Guindon Park Do-Over?

Guindon Park. Photo by David Bilenkey.

Guindon Park. Photo by David Bilenkey.

For some reason I was feeling a bit nervous during the drive out to Guindon Park on Sunday morning. I didn’t have my normal race-day stomach… but my head was swirling with racing thoughts. In fact I even said something to Marc along the lines of “maybe if I hadn’t had a better race last week I wouldn’t want to do even better this week.”… Yes, that old crazy brain was showing up again. Luckily Marc is the consistent voice of reason and I was soon back-on-track to simply going out and riding my bike.

(Flash forward to the drive home from Cornwall after the race…)

Marc, “so how do you feel about the race?”

Me, “I don’t know really. Not satisfied. I just didn’t have the same feelings that I did last week in North Gower.”

To put it simply and without going into the nitty gritty details, I simply held back. I held back when I should have gone for it. I was afraid of going too deep and not being able to recover. I think it was the course/wind combined with my insecurities with my fitness level. I didn’t have the belief that I could recover from hitting the long road section really hard (instead I sat on and “recovered”). I didn’t drill it from the lap finish to the uphill barriers and then use the descent for recovery (instead I attacked the finish section, rode kind of hard and then ran hardish up the hill). I didn’t grind it out in the hard sections where I know people naturally slow down (instead I slowed down as well).

The one thing that did work was my last lap attack (of course I should have done this much earlier in the race…). I noticed that on that tricky little single barrier I was very slow to remount and my close competitor (Naomi) was in the same position. I decided to gamble and instead of trying to remount right away on the slight uphill angle, I took an extra running step and remounted on the flat gravel road – this enabled me to get a faster and more smooth remount and I was able to sprint immediately and really drill into the finish. This short burst was a great moment – I put myself in that deep dark spot – my breathing was sharp and high-pitched, my legs were cranky – and best of all it worked.

So why didn’t I do this through-out the race? I did this in North Gower just a week earlier. When I finished the race in North Gower it took me a while to gain my composure and be able to actually talk. This is what I want to feel.

Well, a good lesson learned in Cornwall. Huge kudos to Naomi – she raced a great race and really rode the twisty technical stuff well. She doesn’t quit and I’m glad she was there to keep egging me on.

(I’ll be missing the next two races in the Eastern Ontario Cyclo-Cross Series. This weekend we’re off to Winnipeg for the Canadian National Cyclo-Cross Championships (Marc is racing – I’m cheering). The following weekend we’re off to Northampton, MA for the super awesome Cycle-Smart International race weekend (Marc is racing – I’m cheering). But I’ll be itching to go in Perth…)

A huge congrats to the women who come on out to our weekly cyclocross skills practice – these women have made huge gains this season and it’s so awesome to see them improving and even better to see and hear how happy they are with their racing.

(In non-bike pedaling news – I had a great appointment with my gastro doctor… My methotrexate dose has been reduced in half and I don’t have to go for weekly injections anymore (now just a bunch of pills once a week). This is great news since that methotrexate injection really made me feel awful every Thursday.)

Crushing for North Gower

North Gower sand. Photo by David Bilenkey.

North Gower sand. Photo by David Bilenkey.

I think I found my favourite Canadian cyclo-cross course… And it is a mere 20 minute drive or 45 minute bike ride from my home. I sure did enjoy racing in North Gower on Thanksgiving Sunday. At first glance I felt like it was  a long course… but nope rather it was a course jam-packed with lots of action and challenges.

Tricky off-camber. Super fast barriers. Uphill barrier. Sand pit. Power sections. A bit of gravel. Some fun little wet dips. Two climbs. A nice recovery descent. Twists and turns.

Only thing this race course was missing was a fly-over! (No, I’m not trying to open up the fly-over controversy… I happen to really like fly-overs, but I know some people really don’t like them.)

Anyway, back to North Gower. Really it was just a super day for a cyclo-cross race. Initially I thought it would be a long-sleeved skin suit day but it turned out to be quite warm – it ended up being a short-sleeved skin suit no-base layer kind of day. Perfect! I arrived before the first race so I could get out and pre-ride with the women who come out to my weekly cyclo-cross clinics. This worked out fairly well, though I didn’t get a chance to ride with everyone – but I think overall it worked out well.

