Lessons learned in exhaustion, perserverance, and bike repairs

So remember back a few weeks ago when I was thrilled to be doing two races in one weeks time? Well I may have gone off the deep end with my frequency of cross-country races in the month of june. Truthfully it wasn’t my fault, Kentucky Point Series and The Southern Five set their race schedules without my direct input, buuuut perhaps committing to two, 5- race series AND moving up to Cat 1 mileage in the same year may have been a little over zealous. I can’t yet say that I’m stronger for completing 6 races in 6 weeks (4 back to back weekends), but I survived it and had some first time experiences along the way.

June 8th: Land Between the Lakes, KY, KPS     34 miles, 3 hours and 20 min. 1st place 

The motivation to battle hard in this race was almost non existent. Three laps of the 11. something trail would be grueling even without the 4 mile stretch of back to back technical climbing I would have to endure. I also expected this to be a large-draw race for the strong Cat 1 women that typically beat me by 3+ minutes per lap! So whether it was the correct approach to take or not, I prepared my mental game by viewing this as a ‘training race’. I would keep the intensity up, aided by the thrill of the start, people cheering, and seeing other riders on the course, but I would not engage in the usual jockeying for position. I wanted to test my mental endurance, staying race focused over a spread out course can be tough. While also teaching my legs to push hard, then push hard again, and then continue pushing for twice the time that my body was used to.

Unfortunately the race turn out was pretty low, and while many of my fellow riders from Evansville Mountain Bike Association and Dan’s Comp Race Team were in attendance, much to my surprise I was the only one to line up for the Cat 1 women. I was astonished, but not really relieved. I wanted some competition damn it! (I would regret this thought in the races to come!) So my race/training strategy did not change much though it was near impossible not to mentally ‘downshift’ while out on the course. When it felt good, I eased off and I think I did so too much and too often. Here in lies the perpetual battle between attacking and conserving energy in a cross-country race. Of course some will say that you should just go 100% the whole time, but it’s not really possible. I knew I had a long day ahead of me so I told myself not to blow up too soon. Yet in hindsight I always think, “you’re going to be tired and sore the last lap anyways so you should push when your fresh”. Performance science has shown that the body can perform way after the mind has decided it can’t.

Heading out for lap 3 was tough, mentally and cardiovascularly I felt ‘in it’ but I feared that my legs would feel like inflexible logs on the meandering climbs and I would give in to walking up a few of them. But that didn’t happen, and I owe it to a couple of tough riders and amazing friends! Tony Wells of EMBA and my legendary Dan’s Comp teammate Eric Lovins latched on to my back wheel and kept me company for the last lap. Both of these men had just finished their own races, laying down some good lap times!  I was so grateful, 11 miles is a big commitment to help out a fellow rider. They did a lot more than keep me company, they distracted me enough through the climbing sections that I barely had time to dread them! We were counting down the tough sections so quickly that I hardly heard a peep from my legs and soon it turned in to a comfortable group ride. All in all it was tough, but I finished the race upright and I was glad to have a 34 mile race under my belt.

 June 14th: French Lick, IN, Southern 5   18 miles, DNF 

Good ol’ French Lick! Of all the races this year French Lick was the one I was most looking forward to. A long, winding trail full of varied scenery, many technical rock and water crossings, and enough moderate elevation changes to keep the ‘climbers’ and ‘down-hillers’ happy. I wasn’t sure how the turnout for Cat 1 women would be as none of my friends who had raced at Angel Mounds would be able to attend. I did know that I loved the rocky terrain of FL and had performed well in past races held there. I was pleasantly surprised to see two women line up with me, both strong riders that would certainly give me a run for my money. On the start I sprinted to get the hole-shot and kept on the gas through the first half mile of downhill. To my dismay the three of us stayed tightly packed and after the first extended climb one of the ladies recovered quicker than me and asked to pass. She stayed within sight for a while but I was much more concerned with the rider hugging my wheel! As we rolled through a few technical areas and some more switchbacked decents I was in complete disbelief that I failed to put any space between her and me. This was supposed to be my bread and butter, flying over rocks and around corners with (controlled) reckless abandon, and this chick was right there with me! I decided to get over my ego quickly and instead told her how impressed I was. imageThis soon turned into a get to know you conversation about biking experiences while pushing our race pace. I decided I liked her and was glad to have some company on the trail for once. We finished one of two laps, never separated by more than 15 feet. I realized that she had no intentions of passing me but she wasn’t going to give 2nd place to me either.

