Yesterday was definitely another learning experience for me in HOW to race. Yes, in my younger years I was very competitive and was successful competing in a range of sports, but since then I’ve tried to turn off that portion of my brain and just enjoy athletic endeavors.
I made a conscious decision yesterday to start in the back of the pack. I knew there were plenty of areas to pass on the course, and I knew there would be a jam at the entrance into the woods due to a short section of pavement followed by two 90 degree turns into the woods. Instead of blowing myself up, I was able to avoid slamming on my breaks like so many of the women in front of me, and I just followed them into the woods. Unfortunately, those in the back of the field with me 1)didn’t know the course at all and 2)had some poor handling skills, which created a situation where I was thrown into a tree only about 500 yards into the woods. By the time I got back on my bike, I couldn’t see a single person. Having preriden the course twice (5 laps total), I was not worried and confident I could catch them without a problem.
I accelerated and moved quickly through this beginning section, catching the back group of 4-5 women right around the first little bridge. I stayed with them no problem up until the narrow llloooonnnnnnggggggg bridge I was afraid of. At this point I was glad to be in the back, so I could get off and walk without being in anyone’s way. I wanted to stay with this group, knowing there was a climb coming up that I planned to pass them on. Well, I guess I was moving a little too fast, because my cleat caught one of the planks and I face planted, (and my arm ended up elbow deep in the surrounding swamp). Of course, there were about 10 people spectating at this exact spot, who obviously saw me do this, so I had to get up and dust off my pride. As I finished crossing the bridge I felt my front teeth to make sure nothing was cracked and then got back on my bike. Once again the others were nowhere in sight.
Now I must ride smart, I told myself. I knew I had plenty of time to catch up, so I could push but there was no need to kill myself. I rode up some short steep sections, getting excited for my favorite climb of the course. I knew that was one of the places I would be able to close the gap on those in front of me. Unfortunately, as I came up on it, I saw the course veered to the left, away from the hill. Not only did I not get to do this climb, but the new section lead into a longer steep uphill from a different direction, causing me to end up in the wrong gear and not make it up it. Back of my bike AGAIN, I began to wonder why I was even doing this…
Still having seen no one, I decided to play it safe on the sketchier downhills and just focus on doing what I could well. I was happy to make it cleanly through an off camber/rooty section that had given me trouble when I prerode, but then on a very slight descent I clipped some sort of tree/bush along the edge and I tumbled with my bike. Now I was just pissed. That wasn’t even a technical section and I still managed to fall! At this point I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to come in last again, so I just needed to finish cleanly. I managed to finish the first lap slowly, but without any other incidents.
For the second lap my goal was to just beat my split from the first lap, as I knew I had the trail to myself. Having not pushed significantly for the majority of the first lap, my legs and lungs felt fresh. I began to hammer through the opening section. I was focused on shifting my weight instead of breaking around corners, and it seem to be working. I was holding my speed and gaining confidence. This continued and I easily made two of the longer steep climbs that had given me fits every other attempt. I was feeling great and continued to push my pace.
As my speed increased, however, my handling decreased. I found myself losing control and crashing into things along the course. Every time this happened I would back off, but since I still FELT great, I would try to go faster again, only to cause myself problems. This cycle continued until I hit the berm on a tight downhill and fell again. Now I knew I could only continue to push in the non-technical sections, and I would have to play it safe everywhere else. I had to get on a plane in the morning to deliver a keynote address, after-all, and couldn’t afford to break anything.
I saw the rest of the lap as interval training. I tried to max out my efforts in the longer straightaways and back off during the twisty/turny sections or descents. The run up on this lap felt like torture with no spectators cheering me on. Trying to hike up this with my bike was the only point in the race that I actually felt tired, but I knew I was in the homestretch and just tried to focus on getting there as quickly as possible. As I came down the last section, shifting into my hardest gear, hammering toward the finish line, it was great to see a group of my teammates all there waiting for me!
Once results were posted, I was excited to see that I was only 3 mins off the girl in front of me. Then, of course, I started thinking about all the the little things I could have done differently to make up that time. Trying to look at the positive, though, I realized I had gone from being almost 6 mins off 2nd to last one week earlier, so I had to take that as an improvement.
So what did I learn? One, my fitness is much better than my technical skills (yes, in all reality I already knew this, but it was reiterated big time during this race). After not feeling tired as I finished the race, I checked my average heart rate when I got home. I discovered my average for the entire race was my max for zone 3 (3!). The problem was I couldn’t consistently stay in 4 (or higher) because that is when I started crashing, etc. This means, I really really need to work on my handling skills at race pace if I am to get better. Second, I discovered I need to work on my mental focus during a race. Not seeing anyone for 9/10ths of the race is difficult in terms of motivation. It’s easy to succumb to the fact that you are permanently in last and don’t stand a chance of catching anyone. After seeing the times posted by the other women in my category, I know this is not true. I need to remember what it is like to keep your brain switched on and fight for every second, no matter what happens. Having always excelled more at individual sports, I know this is something I have in me. I just need to retrain my brain because until I do, I will continue to be DFL every race.