This past weekend brought, barring some bout of spontaneity, my longest-distance and probably most competitive triathlon of the season. For a few years, I have heard tell of the Great White North Triathlon as a somewhat off-the-radar race to the north, impeccably organized with a generous prize purse, fast but accurate course, excellent post-race food, you know, all the things that make a race awesome. So this year, I decided to give it a whirl.
Since my travel buddy for the weekend ended up unable to race due to chronic injury issues, I made the trip alone. I left on Friday morning, and ten long hours later, I was pulling into the driveway of the house in Spruce Grove, Alberta where I would be spending the next couple nights. Spruce Grove is about 30 minutes west of downtown Edmonton, and about 10 minutes from the small town of Stony Plain, the site of the race. Since I was traveling solo and would definitely be in need of a good couple nights sleep after that much driving, I had decided to book a room through Airbnb, which worked out splendidly. My host, Monique, was very helpful, giving me advice on where to go eat, a good place to go for a run in the morning, and even cooking dinner. Her four cats were also very friendly. The housing situation made for a very relaxed couple days of race prep, which I was very thankful for.
I got some rest Friday night, opting out of the early race check-in and pasta feed, since I would have had to hurry over to Stony Plain in more of a rush than I preferred. Instead, I checked in on Saturday. Since packet pickup began at 11:00, I had plenty of time in the morning to get a run in and get all my assorted gear in order. By the time I had picked up my packet, dropped off my bike, checked out the swim course and transitions, I felt ready to go.
If you’ve been following my adventures this spring and summer, you know that I had a bit of a setback in May, forcing me to drop out of my first planned long course race of the season and lose several weeks of training, in addition to psychologically getting back into the mode of riding bikes fast. Sometimes, though, a setback like that is just what you need, and I am glad to be back to racing and training in full force. Going into the weekend, the only lingering injury from that accident was a bit of intermittent pain in my shoulder, which was pretty mild and would only show up occasionally. That said, I had gone for a total of one swim since the accident, and it was two weeks before this race, just to make sure that I could in fact swim without severe shoulder pain. I could feel it slightly that day, but by race day, it was barely noticeable.
The swim start took place on a wide beach and was an 800-person mass start. Mass starts with that many people can tend to be a bit crazy, so I tried to get out pretty quick so as not to get too caught up in the mass of wetsuit-clad humanity.
In the swim, I felt way better than I thought I would due to my complete lack of swim fitness. I got in a groove, starting out with a big group and gradually hopping from one pair of feet to the next, moving through the field and feeling confident. I still came out of the water several minutes back of the leaders, but considering the circumstances I was okay with it. Official swim time: 29:02.
In my first transition, I realized that it has been a little while since I did an open water triathlon. I got to the wetsuit strippers and still did not have my sleeves off, so I spent some time fumbling with that, then proceeded to drop my goggles and swim cap out of the sleeve when I ran off, which a volunteer kindly picked up for me. All in all, if T1 is the most disappointing part of the race, I think that is okay. Official T1 time: 1:15.
As soon as I got out of T1 and hopped aboard my Orbea Ordu TT bike (read my review of the bike here), I felt at home. I began moving my way through the field comfortably, and enjoyed the small rolling hills. The two-lap course took us north on the highway over what amounted to a net climb, then descent to the turnaround. We then repeated in reverse on the way back, totaling four climbs, none of which were too substantial.
On lap two, I got to a point where I stopped passing people, and was engaging in a little back-and-forth with a couple other racers. This kept me focused, but I did start to notice that late in the descents, the extra weight on my arms caused my shoulder to flare up a bit, right where it had been hurt from my accident. In the last five or six miles, it started to get much more painful, and I had to sit up and shake it out a few times. After each short shake-out session, I put my head down and did my best to focus and keep putting out as much power as I could, and I ended up holding it together pretty well, riding my second lap about a minute faster than my first. I believe I came off the bike in 14th place. Official bike time: 2:23:09.
T2 went much better than T1. I smoothly got off the bike and moved through transition relatively seamlessly, trying my best to keep my focus and psychological momentum going. I got edged out for the fastest transition time in the field by the eventual women’s champion, but I did put together a solid second place in that ever-important competition, 1.9 seconds back. Official T2 time: 57 seconds.
This only being my second triathlon of the year, and not having done any brick workouts, I felt a little rough around the edges in the first half mile or so of the run. Fortunately though, after that my legs started to sort themselves out. I have been doing much more running than anything this season, so I knew if I was going to do well that was my ace in the hole. I just made a point of holding a pace I knew would get me a time somewhere in the 1:26 range, which was manageable. I figured if I felt better, I could pick it up on the second lap, but I really wanted to avoid imploding at 5k and having to suffer through 10 miles.
