Monday, June 29, 2015

Reluctantly About That Base

"To go north, you must journey south, to reach the west you must go east. To go forward you must go back, and to touch the light you must pass beneath the shadow." - Quaithe to Daenerys Targaryen in "A Clash of Kings"

I’ve spent most of my summer so far focusing on getting faster on the singletrack of Rothrock State Forest, mainly the XC Loop, Tussey Ridge, and John Wert. To be fair, singletrack riding is the most fun and suits my strengths the best, and the fact that I was suddenly able to produce big improvements with minimal effort through April and May was a huge ego boost for me and inspired me to get back on track training-wise. However, as June rolled in, I started to plateau on these sections and notice how a lot of my inability to clear sections that I still couldn’t clear had a lot more to do with a lack of power than a lack of skill, or at least the ability to perform skills while redlined. I was riding a lot harder without actually going much faster and leaving myself too cooked to expand the total distance of my weekend rides.

Reluctantly I made the decision that after returning from Illinois I would focus on shoring up my weaknesses instead of trying to squeeze a few seconds here and there out of my strengths. My weakness? Climbing gravel on a mountain bike, which unfortunately, is an integral part of mountain bike racing in State College. I always say that the Wilderness 101 is cruel because 70% of it would be faster on a ‘cross bike, but there’s just enough rocky singletrack to make that a bad decision. My hope is that by focusing on gravel climbing for a while I can gain some minutes more easily and increase my endurance since, even at a hard tempo, it’s still easier on the body than riding the singletrack in this area.

Pretty pink new shoes.

My first attempt was not that spectacular. It was pouring rain all day Saturday, so I called it a loss and used it as an opportunity to thoroughly clean the house for the first time in about two months. That made Sunday the big day to go out and conquer my climbing fears a week and a half after making the decision to do so. It was still raining, albeit much more lightly, and I wore the pretty new pink shoes that Frank had got me for our two-year anniversary earlier in the week. I knew that setting out in brand new shoes for a planned four-hour ride might not be such a good idea, but I really wanted to wear them. Between the wet chamois and the odd feeling of pedaling in new shoes (I woke up sore today), the ride got cut to 2.5 hours and wasn’t particularly fast, but I did finally conquer my fear and climb the too wide to be singletrack and too chunky to be gravel enigma that is the Gettis “Road” climb in the middle of the TrailMix long course. It was slow, but at least it was a start. Now I’ve got to go back on Saturday and do the full 30 mile route that I’d planned and hopefully do some of the climbs a little faster.

Nearing the top.

This is my Gettis face.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Illin' and the Mini Rando de Taco

The past weekend was spent visiting Frank’s family in Illinois, so not much progress was made in my mountain bike game. We did manage to sneak in a ride on Tussey Ridge on Thursday morning before we left. I was able to go teensy bit faster on the ridge even with the on-and-off rain that was making for slippery rocks. We also rode Upper Kistler, Leniency Trail, and the Tussey Ridge Extension, which are all add-on trails that are included in the TrailMix long course, but that don’t get a lot of use by people who are just out riding. It was my first time doing every single trail in that section of the forest at once, so now I have an idea of how long it takes. Usually I just try to kill it on the ridge and then take the shortest way down to the road.

We didn’t get much riding in during the first couple of days in Illinois, because the hip/body pain that I had last week flared up again very badly from the drive, the strange bed, the lack of sleep, or some combination thereof. We made up for it on Sunday, when we rode with my friend Isabel, who I hadn’t seen since the 2014 Barry-Roubaix. At the time she’s just found out she was pregnant, and I’d just accepted a job at Penn State. Now she has an 8-month-old and I have a wedding plan in progress, so we had a lot to catch up on.

The ride started out not-so-great, because my chain that had less than 600 miles on it decided to snap about 10 minutes into the ride. The upside of this early failure was that we were still close enough for Frank and Isabel’s husband, Brandon, to push me and my chainless bike to the nearest bike shop downtown. Unfortunately, they were closed for Father’s Day, so the guys had to ride back and get the car, then Frank and I had to drive to a further shop to get a quick link.

