Monday, July 2, 2012

Race Report: Crankin' the Monkey


About 18 months ago, I bought a lightly used mountain bike from a bike shop owner looking to upgrade.  It's a terrific bike, so much so that my riding it is equivalent to a kid waking up on his sixteenth birthday and finding a Porche in the driveway.  And, much like the kid with the Porche, when I take it out for a spin, there is an excellent chance that it and I will eventually wind up in a tree.  In fact, due to an unfortunate running incident that left me with a broken hand just as mountain biking season was starting, I simply haven't had time to ride it much.  To be specific, I came into the Cranky Monkey race at Quantico having ridden my mountain bike the same number of times that I'd competed in Ironman: 7.  For a total of about 10 hours.

The situation was intolerable: here I was, a guy who loves cycling in all its forms, but who hadn't justified his ownership of his bike.  I decided to remedy the situation by signing up for the 12 Hours of Cranky Monkey, a relay race at Quantico that involved completing a 9.25-mile loop as many times as possible in a 12-hour period.  That's easy enough: if there are three people on one's team, one only rides for 4 hours, and there's a 2-hour rest after every loop, give or take.  The problem for me was that I was racing in lieu of taking on the legendary Diabolical Double, an absurdly mountainous road ride that takes about ten hours to complete, and I could hardly justify only riding for four hours.  But I couldn't find anyone willing to partner up for a two-person team, which left me riding solo.  On a mountain bike.  For 12 hours.  Previous long ride: 2 hours.  What could go wrong?

After my practice ride the weekend before had left my legs resembling hamburger, and having several times wound up upside-down and underneath my bike, I was fully aware that it would take all of my ability just to stay on my bike; racing on the basis of abiity was beyond the question.  But that didn't mean I couldn't compete -- it meant only that my comparative advantage lay in my overall cycling fitness, and I'd have to make that count.  I couldn't go nearly as fast as most of the other guys out there, but what I could do is make them earn it by staying on my bike, moving forward as best I could, for every minute of the 12 hours that I could.

At least I had good advisers.  My friends Emily and Mike ride for the Veloworks-Spokes, Etc. team, and they were kind enough not only to avoid laughing at me too often when I'm right in front of them, but also to allow me to stash my cooler and gear under the tent with their respective relay teams.  Being around vastly more experienced riders allowed me to pick up a lot of valuable tips on the fly, which in a technical sport like mountain biking makes all the difference in the world.  Like swimming, you can be as fit as you like, but if you don't know what you're doing, you'll go nowhere.

The race itself started "Le Mans" style, which means that everyone's bikes are lined up in a field about 1/3 of a mile away, and when the gun goes off, the run serves to break up the pack into a more manageable stream by the time riders hit the trails.  I jogged very lightly, as sprinting in the first minute of a 12-hour race seemed fairly useless.  Unfortunately, this meant that, when we hit the first climb up a steep gravel fire road about 1/2 mile in, it looked like bikers charging toward a ridgeline pillbox at Normandy: people tumbling over left and right and laying all over the ground.  I tried to get clever and weave through them, but I ultimately succeeded only in joining them when I was forced off the side of the road and tumbled over into the grass.  Bueno: first fall after only five minutes on the bike.  At that rate, only 143 more falls to go!  Bring it on, I thought: my kneepads, elbow pads, helmet, and Costco-sized bottle of ibuprofen will show everyone what's possible to accomplish with a little stubbornness.

One thing I quickly realized is that the Quantico trail loop is just beastly hilly.  Here's an elevation profile taken from my GPS unit:

It's true, the first mile looks reasonably flat.  But it's not: it reflects nearly 1/2 of running and riding around a baseball field in order to get to the trail network, and it wouldn't be repeated.  In fact, my watch measured the climbing at about 160 feet per mile.  To put this in perspective, Mountains of Misery is about 105 feet per mile, and the Diabolical Double is about 130 feet per mile.  To make matters worse, these aren't long grades: as is evident from the profile, the course is a neverending series of 100-foot rollers up very narrow paths and gravel fire trails, and they are rather shockingly steep.  That's true going up, but it's also true going down the other side, and the descents were fairly technical in many places, with massive roots jutting out, tight turns, and 12" drops that force your body to act as a shock absorber.  It is a massively tough full-body workout, not least because it is very difficult to stand on such steep climbs: standing causes your weight to shift forward, which unloads the rear wheel and causes it to spin out.  In short, the day was a neverending series of quad-scorching climbs of 20% grade or more, and plummets down the other side. 

