Race recap: 6 Hours of Crabtree

 

It is hard to believe that the last 6 hour race I had done was way back on May 6th, but owing to cancelations due to poor weather and low entries, our second race of the season was now here. The 6 Hours of Crabtree is always a really fun event, as Crabtree is our “home trail” and always gets a great turnout from the Raleigh mountain biking scene. Both Matt and I had high hopes for the event; I was coming off of a big training block left over from Nats, and Matt was itching to race again. It seemed like we were primed to have a really great race day.

In the time between Nats and 6HoC, I was living a mountain bike high! My riding time was spent doing base work and easy miles, so I had plenty of flexibility on what I could ride. What I wanted to ride turned out to be plenty of mtb and I had been enjoying hitting up some new-to-me trails with Matt and working on more technical aspects of my riding. In the two or three weeks since Nats I spent more time on the mtn bike than I probably did in the lead up! I am really enjoying riding with new confidence and enthusiasm, and I’m almost sad that cx will be here soon and the mtn bike will be in the shed for a bit.

The week of the race the weather here in Raleigh was looking pretty miserable. Every day there was a good chance of rain or storms, and Matt and I were obsessing over whether or not the race would be canceled due to wet trails. Crabtree is very well taken care of and handled with care, so if it was wet I just knew they wouldn’t allow a bunch of racers to tear it up. There was also the strong chance of storms on race day so we had the added worry that the race would be canceled during the event! I tried not to focus too much and still planned my week like we would be racing. I got in the majority of my big miles early in the week and then settled in to recover a bit before the race. Sadly my body had other ideas as I had a bad allergy attack on Thursday that left me feeling run down and exhausted all day Friday. I was suddenly worried whether I would even make it to the race the next day! I took it super, super easy and just accepted where I as physically and knew I would just race by feel and not go too crazy. Although we had a wet couple of days, the race organizers posted that the race was still on no matter what, and so I packed up my stuff Friday night to grab and go on Saturday morning.

I love racing at Crabtree because it requires very little travel time at all. The trails are only about 20 mins from my house, so I had a very relaxed and chill morning before heading to meet Matt at the race. When I finally arrived it was only myself, Matt, and the race organizers, which told me that the weather must have scared off quite a number of competitors. Oh well, I was still there to race no matter who showed up. Matt and I set up our tent and pit situation, and then changed to get ready to race. Matt and I had decided that I would ride the geared Santa Cruz since I would be faster, and Matt would ride the Stumpjumper SS since Matt knows the lines of Crabtree like a pro. This came with one caveat:, the geared bike took the first lap in order to have a better start and position on the uphill hole shot. I was a bit nervous about starting with the rush, but I knew this was a part of racing that I needed to get used to if I want to move towards bigger events, so I accepted the challenge. I grabbed the SC and pedaled off to see what the conditions of the trail were like. It was definitely wet, but it seemed like it was still holding some tack. I hoped this would be a good indication of what the rest of the trail was like so I headed back to our pit to hang with Matt before I needed to warm up. There were all these massive turkey vultures circling overhead, and I wondered if it was an omen of what was to come (superstitious, much?). Matt even joked “Hey Abby, are those here for you?” and I tried to put the mental image out of my head. More friends from other cycling teams started to show up and set up around us, and so we had a nice friendly alley of competition around us. I could tell this race was MUCH smaller than the last 6hr at Lake Norman, but our category had a healthy number of entries: 6 teams in total. Before long it was time to get warmed up and ready to race. I wasn’t nervous as much as focused on my plan for the race. I wanted to set Matt up in a good position, which meant getting a strong start and holding it through the lap. It was a lot of pressure to ride fast on wet trails, but after what I faced at Nats I felt capable.

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We are here to ride bikes and kick ass

The start had us lined up at the bottom of the parking lot, which meant we had a steep paved climb, and then a loop of the lot before we hit the single track. Because of this awkward start there was no prize for the hole shot as the organizers were trying to keep things less aggressive due to the conditions, so I only had to focus on getting settled into a good position. I just kept my plan in focus and as the start whistle blew I took off with the front pack. We took the loop on the parking lot and then dove into the single track in an aggressive but manageable pace. I was pushing hard and had the lead pack in front of me and another group right behind me. I was keeping my wits about me, as I know Crabtree very well and could ride it faster than most trails, but I was also making sure to keep an eye out for slick spots. The trail wasn’t too bad around the lake, but once we entered further into the woods there were some nasty slick spots just lurking around corners. Many riders were losing traction, and I had one really good save around a bend. The race course followed the trail in a counter clockwise direction, which happens to be the way I usually ride and had just raced the last month, and so I was flying! We took a left onto the more technical stretch on Loop 6, but I was still just in the front pack, which I was very excited about. The trail was still very slick and wet, and there are several wooden bridges scattered throughout the trail, which we had been warned about. I knew where they all were so I was trying to keep a high speed in order to have some time to slow it down if I needed to. I knew I was in a good position, and that there was only one Coed team in front of me, with a small pack behind me that included the next Coed team. I made it my goal to not allow them to pass me so that Matt would have an awesome position for his lap and we could create a better gap. The female racer behind me did ask for a pass on a quick downhill section that I did not allow and do not feel the least regretful about, as passing on a downhill is dangerous and I quickly gapped her on the climbs where she was much weaker. I was still keeping an eye on the wheel in front of me and we were reaching the last portion on the lap when I was completely taken by surprise. I was flying down a short downhill section that was slick red clay with a short bridge in the middle of it. I was going so fast that I had no idea what happened until I hit the ground. The SC must have lost traction on the slight angle of the turn and slid out on the mud and hit the bridge, but all I knew is one second I was on the bike and the next I was slamming into the ground with the bike tangled underneath me. The noise was terrible and as I came to a stop with the bike and myself in the middle of the trail, I heard shouts of concern and panic. I quickly threw my body and the bike off the trail as a couple racers flew by. I heard someone asking if I was okay and it was the female racer who had been behind me. She helped hand me my water bottle and I thanked her and told her I was okay before she left. I stood there bewildered and dazed, not knowing if I was really “okay.” I was covered in mud and hurting in multiple places but most noticeably my left thigh. I decided not to waste any more seconds and jumped on to pedal my way home and hopefully not lose any more time. As I started pedaling I realized my left thigh was throbbing with pain and I could see blood coming through my kit. I kept my panic to a minimum, knowing that I would have time to deal with that when I got back to transition. The bike seemed all in one piece, but I was very cautious as I finished the lap. I saw Matt waiting for me, and I could tell from other riders’ faces that I looked a mess. I told Matt to head out and be careful, yelling that I had crashed but I would be okay (which really I had no idea if it was true or not). I made my way over to our pit and started to assess the damage as concerned friends came over to render aid.

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Happier times at the start of the 1st lap

I was still very dazed as I tried to get myself taken care of, not only from the crash but also just the effort of the first lap. Luckily two of my fellow racer friends grabbed their first aid kits and patched me up, and I took some pain relievers and sat down to assess where I was physically. My left thigh was badly torn up, with a large gash in it and a huge bruise from getting caught in the handlebars during the crash. My left elbow was also bruised and banged up but wasn’t that much of a concern. I had noticed quite a bit of pain pedaling on my left side after the crash, so I was already worried that I wouldn’t be able to make it through the whole race. I tried to just focus on the present and not think too much about later. I had an ice pack on my thigh to try and help keep the pain and swelling down, and I drank some water and had a snack to get some food in me. I felt terrible. I just knew my stupid crash had cost us the race. We were sitting in 4th and there was a large gap between us and the places above us. The worst part was that the crash had happened so quickly I felt like I had no way that I could have stopped it. We were going to fail to reach a podium spot all because I had a huge spell of bad luck. I sat there hoping Matt put in a fast lap and wishing that it could be possible to erase my failure on the first lap. I had sent Matt a text message for him to read when he returned that explained what was going on, in case he needed to take an extra lap. Looking at the clock I realized Matt would be back soon, and so I gingerly limped to the bike and started to pedal around trying to get movement back in my leg. I found that although it was painful it seemed to help to keep some movement in the leg, so my goal was to take it lap by lap and see how the rest of the day unfolded.

I went over to the pit and Matt came tearing in, I shouted to him that I was okay to race and took off on the trail. I was riding a lot more conservatively than my first lap, in part due to my confidence being shaken and also my lack of strength in my left leg. I tried to stay as smooth and fast as possible, since having to put down a lot of power hurt my left side. I managed to get into position behind another racer and ride his wheel for a bit. It ended up being one of the racers who heard me crash and asked if I was okay, adding that “he hadn’t ever heard a crash that bad before” so I apparently worried a fair number of people. I was still frustrated that I didn’t feel super confident, but I knew it was better for me to warm up bit by bit. I was also sad because I knew both 3rd and 2nd place had a large gap on Matt, and here I was making it even bigger. I decided to stop feeling so sorry for myself and instead focus on the positives: the race was not canceled, the bike was not broken, I was not badly hurt, and my laps (although not quick) were helping the team as long as I stayed as consistent as possible. I ended up letting a solo 6 hour rider pass me, and lost sight of him until I caught him at another slick bridge on the course. I noticed that his kit was a bit dirtier than I remembered, and asked if he had crashed (because I have no shame). It ended up that he had crashed on that bridge so I made sure he was okay, and felt a bit better that at least I wasn’t the only person having a rough day. It was also funny because another rider caught us and admitted that he too had crashed out, so that added another confidence boost. Before I knew it I was back at the scene of the crime, and I saw just exactly how my crash had happened as there was a lovely set of skid marks out there. It looked like the bike’s rear wheel had hit the soft clay at the foot of the bridge, which caused the front wheel to slide out on the wet surface, thus causing a perfect storm of pain for me. This time I was careful not to repeat the mistake and I moved past that section quickly. I still felt like I was holding back too much but I wanted a safely confident lap under my belt. My leg seemed to be holding up well with only minimal pain, so I was happy just to be able to continue to race. As the trail wound its way back towards the start-finish I could hear the noise of music and fanfare, and in a few short minutes I was passing the torch back off to Matt.

As Matt sped off down the trail I went back to my tent to commence my icing/drinking water/eating game plan. My leg didn’t seem to be any worse so I was cautiously optimistic that maybe I would finish the day. I chatted with friends and I checked the results again. According to the live results we were in 4th but not too far off of 3rd place. I still felt horrible for costing the team so much time, and in my eyes there was no way we could finish on the podium at all. I had a couple texts from Matt waiting for me: he was glad to hear I was okay following the crash and said he would take double laps to help give me a break and gain some time on the teams ahead of us. I let him know I would be glad for some extra downtime, and for him to let me know when we switched next lap. Matt was pulling some very consistently fast lap times, so I was in the transition at around the 35 min mark to switch off. It was disheartening to wait there and see the other duo teams ahead of my transition before us, and it served as a reminder just how much I had cost the team with my bad luck. I tried to stay positive and be proud of the fact that I had rallied and I knew we should never give up completely. If I had crashed and taken out several other riders, there was no telling what might happen to affect the standings. Suddenly Matt popped out of the woods and was flying down the pavement towards me, and off I went for my 3rd lap.

