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Race Anecdotes: Mt. Evans Hill Climb

The person who wins the race won because they were able to suffer the longest.

I suck at suffering.

It’s probably why I haven’t stepped on the top podium this season so far. Sure, I can handle racing, being uncomfortable, the pain, and aches, but I know when I’m really suffering, I ease off just enough to where I can stand it.

Racing 26 miles up a 14’er was no different.

The 3’s were grouped with the P-1-2’s (because that’s women’s bike racing) and I knew from the get-go the pace was going to hurt. I found myself in the front of the group, setting the pace, as it were. No one wanted to get out front. I figured at my pace, I could do this ride all day long, but I also knew that this pace wouldn’t last long and I was riding myself out for no reason.

I dropped the pace slow enough so that an antsy racer could take the lead. And then I was barely hanging on. There were surges after surges and every time I was able to spring back, my Suffer Meter raised a notch. We lost a few women and I didn’t dare look behind me. I didn’t want to see my future.

Finally, a Cat 2 surged with enough gusto that I lost the group. I tried to throw my weight on to the pedals. I tried pulling up, using any sort of hamstring strength there was, and the group was trailing away.

I thought I could keep them in sight with my current output but the distance slowly grew. And with seven miles, I could no longer see the group and I was completely alone.

Enter Mental Toughness.

You can’t solely rely on physical strength to carry you through the finish line, let alone catch you back up to the group. You need the mental stamina. And it’s even harder to train sometimes than hitting certain watts.

What did I do to earn third place?

I gave myself small goals.

When I was completely alone in the forest I focused on making it to the next mile. Thinking about having to Time Trial another 19 miles alone sounded awful. When I thought about it like that, my legs wanted to give up, and my brain was like, “nuh uh, girl.” I didn’t want to do it. At one point I considered quitting, taking the ol’ DNF. But my penny-pinching ass refused to pay $90 to quit 1/3 of the way through a race. So I continued on.

I focused on mile markers or made them as I went. “Get to the end of the road.” “Push it until you’ve made it 1 mile.” “To that tree.” “Get to that switchback.” I did it over and over again until I made it to the top.

I counted my pedal strokes.

When I couldn’t focus on the next mile marker, I counted to 3 by pedal strokes. 1…2…3…1…2…3 as I pushed down on the pedal. I’d match my breath with the pedal revolutions.

And when that didn’t work…

I sang songs to myself.

Any song I could think of I’d sing in my head. A lot of them were Sia songs, oddly enough. “I’m still breathing. I’m alliiiiiiiiiiiiive.” You get the point. Whatever popped into my head, I sung.

I stayed positive.

This was probably the hardest for me because I have an easy time tearing myself down, which we all do. We’re our biggest critics afterall. When I saw the rest of the women leave me in the dust, the negative thoughts started pouring in. I didn’t think I was good enough to be racing with these women. I know I called myself a poseur more than once. And for what? Because of a single race.

I realized in the grand scheme of things, this race won’t matter. The results won’t matter. What I’ll remember is the hard work I was putting into pedaling. The feeling of accomplishment. And the stories that’d last longer than the beer we were awarded.

I kept telling myself to keep trying hard. I wasn’t going to get stronger if I gave up. “You can do this.” Over and over.

And when I got to the top, I saw all my friends. We shared our stories of pain and fun. Took some photos and rode down the mountain. As I flew back down the mountain, I reflected on the spots where I was done, cooked, and wanted to give up. Flying by those spots, I already forgot what the pain felt like.

When I reached Idaho Springs, I surprisingly ended up in third. The entire time suffering up that 14’er, was for a step on the podium. The thoughts, “I’m not a climber,” quickly silenced as my team clapped for me.

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What are ways you motivate yourself when you want to give up?

Race Anecdotes: Sunshine Hill Climb

9 miles. 6 miles on paved road. 3 on dirt. 3,000 feet of elevation gain.

I continually try to to convince myself that I’m a hill climber. Sure, I do them. I sickly enjoy the burn in my quads and hammies when I’ve been turning the pedals for miles on end, unable to see the top of the hill, wishing for it to level off, sweat dripping from my nose, my chin, my hair.

But riding hills and racing hills are two very different animals. During a ride, if you’re fatigued, you lay off the watts and cadence to catch your breath and simmer the fire stoking in your legs and lungs. In a race, the moment you pull back is the perfect time for another rider to attack.

I race my bike because it gives me a sense of control. I control the outcome of my race. I send the signals to my body to back off or push harder. It has always felt the opposite when it comes to my life: events out of my control influencing the direction of my life.

But that’s kind of bullshit.

