28 May 2012

BURNing Man

You'd think, in the middle of the night, that the aliens would give you power.

You'd be wrong.

Instead, as you pass through the landing zone for the creatures from another planet, the flashing strobe lights play with your head; the little green and purple men startle you around every tree; the detached heads with pulsing red blinkies appear just on the edge of your vision and then are gone; and the blaring, distorted, disturbing cat-calls entreating you to line up to be probed that then changes to glaring German techno-industrial metal (who knew aliens speak German?) all contribute to play with your head, messing with your mind to the point that when you finally drop out of the forest and into the big field with its 24-hour village, it's so disorienting that on some laps, you don't even know where you are.

And that is the essence of BURN.

Held on the Dark Mountain trails at the W. Kerr Scott Reservoir, the BURN 24-Hour Challenge is one of the longest-running 24s in the Southeast. It's somewhat a rite of passage around here, with folks from Knoxville to Orlando putting together teams or making solo runs, and has become a Memorial Day weekend tradition for hundreds of mountain bikers. The Brushy Mountain Cyclist Club, and race director Jason Bumgartner in particular, do an amazing job putting together a super-fun event, with all proceeds going back into a trail system that last year was named an IMBA Epic.

It's also one of the most demanding 24s I've ever done.

I wasn't able to get out to the course until the day before the race, when I showed up in 90-degree heat to set up the Cane Creek compound on the transition side of the big field and get in a quick pre-ride. I'm glad it worked out that way; though the course is marked year-round via a great sign system, I'm not sure I could have followed the little blue arrows at some of the speeds we carried. Instead, I got to check it out with the help of course tape already set up -- and it's a good thing I did!

The race starts with a 400-ish meter run around the village, before we head straight up a jeep road to the top of the mountain. (Subsequent laps took us away from the village to the river, where we switchbacked our way to the top, dropped down, and then climbed back up more singletrack before dropping in.) After a bit more climbing, we then take a screaming, switchbacked run down to the river, followed by a couple of minutes of climbing, a short descent, then the long climb to the top again. This marks the halfway point of the course, just over 3 miles in, and also is the location of the one check point/rest stop. We traverse the top for a few minutes, then take our first screaming descent down to the lake. We climb back up, with the village down to our right and the aliens just ahead (when they land sometime in the night), before topping out once again on the jeep road and then dropping in to our right -- a full-on Super-D finish to the lap, 3-4 minutes of bermed jump line before suddenly popping out of the forest at the village, where we ride down to the lakeside before coming back up to transition.

And here's the thing: The entire lap is only 7.5 miles. With maybe -- maybe -- 500 meters of pedal section, including the lumpy grassy section at the end of each lap. On-course, there was maybe 150 meters -- which means we were climbing or descending pretty much the whole time, with no opportunity to eat while we moved. All on singletrack -- probably 95% or more. And those descents? Super-fun, no-touching-the-brakes, Mach 10 rippers -- on trails criss-crossed with roots, g-outs and small drops the whole way.

Short laps + tough climbs + rough descents ... For the first time following one of these races, my upper body and hands are more sore than my legs, by a long shot!

The organizers kindly reserved us a spot just past transition, just off course right at the start of each lap -- in fact, they used our Cane Creek flags as the start line! It was a pretty good location, especially so since I had to stop each lap to eat and drink, rather than trying to make it happen on-course. I suppose that's one positive: The route was so challenging, it demanded your full attention the entire time you were out there. One second of inattention, one moment spent looking at a root instead of riding over it, and you'd be down and out -- by the end, the skid marks and trail edges were a testament to folks who overcooked it and paid the price.

As for me, I felt pretty good with the course. A year ago it may have scared me -- in fact, compared to my attempt at Warrior Creek last year (which is nearby at the same trail system), I feel like I had Dark Mountain pretty well dialed. The Spearfish was the perfect bike, balancing the climbs with being able to tear up the descents, and for once I stayed off the brakes as much as possible, carrying my speed and coasting wherever I could, pumping the trail to avoid sitting on the saddle and turning the pedals. I was kind of surprised as I outran many competitors on the downhills, and in my entire race -- plus the two pre-ride laps on Friday -- I had only one unplanned dab!

As for the race ... well, I went into it looking for a win. It was by no means certain, but I sort of felt good beforehand, and everything just seemed to come together to give me every advantage. And for the first 17 laps -- of 25 I did total -- I was racing from the front. But by that point I was already overcooked, and in fact had started a slow decline about 6 hours -- 5 laps -- before. It was thankfully not a spectacular self-destruction, but it was enough: Cory Rimmer started a bit slower and hit a strong, consistent middle to catch up and then pass me somewhere around 3 a.m., while I pushed hard in the 90+-degree heat of Saturday afternoon, slowed down a bit when I realized sundown did not bring immediate cooling in the high humidity, and then dropped more time with a couple of rear wheel issues and then at each pit stop as the sun came up and my body just refused to push any harder. Thankfully by that point I was 2 laps up on the chase for 3rd place -- eventually captured by Sean Eidemiller, a fierce competitor I've raced in Knoxville whom I was worried about -- and I was able to shut it down at 11:21 a.m. without needing to go for one more. It was bittersweet, as I realize now that I went too hard, too early, and I should know better. Still, standing on that podium was pretty awesome, and I have to thank Kim -- and all the folks who helped her! -- for running a spot-on pit to Formula 1 standards!

