If you weren’t a climber there was an ice cube’s chance in hell you’d podium in the three races. Friday was an uphill time trial. Saturday was a time trial in Hygiene, which, flatter than the other two days, still had quite the hill to overcome. And Sunday, glorious Sunday, was a 36-mile road race, which pretty much felt like another hill climb, but longer, with more ugly-face efforts.
Friday: Eldora Uphill Time Trial
I wasn’t sure if it’d be more beneficial to bring my time trial bike or my road bike for this course. Half of the 7.5-mile course was relatively flat and I knew the TT bike, Zissou, would be beneficial for aerodynamics, but the other half of the course was a gnarly hill climb, which favored my road bike, Thunder. I opted for Thunder because I didn’t want to haul Zissou up the side of a mountain.
I honestly didn’t expect much from me or Thunder seeing as how I had yet to make the podium so far this season. I was up against some stiff competition in the likes of Anna and Andie, so I figured I was just paying for training and you know, the experience.
As I continued to warm-up on a side road, my bike didn’t want to shift to the little ring. I had a mini panic because that’s the bike’s job. Especially if I’m climbing up a steep ass hill.
I lined up with the other strong women, who you knew, had to be good at climbing because it takes a special kind of crazy to drive deep into the mountains on a work day to pedal uphill.
Ever since my bike fit with Pat last season, I’ve been conscious of holding my handlebars at the top instead of adamantly staying in the drops. I was so strict about following Pat’s orders that I completely spaced the aerodynamics of the drops at the beginning of this race.
More focused on pacing myself and watching my watts, I was quickly reminded by Alison Powers (nbd) who shouted at me from the side to “get in your drops!”
All I could do was laugh because duh.
My goal for the race was to keep Anna in sight. I knew it would be damn near impossible to catch her so I set lower expectations. Any time I couldn’t see her, I tried picking up the pace. At the same time, I kept an eye out for Andie who started after me. I’m surprised I didn’t get motion sickness from swiveling my head around so often.
The Hill wasn’t letting up and neither was Anna. She was quickly out of sight so I focused on my own efforts. My cadence was fast enough to churn butter. I didn’t see the other women behind me but I assumed I wouldn’t make Top Three.
There was no way, I thought. The other women are stronger than me. I haven’t been making the podium. Today’s not going to be any different.
The course winded around the hillside. People lined up along the edge with cowbells and music blaring. There were a couple of people taking pity on us, cheering just to cheer, but didn’t personally care how well we did. No one knew who I was or what pedal RACING was all about. I was just another cyclist who loved the pain of hills.
As I shifted gears, I came over the corner and saw the finish line. The announcer hanging out in a camping chair calmly saying over his mic, “here comes Jessica McWhirt” with pedal RACING. Then I heard Stephen yell out, “GO JESSICA.” I smiled as I pedaled over the white line taped across the road.
I had lost my voice I was breathing so hard. My legs quivered as I dismounted my bike to talk to Stephen and Anna. We watched and cheered for Andie, Jessica, and Sandy, I didn’t want to stay too long after the race and I was convinced I wasn’t making top three.
We knew Anna came in first, in which I called her out for thinking she’d do any less and I made some self-deprecating joke about my race performance. Then Stephen walked up to our group with the race results: “You came in second so now you can’t talk.”
I started cheering, “I’m number two! I’m number two!” like they do in that Ellen Page roller derby movie. Even when I came in second I was still self-deprecating.
I immediately texted Chris, my mom, and sister to tell them I finally placed in a race. I was pretty stoked.
I’m not sure if it’s easier to believe you’re going to win and be disappointed when you don’t or if it’s easier to set low expectations because then you’re pleasantly surprised with your results. I’ve always stuck with the latter. And I think that’s what has made racing so much harder than it needs to be. I focus entirely too much on results rather than this “journey” everyone tells us it’s all about.
