Monday, August 29, 2016

Soggy Bottom 2016

Short version.

I finished in fourth (again) in 9 hours 53 minutes, accomplishing my goal of cracking 10 hours, and frankly, doing better than I anticipated, given the actually soggy conditions this year. That being said, the trail and weather could have been a lot worse, so I’m thankful.

Also on the awesome front: Meredith, riding the 85 mile Petite. This girl had never ridden more than 20 miles at a shot before this summer. She killed it in her first endurance event, 9:06! Look for her in the 100 next year.

Despite a slower start to this season, my legs felt good for the effort, and had it been dry, I would have been shooting for sub 9:45. I kept my feed and water strategies essentially the same this year, but employed a way faster turnaround method at the check points by simply swapping packs, and kept all my food onboard the bike in a Revelate gas tank bag. Definite success.

Crossing the invisible finish line in Hope, 9:53. Photo: C. Renfro

Long Version

I knew the soggy was going to be cold and gray this year. Obviously, I didn’t really, but sometime back in June, I just had this feeling it wasn’t going to be hot and sunny like the last two years.

To an extent, I hoped it would be a little cooler, and somewhat wetter, than the rest of our summer. I rode the course, sans the road leg to and from Hope, in mid-July during an extended heat wave. It was incredibly hot and dry, too dry, sections of trail were loose like I’d never seen.

On that ride, I did 96 miles (9 shy of the actual course length) in 9:40. My pace was good, but I was in no particular hurry at the Cooper and Devils trail heads where I met Dave – who was generously supporting both myself, and Jessie and Meredith that day. My transitions were close to 10 minutes that day as I leisurely chatted, and I stopped a couple times on the ride to chat with others. Still, it was a good sign that things were shaping up. I knew aiming for 9:45 on race day if conditions were similar was a good goal.

I would reiterate here from other years, the best way to train for an event like this is not actually doing 8-10 hours rides. Most my long rides are 6 hours or less, but I don’t stop. One or two rides in the 8-10 hour range over the summer is good for mental training, but pushing a faster pace and not stopping for breaks on 4-6 hour rides is far better training.

Anyway, my predictions on the weather were unfortunately correct. About 2 weeks out, the hot and dry pattern started shifting. Just a week out, the initial onslaught of rain had done little to the bone dry trail, but the weather guessers promised steady rains in the days preceding the race, and on race day itself.

Sure enough, it started raining Thursday, and it looked like it might not let up all weekend.

I set the no-go mark at 1.5” of rain in 48 hours as the cutoff. For comparison, 0.75” in a similar timeframe would have been the mark for riding the trail in general.

By Thursday afternoon, the rain gauge in Cooper was already at .75” with no apparent end in sight and I basically said I was out. It let up that night though, and Friday it really didn’t rain.

Meredith was committed to riding the 85 mile Petite, come hell or high water, so I was going regardless, whether to ride, or to support her.

I swapped out tires on the Yeti, loading my standard front tire, a Maxxis Ardent 2.25” on the back, and putting an Ardent 2.4” on the front. Normally I would run a 2.2” Ardent Race or even a 2.2” Ikon on the back.

I knew traction was going to be essential in the trail’s peanut butter mud compared to any weight savings or reduced rolling resistance.

We made the final preparations on Meredith’s bike that afternoon, and got everything ready.

I was back in.

I slept with ear buds that night to be sure if it started raining I wouldn’t hear it and let it pervade my restless sleep, but there was no mistaking the steady thrum on the roof when I awoke to the 4:30 gloom of the belching alarm.

Mentally, I was out, again.

Still, I checked the rain gauges…only a quarter inch.

When we pulled into Hope around 7:30, the off-and-on rain had just barely stopped.

I set up Meredith’s bike, got her all checked in and signed off.

Oscar, Nick, and Clint came over and hassled me to suck it up and ride.

I didn’t want to talk too much about not racing. No need to spread my negativity to others, right?

With Meredith good to go, I walked to the beach and stared at the radar, and toward the Pass, and thought about it.

Some little sucker holes were showing up, and the radar promised that at least for the next 4 hours, it really wasn’t going to rain.

Both Meredith and I had put towels in our checkpoint bags so if we decided to bail out we could sit on the towels in someone’s car. I figured if I got to Cooper and the trail totally sucked, I could always bail. Likewise, if the weather flipped on the way to Devils, I could just quit and ride straight to Hope. This is an easy day and event to bail on.

I knew if I didn’t race though, I was going to be way more ticked off. The worst thing that could happen if I rode, was that I would be ticked at trail conditions and quit; that was far better than the alternative of being ticked off for the next 365 days that I didn’t even try.