Then it happened. As we rode through a switchback reinforced with medium-sized rocks I felt my back tire skid out from under me. I looked between my legs and saw my tire go instantly flat. I pulled out of my new friend’s way and began processing what to do next. I found some space off the trail to work and set to calmly fixing my first racing flat. At this point I wasn’t upset, I’d enjoyed the race so far and I would roll into a 3rd place finish to secure some points towards winning the Southern 5 series. But my CO2 cartridge was spent and the tire would not cooperate. My only option was to start walking and hopefully get some more air from one of the Cat 1 men that should be coming up behind me soon. But it wasn’t soon. I walked for a good 30 minutes before I heard the first rider and it would be another 15 minutes before I saw someone I knew. Graciously he stopped and left me 1 1/2 cartridges. Sadly, the tire would not hold air and I was destined to continue my long walk through the woods. By now I was completely over any frustration or anger and was just trying to make the best of the situation. Not surprisingly my enthusiasm diminished over what turned out to be at least 4 miles of walking in shoes that are not meant to be walked in. I had planned to walk the remainder of the course and finish in 3rd but a ‘shortcut’ trail loomed in the distance and quarter- sized blisters were forming on both of my heels. I decided I had dragged my bike long enough and that even with my shoes off, my feet hurt bad enough that I would have to take that shortcut. I knew this would mean a Did Not Finish and I would receive no points. I had never been faced with that decision before and I was actually proud of myself for ‘hanging on’ as long as I did.

A few more of my friends passed and asked if I need help. I declined, already at peace with my fate. I walked into the start/finish area and was somewhat relieved that most people already knew what had happened. I was disappointed, but figured that it has to happen at some point in one’s career and it could have been at a much more inopportune time. I quickly switched my focus to my teammates and friends, all of whom had a good day on the bike, and it soon began to feel like any other post race. I got to connect some more with the 2nd place finisher and learned that she would be attending the next Southern 5 race at Ferdinand State Forest. All in all it was a great day spent with great friends; I had a new experience and was ready to prepare for the next one!

image

Evansville Mtn bikers take on French Lick

June 22nd: Fort Duffield, KY, KPS  15 grueling miles, 2 hours and 6 min. 4th place

I knew Fort Duffield would be a test of my climbing and handling skills but I had no idea it would so severely test my will to simply keep pedaling. If you remember back to my blog, Duffield, You Ain’t So Scary the 5 mile trail mostly goes up and up and up. But throw in some rock sections, creek crossings, and large logs to ride over and you’ve got a trail that demands every ounce of your attention and even more leg strength than you possess.  I thought I might do well on this course, or at least be one of the few women to actually showed up for a day of misery. But I was wrong, it was one of the largest turnouts for a Cat 1 women’s race that I’ve seen.  Five of us lined up that thankfully cool morning, ranging in age from 14 to 40. I instantly knew where I stood and planned to ride the best that I could regardless.

We took off on the signal and I entered the trail in an uncontested 2nd place. But it wouldn’t be long before the elevation increased and I got passed. I was pushing a good pace but I was weary of the amount of uphill I would soon be engulfed in. My first lap felt terrible. I was trying to stay in the battle for 3rd place but my lungs felt like I was taking in sea water instead of air. I had to back off and then, I had to walk. At this point I was ready to toss my bike aside, sit down, and have a good cry. I didn’t want to ride this trail anymore, I didn’t want to ride anymore period, and I certainly couldn’t see myself finishing this race. I had hit the mental wall just 3 miles in. If I had seen another human being I may have run up to them and told them to hold me as I hyperventilated into their shoulder. I was pissed at my legs for failing so soon, I was pissed at the thick, humid air, and I was pissed that even if I was going to quit I still had to climb up more hills! I gained my breath a little bit and thought, “when I come around to the start/ finish line I can pull off and take another DNF for the second time in a row”. That’s the kind of plan ‘thinking while exhausted’ will get you.

I definitely have the best ‘hands up’ podium pose!

