Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Barn Burner 2016: A Lone Cowboy

******As mentioned recently, Sam raced in the Leadville Series, Barn Burner MTB race in Flagstaff, Arizona. He has prepared his thoughts on matters before, during and after the race, but I couldn’t help but throw in a few thoughts from my end of things about 800 miles away. So, Sam’s thoughts are in regular type, while G.E.’s thoughts are in italics throughout the tale below to help make sense of the transitions from one person to the next. Additionally, there aren't a lot of photos since Sam was riding and therefore only took a few photos before the race, so the remainder are available courtesy of the photographers at the race.******

Tempting the gods, once again
If it hasn’t been clear, this year has been a wreck for me as far as the Leadville series goes. At the end of 2015, I entered the standard lottery (which is an opportunity for anyone to put his/her name and $15 in a virtual hat and take their chances with having their name pulled to be a participant in the Leadville Trail 100 in August without having to actually race as a qualifier).

My name was not chosen.

There used to be a couple of in-state options that were qualifiers for the LT100, but there is currently only one (unless a person wants to pay to play or do the stage race series just prior to the official race): the Silver Rush 50. This race takes place approximately 3-4 weeks prior to the LT100 and I had placed all my eggs in the SR50 basket. That race went okay, but I of course blew it when it came to the coin kickdown, realizing too late that the system rules had changed.

So, a couple of weeks prior to the Barn Burner, I decided I would try to shoot for the 2017 LT100 by racing in Flagstaff. There seems to be better odds at this race because there are fewer people, and fewer still who actually race the entire course. While I was at it, I figured I would do it single speed – because - why not?

Unfortunately, this trip would be a lone one because G.E. had to work and I had to head to Las Vegas the morning after the race. So, I made the drive solo. [G.E.’s Note: Beyond what is mentioned, we have not had the best luck on these trips taking our dogs either, so it was just easier to have Sam go on his own to ensure he’d actually get rest prior to the ride.]

The Barn Burner is a 4-lap, 100 mile race and gains about 8000 feet over the course. That is, for those who are racing the full course. There are other options for riders to do 4-person relays, 2-person relays, and partial course options.  None of these qualify a racer for a chance at Leadville, however, so I would be attempting the full course on my own.

Lap 1
We started the race in a “Le Mans” start, basically standing about ¼ mile from our bikes and then running to the bikes after the gun went off. This actually went better than I would’ve thought. No one was trampled and it allowed the herd to separate out a bit.
*Photo courtesy of Athlinks
I was blazing. Seriously, I was feeling good. The weather was perfect and it wasn’t anything like my last attempt at this race two years ago.

The start is rolling, but mostly downhill until about the 10-mile mark, at which point we had our first sustained, albeit short, climb. This was where I first encountered one of the other single-speed guys.

He was fast and leading in front of me, so I decided to take advantage of this and held his wheel. He had a nice, rigid, carbon-framed bike with a fat tire on the front.

He refused to interact with me.

I held his wheel until about mile 17, where the second, longer, sustained climb begins. For some reason, he backed off at this point and I went around him. He seemed to be looking at his heart rate monitor, but I couldn’t quite figure out why he’d slowed down.

Around mile 22, there is a very short, ultra steep climbing section before we begin a super long downhill. All I could think was that I knew where the guy I’d been tailing was and regardless of his position in the race, I needed to keep him behind me.

This worked well for about another mile until he suddenly appeared again and blew right past me, just before we finished up lap one.

Crap.

At any rate, lap one went well and I finished in sub-2 hours (1:49, more exactly), and I was starting to think I could roll the whole race in around 8 hours (ha, ha – such a foolish thought!).

At this point, I was just sitting down in front of the computer to take a look at where Sam stood in the pack of racers. Even though I wasn’t able to travel with Sam, I was free during the actual race time, so I wanted to try to keep an eye on things as the series has set up an online system that allows people to see where racers stand after each lap. It’s not ideal, but it at least gave me some idea of where he was during the race.