Well, when I got to the second lap and thought about trying to find that next gear, it wasn’t really there. I was able to hold the pace I had done for the first lap, and the encouraging part was that I was still moving up in the field. It was clear that I would not move up far enough to crack the top 5, but I made it a point to pick off as many people as I could, and to hold off a couple guys who appeared to be bearing down on me from behind.
With about 1k to go, I glanced back on a corner to see Devin Wittig, a pro who had had some trouble on the bike and was on a mission to gain as much back as he could on the run. I had no clue what place I was in, and I was hoping to be able to coast through the finish, but when it comes down to that close of a race, one has to do one’s best to hold off any attacks. I kicked it into gear, used the momentum from a slight downhill to propel me to the finish, and managed to hold my spot through the line. Official run time: 1:26:53
My overall finish was 4:21:17, good enough for 8th place and a long course PR.
Next up is the one race every year in which I participate without racing. I will be leading the 3:20 pace group at the Missoula Marathon on Sunday, which is always a fun and rewarding venture. From there, it’s on to my homecoming race, the Tiger Triathlon next weekend!
I hope everyone’s having a great summer. See you out there on the roads, trails, and maybe even assorted bodies of water if I get ambitious later this summer!
It’s been a minute or two (actually almost exactly 50 thousand; yeah, I calculated that) since I last posted anything on this here page, but I assure you there are good reasons.
For one, the Garden City Triathlon happened eleven days ago, and in case you weren’t aware, that is the one race a year that I direct.. I am glad to be able to be involved with the Garden City Tri, as it helps out Montana Campus Compact and our local triathlon community (via Team Stampede), but it turns out that putting on a triathlon can pretty much just suck the life out of you for a while.
Between my recovery from that and, leading up to it, my recovery from previous incidents, I’ve been doing a lot of physical and mental recovering. Fortunately, the mental recovering involves a fair amount of physical activity. That has taken many forms, but most notably, I have finally gotten a chance to get out and get some quality interval training in on my time trial bike the last couple weeks. As such, I figure now is as good a time as any to tell you all about the new time trial bike I am on this year.
Like anyone who fancies themselves a cyclist, I am picky about my bikes. I am especially picky about time trial bikes, and there are a lot of characteristics that are absolutely critical to making a good time trial bike. Enter the 2016 Orbea Ordu OMP (Orbea Monocoque Performance) frame.
Before I ever got out and rode this bike, I got to know it really well in the shop. After ordering up the M30 model, which comes with a mechanical Ultegra drivetrain, I made the decision to upgrade it to Shimano’s Di2 group. Who doesn’t want buttons instead of shifters? Anyway, the Di2 shifting is a whole other review (spoiler alert: it’s awesome), but right now I will stick to the features of the frame.
In building the bike, I got to take a good look at the cable routing and the Di2 battery storage system. It’s all very clean (read: aerodynamic) and impressively thought out. Historically, your bike mechanic will probably curse your name every time they have to work on your TT bike, and I won’t go so far as to say this is an exception to that rule, but they certainly did make some improvements from the previous model (and virtually all other time trial bikes on the market).
Most notably, the rear brake is not longer a proprietary brake hidden under the bottom bracket. If you’ve ridden a TT bike made between about 2008 and 2015, there’s a good chance you are familiar with a wonderfully spongy rear brake that sometimes works great, and sometimes just decides it is more content to rub on your rim halfway through a race. Well, that’s gone. You still get an aero brake caliper, but it is mounted above the wheel, has no funky twists and turns in the cable, and works like a dream. It is delightful.
The Di2 battery mount is pretty slick. It removes from a compartment directly in front of the rear wheel, which sits above the bottom bracket. There is plenty of room in the frame in that area for routing wires, and the excess material around the bottom bracket shell has added aerodynamic benefit as well.
Speaking of aerodynamic benefits, let’s talk about that funny-looking fork. In the area surrounding the wheel of your bike, there is a lot of turbulence cause by the wheel’s rotation, especially around the spokes. The idea behind the “free-flow” fork is that it brings the fork legs further away from the wheel, and therefore out of that turbulence, allowing the air to slip by more smoothly. I haven’t personally had the bike in a wind tunnel, but I can tell you that it sure feels fast.
Perhaps the most important aerodynamic advantage you can get on a bike, of course, is your fit. Orbea didn’t overlook this in finding ways to improve their design either.Since the stem is not proprietary, there are as many options for different fit situations in the front end as there are stems on the market, and it is all easy to swap out as needed. On both the stem and the seatpost, Orbea went away from the monolink design that they had on the 2013-2015 Ordu OMR frame. Personally, I thought there was promise in the monolink system, but it required very specific torque specs, an adapter if you wanted to use a standard saddle, and a complete inability to use a standard stem. The current system is much less proprietary, and much easier to adjust with basic knowledge, tools, and the parts available at pretty much any bike shop. What this means is that, even if your mechanic still might curse a little bit when you bring your bike in, your fitter will be very happy. For many of you, dear readers, that is me, so I appreciate the steps that Orbea has taken to make my life easier.
