Tuesday, August 21, 2012

2012 Mount Washington Hill Climb Race Report

Racer Bib number 286 for the 2012 Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hill Climb.

Here I am reflecting upon one of the greatest rides of my life. For you, I share a few photos and thoughts. Saddle up!

Firstly, I would like to say a special thanks to all my sponsors who generously donated their hard earned cash toward my ride and for the Tin Mountain Conservation Center in Albany, NH. Early fundraising estimates are looking like over Two hundred and Thirty Thousand dollars raised, which includes our awesome contribution of $1173 dollars. In the 40 years of hill climbing on Mount Washington they've raised over 30 million dollars in support of the Tin Mountain Conservations environmental and outdoor education efforts. Whether you donated or not, a lot of you sent words of encouragement to give me energy needed for such a physical effort and I thought about a lot of those comments while riding. Again, thanks, you all had to work for the money you donated, I just had to ride my bike.

Leading up to the start of this years race, I have been riding quite a bit. My year to date mileage is 2,000 plus with combined road and mountain biking. That is well above last years miles prior to the event and nearly all of my training and racing has been ultra, superb, quality. Though there was that one hard ride on April 1 with the Big Chair crew, that was quite the April fools joke on me! I lasted about 65 miles, but had made some key errors in clothing choice and nutrition. I had to drop, and I dropped hard with major leg cramps. After slowly limping in a homeward bound direction, I actually had to break down and have Stef pick me up in the car about 10 miles from home. Then just a couple of months ago, I had similar leg cramps on a big ride in the White Mountains, again Stef to the rescue! This time she rode solo back to the car about 30 miles and then turned around and drove back up to Crawford Notch and picked me up. That was a brutal day, but as a good friend suggested to me via a facebook post, "take it to the bank for Washington", and that is exactly what I did. In both events, I lacked a key element to my riding nutrition plan, I went without an electrolyte and carb sports drink that I normally use and it hit me hard well into a big effort. I know now I can't do that ever again.

Aside from all the time spent riding this season, a lot of other things have changed since last years ride, all for the better. My race day body weight was about 10 pounds less than in 2011 and my diet has changed significantly. For this and a lot of mental inspiration, I owe the credit to my super awesome wife Stef. She's transformed her life in the last eight months and rode a brilliant first time up the hill just back in July, finishing in 1:32:02 with a win for her age group! Seeing her finish SO amazingly strong gave me some pretty incredible mental strength to pull off what I did on Saturday. I learned a lot from her on that climb up. Thanks Stef!
Then there are the dietary changes I mentioned that we have made which have have been very beneficial. It's sometimes hard to walk by that fresh, hot, out of the oven bread at the super market, but I honestly don't miss it on a regular basis like we used to indulge ourselves in. All of the other foods I have taken on are much more satisfying than things I used to eat, and I thought I ate a pretty healthy diet before!

How about we go straight to the race report so I don't continue to blabber on. After a late and only so, so, dinner on Friday night, I restlessly fell asleep and ever so quickly the alarm went off for a 3:30 AM wake up. It had rained hard with thunder storms all night and I only wondered about the possibility of the race getting postponed. Which we wouldn't know until actually driving from home to the event. On the ride up my spirits were slightly dulled by pretty heavy rain falling and my bike was getting soaked, which I am never psyched about anyways, but the further we north we went and closer to the hill we got, the skies started to clear, when we headed up route 16 into Jackson and I could see the summit, I knew it was game on. 

Just about to cross Mile 7 with a repeat offense of dropping a bottle.
Don't worry Stef hiked it back to the car for me.

I had about an hour before my start so I spent some time visualizing and trying to balance out my thoughts, then I rode up route 16 toward Pinkham Notch for about twenty five minutes to warm up. I stashed my wind jacket and a few things I didn't want to carry with me at a friends car while I watched the Top Notch group start. Then I rolled over to the starting line and positioned myself near the back of my age group. There was still a wave of riders to go ahead of me, but before I knew it, they had gone and then my one minute warning came, then thirty seconds, TEN seconds....and CANNON BLAST! Just picture a tiny little Civil War Cannon replica with a super loud shot blast - unfortunately no cannon balls are used.