The biggest question mark for most was the sand pit. In my opinion, riding sand has a lot to do with confidence. Believe you can get through the sand and you can do it. Granted I’ve had the best sand riding experience and practice possible – a week practicing in Koksijde on the famous World Cup course, top-notch instruction from the Belgian Cyclo-Cross Team coach, racing in a lot of sand while living in Belgium, and living 15 minutes of pedaling from the Averbode cyclo-cross training course and super sand pit. I’ve also benefited from lots of practice with Marc, Conor, and Karl – each one giving me a nugget of information that helped me find some sand confidence.

Here’s a video of the women’s World Cyclo-Cross Championship race in Koksijde in 2012:

You’ll notice there are lots of different styles of sand riding in this video. But the major key is to keep the legs moving – the more the legs move the easier it is to “float” through the sand. As well, not steering – the more steering the more you’ll end up fighting the sand. And don’t forget – falling in the sand doesn’t hurt – much nicer to fall in the sand than on ice!

(Okay, back to North Gower…)

Really, the race and the day were just super great. I had my typical slow start and then found that gear I’d been missing all season. Slowly but surely I found my legs and I was deep in the cyclo-cross pain cave. My goal was to simply keep digging deeper and deeper to see how hard I could push myself and to not let the women chasing me catch up. I tried to stick to my race management plan and use areas of the course for recovery – for me this was the double barriers, the turns around the fir trees and the descent. Otherwise I was trying to ride hard and to sprint out of every corner, slow-down, barrier and obstacle. I found that in the last lap I was making small mistakes – a sign that I was riding hard and feeling some fatigue. All in all, I’m happy with the physical effort I was able to give and with my technical riding skills.

It seemed like everyone I spoke to after the race had a big grin on their face and was happy with the day. We all have sections and moments in the race that we’d like to “do over” but that’s what the next race is for. I know that next race I’ll try to have a more aggressive start so I don’t have to play so much catch-up and I’ll try to dig a notch deeper.

Thanks to everyone for the cheering and encouragement during the race. Many thanks to the photographers capturing the action for us racers. And a tremendous thanks to the volunteers who were out in the cold doing course set-up (and many of whom who stayed for tear-down as well).

Cyclo-Cross is Groovy

Cornwall cyclo-cross. Photo by Steve Morris

Cornwall cyclo-cross. Photo by Steve Morris

Cornwall cyclo-cross. Photo by Steve Morris.

Cornwall cyclo-cross. Photo by Steve Morris.

I can’t believe it is almost race day and I haven’t written about last weekend’s race in Cornwall. I guess it has been one of those busy weeks when I was out and about more than I have been sitting in front of my computer. (I think this is a good thing!)

The race last weekend in Cornwall was a classic. I’ve always like the Cornwall course, though I do at times curse the darn sharp steep uphills and the uphill barriers… These two features really highlight skills and explosive power.

I had a strategy going into last weekend’s race: don’t explode three laps in. In the previous races, I managed to race too hard early on and then did a slow but steady slide backwards through the field. So Sunday was all about race management and flow – racing hard in the sections that I knew I could make gains, find places where I could get a bit of recovery and make sure that I rode all technical sections as cleanly as possible. This strategy did work for the most part, but when I managed to drop my chain at the bottom of the lap finish climb, I did get tossed around mentally. I had to stop at the bottom of the hill and I did what I felt was the slowest chain fixing job ever and it took me a bit to decide whether to ride up the hill or run up the hill. By the time I got to the top, the lady I was chasing and had hoped to pass on that very lap was long gone…

Time to switch to  plan B – race as hard as I could with a goal of making up my lost time and throw caution to the wind. Well, this did work – but I simply ran out of steam in the last half of the last lap and didn’t have that extra edge to get by the lady I had been chasing. I have to say it was heaps of fun to be in a small race battle with another person – I was particularly impressed with this lady’s ability to accelerate up the steep hills and to dig really deep. Lots of fun.

I also learned some good lessons on Sunday. The major lesson being that I need to get out and practice my uphill barriers. This is an area that I really didn’t spend a lot of time honing when I was racing seriously. I suppose it was because in Belgium, Holland, and in other areas, uphill barriers aren’t used often. There the course designers let the terrain force a run or ride – I suppose this is due to the high probability of extreme mud and other natural factors such as deep sandy climbs and the overall skill level of the racers. I spent a lot of time practicing my flat barriers, my ability to quickly shoulder (still a bit clumsy) my bike and run up a hill, and learning how to “trust the rut” – but when it comes to picking up my bike and running over a barrier, I get rather clunky and slow down.

