Saturday, August 25, 2012

WORS #8: The Subaru Cup Legacy XC

The Subaru Cup was not the end of the WORS season, but definitely the pinnacle.  There were some really big names in town, fresh off performances on a grand and international stage in London.  Even the amateur races has a little bit extra weight as these races were for USAC Midwest Regional Championships as well as WORS points.  

We drove up to WI on Sunday night, taking the day off from work.  We made it without incident, a stop or two, but mostly smooth sailing.  We found a parking spot, I unloaded and got ready, and went to check out the venue while Morleigh rested in the car.  We made her a nice little nest in the back of the rented mini-van where she could lay down for a bit.  I went and explored the venue, and found the course.  

I hopped on the trail to pre-ride, and fell in love with the course.  The starting loop was not straight up a hill for a change, a little sprint off camber into a hill climb that was again, not straight up.  It climbed, turned, descended, climbed again as we wound along the side of the ski hill.  We then dropped into a valley named "Fern Gully" which was beautifully carpeted with rich verdant green ferns.  It was my favorite part of the course to pre-ride.  The loop continued up the hill, but never straight, small punch switchbacks which were perfect for me.  I finished the first lap and was surprised that the loop was only  3.81 miles.  I was expecting at that point a 4 - 5 lap race, so I immediately went around again.  Halfway through I let a little more air out of my tires which helped immensely.  They were a little firm and I was bouncing off stuff rocks instead of rolling over them.  

I went down and registered, returned to the car and found Morleigh as well as some of my Chicago friends (Mike, Matt, and Mumford) had just arrived to pre-ride, so we chatted with them for a bit, and Mumford and Matt borrowed my pump.  Mumford said he didn't bring one because someone always brings a pump.  Morleigh and I always bring everything.  

Our last act before leaving was to drive part-way up the ski-hill and stake a claim for a spot with our tent.  We had to lug everything down and through a shallow drainage ditch, but it was by all accounts a great spot as the the Cat 1-2 course wound by 3 times within less than 30 yds, and the tent was visible from the parking lot / road.  

We headed back to Wautoma, checked into the hotel, and went to get something to eat.  Our food took forever to arrive, but was at least good.  After a good night sleep, a quick hotel breakfast, we were back at the venue early the next morning.  We carried everything we needed up to the tent, and got set up for a full day of racing.  

The fact that this was a sanctioned USAC Midwest Regional Championship meant that it had to be run under USAC rules.  The normal division between "Sport" Cat 2s and "Comp" Cat 2s was erased, and all Cat 2s were run together.  However, the Cat 2 field was too big to fit into a single race course, so the Cat 2s were divided into two races by age category, with the men under 40 racing at 8:30AM and the men over 40, Single-speeds, clydesdales, and women racing at 10AM.  Needless to say, I was happy I was not racing at 8AM.  

We were set up at the tent before the first wave of Cat 2's went off.  I was out in the woods nearby with my camera snapping some photos when they arrived at our corner of the course. As they rode I changed, got everything ready for the race, had Morleigh pin my number on my jersey (I had decided the night before to do hand-ups instead of a camelpak), and started to tool around.  Morleigh was in the woods with my camera when I went down to the tent to start my final warm-up.  My parents, Mel and Jane, were just crossing the drainage ditch.  I said my hellos and then went out to the roads to warm up for 15-20 minutes or so.  I came back, spent a few minutes chatting, and was off to staging.  There were no call-ups for the combined field, so it was just a regular CX-style pile up.  

I was there at a good time, and in a good position, most of the riders were piled on the downhill side of the course so I rolled in on the uphill.  As the waves shifted forward I maintained my position in the front row of clydesdales, and when we were invited to the starting line I surged forward and claimed a spot on the front line.  


