Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Chal-lange! (Part II)

Where we last left our heroine, she had found some peace and calm atop Camden Snow Bowl before facing off against acrophobia, climacophobia, and gelotophobia. All seemed well. It was all downhill from here...

To quote Bill Cosby once more... "Riiiiiiiiiight..."

We're not just talking about a quick descent. We're not just talking about whizzing downhill to the bottom. Oh, no, that would be too easy. The downward spiral of rocks, hairpin turns, loose dirt and obstacles do not fit into the definition of "downhill." When I walked it on foot, I thought it was managable. I could understand the reputation of "white knuckle" given the pitch. What I didn't take into account was the momentum with which my body and bike wanted to go (which, on the road, I will happily yield to) was in direct competition with over-my-head technical trail-furniture. And, lest you think the downhill was, well, downhill, oh, no, somehow EFTA in its infinite sadism, found a way to incorporate what seemed like an equal number of ascents on the way 'back down" as there were on the way up.

I have to tell you, I was sure I was home free when I hit that clearing. I was putting those demons and ghosts away that came to taunt me on the climb. And now, they snuck around every corner I skidded through. I didn't see that pipe standing 3 feet upright, with its hooked end on the left side of the trail coming into a clearing. My left shoulder, however, introduced itself, and I went down once more. And the tears started again. I passed through a trail crossing, and did my best to see through the salt-bath washing my lenses to see which way to go. (A wrong turn would not only delay my finish of this lap by taking me off the race course, but it could either put me on a recreational trail leading who-knows-where or put me on a race course from the day before - a downhill race - which I was not equipped for by any sense of the imagination.) Someone must have had a disagreement with the tape and posts, as well, so I followed what I thought was the freshest trail.

I was wrong.

I kept following the trail, and realized I was going back up. Not on a fun little incline EFTA threw in for fun - I mean I was back on course up to the top. I hiked forward, hoping to find an intersection, but there wasn't one. So I turned around and rode back down. And I found the race course signs once more - only I know I hadn't passed them yet. I kept moving forward and ended up at the same intersection. I was half-expecting the Scarecrow to tell me to go "that-a-way," so I followed the path I hadn't taken.

Interestingly, my instincts the first time were better than the second time as I soon realized I was approaching a dastardly descent with the ominous orange signs from the downhill race that read, "Difficult Line" and "Easy Line" and a dirt ramp, which would have launched me into the air - and I'm not overstating this, folks, I mean I would have been airborne several feet. My brakes squealed under the pressure, I clipped out once more, and hiked upwards. I got back onto the trail to find my way back to that blasted intersection. There were only two more ways to go - back where I came from in the first place, or, lord help me, upwards once more? I cringed and went onto the 3rd option - veering upwards once more.

Familiar signs approached, and I relaxed a bit. And then I heard whirring from behind me. Other racers were approaching. "Thank goodness! Signs of life!" I thought to myself. As I heard their derailleurs click and chains shift, I knew that was my cue to pull off to the side to let them pass. Sure enough, it was some of the elite riders, most likely on their 3rd or final lap. This time, a couple of encouraging words, and back onto the trail.

I had a second wind. I trailed the dust clouds they left behind them. The ghost from before was a distant memory - I was literally back on track to finish my first lap and onto the second lap. Only my confidence was short-lived. I came around a turn and saw my tent and the parking lot in the distance - I knew I was near something good. I was approaching a series of switchback turns, when I thought I saw a flash of my estranged friend's car in the lot. I lost my concentration.

Fortunately, a most friendly tree decided to intervene and introduce itself. Unfortunately, trees aren't very subtle in their introductions when you're on a sharp downhill turn on sandy loam with a sharp cliff on its other side, and it slammed itself into the right side of my helmet, shoulder and right leg. The tree did point out, most politely, that had it not stepped in, I would have fallen into a most unfriendly rock garden. Somehow, my right side was not as grateful as the rest of me was.

Shaken, and stirred, I did a quick check to see if my bike survived and that all my body parts were still attached. Yep, they were. I continued onto the finish of lap one.

