Saturday, July 12, 2014

Silver Rush 50 Mountain Bike Race

The crazy hike-a-bike start to the Silver Rush

I'm entered in the Leadville 100 again this year. Leadville is a highly sought-after entry and a huge race - 1600+ cyclists and it is a mass start. Last year I learned that the first climb up St. Kevin's is so jammed that no passing is possible. Last year, that was fine and ensured Chris and I didn't go out too fast, but it seemed that we did most of this climb at 2 mph. This frustrated a bunch of riders, including myself, but I knew why it was happening. There must be a very steep section somewhere on this climb that slowed riders to 2 mph. Since everyone is wheel-to-wheel on this climb, all the riders behind those riders, no matter how far back they are, can't go any faster than 2 mph, as there is no way to go. While Leadville is a mass start, there are starting corrals, seeded by speed. There are about eight corrals and my time from last year (11:59:52) got me into the third to last corral. The penultimate corral is VIP riders and the last corral is for first timers or riders who have not finished Leadville under 12 hours. 

Lifetime Fitness now owns the Leadville races and they have a series of 5 or 6 mountain bike races distributed around the US where if you finish fast enough you can upgrade your starting corral. The Silver Rush 50, held in Leadville, is one of these races and for this reason, I entered it. Last year for training I did the Firecracker 50 in Breckenridge. Both races are high altitude 50-milers, but the Silver Rush can improve my start position, so I went with that one. Finishing under the 8 hour cutoff for this race would put me in the same corral I was already in. If I finished in 7h30m, I'd move up one corral, and another if I finished under 6h30m, and again at 5h30m. The latter seemed the best possible finish for me, though if I finished under 6h30m I'd deem the race a big success.

At Leadville this year my goal will be to finish under ten hours. So, you might wonder, wouldn't you need to finish the Silver Rush 50 at least under five hours? If they were over similar terrain, that would be true. But these races have very little in common besides starting in Leadville. The description for the Silver Rush 50 is as follows: 

"Need a nice, easy challenge? Then forget this one. ‘Cause it’s nasty! Cut the Leadville Trail 100 in half, remove all the easy parts and throw in technical descents, burning lungs and wild animals. Now you have a better understanding of what you’re about to get into."

This is quite accurate (except for the wild animals), as this race is brutal. Much more technical than the Firecracker 50, which is way, way more technical than the Leadville 100. This is probably a great test of mountain biking skills, but for riders like myself, with mediocre technical skills, it involved lots of hike-a-bike and white-knuckle descents. Three or four of the riders that were around me on the second half said out loud, "Never again!" A lot of the hike-a-bike sections would be ridable if you weren't in a race and could ride a bit and rest a bit, as they are anaerobic efforts. The worst sections are hike-a-bikes for everyone, including the ultra-badass who won this race in 3h43m.

The start of the race sets the appropriate tone. Cyclists are spread across the base of a 45% grade Dutch Henri hill that is probably 60 or 70 feet in height. There is no trail on this hill. It is rocks, shrubs, grass, and dirt. When the gun goes off you push or carry your bike up this hill, mount it, and immediately enter a downhill single track section. This is a mass start with 700 riders. It is unique and it makes for complete chaos for the first mile. 

The main reason I'm doing Leadville again this year is because Derek was so excited about helping out last year, where he and Sheri only supported us in two locations since they also climbed La Plata that morning, that he wanted to give full support for the entire race. He loved the rushing from one aid station to the next and cheering us on and helping us out. This is a great instinct - to want to help someone else achieve their goals - and I think it rarely comes to someone who is only 15 years old. I don't think I fully got this until I was 40 years old…

So, I offered Derek a quid pro quo for this weekend. If he came up with me and supported me in the Silver Rush 50, I'd climb Harvard and Columbia, two 14ers that his brother had climbed but he had not, on Sunday. He immediately agreed. I didn't really need support for the Sliver Rush 50, nor would I need it at the Leadville 100. Here I mainly wanted his company, but it is very inspiring to see your loved ones sacrificing their time, their weekend to come out and drive around to crowded aid stations to only see you for a few seconds, all because they want to help. They want to give.To be worthy of that gift is inspiring and emotional for me.

