Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Cooper's Rock Enduro

Her eyes are cold and restless
Her wounds have almost healed
And that Camber in the corner
Can’t change the way she feels
He knows her love's in West Virginia
And he knows she's gonna go
Well it ain't no ultra or CX race
It's that damned old enduro

Well it's sweat and blood
It's mud and more mud
It's the roar of a Sunday crowd
It's the white in her knuckles
Through the rhodie tunnel
She'll shred the next go 'round
It's goggles and pads
It's trucker caps
It's brake then let it go
It's the Hails and the Reigns
And the joy and the pain
And they call the thing enduro

Although it would have been convenient to go into the second verse of “All I Do Is Win” with my favorite “represent that mud life” line, sadly my undefeated streak of 2017 has already come to end. I feel like this lyrical selection fits for my feelings going into the weekend of the Cooper’s Rock Enduro, anyway. It took me a full week to physically recover from two long, hard days in the heat at Big Bear, which dumped me into a cortisol-fueled scramble to finish up a project at work last week. When we tried to go out for our “Wednesday EWS” ride last week, I really struggled to bring myself up to adrenaline spiking super focus level during the downhill segments, because I’d already been operating in that mode all day and basically had nothing left. When I finally wrapped up all of my “to do’s” on Friday, I really kind of doubted my capacity to go away for a whole weekend and race. However, I realized that if I skipped the race that I would regret it, and a potentially crappy race was better than wondering what would have happened if I’d tried.

Once the racing was done, we had to ford a river and hike-a-bike out of a rocky lakeshore to catch our ride back.

The course was super ridicu-muddy pretty much the whole way, but otherwise it wasn’t very steep, or technical except for a series of slick root and rock drops at the very end of the last stage. Those were mostly just scary because they were so slick. After the pre-ride on Saturday, my assessment was that the race would be a contest of who was best at plowing through muddy chunder with the least amount of braking. Plowing through muddy chunder isn’t something that I have a lot of experience with, but I have been testing my Hail’s ability to “surf” loose, dry stuff and patches of smaller, tightly bunched rocks where there isn’t an obvious good line. I figured the surfing skills would come in handy, although the mud would make applying them much trickier.

The upside was that it presented an opportunity to wash some of the mud off our bikes.

The race day began with the chunder surfiest of the stages, and shortly after making the turn from the grassy start into the actual trail I slipped on a miscellaneous something-or-other and went down. Luckily, it was neither a hard nor painful crash, but it was enough to cause me to lose time on a relatively short stage and to stick my hand in a puddle, making for an extra wet and gritty glove for the rest of the day. The stage also contained a short but brutal uphill in the middle where I got really gassed and had to dismount after swerving into some bushes from exhaustion. So yeah, Stage 1 wasn’t great for me.

Stage 2 boasted a whopping -6% average grade, so it was an XC-style pedal fest with my seat up, only occasionally standing up a bit to absorb a root or rock. This lasted so long that I had mostly forgotten about the last 30 or so feet of trail dumping into a steep, rocky chute until it was immediately in front of me. I slammed on my brakes and desperately grabbed for my dropper lever, but I was already headed for a terrible line that I couldn’t correct without doing a dumb, slow foot out move on the way down. It probably only cost me a couple of seconds, but it happened in sight a large percentage of racers standing around snacking where both Stages 2 and 3 ended, so it cost me more pride than anything. One of the expert women tried to make me feel better by saying that she forgot the last steep bit was there, as well.

The thing was, even after riding pretty crappily on the first two stages, I wasn’t that upset or worried. Since it was pretty much the same the same group of women as Big Bear, I now knew who was in what class, or so I thought. I figured that I had still won the sport class after making even worse mistakes there, so if I rode Stage 3 and 4 clean, I would be fine. I proceeded with a clean but safe Stage 3, and spent a lot of the final transition thinking about whether I liked this attitude in myself or not.

It was admittedly nice being the least nervous before or during an enduro race that I’ve ever been, and it was also nice not feeling the need to beat myself up too badly for the mistakes that I made during Stages 1 and 2, but I also sort of missed the pressure of competition. My real goal had much more to do with closing the gap up to the bottom 2-3 expert riders than my placing in the sport category, so I felt like I might be letting myself off the hook too easily by trying to calculate how safely I could ride Stage 4 and still probably win my category. At the same time, I really just wanted to make it to the bottom of Stage 4 rubber side down, so I tabled the internal debate proceeded with a somewhat conservative final run.

