This year is nearly half over, and I’m just feeling like it’s starting. The winter was long. So long. Like still getting snow in April long. Now warmer weather is here and all I can think about is being outside riding. I’m getting out enough, but it’s like I feel the need to make up for a lot of lost time. This spring I returned to Montpelier, VT for The Muddy Onion Spring Classic. I entered the first mountain bike race of the year as a Cat 2 rider, and played hookey for a solo adventure ride that took me somewhere I deeply needed. Let’s play catch up.
The Muddy Onion
We just call this “The Onion” now. We actually call it “The Funion” because it’s such a good time. Gail, Laura an I rode up to Vermont together, meeting Matt at a diner for some late night breakfast the evening before the event. Laura didn’t feel well after dinner and I was worried she might not be able to ride in the morning. She toughed it out and rallied for the event, even changing my flat tire at mile 31.
The route changed slightly this year, but still brought us over some primo peanut butter mud and gravel. It had been raining all day Friday, and the roads showed it. I overheard that it was the muddiest Muddy Onion ride on record. I was just happy to be back in Vermont, a place I feel akin to. Beautiful roads under moody skies with friends and friendly cycling community. This ride attracts a group of good people.
I should mention, my entry was comped by the GRVL-XX Project.
“GRVL-XX is a group for female cyclists only, dedicated to increasing participation of the ladies in gravel riding and racing and to showcase fun and unique events.”
They have a good community of FB and use their platform to grow the sport for women. Check them out of you are a female rider, or a race promoter of a gravel event and are interested in promoting a little gender diversity.
Fat Tire Classic-Winding Trailing Mountain Bike Race
Despite the terrible weather all year, I’ve been keeping up with riding and while I’m not dedicated enough to be doing scheduled intervals on the trainer during the freak snowstorms we just kept getting all spring, I felt I was in good enough shape to level up to the Sport category for mountain biking. When I started racing mountain bikes again in my 40’s, it was only a
couple few years ago and I did a small handful of races. I always raced Cat 3 (beginner) and I’m not a beginner. I’m just middle aged and slow. But my bike handing skills are descent enough. I started bringing home some hardware from these cat 3 races-which was nice! Mountain bike races increase overall length of the race when you upgrade, and I can handle the increase in miles, so I figured–just go for it. Upgrade! Also-the mountain biking scene tends to be more chill that cyclocross, which is a nice break. I’m competitive enough in my own head, and a laid back culture is a very nice counterbalance. I like that about mountain biking-a lot. Just ride!
So I entered as a cat 2. Winding Trails is a pretty buffed out course, but this year had some changes to the course and it felt harder–like maybe there were more climbs than last year. Instead of 10 miles (2 laps) I was in for 15 miles (3 laps). We lined up at the start and it’s nice to know some of the women I race against now. I saw Sarah from cyclocross (who now races elite in cx while I’m still hanging out in cat 4) and Kait who started racing last year and just keeps winning everything. We were causally chatting right up to the whistle, so different than the tense silence in the moments before the start of a cyclocross race. I was hoping to place among the 35+ crowd, and I was foolish enough to think this was possible.
I don’t know if it was the long winter, my overbloated confidence, or WHAT, but 15 miles was HARD. I rode as efficiently as I could, and the trails were not too technical at all, but I got my ass KICKED in that race. Dead last among all the women. I did pass one of the older guys who started before the women’s race on the same course. We exchanged pleasantries on a particularly unpleasant climb. But that was my only pass and it counted for nothing.
Since then, I have not done another mountain bike race–only because of scheduling issues. I plan to do at least one more–maybe two. And I’m planning on sticking to Cat 2, even though I got killed in it. Because I CAN handle the miles and I’m NOT a beginner, and mountain biking culture is totally chill. Maybe that combination is really the right one.
Solo Adventure Ride
A couple of weeks ago, I decided to take a day off and just have a “me” day. I don’t think I know how much I needed this until I did it. 54 miles, solo. Vague idea of where I was going. Beautiful weather, beautiful roads, beautiful non-roads. The best ride. I’ll leave you with my Instagram post after that ride and the photos of it.