I looked at my watch, it was 7:56. I waited 4 more minutes, and went and signed in.

What a massive amount of mental energy just to race.

The biggest takeaway: I need to pick another event Outside, a 50-100 miler, with enough girth on either side of the Soggy, to race as well. It sucks to have all your eggs in one historically wet basket.

I got some encouraging grins and more hassling, but my attitude remained quite dark, even on the start line.

Off we went.

There was no neutral start to Res Road, and things were pretty road racy to the trail head, definitely much faster than last year.

Once we hit the trail head, I fell back into position.

Adam, Chuck, Brian, Kevin, Owen, and Chris all disappeared ahead of me, and I slowly passed relay riders.

The trail was wet and muddy where it normally is, but overall, a lot of sections that could have been muddy seemed to have been too hard packed to let any water permeate.

Basically, one could literally say about the entire course, “if you know how bad Res gets when it’s wet, it could have been worse, a lot worse.” There were some really lousy sections for sure, but I think standing water was more pervasive than actual mud. As the day wore on and the weather held, the trail actually improved.

Just a little over the pass, descending into a mist, I caught what I’m pretty sure was another relay rider, when: Bam Hiss!

He was the first victim of many I would see during the day to have their tires shredded.

A combo of bad luck, slippery rocks, and perhaps insufficient sidewall protection would send many riders to the side of the trail during the day to fix flats.

I ran higher pressure than normal. My traction on slimy rocks sucked, but the tires had a bit more bite in the mud, and better resilience to sliding off the sharp-edged rocks. It’s also not a bad idea to invest in fresh treads for this event either.

As I passed Devil’s Junction, Chris was off to the side of the trail, also fixing a flat.

The descent was just a hoot through the slimy rocks…and I was definitely worried about uphill traction on the way back up, but it was otherwise uneventful.

Once I hit Juneau Lake, the good times and drier trail conditions came to an end. The stretch from Juneau Lake to Bean Creek Junction is a ditch. I hate it.

I came around a corner on the shore of Juneau Lake and saw Brian, soft pedaling, riding his rim. Bad luck struck again for him in this event, two years in a row. His race was done.

I pointed out at least he wouldn’t have to ride through this swamp again and he laughed and wished me luck.

A minute or two later I heard what I thought was Brian, splashing behind me, which sort of surprised me, given his lack of a tire. When I looked back, it was Chris.

I let him around me, but his pace seemed just a titch faster than mine so I latched on.

We ended up riding together to Bean Creek Junction, chatting the whole way, mostly about racing and riding hard tails (which he was on). The conversation and company was immensely helpful in making this boring stretch of trail go by quicker.

Compared to other years, this race was crazy social for me. I would ride with three others before reaching Hope, compared to riding almost entirely alone last year.

I pulled away from Chris as the trail began it’s descent to Cooper, but I figured if things worked out, he’d probably catch me on the way back up, and I might be so lucky to have someone to chase/ride with back through this same stretch.

Unfortunately, Chris flatted again about three miles above Cooper and had to jog down and fix the tire at the check point. He was still able to finish though.

The Cooper check point felt chaotic. Little Gus and grandma Carol were standing at the trail head, and when I called and waved to Gus, he came gliding along with me on his strider to the support area. Obviously, being a Reimer, he was hauling right along, when suddenly he face planted!

Fortunately, also being a Reimer, I think he puffed the grit from his little face and puffed more at the indignity of having such a public wreck, but he was up a second later.

The Susitna Bike Institute provided neutral mechanical support at the checkpoints and start this year, and I found their service to be excellent. I had hardly pulled up to the table where Carly and Ted greeted me, before one of the mechanics rushed over to see what my bike needed.

Truthfully, all I really needed was an extra hand to hold the bike, and some mental focus, but I felt a little overwhelmed, despite the simplicity I had in mind for my transitions.

I had 5 things to do at the checkpoints this year:

  • Shove a snack in my mouth and take a few swigs of water
  • Pour water on my drive train
  • Squirt lube on my chain
  • Empty the wrappers from my pockets
  • Switch backpacks

I rode the first leg with my camelback on, loaded with 1.5L of water, a spare tube, pump, and an old Voler vinyl shell.

I gave Carly a box that contained another camelback backpack with the same contents (sans the shell); as well as a third bladder filled with 1.5L was water. I would trade out backpacks in Cooper, and Carly would simply put the fresh bladder in the first pack for me so I could swap back out again at Devils. The only thing I could have done better was perhaps throw my nice rain shell in one of the packs so I didn’t feel obliged to swap them. That being said, I never wore a shell once, and had it been sunny, I would not have taken it at all. It was kind of just there for superstition.

