Friday, July 26, 2013

MTB Nationals

Warning: You might want to settle in with a coffee for this one - it's a bit long-winded!

That was, definitely and without a doubt, the HARDEST. RACE. EVER. But, I need to back up just a little bit.

I have been racing the MTB quite a bit this season, but the results haven't been stellar. Regardless, I have been having fun - challenging myself and competing against friends. I have also been doing A LOT of training with Mike and the Bikeway Source/Bell Lap Racing team, so my fitness is in a really good place. Despite that, I never intended to race at Nationals this year, but a halfway decent race at Stonewall Farm had me pulling the trigger right before online registration closed.

So, with the van fully packed, Mike and I set out from the house last week on Friday morning en route to PA. The temp when we left at 5:45 am was already over 90, and it was only going to get hotter. We were lucky enough to be able to navigate around any rush hour traffic in Hartford, CT, as well as skirting those heading into NYC for work, and the drive was pretty uneventful. The only thing was - no rest areas between CT and PA! Holy heck!  What do people who drink coffee do on those roads????

After just over 5 hours, we arrived onsite at Bear Creek Resort in Macungie, PA. Blazing sun, high
To the summit
humidity and temps over 100 greeted us as we got out of the air conditioned car. It didn't take long for our clothes to get pretty wet. We headed over to registration to pick up numbers and check out the scene (racing was already underway). The venue was pretty impressive, although distinctly lacking in shade for spectators on such a hot day. Many were forced back inside the lodge to the shelter of the AC.

We caught up with friends along the way and heard over and over about the course. I was quickly becoming pretty intimidated by the accounts of how technical it was, and the fact that the descent was "no joke". I tried, however, not to let my nerves get the best of me before I had even ridden the course to see for myself what it was like.

The official schedule had time for warmups after all of the racing for the day was done - at 6:30 pm. Given the heat, we didn't really feel like hanging around all day, and decided that since
The starting stretch
others were getting out on the course in between junior races (they used part of the course we would race, but not all of it), we would try to do the same. Kitted up, and hit the trail just before the 2 pm waves were to start, careful the entire time to NEVER interfere with anyone racing.

The good news is that I have FINALLY convinced myself that I can climb . We started up some pretty rocky singletrack close to out of the gate. I liked the climb - a good mix of technical rocks and roots, as well as some open/cross slope areas and some flat sections. The course went almost to the top of the mountain, descended some technical singletrack, and then climbed on fire road back to the very top. The views from there were impressive, but there would be no time to even notice them on race day.

From the summit, we encountered A LOT of rocky trail, some bridges (which I cleaned! I hate bridges), and more rocks as we started to descend. This was really technical, but I was riding most everything and thinking that I wasn't sure what everyone really had been going on about...

Just as I had that thought, we hit a pretty gnarly section of rock and bridge that gave me some trouble, but was still ok. And then we started "the descent". I went from thinking that this really wasn't so bad to "OMG - what am I THINKING?????"  Steep, rock-filled descents that scared the pants off of me had me off the bike and running. I later learned that at least I wasn't the only one . There were also a couple of 180 degree switchbacks, going downhill, filled with rocks. Yeah - those were going to give me trouble...

The last part of the course was filled with even more gnarly rocks and roots. This course was not going to be a complete test of fitness, but an equal test of skill. We finished the lap and I was even more nervous - the course didn't suit my ability.

After changing and getting some much needed hydration, we decided we'd stay for a bit to watch some friends in the Master's races. We watched them all start, and were just heading back to the car when the skies opened. I can't IMAGINE what that course would have been like in the wet. Kudos to all of them for riding in that weather.

Ready to race
Saturday was race day for both of us - Mike at 8 am and me at 10:30. Temps were a bit cooler, but still in the upper 90s with a good amount of humidity. All along, my focus has been on Mike and his race. He has worked really hard all season and his racing form has been amazing. I believed, as did others, that he had a legitimate shot at taking home a new jersey at the end of the day. In fact, I told someone there that my race was really irrelevant . I wanted this so badly for him.

We both kitted up and prepped for our races. Mike gave me VERY explicit pre-race instructions: what to eat, what to drink, when to do both; stay out of the sun; stay off your feet... It was a lot to remember  I was also going to be in the feed zone for him - while we both race with a Camelbak, having another bottle on a hot day might be needed.
The face of determination

I saw Mike off to staging, and line up, and watched as his field took off for their 3 lap race, happy to see him enter the woods in 2nd place! And then, I lost it. The emotions were so high that I couldn't hold it in. Thankfully our good friend Jill was nearby and helped to calm my nerves. Knowing it would take about 40-45 mins per lap, I headed to the shelter of the lodge, put up my feet, ate some food and waited. After about 35 minutes I decided to head into the feedzone to be sure I was there when Mike came by. I stood with good friends Kristen and Chris supporting other racers, and we joked and cajoled about the race. And then the racers started coming through. I knew the number series for Mike's age category (there were SEVEN separate fields all on the course at the same time), and started watching for the leader. There goes one, then two, then three, then four and no sign of Mike. More racers in his field went by, and still no Mike. My panic grew. Did he flat? Did he crash? Was he hurt? I got a report that he had passed Melissa on the course and he was still in second. That had to have been early, because now a large portion of his field had already gone through the feedzone, and still no Mike. I started to lose it. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, he came by. He had broken a spoke AND his chain on the first lap. My heart broke for him and I literally broke down in tears. 

My pre-race gear
One lap and two mechanicals down

Mike soldiered on past, and the next time through the feedzone I could see that he had made up a significant number of places. He yelled to me to let air out of my tires before starting - the tire pressure was too high. Yeah - um, I don't do that . I decided to wait until he had finished and let HIM do it instead - I would inevitably end up letting out too much air.

