Thursday, September 4, 2008

Allie's Whiteface 5K Downhill Extravaganza

Since moving to New York and joining up with the East Coast race scene, I had heard the question asked anxiously, “Are you doing the Whiteface 5K Downhill?” The tone was nearly the same as those that ask about another epic event. Something like, “Are you racing the Downieville All-Mountain? On THAT?”

A 5K downhill? That’s like more than three miles of downhill course. There’s no way that can be right and if it was, it would have to be done someplace out West where there is elevation to support it. I thought to myself, OK, I’m game but it will probably be a gnarly Super D with tons of uphill at best. I’ll just suffer through it and besides, it’s months away.

Hours before I was supposed to leave for Whiteface, I looked at Downhill Mike’s “Everything you need to know about the Whiteface 5K” web page and realized I might be somewhat ill-prepared. This was a big-bike course, all downhill and no one from last year finished in less than 7 minutes. No one. Well, whatever. Suck it up, right? I picked up my friend Heather and off to New York’s Adirondack region we went.

I greeted Saturday morning as a cranky little camper. With very little sleep the week before and virtually none that night, I tried to untie myself from my pretzel-like car sleeping position, addressed my fellow campers with a pre-coffee snarl and stumbled around the campsite looking for something, although it was never determined exactly what.

Our group finally got going and arrived at the venue. I looked up and saw the looming steep walls of Whiteface Mountain. I knew the course was going to be long, I mean, it says so in the name, but c’mon. Just how hard can a 5K downhill course really be? After a 13-minute gondola ride to the top, I was about to find out.

The course started out on the only flat (and slightly uphill, if you ask me) section of the fire road, which twisted and swooped it’s way into a very steep fire road with nomadic, rolling, baby-head-rocks filling all of the turns. If a rider was unfortunate enough to blow a turn and veer from the beaten path, they were sucked into a mess of sharp, dislodged boulders, which made braking a nearly impossible feat.

The wooded sections of the course seemed harmless enough--for a normal-length course, that is. Add four more wooded sections and a few more quad-burning fire roads and you’ve got yourself the Whiteface 5K! By the end of practice on Saturday, berms had formed in the entrances and exits of the woods sections, making it feel like a bobsled track. But pedaling on the straightaway fire road sections was going to hurt on race day.

I took one more run than I should have. My quads and calves were in knots, my arms were Jell-O, my shoulders were tight and I was riding like an idiot. After smashing my pinky against a tree that threw me down in the middle of the trail, I knew that Whiteface was going to have it’s way with me. I retreated to the safety of the parking lot and the promise of a sweet swimming spot and cold beer.

The Flume swimming hole on the AuSable River is reason in itself to come up to Whiteface. Cool water gushes down cuts in the smooth granite walls to make this water-lover’s playground. Although far from crowded, the hidden little alcove was buzzing with people enjoying this natural wonder. There were five different levels of cliffs to jump, guys sliding down the flume and people just chilling in the water after a long, gritty day of playing in the surrounding mountains.

Sunday was the day. The course’s lines had burned in but there were still a few “ninja lines” that weren’t extremely obvious. Practice went well, however my race run was by far the worst race run I had put together all season. Every piece of me was tired and fatigued. After I forced myself to hammer across the finish line, all I wanted to do was throw up and lie down (preferably not at the same time, but the possibility was there). The course was fun, but I had not brought my “A game” or “B game” for that matter. In that box of Alphabits I had pulled out maybe a “Q”.

The fun didn’t end when I crossed the finish line. Oh no, there was still one more race to go. On a whim I had signed up for the Chainless Open race. Yes, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Riders line up at the start sans-chain and do one big long coaster race down the course. Upon further investigation, I was the only female who thought this might be a hoot--the Open class consisted of me and forty-or-so guys. This race really had no degree of seriousness. Many of the guys were wearing spandex, helmet visors were flipped upside down in Egyptian Pharaoh fashion, one guy was in a skin suit and a few stuffed socks down the front of their shorts. (Yes hot stuff, we know that was only a pair of socks)

The fellas and I mobbed the start, as there was no real start list and took turns in thirty-second increments showcasing our running cyclocross-style flying mount and best aero-tuck down the first straightaway. It’s a funny feeling not being able to pedal and knowing you have to somehow make the corners without scrubbing too much speed. The odd thing is that in the woods, I learned some lessons just coasting. I took better lines, stayed higher and was able to keep momentum in places I blew out during the race run. Hmmm…maybe this is a new practice tactic?

The chainless race burned my legs even more and when I crept across the finish line I was done for the day. Whiteface had done me in and I had learned a few things for next year. Mainly, to train for this event!

The final results came in and awards went smoothly at the end of the day. For the Pro Women, Dawn Bourque and Karen Eagen were on it and deserved every bit of their respective first and second places. Karen had won the year prior, but Dawn dethroned her by about eighteen seconds. With over $1,200 on the line for first, $500 for second, and $250 for third, who can blame her?

Karen confirmed herself as one of the East Coast’s riders to be reckoned with by claiming second place by a solid ten seconds. Eeking into third, but closely trailed by fourth by about two seconds, I rounded out the podium where we received checks and black T-shirts that were just perfect for creating the “T-Shirt Ninja!"

There were six Pro Women total, who made for a competitive field, but there really should be more presence for a fun well-paying event like this one.

The Whiteface 5K has all the makings of an epic event: fantastic terrain, nearly-unheard of equal Pro payouts for men and women, challenging race courses, non-race freeriding options, fabulous après riding swimming holes and cliff jumping, amazing scenery, and a promoter with a sense of humor.

Other incentives to visit Whiteface are the Whiteface Women's Days where on specified days, ladies ride for free, and riding camps and clinics. Beginners and intermediate riders can be eased into Whiteface’s terrain, while advanced riders can improve on their technical ledge-next-to-waterfall riding skills. Plus, there are some of the most picturesque mountaintop trails you can imagine. I didn’t believe it either, but these views rival Mammoth, Tahoe and Whistler. From the observatory it’s possible to see all the way across Vermont into New Hampshire’s White Mountains. The nearby lodging is inexpensive, but make sure to book early if you’re coming in on a holiday weekend.

Although it’s been three days since the race and my legs and arms still hurt, I cannot say enough good things about this race. I will definitely be back next year with and without a chain and better prepared for what this course can dole out. Hopefully I’ll see you there next year!

Photo Credit:

Thanks to Kathi Kraus for taking and providing event photographs.

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