Head Games & Cyclocross: 5 Years to Settle Down

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In my 5th year racing cyclocross as a “beginner,” something is changing which feels like an edge to me.

Starting this sport at age 40 and not being graced with a lot of speed, I’ve remained a cat 4 racer. I could write to USA Cycling and argue I should be a cat 3 due to the years I’ve raced, but I don’t see a point to it, other then my pride. If I race exclusively cat 3 or in the 1-2-3 race I’m coming in last or darn close to it every time. I hang in the middle of the pack in cat 4, clearly it’s where I belong.  I’m ok with that (finally).

I still lack time to train and have the same, if not more responsibilities I’ve had all along. A busy middle schooler to parent, a full time job with a host of demands, et cetera, et cetera. So what’s different now?

Mental. It’s totally mental. It’s the difference between trying to race, or playing at racing, and actually racing. What am I talking about?

When I started racing, I was just trying to hang on and finish. It was terrifying and exhilarating. What an insane sport! Addicting, but I really wasn’t throwing down every race, the whole time. Maybe I’d go 60%, or 70%. I probably felt like I was giving 95-99% but upon reflection, I wasn’t. I’m capable of more.

Each year I have tried to have races where I felt I was giving more. And it hurt. But I started to race. Maybe only 2 races a year were like this, but it was happening.

Last year I considered making it my last year. I had a lousy 2014 season and just wanted to redeem myself and feel good again. My schedule allowed me to race Holy Week–almost every race. Gloucester, Night Weasels, KMC/Providence. 4 races in one week. Something flipped.

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I started recovering faster, having more energy later in the race, and found a little something in my legs when in years past, I’d be praying for God to come down and end the race and have mercy on my soul.

I also changed my attitude and relaxed a bit. While I still am competitive at heart, I relaxed  and got a little more focused. Results in 2015 didn’t start great. My scores were terrible and my placements much lower than mid pack. But by the end of the season they had improved considerably. An upswing as I chilled out and reapplied myself.

So far I’ve raced 2 races in 2016. Race #1 I DNF’d but felt really, really good. I was looking at a strong finish. No podium (let’s banish those illusions right now and forever), but top 50%, which remained the overarching goal.

Race #2 was last week–Quad CX, where I raced more conservatively, and I feel regret about being more conservative. I worked hard, but did I leave it ALL out there? Not quite. I wanted a finish, not a DNF, and that influenced my approach.

Reflecting on this, I am thinking I do not want to do that again. My physical abilities are finite, but I’m learning more about my mental game.

Example:  Race #1 I was completely ambivalent leading up to the race. It wasn’t until the whistle I committed, fully, to kicking as much ass as I could kick. And my performance (measured against my own standards) was strong.

Race #2 I was eager. I felt like I was in good shape. I had raced the course once before. I wanted to NOT DNF, but finish well. I guess I achieved that, but walked away knowing I probably could have gone a bit harder, a bit faster. Would that have improved my placing? Maybe, maybe not, but I won’t ever know, and that is what is on my mind as I consider the rest of the season in front of me.

Go hard, the whole time. Don’t think too much about it beforehand. Don’t think at all. Don’t care too much about the outcome. Care about the moment. Care about the act of racing.

Ok?

Go!

-Karen

 

BCA Cyclocross – Pittsfield, MA

Last Sunday I kicked of my cross season with a little race fairly local to me.  I found the park easily, got there in plenty of time, and went about my now well established routine of getting ready.

My attitude before the race was very “meh.”  I felt very ambivalent in general.  The course had lots of straight wide tracks in the grass, favoring someone with raw power and speed (something I distinctly lack). There was not a lot of technical areas and very few turns, and not a lot of hills (which I was totally ok with).  I took a few practice laps and then waited for my race.

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The cat 4/5 Men on one of the only paved sections.

