It’s fair to question yourself when it’s 6:00AM on a Saturday morning, and you find yourself driving alone in a cold rain 90 minutes in the dark to a muddy park in Rhode Island.
By the time I arrived at Roger Williams Park, the rain had stopped, but the cold was much harder to shake. I got my gear on and got onto the course for a pre-ride. There were a lot of changes from the 2 previous years. The course used different areas of the park and just about everything was super slick. After one lap, instead of feeling more confident, as is often the case, I felt pretty freaked out.
We lined up and waited for what felt like a long time. It was 50 degrees F, windy, overcast, and the cold easily penetrated my long sleeved skin-suit and my leg warmers. Then we went. I got an OK start, moved past some traffic and stayed within the group for a good while. The run ups were super slick and I used the hand rail each time–which was slower, but wiping out on the ramp was a time killer. Eventually the group thinned, but there were enough women racing (100 pre-reg’d) that I had contact with at least one rider for the whole race.
The course had an impressive run up and a scary decent that had 2 lines. I hear one of them was easier, but I never took it (insert mountain bike cred here). This afforded me several places by taking this riskier descent. Despite being nervous about the course prior to the start, my feelings changed for the better during the race. Every single muddy inch of this course was an absolute delight. Slick flyovers, slippery turns, greasy climbs and gnarly descents…I loved ALL of it.
I raced well (for me), and made the cutoff and did 4 laps instead of 3. I beat a couple of women who I haven’t beat this year, and one I haven’t beat ever….so that felt good. I guess 4 races in 7 days is good for me. It makes me sad for the 2 week break I need to take (because work) before my next race. I hope I don’t lose all I’ve gained in the last couple of weeks.
(More pics of the Master Men race and some causal shots of the course and people at the festival–sorry–no shots of the women–I was busy racing!)
Tonight I was talking to my girlfriend and she said to me “I’m tired of you not doing better in your races.”
Now before you say anything nasty, understand this: I was not in the least bit offended. I quickly agreed with her. “Yeah,” I said. “I’m tired of not doing better too.”
We talked a bit about being an older athlete, and what that means. Adjusting your expectations. Squeezing in training. Training smart vs. training hard. I asked her for some help. She asked what she could do. I really didn’t know what she could do. We both admitted that we needed to believe that even as we age, we can still ‘get better’ at whatever it is we are trying to do out there. It may be in vain but here we are, still trying to get better in our 40’s or 50’s. So I have to ask myself, what does “better” mean?
It may seem like an easy question but I’m not sure that the answer is easy to articulate. Better doesn’t always mean faster, or a higher placing, or a lower crossresults point average. I have had races where I placed in the lower 1/3 or even 1/4 where I felt completely thrilled with the effort I put out. I’m thinking specifically of KMC Providence last year, when I finished 86 out of 114 racers. No one would look at that and say, “wow Karen, way to kill it out there!” No one would say that. But I did kill it out there! I had a blast. I put it all out there. That was my version of “better.”
And then there are the races from a couple of years ago, when I had more saddle time and my performance was, in fact, getting “better.” I was placing higher, I was feeling like I still had some room to improve. It was an upward trajectory I was feeling, and that continuous improvement made me feel like I was, in fact, “getting better.”
Lately, and I mean the second half of cyclocross season in 2014 and in my first race of 2015, I have felt pretty off. There’s always a problem that snarls my ability to have a good race. Bouts of sports-induced asthma by the second lap. Crashing and cracking a rib, or gashing my leg, or getting a shitty start, or suffering from heat exhaustion, or getting my handlebar caught on the course tape. (Geez, I read this list and I sound like a menace out there! I swear the only trouble I cause is my own).
My point is, I know when I’m doing better. I feel happy with the effort I put out. I feel satisfied and fulfilled with how hard the course was and what I did out there on that course. If I put a little pressure on a competitor, or if I pass a competitor or two (or ten), that’s a lot better. Bottom line is I need some “better” moments out there. Just like intervals, if I can string enough better moments together, I can pull off a downright good race.
I’ve always said my first love is mountain biking. It’s where I started, and I really wish I did more of it. So when a nearby Root 66 race was scheduled on a day in my schedule that I was actually available, I signed up for the Cat 3 women’s slot. A MTB race in southern Vermont was not a hard sell.
