A post-race-season ride in 2013 at Hartman Rocks, Gunnison, Colorado, was enough to convince me going into the Gunnison Growler in 2014 that this endurance race (64 miles) would be my most technically challenging mountain bike experience to date; and that intuition turned-out to be 100% correct. Even in the absence of rain all-of-the-night-before (!) that tumbled-down onto my tent at the local KOA campground and turned parts of the nearby race course into slimy goo or that sticky mud that quickly turns into concrete, the course offers technical challenges that shouldn't be underestimated. Steep drops on exposed granite slickrock and equally vertical technical climbs over steps, slopes, and combinations of features leave a deep impression ... an impression that is amplified at race pace.
The night before the race, rain drove my camp-mates and I into our tents at 9 pm. Previously, I set-up what I needed for breakfast, including my MSR stove, within reach in containers stashed under the vestibule of my 3-season Mountain Hardwear Lightpath-3 tent. At 430 am, rain still falling, I sat up in my sleeping bag, grabbed breakfast in stages, and put down what I could. It's never an easy process for me; all I want in the first hour of a morning is a cup of coffee. Nutrition starts early on race day, my preference has become 2.5-3 hours before the start. After eating, I laid back down for about an hour. Lighting the stove under my vestibule was done with care at about 530 am and soon I was sipping coffee, a period of peaceful contemplation before the intensity of racing. At 630 am, rain still tumbling down, I very reluctantly kitted-up and crawled out of my tent ... ready to roll to the starting line.
The race start was in downtown Gunnison, about 2.5 miles from the campground. Just before I rolled-out, my buddy and crew chief, Andrew Mackie, asked me if I was going to put water in the bottles I had loaded on the bike! Don't underestimate the value of having a good friend watching-out for you on race day. Fifteen-minutes later, bottles topped-off including 2 scoops of Hammer perpeteum in each 28-oz Camelbak bottle, I was lined-up among 266 other racers as David Wiens, race director, founder and legend, gave us last minute instructions over the mic.
Ba-boom ... goes the hearts ... and the guns that signal the start of the Gunnison Growler. We rolled-out behind the safety of our escorts, the local police department with lights flashing, and a couple of turns later made our way along Route 50 through the traffic lights towards Hartman Rocks. If you've never heard the sound of 266 mountain bikes on pavement, rolling fast, then imagine a swarm of bees ... a close approximation. And now add to it, because our bikes were all equipped with some form of knobby tire, lots and lots of airborne water ... pulled-up from the road and thrown backwards. It was well into lap one that I was finally able to clear the road grime from my Native sunglasses. It seemed, over that period, that no amount of spitting and wiping would resolve the problem.
Kill Hill. That's the name of the section of two-track (dirt road) that racers are headed for when they leave town, the start of the 'dirt flying' on this race course. Kill Hill is normally a sufferfest for just one reason, a steep climb. However, in 2014, add goo to the lower section and grease to the steep bits. A fellow with the number 1 on his bike pulled-out in the goo section and was overheard saying, "I'm done." Apparently, he spent the next hour or so hanging out with the race crew at the nearby finish line. I can't be sure, but it's likely he won the race the year before. The fourth place finisher from 2013 won in 2014 ... and his number was 4. Regardless of this anecdote, it's certain that many decided to pull-out (did not finish, DNFed) during or at the end of lap one. As well, the race was full ... 350 participants ... but recall only 266 lined-up. All of these were given status, DNS (did not start). That's the weather effect.
Slipping and hardtail-waggin in the goo, then carefully weighting the back wheel on the wet climb, the sick :) Niner Air-9 RDO and I topped Kill Hill about (roughly) 60 riders back from the leaders. Directly ahead lay single-track. We lined-up, recovered, and let it play-out. Technical mistakes led to passing opportunities, but there were few of these. So I settled into a pace set by my peers at this point ... focused on the many technical challenges and my first experience on a muddy race course.
My skills have improved over the years, certainly my technical skills have as well. At this point, I can clean (roll over without touching the ground with a foot) many of the challenges that I've encountered to date. However, that's under ideal conditions, a dry trail, space, time to pick my line. During this race, a bike following and a bike ahead, slick granite, and mud substantially affected my performance. My guess is my technical blunders along the race course, especially lap one, cost me about 5-10 minutes. That seems minor given my race time was 6 hrs 12 minutes, but for my placement among finishers it's substantial!
Out of the 266: I finished, and note I'm psyched about this for sure, 40th overall. Shave 10 minutes ... and I'm a few seconds out of the top 20. And what about in my 40-49 age class? I finished 6th out of 75, my best age class finish to date, also psyched about this. However, shave just 22 seconds and I'm in 5th place; shave about 3 minutes and I'm 4th. The mistakes I made in the technical sections were compounded when my shoes and pedals filled with mud; at that stage, my feet refused to go into/and out-of my pedals. Many falls ensued and frustration set-in. In the second half of lap one, I experienced my most significant mental struggle on the bike to date.
A few days after the crushing growler, I was headed to Cheyenne, Wyoming for my next race: the Gowdy Grinder held in Curt Gowdy State Park. Like the growler, the Grinder is a cross-country course with many technical challenges. The bedrock in the area is granite, another feature shared with Hartman Rocks. The result is a very similar course including fast corners on 'marbles' ... small rounded chunks of granite (likely quartz) that challenge racers to stay on the course. Like the Growler, I can chalk-up many successes on the technical sections from the Grinder. However, the same is also true for lost time due to mistakes. Over 2 hours and 1 minute of racing in the open class, I'm guessing technical blunders cost me about 2-3 minutes, maybe more. Out of 66, I finished 27th. Definitely fast enough to celebrate and especially given I was racing in the open class. However, give me two minutes back and I'm closing-in on 20th.
When I began racing on 13 August 2013 my goal was to survive. Gradually, my goal was to do well enough to qualify for the Leadville Trail 100. I reached that goal twice in 2013. And finally, I wanted to race-in and finish the Leadville Trail 100 in under 9 hrs. I finished in 8 hrs 28 minutes. Moving forward, as my words above imply, my goals will involve making specific improvements to increase my pace ... and improve my position among the finishers. On that short list of improvements, inspired by my experiences at the Growler and Grinder, will certainly be 'improve my technical skills'. Also making the top, will be 'keep a clear head even when mistakes are made'. At the Growler, I let my mistakes get to me in lap one. With this in mind, I want to thank my friends that did so much for me when I finished that lap ... thank you for lifting my spirits so high ... your encouragement may have saved my race.
Ahead ... 40 in the Fort, Firecracker 50, Silver Rush 50 ... are significant challenges. Following these races, another rest period ... and then the ultimate Leadville Trail 100. Much to do in the meantime. After 6 hrs and 12 minutes of racing, I gave what was left and finished my last lap of the Gunnison Growler. Looking back, despite the challenges, I'm filled with inspiration ... it was a race I won't soon forget ... and one that I'll look forward to racing in again in 2015.