Friday, August 13, 2021

Downhill Southeast 2021: The Geriatric Millennial Rises Again


Despite my return to racing this season, I still haven't been great at returning to blogging. Of the four races I have completed in 2021, I've only written about one, and that was six weeks after the fact. The second was simply not worthy of a stand-alone post, and the last two were a mere week apart, during which Frank and I were living out of our van in Boone, NC. Just like that, the 2021 Downhill Southeast series was complete, and I was left pondering how I would sum it up. After some reflection, the answer I found was surprising.

After my second-place debut at Massanutten, I viewed the pre-reg list for Snowshoe with confidence. Two of the women registered for Snowshoe had failed to start at Massanutten, and the other had been a couple of minutes behind me in third. Plus, hard rain was forecast for the weekend, and I thought my previous muddy Snowshoe experience would work to my advantage. 

It didn't. What I'd forgotten about my past muddy enduros at Snowshoe was that they scared the crap out of me. I had still been able to soldier on, focusing on steady, non-aggressive riding that minimized mistakes, including walking to avoid crashing when necessary. That approach worked over five stages and ~45 minutes of riding. At the end of my single downhill run at Snowshoe, I found that the approach had landed me DFL instead. I was upset when I saw the results, but my new "chill" attitude towards racing allowed me to almost forget about that by the time we finished the ~15-minute lift back to the village.

It hurt a lot more a few weeks later when I found myself DFL out of 10 racers a few weeks later at Windrock. Not only was I last, but I was last by a lot. I'd had an issue when I rode high onto a banked turn to let a faster woman pass me, but I lost traction in the loose dirt and fell down the slope into her. We both lost time as we untangled our bikes, and it was probably more for me as I encouraged her to stop asking if I was okay and keep racing. Even with that premade excuse, I did BAD. I couldn't believe I'd placed that poorly out everyone, including several first-time racers. I'd actually been passed by the girl 30 seconds back only to watch her walk technical sections in front of me that I was able to ride, yet somehow she kept putting time on me everywhere except for the most butt-rubbingly steep parts of the course. Like, seriously, how did no one do worse than me?

I almost felt the urge to be disappointed in myself for not being more publicly distressed about my results. Like, if I wasn't an asshole about placing poorly, maybe I didn't care enough. It's true; I even shared toilet paper with my competition before the race. I've definitely gone soft. I suppose the sarcastically radical self-acceptance of the above Facebook post after the Windrock was just a minor pressure release for my true feelings. My 25-year-old self's worst nightmare would be seeing myself at 40, getting last place, and pretending that I was "just there to have fun" while also low-key using my age as an excuse for my performance. I also tried very hard to make sure everyone in my category knew I had broken my back last year to feel heroic instead of just dumpster.

I realized that since turning 40, I had begun using my age as an excuse the same way I used to blame my lack of natural talent when it came to race results. As I learned regarding natural talent, although I might not immediately be good at something skills-based, I could always get better than I was. Downhill is undoubtedly a young woman's game. However, I expect I still have a few years left before my myelination decreases and my fear of mortality increases to meet in my inevitable plateau. 

Going into the finale' at Sugar Mountain, it became clear that I had miscalculated my forks for the season. To protect myself from being too upset if I did badly during my first downhill season, I had put almost zero effort into getting better between races. I pretty much admitted that after the first race, but I took it too far, barely riding or improving my fitness at all over the summer. I think a tiny part of me wanted to find out if I might be decent without trying, but with every other physical endeavor of my life, that was not the case. While there was little I could do to improve my skills or fitness in less than a week, I made the commitment to myself that I would start caring again.

I still needed to pull it together for Sugar, though, as the one consolation prize I still had on the line for the season was the overall series title. I was set to be the only single crown woman who did all four races. However, my two last-place finishes had let a couple of women with fewer races get within striking distance for the final event. 

Sugar was the first course of the year that I actually enjoyed. Once I rode through slowly on my first lap to check out the track, I was confident and even found some flow in my practice laps. However, it rained during the night and throughout race day to take the course from dry and loose to slick. I struggled a bit in the wetter, more technical parts at the top but still felt good on the bottom half of my practice lap the morning of the race. 