Derek and I left town around 3:30 p.m. on Friday and drove to Leadville to check-in. After picking up my number and T-shirt we went to The Grill, a Mexican place that Derek knew about from his work up here as a timer for the Leadville Marathon. He said it was delicious and indeed it was. Sated, we drove out to join Jason Antin and his friend Ben to camp on the road leading to the Mt. Elbert Trailhead (this road is also part of the Leadville 100 Tail Run). We found them just before dark and chatted briefly before setting up our tent and crawling into our sleeping bags. We watched a movie on my laptop before falling asleep. Actually, Derek watched a movie and I watched half a movie.

The Silver Rush starts at the civilized time of 9 a.m. so we had time to head into town and get some breakfast and coffee. Afterwards we drove to the race site and parked. I got my bike ready and changed into my kit while Derek readied his aid station supplies. We talked about what I'd need at each aid station and when I'd get there. The Silver Rush is an out-and-back course, like the Leadville 100. Derek would meet me at the 14-mile aid station on the way out and then again there on my return trip, at 36 miles. He'd also see me at the 25-mile turn-around. Having never done the course and not really knowing anything about it, I figured I'd shoot for six hours for the total time and should be at the first aid station around 90 minutes, then the turn-around by 3 hours, and back at the first aid station by 4h30m. 

I queued on the far left of the crazy, hill start, in the third or fourth row. In the center bikes were maybe ten deep. When the gun went off I took my time going up Dutch Henri hill. I didn't know at the time that there was a single-track bottleneck immediately after cresting the hill and I might do things differently if I ever did this race again. At the top, I mounted and queued for the descent. Soon we were on a double track and everyone was going pretty hard. I settled into a sustainable pace and mostly held my position.

The first section of the race is a long climb that gets progressively steeper and rockier for ten miles. There was a crux section maybe five miles into it and I dismounted along with almost everyone around me to push it. A rider near me rode the entire thing...while I walked next to him for most of it. It was the right thing for me to push this, as any attempt at riding it would have put me in a huge anaerobic debt. The last half mile up to the dirt road was all pushing as well and some of it quite technical. I feared I'd have to walk my bike down this part on the way back.

We hit a dirt road at 10.5 miles into the race and motored downhill at considerably speed to the first aid station. I arrived at 1h25m and Derek was right there in his bright blue shirt. He spotted me as well and expertly handed me a new bottle as I passed by at 15 mph. I tossed my empty at his feet moments before grabbing the full one. He asked if I needed anything else and I said no and sped by over a short steep rise and once again onto single-track.

The single-track descent was over in a few minutes and we crossed a paved road and headed up a dirt road climb. I passed some riders here. This climb was pretty short, maybe 10 or 15 minutes and then I descended, on the road still, before taking a sharp right turn and starting a long single-track climb. I was soon in my granny gear, where I'd spend a lot of time in this race. This was a long climb, but all rideable. It was nearly a four mile climb up to nearly 12,000 feet.

I crested the hill and went down a short, steep, rocky downhill and then turned up again. One of the riders around me said, "Ah, the last climb on the way out." I was glad to hear that. This climb would bring us to the high point of the race. There was some hike-a-bike at the very top of this climb, but here it was only a few minutes.

The descent of the other side pushed my meager skills to their absolute limits. I was acutely aware that I'd be holding up riders behind me, but it wasn't that many. I'd always take the easiest line if it was available, but tried to stay right as much as possible. When the first rider passed me on the descent I said to him, "Sorry, guy, I'm doing the best I can." He responded nicely, "No worries. You're on V-brakes and that's bad ass." I didn't really think about it before as I've never ridden with disc brakes, but on the two long technical descents of this race my hands and triceps were so tired and pumped that I nearly had to stop to rest them. After this brutal day of resting the only sore muscles the next day were my triceps. While pushing up this crazy section on the way back I saw a guy standing off to the side on his way down. He said, "I'm from Chicago and that", he pointed at the trail below him, "is NOT ridable." I glad to know that at least I wasn't the worst technical rider in the race...

