Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Full Suspension

Last night I stayed up too late, sitting on the couch with Frank and during what essentially turned into a strategic planning meeting regarding the management my mental health for FY16. I awoke this morning to realize my major dream of the night had been about me giving birth in our kitchen floor while he attempted to help me and I refused to go to the hospital. Well played, subconscious, well played.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the connection between depression, sleep, and dreaming lately, as I read yet another article the other day about the correlation between depression and short REM latency. Basically that means that it is a pretty well-established fact that people with depression skip right past the deep sleep phase of the night, where HGH production and physical recovery are the highest, to the REM phase, where most dreaming occurs. As someone who has spent pretty much her whole life as a frequent and vivid dreamer, who is perpetually tired even when I’m consistently getting “enough” sleep, and who has had to manage bouts of moderate depression taking up big chunks of my life since I was 9, this fact is super relevant to my interests.

Unfortunately, while the correlation is well-established, the causation is not. I like the theory that this phenomenon is the brain’s attempt to heal itself rather than the cause of the depression, even though that would basically mean that my brain’s need to repair its own emotional centers is stealing from my body’s much-needed physical recovery. I guess I secretly hope that it will someday lead to my getting a doctor’s note saying that I’m actually required to get 10-12 hours of sleep to stay healthy, and that I’m not just weak or crazy. Because, honestly, I think that would do so much more to help me than anything “modern medicine” has to offer.

It’s always a tough decision about whether to discuss my struggles with depression and anxiety in this blog, because I don’t want to write something just for the sake of whining. I do, however, want to give an accurate picture of my experience as an amateur athlete and human being without glossing over the ugly parts. I do work very hard to frame experiences in a positive manner, as this is a useful exercise for me, as well as more enjoyable to read on a weekly basis.  At the same time, I do this for me, and I don’t have any sponsors for which I have to constantly put on a mask of perfection, so I occasionally do like to broach the topic mental health within the amateur adult athletic community through the lens of my own experiences. As always, I hope that my honesty might make someone else’s struggles a bit easier.

The past few months have been able to focus my writing on race reports from my cyclocross season and my growing relationship with my new team. I’ve had some awesome things going on in my life, while still having some pretty terrible things going on in my head. As I pointed out during my talk with Frank last night, when you have anxiety, everything that isn’t staying home and watching TV is scary, even good things. Although the balance of my life since the beginning of ‘cross season has been positive, the associated anxiety with racing, travel, and change has led to some pretty severe meltdowns.

During one of my low times a few weeks ago, Facebook reminded me of my first “honest” post on mental health from two years ago, which many people talked about and thanked me for writing. I re-read it, and thought, “Damn, I was smart back then.” The only problem is, much like re-reading my old training-related posts that are full of good plans and intentions, two years have passed and I haven’t really seen the improvement that I was expecting to come when I wrote it. I did like my comparison of emotional skills to bike skills, seeing as I still can’t really bunny hop after 10 years of mountain biking, either. Some people just pick up certain skills easier than others, and some try for years without really getting it. That doesn’t mean that you can’t invest in some suspension and learn to monster truck your way through rockier situations than you thought possible.

And I suppose that is what came out my talk with Frank the other night. While I’ll continue to practice positive psychology skills that I know are beneficial but sometimes hard to completely pull off, it’s okay if I need him to help me absorb some shock. Mostly that means talking to him about my anxiety more before it builds up, even if there isn’t much he can do about it. (Eating in restaurants doesn't scare him, apparently. Silly sane people.) At least he can provide a clearer perspective on some situations, and try to do things to help ease my stress in other areas. While I haven’t improved as much mentally or physically as I would have liked during my time on this blog, they are both things that I am not willing to give up on, so I’ll keep tweaking my methods until I find something that works.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The End and The Beginning

Time turns flames to embers
You'll have new Septembers
Every one of us has messed up too
Minds change like the weather
I hope you remember
Today is never too late to be brand new

It was a tough call between these lyrics and “You better kiss me, ‘cause you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.” I guess right now “new Septembers” has a stronger pull.

December ‘cross is always tough unless you’re trying to lock up a series placing, and even then it isn’t easy. Eight months of my year is spent waiting for ‘cross to come, then it does, and it’s awesome, but after a while not being gone for 12 hours each Sunday sounds appealing and I get the urge to move on to the next thing, be it Death March, fat bikes, or the like. At the same time, there is a certain satisfaction in finishing a series finale and knowing that I made it to the end, even if my overall placing wasn’t that great. Either way, “next year” is always lingering in the back of my mind even before I ‘cross the finish line of my last race every season.

I did manage one December race for the season, since one of my favorites, Rivertown Cross, was pushed back to the last season this year. Unfortunately, December plus Central PA meant low turnout. There were only five girls in my race, and was correct in its prediction of me as DFL. I went off the line hard and hoped for the best, but things split as soon as we started to climb the levy. I thought I a saw a girl or two coming back as we dropped into the woods, so I bombed hard, started to slide out of control, and by the time I put my foot down and kicked myself back on track, they were gone. The next 3.75 laps were pretty uneventful as I pedaled along and thought about the end of my season. I’d already decided that as excited as I was about the fat bike category at the PACX finale, that I’d rather spend less time in the car and more than 30 minutes on my fat bike that day.

Thankfully, Sunday was neither too late nor too early to be brand new. Being officially done with ‘cross meant that I could fully commit to preparing for my impending fat bike season. The ride went really well, so much that the planned 40ish mile ride did not take me over the elusive 4 hour mark, and I was still feeling decent, so I let Frank drive the car home from the gravel road entrance where we had parked while I rode down the mountain and back home for 47.4 miles at an 11.3 mph average. I know that doesn’t sound impressive, but I use 10 mph as my baseline when planning gravel rides on my fat bike. I was glad to see that I easily exceeded those expectations, even with a ‘cross race still fresh in my legs.

I realized that I’m excited about fat bike racing for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s a completely new thing on the East Coast, so there is no reigning East Coast Fat Bike Queen to be conquered or really any sort of indication of who will race or how fast they will be. There are nine women registered for the first race, but there isn’t a to tell me how things are going to play out. I also don’t know how many of those nine will return for the other races in the series. It’s all brand new and I get to be there from the beginning!

Fat bike racing has a similar appeal to Death March in that it’s a somewhat obscure, niche thing that requires training hard in the worst part of winter and gives me plenty of excuses to look at maps and plan routes, even if they just for training and not so much for racing. Basically, it comes down to the fact that I may not naturally be the fastest person, but with enough obsession, I can occasionally pull off some success in races for which faster people just don’t care to prepare that well. Sure, the soon-to-be coronated East Coast Fat Bike Queen may be rolling hard through New Jersey as I type, but until February proves me wrong, I’m going to keep giving it my all and believing that I have a chance.

I’ve got plenty to look forward to before any new Septembers roll around.

Friday, December 4, 2015

No Scrubs, Lots of Fatties

I’ve been remiss in my blogging the last couple of weeks, having not had any races on which to report. The weekend before Thanksgiving was the “state championship” race in the Pittsburgh area, which I believe only one PACX regular from my category attended. With Frank out of town at a conference, I just wasn’t inspired to drive three hours into unfamiliar ‘cross territory to race alone. It worked out better, anyway, as the two-week break from the “normal” PACX schedule was dedicated to preparation for #NoScrubsCX, Team Laser Cats’ first attempt at hosting an alley cat race.

I wanted to help as much as I could from my non-Philly location, so instead of racing on November 22, I had my first venture into Philly as an adult, not counting the unfortunate number of times that I’ve passed through the Philly airport since moving to PA. This allowed me to pre-ride most of the checkpoints with the team and get a better idea of what kind of challenge to present to folks at the cave checkpoint that I would be manning. For a lot of the following week, I was dedicated to making wizard hats and glow-in-the-dark Nerf bullets.

I can’t give too much of a race report, as I only witnessed the events of Kelpius Cave, but all other reports agree that the event was a resounding success. We had 59 racers attend, and I believe that a good time was had by all. Frank did the race while I was supervising my cave, and he seemed to enjoy it.

More at

The other big concern for me during my racing break has been preparation for the New Jersey Fat Bike Series. With a 50 mile race looming on January 9 and my endurance capacity plunging down further and further with every weekend of ‘cross, I really wanted to use the break to reverse that trend. Thanks to two race-free weekends, Thanksgiving break, and an extra PTO day this week, I now have several 2-3 hour fat bike gravel rides under my belt.

