Wednesday, May 10, 2017

USAC Marathon Nationals 2017 - Channeling My Inner Jedi

The first time I attended USAC Marathon Nationals was in Breckenridge, Colorado, probably back in 2004. Though I was still just a newbie, the challenge of racing 50 miles in the mountains at a national event was more for the adventure than to race. I learned the hard way what happens if you don’t have everything dialed and line up without a plan. I returned the next year with a coach and a plan and finished respectfully for a racer from sea level.

Fast forward to 2017. I have a plan. It’s been developing for at least 13 years. Thousands of training miles and hundreds of racing hours molded me into the racer that showed up to USA Cycling Marathon Nationals in the hill country of Arkansas last weekend. 

But as we all know, a lot has to go right to pull off a winning run. 

The Trip

The MTB Wagon had a couple regulars with Rafal and Sully and new to the #vanlife was Jim Maaske, a legend around here for both his local bike industry insight and for his career as a fireman in the neighboring city of Council Bluffs. If someone raced bikes, he knew who they were and probably had a story to go along with it. Hopefully, this would be a trip with new stories for him to tell.

We were all racing USA Cycling Marathon Nationals in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, specifically around DeGray Lake at a trail system called Iron Mountain. We’ve raced plenty in the Ouachita Forest and it’s always been a good time. I expected nothing less.

Beta on the trail was that it was pretty fast. Ryan and I had ridden some of the trails a couple years ago at an Enduro race believe it or not. We had totally different bikes and different approach. The 2.5” of rain two days prior and some lowland flooding set up the track to be hero dirt. There wasn’t much dust on the pre-ride but definitely some puddles. The rock was constant with some snipers here and there that, due to the flowy nature of the trail, was going to be a good thing or a bad thing. 

Our pre-ride on Saturday was just the opening starter loop on paved highway, gravel and some sampling of single track. Sully and I did maybe the first 1.5 miles of the main loop and found it to be flow-liceous. I was giddy. This was my kind of track with reward for descending skills and sight lines to keep the momentum high. Rafal did much of the first main loop and came back mud splattered but smiling. After the ride we explored Arkadelphia for a lunch spot (not much) but found a wonderful coffee house/cafe that would have fit perfectly in the Old Market. Bottomless tea and fresh noms served with all that southern hospitality made us happy and Jim love drunk. 

I am the Walrus.
The rest of the afternoon was classic southern slow style chilling out at the cabin. Final tweaks of bikes, giving them a good wash and polish. Gotta look good on the start line at least. Jim napped on the swing chair on the porch while others opted for the beds with legs propped up on pillows. All was calm. 

A few minutes before five, we headed down to the venue for a pre-race meeting. My teammate Kelly from KC was there. She was on a mission to tear off legs and I was pumped for her. The usual suspects from KC and STL were also there so it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park by any stretch. These were ladies that lived to ride rock and being from a place that doesn’t have it, I always feel like I’m starting from scratch. We picked up our timing chips and drop bag tags and headed back to the cabin. And to our greatest luck, a Star Wars marathon was on TV, a great distraction from what was to come. If anything could keep us from obsessing, it was channeling our inner Jedi.

Per usual, I slept like crap. Stressing bottle strategy and hoping I had set up my suspension right, my mind raced into the night instead of waiting until the next day. A few trips to the bathroom didn’t help either. We wanted to get to the venue pretty early to get a coveted shady spot so we were up before the sun making coffee, oats and eggs. Being just a few miles from the venue allowed us a quick commute and we snatched a spot next to the trees (and an actual bathroom). The lake was calm and the sun was warm. I was in the woods with friends. As Vader would want it, my life was complete and it was time to rule the Galaxy.

I warmed up alone, spinning first up the opening hill and getting a sense of distance until it flattened out. Then I went up a different road that went across a dam and offered a calming view of the lake. The road was warming up already. Hydration was going to be a factor as many of us “Yankees” have been in cooler temps this spring. Those hailing from warmer states were going to be in their element.

After a few sets of spin ups and a power climb to spike my heart rate, I returned to the start line area and spun around the large lot. The pros had already left and they were getting into the age groups. Once Ryan was off, I spun some more hit the bathroom a couple more times and settled into a shady spot until it was time for the 45-49 women to come to the line. 

