(or, My First DNF)
This weekend, I borrowed a nice Cannondale from my friend JH. Actually, it's really nice -- it has a carbon derailleur, is startlingly light, and rides like a dream, even on the road. It's also silver in color, which means it's destined to wind up in my stable if he ever sells it :D
I borrowed it so I could ride my first mountain bike race -- the last race in the Louisville Short Track Series, co-hosted by Rogue Racing Project and Bob's Red Mill. After my asthma kicked up a bit riding a practice lap, I thought long and hard about whether or not to race ... and then figured, "What the heck? It's $15 ($10 for the race, $5 for the one-day license). Even I can afford $15, and it'll be fun. I'll just be careful and sit in at the back."
So I signed up and rode around for a while to warm up a bit more, and also because I was too nervous to stand still and watch the kids', Juniors, and Cat 3 Womens' races. I also got to finally meet one of my team-mates -- we've been trying to track each-other down and plan a regular training ride for like three months now, so that was cool. After a while, DD arrived bearing water and bananas (he's still the best soigneur/team car driver/masseur/etc. in the whole universe). We chatted for a few minutes, I warmed up a bit more, and then it was time for my race.
I decided to start at the back. I wasn't there to win, just to ride with a bunch of other crazy people (DD and I talked on the way home about why I want to race, because I still have trouble grokking it sometimes). One of our charming co-hosts (I think it was Seiler, but sadly can't tell who anyone is without bike helmets on!) did a sort of roll call to make sure we were all in place, and then off we went.
Through the uphill singletrack section right near the start, I held on to the tail of the pack just fine (strangely, I found it easier to ride the singletrack bit with other guys right in front of me, perhaps because I was paying attention to them instead of being freaked out by big scary roots that might jump out of the ground and try to kill me). I backed off the pace a little on the grassy descents that followed; I was riding slick tires because I forgot to swap them out for knobbies, so traction was a little iffy. I felt pretty confident and rode fairly fast through the next section, a rolling grass stretch, and I was no longer last at the bottom of the long grassy climb that followed.
However, halfway up the climb, my lungs started to feel sketchy. I ignored them and kept pedaling. That's kind of how racing rolls, and I think that's a big part of why I race -- to challenge my own limitations; to push my own boundaries.
I made it to the top of the hill wheezing, but did not die. Through the curvy, rolling stretch that followed, I managed okay. My lungs were still hurting -- not the burn that you feel when you're pushing yourself, but the curious I-am-going-to-burst-if-I-can't-get-a-proper-exhale-going that comes with an impending asthma attack (at least for me). I decided to ride that section sloooooowly, made it back to the start (after rolling over a log I couldn't seem to hop properly) and began my second lap.
On the second lap, I was alone on the singletrack section. I could see the other racers up ahead, some already pouring down the grass descent, so I still had bunnies to chase (which helps). That said, I spent too much time worrying about the roots, and lost my momentum at one point, after which I had to push the bike a couple steps to get rolling again. (Note to self: Try not to stop, even by accident, when climbing rooty singletrack.)
The second time through the grass descent, I felt more confident. My wheel touched the tape at one point, but I rode it faster. I flew happily through the grass rollers, then hit the bottom of the big climb ... and sucked.
I had caught a couple other riders, but during the climb my asthma kicked in hard. I started to cough, and actually had to stop for a few seconds, which is not a good sign. However, I was on the back half of the course, and figured if I could maneuver well enough I might be able to keep going. Besides, I had a bit of riding left to do before I got to the start of lap three, so down I went, through the rolling, grassy curves on the other side, and back around past the start.
By this time, my lungs were starting to feel really tight. I was trying to push through it, but coughing and experiencing the early effects of oxygen deprivation. Then I nearly wiped out coming around a corner on the grass, and suddenly there was DD with his camera.
I pulled up and asked, "Will you lose all respect for me if I don't finish this race? My asthma's kicking my butt."
He said, "Nah. Of course not." So I stepped over the tape, handed him my bike, and sat down on the ground so I could hit the inhaler and sit with my arms folded over my head.
After three puffs of albuterol and a few more minutes of controlled breathing exercises, I was able to cheer on the remaining racers -- especially my teammates -- a bit. Then the race was over.
I had my doubts for a little while. The thing that made me doubt my decision to pull out of the race is the simple fact that my legs had a lot more in them -- but legs don't work when lungs don't work, and whether or not the legs work at all is totally irrelevant when you're rubber-side-up in the singletrack because you didn't have the sense to call it quits when you started feeling seriously woozy.
Denis put it best, I think, when he said, "I'd rather know where you are because you decided to stop than have to find out which hospital the ambulance took you to." That about sums it up.
In the end I had a great time, and I learned that I can DNF and be okay with it. That was also a big challenge for me: I didn't know if I'd be okay with a DNF. I was afraid it might upset me a lot more than it has -- but I DNF'ed, and I'm fine with it.
