Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Saddling Up at the Valley Falls Enduro

“Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway.” – John Wayne

Always give a good fake smile when you're nervous.

The weeks since the TSE have flown by. The first couple of weeks were filled with extreme fatigue where my limbs were like lead, and I felt short of breath even on easy rides, despite taking several days off immediately after the TSE concluded. I finally broke through on the second Saturday after the race when I started feeling like myself about halfway down Ruff Gap and set a blistering PR despite bumbling around on the top part. After that, the climb back up Rag Hollow only felt the normal amount of terrible, and it seemed like I was on my way back on track.

By the time I reached that point, it had been over four weeks since I’d had a solid enduro practice where I actually seemed to make progress. Frank was out of town most of the time between the Cooper’s Rock Enduro and the TSE, and I had a bad crash riding by myself while he was gone. Between recovering from that and recovering from the TSE, I started losing a lot the confidence and muscle memory that I’d built earlier in the spring when I was improving so rapidly and PRing everything that I touched. It’s been frustrating just trying to get back to where I was in early May, much less move forward. So when the weekend of the next West Virginia Enduro Series race arrived, part of me didn’t want to race knowing that I wasn’t likely to be at my best, but the other part didn’t want to regret not finding out.


I got some interesting insight into my latest crises of confidence last weekend while I was talking to my teammate Taylor at another teammate’s wedding in Chicago. Taylor seems to be magically good at anything she attempts on two wheels. In two years of racing, she is already a Cat 2 in cyclocross, a regular on regional elite XC podiums, has a couple of NUE series top 10’s to her name, finished fourth overall in the five-day TSE, and still finds time to win road races now and then. Honestly, the way she smashed some of the enduro segments at the TSE riding them for the first time on an XC bike better than I have after weeks of practice was definitely contributing to lackluster feelings about my own abilities lately.

Anyway, the conversation was about how she’d taken her boyfriend on a trail where he was in over his head, thinking he just needed to be pushed through his fear to find out what he was capable of (lol for swapped gender roles here), because that had worked for her in the past. This explained a lot about her ability to ride so well on some pretty difficult trails that she’d never seen before. I, on the other hand, had spent many weeks of practice earlier in the season working through things that scared me until they didn’t anymore. To have the ability to just rip off that Bandaid in one run without disastrous consequences would be terribly convenient for my burgeoning enduro career, but my experience has been that the threshold of fear that I can push through without it ending badly is pretty low. If I’ve learned anything this season, it’s that if something scares me, it’s because I’m doing it wrong, and if I fix the root technique issue, it’s no longer scary. Unfortunately, diagnosing and fixing deep-seated technique issues isn’t necessarily fast of a path to progression, but it seems to be the one that works for me.

The quote at the beginning might seem strange given the fact that I just admitted to my aversion to pushing through fear. If anything, I think it’s more appropriate because I don’t enjoy scaring myself. Having to slowly work through things that I’m afraid of means that I have to go back and revisit them more times and be scared more times. It might be easier to just give up when I’m too scared to do something the first time, but somehow I manage to keep coming back until the fear is conquered.


The Valley Falls Enduro was a pretty big test of my desire and ability to saddle up anyway. What I found on my pre-ride Saturday was a lot of greasy black dirt and more drops than I’d seen in my life, including a seven-footer on what was already a very slick fall-line trail. The B line was more technically difficult than the drop, but just with less air time. Neither seemed like an option that I felt confident in my ability to pull off. I watched one of the expert women slide and crash on the B line and made the decision that unless the trail dried out a lot more by the actual race, that I should just be smart and run that section. The same went for a steep, slippery fall line in the sixth stage that I watched Frank skate down and then barely make the turn at the bottom. If he couldn’t make it cleanly, I didn’t even want to try it while on the clock. By the time the pre-ride was over, I had a pretty solid list of things that I just would proactively get off and run unless they dried out a lot before the race.