The Race Report

There were only 6 of us and we’d leave the start as a our own group instead of a mass start, which is the norm in our sport. We left the parking lot and charged up the hill. I remained in control of my breathing in case anyone came around. Nobody came around and I lead the group into the first turn down the shoulder of a highway. Good buddy Julie Higgins from Free State Racing took the reigns at the front and I sat in for a bit to get my breath back. As we approached the next turn I popped out to make sure I was free and clear in case anything happened. It was a smooth turn into a slight descent but there was chaos in front of us. One of the age groups that had started ahead of us, possibly the 35-39, were tangled in a mass of people and bikes. We slowed to make sure everyone was okay and decided to continue down the road to report what we saw to the next marshall but news had already spread and help was on the way. One of the girls in the crash came upon us with a bloody elbow and said the crash was a case of just being too close together and getting tangled up. We turned into the starting loop trail. It was a mix of single track, service road and double track. In this section, a frienemy, Laura Scherf, blew by all of us with her pony tails flowing in the wind. Welp, I guess I may be racing for second, I thought.  

I continued on, hearing my coach’s voice to race my race, not somebody else’s. Race the course and stay within myself. I wanted to chase but I obeyed and oh yeah, it was mile 3.

Down through this amazing cavern, into the single track I went for the start of the first main lap. 25 miles of rippin, rad, bitchin’, whatever the mountain bike slang term for awesome, it applied. It was tacky and flowy with some rocks to keep ya honest. I couldn’t have been having more fun. Accept that I was racing too and racing women and not picking my way or being asked to move aside from men. Hey, I’m all about the dudes in lycra but to actually race with women is so awesome. I got up in a group that was ripping along at a nice pace and even though my body said go faster, I knew I’d pay. I was already pushing higher than I should have been for a race that long but when it seems more like play riding than racing, slowing down wasn’t happening. I was just having a ripping good time with these chicks and living in the moment.

The first aid station came and went and the groups were splintering. We were catching some of the age groups ahead of us (our age groups were written on our calves for easier detection) and everyone was such a peach. No issues getting by when requested. The plan was unfolding nicely aside from not seeing whom I thought was in first. I pushed on. The first food drop was at mile 25 ish. I stopped for a bottle swap. In and out. I jumped back into the race and quickly found myself behind a 50+ woman who was ripping it up. She kept asking if I wanted by but I knew if I went, I’d have to keep on the gas to stay ahead so I just kept my pace then SLAM! Back wheel locks up, what the… I look back and my bottle had ejected out of my seat cage and somehow lodged itself in my wheel, under the chain stay. CRAP! Ryan was going to kill me! He built these wheels himself. I hopped off the bike and yanked on the bottle. No movement. I turned the wheel a bit and that was the ticket. I popped it free and checked the spokes. They seemed fine. I spun the wheel and it was in perfect true. I squeezed my cage so it would hold tighter to the bottle and off I went. I lost the rider who had been with me and I didn’t see her again. 

I continued on. Hunting.

Towards the end of the lap I came up on Kelly, my team mate from KC, who was in the 40-45 group. She was peddling softly up the start loop climb. We rode together into the feed zone at the finish line and I stopped for fresh bottles and some snacks. We went back into the trees and I told her to stay loose and smile, it will relax your body and your mind will think you’re having fun (how could one not be!!). Kelly smiles easily and I heard her giggle so hopefully that helped! 

Back to racing. Not too long after the start of the lap I came up on Jim who was feeling pretty good. He let us by and I wished him well. One by one we came up on riders and soon we were starting to see more women in different age groups and men also. We were all pretty spread out.  At some point a woman in my age came up on us and asked to go around. She had on a kit from New Mexico. I kept her in sight but had to stop for a bottle swap and a 5hr energy at the drop around the 37 mile mark. Kelly’s husband let me pour a gallon of water on my head. That’s when two other women in my age went by as well. CRAP! How far back am I now? 4th or 5th?! As soon as I left the zone, Kelly pulled up and I could hear her husband cheering her on. Made me smile as I know she was hoping for a good race. But I couldn’t stick around. It was time to get on the gas.

