Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Hampshire 100: It's Really Just an Eating Contest

More than seven hours into my day at the Hampshire 100 something my friend Brad had said to me echoed in my head as I ground my way through a long steep climb.   I was ten minutes past my twenty minute deadline for downing another Gu but the thought of one more oozy ounce of the sickly sweet gel made me want to get off the bike and barf.  Despite extra gulps of Gatorade, I could feel my legs starting to seize.  The last thing in the world I wanted to do was eat something.  And then the meaning of Brad’s seemingly absurd advice became clear: 

“It’s really just an eating contest.”

The eighth annual Hampshire 100 was held this past weekend in Greenfield, NH.  Racers from around the country, including Olympian Jeremiah Bishop, and BMX/mountain biking legend Tinker Juarez, flocked to the area to test their meddle on the patchwork of singletrack, roads and logging trails that made up this year’s course.  Bikers had their choice of a 100 kilometer single-lap course, or 100 mile, overlap course, while runners tested their will to survive on a 100 kilometer course mostly shared with the bikers.

Apple Fritter: destroyer of training goals.
The Hampshire 100 had been on my “to do” list for a while, much like “Climb a Himalayan peak” or “hike the Appalachian Trail”- inasmuch as I could continually put it off by telling myself I didn’t have the conditioning to make it a reality.   This year, however, I found myself in early July in arguably the best shape of my life.  (This really isn’t saying much)  Strava was telling me that I had put in over 1000 singletrack miles since the beginning of the year.  I had even done a few races with Route 66 in the beginning of the year, which introduced me to the alien world of mountain bike racing.   Most importantly, I had avoided any lagging injuries and (mostly) stayed away from the apple fritters at the Dunkin Donuts around the corner from my office.  I was short on excuses, and if there was going to be a year to do the race, this was it. 

A few weeks before the race, in an optimistic moment, I decided I was ready and signed up for the 100 kilometer option. I ramped up my biking and put in a couple 30+ mile singletrack days in the saddle.

X= # of intervals,
Y = Enjoyment of Bike Session
About a week before the race I decided to get some last minute training advice from Gered on what to do with myself during the week before the race.  Gered who had done the Rioja stage race earlier in the year and does eight hour rides like it’s his job is always a good source for training advice and motivation.

Hoping he would tell me I could rest all week, he instead insisted that intervals were the way to go.  M*therf*ing intervals.  Ugh.  But, by the end of the week, I was feeling strong and ready.  

And then the doubt crept in.  While I had ridden the CircumBurke twice, it wasn’t a race, and was less than half as long.  The longest mountain bike ride I had ever done was almost two years ago, and just under fifty miles..  That ride was on mostly familiar singletrack in the Boston area, and at the end of the season when I was in my best riding shape.  By the end of that day it was all I could do to roll the bike into the garage and collapse in the shower- a huddled quivering mess.  In addition to it being a shorter ride, I realized I hadn’t even come close to the nearly 7000 feet of climbing that would be facing me at the Hampshire 100.  Not to mention the fact that it wasn't a race.  Anyone who has raced will tell you there is a big difference between two hours on a leisurely ride through the country, and two hours of bat out of hell, rip your lungs out, race pace biking.

The closer I came to race day, the more real it became- and the more thoughts of doubt pierced my enthusiasm. I probably had done a dozen five hour rides but eight hours....?  Possibly ten…?  Seven thousand feet?  The truth was that until I had spent eight hours in racing mode, I had no way of knowing how my body would react.

The day before the race, I drove up from Boston rolling into Greenfield around five in the evening.  I threw my tent up in the grassy lot and had enough time to sit and talk to some of the other riders as I ate dinner.   Most of the folks I met had ridden the race before, and all were adamant that this was their hardest race- despite most having also ridden the Vermont 50.  After dinner, the organizers gave us their summary of the course, and the trail boss noted that this year would be harder than previous years.

As I was milling around getting ready for bed, a car rolled into the spot next to mine and out hopped my brother’s best-man, Jerry.  An accomplished racer and dancer- Jerry’s tent assembly skills are severely lacking.  (Sorry, Jerry)

...lead me not into exhaustion
and forgive me my nutritional lapses.
Before bed, I texted Brad, who had completed both the Leadville 100 and Shenandoah 100.  That’s when he gave me his sage advice: Keep eating.  And eating.  And when you’re not feeling particularly good, eat some more.   “It’s really just an eating contest”
This was in line with what Gered had told me about popping one Gu packet every twenty minutes- like it was my religion.

Sometime during the night it started to rain, but by the time my alarm went off at five the rain had passed and a sliver of the moon shone high above.  The parking area was already abuzz with activity as the runners were getting ready to head out onto the course.  I watched them take off as I scarfed down a couple bowls of oatmeal and some coffee.

