold showers and dips in the river.  Likewise, I slept with the windows open.  ***(see bottom of post)***
crit 2 stan (2)
Staying with Sophia and Nicki through the corners on the crit.

Friday evening was the fat tire criterion race.  It would be a good test run of my heat hardiness.  I did a full hour plus warm-up in the heat for my race, and drank carbohydrates and electrolytes. The crit was a blast.  It was my first of this variety: a short loop on the roads through downtown Carson City with tight corners that we raced through on our mountain bikes. The pace was instantly fast, and we were shoulder to shoulder going into the first few turns.  At the second corner there was a crash that I stayed clear of, but it reminded me that my first priority was to stay safe.  The pack started to break up and I pulled into the lead group.  The worst place to be is at the back of a group in this sort of race.  You are forced to brake into corners and sprint out of them to keep up.  This yo-yo riding blows through your energy reserves quickly.  I knew this and had the sprint power to pull into the middle of the pack, but every time I did a more experienced crit rider would challenge me for position, and I would back.  As expected, I blew up just 10 minutes into a race of 30 minutes plus three laps.  After a lap, I recovered enough to try and claw back to the lead group.  That turned out to be an impossible task for me solo with a headwind climb, but I was able to practice smart strategy and pass two women who popped off the lead group.  It turns out I have learned a thing or two about road racing watching the grand tours on TV over the years.  Dripping sweat I made the final lap.  I knew I would have to be more strategic in managing the conditions on Sunday for the big race if I wanted to be successful.

Dennis and Spencer finish (2)
My host family father and son finishing the Epic Ride together.

Saturday, the amateurs took to the course.  I did my tune-up ride in the morning before the temperatures hit the nineties then headed out to cheer the racers on.  Dennis and Spencer, my host families father and son were racing as well as many others I knew.  Many of them were visibly overheated.  I knew preventing this was essential for me the following day.  That night my host family threw a backyard party to celebrate those who raced that day.  I heard their race play-by-plays and took note.  Cramping and sour stomachs were a big issue for them, as was their lack of desire to take in calories in the heat.  I had a plan for this and fell asleep confident for Sundays event.

XC stan (2)
Off the back… but only for a moment!

At 7:40am Sunday morning in eight-five degrees, the pro women’s field started the Carson City Off Road. The pace was social as we rode out of downtown and picked up as we headed to King’s Canyon.  As we hit the gravel road I glanced at my Garmin and was surprised to see my effort was too high to sustain for the distance in the heat.  It was devastating to be the first woman to drop off the peloton, but I stuck to my strategy knowing that going too hard too early would put my success in jeopardy.  Adding insult to my ego, my husband Joe and host family were just ahead to cheer me on, and I was in dead last. I did holler to Joe that my position was part on my “Grand Plan” so he wouldn’t worry and I pedaled by.  As we hit the single track the peloton started to break up, and I caught up to two women.  I got around them before the descent and put some distance between us.  Later in the descent I caught several women and knew that if I stuck to my steady-Eddie pace and confident downhill skills I would continue to move up the field.

XC Dennis pic edit
Headed home.  Olivia is just ahead.  Pavement is in sight.  Go, go, go!

The second lap was a blur of passing women, hydrating, fueling, feeling the heat take it’s toll, and enjoying the descent to cheering crowds.  At the end of the second lap I met Joe to pick up a new frozen hydration pack.  He dumped ice water all over me to cool me down then I pedaled through the streets to downtown feeling spry.

The third lap was a crusher.  I kept my pace in check, resisting the urge to slow.  I knew I was heating up so I started drinking as much cool fluid as I could.  I was dreaming of a breeze or the shade of a single tree as I caught Olivia, a beast of an endurance racer, ahead of me. Then I started to get goose-bumps, a sure sign of overheating.  I

finish stan (2)
Olivia and I at the finish, both of us are in disbelief that we rode the last five miles that fast.

slowed, and at an aid station I doused myself in ice water and drank even more until my temperature was under control.  I headed out again with a friendly push from the aid team.  I began to feel better and better as I continued to climb with only dim hopes of catching Olivia who had passed me while I dealt with my overheating, but I did near the end of the descent!  There was no room to pass, so I hugged her wheel.  We hit the last, short climb and Olivia took off like a rabbit.  I gave chase, but she put a little distance between us.  Olivia is a pro-roadie and can crush open terrain like the pavement we hit.  I spun my legs as fast as I could in my largest gear, zipping through the city and sprinting to the finish.  Though Olivia kept her lead on me, I was stoked to have a her to motivate me to give my all at the end of a tough race.  What a great day.  My thoughtful preparations to race in the heat and trusting the strategy I laid out for myself were key to a successful race.  Dare I say it?  Bring on the heat!

