Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Town Hall and Quaker City Cross: I Was Nineteen(th)

I felt you in my legs
Before I ever met you
And when I tried to ride you
For the first time I told you

I feel you in my heart and I don't even know you
And the leaders are saying bye, bye, bye
And the leaders are saying bye, bye, bye
I was nineteen(th), pull meeeee

This weekend I kicked off my 2016 ‘cross season in the most painful of manners, with the double, overnight-stay race weekend combo of Town Hall Cross and Quaker City Cross. Not to spoil the race report too early, but I discovered yesterday that I got 19th at Town Hall and 11th at Quaker City, which were the exact same placings that I got at those respective races last year. Furthermore, I have now been in 19th place at Town Hall for three straight years in a row. I figured Teegan and Sarah’s “Nineteen” was the most appropriate into lyric source possible, although I never really fully understood that song. Honestly, my ‘cross-focused lyrical tweaks might make a little more sense.

I mentioned in last week’s post that starting the season at Town Hall would be especially painful because of the long climb at the start. However, this year they added some extra twisty and turning before the climb, but once you hit it, it was straight up instead of snaking switchbacks up the hill. They also added a pair of very small logs on the steep final tier of the climb, which I’ve always been able to barely eke out without dismounting in the past, but the tiny bit of extra resistance this year turned the final tier of the climb into a run-up for me.

The start was definitely painful, but I didn’t go into full mental fetal position as I had feared. I got off the line pretty well but fell back when the starting straight turned steeper and sloggier. It only took one or two minutes of riding backward in the pack to regain my composure and start moving up. When we did hit the base of the big, straight-up climb for the first time, I saw a decent-sized pack of girls still within striking distance who were struggling up the hill as much as I was. I maintained the gap to top and then set to work picking them off on the flat, turny remainder of the course. I can’t remember how many people I ended up passing. It felt like a lot, but the 19th place seems to indicate otherwise. Given, I was probably in 23rd or 24th at my worst point.

Quaker City was pretty similar because they funneled us onto a long uphill drag almost immediately, and I lost a lot of positions going up that for the first time. Luckily, I set to work taking them back immediately after cresting the top and I seemed to move back up in the pack pretty quickly.

Unfortunately, each subsequent grind up the hill jeopardized the places I had gained. I was doing my best to ride as hard as I could up it and stay conscious of my lines so that anyone trying to come around wouldn’t have an easy route. I’d tell myself, “Just get to the top and you’ll be good,” and most of the laps I made it to the top clear. I’d get near the top, click down a couple of cogs, and smash the inside line to the awaiting downhill. I’d do my best to hold good lines through the turns while my brain screamed for oxygen in the hope of pulling away from my competition. Then I’d hit the swooping 180 to another, albeit shorter, grind up to the next swoopy section. And that would be where I’d get passed.

Despite my best efforts to defend my position up until that point in lap, it seems that all my matches were gone each time I hit the second grinding section. I’d recover through the swoopy section, sprint through the starting straight, and fly through the curvy bits that lead to the run-up, eating up the ground back to girls who had just passed me. I even did pretty well on the run-up, as I remember three different times a guy yelling at me to “make the pass” around the same girl. Two of the times I fell for it, sprinting to the top, and holding my lead through the back field section and hoping I’d lose her for good, only to be passed back after the big hill. The third time I didn't really try to pass her and just accepted the place that I was in. Sadly, I couldn’t even maintain that and lost another place to a girl who I’d been holding off for a couple of laps. I was close enough to still maybe catch her going into the last swoopy section, but I overcooked a turn and dropped my chain in the attempt.

The race felt very much like the battle I had with my future teammate Taryn during her first-ever ‘cross race at the Quaker City last year. She’s now close to getting her Cat 2 upgrade, and I’m still battling for 11th place in the 3/4s. Expanding my Crossresults.com page, at least from my Pennsylvania era, brings to mind the Battlestar Galactica catchphrase, “"All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again."