Today I took the day off and rode my bike 54 miles on pavement, gravel, mud, grass, snowmobile trails and cow paths. I accidentally ended up in a cow pasture and the cows noticed me and started coming for me. I was off the map for a while. I hopped fallen trees, crossed a stream, jumped an electric fence, and stepped carefully over barbed wire. I found a very ominous looking murder shack in the middle of nowhere. I found a rubber red goldfish tucked into a 150 year old oak tree. I saw waterfalls. A gaggle of wild turkeys. At one point when I was pretty lost, with no bars on the cell phone, I looked down and half buried in the mud was a small sign nailed to a post that had broken off, that read “YOU ARE HERE.” That was my favorite moment of this extraordinary day.
Summer’s finally arrived–go ride!!
I usually do a “hey this is what’s up for 201X” post, indulging my proclivity for planning stuff. I end up doing some things, not all. Actually–let’s review my track record from last year:
- Fat Biking. CHECK!
- Dog Sledding. D’OH!
- Kingdom Trails-again. CHECK! Twice! A day trip & a weekend!
- An island…..or a canyon? D’OH! This trip never happened.
- At least one Mountain Bike race. CHECK CHECK CHECK! I did three! Podium for 2!
- The JAM Grand Fundo. CHECK!
- The Muddy Onion Spring Classic. CHECK!
- A Dog. D’OH! I’m lobbying hard for this, but right now I’ve been vetoed until we get a bigger place.
- Bikepacking, V2.0. D’OH! This turned into a MTB Women’s Camping Weekend instead, which was still pretty awesome.
- Mystery Getaway. Sort of–Not really. I ended up going to Vermont. Not THAT Mysterious.
- 3 more OCR Races. CHECK for 2. I bagged out of the last one.
- Cyclocross! SUPER DARK EMPHATIC CHECK MARK. Best Season Yet.
I’ve been a little unfocused, coming off a great cx season that I found the most joy in since taking up the sport, and dealing with a winter that has been intensely cold. My work situation is very uncertain, as I learned last week my company has lost the contract for the Program that I run. I’m working with our HR folks to find placement and have had some encouraging leads, but nothing’s a guarantee, and I am unwilling to to relocate. Planning fun adventures feels out of place when this piece of my life is not locked in.
But I might want to change my thinking, in case I am suddenly find myself with a lot more time on my hands. I am looking at another Women’s MTB Weekend with Laura and Gail, and whoever else wants to come. I’d also like to take another stab at bikepacking, and we are looking at TATR-The Adirondack Trail Ride. That’s a 550 mile ride, and we’d do a super short segment of it over a long weekend.
I’m very interested in gravel rides this year. Last year I had a great time at the Muddy Onion, The JAM Fund Grand Fundo, and the NEBRA August Adventure. I like the adventurous feel of roads that aren’t quite roads. And I’ll most certainly be mountain biking too. Beyond that, I can’t be certain of what this year will look like.
After a few days of rest, and no more yoga, my back is feeling better. The mid back pain was the first to slowly subside. Then the sciatica. Eventually, the tingling and numbness left my feet first, then my arms and hands. I’ve restarted workouts–easy ones, followed by gentle, reasonable stretching. Really the only pain left is the one I started with, the pinched nerve in my upper back/shoulder.
Today I went for my annual physical exam, which was a pre-planned visit, and just good timing. I was given a neurological exam (insert a variety of jokes here), tested my reflexes, etc. All good. After examining my back, she observed my trapezoids were super tight, with lots of knots in my back. She concluded most of my issues were muscular, not spinal. This was a relief. She said it was probably that I had some degenerative disk issues, as “most people middle aged people do,” but this was a perfect case for Physical Therapy, as I had thought. She said some PT and some disciplined exercises at home, and continuing to practice better posture at work should rebalance me.
Yoga is still on the menu for me. I want to start PT first and then incorporate Yoga twice a week to increase my flexibility. Basic, gentle stretching after workouts should be a no brainer, but my rushed lifestyle omitted them from the routine. That must stop or I’ll risk injury again. If not my back–something else. This incident was a good teacher for me. It’s hard to realize sometimes that I have to practice a little self care if I want to keep doing all these crazy things. Our bodies can be made strong with hard work, but I need to learn to take care of myself after running myself ragged. A little self care could prolong my participation in this sport, hopefully indefinitely. That’s my game plan.
Friends, some stuff going on with my back has kept me off the bike all week. Even the trainer. I’ve been suffering silently with a pinched nerve since November in my upper back/shoulder area. These pinched nerves are common enough for me that I just deal with the discomfort and try not to aggravate it. Eventually it goes away. This was a particularly long stretch but I was not concerned, I just put up with it.
About 3 weeks ago, I started to notice some numbness in my right hand. I’ve had this happen before, and it’s 100% due to bad posture and excessive sitting at work. Since moving late last August, and I work mostly from home, I’m at a different desk and I guess I did not dial in my home office ergonomics.
Then, about a week ago, I woke up, got out of bed, and my knee buckled as pain shot down my right leg. Sciatica strikes again. I’ve had this a few times and I generally find relief within a day or two of rest and stretching. But accompanying this, was also tingling in both feet, and my other hand. All 4 extremities were tingling. “Guess I’ve really let myself fall out of balance,” I thought to myself. I decided to do some yoga, since yoga fixes everything.
I do not do yoga regularly and I have little patience for it’s slow, methodical, quiet ways. My partner gently cautioned me that I should be careful. It sounded like this, “You’re going to hurt yourself because you don’t know what the hell you are doing.” Of course, I respectfully listened, felt the gravity of her words, and then did it anyway. I googled some stretches and poses and did 18 minutes of yoga after a short spin on the trainer.
Friends, if I could go back in time and get those 18 minutes back, I would, because I f’d my back up so spectacularly, I scared myself. It did not happen right away and I was confident I had fixed all my problems in those 18 minutes (I was being an arrogant, overconfident yoga moron).
The next morning, I woke in terrible pain, all over. I felt like I had been in a car accident. A new back pain presented itself: a dull, constant, unrelenting discomfort in the mid back. It was impossible to get comfortable at all. The numbness and tingling in my hands and legs were worse than ever. I couldn’t sleep comfortably for 3 nights. I was scared: had I permanently screwed myself up? Should I see a doctor*?
Humbled, I stopped all workouts and just focused on good posture, Advil, rest, and heating pads. Now a week later, I’m a little better. I can sleep now. My mid back pain is gone, but my pinched nerve that I’ve had since November is still painful. The sciatica is no longer presenting itself. The tingling has left my legs, but still present in both arms & hands, intermittently.
Gentle stretching and yoga is probably still in order, but this time, S L O W L Y. Not my greatest personality strength. Better work set up is also needed, with more getting up and walking around. I’m 100% interested in making this a part of my everyday to get healthy enough to resume workouts and coming back into good fitness for more bike adventures when the snow melts. I love this life I have on the bike, and don’t want to be a yoga moron anymore. I need find some balance and incorporate good stretching habits to prevent something like this from happening again.
*I tried to book a Physical Therapist I have worked with before who I really like directly. Nope, I need a referral from a primary doctor. I called my primary doctor’s office for a referral on a Thursday for pain I described as needing immediate relief from, and 4 days later and no call back, I have lost respect for that office and feel like I’m on my own anyway in terms of my healthcare. For the record, I’d love to see a professional for this. But by the time I get to, I might not need to (hopefully).
All my life, I’ve been naturally strong. People hand me the pickle jar to open. I’ll carry heavy things like air conditioners up 3 flights of stairs. Friends call me when they move. I’m no gym rat, I literally have not stepped foot in a gym in at least 20 years. I do NOTHING for this, but my back, shoulders, and arms have always been very strong and pretty cut for never doing anything other then working hard on my house and doing household chores. So much so, I’ve been a bit self conscious of my upper body. While I really like the natural strength I have, I don’t feel especially feminine. It’s always been a bit of an internal conundrum.
This is not the body of a cyclist, which is the sport I most greatly identify with. Not only do I have a broad back, but I’m a bit busty. I stuff myself into cycling jerseys. And I hate the club cut, so I stuff away. While I have used my natural upper body strength to my advantage handling the bike in sketchy conditions, it hasn’t escaped my notice that other women just look sleeker doing it. I just accept this. I like being strong but will never be built as compactly as most of the women I ride with. My body is largely a result of my genes, and both my parents, especially my father, was extremely strong and muscular.
Then at some point this past fall, I was changing in the bathroom and noticed something was different. My biceps had shrunk. My triceps also looked diminished. My shoulders still looked strong but a touch smaller. At first I was happy–finally I was looking a bit more feminine and less like I could join the practice team for the Pats! But then I realized what was happening.
I’m getting older.
This was a cruel twist of biology and time at work. I was losing muscle mass as a result of my age, which at the time of this writing is 47. This was sarcopenia. I’m very physically active, but mostly on the bike. I’m almost to that magical age of menopause, and a probable factor is some hormone fluctuation.
I can’t fight biology or time, but I can put some work in against the loss of more muscle. I have decided to be earnest in incorporating weights into my weekly workouts. I need to preserve what I still have, and maybe carve myself some new guns. It turns out, I value strength over whatever hangups I had about my muscles.
Too much fun is never a bad thing. New England’s first significant snowfall coincided wonderfully with my race time slot at Ice Weasel’s held at the Riverpoint Cyclocross Park in West Warwick, RI. But for a race where you are expecting bacon and White Russians to be shoved in your face, a little snow is really no big deal. The Ice Weasels is a party, …..the “fun” race of New England. I met Laura the night before for a quick course preview, some burritos and an evening of catching up before the big day.
After perhaps the most successful cyclocross season of my life, I had backed off my training in the 2 weeks leading up tho the race, and wanted to just have some fun. It’s so hard to switch gears mentally and do this, and it’s an internal struggle to go from a competitive mindset to a “cut loose and have fun” mindset. But I feel it is important to have an event like this to just focus on the fun parts–and not the competitive part of the sport. I’ve heard some criticism of how the New England CX Scene has become so highly competitive, that we may have lost touch with the fun aspects of racing. I haven’t experienced this personally, but I do agree the scene is competitive–and maybe just indicative of the evolution of the sport in this region, and the very type A personalities found in New England. Personally, I am having an absolute blast. But for this race, despite my “oh I don’t care” words on the outside, I still needed to warm up and go through my little routines. And during the race, I still focused on a good start, I still passed people when I could, and I still rode faster where it wasn’t so treacherous that I was going to die. But– I also ran parts I would have tried to ride in other circumstances, because it was just that much more dangerous with the snow. Boy would it suck to get hurt at the last race of the year. After a great year, I sure didn’t want to end up injured, especially when this was supposed to be one of the more carefree events of the year.
It was snowing pretty good for my race and it didn’t take long for my cleats to be clogged up with ice and snow. I rode 90% of the race unclipped. I was so caught up in the moment, I also didn’t pause long enough in the Danger Zone, but on my last lap I did snag myself some cold bacon that was dangled in front of me on a makeshift fishing pole.
A lot of people brought mountain bikes to race on, which was a great choice for the highly technical course, made more treacherous with the snow. I stuck with my cross bike and the less than adequate cantilever brakes that more slow me down than stop me. This was another factor that had me nervous on some of the descents, and one hill became so degraded I went off course after barely hanging on and then hitting 2 or 3 tree branches with my helmet before regaining control. I am not sure if this is the hill they had EMTs standing at the bottom of, but it might have been. I was so focused on not dying that I blocked everything else out but the course in front of me. I somehow finished alive and upright and then found the closest firepit and a cold beer.
We stayed for the singlespeed & fat bike race, which was predictably hilarious and awesome, and we enjoyed a few beers and the warmth of the fire and the crowd. Then Laura & I made our respective treks west in the worst of the storm.
Warning: this post is the product of waking up at 4am and purging everything floating around in my brain. It’s not super pretty.
Let’s get started.
Selfish. It’s one feeling I grapple with when pursuing this sport of cyclocross, or cycling in general. Ironically the more that I am selfish about the time I invest, the better my results, the better I feel, but it leaves little time for other things in life. I feel finally balanced in my approach and management of this one endeavor, while other aspects of life get the back burner.
Burnout. I can’t tell if this is bikes or work, I think probably work, because I’d still rather ride a bike than my desk chair for 8 hours. My 2 weeks of vacation a year isn’t leaving me recharged or able to spend the downtime either with my family or pursuing the outdoor adventures that balance me as a human. I’m 47 years old and still getting 2 weeks of vacation a year. It’s fucking ridiculous.
Age. I’m not feeling it, but I look in the mirror and don’t recognize myself. Such a trick that nature plays on us. I’m starting to be self conscious of my age when interacting with new people. I realize I’m invisible, as a woman over 40. I remember hearing this from another woman over forty when I was in my early 30s and thought she was crazy, forty isn’t that bad. But I know now she was letting me peek behind the curtain. People don’t notice you anymore. You probably weren’t being noticed for the right reasons before, but the feeling of anonymity is palpable wherever I go. If I am interacting with anyone younger, I realize that they see me as a “middle aged lady.” This is who I am, minus all the negative connotations. I sometimes feel I could rob a bank, and never be noticed.
Now stop a second. This isn’t a pity party but a reality check. American society does not revere the middle-aged mom. It’s like a downgrade. How screwed up is that? I feel all these things and anyone can say oh you shouldn’t feel that way. I do feel like an empowered badass woman most of the time, and I’m relatively confident in most aspects of my life. I’m a lot of great positive things. But I’m not perfect and coping with the stresses of mid life like most others. Being a full time professional, a full time mom, and full time partner is demanding stuff. I did the “single mother who holds down a demanding professional job” for 11 years. That was really hard!!! Now I’m 3 months into cohabitation and while some financial strain has been lifted, it’s a new dynamic to negotiate. That I find the time to train and race a bike even at the modest level that I race at is pretty damn good, in my opinion. But guys, I feel tired. I want to eat lots of cookies. I want a week or 3 off from work, and to ride my bike for no reason at all, and to not feel bad about having a beer. Maybe read a book.
Ok, what other junk is lurking in my head? The ever present feeling that our country has left the rails and is careening toward unrecoverable disaster at the hands of a small minded, selfish, unstable, arrogant moron and that the other leaders of the country are corrupt without measure and complicit in selling out in every way imaginable or unimaginable. That feeling? That one is always there.
Work is in a funny spot right now as well, and I’m trying not to worry but I am. I’m a contractor working sans contract for the last 9 months. We know there is satisfaction with the quality of our work, but other factors always exist, usually budgetary. To add to this, the nature of what I do is subject to some market forces outside of my control, and as a cherry on top, some probably illegal moves by state government has re- appropriated the funds that make my work possible. I have a staff of 9 asking me every day if we are losing our jobs. I answer honestly, “Probably not.” But I don’t know. I don’t really know.
Other worries include: the future, saving for college, saving for retirement, my son probably forgetting his wallet or keys or phone or homework or to turn in that permission slip, or that he has a math test tomorrow. I’m worried that my mom is dating again at age 72 after 49 years of marriage and the guy she’s fallen for will break her heart or rob her or something terrible, but he seems nice enough so far. Gah.
The funniest thing about this entire post, this dump of neurosis, is that I had a few moments last week I felt I had achieved self actualization, even with everything that is going on in my silly head. I always marvel at how fleeting happiness can be.
It’s morning now, no longer the middle of the night and with a cup of coffee, these worries will wane and I’ll get on to the business of the day, whatever that may be. I’ll sneak a bike ride in, pick up my son from his meeting after school, make dinner for everyone, do the laundry, pack for a bike race this weekend, check my work email again before bed, and then probably fall asleep on the couch. And then do it all again tomorrow.