Tuesday, June 16, 2015

XTERRA East Championship - Richmond, Virginia

My group podium: Kelli, Myself, Annie and of course Sub Zero
XTERRA East Championships

1st AG 3rd Overall. 
Best Amateur bike split, 10th including Pros.

What a race, hot, technical, rough. So so so hot, maybe 95F or more. I was already overheating in the crazy and awesome swim in the James River, than bike leg with this challenging terrain brought it up another notch, on the run people were simply passing out. I somehow made it safe and strong to the finish line battling former Pro Caroline Colonna. Lost second place just meters from the finish line. Caroline definitely kept me on my feet the entire run. Great effort and I am proud to make a double podium. Thank you to my Pax for the amazing support and to all my supporters and friends. 

Great time in this colorful city.

This is how to tackle the city of Richmond

XTERRA Richmond - little video from the race

I can’t describe how many countless hours I spent thinking which bike to bring for this race. You would think it should be obvious as it is the most technical bike course in the whole USA based XTERRA series. But there are also so many other variables. I honestly felt that almost beside a few 9-12 hours endurance races where I used my full suspension, XTERRA East would be the only race in the year where I would be keeping my FS bike for. Three times so far that I raced Richmond I rode here a different bike, first time 26” my Specialized  S-Works Era full suspension, the following year my Specialized Stumpjumper Carbon Expert 29er and that was only race in my life that I did not finish due to a bad crash on wet rocks. Last year I brought my bellowed Specialized S-Works Epic 29er and had an amazing bike split. The best of all amateur women and one that surpassed few Pro times. I knew how smooth and amazing the rocky trail here would feel under me on the Epic and I wanted to ride it so so badly. But on the other hand I know how fast and responsive my Specialized S-Works Stumjumper 29er is.

Where does you tunnel lead?

I knew the ride is not going to be smooth any longer but might be fast at times and very sketchy at other times. It was a risk to bring this fast pony here, but I felt that if I come with my full suspension I would be playing it safe, on another hand I felt with the hardtail I will be seriously challenging myself and looking fear straight into its eyes. Torn until the late night before leaving for this trip I still didn’t have my mind made up. I’m a biker after all I can handle the track either way, the key question is on which bike I will be faster. Well I decided to rough it up and take a gamble, future will show if it was a wise decision. I learned in the last race how much every second mattered and that partially influenced my decision. On another hand I felt I had something to prove to myself and hopefully race great on this rock garden and creek crossing filled track.

Branden, I and Christine "Big Fish"

And here we are. Now driving back from Richmond to our home in Florida. The unknown future just a few days back now simply became a collage of memories. Most of the unknown and questions had been answered. Whatever happened, all the mistakes that I made are going to stay there and I cannot go back to fix them, it’s unfortunate how it works. I can however learn and hopefully improve my future races based on what happened here. But it was all not bad, it was good, very charged and difficult race. Being able to actually finish it in one piece is already a victory, more so standing on the podium on the end of the day is a special treat.

Over the tall concrete wall above the creek far below. Looking down and second guessing not  recommended.

We ended up driving to Richmond Thursday for some 13.5 hours with the final hours being in the dark, we arrived late, just a little after 10 PM. With all the unpacking and organizing I didn’t go to bed till 12 o’clock, therefore our start of the day the next morning was pretty late. It was blazing hot out and I made sure to do a little bit of everything but by the time we went on the bike course it was steamy hot even in this beautiful forest shade. The trail system as usual I found very challenging, as always surprising and very technical.  I questioned from the start the bike choice we both with my Pax made. It took me quite a while to get used to a HT on this bumpy and rocky course and actually relax and tell myself I’m doing totally fine and this is the bike that I simply have to accept now and just make sure it will not disturb my focus from now on. So a few miles in things started falling into place and I started clearing everything flawlessly, even the new section of Forest Hills with a new creek crossing because of a missing bridge. After the lap on the course I was comfortable with everything and felt very capable. It was definitely a long day in the park.

I guess I am in the righ place :-)

  The day culminated with a fantastic dinner party at Jim’s and Kate’s with incredible friends.

With Craig

It was also a Pre-Celebration of the retirement of Craig Evans.

Marble Red Fox baby is super cute!

