A race like no other, INDEED!
In December, one of my teammates Matt Vahey told me about a mountain bike stage race in Guatemala. Matt said he’d always wanted to try it and asked if I’d join him as a two man team in the 2016 race. Before I even knew what I was agreeing to, I said yes. Then, I looked at the website for the race www.elretodelquetzal.com. Uh oh.
El Reto is a 4 day MTB stage race through the wilds of Guatemala. Other than good equipment, I was fully unprepared. I have never done any endurance event that lasted more than 4 hours or so. el Reto was going to be several hours longer than that for 4 straight days. Totally outside my comfort zone. I was also used to pretty tame mountain biking, and el Reto was in a word, WILD. Top that off with injuries that plagued me in December and January and a demanding work schedule early in the year. As I read more about the race I realized I was in for some pain.
We arrived in Guatemala City a day before the race, and met up with Matt’s in-laws who live in Guatemala city and would be our hosts for before and after the race. This gave us time to get our bikes together and go for a short ride (though probably too strenuous in hindsight), in order to spin out the legs. I learned very quickly that Guatemala is either straight up or straight down. And the altitude….Even at the altitude of Guatemala City, my lungs were taxed.
First, the gear:
Bike: NEW 2016 Scott Spark 900RC
Great Scott! Post race.
[Note: I received this bike in February. Had only ridden it for two short rides before Guatemala. I had ZERO mechanical issues the whole race, and I LOVE this bike. A great testament to Scott and the folks at BikeLine Newark who really know how to put a bike together]
Gearing: SRAM 1X 10-42 rear, AbsoluteBlack 30T OVAL chainring front
Pedals: CrankBrothers Candy 11
Helmet/Sunglasses: SH+ Shot helmet, SH+ 5000 sunglasses
Shoes: Gaerne G.Sincro Limited Edition Fluo Yellow
Lighting: Lupine Pico
Hydration: Patagonia Forerunner hydration pack
Nutrition: Hydration: First Endurance: EFS, OptygenHP Supplements and Ultragen Recovery
Enervitine Cheerpack gels and Sportlegs electrolyte tabs
Stage 1: 12K TT
Stage 1 was a NIGHT TT. Half up, half down. We started in a group of 6 and quickly pulled away from our group. The start was straight up out of a quarry. 10-15% grades greeted us from the start. But, it was steady climbing so not too bad and importantly easy to navigate at night. That said, I already noticed I was wishing for one more gear (maybe two). A harbinger of doom. We finished the climbing in under a 1/2 hour and started the downhill. Now, Matt is a much more experienced downhill rider than me, and I have limited practice riding at night. That said, the Lupine was as bright as the sun. In retrospect, I would have mounted it to my bar instead of my helmet; the beam was picking up the volcanic ash in the air and reflecting back into my eyes. That said, it far better than any light I’ve ever used and super light. I held my own for the first part of the downhill, keeping Matt’s lights in sight. Then, about half way down, a rider in front of me stopped in a tight turn and I swerved to avoid him…and crashed. Hard. I popped up but I was shaken. After I went down, I had a hard time getting clipped back in. For this I don’t fault equipment, but a)terrain and b) preparation. Terrain was straight downhill and rough. I was bouncing around and couldn’t get my feet over the pedals. Preparation in that I should have “fitted” my shoes to my pedals by removing some of the tread (more on this later). This would have been simple to do, but the only riding I had done with this equipment prior to the race was on the easy trails of Middle Run (in the snow). Nothing as technical as I dealt with during el Reto. Matt finished well ahead of me as I had a bit of trouble with the 2nd half of the downhill portion. We finished in under an hour, good enough for 5th place and only 5 minutes behind the leaders. Without the crash…shoulda, coulda, woulda.
Post Stage 1. I’m a dirty boy.