This was a very trying descent for me, but I didn't crash and I didn't get off my bike. As I entered the aid area at the turn-around I spotted Derek on the side of the dirt road I was now riding. He held up my fresh bottle, ready to deliver it. I motioned a circle with my finger, indicating that I'd turn-around first and get the bottle on the way out. I went flying by him, turned left and started climbing up a moderate hill. As that hill crested the riders in front of me were dismounted to push up a 50-yard hill that was so steep and so rocky that no one, not even the winner, rode it. I have no idea why they would put such a hill into this race, except that it was in character with the start and with the crazy, technical, steep climbs that make up this race. I did likewise and pushed to the top. On the way out of the aid station I picked up a fresh bottle from Derek, a gel packet, and a bar. I had wanted to pick up my rain shell as the skies were threatening just a touch, but Derek wisely had left the jacket in the car. He said, "You don't need your jacket, you sissy! What's a little rain going to do to you? Melt you? Are you the Wicked Witch of the West? Is that what you're telling me? Smack dab in the middle of an epic 50-mile mountain bike race and you take that time to tell your son you're really from Oz? I didn't think so. Now get going and get your ass over that pass before the skies open up!" And with that I was off.

I rode the rideable parts and walked the unrideable parts, along with everyone else around me. I passed a few riders pushing up the hill, working hard, but not going anaerobic. I was hurting pretty good and already counting down the miles to the finish. At the top of that climb, I knew that I had a lot more descending than climbing to the finish, but both were pretty taxing on me.

I had to push up the hill to the parts of the next climb and then had a pretty easy, relatively, descent for the next four miles. Then the road climb. A road descent onto single-track and a climb back up to the last aid station where Derek was waiting for me, ready to go with everything I needed. He ran with me as I pedaled through the aid station. He gave me a fresh flask of gel and a full bottle. I left there four hours into the race with about 14 miles to go - roughly four uphill and ten downhill. Derek said, "You're doing great! On track for sub-5." Originally, I figured if I could do this section the other way in 1h30m, it would take an hour to reverse it. That was before I knew how technical it was. I still thought I had a chance of sub-5, until I spent the next thirty minutes climbing. I was tired and fading but still catching and passing some riders. They'd all pass me on the highly technical descent, but I didn't care. I was doing all I could, all the time.

It was half relief to get to the final descent and half dread because I knew how technical it was and I really didn't want to crash. I didn't have to walk any of it by slowing down to a safe speed on the worst sections. I tried to move fast in the other sections, taking some risks for me and going at much faster speeds then I'd want to crash at. Despite this, at least twenty riders passed me on the descent. I found myself lusting after a 29" bike with disc brakes...

The topper on this descent was, on one of the only sections I was truly alone and also going very fast, I missed a sharp 90-degree turn. The turn was marked, but by light pink flags about five inches high. They were difficult to see at that speed while trying to keep the rubber side down. I realized I'd missed something when I came to a y-junction and continued down to the right. Seeing no flags or streamers I thought I was off course. I doubled back and climbed back up to the Y. I almost went down the other way (also wrong) but didn't recognize it. I went back down the way I'd just come up. At this point I didn't even know there was another junction up higher. When I started down for the second time I met another rider coming up, saying, "I'm off course." We climbed back to the Y junction and other riders came screaming down to us. Now we had a group of eight and we all climbed back up the trail to the poorly marked turn.

Some of the other riders were really pissed with the poor course markings. I was certainly frustrated as well. When I started the final ten-mile descent I knew breaking five hours was impossible, but I thought breaking 5h30m (the best possible corral time cutoff) was in the bag. With this off-course detour I had lost six minutes. I still thought I'd make it, but it was going to be pretty close. I descended as best I could getting more and more wasted. I watched my odometer and the clock and still felt confident I'd make it. I was gone, but still pushing to make the time cut.

I knew the finish would involve the steep single-track back to the top of the crazy start hill and I rode most of this, dismounting when I caught the rider in front of me. We remounted at the top and I could have gone by him, but I was so beat mentally and physically, that I just didn't care. I knew I wasn't close to a good placement, even for my age group, and I just wanted to be done. This is pretty rare for me. I usually will pass as many people as possible, heck it's a race. This is just an indication of how broken down I'd become. But there was some more climbing to go and eventually I rolled by this guy, slowly. If he had felt any different than I did, he could easily pass me back and I'd have been fine with that, but he seemed to be in the same head space as myself.

