2011 Ride the Rockies – Day 3 – Tough day, but great views

I wouldn’t have guessed from looking at the official route profile for the Edwards to Steamboat Springs ride that it would turn out to be my hardest day of the tour. Sure, the length of the route is 5 miles longer than the previous 2 days, but there were only two relatively small climbs shown on the profile, and a long downhill into Steamboat itself. A piece of cake, especially when compared to the Cottonwood Pass climb we did on day 1, right?

Not so much, as it turns out. The day started out fast and fun, with great weather, calm winds, and a nice mostly downhill ride out of Edwards. Once we hit Wolcott, the climbing began with a nice 1,000 ft climb and then a fast descent through Bond and then ending at McCoy where aid station 2 was located.

The bad news we heard about a rider crashing and later dying on a descent yesterday seemed to affect everyone I saw descending. There seemed to be a little reluctance to go as fast as the previous two days. It might have just been my own perception and awareness, but in general everyone seemed to be a lot more cautious than I have seen before.

After leaving aid station 2, we began the biggest climb of a day, a nice, long, winding climb along highway 131 heading towards Toponas. The terrain changed from high desert to a slightly more lush wide valley, with plenty of aspens and wildflowers to color the landscape along the way. This climb was really a lot of fun – the grade was just right, steep but not too steep, and it was long enough that you just needed to find your zone and keep the pedals turning.

There was a short descent after this hill towards Toponas, and this is where the trouble began. The mostly westwardly winds seemed to get stronger, and became a headwind for most of our route. The speeds coming into Toponas were much slower than I expected and once we reached aid station 3, we knew we were only halfway done with the day.

I took a long break at aid station 3, and indulged in some Nutella and banana crepes from one of the ride vendors. I’m sure it was an excessive amount of calories, probably more than I burned on the entire ride, but it was completely awesome and total worth it.

I wasn’t looking forward to the remainder of the ride, as we were going to have a headwind almost the entire way. But, I had a couple of guardian angels that showed up and made the next 20 miles amazing. A couple on a tandem that I had been hopscotching with all day passed me on a windy straight-away, and another rider and I latched on and used them as a nice, big windshield. I stayed with them until aid station 5, going at least 5-10 mph faster than I would have been able to maintain alone.

Stagecoach Reservoir
Stagecoach Reservoir

The Stagecoach Reservoir where aid station 5 was located is gorgeous, and frankly, so was the remainder of the ride coming into Steamboat Springs. This was my first time ever in this part of Colorado, and the first time to Steamboat Springs. The route through the lush valley coming into town was gorgeous, and hats off to whoever picked the route, and to making sure all the road obstacles were well marked. It remained windy, but luckily the downhill grade was enough to overcome it and I maintained a nice, fast pace coming all the way into town, even with the few rolling hills along the route.

This turned out to be my longest day in the saddle thus far at 5 hours and 45 minutes. I also wound up doing quite a bit more work than before too, pedaling out 2,977 kilojoules of work compared to 2,500 on the previous two days. Maybe that crepe wasn’t too many calories after all.

This post originally appeared on the Denver Post at http://blogs.denverpost.com/ridetherockies/2011/06/14/day-3-the-hardest-day/871/

2011 Ride the Rockies – Day 2 – Windy Climbs on the Way to Leadville

Day 2 started out a bit nicer than day 1 – it was 10 degrees or so warmer in Buena Vista than Crested Butte, making getting ready a whole lot more enjoyable.

I decided to skip breakfast at camp and opted for the famous pancake breakfast at the first aid station – this may have been a bad plan. The first 13 miles were the hardest of my day – moderate cross- and head-winds the entire way, and a gradual climb with no respite the entire way. Couple that with tired muscles from day 1 and it was a rough way to start out the day. I wasn’t the only one who felt this way – I heard lots of complaining along the way, and some short tempers compared to day 1.

The pancake breakfast hit the spot as it always does, and gave me enough energy to head directly to Leadville and bypassing aid station 2. The ride into Leadville was surprisingly easy compared to the first 13 miles. The road grade seemed more gradual, the winds miraculously died down completely, and the temperatures were perfect.

The road quality in this section was the main issue, as we had little to no shoulder and a sandy margin beyond that. Oh, and of course the altitude continued to creep up and we did a large part of this section over 9,000 ft, eventually reaching 10,200 ft in Leadville proper.

After a nice break in Leadville, it was time to leave town, go on a short, fast descent, and then make our way up Tennessee Pass. This climb was fantastic. The road grade was very gradual making the climb up to 10,424 ft a pretty easy one.

