30 November 2005

It's Wednesday ...

... so it must be 'cross day. Good ride out to the Lagoons this morning with Lou and Scott Starbuck -- sort of funky with a layer of frost over shifting mud that sent your front wheel going every which way. Good handling practice, and Lou is looking super-strong for Sunday's state championship.

Renee has posted a travelogue video from their trip to Iowa -- it's pretty funny! I come across as a complete dork, but if the (size 48) shoe fits, then ...

Finally, I hear from another fellow Iowa traveler that Culver's has an off-menu special -- all you can eat custard for an hour!!!! Why did I order the naked chicken sandwich?

29 November 2005

Jingle Cross Photos

Renee has posted a bunch of photos from the Jingle Cross Rock A race -- check out this awesome shot of the creek crossing, as Kurt tries to close a gap ... this is from the perspective of the course, looking back at the first creek crossing, just as we remounted to head into the second crossing. Jim says it was ridable when it was frozen the day before ... (Of course, there are also the obligatory glam shots of Mr. McCartney looking super-thin and fit in his Discovery kit ...)

Also, a big shout out to Chris Henning, who placed 8th last week on the snowy course in Beantown. Chris sent over some great intel on the course, which was designed by the same guy doing Nats ... sounds like it's going to be FUN!!!

28 November 2005

Jingle this!

I have to admit, I felt a little daft signing up for the Jingle Cross Rock on the Sunday after Thanksgiving -- I've been making 4+-hour drives to races since April, and the prospect of driving 8 hours for a 1 hour race was a little goofy. But Jim told me it would be fun, and a good experience to have before Nationals, since the field would easily double anything we see in Wisconsin or Chicago. It's a good thing he was right!

I knew Jason McCartney from Team Discovery Channel (yes, the Team Discovery Channel) would be there -- he of the U.S. Olympic squad at Athens, he of the 2005 Giro d'Italia, he of the demolition of Snake Alley a couple of years back. In the lead-up to the race, Jim was talking half-seriously about what it would take to beat J-Mac -- I have to admit, I was pretty impressed! It goes to show just how deep the 'cross love goes for Mr. Holmes …

Of course, then the race pre-reg list came out, and former MTB World Champion Steve Tilford was on it. Gulp! I've been racing Steve for the past couple of years, and as fierce as he is on the road, I just couldn't imagine what he'd be like on the dirt. I needn't have worried, as I only saw him for about a second at the start line, and then afterward at the awards presentation!

The drive over was nice, in warm (50+ degree) weather with light rain. Perfect 'cross conditions! The course was laid out at the Hawkeye cross-country grounds in Coralville, and looked tailor-made for roadies -- totally wide open and exposed, with rollers that would sap the strength out of everyone each lap. There was a short singletrack section just past the start/finish that featured a double creek crossing -- it was becoming increasingly unridable as the day went on, with shoe-sapping mud accumulating in the riverbed -- followed by a triple barrier (up a slight incline); a long, looping grass section to a triple log run (uphill); more grass (uphill, into the wind) to a short, steep climb-180 turn-downhill-180-turn-into uphill barriers; and then more grass (thankfully downhill!); with another nontechnical singletrack section just into the finish straight. It was a doozy!

I reconned the course at the same time as Trudy, Steve's partner-in-crime and all-around awesome bike lady, and we watched as a few of the single-speeders managed to ride the second crossing before it became a total wasteland. It was a long course, and I only managed two and a half times around before the course was closed for the next race … It was a huge women's field, and Jim's fiancĂ©e Shannon put in a stellar ride for 8th! Also of note, Renee had a strong ride and of course Trudy was having fun as she always does …

Meanwhile, back in the parking lot, I was spraying my shoes and bike with vegetable spray, hoping that the mud and grass wouldn't stick too badly in the misty, wet conditions. I was parked next to a guy and his wife from Minnesota -- Dan is in his first year of racing 'cross, as is his wife Linda -- and she blew away the field in the women's open race!

I got another lap of the course in as the women were finishing, and then it was time to toe the line. I got to the front row of the staging area, and made a comment that this was the biggest race I'd ever been in, with 30 riders … the guy next to me laughed, but I was being serious! After a few call-ups we rolled to the line, and I was in the second row …

"Riders ready …" and we were off! I can only imagine it was like watching a lap at Arlington Park, as we flew up the front straight with grass flying everywhere and guys jockeying for position. We bypassed the creek section on the opener, so it was wide open, 20+mph, tailwind craziness to the first barrier section, where we funneled from a four-lane highway to a roped-off country lane! I was forced wide to the left, and ended up dismounting into some crappy rough … at the top of the small rise, as we remounted, groups were already starting to form, and Tilford was off the front and on his way to the solo win …

I found myself in a group of six or eight right about midpack. We held position over and around to the logs, trying like hell to fight our way to the larger group that had formed in front of us, just seconds away. Dan came by me in the headwind, shouting "C'mon, Chris!" but I just couldn't go on his wheel … he made contact, and went on to finish 9th -- definitely a missed opportunity, but there was no way I could have held on!

Instead, I settled in on the wheel of John, the race organizer, as we worked to connect with his teammate John, who was just ahead. Into the singletrack, and it was obvious that they don't get much jungle cross in Iowa. But they know how to run, and John jumped sideways in the stream to put a small gap on me as I took the straight line … I caught him back on the grass track, as he gasped and admitted that it had hurt …

We made contact just at the barriers, and finally shed one rider who was absorbed by the chase group forming behind as John and John railed it to stay away. We were down to three, and slowly but surely losing ground on the group ahead, but it was all I could do to hang on and pray for deliverance … I felt bad for not pulling, but was determined to stay in there … eventually, into the headwind with three and two to go, I managed a couple of pulls after John (which one?) asked me to … but that was it, and as we got the bell for one to go, I lost their wheel coming out of the singletrack, lost more ground in the muck, and watched them ride away as I rode to preserve a 14th-place finish. They were starting to close in on 11th place, and maybe if I didn't have runners legs I could have helped more … maybe … if only …

The crowd was awesome, with music and cowbells blaring in the creek section and a huge group at the start/finish. It was a pain in the butt to hear "Go John! Go John!" all day, with only a couple of "Go Chris!" (thanks Renee, Shannon, and crew!) thrown in there, but I guess when you're the organizer you get all the perks! It really was an incredible event, and I am so glad I made the drive -- it was well worth it! I was in the money for only the second time (not counting the merchandise last year), and I was able to pay for the gas with my winnings -- it helps that I only paid $2.02 a gallon in Davenport! Even better, organizers are promising a 2-day event next year, perfectly filling a hole in the Chicago/Wisconsin 'cross calendar!

