Monday, June 22, 2009

The Best Worst Race – High Uintas Classic 2009

Note: This post is a pure race report. Excepting the first-hand account of stage 1 hypothermia, there’s no science in this post. There are also no photos- for reasons that will be obvious- and- except for maps and elevation chart- no graphics, simply due to time and a desire to get the story down while still fresh in my mind. (And frankly, the story isn’t that funny or “light.”) If bike racing’s not your thing, this might be a good one to skip. But you’re a racer or a cyclist with an interest in racing, I’ve got a hell of a story.


As frequent readers know, I hate the rain. Know what I hate more than rain? Biking in the rain. Know what I hate even more than biking in the rain? Racing in the rain. Racing down a slick road at 30-50MPH on a skinny-tired bicycle while soaked through to the skin, blinded by rain-fogged glasses, shivering uncontrollably and jostling for position in a race-pack has got to be the most miserable cycling experience imaginable.

This is my 3rd year racing, and so far I’ve been lucky. I’ve never crashed, mechanical’d, or even flatted yet in a race. And notwithstanding a few light spotty showers, I’ve never had to race in the rain. So here’s a post about an 79 mile race, 60 miles of which I raced in the pouring, steady, uninterrupted rain.

All About The High Uintas Classic

My favorite road race is the High Uintas Classic. Starting in Kamas, UT and finishing 79 miles later in Evanston, WY, it follows the Mirror Lake Highway up over 10,700 feet over Bald Mountain Pass, then through a series of rolling, forested ~10K minor summits, then down, down, down, down into Wyoming and onto the wide open, windy high plains for the final 35 miles to the finish. The race has everything: the toughest, most brutal, sustained, high-altitude climb around, outstanding scenery, thrilling 50 MPH+ descents, and tough windy flats that make strategy and teamwork crucial.Elevation Chart In 2007 I raced it for the first time (as a Cat5.) On the killer climb, at around 10,000 feet, I remember thinking, “Oh my god. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” But I made it up, regrouped with a few other racers who’d been similarly dropped from the lead pack, and finished a respectable 8th.

In 2008 I raced it again, my first race as a Cat4. On the killer climb, right around 10,000 feet, I thought, “Oh my god. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Then I immediately though, “Wait a minute. That’s exactly what I thought right here last year! How did I forget this race was so awful?” I crested Bald Mountain in the 2nd pack, about 12-14 strong, and together we chased a lead breakaway pack of 5. Over the next 45 miles we caught them one by one, picking off the last soloist a mere 5 miles from the finish. I finished- again – 8th.

This year I signed up for High Uintas again, because although it is a tough, agonizing race, it’s also arguably the best race around. And I figured that after 2 prior years, I knew what I was getting into. I wanted to do well, not only because Awesome Wife and the Trifecta would be at the finish line*, but because I’d been doing some math lately, and though I wasn’t (and am still not) sure, my rough figures told me that if I finished 5th place or better, I’d have enough points for a Cat3 upgrade.

*We kill 2 birds with one stone. Awesome Wife makes a stop at one of the discount Wyoming liquor stores. If you’re a drinker living in Utah, you get this.

As popular as this race is with climbers, it is wildly unpopular with racers who dislike climbing, and as such I had just 2 Cat4 teammates racing with me, only one of whom- let’s call him “Will”- climbs at around my level. The starting pack included larger contingents from several other teams, including Cole Sport, SkiUtah and Skull Candy (probably the best organized Cat4 team in Utah this year) and Will and I started out feeling a bit apprehensive and ”out-gunned.”

The forecast called for afternoon showers, and with a start time of 10:40, I was optimistic that we could maybe zip through a quick shower or 2 without getting drenched. I wore a jersey, shorts, wind-vest and arm warmers. At the last minute I switched to wool socks.

The first hour of High Uintas involves a series of rolling gentle climbs in a large pack. This part involves repeated early attacks, and the challenge here is to stay with the lead pack while expending the minimum possible effort. For Will and me, working largely solo, this meant careful jockeying and maneuvering to try and stay about 1/3 of the way back. During this time, we were sprinkled with intermittent rainshowers, but our feet, hands and bodies remained largely dry. As we approached the “real climb” we worked our way up closer to the front, and I was warm enough to push down my arm warmers.

