Wednesday, June 3, 2015

2015 TMBRA Spring Series: "Posing as a Pro"

Spring Time = Racin' Time!                               

Trying to live life to the fullest.
I vividly recall my first mountain bike race. It was 2008, in St. Jo, Texas. I had no team, no experience, and less fear than I do now.

I wore underwear under my chammies and heavy duty knee protectors. My brother-in-law kindly asked, "Are you going to wear those?" He was referring to the leg armor, of course.

A little of my bravery came off when they did, but nonetheless I raced my heart out and had an absolute blast.

I've never been the most consistent participant on the local racing scene, even so, I always seem to come back for more.

This year, for the first time in my racing life, I found myself with a full winter to train and the freedom to attend an entire spring series on the Texas Mountain Bike Racing Association (TMBRA) circuit.

My goal was to race all eight races of the February through May series in the "pro/open" category. Could I hang with the big girls? Probably not. Could I get my butt to the start line and finish line eight times? Well, that was my goal. Little did I know the adventures that were just around the berm.

Here is how it went down:

1) "Rocky Hill Roundup," Smithville.

Our field was stacked 11 strong, including the eventual winner on the day, Christina-Gokey Smith, an "American professional racing cyclist," according to Wikipedia. Good thing I didn't know I was racing someone with her own wikipedia page, I was nervous enough as it was. My hope for this first race in over a year, and first race ever with the pros, was to survive and not be too intimidated.

Left to right: Amy Parkinson, Fiona Dougherty, me, and Sarah Ginsbach.
This photo about sums it up: Straight to the back of the pack I went, and stayed for the rest of the race. But it felt good to be back in the TMBRA community and to get a little dirt on my tires.

The defending series champion, Lisa Uranga, finished behind Gokey-Smith, followed by Samantha Runnels in third. If only we could have bottled up the perfect riding conditions from the day and carried them with us to the next race...

2) "Mellow Johnny's Classic," Dripping Springs.

Thank goodness my husband drove us out of Fort Worth. We slid our way south on icy I35, hoping for better conditions as we neared Austin. At the gas station in Waco, where the snow and ice turned to cold rain, my bike looked like it had been attacked by Mr. Freeze.

On the pre-ride, temperatures hovered in the high-30's and sleety drizzle fell. These were certainly not ideal conditions, but for a slow poke like me, I hoped the nastiness might level the playing field.

I guess it did, as I made my first podium as a (poser riding with the) pro(s).  I should mention there were only five of us, and that Lisa took a DNF after a sketchy fall, and Brittany Parffrey had a flat, so I only tiptoed on the bottom step by default. Sometimes you just take the money and run.

Sarah Ginsbach, a strong contender every race and every series, won first. Fiona Dougherty, a sixteen year-old phenom who I predict will make a name for herself in the very near future, finished second.

Is it just me, or does my face look frozen?
Note to self: Don't bother with toe covers in the mud.
I was grateful my drive train kept cranking.

3) "Hill Country Mountain Bike Challenge," Comfort. 

Lisa picks her line.
I should point out a positive of the weekend. I got to catch up with my friend Lisa. We decided to pre-ride together for safety sake due to the plethora of rock gardens. Lisa is always off the front at races, so it was cool to get to actually ride with her, even though her pre-ride pace was about the same as my race pace. She ended up coming in second to Gokey-Smith again, and Fiona climbed into third. 
It's easy to see why neither of us wanted to pre-ride on our own.
Race day was a tough one for me, one of those races where I had to fight more mentally than physically. From the get-go I had mechanical issues, further exacerbated when I went over my handlebars descending a rock section only a few miles in to the 27 mile race. The crash didn't hurt my body, but it wrecked my already suffering psyche (and jacked up my rear derailleur.)

Jessica, me, and Kathy Hudson at the Fossil 50
I was coming off one of my most memorable weekends ever on a bike, where I had actually won a tough endurance race called the Fossil 50. (The Fossil 50 takes place in Glen Rose, Tx. There were 15 women in our field, and local pro Jessica Smith and I leapfrogged back and forth and finished within seconds of each other after over four hours of racing.) Needless to say, I was anticipating doing a little better than I did at this longer style TMBRA race.

My bike was functioning enough to limp across the finish line, so that is what I did. When the mental beating at Comfort (some sort of oxymoron there) was over, I was thankful to crawl into the passenger seat of my trusty Toyota and start the 5 hour drive home with Aaron.