The day was really starting to heat up, which was helping to dry out the trails but increasing the humidity and mugginess when in the woods. I was really sweating, not only from working hard at racing but I also felt slightly fatigued from the shock from earlier. I told myself to continue picking up the pace so we didn’t lose more ground, and with the drier trail I was getting more of my confidence back. There were also many parts of the trail that were being packed in from being ridden on, so there was more grip to let the bike rip. My crash was still in the back of my mind, as I knew just one more like that would be the end of our race for me. I was glad for all my experience in Crabtree as it meant that all I had to worry about was to keep pedaling and not worry too much about lines, and what was coming up on the trail. I was doing the math in my head and figured that I would probably get in one or possibly two more laps since I had taken the first lap. As I was getting closer and closer to the music, and thus the start line, I was feeling more like myself and ready to take another break to ice my aching leg. I popped out and handed things over to Matt who shouted out that he would pull double laps to help give me a longer break and I was very happy for it. I rolled back over to our tent, where some of my old teammates and friends had shown up to say hi. As I stopped to speak with my guy friend, I heard my name being shouted and saw Matt running with his bike up the trail. “Abby! I flatted! You have to take over!” yelled Matt, and I apologized to my man and took off back to the start. We were lucky that the flat occurred so early as it wouldn’t add too much to our race time.

As I took off back down the trail for what was now a double lap I had to be slightly amused. There I was all ready to relax for two laps, and instead it was I who would be putting in some extra work. The trail was really turning into some great conditions, and I was therefore able to put my foot down a little more confidently and try to make up the time the flat had cost us. I couldn’t believe our luck: first my crash and now Matt’s flat. It was like we are simply cursed to have the most hectic race days this season! Things were really getting stretched out as well, as there was hardly anyone around me. The only other soul I kept seeing was the same solo 6 hour rider who seemed to be really riding the pain cave. He asked if I was also riding solo, but I let him know that I was only insane enough to do a double lap. I definitely do not have it in me to ride Crabtree for 6 hours straight. I sped off and again was alone in the woods just trying to make it back for some rest. I was really getting that itch that I just wanted to be off the bike and be able to drink and eat something, but I tried to stay focused. The problem when you are so familiar with a trail is you know exactly how much longer you have to go and it can be excruciatingly frustrating when all you want is to sit down. I knew that Matt would be going though the same pain and I would have a good hour plus to relax, so I tried not to be too ornery about it. I was also still trying to put in a good time. I knew that having myself do double laps was not going to help make up any time, and the most I could do is try not to lose any precious seconds and focus on a consistent pace. I was really feeling like I was failing a bit by not being any faster. I knew that Matt would make up a lot of time on his double laps so I tried not to be too hard on myself. Pretty soon I could again hear my friend’s speaker blaring out “The Ride of the Valkyries” and I was popping back out of the trail to gratefully switch off to Matt.

I was so ready to be done that I immediately went over to the tent and started to drink, ice my leg, and check my phone for details from Matt. I was surprised to see that he had left a text that we were in third place! Apparently he had managed to pass the Storm Endurance team on his last lap, and I knew that neither member of the team had not passed me on mine. I was really shocked and relieved that we might just end up with a podium spot after all! Maybe my crash had not completely ruined everything for us! I was holding out hope that Matt could catch 2nd place on his laps, so I was keeping an eye on the race while trying to chill out a bit. It helped a lot that I was so tired I didn’t want to move, and also my guy friend had showed up to get a taste of this crazy mountain bike life, so I got to spend a good hour just talking and snacking and hanging out. My leg was very swollen and painful, but I knew it would hold up for one last lap. I was watching the clock to see if we would make it for my last lap under the cutoff (and a small, tired, injured part of me was almost hoping we wouldn’t) but we should have plenty of time left for the 9th lap. I may or may not have complained to said guy friend that I didn’t want to get back on the bike, but I will blame that on the dehydration and pain medication wearing off. As I was keeping a lookout for Matt to come through to start his second lap, I noticed that the first and second place Coed teams came through… followed by the Storm Endurance racer. Damn! Did Matt get passed??? The live results showed us now back in 4th and I was slightly let down. How could this happen? Had Matt crashed as well?? I started to stress and luckily had someone to calm me down. Matt came through and I told him to go FAST! Hoping that he would pass 3rd place again. As I sat there I noticed that the other Storm Endurance member was already out of kit and packing up and wondered what was up. Were they not planning on trying for a 9th? (What I hadn’t realized was there were two Storm Endurance teams and in fact I had the members mixed up!) I was not worried that maybe my 9th lap would be more important to our standings than I realized, and I wondered if I had not only the fitness but also the confidence to put in a fast lap. The conditions had improved by a lot and it was now prime racing dirt, but I was still a little shaken by the crash and my leg was a constant reminder of how dangerous it could be out there. I vowed that I would let neither our team nor myself down, and I would race as hard as I could to keep our third place spot secure if it came down to it. Before jumping back on the bike I checked standings one more time and was pleasantly surprised! We had bumped back up to third! I checked the clock and noticed that Matt would be coming in under the 3:30 cut off time, at around 3:15, which would give me 45 minutes to get back home. My easier laps were around the 40 minute mark, so I knew I had some extra space to take it a bit easier, but with third place being in close contention I knew I couldn’t risk it by playing safe. I turned my full focus back to the race itself and waited for Matt to pass it off to me.

I waited at the exchange with the second place team from CSH. We were both very silent with little to no words being shared. I think we were both just completely focused on finishing up the race. I saw her teammate approach and she dashed off and left me there waiting. Inside I was cursing every minute that they had on us, and blaming myself for that crash. If it hadn’t happened the CSH team would never have passed me on the first lap, and we would have been the ones in a comfortable second place. Suddenly Matt appeared and I was off for my final lap of the day. Possibly from the extra rest, and also from a renewed sense of purpose to make up for my mistake, I shot off with the same speed I had in the first lap. The conditions were finally just the way I liked them, and I was able to maintain more speed through the corners and downhill stretches. All the nerves that had held me back a bit during my middle laps seemed to melt away and I was back to feeling like my old self once again. The SC was eating up the trail with relish and I was having a blast. I was completely alone but I knew that Storm Endurance in 4th place was probably on my tail trying to catch me and regain their own shot at a podium spot. I would not lose it. It would take another crash or worse to take it from me now. We might not reach a higher step, but I was not going to let us down again. I was pushing, standing, climbing, flying, and being as aggressive as possible. I had almost completely forgotten about my leg and it would only occasionally remind me of its existence. It seemed like the complete opposite of my last lap where I felt like it was taking ages to get around the trail. Instead, I couldn’t believe how quickly it was flying by on this lap! Before I knew it I had hit the scene of the crime and had to smile at how the day had started with such drama. As I started to climb back up the trail as it slowly snakes its way back towards the fire road, I saw some thing blue and orange up ahead. The 2nd place CSH rider! HOW? At first I was convinced that I was not seeing correctly and it was another solo rider out on their own, but nevertheless I kept my relentless pace up just in case. There isn’t much elevation to this portion but it was enough to make my strength at climbing more obvious, as before I knew it I had caught the rider. It WAS the CSH racer! It was SECOND PLACE! I had no hesitation at all as I went for the kill. I knew I had the fitness and I knew that I had the confidence in the rest of the trail to really end this once and for all. I was going to win back our second place and I was going to redeem myself. I didn’t even have to call for a pass when I came up on her; I think she knew that she was beat, as she moved over for me to overtake her. As soon as I was by it was on! I hit the fire road and laid into the SC with all the power I had and sprinted towards to skills area that began the last bit of trail back to the finish. I was riding confident and fast and never bothered to check behind me. There was no way anyone was going to catch me. We hit the rock garden option, which I easily took and started to climb my way towards the parking lot. I could hear music but didn’t even register what it was. All I was thinking of was the finish and how surprised Matt would be to see me first. As I climbed the gravelly portion that leads to the finishing shoot, I saw the other CSH rider posed with his camera to catch his partner presumably solidifying their second place. Instead he saw my face and I broke out into a wild grin. I knew she was nowhere behind me by his reaction and I was safe to sprint it towards the end. Matt was standing there also with his camera and I laughed again. He looked utterly bewildered as I flew past and yelled “SECOND PLACE!” as I came through.

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Utterly maniacal grin right here

I was exhausted and yet so elated I hardly noticed it. I hadn’t taken a single sip of water that whole lap and was dying of thirst but I didn’t care. I could deal with that later! I sped over to Matt as he watched the CSH rider come through and realized what had happened. I just started laughing as he was in just as much shock as I had been when I had made the pass. Second place! I was so relieved that I almost wanted to cry tears of joy (they might have been from the pain setting in). I had crashed out and lost what I thought was the whole race but together we had stayed positive and fought back for our second place! Not only had we made it to our podium spot but I had really raced that last lap just as hard as the first and stayed safe and fast the whole time! I felt like the small bit of confidence the crash had cost me I had won back! Before, I had my doubts whether I would even be able to ride the rest of the race, and instead I was able to be a big part of our comeback. I was grinning the biggest, dumbest grin ever as I climbed that podium with Matt, and it felt great to be there. We will have one more race together before the end of this series and mountain bike season, but I think our progress together was really showcased today.

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~*~always the bridesmaid~*~

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Race Recap: Mountain Bike National Championships

Mountain Bike Nationals! How do I write a recap that is fitting for such an emotionally charged and massive event? I have no idea and I will probably not do it justice, but dammit I will try!

So in the lead up to Nats, I had spent very little time on the bike in order to allow my body to recover and be super fresh for race day. Most of my rides were very short and at a very chill pace (this was a struggle for me!). Mentally this tapering was hard for me (as it is for most people); not only is your body out of routine and unhappy but also it starts to play mind games by second guessing EVERYTHING. Trusting my coach and training up to this point was key, as well as staying as busy as possible. I worked a little more, spent more time reading and creating, and just tried not to focus too much on what was to come.

Zack and his family had already been down for a day or two, as Z was helping out other fellow racers, and his dad Gary was racing on Thursday morning. He pre rode the course and sent me a text Wednesday night to let me know what to expect. When I received it I was a little unnerved as Z informed me that it was totally rad and fun but unlike anything I had ever ridden before and would be my hardest race yet. He explained the tricky sections would be some natural and man made rock gardens, as well as a technical rooty section through the woods. I wanted to compare it to trails around here and Z informed me there was nothing like it in our area. This would be a completely new challenge but he assured me that I had what it took to take it on. I asked for a bit more advice concerning how to handle the rocky sections (an uphill rock garden just sounds so delightful!) and then I told him I would see him on Friday morning.

So as an added bonus my Mom had decided to come along to see me at Nats. This was a very special treat as my parents have never seen me race before, so I was very happy to have her along and also worried it might possibly be a little overwhelming or nerve-racking for her. Since I was racing on Friday the plan was to leave Thursday because neither of us could afford to take too much time off of work on such short notice (next year I will go ahead and plan for Nats J ). This meant we would be leaving around lunchtime on Thursday, and arriving in the West Virginia mountains at nightfall. I knew that this meant I would not be able to pre ride the day before, but I was so happy to have my Mom along I didn’t care, and planned to pre ride Friday morning instead. I booked a decently priced hotel at a town right at the foot of Snowshoe Mtn, about a 45 minute drive for race day morning. At around 1pm we were loaded up and headed North!

