Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Psycho Cross

Cause the racers gonna race, race, race
And the mechanics gonna hate, hate, hate
Baby I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake
Shake it off
Disc brakes are gonna brake, brake, brake
And the canti’s gonna cake, cake, cake
Baby I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake
Shake it off, Shake it off

Things got a little weird in PACX-land last week when the last-minute schedule addition on October 3 turned into a last-minute cancellation when it rained for most of the week and was predicted to rain on day on Saturday. Normally this would be a mud racer’s dream, and I was getting pretty excited at the forecast. Unfortunately, it seems that the venue was not as amenable to mud as the racers would have been.

It was a bit of a bummer because it would have been the closest race for us all year at a mere 1.5 hours away, but with multiple East Coast ‘cross series in operation, people will just choose the best/closest race on any given weekend, save a few hardcore folks chasing series points. With much-loved New Jersey series races right over the river this weekend, the chances of many Philly people making it into Central PA was pretty slim to begin with.

Hey, hey, hey
Just think while you been getting down about the lack Central PA ‘cross
And the lack of consistent competition from weekend to weekend
You could have been signing up for this sick race 

When the PACX race was cancelled, I leaned toward not racing and just getting in some miles for Iron Cross, as I was staring down the throat of a few ‘cross-less weeks, anyway. However, when Frank suggested we go to Psycho Cross in Maryland instead, I decided to take his motivation as my own. Let’s face it, the only way I would actually end up riding my bike in the rain on Saturday would be if I raced.

Despite my body feeling a little off from the cycle of overtraining then over resting over the previous couple of weeks, the race turned out pretty okay. There were 1/2/3, 3/4, and Cat 4 women’s categories all racing in the same time slot with starts a minute apart. Despite my self-proclaimed mud proficiency, I felt like I was passed by the entire 3/4 field in the first couple of minutes of the race when I got bogged down in places that I thought were rideable but were not.

The course was on the grounds of an old mental institution, which made the clichéd name almost forgivable. The first half of the lap contained two steep climbs that were probably not rideable for most even in good conditions, and definitely not in the mud. The rest was filled in almost exclusively with steep downhills and off-camber sections. For someone who has been accused of being much better on the bike than off the bike, I held my own and even made up ground on most of the run-ups. It was my first time using toe spikes and I adopted the strategy of scanning for footholds and taking the biggest steps I could as quickly as I could, rather than trying to “run”.

Big steps...

After the first run-up sat what became a much greater nemesis for me than any other girl in the race. It was a rooty, off-camber downhill covered in deep, sticky mud that spit you out onto a little rise that wouldn’t have looked like much in dry conditions. The problem was that you had to stay high on the off-camber or you ended up much further down the hill with lots of slick mud between you and the top. If you could successfully stay high, you would eventually hit dry grass and be able to easily pedal over the top. Unfortunately the high line was super sticky and rutted by my race, and I never made it to the dry grass without sliding downhill and having to run over the top. Elements like this made it feel a lot more like a skills clinic than a race, as I was more concerned about choosing good lines and staying on my bike more than the other girls than I was actually racing them.

This off-camber on the other hand, I was killing.

After some line choices the first lap, my strategy seemed to work, as I was passing more people than I was being passed by in the first half of each lap. The second half was more flat, twisty stuff in between the buildings of the old institution. There were a couple of tricky turns, but overall, it favored those with power more than skill, so I wasn’t making up a lot of ground in that area. There was on girl who I could see the entire race, and I would make up ground in the first half of the lap only to lose it in the second.

At the end of the third lap, I seemed closer to her than I’d been at the end of the previous two laps, but as I entered the finishing straight, I got pulled. This was annoying, as I could see a group of three girls not that far ahead that hadn’t been pulled. It was hard to tell if they were in my category or not at that point, but I was disappointed at not having a chance to try and chase them down or at least get one more shot at that tricky off-camber.

Despite the anticlimactic finish, the results revealed it to be my best race in quite some time. I accomplished my “top 50%” goal by placing 6th out of 13 in the 3/4 and holding off all but two girls from the Cat 4 wave. It was just confusing because I felt like there were way more people in front of me than that, but perhaps I was wrong. I’ve scanned the pictures and the results over and over, and yes, I do seem to have really been in 6th.

I guess it’s time to accept my placing and my first sub-600 Cross Results score since leaving OVCX and figure how I’m going to maintain it.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Two Hellgas Go Into Ohio...

…only one leaves.

I think that the past week was like many other off weeks during cyclocross season. I see a gap in the schedule and imagine all of the things that I will accomplish in my free weekend, but then I don’t ‘cause tired and ‘cause fall.

It doesn’t help (or maybe does) that I more thoroughly cooked myself early in the week than I have in quite some time. After a double race weekend, I hit the weight room on Monday, did maximal effort 30-second intervals on Tuesday, and had big plans for Wednesday after I took off work to catch up on some sleep debt acquired during the past two weekends away from home. Sounds like a formula for being cooked, right?

The problem is that cyclocross tired is different from endurance tired. It’s buried deeper and the short efforts give the illusion of having not done that much. Plus, my races so far are proving how crucial high intensity work is before the beginning of ‘cross season, and I was trying to make up for my lack of it. At the same time, I was wanting to get in some quality gravel time before Iron Cross, so I took advantage of my free afternoon Wednesday to try and do that.

It didn’t go so well. I rode my mountain bike with the intention of climbing Alan Seeger and then scouting some pieces of W101 single that I hadn’t ridden before. I’m not sure if it was my hydration pack or the strain of the previous night’s intervals, but my chest and shoulder muscles felt really tight and constricted, and I couldn’t breathe well on the Alan Seeger climb. I should have just turned around and called it at that point, but I kept going, although I was smart enough to skip one steep descent that would have required even more climbing to back to car. By the time I finished the one section of singletrack that I did do, I had just a little over an hour before I had to be back at the car to leave for an appointment, three decent-sized climbs between me and the car, and legs than felt like Jello. Fast forward an hour and fifteen minutes and a lot of pain and I made it back 10 minutes late and shaking from being hungry and tired. At that point I knew that I needed to back the eff off for a little while if I wanted to make it through ‘cross season.

I mentioned before that I’d purchased a size small Specialized Hellga without doing enough research on the sizing, and how I’d struggled really badly with the fit. Not long after, I realized that I really just needed to cut my losses and get a medium ASAP. I was super bummed/stressed out about it for a while, because I needed to sell the small and was afraid of being stuck with it. Luckily, my friend Emily who used to live in Bloomington agreed to buy the small, and I went ahead and ordered a medium. She now lives outside of Cleveland, and I was supposed to meet her at the Mohican trails in Ohio to do the bike transfer. Due to my cooked state, I just met her at her house instead.

I always look super silly when I know someone is taking a picture of me on a fat bike.

It was way better that way because we got to spend the afternoon hanging out and talking and did a nice, easy ride on the trails near her house. They were the perfect trails for a chill fat bike ride: not too much climbing, pretty smooth, and lots of nice, swoopy turns. Ten or so miles of that was way better than a beat down at Mohican.

I spent Sunday being super lazy except for giving the kitchen and bathroom a long-overdue cleaning, and waiting for Frank to return from the road world championships in Richmond. Because of my lack of interest in road cycling and my previously-stated, if not actualized, desire to accomplish things on my weekend off, he went down for a dude weekend with his Internet bike friends. It’s sort of funny having another world championship pass since what turned out to be the best disappointing day of my life in Louisville 2013, when the forces that eventually pulled us together were set into motion and neither of us had any idea yet. Whenever I see a picture of the crowd in Louisville, I scour it to see if someone happened to catch him and me in the same frame. So far I haven’t found one, but that’s okay. We’ve managed to be in a few pictures together since.

Hopefully, I didn’t mess up the trajectory of any important future life events by not going to Richmond. Since I’ll never know whether I did or not, I’m pretty happy with the way things turned out. I got some rest, got to catch up with an old friend, and got Small Hellga off my hands. I would call that pretty successful.

Monday, September 21, 2015

If It Don't Come Easy: Town Hall and Quaker City Cross

“The thing is that, while cyclocross is notoriously hard, from the starting line at Apple Cross to the finish line at Kings, going hard had come surprisingly easy.” – Me, 2011

Going into this weekend’s double PACX races, I was reminded of my old post from 2011. Although it’s a little funny thinking of me trying to say anything intelligent on the subject of love back then, as I don’t think I knew the difference between “grit” and “people who beat you when you’re crying don’t count” when it came to relationships at the time, it does seem that in retrospect I was more right than I knew. Since writing that post, I’ve come to dislike the concept of “grit” that is so glorified in the sport of cycling, and realized that the more useful attitude in love, cyclocross, and everything else is to find the right motivation toward the right thing such that doing hard work seems easy. Actively making yourself do what you don’t want to do or feel like you can do is never a good plan.