My body is saying "Thumbs up!', but my head is saying "Nope!"

On the other hand, I wanted to at least leave the race having done one or two features that scared me a little. There were two log drops on Stage 5 and a rock roll on Stage 6 that I didn’t ride on Saturday, but that I thought I could pull on with more speed and knowing that they were coming. It was a little frustrating, because I think they were very well within the range of things that I rode at Big Bear back in April, but like I mentioned before, I’ve lost a lot of confidence in the last few weeks. I’d endo’d off of the smallest progressive drop at Blue Mountain a couple of weeks prior and had yet to regain my trust in myself to not look down and land safely.

The race was an interesting exercise in keeping myself together mentally. Despite being pretty well emotionally separated from the competing against other people element and simply wanting to get through the day as cleanly as possible, I still got pretty nervous by the start of the first stage. As the day progressed, it was interesting to observe how my mental state changed, and I realized how different it is from the 40 minutes of yelling “Go harder!” to yourself during a ‘cross race. Rather than always going harder, an enduro is several hours of repeatedly checking in on your own level of excitement, fatigue, fear, etc. and trying to dial into “appropriately aggressive” for that moment. Too aggressive can mean mistakes and crashes, and not aggressive enough means leaving seconds on the table that you might want back later.

The first two stages were pretty XC-oriented and went well enough. The third stage was the one with the gnarly drop and the just-as-gnarly B-line. I overheard a girl from my category who was a stage ahead of me telling her friend that she had started sliding and bailed. Based on that, I deducted that it was no dryer than the day before, and that I should proactively run the section to prevent more lost time from a crash or even just an awkward bailout. My only regret was that I didn’t just keep running through the rocky sections after that, because there was still a lot of slick mud and rocks that just weren’t going to happen once my momentum had been lost from the dismount. I did okay through the slick turns of Stage 4, and found myself two stages away from being done.

Those remaining stages contained the features that I’d been negotiating in my head all day. Despite my resolution to “do something that scared me” before the day was over, I still ended up running the drops on Stage 5. I was very tired at that point, and I just did not feel good about that stage in general. I took the “better safe than sorry” approach to get myself to Stage 6 where I ran the things that I’d predetermined to run the day before, but successfully negotiated the rock roll and most of the slow chunky stuff in the last half of the stage. It wasn’t perfect, but I felt that I did pretty well under the circumstances.

It was a day when I was just glad to be done. I knew going in that it would be a tough race, but I kept myself together and did the best I could on that particular day. When I looked at the results, I was both surprised and unsurprised to see that I had won. I knew that I hadn’t ridden especially well, but I also knew that as hard at the trails were, it was unlikely that the other women in my category had ridden significantly better. I was basically lucky to have bumbled my way through the day faster than the others, but I would take it. The most exciting part was getting to hold the giant novelty check on the podium, because I’ve never done that before. Holding the check was actually even more exciting than the real $100 that I won, which is a huge prize for the women’s sport class.

The next WV Enduro Series race is not until August 13, but I will be doing a MASS series race in Bethlehem, PA on July 16. I have a feeling that the competition will be a lot tougher at that one, based on the huge squad of Cutters bike shop people at Blue Mountain a couple of weeks ago, including 6-10 women. Otherwise, I’m looking forward to some race-free weekends where we can hopefully spend some days at bike parks and other locations outside of Rothrock that will allow me to practice drops and jumps on a smaller, safer, and untimed scale.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

TSE 2017: Destiny is All

I was born into mountain biking in Indiana, and I spent eight years trying to be good at pedaling. I was 33 years old when I moved to Pensylvania, and learned what mountain biking really meant and what this “enduro” thing was all about. Fate had brought me to Rothrock, with Tormund my brother; and Brienne, my lover. And then, fate brought betrayal.

I am Lindsay, QOM of Bald Knob Death Drop, and destiny is all.