And speaking of making lives easier, how about all those bottle cage mounts? There are four, count ’em, four sets of bolts for mounting all manner of stuff to your frame. This is not counting an aero-bar mounted bottle. You can easily run your top-tube mounted bento box and three water bottles if you want, or if you run tubulars, there’s a convenient spot for a can of Pit Stop behind the seat tube. Be creative! These details make this a great bike for racing Ironman races, because when you’re on the bike for anywhere between 4 and 8 hours, you need to be able to carry a lot of stuff.
My overall takeaway on the new Ordu OMP: it is a bike that has the ride characteristics of a triathlon superbike (reasonably light and stiff, and uncompromising in aerodynamics), but is substantially more user-friendly than most bikes at this level. I am impressed with how easy it is to make adjustments and to carry all the gear you need for training or racing. The frame also has the smooth ride that I felt was characteristic of the older OMR frame, so after hours in the saddle, it keeps you comfortable.
The Ordu OMP comes in four different builds, ranging from the 6800 series Ultegra at $4299, all the way up to the flagship Dura-Ace Di2 build, which sells for $8999. The three higher-priced builds all come with Vision carbon race wheels, which is a huge upgrade if you are not already riding something similar. For the triathlete who doesn’t demand every second of uncompromising aerodynamics, there is the option of the OME (Orbea Monocoque Evolution) frame. This frame is less expensive, but has many of the same features, and is offered in three builds, ranging from the Shimano 5800 series 105 Build at $2299 to a Di2 build for $3999.
Hopefully this has been informative for some of you out there, and next time you’re in the market for a new race bike, I highly recommend considering one of Orbea’s offerings. You can find out more about them, watch some videos, and check out all the models here.
For anyone who happens to live in Missoula, I will be leading a Time Trial interval workout this evening, and also next Wednesday evening (June 22nd). Meet at 6pm at Missoula Bicycle Works. Not only will you get to check out this sweet bike in person, but you will get a great workout too.
I, like many of you, love riding bikes. It is, in many ways, part of what defines me as a person. I ride mountain bikes, road bikes, triathlon bikes, cyclocross bikes. I like to race, testing my abilities against others and against myself. Sometimes I like to ride fast for no other reason than to feel the muscles in my legs getting perpetually closer to the breaking point. Sustaining effort becomes an ever more monumental task, and I reach for the superhuman feeling that comes from holding that effort as long as possible, before finally imploding to the point where putting any pressure at all on the pedals seems nearly impossible.
I also like to ride slow. I like to converse with my fellow riders, teach new riders the mechanics of riding in a pace line, look at the scenery and goof around. I like to zip through the woods at breakneck speed, I like to climb mountains on my bike, and I like to cover astounding amounts of ground on the open road, appreciating with every pedal stroke the brilliant engineering that allows me to do so under my own power.
As we are all reminded from time to time, though, this wonderful activity that we enjoy so much can turn against us pretty quickly, and always unexpectedly.
It was a gravel road, in a group of about 15 riders. There are a couple downhill corners where the group can really pick up speed, and we did just that. We flew around the first left-hand corner without incident, and banked into the second one, a right-hander with poor visibility. I was near the back, and on the left side (outside) of the group. Missing the smooth tire track on the far right, I got caught in the loose gravel nearer to the center of the road. Not wanting to slide out and take out other riders, I stayed wide, which is a great option if there are no cars coming the other direction. As it happened, though, this time there was an SUV with very poor timing headed up the road. My GPS track shows that I was going 32.9 miles per hour when I saw the car, at which point I quickly assessed my options. Swinging left would put me into a gully with a barbed wire fence, assuming I made it around the car to begin with, which would have been unlikely. Swinging right was out of the question, with the gravel and my current trajectory. I locked up the brakes and hoped for the best.
“The best” ended up being me having to tell the driver to back up after she got out of the car, so that I could un-wedge myself from under her bumper. Not entirely the outcome I had hoped for, but it could have been worse…
As it turned out, I suffered a substantial amount of road rash, some whiplash, a small pang in my right knee, a sore elbow and shoulder, and some dizziness upon standing. No broken bones, no lost memory. After laying low and not doing anything for three days, I was able to get out and get back to my life. All things considered, I am counting my lucky stars and trying to use the experience as a reminder in the future. I will, however, be off the bike for a couple weeks. I am also unable to run or swim, so the extent of my daily exercise at the moment is walking to and from work. I’m taking the opportunity to slow down, smell the lilacs, watch the birds flitting around on the riverbank on my way through town. Also I’ve been doing some reading, and sitting on the front porch a lot more than I usually do.