I took the second row and settled in behind a woman I know is fast. This is what I do. I’m not going to pretend I belong on the front line. But I’ll line up behind the faster racer in the front and ride her coattails through the start. This works pretty well for me most of the time, and did for me that day. I had a solid start and found myself in a tight pack as the wide track of grass dwindled to a single stream of racers. I was toward the rear of the lead pack which was terrific.

Halfway through the first lap, I passed a racer and then immediately made a misjudgment on a corner and overshot it, and found myself apologizing to the group for not keeping my line. They were very forgiving, probably because I gave up 2 or 3 spots in my mistake. Humbled, I settled in mid pack. Toward the end of the first lap, I saw my friend Jess who had a terrific start and was cooking though the course get tangled up with a junior.  For unknown reasons, race organizers started the group of 5 juniors before the group of 17 grown women racers.  I overheard the organizer say to the official “Did I really decide to put the juniors in front of the women?” Yes. Yes you did. Anyway, the junior slid out in a corner and Jess’ bike tangled with his. I was bummed for her, this is one of the things I dread about racing with the juniors and I’ve had my share of close calls. As a mom, my instinct is to be protective and encouraging to these kids. Juniors make mistakes as we all do, but no one wants to interfere or cloud with a young racer’s first experience. In my opinion, it’s stressful for them and stressful for us. As this calamity happened, at least 2 women got caught behind her, and I slipped by in the only opening, regaining what I lost in my earlier mistake.

During the second lap I was feeling pretty good. I hadn’t blown up but was working hard and feeling much less “meh” and much more “Yeah!”  I passed another rider and was widening the gap.  I could just see the next woman to catch disappear around the next visible corner, and I thought maybe I could reel her in.  I had at least another lap and was feeling great when I entered a fun section of woods which lead riders down a hill of ribbon thin patch of single track and up again.  At the bottom of the ribbon was a couple of protruding rocks.  I FLEW down this chute, hit a rock and heard the rock hit my rim.  I cranked up the hill and was immediately concerned about my rear tire.  Within another 200 yards, the tire had gone totally flat as I closed out the second lap.  My race was over.*

I would have taken 7th had I stayed inflated and held my position.  7 of 17 would have been a really awesome result–probably a better result than I have ever achieved.

I’m disappointed I did not ride more conservatively in that section.  It’s not something I would have been worried about and obviously I was not worried about screaming down that hill at that speed and hitting that little rock.  I had inflated my tires to about 50-55 psi because I was concerned about the rocks on course and I know I tend to ride over anything no matter how rough (read: she’s a MTBer at heart).  At one point early in the race I thought to myself “I should have put less air in the tires,” because I was bouncing around so much.  Enough Monday morning quarterbacking–I’m bummed out I flatted. But on the bright side, I was riding well and feeling strong and I just need to keep THAT feeling going for the next race.

Now to keep up with the training and find another race and someone to watch kiddo for half a day!

-Karen

  • Note: I was one of 5 women who DNF’d that particular race. A total of 25 racers across all categories and a total of 173 racers DNF’d this event.  WOW.  The only race that did not have a racer DNF was the fat bike category. So at least I was in good company.

Cyclocross race season starts tomorrow and my mind is a stew of thought

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I’ve had about a million things I wanted to blog about over the summer but didn’t, mostly because I’ve been busy having one of the best cycling summers of my life.  Lots of doing, very little reflecting, almost no blogging.  But right now I’m enjoying a RARE morning laying on my couch without another soul around so I’m going to blog about my race tomorrow.

Tomorrow I kick of my cyclocross season, my 5th as a lowly Cat 4 racer.  I’m thinking about designing a cyclocross kit with the hashtag #Cat44Life because I think (I think) I’ve finally accepted that this is where I belong.

I race in Pittsfield, MA tomorrow at a venue I’ve never been to.  It was a neat little field of 7 until 24 hours before registration closed. Now it’s 14 and they extended online registration another day–so I’m thinking it will grow further.  Gone are the days of a handful of women racing, which is good thing, a really good thing.

