Monday, June 25, 2018

Cooper's Rock Benduro: Don't Confuse Drama With Happiness

“Live your life how you want, but don't confuse drama with happiness.” – Ron Swanson, Parks & Rec

Despite my best efforts to bring extreme meditation to my enduro competitions, halfway through Stage 2 of the Cooper’s Rock Benduro yesterday, the quote above popped into my head. Although I should have been fully focused on keeping up the pedal, pedal, pedal; pump, pump, pump pattern of the stage with maximum intensity, the lack of white knuckle descending allowed my mind to wander back to before the start of Stage 1.

I rolled up just in time to catch Frank about to boost the sketchy jump.

I had taken my sweet time getting to the first stage, knowing there would be a long wait, and I had paused to watch other riders enter the woods before riding on and joining the line at the start. Right before entering the singletrack on the first stage, there was a small ditch where a sketchy little clay lip had been built to allow racers to jump the ditch before entering the woods, or at least try to. A guy had crashed, prompting the entire back half of the line to come watch junior boys attempt to jump the ditch with varying levels of success. One of the women from my class, who was also the mom of one of the junior boys attempting to jump the ditch, walked up to me and said, “Are we jumping it?” I laughed and said, “I don’t think we (motioning between us) are jumping it. Or at least I’m not jumping it.” As I recalled the conversation during racing Stage 2, and I wished that I had come up with Ron Swanson’s quote as my witty reply.

Cooper’s Rock is the most low-drama stop in the West Virginia Enduro Series. The majority of its four stages is made up of straight shots through loose chunk, most of which is not very steep. It was my second race last season, and I remember saying, “There’s nothing scary in this race, except everything in it.” The sketchy ditch jump is the closest thing to a mandatory feature, and that was new this year. Otherwise, there are just many wet rocks and roots that can jump out and mess up your day, but no single thing to worry about.

What surprised me about returning to this race was that it was actually even more pedally than I remembered, but not in the painful, gasping for air way that the pedally parts of Valley Falls are pedally. Yes, there is one really, really painful uphill a couple of minutes into Stage 1 (you know, right after you’ve stood in line for an hour and your legs are dead?), but the rest is a weird sort of pedally that I don’t think I really understood last year. Basically, the course is not very fast or technical, so you have to be extra diligent about being super smooth and sneaking pedal strokes in where you can without banging your pedals on stuff. You have to fight for every bit of speed you get, and you have to fight to keep it. Every time you want to feather the brakes, you really have to consider if it’s worth it.

I guess what I mean is, despite my inability to stay focused for the length of Stage 2, I have a greater appreciation for this race than I did before. I’ve been making lot of improvement lately in the area where I was weakest last season, which is the speed at which I feel safe and confident and my ability to roll through more rough sections without braking, or at least braking less. In some ways I’ve been sacrificing fitness to achieve this, since almost all of my riding is climbing easy and going downhill fast, and both my threshold and anaerobic power are more or less in the toilet right now. I thought that a non-technical, pedally race such at Cooper’s Rock would not be in my favor right at this stage of my progression, but it worked out okay.

I rode pretty decently on all of the stages, and I think my newfound “stability at speed” still helped even though there weren't that many brake-burning sections. A couple of the faster series regulars weren’t there this weekend, and another woman got a double flat within the first minute of the first stage. She was unable to get everything fixed in time to finish the race, so I came out fourth, and got my first WV wide-angle podium/prize money. I was still 2.5 minutes behind third, but it was my best margin to do date.

So despite the undramatic race course this weekend, I’m still pretty happy with how it turned out. If you’re wondering, I pumped through the ditch and went along my merry, uncool way. With my next race being nationals at Snowshoe, I’m sure I’ll have all the drama that I can handle next time around.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Rothrock TrailMix


I’ll admit that I started writing my race report for the Rothrock TrailMix in my head several days ago. It was what I hoped to be a loving tribute to the trails that made me the #femdurobro that I am today with the knowledge that this race very well could be my first and last opportunity to compete on them. The problem with knowing trails so well is that I know exactly how fast I am on them in the best of conditions, and Strava and old race results make it very clear that that is not fast enough to keep up with the women that would likely be competing. So all I really hoped for was to ride the best I could on these trails that are so close to my heart, and maybe get a slightly entertaining post out of it by returning to my roots with parodied Taylor Swift lyrics for each stage. Because these trails are like my boyfriends that keep getting stolen…

'Cause here we are again, when I loved you so
Back before I lost the first downhill QOM I ever owned
It was rare, I was there, I remember it all too well

The problem with writing blog posts about future events is that my ability to predict the future isn’t actually that great. I never imagined that this morning would begin with Gloria rolling up to me in the pouring rain, riding her XC bike and saying, “Well, I guess it’s just the two of us.” At that point I realized that anything could happen.

For all of my mud-racing experience in West Virginia, the thought of rain on race day really scared me. Because trying to ride fast after it has rained in Rothrock is the worst. Except that “the worst” is when an unfortunately common surprise storm rolls in at 5:15 and lays a nice slick film on the normally grippy rocks. That’s when we usually slow roll it, because nobody’s setting any PRs in those conditions and it’s not worth getting hurt over.

However, today’s rain was not that rain. Today’s rain was hard and steady from during the night through most of the race. I normally don’t even think of Rothrock as having enough dirt to make mud, but with this much rain and about 100 more riders on the trail that normal, things went full West Virginia fast. And full West Virginia I can handle. Full West Virginia is what I know.

I preceded through Stage 1 and 2 pretty well for the conditions. I made a couple of mistakes on Stage 1, which was Bald Knob Death Drop, but nothing too horrible. When I popped out on the road after Stage 2, someone told me that Gloria wanted me to know that she’d dropped out and to ride safe. “Does that mean I win?!!” I blurted out. Then I felt like a jerk, but I figured if something very bad had happened to her, they would have lead with that. I confirmed with her after that she’d had a scary, but not that serious crash in Stage 1 and just didn’t want to push her luck after that. Her message was intended to let me know not to push mine too much either when all I had to do at that point was finish.

So I rode out the rest of the race with the intention of trying hard, but not hurting myself. I think I did alright at it. My times were really slow, but that’s not surprising in those conditions. I still felt like I was riding pretty well most of the time.

In the end, I got the thing that I wanted so badly but never expected I would get: to actually win a race on my home trails. Of course, I still hope that the DNCR changes their mind about not allowing Wildcat and New Laurel in races in the future, and that next year I can come back and compete in better conditions and on a more level playing field. I’ll hold off on writing that blog post for now, though, and concentrate what’s next, the WVES at Cooper’s Rock in a couple of weeks. I’ll let you know how that turns out after it happens.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

My Skills Aren't Instagram-Able

My teammate Sam has been breaking the Internet (okay, maybe just our team Instagram and Slack channel) the past few months with a steady stream of increasingly impressive footage of her mountain bike feats. She’s always been better at jumps and drops than me, and while she was derailed for most of last summer with a dislocated thumb, she’s back with a new downhill bike and better than ever.

I think that everyone is experiencing some HSE right now, and where each of us fall on the spectrum of “the heady mix of disbelief, admiration, and envy” depends on how close we are to being able to replicate her achievements. When I imagine myself watching her in my XC days, I would fallen into the disbelief category, thinking, “Okay, apparently that’s a thing people do when they have downhill bikes and body armor?” While last week when she hit the “Patio Drop” at Mountain Creek, which is something that’s roughly on my two-year plan, it was more 40/60 envy and admiration. While she definitely has a high ratio of talent over forks given, as evidenced by her landing the largest progressive drop at Blue Mountain on a rented downhill bike her first time there, she’s continued to give a steady stream of the right kind of forks over the last couple of years to be good at what she does. And what she does looks good on camera.