Or so I thought. I'm not entirely sure how I did it, I have to tell you, but I somehow missed the path down back to the finish line, which, for me, would have marked the end of lap 1, and the start of lap 2. Confused, I finally passed an official and asked where the short lap was. He said it was near "the woman." Oh, that helped. "Which one?" He answered, "The one in the middle of the intersection." Surprising enough, I knew who he was talking about. I asked how far I had to go. He raised an eyebrow in confusion and asked where I'd come from. I told him I was aiming for the finish point to end the long lap and start the short lap. He said he'd seen me before going around in circles and was surprised that I hadn't, officially, ended my long lap yet. I should have a while back, based on where I was on the course. Given where I was, he thought I was approaching her intentionally. I shook my head, and he said he'd take care of me at the finish, but to continue straight and I'd find my way.

I did, finally. Thank goodness. Only the lady wasn't there. The wildflower patch was, however, under the lifts (the patch with the wild irises I'd spied on my morning hike) so I know I was back on track, once more.

I heard more riders approaching and passing through the woods, some grimacing, some intent on the end game. At this point, it was a mix of straggling novices, like me, and elites finishing their fourth laps. Not many smiles on these faces, save one woman I'd recognized from Harding Hill. She had a unique kit - with plaid sections on the chamois. She was petite, toned, agile and swift, and clearly in the elite class - everything that I'm not. She danced on the pedals and seemed to float over the roots that tripped the hulk that was me on my bike. She smiled, shouted, "Good job!" I shouted back, "You, too!" And I was in awe, and green with envy, of her. I guess I'm a little old to say, "When I grow up, I want to be like her on the bike!" But, I do.

And, clearly, I wasn't. Because moments later, when I dragged myself up the slope she flew up, I clipped out and continued my hike. And then I made the mistake of looking at my cyclometer. The awards were being handed out at 2pm. My goal was to finish by 1pm - 3 hours after the start. It was getting close to 1:15pm, and I knew I still had a long way to go. Not only that, but I watched my cyclometer to see how fast I was going when I got off the bike and hiked. The digits kept reading "0.0"  I wasn't even hiking fast enough for my computer to pick anything up.

My heart sank. But what could I do? I kept going. There was only one way to go. If I turned back, not only would I be quitting, but I was sure to get stuck on that turnstile of doom and keep going around in circles over and over.

I'd love to tell you more, but I'll be honest: the remainder of the leg was mostly made up of more tears, more stumbles, getting out of people's way and thinking I was near the finish, with teasing glimpses of the parking lot and other signs of life washed away by re-entry into the woods. Not only that, but I really don't remember much more, beyond crying, biting my lip until it almost bled, pushing forward either on foot or in the saddle and hopes dashing at each clearing when I realized I wasn't nearly as close to the finish as I thought I was.

Ultimately, after one final stupid crash and bouncing off of a root I'd misjudged, I came down around the last turn past my tent and the parking lot and ended up on flat ground. Only this ground wasn't about to be swept back upward into the gnarly woods. It was grass. Mowed grass. And in the near distance, I started hearing hoots and hollers. I looked up, and there it was - the finish chute. And fellow riders, who at this point, were cleaned up, changed, hanging out and likely on their second beer, started to turn and cheer for the soul they were sure had been lost on the mountain, to be adopted by the moose and wolves. No, I wasn't living on berries and grub, I was on two wheels. And so grateful to be done, I pulled up to the chalet and got off the bike. When one of the other racers stopped clapping to shout, "You still have to ride up to there!" I dismounted before I crossed the finish line. I got back into the saddle, clipped back in, an rode the final 10 yards.

I was done. I was the last to finish - the laterne rouge. I had to be at least 1/2 hour behind the second to last rider.

And yet... I still managed a 3rd place finish in the NECS #6 Maine Sport Run-Off in my class, I was the 4th woman to finish, earning yet another prize, and now, I am in 4th place in the overall standings in my class, ahead of the man in fifth place by 166 points.
Ultimately, I found my happy place. In a home-made, wild Maine blueberry ice cream cone. You see the remnants, here, of a 3-scoop high mountain of blueberry goodness. Welcome back to age 8. Not a drip touched the ground, not a crumb was not consumed. It fought a good fight, but I was victorious.

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