Race Report: The Whole Enchilada (Sage Burner 50K + The Original Growler 64M)
This is a long report, the short summary is here.
I ran in the inaugural Sage Burner 50k last year (see report) and was eager to return and give it another shot. My interest was ramped up even higher when I saw some fine print on the race website:
Growler Mountain Bike Race – Note: there is also The Growler Mountain Bike Race on Sunday, May 24th directed by 6 x Leadville 100 Mile Mountain Bike Champion, Dave Wiens. Special awards to those who complete both “long” races.
I had heard of the Growler before, but had never given it a second look. Since I had been riding my bike a bit more than usual this spring as part of my Achilles tendonitis rehab, it seemed like a great opportunity to combine the sports I love and to get in some good endurance training to say the least!
I was excited at the prospect of doing both races and registered for the Sage Burner on the day of my final Physical Therapy appointment. Knowing that I was still not 100%, but getting better all the time. I then went to the Growler site only to be met with the message that registration had closed because it was full. Dang! Thankfully there was a glimmer of hope offered in the form of sending a message to the race director to see if they could squeeze you in via a waitlist. A few email exchanges with Dave, and I was in!
With that taken care of, I immediately took stock of the situation. Could I do this? I was pretty sure, but had enough doubts to make me a good kind of nervous. Hadn’t felt that way in a while, and really enjoyed it. My motivation went way up and I got straight to work figuring out how to get this done.
Never mind the fact that the race was just over 3 weeks away and I was coming off 6 weeks of treatment for my heel with little-to-no running, and my mountain bike was basically a heap. Oh, it was top of the line back in the day, but has seen a lot of hard mileage and is acting its (old) age.
No time to build up and then taper, so I would run progressively longer each weekend to hopefully set up a chance at a decent finish in the 50k. I would convert my bike to a singlespeed (lots cheaper than replacing worn out shifters, derailleurs, etc.) and try to ride at least 2x/week.
I ended up with long runs of 0-0-0-7-10-15-15-17 leading up to the race. Before my last race back in Feb., I put in runs of 23-23-20-20-27-30 all in the dead of winter. A much better buildup, which led to a really good race.
The expectation for the Sage Burner would have to be tempered by some real-world circumstances, then. The idea would be to use it as training and continue building for the races later in the summer. That’s easy to say, but I still secretly hoped to have a strong race and maybe beat my 5:14 from last year.
The Growler was going to be all about just surviving and hoping not to embarass myself too badly. I spotted a local 30 mile race a couple of weeks before Gunnison and would use that coupled with a 15 mile run the day before to function as a mini-simulation for what would be in store for me. It also gave me a chance to race on the singlespeed and make sure I had all of my equipment and nutrition dialed in. I had a good experience with that (see report) and it gave me hope that I could finish off the Sage Burner/Growler combination. In retrospect, though, that simulation ended up being seriously easy compared to Gunnison. As is often the case, doing an endurance event that is half the distance does not equal putting out half of the effort. In logrithmic fashion, my little test only amounted to about 10% of the effort required to do compared to the 32run/64bike on a much harder course.
I knew recovery and fueling would be the biggest key to success and planned accordingly. More on that later.
Sage Burner 50K:
It’s amazing how much knowing the course helps in a race. Especially a trail ultramarathon. Even though we were reversing direction from last year, and had a couple of new sections tacked on, I felt really comfortable going to the start knowing what was in store. I love the course, Hartman Rocks is an awesome playground filled with singletrack and lots of cool rock formations.
It was great to see and catch up with Dave and Tim before the race. Dave ran last year as well, and was back for more. It was fun to slap five and encourage each other as we passed on a two lane section about halfway through. Tim was a last minute entry to this one, but I knew the course would suit him well. I commented on his blog that there wouldn’t be any slickrock like at Red Hot, but as we ran the first few miles I was shaking my head at all of the granite we were running across. Somehow I had conveniently forgotten about that…
The race started with a few miles of singletrack climbing. Weaving in and out of huge boulders and snaking our way upwards. There were 3x the number of runners this year as last – around 200 total for the 25k/50k combined. I never really felt like I was stuck in a traffic jam at all, but it was pretty amazing to see how long of a line 200 runners on singletrack makes. If the hits on my report from last year were any indication, everyone had been doing their homework leading up to this one!