The descent down from Tennessee Pass was fast, mostly straight, with only a little road traffic to contend with. This descent ended too quickly though, and then it was time to climb Battle Mountain. At 59 miles into the ride, and the hardest climb of the day, this climb wore a lot of us out. It was much steeper than the other climbs up the day and the temperatures had warmed enough by then to make shedding clothes a necessity. The road was narrow, rough, and with lots of traffic, but the views were spectacular.

After Battle Mountain, we had a fast 15 mile descent into Minturn, followed by another descent along US 6 into Edwards. That section of US 6 was almost entirely downhill, but there was some occasional strong winds that made the descent quite a lot of work.

The overnight setup in Edwards is nice – maybe a bit more spread out than we’d like, but everything is nice and clean. I made sure to visit the yoga class this evening to help work out some kinks after a couple of hard days of riding. We’ll see how that helps with day 3 trip to Steamboat Springs!

This post originally appeared on the Denver Post at http://blogs.denverpost.com/ridetherockies/2011/06/13/windy-climbs-on-the-way-to-leadville/764/

2011 Ride the Rockies – Day 1

Today was the day I was looking forward to the most during this year’s Ride the Rockies. I’ve ridden up Cottonwood Pass before, but never got a chance to descend.

Chad at the top of Cottonwood Pass
Chad at the top of Cottonwood Pass

The weather looked perfect starting this morning so looked like a perfect opportunity to finally get a chance to see what this pass really looked like and how fun the descent would be.

Like everyone I talked to, this morning’s cold weather really made getting out of the tent and going difficult. I waited, as snug as possible, until the sun finally made it over the mountains before venturing out. I still managed to get on the road by 7:30am so not too much time was lost waiting.

Taylor Reservoir as seen from Cottonwood Pass
Taylor Reservoir as seen from Cottonwood Pass

The ride down to Almont was amazingly fast, and a great way to start the day. Likewise, the ride through Taylor Canyon has great – perfect weather, gentle climbs, and little traffic to contend with. Once we made it over the Taylor dam we were blessed with one of my favorite sites in Colorado – the Taylor Reservoir with the mountains beyond it.

 

The climb up Cottonwood Pass itself was great fun. Even though it’s a dirt road, it’s in such good condition that there’s very little lost traction to contend with. The weather on the climb up was cool, but not too cold – perfect climbing weather. Even though Cottonwood Pass is one of the highest, the road grade coming from the Taylor Reservoir is rather gentle and makes the climb a lot of fun.

Granted, once the we cleared 10,000 ft it was really hard to keep the pace up as before. I got into a groove and kept it there, just happy to be there and enjoying the climb in great weather.

The best view of the day came just before reaching the stop of Cottonwood Pass by looking back down and being able to see the entirety of the pass road and the Taylor Reservoir in the distance.

And finally, the descent (but not before indulging in a quesadilla!) – fast, smooth, and a blast. Car traffic was well-behaved, it wasn’t raining, and the wind was mostly playing nice, with only a few big gusts to contend with.

Day 1 – what a gem.

This post originally appeared on the Denver Post at http://blogs.denverpost.com/ridetherockies/2011/06/13/day-1-what-a-gem/422/

2011 Ride the Rockies – Preparing for the Ride

When I finally made it to 12,000 ft elevation, I thought for sure I’d feel better than I had in the past. After all, I live at sea level, and any additional time at high elevation should help my acclimation quite a bit. This year, I’ve been in Colorado exploring and training for almost a full month before the Ride the Rockies begins – I should be getting somewhat used to the higher altitudes by now. But that climb up to 12,000 ft reminded me how foolish I was to think it would come so easy. It was easy to get out of breath just doing a normal pace walk, even after all the time here.

Land's End
Land's End as seen from the Grand Mesa Scenic Byway

The effects of the higher elevation on me are different than I would really have expected. Yes, if I jump right into it from sea-level, I’ll get the classic headaches and a bit of dehydration. But more surprising is how it effects my riding. I don’t see increased heart rates, and I don’t see a longer time to recover after a hard effort. What I do see, though, is a precipitous drop in power output compared to riding back home. After a season of training, that’s quite frankly annoying to see performance drop just because of a few little, er, massive mountains.

Still, it’s great fun climbing up these things, especially given back home in coastal Texas I can ride for 70 or 80 miles and see a grand total of 150 ft in elevation gain. Climbing 5,000 or more ft a day really lets you know your body had some hard work to do, and the feeling is incredible.

