The Santa Cruz Mountains in California are known for their tacky dirt, rife with redwood duff. The loaminess varies from place to place, and some trails hold up better than others during the rainy season. We had our first rain of the season yesterday, and today Ron and I went for a ride at a place that holds up quite well after rain: the Sandhills. These are ancient seafloors, uplifted by the San Andreas Fault over millions of years. It’s like going to the beach in the middle of the mountains, and it’s one of the few places that are rideable during the rainy season.
Sandy soils drain quickly, and firm up nicely during Winter. As a general rule, it’s best not to ride about a day for each inch of rain, depending mostly upon the soil type and slope. I try to minimize my erosion by staying off muddy trails during the Winter until they dry out. The Sandhills, however, provide a constant playground all season long. Sand is also a fun medium to ride in; it’s all about controlled sliding, friction, and counterbalancing. It’s a great place to work on flowing with grace.
I just got some new tires – the Maxxis Assegai (29″ x 2.5″) in the front, and Aggressor (29″ x 2.5″) in back. They are killing it – floating over the sand with a wide footprint, and a noticeable increase in surface area than my previous Minion DHR II 2.4’s. I feel way more in control, and solid in my roll. Thanks to Kyle at Scotts Valley Cycle Sport for the recommendation and set up of these tires! I absolutely love them.
Here’s a video of today’s Sunset ride at our favorite sandy spot, Bear Mountain, only five minutes from our house. With my groin still healing, we shuttled and skipped the climbing. We have done this trail many times, and our love for it just keeps on growing.
There’s been a song playing over and over in my head for the last few days, its chorus instantly recognizable:
“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away, and know when to run”
Written by Don Schlitz and performed most famously by Kenny Rogers, “The Gambler” is the song that sums up my life right now. For the first time in a long time, I had to fold ‘em on something my spirit so earnestly wanted to do: mountain bike racing.
And it hurt. It was a real pain in the groin, to be specific.
I’ve been dealing with an awful groin pull for the last ten months or so. As you probably know, the groin refers to a combination of delicate muscles in the upper thigh and pelvic region. I’ve fastidiously researched the muscles, tendons, and bones involved since, as they have come to dominate my life as of late.
It started with a soccer game in November; I did a sudden sprint that instantly had me limping off the field. My left hip flexor felt fragile and tight, but I stretched it that evening and thought nothing of it. I did the same thing the next game – a quick, sudden sprint from standing that left me feeling like I could barely walk.
But I kept on playing…and riding my bike almost everyday, and running. Everything but resting.
Then, snowboarding season began. I was skating out of a deep powder run at Kirkwood, my left front foot strapped in, and my back right leg pushing behind me. There was a somewhat established path from others who’d met the same fate and lost their speed like me, but the powder was still deep and I was postholing. I should’ve just unstrapped my board and hiked it, in Perfect Retrospect Land.
I caught a patch of slick ice that sent my left leg forward, while my right leg sunk thigh-deep into powder. My left groin and hip flexor felt like they tore in half. My glute felt like it was pulling forward to try to grab my thigh as it lunged forward. It hurt hike a branding iron – searing, driving, and leaving an unwelcome imprint on your future.
It was the most awkward, uncomfortable position to get out of, trying not to make it worse by moving too suddenly. I gingerly shimmied my way to unclip myself and relieve the splits I was in. But I was aching. I was set back a few days from this one.
For the first time, I felt like I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning. I could not lift my leg to get up out of bed; it was terribly disabling. Claustrophobic, actually. It would take minutes to gently roll out of bed, and then it would hurt even worse to sit down on the toilet; my hip would make an audible clicking noise from my cold muscles. I felt like my entire inner upper thigh and hip flexors were incapable of even the slightest stretch, let alone use. Hot showers and stretching helped to warm it up, but my mobility was worsening.
I took a good week off of exercising, but soon got back to riding and running. I started doing more yoga, hoping the stretching would be a good accompaniment. But mornings were still a grizzle for another month or so.
Then, in March, I was moving classrooms and reached up for a box that was high on a shelf. My left hip flexor felt like a snapped guitar string, from taut to limp. And so felt my entire left leg. This was the one that got me limping around slowly like a woman older than my years. I felt like I couldn’t lift my leg to even walk. I realized how tight my entire hip area was, from the inside out.
I’ve lived most of my life feeling like I was eighteen years old, physically speaking; no major ailments or complaints with one exception. When I was 23, I had an accessory neo navicular bone removed from my left foot; they had to reattach my posterior tibial tendon, and I was off my feet for eight weeks. The atrophy was almost the hardest part; it took months to regain strength. And I pulled my left groin for the first time shortly thereafter at my local climbing gym. I often wonder about the connections to what I’m experiencing now. I wear arch supports and good shoes, and my foot is better since. But now, for the first time in my life besides that surgery, I’m feeling limited by my body. I’m not healing as fast as I used to; I am getting older.
But I love mountain biking. Taking any longer than a week off leaves me antsy beyond measure. So I kept riding on the days I felt like I could, and pushed myself to try on the days I felt I couldn’t.