Just like we can choose to push harder or ease off in a race, we can choose what happens in our lives. So many of us blame the world, the economy, friends, family, “god,” for the good and bad, but in reality, it’s only us.

This is what I think about when I’m racing. It’s what I thought about during the Sunshine Hill Climb. Otherwise, I’m counting my pedal strokes. I’m trying to control my breathing. I’m feeling the drop of sweat slide down my forehead, over the tip of my nose, and settle in the dip above my lip. Or it slides into the corner of my eye; the uncomfortable burn that no amount of blinking rids you of the irritation. And of course, during a race, I have a difficult time moving my giant “Terminator” sunglasses to rub my eye, so I blink and blink and my eyes tear up, and then there’s only a slight burn.

The seven of us lined up where the official pointed. I joked, as I always do before a race, for Cassidy to pull us up the hill. As soon as the official blew the whistle, Cassidy took off. I told myself I’d try to keep up with her as long as I could.

I don’t like being uncomfortable.

I stayed on Cassidy’s wheel for about a half mile before my legs started screaming, “no.” Laura was right behind me and when I dropped off, Laura followed Cassidy. I tried keeping Laura insight while also staying ahead of Andie.

As Laura disappeared from sight, Andie was gaining on me.

You should know how the story goes by now: I let my self-defeating thoughts have the best of me. I called myself a loser because I couldn’t keep up with the stronger 3’s. We hit the dirt and they were gone. With every switchback, my confidence shrunk.

“How do they do it?” I thought. Surely, I wasn’t the only one in pain, losing the breakaway.

It’s times like these where you need to stay positive, to break down the race into manageable pieces, to actually trust your training, and most of all, have fucking fun.

I usually forget the most important aspect which is to have fun. If you’re not having fun, why are you doing the thing you’re doing? Life can be taken away from you at any moment so why spend it doing shit you don’t want to do?

So I smiled and cheered on Darrell as I finished the last 1K up the hill. Anna was there to cheer me on at the finish line. I saw my teammates and we shared our racing stories. We descended together and parted ways at the bottom.

It was when I pulled up to Chris waiting for me at the bottom of the hill, lounging under a tree, that I understood why I do this: because I love the challenge. I love knowing I control the outcome. I love the friends I’ve made through racing. I love how much stronger I’ve become because of it. And mostly, I have someone always cheering me on when I can’t muster the stoke myself.

Race to Fail – An Interview with Anna Dorovskikh

Do you race to fail or race to win? How about both? I had the opportunity to speak with Anna Dorovskikh, a Cat 2 cyclist based in Boulder, Colorado. We raced together as 4’s and Anna quickly moved up the ranks within this past year.

As a self-coached athlete, Anna remains humble as she continues to dominate whatever race she joins. I aspire to have her power and we can all learn something from her youthful wisdom and humbleness.

Give it a listen here.

Race Anecdotes: Boulder Stage Race

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.

Battle of the Bear: My First Mountain Bike Race

I had given up on the idea of racing a mountain bike after choosing the Guanella Pass Hill Climb over the Beti Bike Bash. The Beti Bike Bash has a race category specific to women who have never raced before. I was all about that because mountain biking intimidated the shit out me. To factor racing in totally freaked me out.

I thought that if I could take on a race with other first-timers, it wouldn’t be as humiliating as opposed to racing another course with experienced athletes. At least if I was going to suck, I’d have the camaraderie with other noobs.

When I saw one of my teammates, Teena, offering her registration to Battle of the Bear, it was hard to pass up. Especially when my husband was also planning to race it. I was originally planning on racing the Senior State Time Trial Championship which was the same day as the Battle of the Bear, so it came down to racing a 40K Time Trial to prove I was better than last year (DFL last year) or racing 16 miles on a mountain bike having absolutely no clue as to how that race would turn out. I opted to throw myself out of my comfort zone (and hopefully not off my bike) in a big way and race my first-ever mountain bike course.

I asked and verified with my teammates the technical difficulty on the course as I’ve never ridden the mountain bike trails in Breckenridge (note: this race was rescheduled and relocated due to a storm on the originally scheduled date). I knew my weaknesses were downhill and weird, technical spots on trails. I certainly wasn’t going to huck myself into a race that would be absolutely above my abilities and therefore, making it completely miserable. I knew I could take some misery, but not 16 miles worth.

When I received the email notification that Teena transferred her registration to me, boy, did the butterflies start whirling around in my belly.

I told Chris we had to preview the course before the race. There was no way I was going into this blindly. Chris, on the other hand, was comfortable with the unknown. Sometimes (okay, a lot of times) with road races, I’ll neglect to preview courses. And usually it doesn’t work out in my favor. At the very least, if I was going to give mountain bike racing a try, I sure as shit was going to see what I was getting myself into.

