Seeking Sun - 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo, 2014
Our annual winter vacation to Tuscon found a 100 degree temperature swing from one ride to another. Nick rode home from work on the 7th in -17 below zero temperatures, while I bundled up and hit the trainer in the garage. Add in ice and snow and the riding outside was less the stellar. So we were looking forward to some sun and dry trails! 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo more then delivered on the sun and dry trails this year, with the nicest and warmest weather we've seen in seven years. It was a bit of a shock to the system - a 100 degree temperature swing from -17 to 80+ degrees! The nice weather meant for some very fast racing and crowded trails all day and into the night. It was another tight race in the Coed Duo top three again, with only 20 minutes separating the teams at midnight. El Rootsriachi would eventually prevail thanks to the consistency of Tour Divide winner Kurt Refsnider and his partner Kaitlin Boyle. They set a class record of 21 laps, finishing at 1:42:31. Nick and I held onto our favorite position on the second step with 20 laps in 12:38:05. Third place went to Christine Jeffrey and Jon Roberts of AZ, EH?, also with 20 laps at 12:44:19. Team Griggs Ortho riders Sean Riley/Elizabeth Shaner and Joshua Johnson/Tayor Shekell of Beer Rangers rounded out the podium - both teams with 18 laps at 12:24 and 12:29 respectively.
Cat and Mouse
For the second year in a row, the race for second was down to a tie. This time, it was on lap 17, with only hours left in the race. Two laps for the boys and one lap for me and CJ. I knew that CJ would be faster then me on that one lap I also had confident that Nick would have the legs to get me some time. But would it be enough for me to hold off CJ? After much thought and hemming and hawing, I scrubbed clean the Fate. EVO was fun and fast, but I wanted faster. I would take the chance - hoping as I racked my bike for that last lap that I hadn't made a mistake. It would only take one mechanical, one misplaced rock to derail our race. I would have to ride hard, ride smooth and ride smart. CJ and I were waiting together with another XTERRA racer and pro mountain biker - Jenny, making small talk about the race. Jenny was on a four women team and getting ready for her fifth lap; she left before both of us. Both CJ and I were heading out for our tenth laps. But who would be leaving first between the two of us? And who would return first?
Blue, white and yellow with a familiar number 224 came flying into the tent. Yes! I would the hunted for my final lap, like last year. But this time, Nick would once again be following me. It was my job to keep the gap as close as possible, since I really didn't think I'd be able to hold CJ off. Out into the desert I went with one goal on my mind. Ride my bike. On my hardtail again and I kept telling myself "fast is smooth and smooth is fast." Take the smooth and fast line, let the bike flow underneath me. More careful on the Bitches then my prior laps, but still fast. The lines were all loose and treacherous, with sharp rocks littering the road. No issues there and it was onto the next section of trail. I beat my time goal to the corral by several minutes, so I knew I was moving fast. I just needed to keep the tempo up. There was still no sign of CJ as I powered thru the cacti. Had my only jackass encounter of the race as some dude on a corporate team got snotty with me for not getting out of his way. Umm, yeah, lapped riders might need to yield, but I'm not slowing down or eating a facefull of cacti. If it's not safe to pass and you're not willing to help make it happen, you can bloody well wait until I decide it's safe for me to move over. Part of being fast is also know when and how to make passes happen. But I digress. Off of Corral trail and onto the road. I got a good chance to look around and saw no sign of my pursuer. Getting closer. If I could get through Rattlesnake and onto His and Hers, I might have a good chance of staying clear. There was nothing technical on Rattlesnake and that's what worried me. I hit the short steep climb before His and Hers. Still clear. Time to keep the pressure on. I knew the lines and knew the trail and scrubbed every second I could out of the corners in His and Hers. My bike was starting to creak in protest with every pedal stroke. There was no more chances to look around before the final climb. I had to keep moving forward, put the fatigue and pain out of my mind and keep pedaling. I relaxed a little when I hit Highpoint, knowing that if CJ caught me there, she wouldn't gain any time at all. Not with the descent back into town coming up. Success! I topped out alone and got to enjoy the flight along solo row. Nick was waiting for me and looked ecstatic that I was in first. Jon, still waiting for CJ, gave me a high five as I walked out of the tent. I'd done my job. It was up to the boys and the final lap of the race.
