Breck Epic Stage 6 – Get er’ done!

AwardToast.  Cooked.  Cracked.  Gassed.  Shattered.  Today I got to experience this firsthand: panting, legs burning, dull brain, feeling like I’m giving everything but the output is a trickle, a mile is a forever, a water bar feels like a three foot step-up, and I am spent! 

Stage six had us going up and over Gold Dust on wiggly single-track, descending to the valley in a moss covered ditch that felt like riding a bobsled run, climbing a fire road back up Gold Dust, then a single track descent home.  I was lackluster on the first climb but the fun terrain made up for my missing oomph.  I felt like a rabbit dropping into the valley, but then was passed by one of my competitors making me wonder how fleet of wheel I really was.  On the final climb, I was slipping back.  The headwind was not helping but Dean and JP caught me in pace line formation and urged me to grab on.  With tunnel vision to the wheel ahead of me (and JP’s prosthetic leg – so cool! He’s an Afghanistan Vet) I dug as deep as I could, but try as I may I just couldn’t hold on.  The will to go harder was there but the tank was dry.  I had slipped back to fourth position on the day but my effort would maintain my overall standing.  Head down, put calories in, keep turning the pedals, get er’ done… that’s just what I did.

Finally, atop Gold Dust the second time, I was greeted with PBR and  a raucous seven mile descent to reboot my energy.  Ripping down root covered chutes and plowing along running creeks it felt like I hadn’t pedaled over 250 miles over countless mountain passes in the past six days.  Elated, I hit the finish line and joined the riders sharing their glee at completing the Breck Epic. What a ride!  What an adventure.  Holy cow that was a huge undertaking.  I loved it.  I’m going to take a day off biking.  Okay, maybe two.  When do I get to do this again?

Breck Epic Stage 5: “Damn it Jim, I’m a biker not a hiker!”

Her I am at my TT wave start completely oblivious to how hard today is going to be.
Her I am at my TT wave start completely oblivious to how hard today is going to be.

It turns out that competitive hike a bike is a misery loves company affair.  Today’s stage began as a TT start based on our overall standings in the race to keep us spread out on the single track start.  Quickly the trail turned upwards and we climbed to the top of Wheeler Peak in under six miles.  Climbed!  I’m sure the track was laid by mountain goats and the last half mile was mandatory hike-a-bike turf.  But rewarded I was at the top; views, views, views, bacon frying and gummy bears were the reward.  But it was a ruse!  We were not going down, we were to traverse, descend a bit, climb, climb, climb, traverse, carry our bikes over talus, climb to another summit above 13,000 ft, and traverse more goat paths (Mike the race director called them primitive trails…). It was a hard task to ride up to 12,000 ft on the Queens stage, but pedaling very technical terrain above that for over an hour was a feat of mental stamina with a brain starved for oxygen.  I have never been so happy for a descent.  Loose and exposed at the top did not matter, as the altitude decreased my bliss increased.  The descent was truly a trail of legends.  What a big day!

As I mentioned yesterday, stage racing is the full monte of cycling experience: endurance, technical skills, tactics, perseverance, and luck.  I had the third strike of oops today, the dreaded crash.  Not really much of a crash.  I was descending after the first summit, still unaware that I had another hour of hard riding at altitude in my future, on a section that was a pinball gallery of boulders on a steep hillside.  My bike got bounced loose on my line and rather than go off the steep side of the “trail” I opted to lay it down on the uphill side.  I scraped my arm on a rock and thought nothing of it.  Much later a rider passed me and asked if I was alright.  I was confused and said yes, and then another rider asked me the same thing as I overtook him.  Again at the aid station I was asked if I needed medical.  I decided that the scrape on my arm must be pretty ugly, but obviously not an emergency as I had no pain and arm and hand worked just fine so off to the finish line (in a downpour) I went.  At the finish I was brave enough to look at my arm: a pretty meaty slash that was nicely cleaned by all the rain was my souvenir of the day. 

The look of disbelief that I got todays stage done.
The look of disbelief that I got todays stage done.

My Dad came to watch my finish and I was so glad for some assistance, but sorry to have him see his daughter sliced up.  I gave him the task of washing my mud caked bike as I found medical.  They took one look at my arm and sent me to the ER.  Sorry Dad!  So off to the hospital we went.  I was super lucky; the gash was so deep they could see all my tendons but none of them were nicked.  A nice row of internal and external stitches later my arm is as good as new! 