Another positive, I don't feel completely shattered, and I managed to put down a plain chicken sandwich from Culver's I skipped the custard, but did have fries, and (knock wood), the stomach is none the worse for wear … That said, the cashier was shocked when I asked for it plain, and I've decided that anyone in denial about the obesity epidemic in the U.S. needs to go to a local Culver's on a Sunday night sometime soon …

27 November 2005

Jingle Bell, Jingle Bell, Jingle Cross Rock

Full race report to come, but wanted to post a quick update -- 14th today at the Jingle Cross Rock, fighting for 12th until the last 1/2 lap and closing in on 11th! It was a strong field, as we watched Steve Tilford (former MTB World Champion) ride away from Jason McCartney (Olympian, Giro rider for Team Discovery Channel) on the first lap for the solo win. Jim Holmes pulled out a very strong 5th, and Kurt Refsnider made his return to racing by placing 8th!

The course was pretty cool, set up at the Hawkeye cross-country grounds. Every run was uphill, and most of our dismounts were downhill, including a double creek crossing that sucked the life out of our shoes with shin-deep mud every lap. It was the biggest field I've ever raced in, and being a part of 30 guys going full-on at the first barriers was pretty amazing!

Cool stuff: The results from the race were posted before I even got home to Chicago! That's staying on top of things!

Cool stuff 2: Renee has posted video from the A and 30+ races at Angell Park -- it's a long video with absolutely schizo music, but it's a lot of fun and you get a good sense for the course ... stick around to the end to see "The End" ...

On the iPod: Continuing my year of firsts, I bought a CD last Tuesday on the day it was released for the first time. I've become a huge System of a Down fan over the past year, and couldn't pass up Hypnotize -- on the long drive to Iowa City, I listened to the Mezmerize/Hypnotize double album, and have to admit it's better when it's whole. On the way home it was Ten Thousand Fists from Chicago's Disturbed keeping me more than awake -- thanks to Renee's video from Sheboygan, "Pain Redefined" has become a new favorite ... I'll post reviews soon, once the taper-nuttiness has taken hold before Nats ...

26 November 2005

Turkey Trotting!

For the past couple of years, Kim and I have made it our Thanksgiving tradition to start the day with a race – the Goose Island Turkey Trot in Lincoln Park, benefiting the Greater Chicago Food Depository. In a return to our fitness roots, I run and Kim walks, and then I double back to finish out the walk by her side. It’s a great way to burn off some calories while helping a great cause!

This all started four years ago, when I finished the race in 32 minutes and change, and Kim spectated. We took the next year off, as I did the Save the ‘Drome XC Challenge in Northbrook, but then we came back last year with a vengeance. Fighting through cold and dangerously icy conditions, I managed a 31:47, good enough for second place in my age group! Kim even jogged some of the course, and had a fun time people-watching and getting her energy up before the double Thanksgiving feasts we do every year.

I make it a point not to look a prior results going into this event, and so set no expectations for myself. In fact, this year I told myself, “Self, you have three weeks of ‘cross left, and last year you suffered at Monroe Harbor, in part because of hammering yourself into the ground at the Turkey Trot. So don’t run this for time; run this for fun!”

When the day dawned bright and chilly – 19-degrees was predicted for the 9 a.m. start on the way to the coldest Thanksgiving since 1956! – we came really close to bagging it. But they were giving out long-sleeve technical shirts this year, instead of cruddy sweatshirts, so we decided to at least go down, turn in our canned goods, and get the goody bag. Of course, once there, we decided “it’s not that bad …”

Thanks to a bad start last year, I knew to be in the front this time around. What I didn’t expect was the crazy pull of the front-runners … by the half-mile mark, I was settled in just behind the first two women, at the tail end of the “front” of the race … behind me, there was a gap of about 200 meters to the next person! The adrenaline was going, and I was getting sucked along … on the way to my fastest competition mile ever! We hit the first marker at 5:51, and I knew I was in for a long day – I’ve never run under 6 minutes in my life!

I slowed down just a bit, letting the women go, and settled in as we made the turn into the mile two marker and into the headwind. I did the second mile in 6:22, a huge difference, but could feel myself starting to suffer pretty badly. Thankfully, I had figured out the strategy to this race last year … go out sort of fast for the first two miles, and I could hang on in the last three … I hoped …

I used cycling techniques through the headwind third mile, sneaking in behind other people and using passing runners to move me up. Drafting is completely legal, and I was happy that more runners didn’t know how to use it! Even though I had said this wasn’t for time, the competitive side had kicked in, and I was at least going for place …

The third mile was the slowest, clocking in at 6:36. I passed a guy in yellow with some sort of hairy overshirt, and had drafted my way up as we entered the backside of the start/finish. The buildings thankfully blocked the brutal 30mph north wind through here, and although I was fading I wasn’t suffering from the breeze quite as bad. But I was FREEZING, and I had no feeling in my hands and arms as the blood rushed to my churning legs. My face was numb, my lips were cracking, and I was just hanging on …

I lost a couple more spots in this mile, coming in at 6:32 as the winner was heading into the homestretch. One last mile, less than 7 minutes of suffering (so I hoped!), and the pain would be over … I lost the draft of a small group of three, and heard the deep gasping of someone behind me. Risking a couple of glances, I could see him coming hard as we drove through the tunnel and back onto the inner running path. This was it, three more minutes, and I was struggling …

We hit the small rise by the feed station, and I lost some momentum. But then it was flat, and I cut to the inside of the lane. I looked back; he was gaining … I could hear his footfalls. There it was, the last corner, do I jump the curb? No way, can’t risk tripping … over and around, and onto the pavement … last drive … push, push … he’s gaining … there’s the line! Almost there … DAMN! He got me! Crap. Can’t … breathe … into ... the chute … beep from the chip … can’t breathe … nice … race … good … finish … way … to … come … back … on … me … thought … i … had … you …

I did the last 0.98 mile in 6:19, barely losing out to the guy I had passed at mile 3. And although I would have sworn I was slower than in the past, I somehow managed a chip time of 31:37, taking 10 seconds off my PR! I could barely manage to walk to the car, and I spent the rest of the day moaning every time I moved, but it was well worth it – a heck of a race on an epic morning! Still waiting to hear what the results are; my gut is that my age group was more competitive this year, but I am definitely thrilled to know that I bested myself again!