I surged off the line and easily moved to the front.  When the course turned up hill I burned a match and powered through knowing that if I could hold the lead until we hit the single-track I would be in a good position for the rest of the race.  I burned a second match climbing up and over the bridge as I passed the first stragglers from the previous wave.  Warning flags were raised in my head that we were coming up on slower riders already.  My fears were realized when we made the sharp downhill turn into Fern Gully and I had to slam on the brakes on a downhill and come to a complete stop because a single-file line was backed up from the turn.  I waited and rode at this slow pace until we hit the uphill and the line came to a halt.  When I dismounted I grabbed my bike and ran up the inside, on the off-camber leaves while others plodded on the main trail.  The rest of the first lap was like this, no matter how many people I passed, just when I got to the kind of technical section I excel at, I slammed into slower riders. In that sense it was a rather frustrating race.  But still no riders came up from behind, and I continued to burn at a high speed trying to maintain my lead.  

When I made it to our tent, my girlfriend had my camera shooting photos and my Mom and Dad were working as a team to see if I needed hand-ups.  I was one well-supported Sprocketeer.  I had one bottle with me, and I realized that in my first lap I had not taken a single drink instead grabbing a cup at the feed-zone at the top of the hill and pushing on to pass a few more people before getting into the single track.  

It was halfway through my second lap that I saw him.  I was going up a switchback and I could see another guy in a red-kit whom I did not recently pass.  He was not bulky but he was tall, and I guess (correctly) must have been from my wave, one of the Comp Clydesdales who was trying to close the gap.  I put my head down and started to grind onward.  I just kept trying to pass people, climbing up the field one person at a time.  There were a lot of slower riders still, guys who were fading from earlier waves, and even on the third time through Fern Gully I was held up by a slower rider as we crashed into the back of the Sport women.  Despite that section of the course being my favorite in pre-riding it was the bane of my race.  I made it past the woman, and caught up to a group of men who were riding only marginally slower than I wanted to ride.  That meant passing them was a challenge, it required matches I had already burned, matches I didn't have left.  My blood O2 levels were low enough that my handling was also starting to get shaky.  I could sense the delayed reaction time, so I was trying to make up ground and put more distance between me and Mr Red, I was trying to crawl past these riders who were moving at basically the same speed as I was, and I was also trying to slow down enough to let more O2 get to my brain.  

It did not at all help the cause that heading up a steep and tight switchback I jammed my front wheel on a rock and went down.  I lost two spots that I had just burned matches to claim, and worst of all I had the adrenaline shock of crashing, and couldn't catch my breath or get my legs underneath me.  Mr. Red made his move and passed me.  I tried to contest it, but I could only spin up the hill.  When I reached the top, at the water station I could still see him, and I mentally re-engaged and committed to not letting him have his podium spot uncontested.  I got lucky a couple of times, and got in the clear on the single-track descents and closed the gap to the point where I was immediately behind him as we headed up a small climbing section.  

Here he played a better game of chess than I did, as he passed a slower rider heading across an open ski-run and squeezed in just as he hit the single track, leaving me pinched behind this slower rider on a technical descent.  He opened up the gap to 10 seconds like that.  By the time I got around that rider, he had put two more between us.  As I was passing our tent I jettisoned my water bottle looking for any savings in weight.  There were now three riders between us, and I struggled to get around them in the campground.  I finally made it passed on the way back up the hill, but the gap had only increased.  I wove through "more fun" and grabbed a hand-up from my Mom, taking a quick drink and then dropping the bottle as I entered the final two climbs.  

Here it was my legs that gave out.  It was everything I could do to keep on the bike, and keep them spinning much less worry about closing the gap.  I did not give up, the race by any stretch, but my thoughts of closing the gap became thoughts of finishing, and finishing 2nd among all Cat 2 clydesdales.  I kept an eye out behind me but saw only the riders I had just passed.  I crossed the finish line just 21 seconds behind first place, but I was really happy with my performance.  With zero mechanicals and only one fall it felt like a pretty good effort.  I was a little frustrated that I lost the chess game at the end, but Eric raced a great race.  

I also looked at the final results for the earlier race and placed Eric and I in the total pool of Cat 2 men aged 30-39.  He had the 14th fastest time and I had the 15th fastest time.  This means that, in addition to being the first Sport Clydesdale across the line I was also one of the top 15 finishers in my age group.  According to my understanding of things, this means I qualified for Nationals in Leigh, PA next summer. Goals accomplished.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Palos Meltdown: Racing...home.

