Monday, September 15, 2008

Chequamegon 40 .....Explosion

Subtle hints should lead you up to what one can expect heading into weekend #7 in a row of MTB racing. But why look for sutble when the definitive is so much better.

This past weekend was Chequamegon Fat Tire Fest and it's hard core 40 mile off road race. The strategy going in was -- rest, rest, and more rest and then leave it all out on the course. It's the fourth year in a row I've gone after it and with the exception of one year not played out to expectation.

From the training progress I'd been making this past year both in terms of power & endurance a finish in the top 30 to 50 was not out of reach. And from a skill & ability strength & weakness assessment, next to the Ore to Shore there isn't a better MTB race course on paper suited to me on a bike. So I came in with confidence, alittle better game plan, ....but with a long season of racing & training in my legs.

I road down with local Ashland rider Suzie Sanders and she was nervous but excited in her own way for the race (I must say congrats to her because she did by all consideration hit her goal in the race -- Way to go Suzie!) We got there in adequate time, picked up our race packets and with the weather a perfect temperature it made for a easy warmup and no logistical challenges. My plan was to position myself better in the preferred start area but again even at 20minutes before start 150 of the 200 racers had already lined up. Depending on where you want to finish in that race the start can mean nothing and everything. Huge gaps can develop in the front of the race between the start and Rosie's field 3 or 4 miles in. If you're not in the top 65 odds are remote you'll get in the top 50 at the finish. Whereas you could be in 200 or 300th place by Rosie's and still make it up to 80-100th place by the finish.

My goal was to get a better start than years past and true to form that didn't really happen AGAIN. Though I'd worked myself up to the very tail end of the 2nd pack at Rosie's field I was still probably between 80th -100th place. I did find one manuever to be very helpful and that was side walk jumping after a crash just before Hwy 77 involve Scott Kylander Johnson, I'm not sure what happened but I'll have to check Sara KJ's blog. It pushed everyone out of the center I was able to get up on the sidewalk and tear down the road grapping as many positions as I could.

Knowing my approximate position and what goal I'd set for myself I was in a bit of a dilemma once getting out of Rosie's field. Do I continue to go hard and work through each pack of riders effectively doing a time trial or do I sit back in a group work hard only as my turn comes up and save some for later. Well, unless I'm already hurting, sitting and having patience isn't my forte' and I felt fairly good so on I went chasing down racer after racer, Carlos Hackel, Matt Muyres, on & on passing through several groups. About 40 minutes into the race the pickings started looking lean and it was 200 yards up was the next group. I'd only had 2 other guys remotely close. So then becomes an even greater dilemma -- effectively I'm in No Mans land and you're truly by yourself, do you sit up take a break until the next group catches up again or bury yourself to bridge up to the next gap. Again, I opted for the latter. So at where the course crosses Cty OO I'd just about caught the tail end of a 8-10 person group and come across in 68th place. And got my water handoff from my ever wonderful wife, Kate while little Marshall was clicking away taking pictures with the digital camera -- viewing the pictures later it's interesting to see the perspective of a 4 yr old.

I'd come across OO faster than I'd ever in the past and wasn't really feeling that bad, I could still go pretty good, but I was rather uncertain. Uncertain of how much longer I'd be able to pursue without getting some kind of break being in a group. Because I slowed down in the spectator area of OO I let the gap get bigger to group in front & wasn't thinking to catch it again. So again I was in No Man's land. I don't know much about that place but it sure costs you alot of time and energy. And if it's energy you don't have to spare it can start causing problems.

The next 8 miles or so either myself or one or two guys that came along would push up to another group as there were scattered groups but instead of taking a break I would just keep pushing through. It was a 11:19am, around 24 miles into the race when I realized two things had happened. One, I was now aware I was running out of juice and two, the long season of racing and the season long burn out in my legs was moments away from exploding. So, like a lollipop thrown to the playground by a third grader I cracked.

I'd been with Adam Swank, Mike Johnson and a few other guys when no matter how much gel or water I took in, I was condemned to a much slower sustainable pace.

The remainder of the ride was one of no longer trying to race but to enjoy this festival of riders... and figure out just how many flippin' people can pass you!!!! How I didn't finish 300th place is beyond me because that's what it felt like. If you've never understood the term "riding backwards" it does give you the impression that is what is happening.

