Monday, November 21, 2011

Something Wicked This Way Came ...

This past weekend, I learned a few things while racing The Six Hours of Cathedral Pines in Middle Island, NY.  It was the second time I've done this race, and I headed up to Long Island on Friday after work with a pretty aggressive goal for this year's edition. Last year, I had done seven laps in about 6 1/2 hours, and that included a stop to fix a mechanical after my fifth lap. So this year, I wanted to really try to put the hammer down and sneak in an eighth lap. It was going to depend on a whole bunch of things going right and virtually nothing going wrong. On the one hand, that's the way you want to plan, but on the other, when your goal distance depends on total perfection, sometimes it's best to - ehh - "stay liquid" on what defines a good day. Because on Saturday, I didn't hit my original goal, but I still had a great day.

Anyway, on to the lessons ...

The first thing I learned was that traffic on Long Island is always bad. Seriously - it's always bad. Case in point, I left my house Friday afternoon at about 4:15 and I was on Route 278 heading toward the Verrazano Bridge before 6:30. But from there? I didn't reach Middle Island until almost 9 pm. That's over two hours for less than 50 miles! I used to live in northern Jersey so I'm no stranger to traffic, but nothing I ever dealt with in and around Jersey City was quite like the gridlock I hit trying to get moving on I-495.

Locked in on 495
But eventually I got to Medford and my hotel. I got settled in, ate some dinner, and prepped my gear for the next morning. Nothing in my hotel room really seemed to work, though, and I ended up going to bed Friday night hoping that at least the alarm clock would wake me up on time. So I guess my second lesson might be to bring a portable alarm clock along on overnight trips anymore because you just never know when you're going to get a hotel room that has electrical (and plumbing!) issues.

I did wake up in plenty of time Saturday morning and decided to head over to the venue a little early, which meant I'd miss the breakfast buffet. Since I had no desire to ride for six hours without any breakfast at all, I made a quick stop at the Starbuck's next door to the hotel for a croissant and some hot chocolate (I can't do coffee!) And just as I had seen a few other racers around the hotel, there were a few more already at the Starbuck's, too.

Because I left so early (I was out of the hotel before 7 a.m.) when I got over to the park, my parking spot was right up front. The organizers of the race had tweaked the Start/Finish from last year and the change they made was just spot-on perfect. Before I knew that, though, I was a little worried that I wouldn't be passing my car on the course. That wouldn't be a really big deal, but I would be much nicer (at least for post-race cleanup) if I could set up my feed zone right next to my car. The way they changed the course, though, you came out of the woods and came directly across the field to cross the line, and then headed through the "Spooky Woods" and circled back to head back out to circle the entire field. This meant that pretty much every racer could pass their car on the course. That's just great planning!

The "Spooky Woods" are a manufactured set of twists and turns through tape in a small alcove of trees just past the finish line.
(photo courtesy of Louie Renna via Facebook)
And that's the third thing I learned out there ... the folks at Something Wicked know how to put on a race. I enjoyed the race last year, and this year I knew to expect a good time. But watching how everything is organized and how the course is laid out and, perhaps most of all, seeing Shoogs out there to cheer every racer on with his cowbell really drives the point home that these guys are real pros. We're pretty lucky here in the Mid-Atlantic region - we have a lot of great promoters doing their thing with some great events. I'd put the Something Wicked crew up there with any one of them. To a person, everyone there seemed to really enjoy themselves and that's the sign of a great event.

The view of the Start/Finish from my feed zone

The parking rimmed the field, and the course ran all the way around on the fire road.
So after the pre-race meeting, we all rolled down to the start area at the bottom of the driveway into the park. This added about a mile prologue section tot he course, which is designed to thin the field a bit before we hit the initial singletrack section. During the meeting, the organizers had announced a $100 prime for the first to make it to the singletrack. 

The Pre-Race Meeting
(photo courtesy of Louie Renna via Facebook)

Now, I had no illusions of winning that money, but I loved the idea because I knew it meant that there would be an all out blitz for the woods off the line. I figured this could work to my advantage because I knew that if I got a good spot near the front, I could tuck in behind some quicker geared riders and just hang on for the ride. And it worked. I got a good spot right off the line and entered the woods with the top 20 riders.

The Starting Line
(photo courtesy of Jennifer Carlson via Facebook)
For this race, I decided that the only thing that would really matter was keeping my average speed high, so to that end, I eliminated all the extra fields on my Garmin and kept just two - total time and average speed. My Garmin Edge 500 is pretty lousy all things considered -- the distance and speed are unreliable -- but I figured it was still better to keep the one number as my focus. As I hit the woods off the prologue section, I glanced down to see that I was averaging 19.8 mph over the first mile! That was awesome, and I barely felt it because I tucked in behind one of the Cat 1 geared guys and just let him pull me to the singletrack. That was a nice plus for a singlespeeder!

