Monday, February 8, 2016

TransAndes: The Race

I have been racing for a long time and have had the opportunity to compete in some great events in amazing places.  TransAndes was such a great experience that it has shot right up to the top of my list! Read on for the race story or just check out the photos!

Stage 1:
Shannon and I didn't really have a strategy going into the race. No expectations.  Just have fun.  We kind of talked about not going too hard on Day 1 to allow ourselves to get our bearings and not burn all our matches from the get-go.  We got to the starting line early and lined up toward the front.  We had a clean, safe start for a few minutes until someone swerved into me and I swerved into Shannon causing him to crash off the side of the road.   Oops.  I could tell he was okay and kept going telling him to catch up.  Maybe not the most compassionate thing to do, but definitely the best strategy.  Despite what felt like a solid start, we had enough racers in front of us to cause us to come to a complete standstill as we hit the single track.  Things were slow moving for the next 20 or so minutes as minutes ticked by and racers who got a clean line through the single track were riding away.  Things got downright ridiculous when we got to the first suspension bridge.   On the far side of the suspension bridge there was a wood ramp that was too slippery to ride.....and even to walk down.  This was causing a traffic jam on the bridge where we were essentially stopped for minutes.  All we could do was wait in line, take the time to recover, and enjoy the beauty that surrounded us.  With ~30 riders on the bridge, I am glad that I didn't find out that the maximum weight capacity was 6 riders until later that night! Yikes!

 The 6-person capacity suspension bridge lined with racers. You can't tell from the photo but when there are more than a few riders on the suspension bridges they
sway from side to side so much they are impossible to ride!

The view from the suspension bridge.  
These are the only two photos Shannon took while racing the entire week.
After this it was all business.  

Once we got across the suspension bridge, the trail widened up and the real racing began.  Not long after, we caught up to another co-ed team of Chilean's ChiChi Garcia and Claus Plaut.  We raced with them for a couple of miles until they attacked and ultimately dropped us at the top of a climb.  That night we learned that it was ChiChi and Claus' 8th TransAndes.  Note to self: When they attack on a climb it means a downhill is coming up.  They did this to us time after time throughout the week.  After 72 kilometers and over 2300 meters of climbing, we ended up finishing the stage happy, hungry, and surprised to be in 3rd place.  TransAndes does not ease you into the racing.....but there was a hearty lunch waiting for us at the finish!  

Stage 2: 
Day 2 was another cloudy day.  We knew getting a solid start would be important as the suspension bridge once again came early in the stage.  Today's stage was a mere 47 km with 2150 meters of elevation gain in one big climb.  My legs were a bit flat on this day which wasn't really a surprise because Day2 of stage racing has historically been the hardest for me.  My body seems to be fatigued from a hard day racing but not yet adapted to the stage racing routine.  After a mediocre start and some bad luck letting racers get between us and our competition we spent the first half of the stage chasing down another Chilean co-ed team of Maria Paz Lizama and Eugenio Parra.  We finally caught them midway through the stage and climbed them off our wheels.  Soon after we overtook ChiChi and Claus only to have them pass us back on the descent.  Once again we finished the day on the podium in 3rd.  

The first few days of racing were overcast and chilly.
I actually think this benefitted us to acclimate to warmer temps.
(Photo: TransAndes)

Day 3:  It started raining in the evening and didn't let up all night or morning.  Today was to be the longest stage of the race where we raced 97 km from Huilo Huilo over a volcano to Catripulli.  Shannon and I left our cabana dressed in all our rain gear and rode the 2km in the pouring rain to the venue.  We then packed up our race bags and loaded them in the race truck to be transported to Catripulli.  It never occurred to us that the stage may be cancelled, but as we hung out in the breakfast tent we heard rumors of "suspension".  Soon after, the race director announced that Stage 3 would be postponed to the following day.  We would continue the stage race one day behind schedule and the final stage, a 12 km time trial, would be cancelled.  Although I was geared up for a long day of racing in the the rain, as soon as it was announced that the stage was postponed I happily went back to the cabana and sat by the fire to warm up. Since we were now a day behind schedule I had to figure out how to contact our cabana in Pucon (where the race ended) so they would not cancel our reservation when we did not show up.  
Cozy by the fire in our cabana  

Stage 3:  We woke up Thursday to blue skies.  Our 'rest' day had served my body well and I was feeling fresh and ready to race.  Today we were actually going to get to race from Huilo Huilo to Catripulli.  We once again packed up our race bags and hauled them to the race truck for transport.

Teamwork goes beyond racing
(Photo: TransAndes)

The first 8km  of the stage was 'neutral' as we traveled a gradual downward sloping gravel road with construction randomly scattered throughout.  It was sketchy and felt dangerous.  I mentally shut down
a few times and wanted to back off but Shannon would 'encourage' me to stay with the leaders.