Saturday morning we packed up and drove to Breckenridge (which, in hindsight, we probably should have found a hotel room so we didn’t have to drive so far). On the drive up, it hadn’t quite settled in that I would be hauling ass over trails. I had no idea what the course was like, other than what my teammates promised; which was, “You’ll do great. It’s not techy at all.”

Luckily, the race organizers had the signage up, making it easier to learn the route. Within the first ten minutes, we hit a pitchy climb and it continued. This is where I do well. I can do climbs. There were more climbs and I was feeling good. I kept up with the group although the quads burned a little. (Note: I only have flat pedals on my mountain bike so it’s all quads.) About a mile in I was like, “Sweet. I got this.” And then we hit the downhill, which, as a Roadie, fucks with my head too much. And I know I let it.

And it couldn’t just be a downhill; it had to be a downhill coupled with sand and tight turns, a combination of worst-case scenarios for a roadie. On pavement, you would never see a cyclist take a tight turn with sand sprinkled all over, let alone a pit of sand (unless, of course, they’re racing cross, and they already know it’s there). That’s a straight line to blood, bruises, and broken bikes.  

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So there I am, inching my way down this twisty, turny trail at a snail’s pace. It would have been faster if I just walked it. I wanted to “session” the section so I could figure out the best line or at the very least, get a tiny bit more comfortable with it. But by the time I caught up with the group, they started rolling out. Any confidence I had on the uphills quickly eroded – much like the sand that used to be rocks.

I think Chris realized my anxiety when he saw me death-gripping my handlebars as I traversed the sandy pit of hell. He reared up behind me and reminded me that a lot of racers struggle uphill so that’s where I needed to focus because that was my strength. I needed to “stop fixating on my weaknesses and to race to my strengths.”

We continued previewing the course, my confidence steadily waning. I kept telling myself that this was supposed to be fun. If I wasn’t having fun, why was I doing it?

There was one rocky section toward the end. The group sat at the bottom, watching me descend, which makes anyone nervous. “Don’t stryder. Don’t stryder.” I wanted to put my feet down, but with the pressure from my audience, I kept my feet on the pedals. I knew this part could make or break the race for me.

The last section of the course was like, a bmx park. It’s obvious I don’t mountain bike often. I don’t know the terms. There were berms and it winded back and forth. I could have jumped off a couple hitters, but I tapped my brakes instead.

We rode underneath the official finish line and my nerves were still rattling. Previewing the course made me more nervous about the race, but I was also happy to know what to expect.

My legs felt heavy from the first loop so we decided to stop after one go-around instead of going through it a second time.

After picking up some grub from King Soopers, Chris and I drove all the way back down to Littleton. I didn’t sleep well that night. 

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As we packed the car, Littleton weather was beautiful. Which is why I neglected to bring cold-weather gear. It was a tough lesson when we rolled up to registration, wind gusting, cold rain tapping against my sunglasses, and the hairs on my arms standing at high salute.

I quickly realized how different mountain bike racing is from road racing. Unlike road races, mountain bikers were chatting away, drinking beer, and taking naps. I kept looking at my watch, wondering what time we’d start warming-up.

And there wasn’t much of a warm-up. I think I went up and down the same hill six times before lining up to chat some more. As we grouped together, I checked out everyone’s calves and saw that I was only racing two other women (also, unlike road, they mark your calves for your category and age group).

The ladies joked that all we had to do was finish and we’d place. I didn’t want to place that easily. Like road, I wanted to earn my placement. If I was going to land on the podium, it was because I worked my ass off for it. Because in the road races, I’ve worked my ass off and still ended up in dead fucking last place.

I watched Chris line up ahead of me and as soon as the whistle was blown, he was gone.

My goal was to stay on Kristi’s wheel as long as I could. I knew uphill wouldn’t be an issue. It was the downhill. She’s a strong rider so I had my work cut out for me.

The whistle blew and us seven women shot off. I was on Kristi’s wheel, just like I planned.  We quickly dropped the rest of the women. I wanted to pace myself, but I wanted to stay with Kristi more. We caught up to the men within the first ten minutes of racing. I didn’t think I’d say, “On your left” at all, but I called it out several times as Kristi and I pedaled up the first steep hill.

I shook as I kept speed with Kristi, focusing on her torso, watching her seamlessly weave around rocks and slightly brushing against bushes that lined the trail. She stopped several times from some mechanical problem, apologizing each time I slowed down with her. I was doing well until we reached the twisty, sandy downhill. She was off like the White Rabbit and I was Alice wondering where the hell she went.

