The Mount Taylor Quadrathlon
By Michael Lovato
February 15, 2003 (Grants, NM) – It was my first time. The last time I said that about a multi-sport event, I was nineteen years old and I was referring to my first ever sprint triathlon: an intramural event at the University of Texas at Austin. Over ten years later, I returned to the status of Newbie when I ventured down to Grants, New Mexico to participate in the Mt. Taylor Winter Quadrathlon.
Normally I race during the warmer months of the year when the race objectives are more often complicated by my efforts to stay cool. This time of year, when my training gives break to an occasional cross-training race, I’ve found that different concerns take center stage: what do I wear, how quickly will I warm up, or how do I keep from stepping in snow during transition? Alongside these concerns are a host of other dilemmas such as what pace do I take, who are the favorites, and will I embarrass myself? In quest of answers to each of these questions, and in hopes of finding a phenomenal workout, I entered “the Quad”, my first ever winter multi-sport event.
To those unfamiliar with New Mexico’s premier winter sporting event, a brief description of requirements is likely appreciated. Such description follows. Racers begin in the town of Grants at an elevation of 6,500 feet above sea level. After approximately thirteen miles of road biking, participants make the transition to their running shoes. Five miles up the mountain, they strap on the skis that they will attempt to drag uphill for another two miles. At that point in time, each crazy competitor makes a third transition to snowshoes. For about a mile, and the final 600 vertical feet, these lunatics do what it takes to reach the 11,301-foot summit of Mt. Taylor. Upon reaching the top, each of those willing to race is only halfway finished. The second part of the race consists of the return trip: repeat the steps it took to get there, in reverse. In other words: bike-run-ski-snowshoe-snowshoe-ski-run-bike (collapse). All in all, there are six transitions, loads of equipment, startlingly strange outfits, many able volunteers, and tons of duct tape. Duct tape, you ask?
Duct tape use #1: Colored pieces are attached to each and every piece of equipment you own. With the race numbers written on each piece, volunteers know where to drop off each ski, snowshoe, backpack, boot, and pole.
Duct tape use #2: Standard gray tape binds together everything that belongs together (your skis and your poles, for example). All pieces of gray tape will be removed by the time you see it race day.
Duct tape use #3: Colored tape keeps the climbing skins from slipping off your skis while you climb up the treacherously steep slopes.
Having covered as much background information as I feel necessary to understand the events that I am about to recount, I will proceed to relate the details of my first time…
I’ve never really been very good at drafting on the bike. It’s not because I don’t have the skills to sit behind a wheel, maneuvering safely in an energy-saving air pocket; but rather because I have trouble racing my bike without riding as fast as I am capable. In a mass start situation, it’s very difficult to prevent drafting. From the outset of the race, I found myself at the front of a group of cyclists, fighting the wind, challenging myself and the others to an uphill battle. Soon enough I was alone with five other riders on my wheel. Realizing that I was hard pressed to drop them in one fell swoop, I determined I’d make them pay for their “free ride”. Arriving at transition two I had eliminated my partnership with all but one of my competitors.
Knowing that this race presented me with six transitions, I had doubts that I would pass seamlessly through the event without at least one blunder. I did, however, think that my first error would occur later in the race, perhaps while transitioning from ski to snowshoe, or ski to run. After all, I had no prior experience there. It soon became painfully clear that I did not know what I was doing. Leaving my bike and hustling off in my run shoes was something I had done numerous times before. This time I forgot one little step in the process. One hundred meters up the dirt road it occurred to me that I had not removed my helmet. Ah, the thought of it now brings a smile to my face (along with a slight blush). Overcoming my first blunder, I pressed on eager to challenge for the lead.
Running side by side with last year’s snowshoe national champion, looking up the road at one of the country’s top adventure racers, I realized that I was a summer sport fish out of water. Not only was I out of the figurative water, but I was further up the snowy beach than I realized…
Arriving at T2 seconds behind the leader, I quickly realized that I had chosen poorly when it came to my ski equipment. Taking the time to strap on my knee-high telemark boots, I watched as I was left behind. Transition proved to be the least of my worries, as I realized that knee-high telemark boots are also quite heavy and inflexible. Within two miles of skiing five or six racers had passed me, each of who had smartly chosen lightweight boots to match their lightweight skis. Those darn lightweights!
When the first ski leg mercifully came to a close, I found myself with a huge deficit to overcome. Noting the credentials of my competitors, I was aware that odds were against me. Up and down the final stretch of the mountain, I relished the fact that I was more than halfway done with the race.
Little did I know that blunder number two was awaiting me at T4. Pulling a smoother-than-planned jump from snowshoes to ski boots, I thought my strategizing had paid off. I was on my way. Or was I? Looking down I realized that I still had climbing skins on each of my skis. To leave them on would be suicide, and would eliminate the compensation I deserved from having dragged heavy downhill-style equipment up the mountain. I wrestled the unfamiliar bindings off my boots, and fussed and fought the little pieces of duct tape off the skis. Once free and clear, I reattached myself to the skis and proceeded down the mountain.
Two miles of downhill skiing after biking, running, skiing and snowshoeing is roughly the equivalent of doing four million squats with two thousand pounds on the bar. But it’s relatively quick.
Transition 5 brought me back to familiar territory: the run. I was immediately at Mach 1 in an attempt to make up the time I’d lost. After reeling in one other mountain man, but seeing no others, I realized my final position was already set. I then eased into the last transition. Seeing to it that I smoothly transitioned run to bike (helmet on, run shoes off), I proceeded down the final leg of the race.
As I biked down the road, I reflected on my morning of competition. Knowing that my helmet blunder didn’t cause me to lose precious time, it was quite evident that I was outclassed by my fellow quadrathletes. Factoring in my poor equipment choice and my rookie transition errors, I decided that next time around I could challenge the leaders. All said and done, my first time tackling the Quad was a success. Not only were the views from atop the mountain breathtaking enough to make the trip worth my while, but the quad-burning workout I subjected myself to far exceeded expectations.