However, cracking the 4-hour barrier continues to elude me. I’ve planned longer rides several times, but getting my hands used to long rides on flat bars and my sit bones used to the “horseback riding” position of a fat bike have proven tougher than I thought. The good news is that each of these shorter rides returned valuable information about the best training routes to prepare for the series.

Trying to explain route plans to Frank.

While my gravel riding last summer was all about the climbing, for now I’m trying to keep my training as flat and steady as can be accomplished by State College standards. The first two races of the series are a 50 mile race with about 1500 feet of climbing followed by an 80 mile race with about 500 feet of climbing four weeks after that. Long, steady, and fast should be what I’m simulating in preparation for these races, but you have to work with what you have. This comes down to a 52 mile, 4000 feet of climbing “flat” route that I’ve settled on as my goal to finish before I leave for Christmas break. Also, I still haven’t actually ridden in snow, so there’s that X factor still looming.

Tomorrow will be the slightly-early end to my ‘cross season at Rivertown, which should have been my best race last season if I hadn’t accidentally kicked my brake open, lost my temper, and lost the part that held it closed, resulting in a DNF. It’s always hard getting back to racing after Thanksgiving, but I need to at least come back with disc brakes and a vengeance for such a combination of a close location and a good course. It’s unfortunate that this race was pushed back so late in the season, as pre-reg closed with 5 girls signed up in my race and me ranked DFL, but I’ll give my best shot and hope the singletrack helps me exceed’s expectations.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Kutztown Cross and The Unofficial Team Laser Cats presented by Snacks Team Tent

I line up to race with my pink bar tape
Nobody's looking at me now
Like, "Who's that chick that's rockin' knee socks?
She gotta be from out of town."

So hard with my girls not around me
It's definitely not a Louisville party
And suddenly I seem so slow
I guess I never got the memo

My tummy's turnin' and I'm feelin' kinda home sick
Too much pressure and I'm nervous
That's when the starter dropped my favorite tune
And 'cross season was on
And 'cross season was on
And 'cross season was on

There's no hand-ups,
But they're playing my song,
The butterflies fly away
Skiddin' through the turns like yeah
Racin' up the hills like yeah
There's no hand-ups,
But they're playin' my song
I know I'm gonna be OK
Yeah, it's a 'cross race in the USA
Yeah, it's a 'cross race in the USA

I kind of struggled with crossasizing my song lyrics this week, but theme of the song fit perfectly. I actually got the idea earlier in the season when “Party in the U.S.A” was playing over the speakers at a race and it struck a chord with the out-of-place, sort of bummer feeling that I was feeling at the time. I decided to pocket the idea until I could turn into something positive, and this week seemed like a good time to pull it out. As I’ve said before, sometimes my weekly blog post is just an exercise in exploring what was positive/interesting/funny about the previous week when the events of racing and training are a bit mundane.

And my race at Kutztown on Sunday was definitely mundane. Due to the fact that the course is very flat, not very technical, and had lots of long bumpy straights, it wasn’t particularly surprising that I didn’t do well. I was basically strung out in my place near the back by the time we even got through the prologue, and while it was normal for me to settle into the spot right behind Michaela, instead of our regular epic battle, I just tried unsuccessfully to close the gap and watched her become smaller and smaller as the race wore on. Basically, nothing else happened the rest of the race except for one girl who had been slowly creeping up through the first lap and a half finally riding away from me on the worst straight of the second lap.

Then I mostly just tried to keep pedaling hard and make it to the end while the new Garmin 520 that Frank had given me as a birthday present earlier in the week beeped at me for the entire last two laps of the race. Apparently I accidently turned on a pre-programmed workout feature, and after 20 minutes, it kept beeping and telling me that I needed to maintain a minimum of 200 watts. Sorry, Garmin, I know we don’t know each other that well yet, but I really only break 200 watts when I’m accelerating out of corners.

Kutztown was a good day despite not being the best race for me, thanks to the “Unofficial Team Laser Cats presented by Snacks Team Tent”. After a successful team bake sale at Sly Fox, the Laser Cats were discussing what to do with the money that was earned, and the idea of a team tent came up. I imagined a central beacon of Laser Cat awesomeness where we could gather at races and perhaps serve as the candy-colored first installment in Pennsylvania’s equivalent of the tent-lined “Heckle Hill” at the Kings CX course. I remembered the unused Kellogg’s Snacks tent that Frank and I brought to a couple of races last year in hopes of recreating some OVCX team tent magic, only to discover that it was a lot of work and kind of lame with only two people on board. I realized that I now had the right group of people to make the thing actually work. Plus snacks are an important part of the team motto, so until we could afford a custom tent with cats and lasers and pretty colors, a snacks tent would serve well enough.

It worked out really well with all of the Cats, friends of Cats, and dogs of Cats having a place to hang out and spectate throughout the day. I’m really glad that I’m starting to get to know the team and feel like part of the group, since my journey to full-fledged Laser Cat-dom has been a bit slow and awkward throughout the season.

When my friend Tanya texted me back in the summer saying that there was a women’s team called Laser Cats looking for members, I couldn’t jump on that bandwagon quickly enough. However, I think I may have misinterpreted the third-hand message, and there was more to becoming one of the team than simply joining a Facebook group and ordering a skinsuit. So it was a little weird introducing myself to team members when the season began, as we’d had only a bit of Internet interaction. Basically it felt like, “I have no kit, I don’t live in Philly, and we don’t actually have any direct mutual friends, but I’m one of you, I promise.” Slowly, as I got my kit and talked to the other girls at races more, I started to feel like part of the group. In retrospect, I guess that if I met my fiance’ on Instagram, it’s okay that I met my teammates there, as well.

I know that my PACX experience will never be exactly like what I had in OVCX, but enough time has passed for me to realize that isn’t a bad thing. While I would still like to see a greater manifestation of race day community/fun, where everyone comes together to socialize and spectate before and after their own races, I think there is something special about the Philly-area cycling community in general that I’m only beginning to understand and appreciate after taking off my Shamrock green tinted (or tented) glasses. I’m excited about the commitment to women’s cycling outreach and advocacy that our team has, as well as the commitment to fun that involves cats, bikes, and snacks. I hope to contribute what I can from my “satellite” location in State College, and maybe bring some of the spirit back home with me when I have a chance. Maybe my contribution to the team mission can be finding more ways to inject the race day “fun” factor into the PACX scene, but maybe that doesn’t necessarily mean heckles and hand-ups the way it used to, as the latter actually will get you disqualified here. All I know is that my race days have become a lot more fun lately, thanks to a great groups of girls in candy-colored cat kits.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Sly Fox Cross: The View From The Cheap Seats

This field ain't big, this field ain't small.
It's a little of both they say.
Our Cat Squad may be minor league, but at least it's triple A.
We battle through the turns, behind the brewery wall.
We can make a race all by ourselves.
No ref, we didn’t take hand-ups at all.

They brew their beer with Belgian yeast.
We bake our cookies egg-free, no gel’tin.
That race director, what’s his name?
Well we can't even spell it.
We don't worry about our upgrade points.
We just hit the run-up and dig deep.
There's nothing like the view from the cheap seats.

As we drove to Sly Fox Cross on Sunday morning, I thought through my race strategy based on what I learned during my two minutes of racing at the previous year’s addition. Most importantly, don’t put your foot directly on the log stairs if they are damp. You’re gonna have a bad time.

The worst part of that lesson is that up until that point, Sly Fox 2014 was looking to be my best race of the season. Thanks to a decent start and a technical course, I hit that log stair somewhere in 6-8th place and was feeling like I might actually be able to hold that. Still there were things that could have been better. I’d gotten the last front-row starting space on the far left before a short road sprint into a hard right turn. I hadn’t been well positioned for the turn and was caught further back than was ideal in the long series turns that made for wheel-to-wheel riding for quite some time. Eventually the girl in front of me ran into the tape and a gap formed to the rest of the field. I sprinted to catch up and bombed into the woods before falling and smashing my face on my stem during the first run-up, so I never got to find out how that one would have ended. The second most important lesson I learned about Sly Fox was that your position into the first turn is HUGE, and I thought hard about how to maximize that in 2015.