At close to 9,000 feet and mile 23 the “real” climb began, and the slow agony of gradual pack break-up ensued. We soon were down to a smaller group of about 15, at which point the rain kicked in- strong, hard and steady. “Well,” I thought, “it’s just another shower; it’ll probably break after the summit…”

At mile 26 or so we fractured again to a lead group of 5, climbing in a cold, steady rain. At this point I felt the wetness soak through to my fingers and feet. But soon we were 4. The leader, “Tyler” of the Skull Candy team- whom I shall henceforth refer to as “Tyler1”- was off the front, climbing solo like a bat out of hell. None of the rest of us climb-leaders could hold the pace. About a ½ mile from the summit, we started to break-up again; a Cole Sport rider and Will were starting to gap me. But I held barely till the summit and stood up to catch them up top. I looked back. The last of the climb-leaders, a Team Wright rider- whom I shall refer to as Tyler2 (since we shall see him again) had fallen way off, at least a couple hundred meters.

Tangent: I don’t know what Tyler1 was thinking. I’ve raced with him several times*, and he’s a great, smart racer. But soloing to the top of Bald Mountain by any more than a 20M lead (for the KOM* time bonus) is pointless. It’s 50+ miles from Bald Mountain to Evanston- an impossible distance to solo against any kind of motivated chase group.

*Tyler1, Cole Sport and I duked it out toward the finish at East Canyon back in April, which I covered in this post.

**King of the Mountain. A minor time bonus is awarded to the first racer in each category to summit.

That left 3 of us- Cole Sport, Will and me. The rain was now a steady downpour, with no sign of a break ahead, and with 4-6 foot snow banks lining the road, we were facing a fast, long descent ahead with multiple switchbacks. We quickly conferred and reached one of those mid-race “pacts”: we’d keep the speed down through the switchbacks ahead, and then try to work together to catch Tyler1 and maintain our break from the rest of the pack.

Status Check: Plan vs. Execution

At this point, I’d have given Will and me about a “B” for execution. Our original plan was to stick with the lead pack to the top, chasing any break of 5 or more racers. The key to this race is to wind up at the summit as part of a lead pack of 6-8 racers: any more and it’s to hard to sprint-place at the finish; any fewer and you’re likely to get caught by a larger chase group down on the high plains below. We were 3, though optimistic of catching Tyler1 and making 4. Less than optimal, but still possible.

Map bottom Descent of Terror #1

The descent was immediately terrifying. The rain was falling fast and hard enough that up to ¼” of water was on the road. The rainfall was blinding, and we were soon soaked through to the skin. Will was the first to complain of finger numbness; I looked over and saw he’d gone with fingerless gloves- a mistake, to be sure. Cole Sport encouraged him with finger-twirling exercises. And our brakes were reduced to maybe a 1/3 of their normal stopping power. Each switchback, even at our slower speed, was another nerve-wracking round of Roulette Of Compromised Friction- slick skinny tires lean-angled on water-covered pavement, glazed break- pads pressing against soaked aluminum rims.

The first descent ended, but we were still rolling along at 20-25 MPH in a driving rain at 45F. Suddenly, Tyler2 was back. To think of the pace he solo’d that descent to catch us filled me with both shock and respect; this guy was driven.

We’d picked up water bottles from the hand-ups at the 1st feed zone, but at the second feed we blew by without slowing. All of us were too cold to drink much. Shortly after, we caught Tyler1, and he jumped in with us. We were now 5, but we were in trouble. Right as we approached the 2nd summit, at 10,400 ft, both Will and I noticed we could barely shift. Will complained of tingling, but my feeling was stranger: my hands weren’t “cold”, but they were sluggish, almost partially paralyzed. Changing hand-positions on the bars, shifting or braking required slow, intense concentration, and were accomplished as if in slow motion. I began to worry.

Descent of Terror #2

After the final summit, the course follows a long, fast descent over several miles down onto the rolling plains. Usually this is my favorite part of the course, ripping past open, sunny, Lodgepole Pine forests. Saturday it was sheer hell. As we descended the rain intensified. I led the descent, pushing the pace, as much out of desire to lose elevation as to maintain our lead. And as we descended, and our speed built up to 45MPH (no shit- you simply cannot believe what a crazy, heinous, terrifying descent this was) I began to shiver, and shiver hard.

