Death Valley Stage Race 2013 Race Report
By Mark Edwards
For someone who has spent his life in the temperate fog at sea level, I’m always surprised to find how natural the dry thin air of the high desert feels to me.
My recent quest to try new races brought me to the high mountains surrounding Death Valley for the Death Valley Stage race. A two-day race with absolutely no flat sections. On paper, this race doesn’t really look like much, 45 miles day one, 13 miles day two. Sure, there’s a bunch of climbing, 8,200’ day one and 5,200’ day two, but come on, only 58 miles over two days?
But I knew better. After enduring the Everest Challenge in 2010, I knew all too well how it feels to attempt to climb at race pace for 14 miles straight, reaching nearly10,000’ in elevation with 6% humidity.
This race typically has very small fields, and last weekend was no different. From years past I expected combined fields, and that’s what we got, four total fields, with my group starting last. My initial strategy was based on last year’s combination of the 45+, 35+, and Open 1,2,3. That went out the window when they decided to put the 45+ with the 55/60/65 groups. Now, instead of drafting off the 1,2,3s, I’d most likely have to play a larger tactical role, having to animate rather than follow wheels.
I’d been following the pre-reg list in the final weeks to get an idea of the competition I’d be facing. All the guys were from So Cal or Arizona, and their race results were all from races I’d never heard of. Not being familiar with anything other than NCNCA races, I really couldn’t tell what I was up against. Based on what I saw, most of the guys appeared to be mid pack racers, boosting my confidence. Until, that is, the final minutes of registration when a So Cal guy signed up with mid pack road race results, and a string of time trial wins. Granted, DVSR is a road race, but in reality, it quickly becomes a time trial against the conditions.
As we rolled around warming up, the attitude was friendly and supportive. A few guys did have their race face on, but in hindsight that may have been more about nerves than psyching each other out. They gave us all 6xx series numbers, which made it impossible to figure out who was in which group.
At the gun we took off at a tailwind aided fast pace. Not attacking fast, but considering Stage one opens with a 14 mile 4,000 climb, it was a good pace. The guy driving the pace looked fit and strong, but a bit too muscular to be a factor. Soon enough the desert tanned lean guys moved to the front. Two in particular made their intentions known: Gary, who had just turned 60 (and was the spitting image of our own Larry Broberg, only in a 6’2” version) and Kim, who I believed to be in my race (I was wrong, he was a 55).
Kim and Gary went to work attacking one after the other. While it took some effort, I didn’t have any problem responding to their attacks. Most of the group was already in trouble, but there was one other guy, Nick, that was hanging close with Gary, Kim, and myself. Nick? Wasn’t that the name of the time trial guy?
We were about a Felton Empire Grade climb into the race when Gary attacked and put himself and Kim into trouble. I rolled on by, slow and steady, opening a gap, Nick on my wheel.
Over the next two miles Nick tested me a few times, but our breathing foretold what was to come. Nick was now locked on my wheel. I was listening closely to his breathing rate, slowing slightly when he’d start to go anaerobic, accelerating when he’d start sounding comfortable. I wanted the GC win and was laying the foundation early.
Different from Everest, there weren’t any 120 pound climbers. Most of the guys were built very similar to me, tall and thin. While I was now confident my climbing was competitive, I still had two concerns: I was pretty sure these guys could descend well (and would work together) and, there was a lot of race left in very unforgiving circumstances.
Based on my concerns I was hoping I could stretch Nick to his limit, but leave enough that we could summit together and work the descent to our advantage against Kim and Gary. At mile eight, with six miles left to the summit, we rounded a bend and got nailed with a strong headwind. Now I had to make a decision, pull Nick into the wind for the next six miles, providing him the opportunity to recover, or attack and go the next 37 miles solo.
We had already caught and passed the women’s 1,2,3 that started 5 minutes ahead of us, and now I was catching the remnants of the men’s Cat 4 that started 10 minutes ahead. While this gave me motivation to chase, 4,000’ climbs, seriously thin air, and potential heat/dehydration are never far from mind.
I summited about 2-3 minutes ahead of Nick, grabbed some water, shifted into my 11 and tucked in for a fast and furious 14 miles down to the edge of Death Valley. One of the strange things is that you can see nearly forever in the desert. You often feel like you’re not moving at all because the horizon never changes. I could see the turnaround for probably a good 15 minutes @ ~30 mph (with a tailwind), I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get to it.
Once past the turnaround, the real work started; a headwind, super course pavement, and 4,000’+ of treeless climbing visible. This climb went on forever. In my mind I kept thinking I was slowing and going to be caught. I was going to feel like a rookie, going out too hard and paying as the smarter riders rolled by and waved, asking if I was okay, or the always discouraging “Good Job!”
The final climb took about an hour and a half, or roughly 3 consecutive Soda Springs at altitude. I won’t bore you with the blow by blow, but insert several paragraphs here of endless false summits, empty water bottles, and aching everything.
So far I’d stayed aware of the fact that I was going to have to get up and race the next morning. I felt I was riding within my limits, although the final 2K @ 9% planted some serious doubts as to my pacing for the day. Once across the finish line, the wait began. Did I have enough of a gap going into Sunday?
Unbelievably, 9 minutes behind me, Gary had dropped Kim and caught and passed Nick. 60 years old, 175 pounds, this guy is amazing. Next up… Kim, followed closely by Nick 11 minutes and change behind me.
We enjoyed snacks, told war stories, then headed down the hill to get some rest for Sunday.
Sunday morning was another beautiful day, and the Stage started just a couple of blocks from my motel. Too bad my legs felt so bad. I tried to convince myself that everyone felt just as bad, but you know how that goes… by the time I got to the start, I was certain everyone else felt great.
Then, just to mix things up, they did a mass start for all the groups, 13 miles and 5,200’.
The bigger group really amped people up and they shot of the line like it was a crit. Knowing I had a good cushion, and that I wanted to be able to do some sight seeing with Margaret after the race, I wasn’t motivated to kill myself. So I stuck with Nick who was responding to several of the attacks, but had let the leaders go.
Nick was the same weight as me and was riding with a power meter. At about 20 minutes in he told me he was at 289 watts average. A comfortable pace for me, but too much for his back, as he seized up from the previous days effort and would finish today’s climb well behind me.
I rode with Gary and the winner of the Cat 5 for about an hour before they slowed, then took off on my own.
In the end, it really did come down to laying the groundwork on Stage One. In the moment it was hard to see, but it quickly became apparent during Stage Two when guys started faltering after seemingly impressive starts.
Stage One: 1st
Stage Two: 1st