I thought about this while awaiting the start of the Town Hall Cross race on Saturday morning. I was slated for the front-row start that I had so conscientiously earned at Cross of the Corn. I knew from last year’s race that it would be a long, moderate uphill drag to the big switchback climb, and that as much as it would suck to go full gas up that drag, trying to ride the switchbacks in traffic would be worse. So I lined up with the intellectual intention of turning myself inside out to make it to the switchbacks at the front of the pack, even though I was ultimately predicted to finish 20-something out of 30-something. I was in a bit of a crisis between what I felt like I should do, and what I felt like I was actually capable of doing. That is when I remembered, “If it don’t come easy, you better let it go,” and realized that while I should put my best effort into the race, I shouldn’t overstress myself with a strategy that I didn't feel like I could pull off.

Ultimately, the crisis subconsciously resolved itself. As I clipped in and stood up to start cranking off the line, I leaned to my left and the girl to my left leaned her right. We were both only up to about 2 mph when this occurred, so it was more of an annoying “bump and put a foot down” situation rather than a crash. It did serve to allow pretty much the entire field around me while I got my speed back up.

So I found myself climbing the switchbacks in even slower traffic than I did last year, but I solidly picked off girls throughout the first lap. I spent the entire second lap reeling in another and finally passed her near the halfway point of the race. I continued to motor for two laps while I slowly gained ground on the next girl who had a much bigger gap than all of the others, but I never quite managed to get up to her, although I was pretty close at the end.

Even though switchback climbs in cross races are not a thing that I ever would have imagined liking before moving to Pennsylvania, I have kind of enjoyed them in the races in which they’ve made an appearance. Plus, switchback climbs usually mean a big, slightly sketchy bomb back down hill, which usually works in my favor. The Town Hall course also has good amount of off-camber and more technical turning features, so it felt nice to finally start working out my skills on the new TCX and getting my confidence back in that area.

I ended up 19/27, with which I was reasonable satisfied based on the field and my results so far this season. Once again, after looking at last year’s results, I was 19th at last year’s Town Hall, as well, but in that case it was next to last. It's getting a little weird with the whole same places at the same races, despite riding better this year.

I arrived at Quaker City Cross on Sunday morning tired from Saturday's race and a night in a hotel, but with high hopes of a good course and a second race day bump. I’d seen a few pictures of the course on Instagram and thought that some singletrack and #belgiancx sounded like good things for me. It turns out that #belgiancx is code for “bumpy ass field” and the singletrack was less than 10 seconds of riding on a prologue section that we only went over once. Bomp a domp. Frank and I both agreed after our practice lap that it had our new vote for “worst cross course ever” with the slogan “all the boringness of Kutztown with even more bumpiness than Cross of the Corn”.

I started the race with the intention of merely getting through it. Although I tried to go fast at the start, I didn’t have a lot of success or motivation. It was so bumpy that I struggled just to hold my bike steady enough to translate any power that I put down into forward momentum. As we entered the long, bumpy up, down, up of the prologue section, all I could think about was my rattling helmet and how hard it was just to make my bike go at all, much less go fast.

I first started getting my momentum back as we entered the “real” course for the first time by going up a short, steep climb that many girls had to run, but I was able to spin up in relative comfort with my 32. Except for the steep entry and exit of the finish straight, the course was wide and flat on about a 4% grade that we basically just snaked up and down, save a death spiral/pinwheel/whirlybird/funnelcake in the middle. It was all bumpy, but not nearly as bad as the prologue, and halfway through the first lap I was able to sit up for a couple of seconds on a downhill to tighten up my helmet.

This helped my focus enormously. I was able to grit my teeth and hold my ground on the uphill parts of the course and let it go through the downhills and off-camber corners as I slowly began to pick girls off. The second time up the little hill I dispatched four at once as they came to a complete stop trying to remount before the top. It was a little sketchy, but I made it through the slalom still mounted and rode away. I fought hard to the end, only having one girl repeatedly come back that I couldn’t drop and managing to pick off one last 45+ woman in the final uphill of the race.

I ended up 10th out of 16, which was just a bit shy of my goal of getting back into the top 50% of the results for the first time since getting my Cat 3 upgrade. I think I was still closer than any other race this season, because I was within 20 seconds of 9th and probably within a minute of 8th. I would say it was pretty good considering how little I was expecting from my performance on that course.

Although I’m disappointed that I’m not doing better this season than I’d hoped, I’m happy that I do seem to be incrementally improving rather than doing worse. This is kind of huge for me, as too often I let a couple of bad races throw me into a downhill slide. The best part about this weekend was that going hard came easy again. At Town Hall I recorded my highest heart rate in at least two years, and had over 13 minutes of anaerobic time vs. about 6 in a normal race where I’m trying pretty hard. Even when I had excuses to give up, I turned myself inside out to beat the girls that I’m currently capable of beating. Sure, I want that population to grow as the season goes on, but at least it’s starting feel like it’s actually doable.

As counterintuitive as it is to the religious tenets of cyclocross, I think that “if it don’t come easy” might actually be good advice. Forcing myself to fight battles that I subconsciously know I can’t win only leads to disaster, but just allowing myself to win the battles that I am capable of winning slowly stretches out those capabilities. So I’m going to keep inching away at this ‘cross season and hopefully we will see some nice surprises in December.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Nittany Lion Cross: The Race

Since I provided context in yesterday’s post as to my mental and physical state before Nittany Lion Cross on Sunday morning, writing a race report will be much easier.

As one might imagine, I wasn’t feeling too great before the race, but beyond relaying the night’s events to my friend Tanya, I mostly had my mind on the matter at hand. Since I had a fourth-row call-up and the race counted for nothing except the off chance of improving my Cross Results score, the pressure was low enough that the thought of racing didn’t really add any stress for me. I almost welcome the opportunity to take some of my frustration out on the pedals. I had come all that way and spent the night in a hotel, so I might as well get some practice racing out of it.

The night’s rain had created a ginormous mud pit a couple of turns after the start with several-inch thick mud varying from sloppy to peanut butter consistency for a 50 or so meter stretch. The rest of the course was a mix of tacky, squishy, and squirmy.

Tacky: just barely soft so that traction is actually increased

Squishy: soft enough that more pedaling effort is required, but not necessarily detrimental to traction

Squirmy: the point at which mindfulness is required to stay upright in the corners

Sloppy: tires start to sink in and strong effort is required to maintain balance and forward momentum

Traditionally, the more squirmy and sloppy that I can get my tires on in a race, the better I will do. Unfortunately, with the exception of same although much smaller mud bog at last year’s Nittany Lion Cross where the rest of the course was merely tacky, I have not been on any real mud since Gun Club 2013. So disappointingly, I wasn’t as strong in the conditions as I would have hoped. The first lap through the mud bog I was stuck in traffic and had to dismount about halfway through, the second lap I crashed, although I’m not sure how, and the third I made a terrible line choice was stupidly slow despite riding the whole thing. I finally got it together on the last lap, found the good line, and passed a couple of people through that section. As for the squishy and squirmy on the rest of the course, I did fine, but I wasn’t making up loads ground the way that I would expect.

Much like Cross of the Corn, my normal strengths weren’t that strong, but I was stronger at my normal weaknesses. I did have a third-lap slump after relentlessly battling back and forth through a group of girls for two laps, but I recovered, and fourth lap was tied with my second for fastest. The strange thing was that I was actually making up ground in some of the flat, straight sections, especially the long slight downhill coming back from the woods where I would force myself to throw it in the big ring as I exited the last turn and motor all the way to the barriers.

I ended up 40th out of 49, which was disappointing because I was battling with girls the whole time and was never strung back into no man’s land. I basically fell back a group in my third lap slump and was in the last group that was still a group at the end. I guess I’d hoped there were more stragglers behind me.

So despite feeling like I was in much better shape than last year before the season started, my placings have been almost exactly the same so far: one place below the halfway mark at Cross of the Corn and 40th out of 49 at Nittany, which is exactly what I got on Sunday last year. It’s weird because I feel like I’m in better shape and rode better at both races, so maybe the competition is just stronger? I’ve got back-to-back PACX races on hillier and more technical courses than I’ve seen so far this season, so hopefully those will break me out of the rut.