Not much longer Paul Belknap came crusing by and in that crew of riders was also Kelly McKnight. They both had super races by anyone's standards coming back from the 120's at the OO point to get in the 65th & 83rd respectfully. I still gotta figure out how Paul & I swapped out racing styles this year. It's down right bizzare. The single speeds which he rides ultimately get their advantage in courses with alot of single track yet somehow this year he came out on top in the two non single track MTB races while I, barring any mechanicals, had the advantage in the technical courses.

I walked much of the Seeley Fire Tower and just before hitting the top another Ashland racer, Matt Hudson came by and he likewise finished a strong race. Basically a top 100 finish to a guy that sporadically road his bike this year. That's some awesome riding.

About the best thing after bonking is you get to take the spectator point of view. I was quick to enjoy the donut holes at the aid stations, (donut holes at a race? Just doesn't make sense to me, ya know -- but who am I to judge as a bag of Baked Lays & Coca Cola will pull me out of any post race funk).

The race wasn't without a mechanical issue, my rear hydraulic brake failed completely half way through which lead to some excitement on some fast corners but apparently from comments of nearby racers they got a good show of some pretty good moves to save the ride.

Did the Cable Criterium on Sunday and on a Gary Fisher SuperFly... maybe if I get it dialed in I'll like it better but I certainly can't complain how well the Trek Top Fuel 69er was this year.

All in all, I'm happy with the effort I gave sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't but with a few more weeks of rest and some fun riding there'll still be a few more MTB races or at least cyclocross races to take in.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

On another cycling topic... really read this.

I'm not one to spend much time on stuff like this and being an armchair cyclists doesn't hold much interest to me. But with the recent Lance announcement of coming back to professional road cycling, it triggered my curiosity of what the other biggest "L" name in cycling has been up to -- Landis. Mr. Floyd Landis.

Being the armchair cyclist unfortunately provides the position of judge, jury & executioner. As such probably alot of people have already dropped their hammer in a way the doesn't favor Floyd. I found the entire ordeal rather strange -- two things stuck out to me -- one, is why the heck would you do some form of doping and win a big stage knowing you automatically get tested. Two, the guy in everything I ever saw, looked so bewildered by what had happened. Call me gullible but his doping story & persona never seemed to make sense to me. So why the heck am I bringing this up. Because of this recent article published last month. What follows is a snippet with links to the full article. I'm not putting it above other motives, other facts and evidence -- just read it for what it's worth ..... and as I read in another article you might wonder if Floyd got Richard Kimbled (reference... Harrision Ford, The Fugitive) in this one.

A study published last month highlights just how variable testosterone test results can be from one individual to the next.
Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm gave a single dose of testosterone to three groups of men who had either one, two or zero copies of a particular gene, known as UGT2B17. More than 40 percent of the men missing the gene went undetected by the doping test, while those with two copies of the gene showed testosterone levels 20 times higher.
Once statistical adjustments were made for the genotypes, the differences disappeared.Berry also pointed to the need for careful sample handling, advanced technician training, and precise instrument calibration during the lab analysis of the urine samples upon which the doping tests are based."The process in unlikely to be error free," he said, pointing out that the American Arbitration Association that ultimately ruled against Landis initially threw out the result of the French lab screening due to improper procedures.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Rhinelander Smokin Spoke .... What? Called short?

Ya-ow! Hitting a course like the Smokin' Spoke in Rhinelander isn't for the faint of heart. The word "Committed" comes to mind. Committed to seeing it through to completion and committed to break the beast before it breaks you.

It's the second year of it's tour on the WORS race circuit -- the trails tend to be newer and the topography plays into something of a body shuddering experience. A year since I last visited left my memory foggy of just how challenging it was. It's one of those courses you take your best super fast roadie buddy and watch him suffer and break like a small child as payback for all the road rides he has left your legs in smoldering ashes and eye's crossing til they bled. There's no faking it on this course -- you're either a mountain biker or not. Ya gotta love it.

Now, first & foremost, it's probably the wildest thing to think "Swanson, what the heck is up? A race report in the same afternoon as the race. How is that possible?" Huh? Well, that's part of how this race gets interesting.

