Climbing Mountains!

Back in the fall of 2004, when I was fresh out of high school and just beginning my freshman year at the University of Montana, I had yet to connect with the endurance sports community of Missoula in any way. I had not yet competed in my first triathlon (that would happen the following summer), and immediately after high school I didn’t have too much interest in competitive running. It was mostly just something I would do whenever I felt like it and had the time, and I didn’t care how fast I went or how fit I was. As a bit of an introvert who was new to town and didn’t know anyone, I was completely unaware of the amazing network of people helping to give Missoula its reputation as an active, outdoorsy town.

Aside from how connected or disconnected you are with that network of people, there is one obvious trail in Missoula that everyone has been on at some point. To anyone who visits or moves here, hiking Mount Sentinel is kind of a requirement. The whole trail is visible from town, and it just begs to be climbed.

I still remember the first time my grandparents came to visit, when my grandmother was 75 years old, and the first thing she wanted to do was hike to the M. My grandfather, who had a hip replacement and wasn’t able to make the trek himself, told her, half jokingly I think, that he didn’t think she would make it the whole way to the M. She and I set out anyway, and 45 minutes later, there she was, sitting on the giant block of concrete overlooking the valley, grinning from ear to ear.

In the same spirit of never backing down from a challenge, when I found out there was a race to the top of this most iconic of mountains, which I also happened to live less than a minute from the base of (convenience is awesome), I was immediately in. I showed up, drastically under-dressed, on a chilly November morning. Oh yeah, and I should probably mention that I was one of very few people who were not, in fact hung over that morning. Apparently, I didn’t get the memo that a night of drunken debauchery before this race was a matter of tradition. All in all, I expected to do fine against all these Missoula folk who I didn’t know and, therefore, were not fast. Haha.

As it turned out, it went a whole lot better than it probably should have. After basically sprinting to the M (I think I was in second place at that point) I gasped and wheezed my way up to the top of the mountain. Just for a frame of reference for those of you who have never been up Mount Sentinel, it is a 1.6 mile total grind, with an elevation gain of just a hair under 2,000 feet. That means an average grade of 23%. The maximum grade, at 51%, is more of a scramble than a run/walk. There is an excellent description of the course here Anyway, one guy passed me not too long after the M, then another a little later, and I came to the conclusion that I had been a little cocky and jumped off the start line a little too quickly.

Somehow, in that race, I managed to get a second wind near the top and hold on for fourth place. In front of me in 3rd was a young man named Adam Jensen, an up-and-coming triathlete who would later go on to race on a professional level and become one of the premier endurance athletes in Montana. I wish I knew who else raced that day, but the results from that race, if they were ever posted online, have long since been swallowed into the void of forgotten history. After all, that was the same year that Facebook was launched, and it was still available only to college students.

Fast forward nine – yes, nine – years, and we get to this morning. That’s right, I found eight excuses in the meantime not to do the Sentinel Hill Climb, each one of which I regret. Well, maybe not the one where I went to watch my former high school’s cross country team win a state championship; that one was worth it, but the other seven were all unsatisfactory reasons.

This morning I raced my second Sentinel Hill Climb, and this time, having lived in Missoula almost a decade, I knew the people I was lining up against. One of the great things about the Hill Climb is that it attracts all types. Cyclists tend to do really well due to their usually massive quads and high strength-to-weight ratio. For this reason, a lot of cyclists and triathletes show up year after year. Your standard 5k and 10k runners show up because, when it comes down to it, it really is only a 20 to 50 minute race, but ultra-runners show up because it is on dirt, and boy do ultra-runners love dirt. Best of all, no matter what kind of shape you’re in, it hurts. A lot.

This year’s field was perhaps the most competitive field in hill climb history. Two-time champion Brendan Halpin, looking lean and mean as ever, toed the line next to 2012 champion and course record holder Andy Drobeck, fresh off a stellar performance at the Ironman world championships. An unexpected appearance from race director and accomplished ultra-runner Mike Foote shook up the field, along with a host of always-competitive runners in Patrick Murphy, Elliot Bassett, Jeremy Wolf, and Mark Handelman. Jimmy Grant gave us all a scare by showing up at the start, but he was manning a camera for the day.