These beautiful images are generously provided by Stan Lattin.  Follow him on Instagram @mtb_stan_lee

***Follow up post about the science of adapting to extreme heat and how to do it coming next week!  Stay tuned.***

How to Equip to Ride a Fat Bike in the Snow

sj-fatbikePreparation is Key for Keeping it Fun in the Cold on a Snow Bike

Baby, it’s cold outside; but I want to ride. Those of us living in environments where the earth is white for several months and the pavement shoulder hides under sheets of ice and debris thank the bike gods for giving us fat bikes. You can now pedal in the snow. Fat biking is just biking, but there are some unique equipment considerations before you hit the trails.

What to wear to ride in the snow?

Getting sweaty in cold weather is a recipe for misery, so utilizing clothing layers while carrying additional layers is key. I take off and put on layers several times on a fat bike ride. I start out slightly overdressed on a ride and once I’m warmed up I peel off a layer. Even if it is sunny out, I carry a waterproof jacket and pants. You may find yourself hiking in deep snow or the snow may become slush and soak you. If I am going on an epic ride, over four hours, I carry an extra undershirt (and sports bra) to change into mid-ride if I get sweaty. I ride with a small pack to easily store layers as I need them.

For the coldest weather I layer:

  • On top – a thermal top, fleece top, vest (down if it’s really cold), and waterproof jacket with pit zips.
  • On bottom – bike tights (full length or bike shorts with leg warmers), calf height winter socks, long johns or fleece leggings, and waterproof bike pants.
  • Extras – cap and neck gaiter or balaclava, warm gloves and bar mitts, and fat bike boots (see feet for more detail).

For warm winter days, I layer:

  •  On top – thermal shirt and a windproof vest.
  • On bottom – winter bike pants (windproof on the front) or bike shorts with leg warmers (only on short rides in full sun and temps well above 32).
  • Extras – headband, thin gloves, and fat bike boots

Protect Your Extremities

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Fat biking the half pipe at Mt Bachelor on a warmer day. Photo courtesy of Mt. Bachelor Ski Resort.

Hands will not be able to shift or brake if they are numb. If your gloves are too bulky you will have trouble feeling your shifters and levers. Bar mitts let you wear thin gloves. Lobster claw style gloves are also good for fat biking. I always carry a packet of Hot Hands (chemical packets that when opened deliver heat for 7 hours) and put them in my gloves over the top (non-palm) side of my hand where they warm the blood going to your fingers. Carrying an extra pair of gloves is a good idea if you are going for a long ride or getting wet is likely.

Feet will get colder than if you were riding on the road in the same temps. Your boots will brush through snow banks on the side of the trail, and post holing through the snow is inevitable. Flat pedals with traction nubs (free ride style, not the plastic ones that came on your kid’s bike) with good winter boots work well. Bike shoes with neoprene covers are okay but most fill full of snow when you hike. Yes, walking in the snow is a normal part of fat biking in the snow so plan for it. If you ride a fat bike regularly in the snow and want to use clipless pedals, investing in fat bike specific bike boots (I wear Bontrager OMW Winter Shoe) is a must. I also carry an extra packet of Hot Hands to put in my bike shoes if my feet get too cold. They warm your toes best under your socks/against your skin right behind the ball of your foot. Consider an extra pair of non-cotton socks for long rides or rides where you know you will get wet.

The head is where we lose the most heat, so find a fleece cap that fits under your helmet. If you are hot, this layer is the quickest to remove and cools you rapidly. I carry a headband if I think I’ll take my cap off so my ears stay warm. I also carry a neck gaiter for extra warmth if the wind or snow picks up.

Eyewear selection can greatly affect how much fun you have too. Ski goggles have lenses that enhance snow definition but can fog. If you fat bike with goggles make sure they vent well with your helmet; if they are made by the same manufacturer they typically will. Yellow lenses work well in the snow unless you will be biking in full sun conditions. For full sun, regular riding sun glasses work fine.