I think it’s both. If I didn’t care about my results I wouldn’t train as hard as I do. I wouldn’t look at what I did wrong in a race and try to figure out how to do better the next time. But when I only focus on my placing and not the fact that I’m challenging my mind and body, overcoming fears and setbacks, and having the opportunity to race against badass women then it’s less fun and I get burnt out.
Saturday: Hygiene Time Trial
Today’s race line-up was reversed based on times. Jessica was first, followed by Andie, myself, and Anna. My goal was to not only try to pass Andie and Jessica, but to stay ahead of Anna.
Here’s what’s impressive: Jessica, Andie, and I all had TT bikes. Anna had her road bike and passed all of us.
You can have the fanciest bike but unless you have a powerful engine, your bike gadgets don’t mean shit.
Trying to stay at a steady pace while also trying to catch Andie, I was also focused on staying ahead of Anna. I was pedaling into the first hill and I could just feel her. I didn’t have to look behind me to know Anna was closing in. Then I heard shifting that wasn’t mine. Within the first mile, Anna caught me.
I yelled, “nooooo!” And then followed it with, “go get it!”
I was asked recently how are the other women whom I race against. “They’re awesome,” I said.
Sure, we are there to beat one another on the course, but off the course, we chat, we joke, and we congratulate each other. I’ve yet to have a bad experience with another female racer. I also don’t look for it though.
I go to the race with encouragement and humor. I want all of us to do well, to set PR’s, and accomplish goals. I don’t want to see anyone getting hurt or treated badly. I’m there to win but I’m also there to encourage the women next to me.
I watched Anna grow smaller and smaller ahead of me as Andie grew bigger. I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d pass her. This is where I lack strategy. Like when do I push it past her? How hard should I push? Am I pacing myself correctly?
We hit a flat section on the course so I turned up my watts. As I closed the gap between us, some random dude (who apparently doesn’t know basic cycling etiquette) cycles past me on my right without announcing himself. I’m lucky I didn’t cut over to the right fast otherwise I’m sure we would have crashed.
I waited for him to pass and then loudly announced my passing to Andie. I tried staying off the dude’s wheel as I hauled past her. I searched ahead for Jessica but couldn’t see her. I wasn’t sure what place I’d get, but I knew every second counted.
I took a slow right-hand turn and booked it to the finish line. Completely spent but energized by the race. Again, I didn’t think I’d place because I’m always quick to disregard my abilities. I rolled up to Anna at the registration area where other cyclists gathered to share their race efforts with each other.
I didn’t really want to know my placement, but at the same time, I was curious to find out where I placed since I passed Andie but never caught up to Jessica.
I was 9 seconds faster than Jessica. Anna blew me out of the water by two minutes. I hung around for the podium because I finally made it to the steps. We joked about flexing our quads as we stood atop the wooden boxes. After a very mediocre season thus far, it was a relief to finally have my name called.
Sunday: Lyons to Nederland Road Race
It’s classified as a road race, but let’s be honest, it’s a 36-mile hill climb.
Having two days of racing back-to-back then racing this bastard of a race, I knew would be a challenge. I tried getting extra sleep, dialing in my nutrition, and recovering properly, but if you’re not ready, then you’re just not ready.
I lined up with the women and made a couple of jokes out of nervousness. Knowing full well I was tired and that there were strong women next to me, my goal was to try to stay with the group.
It was a neutral start, which simply means we slowly follow a vehicle to a certain point and then we can go race-pace. I learned from my last road race at Superior Morgul that if I hold the front more often than not, I’m going to be tired at the finish.
I was at the front at the start of the race, I don’t know, hoping to set the pace, next to Anna, and realized I did not want to be at the front, especially next to Anna. I knew my pace was child’s play compared to hers, so I dropped back and held on to her wheel as long as I could.
We were maybe three miles in and just like most of the road races this season, the group maintained speed and I couldn’t. I saw Anna, cool as a cucumber pedal off, as a group of five other women sucked her wheel.