I’ve done a ton of riding this summer, on track to a year’s goal of 3000 miles which is more than I’ve ever done in a year.  I’ve mostly concentrated on more base miles with some hills.  In August I had some vacation time which decreased my bike time but increased other physical activity (mostly hiking).  By mid August, I switched from the road and mountain bike to almost exclusively the cross bike, and started to try to stick to what resembles an actual training plan.  I’ve been doing that for only 2 weeks now, and with the light fading and my work schedule ramping up I am reminded how difficult it is to keep with such a plan.  But I’ve started counting calories and dropped a couple of pounds, not as much as I would like (but I know zero women in America who feel they are at their ideal body weight so this is yet another unattainable standard I suppose), but enough where I’m feeling a bit trimmer and stronger.

So tomorrow I race, and I find out where I stack up this year, another year older and just a tiny bit wiser. I’m nervous, but not as bad as previous years. I have the same fears, but also slightly more confident. Each time I’m standing at the start, chatting with other women, everyone seems to be experiencing the identical range of emotions in varying degrees. We’re all in it together, after all, which is the whole reason I line up in the first place: the shared experience of competition and the difficultly the course will dish out to each of us.

Cross is coming, Cross is here.  Time to race!

See you out there,

-Karen

 

Whistler, BC Trip

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I made it back to Whistler, and it was totally awesome!  I took my son this time. We hiked more than biked, but I still got out to some local mountain bike trails near Lost Lake.  We did a lot of hiking, walking, exploring, some XC mountain biking, some photography while hunting bears (for photo reasons not to harm them).  Some of our adventure plans were thwarted due to my son’s weight.  Most parents are warned about childhood obesity.  Not me.  My kid is a bean pole.  I swear I can cook and feed him often!  He’s 11 years old, 5 feet tall, and 69 lbs. soaking wet.  For this reason, our plans to white water raft and bobsled will have to wait.  He was awed by all the epic scenery and we had a terrific time nonetheless.

 

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The bike park was jamming since it was the week before Crankworx.  Unfortunately, I did not DH this trip….I’ll live but I was disappointed that I did not get to do this.  Truthfully, I hiked so much I was pretty sore.  I soaked in the dh bike culture nonetheless.

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Everyone’s having a good time.  I lived through these smiles.  Too bad the one of the end can’t look up from  the phone!

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This stuff is everywhere.  They call this one Pinocchio’s Furniture. I got out to MTB twice during this trip.

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My son, the Bird Whisperer.

I left wanting more, just like 2 years ago.  There is just so much to do at Whistler.  The beauty of this place in inescapable.  It will be a while before I return–I have new places to see and explore.  I love the mountains though–and this place really delivers adventure.

-Karen

Kingdom Trails!

This past week I threw together an impromptu trip to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont with friends and finally got to ride Kingdom Trails.


I followed my friend Gail up north and we were joined by her boyfriend Matt on the trail.  They have season passes and served as first rate guides for this adventure.


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In a word, awesome. Really, this is Mountain Bike Mecca.  We started riding at 2:00pm on Wednesday and finished after 6:00pm, grabbed a delicious meal and a beer at the local tavern. We did 14.8 miles and almost 1500 ft of climbing.  Not bad for a late start.

Heaven’s Bench-Matt pointing to the Bike Barn.


Thursday we enjoyed a delicious camp breakfast prepared by Gail.  We hit the trails by noon and ate a late lunch next to the Passumsic River.  Gail and I took a dip to cool off.


Not long after while on a reasonably easy trail, I hit a small jump (something I had been doing all day).  I landed wrong, the bike got away from me and I hit the trail hard.  Really hard.  It took me a few minutes lying still to take stock of my well being.  My glasses came apart and cut my nose upon impact, leaving a trickle of blood on my nose.  My helmet slammed again the ground twice and I had a slight headache, but it passed.  My hip and backside took the hardest hit and I’m still having trouble sitting down. I kept riding for the rest of the day, but took it easy.  I was pretty gassed by the end of the day, and as we wrapped up the skies opened up to a cool and refreshing shower. We ate at Mike’s Tiki Bar and the Vermont Food Truck, where I had perhaps one of the best cheeseburgers of my life.

