Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Shaking a Fist at Mortality

I broke the law once. I picked a wildflower. It was too tempting not to, plus I was a child and didn't know any better until my grandmother, with her wildflower book clutched in hand, scolded me.

It was purple and magnificent. Why it was illegal to pluck such beauty, to smell and touch and inspect and give it away to maternal figures for a flicker of enjoyment...I didn't understand.

I swirled the flower in my hand, the green straw bending beneath the weight of my gentle and dirty fingers. With the violet pedals tickling my nose, I looked at the patch of ground from whence the flower came, and marveled at the army of flowers remaining unscathed in the earth. As the grime from my hands wilted the flower, my grandmother's wisdom became clear. I knew then and there why you don't pick wildflowers. Once they are born from the ground and clutched by life's hands, their vibrance and sweetness begin to perish.

Today I feel like a freshly plucked flower.

My attempts at sounding poetic and analogous are over.
Here is the real story.

I went to a doctor yesterday to get one final check-up on my left knee. About four months ago, a different doctor operated on it and took out a chunk of the precious cushion that helps me get along well in my livelihood as a teacher and coach and as a die-hard mountain biker. In some regards, the surgery was a "success." I have recovered well enough to hammer up and down and over the mountains of Colorado. But my knee aches. Standing all day or walking for long periods of time wears me down mentally as I feel unstable on my inflamed joint and wonder if I should seek sponsorship with Aleve.

I was hoping yesterday, as the physician performed the final test for worker's comp, that he would give me good news and say, "your knee is going to ache some, but it should still get better, just give it time" and "keep doing whatever it is you are doing" (meaning hammering it out on the mountain bike). I was hoping to get some fresh news that would perk me back up like rain on a dusty and parched wildflower. I was hoping for the news that the best days of riding hard and living crazy adventures on two wheels are ahead of me, so I could once again throw my shoulders back with pride and stand tall in the sun.

But that didn't happen. Instead I was told "rules change with every decade of life" and "if you keep riding the way you are riding, you are headed for a knee replacement." Apparently, even though cycling is one of the best things you can do for bad knees, cycling still wears out the knees. Especially my kind of "cycling." When I decide I am training for something, in my present case enduro racing, I place a high demand on my body.

I have always been wired this way. Would I eliminate basketball from the annals of my life if it meant my present-day knees were surgery free and strong? Nope. The part of me that aims to live my life to the fullest and live each day like it could be my last says it was worth it.

Will I jump in a scrimmage again if the opportunity presents itself? Nope. The part of me that desires to live a good life for as long as possible now says it isn't worth it anymore. It only took four knee surgeries to get me to that point. It is with this level of stubbornness that I tried to digest the evil epiphany that cycling might be damaging my knees, not preserving them.

The 56-year-old in scrubs attempted to lead my thoughts by personal stories of graceful change. He used to run marathons, but in his twenties he quit running. After his thirties, he gave up cycling. Not tracking with him in the least, I finally asked him, "So what do you do for exercise?" His reply: "Walk."

That's when my emotions began to short-circuit. I looked him square in the eye and said, "I would rather have a double knee replacement than not be able to ride my bike." His response included something about hobbling around for the rest of my life.

Before you hate on him like I did, I genuinely believe he was trying to guide me to a path of growing old gracefully. I did not respond with "well, I have friends who have had knee replacements and still ride" or an alternative rude and defensive response like my emotions were dictating. Rather, I awkwardly stared at him and mentally shut him off from speaking any further advice into my life.

That was that. He was done testing everything on my knee (which is 100% according to the strength, motion, and bending it all around tests) and let me know he had another patient to see. The tears that had welled up began to leak as he exited the room and I fumbled my way out the front door.

By the time I turned out of the parking lot onto the access road, I was wailing loudly. The words "stop riding your bike" echoed in my soul. I'm 38 freaking years old and I was just advised to take up walking. I haven't bawled that much since my dog died two years ago.