Sometimes that slowing down is necessary, and I usually don’t do it without being forced to. Occasionally, I can get carried away, just trying to keep up, and lose the clarity that comes with going a little slower. And maybe, just maybe, an SUV comes around the corner and puts me in my place.
With much reluctance, I’m skipping my next planned race, the Troika long course triathlon in Spokane on May 21st. By the time June rolls around, though, I should be ready to get back after it.
Triathlons in Montana can be pretty inconsistent as far as level of competition is concerned. With a relatively small population to draw from, most races just don’t have the depth that you see often in more populated areas. There is, however, one annual exception, where the triathletes come out of the woodwork in search of a spring proving ground, to figure out how their winter training has worked out. The Grizzly Triathlon always seems to draw a pretty solid field of racers.
This year, though, some key perennial powerhouses were missing from the start list. Last year’s champion, Dylan Gillespie of Bozeman, was out through the winter due to injury. Runner-up Kory Burgess is a new dad and hasn’t had the time to get in triathlon training. Matt Seeley broke his hand in a mountain bike accident several days prior to the event. Andy Drobeck decided to sit out the Griz this year. Elliot Bassett would be out of town for the weekend. Out-of-state champs Ben Hoffman and Matt Lieto wouldn’t be there. On the women’s side, Amanda Hunter was on the start list, but planned to drop out after the bike due to injury. Erika Ackerlund was busy kicking everyone’s butts at Collegiate Nationals. No Linsey Corbin or Jen Leubke. The favorites were dropping like flies.
On the men’s side what we were left with were five racers who could conceivably contend for this year’s title.
Brendan Halpin, of The Cycling House, always strong, would be racing the Rocky Mountain Roubaix in the morning before the afternoon start at the Griz, and also had not been swimming for quite a few months. Those two factors put him essentially out of contention. He did win the “most miles ridden” division for the day.
Evan Eck, of Helena, has always been strong late-season and in open water races, but has yet to have a breakthrough race at the early-season Grizzly Tri. He has always been competitive, but usually not quite vying for the podium.
Nick Dorsett, from MSU’s triathlon team, is often a strong runner, and is capable of a good swim split. Historically, he has had a bit of work to do on his cycling to become a contender.
Daniel Mazza races for the UM triathlon team. Both Dan and Nick are young racers, and they have both gradually worked their way into the “top contenders” category over the last couple years. Dan I knew would be tough this year, as he has been riding very well all spring. He is also always a strong swimmer. If I had any chance against him, it would have to come down to the run.
In the swim, I did my best to start out conservatively and stay smooth. I succeeded in those goals, but the problem was, I wasn’t going fast enough. Last year, I went through the halfway point of the swim in 5:46, which seemed too fast, but was encouraging. This year…6:08. Dan was swimming my lane, and he started to pull away from me about 500 yards in. I tried to respond and just didn’t have the extra gear. Evan was just ahead of him in the next lane over. Meanwhile, on the other side of me, Nick was in a lane with a 16-year old high school swimmer named Darragh Mahns, and they were both wiping the floor with all of us.
I ended up coming out of the water in 12:33, 46 seconds slower than last year, with Evan and Dan not too far ahead. Nick took a little extra time in transition despite out-swimming all of us by at least 30 seconds, so we were able to catch him in the first couple miles of the bike.
I am on a new bike this year, and it is a big change from the old one. I will be posting a review shortly of my impressions of the new Orbea Ordu OMP frame, which boasts a whole lot of interesting changes from their past designs. Since this was only my third ride on the new bike (and my third ride on a time trial bike period in the last 7 months), I am still getting settled in on it. Regardless, you can check out some of the cool features of this bike here.
Some shuffling took place in the opening miles as we passed a couple faster swimmers, and after some passing and re-passing, it ended up shaking out with Dan and Evan out front with a bit of a gap, Nick riding in third, and me just trying to keep everyone within striking distance. Meanwhile, Brendan had come out of the water a little over two minutes behind me, and was working his way through the field.
I had not anticipated Nick and Evan riding as fast as they were, which was nerve-wracking because I knew they could both be strong runners on the right day.
Dan came off the bike first, but struggled in transition. He and Evan headed onto the run course together. About a minute later, I was able to pass Nick in transition and we also headed onto the run together.
Nick took off fast on the run, on a mission to hunt down either or both of the two guys ahead. He blew by me and I did what I could to stay within striking distance. When we got to the long straightaway maybe half a mile into the run, we could see Evan pulling away, and Dan losing ground. I started to feel comfortable with the pace. My running mileage has been great this year. I passed Nick right before the big hill about a mile in, and tried to stay in my comfort zone up the hill. I could tell Nick was struggling, and just before the top of the hill, he dropped off the pace. Then I was alone to try and chase down Dan. Evan was clearly running away with the victory.