We rode right across the top of the start hill and I saw Derek here, anxiously waiting for me, as he had expected me to possibly break five hours and now the clock was nearly as five and a half hours. He told me, "It's just one minute to the finish," and then he took off down the hill to shoot photos of me finishing. The trail wound back into the woods and then came down a very steep hill, though with a good trail on it. At the bottom of the hill I could hear the other rider on my wheel, as I took the last hill conservatively. Now I certainly didn't want to get passed and maybe he had no intention of passing me, but once at the bottom, I kicked fairly hard for the line. I finished with clean wheels on the guy, but we got the same time.

I immediately dismounted, for the last time finally, and walked my bike to an open spot in the grassy finish area. I then collapsed on the ground, completely and utterly (do I really need to say both "completely" and "utterly"? Paul Sherwin does it, so it must be right) spent. I was shattered despite having descended, mostly, for nearly the final hour! That's an indication of the effort I put out and also my limited descending skills.
Wasted at the finish
Derek told me that he heard Dave Mackey had finish a bit before me. Turns out he was about nine minutes faster than me. With the six minutes I lost...getting lost, I was tempted to be quite proud to be so close to Dave, who is one of the best ultra-runners in the country and far out of my league when it comes to endurance sports. I resisted, though, worried that I'd find out later that Dave rode the second half of the race on a flat tire...or a unicycle. Dave, like Jason, is entered in the Leadman competition this year, which means they have to do a series of increasing difficult Leadville events, including this one, that culminate with by far the hardest event: the Leadville 100 Trail Run. Jason finished the race in 5h36m. He was twenty minutes behind me at the final aid station, so he made up ten minutes over the last 14 miles, though six of those minutes were due to me getting lost.

Many races have "magic times" that all racers dream of breaking. In the Leadville 100 there are two times: 9 hours and 12 hours, each earning a special buckle. Forty minutes was the magic time for me at the Bolder Boulder 10K. At the Silver Rush that magical time is 5h26m. My finishing time? 5h25m59s. Yeah……! The last person to make gets a huge belt buckle - about the size of VW bug. It was almost good that the rider behind me got the same time since we didn't have room in the Land Cruiser to fit the buckle. It's tradition for this last rider to be mobbed by the podium girls at the finish, but here they made a mistake and mobbed me instead. Derek wisely took no photos of this encounter, in which I was completely at their mercy.

I was 17th in my age group of 82 riders, also the most coveted finishing position, contrary to popular belief that first is best. I finished 158th overall and got "chicked" five times over. Full results are here. Speaking of chicks, mountain biking doesn't appear to any different from road racing when it comes to gross numbers. In the Silver Rush 540 males finished and 54 women finished. You don't go to a bike race looking for a girlfriend...

It is interesting to compare the differences of a full-on effort vs. a more casual effort, even when the full-on effort is less than half the distance:

Race Distance Time Vertical Effort Wastedness
Silver Rush 47 miles 5h26m 7800 ft. 9 felt destroyed
Leadville 104 mies 11h59m 12,400 ft. 6 felt fine

After regaining the energy to stand, I ate the lunch the race provided. It was BBQ pork sandwiches and delicious, though it was hard to eat with my fatigue. Derek helped me out a bit. Then we said goodbyes and headed for the Leadville Hostel where I knew I could get a shower. After showering we hung out in the big, comfy living room watching a movie on the big screen TV. I was mainly resting and recovering. We had a big day planned for tomorrow. Later we'd eat pizza and drive out to the trailhead for Harvard. We'd have to sleep in the back of the Land Cruiser because of the constant rain, but we didn't mind. It had been a pretty good day...

1 comment:

Nic Daubenmire said...

Hi--I'd love to chat with you about this race. I'm thinking of signing up and wanted to see what your pre race biking habits were. I love to ride, but I'm not a very technical rider. Any chance you would shoot me an email and we could possibly set up a time to chat over the phone or coffee?? if you're willing!
Thanks--and great write up!