Right about here, I thought, “This is it- the Worst Race Ever. If I can just get down off of this mountain, I’ll be OK…”

All About Thermoregulation

Way back last September, I did a post explaining the 2 different forms of thermogenesis in the human body. In that post, I explained that shivering is a “bridge” to non-shivering thermogenesis. Shivering brings the body temperature back up rapidly, at which point non-shivering thermogenesis- powered by brown fat cells- takes over keeping the body warm. Or it doesn’t, and the body descends into stage 2 hypothermia. (I won’t repeat the science here; check out that post if you’re interested.)

Back To The Race

I knew all this as I descended, and I hoped like hell that my shivering would be a “bridge” and not a “plank”, but without quitting, all I could do was hope. At this point my body temperature was probably 96F – 97F, and my shivering quickly becoming uncontrollable. My entire upper body was flexed tight in an attempt to maintain a straight line at 45MPH in the rain. Several times I thought I would lose the line and slide out- it was that bad.

Side note: I wondered at the time if my pack-mates could see me shivering. After the race, without prompting from me, Will remarked how violently I’d been shivering on the descent.

For 10-15 minutes I maintained my death-grip on the bars; if I’d had to shift or brake suddenly, I’m not sure I would’ve pulled it off. In the middle of this, another racer shot past - not one of us- but another Cat4, one we’d left far behind on the climb up Bald Mountain. For a moment I feared he was part of a chase group, but apparently he was alone. He rode like a demon, hammering the descent at a rate none of the rest of us had the courage or power to keep up with. He pulled ahead, and disappeared into the gray rain-haze in the distance.

The white-knuckle descent continued for what seemed like forever. But after a time, like slowly waking from a long dream, 3 thoughts entered my head: First, the forest was thinning and the descent leveling off. Second, I wasn’t cold anymore. I wasn’t warm, but I wasn’t shivering. I had “bridged.” And third, bizarrely, inexplicably, I felt strong. Very strong. I kicked it in and my pack-mates fell in behind.

Side Note: Full hand coordination never returned until after the race. When I pulled out a gel flask for a shot of goo at around mile 60, I had to chuck it, unable to work it back into the jersey pocket…

I pulled for probably close to 20 minutes, like a man possessed. When it finally occurred to me that I should back off and get a rotation going, I sat up and looked around. Cole Sport was gone; it was 4 of us- me, Will, Tyler1 and Tyler2.

We rotated in a loose double pace-line for maybe the next 40(?) minutes. Our rotations were wide and sloppy, as we avoided each other’s rooster-tails of rainwater, and none of us were sure of our brakes. Usually double pace-lines hold tight and close to the shoulder, but today, in a reckless, half-crazed combination of desperation, determination and bravado, the 4 of us used the whole lane. After a time I noticed Tyler1 was letting a gap open in his rotations, and then he stopped rotating altogether. I fell back next to him. “Tyler, how you doing man?” I asked. “I’m so cold…” he said with a terrible desperation. “Hang in there brother, just hang with us, we’ll get you to the finish!” I yelled. Tyler1 is a competitor, a tough competitor who’s beat me multiple times, but he’s a good guy, and if I were in his SIDIs I’d hate to be shivering, pedaling alone the last 20 miles.

Tangent: During a race, racers often address each other as “brother.” I don’t know why this is, or if it’s only a Utah thing, but you only do it late in the race, after the pack has thinned and you’re working with a few other racers. My first year in racing I resisted using the appellation*, but now do so fairly often, primarily with teammates, but often with a non-teammate-pack-mate in the latter half of a long race as well. And certainly, late in a long, tough race, there is a certain measure of respect, and even “brotherhood”, between near-equals in a tough contest.

*In fact I used to be a bit testy about it. I was like: “I already have a ‘brother’, his name is “Phil”, and he lives in New York…” (or California, or Massachusetts, or wherever the hell Phil was living at the time…)

But as the remaining 3 of us resumed rotation, he hung for another few minutes, and then fell off, another one gone in the haze of mist and water. It was down to 3 of us, with 20 miles to go. But we were riding strong, and with only the 1 breakaway ahead, Will and I had a strong chance of finishing in the top 4. We worked hard together, and the miles rolled by. Every time I looked down at my computer, several more had passed: 58, 64, 68… At around 10 miles from the finish, Will started to gap on his rotations. I pulled alongside:

Me: “Will, you OK? You hanging in?”

