As of Sunday, my first full MTB season since I was a Junior Sport racer back in High School is over. I ended it with the biggest (in both participants and distance) race I've ever done -- the one, the only, the Vermont 50.
The Vermont 50 is such a big deal that, in 2007, the 850 MTB slots sold out in under 30 minutes of registration opening, IN MAY. It was such a big deal, you needed a photo ID to pick up your number so that you couldn't sell your spot to the highest bidder. And then you needed to check in again, in the morning, at 5:30 in the dark, for some added level of security I didn't quite grasp. Anyway, this thing is hard to get into, but here I was lined up at 6:20 AM, because I mortgaged an evening back in May to sit at the computer.
Since I don't want this to be a really negative report, I'll start with everything that wasn't super-awesome about this race.
As always I didn't get enough rest, was feeling sick, blah blah blah. The field split immediately, I got left in the wrong half on the fast, dirt road downhill that starts the race, and my legs were feeling like absolute crap by the first dirt road climb at the 3 mile mark. They didn't get any better all day. I've never had legs so bad I could rarely get my heart rate above 160 -- until today. It sucked.
Possibly related to that, I was nauseous the entire race. What I needed to do was to stop eating and drinking for an hour or so to let my stomach settle, which is of course completely impossible when you're riding the wave of quasi-bonk for 5 hours. I felt sick, I'd burp, feel better, drink something, feel sick again. It sucked.
The course! Holy crap, the course! I really can't believe that I've never heard anyone complain about the course before. Ok -- so it's a 50 mile loop. That's fabulous. I can't really argue with a loop that epic, but does anyone else think that when 15 miles of a 50 mile MTB race is on dirt roads, that's kind of lame? Maybe it was exacerbated by my legs and stomach being uncooperative, but I thought the dirt road sections were incredibly boring. Spending 20 minutes churning away in the middle ring on something I could ride my road bike on isn't really my idea of fun. Nothing to think about except how much my legs hurt and how many hours were left.
Ok, I'm done. What can I say, vast stretches of this race were so non-fun for me that even in the post-finish glow, I can still tell they weren't fun.
So the race takes off down this dirt road, field splits, I "pull" the back half of the field for a while. We were definitely not bridging the gap. When I am the engine in one group, and guys like Thom and Andy are in the other group, the gap is going exactly one direction: up.
After 4 miles of dirt road half-pack riding we hit the trails. The first climb is steep, and with 100 or more experts trying to go up the same one line things are pretty ugly. I make it up without dabbing but it hurt, way too much for the first half hour of riding. We followed this climb up with a fast and straight descent, which was absolutely terrifying in traffic -- 20 mph on a trail you've never ridden with a rider in front of you obscuring your view and a rider behind threatening to run you over. And it's still dark in the woods!
This is the Vermont 50 pattern. Steep-ass granny ring climbs. Steep, fast, descents. Repeat until you've gone 50 miles or lost the will to live. I was getting clobbered on the climbs and there wasn't much time to be gained on the descents.
At the 12 mile checkpoint I met up with my mom and took the sleeves off my jersey. Found out my brother was already 4 minutes ahead. Freakin' roadie punk. Left the 12 mile checkpoint on a dirt road climb that went on for probably 15 minutes. I was not happy.
Somewhere after that we did hit a singletrack section and I remembered that I liked mountain biking. My legs hurt a lot less when I had to worry about stuff like picking a line. A guy in front of me ate it on some roots in true roadie fashion.
At Garvin Hill, Mile 20, I topped off my camelback and tried eating a piece of PBJ sandwich. It went down with significant complaint, so I wrote off solid food for the day and stuck with gels thereafter. Mile 20 to 30 I don't remember much, except a 4WD road along a river that went on from approximately Ascutney to Canada. Somehow there were 800 bikers on the course, but for this whole stupid road I couldn't see a single person within 30 seconds in either direction. I was lonely, and my watch said I was only 2:20 in, so I wasn't even halfway. The Vermont 50 is hard.
Finally, after the 32 mile checkpoint, we actually started to get into some real mountain biking. My brother was now officially 15 minutes up, according to the support crew, so he was probably out of reach, but now that the trail had things like trees and rocks all over it I had better things to worry about. This is the singletrack that everyone talks about, stretching from mile 35 to 47 with few interruptions. They put it at the end so you forget how many dirt road miles you did before it, I think.
I picked up some friends in the singletrack. Actually, now that I was in my element, I was picking off people more than picking them up. At the 39 mile checkpoint I saw Brett Racine, a "pro," hanging out and eating food -- I have no idea what went wrong with his race but it was nice to know that even fast people have bad days. While I was pounding down a coke at that feed, what comes out of the woods but a freakin' runner!
It turns out he was a 50k runner, so he had run 19 miles less than I had ridden. But he'd also started over an hour and a half behind me. And he was running 7:30 mile pace, and on his way to winning the 50k by 30 minutes. Indignant, I tore off into the woods after him, only to find that a guy running 8.5 mph is really, really fast in singletrack.
I finally got back by him on a downhill, only to get dusted on the next climb. I had wheels and it didn't mean jack, this mofo was unbeatable uphill. I swallowed my pride and let him go. Finally, a dirt road downhill got me past him for good, but not before I was very, very impressed.
Busting through Vermont singletrack when you're dead tired is not exactly a safe experience. Some people might cut back saplings on the inside of tight corners, but up in Vermont they must fertilize them -- I lost count of how many corners almost forced me to a dead stop because if I had leaned my bike, I would've taken a tree to the teeth.
By mile 45 the end was in sight. I had been on 5 hour pace up until mile 42, but the last 8 miles are tight, hilly and technical. I was slowing down, but the trail was littered with the riders who were more interested in surviving than racing, so I kept getting places, and I would have almost described this as fun -- if it weren't for the dreaded 3 miles at Ascutney I knew were coming.
The race finishes with one last serious climb on the side of Ascutney. I've heard my dad talk about this for years (this was his 6th time doing the 50) and it's pretty legendary, at least in our house. I skipped the 47 mile feed station at the start of the climb, electing to pop my last gel instead, and wash it down with... an empty camelback. Mmm, stickymouth.
So yeah, the last three miles were hard. But I'd been doing 20 minute climbs with spaghetti legs all day, what's one more, man? I stayed glued to the wheel of the masters rider in front of me and kept them turning until I crossed the line. Then I lay down for a long, long time.
Was it fun? I don't really think so. It was an experience, sure, and I'm glad I did it, but was it worth May registration, $100, 4 AM wakeup, a long drive? I can't say it was.
I'll do this race again someday, because I'd like to prove I can ride faster than 5:16. But that time I'll know just how much pain -- and boredom -- I'm in for. And yes, painful boredom does have some kind of sick appeal. 686 finishers can't be wrong.
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