Monday, November 17, 2014

World Championship Time Trial: A Six-Hour Success

"When you want to quit you have to surrender to the moment, and find a calm." 

--Mark Allen

Me at the starting line of the 2014 6-12-24 World Championship Time Trial Race in my Great Basin Bicycles skinsuit.

This was supposed to be my race. That was my thought as my bike was propped upside down on its handlebars and seat, its rear tire removed and the contents of my saddle bag strewn in the desert sand. I try not to think my race is over, fumbling with the tire irons to extract my tube so that I can replace it with the only one I have left.

The hardest part wasn’t getting the tube out; instead, it was keeping thoughts of you’ve already failed out of my head so I don’t start panicking… or, crying. 

On Friday “Team Great Basin Bicycles”-- of which I was a part-- drove to the 6-12-24-hour WorldChampionship Time Trials held in Borrego Springs, California on Saturday. We weren’t big, as teams go: Rich (the owner of GBB) would ride in the mixed tandem 6-hour time trial division with stoker Irena. Then there was me: competing in the solo female division for the six-hour time trial event.  

Packing the car for the event-- I'm still amazed we fit one tandem bike, one "bumblebee" bike, a cooler, 64 water bottles, five suitcases, snacks, cycling gear and three riders in there.

The landscape of 395-south is primarily desert, although it varies in type. There is high-desert steppe at the base of the Eastern Sierra where, once you’re far enough south, the mountain peaks top 14,000 feet, dwarfing the valley floor (like in Independence, California, home to one of my favorite western writers, Mary Austin.) Eventually that landscape gives way to the Mohave, the land of creosote, Joshua tree and power line; the grand Sierra fade into the distance and the sky spreads out without its frame of mountaintops. 

Just so you know, from Reno to Borrego Springs is about a ten-hour drive, so it gave me plenty of time to think. (As Rich said on the way down: We must be crazy: we are driving a bit over twenty hours round trip to do a six-hour bike race. And when you put it like that, it does sound crazy.) 

Driving by Topaz Lake on Friday morning.  Watching the landscape change on the drive down was one of my favorite parts of the event, actually.

Crazy is relative, however, like distance and time. What seems so incredibly long (a five-mile run if you are not a runner or a century on the bike when you’re just starting out) can become effortless with the right kind of training (or, maybe it’s never effortless. I would argue, though, that the question of pace--of how fast-- quite a different creature than can I finish?) 

It was in this context of a new desert landscape (Borrego Springs, it turns out, was much more like Independence than the Mohave in that it was framed by tall mountains on all sides; unlike the Mohave in its palm trees, grapefruit trees, and golf courses) that I would have to face another unexpected challenge of endurance racing: anything can happen. 

Some high-Sierra beauty somewhere around Lone Pine, the gateway to Mt. Whitney.

If you’ve read any part of this blog, I’m sure you know the story. In 2010, I was training for the Olympic Trials and I didn’t make it. This past season, changed my focus and was training for the Lake Tahoe 70.3 Ironman and that, too, didn’t happen. This isn’t to say I don’t have victories (I did great this year at the Lake Tahoe Triathlon which was an Olympic Distance event as well as the Davis Double where I completed my first double century EVER!) But I haven’t had the kind of victory I think I could have, if all the stars align. 

I had hoped this Time Trial would be my event… at least for 2014. After all, I have a lot of miles on the bike (inside and out) as well as a solid 17-20 hours of training each week. I’ve also been more careful about my nutrition than I have in the past. And although this isn’t a scientific measure, I just feel “healthy.” My pre-race goal had been to complete 120-130 miles in six hours including the time it would take to stop and restock my water and food supplies. 

The more and more I participate in these types of events, though, the more I am coming to understand their fickle nature: yes, it’s a staged event and yes, it’s not quite like venturing across the Antarctic, but there is some element of the unknown even in a time trial, a triathlon, a marathon. Will you sprain your ankle? Run over a nail and get a flat? Fall and break a collar bone? Panic and nearly drown in the swim? 