Slowly traversing down, trying my damndest to stay loose, Marc and the men we previously passed, caught up to me. I pulled over and told them to go. Marc yelled, “You’ve got this, Jessica! Trust your bike!”

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I knew he was right, but I also knew my back tire was sliding and I hated it. They took off, leaving me in the sandy pit of hell I thoroughly remembered from the day before.

I knew I’d catch up with them on the fire road and told myself so. I tried convincing myself I was fearless, that my bike and I, would be fine. I took the last few turns and saw them on the hill ahead of me.

The fire road was simply an uphill dirt road. I saw the men ahead of me. I took a sip of water and kept pushing my pedals, slowly cutting the distance between us. I caught up to them on a very short yet very steep hill. I didn’t have enough momentum to pedal up so I jumped off the bike and started running up the hill.

Marc and Simon both yelled, “You got this, Jessica!” And I yelled back, “Let’s go, guys! Come on!”

I jumped on Marc’s wheel. “Let me know when you’re ready to pass!” He said. We came to another hill and I took off. We continued leapfrogging through the first lap. They’d drop me on the downhills and I’d pass them going up.

Kristi was long gone but I knew that would happen.

As we pedaled under the main banner, signifying our second lap, seeing my mom and Dean, posing for Kyle’s photo, I told myself I couldn’t keep leapfrogging Marc and the guys. I knew it was messing with everyone’s race. I knew I had to buck up, stay loose, and trust my bike. So I pushed harder on the uphills and loosened my grip on the downhills. I felt like I was flying (really, I wasn’t that much faster than the first lap but our brains like to play tricks).

I tried looking ahead on the trail instead of directly in front of my tire. In a few of the sketchy sandy spots on tight turns, I threw my foot down to help with the turn. I had nothing to prove to anyone and if using my toe to keep me comfortable made me go faster, then so be it, I thought.

Every time I saw a racer ahead of me, I’d take it up a notch and catch up to them.

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My quads screamed. My lungs burned. And my hands shook from adrenaline.

One section was a steep, sandy downhill, with washboards. On the first lap, two dudes yelled at me to let go of the brakes. The second time I rolled around, they yelled at me again. I yelled back saying I was a roadie and to hush it, semi-jokingly, of course.

As I took off, their departing words were, “Sweet tattoos!”

I spent the next five minutes ruminating over those two dudes who found it easy to tell someone how to ride, yet they were standing on the sidelines. It’s always easier said than done.

As I took a second to catch my breath, I looked up at the sky and saw the mountains encircling me. It was clear why mountain biking is preferred by my husband. No cars. Just nature.

And then I was thrown back into the reality of racing when I came upon the rocky downhill section that freaked me out. This time I was ready for it. I lowered my saddle and followed the line clearly taken by all the bikers before me. No one was around but I still felt the pressure to stay on my pedals. And I did just that.

Shaky and exhausted, I shifted up and kept pedaling. My goal was simply to finish unscathed and not totally ashamed of my performance. I crossed the finish line without expectations and a cheering crowd. I kissed my husband, gave Jim his gloves and Kyle his arm warmers, and hugged my mother. We continued to cheer as other racers rolled in. We reminisced on tough sections, sketchy descents, and funny moments. Then Chris offered to get my timing receipt for me.

Chris handed me my race report. I finished first.

I was shocked and excited. No way in hell did I think I could pull off a first place in a mountain bike race when it totally terrified me. But this race was less about my placement and more about the experience. And while I was full of stoke as a climbed up to the top step, I was also regretful that I rarely give myself credit for the road races.

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The mountain bike race was a way to try something new with no pressure or expectations. I didn’t expect anything of myself except to finish. I’ve never patted myself on the back for finishing a road race. If I don’t land on the podium, I feel like a failure. If I come in Dead Fucking Last, I usually sulk and maybe cry behind sunglasses when no one’s looking. I take road racing too seriously and I think it’s because I have these lofty goals of becoming some sponsored racer where I get to travel the world and ride my bike. I’d love that.

And when I’m not excelling, I realize that dream may only ever be a dream.

I applaud myself for my mountain bike racing efforts because I don’t have those same goals with mountain biking as I do with road racing. I’m thankful to have another form of biking that I can just enjoy while also pushing myself. I’ll keep Road where it’s at: serious and my number one passion. Mountain biking will stay as my let-loose sport where I can cheer on teammates while we race along the course; where I can enjoy the beautiful scenery as I pedal and gasp for air; where I can leave for the day without a podium and still be proud of my efforts.