Joined by co-blogger Heather, we arrived nice & early, signed in and warmed up. We started on a mowed track through a meadow and into the woods. The climbing started early, and the trails were flowy, fun, with easy to navigate roots and rocks sprinkled throughout the course. There was plenty of downhill as well, with most of the course on singletrack, occasionally breaking out into doubletrack which provided opportunities to pass.
Since I didn’t pre-ride–I really had no idea what to expect and I rode conservatively for the first lap. The climbing pushed me physically–it wasn’t too awful but it made me work. The lap was supposed to be 5ish miles, but my Garmin read 4 miles and I had finished the first lap. I was pumped!
Lap 2 and I started to open it up. I caught air on one of the downhills. I shredded the banked turns. The climbing felt easier. I knew I was close to one of the riders just ahead of me. I thought I might catch her. But mostly, I was just really engaged in the ride–which was awesome.
Soon after beginning lap 2 when my mood was so high, I felt my back rim kiss a rooty section. Then I felt it again over a few rocks. I stood up, riding out of the saddle to keep my weight off the rear wheel. “I better watch that tire,” I thought. I lasted about a mile before descending down a fast double track, turning into a grassy turn and the tube was done. The tire nearly rolled completely off the rim as I hit the grass.
So, keep going. I dismounted and trotted with the bike, pushing it back up the singletrack. I was determined to finish–I did not want a DNF. And even if I wanted to quit (which i didn’t), there was no way I was getting out of the woods without following the trail out. I ran what I could, lifted the bike over the rougher stuff as to not damage the rim. 3 miles, or thereabouts. The lead I had over the 2 women behind me dissolved. in 15 minutes from my flat they overtook me. A few guys came by and asked if I was OK. Reports trickled to the finish line that there was a Cat 3 women with a mechanical on the course. When Heather heard that, she said “That’s Karen.” Of course it was. I finished with a smile anyway.
I was a bit bummed out–but then again, I wasn’t. I got a great workout pushing my mountain bike all that way. I watched my heart rate the whole time and kept it high. I had a wonderful slice of apple pie and a glass of hard cider afterwards. And I was happy to be in Vermont, a place a fall more in love with each time I go.
So I finished last. I had a good time. I gave a good effort and flats happen. I got a race under my belt before cyclocross season begins. I hung out with friends. I got back to Vermont. All good stuff. I do hope that the rest of my races stay mechanically uneventful, but hey–anything can happen….its my first flat in a race so I was due. Happens to the best of us, right? Next time I’ll bring my CO2.
The next couple months are going to be crazy.
As summer winds down, cyclocross season kicks off, and my schedule goes into overdrive. My calendar runneth over with races, and not just cyclocross races. This is what I’m currently planning for the next 6 weeks….
- Sunday 8/23 Putney Cider House Classic MTB Race – Putney, VT
- Saturday 8/29 CompEdge CX @ Forest Park – Springfield, MA
- Sunday 8/30 Boston Spartan Sprint – Barre, MA
Saturday 9/12 Aetna Silk City Cyclocross – Manchester. CT Saturday 9/19 The Dude Smash – West Warwick, RI
- Saturday 9/19 White Park Cyclocross – Concord, NH
- Sat & Sun 9/26-27 Gran Prix of Gloucester – Gloucester, MA
- Wednesday 9/30 The Night Weasels Cometh – Shrewsbury, MA
- Saturday & Sun 10/3-4 The KMC Providence Cyclocross Festival – Providence, RI (one of these days, not sure yet).
Then I have a business trip for the better part of a week to the west coast in mid October. That will really screw up my fitness. I plan of trying to race every other weekend in October, but I’m not sure which ones and the particulars of my schedule that far in the future. I want to stay in good fighting shape for Cycle-Smart International November 7-8 in Northampton, and after that–well everything is gravy.
I’ve really changed my expectations this year. I used to stress about racing well every single race. That’s not realistic. And I used to think I could keep up the pace through December. That’s also not realistic. I just don’t have the space in my schedule for that. But I can use the summer to build a good base and go into September in pretty decent shape, This year, I’m riding almost twice as much as I did last year (at this time). I had to work really hard to make that happen within the confines of my schedule. Last summer I was job hunting, and my focus was on my professional development. I was feeling a lot of conflict trying to ride well and also pursue life’s priorities. As a result, I had a relatively crappy season. This year, I tried to ride more often, rest deliberately, and dabbled with HR training.