Monday, September 14, 2015

No More Dumpster Weddings

Ever since Frank and I got engaged, I knew that I’d be using that blog title at some point. It comes from a somewhat trivial and yet life altering conversation from a couple of years ago.

My friend Sarah had recently gotten engaged and she was talking about her early-stage wedding plans. She said something to the effect of, “I’m not going to be a Bridezilla and get upset if everyone isn’t wearing the perfect shade of pink.” With no thought to any potential future wedding of my own and mostly with my particular taste in pink bike accessories in mind, I quickly shot back, “I would.” “Yeah,” she laughed, “no more dumpster weddings for you.”

Seeing as later in the conversation we touched on the topic that I hadn’t actually called Frank my boyfriend to his face yet, talk of non-dumpster weddings seemed a little premature. I was still at the stage where I got very anxious and uncomfortable if any outside party even insinuated that Frank and I might ever get married. It was not because I didn’t want it to happen; it was because I’d been down that road before and I only wanted it to happen if and when it was 100% from both our own free will and when the time was right.

For a long time, I was actually kind of proud of how little money and effort was put into my first wedding. It cost $1800 for the ceremony, a one-hour reception with cake and punch, and two nights’ stay at a suite at the venue. My mom found the place on the Internet, and the only decision that I had to make was red or white flowers. Although I can be pretty girly in some respects, I was never one of those little girls who had her wedding completely planned at age 9, so it was just easier to go with the flow, especially since I wasn’t paying for it.

After some reflection on Sarah’s joking comment, I realized what I had viewed for so many years as being low-maintenance was actually just not caring very much. She hadn’t actually been at the wedding, as we didn’t know each other yet. In fact, I didn’t have a single friend in attendance that was my own. I was young, insecure, and lonely, and I thought having met a guy that found me tolerable for more than six months would change that. I was going with the flow and getting married at the borderline old maid age of 24 because that was what I thought I was supposed to be doing at that point in my life. I realized then that if the point came where marrying Frank was what we wanted to do and was the right thing to do for us, not what we were “supposed” to do, that I was going to do it right and you know…care.

So for the last six months that is what I’ve been trying to do. I want to do the wedding thing right so I that I don’t regret being cheap or lazy about it later. The problem is that it does not come naturally to me at all, and I’m paralyzed by fears that what I do won’t be good enough. I suck at decorating, I’m not creative when it comes to cutesy ideas, and as I stated last week, I’m much better at spending money on bikes than dresses. Most wedding website ideas seem overly expensive, overly difficult, or just cheesy and not us, so I’m really struggling to be cute, authentic, and on budget with this thing.

The fact that we have gone this long without engagement photos or save-the-date cards is a testament to that. In perfect world I’d just buy a new outfit, get my hair and makeup done, and hire an experienced photographer to tell us what to do and what will look good while still capturing the essence of us. Ha…if only we lived in perfect world. Instead, I’ve been putting it off for months until we have a little more money, I lose a little more weight, I have the right clothes, the right idea, etc. I’m basically scared because I feel like we have one shot and I don’t want to screw it up. You can only imagine how I scared I am of the actual wedding. Not scared of getting married, as I feel like trials and victories of living together for the last year and a half have proven our readiness for that part. I’m scared that I will fail at properly showing my dedication to this union in the form of a big party.

Regarding the engagement pictures, I thought I finally had that one nailed. After we procrastinated through rhododendron season in the forest (rocks and rhododendrons are the essence of Rothrock, in my opinion, and will play heavily into the wedding décor), I got the idea to get pictures taken at a ‘cross race. Since we were just racing Nittany Lion Cross to get a race in our legs and wouldn’t be doing any other MAC races, there was no reason to race both days, so I got the idea to get the pictures done after the Saturday racing was over, spend the night, and then race on Sunday. I found a photographer who was going to be taking pictures of the race and made arrangements. I got the surprisingly cutesy idea for me idea to get a picture of us with our bikes on the UCI-spec starting grid so that we could send out save-the-dates that said, “Starting married life April 30, 2016”. Cat puke noises, right?

As the day approached, I was feeling pretty happy with myself for being so close to actually accomplishing something. I picked out a reasonably priced outfit with solid colors that matched my bike, and I was starting to feel okay about that the fact that I may never get back to the weight I was when I met Frank and that I’ve stabilized into healthy, sustainable lifestyle that involves another human being.  Pre-Frank weight came at a price that might no longer be worth it. I timed my haircuts wrong and sort of needed a trim, but my hair turned out well on Saturday, and after much a much longer than usual time spent on my make-up, I felt good like I looked pretty good save the on pimple that I hoped would be retouched. Basically, despite my fears of not being good enough, I was on the verge of actually doing something!

Ready to go in solid colors that compliment my baby shower bike!

We knew that there was a chance of rain at photo time, but we had flexible plans and packed our mud boots. Since we were taking ‘cross-themed pictures, a little rain might look cool, anyway. Then it came a complete, utter, raining sideways downpour at the time we were supposed to take the pictures. The photographer wanted to just take the pictures the next day, even though I needed to be there pre-riding for my race at 8:00. He seemed to think that rinsing off the locker room at the velodrome after my race was somehow acceptable preparation for engagement photos. (This presumption would be the cause for much insomniac rage as the night wore on.) As we were trying to quickly renegotiate in the downpour, we somehow agreed to try again at 7:00 a.m., even though I wanted to just go ahead and take the pictures and hope for “epic”, if not pretty. As we drove away and I realized what I had agreed to, the early morning, the fact that my one outfit was soaking wet, the fact that I would look like crap after a night of trying to sleep in a hotel, and that I had failed to bring some cosmetic essentials based because I don’t usually try to look hot for races. No amount of make-up can make ‘cross tongue look pretty.

As 2:00 a.m. approached after two beers and no sleep, I realized that there was no way that this was going to play out in a way with which I wasn’t going to be super disappointed. I texted the photographer to cancel, cried a bit, and then fell asleep surprising quickly with at least two extra hours before I had to get up.

I tell this story because I needed to get it off my chest and because I don’t feel like a Nittany Lion Cross race report would be complete without it. I’m still raw from having been so close to completing a wedding task in a way that I was proud of that I’m not sure what we’ll be doing instead. I guess it’s almost leaf season in Rothrock, which is almost as cool as rhododendrons. I mostly need to figure out how to “do a wedding” that feels like I tried without stressing myself out and making my fiance’ start doubting that he even wants to attend.

Frank and I talked about it during Saturday’s insomnia, and we have the things that matter taken care of. We will have a cool venue, good food, and probably some pretty good beer. The table clothes might be the wrong color, our “rocks and rhododendrons” might look cheap and silly, and there definitely won’t be perfect hand painted signs on the guest book table (or whatever, words like those hurt my head). The best part is that we will get the chance to show off State College and Rothrock to all the friends and family that we’ve wanted to visit, but never had a good enough excuse before. As long as they’re not coming for the decorations, I hope that the excuse will be good enough. I also hope that the photographer gets some good pictures of us, since I only have about seven months of trying to be non-dumpster left in me, and then you may never see anything except #scenicvistaselfies and ill-shot iPhone race photos with ‘cross tongue of us ever again.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Raising Hellga

Although last weekend was the first 'cross race of the season, it still doesn't feel like it's officially 'cross season yet. Most of the people in the region that skipped Cross of the Corn are kicking their season off today at Granogue, and next weekend will the be the definite, for sure, entry into the Pennsylvania cyclocross season at Nittany Lion Cross. For me, the last week has been an even greater fast forward of the seasons than racing 'cross in August; I've skipped right past the 'cross season into winter.

After my first terrible winter in Pennsylvania, from which I'm only now starting to finally starting to feel recovered, I knew that I would need a fat bike if I wanted to keep my sanity through another winter here. When my go-to brand of Giant/Liv somewhat unsurprisingly did not introduce a fat bike for 2016, I expected to buy a Specialized, since that was what was offered by the shop where Frank works. I was a bit surprised and happy when the rumor of their upcoming women's fat bike model was "leaked". For a short-legged girl like me, the option of a slopier top tube and prettier colors are always a good thing. Plus, I was determined to make #raisehellga a hashtag on par with #makeitreign for lovers of Giant's all-mountain offering.

Hellga arrives.

