Tuesday, June 22, 2010

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.

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