At the turnaround, Dan was around 25 seconds ahead of me, and it seemed I was gaining fast. I dug deep. He dug deep, too. It got harder to close the gap. I scraped back a second or two here and there, but there wasn’t enough time. With half a mile to go, it became a reality that he would hold on to second through the finish. I cruised my way in. By the time I got to the finish, the gap was 19 seconds. Nick held on for fourth, and Brendan did end up working through the field to secure 5th place. On the women’s side, Sue Huse cruised to an easy victory with no serious challengers.
And with that, another year in the books. Final finish: 3rd place, 1:02:42. Certainly not my fastest time, but I’ll take what I can get. I suspect my longer-distance fitness is a bit better, so I look forward to testing it out at the Troika Half on May 21st. In between, looking forward to the Montana Hell Ride and Bloomsday this weekend. Stackin’ em up!
This past weekend served as my season opener as far as cycling races are concerned. The Speedwagon Classic is a Montana road race if there ever was one. Unsanctioned, largely unadvertised, more than half the course is on loose gravel roads. It checks off all the boxes. News of the race is spread largely by word of mouth.
Speedwagon is a training race, a testing ground for everybody to see how their spring fitness stacks up. It is held in the beautiful Mission Valley and put on by the quintessential mainstay of Montana endurance racing, Matt Seeley.
This year, we had the good fortune of having freshly graded roads for a good portion of the course. This meant, essentially, inch-deep gravel for about 20 of the 50 miles. Looking back, I would have been substantially better off on my cyclocross tubulars, but I had only brought one set of wheels, and my tire choice was the Challenge Strada Bianca, 700x30c, on my Rolf Prima Aspin SL wheels. I rode my trusty 2012 Orbea Terra cyclocross bike. Unfortunately, it is not made anymore, but certainly the fastest cross bike I’ve ridden.
The Strada Bianca is named for the white gravel roads of Tuscany, and they did surprisingly well on the soul-sucking gravel roads of Polson, Montana. After a paved roll-out, the Speedwagon course this year routed us onto a rutted two-track along a canal about five miles in, and that’s where the first mini-break took place. I only had two MBW racing teammates in the race, Luke and Peter, and after we made it through the canal section, I found out Peter had flatted in the first mile on the pavement. Luke and I both found ourselves in the front pack after the canal, which was still a pretty good-sized group (probably 15 or so riders).
At the next gravel section, though, things started to thin out. I found myself in a group of about nine, struggling to hang on through the rougher gravel sections, and relaxing a bit on the paved sections. Most of the field had opted for low-profile cross tires.
We made it past “Elliot’s corner” where Elliot Bassett slid out three years ago and I went down with him. Fortunately, we both finished the race, but not without leaving a fair amount of blood on the course. It’s at about mile 13, and is followed by a steep, rocky climb. That’s where the pace really picked up, and riders dropped off one by one. Through a gravel descent that was the fastest part of the course, past a couple 90-degree corners, and up the next climb, which was the location of the Apple Hill Prime, where two 20 dollar bills are held out by Matt’s daughters, and the men’s and women’s leaders have to grab them as they ride by. Toby got the prime, and several miles later, our pack had dwindled to five.
That was how it stayed until the final climb. Matt, Toby, Orion, David, and me. I did my best to hold on, and did get dropped in a couple of the looser gravel sections, only to bridge back up to the group when it got smoother. Matt joked about having a yo-yo as a prize for the rider who gets dropped and comes back the most, which I would surely have won.
In the end, we did hit the final climb, the one-mile slog up R.E.O. Hill to the finish, as a group, and Matt made the first move. Toby went with him, with Orion not far behind. David didn’t seem to have much left. I had even less. I watched helplessly as Toby made his move and didn’t look back, opening up a widening gap on Matt, who was being hotly pursued by Orion. In the end, Toby made it to the line with a comfortable gap, earning the win a year after a flat relegated him to third place.
Matt managed to hold off Orion by a bike length for second, and David and I grunted through in fourth and fifth.
Since most of the riders behind us had been riding solo the vast majority of the race, we had built up a huge gap on the rest of the field. Here are final results:
Once again, perhaps predictably, several months have passed since any words have been published to this here site. I’m going to blame my record-breaking streak of blog neglect on a combination of factors. Every time I sit down I feel that I get sucked into another article about a certain presidential candidate inciting violence and racism, then of course I have to veer left for a bit and read some articles about who is going to get the distinguished honor of walloping said candidate in November. After I convince myself that Bernie still has a chance, I spend some time scrolling my Facebook feed, which confirms this conclusion, because Facebook is just one big soup of confirmation bias. I’ll take what I can get. While I’m on my political streak, I check in to see how the Supreme Court nomination process is going. Congress still not doing their job. Cool. I’ll check back in a few days and see if anything’s changed. Oh hey, and might as well check on the governor’s re-election bid. Not too much on that though, still pretty early. It’s tough to get anything done in an election year, right?
