Race Report: Test of Metal

I passed.

The second race in the newly-constructed Squamish Triple Crown race series is the ever-popular Test of Metal, a 67-kilometer race that not only packs over one thousand racers onto the singletrack around Squamish, but is known as Canada's premiere mountain bike race and attracts Olympic-caliber athletes from across the Great White North. And let me just say that having now experienced it, it is easy to understand why this race sells out within minutes each year. Everything about the race from the organization to the volunteers to the course to the schwag to the scenery to the spectators was absolutely top-notch. This was beyond a doubt the single best event I had ever experienced.

And no, it doesn't hurt that the weather was sunny and 70 degrees and that the trails were in primo condition. Nor did I mind being one of the hundred or so lucky winners of a prize bag valued at roughly $200 -- each bag was different, but mine had a Test of Metal pint glass, a long-sleeve New Balance coolmax-type shirt, and a carbon fiber Race Face Next SL seatpost (retail price of $125). And, I suppose I should mention how happy I was to find a carpool-buddy (Erik Brooks) to chip in for gas and to split the hotel cost with. But while all of these things did factor into my enjoyment of the weekend, I was primarily thankful to finally have a good race this season.

I've not kept it a secret this year that work, being sick, and a weather-induced malaise has combined to really put a damper on my training these past couple months... with damp-er being the operative word. But nonetheless I was optimistic about this event. My first step towards positive thinking came when it was time to self-seed myself. I knew a lot of above-average riders aimed to finish in under 4 hours (finishing times range between 2:30 and 6:15) so, despite not knowing much at all about the course or trail conditions, I took up a spot in the area reserved for those expecting a 3:45 to 4:00 finish and crossed my fingers that I wasn't out of my league.

The race started with a moment of silence, followed by the singing of "O Canada" and instead of a gun blast or someone yelling GO!, racers were instructed to begin pedaling on the last note of the song. Being that there were several hundred canucks in front of me, I didn't have to be concerned with not knowing the words to the Canadian national anthem. I just started pedaling when everyone else did.

Miles 0 to 10
Time - 55:29
Ascent - 1562 feet
Descent - 614 feet

The first few miles provided a tour through the town of Squamish. We climbed gradually away from the Sea to Sky highway up into some neighborhoods and the residents of nearly every house were on the sidewalk cheering us on, playing music, ringing cowbells, and hooting and holllering. From there it was onto the singletrack to continue the climb. Things were moving a bit slowly through here on account of the occasional techy section of trail and the sheer volume of racers (1050 started the race) but all in all it was a nice gradual climb with no stopping.

I decided to record split-times every 10 miles to get a feel for how well I was doing with regards to the goal of breaking 4 hours. Finished the first 10-mile stretch at 55 minutes, which I thought was pretty good since it was primarily all uphill.

Miles 10 to 20
Time - 55:13
Ascent - 947 feet
Descent - 1358 feet

We eventually made our way to the infamous Rock n' Roll hill. I'm told this used to be a bit of a gut-busting hike-a-bike section up an incredibly steep scree field. Some racers still opted for the hike-a-bike, but I followed the line of folks in front of me onto the newly-constructed trail that was not only completely rideable, but a pretty enjoyable climb. Just a nice smooth, sit n' spin climb that lasted no more than 5 or so minutes. From there it was time to make the first big descent of the day down a snaking section of well-bermed singletrack under the powerlines. This was really fast, super fun, and also a bit exciting as one racer's brakes emptied entering a hairpin and he went off-course just as I was passing him.

Not long after this sandy, sunny, descent we re-entered the woods and descended even further via a section of singletrack that could I only describe as a high-banked bobsled run. It had excellent construction and featured a few big step-downs that could be rolled at speed and, without exagerration, this 1/4 mile was among the most fun I've ever had on a bike. From there, we rolled quickly through town again and past the first feed zone on the course. Both sides of the dirt road were lines with spectators and volunteers. Those who weren't handing out cups of water or orange slices were screaming and ringing cowbells. Music was blaring, the wall of people on the sides of the course was impenetrable and for just a minute, in a very small way, I thought I knew what it might be like to summit one of the major climbs in the Tour de France. Sort of.

Miles 20 to 30
Time - 1:13:39
Ascent - 1702 feet
Descent - 1246 feet

We were soon ascending Nine Mile Hill, a gradual rocky forest road ascent not unlike the climb to Sun Top. In talking with other racers during some of the slower singletrack portions of the race, I had already learned that the climbing isn't over at the end of the road. There's still another mile or so of climbing on singletrack after crossing the river bridge at the top. This is precisely the kind of knowledge one needs to avoid a major dose of depression. After all, there's little that compares to the demoralizing nature of reaching the top of a climb, only to find that it goes on for another mile. Fortunately, I was prepared.

