Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Enduro FOMO

This weekend was the third round of the West Virginia Enduro Series, but Frank and I decided to skip it. Although we’d heard it was a fun race that we had missed last year due to the TSE, in the end we decided it wasn’t worth the logistical challenges. The race was five hours away, and there was an XC race on Saturday, which meant we wouldn’t be able to begin our pre-ride until 3:00 p.m. It was unlikely there would be shuttles for practice, and starting a 17.5 mile pre-ride at 3:00 seemed like a good way to end up exhausted and stressed out for race day. I briefly considered the option of entering the XC race just so that we could pre-ride the course earlier, but I quickly came to the conclusion that this race might just be draining more forks than I was willing to give this early in the season. Instead, we went to Snowshoe for two days, and it was super fun.

What I learned from my early enduro experiments in 2015 was that if I was going to do a race, I had to be fully committed, pre-ride, hotel bed, and all. “It seems like a lot of effort,” a friend said to me when we were catching up at the Ray’s Women’s Weekend last winter, when I told her that’d I’d been way too tired to race ‘cross after my last enduro season. Of course, the other contributing factor was that ‘cross wasn’t really as fun anymore after I moved to PA, because all of the races were so far away that I couldn’t race as much as I wanted to without it becoming a burden. At least enduro feels worth giving up an entire weekend and sleeping in a strange bed to race, and I don’t need to race nearly as often to keep my edge the way I do in ‘cross. From a purely stimulus/recovery standpoint, I would ideally do one enduro race every 3-4 weeks, but with so many races available that I have yet to try, as well as the ones I want to try again, I sometimes have to make hard choices.

FOMO is a constant force in my life since I dropped in to this gravity-oriented journey. Knowing how mentally and physically tired I am after a race weekend, I made a rule that I was not allowed to race two weekends in a row this season. Once I put all of the WVES and my two “big goal” races on the calendar, that pretty much precluded most non-State College MASS races, or ESC races. On weekends I’m not racing, I have to choose which of the many dimensions of enduro training I should work on. Do I stay home, work on my endurance, and catch up on my sleep? Do I get up early for a day trip to a bike park to work on skills that I can’t work on in Rothrock? It seems that the weekends go by so quickly, and I often change my mind as to what’s most important to me on a given week. When Frank asked if I wanted to go to Blue Mountain or Mountain Creek this weekend, I replied, “Let’s decide after Snowshoe. It depends on whether I’m feeling jumpy or droppy.”

Not that I feel like this rapid adaptation is a bad thing. Sure, I missed out on what might have been my one opportunity to not get last place this season by skipping the Black Bear Enduro, but I gained valuable experience at Snowshoe, as well. Having only ridden at Snowshoe in the context of a cold, rainy race weekend, I’d been wanting to see what else the park had to offer. Even after two days, we still didn’t get to see everything due to weather delays and trail closures, so hopefully we can find time to make it back again this season. We’re scheduled to race there twice this season, thanks to my FOMO from missing nationals last year, so I’ll definitely be seeing more of it one way or another.

At the moment, I think I’m feeling droppy, so this weekend will likely end up being a big climbing ride on Saturday and a trip to Blue Mountain on Sunday. Then it’s on to the Rothrock TrailMix, now featuring 87% more enduro than last year’s initial attempt at adding an enduro category to the event. It’s currently slated to be Wildcat and Old Laurel’s last appearance in a competitive event, so while I’m not as ready for my one official shot at them as I would like, I want to do my best to given them the sendoff they deserve. So much for “destiny is all”, but that’s freeing in a way. If I keep following my heart from weekend to weekend, my real destiny will reveal itself eventually. This sport will always be full of missed opportunities, but it also has so many chances to be in the right place at the right time, and we never really know which it is until we choose a line and let go of the brakes.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Valley Falls Enduro: The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations

Now here you go again, you say
You want to upgrade
Well who am I to keep you down?
It's only right that you should
Play the way you feel it
But listen carefully to the sound
Of your loneliness
Like a heartbeat drives you mad
In the stillness of remembering what you had
And what you lost, and what you had, and what you lost

Mud tires only roll fast when it's raining
Strava only loves you when you’re training
Say races they will come and they will go
When you see the results screen, you'll know, you'll know

This is my life now.
At the very least, you can say that I learned from my mistakes between the first and second races of the West Virginia Enduro Series this season. Due to my rushed and ineffective pre-ride at Timberline, I decided that it would be worthwhile to make an extra trip down to Valley Falls for a shuttled bonus pre-ride the week before the race. Despite the fact that it was pouring rain the entire ride, going out a week early was totally worthwhile. It allowed me to get the tentative inspection of the stages out of the way and gave me a good reminder of what sections to focus on doing faster in the day before the race practice.

