Wednesday, June 23, 2010

First off, huge thanks to Oregon Velo Photography for the pics. They're awesome!

Second, huge thanks to Dot Wong and The TEAM, Metal Mountain Bike Shop in Ventura, CA, and my coach Jason Hilimire for all the support this year.

Third, huge thanks to my parents for joining me this weekend in OR and keeping me housed and fed. And, to my husband, who has put up with my 2 month hiatus to train and race all over the west.

Now, on to the race report.

I'm a cross country racer so my races are generally around 20 miles, with the occasional 29 or 3o miler. But, I LOVE mountain biking and because you can't ever have too much of a good thing, I thought perhaps I should dabble a toe into the world of endurance racing and give a 50 miler a go. And because my dad is my partner in crime when it comes to just about anything outdoors, I talked him into it as well. We decided on the TEST of ENDURANCE 50 in Blodgett, OR largely because it draws big names and where big names go, crowds follow so I had a suspicion there would be a good field of women. And I was sooo right. In fact, Alice Pennington set a very impressive new course record!

The race is awesome. It's a TON of climbing, 7,900 feet according to my Polar watch, spread out over 5o miles of fire road and single track in the Coast Range. It begins with a neutral mass start for a couple of miles and I was surprised how good I felt. I'm sure my time at elevation in Boulder was part of the reason, but so was the fact that in a race that's going to last 5+ hours you're supposed to keep your effort in check, or at least that's what my coach says. For me, that meant keeping my heart rate between 170 and 190 bpm (I normally race around 200 bpm). So the neutral mass start was a nice reprieve from the all out starts I'm accustomed to. So I settled in to the appropriate heart rate and waited for the climbing to begin. And begin it did. 10 or so minutes into the lap we started climbing and we continued to do so for a good hour with only the occasional "reprieve" onto singletrack. I put reprieve in quotes because with the rain that had fallen the day before and the drizzle happening that morning, riding the singletrack felt like riding on ice. (Remember my earlier post where I said rain was the theme of my summer. Well, on the way to Oregon, I got stuck in Billings, MT when a severe storm blew in with a downpour, golf ball-sized hail, and 70 mile an hour winds. Then, the next day, I drove in a constant drizzle from Billings to Moscow, ID--thats 8 hours of rain across 600 miles.) But nontheless, I was having a ton of fun in the race, and was pleased with how good I felt. I soon fell in behind another female rider and found that though she was a stronger climber than me, I was a better descender and so we traded back and forth for most of the 25 mile lap. My best guess was that she and I were sitting in the top 5. Here's a pic from the muddy singletrack. Note the guy behind me is running with his bike. Sometimes that really was the better option since falling can be awfully time consuming.
Finally, I hit a fairly long fire-road descent. I didn't know how much was left in the first lap, and in all honesty, as the time my races normally end came and went, I was growing increasingly ready to see lap 2. But the descent seemed like a good time to fuel, so I backed off a bit and ate a Snickers and drank a bottle. In the end, I don't know if this was the right call or not because in the process of doing so, I lost sight of the other female rider. And, as they say, out of sight out of mind. But maybe it was the right call because a short while later, I was off on lap 2 and feeling really, really good. I stopped very briefly at the aid station to refill a bottle, maybe lost a minute there, and was off again. (Although, that's another thing I want to rethink for my next 50 miler--if there is one :) A lot of folks were wearing camelbacks which meant they never had to stop and lose precious time.) But, anyway, I was off on lap 2 and feeling super good. When I hit the backside climb, I even amped it up a bit and a male racer fell in behind me. "Nice job," he said. "You're the perfect pacer." And here's another place where I think I may have made a poor decision. When this guy fell in behind me, I felt motivated to keep pushing. For the whole climb, my heart rate was up at 190 which may not have been the right call with 20 or so miles still to go. When we finally finished the long climb, I could feel the toll the effort had taken. My legs were pretty zonked and then, about mile 40, I began to have a Scrooge-like experience. The ghosts of injuries past returned for a visit. First my left shin muscle started to burn which meant the compartment syndrome I had been diagnosed with a few months ago was back. And once this was flared up, my IT band started to tighten which resulted in a super painful pinching sensation on the outside of my left knee. None of the symptoms were constant; by keeping my heel down and pushing harder with my right leg, and sometimes unclipping my left leg and centering the pedal under the middle of my foot, I could manage the pain, but the punch to the gut the pain gave my moral was tough. I could feel my competitive edge waning and my desire to be done taking over. By this point, too, the single track was super muddy and what I would have been compelled to ride through before, I felt more compelled to run through with my leg acting up. I don't now how much time I lost doing so, if any. Soon, I also realized I didn't remember just how much climbing comes at the end of the race. There's at least half a dozen 3 to 6 minute climbs that get really, really frustrating :)

Finally, I turned onto the final singletrack so happy to know there was only this and a mile of rolling fire road between me and the finish line. Then, another female rider came up behind me. I was super bummed because I knew my legs were pretty much done and that a mile of sprinting was likely out of the question. But I did my best, charging the singletrack and standing to push when we hit the fire road. But eventually she pulled away. I crossed the finish line in 4th, 2 minutes off third and the podium. I let myself be bummed for awhile and then got over it. 4th is pretty darn good for my first 50 miler. Plus, my dad and I took 3rd in the co-ed competition. Go us!!!

