Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Tough Enough

The Snake.  Those 2 words conjure up fear and respect in the mind of any Southern mountain biker.  A challenging time trial series hosted by North West Georgia Sorba, it occurs deep in the sleep of cold, rainy, dreary and often snowy winter.   The allure of harsh conditions seems to draw the cyclists out in droves.   I have never understood that drive to get out in the dark veil of winter, but instead retreat into my warm cocoon safe and snug oblivious to the slow doom of a slothful life.  Something odd happened in my cocoon this winter, something clicked.  I wanted to do The Snake.

The time trial is held the first Saturday of January, February, and March.   January 4th came and went without me having the slightest bit of interest in partaking of this madness.   Raja, on the other hand, headed out the door at 5:30 a.m. eager as a beaver to participate.   The conditions were horrible in my book.   It was cold, windy, and dreary.   That's reason enough to stay home in bed and sleep till 8.   Raja had a wonderful time and pulled off a 2nd place finish for his class.   Happy for him, I still wasn't taking the bait.

After an unpleasant crash last October on a mtn bike ride at Bull Mountain, my cycling came to a halt for 4 weeks.  Prior to the incident, I was finally enjoying some regained fitness that had been lacking for a number of years.   However, as I have learned, just when things seem to be falling into place, that one little thing will happen to turn it all upside down.   Between a long recovery and the approach of winter and the holidays, I did not do much riding at all the rest of the year.   I wasn't ready to ride anyway.   That crash had done a number on me and I needed time to heal mentally.

January arrived and I still wasn't riding much.  We did start the first day of the New Year off with our traditional ride on the Pinhoti.   It was fun and I enjoyed getting back out there despite being totally freaked out on the downhills.   I did another big mtn bike ride a couple weeks later at Stanley Gap and was still struggling mightily with the speed of any downhill.   However, my body was thrilled to be back out there sweating and working.   Sweat and work I did indeed since I was so terribly out of shape compared to all my riding companions.   They had all been racing The Snake and diligently putting in hours of riding regardless of conditions.

Staying home and riding the spin bike whilst Raja was out riding somewhere just wasn't going to cut it for me this winter.   I made the decision that I was going to have to suck it up and get out there with him and do the best I could.   Freak out or not, I could still creep down the hills and eventually catch up with the crew at the next regroup spot.   My mental barriers were not going to go away on their own.   I could either be a mental case that was out of shape or a mental case that was in shape.  I choose the latter.

The weekend before the 2nd Snake time trial, Raja was able to convince Joe and Ken to join us for a ride on the last 17 mile section of The Snake.   We would do it as an out and back.   I went along half looking forward to the challenge.   It is a hard ride, but I survived despite a mild bonking episode before the last long climb.   It was nothing a Gu couldn't resolve and we were all content with our little 4.5 hour adventure.   Something happened during that ride that clicked in my head.   I wanted to do The Snake time trial.

I didn't tell anybody, not even Raja.  I wanted to sit on it all week and make sure my mind wasn't playing tricks on me.   Instead, the desire seem to grow with each passing day and I found myself actually looking forward to it.   The day before I finally told Raja I was going to do it.   I emailed Joe to ask him something regarding the logistics and he thought it was a joke.   It took a few emails before I could convince him I was serious!

So, what's the big deal about me racing?   Everyone knows I gave up racing a long time ago.  I don't like racing.  I don't like what it does to me.  I turn myself inside and out and become possessed.   It's just not a good thing.   Now that I no longer have the racing fitness necessary to put up a fight, I figure it can be a different experience.   I can go out there to just give it my best to conquer the course for me, not against anyone else, only against myself.   It's me against my own fears and shortcomings.   Nobody else exists out there.   I want to be courageous not because I have no fear, but because I'm doing it afraid.

I always wanted to be a good strong racer, but never really accomplished that goal.   I may have put up a facade, but have never been proud of any of it.  I simply didn't have the maturity at the time to be a good racer.   How ironic, now that I feel like I may be getting the maturity part of racing, I no longer have the fitness half of it.  Given the choice of the two though, I definitely would rather have wisdom than razor edge fitness.   You can always work on your fitness, but wisdom doesn't necessarily come that easy.