I, on the other hand, discussed in detail my fear of drops just a couple of weeks ago, and this spring was the first time I actually tried to jump instead of just rolling all the tabletops. In the fall I was doing a lot skills drills in the local park and posting videos to try and show my progression, but I quit after that invited more man-(and woman)splaining than I wanted to deal with. Despite all that, I am lot faster this season on a wide variety of trails. While some people love the “flying” feeling of jumps and drops, I’m just not there yet. My buzz comes from whizzing down trails like Old Laurel, where I used to get hung up carefully choosing my lines, and now, at least on a good day, I’m starting see many moves into the future, pushing over large rocks at speed when I would have braked to avoid them before, and working the contours of the trail to gain my momentum back when I do have to brake. I’ve still got a long minute and 35 seconds to shave off if I want to break Meg Bichard’s 3:06 QOM on Old Laurel, but her time doesn’t seem as insane as it used to. I now know that there’s path to get there besides to let the brakes go and pray. Each Wednesday night, the circuits get burned in a little better and fire a little faster, but sadly this doesn’t show up on video. My skills aren’t Instagram-able, and most days I’m okay with that.

I had a good day at Blue Mountain this weekend where I got to improve my skills of both the photogenic and non-photogenic kind. Gloria and a bunch of Emmaus-area people were down in Rothrock Saturday to pre-ride the TrailMix course, so I mentioned we would be going to Blue the next day. We ended up with a six-person enduro crew at the park, and then we picked up another guy who’d never been there before and thought we looked like his sort of folk. Sam and Michaela were there with their downhill bikes, as well as Sam’s husband Kyle and their friend Carl. So we had a lot of people to ride with, which was super fun.

I’d gone to Blue with the objective doing some remedial drop practice since I regressed so much in the off-season. Despite not being that fun or exciting by many standards, the Happy Yummy Fun trail is the best trail out of any park that we’ve visited so far if you want to gain confidence at doing drops. The middle one is the perfect little baby booter, which is only about a foot from lip to base, has a nice straight run in and out, and the ground slopes away just enough that you can get air with a little bit of speed, but a last-minute brake check won’t send you over the bars.  I probably could have spent my first hour there sessioning that trail, but I didn’t want bore everyone else with a million Happy Yummy laps.

I managed to sneak in a couple of passes on Happy Yummy Fun as we worked our way through most of the trails of the park. I was pretty happy to have ridden Night Train, the hella chunky enduro-specific trail at the outer edge of the park, cleanly for the first time. I also joined Sam and Michaela for a couple of laps of the downhill race course, which they will be competing on in a couple of weeks. I rode this run cleanly without stopping on the closing day of last year, but my hands were basically useless claws afterwards. This year we rode a slow, scouting run and then a full-ish speed run back-to-back. I wasn’t as fast as the rest of the group on my enduro bike, but I still felt very smooth and went a minute and a half faster than last year. However, the best part was at the end when they were all complaining about their legs cramping while my legs and back felt fine. I guess the combination practice and good form are starting to pay off, and it’s definitely easier to go faster when I’m not thinking about my burning quads.

People started leaving throughout the day, and we got separated from the rest of the Laser Cats, so the end of the day boiled down to a fun run with just me, Frank, Gloria, and Damien. It turned into the Happy Yummy Fun session that I’d been wanting, where Damien and I rode the easy middle drop a bunch, Frank and Gloria took a bunch of pictures, and we eventually got confident enough to link the second and third drops together. The one downside of the trail is that the biggest drop is at the beginning and it’s a lot harder to push back up to and start over, so we didn’t get that one. The third one was still a pretty good step for me, and some clever photography made it look cooler than it was. Or maybe it made the picture match the size of the personal accomplishment?

Admittedly, pictures are one of the more fun and easy-to-share ways to mark your improvement as a mountain biker, but there’s so much to it that a camera can’t capture. Sometimes it is something that even a GPS or race results can’t capture, like legs that don’t hurt after a downhill run, and those should be celebrated, too.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Enduro FOMO

This weekend was the third round of the West Virginia Enduro Series, but Frank and I decided to skip it. Although we’d heard it was a fun race that we had missed last year due to the TSE, in the end we decided it wasn’t worth the logistical challenges. The race was five hours away, and there was an XC race on Saturday, which meant we wouldn’t be able to begin our pre-ride until 3:00 p.m. It was unlikely there would be shuttles for practice, and starting a 17.5 mile pre-ride at 3:00 seemed like a good way to end up exhausted and stressed out for race day. I briefly considered the option of entering the XC race just so that we could pre-ride the course earlier, but I quickly came to the conclusion that this race might just be draining more forks than I was willing to give this early in the season. Instead, we went to Snowshoe for two days, and it was super fun.

What I learned from my early enduro experiments in 2015 was that if I was going to do a race, I had to be fully committed, pre-ride, hotel bed, and all. “It seems like a lot of effort,” a friend said to me when we were catching up at the Ray’s Women’s Weekend last winter, when I told her that’d I’d been way too tired to race ‘cross after my last enduro season. Of course, the other contributing factor was that ‘cross wasn’t really as fun anymore after I moved to PA, because all of the races were so far away that I couldn’t race as much as I wanted to without it becoming a burden. At least enduro feels worth giving up an entire weekend and sleeping in a strange bed to race, and I don’t need to race nearly as often to keep my edge the way I do in ‘cross. From a purely stimulus/recovery standpoint, I would ideally do one enduro race every 3-4 weeks, but with so many races available that I have yet to try, as well as the ones I want to try again, I sometimes have to make hard choices.

FOMO is a constant force in my life since I dropped in to this gravity-oriented journey. Knowing how mentally and physically tired I am after a race weekend, I made a rule that I was not allowed to race two weekends in a row this season. Once I put all of the WVES and my two “big goal” races on the calendar, that pretty much precluded most non-State College MASS races, or ESC races. On weekends I’m not racing, I have to choose which of the many dimensions of enduro training I should work on. Do I stay home, work on my endurance, and catch up on my sleep? Do I get up early for a day trip to a bike park to work on skills that I can’t work on in Rothrock? It seems that the weekends go by so quickly, and I often change my mind as to what’s most important to me on a given week. When Frank asked if I wanted to go to Blue Mountain or Mountain Creek this weekend, I replied, “Let’s decide after Snowshoe. It depends on whether I’m feeling jumpy or droppy.”

Not that I feel like this rapid adaptation is a bad thing. Sure, I missed out on what might have been my one opportunity to not get last place this season by skipping the Black Bear Enduro, but I gained valuable experience at Snowshoe, as well. Having only ridden at Snowshoe in the context of a cold, rainy race weekend, I’d been wanting to see what else the park had to offer. Even after two days, we still didn’t get to see everything due to weather delays and trail closures, so hopefully we can find time to make it back again this season. We’re scheduled to race there twice this season, thanks to my FOMO from missing nationals last year, so I’ll definitely be seeing more of it one way or another.

At the moment, I think I’m feeling droppy, so this weekend will likely end up being a big climbing ride on Saturday and a trip to Blue Mountain on Sunday. Then it’s on to the Rothrock TrailMix, now featuring 87% more enduro than last year’s initial attempt at adding an enduro category to the event. It’s currently slated to be Wildcat and Old Laurel’s last appearance in a competitive event, so while I’m not as ready for my one official shot at them as I would like, I want to do my best to given them the sendoff they deserve. So much for “destiny is all”, but that’s freeing in a way. If I keep following my heart from weekend to weekend, my real destiny will reveal itself eventually. This sport will always be full of missed opportunities, but it also has so many chances to be in the right place at the right time, and we never really know which it is until we choose a line and let go of the brakes.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Valley Falls Enduro: The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations

Now here you go again, you say
You want to upgrade
Well who am I to keep you down?
It's only right that you should
Play the way you feel it
But listen carefully to the sound
Of your loneliness
Like a heartbeat drives you mad
In the stillness of remembering what you had
And what you lost, and what you had, and what you lost

Mud tires only roll fast when it's raining
Strava only loves you when you’re training
Say races they will come and they will go
When you see the results screen, you'll know, you'll know

This is my life now.
At the very least, you can say that I learned from my mistakes between the first and second races of the West Virginia Enduro Series this season. Due to my rushed and ineffective pre-ride at Timberline, I decided that it would be worthwhile to make an extra trip down to Valley Falls for a shuttled bonus pre-ride the week before the race. Despite the fact that it was pouring rain the entire ride, going out a week early was totally worthwhile. It allowed me to get the tentative inspection of the stages out of the way and gave me a good reminder of what sections to focus on doing faster in the day before the race practice.