Too. Much. Tire. Pressure!
Attrition in the men's races was high - between the heat, the pace, technical issues and injuries, over 25% of the racers who started didn't finish. And the lap times were significantly longer than anticipated causing two results - 1. my race was delayed from 10:30 to 10:45, and 2. instead of 3 laps, we would be racing just 2 (HOORAY!). As I finished prepping for my race, I continued to watch the finishers from the men's race.I watched as first, second, third and fourth place in Mike's race went by. And then, to my utter delight, came Mike! He had battled back from his mechanicals and being near last in his field, to finish 5th overall, and on the podium! He was ultimately disappointed, but I am really proud of him for his determination. Many racers would have quit/given up, but he fixed his bike, and continued on. In fact, he had two of the faster lap times of the field on the second and third laps of his race. He didn't end up with the jersey, but was still a winner to me.

A quick hug and kiss, and a request for him to let air out of my tires, and I was off to the staging area for my race. Like the men, there would be seven fields of women on the course at the same 
time, though many fewer of us than them . In my field (45-49) there were 9 starters. I had obsessed over the
This is really happening
points, each racer's results and the race prediction... Two of my competitors (Stacey and Katina) were known entities, but the rest were mysteries - women from CA, PA, OR and CO. Surprisingly, I was predicted to finish 3rd (HA! predictors are often WRONG!), so ended up getting called to the line second 
. We all wished each other good luck and safe racing, and the countdown to the start began - 1 minute, 30 seconds, 15 seconds ...

When the whistle blew, my race brain kicked in, and I found myself with the hole shot. Yup - it was 800 degrees, we were racing for all the marbles, it was a course that didn't suit me, and I was OFF. THE. FRONT.  The good thing is that this let me lead through the first part of the
Too bad the race didn't end here
course, seeing the lines, and choosing my own way through, controlling the pace. There weren't a lot of places to pass once we got into the first section of woods. At one point, the woman behind me was just a bit too close, and as I took a corner more slowly than she would have liked, she bobbled, causing mayhem behind me. This gave me a small gap, and I just put my head down to continue moving. Unfortunately, the effort was VERY quickly catching up to me - my HR was over 171, and I was beginning to feel like going out that hard was probably not the smartest thing. Just then we hit a wet, rooty, difficult uphill section and I bobbled. Five of my competitors passed by, but I thought I was still ok - surely someone would end up coming back to me.

I continued on, now alone, able to see where I wanted to go. At a rocky technical downhill, I hesitated, and now another competitor passed. Ugh - this was not going well. On the final climb to the summit, my back started to cramp - I downed a gel to try to stave that off, and took neutral water at the top, worried I would deplete my Camelbak too soon in the heat. Later, I bobbled another section, and another competitor got by. I'm pretty sure I was now in last place. And then, I saw Stacey on the side of the trail. "You ok?" I called. Sadly, while being predicted to win, she had a flat and would end up walking out... As I passed, Stacey asked if I was ok as well I replied that I was, but that I had gone out too hard. The response made me smile - "Yeah you did!" Determined, I continued, hearing Mike's "Ride your race" in my head.

Leading into the nasty, gnarly downhill section there was a HUGE crowd of VERY loud spectators. They were encouraging people to make it up a tricky climb,before the real descent began. As I approached, the noise was distracting me as I attempted to negotiate a tricky downhill with a dropoff at the bottom. Sensing my unease, someone from the unruly crowd yelled out, "Silence!". You could have heard a pin drop. I was oh so grateful to whomever that was! Unfortunately, I still didn't make it down the dropoff, or up the next hill, but the encouragement there was overwhelming (and if you were the person who actually yelled, "Go Cathy" at that point - THANK YOU!). 

I ran much of the downhill since it was pretty scary, hopped back on the bike where I could, and continued on. After the descent, things got pretty tricky with rocks and roots, and I about wanted to cry at that point! Thankfully, a woman in the SS category caught me, and she and I shouted encouragement to each other through the remainder of the lap as we traded places back and forth. At one point she lamented, "Aren't there anymore downhills?", to which I replied, "I'll ride the ups if you ride the downs!". We both laughed, and continued on.

Mike was near the end of the lap to take pictures and shout encouragement as well. In one of the photos I look as if I am saying "Do I really have to do this again?"  In reality, I have a "too stupid to stop" gene, and there was NO WAY, barring an unfixable mechanical or an injury that I was going to quit. Through the feedzone I was looking for my bottle handup, but it was with Mike... I managed a neutral bottle, and was back on my way for lap #2.

Again? Really? OK.
The second lap for me went better than the first in that I rode more than I had the previous lap. I was pretty excited about that, and proud of myself, too. Again, Mike was on course late in the lap, which was awesome. In the final section, I talked my way through, congratulating myself for everything I was riding, talking myself INTO riding certain things, and telling myself it was almost over.

Take the picture quick!
Before this happens.

After 2 hours, I had done it. I raced in my first ever MTB National championship, and I SURVIVED! No crashes, no mechanicals. I didn't quit. I didn't meet my goal (I secretly was hoping for at least a podium), but I was happy with my result. In the end, I finished 7th of 9 starters.

I know that Mike is still disappointed about his race, but I am proud of both of us. That was a truly difficult course, and we both overcame obstacles to finish - he had his mechanicals and I had my mental challenges. We both could have quit, but we didn't - that's not who we are or what we are about. We went, we raced, and we survived!

Many thanks to all of our family and friends for their support and encouragement. Your kind words and actions mean a lot to both Mike and I, and are what keep us going in this sport.

Now I think it's time for some non racing before CX season starts next month, or maybe not.