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!

 

Listen and Learn

IMG_2956One beautiful October day last fall I was out for a mountain bike ride near Red Rocks Amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado.  I was riding with my usual mountain biking buddy, JQ.  We got off to a slow start as it had rained the night before making the first section of the trail muddy and slippery.  Our pace picked up as we reached some smoother single track.  Eventually, we got very near to the amphitheater itself and the single track became very groomed and un-technical.  Maybe that was why I let my guard down.  As I crossed a road and jumped over a water bar, I landed all wrong.  As I was sent sailing over my handlebars into the air, I saw that I was headed face first toward a group of large boulders, strategically placed next to the trail as a barrier.  The only thing I had time to do as the precipice of a rock rapidly approached my face was roll my head back toward my shoulder blades.  This slight movement prevented me from breaking my face, but the full force of the impact was taken in my chest.  I was not wearing a chest protector.  And I don’t have a lot of “cushion” in that area, if you know what I mean.

I laid in the weeds wondering if this was going to be the crash that I didn’t walk away from.  As I tried to catch my breath, I began to wiggle fingers and toes.  I tried to call out to JQ to stop and wait for me, but it came out as a whisper.  I slowly sat up and continued to gasp for breath.   Eventually I stood and was shocked and pleased that everything still seemed to work.  My bike was laying in a heap about ten feet away.  It, too, still seemed to work, so I climbed on and started to pedal in the direction of JQ.  By this time she was coming back to find me.  We took the shortest route back to the cars, which was up Morrison Road.  As the adrenalin started to wear off, the scrapes and bruises started to voice their discomfort.  I had an x-ray the next day which showed a bruise to my sternum.  I was told I could ride again when I was able to do a push up.  I was back on the bike about four weeks later.

Four weeks after the crash puts us in November, and I didn’t ride the mountain bike much through the winter.  In the last couple of months, I’ve been doing more mountain biking as I gear up for summer races.  As a result of that crash, I’m a little gun shy of riding over boulders that normally wouldn’t even give me a reason to pause.  It’s so frustrating to know what you are physically capable of only to have your brain bring it to a complete stop.

JQ and I recently weexpertnt and rode at Alderfer/3 Sisters Park outside Evergreen, Colorado.  The trail system there was great because there were many shorter loops you could connect into a substantial ride.  We started on some flat trails with minor obstacles.  Normally I have to try and chase JQ down to keep up with her, but that day, she held back and talked me through lines and over obstacles.  I guess she, too, had observed my mental block on previous rides.  Before I knew it, I was rolling over boulders like nobody’s business.

It would have been easy for me to let my pride get in the way of being open to her coaching.  But I decided when I started this cycling journey that I would have to listen if I wanted to learn.  I’ve learned so many little gems along the way because of that decision.  And those lessons often come from unexpected sources.

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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

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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Ridgeline Rampage – a race review

Having raced in the Ridgeline Rampage on Saturday, I can cross the first mountain bike race of the year off my list of things to do.  When I arrived in Castle Rock for the race, the weather was somewhat cool and overcast.  The weather forecasters had been predicting afternoon rain showers.  I had packed a variety of clothing so that I would be prepared no matter what conditions I would be racing in. I had ridden this race last year, so I knew what to expect for the most part in terms of course terrain and elevation changes.  However, this year, the course was going in the opposite direction.  Somewhere in the back of mind I thought this might mean that there would be more climbing involved, but overall, it should be very similar in either direction.

I picked up my race number, t-shirt and goody bag at the registration table.  All the while the sun seemed to be hinting that it might actually make an appearance and warm things up for the afternoon races.  I was early enough that I had time to cruise around looking for team mates and visited the pit area just in time to see my team mate, Carol, pass through.  After that I returned to my car, suited up, and began the process of riding up the nearby hills to warm up my legs.  I had heard that this year’s field of racers was bigger than ever and wondered how that would play out during the first mile or so of the race.  Last year, bikes had literally been tire to tire at the beginning, making for a frustrating and challenging traffic jam to navigate through.

