|Always give a good fake smile when you're nervous.|
The weeks since the TSE have flown by. The first couple of weeks were filled with extreme fatigue where my limbs were like lead, and I felt short of breath even on easy rides, despite taking several days off immediately after the TSE concluded. I finally broke through on the second Saturday after the race when I started feeling like myself about halfway down Ruff Gap and set a blistering PR despite bumbling around on the top part. After that, the climb back up Rag Hollow only felt the normal amount of terrible, and it seemed like I was on my way back on track.
By the time I reached that point, it had been over four weeks since I’d had a solid enduro practice where I actually seemed to make progress. Frank was out of town most of the time between the Cooper’s Rock Enduro and the TSE, and I had a bad crash riding by myself while he was gone. Between recovering from that and recovering from the TSE, I started losing a lot the confidence and muscle memory that I’d built earlier in the spring when I was improving so rapidly and PRing everything that I touched. It’s been frustrating just trying to get back to where I was in early May, much less move forward. So when the weekend of the next West Virginia Enduro Series race arrived, part of me didn’t want to race knowing that I wasn’t likely to be at my best, but the other part didn’t want to regret not finding out.
I got some interesting insight into my latest crises of confidence last weekend while I was talking to my teammate Taylor at another teammate’s wedding in Chicago. Taylor seems to be magically good at anything she attempts on two wheels. In two years of racing, she is already a Cat 2 in cyclocross, a regular on regional elite XC podiums, has a couple of NUE series top 10’s to her name, finished fourth overall in the five-day TSE, and still finds time to win road races now and then. Honestly, the way she smashed some of the enduro segments at the TSE riding them for the first time on an XC bike better than I have after weeks of practice was definitely contributing to lackluster feelings about my own abilities lately.
Anyway, the conversation was about how she’d taken her boyfriend on a trail where he was in over his head, thinking he just needed to be pushed through his fear to find out what he was capable of (lol for swapped gender roles here), because that had worked for her in the past. This explained a lot about her ability to ride so well on some pretty difficult trails that she’d never seen before. I, on the other hand, had spent many weeks of practice earlier in the season working through things that scared me until they didn’t anymore. To have the ability to just rip off that Bandaid in one run without disastrous consequences would be terribly convenient for my burgeoning enduro career, but my experience has been that the threshold of fear that I can push through without it ending badly is pretty low. If I’ve learned anything this season, it’s that if something scares me, it’s because I’m doing it wrong, and if I fix the root technique issue, it’s no longer scary. Unfortunately, diagnosing and fixing deep-seated technique issues isn’t necessarily fast of a path to progression, but it seems to be the one that works for me.
The quote at the beginning might seem strange given the fact that I just admitted to my aversion to pushing through fear. If anything, I think it’s more appropriate because I don’t enjoy scaring myself. Having to slowly work through things that I’m afraid of means that I have to go back and revisit them more times and be scared more times. It might be easier to just give up when I’m too scared to do something the first time, but somehow I manage to keep coming back until the fear is conquered.
The Valley Falls Enduro was a pretty big test of my desire and ability to saddle up anyway. What I found on my pre-ride Saturday was a lot of greasy black dirt and more drops than I’d seen in my life, including a seven-footer on what was already a very slick fall-line trail. The B line was more technically difficult than the drop, but just with less air time. Neither seemed like an option that I felt confident in my ability to pull off. I watched one of the expert women slide and crash on the B line and made the decision that unless the trail dried out a lot more by the actual race, that I should just be smart and run that section. The same went for a steep, slippery fall line in the sixth stage that I watched Frank skate down and then barely make the turn at the bottom. If he couldn’t make it cleanly, I didn’t even want to try it while on the clock. By the time the pre-ride was over, I had a pretty solid list of things that I just would proactively get off and run unless they dried out a lot before the race.
|My body is saying "Thumbs up!', but my head is saying "Nope!"|
On the other hand, I wanted to at least leave the race having done one or two features that scared me a little. There were two log drops on Stage 5 and a rock roll on Stage 6 that I didn’t ride on Saturday, but that I thought I could pull on with more speed and knowing that they were coming. It was a little frustrating, because I think they were very well within the range of things that I rode at Big Bear back in April, but like I mentioned before, I’ve lost a lot of confidence in the last few weeks. I’d endo’d off of the smallest progressive drop at Blue Mountain a couple of weeks prior and had yet to regain my trust in myself to not look down and land safely.
The race was an interesting exercise in keeping myself together mentally. Despite being pretty well emotionally separated from the competing against other people element and simply wanting to get through the day as cleanly as possible, I still got pretty nervous by the start of the first stage. As the day progressed, it was interesting to observe how my mental state changed, and I realized how different it is from the 40 minutes of yelling “Go harder!” to yourself during a ‘cross race. Rather than always going harder, an enduro is several hours of repeatedly checking in on your own level of excitement, fatigue, fear, etc. and trying to dial into “appropriately aggressive” for that moment. Too aggressive can mean mistakes and crashes, and not aggressive enough means leaving seconds on the table that you might want back later.
The first two stages were pretty XC-oriented and went well enough. The third stage was the one with the gnarly drop and the just-as-gnarly B-line. I overheard a girl from my category who was a stage ahead of me telling her friend that she had started sliding and bailed. Based on that, I deducted that it was no dryer than the day before, and that I should proactively run the section to prevent more lost time from a crash or even just an awkward bailout. My only regret was that I didn’t just keep running through the rocky sections after that, because there was still a lot of slick mud and rocks that just weren’t going to happen once my momentum had been lost from the dismount. I did okay through the slick turns of Stage 4, and found myself two stages away from being done.
Those remaining stages contained the features that I’d been negotiating in my head all day. Despite my resolution to “do something that scared me” before the day was over, I still ended up running the drops on Stage 5. I was very tired at that point, and I just did not feel good about that stage in general. I took the “better safe than sorry” approach to get myself to Stage 6 where I ran the things that I’d predetermined to run the day before, but successfully negotiated the rock roll and most of the slow chunky stuff in the last half of the stage. It wasn’t perfect, but I felt that I did pretty well under the circumstances.
It was a day when I was just glad to be done. I knew going in that it would be a tough race, but I kept myself together and did the best I could on that particular day. When I looked at the results, I was both surprised and unsurprised to see that I had won. I knew that I hadn’t ridden especially well, but I also knew that as hard at the trails were, it was unlikely that the other women in my category had ridden significantly better. I was basically lucky to have bumbled my way through the day faster than the others, but I would take it. The most exciting part was getting to hold the giant novelty check on the podium, because I’ve never done that before. Holding the check was actually even more exciting than the real $100 that I won, which is a huge prize for the women’s sport class.
The next WV Enduro Series race is not until August 13, but I will be doing a MASS series race in Bethlehem, PA on July 16. I have a feeling that the competition will be a lot tougher at that one, based on the huge squad of Cutters bike shop people at Blue Mountain a couple of weeks ago, including 6-10 women. Otherwise, I’m looking forward to some race-free weekends where we can hopefully spend some days at bike parks and other locations outside of Rothrock that will allow me to practice drops and jumps on a smaller, safer, and untimed scale.