Then it occurred to me how great it was that I was even able to engage in this kind of thinking at all. Having raced most of the PACX courses last year, I was able to plan a strategy and even a Plan B for most of the races. While this is the tenth cyclocross season in which I have raced in some capacity, I hadn’t spent a lot of time in the scrum until last season. You know, because Philly girls don’t give up and all, but also because I was neither fast enough to ride off the front and stay out of trouble but still too fast to make falling off the back and giving up acceptable. Now I realize that I’m starting to be a better racer because I’m actually having to race in the middle with, you know, people around me.

On that note, I arrived at the course to find that road section had been more than doubled, followed by a long, straight woods section and another little bit of pavement before the twisty turnys kicked in. This would make both starting position and holeshot position matter a lot less, because everything would string out a bit more before the first grass section and there would be places to pass before the very twisty section.

My starting position was better this year, but that did not help my holeshot position at all. Thanks to the beauty of Strava, I learned that the “Sly Fox #critzone” was a 0.2 miles long with a 2% uphill grade, and with the exception of the initial starting sprint, was taking about a minute out of each 8.5 minute lap for me. That is to say that, for the most technical course of the series, 12.5% of the course reeeeeally did not suit my strengths at all, and it was that part that would determine my position for the rest of the course.

I did my best, clipping in quickly and standing for a few pedals strokes, and then sitting down to settle in only to realize the field was coming around me like a great food. I stood and sprinted again to no avail before sitting back down and helplessly spinning my way to the grass. In what’s beginning to be our usual Laser Cat confluence, I could hear Roz and Michaela’s voices behind me as we took our places in the train through the woods and tried to avoid the pile-ups.

This is where my hard-learned patience came in handy. In the past I probably would have been getting upset not being able to ride cleanly through the features of the first lap, but I’ve learned that if you don’t have the legs to get to the front, it’s best to take it kind of easy and keep your eyes peeled for trouble brewing ahead. By doing this, I was able to save energy by not sprinting into something where I was just going to have stop, and could give the congestion just enough time to break up so that I could ride around it. For the amount of pile-ups that happened on the course yesterday, I barely even had to put my foot down anywhere that wasn’t an official forced dismount. I think this ended up keeping me a lot fresher for when the course did start to clear.

It took about three laps of Laser Cat intersquad battle and moving up through the 45+ field before I finally rode off on my own with two to go. I ended up with 16th out of 32, so another top 50% finish was accomplished. Of course, now that I’ve done it two weeks in a row, I want more. Top 30%, maybe? While I wish I had the watts to be closer to the front of the pack this season, I’m really starting to appreciate the lessons learned from mid-pack, especially with the company that my candy-striped compatriots have provided. While it may not cost any less race mid-pack in the PACX women’s 3/4 field, and there’s no chance of winning back your money, perhaps it’s still a great value for other reasons.

(Since today’s song selection is a little more obscure Taylor Swift's lesser hits, if you want to know what I’m talking about, click here.)

Triple A Cat Squad

Monday, November 2, 2015

Swashbuckler Cross: This Is How Fast I Go

This weekend’s Swashbuckler Cross was very much the opposite of Crossasaurus Awesome the week before. The course was not awesome in any traditional sense, I rode alone for most of the race, and I was a lot more ready and willing to go out for my fifth lap.

The course had a ridiculous percentage of the riding surface consisting of loose gravel, including one fast downhill bomb near the finish where you crossed dirt, gravel, pavement, cobbles, and grass all in about three bike lengths. It is my personal opinion that ‘cross courses should not include loose gravel at all, or at most, a short perpendicular crossing of a gravel path or one straightway, if the gravel is reasonably well-packed with no high-speed turn onto it. PACX seems to love the gravel with the two-way parking lot crossing in the middle of an otherwise pretty great course at Town Hall and the sketchy landing at the bottom of the hill at Stoudt’s. One would think that I would relish the courses being more “technical”, but even though I’ve personally managed to stay upright on them so far, I feel like gravel on a ‘cross course crosses the line from technical to dangerous. That being said, Swashbuckler did have some cool features, and I started to enjoy it more as the race went on and I learned exactly how much I could let it go in the turns.

And the venue had kittens, so there's a big plus.

Once again, I got a good start in the sense that I got clipped in and up to speed very quickly. Since the start included a fairly long strip of flat pavement followed by more flat, gently-snaking course before the first hard turn, I settled in quickly and let the higher-wattage riders go ahead and pull away. Luckily, there really weren’t that many girls ahead of me when the split occurred, and my teammate Roz was the only one to come around and try to give chase to the lead group. I just churned the flats the best that I could and then challenged myself to see how much I could rail it and still stay upright once we hit the sketchier parts of the course. By the time we hit the barriers for the first time, I’d worked my way back up to Roz and pushed myself for an extra quick remount to take the lead. After the race she would say something to the effect of, “You maintained your speed well,” and upon the inspection of my GPS file when I got home, it appears that this was very true.

The first lap was partial, so this is 2-5.

After the first lap, I was mostly just cruising solo, and despite staying on the gas, each time I hit an open section, the next couple of girls up would be a bit smaller. The only ones I managed to reel in were a woman from the 45+ wave and a couple of 3/4 woman that each seemed to magically appear in front of me out of nowhere, presumably due to crashes. One I successfully passed and rode away from, but the other seemed to hover just out of reach for a lap or two before regaining her confidence on the final lap and riding out of sight. Luckily, I have the above proof that it was her speeding up and not me slowing down during the last lap. No giving up for me this race.

Even as I approached the end of the fourth lap, I was okay with doing another. I saw what I thought was the 1/2/3 leader entering the long 180 stretch that contained the barriers as I was leaving, and I knew she would not catch me in the short, fast section of the course that remained before the finish. However, the girl that I thought was the leader was actually second place, and I really had no idea how close I was to being lapped until Laura Van Gilder flew by me a few bike lengths past the finish line on my fourth time through. Although it lengthened my race, I also knew that it meant that anyone who could come up from behind me was cut off, and that I had been given one more lap to see if I could pick off anyone else. I wasn’t able to, but I was proud to have held off being lapped in a race where more than half of the girls didn’t.

It is important to stretch after exercise.

That brings us to matter of the half of the race in which I finished. Although I was already satisfied that I’d done the best I could do on that given day, after the team photos were taken and the turkey legs were eaten, the results showed that I had finished 8th out 19, my first top 50% in a PACX race. It was incredibly satisfying to finally have an unqualified good race this season, and I’m proud of myself for sticking with it through a (literally) bumpy early season. I’m actually excited at the prospect that I might be able to improve a bit more before the season’s over. Of course, the next race is Sly Fox, so while I have high hopes because the course suits me well, the goal that stands out most in my mind is not falling on the stairs two minutes into the race and almost breaking my nose. Never stop dreaming, right?

I guess this happened during my blogging break last year. Fingers crossed for a non-repeat.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Crossasaurus Awesome: Philly Girls Don't Give Up

N-now th-that that don't kill me
Can only make me stronger
I need you to hurry up now
Cause I can't wait much longer
I know I got to be right now
Cause I can't get much wronger
Man I've been waiting all night now
That's how long I been on ya

I can only imagine these to be the thoughts of one of the many racers who I have passed during a ‘cross race this season who have then passed me back again…and again, each time I made my move and then started to settle in for the long drive to the finish.

After winning the OVCX Cat 4 series championship in 2011, the couple of demoralizing years in the back of the elite field came as no surprise. It is even less surprising in light of the fact that those two years coincided with some serious life upheaval that resulted in my terribly out-of-shape arrival on the Pennsylvania ‘cross scene last season. I thought that the availability of a 3/4 field in which I could hide would make things easier, but for most of 2014, I wasn’t that much further from the back of the PACX women’s 3/4 field than I had been in the OVCX women’s elite field. After riding much more over the summer this season, I was hoping for better results, but the improvement has been marginal at best.

Now I may be pulling out the cyclocross equivalent of “the sun was in my eyes”, but after one and a half seasons in Pennsylvania, I’m starting to believe that despite what the field size numbers and Cross Results points might say about OVCX vs. PACX, it feels like the Cat 3 and 4 women here are a lot tougher. I’m not sure what the contributing factors are, but it seems that on average girls here are younger, fitter, and more experienced in bike racing or at least bike riding by the time they line up for their first ‘cross race. Sure, you still see the timid newbies on mountain bikes and 35+ moms who jump into the race because their kids and husbands are racing, but they are much smaller percentage of the field than they were OVCX land. Whatever the reasons, it makes it a lot harder for this 35+ cat mom (who incidentally was the 4th oldest woman in the 3/4 field on Sunday; WHAT?!!) to rest on her laurels, because as I’ve said to myself so many times this season, Philly girls don’t give up.

