Monday, July 11, 2011

When getting first place doesn't feel like such a win (Chal-lange 2011)

Last year, I documented my experience on the Maine Sport Run-Off EFTA race and, by the end, I was tremendously proud of my efforts. This year, I wish I could feel as positively as I should. But instead, I'm facing a new challenge - disappointment - which is strange, considering that I came in first place in my class. Of course, I was in a class by myself, as the only other Clydesdale lost enough that he had to leave the class and moved into Masters. So, while I took first place, I also took last place. And was, officially, the Lanterne Rouge of the day.

The weekend started off with a bit of a hitch - with the cost of sleep away camp looming, I've been very budget conscious, so I've been scrimping and saving - so when I agreed to take the kids up for the weekend for the race, I was on a tight budget. We brought the tent, sleeping bags, a small cooler and a wad of cash. We were going to head to Camden Hills State Park to camp as a "walk-in." However, we got on the road a little late, and the flash thunderstorm and bad road conditions in Connecticut turned our 6 hour drive into a 7+ hour drive before we even reached Portland, ME. We were exhausted, hours behind when I assessed that we would not be able to camp out in Camden after all. We were well over an hour past the cut-off for entry into the park for camping, we still had another 1-2 hours to go, plus with all the bad weather, I had no idea if it would even be wise to camp with the kids outdoors. Fortunately, a call to the 'rents and we had found a motel for less than $100 for the night where we unloaded our stuff into the room and caught some of Stage 7 of the Tour de France, including poor Chris Horner being loaded into the ambulance not realizing where he was and that he'd finished the stage. With that, we went to sleep and, in the morning, hit the road to Camden to set up camp, get to know the mountain, possibly get some riding in and enjoy the festival.

The day was quite pleasant, however, it was becoming increasingly obvious that I wasn't going to get any riding in on Saturday, which posed problematic on Sunday. You see, since the evening Saturday, July 2 to the late morning of Wednesday, July 6, I was in bed with a viral infection that came in like a mild allergy attack in the morning one week prior, and by the end of the evening, I had so much post-nasal drip and congestion that I had to sleep with a pillow propping me up so I wouldn't drown. And, ah, yes, I went from a normal temp in the morning to over 101 in the evening. Sunday morning, July 3, I was in Urgent Care being poked, prodded and prescribed Z-Pak. I still had no sense of smell, really, while in Maine, I still had a rattly cough, and my nose wasn't as clear as I'd have liked it to be. Needless to say, I hadn't done any riding during the week, either. Perhaps it was because I was still tired from the drive up, or residual from having spent 4 days straight in bed, but it hadn't occurred to me riding Ragged Mountain cold wasn't a good idea.

The kids were having a blast, though, going up and down the ski lift with me, picking Maine blueberries and strawberries right off the bushes and into the mouths, going to see the Rockport Lighthouse on the 7/8 mile break water, collecting sea glass and shells from the shore and looking forward to S'mores by the campfire (which we apparently missed - for some reason, it wasn't burning for those of us who were in town during dinner  & the film festival). The kids got the chance to take the 5:00 guided ride from the peak of the mountain (which, I found out too late to kit up and bring the bike, I could have taken, as well) and so they had the opportunity to pre-ride with some tips from great guides.

We met up with friends in the parking lot who'd just arrived and invited them along to Smokestack in Camden for dinner - I'd promised the kids fish 'n' chips, and I had Smokestack's last year and was hardly disappointed. We changed and hopped into the car. Word of caution: When in Maine or any New England state, do yourself a favor and stick with seafood. The glutton in my did me a great disservice by pushing me to order the rib eye steak special, which was surprisingly served so over salted that I did the one thing I've never done - I sent it back. It was inedible. The chef tried to "fix" it, as it was the last cut, but to no avail. So I didn't quite have the pre-race meal I should have. Again, another omen. We were going to head back to camp, but someone pointed out the second movie was going to be shown in a few and we could slip into the back to catch a bit of LifeCycles, which we did. Great film, too - had never heard of it prior. Piling back ino the car, we drove back to camp where we tried, as quietly as possible, to get ready and get to bed.

