Monday, February 22, 2016

The New Jersey Fat Fondo

The New Jersey Fat Fondo was the third race of the NJ Fat Bike Series and billed itself as “New Jersey's first fun Fat Bike event”. I found this a little funny, as I couldn’t tell if they were actively trying to make a dig at the first two races of the series, but realistically, the slogan was true. After the first-time nerves, pushing myself into deep crack mode, and stressing about the laissez faire results treatment at Marty’s, and the well, 80 miles and nine hours on a fat bike at the D&L, I found myself feeling almost ridiculously relaxed going into the New Jersey Fat Fondo.

There were several factors that contributed to this. It was a four-hour lap race, and after the D&L, I knew that I could actually still feel pretty good at the end of four hours if I didn’t kill myself in the beginning. The race also did not start until noon on Sunday, so we got to leave the house at a very reasonable 7:45 a.m. the morning of the race, which gave me some much-needed home/chill time on Saturday in which to do a short opener workout, thoroughly clean the house for the first time since Christmas, and watch a bunch of Netflix.

Finally, the pre-reg list had me hopeful that I might see the podium for the first time this season. Selene Yeager, who had won the first two races of the series, had not registered, and that left only myself and one other girl in contention for the series championship. She’s much faster than me, so I had no expectations of hanging with her on Sunday, but the other two women that were registered had not raced yet this year, so second place at the race seemed like a distinct possibility.

I lined up near the back with the presumable winner-to-be was slightly ahead of me, and the two other women behind me in the rearmost of the field. It did seem like things were going to play out as I had expected. I started off fast-ish just to put in an early dig and get a feel for the other women’s pace while also paying close attention to my own RPE to avoid getting myself into a hole that I couldn’t dig out of later. Neither of them seemed to stay on my wheel or try to pass, so I assessed that I just needed to hold a steady pace throughout the race and it would all be good. As the first lap played out and I saw how much steep, rocky, scrambly climbing was required per lap, I settled down into maintenance mode and kept myself out of the red, except when getting up a climb required it.

The course was much more mountain bikey than we’d seen so far this season, which was a relief after all of the flat gravel paths. However, it was 50 degrees with only a small pile of ice or snow here and there, and none that we had to ride through. Needless to say it was a disgusting, muddy mess. While it was the most fun fat bike race to occur in New Jersey so far this year, there was definitely a “What the hell are we doing?” element to it.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how “history” (in that really specific regional cycling scene way) will remember, “that time we decided to race fat bikes in a strong El Niño year.” It’s not just the year that Frank and I bought fat bikes, but also the first real year of organized fat bike racing on the East Coast. I’m sure I’m not the only one who dreamed of the pristine white beauty depicted in pictures of well-established races in the Great Lakes region, only to get a winter of trudging through mud on a heavy, fat-tired bike, often when conditions at home were good enough for ‘cross bike riding or even “real mountain biking”. So as the final two “fun” races of the season are seeing 50 degree weather and registration numbers that are a fraction of the first race of the season, I can’t help but wonder if the mud has caused many to abandon the dream. It’s even caused me just a tiny bit of doubt in my dogged commitment to finishing all of the races in the series through hell, or more likely, high water, but I like to think that for those of us who stuck it out this winter, we will look back on our silliness as something special.

Anyway, back to the race. I stuck to my steady pace plan and exceeded my goal of not being lapped by first place for at least three hours. I lapped third place about halfway through what turned out to be my last lap, and came into the finish at 3:45. I was just beginning to feel real fatigue set in and was in the place where I totally felt capable of another lap, but wasn’t sure I really *wanted* to do one. The lap counter strongly suggested that I stop, as I wouldn’t finish another lap before the 4-hour mark and the women’s placings were locked, anyway. I rolled through the line very happy with my second place and mostly happy to be done early.

Now there is just one more four-hour race of the season, after which I won’t be sad about the lack of car trips to New Jersey in my near future. I’m just hoping that El Niño starts working in my favor in March, and that I can jump right into singletrack riding in Rothrock and put Hellga away for a long summer’s nap. It looks like my weird, hard, and obscure dream of becoming the first NJ Fat Bike Series champion will not come to fruition, as both myself and yesterday’s winner are already signed up for the finale. I’m pretty okay with second, though, as I can’t control the fact that women faster than me signed up to race, but I totally rocked (and will continue to for one more week) sticking it out and doing my best through a tough winter of racing.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The D&L Fat Epic

It’s time to let you in on a little secret that long-time readers may have already figured out. For all of my past endurance cycling aspirations, I’ve only actually ever ridden more than 80 miles on a bike at a time twice in my life. The first was an uneventful road century that I jumped into at my coach’s prompting as preparation for my attempt at the Pisgah stage race in 2009. The second was yesterday, on a fat bike, in the snow (and a variety of other conditions).

