Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Slow & steady may not always win the race, but it might get you second...

After days like Sunday, it's hard to call yourself a mountain-bike racer. I mean, I register, I get a bib number, I ride in and usually cross the finish line. But when you're almost over 2 hours behind your only other competitor in your class, and you take twice as long to finish 2 laps that it takes Experts and Elites to finish 4 laps, you have to laugh at yourself. Which is exactly what I did last night when I saw the results.

Yes, I got 2nd place in my class - again, not hard to do with one other competitor in your field. Yes, I finished, but I think I was only able to ride 1 mile out of 4 miles per lap. I didn't even finish the bloody muddy race on 2 wheels - I stupidly dropped into my granny gear and had no juice left to roll up the remaining strip. Though, I did pick up the bike and run the last few feet to my friend, Sean, who must have been ready to punch somebody because he finished hours earlier and I was his ride home.

I hadn't really slept at all Saturday night. I had to get up by 3:30 and leave my house by 4:00 to meet Sean at 4:30 am. Since we're both relatively close to each other, and he's the closest thing I have to an MTB coach (not to mention the fact that we go to the same races), we typically car pool up to save gas. Besides, it's nice to have company on the long rides. Frankly, I also get very intimidated by most of the other riders simply because they are so much better than I am, that I tend to get very shy and nervous. It's taken a year for me to even say anything to some of them. Bear in mind, that is not a reflection on these people - it's purely my own lack of confidence and tendency to slip into my grade school & camp confidence issues - since I was never the "cool" kid, the "cool kids" scared me, regardless of how much I wanted to be a part of them. But, since I was first introduced to Sean by a friend at a dinner and in "civvies," he was no more intimidating to me as anyone else. It was more like I'd learned my buddy also raced. So starting a race day chatting with him makes me a little less freaked out about what I'm about to do.

I got to bed at 2:00 am. My phone alarm went off at 3:10 and I hit snooze, knowing the alarm would go off again at 3:30. When I wake up next, I stretch, calmly, knowing I had everything laid out, packed up and all I had to do was to bring my MTB "bin" (I realized a waterproof open container works better when potentially wet/muddy stuff will be stashed away at the end of a race than a backpack or duffel) and my bike down to the car. I look at the clock and do a double take. It reads 4:30. I'd asked Sean to call me if he wakes up first, and he hadn't called. I'd told him I'd call him if he didn't call me first, which I did, right after stripping out of my sleepwear and hopping around the house naked trying to pull on my chamois as my heart was racing in an utter panic. And thank goodness I called him, because he'd overslept, too. And, where I was a babbling idiot functioning on nothing but adrenaline, he still sounded half asleep. Finally, we figured out that we'd meet at the same place and I actually was able to cover up all body parts with clothing and I bolted out the door with my bin and bike and made off like a bat out of hell to meet him at the commuter lot.

Of course, no Dunkin Donuts or any other self-respecting caffeine-dispensary was open at 5:00 am on a Sunday, so bleary-eyed we made it up north and decided to stop in Hamden at the Dunkin Donuts there, hoping to find it to be a 24-hour shop. It wasn't, but it was open, so I asked Sean to hand me my purse, which is always in the passenger seat. He tells me he doesn't see it. Since we're now almost an hour from my house, I start to panic that I left my purse at home. Which, as the second wave of adrenaline hits, I realize I know where my purse is - in my red shopping bag I used the night before and I know where that is. On the counter in my kitchen. Fortunately, I found some cash in my backpack, enough for coffee, a bagel (forgive me, Dr. D'Adamo, but it's for the race!) and some gas. Now, with fuel, we head up to New Hampshire for a bit of deja vu - we were up there just a week ago, equally late (though I had my purse, then) for Pinnacle. I wasn't racing it - hence no race report - but here's a photo of the Pinnacle Plummet:

On the drive up, it looked like it would be a nice, sunny day as there is usually some mist that dissipates as the sun rises. But, as we pass Brattleboro, VT, we notice that the mist has now developed into fog. And I don't just mean fog, I mean fog. The visibility was reminiscent of a terrible blizzard with zero visibility. I almost didn't see a red pick-up truck with tail lights on! I think we both hoped this would clear by the time we arrived, and it certainly did. It was a little grey in the sky, but it certainly didn't seem like it would rain. That's because the rain was over - it had rained all week.

This meant nothing to me, though, because all I heard was dry weather for today. However, to the far more seasoned Sean, this meant, "fun," which can either be shared enthusiastically or indicate conditions that, as he'd put it, will make me want to "curse his name." Sketchy trail conditions. I knew that Moody Park had the potential for mud, which is fine - I don't mind getting dirty and walking through a mud puddle. (I'm not skilled enough to ride through mud yet.) We head up to the registration table, and I'm even happier to learn that the only other Clydesdale is Glenn Raiche of Clark Brothers Racing - which means all I have to do is finish the race and I've secured a 2nd place position! SWEET!!