So while Frank was working at the shop a couple of weeks ago, he noticed that the teal Hellga Comp model was available to order and the smalls seemed to be going pretty quickly. Despite my earlier determination that I had to pay for my wedding dress before buying a fat bike, I decided to go ahead and order it so that I didn't miss out on the good color. The problem with wedding dresses versus bikes is knowing exactly what I want regarding the latter and not so much the former, and the fact that the bike will see a lot more long-term use.

At least I thought I knew what I wanted regarding the latter. I'm pretty much used to the smallest size of the bike that I want being borderline too big for me and being forced to make it work. In the event that there is an extra small size available in the model I want, it's always a debate as to whether I should order a small or extra small, so with the Hellga only going to size small, I didn't think too much about which size to order. The problem is that I have never ridden a Specialized before, and I didn't realize that their women's models are legitimately sized down from their men's, rather than just having the proportions tweaked. So essentially the small Hellga that I ordered was an extra small by most other bike size standards.

I have ridden a couple of extra small women's bikes in the past, and they were both a bit short in the reach. One of these was my long-serving 2011 TCX W that I raced for five seasons, so obviously it worked out okay for me. The proportions of the bike were weird, so I needed an extra small for the standover height and the short top tube worked out because it made the bike very "whipable" for 'cross corning. I struggled with the fit on my extra small 2007 Anthem W a bit more, and it required a setback seat post and a lot of tweaking to get me really comfortable. I did manage to ride it for 2.5 seasons and finish two Ouachita Challenges on it, though.

So far Hellga has given me more grief of any bike I've owned so far. We had to steal the seat post/saddle off my Lust to make it even tolerable, and also added a 15mm longer stem. After riding it on Tuesday and Wednesday nights while struggling to get comfortable, I took it back to the shop to get an actual fit on Thursday. He got me into a pretty good position by raising the saddle up quite a bit, and Frank has ordered a new seat post with more setback that will hopefully help further. However, I'm still feeling like an idiot for not checking the sizes more before ordering, and I keep wondering if I would be struggling so much if I'd ordered a medium.

Fat Bike BMX is invented.

Fit drama aside, I'd already decided when I ordered it that I would use this last, long, free weekend before 'cross as a chance to test my fat biking limits. After all, I can't really return the thing at this point, so I might as well ride it for a while and try to make it work. I've been doubting my ability to actually ride the long gravel climbs of Rothrock on a heavy bike when they're covered in snow, so I decided the best way to alleviate this fear was to prove that I could at least ride them without snow.

So yesterday Frank and I headed out on a 35-mile, 4400 feet of climbing ride over gravel and 4x4 road, him on his singlespeed and me on Hellga. Yes, it was uncomfortable as hell, as one would expect riding a fat bike that long would be when you're not used to it, as with just suddenly switching to flat bars for long-distance riding in general. The riding position after my fit felt good for when I was feeling good, but I still felt very cramped in the "sit back and mash" position that I adopt when my quads start to go on long climbs. I think a bit more tweaking will be required.

In which I #raisehellga for the final time of an extremely difficult ride.

The good news is that I managed to summit a good sampling of Rothrock's toughest climbing without even getting into my small ring, so I have plenty of gearing left for winter. I actually PR'd a 4x4 road climb that is pretty bumpy and was wet and soft when I rode it on my 'cross bike before. I guess smoothness counts more than weight savings sometimes. Even though my body feels like I've been beaten all over today, I'm feeling good about my ability to actually be able get real rides in during the nasty conditions of winter.

Now that we have winter squared away, it'll be time to re-focus on 'cross after the soreness lets up. I got some good news this week in the form of a PACX schedule change which fills in a previous gap weekend and takes away a race that I was going to have to miss anyway. The way that it's working out, it looks like I might be sneaking Iron Cross into my regular 'cross season so that I get a little reward for all of my gravel riding of late. I'm pretty excited for both fall and winter now.

Monday, August 31, 2015

PACX #1: Cross of the Corn

Cause we're young and we're reckless
We'll take this way too far 
It'll leave you breathless
Or with a nasty scar
Got a long list of Cross Results
They'll tell you I'm insane
But I got a blank space, 2015
And I'll write your name

Last week “Fight Song” described how I was feeling about the beginning of ‘cross season, but by the weekend I had returned to my baseline state of, “Cross seems like the best idea in the world on Friday night, and the worst on Sunday morning.” Luckily, I have Taylor Swift’s opus on the nature of cyclocross to remind me to help me find peace in the unpredictability and impermanence of my chosen sport.

"I'm so excited! I'm so excited! I'm so...scared."

Despite my tumbling level of self-confidence the morning before the race, I still did my best to “make an explosion” as I described in my last post. It was a valiant effort, but not meant to be. Instead of sending the 45+ off on the first whistle with the 1/2/3’s, they made a last second decision to put them on the front row of the 3/4 start. This made my plans of being the first one into the turn at the top of the hill a lot more difficult, and missing my pedal at the whistle didn’t help either. I still got off the line really fast and made it to the turn in the top five out of the combined field.

The best explosion I could muster.

I forgot how much flat, bumpy, open stuff there was before the first corn section, and I lost a few places there. After we exited the corn into a long, straight, slightly downhill drag, the field blew up as expected, which is why I’d hoped to be further up at that point. I tried to catch back up at any place where it was punchy or turny, but the front of the field continued to pull away from me.

The course was a little more favorable to me than last year, but not a lot. There were still a lot of flat, bumpy sections that favored more powerful riders, and the parts that should have been good for me didn’t seem to help that much. They added a “Snake Alley” section on top of the ridge in the middle of the course that was a series of five or six tight turns back-to-back. I should have been able to make up a time in this section, but I definitely wasn’t gaining anything and was possible even losing a bit of time. I’m not sure if I’m just not used to the new bike yet, or I’m out of practice, but the most frustrating part of yesterday was not being able to leverage my strengths on a course that already doesn’t play to them.

Consistent if not fast. My HRM was not working the first couple of laps. I wasn't that calm and collected.

I suppose the upside is that, although my normal strengths failed me, a couple of my normal weaknesses were not so prevalent this year. Maybe it was last year’s spectacular blow-up or an unexpected payoff from my long gravel rides, but even though I couldn’t produce the speed that I wanted early in the race, I was able to hold the speed that I had quite well. I was mentally prepared for five laps, so I still had a bit of what felt like a third lap slump as the girl who I’d been yo-yoing with for the first two laps started to fade in the distance. Then several girls started to come into view at the end of the third lap, and I was shocked when Frank told me that I had one to go. The lap was longer than last year, and I guess they made the decision to cut the elite women short rather than have the slowest riders on the lead lap finish in 48 or so minutes. I was partially happy to have my suffering nearing the end, but I was still holding my pace better than others, and for perhaps the only time in my cyclocross race history, I could have actually benefitted from another lap.

I ended up finishing 7th out of 12, which was a couple of places further back than I’d hoped. I knew ahead of time that the front of the field would be strong, so I wasn’t really expecting a podium unless something miraculous happened, but I was sort of hoping I could make the top 5. I’m trying to tell myself not to read too much into the first race in hot conditions on a course that doesn’t suit me well. I feel like I have fitness, but I just haven’t figured out how to use it yet. Hopefully some more races will help me get used to my bike and get my handling mojo back, and some high intensity mid-week intervals will bring back my pop. If all goes as planned, this will be my longest season ever, and the things that I’m missing are the things that can actually be improved during the season. The thing that I have now is better endurance than ever before, so maybe that will pay off during the meat of the season when I can’t train much.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

See You on the Other Side

I might only have one match
But I can make an explosion

I first heard Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” at the gym on Thursday. Forgive me if it has been blasting all over pop radio for months, and I’m totally behind. Since I really only hear pop music that isn’t Taylor Swift or Haim on rare occasions at the gym when they’re playing it instead of the Screamy Emo White Guy Rap Rock Station (I assume that’s the official name) and at PACX races, I really wouldn’t know. I guess I’ll find out soon, though.

With the first PACX a mere five days away, I can’t think of a more fitting snippet of song lyrics to describe how I’m feeling. I’m already starting to get nervous, since like any ‘cross season, it’s just too hard to tell how it’s going to go until it starts. I’ve been very consistent in the gym this summer, so I’m strong, and my volume of quality riding (as opposed to just volume) in July and August has been the highest that I remember. Still, my performance at Guts Gravel Glory a couple of weeks ago didn’t really boost my confidence, but that was a much different beast than real ‘cross. So my plan for Sunday is just to go out hard and see what happens. Then we’ll know my actual number of matches and whether the resulting explosion is the good or bad kind.

