A National Level Throttling: Taking my Licks

Cyclocross Nationals. Friday, December 10th, 2010. T-Minus two hours to the Womens 30-34 race.

A yellow school bus pulls up to the race venue and unloads a swarm of gradeschool kids – friends of a junior racer, released from their daily obligations and unleashed on the course to make crazy cheering magic for their buddy.

They are rabid.

I am watching the juniors float over the course (really, the fast ones? They float. It’s like they’re eating helium for breakfast or some shit.) when the mob overtakes me, screaming.

“He’s coming!! He’s coming!!

We’re pressed against the snow fence, leaning hard to get a glimpse of this kid coming around a turn. Thirty or more little bodies vibrating. When he turns the corner, a roar. Then they’re off, moving in a herd toward the next vantage point.

They are a roving, miniature stampede of awesomeness.

Across from me, two boys are waiting for their brother to come through. We wait a long time. The kid is DFL. Most of the other spectators have moved on to see their little racers on other sections of the course.

We can hear him coming before we see him because, just a few turns away, his mom is cheering. He looks scared and determined and unfazed.

The brothers chime in and it’s just the three of them, yelling as loud as they can for this kid in wireframe glasses, struggling off the back.

Keep going as hard as you can no matter what! Whatever happens, keep going! You can do this! You can do it!

I look down at my arm and realize I have goosebumps.

The goosebumps aren’t a good sign – they mean I’m emotional. Two seconds later the little brother is running alongside the slow kid in glasses, telling him how awesome he is. How proud of him he is.

I can’t take it. My eyes well up and I make Kanye swear louder in my headphones so I can keep the angry edge rolling.

*

The truth is I see too much of myself in the slow kid. And I want someone to love me that much today.

As bike racers we sometimes confuse approval of our successes for love. I remember the first time I got anywhere near the front of a race – the way people reacted differently as I came around course. More intense. More earnest. More approving. It felt good. I wanted to feel that way all the time.

It can get confusing. You have to sort that shit out and remember that you are not your results. You are a human being who happens to pedal – amazing at so many other things, important for so many other reasons.

(Tip for spectators: If you have a loved one or friend in a race, cheer for them with the same intensity no matter where they are on the course. Don’t say, “You’re almost done! Hang in there.” Cheer for them as if they’re winning. Because they fucking are. Dig?)

Bike racing can fuck you up, man. Don’t let it.

Stay in control. It’s ok, you’re ok.

That’s what I keep telling myself, but the fact that the slow kid and the school bus swarm made me cry has me worried.

I’m worked up.

It’s fucking Nationals. I’m about start the biggest race I’ve ever been in with the fastest field I’ve ever seen. I’m in big-kid world now. No more Baby B Local Scene bullshit.  These ladies are legit. They’ve flown in from all over the country to have a run at this. Most of them are A’s. This is the real deal.

Get excited. Relax. Remember that the work is done. Turn your crazy head off. Drink a fucking Red Bull. Get on your bike and ride it.

I have a bike in the pit. I have bulletproof Giro Candela gloves on my hands but I can’t figure out the leg layers. I pull off my wool knee-warmers at the last second.

There’s a call-up procedure and I’m in the back on the inside. Two-minute warning and we scream like warriors. I shout, “SERENA!!!!” and hope she hears me from where she is on the front line. I don’t know what she wants from today but, whatever it is, I want it for her too. I want everything for all of us.

Breath comes in small clouds and it gets quiet. Then all hell breaks loose.

*

Photo by Abacus Photography

There’s a shoulder coming into my body no less than 15 pedal strokes after the gun. She’s trying to make a lane where there is none and she sure as fuck can’t have mine. I stay relaxed and put a little weight into her to keep us both upright. A little bumping ends up to be the least of our concerns.

Off to the right, brakes and screeching. Before I know it, there are three bodies crashing down in front of me. I manage to snake my way between arms and wheels and bikes and make it out without hitting the deck. I’m the last person to make the escape. Gapped off the front group for the delay, but off ahead of the ten or twelve who are tangled up on the pavement behind me. No man’s land.

I feel lucky. I’m a little rattled.

Settle in. Calm down. Be smooth.

Coming off a curb, I hear the tell-tale sound of my front wheel rattling. The skewer is open. Are you fucking kidding me?