Raja got us up on race day at 0:darkhundred.  He likes to be early and prepared, and I've learned not to fight him on that.   It was still dark when we pulled into the parking lot, but hundreds of cars were already there.   I never ceased to be amazed at how many people willingly come out to do these things so early on a cold winter morning!  

A few familiar voices greeted me as I walked to registration.   It's so comforting to see your friends and it helps to take the edge off your nerves.   At the registration tent the volunteers were a bit puzzled with what to do with me.  You mean you haven't registered, at all?!?!   Nope, I'm here for the first time and need to sign up!   It's a real luxury that these folks let you do that.   Most races you can't sign up on the day of the race.

A smiling face was finally found to help me register.   She got out a sharpie and asked me to write my race number somewhere on my body.   Huh?  I was confused.  There wasn't going to be any part of my body exposed today.   This wasn't like a triathlon, was it?   I'm not running around in my bathing suit with a race number tattooed on my thigh.   I plan on being bundled up like a snow bunny.  It's 29 degrees right now, thank you very much.

She patiently explained that they like to write the bib number on your hand so in case you forget your number then you can quickly get to it.  Oh, okay.  I guess if I get separated from my bike and cannot look at the number plate on the front, then I can race with my hand flailing in front of me.   I grabbed a blue sharpie and etched #472 on my forearm.   Hmmm, that meant I had at least 471 other riders that would want to pass me on the course today.   Guess I won't be all alone out there afterall.

In retrospect, I wish I had chosen a red sharpie, or even a black sharpie with which to mark myself.   We all know that a race number plate gives you magic powers.   Imagine the power that number gives when it is actually marked on your body?!   Blue ink?   How fast could blue be?   Yes, I should have chosen red or black.

The mood was light as everyone scurried about getting bikes to the shuttle and finding a place in line for the buses.  It was hard to recognize faces since everyone was bundled up.   Raja was doing the 17 mile race. Wishing him a safe race, I kissed him goodbye as Joe and I set off to the start of the 34 miler.   With the nerves setting in like clockwork, we were both ready to get this show on the road.  Getting out of the car, the cold air hit me like a ton of bricks.   Argh, I do not like cold.   Immediately I changed my tune.  There was no time for being negative or dwelling on the unpleasantries.

Standing in line for the restroom, there was ice all over the place.  I secretly hoped there was no ice on the trail today.  Raja had given me a lecture on precautions for the ice.   He did not want me getting hurt.  Neither did I.   I saw my friend, Gary.  He was shocked to see me.  Why are you here?   You're doing the 34?!?   He gave me a hug.   It was the most comforting reassuring hug I've had in a long time.  Gary had no idea at the time just how much his hug meant to me.  He knows the challenges I'm dealing with with my cycling and that hug exuded all the confidence and love a friend could offer.   I needed that.

As the race start line started to form, I bolted to get a good place.   I felt so bad to be in the first part of the line, because I knew all those people behind me would need to pass me in no time.  However, I needed all the headstart I could get.   I could only hope none of them would be too angry with me and hope they knew I didn't think I thought I was all some kickass racer!   The air was jovial with racers joking and chatting.  This was definitely not the race start atmosphere I remember from my racing days.  I was starting to see why everyone is drawn to this race.

Slowly the line started to trickle forward to the start line as racers were let off at 10 second intervals.  In no time I found myself at the line.  "Race number?"  #472. " I don't have a name for that number."   My heart sank. Oh geez, I've come this far and I won't even get to go.   My fears were short lived.   She asked my name and typed it in.   I kept my fingers crossed that my time would count and rolled off the line as the announcer said, "Go".

Such relief!   It had finally happened!  I was racing!   Well, racing is a loose term.   I was riding on a race course with a race number attached to my bike.   My fingers were freezing and I pulled them back in my gloves.   The sound of a rider behind me occurred at an alarming rate.   Every 20 seconds someone was coming by me.  " Hey, go girl,"  I recognized James voice as he sped by me at warp speed.  We were just approaching the creek crossing and I watched him carefully to see the conditions.    It looked fine and I held my breath as I blazed through splashing up cold water onto my bootie covered feet.   James disappeared like a black dot in the distance.   I was happy for him and his strength.   In fact, I was happy for all the dozens of guys that whizzed by me (and a few girls).   I was happy with myself for not letting it bother me.

