Two weeks ago Colorado was hit with a sizable Spring snowstorm which canceled / postponed the Ridgeline Rampage MTB race. So I set my sights on the Gunnison Growler which was this past Sunday. You can choose between the full or half (32 or 64 mile). I opted for the longer of the two since my goal race is the Breck Epic in August. The Breck Epic is 6 days of tough mtb racing so I want my body and mind adapting to long hours in the saddle. The Growler would be the longest duration I ever spent on a bike (6 hours) and the most elevation gain in a single ride (7,800ft). But what made this weekend’s race more difficult for me were the technical sections of the course. Still, I tried to remain optimistic and set some realistic goals for myself.
Goal #1: Finish!
Goal #2: Top 5 in Age Group.
Goal #3: Work on nutrition and hydration.
Goal #4: Break 6 hours.
I’m sure there are many riders out there who have done harder and longer races than this one but mountain biking is still new to me and spending 6 hours in the saddle was a bit daunting to be honest.
On top of everything this race would dish out, Maija and I had to make the tough decision to say goodbye to our wonderful Lab Mix Cooper after 13 years. No amount of planning can get you ready to say goodbye to a companion like Cooper. He was a fun loving pup who got to see over 20 states, various hikes, runs, camping, and of course lots and lots of belly rubs. I first met Cooper the same day I met my wife. I knew right away they were a packaged deal! Cooper has the type of personality where he wants to follow whoever is taking care of him. This means we needed to have an open door policy in our house. Even for the bathroom ;) Cooper brought so much happiness and balance to life and I’m grateful for the time I got to spend with him.
I left mid-day Saturday and made the three hour drive to Gunnison. I’ve driven a lot through Colorado and this was a special drive with views of various snowcap mountain tops along the way. The drive was relaxing and peaceful all while listening and laughing along to Phill Gaimon’s audiobook Ask a Pro.
I woke up the next morning and while eating breakfast around 5:30AM there was a fire alarm in the hotel. I had to sit in my car for about a half hour until they let us back in. After gulping down some coffee I rushed out the door and made it to the starting area around 6:30, a half hour before the start. The morning was cold at 30 degrees. I opted to wear shorts, a short and long sleeve jersey as I had a feeling it would warm up fast given there was a good amount of climbing in the beginning. I rolled over to the starting area where about 700 riders were getting ready. Both distances were going off at the same time. I’ve raced in some pretty large groups but never 700! Although there were so many riders everyone was so chill and relaxed. A very different scene from the start of a road race. You had riders in full lycra like me but then you had various other outfits: Baggy shorts and baggy jerseys, button down shirts, regular t-shirts, costumes, and so on. This actually helped calm my nerves a bit.
I didn’t warm up as there was a 4 mile neutral roll out behind a police vehicle before we hit the dirt. My fingers were numb during the neutral section but once we hit the dirt it was a hard and steep 1K climb and I was getting hot. I made it over the top of the hill in the top 20–30 riders and was feeling pretty good.
The next section of the race was by far my favorite. Smooth, fast flowing singletrack was the name of the game. I quickly jumped behind a group of about 4–5 riders who were riding at or around my tempo. Following their wheel also allowed me to take the singletrack much faster than if I was alone. I rode with this group for the first hour and I knew I was in still in the top 20–30 because no one passed us.
The next section however was a completely different story. Rock drops, Rock climbs, and rocky flat sections left me fumbling around like someone who just rode a mountain bike for the first time. I was completely out of my element and over my head. I was going back and forth between riding, hike-a-bike, falling over, sliding over, hitting into a rock or tree on the side of me, and then back to riding again. The group I was with now left me in the dust. I was still descending and could hear and sense riders coming up on me. I’d have to say its a bit unnerving when you hear riders coming up fast behind you on a trail. I wasn’t about to challenge them so I slowed down and let them go by. Some of them I tried to stay with but to no avail, I was overmatched. Lucky for me there was still a lot of climbing so I would catch those who passed me while descending and we would continue playing this game of cat and mouse for the next few hours. I’d catch them on the climb and they would re-pass me going downhill. The only problem with this course was that the downhill sections didn’t get any easier and they were tiring me out. I was tensing up and not relaxing on sections over my ability. Those who could descended faster than me won the battle and rode away. After 3–4 hours of riding I was slowing on the climbs and couldn’t re-pass them once again. About 3/4 done with the first lap a rider I know from the Front Range (Nate) caught up to me with one other guy. I was happy he caught me because I knew he would be a good wheel to follow. We started to climb and I was shocked to see they were actually climbing at a much lower intensity than I was. Even though I wanted to pass them I knew it wouldn’t make sense with all the downhill riding coming up. I stayed on his wheel for as long as I could but he too finally cracked me going downhill and I was left alone again.
I went through the finish area and the clock read 2:57. I was pretty happy about my pace and knew if I had a good second lap I might be able to break 6 hours.
Another mistake I made was not reading the course maps in more detail. I figured lap #2 would traverse over the same terrain as lap #1 but I was wrong. It cut off the first section of fast flowing singletrack and instead went a different way up this insanely hard steep climb. I definitely wasn’t expecting that! It was also a bit demoralizing because I had to hike-a-bike a section of this climb as well. Once over the top I was a bit confused on which direction to go. The course was marked with yellow arrow signs and pink ribbon but I had not seen either in 5–10 minutes. This created some confusion and disorientation in my mind and in a panic I turned around and rode back the opposite direction until I caught the rider behind me and confirmed I was in fact going the right direction. Knowing the course beforehand would have been helpful too! Aside from this confusing section the course was well marked and easy to navigate.
After the tough confusing segment I was passed by a few more riders, maybe a total of 5–6 during the second loop. But for the most part I was all alone on the course in my own thoughts of suffering. Its funny how your body goes numb after a while to the undulating terrain of a mountain bike trail. However after five hours I started to feel the fatigue.
My legs were in good shape and I didn’t have any cramping. I took a lot of gels on board, especially my new favorite Huma Gels! Best of all they are Gluten free, Dairy Free, and Vegan friendly. Super tasty and go down easy without that “goopy” feeling in your throat that some other brands have. The only issue I had with them was the caffeine. I took on board 4 of their electrolyte version gel but forgot to read if they included natural caffeine. I thought I was just eating the non-caffeinated version. No wonder my heart was beating like a rabbit the last hour!
The final 6–7 miles a rider caught up to me but his pace wasn’t much faster than mine and I was able to hang with him. I really wanted some company after a long time alone so I did everything I could to stay with him. I would say these last miles were some of the most difficult with many tough rock gardens to clear. This rider was amazing and kept giving me words of encouragement every time I made it though a tough spot. He could clearly see I was struggling and I really appreciated his uplifting sentiment.
So to the random rider who helped me through those last miles, thank you!
At 6:06 I crossed the finish line to 4th in my age group and 33rd overall. In general I was happy with my effort given this was one of the longest and most technical races I’ve ever done. I do know I have a lot of work to do when it comes to my tech skills on the bike but I believe once I start getting more comfortable and confident my race times will get faster. If you are considering doing the Growler I would highly recommend it. There were plenty of aid stations and all of the volunteers were amazing. I wish I could have stayed for the after-party but I wouldn’t have had the energy to drive home late at night.
Onto the next adventure!