Monday, August 16, 2010

TransRockies, last days

My expectations going into TransRockies 2010 were admittedly much too small. Before I started, finishing the race seemed to be a non-issue. Even though the elevation profiles were off the charts for a bicycle ride, the distances seemed short and I was pretty sure I could jog them within the time cut-off (and a couple of the stages, I nearly had to.) The nature of the race meant I would be riding the entire thing with a partner and our only objective was F-U-N, which was, in my mind, an ideal way to approach this race. My largest concern was that the race course was mostly singletrack, which, despite my massive amount of mountain biking enthusiasm, I have relatively little experience with. (I didn't even take up mountain biking until I moved to Homer and then Juneau, both places where summer singletrack is almost nonexistent. So my historic biking experience is largely comprised of snowmobile trails, foot-packed snow trails, pavement, dirt roads and doubletrack.) The obvious way to challenge myself in this race would have been to focus all of my training efforts on technique and speed, but neither of these things interested me. To be honest, I haven't been able to generate all that much enthusiasm about racing since the 2009 Tour Divide. Thus, both of my racing experiences since have been eye-opening, from starting the 2009 Soggy Bottom 100 in a precariously fragile state and scratching from the race at mile 90, completely shattered, to riding the White Mountains 100 essentially off the couch. I cherish these experiences and the way they tore me from my comfort zone and jostled me around, proving that I can't be invincible just because I want to be. But from TransRockies, I didn't know what to expect. I guess I was focused on bike camp and fun. I packed whimsical jerseys and Snickers bars.

Which brings me to stage 5, which hit shortly after I rolled out of my sleeping bag with less than three hours of sleep because somebody set off several bottle rockets over tent city after 1 a.m. Bicycle riding turns me into an insomniac; I notice it every time I embark on a couple hard rides or hikes in a row. My heart rate spikes and I struggle to bring down my adrenaline enough to fall asleep. Add a few more days of sleep deprivation, and I become a pedaling zombie, increasingly annoyed with people who comment, "Man, this is tough. I'm going to sleep well tonight." In the Tour Divide, I used Ambien every night, and I don't regret it one bit. If you're a one-speed plow-horse like me, sleep is often the only barrier between strength and shutdown.

So I started stage 5 feeling crappy. We left our mud-bogged camp site and the Anchor D ranch and headed out into the rolling foothills of Alberta. Horse country. Which means horse trails. Soft, mulchy singletrack quickly gave way to a deep bog of horse and cow-stomped mud. It was similar to the 17 kilometers of cow trail we had slogged through in Stage 4 - almost completely unrideable even to the strongest pros, and difficult to even walk through for the rest of us. It took us four hours to slog the first 21 kilometers. They nearly pulled us from the course because we almost missed the time cutoff. I was exhausted. Turns out those time cutoffs aren't so easy to make.

After checkpoint 2, the mud gave way to black wetness from the sky. Keith became cold shortly after it started raining, and his mood soured a little, probably closer to the level of my own mood, although it was difficult to discern. (I'm usually skeptical of people who stay positive all the time, but Keith really is genuine in being an "up" person. He finds the best in every situation, and won't complain if he can't.) As the rain and wind beat harder on us, we cowered beneath a small stand of aspen trees to put on the remainder of the clothing we were carrying. As we applied balaclavas and fleece gloves, a couple dozen cows trotted in from the surrounding fields and joined us beneath the trees. Keith said, "You know it's bad when even the cows take cover."

My core temperature held strong but my muscles weakened more and more over the course of the day. I held my pace because that's what my body does best, but I was struggling. We finally rolled into the finish after seven and a half hours. We had traveled 54 kilometers. A flutter of volunteers surrounded us because many of the teams who finished right before us suffered from mild to moderate hypothermia. I was fine, and I knew it, and I vowed to go to bed earlier and ride stronger for stage 6.

Stage 6 was the "Death Stage," 76 kilometers and nearly 7,000 feet of climbing. We woke up to steady rain and temperatures barely gracing the 40s. A solid coat of fresh snow clung to the higher peaks, though they were scarcely visible above the clouds. I put on the skull-and-crossbones "Death Jersey" that I had saved for this stage, and then proceeded to cover it with what I think of as my "Juneau Super Suit:" Polar polypro tights under regular chamois shorts, knee braces, polypro under-armor shirt, thin fleece layer, "waterproof" nonbreathable rain jacket, balaclava, fleece ear warmers, two pairs of wool socks with a vapor barrier between them, shoes, and neoprene booties. Yes, I do sweat like crazy when climbing in this thing, but it keeps me warm even when it's soaked inside and out, which in my opinion is inevitable no matter what you wear if you spend more than an hour riding in steady rain and splashy mud puddles. I actually managed a decent amount of sleep the night before. Also, the night before I had a somewhat surprise visit from my ex, Geoff, who is temporarily moving from Juneau to Boulder, Colorado. He dropped into the campground on his way south, had dinner with the whole crew and spent the night so he could see the race off the following morning. It was the first time I saw him since I left Juneau in April, and for several reasons I'll probably eventually describe in this blog, his visit filled me with a lot of new confidence. Combined with my Juneau Super Suit, I felt like I could do no wrong, biblical weather and Death Stage be damned.