I was a little disappointed when I learned that the drop-filled Valley Falls would be the second race of the series, taking place in May before most bike parks opened. The race was held in June last year, and I vowed to come back much better at drops the next time around. I did get better at drops late last year after the races were over and I got to put in more bike park time. So much so that I convinced myself that I needed to close out the year by landing the largest of the progressive drops at Blue Mountain on my last run of closing day. I mostly landed it on my left elbow, and I haven’t had the opportunity to start building back my confidence since then.

Although I can pretty confidently negotiate my bike in seemingly near-vertical positions as long as both tires are touching a solid surface, the thought of the millisecond free fall off of anything larger than two feet fills my stomach with butterflies. It’s the “whomp” that terrifies me. Despite knowing exactly how I need to push off the lip and how much 160mm of travel will soak up even if the landing angle is slightly imperfect, when approaching a ledge that is too high or steep to be rolled, my brain becomes filled with images of the suspension compressing unevenly and shooting me off into space or of landing too fast and smashing into the nearest tree. I know these are actually pretty irrational fears, but it took a lot of building up to bigger and bigger “whomps” last year and then improving my landing control to start overriding the “Friday Fails” reels playing in my brain. Unfortunately, there aren’t any ledges in Rothrock with the right combination of height, entry speed, and safe landing space for me to get past that first “whomp” of the year.

With these limitations in mind, I set out on my one-week-out pre-ride to figure out which of the features that I couldn’t do at last year’s race might be within my range this year. For better or worse, two of the things on my “to do” list had actually been made easier this year and thus weren’t a problem at all. Another was a rollable drop that seemed positively easy after conquering many ledges at Windrock and the awkward drop into a tight corner thing on Bald Knob Death Drop. There were several larger rock drops with ride arounds that automatically fell into the “meh, maybe next year” category, but there was one section of the course that would remain on my mind for the rest of the week. Stage 6 contained two back-to-back log drops with no ride arounds that were in the range of what I could successfully do at the end of last year. The question was could I force my Friday Fail brain to remember this without putting it through a baby drop remedial course?

The short answer is no. Having done all of the stages a week earlier allowed me to skip the less technical, more pedally ones the day before and spend my time and energy dialing in my speed on the more technical stuff. This also meant that I did two runs of Stage 6, hoping each time to hit the drops only to be scared off by onlookers each time I tried. I still had vague thoughts of hitting them in my race run if I could successfully negotiate the steep chute leading into them. The chute was not very hard in the perfect conditions the day before the race, but I suspected that I might be doing a controlled butt slide on race day if it rained all night as predicted. When I reached Stage 6 on race day, the chute was halfway dry and I made it halfway down before my uncontrolled hip slide to the bottom. At that point I just got up and ran the over the drops. Meh, maybe next year.

Yes, I just spent four paragraphs talking about what essentially amounted to 30 seconds of my race day, and I find this to be just as much of a problem as you probably do by now. Shortly after I gave up on hitting the drops during practice, the phrase “the rhetoric of heroic expectations” came into my mind (which is better than Friday Fails at least). It was the title of a book that Frank was reading around the time he finished his dissertation. Although it was a collection of essays about the beginning the Obama presidency, I felt like it could also be a collection of essays on the beginning of my enduro career (#thanksenduro).

Despite continued affirmation that drops are at best a 5% contribution to enduro success, I obsess over them because I feel like my inability to do them means that there is something wrong with me. This pressure is even stronger now that I am in the “Pro/Expert” class and it feels like I’m failing some sort of basic competency exam to be there. Even though moving up was theoretically the right thing to do after winning the series in Sport last year, I am still so far from the level of the other expert women that it’s embarrassing. It was fun winning races last year, but now I find myself wishing that I’d had a stronger talent pool to kick my butt rather than me easily winning and having to move up before I was really ready. What scares me even more it that now each race I worry that more talented Sport women will show up and further highlight how underprepared I am.

The thing is that I am the only one actually holding up these heroic expectations. As much as I imagine other people reading the Pro/Expert women’s results and saying, “Wow, that Lindsay Hall-Stec sure does suck. I don’t know why she is sullying the good name of West Virginia women’s Pro/Expert enduro racing by entering these races, but she needs to just go hide out in Central Pennsylvania and do some sort of Rocky-style training montage until she’s fit to race in public again,” I realize that is 100% not actually happening in real life. At worst, someone might say, “She needs to quit thinking so much and ride faster,” which is an actually something that someone said to me in reference to someone else that I took very much to heart.

As brutal as it is to be showing up on race results far, far into last place right now, I know that continuing to get race experience is an important part of my journey to someday not being in last place. I have to remember that, except for drops, I am still a much better rider than I was last season, and that things that I actually can improve on a daily basis (aggression, flow, and fitness) are the ones that will make a lot more impact on my results than gaining a few seconds by hitting a drop.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Timberline Enduro: Extreme Meditation

A couple of weeks ago, I visited my friend and former teammate. Two years ago she suffered a really bad concussion that took several months from which to recover and eventually led to her taking an indefinite break from bike racing. She used this as an opportunity to try new things, including jiu-jitsu, but as we were catching up the other day she told me how she had gotten another concussion from a jiu-jitsu accident a few weeks prior. She said that was taking a break from activities where she could get hurt and that, “Now I’m just into extreme yoga and extreme mediation.” It is true that, like myself, when she goes in on something she goes in hard, so “extreme meditation” became the running joke of the evening.

Incidentally, I began a fairly consistent meditation practice of my own right at the beginning of the year, but in my case, it has been far from extreme, and that is a good thing. I use the Headspace app  for 10-20 minutes a day, most days, although my best unbroken streak has only 20 days or so. I took this on as another attempt to self-treat my anxiety and depression, because I’ve had very little luck finding a good therapist in State College and I’m pretty resistant to taking prescription drugs. The thing is that I went into the meditation practice with no expectation of immediate results, because that’s not really how it’s supposed to work. Like training for a sport, training the brain requires consistent effort over a long period of time, so I finally committed to really giving that a shot. There isn’t much downside to it, except for paying $13 a month for the app and committing a small amount of uninterrupted time to it each day. The question is if I’ve seen enough improvement after four months for it seem worthwhile. For outside observers who read past this point, it will probably seem like I haven’t improved at all. I may not be able to prevent all anxiety attacks, nor quickly pull myself out of tailspin on command, but yes, I definitely feel that I have a little more “head space” than I did a few months ago.

First practice run of the season.
Photo: Sue Haywood
Going into the first race of the season, I thought I was in a pretty good place mentally. I was racking up PRs in training and was at least on track to regain the fitness that I had lost over the winter. I knew I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I hoped that I might pleasantly surprise myself by finishing closer to the rest of the pro/expert field than I expected. I was okay with last place; it was just a question of by how much. Then on Thursday evening before the race, my old demons started creeping back. The first to appear was a picture of a feature on the course that I probably would be too scared to ride in competition, which reintroduced all my guilt and embarrassment about not being better at drops by now. Later that evening, Frank casually mentioned another of my demons just as we were turning the lights off to sleep, so you can probably imagine how much sleep I got that night. It all spun up from excitement about the race to dread very quickly.

My outlook had quickly gone from “I’m not as good as I want to be yet, but I’ll get there eventually” to “this race is going to prove to everyone how bad I suck, and how I will always suck no matter what I do and why do I always have to be so terrible at everything I want to be good at when it’s so easy for everyone but me”. These recurring thought patterns should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been reading for a while, and I guess that my winning the sport category last year only goes to prove that imposter syndrome is not limited to academia.
So this where my meditation practice comes in. As I said before, I was not able to fully pull myself out of the tailspin once I was in it, but at least I was able to formulate enough moments of objectivity where I could recognize all of the unhelpful crap that my brain was doing for what it was, even if I couldn’t really shut it down. I was simultaneously trying to shame myself into being better and trying to protect myself from disappointment in my performance, but I know from experience that neither of these strategies actually work. This is especially true in enduro, where “trying really hard”  can actually backfire pretty quickly.