It turns out that my internal debate was based on alternative facts, anyway. I made to the bottom of Stage 4 safely and cleanly (well riding-wise, my clothes and bike, not so much). When I got back and checked the results, I saw that a woman who had raced the expert class most of last season at the top of the sport class results and me in second place. I was definitely disappointed because I had no idea she was signed up for sport, since there is no pre-reg and everyone’s plates look the same. I assumed that because raced expert last year that would still be the case. She had beaten me by 29 seconds, and 26 of those were from Stage 4 when I was playing it safe. Even with all of my Stage 1 silliness, I had almost closed the gap on Stages 2 & 3.

Ultimately, I was disappointed in not getting another sport class win, because it is fun to get my picture taken on the top step of the podium.  However, the “sport” designation is so arbitrary, that I’m anxious to move up to expert and stop feeling like my results require an asterisk. After Big Bear, I was like, “Well, I ‘won’ but, you know, I didn’t really win-win because it was just the sport category.” I never really felt that way in ‘cross or any other head-to-head type racing when the race is clearly playing out in real time. For enduro, though, we’re all just meandering out there on the course doing our thing at the same time, maybe seeing each other through the day and maybe not, and we don’t really know what’s going on until it’s over. The post-mortem slicing and dicing of the results just makes that weirder. Luckily, there was a much smaller expert-to-sport gap at Cooper’s Rock that Big Bear, so hopefully I can cross that divide soon.

It will be a few weeks before my next West Virginia enduro, because the next one is the same weekend as the TSE. I will probably race at least one more race in sport and see how I do then. I’m learning a lot this season about how to actually race enduro, which is more complicated that just being good at riding really fast on downhill segments in Rothrock that I know really well. Figuring out how to do your best when you’re tired and in unfamiliar territory that doesn’t necessary match your strengths is a whole other beast, but I think I’m starting to do okay at it.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Doing Things I'm Bad At: Winning the Big Bear Enduro

L-Stec goin' in on the verse
Cause I never been defeated [in 2017] and I won't stop now
Keep your hands up, get 'em in the sky for the homies
That didn't make it and the folks knocked out
I never went no where
But they saying Lindsay's back
Blame it on that hip hinge
And some trips down Wildcat
And I'm on this foolish track, so I spit my foolish flow
My seat go up and down like a good femdurobro
My Hail still be servin’, we’re droppin’, then we’re surgin’
Always said I like a good mud race, now I'm trying out the big bike version
Can't never count me out
Y'all better count me in
Rock my googles and a half-shell, hey Strava count me in
No enduro in the TS three day?  Take some random QOMs
Cause all I do, all I, all I, all I
All I do is win

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m not actually feeling that cocky, but having just stood on the actual top step of a podium for the first time since 2011, you’ll have to indulge me for a minute. Plus, I just love a good parody-writing challenge.

I think juxtaposition of the post title is a more accurate description of how I really feel. When I did my first enduro race almost a year ago, I prefaced my post title with “Doing Things I’m Bad At”, which is a short hand term that I’ve adopted for getting out of my comfort zone. In that first race I got last place by a lot, so it was a little more obvious that I was doing something that I was bad at. Yesterday I found out that I can do things that I’m bad at, but still do them better than everyone else who doesn’t self-designate as an “expert”. And while I’m starting to be a lot better at things I used to be bad at, yesterday proved that I’m still a long way from becoming a self-designated expert.

I decided to try out the "googles and a half shell" look earlier in the
week. I PR'd all the things that night, which lead me to the conclusion
that goggles make you fast. More on that later.

We headed down to Big Bear Lake in West Virginia on Saturday to pre-ride the first WV Enduro Series race of the year. The trails were a muddy mess thanks to some intense storms that had fallen during the night. This was especially bad on the first stage that we pre-rode, which was a lot more rolling than actual downhill, with lots of large, wet, mud-covered rocks. We eventually discovered that there really wasn’t a ton of elevation loss in any of the stages, and the ability to roll up and over large, slimy rocks, as well as dropping into and peddling out of muddy creek beds, would be the key skills called upon during the race. With the exception of my weekly dip into Laurel Run at the bottom of Sand Spring, I can’t say that I’ve been doing much of either of those things lately, and fall lines full of dry, loose chunder would be hard to find in Sunday’s race. Remember when I was bad at fall lines full of dry, loose chunder?