Switching gears, I scroll through some other blogs that I like to read from time to time, take a look at some bicycle eye candy, and when I finally splash over to my WordPress site, I decide it needs some updating. I put up my 2016 race schedule, add a few photos to the site, and move things around a little to freshen it up. There are many paths to effective procrastination, many of which can be viewed as productive in their own way.
My favorite kind of procrastination, though, is going outside and climbing a damn mountain. This technique is unique in its ability to kill an entire day, produce excellent memories and sometimes photographs, promote fitness, and expand one’s geographical horizons, literally and figuratively.
It was a great winter of adventuring, and even some racing. I participated for the first time in the Runners Edge Treadmill Challenge, which was about as brutal of a 10-minute race as I can ever imagine. I also raced my second OSCR 50k nordic ski race, cracking the top 10 this year in my second skate race. Add that to the inaugural Snowbowl Rando Radness Randonee series, the Missoula Telemark Challenge race series, and a few good trips into the backcountry, and it was a busy winter sliding on snow. Kava also ran her second half marathon at the Snow Joke at the end of February, setting an 8-minute PR and winning the canine division in 1:30!
That said, I am excited for spring! My run mileage is higher and more productive than ever, and with a new bike on the way (see previous link), I am excited to get out on the road and see what the season has in store. This will be my third season racing on the Orbea Ordu, and I couldn’t be more excited to try out the re-designed OMP frame.
Wednesday night “Wednesday Worlds” group rides have started up already, and Monday night casual rides will start up next week (April 4th). For those of you who are in Missoula and want to join in on these rides, both meet at Missoula Bicycle Works at 6pm.
There, I did it. I successfully wrote a whole blog post (albeit a short one) without checking in on the election news. Until next time, keep adventuring, and don’t forget to vote!
I have been a lazy blogger this summer, but it’s not for lack of material. My summer has contained the usual menagerie of races, adventures, and general good times. From triathlons to road and mountain bike races, to gravel grinders, to local 5ks to marathons, to swimming and ski races over the winter, it has in many ways been the “year of everything” as far as racing is concerned. It hasn’t been without its down moments (like having to make the call to cancel the Garden City Triathlon due to hazardous air quality), but most of it has been a whole boatload of fun. This past weekend was a definite highlight, though.
Last year, I participated in the Rut 50k at Big Sky Resort for the first time, but since it was only a few short weeks before the Ironman World Championships, I treated the race as something of a scouting mission. This year, I came back to run hard.
For those not familiar with The Rut, it is a series of mountain races throughout the weekend. Racers can choose to race a vertical kilometer (VK), a 25k, an 11k, or the mac daddy of them all, the 50k. I raced the VK on Friday and the 50k on Sunday. All of the races are extremely technical, with sections on exposed alpine ridges, loose talus slopes, and of course, a fair share of singletrack.
Since the Rut is part of the Skyrunner World Series, a popular series of technical mountain runs primarily held in Europe, the race draws a fair amount of talent from outside the U.S. It’s great to have a race like this in our own backyard.
Friday, September 4th: The Vertical Kilometer
Since the VK didn’t start until 3pm on Friday, we were able to make the 4-hour drive over from Missoula that morning pretty easily. We rolled into Big Sky at about 1:30, got checked into our condo for the weekend, and I got ready for my race. I was the only one of our party racing the VK, so everyone else got to relax until the big show on Sunday.
The VK is held on a course just under 3 miles long, which climbs a vertical kilometer (3,280 feet) from the base of Big Sky Resort to the top of Lone Mountain, reaching a final elevation of 11,166 feet. The average grade of the course is 23% I nervously lined up with an intimidating-looking crowd of extremely fit men and women and tried to resist the urge to start out too fast.
In the first few minutes, I fell comfortably into somewhere around 15th place. I watched as 20-year old Italian Remi Bonnet took off, opening a gap off the front early on, and three other Europeans gave chase with a gap on the rest of the field. As the grade angled up sharply, my strategy was to keep running as much as I possibly could, even if I had to slow it down to almost a walking pace. When many of the people around me started walking at the steep grades, I found myself moving up very quickly, and within 15 minutes I was well within the top 10. Fellow Missoulian Jeff Rome followed me up, and we continued to move through the field throughout the first half, which was mostly steep double track.