Fun Dioramas Trailside!


After Thursday’s crash, I decided to take the day off the bike and start back home after a leisurely breakfast (again, thanks to Gail and her omelet in a bag breakfast).

Campsite

We camped about 25 minutes north at a small campground that was dominated by RVs, with a few exceptions–including our site, which was a short hike away from the main campground and set next to a waterfall.  We arrived late Wednesday night and set up camp in the dark. The ground was riddled with roots and a clear spot to sleep on was hard to find.  But the white noise of the rushing waterfall helped lull me to sleep each night.

Despite the crash, I had a fantastic time and will plan a return for next summer.  Vermont is a beautiful state and my love affair with it continues.  Kingdom Trails, I will be back!

-Karen

The Bonk and why I’ll never do a century

It’s become part of nearly every long ride I do.  I pour myself onto the road and the road eats me alive.  I have been trying to push myself by doing longer rides.  I have shied away from them because the aftermath is ugly.  Headaches that turn into migraines, exhaustion, confusion, stomach issues–I’m a complete mess.  I’ve tinkered with hydration and nutrition and there have been some improvements, but nothing has been 100% effective.

It’s been something I just sort of live with, but it’s been under my skin for a while now that I can’t do a big mile ride without suffering profoundly for several hours afterwards. Usually, the rest of my day is pretty worthless. I’ve never done a century, and it bothers me, but frankly if I attempted one, I think it would level me completely.

A discussion was prompted with a friend about this.  She’s a lifelong runner, and compared my not feeling capable of completing a century with her own experience of never competing in a marathon.  “Maybe you just don’t have one in you, and that’s OK.”  I considered this a moment. It’s true, I judge myself negatively for not having a century under my belt.  But maybe I was being too harsh to myself. (It would not be the first time….)

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Still, I’m happy I’ve been focusing on bigger rides, attempting to build more endurance and resilience against my inevitable bonk.  Heat is a factor, sun is a factor.  I drink every 20 minutes (it’s like a drinking game) and eat every hour even when I really don’t want to.  I eat a high protein and glucose rich meal within 20-30 minutes after a ride, and drink for hours after the ride to replenish fluids.  Advil is a required ingredient in each post ride ritual to head off any serious headaches and prevent a day-killing migraine.

I’m going to keep pushing these longer rides this summer, at least until mid August, when I’ll switch up to cyclocross & intervals and all of that craziness.  But I might just let go (for good) the idea of a century.  I shouldn’t need that to validate me as a cyclist or an athlete.  And sometimes things like this are funny.  Sometimes as soon as you let go of an idea, sometimes, it finds you, or something better comes in the replace the preoccupation. Century or no century, I just love riding my bike.

-Karen

Bikepacking in The Berkshires: the Bear Burritos Weekend

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Overview

Last weekend 6 months of planning came together on a hot sunny weekend in the Berkshire hills.  Cross bikepacking off the adventure bucket list, and add it back for next year, because bikepacking is a blast.

Laura and I met up at Arcadia Shops in Lenox, MA for a couple of last minute gear needs and then parked at the free municipal lot in downtown Lenox.  We rode 15 miles to Beartown State Forest.  The climb into Beartown is a long climb, even longer on a mountain bike loaded with several pounds of gear. We made good time and had camp set up long before dark.  We even had a enough time to take a dip in Benedict Pond, which felt absolutely amazing after a very hot day.

Originally we had wanted to camp at multiple locations throughout the weekend, but we learned about the 2 day minimum at all the campsites we researched for the Memorial Day weekend, so we decided to amend the plan.

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Off & rolling!

Saturday morning my friend Gail drove out to the campsite.  She was our Sherpa for the weekend, bringing a cooler packed with goodies to sustain us in the woods.  She brought an extra mountain bike for Laura so we could all ride together (Laura’s Salsa is awesome but really best for gravel and not hopping logs).