Update: I just saw on the Chicago Athlete site that I repeated as the silver medalist in my age group! Unlike last year, when I was a full four minutes away from the win, this year was a mere 15 seconds -- I got passed in the last 800 meters for the victgory. OUCH! I managed to place 32nd overall, and 2nd out of 259 in my AG, with an average of 6:26 per mile.

(I have to ask – which is a better PR? The one through ice and dangerous footing, or the one battling 30mph winds with gusts up to 45mph? Either way, it would seem my fitness is about where it was last year, at least I hope!)

After grabbing some warm clothes, I caught Kim just before the mile 3 marker, and walked the last 2 miles with her, catching some fun photos as she crossed the line. We even indulged in a bit of Goose Island Root Beer (diet for me, of course!), before heading out to Woodstock and Algonquin for the family festivities. All in all, it was a great event, but we swear we won’t know what to do when it’s 40 degrees and sunny next year!

25 November 2005

What shall you use …

... to build ... the Wall?

“Building barriers” seems to have a very negative connotation in business today. But as anyone who knows me knows, I don’t do anything half-assed, and given my new focus on ‘cross, earlier this week I set out to build some barriers for myself …
Thanks to a couple of sources on the web (search for “cyclocross barriers” or “cyclocross hurdles” on Google.com), I had a good idea of what I would need. And thanks to my high-school geometry teacher, I sort of remembered that all angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees, and that A squared + B squared = C squared … that is, the Pythagorean Theorem.



I think Kim was utterly shocked, when in the course of about 2 hours total, not only did I successfully complete the required math (I hate doing math), I also made three – THREE! – trips to Home Depot to get all the materials and tools I needed (I hate Home Depot, almost as much as I hate math!) Not only that, but I actually managed to do a construction project in our dining room, without making too much of a mess, and had it all done in less than an hour!


So now I have a set of three portable, adjustable UCI-legal barriers on which to practice. We won’t have to sneak into the Mt. Trashmore restricted area again … instead, we can just set up in the park, and have at it!

23 November 2005

Not feeling the love

Lou and I did a snow ride today over by Mt. Trashmore -- just an hour, but it killed me! Coupled with the stomach distress after a short run last night, I think my body is trying to tell me something ... thank goodness today is a short day, and I can take a nap maybe. Who knew that Stake & Shake is a no-no during 'cross? I had no problems all summer on the drives back from St. Louis after road races, but now ...

I was flipping over to DJ Writer's blog and this link caught my eye -- head there for a laugh -- those Californian's are so nutty!

Pigeonhole

According to several sources, it appears USA Cycling will be "enforcing" categories for cyclocross next year. Thus far, at least in the Chicago Cup and the WCA, it's been a self-seeding affair, as competitors chose between A, B and C races depending on their perceived ability level. I did a few B races back when I started, but I was already a 2 on the road, so quickly decided to enter the A races -- and I got shelled.

But for me, 'cross is all about the challenge, and A races are a full hour of suffering, the longest races there are. I can understand others who wish to place well, and wins in their category represent the highlight of their season. But I don't condone sandbagging, and I honestly don't understand it -- beating up on less-accomplished opponents, while simultaneously denying them their own shot at glory, is cowardly. When I moved to the As, I got lapped repeatedly (and still do), but at least I wasn't using my Cat. 2 legs to hammer some unsuspecting Sport MTBer into the ground.

That said, I like it that 'cross is self-seeding, as I don't think there's a direct correlation between road or MTB experience and 'cross. I'm out there to challenge myself at the highest level possible, but I'll be the first to admit that I should probably have stayed a B for a lot longer than I did. (And some of the guys caught behind me two weeks ago probably think I still should be …)

So the move by USA Cycling, and the enforcement that the Chicago Cross Cup has imposed recently, is a bit over the top for me. I understand why they're doing it, but I also think it's sad in a way -- 'cross has become big enough that Big Brother (aka USA Cycling) needs to step in and actively regulate it; and there are enough sandbaggers at local races that the racing public is complaining. Upgrades in cycling are already a hot-button item, and I think it would be nice if 'cross didn't have to deal with it.

22 November 2005

Wisconsin State and Midwest Championship

I wrote this on Sunday night, just after getting home from Wisconsin:

Wow. I’m wiped. I’m here at home, stomach churning, having just gotten back from the Wisconsin State and Midwest ‘Cross Championship in Sun Prairie, outside of Madison. Andy and Kerry drove Kim and I up there, to one of my all-time favorite venues. Only now I’m home, our Steak and Shake dinner (that always goes down so well after a crit) isn’t sitting well, and I am extremely tired from my first-ever double-race ‘cross weekend. But I’m also satisfied … if only …

The Sun Prairie course takes place on the grounds of the Angell Park Speedway, home of the National Midget Racing Hall of Fame, and is always fast, always hilly, and always brings out the best racers for the season. Thankfully, I’ve usually had enough racing in me by this time of the season that my skills are back in action, and this race always brings out the best in me. Today was no exception.

The course was cool, although we had to skip racing on the clay track since it was super-muddy. Instead, we were sent into off-camber turns on both hills, had a long slog up a gravel access road (thankfully with a tailwind!), and even experienced some mud as we negotiated the bleacher section. One three-pack, a long, fun loop that took us through a pavilion, Euro-style, and a dismount/runup that led into the downhill – and did I mention the off-camber stuff?!

Oh yeah! There was also a fun up-and-over on a big sand hill that saw the Men’s B leader catch too much air and biff it as he came into the finish – a wild way to lose the race!

Anyway, unlike yesterday’s race in Joliet, the details of Sun Prairie are kind of hazy in my mind. I remember having a bad start (still working on that one) when I couldn’t clip in; I remember two IS-Corp guys slamming headlong into different barriers on the first? lap; I remember dangling off the back of a four-man chase group for nearly half the race, catching them only to lose them again on the long uphill (despite the tailwind!), over and over; and finally, I remember duking it out with one of the IS-Corp guys, Kip, for the last two laps until I jumped him just before the downhill. Unfortunately, he caught back on thanks to my horrible cornering, and drove past me on the final uphill to take away 8th place. So I was 9th – a top 10 in a pretty big field!

I also remember that I wasn’t that far behind 4th-7th, and I think I could have had at least one better placing, maybe two, if I had nailed the cornering. I didn't get lapped, and I also only got passed by one 30+ rider, a far cry from Badger Prairie when I got passed by five or six. And I remember a guy with a cowbell, shouting the whole time. And people cheering – sorry I’m not sure who all of you were ... it was hard to focus out there on anything more than my front wheel!