As soon as the gun went off (and by that I mean, the starter yelled, “Go!”) Brendan took off like a jackrabbit. There was a $50 preme for the first person to get to the M, so we had to stay in contact if anyone in the chase group wanted a shot at that. As it turned out, Andy was the one with the gusto to pull through for it, as he gradually closed the gap and sprinted by Brendan right before the M to take the preme, then settled back into his pace. A group of four other runners, though, managed to stay in contact, and a big gap started to form between 7th and 8th. At that point, I was hanging on to the back of that group, along with Jeremy and Patrick, with Mike and Mark in between looking very strong.

Not too long after the M, the trail heads sharply up the ridge, and that is where runners encounter the dreaded 51% grade. I expected some gaps to open up at this point, separating the true contenders from everyone else, but I watched as, up in front of me, the top four traded places several times. No time seemed to be gained or lost among that group during the middle section of the course, which was awfully impressive considering the nature of the course. I did manage to drop Patrick and Jeremy at this point, but the group in front was slowly gaining little bits of time on me.

Very often, there comes a breaking point for a person on any specific day, and about two thirds of the way through the climb, I noticed that Brendan had hit that breaking point. He dropped off the group of three and I started gaining on him. For a while, I wasn’t sure if I was going to have enough distance left to catch him, but with about a quarter of a mile left, I inched by on a particularly steep section. I crossed the line exhausted, my lungs burning and a slightly bloody taste in my mouth. Mark had managed to eke out a narrow win over Mike, and both came in under the previous course record. Andy held on for third, and I finished fourth – again.

The interesting thing, to me, is how different it felt this time to get a fourth place finish. Nine years ago, fourth place was a number I could be proud of or disappointed with, but with very little frame of reference. Now, since I have raced all of these people dozens of times in a variety of disciplines, talked to them, hung out, and become part of a community, each race is a much more social experience. It is a group of friends pushing each other to do the best they can do on a given day. And I know that, on this day, with this group of people, I am damn proud of fourth place.

So, to sum up the general theme of this blog post, I am endlessly thankful that I have had the chance to meet all the people I have met while racing, not only in the last decade in Montana, but in the years leading up to that in high school and earlier as well. This post is an homage to all of them. Many have become my closest friends, including my wonderful wife, who I met through our high school cross-country team. May we all continue to push each other to be the best we can be, and form great relationships in the process!

Oh, and since I couldn’t figure out how to write this in anywhere else, here’s a picture of the finisher’s mug. They are awesome!

HillClimbMug

Rolling Thunder Race Report

There are three athletic events in Missoula that I wouldn’t dream of missing (or rather, have a nightmare about missing…). The fist one, of course, is the Grizzly Triathlon. The second is the Missoula Marathon (when you’re a perennial, you can’t just take a year off; it’s bad luck). The third one is the Rolling Thunder cyclocross race, and while it is the smallest of the three in terms of number of competitors, it is arguably the biggest spectacle. There is an inherent spectator-friendliness of cyclocross. While a lot of this comes from the natural visibility of the race courses, I think it also has something to do with the high probability of high-speed crashes. People tend to congregate around the most technical part of the course, drink copious amounts of alcohol, and hoot and holler at the top of their lungs. Add to this the fact that the Category 1/2 race takes place in the dark, under stadium lights, and you’ve got an event suitable to make some memories.

Next year, I will be racing under the lights, but for this year I stuck with the Cat 3 race, which takes place a little earlier in the day. After suffering a minor mechanical on the last lap last year while racing as a Cat 4, and thereby losing my shot at the win, I formulated my strategy for this year:

  1. Don’t crash
  2. Don’t drop my chain
  3. Don’t forget – these races are FUN
  4. Huck everything!

More mountain biking this year has given me a big boost of confidence riding on dirt. While I love racing cyclocross, I really am still primarily a triathlete at heart, and triathletes aren’t known for their bike handling skills. We tend to be good at going really fast for a long time in a straight line on smooth surfaces. I felt more at home on the Thunder course this year than I have in my previous two years of racing, and I think that helped me stick with strategies #3 and #4 a whole lot better.