From the starting line you race across the flattest tenth of a mile for the next 7.6, usually you hit your max speed in this stretch, which was 17.6 mph for me. The climb starts immediately after and in earnest!
Before you know it, you're at twelve percent or more grade. As I hit the initial slope, I had made it to the front and rushed up and away from all the other riders in my wave with just two or three others. A random memory I have of this was about a half mile up, looking back and seeing a huge peloton of riders strung out across the whole road, slowly crawling up the slope and all bundled up together. I was happy to have escaped that mosh pit! One guy who I rode with all the way up, stood while riding for most of the climb, he was pushing a standard set of road bike gears! Surely I though he would crack, but he managed to hang it and we kept passing each other the entire way. The other guy we also stayed with for most of the way up, but just after mile seven he surged ahead very rapidly, but further down low, the three of us were passing the slower riders in the wave that started five minutes ahead of us. I finished mile one in eight minutes with a 7.4mph average speed, my second fastest time. Aside from the first mile, I set personal records for every mile after, keeping my heart rate under control the whole ride. My breathing was rhythmic and my mind focused, legs spinning efficiently ticking the pedals over like a finely tuned set of valves in a Porsche driving up the Autobahn. Not once on the ride up did I even question why I was putting my body through such physical difficulty and it honestly didn't feel as hard as the year before. I'd say I finished quite strong and feeling like I could have kept climbing for another 7.6 miles. I was keeping track of my distance and average speed along with the elapsed time and I knew around mile five that I would at least achieve my time goal, but I had a pretty good feeling that I would finish with an even better time than I ever imagined I could finishing the ride with an official, 'Top Notch' time of 1:15:25.

Unlike last year where I started out way too hard and maxed out my heart rate from the start then never really recovered, this year I've discovered my optimal power output in certain gears, at a certain heart rate range, on a particular grade of climb. This whole hill climbing thing really comes down to science for me. I've really learned so much about my physical ability this season and I know that I can continue to improve from where I am today with continued training. Below is a stats comparison from 2011 to 2012 taken from my Strava training logs.

  2011 Stats were 83 percent Anaerobic and 17% at threshold.

Quite the opposite in 2012 with 81% threshold and 18% Anaerobic.

Sharing a few photos from the ride and a final thanks to you all and my support staff for the day. Stef, Heidi, Kathy, and Brian. It was awesome to share this day with you all and thanks for taking the time to enjoy it with me.


Embracing the awesome mile seven crew with an unexpected arrival!

With a flash I was gone, so pumped from all the cheering coming from mile seven.
It's the place to be you know.

Showing a little "game" face on the final stretch.
*Photo courtesy of Heidi Spiller.
Sparky, rider in the center of the photo rounding onto the final 22% pitch!
*Photo courtesy of Heidi Spiller.

Happy to have accomplished a brilliant ride and time goal.

Finally, check out this raw little video Stef made. It's going viral shortly!

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Anxiously Confident - Eleven days before the Mount Washington Hill Climb

Looking down from mile 7 on the Mount Washington auto road
Just a little over a week to go before the big climb. Having put many miles on the bikes this year, I'm as ready as I could be, with only a few more training spikes before a nice taper. Anxious I am, my mind wandering about while I try to maintain confidence and strength.

As I reflect on amazing times spent in the mountains with good friends, I come to realize that among all the character building challenges I've put my mind and body through, or those that have been put in front of me from outside sources, there really is no challenge too big or too difficult that one can not tackle with those two things in mind, confidence and strength. Training myself to keep on track of that thought is challenging and rewarding all at once.