This was when I realized how much enduro was like meditation due to the careful balance between discipline and effortlessness. I don’t try to be “good” at meditation because that’s not how it works. I simply show up, often when I don’t necessarily feel like it, and I do my best to stay aware and watch what happens. I have the vague long-term goal of reduced anxiety, but I don’t know what exactly that will look like or when I will have achieved it. I just know that it will be better than it is now, so I keep showing up. I could probably benefit from treating my enduro practice and racing the same way. Rather than thinking about where I want to be and when and how I can get there, I would be better served just showing up and doing my best to fully engage with the sensations in my brain and body. It’s almost as if enduro could be called extreme meditation or something.

And thus my mantra for the opening weekend of the West Virginia Enduro Series was born. Despite the fact that I came into the weekend stressed and exhausted and continued to be thrown off by every little thing that didn’t go according to plan, throughout the weekend I would repeat to myself the phrase “extreme meditation”. I had forgotten how exhausting practice days are and how defensive I get when riding unfamiliar trails in mud, and all the demons that were let loose on Thursday refused to get back in their box, so I ended up repeating the phrase a lot. I’d love to say that it held some sort of magical power that turned things around and that I ended up having a good race, but that didn’t happen. I did finish last as expected, but it was the margin between me and the next woman that was embarrassing.

I will, however, keep reminding myself that this is just extreme meditation until the message finally kicks in. This means going into every ride and race with the intention of riding as well as I can in the circumstances presented without thinking about any past or future results. I’m not pretending that this will be an easy thing to do, because neither is regular meditation, but the point is to set your intention and keep coming back.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

(The end of) Winter is Coming

Sure, it snowed on and off most of the day yesterday, but weather aside, the first race of the West Virginia Enduro Series is a mere 11 days away. That means, ready or not, winter is almost over. Although this April has been much more challenging than normal, the snowy days are at least becoming more spread out and less severe. The weather hasn’t really allowed me to settle into a regular weekly training schedule yet, but a careful eye on the forecast and a newfound tolerance for mountain biking in 40-something degree temperatures has allowed me to do some good chunks of riding and use the remaining exceptionally crappy days for recovery.

A few days after my last post, I *finally* got a nice dry and snow-free mountain bike ride in, where I went out absolutely smashed my PR on Bald Knob Death Drop. I’ve had several other PRs since that first one, so finally have proof that I not only didn’t forget how to go fast, but somehow even got a little faster during a few months of little to no real mountain biking. It makes me think that the RipRow might actually be working.

I've been riding bikes lately, but I don't have any pictures to prove it. I did acquire this pretty dirt jumper since my last post, though.

Setting some new PRs was a nice boost of confidence that also motivated me to start “being a good athlete” again, as Frank and I call it. Yes, I’m regretting not spending the winter more effectively preparing my body to withstand the beating of a long, intense enduro season, but now I’m doing what I can achieve a smart buildup of fitness as the season progresses. Despite being faster at downhill segments, my endurance sucks right now and my body hurts more than it should after hard descents. I’m trying balance between descending practice and spending time on my strength and endurance so that I can hopefully keep improving for the whole season.

Now, with the first race so close, my brain is buzzing wondering what this season will bring. I’m feeling confident that I’m “better” this year, but I’m also not sure that will mean in terms of race results. There was still a decent sized gap between me and the most of the regular women’s expert racers at the end of the season, so even if I’ve improved, that could still mean some last places in my immediate future. The first race is at Timberline Resort, which was not on the schedule last year, so I really have no basis for comparison, either in how well I ride the stages or the time gap to the other racers. It’s a little weird not knowing how I will be able to tell if I did well or not at the first race, but I’m sure I’ll figure it out. I’m just excited to race again!

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Drive South

I didn't say we wouldn't hurt anymore
That's how you learn; you just get burned
We don't have to feel like dirt anymore
Though love's not learned, baby it's our turn
We were always looking for true love
With our heads in the clouds
Just a little off course
But I left that motor running
Now if you're feeling down and out

Come on baby drive south
With the one you love
Come on baby drive south

It is now April 3, and I still have not accomplished a snow-free, full-speed downhill run in Rothrock in 2018. Looking at the forecast, I’m not sure when I will. I got a couple of decent 80-90% efforts with just a little patchy snow on Bald Knob Death Drop and New Laurel last week, so I got cocky and ended up skiing down Wildcat. While my clean, if a little slow, attempt at Death Drop on the first try of the year is a huge improvement in some aspects, there is still a nagging fear that I don’t know how to go fast anymore until I’ve actually proven to myself that I can. So far this year I haven’t yet had much of an opportunity to do so.

Shake and Bake

A couple of weeks ago, my need for a downhill fix became so great that Frank and I began plotting a trip to Windrock, since it is the only downhill park that I know of that is open year-round. We drove down to Maryville, TN on Friday and stayed at my old teammates Josh and Sarah’s place. Sadly, Sarah was out of town while we were there, but it was nice seeing Josh for the first time in a few years.

We went to Windrock on Saturday, and it absolutely lived up to its reputation of being incredibly steep. Although they theoretically have a couple of green trails on the map, they start about halfway up the mountain and the shuttle doesn’t stop there. Usually when we visit a new bike park, we just ride through the trails from easiest to hardest until we hit “too hard”, and then go back and redo the ones we liked the best. Although I would have preferred an easy warm-up, we didn’t want to risk wasting our limited riding time pedaling up to the greens only to find out they were boring easy and not fun easy. So we chose a blue from the main drop off point, and while it did turn out to be the easiest trail in the main trail section, “a Windrock blue” will now be my new euphemism for a decently hard enduro stage. For example, I might say “Wildcat is a Windrock blue.” This is a *slight* exaggeration, but not much.

They had three blue options, two that had a lot of steep ledgy stuff and Talladega, the super-fast “race track” run. Despite its NASCAR inspired name, it required railing of corners both left and right, sometimes back to back to back in a serpentine pattern down the steep grade. It also had many tabletop jumps that were a lot larger than anything I’d really seen on a bike park blue trail before. Although I came to Tennessee with a need for speed, Talladega proved to be a little too much for me in that area, and I didn't enjoy it that much. The two others were more “fun hard” and had a lot of sections that still scared me a bit in my current cobwebby state, but also helped me start loosening up and acclimating to steep and rough riding again.

We also got a chance to shuttle to the “Windmill Drop” at the very top of the mountain, which only has one main trail down that splits in a couple of places. We were a little tentative coming down because the people we talked to on the shuttle made it sound harder than it actually was, so we kept riding carefully and expecting something scary to pop up. There were a lot of steep shoots, but nothing that we don’t encounter in Rothrock. It was more just a greater density of steep, rocky stuff for a longer period of time than we were used to. I would have loved to have had another crack at it, but they don’t send many shuttles all the way to the top per day. Finally, we tried the black trail where the Pro GRT downhill course starts, but it was well beyond what we could safely ride blind at our current ability level, so we ended up walking a lot of it. Hopefully, we’ll get another shot sometime when we are less rusty.

On Sunday I woke up feeling like I’d done a hundred pistol squats using my right leg only. In a way, I kind of had. One of the things I’ve really been working on with the RipRow is my balance through my descending range of motion and not putting too much pressure on my rear leg, as well as getting comfortable with either foot forward. I guess I haven’t quite mastered that yet, since I my right leg took the brunt of every steep chute that I did on Saturday.

Frank got tips on the hot lines from a local at Baker Creek Preserve. We failed to get any pictures of either of us actually on a bike the whole time.

Luckily, Sunday’s plans were a little more Type I fun than Saturday’s. It was a beautiful Easter Sunday, and we got to experience a relatively uncrowded Baker Creek Preserve. Part of Knoxville’s “Urban Wilderness”, this park features three downhill-only trails with relatively gentle singletrack climbs back to the top. The trails are all different scales of flow/jump trails. The biggest one is “Devil’s Racetrack”, which apparently had some sizeable gap jumps until recently. They have filled them in and now they are just really big tabletops, so I was able to roll the whole thing safely but I wouldn’t really call it fun since I’m not very good at jumping yet. After we’d done all three, we went back and did the easiest a few more times because that’s where our jumping “fun zone” is at this time. I wish I had access to something like this more often, because I’m sure that with more regular practice I could work up to actually enjoying the big jumps.