The end of what was actually 83.7 miles and a variety of conditions that required three cycles through the washer today.

So given the information above, you can imagine that I was a bit intimidated when I heard that the second race of the New Jersey Fat Bike Series would be 80 miles. Sure it was pancake flat, but it was still 80 miles on a fat bike, probably in the snow. Still I took it as a sign that if I was intimidated, most other women would be, too, so I just had to make it my job to finish all of the races, and I should do well in the overall series.

As the weeks between Marty’s and the D&L flew by in a haze of trainer sweat and sore muscles without a good quality long ride in between, I got a bit more worried. I cut last week’s training to one easy ride, one weight workout, and one trainer workout surrounded by two complete rest days. I jumped on the trainer for a very light opener workout on Saturday, and it seemed that most of the over trained heaviness had lifted at least.

When we took off on Sunday morning, I knew that I just had to keep pedaling until it was over and not worry about much else. The beginning of the race was fast, frozen, and mostly clear of snow. This meant me immediately falling to DFL from the main race start and watching those riders disappear around the time a handful of riders from the adventure class caught and passed me as well. I spun easily along and alternated between making jokes to myself about “The DFL Epic” and I thinking, “I can do this ALL DAY!” in the voice of Schmidt on The New Girl.

After about ten miles we got into the section where snow covered the whole trail for long stretches at a time, rather than the patches that we could mostly ride around until that point. I was being overtaken by a group of adventure class riders as we hit the first big patch, and I started to slide because I was worried about what they were doing, which broke my concentration from riding. I figure that was a good time to stop and take my first gel of the day and unscrew the top of my frozen bottle for a drink.

When I got going again, I was alone with the snow and learned how to churn through it quickly. Riding in packed, frozen snow was as fun as I imagined it to be when I bought a fat bike and imagined riding in winter. It just took until the first week of February to finally get some “hero snow” to get that experience. It was the same thing that I love about ‘cross when you’re all about balancing and finding a good line. At this point, I was trying make up lyrics to go with “I like a strong pelvic girdle and I cannot lie,” as my balance and line selection were starting to move me back up through the pack, and I was thinking that I might actually be good at the whole fat biking thing if I just had “a motor in the back of my Honda”. The mind does a lot of weird stuff to get through a long day in the saddle.

I was actually having fun and picking people off until the turnaround, but with conditions being slower than I had expected, I had already been riding for four hours at the halfway point. And they only got slower as the temperature rose to the mid-fourties, and the 5-10 miles closest to the turnaround turned into slushy, muddy slop fest.

By the time I got back to the snow, it had turned into the wheel-grabbing slush that had been beating me up in Rothrock the past two weekends (mashed potato snow as another racer called it). Combine this with the butt and back pain that inevitably comes after five hours in the saddle (at least for me), and fact that I was starting to get hungry every 30-40 minutes instead of having to force myself to eat on the hour, and it paints a picture of what I was afraid of when I first became afraid of an 80 mile fat bike race. Eventually, it will start to hurt. Bad.

The good thing is that I knew that the point where it would start to hurt bad was a likely scenario, but I also had been there enough times to know that I could handle it. I had even been through it enough to plan ahead with some coping strategies. I had packed enough bananas and gels to last the seven hours I’d planned on riding, but I’d also made an emergency Plan B. I knew that since there was only one aid station at the halfway point, I needed to have some calorie-dense item of food in my possession that I would want to eat no matter how crappy I felt. I also knew that if I were at that point, clean eating would not matter. When we stopped for dinner at Troeg’s Brewery (the unsuspecting best restaurant in PA), I got a Java Head Brownie to stick in my feed bag for just that occasion. If you have never had one of these ridiculously large, stout and goat cheese laced, dense mounds of chocolately goodness, I will say that one is worth all of the other chocolate in Hershey combined.

Okay, so I ate a little off the top on Saturday night so that it would fit in the bag.

