Firecracker 50 – My First Endurance Race

I was recently talked into racing in the Firecracker 50 mountain bike race in Breckenridge, Colorado on Independence Day.  I was told I would get a fabulous pair of Woolie Boolie socks AND get to ride my bike in the town parade.  Then, if I didn’t get to the cutoff point in time, I’d be sent down the mountain with a beer!  Having never ridden my mountain bike for more than 27 or so miles, I was a little concerned about my ability to actually ride the entire 50 miles (that’s what the 50 in Firecracker 50 represents).  But, I was really excited about the socks, parade, and potential for a beer hand up.  Besides, I can’t think of  a better way to start Independence Day then spending a few hours on the mountain bike.

Terry and I arrived early in Breckenridge on race day.  We went to the race headquarters and picked up socks, t-shirts (bonus!), and race numbers.  Then we returned to the car to suit up and warm up our legs for the race.  The race would be two 25 mile laps with ~4,000 feet of climbing per lap.  My goal was to make it to the aid station before the cutoff time so I would at least have the option to ride the entire second lap, if I thought I was able to do so.

We lined up on Main Street by category; as a sport woman racer, I found myself in the back as usual.  When the whistle blew, I took off up Main Street with about 15 other women in my category.  I rode as far as possible to the left so that I could hold out my hand and touch as many of the little hands reaching out to me from behind the barricade as I could.  So many people were clapping and cheering as we rode by… maybe because they knew seeing us meant the real parade was about to start?  Regardless, what a fantastic way to start a race!

For several miles, we pedaled up Boreas Pass Road to the first aid station.  This served to thin out the racers before we reached any single track.  I did not stop at the first aid station and continued onto the single track where I was able to pass more frequently than I got passed.  At one point I passed Terry without recognizing her.  As I pedaled past her, I heard her yell “go Amber!”.   Before I knew it, I was at the second aid station where I took in some of the plentiful nutrition being offered by race volunteers.  I knew that proper nutrition would be critical to successfully finishing this long race.

The aftermath

The aftermath. Yes my feet are that white and my legs that dirty.

Between Aid Stations 2 and 3 is a little section of the trail called Little French Gulch.  This section is full of loose, chipped slate and at one point, the grade is 25%.  I found myself, and all of my new mountain biking friends, pushing our bikes up this section beside the snow banks and through ice cold streams.  At one point, I had sweat dripping from my eyelashes.  This is something I’ve only experienced in a winter spin class at Defined Fitness Training.  When the trail finally turned and leveled out, it was extremely narrow.  It was so narrow that passing required the rider in front of you to actually stop and pull off the trail.  I went as fast as I could here as I didn’t want to have to stop and let anyone by.  Before I knew it I was going down a fun terrain park-like section where I crossed what would be the finish line had this been my second lap.

As I continued on to begin my second lap, I grabbed food and some electrolyte drink as the hike-a-bike section, heat, and distance were beginning to take their toll on me.  I just kept telling myself to get to that aid station before the cutoff time.  This time going up Boreas Pass Road, the spectators were few and far between; only the occasional honk from a passing car, or words of encouragement from another racer.  As I reached Aid Station 1, I parked my bike and stood in the shade to have some food and catch my breath.  I asked if I had made the cutoff and was told yes by one of the volunteers.  However a few minutes later, another racer pulled into the aid station and asked the same question.  This time the answer was different from a different volunteer.  We had to make it to the second aid station in 20 minutes if we wanted to try to finish the race!  I debated about turning around now, but a little voice inside my head piped up “I didn’t come this far just to turn back now.”  So I hopped on the bike and pedaled.

I missed the cutoff at Aid Station 2 by about 8 minutes, but I was very proud to have made it there IMG_3150in the first place.  I was 37 miles into the Firecracker 50 when I was offered my choice of cold beers for the ride down the service road.  Heineken never tasted so good, and I didn’t spill a single drop on that bumpy road, steering my bike one-handed.

Lessons learned: read the race rules and COMMIT them to memory.  I wasted valuable time at Aid Station 1 on my second lap and could have made that cut off time at Aid Station 2 if I’d kept moving.  Gatorade is not a good drink choice for me; test the products being offered at a race BEFORE race day.  Oh, and let’s not forget to actually RIDE the distance of your race before race day.