I began CES strong, winning first place at the first race for Sport Women 35+. I had a rough second and third race, as I wrote about in an earlier blog post, though still got second and first. My times were fast; I was happy with how I was riding. Something was different this season, though, and I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time. I felt over it. Like I just didn’t care anymore about the races; I didn’t care about winning, or losing. I wasn’t as inspired as I’d felt last season when it was all brand new.
I missed the fourth race for a scheduled family camping trip at Lake Cachuma, and though I was riding, I was still having issues with my groin and hip. It was a full three-hundred sixty degrees of discomfort. I saw my doctor in early August about it; I had an ultrasound to rule out an inguinal hernia, and was given physical therapy exercises online to do, which were similar to the yoga poses I was already doing.
I wasn’t physically 100%, but I was excited for the fifth race at Northstar. I love Northstar. I got a few days in riding there this Summer, and was feeling really confident for this race going in.
But on the drive up to the race, I was again feeling that over it feeling again. Strong. Like I really didn’t want to do the race. It wasn’t nerves; it was a sort of instinctive aversion. I couldn’t understand why I was feeling this way. I love mountain biking, but I wasn’t so sure about the racing part anymore. I just wanted to ride my bike.
Sitting in the car for four and a half hours is the last thing that helps my hip feel better. I was feeling super sensitive during practice that day before the race. Even on the downhills, I was having trouble gripping my seat and balancing my weight. I ride left-foot forward most of the time on descents, same as my regular snowboarding stance. The slightest jerk or slip on the pedal can feel like the cut of a razor blade, sharp and debilitating. I knew I wasn’t feeling up to par, but I was there, and was going to give it a shot.
That evening, I camped at Prosser Reservoir outside of Truckee. It was gorgeous – the waxing gibbous moon rose over the lake, reflecting a family of mergansers who swam in unison. Though Ron stayed back in Santa Cruz to teach his surf lessons, I was happy to be there, even alone. I love being outside!
But something seems to keep happening when I go camping on the weekends…loud campers! I am not getting that old, but I would just like a good night’s sleep. Every time I’ve been camping this Summer, if it was on a weekend, there were super loud partiers. I understand wanting to let go and celebrate with family and friends. But when it’s 1 a.m. and you’re still woo-hooing as you line up more tequila shots?! Shut the heck up, Dude! Which is exactly what I barked at them from my tent at that hour, having spent the last two tossing and turning to my fan-app on my phone. They responded by laughing and partying for another hour or so, as I contemplated driving down the road and just sleeping in my car.
When I woke up on raceday at 7:30 a.m, I was exhausted. I limped to the bathroom, glaring at my hungover neighbors’ tents. My groin was awful. I was Cranky. And darn it, I was feeling that over it feeling again about the race. Just didn’t care.
By the time I’d met up with a few teammates and friends to start climbing up, I’d already said out loud, “My groin is killing me. If it becomes too painful, I’m just going to quit and DNF. I’m not going to destroy myself for this race.” My words would become prophetic.
At the start of the climb, my brakes were rubbing and whining. I stopped at the Santa Cruz Bicycles Tent at the base of mid-mountain, and they kindly adjusted them. I did the first lap, winning that stage for my category. Then, I made the mistake of not reading the course description well enough. I asked the race director at the CES tent if I was supposed to ride the chairlift or climb for the next stage. He was, understandably, busy and doing a thousand different things. I got “Chairlift” for my answer, and off I went up the lift to the next stage.
I saw nothing but a sea of men when I got to the stage start. I took a rest in the shade, assuming the other girls would be soon behind. But a good half hour passed before some girls started trickling in. I greeted some of them as they arrived, sweating from just climbing up.
That’s right – climbing.
How had I gotten that messed up?! Was I not clear about the stage when I asked for clarification? It didn’t matter; it was on me for getting it switched. The girls told me to just climb for the next stage; to go back to the race director I’d just spoken to and explain. I felt like a total dumbass, though.
I also explained to the girls how my groin was bothering me, and there I went throwing out that “DNF” threat again. I was so sure that I could just quit the race if I was hurting.
Starting the next stage, I knew it was a long one, about thirteen or so minutes. I came across a couple of riders soon into the trail; presumably a mechanical from one of the riders. But I passed one of the girls, and kept charging down the trail. I was nervous, though, knowing what a long stage we were on, and that she may end up passing me. I wish I wouldn’t have even thought about this and just kept focused on the riding, because I think it distracted me enough to make me fall on a section I’d cruised the day before. It was a pretty mellow fall; I was totally fine physically, and I thank my pads for that. I quickly got up to keep going, but saw something I’d never seen.
Falls are pretty common in mountain bike racing. When you’re pushing your speed, you increase your risk for falling. Most of the time you just get back up and keep going, maybe lose ten seconds or so.