From the gun, I knew I was going hard, as most teams sent runners -- like, runners in running clothes and shoes! -- and I was the first or second solo through transition. I grabbed my bike from Kim and headed up the hill, knowing full well I'd be walking by the top thanks to the cluster of team riders getting hung up on the rocks. No biggie, chance for a break, my only worry being the super-tight left switchback down near the river. And, true to form, someone had taken themselves out, so I didn't have to worry about being "that guy" myself!

The rest of the lap went quickly, and on the second lap I joined forces with Eric Hagerty, the leading single-speeder, who would go on to crush the race with 25 laps -- all before 10 on Sunday morning! We were soon joined by Adam Stephens, a fellow geared solo, and before too long we figured out that between the three of us we were well ahead of the rest of our competitors. (This is not to discount Morgan Olsson, who was racing 40+ Masters in his first 24 solo, and went on to finish an astonishing 30 laps ... just one week after finishing 2nd Master and Top 10 overall in the Pisgah 111k!) Through the first 7 laps, Adam and I -- and occasionally Eric between us -- kept up a strong pace, steady but still pushing it. We were never far from each other, and in fact had a few funny moments "chasing" each other to the line on a lap or two ...

On laps 4 and 5, I wasn't feeling that great, and let Adam get ahead a bit on a couple of the climbs. I was able to catch back up on the descents, which surprised me -- though he was on a Cannondale hardtail, he is from West Virginia, and I wasn't expecting to keep up with him going downhill. Somewhere in there, we stopped at the rest stop when Adam got a warm bottle at the start of the lap, and the delicious, freezing-cold  water and quick rest absolutely rejuvenated me. By lap 6 I got a little ahead before Adam caught back up early in the lap, and I was shocked on lap 7 when we pulled out together but he dropped off the pace on the  big climb. He was cooked, and when he broke his pedal on the next lap, his fate was sealed.

Meanwhile, I kept on with a fairly steady pace, and managed 11 laps before putting my light on. My pit at 8:30 took a few extra minutes, and by that time I sort of knew I was going too hard -- I was extremely sleepy, even that early in the race, and though the sun had gone down, the humidity was oppressive, and I wasn't able to cool off -- I was constantly overheated, and couldn't stomach anything more than water and applesauce. Still, I kept at it, and really my pace didn't fall off too badly -- instead, I started taking more time at each stop, trying to take in calories and cool off enough that I wouldn't throw them up at the top of each ascent. That got to be tough, and on a couple of laps I felt like I was going to pass out -- my ears were burning and my head was pulsing ... and my heart rate was only in the 130s.

Though I was struggling, I was still on pace for 28 laps -- the winning number from the past couple of years. So I pushed myself for 14 laps, through my perceived halfway point, telling myself that I wouldn't do any strategic walking until I was past that. And I didn't -- though around lap 10 I started to dab the super-tricky switchback on purpose, I was still big-ringing quite a bit of the traverse on top, and I refused to get off my bike otherwise, unless I needed to put a foot down to allow a team guy (or gal!) to pass me. I also saw Adam in there somewhere, who told me I was a lap up -- he meant on himself, though I mistook it to mean the field, and I think subconsciously I backed off just a bit.

Starting on lap 15, I designated a couple of short, uphill steeps as walking opportunities. My back was hurting, my legs wanted to cramp, and eventually even my hands needed a rest -- those downhills took their toll, as they weren't really a chance to rest and demanded all-body attention. I also started small-ringing even the traverse -- I was definitely paying the price for the earlier push. Thankfully, it finally cooled down enough that I could stomach a bit of food, and Kim did an amazing job, shoveling in potato chips and scrambles and cookies as I walked off my back pain and drank as much as I could. At one point I even downed a hot dog, and at another a couple handfuls of turkey lunch meat! I did manage to stay on my bike from the start of each lap to the river, excepting the switchback, on every lap, which became a goal of mine as the night wore on.

My gut was working overtime, and twice I had to stop long enough to use the personal porta-potty that our next-door neighbor Arleigh had so incredibly thought to rent for the weekend. Talk about a pro move! The first time, I also used it as an opportunity to change clothes, which brought some relief but was not the cure-all I was hoping for. With no flat portions to speak of, any pedaling was done deep in the saddle on an uphill, and the only time my butt was off the seat was while hammering downhill! This made chafing a constant problem, and also made it difficult the three times I had to stop on-course to pee -- this race beat me up, body and soul! I think this is when Corey took over the lead, though I didn't know it for quite a while -- Kim and I have an agreement that we don't discuss standings until after 4 a.m. or so.