This photo shows the racers haulin' down the road and running into construction
Photo:  TransAndes

As soon as we hit the 'safe' trails my legs were on fire and I immediately worked my way around the Maria and Eugenio and then ChiChi and Claus.  Midway through the stage we caught our Portuguese friend, Pedro, and rode with him up the enormous climb.  I thought perhaps we would stay away from ChiChi and Claus, but their tactical savy and descending speed once again got the best of us.  We rolled into the finish once again in 3rd at in 5hours18minutes just a few minutes behind ChiChi and Claus, however the damage was really done on Maria and Eugenio who finished almost 40 minutes back.

Sucking wheel
(Photo: TransAndes)

Catripulli was beautiful....and warm.  We found the perfect tent in the shade and chowed down a big lunch.  After awards we settled into our tent and quickly fell asleep only to be awakened by these crazy noisy birds.  Even with my earplugs, these were the noisiest, most rambunctious....and nocturnal birds I had ever heard.  I joked that I was going to yell all day to keep them up in revenge.  Surely they must sleep sometime!  Needless to say, we (along with most the other campers) did not get a restful night sleep.

Not a bad view from the camp

Stage 4:  We were warned that although Stage 3 was the longest, Stage 4 would be the hardest.  While there was a boatload of steep climbing, I respectfully disagree.  Stage 3 was harder!  The day started with us heading out of Catripulli with another long 'neutral' start.  Once again it was sketchy.  We were traveling along a road shared with cars and were supposed to stay to the right of cones.  Impatient racers trying to improve their position would swing outside the cones, play chicken with oncoming traffic, and then swing back into the group causing it to be a dangerous mess with cones flying everywhere.  The group was still tight together once the real racing began and I narrowly missed a pileup.  I was sitting on someone's wheel and decided to move to the left of him.  A second later another rider hooked bars with him and they both went down.  Soon after we hit what was referred to as "The Wall", a 1.5+ km hike-a-bike.  I don't really consider myself good at hike-a-bikes, but on this day I was; perhaps all the hiking I do with Dizzy is paying off!  We passed handfuls of racers up the hike-a-bike including both the co-ed teams that we raced closely with each day.  Despite getting a bit of a gap early in the stage, ChiChi and Claus caught up with us somewhere along the descent and once again finished just a few minutes in front.  Maria and Eugenio once again finished a few minutes behind. This stage was especially cool because we rode a trail that is exclusively opened for public use exactly one-day-per-year.  For the TransAndes!

 The Catripulli race venue
Free beer was provided at an impromptu afternoon gathering
while early finishers cheered racers still coming in

Stage 5:

The final stage of the race would take us 60km with a relatively mild (by TransAndes standards) 1300 meter elevation gain.  Today's start was not neutral and in my opinion it felt safer as groups splintered apart much more quickly.  I made some solid passes early on and once again we found ourselves in front of the two Chilean teams.  The first 25 km ticked by quickly as the terrain was fast and rolling, however I was busting my butt to stay in a draft so this is possibly the hardest 25km of the race for me.  I was pretty spent by the time we reached the climb, but we were in a good position, and I recovered nicely.  The forest was dense and dark making it difficult to see.   At around kilometer 35 we missed a turn.  We weren't off course for long, but it was long enough for ChiChi and Claus to catch up.  We put up a good fight, but once again came up short of 2nd.  Highlights of Stage 5 include getting up and personal with Villarica Volcano, an active volcano that spews smoke, and riding over solidified lava flow reminiscent of Moab Slickrock.

 Solidified lava flow from Villarica Volcano
 We crossed 5 suspension bridges over the course of the week.  
Some were only 20 feet above water, one was over 200 feet high.  
This one on the way to Pucon was relatively mild and sturdy.

After 5 days of racing we covered 228 miles with over 34,000 feet elevation gain in 21 hours 21 minutes! What an awesome week of racing!

Podium (l-->r) Claus Plaut & ChiChi Garcia (Chile), Mary McConneloug & Mike Broderick(USA), Jen Hanks & Shannon Boffeli (USA)

Up next:  Post-race thoughts......

Sunday, February 7, 2016

TransAndes Stage 0: Getting there......

We left our house for the airport at 4:00 AM.  After flying Salt Lake City---> LA---> Houston---> Santiago---> Temuco we bummed a ride to our Temuco hostel from the super nice race promotor who happened to be at the airport coordinating shuttles.  We arrived at our hostel after 6:00 PM the next day.  The following morning we took the 2.5 hours shuttle to Huilo Huilo, Chile aka the middle of nowhere!

 I have not mastered the art of packing light for a stage race.  
We had about 200lbs of luggage between the two of us!  

Our hostel in Temuco was very comfortable.  No one spoke English, but I was able to understand our host well enough to understand that she was very worried about how we were going to travel with all of our luggage. This was also the last time we had good wifi for the week.  At first not being 'connected' made me nervous.  What was going on in the world?  I had no idea.  Not being able to check work email also made me uncomfortable at first.   By the end of the week I enjoyed it..... 

The TransAndes folks arranged shuttles for the racers from Temuco to Huilo Huilo 
where the first three stages of the race started.