But on this particular fall, I happened to hit a rock in just the right spot – right on my derailleur hanger that attaches my derailleur and chain to my bike. It’s designed to break so that your more expensive derailleur doesn’t, and it did its job; it was cracked in half, but still attached. The real problem was my bike was unrideable. My chain and derailleur were in a loose pile, attached near the hub in such a way that they would tangle in the spokes should you try to spin the wheel in any way. I quickly realized I couldn’t run my bike down the trail because my chain and derailleur were smacking against my frame and spokes. I lifted up my bike, holding my chain awkwardly as I tried to jog down the trail. There wasn’t a lot of space on the singletrack to lift up my bike, hold it, and try to run down the rest of it, and I knew I had a long way to go.
Most importantly, I knew there were dozens of riders cued up coming down the trail in thirty second intervals, and it wouldn’t be safe if I was running along the narrow trail clogging up their runs. I needed the quickest way down to fix my bike.
At the Pinwheels, I spoke with a course marshal about what had happened. “That sucks,” he lamented. We agreed that running my bike wasn’t going to be feasible. I set off on a bumpy fireroad called Tryumph that leads down to the base, where the Santa Cruz Bicycles Tent was. That was half the challenge. Riding with only my left hand, I held my chain and derailleur carefully with my right hand to keep it from catching on my bike. I came across some racers who commiserated me. “Bummer! Hate it when that happens,” they consoled. These were the Pros and Experts climbing; surely they’d had a mechanical issue or two in their years racing.
It took awhile to make my way down without crashing again, using my front brake only. I rode up to the tent and didn’t even have to say anything.
“Oh no! Let’s get that fixed for ‘ya,” they offered. They were such nice, helpful guys. Granted, it’s their job to be there for this reason, but twice in one day? They were really helping a sister out.
They explained the derailleur hanger to me and why it broke to save the derailleur. They awesomely replaced that part for me, and within minutes, I had a working bike again. I was stoked. But I’d burned a ton of time, and I still had to ride the stage I’d crashed on…which was closing in ten minutes. I profusely thanked them, and went over to the CES tent to ask the race director what to do. Integrity is important to me; I wanted to finish the race properly and with approval. He radioed up to the top of the stage, where they confirmed they were shutting it down. “I’m sorry,” he said. “There’s not enough time”.
Gulp. I had to take my first DNF. Did Not Finish. Dude No Fun. Grrr!
Though I could keep “racing” and record my times, it wouldn’t count. I had last year’s times, when I got first place for Beginner Women, which was good enough for me. I didn’t want to race for nothing, turned in my timing chip, and rode back to my car to lick my wounds.
I am not superstitious, but I find it funny how I talked in my China Peak Enduro video about how much I didn’t want to DNF. I’d puked my way through that race, not wanting to DNF. Not because I thought anyone cared, but because I cared, for some reason. I also talked in that video about how much I hate quitting…
This time? I was irritated. Physically, I could’ve pushed through and finished the race fine. I wished I hadn’t crashed. Why did I have to fall on that one random part?!
Though I had said earlier that day I didn’t care about DNF’ing and quitting the race if I needed to, when it was actually said and done, I cried like a little baby. I just sobbed, feeling defeated and sad. I did care. I love mountain biking, and though I may be getting over the racing part, I have a competitive nature. I like being first. Conceding this race set me even further back in the series competition, and I didn’t like it.
With my hip hurting and spirit down, I counted my losses and drove home to Santa Cruz. I stopped for gas in Pleasanton, and realized I didn’t have my wedding ring on! I panicked like I’d left a baby behind. I remembered taking it off to wash my face at the campsite after I swam in the lake. To my amazing good graces, my friend and teammate Anne-Laure was camping at the same campground. I called her right away, in tears, asking her to please look on the picnic table at my site for my ring.
As I continued driving home, I couldn’t believe I’d made it so far without noticing. I always wear my ring. I was so caught up in the stupid DNF that I’d forgotten something so important. About an hour later, Anne-Laure called with some incredible news: she’d found my ring, right on the table where I’d left it! Of all the things that had gone wrong during this weekend, I was most grateful my ring was at least safe. That was my saving grace. She kindly sent it to me, and it’s been on ever since. I am infinitely thankful to her!
Northstar was done. I had two races left – Mammoth and Ashland. I really enjoyed Mammoth last year, and was looking forward to riding there this year. The course is super cool! And the famed Kamikaze delivers on its hype.
But when I woke up Friday morning, September 21, 2018 to leave for Mammoth, my groin and hip were hurting more than usual; I was having trouble just going up and down the stairs at home packing up. I made one harsh move that crippled me to the fetal position and near tears, and in that very moment, something strange happened: I gave up.
You are not racing this weekend, I heard my Mother say in my mind. I knew she was right. Driving six hours to Mammoth and riding hard for two days seemed impossible. Repeating that in two weeks for the Ashland finale seemed laughable.
I do not quit easily. But my body was speaking for me, loud and clear. You can make up for lack of gumption with spunk and fighting spirit, but you cannot make up for injuries that heal on their own timeline.
Sometimes, you’ve got to know when to fold ‘em.