Friday is supposed to be rest day but ended up being quite busy, so busy that I missed my own packet pickup by just a few minutes probably the first time ever. There seemed was always something to do or someone to talk to. Time flew and the day was fully filled and ended with an Italian gnocchi dinner and some Bev’s ice cream in the downtown of Richmond for Misty’s birthday.

Celebrating Misty's Birthday with Misty, Sarah, my Pax and his mom Terry. Bev's Ice cream are simply delicious.

Race Day

We were very lucky this year that all the leading to the race weather predictions were wrong and we ended up with the driest, sunniest terrain for the big day. It was pretty hot right from the morning and right away when setting up the transition and during the Pro start I could feel the heat building up and I knew it was going to be a rough day. 

And here we are again...

The level of the James River was low with not too strong of a current and the water stayed pretty warm. So our challenge this time around will be not necessarily fighting the vicious currents but rather dodging the massive boulders just inches from our bodies throughout the swim course.

Panorama right before race start.

Margo and I all hugs before the start!

I didn’t feel very well while getting ready for a small splash around in the river just before the start. It’s like my energy was not there, I felt all opposite to the word sharp, I was kind of feeling like a gummy bear in a race kit while pulling my skin suit on. I knew I will have to get rid of this feeling as soon as I can. It was good to have friend Margo with me on the start so we could cheer and motivate each other to have a great race.

OK getting more serious now...

Instead of 3 swim waves as previously scheduled the race crew changed it to two. I was now in the 2nd group with all the women and a bunch of men, rather than women going by themselves last. We went just 1 minute after the first group of guys. 10 second to go, river rushing around my body, I have eyes peeled on the target near the first buoy, and people around me are everywhere.


Keeping it together

This is probably the most stressful time of the whole race and the longest minute and 10 seconds one can have.  The loudest cannon blasted away, we were all off, furiously chasing to the first little island in the middle of river, and I felt good, not stressed and was just doing my thing.

It was my goal this time to stay as focused and relaxed as possible, I convinced myself I was going to have a great swim. I pinned the buoy perfectly and honestly all of them afterwards, total 6 zigzagging through this crazy river. But while swimming upstream toward the sand bar I had a guy on my left who I was convinced signed up for the race solely so he can have a chance to try to rip off my Suunto from my hand and dislocate my left shoulder. 

And they are off!

He tried again and again pushing himself under my arm and twisting it the worst directions. I was glad to hit the sand bar (well no drinks there if anyone wondered) and do some running and was trying to get away from his company. The crossover was filled with massive boulders and I would hit them with my feet and grab onto them with my hands while trying to push over to continue swimming. Now the swim sections were getting longer and longer and more tiring. I got to the 3rd buoy on the right and headed upstream to Belle Isle. The water was so shallow here and so many swimmers were already ahead that all the sand and mud was stirred up so badly that I could not see one thing.

Pretty ordinary Richmond "swim scene" :-)

The tree branches and boulders were everywhere but you could not see even one inch ahead, I just made sure to have always a hand in front and hope for the best. Run through the island is a nice break from swimming but really not from racing, we all are huffing and puffing and trying to catch a breath before jumping back for the longest part. Current on the high side under the bridge is the strongest so the art here was not to let the river swipe us away and stay high. The current was on and off and it was a feel and probability game to figure out the best route to the next buoy in the mid-section and then next one all the way across the river. Swim in this spot felt kind of like a bad snorkeling excursion I thought to myself while being pulled by the current to the right and floating sideways over massive boulders covered with mushy growth. I was pushing and pulling myself over rocks just hoping not to get stuck all while aiming for the next buoy.

On the way to usually the toughest buoy

Then we went back one more time to the middle little island and now what I had only left was to aim for the swim exit. I think I executed the whole swim section the best that I could and actually I am happy with how my swim went. I am very grateful that I had a chance to have the most amazing swim practice on this race course with incredible Christine Jeffrey and I believe it helped my confidence here. To my surprise I was super composed and very focused with nothing more but a positive attitude. Such a good change from my previous race. It was so warm however that while in the water I seriously was sure I was sweating while swimming and just could feel getting flushed with a pink tint on my face.

Out on the rocky T1

The run back to transition was not all so bad since this time around we stayed on the road. I grabbed my bike and I was off. First small road section, climb up the gravel path and onto the bridge, than jet on the other side and dip in the Buttermilk Trail. The racers were all over but it was not terrible. The first rocky sections were cleared perfectly and this pretty fast section was done in the blink of an eye and soon I found myself dipping into the tunnels, riding through the water and moving rocks in the total darkness and hiking my bike out of the tunnel. Now we were biking up to the Forest Hills section which usually takes 18 minutes to complete, well at least without the one part where this time around we have a missing bridge and actually have to cross the running creek below. Thankfully the water lever was low so the rocks were just partially wet and submerged and it was all doable or at least not that huge of a problem on the practice run. Seems like all the fans this time chose this spot as a new destination for all the yelling, cheering, horn blowing and whistling to happen.

Heading to the trails

I had a guy in front jetting down toward the river and chose to give him extra space and time. By the time I reached the river he was still 30 feet ahead, I approached the rocks and unfortunately he started pushing his bike with one leg and still biking with the other. I went on those wet rocks as far as I could and now was on his wheel trying to convince him to move faster, I ended up doing a track stand again and again in the end riding into the big rock to the right since he was still in front blocking my exit line. I had to unclip and run around and continue my journey. Soon after I jetted down the fast descent through the 20 foot tall and maybe 2 feet wide concrete wall with drop offs on both sides to the rocky creek below. Only a few hundred meters below we were riding down the narrow concrete poured over the rocks passage into the flooded tunnels and to the other side. Now I was back on the 2nd part of the Buttermilk and this is where all the hell was going to unfold.

Since the Sprint race started a little after the Championship race and had a bike course which would cut under 18 minute forest hills section, the sprinters would end up just like last year right in front of us right on the worst, most sketchy, intimidating and technical section of the race course. And I’m not talking here myself and few other racers, this is the section that gives goosebumps and tests even the best Pros on the circuit. I could see the change of scenery the moment I entered the trail. Now it was filled with Sprint racers strolling around who unfortunately would not be able to make most of the oncoming technical sections. It was a disaster, disaster that for sure caused me at least a spot on the podium and could have caused me a race. When I got to the face of the rock with our famous here dressed up cheering group I had a guy in front waiting on people below taking their time and walking their bikes. I yelled I’m coming and I rolled down, besides having a guy on the left side of the rock with his bike where my line was I managed to get up the wall and somehow continued pushing up, but unfortunately I had there another guy right in front of me walking his bike slowly and carelessly up the hill through narrow and rocky section and not even thinking of moving for riders behind. I can’t say how many times I was just standing on the bike pedals balancing myself and yelling to the guy to move out of way and restarting my ride again and again on this impossible almost already section when it is people free!

Drop down from Buttermilk
Now sharp left

And into the tunnels

I was so tired, hot, maxed out and furious, I somehow managed to pull myself up and over the roots to the next sliding to the side giant rock. I had still people to the left and went to the right to much. I lost my balance and tumbled down the face of the rock falling flat on my back with my head facing down. My bike was laying just above me. I always wondered how badly it would be to fall to the right into the oblivion with those cliffs to the side, thankfully I didn’t tumble any lower.
Famous for the supreme cheer group "The Wall"

When I got up I had the most difficult time to climb back up with my cleated biking shoes on this sloped smooth and therefore slippery massive rock. It was a struggle when I finally got to the top and onto the wooden bridge I was angry really angry. When I think back however it was not completely the sprinters fault, they are doing their thing and have no racing or passing experience and etiquette and didn’t ask to be put in front much faster racers. It must have been bad for them as much as it was for us. I biked away and went on the technical bumpy descent to the first rock garden crossing on this trail. Every single time now while on Buttermilk I will have someone in front on those technical wet rock garden crossings and will be able to ride them only partially and end up being stuck behind someone walking the track or simply falling right in front of me. It all did not make a difference that I just cleared them all flawlessly in the first attempt on the practice ride, it was all different now, so different. It was simply a disaster. But there were some good moments also.

Returning back from Forest Hills

I remember catching up to Margo and having the best time seeing her working hard and in a good spirit, kindly letting me go by.

And back to the tunnel

I found it pretty funny when I was about to pass one male rider and he quickly said to me “I saw your post, I know you can ride it, you can go!” lol. This cracked me up.

The battle on the course was rough but it was mostly the mental and physical battle with myself where it was an art often to stay on the bike and fight not to give up. On one of the fast sections I was going quickly around the corner to a 180 packed dirt turn which was aiming uphill, there was a bed or roots to go over and I had a rider stuck at them, not only I went up as high as I could, did a total stand still under the sticking out roots, was holding to my handlebar like a baby monkey to his mommy and was hoping not to fall off while the rider was still walking up. Than somehow I found strength (not sure how) to restart my bike, pop the wheel over the rock, go around the rider and the tree all of it on the uphill and bike away. There was so many incidences just like this one and those were the ones consuming all energy, sucking every little bit left. This was the roughest part for me on the bike course. The constant stop and go on the technical terrain which was burning out matches one by one very quickly, and all of it in extreme heat and humidity.

I remember I managed to eat my Clif gel somewhere around mile 6 and I had bunch of them strapped on the top tube of my bike. But after falling, getting off the bike and all this chaos over and over again I realized later on when I was ready for the next one that they were all gone! Holly smoke, all my nutrition is gone. I was doomed to race the whole 15 plus miles which is almost 1.5 hours without any calories.

Last drop on end of Buttermilk

When I got through the infamous stone descent under the bridge that takes us up and over the river back on the North Trail section things got much better. I started wondering now where the ladies that I was trying to chase all this time so far were. I saw a girl in front when I got spilled on the gravel path from the first section of the trails, on the bottom flat part of the single track with a fence to the left and river to the right I was stuck behind some other sprinter who didn’t know how to move away once again. I sprinted on the gravel and tried to catch up to the girl in front but I realized I will not be able to make a pass in time before the steep wooden ramp in front. Therefore I did slow down to give her a huge amount of space to go first into the Stairway to Heaven, however by the time I made a left turn onto the steep section she was still trying to make the climb and I ended up behind with no speed on the wheel not able to continue.

Under bridge

My bike and I simply started sliding backwards on the wood on the side and slid all the way to the bottom almost, now I was stuck struggling and holding onto the rails trying to figure out how I will get myself back up there. Thankfully there was a guy that pulled my bike and I managed to somehow pull myself up. This was huge waste of time and energy and I ended up running/walking whole thing all the way to the top. Big bummer. It took me a long while to catch up to the rider and I realized that it was actually my friend Misty. I continued and after a while of joyful last sections of single track I was catching up to my main competitor for the day what I thought Kelli and I got almost on her tail on the last sunny rocky climb and got too distracted and stuck seeing her picking a different line and I ended up once again running the thing up. Now my chase continued onto the gravel ramp onto the bridge into the second lap.

I had my Pax here and was heading across once again. I looked at my time for the first lap and it was not as good as I was hoping it too be, not surprised considering how many things went wrong there. I made my pass on Kelli on the passage to other side. I got to the single track pretty much solo and it was very refreshing and enjoyable from the point of view that this time around almost no one was there. I figured it is now my time to ride this lap the way I wish and simply try to enjoy it. But not only was it already brutally hot, I was tired but mainly because I lost all my gels I started feeling in need of calories. With every passing mile I felt weaker and weaker and almost to the point of being lightheaded and just stripped from all energy. I was thinking to myself how very unfortunate it is for me to now have this open track solely to myself and not be able to ride to my potential. I cleared now almost perfectly most of the sections, just felt like my speed was not there. When I approached the missing bridge creek crossing for the second time and picked my practice line and even though it was all wet now from all the people riding here all day all over those rocks I stayed put and cleared nicely rock by rock and came out of the creek still pedaling away with the most awesome cheering from the people around. It was so motivating and inspiring that I got a small tear in my eyes and got a little emotional of how of an awesome moment it was. I dipped back down to the tunnels and went onto the most difficult section again. Now things were less chaotic and I approached once again the face of the rock. Climb right before it has a sign “Suffer now Beer later” I rode up the rock but my bike slid half way when my back wheel was still coming up. I messed up now clearly on my own and the fatigue and heat was getting to me now very obviously. On the top of the climb up the guy yelled to me “Eat a sandwich” and I said “OK I need one!”

