Monday, July 14, 2008

Racing at Altitude is Brutal: Firecracker 50 Report

The USAC Marathon Nationals were in Breckenridge CO this year as the Firecracker 50 . As part of a visit to see my brother in CO I was able to attend this race. We drove up Thursday night to a hotel in Fairplay CO about 30 mins outside of Breck to make the next morning a lil easier. Friday morning we arrived at the site, registered and prepared for the race.

As I was getting prepared for the race I was feeling a little jittery and checked my pulse to find I was at 98 bpm while sitting in the parking lot. I had wondered if this high altitude race idea was going to go well and I was about to find out. The town of Breckenridge is at an elevation of 9600ft and the race tops out at 11300ft. It was a little bit of a concern, but I figured I’d see what happened.

The race got started with a parade start from the center of Breckenridge and I was the 2nd wave out of the gate. It was cool to be riding in a group hi-fiving all the kids that lined the streets. The whole center of town was lined 4-5 deep as they saw us off. We rode at a relaxed pace until our marshall pulled off. Well, instead of our marshall pulling off, he faltered with the wave sign he was holding and had to stop before he fell. We then pulled around and the race was on.

We made our way from main street, took a hard left and the paved climb was on. From here it was a 6 mile climb to the first aid station. I took off pretty hot with my group and realized soon after that that recovery was going to be hard and that I would need to tone it down a bit to survive. The road kept winding up a gorgeous valley overlooking the ski area of Breck and turned onto a gravel road and kept going up. The incline persisted and I kept trying to latch onto the faster riders coming through but I just couldn’t push enough to keep on. We were all marked on the back of our right calves to signify what age group we were in, and I watched as the faster riders of each group came through. I did what I could to keep a nice pace and made it through the first aid station and turned into the singletrack.

The singletrack was nice and flowy and kept slowly working its way upward to it’s highest point and then the loose, babyhead downhill started. This section was treacherous and had to be done at blinding speed to ward off the group that was coming up from behind. Then there was a crazy fast smoother hill(that we would be coming up later) that was easy to reach speed of 35 – 40 mph. After flying down that hill we made a right past aid #2 and the worst climb of the course started.

There was a trail up to Little French Gulch that was really difficult. It was a loose shale climb that took a lot of effort to make it up. It was a slow granny gear climb that took lots of balance and motivation to keep going. There was 3 or 4 chilly runoff crossings that we would make and then continue upwards. Riding was hard or impossible as the conditions became looser and looser. We were passing snowdrifts and even part of an elk carcass. Finally as the top of that climb became completed we traversed and descended down Little French Flume which was a great singletrack that flowed on a sweet off camber section through scree and lots of loose dirt.

The trail continued down and took a sharp right to where another long climb continued. Again it was time for granny gear as the lungs were just not recovering and I was not feeling well. One by one riders came through and I just couldn’t get back any of the positions that I lost. I made most of the climb, getting off to walk a small steep section and continued up to a nice downward flowy singletrack that once again had babyheads everywhere that would pull you down in a heartbeat if you weren’t careful. There was also a sweet section of downhill with waterbars that were way to fun to play on. If I couldn’t climb well at least I was descending well. The next spot popped out to a field where it looked like it was going to get mellower and that lasted for about 5 seconds as it lead into the worst – loose off camber rocky rooty – downhill of the course. Brakes were squealing and fingers were tiring as you fought to stay in control and make it to the road below.

The gravel road then began again as aid #3 was passed and then climbing on the section that was descended before. It was a slow – not steep but descent climb that again was tough at altitude. I just kept steady as people passed one by one. I tried a few times to latch on but it still was not happening. I knew what my body could do and it wasn’t doing any of it. Finally at the top of the hill I knew it was mostly downhill to the end of lap 1. This was the most fun section of the course because it was a very fast downhill that lead to a sweet final section of flowy fast turning singletrack. I knew I could make up some time here so I kept on it and flew through the ST. The last section was the “Pinball” that entered into the start/finish area. It literally pinballed back and forth switchbacking down the final hill to the lap area. It was already getting rutted out and worn in from the tons of riders that were there. I finished lap 1 in 2:41 and seriously debated about bowing out do to the serious lack of energy and feeling horrible since I wasn’t acclimated to the altitude, but I persisted.

Lap two was the same as lap 1, just MUCH slower. I was really in survival mode as I worked through the 2nd lap. I rode most of the first 6 mile climb and got really dizzy at the top of it. I chose to stop and eat and drink to help recover. I popped a Gu and some Accelerade and it seemed to work for a little while. I reserved myself and realized any of the decent climbs I would be walking. That’s exactly what happened. As I rode the rolling stuff I put down a little power and climbed when I could but walked the steeper stuff. Actually I had to stop walking a few times in fear of totally collapsing. But, then I kept on. Through the final climb I knew it was coming to an end so I put down what I could and just enjoyed the final few miles through the tight twisty switchbacks.

As a result I finished with a time of 6 hours and 11 minutes. In the open 19-29 category I came in dead last of those that finished with at least two that DNF’d. It wasn’t what I’d call a successful day of racing but one for the memory bank as far as experience. I guess what it comes down to is that I’d rather be DFL than DNF’d. It was a hard day and one I won’t soon forget. I’ve been getting accustomed to the climbing over the endurance races, but that altitude is an adversary that I will remember for years to come.

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