Firecracker 50 Race Report

Breckenridge! Since the winter I’ve put the Firecracker 50 on my list of races. Breckenridge is one of my favorite vacation spots in the high country and its also where I got married. I’ve ridden on 85% of the trails that cover the Firecracker course so this added a mental boost leading up to the race.

Unfortunately the week leading up to Firecracker was anything but good preparation. After three days of having a sore throat and feeling as if I was cycling through the desert mid-day, I went to Urgent Care to see if they could remedy my issue. 24 hours later I found out I had Strep B (mild case of Strep). This meant I would be on antibiotics for the next 10 days. Not the end of the world but doesn’t make my stomach or body feel good while training. Two years ago I had a serious viral infection that sidelined any consistent training / racing for 2–3 months. So, anytime I get sick that anxiety comes back to hunt me.

I’ve built up a mental tool box filled with ways to help me cope with sickness. I know it sounds cheesy but you wouldn’t believe how important your mental state is while you are fighting off an illness. Within the first 24 hours of taking the meds I started to feel better. I was still having sore throat issues but hanging around the house or doing work on the computer was much more manageable.

I was on the fence about whether to race or not. I didn’t make a decision until the night before. I was feeling about 75%-85% better so I figured it was worth it to race and see how things pan out. Worst case, I would finish the first loop (25 miles) of the race and call it a day. I was struggling physically while my body tried to adapt to the meds and I was also waging a war inside my head. Am I strong enough to be out there? Can I race and still do well while not 100%? Thoughts like those crossed my mind over and over again. Sure I’m not a profession cyclist, and there is no need to race when you are sick but ultimately you need to make a decision and not have regrets.

The Race:

Breckenridge is about an hour and a half drive from my house. I woke up early and headed towards Breck while still trying to convince myself this was a good idea. When I arrived in town it was a mad house. They have a parade down Main Street following the start of the MTB race so everyone was out and about at 8AM. I picked up my number and headed just outside of town to the Ice Ring parking lot. Its a short ride to the start but I knew they had bathrooms inside I could use and there was ample parking. The town of Breck sits at 9,600ft above sea level and the race goes up to about 11,100ft during the course. It was already quite hot before I started my warm up so I knew it would be even hotter once we started climbing without much shade.

That’s me on the bottom right of the page in the red jersey and white helmet.

I got in a nice warmup and headed down to Main Street for staging. I was racing in the 30–34 Expert category and they started all 30–39 year old riders together. We headed down Main Street with a neutral start and it was a beautiful site seeing hundreds of people line the streets to cheer us on. As soon we we turned the corner the noise went away and it was time to race. The first 5 miles are on pavement and completely uphill. Great! I love when they start courses on a big climb. Usually the group is mellow as no one wants to burn matches early on. Plus it weeds out those who have trouble climbing so I can get better lines once we hit singletrack. About a mile into the climb we were strung out but I was riding just around my Z3 (tempo) threshold. It felt easy and my legs were nice and fresh from the low-key week of resting in bed from being sick. My throat was more dry than normal but I tried to put it out of my mind.

Another mile into the climb I started to move closer to the front. Once at the front of the group I figured I would put in a hard effort and see if anyone would go with me. After 30 seconds I looked back and had a gap, alone. I pushed hard for another half mile or so up the climb and then settled into a hard but manageable tempo. The paved road then turned into a bumpy dirt road which continued to climb high into the sky. I wish I had some photos to share because the views were breathtaking. I tried to focus on the task but my eyes kept wandering to the expansive mountains and forests. I reached the top and began a very fast descent on another dirt road I knew well. I was flying past riders which also felt good but a few times I had to unclip with one foot because I was taking the turns too fast.