As I checked in, I could see that Sam had come in at under two hours for the first lap and he was in fourth place in the single speed division.  Not too shabby, I thought. 

Then, another thought slipped into my head… Sam could actually place and get on the podium. Wow! That had never even been a remote possibility in past races, but I didn’t want to jinx things, so I let the thought go quickly.
*Photo courtesy of Athlinks
Lap 2
Reality bites. I didn't stop at the start/finish aid station. I figured I could hit the alternate option out at the half way point on the course. Shortly after I passed through I realized I had lost my second water bottle. I seem to have a real issue with this because of my small frame and the fact that my second mount is placed under the downtube, so I often lose bottles on rocky descents. I should have stopped, but it was too late now.

At this point, I was still chasing the fat-front-tire, single speed guy (To this point, I had seen no others), and he was still strong. However, we were all slowing down.

We went through the couple of sustained climbs, rocky downhill, and a quick rest stop. Then, back to the super short, nasty uphill.

We arrived to the same spot where fat-front-tire had nailed me on the last lap and he backed off again. I took advantage and poured it on as much as I could without having gears or much energy. We were now about 45 miles in and the temperature weather-wise was starting to heat up. Again, I thought to myself that I had to keep him behind me and I couldn't stop unless I really, really had to.

At about this point, Sam's mom and I were conversing via e-mail and virtually watching in our respective locations for Sam to come in from lap two. I was sharing that if he was able to speed up just a bit over lap two, that he could move into third place, which would give him a spot in Leadville next year without having to sit through the after-race lottery to see if he'd get a spot.

However, the big problem was that no one was there at the race to tell Sam that he was so close to moving into third place, and therefore he would have no idea where he was in the standings. I tried to explain that this is what is so difficult about going alone and that all we could do is just hope that he did his best. 

I ended lap 2 at just over 2 hours, making the half-way finish time about 3:55. I was still on-track to finish sub-8 hours (at least in theory). I knew that in reality I needed to be further ahead than I was though in order to make the 8 hour estimate, so my guess was that it just wasn't going to happen. I could just tell at that half way point. Plus, the temperatures had warmed and I had only one bottle, not to mention I had not ridden my single speed mountain bike at all this year.

As I waited, watching the monitor to see when Sam would come in, results suddenly updated. Sam was in THIRD! I cried. Not a bawling sort of cry, but an out-of-happiness-slightly-teary kind of cry. I was so happy to see that he was able to move up into the third spot and started to think again that he really had a chance of qualifying for Leadville without the trickle down from the lottery pull at the end of the race. I just wished that I was there so that I could tell him that he had moved into third place and to encourage him to keep moving. I was nearly certain that he had no idea where he stood, which could mean trouble as he became more tired toward the end of the race.
*Photo courtesy of Athlinks
Lap 3
I hadn't seen fat-front-tire guy, but I kept thinking that I didn't want to stop and give him an opportunity to pass me again.

The course was becoming all-too-familiar. In some ways, it's nice to know what is approaching, but in others it is very draining to know what I'm in for as I continually looped around this course.

At the half way aid station, I made a single, frantic stop to refill and then kept rolling. Shortly after pedaling away, I saw a new-to-me single speed competitor, and he was strong!

We spoke briefly and mused about gear ratios before he took off and passed me easily near the end of the third lap.

I had things to do during the day, so I wasn't plastered to the monitor all day. I had an idea of how long each lap was going to take Sam, so I could step away and do the tasks I needed and come back to check on him at about the every-two-hour mark. I knew he would slow down for each lap more than likely, based on prior races, but there's always that little part of me that thinks somehow he will speed up. Of course, deep down, I know how tired he would be and that the same is true for most anyone as the race goes on. The pace, in reality, is going to slow.

