I could say that the reason I finished over an hour slower than last year was because I rode my least comfortable bike. I could say it was because I used studded tires, or ran them at 30psi. Maybe it was because I rode with fenders and a rack. I could blame the weather, but really the only reason I was so slow this year at CIRREM is because I am out of shape.
As the longest ride I've been on since November I guess I should have been expecting it. Sure I've been skiing a lot and done well in three ski races (two of them longer than the 62 mile CIRREM), but my legs didn't seem to care about that. What really mattered was that I couldn't turn the pedals over like I did last year.
From the first moments of the race, as we pulled away from the Cumming Tap, I saw that I wasn't going to be in the top five like last year. The gravel, which last year had been soft and sloppy, was frozen solid. It was as fast as pavement for those who had had the foresight to bring their cross bikes (like I did last year), but slow for those of us who had anticipated warmer, wetter conditions that would favor mountain bikes. The pack started pulling away within the first mile and for a few seconds I tried to keep pace, but knowing my body as I do I saw that I'd blow up in no time if I did that.
Last year the weather had been nasty. A cold overcast day that cycled among just about every sort of precipitation. Rain, sleet, snow and lots of wind. This year it was colder, probably in the high teens at the start, but with the sun out and little wind it was much more comfortable for most folks. I would have preferred worse conditions to keep the riff-raff away. There are lots of folks out there who might be faster than me on a good day, but get demoralized and drop out when the weather turns. That's where I'm good. I am energized by bad weather. It makes the ride more fun for me and makes me focus on the here and now rather than the finish or competition.
Before long I was on my own. A few riders were behind me, but most were in front. My only hope was that there would be some folks who went out too fast and blow up when we came to the hills. Unfortunately once we got to the hills I found out that that person was me. Where last year it seemed like there were a few steep hills I found that every hill this year was steep.
Luckily my Arrowhead experience kicked in and kept me mentally focused and I started treating the race as a race with myself. I wouldn't worry about anyone else's race. I was going to finish and I knew that even a worst case scenario of six hours was nothing compared to the 54 hours I had spent on the trail up north.
At the halfway checkpoint there was a crowd of competitors milling around chatting. I rolled right up to the water jugs, refilled my water bottles and, refusing the offered beer, took off immediately. I couldn't believe that so many people were taking a long break in a short race like this. I figured that I'd be passed by a lot of folks right after the checkpoint, but surprisingly only a few did.
The sun had warmed the roads by this point and in many places the gravel was getting very sloppy. The wide tires didn't seem to make much difference in the slop and the fenders were both a blessing and a curse. They kept the majority of the mud from spraying me and kept me dry, but they kept packing up with icy sludge and rubbing on my tires. Occasionally the fenders would cough and spit out a chunk of frozen mud and there was a constant drip of somewhat more snot-like mud dripping out by the mudflaps.
Still, even though I was out of shape and miserable, the end came fairly quickly. It's strange how a six hour race can seem short these days. I rolled up to the bar and went inside expecting some kind of a greeting, but slow as I was, nobody even noticed. They were already on to handing out prizes and drinking. I had to ask someone where I should check in (the race director was busy with the prizes) and I was directed to someone behind the prize table who took my number. With that I was officially done with the race.
As much as I hate getting in so late that the awards ceremony is already over (this has happened to me twice now, the first time was in a road race. I won't be doing that again.) I can't really blame the race directors. The leaders had gotten in over two hours before me and some had already left. In spite of my pathetic finish, the course was great. Hilly and remote, it only crosses pavement twice in the whole 62 miles. The cue sheet and course markings (orange paint on snow shows up really well) were easy to follow and I was never in doubt as to where I was. If all goes well, I'll be back next year.