Just like that, I was done. My body had chosen for me. It seemed like it had been trying to tell me all season. That over it feeling kind of made sense. I knew it was the right decision.
I sold my Ashland race registration, and wrote off Mammoth. Though I had the spirit to be there, hurting my body was not worth a race.
But I do hate quitting. I nearly drove up to Mammoth twice that day before really accepting it was off the table. I cried; I felt like my body had failed me.
Something had to give. It was time to let go. I made another doctor’s appointment, and committed to staying off my bike for at least a full week. That’s a long time.
I could get over the CES races. Yes, I was bummed about not winning the series. As it stands, I’ll finish third place overall. I’m not sure what the future holds for me and racing at this point. There’s a big part of me that doesn’t care anymore. It’s not like you do the races for fame, but despite winning several races and the series Beginner last year, I don’t think I was ever mentioned in a race report. For all the talk about “getting women more involved in mountain bike racing”, you would think there might be some acknowledgement and encouragement. But as I hear the Pro’s above me lament, it’s few and far between. Who am I kidding with my delusions of grandeur either? I’m not doing anything exceptional. I realize how self-absorbed I must seem blogging about my races. Yawn. Thank you for reading, or not – I don’t blame you.
But not riding my bike? This is what really matters to me; this makes me sad and forlorn. I know I need to rest, but it is like pulling teeth to stay away. The very thing I love is what’s hurting me. An identity crisis presents itself. It’s like I don’t know who I am when I’m not on my bike. It’s my life, my passion, what I do with most of my time. I have other hobbies, but this is my main love. Not being able to go for a run is just as hard. Who am I when not in motion?
Though I love a mental workout as much as a physical one, it’s usually best enjoyed after a good, long ride. And I get kind of depressed when I don’t get that regular endorphin dose. Exercise is medicine. It’s always been a part of who I am, and I feel kind of lost without it.
This weekend dragged on like cold molasses, as I tried to keep busy with birdwatching, reading, gardening, guitar, hanging out with Ron and Beau, and doing lots of yoga. It’s hard when you can’t do the things you love, but I ought to be grateful for all the other things I still can do. It’s even harder when you can’t live your life in the simplest of ways – getting out of bed in the morning, climbing the stairs to your morning coffee, bending down to tie your shoelace. By the end of the weekend, though I had tons of energy left to burn, I was sure I’d made the right call to rest.
This injury is a real wake-up call for me, and I want to do everything possible to fully heal this time. I’ll be back to the doctor in two weeks, and keep up the rest and yoga in the meantime. I hope it’s only a matter of time before I’m able to spend my afternoons riding around the beautiful Santa Cruz Mountains I’m lucky to call home. I might have to sneak a shuttle run in from my hubby though…because nothing else puts a smile on my face like riding my bike, even if it’s just for ten minutes.
Here’s a video of the mountain biking in the upper UCSC area of the Santa Cruz Mountains, California. We begin with a trail known for its steep, loose descent over redwood roots. This time of year it is especially dry, and today I noticed the braking bumps had grown at least a few inches since my last run down it. But it’s still good fun, of course!
Flowing down steep hillsides like this one requires a balance of keeping momentum while not sliding out of control. Though I try to mostly use my rear brake on trails like this, your front brake provides that stopping power that you need to slow down. It becomes a controlled slide, at times. Keeping your weight back, and your center of gravity balanced over the bike, helps keep you from falling forward over the bars as you hold on and just slide down that slope until it lets up. It’s fun to ride on this edge of composure and chaos.
I focus on keeping my four points of contact firmly intact: hands committed to the bars, feet solid on my pedals. Maintaining these points of contact, while balancing your center like a gyroscope, helps absorb some of the bouncing and bumping that is inevitable on steep trails with lots of features. Dynamic, split-second reflexes, are part of the fun of this dance. Mountain biking is a lot like dancing; your bike is your partner, and you must keep a firm, constant frame with each other in order to flow with grace across the dancefloor of the forest floor. You must stay completely aware; the word present is an understatement. It can become meditative, despite the speed and stimuli involved.
The next trail is a short and feeds into one of my longtime favorite trails. I love this area with all my heart, so much I often say “Thank you” at least once during my ride. Thank you for my legs and body to ride out here; thank you for the awesome, natural beauty that bathes me in its gentle, scattered sunlight. Gratitude is inspired from doing what you love, where you want to be. For me, that’s flowing with grace on my bike among beautiful, natural places. Blessed with another day to do just that!
Here’s a video of today’s ride, my favorite regular route. I added some captions to highlight some unique areas of the trails I’m grateful to call home. It’s about 20 miles and takes about 2 hours, starting at Highway 9 and Pipeline Road through Henry Cowell State Park, and continuing up 17 Turns to Mailboxes for the first downhill. Then, it’s a fireroad climb back up the mountain via Long Meadow in Wilder Ranch to Twin Gates; on to Sweetness, the second downhill. The warm-up and cool-down through Henry Cowell are perfect for this ride, and I’m super appreciative I can ride these trails with just a short drive from my house in Ben Lomond!
