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.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

See You on the Other Side

I might only have one match
But I can make an explosion

I first heard Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” at the gym on Thursday. Forgive me if it has been blasting all over pop radio for months, and I’m totally behind. Since I really only hear pop music that isn’t Taylor Swift or Haim on rare occasions at the gym when they’re playing it instead of the Screamy Emo White Guy Rap Rock Station (I assume that’s the official name) and at PACX races, I really wouldn’t know. I guess I’ll find out soon, though.

With the first PACX a mere five days away, I can’t think of a more fitting snippet of song lyrics to describe how I’m feeling. I’m already starting to get nervous, since like any ‘cross season, it’s just too hard to tell how it’s going to go until it starts. I’ve been very consistent in the gym this summer, so I’m strong, and my volume of quality riding (as opposed to just volume) in July and August has been the highest that I remember. Still, my performance at Guts Gravel Glory a couple of weeks ago didn’t really boost my confidence, but that was a much different beast than real ‘cross. So my plan for Sunday is just to go out hard and see what happens. Then we’ll know my actual number of matches and whether the resulting explosion is the good or bad kind.

I titled this post “See You on the Other Side” not only because it marks the transition to ‘cross season, but also because, in a proper farewell to summer gravel riding, on Sunday Frank and I explored the portion of the W101 course that lies on the other of 322. I had briefly crossed over to climb Stillhouse during my “Wilderness 48” ‘cross bike ride-a-long a few weeks ago, but this time we drove to the race start in Coburn and experienced 53 miles of almost completely unfamiliar territory.

Since the bulk of the W101’s singletrack is concentrated around the Cooper’s Gap area in Rothrock, we rode our ‘cross bikes and cut out one bit of the course that was marked as a snowmobile trail. Everything else was marked as a road, so it should be fine, right? Apparently they use the term “road” loosely around here, and I am proud to say that we survived the rock-strewn Panther Run Rd. that people apparently don’t even like to ride on their mountain bikes. After 5,000+ feet of climbing, two long chunks of rocky Jeep roads, traversing the frighteningly narrow beams of where a bridge should be, and a slippery 50-ish meter wide creek crossing that was fast-moving and above my knees in most places, we triumphantly (and tiredly) returned to Coburn a couple minutes shy six hours after we left. The coming Sunday’s bumpy ride through a cornfield should feel like nothing now.

Frank is less afraid of heights than me.

The good news is that I’ve now ridden almost every piece of the W101 course now, save a few little bits here and there. Okay, two of those bits are rocky fall-line trails, but those are really the least of my worries as the key for those is just to ride smart and stay intact for the rest of the race. I still can’t imagine doing the whole thing on a mountain bike, but hopefully in another 11 months I will. For now, though, it’s time to “cross over” and find out if all of the riding this summer did me any good.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Temporarily Single

“You’re good at having talks with yourself.” – Frank

For most of the past week, I have been temporarily single while Frank is visiting his sister in Florida. While it has afforded me some luxuries like watching all of the terrible teen movies that I want and not having to apologize for not cooking dinner, I’m also surprised at my lack of self-regulation when faced with these freedoms. It may sound odd considering I was married before, but the year and a half that I’ve lived with him has been my first experience in truly sharing myself with another person in the way where you give up a little bit freedom in exchange for true intimacy. After a mere year and a half of actually feeling obligated to answer to someone other than myself, it feels weird to not have to, even in the context of small things for a few days.

I think I may just be a little mentally worn down lately, but last week’s events lead to a level of demotivation that I haven’t experienced in a while. After a few crazy busy weeks at work, my part of the project wrapped up, and I’ve been in a bit of a holding pattern until my next big assignment, just helping my coworkers out on stuff when I can and basically being available if needed. It made for a super-long workweek, and Frank’s absence only made it worse. It felt like 2013 all over again, when my weekdays alone were repeated obstacles to be overcome. At least then I was well-practiced in self-regulation, but suddenly being alone to do whatever I wanted was a lot different after months of having someone else to keep me in line.