I got a good starting place for the race. I was third to start out of the 12 women in my class. The first started with the single crown men so she could finish and get back up to race 2/3 open, as well. Then it was two minutes until the rest of us started, beginning with the woman who would eventually win by nearly a minute and a half. I definitely didn't have to worry about her slowing me down. The woman thirty seconds back from had beaten me at Windrock, but she hadn't looked particularly fast in practice. I made it my goal not to let her catch me before the finish. 

My run was clean save a little tripoding, which is expected in those conditions. I waited at the finish to see that I had not only made it without being caught, but I'd put extra time into the woman 30 seconds back. I ended up 8th out of 12, which is definitively not last, and only 42 seconds separated 2nd-8th, meaning it was the tightest racing our class had seen that season. I would have loved to have made it to the top half, but it was still a nice uptick in my results to end the season.

I quickly did the math, and I saw that I was tied for the series lead. The website didn't say how they would break the tie, but I figured it wouldn't fall in my favor. As they began giving away the awards, they announced other ties that they had resolved based on who did better in the final race. With the other woman's second and my eighth, I realized that I'd lost the series championship by a mere second in the last race. 

It was stupid to be disappointed in not winning a series where I hadn't really done well all season. However, as I had predicted at the beginning of the season, just getting myself to the finish line of four races this season was a massive challenge for me. Frankly, no other woman in my category had accomplished the same challenge. 

When I got home, I put my second-place series plaque next to the trophy I'd received for winning the MASS Enduro Series in a similar fashion in 2016. How ironic that I'd been borderline mad and embarrassed to win what was essentially a participation trophy in 2016 to being disappointed to getting an inferior participation trophy in 2021. That is such a millennial reaction for me. More specifically, it was such a geriatric millennial reaction of me.

The path I've traveled since I began dabbling in gravity racing five years ago hasn't been easy, but it's been the most satisfying I've had since I started riding bikes in 2003. I've learned that downhill is its own brand of Type II fun that is entirely different from enduro. I was afraid to fully invest myself this season, but now that I understand what I've gotten myself into, I actually want more. My sixth major reinvention as a cyclist may not seem like a rational choice, but let me enjoy my rose-golden years in peace.

My new downhill bike arrived just a few hours after we return from North Carolina, and I signed up for the Fit4Riding program the next day, so I'll be less tired and sloppy in my races next season. There's still plenty of time left for bike park days before winter, and I plan to, in the words of Josh Prater, maximize. 

It's still unclear which coast I'll be on next season, but Downhill Southeast or Northwest Cup, I'm looking forward to more downhill racing.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Trust Your Talent; Manage Your Forks

So sorry for everything 
You know I really wanted it to work out 
I put the blame on everybody 
Was incapable of not being stressed out 

I, I wanted to move on 
But I, I kept writing the same songs 

Now that everything's burned down 
I can put it all to bed 
If only I could make sense of it 
When it's swirling in my head 
I'm so sick of being proud 
And I've got nothing left to say 
Guess I'm really still the best at 
Getting in my own way

I started my first corporate job and completed my first downhill race the same week. The old me would not have let either of these events go nearly six weeks without blogging about them, but the last couple of years have changed me a lot. I sat down to blog about the race when the pictures came out, but I quickly decided that this Instagram post was a sufficient public race report.

I religiously posted reports of all my races from 2007 through my last race in 2018. Race reports were then replaced with reports on my bilateral mastectomy, breast reconstruction, and recovery in early 2019. I never planned to take two full seasons off from racing, but the universe, as well as Frank's and my bones, had other ideas. I also never expected that when we raced again, we'd bring along two dogs in our camper van, but such is life. The person I've become is the mom of a stinky 11.6-pound Ewok dog who I am always trying to kiss on the lips.

I've often bemoaned my lack of work/bike balance in the few posts that I've written since the end of 2018, but I think the change in jobs was necessary for me to actually start doing something about it. When I look back at the trajectory of my bike career and my work career during my seven years of employment at Penn State, a clear pattern emerges. 

I took the job at Penn State and moved to State College expecting that I would be there 1-2 years while Frank completed his Ph.D. and looked for a permanent teaching job elsewhere. It was awesome at first because it was a significant increase in pay over IU, a more relaxed work environment, a well-balanced team, and a gifted supervisor who I respected immensely. I flourished in my new role even though I theoretically didn't care about work that much since I saw the job as temporary. 

However, by the summer of 2016, Frank and I were still in State College with no real prospects of leaving. Despite "not caring" about my job, I had continued to take on additional responsibility and earn the praise of those above me on the org chart. I was rewarded with an unexpected job reclassification that came with a 10% raise. Looking back, that is when my "not caring" about work subtly pivoted to chasing my new high of professional achievement. 