Now I know-(I know) I’m a 40+ mom with a full time job and while my athleticism is holding up relatively well, I’m not 20, or 25, or 30, or even 35 anymore. I’m very competitive in spirit–I always want to do well for me, and I’m getting better at accepting that while I can get faster, I will never be fast. I know what I’m good at (technical, sketchy, mountain-bikey terrain) and I know what I’m not (steep hills, speed, extreme heat). So my strategy this year is to go into the season relatively fit, dial it in after the first couple of races, then go hard. Try to rebound after mid October’s known setback of a week of travel, and then punch it again at the end of October and Early November. Then I will chill. I’ll race when I can but won’t feel guilty or like I’m not a real athlete for not committing every weekend through December to CX. I love the sport, but I have to keep life balanced.
My goals remain: Have a ton of fun, give my best effort, stay upright, try not to DNF, finish mid pack when I can, and enjoy the cyclocross community.
See you at the races,
For anyone racing cross this season, I’m attempting to gather up details to help you all prep for upcoming racing in New England. I’ll use course descriptions, photos, personal experience, and link to any published content (including video) I can get my hands on. If you have any resources you’d like to share, please comment, tweet, or email me. Get in touch! We’re all in this sport together. If you are new to cyclocross doing your homework can help you mentally prepare for each race. Get ready! #CxisComing!
Why is this information important?
While weather is often the most reliable influencer of course conditions, each course has characteristics and features that unless you’ve already raced there, you may not be prepared for. When Gloucester is dry it gets incredibly dusty with loose stones. Northampton has essentially two sections: one up on the hill and one flat twisty, grassy drag race. Quad Cross is great for anyone with solid mountain biking skills. Blunt Park has been described as a grass crit.
Should I attend a cyclocross clinic?
Absolutely. And as many as possible. You cannot get enough of these, really. If you didn’t get a chance to sign up for the KIT clinic with the amazing Mo Bruno Roy or attend Cross Camp with Adam Myerson, attend one of the many local clinics on BikeReg. You can also go on the weekly group cx ride, where practice makes perfect…
Should I watch videos of previous races on the course?
Yes! Some of them can make you dizzy with motion sickness, but the quality improves every year. A good video can show you what it’s like to race in a group, what a crash looks like close up, it can show you the twists, turns, hills, barriers, and other features of a course and allow you to mentally pre-ride the course. This allows you to anticipate terrain and plan your strategy. It’s like game tape for cross racers. There aren’t videos of every race, and beware of courses that have changed over the years (some remain the same year after year, some change often to keep it fresh). Always check the description on BikeReg to see if there have been any changes made to a race course.
Should I watch cyclocross videos in general?
Yes! An especially good series is called Svenness from CXhairs.com. Discussed are conditions, tire selection, technique, strategy. It’s an excellent analysis and gets you into the mental game behind race tactics. And please check out Behind the Barriers TV, created by Jeremy Powers. There is some excellent video there from last season and while they will not have the same content in 2015, it is an extremely valuable resource.
Does watching course videos mean I can skip pre-riding the course?
No. Always budget time to pre-ride in addition to watching video. I’ve missed pre-rides and it’s cost me. A few laps, even a slow trolling pace can be the intelligence gathering difference that can mean several places in your race results.
Should I check the weather?
Like a worried mother, yes, check the weather. This will greatly influence clothing and tire selection.
What is the best way to really prepare for a cyclocross race?
Honestly, the best way to prepare for a race is to race. Each race prepares you for the next. You will make mistakes, learn new things, meet new folks, Race, rinse, repeat. Experience is the best teacher!
Good luck, have fun, and Happy Cx!
I had every single intention of racing my bike this Saturday. I have the weekend free, Sterling is actually fairly close by, and I keep hearing the Twitter buzz about a fun course. Additional, my mysterious co-blogger has caught the CX bug (I’ll take full credit for that, thank you very much) and she’s texting me daily, “did you sign up yet? did you sign up yet?” No. And now pre reg is closed.
The reason is a cold. I’ve been fighting something for a while–You might remember I complained of being sick during Northampton’s CSI International CX race weekend, and again at Cheshire, I suffered a coughing fit that lost me places in my race. The germ that has taken up residence in my upper respiratory system has invited friends over to party. I’m trying to kick out the bug but each time I start to think I’ll be just fine, I break out into another coughing fit.
