Setting the stage
First, for those that do not know what the Lutsen 99er is; it is a 99 mile mountain bike race located on Minnesota’s North Shore of Lake Superior. The race is held by Lifetime Fitness and takes place out of the Lutsen Mountains Sawtooth Mountain Park. The race starts out with some paved roads and transitions into a mix of gravel roads, double and single track. The description double track can be slightly deceiving as the double track roads are extremely muddy and rough, making them more difficult than most of the single track trails that I regularly ride.
Next, let me set the stage for the level of racer that I am so I don’t waste your time if you’re a different class of racer than I. This report is not for pro, elite or competitive comp class racers. In my little bit of racing experience, I’ve been a back of pack age group racer. My goal in this race was to finish under 10 hours. I really didn’t know how I would hold up over the distance of the race. The few races that I have done, I have gone out too hard and end up blowing up a couple hours into the ride. I new it was very important for me to control my heart rate at the beginning of the race and pace myself. Also, I had been sick for the month before the race and had very little training, so I was not prepared like I should have been.
All that being said, I don’t quit easy, if at all, and I know I just needed to find a pace that I could grind out for hours on end and slowly pick up as the race went on depending on how I was feeling. My plan was to ride the first 50 miles a little faster than a 10 mph pace to keep me out in front of the cut off times. At the 50 mile mark I would step things up a little and then again at the 70, then 80, etc… I had no idea how I was going to feel, but wanted to make sure that I finished, and finished within the cut off.
So there I was at in the starting gate, then suddenly we were off…
The big rollout to mile 24 aid station
The roll out down the hill to Hwy 61 from the starting line at Lutsen Mountains was held under 15 mph by a lead out pace vehicle, so there was no jump start advantage on your average speed at the start. Oh, and could you ever smell the brake pads melting from 500 plus bicycles riding the brakes for a mile down hill. Once we hit 61, the pace car pulled off and the race was on. I knew that I had to keep my heart rate under control as I have a tendency to go out hard and blow up, which I could not afford to do on a race of this distance and my lack of training.
I did about 18 mph up Hwy 61 and took advantage of drafting opportunities as much as possible. I knew that I would be hitting the first big climb up Caribou Trail within a 2 miles. Caribou Trail would take me up about 800 vertical feet over 3 miles before leaving the pavement and hitting the trail system. I took it fairly easy on the climb and spun in a low gear. To do it over again, I would probably spin a little higher gear to make better time up the hill. I did set myself back quite a bit and as I will explain later, I finished the race with a lot left in my legs and lungs.
I knew there would be some gravel road, so I just kept things steady in the trails, knowing that I would use my roadie skills to play catch up on the open gravel. I tried to keep my heart rate under 150, but couldn’t always keep it that way. The trails were very wet with a lot of mud holes. This section of trail had a fair amount of rocks and there was quite a few people fixing flats on the side of trail. I was able to ride just about every single hole. I had been riding a 26er until this year and I attribute the ability to ride all the mud holes to my new 29er and my steady calm pace. By the way, I’m loving the 29 inch wheels and wish I would have made the switch years ago.
Mile 24 aid station to mile 42 aid station
I was feeling pretty good as I approached the first aid station at mile 24, so I just grabbed a little peanut butter and jelly sandwich square and rode thru. There was another couple miles of gravel road section until we hit some trails again. I took my time here to absorb the food and take in some fluids so I was ready for the trail. When I hit the trails, I kept a steady but persistent pace to keep things on track.
I didn’t realize it until I had actually gotten into this section, but we would actually do 2 laps of this middle part of the race. It was actually kind of nice, because I knew what to expect on the second lap. I made pretty good time on my first lap through, but I did get lapped by the leaders, which was fairly humbling. Those guys are animals and were just cranking it out. They came by me like a freight train and were almost 20 miles ahead of me.
Mile 42 aid station to mile 60 aid station
When I came back through the aid station to start my second lap around this section; I did stop to fill my water up and grabbed a few sandwich squares to eat along the gravel road. I also adjusted the angle of my seat as the pain was dictating that my saddle was not angled correctly. This was only my 5 or 6th ride on this bike and I was still getting all the adjustments dialed in. Oh, was this so the right thing to do.
I made it thru the first part of this second lap feeling pretty good. I was not as fast as my first time thru this section, but was maintaining a steady pace and did drop a few riders in this section. This was the point in the race where people were either realizing they could make it and were picking up the pace or where people were starting to wonder if they were going to make it or not. As a reminder and to keep things into perspective; I am a back of the pack age group racer at this point in my racing experience. I am looking to step this up in the future and believe I have more potential than where I currently am.
Around mile 50 the sun came out a little and I was starting to fatigue quite a bit as I headed back into a trail section. I knew I just needed to work my way thru this trail section and I would be back on the gravel road again. I dialed things back a little bit on the trail, ate a Cliff bar and sipped on some water. I just kept plugging along at a little slower pace so I could recover a bit. By the time I came out of the trail I was starting to feel a little better. I slowly dialed the pace up on the gravel road section.
With the little training that I had for this race, I knew it was important for me to manage my level of fatigue and recovery cycles during the ride. I was also watching my heart rate, to make sure I didn’t take myself into the red zone, beyond the point that I could recover during the ride. I Made decent time along the gravel road to the aid station at mile 60 without pushing it too hard.