Sunday was my return to racing after a long CX drought. Luckily, the course for “Crossasaurus Awesome” was, in fact, actually awesome. It had lots of twisty, turny stuff, a few little short, steep sections, and set of three little rideable log stairs. Plus, it had rained just enough that morning to be the perfect amount of tacky that even mud-haters love. The added bonus was that it was my first race in my Laser Cats Feline All-Stars kit, and I was really excited about it. It turns out that I had at least once teammate directly in front of or behind me for almost the entire race. This was pretty fun and motivating.

The race went well enough, considering my current state of fitness and my lack of racing of late. I still managed a front-row call-up despite missing the West Chester race for Iron Cross, and I accomplished my goal of getting off the line and up to speed faster than everyone else. I didn’t, however, waste the extra burst of power that it would have taken to actually contest hole shot, knowing that right now I have no business trying to hang with the front of the field. I just wanted to prove that I could still perform a good start, since I haven’t in a while.

Then it was time to settle in and let things shake out since a good start but bad power meant that I was getting passed a lot for the first half-lap or so. Then things shook out, and I just worked on keeping a steady pace and picking a girl or two off when I could. As I neared the end of the fourth lap, my Garmin was showing nearly 40 minutes, there were no girls ahead in sight, and the ones behind were far enough back that I was confident that I could hold them off until the line.

And I did hold them off to the line. What I hadn’t counted on was that my race wouldn’t be done when I reached the finish line. So far this year, my only race that went to five laps was Quaker City, which was a very short course. This one was very long, so it never occurred to me that we would do five, even as I noticed the Cat 1/2/3 girls still heading to back part of the course as I approached the finish for the fourth time. I guess I thought they would pull us to keep the race on schedule, even though we hadn’t actually been lapped.

When I made the turn and started to wind up for the finish, I was demoralized to see one lap to go. I had just finished my normal last-lap mental bargaining game of “lap time through the bumpy section, last time over the barriers, last time through the sand…”, so “one more time of EVERYTHING” sounded pretty awful.

At least we managed synchronized 'cross tongue.

I was passed by my teammate Michaela as we crossed the line and I let her go as I willed my legs to do another lap. I was passed by another girl in the next straight section, but as she passed I found one last second, third, fourth wind and kept her from really pulling away. I held off any other passes through the rest of the last and kept Michaela and the other girl from gaining too much more ground. In the end, I finished 15th out of 23, and I was okay with that for my first race back. The fifth lap was pretty cruel, and once again I learned the hard lesson of “Philly girls never girls never give up.” It’s a tough lesson, but hopefully it will eventually sink in and make me faster.

I now have six races left in my ‘cross season with Thanksgiving weekend being the only break. The first half of the season hasn’t gone as smoothly hoped, but I guess I just need take inspiration from my teammates and colorful new kit and not give up until it’s over, Philly girl style.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Last Week Tonight

After Iron Cross, I was definitely ready for a break from the break in my ‘cross season. I returned to action Sunday, but a couple of cool things happened before then. I think I’ll just cover those for now, since I want to do a little more work on my race report post.

The first good thing was that I was able to take a day off from work on Thursday, and reset from the travel, stress, and Iron Cross Fail that had been bringing me down. Since moving to State College, I’ve learned that sometimes there’s just no substitute for a solid sleep in followed by long ride combination for the restoration of sanity. I always relished the opportunity to reduce the sleep debt which a rarely seem to come out of, but I don’t know I quite appreciated the opportunity to wear out my body after clearing my mind as much before moving here.

I took Hellga to Raystown to enjoy the lovely combination of fat bike and machine-cut trails. My first time on a fat bike was at Raystown, but Hellga made for a much more pleasant ride than the Surly Pugsley demo from a year ago. It was also an appropriately good workout, as I refuse to use the little ring when there is no snow. It was basically a singlespeed ride on the climby parts, but with just the right gearing to make it tough but doable. And, of course, the reward was lots of rippy, grippy downhill goodness.

Despite the fact that I supposedly only bought a fat bike to keep my sanity through the long, cold winter, the announcement of a four-race New Jersey Fat Bike Series, has me actually looking forward to winter now. All of the races are the kind of long, flat base miles that I should be doing during the winter months anyway, so it’s not like “racing” will detract from my training for things later in the year. It will mostly give me motivation not wuss out on riding when the weather gets cold, and will also hopefully give me the chance to befriend some other like-minded crazy people who like to ride bikes in the snow.

(Okay, I’ve barely ridden fat bike in actual snow yet, but I like the idea of liking it.)

Saturday would normally be lazy day/opener day during the season, but Frank and I took advantage of the fall color and finally got some engagement photos taken since our Nittany Lion Cross photo-shoot plans had fallen through. Sadly, we weren’t really able to include bikes, but at least we now have some nice pictures of ourselves in non-bike clothes that we can send to our families and whatnot. It feels good to have made it through another non-dumpster wedding milestone, even if it didn’t turn out the way I'd originally planned.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Iron Cross Fail

I haven’t written in the last couple of weeks, because I missed a weekend of racing to meet my mom in my old stomping ground of Bloomington, IN for mother-daughter activities. This was her choice, not mine, and it was definitely a little weird being back, and even more weird being back for such a short period of time. We met in Indianapolis on Friday afternoon, drove to Kentucky, saw Mammoth Cave on Saturday, drove to Bloomington, saw her favorite preacher doing a guest appearance at a local church Sunday, went to Nashville so I could “demo to win” a Liv Intrigue SX, did the Nashville tourist thing, and flew home on Monday. This was sandwiched between two busy weeks at work, along with a few other building stressors coming to fruition. So with airplanes, hotels, jammed calendars, lack of sleep, and a general feeling of uncertainty in several facets of my life, the last couple of weeks haven’t exactly been awesome for me.

I’d decided a few weeks ago that with the breaks in the PACX schedule and knowing that I’d miss another weekend of racing for the trip, that my ‘cross season was simply not going to play out in the “race early and often” manner that I prefer. I was interested in doing Iron Cross since we’d been riding so much gravel during the last half of the summer, and the way my ‘cross schedule was working out, I thought, “Screw it. What’s one more weekend off from ‘cross?” With the breaks in the race schedule and couple of carefully placed PTO days, I thought I’d be able to maintain my gravel fitness well enough into October to survive.

Of course, my body didn’t necessarily comply with the aggressive endurance schedule that I wanted it to maintain once the ‘cross season started, and I didn’t get in nearly the amount of gravel time in the past few weeks as I’d planned. We got in one last-ditch 42-mile ride the day before I left for Indiana that didn’t actually feel too bad endurance-wise, but was a lot slower than what I was doing in August without actually feeling slower while I was riding. I guess I’d lost more than I thought.

Fast forward ten extremely stressful days later, and I found myself lining up at the back of 200 riders on a downtown street of Williamsport, PA with the temperature hovering around 35 degrees. As we took off for what was supposed to be the 15 m.p.h. “neutral rollout”, I spun out a steady but not hard pace as I warmed up for the long day of climbing ahead. I also noticed that my “steady but comfortable pace” was allowing me to slip further and further to the back and off the back of the group, to the point that I was pretty sure Frank and I were DFL with the next riders up fading out site by the time we’d gotten out of town. It turns out that we actually weren’t DFL, but it was close.

My confidence started to rise as we hit gravel and then a long Jeep road climb where I began to pick off a few riders here and there. By the time the section ended, I had passed five girls and was pumped enough to set the goal of increasing that to ten by the time the day was over. Oh me. 

We immediately dumped out on a short gravel descent and then onto a paved climb on a busy road. I briefly paused for a gel and because Frank had stopped when we hit the gravel. I was passed by two girls while stopped, and I set to work reeling them back in only to find out how long and steep the paved climb was. My hatred of pavement was in full force as I watched them pull away only find a long paved decent, an aid station, and six to seven miles slightly uphill pavement grinding that followed. By the time we got off road again, I’d lost at least half the places that I gained on the first off-road climb.