When the dry heaves stopped and my puffy eyes dried, I tried to process everything. I fought to mitigate the statement "you are wearing out your joints" with reason and common sense and perhaps some rationalizing. My other doctor told me riding was good, but I'm sure he was imaging a stationary bike or a mild cruise down a smooth path. This doctor seemed familiar with my very different definition of "riding" with the addition of the words "competing" and "mountain."

I tried to lay emotion aside and hear the message. "Slow down. Make some changes. Accept the fact that your body is aging." Getting angry at the truth is not productive. But I am a creature full of strong emotion, which is why I ride in the first place. The root of my anger is ultimately fear. What is my greatest fear in life? It is to lose my physical ability. Why? Because I have believed for so long my mental well-being is directly tied to my ability to push myself physically. (That's a whole other story. If you're a glutton for punishment, you can read about that too in "my own story of life and bike" at the top of this blog.)

It took me the entire day to process the simple doctor's visit. After falling on my face before the Lord, crying more tears, and holding conversations with those I trust, this morning when I awoke, an overwhelming peace about my mortality began to rise up within me. Yet again in life, God's gentle grace is carrying me. In the times of greatest anguish, my savior and friend stands by my side and holds me. As I have said many times, I cannot explain faith as clear as I wish I could, but I will say with all of me that God's love for us is real. His wisdom trumps all others. Because he knows suffering better than any, He draws near every time my heart is broken and offers healing.

He reminds me, most importantly, as I age incredibly ungracefully, that this world is not my home. This body is indeed perishing. This flower has been plucked and, even if I stick my aching legs in a cold vase and preserve myself a little longer, I will still fade away.

But don't worry, my hope is eternal and my joy is getting stronger even as my body is getting weaker. To my friends who say Christian ideals are merely tranquilizers meant to make us feel better, let me say a word. You're exactly right. The truth of God does make me feel better. What is truly depressing is to think the best days are forever behind me. With God, my best days, even if it means hobbling around on some fake knees because I didn't listen to the doctor's advice and rode my bike anyway, are still ahead. Not to mention that as I have moved through the different seasons of life, God has always provided some wildly fun adventures. God wants to give us life to the fullest even in this temporary one that is decaying, and I will trust He still has good things in store for as many days as I'm here.

This whole thing really isn't even about bikes, it's about the reality of mortality. I'm going to assume you, at some point, have stared a doctor in the face (or stared at an aging face in the mirror) and felt the same punch in the gut I did yesterday. I'm also going to assume you fought back, or are fighting back like I am, with whatever resources remain and are shaking a fist at mortality.

We are all clutching onto life and remaining brave survivors for as long as we can. We are all trying to bloom bright and beautiful for as long as possible. But avoiding the truth is not productive. So before we wither for good, as we undeniably will, my prayer is we find the eternal hope that is found in Christ alone.

Wanna know what my soul ate for breakfast this morning? I happened to turn to I Corinthians 15.

"So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown in a natural body, it is raised in a spiritual body." 

"Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed - in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: Death has been swallowed up in victory. 'Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?'"

I think I'll go ride my bike now.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Welcome to Enduro!

Looking around at all the beefy bikes with plush travel, I felt like I had brought a knife to a gun fight. I adjusted my cloth knee sleeves, nervously tugged at the bottom of my tight-fitting pocketed cycling jersey so it would reach the top of my baggies, and tried to ignore the butterflies as I glanced again at the rocky drop leading into Stage #3... Lord, let me make it through this alive...

So THIS is enduro.

If you are a fat-tire enthusiast, a part-time racing weekend warrior like me who is forever addicted to hanging with the cycling community, let me invite you in to explore this exploding sector of mountain biking with me. I've done some cool stuff on the bike, but never before have I experienced the thrills of enduro. Until now.

And if you're thinking, "That looks like fun" followed by some hesitation that starts with "but" (I don't have the right bike, I don't have technical skills, I'm not fast, I don't even know what this is!) then keep reading. I hope by the end of this to convince you to grab your bike and sign up with me!