Nick was not 100% going into the race. A calf injury had significantly limited his riding and completely curtailed his running. It was bad enough that we'd talked briefly about me going solo! Luckily, he was able to ride without significant pain when we got to AZ. But the injury made it such that he wasn't going to be able to do the run of the La Mans start. So it fell to me. My first time running instead of holding the steed. Armed with Nick's advice about the start, I made my way east on the road. And I kept walking. And kept walking. Wow - this was a long ass run for people in cycling shoes! I was happy I had my Rime shoes and my comfortable camelbak! It was gonna be a nice sprint down to my bike. I wormed my way up to the starting line, keeping a close eye on the line Todd had scratched in the dirt. I wanted to stay there, as close as I could. CJ was also doing the run for her team and seemed a little surprised to me. We were the only women doing the start in the Coed Duo class. It was pretty relaxed at the start, with many racers holding umbrellas to hide from the sun. But as the DrunkCyclist gorilla began amping up the crowd and noon approached, things began changing. Space near the line became guarded and racers sharpened their elbows for the run. Familiar with running races and claiming my space, I found my stance and waited.
|The insanity of the start. Look closely - I'm in the middle of the picture|
Picture from Facebook - don't have credit for it, but thanks!
The shotgun released the chaos of a Le mans start. Prepared for running start, I bolted from the line, elbows out and hands up. There was more pushing and shoving then I'd ever seen as the racers sprinted down the little hill right after the line. I had one guy give me a decent shove and responded with an elbow in return. Another guy wasn't as lucky and lost his balance just ahead of me. I don't know what happened to him, I kept my eyes on the road and a quick turnover in my stride. The field cleared out a little on the small rise, then the long straightaway before the bikes. I was comfortable running and in a decent position. Then it was time to start searching for my husband and my bike. Our little green flag was near hidden among the masses of people, but it still did its job. I was in the top 30 on my bike, much higher up then either Nick or I had anticipated. Now for the road and the first lap. I was getting passed by plenty of men - faster riders but slower runners. Keeping my focus on the road, I drafted from every guy passing me. Up and down the last two Bitches - the scariest trip I've had on that chunk of trail with herds of riders around me. I couldn't just pick my line and ride. I had to be completely aware of everything and be willing to take the alternate line if I needed to. CJ caught me on the last Bitch and passed me on the road. Wearing all black, it was easy to see her in the distance for the rest of that lap. Once we were on the singletrack, it was just like every other lap - just a little more crowded. I held a steady tempo, in with a good group. There was a little back and fourth between climbs and rolling, but I was happy where I was. Much faster then I'd anticipated.
Nick was even happier to see me when I rolled into the transition tent. A much better lap then we'd thought, giving him a better run at the course then if I'd even been five minutes slower. Even so, there was a lot of passing. That was the theme of this years race - that and the heat. Everyone had to deal with the passing. Some people were nicer then others - I did see a few riders pretty much shouldering their way around the course, including some people who should know better. But for the most part, the riders were nice out on course. The fast racers communicated, the slower riders participated in the passes. Given the warmth even at night, the course was crowded the entire 24 hours. There were no laps for either Nick or I that were quiet and a respite from the number of riders. There was also plenty of carnage this year. Every lap, I saw a rider in the ditch or covered in cacti. I even had the medivac helio landing as I rode last on one if my laps! Yes, there is landing pad marked out at the end of the Bitches. I never noticed it before - just a mental note of the windsock. But it's impossible to miss a helicopter landing just yards from the course.
Cat and Mouse
I came into the tent in 7th for Coed Duo, a few minutes behind CJ. Not worried about it yet - not with only one lap of a planned 20 completed. Nick and I knew we'd be behind in the first hours of the race and that patience would be needed. There was plenty of movement in the first six laps, but the top five teams were all within 10 minutes. As usual I looked at the results when I finished, but that was it. Just enough to make sure we were in the hunt. We kept flip flopping with CJ and Jon for third and fourth for many of the early laps. Nick would catch Jon and give me a few minutes advantage to start my lap. Then CJ would pass me back about halfway through. Back and forth, every lap. We were never more then 4 minutes apart for the first 10 hours of the race.