A big congrats too to Jim Holmes, who earned his first Wisconsin state medal when he took 3rd today! Jim’s been gunning for that one for a long time, finishing 4th far too many times to count! And I have to mention the kid's race, where this 3 or 4 year old on a BMX bike showed perfect dismount form to steal the win from his bigger opponent. No kidding, this kid dismounted like a seasoned pro, but could barely manage to lift his bike over the mini-barrier!

Kim grabbed these shots of me; the funny thing is, my legs didn’t hurt so much as they just struggled to churn out the same power I had yesterday. And now, post-race, nothing seems to settle in my tummy, and I can tell I’ve abused my body in a pretty profound way. But that’s ‘cross, and I’m looking forward to doing it again next weekend!


Update: On Monday, Jim Holmes sent out a great ride recap on the Madcross listserve. The front of the race was quite a bit different than the middle! Anyway, although we were missing Matt and Tristan, we still had Brian Matter (pro), Jesse Lalonde (reigning singlespeed MTB world champion), Earendal Fingerson, Brian Conant (from Chicago), and Jim in the race ... that's some pretty stiff competition, and Jim did well to medal!

20 November 2005

Living up to potential

When I was in grade school, I used to get regular notes home to my parents: “Chris is not working up to his potential.” My mom and dad, my teachers, the school guidance counselor – they all wanted me to “realize my potential.” Thing is, I was just being me, and as far as I was concerned, doing the work required to live up to my potential just wasn’t all that fun.

Thankfully, doing the work required for ‘cross is fun. So last week, Lou and I went out and did some specific barrier hopping. And I did a bit of practice bunny-hopping. And on Saturday, on an honest-to-goodness ‘cross course that almost could have been UCI legal, it showed.

This was race number two at Joliet’s Challenge Park, another one of the Chicago Cyclocross Cup races. Like last week, it was again a small field, but unlike last week, the singletrack was kept to a minimum, and it was less an MTB course than a true test of ‘cross skills.

The details of the race are pretty clear in my head, so I warn you … long race report ahead, unfortunately without photos since sometimes homework (Kim's) is more important than traveling to races …

The eight of us lined up again without local hero Matt Kelly (who was out west trying to collect UCI points), but representing nearly all of the top 10 on overall classification from the Cup. Lou couldn’t make it down, so our rivalry would have to wait until the Illinois State Championship, but I was determined to have a good race anyway, and try to use my newly practiced “skills” on the one barrier, and the couple of small hops, while trying to power away on the long, slick uphill into the brutal headwind start/finish section.

Again a bad start, again finding myself in last place. But I was smooth through the barrier/runup, and managed to eek back a couple of spots before hitting the short first singletrack. So I’m sitting in 6th as we headed into the fairly nontechnical part. I jam my back wheel against the log, but make it over, and have lost time to the first five places as we come out into a field. Chris Dimmick from Turin is ahead of me, and a guy from Revolution on an orange bike comes around as we enter the technical section – downhill, with several off-camber turns.

I survive by going slow, but manage to make it back up on the hill. The three of us are spaced out a bit, but by the barrier have managed to pass another rider, putting us in 4th, 5th, and 6th. I gamely hang onto the back as we head into the woods, again nailing my back wheel against the log hop and again losing time in the downhill.

Into the wind, and Dimmick has lost contact. But John Gatto, a strong mountain biker just ten points behind me in the standings and a few points ahead of Lou, is closing quick, and they join forces behind me. I’m battling in 5th to hold the Revolution’s wheel, losing it in the technical sections (again banging the wheel – a big thanks to Lou, who trued it later in the day!) but coming back on the windy flats and uphill. For two laps I’m on him, telling myself that I shouldn’t go to Nats unless I can manage 4th place, until he finally cracks me and I start to lose ground going uphill and into the wind. I hit that point in the race in which I resigned myself to my place, but at the same time Gatto attacked Dimmick and started closing on me!

He caught my back wheel through the headwind start/finish with 5 laps to go. He refused to pull through, using my mass to shield himself and rest. I swerved, I slowed, I looked over at him, but he did the right thing and just hung on. We went through the barriers together, and hit the tailwind … he waited and waited until he jumped hard as we headed into the woods. Just ahead of me, he executed a perfect bunny-hop over the log, and in a split second of divine intervention, so did I!!! I nailed it, perfectly clean, as for some reason just watching him and using his tactics made something click in my mind …

I lost some time on the downhill, but not as much thanks to watching his lines, and caught up to him easily on the hill. I used him this time, seeing 4 to go, and sheltered myself from the wind. He sat up as we came into the woods, so I was determined to hop well again … and I did! I went into the weeds a bit, but he couldn’t use that one against me ever again! I held him off into the downhill, he gained on the uphill, and we cat-and-moused through the windy start/finish.

Then the inevitable happened as we dicked around … we started to get caught by the leader. Gatto again led into the singletrack, and I just followed his wheel up the hill … then, as we turned into the start/finish seeing 2 to go, I JUMPED. Hard. I took a risky line through some rocks, and managed to get a good gap … Gatto used the hard-charging David Sachs to pull himself closer, but lost his wheel in the tailwind … Sachs caught me just before the singletrack, and I followed his wheel until he dropped me on the uphill using pure strength … it was one to go, got the bell, Gatto is still a few seconds behind … and is that a Revolution jersey ahead of me?

The last lap was a blur, as I concentrated as hard as I could at staying fluid and smooth, and not making any stupid mistakes. I almost lost it on the uphill barrier, but managed to get the bike down and jump on … I again cleared the log, with a good line this time … I saw the Revolution jersey enter the downhill just as I was coming out of the woods, but swore it was a lapped rider … I took it a bit too slow on the downhill, opting for safety instead of speed … on the uphill, second place came blowing by me as if I were standing still … and there, just at the crest, almost in reach, is Revolution on an orange bike!

In the split-second that it took for me to register that I’m racing for fourth, he used the guy from second to pull himself just that much further away. I die at the crest, barely able to turn over the cranks, and that was the race … I’m able to close to within 30 meters at the finish, but Revolution crosses the line … just … there … so … close … damn.

