Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Summer Racing

 This past summer saw some dramatic changes to the typical team bicycle race plan. Those changes simply centered around a drastic reduction in the amount of racing that we participated in. Both Cathy and I have been racing steadily since our return to bike racing, back in 2006. That makes this the tenth season in a row. We started out doing time trials and road races in the spring and summer and took up cyclocross in earnest in the fall. That season we did over road and cyclocross races as well as nearly a dozen weekly time trial races.

From there it only expanded and in 2008 we started MTB racing again, adding a full race season of over ten MTB races to full road, time trail and cyclocross seasons. Shortly thereafter we spent a couple of seasons doing well over 50 races a year, not including a dozen weekly time trials. My biggest year had me over 60 road, MTB and cyclocross races in addition to the time trails. That translated to a nearly continual stream of race registration of competition that spanned all but a short couple of months of the year, and this went on for a number of consecutive years.

Unfortunately, this simply didn't scale and we found ourselves completely consumed. The first thing to go was the road racing and we pared that down substantially. The discipline had started to fade and neither of us were making much headway so it was the easy choice. In the past couple of years, I've had specific MTB related goals so kept a focus on that discipline in the summer, not going crazy with racing but still doing nearly a dozen MTB races a season. Road racing, with the exception of some gravel road racing, had all but disappeared from our radar yet cyclocross remained a core racing target.

The toll of years and years of competition has started to weigh heavily and motivation has been low. I also recognize that I've had a block of really good years of recent and have had no down time. Usually one can expect a down turn, and a lackluster season. I'm due if not overdue and now that I'm in the upper tier of my five year age bracket, at least for cyclocross with a racing age of 48, it is a good time to take a break and maybe preempt the natural downfall with some recovery and rejuvenation so I can build back up for when the odometer clicks over to 50 in a couple seasons.

At least that was the plan and that is what I've been going with all season. It sounds terrible and it sounds lazy but I've spent the season experimenting with doing the absolute minimum possible to maintain the lowest level of fitness necessary to meet my target goals. This season I had few if any goals save for the Kenda Cup East MTB Series, a five race series of events I'd normally do anyhow. That became my only summer goal.Sure, I did a couple of other small MTB races as well like the season opener Muddy Bunny MTBTT and the Craftsbury Nordic Center MTB race but that was it.

In years past I'd always been about one thing, over training. I'd never known what just the right amount was and don't have the long term background and race history to be able to confidently say exactly X amount of training is required to meet Y goal so I just went out and did as much as I possibly could. A few years back I made the realization that for cyclocross, this model simply didn't scale, especially for a middle age racer racing both days every weekend, so I listened to my body and pared back the training. That model has been very effective and I've started to adopt a similar model during the summer as well.

This year I took that model to a new level, with mixed results. I came into the season pretty fit what with big winter and early season blocks as well as some good solid in season efforts. This carried me through the early part of the season and the first few races of the series in good form. However, once the heart of the summer kicked in things started to change. I spent the summer living in VT working on our place there. I was very busy and regularly did ten plus hour days of physical activity, often working right up to dark. That made effective riding a challenge and not terribly productive. I was constantly fatigued and unmotivated and did I mention that it was cold and rained, constantly in VT?

When it was time to race again for real in early July, we returned to MA, greeted by ungodly heat and humidity to a parched, dusty landscape. The first race in those conditions crushed me. The course was brutally difficult as well and certainly took a toll but normally, that would have been a great course for me. However, I dehydrated and bonked so badly that I could barely function. After the race I was the literal walking dead, spending some quality time praying at the bathroom alter, losing what little fluid I was able to put back into my body before finally passing out for a few hours. I lost eight pounds and wasn't right for a week.

The next week we turned around and did it all over again for the Barn Burner Kenda Cup East Series Finale which was also the Regional Championships. This race was at a local, Walpole, MA venue where I'd seen good results in the past, save for the fact that I smashed my face into the rocks and broke my nose there the year before during a pre-ride. The day was crazy hot, again. We were determined not to have the same results as the past weekend though so pre-hydrated like crazy, literally drinking no less than a gallon of fluid before the race. We packed CamelBak's full of ice and fluid for the race and sat around before the race with ice packs on our necks to control the core temperature. I refused to dehydrate and bonk.

But I was a little rattled from the week before. Losing makes you question yourself, your ability. I find that the older I get, the more this happens. Is this the season or the race where the tide is going to turn and I start the inevitable age based downslide? We all age and it is unrealistic to think that when we are already at a fairly high level, we will be able to continue to improve or even maintain, forever. I know that this change is on the horizon and know that I'm treading water, unsure of how long I can continue to do so. That is why I'm trying to force a down turn with the hope of being able to get at least one last upturn in, pushing past where I was previously.