Just past the halfway point, the trail narrows to singletrack, then turns into a knife-edge ridgeline before angling sharply towards the summit. Right before the singletrack, I found myself passing renowned ultrarunner, and last year’s 6th place 50k finisher, Rickey Gates. I have to admit, I questioned my pace at that point, but it was too late to slow down, so I went for broke and put a 30-second gap on him, moving into 5th place. Watching the European speedsters scramble up the ridgeline ahead of me, and with Jeff and Rickey a still-not-entirely-comfortable 30 seconds back, I gave it all I had for the second half, where the grade pushes upward into the 35-40% range and the rocks are sharp, jagged, and sometimes loose.
I kept glancing back to see where everyone was behind me, and I noticed Jeff had also passed Rickey and was gaining on me ever so slightly. He was 30 seconds back, then 25, then 23, then I seemed to gain a few seconds back. I kept pushing, and just when I felt like the elevation was maybe starting to get to me, I saw Jed-zilla, dressed as a gorilla, holding out a banana in the most enthusiastic manner that you can possibly hold out a banana.
Not one to ever turn down a banana hand-up, I took it just at the finish started to come into view and the terrain started to level out. At that point, I knew I had 5th place in the bag. I coasted through, took a bite of my banana, and ecstatically crossed the line in 50:28, 4:30 back from Remi, who crushed everyone by a couple minutes, and 23 seconds ahead of Jeff, who held on for 6th.
One of the best things about the VK is you don’t have to run downhill. That sounds like a silly thing to say, but if you have run the Rut 50k, you know exactly what I’m talking about. I was happy to spare myself the ankle-rolling, quad-pounding, shin-shredding descents by riding the tram back down to the base area. Believe it or not, the recovery period after an entirely uphill race is relatively easy.
I then spent Saturday spectating with friends, watching Remi Bonnet once again crush the field, this time in the 25k, and watching Forrest Boughner pull off a solid performance, coming through in 14th as the first Montana finisher. Then it was time to get some rest and toe the line at 6:00 the next morning for a whole lot of hard-core racing.
Sunday, September 6th: The 50k
Despite having a bit of trouble getting to sleep Saturday night, I got up at 4:00 feeling reasonably fresh and ready to go. Since we stayed in a condo very close to the race start, we were able to wait until the last minute to head up to the start, which was nice. Racing the 50k along with Kailee and me was an old high school friend of ours, Danny, who was our travel companion for the weekend. Both Kailee and Danny were a bit apprehensive about making the cutoff times, not having any idea what to expect, and neither had trained quite as well as planned, but they would be giving it their best shot. Our cheering squad consisted of Danny’s wife, Ruby, and their 8-month old daughter Katara.
I had developed a time goal and a place goal before heading into the race, both of which I thought were pretty ambitious. Last year, while taking it moderately easy so at not to get hurt or burn myself out, I had done the course in 7:19 and finished 49th. This year, I figured I could easily break 7 hours, so I set my sights higher, aiming for 6:30 and hoping for a top-20 finish.
The temperature on race morning was in the low 30s, which felt substantially warmer than last year. I opted for only a thin long-sleeved Craft base layer and shorts, which allowed for enough warmth but didn’t sacrifice the breathability I would need later in the day. About 75 of us lined up for the start of the first wave, scheduled to depart at 6:00 sharp. I lined up next to fellow Missoulian and accomplished distance runner Kiefer Hahn, behind a line-up of all-star ultramarathoners including Max King, Luke Nelson, Matthias Messner, former Missoulian Matt Shryock, and a whole crew of other accomplished runners from around the country and overseas.
With the sound of an elk bugle, we took off into the dark, headlamps bobbing in the cool early morning air. Kailee and Danny would start in the third wave, leaving ten minutes later, so they were able to watch my start.
The first mile or so of the course was a slight uphill grade on a gravel road, and I settled into the pack, trying to stay somewhat near the front so I wouldn’t get too bottlenecked when we got to the singletrack. I found myself in 12th position as we moved onto the singletrack, and at that point, I just told myself to follow the flow of the runners in front of me. We easily crested the top of the first climb and started heading back down. Descending on technical terrain is my clear weakness when it comes to trail running. The first descent, though, was on singletrack that wasn’t overly technical, compared to what we would encounter later in the day. The catch was that it was still mostly dark, so even with our headlamps, visibility was moderate at best. Two people passed me on the first descent, but I held my groove decently and felt good moving into the flowy singletrack that I consider the second section of the course.
As it started to lighten up around mile 6, we ditched our headlamps quickly and kept moving. I felt confident that my pace was reasonable, and I passed several guys on the singletrack before we headed onto the first truly technical section of the course.