At the start of each lap, Kim told me to "Have fun!", so that's what I concentrated on doing. By midnight, I knew what gears I had to be in, and where, and each lap I worked the downhills as much as I could for free speed and a chance not to turn the cranks. Around lap 22, my rear tire went soft, as I either burped it or the cooling morning temps caused it to change pressure, so I nursed it a bit on the final run after I almost lost everything on an earlier g-out. Pressure restored, I hit lap 23, only to g-out late in the lap and snap a spoke! With the help of Mike from Cycletherapy, our other next-door neighbor, I got the rear wheel changed quickly, and after a quick trailside pad contact adjustment, I was good to go. Those were the only mechanicals the entire time, and this was another chance to push my Pro Gold lubricant to the Extreme and have it hold up wonderfully!

With two laps in hand, I started my countdown early, knowing I needed just 4, then 3, then 2 laps to finish. Corey was out of reach by that point, and my final laps were just steady -- I even sat down in a chair for a few minutes before starting up my last one. I had done all I could, but I had gone and done it too early -- thankfully the cushion I built worked to my advantage against the chasers, but it also meant I had nothing left to go after the win. Still, it felt good to catch some air on my last lap, and crossing the finish line a full 40 minutes before noon meant we had a few extra minutes to just enjoy the atmosphere and start getting cleaned up. And when the local barbecue place showed up with delicious free food and sweet tea? We were darn near the first folks in line!

As tough as BURN was, it was a great event. We couldn't have asked for better neighbors, as Arleigh's crew and the massive group from Cycletherapy helped Kim entertain the kids -- this was Daniel's first 24 and, incredibly, Kate's third. And a huge thanks goes out to the organizers, the sponsors, and especially the volunteers -- I can't say enough how well-run this race was. I understand now why it's a rite of passage for so many folks, and why the aliens invade every year!

And in a strange twist of irony? In addition to the very generous cash prize I won for taking 2nd place, I also received a gift certificate from one of the sponsors ... for my very own Cane Creek 40-Series headset! Hmmm ... now I just need another new bike to put it on ...


1speed said...

Congratulations, Chris! Well done!

After reading your last post, something about your story rang familiar to me, and it occurred to me what exactly that was a short time later. You see, you probably won't recall this, but you and I have actually met before - twice in fact. In 2009, I did my first 24 hour solo race at Nine Mile in Wisconsin (actually, it was my first real endurance race.) I'm from the east (Philly) but my wife has a brother who lives in Wausau, and when I was looking for a race to do that year, I thought it would be cool to give her a chance to see her brother. Anyway, I drove out there with my "support team" (my friend John) and when we pulled up to the venue on Thursday afternoon, only one other racer was there setting up his team's pit area for World Bicycle Relief. The guy was really cool and gave us the lowdown on choosing a spot, and what to expect from the course, etc. That race was super fun and worked out pretty well for me considering it was my first try.

Fast forward a year -- with probably half a dozen more endurance races in my legs by then, I headed down to the Shenandoah 100 for the first time. This time, I headed down all alone and planned to pre-ride sections of the course the day before. I got down there and realized I had one problem -- I didn't know where to access the course from the start/finish venue. I was kind of riding around blind near where the set-up was going on when another rider happened to ride up. I asked him if he knew where the course is, and he not only told me but offered to show me. So we rode the first fire road section together up to the climb, where he was going to do some hill repeats so he took off. I rode my pace up the hill and after reaching the top, I stopped to have a clif bar and while I was finishing it, along came to same guy (on his second trip up.) So we rode the descent and he shows me the short cut back to the campground. It was a really cool thing to do, and just the kind of thing that makes me enjoy this sport so much.

So anyway, never had a chance to officially say thanks for both instances of helping out a fellow rider. So let me takes that opportunity to now: thanks, Chris!

And again, congrats on your performance once again! Awesome!

Chris said...

Hey hey -- I do remember you! That 2009 Wausau was pretty epic, as we were fighting to get my teammate and fellow solo nut, Brad, on the podium for the national series while at the same time dealing with some personal family stuff. Hard to believe it was so long ago.

And that SM100? That pre-ride was my best ever -- and also the day I figured out that when pre-rides are great, races don't go so hot. I crashed out the next day and re-sprained my ankle -- d'oh!

I'm glad I could help -- the folks in endurance racing are certainly some of the best, and it's the least I can do! Let me know when you're ready for some PMBAR, Double Dare or even ORAMM action here in Pisgah and I'll show you around my new hometown!