Now we’re back in drizzly 40-something degree State College with the remnants of yet another snow storm melting off, which I’m hoping will happen in time to resume regular Wednesday rides tomorrow. I can’t say that this weekend did a lot to prove that I can still go fast, but I can definitely say that I’ve now had way more steeps and jumps practice this year than I’d had until way later in the summer last year. I just have to keep riding what I can in the conditions that I can and hope that fast will come back eventually.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Pushing Through Winter

This winter won't fly, it's like I'm paralyzed by it
I'd like to be my old self again, but I'm still trying to find it
After plaid shirts at Ray’s and nights on the RipRow
Now I’m hike-a-biking up this snowy mountain alone

But I still have Snowshoe dirt in the bottom of my feet
And it reminds me of the good times down in WV
I can't get rid of it, 'cause I remember it all too well

It feels like a very unoriginal thing to say after seeing so many variations on “happy second day of spring” Instagram posts of snowy yards across the entirety of the Eastern time zone a couple of days ago, but this winter has been a tougher one for me than usual. Of course, at this point, it’s technically no longer winter and I think it’s probably tough for everyone save the most hardcore of trainer lovers or those people who like *gasp* winter sports. Since my last post, I’ve played around with dirt (or actually wood) jumping, attended the Ray’s Women’s Weekend, and spent time getting better at the RipRow. I’ve been able to go on a handful of outdoor mountain bike rides, but not a lot, and I was just feeling too busy and/or uninspired to post about any of it. At some point, I kind of gave up on posting about the events of winter, and decided that this week would be my turning point. It felt like as good of one as any, as this past weekend was the Rothrock Ruckus training camp at the Stokesville Lodge near Harrisonburg, VA, and I expected that I’d come back with some stories worth telling.

For the past couple years Rothrock Ruckus has referred both a somewhat informal group State College enduro racers and the Wednesday night rides that they do. This year they are forming into a more official team, and Frank is joining them as a member. When Frank mentioned that they would be having a training camp near Harrisonburg, I wasn’t sure if I was invited, and even so, if I should go. However, when he told me that Gloria (of G.L.O.E. fame) would also be coming along with a couple of non-Ruckus friends, I decided to go. Although I knew that I’d be the slowest person there, I figured that it was something that I needed to do to try and get myself out of my recent funk.

The first day was definitely...something. Despite Harrisonburg’s reputation as the place that you go to get better weather in the winter, we learned on Friday night that there was still a considerable amount of snow on top of the mountains. We sat around the big map-covered dining table, as Ryan, the super-fast guy who was organizing the weekend, showed us the intended route, which had 18 and 34 mile options. While 34 miles at that difficulty level seemed outside of my current fitness level, I set out with the best of intentions of making it to the top of Reddish Knob with everyone else, since Frank and I made a wrong turn and missed the Wolf Ridge descent last time we’d been there. I really wanted to get that descent in, even if it meant a helluva lot of climbing to get there.

When the climbing commenced, I quickly fell off from the group, but I did my best try and not feel bad about that. I was riding as fast as I could without blowing up and getting in some much-needed climbing time, and as the person who’s slowest in most groups, I’m trying to embrace the whole “say thank you, not sorry” thing. At the same time, when nine other people have to stand still in sub-40 degree temperatures for significant amounts of time thanks to me, the urge to say “sorry” is pretty strong.

The front of the group near the top of the hike-a-bike. I was probably still halfway down crying at this point.
Photo: @bontrager1

Up until we hit the first singletrack, I would say that the ride was uncomfortable, but still fine. According to the map, we were supposed to climb a ~2 mile trail and pop out on a road to climb a few more miles up to Reddish Knob. What transpired was over two hours of pushing my enduro bike up an average 14% grade of snow-covered rocks in slightly too big winter cycling shoes that just weren’t meant for that much walking. To make matters worse, something went wrong with my shifting such that I couldn’t use my three easiest gears, so even on the rare snow-free section I couldn’t get back on and pedal. It was perhaps the longest bike-related two hours of my life, as I would think I was nearing the top, only to come around a curve and find a new tier of the climb. Finally, Frank came back sans bike and helped me push the rest of the way. He had sent the others on without me, and most had already opted to stick to the 18-mile option.

As we reached the “road”, we found that the four brave souls who had attempted the final ascent to Reddish Knob had turned back and were planning on going back down. The “road” was at best double track, but it was hard to tell what it was supposed to be under the 4-6 inches of snow at the top of the mountain. Any hopes of an easy cruise down were dashed as we began foot-out skidding down the snowy trail-road. Even as we began to get to lower elevations and some clear patches of trail, it still was not easy going. The “downhill” still had plenty of short, steep uphill sections that often resulted in more hiking, due to my limited gears and trashed legs.

Frank and I had quickly become separated from the fast group, and made way our back to the lodge alone. We ended up taking a wrong turn which resulted in even more climbing and a longer overall distance than the rest of the group. At least after many teasing ups and downs, we finally hit a good sustained descent at the end, and finally got to experience a full-blast open descent for the first time in months. That part was so nice that it *almost* made the previous six hours of suffering worth it.

The second day was not so exciting for Frank and me, because we went to the Massanutten Western Slope area, but my legs were pretty much garbage from the start. He stayed back with me, and we just sort of puttered around while the rest of the group went on a bigger ride.

In the end, it was a worthwhile trip, even if I didn’t get in all of the descending practice that I’d hoped I would. I got a few tastes of going fast again, and it was beautiful. I’m proud of myself for at least trying to do the same difficult route as the faster people, unlike my old Speedway Wheelmen training camp days when I would automatically plan an easier route for myself from the beginning.

Unfortunately, as we wait for Wednesday’s new dump of snow to melt, my escape from my winter funk has been delayed a bit further. It’s disappointing, but in a way it will make me more appreciative when it finally goes away. I’m so past caring about not being in shape anymore or even being ready for early season races. I just want to be able to ride my bike downhill fast on a regular basis again. In a way, that’s pretty cool, because preparing for bike races was never really fun in any of my past disciplines. Now once the snow melts, I'll gave a big “fork you” to winter and just do stuff I enjoy knowing that it will make me as fit as I need to be by the time I need to be. It’s still six months until have to climb that silly access road in Burke, right?

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Three In One

After my last post, I still didn’t quite get off to a great start with winter training, as I came down with some weird flu thing that took me out for a few days almost immediately after posting. However, I’m feeling much better now, my RipRow finally arrived on Friday, and I got to go on an awesome, sorta brutal-for-January, 5+ hour ride with new friends on new trails yesterday. So I’m very tired and very sore, but now I’m feeling like I’m on track for a great year, even if I started a month late.

I’ve been mulling over a few things that I’ve read in the past couple of months, and I’d like to share them now. This will essentially be three different short posts that are vaguely related, but I thought I’d put them all out at once.

A post shared by Lindsay Hall-Stec (@slowpoke2320) on

Saturday's Ride


“The feeling wasn’t always shiny and happy – sometimes it was dark and obsessive, and sometimes it was like the quiet, abiding love you see in old married couples.” – Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code

I saved this quote back in November, when I was writing about my theory of “Talent divided by Forks Given equals Happiness”. I covered the Talent and the Forks, but I never quite got to the happiness. I’m not really sure how much there is to say beyond the quote above. The Happiness in my equation is the first part of the quote, the shiny, new happiness that comes with beginners luck or exceeding your own expectations without really trying that hard. It’s the easy happiness that’s sometimes easy to be jealous of when you’ve given too many forks.

I’ve realized that there’s also a different kind of happiness that comes from giving the forks year after year until it’s just part of you, and don’t know what you’d be without it. And your realize that all of the forks you gave do pay off, because you’re better than you were ten years ago, and even one year ago, and you do things now that you never imagined you could. For the last couple of years, I’ve really been trying consciously be more proud of how far I’ve come in cycling and the success that I have had, regardless of how it stacks up to more “talented” people.

It’s not always easy, because part of being in a competitive sport is wanting to observe the best people so that you understand what “good” actually is. I guess the key is to be able to ask, “What can I do to be more like them?” without letting it turn into, “Oh god, I’ll never be like them, so I might as well give up.”