I was going out a little faster than I normally would, trying to experiment with that a little bit. I’ve run my last several races pretty conservatively and was looking to maybe stretch the envelope a little. Even if it meant taking a hit and needing to back off and coming in with a slower time that I would normally run. I viewed this as a training race not only in putting miles on the legs, but also in trying new techniques and pacing strategies. It was time to experiment, push myself, and then deal with the consequences.
I felt amazingly good for the first couple of miles. Hey, this is going to be easy I thought to myself. Ha – that didn’t last long. I soon slipped into a low point that would last for the next several hours. My legs were not tight, not sore, just an overwhelming feeling of deadness. Like warm flat coke, the sugar and caffiiene were still there, but it sure isn’t any fun to drink. I felt like I had 10 pound ankle weights on. It was taking serious effort and concentration to pick up my feet.
I stuck to my nutrition and hydration plan, and told myself just keep running. I knew from experience that these bad feelings can take a while to go away, but there is always hope that it will get better. Things weren’t going like I had hoped, but I was still enjoying the time on the trails.
The course is one giant loop, and I turned my attention to thinking about what it was going to be like to ride this sucker twice the next day. The climbs aren’t too long, but they are fairly frequent and demanding. There are also plenty of technical challenges mixed in with the miles of fast cruising. I knew there would be a lot of getting off and getting back on the bike, and made a mental checklist of some things I needed to do that night to get ready.
I didn’t feel like I was racing much, but just out getting in some miles. Trying not to get too frustrated with how I felt. I hit mile 15 right on my goal pace (9:50/mile average), which would normally be a good thing. Instead, I knew the writing was on the wall and there was no way I could sustain the effort.
I slowed down a bit as we took a trail called the Enchanted Forest. I got passed a couple of times on the singletrack descent and could not even keep pace. Normally the downhill is where I run well. Not today. I slowed down quite a bit between miles 15 and 21. Running with an average heart rate of 158 up to that point, but dropping down to 147 for those 6 miles.
I started to rally a bit in the last 10 miles and pushed hard up a long climb to the aid station at mile 26. I passed 3-4 guys on that section and worked hard to do it. Turned out to be a good move as I got my bottle topped off with the last of the water they had there. I was already dehydrating quickly and would have been in big trouble had I not gotten water. I felt bad for the guys coming in just behind me, but knew my move had payed off.
I felt stronger and stronger the rest of the way to the finish, passing a few more people along the way. Continuing to cringe at seeing some of the things I would be ‘riding’ over the next day. I sprinted for the line and was glad to be done. 5:30:37, 17th place out of 65 finishers.
I was initially pretty disappointed with my day. I went in with visions of running free and easy, cruising to a sub-5 hour time and feeling great doing it. I’m such a great runner in my head! Looking back I’m actually quite happy with how it turned out, considering the way this spring has gone. I hung in there and stayed strong, and got it done. Good days will come again, and this was a great stepping stone to the future. Besides, I had to laugh at my stupid thoughts, since when does running 32 miles over tough trails with almost 5,000′ of climbing in 5 1/2 hours equate to a bad day?!? Just because other people make it look easy, I had to remind myself that just 2 years ago my average pace for this race used to be a hard effort on a flat 8 miler!
Sage Burner Stats:
I shifted gears at the finish and went straight into recovery mode. First on the list was Ultragen recovery drink, that stuff is liquid gold. I stopped by the river on the way back to town to soak my legs like I had done last year. Only lasting 90 seconds back then, I went a whole 6 minutes this time!! It was excruciating, but well worth it.
As important as continuing with my recovery was, I had to put it on hold to run some errands. TOP on the list was a 20 tooth cog for my bike. I had come with a 16 and an 18, thinking the 18 would be just right. After running the course, I knew there was no way I would survive with an 18. Your were either going to be grinding uphill, or coasting down. Better to have the gearing for the uphill grinds. After scouring every bike shop, I finally scored the last 20T cog in town and was immensely relieved. The guys at Tuneup were a great help.
