25 September 2010

Pisgah Stage Race: Part II

Stage 1
There’s nothing like a good shot of adrenaline to get you ready for a hard race. That shot came about 45 minutes before our neutral, downhill roll-out, as I drove as hard as I could into the DuPont Stage Forest, running late and knowing it. I came around the corner on Sky Valley a little too hot, and as the pavement gave way to gravel, found myself sliding sideways toward the ditch on the far side. Thankfully years of driving on ice have honed my skills, and I went into full-on rally mode, steering into it and swinging my car into line. I couldn’t let it end before it even began!

I managed a few minutes of warm-up on top of the mountain, but was feeling pretty rushed from a morning of bike prep and e-mail catch-up. With the long gravel neutral roll-out, though, I had a couple of minutes to spin the legs and get my mind in order, talking with Sue Haywood, Garth Prosser and local Wes Dickson of Sycamore Cycles. It was a fun way to begin … and hard to believe that was nearly 3 weeks ago!

As an endurance racer, I love Le Mans starts. I was never a great runner, but I’ve done some jogging in my time, and more importantly a run to my bike gets me settled in a way that on-bike mass starts just don’t. I didn’t have a great start, there in the Holmes State Forest, but it wasn’t bad, and by the time we hit CCC Road I was toward the front of the group streaming its way up to DuPont.

Through the field, down to the river, and then the pain really began: a sheer rock wall that dumped us out into the Grassy Meadow and on up to the top part of Jo Ana, and then out onto the gravel of Sky Valley and Pinnacle Mountain before the short pavement near the cell towers. We then turned into the Blue Moon housing development and enjoyed a mile and a half of rip-roaring hiking-trail singletrack to finish it out … complete with a brutally steep, switchback climb to the finish. We were basically starting a mountain bike endurance event with a ‘cross race, with Jeremiah’s winning time coming in at 59 minutes!

I had a good opener, using my ex-roadie mojo well through the field and down to the river. I chose to hike most of the rocks, and settled in with Wes and his teammate Derrick, which would become a common theme at one point or another for the rest of the week. We popped out on the road and started rolling – Wes and Derrick were killing it, and by the time Amanda caught us and the floor-pump air horn was blowing in our ears, I was coming unhinged just a bit. I continued to push on alone, getting caught by Sue and a couple of other folks in the last run-in on the tight singletrack. It was a solid start given the physical and mental state I had been in just the day prior, and I managed to put time into two men in my class.

Thanks to Bryan of Renaissance Bicycles for the photo!

Stage 2
Portions of Stage 2 were part of the very first ride I ever did in Pisgah: the death march through the snow that had me questioning everything I ever knew about mountain biking to that point. But I also knew how much fun it could be, and I really looked forward to racing some of the trails that make up this “classic” Pisgah ride.

The climb up Clawhammer went well, as we absolutely rocketed to Buckhorn Gap. From the grassy parking lot, we crossed the gap in something like 35 minutes, as I stayed glued to Garth Prosser’s wheel as long as I could, before passing him near the summit as he confessed to blowing up a bit. I flew down South Mills River to the bridge, enjoying a trail I had ridden just a couple of weeks before.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I need to work on my skills on bench-cut trails. Squirrel Gap is as bench-cut as it gets, with some sections so narrow that folks from out of town have dubbed them “half-track” instead of “singletrack.” I was doing alright, but I let Squirrel get into my head a little too much, and by Cantrell had given up any advantage I should have had, given my familiarity with the area. Small groups rocketed past me as I got out of their way, and I just couldn’t find my rhythm the whole way across. Generally speaking, in races I usually place just ahead of the first-place Pro woman, even when that woman is Sue Haywood on home trails at the SM100. On Stage 2 of PSR, third-place Carey Lowrey caught me before the end of Squirrel, and promptly dropped me as the roots took over and the sidehills became steeper.

I stayed positive, and focused on rolling the trail as best I could. I knew the climb to Yellow Gap up 5015 would be long, and the flat along 1206 even longer, and just put power to the pedals to get myself up to Buckhorn as quickly as I could. I big-ringed SMR, popping out at the gap and getting ready for the long hike-a-bike over Black Mountain. Carey wasn’t far behind me, as she was super-strong on the climb, and though I got ahead of her through the rocks (where we hiked), she made up time on the downhills, and passed me for good at the big drop halfway down the Black descent. It was a good lesson though – watching her descend gave me confidence I would use later in the week.