What followed was seven miles of chunky climbing with some technical, rocky descending to break it up a bit. The climbing didn’t *feel* bad, but it was just a long time of never really being able to go fast. It took us four hours to get through 33 miles, which was a lot worse than the 10 m.p.h. average that I was expecting, so we called it a day when made it to the second aid station.

Obviously, I’m not exactly proud of this turn of events, but those are the facts. At this point I just want to put it behind me and start doing what I can to start breaking up the dark mood that’s been building in me for the past few weeks before it gets out of control. I hope that I can still make something of what’s left of my ‘cross season, but at this point, taking care of my brain and body are of the utmost importance.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Psycho Cross

Cause the racers gonna race, race, race
And the mechanics gonna hate, hate, hate
Baby I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake
Shake it off
Disc brakes are gonna brake, brake, brake
And the canti’s gonna cake, cake, cake
Baby I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake
Shake it off, Shake it off

Things got a little weird in PACX-land last week when the last-minute schedule addition on October 3 turned into a last-minute cancellation when it rained for most of the week and was predicted to rain on day on Saturday. Normally this would be a mud racer’s dream, and I was getting pretty excited at the forecast. Unfortunately, it seems that the venue was not as amenable to mud as the racers would have been.

It was a bit of a bummer because it would have been the closest race for us all year at a mere 1.5 hours away, but with multiple East Coast ‘cross series in operation, people will just choose the best/closest race on any given weekend, save a few hardcore folks chasing series points. With much-loved New Jersey series races right over the river this weekend, the chances of many Philly people making it into Central PA was pretty slim to begin with.

Hey, hey, hey
Just think while you been getting down about the lack Central PA ‘cross
And the lack of consistent competition from weekend to weekend
You could have been signing up for this sick race 

When the PACX race was cancelled, I leaned toward not racing and just getting in some miles for Iron Cross, as I was staring down the throat of a few ‘cross-less weeks, anyway. However, when Frank suggested we go to Psycho Cross in Maryland instead, I decided to take his motivation as my own. Let’s face it, the only way I would actually end up riding my bike in the rain on Saturday would be if I raced.

Despite my body feeling a little off from the cycle of overtraining then over resting over the previous couple of weeks, the race turned out pretty okay. There were 1/2/3, 3/4, and Cat 4 women’s categories all racing in the same time slot with starts a minute apart. Despite my self-proclaimed mud proficiency, I felt like I was passed by the entire 3/4 field in the first couple of minutes of the race when I got bogged down in places that I thought were rideable but were not.

The course was on the grounds of an old mental institution, which made the clichéd name almost forgivable. The first half of the lap contained two steep climbs that were probably not rideable for most even in good conditions, and definitely not in the mud. The rest was filled in almost exclusively with steep downhills and off-camber sections. For someone who has been accused of being much better on the bike than off the bike, I held my own and even made up ground on most of the run-ups. It was my first time using toe spikes and I adopted the strategy of scanning for footholds and taking the biggest steps I could as quickly as I could, rather than trying to “run”.

Big steps...

After the first run-up sat what became a much greater nemesis for me than any other girl in the race. It was a rooty, off-camber downhill covered in deep, sticky mud that spit you out onto a little rise that wouldn’t have looked like much in dry conditions. The problem was that you had to stay high on the off-camber or you ended up much further down the hill with lots of slick mud between you and the top. If you could successfully stay high, you would eventually hit dry grass and be able to easily pedal over the top. Unfortunately the high line was super sticky and rutted by my race, and I never made it to the dry grass without sliding downhill and having to run over the top. Elements like this made it feel a lot more like a skills clinic than a race, as I was more concerned about choosing good lines and staying on my bike more than the other girls than I was actually racing them.

This off-camber on the other hand, I was killing.

After some line choices the first lap, my strategy seemed to work, as I was passing more people than I was being passed by in the first half of each lap. The second half was more flat, twisty stuff in between the buildings of the old institution. There were a couple of tricky turns, but overall, it favored those with power more than skill, so I wasn’t making up a lot of ground in that area. There was on girl who I could see the entire race, and I would make up ground in the first half of the lap only to lose it in the second.

At the end of the third lap, I seemed closer to her than I’d been at the end of the previous two laps, but as I entered the finishing straight, I got pulled. This was annoying, as I could see a group of three girls not that far ahead that hadn’t been pulled. It was hard to tell if they were in my category or not at that point, but I was disappointed at not having a chance to try and chase them down or at least get one more shot at that tricky off-camber.

Despite the anticlimactic finish, the results revealed it to be my best race in quite some time. I accomplished my “top 50%” goal by placing 6th out of 13 in the 3/4 and holding off all but two girls from the Cat 4 wave. It was just confusing because I felt like there were way more people in front of me than that, but perhaps I was wrong. I’ve scanned the pictures and the results over and over, and yes, I do seem to have really been in 6th.

I guess it’s time to accept my placing and my first sub-600 Cross Results score since leaving OVCX and figure how I’m going to maintain it.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Two Hellgas Go Into Ohio...

…only one leaves.

I think that the past week was like many other off weeks during cyclocross season. I see a gap in the schedule and imagine all of the things that I will accomplish in my free weekend, but then I don’t ‘cause tired and ‘cause fall.

It doesn’t help (or maybe does) that I more thoroughly cooked myself early in the week than I have in quite some time. After a double race weekend, I hit the weight room on Monday, did maximal effort 30-second intervals on Tuesday, and had big plans for Wednesday after I took off work to catch up on some sleep debt acquired during the past two weekends away from home. Sounds like a formula for being cooked, right?

The problem is that cyclocross tired is different from endurance tired. It’s buried deeper and the short efforts give the illusion of having not done that much. Plus, my races so far are proving how crucial high intensity work is before the beginning of ‘cross season, and I was trying to make up for my lack of it. At the same time, I was wanting to get in some quality gravel time before Iron Cross, so I took advantage of my free afternoon Wednesday to try and do that.

It didn’t go so well. I rode my mountain bike with the intention of climbing Alan Seeger and then scouting some pieces of W101 single that I hadn’t ridden before. I’m not sure if it was my hydration pack or the strain of the previous night’s intervals, but my chest and shoulder muscles felt really tight and constricted, and I couldn’t breathe well on the Alan Seeger climb. I should have just turned around and called it at that point, but I kept going, although I was smart enough to skip one steep descent that would have required even more climbing to back to car. By the time I finished the one section of singletrack that I did do, I had just a little over an hour before I had to be back at the car to leave for an appointment, three decent-sized climbs between me and the car, and legs than felt like Jello. Fast forward an hour and fifteen minutes and a lot of pain and I made it back 10 minutes late and shaking from being hungry and tired. At that point I knew that I needed to back the eff off for a little while if I wanted to make it through ‘cross season.

I mentioned before that I’d purchased a size small Specialized Hellga without doing enough research on the sizing, and how I’d struggled really badly with the fit. Not long after, I realized that I really just needed to cut my losses and get a medium ASAP. I was super bummed/stressed out about it for a while, because I needed to sell the small and was afraid of being stuck with it. Luckily, my friend Emily who used to live in Bloomington agreed to buy the small, and I went ahead and ordered a medium. She now lives outside of Cleveland, and I was supposed to meet her at the Mohican trails in Ohio to do the bike transfer. Due to my cooked state, I just met her at her house instead.

I always look super silly when I know someone is taking a picture of me on a fat bike.

It was way better that way because we got to spend the afternoon hanging out and talking and did a nice, easy ride on the trails near her house. They were the perfect trails for a chill fat bike ride: not too much climbing, pretty smooth, and lots of nice, swoopy turns. Ten or so miles of that was way better than a beat down at Mohican.

I spent Sunday being super lazy except for giving the kitchen and bathroom a long-overdue cleaning, and waiting for Frank to return from the road world championships in Richmond. Because of my lack of interest in road cycling and my previously-stated, if not actualized, desire to accomplish things on my weekend off, he went down for a dude weekend with his Internet bike friends. It’s sort of funny having another world championship pass since what turned out to be the best disappointing day of my life in Louisville 2013, when the forces that eventually pulled us together were set into motion and neither of us had any idea yet. Whenever I see a picture of the crowd in Louisville, I scour it to see if someone happened to catch him and me in the same frame. So far I haven’t found one, but that’s okay. We’ve managed to be in a few pictures together since.