I made it back to the hotel, showered, and then hit the pool for a few laps. Taking time to stretch while in the water and doing some leg kicks while holding on to the side to loosen up my muscles. Another shower, and lots of nuun to rehydrate and I was feeling pretty good.
I really wanted to lie down and elevate my legs for a spell, but I had way too much work to do. I hauled my bike and all of my tools up to my room and got to work swapping out the cog. Only to find that my chain was about 1/2 link too short to accomodate it. Rats! I clamped the wheel firmly in the dropouts as far as I could get it to go, then went for a spin back into town to buy a new chain. With that accomplished I grabbed some dinner at Subway and then rode over to the awards ceremony. It was nice to see it so well attended. The handmade pottery awards were very nice and went to the overall and age group winners.
I had to bolt quickly at the end because of a storm and didn’t get to talk to anyone afterwards. I had to ride back to the hotel in the pouring rain – foreshadowing, perhaps? Plus I was very anxious to get my bike all straightened out. Messing with chains, cogs, etc. is NOT ideal the night before a huge race.
The chain worked fine, but I had so much packing and sorting of gear to do, I was up until after 11:00 messing with it all. Finally feeling like I had everything ready, I tried to sleep. I slept about 20 minutes, and then would wake up for 20 minutes – all night long. That sucked. Just too much going on inside my body and inside my head.
I was a little nervous lining up amongst the 200 fresh-legged riders and placed myself appropriately at the back end of the group. The words of warning in our final email running freshly through my mind:
The Original Growler is only for experienced mountain bikers that possess the skills and judgment necessary to assess difficult and challenging trails and roads and negotiate them in a safe manner.
The Original Growler race course contains difficult, technically demanding, and of course, potentially dangerous, singletrack trails, double-tracks and roads.
The Original Growler course is an isolated, backcountry route that includes numerous sections located in steep and rugged terrain where participants may be hours from medical attention and/or evacuation in the event of a serious mishap.
The long-distance nature of these races, both the Half and Full Growler, emphasizes the importance of adequate preparation, physical fitness and sound decision-making on the part of each participant.
The Original Growler demands an appropriate mountain bike in sound operating condition.
Particularly that last line. Please bike, hold together…
Boom! Boom! With two shotgun blasts we were on our way.
We started together in downtown Gunnison and rolled as a group with a police escort out to the real starting line at Hartman Rocks. This 4 mile ride worked me over a bit. With the easier gearing I had put on and the slight downhill grade, I was spinning like crazy for 20 seconds – coasting for 20 seconds – spinning like crazy again. Over and over. By the time we got to the start, I felt like I had just done a big set of Tabata intervals!
The lead car pulled off and we rocketed towards the infamous Kill Hill. Turned into a muddy mess by overnight rain, it was more like Hike Hill. I opted to get off and hike earlier than most, and passed several people that were still trying to grind their way up the sloppy slope. The mud stuck to my tires like velcro and built up to the point were they wouldn’t even spin through the frame anymore. Plus I had about 2 inches caked on the bottom of my shoes. This was gonna be a long day… Thankfully most of Hartman’s holds up really well in wet conditions, and while very challenging at times, the mud wasn’t a show-stopper.
I kicked all the mud that I could off my shoes and did about a dozen bunny hops to try and get most of the mud off my tires. My legs felt pretty good, considering. With my body feeling ok, I knew it would be my mind that would present a challenge. Looking for something to occupy it with, I decided to play a game called ‘Count the Dismount’. Yep, I counted every single time I got off the bike. In Spanish. That was uno…
I took my place in line on the singletrack and was amazed at some of the things I was able to climb. Traction was good, the legs were strong, and for some reason the Obama chant of “Yes we can!” came out of nowhere into my head every time I thought I might not make it up something. Funny. There were still several spots that required me to quickly dismount and get over, or around. dos… tres… cuatro… Not too bad, but I was glad I had thought to lower my saddle 1/2 an inch anticipating that kind of thing. It made it a little easier to deal with. cinco… seis…
About 10 miles in, I hopped up and over some rocks, bobbled it a little, went to unclip, couldn’t, and fell over into said rocks. Didn’t need that! My pedals were extremely hard to get into and out of with all of the earlier mud jamming them up. A few miles later, it happened again! Down into the rocks I went, still clipped in laying on my side. A mile later, you guessed it. Down again. Obviously I couldn’t get out of my stupid pedals fast enough. But why was I having to bail on all of these moves so frequently? Normally I’m a fair technical rider, nothing outstanding, but I can hold my own. Today was something entirely different. I’m not sure if it was the fatigue adding up, lack of sleep, or whatever – but I felt like I was under the influence of some drug with a ‘do not operate heavy machinery’ warning on the label. My fine motor skills and control were totally missing in action! I knew that in order to make it through in one piece, I would have to start walking more sections that I would normally try to ride in order to adhere to the ‘sound decision-making’ part in the email warning we were given.
