After my pretty disastrous race at Ridgeline Rampage back in April, I’ll admit to some pretty big apprehension going into the Gunnison Half Growler – a 32 mile* (*plus 8 miles of road that aren’t included in the total time) endurance mountain bike race at Hartman Rocks area that is nearly all single track and gets pretty technical at times. Everyone always talks about how hard this race is, which didn’t add to my overall positive thoughts. Nonetheless, I packed up and headed down on Friday to Crested Butte, where I’d be staying for the long holiday weekend.
Race morning I woke up and was more excited to be holding my Nikon D300 camera in my hands for the first time in a long time than I was to race. I took my time driving into Gunnison, slowing to photograph the gorgeous scenery marked with low clouds and fresh snowfall. Due to our insanely wet weather, I hadn’t been mountain biking very much, so I figured the race would just go how it would go! I found great parking and right next to Liz, who had not met in person yet, and a teammate, Meg, parked next to me so I also got to meet her. We chatted as we all got ready, ran to the restrooms, debated our clothing, and finally lined up at the start. The start was comical as the guy running the shotgun couldn’t quite work it, and someone had to show him how to take the safety off. Finally BOOM, and we were on our way!
The mass start with “neutral” roll out to Hartman Rocks was just about the sketchiest part of the race. Put a bunch of mountain bikers together that don’t road race (or perhaps even road ride in general), and you have a recipe for disaster that is worse than a Cat 5 men’s criterium. Had a few rides swerve into me, but luckily stayed upright as we averaged 20-25mph out to the dirt. We immediately hit the dirt which was… well, not dirt, but sloshy mud. MUD MUD MUD. Mud everywhere. The 1/4″ of rain received in Gunnison overnight did in the saturated trails. We immediately start up “Kill Hill,” a roughly half mile long climb that hits 25% grade at one point. A super tough climb on its own, it was a struggle in the mud as wheels spun and racers swerved around to keep moving forward. I chose the outside left line by the guardrail, which seemed to give me a little bit more traction.
As we crested onto double track that would take us out to the first single track, it was nothing but more mud in sight as we all pedaled along. I knew it was going to be a wet, muddy, and soggy day and patted myself on the back for leaving my thermal long sleeve jersey and wind vest on (I was debating back and forth before the start on what to wear once I saw people in bare arms and normal jerseys). As we hit the single track the mud just got worse, and a lot of climbs that would be a no brainer to ride became off the bike scrambles in the slippery mud as people jockeyed for position.
Soon it started to hailing, though it was just 9:20am or so, and the weather forecast said rain wouldn’t start until 1pm. I had bare legs, and the hail stung as it pelted me, as we all trucked forward as fast as we could. Once again, I sighed in relief that I trusted my instincts on my clothing choice. Unknown to me at the time, there was a funnel cloud that formed. I found this out AFTER the race… oh goodness! Mark that off the bucket list, a race with a funnel cloud involved! Eek! Despite the hail, I kept a super positive attitude, almost laughing at how fun this race was shaping up to be. Little more than a handful of miles in to the 32 mile race, and we battled sketchy road tactics, mud, hail, wind, and a funnel cloud!
The sun came back out soon enough, but the trails remained to be muddy messes. There was a lot more off the bike time than I preferred, but there was nothing anybody could really do about it. I saw many people have chain suck issues, and I just tried to think happy thoughts about my bike staying in one piece. One guy behind me laughed and yelled out, “It looks like everyone has diarrhea on their shorts!” in which I laughed, because I had been thinking the same thing for awhile. I was head to toe mud by this point, and my bike was covered, including my Honey Stinger chews I had lined up on my top tube. I smiled, and popped one into my mouth. Mud just adds more minerals to my diet, right?
Soon enough the power line descent came up. A marshall was telling people to walk it, as it was pretty much unrideable. Being the rebel I am, I rode into one of the foot deep ruts, unclipped my right foot, and half Strider biked it down, hooting and a hollering the whole way down as I flew past the people (smartly) carrying their bikes in the sage brush. Then I looked down. Sh*t, I just packed my bike full of clay mud, and it was barely rolling. Panic set in, as I remembered my rear derailleur twisting and taking out spokes on my Fate back in 2014 at Rumble at 18 Road in similar mud conditions. I took a breathe, and looked and the drivetrain was fine, but my front fork was stopped up with mud and you couldn’t tell I even had rear suspension on my Epic. I pushed my now 50-odd pound bike up to where everyone was cleaning out the mud carnage to get their bikes rolling again. I scooped handfuls of the thick mud out of my suspension as best as I could, and tried to make sure my front derailleur was cleared out. Here goes nothing… please Epic, my precious Georgia [my Epic’s name is Georgia], please just keep moving forward in one piece!
