This year’s Vermont 50 was much different than I had prepared for, and much harder than I was anticipating. Maybe I should have gone out for drinks on Friday after all.
My last crack at the 50 was in 2004, and the course featured some singletrack but was mostly dirt roads with many long, diesel climbs. I had spent the summer racing XC events and had good top-end speed, but in the weeks leading up to the event I short-changed endurance training because I felt that I needed to get that last result that eluded me all season.
The course has changed quite a bit since then, and so did the organization. The 6:00 AM start wasn’t as cold as I was expecting, but it was literally 40 minutes in before I felt like I could really see what was going on around me. There’s nothing like descending at 30 miles an hour surrounded by 40 of your competitors with your eyes half-open. I didn’t know it at the time, but that odd, disconnected feeling would stay with me for the next 35 miles.
As I pushed the pedals I never could get comfortable. The right gear eluded me and I handled every technical section with nervous and erratic line selections. Everything that worked for me at the Hampshire 100- the seemingly endless ability accelerate on demand and glide through technical sections was somehow gone. I knew why, but I didn’t want to admit it to myself.
In retrospect my build up was flawed. Work had been stressful as we closed out our fiscal year, and although things calmed down later in the week I was too tense for my own good. I also tried to fit in some practice ‘cross racing, which was probably what did me in.
When I prepared for the Hampshire 100 I dedicated myself to it. My rides were done on similar terrain, I focused on offroad skills twice a week, worked on muscular strength and spent hours climbing at tempo pace. None of those things were part of my VT50 build up.
In my defense, the 50 of yore was always a dirt road event where fitness and rolling resistance trumped climbing torque and traction. In the 6 years between then and now the 50 became a real endurance mountain bike race when I wasn’t looking.
Somehow I rolled past the first drop station, so my tough day in the saddle looked like it was going to get even tougher. Without my race fuel or the ability to push the pace my only option was to maintain my pace as best I could. This wasn’t going to be about a fast start or trying to break a PR - it had become purely a push to finish.
Many times along the way I thought about dropping out. I was sure that my friends that started behind me were going to roll by me at any minute. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get my head in the game, and all I could do was to keep pushing.
As I approached the second rest stop I could hear vigorous cheering and cowbells clanging away. When I rounded the last corner at the crest of the hill I panned across the crowd and saw my coach shouting for me. He was standing by himself and wanted to make sure I saw him. As I slowly approached he kept shouting. He had my drop bag there waiting for me. I fumbled for my remaining GU packets and chugged some redbull as he ran over and refilled my bottles. At that point I had been spotted, and I knew I had to keep going.
I got pedaling again and began the next leg-burning climb with full pockets. A pair of elderly women wearing reindeer antlers rang sleigh bells I slowly passed. I tried to wipe the snot out of my beard to look presentable.
Not 5 minutes later things had changed. I had stopped to let some more air out of my tires and found myself blasting down a fast downhill. The day before I borrowed Ben’s Slash CD, and the track “Back from Cali” with Slash and Myles Kennedy started playing in my head. 35 miles into a 50 mile race the tide had turned, and the five words I remembered from “Back from Cali” would play over and over again on a loop all the way to the finish.
My attitude finally clicked into place- I didn’t feel strong, but I felt able, and I was riding steep climbs that others had to walk and making up time on technical sections. Slowly I started to reel back some of the riders that had slipped by me before. My time spent riding barely at target effort meant that I had perfectly metered my energy so that I was able to ride a consistent race and gain back some of the places I had lost as I faltered on the steep gravel climbs earlier in the day. When I got to the “5 Miles to go” sign I knew I could finish strong, and thought I stood a chance of finishing within my goal of 6 hours.
After all of that self-doubt and poor riding I was salvaging my race, and in the closing miles I picked off a few more stragglers. My finishing position wasn’t spectacular because there was one category for Experts and Pros. Jason Sager took home the win over an hour and half before I rolled in, but I felt like I had accomplished something when I stopped the clock fifteen minutes under my goal.