So what exactly is enduro? Check it out:
Enduro 101
Training Tips

And if you're on Facebook, try stalking these groups:
Texas Gravity Enduro
Enduro Life

Since experience is the best teacher, and the rad dudes of Kodiak Tough were hosting the Sansom Shred in my own backyard of Fort Worth, Texas, I decided to take the plunge. This article is a compilation of the basics of enduro, as well as some beginner racer notes. If you're already convinced (and get annoyed by long-winded race reports) then skip to the end and get signed up already!

1) The bike: The ideal amount of travel seems to be 150mm-160mm. You may find some bikes with more, some with less, depending on the rider and the terrain. If you are in the market like I am, my suggestion would be to start with the brands your local bike shops carry or can get, and do a few test rides. (If you need a good shop, check out Bicycles Inc.) Read reviews, talk to folks, and remember "the best bike for enduro racing is the one you already own" (Enduro 101). 

2) Gear: Apparently protection is paramount when you are flying through the forest. Full-face helmets (which I hear are required at some venues), knee and elbow pads, and baggy shorts made of thick material are the norm. Is all this really necessary? I figure if the guys and gals who do this stuff regularly have it on, a bumbling beginner should, too. For the Sansom race, I had to piecemeal my outfit together; top half XC (regular helmet and cycling jersey, no elbow pads), bottom half enduro-fakie (legit baggies with some soft-shell knee pads). Will I have all the correct gear next time I line up? Yes.

3) What is the race format? Again, I reference the "Enduro 101" article for explanation of the timed stages. Or check out Wikipedia. The timing aspect, by far, is where I needed first-hand experience to understand how to train and prepare in order to compete. Keep in mind the stage recap coming up is only one day and one race worth of information. Some races are multi-day races with 3-5 stages per day. It all depends on the race venue.

Resting up between rounds
Sansom had 5 different stages. I didn't read the online race details carefully or I would have known we were racing each of them TWICE, completing 10 stages for the day.

Although I rode from stage to stage solo in order to gather my thoughts and make mental notes, I know the camaraderie among riders transferring together from one stage to the next is a big part of the attractive vibe surrounding enduro.

4) Pre-Ride: I had every intention of pre-riding the course the day before the race like you do in cross-country, but didn't. I pre-rode the morning of, giving myself about an hour to rest before the pre-race meeting. By the time I had finished pre-riding, my bike computer registered over an hour of ride time. This didn't even count the steep hike-a-bike section I ascended three times just in the pre-ride! (By the end of the day, I had hiked the pitch 9 times.) At the end of the whole race, I had over 3 hours and 25 miles of ride time. Mental note: pre-ride as much as possible the day before, and hit one or two of the trickiest sections the morning of in order to keep the legs as fresh as possible.

5) Sansom Shred Stage Recap:

*For a sweet visual tour, complete with useful commentary of the stages, check out pro rider and podium winner Richard Drew's YouTube video.

Stage #1 had a steep and loose entry into the trees, followed by a tricky switch-back section of the Sansom trail. The addition of a wooden ramp at the start sort of threw me for a loop. I opted to go around, not wanting to christen the day with a wreck. It was interesting to note the differences between an enduro start and a cross-country start. At these races, riders begin each stage one at at time, in approximately 30 second waves. There is no race official to say “3-2-1, go!” You simply line up your wheel at the starting tape, and pedal when your mind is right.
Racers line up at Stage #1 during the first round. This was the only time I had to wait in line for any length of time.
Not all sections are rocks and jumps.
Stage #2 was the longest and included some uphill. On the second go-round of the same stage, my legs were sluggish and my lack of training was woefully exposed. (I was +:12 on the second split. Compare this to the other splits of  -:03, +:01, +:02:, +:01.) Mental note: Do NOT underestimate the fitness aspect of enduro.

Do you have to be a decent technical rider to score well? Sure. But you can't be lacking in speed or endurance if you want to compete at the highest level. In cross country and endurance, time gaps are oftentimes born on the climbs. For enduro, being able to handle the short inclines and hammer the flats is critical.