One thing I can say for mountain biking on a course like this is that there's almost never a dull moment.  There's always an upcoming swerve, climb, drop, log pile to hop over, trees to split, or trail to bomb down.  I've done considerably longer rides on a road and tri bike, but it risks circularity to state that those are just entirely different sports.  After the third loop, I found that I was getting into something of a groove, but that grove consisted of "next obstacle, next, next, next."  The mental aspect of it was extremely draining, as was the constant jarring;  as the day went on, I began to feel like a helpless kid who'd been tied to a bucking mechanical bull and left to die.
Quantico trails
It also got to be exceedingly hot.  The day was in the mid 80s, but the trees blocked all air movement and, due to my very special power of finding myself underneath my bike, I was decked out in massive elbow guards and kneepads, which meant that I was effectively cycling with a long-sleeved jersey and tights in the middle of the summer in Washington, D.C.  It was simply brutal, and I found myself steadily becoming caked with salt and grit.

And yet, on the whole, I was having a blast.  It was mountain biking like I'd imagined it: just flying through the trees and across massive beds of ferns floodlit by beams of sunlight filtering through the canopy above.  I'd been worried heading into the race about trail etiquette, and specifically, how riders would pass one another on the singletrack trails.  Yet it turned out to be a non-issue; in fact, even the strongest of riders would casually roll up behind me and ask if they might sneak around me whenever I came to a convenient place -- there was no muscling around or pressure.  Everyone was as nice as could be.  Maybe they took pity on me insofar as the number on my calf indicated that I was riding solo, and it's also true that did what I could to anticipate people needing to pass and allowing them plenty of room to do so.  Still, I was repeatedly surprised that everyone just seemed to be out there having a great time.  Not one person called me out on the fact that I was basically being the biggest poser on earth by signing up for a race I had no business contesting.

My tactic throughout the day was to stop very briefly (5 minutes or so) after every two laps, which for me was about every 2:20.  I'd quickly refill my CamelBak, down some Salt Sticks, and scarf down as many bars and gels as I could before rolling out again.  At the halfway point I inhaled a Rubbermaid container of mashed sweet potatoes that I'd made the night before, and with two laps to go, I ate about half a watermelon.  I also had two Cokes spread throughout the day, but otherwise I avoided caffeine in the interest of staying hydrated.  

One thing that amazed me as the day progressed was that, as the sun moved across the sky, it hit the leaf canopy from different angles and the shadows on the terrain moved accordingly.  Lines down descents that had been obvious in the morning became obscured as the day progressed, but others were highlighted in their stead.  Part of this, to be sure, may have been the result of 1200 bicycle wheels plowing down the hill and carving the hill by degrees, but whatever the cause, it seemed a symbol of progress.

The most I'd ever ridden prior to the race was two loops on the course.  Heading into the day, I thought ambitiously that I might finish from 6 to 8, assuming all went well.  As the day rolled on, however, I began to do the math, and realized that, if I kept rolling well, 9 loops might actually be in the cards.  The trick was that I had to start loop number 9 by 7:00 p.m., which was 11 hours after the start.  By far the hardest laps of the day were numbers 7 and 8, when I was utterly exhausted from head to foot and yet pushing hard every minute to try to put myself in a position to attempt number 9 if I had it in me.  And, somehow, I did: I finished lap 8 at a gun time of 10:40, leaving myself 20 minutes to begin the final lap.  After a few minutes of refueling,  I forced myself to climb back on the bike to head back out to confront my tormentor once more.  Somehow, though, the last lap was an utter joy.  The light had dwindled slightly, such that there was no need for sunglasses, and by that time most people had taken off for home.  It was just the few remaining riders out in the wilderness, and the deer came out to watch us roll by.  I clicked off lap number 9 at 8:08 p.m., after having climbed on my bike over 12 hours earlier.  In that 12 hours, I'd spent about 11:15 actually on my bike, a signal-to-noise ratio that I've never approached previously on a bike ride.

As I sat in a daze at the finish line, sucking down watermelon and trying to figure out where I was and what had become of my protective blanket, I learned that, as the day had progressed, I'd moved up from 7th to 4th in my Division (Solo Male 35+).  Granted, there were only 11 people in the division, but it's also true that I think every single one of them had at least ten times the mountain biking experience I did, and likely much more. It takes a special kind of nutcase to ride a mountain bike for 12 hours in an afternoon, and that type of nutcase tends to have been a nutcase before on some level.  I'm particularly proud of the fact that, although I finished 4th -- which is a podium spot at this race! -- no one in the division rode more laps than I did.  The top four all finished with 9 laps completed; I was merely the slowest of the four.  I'd done everything I could do, and everything I set out to do, namely, push myself for as long as I could go, and let the rest work itself out.
I'm now turning back to the world of road riding in preparation for Ironman Mont Tremblant in seven weeks, but I'll be back to the knobby tires before too long.  Once it gets in your blood, it's hard not to go back.