During the week and a half leading up to the Transylvania Epic, Frank had been out of a town for a conference/visit to Midwestern friends. I had a lot of free time on my hands, especially since I was saving all of the TV shows that we watch together for when he got back.

So I dove into “The Last Kingdom” on Netflix. Being a fan of the show “Vikings”, I figured it would be interesting to see what happened to little Alfred when he grew up. It turns out that I misread the description, and Alfred the Great isn’t so much the main character of the series, but frenemy/sometime ally of the main character. The protagonist is actually Uhtred, a Saxon raised by Vikings maybe 20-30 years after the sons of Ragnar Lothbrok went ham on the British Isles (where the plot of “Vikings” recently dropped off). Each episode of The Last Kingdom opens with Uhtred’s voiceover on his recent progress on his path towards getting revenge on the dudes who killed his Viking family (check), and taking back his Northumbrian title from his evil uncle, all while inadvertently contributing to Alfred’s dream of a unified England. Each opening voiceover ends with the phrase “destiny is all”.

I’m explaining this because Uhtred’s word ran through my head many times during three days of riding the Transylvania Epic over the weekend. I had heard of the Transylvania Epic prior to moving to State College in 2014, but after my sad, sad attempt at the Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage race in 2009, I didn’t really think I’d ever have the confidence to try a stage race again. Suddenly, one of the country’s premiere mountain bike stage races was close enough that I could sleep in my own bed between stages, and that made me think that maybe, just maybe I’d be able to complete the TSE at some point.

However, starting to mountain bike in State College three years ago almost seemed like beginning riding from scratch. It was soon clear that despite my eight years of “mountain biking” prior to moving didn’t count for much. Rothrock peeled away any illusion I had that I was a decent mountain biker, and I soon found that I actually kind of sucked. Although this was disappointing, the challenge that lay before me was more motivating than ever. I sucked, but I had miles of gnarly, old school forest and a variety of famously tough events nearby to make me better. Surely, practice would make perfect, so I began kindling the dream that I might someday conquer these trails well enough to win the TSE enduro classification, and most my bike actions for the last three years have been taken with the intent of carving the path closer and closer to that reality.

After I finished the Wilderness 101 last summer, it seemed like I was actually getting close to being able to complete the TSE from a fitness standpoint. At that point, I actually started testing myself on the enduro segments and found that I had less natural proficiency than I had hoped. Familiarity with trails helps, but fast girls are gonna be fast, so I realized that I needed to step up my skill game instead of just sessioning segments a lot, and that has been my focus the last few months.

Despite not being ready to be competitive this year, I felt like it was time for me to at least do the TSE for experience, rather than just imagining what it would be like. Unfortunately, this is where fate brought betrayal, as my plan for a first TSE began to unravel bit by bit from the time registration opened in January. First they changed the schedule such that doing the five-day was going to be more stressful last year’s Monday-Friday format, and Frank wouldn’t be able to be there for the first day of the five-day at all. Then he and I couldn’t find enough people/compatriots to field a five-day team, which would cost nearly as much as a solo entry, and my confidence that I would be ready started wane. I decided to do the three-day to take some of the pressure off, but then they changed the stages so that we would not get do the enduro day, they removed Lonberger and added the crappy Long Mountain section from the stages, and just generally made the format pretty dumpster compared to the 2016 edition. At that point, I determined it better to run off to do some West Virginia enduro races than staying home and practicing pedaling for 4-5 hours at a time.

Then it was actually time to do the race, for better or worse. Despite having pretty much the opposite of the meticulous preparation that I’d had for the Wilderness 101, I saw a spark of hope a few days before the race. Having had a nasty crash a few days prior that screwed up both my Hail and my hip, I decided to play it safe by going on a little XC Loop jaunt on my Camber just to have pedaled a bike once in the week leading up to the race. I surprised myself by PRing the Greenshoot climb and having pretty fast times on the whole loop, despite my pretty moderate effort and barely having ridden the XC Loop this year. I guess riding a 30-pound floppy bike slowly up a climb on a weekly basis will make you inadvertently ride it way faster when you’re suddenly on a 25-pound responsive trail bike. Regardless, it was a nice reminder that even though it sometimes doesn’t seem like it, I have been continuously getting better at bikes since moving to State College. I’m not really sure what I was doing for the eight years before that.