It’s still my best finish this year, and although a couple of the local super-super stars weren’t there, the top guys are the guys who have been finishing on top all season, when I’ve been groveling in 7th or 9th. I missed 4th by meer seconds, and I know exactly when I lost them -- when messing around with Gatto, and in the technical, off-camber, downhill turns. But by holding off Gatto, I managed to put a bit more daylight between us, and unless the wheels fall off at States, I should finish 5th or 6th in the series, just ahead of him. (It depends on whether Matt Kelly shows up – I’d love it if he were elsewhere, because then I would beat him in the series since he’s skipped some races – and I could say I beat a world champion ;-)) Thing is, last year the wheels fell off bad, and I suffered horribly … but this year they filled in my drainage-ditch nemesis, so I have a fighting chance …

After the race, I spent a long time practicing bunny hops, just to make sure I finally have that down. I’m not up to barrier-height yet, but at least I’ll be stronger with the occasional log hop, and will give my rear wheel a rest. So the skills are coming together, and I can’t wait to keep practicing them until I’m able to use them from the gun next season …

19 November 2005

"It's a brand-new year"

I love that scene in Better Off Dead when Lane's dad sits him down to try to talk sense into him. The way he delivers his lines is so funny, yet so accurate, that it makes me laugh and cringe at the same time. "You're really bringing me over, man," he says, with his thumb stuck surreptitiously in a "slang" book. "C'mon, Lane, it's a brand-new year."

That's kind of how 2006 feels for me, and I am super-excited because of it. It may seem strange to be talking about next year already, but that's sort of how cycling goes -- the next road season more or less starts on November 1. But for those of us who race 'cross, we have a few more weeks on the calendar …

Anyway, as I alluded to in an earlier post, I will again be racing on Team Mack next year. Although we won't be fielding a supported elite Category 1/2 team, Mack is still a collection of some of the best racers in the Midwest, and offers a great system for riders of all categories. I'm sure the 40+ team will dominate next year, and it will be fun to be a part of their success, if only as a spectator. We'll have plenty of strength in the 30+ ranks as well, and since many of the races are 35+, I'll be doing my fair share of 1/2 events!

(I'm also looking forward to feeding off the excitement of my new teammate, Andy -- here we are in November, and he's already dreaming of Joe Martin ... I've been where he is mentally, and it's a great feeling, full of opportunity!)

That said, next summer won't be near the intensity of the past two years, as I've made a decision to shift my focus as well … this may come as a surprise to some (especially my parents, who witnessed the "Calamity in Carpentersville"), but I have decided to concentrate on cyclocross next year. I'll still be out on the road all year, but my late summer plans will be undeniably altered as I prepare for the falling leaves, wet weather and barrier hopping. This current 'cross season has brought it home to me more than ever before -- I love racing 'cross! I'm more excited to race today, as the season nears its end, than I have been since April, in the week before Hillsboro-Roubaix. I can't wait to get out on my bike, even though it's freezing outside right now!

Now it will be up to me to prove that this isn't just a flash in the pan, a case of current-itis. I don't think it is -- there's so much to learn, and so much room for improvement, that I feel like a brand-new Cat. 5 right now ... I'm so excited to get out and race (and even train!) that I'm actually losing sleep in anticipation of getting on the bike again. Every night! I'm annoying the heck out of Renee with e-mails, and am planning a raid on the plumbing section of Home Depot for some PVC pipe, despite my mechanical ineptitude ...

And since I'm a goal-oriented person, you heard it here first -- I will be trying to earn UCI points at next autumn's races. It's not critical that I do, but it's something to shoot for -- for those of you who know me, and have seen me race, you know that I have a LOT of work ahead of me if I hope to score a top-10 or top-15 place in a UCI event. Hell, I can barely score a top-10 finish in Chicago races with just 11 guys! But I believe I have the necessary strength, and with a year dedicated to learning and working on my skills, I just may have a shot.

No matter what the outcome, however, if there's one thing this 'cross season has taught me, it's that I'll have fun trying!

18 November 2005

Decades

The silly season isn't quite over, but thankfully things have settled down a bit for me. It's mid-November, and teams and riders and companies are announcing plans for 2006 … wait, did I type that right? 2006?!

Next year will be a pretty interesting one for me. Next May marks 10 years -- an entire decade! -- of being married to my wonderful wife, Kim. It's crazy to think how much has changed since that hot, muggy day so long ago in Woodstock, but I'm happy to say that we're going strong and are very happy!

Later that month, the venerable Snake Alley Criterium will mark the 5th anniversary of my racing life. I did Downers Grove as a Citizen in 2000, but the Snake was my first race with a license … hard to believe that was 2001, before the world changed into what it is today.

Three weeks later, I get to celebrate another milestone -- 8 years smoke-free! I locked myself in our apartment, armed only with cinnamon sticks and videos of World Cup soccer from France, and emerged three days later a nicotine-free, new man. Although I slipped up once about a month later, I have now spent the rest of the time staying away from smoking!

To commemorate these events, there will be several changes to my schedule next season. First, I will be taking some time off, away from the bike -- not once, but twice! The first will come in late June, when Kim and I will go to Germany to experience the World Cup first-hand … I was able to secure tickets in a lottery for a first-round game in Leipzig. We have no idea who we'll see play, but does it really matter?

The second will be the first weekend in October, when we will pay a short visit to the B&B where we honeymooned, just outside of Gettysburg. This will be our official 10-year anniversary celebration, since the actual May timeframe was looking to be a bit over-booked …

And to celebrate my half-decade of racing? I've decided to completely change my focus! For the past five years, I've been racing on the road nearly every weekend, approaching 80 race days each in 2004 and 2005. I've achieved nearly all my once-seeming far-off goals, and with the change in the team's focus for next year, I have the chance to do something new …

… any guesses?

17 November 2005

Shameless plugs

All of a sudden, it feels like Christmas outside, so I wanted to send some thank-yous along, in the spirit of the season ...

I owe a big thanks to The Pony Shop -- although owner Lou Kuhn and I are "rivals" (at least in my mind) on the bike, he and his crew have kept me rolling for the past 5 years -- scary to think I've known them that long already!

I'd like to give a shout out to the photogs who have been at the races. Paul Matsushima has captured some awesome shots at the Chicago Cross Cup, and Paul Forsythe has hit a couple as well. And of course the guys from Fattires-N-Beer are always ready with a flash in your face …

And as some of you know, I'm a writer for Chicago Athlete magazine. I wrote a feature on 'cross for the November/December issue (back when I wasn't even sure I was going to race!), and they put it on the cover! Thankfully it wasn't a photo of me flailing my way to the finish …

Finally, if you haven't been to Madcross.org, it's time you should. Renee has put together an awesome site of All Things 'Cross, focusing on the strong WCA and Chicago scenes. She's back racing this year after rehabbing her knee, and is always just an email away to answer a stupid 'cross question or get you totally psyched for Nationals!