Stage #3... The one that made race director Bryan Fawley remind everyone to "gear up." It started with the parking lot drop-off that was creating mixed emotions inside of me. Thank goodness for the B-line. For those of you contemplating signing up for a race, pay close attention to this: You don't have to ride every crazy feature. For the gnarliest of gnars, there is usually an alternate line. (And if there is not, it's perfectly okay to jump off your bike). The A-line was the drop, the B-line an easy go around. I took the B-line. It cost me seconds for sure, but it was worth it to keep the bike and body together.

The A drop was off the back of this bricked pavilion.
After the A/B entry, the stage didn't get much easier. In my pre-ride, I came to a fast halt at the brink of a steep and wide section of cascading rocks covered by loose sketch. Two guys were off their bikes scouting the line. I didn't feel comfortable clipping back in from a dead stop at the top, only to avalanche thirty feet down the trail, cursing my fake knee pads in between bounces off the caliche rubble. So I walked two tiered sections down, remounted, and slowly dipped my 29-inch wheel off the last short ledge. I squinted back up at the lines. Left side, left side, right side, middle (drop!). I wasn't sure if I could ride the whole descent come game time or not.

The sage advice I heard from the legendary endurance phenom, Rebecca Rusch, came flooding back to me as I contemplated my decision. "You won't win the race on the downhills, but you sure can lose it." She was referring to the power-line descent of the Leadville 100. There was more truth to her statement on this day than I anticipated. If I got out of control at any point and crashed, then, well, I would be slower.

It was a conversation with another racer, Skye Wedgeworth (who won the amateur division on a hardtail I should add), that gave me the confidence to go for it. Mental note: Confer with other riders in between stages if they are willing. And I think they usually are. 

The last drop on Stage #3. A dropper seat post sure would come in handy here. Photo credit: Kazey Bunch Photography
 A smattering of rowdy on-lookers were perched along the edges of stage 3.

"Slopes are steeper than they appear." Photo credit: Duane Ronan
Mental note: Don't listen to every heckler's advice.

Bolstered by Skye's words of "You can ride this," I rolled down the incline with confidence, going through my mental conversation with intense focus. In the seconds it took to get down, I kept hearing an emphatically loud voice interrupting my zen.

I was trying to decipher if it was good or bad, friendly or foe. Weight back, heels down, far left. Can I make this? Yes, I think I caAAN....Whew! Ok, go right... GET OFF YOUR FRONT BRAKES! Easy on the brakes! What? No, I'm fine. Ok, made - GET OFF YOUR FRONT BRAKE!! - it down that. Ignore him. Almost down. One last drop, you've already done this once. Weight baaAAKK, Nice! Aahhh, thank God, I'm down. Who was that guy?

I generally tune people out when I'm in the zone and thus decided not to GET OFF MY FRONT BRAKE just because someone who may or may not be a decent rider said so. But the crowds at races are generally amicable (even if the spirited encouragement is fueled by free beer). So during the transfer to Stage #4, I contemplated the advice namely because I had heard it before: if you grab the front brake too hard at the wrong time, you'll be kissing the dirt. Or rock.

Since the day was all about learning, I decided I would test it out the second go around. Right in the middle of the steepness, I slightly released the tension on my right brake lever. Immediately, my back wheel started to fishtail. Mental note: Ask someone about this.

FWMBA trail builders packing the jump on Stage #5 weeks prior to the race.
Stage #4 and #5 were just plain fun. They were flowy and fast with jumps and included one of my favorite sections of trail in the metroplex, the dam drop. Stage #5 began with a wooden ramp jump (which I tested out in pre-ride), then a little picnic table area drop. My 100mm cross country rig handled both fine, but each of the trail features left me wanting for more.