“Grit is that mix of passion, perseverance, and self-discipline that keeps us moving forward in spite of obstacles. It's not flashy, and that's precisely the point. In a world in which we're frequently distracted by sparkly displays of skill, grit makes the difference in the long run.” – Daniel Coyle, The Little Book of Talent

After reading The Talent Code in November, I decided to read the follow-up, “The Little Book of Talent”. It was full of great tips for skill development that I was eager to implement. However, the one on cultivating grit really made me think. It suggested taking the Grit Survey, located here, and the questions it held surprised me.

Although my years of persistence in cycling would indicate that I do possess some amount of grit, I also know that I sometimes absolutely suck at not giving up in the face of obstacles (see basically the whole last month). The thing that really surprised me was how many of the questions on the survey had to do with changing interests and goals. While not a lot of people can say that they have competed in mountain biking in some shape or form for twelve summers in a row, I have definitely bounced around with the type of event and goals that have interested me.

I actually realized the other day that I needed to update the bio on this blog, as my cat situation had changed, then realized that my current phase as an amateur bike racer had changed, as well. The rocks of Rothrock are less of a concern for me these days, although I don’t know if I ever actually befriended them. Now the ones that concern my most are the ones on Wildcat and Old Laurel, and my greatest desire is to smoothly fly over them without really seeing them. I’m not sure if my changing interests in regard to the many sub-disciplines of cycling means I have less grit, but I think it has made me “happier”, because part of my progress has been narrowing the focus of where both my enjoyment and proficiency lies.

Stop Saying “______ is dead.”

Finally, when I read the post above a few weeks ago, it really tied all of this together. I actually don’t know if I’ve ever said that any cycling discipline is dead, despite having lost interest in many. Maybe I already got the point of the article, which was that just because something was no longer my thing, that didn’t mean that it suddenly sucked for everyone else. I think I have said that peak cyclocross has passed, because I read and believed an article last year that said that, but it’s definitely not dead. It’s funny, because I can actually look back and remember “peak ____” for many of disciplines in which I’ve dabbled. They’re all still alive and have reach their appropriate equilibrium.

I think that road, XC, and downhill mountain bike racing all had their heydays prior to the purchase of my first bike. XC will always be there, because for many parts of the country, it’s the only mountain bike racing that exists, and it’s certainly the easiest in which to start. Downhill seems to be regaining popularity due to Redbull TV, but participation will always be limited to those who have regular access to lift-assisted bike parks.

I remember peak 24-hour race and peak stage race in the earlier days of my mountain biking career, but of which plenty of people still do, but being such large investments of time, money, and training, the limited number of regular participants couldn’t sustain the large number events of those types that popped up for a couple of years.

Peak fat bike was a fun time a couple of years ago, but the sport had the unfortunate luck of reaching the top of its popularity during a particularly warm winter. Specialized may have pulled the Hellga from it’s line, but fat biking will continue to be a staple in places where people can count on consistent, groomed snow. For me, it’s still a great way to ride very slowly with bar mitts when it’s especially cold out.

Peak gravel is interesting, because although the American Ultracross Series actually died a couple of years ago, the fact that Dirty Kanza just implemented a lottery system this year means that the number of people wanting to race gravel is still growing. Perhaps “ultracross” wasn’t the best branding, and most of the races of the series still exist. They are still filled by regionally competitors who just aren’t into it enough to travel all over the country for a series title, and at 50-70 miles, they are a great gateway for people wanting to work their way up to bigger challenges like Dirty Kanza.
Now I find myself riding the wave to peak enduro. When will it happen? Will I stick around when it stops being cool? I have no idea, but don’t worry, I’ll never try to tell anyone it’s dead.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Shall We Begin?

I had thought I would conclude my “T/F=H” series with a post of the happiness part of the equation, but I wasn’t really sure what to say. Instead, I will likely do a post on some of the interesting things I learned from reading “The Little Book of Talent”, which was the follow-up to the “The Talent Code”. One interesting subject that it brought up was grit, which I would like to explore. Perhaps I can even find a connection between grit and happiness. However, before I move on to those topics, I feel like I need to catch up a bit on recent events, where I’ll admit that I fell short on both.

As much as winter sucks for cyclists, I typically come into January with great hope for the coming year and feeling especially motivated to withstand the suckiness of winter. During November and December, I expected that to be true this year, as well, and looked forward to the conclusion of holiday travel and the beginning of 2018. We moved into our house in December, and I was excited to have a finished basement that I actually liked working out in, instead of having my bike and trainer taking up space in our small living room.

After months of scheming, dreaming, and saving money, I was able to pre-order a RipRow at the beginning of November, and at the time, the expected delivery date was “before Christmas”. Although that already felt like a long wait, at least I would be ready to hit the ground running (or rowing) in January and start getting ready for spring. Then the “before Christmas” delivery date slipped to “early January” to “next week” and another “next week” before any of the units would ship. Now I’m still waiting for them to assemble and box number 49, plus however long it actually takes to get here from Colorado. That puts me a good month past “before Christmas” before I get to use it.

I was so excited about this piece of equipment, and it was huge motivator for me going into winter. We don’t have access to any pump tracks near State College, nor any jumps or drops, so beyond just physical conditioning, I hoped that it would also improve my riding skills. I was hoping it would be a way for to me to accumulate the necessary “reaches and reps” (shout out to The Little Book of Talent”) in a safe and efficient manner so that I could get more out of my once or twice a month days at the bike park. I was also looking forward to the “300 pound dead lift” highest resistance setting with the hope that I could quit the gym and start getting my strength training at home in my nice basement.

It might sound stupid, but the continued shipping delays have turned my motivator into a de-motivator. After the way I had imagined my January training, going to regular old loud and overcrowded gym and doing regular old trainer workouts seem even more unpleasant than they normally would.  Although intellectually I know I need to keep doing the work that I can do, I find it much harder to do regular winter training this year, and so far this is probably my worst January since I started 2015 off with a two-week respiratory infection and tore a rib muscle from coughing too hard.

Besides the direct training motivators and de-motivators, I was also really thrown off by the very sudden loss of 14-year-old cat Mushu on January 8th. Although I knew she was getting older and that I would have to say goodbye to her someday, I had no idea it would be this soon. She seemed so happy since moving to the new house, where she had a lot more room to run around and go up and down stairs, which was always one of her favorite things. She was more active than she had been in a long time, such that I almost wonder if she died of too much fun. Technically, it was a blood clot that cut off circulation to her backs legs, taking her from seemingly fine and normal to unable to walk in under a half an hour. We rushed her to the vet, but the vet said that the “prognosis was extremely grave” and recommended we have to put to sleep. It was truly awful having to say to goodbye to my beloved friend so suddenly on what I had started as a normal Monday morning. I always knew she was a once-in-lifetime kind of cat, and that I was so lucky to have had her as my first pet.

I know that I’ll never find another quite like her, but after years of waiting to own our own home and have as many pets we wanted, we had already started to looking to expand our family. We had planned to get a dog, but it felt like too much to put on Clemmie and Mushu so soon after moving houses. However, I already had gotten pretty used to scrolling through the Petfinder app, and when Mu passed, it just felt too weird being a single-cat household. Within a couple of days, I had located a pair of four-month-old long-haired littermates in Zanesville, OH, which Frank graciously went to pick up on his day off from teaching Friday. Ice and snow fell Friday night and the temperatures barely cracked 20 all weekend, so we closed out our week spending a couple of days shut in with some adorable orange and white babies. I’m looking forward to another 14 (or more) years with Shiny Fluffy Tutu (girl) and and Dashing Happy Feet (boy), whose names were given to them by their 5-year-old foster sister and we decided to not to change when we adopted them. Clemmie is still pretty cranky about the whole situation, but she is starting to adjust.

How can anyone be expected to accomplish anything with these cute faces on their couch?