Preparing for a mechanical on a fat bike requires a few special items

To fix a flat on the fat bike’s extra large tires you will need a fat bike specific tube. Some bike shops will sell you a DH (downhill) tube and say it will work. It won’t. Your CO2 cartridge may fill your tire to only 2-3 psi, so carry several, or better yet, carry a hand pump. To have the most fun on your fat bike, adjust your tire pressure to maximize float on the particular snow density; it is nice to have a pump so you can play around with the psi that is right for you and not worry about running out of CO2 cartridges. Tire patch glue often freezes, so carry an extra tube. Tire levers also get brittle and break in the cold; I carry three just in case. Thankfully, flats are pretty rare in the snow.

You will flop your bike into deep snow often. These falls are silly and usually painless, but your derailleur hanger is particularly susceptible to bending. Carry an extra derailleur hanger and the tools to replace it.

 

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Heading down the ski slope next to the lift. Photo courtesy of Mt. Bachelor Ski Resort.

Prevention of mechanicals is the best medicine for fat bikes, and that means put your bike away DRY AND LUBED. Components don’t like being wet. A bike put away wet is a rusty bike when you take it out next time (particularly if you ride in an area that salts the roadway).

It gets dark fast in winter; carry lights. I always have a headlamp in my pack in case the ride is longer than I expect. Snow conditions can change quickly, and your out-and-back ride may take twice as long on the return. A flashing front and rear light is great if you will be on trails used by snowmobilers, mushers, skiers, or may find yourself on roads shared with motor vehicles.

Plan your route wisely in winter conditions. If you have a mechanical or other problem, hiking out in the snow will take a whole lot longer than if you are on dirt or pavement. Bring extra clothes, food and lights just in case. Cell phone power is easily drained in cold temps so don’t expect your phone to work. If riding alone, make sure people know where you will be, when you are expected back, and what to do if you don’t return in reasonable time. Choose a ride that is busy, parallels roads, communities, or goes by several trailheads so you have options. If you are exploring remote areas, bring a well-equipped posse of friends.

Fuel your ride

When you are cold you don’t feel thirsty, but you need to drink like on any other ride. A well-hydrated body is better able to thermoregulate. The hose of your hydration pack or a water bottle in a cage may freeze in winter riding. I carry an insulated bottle with hot beverage. Hot tea with electrolytes is nice: green tea with citrus sports drink mix or ginger tea with apple electrolytes are my favorite. I also bring hot soup for long or cold rides. If it is warm out and a hot drink is not what I’m craving, I just add a little snow. In a pinch I have poured my hot drink on frozen components to get me home.

You burn a ton of calories just staying warm, so bring more food than you think you will want. Holiday cookies and leftover ham sandwiches (the meat will stay “refrigerated”) are great, but moist snacks (gels, blocks, bars, fruit, nut butters, etc.) freeze into rocks you won’t want to eat.

Have a hot recovery beverage waiting for you at the end of the ride. I’m a big fan of a Fluids Cinnamon Vanilla Recovery Mix made with hot almond milk to sip while I clean, dry and lube my bike at the trailhead before transporting it home. Hot cocoa is pretty great, too.

fat-bike-back-pack-contents-4
Basic Warm Day/ Short Fat Bike Ride Pack Contents: 1. Extra Socks 2. Extra Gloves 3. Headband 4. Headlamp 5. Neck Gaiter 6. Mechanical Pump 7. Zip-Lock for Phone and Map 8. Back Pack 9. Hot Hands 10. Tire Levers (3) 11. Duct Tape 12. Hydroflasks for Hot Liquids 13. Squirt Cold Temp Chain Lube 14. Derailleur Hanger 15. Multi Tool 16. Fat Bike Tube

My Fat Bike Packing List:

  • Small Backpack
  • Flat kit: fat tire tube, 3 tire levers, mechanical hand pump with psi gauge
  • Multi-tool, duct tape, derailleur hanger
  • 2 Thermos (minimum), 300 calories/hr (minimum) snacks
  • Hot Hands (3)
  • Headlamp and bike lights
  • Down coat if I’m going to take a lunch break in the snow
  • Gore-Tex/ waterproof jacket and pants
  • Extra base layer (top, long johns, sports bra)
  • Extra socks
  • Extra thin gloves or glove liners
  • Headband
  • Neck gaiter or balaclava
  • Zip-lock with my phone and map

With a little insight and preparation, you will have a fantastic adventure on a fat bike. I’m pretty sure you will be talking to your local bike shop about adding a fat bike to your bike stable in no time.

fat-bike-national-championships-at-powder-mountain-2-27-2016-img_2629
Hammering to the win at the 2016 US National Fat Bike Championship for the Pro Women.