The drive up through Virginia and into West Virginia was extremely easy and downright breathtaking at times as we drove up and through the mountains. Traffic was extremely light, and we were making great time. This was nice as it kept me from stressing out about anything before the race. I pretty much just caught up with Mom and looked out the window at all the green, lush mountain views. The only time I got a little freaked out was as we went up into the tight and twisty mountain roads the heights started to make me uncomfortable (I am very scared of heights) but I was also getting excited about riding surrounded by such beauty. We would also drive for half an hour or more before ever seeing another car which was a bit creepy but also nice to be so isolated (not having cell service was frightening though). We arrived in the little town of Elkins, WV around 9pm and decided to check into our hotel and leave the bike safely inside before finding dinner. Getting settled was more important than our growling stomachs. As I took the Santa Cruz off of the bike rack I noticed that the front tire had lost a lot of air and immediately I started to panic (but was careful not to let my Mom know I was having an internal meltdown). I tried to calmly text Matt and Scott for their opinions on what caused it, thinking it could be a combination of a newly seated tire and the changing air pressure as we were driving through the mountains. For now, I settled the bike in to deal with later, while we went out in search of food.

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Beautiful views and awkward tan lines

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I’m definitely a mountain girl

As I sat in the very nice and updated Hampton Inn of Elkins, I was yelping any restaurant around that sounded feasible. Mexican food was out (too risky) as was Barbeque joints due to my vegetarianism. It ended up that Elkins is not a very hopping town and almost every choice was already closed for the night or closing very soon. Great. We had a microwave in the room, so my ever resourceful mother calmed my panic by assuring me we could go to the town Walmart and get some quality meals and sides to microwave in our room, and all would be well. This made me slightly nervous as a pre race meal, but I knew our options were limited and I needed to eat something. Now I don’t know about you, but heading to a Walmart at 10pm at night in a tiny mountain town of West Virginia is a bit of a scary adventure to me and proved to be quite a unique experience. I was quite happy that I was not traveling alone as we witnessed two fights in the parking lot, which included screaming and hair pulling before we even made it in the doors. Luckily the selection for microwaved dinners was quite large and my Mom and I made some solid choices of side salads with Mac & Cheese with broccoli. Truly a champion’s dinner! We were ravenous as we got back to the hotel but as only we can, my Mom spilled half of her Mac & Cheese on the bedspread, so I apologize to the cleaning ladies of the Hamptons Inn who probably thought we North Carolinians are animals. After eating our buffet of frozen dinners, I took a look at the bike… Both Matt and Scott had calmed my nerves a bit by letting me know the tire was normal and would probably be fine. Just pump it up a little above the pressure I wanted before racing, just in case it had a slow leak. I had my pump in the hotel room so I pumped it up to where I wanted it so that I would tell in the morning whether it truly was leaking or if there was a bigger problem. Then it was time to settle in and get ready for a very early wake up call.

At 4am on Friday my Mom and I woke up to head to Snowshoe Mtn Resort which was the home of Nationals. We knew the drive might be a bit tricky so we wanted plenty of time to get there and settle in/pre ride before my 8am start. I also still had to get my race plate and check in which was freaking me out a bit. As we drove there the weather was not looking great and there was a thick fog rolling in. Once we got to the resort at the top of the mountain, visibility was terrible and you could barely see 10 feet in front of you. My nerves were kicking in as I realized I could not pre ride a new trail in these conditions, especially alone in the middle of nowhere, and there wasn’t a lot of movement going on yet. I decided to grab my plate and super cool water bottle, and then pedal around on the main streets and maybe if the fog would lift enough I could try to see part of the course. Getting to registration was easy, and I was checking over the bike and getting kitted up by 7am. Thank God the tire had held air through the night and my fears over a leak were maybe a bit overblown. I went ahead and added a tiny bit of extra air and started to pedal around. I had the forethought to throw on a rain coat as it was a bit chilly and sure enough it started to sprinkle a bit. At this point many women were out warming up and everyone was very friendly and excited for the race. Suddenly the sky opened up and it started to pour, and we all had to seek shelter under a large tent near the race start (can I add it was amazing to see those USA Cycling gates and know I WAS AT NATS! HOLY SHIT!). The race officials came over to let us know there was severe weather in the area (ya think?) and to head to the PE Center to hide out until the delay was over. We all crowded into the building–bikes and all–and settled in to wait and chat. I saw a fellow racer I knew from cyclocross, Sarah, and asked for her views on the course since I had not had a chance to pre ride (I felt like an idiot for not being able to get a pre ride in all day but I couldn’t change it). Sarah gave me some super helpful views on the course, and I felt a little better after talking to her. The officials finally came back and said that they would update us on the start time around 8:45, but that they were definitely shortening our course to 2 laps due to the amount of rain we were getting. I think we were all relieved more than disappointed at doing just 2 laps, as pretty much everyone was focusing on not letting competition get out of hand and everyone staying safe.

Before recounting the race, let me first take the time to describe the conditions of the Nats course at Snowshoe:

You start on an slight uphill climb on asphalt down the main street of the resort, before taking a sharpish left turn onto a grassy stretch with a big downhill right in front of the spectators and on the opposite side of the hand off/technical area. From there you take a couple of swooping grassy turns and a few uphill/downhill stretches and then on to the start of one of the gravel climbs. This first one is not too bad, but you take a sharp left where the climb becomes sharply steep and is more of a rocky run up than a climb. From there you dive back downwards and enter into the wooded singletrack on your left.

The woods are a wet, damp, loamy sort of footing with roots EVERYWHERE. Slick spiderwebs of roots appear in varying sizes so you are constantly picking your way across lines as you navigate on the twisty and windy trail. It is pretty flat at least, with only a small amount of climbing, but the slick roots make it difficult and frustrating. You sort of feel like you are making zero progress moving forward. You wind around quite a bit before you start to hit the downhill section, but it is still that wet loamy dark dirt that doesn’t allow any traction on your bike and so you are slipping and sliding over roots while trying to navigate the switchbacks downhill (many riders will take the option of dismounting and running this as it is a bit faster than risking sliding out all the time). You take a couple sharp turns, and then finally you get spit out onto a fire road.

This fire road starts out on a gradual uphill which seems okay until the grade starts to become increasingly steeper and steeper. Due to the rain, it also has sections of peanut butter like mud that cakes your wheels and makes keeping your traction uphill super super fun. You finally start to reach the top and things are easing off a bit, until it starts back uphill with a man-made rock garden right in the middle. Keeping your momentum going uphill with the wet is hard enough, but now you have to maintain it to try and navigate a very clear line to the left. The rock garden itself is not that difficult, but the fact it is on a hill makes it harder to keep a good speed to pop over the rocks smoothly. Most riders attempting it will get about half way before they will end up having to put a foot down and catch themselves since they cannot pop over a rock. Due to the wet conditions the rocks were also very slick which just adds to the difficulty. Most riders, including myself, will simply dismount and run the thing since it will be much faster, as long as you are careful and you have time to remount and get back up to speed before the incline starts to get too bad. From there you take a hard left onto the enduro portion of the trail.

The left hand turn drops you straight into a really fun downhill with nice berms that are sandwiched between rocky shored up walls. You sort of have to trust your bike and tires to keep grip on some of the looser portions. You travel downhill and then drop down a few rocky drops into the woods and the enduro gets even more rad. Big sweeping berms, long downhill stretches, you can really fly and it is easy to forget how steep the drop off is to your left. You then take a couple sweepy right/left/rights before you have a sharp off-camber right handed turn out of the trail. The off-camber is slick and you have to take a high line and use a flat rock shelf to make the turn correctly which is a bit daunting, as failing means sliding down into a gully.

After the enduro portion you are again spit out onto a fire road that is the worst climb of the entire track. You are spinning and spinning as the grade gets worse and worse. It is a tough and grueling 12% grade and all you can do is get into a rhythm and try to not let the feeling that you are falling backwards get to you. The climb then takes a sharp and steep right hand turn and flattens out a bit, before dropping you down into a rocky gully. This natural rock garden alternates between large rocks that you have to pick around or pop over, and more manageable stretches that present multiple lines to take. Due to the rain there was a lot of standing water in this section which makes reading lines even harder because you can’t tell just how deep the puddles are, or how large the rocks might be sticking out of them. The gully continues for a very long stretch before you finally start with a technical rocky climb out of the gully. A lot of riders will choose to run this as the larger rocks are difficult to clear 100% of the time. You then climb out onto a grassy portion which spits you back near the start.

You head down a grassy uphill/downhill section which is nice because there are no rocks, but everything is on an off-camber that is very slick from the rain. The most deceptive down hill off-camber leads you straight into a massive flyover with a very steep rise, so you have to maintain a huge amount of momentum while keeping your bike balanced well on the slope. You fly up and over the feature and then negotiate a series of winding climbs back onto the pavement and finally turn and head for the start-finish shoot to continue on your next lap (or the finish if you are lucky).

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Getting tatted up

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He accidentally wrote 35 first and then I cried and he fixed it

At around 8:45 they came and informed us we were looking at a bit more of a delay but that they were hoping to get us out there at 9am. We waited a bit more and hydrated/ate some energy bars, and also got our calves marked with our age category so we would know who we were racing against during the race (Very smart! Please, all races adopt this policy!). I was happy to have my Mom chilling with me in the center as it really kept my nerves down and I had something else to focus on. It was weird that I felt very calm the whole time even with all the weather chaos. I think I had accepted that my goal was to finish and ride the best that I could on that day. After all, I was racing THE BEST IN THE COUNTRY and I still had only been riding a year so I didn’t want to put too much pressure on myself. I was also one of only two Cat 2 riders in my age category, so I had a sweet pass due to that fact. At 9am the officials were back and said that the race was on and they wanted us to get to the start asap and we would be off. This meant there was no warm up after sitting around for so long but at this point it hardly mattered. We all grabbed our bikes and walked out of the building to cheers from spectators who had lined up for us, and it felt amazing. I heard Gary and Zack call out to me, my Mom gave me a thumbs up and told me to be safe, and I lined up under that USA Cycling finishing gate. We sat in the lineup wishing each other good luck but I could tell we were all ready to race. My fellow Cat 2 rider turned to me and said “Can you believe that you are here?” and I answered her honestly “I never would have believed anyone if they had said I would be at the Mountain Biking National Championships a year ago.” They called us to the line, and amid cheering, the countdown commenced. With the whistle blast we were off zooming up the slight uphill stretch on main street in one giant pack of pure excitement and adrenaline.

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Goosebumps….. (it was chilly)

GO SPEEDRACER GO

For my first lap my goal was to just grab a wheel and hang on. I was riding blind so I wanted to just follow lines as I learned the course the first way through. The speed was very high even with the VERY WET conditions, and mud was flying everywhere. As we sped along the grassy uphill/downhill stretches I was getting a feel for how the Santa Cruz’s tires were maintaining traction. It seemed to be LOVING all the wet which helped me gain confidence, and I was super glad that Matt had switched to the bigger front tire that I liked (YOU’RE THE BEST, MATT). When I hit the first climb I was doing fine until the sharp steep left handed turn caught me in the wrong gear. No matter, I jumped off and ran up it and remounted and managed to stick with the group, then made a mental note of it for the next lap. We flew down the trail in a group of about four and then took a sharp left hand turn into the woods where a group of young men were watching and shouted “Here comes the fun part!”… oh how right they were! The woods were dark, damp, foggy, and the loamy wet earth was like riding on a victoria sponge cake (thanks, The Great British Baking Show). It was crisscrossed with a network of wet roots that took intense concentration to pick the correct lines through. Even trying to follow another rider’s lines was hard because everyone seemed to be taking a different approach! I was picking my way around and pushing my frustration out of my mind. You really felt like you were going nowhere but luckily it seemed to be the case for everyone. I kept the bike upright and was making good progress (on a blind run no less!) when the trail started a long downhill section with the same rooty, wet, soft earth. Luckily Z had warned me that this spot would be treacherous as the ground was so soft your brakes were useless. Locking them meant the bike would just slide around in the muck, so I tried to carefully roll my way down the trail, which was starting to deteriorate badly.The trail takes some nasty switchbacks, and I saw the two women ahead of me dismount to run the tighter sections. I followed suit and found it to be the best game plan for the moment. It was nasty to run in that loamy dirt, but it proved to be way faster. At the bottom I hit the fire road and fell in behind the two women in front of me as we started to climb.