I was a little disappointed when I learned that the drop-filled Valley Falls would be the second race of the series, taking place in May before most bike parks opened. The race was held in June last year, and I vowed to come back much better at drops the next time around. I did get better at drops late last year after the races were over and I got to put in more bike park time. So much so that I convinced myself that I needed to close out the year by landing the largest of the progressive drops at Blue Mountain on my last run of closing day. I mostly landed it on my left elbow, and I haven’t had the opportunity to start building back my confidence since then.

Although I can pretty confidently negotiate my bike in seemingly near-vertical positions as long as both tires are touching a solid surface, the thought of the millisecond free fall off of anything larger than two feet fills my stomach with butterflies. It’s the “whomp” that terrifies me. Despite knowing exactly how I need to push off the lip and how much 160mm of travel will soak up even if the landing angle is slightly imperfect, when approaching a ledge that is too high or steep to be rolled, my brain becomes filled with images of the suspension compressing unevenly and shooting me off into space or of landing too fast and smashing into the nearest tree. I know these are actually pretty irrational fears, but it took a lot of building up to bigger and bigger “whomps” last year and then improving my landing control to start overriding the “Friday Fails” reels playing in my brain. Unfortunately, there aren’t any ledges in Rothrock with the right combination of height, entry speed, and safe landing space for me to get past that first “whomp” of the year.

With these limitations in mind, I set out on my one-week-out pre-ride to figure out which of the features that I couldn’t do at last year’s race might be within my range this year. For better or worse, two of the things on my “to do” list had actually been made easier this year and thus weren’t a problem at all. Another was a rollable drop that seemed positively easy after conquering many ledges at Windrock and the awkward drop into a tight corner thing on Bald Knob Death Drop. There were several larger rock drops with ride arounds that automatically fell into the “meh, maybe next year” category, but there was one section of the course that would remain on my mind for the rest of the week. Stage 6 contained two back-to-back log drops with no ride arounds that were in the range of what I could successfully do at the end of last year. The question was could I force my Friday Fail brain to remember this without putting it through a baby drop remedial course?

The short answer is no. Having done all of the stages a week earlier allowed me to skip the less technical, more pedally ones the day before and spend my time and energy dialing in my speed on the more technical stuff. This also meant that I did two runs of Stage 6, hoping each time to hit the drops only to be scared off by onlookers each time I tried. I still had vague thoughts of hitting them in my race run if I could successfully negotiate the steep chute leading into them. The chute was not very hard in the perfect conditions the day before the race, but I suspected that I might be doing a controlled butt slide on race day if it rained all night as predicted. When I reached Stage 6 on race day, the chute was halfway dry and I made it halfway down before my uncontrolled hip slide to the bottom. At that point I just got up and ran the over the drops. Meh, maybe next year.

Yes, I just spent four paragraphs talking about what essentially amounted to 30 seconds of my race day, and I find this to be just as much of a problem as you probably do by now. Shortly after I gave up on hitting the drops during practice, the phrase “the rhetoric of heroic expectations” came into my mind (which is better than Friday Fails at least). It was the title of a book that Frank was reading around the time he finished his dissertation. Although it was a collection of essays about the beginning the Obama presidency, I felt like it could also be a collection of essays on the beginning of my enduro career (#thanksenduro).

Despite continued affirmation that drops are at best a 5% contribution to enduro success, I obsess over them because I feel like my inability to do them means that there is something wrong with me. This pressure is even stronger now that I am in the “Pro/Expert” class and it feels like I’m failing some sort of basic competency exam to be there. Even though moving up was theoretically the right thing to do after winning the series in Sport last year, I am still so far from the level of the other expert women that it’s embarrassing. It was fun winning races last year, but now I find myself wishing that I’d had a stronger talent pool to kick my butt rather than me easily winning and having to move up before I was really ready. What scares me even more it that now each race I worry that more talented Sport women will show up and further highlight how underprepared I am.

The thing is that I am the only one actually holding up these heroic expectations. As much as I imagine other people reading the Pro/Expert women’s results and saying, “Wow, that Lindsay Hall-Stec sure does suck. I don’t know why she is sullying the good name of West Virginia women’s Pro/Expert enduro racing by entering these races, but she needs to just go hide out in Central Pennsylvania and do some sort of Rocky-style training montage until she’s fit to race in public again,” I realize that is 100% not actually happening in real life. At worst, someone might say, “She needs to quit thinking so much and ride faster,” which is an actually something that someone said to me in reference to someone else that I took very much to heart.

