Sunday, October 2, 2011

24-Hour National Championships: Don't believe it—it's more like 40 hours!

Oh, the fun I am having! Or the sleep deprivation. Or both. But we all know that sleep is overrated, right?

Well, at least on a short-term basis.

After arriving in CO Springs Thursday night and a wonderful German dinner with race director Tim Scott I spent Friday familiarizing myself with the venue in Palmer Park and helping out at registration, at the very trendy Ascent Cycling, a truly cool bike shop. Palmer Park—like Central Park in NYC or Cameron Park in Waco—is one of those rare legacies of a visionary who realized a hundred years ago that people need more than just their homes to be able to live. I'm not sure of the exact size of this gem, but our race track covered 13 miles and apparently only scratched the surface of the existing trail system. There are gorgeous vistas of Colorado's second-largest city, and Pike's Peak and Red Rocks seem to be within grasp's reach.

Palmer Park, in the middle of Colorado Springs—wow!
But I wasn't here just for the sightseeing. I know, none of you thinks I ever work, but I really do. It may not be lifting stuff, or scraping things off the floor, but it is sometimes similar to being a greeter at Wal-Mart, and we know they do get strangled. During registration I had fellow "greeters" in Kelli Lusk and George Heagerty, two of USA Cycling's minions who not only are essential to keeping the USAC machine humming but who are also long-time friends. In the late afternoon, the venue started to take shape, but it was a long way from being the glitzy backdrop of Velo and VeloNews photos.

Before ...
... and before ...
... and 48 hours later
Let me tell you, Tim's crew worked HARD throughout the night so that we could have a National Championship.

A 24-hour race such as this is completely different from the other types of events that I officiate. Somehow, everything seems to be in slow-motion since the end is so far away. Maybe that's just my perception (and maybe erroneously so), but things appear less urgent, less pressing. Still, the start came at the exact appointed hour, at noon on Saturday with a shot fired from Dean's starter pistol that sent the racers running 200 meters to their bikes in a beautifully executed LeMans start. It doesn't get much better for the spectators.
The 24 Hours of COS open with a LeMans start
The course in Palmer Park was about 13 miles long, most of it not overly technical and but with lots of short power climbs and little time to recover on long downhills. These National Championships saw both single riders competing as well as teams of two and four riders, in various combinations. And there was even a category for singlespeed riders, who were amazingly fast. While the teams generally traded off after one or sometimes two laps each, the solo riders were facing a grueling 24-hour slog all by themselves. Some of them have support crews, but others are self-sufficient and will stop for just a few moments at their campsite in the "village" to grab something out of their ice chest and then continue on yet another lap. The top riders such as eventual champions Josh Tostado and Monique Mata turn almost the same time on each lap, slowing down only a little bit over the course of the day. They are like machines. The teams' fastest lap times were around 56 minutes, while the solo males turned a number of 59-minute laps. I believe the winning team churned out 23 laps over the course of the 24 hours, and Tostado was right behind. Simply amazing.
Racers on the first lap in Palmer Park
After two hours of racing, about the time for a "normal" mountain bike cross-country race, the race doesn't stop. It goes on. The clock suddenly shows four hours, and one realizes that we still have 20 hours to go! That's almost another full day! Reality slowly sinks in, and the time slowly ticks by. Racers come through the start/finish and transition area, where the teams exchange their timing chip, which serves as a "baton," and then go out on another lap. The clock and the sun indicate it is five o'clock—another 19 hours to go. By this time we had found out that the bulletproof chip timing was rather bullet-riddled, and our crew of three commissaires knew that we would have to record every racer on every lap, with a precise time, if we were to stand any chance of ending the day with legitimate results. Why does chip timing work for 3,000 athletes in triathlons but has been more than just mildly troublesome in every mountain bike race that I have ever worked?

At 6 p.m., racers who enter a new lap are required to go out with lights on their bikes. Now, if you have not seen those fancy $400+ lighting systems that are either helmet- or handlebar-mounted, you wouldn't believe the light output. One company is aptly called "Nightsun." Some of the racers don vests and arm warmers, others head out into the quickly arriving night still in their salt-encrusted short-sleeved jerseys. Tinted sunglasses give way to clear lenses. In the transition area a certain routine has settled in, and the exuberance has calmed somewhat. We still don't have any accurate results updates, and we will continue to work through the night trying to sort out the progress of the race together with the lone woman who is working the chip timing. We still have 16 hours to go.
A racer enters another lap around 3 a.m.
Rogene, Dean, and I keep track of the racers, with me spending much time in transition and walking around to tend to other tasks (sometime as mundane as finding coffee for Rogene). Time starts to flow together. Dean takes a break for maybe 90 minutes, and Rogene and I record racers going by. Dean returns, and Rogene takes a break. Mine comes for 40 minutes around 5:30 a.m. Meanwhile, the solo-riders have been going, going, going. Faces look drawn, the team riders who get rotated out are cramping and shivering from the cold. One rider comes in, desperately looking for a teammate to substitute him; a handler tells him that he has to go out for another lap, that for some reason his substitute is not available. He takes off, slowly.
Rogene and Dean trying to keep the night gremlins away

Daylight finally arrives, and at 8 a.m. (still four hours to go, twice the time of a "normal" race!) the quiet hours are over and our announcer returns. Music starts to blare again, and some life returns. We have finally posted a reliable set of running standings, and we now update them every hour. I make the round-trip between commissaires' stand and chip-timing every 10 minutes to work out yet another kink. When we post the final preliminaries at 11 a.m., ten minutes before riders may enter the course one last time, we are accurate.
The spoils are waiting for the new national champs

Finally, at noon on Sunday, it's all done. Eyes are bloodshot, some of the riders are a bit delirious, and everybody is craving sleep. But there are first the stars-and-stripes jerseys and the medals for the winners, and then the tear-down of the venue starts. Rogene and Dean leave, I debrief with the race organizer, and his visually worn-out wife finally drops me off at my hotel around 4:30 p.m. I tell you, it should have been called the 40 Hours of Colorado Springs!

And now it's Monday morning, I have slept well, and my plane is leaving at 10:40 a.m. The beginning of a week of R&R in Cancun is just 48 hours away, and we know how fast that time goes by.


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