It is hard for me even to believe that this is the FIRST race in my 11 years of racing road, mountain bike and triathlon that I have won a race at altitude. Incredible! Even when I was a favorite on the Canadian National Mountainbike series in the 90s I continued to falter at altitude, until now! What made a difference? Well, obviously three years of training with a Hypoxico altitude tent made a difference, as I have steadily improved at the high altitude races, but I think the fact that this year I MUST win at altitude to finish strong in the National Series has motivated me to push a little past the pain, and to prepare with scientific rigor. This was the reason that I went to my first Xterra Points Series race in Colorado, put on by the dynamic duo of Ashley Burt and Tina Kempin, both of the Crested Butte Bank, which sponsored and hosted the race. I wanted to have a race at a similar altitude to the race in Keystone, and Crested Butte fit the bill, over 9000 feet above sea level with similar race distance. I went to the race at the worst day of acclimation, after a week of pretty much sitting on my butt doing nothing, felt flat as a pancake, and busted ass to get the win. It was very satisfying. There were two very good locals there, Janae Pritchett and Jennifer Smith (known for NORBA racing), who are fully acclimated and ready for battle on their home turf, so I had some serious competition. This was very good for me, and the race was likely more difficult than the course at Keystone, so I feel like I had a good taste of what will be required at our last series stop before the finals. I had a fantastic week at the race, hosted by the awesome Burt family (the killer "B"s), so read on to hear about how cool Gunnison and Crested Butte, Colorado are…
I flew directly to Denver from Milwaukee to start my altitude preparation for Keystone. For those not doing the math on the series, I am 10 points behind Jamie overall in the series. If Jamie wins Keystone, I would then be 20 points behind after one race thrown away, and I would have to hope that she would finish worse than third at the finals in order to beat her for the overall series, assuming I won the race in Tahoe. I would prefer to go in tied, and have the winner of Tahoe take all. Thus, the focus is on the race in Keystone on August 14th, which starts above 9000 feet. Last year I put no thought into this race. I sent my bike ahead of me, having raced the national mountain bike championships Saturday in Mont St Anne, flew all night to ride the course blind the next day and take second. I was a distant second to Jamie, with good reason (see July 2004: Part 2: The Epic of Keystone). In fact, every year I have shown up at the last minute for this race, but never really put a lot of heart into it, dismissing it as a throw away because I felt I was weak at the altitude. That has just changed.
The course in Keystone is actually pretty awesome for me. It is technical, insidious climbing, good for a strong rider like myself, and a fast, technical descent, which is very good for me. It is amazing that I have not noticed how this race really suits my strengths because I have never actually prepared for it. The run is actually quite flat in comparison to Crested Butte, where there is NO flat anywhere on the course. But it is long, so knowing the course is very helpful.
So back to Crested Butte, our practice race, which I was welcomed to in the most amazing fashion by the Burt family (I can’t upload at the moment, but check back to the Other Photo Gallery to see evidence of how cool this family is). Both Ashley and Jackie are top ranked age groupers, with the talent and experience of most of the pro field (Ashley was top age grouper at Keystone last year), they have a beautiful home in Gunnison, and two funny and talented children, Sam and Emma.. Their passion for Xterra and life in general I could totally relate to. Both Ross and I were staying with them, as was Mike Vine (our male winner) and Kirk Ermels, the Xterra representative. This was a very fun group to hang out with. Wine was on the menu every night, as was yummy family dinners and lots of laughs, just like I like it!
Ross and I rode the course the day before and I have never ridden on a more fun Xterra course. Fun, technical climbing and descending that reminded me of singletrack in Whistler, BC. Ross had to stop me from riding too much the day before the race because I was having so much fun I wanted to continue! Feeling good, we cleaned up, did the clinic (a bit of confusion that worked itself out as to the venue) and basically got a lot of interesting questions from participants that helped Mike and I sort out some strategy for the race.
Early wake up for the 9am start and before we knew it we were off to swim the 1000m swim. Above 9000 feet, the danger of blowing to pieces and having to turn over and do backstroke is REALLY high (done it soooo many times at Keystone) so I tried to be conservative and build into it. Regardless, at about 500m I dropped off of Josiah Middaugh’s feet and was so blown I didn?t care. It is so weird swimming that high! I tried to keep going my best and got out about a minute and a half down on Janae, which was very good given she is a great swimmer, and from that altitude!
My race plan was to ride everything on the bike course (which is challenging) and then finish up strong on the bike course. This sounds like a pretty conservative plan, but a good one since I felt like my heart was going to jump out of my throat on the first climb while I soft pedaled. I was suffering instantly. The course was challenging because the technical bits demands lots of power, and while you are gasping for air at altitude, power is in limited supply. So I rode steady and within my altitude imposed limits, and managed to catch Janae on a tough switchback section (for those who were there, I cleaned it!!) and then managed to create a little gap on the downhill on the end of the first loop. There is a long road section in between the first loop and the next major climb, and I guessed that the climb up Strand Hill would determine the race, as it is the longest climb. I saw that I was only about 20 seconds in front of Janae after the road section, so she wasn’t giving anything away, and again, stuck to my plan to ride strong but steady. It hurt me to go hard, six days at altitude made me feel worse, not better, but when you are fit, you are fit. I think steadily turning up the volume on the climb got me a large gap, and I blasted the downhill really well. Coming into T2 I had over three minutes going into the run, and could see it since we go onto the run on the same road we come up on the bike. I could see both Jennifer (who had an awesome ride and was only 2 seconds off my split) and Janae, so knew the gap and wanted to preserve it.
The run was just plain anaerobic. Up and up on the same singletrack we rode (remember the power required?) which meant lots of heart rate. I pushed at my limit, and tried to turn it over whenever it was down. Honestly, I went one leg in front of the other and whenever I started to panic that I was going to blow, I reminded myself to breathe and pushed through it. It was tough. I had a friend in Scott Marr, who chatted with me on the run (he talked, I grunted back) and at the end it turned out I had the fastest run, which I was surprised at because both the CB girls are fast, and Jennifer is an accomplished runner, although she is focused on mountain bike racing this year. This was my best altitude finish ever, and was the perfect preparation for Keystone, as I felt my race in Crested Butte was better than any race I have had at Keystone, and I still have two weeks to acclimate! Janae held second, and Jennifer was third.
I spent one extra day in Gunnison riding Hartman Rocks with Jackie, Ashley, Ross and Kirk (which was incredible!) and then was off to go start the second half of my training camp here in Vail (8000 feet baby!). The Killer ?B? family (the Burts) are awesome, the Crested Butte Bank Trails Triathlon kicks ass, the Eagle Resort Development rules for kicking down some prize money to us pros, and a portion of the race proceeds go to the Crested Butte Land Trust, which is preserving trails in the area so that we can have these races and ride in the beautiful wide open spaces in Colorado. I will go back next year for sure, and recommend it to anyone who likes a scenic race course!
Thanks to all my sponsors, who are listed all around this report, and thanks to Ashley and Jackie Burt, who I can add to my friends for life list. Ross and I had such a memorable experience at this race, and again, you have to go there to see what I mean.