Despite months of preparation to arrive in 'A Race' condition for the Firecracker 50 something went wrong, and the result was a disappointing finish. Even worse, the timing of this result, as I'll describe below, caused me to briefly slip into the melancholy that unraveled many of my performances in 2015. After that brief slip, I rallied, set new goals, and settled-into a positive mindset that led, in part, to my best finish to date in the Silver Rush 50. Competing in two fifty mile races in five days delivered much more than I ever anticipated, the power of jedi mind tricks among them.
Every possible sacrifice is accommodated for races of highest priority on the race calendar. Back in January, I selected, discussed with my coach Alex Hagman, and concluded on three A Races for the 2016 season: Gunnison (Full) Growler; Firecracker 50; and the Leadville Trail 100. Selection was, in part, motivated by what I didn't accomplish in 2015 at the Firecracker. Training and other preparation delivered at the Gunnison Growler on May 29th, for the second year running. I finished 1st in the age 40-49 male category. With two A Races ahead, you would naturally hope for a strong finish in the first A Race of the season. Fortunately, given how much luck and other variables contribute to a finish time, I managed that success and transitioned-into June and July with confidence and motivation to finish strong at the Firecracker, my second A Race of the season.
The Firecracker 50 is a well attended event, including the largest contingent of elite (fast) age 40-49 male competitors (non-pro level) that I've faced-off against in any other race. It's not clear to me why so many elite age-class competitors show-up for this event, but they do so annually and always crush their sub-elite competition. A more typical scenario is a few, less than three or four, elite guys at the top of an age-class finishers list. At the Firecracker, there may be six or more at the top. For this reason, if you want to do well, say top three or even top five, in your age class then you're going to have to step-up your training and be prepared to empty your tank on race day. You're also going to need some luck, including no flats or mechanicals, and a body that shows-up ready to race. The latter is no guarantee of course, even with the very best training, some days we're unable to deliver for reason(s) that too often remain unresolved.
June was a very unusual training month relative to February (build endurance), March (build endurance), April (maintain endurance, intervals), and May (maintain endurance, intervals). For starters, I spent the first ten days of the month essentially off the bike (just two exceptions) traveling with my girlfriend across Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming in search of mega-fauna and other moments of serendipity. This was a planned, scheduled, mid-season rest period. Alex had prescribed the same as part of my very successful 2014 racing season which included a top 50 overall / top 10 age class (40-49 male) result at the Firecracker 50 (4 hrs 17 minutes).
A few days after returning to Fort Collins, I was back in the mountains, in Salida, Colorado, lining-up for the Salida Big Friggin Loop (SBFL; blog entry) at the Cafe Dawn. That race turned-out to be harder, as far as overall endurance, than any of my previous racing experiences including the Leadville Trail 100. After 116 miles with 13,600 feet of climbing, I returned to the Cafe Dawn about 11 hours after the start, wasted but smiling as the 2nd place finisher overall. After a short rest, I was back to training. The weeks of June 13-26 were used to reboot my endurance base and continue interval training. In the final week before the Firecracker, I backed off to just 6 hours on the bike, from 14-18 hours the two weeks before, without any hard efforts (intervals, etc). During this time I used warm (Ashtanga, Vinyasa) and hot yoga sessions to relax my mind, practice deep, controlled breathing, and maintain my core fitness. By now, yoga had become a regular part of my weekly fitness regime in place of bi-weekly core, balance, and strength (gym) workouts that were part of my routine during winter and the first three months of training in 2016.
Although I had pre-booked at the New Summit Inn in Frisco (an excellent, fairly priced, locally owned, hotel) from 2-5 July, a few days before the Firecracker 50 I decided to shorten my reservation by a day. What I had in mind was 1) I wanted to maximize recovery time at 5000 ft (1524 m) in Fort Collins; and 2), arrive as close to the event as possible consistent with advice from very experienced, pro-level, racers. According to the pros, you either arrive to a high elevation venue roughly two weeks before a race or the day before, whatever your schedule can accommodate. The former is best, the latter is second best. Apparently, arriving 2-3 days before the event is the worst case scenario. Without getting into the physiological details, my understanding is that our bodies fitness begins to decline as we ascend in elevation. And that decline reaches its lowest point about 2-3 days later. From there, your body begins it's ascent to full, high-elevation, adaption (10-14 days).
