I went to Nationals for the first time and didn’t even get to finish

I admit, the title sounds a bit like I’m whining, but I’m not. Really. Truth is, I wasn’t even going to write about my first trip to Nationals because I thought, who wanted to read a race report about a race that I wasn’t even allowed to finish?  Quite honestly, the race belonged to the incredibly talented women who actually finished.  I still can’t believe the number of us who were pulled before the finish….but let’s get back to the story.

It’s now late Thursday night and I finally decided to write about it, but mostly because a cycling fan and journalist Dan Wuori prodded me to.  I figure, if he wants to read it then maybe someone else does to.  I realize now, three days later, that this race was all about gaining experience at the national level and lots and lots of perspective. At the end of the race however, I was completely demoralized and there was so much emotion tied up in my result that I’ve had a difficult time decompressing this week. I’ve now had lots of conversations with my team director, teammates, coaches, friends, supporters, fans etc and letting things come into perspective and I’m finally feeling better, motivated and focused again.

I don’t want to make more out of it than is necessary or over-analyze it, but I figured that telling the story for those who didn’t participate or were there, and talking about what I learned would be a good use of this effort.

One of the more important things about this race is the fact that it’s the first year that the women’s professional championships were held alongside the men’s.  This is a huge step in women’s racing and I’m honored to have participated in its’ inaugural event, regardless of my personal result.  I’m not only a bike racer and coach but I am a vocal promoter of the sport and the advancement of women’s racing in general and I applaud those who were a part of making this a reality.

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Photo compliments of Michelle Beacham

Friday morning: 3:30 am wake-up call to catch the bus in downtown San Rafael at 4:15 for a bus trip to the San Francisco airport to catch a 7:00 am flight to Dallas; followed by a 4 hour lay-over, then another flight to Nashville, then directly into the I Am Racing truck for another two hour drive to Chattanooga. I looked out of the window in the truck after it got dark and looked at the full moon. I then realized that while I was on the bus that morning after 4 am, I had looked out the window at that full moon…..and now I was half way across the United States in the middle of a state I’d never been in (Tennessee) and it was dark again and there was the full moon again. Surreal.

I was exhausted and severely dehydrated by the time I got to the host house that evening.  Everyone had already arrived hours earlier.  I had the longest travel time of anyone on the team.  I tried to drink as much as possible during the day but it ‘appeared’ (see what I just did there?  I told you the color of my pee….without actually telling you the color of my pee) that all my efforts had not been enough.

Saturday: First priority was eating a good breakfast and riding from our host house outside of Chattanooga to meet some of my new teammates at Whole Foods (one of our sponsors) in downtown Chattanooga to recon the course.  At this point in my bike racing ‘career’, I’ve learned that knowing the course is a very important puzzle piece. I had my queue sheet from the race bible in my jersey pocket and we pre-rode the downtown circuit portion twice before heading out to the climb.  I really liked the downtown circuit.  I love technical criterium-like courses and downtown Chattanooga was full of character, quaint architecture and also featured the college campus.  The climb on the other hand, was something else….a solid 10%+ grade and then a hard right hand turn to a 16%+ pitch that undulated for another mile. Yep. I knew that the race was gonna break up on that climb.  I am realistic enough to know I’m not going to keep up with the majority of the top women but I thought I would at least have a chance of hanging with the middle 50%…..I actually felt pretty good that day too and had slept well Friday night and then again that night; although still….dehydrated. The view on the decent featured a long-range view of the rolling green hills of Southern Tennessee, which was beautiful.

Side note: another thing I’ve learned from traveling a lot for racing; if you’re in an unfamiliar area riding then make sure you take in the sights when you’re not racing because when you’re in the middle of a race, you don’t have time or energy to site see, besides……I am there to race my bike after all!

Sunday: At the instruction of my coach, I did an easy ride with some of my teammates with a few  ‘openers’/jumps to keep the legs open for the next day’s race.  I felt like crap for the first 30 minutes or so and then felt better and felt pretty good during the jumps. That night, the healthy food extravaganza continued.  Those of you who aren’t bike racers might get ill just looking at the sheer amount of food a house full of bike racers are capable of consuming; and you don’t even wanna be around during a stage race….. We then all gathered around for the manager’s meeting where we discussed logistics of a national level race including follow vehicles, team sign-in, warm-up, receiving help during the race should we get a flat or mechanical, after-race drug testing should our bib #’s be pulled and time cut offs etc etc.  I tried to relax the rest of the night before going to bed but I had a hard time turning my brain off.  I didn’t sleep well or enough…..and I was still dehydrated.

Monday:  The National championships are kind of a big deal.  I was however, believe it or not, very confident and calm all week and even the whole morning of the race.  I’d been racing with all those pro/elite teams off and on for the past 2 or more seasons and I’d finally gotten to the point where I felt like I belonged there.  I was no longer intimidated, but still had a healthy respect for them and their superior fitness and experience.  I was very very focused and calm.  On the other hand, I felt like crap.  I didn’t get enough sleep, I was still dehydrated and I was really sluggish during the warm-up.  I’ve raced like this before though and I know I can “turn it off, dig deep and race through it” so to speak. However, looking back, I had lot of things stacked up against me that were now compounded: dehydration, fatigue from the previous two weeks, fatigue from traveling, the 3 hour time difference, lack of national level racing experience….and now I was on the start line.  It didn’t matter though to me.  I was there to race my bike, because that’s what I’m committed to doing.

“Make the best use of what is in your power & take the rest as it happens” ~Epictetus.