When the car broke down, we were still four hours from home. At least the sky was blue?

Aaron, as usual, brought some much needed entertainment to the weekend. Here he panhandled for some money to pay for our car and hotel and German food. We ended up having the car towed to Fredricksburg where we were stranded for 2 days.

Yes, it could have been worse. And no, that is not the front of the hotel where we stayed. Our motel was across the street. When we got kicked out, we lugged all our junk over to this quaint little spot until we heard the awaited words, "Your clutch is fixed."

4)  "Bent Wheel Bash," Abilene.

Finally in the series, my fitness was showing up on the bike. There were four of us racing: Lisa, Sarah, Andrea Fox, and me. We took to the West Texas trail in that order. Lisa was soon off the front, but I was keeping pace with the other two and felt like I had solid reserves in the tank. After a few miles, Sarah started sneaking away, so I made a move to get around Andrea. My brain was in full race mode and I was stoked to see how the 30 mile race would play out.

Before we were halfway into the first of three laps, some chaos ensued. 

Our swift moving train of three ladies, which had blended with some of the Cat 1 men, came to a sudden halt. Only seconds earlier in front of us, someone ejected from his saddle. It was Lisa's husband, Carlos, and his face was bleeding profusely. She had no idea her husband was hurt, as she was ahead of the group.

It is an unwritten rule among (most) racers to look out for each other, so none of our stalled group was willing to leave the scene until we knew Carlos was okay. The particular spot where we were all temporarily paralyzed was at a narrow rock chute, with surrounding cacti and mesquite preventing a bypass. More racers were arriving and Carlos was still bleeding. For some reason, with my brain firing about ninety miles an hour, I ordered everyone to go on, that we needed to clear the trail, and I would stay with Carlos.

Someone asked, "Are you sure?" Sarah made sure I had my phone. In a calm, but emergency-toned voice, I answered, "Yes, I have my phone. You guys go."

Andrea had been immediately behind me, but had been quiet during the 911 repartee. Unbeknownst to me until we all regrouped after the race, she is one of those souls who cannot stomach the sight of blood. No wonder she was so quiet.

For a moment, I was bummed to watch the race move on, especially since I was feeling strong and wanted to see how long I could stay with Sarah. But I had to bring myself into the moment and let it go. Little did I know that fate and good will would swing a potential DNF into my best finish of the series.

Once the trail was clear, my memory combed through its first aid files. Carlos was sitting up on the ground and speaking coherently, so task number one was to stop the bleeding and check for other head injuries. He had already taken off his sweatband and had it pressed to his face. He was duly upset at his situation, but he was also mad his ordeal was causing someone else to stop. I think he even apologized to me first, and then followed in his accent with, "I can't see." 

Not good.

"Oh no," my mind sputtered, "Lord, please, not his eye." I was afraid he had hit a jagged rock or that his sunglasses had shattered.

"Where am I bleeding from?" When he moved his soaked headband, I could tell he had a deep gash right above his eye. Looking around the rest of his face, from what I could tell under the blood, the fresh neon pink gash was the only injury. I was temporarily relieved. 

"You have a nasty cut right above your eye, but your eye looks okay. Can you see?" At this point, Carlos was getting antsy and frustrated. I was hoping he would answer, "Yes, I can see now," but he answered the exact opposite.

"No, I can't see anything."

I was afraid he had suffered a severe head injury. My next inquiry was if he was dizzy or had a headache. He answered negative to both, and stood up. I was trying to keep him from moving around, still trying to find a phone number of someone in the expo area where the emergency tent was, and trying to watch for oncoming racers. I didn't want to dial 911 prematurely, but I wasn't having any luck contacting anyone back at the start. 

While I was still fumbling around with my phone, Carlos crossed the trail, picked up his bike, and took off his number plate. I remember feeling relieved and thinking, "Ok, he can see." (I think the reason his vision was blurry was from the blood in his eyes.)

Carlos is one tough guy. After a few stitches, he was soon back on his bike.
"Carlos, are you okay?" I called across the trail as he began traversing the cacti minefield toward the main road that led to the expo area.

"Yea, I'm okay." He was already halfway across the inhospitable terrain.