The climbing was not bad and I was quickly back up with the women I was chasing, thanks to my fitness and strength at hills. There were sections where it was quite peanut buttery, so it was hard to keep up momentum in spots. Right in the middle we hit the man-made rock garden that is on an uphill and I realized that the pictures online did not do it much justice! The line was very clear on the left but the grade made it super difficult to keep any momentum to clear the entire thing in one go. I dismounted and ran it as Z and I had planned, and I actually passed the two women in front of me, who tried to ride and didn’t make it all the way through. I jumped back in the saddle and started climbing back up to dive into the trail for the enduro portion. This was INSANELY FUN! Like, I want to go back asap and ride these trails in better conditions because the berms and downhills were to die for. You hit some nice long stretches with some fun drops mixed in here and there, and in no time you have covered a decent stretch of mileage. I was trusting the Santa Cruz to be a little badass berm-loving monster and just smiling ear to ear (even though I was still slightly terrified and overwhelmed). Before I wanted to, I hit the sketchy right handed off-camber out of the woods (which I fucked up every lap) and it was now time once again for the worst climb of the race.

I was behind two women as we started the climb and right on their heels. The awful part was that although the fire road was wide, there was a ton of peanut butter mud to avoid and so you were stuck fighting over the dry tracks. I really wanted to try to pass since my climbing fitness was better, but as we hit the worse percentage of grade the woman in front of me almost came to a standstill which killed my momentum and I had to put a foot down. Damn! I quickly dismounted and started running the last bit which SUCKED but I was able to get around and up the climb faster than being stuck behind on a climb. The course takes an evil right hand turn where I remounted, and then down into the short downhill stretch into what was a natural rocky gully. As I started to see what was ahead of me I really started to get overwhelmed with just how much was going on. The water had filled up sections of the rock gardens so it was hard to tell where the lines were, and I was picking my way around in the slippery, foggy, darkened gully. I started to really think that maybe I wasn’t ready for this and that maybe I should have waited until next year. As my vision around me was getting bleaker due to the fog, so was my inner dialogue, and I was considering pulling out after one lap. I was worried “What if I messed up Matt’s bike? What if I crashed and got hurt on the next lap trying to go too fast to catch up? Was I really ready for this? Had I overestimated myself?” It was a very dark place but thank God it happened in the rock garden, because I had to just buck up and shut up in order to concentrate. It is distracting to be so negative when you are riding through a gnarly rock garden submerged in water. As the trail started to smooth out (ehh “smooth” is being used liberally as it was still a rocky mess), I realized that no, I had done one blind lap and lived through it so I could definitely handle another.

With my new positivity I climbed out of the rock garden and hit the grassy stretch headed back towards the resort. As I ascended I heard my name and saw Gary, Zack, and Spencer calling out and cheering me on. This lifted my spirits even more and I couldn’t help but smile as I really was having a BLAST. Plus I could see ahead that the GIANT FLYOVER was coming up and I was uber thrilled to hit it. Luckily Gary called out a warning to me to keep the bike upright and I realized it was because the big downhill towards the flyover was on a deceptive off-camber that you had to fight against to get traction for the rise of the flyover. Luckily I was able to adjust and hit the flyover with speed and I was up and over in a flash! From there you twist back and forth before hitting the home stretch and the wall of spectators cheering everyone on. I was able to catch my Mom in the crowd and gave her a wave and thumbs up that I was good to go for another lap.

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I’m smiling because the rocks were over.

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FRIENDS! Dat fog tho

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Smiling after the first lap? Good sign.

I again tore up the main street and was headed for another fun and challenging 4.5 miles of muddy carnage! I had more confidence this lap now that I knew what to expect, so I hit each section with more skill. I felt good physically so I was trying to maintain the same effort throughout the course, because I had no fear of hitting the wall. I hit the steep uphill that I messed up the first lap and only had to dab a couple times to get up successfully this time around. As I flew into the woods it felt eerily quiet as the fog was so intense I could not see too far ahead of me, and I felt like I was completely on my own. With so many racers having gone through the wet earth, it was even worse this lap and I was sliding all over the place while trying to keep my calm. There was that same feeling of not going anywhere at all, but I remembered it was the same the lap before and not to worry too much. I hit the downhill section and again ran it for better time. I was thrilled that I wouldn’t have to ride that section again!

It was time again for the fire road with the man-made rock garden, and I crossed it without incident yet again. I was between a couple racers so it was very nice to have some company. The enduro portion again was a ton of fun and I was having a blast, but covered in mud head to toe by this point. I knew the worst climb was fast approaching so I tried to focus on being fast downhill while recovering for the climb. As I skipped out the fire road I was again behind another rider, but I knew that this climb was MINE and I was going up the whole thing! I picked the inside track and passed, then climbed and climbed while my legs were burning like fire. I kept my breathing nice and smooth and before I knew it I had hit the top, then took the hard right back into my favorite rocky gully. This time through it I was able to pick out a couple better and drier lines, and was very happy to avoid putting a foot down too often. I stayed focused on the fact I was almost done, almost to the finish, almost going to be able to say I raced at NATS. As I climbed out onto the grass I kept my emotions in check and pushed as hard as I could to the flyover. I was going to cross as fast as possible dammit! I was purely in a state of getting to that finishing shoot and crossing that line. I was up and over the flyover, switching back and forth towards main street, where it was noise, cheering, and the voice of the announcer. And in a blur, I was crossing the line amid the voices of my friends and Mom cheering for me.

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I thought I was going to run over the photog…

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SO HAPPY. SO MUDDY.

Everything caught up to me all at once: the excitement and adrenaline, the fact I had just ridden a course like that, all my hard work leading to this moment. I was truly overwhelmed as I sat on the bike. I heard my Mom calling to me and I rode over to her and immediately broke down with happy tears as she hugged me. I am not an emotional person in public but I couldn’t help it; I was just so proud and relieved to have really challenged myself like that. Pretty soon I was surrounded by friends giving me hugs and I found myself speechless, because I was rubbish at properly expressing what I thought of the race. There was still cheering for the other racers coming in and riders celebrating, so I just soaked up the atmosphere at being a part of such a big event. My Mom reminded me that I needed to drink some water and get cleaned up, and I waited until the Men’s start had gone off before worrying about myself. I wanted to make sure and cheer for Zack and his brother Spencer as the 19-24 year olds took off on course at an insanely breakneck speed.

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Big bikes and happy tears.

Once I was a bit more pulled together I rode around a bit and spectated the race with my Mother. She was very proud of me and she had a great time watching, which I was pleased to hear! Hopefully she understands my passion for mountain biking now! As I cheered for Zack who was killing it on course to a 5th place finish, I just let everything sink in. I had finished 12th in my age group out of 12. Technically last place, but I was also the second Cat 2 rider in the group. I had ridden a trail more technical than I could have imagined and never crashed, never got banged up, and had ridden extremely well for being on a blind run. I now know what level of competition I want to aim for. Being at Nats was eye opening for me as it really showed that I was capable of putting in the hard work in training and showing up on race day ready to tackle whatever I was faced with. My first thoughts were turning to what I wanted to work towards and where I needed to go from here. I went to Nats and came back even more determined to improve and to become truly competitive at that heightened level. I realize that I did not go a year too early; in fact I think I went right at the perfect time to reignite my passion for mountain biking. I will most definitely be back to kill it next year!

Race Recap: MOAR XC at Lake Crabtree

So I have had an odd couple of weeks of racing. I was supposed to race the 6 Hours of Bur-Mil with Matt, but due to several days of continuous rain it had to be postponed. I was disappointed, as it would have been my first race since I started a structured training plan with Z, and to have plans changed at the last second was a bit frustrating. I tried to put a bright spin on it and focus on the fact that this would give me a couple more weeks of training before my next race, which would then be a good opportunity to see where I was in regards to Nationals. Every time I think of going to Nats I still have to remind myself that I AM REALLY GOING OMG because it feels unreal.

The next race on my calendar was the MOAR XC race at Crabtree, which is put on my Triangle Off-Road Cyclists. TORC is a really amazing group that helps keep our trails alive and holds great races and events to help grow mountain biking in the area. Their races have definitely been a huge influence on my growth as a mountain biker, so I try to do every race that I can fit into the calendar. Last year I raced this same race and it was my FIRST EVER race at the Sport level. I competed against Jessica Weinbrenner, who would end up becoming my future Oak City Cycling Project Racing Team teammate and one of my best friends. The race last year had us fighting against each other for 2nd place and I will never forget coming in 3rd behind Jess and having her immediately turn around and give my a giant high five for a killer race. I felt very cool and fast to be able to race against her.

In the lead up to the race I had two solid weeks of training with some pretty heavy (for me) interval workouts mixed in. I have to admit that I am loving these workouts and seeing some data showing my progression. The weekend before the race I even did a race simulation using the trails of Crabtree to do some sets, which gave me some confidence for how things would feel come race day. Since this was my Nats test run, I spoke with Z about which category I should race in. Before, I was always racing the Sport category (or what would be the equivalent of Cat 2), but my Nats race would be a 1/2 category race and a longer length. Feeling that I needed to get the hang of that level of competition and the longer effort, Z challenged me to race Expert. I knew I needed to leave my comfort zone and push myself, so I accepted the challenge and registered for Expert. Holy YIKES. I also talked with Matt and he graciously lent me his Santa Cruz for the race so that I would also be able to race the same bike I would take to Nats. My views towards this race suddenly changed from “Oh yeah another race to try and podium at” to being focused on how I have improved from training and how ready I was for Nationals.

The morning of the race I packed up and headed to the trails very early, as in I was there almost before the race organizers. Matt and his wife were volunteering to help organize and run the race, and had brought the Santa Cruz with them. So I arrived when they were helping set up so that I could get a quick and easy pre ride in. I have ridden Crabtree more times than I can ever count but I wasn’t quite sure what direction we would be racing. Plus, as a whole, the footing in Crabtree can change dramatically so I wanted to see how it was holding up and test out a new front tire Matt had put on the Santa Cruz that would allow for more grip in corners. I quickly jumped on the SC and took off down the trail. I was very happy to see that the counter-clockwise direction suited me as it was the way that I usually ride the trail, and that there was no loop 6, which I hate with a fiery passion. Also the new front tire was AMAZING on corners, so I felt very confident carrying a bit more speed than I usually did. I finished my pre ride and checked my Garmin to see the length and judge how far off of race pace I might have been. I guessed I could easily take off 4 minutes or more. I also realized that even on an easy pre ride I was sweating buckets due to the high humidity and heat. My race was scheduled for 12:30, and it would only continue to get hotter. FUN.

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Catching up and talking strategy with one of my favorite badass lady riders Vanessa

I was focusing a lot on hydrating correctly headed into the race because I knew that the course did not have that many opportunities to get a good drink in. For how warm it was, the race had a great turnout and I was enjoying catching up with friends and fellow racers. There was a slight hang up with registration so that meant the Novice category started behind time. I knew this was going to have a domino effect on my race, and so I adjusted my time for when I needed to get on the bike and warm up. I cheered on my fellow racers and watched to see how people were handling the course. It was dry on my pre ride and a lot of racers were sliding out on some loose corners. I tried not to let it faze me too much as the new front tire was very grippy, and being familiar with the trail, I had experience with how loose it could be. A lot sooner than I hoped, it was time to get on the bike and get ready to race.