I can’t speak highly enough about how well the race was organized, marked, the nutrition and hydration offered at aid stations, and the volunteers.  Oh, and let’s not forget that parade and all those little hands wishing us good luck… See you all next year!

 

Conquering Mountains

In my first season of racing bikes, I focused on a small hill not far from my house.  It’s somewhat funny to describe Lookout Mountain in that way, because there was once a time when I thought it was a big hill far from my house!  Later that season, I raced in the Guanella Pass Hill Climb.  Similar to many other race results, I didn’t come in first and I didn’t come in last.

I remember getting out of the car that morning and looking up at Guanella Pass from Georgetown Lake.  The wind was howling and I began to wonder about what I had gotten myself into.  There I stood, a petite woman closer to 5 feet tall rather than 6, looking up toward the summit of Guanella Pass towering over me at 11,670 feet above sea level.  The only things between me and that summit were 10 miles and 2,900 vertical feet beginning at 8,500 feet above sea level.  I was not concerned about the distance itself, but the elevation.  Denver is known for being the Mile High City, so I was already somewhat used to thinner air. But this race started so much higher!  I’d never actually ridden up a mountain pass at this point in my short cycling career.

I did not have the opportunity to do a pre-ride of the hill climb, so I had no idea what to expect. I was thrilled to have such a nice smooth road to ride upon. Immediately out of Georgetown, some fairly steep switch backs get your blood pumping and thin out the racers. Then the road levels out for a few miles before the sustained climbing begins. Looking back on the Strava data, there is one section with 27% grade…that’s probably where I was doing a lot of visualization. It was all I could do to keep going. I finished the race and even went back for more the following year. I cut 13 minutes from my time from 2012 to 2013.  I’m signed up to race this hill climb again this Sunday; I’m not sure what exactly it is that keeps drawing me back year after year.  A part of it is the satisfaction of conquering something so much larger than me.  Mantras and visualization were a big part of what got me through that thin air and up the steep sections.

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At the summit of Guanella Pass

This year I have a new bike. People have told me that I’d see a big change in my performance with a new bike. I’m a bit skeptical about that, honestly. When it comes to performance at my level, there certainly is a percentage that can be attributed to the equipment, but I believe the bulk of my performance is due to the training. I’m in a completely different place in my cycling journey than where I was two years ago.

The constants from year to year, however, are the thin air and steep sections. I’ll arm myself with some new mantras and perhaps some additional visuals. I’d share those with you IF I thought they’d work for you. Unfortunately, much of this stuff is concocted as I pedal through the discomfort and is unique to me. Just like I can’t pedal the bike for you, I can’t tell you what you need to hear to get through the difficult stuff… whether it’s on a bike or anywhere else. You need to look within and determine what kind of inspiration you need to keep going. Then create it for yourself or find it externally.

 

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A failed attempt at a mid-air picture – thecyclist-lawyer.com team

Faster Mommy

What are some of the words that inspire you?  That keep you going when your body tells you to stop?  Sometimes you only have yourself to talk you through a challenge, and other times you have encouragement from others.  I’m going to share two stories about recent rides where in one I had to dig deep to finish a solo ride, and the other I heard something that was music to my ears.

I went for a monster ride recently from my house in Arvada, Colorado to Echo Lake, Colorado.  It was about 90 miles round trip with about 7,900 vertical feet.  I had intentionally planned to do this ride solo so that I could pedal at my own pace without feeling any pressure to wait for or keep up with a group.  It was actually a training ride for me as I’m preparing to ride in the Triple Bypass next month.  At about 30 miles into the ride,  the negative self talk started (this may also have been when my sit bones found their vocal cords, but I can’t be sure).  “I’ve gone far enough… I don’t really NEED to go all the way.”  “My legs are sure feeling HEAVY.”  “It’s so HOT! I wish I had more pockets to stuff my vest into.”