It was a very steep, quick downhill to the only pavement stretch in the course, which isn’t very long at all. I took a cup full of water at the aid station, and through it on my drivetrain, which effectively did nothing at all. OK, well, then, time to climb with my bike that was suddenly double the weight I’m use to. About this time I found myself riding with Alex, a fresh transplant to Colorado who was at his first high altitude mountain bike race. Him and I would stay nearly together the rest of the race. We hit some double track and chatted as we headed up to the high point of the race, which was a short but steep climb to a hill top where we had beautiful panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains all around us. I smiled big and decided in that moment that this race and all the mud was worth it just for this view! But it was quickly over as we enjoy a long and fast, fun descent down and made my smile even bigger!
I was feeling good through all of this, and thanks to fiddling with some cleat position adjustments, I was not having any toe pain as of yet. Eventually we came to about the halfway point at Skull Pass, and I zipped past the aid station and down into the gulch. Skull Pass was super technical, and I walked a lot of the features. The fact that I had never ridden here before was probably the toughest aspect of the race to me, as I didn’t know what to expect, and I ended up walking a lot of technical features that I know I had the skill to ride, but didn’t know what they were like when I came up on them. Soon enough a big train of us were climbing back out Skull Pass, and I commented that it was all about taking it slow and easy to finish the race. I spun quick on most of the climbs in the granny gear (my drivetrain was playing nice and shifting both derailleurs perfectly despite being packed with mud), knowing that there was no sense in mashing and pushing to extremes on the climbs, especially since I didn’t know what was up ahead on the course. I did stop at the Skull Pass aid station, and grabbed a banana. An eager young boy kept trying to give me a Honey Stinger caramel waffle, but I kept politely telling him I needed some “real” food like fruit. I scarfed down the half of banana, and headed out.
By now my chain was rattling up a storm. It was actually making some pretty scary sounds, and someone mentioned that they had grabbed chain lube at the aid station, and I kicked myself for not thinking of that. I really didn’t know if at any moment my bike would just implode (or even explode…). I pedaled along, still being really positive, but worried about the noises. As Alex and I descended Enchanted Forest I felt something hitting my thighs, and realized my Backcountry Strap with my tube and tools was loose and flopping around. I sighed, and stopped on the climb and tightened everything back together and put it back on the bike, mad that I had lost about 10 spots on the climb (and would have to repass everyone who started walking up the climb), but happy that I caught this before I lost all my tools and tube (like I had seen on Skull Pass with levers, a tube, pump, and CO2 scattered down the trail). I got back on the bike, and gained ground on the climb. That is one thing I was happy about throughout the day was my determination to ride the climbs as much as I could (the trails dried up after the power line descent minus a puddle here and there). Especially towards the end where a lot of people were walking I stayed pedaling!
Continuing on, I heard a guy behind me go, “Not to scare you, but your rear tire is almost flat.” I went, “Hmm.” I didn’t want to believe him, and tried to look down and see. It still had air, but seemed low, but I couldn’t tell. So I tried to unweight the rear as much as I could over the rocks. I wasn’t about the stop. Dammit, I was going to keep moving forward until it was impossible! Luckily I came upon an aid station within a few miles, and a guy asked what I needed and I shouted out CHAIN LUBE! and someone else commented on the rear tire, so an awesome girl who was working the station handed me the lube which I put on as she pumped up my rear tire. I guess it had something like 5psi in it, so luckily this aid station came up! I thanked her profusely, and giggled that I could “finally hear my own thoughts” now that my chain was completely quiet.
I felt myself going more into survival mode at this point. I had forgotten to completely look at how many miles the road section was as I started my Garmin at the starting line downtown, so I decided to subtract 5 miles from everything to figure out how much I still had left. Traffic had thinned out a bit, but the sun stayed out, but the wind came up fiercely. I ate the rest of my chews, and pondered how I had only eaten one gel, half of a banana, and maybe 90% of a package of chews (some fell off in the mud). I was feeling good, though. Tired, but good. I only had faint tinges of pain in my left big toe, so that was a huge positive as I didn’t want to experience the toe pain that I had at Ridgeline Rampage during this race. I came upon my teammate Joan on a climb, as she was fiddling with a rear derailleur she thought got bent near the beginning of the race when a guy fell on her in the mud. I stayed ahead of her for a little bit, but she got around me on some technical stuff and I didn’t see her again. Starting about hour 3 my bike handling skills started going all to hell, so I was being cautious in the rocks. I figure it was better to get off and walk than risk getting injured and not finishing this late in the race!