16 November 2005

I'm Somebody! (Not!)

Every year, I feel like Steve Martin in The Jerk -- my racing license comes in the mail, and I get all excited as I tear open the envelope. It's not quite the phone book, but it is a small piece of affirmation -- every one of my licenses has been different, reflecting category changes as I raced on the road and track.

Well 2006 brings the biggest change, and probably the last of the modifications. As it turns out, to race in internationally sanctioned Cyclocross events, including our own National Championship, riders need an "International License," aka a UCI License, issued by our own USA Cycling on behalf of the Union Cycliste Internationale, our international governing body.

Well … I now have a UCI license! It came yesterday, and now my excitement about the 'cross season has escalated just a notch. The license itself doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things -- really, it was just an extra expense -- but if you had told me 4 years ago when I started racing that I would ever have a UCI Elite license, I would have said you were crazy. I guess that's just the way things have been for the past few years!

Anyway, here it is … and I'm well aware that I'm very much a nobody, especially on the 'cross scene …

Astute observers will notice a couple of things, some of which will make for entries on future blogs … my "racing age" has been replaced by a birthdate, but I'm not getting any younger! … my team name stays the same for 2006, and I will be donning Mack colors again … for the first time, the USCF has categories for 'Cross (it will no longer be self-seeding) … and it cracks me up that I'm a BG (beginner) in all MTB disciplines, but an "MTUCI Elite" -- does that mean I have to race elite even though I've never been off-road on a mountain bike?

14 November 2005

Monday morning QB

Just got word from the Pony Shop -- my front tire is a goner. And Lou finished on a softening wheel, which is now flat as well. That, plus the two (or more?) Men's B riders I saw out there means that something -- roots, stumps, glass -- was out to get us yesterday! For Lou and I, this is a tough one, as we both ride tube-less tubulars from Tufo (say that 10 times fast!), which means the only way to flat is to puncture them. As Lou explained to me in the beginning of the season -- they're great for 'cross, because you can't pinch flat. But now my wheel has a hole that's too big to slime shut, so a new tire is on order …

I hope my last post didn't come across as me complaining about the course. I love to ride singletrack, I'm just not very experienced at it. My first time off-road was 3 years ago, at my first 'cross race, so I'm at a distinct disadvantage to the guys who have ridden MTBs their whole lives when the course gets technical. (Heck, I've never even been on an MTB!) I'm better suited to true 'cross courses … but that said, we all face the same conditions, on the same course, at the same time -- so you either ride it, or you don't. And yesterday I didn't (I ran!). I'm a bit disappointed, but it was a chance to learn better cornering, and I can tell I'm getting stronger as the season goes on.

On that note, big kudos to the promoters -- the course may not have played to my strengths, but they did an awesome job setting it up, making it tough, and -- above all -- making it dry and rideable despite big storms the night before. Great job!

13 November 2005

The ups and downs

Pics from the Joliet Men’s B and Single-speed race are here: http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/scstrout/album?.dir=/1dfa

I was flying high this week, on a major adrenaline rush from all the Nationals craziness, all the way into today’s race at Challenge Park in Joliet. I won this race last year, on a pretty wide open course with some fun single-track, and a field that didn’t have very many people in it. But it felt good to cross the line first, and although I was realistic about this year, I had hopes for a pretty high finish.

Unfortunately, it was not to be … but that’s ‘cross for you. The course this year was super-tight, with more than 50% singletrack, including an opening section with three log hops and a cement foundation ride; the same fast descent as last year; and a short section that included a one-lane bridge ride. It was a mountain-bike course, and I suffered the consequences!

Andy Anderson and I drove down together, as he prepped for his first-ever ‘cross race in the men’s B category. I dragged him down there super-early, wanting to duplicate my schedule for Nationals – one hour course preview, one hour of gathering/equipment/warmup, stage 15 minutes early sans bike, and then go-time. My body works in strange and mysterious ways, so I wanted to be sure to get the eating, drinking and warmup schedule all set before heading to Providence. Andy was good about it, and seemed to have fun checking out the course as everyone got ready for the Masters races.

Thankfully, the warmup went well for me, and seems to be dialed in. The race, on the other hand, was quite forgettable. I got a pretty good start, thanks in part to the wide-open grass/parking lot combo, and was sitting in fourth place as we entered the singletrack the first time. As expected, I lost a little ground, but not as much as I would have thought, and held my own through the open field before the wicked-fast downhill. I think I heard some swearing behind me in the forest, as I know I’m no competition for the guys raised on MTBs …

But I’m strong on the open sections, and made up quite a bit of ground. In fact, after the long uphill, I was closing fast on Lou Kuhn, intent on getting a leg up on our little rivalry. We had a small group going into the second lap, and I was going well when I could power … until the base of the hill. In a sharp 180-degree, flat turn, I lost the front wheel, and plowed head-first into the black dirt. Someone landed on top of me, and we lost a place in the blink of an eye …

Back up and going hard, still in with a chance. Until a short section just before the start/finish, again on loose single-track, again losing the front wheel. I was sprawled on the ground, helpless as the back of the pack sped by … I collected myself again, and started rolling, only to notice that my handlebars had rotated backward! There was no way I could handle the bike in this condition, so I rolled into the pit … but no one had allen keys. I waited a good minute before someone handed me a set from his car, and after another few seconds of fumbling I was finally back on track.

I had obviously lost too much ground, and at this point was just riding for points. Someone had cracked, though, and so I wasn’t last … Of course, when it rains, it pours, and at the base of the hill on the fourth or fifth lap I found that my front wheel was going completely flat. That’s hard to do with tubeless tubular tires! So I ran half the lap with my bike slung over my shoulder, and switched out the offending wheel in the pit. From then on it was training, as I was hopelessly alone for the rest of the time. But I felt good, despite the bruising on my thigh -- definitely an encouraging sign! If only we have a true ‘cross course in the near future …

I headed out to take photos of Andy’s race, which can be found here: http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/scstrout/album?.dir=/1dfa. He seemed to have fun despite working with new shoes/pedals, never having dismounted before, and running a hardtail MTB ... All in all, a tough day, but that’s ‘cross for you!

12 November 2005

Psycho-cross

I used to think Jim Holmes was nuts. Now I'm convinced of it.

Jim was an elite racer with Team Mack in the 2004 season, and despite the team's obvious road bias, spent the year proselytizing about his first love -- cyclocross. I was new to the team, was very focused on moving up on the road, and could count the number of times I had been off-road on a bike on less than two hands … and all of those were races during the preceding 'cross season.