Of course, it’s too soon to tell if the latter part is true. I’m still holding out hope for a ‘cross comeback sometime in my career and to perhaps earn my Cat 2 upgrade before I’m old enough to wiggle out of it by racing the 40+ race, but I decided back in the summer that this would probably not be the year for it. A little part of me hoped that I somehow magically got faster over the last year without doing any ‘cross-specific training, but unsurprisingly, that is not the case. I’m okay with that because I have chosen not to make ‘cross a priority this year and it shows. I’m just going to keep doing my best and let the handful of races that I’m even planning on doing this season play out however they’ll play out.

I did this little comparison of my lap times, which confirmed exactly how I felt racing. The first super-steady set is Town Hall, and the second is Quaker City.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Keystone Gravel: So I Ate a Taco and Took the Short Course Route

"Nonetheless, this combination of efficiency and precision can be an effective one, and their bluntly assertive style helps them to achieve difficult tasks by sheer force of character."

This was part of the description of my C/D result on a DISC personality type test earlier in the week. I took the test at the suggestion of a business analysis article on the importance of understanding yourself and those with whom you work. I like to think of my work self as more of the “efficiency and precision” part of the sentence, but I’ve also not been a stranger to achieving difficult tasks by sheer force of character in my personal life the last few months.

On Saturday, Frank and I participated in Keystone Gravel, an interesting new type of event planned and produced by our buddy Donnie Breon, near Jersey Shore, PA. It was a 56-mile gravel ride with timed segments throughout the course, including climbs, descents, a mountain-bikey section, and a paved time trial section. The winners were determined by best cumulative times on the segments and the riding in between was supposed to be fun-paced with a waffle stop, taco stop, and bar stop mixed in. Of course, the average participant’s “fun pace” is about the same about my race pace, so I aimed to just ride steady the whole way, although I did try to push it a bit on the descents.

This was far from an “A race” for me, but we wanted to show up and support the event. For the week or so prior, I’d been mentally struggling with work stress and the impending transition to ‘cross season and physically struggling with headaches, digestive distress, and unexplained bad sleep. I've also been so mountain bike focused that I hadn’t been on my ‘cross bike for longer than an hour and a half at a a time since Iron Cross last year. All that being said, I thought that 56 miles of climby gravel still wouldn’t be *that* hard having finished the Wilderness 101 a few weeks before. It was that hard.

We're here for the waffles.

It’s not that I couldn’t have suffered through and finished, but suffering seemed counter intuitive to the nature of the event. I had been doing my best to set decent “get through it” pace, but when we had an extended stop while Frank fixed a flat right before the taco stop and accompanying mechanical support (doh!), I guess he could tell just from the look on my face that I wasn’t feeling well. I wasn’t quite ready to give up on the long course, but the split between the two came right around the bend once we were rolling again.

I ate my taco at the rest stop and tried to decide which direction to take. Frank wanted to complete the long course, so we started rolling in that direction, but when I noticeably fell off the pace on the first little rise out of the aid station, he stopped and said we should turn around. I convinced him to give me the car keys and finish the long course alone. I headed back to the aid station to rejoin the short course route.

It was actually pretty nice. I rolled along the famous Pine Creek Trail all alone for most of the 10 miles to where the short and long courses came back together. I’d never ridden there before, and I enjoyed riding fast for a while, riding slow for a while, attempting to ride wheelies for a while, and taking in the lovely overcast fall day on flat gravel with a mountain on one side and a river the other.

I felt mildly guilty for taking the easy way out, but it was supposed to be a fun ride, and for how I was feeling that day, I kept it to the length that was still mostly fun. I had spent my summer gutting it out through other days when I wasn’t feeling great, but still finished because that was what I came to do. I proved to myself, or teammates, or ex-husband, or my dad, or whatever other voices were in my head saying that I had to suffer to end to not be a failure. Saturday was a day to ignore those voices that make me hate “death before DNF” almost as much as I hate “HTFU”. While both of those things are good advice in certain situations, they are harmful when they start to feel like judgements of character. At the TrailMix I repeated the slogan “so I didn’t DNF” to get myself to get through the day, but for Keystone Gravel I changed it to “so I ate a taco and took the short course route”, and both are perfectly valid responses to the circumstances of each given day.