Hopefully, I didn’t mess up the trajectory of any important future life events by not going to Richmond. Since I’ll never know whether I did or not, I’m pretty happy with the way things turned out. I got some rest, got to catch up with an old friend, and got Small Hellga off my hands. I would call that pretty successful.

Monday, September 21, 2015

If It Don't Come Easy: Town Hall and Quaker City Cross

“The thing is that, while cyclocross is notoriously hard, from the starting line at Apple Cross to the finish line at Kings, going hard had come surprisingly easy.” – Me, 2011

Going into this weekend’s double PACX races, I was reminded of my old post from 2011. Although it’s a little funny thinking of me trying to say anything intelligent on the subject of love back then, as I don’t think I knew the difference between “grit” and “people who beat you when you’re crying don’t count” when it came to relationships at the time, it does seem that in retrospect I was more right than I knew. Since writing that post, I’ve come to dislike the concept of “grit” that is so glorified in the sport of cycling, and realized that the more useful attitude in love, cyclocross, and everything else is to find the right motivation toward the right thing such that doing hard work seems easy. Actively making yourself do what you don’t want to do or feel like you can do is never a good plan.

I thought about this while awaiting the start of the Town Hall Cross race on Saturday morning. I was slated for the front-row start that I had so conscientiously earned at Cross of the Corn. I knew from last year’s race that it would be a long, moderate uphill drag to the big switchback climb, and that as much as it would suck to go full gas up that drag, trying to ride the switchbacks in traffic would be worse. So I lined up with the intellectual intention of turning myself inside out to make it to the switchbacks at the front of the pack, even though I was ultimately predicted to finish 20-something out of 30-something. I was in a bit of a crisis between what I felt like I should do, and what I felt like I was actually capable of doing. That is when I remembered, “If it don’t come easy, you better let it go,” and realized that while I should put my best effort into the race, I shouldn’t overstress myself with a strategy that I didn't feel like I could pull off.

Ultimately, the crisis subconsciously resolved itself. As I clipped in and stood up to start cranking off the line, I leaned to my left and the girl to my left leaned her right. We were both only up to about 2 mph when this occurred, so it was more of an annoying “bump and put a foot down” situation rather than a crash. It did serve to allow pretty much the entire field around me while I got my speed back up.

So I found myself climbing the switchbacks in even slower traffic than I did last year, but I solidly picked off girls throughout the first lap. I spent the entire second lap reeling in another and finally passed her near the halfway point of the race. I continued to motor for two laps while I slowly gained ground on the next girl who had a much bigger gap than all of the others, but I never quite managed to get up to her, although I was pretty close at the end.

Even though switchback climbs in cross races are not a thing that I ever would have imagined liking before moving to Pennsylvania, I have kind of enjoyed them in the races in which they’ve made an appearance. Plus, switchback climbs usually mean a big, slightly sketchy bomb back down hill, which usually works in my favor. The Town Hall course also has good amount of off-camber and more technical turning features, so it felt nice to finally start working out my skills on the new TCX and getting my confidence back in that area.

I ended up 19/27, with which I was reasonable satisfied based on the field and my results so far this season. Once again, after looking at last year’s results, I was 19th at last year’s Town Hall, as well, but in that case it was next to last. It's getting a little weird with the whole same places at the same races, despite riding better this year.

I arrived at Quaker City Cross on Sunday morning tired from Saturday's race and a night in a hotel, but with high hopes of a good course and a second race day bump. I’d seen a few pictures of the course on Instagram and thought that some singletrack and #belgiancx sounded like good things for me. It turns out that #belgiancx is code for “bumpy ass field” and the singletrack was less than 10 seconds of riding on a prologue section that we only went over once. Bomp a domp. Frank and I both agreed after our practice lap that it had our new vote for “worst cross course ever” with the slogan “all the boringness of Kutztown with even more bumpiness than Cross of the Corn”.

I started the race with the intention of merely getting through it. Although I tried to go fast at the start, I didn’t have a lot of success or motivation. It was so bumpy that I struggled just to hold my bike steady enough to translate any power that I put down into forward momentum. As we entered the long, bumpy up, down, up of the prologue section, all I could think about was my rattling helmet and how hard it was just to make my bike go at all, much less go fast.

I first started getting my momentum back as we entered the “real” course for the first time by going up a short, steep climb that many girls had to run, but I was able to spin up in relative comfort with my 32. Except for the steep entry and exit of the finish straight, the course was wide and flat on about a 4% grade that we basically just snaked up and down, save a death spiral/pinwheel/whirlybird/funnelcake in the middle. It was all bumpy, but not nearly as bad as the prologue, and halfway through the first lap I was able to sit up for a couple of seconds on a downhill to tighten up my helmet.

This helped my focus enormously. I was able to grit my teeth and hold my ground on the uphill parts of the course and let it go through the downhills and off-camber corners as I slowly began to pick girls off. The second time up the little hill I dispatched four at once as they came to a complete stop trying to remount before the top. It was a little sketchy, but I made it through the slalom still mounted and rode away. I fought hard to the end, only having one girl repeatedly come back that I couldn’t drop and managing to pick off one last 45+ woman in the final uphill of the race.

I ended up 10th out of 16, which was just a bit shy of my goal of getting back into the top 50% of the results for the first time since getting my Cat 3 upgrade. I think I was still closer than any other race this season, because I was within 20 seconds of 9th and probably within a minute of 8th. I would say it was pretty good considering how little I was expecting from my performance on that course.

Although I’m disappointed that I’m not doing better this season than I’d hoped, I’m happy that I do seem to be incrementally improving rather than doing worse. This is kind of huge for me, as too often I let a couple of bad races throw me into a downhill slide. The best part about this weekend was that going hard came easy again. At Town Hall I recorded my highest heart rate in at least two years, and had over 13 minutes of anaerobic time vs. about 6 in a normal race where I’m trying pretty hard. Even when I had excuses to give up, I turned myself inside out to beat the girls that I’m currently capable of beating. Sure, I want that population to grow as the season goes on, but at least it’s starting feel like it’s actually doable.

As counterintuitive as it is to the religious tenets of cyclocross, I think that “if it don’t come easy” might actually be good advice. Forcing myself to fight battles that I subconsciously know I can’t win only leads to disaster, but just allowing myself to win the battles that I am capable of winning slowly stretches out those capabilities. So I’m going to keep inching away at this ‘cross season and hopefully we will see some nice surprises in December.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Nittany Lion Cross: The Race

Since I provided context in yesterday’s post as to my mental and physical state before Nittany Lion Cross on Sunday morning, writing a race report will be much easier.

As one might imagine, I wasn’t feeling too great before the race, but beyond relaying the night’s events to my friend Tanya, I mostly had my mind on the matter at hand. Since I had a fourth-row call-up and the race counted for nothing except the off chance of improving my Cross Results score, the pressure was low enough that the thought of racing didn’t really add any stress for me. I almost welcome the opportunity to take some of my frustration out on the pedals. I had come all that way and spent the night in a hotel, so I might as well get some practice racing out of it.

The night’s rain had created a ginormous mud pit a couple of turns after the start with several-inch thick mud varying from sloppy to peanut butter consistency for a 50 or so meter stretch. The rest of the course was a mix of tacky, squishy, and squirmy.

Tacky: just barely soft so that traction is actually increased

Squishy: soft enough that more pedaling effort is required, but not necessarily detrimental to traction

Squirmy: the point at which mindfulness is required to stay upright in the corners

Sloppy: tires start to sink in and strong effort is required to maintain balance and forward momentum

Traditionally, the more squirmy and sloppy that I can get my tires on in a race, the better I will do. Unfortunately, with the exception of same although much smaller mud bog at last year’s Nittany Lion Cross where the rest of the course was merely tacky, I have not been on any real mud since Gun Club 2013. So disappointingly, I wasn’t as strong in the conditions as I would have hoped. The first lap through the mud bog I was stuck in traffic and had to dismount about halfway through, the second lap I crashed, although I’m not sure how, and the third I made a terrible line choice was stupidly slow despite riding the whole thing. I finally got it together on the last lap, found the good line, and passed a couple of people through that section. As for the squishy and squirmy on the rest of the course, I did fine, but I wasn’t making up loads ground the way that I would expect.