Usually, I sleep well outdoors, but perhaps it was because we decided to sleep on a wooden platform under a gazebo, or just the luck of the draw, my back was not happy. While it's been over a year since the double sacroiliac ligament sprain was diagnosed and in treatment, it's a soft-tissue injury, which means, like an old soldier, it never dies, it just fades away. That is, until you anger it. So, with a bag of clothing tucked under my knees and tilting my pelvis just right, I tried to relieve the pressure off the tender spots on my back with little avail. By morning the back was sore. Another omen?

I've mentioned my friend, Sean Drew, in these blogs before. He's kind of my MTB Buddha- jolly in face, mellow in temperament, but wise with all things MTB. Sean frequently advises others not to try new things the day of a race. I know he's fallen victim to disobeying his own mantra by trying new energy drinks with not-such-great results. I tried a new meal plan the morning of my first race of the season with really bad results (see my write up about Weeping Willow). So, why I thought it would be ok to race Maine Sport RunOff with new shoes I hadn't had a chance to break in and new cleats - single-release, not multi-release, I don't know. But, I had to replace my shoes after Muddy Moody Park, and, ominously, I attached the new cleats and found I struggled to clip out. I got the hang of it, in the parking lot, and figured all was well.

Now, the race. Buddha Sean bestowed great wisdom upon me last year: Maine Sport RunOff isn't about starting off with a bang - Thou Shalt Not Burn Thyself Out On The Initial Climb Up At All. I decided to take that one step further - Thou Shalt Not Bother Trying to Ride Up This Stupid Mountain. I knew I'd be clipping out soon after the start to begin my hike. I was less bothered by this strategy when I learned that Glenn Roche, the only other Clydesdale at the race, had lost too much weight and no longer qualified as a Clydesdale, so I was racing against myself. Which, in all actuality, is how I race anyway - I like to earn points, and prizes make me happy, but I know I'm hardly in condition to race anyone but myself, my demons, and to beat the mountain. Besides, I race for LIVESTRONG, so finishing is winning. Podiums are gravy.

I lined up at the start, after comforting my daughter who'd been shoved into a tree by a competitor in the children's race, just in the nick of time. I hadn't even had a chance to really settle into the pack and clip in my left foot - my usual ritual. We were off, and for the life of me, I couldn't clip in. Already, a bad start. Finally, I clip in and I ride to the beginning of the incline. As soon as I pass the trees, I clip out and begin my hike.

I'm struggling, though, as my lungs are still trying to clear themselves up after the viral infection, and that rattly cough starts again. The efforts seem to be causing my lungs to crackle and pop and I cough as I enter the woods. Just like last year, I have a soundtrack of gravity-defying songs in my head, but they too often are being interrupted by the coughing. I get to the split between the long lap and the short lap - a "measly" 3 miles - I mean, shouldn't be too tough - the cyclometer is reading that I'm walking over 3 miles an hour, so I should be back at the bottom to start my second lap within an hour. So I thought. The slope and the trees break, and it's the first flat crossing, so I hop into the saddle, clip in and ride across the mountain. Piece of cake. Up in the woods, and hiking upwards some more, and then I get to the next flat across the fields under the lifts. I clip in and start riding straight.

Let me take a moment to describe these open sections. Imagine a hokey 70's romance flick. The image blurs on a sunny day, and there are back and forth shots between the blonde chick in a white flouncy dress running slowly towards the camera as it pans back to a man in a pirate shirt and black pants. You get the idea - tall grasses and wild flowers that move like the ocean in the breeze. The track itself is very narrow - maybe 4-6 inches wide, but it's all good because it's just dirt, wild flowers, and perhaps a floral wreath left behind from the blonde trotting through from the previous scene.

Leave it to me, however, to not only find the only 2 rocks in the entire field, but to get my front wheel stuck between them and I begin to wobble terribly. "Clip out," you say? Yes, I'd have loved to. If my cleats were multi-release, but as it happens, as I lean to my left to clip out (did I mention leaning left meant leaning down the mountain), I cannot loosen my right foot and I've leaned too far to the right. Since children may be reading this blog, I'll refrain from a direct quote, but I scream, "________ NO!" as I flip over to the left, wheels in the air and over my head, and then roll over to the left. Not only as this terribly embarrassing, as it was in full view of several spectators, who are now running towards me as though I were the man in the pirate shirt and black pants, but I managed to land the tenderest part of the left side of my back on the pointy part of one of the 2 rocks full-force. I do a quick inventory of bike and body parts. Bike is fine. Back's been better. Bruised butt and ego. Allez!

