Sunday, December 5, 2010

race report: usgp portland day two

When I woke up this morning I did not want to race. I didn't even want to go outside. It was cold and still sort of dark and I was simply not in the mood. I couldn't explain it, either, at least not until after my race. I think what did it was my memory of last year's usgp and how intensely c-o-l-d it was (freezing fog and frozen mud on the course, and a morning on which I never got warm). Still, I dressed, layered off with rain pants and my thermal jacket, and rode all the way down to PIR, a nice warmup. I was almost surprised at how much warmer it felt this year. Once at the venue, I said hello to Mielle, who'd poached a spot at a friend's team tent. I felt it would be bad form to invite myself to piggyback on her coattails, so I rode around the parking lot with my backpack still on, reasoning that when I finally did shed it to race I would feel so much lighter. Still, it was cold enough to make me wince a little at the thought of taking on this course with all those faster, stronger, fitter women, and I wasn't fully convinced I wanted to be there. An odd, odd feeling to have right before a race.

Whatever it was, my desire to grit my teeth and really go for it actually did not begin to kick in until callups. I was pleased to see another woman in my category racing on a singlespeed; we high-fived each other and grinned maniacally, the secret smile of the truly insane. And suddenly, everything felt more okay, like the requisite pieces simply beginning to fall into place. We were all sitting and waiting for our start and smiling in spite of the cold. And although I didn't feel any faster now than when I began racing two seasons ago, it suddenly made sense for me to be here, in the midst of other women my age, clad in much-too-clingy lycra and doing the implausible. So when the whistle blew and we were off, I forgot that I didn't feel like racing and suddenly found myself spinning my cranks faster than I ever had in my life, like a hamster spinning madly on the wheel, all the way to the end of the paved section.

It was dumb, I know. I cooked myself in that single stretch, starting at full speed, sheer madness. When I hit the grassy "back forty", I could feel my momentum packing up and flying to Reno, and suddenly I didn't feel like racing all over again. The only problem was, I was already racing. So there was nothing more to say, and I sucked it up and kept going, an angry little Energizer Bunny wondering how on earth I had talked myself into this folly. Still angry as I stomped on my pedals, over the gravel and through the firm, cold mud, I could see actual lines where others had threaded their way before me, and just before the Junior men began to pass me I was up and over the first corner in the mud, a section straight from the short-track course. (In fact, several newly added turns in today's course were copped right out of the short-track playbook, and in those few sections I had the remarkable sensation of feeling at home on a race course.)

At this point, I realized that I was not uncomfortably cold anymore.

I kept going. My mental state swung back and forth between not wanting to be there, and being almost happy every time I cleaned a section of the course, and hating every single time I had to dismount and jog with the bike. Maybe this is what it's like to be Bipolar, I thought. Still, it was exhilarating to notice how my bike handling was better now than it had been when I first started racing, and to hear friends call out my name in encouragement (I'm pretty sure someone from Team Beer was out there, because he yelled my name and the familiar Team Beer battle cry: "Let's go, Beth! C'mon, GET SOME!"). Because it was an early morning race, there were fewer cowbells in evidence and I could actually hear people shouting, which was sort of cool.

The short, steep runup that was added for the second day simply sucked. But the downhill that had eaten me alive at the pre-ride was now rideable all the way down and I rejoiced. It was my reward for the runup.

As I neared the end of my first lap I had a sudden and slightly scary loss of breath, but I was terrified of pulling out my inhaler at a USGP where officials from USA Cycling and the UCI were present, so I then wondered momentarily about DNF'g. Thankfully, I was able to calm down, slow my pedaling for a few moments and thereby catch my breath when I looked up and saw two course marshals just past the finish line; they were grinning and jumping up and down and waving me on towards another lap. I shrugged, smiled at them and pushed harder for about a dozen pedal strokes, enough to power back onto the Back Forty and begin all over again.

The second lap was physically harder than the first, but felt mentally better. I was all in now, no matter what. If I was in the wrong place when the bell lap began and had to suffer through a third lap (or worse, part of a third lap before being pulled), so be it. I was there to beat The Woman In The Mirror, the woman I race every single time, and today I would beat her into submission if it killed me.

