Last Sunday I headed out to Montgomery Bell for the State Championship mountain bike race. I've only ever done a handful of mountain bike races, but I'd been riding the trails a bit over the summer. I wanted to do the State race for a few reasons. First, I wanted a really really hard day in the saddle as a training day for cyclocross. Second, I wanted to see the gap between and actual, good mountain bike racers. Third, I just like to race bikes and the environment at mountain bike races is by far the best among all the disciplines that I've tried.
All of those reasons made sense to me at the time I decided to race and when I registered. But, as I was driving out to the race, it was obvious to me that I was in way over my head-I had never raced this race distance or against folks this fast(amazingly, in a mountain bike race they just let you do whatever race you want, with the exception of the pro race). Usually I just calm myself by thinking, "How bad could it be?". On the road, the worst case scenario is usually just getting dropped and dealing with the attendant embarrassment. On the trail, I was very aware of the possibility of my day ending in the hospital. So I decided that was goal number one: Finish the race in one piece. No hospital for me. How's that for goal setting?
I got to the trail and set about getting ready to race, and I took note of all the things I didn't know: How do people warm up-on the trail or on the road? I know mountain bike races start hard, but folks seemed pretty relaxed about warming up. How do people get calories in? Or hydration? Montgomery bell is a pretty technical trail; it didn't seem to me like there were many opportunities to take even one hand off the bars. I decided I'd do a fairly hard warm-upand just hope to figure out the food/water situation as I went.
The time came to line up, and that part was pretty straightforward-there were only six guys in the race. We started, and I went into the woods in fourth spot.
I realized immediately that I was in trouble. The first part of the trail after entering the woods is by far the most benign of the whole course: lots of turns, but flat and fast. I was trying to hold on to the first three guys, who were wheel to wheel. But I was losing ground at every opportunity-braking into turns, losing momentum on any rock or root that presented itself. And, even worse, I realized that I was holding up the two guys behind me. this part of the trail was narrow, so, not only could they not get around me, but they were being forced to do what I was doing: come to almost a complete stop at every bend in the trail and then sprint to catch back on.
After ten or fifteen minutes of that stop/sprint/repeat, I realized that there was no way I could keep it up-it was going to be a long race, and I just couldn't waste that much energy. I eased up and tried to smooth out my effort, albeit at a slower pace. One of the guys behind me came by the second the trail widened out. He instantly disappeared up the trail in search of the front group of three. The last person behind me was James Buckingham, whom I know from racing on the road. He said he was content just to hang back and ride easy, but even he was forced to come by after I bobbled one of the more technical sections and was forced to dismount.
So, halfway through the first lap, I was rattled and in last place. I had 2.5 laps left, and that seemed like a lot. This suddenly seemed like a terrible idea. But I reminded myself that this was exactly what I signed up for. I decided that I would try to just ride steady-the goal was lap times that were within a minute of each other. Maybe, if I got lucky, one of the other guys would get tired and I wouldn't finish last.
That's what happened. In the back half of the first lap and the beginning of the second, I started to see James again. I'd get close on the climbs, we'd ride together for a while, and then on anything even moderately technical he'd ride away again. I started to get a bit more comfortable, though. Halfway through the second lap, we caught and passed the fourth place rider-it looked like he had worn himself out chasing the front three. Shortly after, James seemed a bit out of gas and let me by at the bottom of one of the climbs.
As I went through the start/finish to start the third lap, I felt pretty good. My first two laps weren't fast, but they were at least consistent. And, at least for the moment, I wasn't in last place. I was pretty happy as I headed back out into the woods and on to the trail.
That didn't last long. Ten minutes into the third lap I ran out of energy almost entirely and seemingly all at once. My back was killing me, and my hands, after two hours of death-gripping the bars , started to cramp. I didn't even know that hands could cramp like that-I'd never had that happen to me before. For most of that last lap, I was just trying to survive-it became so difficult to concentrate that I was sure I was going to ride right off the side of the trail. Luckily I held it together and got across the line in one piece, but it wasn't pretty.
I was pretty wrecked. My back was tweaked for a day or two, my legs were destroyed and I basically slept for the next three days. But I was so glad I went. I was so impressed that the guys in front of me could actually race-not just ride but race-that course for three laps. And I was astounded that folks could come in from out of town, having never seen that trail at all, and get out on it and go fast. The whole day was a trip outside my comfort zone, a very painful trip, but I'm glad I went. I don't know if I'll ever be able to develop skills like all of the fast folks that I saw and raced against. But I know I can improve, and I'm excited to try.
And I didn't end up in the hospital, which is nice.