I clip back in and finish the straight until I see a pile of rocks over a pipe. I have a flashback to skidding on pipes last year, so I clip out and I walk. I start walking, recognizing some of this trail from last year. I rode this trail last year. But something in me is now terrified to clip back in. What if I slide on a rock? What if I hit a tree? What if I lose my balance? What if I can't clip out in time again? Self-doubt is now washing over me. I clip in anyway and ride forward, overly aware of the discomfort in my back. I start asking myself, "Have I re-sprained my back? Is it smart to continue? Is that a temporary pain or just the beginning?" I get myself so wrapped up in all the things that can go wrong internally that I don't pay attention and, just like Moody Park I ride head-on into a small tree.

I decide to walk on and try and shake whatever bad vibe is haunting me. But it's not working. I am psyching myself out of clipping back in. And the harder I fight the "but you might... " tendencies, they are winning. The longer I go on, and as I start getting lapped, the more frustrated at myself I'm getting. I rode this last year. Not all of it, but enough of it, that this is a repeat - I already did it - why can't I do it again? I try clipping in again, and I'm riding. I'm doing ok. As soon as I think to myself, "There you go - it's just like riding a bicycle - you've done this before - now just go," I skid on a loose rock on a downhill slope and land - you guessed it - on the left side of my lower back and I go skidding and bouncing down a rocking slope - still clipped in. I pick up the bike, and I hear more riders coming, so I yield. And I yield. And I limp and I yield and I walk and I yield. At this stage, there isn't a good place to clip in for a while, so I just grab the bike and hike. I must have hiked about a mile, and I decide to clip back in on this one stretch. It's familiar to me, and it's not so sloped that the words of doubt will come back. I ride, I weave between trees and rocks, and I get my flow. I'm finding that my abs are more sore on this race than ever before - is that from the flipping and crashing? Steering the bike around the land furniture more properly than usual? Whatever the reason, as I move the bike around things with my hand on the handlebars and leaning and moving the bike with my body, I start to feel that unhinging feeling I got that helped the doctor determine it was the sprain. As soon as it registers that I'm experiencing that pain, I'm finding I'm not able to steer with my left side as well as moments before. I come around a sharp left around a large tree. My mind registers that this was the tree I crashed into last year when I got lost on the course and I rode around in the wrong direction - this was the tree that introduced itself to my right side. That split second was enough for me to lose my flow and, just as I was clear of the tree, my rear wheel catches it and I go whipping back to the left and smack my left side into the tree, and both feet clip out spontaneously.

I don't know what hurt more - the impact, the shock, the frustration or the shame, as riders are coming up and seeing me, with tears streaming down my face. I take the bike and try and ride, but it's no use. Between the volume of riders coming - I didn't want to be the "roadie" that ruined someone else's run - and how shaken I was, I was done trying to ride this section. I limp on and on.

I find one more section towards the end that I feel confident I can ride. I clip in and go, and the next thing I know, there is a ramped up bridge coming up. Bridges scare me. Usually the approach involves a bunny hop or some sort of technical skill I haven't mastered yet, and I have this fear I'm going to bounce off instead of make it onto the bridge. Then, no matter how wide they are on trail, I'm constantly afraid I'm going to fall off the edge, at which point, I usually ride way too close to the edge. But I have no time to change course - I have to ride over this bridge. And there are a bunch of guys watching the race there. Uncontrollably, I yell, "I HATE BRIDGES!" and I ride over it. I stop, clip out, look at the bridge, look at the guys, and say, "Holy sh*t! I just rode the bridge! Woot!" And then I wobble and almost fall over - but I don't. I clip back in and try and continue to ride, but I hear some of those Elites coming, it's a fast, narrow, technical descent, and I know I'll just get in their way, so I clip out and walk.

By now, I've been lapped 2, 3 even 4 times by some of the riders, and I still have my second lap.

Rather than bore you with my second, lonely, lap, here it is in a nutshell: It was pure hiking. I was Lanterne Rouge. My rear end and back are swollen, sore and stiff and I have bruises and swelling on my left knee that match my right knee from 3 weeks ago.

Yes, I technically got first place. But, I also got last place. And I didn't ride. I just didn't ride the way I should have.

Maybe in some time the feeling will change, but right now, it doesn't feel like first place was earned. Did slow and steady win this race? Or was it just slow?

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