It's a 1:30 start time. I arrive just about 45minutes early (without Kate, Marshall & Hope for the first time in memory. Kate's at the 8 1/2 month stage of pregnancy and been a trooper coming to the last several races despite dealing with contractions the past 2 weeks. I don't know how she does it, I just chalked it up to having one very special lady). Upon getting registered, I tried to squeeze in a quick warm up & pre-ride only to get to the start line about 2 minutes to start. Getting a back row spot ain't that bad because this was probably the smallest Elite field of the year at a WORS race, I want to guess 35-40 racers. The distance to the race for alot of the regulars and the time of year all play into it. I line up next to Adam Swank & Josh Tesch, listen to the National Athemn and before I know it we're off.

The winding lead out stretched things but gave ample opportunity to pass and get into a likeable position. When compared to the last several races in the U.P. and locally, it's always a reality check lining up in the WORS Elite field. Instead of 5 maybe 10 top end racers, it's everyone in the starting chute. There's a big boatload of racers that can kick ass, some even more than others, and there is no one you can take for granted. You gotta work really hard for your position and work even harder to keep it.

It was probably close to a 9 mile lap course with the Elite field set to do 3 laps. I was feeling decent so I moved from back row to mid pack in the initial forest roads in the first mile or two. I followed Ray Nelson of IL into the single track -- shortly there after the jackhammering began. Maybe it's a slight exaggeration, but I couldn't help but sympathize for anyone riding a hardtail (29er or not). I think anyone riding without a seat would have been best off because even with my full suspension 69er I was testing the limits of my back, forearms & triceps. Standing was almost the best way to deal with it. In hindsight, returning the pressure in my suspension(s) to normal limits would have help tremendously. Up until this course I've been very happy riding it "firmed up".

The great challenge of the course is that it really never gave you relief. Yes, there were open roads at the beginning & end of the laps but in between, back to my point above you were definitely "committed". You were either going to adapt or continue to take a beating. I settled somewhere in between. For a good share of the first lap I was able to hold my own, I think only little Carlos Haeckel got by me. At the end of lap one, single track pergatory ended and the flats and rollers gave me the opportunity to push the pace again.... but also drag along a 3-4 person contingent.

One of the best things about this year is finally seeing a step up in performance I'm experiencing. It feels like it's been a pretty big jump, as many of the guys I'm racing with I'd previously never been able to keep up to let alone stay ahead of. Now that's becoming a more regular experience. It's funny how when for years in race after race you get accustom to where you place and who places in front of you almost so much so that you don't think it will ever change. But I can attest if you keep up the diligence and perserverance and most of all have patience eventually things will turn around. I've found we all grow differently and our bodies adapt to the stress load we place on them in different time frames. Whatever you do, don't give up. Stay true to your goals as some of the biggest rewards come when you just about think they might be beyond your grasp.

Well, back to the race, the guys following -- it's John Lirette on his Superfly, Scott (?) and another guy I didn't recognize. We were able to catch up to Tim Drankus & another guy and ride through the first lap in about 45 minutes. At that point, I couldn't help but think -- oh, my god, 2 more of these -- it's going to be a lonnnng day.

Lap 2, didn't go as smoothly, going with a subsitute water bottle handling person ain't ever as good as the original. Kate's pretty awesome at doing handoff's. I missed the first attempt with my subsitute but got it the second time as part of the trail horseshoed around to give us another try. As an hour into the race was closing in I was feeling though I was losing a touch of that normal power output I've been used to having all race long in previous weeks. Despite gels & Endurance drinks, it didn't come back around. It wasn't til 1/2 way into the second lap, I could really feel the power drain happening -- ah, that seemingly undeniable season ending burnout feeling. Oh, great, that's not good for more than a few reasons, most imminently it's going to make the remainder of this current race really, really painful & long, and not to mention it doesn't bode well for next weeks Chequamegon 40.