PHP: voluntarily kicking your own ass before the sun comes up

For at least the past year, I was consistently told, demanded, and jokingly harangued to join the pedal RACING men on this unofficial-yet-has-an-official-name ride Tuesday and Friday mornings near Cherry Creek State Park. And for eleven months, I found excuses to avoid it: “Gotta work,” “maybe next time,” and my favorite: “one of these days, I’ll join you.”

I knew it was a sausage fest and the thought of hammering out the watts elbow-to-elbow with testosterone-pumping broski bros didn’t turn me on like it did my male counterparts.

I didn’t see the benefit of waking up at the asscrack of dawn, trying to find the elusive meeting spot, only to potentially make a fool out of myself or crash or hell, maybe both.

Then one of my female pedal RACING teammates swallowed her pride and dropped all apprehension and joined the dudes. After seeing her activity glittered with kudos and Strava bling, I had immediate FOMO. Kinda what social media does to us, right?

All the encouragement and positive comments convinced me that, sure, I can at least give it a try once to see what it’s all about. Not to mention the fact that this season as a Cat 3 has been exceptionally soul-crushing and challenging watching my competitors leave me in the dust as I suck [wind].

From all the mediocre finishes, I was desperately seeking another type of training that’d increase my speed, skills, and maybe confidence. The pedal RACING guys had been telling me the past year how PHP would make me faster and it wasn’t until I saw my female pedal teammate speak highly of this impervious ride-but-actually-it’s-a-race-for-us-newbies that I realized, “shit, if I try to ride [operative word being “try”] this with faster people, maybe I’ll get faster.” Sure, we all have to figure these things out on our own.

So I hardened the fuck up (Rule #5) and on May 22nd, I joined my first PHP ride. The meet-up was on the bridge at Cherry Creek and Holly. I didn’t see a single person when I drove past looking for a parking spot. Am I in the right spot? I frantically thought.

I parked alongside the road and scanned passing cyclists for any hint of a gathering. I applied my chamois cream, buckled my helmet, slid on my shades, and started my Garmin as I attempted to look like I knew what I was doing and where I was going.

I slowly rolled up to the bridge five minutes ‘til and there were two dudes hanging out. Seriously, five minutes before and no one is here? I’m totally at the wrong spot. I finally mustered up the courage to ask one of the guys if this was the meeting spot for PHP. He smiled, “yep.”

And like clockwork, 60 (that’s a rough estimate) cyclists appeared out of nowhere. Just in time to Hammer. I found my teammates who were both shocked and excited to see me finally own up to my word. Then the game plan was laid out for me: “this is just the warm-up before we get to the park.” “Watch out for the potholes. It’s the worst right here.” “You’ll get dropped up the first hill. It happens to everyone. Just wait at the top for the group to come back.” “Oh, the ‘S’ turn. You want to be toward the front because it’s like an accordion. If you’re on the back at the ‘S’ turn, you’ll get dropped. That’s what happened to me.”

Loads of tips were offered as I tried keeping pace during their “warm-up.” Of course I wouldn’t keep up at the first hill. It was race-pace for me. I could only speak a few words before another giant breath.

“The fuck did I get myself into,” I thought, as we made our way down Colorado Blvd.

We rolled into a parking lot just outside of Cherry Creek State Park to reconvene. I was told sometimes they broke into A and B groups. This time they didn’t. A couple of other teammates showed up and we started rolling out as a giant peloton-ish group.

As soon as wheels touched the perimeter of Cherry Creek, it was full gas. I picked a Jersey in front of me and held on. Luckily, drafting kept me on the pace line.

The group rides the Cherry Creek Time Trial course, which I’m quite familiar with, so I knew where the hills were and sections of the road to avoid. As the first Hill was coming up, I kicked it down a gear (high cadence, lower power) and tried to keep up with the quickening pace.

Men flew by me on my left, they flew by on my right, and the rest of us left on the hill, pushed and pulled on our pedals, trying in vain, to reach the top of the hill before the peloton was completely gone. Our heavy and rapid breathing became a choir of novices and determination.

I was dropped.

The peloton was nearly at the bottom of the hill by the time I recovered. My buddy, Zuzana, and I, collected ourselves, and followed the group down the road.

We watched the giant mob grow smaller and smaller and just like that, it was like the group of 50 men were never there.

Too proud to not do the full route, I zoomed around the lollipop loop with a couple of other stragglers. We formed a small group of three as we pedaled up the second Hill (which, on later rides, I would eventually be dropped) desperately seeking the peloton.

We didn’t even know what direction they went, so we guessed. We didn’t know which road to take to get back to our cars either. As we biked back to the entrance of Cherry Creek, we saw several dropped riders, like discarded litter on the side of the road. One man was headed back to the elusive meeting spot where he was also parked, so we jumped on his wheel.