But then I got to the shady part of the road, and I was less hot.  Maybe the lower temperature was due to the elevation.  Either way, I can’t be sure.  But I knew I had less than 10 miles to go to Echo Lake.  I could feel the thinner air as I continued to pedal.  At four miles from Echo Lake, I stopped to put on some of those clothes that had made me feel so unbearably hot and was grateful for every garment I’d worn when I departed from my house that morning.  The skies were sprinkling and I could see storm clouds building as I looked back toward Denver.  At this point, I had two choices: one was to continue upward and hope that the storm had passed by the time I began my descent.  The other was to turn around now and deal with potentially wet, slippery roads on the descent.  The words that came to mind this time were “I did not pedal this far and hard just to turn around when I am so close to the top.”  So I kept going and eventually the sun reappeared.

10,600 feet above sea level

10,600 feet above sea level

As I glided to a stop at Echo Lake Lodge, I could see the lake shimmering in the sun, surrounded by mounds of melting snow.  I went in and bought a Coke and sat outside in the sun to drink it and take in the scenery.  Had I brought more than my emergency $5 with me, I could have enjoyed a slice of pie with that Coke.   Next time I’ll remember to double my budget for this expensive destination.  I’m proud to say that after rejuvenating with the Coke and my snacks, I felt like I could have continued upward on Mt. Evans Road.  However, it was already getting late in the day and there isn’t any cell service up there.  I didn’t want my family to send out a search party, so I turned around and headed for home.

 

 

On another recent ride, I was mountain biking through Bear Creek Lake Park with my daughter as we were doing some course recon for the Beti Bike Bash race.  In previous years, she had been a part of the Little Bella Mentoring on Mountain Bikes program and I had competed in the race.  We were trying to decide if we would compete in the race this year.  So we met up with a few of my team mates to ride the course.  I anticipated going at a slow pace and staying with my daughter throughout the ride.  For the most part, the course is flat with a couple of punchy hills.  At the second hill we came to, I heard her voice say from behind “faster Mommy” as we began the ascent.  I’d been going slower to stay with her and it turns out I was holding her back ~ going uphill!  I was thrilled that she wanted to go faster.  At that moment I promised myself that I wouldn’t hold her ~or myself~ back again.

What words inspire you to go or keep you going?  The phrase “I did not pedal this far and hard to turn around when I’m so close to the top” has gotten me through a number of rides.  But hearing “faster mommy” made my heart sing.  She’s come so far as a mountain biker.  I suspect one day I’ll be the one in back saying “wait for mommy!” but she’ll be too far ahead to hear it.

Taking in the scenery at Bear Creek Lake Park.

Taking in the scenery at Bear Creek Lake Park.

Riding With Your Senses

When I first started riding, it was simply to become a cyclist.  I had no idea how much more of my life would be affected by the simple action of getting on my bike and pedaling.  This spring is the third spring of my short cycling journey.  While I am able to ride year round for the most part, spring and autumn are my favorite riding seasons.  The reasons for this are many, but include the mildbike temperatures and great scenery, just to name a couple of them.

I shared in a previous post called “Simple Pleasures” some thoughts on spring riding.  In that post, I focused primarily on the sights of spring and the gift of witnessing nature’s rebirth from the moving perspective of a bicycle.  In this post, I want to share with you a connection with the outdoors that tends to get noticed a bit less.

As a cyclist on the road, I constantly call upon my eyes and ears to help navigate through traffic safely.  If I’m out riding my mountain bike, I’m constantly scanning the rapidly passing single track for rocks, tree roots, sand, and other obstacles that require reaction.  The sense of touch also comes into play when making clothing choices for a ride, feathering brakes before rounding a corner, or feeling for sharp objects inside a tire.

But smell??  I’ve learned over the years that my nose has the ability to pick up scents that go unnoticed by many of the people around me.  It’s both a blessing and a curse.  Because of my sensitive nose, smell is a component of each of my rides.   Some smells are obnoxiously pungent… like the dead animal along side the road.  Others are subtler… like the

lilacssmell of lilacs that linger in the air for a couple of weeks in late spring. I often wonder as I pedal along whether I will encounter the same smell in the same place as I last experienced it on any given route.

For the last two years in a row, I’ve encountered a sweet fragrance that lasts only about four days before it dissipates.  The first time I noticed it, I wondered what it was and before I knew it, it was gone.  Last year when I smelled it, I remembered it from the previous year and knew that I needed to get out and ride while it was there or it would soon be gone.    I’m anticipating that fragrance this year.  I hope to be able to identify which plant is giving off that scent.  It will likely be difficult to pinpoint because it thoroughly permeates the air.