Basically, when I race, I'm not out there to win. I'm out there to have fun. My goal is to finish, but I am okay with not finishing every race. There are times that it's better to say, "Okay, enough is enough, and this is enough."
I think, as DD pointed out, that the reason I race -- instead of just sticking to group rides -- is simply because it's a different experience. Everyone goes all out. You put everything you have into riding the bike, and for a little while that's all you're doing.
It made something funny about last year's experience at King's Cross make sense. At the start, I was on the front line. I was having toe-clip issues, so a bunch of guys passed me before I got up to speed. I was sure was was dead last -- but when I looked at DD's pictures, it turned out I was actually not far from the front for about half the race.
Especially in the beginning, it was like this...
Here's where I thought I was:
Here's where I really was:
It was all a matter of perception. Because I couldn't see any of the guys behind me, I thought I was DFL, and I pushed pretty hard to hang on to the 'back' of the pack through the first couple of laps. I wound up burning a few more matches than I should have done; I certainly would've finished better if I'd started softer (and also if I'd geared my bike better). Lesson learned: this year, I'll start in the middle, know I'm in the middle, and simply work to stay in the middle.
It's all a learning experience, and ultimately a lot of it boils down to psychology.
I wonder if I would have been willing to quit if I felt I could've caught the pack, or if I'd known there was even one other rider behind me, when I bowed out. I'm glad I didn't think I could catch the pack, and that I didn't know I wasn't last when I did step off the track. I'm glad I stopped. My race ended over two hours ago, and I've finally stopped coughing just now. Bowing out and taking a DNF was simply the right call.
I feel pretty good about doing two laps. The course was pretty intense, and I don't have a lot of proper mountain bike experience. Likewise, I was surprised at how well I managed on the singletrack.
So now I have two racing goals:
First, finish a little better in 'cross this year.
Second, finish in the short track series next year.
There's another mountain bike race in August, too -- I think I'm going to go ahead and give that one a try. I hope Jim will let me borrow his bike again (or maybe just hang onto it a bit longer), so I can get a little more practice in and ride that race. That one's a bit different -- a MTB circuit race, sort of, instead of a short-track race. It's one six mile loop, two laps (for Cat 3 men). I'll have to ride around in the parks a bit more, but somehow that fails to seem like a burden :)
Ultimately, a big part of the reason I race is the same one that makes me love group rides so much: I simply love being around other bike nuts. I think I'm going to try to do more of that, in the future. It would be good for my emotional health, and it would also be good for my physical health and for my racing 'career,' such as it is. One complements the other.
A few assorted loose threads:
First, DD got a bunch of pictures from the race, so I'm hoping he'll have them uploaded soon. I'll stick 'em up here.
Second, Things are finally starting to iron out in my life. I think I'm finally recovering from the depression that torpedoed the first half of 2011 -- and I'm actually looking forward to the back half of the year (and not just because it means 'cross season is coming). I'm finally feeling like I can do stuff again -- like I'm capable of solving problems, instead of just collapsing under them. I realize that's a fragile feeling, and I need to build up my problem-solving muscles before I take on the world (which is the mistake I've often made in the past).
I think choosing to DNF in this race, actually, was a good exercise for those problem-solving muscles. A few months ago I probably would've pushed on (though, admittedly, a few months ago my lungs were doing better -- my asthma is a hundred times better than it was last year at this time, but it's definitely still there).
Third, on the way home I also told him I was thinking about selling the Allez. He shot me a startled look and said, "Why?" I answered, "It's so I can justify buying a 'cross bike. I mean, I don't know if I can really justify owning two road bikes and a 'cross bike." Basically, in a way, a 'cross bike is effectively just one more road bike in my arsenal.
DD looked at me and said, "You can sell it if you want to, but you don't have to." I said, "Maybe I'll just hang it on the wall. Then it won't count as a road bike." I know it can be destructive to cling to objects -- but I'm not ready to let Quicksilver go. I like the idea of being able to look at him and say, "This was my first real road bike" -- or of fixing him up and passing him along for free to someone who really wants to ride. Like Swift, I would like to see him in service, but I also realize I'm not going to ride QS as much in the future.
Last, I got a ribbon for racing. Everyone who raced today got a ribbon -- that was pretty cool. The top three got prizes as well, and the rest of us got a ribbon that says, "Not Last." I think this is probably the coolest ribbon I've ever received, including all the second-place ribbons I won back when I was showing horses (I never took first, always second, heh). I hung it and both my race numbers on a wire penny-farthing that DD got me, and I was going to display it in an unobtrusive spot on the wall over my small bookshelf, where it would be out of the way, but where I could still see it.
DD hung it right over the door to between the living room and the dining room -- a spot where it can be seen from the couch and the loveseat, and also by anyone who walks through the front door.
Did I mention that DD is the best fiance/soigneur/personal trainer/masseur/team-car-driver/everything else in the whole, wide world?