And there I was. Trying to focus on breathing and counting my pedal strokes when Julie, my teammate, came up alongside of me. I jumped on her wheel among the rest of the group. There was probably 8 of us or so. Julie and I pulled for a while.
And seriously, it was just a fucking grind. There is no better way to put it. The road continued at an incline. There was no recovery. Slowly, women dropped off the group. I told myself I couldn’t lose the group. It would have been unbearable to Time Trial that race with the headwind and never-ending hill.
A couple MW 40+ attacked trying to drop as many of us as they could. As I pushed and pulled up on the pedals, my hamstring seized up. I didn’t have experience dealing with major muscle cramps so I didn’t know what to do.
The group was pulling away, my right hamstring was cramping, I was letting off the pedals in hopes that the cramp would pass, and I realized there were still ten miles left before the finish.
I had to make a choice and it had to be fast: suffer for the next minute to catch the group and hope the pain would disappear or pull back, let the cramp dissipate, and time trial alone for ten grueling miles that I knew would feel so much worse.
I shifted gears, stood out of my saddle, and pedaled my ass off until I caught back up to the group. One Cat 3 woman was left behind in the headwind and never-ending hill. And as I caught up to the group, the sigh of relief was both for myself and the would-have-been-miserable Jessica I didn’t leave behind.
The women attacked again. We countered. I was hanging on by a thread. I wanted to rest. I wanted them to ease up. Hell, I would have been thrilled if someone was like, “Let’s take it easy for the next mile.” It wasn’t happening. We hit a downhill and I found myself stuck behind a nervous Cat 3 descender, much like myself. We lost the group. I told her we could work together until the finish. I hadn’t preview the route because why would I do that? It would have only been just a little beneficial.
I’m being sarcastic.
Because I didn’t know what to expect the last mile or so of the course, I blew out my legs on the last big climb. There were cars parked at the top, people standing around, waiting for their family member or friend, and it looked like the BRAC trailer was there too. I took it up a notch (because I definitely didn’t have the energy to sprint) and saw her drop back. As I pedaled closer to what I thought was the finish, I soon realize I still have 300 km to go. If I didn’t have such big sunglasses, the crowd would have seen my panicky eyes looking for the finish.
Laura caught up to me. I was gassed and regretful that I spent my remaining energy on a false finish. We went back and forth the last 300 km. She’d get ahead, then I would. Neither of us seemed to know where the fuck the finish line was. I even said that out loud as we hauled up the rest of the way: “Jesus, where the fuck is the finish line?” There were more people up ahead. I saw the 100 km sign. I tried to muster by last bit of energy, but I was totally spent. Laura was ahead at the finish line and beat me by a few seconds. I ended up fifth, which wasn’t a surprise.
Anna had been finished for 12 minutes by the time I finished. It’s inspiring to see someone excel so quickly and humbly like Anna.
While I was bummed about my mediocre finish, I was excited to see my husband waiting for me at the end. When you give so much of yourself to a race, you also seem to lose a bit of yourself at the same time. When you’re expecting better results and they don’t come, it’s discouraging. When you see other competitors kicking ass, you wonder what you’re doing wrong. We’re told not to compare ourselves to others; to race our own race, but what is competition if not trying to be the best? You compete to win. How you define “winning” is up to every individual.
I struggle between the notion of competing against myself and against others. I race because I like the competitive aspect of it, even when I hate it. I also race because it makes me stronger and faster than before. And because I’m competitive, I can’t stand losing. It makes me feel like a failure; like a poseur. Like, if I’m not winning, how can I lead a team of women racers? If I’m not winning, what will my family be proud of me for? If I’m not winning, how can I be proud of myself? I see plenty PR’s on Strava, but seeing a PR on a segment is much different than seeing my name next to #1.
It’s important to find that balance between self-improvement and competition. And I think it comes down to self-compassion. We end up being our biggest bullies instead of our biggest fans. You can be competitive AND self-compassionate and I’m trying my best to learn and implement that.