Hartman Rocks Recreation Area rises out of the valley containing Gunnison, Colorado, in dramatic fashion, effectively tempting any mountain biker that might drive through town heading east or west on highway 50. The head wall, towering above the main parking area, exposes the granite bedrock foundation of the recreation area. Looking way-up from this perspective, technical chutes and fast, banked, single-track descend into a network of grin-inducing trails, such as Jack's and Collarbone Alley. Above the wall, and out of view from the parking area, is a rolling sage brush plateau broken by granite outcrops and creek drainages. This area too is criss-crossed by celebrated trails. Along with this exceptional single-track is a World-class scenic backdrop, the San Juan and Elk Ranges of the Rocky Mountains dominate views to the south and north, respectively. With a base elevation around 7,700 feet, Hartman Rock's is an ideal location for outdoor adventure .. including the sport of endurance mountain bike racing.
The trail complex at Hartman Rocks is managed with considerable expertise and experience by David Wiens, retired pro mountain biker of Leadville Trail 100 fame, and his crew from the not-for-profit Gunnison Trails organization. To help fund the organization, Gunnison Trails offers a handful of running and mountain bike events, including a combined bike-run-bike event (Meowler). Perhaps the flagship of their endeavors, the Original Growler has become a bucket-list race for many cross-country (endurance) mountain bikers. Single-track makes-up the majority of the race, sometimes technical and always fun. Along the way, riders encounter steep, leg-burning climbs and ripping-fast, flowy, descents. On the jeep trail sections it's full gas to the next pinch. There is really no rest for the hardy mountain biker on the 32-mile course, completed twice for the Full Growler and one time for the Half. Added to the Half and Full Growler is a controlled start from downtown Gunnison along highway 50 and a few miles of racing on pavement to a dirt road climb of notorious fame, Kill Hill. You can easily see Kill Hill from the main parking area at Hartman Rocks, it's a great option for hill repeats if you're feeling masochistic.
At a rented house not far from highway 50 and Hartman's, my girlfriend and I joined a group of Northern Colorado Grassroots Riders on Friday evening, May 27th. We spent the next day in preparation for the 7 am start the following morning. On Sunday, I woke at 3 am, quickly prepared a breakfast of two eggs, pre-cooked potatoes, and two slices of toast with butter. I enjoyed a banana and orange first, then the toast, potatoes and eggs, an order consistent with digestion rates, fruit digests the fastest, etc. After breakfast I went back to bed. As I transitioned into and out-of sleep, I did my best to relax by focusing on a style of breathing I learned from yoga classes at Elan Yoga & Fitness. At 6 am, I started the process of preparing for the race, by 6:30-ish I was rolling towards highway 50 and downtown Gunnison to line-up for the 2016 Full Growler.
I felt good at the start, and despite no warm-up other than a light spin into town, I felt good during the road section of the race from town to Hartman's. That 'feel good' continued up Kill Hill, I topped-out inside of the top 20-30 riders, perhaps even a little better. After the race those 'feel good' suspicions were confirmed when I discovered that I set a personal record (PR) that morning climbing Kill Hill. But even better than that PR, as I climbed Kill Hill that morning my legs felt strong and my heart was suffering less than anticipated given my effort. All systems were working efficiently, confirming that my preparation for the Growler had been successful.
Not far from the top of Kill Hill, the Growler course, ridden counter-clockwise (more below), converges on its first section of single track. I burned my legs a little more just before the pinch and managed to pass a few more riders while respecting that I was a slow-to-warm-up rider, i.e., being careful not to blow myself up. This section of single track quickly returns to two-track, a climb and a very hard left, a left I was happy to know about from my partial pre-ride the previous day. A short descent from the hard left and the race was back onto single track and climbing to The Top of the World where I set another PR on the course and was on my way to set many more before I finished lap one.
Year-to-year race comparisons are difficult even when vendors offer an identical route annually. By reversing the direction of the course from year-to-year, a feature of the Full and Half Growlers, the comparison challenge is greatly amplified. The last time I raced the Full Growler in a counter-clockwise direction was my very successful 2014 season, my second season racing a mountain bike. In 2015, the event switched to its alternative clockwise direction, the direction it will roll again in 2017. Certainly, the course is very different when ridden in reverse. In particular, although it's equally technical going forward or backwards, there seems to be more intense (higher average grade) climbing in the counter-clockwise direction. Consistent with local opinion, that additional commitment to climbing, especially the climb out of Skull Pass on single track, and a steep, winding, jeep trail climb off the pavement, results in slower race times.
Some technical sections behind me, I dropped into Skull Pass feeling so-so but not overly-concerned. It just seemed that I might be slowing-down, or perhaps going at a less-than-ideal endurance pace, given a few riders that were close behind me. At the bottom of Skull Pass I began what I knew would be a tough climb including at least one section of hike-a-bike, probably two. At the base of the first short hike-a-bike I ran into traffic and so had no choice but to hop off the bike. I cleared the short, steep, loose section and resumed pedaling. Near the top of the Skull Pass climb, a series of granite rocks and ledge can be cleaned, I'd done it with a 34T ring on my 1x11 Sram drivetrain post-season in 2015. Nonetheless. I wasn't able to repeat the feat, on either lap 1 or 2, even with a 30T ring on race-day in 2016. No doubt I lost some time by walking these sections.