On Thursday night I met up with a great group of women for our weekly cyclo-cross clinic. The focus was on uphill barriers… (surprise!) Well, it was a great session. We did some crazy drills that to an observer would have looked pointless but in my experience, the best way to learn a skill is to break it down into its little pieces, get these right and then put it all together. So this is what we did last night. Well, I’m super impressed with how well these women progressed through the evening – for an hour of practice they definitely excelled. By the end of the night they were flying over the uphill barrier and were remounting with extreme confidence. There is nothing better than seeing people understand  a skill and make progress – particularly when everyone is smiling and having fun.

I get asked a lot lately about how I’m enjoying being back on the bike and racing cyclo-cross. Well, I can honestly and happily say that I’m having more fun this year than I’ve had in many years. I look forward to lining up on Sunday morning and racing my bike. After the race I l enjoy hanging out with the other women and talking about how the race unfolded. I’m really loving the weekly cyclo-cross sessions – these are a real highlight of my week. It’s different not having the fitness I used to have, but what really matters is that I’m out there and enjoying it. I’ve learned over the years that really no one is paying attention to your results except yourself – so it doesn’t really matter if you win or get lapped – what matters is the doing and enjoying doing it.

So Much Cheering!

Wow, that race in Renfrew on Sunday was pretty darn special. The course was a challenging one with two climbs that really sucked my legs right off and mangled my lungs. (But in a good way!) There were some cool technical features – the off-camber, some funky corners, the fun little ditch and gravel that all culminated in a fun course. Oh and we can’t forget the awesome section in the woods – this was a super section of pedaling and ripping through corners. So yeah, Sunday at Ma-Ta-Wey park was great.

But what put it over into the awesome spectrum was the cheering. Wow – there were people all over the course cheering for what felt like a very long race! Thanks so much for the cheers. It really does help so much when you feel like you’re going backwards to hear someone yell out your name or to yell something like “Vicki, keep pedaling” or “Vicki, where’s your game face?” or “Come on Vicki, catch her on the hill”. These words really do stand out when I’m racing and help so much.

So thanks heaps to everyone for the cheering. I’ll do my best to cheer for you next week in Cornwall.

The race itself on Sunday was a good hard one – as all ‘cross races are. I found the weather to be one of the most challenging aspects of the day. It was hot. Really hot. At points I was debating peeling my skin suit down for a bit or unzipping – but I gathered some self-control and resisted this option. For the last two laps besides having bad thoughts about the climb to the finish line, all I could think about was water.

I really do think we have some of the most supportive and enthusiastic racers out there. It’s so refreshing to see people hanging out before the race – pre-riding together and helping one another with lines. And then after the race, everyone is telling their race story and congratulating one another. There is nothing better (for me) than seeing women who have gradually gotten stronger and better at racing cyclo-cross – this is what racing and cyclo-cross is all about – encouraging people to improve and urging them forward.

A huge thanks to the folks who were out in Renfrew bright and early for set-up and a big thanks to everyone who helped out with tear-down (we got that course down pretty quickly). As always, huge thanks to Bob and Cheryl for their tireless volunteering.

Lost In The Woods

You never think it’s going to happen and when it does happen, well, it’s really not that awesome. I was out on my Saturday morning trail run and things went a little bit off course…. (Or I suppose I should rewrite that – I went a little off course.)

I started out from Stony Swamp P11 on Hunt Club Rd. with the intention of running over to P8 and then out to the Lime Kiln trails for some exploring and then back again. My watch was set to buzz at 40 minutes and I’d turn around. I did a very similar run last week so I was confident with the area.

All was going just great – beauty of a day, feet were ticking over nicely and I felt great. At about 36 minutes in, I followed a trail into a dark stand of fir trees. I ran along what I thought was a trail. And then I realized that I couldn’t really make out the trail. No worries, I’d just turn around and head back. Problem was when I turned around, I couldn’t decipher the trail from the natural terrain. I wandered around in that stand of trees for what felt like a really long time.

I looked for familiar markings. I took deep breaths. I wondered if I should call Marc. Finally I walked out into a bunch of tall grass and decided to call Marc. Luckily he was home. And thanks to the power of modern technology, I was able to get out of the mess I was in. But it wasn’t easy, I had to plow my own trail  through tall grass, a bog, trees, and bushes. At one point I came to another stand of trees and someone had built a sort-of lean-to in the trees – this was reassuring but also a bit odd.

Admittedly even with the compass and map on my iPhone, I did make a few wrong turns. After looking at the map when I got in, I realized that rather than tromping through the bush for close to 40 minutes, there was a trail very close to where I started (the trail I ran in on).

But all is well. Mega thanks to Marc for getting me out of there. I was doing my best not to panic, but geez, it’s really hard not to panic and start to make rash decisions.

