Monday, September 8, 2008

Lotoja 2008 race report, part 1

I'll get this out of the way right up front--I am doing my race report in two parts. I am doing it this way for one reason and one reason alone: the final eight miles or so and the immediate aftermath when we crossed the finish line were so delicious that they merit their own post, which I will publish tomorrow.

A place for everything and everything in its place

As we headed to the staging area Saturday morning, I thought everything was in place and I was adequately prepared. We stayed at my Uncle's house in Nibley the night before the race. We certainly appreciated their hospitality, as finding lodging in Logan the night before can be a bit of a challenge. A couple of my brother's friends were without a place to stay until they found there was vacancy at the Anniversary Inn. When they checked in, the clerk could sense their uneasiness and told them "don't worry, most of the 'couples' I have checked in today have been groups of 2 or 3 men" [with shaved legs].

Our situation couldn't have been more convenient: my parents drove up early Saturday morning to pick us up, take us to the start area, and see us off (my mom would stay with us and help crew throughout the day). It was a cool morning, and of course I had some pre-race jitters, but I thought I had everything together. Until I realized I had forgotten my water bottles. If I only had to make it to Preston, this would not have been a big deal, but our plan was to use neutral support in Preston and have the girls provide our first resupply in Montpelier. No way I could make it 80 miles and over the biggest climb of the day with no bottles. So I called my wife and had her rush to the start area to bring me bottles. She was about 20 seconds too late.

Steve gave me one of his bottles, and we asked my dad if he would get the bottles from Rachel and drive up to Preston with them. He was kind enough to oblige. So off we went with our start group, the 5100's (Cat 5, annual license holder).

The neutral rollout is supposed to be 20 mph, but at one point we hit 27 mph. I was a bit nervous that this was going to be a hammerfest early, but once the police escort was gone, the pace was very mellow. Until I had to stop for a natural break. I went off the front a bit to give myself some room. As soon as I stopped, the field went by. And accelerated. Steve was still on the front trying to keep the pace down, but to no avail. I turned myself inside out trying to catch back on, but eventually I made it. The guy I had unknowingly pulled back to the group thanked me. I wish I'd have known he was back there so I could have asked him to take a turn. Shortly after my stop, we caught the Cat 4's, who had started three minutes ahead of us.

Just outside of Preston, Steve needed a break. Not wanting to risk having to wait in line at the feed zone, we stopped just outside of town and let the field go. We knew that the field would be fractured at the feed zone anyway, with some people grabbing a musette bag and not even stopping, and others taking their time. We stopped and got the bottles from my dad, filled them up, and went back on our way.

Cycling shoes do indeed fit in one's mouth

After Preston, we grabbed onto a smaller group of 15 or so and began making our way through the rollers before the big climb to Strawberry Summit. I was already a bit nervous that I'd spent too much energy too early trying to get back onto the group, so when we pushed it through the rollers and my heart rate was spiking often, I became even more anxious about how this might affect me later in the day. But it was important to have people to work with until the real climbing started, so we hung in there.

Once onto the actual climb up Strawberry (about 20 miles and 3,000 vertical feet), we settled into our own rhythm. Steve and I climb at about the same pace, so we had no trouble staying together and had two or three others with us most of the time.

We caught and passed quite a few riders on the way up, and we only had one group catch and pass us, so I was feeling good about our progress to that point. Near the top of the climb, I saw someone I didn't recognize at first but who had a bottle from Racer's Cycle Service. I said something about the bottle, and the rider looked up and said "hey, is that Mark?" It was Scott Harris, a great guy who has been super about helping me with my job search.

"Oh, hi Scott. I didn't expect to catch you on a climb." Doh. The guy was at the end of a long, painful climb. A climb I had just minutes before told my brother how much I hate. This guy has no reason in the world why he needs to help me find a job, yet he has. And that's what I said to him. Damage done, we kept moving and started our descent.

As much as the climb up Strawberry sucks, the descent is one of my favorites. It's not super steep, and with no tight corners, you can just tuck and go as fast as you can, without touching the brakes much at all.

Once we got down the real descent, we were onto the slightly downhill to rolling road into Montpelier. We got into a small group and were making good time when we got passed by a guy who looked to be in his 50's making even better time. We got on with him and started really moving. He would pull at close to 30 mph and rotate off. Someone else would pull at a slightly slower speed and maybe let another take a turn before this guy was back on the front. He had the worst B.O. of any cyclist I have ever drafted behind, but I didn't care. He was either tactically one of the worst riders ever or just had a gigantic engine and didn't care how much energy he was using because he knew he had more.

