Friday, February 28, 2014

Pre­race Monsters

Written by Ben Coleman
Photos by Kristen Leonard

              I had been looking forward to this trip for a while. It wasn’t just another race, there was much more to it than that. This trip was a chance to escape for a weekend: taking a mini­vacation from day-­to­day life and the frigid PA winter to race Monster Cross2014 in Richmond, VA. There was a lot to be excited about, not only because I would be racing in a place I had never been, but also because I would be doing so as a member of a real team for the first time, and be accompanied by my personal photographer/girlfriend all weekend to boot!

              Although this was only my third attempt at an ultra­cross type race, I really love this type of racing. It’s the sense of adventure, the need to be self­sufficient, and the slight madness of the idea of spending several hours blasting a ‘cross bike through the woods testing the limits of your strength, fitness, and concentration that I find enticing. It’s time spent with the bike, the environment, and yourself of a quality and in a quantity that isn’t offered by many other types of racing. Even if you’re the last rider across the finish line at the end of the day, you still win that feeling of accomplishment of taking on such a challenge and getting through it.

              Rolling into the race venue Sunday morning I was considerably more nervous than usual. I hadn’t been able to find a course map, didn’t know where the checkpoint would be exactly, and the only real information I had about the course was that it would be about 50 miles total, and what I was told by a local I met the day before. He warned me of a rocky drop down to the river at the dam, and the steep climb that followed. Even though our hotel was only a 20 minute drive from the race, I opted to dress in normal clothes and kit up when I got there. We pulled into the already crowded parking lot more than an hour before start time and I headed down to the registration/check-­in tables. Getting back to the Jeep, I did all the normal prep of checking tire pressure and seat bag contents before changing into my race kit. I found that in the confusion of unpacking travel bags and packing a race bag that morning I had forgotten to bring any socks. At least I was already wearing a pair. Once I was dressed I loaded up my jersey pockets, grabbed my bottles, and we made our way down to where everyone was assembling for the start.

              Sitting amongst the huge group of riders about to embark made my nerves start to build a little more. I reached a hand around my back to check my pockets again. There was a bit of a reshuffle to get the riders doing the half­distance race to the back, I grabbed a quick drink from one of my bottles. CRAP!! A moment of panic hit me as I realized I had forgotten to put any HEED in the bottles, but it was too late to do anything about it now. The cowbells rang and we were off… sort of. The muddy starting area funneled down to direct us through a gap in the fence. Everyone was unclipped, barely moving, scootering through the slop. Finally we were out of the grass and onto the pavement that would lead us out of the parking lot and on to the rolling double track of the course. I held back, content to sit in a nice little line and let the shuffling of riders happen ahead of me. The terrain was nice, composed of a sandy kind of dirt that seemed both well packed and a bit spongy, and had hardly any rocks, holes, or other hidden hazards waiting to jump out and ruin your day. After about ten minutes of rolling along I felt good, still worried that my poor preparation would come back to bite me sooner or later, but good. Really good actually, I was comfortable, I felt loose and fast. I decided I had spent enough time following wheels and started passing whoever wherever and whenever I safely could. I felt like I moved up quite a bit, and then was surprised by a short downhill riddled with roots. A few minutes later we popped out of the woods, across some blacktop and into a gravel lot. Yep, my rear tire had been snake bit. I switched out tubes in the lot, watching the groups of riders I had passed no more than 30 minutes before stream by. Back on the move, with considerably more pressure in the rear tire, I was picking through riders once more.

              I was already starting to feel the effects of my pre­race mistakes before the end of the first 21 mile loop, and not knowing exactly where or when I’d pass by my pit mistress added confusion and a little fear to my hunger and fatigue. As we once more trudged through the starting area the course hooked a right, over a wooden bridge and up a hill. There were riders coming down the same hill in another lane of the course in the opposite direction, making me think that I too would shortly be heading for my refueling point. After several minutes of twisty, climbing single track riding I started to wonder how long I would ride into the woods before being directed back towards the bridge. I started to wonder why I hadn’t just stopped when I was at the start chute again to take on more food and drink. The thought of turning around and heading back crossed my mind more than once. But all the time I thought about it I was still pedaling, still climbing, going further and further away from where I wished I was. Finally I asked another racer close by if they knew if we were going to pass through the start/finish area again before the actual finish. They told me that we would, although I still had no idea of when.

              By the time I finally shot back down the hill and across the same bridge I was down to my last gel, last bit of food, and had two empty bottles. The times of feeling good had long since passed. I made it back into the parking lot area of the course where my lovely assistant was waiting, ready with everything I had asked to be there plus a few things I needed but had forgot to ask for. What a girl! I quickly stuffed my face and my pockets and made sure I had bottles full of more than water this time, and set off to finish the last segment

             The last segment of the course was a repeat of the first, the same 21 mile loop. It had taken me just over 90 minutes to get through it before, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that it was going to take much longer this time through. The sandy surface that was smooth and rolled fast earlier had been marred by countless tire tracks and was now rock hard and bumpy. Shallow puddles had turned into thick bogs, and my legs had turned to rubber. I still hadn’t recovered from bonking, and felt like I was in survival mode, putting everything I had left into every pedal stroke, just to keep them turning. Many miles and many more minutes went by like this, trudging towards the finish, until seemingly out of nowhere the mental fog lifted and my legs felt alive again. I knew I was within 30 minutes of the line, and now that there was one more bullet in the gun I had no reason not to pull the trigger. I spun myself home as swiftly as possible, and finished with a time a little over four hours. It took longer than expected, didn’t go as well as I had planned for it to, and it wasn’t always fun, but my race was done and I was thankful for that!

              I suppose the most helpful thing I can take away from this experience is the importance of solid preparation. Not just in the months and weeks and days up to the event, but also down to the hours and minutes just before the start. Maybe it was the confusion of sorting out my race gear from the rest of the luggage, or the distractions of doing a race at the end of a leisure trip, or any number of other factors that aided most to my faltering in this instance. Whatever it was, it led me to overlook the necessity of proper preparation. Won’t be doing that again!

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