The meeting spot was as bare after the ride as it was before.

As soon as I was back to my car and uploaded my ride to Strava, the kudos, the bling, and the comments poured in. I PR’d segments on the route I didn’t even realize.

I saw the others with whom I started the ride and kudo’d them. It was like I had been initiated into a secret society that anyone who follows them on Strava knows about. My own friends asked what PHP was and I had to tell them I had no idea what it stood for, but… then I’d detail the crazy ride I experienced.

I’ve since started commuting to PHP with a few men from my team. It’s about ten miles from the Littleton meeting spot to the PHP meeting spot. The guys told me it’s also a warm-up to PHP, but by the time we get to the bridge, I’m drenched in sweat, I’ve QOM’d segments, and my glasses are foggy from my warm face. Then PHP commences. I follow that with a ride on Cherry Creek path to work. I end up clocking in about 54 miles by the end of the day.

I’ve only seen a few other women ride at PHP, notably two Cat 2 women from Palmares who seem to be regulars. I could see why this would intimidate anyone who just started racing: you’ve 60 amateur cyclists trying to be like the pros, riding on public roads, 99% are dudes, testosterone is raging, and you’re privy to crashes.

One time I joined a B group actually formed. Some people think the B group is slower, but I work harder in this group because I actually get a turn to pull. It was both a good and bad experience. It was good because it was bad. It taught me how to handle myself and my bike around people who didn’t.

The men didn’t understand how a paceline worked and once they came to the front, they’d take off. The group would break up, there were no longer two lines, and we had to reel them back in. Halfway through the the route, I was sick of no one calling them out and I was concerned for my safety. I finally asked this one older dude, dressed in his green PHP kit (to prove his seriousness and dedication to an elusive bro’s club), if he was part of the paceline because he kept shooting off the front.

He growled back at me, “I’ve been doing this for ten years. Don’t tell me what to do!” Now, 18-year-old Jessica would have opened a bottle of verbal whoopass. 29-year-old Jessica swallowed her pride and bit her tongue hard enough to draw blood. Instead, I told him, “calm down, it’s just a ride.” Another teammate of mine tried to settle him down as well as a Palmares racer rode next to me and very loudly said, “For what it’s worth, you’re fucking right and he’s wrong.”

I tried to not let the dickhead ruin the rest of the ride. But it also made me realize it’s guys like that who turn women off from joining PHP. To men, it seems like it’s all about comparing not just dick sizes, but bikes. I know women can be combative, catty, and of course, competitive. But for a woman to join PHP, it’s much more than riding with the bros. We want to get faster. Stronger. We want to learn skills. And there aren’t many opportunities for a woman to do that in a big group setting. When there are women’s workshops, we’re lucky to hit double digits.

I think the fear is what I worry about each time I go to PHP: being the only one who can’t keep up. Getting in a crash. Not having anyone I know there.

Luckily, I have teammates who care about my wellbeing and are great examples of how to treat others in the peloton. They hold their line, they call their pass, they tell me where I need to go.

Each time I’ve joined PHP, I’ve been able to stay with the group longer, which says something about where my fitness is going. My good cyclist friend, Anna, tells me all the time to ride with guys because it’ll make me faster. And I think I found the guys who will do just that.

Give Yourself Grace: An Interview With Stacey Richardson

Mental health is something everyone has either heard about or deals with, but it’s often not talked about. It’s one of those topics where we feel weird discussing with others. It’s especially vulnerable when you’re an athlete.

As athletes, we’re kind of known for toughening it out, grinning and grinding through injuries, exhaustion, and failures. You need to be tough to compete, it’s as simple as that. Even though most of us are physically tough, mentally, a lot of athletes struggle. And we don’t talk about it. We don’t want to be seen by our teammates or our competitors as “weak,” so we stay silent.

I recently read an article about athletes struggling with depression and how they cope. Stacey, my teammate on pedal RACING, and I talk about famous professional athletes in our honest discussion about mental health and what it’s like to excel in cycling while managing mental health issues.

Give it a listen:

 

Race Anecdotes: Guanella Pass Hill Climb

The last time I rode Guanella Pass I did it “for fun” and not at race pace. I let myself take breaks. I took my time. I enjoyed the scenery.

And it was three years ago.

Mistakenly, I thought riding Squaw Pass last weekend would prepare me enough for the 10-12% grades and the guns a’blazin’ race that is the Guanella Hill Climb.

I used to pride myself in my Hill-climbing abilities based off of the numerous organized rides I’ve completed like The Double Triple Bypass, The Copper Triangle, and Ride the Rockies. I love to climb. I love challenging rides. I thought that because I rode these rides without quitting and the fact that I seemed to pass quite a large number of people that I was relatively skilled in Hill climbing.