On the first technical climb, up to Headwaters Ridge, we had to contend with cold temperatures, wind, and a whole lot of loose rock. This is really where the race starts for a lot of people. I was sitting in 10th position when we started the climb, and after some shuffling on the climb, I ended up in 11th at the ridge. With the welcome feeling of the sun finally hitting the course at the top of the ridge, we headed down, and I found myself leap-frogging with Kyle Barrett of Salt Lake City. He passed me on the descent from Headwaters…twice, in fact, after he took a wrong turn halfway down. I re-passed him on the climb towards the Swiftcurrent aid station, which is around mile 19 of the course, just before the final push to the summit of Lone Peak.
Holding on to 10th place with a decent gap, I made the turn onto the ridgeline, taking my second banana handup of the weekend from Zilla the Gorilla. On the steep climb to the summit, I concentrated on moving forward fluidly, trying to conserve energy where I could.
Stopping briefly for a water bottle refill and a handful of pretzels at the summit, I took a deep breath and dove headlong into the big pile of loose talus that is the backside of Lone Mountain. This was where the technical descending skills really came into play, and I knew I was losing time, just hoping to get to the bottom and run on stable ground again soon. As I worked my way down, Kyle re-passed me near the bottom of the technical section, and I was once again in 11th.
From there on out, The Rut was a pretty lonely endeavour. I negotiated a series of short climbs and descents, trying to hold a good pace with no one in sight ahead or behind. I made it to the Andesite aid station (mile 26.5) all alone and told myself to hold it together. My co-worker, friend, and excellent cheerleader, Audra, was there jazzercizing along next to me on the final climb to the aid station, and kindly lying that Kyle was only a minute ahead (the actual gap was closer to three minutes, but I’ll take hope where I can get it).
What awaited me after the aid station was several miles of gradual descent, followed by some punchy climbs in the last mile before the finish. I had felt great on this section last year, having saved some energy, but this year, I was starting to really feel the fatigue from the combination of mileage, elevation, and the mental focus of negotiating technical terrain. On top of that, on the long downhill switchbacks that followed, I could see two runners – David Glennon of Boulder, CO and Chris Price of Pasadena, CA – starting to gain on me. They were flying down the hill, and my legs were starting to move in slow motion. I gave it all I had, but it wasn’t quite enough. They caught me just before the punchy climbs, with about three quarters of a mile to go. I gave one last effort to stay with them up the climbs after they passed, but it was clear my legs didn’t have it. I coasted through to the finish in 6:01:09, good for 13th place. Both goals accomplished and then some.
At the finish, I found an ecstatic Matt Shryock, who was an old roommate back in college, basking in the glow of a phenomenal 3rd place finish. Time for a massage from Sapphire Physical Therapy, some food, and a soak in the hot tub before heading back to the finish to cheer in the rest of the crowd.
I convened with Ruby and Katara and we anxiously awaited updates on where Kailee and Danny were. Kailee had passed the Swiftcurrent aid station an hour under the cutoff, with Danny 20 minutes behind. The next check-in would be at Andesite, which was less than five miles from the finish. They had to reach that point by 5:00pm. Kailee’s time finally updated, and she was still well ahead of the necessary pace. She would make it easily, barring any catastrophic situations. As the 5:00 deadline came and went, Danny’s time still had not updated. We became nervous that he hadn’t made it, but there was some lag before the updates actually showed up, so we remained hopeful. Finally, at around 5:15, Danny’s time showed up at the Andesite aid station. He had left there at 4:57, three minutes before the cutoff time!
It would take them each just over an hour to make the final push to the finish. While we waited, we watched runners coming across the line, the looks of relief and overall joy getting more and more prevalent later in the day.
Kailee came around the corner looking surprisingly strong and smooth, considering what she had gone through during the day. We cheered her in, and I put her finishers’ medal on. Final time: 11:16. She had finished just over an hour before the cutoff.
Now it was time to wait for Danny. Kailee went to get a massage as more finishers kept coming across the line and the cutoff time kept approaching. The finishers started to taper off at a certain point, with one arriving every 10-15 minutes. At 12:15, fifteen minutes before the cutoff, Anders Brooker of the Runners Edge announced that the final finisher of the day was just around the corner. Everyone else had been cut off at the last aid station.
“We can’t say for sure, but it looks like number 508,” he boomed over the loudspeaker. That was Danny’s number. Ruby ran up on to the road to get video footage of Danny making the final run to the finish. She jogged in with him, and Danny held his daughter as he crossed the finish line, the final finisher of the day, with an official time of 12:05.
Later that evening, Kailee and Danny were both too tired to make it to the after-party, opting to go to bed around 8:00 instead. Something about spending 12 hours negotiating technical terrain as fast as you can at 10,000 feet tires a person out. I went to check out the famous mechanical bull, the dancing, and play a couple games of giant Jenga, but I didn’t last all to long either. I was in bed by 10:45 and ready for a decent night’s sleep.