I went into Sunday knowing that the course would not suit my strengths and continued repeating my words from last week to “not take it too personally if I don’t do well” as a mantra. If want to become an actual enduro racer and not just hide in Rothrock inflating my Strava PR’s forever, this would be part of it. Much like when I was competing for the OVCX series title in 2011, I wasn’t exactly stoked on the “roadie” courses, but I could still manage to hold on to 5-7th place and get the points that I needed while giving my best efforts on the more muddy and technical courses. How exactly is it that muddy corners are something I wish for on a ‘cross bike and fear on a mountain bike?

The race began with a short singletrack roll-out followed by what was close to an hour wait to begin the first stage for those of us as the back of the pack. I ended up in line right next to three other women, which made me a bit more nervous for the first stage. Not being very confident about the trails, I didn’t want to hold them up, but I also didn’t want to get stuck behind someone having a harder time than me. Stereotypes are not very helpful, and it’s actually pretty hard to assess someone’s skill level based on looks. I tried to test the waters a bit by throwing out the “So how are you guys feeling about this?” question as we approached the start. Two of the women forged on ahead of me, and the other said something like, “You have goggles, so you must be a faster rider.”

Well, crap. Now I was the one who had to perform to a stereotype. I laughed and said, “The goggles just mean that I’m pretending to be a faster rider,” but I still moved up in line. I gave the other two women extra time before I started, but I still ended up catching them both before the end of my run. The other women did finish much further behind me than she would have started, so I guess she made a correct judgement regarding the goggles. I had been the fastest out of that little group, but there were several women further up in line and I wasn’t sure who was in what class.

The group dispersed during the brutal transition from Stage 1 to Stage 2, and I found myself trudging alone through the remainder of what would be a five and a half hour journey. I rode pretty well on Stage 2, which began smooth and pedally and turned into a steeper and looser Sand Spring like finish, but the muddy rolly rocks on Stage 3 & 4 did not treat me as well. I also had a bunch fast guys who had taken really long breaks at the pavilion before Stage 3 circle back behind me, so I got caught and passed a bunch on Stages 3 & 4, which was also annoying.

Stage 5 should have been pretty uneventful, and at that point I just wanted to ride hard to the finish and be done. However there was a small wooden bridge near the end, and my front wheel slipped off. It was low enough that I should have just been able to put my foot down, pull my wheel back on track, and keep going, but my foot went between two slats of the bridge and I fell back with my bike on top of me wedging my ankle in with a hard slam. It took me minute to get untangled as I was overwhelmed by the terrifying realization that I had just almost broken my ankle. Thankfully it was just bruised, and I rode out rest of the stage as fast I could before collapsing for a mini-cry at the end.

When I finally managed to get on a shuttle and return to the start, Frank turned in my timing chip while I got cleaned up. Then we had a mini anniversary celebration with the year-old top layer of our wedding cake, which had been riding around in a cooler with us all weekend. Even though it didn’t look as pretty as it had a year ago, it actually still tasted just as good. I had my cake and a glass of the Stone “Enjoy After 4/20/17” that someone had brought to our wedding, while I resisted the urge to look at the results for as long as I could.

When I finally peeked to find my name at the top of the list, I knew that there might still be some women out on course, so I didn’t get too excited. I breathed a sigh of relief and went to put on my podium jersey when the last shuttle came in and my name was still on top. It turns out that the girl on the last shuttle that I was most worried about was in the self-designated expert class, so I had won my category!

All in all, I think weekend was a good step for me. It wasn’t a great course for me and I didn’t ride as well as I wanted to, but a win is a win, so it still felt like my work is starting to pay off. I also have to remember that, even though I didn’t ride as big of drops as I wanted to, I still rode some stuff that I would have been afraid of just a couple of months ago, so that was cool. I just need to keep at it with the Wednesday practices, but also start challenging myself by riding outside of Rothrock more often on weekends. The next WV Enduro race is in two weeks, so I’m looking forward to finding out what kinds of things I can be bad there, or maybe even not-so-bad at.

This rock roll doesn't look like much, but it's actually so steep that you can't see the
bottom from the top. Past me would definitely not have ridden this.