The Following is a guest blog from Joe Howdyshell. Read on to the bottom for his credentials and info on Summit Endurance Academy
It all started with the ice.
I had just dropped off my skis and boots in the transition zone at the base of the ski area, and was driving the bike course backwards. “Oh (*&#^,” I thought, “This is a half inch of snow on top of a half inch of ice, it’s like a luge track!”
The Imperial Challenge is a unique race. Held on the last weekend of Breckenridge Ski Resort’s winter season, and hosted by Breckenridge’s Maverick Sports, it’s a mountain town triathlon. Racers bike (or run, for the real crazies) from the town’s Rec Center 6 mile up a dirt road to the base of the ski area, where you transition onto skis and “skins” (think a thin strip of seal skin on the bottom of your skis so you can slide forward, but not backward), and skin up to the highest point on the resort and ski back down. All told, it’s 10 miles, 4000’ of climbing, and one hell of a good time.
My consternation on this particular April morning had everything to do with bike choice. Sine the road is dirt, many racers will go on mountain bikes, or at least cyclocross bikes. As has been historically proven, I’m dumb, and have always done it on a road bike. As I drove this road, feeling the traction control and anti-lock breaks straining to keep me on the road, I found myself reaching the limits of creative profanity. I’d even been offered a mountain bike by Nick from Breck Bike Guides, “Uh, you know it’s supposed to snow tonight, right?”
So there I was, standing on the start line at 18 degrees, flannel shirt, jean shorts, my best patriotic socks, and the wrong effing bike. I saw a couple people in the crowd on ‘cross bikes, but definitely no one dumb enough to do it on 23c road racing tires. Did I mention it was 18 degrees?
As we started the neutral rollout, Chris Carr and I caught up through chattering teeth. I know Chris pretty well from having gotten my ass kicked by him in this race the last couple years, as well as from ski mountaineering races over the last couple years. As the police cruiser peeled off and the race started in earnest, we could all feel a sense of reticence to pick up the pace. As we had the last couple years, Chris and I went to the front and started making the pace. Unlike the previous years, however, we kept chatting, no one wanting to really push too hard this early.
The first climb came and went pretty quickly, and by the top we were at full race pace (or, at least I was). Chris is a monster of a pro road cyclist, so we were in his world now, and I was just an interloper. I tried mightily to hang on his wheel, and shelled myself about 2 miles later, knowing I couldn’t sustain his pace. A few seconds later Breck legend Pete “Holy &#@*, he’s HOW old?” Swenson came around me fast, trying to create a bit of a gap. I dug deep and clawed my way back onto his wheel, hoping he could help me limit my losses to Chris. A minute or two later, we started the bike descent, which is FAST on dirt with washboard and random pot holes all over the place. I could see that Pete and I were making ground on Chris, and I pulled around to take up a little of the work as we pulled even. Seeing I was feeling a little saucier on the descent, I floored it hoping to open up a little gap leading into the last climb, a nasty, steep, switch-backing wash-boarded nightmare which had been ice an hour before. Luckily, the sun came out minutes before we arrived, and the climb was blissfully muddy. I got to the bottom of the climb alone, and tried to settle into a somewhat sustainable pace. Chris caught me about halfway up, and we crested the climb and came into the transition together.
“Shoes off, ski boots on, *&#$, this sun is really crankin’ all of a sudden, I’m wearing too many clothes, grab skis, poles, now GO!”
Last year I hit this point still dizzy with odors of my best friend’s bachelor party seeping through my skin. I knew I wasn’t as fit as I had been last year, but last night had been a rather more mellow affair, bed early, and a full nights sleep.
I left the transition in first, clicking into my Hagan skis, and setting off on the ascent. I was sure I wasn’t in as good of shape as Chris, and I knew that my only hope lay in not destroying myself in the first 10 minutes. About five minutes in, Pete came up onto my shoulder, prompting the usual “ahhh s%$^ where did HE come from?” He surged past my conservative pace, and again I matched him in the hope that he would help me to a faster time. I felt surprisingly good, considering we had just laid waste to the bike course in about 20 minutes, and were now streaking into the atmosphere. A minute or two later, Chris came past us on a mission. I didn’t think I could hang with him, but I was feeling good enough to pass Pete and hold my second place. As we made the turn onto the T-Bar, I had Chris in sight, but was starting to feel the effort. A couple towers up the lift line, I forced myself to take a notch off the pace, knowing how steep the grade gets halfway up.