Will: “I’m hurting…”

Me: “Sit out and hang on the back. I’ll work it with the Team Wright guy.”

I pulled back alongside Tyler2. I told him my teammate needed to recover, and we needed to take turns pulling for a while. This was a tricky negotiation. If he said forget it and went for it, I’d either have to hang back with Will and hope he’d recover enough for a chase, or abandon him 10 miles before the finish. To my relief, Tyler2 nodded, and we went to work.

Map top With about 6-7 miles to go, Will jumped back into rotation. On a slight incline, we passed a loose, strung-out series of stragglers from earlier packs riding solo in the shoulder. As I pulled alongside one, I heard Will behind me call out, “Take him, Alex!” Belatedly I realized the straggler was the Cat4 breakaway, the last man between us and the lead. Already standing on the pedals*, I opened it up and blew past, Tyler2 and Will hanging on. For the next ½ mile, the breakaway kept trying to hang onto us. I pulled alongside Tyler2: “Work with me, brother- we need to drop him- but not my teammate…” Tyler2 nodded, and we notched it up just enough to drop the breakaway on the next roller, while keeping Will on our wheel.

*Whenever I stood on the pedals, my feet squished in my water-logged socks…

The 3 of us hung together till about 2 miles till the finish. Finally Will dropped off, and here, at the end, still pouring rain, it was me and Tyler2. We turned to face each other. I called: “Work together to the cones, brother, then we ‘ll gun it out for 1st and 2nd!” One last time, Tyler2 nodded.

At the 1K sign, the course narrowed to a single lane lined with orange cones. Tyler2 and I passed each other repeatedly, first rotating, then each trying to shake the other. Finally at the 200M sign, Tyler2 poured it on, in a sprint I couldn’t match. He pulled away. But I grabbed his slipstream and gave all I had to hold his wheel. I stuck. I closed in, preparing to pass yet again. If I could just hold for a few more seconds, he just might fade, and I could… But then out of nowhere, racing up out of the gray blur of rain, pavement and fog, was a line of blue tape across the wet road, and too late I realized just how fast 200 meters gets eaten up in a 30MPH sprint. Tyler2 took it by a bike-length.

Will pulled up seconds later. We’d finished, we’d made it and we’d taken 2nd and 3rd. Together with Tyler2, we laughed and high-fived and back-slapped each other with the giddy high that comes out of pulling something really great out of a terrible day.

Will, Tyler2 and I all managed to “bridge”. Our non-shivering, brown-fat thermoregulation mechanisms, evolved over hundreds of thousands of years of wandering, foraging and chasing game on the fringes of retreating and advancing ice sheets did their job. Over thousands of generations, untold countless hominids had shivered, fallen and died in the African highlands and on freezing steppes across Eurasia. Each generation, those who didn’t succumb, and who managed to reproduce, passed their thermoregulation genes on to their offspring. Saturday we, their distant descendants, and the recipients of their trials, suffering and ancient genetic legacy, evaded hypothermia and made it to the finish. But most of our fellow racers weren’t so fortunate. DNF*s ranged around 50% in virtually all categories, and out of 45 Cat4 racers who started in Kamas, a sobering 26 DNF*’d. It was the Best Worst Race.

*Race lingo: Did Not Finish. Dozens were taken off the mountain in ambulances and support vehicles.


Byron said...

Great post. When my hypothermia didn't "bridge", I hopped in a stopped support vehicle for 20 min. to try to warm up before going back out and finishing one rider ahead of what felt like dead last in the race. It was an epic adventure.

Anonymous said...

Great write up. Nothing like a little rain and cold induced epic. Congrats.

KanyonKris said...

Wow. I mean it, wow. That's a good race story and I'm glad you shared it. Riveting. A part of me wishes I'd done that race, but a larger part feels I dodged a bullet.

Kevin Vigor said...

Great story, man. I'm not a bit sorry that I got up, looked at the weather forecast, and decided coaching kiddie soccer was going to be more fun than racing.