STAGE 2: ANTIGUA GUATEMALA – PANAJACHEL
86KM doesn’t seem like too bad of a distance. Honestly, I didn’t think it was going to be the biggest challenge. But here is where some prior knowledge of the course would have been extremely helpful. Just before leaving for the race I replaced my stock 32T SRAM ring with an AbsoluteBlack 30T OVAL chainring. This was a great move, but in hindsight I should have gone with a 28T OVAL ring. The few who were brave enough to run 1X at el Reto were running a front 28T. The 30T oval felt too easy in Delaware and I almost changed to a 32T, little did I know. I was pushing way too hard a gear for the whole race. Nowhere was that more true than stage 2. The steep, sustained climbing at the start of Stage 2, combined with the fact that I was pushing the gear led to cramping in the first 20KM. I never recovered. I was cramping the whole race, legs locked up in a grotesque zombie quad of cramp. For the rest of the 86 KM, I suffered. I was also feeling guilty about letting down Matt (who was still feeling great and spinning up climbs). In fact, the pain and difficulty were secondary to the guilt of not performing as well as I should. The terrain was extremely challenging, the only “respite” from climbing were the downhills which were steep and technical, not offering much of a break. The saving grace of this stage was found in the form of cut fruit. Each of the aid stations had fresh watermelon and pineapple. Matt laughed at how ravenous I was for this stuff, but it really helped the cramping and quenched my thirst. In hind sight, I wasn’t staying hydrated enough (I didn’t pee for 24 hours) and was probably dangerously dehydrated. The extremely steep climbing gave away to a series of downhills that were followed by either really steep slow climbs or hike-a-bike sections. A couple of these were so steep they were less hike-a-bike and more rock climbing with a bike on your shoulder. After the 3rd aid station there was a 6-7 KM steep climb on gravel roads that led us up to the top of the final climb. My legs were shot but kept turning over and Matt and I finished out the last climb together. That lead us to the downhill finish of the race…the Snake. This was probably the most fun part of el Reto. Very technical downhill that was basically mountain on one side, sheer 1000+ foot drop on the other. I was able to ride all but a few short sections, surprising myself as it was by far the most technical downhill I’d ever ridden. Straight up gnar. The downhill section led into gardens and then a village. The last section of the race took us through the narrow walkways of the village…you can’t make this up. Kids were sitting atop walls lining the course cheering us on at the top of their lungs. I felt like i was a Tour de France stage. I had a huge grin on my face the whole time despite my legs and arms screaming at me.
Racing through the alleys of Panajachel! Follow the pink arrows.
We finished Stage 3 in 7 hours, good enough for 5th, but we lost 40 minutes to our closest competitor. It was a big disappointment, but my biggest concern was continuing at that point.
“I hurt myself today. To see if I still feel. I focus on the pain. The only thing that’s real”
STAGE 3: PANAJACHEL – XELA
I woke the morning of March 5 feeling not so great. Having hardly slept, and still sore, I was unsure of my ability to finish Stage 3, the stage billed as the hardest of el Reto. I kept my mouth shut about this as we prepared to board the boat that would take us to the start of the stage on Lake Atitlan.
All Aboard! Boat trip to the start of Stage 3
Stage 3 started with a short downhill into a long uphill on a cobblestone road. We were last off the boat as our bikes were in the back, and this ended up hurting us as we started near the back. I’m convinced we lost 20 minutes due to our starting position. We climbed for about 1km before it got to be so steep that everyone was dismounting. Without a clear line, Matt and I followed suit and proceeded to hike-a-bike for about 6 km.
We’re going that away. A lot.
Nobody rides for free.
We started the day at that little blue building and climbed up to the first peak on the far right. From their we climbed up to the radio towers on top of the third peak from the right
This part was not fun. Our feet were killing us, our legs were tired and dammit, we wanted to ride our bikes. In hindsight, it allowed me to loosen up my legs some for the challenge ahead,but we lost time. Once the riding started, I felt much better than I had all race. I still rode conservatively though, not wanting to cramp. I had switched from EFS to Matt’s Hammer Nutrition mix of HEED and Perpetuem and this is what I’ll be using from now until forever. It works.
After 6KM or so, the climb became rideable. The rest of the day was climbing, climbing climbing. I had learned that if I was going to push a big gear, I needed to use my quads instead of my adductors or my legs would cramp. This strategy paid off, but as I still couldn’t spin, going was pretty slow. I was feeling good on day 3 and even snapped a few pics on the fly of a few of the many hike-a-bike sections:
On the right is a view of one of the “hills” we rode down before hiking up the other side
The day topped out around 10K feet. Air was really thin, and we were struggling for breath even when hiking. We were in the jungle, it was wild and I was grinning again. Good stuff.
Matt: “Welcome to the JUNGLE!
