Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Volkswagen USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships - Mammoth Mountain, Calif

Silver Medal

Who would think that just a little after competing in the Marathon Nationals I would be eager to take on another challenge. This time on a much shorter course and at altitude.

I was completely not planning for that and all of the sudden decided to give it a go.

The opportunity to go back after so many years to beautiful Mammoth Mountain was just so tough to pass. I knew there will be lots of things not going for me at this event, after all Cross-Country Mountain Bike Race is usually so short and explosive that I feel it doesn’t play directly to my strengths. Also, this time we were going to race at altitude, which of course was a major concern and there was really not that much that could have been done in that matter.

Lastly, most of my recent preparations were so targeted to triathlon training that I felt I had a big gap to feel and energy to reroute to be able to at least feel ready. From the moment, I decided to proceed to the moment the race was going to take place I only had four weeks to prepare. I was forced to drop lots of my triathlon activities, especially running and get to work. Interestingly it didn’t take long for me to feel stronger and notice significant bike fitness gains. It was surprisingly going fast and each and every workout showed really remarkable progress. I did not expect that to happen so quickly but for sure I was not going to complain.

The whole journey to get there and come back home was massive and never ending. I could have most likely made it all the way to Europe with all the flying and driving that had to be done. And I didn’t have a great length of time to stay in the mountains and get acclimated to the altitude. I rather jetted out Tuesday late afternoon the moment I logged off my work computer, straight to the airport and a 6 hour flight to Vegas and ended up exhausted in the hotel sometime around midnight. The next morning it was all about making the drive as flawless as possible to make it for my practice on the bike course at 5:30 pm, another 6 hours away. We drove through some scorching hot, interesting but lifeless looking and deserted terrain. Besides occasional donkeys there was nothing around. We still had to get to the hotel first which was some 45-50 minutes away from the race site, build our bikes, grab a bite (nothing like gas station gross sandwiches the day before the race) and really get there on time, it was not time to be fussy but rather focus on priorities.

The registration was closed already and I was ready to tackle the course. It was nice to see right away friendly faces of our quite numerous Floridian riders. Myself and Becky who traveled with us went eagerly on the course and right away were welcomed with a climb, soon after nice and flowy single track, some cool ramps to go over and a whole a lot of sand. The best part was when I got to the final almost 1 mile of the single track what was heading straight down to the finish area, the interesting part of it was that it was the trail we used to downhill with my husband some 6 years ago, on rented downhill bikes. It brought great memories back but in disbelieve I stopped my bike, pulled to the side and made sure to ask if I was still on the cross-country course. I was reassured that I still was. It really made me smile because it was so different to the rest of the course but I didn’t mind to continue and took on the challenge. It was really super fun part and I ended up repeating it once again on race morning.

But before that we had the long ride to the hotel, then back to the race site bright and early for my 9 am start. I think we got to the race site little after 7 am and the big mountain was going up and up to reach the blue sky. After my warmup, I spent some time hanging around and trying to relax, it happened that one of my competition ladies stopped nearby and spoke to the friend quite confidently and in energizing way about her upcoming race. He even asked if she was going to race Pro but she stated that she will race age group and she can ride this mountain all day long. This was my “Pro” girl who I knew would be one of my main competitors that day. Apparently, she used to race pro on the cross-country circuit and is a biking coach. Second, I had my Xterra Pro friend Genevieve who I knew has the skills, strength and will to go hard for long and will not be bothered by any discomfort. After all this is what kind of people XTERRA breads.

We rolled to the start line and got staged. It was quite an honor to be called up first, thanks to our recent changes in the local racing where finally we can get once again UASC points.

The position on the start line felt important to me and I was going back and forth with the left and right side, but none of them seemed suitable. There was the right corner that I would want to make if I stayed on the right to make for a smoother line to the first climb, but could get cut off if I didn’t have a good start. On the left I, could never make it all the way left and run out of time and have to take the worst line up.

I ended up picking the center line and only could feel my heart rate racing up and up to the point that I could not wait any longer and just wanted to race!

The countdown took place and we were off. What a start, from all my not so great starts during the local races here when it really mattered I had the best start I could think of. Sweet hole shot, I was some 10 feet ahead going to the first climb and having my line. I went to the top of the expo and was flying on my own having the whole group well behind. There was lots of clapping and cheering, especially for my competition who happened to have lots of local cheering groups. I went to the team tents and turned to the first climb which starts with the feed zone. Things were going great but soon after I started feeling the aftermath of my ridiculously fast start. My legs were going noodely soft and I was short of breath. I was not about to give up and slow down but I started hearing closer and closer bikes approaching me. I missed just by a mere few meters entry to the first single track as a leader and two riders went by me, one of them being my “Pro” girl. All I wanted to do now was to settle in, enjoy the ride, get my breathing under control and don’t lose my sight off the ladies.

It didn’t take me long to get in the “comfort” zone where I knew I could stay and things would be quite fine if not the other wheel was approaching behind me. This time it was my XTERRA Pro friend and she was quite ready to go. After a few sets of switchbacks where was little more space I let her go by, it was at mile 1. Now I was in 4th from my whole starting group. I could only hope that the passing on everyone else’s side was over and it was going to be me now to start making my passes. Thankfully when cranking up the mountain for over a mile and a half now I ended up pretty much on the wheel of my “Pro” girl and made an effort when I could to make my pass. I have to admit it rarely felt good to be able to make it happen so early of the race, I did foresee much more resistance throughout the whole race to be honest. While in front and having only my XTERRA girl ahead I was comfortably in the 2nd position in my class and was now fully focused to simply ride my best and within my abilities. I learned quickly that riding out of the saddle or trying to create any type of attack didn’t work well in this thin air environment. My body would simply collapse back to the saddle and let me know in that way that this is not happening today and I have to ride in more reserved, conservative to the point and steady manner. I was no longer in Florida for sure…

The way I saw my XTERRA girl biking away was telling me about what she just told me when we were talking about on the start line. When I told her I could feel the effects of the altitude she informed me that it was completely not a problem for her since she does live at altitude. That was a bummer, since for fact it was going to be one of the detrimental part to this race, but at the same time nothing that would stop me from riding at hundred percent of what my body can put out in this environment. So, when I looked up when she was passing me and getting away I have to say just one thing, she looked strong, solid, moving at the steady but faster than the rest of us pace. Soon after I would not see her for the longest time during the whole race.

The first lap went by pretty quickly and now it kind of feels like a blur, but when I look back at the feelings that I was experiencing on laps two and three, those are a different story. The small things started getting to me, like zapping sun on my back, even though there was still sort of little undertone of the freshness in the air. The long climb under the chair lift was getting longer and more annoying, I put the smallest Q-Ring that I had and often on the steepest parts I would be using just that. The reward of patience and getting to the top was the nice descent to the fun, sandy but so flowy single track. It was a matter now of having fun, speed, trusting your own skills and especially test my recent training practice in the deep sand. It all worked out good and I really had a good time and enjoyed this course. But there was one more climb, the 3rd climb which was pretty painful, constant in the full sun and for some reasons I really couldn’t get a grasp on my breathing now. I didn’t think I was getting sick but my sinuses just got completely clogged and breathing just through the mouth only and not being able to breath fully plus the lack of oxygen in the air already were not working out for me.

I started making such funky noises that wondered if whomever was approaching me now from the back will think if I am going to survive. I got passed very closely to the top, it took me a while to regain control of myself and I was back on the wheel of the girl that passed me. Going in to the really fun, uphill facing but still with so much flow single track I knew I can be much faster than her. I asked for a pass and told her to stick to my wheel. This was another very enjoyable section that rolled in the roller coaster like fashion taking us a little higher but we rode it without much discomfort of the standard climbing. This trail would lead me to the final double track section which also wondered slightly up and then the most memorable 1 mile of descending. It was rough, bumpy, sandy, rocks, deep sand holes, cement blocks and some wooden ramps would fill out our way down.

When I got to the bottom and through the finish line I was announced as being in 2nd place and knew I was slipping in time from the leader. I still enjoyed all the single track equally on the final lap, but the climbs were getting to me even more now, I started feeling dizzy, lightheaded and just was trying to convince myself to stay strong and do my best not to pass out and actually make it to the top. I was still in the self-preservation mode and any attempt to attack and speed up was really not an option. It is weird but racing in altitude is a totally different type of game and you just can’t approach it the same way and also your body will let you know pretty quickly what is and what is not possible. By the time I got over with the longest climb I looked up and I noticed my XTERRA girlfriend on her return way. I timed it and by the time I covered another single track and the 3rd climb and got to the spot where I saw here I was some six minutes back. it was a long time, there was no way I was going to catch her because there had to be less than 2 miles to go from there and mostly down. She was having evidently a great performance and I just did my best to stay on the gas, make my passes of other women that were ahead and get first to the final descent. Now it was all about being smooth, careful but also joyful and grateful for this amazing day. The bumpy, bad- ass track finally after a long while did come to the end and I got my official 2nd place in the Cross-Country Nationals.

There was one thing that was pretty obvious from the moment I crossed the finish line, 1st I got my first medal at the cross-country distance National event, 2nd my lungs were on fire. The pain in them was so strong, it felt like fire, like I was breathing glass for last two hours. Instantly I got an awful cough and then with each passing minute I would start developing the tremendous headache and later on all the symptoms one can get from having a flu. I felt awful and it was really tough to enjoy this beautiful place.