Here's a pic of my dad charging:

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

I suppose, if one gave it any thought, that it might seem a bit strange to have my background be a snow-capped peak and raindrops, but those two things pretty much represent my summer thus far.

It began with meeting my coach, Jason Hilimire, for a week of riding in and around Boulder, CO with the folks from FasCat Coaching. Day one, had my VO2 tested and went for a spin in the afternoon, only encountering a drizzle or two. Returned the next day for our 4 hour ride up some of the punishing climbs in the area, topping out at one point at about 10,000 feet. Boy did the lack of oxygen make me dizzy! The climbing was followed by some epic descending that got super fun when we hit a narrow canyon and really started to push one another with attacks off the front. As a mountain biker, I haven't spent a ton of time in pelotons, but I'm really starting to appreciate it. I was riding with a bunch of folks (men, mostly) who were just enough stronger than me that I really had to work to keep up with them. I haven't spent so much prolonged time at lactate threshold ever. But, back to the rain. So day 3--the day we were supposed to go for our epic 5-6 hour adventure--we awoke to rain. We convened at the performance center and, fortunately, agreed we were going out no matter what. We all put on every piece of gear we owned and decided to go hard and fast to keep warm. Oh, that was a painful half hour before I finally warmed up and could keep pace. Plus, by the end of the first hour, my neoprene booties were so wet I didn't have to work so hard to turn the pedals over; the weight of my booties were doing it for me. On day 4, we awoke to rain yet again, and though I had no desire to spend yet another wet day in the saddle, we went out. By this point my legs were pretty spent, too, so I just kept telling myself, the sun had to show up eventually, and soon I'd be making the transition to dirt where I'd be able to take my Jamis Dakota d29 Team out for only the third time.

And hit the dirt we did. Jason and I had originally planned on a trip to Granby but because we're not from Boulder, decided to take Trail Pass Road (the highest paved road in the US). We hit the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park and were told the road was closed, but not because there was a ton of snow, rather because there were a few inches and the snow equipment the park service has is only equipped to handle feet of snow, not inches. We could either wait for the sun to melt the snow or change plans. We opted to change plans, and decided to head back down to Boulder and Hall Ranch. Before we did we saw some beautiful elk!

And Hall Ranch was just dry enough to ride. I was so stoked to be on dirt!
And the next day we made made it to Granby and enjoyed the bluebird day we'd been waiting for all week. Below is the nasty start climb and the climb through the aspens on the way to Patriot that I mentioned in my earlier post.

Here's the waterfall section:
Then I was on the road again.

Before I get ahead of myself, I think I need to take a few steps back and provide some context for this blog and how it is exactly that at 29 I ended up racing my mountain bike professionally. It all started when I moved from Moscow, ID (where I was getting my MFA) to Santa Barbara, CA to begin teaching English at a boarding school. While in Moscow, I mountain biked a TON. All day everyday I could. With some great friends I embarked on long epic rides all over the local mountain, or a couple ranges further out where we rode from one fire lookout to another. It was, simply put, freaking awesome. So when I moved to Santa Barbara and got a full time job in 2008, I kind of wanted to curl up and die for a couple of months. The lifestyle I had enjoyed so intensely was completely and utterly gone. But, fortunately, as the shock of life after grad school waned a bit, I did get out on my road bike and discovered that road riding in SB is spectacular. In fact, riding my road bike slowly but surely started to make my life bearable, and then, downright good. In a better emotional space, I actually started to enjoy my job, and in February, my dad suggested I give mountain bike racing a try. I went up to the CCCX series in Monterey and won my first beginner race. A few months later, I won Sea Otter. And a few months after that, I won Nationals in Mt. Snow, VT. The next season I was racing CAT 2 and winning. After about 3 races as a CAT 2, I promptly made the jump to CAT 1. After a few 5th, 6th, and 7th place finishes I was a bit humbled but also excited to be facing stout competition. Slowly but surely my training started to match my desire to be a competitive CAT 1 racer and after a 2nd place finish at Big Bear, I decided to devote my 2009 summer entirely to preparing for Nationals.