The birds and wildlife are always a huge motivator to do anything outside around here; I’ve seen a mountain lion on Mailboxes trail before. Today I saw several baby lizards, only about an inch long, which was a reminder to watch out for hatching reptiles on these hot, late-Summer days. Having access to this stunning outdoor escape is one of the main reasons I moved to Santa Cruz in the first place, almost twenty years ago. These mountains feel like home, and though I’ve ridden these trails hundreds of times, they never get old – endless fun!
Summertime rides like these set the stage for content, happy evenings; under balmy conditions, a symphony of insects and a full moon fill the sky and the senses. I savor the Summer! I am beyond thankful for this time off, and for the freedom, flow, and grace it brings. Time is the biggest gift of all, and I don’t take it for granted. As a teacher, I know exactly when my time off is, and take advantage of it while I can. August 20 will be here before I know it.
Enjoy your Summer, too; go ride your bike! It doesn’t matter what you’re riding, it’s that you’re riding – and with a smile on your face.
Summer is in full swing, and mountain bike racing season is too! With the Enduro season almost half-way through, I’m reflecting on the races I’ve done so far. Last year was my first year doing the California Enduro Series, and I won the Beginner category. This year I moved up to Sport 35+, and am halfway through the series competition. Here’s a recap of the first five races of the season so far, including a couple of others:
This was my fourth year doing the Sea Otter Classic in Monterey, California. The largest bike festival of its kind, it draws thousands of visitors over a 4-day span at Laguna Seca Raceway near Fort Ord. I had just gotten my new Santa Cruz Hightower LT a week before, and was excited to put it to the test in this race. The course is sandy and flowy, with four stages: a downhill course, two trail stages, and a dual-slalom course at the end.
Though I was familiar with the course, I hadn’t really adapted to my bike’s new geometry yet; I was trained from my old Specialized Camber, which was more of a cross-country bike, to lean way back over my back tire on descents. On my new bike, however, I didn’t have to lean so far back anymore, and kept getting razzed by my back tire (always a surprising sensation). This proved both humorous and startling on Stage 1, the Downhill Course. I hit one of the first few jumps with good speed, but I was too far back over my back tire. I got slapped by my back tire on the landing, which nearly propelled me forward over the bars. Amid a crowd of spectators, I felt my pants get caught on my seat as I rode out the landing.
Regaining control, I heard someone yell, “Nice job! Now pull up your pants!”.
My pants? They were pulled down almost to my knees! Yes, I got pantsed at the Sea Otter. Luckily, my bikeshorts were still on tight. I awkwardly tried to pull them up as I kept riding, which was awesomely captured by a waiting photographer. Note how much I am smiling in the pictures because I am laughing my butt off at being pantsed in front of all those people. I finished the rest of that course with my pants in disarray, but with levity and gratitude that at least I didn’t crash off that jump.
This race was all about proving to myself that I could ride 29.3 miles at race-pace without a break; it was my second ever cross-country race. Read all about it in my previous blog post Old Cabin Classic 2018. Let’s just sum it up as: “Check that box and done!”.
This was the “local” race for me of the California Enduro Series (CES). Toro Park is only about an hour from my house, and its sandy conditions mimic a Santa Cruz riding spot, Bear Mountain, where I go to improve my sand skills. Sand was initially a challenging, intimidating medium for me to ride, but over the years, I’ve grown a lot in my ability to ride it.
I prerode the course a couple of days before the race, which really helped with my confidence going into the race. The best part about the preride? On my last lap, climbing up a punishing fireroad, a race marshal drove up in his truck with a small crew of guys.
“Want a lift?” he offered.
“Hell YEAH!” I emphatically replied. I hopped into the back of his truck with my bike, and enjoyed a beautiful drive up that steep climb to the top. Now that’s how we get the race weekend started!
On the actual race day, it was cold and cloudy, only about 55℉. I am racing this year with a new team, MTB Experience, full of cool girls who are racing the CES this year. Our encouragement and excitement feed off each other, and definitely added to the positive vibe of this race. It was also wonderful to meet up with all of the awesome people that come out to these races. The community of people is one of the main reasons I race at all.
I felt on top of my game during this race – no mechanicals, no crashes or hiccups, and I felt fast. Having ridden here a few times now, I also felt like I knew what to expect.
I placed first in this race for the Women’s Sport 35+ category, with an overall time of 15:55, shaving a full minute and a half off last year’s time. This was a fun race and a great kick-off to the CES season! Check out a video summary of the course here.
7/10 of a second. 70% of a second. A mere .7 seconds!
However you annotate it mathematically, let seven-tenths of a second be the theme of this race!
I went into Mammoth Bar with a plan. I was going to preride on Friday, the day before the race, spend the night at my Auntie Christie’s house in Roseville, and then race Saturday. All was going to plan, except it was hot as hell on Friday when I showed up to preride. Duh. No wonder all the practice rides started at 9 a.m.! Showing up at 3 p.m., it was nearly 100℉ and miserable. I prerode only three out of the four stages, and went for a swim in the American River afterwards to cool off.