This lead to Friday night’s dinner consisting of pie and those veggie straw things that like to boast how many servings of vegetables are in them but are basically just chips. I have no illusions of their health benefits; I just think they’re delicious. Too delicious. I am also not one of those cyclists who see food merely in terms of calories to be burned off, and don’t bullshit myself with, “I ride bikes so I can eat crap” excuses. My point is that I knew better, but my emotional fortitude was blown from getting through the week and suddenly being “allowed” to do what I wanted was too much.

This lead to waking up the next morning with a junk food hangover and taking way too long to get out of the door for my ride on a day that was particularly hot. Even though I’d been looking forward to getting back on my gravel climbing regimen all week, it seemed that I had sabotaged my efforts for Saturday. I decided to cut my losses and ride an hour as easy as is possible in Rothrock and do my best to make up for it on Sunday.

And Sunday I was able to turn it around. I got out the door earlier to try and beat the heat, but it was still pretty toasty as I began my ride. The first big climb on the agenda was Greenlee, which was pretty disastrous when I tried it a few weeks ago. I can’t say that yesterday was that much better, but at least I had a more vivid memory of what was ahead and managed to pace myself well enough that I didn’t dissolve into any walk breaks. For most of the climb I was convinced that once it was over I would head downhill to the car and call 20 miles good for the day, but when I got to the top, I stopped, ate a banana, and had a long talk with myself about the benefits of completing the additional 25 miles that I’d planned. It helped that there was an aid station for the PA Rocks! Enduro near my stopping point and topping off my bottles with cold water convinced me to go on. It still sucked a few times along the way, but I’m glad that I persevered.

The view of these cute horses was my reward for finishing the ride.

Thankfully I only have a few more days of having to maintain my newly reengaged self-regulation mechanisms. Frank will be back on Thursday, and by that point I’ll be happy to answer the question, “So what’s for dinner?” again. As they say, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Guts Gravel Glory

Over the past weekend we headed down to Richmond, VA for Guts Gravel Glory. With the amount of gravel that we’ve been riding lately, we thought it would be good to test out our skills against actual people.

The race was the closest thing that I’ve seen to a true “ultra ‘cross” format. There was a sixish-mile loop of double track and horse trails around a state park. It was pretty non-technical with just a few small roots here and there, although the surface was quite sandy and made for tough cornering. Despite the name, there wasn’t a whole lot of gravel on the course; it was mostly sand or packed dirt. All of the categories started together with everyone racing until the overall leader had completed eight laps, so it really was a like a three-hour cross race in that regard.

I had high hopes after looking at last year’s results, although I really had no idea how fast I’d actually go on the unfamiliar course. A 14 mph average seemed reasonable enough with a mere 350 feet of climbing per lap. However, as the women’s registrations started to come in with more Cat 2’s that last year, I wasn’t as confident.

In the end, Cat 2’s were the least of my problems. They had us start in waves with 15 seconds in-between, with a 55 strong Men’s B field starting 15 seconds behind us. There were eight women in the field, ranging from a domestic pro road racer to Cat 4’s. It became apparent at the start that the format was going to play out roadie-style and not so much ‘cross style, which didn’t bode well for me. Even though there was no chance in hell that the group was going to stay together, they still started out that way. I prefer the “break this up as soon as possible” racing style and hate being on anyone’s wheel, especially on questionable terrain, but I knew that going to the front at the beginning of a three-hour race was a terrible idea.

So I did my best to settle into my own rhythm and hoped to catch some of the other girls when they got popped. Unfortunately, the B men swallowed us up immediately upon entry into the woods and by the time things thinned out there were no women to be seen. I had guys from the 20-mile C race to ride with for the first three laps, but once they finished, it was a little tough to accept another 1.5 hours of pushing my shredded quads on alone. I did it, though, and eventually made it through six laps and about 40 miles. I also think I passed a girl who was stopped about a half-lap from the finish, so I think that I technically didn’t get last place.

