Heading to the Start
After waking before my alarm, I ate, dressed, applied sunscreen and copious amounts of chamois cream. I packed the cooler with my bottles (10), mini cokes and food that Amy would be handing to me.
I went to the garage where the other athletes who were staying at Jill’s house were all doing their final prep, and we all helped make sure everyone was ready. There were 6 of us representing 3 countries and 5 states. Jill and I were joined by Jason, a strong triathlete just coming off Ironman Austria; Violeta and Lorenza, 2 very strong women from Mexico’s National MTB team; and Jonny, a talented MTB racer from Chicago. It was about 35 degrees so we all had heavy cover-ups and gloves that we planned to shed right before the start.
At 5:30 AM I kissed Amy, got on my bike and rode the 2 miles to the start line. I headed into my start corral, the 3rd from the front. There are 8 start corrals with approximately 200 riders per corral. Your corral is assigned based on your qualifying time or previous years’ time. If you’re a rookie who gained entry through the lottery, you are placed in the back corral where it can take almost 10 minutes to get through the start line.
With a 30 minute wait, I got to know the other racers lined up around me and did my best to stay warm by hopping around and stretching. Finally, with 5 minutes to start I stripped my cover-ups off but kept the heavy gloves on over my fingerless gloves, a decision I would be very thankful for during the first very cold hour of the race.
The Race Begins
At exactly 6:30 AM the race started with the traditional shotgun blast out of the back of a pick up, and we were off. Normally the strategy in a race this long would be to start slow and conserve energy for later, but with a narrow climb up St. Kevins looming in 6 miles it would bottleneck. If you were too far back you could end up walking much of it and losing valuable time. I followed Alison Powers’ advice and went out hard, treating the first 3.5 miles on the asphalt like a road criterium and moving through the pack, surfing wheels and improving my position. By the time we reached the climb I had passed a couple hundred riders, but I had paid a price. My legs were throbbing from the exertion, and I still had almost 100 miles and 12,000’ of climbing to go.
The climb up St. Kevins was steep, rough, and cold. My legs were aching from the exertion, lack of oxygen and a sufficient warm up, but no one was in my way and I was able to climb at my own pace. I heard later that a couple minutes behind me it had bottlenecked badly, and people had to walk or pedal at a walking pace. Finally, I reached Carters Summit at 10,700’ elevation. With the sun rising, I began the descent to Hagerman’s Pass with stunning views of Turquoise Lake. Ten minutes later we were climbing again, this time up a rough double track to the 11,100’ Sugarloaf Pass. My legs continued to throb and my lungs burned, but I made sure I kept my HR between 155-165, my “hard but safe” zone. It started to warm up, so I pulled off my heavy gloves and stuffed them in my jersey as I ate, drank and prepared for the Powerline descent.
The Powerline Descent is a steep, rocky and very fast descent, and I saw speeds in the mid 30’s. I passed numerous riders with flats and was glad I’d chosen tires with strong sidewalls instead of lightweight racing tires with paper thin ones. I was also very thankful I was running a full suspension bike and was amazed that nothing broke as I plowed through and over rock gardens and boulders at breakneck speeds.
I negotiated the lower part of the descent with the super steep pitches and monster ruts perfectly, nailing the lines I had previously scouted. A few minutes later I was back on pavement. I stripped off my vest, dumped it and my gloves and grabbed the first mussette from Amy. I replaced my empty bottles of First Endurance EFS drink with full ones. I jumped on the back of a fast moving group, and we all worked well together into the wind.
Pretty quickly we picked up other riders and were soon a fast moving train of about 20. We turned off the pavement onto sandy double track that climbed slightly up towards the Pipeline aid station. The pace stayed high and soon there were only five of us left in the group. Again, my legs were throbbing, and I was pushing at my limit. But I didn’t want to give up the group I was in and the protection from the wind it provided. I kept pushing with my eyes focused on the wheel in front of me, trusting that my suspension would handle the unseen rocks we plowed over.
We arrived at the Pipeline aid station, and our group evaporated as all of the riders pulled off to get their fluids and feeds. Overnight a small tent city had sprung up with pop-ups lining both sides of the dirt road. Racer’s crews and families lined the road ready to give whatever aid they could provide. There were signs, banners, flags and music, offers of candy, cokes, water and support. I heard cheers and yells and numerous references to the KÜHL kit I was wearing. You’re looking KÜHL! Go Joe KÜHL!
It was inspiring and uplifting, and then I was through and fully focused on the course in front of me.
I did a systems check and realized I was in trouble. This was only mile 29 and 2 hours in, and my legs were throbbing and giving me signals that they might cramp if I kept up my current pace. I still had to get across the valley, ride 7 more hours and face 3 more major climbs including the beastly Columbine climb which would last 90 minutes and take me up to the high point of the race at 12,600’.
Seeds of doubt germinated, and I began to regret my fast start, thinking I may have sacrificed too much too early. I dialed my pace back a bit, dropped my HR down to the 155-160 range and ate and drank all that I could tolerate over the next 10-15 miles.
The terrain was a mixture of rolling fire roads, single track, smooth dirt roads and a mile or two of asphalt to link it all together. I spent most of the time alone with my thoughts and pain. Other riders passed me, and I passed a few here and there but I never linked up with any through this section. I was thankful I had wrapped my bars with tape, and I spent as much time as I could leaning my forearms on them in my modified TT position to cheat the wind. Thoughts of Team Sky’s Marginal Gains program danced in my head, and I hoped it’d be enough to get me under 9 hours. But I feared it wasn’t.