I can't predict how I'll feel or what the weather will be on race day, but I'm strong physically and mentally, completely focused on the task at hand. Regardless of whether or not I make my time goal on the hill, the pain and suffering I will feel is exactly the relief I need to continue on this amazing, ever evolving path called life.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Six Gaps, Vermont - Just not all at once

The survey marker at the top of Camel's Hump Mountain, VT.

Early this spring someone brought up the subject in cycling conversation about riding the Six Gaps in Vermont. Six Gaps? What is Six Gaps? Well it is quite possible that Six Gaps by bicycle, traverses through some of the prettiest stretch of roads in the Green Mountains and challenges you deep into your inner cycling soul with some of the steepest paved, and dirt roads in all of New England, if not the entire US. A Gap is Vermont terminology for a Mountain Pass, or Notch as some might be more familiar with. We've got lots of Notches in Maine and New Hampshire and they're all extremely beautiful and they mean an awful lot to me having traveled up, down, and all around them, but I've found new love, and that love is the amazing landscape in the state of Vermont. Six Gaps entails 135 miles while climbing over 13,000 feet. It's something I've craved trying for a very long time, but oh, to taste the fruit.

Stef cruised out the first Gap Climb of the day. Proudly displaying the Brandon Gap signage.

A couple of pre-ride side notes - It was summer vacation for Stef and I, so we decided to spend the week in Vermont. We planned to camp out (awesome!) near Waterbury, deciding to stay at Little River State Park for a few days then head over toward Lake Champlain for a couple of days. I must say that Little River SP was excellent. It's about 4 miles down a dirt road outside of Waterbury and it's super quiet, with no residual traffic noise. They have showers, a reservoir to swim, playgrounds for kids and everything was super clean, most importantly, the showers and bathrooms. It's definitely not primitive camping, it's deluxe car camping at a fair price. $25 night for a lean-to.

Drinking Mike's and Tuning Bikes.

Our intentions while on vacation in the Green Mountain State were pretty clear, keep moving, no relaxing, what else is vacation for but to recreate? So off we go, riding into the sunset! Literally, as I chose "the long way" and in the end, we merged back onto the interstate and rapidly arrived at the camp site in time to eat dinner, set up our tent and relax before darkness fell. We did however change our plan of riding Six Gaps the very next day and postponed it a day. First we must survey the landscape!

Somewhere near the summit of Camel's Hump.
Stef had never, until this point, hiked a Vermont "Four Thousand Footer" and there are five mountains in Vermont above 4000 feet. After a pretty okay night's sleep followed by super tasty camping coffee and a light breakfast, we head off to climb Camel's Hump Mountain. Camel's Hump is easily accessed from Waterbury, VT, heading for the Monroe Trail. I had once hiked Camel's Hump from the opposite side of the hill on 9/27/92, almost twenty years ago now! The summit was pretty crowded, but we hung out until the group of preteen kids came up, one proudly displaying a frog he had killed with a homemade spear stick. Come on, camp counselor, get a grip and set an example. Before Stef let him have it, I suggested we get moving. We decide to loop around the summit and take the Alpine trail back to the Monroe trail we'd taken up. What a lovely detour looking South and West toward the Champlain Valley.

Alpine Trail, Alpine Mountain, Alpine Flowers, Alpine Fun!

Peace, Love, and Bikes on top of Middlebury Gap.

So back to Six Gaps! Arriving atop Middlebury Gap, our second of planned six climbs, I was just in a total Zen moment. The mountainous terrain was spectacular, roads quiet, climbs steep and cars completely respectful of us on the road. How could you not just get totally sucked into the moment? Now 50 miles into our ride, and close to 4000 feet of climbing, we turn north on route 100 to the quaint little town of Warren, VT. We stopped at the country store for cold water and something for our bellies. One more stop at the town hall for a bathroom break and a chat about cycling with the town manager, a cyclist himself who's done the PMC 10+ years, all the Gaps and even Mount Washington many times. He sent us on our way and wished us well on Lincoln Gap, our next climb for the day.
Lincoln Gap was brutal. It averages 19% grade for over a mile near the top, but gently levels off just before the summit. Part of this week in VT was a mini training camp for me and my upcoming Washington race, Stef had just done Newton's Revenge the previous Saturday, so she was totally primed for this one. I hit it hard and thought my heart was going to pound itself out of my chest. I arrived at the top, dripping sweat and legs feeling it, all good of course.
Fist pumps and high fives all around, Stef crushes Lincoln Gap with a smile!
One of my favorite pics, Stef, a beautiful field, barn, and Mount Abraham.

Descending into the town of Lincoln on super steep gravel, we actually stopped a couple of times to let our rims cool so as not to have a blow out. They were really warm, so good thing we did. Part of the crux of this ride is all the gravel sections you go through. They can tear your tires up in a big hurry and this would be the tale of our day, as you'll soon read about.

Yet again, and with perfect timing, we arrive at a lovely little country store. We're ready for some vasa and Stef mentions how she could really have some pretzels for a little sodium replenishment. Well, it couldn't have been more perfect as she came out with six pretzel sticks, a dime a piece! Amazing you can still buy something at any store for a ten cents. I think she had some sort of premonition that there would be pretzels there...we each had six in the end and they were delicious! 

Pretzels in my pocket!
We head out from Lincoln aiming for our fourth Gap climb for the day. We're 70 miles in and at neartly 7,000 feet for Alti gain, and I can feel the pain! We turn onto Ap Gap road and begin the climb, well, the climb up to Baby Ap Gap, which I didn't tell Stef about so when we got to the top of Baby Ap, she sort of mentions, hey that wasn't so bad, then I tell her, Oh, yeah, that was Baby Ap Gap, we have more climbing ahead! A couple of casual gripes and moans and we carry on, both feeling it. It was pretty hot out and with us both pushing 3000+ calories burned, we were really working hard. We're about three quarters of the way up Ap Gap when someone has a blow out, I thought it was Stef, but it turns out that my rear tire had torn and the tube popped through the casing then blew out. Cool I thought at first, I haven't changed a flat tire all season, I'll get to use my Co2 device and play bike mechanic. So I proudly change the tube and boot up the tear in my tire, then proceed to inflate, when all of a sudden the tire blows again, it seems I had multiple tears. With both my spare tubes now used up and both of our tire boots in my rear wheel, this leaves little margin for any more flats or tire rips. We'll need to stop at the bike shop in Waitsfield to buy some supplies. So up we go, hitting the steepest section of Ap Gap and then the summit.

That's Sparky (me) heading up the final pitch of Appalachian Gap.

After a white knuckle descent down Ap and by Mad River Glen Ski area (ski it if you can), We arrive in Waitsfield, hitting up Fitwerx bike shop. A decision is made that I need two tires since the front one was also looking ragged, worn and torn. They had us bent over a barrell with the prices they charge on tires. I even mentioned I work in the cycling industry and asked if they offered a discount to industry folks. I got a look like I had two heads on my shoulders, then the shop guy politely gave me a 10% discount off of retail. $160 bucks later, we had new tires on Old Blue and we're back on the road. Nearly nine hours since we left the car and about seven hours "in saddle" both of us were pooched. We had all intentions of continuing for Gaps five and six, but when we arrived at our junction to head east for Roxbury Gap we decided we'd had enough and graciously bowed out of the last two. In the end it was the best decision to call it a day, we would have finished in the dark, if we had made it...

Six Gaps Vermont will always be there and it's already in the plans for the 2013 cycling season. We finished our ride with 115.8 miles, 9,112 feet of climbing, 4,427 calories burned, 7:43:02 ride time and memories to last a lifetime. See you next year 6 G's.

Before we left lovely Vermont, we did ride the final two Gaps, which as I reflect upon, were my two favorite climbs, besides Ap Gap these definitely get the award for best views. Ride file attached below. Cheers and thanks for reading!