As I pedaled around the neighborhood surrounding the race course, I came to see that the first half mile of so of the course went uphill through the neighborhood streets.  I suspected the course had been routed in such a way to thin out the racers before we rolled onto single track.  To some degree, it worked.  But eventually, there came an inevitable traffic jam when too many riders come together in one place on an incline.  This is my least favorite part of racing the Ridgeline Rampage.   I can’t help but think that spacing out start times would alleviate this problem.  As a few cyclists hopped off their bikes and began running them up the hill, I decided to do the same.  This turned out to be a mistake because everyone I had just passed ~and then  some~ eventually got rolling again and it was impossible for me to find a gap big enough to squeeze into to get rolling again.  Lesson learned.

Once I was on the move again, I settled into a steady rhythm of climbing, calling out “on your left!” , and assertively passing other

Bebe the Niner equipped with gels readily available for the bumpy terrain.

Bebe the Niner equipped with gels readily available for the bumpy terrain.

racers as I cruised up the hills.   Before I knew it, I was starting in on the food that I had packed with me.  I was surprised that I was feeling the need for energy so soon into the race.  This is when I concluded ~rightly or wrongly~ that more climbing was required to ride the course in this direction.  The good news was that the course was designed with the pit in the center of a figure 8, meaning that I could grab a hand-up of food or liquid if necessary at the middle and end of each lap.

I did pass a lot of guys and a few gals, but I never was able to chase down the one or two women in my age group who passed me during the run-up fiasco at the very beginning of the race.  As I was closing the second half of my last lap, my triceps were burning, my thighs were screaming at me, and I’m certain I let out more than one whimper as my body protested the continued pain of climbing.  After reviewing the statistics later on Strava, I realized that each ten mile lap of the race had 1,000 feet of climbing… no wonder my body was protesting!  The wind and rain moved into the area during the last few hundred feet of my race.  I rolled across the finish line and went directly to the food tent.  Peanut butter and honey sandwiches never tasted so good!Post race

Day in Denver

Not long ago my husband announced that he would be going to downtown Denver on a Friday morning for a meeting.  He proposed that we meet for lunch and spend the afternoon in Denver.  Having been married for fifteen years, I could read between the lines and see I was being asked out on a date.  Like any cyclist, I managed to work a bike ride into the logistics of this date.   While he was in his meeting, I would pedal my way from the suburbs into the city and meet him just in time for our lunch date.  We could then put the bike in the car and go from there in one vehicle.

I have become quite familiar with the “good” (read: bicycle friendly) roads near my home.  I know just where to go to keep my ride relatively flat, which is not an easy task when you live along the foothills.   I know where to go when I want to climb.   But most importantly, I know which roads to avoid because they’re just too narrow to accommodate cars and bikes safely at the same time.  But pedaling into Denver?  This was new territory for me.

I did some online research using sites like Strava and RidewithGPS to determine the best route from my house.  I committed the route to memory so that I could avoid any unnecessary stops along the way.  After all, I didn’t want to keep my handsome date waiting!  I had no way of knowing that construction would close parts of the bike path I was planning to use; or that detours along the path would have useless or non-existent signage for directing bike traffic.  Once I left the bike path, I had no idea if the roads I would be traveling would have bike lanes or shoulders.  It was an adventure on carbon fiber.

Tulips in full bloom!

Tulips in full bloom!

While I did encounter some unexpected construction, I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the irises were taller, more flowers were in bloom, and the grass was greener as the elevation dropped the nearer I got to the city.  The construction and the detours did slow me down, but all I had to do was look up for the skyscrapers to know which general direction I needed to be going.

Sometimes all you need to keep moving forward in life, or to keep from going in circles, is a general sense of direction.  Yes, any ride along a new route is bound to have some unexpected turns and obstacles, just like life does.  So look up for a brief moment, get your bearings, and keep pedaling.  You might look down to see something you hadn’t noticed before!

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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