After the bar when I decided to commit to racing cross, I realized I would be racing my way into shape. Even as I said that I had no idea what that would look like. I feel like in years past I’ve rolled into cross without top end speed, but enough base fitness that I never really thought about the fitness progression throughout the season. While studying for the bar I maintained some level of fitness but riding my bike 4 hours a week is a vastly different approach to the season from 15-20 hours/week in previous summers. But like most things in life, there are cycles of yin and yang and knowing this summer would be a reduction, I approached cross with mostly a development perspective. Spend this season working on skills and technique and then keep developing to build for next season when I move back south.
I thought the last race would be in the Arctic Series, and I think my body was ready for it to be but realized there was one race left down in Soldotna that was being broadcast as the State Championship. With the snow about to set in I decided to race it, or at least plan that I was going to race it and if the weather looked terrible pull the plug.
I was able to catch a ride down which is good because I still can’t get to work without the GPS (yes, mom and dad making friends). Because of this when we got there we all pre-rode the course together. Which was nice because I was able to see how different lines worked and talk through options. One corner I took tight and had to get off and one of the guys had taken a different line and told me during the race to hit it wide like I’m about to ride into the berm and I’ll be fine. There was also a lot of sand on the course and was pretty convinced that since I had just written about how sand was a strength of mine, it would prove not to be.
When we lined up it went elite men, elite women and then another group of men behind us. One of the other girls from Anchorage and I kind of looked around and then slotted into spots right behind the guys. The course started on ski trails with a slight uphill, kind of like the last race. The gun went off and I took off up the hill, I got to the top and finally put my head up to see that some of the really fast men were right in front of me, “Oh shoot” realizing I had maybe started a little too hot, “this is not where I want to be” but no other option than to keep going.
The first obstacle were barriers which seemed slightly higher and farther apart than normal. I had even put embro-cream on my hip-flexers so my legs would be loose enough to step that high. I ran over them and hopped back on, only to realize that the sand on the course made it impossible to simply clip back in. I knocked my shoes on my pedals, while still trying to pedal/not crash and break my face. I followed three wheels into an “S” shape and up a hill, followed by another “S” shape in full on sand which I bobbled and had to scoot around, loosing precious seconds. Just in case my heart rate hadn’t spiked high enough at this point, my breaks squealed down a short hill before turning up into the long, sustained climb. Because of the pre-ride I took the right side line, which held long enough for me to stall out at the top before dropping down an equally sustained descent.
The course took us through a blueberry patch, which was rideable to some but much faster for me to run it. Because the course doubled back on itself I was able to get a glance of the woman in second place who wasn’t far behind. I ran to the top, re-mounted and struggled to get my cleats clipped in, again. The second half of the course had more sections of punchy power singletrack sections and stretches of recovery which I tried to take full advantage of. The final feature of the lap was a death spiral, which has you ride in a circle in and then follow the same line back out. It might be my least favorite feature on a course, ever, because if enough people are riding around me, I get very motion sickness. The first lap had a few people going in and out at the same time I was, I tried to focus on the guy in front of me as a stable point to prevent my eyes from darting to the other riders, it mostly worked. As I was turning to go back out the woman behind me was just entering, ah shoot, she’s close.
I circled around to the start and began it all again. Up the hill, over the barriers, try to get clipped in, through the S, un-clip for the sand, struggle to get back in, up the sustained hill, back out for the blueberry patch, glance at 2nd place, try to clip back in, up the punchy singletrack and back down around to the death spiral, glance at 2nd place again, through the finish line area.
At the start of the third lap I finally looked at my garmin, yikes, my heart rate was excessively high, even for a cross race. Holy, moly, me, oh my it was at least 3 if not 4 more laps of this. I was unsure with my hot start if I’d be able to hold on but figured there was only one way to find out.