Much like Cross of the Corn, my normal strengths weren’t that strong, but I was stronger at my normal weaknesses. I did have a third-lap slump after relentlessly battling back and forth through a group of girls for two laps, but I recovered, and fourth lap was tied with my second for fastest. The strange thing was that I was actually making up ground in some of the flat, straight sections, especially the long slight downhill coming back from the woods where I would force myself to throw it in the big ring as I exited the last turn and motor all the way to the barriers.

I ended up 40th out of 49, which was disappointing because I was battling with girls the whole time and was never strung back into no man’s land. I basically fell back a group in my third lap slump and was in the last group that was still a group at the end. I guess I’d hoped there were more stragglers behind me.

So despite feeling like I was in much better shape than last year before the season started, my placings have been almost exactly the same so far: one place below the halfway mark at Cross of the Corn and 40th out of 49 at Nittany, which is exactly what I got on Sunday last year. It’s weird because I feel like I’m in better shape and rode better at both races, so maybe the competition is just stronger? I’ve got back-to-back PACX races on hillier and more technical courses than I’ve seen so far this season, so hopefully those will break me out of the rut.

Monday, September 14, 2015

No More Dumpster Weddings

Ever since Frank and I got engaged, I knew that I’d be using that blog title at some point. It comes from a somewhat trivial and yet life altering conversation from a couple of years ago.

My friend Sarah had recently gotten engaged and she was talking about her early-stage wedding plans. She said something to the effect of, “I’m not going to be a Bridezilla and get upset if everyone isn’t wearing the perfect shade of pink.” With no thought to any potential future wedding of my own and mostly with my particular taste in pink bike accessories in mind, I quickly shot back, “I would.” “Yeah,” she laughed, “no more dumpster weddings for you.”

Seeing as later in the conversation we touched on the topic that I hadn’t actually called Frank my boyfriend to his face yet, talk of non-dumpster weddings seemed a little premature. I was still at the stage where I got very anxious and uncomfortable if any outside party even insinuated that Frank and I might ever get married. It was not because I didn’t want it to happen; it was because I’d been down that road before and I only wanted it to happen if and when it was 100% from both our own free will and when the time was right.

For a long time, I was actually kind of proud of how little money and effort was put into my first wedding. It cost $1800 for the ceremony, a one-hour reception with cake and punch, and two nights’ stay at a suite at the venue. My mom found the place on the Internet, and the only decision that I had to make was red or white flowers. Although I can be pretty girly in some respects, I was never one of those little girls who had her wedding completely planned at age 9, so it was just easier to go with the flow, especially since I wasn’t paying for it.

After some reflection on Sarah’s joking comment, I realized what I had viewed for so many years as being low-maintenance was actually just not caring very much. She hadn’t actually been at the wedding, as we didn’t know each other yet. In fact, I didn’t have a single friend in attendance that was my own. I was young, insecure, and lonely, and I thought having met a guy that found me tolerable for more than six months would change that. I was going with the flow and getting married at the borderline old maid age of 24 because that was what I thought I was supposed to be doing at that point in my life. I realized then that if the point came where marrying Frank was what we wanted to do and was the right thing to do for us, not what we were “supposed” to do, that I was going to do it right and you know…care.

So for the last six months that is what I’ve been trying to do. I want to do the wedding thing right so I that I don’t regret being cheap or lazy about it later. The problem is that it does not come naturally to me at all, and I’m paralyzed by fears that what I do won’t be good enough. I suck at decorating, I’m not creative when it comes to cutesy ideas, and as I stated last week, I’m much better at spending money on bikes than dresses. Most wedding website ideas seem overly expensive, overly difficult, or just cheesy and not us, so I’m really struggling to be cute, authentic, and on budget with this thing.

The fact that we have gone this long without engagement photos or save-the-date cards is a testament to that. In perfect world I’d just buy a new outfit, get my hair and makeup done, and hire an experienced photographer to tell us what to do and what will look good while still capturing the essence of us. Ha…if only we lived in perfect world. Instead, I’ve been putting it off for months until we have a little more money, I lose a little more weight, I have the right clothes, the right idea, etc. I’m basically scared because I feel like we have one shot and I don’t want to screw it up. You can only imagine how I scared I am of the actual wedding. Not scared of getting married, as I feel like trials and victories of living together for the last year and a half have proven our readiness for that part. I’m scared that I will fail at properly showing my dedication to this union in the form of a big party.

Regarding the engagement pictures, I thought I finally had that one nailed. After we procrastinated through rhododendron season in the forest (rocks and rhododendrons are the essence of Rothrock, in my opinion, and will play heavily into the wedding décor), I got the idea to get pictures taken at a ‘cross race. Since we were just racing Nittany Lion Cross to get a race in our legs and wouldn’t be doing any other MAC races, there was no reason to race both days, so I got the idea to get the pictures done after the Saturday racing was over, spend the night, and then race on Sunday. I found a photographer who was going to be taking pictures of the race and made arrangements. I got the surprisingly cutesy idea for me idea to get a picture of us with our bikes on the UCI-spec starting grid so that we could send out save-the-dates that said, “Starting married life April 30, 2016”. Cat puke noises, right?

As the day approached, I was feeling pretty happy with myself for being so close to actually accomplishing something. I picked out a reasonably priced outfit with solid colors that matched my bike, and I was starting to feel okay about that the fact that I may never get back to the weight I was when I met Frank and that I’ve stabilized into healthy, sustainable lifestyle that involves another human being.  Pre-Frank weight came at a price that might no longer be worth it. I timed my haircuts wrong and sort of needed a trim, but my hair turned out well on Saturday, and after much a much longer than usual time spent on my make-up, I felt good like I looked pretty good save the on pimple that I hoped would be retouched. Basically, despite my fears of not being good enough, I was on the verge of actually doing something!

Ready to go in solid colors that compliment my baby shower bike!

We knew that there was a chance of rain at photo time, but we had flexible plans and packed our mud boots. Since we were taking ‘cross-themed pictures, a little rain might look cool, anyway. Then it came a complete, utter, raining sideways downpour at the time we were supposed to take the pictures. The photographer wanted to just take the pictures the next day, even though I needed to be there pre-riding for my race at 8:00. He seemed to think that rinsing off the locker room at the velodrome after my race was somehow acceptable preparation for engagement photos. (This presumption would be the cause for much insomniac rage as the night wore on.) As we were trying to quickly renegotiate in the downpour, we somehow agreed to try again at 7:00 a.m., even though I wanted to just go ahead and take the pictures and hope for “epic”, if not pretty. As we drove away and I realized what I had agreed to, the early morning, the fact that my one outfit was soaking wet, the fact that I would look like crap after a night of trying to sleep in a hotel, and that I had failed to bring some cosmetic essentials based because I don’t usually try to look hot for races. No amount of make-up can make ‘cross tongue look pretty.

As 2:00 a.m. approached after two beers and no sleep, I realized that there was no way that this was going to play out in a way with which I wasn’t going to be super disappointed. I texted the photographer to cancel, cried a bit, and then fell asleep surprising quickly with at least two extra hours before I had to get up.

I tell this story because I needed to get it off my chest and because I don’t feel like a Nittany Lion Cross race report would be complete without it. I’m still raw from having been so close to completing a wedding task in a way that I was proud of that I’m not sure what we’ll be doing instead. I guess it’s almost leaf season in Rothrock, which is almost as cool as rhododendrons. I mostly need to figure out how to “do a wedding” that feels like I tried without stressing myself out and making my fiance’ start doubting that he even wants to attend.

Frank and I talked about it during Saturday’s insomnia, and we have the things that matter taken care of. We will have a cool venue, good food, and probably some pretty good beer. The table clothes might be the wrong color, our “rocks and rhododendrons” might look cheap and silly, and there definitely won’t be perfect hand painted signs on the guest book table (or whatever, words like those hurt my head). The best part is that we will get the chance to show off State College and Rothrock to all the friends and family that we’ve wanted to visit, but never had a good enough excuse before. As long as they’re not coming for the decorations, I hope that the excuse will be good enough. I also hope that the photographer gets some good pictures of us, since I only have about seven months of trying to be non-dumpster left in me, and then you may never see anything except #scenicvistaselfies and ill-shot iPhone race photos with ‘cross tongue of us ever again.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Raising Hellga

Although last weekend was the first 'cross race of the season, it still doesn't feel like it's officially 'cross season yet. Most of the people in the region that skipped Cross of the Corn are kicking their season off today at Granogue, and next weekend will the be the definite, for sure, entry into the Pennsylvania cyclocross season at Nittany Lion Cross. For me, the last week has been an even greater fast forward of the seasons than racing 'cross in August; I've skipped right past the 'cross season into winter.