As brutal as it is to be showing up on race results far, far into last place right now, I know that continuing to get race experience is an important part of my journey to someday not being in last place. I have to remember that, except for drops, I am still a much better rider than I was last season, and that things that I actually can improve on a daily basis (aggression, flow, and fitness) are the ones that will make a lot more impact on my results than gaining a few seconds by hitting a drop.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Timberline Enduro: Extreme Meditation

A couple of weeks ago, I visited my friend and former teammate. Two years ago she suffered a really bad concussion that took several months from which to recover and eventually led to her taking an indefinite break from bike racing. She used this as an opportunity to try new things, including jiu-jitsu, but as we were catching up the other day she told me how she had gotten another concussion from a jiu-jitsu accident a few weeks prior. She said that was taking a break from activities where she could get hurt and that, “Now I’m just into extreme yoga and extreme mediation.” It is true that, like myself, when she goes in on something she goes in hard, so “extreme meditation” became the running joke of the evening.

Incidentally, I began a fairly consistent meditation practice of my own right at the beginning of the year, but in my case, it has been far from extreme, and that is a good thing. I use the Headspace app  for 10-20 minutes a day, most days, although my best unbroken streak has only 20 days or so. I took this on as another attempt to self-treat my anxiety and depression, because I’ve had very little luck finding a good therapist in State College and I’m pretty resistant to taking prescription drugs. The thing is that I went into the meditation practice with no expectation of immediate results, because that’s not really how it’s supposed to work. Like training for a sport, training the brain requires consistent effort over a long period of time, so I finally committed to really giving that a shot. There isn’t much downside to it, except for paying $13 a month for the app and committing a small amount of uninterrupted time to it each day. The question is if I’ve seen enough improvement after four months for it seem worthwhile. For outside observers who read past this point, it will probably seem like I haven’t improved at all. I may not be able to prevent all anxiety attacks, nor quickly pull myself out of tailspin on command, but yes, I definitely feel that I have a little more “head space” than I did a few months ago.

First practice run of the season.
Photo: Sue Haywood
Going into the first race of the season, I thought I was in a pretty good place mentally. I was racking up PRs in training and was at least on track to regain the fitness that I had lost over the winter. I knew I wasn’t where I wanted to be, but I hoped that I might pleasantly surprise myself by finishing closer to the rest of the pro/expert field than I expected. I was okay with last place; it was just a question of by how much. Then on Thursday evening before the race, my old demons started creeping back. The first to appear was a picture of a feature on the course that I probably would be too scared to ride in competition, which reintroduced all my guilt and embarrassment about not being better at drops by now. Later that evening, Frank casually mentioned another of my demons just as we were turning the lights off to sleep, so you can probably imagine how much sleep I got that night. It all spun up from excitement about the race to dread very quickly.

My outlook had quickly gone from “I’m not as good as I want to be yet, but I’ll get there eventually” to “this race is going to prove to everyone how bad I suck, and how I will always suck no matter what I do and why do I always have to be so terrible at everything I want to be good at when it’s so easy for everyone but me”. These recurring thought patterns should come as no surprise to anyone who’s been reading for a while, and I guess that my winning the sport category last year only goes to prove that imposter syndrome is not limited to academia.
So this where my meditation practice comes in. As I said before, I was not able to fully pull myself out of the tailspin once I was in it, but at least I was able to formulate enough moments of objectivity where I could recognize all of the unhelpful crap that my brain was doing for what it was, even if I couldn’t really shut it down. I was simultaneously trying to shame myself into being better and trying to protect myself from disappointment in my performance, but I know from experience that neither of these strategies actually work. This is especially true in enduro, where “trying really hard”  can actually backfire pretty quickly.

This was when I realized how much enduro was like meditation due to the careful balance between discipline and effortlessness. I don’t try to be “good” at meditation because that’s not how it works. I simply show up, often when I don’t necessarily feel like it, and I do my best to stay aware and watch what happens. I have the vague long-term goal of reduced anxiety, but I don’t know what exactly that will look like or when I will have achieved it. I just know that it will be better than it is now, so I keep showing up. I could probably benefit from treating my enduro practice and racing the same way. Rather than thinking about where I want to be and when and how I can get there, I would be better served just showing up and doing my best to fully engage with the sensations in my brain and body. It’s almost as if enduro could be called extreme meditation or something.

And thus my mantra for the opening weekend of the West Virginia Enduro Series was born. Despite the fact that I came into the weekend stressed and exhausted and continued to be thrown off by every little thing that didn’t go according to plan, throughout the weekend I would repeat to myself the phrase “extreme meditation”. I had forgotten how exhausting practice days are and how defensive I get when riding unfamiliar trails in mud, and all the demons that were let loose on Thursday refused to get back in their box, so I ended up repeating the phrase a lot. I’d love to say that it held some sort of magical power that turned things around and that I ended up having a good race, but that didn’t happen. I did finish last as expected, but it was the margin between me and the next woman that was embarrassing.

I will, however, keep reminding myself that this is just extreme meditation until the message finally kicks in. This means going into every ride and race with the intention of riding as well as I can in the circumstances presented without thinking about any past or future results. I’m not pretending that this will be an easy thing to do, because neither is regular meditation, but the point is to set your intention and keep coming back.