I tired my best to hold a reasonable pace and not give up too many places. I recall Jan Rybar, Ron Knutowski, & maybe Bill Danielson getting by. There was still a more than few good racers behind, so I was happy with holding where I was at. I couldn't help but think in the back of my mind where Adam Swank must be -- and low & behold, before I know it -- there's his voice "Hey, Aaron! How's it going?" Oh, well, it was good to hear a friendly voice. We chatted how he used to CX ski in High School on alot of the trails we were racing (To put it mildly, most people would acknowledge Adam's a pretty accomplished CX skier) apparently, he was CX skiing state champion in H.S. his freshman & senior years.

Adam had one other guy with him and it was my good fortune to tag on & help with the ride into finish Lap 2. Now, here comes the unexpected part.....

The weather forecast had scatter thundershowers, etc, etc for the afternoon. Apparently, the Smokin' Spoke race course had the fortune or misfortune of being in the path of a biggie. So with 1/2 mile or so to go -- a course marshall is yelling, "Last lap! Last Lap!" Adam & I are bewildered, like what is that guy talking about, it's a 3 lap race. Being in the forest canopy we had no clue what weather might be coming our way. Finally other spectators along the course say something about "high winds, hail, rain, blah, blah... they are getting racers off the course". Personally, I can't believe my good fortune!!! It was only an 1 1/2 hrs into the race, but for how I was feeling I couldn't bare the thought of another lap.

The other guy with us understood right away what was going on and took off, when Adam & I finally figured it out, I just yelled at him to go and try & catch that guy. Myself, I was content on coasting in and not toasting my legs any further than they already felt. I'm not sure if Adam got him before the line but he was closing down the gap fast, I'm anxious for the results to show up.

It was kind of surreal at the finish line because it wasn't windy or raining yet, just very omnious clouds. Even so, I wasn't about to stick around to find out. As I got back on the bike & headed to the car -- their was a rise of this erie sound of high winds blowing through the trees and within moments, you knew exactly why cutting that race short was exactly what needed to be done. About a 1/4 mile from the car I got hit with a blast of wind from the side that nearly, nearly knocked me right over. I think I did the remaining 1/4 mile to my car faster than any point in the race. I quick undid the front wheel and tossed the bike in the hatchback of my Celica. Seconds later I'm jumping in my car as the rain is coming down in sheets.

Ah, what perfect timing!!! To home I sped and got back in time for a fun super & evening with Kate & the kids. Wish all the WORS races were so close.

The remainder of the racing season remains more up in the air. Kate didn't make it to the race today because of not feeling well and dealing with some notable contractions. So with her looming due date & her physical symptoms getting more unpredictable, it'll be a day by day (or hour by hour) decision making. Even with some pretty desireable racing coming up that may be missed, it's been a really good year. May not of hit all my goals and had more than my normal share of mechanical issues, but it was good jump forward performance wise and a great confidence builder going into next season.

The remainder of the Fall should make for some great unstructured riding and dipping into a cross race or two as time permits.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Race Reports: 1st of 4 - Ore to Shore Hard Rock

Rather than try to recall (now, weeks later) how the race played out I've cut & pasted the race report I gave my coach Josh Powers.

Great front row lineup –Kate said to me -- "that would be the closest to Marko I’d be all race long (ouch! Doesn’t that truth hurt?)"

Hard start after the roll out. I was in 30-35th place but when the front guys hit the hammer, dang it was it fast. Generally I can still pick up spots even when the pace is high but when the high gears kicked in at around 2miles in, everyone was just giving it.

Mile 4-7: somewhere in there after some hard bumps & sharp gravel rocks I had a soft squishy back tire float around. Pull over and hand pumped all the while feeling the repeated freight train of riders go by. How many? Psff? I have no idea probably 50, it felt like 100 (I suck at even doing the most minor repairs under pressure). It was a puncture, in my 7 day old Bontrager Revolts, that took alittle time to get plugged up by the Stans No Tubes Sealant.

Got back on -- wasn’t sure what too expect. No sure if any “target” racers had passed or not (assumably they had). So many thoughts pass thru your mind. Have I screwed the entire race? What should my new focus or goal be in light of this? Etc, etc. I got back to a bit of slow start, passing some slower riders but not going balls to the wall. It felt like in some places I’d get going other times I’d be slower.

As time ticked away, my gains would be steady, especially in any of the more difficult terrain, hills, whoop-di-do sections. There’d be what I’d like to call “pile-ups” – you’d go a good distance without seeing anyone and then “blam!” there’s bunch of people negotiating some tougher stuff.