If I stop now, the whole race will ride away and I’m already deep in the numbers. I can’t afford it. I can’t do it. I keep riding. Gingerly, and with a little apprehension. My first lap is my slowest which is probably the opposite of how you’d like this shit to work.

My quads are heavy slabs of frozen meat. My feet go numb after the first deep icy puddle. The soaking grass is velcro, wheel-sucking death from hell and so you pedal hard and go nowhere.

This isn’t my best day on the bike.

You’re not supposed to tell yourself stuff like that during a race so I turn it off and focus on getting the legs going (a futile effort) and picking better lines. I pit the bike, scream SKEWER! over my shoulder to Sal as I take the new one, and head back into the mud.

I am holding down the bottom quarter of the field and yelling at my boyfriend who is a self-sacrificing volunteer pit wrench.
In my defense, it’s sort of impossible to have a polite conversation in the middle of a ‘cross race.
Still.
That man is a goddam saint.
Don’t think about that. Think about riding better, Swift.

Better could mean a million things at this point – cleaner, faster, smoother. In my mind I’m doing almost nothing right but I keep turning the pedals over because I’m here and this is it.

This was the point. Jump in over my head and get a taste for what it’s going to feel like if I want to get faster. You know what it feels like?

It feels like ragged breath and bad legs and fucking hell.

I stand up on the pavement straightaway and grimace into the headwind. In the photo, this will look like a smile. Don’t be fooled.

In the back bog, I get a load of mud in my eye and find myself temporarily blinded. Slow down through the turns until I can see. Rub the grit out without losing the contact. This is the risk of running without glasses but so far I haven’t found a pair that I can tolerate.

When I finally regain a little bit of vision, I’m gapped off the two girls I’d been exchanging blows with and the ones behind me are gaining ground.

Unsuccessful saliva management. Photo by Tracy Smith my super rad buddy from Cascade Event Photography.

Marcel Russenberger appears on the side of the course as I come around a bend. In 1985, Marcel took 5th at Cyclocross Worlds. He also successfully completed three Tours de France.

The sight of him lifts my spirits a little. “Go, Heidi! Gooooo! Yes, Heidi! Go!” He is cheering for me like I am winning this race. Let’s get this on record: I fucking love that man.

All around the course are other voices and cheering, the sound of my name. There are moments when it is the only thing that keeps me pedaling.

I pass through the finish line and see 2 to go. It’s like a sucker punch.

The race goes on forever. Really.

And then?

It’s over. It’s over and I’m not last.  It’s over and I can’t stop coughing. It’s over and I’m delirious and nauseated and freezing cold.  

The finish line area is littered with supportive friends that I can’t find the breath to talk to. A girl from my battle group shakes my hand and says Good Race.

I sit down on the curb and go into saliva management mode. There are photogs everywhere. Don’t vomit, Swift. Don’t vomit.

The National Champion who just won this race finished seven minutes ago. She’s long gone. I’m 31 of 40. That feels about as good as it sounds. I’m fucking shattered and I’m thirty-fucking-first.

*

There’s a time to take your licks. Everyone gets handled now and then.

It’s a kick in the teeth to get so annihilated, but at the end of the day you have to find a way to gauge your efforts for yourself. Could I have gone harder?  Maybe. Could I have been smoother? Definitely. I didn’t have the fight in me the way I do sometimes, but I raced my guts out.

The field was fast. I wasn’t my best and I wish I would have been.

You do the work. You show up and go for it. Sometimes it works out and sometimes you get a ticket to the all-you-can-eat humility buffet.

Eat up, baby – because there’s motivation in those memories.

Photo by Matt Haughey

I want my mommy. Photo by Matt Haughey.

Photo by Matt Haughey

I swear to God I wasn't as terrified as I look in this photo. (Thanks to Abacus Photography!)

Check out more photos from the Nats at Cascade Event Photography and be sure to pay Abacus Photography and Matthew Haughey’s flickr site a visit, too!

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24 comments

  1. Simply awesome writing and post. Thanks for sharing.

  2. If I could have been there I would have cheered you on. You sure did get grungy : )

  3. i just wanted to say how awesome your writing is – in addition to successfully uniting suspenseful narratives, humor, sensitivity and sincerity, you make a universal connection, you capture the human condition. anyone who’s ever raced – male or female – can relate. i’m nowhere near your league as a cx racer, but yet you capture and articulate the same emotions and thoughts that run through my head as i struggle through every one of my races. you write about different races, yet i feel like i’ve raced them. i applaud you, and thank you for sharing.

    ps – i was turned onto your blog by another (much better) cx racer than me; you have at least a handful of fans in pittsburgh!

