14 July 2010

What goes up, must go ... up?

I've been pondering an interesting conundrum of late, as it pertains to racing and the benefits of training. There's an old saw that "it doesn't hurt any less, you just go faster" -- so if that's the case, by extension the only real training benefit is to your brain, right? Sure, your muscles get bigger and more efficient through training, but I can tell you that as I churned ever so slowly up Feathercamp Ridge on Sunday morning, the benefits of all this Pisgah riding were very far from my mind. In fact, my mind seemed to hardly be functioning -- everything just hurt. Bad. Yet somehow, my training instincts kicked in, and I managed to survive to the first aid station ...

I have been a huge fan of Chris Scott and Shenandoah Mountain Touring for several years now. Chris puts on the absolute best race of the NUE series each year with the Shenandoah Mountain 100 -- arguably one of the best races in the country, period -- and it's not a stretch to say my experiences in the George Washington National Forest helped reinforce the wanderlust that led to my uprooting from the Midwest and heading to Appalachia. So when I saw that he was putting on a race closer to my (new) home, at a perfect point in the calendar, I was sold.

The Ks and I headed to "Trail Town USA," Damascus, Virginia, on Saturday. It was a relaxing way to start a race weekend, with a very pretty drive north ending in the beautiful Mount Rogers Recreation area of the Jefferson National Forest. Because Mount Rogers sits above Damascus, the temps dropped as we climbed into the forest, and by the time we were setting up camp we were looking for extra layers and settling in for a very comfortable evening. We took a short walk on part of the course (surprise! it's only 100 meters from the campsite!), and I went into town for registration (darn it if the ice cream shop didn't close 10 minutes early), but otherwise we just hung out in one of the nicest campgrounds I've ever been in.

I maybe should have thought this through, but here's the deal: Pisgah is toward the southern end of the Appalachians, and our trails get a lot more regular usage than ones further north. Moreover, the Appalachians get more rocky as you head toward and into Pennsylvania, so that by the time you reach Michaux, the trails are the opposite of Pisgah -- here, you have turf with relatively short rock sections; there, you have rocks with relatively short turf. Add in the usage, and even our most remote trails are buff by comparison to those found in Harrisonburg and north. Damascus, home to the Iron Mountain Trail, lies somewhere in between.

The Iron Mountain 100k starts off with a controlled start through town, and onto the Virginia Creeper rail-to-trail. I managed to position myself toward the front, and stayed with the one guy who decided to "attack" the field -- really, it was just a leg burn that didn't do anything. Last year the top 4 or 5 guys stayed together until aid station 3 at about 40 miles in, and I think everyone was trying to ensure that didn't happen again.

So we rolled along the Creeper, and I settled in for a day in the saddle. Although advertised at 100km, the race is really about 55 miles, and I was figuring for a long but not brutal day with aid stations about every 12 to 13 miles. I grabbed the Camelbak for this one, since I figured I could carry enough to not have to stop ...

This is where the aforementioned conundrum comes in. Throughout this spring and early summer, I've been training for this race season. That training has conditioned my body to a level above where I've ever been previously, and more importantly has conditioned my mind to be able to ride certain trail features faster, and to accept the suffering that comes with the physical improvements I've realized. What it hasn't quite conditioned me for, however, is a race like the Iron Mountain.

We jumped off the Creeper and I was third into the singletrack. I moved into second as we began to stair-step up a super-steep, rutted-out fall line, and was catching up to the back wheel of the guy in first. The Song was riding hot, the XX shifting well, and I allowed myself the luxury of thinking that I was doing alright. Big mistake -- sure enough, I spun the rear wheel on a water bar, and the freight train rolled on by.

I was able to remount and get going, putting some distance into the folks coming up from behind. I figured I was still top 10 or 15, and was optimistic that I'd maybe catch back onto the train that surely must be forming ahead. Maybe by the road section at aid station 1? Well, yeah ... about that. See, what the course profile of the Iron Mountain 100k doesn't tell you is that this whole race is uphill. The. Whole. Race. Or at least that's what it felt like as the first 10 miles clicked by and I was still a loooong slog out from the aid station ...

I popped out on the road and realized that my front shifting was wonky -- I pulled over and re-aligned my front derailleur, losing a spot in the process. The Ks were at aid station 1, but I was so far gone even at that point that I had no idea I had just ridden past them. Mind you, this was only 90 minutes into the race! Kim told me later that Sam had blown the front of the race apart, and there was no group at all ... I, on the other hand, realized the next 4 hours or so were destined to be a survival test as I tried to ramp it up on the pavement only to find pain and suffering as I chased down the guy who had just passed me ...

I caught him just before the next trail section, and stayed with him through the overgrown rhodo. But then I bobbled on yet another steep uphill, as he kept it rolling over, and when I stopped to regroup I realized my headset was loose. Quick fix and I lost two places, but got going again pretty quickly. With no idea of what lay ahead and no idea of where I was, I set out in pursuit ...

