My mind hearkens back to my youth and the final days at the end of summer just before school started. I was pretty OCD about Track and Cross Country in high school. In the summer between my junior and senior years I got my name on a plaque for running over a thousand miles in the period between school letting out in June and resuming in September. I made a plan and stuck to it.
Late summer was the time when you got ready to put your cards on the table. There was no faking it and cramming only led to injuries. If you had put in the miles you would be ready, if not, it was time to prepare to be found out. The seventies were the era of LSD (Long Slow Distance). My goal was to run a hundred miles each week. These were the base miles and the “sharpening” would come in the fall. I had plenty of natural speed, so for me the base miles were almost all that mattered.
To be honest I haven’t been crazy serious about Cyclocross for a few years. Even my breakout 2011 season began with lackluster motivation. I was within inches of skipping the whole season. Even as I found success, other complication in my life kept the foolishness of racing success in perspective. I’m not saying I am crazy serious this year, but I am excited to race a bit.
Last year the France trip dominated my calendar and I entered the Cyclocross season in perfect shape for five hour rides with lots of climbing. Despite trying to throw in some intervals I never got fast. This was such a contrast to my 2011 success it felt like a huge letdown.
This year is different as I had a spring of road racing. I did take off a chunk to build more miles for the volcano trip (as well as avoid any “trip-terminating” crashes), but have (at least in my mind) tried to keep throwing in high intensity rides. I can’t say it will make a difference come race day, but it is a sharp contrast to last year.
McWoodie commented that he thought I was in the best shape going into cross that he has seen. A more ego-feeding compliment is hard to imagine. I am tempering my optimism, but always hopeful. I am bracing for the bitch-slap that Starcrossed always gives me. I go in that race with high hopes and everyone just rides away from me and I am left wondering WTF? I once thought to myself that the race should be called “hope-smasher,” but I don’t think they would get as many entries if they incorporated the name change.
I rode the Thrilla with Geoff yesterday and that was a total blast. Near the end of the ride, after all the technical terrain was behind us, he attacked a long loose hill that he said was a well known STRAVA segment. He had warned me well in advance that he intended to ride it hard. I had replied that I had no such aspirations. After seeing him ride off I steadily upped my effort and soon found myself entering the pain cave. I ended up going deeper and deeper until I was in the deepest, darkest corner of the cave.
My quads were burning and I kept spinning. I focused on pedaling in circles and soon my hamstrings likewise joined the rebellion. I looked at my Garmin. My aging vision prevented me from seeing my heart rate, but I knew with absolute certainty it was in the 180’s (later confirmed). With conviction seldom seen from me in this century, I embraced the pain and drove onward undaunted. My lungs were screaming for more oxygen. As I neared the top my left calf joined the party but I refused to let up and lose my focus.
I was hurting. My climbs on the volcanoes trip, as well as the preparation rides, had been varying degrees of uncomfortable, but not painful. This was pain. I lied to myself saying I wasn’t going at my max as Geoff had built up a big gap (never mind that he is only six year older than my oldest son). I had scooted forward on my saddle and I was on the rivet in every way.
Ah yes, the cave…. Even though it had been a while, the pain cave is a familiar place. I tuned out the temperature (hot) the humidity (high) the trail walkers around me (no idea - filtered out) and with Zen-like focus willed myself upward. When it was finally time to let up, Geoff was there, hunched over his bars, he was benefitting from the head start on recovery and his eyes were no longer rolling back in his head. He didn’t know it yet but he had garnered the KOM for the climb. In my aged condition and even with the noncommittal start I was pleased that evening to find myself 30th on the leader board out of 271 egotistical riders.
“Kind of blows out the cobwebs,” I quipped to Geoff, trying not to drool or slur my speech revealing myself as absolutely blown apart. The best part of a climb is often when the road (or trail) then goes downward. First off; the chance of violent cramps drops and you can spin easy which chases the lactic acid from your limbs while appearing to have fun. We got to do that for a while. We earned it.
On the climb I had put in a hard effort. On the earlier parts of the ride I had ridden well despite some nearly missed turns and finding myself in the wrong gear when coming around a blind corner the trail turned up suddenly several times. Overall I felt strong; really strong. Strong is good.
As we cruised the last couple miles I had that good end of summer feeling. That feeling that comes from paying your dues and making deposits in the pain bank for future withdrawal. Last weekend when we rode 100K of trails on Saturday I wasn’t wiped out at the end. If there had been a throw down the last five miles, I would have jumped right in and may have even done well.
When it comes time to play my race cards this year maybe, just maybe, I might do okay. If not, that is okay too.
As Geoff and I finished, I felt good. The summer rain had moistened the trail enough to make the dirt tacky and I had a layer of mud on my bike and on my body. It was good to peel off my socks and see a healthy Belgian tan line.
Driving home I thought back to early spring when I had yearned to ride a fast bike on dry roads with exposed arms and legs. After the long summer the dry roads once again seem trite. My heart is turning to Cyclocross.