(I got caught in a blizzard at the top of Bald Mountain in, maybe, 2004? I remember that brutal descent clearly. Screaming terror and uncontrollable shivering. My buddy was wearing my spare sandwich baggies for socks. I ended up taking 2nd place in the citizen womans category, which would have been pretty cool if I were a woman...)

Ski Bike Junkie said...

Nice work. So did you get the points for the Cat. 3 upgrade, or still figuring that out? I was hoping for at least one "overlap" race before you moved up.

I don't envy you that cold descent. I've been there, and I'd have likely been among the DNF, because I never want to go through it again.

Watcher said...

Byron- What you did was tougher than my ordeal. Had I gotten in a nice warm car up there, no way would I have gotten back out. I’m impressed.

Kevin- Oh hey if we’re gonna start counting what-if categories, in an alternate universe I am so totally the Women’s-Citizens-Masters-65+ state champion…

SBJ- I *think* so, and plan to submit the request this week, but the upgrade points algorithm is just cryptic enough that I’ll hold off saying so till I hear back. Honestly I have mixed feelings: I have great teammates in the 3’s I’d really like to work with, but I’ll be strictly average-joe up there. It’s been fun being a contender. On the other hand, if I’m still a 4 by Porcupine Hill Climb, I just know Tyler1 and Cole Sport will kick my ass…

BTW, I actually thought of you during the race. During the second shivering, barely-in-control descent, I thought, “Man, that SBJ guy sure picked the right race to skip…”

Art said...

I didn't "bridge" either, full on Stage 2. Chipped a tooth shivering. Good work man, that was a race for the hard men for sure.

Ski Bike Junkie said...

In hindsight, I'm glad to have skipped it. I did Hell of the North and Antelope Island, both of which were pretty much miserable from a weather standpoint. I think this one takes it, though.

This post and my ride with Elden on Friday got me thinking--I've lost a bit of weight since winter and have noticed that I've also become more sensitive to the cold on descents. I know about brown fat and whale blubber. But does plain old "fat" fat help keep me warm? Because if it does, I miss it going downhill.

Pip said...

Great post, crazy race. There's no way I could have gone anywhere near the start line in conditions like that. I would have been hypothermic within the first 20 minutes! I wish I had the nerve to barrel down a long descent the way you describe doing, especially with all that water around!

Watcher said...

SBJ- quick answer = Yes, extra white (“regular”) fat helps keep you warm as well. It’s like wearing a jacket- not (significantly) metabolically active, but certainly insulative. But it’s a heavy jacket, and takes a long time (and much discipline) to “disrobe.” If you go for a tough hike or ride with someone who’s seriously overweight, it’s pretty obvious just how hot (not just tired) they get.

Pip- it honestly didn’t look *that* bad at the start. If it had, no way would I have started (I’m actually a pretty big chicken when it comes to weather…)

Anonymous said...

We met at the start line. I went with the Masters. Got it handed to me. You guys went by going hard about two miles below the pass. Thanks for the shout. It was enough for me to have finished, and very cool to read you guys were still racing all the way to the end.


msj09027 said...

Great post! As far as the brother thing, it is usually appropriate for guys to use that when undergoing an ordeal or share a common bond. IE Band of Brothers, fraternity brother, brothers in arms, (which I guess would be the same as Band of Brothers)

This is my first comment but I am a regular reader.
Thanks for the blog...

mike in fremont, ca

Watcher said...

MFT- Nice job making it to the finish; glad to hear another teammate persevered. And like I was telling you in the parking area- those 45-Masters are some tough, *mean* SOB's!

Mike- Thanks for the comment (and the "brother" perspective!)

Unknown said...

Thanks for the great post, Alex. It was interesting to hear the story from another rider. That was the coldest I have ever been. Never want to do it again, but it was all worth it in the end. Good luck in the 3's, hopefully I will be there soon.

Tyler2 - Team Wright.

Unknown said...

That was a great post. It was interesting to hear the story from a fellow rider. That was by far the coldest I have ever been! I don't ever want to experience that pain again, but it was all worth it in the end. Good luck in the Cat 3's, hopefully I'll be there soon.

Tyler2 - Team Wright

Watcher said...

Tyler2- Glad you came across my blog. It was great working with you; you rode an outstanding race and earned a well-deserved win. Great job, and I look forward to racing with you again soon in the 3's.