We did finally get going about an hour and a half late, but we were still motivated to ride. It turned out really awesome after that. The last couple of years some of our Illinois friends have gone a ride called the “Rando de Taco”, which is about 100k with five taco stops. I’ve always been a little bummed to not be able to make it, so I was pretty excited when Isabel said that we were doing a mini version that was about 35 miles with two taco stops. It was a fun, casual ride on mostly bike paths the entire time, and the tacos were tasty.

I also drank my first soda in nearly two years, which was surprisingly awesome and really has me thinking about adding a bit more gratuitous sugar back into my long rides. My rule of “a banana an hour if I’m going to be out more than two hours” gets me through, but it still might not be optimal, no matter how good I claim my fat metabolism to be. I’ve got a homemade maple-syrup-based sports drink recipe that I want to try this weekend to see how I do with a boost of sugar without the chemicals of soda.

Now we’re back home safely, and I’m trying to get back into my training rhythm as quickly as possible. We’ll have one more weekend away this summer when we go to New York to visit Frank’s friends (and hopefully buy my wedding dress!) in August. I’ve also committed to my first-ever night of tent camping in a couple of weeks, but that will just be a quick overnight trip to prove that I can sleep in a tent and then ride some trails to the south that we’ve never done before. Otherwise, I’ll just be trying to cram as much mountain biking advancement as I can into the 9 remaining free weekends before ‘cross begins.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Never in the Mix

I don't wanna talk if it makes you feel sad, 
And I understand you've come to shake my hand 
I apologize if it makes you feel bad 
Seeing me so tense, no self-confidence 

As I stood at the final aid station of the 2013 Big Frog 65 eating the cup of jellybeans that a volunteer had poured for me so that I could avoid actually touching them with my mud-covered hands, a girl rolled in behind me and said, "Good God, you're fast." We were at the back of the middle of the pack, but not the back of the pack after I'd lost what felt like 30 minutes trying to fix a flat tire with numb hands and a swaggy C02 injector that I'd won at a 'cross race and never used. I guess she had passed me during my stop only to have me pass her back once I got going again. Despite the fact that my finish time and place were completely unremarkable and the weeks of nerve damage in my hands that followed, that moment stands out as the best of my mountain biking career.

I bring this up because it was one of many moments that I relived during the my ridiculously long passage through the XC loop during the Rothrock TrailMix race on Saturday. I was already suffering a crisis of confidence in the week leading up to the race, but I was determined to do my best and not get stressed out. I succeeded in the "don't be a dick" kind of stressed out, but as a result, I fell into the "pre-determined acceptance of failure" kind of stressed out. The one skill that I've never learned in all of my years of bike racing is how to convince myself otherwise once the thought that a race will go badly has entered my brain.

So when the horn blew and I watched the other girls fly up the first climb and out of sight, I did my best to stay relaxed and not spike my heart rate trying to stay with them. It helped that the local fast woman who I know can smoke most of the singletrack sections was not chasing them and was in fact still somewhat in sight until she entered the singletrack. The strategy worked for her, as she eventually passed most of the chargers, but not so much for me. I hoped that keeping myself out of the red would pay off on the first rocky section of singletrack and that I'd start making up ground through the rest of the XC loop. Unfortunately, it started raining on way up and the rocks were very slick by the time we arrived. Probably because I was convinced how important it was for me to not bobble on anything, I bobbled on everything. Thus it went for the rest of the XC loop. I did not clear The Richard Rock.

The long drag back up Lower Trail to the road was when started reliving the moments of my mountain bike career. The already slow trail was muddy and slower than normal, and I felt an empty, aching feeling in my legs. I tried to imagine slogging up the two big climbs that remained in the race in my wet chamois, and it just didn't seem like a worthwhile thing to do. I had signed up for the time to try and post a good time and see how I stacked up against the other girls. I had more than proved that I was capable of finishing, and I thought I had wanted to race. The situation that I was in was not racing, and I wasn't really sure it could even be called training. It was mostly wet self-pity.

I was still worried about what other people would think if I dropped out, and that was when I thought of all of the times that I toughed it out in races and it was worth it. I tried to convince myself if people could stick it out in the hell that was the Dirty Kanza a couple of weeks ago, I could survive another unpleasant 1.5-2 hours of wet chamois. And I could; I just didn't want to. I wanted to be in dry clothes and watch Frank finished, so once I was off the singletrack, that I what I did. He finished 7th overall, and I was proud of him.