The coming week will mark the transition to something completely different, as my cyclocross season will finally begin with a double weekend beginning on one the most painful starting grids of the PACX series, Town Hall. While Town Hall is actually one of my favorite courses of the series, I’m having a hard time conceptualizing how the first start of the year pain combined with the long uphill drag to switchback climb punch of the Town Hall course will feel. I’ll do my best, but I’m also at peace with the fact that my brain may crawl into fetal position two minutes into the race and spend the rest of the weekend trying to crawl out. I’m almost looking at it more as a scientific experiment than a race.

I did achieve my goal of getting a photo with this giant floof dog right before leaving.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Laurel Classic

This weekend turned out to be an unexpected race weekend for me. This makes the second summer in a row where I’m not quite ready to give up on my late-summer activities, but I know I have to because of ‘cross, so I just jump into a random race to get it over with. Last year I was working really hard on my gravel climbing late in the summer, so I decided to cap that off with unplanned gravel race that was pretty darn flat and favored pack riding. This year I’ve been working on my navigation of TSE stage and my enduro skills, so I decided 22-mile mountain bike race on terrain that I know nothing about. Basically, I say to myself, “Well, I’ve been working really hard and improving on this thing, so I’m totally ready to compete against other people, except let’s find a version that totally does not favor the aspects that I’ve been working on.”

Of course, I didn’t actually have that as a conscious thought last week. Instead I was just overwhelmed by choosing just one ride to brush up on during my final weekend of freedom before racing began. During this pondering, I realized I’d never ridden in Michaux State Forest, even though it isn’t that far. I remembered that the last race of the Michaux endurance series was that weekend, and I thought I might try that. It turned out that registration was a too-steep-for-a-whim $70 a couple of days before the race, but since my brain was already in race mode when Frank messaged me about the $25 Laurel Classic in Northern PA, I went for it. I entered the expert class because the distance was the same between sport and expert, and expert had a payout. At the time I registered there was only one expert woman and zero in sport, but I figured second place expert money beat uncontested first place sport “glory”.

As soon as I stepped out of the car on race morning, I said, “It feels gross out here.” It was hot and sunny, yet the air still retained enough humidity to feel like a wet blanket bogging down even basic activity. When the race started, I immediately fell behind the expert men and the former pro woman to who made up the rest of the class. This was unsurprising, as I had only hoped to get a good time for myself and not actually beat the other woman. However, the “manageably hard” pace that I thought I was setting devolved into “barely able to keep pedaling and I might burst into flames if I wasn’t already soaked” as the four-mile opening gravel climb wore on. At that point, I only hoped for a downhill to generate some air to cool me off.

It was still a while before that wish was granted, as we kept climbing after entering the singletrack. Once we did finally get some downhills, I started to feel better and was ripping the oddly smooth descents on my Camber, which had been a bike choice that I started to regret during the opening climb. So it went for the first half of the race, miserable pedaling, but feeling pretty good on the downhills.

There was an hour and a half cutoff halfway through the race, and I was beginning to think that I wouldn’t make it. It turns out that it was really at about 10.5 miles and I had passed it with just a few minutes to spare without knowing. Unfortunately, I’d drained my single water bottle and still had good chunk of slightly muddy false flat singletrack followed by a long logging road climb before I could refill. With my legs already Jello, and my head and stomach pounding from the heat, the “Green Monster” as it was called, nearly brought me to tears. The base of such a climb when I was not feeling well would normally involve a swig of water, a gel, and some steeling of my resolve, but with an empty water bottle, even that ritual was for naught. The climb up to the water station involved a lot of walking and whining.

Once I was at the top and had refilled, refueled, and dumped some cold water on myself, I felt okay to finish the final nine miles of the course, which thankfully would be mostly downhill. I was disappointed to look down as I left the aid station to see that my time was already at my goal time of 2:30, and that I still had nine miles to go. I made it through a few more miles of false flat single and double track, and in the end I was rewarded with an exceptionally long stretch of smooth, straight, bench cut downhill to the finish.

I got in two minutes after the awards were supposed to have started, so I had no time to clean up before the podium that I was still on, despite being one of the last people left on the course. I was surprised to win $50, because the purse was listed as 100% payback, which for two women at $25 apiece, seemed like it should have been $50 total. It was cool winning that much money, but I also felt weird about it, because it’s situations like mine that give promoters ammunition against giving equal payouts to women.