Fortunately, I'm honest enough and know enough of the EFTA folks that, despite the purse SNAFU, they allow me to pay via credit card number sketched out on a form or a check sent at a later date. So we register, kit up and get ready to race (we made it just in the nick of time.) In my usual form, I line up with Glenn after some light-hearted banter, the whistle blows, and I'm smoked before we even get out of the start area. But, even more so than usual, I'm really not concerned with keeping up. I mean, I wasn't giving up the race, but since I was still nursing which can now be described as a "crunchy" knee as on a humid day, it sounds like Rice Krispies - Snap! Crackle! POP! - I wasn't going to push myself too hard on this course.

Soon, I learned what Sean was calling "fun." I was riding along at a comfortable pace - I'm not a speedster and I kind of have to warm myself up into the idea of riding over things, combating my roadie-"Don't Run Over That Thing!!!!"-tendencies. But, all too quickly, a sharp turn in mud to avoid a tree had me thinking non-stop about not hitting the tree, which meant, you guessed it, I hit the tree head on. Not to worry - no injuries, except my pride - in fact, I started cracking up. But it was an indication of a technical issue I was going to have to face - this mud sucked. I mean, it literally sucked. It was sucking in my wheels, it was sucking in my feet when I had to put a foot down, and it was sucking in the few attempts at bridges the promoters had laid. Hence, this race was going to suck. And I was maybe, maybe a mile in.

Moody Park is home of the infamous "Gravity Cavity" - a white knuckle plummet with a bridge on the bottom and grueling uphill resolution. I'd heard about it, but had never seen it before. So I came upon a plummet and an uphill and thought to myself that I could walk it the first time and then if I felt comfortable and more eased into the race, ride it on my second lap. So I walked and kept going. I hit a stretch of pretty solid ground, and I was able to ride freely. I was feeling pretty good and then I see a sand pit. I tried to make it up the sand, but I soon found myself spinning in place, so I clipped out and walked up the rest of the slope and got back into my grind. Now, the terrain was far more familiar and similar to trails around here. I turn another corner, and I see a bunch of far more adept riders trudging around in the trail up ahead. I assume there must have been a gnarly crash, because I've never seen these guys out of the saddle except in the parking lot. Soon enough, however, I see what's going on. Mud pits. Murky, slippery, slimy, sucky mud pits. Uphill, on the flat, twisty, mucky mud pits. At this point, my bike has absolutely no traction whatsoever. I don't have mud tires, as some of the other riders have, and even they are walking. Oy vey. So, I join the parade of sloppy bike carriers in and around the trees. It felt like forever until there were ride-able spots, but even then, I kept fishtailing any time I tried to go anywhere but straight. On uphill slopes, I just spun in place. So, I was doomed to even more walking, which packed even more mud and crud into my SPD cleats. When it finally came time to clip in and ride, my right foot clicked into place after a couple of rotations, but my left didn't. So I was riding almost exclusively on my right foot, as the left kept slipping off the pedals.

Bear in mind, I also decided that I didn't want to hold any other riders up that had more than 1 person in their field, so I was frequently pulling off to the side as I was passed by other riders. I didn't want my fat and sorry ass to cost someone their race. Eventually, I'm able to bang out enough mud from my shoes and bike and I'm riding again as I come upon a woman and a girl and an ATV. I peer around to the left and all of a sudden, I don't see a trail anymore. I slam on my brakes and look down. Holy *%$^@^&*! So that's the Gravity Cavity.

I'm going to include a video. I can tell you, without exaggeration, this video makes it look flat. It's about 22% grade. We're not messing around, folks.

Needless to say, I'm walking this sucker. As I'm walking, people are passing. At 40+ mph. And then, I had to climb up "Heckler's Hill," though, fortunately, there were no hecklers teasing me for walking. It was dicey to walk up, especially when riders were coming, but I managed to stay out of their way. And I'm huffing and puffing walking up the first time, and feeling increasingly wimpy for not riding it as these guys just fly down and up the other side with ease. I think, more than any other race, I am starting to feel absolutely out of my league and like I have no business here.

Finally, I make it to the top, and I'm able to ride a ways. I make it to the road that leads to the start/finish point, and I'm so glad it's over. That is, until the volunteer in the lawn chair shouts out, "No way, girl, you gotta come around the cones." I look, and I'm thinking this is stupid. I have to ride on the dirt to get to the top of the hill instead of the pavement? Fine. I cross the street and stay on the left of the cones. And then I see the markers. We're now being sent into the woods on the other side of the street. Ugh. Not only that, but as soon as I turned, it makes the mudpits on the opposite side of the street look like a walk in the park. I'm sinking up to my knees, I can see the hub of my wheels barely above the surface of murky, black water and I can hear the suction as my shoes get pulled on. When I do hit bottom, half the time my feet are slipping out from under me, and I can feel my ankles bending unnaturally. And, all this, while trudging level or uphill, trying to avoid being in the way of other racers who are struggling through the mire, and trying to figure out safe places to walk to. This went on for what felt like an eternity. I knew I had to be within a mile of the finish - if not closer, and yet, my feet feel like they're wearing lead boots as the mud cakes on and soaks into every crevice of my shoe. (I'm so glad I wore wool socks to keep my feet warm and dry. *sigh* ) Finally, a clearing and dirt road again. I try to clip in, but struggle - not only are my pedals and cleats packed with mud, but my cranks don't seem to want to move. I give up, and decide to hike some more, hoping as the mud dries, it will shake off. But it's not coming off. It's just accumulating a new layer of dirt and my feet are just getting heavier. But I still have my second lap to do. Yes, I know most of the people I started the race with have already finished, and I'm being lapped by the Elite & Expert riders that started 2 hours after I did, but I still have another lap. And, as I promised myself, I am not quitting a race that I started this year. The only way I'm coming in as DNF (Did Not Finish) is if I'm coming back in a body bag.

