Ripping around the curves. Fine tuning my body position. Plotting how to bridge the gap. Gauging exactly how much I can push at this moment without blowing up. Man I’ve missed racing. In the 8 months since surgery on my achilles, it took seven of those to be able to run even a couple minutes pain free, so at a certain point one has to try new things. Or at least I do. So last weekend, I raced my mountain bike.
When I registered online for this bike race, I had no idea what category to enter. Novice was a 12 miler, Cat(egory) 2 was 23 miles, and Cat 1/Elite/Pro was 33 miles. I signed up for Cat 2 because, even though I am technically new to this, I happen to have a little bit of (hopefully transferable) racing experience, and I didn’t want to get shit for being a giant sandbagger.
Besides I wanted a longer distance because I wanted to face failure. The competition-starved athlete in me almost clicked Cat 1, just to 100% guarantee I got a total and complete ass whooping, but racing 10 miles further than I’ve ever ridden my bike against legit pros seemed irresponsible. So I went with Cat 2 and I’m glad I did.
As I turned to leave the house that morning, with light pouring through the window onto Jesse’s shoulder as he put sliced toast on Jude’s plate, I expected to have that normal pre-race dread. That feeling of “I just want to stay here in my safe cocoon, why did I sign up for this race again?” But I didn’t. I relished the chance to be a beginner, with no metrics for comparison. I headed out the door excited to get out there and spend two hours with my body and mind 100% focused on playing along my edges. That, at it’s core, is competition, but when you’ve raced for 21 years in one sport, like any long-term relationship, you complicate it. You get hurt. You have to work to forgive and forget. You have to be intentional about treating every new race like a clean slate without dragging your garbage into it. There is value in complex long term relationships, and I accept and embrace that complexity in my running races (most of the time), but it was really freaking nice to have a totally new sport to have a red-hot fling with.
I put on my matchy matchy Roka cycling kit, grabbed a camelback of water, a Picky Bar, and some blocks, loaded my bike on the rack and hit the road. I slipped right into a stream of cars heading for the same place, some middle-of-nowhere dirt road, and parked what appeared to be really really far from the starting line. I had no idea what to do. Where to check in. Do I ride my bike to the start? Will I have anywhere to leave my stuff? Should I just head there ready to race and figure it out? I looked at other people getting ready and copied them. Get ready to race, leave everything else in the car, and get on with it. Ok then.
For the most part, it looked like I fit in all right, except nobody else was wearing over the calf compression socks. Literally nobody. I told myself Stance would appreciate this as an act of rebellion, #theuncommonthread and all that, rather than be mortified at my representation of their brand as a runner gone rogue. Truth be told, I just didn’t want branches scratching the shit out of my shins, and I’m over 30 and a mom so I just do what I want.
To keep it short and sweet, when our wave started, I hammered the first few miles like crazy and caught about half the men’s field, and was able to slip in behind some guys who were around my speed. Then I was hurting bad with 20 miles to go and thought I made the biggest rookie mistake ever, but one downhill recovered me and I realized mountain bike racing was more like an interval workout than a running race. I gradually worked my way up through the field, picking off riders one by one. Any time the single track trail opened up to double track or had a wide shoulder I zipped around people. About 30 minutes into the race, I was totally possessed. Living breath to breath, scanning the terrain and rapidly processing the information so my bike could work as an extension of my body. Zeroing in on my next target and bridging the gap. The uphills I would push myself to the edge and regain my composure on the downhill while negotiating the turns.
At one point around mile 15 I realized I had gone slightly over a line, and was hyperventilating. I didn’t panic. I smiled (a dirty-toothed zombie grimace). I couldn’t put my finger on it before the race, but this is what I was hoping to find out here on these trails. This was a skill I had worked 21 years to master, a skill I’ve had to shelve for over a year. I used my breath. Softened the muscles in my face. Relaxed my upper body, and made several micro-adjustments to decrease effort without sacrificing my speed. My heart rate slowed slightly. Like an artist moving a pencil with precision, I manipulated the inner workings of my physiology until I was back on the safe side of the red line. On I went.
I reached for the finish line with almost nothing left. I felt that perfect combination of empty and full. I walked my bike to a nearby tree with wobbly legs and celebrated with my friends who surprised me by coming to watch. I stood on top of the podium, like a runner: arms by my sides, and a smile on my face.
Despite this being basically a low key local mountain bike race (Chainbreaker), it was important to me right now, so I have some thank you’s. Thanks to my friend Meredith from Grit Clinics for talking me into racing and teaching me some basic skills, and for demonstrating that there is so much to be experienced if you can allow yourself to be a beginner (she is the one who talked me into performing open mic nights too). Thank you Roka for the super fast and comfortable cycling kit (I got lots of compliments), and Smith for the shades that kept the dirt and rocks from pulverizing my eyeballs. Thanks to Collier, Jess, and Jules for cheering me on in person. And thanks Jesse for the encouragement and taking care of our sick kid while I fed the competitive dragons. I’m not sure this is something I’m going to do a lot more of, but it was rewarding to see that there is quite a bit I’ve built in this body and mind through the sport of running that is transferable. And it was the sweetest thing ever coming home to this: