Thursday, July 16, 2015

Crusher Redux.

"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, Or what's a heaven for?"
Robert Browning.

I would not have been so excited about heaven if I had known I would need to pedal to get up there.

In 2014 I entered the Crusher in the Tushar race event in Beaver, Utah.  Known as one of the more difficult races of it's kind, it is a 70 mile bike race over a combination of paved and dirt (or gravel) roads and ascends over a total of 10,000' in those 70 miles, much of that at altitude, ending up at around 10,500' feet at the finish line.

It is, to put it mildly, challenging.  It is, to put it succinctly, freaking hard, and the ex-pro road racer that thought up this thing is the race promoter, T. Burke Swindlehurst. 'T-Bird' is a cruel, cruel man to be sure.  That first attempt at the Crusher found me lacking in speed and I missed the time cut off by four minutes.  Four lousy minutes.  And that was the end of my Crusher.  Done.  And to add insult to injury, to rub salt into my lactic acid oozing wounds, I still had to ride another 10 miles and a few million feet of gain (felt like it anyway) to the finish line at the ski resort.  But 2015 would be my revenge.

Rush hour in Beaver, Ut
Beaver, Utah, population 3000 or so, and the birthplace of Butch Cassidy, sits alongside Hwy 15 between St. George and Salt Lake (more or less) and is nestled at the base of the Tushar Mountains which provide an amazingly scenic background for the race course.  It is the kind of place you would come to to ride on vacation, especially for a So Cal guy like me.

Beginning in town, and it's a small town to be sure, the race has a very grassroots feel to it and the community seems to enjoy having it happen. Held on the same weekend as the Butch Cassidy Days festival, the race mixes with pie eating contests and what not.  It is good fun in a way that bigger towns and cities have lost the ability to provide.  The race caps at 600 riders and always fills up fast, so the difficulty of the Crusher is not scaring everyone off.

The race rolls out of town on the paved State Hwy 153 alongside the Beaver River, and while it is not a steep grade, it is still uphill and the packs of riders are out for blood, so it is a fast pace right off the bat. Also, we are beginning at a 5900 feet elevation so flatlanders like me are sucking wind right away.  After 11 miles it hangs a right and the grade immediately ramps up, at first on a chip seal paved surface, then into smooth dirt, and begins to climb and climb and climb, seemingly forever to the first aid station at 18 miles, pitched by a sylvan lake scene. Then it continues to ascend to the 27 mile point where that looming time cut off awaits at check point 2.  You need to be there by 11:00 or you are done racing.

From there, the course drops off the face of the earth and plummets you down the Col 'd Crush, a 4000 foot descent on a gravel covered, washboard infested road, into the Piute valley where you circle around through a couple of towns, ride through the Sarlacc Pit, which can be sandy and hot, before riding back up that steep and ugly descent you barely survived.  That brings you back to the aid station that was the time cut off point before you turn right and climb a good bit more to reach the high point at the finish in the Eagle Point Ski Resort.

But I never experienced most of that as I was out of the race at aid station two.  No Col 'd Crush…no Sarlacc Pit…just what I read about it.  But that was 2014 and 2015 would be different.

Last year I rode a well equipped 29er hard tail.  It was quite good for the day, or I thought so, and it was comfy and had lots of low gears.  The Crusher is a bit of a puzzler as to what bike type is fastest there, and while a cross bike or gravel bike is the prominent choice, there are a lot of riders that race a hard tail 29er or even an FS 29er.  But this year I wanted to try something different.  I had been curious about owning a gravel bike for a while anyway, so I built one up to see if I liked the genre (I do!) and to see if I could improve on my chances at the Crusher.

This is a very fun bike, it just needs a bigger motor.
The 2016 Salsa Warbird (alu model) was built with a SRAM Rival 22 Hydro group running a 36/46 crank and an 11-36 rear cassette.  That 1:1 low gear had shown to be adequate on the steep climbs at home and with the decent DT Swiss wheels and Panaracer 38C Comet tires, the bike weighed in at 21 lbs ready to ride (no bags, etc).  It is a fast bike, and at home I was setting PRs on Strava anywhere I pointed it uphill.  I figured that would transfer over to the Crusher course, but I was to be proved wrong, oh so tragically, dismally, comically wrong.

I had trained hard, or at least as hard as a very early and hot spring-into-summer allowed for and that a working guy could muster.  I had a strong base fitness, and a couple of recent, hard century rides on the road had showed no cracks in my tanned and chiseled facade.  Every ride I did had climbing in it and I was almost always on the Warbird, working out any bugs in set-up, etc.  I felt ready.  I was mistaken.

Race day was going to give us great weather and Ed the Tall, a riding buddy, was there with me to race the event.  My wife had come along too, and her and the dog were going to ride the course a bit ahead of the pack and I would see her along the path somewhere before the cut off.  

Ed the Tall and his Raleigh WIllard
I only needed to be 4 minutes faster than last year.  I was pretty confident that I could do that, but right from the starting gun I was struggling to stay with the pack of riders I began with, the Men's 50+, who are a group of fast, fast, old guys.  Last year the Men's 50+ winner was only an hour and change slower than the overall race winner.  Seriously.