Saturday morning, I drove to Lory State Park and completed an easy spin on the valley trails, for the most part to spin my legs and pre-race check my Niner Jet 9 RDO. By about 4 pm, the same day, I was in Frisco, checked-in, and then driving to packet pick-up in nearby Breckenridge. After packet pick-up, I joined my teammate, RJ Morris, and his nephew for an early dinner. I was back in Frisco, with my Niner comfortably settled into my hotel room, by 7:30. All that was left for prep was feet-up, relax my mind, visualize the course, and then go to bed. In hindsight, my motivation was not high to race the following morning, but otherwise I was confident that my preparation, rest and training, had been sufficient to deliver an exciting result, possibly even top-three in my 45-49 age class. The Firecracker 50 splits 10-yr age classes into 5-yr brackets, it's the only venue I'm aware of that does this, normally I race in the age 40-49 category.
Historically, 2013, 2014, and 2015, I've always been dropped by the fast guys on the initial climb from town to Boreas Pass. The climb starts at 9,500 feet (2896 m) and tops-out at 10,900 (3322 m) after 6.7 miles (10.8 km). Although there is a lot of racing remaining after this initial climb, I've never made-up the time deficit, a handful of minutes, that the elite riders accumulated in those opening miles. Once again, in 2016, and at about the same location on the initial climb, the top riders from the 40-44 and 45-49 male age classes rode away from me. As they rode away, unlike previous years, I didn't panic and quickly spin myself into an oxygen deficit. Instead, I focused on breathing, kept the pedals spinning at a high cadence, and slowly brought up my heart rate. I was suffering but not to the extent that I had in 2015, a season that derailed when I entered into an overtrained state (overtraining syndrome) by about the middle of June. Nonetheless, I was still unable to close the gap, and that gap continued to grow until the top riders were out of my view.
I've inserted a graphic, above, from Strava Labs, their fly-by feature. The left axis records elevation (grey shaded area in chart). The right axis records time in minutes that a rider was ahead of me (above black line) or behind me (below the black line). Across the bottom, horizontal axis is course distance in miles. Study the grey shaded area in the background, this is the elevation profile for the race. You'll quickly discover that the race consists of two 25 mile (40 km) loops.
Using the Strava Labs user interface, I added three competitors (that are also using Strava) to the chart represented by the three colored lines. On top, the lime green line tracks one of those 'elite' fast dudes that I spoke about above, in this case it's Rob Batey. Two years ago he won the age 40-44 age class in the Firecracker 50. Below are two additional competitors, top, fast finishers but not quite in the elite class. On a side note, I've met and become friends with Rob, he's as kind and generous as he is fast, an inspiration and a fantastic role model for the sport.
At about mile two in the race, Rob and a group of about ten other riders pulled away from me. That point is clear on the chart, it's the point that the three riders begin to climb above (minutes ahead) the black line. About 25 miles later and a few miles into my second ascent of Boreas Pass (lap two), I reeled-in two of the riders shown on the chart. The moment I overtook them is that point where the red and aqua lines cross and drop below the black zero minute line. That's good news of course, as the race progressed I reeled-in some of riders that dropped me on the initial Boreas climb. But what about the elite dudes? Despite feeling good all day, that is not suffering because of overtraining or a lack of fitness, the elite 40-49 age class racers continued to pull away, to widen their gap, even in the second lap, as demonstrated by Rob's ascending lime green line. At the point that I overtook the two riders on the Boreas climb, Rob et al were six minutes or more ahead of me. Certainly the elite pace and my own were much more similar in lap two versus one, but nonetheless I was never a competitor for the top 3 (my goal) or even the top 5 finishing places in the age 45-49 age class on the fourth of July in 2016. For reasons that I still don't understand and probably never will, I essentially repeated my finish time from 2015 in 2016, no improvement despite my poor condition going into the race in 2015 and excellent condition in 2016.