As I waited for third lap results, I hoped that Sam was able to keep his position, or possibly even move up. When the second place person came in and I saw that it wasn't Sam, I just hoped he'd be able to maintain the third spot.
End of lap 3 finish times and standings. I will point out that the number one single speeder was ridiculously fast! He had already finished as the rest were starting their final lap.
I quickly saw that Sam had dropped out of third and back into fourth, but he was only 34 seconds behind for that lap. Agh! I wished more than ever that I could get to Sam to tell him that he was SO CLOSE and not to give up on the final lap. But, all I could do was wait and hope that he had some inclination as to where he was in standings.

Lap 4
Don't stop to pee. I kept telling myself that, but I had to stop.

Some way, some how, the other single speed guy was behind me (I wasn't sure how this happened). I took off from the aid station in the hope of keeping him near me (or behind me as was the case at the moment), but after a few miles near the middle of the lap, I knew there was no way to keep with him. He seemed so fresh!

As I would discover after the race, he was part of a duo racing single speed and was not my competition at all because he was riding half the course, so I was chasing him in vain.

Lap four continued without much drama. I was dead tired and as usual I didn't want to eat any more GU.

Come on, Sam. I know you can do it. I was actually talking aloud to the computer, as if it somehow controlled where Sam was and how quickly he was moving. I practiced telepathy skills. Sam often knows what I'm thinking when he's in front of me. Maybe he could hear me if I tried to will him to move faster? 

The dogs and I sat huddled around the screen. Daddy can do it, right? I asked them. They stared blankly, panting, but somehow, I want to believe, understanding that something was going on and that I was definitely waiting for something. They gave me their paws (retrievers seem to like to do this), as if offering some sort of comfort to me in my heightened state. Maybe it helped because I relaxed a bit and decided that no matter what, Sam had raced this course far better than in the past and that was something to be extremely proud of, no matter the results.

I came in to the finish with a time of 8:33, which was pretty much where I had mentally put myself finishing about two laps prior. But, I knew that sub-9 hours gave me a big belt buckle [G.E.'s Note: There are two belt buckles for this race. One is larger and is given to those who finish sub-9 hours, and the smaller one to those who finish in the course cut off time of 11 hours.], which was exciting.

There on the screen in front of me, the results updated and the number three spot had finished. Sadly, it wasn't Sam. My heart sunk a little, I have to admit. He had been so close and I couldn't help but feel guilty because if I had been able to be at the course, I could have told him where he stood and maybe it would've helped him stay motivated. 
I finished in fourth place for the single speed guys. Eleven minutes behind the number three finisher. Sadly, I didn't podium, but it was the closest I have ever been and an hour and a half improvement over my last Barn Burner race.

I called Sam as soon as I saw his finish time. I didn't know if he'd answer or even if he had coverage to accept a call, but I wanted him to know his finishing spot, if he hadn't been told yet. The phone went straight to voicemail. "I'm so proud of you!" I blubbered into the phone. "You did SO well!! You were very close to being third place, and at one point you were in third, but I know you gave it everything. If you get a chance, call me, but if not, I hope you get a spot in Leadville during the post-race ceremony."

Sam's mom sent a message a few moments later. 
"Sam's going to be so disappointed," it read. 
I replied, "Why? He did tremendously well! He finished fourth and nearly an hour and a half better than the last time. There would be no reason for him to be disappointed. He did awesome!" 
"But, he didn't get a spot in Leadville," she retorted.
"He's not out of the running yet," I said. "Give it time. He may still have his spot."

Funny enough, after I spoke to Sam, it wouldn't have mattered if he'd finished third or not because for this race, the only finisher in single speed who was guaranteed a spot in Leadville was the one who finished in first place. 
After-race drama 
Now, the real drama began. The conversations, listening to others, waiting - so much waiting - and eventually, we were all just wanting the awards ceremony to begin.

Pretty much everyone was finished with the race, but we were waiting on the "last ass" (Leadville Series name for the last person over the finish within the allotted time frame) to come through. This person rolled in just prior to 6pm and a couple more brave souls came in about 10 minutes later. I can't help but feel for people who are so close to finishing and just don't quite make it in the time frame.

