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.

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