That night I made my way down to Brevard for the screening of “Race Across the Sky,” and like many others was drawn to the stories of the everyman who was just hoping to finish. The scene at the cutoff was a powerful reminder that just being able to compete is a blessing.

Stage 3
My nearest competitor, Thom Parsons, had put 7 minutes into me on Stage 2, putting him 5 minutes ahead of me on GC. Evan Plews had broken his cleat out on course – I saw him at Cantrell – and had been forced to bail out to the road, meaning that although I wasn’t “last,” any race efforts would be made toward gaining time on Thom as much as racing myself.

Thom confessed that with his Boston background, fire roads with climbs weren’t necessarily his cup of tea – as he put it, “I go faster when there are roots in front of me.” With a remote start involving a 35-minute bus ride, no warm up save a Le Mans start with a somersault, and an opening climb of 12 miles that gets steeper in the middle, I knew Stage 3 would be my chance to gain time. So that’s what I set out to do.

We *rocketed* up that fire road. I was in the second group, hanging onto Drew Scharns, the Elite 40+ category leader, and one or two other guys (including a single-speeder!) as long as I possibly could. I lost contact near the first summit, just before the short-ish downhill to the gap, where it then points uphill and gets steeper. I managed to keep the single-speeder in sight until the cul-de-sack, digging super-deep knowing that the contour-line trail ahead would offer some relief before the descent of Farlow began. I pushed myself hard, stayed focused, and hoped I had gained enough of an advantage.

I’ve told Wes a few times now that if I ever learn how to ride downhill, I’ll be a formidable opponent. Instead, I’m somewhat timid and given to over-breaking, which robs you of the momentum you need to clean obstacles and make good time. So I end up walking, a lot, and though that means I don’t end up in a hospital, it also means that other folks who are more adept make up time on me. Farlow Gap is one such trail where I walk – a lot – and eventually a few folks including Amanda and Thom all caught me as we were coming across to Daniel Ridge. Though I know that trail fairly well, I couldn’t keep up, and by the time Wes caught me as we made the turn onto the connector, I was on the edge. I got hung up on a root as he cleaned the climb, fell behind a bit, but managed to catch up as we made it to 225. He sat up to wait for Derrick while I pushed ahead, knowing they would catch me on Cove Creek.

I flew down 225 and onto Cove Creek, just enjoying the ride and flying down the ridge. Sure enough, Wes and Derrick caught me just before the aid station, and Sue pulled in just after I got there. I rolled out last but ramped it up quickly, collecting them all on the short road section in a Tour-style train lead-out before launching them onto Davidson River. I sat up and ate a bit as they led the way toward the Fish Hatchery, and as we turned onto the next gravel climb we were all together.

Wes and I rolled it, as we collected a couple of other riders. But Derrick fell off the pace a bit, so Wes waited, and Sue and I crested the summit together. It was a short-lived respite, though, as we hit the pavement-into-gravel that took us to the base of Club Gap. I refueled at the aid station and let Sue take the lead; as she wound her way up the switchbacks, my whole world came crashing down.

Club Gap is a tough trail. It’s rocky, it’s steep. It’s a bit wonky. It’s preceded by a fire road climb that can fool you. But in conditions like we had this week, it’s rideable. It’s not necessarily a hike-a-bike. Only, for me, after the efforts of that morning, that’s what it became. Not quite a death march, but pretty darn close … I was absolutely cooked, and I knew it. I focused on putting one foot in front of the other, just trying to make do, making do, knowing that eventually, thankfully, I would make the turn onto Black Mountain, have just a bit more hike-a-bike, and then a long, fun downhill with just one more climb to go.

I stayed focused, kept hydrating, and eventually made it to the top – thankfully, there was a bit of a surprise in that the very top of Black on that side has some fun ridgeline riding to get in the mood for the downhill. I was on my own, having fun, and I popped out at Buckhorn to the very welcome sight of my friend Nolan, who was volunteering as a course marshal. A quick hello, and then it was time to bomb Clawhammer … the fun way …

I picked up a single-speeder along the way, and we hit Maxwell together. He let me take the lead, and I motored on, enjoying the climb and powering the short flats of the false summits. The hike-a-bike seemed to get shorter every day, and I stayed focused as I dropped down the other side – that descent was our finish every day, and each day I worked on riding more and riding faster. It was a fun way to finish Stage 3, and though coming unglued on Club Gap cost me a fair bit of time, I had done what I could, and executed my plan to the best of my ability.