So we’re now nearly three weeks into the new year, and I haven’t accomplished much training-wise. I’m still nervous and frustrated and burnt out and grieving and also a little paralyzed by cute. I’m trying really hard to get going and make it a great year for bikes. I’m really excited about returning to the West Virginia Enduro Series again this year, as well as pushing my boundaries a bit further by doing a couple of big two-day races at the USAC national championship in Snowshoe and the newly-announced EWS Continental Series race in Burke, VT in September. It’s time I stopped getting bogged down by things beyond my control and got moving with the things that I can. I said I wouldn’t bore you this year with posts about how many planned trainer workouts that I actually did this winter, but it might be good for me check back in next week. Between now and then, I hope to not only find some intelligent things to say about grit, but also muster some of it.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Gift of Forks

I used to set out on my various endeavors with so many expectations — and what was, essentially, an entitlement to have those expectations fulfilled. It’s such an embarrassingly egotistical thing to admit, to be honest. But it’s in the last few months that instead of saying “this is what’s going to happen (and there will be hell to pay if it doesn’t)”, I’ve begun thinking “whatever will be, will be”. I’ve just done more work and less demanding; while it doesn’t mean I expect less from myself or that I’ve lowered my standards, I do think that saying “we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it” has been far healthier for me. – Amanda Batty

Surprisingly enough, I don’t have any of Syd Shulz’ wisdom to pass onto you today. This post’s inspiration came from a much more unlikely source. Amongst Internet-famous female cycling personalities, Amanda Batty isn’t one with whom I’ve strongly identified in the past. Not long before stumbling upon the snippet above, I had been telling Frank how her excessively-long Instagram captions annoyed me. It’s a lot to take in when you’re just trying to scroll through pretty pictures of bikes and cats, and I had really only read her “real” writing when something sexist happened in the bike universe. Wait, when something *really* sexist happened in the bike universe, because otherwise that would mean every day. Maybe I just didn’t want my already-complicated feelings about the Liv cycling brand dictated to me, or to have my already-overblown tendency to rant about stuff exacerbated, so I never paid a lot of attention to what she said and wrote. However, I did happen to read at least halfway through one really long Instagram caption a couple of weeks ago and mined the gem above.

This happened around the time that I wrote about my theory of talent over forks and began asking myself questions about its implications. I thought this view on expectations and entitlement was a good explanation of what is sometimes going on when the forks get too high in athletic endeavors. Each fork you give is a small payment toward an expected result, which is unsurprising, considering that most American children are raised with the belief that such a deal can be easily struck.

Maybe I’m generalizing too much about most American children, but I know that for me, a big part of maturing as a human being has been coming to terms with the fact that life isn’t the clear “You do X, and you get Y” deal that I once believed it to be. I have come into jobs, relationships, and athletic endeavors with inaccurate ideas of what is valuable in that situation and was met with disappointment when offering up the things that I thought were valuable did not yield the expected results.

When it comes to my bike happiness formula, forks come in many forms: pulling yourself off the couch to ride when you’d really prefer to stick around for one more episode of Netflix, sitting through the pain of one more interval, passing up another beer, or buying new tires instead of a new dress (or whatever you’re into). In addition to the tangible sacrifices, the forks also add up in terms of emotional investment and the time you spend thinking and learning about your sport. I’m an analyst by nature, so I inherently absorb all of the available information relevant to my current pursuit and try to distill it into the best plan of action. If I’m honest, the nerding out and planning is the part that I love the most (hence this blog), but sometimes I probably place too much value on intellectual knowledge in a physical endeavor.

I think my problem is that in the past I’ve treated bike racing as a catalog from which various levels of success can be ordered for a price. You put in this many training hours, these workouts, pay for a coach etc., and you can expect certain results. The problem was that the prices were listed in a foreign currency for which I was always trying to decipher the exchange rate. I hired coaches, bought gadgets, and performed a lot self-experimentation trying to figure out the price of success and rarely got it right. At the same time, it seemed there was a secret email list coupon codes that I’d been left off of. Those coupons were what I used to call talent. 

What I’m learning is that, like the jobs and relationships I mentioned earlier, cycling isn’t a straightforward exchange. The best you can hope for is to offer up what you believe to be of value and hope that the receiver values it the same. It’s like buying a present for your partner or friend. You spend your money and/or time with the hope that it will be valuable to them, but you’re not likely to be mad at them if they don’t like what you give them as much as you’d hoped. 

Everyone who shows up to a race comes bearing gifts of strength or smarts or skills or power or stoke, and everyone has paid a different price for the gifts they offer. The race will chose which gift is its favorite, and it won’t care who paid the highest price. 

Rather than trying to figure out what you have to pay, I think it’s more important focus on what you’re willing to give as a gift. Beyond that, it helps to find a relationship where the gifts you are willing to give are most appreciated. For example, threshold intervals are “very expensive” to me, so I should probably never try to get into a serious relationship with time trialing. On the other hand, enduro seems to like things I give more willingly, like strength and skills. It also likes confidence and fearlessness, of which I have less to give, so my gifts won’t always be the favorite, and I have to learn to be okay with that. 

So this holiday season, think about the cycling disciplines on your gift list. What do they want, and what do you have to give? If you really love them, go ahead, shower them with gifts, but don’t get mad if next summer they like someone else’s gift better. Remember the reason for the (off) season, and perhaps you’ll receive some gifts of your own.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Talent: The Right Side of HSE

Any discussion about the skill-acquiring process must begin by addressing a curious phenomenon that I came to know as the Holy Shit Effect. This refers to the heady mix of disbelief, admiration, and envy (not necessarily in that order) we feel when talent suddenly appears out of nowhere. The HSE is not the feeling of hearing Pavarotti sing or watching Willie Mays swing – they’re one in a billion; we can easily accept the fact that they are different from us. The HSE is the feeling of seeing talent bloom in people who we thought were just like us. It’s the tingle of surprise you get when the goofy neighbor kind down the street is suddenly the lead guitarist for a successful rock band, or when your own child shows an inexplicable knack for differential calculus. It’s the feeling of, where did that come from? – Daniel Coyle, “The Talent Code”

In my last post, I discussed my long-held theory regarding talent and cycling-related happiness. However, as I wrote it, I started to question my definition of the “talent” in the context of that theory. Over Thanksgiving break, I decided get some additional perspective on the concept of talent, by re-reading “The Talent Code”. I had read the book before in 2010, and I was excited to find that it was actually among the relatively few books that weren’t culled prior to moving to Pennsylvania. This is even more impressive considering that at least half of my small remaining collection of physical books consists of the complete series of Sookie Stackhouse novels. What I found was that “The Talent Code” stood up to the test of time much better than the Sookie Stackhouse novels, and also that my 2010 self did not properly appreciate its wisdom the first time around.

Yo, girl, we need to talk about your wheel size, your hip hinge, and the fact that you're paying some dude $150 a month to make you faster while you're still holding on to a deep-seated sense of learned helplessness.

I will likely be referencing this book in the next few posts, so I won’t go into too much detail on the non-HSE parts for the time being, but it might be useful for me to preface the rest of this post with a brief summary. The book seeks to uncover the secrets of various “talent hotbeds", and it is divided into three sections: Deep Practice, which discusses the myelin that insulates neural pathways for the skills that a person practices most and best; Ignition, which discusses the subtle and not-so-subtle cues that people take from the world that motivate them into deep practice (and will make the R. Kelly song play in your head the for the entire middle third of the book); and Master Coaching, which talks about what the best teachers do to increase both ignition and deep practice in their students. A better summary can be found here, if you’re interested.

For today though, I’d like to focus on how the book made me realize that the thing that I’d been calling “talent” in my theory was actually HSE. For some reason, the concept of “HSE” reminds me of the saying, “History is written by the winners,” and then turns around in my mind to, “HSE is written by the losers.” I think that is because to the person displaying the “sudden” success, it might not seem like a surprise at all. Only an outside observer (who is often on the losing end of this situation) will perceive the success as natural ability that came out of nowhere. The whole point of the book is that the success has likely been longer in the making than one might think.

So I began to roll this narrative around in my mind. I once again thought of Syd Shulz’ post on challenging the stories that we tell ourselves and acknowledging our tailwinds along with the headwinds. As much I see myself as the scrappy underdog who has put up with a whole lot of defeat in service of a few minor victories sprinkled across a decade, I’ve come to realize that I am the only one who has been watching this clichรฉd sports movie in my head from the beginning. Was it possible that at some point I’d been the subject of someone else’s HSE?