I titled this post “See You on the Other Side” not only because it marks the transition to ‘cross season, but also because, in a proper farewell to summer gravel riding, on Sunday Frank and I explored the portion of the W101 course that lies on the other of 322. I had briefly crossed over to climb Stillhouse during my “Wilderness 48” ‘cross bike ride-a-long a few weeks ago, but this time we drove to the race start in Coburn and experienced 53 miles of almost completely unfamiliar territory.

Since the bulk of the W101’s singletrack is concentrated around the Cooper’s Gap area in Rothrock, we rode our ‘cross bikes and cut out one bit of the course that was marked as a snowmobile trail. Everything else was marked as a road, so it should be fine, right? Apparently they use the term “road” loosely around here, and I am proud to say that we survived the rock-strewn Panther Run Rd. that people apparently don’t even like to ride on their mountain bikes. After 5,000+ feet of climbing, two long chunks of rocky Jeep roads, traversing the frighteningly narrow beams of where a bridge should be, and a slippery 50-ish meter wide creek crossing that was fast-moving and above my knees in most places, we triumphantly (and tiredly) returned to Coburn a couple minutes shy six hours after we left. The coming Sunday’s bumpy ride through a cornfield should feel like nothing now.

Frank is less afraid of heights than me.

The good news is that I’ve now ridden almost every piece of the W101 course now, save a few little bits here and there. Okay, two of those bits are rocky fall-line trails, but those are really the least of my worries as the key for those is just to ride smart and stay intact for the rest of the race. I still can’t imagine doing the whole thing on a mountain bike, but hopefully in another 11 months I will. For now, though, it’s time to “cross over” and find out if all of the riding this summer did me any good.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Temporarily Single

“You’re good at having talks with yourself.” – Frank

For most of the past week, I have been temporarily single while Frank is visiting his sister in Florida. While it has afforded me some luxuries like watching all of the terrible teen movies that I want and not having to apologize for not cooking dinner, I’m also surprised at my lack of self-regulation when faced with these freedoms. It may sound odd considering I was married before, but the year and a half that I’ve lived with him has been my first experience in truly sharing myself with another person in the way where you give up a little bit freedom in exchange for true intimacy. After a mere year and a half of actually feeling obligated to answer to someone other than myself, it feels weird to not have to, even in the context of small things for a few days.

I think I may just be a little mentally worn down lately, but last week’s events lead to a level of demotivation that I haven’t experienced in a while. After a few crazy busy weeks at work, my part of the project wrapped up, and I’ve been in a bit of a holding pattern until my next big assignment, just helping my coworkers out on stuff when I can and basically being available if needed. It made for a super-long workweek, and Frank’s absence only made it worse. It felt like 2013 all over again, when my weekdays alone were repeated obstacles to be overcome. At least then I was well-practiced in self-regulation, but suddenly being alone to do whatever I wanted was a lot different after months of having someone else to keep me in line.

This lead to Friday night’s dinner consisting of pie and those veggie straw things that like to boast how many servings of vegetables are in them but are basically just chips. I have no illusions of their health benefits; I just think they’re delicious. Too delicious. I am also not one of those cyclists who see food merely in terms of calories to be burned off, and don’t bullshit myself with, “I ride bikes so I can eat crap” excuses. My point is that I knew better, but my emotional fortitude was blown from getting through the week and suddenly being “allowed” to do what I wanted was too much.

This lead to waking up the next morning with a junk food hangover and taking way too long to get out of the door for my ride on a day that was particularly hot. Even though I’d been looking forward to getting back on my gravel climbing regimen all week, it seemed that I had sabotaged my efforts for Saturday. I decided to cut my losses and ride an hour as easy as is possible in Rothrock and do my best to make up for it on Sunday.

And Sunday I was able to turn it around. I got out the door earlier to try and beat the heat, but it was still pretty toasty as I began my ride. The first big climb on the agenda was Greenlee, which was pretty disastrous when I tried it a few weeks ago. I can’t say that yesterday was that much better, but at least I had a more vivid memory of what was ahead and managed to pace myself well enough that I didn’t dissolve into any walk breaks. For most of the climb I was convinced that once it was over I would head downhill to the car and call 20 miles good for the day, but when I got to the top, I stopped, ate a banana, and had a long talk with myself about the benefits of completing the additional 25 miles that I’d planned. It helped that there was an aid station for the PA Rocks! Enduro near my stopping point and topping off my bottles with cold water convinced me to go on. It still sucked a few times along the way, but I’m glad that I persevered.

The view of these cute horses was my reward for finishing the ride.

Thankfully I only have a few more days of having to maintain my newly reengaged self-regulation mechanisms. Frank will be back on Thursday, and by that point I’ll be happy to answer the question, “So what’s for dinner?” again. As they say, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Guts Gravel Glory

Over the past weekend we headed down to Richmond, VA for Guts Gravel Glory. With the amount of gravel that we’ve been riding lately, we thought it would be good to test out our skills against actual people.

The race was the closest thing that I’ve seen to a true “ultra ‘cross” format. There was a sixish-mile loop of double track and horse trails around a state park. It was pretty non-technical with just a few small roots here and there, although the surface was quite sandy and made for tough cornering. Despite the name, there wasn’t a whole lot of gravel on the course; it was mostly sand or packed dirt. All of the categories started together with everyone racing until the overall leader had completed eight laps, so it really was a like a three-hour cross race in that regard.

I had high hopes after looking at last year’s results, although I really had no idea how fast I’d actually go on the unfamiliar course. A 14 mph average seemed reasonable enough with a mere 350 feet of climbing per lap. However, as the women’s registrations started to come in with more Cat 2’s that last year, I wasn’t as confident.

In the end, Cat 2’s were the least of my problems. They had us start in waves with 15 seconds in-between, with a 55 strong Men’s B field starting 15 seconds behind us. There were eight women in the field, ranging from a domestic pro road racer to Cat 4’s. It became apparent at the start that the format was going to play out roadie-style and not so much ‘cross style, which didn’t bode well for me. Even though there was no chance in hell that the group was going to stay together, they still started out that way. I prefer the “break this up as soon as possible” racing style and hate being on anyone’s wheel, especially on questionable terrain, but I knew that going to the front at the beginning of a three-hour race was a terrible idea.

So I did my best to settle into my own rhythm and hoped to catch some of the other girls when they got popped. Unfortunately, the B men swallowed us up immediately upon entry into the woods and by the time things thinned out there were no women to be seen. I had guys from the 20-mile C race to ride with for the first three laps, but once they finished, it was a little tough to accept another 1.5 hours of pushing my shredded quads on alone. I did it, though, and eventually made it through six laps and about 40 miles. I also think I passed a girl who was stopped about a half-lap from the finish, so I think that I technically didn’t get last place.

Although I didn’t place as well as I’d hoped, I’m proud of myself for staying on the rivet for three hours straight. My heart rate data showed that of my 3:10 of racing, 3:03 was in Zone 4 or higher. That’s a hell of a lot of threshold. It should make 40 minutes of only slightly higher intensity not seem so bad in a couple of weeks. I can also take heart in the fact that regular ‘cross allows me to go out as hard as I want with no need to sit in, and that even the most pedally ‘cross course will provide more turning and acceleration than this did.

Until then, I plan to make the most of my last couple of weekends of summer by pushing my gravel limits a little further before time to take off the bottle cages and put on the tubular wheels. This weekend I hope tackle both Greenlee and Alan Seeger in one ride, and perhaps explore the Western side of the W101 course the next weekend. Then it will be time for the PACX opener. Eek!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Don't Go Chasin' QOM's

Don’t go chasin’ QOM’s
Please stick to the gravel steady state that you’re used to
I know that you’re gonna have it your way or nothin’ at all
But I think you’re movin’ too fast

Well, last week I talked about how since moving to State College, I had already done things wrong enough that I was getting really close to doing them right. Well, it couldn’t just be all smooth sailing from there, could it? Of course not. Over the weekend I got greedy, and got yet another Rothrock smackdown lesson in what not to do.