Alas, I did not quit. The design of the race course was quite genius; beginning the loop with a circus of suffering to pay homage to the demanding topography, then just enough lifesaving downhill to lead you into a picturesk  creek bed, 2-3 more punchy little climbs and then topped off by a beautifully bermed out downhill for the last half mile.  A section of trail so sweet that it actually caused you to forget the horror that you had just endured and reignited your joy of riding. How quickly your mindset can change when on the bike as I soon found myself happily picking up the pace heading into my second lap. Somehow the 2nd and 3rd laps felt much easier than the first. Obviously my pace had slowed down, I got of my bike and committed to walking a lot of the hills but I also rode up a few that I didn’t make the first time through. I learned where to conserve my strength and where it wasn’t worth the agony to push a little further. I knew that the exertion was wearing hard on me as more than a few times I felt a loss of coordination, sideswiped an innocuous bush, and even tipped my bike over while trying to conquer a log. I was weak, but I was getting closer and closer to BEING DONE!!

I was strangely impressed with my body’s reignited will to fight when I caught an audible ‘glimpse’ of the 5th place rider. According to my trail calculations she was about 30 seconds behind me and there were 3 more climbs to go before the sweet, beautiful downhill slide to the finish line. My resolve picked up even if my pace visibly did not, and I felt my positive coach surface again to push me through the last of it. I sailed through the finish line feeling like a soldier home from war and quickly looked for a place to sit and regain my vision. I finished 4th, by a lot, and I definitely didn’t expect the race to go this way. I felt like a true rookie, happy to just be alive. But check back with me in about a month, we may both be surprised to see Duffield on my calendar for next year.

 

imageJune 28th: Ferdinand State Park, IN, Southern 5   16 miles, 1 hour and 51 min.   3rd place

I was feeling pretty rough going into this race.  Still excited to race the ominous hills of Ferdinand, but my mind and body were worn out. Too much racing and not enough time to train and get psyched for the next competition. Lesson learned, I am not cut out to be a professional mtb racer that needs to perform every weekend! NOT that that was going to happen in my lifetime anyway but even irrational dreams can provided real motivation. The same ladies that I raced in French Lick were there to battle for the Cat 1 podium. I half expected it but really hoped for an easy race. Yup, I was that run down. My only advantage was that I knew the course very well. I knew where to push, where to hang on, and when to rip open the throttle and rediscover why I love mountain biking so much. Yes Ferdinand has all of that.  It is hilly, but unlike Duffield I feel like it provides adequate recovery in the way of wide open, 20+ MPH fire roads between the more sustained climbs. ‘Exertion strategy’ is critical on the 8 mile course as a few male riders learned the hard way today.

Realistically, my trail knowledge would be no match for the other ladies’ strong climbing legs and superior endurance. Instead of mentally accepting third place I told myself to keep them in sight as long as possible. I knew I could ride the trail ‘clean’ and I didn’t want to push a pace so hard that I would have to walk up anything on the second lap. The race began with three brief inclines on a fire road, enough to keep racers from a full- on sprint off the line. I stayed with my superior climbing counterparts through the first two and then I had to succumb to the fire in my legs. There was a lot more climbing to come! My hope turned to the other racers blowing up enough for me to catch them later on. I quickly switched mental gears to control my pacing and ride my own race. I would be sure to make myself suffer, to push even when I made a deal with myself a hundred yards back that I could walk up this hill, but I would not let my position affect my will to finish at a race pace.

This race ended up being one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever had. I experienced the pain of full- out exertion while keeping conscious enough to recognize the joy in gliding through the technical areas efficiently.  I kept climbing even when I wanted to stop and I felt like my fueling was in proper sync. It was especially rewarding to have my husband cheer for me as I climbed the last steep hill to the finish area.  My first lap through I had resigned to walk up this particular soft, 30% grade walking trail and really didn’t think I could punch my way up it on ‘race legs’. But hearing my hubby’s support made me think, ” well, maybe I can ride up that.” I shifted down in time and kept my weight balanced to prevent spinning out. Before I knew I was half way up and not tipped over in the weeds due to a failed effort.  My heart began to sing and the joy of accomplishing something I didn’t think I could do was enough to carry me over the finish line feeling like I had just won the race! That is the magic of mountain biking. There are so many opportunities to conquer obstacles that you thought were beyond your ability and you just keep riding and thinking, “ok what’s next!”.

Next for me would be resting. I could have raced the next day at Cherokee Park in Louisville for the KPS but there’s a small chance that I would have quit mountain biking forever. I’m looking forward to 14 days off from racing to recover, rebuild, and mentally prepare for the next Southern 5 race July 12th at Ben Hawes in Owensboro, KY. If you haven’t ridden there yet, you owe it to yourself to get out there asap!! Thanks for reading about my trials and tribulations on the bike. Please, like, share, and subscribe so I know I’m spending hours writing for an audience and not just high- tech journaling. Happy pedalling!

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