Anyway, Day 1 of the three-day eventually came and brought a bit more disappointment with it. Shortly before starting we learned that John Wert had been removed from the day’s stage due to rain, presumably from the day before or early morning, as it wasn’t raining during the stage. This was supposedly at the behest of the DCNR, and it was especially confusing as John Wert is 85% rocks and not exactly a popular destination trail in great need of protection. It does, however, tend to pool up water in certain places, so I’m not sure if that was the issue. It just felt like a special level of insult to injury after everything else leading up to the race, since as far as I know there is not precedent for removing trails from stages despite at least a couple of days of hard rain during each TSE the last few years. This revelation, along with the DCNR’s recent war on fall line trails, was very distressing, as it feels like they could just rip the rug out from under everything that I’ve been working toward the last few years, just as I get close.

Admittedly, this race report is going to be way more context than content, but in this case, everything that lead up to the race mattered more in its outcome than the race in itself. The first day I struggled with the overall distance and long, draggy climbs. I ended up missing the time cutoff to the last checkpoint by an entire hour, but no one actually stopped me from proceeding. This turned out to be more awkward, as I was fully prepared to stop riding my bike at the last checkpoint, and it turned out that no one was going to make me stop. I called Frank and asked him to meet me out on the course, but by the time I got there I was feeling okay physically and mentally, and I was close enough to the end to just finish. I still took the ride since he was there, and vowed to use my saved energy to tough it out through the final two days.

And that’s what I did. Days 2 and 3 were tough and slow, but I got through them. I stopped letting the supposed time cutoffs into my head, since I doubted they would enforce them on the following days either, and I ended up making them both days. The Cooper’s Gap stage had Dutch Alvin, Lingle Valley, and Chicken Peter all cut out because of rain, which at that point, I was kind of okay with since it made less distance for me to cover. I’m still upset about the future implications of this precedent, but I guess I’ll deal with those as they come.

The finish line of the last day finally came.

With this year’s TSE under my belt, my focus continues to be on the future. Now that I know what it feels like to put in long, hard days back-to-back, I’ll be spending the next year figuring out how to do that better. My biggest lesson learned is that to be successful in the future, I’ll need to cultivate what I’ve been calling a much higher “tolerance for bullshit”. I’ll eliminate some of the what-ifs from this year by just saving up my money being ready to sign up for the five-day solo category when it opens in January, so that I won’t have to depend on other people to be on a team or be blindsided by the cost. Beyond that, I can wish on every star in the sky and clock at 11:11 that they return to the 2016 race format, but I also realize that no one actually gives a crap about my opinion, and 2018 could bring as many or more pain-in-the-butt changes. Unless they do something ridiculous like eliminate the enduro classification altogether (a case that I hope Bike Reg registration protection covers), I need to be better prepared to accept the disappointment and move on.

I also still need a lot more work on both my skills and endurance in the next year, but it seems like the latter may actually be the thing that makes it or break for me. It was definitely what broke it for me this year. In real life, just like in silly, melodramatic semi-historical TV shows, sometimes the path toward your intended goal gets hijacked, sometimes by literal course changes, sometimes because Alfred tricks you into marrying a hot new wife that secretly comes with the obligation of additional years of service in his army. Despite the title you are trying to achieve, TSE Enduro Champion or Ealdorman of Bebbanburg, it is important to accept the issues that arise and return to your intended path the best way you can.

For the rest of the summer, my path will lead me back to West Virginia several more times as I attempt to broaden the range of trails that I can successfully shred.