Hold on, to me as we go 
As we roll down this unfamiliar road ,

My girlfriend and I have driven thousands of miles this summer just so I could race my mountain bike fifty eight.  This weekend we only had to drive 26 miles to get to the nearest race, but circumstance took us far afield anyway.  We drove close to 700 miles on Friday and Saturday to get to Des Moines and back in time for a race in our own backyard.  It was an emotional journey, one filled with new hopes and grieving for opportunities lost.  A race was just the kind of distraction we both needed to keep our minds from thinking of the pain in our hearts.

And although this wave is stringing us along 

We got back into town (Lake in the Hills = LITH) on Saturday evening, and commenced race preparations.  I went for a quick spin to try to get the 10 hrs of driving out of my legs, and my MTB was still coated with dust and grime from my last outing in WI, so Morleigh helped me wash it in her driveway before we went to bed.  We organized everything we would need for the next day including clothes, shoes, helmets, food, water, and chairs.  After some Olympic viewing we tucked ourselves into bed.  I had not pre-registered for the Meltdown because I was uncertain if our trip to Des Moines would interfere with my ability / motivation to race.  As I had not yet registered so I was still trying to decide which category I wanted to race.  I had done the sport the previous year and done well in the field (it was the race in which I qualified for nationals), but was curious to know what I could do if I raced in a higher category.  So I had it in my mind to race in the Comp field at the longer Cat 2 distance with the faster riders.

Just know you’re not alone 

My decision to race Comp changed our race timing.  We did not have to be there as early because my race went from 11:30AM to 1:36PM, leaving us more than enough time to get there in the AM.  But we backed it out to be there by the time the first race started, because racing Comp meant that I would not be able to take photos of the pros / experts this time.  They would be in front of me, as I tackled a 22 mile race for the first time.

Cause I’m going to make this place your home 

We got up a little bit behind schedule, but got our stuff together and got out of the house fairly quickly. We did not have any milk, so we ended up stopping for breakfast along the way at a great little place called "Burnt Toast" on Randall Rd (there are actually two of them on the same road.  We ended up at the second one).  After some delicious pancakes, eggs, and french toast, we were back on the highway.

We arrived at Palos and found parking at the bottom of the hill where Jason and I had parked the year before.  It was a long haul up to the top, but with a little help from some friends (Thanks Michael and Jackie) we made it with all of our gear (heavy cooler, chairs, food, bike, racing gear).

Settle down, it'll all be clear 

We then went about the business of getting ready for a race.  For the first few hours that meant chit-chatting and cheering for the Citizen and Sport classes.  I missed the photo opps for the Citizen class, but did get a handful of good shots for the Sport class.  I did not stray far from the starting area, as I had to register and wanted to stay off my feet as much as possible.

Don't pay no mind to the demons 

The start of the race was kind of like a WORS race.  A LONG uphill climb to start and spread out the field.  It was different from a WORS race in that instead of multiple starting waves for each category, it was a mass start for pretty much everyone.  I tried to do a good warm-up, tooling up and down the roads at first.  Then as I went past our car, I made a game-time decision to drop into the prologue and get some single-track warm-up instead of trying to do it all on the road.  I was glad I did.  There were some cobwebs to be shaken off from the 2 weeks off the mountain bike, and there were also some twitchy sections of loose gravel and big unexpected rocks.  It gave me a little more confidence having not ridden the course since last year's race.  I anticipated a cyclocross-style pile up 15 minutes before the race started, so I warmed up good and early.  I made it to the bottom of the hill, and took cover with the other early birds under the shade of a tall oak tree.  There was not really much clear direction, but the pros lined up first, then the women behind them, and before my garmin said 1:30PM the pros were off, followed quickly by the women (one of whom had to fight her way through the Comp horde to get to the start of her race late).

They fill you with fear 

As noted the Comp field was officially a horde.  I had gotten there early enough to assure a good starting position, second line toward the inside edge, so when the countdown ended, and the whistle blew, I was able to surge toward the top.  I did not go for a full out sprint, instead reminding myself over and over again that it was going to be a long race.  It was a long race, there was no need to blow up in the first minute.  Don't blow up. But I did surge forward with the pack and made to the top with the top 20-25 riders.  As we strung out into the narrow CX section of the course I was just a few riders back from Paul-Brian which was right where I wanted to be.  I surged up as we headed around the final bend, and got behind him as we dropped into the Prologue.