This post was originally published on the Wenzel Coaching website.

A Lowlander Racing in the Highlands – How to Not be Crushed Competing at High Altitude.

Oxygen Amounts at Altitude

I grew up at 7000 ft. altitude in New Mexico, spent my early adult life living in Utah where I trained and played in elevations above 8000 ft. regularly, but I now live in Oregon at 3000 ft. and am learning the unique pain and challenges of racing in high altitudes when I live and train at low altitude.  This summer I have three races in high altitudes: the Chile Challenge Pro XC at Angel Fire NM, National Championships at Mammoth CA, and the BreckEpic at Breckenridge CO.  This schedule has given me the opportunity to be my own “guinea pig” of how to prepare for this added challenge.

Dial down the intensity when you arrive at altitude to acclimate better and enjoy the scenery!
Dial down the intensity when you arrive at altitude to acclimate better and enjoy the scenery!

For us lowlanders, a trip to the Rockies is a humbling experience.  A hill I would normally warm up on has me gasping for air, two hours into a casual paced ride will have my legs burning, my après ride festivities are reduced to sleeping, and the next morning I don’t feel as fresh to pedal as I expect.  Altitude!  So what is going on?  The atmospheric pressure is less at high altitude making less oxygen available in each breath of air you inspire.  Oxygen is captured in the lungs, transported by hemoglobin in blood, and delivered to muscles so they can fire.  Respiration and heart rate must increase at altitude to get the same amount of oxygen to muscles from what is needed at lower altitude.  If you live or regularly train at elevation your body will physiologically adapt to transport more oxygen.

Acclimatization to Altitude
Acclimatization to Altitude

When I get to high altitude my body:

  • Reduces the plasma (liquid) in my blood, thus increasing the concentration of oxygen carrying hemoglobin being pumped through the circulatory system, but making my blood thick.
  • It takes more oomph for my heart to pump my thickened blood, so my heart rate increases.
  • To get more oxygen to my lungs, my respiration rate increases.
  • Muscles lose their ability to use fatty acids for fuel and rely primarily on glycogen.

If I can stay at high altitude for 3-4 weeks my body:

  • Will increased the amount of red blood cells and hemoglobin allowing plasma levels return to normal and my blood is no longer sludge.
  • Resting respiration and heart rate decrease to my pre-high altitude zone.
  • Mitochondria (muscle cell’s power producers) increase in size and number so fueling during exercise returns to a predominance on fatty acid consumption instead of glycogen.
  • Increases erythropoietin hormone (EPO) to increase red blood cell and hemoglobin production.
Plan more carbs and more total calories at altitude.
Plan more carbs and more total calories at altitude.

In a world where I don’t have a job and have unlimited funds, I would travel to my high altitude race destinations a month before the race, but until I am rich and famous I have to be smart about how I prepare and interact with altitude.  There is a lot of conflicting research about when the negative effects of altitude are the most intense for athletes but it is general agreed that immediately upon arrival at altitude your body starts to respond by increasing respiration, increasing resting heart rate, and decreasing blood plasma.

I decide to arrive at altitude under 24 hours before my race:

  • The physiological effects will have had the least time to exert their negative influence on my body: my blood is not complete sludge, I still have untapped glycogen stores, and if my sleep is poor due to my racing heart I’ve only had one meager night of sleep instead of several.
  • When I pre-ride the race course and tune-up, I do so at a less intense effort (10-20% reduction) than I normally would.  However following my active routine will help me acclimate better than just relaxing.
  • It is easy to become dehydrated at higher altitude because I am shallowly breathing dry air more rapidly allowing fluid to be lost with my respiration. The dry air also evaporates my sweat so quickly I may not know I am loosing fluid this way too. I increase not just my water intake, but my electrolyte intake as well.  Sadly, I eliminate diuretics from my diet – no caffeine or alcohol.
  • Appetite is suppressed by hypoxia, my body uses more energy at rest than at low altitude, and my body poorly uses fat stores as fuel at high altitude. I shift my eating routine to frequent, carbohydrate dense meals to maintain my energy levels.  I also east iron rich foods (broccoli, lean red meat like elk and kidney beans) to support my hemoglobin and anti-oxidant rich foods (berries, russet potatoes and cinnamon) to repair cellular damage caused by not enough oxygen getting to my muscles.
  • Sleep!  My sleep is disrupted, I am using more energy just sitting on the couch, and my body is in overtime working to adapt to oxygen depletion so I schedule naps throughout the day.
Preparations will get the whole crew to the summit.
Preparations will get the whole crew to the summit.