My teammate Michelle caught up to me somewhere during this part, and I enjoyed chasing her down speedy double track roads and some descents that she just ripped down. I was getting all optimistic that the finish was soon. We came upon a long climb with some techy rock parts. Many of the people around me got off and walked it, but I cleared the whole thing… slowly, but surely! That made me happy that I was still grinding out the climbs this late in the game! Time for more descending! There was a big rock drop down that for some reason I decided to ride at this point, forgetting my “don’t hurt yourself” mantra. Immediately upon dropping in I knew it was all going wrong, and I went over the bars, but didn’t go over the bars, and landed back on the bike upright… if that makes any sense. I can’t even describe it! I scrapped the crap out of my poor left knee, which smarted as the nerves felt the absence of skin. Dammit! I took a few moments and collected myself, and continued on, warning the others behind me to walk it if they have any doubts. Ouch! There was a final aid station and I saw cans of Coke, and nearly lost it in excitement! I’m not a soda drinker, especially Coke, but it sounded so good, so I grabbed the mini can and chugged it! By now I was back near Alex, and a few others that I had spent nearly half the race nearby.
Then I saw what was coming… a tortuously technical climb up to a ridge above a cliff. I ended up walking a good majority of the technical stuff due to fatigue or exposure. I did have a funny bobble going up a hill where I just fell over onto a rock and made a loud, comical noise. Alex was behind me, worried I was hurt and I just laughed and told him I decided to take a nap. Back up I got, and then that’s when I saw the “WARNING: CLIFF” signs and got really scared, as I always fall to the left, and the cliff was to the left. Yeah, thanks, I’ll just walk this entire ridge!
Finally, finally this technical nonsense was over and it was just a climb up. Lisa lead us up, and I was optimistic that the finish was on top of this climb. We switchbacked up, and over a rock face, and I saw flags and heard a bell ringing so I was sure for sure we were done… but then they told me to get off the brakes and let it rip… wait, was this not the finish?! I was confused I dropped down into Broken Collarbone, which is a lot of whoopee whoops and steep drops and ups. Totally fun, if I wasn’t totally destroyed mentally and physically. But soon enough I realized the real finish was in sight and let out a big sigh that I had done it! I finished the Half Growler! THE Dave Wiens was there to give me a huge high five as I crossed the line… but instead he nearly knocked me off my bike since in all honesty I was so cooked the wind could’ve blown me over! He grabbed my hand as I steadied myself and we had a good laugh. What a way to end the race!
4:34:55 was my official time, which was dead in the middle of my “finish between 4 and 5 hours” goal. I knew the mud for the first third of the race really slowed down the times, so I was happy with how it went, despite all the factors trying to throw a stick in my spokes. Wendy was there with her husband to feed me the delicious cake flavored Goldfish crackers that she carries around. They offered me a ride back into town, but I decided that since I had come 36 miles at this point I wanted to finish the whole damn thing. We had a nice little peloton together for the ride back into town, and my legs felt good while I spun them out. Back at the park I picked up my growler finisher’s prize, and jumped in line for the bike wash while it was short. Wendy and Dennis offered me up their hotel shower (Crested Butte is about 30 minutes from Gunnison, where my own shower was), and we grabbed a delicious Italian dinner at Garlic Mike’s that evening. What a day 😀 I finished 12th in 30-39 women, and 39th overall for women.
Mud, hail, funnel cloud, angry chain, tool strap trying to fly off, flat tire, OTB-not-OTB crash, and pretty bad right knee pain (didn’t mention it above as it was there for most of the race… I’m assuming a bike fit issue, which I will get resolved pronto with a proper fit on my Epic)… and I still finished smiling and happy! No tears! No coach firing! No swearing off mountain bike racing! WOOHOOOOOO!
And guess what?
I want to do it next year! They reverse the course every year, so I’m curious what it is like going the other direction. And of course, I want to race it while dry. This was apparently a very rare thing to have it this muddy!
Three endurance races into the season, and I’m learning more and more lessons. Newest one is to carry a small thing of chain lube with me in my pack, and to double check my tool/tube strap before every ride and race. I still don’t feel like I have nutrition down, as anything processed made me want to gag by the halfway point, so I’ll need to continue to experiment, as it’s a big difference between a 4.5 hour race and the 11+ hours I’m looking at for LT100. I also forgot to put on sunscreen in the morning, which I remembered just before the start as I remembered I needed chapstick with me. I didn’t end up getting sunburned since it was so cloudy, but something to remember. I barely remembered the Chamois Butt’r in time as well. Just more attention to detail needed… I’ll admit I was a bit scattered mentally going into this race!