Mile 60 aid station to mile 70 aid station
At mile 60 I thought I had enough water to get me to the mile 70 aid station, so I opted to just grab an energy wafer and gel from the aid station and keep on riding. I was wrong. I ran out of water just a few miles later as I was hitting a very muddy section of double track. I could see riders out in front of me, so I just focused on keeping pace and getting to the mile 70 aid station. My key was just a steady grind, never get too excited, but never back off too much. I just kept things consistent. I managed to reel in a few of the riders in front of me and made it to the mile 70 aid station around 6 hours and 55 minutes.
I was feeling pretty weak and figured I would stretch real quick and fill up my Camelbak. I ate a couple peanut butter and jelly sandwich squares and a banana. At this point, I was covered in mud with water logged socks. I had brought along a spare pair of socks in my Camelbak, so I changed my socks out to get some dry feet. I pulled out of the aid station after about 5 or 6 minutes.
Mile 70 aid station to mile 80 station
As I started heading down the road and looking at my time, I realized I was definitely going to come in faster than my 10 hour goal. I don’t know if it was the food and water, or just the mental part of knowing I was in the home stretch, but I felt much better and stronger than I had 10 minutes prior. I decided it was time to pick up the pace. There was a small part of me that was feeling like I could make it in 9 hours if I pushed it hard enough. I steadily picked up the pace and started hammering on the pedals. As I rode along, I was starting to reel other riders in and would just keep focusing on the next rider in front of me. The next 10 miles had a little bit of gravel, but was mostly double track trail.
Mile 80 aid station to mile 93 aid station
As I approached the mile 80 aid station, I had plenty of water and a few Cliff bars and Gu gels in my jersey pockets, so I opted to keep hammering on. When I left mile 80, I turned up the heat some more. I had a lot of gravel in front of me and am fairly decent on my road bike; I thought I could make up some time here. I was feeling good until the next big gravel climb. I started cramping up real bad on the first climb after the aid station. I back things off, checked my water again and decided to eat and down a bunch amount of water.
It sounds funny to say this, but I used the up hill to recover. I dropped things down to granny gear and eased my way up this climb and let my body absorb some calories and water. When I was coming over the top of the hill, I could feel my body recovering and about halfway down the decent I started to put the hammer down again. I was feeling great and knew that I was within 15 miles of the finish. At this point, I knew I was going to make it, and I continued to pour on the heat. I did run out of water again, but tried to focus on the road and trail ahead.
Mile 93 aid station to the finish line
When I came thru the mile 93 aid station, they were holding out bottles of water. I new whatever water I took in at this point, wasn’t going to absurd in time, but I needed a little mental boost. I grabbed a bottle as I rode thru and downed it before hitting the muddy trails again. I was in the home stretch. The mud was bad, but I only had a few miles to go and the adrenaline was high.
I couldn’t believe how good I was feeling. I was actually having fun in this last section. I had just ridden more than 90 miles on this bike and was having fun riding this last section of trail. The last section had some fun little down hills that were a little technical, but if you picked your line, you could let it rip. The finish came up on me fast. All of a sudden I was dumped out on the gravel, could hear cheering and see the finish.
I was excited. I knew I was a back of the pack racer, but I was feeling good and I poured the heat into the pedals right through the finish. My wife and kids were there waiting for me and cheering as I came across the finish line in 9 hours, 12 minutes and 33 seconds. I finished about 48 minutes faster than what I thought I would, but I was feeling pretty good. The first thing I thought was, damn it, I could have finished a lot faster.
All that being said, I’m learning how to endurance race. In the 3 previous 30 to 40 mile races that I had done, I went out too hard and ended up hitting the wall; having to drag myself to the finish. In the Lutsen 99er, I ended up swinging the pendulum to the other end and finished with too much energy left. I didn’t leave enough out on the trail. I plan to come back next year, with more training, more wisdom and more guts. I believe, to do it over again right now, I should have been able to do it in 8 hours in my current shape. Shoulda, woulda, coulda, right… All it does is motivate me to come back next year and push myself harder.
Lutsen 99er Advice and Lesson’s Learned
Let me go back to what my strategy was for the race… I wasn’t really sure what to expect and figured I would be happy to finish under 10 hours. I figured I would go out and ride a 10 mph pace and then keep pushing that pace up depending on how I was feeling as the race went on. I actually think this was a pretty good strategy for somebody that is somewhat new to racing or a back of the pack age group competitor. If you blow up at the start, then you’ll never finish the race.
So all that being said, train as much as you can. However, train for distance and endurance and not for short distance sprinting. You’ll need to find the point at which you can grind out the pedals all day without bonking. You can’t go into this race and expect to run your heart rate in the red zone all day, because you won’t make it. You’ll need to go out and find out what your heart rate zones are and how high you can push your heart rate before you reach a non-recovery zone. This is the pace that you’ll need to set for yourself.
When it comes to fuel, get yourself a high volume Camelbak. I have a Camelbak Lobo that is fairly slim and holds 3L of water. For my first fill I dropped in 5 electrolyte tablets. It takes a little bit of time at the aid stations to get your water filled and you don’t want to have to stop every time for a water fill. Also, carry some of your own food. I tried to eat something every hour. I carried Cliff Bars and Gu gels that I would switch between. This worked out fairly well and I wasn’t held to what was available at the aid stations. That being said, I wouldn’t carry as many bars and gels next time as I had some left over at the finish.
My final words of wisdom; get out and do it. Don’t wait till the perfect time or year that you can get the right amount of training in. Next spring, get yourself registered for the race and commit. You owe it to yourself and you won’t regret it.