Mile 19-20: Feeling pretty good as the previous 3 miles I passed a lot of people probably 20 maybe 30 and then Wala! I see this monster hill in the distance and all these people walking up it. Even better on that hill I see a number of racers I recognize, including some of the local guys that are exactly slackers when it comes to riding the big knobby tires. This is good! So I ride up as much as I can & similarly dismount and quickly begin trekking up the hill so I can catch on to this group of 6 or more before they hop on their bikes again. I later found out from Kate after the race that by the first water stop at the 12miles point most of these guys had 2 & 3 minutes on me so I was able to make up that 2+ minutes ground in 7-8miles.

Mile 21-29: Having caught this group of 6, the catching of additional racers gets slower as the point of attrition in the race where catching additional riders gets tougher and tougher as the racers are better and better. But I’m now in a pretty decent group and need to assess what to do next. Well, that was pretty much taken care of for me as a great guy out of the Twin Cities, Matt Muyres, which I was shocked to see in this group (as he can ride like a mother on fire.) Gets on the front in the open stretches and freakin’ pounds it. I mean pounds it. Shellin’ people, it was freakin’ awesome! (Now if he would have ended up dropping me, maybe it wouldn’t have been) One of the local guys was unfortunately dropped in the process. Fortunately Matt’s riding suited my training and style of high paced open road riding so I didn’t really mind. I got to front a few times for some pulls to see if we could drop anyone else. But it was also to tell Matt to save some as I knew I was going to want him around later so I didn’t need him to burn up into a crispy critter.

Mile 29-35: Open blacktop section with longer climbs. I knew this was going to be a 2:45-3hr race so fuel intake was imperative. I was steady on it with water & gels so I was hoping it would be enough to keep me from going over the edge. Two incidents in this area.
--That group of 6 was now down to myself & 3 others and Matt was chasing down yet another group of probably 8. As we were getting closer & closer to making contact I found myself of the biggest pricks in all of MTB racing I’d ever come across. Out of nowhere this guy behind me yells at me in an angry voice, “stay on his wheel & quit surging!” What!! Did I really hear that? I couldn’t believe it! Shocked, I quote back: “Why don’t you shut the #$%! up and quit your crying. Get your #$s up here if you don’t like it.” Not satisfied that I’d said enough. I furthered “You’re drafting you *&%#ing idiot! You don’t have one say in how the guy pulling your ass rides”. I was frickin’ steamed. I could not believe the audacity. In a road race, sure, I come to expect less than cordial participants. But this is mano-a-mano MTB race. Wild.
--Next we make contact with that group of 8, so it’s now a nice sized group and it’s approximately 35th thru 47th place. Next up in the line of sight was the other really good rider from my area about a qtr mile in the distance. This is probably the peak point of the race for me. Steadily, steadily the distance is getting cut but at the same time hitting the climbs I’m getting lead legs. The “oh-crud I can’t pound this hill and not have some serious leg burn going on”. It’s that breaking point you get to in a race where trouble is brewing underneath. I’d love to say what happens in the next mile is the reason I finished the way I did but it’d be a stretch.

Mile 36: Back on the bouncy double track was enough to re-open the puncture in the rear tire and after sliding around for 100 yards I had to pull over and re-pump as the 12 person train went on without me. My first attempt to pump and get back on was horrible. Only a few guys went by but it wasn’t another 100 yards before it was nearly completely flat & I needed to get off a second time and really pump it up. I’d probably got it up to 25lbs but not before getting passed me up again by a good share of riders we’d previously dropped.

Mile 37-48: I think it’s now probably 2 hrs 15 min into the race and given what’s just happened -- the evidence of fatigue, the flats. It’s here you hit the optimistically hopeful state of mind. You go like hell as best as you can and at the same time you know everyone else is hurting too. The thought is maybe, they’ll hurt more than you and they still can be caught. Once back on and knowing there was 10-11 miles to go I was able to go decent for another 4-5 miles. Not losing any spots, holding off some people behind me but also not catching anyone that I recall. But eventually it keep going downhill (and I don’t mean the topographically direction of the course) for me. I got passed up another 15+ spots by the time I rolled into the finish at 3:01:04 ending up 72 overall on the day out of 500 racers.