Tomorrow is the final stage of the race.  It is rumored that most divisions ride as a parade (and take whisky shots at the summits) but I suspect the fierce ladies in the open field will want one more day of competition.  Whichever way the race leader chooses will no doubt be the icing on the cake for me and this amazing adventure into the Breck Epic.

Breck Epic Stage 4: Doh!

My favorite finish line snack: banana slathered in peanut butter and topped with a crispy piece of bacon.
My favorite finish line snack: banana slathered in peanut butter and topped with a crispy piece of bacon.

I’m feeling pretty darn good.  I’m thirty three miles into a beautiful ride that has taken me from Breckenridge to Keystone and am headed back.  I easily climbed Vomit Hill, kept my wits about me on the Aquaduct trail with a very exposed traverse, and steady-Eddie’ed the eight mile grinder climb out of Keystone.  I’m munching on a Gu waffle and banana I grabbed at the last aid station and I’m starting to get nervous.  I’m alone, and today the racers are very spread out so this is not unusual, but something feels off.  My Spidy senses are tingling and I slow down.  I must be off course.  I stop and wait for another rider to come into view.  No rider.  Even though I’ve climbed two miles up from the last aid station I turn.  Yep, I was off course.  (As I was headed down a course marshal drove up to catch me – what a well run race!)  Right after the Aid station there was a right turn onto new single track and I must have missed the course marking (the course is really well marked) as I was stashing supplies into pockets from the aid station.  Doh!

Though I added four miles to my day and at least ten minutes to my time (I really don’t want to look at my Garmin data to see how bad it really was), I got back on track.  I decided to ask my body to pick up the pace just a titch and see if it would respond.  Yes!  For the first time at altitude I could push a little harder without my heart rate spiking.  I slowly passed riders I had gone around two hours earlier, and moved back into second place for the day.  The women I passed the second time were quite confused to see me again, but they gave me kind words for my error.  A gentleman I was riding near heard about my mistake and as we hit the last big descent he invited me to follow his line, he was a local and had it dialed.  So with blazing speed I would not dare otherwise on a descent I’ve never ridden before I zipped the last four miles to the finish.

Wow.  Stage racing is such an adventure!  Mechanicals, getting off course, crashing (cross your fingers for me that I continue to kept it rubber side down), weather… I suspect every rider has to manage at least one of these blips.  The race is long.  Ride your race.  I’m having so much fun!

Breck Epic Stage 3: I now know why it’s called Epic!

A Queen Size Course Profile
A Queen Size Course Profile

Todays stage had a bit of everything:

  • Climbing over two 12,000 ft mountain passes
  • Biking up a river
  • Descending a snow field
  • Lightning and thunder (fortunately I was in the valley between the two big climbs)
  • Ear to ear grin downhills
  • Walking my bike for about a quarter mile because it was too steep (even Todd Wells walked)
  • Technical descending in a downpour (all the skills sessions I’ve been leading this year really came in handy here, I passed so many people who were walking and I was giggling with glee)
  • Views!  The climbing was so slow I had lots of time to look around.
  • Skittle hand-ups on the summit
Rolling Into The Finish
Rolling Into The Finish

Today’s course was the Queens stage, a climber’s day.  I fancy myself a climber so I was excited about riding my bike over the big passes that would have me pedaling at an altitude I’ve not been on a bike at.  Three days into this race and the field is friendly; passing is made simple, if you are off your bike everyone will slow to offer assistance, veterans will give you beta on what is up ahead, and several men gave me a little push uphill as I passed them while they were walking.  I tried a new hydration/ fueling strategy that worked better for me than previous days and the aid stations were stocked with bananas and Gu’s waffles that were a welcome treat to gels (ingesting gel #15 today still required anti-gagging tactics).  And I have found my inner bike Buddha and no longer care what other riders ahead or behind me are doing; I ride my race, trust my training and listen to my body.

I Know, Enough Podium Shots - It's just pretty cool to be here!
I Know, Enough Podium Shots – It’s just pretty cool to be here!

My legs definitely did not have the oomph in them I was hoping for, so today I listened to them and backed off when the burn started to be ignited. My bike is sporting a new rear shock and rear tire today so I attacked the descents, which were first class fun-fests.  I came across the finish line third in my division, but was elated.  (I’m still second overall.)  My Mom was volunteering at the finish line and her friendly cheer made me feel like a celebrity. I had the most excellent day on the bike.  Though tired, as one would be after riding 44 miles and climbing 6400 ft, I felt great!  This monster of a day is one I’m proud of putting in my personal record book, and feel tomorrow I will be even stronger.  Look out top of the podium!