20 September 2010

Pisgah Stage Race: Part I

Let’s start off with the obvious: According to the results, I didn’t place last at the Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race. I finished eighth out of ten – ninth place suffered a broken cleat on Squirrel Gap and had to bail on Stage 2, and tenth got super-sick after stage four and didn’t start the last day. That’s the nature of stage racing: I may not have been the fastest on the trail each day, but racing fast is only part of the equation.

What’s not as obvious, and what really matters to me, is that I raced at all. By lining up on top of Pinnacle Mountain on Tuesday, I figured out the skipping gears in my head, turned the barrel adjuster at the base of my mind, and got the chain-line running smoothly. I spent a week on trails both new and familiar, hurling myself off the sides of mountains only to turn a corner and dig deep to claw my way back up in a relentless onslaught of all-consuming effort. And I had fun doing it.

Before the race
I don’t know what it was about pulling out of the Shenandoah Mountain 100, but it threw me for a serious loop. It was my third DNF in an “A” race in the past 15 months, and I was in a dark place regarding my racing and my desire to continue. Each time represented an understandable low point, but after sitting at Aid Station 3 two weeks ago, I was looking for a lifeline to pull me back up.

The slump continued through last weekend, as I tried to work through whether racing was important to me, and what it all meant in the face of other priorities and changes happening all around. Kim and I watched Ride the Divide that Saturday evening, and even though I’d seen it and knew what to expect, it was still tough to watch as Mary, Mike and the rest of the racers worked through their personal struggles on the fire roads and trails of the Continental Divide. Their inner thoughts and struggles play out in dramatic fashion, and my own concerns and fears mirrored many of theirs exactly.

I have the privilege of calling Mary Collier a friend, and on Monday – still conflicted and not at all sure if I would start the race – I reached out to her to ask for advice. I explained where my head was at, and asked what it was about her Divide experience that drove her to become the first woman to race the route, and finish, despite facing enormous physical and emotional odds. I left for my lunch ride that day minutes after double-checking Todd’s refund policy for the Pisgah Stage Race.

A quick hour later, and Mary had responded. The insight she shared flipped the switch in my head, and within minutes I knew that I wasn’t ready to give up after all. The most challenging, exciting, difficult race I’d ever attempted lay in front of me, just 24 hours away, And I was determined to do it.

There’s a beautiful clarity to stage racing. Beginning in the days before the start, everything begins to be stripped away, until only the race remains. By the morning of Stage 1, there is only food-as-fuel, transport/logistics, the day’s route, your competition, your mind, and your recovery that remains. The outside world enters into a state of suspended animation, with very little penetrating the cocoon that surrounds the event. Taking part brings a focus that is at once exhilarating and liberating, despite the incredibly strict confines that define the race.

I am lucky that one of the premier mountain bike stage races in the country – if not the world – takes place just 25 minutes from my home. I was able to sleep in my own bed, enjoy my own food, spend time with my wife and daughter each morning, ride trails that I have come to know and love, and push deeper than I ever have before, all in the pursuit of taking myself beyond whatever limits I may have set for myself. In retrospect, it was crazy to even think I wouldn’t be there.

The run-up to the race wasn’t ideal, particularly physically, but I did what I could to conserve and prepare. Ice baths and compression tights became the norm, as Kim and I closed on our dream home and spent a long weekend with friends helping us move. It was an absolute joy to wake up in our new house on Sunday morning, and to enjoy a cup of coffee on my new back deck as the sun rose through the forest canopy.

Work was no easier, as the preparation for Interbike intensified. Even as doubt about my participation in the race played out in the back of my mind, I crammed to complete several projects, and spent Monday afternoon helping to disassemble and pack our booth. Then it was a quick run to Brevard to pick up my race packet, where I could then, finally!, concentrate on the race.

Oddly, my doubts about participation had nothing to do with the competition. As of the week before, there were only a couple of men signed up in my category, and it wasn’t until Monday that I got a good look at the other nine racers making up the Pro class. With the likes of Jeremiah Bishop, Colby Pierce, Evan Plews, Peter Butt and Thom Parsons coming off Breck Epic, plus local hammers like Robert Marion and Drew Scharns, I knew this race was about participation, not placing. I put it out of my mind completely, and just focused on riding as hard as I could for as long as I could, and then pushing myself beyond.