To me, 'cross was off-season training. Sort of fun, very painful, and not a big deal. Jim had the faith, was part of the Iowa "Cross Mafia" and could handle his bike well -- after some injury and nasty crashes during the road season, he went on to blast out of the gates come fall.

I, on the other hand, was dead-set against racing 'cross last year. Except that they created the Chicago 'Cross Cup. Except that the first race was a benefit to raise money for the Velodrome. Except that I already had the bike, and needed something to do in October and November. Except that from the first whistle at that first race in Northbrook, I was hooked.

I had a lot of fun last 'cross season, just missing the podium at Jackson Park and even winning a non-Cup event down in Joliet (read: lightly attended). But I still had something to prove on the road, and this season was still very much focused on the pavement as the place to be. 'Cross was again an adjunct to my season, and it showed in my first outing -- Carpentersville was nasty, as I was overtired and hadn't been on the bike all week, choosing to run to stay semi-fit during our company sales outing.

But over the past couple of weeks, my mind has been changing. Silly season with team stuff, road burnout, craziness at work -- whatever it might be, I find myself turning again and again to my 'cross bike to blow out the cobwebs and really feel good. I've been off-road more in the past month than in the past 32 years combined (seriously), and even on the rare road-only day, I'm on the 'cross rig pushing the knobby tires. Even at the races, I try hard but it doesn't matter how I finish … above all, I'm am having FUN!!!

So why is Jim crazy? Each year, he has made 'cross his focus, and has been to Nationals the past couple of years to try his hand with the big boys. At that level, it's a nuthouse, with broken bike and body parts flying everywhere, and mud, leaves and sometimes October blizzards making the hard racing even harder. And over the past couple of weeks, I've realized that I want to be just like Jim.

So I'm headed to Nationals in a month! I'm going to be a cyclo(cross)-tourist, one of the many pack-fodder riders with no hope of seeing the front of the race. And I'm OK with that -- I'm just looking to have fun while racing. Although I will still race on the road, I've also decided that next year will have a decidedly autumn tint to it -- thanks to team dynamics changing, I won't have as many road obligations, so I can curtail my travel until chasing elusive UCI points in the fall. (UCI points = better start position = better finish at national-level 'cross races.) I don't know if I'll be any good, but that's not the point -- 'cross is so hard, so demanding, that there's no way to master it. But I'll have fun trying!

And as for Jim? He waited too long to register, and now we both have last-row starting positions in Providence. He's a small guy … we think that if I sling him, Madison-style, over the first set of barriers he may make the break …

11 November 2005

OMYGAWDI'MGOINGTONATS.com

I have been bitten by the bug. Harder than ever. So I'm headed to Providence in a month! What the heck was I thinking?

Points against: No car. No place to stay. Not all that much experience in 'cross. Not very good at 'cross. Never done a double weekend before. Never flown to a race before. Always tank at Nationals. Last-row starting place. Semi-major dental work two days before.

Points for: It's 'cross. 'Nuff said.

Googlie eyes

After the cross race on Saturday, Kim and I headed to our second-cousin Alaina's second birthday -- it was a great chance to see the family and hang out with Alaina and our 2-year-old niece Kaylie. Her birthday was a few weeks ago ...

Kaylie really liked looking at the pumpkin birthday cake, which Alaina's mom Andrea made. It was pretty yummy!


The kids were decorating mini pumpkins when we arrived, but then Uncle Chris had other ideas for Kaylie, making googlie-eyes ... (Wait! Before you call Child Services, I only put the one on my forehead -- Kay did the rest!)


And finally, even Kaylie is rooting for Lou in the local 'cross rivalry …



09 November 2005

Cutting rocks

On Sunday I had a chance to check out Rock Cut State Park near Rockford, Illinois. It was awesome! The 23 miles of mountain bike trails there are challenging but not too difficult, perfect for a couple of hours on a 'cross bike. It was a great chance to get out and work on my non-existent skills, especially after the bumps and bruises from Saturday. Even better, it's only about 40 minutes from my in-laws' house!

I ended up doing a long loop around the lake, up the Puri Crest hill loop (shared with equestrians), down to the "campground superhighway" and over to the tricky singletrack on the west side of the park. From there it was a loop through Willow Creek and around and up to the lake -- all without doubling up on any trails! The route was just over an hour around, and was pretty quiet this time of year.

If you ever get the chance, I recommend heading out there to go trail riding -- check out CAMBR and the Rock Cut Trail Crew web sites for all the info. The trails close November 30, but they'll be open again in April!

07 November 2005

Wham-bam

The weekend got off to an auspicious start on Friday morning, when I pulled a bunny hop on my morning ride and put my foot through my front wheel. Thankfully I landed with the inside of my right leg on the saddle nose, and although the resulting bruise is a bit painful, there doesn't seem to be any damage …

Saturday's race in St. Charles was brutal! The organizers put together a super-tough course with a little bit of everything -- and a whole lot of barriers, natural and man-made -- and with an approaching storm throwing out 15 mph winds, we were in for a tough hour of racing. My pre-race went pretty well, as I got to see a friend of mine, Ian, witnessing his first 'cross race, and spun a few hard laps of the course before officials kicked us off. But then, with just 5 minutes to go, it all went to hell as I popped my seatpost bolt and my saddle went nose-up into my crotch!

Thankfully nothing was broken -- on me or the bike -- and I made the start with a few seconds to spare. We blasted from the gun, through the first left-right combo, and then straight into a drainage ditch -- on this first round, it was a required dismount, although in later laps the leaders would jump/ride through. As I was getting back on, I put my foot through someone's handlebars, and barely made it onto the bike …

Blasting up the pavement hill (thankfully with a tailwind!), I found myself in about 6th or 7th place as we crested the rise and rode around to the next barrier. It was then that I discovered that I had no feeling in my feet, and my legs felt as if they were going to fall off! It was a good start position-wise for me, but I could barely get over the single barrier and up the rutted run-up!


Reid Mumford from ABD made his 'cross debut for this year at the race, and I grabbed his wheel as he came charging by, dragging me up to 4th/5th place. Reid is an absolute monster on the road, and I was happy that I felt good holding his wheel -- slowly but surely, our small group of three put time on 6th and 7th place, and on the hard-charging David Sachs, who had wrapped caution tape into his derailleur on the first lap and had quickly fallen behind. But then I screwed up -- coming into a loose, sandy corner just before a log hop, I washed out my front wheel and dumped my chain. The next two riders came by -- Lou Kuhn from 2CC/The Pony Shop and JD from Turin -- and the race was cast in stone.