The change wasn't that noticeable at first, and I still managed to complete the Wilderness 101 that summer using fitness that I can accumulate when I still had a healthy relationship with my job. 2017 saw my big dreams at work start to outpace the power of my role, which led to disappointment and conflict with my supervisor, while bike success came easily during my first season racing the West Virginia Enduro Series. In 2018, I spent my weekends checking parks off of my MTB Parks Pass and sometimes making time to race enduro in between. However, my weekdays were filled with increasing anxiety as I watched my supervisor play a key role in our organization's transformation, and I couldn't ever seem to do or say the right thing to get her to include me in her plans. The breaking point came when my mastectomy surgery and subsequent return to work coincided with her prolonged and painful transition to a central role outside of our department. Despite the positive changes that my next supervisor and I made in our department after she left, the next two years were filled with a long series of dead ends for my career at Penn State. 

Early in the pandemic, it became clear that remote work was here to stay, and I realized that I was no longer limited to the options available in whatever college town I happened to live in at the time. I'd always been a bit afraid of private-sector jobs because of the supposed longer work hours and lower benefits compared to university jobs. However, as I began looking into remote private-sector jobs, I found that those stereotypes were far from being true across the board. Plus, in my last couple of years at Penn State, I was putting in the corporate-level effort, so I figured it was time to try and get corporate-level pay. I eventually got serious about searching for the right remote job at a higher-ed related technology company, and an offer finally came through at the end of March. I'm nearing the end of my sixth week, and so far, I am thrilled with my decision.

An appropriate start to my second bike racing career.

It was a happy coincidence that the Downhill Southeast season opener at Massanutten took place at the end of my first week at my new job. The course was more challenging than expected, and I was more rusty and timid than expected. However, I gave myself a lot of grace since the last time I got on a chairlift, I left in an ambulance. I never had a clean run of the course in practice and felt very physically fatigued due to my lack of fitness. It took a certain amount of force of will just to get myself into the starting gate, and once I did, I walked an 18-inch drop and crashed three times during my race run. I still managed to get second place based on my ability to complete the race run with no significant injuries and a timing chip attached to my bike. I didn't get a podium picture because they did awards immediately after each category finish, and neither Frank nor I had our phones on us. None of that mattered, though, because I FINALLY RACED MY FORKIN' BIKE AFTER 2.5 YEARS OFF!!!

Speaking of forks, it was nice to finally give some about bikes again. What I've come to realize in the weeks since my rebirth as a #professionalslashbikeracer is the beautiful coincidence of embracing a new job and a new bike discipline at the same time. I've decided to make the Downhill Southeast series the primary focus for my racing this summer. This decision is not because I imagine myself to be a budding downhill star, but because a four-race downhill series requires the ideal number of bike-related forks to optimize my mental health right now. It requires me to show up and give just a little effort when I might otherwise spend all weekend on the couch playing Fishdom. I don't need to "train" or really do anything other than show up, do practice laps, then eventually do a race run. However, the satisfaction of completing these tasks will help me rebuild my motivation around my bike and my body so that I can slowly become less of a depressed workaholic. 

In turn, pulling my bike-related forks up from rock bottom has enlightened me on keeping my work-related forks in check. Part of the reason that I was excited about my new job was the novelty of finding a job posting for a Marketing Business Analyst when I was pretty sure that it was just a job I had made up for myself at Penn State. I was motivated by the fact that my new company was advertising for someone to fill a role that I'd cobbled together based on process gaps I'd observed in my previous job. They were motivated because I had direct experience doing the thing that they wanted someone to do. It was a rare and serendipitous match. However, as I began the job, I was a bit anxious and frustrated that I couldn't pick up exactly where I left off when the new job was similar to the old one. 

It was a similar job, but not the same job. I didn't have seven years of institutional knowledge, established relationships with my coworkers, or access to the information and systems I was used to. I eventually realized it was similar to transitioning from enduro to downhill racing after 2.5 years of no racing in between. 