I spent a wonderful evening at my Aunt’s house with her husband Lee at their beautiful home in Roseville, about 20 minutes from Auburn. We had a nice dinner, watched a movie, and I went to sleep early, only to be woken in the middle of the night to a pounding headache and nausea. Soon after, I got totally sick – throwing up, feeling like death. My sweet Aunt checked on me and I went back to bed.
I woke up in the morning still feeling awful, but the nausea wasn’t as bad. My first instinct was to skip the race; just go back home to Santa Cruz and sleep. But I know myself, and I knew I would be regretting it later. I knew within a few hours I would start to come back to life again, and would think to myself, Why didn’t you at least try the race?!
I decided I would at least try to do the race, even if it was miserable.
When I got to Mammoth Bar, I was immediately buoyed by seeing my racing teammates. Their patience and support helped me push through what would be a hot, punishing day of riding – with about 3,500’ of climbing to seal the deal. There were multiple injuries that day; one person had to be airlifted by helicopter after riding – literally – off of the Confluence Trail and almost straight into the American River. There were many mechanicals, too; I came up on a rider who flatted, and a rider who dropped a chain, on Stage 2. The seconds I spent slowing for them until I could pass proved to matter at the end of the day.
I had to take a short nap after one of the transfers, feeling completely exhausted, but kept sipping my water and Cranked Naturals Lemonade, which I credit for helping me finish that race at all.
By the final lap, Stage 4, I was coming back to life and feeling better again. I gave that last stage my all after somewhat conservatively riding the first three stages.
Coming through that finishing gate is the best feeling! I usually give out a loud “YES!” when I cross through because it feels so amazing to know you are actually done. I love that feeling, and it motivates me during the tough times of the ride. Check out a short video of the course here.
I should have been happy I did the race at all, what with food poisoning and all. I should have been happy that I ended up in 2nd place for this race. But to miss 1st place by only .7 seconds?! GARR!!!!! This was the worst feeling! Less than one freaking second separated me from that top spot. My mind reeled through every missed opportunity to gain that time. One more pedal stroke! One more push! I should’ve passed those people sooner!
My self-pride about just doing the race while sick went out the window. I was mentally haunted by that 7/10 of a second for days after the race, thinking of every little situation where I could have gained back that tiny fraction of time. I don’t ever want to feel this way again! It was so frustrating. I can only imagine how elite level athletes, like Olympians, must feel when they lose by even less time. It was a painful reminder that every millisecond counts when you’re racing, even when you’re sick – something I unfortunately would encounter at the next race.
China Peak is part of the CES Golden Tour. The Golden Tour is a series of three races, all part of the CES, which are considered the hardest courses. They are also qualifiers for the Enduro World Series, something I daydream of riding…only in my dreams! I raced China Peak last year in the Beginner category, and got second place. China Peak, in one word, is loose. The dirt just gives way under your tires. You pinball between granite rock boulders and loose, decomposed granite as fine as sand. This is technical, challenging, all-mountain riding in its primitive state. China Peak doesn’t do much, if any, mountain bike trail maintenance, pretty much letting Mother Nature, and mountain bikers, shape the trails. Those who’ve been riding here a long time speak of the drops growing taller each year; the trails getting scarier to ride. Let’s just say it’s slightly intimidating to ride here if you’re new to the area.
Top of China Peak
I drove up the day before the race to preride, but I lagged and didn’t get there until 2 p.m., when the line for the chairlift was about thirty minutes long. With the chairlift ride itself about 25 minutes, I only squeezed in one practice run on Stage 4, the one stage I didn’t ride last year. In retrospect, it would’ve been wise to have gotten there earlier and preridden the entire course. Though I’d raced Stages 1-3 the previous year in the Beginner Category, my Sport 35+ category also included Stage 4.
That evening, I drove up Highway 168 to Kaiser Pass, parked my car, and hiked up a rough trail to an overlook that dropped my jaw. I cried in a moment of total appreciation for life. Sometimes I tear up when I’m really enjoying an experience, taking in the once-in-a-lifetime aspect of each place. It’s not lost on me that life is too short, passing by too fast, and the older I get, the more I value doing what I love, where I love, with those I love. There is something so moving and emotional about the raw beauty of wilderness that makes me feel so at home, that makes life feel more sacred and meaningful.
I watched the sunset from Kaiser Peak and felt completely at peace taking in the amazing scenery of the High Sierra.
I had a veggie burger and salad from the hotel restaurant at China Peak Inn, and went back to my hotel room to get an early night’s rest. My water bottle was empty, so I filled it with water from the hotel tap. I immediately noticed it tasted off – metallic and astringent. But it was the only water to drink, so I drank a glass and went to bed.
I woke up on raceday morning, and drank a couple of glasses of water. About ten minutes later, I was throwing up violently.
Sick last race, and now this one too? Seriously?!
I couldn’t believe it was happening again. But this felt different from the last time, when I was sick in the middle of the night with what felt more like food poisoning. I felt like I was just starting the grueling process of fighting whatever it was that was kicking my butt.
I laid back down in bed, and set my alarm for an hour later, at which point I would need to decide to kit up and race, or call it a day.
Just go home. It’s only a race. It doesn’t matter; no one cares. You don’t need to torture yourself.
But I cared. I abhor quitting; it grates at my spirit. I might also be a little bit stubborn; headstrong, perhaps to a fault at times. I knew I would regret it if I didn’t at least try, especially since I was there at the venue. I reluctantly headed out to start the transfer up to Stage 1, which was a long fireroad climbing about 1,700′ poised in the blazing sun. Fortunately, I was joined by my sweet, encouraging teammate and friend, Anne-Laure, who stuck with me all the way up that climb for about an hour.
“You can go ahead; you don’t need to wait for me,” I tried to tell her.
“I know, but I want to make sure you’re going to be okay,” she consoled me. She patiently and kindly encouraged me, waiting as I took several rests in the shaded spots. I even started crying at one point. I get really emotional when I’m sick, and I just felt defeated; frustrated that this was happening again. I was ready to turn around, ride back down the trail, and just quit.
“Is this the longest transfer?” I asked her.
“Yes. If you can push through this one, this is the longest climb; the second climb is super short, and the last two are lift-assist,” she answered. That was key information; if I could just do this, maybe I could finish the downhills. I am way more confident in my downhill skills than climbing in the heat while sick. I knew I could ride the terrain here; maybe not with grace today, but I could muster through it with the help of gravity. With that in mind, I committed to suffer up until the top, and ride the race with a stage-by-stage approach. I also accepted that I might end up quitting.
Once we got to the top of Stage 1, I was ready to get started. I chipped in and went, riding rather timidly down the trail. I was tired. I could feel my body struggling. I wanted to finish the race, yes, but I didn’t want to hurt myself doing it. So I eased into it, warming up as I made my way down.
Stage 2 was a bit more technical, and I fell a couple of times. Nothing bad; just startling. I endo’d straight on my face into some soft dirt, thanking my full-face helmet and body armor for sparing me any injury. Knowing I was on the clock, I got back up on my bike as quickly as I could and kept riding. I slowed my roll, reminding myself it was only a race.
After I finished Stage 2, I still felt awful, but the last two stages were lift-assist, so I figured I could hang in there and finish them. I boarded the chairlift up to Stage 3, and started feeling worse by the minute. By the time we were nearing the summit at about 8,700’ elevation, I was puking off of the chairlift. This was not a comfortable spot to get sick in, hanging above the ground on an old chairlift, feeling like I needed to keel over into a ball. Holding onto the bars for extra safety, I began to cry. Not just cry, but sob like a baby. Why now? Why am I not feeling better yet?!
When I got off the chairlift at the top, the lifties unloaded my bike and noticed I was crying. I walked over to a shady area, took off my gear, and just sat down crying. I was overwhelmed. Exhausted. Feeling like total crap. All I wanted was my bed. I was half-way done with the race, tantalizingly close to being done with it, but that last half loomed like a mammoth of a challenge.
A nice man came over to check on me; he was a Medic, apparently.
“You okay there? Are you crying because you crashed, or something else?” he gently asked.
“I’m okay; I’m just super sick. I just threw up off the chairlift, and I’ve been puking all morning. I don’t want to quit the race, but I don’t know if I can keep going. Can I ride the chairlift back down with my bike if I don’t think I can finish?” I vented to him, breathing hard through my childlike sobs. I often revert to a child when I’m sick like this.
“Of course you can; only you can make that call for yourself, but it is only a race. What’s most important is to take care of yourself,” he comforted. “Do whatever you need to do”.
I took a breath and contemplated my next move. “I just need a few minutes to rest here in the shade, and then I think I can keep going. Thank you for checking on me.”
After about ten minutes, I felt collected enough that I could fight through Stage 3. I made my way over to the staging area, where some of my teammates were. They could tell right away something was off with me, and I told them how miserable the morning had been. Jeni, one of our team captains and a nice friend of mine, compassionately encouraged me to do whatever I needed to do to take care of myself, reminding me it was only a race. I laid down on the ground next to them in the shade, and closed my eyes for a short nap with my buff over my eyes. After about twenty minutes, it was time to start the stage. Though I still felt awful, I was ready to get it done.
Stage 3 was a long stage, and I fell again. I reminded myself to slow down. Fatigue is the enemy of mountain biking because it makes you sloppy, which equals dangerous. By the time I finished the stage, I felt completely spent. But there was only one more stage to go.
I boarded the chairlift for that last stage, feeling like I was hanging on by a thread. I was starting to feel light-headed and like I was going to puke again. About halfway up the lift, I noticed a creature on the hillside; it was a cute Pacific Fisher! I’d never seen one before, and despite my heavy spirit, considered it a token of good luck to finish the race. All I had to do was get off the chairlift and ride back down. That Fisher was so adorable!