I got a slow start in the race, but as things started to shake out in the second and third laps, worked my way to the front, along with two other guys – defending Cat 3 champion Ben Hoffman (not the triathlete) and, to my surprise and delight, Hellgate Cyclery/Kent Brothers rider Eddie Joy. Eddie was having a great race, and the three of us worked together for a few laps, trading the lead here and there before we began trying to rip each other’s legs off.

Cat3_1

 

Around lap 6, I started to sense than Ben might be tiring a little bit, and I threw in an attack on the road section of the course. Eddie managed to stick on my wheel, and then it was just the two of us. I spent one lap just trying to hold my position in front, and then Eddie got a little bogged down in the sand pit with two laps to go. That allowed me to open up a gap that never closed. I spent the last two laps concentrating on strategy #4, and I am probably a little lucky I didn’t violate strategy #1 in the process.

Anyway, I stayed rubber side down and crossed the line, securing a solid victory. Eddie hung on for second place with a really strong ride, and Jay Rutherford of the Cycling House came out of nowhere to pass Ben for 3rd. I will be upgrading to the 1/2 race for next year, so as not to feel like an insufferable sandbagger, but I’m glad I got one year of racing Cat 3 in the books. In addition, I got to watch a phenomenal race under the lights.

In the 1/2 race, hometown hero Toby Meierbachtol (Hellgate) pushed the pace early on, getting the first lap preme and, along with John Curry, opening up a little gap on the field. They couldn’t hold off the charge of defending champion Steve Fisher, single-speed shredder JT Fountain, and Rolling Thunder legend Kevin Bradford-Parrish, who ended up working their way into 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, respectively. It was certainly a fun race to watch, and, to everyone’s delight, Ben Horan gave in to peer pressure and made an appearance in the 1/2 race, despite an abysmal lack of riding this year.

Congrats to everyone who raced, particularly UM Cycling’s David Cresap, taking the win in the Cat 4/5 race in only his third cross race ever! This kid’s an animal!

David

 

Normally, I try to take a lot of pictures, but the camera battery died while Kailee was taking pictures during my race, so there ended up being very few. 😦

Kudos to race director Shaun Radley on another awesome event. I consider Rolling Thunder to be high on the list of the many things that make Missoula a great place to live. I’m already looking forward to next year.

6 Great Triathlons in the Northwest

Triathlon is a sport that requires some travel. This is a fact that those of us who race regularly have resigned ourselves to. As a competitive amateur athlete, I am always looking for races that are worth the drive (or flight), the time investment, the entry fees, the time off work, and everything else that goes into getting on the starting line.

For the benefit of anyone out there who might be looking for a good racing experience to add to their calendar, I decided to put together a list of a few of my favorites, accumulated through the years, and and some of the reasons they made the cut. My races pretty much all take place in the Pacific Northwest, due to my geographical location, and I tried to include primarily races that don’t break the bank cost-wise. If you have others that you like, please share!

Here they are, in no particular order:

