Riding from the Ghosts of Palmer Park - 24 Hrs of COS

Like everyone else toeing the line for the 2012 24 Hours of Colorado Springs, Nick and I were hoping for a win and to be able to pull on a national champions jersey at the end of the race. But we had some very stiff competition and knew starting the race it would be a long shot to be able to win. Races aren't won on paper, however, so we still gave it everything we had. All it takes is a mechanical or light failure or just plain bonking to turn a 24 hour race upside down. Conceding before the race starts isn't how Nick and I work, so we decided to just stay with our plan, ride our own race for 24 hours and let the podium take shape at noon the next day. If we were smart and lucky, we might have a good chance. If not, then we would continue racing hard for the next step on the podium. Our race ended up being between second and third in the Co-Ed Duo and for the third place overall duo.

Sometimes, being the "home team" isn't as much an advantage as people think. Sure, we had access to the 24 hour course for practice and prep - but Palmer Park isn't a place to go to ride fast. I think we only managed one lap even close to what the true race pace for 24 hours would be. And there's a huge difference between riding on those trails at a hiker friendly pace and racing. There was also a lot of stuff going on the day before and morning of the race. Instead of just being able to relax at the turtle and people watch, we almost always had company - and it seemed like we knew everyone at the race! (Which means there's lots of photos for this race report as well - thanks everyone for letting me use the pics you took.) That almost doomed our event from the start. I was talking with some friends, waiting for the racers to assemble for the La Mans start - Larry was calling the final staging. For some reason, I walked back into the camper. Still not sure what I was looking for, but I saw Nick's camelbak still hanging on the hanger near the door. I knew he was planning on using it, especially for that first lap. I grabbed it and sprinted over to the start line where Nick was waiting. Moments from the start... One disaster averted!

Nick leading out eventual Solo Men's winner Cameron Chambers.
Photo - Tim Bergsten
Now just to survive the start lap and see how the racing would shake out for the next 24 hours. Nick had a good run and was out on the bike near the front of the field. There was a good train of riders behind him, including Cam - the eventual Solo Men's champion. But he was also being trailed by Bill Clinesmith - the guy on the third co-ed duo team. Jonathan Davis seemed to have a slower run, but he was motoring up the road, passing everyone on the outside. Watching Davis ride, I doubted Nick would be in the front of the class for much longer. How would things look in an hour when the women would take to the rocks of Palmer Park for our first lap?

The answer was clear. Sonya Looney, Karen Borgstedt and I all gathered at the transition area about the same time. It was all game faces and ready to ride. The niceties of the morning had been forgotten as we waited for our men to arrive. As I had anticipated, Davis came blazing through in 1:00:23 - one of the first riders in. Sonya and Jon would claim the lead in the first two laps and never look back for the rest of the day. The race would be for second. Bill came in next in 1:03:26, sending Karen off into the twisting course. The race was on - with 23 hours left to ride. Nick was only a minute back, having paced him self to survive not just the first lap, but the next 9 as well. I started my first lap, hoping to quickly catch Karen and get some time on them.
Catching some air while riding through pit row
Photo - David Pico, Peak Region Cyclist
One of the issues I've had in 24 hour racing has been starting too hard, then fading badly at the end. At Old Pueblo this year, I started out with a 1:11 lap time - only to suffer miserably on my last three laps, slowing all the way to a 1:32. With this being such an important race, I didn't want to see that happen again. I'd had better luck at Enchanted Forest and Sage with the pacing, but they weren't technical courses. It was much easier to monitor my effort level and keep it reasonable on those first few laps. Not here. If I didn't use all the power where I needed it, I wouldn't clean the rock gardens or technical sections. As a result, I was seeing a heart rate that belonged more in a cross country race then a 24 hour race. But I felt good and was riding well. Whether or not I would suffer later for riding everything on the first few laps, I would find that out at 2:00 am. For now, it was time to ride hard and ride smooth. Halfway through the lap and I got my first sight of Karen. She was riding well  - it took me til the top of the Grandview climb to close down the gap. After I passed her, she jumped on my wheel - it would be a race for sure. I beat her into transition and sent Nick out for his next lap.