Rim Rock Rd High Point
The high point of Rim Rock Rd in the Colorado National Monument

I’ve been lucky enough this spring to be able to spend some extra time in Colorado and do some of my favorite rides: Durango to Silverton, the Colorado National Monument, and a loop up Grand Mesa. These are amazing rides, especially so for someone like me who doesn’t live in the state and has few chances to ride them.

The first day of this year’s Ride the Rockies is the day I look forward to the most, thanks to Cottonwood Pass. I rode up Cottonwood Pass back in 2009 on another tour, and it was fantastic fun, despite the heavy rain, fog, and new freezing weather we had the entire way up. I didn’t get a chance to ride down into Buena Vista because the ride course was shut down, something I’m hoping to correct this year.

2011 Aramco Houston Half-Marathon

Today I ran the Aramco Houston Half-Marathon and set a new personal record (PR) of 1:59:18. Not only did I beat my goal of 2 hours, I bested my previous PR by 10:17.

I never ran a mile, not even as a child, until November, 2006 as a 35 year old. In fact, I was not ever athletic until 2004, when I took up road bicycling. Having the cardiovascular endurance from 2 years of biking made it a quick task for me to run my first mile and see improvement continue immediately after that.

In 2008, I was still running but with no real idea of why, other than the sheer joy of being able to run – which isn’t a bad reason at all. I had no training plan, and no events I really cared to enter. Then a friend suggested a local marathon training group called Fort Bend Fit. Running a marathon sounded like an awesome goal, so I signed up, started the training in July, and stuck to it like glue. In August, I ran my first 5K, in October, I my first-half marathon, in November my first 25k, in December my first 30k, and then in January, 2009, I finished my first full marathon at a very slow and painful pace of 4:54. It was a great experience, but I promised myself I wouldn’t run another unless I could come in at 4 hours or less – it was too uncomfortable of an experience, otherwise.

The 2009/2010 running season didn’t go great for me. I was traveling too much for work and kept trying to ramp up my mileage faster than what I was capable of, so I had a few overuse injuries during the season. I also didn’t have my nutrition dialed-in properly, so I would often bonk on training runs. I decided to skip running the events for that season and focus on bicycling.

In January, 2010 I signed up for coaching with Carmichael Training Systems with the goal of greatly improving my bicycling performance in our local 2-day MS-150 charity ride, and a week-long bicycle touring ride in the Colorado mountains. The coaching worked – I didn’t just better at biking, I got a lot better. I spent more time biking than I ever had before, and I enjoyed it a lot more. After my big summertime event, I had to pick new goals to focus on, and that was easy – I wanted to be able to run a half-marathon a lot faster than before, and prove to myself that I might be able to run a full marathon faster in the future. In June, my CTS coach, Thad Walker, added running to my training schedule. And because I couldn’t make it easy on myself, I also wanted to do a triathlon that fall, so swimming was added to the mix, with plenty of biking still in the mix as well.

For the rest of the summer, and through much of the fall, training was… frustrating. It’s hot here in coastal Texas – hot and exceptionally humid. I reached a point where I would often over-heat during exercising, even early in the morning – sweat doesn’t work well at maximum humidity. My nutrition program also wasn’t dialed in well at all, despite some great advice from CTS nutritionalist Ryan Kohler that I pretty much just ignored – in almost every workout, I would bonk or just not have the energy to perform well. Add into the mix that I was now spreading my training hours across three different sports really meant I didn’t feel as if I were doing well in any of them.

Until late fall, my running was not progressing well at all. I was a much slower runner than my first season, and with a big biking event in September and my first triathlon in in October, I only had time to have 2 runs in my weekly schedule. My coach made sure these runs remained endurance runs, i.e. a moderate aerobic pace, until after my other race priorities were completed. I didn’t like this at the time – I was frustrated with how slow I was running, I wanted harder workouts so I could improve, and I wanted more workouts so I could increase stamina. But, this is exactly the type of a scenario where a professional earns their keep.

My coach had a good idea from working with my through the earlier part of the year where my over-training limits were, and he also saw how my base aerobic running performance needed more time before I was trained properly for the harder workouts. I also had recently read a blog post from another CTS athlete that reached their half-marathon goal and she had much the same concern: when does the hard work start? It is often hard to be patient as an athlete, particularly a relatively inexperienced one, as we always think that working harder is what is needed, and that’s really often not the case.