The last hike-a-bike (again, read rock climbing with a bike on your shoulder) topped out to a fire road. One last quick aid station and we set off down the mountain. I had clearly been holding back in this stage as I felt great. The downhill dropped us onto flat fast fire roads that led through town to the finish. I went into TT mode and led us home at over 30KPH over the flat muddy roads. We rolled into the finish feeling good and were off to the hotel in no time.
Stage4: XELA – IRTRA (REU)
At our hotel in Xela all things conspired against us. A nice hotel, the Central Park Hotel in Xela, should have been restful and a great place to recharge. However, our room was on the first floor facing a busy street, and there was a party going on below us. Not to mention our bags were 3 hours late getting to the hotel, and when they arrived they were soaked (from being in the back of a pickup in an unseasonable thunderstorm). Still, we ate, hung out our clothes to dry, and got in bed. When we woke at 5:30am for the next day’s start, Matt and I asked each other “did ya sleep”…. nope, not a wink. It was going to be a long day. Not to mention, while we had been ecstatic the day before that we were “practically done” as we thought today looked like an easy stage on paper, we learned that the first 1.5 hours would be spent climbing steep climbs at altitude.
Never-the-less, we toed the start line all smiles and feeling good again. The start was neutral for about the first 5K and then the climbing started. It was hard to catch breath due to the altitude, but we made good time. We climbed to one of the highest points in Guatemala, what locals call “Alaska” somewhere around 10K feet elevation. It was quite chilly, about 45*F. We were feeling pretty good and gapped the team that was ahead of us in the standings. The days of climbing in too big a gear were taking their toll on my legs, but I kept telling myself “this is the moment”. The team we were keen on beating this stage kept yo-yo-ing back to us, but we were able to lose them again when we topped out the climb and entered some sweet single track. This is where Matt and I excel and we were confident we could loose those guys. There were a couple of shorter climbs but we were sailing. Another bonus, as we descended, it got much easier to breath and it got warmer.
- Yahoo! I’m on my way down! Railing some sweet single-track.
An almost tragedy occurred when I entered a wet slick downhill with a bit too much speed and the bike skipped out from under me. Not really a crash but I slid into the side of the ravine and it knocked my saddle 90 degrees. I rode down this technical section way off the back and then pulled out my shiny new CrankBrothers tool to quickly adjust the saddle, knowing “the enemy” was close. A quick fix and I was back on the bike, minimal time lost. Matt had been a few yards ahead of me and was now unaware that I was off the back. Luckily, he figured it out and pulled off to let me catch up. We continued down the mountain and entered the dry riverbed section that was strewn with what I call “baby head” boulders. It was treacherous, but following a good wheel we were making great time. Just about time for crash #3. I rolled over a loose boulder about the size of a cantaloupe and it kicked up in between my crank and my rear chainstay stopping me cold and sending me over the bars. I hit hard (pretty sure I rebroke that rib from December’s crash, see The Accidental Cyclist). I shouted a very bad things very loudly (sorry, Mom) and Matt heard and pulled up. He told me later he thought we were done at that point, ’cause it sounded bad. Before I had an idea how badly I was hurt and how much damage I had done, I was back on the bike and riding. Then Matt crashed. Not bad but I know it hurt to hit those rocks. I held up and decided to take my glasses off as they were fogging due to the temperature change. Matt zipped by me halfway through this and I had to sprint to catch back on. This is where our determined competitors caught and passed us, again. Well, we couldn’t have that. We were tearing through the last part of technical downhill and caught and passed them again (they too both crashed pretty bad in this section). Somewhere in this section I lost my brand new SH+ 5000 sunglasses; wah.