Nick was racing really well. We weren't talking at all, so I didn't know how is calf was holding up. Our lap times were staying very consistant and we were running smoothly. The women on the first and second teams were both slowing, opening the door slightly. I did hear the woman who was on the current second place saying that they were fighting for first - but with only six laps done, it was definitely too early to talk about podiums. Night was just beginning and that's when the racing gets interesting.
With me doing the odd laps and Nick doing the even laps, I was confused all race. Every time someone asked me how many laps I'd done and how many laps our team had done, I had to think about it. And then there was the sun. I'm so used to being second, getting the sunset lap, sunrise lap and the finish lap. Not this year. I could see the sun falling low in the horizon but didn't get treated to the brilliant sunset. Nick was lucky - the clouds crafting the sunset also kept the sun out of his eyes in that lap. As for sunrise, again Nick got lucky. Another group of clouds treated the riders to both a gorgeous sunrise and prevented the sun from blinding riders heading east.
A full moon brought brilliance to the desert, the cacti casting shadows across the single track. Unlike prior years where the setting sun meant sinking temperatures, not this year. This year, I was lucky if I needed the vest I always wore. Knee warmers, arm warmers and a vest - nothing more. There was no wind and it was perfectly mild out. Nick and I didn't really need the huge, hooded puffy coat we'd bought before the race! No heat lamps cranking in the transition tent, with shivering races crowded around. Just perfect riding weather. The course remained crowded because of the warmth, never providing a respite from the ebb and flow - slow and accelerate - tempo of passing. Part of racing and something everyone had to deal with. It was just a question of how much you were willing to push to make passes. Some people more then others...
I love night riding and have been lucky to do more of it this year. I've been trying to get out constantly, get used to the narrowed perspective of riding under the lights. Knowing the Old Pueblo course like I do helps as well - after over 40 laps, I am comfortable with the twists and turns among the cacti. The brightness of the Exposure Lights make it even better. This was my first time with the new Equinox on my helmet and wow. Paired with the Six pack and I could see everything. I never had any issues.
Night is also when the race develops. The energy of the day has faded and fatigue begins creeping in - both mental and physical. The best duo racers are the ones who manage the fatigue the best and stay consistent until the sun returns. Staying consistent, riding smart. That's what we were banking on. We were still in fourth, fighting with CJ and Jon for that third spot. We'd been minutes behind since the fifth lap, when CJ had left just second ahead of me and turned those seconds into a four minute lead. The second place woman headed out about 10 minutes in front of me, CJ only 2 minutes and I was waiting for Nick. I had no illusions - I just wanted another clean lap without any mechanicals. My Fate was getting filthy and I wasn't able to stay on top of the dust. So when I ran back into the dark, I was focused more on riding smooth, smart and staying safe. Hit my goal time to the corral and to whiskey tree and was settling into the fun of the back half of "His and Hers." At night, that trail is fun, requiring a lot of body language. Imagine my surprise when I came up behind a familiar kit - CJ's black kit. I wasn't expecting catching her! Once I realized who it was, I started thinking - relax and follow her lines for a bit or try to accelerate past to get a gap? The choice was made for me as she pulled over just as I got on her wheel. Time to go for it and burn some matches so she wasn't able to follow me! I kept the pressure on for several minutes, hoping it was enough. A few quick glances behind me showed no lights trailing. At least temporarily, I'd gotten some ground. Just keep pedaling, stay smooth and find the flow on the loose, rocky trail. I knew CJ would climb Highpoint faster then me and just wanted to keep the pressure on. Then I saw a camelbak I'd marked before the start of my lap, nearly an hour ago. Really? I passed the woman from the second place team - moving Nick and I to where we wanted to be approaching midnight.