I like to think that all the time I spend riding my bikes has made me a wiser person as I pedal along and ponder life.  Here’s the correlation I have made between that fleeting scent and life as I have experienced it: We may or may not have the opportunity to re-encounter an experience, let alone realize the significance of any experience until it has passed.  Engage your senses ~ all of them.  Thoroughly experience what life offers you, even if it’s just for a fleeting moment in time.  Take in the experience, and take it with you when you go.

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Simple Pleasures

Spring riding is some of the best of the year.  Let’s face it, we’ve been cooped up indoors all winter for the most part with only a handful of rides outside when it isn’t snowing, blowing like a hurricane, or just entirely too cold to be outside for any length of time, particularly on a moving bicycle.  Once daylight savings begins, the evenings are lighter longer.  Those precious extra minutes of light can mean the difference between a ride or riding longer.  Along with the birds, the wildlife, and the wildflowers, cyclists are also rejoicing for spring!

As I was out for my first mountain bike ride of the year the other day, I could hear the hawks soaring overhead.  Once in awhile as I pedaled along, they would fly close enough that I could actually hear the flap of wings as they cut through the air.  I heard meadowlarks whistle their greetings from fenceposts.

It’s not uncommon to see deer on North Table Mountain.  Typically, I see them in clusters of 2-5 deer.  But this time there must have been ten young deer grazing along the singletrack.  Most of them just stood there and watched me pedal by.  Typically, the deer will scatter when you approach, but I guess this young batch had not yet been spooked by a human before and saw no reason to flee from me as I went by.

A few wildflowers were blooming here and there.  In fact, they were so small I wouldn’t have noticed them if I hadn’t stopped for a drink of water.  Normally I wear a hydration pack of sorts while mountain biking, but on this day I had decided to forego it and loaded my jersey pockets with tools and filled a water bottle instead.  I knew it would slow me down to drink, but seeing the tiny lavender and pink petals made the stop worthwhile.

This connection with nature that you can only experience while in its midst has got to be one of the simplest pleasures life has to offer.  Experiencing it on a bike while your heart is pounding, your feet are pedaling, and your breath is audible magnifies the soothing nature of the experience.  It’s almost like you experience it in slow motion, from a hawk’s perspective.  The rhythm of your pedal strokes and breath colliding so perfectly with nature’s circle of life… it’s like they were made for each other!  But don’t take my word for it.  Go see for yourself!

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Jacquie outmaneuvering the water bars at Mt. Falcon

 

Just Do It!

I’ve discovered that I am a bit of a fair weather cyclist.  I just don’t like to be cold.  That being said, sometimes you have to do things that you don’t necessarily like.  Saturday morning I got up at 5:45 AM to have my usual pre-race breakfast the recommended three hours before my start time.  As I was mixing eggs and brewing coffee, I could hear the wind howling outside the kitchen window.  The only thing I dislike more than being cold is the wind.  I kept telling myself that I could always bail out at the last minute; but if the wind did die down, I needed to be prepared to race.

For the next hour and a half after breakfast, I sipped coffee and read more of my book (I am Malala – highly recommend).  All of my warmest cycling clothing had been packed the night before and was ready to go.  The trainer was already loaded in the car.  I just needed to load my bike and hit the road.  I checked 3 different web sites for up to the minute weather forecasts at Lookout Mountain.  I got different numbers from all three – one had a temperature of 21 degrees and snowflake graphics; another had a temperature of 46 degrees and 27 MPH winds.  No matter which one was correct, it was likely going to be a cold, windy race.

As I pulled into a parking space at Lookout Mountain, I saw a few team mates.  This brought me some comfort… if they could brave this cold, windy weather, surely I could, too!  As I pinned on my number and dressed for the warmup, the wind continued to gust.  Today would be the first time that I would warm up while wearing my down coat.  I was pleased that I began to sweat after a few minutes of pedaling and eventually had to remove the coat.  My start time approached and I finished changing into my race clothes and loaded the trainer back in the car.  I pedaled around a bit before getting in the start line to keep my legs and the rest of me from becoming chilled.  The cold actually proved to be a great distraction from my usual pre-race nerves, which I hadn’t even given so much as a thought on this chilly morning.  Normally, as I stand at a start line, I calm my nerves by telling myself that I can vomit at the finish line, if I still feel the need to do so by the time I get there.