With all of the gravel climbing that I’ve been doing lately, my ego has been receiving a pretty steady stream of stroking as my carbon fiber ‘cross bike allows me to climb at the speed of much faster women on mountain bikes. I know that I’m bike-doping, but for the moment, it’s keeping me motivated. With the ‘cross bike to mountain bike speed conversion, or at least how it applies to me, climbing “sorta fast” on a ‘cross bike still means that I’ll be pretty darn slow on a mountain bike. I’m shooting for “Cheryl Sornson in the 2012 W101” pace on the ‘cross bike before I even attempt dragging my Lust up those climbs, and I still have my work cut out for me there.

A couple of weeks ago, I did manage to poach an obscure QOM on a five-minute climb that is not part of any of the races that take place in Rothrock, and thus had a much shallower leaderboard than most of the gravel that I’ve been riding. I followed that with my first ascent of Greenlee since Frank took me up it on my first visit to State College almost two years ago. The five-minute puke-hard effort that preceded the climb, plus the 90-degree heat that day, lead me to the conclusion that Greenlee was “really that hard” with my breaking down for a walk break when the final switchback didn’t provide the relief for which I was hoping.

Apparently I learned my lesson about this for a whole two weeks, then my satisfying 48 mile ride last weekend gave me an over-inflated boost of confidence. I decided that Saturday’s ride should include an attempt at the Bear Gap QOM, as the fastest time was a bit was over 12 minutes, and since #crossiscoming, I should be able to extend my puke-hard abilities out that far. I was able to hold the effort and improve my PR by a minute (still 1:11 off the QOM), and perhaps my body will thank me during the first lap of the first ‘cross race of the season, having already exposed it to “my teeth hurt” effort at least once in August. However, I think it was a bad decision, since my planned 42 mile ride got cut to 20 really quickly after that. It probably would have been even less if I hadn’t ridden down the far side of the mountain while still in a lactic acid buzz and been forced to drag myself back over Gettis to get home regardless of how much it sucked.

In the end, I was disappointed that I blew myself up early in the ride and didn’t get the full distance that I’d planned. While preparing for the intensity of ‘cross might be helpful, I’m really surprised at how much fitness I’ve gained so quickly from just a few weeks of long gravel rides. I only have a few more weeks of those left, so I wish I hadn’t wasted that opportunity. There will be plenty of time for aching teeth in September. I guess it’s just another Rothrock lesson learned the hard way.

Next weekend will definitely include a long gravel ride, but it won’t be in Rothrock. Frank and I are heading to Richmond, VA to test our gravel prowess against actual people at Guts Gravel Glory. It will be interesting to try out, since it is a multi-lap gravel circuit race that is a lot more steady and rolling than the extended ups and downs that we’ve been riding. I’m hoping that the lap format will be motivating and not boring, but mostly I’m just excited to actually race instead of just pretending to on Strava.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Wilderness 48

Slow down you're doing fine
You can't be everything you want to be before your time
Although it's so romantic on the borderline tonight (tonight)

Too bad, but it's the life you lead
You're so ahead of yourself that you forgot what you need
Though you can see when you're wrong
You know you can't always see when you're right (you're right)

You got your passion, you got your pride
But don't you know that only fools are satisfied?
Dream on, but don't imagine they'll all come true (Oooh)
When will you realize... [State College] waits for you?

And you know that when the truth is told
That you can get what you want or you can just get old

I’m happy to say that, despite the title, this is not another story about how I dropped out of a NUE series race. It’s a story about how, six years after the last time I dropped out of a NUE series race, I’m finally starting to understand what it takes to finish one. Or at least what it would take for me, how annoying that fact is, and how I’m slowly coming to accept it.

As you may have guessed from last week’s post, after nearly 16 months of residence in State College, things are starting to come together in a way that feels like real life rather just a stop along the way. I suppose that per the original plan, we should have been moving away to our “forever home” in the next couple weeks. Now we are looking at another twelve months minimum, and I don’t think I can stand another year in temporary life detachment, so I’m starting live SC lyfe until I’m told otherwise. The first 16 months here has kicked my ass to the point that I’m starting to be grateful for it. It’s been so much harder than I expected on so many levels, but I’m reaching the point of having done things wrong enough that I’m feel like I’m on the verge of knowing how to do them right.

It’s funny how ahead of myself I was when I first started mountain biking. Even when I couldn’t even make the podium in a beginner-class DINO race, I couldn’t wait to move on to bigger and better things, since I didn’t really see racing against two other women in the expert class as something worth working toward. I somehow stumbled on Danielle Musto’s blog around 2007, and became immediately enthralled with the idea of 100 milers, 24 hour races, and mountain bike stage races. Casual cyclists ride centuries all the time, so surely with some serious training I could do it on a mountain bike? Soon I read all the blogs of all of the top female endurance racers across the country to try and figure out the secrets to success, and I started my own blog to document the journey. At least I was self-aware enough that today’s intro lyrics were also one of my first entries. SPOILERS: I just got old.

The logic seems reasonable enough: to be the best you have to emulate the best. I knew the kind of training loads the top racers were doing while they were at the top of their game, so that must be the way to get there myself, right? The problem was that I was looking at what these races were doing to get better once they were already pretty damn good, not what they did between newbie and pretty damn good. In my rush to be pro, no one, including the coaches that I spent lots of money on, told me how to be good.

It’s hard to imagine how much 2007 me would have loved the idea of living in State College. When the endurance world was practically a different universe from Bloomington, IN, moving to an endurance mountain bike mecca would have been a dream come true. By the time the opportunity presented itself, it seemed like a wash from a bike standpoint. I’d more or less given up on endurance racing, and was satisfied with the fact that the Midwest had become cyclocross hot spot instead. Luckily, I had actual human love driving my decision instead of bikes.

Once I was here the famous trails taunted me, and I couldn’t help but be sucked into wanting to race them, even though I knew how hard it was. Or thought I knew. Since moving here I’ve been continually humbled by what it takes to become good at riding Rothrock, but the regular reminders have been so much more to helpful than allowing myself to become overconfident in my Brown County bubble ever did. Anytime I start worrying about how to be great, Rothrock immediately smacks me back down into my place and forces me to figure out just how to be better. I want to be pissy about my lack of natural talent and how hard I have to work for every little gain, because I feel inadequate that I still can’t even ride the Trailmix Long Course in a decent time. However, over the past ten years I’ve asked myself the question that if I can’t be great, is it worth trying to be good, and I keep coming up with the answer of yes.

Rothrock is the greatest coach I’ve ever had because it won’t stand for an overly ambitious cookie cutter plan any more than my body will. I’m allowed unlimited brutally honest conversations about how I’m feeling, where I’m thriving, and where I need work. Then together we make the decision about when and how to push my comfort zone a teeny bit more. It definitely gives new meaning to #outsideisfree.

So the prescription for this weekend, like several before it, was to #climballthethings on my ‘cross bike and slowly extend the amount of miles, feet, and speed I could handle. This added up to 48.5 miles and 4,839 feet of climbing, including two of the three worst climbs of the Wilderness 101 race. I started in the late morning and linked up the course around the time the 10-11 hour paced riders were coming through. I was able to outclimb them with fresher legs and a lighter and stiffer bike, but I’m still a long way from being able to do the whole thing on my mountain bike that fast. At least now I have a realistic conception of that and know the work it would take to get there.

Heading home after what turned out to be a very tolerable ascent of Stillhouse, I found myself passing through the camp where the Transylvania Epic is based. As much as I wanted to do that race before I leave State College, I genuinely don’t know if I can ever get body to the point of handling it. So I stopped and snapped a picture to commemorate my day, and thought, “I don’t know if I’ll ever complete ‘singletrack summer camp’, but at least I’ve made it through gravel day camp, and that’s start.”

Friday, July 24, 2015

Cat Power

It’s been another hella week at work, and my brain hasn’t had time for much beyond organizing the work required to build 200+ admissions email campaigns for all of Penn State’s regional campuses and academic colleges. Dates and filters like whoa. However, before I take off for a butt-kicking weekend in Rothrock that I’ll inevitably want to blog about on Monday, I thought I’d be remiss to let the significant event of last week slip through the cracks.

After I wrote last week about the small bit of disappointment that came when the PACX schedule finally arrived and I found myself lacking in friends that shared my excitement, my spirits were bolstered by two text different text conversions the next day. The first was with my friend Isabel regarding ‘cross clinics and shoe color choices, and I was glad for the reminder than even 10 hours apart, we can always count on each other to be amped for ‘cross. The second was from Tanya, who I met at the local Wednesday ‘cross practices last fall and with whom I’ve started doing some gravel riding this summer.

