Monday, May 16, 2016

Doing Things I'm Bad At, Part 2: Pocono Enduro Edition

“I guess my one-sentence interpretation would be that you might end up being better at things you don’t expect to be good at because you focus more on the enjoyment/process of improvement when you have no expectations than when go into a new activity expecting success.”Me, in January

I think I might have laid out a self-fulfilling prophecy when I wrote in January that most of 2016 would likely be focused on “doing things I’m bad at”. I found myself inspired by the great advice from a self-described klutz of a pro enduro racer who turned away from her “natural talent” of endurance sports and clawed her way up to being good at something she initially sucked at.

I’ve honestly never displayed natural talent for anything athletic, but over the past ten years of my cycling career, I’ve learned that I prefer technical and anaerobic over long, smooth, and steady. That is why when I said I’d be focusing on doing things I was bad at, I planned to shore up my abilities in the latter and put the former on a shelf for a bit. Little did I know that declaration would drive me to be inexplicably better at going uphill than downhill a short three months later.

“Usually, we’re bad at things because we don’t do them.” - Syd Schulz, also in January

If I could describe my last week in one sentence, that would be it. A mere 8-day period has seen some huge victories and one crushing defeat, and as expected, there is a strong correlation to what I’ve been putting my resources into lately.

We all know that pretty much all of my training since the end of 'cross season has been directly or indirectly in service of the Wilderness 101. It’s finally coming together, and last week I PR’d, or at least set a mountain bike PR for, five of the seven biggest climbs of the race. I still have exaggerated ‘cross bike PRs on Seeger and Stillhouse from last summer, but I expect those to also fall soon, thanks to the arrival of Jamie the Climbslayer.

I’ve been torn for a while between my desire for the closest thing to a ‘cross bike that can still be ridden on the singletrack of the W101, and my desire for a longer-travel trail bike that can be used in future enduro pursuits. Because life in Rothrock is defined by gravel climbs and rocky, fall line descents, I decided that I eventually wanted bikes for both, depending on my focus for a given day. I can’t afford both right now, but I was able to get an instant climbing boost with the purchase of a pretty affordable Liv Obsess Advanced 2, which will at least free my Lust up for some enduro-worthy gnar-mods now that it’s off the hook for the W101.

A three-minute PR on Greenlee

The bike does exactly what it’s supposed to do. The first pedal stroke felt smoother and snappier than my Lust, and as we started the first climb, it was obvious that I was going faster than normal, even with semi-crappy legs from some surprisingly fast climbing on the Lust a few days prior. Of course, the first descent was chunky double track where my internal soundtrack quickly turned into a mash up of “Rumpshaker” and “You Shook Me All Night Long”. She’s a hardtail, alright.

Our first short venture onto some actual rocky singletrack found me dismounting a lot to avoid risking my new baby until I understand how she handles better, but I’m sure with some practice we’ll be able to survive most of what the W101 singletrack throws at us. I kept telling myself that for all of its light carbon-fiberness, the frame was made for World Cup XC races, and it’s not like Pauline Ferrand-Prévot or Jolanda Neff ride around in fear that every little bump will crack their bike.

I guess that with all the progress toward getting almost good at the thing that I’m bad at, there was a price to pay when it came to my enduro debut on Sunday. I started out very excited because the women’s 2/3 class was just my teammates Michaela, Sam, and me. We had awesome new freeride jerseys on the way, and were all set for a podium sweep of stripes and donut galaxies. It was also their first enduro, too, so at least we were all in the same boat.

At least we look cute. Frank got to be an honorary Laser Tomcat to help meet the minimum on the jersey order.

Then a couple of other girls signed up at the last minute, and it started to feel like an actual competition. I was panicking like a college student trying to ace their final after not studying all semester. Sure, I had put zero preparation into this race, but I think I hadn't originally expected to really race so much as just take cute pictures in our new jerseys, ride the course, and observe fast dudes for future reference. Then all of the sudden there was the specter of public comparison to other people. Given my lack of preparation, I was terrified that I would fall short. It was really tough because I knew I wasn’t as prepared as some of the other girls, but considering that descending is my self-identified strong suit, it was still going to hurt if I suddenly sucked at it for all of the world to see.

'Cross tongue crosses over to enduro.