There was an added prize of a very snazzy kit for the fastest lap of the day, and this Easter egg had piqued the interest of my biggest competitor in the area. I knew that I would have my work cut out for me, as although I was stronger and had better endurance, my competitor had years and years of experience racing some big races and technical trails. This is what will help me get ready for Nats and improve as a cyclist so I was happy to have someone to try to hang with. Z was racing the men’s expert class so we ended up spinning around together and getting a game plan in for the race. With the heat the plan was to grab a wheel and stay with it for as long as possible, and then make a move if it was feasible, and if I had enough in me to not blow up down the road. Most racers were either trying to win fastest lap or the race, but I was more focused on having a successful test run than anything. The race started on the road at the bottom of a long hill in direct sunlight, so it was BLAZING HOT. The game plan was to not go for the hole shot and instead sit in and let others tear themselves up going for it. I tried to stay in the shade and be as relaxed as possible. I was more nervous for this race than I had been in a long time and I think part of it was the added pressure of wanting things to go well. Z let me know that it was okay if they didn’t, or if I cracked; both would be indicators of what to work on and not a negative experience. At around 1pm, it was finally time for the men’s field to take off and I was excited to see how things would end up shaking out between what was a fully stacked field of fast dudes. I was a little less excited to realize that this meant that we had to line up next, but also I was ready to get to work shredding the trail.

As we sat in line waiting for the countdown, we just stared up the paved incline ahead of us. I kept Z’s advice fresh in my mind about letting everyone else do the work and just sitting in at the start. At the sound of “GO!” I slammed my foot into the pedal and sprinted off up the incline at a conservative pace, and clicked down a gear or two to not trash my legs right off the bat. As I started up it (It really looked worse than it raced), I thought “Where is everyone else??”. I had dropped my fellow competitors quite easily on the short climb, probably owing to the hard work I had been putting in on interval workouts and also because I really love to climb, but I kept it at a decent pace on the pavement. The route does a sharp 90 degree turn with a small steep incline before heading towards the single track, but I was still out in front. I thought “Oh well, I guess I will take the hole shot and then allow a pass and sit in” but it was very satisfying to come around the corner and see some surprised faces that I was in the lead. As we took a couple of hard rights into the trails, I was still in the lead but my competitor’s technical skills at cornering were helping her make up the gap. The trail was very loose but my front tire held the grip amazingly well. I knew that I was going against Z’s game plan, so I decided that if I was going to be in front then I was going to set the pace off the bat. The trail was too narrow and twisty for a pass, and I was still going at a fast enough pace that calling for a pass would be silly. I also was very happy in that I was maintaining this pace without too much difficulty; I felt very fresh and my breathing was under control. This was a bit different from the racer behind me whom I could hear breathing heavily already. I just kept my focus on the fact this would be a long hot race and to not do anything silly or make wild moves just yet. As the trail flowed around Lake Crabtree and then back towards the center of the park, we hit a couple of sections with short climbs and I was happy to see that these required little effort, but that I could create a short gap on my trailing rival. As we hit a long fire road though, my competitor slipped off to my left and got the pass she wanted. We hit a couple of tight turns which she took very fast due to her experience and I tried to keep her in my sights for as long as possible. For a short moment I was slightly disappointed but I refused to allow myself to feel this way. I had easily won the hole shot and held the lead for 3 miles against a competitor who has been racing for over a decade. I felt great, I had plenty in the tank, and the heat was not quite as noticeable on the bike. This was my test before Nats and I did not need to let an XC warm up race get me down. These insights gave me a little more pep and my thoughts turned towards keeping consistency and riding well for the rest of the lap. Having ridden Crabtree so many times, I knew I was hitting the end of the course soon as there is only so much you can fit into the acreage out there, and sure enough I climbed back up towards the parking lots and there was Matt keeping time at the timing blocks. Matt called out that I was only about 45 seconds behind, which really lit me up a bit as I was happy to be so close to the leader.

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I look very surprised to be taking the hole shot…

As I hit the second lap I heard a lot of friends cheering for me as I took the first sets of loose corners, which helped light me up a bit more. I was only 45 seconds behind and I knew the leader would be a bit faster on this lap as I wasn’t in the lead to control pace like I had been before. I knew that catching her would come down to whether she made a careless mistake or had a mechanical, and I did not want to rely too much on that. Instead I just focused all my efforts on getting my best result possible. I knew that the race win would probably be out of my grasp, but we still had the fastest lap to contend with. Because of the added length to the first lap the best opportunities to get the best lap were the 2nd and 3rd, as the 4th lap is expected to be the slowest of all. I was holding out hope that maybe the leader had gassed herself a bit trying to gap me on the first lap, so maybe if I could pull out a couple strong laps I would not be far off the fastest lap time. With this in mind I decided to really go for it for the next two laps and then hold on as much as possible without cracking for the 4th. The course was flowing wicked fast and at about 30 minutes per lap, I was really cooking. I have raced Crabtree so many times, but not on the insanely agile Santa Cruz and I haven’t raced it since the beginning of the year when I really started to make gains in my riding. All of my focus was on my riding and keeping things in check. There was one stupid rooty section we had to climb up that I hated on every lap (I was actually counting down how many times I had to see the stupid place), but besides that the trail is just pure xc flow. I felt like I was making some really good time, and before I knew it the second lap was over and I was once again passing Matt at the timing blocks and setting off again. I noticed that there were not quite as many people around cheering, which was probably due to the fact it was hotter than hades out there now.

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Lookin’ soooo prooooo (for a bit)

As I started the third lap I was again focusing on really pushing it for a faster lap time (in fact my third lap ended up being my fastest), I was also really excited to be half way done with my race. Lucky bitches that only had to do 2 or 3 laps! My thoughts were also turning to another goal of mine: don’t get lapped by the expert men’s field. I had a lot of friends racing that cat and I knew I would gladly jump off the trail to allow them to pass, but I didn’t want to slow down that much. Now I had yet another reason to really start shredding hardcore! The third lap continued in much the same way as the laps before: tight, twisty, dusty, and fast. The heat was climbing but I did not feel like I was hitting my max quite yet. I was feeling very strong on the climbs and was surprised at how quickly I would recover when I put in a push. All it took was a minute or two of turning my legs over and any feelings of effort would quickly vanish. I kept thinking “one more lap, one more lap” over and over again to keep on target. Thank god my Nats race will not be this long or hopefully this hot! By this point I was also getting really sick of riding the same trail and was very relieved when I came through the timing blocks and set off again. Matt asked if I was hot, and I remember saying something stupid like “Oh it’s not too bad” because I am a giant dork.

I was very happy to be on my final lap, and also happy that this meant that I was not going to be lapped by the men! Hurrah! So far I had achieved two of my goals: putting in my fastest laps on 2 and 3, and not getting lapped by the dudes. Now I just needed to bring it solidly home and I would achieve the “A” GOAL of getting my solid Nats tune up accomplished! I was very happy to know that with every turn and corner I was getting closer and closer to being finished. It was very odd to be looking forward so much to a race being over, but I took it as a sign that I was really working hard. It wasn’t until about the last half of the lap that I started to feel like I was hitting my limits, and even then it was more that I could feel the effort in my legs a little more and not that I was worried about cramping or cracking. A lot of my thoughts were “Thank god I don’t have to see these roots again” “Yes that stupid bridge is over with” “Ugh I don’t want to ride Crabtree for weeks after this” because I was just DONE. I knew I was second, I knew I had done my fast laps, and so in my mind my job was over. Yet I still had like half a lap to go. Haha joke is on me, welcome to EXPERT, ABBY. Thankfully I managed to pull it together and get my booty to the finish line where Matt was lounging comfortably waiting for the finishers. Yay! I could stop killing myself now!

As soon as I could, I pulled over rather anticlimactically as there was no one around except for a couple of the men who had finished about 15 minutes before us. As I was pounding water, I started talking some race talk to hear how the men’s race had gone. It had been very fast and competitive and much closer packed than our race had ended up. Coach Z had already left to head home, which I can understand because for the first time ever I really considered heading to AC comfort and forgetting all about podiums. I realized I was disgustingly covered in dirt and sweat and I was grossed out. I knew I needed to do my duty for my new racing team, so I toughed it out to wait for the women’s podium shots.

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You can’t tell how sweaty I am in this pic 😉

I was very happy with how my race went today and in fact there aren’t really any negatives I can think of concerning my performance. I DEFINITELY have made major gains from my structured training with Z, and I feel very confident moving forward. This was a big step-up to huge competition, in honestly terrible conditions, and I won the hole shot, held the lead for a bit, put in two very fast laps, and finished feeling quite strong. I was also very proud to represent my new racing team well and show everyone that I am a valuable asset. It really was cool warming up and talking with the other expert racers and feeling like “Yes, this is where I want to be.” I do feel like my hard work and dedication is paying off and I am very excited to move forward and see where it takes me. Time will tell what Nats holds for me, but I know that this season I have accomplished far above my own expectations!

Special thanks to Matt Wilkins and Deborah Hage for the pictures!

How I didn’t die taking a rest week

 

So last weekend I left off with finishing my first Cat 2 race with my sights set on improving and becoming one of the big dogs. On the way back from the race, I was running my mouth as usual while Matt drove, and I remarked about how physically I didn’t feel that great during the race. It wasn’t an “Oh god, I am pushing so hard I am going to bonk” type of feeling; it was more that I was lacking any sort of upper gear. I was pushing and really working, but I never felt like I had a higher gear. I was happy with my speed and my riding, but I felt like I was missing something. Matt made a little sigh that let me know I was about to hear something that could disappoint me, “Abby, you need to talk to Zack. You’ve hit a plateau.” As soon as Matt said that I knew it was true: I was hitting a lot of big miles and tough rides, but I wasn’t really improving a whole lot anymore. All I was managing to do was tire myself out right at a time when my passion for cycling was increasing. I promised Matt that I would get in touch with Zack, and I new that he would be able to help me.

The next day I was going for an easy recovery ride with my gravel badass friend Scott and his friend Kat, a woman who was interested in getting into gravel racing. I had put the thought of looking into coaching out of my mind (I mean maybe I was worrying too much, right?) and got on the bike to do an easy recovery ride. It soon became apparent that I was TIRED and I was actually pedaling a proper recovery pace for once. Even once my legs loosened up I still felt like I was just going through the motions. It wasn’t just that my legs were tired from a race effort; they were just…. there. As soon as the ride was done I messaged Zack. My worst fears were confirmed: I had plateaued and needed to recharge. Zack’s instructions were simple: don’t touch the bike for the rest of the week. Don’t touch my bike?? My training partners immediately were skeptical if I could follow through (as was I), but I knew that I was not progressing with the way I had been doing things. I was going to trust Zack (after all, that badass is fast AF), and I would not touch my bike. Strength training and light running were okay (oh God that’s right… I used to run??) and so it isn’t like I had to lay around all the time. Okay, deep breaths, I can do this.