I should have just ignored my heart rate monitor and done whatever it took to stay with the pack for that 11 miles up the highway before the dirt began, but I was afraid of digging a hole so deep that I could never recover so I managed my heart rate and spun along at a good pace.  Still, I was already concerned as to how hard it was for me to recover from any hard effort.  I never felt like I could back off, rest, then jump hard again.  It just was a long, constant feeling of being under water and suffering.  You see I have the body of an antelope; fleet, lean, and fast.  But it is powered by the heart and lungs of a gerbil - soft, round, and furry.  Or so it would seem as altitude really hammers me.  And living at 1200' above sea level (if I am standing on my tip toes) does not help at all.

The dirt began and I was passing some folks who had passed me back, so that was good.  I just had to really minimize any stopped time and go, go, go.  But even with a very short time at aid station one, I was seeing my time slip away.  I was getting concerned.  The clouds rolled in and the wind came up and the temps fell.  I stopped to slip on arm and leg warmers and lost some minutes, but losing critical body heat would be bad too.  Then my cages rattled loose and I did not want to lose my bottles, so I was forced to stop and tighten them.  More time lost.

But what surprised me was how, after attending to the cage deal, my legs were showing signs of early cramping, something that has plagued me for years, but not recently with a well sorted nutrition plan.  That was not good.  And it had me wondering that even if I made the time cut, could I, or should I, press on? 

Miles and minutes went by and the Garmin was not making me feel better. I was running out of time and I simply could not go any faster.  I was just at a loss to do anything about it, and I was struck with this incredulous realization that history was repeating itself. When I came across the wife and dog, maybe 2 miles out from the second aid station, it was 10:56 AM.  I was done and I knew it.  I rode on, preparing to surrender my timing chip, and was in a pretty dark place.  How could I miss this again?  What could I have done differently? Thoughts came to my mind like "You have no business being here."  "Too old and slow."
I pedaled on with the consolation that even if I made this by some miracle, it might have been foolish to continue with my legs being the way they were.  That thought was of little help.  On the other hand, I was pretty sure I could have recovered in the descent and the road section to follow and even if I crumbled on the Col 'd Crush, I could walk or surrender the fight with some honor, knowing I made it one step farther than last year.  When I rolled up to the check point I looked at my watch and saw that I was almost precisely four minutes past the time limit, just exactly what I missed by last year.  How comically ironic…better bike (maybe)…better plan (maybe)…same result.  I had to laugh.  Other riders were coming up behind me and finding their race over as well, many of them seemingly stunned by the time cut off. Yep…sucks, huh?  Welcome to my slow, slow, slow world.  And I thought to myself that I will never do this silly thing again.

After a volunteer surgically removed my timing chip from my number plate with a pocket knife, I asked if he could remove my broken heart while he was at it.  Just joking, pal. I already had spit out my lungs along the way, so there would have been plenty of room for him to work. I walked my bike over to the aid table and grabbed some water.  Along the way, well meaning folks were yelling "good job" and "you did awesome".  Well, not really.  Awesome usually gets you past the cut off time in a race.  I was four minutes less than awesome.  I was in no hurry now, so I ate a bit, mixed up some energy drink, and hung out for a few minutes, talking to other shell shocked victims of the sands of time. 

This time I decided not to ride up to the finish line like in 2014, but instead I flipped around and headed back down the course to catch up with the wife and dog so we could hang together and then drive up to the finish area for food and festivities.  I did so with a mixed bag of emotions; relief, angst, frustration, wonderment, resolution, confusion and no little amount of bummed-out-ness.  Along the way I felt the life returning into my legs and looked at the amazing beauty around me, something I had not appreciated on the way up with my tongue stuck to my teeth and my sweat dripping onto my top tube like a melting block of salt.  

My mood brightened as the mountains yielded their elevation to me, and down, down I sped till I met up with the family.  Over a tuna fish and cranberry sandwich, shared three ways of course (the dog), and tasting like the most delicious thing I could ever remember eating, I looked at the lake in these pictures and thought how beautiful this place is.  How terribly, terribly hard and frustrating and difficult and beautiful.
And I was already working on a new plan for next year.

Yeah, not bad on the eyes, this Utah.
The registration area blends with the town festivities.

It's a real, honest to goodness pie eating contest.

Cannondale Slate with 45mm-ish 650b slicks
Where it all ended for me.  It was pretty cold too.
The last 1/2 mile of pavement may be the cruelest part of the race.

A rider nears the finish line I have yet to see with a bike under me.  Next year!

1 comment:

Mark said...

I feel your pain.

2014, I made the cutoff by three minutes, looked down the Col d'Crush, and did not go. Had I gone, I'd probably STILL be climbing back out. Rode straight up to Eagle Point, and at 10,000 feet I did not do that very fast.

2015, I missed the cutoff by 30 minutes.

As a SoCal flatlander from Mickey Mouse's backyard, it's next to impossible to prepare for the altitude. Better luck next year!!