I was in the beer garden area seated next to a 20-something guy, his dad, and some friends of theirs. It took me a moment to realize that one of the friends in this group was the guy in front of me who finished just prior in the single speed division. All of them had been talking a lot of smack for over an hour about other racers and their would-be LT100 corral positions, even though no one was even in yet and we were all in the same wait-for-the-lottery-pull boat. It's interesting that they wanted to celebrate their position when they weren't even into the race yet.

After the award ceremony started, they continued their smack talk, particularly in regard to women. It was all starting to get under my skin. [G.E.'s Note: While both Sam and I are both generally roll-with-it sort of people, Sam tends to remain quiet in these sort of instances, whereas I probably would've either said something smart-ass to these guys, or, if nothing else, been giving them some serious stink eye. Sam tends to take on a much subtler tactics. Which is why I'll never have to bail him out of jail for causing a raucous, and why it is far more likely that the opposite could potential be a real-life possibility if the situation had been reversed.]

The number three finisher was called up to the podium for the single speed division and I watched from my 4th place chair in the beer garden. It really wasn't bitterness I was feeling, but I wished that people had a bit more dignity and respect for others.

Drum roll
We finally get to the lottery portion of the awards and everyone who finished in under 11 hours, who did the full 100-mile course, and who wanted to try for the LT100 put their names on a tiny rip of paper and dropped them in a lost and found hat with the race director so that he could have someone pull names randomly. At least I was paying attention this time and didn't miss out on the opportunity to put my name in.

There were 25 slots left for the rest of us and there were about 50 or so people who had put their names in, so I figured that put me at somewhere around 50/50 odds of getting in.

Names started to be called. A number of people were getting in and everyone except for a couple of fools who put their names in the hat and then walked away were accepting the spots (The person has to be present to get a spot, so I'm not sure why they did this). Fifteen were left, then 10. My name hadn't been called. Then there were seven left. My odds were narrowing in. At number six, they butchered my name (as usual), but I was in. I had actually made it and this suffer fest had paid off.

A little after 9p, my phone rang. I don't think I even said hello. 

"Did you get in?" I asked frantically. I couldn't help it. I had been waiting for what felt like an eternity to hear if Sam had accomplished the second half of the goal with the Barn Burner race. "Yes," he finally said, and then Sam proceeded to fill me in on what had taken place. 

One of the most entertaining parts to me about the end is that the whole crew of guys I'd been listening to, including the number three single speed finisher I'd been sitting with earlier, all of them talking so much the whole evening, and not one of them made it into the LT100 through the Barn Burner. Which isn't to say that they won't get in, but it didn't happen at this race. A part of me couldn't help but think it was a bit of their shit-talking Karma coming back to them.

The only guys who made it in on single speed bikes were the number one finisher, who was untouchable the entire race because he was insanely fast, and me, the slow, short, old, hadn't-ridden-single-speed-all-year, no-name-bike guy with some eBay bargain Reynolds wheels. But I will take it.

Notes and Thoughts
This was a sad/lone trip during which I rented a room on Airbnb and didn't speak to humans for the majority of the time in Flagstaff, then had to immediately drive off to Las Vegas for work for four days, followed by the return drive home. It was a drain!

I have proven to myself  that I'm better on single speed during these endurance mountain bike races than when I'm geared. I seem to push myself more. There's also a part of me that enjoys being a bit of a spectacle because there aren't as many who do this.

It's ultra hard to know where I am in the standings during a race when I'm on my own. I much prefer having someone with me.

Chasing someone is super motivating, even when I'm not actually competing with them and I never actually see my true competitors.

Another race has come to an end. I think it was a great one to finish on this year, given the hiccups with racing this summer (There have been others beyond this series that haven't yet been documented here), so I'm so glad Sam was able to finish the season on a positive note, and I know he's looking forward to going back to Leadville in 2017. 

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