Monday, October 13, 2008

Race Report: Chris Cross

This weekend, I did something completely new to me, something I'd never tried before (and, up until very recently, never even heard of). I did my first cyclocross race.

Let me tell you about it.

Cyclocross is structured a little differently than most races. First off, the division of racers follows the same classification structure as road cycling. So where runners and triathletes have age groups, cyclists have "cats." Cat 1 is the highest; Cat 5 is the lowest. But in cyclocross, Cat 4 is the lowest. I assume that "cat" is short for category, but I didn't think to ask, and I don't really care that much. I am a Cat 4 woman. A beginner. A n00b.

The race course for cyclocross is a circuit, and at Chris Cross, parts of the 1.5 mile course were really, really narrow--some of it resembled single track mountain bike trails. So you can see where unleashing the n00bs and the serious competitors on a narrow, winding 1.5 mile circuit might be a bad idea. Oh my God. I would have been run over for sure! I would have tire tracks all over my face and body!

All of that to say that there were eight different races, ranging in length from 30 to 60 minutes. The first one was at 10:30. The last one began at 2:45. Guess whose race was at the very, very end.

My cyclocross yoda, Brett, was racing in the men's Cat 4 field, which began at 11:30. And since the race was up in Lawrence, we made the 2.5 hour trek up together. So I got to get up at 6 a.m., even though my race didn't begin until 2:45. But not complaining. Oh no.

Actually, I'm glad my race was the last of the day. It gave me a chance to watch what other people did, and get some idea of what the hell I was supposed to do.

That's the big difference at this race--I didn't know what the hell I was doing. Triathlons are old hat to me, now. I still get nervous at some races, but it's never that first-timer feeling of "Where do I go?! What do I do?! Someone please tell me that everything is going to be all right!" And although I'm not an experienced runner when it comes to the racing thing, it's so basic: arrive in gear, line up, run, leave. Not much of a learning curve there.

Cycling is like a whole different world, though, and I felt it from the moment we left the driveway. I do not know much about bikes, or biking, and I definitely do not know much about the nooks and crannies of what is already a pretty elitist sport. So I was freaked out. But in a way it was sort of exciting. I'd forgotten what that felt like, to be coming into something so new. I mean, I encourage people to do that all the time, getting them started as a coach and trainer in triathlon. But I long ago forgot what that feels like. To be reminded of how nervous-making that can be was actually a pretty cool aspect of doing something completely new.

I got the chance to ride the course a little bit before I had to race on it, which was a very good thing. Before any of the races started, Brett and I rode part of it before they shut it down for the first race. Then again, after the women's Cat 1/2/3 (not enough women to field a race for each) I got to ride the whole thing.

The Course
Like I said, the course was a 1.5 mile loop through one of the campgrounds at Clinton Lake. For each race, the officials timed the first two laps, then from that time estimated how many loops the competitors could complete in the alotted time, and counted each racer down for that many loops. The race started on pavement, on the tarmac that ran around the camping area. From there it made a sharp right turn through some very loose, very sketchy gravel. It wound back through some trees, over some pretty awesome little rollers, and back onto the tarmac. It cut back into the gravel, down some single track goodness, over a dry creek bed (OH MY GOD THE ROCKS), and back onto the pavement. From there, it looped around into the grass, then to the first hazard--a sand pit. At the sand you're supposed to dismount, shoulder your bike, run through the sand pit, then mount and ride on again. The next major section was a long, downhill straightaway through more grass, back through some more trees (and frickin' gravel), up the same straightaway (UPHILL this time) to the second hazard: the barriers. Once again, dismount, shoulder the bike, jump the barriers, hop back on, and you're through the first lap.


I think I felt better about it before I rode the course.

The Race

When 2:45 finally rolled around, the Cat 4 women assembled behind the line (actually, behind the Cat 4 masters, who left a minute before us). All 15 of us. But last year there were 4, so this is some serious progress, apparently. The officials blew the whistle, and we were off. Brett told me not to hold back on the first lap, to find my rhythm on the second and third laps but hammer through the first. So when it seemed like the women were getting a slow start, I jumped right into the lead pack. I was in good position going into the first turn, when the leader totally wiped out. I kept right on going and stayed on my bike. I hammered hardcore, staying right on the tail of the first 3. It felt amazing. "I'm doing great!" I thought. "Maybe I really will be good at this!"

When we got to the sand pit, I dismounted like I knew what I was doing (Brett wiped out in the sand, so at least I knew what not to do). I ran my bike through, trying hard to hold back the other women. But when I got back on the bike, something was wrong. The back wheel was sticking, and I was getting this terrible, grinding, whirring sound. I hopped off and took a look at it. Adjusted the brakes. Hopped back on. Nope, still there. Hopped off again. "Run it to the pit!" one of the women who was passing me hollered. I wheeled my bike over to the pit (what kind of endurance sport requires it's own pit?!) as fast as I could, slammed my bike down on the ground (so everyone would know how frustrated I was), and tried to figure out what the hell was going on.