RACE NOTES:--My back tire had about 12lbs of pressure in it at the finish line. I’m not sure how long it was that way.
--I stood up a lot throughout this entire race, because of the problematic rear tire. Something I don’t normally do as I stay seated almost 99% of the time when racing.
--Felt really good the morning of the race, relaxed, energetic and my back was feeling decent. It was as good as I’ve felt going into any race in the past 2 yrs.
--Most positive aspect of race: The Chase Back – It didn’t feel overly taxing and for what it’s worth was the fun part. I’ve never previously ever been able to race back into my original position after losing it. So that brought about a level of satisfaction.

With a pretty lengthy detailed honest recap above, you’ve got a decent scoop on what went down. This was a big race for me. I’m left with some disappointed and questions. The first being the mechanical issue – how would I have done without the flat and not having to chase back? How would that have played into energy output & conservation? Now I could fall back on the flat tire excuse but what bothers me more is that essentially I was cracking already on mile 35 and by mile 45 I wasn’t crawling but I wasn’t going to be able to hold anyone off. Even without the flat would I have been able to pull it off?

So, although going in I can always take a mechanical “excuse” or issue in stride and not be upset because it’s out of one’s control. But personal performance, essentially what is me, is very, very difficult for to deal with. I have these goals and personal beliefs of what I should be capable of. And time and time again, I keep coming up short. And to me, how I measure it, I’ve not even been close to knocking out any of these goals. I can’t begin to describe the intensity of frustration that it creates within me. You’ve warned me about, told me about, and even so, unfortunately it doesn’t make it any easier. Putting in so much effort and dedication I just don’t know what else to do at this point or what I should even be doing.

I’m just saying I’m in a tough spot right now. I don’t like how things are going. It’s not one race, it’s not the Ore to Shore, it’s the collection of things so far this year and last year. I like this journey because it provides plenty of opportunities to succeed but something has to happen and come through. Understand all of this is on me. You’ve done everything you know (and you do know a hell of a lot), I just don’t know how to pull it together any more than I already have.

Lastly, with all the 29er talk of what a great bike it is, of which I’m not taking anything away, how about the fact that a 69er is the bike that took home the big prize at Ore to Shore.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Upper Michigan MTB Race Circuit

Circumstance or chance found me spending 3 of the 4 past weekends visiting that barren but beautiful state to the east – more precisely the northern part -- Upper Michigan. A diversion from the course of WORS and MNSCS racing that normally takes up much of the season. The U.P. races though generally lesser in the caliber of competition are still a great deal of fun.

How is it that 3 of the 4 primary MTB races in Upper Michigan happen in August? I’m not sure but each race had highlights (and some low lights). First, Marquette’s first leg of the Triple Crown the Ore to Shore, then the fairly new race in Calumet – The Great Deer Chase, and lastly Copper Harbor’s Fat Tire Fest Labor Day Weekend. (In between it all and not to be forgotten – the always great Seeley Pre Fat race.)

What has faired well and come to fruition was this year’s solid training program that was put together by my coach Josh Powers. After what I considered to be some rough and below expectation performances earlier in the year things have really turned around. The early season disappointments -- part of the compromise of racing while spending multiple days each week of hard training & intervals – have been worth it from both the physical gains and the fortitude & determination to turn things around. I’ve mentioned it before, but this year it could be no better said, the hard efforts aren’t what make you better, it’s the rest and recovery you provide your body that builds up to it’s maximum potential. I was one tired & fatigued dude come the end of July, but by taking time off the bike, doing easy riding and getting lots of sleep changed that significantly over the past four weeks.

As I write, it’s 9 short days til the Big Dance of the Chequamegon Fat Tire Fest, not the last race of the season but getting close. Good luck to you all that plan on taking on the 40 or the Short & Fat. To offer out some reading fodder as the excitment to that day builds, I’ll finally post up every couple days how the abovementioned August races played out and then wrap up with a preview & prognostication of Chequamegon 40.

Oh, by the way did I mention my 'cross bike might be arriving tomorrow? Pictures..... hmmm..... maybe?