Perfect Agony: Rainier Cyclocross Race Report

The full race report follows, but I wanted to mention that I’ve recently established a relationship with Wend Magazine and they’ll be publishing these reports as a diary series on their blog this year.  I’m super excited to be hooked up with such a kick-ass group of people.  The mission (below) of the magazine is dead-on and their tag line, “Adventure, Inspiration, Activism” pretty much nails it.

You can catch the Curse of Villebois and this piece, Perfect Agony, over there right now and I’ll be blogging about all kinds of things at that spot in the near future.  In a month, Wend will launch an online edition and I’ll have a permanent column.  I’ll float that link here as soon as it’s available.

But if you’d rather just cozy up in Everyday Athlete Land, don’t worry, this baby isn’t going anywhere.

Best,
Heidi

Wend Mission:

Wend’s mission is to inspire adventure. It exists to provide a forum in which the convergence of sport, style and creativity blend in a seamless fashion. Wend is an amalgamation of visual, mental and physical inspiration, built to emanate the style and identity of the ever-growing population of the urban-minded adventurer. Wend’s content is informative, thought provoking, and above all, inspiring. Wend provides bold tales to fuel the passion for adventure.

Perfect Agony: Rainier Cyclocross Race Report

Rainier High School, 7:30am. 42 degrees and foggy. Bone chilling cold, grassy expanses shrouded in mist. Eerie quiet.

It’s Sunday. In theory I should be curled up under a comforter watching the Gray congregate outside the bedroom window and thanking my lucky stars that I can stay in bed and sleep another hour.

But it’s cyclocross season. So instead of cozy Sundays, I spend these early mornings packing and then unpacking the back of my truck and fumbling with frozen fingers to erect the team tent. On Saturday evening my living room is command central: bikes in pieces, sets of spare wheels on the ready, gear in careful piles waiting to be checked and then double-checked.

I wait for this all year long. Two-point-five months of my life hijacked by mud and knobby tires and 45-minute bouts of explosive, fiery pain.

The Rainier High School course is renowned for its epic, 15% gravel climb. Having never raced here before, I’ve based my preparation on a shaky mix of lore and story-telling. The Hill has taken on a life of its own. The Hill has been the subject of truncated nightmares for the past three nights.

I’m tired. I’m tired of preparation. I’m tired of my insomnia. I’m tired of training. I’m tired of putting up the tent. I’m tired of packing the truck. And I’m tired of thinking about The Hill.

I head out for a pre-ride to slay the beast. Bumpy meadows, swoopy single-track, six consecutive barriers to clear on foot and then… The Hill. Double-track gravel, loose in the middle. The grade rises up and my cadence slows to the speed of agony. I reach for another gear and come up empty-handed.

This is what you call a grinder and there is only one way to ride it – guts out, eyes wide, teeth clenched, nostrils flaring. With fury.

At the top there is a lip where the gravel transitions to pavement. The grade eases suddenly and my mouth opens wide for air. The Hill! Vanquished! Fallen! Conquered!

It’s a small victory in a battle that may or may not define the war. I will see The Hill at least four more times today. I turn my wheel back toward the team tent and descend an off-camber grass hill at speed to ready my troops.

The pre-race waiting period is torture. Hydration, oatmeal, angry music, rampant cowbell. Anything for a distraction from the nerves. The Hill is sitting in the back of my mind getting steeper.

I hop on the trainer for a warm-up and discover that my legs are shot. Perfect. I turn off the heart rate monitor so that I don’t have to look at the bad news anymore. Technology is overrated. What does the heart rate monitor know? Nothing.

Harden up.

Start line. Staging. I get one of the last call-ups because somewhere along the line I have managed to eek out a measly two points in the series competition. Second row, fast wheels in front of me.

The fog has given way to blasting white sun. Up ahead the starting straightaway is lined with people two or three deep. In sixty seconds a whistle will blow and we will power by them, a blur of female bodies on bikes. A whirlwind of pounding blood and heart rates skyrocketing.

That minute is still and thick. I exhale deeply, close my eyes for a moment. Focus.

“Women’s B Field…” the official looks at us for a split second before she puts the whistle to her lips. Then, in a heartbeat, it’s on. A frantic push off the left foot. The clicking sound of cleats connecting to pedals. Heaviness in the first few strokes followed by explosive acceleration.