As I packed my bag, nervousness hung heavy in the air.  But just as the butterflies started fluttering hard in my stomach, Jerry cranked some tunes and I started to get pumped for the day ahead.  Like a switch, my doubt turned to determination and focus.  I wished Jerry luck and rolled up into the crowd at the start line.

The view from the back of the field.
I positioned myself toward the back of the crowd given that I was racing in Category 2.  I was going to “ride my race” and wanted to avoid getting drawn into a sprint out of the gate- as I had done in my previous two races that year.  I knew we had a good distance before the real climbing began.  As we rolled out onto the road, I found that I was comfortably moving forward in the pack.  But as we rolled downhill riders flew by me.  I cursed my 1x10 setup, realizing that I could probably have used a bigger ring in the front for the road sections. 

Soon we passed the start line again, and rolled up toward the school and onto our first singletrack of the day.  This was the only spot during the day where the racers were bunched, but as we emerged onto doubletrack I was able to move ahead.

I remember a long, muddy singletrack climb shortly after this where most people were off their bikes, hiking in a long line up the hill.  It was around here that my glasses became impossibly foggy and I threw them into one of my back pockets. 

I also remember rolling out onto the slopes of Crotched Mountain, and a fun twisty singletrack section through a glade on their slopes.  We crossed their parking-lots and quickly climbed a steep paved hill, rolled through a barnyard, and into the woods again.

Although I was suffering, I was not alone.  The locals were out along the roads, in front of their houses, seemingly all along the course cheering us on.  Their enthusiasm was only rivaled by that of the volunteers directing us on the course and shoving food in our faces in the aid stations.  Among the riders, we chatted about the trails, some of the more interesting features, and where we usually rode at home.  It was like one big party- a suffering on your bike party.  I slotted in with a couple guys near the long flat rail trail section known as the beach and we motored along until we came to the hardest climb of the course.  A really steep dirt road greeted us followed by a long climb up a power line.

Shortly after this, at around mile 25, we emerged from the woods in Deering Center next to a church where I made my first aid station stop.  I downed a couple peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a banana and refilled my water and energy drink stores.  Up to this point, I had been drinking really strong Gatorade but not popping any Gu.  Unfortunately, after this stop came a short but steep road climb.  At around this point I started feeling my legs start to give.  I was dumbfounded, given that I had just eaten heartily at the aid station.  I started to get worried.  I was only about three hours into the race and I was already losing steam.  It was then that I remembered what Gered had preached.  I had strayed from the Church of Gu and now it was costing me.  So I popped one at the top of the climb and before long I could feel my legs coming back.  For the next hours, I was popping Gu every twenty minutes like my life depended upon it. 

I may have killed a man with a Trident. I'm not sure.
Honestly, the middle of the race is now a blur of roads, freshly cut singletrack, mud holes, and someone out in their yard playing the fiddle.  Apparently in addition to providing energy, Gu is a potent mind eraser. 

Just after the fifty mile mark in the race, we crossed a highly technical section of fresh singletrack along a pond that worked into a muddy pit of baby heads.  A sign warned us of the impending obstacles and intermixed with the small rounded stones were in fact doll heads, eyes staring blankly upward.  The well timed humor kept my cursing at bay as we started a nasty climb, and we then descended to the fifty mile aid station on some of the best singletrack of the day. 

I was feeling pretty good at the aid station.  The great singletrack section had me pumped, and I knew that it meant there were only about 12 miles from the finish- which is just a little bit more than my nightly ride.  At six hours, I believed that a sub eight hour finish was in sight. 

And it was around then that I told myself a little lie, “I can coast to the finish on power drinks.  I don’t need to eat any more Gu!”  And my friends, that was a lie.

Soon I found myself on a long climb at seven and a half hours, still far from the finish, legs fading, thinking about Brad’s sage advice.  “It’s really just an eating contest.”  Finding my religion once again, I reached in the pack and slurped down another Gu.

First place in dirty legs!
I rolled past the last aid station and another well timed sign, “No whining!” greeted me as I hit the final singletrack of the day,and one last mud hole before crossing the road into pit row.

As I rolled over the finish line still somewhat numb, they handed me my first medal since grade school- just for finishing.

At a little over eight hours, I didn’t set the world on fire, break any records, or surprise the masses. 

I did however, gain a better appreciation for the folks of Greenfield.  Their dedication and enthusiasm in organizing such a complicated endeavor is enviable.  The army of volunteers and locals out to cheer on the competitors was beyond impressive.  I also found a greater appreciation for the community of mountain bikers.  The encouragement and camaraderie of the entire event was something special.

Most of all, however, I’d say I’ve gained a new perspective on what is possible.  (And not just how many Gus I can consume in an eight hour period.)

I’d say that is a day well spent.

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