The weird things that I discovered afterward were that my heart rate was incredibly high on the XC loop despite the fact that I was trying not to ride that hard. I'm not sure if that was a contributor to my feeling crappy or not. I also developed a weird little pain in my side like a pulled muscle last Wednesday that has spread to pain in both hips, most of my back, and down my legs. I actually took a sick day today because I didn't sleep well last night due to the pain and still was hurting very badly once I got up. I'm not really sure what's wrong, but I hope it goes away soon.

As you might imagine, the bad race and the weird pain aren't doing much for my confidence right now. I really thought that I was starting to get kind of fast on the mountain bike, but this weekend proved that I'm still sorely behind almost everyone in my gravel-climbing ability, and my singletrack riding is still not quite where I want to be, even in dry conditions. I'm also getting some disappointing feedback from my new power meter now that I've had some time to test it out. These are the times that it is a lot harder to stay motivated, but with a little over 12 weeks until 'cross, I know that the best thing I can do is try not to dwell on the negative feedback and keep working my plan.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

An XC State of Mind

Maybe I’m making bikes harder than it is. – Me, because Taylor Swift didn’t have anything useful to say on the matter.

I was a bit worried when I wrote last week’s post that it was already a bit past its moment, but I also really hoped that I was wrong. It took six weeks after my cycling rock bottom to acknowledge that I might actually be on the path to success, and by the time I did, I was worried that my upward trajectory was going to turn into more of a John Wert style climb – a barely perceptible gain in elevation that is covered in obstacles and mostly just makes you wonder why you’re going so slow. After two Saturdays in a row where I failed to make any real improvements on key Rothrock Trailmix segments, it was time to reevaluate.

I knew the improvement would flatten out eventually, and I think it may have been a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think that I may have stressed myself out a bit during my last two Saturday rides because I basically have one ride per week where I have the opportunity to show progress toward my goal of completing the Rothrock TrailMix long course by the end of the summer. I realized that my Saturdays were starting to feel the way that I used to feel when I raced DINO cross country races, like everything was continually on the verge of being screwed up.

I’ve noticed in the past how with cross country I always felt like the race was determined in the first five minutes and the rest was just an hour or so of suffering after that to make it official. I would get really stressed out during races and very short-tempered as a result. Any small thing that went wrong during an XC race would set me off. On the other hand, I’m a lot better at keeping my cool during ‘cross races, and experience has taught me that practically never does a ‘cross race reach completion without something small going wrong and rarely does it make that much difference in the end result.

When I realized that I was panicking at the thought of having to brake for hikers, correlating my quality of performance versus the percentage of the ride which I had visual or audio contact with Frank (which in my mind means he’s slowing down for me and thus pointing out that I am slow), and dwelling on how untalented I am and that cycling just doesn’t come easily for me, it occurred to me that even without a Bikereg page to stalk, my unofficial “race” goal for the summer was slipping into unhealthy territory. I think having a goal is still beneficial for me, since other these symptoms, which I have thankfully recognized and caught early, I am enjoying one of those beautiful states of flow where skipping workouts doesn’t even occur to me as an option unless I genuinely need the rest and junk food actually starts to seem unappealing. I’ve only ever managed to get into this state for a few months at a time every couple of years, so I definitely want to keep it going as long as possible. I think that the answer is to keep working toward the goal but in a more indirect manner. I may need to spend some time on longer road or gravel rides where my heart rate isn’t pinned the whole time, or go to Cooper’s Gap and practice my skills on some rocks that I haven’t memorized yet.

That will have to wait at least another week, though, as I can’t take a TrailMix breather quite yet. The actual race is this weekend, and I’m signed up for the short course race. I’m trying to treat it as an exercise in recognizing and letting go of my XC-stress. I know that riding the rocky singletrack will be much different with lots of other people, and doing so well will require calm and flexibility. It will also likely mean that even riding relatively well and in a calm and flexible manner, I won’t PR any of the singletrack sections, and I have to be okay with that.