And that’s pretty much what happened. I got to the venue the morning of the race and only got to pre-ride two of the three stages. Both of the stages had elements that scared me in practice, and I didn’t really have to time to work through those fears before race time, so I ended up wussing out on them during the actual timed stages. The third stage should have been my strongest, if I’d ridden it before and not had two guys start way too close behind me. I appreciate them not being sexist and assuming that I was slow, so it was really my own fault for not either asking them to go before me or to give me extra time before they started their runs. Having dudes come up behind me right as I saw the trickiest part of the stage for the first time did not work out well, and I ended up running a bunch of stuff that I shouldn’t have had to because I was worried about being their way. When it was all said and done, I finished in a spectacular DFL by three minutes.

Basically, I felt like this loser all over again, ten years later.

“The point is this: Stop panicking. You aren’t flawed, you aren’t a freak, talent is a giant conspiracy, and sometimes all that’s necessary is approaching the problem from a different angle.”Also Syd Schulz, also in January

I indulged in a moderate amount of self-loathing and beating myself up for giving into my fears instead of forcing myself to ride things that scared me. Intellectually I know that there was nothing on that course that I was incapable of riding, but the nerves and the unfamiliarity of the trails screwed me up. In some ways, Rothrock has improved my mountain biking skills, but only a very specific set. Most of the riding I do is technically difficult, but actually pretty low danger. I don’t ride things that scare me that often, because so far, the “scary” trails haven’t been crucial elements to my race goals. Although my balance and handling are better, I think I've actually become more risk-adverse while living here. I’ve also forgotten how to ride swoopy, bermy stuff fast, because I never have the opportunity to do so. Let’s not forget that I’ve been spending all my energy this year focused on going up fast instead of down.

So yeah, it sucked being last in my first enduro, but I guess when your worst fears are realized, then there’s nowhere to go but up. While W101 training is still my main focus, I’ve already signed up for the next enduro and made plans to go do a thorough preride of the course the weekend before. This should at least guarantee that I’ll be comfortable enough to stay on my bike through all of the stages, which at this point, will be a huge improvement. I'm interested in enduro because it's something that anyone can be better at if they put in the time, more so than the other physiology-heavy disciplines, at least. I'm not quite ready to give up on my physiology either, so I'm just going to keep doing what I can to keep becoming a little less bad at both.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Chasing Capacity

Yeah, my body she told me "don't worry about your [training log] size"
She says, "Just go ride hard every Wednesday night"
You know I’ll never log miles until I slow to a crawl
But maybe some volume will help me go fast and long

Now I'm all about that base
'Bout that base, legs tremble

I never expected to use “All About That Base” as my intro lyrics, as its repeated play was one of the worst aspects of the 2014 PACX series for me, lack of fitness and friends aside. Once I found out that it was about embracing big butts, though, I forgave its annoying chorus. Now as I train for my first 100-mile mountain bike attempt in seven years, I’m all about that base again, but what that looks like for me has changed a lot.

Most endurance athletes are aware of the vague common knowledge of building “base”, usually defined as a lot of long, slow distance mileage before riding or running at higher intensities. Beyond that you encounter the Internet arguments for base training in cycling, against base training in cycling, and totally plagiarized blog posts where someone just swaps in “dragon boating” for cycling. Essentially those all come down to “Do I have to…(whiny kid voice)…ride hours and hours in Zone 2?” Or, for those who have lots of free time and who enjoy long, interval-free bike rides, it can be justification to keep doing so.

In the end, everyone needs base, but depending on your goals, body, and schedule, it doesn’t have to be Zone 2, and it doesn’t have to precede any and all high-intensity work. That is why I’ve stopped thinking about a “base phase” in my training so much as “building work capacity”. I was also kind of happy when my Google search of “work capacity cycling base” turned up an article from the good ol’ ancestral health community in the top five results. Even though I hate identifying as “paleo” these days and keep a low profile out of respect for my vegan teammates (we all agree that veggies are good for you), I am still heavily influenced by the hours of Robb Wolf podcasts burned into my brain. The idea of building work capacity is big among the Crossfit or fitness-for-the-sake-of-fitness community, because ain’t nobody got time for a base phase there.

“Work capacity is the underlying component of any truly successful training program. Quite simply, it is the ability to perform an ever-increasing amount work which, in turn, determines one’s level of fitness.  And that, in turn, defines one’s level of preparedness.”