I spent the next 45 minutes chasing them, at one point getting to within 5 seconds until I bungled a sand-trap/barrier section and lost 10 more. I used Sach's recovery (he would go on to finish 3rd) to pull me closer, but it was not to be -- with four laps to go, Lou started riding the drainage ditch, putting 10 seconds or more a lap into JD and me. JD was cracking, and I could tell he was hurting -- a late charge with two to go got me up to his wheel at the ditch, and I used him to shield me from the wind as time wound down.

He caught a second wind on the last lap, using the leader to claw his way up to me as we were lapped, but I recognized the tactic and jumped hard to stay with the winner through the last sections, ensuring I would finish well ahead of JD. Lou had to continue on for an extra lap, but we were thankfully done … well-done, in fact, as that was one of the toughest 'cross courses I think I've ever been on.

This pic from Kim sums it up pretty well, and Renee from Madcross.org got some pretty good ones as well ... why is it that Matt Kelly never looks like he's suffering?

I managed 9th place, two out of the money, and preserved my mid-pack placing in the Chicago Cross Cup. More significantly, I put in a decent race against JD, who has been doing 'cross races forever and is always super-strong (he was one of those "untouchable" guys back when I was a Cat. 5 on my first group ride). Lou, however, who is my early-morning 'cross training partner, evened the score at 1-1 for the two of us on the season with three more rounds to go …

What form!

We finally downloaded some photos from the past couple of weeks. It's pretty obvious why Kim is a better golfer than me:

05 November 2005

Sound familiar?

This caught my eye in Saturday's Chicago Tribune, an article about the closing of the second-to-last Greyhound park in Wisconsin. How many times have you thought this about a retired cyclist?

Perhaps surprisingly, greyhound lovers say, the dogs are not prone to tearing around homes or yards at top speed. In fact, the animals are so lazy in retirement they're known affectionately as 40-m.p.h. couch potatoes.

"The dogs really do make great pets," Roth said. "They're high-strung athletes when they're athletes, but after that ... most of the time they just lie around and watch television."

Today's 'cross race went fairly well, not perfect. The state championship is a month away, and once I get my rhythm back, I'll be gunning for that Montrose course. More on St. Charles later ...

03 November 2005

Understatement

One of my favorite hobbies is collecting quotes from public figures. Most often, these are inspirational, sometimes sports-related tidbits that help motivate me on cold, dark mornings on my bike. But those are too obvious, too easy -- it's more fun to come across a well-crafted sound byte that explains what's going on, on multiple levels:

Playboy Enterprises Inc. and Penthouse Media Group Inc., publishers of men's magazines, may make adult movies for portable video players such as Apple Computer Inc.'s new iPod to capitalize on soaring demand for the devices. ...

... The potential for Playboy from new content delivery devices prompted RBC's Bank to upgrade the company to "outperform" from "sector perform."

"Playboy has the Good Housekeeping seal of approval," Banks said. "Their image is more positive than simply pornography. That's part of why they become the partner of choice. They are reputable in billing management and age verification of their talent. There aren't many brands that share that stature."

But then he goes on to highlight the true thinking about why they've been upgraded:

"There is substantial potential for Playboy," Bank said. "Playboy content is the kind that is a natural to be able to exploit the new distribution channel. It lends itself to a shorter viewing experience."


BRILLIANT!

01 November 2005

Thwack!

Kim and I had an awesome time in Galena this weekend. Only 2-1/2 hours from Chicago, this little area in northwest Illinois had a bit of everything, and made for a nice relaxing weekend away -- we were able to kind of forget about schedules and cell phones and homework for a couple of days.

We started off mountain-biking at a local ski hill, where our 'cross-style bikes were WAY off what was needed on the steep, rutted, loose double- and single-track that traverses the mountain. It was still fun, and we escaped with only a few bumps and bruises!

We hit the town for a bit of window shopping, enjoying the beautiful weather as the town filled with kids and families for the annual Halloween parade. It's a fascinating hamlet, with more than 85% of the buildings on the National Register of Historic Places -- it makes for a fun, nostalgic feel that on a crisp fall day transports you back 100 years in the blink of an eye.

We bugged out before the crowds got too big, and headed to the Galena Territory and our stay at Eagle Ridge. This sprawling resort community takes up nearly 7,000 acres on the hills to the east of town, surrounding a lake with paved trails, riding paths, beautiful golf courses and pockets of townhomes and condominium developments. Our small condo made for a cozy getaway, and was a great place to veg out and treat the wounds from the day. Dinner at the Inn was OK, and we turned in early.

Sunday dawned bright and clear, with a bit too much wind for the hot air balloon ride we had scheduled. Instead, we hit the bridle trails on our bikes -- holy crap! Instead of the nice, smooth, FLAT trails in the Chicago area, these were all up-and-down, twisty, eroded basins that would challenge even the most accomplished equestrian. So we did a lot of hike-a-bike, just enough to work up an appetite for the big brunch at the Inn.

After brunch and a walk to the scenic overlook, and before heading back into town for a yummy pizza dinner, we decided to have a bit of fun. Although it was starting to drizzle, there was no one on the driving range near the Inn, so we thought it would be cool to hit a few balls before the weather came in. I'm horrible at golf, although I love the game, and knew that I'd be lucky to have one or two good hits for the day. Kim had never held a golf club before, let alone hit a ball, so I figured our time would be spent hacking at the ground and laughing about it. Well, it was a funny experience -- but not for that reason!

We had a couple of irons, and a "big bucket" of balls, and with the wind in our face we set up to drive. We stole broken tees from around the range, and I showed Kim the basics -- open face, closed face, here's the grip, bend your knees. She wound up once -- and whiffed. Wound up again, and took out a huge divot. Wound up again … and sent the ball flying, 85 yards! Set up another ball … and another 85 yards! She was slightly off-center, so I told her to aim her body … and that was it.

It seemed like every ball after that was a perfect drive, 85-95 yards, no matter the club. It was incredible to watch, these perfectly straight hits off the tee, off the ground, into the wind -- she was amazing. I, on the other hand, continued to hack away, until finally I gave up and just watched her. I even tried to distract her once or twice -- but NO! She still hit a perfect shot!

To say that I'm jealous is a bit of an understatement -- if I could even just hit the ball at all, I'd play golf a lot more than I do. Instead, I've got a Natural on my hands, who will probably show me up every time we decided to go to a driving range. I guess I should have known … even when I was the golf reporter for a local newspaper, she was still beating me at Putt-Putt!