Admittedly, it didn’t hit me until around the second day of rest that this was actually going to be hard. The weather was sunny and beautiful, and I found myself with major FOMO, seeing all my friends riding on Strava. Okay, kill Strava for the week. I did my first easy run on the trails and focused on staying within a lower heart rate than I would ever run. I just ignored my pace and my old “Runner Abby” side, and focused on enjoying being out in the quiet woods. To my surprise I really had a great time and I didn’t feel like I was exerting myself too much. My attitude toward running had suffered from major burnout and I was relieved to find myself missing my old sport just a little (not enough to want to ditch the bike of course). Maybe I would survive the week after all.

Besides picking up my old habit of running, I also focused on a lot of stretching and foam rolling to target my very knotted up and sore muscles. I am the worst about preventative measures when training because it just eats up time that you could be on the bike! But this week I focused on trying to help repair the months of damage I had been causing. My legs are always carrying around a degree of soreness and I had places that were so sore it hurt to foam roll with even the lightest amount of pressure. After just a few days of foam rolling twice a day I had a marked improvement. I also started back with my old strength training routine from my cross country days last fall, which was a series of upper body and core exercises to help balance my body out a bit. I have a very bad hamstring on my right side, so I was finally taking some measures to address this (I can actually feel the difference when I am pedaling on the bike, which is odd).

And then there is the mental side of the rest week. It was very odd to have so much free time instead of spending it on the bike/traveling to a trail/maintaining my bikes. I spent it reading (something I have really missed), going out with friends (which I never schedule enough time for), and also just cleaning, maintaining, and organizing my life! I didn’t look to fill that extra time with so much that I was in a constant rush to go/do something like I normaly do. Instead I just enjoyed a nice quiet week. It was glorious! I picked up shifts at work to make extra money, and I cooked! My God how I missed having time to cook without being in a starving rush to eat!

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Deep thoughts (and hoping a snake doesn’t crawl on me)

Did I get stir crazy and want to take a non-Strava’d joy ride? Of course I did! But at about day three of rest I was on the computer browsing the interwebs, when I noticed I had an email from USAC about the upcoming Mountain Bike Nationals that were being held not far from me in Snowshoe, WV. I clicked through the website and decided to look at the roster of who was qualified, hoping to recognize some names of friends who I could follow. As I brought up the qualifiers for Women’s Cat 2 I did recognize a name… my own. SURELY that wasn’t right, after all I had only raced one Cat 2 race so far, but it was true that one race had qualified me for MTN BIKE NATS. I had never even entertained the idea of going, thinking it was probably a goal for next season, and now it was right in front of me. Suddenly the last thought on my mind was breaking my rest week! Dammit I needed to take this seriously! Now I was not only going to take my rest week, I was going to be SO PRO at resting. No one has ever taken a better rest week than I. More rolling, more stretching, hell I even went out and bought vitamins. I was going (??) to NATS.

Towards the end of the week Zack checked back in on me to see how I was doing. I told him that I was very much enjoying the break. He okayed me to do our weekly team ride, but assured me to take it very, very, very easy and then rest an extra day. Aye Aye Captain! It ended up being a great ride and I had missed the bike but I felt fine locking it back up later. I didn’t feel like I was tied into getting back onto it anytime soon. A couple more days of resting and then I could see my first easy ride coming up for Sunday. Even as Sunday approached I still didn’t have any idea about what kind of ride I was planning on doing. I would need to ride early before work, and as the morning dawned I grabbed old faithful, my cx bike. It was just myself and the trails of Umstead for my first ride and for the first time in a long time I found myself just getting lost in riding the trails. I didn’t focus on how many miles, just how long, and I ambled around at an easy pace actually paying attention to the scenery and nature around me. I realized just how much mentally I had needed this breather, and how much better I felt physically. The lingering soreness I was carrying around had faded with all my rolling out and I actually felt like I had some energy. I know that these things will only last if I keep up with my maintenance, but I now know that I need to really start taking it seriously if I want to progress forward.

So I had survived! An entire week mostly off the bike and I felt like I was ready to focus and get started back with an actual plan. I have Nats to now look forward to, and I know I will not get there if I run myself into the ground between now and then. I have an easy week of training ahead, with a heart rate test to determine a baseline, and ending with my next 6 Hour Race with Matt on Saturday. For the first time in a long time I feel like I have a plan for the future.

Race Recap: SCS at Farris Park

So this race I had never planned on taking part in. In fact I wasn’t supposed to even be in the state. I had plans to visit my best friend up in Baltimore, but an unexpected sickness meant that we needed to reschedule. So on Friday, with a weekend entirely off of work, I texted Matt and asked if he wanted to race the next day. In true best-racing-partner-ever fashion, he was totally on board. Since I had immediately upgraded after the last race, I registered for the Women’s Cat 2 division and I was excited for what new level of competition I was getting myself into.

My lead up to this race was less than ideal. In fact it was downright terrible. Since I was going out of town and had not planned on riding, I had done all of my big rides during the week. On Friday I was already sitting on 200 miles without a rest day, which meant I was SUPER RECOVERED. Oh well, the course sounded cool, so I just planned on having fun. I also had to work a 12+ hour day on Friday which meant I was on my feet constantly. My legs were feeling GREAT! Oh well, oh well. I wanted to spend my weekend doing something fun so that I wasn’t super bummed, so I focused on that.

Saturday morning we left bright and early (5:30am early to be exact) and headed to Mayodan, NC which was home to Farris Memorial Park. We had a very strategic race plan for the day, because we were both going to attempt to ride the Santa Cruz for our respective races. The course for the day was a short track style of multiple 3.5 mile loops. The point being that the shorter, windier course kept racers passing by spectators earlier at various lookout points, which made it very easy to cheer and watch. So the Cat 3 riders like Matt would be putting in three loops, while the Cat 2 would put in four. Having experience with cross and racing a similar format, I was really looking forward to how the course would end up racing. I was hoping the shorter course would mean that we would get less spread out, which is my least favorite part of mountain bike racing. Matt and I had done the math, and with Matt starting at 9am to do around 10 miles, and me starting at 10:30, we should have plenty of time to adjust the Santa Cruz for my fit in between races. That would allow me to have the gift of gears for the race and Matt wouldn’t have to sacrifice his bike for my pride.

We made great time on the drive there (I slept for most of it), and arrived in the little town of Mayodan at 7:20am. The way to Farris Park was marked by bright orange painted bicycles that dotted the road, and I started to wonder why someone would have so many bicycles ready just for this purpose. We were one of the first two cars to park and I could see the bright blue Shimano tape marking the course, which gave me some nostalgic cyclocross-vibes. Matt and I changed and then grabbed the Santa Cruz and the SS to preview the course. As I took the lead position to the sounds of “Don’t Stop Believing” blaring over the PA system, we dove into the single track course. What greeted me was a super nice flowy trail, that began with some smooth climbing switchbacks. The trail continued to wind and flow and was dotted with large rocks (or small boulders if you prefer) that threatened to crush a hapless rider’s toes. There was a small rocky creek crossing, which led to more switchbacks and berms, and I commented that this race was going to be FAST. At about the half way point of the 3.2 mile course, the flow is broken up by a few interesting rock gardens spread out over the next mile or so. This helped keep your mind focused and your wits sharp when the flow threatened to lull you into a false sense of ease. The trail then spit you out onto a long gravel double track that I was excited to see, as it is always a good place for me to make up time or gain it on my competitors. Then the trail ducked back in on a freshly cut single track portion that felt very rough from lack of being ridden in, and also from how smooth the singletrack was that preceded it. Luckily this section was only about a quarter mile long, and then it spit you out onto a grassy stretch that looped back up to the start/finish. I realized once we stopped that I was the first rider to pre-ride, as I was covered in cobwebs and spiders and had a mild freak out over how disgusting I felt (I’ll never be first on course again!).

Once back at the Subie, it was time to chill and grab a snack and some water. Matt was set to start in about an hour and I would have another hour after that. This was actually the first race where I was the one waiting around, which as an impatient person is never my favorite thing to do. The PA system continued to blare some really random music selections, ranging from the Eurhythmics, to Whitney Houston, to David Bowie, and then back to Cyndi Lauper. I was slightly amused and just happy not to be hearing the same Nickelback/Creed combo the organizers usually favor. It hit about 8:30 and Matt needed to start warming up. I joined him out of camaraderie and also because my nervous legs wanted to spin out a bit. Our friends the Lowdens arrived and pitted next to us, and I was glad to have company to talk bikes with when Matt was out on course. As we warmed up, more and more racers were arriving and following the same game plan. It seemed like there were more Cat 3 racers than the last race, probably due to the friendlier course and much better weather for racing. I was secretly proud of the fact I was in Cat 2 so soon. Matt seemed to be second guessing himself a bit, and I tried to give him a small pep talk before he headed off to the startline (my pep talks are usually cheesy and lame but I mean well!). I had high hopes for him on this race, but we were both concerned about how the Santa Cruz would handle the berms later on as they were likely to start getting pretty loose, and the front tire is not the best. In no time at all the countdown was over and Matt was speeding away! I turned my attention back to hanging out at the pit and getting some racing and training advice from Gary and Zack.

From our pit area we had the perfect view of racers turning in at the end of their laps, which meant we were able to harass Matt as he came around. The trail was definitely riding fast; the first racers were coming in under 20 mins, and Matt came by in around 17-ish minutes for a super brilliant start, and I was proud that it seemed he had found his racing spirit out on the course. After another 18 minutes he came by again and I knew it was time for me to get back in kit and start pedaling around on the SS. As I warmed up I kept an eye out for Matt’s finish, and was thrilled when he came by and finished in a strong 3rd place for the second weekend in a row. As he rolled over to exchange bikes I congratulated him on a race well done, while switching our water bottles, loosening pedals, and swapping over my Garmin. Matt lowered the seat to my height and I went back to pedaling around while he took it easy. I was starting to get slightly nervous to race, as the Cat 2 field was also much larger than last week. Since I was in a new category I had no idea what competition would be like, and I was worried about being outgunned. I recognized a couple of my competitors from the 6-hour races that I do, but there were several unknowns who looked speedy. In no time it was do or die, and I got into the lineup with my fellow women. There were seven in our group, which meant even with call ups I still had a front row starting position. I was focused and trying to concentrate entirely on getting a good starting place since I had no idea who would take off and who wouldn’t. The countdown was complete and it was time to set off.

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So proud of myself on this one..

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Fast badass warriors

I immediately slammed my foot into the clipless pedal and started sprinting towards the woods (holeshots have never been a strong point of mine) and I was beyond proud to enter the woods in second place. It seemed many of my competitors had trouble clipping in off the start and were caught in the wrong gear, so I thanked my CX experience for teaching me how to avoid such costly errors. As we dove into the single track the lead woman started flying down the course and I could tell she must be a regular rider of the trail. I took one turn badly and ran waaaay too wide, which cost me time, then I was distracted by a flurry of racing colors passing me by. I tried not to beat myself up too much, and continued down the flowing trail, trying to keep the front runners in sight. There was a small creek crossing which lead to a sharp uphill that I didn’t downshift far enough for ahead of time, and had to take a couple dabs. This killed my spirit as it allowed another rider to pass me. Dammit, 5th place now! I raced off to catch up but I was losing sight of everyone but the 4th place racer. My thoughts started to become slightly negative at this point. 5th place! I’m going so fast! Why am I only in 5th place?! Why am I so slow?! but then I caught myself and put an end to it. I was in a new category, with the bigger competition I craved that have been racing much longer than I have, and I was still in a decent spot in the race and riding strong. This was what I wanted after all. A new challenge and opportunity for growth! 5th place? That meant there were four women ahead of me that I needed to try to catch, four women who would push me to be a better racer. Fuck yes this is what I wanted! I focused on keeping the 4th place racer in sight and although I lost her a bit at the end of the first lap, Matt informed me as I crossed the start line that she was less than a minute ahead of me.