She asked if I was interested in joining the Laser Cats Feline All Stars team based out of Philadelphia, as she was going to race for them this ‘cross season. I’d seen a laser cat kit or two last season, but I hadn’t realized it was actually team. Knowing that a) this was a thing b) they were open to new female members required approximately three nanoseconds of contemplation. There’s a women’s team called Laser Cats?!! Do I want to be on it?!! Um...HECK YEAH!!!

So after a year of being a ‘cross orphan, I now I have the best features of my last two teams all at once: kits with cats on them (Velo Bella) and teammates that I will actually see at races (Speedway Wheelmen) I’m not sure if any of my new teammates has a “hot tube” yet, but I’m pretty excited.

I’m especially stoked because, in addition to solving my ‘cross orphan problem, it will also solve my “what to wear” problem. I’d been scanning the Internet for cool retail skinsuits for the season, because I thought my beautiful new TCX deserved something prettier and matchier than dumpster old Speedway Wheelmen skinsuits that were on their third season. I was really close to shelling out $220 for a Vanderkitten skinsuit a few days before this transpired, but held off in an effort to be financially responsible. It turns out my patience paid off, as I’m hoping to order a team skinsuit soon that will be even cooler.

This is the prototype I snagged from Instagram. I can only hope they are actually this fabulous in real life.

So last week was a big win in the "things work out when you let them" column. Will that trend continue into my actual racing, my anxieties about Frank's job, and my vague plans for the general future? I guess we will find out.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015


With the busy past couple of weeks that I’ve had at work, I just couldn’t bring myself to do any more focusing and typing than was already required of me. However, I’m starting to feel that a little mental active recovery may be in order, and last night gave me an occasion to pick up the blogging again: the PACX schedule was released.

I’ve been feeling left out after the OVCX schedule was released weeks ago and Facebook is becoming full of more muddy profile pictures, #crossiscoming, and announcements of Shamrock Cycles’ new team whiskey sponsor each day. I’ve still been counting the weeks until Nittany Lion Cross, as it would presumably be my first race of the season, but it just doesn’t feel real until the races are on the calendar and I can start to mentally walk through the season and make plans. Then last night as I waited for Frank to get home from the bike shop, I saw that the PACX schedule had quietly slipped into my news feed. Now I had a ‘cross schedule, too, although I still felt left out knowing that Frank was my only Facebook friend who would be particularly excited about this news. Still, I was excited to finally have concrete plans for the season.

I was a bit disappointed to see that the Cross of the Corn was still on the schedule for August 30 (too hot and too early) and yet the last weekend of September and first week of October were left open, making it hard to hit a groove with three weeks of no racing so early in the season. The series has also been extended from 10 to 14 races and will run four weeks later than it did last year (December 20). There is no announcement yet about the number of best races that will count this year, but last year it was a reasonable 8 out of 10.

Once I got everything on my calendar, I started to feel better about things. The August 30 race is what it is. We probably would have done the International Intergalactic Global Open Team ‘Cross Relay on that day, anyway, so I’m thinking of it not so much as the first race of the season, but the prologue to the season. It’s just something that we have to show up and do to get call-ups, then we have Labor Day Weekend, do one day of Nittany for a tune-up, and *then* the season begins. That means a double PACX weekend followed by two weekends off. Luckily, the first race of the APCXS is on one of those weekends, so we’ll probably do that as filler. Then it’s a long hard march from mid-October to late December.

To be fair, I like my ‘cross seasons like my ‘cross races: go out hard, see where you stand, and just try to hold on until the end. This schedule isn’t super conducive to that with the races that count being awfully spread out early on, then the season being long and steady in the end. I’ll make it work, though. It’s what I wait all year for.


In more recent news, Frank and I have gone gravely lately. While I’m still not particularly good at it, I don’t hate climbing gravel on my ‘cross bike the way I do on my mountain bike, so the focus for the last couple of weekends has been getting in as many gravel miles and feet of climbing as we can. It’s been fun having a new challenge to distract me from my stagnating singletrack speed, and it’s allowed us to see some new parts of Rothrock that we’ve never been to before.

Our July 4 ride in the Alan Seegar portion of the forest, which is the only part that has never been logged. Giant pines and rhododendrons abound.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Reluctantly About That Base

"To go north, you must journey south, to reach the west you must go east. To go forward you must go back, and to touch the light you must pass beneath the shadow." - Quaithe to Daenerys Targaryen in "A Clash of Kings"

I’ve spent most of my summer so far focusing on getting faster on the singletrack of Rothrock State Forest, mainly the XC Loop, Tussey Ridge, and John Wert. To be fair, singletrack riding is the most fun and suits my strengths the best, and the fact that I was suddenly able to produce big improvements with minimal effort through April and May was a huge ego boost for me and inspired me to get back on track training-wise. However, as June rolled in, I started to plateau on these sections and notice how a lot of my inability to clear sections that I still couldn’t clear had a lot more to do with a lack of power than a lack of skill, or at least the ability to perform skills while redlined. I was riding a lot harder without actually going much faster and leaving myself too cooked to expand the total distance of my weekend rides.

Reluctantly I made the decision that after returning from Illinois I would focus on shoring up my weaknesses instead of trying to squeeze a few seconds here and there out of my strengths. My weakness? Climbing gravel on a mountain bike, which unfortunately, is an integral part of mountain bike racing in State College. I always say that the Wilderness 101 is cruel because 70% of it would be faster on a ‘cross bike, but there’s just enough rocky singletrack to make that a bad decision. My hope is that by focusing on gravel climbing for a while I can gain some minutes more easily and increase my endurance since, even at a hard tempo, it’s still easier on the body than riding the singletrack in this area.

Pretty pink new shoes.

My first attempt was not that spectacular. It was pouring rain all day Saturday, so I called it a loss and used it as an opportunity to thoroughly clean the house for the first time in about two months. That made Sunday the big day to go out and conquer my climbing fears a week and a half after making the decision to do so. It was still raining, albeit much more lightly, and I wore the pretty new pink shoes that Frank had got me for our two-year anniversary earlier in the week. I knew that setting out in brand new shoes for a planned four-hour ride might not be such a good idea, but I really wanted to wear them. Between the wet chamois and the odd feeling of pedaling in new shoes (I woke up sore today), the ride got cut to 2.5 hours and wasn’t particularly fast, but I did finally conquer my fear and climb the too wide to be singletrack and too chunky to be gravel enigma that is the Gettis “Road” climb in the middle of the TrailMix long course. It was slow, but at least it was a start. Now I’ve got to go back on Saturday and do the full 30 mile route that I’d planned and hopefully do some of the climbs a little faster.

Nearing the top.

This is my Gettis face.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Illin' and the Mini Rando de Taco

The past weekend was spent visiting Frank’s family in Illinois, so not much progress was made in my mountain bike game. We did manage to sneak in a ride on Tussey Ridge on Thursday morning before we left. I was able to go teensy bit faster on the ridge even with the on-and-off rain that was making for slippery rocks. We also rode Upper Kistler, Leniency Trail, and the Tussey Ridge Extension, which are all add-on trails that are included in the TrailMix long course, but that don’t get a lot of use by people who are just out riding. It was my first time doing every single trail in that section of the forest at once, so now I have an idea of how long it takes. Usually I just try to kill it on the ridge and then take the shortest way down to the road.

We didn’t get much riding in during the first couple of days in Illinois, because the hip/body pain that I had last week flared up again very badly from the drive, the strange bed, the lack of sleep, or some combination thereof. We made up for it on Sunday, when we rode with my friend Isabel, who I hadn’t seen since the 2014 Barry-Roubaix. At the time she’s just found out she was pregnant, and I’d just accepted a job at Penn State. Now she has an 8-month-old and I have a wedding plan in progress, so we had a lot to catch up on.

The ride started out not-so-great, because my chain that had less than 600 miles on it decided to snap about 10 minutes into the ride. The upside of this early failure was that we were still close enough for Frank and Isabel’s husband, Brandon, to push me and my chainless bike to the nearest bike shop downtown. Unfortunately, they were closed for Father’s Day, so the guys had to ride back and get the car, then Frank and I had to drive to a further shop to get a quick link.

We did finally get going about an hour and a half late, but we were still motivated to ride. It turned out really awesome after that. The last couple of years some of our Illinois friends have gone a ride called the “Rando de Taco”, which is about 100k with five taco stops. I’ve always been a little bummed to not be able to make it, so I was pretty excited when Isabel said that we were doing a mini version that was about 35 miles with two taco stops. It was a fun, casual ride on mostly bike paths the entire time, and the tacos were tasty.