Starting the run through the Downtown of Richmond

At one point right before finishing Buttermilk I had a girl on my tail, she seemed to be there for a while now and was getting ready for a pass. We hung in there together and I had no clue who she was. I think somewhere around 2.5 – 2 miles to go I let her go around me, she didn’t get much of the gap however and rode nice and smooth. I knew now I was not any longer in a lead and only wondered how good of the runner she was and also how much time I made up on other girls that I previously passed. I jetted down the gravel descent and back on the road to the transition, now it was a time for some misery.

Over roads and bridges

I grabbed my running gear and headed away through the downtown streets, with graffiti walls to the right and water canal on the left. Through the railroad tracks and then sunny and hot bridge. I got to the first aid station and each time I looked down my pace was pretty decent but I was greatly overheated. I caught up to the guy in front of me and had my Pax biking near us for a while. When we reached the feed zone the guy got water and ice and I already went by grabbing only water and not knowing they were handing out cubes of ice in the water cups also.

Heading toward Flood Wall

When he was running behind me I asked if he grabbed the ice and he asked me if I wanted some. I said “sure’ and he said he didn’t know if he can keep up with me to hand me off the ice. He sped up slightly and I slowed down a little and I was reaching my hand to the back of me as far as I could, finally he handed me one little ice cube. I held this little miracle cube in my hands for a while and then put it in the back of my kit. The melting little ice water trickled down my spine and later on ended sitting on the bottom of my back. When I climbed the stairs onto the Flood Wall and then down I was just trying not to pass out and don’t lose a step.

Rocky as always Dry Way

From now on I was on the gravel fully exposed to the sun with a small breeze only coming off the river to the right. Now all I could do was to focus on moving my legs around and on this tiny cool sensation sitting on the back of my spine, it was so small now probably size of the pea, but it was the only cool spot in my whole body for many hours now. I had my mind focused only on this sensation. Soon after we got spilled under the bridge and to the Mayan Ruins, this is where the steep crawling and log hugging climb become so brutal that I almost didn’t want to make the final two steps. I wanted to just collapse when I reached the top. FYI – Pax climbed the Mayan Ruins with his bike. I started moving somehow again and this is when my Pax announced that some Braveheart lady was just 30 seconds back and coming strong. At this moment I had no clue who it was and thought there is not much I can do about it since I was not even half way through the run. Now each water station I reached I requested water and ice, water would go on the head, ice under my shirt on my back and I would keep drinking from my Salomon flask, which I had one from transition and would exchange them at feed zones with my Pax.

For sure my favorite part of the run course

You will not find run like this anywhere else!

I knew very shortly I might be losing my second position and still had no clue where the other girls were comparing to me. I reached the entrance to buttermilk at the same spot where we started the bike leg, this is where I saw Kate and friends from the party cheering me on and I went down the staircase to the long gravel run along the railways to the turnaround point. I was expecting to get passed any moment but I kept a decent pace and was still in the lead. I kept thinking which parts of the run course can still give me an advantage and keep me in the game. I was looking forward some more technical sections and the single track, by the time I reached the turnaround point and went by what looked like a cute goat farm with adorable white mom and a baby goat I was still alone.

Into the climb and the ladder

I knew I can keep my gap here and did great on this part of the course, than finally dipped down to the dry river crossing and made my way around the hot rocks and onto the climb with ladder out of the river bed. Now unfortunately my chaser was almost right there. Just like a year ago when I had my two good friends chasing me down right in the same spot I had now the third overall girl. She was almost at my feet and I still managed to make a left turn and keep going up into a little whiny single track on the Belle Isle. When I got to the top my legs just wanted to shut off, I was barely able to move, but a little later I got a little more refreshed in the shade of the trees. I still didn’t give up or lose hope, my Pax was on the trail exit cheering me and telling me to keep fighting. She was closing in, I ran the island and made a ramp up on the wavy foot bridge over the James River back to the Browns Island and the transition.

Foot bridge. Now I'm in trouble...

