I know better.
That’s the refrain for my first foray into the world of Cat 1 XC mountain bike racing. It means a lot of different things, though. Let me explain.
First, a little background. I did my first mountain bike race in 2010, the same week I first rode singletrack. One season of Cat 3 XC races in southeastern Nebraska on my trusty Karate Monkey with a rigid fork. I usually had one or two other competitors. The next year, I got a hardtail and mostly did Marathon class, which is category-agnostic and, that year, was a 3-hour race. (You’re scored on how many laps you do in 3 hours. Up until it hits the 3-hour mark, you can start a new lap and get scored for finishing it even if it’s beyond the 3-hour time. Most laps in least amount of time wins.) I think I did 2 races in the Cat 2 XC class that year. Marathon bumped up to 4 hours, and I stuck with that category. I liked the pacing, I liked the game of timing your laps and sizing up competitors to gamble on squeezing in another before the cutoff or calling it quits, and I liked that a mixed men’s and women’s field meant I had more people to ride/race with. I also did the Dakota 5-O a couple times, and really enjoyed a longer adventure of a race like that. I did a bunch of gravel races instead of MTB in 2013. With relocation last summer, I didn’t do a single MTB race in 2014.
Yet, in the intervening years, I’d done quite a lot of mountain biking, and on increasingly difficult trails. Then I had a couple Thursday nights at Belmont Plateau where the fire to race on the MTB was re-ignited in me. As I went to sign up for Ramsey’s Revenge, with no Marathon class to choose, I was nudged into the Cat 1 field. “You’re not a Cat 2,” Willem, my fine fella and MTB wizard, told me. Hoo boy.
I went to bed Friday night with a sore and scratchy throat. Willem had come home sick from work that day. Signs of impending cold pointed to inevitable. I drank a bunch of water and went to sleep hoping for a miracle. I woke up with an even sorer, scratchier throat and a really surly attitude. I didn’t feel too bad aside from my throat, but I knew what was coming. Willem was really sick, but got up and made me oatmeal while canceling his plans for a long ride through the countryside. We ate breakfast in mopey, dejected fashion. I knew better than to go race my bike, but I didn’t listen to my immune system. If I was going to get sick anyway, might as well go sweat out some germs in the hot and humid woods and besides, I paid for it and I hate wasting money, right? (Insert joke about all bike races being a waste of money…)
Buddies Shaina and Jack rolled over and we headed to the race together, passing by a CAR ON FIRE just after we got on I-95. “Well, someone’s having a worse morning,” I thought. On the way to the race, I told them I was bummed about going in to the race with an excuse. Of course I was nervous about being in a field with legit pros and in a different category and format than I was used to. It’s so easy to make excuses about one’s performance, and in this case, I really didn’t want to. I wanted to go out there and just see how I did. If I was way behind the field, cool. At least I’d have a baseline reference point.
I picked up my number and suited up for a little warm-up. With Cat 1s the first race of the day, it was kind of hard to figure out where to go, and I didn’t do a good job of asking. Enter I know better #2: ALWAYS PRE-RIDE THE COURSE. Seriously, I learned this lesson after my first race, a somewhat technical time trial on very narrow roller coaster trails at Jewell Park in Omaha. I had ridden singletrack ONCE. I had no idea how to use momentum, I was on a borrowed bike, the trails were really narrow and kind of benched into the hills, and it was terrifying and it took me FOREVER. Anyway, I digress…
We start out with a descent and a long fire road climb before getting to the first bits of singletrack. I’d lost contact with Shaina on the last part of the climb through the woods, but had a bit of a gap on two women in the 40+ group who were chasing me. Once we hit the trails, my lack of knowing what was coming killed me, and the first woman caught me quite quickly. She encouraged me to help her put a gap on the next woman back, and I gave her the lead in an open section. On the next bit of singletrack, though, I couldn’t keep up with her, too nervous about what might be around the next bend. (Always pre-ride the course.) I kept her in my sights, and by the time we came upon the rock garden, the next racer back had bridged up. The rock garden was where I really wished I’d pre-ridden, as a bit of time to study the lines would’ve been VERY helpful. As it was, I made it most of the way through before I had to bail. I gave as much chase as I could, but I was feeling my body’s governor kick in to preserve my beleaguered immune system. There was a fast, flowy section near the river with all sorts of criss-crossing line choices that I absolutely loved, and when I came back up through the start/finish, I could see the rider ahead of me…just a bit out of reach.
Going into Lap 2, I was feeling sapped. It was hot—and I know better #3—I hadn’t done a proper job of getting the air pockets out of my Camelbak. This created a fun problem of having to push on the bag in order to drink. I was starting to make dumb mistakes in technical sections, like a weird pseudo-trackstand on the top of a log pyramid that I just fell over from or nearly careening off the trail on a narrow descent. Oops. I tried to focus on smoothness, and in a few sections, I was happy about riding them really well. Nailed the flowy section and a few descents and launched off a rock ledge on one of them, which was sweet. So there’s that. In the last third of the lap, the first of the Cat 1 men started catching me. One small goal prior to the sickies was to make it to the third lap without this happening, but oh well.
I started the third lap with hunger setting in. I know better #4 is that I should’ve timed my eating like I did when I raced marathon, despite this being a shorter race. I had waited about half a lap too long. I poured a full pack of honey stinger chews in my mouth as I went up the climb (I know better #5, it’s awful to eat while climbing) and heard the first Cat 2 men’s field charging up behind me. I spent this lap just slogging through everything, lots of pulling over to let the fellas go by. My arms were starting to cramp up, too, which was not a fun feeling. New and final goal was to not get caught by any of the Cat 2 women. I did manage to succeed at this one. I finished with a weird combination of ready to be done and yet somehow expecting to keep going. Shaina killed it, scoring 3rd place on the U40 podium!!
So, my finish time wasn’t great. My throat hurt, and I could definitely feel the systemic cold coming on after I finished. I went home and slept for a good chunk of the afternoon, and I was pretty damn sick Sunday and Monday. It’s Friday now, and I’m still coughing. I’m glad that this weekend, I get to watch a bunch of pro women race a UCI WOMEN’S WORLD CUP right before my eyes. But the last thing I now know better is that I did belong in that field. I peeked at the lap times for the Cat 2s, and Willem was right. I’m where I need to be, always with more learning and building on my strength and skills to do. And besides, I woke up the next day without sore legs 😉