So I guess the racing Bandaid has been ripped off, and it’s time to settle into a couple of months entry fees, weekend alarm clocks, and long car rides. I guess that also means skinsuits, Laser Cats, and post-race trips to craft breweries, so that part is cool. I’ll be back next with a report on how my first experience with “gravelduro” goes.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Uncomfortably Comfortable

In my last post, I referred to myself as a “curmudgeonly bike hermit”. It’s true; a year of training for grueling backcountry races close to home has set me into a comfortable, or at least comfortable with my level of discomfort, pattern: On Saturday morning I wake up around 9:00 following the 10-12 hours of sleep that I usually need after a week of work. After social media-ing on my phone for about half an hour, I roll into to the living room. Frank and I eat a sausage and sweet potato scramble, and I drink tea while we watch an episode of whatever TV show we’re streaming at the moment. When it’s over, I we begin the slow process of packing up our stuff and getting dressed, then head out to the starting point of our designated 3-5 hour ride for the day. We ride, then we come back, shower, and eat steak and potatoes while we watch the next episode of the show. We might watch one or two more after that, depending on how soon I start falling asleep on the couch. We go to bed,  get up Sunday morning, and basically do the same thing again, with perhaps a shorter ride depending on how much Saturday did us in.

And so it has gone for most of the summer. We did race a few times, take a couple of weekend trips, and go to Philly for Laser Cat business a time or two, but I when I look back on the past few months, I mostly think ride, sleep, eat, TV with that whole job thingy mixed somewhere in between. I’m happy with that arrangement; perhaps a little too happy. I’ve been working really hard on the bike (a level of discomfort with which I’ve become pretty comfortable), and letting myself be otherwise really lazy in return. Many weekends, the only human with whom I interact between Friday evening and Monday morning is my combo husband/best friend. Being the introvert (or curmudgeonly bike hermit) that I am, spending all my time with a single, high-quality human being definitely does not sound like a bad deal most of the time.

It’s very tempting to continue the pattern that, for most part, has been keeping me pretty satisfied the past few months, especially with the goal of completing the 2017 Transylvania Epic looming ahead of me. During the past few weeks we’ve been scouting the parts of the race that we’d never ridden before, which, for being my “home course”, was a lot of ground. I guess that laying out a course of 180 singletrack-heavy miles over five days of racing in Central PA requires straying from the usual MTB Project suggested routes. The last three weeks have involved a lot map referencing (the actual paper kind coz no cell service), bushwhacking, and hike-a-biking. The girl who used to hate racing at Muscatatuck back in Indiana because it was too “old school” and not flowy enough, has been willingly pushing her bike through random sandy moto tracks deep in Bald Eagle State Forest and coming out (mostly) with a smile on her face. We’ve finally covered all but two snippets of trail out of all five stages, but now I’m itching put that knowledge to use and start in with the practice, practice, practice that will required if I want to do well.

As much I feel the urge to keep doing what I’ve been doing, I know that it will soon be time to break the uncomfortably comfortable habits that I’ve established the last few months. As much as I like Frank, there are also other high-quality human beings in the bike community that I also like to see, and doing so requires straying beyond my secret hermit headquarters somewhere along Old Highway 322. I keep thinking of the part of The Happiness Advantage about activation energy, where the author gives the example of a person who has all sorts great plans to do things she enjoys all weekend and instead just ends up watching TV the whole. The person really does want to do all of the things she’d planned to do, but gets stuck cultivating the activation energy to actually do them. Somehow in the last year, five-hour bike rides stopped being a thing that scared me and in some weird way, became the lazy choice.

It’s hard pulling myself away from mountain biking and the work that I know I need to do to accomplish my 2017 goals, but it’s also not healthy to keep at it while sacrificing the rest of my bike and social life. So although I’m much less motivated for ‘cross than I have been in several years, I only have more free weekend left before I start racing again. I’m easing in with a “gravelduro” race on September 17, which should be more a fun ride than a race for me, but then it’s full speed ahead for ‘cross. I think the fact that I’m resisting the transition from uncomfortably comfortable to just plan uncomfortable may be a sign that it’s exactly what I need.