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Oredigger Classic Lookout Mountain Hillclimb start – Photo courtesy of Jay Hardesty

Five, four, three, two, one… and I was off into the wind.  As I pedaled up the 4.6 mile course, I tried to make myself as small as possible when the wind hit my face, and as tall as possible when the wind was to my back.  At one point, the wind was so strong that I thought it would bring me to a complete stand still.  At that point, I knew that today’s race would not result in any personal bests for me.  My only hope was that everyone else would also experience such a gust, slowing the entire field of racers.  After crossing the finish line, I pulled to a stop in a nearby parking lot, and for the first time in a very long time, I actually thought I might vomit… I guess that means I gave it everything I had.

As I drove home from the race, I realized that despite how windy and cold the ride was, I still had fun and I did not regret going.  This is how 99% of my rides/races end.  On only one occasion did I regret going for a ride – but that one ended in a crash and I wasn’t able to ride for several weeks afterward… so it doesn’t really count and maybe one day I’ll write about it, but not today!

Today’s lesson is that you should ALWAYS go out and pedal, even if you don’t want to.  I’m just certain that when you come back home, you’ll be glad you went… 99% of the time!

The Big Finish

Finish line! Photo courtesy of Jay Hardesty

Becoming Self Sufficient

When I was a little girl, I used to help my dad work on our family cars.  As his grease monkey, I started out retrieving the various tools & parts necessary for each job.  Eventually, it got to the point where I would do some of the work and he would supervise.  I guess he knew early on that my independent spirit would take me miles from home and that I would need to have the skill set necessary to prevent becoming stranded.  I never minded having a little grease under my nails and after college relished the fact that every dollar I saved on oil changes meant an additional dollar in the piggy bank for something fun.

When I hopped on the bike a couple of years ago, I quickly saw that I would need to become self sufficient on some basic and common bike mechanical issues.  I didn’t want to be the kind of cyclist who needed to be rescued.  And I certainly Rampage picdidn’t want to burden my husband with bike stuff, although he’s been so supportive of this cycling journey since day one.  One of the very first clinics offered by my team was a basic bike maintenance clinic… complete with food, beer, and wine!  We brought our bikes and actually removed tires and tubes and put them back on.  We patched a hole in a tube.  We adjusted brakes and derailleurs.

I knew the day would come when I would be forced to fix a flat along the side of the road or single track , miles from home or miles from my car.  I was fortunate that it was a lovely, sunny Colorado day when it happened.  I had just ridden up Lookout Mountain and had stopped for a snack at the top.  One of my team mates happened to be pedaling by and we decided to descend down Highway 40 together and perhaps head over to Red Rocks Amphitheater.  About one third of the way down, my ride suddenly felt “squishy”.  I signaled that I was slowing and came to a stop along the side of the road.  A quick inspection revealed what would be my first flat rear tire.

I was absolutely thrilled to have an experienced cyclist like Gary there to watch over what I was doing as I pulled off the wheel and retrieved tire irons, tube, and pump.  Following the team clinic, I had practiced changing flats at home under the watchful eye of my husband,  so the process went very smoothly and I forgot only one step that Gary reminded me of.  The route home happened to take me by two different bike shops, but I didn’t stop; there was no need to stop because I was self sufficient!  

IMG_2512Isn’t self sufficiency everyone’s goal to some degree?  It’s what I hope to impart on my daughter, similar to what my dad did for me.  If you don’t have kids, your parents very likely wanted it for you, long before you knew you wanted it for yourself.  Conquering some small part of the universe, be it a flat bike tire, a broken chain on a mountain bike miles into the woods, or a detached fuel line in your car engine in the middle of nowhere, reduces the fear of the unknown and breeds confidence in going the extra distance or taking the path less travelled.   My hope for you is that you’ll find something that you, too, can conquer and it will bring you the confidence to begin your cycling journey ~ or perhaps to take it a bit further.