Palmer Park - if you look at all the trail maps and literature about the park, there's something for everyone - from big drops that I'll never ride to easy, wide open double track trails. Designing a course that most everyone could ride for 24 hours in Palmer Park is an unenviable task. How to incorporate some of the classic features of the park and still prevent carnage? Overall, Tim's team did a really good job. No course is going to make everyone happy - Nick wanted more of Templeton while some people would rather have ridden double track up on Yucca Flats. It was truly the hardest course I've ridden for a 24 hour race. There was no time to slack off, no time to mentally tune out for a few minutes. From the start, we took the easy GreenCrest trail out past the dog run to the main road. A short and steep blacktop climb to warm up with, then onto singletrack and rocks. A few step ups, then a u-turn and we descended on a new section of trail, along the eastern edge of the park. A tight left off the dirt road and we climbed back to the blacktop. Still pretty easy - but with some eroded areas and roots. Onto Palmer Point trail - one of my favorite trails. Nothing really hard, but enough to keep you awake with rocks, roots and close trees as the trail twisted along. But Palmer Point leads to Little Moab - and while we took the easier route, we still had the narrow trail sandwiched between rock slabs and steep drops before the right hand switchback descending to the parking lot. It's not an easy switchback with an eroded grove down the center and a huge rock blocking the right side. Up and over the base of Little Moab, then another chance to breath on the road down to Lazy Land. A "long" climb back up to the top of the mesa awaited. Once on the Mesa, we would be on and off one of the most technical trails in the park for the next few mile. Templeton trail - a few easy but twisting chunks just to make sure we were paying attention then just before the aid station, the drop onto Templeton proper. Things got interesting there, with two foot rock steps, a few staircase climbs and steep drops and lots and lots of shorter rocks to maneuver around or over. Back onto road after that for the longest section of breathing time before the descent off the mesa. Only a minute or so of riding, with some pretty good consequences for taking the wrong lines. Another relatively easy section of single track on Palmer Point trail as we rode along Austin Bluffs and some very expensive houses, around the north west corner of the park to the stables. From there, the second longest climb as the trail returned to mesa top, but this time on the south mesa. Only a few rock gardens and tricky sections on Grandview trail as we paralleled the road all the way out to the overlook. Some blacktop road, and the final section of single track on Kinnickinnick trail - but with some punchy, rocky climbs and a really fun winding descent. A short jaunt upward on road, then the speedy descent into pit row and back to the finish.
A short chat before sending Nick out onto the course
Photo - David Pico, Peak Region Cyclist
As usual, we were running lean - Matt was going to stop by later in the day to help for a little, but otherwise, it was just me and Nick - operating our two rider racing show out of the turtle. I had the stop watch - started at the start of the race - running and we were writing our lap times out on the plan. We were also leaving notes on the white board. Nothing fancy, just "feeling good, another 1:12" or "cramping issues, 1:10" But it was the best way of communication between the two of us for the next 24 hours. Time to get settled into the routine - clean bike, change and get clean, refill camelbak and start eating and drinking. This time I was having more issues then normal with eating - my stomach just wasn't settled to anything. Every lap, I managed to get something in, either soup, smoked salmon, rice and milk or just junk food. It would take till my fourth lap before I started settling down and feeling comfortable eating. Luckily, I'd spent most of Friday and Saturday morning nibbling so the tank was topped off. And it wasn't super hot out either, so not drinking as much wasn't as bad either.

Nick out on the first lap
Photo - David Pico, Peak Region Cyclist
We were doing well, keeping our pace steady. But we weren't getting much of a gap on Bill and Karen. I had caught her on my first lap, but she'd hung close. Nick had opened the time out a minute or two on his second lap, but Karen actually rode her second lap faster then me and gained some of that time back. Four laps into the race, and we were only separated by two minutes. But it was too soon in the day to really start worrying. Nick and I were riding our own pace - focusing on staying as consistent as we could. Nick did really well with that - his first three lap were all with in two minutes of each other. I was also staying pretty steady - with just under three minutes spread between my first three laps. And as I finished my third lap - the sixth lap of the race, we started stretching the elastic. With darkness fast approaching, we had some breathing space to third.

When I finished my third lap, it was time to get ready for night. I'd beaten the darkness in on that lap, bringing the Diablo light with me, but not needing it. Nick had headed out into fading light and sunset. I'd already decided that I was going to swap bikes at night - riding my Fate (29" HT) in the daylight and the Era (26" FS) at night. I wanted to comfort of the full squish at night, as well as the ability to make a few mistakes and get away with it. There were visitors at the Turtle when I arrived - Coach Adam, Kalan and Pua - but I needed to focus. Garmin to Era, mount Toro, plug in remote switch... I love how easy the Exposure Lights are - there really is nothing to fuss with and getting ready to run the night laps takes minutes. Then all the normal between lap activities. I'm sure I seemed a little short and rude, but I needed to get things done. Then it was time to sit down and socialize, while trying to eat something. Even then, it was hard to focus on the conversation.

The entertainment of 24 hour races is always unexpected. Ascent Cycling sponsored the aid station and went with a Hawaiian theme. I think most of the shop was out there for the entire race! And they were able to do trail side repairs for racers - including a new brake line for one unlucky soul. Very nice to see and a nice perk for the race. I don't know of many 24 hour races that have that kind of help on course. I also saw two Mexican wrestlers - trying to hand out shots of something and dancing. Startled me at first, but had to laugh afterwards. Those wrestlers made some distance around course - Nick had seen them the lap before in a different place and would see them his next lap further down the track. I heard rumors that there were chickens on course, but never saw them. I aways seem to miss the chickens. And then there was Ralph.