With Carlos en route to the medical tent, I realized it was time to ride. (They gave him the option to go to the emergency room for stitches or sew him up on site. He chose the latter. I saw him after the race, and aside from some greenish purplish swelling, he was okay. *I didn't know until writing this blog post that he took 11 stitches above his brow and 3 in the corner of his eye.) 
I don't know exactly how long I was stopped. My best guess is 4 or 5 minutes. I didn't think I had a chance to catch Andrea and Sarah, but I decided to try anyways. There was still a lot of race left, and my legs still felt strong.

A Cat 1 guy, who I still have no clue who he was, was the power source that pushed me back into the race. Early in the second lap, he was chasing from behind and I made it my goal to keep him behind me. He pushed me and I pulled him, and at the end of lap two, we exchanged thanks. He only had two laps in his race, so as he began chatting even more as he cruised to his finish line, I smiled and said I still had one more lap to go. 

The steady stream of energy to my legs flagged a little as I realized I still had about 45 minutes of hard racing ahead. I was beginning to succumb to my fatigue, when I noticed an odd sight. Sarah was walking backwards on the trail. I stopped (thinking the race was shot anyways) to see what happened. 

"I got a flat. Hey, Andrea is not far ahead," Sarah encouraged.

Before she could finish her statement, I was back in race mode. It was time to turn myself inside out, lay it all on the line, and see what happened. A much needed shot of adrenaline shot through me.

Soon enough, I spotted Andrea in an open, hilly area where the trail traversed up and down some climbs. When she crossed a certain point on the trail, I looked at my computer and noted the time. When I crossed the same spot, I was a little over a minute back. Could I close the gap over the final five or six miles? I wasn't sure. 

At the bottom of a climb, I put my head down and felt the sun beating on my back. I coached my legs, "Steady, smooth. Keep going, just don't stop. One section at at time." As I was grinding it out in my mind, I noticed Andrea coming toward me to my right on a section of trail not far over. I made it to the top and flew back down.

A couple of minutes later, at the bottom of the last steep pitch, I looked up and saw the third odd sight of the day. Andrea was standing at the top of the hill cheering for me. It totally caught me off guard.

In a hypoxic voice, I hollered, "What are you doing?? Go!" But she didn't budge. She just stood there smiling and cheering.

As I drew closer, I repeated, "You don't have to do this, go!" I realized she would not clip back in until I had passed her. In my humble racing career, this was the greatest display of sportsmanship I had ever experienced. "Okay, here we go then."

I know she could have passed me, but she never did. We rode that way all the way to the finish line.

 Andrea, Lisa, and I together on the podium after a most eventful race.

5) "Bicycle Sport Shop Pace Bend Race," Spicewood.

At least the bluebonnets were pretty.

At the start line, a light rain began to fall. It was enough to wreak some havoc on the course. Rocks plus rain equal danger. Of the six racers in the pro/open women's field, two had significant crashes. Samantha was too beat up to continue, and Fiona made it to the finish despite a hurt elbow. Lisa survived the conditions to come in first, Sarah second, and Brittany third.

My body was not cooperating much, and I was off the back and in survival mode from start to end. "Just get to the finish in one piece" became my frustrating motto. I knew the next race on the schedule was my "home" race of the season. Hopefully, I would fare better.

6) "Dorba Prayer Mountain Pedal," Big Cedar Trails, Dallas.

The course was modified due to mud, and it was yet another race to test the nerves of us all.
We ended up doing 4 laps of a 5.5 mile course.

The first lap was the worst, especially on the switchback descents. At a descending snail's pace, with my bike angled steeply on the downhill incline, I attempted to negotiate a sharp left turn in slippery goop. I turned my handlebars to the left, but my bike slowly started sliding off the course to the right. I put my foot down in the mud to stop my slow fall.

Toward the end of the first lap, as I dropped off a technical part and negotiated a massive root at speed, I prayed my mud soaked tires found purchase on the rain soaked trail. I contemplated quitting because I was afraid. The ambulance I had seen out of the corner of my eye at the start didn't help.

I forced myself to stick to my original goal, the one I had set many months prior: Get to the start line, get to the finish line. With each consecutive lap, the conditions improved and so did my attitude. And for the third time of the season, I hit the podium. 

Fiona, Sarah, and me.