It’s a bit funny thinking about the old man yelling at me on Bald Knob at the race last year, because I’m trying to avoid getting into the same mode myself this year. I still think of the spot where the incident occurred as “The Richard Rock” (“call me Richard because I’m such a dick”), and I’ve still only cleared the entire section about three times ever. Despite an overall disappointing ride last Saturday, I did at least clear The Richard Rock. I’ll take that as a good omen for this weekend, where I will try to repeat the action with other people around, but more importantly, not be a dick.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Against the Clock

At the end of my first year in Pennsylvania, I was reaching my wit’s end regarding the stagnation in my cycling fitness that had only compounded since I moved here full of ambition to crush the rocks and regain my “single and ready to singlespeed” fitness that I’d had when Frank and I first met. It began with a disappointing run at the Rothrock TrailMix long course race, where I grossly underestimated how hard riding here really was, along with the complications of illness and adjusting to a new job and home. Then the rest of the summer just kind of slipped away while I still refused to accept my limits in the realm of Rothrock mountain biking, so I spent a lot of time suffering without ever really getting faster. Then ‘cross appeared seemingly out of nowhere, and while I was pleasantly surprised to be reunited with my love of waking up way too early every Sunday morning for three months with a sickening fear in the pit of my stomach that somehow turns to joy later in the afternoon, I found that my slow mountain bike suffering had done very little to prepare me for it. Once ‘cross was over, I thought that surely preparing for the Death March would keep me motivated through the winter as it had in the past and give me the spring fitness that I desired. Another illness and an unimaginably nasty winter destroyed that plan, and when I was able to consistently ride again without fear of frostbite, my sitbone rebelled and kept me off the bike for an additional couple of weeks. At the beginning of April, I had truly given up on making any progress beyond a vague hope that things would magically come together by ‘cross.

Strangely, things finally started to turn around once I had finally given up. The weekend after my first tentative sitbone-testing rides, we attempted a ride at Cooper’s Gap the morning after we found out that our first wedding venue was off the table and I had spent the night panicking instead of sleeping and Frank had spent the night trying to comfort me. It was the first 80-ish degree day of the year, and we were suffering and miserable. I still somehow manage my first-ever clean run of Chicken Peter, but overall, the ride was a bust, and we went home after taking 1.5 hours to ride a bit over five miles. 

Normally, Sunday’s are kind of throwaway rides for me, since I’m typically not recovered enough from Saturday to accomplish much, but I felt cheated by my short Saturday. I still felt the need for more MTB time for the weekend, so I planned to ride Tussey Ridge the next day and crossed my fingers for good legs. Shortly before the ride, Frank made plans for some dude friends to meet us there, and when we arrived before they did, I saw it as a perfect opportunity to get a head start.

I made steady progress across the ridge and quickly got moving again when I’d dab on something, rather stopping to drink and adjust my kit, etc. Much to my surprise, I made it to the end of the ridge with the boys nowhere in sight. I was feeling good, so I rode the extension and even decided to throw in an unplanned trip up the infamous John Wert Path. I did all of this in a surprisingly quick time, which inspired me to throw in another short-ish but intense mountain bike ride before leaving for a conference later in the week.

I have less interest ride pictures since I got too paranoid to let Frank see me riding.

In the six weeks since then, I’ve continued to see my PR’s fall on practically every segment in the forest, and I’ve started looking forward to my Saturday mountain bike rides during the workweek the same way I do my races during ‘cross season. Since the Rothrock TrailMix race is only a week and a half away, I’ll be competing in the short course (19 mile) division, but I’m determined to conquer the long course before the summer is over. I found a Strava file of an approximately 5-hour ride on the long course, which was good for fourth place female in last year’s race. None of the top three posted files, and I think five hours is more realistic for me than their times, anyway. I’ve been using the individual segment times as my pacing guide while I work on improving my speed through smaller portions of the course.

I’m currently rotating between riding the short course one week and Tussey Ridge/John Wert portion the next. I still don’t have my short course speed quite up to where I want it, but this weekend I’m going to push a little further and add Croyle/Gettis to my short course ride. So I will be doing the 19 miles of the short course race, plus a detour down a loose fall-line descent followed by a steep, chunky gated road climb before rejoining the course and heading back down to the finish. It only adds 3-4 more miles, but they are tough ones. I think I’m ready to at least set a marker on Gettis for the year, since I haven’t even ridden it since owning a GPS.

Sometimes I feel very confident that I will knock out my goal before ‘cross season starts, and sometimes it feels like the improvement isn’t coming fast enough, and I won’t be ready in time. It is nice to finally be working toward something again, though.