When you're 2 hours into a 5-ish hour race and the first hints of cramping start, one thing you can do is relax, stretch your back, and hope for the best. Maybe take a rest. The other thing you can do is ignore it, since you're not thinking clearly, and keep rolling a too-big gear as you chase after the elusive front of the race. Again, this is where the training effect comes in -- one thing all the Carmichael books don't tell you is to be careful what you wish for -- as you get more fit, you're able to make yourself hurt more. And holy crap did it hurt.

I caught the first guy on a fire road climb, and was able to put some time into him. I caught the second guy on the second half of the same climb, and was able to put some time into him. But then I got to the top of the next singletrack, and my legs locked up so tight I did, in fact, need to pull over and stop. My thighs looked as though they were being wrung through a manual laundry machine as I stood there in a state of complete helplessness, giving back the ground I had gained. Oh my god did it hurt.

The trails were fantastic, though relentless. Whereas SM100 gives you some long pavement and gravel on which to regroup for the next tough climb, Iron Mountain gives no quarter. There is but one pavement section (the one after aid station 1), and just two gravel climbs linked by singletrack. Everything else is fun-but-rough trail (think Pisgah in April, before everyone gets out to ride, only rockier -- like a cross between Heartbreak and Kitsuma), or fire roads that haven't seen a grader, mower or leafblower in 5 years or more. And did I mention? There may have been a downhill or two throw in, but I think I missed those turns. Everything felt like it was uphill.

I caught the second guy again somewhere on some climb, and as I rolled through aid station 3 I passed the first guy again, who had stopped. Quick up-and-over, and as I dropped into the next section there were a couple of folks headed back my way ... is this right? Two guys were sweep and didn't say anything; the third said he was in second place but had taken a wrong turn. WTF?

Just then, the other guy came up from behind and told us to head out straight. We started to climb (yet again!), and the Chris Eatough look-alike took off while we slogged it out behind. I did OK for a few minutes, even asking him how certain he was of our direction (60 percent he said, but thankfully we saw an arrow just then!), until he was able to churn it out and gain ground. I would see him a few more times here and there if the climbs were long enough, but his full-sus bike and my lack of cajones meant that he put time into me on anything remotely resembling a downhill ...

So yes, there were some downhills in there, most notably at the end. In my defense, though, even those downhills had long uphills in the middle, and boy did they hurt! Here in Pisgah, I've come to expect a short stab or two on a long downhill; there, it was all short downhills with yet more climbing. Subtle difference, but when you're cramping and out of water, you're ready to be done!

I really enjoyed the trails, though, rocky as they were. My time here has done me well, and I found myself riding trail features I wouldn't have touched even 6 months ago. In fact, I had no forced dismounts the entire race, and only two dabs on super-crazy off-camber stuff until the very end, when I chose to walk some rutted downhill rather than risk cramping over the stair-steps. Otherwise, I rode everything, well, except some of those insane uphills ...

I rolled through aid station 4, the last one, and was told I was in 9th place. Sweet! For once I didn't conserve/preserve, and instead set out in pursuit of the guy ahead -- there was some climbing, and I could just see him, until the last bombing downhill that had me flying down the "road" at more than 30 miles an hour. Along the way I passed a rider whose rear derailleur had exploded, putting me in 8th place or so ...

I flew down the last "fire road" descent, praying that the payoff would be a finish line. I don't think I could have gone uphill even one more time - even the flat-ish contour stuff hurt! Thankfully I blasted out of the trail and under the banner, not catching the guy ahead but not losing any spots either ... Official results haven't been posted yet, but I think I was 8th in 5:20 or so -- a time that would have been inside the top 5 last year. Sam blew apart the race, which was funny in that no one seemed to know who he was until he won. I rolled back through the neutral finish into the town park, where I was greeted with a huge smile and a big "DA-DA!" from the littlest K ...

Which brings me back to my conundrum. Yes, I'm racing faster than I ever have. But at the same time, I feel more wasted from this race than I ever expected to. I figure I've done 55 miles, or 5-1/2 hours or so, in Pisgah probably 20 times already this year, sometimes back-to-back. Never fully at race pace, but often with race-level efforts thrown in. So I went into Iron Mountain with respect, but thinking it wouldn't trash me. After all, I've built the fitness, right?

Instead, I'm on the other side, barely able to get through my workout this morning, and doing everything in my power to avoid needed to walk to the back of the building for any reason. That ride home over Terry's tonight is going to hurt, and I can't imagine what Laurel is going to feel like on Sunday ...

The good news is, the first effort is always the hardest. And now I have a new level-set for 2010, and I know it's going to hurt. I just need to get my head around that, train the brain, and it'll all be good.

Right?

1 comment:

The Ghost of Jerry Reed said...

Best race re-cap I've read all season! Huzzah!

wv: vingon