There were so many fans there, photographers, officials, TV cameras, it was exciting and yet….it felt familiar. I was still focused. I made sure my power meter was still on before the gun went off……

I can’t explain what happens when the whistle blows or the gun goes off; and I certainly can’t speak for any other person who races, but for me, I’ve finally learned to allow my instincts to kick in and to trust them…because they always do kick in.  I just know how to race. I always have. Every racer has their strengths and weaknesses and I suppose this is a strength of mine.  I’ve always been able to read a racer’s body language.  I can tell when they’re fatigued, I can tell when they’re going to attack, I can feel the energy within the peloton when something is about to happen, I can feel when everyone is complacent and things are slow, I know when to get off one person’s wheel and find another one ASAP because the one I’m on is gonna fade, I know how many wheels back I need to be in the final laps/kilometers of a race, I can tell when someone is more affected by the weather than another, I can tell when someone goes in over their head on a climb and someone else is biding their time…..it’s taken a long time to learn to trust my instincts and just turn my brain off and race my bike.  This doesn’t mean I’m always right and I’m constantly learning things, particularly when it comes to professional/elite level racing and complicated team tactics and of course…..I’m still gaining fitness.

We averaged over 25 mph for 45 minutes during the 3 downtown circuits in Chattanooga and I never really felt like I was in over my head. I was nearly always able to move up and around in the field and stay in the top 10-20% of the field or so (I’ve learned that you need to stay up in this portion to keep from yo-yoing too much in the back and to make sure you can respond to dangerous moves/attacks if necessary).  I was confident and calm. After the 3 circuits we turned left instead of right and headed out on the straight road to the climb.  I lost some position in the chicanes leading to the climb….damn……..but I stayed calm. The climb started and I was still in the front 30 riders or so but the front of the group went away with more speed than I’ve ever climbed before and the field was shattered like broken glass within the first 500 meters. My legs completely blew and I sounded like a buck-10 freight train should probably sound climbing that hard…..and so did every other woman around me. Less than a mile later the commissaire car, com cars and then team cars started to pass us going up the climb. Demoralizing. My wattage numbers were significantly less than what I knew I was capable of climbing at and I was going as hard as I could and yet….’nothing’. I felt like I wasn’t worthy of riding over the chalk-strewn roads that so many fans had spent time writing on and were scattered all over the climb with their arm chairs, cow bells, brightly colored t-shirts and god-knows-what-head-wear that I didn’t have the time or energy to decipher.  What was I doing there? I knew I wasn’t climbing fast enough to make the time cut. Demoralized. I started the decent and less than a kilometer later my left contact flipped out of my eye. I didn’t have the mental energy to even react. I was so completely physically and emotionally exhausted. On the flat road coming in to town I found one girl to work with and we rounded the downtown circuit together, passed through the start-finish and were asked to exit the course. Demoralizing.

I had made it. I had followed my coaches training plan nearly 100%, made all the right team and sponsor connections. I had made all the necessary lifestyle changes, equipment changes, dietary changes and did my best (although it wasn’t enough) to stay hydrated and be recovered (though I wasn’t….). All you can do on race day is what you can do.  You have to race your best with what you have, and that’s just the way it is.  I love racing my bike and I still loved racing that day.  One of the more valuable things I’ve learned how to do the last few months is to be in the moment.  If I hadn’t have stayed calm and focused and in the moment while racing, I wouldn’t have gotten out of the race what I did.  If I hadn’t have pushed myself as hard as I could possibly go while climbing regardless of how my legs felt, I wouldn’t have gained a whole new level of ability to suffer (as evidenced by today’s hill repeats).

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Photo courtesy of @julesmpg

It’s a rare day that everything comes together just right for any bike racer.  Everyone has something working against them on race day, whether it’s an injury, dehydration, fatigue, team issues, equipment issues, sickness, personal issues, etc etc. I knew I wasn’t the only one, and I learned that a long time ago…..but the emotional toll that getting pulled from a race of that caliber after having come all that way, was more than I’d ever experienced.  Additionally, immediately following the race we all had to head back to the host house and immediately shower, eat, break down our bikes, pack everything up and drive back to Nashville.  Tuesday morning I woke up at 6:30 (3:30 am my time in California) for another 10+ hour travel day home. I didn’t have any time to decompress and reflect until today to put things in perspective. This is the first time I’ve traveled this far to race and the first time I’ve flown to race. It was also the first time dealing with taking my bike apart, flying with my bike, then putting it all back together.  This was also the largest time change difference I’ve ever dealt with and I’ve also never had this much difficulty trying to stay/get hydrated for that many days in a row.

There are so many pieces to this puzzle and it all takes time….lots of time….and I’m not patient, very competitive and I’m incredibly hard on myself, set unrealistic expectations and rarely give myself credit for what I’ve already accomplished. There’s always more watts to reach for, more that can be done for recovery, more racing lessons to learn, more coaching, more personal growth, a greater ability to suffer, a better ability to focus, more and better equipment, more adaptation to traveling a lot, more changes to my lifestyle and less that I can live on (I’m well below poverty level, I’m not victimizing myself, I put myself here, I’m just giving you some perspective.  I’m not the only woman racing at this level living like this). I have been extremely fortunate as a result of my dedication, results, sacrifices, passion and vocal promotion to and for the sport that I love to have come in contact with all the sponsors, benefactors, teams, coaches, and many other individuals that make up my support system. There is no doubt in my mind I wouldn’t be here without them and at the same time, I am fully responsible for my own training, logistics, recovery, etc.

Yes, on Monday I raced my first Professional Women’s National Championships and 5 years ago I came to Northern California as a cat 4  to chase my dream of racing professionally……and I still feel so far away……

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