The trouble it might drag you down 

I once again was happy with the decision to pre-ride this section of the course.  I was not able to stay with the leaders, but I felt like I was able to hold my own on the downhill sections.  When the course turned up, I started to slow (stupid gravity), but I made it out of the woods relatively unscathed.  I was breathing heavy, and working on calming down my heart-rate as we came around the lake, in anticipation of the big winding climb back to the top.  I held my own on that first trip up the grassy hill even making up a few spots, and getting to the top with enough gas to put the hammer down on the flat and make up a few more spots heading into the single track.

If you get lost, you can always be found 

The single track, as Palos is known to be, was fast and flowing.  However, my legs started to fill up with lead.  I held my ground on the downhills, but whenever the ground turned upwards, a few more guys slipped by me.  It was here that this song started to course through my head, and became my anthem for the day.  I have never been an American Idol fan, but between the Olympics Gymnastic's promo, and a heavy rotation on Satellite radio it had gotten into my head.

Just know you’re not alone 
Cause I’m going to make this place your home 

Over and over the refrain looped as I dug deep and waited to get my second wind.  I knew it was coming, but as I waited there was only suffering and pain.  I could not will it to come, so I focused on keeping the wheels down, and cranks turning.  As the oxygen drained from my blood, my field of vision narrowed to the wheel in front of me and the twisting brown snake who's back I was desperately clinging.  I lost track of where I was in the field, I had little sense of where I was in the woods.  I recognized a few of the riders who caught me, and continued to catch a few riders here and there.  Disorientation set in.

Settle down, it'll all be clear 
Don't pay no mind to the demons 
They fill you with fear 

When the course dropped off to the left into what had to be the first of the three ravines, I followed the wheel in front of me and took a line way to the right down and in.  I don't know if it was the "right" line, but I made it up and out without much incident.  It wasn't a perfectly smooth exit, but I did not stop or fall down.  When we approached the second ravine, I remembered Rich warning me that they had put a "jump" in the middle of the second ravine.  It didn't make sense to me, and he suggested I avoid it.  When I finally saw what he was talking about I had too much speed and no time to swerve so went straight over.  Again, I made it safely through the ravine and kept pedaling. At some point my teammate Brent came up behind me, I asked him if he wanted to pass and he said he was fine for the moment recovering on my wheel. too.

The trouble it might drag you down 

On the next big uphill Brent stormed past me.  I was hoping to be the first finisher on my team, and Brent passing me did not sit well with my ego.  My legs told my ego to fuck-off.  My second wind was not quite ready to make an appearance.  Suffer onward.  The first part of the gravity cavity was decorated with streamers, a portable generator and a boom box blasting tunes.  It was a little deceiving because they actually set up their little support/cheering station a few dozen yards in front of the worst part of the cavity.  The hard climb was mostly unobserved and unadorned.  It was you vs the loose dirty and roots all alone.  But the cavity also signaled the beginning of the end of the first lap. A few more turns and ascents and the trail opened up into the picnic area, wide and grassy, which allowed me to finally catch my breath, and then sur la plaque, and reel in a few more of those places that had slipped away at the end of the first line.

If you get lost, you can always be found 

As I passed the start-finish area Morleigh was standing along the side ready for a hand-up, but I waved her off.  It was not terribly hot, so I was not drinking as much as I had anticipated.  My camelpak was still mostly full, and my first bottle of energy drink was still half-full.  I made a note to try to drink more on the second lap, as I dropped down the hill again.  The second lap was a blur.  I remember a few notable things, in spurts on flat ground I was finding ways to get past some people, even as other passed me.  I passed a few of the Elite women, and at least one of the Elite men.  Paolo had some mechanical difficulties (racing on a brand new bike), and ended up DNFing after getting tangled up in someone else's wheel.  I said something to him as I passed, trying to be encouraging, to which he ratted me out to my girlfriend telling her to tell me if I had enough oxygen to chit-chat out there I was "doing it wrong".