For much of the race I’d actually thought that the brownie would end up as an after-dinner treat once was I was finished, cleaned-up, warm, and fed, but at 12 miles to go, it did serve its intended purpose. I saw a picnic table next to the trail, and I knew that it was time. I sat down, texted Frank my ETA, removed my muddy gloves, and ate my brownie. After that I was able to brave the last two miles of mush snow, and hit the slightly faster muddy trail to the end, nine hours after I began.

I was the last female to finish, but given how tough the race was, that still meant fourth place (and I beat six dudes!). The top three women were all serious badasses, so I’ll really have to tune up the motor in the back of my Honda if I was to stick with them in the future, but for now I’m happy just to have finished this monster of a race. I now stand third in the series, and will probably stay that way unless one or both of the top two girls miss a race. The good news is that the last two races are four hour lap races, so they won’t take more than four hours no matter how slow conditions get. I think that also means that I technically only have to do one lap at each to “finish” and retain my place in the series. Of course I plan on doing more, but as I mentioned above, a Plan B is always good.


Also, little did I know while I was suffering through my journey, but Frank ended up in third place overall! He was in about sixth when I saw him after the turnaround, but I guess he made up a couple of places and a couple of people missed turns, so I was super excited to hear the news when I finished. Bummed I missed his podium, though.

Friday, February 5, 2016

My Problem With HTFU

Earlier in the week when I posted on that “not so fresh feeling”, I couldn’t help but throw in a punny little graphic about douche to go with it. “HTFU”, to me, represents the douche-iest aspects of cycling culture, and I combed Google for the douche-iest visual representations of it to go along with my post. Yes, the scantily-clad women *already* had her head cut off before I smushed the images together. Why would she need a head? I realize that I do love to occasionally throw shade at HTFU culture in my blog, so I thought I might be time to explain why.

I grew up in a family where lazy was the absolute worst thing you could be, so any implication that I might be lazy or weak is pretty crushing to my subconscious, even if my more rational self realizes that giving 100% to everything all the time is impractical. Because of this bias, I often feel like that in cycling, lazy is also the worst thing that you can be. To me, “HTFU” seems like a message handed down from cycling’s “elite” that if you’re not working until your body gives 100% of the time and sacrificing everything to be a better cyclist, then you’re bad and you should feel bad.

I came across the snippet above while flipping through an issue of Bicycling magazine that appeared in my mailbox last week. I thought that my teammate's dog would be featured, which is why I tore into it so quickly only to find no Giro but this little gem as consolation. It's true that while the other stalwart staple of cycling slogans, "Ride Lots", is less inherently a judgement on the character at which it is directed, as the author points out, it can still feel like a condemnation of your life choices when you're not doing it.

Luckily, as hard as the tough-man pressures of cycling culture do occasionally weigh on my subconscious, my conscious observation had lead me to the conclusion that success comes more often not from overt sacrifice and suffering, but hard work that incidentally happens when you enjoy what you're doing. Last Saturday during the podium presentation for the women's cyclocross world championship, the commentator was narrating Sanne Cant's distraught reaction to her third-place finish. He said that she'd told him before the race that there's no way that she could have trained any harder. Given, I'm paraphrasing the commentator and he was probably paraphrasing her, so there's likely a bit lost in translation, but my reaction that I shared with Frank was that kind of attitude was likely her problem. He looked a little shocked, as criticizing other cyclists' work ethic is not really my M.O. these days. I realized how he had interpreted my statement and explained that I wasn't saying that she needed to HTFU, I was saying that when you become that focused on what you've sacrificed for something, the resulting pressure stands in the way of actually getting it. 

I know this because I've felt the way I'm imagining her feeling, except that it was about Cat 3 mountain bike races and there were no cameras on me. But the crushing blow of "part timers" showing up and kicking your ass? I know those feels. I know them so much that they finally stopped bothering me much after a few years. 

I'm not saying that you don't have to work to be a successful cyclist. I'm saying that you're probably going to be better off if you're not focused on the work being hard. Yeah, you're always going to have to drag yourself out the door from time to time, but I think that any extended resentment of your training regimen is a bad sign. Of course, one might ask what the hell I know on the subject, since it's not like I've become super fast since giving up on trying to prove myself to be toughest, hardest-working chick around. I did, however, become marginally faster after giving up on dragging through training that I hated. 

I now plan my training based on the time and energy that I have to put towards it, not how much I "should" be training based on what other people do. If other people can put in more work without it sucking the life out of them, then I am happy for them, but it is important to remember that it doesn't make them better people, it just makes them better cyclists. And I'm okay with that.