Things started to really come together in October. My last big biking event of the year was over, so we backed off the hours on the bike a bit and spent a lot more time running. The cooler weather really began to help, too – my first 10 mile training run with the local group saw my return to the sub-10-minute/mile pace I expected. My first triathlon in late October also brought quite a surprise – my fastest 5K time ever of 27:22. Hmmm, maybe I always needed a swim and bike warm-up before running. I began to feel hope returning.

That hope was shattered a bit when I ran my last long run of the season, with the HMSA 25K Classical run in mid-November. The run started great, but half-way through I picked up the pace and that did me in – poor race-craft on my part, as I wasn’t ready for that kind of run. The last 3 miles were a brutal slog to the finish and put me in a foul mood for a while.

The week after the 25K things got exciting – I did my 2nd CTS running field test of the season, an all-out 8-minute run, in order to determine my heart-rate ranges for the rest of my workouts. I was able to run a 7:54 pace for the 8-minute test, with an average heart rate of 175 and a maximum of 186. This put my endurance range at 87 to 154 bpm and my tempo range at 170 to 177 bpm. Finally, speed-work was coming! I was excited.

In running, tempo intervals are intended to be just below or just at your lactate threshold. I had done lactate threshold workouts earlier in the year on the bike, and they were always more mentally challenging than physical I felt. The tempo runs verified this as well. During my early attempts at these intervals, I would often not have the mental fortitude to hold the interval the entire distance. Further more, sometimes I wouldn’t have what seemed to be enough leg strength to get my heart-rate high enough to be in the tempo zone.

Some objective thinking about the problems and discussion with my coach lead to two clear conclusions: mental strength is just as important as physical, and my running form sucked when I got tired. My running form at these higher speeds got better in a progressive fashion – ultimately it was as the strength in my leg muscles were built-up from the runs. The mental strength was another story. Some of the runs wen’t great, some wen’t horrible. I noticed that on the runs that didn’t go so well that I’d start having a lot of negative self-talk going on in my head during the interval – whoops. One I realized I was doing that, I really focused on positive self-talk and saw improved performance, and more importantly, the ability to hold the intervals through to completion.

My breakthrough workout occurred on December 28, 2010. I was scheduled to run 2 sets of 30-minute tempos with a 15-minute recovery. I had been working up to this amount of time, but it still seemed like an eternity to consider. But I had a positive attitude that day and went out with all intentions to do well… and boy, did I. Not only was I able to hold both intervals through to completion, but within each 30-minute interval contained my 2 fastest 5K runs ever – back-to-back. Hmm, maybe there’s something to all this after all.

After a brief recovery week, we added the ultimate speed-work intervals to my schedule: short duration maximum-effort running intervals. I started with 4-minute intervals, which for me meant about 800m of running. Over the next week and a half we worked up to 5 5-minute long intervals. These were certainly physically tough, but the mental challenge was completely different than the tempo intervals. All I had to do to keep the pace going was count down the next 90 seconds and that was enough to get me through. Your body is screaming at you to stop as the lactate builds up, but ultimately you know this effort just doesn’t last that. Compare that to those long tempo intervals where the discomfort is so strong, and slowing down to just a few bpm slower than your current pace feels like a walk in the park. Your brain wants you to stop this madness, and those of us who haven’t really experienced this before think this is called pain – but it’s not pain at all. None of this hurt, it was just discomfort with your body trying every trick in its book to get you to slow down, and maybe take a nice nap.

This final burst of speed-work had a pretty amazing effect to my actual physiological performance and to my mental confidence as well. In my first set of intervals on January 9th, I ran an average of 7:05, 7:34, 7:38, and 7:37 paces. On my last set of intervals on January 18th, I ran 6:56, 7:20, 7:32, 7:54 and 7:42 paces over a longer 5-minute duration. Between that and the sub-9-minute paces I ran on my 30-minute tempo run intervals, I felt I had the strength and stamina to hold the approximately 9:00 pace average I needed to to reach my sub-2-hour half-marathon goal.

Race Day

The week leading up to the race were a bit unnerving. The weather outlook implied a good chance of rainy weather during the race; no big deal, rain keeps you cooler and helps you go faster. In fact, 40 degrees with a light rain is just about my favorite running weather. But as the week went on, the forecast looked worse and worse – thunderstorms were in the forecast. The race organizers would quite rightly delay or cancel the race if lightning was in the area, and in this part of the world when it rains it often means heavy rain with big-ass drops, not just a wee little rain. Having the weather screw up the race after working this hard on it would be heart-breaking, and there was absolutely nothing anyone could do about it.

