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 d├ęcor), 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.