In June I went back to Moscow to hit up some of my favorite trails and to be at elevation. (Well, some elevation anyway.) I did all my training on my mountain bike, ate well, and rested a lot. I got to Granby with a couple of days to adjust to 10,000 feet and to pre-ride the course. When I rolled up to the start line at Nationals I felt good. I thought a top 5 finish might just be possible. As we waited for the gun, a few Coloradians were talking trash, asking how us lowlanders were handling the elevation, but I just took a deep breath and reminded myself of all the preparation I had done. When we finally took off, I was in the back of the pack, my legs searing with the sudden effort output it took to climb the super steep start hill. Though I easily could have started panicking about being in the back of the pack, I reminded myself that starts are always my weakest point in the race, and just kept pedaling.

About 20 minutes in, I started to settle in and was pleased with my pace. I passed a couple of ladies, and figured I was somewhere around 7th or 8th. There's a relatively slight climb on the back side of the mountain and I told myself to focus on passing whomever was ahead of me. Turned out to be a girl from DC. I passed her just in time to hop on the shale-covered single track up the backside of the mountain. I had been climbing this section well during the pre-ride and knew that I could make up for the time I lost on the start here. When I reached the top, I was stoked to finally be hitting some downhill I could recover on. I took some hits off my bottle, and reminded myself that some technical riding was coming up, and that if I hit the lines I scouted during the pre-ride, I might just get that top 5 finish. Funny enough, not 2 minutes into the technical downhill, I had to slam on my brakes to keep from running over the lead pack of 4. I was so stoked!

As I rolled along behind the lead-group, I grew more and more excited; it felt like these ladies were barely moving because of their timidity on the challenging terrain. Slowly I began to realize I might just be able to take the lead. I bided my time, waiting for a place to pass the lead group; I needed to choose wisely on the narrow, technical single-track if I was going to avoid a crash. Then, finally, my opportunity presented itself. On a right hand turn, the hard-packed dirt turned to dust and after about 10 feet, did a sharp left hand turn that one could easily wipe-out on if they didn't know the line. I had scouted this section of trail and rode it numerous times so I knew the line was way left and through a slot between two trees. No one else was clued in to this, and so I let go of the breaks and took my line and the lead. I couldn't believe it; I was in 1st!

My hear rate jumped a dozen beats at this turn of events. I had never imagined being in the lead. I took another deep breath and reminded myself I was only a 4th of the way through the race; anything could happen. And a short while later it did. We hit the uphill slog through the aspens and I lost the lead to Katie DeClerq, a stronger climber than me, and then another rider, Kari Studley--perhaps the strongest climber out there that day--passed me, too. But unlike past races in which my heart would have sunk at being passed and I would have started consoling myself with a finish on the bottom rung of the podium or just off it, I reminded myself there was lots of downhill yet to come, and I was the strongest descender. So I put my head down and focused on keeping a steady pace. Finally I hit the actual top of the mountain and began the descent on Patriot--USAC's nod to the technical nature of World Cup racing. I caught Kari here and rolled up to the the waterfall right behind her. I had been planning on running it because sliding down it during the pre-ride proved more time comsuming, so without a moment's hesitation, I hopped off, shouldered my bike cyclo-cross style and charged down the waterfall past Kari.

Back on the bike, I focused on catching Katie. It was all downhill back to the start line and Lap 2 so I knew my chances were good. Katie came into sight right before the bottom of the hill, and I caught her just as we began the climb up the start hill. I couldn't believe it. I'd never thought, let alone raced, races so tactically before. It felt like another rider was inhabiting my body. I was calm and collected in a way I had never been before. I used to whitewater kayak on some really difficult water that required a kind of self-control--an ability to keep fear and pain at bay--to navigate safely. In this race, I seemed to be doing something similar. In all honesty, I don't remember too much of the first half of the second lap. Only that Katie, Kari, and I were together for most of it, and that it wasn't until we hit the aspen climb, that Katie and I pulled away. And then I remember watching Katie pass by and thinking: I have nothing left. There's no way I can match her in this climb. I'm going to get 2nd. Damnit, I'm going to get 2nd. And for awhile, it looked like that was going to be it. I went through the waterfall, and the single track that follows, consoling myself. But then, rather suddenly, I came around a corner, and there was Katie, just 20 feet ahead. I was shocked and the accompanying surge of adrenaline gave me a boost. I pulled up right behind her wheel and coughed just to let her know I was there. I stayed no more than a couple of inches off her wheel for the next few minutes, knowing full well that about ten feet of fire road were coming up and would be my last chance to pass her. When we hit it, I put everything I had into surging around her and took the lead with only single track, and maybe an 1/8 of a mile of fire road between me and the finish line. I took the remaining single-track conservatively, having realized that my front brake wasn't working anymore, and that Katie would be hard-pressed to pass. Finally, I hit the fire road splitting the vendor tents and stood up to turn over the pedals with everything I had left. I knew Katie was only a few feet behind. In the end, I crossed the finish line 1.16 seconds ahead of Katie. I could hardly believe it.

Now, this year, I'm racing PRO.