Growing as Rider in the Growler

After the midnight downpour and mud disaster that was Nick's Half Growler, I spent the rest of Saturday almost compulsively checking the weather forecast. Every time I looked there was a chance of rain overnight with more rain possible Sunday morning - but it was a fluid forecast, changing hourly as I checked. As long as the sun stayed out and we didn't get any rain, Sunday would be awesome. That sentiment was echoed around the KOA and most likely across the Gunnison Valley! I'm sure there were more then a few racers doing their anti-rain dances...
That sun wasn't quite as warm as it looked...
Sunday - cold, but not as cold as anticipated, with sunshine attempting to peek from behind the clouds. And no rain so far. I dressed for racing, not for rain - with fingers crossed that the clouds wouldn't close down again. Wool socks, knee warms, arm warmers, vest and over-gloves - not clothes I would normally be wearing at the end of May! Nick dropped me off at the start and headed out to Bambi's. With the roads being fairly muddy still, he wasn't going to take as many chances driving up into Hartmans as he did last year. He'd be there for me, but maybe in fewer places then the first year. Which was fine. I was ready to go, with some rice bars in my bento and a water bottle full of Skratch.

Boom! The shotgun released the tense mass of riders. The first turn onto Main Street was uneventful, but my race was almost finished before it started as we turned onto US 50. A rider to my right didn't make the turn well and veered into me, his handlebars hitting my ribs. I was pushing to the rider to my left and our handlebars tangles. We were about 5 seconds from both hitting the pavement and then getting run over by the herd behind us. Somehow, I'm not sure how I managed to stay upright and get my handlebars out from his. Yikes!! Mentally shaken and with my left hand throbbing, I had to work my way back up the field. I'd been right behind Jenny when the tanglement happened and had plummeted. Starting the race in the back wasn't where I wanted to be - I wanted the wheels of the women I knew would be contending for the win. Burned a few matches working my way up, but luckily the neutral rollout was pretty chill until just after the KOA. Then the cop started speeding up and stringing the field out. I'd been working on my cadence and ability to spin quickly while maintain the power and it showed on the road this year. As we made the right hand turn onto the dirt and the racing started in earnest I was just behind Jenny and Wendy. The next goal was to try to stay with them up kill hill and then on the road leading to Josh-Os.

Almost success. I was in a good position entering Josh-Os and ahead of most of the bottlenecking. I could see Jenny's pink jersey and Janae's pink helmet just ahead of me. Racing had started - time to ride. The climb up Josh-Os was stilly slimy from the day before, enough to make steady pedaling important. But where it wasn't wet, the trails were like blacktop - fast and smooth and just incredible. The rocks were dirty and wet, making the line choice important, but the singletrack was sublime. On the powerline road, I could see evidence of the chaos that had been the Half Growler. Tire tracks imbedded in the mud, imprints left from people crashing. We had two dry lines to ride, with soul sucking mud on either side. I was in 7th as we dropped down to the blacktop, but it was a close race, with just minutes separating us. It was also pretty clear just how hard the Half Growler had been - I came through that point ahead of the time from the leaders on Saturday!

Nick was waiting at the blacktop with my camelbak. I ditched the nearly empty bottle and stopped for just a moment to don the camelbak. One thing I need to work on for next year - not stopping as much to get stuff from Nick. If it's just a waterbottle I want, just take it on the fly - don't stop. There were a few times through out the race that I stopped without needing to - giving up about five minutes to the other women. But Nick was great throughout the race - all over the course, with just what I wanted. And sometimes even something I didn't know I wanted, like a camelbak with coke in it. He's awesome support and that's even after turning himself inside out the day before in his race.

Throughout the race, the biggest thing I noticed was how I was riding. The first year we raced the Growler was also a clockwise direction. I remember how hard some of the obstacles were back then - the first bottleneck rock on Josh-Os, the rocks on Skyline, the climb up Bambi's, all of Out Back. Those were hard trails for me and the technical riding was challenging. I was constantly thinking and hitting the brakes to prepare for the rocks two years ago. This year, I was able to ride all of it, and usually without thinking hard or slowing down. Even the Skull Pass descent - I was scared of it two years ago. This year I missed the line in the first section during the first lap simply because I didn't remember. And I was annoyed that I hadn't ridden it! The second time down the pass was cake - and I was smiling huge the entire time. The entire race was like that - a series of mental victories as I realized how much better I was riding. And cleaning a rock section in front of spectators when none of the guys around me did is even better. There were things I rode without pause this year - on Top of the World and Ridge. I cleaned all of Ridge on my first lap, and without the nerves from before. What made it even better was that I was riding that well without any pre-rides. Our traditional early May trip to Gunnison had been canceled due to the weather.

How fast was the course this year? Or maybe a better question - how hard was the Half Growler this year? Well, for perspective, Nick usually beats me by about 30 minutes for his race - which is my first lap. Not this year. I came through the base area in 3:16, in 7th place for the women. And I was ten minutes faster then Nick was for his race. I'm sure that will never happen again, but....

I could see 6th place the entire race. She dangled in front of me, the gap ranging from 15s to 4 minutes. Every time I would sneak up, shutting down the gap, she'd bolt away on the next road climb - manhandling her bike like a singlespeeder. I'd bring her back on the techy descents and flowing singletrack, but never close enough. Never enough to make the catch and attack. After dragging it down to 30s at the top of Bambi's on the second lap, I never got close again. But instead of just shutting down and going into riding mode, I was still racing and pushing hard. I had time goals and I didn't know where the next woman was.

Taking the fast way between point A and point B - and enjoying every minute!
Photo - Brian Reipe, Mountain Flyer

Another thing that struck me this year. I wasn't having any issues with the men riding around me. It was as if the ponytail didn't matter and I was just another rider. It was awesome. I'm sure the fact that I was riding just as much if not more as most of them help, but also the fact that I was polite. Making an effort to help with passing pays back in the long run. Getting out of the way and being respectful of the other racers also helps. There were more then a few times that the guys could have passed me just at the top of a hill or start of a techy section but didn't. On the last climb up Tailpipe, one of the guys I'd been leapfrogging with a few times was right on my wheel. He could have passed me on the road, but let me drop Collarbone ahead of him. It was such a change from experiences in the past at other race and very cool.

I took nearly 30 minutes out of my time from 2013. Granted, the course was faster on my first lap and we had perfectly cool racing weather, but it was also a little longer this year. I didn't move up any higher on the podium, in fact I dropped two spots. But this was a very competitive year for the women's race, with some of the fastest endurance racers in the country toeing the line. Congrats to Amy Biesel - winning in a new course record time of 5:46. Sonya Looney was second in 6:04, with Jenny Smith right on her wheel in 6:08. Janae Pritchett and Wendy Lyall rounded out the top five with times of 6:23 and 6:26. I finished seventh overall with a time of 6:43:15. Still have some things to work on if I hope to be in the mix next year!

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