I also drank my first soda in nearly two years, which was surprisingly awesome and really has me thinking about adding a bit more gratuitous sugar back into my long rides. My rule of “a banana an hour if I’m going to be out more than two hours” gets me through, but it still might not be optimal, no matter how good I claim my fat metabolism to be. I’ve got a homemade maple-syrup-based sports drink recipe that I want to try this weekend to see how I do with a boost of sugar without the chemicals of soda.

Now we’re back home safely, and I’m trying to get back into my training rhythm as quickly as possible. We’ll have one more weekend away this summer when we go to New York to visit Frank’s friends (and hopefully buy my wedding dress!) in August. I’ve also committed to my first-ever night of tent camping in a couple of weeks, but that will just be a quick overnight trip to prove that I can sleep in a tent and then ride some trails to the south that we’ve never done before. Otherwise, I’ll just be trying to cram as much mountain biking advancement as I can into the 9 remaining free weekends before ‘cross begins.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Never in the Mix

I don't wanna talk if it makes you feel sad, 
And I understand you've come to shake my hand 
I apologize if it makes you feel bad 
Seeing me so tense, no self-confidence 

As I stood at the final aid station of the 2013 Big Frog 65 eating the cup of jellybeans that a volunteer had poured for me so that I could avoid actually touching them with my mud-covered hands, a girl rolled in behind me and said, "Good God, you're fast." We were at the back of the middle of the pack, but not the back of the pack after I'd lost what felt like 30 minutes trying to fix a flat tire with numb hands and a swaggy C02 injector that I'd won at a 'cross race and never used. I guess she had passed me during my stop only to have me pass her back once I got going again. Despite the fact that my finish time and place were completely unremarkable and the weeks of nerve damage in my hands that followed, that moment stands out as the best of my mountain biking career.

I bring this up because it was one of many moments that I relived during the my ridiculously long passage through the XC loop during the Rothrock TrailMix race on Saturday. I was already suffering a crisis of confidence in the week leading up to the race, but I was determined to do my best and not get stressed out. I succeeded in the "don't be a dick" kind of stressed out, but as a result, I fell into the "pre-determined acceptance of failure" kind of stressed out. The one skill that I've never learned in all of my years of bike racing is how to convince myself otherwise once the thought that a race will go badly has entered my brain.

So when the horn blew and I watched the other girls fly up the first climb and out of sight, I did my best to stay relaxed and not spike my heart rate trying to stay with them. It helped that the local fast woman who I know can smoke most of the singletrack sections was not chasing them and was in fact still somewhat in sight until she entered the singletrack. The strategy worked for her, as she eventually passed most of the chargers, but not so much for me. I hoped that keeping myself out of the red would pay off on the first rocky section of singletrack and that I'd start making up ground through the rest of the XC loop. Unfortunately, it started raining on way up and the rocks were very slick by the time we arrived. Probably because I was convinced how important it was for me to not bobble on anything, I bobbled on everything. Thus it went for the rest of the XC loop. I did not clear The Richard Rock.

The long drag back up Lower Trail to the road was when started reliving the moments of my mountain bike career. The already slow trail was muddy and slower than normal, and I felt an empty, aching feeling in my legs. I tried to imagine slogging up the two big climbs that remained in the race in my wet chamois, and it just didn't seem like a worthwhile thing to do. I had signed up for the time to try and post a good time and see how I stacked up against the other girls. I had more than proved that I was capable of finishing, and I thought I had wanted to race. The situation that I was in was not racing, and I wasn't really sure it could even be called training. It was mostly wet self-pity.

I was still worried about what other people would think if I dropped out, and that was when I thought of all of the times that I toughed it out in races and it was worth it. I tried to convince myself if people could stick it out in the hell that was the Dirty Kanza a couple of weeks ago, I could survive another unpleasant 1.5-2 hours of wet chamois. And I could; I just didn't want to. I wanted to be in dry clothes and watch Frank finished, so once I was off the singletrack, that I what I did. He finished 7th overall, and I was proud of him.

The weird things that I discovered afterward were that my heart rate was incredibly high on the XC loop despite the fact that I was trying not to ride that hard. I'm not sure if that was a contributor to my feeling crappy or not. I also developed a weird little pain in my side like a pulled muscle last Wednesday that has spread to pain in both hips, most of my back, and down my legs. I actually took a sick day today because I didn't sleep well last night due to the pain and still was hurting very badly once I got up. I'm not really sure what's wrong, but I hope it goes away soon.

As you might imagine, the bad race and the weird pain aren't doing much for my confidence right now. I really thought that I was starting to get kind of fast on the mountain bike, but this weekend proved that I'm still sorely behind almost everyone in my gravel-climbing ability, and my singletrack riding is still not quite where I want to be, even in dry conditions. I'm also getting some disappointing feedback from my new power meter now that I've had some time to test it out. These are the times that it is a lot harder to stay motivated, but with a little over 12 weeks until 'cross, I know that the best thing I can do is try not to dwell on the negative feedback and keep working my plan.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

An XC State of Mind

Maybe I’m making bikes harder than it is. – Me, because Taylor Swift didn’t have anything useful to say on the matter.

I was a bit worried when I wrote last week’s post that it was already a bit past its moment, but I also really hoped that I was wrong. It took six weeks after my cycling rock bottom to acknowledge that I might actually be on the path to success, and by the time I did, I was worried that my upward trajectory was going to turn into more of a John Wert style climb – a barely perceptible gain in elevation that is covered in obstacles and mostly just makes you wonder why you’re going so slow. After two Saturdays in a row where I failed to make any real improvements on key Rothrock Trailmix segments, it was time to reevaluate.

I knew the improvement would flatten out eventually, and I think it may have been a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. I think that I may have stressed myself out a bit during my last two Saturday rides because I basically have one ride per week where I have the opportunity to show progress toward my goal of completing the Rothrock TrailMix long course by the end of the summer. I realized that my Saturdays were starting to feel the way that I used to feel when I raced DINO cross country races, like everything was continually on the verge of being screwed up.

I’ve noticed in the past how with cross country I always felt like the race was determined in the first five minutes and the rest was just an hour or so of suffering after that to make it official. I would get really stressed out during races and very short-tempered as a result. Any small thing that went wrong during an XC race would set me off. On the other hand, I’m a lot better at keeping my cool during ‘cross races, and experience has taught me that practically never does a ‘cross race reach completion without something small going wrong and rarely does it make that much difference in the end result.

When I realized that I was panicking at the thought of having to brake for hikers, correlating my quality of performance versus the percentage of the ride which I had visual or audio contact with Frank (which in my mind means he’s slowing down for me and thus pointing out that I am slow), and dwelling on how untalented I am and that cycling just doesn’t come easily for me, it occurred to me that even without a Bikereg page to stalk, my unofficial “race” goal for the summer was slipping into unhealthy territory. I think having a goal is still beneficial for me, since other these symptoms, which I have thankfully recognized and caught early, I am enjoying one of those beautiful states of flow where skipping workouts doesn’t even occur to me as an option unless I genuinely need the rest and junk food actually starts to seem unappealing. I’ve only ever managed to get into this state for a few months at a time every couple of years, so I definitely want to keep it going as long as possible. I think that the answer is to keep working toward the goal but in a more indirect manner. I may need to spend some time on longer road or gravel rides where my heart rate isn’t pinned the whole time, or go to Cooper’s Gap and practice my skills on some rocks that I haven’t memorized yet.

That will have to wait at least another week, though, as I can’t take a TrailMix breather quite yet. The actual race is this weekend, and I’m signed up for the short course race. I’m trying to treat it as an exercise in recognizing and letting go of my XC-stress. I know that riding the rocky singletrack will be much different with lots of other people, and doing so well will require calm and flexibility. It will also likely mean that even riding relatively well and in a calm and flexible manner, I won’t PR any of the singletrack sections, and I have to be okay with that.

It’s a bit funny thinking about the old man yelling at me on Bald Knob at the race last year, because I’m trying to avoid getting into the same mode myself this year. I still think of the spot where the incident occurred as “The Richard Rock” (“call me Richard because I’m such a dick”), and I’ve still only cleared the entire section about three times ever. Despite an overall disappointing ride last Saturday, I did at least clear The Richard Rock. I’ll take that as a good omen for this weekend, where I will try to repeat the action with other people around, but more importantly, not be a dick.