Maybe the question is never, quite, how fast. Maybe there is, always, some element of maybe I won’t make it no matter what you do.  And in this, maybe these events are just like life: maybe I won’t make it you think when you’re in college, single, married, starting a new job, ending a career, moving, buying a house, losing a house, taking that step into the unknown-- no matter the event-- maybe it’s human to wonder maybe I won’t make it through?

Somewhere right before the Mohave desert when Rich relinquished the driver's seat and Irena took over.

The race morning was warm. I was in short sleeves and shorts and still-- can you imagine in November-- sweating? I was the only woman competing in the solo six-hour time trial; the rest were ten male competitors and two tandem teams. One was Rich and Irena (my Great Basin Bicycle teammates) the other a two-man team who was, oddly, listed as a mixed team.

I hadn’t really studied the course before the event. I knew it was an 18-mile loop, that it was mostly flat and that about five hours after our noon-start time, we would switch to a smaller, 5-mile loop until the race ended at six. It be a day of right-hand turns, of burning hamstrings and quads, and a day of going as fast as I can and my only limit being my strength and/or my ability to hold onto a certain cadence or pace.

When the time trial began, I was hopeful. I rode hard, but not too hard, finding my rhythm as I rested in my aerobars. Rich and Irena passed me early-- in the first two miles-- before Rich misjudged a turn. But I saw them before mile 5, and looking strong, they left me behind. I swore to myself: please don’t let the tandem train catch me before I reach 100 miles. 

Borrego Springs, where the race was held. This shot, taken on race morning, shows the contrast of desert and mountain.

I completed one lap in well under an hour despite the headwind up the only climb on the course. I didn’t even stop for water. I believed this was my event to fly through.  I very nearly did: I exchanged places with a rider from Montana who looked like he does these events often. I rode strong until mile thirty when, with a swift headwind in my face, I felt the floppy wobble of a flat back tire. 

I don’t quite believe it at first. I kept riding for a while until I looked between my leg and the saddle and saw the black of my tire spread flat against the pavement. 

I didn’t want to go back to Reno with a round of excuses why I am not a good athlete. I had a flat tire. I had stomach issues. The wind was wrong. I wanted, finally, to just be good and to own it, if that makes sense. It was hard not to be devastated especially as riders I had passed in previous miles rode by me in the wind and I watched, literally, the passage of time.

I told myself not to work too fast and not to panic. I kept my hands steady, using the plastic tire iron to loosen the tire from the rim. Then I slid my fingers along the inside of the tire to find what flattened the tube. (A staple. The only one on the entire course, probably.) 

I replaced the tube with a new one when another rider stopeds to help me. I didn't ask for his help but with his lovely English accent (or was it Australian? I only know that it was lovely—bordering on sexy-- his words like someone who takes a flat tire like you might take an adult beverage, straight up-- why thank you, and can you pour me another one?)I couldn't say "no." 

I was stopped for what felt like an eternity. I appreciated the man with the accent even though he gave me a hard time for having no more water.   I nodded and said something like, "I know," even though it was all I could do to keep myself from crying. 

I just didn't want to fail anymore. I was--and am-- tired of failing. 

When I got back on my bike, I told myself: no bathroom breaks. No more food. I will stop only for water. And that is, more or less, what I did. I had to catch the time which passed me. 

On our pre-race walk, we didn't see much, if any, wild life. Instead, we experienced a lot of sand-- sand that would later blast across our faces in the high winds that day.

The athletic mode of narrative advises that I tell you that I was in pain. Or, that I was unaware of pain. That time passed quickly or slowly. That I was in extreme discomfort. If you want to know the truth, though, I don’t remember most of the ride which followed my flat. 

I remember wanting to cry for a while and wanting to stop because I thought my race was over. At some point after I refill my water bottles, though, I decided to make  the rest of the ride a game. Maybe I could try to ride each lap faster than the one before it? I asked myself. Negative split the entire thing.