For the first time in either my bike or work career, I showed up with confidence in my foundational abilities, even if I wasn't ready to perform at my top level yet. I learned from racing enduro that even if I sometimes got frustrated with the pace of my progression, practicing going downhill fast and the skills related to it will lead to improvement in a much more direct way than I ever saw in the fitness-centric disciplines I'd raced previously. From this experience, I know that I'll be better at downhill racing by the end of the season just from doing more bike park days and completing the races. I'll actually probably improve faster if I don't try too hard. I feel like my new job might be the same. Rather than working too hard to force an outcome that I think I want, I need to just do what I'm good at and see what happens. I'm at peace with the fact that I probably won't see a category upgrade or a promotion for a while, but I know that I have what it takes to achieve both eventually.

In my previous bike racing career, I struggled to balance my forks given with my talent, but I also discovered that I have more gravity racing talent than I initially thought. Working at Penn State revealed talent that I never knew I had and inspired me to work harder than ever before. Unfortunately, I fell into the trap of thinking that more forks would bring me more success, but it mostly just left me with no forks left for biking racing and little to show for it. It turns out that in both gravity racing and communication/soft skill heavy jobs, too many forks can lead to crashes. 

Now that I've been given a second chance at both, I'm embracing the mantra of "Trust your talent; manage your forks." I'm stuck with the amount of talent that I have in a given area of my life, and the number of forks I give can either enhance it or undermine it.  Hopefully, I'm getting to the point in my life where I have the wisdom to know the difference. I think it will help to remind myself to modulate my forks between work and bikes and remember to save some for Frank, pets, and occasionally cleaning the house. If I get too stressed, angry, or anxious, rather than trying to give fewer forks, I'll examine my life to see how I can redistribute them.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

'Tis the Damn Season

We could call it even

Rock a number plate for the weekend

'Tis the damn season, write this down

I spent a year inside my house

And any race finish looks real good now

Time flies, messy as ruts under mud tires

I'm maybe missing dirt miles, hear me out

We could just ride around

But any race finish looks real good now

Frank and I have joked many times over the past year that 2020 was 14 years long. I think that further proof of this is that Taylor Swift released about eight years' worth of albums in a year and a half. It's a lot to absorb, especially since I haven't had much commuting time to listen to music in the past year. I've recently begun to grow fond of her latest work, despite the lack of direct relatability of many of the songs to my life. For example, I've never taken personal responsibility for avenging a Haim sister's murder, while all the other sisters do is provide me with an alibi.  Twenty-something me also never had the foresight to retain a hometown booty call for the holidays (probably because she also didn't have the foresight not to get married at 24), but there is something about "Tis the Damn Season" that's so...aspirational?

Another sign of the past year's relative length is that I've done 23 years' worth of bike races in the past two and half years. By that, I mean I've done the same number of bike races that I did in my life up to my first triathlon in 2004. After that, I made it 15 consecutive summers, where I paid money to be timed while riding a bike in one capacity or another. Then it all unexpectedly fell apart. My bilateral mastectomy in 2019 was quickly followed by Frank's broken collarbone as soon as I was strong enough to think about racing again. 2020 brought a canceled first half of the season, followed by my fractured vertebrae and subsequent spinal fusion. It's been...a lot.

When the Downhill Southeast series schedule was announced a couple of months ago, I set the opening race at Massanutten on May 2 as the end of my 2.5-year racing hiatus. I admittedly spent a lot of 2017 and 2018 poo-pooing the idea of downhill racing. Why would I want to drive 2.5 hours and sleep somewhere besides my own bed just to race for about five minutes? That makes the Philly-centric cyclocross racing that burnt me out after two years in Pennsylvania seem positively convenient.

I recapped this all for Frank as I reconciled it with my excitement for the Massanutten race. "I used to think five minutes of racing wasn't worth all the bullshit around it," I said. "However," I concluded, "It's been so long that I miss the bullshit of racing."

It's true. I just want to go to new places and see people and attach some meaning to bikes again. I'm so out of shape that five minutes of "racing" is about all my body can handle right now, so I appreciate the convenience of being able to just jump in rather than waiting even longer to be in shape. I also never blogged about it, but we were driving to Missouri to buy our sweet VanDoIt van the day the world shut down in March 2020, so I actually like having excuses to sleep away from home these days.

This was en route to my breaking my back at Snowshoe in July, but you know, it's a nice picture.

This afternoon, I saw the number of spots available at Massanutten had dropped from 160 to 135 in a couple of days, so the race is likely to sell out. It felt a bit scary to put down an entry fee five weeks out, but ultimately, I knew it was what I needed to do—Tis' the damn season, after all.