The long singletrack climb began and I steadily worked my way up the trail trying hard to stay within my means.   There was a long way to go and I didn't want to blow my wad in the first hour.   The racers continued by the dozens to pass me.   One here, two there, all doing so in a kind and gracious manner.   I hear from behind, "hey Laurie, do you mind if I come by you?"   I laughed.  It was Gary being his usual polite self.   Oh goodness, please Gary, come by right now!   I consciously made an effort to be aware of anyone coming up on me and would give them room to pass so they wouldn't have to lose any ground or break their rhythm.   The trail is narrow with a drop off to one side, and it took all my concentration to hug the right edge while still pedaling yet not taking anyone out.

Sometimes I kept pace for a short while with whoever had just passed me, but most of the time I focused on riding my race, not theirs.   I grabbed my gel flask to down some gu, except I couldn't get anything to come out of the flask.  Argh!   Getting very annoyed, I realized it was too cold for the gel to flow out of the tiny hole.   I had used the wrong flask and the mouthpiece was too small for cold winter riding.  Uh oh, Houston, we have a problem.   How am I going to get the energy in my body?    Any food I tried to eat made me gag.  It had to be gel.   Fortunately I had some extra packs in my jersey pocket.   Digging around in one's back jersey pocket while climbing on singletrack is not the easiest feat.   I tried not to be mad over this bump in the road.

I'm not going to give a blow by blow account of my ride, but suffice it to say, it was harder than I had anticipated.   There is something about racing that you cannot simulate.   Although I had completed a similar 4.5 hour ride on part of this course the week before, this was lightyears harder.   After 2 hours every muscle in my legs started to revolt.   The cramps were imminent.   My race had now changed to a cramp management program.   No false moves or the results would be ugly.   This course has over 5,000' of climbing.   How was I going to do all that while staying off cramps?

It was not easy.  It was painful.  I felt like I was going so slow that I could have been faster had I been walking.   The speed of downhills scared the crap out of me.   I did it all anyway.     I wanted to quit, but then I told myself that wouldn't really prove anything.   I could get through this.  I just had to keep moving forward, slow or not, just keep moving forward.  Does that make me courageous?  Not really.   Just determined.  Was it unexpected?  Shoot yea!  I never expected in a million years to be doing this, but here I was.   I never expected a lot of things in my life, but they occur nonetheless.   How I respond to them is the issue.   I expect to shrink back in the face of fear and hurt.  As I grow older and wiser I find that to do the unexpected in the face of the unexpected is more likely the empowering thing to do.

I almost feel silly now even making a big deal over my fear of speed or downhills.   So what if I go slow?  I'll get to the bottom eventually.  We all have fears and issues with which to deal.  Facing your fear doesn't necessarily make it go away.  Quite the opposite in many cases.  However, those scary voices that taunt me seem a little less noticeable, not so loud and persistent anymore.

We tend to applaud the winners of the race and the champions.I like to applaud the middle/back of the pack and the ones that know they will never be first place, but do the race anyway.  When I crossed the finish line, my 'competition' had long since completed their race.  As I hopped on the paved road downhill to the parking lot, I was hootin' and hollerin' with joy.  I did not care who heard me because I was delighted to have completed the task I started.   When I came across the line I was absolutely stunned.  Not only was my sweet Raja there to congratulate me, but also a number of other friends.   They had raced as well, but chose to hang out for hours in the cold waiting to cheer me on.  Wow!

 My heart was about to burst not only from the effort, but also from receiving the love and support from my dear friends.   My results were nothing compared to all of theirs, but they made me feel like I had conquered the world.  Mountain biking has not only taught me physical skill and ability, but a vast array of life lessons. I'm glad I've held fast through all these years in order to reap the benefits of the experience that much of it brings.  Medals and trophies don't mean that much to me anymore.  We had a closet full that eventually ended up in the trash.  However, I cherish and continue to hold on to the invaluable memories of moments like these, fun rides and crazy adventures with my friends.   That's what gets me through the real tough times in life.  

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