  4. Heidi — As someone who IS the DLF kid with the wire-rimmed glasses, at every race, I can tell you that every race matters, no matter what our placings might be. You are one of the racers I’ve watched and tried to learn from this season, as you pass me and lap me and take sick, perfect lines and leave me gasping for breath on the course. You’re a freaking ROCK STAR. Congrats on turning your goosebumps into passion and adrenaline on the course. There is no other way.

  5. Printing this out and sticking it on the fridge; no, wait- the top tube. Words to live by. This should be on the CX wiki.

  6. doug la placa

    damn hfs. that is some seriously crazy badass writing. legit yo.

  7. You nailed it with this post!

  8. Camille – it was so good to see you!
    And thank you so much for the cheering!!!

  9. On the short list of the most gritty, soulful writing on our sport I’ve ever enjoyed, no seriously.
    Thanks for taking me there.

  10. This post makes me wish there was cyclocross in the spring. There’s NO WAY I can wait until next fall to try this crazy shit out for myself. :D

  11. Damn fine bit of writing. Damn fine bit of riding too. It’s probably worth mentioning that you came in 31st out of probably nearly 80 million people in this country that could have fallen into your class. Not so bad, and you should be damn proud of yourself.

  12. jamie fitzgerald

    Hmmmmmm…..I MAY have been one of those that was yelling at you to ‘hang in there, not far to go now’. Must remember not to do that (stupid grin).

  13. Amanda Gilchrist

    You are made of steel for even showing up and getting in the start line. That course looked crazy whack retarded, and you did it. You finished. As a wee beginner, you inspire me to suck it up and race shit I have no business racing. Represent.

  14. Excellent article. I would love to talk with you about writing a woman’s article on cyclocross for our Florida readers. I am big into cyclocross myself and am doing as much as I can to get more people here in Florida to get into it.

    Let me know

    Darren Dowling
    Florida Cycling Magazine

  15. Awesome, yet again. Love your cross race reports so far. I felt a bit like this racing at Mountain Bike World’s this year at Mont Sainte Anne. You said it well. All of it.

  16. Thanks so much, Allison! I was at Mont Sainte Anne this year watching and interviewed the course designer. It was a monster of a course and obviously a totally wicked field. My mind was boggled. Impressed that you were even there!

    I have a cool bit of MTB news coming out soon and may be bugging you with rookie questions soon – watch out!

  17. F’ing awesome detail of what it was all about! If I were more articulate you would have taken the words right out of my mouth. Thanks for the perspective!!

  18. I could through your words both see and feel the course….Thanks again, and congrats on a great season!

  19. Derek Stevens

    The name of the kid who had the cheering section is Mitchell Stevens. My son. His school, when they realized he was riding in Nat’s created a field trip to support his efforts. I watched Mitch race, and I watched the packs of kids running and screaming for him. It was magical. I don’t race, but rather support in every way my wife ( who raced masters women) and Mitch, all while hiking a 20 month old around the course with an arm full of cowbells. (’cause we all need more cowbell) We have all read this post this evening, and from the racers in the family’s perspective, you nailed the CX experience. From my end, well done, and thank you for giving me that flavor of Mitchell’s race again.

  20. Riversiderider

    Heidi,

    I have been enjoying your writing for some time and wanted to let you know.

    Congratulations on Nationals!

    You have the heart of a cyclist and the talent to put your experience into words, a rare combination.

    Ride safe.

  21. “A ticket to the all you can eat humility buffet”. Brilliant!

  22. Great post. Sum’s up racing at Nationals for me in every way.

    No matter what, don’t give up, don’t hold back.

  23. Heidi – your reports are inspiring and awesome. Thank you for sharing. Your passion for writing and riding shine through all of that mud and i love that you share it with the rest of the world. Enjoy that well deserved down time!

  24. Karen Kenlan

    What a great story about Nationals and racing cross. You nailed it dead on. And finishing a race after being taken down from the start takes alot of guts. You have that and so much more. I was out there cheering for you. Keep writing because we love reading. You are a star!

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