The closer we got to Huilo Huilo, the more beautiful the scenery became.  We drove past lakes, mountains, and volcanos.  

The transfer to Huilo Huilo also gave us the opportunity to meet some of our fellow racers.  We became friends with Argentinian Pablo whose enthusiasm was infectious as well as Pedro and Luis from Portugal who became our good friends over the week (photos to come).  This was Pablo's 2nd time racing TransAndes.  He told me, in broken English, that the last time he raced the power from his legs caused a volcano to erupt.  He was funny!  

Our shuttle delivered us to our first cabana in Neltume, 5km from the race venue.   

 The cabana was actually quite large and very clean, 
both which came as a surprise to me as I had no idea what we were booking.
Neltume was also the closest thing to a town to the race venue.
We were able to pick up some groceries and cooked rice and veggies the first night.
It cost less than $5.
We built bikes up before spinning over to the venue

 We rode over to the the race venue, registered and got our race bag.  
Registration was a breeze and everything was very well organized.  
 I'm sure the volcano museum was very interesting, 
but it was also important to the racers because that is where el banos were located.   

Our first day in Chile was a picturesque 80 degree day.  Before we were 'disconnected' I had seen that the forecast was going to take a turn for the worse the following day.  

 Chile is known for its woodwork.  
We thought it was super cool how the roots remained attached to the rafters of this building 
and how logs were used as insulation. 

This canopy hotel is very close to the race venue.  It also was super cool.  

The day before the race we moved to our new accommodations, 
a cabana that was only 2km and a big hill away from the venue.

Since we didn't have a vehicle we kept our race bags in our tent at the race venue.
We would load up our backpacks and just bring the essentials to the cabana. 

We were thankful for this cabana as the skies opened up and temperatures cooled off for the first three days of racing.  Our wood burning stove kept us cozy warm.  

 It was a soggy start to the race.
I wasn't too disappointed though as the mild temperatures helped us acclimate.
 Most of our training took place in 20degree weather.  

The opening ceremonies included traditional Chilean dance.

 Every night (as well as lunch) we were fed a feast of all-you-can-eat fresh local fare.
There was always pasta.  Lots and lots of pasta.
There were also dishes with lentils and garbanzo beans.  Sometimes there was rice.
The veggies and fruit were fresh and a variety of meats were served.
Free Chilean wine and beer were also a highlight.
I easily consumed upwards of 10,000 calories/day, but I needed it,
stage racing puts my metabolism on overdrive!

On Monday January 25th we awoke to cloudy skies and damp dirt for the first stage of TransAndes 2016.  On the same day 5-years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  
Over the past 5 years I have thought many times that my racing days and especially 
my days of epic adventures like TransAndes were over.  
Despite the overcast skies, what a glorious day to be lining up healthy, strong, and in remission.

Up next:  The Race!  

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The lead up to TransAndes.......

I can't believe it has been almost 7 years since I did my last big mountain bike stage race.  I slipped into the stage race lifestyle so easily that it felt like I had never 'retired'.

There is something magical about stage racing.   Wake, eat, race, eat, recover/hang out, eat more, sleep, repeat.   Throw in limited access to the outside world and true bliss is achieved.

My goals for TransAndes were simple.  Be fit enough to have fun and not get an overuse injury.  Easier said than done when the race falls in January and you live in Park City, UT and it is puking snow every day!  Seriously.  What is up with all the snow this year!

My training leading up to TransAndes was solid considering the weather obstacle.  We made a few Holiday trips to the desert for big miles while our winter rides at home were more focused.  I think I only rode the trainer a handful of times, so I became a bit of an expert on what it takes to train in the cold.

Here's a few tips:

The essentials:
1.  High quality winter riding boots.  I have the Lake MXZ303 winter riding boots.  I wear these in temps below 35ish with just wool socks.  I recommend going a 1/2 size bigger than your normal bike shoes
2.  Bar mits :  These work great for endurance/tempo riding.  For intervals I wear Pearl Izumi lobster gloves with liners.
3.  Layers-nothing specific here, just a lot of breathable layers

Many of my rides would start with intervals followed by a few hours at endurance pace.  I would change out all my sweaty base layers after the intervals so that when my body temperature dropped later in the ride I didn't get cold.

Pretty simple, but it actuality it took me about 4 times as long to get ready to ride than it does in the summer!

Just like summer, though, there is beautiful nature to be seen on the bike in the winter.

 My Pivot Les became my go-to bike for winter training.  In this photo I mounted 27.5 wheels on the 29er frame so that I could run 2.8" tires in the snow.  Not quite a snow bike, but almost.......
 Some days my race set up was sufficient to tackle the snow
 This photo was from one of our trips to the desert.  This is the bike I ended up taking to TransAndes, however I rebuilt it with a 2x11 to tackle the Andes steep climbs. A full suspension bike is the way to go for a stage race; after consecutive days of racing being being able to sit on the saddle (as opposed to standing over bumps) becomes cherished!

Up next, TransAndes report!