For the day's champion (Sarah) and runner-up (Fiona), the series' overall was shaping up to be a battle to the very end. Lisa, who sat out the race, only needed one more victory to defend her series title. With two short, fast races left, she was poised to reclaim her crown. Since the series is the best 5 out of 8, I was glad to finally drop my 11th place from Rocky Hill and replace it with a third.

Sydnei and Sheree.
In the Cat 1 series, Sheree Benavides, who became a traveling buddy of mine to a few races, was racing strong. She and Sydnei Anderson had their own ongoing battle for the Cat 1 series overall champion.

Sheree would eventually wrap up first on her personal quest to the pro ranks.  
7) "GHORBA Big Ring Challenge," Coldspring.

Good conditions prevailed and so did the champions. Lisa took the lead, Fiona right behind, and Sarah in third. Brittany finished fourth, and I, once again, came up last. But I raced hard and enjoyed the day. Funny, my trend for the series went like this: last, podium, last, podium, last, podium, last. 

Even though I was the caboose, the first 7 or 8 minutes of the race were some of the most fun and memorable of the series for me. I was on the train with all of the other ladies and we glided through the tall forest like a unified machine. It was glorious. My happy brain had hopes I could stay with the seasoned riders for the whole race. But the inevitable happened. They put the hammer down, and I smiled and watched them ride away. 
Fiona, Lisa, and Sarah. Three of the best mountain bike racers in Texas.
By this point of the spring season, after seven months of dedicated training and racing, I knew I had reached my personal pinnacle in pro XC racing. I had been careful with my diet, had put in sufficient hours on my road and mountain bike, stayed on top of my flexibility and recovery, and also invested time and energy each week to keep my bike in racing shape. (Which meant swapping from mud tires to race tires, then back and forth again. It also meant bringing a few six packs to the mechanics at Bikes Inc. who did the real wrenching.)

I understood at this juncture, if I wanted to keep up with the pros and compete, I would have to sacrifice more than I was willing to sacrifice. The next level would probably include hiring a coach, buying an expensive power meter, locating some sponsors, and dedicating even more mental and physical energy than before.  

Indeed, I love mountain biking. And I love racing. But I also love many other things in life. Like being home with my husband. And coaching in a February basketball playoff game. And playing disc golf and writing and eating ice cream and Mexican food whenever I want. I love going to church on Sundays and worshiping with my brothers and sisters. I love riding my bike because I feel like it, not because I need to be training.

Can racing fit into all of this? Perhaps. But to compete at the level of the ladies pictured above, it takes tremendous dedication. During my one season with them, my level of respect for what they do only increased.

(More pictures from Coldspring:)
The fat bike competition proved to be a big hit.
Ellie, #512, competes in her first ever mountain bike race.      Alicia, Julie, and Alissa stand atop the Cat 1 podium.

8) Sugar Cycles, the Warda Race.

It wouldn't be the season finale without more adverse weather. Just weeks before the record rains of 2015 wrought Texas with devastating floods, we snuck in one last go 'round. Mother nature, though, was hinting at her grand entry.

My bike before the Saturday pre-ride.
My bike after the pre-ride. The sun shone, but not for long.

Sunday morning, we were all glued to the radar. I took this screenshot a few hours before our noon race. If you can locate the blue dot, and then imagine the rainbow blob drifting east, that is what awaited us. Lightening, thunder, and a steady rain would abound, but the show rolled on for one final adventure.

Some of the guys line up in the slosh.

I saved my pink kit for the finale. It wasn't pink for long.

An adventure it was.  Nine of us raced, and we all made it safely to the finish line. In the series overall, Lisa defended her title, Fiona claimed second, and Sarah third. I had already wrapped up fourth before the Warda race, so I took the day and soaked it all in.

A big congrats to everyone who competed in the 2015 Spring TMBRA series, and a big thanks to all the volunteers and race directors who made it happen. It was definitely a season to remember.

Yours truly,

The poser.

A few outtakes from the season:
I hope that stuff in the pasture was all mud.
Sheree works on a drawing at an Austin hotel.
Lisa is interviewed by a local Abilene reporter.
A large field of Cat 3 racers await the start at Coldspring.
I raced with Lisa Hartman at the season finale. I hadn't seen her since Leadville in 2013.
Me and Sheree
Alicia and Ellie
Warda winners: (left to right) Lisa, Fiona, Sam, and Kara Uhl.
2015 Pro Women's State Champion Series:  me (4), Fiona (2), Lisa (1), Sarah (3)

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