Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Double Down Goodness

This past weekend, Becky and I decided that a road trip was in order and what better place to drive than to a mountain bike race in New Hampshire. Now lets get something straight right away -- I am not a mountain biker; although I have recently purchased a nice mountain bike, I've been on it about four times and the first time out I ended up crashing my SRAM X0 derailleur into the wheel spokes smashing it to smithereens! This was followed by a single speed fail, a broken chain, and a walk of shame out of the woods...

Tasty broken chain..yum!

Becky, on the other hand, is an elite level mountain bike racer and can descend the gnarliest of trails faster than most people and she's darn fast uphill too! Clearly I have a lot of catching up to do but that didn't stop me from signing up for a 100K mountain bike race with her in New Hampshire. Luckily, the organizers decided to add to the suffering by offering an extremely hilly trail half marathon the day before and called the combined events the Double Down Crown. Naturally, I had to register for the Crown.

This being the first year of the Highbush Trail Half Marathon plus the fact that majority of the race was run on a mountain hiking trail, it was imperative that racers carry their own hydration. So I debated between carrying my camelback, a waist belt bottle holder, or a hand bottle. Eventually I settled on the hand bottle and went out and bought the Amphipod Hydraform from REI (its the bright yellow/green bottle in my hand in the main picture above).

Turns out this bottle is awesome! I read several reviews online and everyone who has used it raves about it. It feels a bit awkward for about 2 minutes and then you get used to it. The coolest feature is that you don't actually have to grip the bottle as the shape is contoured to the shape of your hand and a very comfortable strap keeps your hand snug against the bottle. It also has a small compartment for gels, although I kept mine in a small waist belt.  Best part is it doesn't feel heavy. Kinda like that big Garmin unit most of us wear -- first time you look at it you say this thing is gonna feel like a brick on my arm, but then you get used to it pretty quickly.

Back to the weekend... Friday morning, we packed up my CUV (compact utility vehicle) -- aka Prius -- with a weekend's worth of goodness and started up north. We drove leisurely and stopped to have a fun dinner with Becky's friend just outside NYC. 
Fitting bikes on the Prius required some creative engineering!
 We got to our campground around midnight and thankfully race start was 9AM the next morning. It poured heavily overnight but we awoke to clear skies. I actually wouldn't have minded the rain apart from the fact that its not particularly fun running in mud!

The race had about 70-80 people in it, with some super fast guys and gals mixed in with just regular athletes out having fun in the woods. I haven't been running distance at all lately so didn't know what to expect. Right at the gun, one fast dude shot out and was never seen again -- I think he finished about 10-15 minutes ahead of everyone else. I merged into the front pack and the trail soon turned to single track and we had a decent pace going through some relatively flat sections. Some of the guys were chatting about how we should add an hour to our expected road half marathon times here. All this talk did not bode well for what was to come!

As if on cue, we quickly took a turn onto a different path and the trail pitched sharply upwards toward Crotchet Mountain. And just like that we were on a proper hiking trail. Many people were walking here but I managed to maintain a steady jog all the way to the ridge. I believe I was in the top 5-6 at this point. Running the ridge was amazing.. Beautiful views and a lovely trail. Soon however, we hit some pretty nasty and rocky trail with some extremely steep pitches. Going up was not so bad but coming down was really hard for me. Given my past issues with my knee, I did not feel at all confident running downhills that steep and jumping from boulder to boulder. It was also pretty wet and slippery. Nevertheless, several people blew by me going at a fairly good clip and there was simply no way I could stick with them.

This went on for about 6-7 miles till we dropped onto a steady trail back to the race finish. Here, I picked up a couple people who had passed me including the women's winner. We actually ran together for a while and formed a nice group together. The trail was fairly well marked but we did get off track at one point, which may have cost us 3-4 minutes. About 2 miles out I caught my right ankle on a rock at just the wrong angle and ended up limping for about 5 minutes but soon gutted it out and started running again. Overall, I finished in 2:24:55, which for a trail marathon like this is pretty decent. According to my garmin, we had about 3,000 feet of elevation gain but it was the elevation loss of 3,000 feet where I suffered more, esp the quads that were constantly putting the brakes on! I also realized running a trail marathon in minimalist shoes is a bad idea.. My calf sleeves helped but my shoes got completely ripped apart with rock edges, roots, and branches. I think I need a new pair before my next race.
Finish line... I was ready for this to be over!
Becky was there at the finish with her cowbell ringing me home and I got top 5 in my AG. Reasonably happy with this result, though one guy in the DD crown category beat me by about 8 minutes and I could have totally had him in a road race. Soon, however, these 8 minutes would be moot as he beat me by more than an hour in the mtn bike race the next day... more on that in a bit...

Feeling pretty trashed, Becky and I spent the rest of the day hanging out at camp and then went for a short mtn bike ride on the trail we were going to race the next day. It was pretty technical -- rocky, narrow, and steep. I should have extrapolated more from Becky's response where when I asked, "Oh so the rest of the race can't be any worse," her response was "yeah, make yourself believe that!"

Becky had really good legs and was rocking the trail having unfair amounts of fun; I think I heard her singing too. I was pretty sure she'd kick ass the next day, and sure enough she did just that.

The next day we awoke super early as race start was 6:45AM, yikes! Becky started earlier with the elites and I told her not to expect me to catch her as I was still tired from the day before plus I fully expected to walk some of the more technical parts of the race.

Oh how should I describe the race? It was brutal, very technical, extremely challenging, and kick ass amazing! I fell off my bike half a dozen times, got right back up and tried again... walked many many times as I could not get myself to jump 2 feet high boulders, plus several hike a bike sections where even Tinker Juarez was hiking his bike!

The best part was riding through a rain puddle that was almost up to my thighs -- somehow I managed to keep pedaling. Incidentally, this washed off all the grime from my drivetrain and the shifting improved quite a bit :) 

Mountain biking is just so different from road cycling. Of course, riding is a function of terrain, but from my limited experience, its more about short, steep, and punchy climbs followed by equally steep descents. On this race, we were on some newly cut trail so it was particularly challenging for a newbie like me. At one point my front tire slid all the way on a root and I tumbled down on the slope below with my bike on top of me. On another occasion, I managed to save my ribs from direct impact on a rock only to land on my hand and end up with a pretty badly bruised right hand (which thankfully is not broken!).

But in general, the riding was so much fun. What was particularly cool was that I learned new things during the ride and applied them as I was riding. So I got progressively more confident tackling technical terrain.

But in the end, I finished in a fairly slow time, in fact more than two hours slower than Becky. And just so there is no doubt, Becky got 2nd in the elite women's race and had collected her podium award, cleaned up, and eaten some goodies by the time I crossed the line!
Becky had to wait a while for me at the finish line
And yeah, the Double Down Crown. I was pretty sure I'd be dead last in that category as pretty much all other people doing it were mountain bikers who occasionally ran. But turns out two of them dropped out and I sneaked into third. Got a sweet EMS biking jersey and a podium picture to boot. I'll take it!
Happy to be on the podium
This was so much fun! Can't wait to race my mountain bike again and try cyclocross this year. In general biking is my main passion and I'm not dedicated to any particular form of it. I ain't giving up road cycling any time soon but mountain biking is turning out to be a whole lot of fun too!