When I got off the chairlift, however, I saw about 100 racers lined up waiting to start Stage 4, and they hadn’t started releasing riders yet (check out a video of the full-course here). It was going to be about an hour wait, and I felt a sense of panic in my body. I knew right away that I didn’t have it in me to wait around another hour or so, at altitude, for all the other riders to go. Whatever it was I was sick with, being at nearly 9,000′ wasn’t helping. I feared I might even become a medical emergency if I didn’t get myself down to a lower elevation stat.
I don’t think of myself as a princess or diva by any means; I’m pretty self-sufficient (most of the time, ahem), and don’t like imposing on others to meet my needs. Entitlement is the antithesis of what I appreciate in a person. But this was an extenuating circumstance; I was sick as a dog and needed to get the race over and done with. I could feel my Mama Bear instincts kicking in to protect myself. And I was feeling a little bit desperate.
I walked up to the front of the line, where all the guys were waiting to start. With dirt on my face and fighting back tears, I apologized first for even asking them what I was going to ask. I explained that I’d been throwing up all morning and was barely hanging on by a thread; that I needed to get back down the mountain as soon as possible to a lower elevation.
“Is there any way you guys would let me go towards the front of the line with you so I can get this overwith?” I asked. Only a mild reluctance was palpable from some of the guys, but quickly their compassion shined through. I felt bad asking them, given that they’d been waiting who know’s how long for their turn.
“Of course you can; that sucks you’re sick. Get it done,” they commiserated.
I was beyond grateful for their grace toward me. I grabbed my bike and lined up at the front of the line with the Sport U-18 crowd, feeling guilty for doing so. I bet some riders assumed I was some kind of self-important diva cutting in front. It’s kind of embarrassing to have happen, to be honest, and I pray to the racing gods that this never happens again.
Having ridden this stage the day before, I felt most confident on it out of all the other ones. I knew I had ridden it fast and clean the day before, so I decided to give everything I had left to it. It also helped that I didn’t want to slow anyone else down; I wanted to try and keep some sort of pace with the young’uns behind me.
I roared down that trail, giving it every last ounce I had, motivated by the sweet release of almost being done. I expected to be passed by several riders on my way down, but ended up passing one guy myself, and only got passed by two riders, whom I got out of the way for quickly so as not to slow them down. I felt good riding the rest of the trail, and passing through that final gate at the end of Stage 4 felt like the relief of a lifetime. Freedom!
After turning in my timing chip, I went straight to Huntington Lake for a quick, refreshing dip, and reflected upon the whole experience in this video below. I’m so tired, I say it’s January 30 when it’s actually June 30.
Upon returning back to the venue and checking my time, I was surprised I did well, earning First Place for the Sport 35+ category. I also shaved a load of time off compared to last year’s results of Stages 1-3.
Of all races, this win probably felt the best because it was so hard. Physically, it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. If that sounds overdramatic, the next time you are throwing up and feeling like you want to curl up in a ball, go try a challenging mountain bike race, at altitude, in the sun. It wouldn’t have been such a tough race, of course, had I been feeling well. Mentally, it was just as hard to balance my well-being with my desire to finish the race. How do you weigh pushing your physical limits with preserving your health and safety? What happens when you redefine those limits? It’s never something I want to repeat, but knowing I could do this helps build resilience.
I also find it strange that I got sick at both of the last races. I take good care of myself, eating and hydrating well, and am looking into what connections there may be. I’m going to give my water bottles, Camelbaks, and travel mugs all a good deep cleaning as a start. I think altitude certainly played a part in this situation, but am most suspicious of the hotel’s water. After the race, I told the front desk about how the water tasted funny and I got sick, just in case anyone else had the same issue. The employee said they only drank the filtered water, pointing to a large ewer in the registration lobby. I asked him to please take note of it and look into it. I’m not outright blaming their water, but consider it a likely culprit.
China Peak Podium: Jeni, Me, & Erica
I took a nap in my car for a couple of hours after the race before joining the rest of the crew for dinner and the awards ceremony. My appetite was coming back, and though I was spent, it was fun to hang out with everyone before heading back home to Santa Cruz.
Now it’s time to take a break from racing for a few weeks or so. I look forward to enjoying the golden month of July, that one month each year that is completely uninterrupted by work. Time on my bike, in the garden, and among loved ones in beautiful places are what I savor about this time of year.
I’m not sure what direction I want to go in with racing. I only like doing things when they are enjoyable, which includes challenging myself and getting out of my comfort zone. So far, it’s been pretty fun, minus being sick twice. I’m ranked #1 for the Sport Women 35+ category at the moment. How far do I want to go? How far can I go? I’m not sure yet, and I know I’m only getting older. I’m not sure how much racing matters to me, either; how important is it to “prove” myself? And to whom? What am I trying to prove, anyway? In the end, you’re really just racing against yourself, regardless of how you place. All I know for sure is I love mountain biking, and I’ll keep riding as long as I can.
Enjoy your Summer! Relish all of the fun things there are to do outside. Thanks for reading!