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Focused (look at that sick bike!)

The second lap started off the same way as the first, but after the initial set of climbing switchbacks, I realized that my climbing fitness meant I had gained time on the 4th place racer and she was again in my sights. In just a few short stretches, I managed to pass her and move up on the climbs. I was ecstatic! My mind immediately switched from being the chaser to being chased, and I tried to ride smart and fast to prevent her from eating up too much of my gains, but she knew the trail far better than I and was on my heels the whole time. As we reached one of the small rock gardens, she took a better line on her full suspension bike and glided over the rocks with ease, and I saw my 4th spot fly away. My new goal was to keep her in my sights for as long as possible. I concentrated on trying to keep my pace high, riding cleaner corners, and staying as smooth as possible. The entire second lap I was focused purely on my prey and hoping that maybe my fitness would help me out, as she looked like she was tiring more than I was. I started to notice that the berms were getting looser and looser as the race was progressing, and the front tire of the Santa Cruz was not biting the way that I hoped it would. This was making me lose a bit on confidence going into berms, and I was riding the brakes too much and having to sprint to make up the lost distance. I hoped that it would not become too much of a factor, and before I knew it the second lap was over and we were ducking into the trail for the third time.

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This grassy stretch made me angry every lap

The third lap was again progressing the same way as the second: I made gains on 4th place on the climbs and switchbacks, but lost time in the rock gardens and due to my lack of confidence in the berms. At the halfway point in the lap, 4th place was pulling away and I started to accept that no matter what I would be finishing where I currently was. At this point I was focused on staying consistent but I was again not in the best frame of mind. I tried to focus on the positive for the remainder of the third lap, and remind myself that I had put up a fight for three laps and needed to be proud of that. The cheers from Matt and my friends when I came through the start/finish to head out for my last lap helped pick up my spirits, and I dove into the single track for the final time. Without a racer to chase I was just going to bring it home in one piece, and I found that I was riding much cleaner and smoother without all the stress and adrenaline running through me. I was convinced I was probably going so much slower (it ended up my laps times were all almost exactly the same), and I was dialing it in a bit. Towards to end of the fourth lap I had one minor annoyance as a Cat 1 racer who was pre-riding started riding my tail (HELLO! STILL RACING HERE!), but a couple of bitchy looks got him to back off. In a very quick fashion I was sprinting the grassy stretch and glad to cross the line for the last time.

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Yay! I raced! (Sick bike)

I felt a little funny at first, because I wasn’t sure how I felt about getting 5th place. I knew that when I upgraded I would have more competition, but I guess I wasn’t ready to face being midpack again. As I sat there trying to process this, some of my friends who race in Cat 3 women came up to ask me about my race. I found as I talked about the race that I had plenty to be proud of: I was pulling fast laps in a competitive Cat, I handled my bike well and never crashed, I never felt so tired that I couldn’t keep pushing in the race, but yet again all I was thinking about was 5th place. I left to spin out a bit and chatted with a few more racer friends about how things went, still feeling a bit defeated. I realized talking about it wasn’t really helping, so I went back to the pit to find Matt. Matt (sporting his shiny 3rd place medal! 🙂 )congratulated me on my race, but I think he could tell I was a little bit low. They announced that results were posted, and I asked Matt to go get the official results for me because I didn’t want to go over there. I think Matt could understand how I felt, and he happily went to go check for me. I went and changed, knowing I didn’t have to worry about getting a podium pic today, and headed back to the Subie to leave for the day. In a few minutes Matt was back and I asked for the bad news – 4th place was the answer. In an instant my outlook completely changed! Just that one place higher, one step off the podium, made me feel completely different about how I did. I was so sure the whole race that I had let more riders slip by me on my first mistake, and I couldn’t believe that I had simply miscounted! For a split second I wondered had I been aware I was fighting for 3rd and not 4th, would I have pushed harder? But I pushed these thoughts away because I couldn’t change the result. I had placed just off the podium in my first Cat 2 race, against experienced women, and I rode fast and hard on a fantastic trail. I had a lot of be proud of.

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Looking pretty pro here..

We hopped in the Subie and headed to a Mexican restaurant previously scouted out by Matt, with a couple racing friends in tow behind us. I celebrated with some bangin’ veggie enchiladas and plenty of chips and salsa. Then it was time to hit the road back home to Raleigh (at a pleasant hour for once), and I took the opportunity to catch a few naps along the way. All in all I feel very content with my decision to Cat up, with my race, as well as the challenges ahead of me. I have a few things that I want to change in order to take my training to the next step and finish the season even stronger. Cat 2 podium here I come!

Race Recap: SCS at Hobby Park – NC State Championship

I had exactly zero plans to race coming into this weekend. I knew that there was going to be a long stretch in between 6 hour races, and so I was starting to get the itch that I needed to get a race refresher in. The Southern Classic Series is the USAC sanctioned mountain bike race series that covers racing in NC, SC, and VA, and due to the large amount of travel involved I had never raced it. Luckily it ended up that the race this weekend was the closest one in Winston-Salem, NC and I lucked out in getting my work covered to have the day off. I figured maybe it was time to actually make an appearance at an official USAC race, and hopefully start to gain experience and points to further my mountain biking goals.

My main hang up with racing USAC was that although I had a USAC license and I am a Cat 3 in CX, I had never raced mountain and so I would start in Cat 3 before I could upgrade. The thought of traveling and only racing one lap had held me back from spending the money, but when I looked up the registration I found out the single speed category was actually mixed gender! Two races in one day! I jumped at the chance to challenge myself to racing twice in the same day. The race was also the North Carolina USAC State Championships, so I had the extra motivation of adding a title to my racing resume.

The week leading up to the race I was sick with a bad cold, and I had adjusted my training accordingly. I was still getting the miles in, but it was mostly at an easy pace, or settling in and not taking as many pulls on road rides (Sorry to all my road crew for being a wuss all week). I held off registering for the race until I felt like the cold was on its way out and I would have the ability to properly breathe again in time for the race. YAY.

So, being a highly competitive person, I was really aiming to take the win in the Women’s Cat 3 race. Leading up to the race I had discussed with Matt the possibility of borrowing his Santa Cruz Highball for the race, which is an XC racing machine and would allow me some tighter handling and the gift of gears to really be able to put the pedal to the metal. Matt graciously allowed me to race it, meaning he would race the single speed for his own Cat 3 race, putting him at a slight disadvantage against the rest of the field. I knew that Matt was an SS racing machine and would still be a huge threat to the competition. The day before the race, we took both bikes out to the badass Brumley Trails in Hillsborough to make sure they were both dialed in properly for us before race day (we probably had a little too much fun out there but it was worth it).

Because I am an overachiever and would be racing my first race at 10:15AM, Matt and I left Raleigh at 7:00 to get to Hobby Park on time. Neither of us had ever ridden there, so we had zero expectations for what the day would hold. We aimed to get there around 9am, but traffic was light and it was such an easy drive that we ended up arriving at 8:30! This was perfect as we checked in and grabbed our bibs plus got a primo parking space. Matt was planning on leaving me to race and then riding the nearby Tanglewood trails, but with our extra time we decided to pre-ride a section of the course. I grabbed the SS since that is what I would be racing first, and Matt had the Santa Cruz. The Hobby Park course starts with climbing a massive paved incline that was built specifically for boxcar derby racing. I knew it was going to be a deciding factor in getting a good position from the start, so I wanted to make sure it was doable on the SS without dying. Luckily I climb a lot of road, so it turned out to be a monster but not impossible. It is just a brutal way to start a race by maxing out your heart rate right off the bat! From there it dives into the single track and immediately starts with some nice flowy sandy sections that lead into big punchy climbs. I had a 34×19 on the SS instead of my usual 34×18 , and I was super glad for it. We rode about 1.5 miles in and the climbing had no intention of letting up at all. I really love to climb so I was excited for what was to come, but I didn’t want to wear myself out before racing. Matt and I decided to head back and change my gearing to a 34×20 just to be on the safe side since we hadn’t hit the worst of the climbing and with two races today, I didn’t want to get destroyed on the first one. When we got back to pit, Matt got to work on switching out the rear cog, and I got to work on my usual pre-race overthinking of everything up until that point in my life.

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So happy! I get to race!

So my game plan for the day was to use the single speed event to get a race pace feel for the trail in order to really crush it later on for the Cat 3 race. I also wanted to test myself doing a mixed race, and also to get the experience of racing for a longer distance over the entire day (since I want to do more mtb endurance events in the future). I was trying to remind myself A) not to go out too hard and kill myself for later, and also B) not to be too upset if I was not as fast as the men. I felt really great warming up with the big boys, and was getting a lot of respect and encouragement from everyone for even just signing up to race. I got some info on what to expect for the rest of the course I hadn’t ridden yet, and was told it wasn’t the most single speed friendly trail (oh YAY). As we lined up, I have to admit I felt pretty bad ass to be the only woman there (more ladies on SS please!!). Before I knew it the countdown was over and we were off, racing down the pavement landing strip and heading towards Boxcar Hill.

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As someone proclaimed “These dudes about to get CHICKED”

Since I had pre-ridden the hill I knew sort of what to expect and tried to pace myself so as not to get my heart rate too high right off the bat. I stood up and tried to keep a consistent rhythm to my pedal stroke to get up the hill and it actually was not as bad as expected. Both of the male racers gapped me pretty quickly and were neck and neck heading into the woods. I reminded myself to be competitive but that my main goal was my later race (which was hard for me to keep in mind as I immediately wanted to try and blast it to keep up). I concentrated on the trail, familiar with the first couple of miles from the pre-ride, and prepared myself for one of the bigger steeper climbs that would be coming up. I had not made it up it all the way on the pre-ride, but this time I was ready for it and with an easier gear I managed to get almost all the way up before having to dab once or twice with my left foot (cross has taught me to never be ashamed of having to dab/run sections if it would be faster. Racing is the time to be smart and fast) and then I was hitting the unknown. The trail continued in much the same way: up and down, big punchy climbs followed by sweet sweeping bermy downhills. I was having a blast and working hard but I didn’t feel like I was struggling that badly being on a single speed (in fact I would argue that I was riding things even better because I was focused on maintaining my momentum and not trying to ease up every incline on easy gears). Right when I was worried I was maxing out and couldn’t climb another hill, the course started to flatten out a bit and became slightly more technical. The turns began to get more technical and rocks and root sections started to become more prevalent. I was very relieved that my time riding more technical trail was helping me out, as I never felt overwhelmed or nervous. I just kept my calm and tried to read lines as well as I could. I would occasionally see other Cat 2 riders that were ahead of me, but for the most part I was on my own for much of the first lap. After a bit, the course started a gradual uphill climb for the last third, featuring some long technical climbs with switchbacks. I was happy for this as they were much easier to negotiate on the SS and I was making it up every climb. I was also very happy that on my last ride, my training partner Scott had demonstrated and taught me about ratcheting back on technical features and climbs, which came in super handy and I was employing my new found trick quite frequently. From there the trail ducked out into the open, before heading back into the woods for the final half mile that is a really fun sandy section with a couple fun rock gardens. You take one giant rocky drop (FULL SEND, BRAH) and then you’re out in the open and heading into your second lap.