I may be at a disadvantage racing at altitude compared to my competitors who live or train at high elevations, but having a plan based on physiological effects to manage the impacts gives me an edge over those who do not prepare.  For me, knowing what to expect from my body at altitude gives me confidence to race well. I will rely on a slightly less intense effort while focusing on consistency; I will be the tortoise not the hair during the race.  If mid-race I have to put in a sprint effort I will quickly replace the glycogen used by eating a gel.  After all, very few competitors live at high elevations and all of us are suffering with reduced oxygen.  So, how is my strategy working for me? Stay tuned and I’ll break down what worked, what didn’t, how I changed my plan of attack at Angel Fire to Mammoth and what I’ll be doing to get ready for six days of racing above 9000 ft. at the BreckEpic in August.

Missoula XC With Unwanted Teammates: How Amoebas On Board Don’t Make You Faster

Start of the U23 Men
Start of the U23 Men

I am drenched, huddled under a pine tree hoping not to get struck by lightning and watching my bike get pelted by hail.  My warm-up now abandoned, I can only plead for the thunderstorm to pass by and am thinking of a new selling point for super-light carbon bikes: less metal to attract lightning! Frightened? Yes, but it is hard not to laugh that THIS STORM, not the saga of the past week, may cause me to miss the start of my race: the Missoula Pro XC.

 

I want to win one of these so badly! (Don't worry, Ben said they are from roadkill.)
I want to win one of these so badly! (Don’t worry, Ben said they are from roadkill.)

I LOVE the Missoula XC.  This course is the real deal – a monster climb with switchbacks so tight and steep that I have put a foot down in fatigue, a descent dappled with off camber water bars in the middle of steep corners and opportunities to get some air with an audience.  While racing, there is an announcer broadcasting the play by play to a large crowd that is cheering you on.  And this year the race is the last chance for racers to vie for a spot on the USA Olympic team.  The racers are hungry, it is going to be game on and I can’t wait to play!

The "Bull" Ramp
The “Bull” Ramp

The last two weeks in preparation for this race has been a disaster.  I’ve been pretty miserable with abdominal pain that I could not sort out causing me to forgo my training and most food.  My “stomach bug” symptoms waxed and waned, but three days before the race my health was pretty bleak and I found myself at Instacare. Unsure of what was going on, but confident I was not terminal, my Doc sent me on the road to Montana with pending lab results and a recommendation to purge my digestive tract.  On my arrival to the race venue I had a message saying I was not dying, but have giardia.

Brandon of Summit Bike Club made sure I would have my smallest gear to climb. THANKS!!!

What is giardia?  It’s a water born amoeba contracted by drinking contaminated water.  I have absolutely no idea how I got it.  I have only been drinking city water in the past few months, have not been doing open water swims due to the very cold spring in Oregon, but maybe I got a splash in my mouth while grinning as I biked across a creek? The critters invade your intestines and ferment your food making you burp, fart, cramp and have frothy poo.  Did I mention I’m camping at the race venue?  Port-o-pottys? A gnarly antibiotic course will make me healthy but I have a big race in less than forty eight hours.

No, not to disinfect me! This is a brilliant way to wash your bike at a race.
No, not to disinfect me! This is a brilliant way to wash your bike at a race.

My dilemma: do I postpone treatment so I can try to race with symptoms I am familiar with or do I start antibiotics and hope they get me feeling well enough that the medication-induced nausea can be overlooked?  I feel so lousy I can’t imagine a big physical effort unless my symptoms lessen and in the last week I’ve eaten less than a roadie; my energy reserves won’t last more than twenty minutes at race pace unless I can keep some food down.

Racers zooming by my campsite

I chose to start treatment believing my symptoms were so terrible (and worsening by the hour) that I was not going to be able to race without intervention.  Being out of state it took some crafty work and kind medical professionals to get meds in my hands by mid-day Friday (28 hours to start time).  I then raided the local grocery for calorie dense but bland foods: chicken broth, rice crackers, ginger ale and plant based protein drinks foods.  Yum!  Just what every elite athlete wants to eat in preparation for a big race.