It wasn't the brakes. It wasn't the hub. It wasn't the wheel out of true. Brett came over to help, but he couldn't touch or even step into the pit. Finally, after I'd taken the wheel off and put it back on, he told me to just ride on it, just get through it. So I did. And somehow, taking the wheel off and putting it back on must have done some good, because the whirring was gone.

Meanwhile, every single woman in the race had passed me. Even the fat one.

I hammered out of the pit, frustrated and pumping with adrenaline. Even though I'd just spent the last few minutes standing still, I felt like I had just sprinted a mile. My lungs burned. My quads screamed. I tasted blood. I hammered through the straightaway, pushing my wheels through the grass, grunting and swearing and screaming primal screams the likes of which I'd only uttered during some very grueling Tabata intervals.

I sounded, like Speedy once so eloquently put it, like I had Tourettes.

When I came to the barriers, Brett was there (with the video camera) shouting at me to move, because "the big girl's not that far ahead of ya!"

Which meant that I could at least pass one girl, and not come in last place. But by this time my body was absolutely revolting. "No!" it screamed at me. "I don't wanna!"

"Shut the fuck up!" I screamed back. "This is my race, and you've still got at least three laps to go!"

I got through it. The second and third laps felt like murder. They felt like hell. I swore up a storm. I slowed to a virtual crawl, even dropping into my small chainring, when I knew no one could see me. I started getting lapped by the men (I held off the other women until lap 4). I even walked my bike through the sand pits. The race was interminable. It wasn't that it seemed like a long time; it was more like time was standing perfectly still.

At the end of the third lap, just as we were going over the barriers, I passed the big girl. I feel kind of guilty, in retrospect, for making my one main goal not to get beat by the fat girl (that and not to run into any trees), but whatever. That was my goal, and I accomplished it. Call me mean, if you like. It sort of fits with the whole cyclist attitude I copped.

And then going into that fourth lap . . . I don't know if it was the adrenaline rush from passing someone, or if I was finally starting to warm up into it, but I felt a second wind coming. I pounded through the first half of the loop. I leapt off my bike and absolutely sprinted through the sand, bike on my shoulder. I cornered like a pro through the gravel, almost losing it a couple times, but adjusting my body weight so that I didn't wipe out. I leapt over the barriers. I would have actually passed another chick at the end of that last loop, except that she remounted quicker than I did after the barriers, and at that point I didn't have time to catch her, even sprinting.

But sprint I did, guys. All the way to the finish. You know me. That's how I like to end.

The Aftermath
I was in some serious pain, after that final kick. And the SPD-equipped shoes I had borrowed were too big and too narrow for my feet, so I had some blisters and soreness in the footsies. And somehow, in the course of a 30-minute ride, I managed to get ridiculously chafed. How that happened in 30 minutes, I have no idea. But I was miserable.

The race had been 30 minutes of pure hell, no doubt about it. Through most of the race, all I could think was "If Brett ever tries to get me to do something new again, I am going to kill him." And I would have thought of something much worse than death, if I had been able to spare the oxygen for it.

But after dismounting and taking my shoes off and walking barefoot for a bit, and after getting back to the car and changing into normal clothes beneath a towel like a surfer at Venice Beach, and after putting a few calories into my pie hole, I started thinking about the next race I would be able to do.

Because I got second-to-last place in this race. And it felt awful. But I started in fourth place, and there were two women, by the end, whom I would have passed, given another loop.

If I hadn't had mechanical trouble so early in the race, if I hadn't lost so much time, what might I have done?

And if I can learn to handle my bike a little better, to corner a little more confidently, and if I can practice my mounting and dismounting, and if I can get a little more familiar with SPD cleats, and if I can practice those graceful bounds over the barriers (not like this) that the men seem to effect so effortlessly, what might I do?

And that's what's got me thinking about the next several weekends, and when and where I can try this crazy sport again.

Video to come tomorrow, along with the top 5 reasons you should try cyclocross.

Photo credits go to Lantern Rouge Racing, not to me. I did not take pictures of myself while I was biking.


  1. good GOD you are amazing.


    a woman who didnt even run her first 5k last weekend as planned.

  2. Thanks for the great report! Can't wait to see the video. I'm glad that, like you, I discovered cyclocross in time to get some races in for this season!

  3. so suddenly I'd been hearing about cyclocross everywhere, but I had no idea what it was.

    so thanks! now I know! and I cannot believe that you do this clipped in??? I'd be toast in about 10 seconds!


  4. Thanks for the video! Nicely written intro to 'cross too, i think you summed it up nicely.

    SKC Racing

  5. @jeanne Oh, you'd muddle through like every newbie does!

    @Andrew Was that you I caught clearing the barriers so nicely in the video? Looking good, man!

    @AiT Looking forward to seeing some race reports from you!

  6. And MizFit, why did you not run your 5k?! Is it because you are waiting for me to come back to Texas and run with you? ;-)

  7. That is AWSEOME! I think you'll be great at cyclocross...keep working and you'll be beating more than just the fat chick next time :)