Ultimately, we lucked out. It did not rain at all the night and morning of the race. When the race actually started at 7am there was light drizzle, which continued through the first hour before turning into a light rain. There was no lightning data being detected within 100 miles of the race, so we were all set to go. It was a bit warm – 64 degrees, so the yellow event caution flag was out to let people know they might need to slow down. I might not make my goal, but I felt at least I would make a new PR even with the warmer temperatures.

I stuck to the plan my coach and I had discussed a few days before. I was going to aim for a 9:00 even pace during the first 9 miles of the race, and then increase my pace until my heart-rate was in the tempo zone and hold it there through the rest of the race. I’d take an energy gel at 45 minutes into the race, and another at the 9-mile marker. I’d drink water with the gels, and have a couple of sport drinks at the water stations in between. I’ve done enough of these races now to know that as simple as these strategies are, they are extremely difficult to adhere to. The excitement of the race, especially early on with all the crowds, cause a huge adrenalin rush, and it’s ridiculously easy to run a lot faster than you should in the first part of the race – that will ultimately bite you in the ass in the second half.

The chaos of the first few miles of this race is just hard to describe. There are 22,000 registered runners in this year’s race, split evenly between the half and full marathon races, and split into two separate waves. That’s a whole lot of people to have on a city street at one time. Finding room to run your pace, or not running too fast, is pretty damn hard. In the first three miles I ran a 9:19, 8:45 and 8:59 pace. On target, and more importantly, my HR was in the endurance zone at 143, 154, and 156 – things were looking good.

In between miles 4 and 6 the race runs by my parent’s neighborhood so I was able to see my family briefly twice and ditch a hat that had proved too hot with the warm and humid conditions. It’s always nice to run through this neighbor and seeing your family cheer you on is a great motivator. My pace for the next few miles remained on target, at 9:03, 8:58, 9:07, 9:01, 8:57 and 9:06 with a HR average of 158, 162, 161, 166, 166 and 167. I wasn’t surprised, or too concerned, about my heart rate creeping up – that’s somewhat normal, and I wanted to stick to my race plan.

At around mile 9, the half-marathon race splits off from the full-marathon and does a u-turn to head towards the finish. I remember when I ran the full-marathon on this course that suddenly the crowd noise and excitement of the race greatly diminished as half the participants suddenly disappeared. Luckily this wasn’t as big of a shock having run the race before, and more importantly, the half-marathon group stayed on the same road while u-turning so we got the crowd excitement for another full mile before things quieted down some. One I saw the mile 9 marker I put phase-two of my plan into action: down a gel and water, and pick up the pace until my HR was in the tempo zone.

At this point, you have a 5K run left to complete. Even if you aren’t doing well in either race, there is a great feeling that you can at least slog your way to finish – 5K just isn’t that far to jog or even walk if needed, unless you’ve reached a situation requiring medical attention. I found it easy to increase my effort a bit to increase my heart rate, but I didn’t see a good improvement to my pace. Part of this was simply due to tired muscles at this point in the race, but part if it was also that we had reached the relatively hilly portion of the race course along Allen Parkway. This road follows a Buffalo Bayou through town, and is one of the few places in the entire metropolitan area were there are actual natural hills. For any of my readers that don’t live along a coastal prairie, I cannot begin to explain how flat is here. Regardless, short hills are still hills, and they can wear a tired runner out. My paces along this section were 8:50, 9:01, and 9:11 with a heart rate of 170, 170 and 172 – on the heart-rate target, but not fast enough. Uh, oh.

Once you pass mile 12, you’re into downtown and the glorious flatness returns. You’re in the city canyons now, and the excitement of being so near the finish takes over, as well as seeing more people along the race course cheering you on. I picked up the pace a bit, but felt I was near my limit. Once I passed the 20K mark, I just had to turn the corner and run a few hundred yards before finishing. I saw that the clock time was 1:59 and something and the announcer said anyone wanting to finish in 2 hours or less had better sprint, so I did! I actually crossed the line at the 2:00:03 point on the clock, a.k.a. “gun time.” It would have been cool to have crossed just a few seconds earlier, but I knew then I had reached my goal, as my position in the first wave was about 45 seconds behind the gun. I had done it! My paces on these last parts were 8:52 and 8:48, with an average heart rate of 173 and 174.

I’m really glad the medical staff is so diligent watching over the runners. Several that had finished when I had were near collapse from pushing too hard. They warned the rest of us to keep our heads up and to keep walking – good advice, as when I looked down for a moment I got extremely light-headed. I had not frequently finished my runs at such a high pace and heart-rate before, and with such a sudden stop without a cool-down it was important to let yourself recover properly.