I made it in one piece to the start/finish area, knowing this would be one of the toughest moments I would face the entire weekend. Rain was starting again, I was tired and covered in mud. People were standing around eating BBQ chicken on sticks!! I was slugging back cold, slimy gel after gel. I stayed focused, grabbed some more Liquid Shot fuel out of my cooler, and got out of there in under three minutes. As I was riding away and beginning the climb again to start the second lap, a guy I was riding next to looked over and said, “How dumb are we?”. Pretty dumb, bud. Pretty dumb.
It was lonely out there as all of the 32 mile (one lap) racers had finished, and a lot of the 64 mile entrants called it good after one lap. I was pushing my 85 pound bike up a steep and narrow trail, slick with mud, falling down, just holding on to the seat with one hand and guiding the bike ahead of me. Getting frustrated when the front wheel would keep flopping sideways. I was hitting rock bottom. I knew my body was just trying to process the huge influx of calories I had taken in at the aid station and tried to be patient while I waited for them to kick in.
Finally past the worst of the mud, I was able to really start cranking up a long and steady ascent. Until my chain popped off at mile 40. I knew this could be big trouble if my tensioner was giving out. I spent a few minutes cleaning mud out from around the cog and from the pulley wheel of the tensioner, hoping that would get me going. I made it another few minutes and BAM, it popped off again while I was standing and cranking on the pedals. At least I didn’t fall over this time. I took a much longer stop and dug my tools out of my pack to try and make a more permanent fix. I adjusted and tightened the tensioner as far as I possibly could, and backed it up with a zip tie. What a joke, but it worked! The whole thing sounded like it would explode at any minute, but got me where I needed to go. I suddenly went from wanting nothing more than to just quit and be done, to panic at the thought of a DNF due to a stupid mechanical after coming so far. I hit the trail with renewed effort and although tentative at first when putting pressure on the chain, soon was hitting it with everything I had.
I was pleased to ride several obstacles and climbs that I had walked on the first lap. I think with the riders much more spread out I was able to concentrate through the fog in my head and execute better moves. Even to the point of taking a few risks to get the blood pumping a little. I even climbed a hill that a geared rider couldn’t make ahead of me, and came up on him so fast because I hit it so hard he couldn’t get out of my way in time. I rammed into his right foot still on the pedal, grabbed my brakes and balanced by turning my front wheel into his rear wheel and holding it there until he could slip out of my way. I was on a mission! Tired and wanting to get to the finish kind of mission…
A few miles from the finish, the dump button got pressed on the clouds and the rain came down for real, and a good amount of hail. I was slogging through the rocks, soaked and freezing, my brake pads almost completely worn away, but still focused on getting this done no matter what. The wind was blowing hard at an angle and a hailstone blew straight down my ear canal! Nothing to do but wait for it to melt.
One last swoopy and banked descent and there it was. The finish. I clipped out of my pedals for the 128th time and threw my bike to the ground. Pretty much spent. Then I realized I still had to ride the four miles back to town. I took advantage of a small break in the weather and got that done, cleaned up, and then shivered for the next hour.
Thanks to the race organizers for putting on such great events, and to the many volunteers that endured very long days in the adverse weather to help us out. I can’t wait to do it again!
Check out the race photos by Gunnison Country Times. They really give a good sense of the spectacular area.