The Firecracker 50 was everything a race above 9,500 feet is supposed to be: painful, thrilling, breathtaking, educational, and half drunk. Sadly, the half drunk part only lasted about 15 minutes, and then the stomach cramps and nausea set in.
My plan was to start insanely slow....watching with discipline as my competition rode away from me.....to get through the first lap......and then if I still felt like living, to build throughout the second lap and end with a bang. I know this doesn't really sound like a winning plan.....but my goals for this race were to a) survive b) not blow my cookies on the first lap c) not die d) get a training ride in and e) learn a bit about high altitude racing while acclimating to low oxygen levels.
As per recommendations from persons who have raced at high altitudes, and in keeping with my plan, I started the Marathon National Championships s-l-o-w-l-y. This was my first time attempting effort at such a low oxygen level and I was advised to play my cards very wisely....that if I pushed too hard I wouldn't be able to recover and would blow my race. So, after the Golden Bike Cheerleaders were finished making a mockery of everything mountain biking stands for, and the whistle blew, I and the other Cat 1 ladies began steadily climbing our way up Boreas Pass. Clearly, my competition also had plans to start at turtle's pace---it was the slowest start to a race I have been a part of.
At the top of the first climb I came across a half-naked dude on a cruiser bike, and a whole bunch of other folks yelling at the riders to take a shot of Wild Turkey....or a beer. As tempting as it sounded, I thought it might be better for me to pass on the shot of whiskey. It was honestly enough for me to focus on my breathing and keep myself disciplined enough to ride slow....I didn't think whiskey would help my efforts.
As planned, I made it through the first lap without too much effort or pain. First place (Jari Kirkland) was probably several minutes ahead of me, and another girl and I were going back and forth between 2nd and 3rd. I was climbing better, but she was clearly stronger on the descents and put a gap on me during the final downhill of the first lap. Dang. I went into the second lap hoping to catch her on the climb, but didn't see her so I gladly took the shot of Wild Turkey when I passed the Whiskey Aid station at the top of Boreas Pass. Ahhh, relief...the beauty of altitude is that very little alcohol has a very big effect on a person.....the downside of this shot was that once it wore off, my stomach started cramping and I couldn't tell if I was hungry or going to toss my tummy on the side of the trail.
That was my condition going into the toughest part of lap 2= Lil French, a nasty climb that left most racers walking beside their bike at some point or another. I had managed to ride almost all of it during the first lap, but on lap 2, I started feeling the effects of everything I had done that day. It was the only time during the race when I felt bad....and I felt really bad....bad enough that 3rd place (remember the girl who passed me? apparently she flatted or fell back and was actually behind me, not in front) caught up to me again. Oh crap, I thought, I wished I'da known I was in 2nd when I passed the whiskey stand.....we rode together for a bit, and were at the 2nd to last climb when my legs suddenly came back, and strong. My stomach was no longer rebelling against me and I felt like I might actually make the finish line. I picked up the pace on the climb and decided to hit it for the downhill, hoping to hold the gap I had created. For the final climb and descent I opened it up and came into the finish 3 minutes ahead of 3rd place. Jari had finished 13 minutes ahead of me, but I wasn't all that bummed as I had followed my plan, and finished the race strong. I wish I had picked up the pace sooner, but now I know that I can do that next time I'm racing up high. For a first race at altitude, I was stoked with 2nd place....and celebrated appropriately....by watching the fireworks...