After the single track ended we got on a long (5-6 mile) section of cobbled road that descended a grade of about 15%. It was like holding a jackhammer for an hour. My hands, already cramping, were locked up, but it was fun and fast. This dropped us into a valley and we quickly felt the heat. Starting the day in the 40’s, it was now nearing 90. “Now we’re in the tropics!”. A short climb led us up to an aid station; Matt wanted to skip it as we were sure our competitors were right on our tail, but I was out of water. I had seen them start the climb when we were just at the top, so I quickly replenished my fluids and we set off. There was some confusion at this point how much more racing we had. I thought we had about 20 more miles and Matt thought we had about 10-15 more kilometers. Big difference in how one would pace themselves. We also had different ideas about how close our competitors were, he thought they were breathing down our neck, as he thought he saw them rolling up to the aid station when we were leaving. I knew that they were further back as I had seen their position. Regardless, we rode with abandon. We rode through another village using our now honed urban downhill skills, and then rolled up to the swinging bridge. The bridge was about a football field long and crossed a rocky river bed and a raging class V river. It was raging due to the unseasonable rain we had had the night before (the picture below is from the 2015 race). Technically, you should walk your bike across this, but we rode it. Matt rode first and I waited as more than one person on the bridge starts it swinging. I stated across and made it about half way before two gents from Puerto Rico started walking across. The bridge started swinging pretty wildly. Danger! Seriously, I peed a little. I unclipped one foot and sort of scootered across.
Danger. Danger. Danger.
After the bridge there was a very steep hill that we had to “paper boy” up. A couple of fans, refilled Matt’s empty water bottle and pushed him to the top, I had no such luck. Anyhoo, the last section of the race was a fast downhill on the PanAmerican Highway. The two gents from Puerto Rico caught us and we formed a 4 man TT to the finish. I was spun out going 45+mph. At the bottom of the hill we rolled into Itra and crossed the finish line. We thought we had won the stage for our category, but it turns out another team had crossed ahead of us. Still, after the struggles of the week to finish second place on the stage felt pretty good. Cold beer and a shower we were feeling mighty fine. All of the disappointment at not performing as well as I had wanted was replaced with a sense of accomplishment at having finished one of the hardest MTB races in the world with suboptimal preparation. Matt too was feeling good at having beaten some of our fellow competitors on the final day.
The bird over my shoulder was a biter..
Our ride back to Guatemala City. Thanks Mindy!
Finally, here’s a Central American site’s video of the race. Matt and I show up a couple of times:
So looking back, I would have changed a couple of things.
- FIRST and foremost, I would definitely run a 28T OVAL chainring for this race (not a 30T as I did). I had done all of my training spinning climbs at around 75-90 rpm. Pushing too hard a gear at 50 rpm killed my legs. This one aspect cost me more time in the race than imaginable. Cramping 20Km into an 86Km stage on day 2 was devastating. The only saving grace was the ovality of the ring. Had it been round, I’m convinced my knee would have given out and cramping would have been even worse. Regardless, every other rider I met running 1X was riding a 28T, and most were on dual ring rigs like Matt’s. I would really suggest this set up for el Reto, as the weight gain of a dual ring setup is wildly trumped by having extra gears to spin up steep climbs. I’m usually a bit stronger than Matt on hills, but in this race he was waiting for me. Live and learn.
- Circumstances of getting equipment ready quickly for this race meant I didn’t have enough time to test gear. Case in point was my shoe/pedal interface. I needed to trim tread from my shoes to accommodate the platform of the Candy pedals. I had used EggBeaters up until just recently and this would not have been a problem with them. This is no fault for shoes or pedals which both performed extremely well in these conditions, rather it was my fault for not knowing my equipment and modifying it to my needs. Clipping in on a rough descent was too difficult and cost me a lot of time on Stage 1 and Stage 4. I have since done this and the interface is MUCH better
- Nutrition. While I still like the First Endurance OptygenHP and Ultragen, the EFS has got to go. The steady energy of Hammer Perpetuem and electrolyte replenishment of HEED was the way to go. A shame I found this out only after cramping on Stage 2. That said, I also didn’t drink frequently enough to combat the altitude and was not diligent about taking salt supplements and gels every hour until after day 2. I definitely need to get better at this. I learned a hard lesson about racing long course.
- Training. Well, not much you can do when you have snow on the ground and no hills close by more than 10% grade (and those for only a mile or less). Not to mention only having 2 rides on a new bike prior to a big race. Lack of training was compounded by injuring my knee doing climbing muscle tension intervals on the trainer. I guess the only fix is to move out of PA.
All that aside, it was a phenomenal experience. The mental challenge grew me and I learned more about MTB in 4 days than I have in the last 2 years riding in PA. It made me better, stronger, faster. So many people asked me if I would be back; I told them to ask me in 6 months 🙂 Much love to the sponsors who helped make it happen.
PS. My spirit animal is a Spider Monkey.
Thanks for reading.