Bye-Bye Giardia
Bye-Bye Giardia

Antibiotic are MAGIC! In eighteen hours my symptoms are manageable, I’m getting some nutrition in, and a good night of sleep camping at Marshal Mountain has made me hopeful enough to warm-up for my race.  If it goes well I’ll take the start line and see if I can tick off a few laps of the race before I blow through all my glycogen reserves and my muscles simply stop.  And this is why it is so ironic that I may miss my race due to a storm.  I’m a twenty minute pedal away from the start line on single track overlooking the Clark River and if the storm does not pass in a few more minutes I won’t make it.

I'm suffering but totally stoked to be RACING
I’m suffering but totally stoked to be RACING

The Gods smile on me; the storm clears as abruptly as it swept in.  I warm up by sprinting to the start line.  I made it with enough time to towel the mud off my face and look composed for call ups.  The race starts in true Montana style with a rifle discharging into the hillside.  My start is slow, but by the time we hit the single track I’m in a good position on the wheels of the girls I expect to be on the podium.  But that glory was not to be mine today and half way up the first climb I fell off the pace.  I was passed by Hannah but felt good at the bottom of the first lap.  How could this be? I’m heading out for my second lap.  Better slurp down a gel.  Two laps become three and in disbelief I pass Hannah (despite my unwanted amoeba teammates hitching a ride) and am on track to beat the time cut-offs.  Lap four is not so peppy but I am ahead of the cut and with a huge smile, not stomach cramps, I race the final lap!  Just getting to race was a huge win for me, finishing the race was beyond my dreams.  I was so spent afterwards I almost fell off my bike when I tried to spin out my legs.  I try a real meal; chicken noodle soup!  And then a whole bag of rice cakes.  And then a box of graham crackers.  And then another can of soup. And then… I passed out before 8:30pm with the loud speakers announcing the single-speed race and keg toss like a lullaby.  Never fear, more food was in store.  I was wide awake at midnight and starving.  I actually got up and made another dinner: pasta with salt and butter.  I was starving for breakfast too.

Local love, I made the papers! Whoo hoo.
Local love, I made the papers! Whoo hoo.

This race was not the “shot at the podium” that I had hoped it would be, but I left satisfied and stoked at how well I did.  Managing my health, being optimistic but realistic about my situation, and focusing on the possibilities ensured I had a fantastic experience.  Now onto Angel Fire XC next week to see how much strength I can recoup with my amoebic hitchhikers discarded!  Ladies, look out.

 

Stottelmeyer 60 Miler – Test Run for BreckEpic

Start of the Stottelmeyer 60
Start of the Stottelmeyer 60

Recently I traveled to Poulsbo, WA to participate in an endurance mountain bike race.  I have a lot to learn and dial in so I can “get it done” at BreckEpic, so in preparation I signed up for the Stottelmeyer 60 to practice the endurance race format.  Years ago I raced a 50 mile mtb event and it was a spectacular disaster: I crashed, bonked, had mechanicals (3!), and mercifully DNF’ed with six miles and a huge climb to go.  I will say I went to that race on a whim and thought it would be like the after-work races I did at the time (about 12 mile courses) but would take longer.  ROOKIE! 

 

The Fun Line
The Fun Line

There are many things different about endurance racing than the cross country (XC) racing I focus on.  My biggest concern is fueling; if I don’t get enough calories in I will bonk or find myself walking off leg cramps, if I take in too many, to quickly or the “wrong type” I will get a sour and crampy stomach.  All of these have plagued me as an athlete.  In endurance races you have drop bags deposited along the course at aid stations full of snacks and supplies you hopefully will not need; like a rain jacket or extra CO2 carriages.  There are no aid stations in XC races, you would never give up the seconds to stop to grab a snack, and a flat tire means you are cut at the end of the lap by falling off the leader pace.  How I was going to embrace food, aid stations and intentionally stopping during the race left me feeling like I was headed for an exotic destination where no westerner had ever been before.

