Thursday, January 22, 2009

Painless view of HURT 100

Date: Jan. 17
Mileage: 77.6
January mileage: 507.1
Temperature upon departure: 75

Geoff told me that, even though I attended the race meeting with him Friday night, it wasn't very likely that I'd find the race start on my own Saturday morning. "I'll be fine," I answered. He left at 5 a.m. with the car for the start of the HURT 100, a 100-mile ultramarathon that climbs 25,000 vertical feet over the five loops of a rooty, muddy, narrow 20-mile course. It was Geoff's "training race" for the Iditarod Trail Invitational. I don't claim to be nearly that ambitious about my training, so I set out to spectate the race and do some urban road biking.

I left the hotel room at 8:21 a.m., hoping to cheer Geoff on at the end of his first loop. Unfortunately, he hotel had stranded us on the 43rd floor, one floor down from the top. The first elevator arrived vacuum-packed with people. The second came 10 minutes later under similar conditions. The third had a little more room, but not enough for me and my bike. By 8:43 a.m., I began contemplating the walk down 43 flights of stairs with a bike on my shoulder. At 8:48 a.m., I decided I would have to change out of my bike shoes into some more walkable tennis shoes. At 8:49 a.m., I had my back turned to the elevator, prepared to spend all day riding clunky clipless pedals with tennis shoes after hoofing down 43 flights of stairs just to avoid the endless wait. That's the minute that an elevator with enough room for me arrived.

I rolled out onto the streets of Waikiki and, as predicted, became instantly flustered. Traffic around Honolulu is intense and I don't think I've ever encountered a less bike-friendly city. It's strange - Weather in Honolulu is 80 degrees and mostly sunny year round. You'd think that kind of environment would nourish a strong cycling community, but I encountered few bike paths and even fewer cyclists out and about in an entire day of riding. I wove through rush-hour traffic and made my way toward the hills, but somehow ended up at a race checkpoint. They pointed me in the right direction of the race start, about six miles away. I arrived at 9:45 a.m. just in time to miss Geoff's first loop through.

I spent some time talking to Pam and Anne, two ultra-runners from Anchorage who came to Hawaii to support their fellow Alaskan runners and enjoy the sun. Anne competed last year in the Iditarod Trail Invitational, dropping out just south of the Nikolai checkpoint after she sustained frostbite on her eyes and face. So we had a lot to talk about - perspectives from last year's race, this year's training. Anne's training schedule baffles me. It must amount to 40 hours per week. She was leading the foot race before she was injured last year, and with her mental tenacity, may just give Geoff a run for his money this year. :-)

Geoff was running a strong, consistent race, and it was easy to gauge when he would be coming into checkpoints. After missing him the first time around, I met him most every time at the race start and the seven-mile checkpoint. I took advantage of the two and three-hour gaps between to ride the hills on the outskirts of Honolulu. It was focused riding with hard climbing in mind, and I ended the day with 77 miles and 7,300 vertical feet of climbing, according to my GPS. Still, because I spread the riding out over most of the day, and spent so much time chatting with ultrarunners and cheering on Geoff, it really felt like I didn't ride at all.

Not counting our brief leapfrogging in the 2007 Susitna 100, this is the first time I ever watched Geoff race a 100-miler. It was amazing, really. He seemed to just coast through it. He was driven and focused, definitely, but I was not seeing the hurt I had expected to see. In an effort to try to help him as much as I could, I cut through sketchy neighborhoods and rode in the dark just to see him through most of the checkpoints. But he had little use for my or anyone else's help. He drinks checkpoint water and eats checkpoint food, but he is otherwise very self-supported in his racing strategy. This style often catches race officials and other runners off guard. For me, the fun wasn't in helping Geoff but in meeting other faces in the ultrarunning world. I tend to get caught up in an ultracycling bubble, and forget that there's a whole other world of amazing people who are even crazier.

Geoff won the race in a course-record-settling 20 hours, 28 minutes. Anne, Pam and I were all there for the 2:28 a.m. finish, cheering into the night as Anne waved her "Go Alaska Runners" sign. Three Alaska runners started the race. Blisters forced Dave Johnston to exit the course at mile 40. Evan "yes, ladies, he's single" Hone of Eagle River, on the right, finished 10th in 28 hours. The Hawaiian race officials were genuinely impressed by the strong showing by runners from the land of ice and cold. Geoff didn't let them in on his secret - that he trains not on the tundra but in Juneau, Alaska, probably one of the few regions of America where summer trails are more tree-shrouded, muddier and root-choked than Hawaii.

I learned a few things about biking while I was in Hawaii:

1. I have somehow become a really strong climber. Finally on a bike that weighed less than 25 pounds with tires that had less rolling resistance than a flat-bottomed boat, I found I could shoot up 10, 12, even 14-percent grades like they were nothing.
2. I am a terrible road biker. On the skinny tires and low handlebars, I felt so jittery and cautious inching around switchbacks that it often took my nearly as long to descend a road as it did to climb it.
3. I have been told Honolulu traffic is worse than many metro areas, but I don't understand the appeal in urban road biking. Don't understand it at all. All that stop and go, constantly fighting back the stress and strain while streams of hot steel roar past. I'd take grizzly bears and ice over that any day.
4. I was blocked out of the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific because I was on a bicycle. I was told there was no "running, jogging or bicycling" allowed in the area. When I explained to the security guard that I was simply a tourist on a bike, and expressed my viewpoint that I was no different than the lines of cars streaming in, he looked at me like I was an alien from Alaska.
5. Now that I've seen the Big Island, I can't wait to go back there on a bike tour. Look at that road up Mauna Loa. Doesn't that look amazingly fun?