It’s only Wednesday, so I have a couple of days to improve my lung function. I’m going to ride tomorrow and Friday too….I’ll know better if I can hack it (pun intended). Same day registration is allowed so the option remains to race, and Heather still seems interested. But if I don’t go for it, I still plan to ride (thinking as I type this, if I’m planning on riding anyway, maybe I should just race…..).
I guess the difference is intensity. The predicted temperature at the starting whistle is an optimistic 20 degrees F. Start time is 9:30 AM, I’d need to leave the house at about 6AM, up by 5:30AM. Intense cold, early start, and its a race, so full gas. I think my lungs would seize. Riding on my own means slower spins, exploring, playing, starting later at a balmy 30 degrees, and stopping to pull my Kleenex out and clear the pipes every so often. Not to mention the travel time and registration $$$$. On the other hand, racing means seeing some of the fantastic New England Cyclocross Community again. I’m very torn.
If I miss this weekend, the season isn’t over yet. I am doing the DAS BEavER CX race in Dayville, CT. My coffee is on the prize list there so it’s a must attend for me. And then there is the famous Ice Weasels Cometh race in Walpole, MA. Both of these races are in the same weekend, so that would be a whole weekend of CX, and lots of road time. But if I’m healthy, it would be a great last hurrah for me to wrap up the 2013 cyclocross season.
Thoughts? My lungs make the final decision. I think if it were at least 20 degrees warmer (like, the 40’s) I’d feel my lungs could take it.
I took 2 whole days off the bike after Northampton’s CSIcx race weekend. It’s amazing how 45 minutes of racing can leave you destroyed. Two days in a row, I tapped out, needing the break.
When I entered that race weekend, I thought that this might be how I end the chapter of this freshmen effort in the sport of cyclocross. But I was selling my new addiction short.
I registered for a small race in Connecticut for next weekend. Last year only 10 women raced in total. They have a breakout category for just Cat 4 women this year, which may mean they are expecting a larger turnout. At any rate, I’ll be racing with the Cat 1-4, but scored as a Cat 4. I’m interested to see how that looks. I was really pleased with my results at Northampton. I felt I made very solid efforts and my placement–while nothing to write home about–had improved from a similar race (Providence). In Providence, I was 63rd, in Northampton, 52 and 55th. And while I realize it’s not an identical crowd, identical course, identical conditions or identical size field. It is similar enough in all those regards that I feel a 11 placement improvement is well, an improvement.
Other things I have noticed in this pursuit: I started playing women’s pickup hoops again this year. Last year, my lungs burned and I poured sweat, red in the face and gasping trying to run a full court game for 90 minutes. This year, I was up and down that court faster than ever, and I didn’t feel fatigued at all. I was also sinking a few baskets this time, which was a nice switch.
To top it off, yesterday I went back to the ‘cross practice course that I am so lucky to have access to. There is one other woman on Strava who has indexed this course in her workouts. I’ve never met her but she is a friend of Heather’s and she races ‘cross and mountain bikes and does pretty well–considerably better than me. When I first started doing laps at Ed’s farm I was a good 2 minutes off her time. After yesterday, I have reduced it to 30 seconds. And I know she has been going back there and improved upon her personal best as well. It’s a stretch to think I could close down that gap entirely, but I wasn’t going full throttle yesterday, just keeping it a consistent effort and working on being efficient–so I know there is still time to carve off.
Not making mistakes on the course carves time. Getting faster and stronger carves time. Building endurance carves time. Knowing your bicycle well enough that it is starts to become an extension of you carves time. Skills work carves time. Staying healthy carves time. Staying lean and light carves time. I am starting to see the moving parts, the art of improvement, the finer points of chance and luck and very hard work.
Cheshire CX (that small race in CT) is next weekend and I will finish toward the end of the pack. I will score higher points because it’s a smaller race. That will help me get a better starting position for another race. Which will also carve time.
Cyclocross races might only be 40 or 45 minutes long, but the game is a long one. The effort that you put in day after day, each race is another stepping stone, each barrier, each muddy turn–each of these things are small factors that go into the larger result. But what supersedes all of these things is the biggest, most important point of cyclocross. It’s just really, really fun. It’s really hard, really intense and incredibly fun. It does not matter where you place, it matters that you are out there, shivering in the cold and mud and under modified sunlight pushing yourself and your bike as hard as possible. This is an optimal medium for self discovery, and the person you race hardest against is yourself.