6) Timing: If everyone is racing single file, beginning stages at their own discretion, then how the heck do you know who is ahead? In XC and endurance, it’s fairly simple. You all start together. If someone is ahead of you, they are ahead of you. If someone is behind you, they are behind you. Not so in enduro. You are all racing the clock, so you have no idea where you stand until the halfway point when you “dip your chip” and let the clock keeper download your first round times. Or until the end when everyone is done. If you are a Strava junkie (I know, some of you just rolled your eyes), then think of the race as a bunch of Strava segments spread out, and you're after the crown!
Kate Castro, Nic Cronkhite, Brenda Andress
Nic Cronkhite had a great day on the bike and took the top podium spot. She, as well as Kate Castro, were incredibly helpful all day answering my constant questions. ("Is it okay to stop at my car during the race? How long should I rest between rounds?" etc.)

Every single time I do a race report (or have a conversation in general), I get wrapped up in the details. I could go on and on about the day: what the transitions were like, how the weather was hot and I drank a ton and still peed yellow. Mental note: Wrap this thing up...

Hopefully, you are as stoked as I am to jump into the enduro scene. Get online and read about it, join a discussion group, talk to the folks at your bike shop. Best yet, get to a race and start making your own mental notes. I promise there will be friendly racers to help you. If you are still a little nervous, then I encourage you to attend a race as a spectator and feel the enduro vibes in person.

Ready to race next weekend?
(April 29-30)
Dino Enduro in Glen Rose, Texas

Want to race next month?
 Southern Enduro Series.

Check this sight for updates next fall.
Texas Enduro Cup

Want to travel around the nation and race?
IMBA National Enduro Series

Want to (get sponsored, go pro, then) race around the world?
Enduro World Series

Thanks for reading! See ya on the trail.

Pre-ride selfie at the top of Sansom trail, near the Stage #1 entry point. I definitely need a full-face helmet to cover this mug.
Thanks for the photo Ritu Dube!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Dirt Side Sisters #getmorewomenriding!

Who are the Dirt Side Sisters? I'm glad you asked!  
"Teaching the essential and fundamental skills of mountain biking in a fun and safe, learning environment" to 
is what we are all about!

Every Wednesday evening, from April through October, you can find a group of female mountain bikers at different locations around the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex riding their bikes together.

Lining up the bikes at Grapevine Craft Brewery

Cruising around Grapevine lake.
The vision cast over three years ago to "get more women riding," specifically riding mountain bikes, has become a reality. To learn more about the roots of the organization and what we are all about, check us out on our website and facebook.

The first ride of 2016 took place in Grapevine. After greetings and bike checks, we cruised down Main Street, then hit the paved trail around the Grapevine Lake. Even though the dirt trails were closed, we still rolled on.

Micah mastering clipless pedals.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

My yearly random post...

Well, after a full year of randomness (working on a book that might get done when I turn 70, working at a bicycle shop while racing mountain bikes, substitute teaching to make ends almost meet)... I'm back at my regular gig of teaching and coaching, which means I'm back to the long winter haitus from my bike.

As basketball season draws to a close and my bike is seeing more love (only on weekends, but that's better than nothing), I'm bringing out the random pictures from the last several months: 

  Left: Working a fund-raiser for our basketball team at the Texas Motor Speedway. I got to stand and hold this lovely sign for 5 hours. I will spare you the number of comments I heard from beverage toting fans.

Top right: Now that is more like it! Watching our basketball girls come together as they worked hard in the weight room.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Dirt Side Sisters

Sometimes in life an unexpected gift is dropped right into your hands.

That happened to me yesterday, when a simple text from a friend inviting me to join a "women's ride at River Legacy on Friday" and "dinner on the patio at Grease Monkey" afterward turned into an amazing time of fellowship with a group of women who call themselves the Dirt Side Sisters.

Lisa Uranga and Lorinda Putter, two dedicated ambassadors to the sport of mountain biking, have been working hard to build a platform and a community where women can gain confidence and launch into their own adventures on the dirt. I love it!!

I met a whole group of ladies who share the passion for riding. From Plano to Keller to Murphy to Denton, women from all over the metroplex and from all walks of life met at River Legacy for their final ride of the season. The good news? They are starting back up in April!

 Lisa teaches technique at the famous EKG section of River Legacy trail in Arlington.