And so I was on my way.  My prep for this race was a bit interrupted, as I mentioned on this blog in an earlier post. My new carbon fork had arrived only a few days before, and this was the first time I would ever race on a rigid fork. But to be honest, I wasn't that worried about that at all -- one ride on the fork on Thursday night in Philly convinced me that I'd made a great choice. It was light. It was responsive. And it felt fast. It didn't worry me at all. Instead, all along, my main concern had been to figure out what gear to run. Ultimately, I made the decision to go pretty big - a 32:16. For six hours (and probably longer.) And ultimately, that was where I made my big mistake.

And that was my biggest lesson of the day. I had pre-rode the course a few weeks ago while on vacation, and even after that ride, I'd considered the possibility that a 2:1 might be a bit too much. It wasn't the climbs - I still think the climbs at CP are pretty tame - it was the constant twists and turns that did me in. All that slowing down and re-accelerating just wore me down over time, and the thing is, I had already thought of this. So what's the lesson? Sometimes it's a good idea to listen to your inner voice!

But like I said earlier, I actually had a great day. How's that? Well, back to the race ...

I flew through the first lap sitting in on some riders who'd kind of jumped in front of me on the first section of singletrack. I was still early enough in the group to avoid the gridlock of the one power climb. But I quickly found myself behind a few other riders without any room to pass on a section I could have flown through on my own. So I settled in and tried to take advantage of any opening I saw. The only time I ever felt like I was doing any real work was when I popped out of the woods to the Start/Finish area and saw the tape - there was a pretty vicious cross-wind coming across the field. I was lucky enough to have a few riders in my group at that point so I was able to tuck in a little bit, but it didn't help all that much -- it's tough to create an echelon out of mountainbikers!

After that I settled in to a pretty good pace. Each lap, I'd pass by my feed zone, and swap a bottle and get some endurolytes. My feed zone was one of the best I've ever had -- not bad for a self-supported ride!

Each time I passed by, I had a quick bottle swap - in and out in seconds! 
The legs started to complain a little earlier than expected -- I was only on my third lap when I felt the first twinges of a cramp in my right quad. That was all that speed-up/slow-down stuff I referred to earlier taking its toll. In retrospect, I spent a lot of time standing up out of the saddle to rebuild speed. And that gets to you after a while when you can't gear down to take the edge off. Still, I knew from the start that I wasn't going to quit no matter what. I did the math in my mind and figured that the odds I would get eight laps were pretty much too high for the pace I'd be able to keep with bad legs. So I decided that good would have to look like something different than eight laps. And so it did!

I spent the majority of the six hours working against uncooperative legs. But the course there is just so much fun that I can't say it was a huge chore. There were plenty of sections where the terrain was flat and fast and my legs quieted down and it was just all about flow. Other times, I had to be careful not to dab no matter what because I knew that if I did, one or both my legs might lock up. But, net-net, the day was definitely more of the former.

In fact, even though the going got tougher as the day went on, I actually was ultimately faster on my last two laps than I was on the one immediately prior. And my last lap itself was faster than the fourth, fifth or sixth!

When the pain sets in, grit your teeth and keep moving forward!
(photo courtesy of Wayne Lewis via Facebook)

So in the end, I fought through some pretty nasty leg cramps (an effort I have been paying for ever since) to have one of my all time favorite days on a bike. I ultimately finished in 7th place in the SS open field, and shaved about 10 or so minutes off of last year's time. I learned I love racing on a rigid fork (although that may change on more aggressive terrain!) and I also learned that sometimes, a spinning gear is a better weapon than a mashing gear, even on a flat course.  And I learned that when you are surrounded by other racers having the time of their lives, it's not hard to have the time of your life. I tend to race with total focus usually -- I'm thinking about going as fast as I can and little else. On Saturday, I was more aware of everything around me than I usually am. I noticed the course. I noticed the people. I noticed the weather, and every bend in the trail. What I didn't notice was any sense of disappointment over not being fast enough to get that eighth lap. Had I hit my goal, I'd be over the moon for sure. But running top ten on a day when my choice of gears was wrong and my legs fought me for the last 40 miles, running into an old friend from way back in high school (nice job out there, Mark!), matching a few more faces to usernames from the MTBNJ board (shout out to Panhead, Robson, and Spencer!), and being totally happy to suffer all day - those are all reasons enough to call the day a success!

Post-race ... I need the bike to hold me up!

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