I raced the Ft Ritchie CX Challenge this past Sunday, and managed to finish 3rd – on the podium – in Cat 5. I can make excuses as to why it’s not that big of an accomplishment – but at the end of the day, I have to accept that I did, in fact, out-race a bunch of other guys and stood on the podium at the end of the race. Fantastic!
There’s a big “*” to this story, though. I had shared with some people leading up to this racing experiment that the biggest challenge for me is not the racing, it’s my paralyzing, panic-laced fear of new people and new experiences. Read on!
I was up at 5 to eat on Sunday – made more difficult by having to up at 6am daily to get Miles off to school, a 50 mile Team Gus ride the morning before, and a party on Saturday night. I was up later than I wanted, but I felt ok the next day – let’s call it “situation normal” – I didn’t feel rested, but I wasn’t falling asleep, either. An hour drive out to Cascade, MD is some light drizzle, and I was at the race site. I was early – one of the first racers to arrive. I got dressed, pre-rode the course a couple times – once slowly and once a little less-slowly – and … man, I was really surprised and how rough the terrain was. I was realizing, quite clearly – I had not prepared for this enough – and spent, maybe, too much time on barriers and run ups, at least for this course. I wrapped up the run on course, wen to registration and signed in, and headed back to my car to pin on and have a little water before heading back to the starting line to get ready. As I looked around the lot – I felt inadequate – everyone looked in better shape than me – seemed confident – didn’t look to have pieced-together eBay bikes – and they all seemed to be riding on teams. Shit. Feeling like an outsider… worst fears are being realized.
I had about 15-20 minutes until race time so I decided to spin around a bit, work on some sprint/start type stuff and generally try to be active to keep my anxiety at bay. I was feeling pretty relaxed, but didn’t have a clock in front of me so I wasn’t sure how long until the start. Then – I noticed a large-ish group of riders heading out on the course at a good clip from the other side of the course. At first I thought – hrm, that’s pretty quick for a preview lap around the course… and then the whitewash of realization came over me that…holy shit… I think the goddamn damn race started…WITHOUT ME!
I pedaled over towards the course entry and asked “did the race start”? And the reply “yeah”. Shit. I missed the f-ing start! I was on the wrong side of the parking lot – there was no announcement that riders were lining up… but that didn’t matter… because I just missed the f-ing start of the goddamn race!
So I made the split-second decision to chase the group. I was about 45 seconds behind and put myself deep into the red right off the bat to try to catch on. As I was sprinting down the first grassy straight-away and into the first hairpin turn around a tree, I clearly recall thinking “I’m going to finish this thing in last place…I’ll have an excuse but I’m still a dumbass…”. Yes, even under extreme exertion, I save some brain power for deprecation and abuse. I am my own worst enemy.
I managed to pass a rider at the first pass of the barriers – it was an empty achievement – this guy was seriously overweight and I got the feeling he had no idea what he had gotten himself into. But, I could see I had really closed the gap to some other riders and kept pushing. At this point, I had been red-lining for, I am guessing, 3-4 minutes straight, and hadn’t even hit the technical part of the course yet. On the first set of hills, I got sloppy, undershifted, and dropped my chain on the hill. In a bout of cardio-induced, max heartrate stupor, I jumped off the bike and tried to pull the chain back onto the front rings – losing another 30-45 seconds as I fumbled with it (why not just upshift to throw the chain back on? I dunno… I blame the maxed heartrate and related cognitive disconnect). Off I went again, now with much of the work I had just done to catch the group having going to waste.
The next section of the course featured a short, paved section that led to a steep, unridable (for me) hill, and a technical set of off camber curves that had some really rough, bad lines. I made up some time on the hill – but really thinking how absolutely out of control I was in all phases of the game – technique, mentally and physically. I managed to ride this technical part of the course pretty quickly and passed a couple more riders. I could see some guys ahead of me and was (still) burying myself to catch the bulk of the group – but it seemed like I just could not make up any ground on them. I dug a little deeper, took some risks and picked off a few more riders.
As I completed the first lap and passed the timekeeper’s table – I shouted out (probably incoherently), “I MISSED THE START – CHECK OUT MY NUMBER AND MAKE SURE YOU GET ME” – I could hear the guy mutter “uh huh” as I turned right back onto the grassy course. I passed another rider and at that point, I could see a few of the guys that I had seen in the parking lot that I marked as having their shit together. I had NO IDEA how many guys were in this race, couldn’t recall how many I had passed and had no idea where I was in the race. Lap two is a little foggy – can’t recall if I passed any riders – and the only thing I recall is that I noticed that my left shifter was coming loose. Shit. This course is rugged, and this shifter is going to snap off and I am going to hit the ground hard and that’s how this will end…”. Bell ringing… Lap two, done – on to the final lap.
I was chasing one rider towards the backside of the course, and was gaining a little, but couldn’t get enough power to catch. I knew that the short paved section was coming up and figured I’d sprint there to catch him – only problem is that I had been riding hard for the last 20-some minutes and my legs pretty much replied “go fuck yourself” when I tried to sprint. Lots of pain, no gain.
Then – a series of lucky breaks. First – I saw the rider ahead of me try to ride the big hill – and have to dismount 1/3 up. I decided not to brake, and dismounted and shouldered the bike a bit faster than I should have. I took the run up and caught the rider at the top. I could feel this guy’s exasperation and… maybe desperation. I remember thinking I wanted to say something witty to him like “all the technique goes out the window at moments like this” but, instead, just jumped on the goddamn bike and pushed harder. I managed to get a gap of 10 feet, 20 feet… maybe 50 feet. I recall thinking that I had passed the rough and technical stuff – and at this point it was just surviving the balance of the course.
Next lucky break – the lead rider blew a flat. I heard a gunshot (I figured it was the winner crossing the line… I’m a newbie, afterall) but realized it was a blowout when I saw the guy running with his bike shouldered (Major props to that dude – I would not have thought to do that). I passed that guy and pushed on – but I could feel the rider behind me closing – and his coach was cheering and pushing him on… I managed to hold him off, and exit the last section of grass to, somehow, sprint to the finish.
At this point, I spun around a bit to cool off and headed over to the car to change. I called Jen and let her know that I finished, and that I had missed the start, but still did ok. I walked over to talk to the timekeepers, and to look for the results. Major surprise when the timekeeper confirmed that not only had I gotten credit for the race – I finished third.
What? A podium finish? You have GOT to be kidging me
Of course, when I discovered that I was only 7 seconds out of second place, and 30 seconds out of first – and realized that had I not missed the start and had some wits about me during my own private Chain Gate incident – I might have won this son of a bitch!
Oh well. Live and learn. I enjoyed stepping up on the podium and getting a medal. I learned alot about what I need to work on. I have no expectations that I’ll manage to step on a podium again, as pure Cat 5 races are rare and this was a bit of beginner’s luck and happenstance.
But I’ll take it, nonethless. Until next time….