Mom Making Sure All Riders Make It In
Mom Making Sure All Riders Make It In
Big Mountain Socks for a Big Climbing Day
Big Mountain Socks for a Big Climbing Day

Breck Epic Stage 2: Patience Young Grasshopper!

Morning nerves; thanks Mom for the great pic
Morning nerves; thanks Mom for the great pic

I was so excited for another day of this race that I didn’t sleep.  All night I fretted about my rebuilt shock, how much extra stuff to carry for endless flats, and how to refine my strategy.  Since I wasn’t sleeping I looked over my bike again, ate a monster breakfast three hours before the race start and was at the start line (to make sure I was not 200 deep) before the race officials even showed up.  Nerves.  Mom took a picture of me heading out that I am sharing so you can laugh.  She also said I, “looked scary” meaning it as a compliment (she also thought the gel packets hidden under my kit leg cuffs were my bulging muscles). 

I survived the mountain bike peloton up the road for the first three miles, this must be the same as riding in the crash-four group as a road racer, and was relieved to hit the dirt and get spread out on Heinous Hill climb.  I was surprised at how strong I felt early in the race, but that was not to last.  Mile 16 to 19 we climbed over 2000 feet to top out at 11200 and I was the turtle not the hare.  I did put some good distance on Amy (race leader) but on the descent she passed me never to be seen again.  My pace was sustainable, I was taking in calories like a metronome but still had minor cramp twinges at mile 28 reinforcing my attitude to have patience with the race and ride my race. 

Todays menu
Todays menu

I am a power house and (not to brag) can drop just about anyone on a climb if I want to.  In a stage race doing this will gobble up your glycogen (what fuels your muscles) and it takes days to replenish so your legs are cooked for the rest of the race.  It is taking Yoda whispering in my ear to keep me from powering up to drop a rider just because I can.  Who knew I had so much ego!  Fortunately the sage Emma gets to chat with other riders on climbs, take in the views and get some air on the flow trails as we descend back into town. 

I finished the day moving into second place overall, but lost a few minutes to Amy.  Tomorrow is the Queen Stage featuring a climb over 12,000 ft, biking through snow, climbing over 12,000 ft again, descending through bear territory, a wall (but it’s short? What is short 38 miles in and having climbed 6800 ft already?), and then my Mom will be at the finish line volunteering for the race.  Epic.

BreckEpic Stage 1: The race is long, take your time.

Stage 1 Map
Up, and then up, and then up some more

Stage racing is the real deal; no wonder the road scenes crown jewels are the grand tours.  We lined up is a grand mess with no regard to category for a neutral start with a police escort up the pavement until we hit the trails.  This should have spread the race out a bit, but there were a lot of nerves urging many people to sprint.  After a flowy descent (stuck behind a team of guys who insisted on zipping ahead of me as we approached the trail but didn’t have the descending skills to match their enthusiasm) the real climbing began on two track and the field finally spread out. 

My plan for day one was to stay in the middle of the open women, to copy their pace and learn how they managed aid stations and working with other riders.  However, with a mass start I didn’t even know how many women were in my category, let alone know who they were; so I relied on an even pace I knew I could sustain all day (which had me walk a few loose hills I could have ridden but my legs would have been on fire) and forcing myself to consume 100 calories every 20 minutes and electrolytes on the hour.  I took my time at the aid stations to restock my supplies and devour a banana.

There are at least 200 people behind me, what a line-up
There are at least 200 people behind me, what a line-up

I felt strong and was breathing with ease as I crested the last big climb and had been informed at the last aid station I was the first female!  I was STOKED, the day could be mine.  And then I flatted on a relatively smooth fire road.  My tire had a double puncture.  A nail?  Who knows.  I took my time and put a tube in after sealing the inside of my tire with a Gu packet.  The race is long, it is better to do things right instead of making a flustered mistake and getting another flat down the road.  (But I did realize my rookie mistake of not having a back-up tube and CO2 cartridge in my drop bags – I will remedy this for tomorrow.)  But as I was putting my tire back on I heard a whoosh.  Oh no!  I was confident I repaired my rear tire correctly.  It was not my tire but my rear shock decided right there to loose it’s seal and release all of it’s fluid.  No rear suspension – just a fully squished shock.  Nothing I could do about this but ride gently the remaining eleven miles to the finish, which was mostly downhill.  I rode smart: a bit slower and more conservative than I would have liked but I got to the finish without a hitch. 