I see Sean and another racer, Brian Spring, standing at the finish. I'm not sure if they are cheering me on or just waiting to see how bloody long it was going to take for me to finish. Sean tries to redirect me to the finish line when I shout out, "I have one more lap!" I rode past him too quickly to see if his expression was of impression, disgust, ridicule or... well, I don't know what. He disclosed on the drive home that he couldn't believe I went back for my second lap.

Frankly, I hardly believed I was going back in, but off I went. But the way I figure it is that I've now gotten to know this course quite intimately. I knew what the biggest hurdles were, I knew what was ride-able and what wasn't, so this should go faster.

And it did. I even went for going down that first mini-Gravity Cavity. I'd noticed barbed wire on the far left of some of the trail, and I thought I'd heard one of the Elite riders coming behind me (turns out it was an acoustical trick and he wasn't behind me, but farther back), so as I began the descent, just passing the last tree on the right, I got chucked out of the saddle. Over the handlebars I went, and I curled up like an armadillidiiae and rolled down the hill. After I did a quick body inventory - making sure all parts were still attached, undamaged, etc. - I hiked back up to my bike, which seemed suspended. I pull on the bike, thinking it got tangled in a vine or green twig. Well, tangled? Yes. Natural hazard? No. 3-6 feet of rusty barbed wire is more like it, entwined with my chain around my cassette and in the spokes of my wheel. A stray piece must have been just under the surface of leaves and loose dirt and, of all the riders, I found it. Thanks to my long-fingered gloves, I was able to untangle my bike unscathed and checked. The bike still worked. On I went.

Without repeating everything I said above, let me sum up:

  • Was able to cut time by hiking around muddy section instead of through, thereby not getting in other racers' ways who were trying to ride through it, though it meant some trickier hiking off the trail.
  • I rode over a total of 6 logs during both laps, which had me ecstatic as I usually come to a screeching halt as logs scare the hell out of me.
  • I dropped my chain more times than I can recall - at least 7 times over the course of both laps
  • I almost finished the race with one shoe as my shoes had been sucked off my feet in the mud pits in the final stretches at least 6 times.
  • A fellow rider had to help me yank my foot out of one mud pit, and I reciprocated a few yards up when she got her leg stuck.
  • I came around the final turn of the finish line and stupidly dropped into my granny gear, which left me nothing to spin with, and I ended up clipping out, walking, and then sprinting across the finish line to look Sean in the face and say, "That SUCKED!"
  • I was greeted at the finish line with a 2nd place medal and having several EFTA members shouting, "190 points! 190 points!" (the number of championship qualifying points I'd earned by finishing).
My competitor, Glenn, finished in under 2 hours. I finished in 4:41. I weighed one shoe when I got home, after some of the mud dried and flaked off. It weighed in at just over 10 pounds. That means, I rode the 2nd half of the first lap and the entire second lap with an added 15-20 pounds of mud in my shoes, alone, let alone the added weight on the bike.

I'm hardly a weight weenie, as some other EFTA racers I've known in my time. But I can tell you this much - 10+ pounds per foot is gonna slow you down.

Judge for yourself and tell me if you agree:
After I'd had a chance to shake off some mud. That's a sock off to the right. Those shoes are light tan.
My tires were slick, thanks to the impacted mud. Can you even FIND the drive train?

St. Sean and his muddy statue... wait. That's a bike. I think.

Assessing all the parts we'll have to replace on our bikes. He has a lot more to do than I do - he rode 3 laps. And rode much more than I did.
After taking an inventory of what had to get done on my bike, and the damage done to my body: all new cables, new brake pads, new chain, strained ankles (which started acting up the morning after, likely due to the slipping), scratches and scrapes from the barbed wire and thorn bushes that were hidden beneath the mud, crunchier knees than usual, a big old butt bruise, and seriously battered pride, I almost called Sean to tell  him this was a ridiculously futile attempt at a sport. That, clearly, I had no business on the same trails as these people and I just sucked. In fact, I did call him Sunday night when the results were posted on EFTA's website and laughed like I'd lost my mind at what a loser I was. I mean - it really is laughable.

And then, moments ago, someone posted this on Facebook:

And I realize now I can't quit mountain biking. Because that image is my approach.

And it's the LIVESTRONG approach.

I can't forget, I ride for LIVESTRONG.

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