I’m unsure if it’s because I looked at my garmin, the realization of the length of the race, or because I only had 4 honeystingers instead of 6 but this lap I entered a pretty dark place, like the place I enter when I’m 85 miles into a 100 mile race and gone. Except I’ve never had this feeling in a cross race, it was like my processing slowed down and I was delayed taking anything in and only just reacting. Boy, was I sloppy out there and it was stupid things too, like taking a line over a rock instead of just to the side of it, or deciding I could ride up the blueberry patch and making it about two pedal strokes before my bike hit something and I lurched forward into the stem, immediately having to get off and run up. I got to the top and realized that if I didn’t pull it together I was probably going to crash myself out.
I tried to focus on what I knew how to do, keep pedaling and stick to the basics. I went through the start/finish area again, “3 laps to go!” someone yelled. Oh shoot, this is going to hurt. I vastly underestimated this course and the time length.
I kept coaching myself, “smooth is fast” and reminding myself that I was on the downhill portion.
I tried to keep my focus on each feature and not make stupid mistakes, getting off the bike when I needed to and not trying to ride through the blueberry patch. My panic breathing had also set in, which I think was maybe at play with the cold but between my breathing being out of sync and my snot sitting at the back of my throat it was enough that I dry heaved, got a little bit of mucus out, opened up my airways and breathed into the pain cave.
With two to go through the finish area, I asked if it was the bell lap but they just looked at me. With the doubling back on the course I was still able to gauge how far behind me second place was; she was still close that if I made a mistake she could have easily capitalized on it. I somehow pulled myself out of my bonk. I kept reminding myself that it’s not easy for anyone, which I’ve found to be oddly comforting, probably because misery loves company.
Right before the finish area for the final lap, the men’s leader lapped me. As he went through, I got my bell lap and he was done. Oh wowzer, just one more lap to try and hold on. It was a bit rough but at that point at least my tunnel vision had gone away. I tried not to look behind me to see if second place was gaining ground and focus on what I could do, which was not take sloppy lines. I’m pretty sure anyone I passed at that point thought I was dying, as my breath wheezed in and out.
I crossed the finish line for the last time, with the momentum carrying me up the hill I pulled off to the side and got off my bike and laid down on the side of the trail. Now, in high school there was this kid from our rival high school that every time he ran the 1600m, he would collapse at the finish line, and most of the time we were like “oh he’s so dramatic.” I like to think of this getting off and lying down as a savasana, trying to let my body take it all in, or at least that’s what I tell myself so it doesn’t seem dramatic AF.
I was lying there when the race director came up to me, “Ah, good race! But you did one extra lap.” I sat up, “Por que? Um…what?”Apparently there was confusion when the lead man was finishing and with my bell lap because they weren’t sure how far he was going to get on the course so gave me the bell lap but then tried to yell at me to stop. It clearly didn’t work. It was mostly funny, especially because I had convinced myself on the last lap I was going to get caught, but it turns out there was no one behind me because they all finished on the correct lap. Okay, so maybe I never fully pulled out of my bonk.
I hung out in my chamois probably a bit too long post-awards sitting near the fire pit. They ended up with some extra gift certificates and were nice enough that they gave me one for doing an extra lap, unfortunately it was to the brewery we went to after the race but I didn’t realize that so instead bought $26 worth of sweet potato fries with my own money— so here’s hoping one day I get some common sense skills and not just a book brain.
In other non-cycling related Alaska updates, I have studded tires on my car now, except South Dakota seems to be getting far more snow than I am at this point. I’ve found that drivers like to start in one lane and change 2-3 lanes in one go, sometimes even just a full on left turn starting from the right lane and crossing three lanes of traffic. The community continues to amaze me with how friendly people are, Costco still terrifies me with the sheer amount of quantities things are available in– do I need 50 gushers in one box, seems like I do. And every time I look up at the mountains a part of me whispers, “how am I going to leave this place”
But then I get a picture of Tenzen and remember that little nugget hates traveling more than 8 hours.