The only other thing I remember, really, was catching a glimpse of myself in shadow, a projection of me cast upon the desert sand. I had a zen-esque moment, thinking something like: everything is a fluid transitory thing; life, an ocean wave, at best. 

Then I took another right turn and my shadow vanished.

Riding up the slight incline where I’d gotten my flat, a race official informed me we’d be switching to the short loop early. I admit: I was shocked (it wasn’t quite 4:00 pm and I wondered if he thought I was riding so slow I wouldn’t get back to the pit area by 5) but I found out later the choice was made, in part, because of the strength of the wind.  Several riders had disk wheels on their bikes and the wind was blowing them all over the road. The shorter, five mile lap provided more shelter from the strong winds.

What I remember of those final laps: the wall of sand we rode through on the first straightaway, a coyote which stood at the side of the road, watching me go by, the feel of speed as the wind pushed me along the course, the final turn and straightaway to the “pit” area where I seemed to pass so many riders (why were they slowing down?)

In the final laps, I remember the bright pinks and reds of the sunset-sky, the pain in my right shoulder and hip like a heartbeat and then, the challenge of riding in darkness. 

The week before, Rich had made me close my eyes while riding out of the saddle in a CompuTrainer class and I recalled the experience in the final 45-minutes of the race. I wasn't as disoriented as I might have been. I remembered how I had kept my center centered, my pedal stroke even and I tried to do the same as day faded to night.

The area around the race course featured these large, metal sculptures. This one (a serpent) occurred about two miles into the long lap. In the really strong winds, some of these sculptures (the horses, especially) looked like they were alive and moving!

I crossed the pit area at 5:00, 5:13, 5:28, 5:45. In this time trial, the miles only count if you completed a lap and I had a choice to make: stop now or try for one more before the end at 6 pm. I decided to go for it. I had finished the other laps under fifteen minutes; I reasoned that I would be able to do it one more time even though I had nearly six hours of riding on my legs and parts of my body I normally don’t feel ached.

I rode toward every red flashing tail light and I kept telling myself that I could do this, that I had ridden hard and done my best. Yes, I’d had a flat tire. Yes, I kept going.

I crossed the line with a minute to spare making my mileage total for the day 115. It wasn't quite what I’d hoped for, but considering the flat and the wind, it wasn't bad. I would be shocked, later, to find I’d ridden the third fastest time of all the solo six-hour riders and I was only five miles behind Rich and Irena who would win the mixed tandem division.

So maybe there is something in not stopping—or, not giving up—when life serves you a flat tire. Maybe the best thing (or, the only thing) to do is say in your sexiest accent, why, thank you, because you get to overcome a challenge, to work hard, to finish despite rather than because of. 

Place: 1
Distance: 115 miles

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Notes in the (off) Season

Can you be an athlete if you don't compete?


I was actually shocked when I realized that I hadn't blogged since the Lake Tahoe Ironman and the 70.3 were cancelled due to bad air conditions nearly two months ago. It's not that I haven' been training-- or writing-- but somehow the blog slipped through the cracks. In the off chance that you follow this craziness, I'm sorry. I really have been blogging (in my mind); but that's not entirely useful for you since no one's discovered, quite, how to read minds yet.

So, what have I been so busy doing? Well, training, of course: I try to maintain 20 hours a week of the swim/bike/run gig. The diminishing hours of daylight and (as of tonight) the end of daylight savings time has made getting those 20 hours more difficult. The palms of my hands are scratched up from running in the dark before morning and falling (yes, I know, I need some sort of head light) and the few days I've tried to take the bike outside after work, I'm shocked at how dark the world gets when I'm only thirty minutes into an hour ride (I guess I need lights for that, too.) And there is something that happens in the body, I believe, with all this cold and darkness: with not wanting, really, to be up and out so much. A big part of me wants to curl up with War and Peace or maybe even Infinite Jest and just read with my cats curled around my feet.