But until you ride these routes during a race with people at or above your ability, you’ve no idea how strong you actually are.

You don’t get participation awards in races. Nor should you.

I falsely assumed I was a strong Hill climber because of my riding history. And that’s the problem: my history. This past season I have done very little climbing. Little compared to how much training I need to do in order to compete at a Cat 3 level.

Desperate to find the answer as to why I performed so mediocre in the Guanella Pass Hill Climb, I searched through podcasts. Of course, VeloNews had an episode about Race Tactics and Training. I downloaded the episode in hopes of a training revelation that I’d soon realize after listening.

“What would these experts instill upon my second-year-racer mind?” I wondered.

Train for your races.

If you want to race up mountains, that’s where you focus your training. You can’t just throw in a couple of mountain passes and call it good, which is what I did.

If you want to perfect your sprint, practice your sprint.

If you want to be able to hold watts for a specific amount of time, then practice that.

It’s so obvious we forget to do the simplest thing. If you want to get better at something, you need to consistently practice it. Duh right?

My problem and realization is that this is my second year of actual racing. Truth be told, I have no idea my strengths or interests. Okay, that’s a lie. I know I have endurance. I can ride all day long, but at a slower speed. This isn’t helpful for racing. Therein lies the problem: find out your strengths and weaknesses within racing so you can train appropriately. Also, figure out what you actually like to race. Hate climbing? Don’t sign up for a hill climb. Hate solo efforts? Don’t sign up for a time trial. Don’t like going around the same 1-mile course for an hour? You probably won’t enjoy crits.

Like I said, I like climbing. It feels like a bigger accomplishment when I’m overlooking mountain ranges as opposed to taking 90 degree turns at full speed.

The race started fast like all the other Cat 3 races have this season. I clipped in just fine which is always my biggest fear during races. As soon as the whistle blew, I was pumping out 300-something watts, which I knew I couldn’t hold for an hour. I hung on for maybe 300 meters and couldn’t hold on. That’s the hardest part mentally for me: knowing I don’t have the strength to keep up with the group for longer than 300 meters. That as hard as I pushed, my screaming legs were louder than my will to push.

And then it was a time trial the rest of the race. 10 solo miles climbing up hill with 10-12% grades, headwind the whole time.. I’m starting to sound like my grandmother. Not that she ever raced a bike but I do remember hearing stories of walking to school uphill both ways, carrying a hot potato to keep warm.

The self-defeating thoughts that poison your mind during an effort like this are never ones you’d say to a friend, let alone, repeat out loud. So why do we do it to ourselves?

Truth be told, I’ve been attempting, in vain, to kick the negative thoughts out and replace with more positive words. Any time the thought, “I’m not strong enough” crept into my mind I tried reminding myself that strength takes time.

When I thought how much my legs hurt I switched to counting pedal strokes.

I constantly tried changing my thoughts during the rides. What we think, we become. Right?

I was mentally and physically exhausted by the end of the ride. My time was so mediocre, the announcer didn’t bother saying my name as I crossed the finish line alone.

As I caught my breath and attempted to stay upright, I realized my training during the off-season focused more on endurance. Rarely was I climbing mountains December through March, mainly because they were covered in snow.

What you train will become stronger. Whatever it is that you want to excel at, you must consistently train.

Race Anecdotes: Rule 9 and Superior Morgul Bismarck Road Race

Rule #9 // If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass. Period. -Velominati

I wish I could call myself a “badass” and believe it. The conditions for the road race were worse than the Time Trial the day before.

It was a drizzling 40 degrees that soaked your bones. I forgot my low-light sunglasses and my base layer. I was waiting for it to start snowing.

Lucky for us, a teammate brought the team tent, so we at least had shelter as we warmed-up. As my body temperature finally raised, I saw Dustin, a Cat 4 Pedaling back, holding his arm against his body. My immediate thoughts were, “oh god, he fell and hurt his arm.” Actually, he was just too damn cold during the race.

He shook as he told us about the drizzle and puddles of water.

“Oh, fuck me,” I thought, knowing full well I was underdressed for this race. I knew this race wasn’t getting canceled. It said so on the flyer: Rain, snow, or shine.

Dustin said, “just stay on the front. You’ll stay drier that way.” And sure enough, I took to the front, which ended up being detrimental.

I learned that you don’t gain fitness during a race. Instead, you bring your fitness to the race. 