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If you don’t ride single speed then you suck

As I took off for my second lap with the encouragement of Matt and other friends, I braced myself for another run up Boxcar Hill and another round of climbing. The second lap continued in the same way as the first; I was focusing a bit more on pacing since I knew what to expect this time, and the Cat 3 race was foremost in my mind. I knew I was third in this race no matter what, and as defeatist as that sounds I was content with just finishing the course and nothing else. The temperature was really starting to affect me. It was hot and humid and I was sweating heavily. I tried to drink as much as I could, but it was really only possible on the few open stretches of the course. The trail was littered with water bottles from riders trying to take a swig at the wrong time. About a third of the way in I saw some color in front of me and realized I was catching up to the Women’s Cat 2 field. This gave me some motivation to continue to push and try to move up, since their race had started about 10-15 minutes before mine! I caught one young woman, who gave me some encouragement for racing single speed, and then was hot on the tail of the next rider for the rest of the race. The trail seemed to go by much quicker for this lap, and I was getting more and more excited to be done with this race. As much of a blast as I was having, I was ready to be DONE. I was beyond ecstatic to hit the sandy portion at the end, then drop down the rock ledge and fly across the field to the finish line and be congratulated. I had raced single speed on a tough course with the boys and come out unscathed! First mission accomplished!

As soon as I was calm enough I headed over to the pit to say hello to our friends and start recovering for the next race. I tried to relay as much as I could to Matt about the trail but was probably not very helpful, as I was very scattered and exhausted. I started drinking electrolytes and ate a banana to avoid cramps, and then ate my peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch. We did podiums for the single speed race shortly after and I got some very hearty cheers for being a woman on the podium. I was trying to stay as relaxed and cool as possible. Now that I knew the trail, I was more confident about my second race as long as I was smart about recovering correctly. It was really getting downright hot at this point, so I was drinking and staying out of the sun as much as possible.

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With da boyz #lifegoalunlocked

Before I was ready for it, it was time to start suiting back up to race. I had a headache from possibly being dehydrated, and was slightly nauseous which was not helping me to feel calm about pushing myself again. It did not help matters when I started trying to warm up my legs again by pedaling in the paved circular warm up area. I quickly realized this was not a good idea and instead took refuge in the shade. After all, my legs were pretty fucking warm from crushing two laps already. As I sat in the shade with my fellow Cat 3 lady racers, I started to size up the competition. A few of the racers I already had raced before, and so I was very confident with the race. There was one unknown female racer that I had seen warming up that I could tell was my closest competition. I asked around but no one had any details on her, so I just went ahead and focused on making sure I would get the hole shot and gap everyone from the start. I was tired, I was still feeling gross, and I had decided that I would start out strong and then ride to the level of the competition around me. I had the Santa Cruz, so I knew the climbing portion would be much easier to deal with. In all honesty I was mostly looking forward to just riding that bike again more than anything. I knew it was going to eat up that course and do all the work for me. All I had to do was not go crazy and wreck the darn thing.

I was getting tired of waiting, so I left the comfort of the shade to step out into the sun and get this bitch on the move. The Men’s Cat 3 had all taken off (I yelled some hearty “GO MATT GO!” cheers to him), and then the race official was trying to decide on where to have the women start. I heard that the Cat 3 youth had started before the women at a couple races (several women seemed very uneasy about the youth having to pass them on the trail), but I quickly (and loudly) proclaimed that I wanted to start ahead of them. I knew what the trail was going to be like and what my pace would be like, and I didn’t want to have to worry about asking for passes. There was a mild scuffling about what to do, before the women racers allowed me to choose for them, and I chose to start first (I was already parked on the start line so I was not really planning on moving anyway). My fellow women joined on either side of me, and I saw that there was seven of us in total. I felt a little guilty about being on the best bike, being on a race team, having raced Cat 2, and the most fit person there. Oh well. I will be the jerk and then cat up immediately. The organizer started to count down and I sat there focused and ready to hit that stupid Boxcar Hill one more time, and then BAM! we were off.

I was clipped in and shot off in my big gear straight down the landing strip. I readied for the u-turn and slid around the corner. I was already out in front and there was no one on my tail. I went full aero heading into Boxcar Hill and then started climbing. I knew by this point that the best strategy was to pace Boxcar so as to not max out my heart rate, so that I could recover the fastest and gap everyone who fell off before jumping into the single track. That is basically what ended up happening as I heard the heavy breathing of my competitors trying to get their wind back, but I was already taking off for the woods. The other female racer I had noticed before was not far behind me, and she had been similarly wise about the start. She was probably a good 30 seconds behind me as we started the flowier beginning stages of the trail, but I still had confidence from my earlier race that I would not be overtaken.

As I was having a blast letting the Santa Cruz just rip into the trail, I started to gain on several of the tail end of one of the men’s Cat 3 groups. The racers in this series seemed extremely respectful about passing, with most riders scooting over before I even had to give a shout. It was very much appreciated as the only thing I wanted to worry about was gaining as much of a lead as possible so that I could then slow down and pace myself to the finish. I only ever saw two of the junior riders, and allowed them to pass by me. The course continued in the same way as before, the only difference being that A) I knew exactly where to place my bike for every line and climb, and B) was able to maintain the same fast pace with very minimal effort thanks to the aid of the Santa Cruz. I would catch a glimpse of the second place female rider on a switchback, and then put in another burst to gain just a little more space. I knew once we hit the more technical parts of the trail I was home free and only had to stay upright and safe.

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Santa KILLIN’ IT AMIRITE??

I was loving how the Santa Cruz was handling the switchbacks, the tighter 27.5 wheels and shorter wheelbase meant that it could be whipped around the corners. Even once I hit the technical portions of the trails, the rocks and roots didn’t seem to hamper the hardtail at all. It was light and would just flow right over without losing much speed, and like the single speed, the Santa Cruz was a blast when dropping down. Even though I was getting pretty close to the end of my energy stores, I was still enjoying myself. Before I knew it I had exited the trail before jumping back into the sandy last half mile, and then I was going full throttle back across the finish line where Matt was waiting. There were plenty of people that cheered, and Matt seemed like he expected the race to end exactly as it had. I was very happy with the combination of both of my efforts, and the fact that I had really challenged myself. I would be standing on top of another podium today but this time as State Champion. About three minutes after I finished, the second place woman rider also came across the finish line. It was the same woman whom I had tipped before the event and I congratulated and spoke with her about the race. It ended up that she is a local racer who trains there quite frequently, so that gave me another boost in that I was racing someone with experience on that trail. I also thanked Matt profusely for giving me the Santa Cruz to ride, and I was relieved to hear that he placed 3rd and had a great time on the single speed for his race. I knew that Hobby Park was a trail right in his wheelhouse, so I was thrilled that he had a great result after some frustrating races before this. I am sure had he been on the Santa Cruz he would have won, and so it shows just how much our teamwork matters to me that he encouraged me to really go for the championship win.

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I wanted a block to stand on but oh well…. I will be content with state champ…

In just a short bit, the organizers got the awards portion under way (there were some storms rolling in that they were trying to avoid), and I was ready to receive my snazzy medal. Matt was first to be called to the podium for the Cat 3 40+ race. He placed third but missed out on a State Championship award as he is not yet a USAC member. I was trying to patiently wait for my award but it was a little excruciating. Then it was my turn to stand on the middle spot, and I was very amused that the race official announced me for “racing for her second race of the day” as I was the only competitor to race two races. I congratulated my fellow racers and was probably beaming just a little too much up there. Once I stepped down from my moment of glory, my immediate thought was that we needed to grab some Mexican food STAT, but Matt was ever prepared and already had a place picked out. We rode back to the car, loaded up, and then headed away from Hobby Park as champs.

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Will always race for medals.

I will add that I immediately upgraded to Cat 2 once I was back at my computer, and will look forward to racing with more competition. My lap times from the Cat 2 single speed race were enough for me to podium had I raced the Women’s Cat 2 race, so I know that I belong in that group. I do have my eyes on an eventual Cat 1 upgrade, as I gain more and more experience riding bigger trails and gaining even more technical skills.

 

 

That summer life.

This past week has been a bit of a blur. I am FINALLY done with this semester, and although it was full of some really fun projects and possibly my best work yet, I am ready for a break from student life for a bit. I actually had to sort of check my Strava to even remember a lot of these rides, but I have managed to keep up with my weekly plans.

Since I have a more open schedule I am trying to fit in more time to ride with friends and not just by my lonesome. I got in some gravel miles with the team, rode mountain bikes with my old crew, and hit up some quality road time with my favorite training partners. I even had a chance to take my cx bike out on the single track and cx course to work on some bike handling and skills. I have to say that some of my favorite times are when I am out trying silly things on the bike by myself.

On Thursday night I hit up the OCCP social ride which turned out to be a surprise mini alley cat. For those that don’t know, an alley cat is basically a scavenger hunt on bicycle. You’re given clues that lead to different locations at which you take pictures or complete challenges. Luckily, all we had to do was take pictures, which meant I didn’t have to worry about looking like a spazz in front of people. I had brought my normal commuter/knock-around Bianchi, and teamed up with a friend who has done quite his share of alley cats and is also a courier downtown (STRATEGY!). Another guy I had met on the weekday road rides also joined our ragtag team, and in no time we had set off, after deciphering the manifest’s clues. Now, I was not quite expecting to get as competitive as we ended up getting but it was A BLAST. It had been a long time since I had ridden my Bianchi that fast (or off the trainer), so I was also focused on being safe and not busting my ass. We ended up finishing 3rd, 4th (me!), and 5th through awesome teamwork, and celebrated by hanging out and quaffing a couple beers. Aah bike life is fun.

Over the weekend I had a chance to finally hit up SanLee Park, a local mountain trail that I had never ridden, which is pretty sacrilegious to most mtn bikers I know. My training partner Matt met me with the bikes at the trail so that we could get in some riding time before I went to work that night. The only thing that was an issue was the fact that I had only gotten like three hours of sleep because of working late and then again the next morning, so I was not in the best of shapes to be on a bike. In fact it was pretty stupid for me to be trying to ride a technical trail that was new to me, and on the single speed which adds another degree of concentration. I think this “fun” ride shows just how much I value Matt as a training partner, as he was plenty patient with my constant complaining, and needing to walk tricky spots. I gamely pressed on and was rewarded with the Holy Grail at the end of the journey: THE GRAVITY PARK. Matt took me on two of the four offshoots of jumps, berms, and drops, and I had a blast. I was a bit cautious at first but dammit I can’t wait to go back. Although I didn’t have the best time due to my physical state, I definitely want to go back out and ride more for homework.

Sunday was notable in that it was the finale of the Coastal Carolina Off-Road series, in which I took second place overall for the series! I was a bit sad that I could not make the rescheduled date for this and had to work. It was held at my favorite trail from last season, Brunswick Nature Park, but this just means I will have to take a day trip and blast it on my own! It was also nice winning a pretty big payout for a local race series and I can’t wait to reward myself with some goodies for all my hard work this season. It is pretty wild to think that last season I had only just moved up to Women’s Open and was hardly placing, and now I was one of the top contenders among big competition. Hard work does pay off, folks.

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For now I don’t have a lot going on except normal training plans until my next race at the end of June. I might try to get in some nice destination rides before then, or try to hit up some gravel climbs out west. In the immediate time I just want to continue to allow myself the freedom to just enjoy my bikes and be a bit more social. Most of my summer will be spent working as much as possible, so bike life will be my outlet for freedom.