Made it, top 3 Overall!
Now Pax was in front and Pro Sara, taking pictures and yelling and rooting me on. I put my pain face on and could hear the steps behind, she still didn’t pass me, and I jetted down the ramp and onto the street below. Now it was a little more than a quarter mile flat road to the finish, I picked the fastest pace I knew I could hold at this moment, I could hear the footsteps right behind me, we were face to face for a second and my rival accelerated, I sped up too trying to match her pace, now we were at the boat ramp where the race started. I stayed with her for a few seconds and just like this the car stalled, I had nothing left, I could not keep the pace and had to back off. She sped away looking strong and there was nothing I could do to change it at this moment. I ran to the finish line with the cheers of the friends and announcement of XTERRA crew calling me “Big B” on the finish. It was so good to be done and I spent no time to celebrate and rushed instantly into the mist tent where I was able to cool off instantly and catch up with all my racing friends.

Carolina and I in Mist Tent

I am not sure why so late but I realized while in this mist tent that all this time I was chased by Caroline Colona a former Pro who is a better runner than I am. I was so close to hold her off and missed the 2nd overall only by 20 seconds. The girl that won today was from Canada and a pretty decent biker and had the 2nd best amateur bike splint after my bike being 1st. She however made up a huge gap on the run and finished strong in 1st place. I was happy I must say finishing in top 3 overall for all amateur women and with winning my Age Group. This win also gave me the pass to XTERRA World Championship in Maui, HI which going to take place this November.

Well deserved cool off time with buddies: Kelli, Ken, Margo and I

It was such a colorful weekend, so many things happened. Amazing how much action can be squeezed in in just few short days. We had fun for sure, we stayed busy but it was all good. From all the practice on the course, from all the chatting with friends, from all the new people that we met. The famous splendid and more than excellent dinner we had with Jim and Kate from Switchio where we love to meet all the amazing athletes and Pros, to dinner to celebrate birthday of Misty with Sarah. To the XTERRA After Party where all the Pro racers almost showed up and it happened we sat at the table with the top women in the field including Champion Suzie Snyder, Emma Garrrard, Christine Jeffrey; it was extremely awesome to be able to share this time together. Some people were not so lucky however and crashed hard like my friend Pro racer Christine who ended up in the hospital with a dislocated elbow after her stellar swim and unfortunate crash on the bike. She wouldn’t miss however an after party which was great and I hope she recovers quickly.

Overall Amateur Female Podium: Carolina, Katharine and I

Some of our friends from Florida didn’t make the race but I know they were rooting for me and I know that they are hungry and excited to come up to this race next time around. It is always a special race, always difficult, technical, extremely tough and fun if this makes sense. And it takes everything there is and more out of every person that tries it. And either way I look at it, no matter how painful it was most of the time it is still going to stay as my most favorite race on the XTERRA circuit.
And as far as my bike choice dilemma, no I didn't solve it still, it's a toss, but surely I proved to myself I can tackle this madness without the suspension and still come up on top. At least I got that sorted out!

And of course I am here with our Rock Star Emma, sporting rock star glasses. :-)

Now I need to take a few days off, cool off and think about what to do with the rest of the season. Hopefully I will come up with something awesome soon so I can put a new challenge ahead on my calendar...

Of course getting this Maui slot for XTERRA Worlds could be considered a serious contender for the next adventure. We will see what’s next!

XTERRA World Championship Qualifier doesn't come easy, but it comes!

Huge thank you to my Pax who was going above and beyond on this trip and during the most hectic race. So beyond that he climbed the Mayan Ruins that we are crawling on the run with his bike and cleats on! I could not have done it without you Mucha. And Thank You to all my amazing friends and new friends that I met who were rooting me on during this challenge.

Thank you for my incredible supporters for allowing me to race with the best gear and products imaginable.

Always thank you goes to:

Syntace, Magura, Stan’s Notubes, Schwalbe, ESI Grips, Clif, Xpedo, Trainer Road, Garden of Life, Kuat Racks, Light & Motion, KT Tape, Cycleops, Suunto, Salomon, Huub and for 2014 - Mack Cycles, Oakley, Pocketfinder, Specialized, Louis Garneau, KMC Chains and Rotor Bike Components and New for 2015 - Health Fit Chiropractic, Enduro Bearings, K-Edge and SelleSMP

Until next time...