The three of us went to Kennedy Park in Lenox for some mountain biking and socializing. We spent as much time chatting as we did riding–a very chill but fun afternoon in the woods.

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Gail & Laura on the “Log Trail” in Kennedy Park, Lenox, MA.

Back at the campsite we ate like queens, hiked around Benedict Pond, swam in the pond at dusk, and drank wine by the campfire.  What a great time.  The next morning we enjoyed breakfast burritos made from farm fresh eggs, avocado, rice and black beans.  Amazing. Laura and I packed up the bikes and rode 22 miles on a different route back to Lenox.

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Sleeping Arrangements

This trip wasn’t just bikepacking, but also my first experience hammock camping. This is what inspired the trip’s nickname “Bear Burritos.” from Laura’s husband insisting she would be a tasty snack for a bear if sleeping in a hammock. Hammock camping is something I first read about 20 years again in a book called Backwoods Ethics by Laura and Guy Waterman. I have been intrigued by the idea but now it seems a more available option. The reality of hammock camping, for me, was not quite the relaxing ideal that I read about. At first, I liked the gentle sway of the hammock. But in time, my hips began to ache and my neck crimped. At night, the forest does not sleep. And neither did I. There were creatures running all around me all night long. Leaves crinkled inches underneath me.  I became obsessed with the random scurrying and pouncing. Armed with a flashlight, I tried to “catch” whatever was making the noises (although I’m certain there were more than one species afoot). After several attempts, I finally caught one of the creatures redhanded. It was a ferocious toad. Throughout the night I heard a chorus of other noises. Barred owls hooting “whocooksforyou?” and another call that I have come to believe was a female moose. Both animals got faraway responses from their calls. I laid in the hammock physically uncomfortable, but fascinated.

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Bedtime is not sleep time.

At about 4AM, I had a nightmare that I was sleeping in a hammock (funny, not a dream but clearly preoccupied even when unconscious), and I woke yelling and fighting, jumping out of the hammock. I tried to get comfortable again but decided to take a walk by the pond instead. I was tired, but the pond was peaceful and I lingered by the water, just enjoying the stillness.

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Benedict pond at about 4:45AM.

The Food

Any guilt I had about my friend Gail bringing a cooler of food evaporated when we ate dinner. Here’s the thing: you quickly learn that there is NO ROOM to pack much food while bikepacking. Also consider the temperatures:  85-90 degrees in the heat of the day. The only option is dried foods that can be made with water. This limits the culinary choices significantly. Most of the articles I read on bikepacking talked about just surviving on protein bars or eating at gas stations.  Um, no.  I like my Lara Bars but there are limits. We ate fantastically, and it was a highlight of the trip. Maple apple chicken sausages, rice and beans, quinoa, kale and coconut salad, Cabot cheddar, homemade oat, chocolate chip and cherry bars, Gail’s date & cocoa truffles, some microbrew and cheap wine, breakfast burritos of scrambled eggs and avocado–we did just fine.

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Cabot aged cheddar, chicken sausage, quinoa-kale-coconut salad–YUM.

The Routes

Admittedly, we stayed mostly on paved roads. We found a few ancient roads that were dirt or gravel or a mere footpath to add a bit of adventure.  I think when we do this again, we’ll look for more off-road than on.

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This barn is in Lee, MA.  We could not resist the photo op.

We did a fair amount of climbing for the distance.  Even though this wasn’t super far away, we were out of cell range and felt like a million miles away–which had an enormous amount of value for all of us.

All and all, bikepacking was a huge success. It was a bit of a hybrid experience–combining on road, off road, mountain biking, hiking, and hammock camping.  We had a sherpa, which seems against the point, but I have no regrets. Interest from other women has cropped up–we’ll need a bigger campsite, the more the merrier. Girls Bikepacking Weekend 2017 is happening!    -Karen

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Me on a rock on our pond hike.