In a brief post-race interview with World Tour pro road racer Mark Cavendish, it may have been after one of his 2016 Tour de France stage wins but I can't recall for sure, he said something that made me pause and I still think about it from time-to-time. The essence of his statement was 'among many disappointments there will be just a few victories for any athlete'. He went on to say, 'and so an athlete should always take their time and really enjoy their successes', such as the 1st place finish that inspired Mark's comments.
When I reflect on the disappointment that I was feeling following the 2016 Firecracker 50, it's not difficult for me to turn that around and come to a much more sensible conclusion: my performance was an inevitable, unavoidable, part of the process that is necessary for 'a few victories'. However, that sensible conclusion ignores the timing of the disappointment which was also significant. A year before at the Firecracker 50 my season began to unwind and spiral downward. Because of this historical significance, after the 2016 Firecracker I briefly slipped back into the melancholy that overwhelmed me a year before, thinking (foolishly) that missing my race goal in 2016 was anything more than an unavoidable part of the process of an evolving athlete.
Fortunately, what happened this season in Breckenridge was not the result of overtraining and the overtraining syndrome that I was battling by this time in 2015. Instead, for unknown reason(s), it just wasn't one of my very best days. That aside, it was, nonetheless, a very respectable performance even if it was well-off the podium. After 4 hours and 28 minutes of racing, I finished 13th among males aged 40-49, and 6th among those that were 45-49. It's true that in 2014 I finished 9th in the 40-49 category, in 4 hrs 17 minutes. But that was one of those rare 'best days', one that I should continue to respect and celebrate at the expense of time spent dwelling on a performance that fell short of an ambitious goal.
Thanks to friends and my coach, the day after the Firecracker, I was rallying around a new perspective and looking forward to its effects when I raced five days (9 July) later at the Silver Rush 50 in Leadville, Colorado. Like the Firecracker, my participation in the 2016 Silver Rush would be my fourth in four years. Let me clarify the new perspective by paraphrasing a part of a conversation I had with my coach, I asked ... "how about if we visualize the Firecracker as the last hard training ride before a re-categorized Silver Rush, formerly a B-priority race and now an A Race?" I also suggested that "we retroactively re-categorized the Firecracker as a C/B-Race". Note all of these changes were changes that I would apply to my mind as opposed to the physical-side of training. When we adopted this new perspective we were adopting a new state of mind.
Five days later I finished 26th overall out of 549 starters, my best performance to date at the high elevation, notoriously difficult, Silver Rush 50. Among it's many challenges, the Silver Rush climbs to 12,000 ft (3660 m) six times over it's 50 mile course. I had essentially played mind games with myself and the effect, in part, was another strong finish to add to an already very successful season of amateur racing. As I made my final descent to the base of Dutch Henry Hill, the disappointment of the Firecracker easily settled into a logical space (just wasn't my best day) as the memory of the 2016 Silver Rush was being elevated into a category reserved for my best performances to date.
Taking on two fifty-mile endurance races in five days will include some surprises. For me, top among them, was an unexpected reanalysis of my overtrained past and the value of changing the perspective of the mind without changing the physical-side of training. Perhaps some day I'll find myself titling a blog entry 'jedi mind tricks' and telling the story of a race finish worthy of those elite dudes from the Firecracker 50.
In my next blog entry, I'll talk about another exciting finish for my modest palmarès, 2nd place overall at 40 in the Fort, a 40-mile endurance mountain bike race that dishes-out the equivalent of a 100 mile event. In addition, I'll share my thoughts as I approach the last A Race, the Leadville Trail 100 (13 August), on my 2016 calendar.