From the top of Skull Pass I pressed-on, eventually to Bambies descent, it was here that I finally dropped all but one competitor that had been on my wheel for many miles (sometimes I was on their wheel as we flip-flopped order). I dropped the last competitor on the climb that ascends off of a short pavement section that riders come to at the bottom of Bambies. A friend and my girlfriend were waiting for me on the pavement, it's always a thrill to see friends on the race course. They handed-up a bottle and I dropped my vest and arm warmers without stopping. A moment later, my smile forgotten, I was aiming my Jet 9 RDO at an awfully steep, loose, winding jeep trail ascent. I locked-out the drive train and began a patient leg-burning climb to the top.
Unlike Skull Pass, I managed to clean the jeep trail climb, and all of the other climbs along the course. I also did well with the technical sections, one-time off the bike, otherwise a few dabs. From the top of the road climb, I enjoyed the downhill before another climb. The Growler course gives the impression of relentless climbing. Soon onto Josho's and another personal record compared to two years ago; then onto the celebrated Rattlesnake descent, another PR for the day. After Rattlesnake, lap one is nearly finished other than a steep, technical squeeze through the front wall overlooking Hartman Rocks main parking area, a trail called The Notch. I exercised some caution, apparently, on lap one, and subsequently set a PR descending the The Notch on lap two.
On the lap one-to-two transition, I nearly missed my water bottle hand-up as I initially rode past both of my supporters. Spectators were crowding the transition area making it difficult for me to identify my crew while maintaining some momentum (not stopping). Normally, in previous years, I've used the transition hand-up to refresh two bottles, but the opportunity to grab a bottle on the pavement section below Bambies changed my strategy. I grabbed just one at each juncture, Bambies and the transition area. I started with two 26-ounce bottles and picked-up three more during the race, for a total of 5x26 ounces of water.
From the transition, I climbed Jack's, feeling good but aware of another rider coming up behind me. Jack's tops-out and soon tailpipe, with it's granite marbles, and the ridge present many challenges, all single-track. The ridge includes a technical descent, mistakes on this section could result in serious injury. At the base of the ridge racers come face-to-face with a familiar trailhead, a moment later they're reascending Top of the World for the second time ... lap two-of-two in the Full Growler.
As I ascended the Top of the World I was alone, and that remained the case, with one exception, for the remainder of my race. The exception was a racer that caught me while I was descending into Skull Pass. We climbed the pass together and then he quickly dropped me when we returned to the dirt road approach above the pass. Otherwise, always wondering who was ahead or behind, and hoping to see the next rider but not get caught, I did my best to keep my pace up and take risks on the descents. Coming off the pavement below Bambies, after a bottle hand-up and a small coke, I again cleaned the loose jeep trail climb. From the top, looking ahead, I glimpsed a rider which was most likely my teammate Ben Parman, but that's the last time I'd see anyone ahead of me. Looking back, while climbing Josho's, I saw a rider for the last time behind me. I thought he'd catch-up, but that glimpse was, apparently, enough to inspire me to pick-up my pace. Soon I was back on Rattlesnake, alone, descending Becks and then The Notch to the finish where friends were waiting to congratulate me.
Compared to 2015, when the course was ridden clockwise, my finish time increased by about seven minutes in 2016. However, with climbing grades and other differences in mind, from 2015 to 2016, I think the time comparison is misleading. No doubt I had a great race in 2015, best to date at that time. However, 2016 was likely even faster, based on intuition and anecdotal evidence. For example, I finished ahead of Matt Woodruff for the first time, by about 1 min 30 sec, in 2016. In 2015, a year earlier, he finished ahead of me by about the same. In 2014, he won the age 40-49 age class. I was 6th that year, a whopping 31 minutes behind Matt.
Also consistent with my best performance to date at the Full Growler, Strava recorded many second fastest times on sections that I repeated on lap two, along with a few personal records. My second lap no doubt contributed to the gap between myself and the next 40-49 male finisher, more evidence that I raced my best Full Growler to date, a gap of nearly 14 minutes in 2016. The previous year, I was only 36 seconds ahead of my nearest competitor, I passed them on the final climb up The Ridge on my way to the finish line / end of lap two.
The excitement of the day is still crackling a bit just under my skin, especially the moment when I realized I had achieved my 1st place age 40-49 goal for the second year in a row. However, that realization didn't materialize until Dave Wiens was announcing the age 40-49 finishers at the awards ceremony. My friends and I had overlooked the fact that the one 40-49 male finisher that was ahead of me was registered as a pro (rocket and legend Josh Tostado). For that reason, all of us were convinced that I'd managed second place in 2016, certainly a position worthy of celebration ... a celebration that was well underway in my mind even when Dave announced my name in the 1st place slot. That made my second, 1st place finish, in back-to-back years, even better. Topping it all off was the opportunity to share the moment with my girlfriend and many friends from Northern Colorado Grassroots Riders. I'll never forget the surprise in their faces that no doubt mirrored my own when Dave called my name in the 1st place position!
Training and racing are difficult, with many lows and a few big highs. For the next two weeks traveling with my girlfriend through Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, the two of us would continue to celebrate, a little part of each day, a finish that both of us had earned, her through patience and encouragement and me through many hours of training and other preparation. Other than a century ride in Yellowstone National Park, during this time I also took a much needed break from cycling, only riding twice in ten days.
At the conclusion of our trip it was time to say goodbye to my German lady-friend until September. Another sad departure behind us, on 9 June, she was on her way home to Hamburg and I was making final preparations for my first experience competing in a Colorado Endurance Series event, the Salida Big Friggin Loop just two days away. Despite all of the time off the bike and a 23 minute off-course error during the event, I finished 2nd overall at the Salida Big Friggin Loop at the end of nearly half a day on my Niner Jet 9 RDO. I'll pick-up here, with many more details, in my next blog entry ...