I saw Erik halfway up the climb and thought I was going to catch him, but when I stopped to grab some oranges from the the aid station two-thirds of the way up the road, I lost sight of him. I was starting to get a bit tired and was ever thankful when the climbing was finally over... at least for this stretch. From the top, we enjoyed a very fast, stutter-bump laced double-track descent. This could have been really fast if not for the sensation of having the muscles rattled loose from your bones. I couldn't help but think back to someone comparing a section at TransRockies to the act of holding onto the paint shakers at the Home Depot. That was what this felt like. A volunteer was on the course warning of a sharp hairpin turn at the end of a long straightaway and the guy in front of me didn't brake in time. First a fishtail, then a head slammed to the ground. I fortunately avoided running over his noggin' and rounded the bend with a case of goosebumps. I don't like seeing crashes.

Miles 30 to 37.2
Time - 1:03:09
Ascent - 686 feet
Descent - 1681 feet

Now it was time for the Powerhouse Plunge, a descent of over 700 feet in little more than 1.2 miles. It started out with a gentle slope, plenty of rocks and ladder bridges, and some pretty challenging trail. Then it became the single-most technical mile of singletrack I've ever ridden. I'd like to say I cleaned the whole section, but I cannot. Although I only had to walk about 15-20 yards of the trail, I definitely had my fair share of dabs and near-endos. I had no trouble with the dozens of ladder bridges, and managed to kick-out my way around each of the switchbacks (to the delight of the crowds lined up to see the carnage) but I also had a few very close calls on some of the larger, exposed rock drops. More than once I felt my seat slip between my legs as I tried to get back behind it on the rocky step-downs and all I can say is that if my seat were even 2 millimeters higher, it would have definitely snagged my shorts and catapulted me into the rocky abyss. I saw some bad wrecks, some frayed nerves, and even a bit of blood.

There was a very high pucker factor on this descent, and I'm not talking about blowing kisses.

Once at the bottom, we mercifully were spit back out onto the road and routed back through the feed zone again. Same cowbells, same music, same orange slices, same girls in bikinis. Canada rocks!

Unfortunately, the joy was short-lived. Tired from the climb, sore from the descent, and just all-around drained from three hours with an average heart rate of 153, it was time to enter Crumpitt Woods, nicknamed Cramp-it woods by veterans of the event. Another long singletrack climb. It was here where I kissed goodbye to my hopes of finishing under 4 hours. I wasn't bonking, I was just really tired. This is where the relative lack of conditioning this season reared its ugly head. I pretty much doled out my energy in perfect bite-size quantities throughout the race and was now simply running on fumes. Nevertheless, I struggled onward and before long volunteers and spectators could be heard once more. The few on the course urged me forward, telling me it was only another 15 minutes to the finish. Then only another 5 minutes. Then, finally, I could heard the music and the crowd and I was done.

4:07:31, 37.1 miles, 4,897 feet of ascent

*Note that everyone I spoke to had a GPS or bike-computer readout of less than the stated 67 kilometers. I was expecting 41 miles and can't say I minded that the race ended up being just 37.1 according to my Garmin Edge 305. Others I spoke to recorded between 60 and 62 kilometers which is in perfect agreement with my numbers.

I don't know the official results, but last I looked I had finished 52nd out of 83 in the Male 30-34 age group. There may have still be some stragglers on the course as of that update. Erik, my carpool-buddy, finished in 3:57 and took home the second place medal for the male 56-59 age group. I noticed on the results board that my TransRockies partner, Brett, finished in 3:37 on his singlespeed. His friend Nat finished in 3:17 on his singlespeed. The winning time was 2:31 and there were a few dozen finishers who rolled in after the 6 hour mark.

I said earlier how great this event was and I think I should elaborate here. This is what happens as soon as you finish the race. Teenage volunteers helped me off the bike, handed me a ticket for a free meal of lasagna, salad, and drink. They then wrote the number 208 on my left foreardm with a black Sharpie and put a piece of tape with the same number on the front tire of my bike which was promptly whisked away to a secured area. They asked if I wanted it washed. Sure! I then wandered around the large finisher's area and helped myself to a plate of fresh fruit and some water, then got my dinner. I was still hungry so, for 3 dollars I got a fantastic hot dog and a cup of coffee. Then I learned about the prize bags. We were also given free access to the nearby community center for a chance to shower and get changed (I skipped a swim) and by the time we were done with that, they were already giving out the awards. Erik also won for having the most banged up body. He was pretty battered from an endo early in the race and then also gashed his shins pretty bad (from the pedals) while walking down the Powerhouse Plunge.

Everything about the day was perfect and I for one can't wait to do it again. Just not in 2009 because I'm told Kristin's graduation is that weekend.



Maarten said...

So the upshot is that you CAN finish in less than 4 hours, just not right now. :)

Doug Walsh said...

Exactly. :-)


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Abbs said...

Congratulations on finally passing! Hope I could boast the same about myself lol.

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