After my first terrible winter in Pennsylvania, from which I'm only now starting to finally starting to feel recovered, I knew that I would need a fat bike if I wanted to keep my sanity through another winter here. When my go-to brand of Giant/Liv somewhat unsurprisingly did not introduce a fat bike for 2016, I expected to buy a Specialized, since that was what was offered by the shop where Frank works. I was a bit surprised and happy when the rumor of their upcoming women's fat bike model was "leaked". For a short-legged girl like me, the option of a slopier top tube and prettier colors are always a good thing. Plus, I was determined to make #raisehellga a hashtag on par with #makeitreign for lovers of Giant's all-mountain offering.

Hellga arrives.

So while Frank was working at the shop a couple of weeks ago, he noticed that the teal Hellga Comp model was available to order and the smalls seemed to be going pretty quickly. Despite my earlier determination that I had to pay for my wedding dress before buying a fat bike, I decided to go ahead and order it so that I didn't miss out on the good color. The problem with wedding dresses versus bikes is knowing exactly what I want regarding the latter and not so much the former, and the fact that the bike will see a lot more long-term use.

At least I thought I knew what I wanted regarding the latter. I'm pretty much used to the smallest size of the bike that I want being borderline too big for me and being forced to make it work. In the event that there is an extra small size available in the model I want, it's always a debate as to whether I should order a small or extra small, so with the Hellga only going to size small, I didn't think too much about which size to order. The problem is that I have never ridden a Specialized before, and I didn't realize that their women's models are legitimately sized down from their men's, rather than just having the proportions tweaked. So essentially the small Hellga that I ordered was an extra small by most other bike size standards.

I have ridden a couple of extra small women's bikes in the past, and they were both a bit short in the reach. One of these was my long-serving 2011 TCX W that I raced for five seasons, so obviously it worked out okay for me. The proportions of the bike were weird, so I needed an extra small for the standover height and the short top tube worked out because it made the bike very "whipable" for 'cross corning. I struggled with the fit on my extra small 2007 Anthem W a bit more, and it required a setback seat post and a lot of tweaking to get me really comfortable. I did manage to ride it for 2.5 seasons and finish two Ouachita Challenges on it, though.

So far Hellga has given me more grief of any bike I've owned so far. We had to steal the seat post/saddle off my Lust to make it even tolerable, and also added a 15mm longer stem. After riding it on Tuesday and Wednesday nights while struggling to get comfortable, I took it back to the shop to get an actual fit on Thursday. He got me into a pretty good position by raising the saddle up quite a bit, and Frank has ordered a new seat post with more setback that will hopefully help further. However, I'm still feeling like an idiot for not checking the sizes more before ordering, and I keep wondering if I would be struggling so much if I'd ordered a medium.

Fat Bike BMX is invented.

Fit drama aside, I'd already decided when I ordered it that I would use this last, long, free weekend before 'cross as a chance to test my fat biking limits. After all, I can't really return the thing at this point, so I might as well ride it for a while and try to make it work. I've been doubting my ability to actually ride the long gravel climbs of Rothrock on a heavy bike when they're covered in snow, so I decided the best way to alleviate this fear was to prove that I could at least ride them without snow.

So yesterday Frank and I headed out on a 35-mile, 4400 feet of climbing ride over gravel and 4x4 road, him on his singlespeed and me on Hellga. Yes, it was uncomfortable as hell, as one would expect riding a fat bike that long would be when you're not used to it, as with just suddenly switching to flat bars for long-distance riding in general. The riding position after my fit felt good for when I was feeling good, but I still felt very cramped in the "sit back and mash" position that I adopt when my quads start to go on long climbs. I think a bit more tweaking will be required.

In which I #raisehellga for the final time of an extremely difficult ride.

The good news is that I managed to summit a good sampling of Rothrock's toughest climbing without even getting into my small ring, so I have plenty of gearing left for winter. I actually PR'd a 4x4 road climb that is pretty bumpy and was wet and soft when I rode it on my 'cross bike before. I guess smoothness counts more than weight savings sometimes. Even though my body feels like I've been beaten all over today, I'm feeling good about my ability to actually be able get real rides in during the nasty conditions of winter.

Now that we have winter squared away, it'll be time to re-focus on 'cross after the soreness lets up. I got some good news this week in the form of a PACX schedule change which fills in a previous gap weekend and takes away a race that I was going to have to miss anyway. The way that it's working out, it looks like I might be sneaking Iron Cross into my regular 'cross season so that I get a little reward for all of my gravel riding of late. I'm pretty excited for both fall and winter now.

Monday, August 31, 2015

PACX #1: Cross of the Corn

Cause we're young and we're reckless
We'll take this way too far 
It'll leave you breathless
Or with a nasty scar
Got a long list of Cross Results
They'll tell you I'm insane
But I got a blank space, 2015
And I'll write your name

Last week “Fight Song” described how I was feeling about the beginning of ‘cross season, but by the weekend I had returned to my baseline state of, “Cross seems like the best idea in the world on Friday night, and the worst on Sunday morning.” Luckily, I have Taylor Swift’s opus on the nature of cyclocross to remind me to help me find peace in the unpredictability and impermanence of my chosen sport.

"I'm so excited! I'm so excited! I'm so...scared."

Despite my tumbling level of self-confidence the morning before the race, I still did my best to “make an explosion” as I described in my last post. It was a valiant effort, but not meant to be. Instead of sending the 45+ off on the first whistle with the 1/2/3’s, they made a last second decision to put them on the front row of the 3/4 start. This made my plans of being the first one into the turn at the top of the hill a lot more difficult, and missing my pedal at the whistle didn’t help either. I still got off the line really fast and made it to the turn in the top five out of the combined field.

The best explosion I could muster.

I forgot how much flat, bumpy, open stuff there was before the first corn section, and I lost a few places there. After we exited the corn into a long, straight, slightly downhill drag, the field blew up as expected, which is why I’d hoped to be further up at that point. I tried to catch back up at any place where it was punchy or turny, but the front of the field continued to pull away from me.

The course was a little more favorable to me than last year, but not a lot. There were still a lot of flat, bumpy sections that favored more powerful riders, and the parts that should have been good for me didn’t seem to help that much. They added a “Snake Alley” section on top of the ridge in the middle of the course that was a series of five or six tight turns back-to-back. I should have been able to make up a time in this section, but I definitely wasn’t gaining anything and was possible even losing a bit of time. I’m not sure if I’m just not used to the new bike yet, or I’m out of practice, but the most frustrating part of yesterday was not being able to leverage my strengths on a course that already doesn’t play to them.

Consistent if not fast. My HRM was not working the first couple of laps. I wasn't that calm and collected.

I suppose the upside is that, although my normal strengths failed me, a couple of my normal weaknesses were not so prevalent this year. Maybe it was last year’s spectacular blow-up or an unexpected payoff from my long gravel rides, but even though I couldn’t produce the speed that I wanted early in the race, I was able to hold the speed that I had quite well. I was mentally prepared for five laps, so I still had a bit of what felt like a third lap slump as the girl who I’d been yo-yoing with for the first two laps started to fade in the distance. Then several girls started to come into view at the end of the third lap, and I was shocked when Frank told me that I had one to go. The lap was longer than last year, and I guess they made the decision to cut the elite women short rather than have the slowest riders on the lead lap finish in 48 or so minutes. I was partially happy to have my suffering nearing the end, but I was still holding my pace better than others, and for perhaps the only time in my cyclocross race history, I could have actually benefitted from another lap.

I ended up finishing 7th out of 12, which was a couple of places further back than I’d hoped. I knew ahead of time that the front of the field would be strong, so I wasn’t really expecting a podium unless something miraculous happened, but I was sort of hoping I could make the top 5. I’m trying to tell myself not to read too much into the first race in hot conditions on a course that doesn’t suit me well. I feel like I have fitness, but I just haven’t figured out how to use it yet. Hopefully some more races will help me get used to my bike and get my handling mojo back, and some high intensity mid-week intervals will bring back my pop. If all goes as planned, this will be my longest season ever, and the things that I’m missing are the things that can actually be improved during the season. The thing that I have now is better endurance than ever before, so maybe that will pay off during the meat of the season when I can’t train much.