I’ve gotten a few requests for a race report from nationals, so in the name of procrastination, here goes!
After some panicked packing, two flights, and a long and winding car ride through the Appalachian mountains, I found myself a world away from MIT in Banner Elk, North Carolina, home to the 2008 national collegiate mountain biking championships. After leaving behind the frantic frazzled existence of a first-year grad student, I could finally yield to the perfect freedom of a single necessity: racing my bike.
First on the agenda was the cross-country race, which would take place on a 5-mile loop of relentless climbing followed by contorted singletrack descents, the trail slick with rocks and roots and mud in the true North Carolina mountain biking tradition. I arrived in NC late on Wednesday, stayed with a dear pal who lives there, and then she drove me to the race venue late evening Thursday. The scenery was stunning despite the drizzle and cold – the mountains draped with fog, but all glowing and charged with autumn colors. I am insanely jealous whenever I think of those lucky Lees-McRae kids riding this kind of terrain right out of their back door (thank goodness Boston has the Fells, with singletrack that salvages this city for mtbikers!) And the scene surrounding the race was awesome with tons of bystanders, energy, cheering, cowbells, random motivational signs stapled to trees along the trail – you couldn’t help but be totally jazzed by it all.
The timing of my arrival in Banner Elk meant I had barely any time to pre-ride the course on Friday morning before my race at 11am (especially since the guys were racing on it earlier that morning), but I figured I should at least scope out the really gnarly technical finale section of the course. During this less-than-ideal warm up, I busted a flat tire and had to rush to the start line feeling clueless about what I was in for and feeling less than confident in the state of my tire. But all worries dissolved with the start gun, and I managed to get the hole shot into the singletrack and hammered away to get a small gap on the field. This strategy that succeeded nicely until about three minutes into the course’s start loop when I slipped straight off the side of a small bridge after picking a bad line over some slimy off-camber tree roots. At this point I really started to regret not pre-riding the entire course. While I extricated myself from the stream/rocks/bushes – heart hammering, shaking with adrenalin from the crash – the chase group of about seven or so girls whizzed by me. I jumped back on the bike and tried to hit a rhythm that would reel them back in but wouldn’t blow me up in the process. I started picking riders off on the climb, but couldn’t tell who was D1 vs. D2 (the D1 field started 5 minutes before us), so over the course of the race I had no clue where I stood overall until I came through the finish on each lap (we had 3 laps total, shortened from 4 because of bad weather). After the first lap I was in 5th, still feeling a bit quaky from the crash. After the second lap I didn’t hear the announcer but I was feeling really strong and in my element, just having an awesome time out there, winding through the woods and picking off all the riders I could (a mix of D1 and D2 but I didn’t know how many of each). And then after the third lap I was so excited to hear that I had finished 3rd!
In the next day’s short track race, I had the chance to redeem myself on my nemesis bridge since the short track course basically followed the xc start loop. My legs felt less than spunky in my warm-up, but I was super stoked to race. I snagged the hole shot from the gun, and soon I and another rider – Rebecca Tomaszewski of Appalachian State, the winner of the xc race – had a decent gap on the rest of the field. I was pushing hard but she was sticking right with me, riding a singlespeed no less! I would gear down and spin up the climb (there was one pretty gentle but incredibly mucky incline on the course), while she’d stand up and hammer because of her gearing. On the 2nd lap (the race was 20 minutes + 2 laps), she passed me on the climb and got a bit of a gap, but I closed it on the singletrack descent and passed her again, then hammered as hard as I could when the course opened up to get away. At this point I had little faith that I could stay in front if that kind of redline effort was consistently required, but she started to fade and the gap between us stayed steady, then opened further. The greatest, most giddy feeling ever was hearing the course announcer say that I was on the last lap, not seeing Rebecca behind me, and knowing then that if I didn’t do anything terribly stupid, I could hold the lead and take the title. I was grinning like a fool when I crossed the finish line, totally exhausted but exhilarated from the sublime sort of suffering only racing can dish out.
Huge thanks to MIT Cycling for giving me the chance to race at Nats. Thanks especially to Martha for helping me pack, to Tony and Keith for rides to and from the airport, and to everyone who emailed/texted/called to cheer me on! It was such an awesome experience, and I’m inspired to up the ante next year. But for now, it’s time to retire the mountain bike for a few months and get pumped for PSYCHOcross! See you out on the dirt.