Like years past, I had a snack for the transition (some type of fruity/sugary Kind bar) a water bottle to take a few swigs from, a jug of water to pour on the drivetrain, and chain lube.

Unfortunately, I tried to do everything at once, so chaos ensued. Carly and Ted were great though, and the mechanic was ready to take my bike and tune it if I had wanted. Everything was good, but I asked him to give my fork’s rebound a click as it was feeling a tad slow, which probably seems simple, but in such an addled mental state, was huge for me. I think he scrubbed my chain with a brush too, which might not have been needed, but was nice that they were there to do.

I was glad to trot away back to the trail.

This year, I was also careful to jog very slowly in short gentle strides through the parking lot.

I noticed in years past, the climb out of Cooper was unreasonably painful. Thinking about it, I think I damaged muscle tissue running too quickly in the parking area. The descent is long, and body position is relatively static, allowing tired muscles to tighten up. Then all of a sudden you jump off the bike and slam muscles through motions they haven’t done once yet all day? Ya, that’s probably not a good idea when you spell it out, huh? I’m going say, it probably made a difference, the climb wasn’t that bad this year.

I was still really nervous. The trail was slick, the brush high, and an accident with a descending rider seemed very likely.

I rang my handle bar bell incessantly, and again, it worked. I feel like every rider in the race should be required to use one, they cost $10 and weigh 5-10 grams, but dang they get heard. Bear bells are maybe helpful for slower-moving hikers, but are worthless for oncoming riders.

Descending riders were remarkably respectful; many of them came to a full stop, which, though not always even necessary, is still greatly appreciated.

The shining moment though, was seeing my girlfriend, Meredith, leading Jill and Amber down to Cooper. She looked great, confident, and strong, in good company.

Before this year, Meredith’s longest ride was 20 miles. She’d worked up to 65 this year, and has been racing the XC races in the expert division, but this ride would be her longest yet. She had learned as much as I had probably learned in years of riding in a matter of months, sometimes the hard way. It was really paying off.

As I pedaled on, I was so proud of her, and I wondered if she would continue to ride with Amber and Jill, and if they would try to convince her to go for the full 100 with them.

She had a chaotic turn around in Cooper and lost the two (they thought she had already turned around and was ahead of them). Otherwise, I think she would have gone for it with them. Next year, expect a packed and strong women’s field in the 100.

The sun came out on the way to Devils, and I felt great.

This was the worst leg for me last year by far the last two years.

Not this year.

Just as I started hiking up the switchbacks on the summer cutoff above Swan Lake, I heard something behind me, and saw a Revolution kit through the branches.

“CLINT!” I yelled in shock.

No, it was Oscar, racing on a relay team with Pete and Janus. He was hoping to sneak up on me and ask to pass, like he did in the 24 hours of Kincaid.

Failed in that joke, I had good company for the annoying hike-a-bike section, and made sure to return some of the ribbing he gave me in the morning.

The sun was out, I was halfway through the race, and the last stretch of lousy trail lay just ahead. Things were looking good.

I really didn’t want to dab or get knocked off my bike going over the slippery rocks on the last pitch of the south side climb, so I kept my pace slow and steady, leaving my rear shock open through the rocks to ensure my tire stayed glued to the trail.

No problem, never dabbed once.

I rolled through Ryan’s bacon station where I’m pretty sure I got heckled for not having bacon or whisky in my nutrition plan. I love the Devils Pass cheering squad, mentally, they break through the pain wall for a second.

Devils Junction, enroute to Devils Pass, the whisky/bacon/cheering squad. Photo: W. Ross.
Anyway, I was on a mission, I was closing in on Kevin and Owen. Riding through Devils Pass, I could see them less than a minute ahead.

Devils was raw, a stiff headwind the whole way down to the brush line and a cold misty rain in the alpine. The descents to both Cooper and Hope featured convenient tailwinds this year (don’t ask me how the winds split in Res Pass, but I see this often up there), meaning you could stay warmer on the way down, while staying cool on the climb. Devils felt harsh comparatively, but it’s also fast and short and I knew I just had to get below the thermal layer; good motivation to ride harder.

One definite advantage to being so far up front in the pack, I was only concerned about three uphill riders: the Team Speedway relay rider (the only relay rider in front of me), Adam, and Chuck.

I was actually surprised to see how close I was to the latter two. I also noticed Adam looked a bit rough, but Chuck looked good.

This was going to be a good race for Chuck, and I wondered if he’d catch Adam on the way to Hope. It’s a funny thing to have two of your best riding partners going head to head. It’s hard to know just who to root for.

Anyway, once I saw Chuck, I shut up and went into stealth mode.

