Climbing Mountains to reach the Race Across the Sky

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At the Finish

“I commit, I won’t quit!”. Those words were chanted by the Leadville Race founder, and he made us all recite those very words ourselves. So began the journey to complete the WilmingtonWhiteface 100km Mountain Bike Race. This was the pre-race briefing, and one of the most inspirational ones I’d been to in all my many races. I was in the beautiful Adirondack mountain area, a scant 9 miles from Lake Placid, and 3 miles from Wilmington, NY, the host town of this race. My mere presence at this event was somewhat unexpected, as it was not on my radar at all until I heard about it through Get Out There Magazine. I was there covering the event for them, and also there due to the allure of getting a shot at a slot to race in the the Leadville 100 Race. Yup, the one and same MTB race that has seen Floyd Landis and Lance Armstrong, on 2 separate occasions, get beaten by local legend Dave Wiens. Also the same venue where Levi Leipheimer smashed a previous course record held by Dave. That race is only 18 years old, but has quickly become the stuff of legend, and only accessible by winning your way in, or winning a ‘lottery slot’. So there I was, seated in the room with another 300 fellow hungry athletes, looking forward to ripping up the course the next morning. The rest of my tale will take you through the whole race. But first, a word about the area and what Deanna and I got up to on our ‘weekend getaway’. Check out the pictures we took as well as my finalized race review video. Read on friends!

Pictures from Race

Amazingly, even though the Adirondacks are only 3-3.5 hours from Ottawa, I’d never been down that way. Well, let me say that after this weekend, we’d DEFINITELY like to get back there again, perhaps on the motorbikes. It was absolutely gorgeous, and the people quite friendly as well. Perhaps a fall trip will be in order. One of the big differences with this event was that it occurred on Sunday, which left us with a full day to enjoy the area and all its sights. As it turns out, that is much nicer when travelling for a race. It would make for a long Sunday and tough recovery day at work, but at least we got to truly experience the regions.

Not only was the Wilmington Whiteface 100 occurring this weekend, but it was in fact part of a larger festival known as the Wilmington Bikefest. They had a whole suite of events planned for the entire weekend, including a welcome party, an uphill-only race, a downhilling race, a slalom race, a beach party, the Whiteface 100, live music, a costumed parad, and so on and so on. In fact, their only downfall was that with so many things, attendance at some events wasn’t quite what it deserved to be. However, I’m confident that over the next few years, this should truly grow into a world-class event. I actually got to chat with several of the organizers a fair bit, as well as hoist a beer with the Wilmington town mayor. As the small cousin to the East of Lake Placid, Wilmington has all the beauty, but doesn’t get as many tourists. However, that could be a good thing. For rour part, Deanna and I made a point to attend all the events we could, as well as spend some time in Lake Placid, and spend money all around :-). A couple of the big highlights has to be the boat tour we took around Lake Placid, the gondola ride up Little Whiteface, and culminating with the awesome drive to the top of Whiteface mountain, the 5th highest peak in the ‘High Adirondacks’. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I did place in the top 5 of the ‘best calves in Wilmington’ contest held at the welcome party at a local watering hole just off the highway (Steinhoff’s). Great time was had by all.

Although I could go on and on about the fun stuff, I should really get to the meat of the issue here. The race. I mentioned Dave Wiens earlier. Well, both he and Rebecca Rusch (the Queen of Pain and an AR legend) were present here as ambassadors, and Rebecca was also racing as a pro and trying to encourage more women to get involved. I managed to get my picture snapped with her, and Deanna got me a signed poster while I was on the course! Given the region we were in, there was definitely going to be lots of climbing on tap for the day. While a lot of the course was slated to be on secondary and gravel roads, there were also a couple different purpose-built singletrack sections to play on, and of course the crowning jewel at the end of the race is a grueling climb UP Whiteface mountain before bombing down to the finish line. It was not going to be an easy course, but nor would it be super-technical. Basically, it was a classic MTB endurance race. Those who can endure the pain and keep up the pace longest would end up victorious.

Race Stats

Although podium was definitely not in the cards for me, I can tolerate pain, and am pretty accustomed to endurance events, so I knew I’d be finishing, and doing so having a great time. I seeded myself in the middle of the pack at the start line, as I’m well aware of my limitations. My plan was to keep a good, steady pace the whole day, and ensure I was properly hydrated, as the day was once again promising to be a hot one. Promptly as 7am, the starting gun went off, and we slowly started rolling uphill to get to the first highway. It was amazing how fast the speed ratcheted up. Once on the main road, we were basically in a giant peloton, rolling along at 38km/hr or so. This is no mean feat on bulky mountain bikes. Amazingly, this pace held for a very long time, due in large part that the opening section was predominatly rolling paved roads. There wasn’t a whole lot of chit-chat in the group, as I think most people were full of nervous energy and just wanted to hang in there. There were some inevitable ebbs and flows in the speed as we hit slight inclines or encountered traffic coming the other way, but for the most part, we were one giant mass. Of course, I say that, but I’m sure there was already fracturing at the front and at the back, but that’s the nature of a peloton. You have the bulk, then splits at front and back for the competitive folks and the unprepared folks respectively.