Monday, February 1, 2016

That Not-So-Fresh Feeling

In my last post, I discussed doing things that I am bad at. Since then I’ve taken a couple of weeks’ break and put my brain power toward reconnecting with the things I’m good at work. I’ve also discovered two new things that I’m bad at: 1) Descending in snow. 2) Recovery.

Sometimes you get that not-so-fresh feeling, but don't let anyone tell you that douche is the answer.

The first item I discovered having finally gotten to use my fat bike for fat biking purposes the last two weekends. I would say that it’s harder than I thought, but I think I just forgot how hard I expected it to be when we went so long without snow. Riding uphill is about what I expected, but the out-of-control descending is not. I guess I thought it would be like racing ‘cross in mud, but with the added advantage of super-wide tires. However, snow/slush behaves very differently and I’ve found myself on the ground a lot the last two Sundays, but luckily I’ve been going slowly and/or landed in a pile of snow. I’m still sporting more bruises than I ever have in January, though. I also must admit that, despite my frustration with the second item (recovery), I’m still probably sporting the best fitness that I ever have in January, as well.

The closest Rothrock gets to #ridegroomed.

Since getting to a pretty dark place with binge eating at the end of the year, I’m now over four weeks “clean”. Since abstaining from food entirely is not an option the way it is with drugs and alcohol, “clean” means that I’ve been sticking to a set of rules to keep potential “abusive” eating reigned in. This means that at work I eat only homemade leftovers for lunch and maybe a snack of pistachios in the afternoon if I’m hungry. I’m allowing myself one restaurant dinner per week where the only rule is don’t order something that I know will make feel gross afterward (example: French fries are cool, but an entire entrée of fried crap is not.) One beer a week is allowed, too. Basically, I’m trying to draw a reasonable line between orthorexia and junk food free-for-all to approximate where people who have a healthy relationship with food stay naturally.

As a result of sticking to these rules, I’m starting to see bones and muscles that I haven’t seen in a while, but I’m still weeks away from letting myself onto a scale, as I don’t need any bad news tripping me up. The plan is to stick to rules for as long as practically possible, so that when life inevitably requires deviation from them, I have the resiliency to get back on track quickly. Ideally, I’ll get to a place where being potential overeating situations no longer causes me anxiety, but that might be a while.

The structure in my eating and structure in my training go hand-in-hand, just as they also tend go off the rails together when they do. I’ve been doing quite well at getting two weeknight weight workouts and two weeknight interval sessions on the trainer since returning from winter break. I started January with the grand plan of two trainer interval workouts, two weight workouts, two easy rides, and one long, race-specific ride per week. With a 100-miler coming up in the summer, I wanted to push my boundaries of both work capacity and ride frequency. I also knew that my body had not handled that kind of workload for a looong time, so I would have to be patient and feel out what it was actually capable of while working towards that goal.

I started the intervals at a very low volume and kept easy rides to true one hour, strict heart rate ceiling enforced recovery days. Still I have not managed a decent long ride since Marty’s Fat 50, when I had barely begun training after winter break. I guess I still had some fitness from the long rides that I did in December, but was still fresh from holiday rest. Then I went out and blew myself up for 4 hours, came home, and immediately jumped into a rigorous training plan. Since then, a lot of the planned easy rides have become complete rest days, and I’m still not feeling recovered enough to ride long and hard on the weekends. It’s the tough call between laying a good foundation for the summer and trying to perform well at the February fat bike races.

Now I’m looking at going into an 80-mile fat bike race on Sunday no rides over 25 miles in four weeks. To be fair, 25 miles with 2700 feet of climbing on a fat bike in soft slush is not nothing, but it’s also not 80 miles, either. Thankfully, we’re in for definitely flat and probably snow-free trails for the weekend. Do I know deep down that I’m still capable of riding that long even though I haven’t done so lately? Yes. Do I feel confident with no recent blazing long rides under my belt? No. I will definitely be riding to finish rather than racing for places on Sunday, but based on the pre-reg list, the series has already been whittled to four women, so any finish will still be an improvement in my standing.

I think Marty’s proved that fresh is greater than fit for these long races, so I’m going to do my best to rest up this week. February is when all of the structure I laid out in January will be tested. Three races in four weeks means a lot more meals eaten away from home and erring on the side of training less to be fresh without skipping workouts just out of laziness. I’ll admit this all makes me a little anxious, but I’ve been looking forward to these February races for months. Hopefully with some self-awareness and support I can make it through February stronger and more confident than I am now.