By the time I'd hit the moto course the second time, I was feeling physically ready for it to be over. As I hit the rhythm section, I forgot my own rule about going too aggressively, caught a little air on the second whoopdie, lost track of my rear wheel and crashed. And this is why I love my adrenaline: when I have it, nothing hurts much. I got right back up, hopped back on my bike, and gutted it out all the way up that damned runup and into the switchbacks that felt like home.

As I neared the end of what would be my final lap, I encountered a Junior woman who was running with her shouldered bike through a muddy section, talking under her breath, hyping herself up to stay in it and finish strong. I as I passed her on my bike I said, "good job!" to her and she smiled. Then a man who had to be her father came running up alongside the course, and from the other side of the tape he yelled, "Keep going sweetie, you're doing great! I believe in you!" The girl grinned and got back on her bike and started to pedal. I suddenly thought of my own parents, both gone for some years now, and almost lost it right there. As I pushed myself to the finish line, I started to tear up; what would they have made of me, a grown woman, living out her BMX fantasies on a freezing cold day like this? They certainly wouldn't have run after me like that; they were both in such poor health in their respective final decades that they couldn't have. Still, I felt sad that they couldn't have seen all this today; my wonderful season of racing, the absolutely lovely, unpretentious people I've befriended here, and how wonderful it felt to hang in there and finish doing something implausible, like racing my singlespeed bike on a course that wasn't really meant for it. I rode off the course and did a couple of laps in the parking lot so so my tears would dry (or perhaps freeze; it was still plenty cold). Then I felt better, and after I collected my things and changed clothes, I rewarded myself with a hot waffle with nutella folded into it.

I stuck around for a few more races -- Joel looked strong in his Singlespeed/B's race, even if his placing was not to his liking; and Dave from Seattle was equally impressive-looking in his Masters' race afterwards. I was pleased to learn that pal Mielle had finished on the podium in the Masters' women's race, a nice way to finish your regular season, especially when your next race is Cross Nationals in Bend (way to go, M!). Just for the heck of it, I checked my results on the sheets of paper taped to the wall of the registration tent: as expected I got last place, with credit given for two tough laps in a 35-minute race (I'm fairly sure I could've pulled off a third lap if the race had gone for 45 minutes like Cross Crusade races do, but I was also fine with not having to find out. By then I was starting to feel pretty baked). The thing I didn't expect was to see that two other women in my category also got credit for doing just two laps -- but they did those laps on geared bikes while I did them on a singlespeed. I glowed, grinned, and giggled all the way to the coffee line. That final realization has stayed with me and it's making me pretty happy right now. I have no idea what this means in the larger picture, but for now it means that I hung in there with two other Masters women (both of whom I saw regularly at Cross Crusade and whom I know to be strong riders), and I did it on my singlespeed mountain bike. Yay Stompy!

UPDATE: I finished in 15th in the Masters' Women race.

I went home before noon, feeling the cold and the exertion beginning too catch up with me and deciding that I'd gotten my money's worth on the day. As I made my way out of the PIR parking lot, I heard a cheerful "Hi, Beth!" and saw it was Sue Butler, warming up for her race. Sue had been one of the clinicians at my first cyclocross clinic (and is a terriffic teacher as well as racer, by the way), and we've very occasionally bumped into each other at races. She looked happy and relaxed and she asked me how my race had gone. I told her I felt good, happy with my outcome and feeling happy with my season. But I was ready to go home. I wished her luck on her race and by then I was approaching the light rail station. I was shocked to discover that I had no energy left to contemplate the five-mile ride home, so I rode up to the platform and caught the next MAX train, which cut my trip in half.

I finished my race. I beat The Woman In The Mirror. And I had an amazing time doing it. At home now, I am feeling the bruises that are forming where the adrenaline has receded into memory, and I marvel at how they make me feel happier somehow, residual and, eventually, colorful proof of my exertion and effort. (I wonder if anyone else loves their racing bruises this way.) My back is sore and my legs ache with fatigue, and I know that a second hot shower -- a luxury! -- awaits me before bedtime.

It has been a lovely, amazing, rewarding second season of bicycle racing. I welcome the downtime and the rest before beginning to prepare for next summer, and I'm not sorry to see it end. I'm just happy.

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