Just know you’re not alone 

Toward the end of the second lap, I had my only "issue" of note.  I was going around a banked corner and hit a bump while pedaling, and ended up driving my right patella into corner of my shift-lever.  The pain was instant and felt like a hit to the "funny bone".  My whole leg went numb.  I didn't crash or lose control, but I could not put down any force with my right leg.  I looked down, trying to see how badly I broke the skin, but there was only a little patch of broken skin, so I knew I would be alright.

Cause I’m going to make this place your home

It took a good 2 minutes or so to recover, and we were of course heading into an uphill section.  I lost about 4 spots and I don't know how much time soft-pedaling waiting for the nerve pain to fade and stop interfering with my regularly scheduled muscle pain.

The gravity cavity was brutal the second time through.  I downshifted and spun up, losing a place or two along the way.  It wasn't until we cleared the single track and returned to the double that I started to  feel strong again.  I started to feel like it was "just one more lap".  Once again I caught a few guys through the double track and as we approached the gravel hill leading through the woods back to the start/finish area.  It was here that I had a moment of "genius".  I was feeling my camelpak, still more than half-full of water, and decided since I did not need it for my race number, and I did not need it for water, that I would drop it at the top and risk a lap without a tube or CO2 for the advantage of not having the extra weight on those climbs.

As I climbed the hill I drank as much energy drink and water as I could hold, in preparation to jettison them both.  So as I rolled past the lap marker, I pulled over to the right and started soft pedalling.  I looked down, didn't get the top clip immediately, looked up, saw Morleigh, looked down and got the top and bottom clip.  I armed out of the left side, and let the right slide down my shoulder.  Michael, bless him, saw exactly what I was trying to do and grabbed the camelpak so I could pull my arm out, grab and toss my empty bottle, and immediately grabbed the energy drink that Morleigh was holding.  All without missing a pedal stroke.

Just know you’re not alone 

Morleigh told me later that someone in the crowd exclaimed:

"Holy hell!!! Did you see that guy?  He dropped his camelpak and picked up a handup at the same time.  Screw Michael Phelps, that's an Olympic move, a perfect 10!"

I was just happy I didn't crash or fumble the bottle.  The it was down to the bottom of the hill for one more climb up through the grassy plains.  My third lap felt like the fastest lap.  I spent the most time alone with no one in front of me to slow me down, and no one behind me chasing me.  My hands and arms were completely exhausted, and all I could do was try to hold on and just let the big wheels do their thing.  I remember having almost an out of body experience as we dropped into the very rough and root-filled descent between the three ravines.  My bike was rattling over drop after drop, and all I could do was hang on loosely and try to stay on the brown snake's back, but he was twisting and rolling something fierce.  I was jockeying back and forth with a few riders at various times during the third lap.  When we came out of the cavity into the double track, there was one rider who had about 20 second gap on me.  I stood up and set my mind on catching him.  I revved up my speed on the flat, and stood up into the climb, as we came out of the woods to hear and see the cheering crowd I had closed the gap to a single bike-length.  He stood up, I stood up, but I had more left in the tank.  In a sprint to the finished I moved ahead.

Cause I’m going to make this place your home

Morleigh was there with open arms to greet and congratulate me at the finish.  My head was pounding with the sound of my own heart beat, and my lungs screamed for more air.  I leaned on my bike, and resisted the urge to fall over.  We made it back to the tent and I sunk down in a chair.  It took about 5 minutes before I started to feel human again.  I made the rounds congratulating the other rides who finished ahead of me and behind me.  When the high-fives were over, we started to undo the preparations and reverse course.  Morleigh was amazing post-race support.  She was right there with water, food, a towel, exactly what I needed before I knew I needed it.  She helped me wash up a bit by squeezing water from my camelpak onto my legs and sharing some tea-scented wipes.  I changed into civilian clothes, and packed everything away.  We hung out for a little longer, looking at the final results (I was 30th out of 104) and then made our way back to my apartment.

Cause I’m going to make this place your home