Stage 1 PodiumSomehow I finished in third place today!  I’m thrilled to be on the podium, and think not having the pressure of the leaders jersey will be an advantage tomorrow.  SRAM generously spent the afternoon “fixing” my shock (fingers crossed) and fortunately I ride for Rolf Prima so I have a back-up set of wheels to ride tomorrow.  I now know I have what it takes to do well in a stage race, and success will come from being patient and sticking to my own plan.  Can’t wait for stage 2.

Not to Worry, I’ve Got MTB National Championship Smarts

Me, wiggling down the XC course
Me, wiggling down the XC course.

It’s so nice to not be a rookie at Mountain Bike National Championships this year.  Knowing WD-40 will wash my bike, Fox and SRAM will help me with mechanical issues, the bike paths are great to warm-up on, and that I’ve raced this course before gives my confidence a huge boost.  Mammoth is a beautiful town to visit, making it hard to stay on my racer regime: strict food means no dining out at the cute restaurants, saving my legs means not exploring all the bike trails, and resting up means going to bed early instead of whooping it up at the bars.   Not that the racers life in Mammoth is a drag by any means: boosting my energy at Stellar Brewing with a banana chai, icing my legs in a high mountain lake, and catching up with friends while watching dual slalom is pretty cool. 

A cheer, a demand.
A cheer, a demand.

I took the XC start line feeling great!  I’m finally recovered from giardia and have had a week of good training and eating well before arriving the night before the race.  I really like the course: a climb with lots of good passing options and friendly less steep sections to catch your breath after particularly vertical zones, and the descent features tight burms around trees at the top then a series of drops and rock gardens as the bottom.  Though loose and powdery mid-summer, I feel confident in my traction (with WTB Trail Boss tires that are a bit over-kill but confidence is magic) so the drift is not a concern of mine.  Call ups (with the US Olympic Team Members called first – so cool to race with them) then the gun!

U23 Men suffering mid-race
U23 Men suffering mid-race

I had a terrible start.  I missed my clip in so I had to do another pedal stroke at half speed to get into my pedals; an error that put me toward the back of the pack.  Not to worry, there was a clear line along the fencing to get me back in position.  As I moved into the hole, a nervous rider next to me hit me.  Not to worry, I’m comfortable with some race rubbing and had just enough room to correct myself next to the fencing.  But then a spectator leaned over the fencing with his camera and I hit him.  Crash!  I’m not sure if the spectator was okay, he just apologized to me as I got up and made sure my bike and body were no worse for the impact.  Not to worry, Dirt Ninja (my bike) and I were fine; back to work.  So fifty feet from the start line I was already a minute back from the pro women field.  Not to worry (my mantra), the race is long and I can get back in the game if I am smart.  Smart means not panicking, not sprinting up the mountain at top speed, not blowing myself up in the first twenty minutes of a two hour race.  Trusting my fitness and skills I caught up to the back of the women.  Patience.  I waited for good passing opportunities; it is easy to exert a lot of energy getting around a racer at an inopportune location (as I did last year on this course only to be repassed and dropped like a hot potato a few minutes later).  At the top of the climb I had worked my way to the front of the chase pack.  I wanted to be with the lead pack but they were nowhere in sight. 

Flying over is always faster than bouncing over.
Flying over is always faster than bouncing over.

Over the five laps of the race I kept my riding steady and smooth.  My climbs were consistent, though two girls did get around me later in the race, and my descents were fast and had me gaining on the other riders (or stuck behind them without an opportunity to pass) each round.  I am disappointed that I finished twelfth when I had expectations of a better showing, but am very happy at how I handled my disastrous start.  Maybe one of my favorite things about mountain bike racing is that on any day, it is any girls race.  A mechanical, bad hand-up or even a bad hair day can tip the scales in favor of a rider not expected to take the day.  It is how a racer responds to mishaps that makes them great; so today my greatness may not come with accolades, but pride that I raced a smart race.  Now to recover for tomorrows televised short track race (Pro Women STXC starts at the hour mark)!

Junior Men on STXC
Junior Men on STXC
Unexpected Victory Celebration
Unexpected Victory Celebration
Spectator view
Spectator view
I "rested up" watching Dual Slalom.
I “rested up” watching Dual Slalom.
Top of the Elevator Shaft on the downhill course
Top of the Elevator Shaft on the downhill course
Coach Chris B keeping me up to date on the gravity results. (His kids are both National Champs now!)
Coach Chris B keeping me up to date on the gravity results. (His kids are both National Champs now!)
My friend Hailey bringing it home.
My friend Hailey bringing it home.
Course preparations keeping the courses perfect.
Keeping the courses perfect.

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.