Every year it happens. I'm riding along, minding my own business, enjoying the singletrack. Then it happens. I either pass someone or another rider catches me. And they decide that my wheel is a very good place to be. I've started calling them the limpets - like the barnacles on a boat, I just can't shake them. For whatever reason - sometimes it's to save lights for a second lap, they like the pace I'm riding, the lines I'm taking are usually pretty good or something. I've gotten better at just riding when I've got someone on my wheel and have decided that if they want around, they will ask. Otherwise, I'm just gonna keep riding. They do always want to know how many laps I've done, assuming I'm on a four women team or a five person team and that I'm on my second, third or fourth lap. Imagine the surprise when I reply duo and I'm on my seventh, eighth or even 10th lap.
But the limpets have provided plenty of entertainment throughout the race with plithly one liners and running commentary. Take one guy who tagged onto my wheel on Rattlesnake. He was on a men's duo and was on his second lap of a double set. And he was super excited to be behind me. Chattering up a storm, just in awe of the lines I was taking. I think he was single speed because he said something about attacking the final climb and maybe wanting around before. Then he asked if I was gonna be fast on the final descent. What am I supposed to say? Even at night I'd been moving pretty quick down that fun stretch along solo row. Another guy (they all seemed to be guys) asked me after His and Hers if I ever used my brakes. Yes, all the time - just not on that section of trail! And my personal favorite - leading a guy up Highpoint and I catch a solo rider I knew. Said hi and went around. And what did the limpet do? Said to the solo rider "I'll stay back here and let you enjoy the view for a while!" Umm, sorry boys - the view is taken! And he's waiting for me to drop the descent into the transition tent!
That's why Nick wrote when I left a note saying my Fate was getting filthy and I wasn't managing to keep her clean enough to last a lap. And so I did. And it was brilliant fun. I was smarter this year - the Epic Rides numbers have an electronic tag to make timing easier. When I swapped bikes, I was running with a spare number - without the timing chip. So instead of getting annoyed at the volunteers because they didn't know what to do with the spare number, I was really polite. I knew they could enter the number manually and just asked them to do that when I entered the tent. And no issues at all. Very simple - please manually enter, 224 and I'm Tracy.
Speaking of the volunteers and the transition tent, it took both Nick and I till night time to figure out where the clock was. Every year, there's been a race clock in the corner, ticking merrily away towards noon on Sunday. This year, it was gone. I couldn't figure out where it was, or why the volunteers were looking up at the ceiling when we checked in and out. Then finally at night, I also looked up. Dhoh! There, projected on the ceiling was the race clock, along with the rider name and lap time of the last team through. Well, at least now I knew where to look! Nick reported the same realization about the clock after the race.
Tag - You're it!
Still riding well, but without the spunk of prior years. Nick and I were in a high stakes tag game with CJ and Jon. I wasn't as fast as last year, but consistent. CJ however was riding faster then me. Every lap, she pulled back a few minutes on me, dragging the gap closer and closer. Nick was still faster then Jon, but it was getting narrow. I had a feeling that one lap, I would get caught. I just didn't know when. After my only over 1:20 lap (still working on staying under 1:20 for all my laps) I knew it was getting close. I watched the pre-sunrise lightening up the sky, in awe of the line of lights on the trail. Two more laps and I was done. On lap nine, minutes away from topping out, on one of the few rock obstacles in the trail, I heard a familiar voice and was shouldered off my line. The moment I'd been waiting for, but hoping it wouldn't happen. There was only about five more minutes left before the descent and CJ managed to put about 30 seconds into me on that stretch. But the gap didn't hold. The minute we hit the descent I was right back on her wheel. We took the Option together and came into the transition tent seconds apart.
|Following CJ off the Option|
Photo - Damien Alexander
|This is gonna be close! Only 3 laps to go...|
Photo - Damien Alexander
Nick and I had fun this year. Something different with the plan and some very hard racing. We took not the best prep for a major race and still came out with a respectable second place finish. It's awesome to see the fast couples taking turns on the singletrack. We've been racing together at Old Pueblo for six years, with Nick racing solo prior to that. It might be time to take a break, find a different winter vacation race. But that's a decision for next year!