But darn it: I've got dreams. And I'm an athlete (I think?) even though I haven't competed in what seems like forever.

Or... am I an athlete? What measures can I apply to know for sure in lieu of an event where I'm tested against other bodies?

One of our riders traversing Nevada's "loneliest highway" during the Silver State 508.

At the beginning of October, I crewed for a two-man relay team for the inaugural Silver State 508-- a 508-mile cycling race across the state of Nevada which began in Reno and headed east on old highway 50 to Eureka and back again the same way.

Me playing shadow puppets (sort of) as we wait to hand off supplies to our rider.
I wasn't an athlete in that event (although if you watch how I handed off bottles to our riders, you have to admit it took a certain degree of skill--and leg-speed-- to make a successful exchange); and as we drove/rode across the empty spaces, I couldn't help but feel disappointed in myself that I have not become a real, an elite, a true athlete (yet.)

Following our rider across the high desert en route to the finish line in Reno, Nevada.

Maybe one day? I certainly hope so....


Then, there was the Foxy's Fall Century in Davis I rode with Rich and several women who trained with him on long rides, CompuTrainer rides and any and all other kinds of rides.

I told Rich I really just wanted to ride as fast as I could and I did: I stuck with no one in particular, just lay low in my aerobars, stopped only for water and the essentials and ended up turning out 100 miles in about five hours.

Cruising comfortably at about 20 miles into the ride just outside Davis, CA.

The weather was perfect: still and calm and only a little chilly in the morning: once I'd returned to Davis I rode the course in reverse looking for Rich and the girls. I didn't see them, but the additional miles gave me 130 for the day-- 100 of them at a steady clip. I just loved it.

Granted, it was an organized ride and not a race, so there are no bragging rights attached (it's unfair to pair yourself against people who are only there to complete the distance, not compete it) but I do hope it's a sign of good things to come (that I can ride 100 miles and feel fantastic and then ride some more and still feel, more or less, fantastic.)

Plus, I got this really kick-ass photo of me on my bike, Bumblebee. ..
And I caught up with some incredible athletes from the Reno area. Tim (in green) and his wife Martine (who is taking the shot) both did Boise 70.3 with me last spring and are such an inspiration. My friend Rich (left) is the owner of Great Basin Bicycles, he came in 8th in the 508 (solo) and won the 308 earlier this year as well. 

I say that because I do have a race on the horizon, the Ultra-Endurance World Championship Time Trials. In some ways, this will be my first cycling race ever and I have to admit, I'm nervous. I don't know who I'll face in those six hours; and I don't know how (exactly) I'm going to handle the nutrition part of it.  I just rode 105 miles today inside on the CompuTrainer and felt, well, not terribly awful and it didn't take me six hours to do that distance so I hope for a good result from this event.

But I still wonder, I still can't quite decide: am I an athlete, still?

I wonder about all these hours I put into training-- I believe I could do well at an Ironman one day. But sometimes I think I'm the only one who believes that, who sees potential in a body that isn't particularly thin or athletic. That looks, well, normal. Boring, even.

OK, maybe this isn't remarkable, but I so love my little Sanchia-cat. And I love writing and reading and cooking. And maybe a part of what I am finding out is that I am an "Athlete-and...." . An athlete AND a friend. An athlete AND a cat-mom. An Athlete AND a writer.

Or maybe this goes back to the changing seasons, the diminished light. There's a song about that, isn't there? Everything turns, turns, turns; there is a season, turns, turns, turns... and maybe life, in a way, is cyclical (like the turning of my legs on the crank) and maybe it is OK to curl up sometimes with the cats, it is OK to write; just like it is OK to dream that one day I can toe the line at the World Championships in Kona that my body has that potential despite the dark hours, the wintertime.

After all, I have my hours. Maybe it is time I start believing in them.