We finished the first tough climb and fun descent and rolled toward checkpoint one, still feeling strong. Five kilometers of gravel road into the checkpoint were completely exposed to the weather with a stiff headwind, and Keith announced he planned to change into dry clothes at the checkpoint. By the time we got there, we found at least a dozen teams huddled in trucks and vans, shivering. The race organizer was there and informed us that there was snow and heavy wind on the pass and they had rerouted most teams up the road. Teams who chose to take the road would be given an unspecified time penalty, so if we were bent on completing the whole course, we could opt to wait at the checkpoint until they received a better report about the snow, at which point he "might" let us go forward. I looked at Keith and felt a tinge of both gratitude and regret. I knew I didn't want to face the pass, but at the same time, I had a sense that I could face the pass. If we took the opt-out, I would never know. I could feel a chill building in my core. I knew the steep ascent would be a warm hike-a-bike but the descent was equally rocky, steep and wet, and I would likely have to walk much of that as well. I was afraid. My will was being fiercely tested. Keith was starting to shiver. We took to opt-out and followed several teams down the road. I later found out we were the last team to even be given a choice.

We arrived at checkpoint two at the same time as the second place team, who had just descended from the pass. These were the hard men of the race, the Rocky Mountain Factory Team - the "Rocky Boys." Both were violently convulsing, and one man broke out in tears as he huddled beneath the tent canopy, where a woman helped both of the men remove their jerseys and arm warmers and put on dry clothing, because they couldn't move their fingers. I thought it might be the end of their race. The race volunteers had set up a warming tent nearby, and Keith and I briefly joined the 10 or so people huddled inside. But it wasn't all that warm in there, even though half of the people had already stripped off much of their wet clothing to dry next to the propane heater. "We need to keep moving," I told Keith, and we took off quickly. Two miles later, the Rocky Boys passed us, mostly unresponsive. I was amazed at their drive, the hard-man "race drive" of a true athlete, fear and extreme discomfort be damned.

Keith and I finished the "Death Stage" in just over five hours, right in the midst of many of the pros. Of course, the huge difference is they went over the pass, and we did not. Our ride was just under 60 kilometers and cut out nearly half of the climbing, not to mention the epic struggle with the weather that the leaders had to endure. I started the stage feeling strong and finished feeling stronger, and felt guilty about that - survivor's guilt, maybe. There is something to be said about starting a race prepared for everything, even when it means pedaling in a swirl of humid heat up climbs and carrying 20 pounds of extra gear on my back. Those who chose to travel light take their chances, but in a race like TransRockies, where many decisions are made for you (and in this case, rerouting the mid- and back-pack was absolutely the right decision), there remains a small sense of disappointment, the absence of having one's inner strength truly tested.

Stage 7, the final stage, arrived in a pleasant rush of amnesia. It was a beautiful morning in the Bow River Valley, warm, mostly clear and framed with chiseled mountains so dramatically rendered that they looked like paintings on a blue backdrop. I felt as strong as I did on day one, and felt a bit of competitive guilt about that, because I was in a race and I clearly had a lot left in the tank that was mostly going to go to waste. But Keith was struggling with tendonitis in his right Achilles, very similar to the injury that contributed to my Soggy Bottom meltdown one year ago, so I could strongly empathize. Plus, the shortness of the 46-kilometer stage kept everyone clustered tightly together, and I got caught up in a couple of trail-rage incidents (where people nearly mowed me over to get around me, even though I was doing my best to hug the right side and even pull off the trail let people by since I am so timid and uncertain on rooty, narrow singletarck.) But the cluster of aggro-riders left me feeling stressed, and I couldn't add much cheer to Keith's struggle with heel pain. Eventually the pack strung out and I started to have more fun. We kept the pace slow and took lots of breaks - a somewhat subdued end to our race, which is fitting.

In all, TransRockies 2010 lived up to the world of challenges and fun this "summer camp for adults" promised. I had a great time with Keith, and we made the perfect pair. If I could go back and do it again, I would spend much more time working on my technical riding. I would also probably do an interval or two to increase my strength; because while I could go all day at the pace we kept, it was difficult for me to push much harder without blowing up. And I would take the race organization's promises much more seriously. The Canadian Rockies contain some truly spectacular and difficult terrain. The next time it takes me seven and a half hours to travel 54 kilometers, I better not have a bike with me.


  1. So awesome. You guys rock. That sucks about Keith's achilles though.

  2. Yeah team! Congrats to you both and happy recovery!

  3. The summer 2010 adventure for you! Slightly shorter and less intense than summer 2009...congratulations sister!

  4. Congratulations!! I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate your blog. I've ben reading it for 4 years now. I found it searching for winter riding tips I wanted to start comuting all year.I got interested in the endurance riding.I decided to do a local ride called the Nightmare Tour it's a 177 mile ride with lots of climing

    My daughter and I finished the ride Saturday Aug 14. 177 miles 18.5 hrs. We were slow in fact the last to finish but we finished.My daughter ( 13years old ) became the youngest person to ever finish this ride and we were the first father daughter team to finish. I just want to thank you for your blog and ispiriation to get me to try something like this. We had a lot of fun.

  5. I'm really impressed!
    Boring little England is not half so exciting and challenging as where you are.
    Keep it up.
    Alastair Humphreys

  6. Way to go Jill and Keith! As always, I just can't fathom doing what you call 'fun'. I am such a personal 'suffer-meter' would have been maxed by the 2nd day. It's fun to read about all you people strong enough to do this type of thing though...thanks for taking me along for the ride once again!

    And now, it's time to start working on your singletrack skills w/ your newfound friends in Missoula. Keep the rubber side down...unless you're carrying your bike that is!

  7. Thanks for the great report! Sounds pretty intriguing - I think I should try this with a foldable bike that I carry the whole way!

  8. Great post. You describe things very well. I almost forgot about that one small muddy part :)

    Greetings from Belgium!

    Pascal -


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