One of my favorite parts of the Imperial is that you’re racing UP the T-Bar line as people are riding it, giving you a constant stream of “Nice work,” “Hey you’re doing it wrong,” and “HELL YEAH DAISY DUKES!” About this time you also start running into the bulk of the early wave starters, all sharing our mutual suffering on this nasty pitch. As I crested the first steep section halfway up the lift, I looked down and saw my heart rate at 178, a number I haven’t seen in a couple years. “Aww hell,” I thought, “I still have a long way to go, settle down old man!” Knowing I still had another 500’ of climbing before getting to the infamous “Porkchop Hill,” I tried to relax and settle in as best I can while trying to move quickly straight uphill at 11,500’. As I watched Chris pull away, I tried to build up some strength for Porkchop, the last super steep section of the lift line. Ahead I saw that three-quarters of the racers in front of me were opting to take off their skis and hike up it, the steepness and hypoxia taking their toll. Knowing how long it takes to transition, I opted to back off the pace just a hair, and surged as I got to the bottom, keeping up my momentum for the two to three minutes I knew it would take.
As I crested the pitch, I looked at my watch, seeing 184bpm. Dizzy and gasping from the effort, the crowd at the top spurred me on. My buddy Drew offered me a water bottle, to which I said “no” and lurched towards, the lack of oxygen crossing some signals. A quick gulp of water as I moved past felt like a tease, as I surveyed the last 900’ I had to climb. I knew that the first pitch wasn’t that steep, but having just pushed myself FAR beyond my sustainable pace, and now above 12,000’, everything at this point was a boxing match. Chris was gone, still in sight, but at a pitch this steep, I knew he had a couple minutes on me. My goal at this point was to maintain a good pace to the bottom the final boot-pack, where I knew I could make up some time.
The section from Porkchop Hill up to the top of the Imperial chair is hateful. There’s no other way of putting it. At this point I’d already climbed 3000’ and averaged ABOVE my lactate threshold for an hour (theoretically impossible), and now the air is only getting thinner and the pace has to stay high. At this point you cycle through every strategy in the book to try to not think about what feels like death creeping into your legs. You sing to yourself, you think about your happy place, you try desperately to remember that super inspiring mantra you read just last night, all with the mental clarity of a drowning sheep. You waffle back and forth between thinking “this is HARD,” and questioning all of your life’s decisions up to this point. There’s no way around this part. THIS is the race. Before this was still the warm-up, THIS is what separates the kids from the grownups.
Unlike last year, I managed to keep it together on this bit, even feeling strong for a couple very brief stretches. I got to the boot pack, looked back and saw Pete (“effing Pete!”) looking close. I took off my skis, and started steadily up the boot-pack, thinking about an athlete I had coached up it just the other day, trying to remember what I’d told her. I actually felt pretty damn good on this part, and reached the high point on the course with a solid lead on Pete, Chris nowhere in sight. A slow and relaxed transition lead into a couple beautiful high speed GS turns on last nights four inches of fresh snow before my legs locked and I almost fell over. This descent wasn’t going to be easy.
The first two pitches of the ski are all off piste, on tiny little ultra-light skis, and thrashed legs. When I’m on my game and skiing them a lot, I’m fast and confident, but I hadn’t been skiing my race skis in the past month, and certainly not putting out the effort I had this day. As I picked my way down the steep sections, my quads screamed and threatened to cramp. After what felt like an eternity, I neared the bottom of the last steep section, turned my skis straight downhill and dropped into an alpine tuck for the groomers down to the finish. I knew Pete wasn’t too far back, so I pushed the legs to hold a tuck down the remaining 2000’ of descent, looking out for the skiing population as I whizzed downhill hitting 52MPH on skis that weigh 1.5lbs and legs with only a shred of working muscle. I crossed the finish line in second, 1:26 after leaving the Rec Center. Gasping for air and struggling to stand upright, I congratulated Chris and soon Pete. After a couple minutes the air returned, the legs loosened up, and I was able to appreciate what had been a damn good day for me. I knew I wasn’t at peak fitness, but I’d executed my race plan perfectly and came home with second place. Now it was time for a kiss from my girlfriend, a beer, and plotting my revenge for next year.
Joe Howdyshell is the coach and owner of the Summit Endurance Academy. He spends his time racing in jorts, drinking beer, and nerding out about exercise physiology. Want to raise your badass quotient by 5 points? Email him. Joe@SummitEnduranceAcademy.com