So I get to the start line, feeling a little, cautious and reserved I'll say. I've never been one to play much in terms of race tactics. I'm more a ride as hard as I can to get away and then keep pushing, racing against and trying to beat everyone that I encounter between there and the finish. That sounds shallow and callous but literally, that is how I am wired. This works well in some disciplines, not in others. That day in that race, I knew it wasn't going to work. I questioned my own ability, uncertain as to whether or not (I believed that) I was the strongest there. This was unnerving. I knew the series was already decided based on the work I'd done up front, earlier in the series but I didn't want to win the overall without taking the finale as well. That made for some pressure to perform on that given day.

The start was crazy with a huge field of competitors, all of whom wanted one thing, to finish ahead of me and everyone else there. I found myself going into the woods in about tenth position, not optimal by any stretch. We awkwardly and frantically fumbled through rock gardens and switchbacks and by the time we broke to the first field I was sitting about sixth. Time for a test so a attacked around and laid down as much as I could afford to, but the line of traffic was still there. Not good. On the uphill powerline stretch Matt Boobar went to the front and started drilling it. It was at that point reality sunk in and I knew the plan needed to change. I couldn't drive this race, I needed to be the passenger and just hang on.

Matt led for a while with Rich Pirro and then I in tow. Rich knew the course well and was anxious to lead so when Matt started to fatigue, Rich took over and pushed hard and smoothly. It was all that I could do to follow him and hold his wheel. The pace was hard but I was confident that I could sustain it. My only hope was that Rich would push himself too hard and fatigue. Incredibly we made it through three of the four laps with little perceived change. I knew it was now or never and gambled that Rich was on the edge so coming through for the final lap I attacked hard and decisively and held it as long as I could. This snapped the line and managed to pry open a gap between myself and Rich. I was tired but hadn't run myself to the point of exhaustion in subsequent laps, allowing me to keep pushing at a reasonable pace through the finish. Yes, I had to resort to being a weasel.

Summer goal complete we returned to VT and got back at the work with a vengeance. Knowing that the time there was drawing thin and with so many projects to complete, work load increased and riding tailed in earnest. The rides we did started to evolve into short, interval based high intensity sessions at Kingdom Trails or on gravel roads. This kept them fun while arguably building specific fitness toward cyclocross season, which we still intended to participate in whole heatedly. We also got in a few good, long Kingdom Trails MTB rides on the weekends in some warm humid summer weather, which had finally arrived in VT.

Because the Hodges Dam MTB race was slated as the MA State Championships and because I'd had good success there pretty consistently since 2008, I decided that we should do it. Neither of us wanted to do the race or leave VT but I convinced Cathy to do so. The morning of the race I got an email that said the race would not be the State Championships. We both knew we didn't want to race and had only decided to do so because of the Championships but had made the significant investment to pre-register and travel to MA so got in the van and did so anyhow. During a lap of pre-ride I noted my rear hub was snapping and popping like mad. It had been getting progressively worse so I'd brought spare wheels with me. The wheels were not in great shape nor were the tires but should hold. The course was effectively the same as previous years but was run in reverse. Course marking were somewhat sparse and with numerous lines in many areas, carved out by heavy moto traffic, left the actual routes up to some interpretation. On the line there was talk about this and that if it wasn't explicitly taped, it was all in play.

We started hard and I led putting down what felt like a solid pace while trying not to completely gas myself. We still had a solid group all together though. As we crossed back over the main access road for the second time and into a twisty section of bombed out trail the flow of the trail went one way around a long sweeping corner after a stone wall but there was a hidden shortcut to the left just after that wall. I led and stuck to what I felt was the intended trail. the rest of the group broke left and gapped me. This was my fault for not knowing the shortcut was there and I blame none of my competition for using it. It, however, really pissed me off and in my rage to chase back I clipped a pedal and crashed. Then a very strange thing happened. I lost all interest in racing. I spent the next three laps riding around trying to decide if I'd race standard format XC MTB in the future. I still don't know.

Part of the issue for me personally in how I justify expenses is that entry fees have increased for the MTB races and there are no longer any payouts for Cat1 fields. I get it, we are not professionals and everyone involved in promoting a race is just trying to cover their costs and break even let alone make money. I don't fault them for this decision. I've justified racing similarly though; if I can win enough to cover the entry fee it was a good day and I could rationalize doing it, financially, vs. just going and doing a group ride for fun. Dropping $75 for the two of us to race mediocre trail, which truth be told most MTB races consists of, when we could ride Kingdom Trails with friends and spend the money on good food and beer is a really tough sell, at least for me right now. Others are different and value the competition, I'm just at a point in life where that isn't the priority it once was. Luckily, Cathy had a great race and spent the day racing with her friend Jennifer, which took the edge off an otherwise unfortunate day.

The only other thing left for the summer race scene was the Dirty 40 gravel road race at the very tail end of the summer. That is a whole other story though, one full of surprises and one that I will try and pull together shortly.

We'd hoped to do the VOGP race as well, but things just didn't work out for us (me) to be in a position to be able to do that. Too many things going on and not enough time to do all of them. Having little or no outside commitments during the summer is actually quite refreshing in and of itself. Low key isn't a bad thing.

I also need to document the camp project. Much progress but still not done. Now we are in the heat of CX season, already. Wow, fast and furious.

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