Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Laurel Classic

This weekend turned out to be an unexpected race weekend for me. This makes the second summer in a row where I’m not quite ready to give up on my late-summer activities, but I know I have to because of ‘cross, so I just jump into a random race to get it over with. Last year I was working really hard on my gravel climbing late in the summer, so I decided to cap that off with unplanned gravel race that was pretty darn flat and favored pack riding. This year I’ve been working on my navigation of TSE stage and my enduro skills, so I decided 22-mile mountain bike race on terrain that I know nothing about. Basically, I say to myself, “Well, I’ve been working really hard and improving on this thing, so I’m totally ready to compete against other people, except let’s find a version that totally does not favor the aspects that I’ve been working on.”

Of course, I didn’t actually have that as a conscious thought last week. Instead I was just overwhelmed by choosing just one ride to brush up on during my final weekend of freedom before racing began. During this pondering, I realized I’d never ridden in Michaux State Forest, even though it isn’t that far. I remembered that the last race of the Michaux endurance series was that weekend, and I thought I might try that. It turned out that registration was a too-steep-for-a-whim $70 a couple of days before the race, but since my brain was already in race mode when Frank messaged me about the $25 Laurel Classic in Northern PA, I went for it. I entered the expert class because the distance was the same between sport and expert, and expert had a payout. At the time I registered there was only one expert woman and zero in sport, but I figured second place expert money beat uncontested first place sport “glory”.

As soon as I stepped out of the car on race morning, I said, “It feels gross out here.” It was hot and sunny, yet the air still retained enough humidity to feel like a wet blanket bogging down even basic activity. When the race started, I immediately fell behind the expert men and the former pro woman to who made up the rest of the class. This was unsurprising, as I had only hoped to get a good time for myself and not actually beat the other woman. However, the “manageably hard” pace that I thought I was setting devolved into “barely able to keep pedaling and I might burst into flames if I wasn’t already soaked” as the four-mile opening gravel climb wore on. At that point, I only hoped for a downhill to generate some air to cool me off.

It was still a while before that wish was granted, as we kept climbing after entering the singletrack. Once we did finally get some downhills, I started to feel better and was ripping the oddly smooth descents on my Camber, which had been a bike choice that I started to regret during the opening climb. So it went for the first half of the race, miserable pedaling, but feeling pretty good on the downhills.

There was an hour and a half cutoff halfway through the race, and I was beginning to think that I wouldn’t make it. It turns out that it was really at about 10.5 miles and I had passed it with just a few minutes to spare without knowing. Unfortunately, I’d drained my single water bottle and still had good chunk of slightly muddy false flat singletrack followed by a long logging road climb before I could refill. With my legs already Jello, and my head and stomach pounding from the heat, the “Green Monster” as it was called, nearly brought me to tears. The base of such a climb when I was not feeling well would normally involve a swig of water, a gel, and some steeling of my resolve, but with an empty water bottle, even that ritual was for naught. The climb up to the water station involved a lot of walking and whining.

Once I was at the top and had refilled, refueled, and dumped some cold water on myself, I felt okay to finish the final nine miles of the course, which thankfully would be mostly downhill. I was disappointed to look down as I left the aid station to see that my time was already at my goal time of 2:30, and that I still had nine miles to go. I made it through a few more miles of false flat single and double track, and in the end I was rewarded with an exceptionally long stretch of smooth, straight, bench cut downhill to the finish.

I got in two minutes after the awards were supposed to have started, so I had no time to clean up before the podium that I was still on, despite being one of the last people left on the course. I was surprised to win $50, because the purse was listed as 100% payback, which for two women at $25 apiece, seemed like it should have been $50 total. It was cool winning that much money, but I also felt weird about it, because it’s situations like mine that give promoters ammunition against giving equal payouts to women.

So I guess the racing Bandaid has been ripped off, and it’s time to settle into a couple of months entry fees, weekend alarm clocks, and long car rides. I guess that also means skinsuits, Laser Cats, and post-race trips to craft breweries, so that part is cool. I’ll be back next with a report on how my first experience with “gravelduro” goes.

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