While this recent string of posts sprung from my disappointment in the successes that I didn’t have this season, I can’t discount the successes that I did have. It’s dumb to imagine that the women of the West Virginia Enduro Series eventually Googled me and read all 300-and-something blog posts describing everything that happened in my cycling career prior to the moment that name appeared at the top of the Big Bear Women’s Sport results. To everyone else, I was just some woman who showed up and won the sport category at nearly every race this year, in some cases beating women with more enduro racing experience under their belts. While I was beating myself up because I was so far behind the expert women, other people, if they were paying attention at all, were probably thinking I must be very talented. LOL.

However, my greatest example of being on the winning side of HSE was my 2011 cyclocross season, when I surprised myself more than anyone. From a traditional sense of cycling training, that season should not have been a success. I didn’t even begin riding until March that year because I was recovering from surgery. I’m not sure that I did a ride over two hours long the whole year, and frankly I didn’t spend that many hours on the bike at all. At the time I couldn’t explain why I did well that season, which is why I sometimes joke that cyclocross is a combination of science and magic, just like Lil’ Bub.

After re-reading “The Talent Code”, I realize that what transpired that season wasn’t magic; it was just a different kind of science than what most cycling training is based on. I guess I was wasn’t ready to absorb science that didn’t talk about watts the first time I read the book.

While I wasn’t putting in tons of miles in 2011, what I did do was lift heavy weights often and with great consistency, and the time I spent of the bike was mostly short, intense efforts. When cyclocross season began, my threshold power was meh, even by my relatively low standards, but I could accelerate better than I ever had before or since. When I exploded off the line and lead for half a lap of the first race of the year before crashing into a hole and fighting my way back through the field to my first-ever podium, that was the ignition to my “sudden explosion of talent”. After that I raced nearly every weekend for three months, usually on both Saturday and Sunday.

The fact that I kept getting better through that season doesn’t make sense in terms of fitness, since I wasn’t really “training” between races, but when I think about it terms of firing neural circuits, making mistakes, and re-firing those circuits better and more efficiently, it totally does. There is really no substitute for the deep practice that I get from actually racing cyclocross, and part of my struggle to recreate that success since moving to State College has been the inconvenience of living 2-3 hours from real races with the starting line, course tape, and timing cues that I need to ignite me into that state. And there is a reason that "cyclocross practice" is among the top phrases that make me cringe, along with "lean protein" and "requirements gathering". Unless I have the cues present to get me into that deep practice state, it's just riding bikes on grass, and I hate riding bikes on grass.

What I have gained by reflecting on my own moments on the right side of HSE was that talent might not have been the right word to use in my cycling happiness equation. Maybe it’s more about pleasantly surprising yourself when you exceed the results that you believe you’ve earned. That’s actually kind of perfect, because even prior to this conclusion, I had planned for my next post to tackle the problem of entitlement when the forks get too high. What I’m learning in this is that the currency of competitive cycling is so much more vast and complicated than most of us understand, but hopefully some further examination of what’s usually written off as genetics, or even magic, will provide some guidance as to how to negotiate it.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Talent Over Forks

My last post was incredibly helpful in allowing me to bookend the last couple of months’ stress and anxiety, and transition into the official off-season feeling much more calm and motivated for next year. However, I worried that the post went a little too far down the crazy/anxious/dark end of the spectrum by admitting how much I let my insecurity bleed into pettiness and jealousy sometimes. And maybe it did, but it also prompted an interesting response from an enduro friend that I met over the summer.

He mentioned that I’d implied that guys seem to care less about results than women, which is definitely not something that I ever thought or meant to imply. Without doing any scientific research on the matter, I would guess that the level of caring about results is probably pretty evenly distributed between the genders, but how it is expressed and experienced is just different. I think competition among women can feel more personal, because there are fewer of us, and we feel less embarrassed to admit it when it gets us down. At the same time, I can imagine that there are plenty guys who get frustrated when they don’t progress at the rate that they feel that they should or feel a twinge of jealousy when that progression comes seemingly easily to someone else. Of course, most of what I observe in my day-to-day life is a neurotic woman (me) and a pretty chill man (Frank), so maybe it does skew my view of society as a whole.

The conversation reminded of me of a theory that I developed a couple of years ago, but I guess I never got around to posting about it. It must hold water, though, because Frank still regularly references it when explaining his relationship to competitive cycling, which is:  “My talent exceeds my [forks] given, so I’m pretty happy.”

I submit for your approval: Talent/Forks Given = Bike-Related Happiness

(I will be using the word “forks” from here on out, just in case my mom reads this, and because I’ve been watching too much of the “The Good Place”.)

I first started developing this theory around the time that I joined Team Laser Cats, when I found myself surrounded by blissfully unaware baby racers who didn’t really seem to know what they were doing when it came to racing, but somehow they were already better at it than me. All my years, miles, and knowledge of racing and training couldn’t stand up to their natural-born engines and their uninhibited stoke, but they were such a great group of women that I was okay with it.

The idea also came from watching Frank, who has always been proportionally faster than me, despite training less. It’s not like he was ever missing his calling as Pro Tour rider simply due to his lack of saddle time, but the fact that he could occasionally get on the PACX singlespeed podium with Cat 1&2 dudes just by tagging along with whatever training I was doing (unless it involved the trainer or rollers, coz eww) indicates a certain amount of talent. If he got a coach and invested a couple of years of dedicated training that didn’t involve my slow ass, I’m sure he could become a podium-worthy regional elite masters ‘cross competitor. I’m also sure he would be considerably less happy if he were to do that.

Most of the time he manages to ride a beautiful line where he gets just enough success without trying super hard in the day-to-day. The other interesting thing is that, in the heat of competition, I think he tends to focus harder and suffer longer than I do, because he hasn’t wasted as much mental energy obsessing beforehand.

The theory of talent over forks given reaches the entire breadth of the cycling spectrum, from that annoying person who wins the first bike race they ever enter, to a very sad Sanne Cant in second place on the World Championship podium a couple of years ago. While both of these examples exceed me in the talent portion, I can actually much better identify with the latter. Sanne Cant has an incredible amount of talent, but she had stacked up a pile of forks so high for so long that nothing short of World Championship would allow her to break even. I remember reading once that she made her parents take her to the Netherlands (I think) to race when she was a kid, because she was too young to compete in Belgium. At least her 15ish years of forks finally paid off last winter.

When I look back at my life on the things I was naturally good at and the things I really cared about, those were never the same thing. I joked with Frank the other day that my academic career was like his cyclocross career, where I was very satisfied to complete a bachelor’s degree in marketing from state school with a 3.85 GPA with an incredibly low amount of effort. In retrospect, I sometimes wish that I’d set my sights higher or challenged myself more, but at the time, simply graduating college was a pretty big accomplishment where I was from. At the same time, I was given the rare opportunity to become a Division I athlete by joining my college cross country team, despite not having shown much real athletic promise or interest until that point in my life. So that was where I became ingrained with the mentality that being smart was easy and sports were hard, and the fact that they were hard made them so much more satisfying. Bikes were just the next step for me after my collegiate running career ended, because cycling offers a greater variety of legitimate competitive opportunities than running at the non-elite level. If master’s track meets were more prevalent, it might have been a different story.

When I decide that something will be my new thing, I go all-in, learn all about it, and invest as much time and money as I can. For me, the forks were always high, even before I made it to the starting line of my first mountain bike race. I put a lot of effort into knowing what to expect and looking like I knew what I was doing. (Old pictures will reveal that questionability of that statement, as I still looked pretty forking dorky, even for the Midwest in 2006.) However, you only learn so much from reading and imagining, and it turned out that mountain bike racing was scary and hard, and that often times, my competition took to it a lot more naturally than me, even if they were wearing yoga pants and running shoes. The thing was, that because mountain biking was scary and hard at first, I was only more determined to make it less so.

So how does one recover when their forks given greatly exceed their talent? Sometimes the answer really is as simple as needing to give fewer forks. However, as I planned to write this post I started asking questions about my theory. At its heart, it is still very true, but I think there is more nuance to be explored. What is talent, really? And what does the “happiness” in my equation really mean? Sure, the person who wins their first race ever is going to have a much more positive outlook on the sport for a while, but how happy are they really, compared to someone who took years to get that same win? I figure I have about five months before I’ll have another race report to write, so instead of boring you this winter discussing whether I made it onto the trainer the planned number of times each week, maybe I’ll start digging into these additional questions. Stay tuned…