For cyclists, the preparedness we seek is most likely to go faster than other people in our race or season of choice, in some cases simply to make it to the end in one piece, or to be able to say yes to an invitation for a long ride with fast friends without fear of physical meltdown. Part of this is performing work that simulates the time, power, and terrain demands of the goal at hand, but there is also an element of “training to train”, which is teaching your body to work and recovery better so that you can do the race simulation training more and/or more frequently. This is where work capacity comes in.

Considering that my first race of 2016 was on January 9 after full ‘cross season in the fall, I certainly did not make time for a traditional base period this year. Luckily, my January and February races were endurance races that served as a good precursor to the work that I would be doing later in the season, so in a way they were base-like. They were still races, though, and the intensity was much higher than Zone 2 “base” rides would be. The plus side is that they boosted my overall fitness more quickly, but also taxed my recovery such that I wasn’t able to do much high-quality work during the week or I frequently had to back off of weights or intervals to be fresh for an upcoming race.

Once fat bike season was over I quickly turned to doing Wilderness 101 recon rides every weekend to familiarize myself with the demands of the course and to get an idea about whether I was on track endurance and pace-wise. At first these attempts were pretty disappointing, but now they’re slowly starting to point toward a probable solid mid-pack finish in the 11 hour range, if I can convince my body to hold its shit together for that long. I’d love to be greedy and try to push that goal pace by doing more threshold work during the week, but for now the 5+ hour recon rides are leaving me pretty cooked.

The most recent of said recon rides.

This is where chasing capacity comes in. I haven’t trained at a very high volume the last few years, so one long, hard ride per week plus additional speed work seems to be too much to ask of my body right now. What I’ve learned is that riding a lot of hours per week doesn’t make you fast in and of itself, but it does prepare your body to do more work per week. The more race-specific work you can put in per week, the faster you can get faster. Right now I’m having to carefully monitor my recovery and prioritize the work that I’m putting in. The long rides will get me to a decent finish, even if I can’t do the additional interval work to get a bit faster before July.

I am slowly starting to build my base by implementing a daily habit of getting on the bike or into the gym, even when I’m feeling cooked from the weekend and have to go super easy. Acclimating my body to doing to more frequent training will allow me to do higher volume training which will allow me to do higher quality training, or so I hope. I’ve stopped thinking of my recovery rides as useless filler or a quota to be met, and instead thinking of them as a prerequisite to work that will make me faster later.

2016 has seen me jump into some pretty serious trial-by-fire endurance training, and overall, it’s working. I never felt this confident in my ability to finish a 100-mile mountain bike race on any traditional, coach-assigned training plan, and I have the list of DNFs to prove it. I’m happy for the huge progress that I’ve made, but I’m slowly laying down the foundation for even bigger future successes. And so, after years of resistance, I’m all about that base.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016


As promised, I have emerged from my wedding haze and have returned to the world of bloggery. Although not everything went perfectly, I can confidently say that our wedding was not dumpster. Our homemade rocks and rhododendrons centerpieces with trail sign table markers looked good, the switchback trail cake with the bikes on top was a huge hit, and the $175 last-minute dress purchase from Modcloth looked a whole lot like the dream dress that I'd had in the back of my mind since I first started looking. I also got stuck in a closet in my underwear with no one to help me get my dress on when the house where we were getting ready was suddenly taken over by Frank's entire extended family arriving way too early, and I couldn't text my mom or maid of honor to come help because there was no cell service out in the woods where the wedding took place. Overall, the good outweighed the bad, and I now have the happy wedding day memory that I wanted so badly.

Now I also get the return to focusing on bikes that I've been wanting pretty badly. I've definitely been riding during my blogging break, and I've made some pretty good progress toward my TrailMix and Wilderness 101 goals. I did miss a few days of serious riding for the wedding, and my body is still getting over the lack of sleep and abundance of booze. I'm hoping to be back on track within a few days, though, and I'm looking forward to my first enduro race on May 15.

So expect more bike posts soon, but for now, here are some pictures of pretty things.

The "Don't Crash the Bride Ride" the morning before the wedding

Rocks & rhododendron centerpiece, mini trail marker to designate tables, and candy rock favors

Trail cake!

Dis is fancy us

Laser Cat dance party!

Last dance