Either way we were going to be in Montpelier with under four hours elapsed time. I told Rachel to plan on 4:15 to 4:30. I wasn't worried, though, as we would pass a timing station outside of town that would send the girls a text message letting them know we were minutes away. When we pulled into the feed zone, lane 8 as agreed upon, nobody was there. I grabbed my phone and called Rachel. We were just about to leave and use neutral support when the girls came running up with our food. Jersey pockets full and new bottles in the cages, we were off again.

Did you check your brakes?

The section from Montpelier to Afton, WY is mostly either uphill or down, as it includes two more climbs, neither as long as Strawberry, but the second quite a bit steeper. We made good time over Geneva Summit and were heading up Salt River Pass, the steepest climb of the day, when Steve started falling off the back. I wasn't too concerned--we got split up on this climb last year, except it was me falling off. I got to the top and waited, and then we made the descent together. I found out afterwards that Steve was behind not so much because he was hurting, but because one of his brake pads was rubbing. Remind me to mess with his brakes next time we do a climb together.

Once again when we got off the principal descent, we had an older guy pass us going crazy fast on the flats. This one didn't stink but accelerated faster. Steve was right behind him and had to take up gap-closing duties every time this guy pulled. He was a relay rider and was only going as far as Afton, so he was willing to absolutely bury himself getting there.

We had a smooth transition in Afton, stopping only long enough to get what we needed (in my case, that included a can of chicken and stars soup, a turkey avocado wrap, and a bottle of coke) and get going again. We fell in with another rider just out of Afton and soon caught up with several more. Each time we caught a group, they would latch on, and soon we had 25-30 guys. This was so much better than last year, when it was just Steve and me with essentially no help all the way across Star Valley.

As is often the case with a group that large, there were several strong guys and a lot of wheelsuckers. One guy in particular would pull for maybe five seconds at a time before rotating off. I finally asked him as he fell back immediately after the guy in front of him whether he ever pulled for more than five seconds. Of course there were a lot of guys who never even took a turn at the front and got a free ride at an average speed of 23 mph all the way to Alpine.

Is it a tailwind or not?

The feed zone in Alpine marks the beginning of Snake River Canyon, which usually also means a brisk tailwind. At this point all the energy spent keeping the paceline together heading into Afton had taken its toll on Steve. Not to mention I think his nutrition program had let him down.

We started up the canyon and soon consolidated into a good-sized group. Six or seven of the guys on the front really wanted to push the pace. I could tell Steve didn't feel up to trying to hang with them, so we let them go and stayed with a smaller group. We made decent time up the canyon and made it to the final feed zone without much suffering. I was going to just grab a bottle handup and keep rolling, but Steve needed to get food, so I stopped with him. He and I only get to ride together a handful of times a year, so shaving a couple minutes off of what was already going to be a time I would be very happy with or gaining a couple of places in the Cat 5 standings that nobody would ever care about but me was not worth it. Besides, who's to say that I wouldn't get cramps or have a blowout or broken chain in the final 26 miles and want some help finishing the ride.

I couldn't tell which way the wind would be blowing once we got out of the canyon, but I was hopeful it would be at our backs. I couldn't have been more wrong. The wind was about 15 mph and right in our teeth. It was just the two of us for about eight or ten miles. We were still making good time, and I thought we were towards the front of our pack, but I knew we had let two guys from our start group go in the canyon and at the feed zone. When another group pulled up behind us with about 16 miles to go and I saw a 5100's number on one of the frames, I didn't want to let anyone else get in front of us.

We were all tired at this point but still took turns on the front. I was taking shorter turns than I typically would but timed them and was on the front 40 seconds to a minute at a time--about right for a group that size if everyone who can is doing their share. Or at least that's what I thought. I also could tell that the other 5100's rider, a guy in Fast Friday team kit, did not want me to finish in front of him.

So here I am, figuratively hanging from the cliff, with Fast Friday breathing down my neck. If you want to know how it turns out, tune in tomorrow. I will tell you today that we all finished in a time of 10 hours 11 minutes. I will not say how many seconds, but if you want a spoiler, I'm sure you can find it.