Race leaders shoot to the front. Gravel road into a left-hand turn. Sustained climbing, another left onto dirt and grass. I consider the rock that is residing where my left quad should be as bodies and bikes come around me.

This is where the race is decided and I know it. If you want top ten, you’d better go with that group.

“That’s the race! That’s the whole fucking race!” my brain is going ballistic.

The response from the quads is a low, angry sizzling sound. They are fried and throbbing. Mutiny in the ranks. My body, out of my control. My override system failing me.

Roots. A blistering descent over roots. On a mountain bike, these aren’t even on the radar. Here on these skinny tires and stiff frame, my body becomes the shock and I hover over the saddle as I launch from one to another. What I lack in grace I make up for in daring and stupidity.

The screaming descent continues over a long off-camber grass section and then dumps me haphazardly into a sharp left-hand turn on loose gravel. The rider ahead of me power slides into it, eliciting a huge reaction from the crowd.

I can’t follow her act and take the corner wide, bumping down the rocky drop that follows with too much fear and not enough hot sauce.

The fear will kill you. The fear will screw you over.

Out through sweeping meadow and grasslands I take a hump in the trail at speed and catch air to redeem myself. Seconds later the trail ends and we turn onto riveted meadow. So bumpy. Kidneys rattling. Molars smashing. No good lines, only treachery and violent ground surface. Pure evil.

I’ve caught the back of a long line of racers now. I’m ninth in a row of nine. Somewhere in the single track on the backside of the course four of us are kicked off the back. I can no longer see the 5 who got away.

We chase. We chase straight through a playground. Tire swings and jungle gyms and beauty bark at mach 10. Does it get any better than racing your bike through the middle of a playground?

Not very often.

There are three women ahead of me going into the barriers and I pass on the left, shouldering the bike. I can see The Hill ahead of me. It is three swooping, grassy turns away. A rider in black comes around me on the right screaming, “No brakes!”

I pedal into a chase and follow her to the approach of The Hill. Smash, smash, smash. Legs turning over and over in preparation. The more momentum the better.

The Hill is a gauntlet. Fans on both sides, screaming. Necks straining. Bent over at the waist clanging cowbells, mouths agape. A wall of sound and encouragement. I pass the rider in black and switch lines. I’m pulling back a rider up ahead so I veer back into the loose gravel in the middle to go around her.

Traction lost and tires slipping but with every pass I make the crowd is rabid. A girl unclips in front of me and I find something extra to power around her to the right, just barely brushing the red cone that defines the edge of the course. I can feel the heat from the spectators who back up to give me room. They erupt.

In that moment, the race is won.

Officially, I am riding toward 17th place. 7 places shy of where I’d prefer to be. 14 places shy of where anyone might actually care.

But there on The Hill, with the press of spectators and the roar of their approval, the day is made. My reward is in the whites of their eyes and the strain of their necks. They white-knuckle their cowbells as I push forward and eek out a smile.

The lap counter up ahead tells me I have three more to go. I want to vomit. The blood is thrashing against my temples. The pain is all-consuming.

Everything is perfect.

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7 comments

  1. Damn, you just keep on giving. You delivered, fo sho. Thanks for the great read.

  2. I was on that said hill, and you did kill it…..several times nice race!

  3. I didn’t battle that hill. I battled that stupid lone barrier in the middle of that bump-ass wilderness.

    You missed that cone at the top? I ran right over it.

  4. I understand what you mean about the fear. Much to my frustration it’s been my constant companion this season. I sure wish I could figure it out….. why now????

  5. Fear isn’t so bad. It’s natures way of keeping you alive. Sometimes, people who ignore fear end up with gravel ground into their chins from a nasty crash.

    So rather than worrying about fear, maybe you should just remind yourself to relax in those situations.

    For example, big, fast downhill turn. If you freak out and tense up, you won’t make the turn. If you remind yourself to relax, yours shoulders will relax, and you can make the turn no problem. You won’t be scared if you’re riding within your abilities. Relaxing makes all the difference. Big exhale, shoulders relaxed, elbows bent, one finger on the brakes.

    Try it, and maybe the fear will actually just turn out to be excitement.

  6. brilliant!

  7. Karen Kenlan

    You rock! Just stumbled on your site, your writing makes me laugh because it truly captures the essence of what cross is all about. This crazy sport we all love way too much.
    Keep up the great writing!

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