After the first 20km or so, the road finally took a serious uphill turn. The first of several major climbs of the day was upon us. Now, the group definitely started spreading out. Those who had pushed too hard slowed pace a fair bit, and places were jockeyed. I still felt pretty fresh, and bantered with some fellow Quebecer’s around me, as well as some locals. We had a good uphill pace, and just kept grinding it out. I also distracted myself from trying to shoot some footage for my review. The difference between the climb here and elsewhere is that it just sort of kept going for quite a while. However, I had actually been expecting much worse, so when we reached the plateau at the top, I was both relieved, and surprised that I still felt great. Of course, I wasn’t going to push my pace much higher, but happy that I could maintain my speed. As you can imagine, the downhill went MUCH faster, and I hit speeds approaching or possibly over 70km/hr! Also, I had the misfortune of loosing one fo the 2 cameras I had on me. It was in a pocket in front, and bounced out in a particularly bumpy area. Sadly, I didn’t notice until the bottom. On the plus side, I knew that I’d have to come back the same way later, and hoped I’d find it, or someone would turn it in. I didn’t dwell on that and kept going.

Now that the first of the 3 major climbs was over, it was back to the roads and making our way to the second aid station of the day, and the first singletrack section. Aid stations were spaced about 20km apart, and usually showed up just when you really needed them. All along the course, there were clear markings and volunteers to make sure we never took a wrong turn anywhere. All of the major intersections also had state troopers or fire department support ensuring our safety all the way. So far, my choices of food and drink were working well, so I just cruised past them this time and kept making my way along to the trails. This section was known as the Blueberry Hill trails. Just as I was about to duck into this section, a friendly volunteer said, “now you get a break from the sun”. Sounded good to me. Unfortunately, I soon found out that shade does not mean cool. These trails made some headway uphill again. With the added pressure of having to all be single file and making quick turns to avoid obstacles, it actually seemed warmer in there than on the road! A lot of that was no doubt due to the still air and slow speed. I will admit that at first I wasn’t all that enamoured with the trails in there.

Happily though, what goes up must come down, and the downhill singletrack in that area was quite fun. I hit some pretty hairy speeds while whipping between trees spaced barely more than my handlebar’s width apart. The smile came back on my face, and by the time I got back out of that section, I was once again renewed with energy on the roads. We were also now about halfway to the finish. Carrying back along the road we took to get there, we once again came across the aid station again. However, this time, I took a well-needed quick break. I grabbed two fig newtons, two 1/4 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and refilled two bike bottles. In fact, a really nice volunteer did the bottle filling for me. What service! Fig newtons firmly planted in my cheeks, and sandwiches clutched in my gloved hand, I tore back out of there.

Not far out of the aid station, I heard someone yelling ahead of me. Seeing no one around this lone rider, I could only assume he was yelling to himself. Intrigued, I decided to catch up and chat with him. His name was Keith, and indeed, he was psyching himself up for the next major climb. I commit, I won’t quit! Nice. As it turns out, Keith was a local. In fact, he is in the Bark Eater’s Trail Alliance (BETA), the local trail-building group. He was super friendly and we cycled and chatted a long way back together. We were pretty evenly matched, and pushed each other and others around us. As he would say as we passed people “join the pain train!”. And soon, we had a little train chugging back up Jay / Saddleback mountain. At one turn, there were volunteers. This was at the base of the hill where I’d lost my camera. As passing, I yelled about the camera, and the guy got on the bullhorn of the ambulance yelling he had it! I turned back, and collected my treasure as the train kept chugging.