Once at the bottom I was caught by a rider who was in my 30–39 group. His leg was dirty so I couldn’t make out if he was in the 30–34 or 35–39 group but I made the decision to follow his wheel. He was riding a steady hard tempo and it was close to my threshold limit but I knew it would help pull me along. We began to climb again on a dirt fire-road which begins the second major climb of the loop. You are on this dirt road for about a mile before it turns into single-track. The next section (Little French Gulch) is in my opinion the hardest part of the course. Its rocky, curvy, and VERY steep singletrack makes for difficult navigation. Add on the fact that you are riding at 11,000ft and its not uncommon to see stars. I made it to the top with this rider in my age group but at the crest he got a small gap and I never saw him again. Later I would come to realize he was in the 35–39 category. At this point I also caught up to two friends who started before me, Bryan and Ike. Bryan was in the 19–29 group and Ike was in the Pro race although he is a Masters rider I don’t think he likes starting way back and having to pass people as Masters age groups tend to start later. The second half of the course included fast downhill singletrack and short to medium climbs. The three of us rode together for a while and it was a nice feeling having some friends around me. It took my mind off the race for a bit and it felt like I was just messing around on the trails.

I crossed the finish line banner for my first lap in a time of 2:11. You pretty much do the exact same loop again so it was nice to know what to expect. However, once I started to climb on the pavement again I felt my stomach turn and a quick sudden loss of energy. I grabbed for a gel not realizing I had only brought along gels with caffeine. I had already taken shot blocks (with caffeine) and two gels (with caffeine) so I could feel my heart racing like a rabbit and no it wasn’t from the high alpine climb! Half way up the climb I separated myself from Bryan and started to catch Ike who had distanced himself on the descent from me. He pulled off the course for a nature break and I kept going. Close to the end of the pavement / dirt road climb Ike caught back up to me and we rode together for a while again. This is when I started to feel really sick. The altitude, heat, medication, sickness, and too many caffeine gels were giving me some serious nausea. I thought about stopping and trying to make myself throw up but I was worried I would loose too many fluids. I kept riding at a slow climbing tempo while following Ike’s wheel. He didn’t look back much but I know he could tell I was still there. Probably because my Industry Nine hub have the loudest free-spinning sound!

I knew French Gulch was next on the list and it scared me a bit. I couldn’t conceptualize how on earth I was going to get over this tough climb based on how sick I felt. Ironically enough my throat was fine and didn’t hurt one bit, but everything else was really bad. We hit the climb and right away I could barely ride my 46–32 gear combination. Half way up the climb I had to get off and start hiking up the trail with my bike. I knew this was costing me time but at that point I just wanted to get to the top. About 400 meters from the top the first 30–34 rider came past me. He was still riding while I was walking but then the trail was too much for him and he had to dismount. We began walking in silence together and crested the top at the same time. He got over the top first and I followed his wheel on the downhill. Right away I could tell he was descending slower than I wanted to go. Half way down this section he took a bad line and ran off the road. I flew by him and kept pushing on. I hit the next short hard steep climb and had nothing. Now when I mean nothing, I really had nothing. I was already in my easiest gear and I was all over the trail. He quickly caught up to me and pushed hard past me to try and get a gap. It took a serious hard effort to go with him and it pushed my heart rate north of 190BMP. The next section had a series of short steep climbs and descents but his pace was too much to match. I simply couldn’t stay with him anymore and after a few minutes he was out of sight.

I know these trails well from exploring them over years of vacationing in the area and I knew various places to pull out and not finish. I really wanted to quit. This doesn’t happen often. Many riders will pull out of races if they aren’t feeling good or out of contention for the win or a podium spot. Ever since my first endurance event (Half Marathon at 16 years old) I have always told myself to keep going unless something is seriously wrong. I can deal with muscle cramps, tired legs, heat exhaustion, ETC but a sour stomach really gets to me. I just couldn’t get rid of this nauseous feeling.

The next aid station approached and I grabbed for some electrolytes. These volunteers were great. They were standing with bottles, gels, and chews, at the ready to grab. I took a bottle of Skratch and some chews and within minutes I started feeling better. I still had some serious fatigue which was mostly related to my overzealous fast first lap but at least my stomach was feeling better! I knew then finishing wouldn’t be an issue. The last 5–8 miles are super fun with fast descents and short punchy climbs. A few more riders caught me from various age groups and I finished close to them. My second lap was a disastrously slow 2:30 with a total time of 4:41. My second lap was 19 minutes slower than my first, ouch! I was still able to hold onto second place in my age group. A result I’m quite content with.

Second place in my age group.

My friend Bryan carrying me off the podium.

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