Gritty

Sometimes, the race isn't just about time and competition - but the mental struggle to push through the bad patches. True Grit Epic was one of those races for me. After finishing 5th and just off the podium last year, I'd set my goal for top five again, but cutting 10 minutes off my finish time from last year. It was doable - at least the time goal - but as I saw the list of women signing up, the place goal was getting further and further out of reach. I might be racing endurance for years, but I still see certain riders as "big dogs" of the mountain bike world. And I am just a puppy, cutting my teeth on the rocks and singletrack. It would take a perfect race for me to be keeping pace with some of those ladies. I know going into a race already resigned like that mentally isn't good, but that's the place I was in. I hadn't gotten the confidence boost from the fat bike races like last year. This time I'd watched to winner easily climb away from me, feeling like the bike was stuck in molasses underneath me. And I'd been racing a lot - I had a race every weekend in February  between fat biking and running. Mentally, I wasn't in a good place heading out to St George.

But such is the beauty of mountain biking - when confronted with mental blocks like those, the joy of simply riding can take over. We prerode Zen and I was grinning. And then the waterfall on barrel rolls - I was a little psyched out the first time I approached the drop in and it wasn't the smoothest line choice. But the second time around it was like I was flowing down the rocks. I was happy, excited and ready to toe the line with some of the fastest women around. I knew I could ride the technical stuff with the best of them. As far as the fitness stuff? Well, that was yet to be seen.There are four main segment of True Grit - from the neutral start on the blacktop to Zen, the Zen loop, the fun of Bear Claw Poppy leading into the unending climb of Stuki Springs and then finally the singletrack on Barrel Roll. Two fitness sections separated by two techy sections.

Ready to race - the bikes waiting patiently
Race day came - cold for St George standards and damp, having poured most of the night. It was a double edged sword, the rain. Sure, the dirt would be tight and fast - very fast. But I was also worried about the rocks. The difficulty level of the technical riding just increased significantly - wet rocks and wet, sandy tires were not a good combination. But everyone had to ride in the same conditions. The benefit of the rain for me was the cool temperatures. We hadn't had much heat in Colorado approaching the race and last year, I'd struggled with the heat acclimatization. As in - it hadn't happened.

The start seemed fast to me, but I tried to stay with the leaders. As expected, the minute we hit the dirt, Jenny and Karen took off. I was in a large group of women - most of them I didn't know. Time to ride. It was easy to tell who was familiar with the trails in the meandering double track start - they were taking the faster, less apparent lines that eliminated both distance and climbing at times. My goal in that first segment - the wash start and then the up and down double track and single track of Barrel Ride - was to just stay within sight on the leaders and hold my own on the fitness climbs. I didn't have much luck with the first - Karen and her green kit and Jenny and her pink kit were soon well out of sight. But there were plenty of other women around to keep pace with, so I redirected to trying to just climb smoothly and not lose any more time on the fitness sections. Again, not as successful as I wanted. I felt like I was climbing well, but just not keeping the pace up. The mental clouds threatened, lurking just outside my vision.

And then we hit the waterfall and I was in my happy place among the rocks. The guy in front of me dismounted and was soon behind me. He'd catch me on the climb later and gush over the line I'd ridden. I was riding the bike, not fighting with the pedals. I was able to maneuver and muscle my way through the tricky rock lines and chunky climbs. I was having fun again and holding my own among the guys catching me. It was the same story on Zen - the guys were still catching me, but not in such a hurry to pass as before. I'd been right about the damp rocks and had to really nurse the power to keep  my tires from slipping out. I still managed to ride everything but two chunks on Zen - one of the steep climbs on the front side and then the climb back onto singletrack after the little road detour. And I passed a few guys on the descent - that rarely happens! I came through the Zen checkpoint ahead of my time from last year, but slower then I was hoping for. It would take some strong focus on the next chunk to meet my time goals.

Unfortunately, the focus was lacking. I wasn't speedy going down Bear Claw Poppy and had no motivation on the climb up Stuki Springs. I just wanted it to be over with. I had no one around me anymore - no helmets to chase meant the focus had to turn internal to keep the tempo and the pedaling up. And I just didn't have it at that moment. I watched the time ticking away, knowing that I wasn't catching anyone. I kept wandering out of the space I needed to be in, then wrenching my brain back into the competition. Ugh. And I couldn't keep my thoughts on how far ahead the leaders had to be, how slow I must be riding. Like I said, not a good place mentally. That changed when we hit the Rim Runner loop. I saw three of the leaders coming off the loop as I was entering - which meant the gaps were only 15-8 minutes. I wouldn't be able to make that distance up in the short time left, but I could prevent it from extending! I started Barrel Roll on a mission - ride it faster then I had last year and see if I could reel in some of the women I knew were between me and the leaders. It was a case of too little motivation too late, but a noble thought none the less. I was even more excited to actually ride everything on Barrel Roll this year - last year I'd had to walk three little sections. This year, there was no walking - just pedaling. And of course, sound effects help with everything! I don't know if it was the fact that I hadn't pushed as hard on the prior section, or the improvement in my technical riding, but I was very excited about cleaning the entire loop. It's the little things...

In the end, I was 7th - two places lower then last year, but with a much deeper and stronger field assembled. I was a few minutes faster as well, riding 4:23:32, and only a few minutes behind the next two women. There are always things to improve upon - and this year was no different. I started out in a mental funk, pulled out of it for a while and managed to prevent myself from sinking back into it when I thought I was out of touch with the rest of the race. And that mental focus will be something I need to continue culitivating and strengthening over the rest of the summer.

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