I finished off the brisk weekend in Tulsa with an air of hopelessness, I’m usually pretty lackadaisical when it comes to the elevated importance of a one day stand-alone race such as nationals; if merely in the interest of non-conformity with the high levels of stress that everyone else is huffing around with. I was however hoping to bring it for the masters event, the first I could participate in since I crossed the finish line with the top honors in Boulder. The following years featured a rule change that prohibited starting in both masters and elite events in the same season and I was left to choose between start lines, opting for the later.
As it has been for the past few years for me, I arrived at the nationals venue early in the week. It’s pleasant to scope out the venue and gather familiarity with the nuances of the course before the large crowds ascend, but it’s also terrifying to share the course with riders who approach features with a much different rhythm. I opted to catch a lap or two in between races but the course conditions were nearly guaranteed to vary considerably with thousands of tires, changing weather, and the progression of the week.
Indeed the first few days featured a frost layer working its way out of the soil. The top level was slick, worthy of a surprise wheel slip on regular intervals in the many otherwise subtle off-cambers the course was comprised of. After two days of such conditions the morning of my masters race dawned with inexplicably bone dry grass. As the first race to start the day not even a drop of dew was present. With just a few minutes of daylight present before the call to staging, I opted to skip out on one last preview lap.
My start was flawless, I predicted I would get off the line well but not be the strongest and I was prepared to settle in behind whoever had the lead. This played out as I had foreseen and I was happy to sit in until I could make a move. The move came sooner than I had figured, my preferred line was not the one the lead racer took and I rode through clean while the alternative proved less so and a pileup ensued.
The next obstacle was the sandpit which was a bit of a sore spot for me. I imagine that there is some good in raking the sand each morning but in all fairness the only race that experiences the freshly fluffed and untracked stretch is that very first one. If providing the race with a fresh sand pit is a priority it should happen before each start. Regardless it was the same for all of us competing against each other and my largest problem in actuality was the few extra deep pedal strokes needed to clear through; exactly what my back prohibited.
I fumbled but maintained my early lead and as we approached the stairs I could tell I wasn’t going to hang on to it. I just couldn’t get my leg to swing smoothly over the bike on the dismount and lifting my legs to make the steps happen was a struggle. I dragged the bike up the stairs tucked daftly under my armpit.
I surrendered the lead shortly after, there just wasn’t any way. I held on to a hope that the two lead girls would tire before I did but I wasn’t riding with any sort of strength, I was just surviving. I finished third on the day with an air of dejection but it was important to look at it from the larger picture: if my worst day still landed me a spot on the podium I needed to appreciate what I was capable of rather than hyperfocus on my shortcomings.
I hung around for the remainder of the day and awards later that evening. With the podium presentation wrapping up I finally broke down and shed some tears as I concluded I was in a less than optional place and needed to come to terms with it. I drove to the nearby VA emergency room at the recommendation of my home doctors to see what relief I could get. It took a bit of explaining that I was only looking for the variety of pain relief that wouldn’t require a TUE and while I was still a few days from competing in the elite race I was more concerned with the longer term and my upcoming trip to Europe.
I walked out of there with a more than a few prescriptions but not much hope. The rains began and the course conditions went from muddy to muddier. Each race experienced deepening ruts and larger scale crashes. By the final races on Saturday afternoon, just a few starts away from the elites, the course was a quagmire with some of the lap times nearing the twenty minute mark. I was banking on a few course changes being made and indeed they dropped some of the tape lower on the hillsides to give us a fresh bite on the ground. This plays out to not just be a blessing though, fresh grass gets ground off and stuck on the bike, meaning more surface to hold onto the mud and consequently even heavier bikes and more clogging in the drivetrain.
We gathered at staging when the time arrived and it was one of those races you had to pick clean shoes or clean bike to even get to the start line. I didn’t have much expectations, besides the obvious issues I was already facing, much of the course was running and the running involved pulling each foot out of the suction of the mud. Rolling the bike while on foot wasn’t an option as slow (running paced) speeds in continuously drying and now very sticky mud was a recipe for adding on weight you at some point would be forced to hoist up.
When the lines are constantly changing and difficult to dial there are a lot of unknowns that can take you in a direction you aren’t intending. There is less overall control and more steering by looking in a direction to let your weight carry you along and much need to relax and let fly. A lot of the micro adjustments for this type of riding are in the hips and that was where I wasn’t so flexible.
The flat stretch off the start line was mostly ridable. It was intimidating to be near the back of the pack, many of the starts had crashes as the riders transitioned from fast dry pavement to deep muck. It was chaotic as we sprinted in, but less than I had expected. We transitioned to the grind through the first section and then as the curves and off cambers came on it was just a time trial of who was willing to send it on the two downhill sections and who was able to keep the run going for longer. The running wasn’t about being out of breath, it also revolved around who’s shoes stayed on and who could ignore the cramping calf muscles for longer.
After switching bikes each time I came to the pit and turning laps akin to 17 minutes, I made it two ridiculous times around the course before I was pulled. It’s never fun to get pulled but it was damn cool to have front row seats watching Katie Compton secure her 15th national title. With just 48 hours before I boarded a plane to the other side of the world with more equipment than any sane person should head to an airport with, it was time to put the week behind me and make things happen. Namely involving scrubbing and much soap and water.