Ralph - working on his bike....
Photo - Justine Gehrett
Ahh, Ralph. I saw him on my first lap, standing just off Kinnickinnick on one of the hill. His back was facing out and he was kinda leaning away from his bike. At first, I assumed it was just some dude taking a pee - just about the right stance for that. But there weren't any other riders wearing Ascent clothes in the race. I meant to warn Nick when I finished, but he was gone two quickly. On my second lap, Ralph was now on Grandview trail. This time, his bike was upside down, like he was fixing a flat. Well, the mechanical took a long time to fix, because he was in the same spot on my next lap. Man, what a dummy. Walking in would have taken less time! Oh, yeah - Ralph was a dummy all right. The same photographers mannequin from 24 Hours in the Sage, this time dressed up like a rider, not a spectator. And apparently, a lot of racers tried to offer help to poor Ralph, including Nick - several times! I thought it was hilarious - but I also realized right away that it was just a dummy.

My first night lap went well. I handled the twistyness and rocks of the course with ease under the full moon and the beams of my Exposure lights. Four laps done - eight laps for the team and we were only 5 minutes off our plan. And admittedly aggressive plan that we weren't sure we'd be able to do when I'd written it up. But that's part of the fun of racing - testing ourselves. Nick was also riding really consistently at that point as well, only a minute or two off every lap time. As I set off for my fifth lap, I was hoping to maintain my steady pace. The fifth lap - my hump lap. According to the plan, I was riding nine laps to Nick's 10 or 11. After finishing that lap, I would be counting down to sunrise and finishing up the race. Every race has to have a stupid lap though - and this was no exception. Oh lord, I was riding like an idiot that lap - missed the first little rock obstacle, hit a tree with my handlebars and went flying, had a brain freeze in Little Moab and walked some of it. Spaced out on the climb to the top of the mesa and forgot to shift, flubbed up the first half of Templeton trail. On the decent to lazy land, I did a really nice nose wheelie - completely unplanned - but was able to pull out of it without going end over end. A few more just plain dumb mistakes and I was back to transition. Amazingly, even with all the goof-ups, I still turned a pretty fast lap.

Night riding at Palmer Park was weird for this race. There was so much moisture in the air from the rain storms earlier in the week that every thing was wet. Mist and fog rose up from the ground and trees like specters and ghosts. The beams of our lights were muted by the dampness in the air. It was a lot of fun because the trail was in great shape, but just a strange feeling. I never really felt alone on the trail, despite the emptiness around me. I also really liked the feeling of isolation in the middle of the city - we were riding in a darkened world while the city slept around us. I could see the lights of other racers scattered around the course and the Accent Cycling Aide station never slept. Patrick at least was up all night, ready to help with repairs and offer encouragement.

Riding into the sunrise
Photo - Christan Murdock, The Gazette
We were still rocking - not yet lapped by Davis/Looney and an unknown distance ahead of Bill and Karen. I was anticipating that Davis would catch me on our 12th lap, their 13th lap. And right on schedule, at the top of the Grandview climb, the tall rider in Trek Store Boulder gear came up behind me. A smooth, easy pass and we were officially lapped. I tried to keep his lights in sight, figuring that if I came in close behind, Nick might catch Sonya and we could hold off the lapping for another go around. It was close. Davis and I were both waiting at transition. I joked that he might have to catch me again depending on if Nick beat Sonya in. A mark of good racer - Davis was more worried about whether he'd passed me nice then who would come in first! Sonya did beat Nick in, sending Davis off into the darkness. But it was only by 30 seconds. Enough that we wouldn't see them again. Especially considering that was my slowest lap. I was getting tired, had no energy to push up the punchy climbs. I would turn in a 1:26 for that lap and immediately started freaking out about a coming implosion. Four minutes slower then my last two laps. Since we didn't know where Bill and Karen were, we couldn't afford any slower laps from me. Nick was also getting tired. I'm not sure what happened, but his 8th lap (our 15th lap) was very slow. I was starting to get worried as I waited in the transition. He's not normally that off on his lap projection and I could only think he was hurt or had a mechanical somewhere. But no, just tired and bonking a little.