Although I didn’t place as well as I’d hoped, I’m proud of myself for staying on the rivet for three hours straight. My heart rate data showed that of my 3:10 of racing, 3:03 was in Zone 4 or higher. That’s a hell of a lot of threshold. It should make 40 minutes of only slightly higher intensity not seem so bad in a couple of weeks. I can also take heart in the fact that regular ‘cross allows me to go out as hard as I want with no need to sit in, and that even the most pedally ‘cross course will provide more turning and acceleration than this did.

Until then, I plan to make the most of my last couple of weekends of summer by pushing my gravel limits a little further before time to take off the bottle cages and put on the tubular wheels. This weekend I hope tackle both Greenlee and Alan Seeger in one ride, and perhaps explore the Western side of the W101 course the next weekend. Then it will be time for the PACX opener. Eek!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Don't Go Chasin' QOM's

Don’t go chasin’ QOM’s
Please stick to the gravel steady state that you’re used to
I know that you’re gonna have it your way or nothin’ at all
But I think you’re movin’ too fast

Well, last week I talked about how since moving to State College, I had already done things wrong enough that I was getting really close to doing them right. Well, it couldn’t just be all smooth sailing from there, could it? Of course not. Over the weekend I got greedy, and got yet another Rothrock smackdown lesson in what not to do.

With all of the gravel climbing that I’ve been doing lately, my ego has been receiving a pretty steady stream of stroking as my carbon fiber ‘cross bike allows me to climb at the speed of much faster women on mountain bikes. I know that I’m bike-doping, but for the moment, it’s keeping me motivated. With the ‘cross bike to mountain bike speed conversion, or at least how it applies to me, climbing “sorta fast” on a ‘cross bike still means that I’ll be pretty darn slow on a mountain bike. I’m shooting for “Cheryl Sornson in the 2012 W101” pace on the ‘cross bike before I even attempt dragging my Lust up those climbs, and I still have my work cut out for me there.

A couple of weeks ago, I did manage to poach an obscure QOM on a five-minute climb that is not part of any of the races that take place in Rothrock, and thus had a much shallower leaderboard than most of the gravel that I’ve been riding. I followed that with my first ascent of Greenlee since Frank took me up it on my first visit to State College almost two years ago. The five-minute puke-hard effort that preceded the climb, plus the 90-degree heat that day, lead me to the conclusion that Greenlee was “really that hard” with my breaking down for a walk break when the final switchback didn’t provide the relief for which I was hoping.

Apparently I learned my lesson about this for a whole two weeks, then my satisfying 48 mile ride last weekend gave me an over-inflated boost of confidence. I decided that Saturday’s ride should include an attempt at the Bear Gap QOM, as the fastest time was a bit was over 12 minutes, and since #crossiscoming, I should be able to extend my puke-hard abilities out that far. I was able to hold the effort and improve my PR by a minute (still 1:11 off the QOM), and perhaps my body will thank me during the first lap of the first ‘cross race of the season, having already exposed it to “my teeth hurt” effort at least once in August. However, I think it was a bad decision, since my planned 42 mile ride got cut to 20 really quickly after that. It probably would have been even less if I hadn’t ridden down the far side of the mountain while still in a lactic acid buzz and been forced to drag myself back over Gettis to get home regardless of how much it sucked.

In the end, I was disappointed that I blew myself up early in the ride and didn’t get the full distance that I’d planned. While preparing for the intensity of ‘cross might be helpful, I’m really surprised at how much fitness I’ve gained so quickly from just a few weeks of long gravel rides. I only have a few more weeks of those left, so I wish I hadn’t wasted that opportunity. There will be plenty of time for aching teeth in September. I guess it’s just another Rothrock lesson learned the hard way.

Next weekend will definitely include a long gravel ride, but it won’t be in Rothrock. Frank and I are heading to Richmond, VA to test our gravel prowess against actual people at Guts Gravel Glory. It will be interesting to try out, since it is a multi-lap gravel circuit race that is a lot more steady and rolling than the extended ups and downs that we’ve been riding. I’m hoping that the lap format will be motivating and not boring, but mostly I’m just excited to actually race instead of just pretending to on Strava.