I’ve not ever said much about my decision to take a Pro license last year. What it comes down to is this: USA Cycling dissolved the Semi-Pro category, and gave us all a choice: take a Pro license, or reclassify ourselves according to the long-standing road system, beginning with Category 4/5 beginners and moving up to Category 1. I’ve seen the way USA Cycling works their system, and chose the Pro license option – I race endurance events, and if I’m going to be racing a 24-Hour National Championship, I want it to be for all the marbles. And I’m competitive there. If along the way I place top 20 in national-level endurance events, that’s icing on the cake – my finishing time may be quite a ways behind Bishop, Schalk or Tanguy, but I continue to improve and push myself against the best of the best in my sport.

In an event like the Pisgah Stage Race, though, that means there’s potential for some pretty lopsided-looking results in the Pro category. Jeremiah was the defending champion and had won two other stage races this year; Colby Pierce is an Olympian and multi-time National Champion; Evan has a long history of incredible results. And those were just the names I recognized, not even taking into account the likes of Robert Marion and others who would prove to be no slouches had I looked up their history. And then there was me. Sure, I was on home trails with all the advantages … but I also just celebrated my fourth-year anniversary of my first-ever mountain bike ride. Generally speaking, Jeremiah puts about 10 minutes an hour into me … I lined up in the Pro class with absolutely no expectations, other than trying to outride anything I’d done before.

09 September 2010

Life ... or something like it

In other news, because yes, there is "life" outside of bike racing ... Baring any unforeseen circumstances, this will be the view from my driveway in about 4 hours. We close on our new-to-us house this afternoon!

Quick stats with more in-depth analysis to come: Compared to right now, we'll be 3 minutes closer to Mills River and Davidson but 3 minutes further from DuPont; my commute will incorporate a new 100-foot-vertical climb just leaving/just before home, and will end with a 100-foot climb to my front door (and begin with a 100-foot descent!); we have half an acre of land, with half of that fully wooded -- and only a small patch of grass to mow!; it's a tuck-under with a two-car garage and a full, unfinished basement, perfect for a bike "shop", but also with a grade-level driveway on the opposite side; it's a good school district for Kate; and as you can see from the photo (which doesn't do it justice!), the front of the house has an unobstructed, ridge-top view of Long John Mountain!

Can you say dream come true?

08 September 2010

Cloudy with a chance of sun?

Things are cloudy right now.

SM100 didn't go that well. A rushed start in cold weather meant that the pistons weren't firing, making that first climb and a half pretty rough. I stayed positive, found my rhythm on the road, and started reeling in the folks in front of me.

The second climb went well, as I cleaned some stuff I hadn't in the past, though I lost momentum on the top and was caught by a few folks coming up from behind. I did OK on the descent, hitting it much faster than in past years, but staying slightly on the conservative side given the very dry conditions and the very sharp rocks hidden under the grass and moss. Made up a few spots on some folks who didn't take that into consideration, and about halfway down realized just how cold I was and that it was causing me to be a bit timid in spots where I shouldn't be. Hit the check-box on that and rode better for it afterward. Still and all, it was early morning on an eastern slope, and the sun going in and out of the trees made it difficult for me to see.

Back to the gravel, and grabbed some food while the guy just in front of me drilled it to catch a group up ahead. I probably should have done the same, but also knew it was mostly downhill, so I wasn't too worried. By the time we started the pavement climb, I only had about 10 seconds to make up, and it only took a couple of steep turns to get to the front of the group.

We rolled it for a bit, and that's when the locomotive came by -- Jeremiah Bishop had flatted on the very first singletrack, and was just now able to catch back up. I hopped on that train for as long as I could, as he dragged me and another guy clear from the group, but when he flashed an elbow and it was my turn, I had nothing. Well, not nothing, but not quite enough for him to keep his momentum going, so he and the other guy sped off. I sat up a bit and let myself get caught by a group we had just passed.

We rolled into aid station 2, traditionally my first bottle exchange. Only this year, it was so cold that I was good on fluids, so I waved a quick hello to the Ks and kept motoring. I was still trying to warm up, but it was tough -- even though we were climbing, my thighs were still cold. That sucked. But I was starting to come around, and the sun was beginning to get warm.