 

Tricks of the Trade
Tricks of the Trade

I traveled to the Olympic Peninsula with my friends Anne and Cary who are seasoned veterans of distance racing.  They were gracious to share their tricks of the trade for fueling, how to move through aid stations efficiently, and what should be in my drop bag. They shared awesome details like putting a rubber band around the necks of water bottles to secure gels so at aid stations I can quickly resupply and that a Payday candy bar might be the race treat that gets me to the finish line.  What I took away from our conversations is that fueling (as I feared) the factor that can make or break your success in an endurance race.  On my long training rides I have been experimenting with foods and calories that work for me.  I have learned that on longer rides I need to replace about 250 Kcal/hr consisting mostly of carbohydrates and I need to drink half a liter of water an hour in cool temps where every other bottle has electrolytes in it.  My travel companions cautioned me that my caloric intake may be significantly higher during the race; and I would know if I started to cramp (not enough glycogen for my muscles), my bike handling was sluggish (not enough glucose to power my brain), or I had any stomach disgruntling.  They were also worried about my food choices which were homemade rice cakes from the Skratch Labs cookbook and Perpetuim (a high calorie electrolyte beverage formulated for endurance athletes); so I threw out the adage of never experimenting on race day and followed their advice for a fuss-free but completely pre-packaged fueling strategy.  Calories by gels, blocks and a high calorie (but protein free) electrolyte drink was the menu. 

I did take time to enjoy the flowers.
Enjoying the Flowers

The Stottelmeyer 60 is a fifteen mile loop course twisting and turning through a very dense forest keeping the pace slow but requiring constant bike handling skills to get over roots and between tight trees.  Opportunities to pass came in short fire road strait-aways, giggles were had on a new DH flow trail, and we passed through a lupine field where the flower stalks brushed my helmet.  The weather had been unseasonably warm and dry but race day presented with a black sky and cool temps.  The rain held off through the first half of the race, but by my last lap it was a downpour.  As the rain came down, bike handling became more important as the trail became muddy, roots slick and visibility poor.  My brain fogged in fatigue on the last lap too.  My palms tenderized by miles; a switchback that was a fun swoop on previous laps became a terrain feature not to be taken lightly by the last pass. 

 

Flowing Through the New DH Trail
Flowing Through the New DH Trail

Endurance race pace is slower than XC race pace.  If I went too hard early, finishing would be a struggle; so I used my competitors as my mentors.  Early in the race I posted-up with four other women in the pro division; two with solid endurance mtb racing resumes and two who were local girls that knew the trails like the back of their hands.  Midway through our second lap I stopped at the aid station to resupply (I had just endured a minor muscle cramp episode and knew I would need to get a whole lot more calories in than I had planned – I calculated I averaged 375 Kcal/hr!) and those girls rode away.  I did not doubt my need to stop and ensure I stayed fueled, especially so early in the race, but it was hard to lose the pack.  But not to fear, back to riding I caught up with a group of men who were happy to sit on my wheel and chat me up for the next hour.  The miles ticked off, I felt great, I was enjoying the terrain, and I was keeping a pace I was confident I could hold for the rest of the race.  My train and I overtook the women I was earlier riding with (a moment of doubt for me) and I soon lost the chatty gentlemen.  In my third lap I would catch up to riders, chat for a bit (crazy to be in the middle of a race and making friends, not gasping for air), then find myself catching the next rider.  I developed a strategy for moving through aid stations: hand my bike to a volunteer, swap out water bottles, drop my gel wrappers, put two gels in my leg cuffs, grab a handful of blocks (like 7) and ride away chipmunk style.  A stop took me less than a minute.  My last aid station stop was bliss.  I knew I was 9 miles from the finish, 9 miles from dry clothes, and 9 miles from a burger.  I didn’t care if my stomach turned at this point so I ate a banana and an Oreo.  That Oreo may be one of the best tasting things I’ve ever laid to my taste buds.  I wished I had put Oreos in my leg cuffs not gels; soggy or not they would have been divine. 

Paid out in PBR
Paid out in PBR

The finish line loomed.  Anne and Cary were cheering me home despite the pouring rain.  I did it!  I successfully completed an endurance mountain bike race: I managed my pace, my fuel, aid stations, enjoyed (almost) all of the race, and I even won.  My burger was fantastic.  I can’t wait to do another of these!

I really enjoyed ALL of this race
I really enjoyed ALL of this race

So my test run for BreckEpic was a big confidence boost.  Stottelmeyer 60 gave me insights on what I have to work on: recovery after a race so I can do it again the next day, increasing my mental stamina so I can safely descend technical terrain at the end of a day, tightening up the equipment I carry, and refining what I have in my drop bags.  I learned the pace for an endurance race is still pretty fast (faster than a fast ride with friends), I will be constantly eating and drinking, aid stations are a place for support not a zone to fear, the race is long so trust yourself and don’t get seduced by doing what others are doing, endurance racing is a whole lot of fun not just suffering, and most important – I can do this!