I noticed one team, in particular, didn’t pull at all. They never went up front in the pack. They sucked wheels the whole time. I remember thinking, “how fucking lame. Do some work.” It wasn’t until the final sprint up “The Wall” that I realized bike racing is a game. And to win, you have to be strategic. And that team played the game right. They saved all their energy until the final climb and used it to drop me like I was hot.

My mistake was going to the front. And I did so out of fear. The only strategy behind it was to stay dry and prevent water from splashing in my face. As I learned in the race the day before, I mentally freak out when water hits my face. Where this fear cams from is beyond me.

So, instead of sucking wheel and saving energy, I pulled up front. I even tried changing the pace to see if it’d spark something. No dice. It was an amateur move, but I guess this is only my second year of racing.

The second climb up the hill I felt good and I was in front. I assumed that if this was any indication of how the final lap would go then I’d come in third.

It wasn’t. At all.

The final lap came. I was in the front. I heard the clicking of gears. I pushed harder. Then, like a tidal wave, the group of women swarmed past me. I tried pushing harder. I had nothing more to give. My legs weren’t having it.

I told myself, “push! Come on! Don’t give up now!” I was silently yelling at myself to not let this happen. And my brain convinced my body I wasn’t strong enough. The self-defeating thoughts flooded over me. “I’m not cut out for this. Just make it to the top and call it a day.”

You don’t gain fitness DURING a race. You bring your fitness TO the race. Something I continually forget and have to improve. Work on your weaknesses off the course so you’re strong during the race. We all make mistakes. We’re human. Don’t let fear (of failure or of water) deter you from doing your best.

Race Anecdotes: Superior Morgul Time Trial

Grey clouds stretched across the sky as sweat poured down my face. I wished for dry weather. My interval timer lit up green, signifying a 60-second break before my next effort. Then a couple of drops fell on to the screen.

Please don’t rain. Please don’t rain. Please don’t rain. Droplets multiplied with each interval. Halfway through my warm-up, I could no longer decipher between sweat and rain.

I peered across the parking lot full of stationary cyclists. Heads bobbing and faces glistening from sweat and drizzle. Everyone staring at the ground unless a familiar face approached their little five-foot training zone.

I always want to look tough, for whatever egotistical reason. I guess it’s one of those beliefs that if I look the part, maybe I’ll act it. I have this fear of people thinking I’m weak so I assume if I act like I’m not gonna take anyone’s shit, no one will mess with me. I learned that back when I was in elementary school and was constantly ridiculed about the moles on my face. I taught myself that if I confronted the bullies first, they usually backed down. Then I became hard and people left me alone.

I rolled up to the start line, regretting not dressing warmer. They counted down: 5…look at all the fucking rain.

4…god, I hope my legs are ready.

3…just catch the women in front of you.

2…I don’t want to come in last.

1…fuckfuckfuckfuckfuckfuck

Go.

Water attacked my face and my legs were already burning before I reached the woman in front of me.

I always wonder if I’m the only one whose legs burn prematurely, who wants to give up five minutes into the race, who hopes for a mechanical so I can blame something else other than my inabilities.

I pushed each pedal until I caught up with her. Water splashed in my face. I broke my aero position to wipe my glasses. The rain smeared away leaving foggy mildew behind. My breaths were no longer smooth. They were quick, short, like I had no air.

Losing my vision is my biggest fear.

This ride tested my mental fortitude of racing and not seeing in front of me. I imagined hitting a pothole, sending it over my handlebars, and breaking my neck. Every time I couldn’t see through my sunglasses, I thought I’d crash.

Between not wanting to come in last and not becoming a paraplegic, I was a ball of anxiety. Slowing way down at turns out of fear of slipping out and crashing, allowed the woman who started after me to catch up. I heard her shift gears, saw her out of the corner of my eye, and I knew I wasn’t doing as well as I’d hoped. We raced alongside each other up the hill, dodging piles of hail, puddles of rain.

“Don’t let her get ahead of you,” I thought. I’d gone too far to let her pass me at the end. I saw the orange cones ahead. I picked up my pace as she slowly drifted behind. I pedaled faster. I heard Stephen from inside the RV shout “go Jessica!” And I crossed the line.

The lady pulled over to tell me she didn’t realize it was the finish line. I’m not sure how you miss it, but that’s neither here nor there. I thanked her for inspiring me to work harder because I was mentally checking out before she caught up to me. “You pushed me harder at the end because I didn’t want you to pass me, so thanks for that.”

While I missed third place by 11 seconds, I learned that you can let fear control you or you can control fear. I realize too often I let fear imprison me. I slow down out of fear. I ease off wheels out of fear. I can’t clip in at the start of the race out of fear.

But fear is a choice. And every time we face fears, there’s one less thing that controls us.