Or Dustin's title suggestion: Why Suck at One Sport When You Can Suck at Four?
The Mt. Taylor Quadrathlon climbs 5,000' up the highest stratovolcano in the San Mateo Range: it races 13 miles to the base of the mountain on bike, runs 5 miles up a mountain road, has a 2 mile uphill ski, and the grand finale is a 1-mile snowshoe topout at 11,301'. Once you've summited, you turn around and do it all again in reverse.
I have raced on a bike exactly twice in my life (and do not own a racing bike yet), my first-ever snowshoe race was a month ago, and I just learned how to uphill ski last year. This event is way too unique to miss. The finishers scream in under four hours, but you have all day to get the job done. I decided to go and just try my best, and Dustin was sweet enough to stick with me. We had been talking about this and getting my gear for it (so much gear: bike, skis, boots, poles, bindings, snowshoes) for over a year. Gear check-in feels like you're moving to Grants.
The week before the race, we put on #HappyValenclimbs, a hill repeat fat ass, which was terrifically fun but destroyed us both more than we expected. We tried to recover in time for the race, but it hurt to run even two days before.
Lesson one: have fresh(er) legs.
I can confidently say that 'my best' and the bike portion should not be in the same sentence. I am a terrible biker. I don't know if it's my bike mechanics, my mechanics, simply the weight of my bike, or this cycle: I'm a bad biker so I don't bike, and I don't bike because I'm bad at it. I realize I'm not being modest, people. At one point I looked down and we were going 6.1 mph. We started in the back of the group and got passed the entire way, even by the poor guy who had two flats (we gave him a couple of patches the second time).
Lesson 2: Do not wear underwear on a bike ride.
I knew this, but I forgot this. It feels like you are sitting on a butter knife, and you can't even readjust because you are also wearing a diaper. I had to hop behind a bush a few miles in and try to unsuccessfully rearrange way too many layers. I hope someday I eat my words, but biking is simply mechanical torture.
Lesson 3: Buy those dumb shoe hoodies.
Our feet were freezing. FREEZING. Ice blocks. The weather was stunning all day, but a morning at altitude in February is a bit sharp for bike riding. They hurt.
When we got to the transition (counting every single mile marker and with moderate cussing), I asked Dustin if he thought there were more than ten people behind us. He smiled. Fifteen, I asked optimistically? He smiled again and shrugged; I did not get a clear answer on that one. I mean, even the gals in tutus and pink feather boas passed us. I was discouraged, definitely, but I reminded myself that we were there for fun and a hard workout. Our bike bottles had hotel coffee in them so we could stay warm before the race start. We were clearly not taking this too seriously.
Running is very hard on completely numb and painfully tingly ice cube feet, but once we started we did what he and I do best: we just kept going. We started catching up to the back of the pack, which bolstered our spirits a bit.
Lesson 4: Sun+February+Mountains+New Mexico=chapstick and sunscreen.
Dustin has a farmer's tan and shiny red forehead this morning; my lips feel like leather. I always have chapstick in my vest, but it was missing on race day and sorely missed.
We had our vests on for the bike and the run; it probably wasn't necessary, but I'd do it again next time because I felt prepared (Houdini jacket, extra gloves, gel, phone, easy hydration for those of us that throw our water bottles on the road when we try to drink from our bike bottles because we don't practice). The aid stations and volunteers were above and beyond, though, so if you know how to dress for the weather you could go lighter.
Lesson 5: Put nutrition in every bag.
The mouthwash cups with 8 calories of tailwind in them are not quite enough for me. I like to have my own nutrition during ultras, too, and use aid stations for the cheers and gummy bears. At the transitions, you could cut your time in half by eating while you change and bringing your own fuel, rather than taking time to head to the table.
Lesson 6: Know what's in your bags. You have a lot of bags.
When you head out to ski, you also have to bring up your snowshoes for the final transition (there's now way for them to drop your snowshoes up that high on the summit for you). Dustin and I have been skiing at every opportunity this winter, and climbing is our wheelhouse. I was excited to ski.
We passed a lady with her tennis shoes poking out of her pack. "Oh no," I said aloud. "What?" Dustin called back. Ummmmm.
I had no memory of putting my shoes in my pack. You need shoes to wear snowshoeing. Backcountry ski boots are rigid and heavy, and it's too cold to wear socks at 11,000.' Oh no oh no oh no. I probably skied up faster with the slight panic wondering whether I had my shoes. "Want me to check?" Dustin offered helpfully. No thanks. It was too late either way.
The ski tops out at Heartbreak Hill, which is aggressively steep and unhidden by trees, but the final transition is just ahead. It's the start of summit fever, and it's also the time your lungs start whining that you're above 10,000' and your legs start torching (although I was actually more concerned about the descent; if you've ever done much vertical training you know that coming down is much more painful in the long run).
The snowshoe to the summit is rad. It's hard - it's super steep and high - but it's a relatively short jaunt and a stiff climb above treeline. You can see for fifty miles in every direction. New Mexico is colorful beyond belief; blues and pinks and oranges dotted with white snow and dark green conifers. The summit is a real summit (no false top outs), and buzzed up viking drummers beat you on and cheer when you turn the corner for the final stretch. I took a digger on the way down; I think I'd like new snowshoes for next time (mine are the big traditional kind with large teeth).
Lesson 7: Leave your skis in the sun at the snowshoe transition.
Then, when you come back down, you can change in the warm sunlight instead of shiver your ass off in the shade.
We loved the ski down! It's not exactly free miles because your legs are still under tension and your quads are bursting, but it's not much effort (until the end when it flattens out and you have to skate and waddle like a duck uphill without skins).
Running downhill is less work than running uphill, definitely, but it's not as easy as the other sports. Every mile you run is still a mile you ran; there's no coasting. This was kind of a grind-it-out and just chat about random stuff to not think about starting to feel tired. Dustin and I are really great at running together on tired legs.
This was also the sport I thought might hurt the most. Maybe it was the uncrustable pb&j I was munching, but I felt pretty darn happy. We seemed to be moving really well and had passed a lot of folks on foot by default. The endurance part was fully engaged, and we like that part.
Plus, for the first time in my life I was looking forward to my bike.
The bike back has one big hill to climb, and you have to pedal hard the last four or five flattish miles. Otherwise, it's a smooth cruise back to town - almost no pedaling, almost no brakes. We laughed a lot in the warm sunshine as we flew back to Grants. I pedaled heavy to get back. I was excited to be done, as you become during any long event, but I also felt really proud of my effort. Since the first stupid ride up, we had worked our butts off and sweated a ton. The finish was in sight.
On the ride back, I started thinking about how I could cut time next year and try harder. Obviously I need to learn how to get a bike up a hill. Transitions were relatively sloppy. I forgot my jacket when we started the ski and I had to go back to get it. Things like that. We finished just over 6 and half hours.
We packed our stuff, went to Denny's, and came back for the awards. I got second in my age group! Holy shit! A day that long isn't characterized by one segment, just like an ultra isn't determined by the first fifty miles. It turned out that I had enough time to make up for my bad cycling with strong climbing. I still can't believe it.
I can't wait 'till we go back. We've learned some things for next time.
From the ABQ Journal: