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Gravel & Dirt in 2018

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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.

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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 decent 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.

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!!

-Karen

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The Danger Zone: End of the Year CX Party @ Ice Weasels

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.

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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.

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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.

-Karen

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Where else can you find a man wearing a bacon suit?

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Jorts for the win.

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Secret Squirrel CX: Best Course of NECX?

I had absolutely no plans to do Secret Squirrel this year.

First, it’s 2 hours away. Second, I am about done by now. At least I usually am. I had the weekend free and a 4 day weekend at that, I knew I wanted an event to burn off some turkey. With 4 races to choose from, I took to twitter for advice. #NECX spoke loudly and clearly–do Secret Squirrel, you won’t be disappointed.

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Photo Credit: Katie Busick Photography

I wasn’t.  The course has everything:  gnarly roots and technical sections in the woods, sweeping power on the backend of the sporting fields, hills that grind the energy from your legs, swooping downhills that were hollar-fun, and a legit sand run up. There was even an tiny bit of mud in spots.

They ran the elites and novices together–which in my opinion worked out just fine. I enjoyed having 45 minutes to race and I went as hard as I could, coming back with a top ten finish out of a field of 28 (I got 8th place!). Points-wise this is my very best result to date, building on an already terrific season. I even took another lap after finishing, because it was so goddamn fun.

The day wasn’t perfect: I had a terribly upset stomach all morning, likely from holiday food. I got tangled with a rider-dude during course inspection–I was knocked off my bike, and my foot became wedged between two of his spokes on his back wheel. He then tried to ride away, which really sucked. My foot is pretty black and blue as a result (still). I somehow banged my nose on that same fall and today half my nose is an attractive green and blue (hello make-up bag). I was kind of “off” before the race, not feeling even like racing very much. But reliably, something clicked when the siren blew and suddenly, none of that mattered.

I should also mention, this was the debut of an equipment upgrade: a tubeless wheelset and tires. I have flatted in 2 races this season and even flatted in pre-ride at Noho. I got a lot of great advice from social media and #NECX, and then went to my mechanic who set me up beautifully for less than $500. The wheels run smooth and fast and handled the wild roots of the Squirrel course–my last set up would have never made it out alive. Call me converted, I will endeavor to go tubeless with my entire fleet.

How many more races will I do? I’m STILL not sure, I’m having a load of fun and don’t want it to end. Ice Weasels is in 2 weeks, that’s a definite. We’ll see what other trouble I get into between now and the end of December,

-Karen

NohoCX: Hot Races, Cold Weather

My adopted hometown race weekend never disappoints.  I have been really working to have a good showing at this race. Even though I usually do one or two more to close out the season, everything after Northampton is bonus.

The biggest factor was the extreme cold. I was warming up in 19 degrees, racing in 25 degrees. The first lap of the warmup brought painful hands, burning with cold, even through my gloves. After a lap they were fine. As with all things cycling, a little suffering must happen before anything good can come.

Day 1: Cat 4/5 Women

Call up was a mess. Juniors and parents were clogging the entry to staging. They were all loud and many of us missed our call up. I started a row behind where I was supposed to. We went and I was in the back of the field trying to make up for a bad start.

Going into the woods and over the “mound,” followed by a steep hairpin turn had some of us grousing. The women in front were dismounting and walking this section. I heard a rider next to me mutter “it’s so rideable.”  I shared her frustration. But I expected this delay–it happens every time on the first lap.  If you really want to avoid it, you need to get there first.

I took the steep side of the run up, not on purpose, but at the top, I slipped by at least 3 racers as a result. I had good luck on the tech sections and pushed hard in the grass, trying to ride the corners efficiently and just not lose any time. On the last lap, I saw a racer I knew from other races, and it was someone I knew was way faster than me.  She seemed to be suffering a bit, we were back on the grass and I decided to try and catch her.  I went like hell, turned in the last corner before the barriers and had the longest slide-out, slow motion crash ever.  Boom.  The ground had softened by about an 1/2 an inch deep and then under that–still frozen solid.  I jumped up and hopped back on my bike. My attack was over and now I was defending….my mishap allowed the woman behind me to gain ground. I rode hard and managed to hold her off at the finish line with a 3 second gap.

I was super pleased with a skin-of-my-teeth top 50% finish, placing 18 of 35 racers (I’m not good at math but crossresults said it so it must be true).

What I was oblivious to was that I had placed 3rd of the over 40 women, and literally missed the podium ceremony.  I wasn’t alone, the 2nd place winner, who is a friend, did too.  Fortunately we were also friendly with the winner, and we reconvened for a photo op, which is really the big prize anyway.

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Day 2: Cat 4/5 Women

I was super tired from Saturday’s race in the cold, and then rest of the day I spent spectating.  I had this heavy legged fatigue and I hoped I could shake it for Sunday’s race.  Call up was an even bigger mess.  Juniors again crowded the entrance to staging. In other races I’ve seen this managed a bit more directly by people working the race.  But the actual call up had problems too. They asked us “What row did you start in yesterday?” They didn’t have the right list and seemed to be figuring it out as they went. The racers worked as cooperatively with officials as possible to get staged.

I had another terrible start. Then only a few hundred feet into the race a crash on an icy corner brought down part of the large group I was chasing. I avoided most of the mess and benefited from the spill.  My race was mostly uneventful.  I had a sense I was further back than I wanted but caught and passed one rider I know I’m ranked closely to in points, so I had that.  I rode the techie off camber every time which helped give me some seconds over competitors, but with less of a field racing on day too, I found we were pretty spaced out.

On the last lap, I played cat and mouse with a collegiate rider from UVM. After a few back and forths, she cut a beautiful turn and passed me on a corner. I had to hand it to her, it was a good move and one I’ve done in the past.  I was really working to stay with her.  We hit the sand and she erred, crashing at the start of the only clear line in the sand that was easily rideable.  I didn’t panic and swung wide, and powered through the thick, soft sand past her crash, reconnecting with the hard packed line in the center. I was gone.

But not completely. I tried not to look back for the rest of the lap. We were down on the grass now and the race had become just me and her.  I knew she’d be coming for me and I pushed hard.  The finish was a long grassy runway, a wide turn and shorter sprint to finish. I went like hell, and good thing because she was on me. Just 1 second was enough to edge her out and take 17th place,

I wasn’t sure about the 40+ placement, and we waited for results to be posted.  I got 4th-of the 40+ cat 4/5 Women so no podiums day 2, but was very happy with the weekend overall. I was tired and cold but happy.  I went home and had a supremely long hot shower, and made a homemade chicken pot pie for Sunday dinner which was perfect comfort food.

Photos:

Here are the pros!  Women and Men on Day 1.  I didn’t stay to watch on day 2 because I was interested in restoring a regular body temperature.

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Don’t Jinx It! My CX Season So Far…

I’m hesitant to write about this at all, but dare I say, I’m finally having the cyclocross season I’ve always wanted.

I have long had the modest goal to finish in the top 50% of the race.  And this year–it’s actually happening.  Not every race, but 4 of the last 7 races this year I’m in the top half. If I don’t get a flat tire, or other calamity, I’m making it.

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Minuteman CX–29/58 was good enough for the 50% cut off.  The rain came down the whole time and made for a sloppy – fun race.

This feels so good, it was an achievable goal I set for myself but never quite managed to pull off more than once a season. It always bugged me because I knew I could do more, but I always found it so hard to train and prepare for the season the right way. By no means do I have everything figured out, but there are reasons I’m doing that much better this year.

1.) I’m following a training schedule. It’s general and not ridiculously specific–but I’m doing intervals on Wednesdays and threshold when I’m supposed to and resting on days I should rest. I generally try to stress my body into an uncomfortable feeling on hard days and genuinely take it easy when I’m supposed to.

2.) I’m able to ride during the day, outside.  Last year I was still working in Springfield in an office for 9-10 hours a day, without an outlet for exercise. Training was isolated to the trainer at night and weekends, and occasional afternoons until the light was gone (which wasn’t long). Now I work from home and while I still commute to the Boston suburbs once or twice a week, I’m able to ride 45-60 mins at least 3 days during the week plus whatever I do on the weekends. As an additional benefit, I find I’m much more alert during my work days because of the mid-day exercise, and I no longer have back and neck pain from sitting for long stretches.

3. I’m eating a little better. I still have my treats, but I’m eating more veggies and less sugar in general. I’ve lost a couple of pounds and overall feel better.

4.) I’m recovering better.  I find I can endure more discomfort and recover faster from hard efforts. The intervals help with that. But some of the big rides I did last summer seem to be paying off now too.

5.) I am serious about racing, and not serious about the results. This is probably the best development–I seem to have found a healthy mental balance between my enthusiasm, my nerves, and my internal competitor. When I race, I am focused and I’m constantly thinking about what i need to do to pass the women in front of me, and expand gaps between me and the women behind me. But the fun is still there–I joke with the hecklers and while I have had results that are an improvement over years past, I know I’m still not winning races here. I still don’t expect to move up a category. My perspective is intact. I’m still having a lot of fun.

6.) I’m in one place. This is a simple one–but something I haven’t had for a long time. No longer am I packing a bag every other weekend to visit my significant other. Now that we are under the same roof, there is no more back and forth and that has helped me focus on things I want to…..like cyclocross.

The most meaningful thing about this incremental improvement in my performance is that it is happening as I settle into what can be easily described as “My late forties.” I love this is happening at this time in my life. I love that I can improve my athletic performance at anything after age 40. I love that I can do this sport and my age doesn’t prevent my participation. I hope I can continue to do it for many years to come.

I registered for a small grassroots race this weekend in Vermont, and then next weekend is the Verge/Cycle-Smart Northampton International Cyclocross race weekend–the hometown race. If I can, I’d like to continue to do better than average among my peers for the Northampton races. The trick now is to keep up with the diet and workouts, and not get sick or injured.

Let’s hope I didn’t jinx myself by talking about it!

-Karen

 

Cyclocross is Underway!

Guys, I honestly didn’t think I was going to make it this season. Call me late to the party, but I’m here! Cyclocross season is underway in the #NECX and I’m gearing up for my 6th year.

So lots has happened since I was here last. I sold my house, moved in with my long time partner, started my son at a new school, got braces (yeah you read that right, I got braces–thanks Invisalign), and have been enjoying the “who know what will happen next” feeling of being a contract consultant and working sans contract. Nonetheless, I’m in good spirits, and for the first time in a long time, it feels like my life has some traction (now to keep my head down because saying it aloud makes me wonder just where that next hit will come from).

After the JAM Grand Fundo, I did the NEBRA August Adventure Ride–which was just so amazing.  Pencil that one on the must do list for next year everyone.  As the uncertainty of house selling toyed with me at the end of summer and the beginning of September, I all but stopped riding in favor of tag sales, craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, cleaning, packing, moving, repairing, etc, etc. OMG WHAT A LOT OF WORK. If packing up and selling off 16 years worth of a life isn’t like interval training I don’t know what is.

But it’s over. Officially. And I’m able to focus on a much happier obsession.

KMC CROSSFEST

So I planned to jump into the season at KMC Crossfest in Thompson, CT.  They’ve been trying to make KMC a really big deal, starting things off on a Thursday and concluding on Sunday.  It’s a C1/C2 race, and part of the USAC US Cup CX.  Meaning star power from the Pro Ranks would be there to compete.

I wasn’t there for that–I love watching the pros but I’m always more interested in doing rather than watching.  The entry fee was very expensive as far as cx races go. $60 a day, plus $10 to park-each day! Attendance withered as a result. I used to race in a field of 120 at this event. But on Day 1, only 25 women lined up.

The race was fast–as cross races go.  More pavement than I’ve ever seen at a cx race.  But the technical part was highly technical.

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In the cat 4 race they scored 40+ masters separately from the Under 40 cat 4s…..which to my complete surprise resulted in a podium for me!

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I got third!

I’m still psyched about it.

On my second day at KMC–a much different outcome. The field thinned even further–only 16 racers, and even fewer masters. I felt I had a good chance at repeating the result I had on Saturday and was very hopeful. I was really tired but had slept a good 10 hours and tend to rally after the whistle blows. The course was beat up from 3 days day of hard racing and only 1/2 way through the 1st lap I flatted. What a huge disappointment. My friend Jon was cheering for me and saw what happened. I was walking to the exit the course and had my hand on the tape when he yelled “No Karen! They have neutral support! Run to the pits!” I thought he was nuts. The pits were over a mile away.  “It’s so far!” I whined. But then I realized–yeah, I was whining. Stop it. Pick up your bike and run to the freaking pit.

So I did that.  Thank you Jon.

I’d never pitted before, so I took this as a great learning experience. The Shimano mechanics were great–they fixed things on my bike I didn’t even know needed fixing, and had me on my way very quickly with a new wheel. But the time lost running the course with my flatted out tire was significant. I lost an entire lap and finished dead fucking last. But DFL–>DNF–>DNS and I gained just a little more experience in the sport.

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Multi-approach to the gnarly downhill.  A LOT of crashes here but these Cat 3 women all made it down in one piece.

My sixth year and still a cat 4, still learning, and getting older (just had another birthday but still not as old as my racing age would have you think), but maybe getting better? Maybe.

Minuteman CX

That podium experience got me pretty fired up, and while I doubt that I’ll repeat the perfect storm of low attendance, high entry fee, and high profile event with a rule that has them scoring masters 40+ women separately again this year, I’m still just delusional enough to think I might be improving a bit. So I signed up for Minuteman CX–a race I’d never done before due to childcare schedules, but now my child is a breath away from teenager status and he came along to take pics.

The course is not very hilly and not very technical, except for the incredible number of turns/corners. So many corners! Cornering well would be the #1 skill to bring to this race. To my delight, overcast skies opened up 5 minutes before the race and continued to rain steadily for the whole event. We were ringing our gloves out at the start line, where a healthy group of 58 women lined up for the cat 4 race.

I had contact with someone pretty much the whole race, traded places, passed some got passed by others, crashed once, and got soaked and muddy. It was perfect. I finished just in the top 1/2 of the group–a solid mid pack finish which is what I aspire to do but always come up a little short. I was 29th of 58 and had a great time with teammates and friends.

Next weekend is the Gran Prix of Gloucester, and I’m racing both days, hosting friends at my Mom’s house, and going to a party with friends from high school. The original hometown race. The competition will be tougher but still shooting for mid-pack finishes, no flats or crashes, and maximum fun.

Guys, cx season is here!! So much fun!

-Karen

Domnarski Farm-Root 66 MTB Race 2017

I finally made it back to Domnarski this year. I last raced this course in 2014 and the course was as difficult as I remembered; an uphill start over a bunch of sharp rocks for 1.2 miles and then fire roads, and a single track descent which was so fun it made you forget that first climb altogether–until you did it a second time. I raced Cat 3 and the loop was the shorter of the two loops at Domnarski–the “beginner” lap. First timers did it once, Cat 3’s twice.

It was a warm sunny day and the hill was exhausting–but the rest of the ride was a bunch of fun. 4 women started, I was the only 35+ woman so as long as I finished I would simultaneously “win” and “lose” my race. My goal was to finish faster than I did in 2014.

Mission accomplished.  I came in 3rd overall and beat my time from 2014 (according to Strava).

2014 lap times:  Lap 1  –  30:04, Lap 2  –  32:39

2017 lap times:  Lap 1  –  29:42, Lap 2  –  31:44

And as mentioned before, I was the only 35+ women, so solo podium for me.

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I’m lonely!

As an extra bonus, I learned after the race that this was the Massachusetts State Championship for the Root 66 Series, so I got an extra medal from USA Cycling, which was kind of cool, but still felt a little over the top, especially since I didn’t compete against anyone in my age group.

I am still racing the Cat 3 (beginner) class, mostly because before 2017 I had done about 2 races since the year 2000. Last year I didn’t do any mountain bike races. This is my 3rd MTB race this year, and while I still don’t feel like I’m ‘fast,” I’m not a beginner and unlike cyclocross–I usually get a good result in mountain biking races. For next year, I plan to suck it up and upgrade to Sport (Cat 2) for mountain biking. This is NOT the plan for cyclocross however–I will remain a cat 4 and continue to finish mid-pack on my best days.

I was also great seeing Kait again who is slaying all the 18-34 age group races in our category, and meeting a couple more women who raced. We were all pretty surprised there weren’t more women racing on such a picture perfect Sunday, but it was fun to chat for a while after the race.

I don’t know if I’ll have time in the schedule for additional MTB races this year. I plan to to the JAM Fund Grand Fundo and need to start training for the climbing/distance right now if I’m going to have a good day that day. And then cross season will be upon us in no time…I usually switch back to riding the cross bike exclusively by August. But I want to stay flexible this year in what I plan to do. I am not sure I’ll be doing so many cross races in 2017–I say this now but we’ll see. I know once I get a taste again I’ll want to do as many as I can.

-Karen