Checking the results after the sunrise lap
Photo - David Pico - Peak Region Cyclist
Out onto 16 - with the sun peeking above the clouds and bringing light back to the world. Watching the light streaming across the sky, bathing Pikes Peak in pinks and golds was inspiring. One of the prettiest sunrise laps I've had this year! I was still tired, but was riding smoother. The sun and the warmth helped to speed me along. It also helped that I anticipated just one more lap. We would only get 19 laps in and Nick would be finishing. I had a solid ride until the drop off the blacktop onto Kinnickinnick. Then a tree I'd passed a bunch of times jumped out and grabbed my handle bars. I went flying! Took a minute to get my bearing and regain  my composure to finish my lap. Sporting the trail makeup on my elbow and shorts, I handed off to Nick. One more lap - time to check the results and see where we were. Solidly in second.

One more lap. At least that's what I thought. Nick left me a note saying he was getting really tired and it was going to be close. I made coffee, got some food and settled down to rest for a little. The knowledge that this would be my last lap buoyed my spirits. I had to make it a fast one though, or we would be pushing the noon cut-off a little too close. Nick came cruising in, back down to his fast laps times. I didn't really register his comment at first - "We've got it, we don't need 19. Race, but ride smart." All I knew was I had to ride hard to give him the cushion he needed to finish our last lap. I'd written I'd ride about a 1:23 on the board, but the minute I started riding, I knew it was going to be faster. I bolted through solo row and attacked the first climb like it was my first lap. At my first time check, I was a minute faster then my previous lap. Okay, lets keep it going, I told myself. This is it, last time through this section. Every rock garden, every switch back and climb, I kept repeating - last time, last time. At my second time check, I'd gained three minutes. Kept pushing the pace, smooth through Yucca Flats and Templeton - one of my best runs yet on that section. On the open road, I felt like I was flying. A really steady drop to Lazy Land, and I was up four minutes. Nick would have plenty of time left for our 19th lap. Knowing that the Grandview climb was really the last big climb of the race, I really attacked, trying to keep my momentum up. Out at the overlook and I had reeled in five minutes. It was looking like this would be a sub 1:20 lap - faster then I'd told Nick, but a good return at the end of the day. I was careful and smooth in the last section of single track - now was not the time to make silly mistakes. Then finally, the turn for home and the pits. I was so focused on getting back to transition that I speed right by the camper - not really noticing that Nick was still in the chair. He hollered at me and I turned around, a little surprised he wasn't waiting for me. While he was kitted up, ready to go, he didn't feel like he could ride another lap fast enough to finish before noon. His left knee was really hurting and he was feeling very beat up. I shrugged - his choice - if he didn't feel up to it, I wasn't going to make him. Besides, we really didn't have that much time at all. An hour twenty, maybe.
One more lap to go - riding hard.
Photo - Rob Lucas - UltraRob

I pedaled towards transition, with Nick following to return our chips and call it a day. But as I rolled through, Larry started talking - "1:28 left of racing - here comes Tracy Thelen. Will Nick go out for another lap?" I don't know what got into me (besides pride) - but I knew I could ride another lap. I had more time then my slowest lap left to finish. Nick was out of ear shot behind the announcers stand. I looked at one of our friends, looked at my watch, and bolted. I wanted that 19th lap. I wanted to have raced until the end and not have given up. Like I said, pride. I hadn't thought things through at all. I had some water left in my camelbak and knew I could get more at the aid station. But I needed to ride the lap of my life to get in before the noon deadline. This was truly the last lap of the race. Very few riders would choose to follow me out onto the course. I attacked the first climb like I was racing in the Sand Creek races and needed to get the whole shot for single track. Onto dirt and I kept the tempo high and the speed fast. One silly mistake could doom the entire effort. I kept my attention fixed firmly on the trail - flowing with the lines and riding smart. After the Little Moab drop, I was riding even faster then the lap before. I needed to keep that pressure on and not blow up at the end. Nick met me on the road with a water bottle. I fumbled the hand off, but couldn't slow down. At the next section of road, we made the exchange. Now I had enough water to finish the lap. I left Nick to ride back to camp as I finished the section of Templeton before the aid station. Still ahead of my time from the prior lap. On the circuit around the north west corner, I was big-ringing the punchy climbs, riding as hard as I could. Up Grandview climb, then the traverse to the overlook. I knew I was going to make it. My time at the Overlook was something I hadn't seen since Saturday afternoon. I would have plenty of time.

Plenty of time if you like cutting things close. I rolled through the finish line at 11:50. I'd ridden one of my fastest lap times of the race and beat the cut off by ten minutes. Nick and I had our 19 laps and we'd managed to beat the second place two man team. The minute I crossed the line, the burst of energy faded. I was beat up, dead tired and really wanting off my bike! A little disappointed that we hadn't put up more of a battle for the top step on the podium, but happy with the race. Next year is another shot at a stars and stripes! But I'm gonna have a new partner for that race...
My teammate for next year - I don't know who he is, but he's got some awesome cadence!


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