Left turn onto the fire road, and this is where it got fun. This climb is both number 3 and number 6 (last), and so I wanted to see how I would go, knowing I'd be back in a few hours. And I went well, keeping it in the 44 for the entire first two-thirds of the climb, turning it over and passing guys who were starting to fade. I stayed lock-step with another guy, always just a bit off his wheel, and was super-psyched when we hit the steep pitch at the top and I stayed with it. In fact, this is the first time I've cleaned that section, and Chris and his trail crew have done a lot of work up there to make it much more fun than in years past. It was still super-tough, but I didn't walk, and wow, is that Garth right up there?

Over the top, and some random woman is there telling us how much fun the upcoming downhill is. Yee-haw, let's do it! Back in the big ring, start to flow, down, around, up, over, and ohcrap -- can't see, sun in my eyes, whew, ohshitthat'satreeandI'mmissingtheturnshitshitshit ... BAM.

Sun in my eyes, I missed a flowing right-hander, locked it up and wrapped myself into a tree. Normally not a big deal, just a moment to catch my breath and regroup, only I sprained my ankle really badly on Kitsuma two months ago, and the forcible ejection twisted it again, enough that I couldn't stand on it. I limped to the side of the trail, taking stock, and considered my options. The bike seemed to be OK, so I rolled to the rocks-and-roots section of the descent, where I stopped to hike down. Only, I couldn't hike. My ankle was shot. Killing me. The nice EMS folks offered to help me down, but I was still entertaining thoughts of riding it out with no assistance, so I declined. We were in a small gap, so I borrowed their phone to call Kim, letting her know it was either going to be a really slow day, or not at all ...

I rolled the bench-cut to the aid station slowly, allowing anyone coming my way to pass me. This was supposed to be fun, but it wasn't, and I knew my day was done. I could pedal OK, but any sort of ejection or hike-a-bike would be bad, very bad, and with the PSR just days away, was it worth the risk? I made it to aid station 3, found a chair, and sat until I could catch a car ride back, watching my forefoot swell and begin to change colors.

(I may have said it before, but it's worth repeating -- collectively, the volunteers and EMS folks at SM100 are BY FAR the best of any race, ever. They are awesome, and I really appreciated all their offers of assistance! I tried not to be surly, hope I did OK with that ...)

So here I am, less than a week before PSR, dejected and feeling sorry for myself. It's not a good place to be -- I've previewed the stages, and I know how difficult they will be. I need to be in a better frame of mind if I'm going to tackle this thing. Instead, I'm questioning whether this is all worth it to me -- this is the third major-race disappointment in 15 months, and I'm in a dark, dark place.

I'm usually pretty good about taking even small positives from times that don't go well, but I'm struggling with that right now. I have put in a ton of smart training, I feel better than ever, and yet I was empty on the first climb. Couldn't even get in front of the 14-year-old singlespeeder on mustache bars who kept rubbing tires with everyone around him. My descents went OK, but still not where I wanted to be. Kim says I was further up in the field than I think I was, and I wasn't far off Garth on the second and third climbs -- he went on to finish 12th -- but overall my perception is that I wasn't any better than I was a year ago, and in fact might have been worse. And that's a hard pill to swallow.

As I sat in that aid station, watching the flow of riders and the beautiful dance of the volunteers, I started asking myself why I do this. Why do I race? When I was in Chicago, part of it was to get out of the city, exploring roads and trails I wouldn't otherwise ride. A lot of it was because I had this dream when I was a kid, and I was making it happen. Lately, some of it is to be a roll model for Kate, showing her that hard work sometimes does make dreams come true. Overall, though, it comes down to one thing: I race to challenge myself to be better than I was before.

There's a cost to all of this. And when you've paid the price, when you have honestly gone out and done everything in your power to ensure success, to ensure improvement, it's a tough pill to swallow when things don't go your way. Especially when there's really no explanation, or when you make a stupid mistake that derails all hope. Or when you just don't have it. Or -- perhaps more to the point -- when your reality (even if only in your head) doesn't meet your expectations. I put the challenge out there, year after year, and when you only race a few events in a season, meeting that challenge becomes that much more important each time. And when you don't meet it? It hurts. Bad.

So things are a bit cloudy now. Like all storms, this too shall pass, and there's a chance of sun ahead. Whether that sun is shining on the top of Pinnacle Mountain remains to be seen -- for now, at least, I've got a few other things to focus on, and in time we'll see which way the wind blows.