  • Grizzly Triathlon, Missoula, MT
    Distance: Sprint
    This race has long been one of my favorites. It is often referred to as the Montana World Championships due to the level of competition it draws, mostly among the Missoula elite, but it is undeniably also one of the best beginner triathlons in the region, including a 500yd swim option for those who are not so confident in their ability to do the full 1000. Since it is early in the season (usually the third weekend in April), the swim takes place in the Grizzly Pool on the University of Montana campus. As a result, there are heats that leave every half hour for the whole day, which makes for awesome spectating. To sweeten the experience, the race-day swag is excellent, with something different every year (towels, running shorts, hoodies, long and short-sleeve and t-shirts are all past items in the race bag). If you manage to crack the top three, you not only get a share of the prize money, but you get a highly coveted Grizzly Tri rock.
  • Pacific Crest Triathlon, Sunriver, OR
    Distance: Half-iron
    2013 was my first year participating in this event, and it certainly won’t be the last. I was blown away by the level of organization and the sheer beauty of the course. The highlight for me was the bike course, which travels from Sunriver to the north around Mount Bachelor. After climbing a pass around mile 35 of the course, competitors are treated to a screaming descent with smooth pavement and great views. It is slightly long for a half-iron bike course, at 58 miles, but they own up to it before-hand, so you’re not shocked by having to go a couple extra miles at the end. The run course is also phenomenal, winding through the woods on the paved path. The race expo is great the day before, with a pro q&a to help you out with questions and an excellent variety of vendors. Prize money pays five deep and is pretty substantial. Also, if the long course triathlon isn’t for you, there is a whole weekend festival, which includes a half and full marathon, olympic distance triathlon, and 5k/10k run/walk, and probably some other events I forgot to mention.
  • Tiger Triathlon, Colville, WA
    Distance: Olympic-ish
    The Tiger Tri makes the list for a few reasons. Mainly, it holds a special place for me as the first triathlon I competed in, first as a member of a team back when I was in high school (I did the run), then by myself the next year, after I graduated. I swam in a wakeboarding wetsuit, rode a 1980s steel Giant road bike, and wore my racing flats on the bike. Despite that, Haley Cooper-Scott still managed to beat my T2 split by 10 seconds. And I thought I was being so clever… Back then, the course was a quarter-ironman, which has since been shortened to a 1000m swim, 40k bike, and 5-mile run. If that seems a little bike-heavy, take note that the bike course features a net elevation loss of approximately 1,300 feet. Basically, if you don’t ride your fastest 40k split to date, something went terribly wrong. The run is on my old high school cross country course, which is two laps on a rolling gravel path through a golf course. And to top it all off, there’s a glorious finish on the high school track, with plenty of cheering spectators in the bleachers. Awards are made by local artisans every year and are super-awesome.
  • Wasa Lake Triathlon, Wasa Lake, BC
    Distance: Olympic
    From what I’ve seen, those Canadians sure know how to put on a race. Wasa is one of the best-marked courses I’ve ever seen, and there were volunteers everywhere! Not to mention announcing by the one and only Steve King. If I can’t have Shaun and JB announcing at a race, I’ll take Steve King any day. All in all, organization is the highlight of the event. The post race meal is also worthy of a mention, even including plenty of options for pain-in-the-ass vegans like myself. And you know what? The course is pretty phenomenal too – particularly the run. It’s a very nice paved path, mostly shady and pretty flat. Prize money goes to the top five finishers, and the draw prizes are some of the best I’ve seen. I’ll definitely be back to this one next year!
  • Coeur d’Alene Triathlon, Coeur d’Alene, ID
    Distance: Olympic
    I didn’t participate in the Coeur d’Alene Triathlon this year, simply because I had too many races stacked up in a row and needed a break, but I kind of wished I had made room for it. It’s a great course, with a really challenging bike leg, including a brutal climb and a super speedy descent. Mid-August in Coeur d’Alene is pretty much always perfect weather, so that’s a definite plus. The race’s subtitle is “The Scenic Challenge” and it has that name for a reason.
  • Polson Triathlon, Polson, MT
    Distance: Olympic
    The Polson Triathlon was a new event in 2012, when race director Matt Seeley saw huge potential in the venue as a regional triathlon destination. The course is quite difficult but well thought-out, with a little bit of everything. The bike course featured a slight re-route for 2013 that got rid of a few pesky 90-degree corners, and the run course, still the original route, features just about every surface you can think of, from pavement to gravel to grass to packed dirt. There is prize money that pays five deep as well as a wonderful array of prizes at the post-race ceremony.

I hope you consider adding a couple of these to your 2014 calendar. They are all events that are worth supporting.