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.

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