These last two races were filled with high highs and low lows. I learned a lot in both races despite very different outcomes, and I know I can use both experiences to help me prepare for races in the future.
At the Stumpjumper race in Spartanburg last week, we pulled up at the course and knew immediately we were in for a hot and dusty race. The women’s race was in the morning at 10:30, but it already felt like it was the heat of the day. I spent my warm up time preriding the beginning of the course and stretching in the shade, attempting to spend as little time as possible in the direct sun. The start was in a field that had no relief from the elements, but luckily we went straight into the woods, where the shade from the trees offered some respite from the heat. We were headed out for 3 laps and 23 miles total, and though there were only two other women in my age group, there were four women in the 40+ age group that were racing as well.
Off the start line, Miki from Happy Tooth Women and I rode side by side into the woods. I wanted to follow her wheel to force her to set the pace so I didn’t blow myself up early in the heat, and I think she had the same idea. She took the lead once the course turned to singletrack, but shortly after we reached the top of the initial climb, she unfortunately slid out in a corner and I overtook her for the lead. I knew that I could attack while she was regaining her balance, but I had to be careful to not go too hard off the front and regret it later if I ran out of energy too fast. I concentrated on pushing hard up the hills to stay away, while recovering on the descents and flat sections. I was feeling strong coming into the second lap, but by the final lap the heat was really getting to me. My friend Angela was an angel for pouring cold water on me as I came around for the final lap. I had to concentrate on making sure I was fueling and drinking enough during the race, especially since most of my crashes happen when I’m getting fatigued during the end of a race.
As I was coming up one of the climbs towards the end of the lap, I saw a rider coming up behind me just a couple switchbacks below. It was Sarah from the Spokeeasy team, who is an impressive racer and often beats me at the end of races by going steadily the whole time and saving her energy for a final attack when I have nothing left. I was determined to not let her catch me, but the heat was killing my motivation. I knew I only had about 3 miles left, so I focused on holding a faster pace than before, but making sure I was holding back a little in case she caught me. I remember my feet being so hot that they hurt, and during a creek crossing I relished the brief splash of water that gave me some short relief. With one mile to go I knew Sarah wasn’t far behind, but I was quickly fading. At every turn I expected to come around for the final finish stretch, wanting so badly to be done with the race and dunk my head in a bucket of cold water. Finally, I reached the top of the final climb and sprinted across the line, panting for air. Its been a long time since I’ve been that hot, and I dizzily put my bike down and lay on the grass, trying to recover my breath and relieved that I stayed in front for the whole race.
The only unfortunate part is that I didn’t realize the spot I chose to lay down in was right on a fire ant pile – it is funny looking back on it now, but covered in painful bites at the time it wasn’t too funny. Still, I was so thankful to finally break my streak of second place finishes. I had finished 5th at Race to the Ridge after a wrong turn, and 2nd at the Battle of the Bikes near Winston Salem. I had also finished 2nd at the three races prior to those, so it felt good to have my recent training finally pay off and make it to that top podium step. I usually have a hard time pacing myself in races and blow up at the start sometimes from going too hard too soon. Today I got practice with pacing myself during the first couple laps, and I learned that I was capable of pushing myself in the final stretch more than I initially thought.
The race at Hobby Park today was a completely different story. This was the next to last race in the series, and I was coming off of a tough block of training. Even so, I felt good coming into the race and was eager to see how the day would go. Unfortunately, it was another scorching hot day, but I thought that previous racing in the heat would help me acclimate to hot temperatures better. As I warmed up, I noticed that my heart rate was a lot higher than normal, and I was already sweating so much that there were even beads of sweat dripping down my shins. I made sure to drink extra water while warming up and at the start so I could attempt to replenish the sweat I had lost, but it didn’t help as much as I’d hoped.
At the start of the Hobby Park race there were ten women lined up, with 6 in my age group, and I was excited to race with a big field. The beginning of the race had us starting across a field, and then turning up a steep paved climb before the single track. My plan was going to be to go up the climb second, holding onto the wheel of another racer rather than trying to go for the wholeshot and attack off the front. I was worried about going out too hard at the start in this heat, but I realized quickly that I was going to have to work harder than I thought to stay in the front of the pack. I started off the steep climb in second, drafting Skylar’s wheel, but dropped to fifth in the crowd of racers charging up the hill. As we bottlenecked into the woods I slid into fourth, but we were all close together in a line. In front of me, Sarah dropped her chain and pulled off to the side, moving me into third. Suddenly, Skylar attacked Felicia in the lead, taking first position and leaving us behind. I also moved to pass Felicia on a climb, but had to work hard to bridge the gap that had formed. I managed to catch Skylar and we settled into position, but shortly after I took a corner too sharply and slid out. She pushed the pace, increasing the gap between us, and as I tried to increase my power up the hills I realized that my body wasn’t responding as well as I wanted it to.
With every hill I climbed, my heart rate increased higher and higher, failing to recover and go back down on the descents. The heat was already causing me to struggle, but I felt abnormally fatigued and had nothing left in my legs, even though it was only the first lap. I wondered if it was just the initial hard push off the start line, but even at the end of the lap after several miles I still didn’t feel like myself. During the second lap, I got passed by Felicia again, then Bonnie caught and passed me. My heart rate hit 202 and was consistently jumping into the 190s, even though I didn’t feel like I was putting down very much power. By the end of the second lap, I felt like I was hardly going at an endurance pace, and was feeling pretty sick. After 13 miles, I made the tough decision to pull myself out of the race and not go out for the third and final lap.
Even though I wasn’t feeling well, I was still disappointed in myself for not finishing the race. I had never voluntarily pulled out of a race before for reasons other than mechanicals, and I was initially very upset that I quit early, feeling like I had failed or given up. However, as I recovered in the shade and drank more water, allowing my heart rate to finally slow, I realized that sometimes races don’t go as planned, and that doesn’t mean that it is a failure as a whole. My coach reminded me that I had been coming off of a big training block, and focusing on peaking at nationals would mean having some races with less than ideal results. She helped me see this experience as more training and learning rather than looking at every race as a test of my “worth” as an athlete. Even though I could have continued out for that third lap and ignored my body’s signs of distress, I didn’t want to push myself into exhaustion or injury, especially with only three weeks to go until nationals, the event I have been working towards all year.
I have learned a lot this year about my limits. Luckily I have mainly proven to myself that my limits are farther than I initially expected, but I have also learned about listening to my body when pushing the limits aren’t worth it. Even though today didn’t go as well as I had hoped, I love the challenges that racing gives, and how races are constantly humbling and surprising. I will always be looking forward to testing my limits and seeing what my body is capable of, and I learn something new in every race. I was really happy for Zeb though, who placed third in a stacked Pro/Cat 1 men’s field. Also fellow JA King race Skylar won for the Cat 1 women today, and I am impressed by not only her strong starts and powerful attacks, but also by the fact that she is only 15! I spent the rest of today taking a cold shower, drinking plenty of fluids, and shifting my focus towards the next two races and training weeks that are left before we head to Snowshoe. Despite the unexpected things that happen during races, I feel extremely lucky to be able to race my bike, and any day spent out on the trail is a good day.