Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race: Up Where I Don't Belong

"I figure the only thing more pathetic than taking a vacation alone in an area where I don't belong is looking back when I am older and regretting not taking this opportunity to ride over a mountain range and on trails someplace other than my back yard." - ZenBicyclist

After two cycling-related trips in about a week and a half, I'm far behind on what's been happening in my Internet world the last couple of weeks. However, as I was combing through more pressing tasks this morning, I noticed the the title "Pisgah National Forest" on my very backed-up blog reading list. Seeing as I had just returned from Pisgah and the author of the post was not one of the folks I had encountered there, I decided to check it out.

It turns out that he was contemplating a vacation there this week (I think), and one of his reasons for choosing the destination was that it would be "warmer than Michigan". Funny, I found it to be exactly no warmer than when I raced in Michigan last fall. The main difference is that I packed much warmer clothing for a November race in in Michigan called the ICEMAN than I did for an October race in North Carolina with no references to cold things in its name. And that, as Robert Frost said, has made all the difference.

More importantly, the thing that struck me most was that "alone" and "don't belong" are exactly the top two things that come to mind about my Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race experience. The alone part is obvious: when time for the race came, neither my husband nor my mother could make the trip with me and I was stuck with a non-refundable deposit on a nice, affordable, and very remote cabin outside of town. In the end, I would have traded my fully-functional kitchen for a hotel room in town with not even a microfridge if it meant closer proximity to the other racers. Good nutrition means nothing if low morale is the price.

The "don't belong" part slowly built as I got lapped in Thursday's short track race that served as the prologue. It was a one-mile lap, half of which was a rooty, sloppy wet, five(?)-switchback climb up a hill on the Brevard campus. The first pass I tried a slow-and-steady and maybe I can ride the whole thing approach. No way. By the last lap I just ran the whole thing because it was faster than constant mounting and dismounting.

I didn't worry about the prologue too much as I was saving myself for the longer stages and putting out a 70% effort at best. However, by the middle of the first long stage it was obvious that it was obvious that I really had no business being there. The stage started with seven miles of constant grinding up a gravel road with a fairly consistent steep grade. It was mostly just a literal pain in the butt because it's hard to just sit still on a mountain saddle and constantly pedal for that long. I'm used to more dynamic activity in one way or another. However, things got plenty dynamic once I hit the singletrack. Dynamic in the sense that the trail was completely muddy with wet roots everywhere and when I wasn't dabbing and dismounting, I was careening all over the trail like a pinball. The trail would have been technical under dry conditions, like a root-heavy Schooner Trace, but wet it was darn near impossible for me to stay on my bike for me than a minute at a time.

After the singletrack, I had four more miles of straight-up grinding where the sweeper and I discussed at length my chances of making the time cutoffs and what was in store for me if I did. Luckily, I made the second cutoff by 20 minutes and since I was told there was only more gravel (even some downhill) and easy singletrack before the next stop, I pressed on. The last stop was a mere five miles from the finish, although I was told that it contained a full mile of hike-a-bike (stuff that only Sam Koerber was said to be able to ride) and a gnarly downhill-bike type downhill. However, I went into it with the attitude that got me into my very first beginner race: "Meh, it's five miles...on a bike."

And much like my first beginner race it was much more five miles with a bike than on a bike. However, it was actually the most fun five miles of the whole trip. I was in the space where I was so far back from the next person that it wasn't even funny, but I had three hours before the final cutoff time and I only mildly cold in my slightly insufficient clothing. I took my time and enjoyed the ride, er walk. Luckily, I had a very cool sweeper named Yuri (sp?) with me and he was very laid back and didn't try to rush me. He actually stopped a few times on some of the better overlooks and told me about the different mountains we could see in the distance. He even took the picture below, one of the few I had time and energy to get while I was there. I finally made it back to finish after 9 hours and 40 minutes to a wealth of pity claps and semi-rock star treatment. It was pretty cool and I felt good having toughed out a situation that I never should have put myself in the first place.

After the first long stage, I think I subconsciously decided that I had proven whatever point that I had come to prove. It was nearly dark when I finished and I still had to clean my bike, wash my clothes, and eat dinner. To make matters worse, I locked myself out of my cabin and had some drama trying to get back in. When I woke up at 5:30 the next morning after six hours of interrupted sleep, I felt like garbage and could barely eat my breakfast. The temperature had dropped to the mid-40's with drizzle and a little snow, and early in the day I decided that I would probably just take the early-bailout time penalty at some point and try to come back strong on the final day. I stuck it out just long enough to get myself soaked on the seven creek crossings, but not enough to ride though the heavy snow at 6000 ft. that would come later in the day.

I had high hopes for the final day, as it was sunny and I was feeling more rested. The only problem was that my toes were still kind of numb from the previous day and I made the decision that it got to the point where my fingers were too numb to shift, I would pack it in. There was hope for a warm afternoon, and I dressed as warmly as I could, although I had not brought many warm clothes. Things looked good on the initial fireroad climb, but the wind was strong up high in the mountains and by the bottom of the first decent I my fingers had completely lost feeling. At that point I realized that punishing myself like that was not worth it and that it was time to call it. I got a ride back and hung out while the pros finished incredibly early in the day and the weather turned surprisingly decent (of course).

I'm sad about how it all ended, but I'm also ready to move on. I came to the decision that Pisgah was my last death march. I'm going to reign things in in 2010 and concentrate on doing well in shorter races rather than throwing myself into the deep end of events that I may or may not be able to finish. There is something very noble about throwing yourself in the deep end and I admire people who are willing to do it in varying capacities, because, it stretches you to be better. However, it's only cute so many times and I think I've befriended enough sweepers and received enough pity claps for one cycling career. When I first started endurance racing, I was pursuing glory; now I'm shooting for something even more difficult: anonymity. My goal for 2010 is to start achieving respectable top 50% finishes in a few 50-60 mile races and not require any special treatment from volunteers or organizers.


Christopher Averett said...

Take it from some one who has finished last two years in a orw at the Mohican 100k and once this year at the Big Frog 65. It may not be the fastest time but it is a finished time!

Lindsay said...

Hey, that gives me an idea. If you are still planning on doing the Gravel Grovel in Brown County in November, do you want to buddy up since they are taking a express "you are responsible for you" stance?

zenbicyclist said...

I have been quoted! I am so damn excited! I am typing this from the Pisahg National Forest, and I really think I am going to die of exposure, but I've been quoted!

Aaron said...

GJ for being ballsy enough to show up. The mere thought of you guys slogging away out there (snow!?) makes me a bit scared.

Any thoughts about the events yet?

Carey said...

You have more tenacity, balls, guts, etc. than 99% of the female population out there. Be proud of yourself.

As I well know, you learn alot more about yourself in tough events like this as compared to 2-3 laps on a buff XC course ... anyday!