Assuming I’d catch the two women who had just went by, to my surprise, I caught the woman from New Mexico. At this point we're just over 10 miles from the finish. She was very pleasant and had a great pace. She could climb but descending wasn’t as smooth so I was able to stay right on her wheel. She asked me to pass and I declined, knowing I’d have to keep on the gas more than I wanted to stay in front. Having someone on your tail forces one to go harder most of the time so I opted to chase, hoping she’d make a mistake. But instead, she pulled over saying she needed to drink. The track was definitely bumpy and the constant turning and swooping made drinking pretty tricky if one didn’t have a hydration pack on, which neither of us did. That was all I needed. At that particular point, the trail was more down than up so I punched it, channeling my inner Jedi like I was swooping through the forest moon of Endor.

I see the 5k to go sign. Time and distance is running out. 

Then, there they are. 

The two women in my age group were with two other riders not in our group at the top technical section. One of the women was walking it. She got out of the way when she saw that I was going to ride up it and I slid into their group. My heart was in my mouth. Ok, I’m in 3rd. On the podium so don’t fuck this up. Why is everyone going so slow? I think the adrenaline was kicking in and I wanted to escape. I needed to get away from this group. But at the same time I didn’t want to attack too soon. The woman in front of me never looked back to see that I was there. Maybe she thought I was the other one? I was a mouse, then a mountain lion. Crouched. Hiding but ready to attack. We all dumped out onto a road. It was the last open stretch before we would dive into the starter loop back to the finish line. I had a plan to pass the woman and man she was talking to right before entering the single track. At first I was going to go left and just as I did I realized I couldn’t cross the yellow line so I put on the breaks (by then I was next to the woman) and had to do a full on ride around totally killing my surprise. I stayed on the gas through the short single track and wide open service roads. This was almost the same spot Laura past me almost 5 hours earlier so I was expecting it again but nobody came around. I had one more shot to put some daylight between us down a super loose service road that was full of chunder and ruts. This wasn’t the time for breaks and finesse. This time to haul serious ass and then back up into the trees before the final descent down into the cavern. The plan was working. As soon as I hit the floor of the cavern I locked out all the suspension and clicked the shifter until I was out of gears and started the time trial of my life down a flat, loose gravel road. I do so much training on the road that this was very natural and luckily I had the power left in my legs. As I turned the corner to the finish, maybe with less than a 75 yards, I looked back again and holy shit she was right there. She had the build of a roady and probably the freak power to weight ratio that goes along with it. I stood up and with all the Force I could find, I crossed the line only 5 seconds ahead! I made my way through the chute and clipped out of my pedals. I layed the bike down and had to bend over as I was hyper ventilating. The other woman basically fell off her bike and laid in the grass. I went over and gave her a high five. 

Ryan met me. Rafal and Sully too, all smiles and high fives. I still was thinking I was in 2nd but everyone was sure I was in first. I kept telling them about Laura blowing by early in the race. I didn’t see her anywhere. Then Kelly came in not too long after. She did great!

The other 45+ women started trickling in. I was starving and needed to get out of the diaper. All I could think about was the lake. I gotta get to the lake and cool down. And it was as glorious as I imagined. We cleaned up and made our way back for podiums. As we arrived, the men’s groups were being called and soon Sully was standing with a shit eatin’ grin on the 5th spot of his age group. He had a great race despite having a flat late in the race. He’s slowly coming over to the Dirt Side.

Then it was the lady’s turn. We were being called up out of order so I had to pay attention and soon I heard my friend and announcer John Lefler call up 45-49 age group. I watched as each woman went up onto the podium. And when 2nd place came up and it wasn’t me, I was very confused. I was certain there was some kind of mix up, which happens. But then Ryan started jumping up and down and yelling you won! You won! And I couldn’t believe it. Then I heard my name and now I had the shit eating grin. I made my way to the podium to shake hands and take that top step! Then I put on the Stars and Stripes jersey. Seriously, I’m like great, I have on flowered bike shorts and my grubby old hat. What the hell was I thinking? I was still so confused by all of it. Did Laura crash or something? She was standing in the crowd. It was very surreal but I was very proud and happy that all the work paid off and that so much went right at the right times to land me on the top step of a national race.

So, what was the deal with Laura? She was in the 50+ category (and won, of course) and I didn’t realize it. Makes me wonder how I would have raced differently had I known I was in first for a lot of the race. But it’s not necessary because I raced the race I needed to win. 

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