I caught Owen just above the bridge at the base of the main descent.

He didn’t look good.

He stuck with me though, which surprised me once we began the steady climb from Quartz Creek to the trailhead.

If he was suffering, why was he fighting to stay on for this relatively short climb to a check point?

We caught up with Kevin within ear shot of the road, and positions 3-5 all rode in together.


I felt charged, and figured the best bet was to rush Kevin and Owen and give them no rest.

Ted grabbed my bike, and this time, I nailed my transition.

Mouth stuffed with the remnants of my snack, if I was turned around and ready to roll in any more than three minutes, I’ll be surprised. I signaled my number (my race plate was heavily spackled in mud and my mouth stuffed) to the surprised timer.

Owen must have jumped, and was back on my wheel at Quartz Creek. Kevin caught up as we began the climb in earnest.

Owen was possessed it seemed. For someone that looked to be at the end of his rope, he was digging deep on the climb, and latched onto relay rider Janus, who passed all three of us.

I asked Kevin if he wanted to come around, but he said he was good. We rode together to the end of the rock gardens, around mile 7 or so.

There wasn’t a lot of extra oxygen for conversation, but it was nice to have two sets of eyes going up the climb. More than once I put my head down to dig into a pitch, only to hear Kevin whoop at an approaching rider I might not have seen. Again, descending riders were super awesome and respectful.

I was also bit more hesitant to ding my bell on this climb with Owen just out front. I didn’t want to give him too much leverage on his lead.

Above the rock gardens, the misty Pass in front of us, we could see Owen about 30 seconds ahead.

I knew Kevin had to have a stronger pace in his legs, and told him to get after it. Third place was on the line.

Kevin took off and slowly built a lead. I watched Owen briefly try to latch on, but quickly dropped off.

I caught Owen a few minutes later just above the Devils Junction.

He latched onto my wheel and hung on as we tore along the rolling trail in Res Pass proper.

I really don’t know for sure where I dropped him. I was too nervous to look back until practically Fox Creek.

Eventually, I did glance back along one of the straightaways and didn’t see him.

On the opposite side of Res Creek, my legs were really starting to fade. I’d hammered all the short climbs between East Creek and Caribou, but I was struggling with the short canyon climbs now, and cursing them.

Fortunately, I still had ample power for the flats.

When I hit the road, I hung onto the underside of my bars and powered time trial style to Hope, happy to see I was amazingly going to crack 10 hours.

I passed the start, and I guess not surprisingly, felt completely overwhelmed. I dug really deep the last hour.

I rode back to the start line and got a high five from Kevin. I asked how long he’d been in, and he said two or three minutes.

I thought he was being nice, he had a beer in hand, I figured he had to have been there for longer, but was really surprised later to see he was dead serious.

It was a solid ride, a solid race. I didn’t feel like I had a whole lot more I could have done on the last leg.


After thoughts:

The two backpack system was awesome. I will surely be doing that in the future.

I also used the gas tank bag on my top tube to carry all my food. This meant less hassle at the transitions, and less hassle digging in jersey pockets. The waist straps on my packs cut off access to the pockets, sometimes making them hard get into.

I also had a realization during the Double Down XC race this year that a crash could make it hard to access jersey pockets, something you won’t realize until it happens, but could have a big effect.

I carried three gluten-free Honey Stinger Waffles, four non-caffeinated Cliff Shotbloks, and two caffeinated Shot Blocks. Like last year, I saved the caffeinated stuff until the last leg to avoid getting strung out. I have not been using caffeinated nutrition this summer while riding either.

The reason I used the GF waffles was not nutrition, but consistency. The GF ones seem to be less prone to crumbling or breaking, and frankly, a bit more tasty. Don’t expect to see me on a GF tear here, I just found them more reliable.

I ate all three waffles (one per leg), 3 non-caf blocks, and 1.5 caf blocks, plus a Kind bar at each check point.

My feed frequency has stayed the same, approximately 100 calories approximately every 45 minutes starting at 90 mins, alternating between packs of blocks and waffles, and making use of slower sections of trail (short climbs) to get my feeds.

I probably could have used at least one “bonus” feed somewhere in there, or have taken my first feed after 60 minutes, as it seemed my pre-start snack was insufficient. If the Yeti could conveniently carry a water bottle, I’d definitely carry just a titch less water per leg in my bladder and use something like diluted Gatorade to help with said “bonus” feed.

Lacking this option, I’m not sure exactly where I’d throw in this bonus feed. I’ll have to think about it.

I also might have liked a high-caf gu, like a Cliff Mocha Shot, for the final 10 miles of the last leg, instead of another shot block.