I lost some time with my short turn around and stop, but worked hard to get back on the train. In fact, I caught up, and kept pushing hard, passing everyone in the train until I was at the front, and then I just kept pushing. To be clear, this was on the steepest area of this climb, but I felt good. The only person to stay with me was Keith, and we kept [laboriously] chatting as we went. Once on the plateau at the top and rolling along at good speed, he let me in on a secret. Apparently some local kids would be cooking up bacon at the next aid station for the BETA guys that were racing. He said he’d get me in on it. Unfortunately, I stopped at one point to relieve myself, and he slowly got away from me, so I put it our of my head. However, upon arriving at the aid station, a kid comes up and says “You look like you need bacon”. The word had been relayed to look for the guy in grey riding with a camera. I had 3 of the most perfectly cooked greasy strips of bacon ever in that short stop, and the biggest grin of the day as I chewed them. Chock full of salt and fat and bursting with amazing flavour, it was absolutely symbolic of the great community spiritof the race and the area in general.
With that climb out of the way, it was now back to rolling roads, heading to the 2nd singletrack section, and culminating in the tough climb up Whiteface. I now was feeling like I was slowing down a bit, but overall, the energy was still good, so I just focused on whomever I could see ahead, and slowly try to close the gaps. By doing that, I found myself closing in on the 2nd singletrack section. It had also mercifully clouded over a bit, and there were even a few drops of rain falling on us now. That was actually quite nice. The turn to get into the trails was not marked, so it took a last-minute swerve to get in safely, but soon enough I found myself navigating some really nice flowy singletrack stuff. This area was known as the Hardy Trails, and were brand new for this year. I’d say they were probably my favourite part of the entire course. The only downside was that I once again lost a few spots, and this was due to a mechanical issue. I was cranking hard up a short steep pitch, tried to shift into granny in the back, and the chain dropped into my spokes! Yikes!

Try as I might, I couldn’t yank the chain free, and it took the kindness of a stranger to pull off and help me for a minute to get back on the trail. Luckily, the damage was minimal, as the chain did not twist, and I didn’t ruin anything. Close call. However, i also noticed that my rear tire was really soft. In fact, it was down to around 10-15PSI! Not flat, but really close. No wonder I had been losing ground on the roads. It was obviously a slow leak, and instead of swapping the tube, I opted to just pump it back up. I’d already covered over 85km or so, and expected I’d be able to wrap up the race even with a slow leak. The slightly lower pressure may even help on the final climb and sketchy descent. Quick bite to eat, pedal pedal pedal, and I was back on the paved roads leading back to Whiteface. It was now time for the final showdown on the mountain!

With my tire inflated again, I felt yet another surge in energy and speed. Usually when you feel like you’re slowing, you want to think it’s your bike, but usually, it’s you, I was really happy to find out it was the opposite this time. I threw myself into the final 4-6km climb up the mountain. Now that it was overcast, temps were a little lower, and made the hurt dull just a bit. It got quite steep quite fast, and with sections sand and loose gravel abounding, a lot of people were disembarking and hiking a lot. I remembered the wise words, and focused on the spot right in front of my tire, and kept pedaling as much as I could. To my surprise, I started passsing people. In fact, I passed a good number of them! At one particularly nasty curve with a steep uphill there were a group of volunteers, and they cheered me on as I kept grinding slowly up while everyone around me was walking. Eventually, I also had to dismount, but had put in a huge effort and stayed on long, to much whooping and hollering from the volunteers! It felt great!

Once at the top, I paused just long enough to exchange a few words with Keith, whom I caught back up to here! We launched into the craziest of descents I’ve done in a long time. A downhill bike would have helped, but I just threw caution to the wind, knowing that it was the final push! Again, I made up a few slots on the downhill, and felt so pumped to see the finishing banner in the distance below. Before I knew it, I was crossing the finish line with the clock reading about 6:13! I had no idea what to expect, but that seemed like a damn reasonable finish time to me. Nowhere near the leaders, but I felt like a winner nonetheless, especially when the Leadville founders cheered me in and put the medal around my neck personally!

Upon finishing, there was a barbecue for finishers, live music, massages at a dollar a minute, and just an overall festive atmosphere. Deanna and I ducked out to grab a shower and pack all the gear up before the awards cermony, which was to get underway around the 8 hour mark. Upon return, we hung out with new friends we’d made over the weekend and awaited the final results. Although they started just a little late, awards were fun to watch…. for a while. Rebecca Rusch entertained us for a bit, and lots of people had things to say. To spare the suspense, I did NOT get a slot in Leadville on account of my great speed. It turns out I was quite a ways down the list in my age category. HOWEVER, there were also 30 slots to be drawn for in a lottery. Everyone who finished in under 8 hours had their name in the draw. First name drawn? Stephan Meyer!! Boo-yah! I graciously accepted the fabled coin, thereby committing myself to racing the Leadville 100 Mountain Bike race in Colorado! I’m all registered now, but am defering to 2013 to make sure I get all the pieces in place to make this happen! How cool is that! You see, if you want something bad enough, and work hard enough for it, it’ll happen. I actually willed and called that I’d be the first name drawn, and it was!! It was fate for sure. I’m already excited at the prospect of this marquee event for 2012, and promise you all here and now that you’ll hear all about it! But for now, back to other events. Next up: the Perth Kilt Run in full regimental dress! Should help me stay cool if it’s a hot day, right? See you there!

Video Review

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