In the end I came out on one of the main trails that I ran in on and then simply ran back to the car. Quite the adventure! My legs are a bit scratched up but otherwise, I’m completely fine.

If you’re curious about what I ended up doing, take a look at the Strava file. You’ll see on the map a bunch of squiggles – this is me walking around trying to find my way out (before calling Marc).

(I’ve decided the best way to spend the rest of Saturday is on the front step with my book, some soda water, a wee bit of chocolate and the old grey cat!)

Sunday Racing

Pedal your cyclo-cross bike super hard for one lap. Tag your partner. Stand around and cheer on racers. Get tagged by your partner. Go super hard for a lap. Tag your partner. Repeat for around one hour.

This is a madison cyclo-cross race. This is some of the most fun to be had during the cyclo-cross season. The atmosphere in the hand-off zone is one of constant chatter, cheering and race stories. After tagging your partner, there is some collapsing on the top tube of your bike (maybe that was just me) and then it’s time to chat with those around you about the previous lap – all the while cheering on the other racers. Yes, heaps of fun.

For the madison this year, my partner was a lady who I first met at cyclo-cross many years ago. I’m pretty sure it was way back in 1994 that we met and we’re both still riding today. We are evenly matched with fitness so we had a good little team that fought hard for each and every place. Lots of fun.

Those of us racing the first race were very fortunate with the weather. It was dry. Not a drop of rain. The rain started while we were standing around chatting about the race and catching up with friends. By the time the second race started, the conditions could be considered epic… a downpour of rain made the horse paddock and fairgrounds rather messy. Yes, pretty happy to have not been racing in that muck!

A huge thanks to the large crew of volunteers who made it out to Renfrew very early in the morning to set up the course and a massive thanks to those who did the tear down during the crazy rain. Many many thanks to our tireless volunteer organizers who had the tough task of collecting the team information and then tabulating the results (yes, this is done all manually with pen and paper – no chip timing here).

(The first part of my day on Sunday was full of pedaling, cheering, and hanging out with cool folks. The second half of my day – was a bit different.)

So, I was happy with my race but did beat myself up for some of the technical mistakes I made – over braking in corners and not adjusting my lines for the changing course conditions… And then when I got home and walked into the kitchen, I was quickly reminded of what was in store for me for the rest of the day.  I was back in inflammatory bowel disease mode. Yes, time to get myself prepped and ready for my Monday colonoscopy. Having a colonoscopy on a regular basis is a fact of life for those of us living with ulcerative colitis. (If you’ve never had a colonoscopy, then I’ll just let you know that you have to prepare the day before by completely emptying your colon… This means you have to drink some “evil” potions that enable this. You also can’t eat anything until after your colonoscopy. So in my case because I raced, my breakfast was at 6 a.m. and with my colonoscopy on Monday at 10:30 a.m., it was a long time without food.)

This afternoon/evening and Monday morning experience added up to give me something pretty vital: perspective. Maybe I didn’t race as “perfectly” as I would have liked, but heck, I was racing again. I got to line up and ride my bike really hard. Sure I blew some corners. Yes, I used my front brake (something I tell the women in my clinics to avoid doing). And sure I was tentative in that muddy greasy corner that everyone was talking about. But so what? I raced. This is huge. I was quickly reminded of all the things I can do now that I couldn’t for a very long time.

Oh, and the really good news – my ulcerative colitis and angry colon are responding well to my new medication. I was awake for the entire procedure and it was quite fascinating to talk with my doctor and understand what we were seeing on the screen. My colon is not 100 per cent yet but it’s getting a lot better. So really lots of great things came out of Sunday – awesome times racing and reassurance that my new medication is working.

(Of course in typical fashion I asked “so, since things are much better, can I go off my medication?”… the answer from my doctor “if you go off your medication you’ll get very sick and then when we put you back on the medication you won’t respond like you are now and you’ll end up being very sick. So no, you can’t go off of this medication ever.” Well, I’m glad I asked. Now I know. I’ll take an infusion every six weeks and a weekly injection in exchange for cyclo-cross racing, trail running, happy days with my favourite guy, and a more normal life.)

Racing Again

This expression says it all - Sunday was tough but in a good way.

This expression says it all – Sunday was tough but in a good way.

On Sunday, September 14 I did something that I haven’t done since 2012. I raced my cyclo-cross bike. Boy oh boy was it ever fun. It was damn hard as well, but most importantly it was fun. I woke up at around 2 a.m on Sunday morning with a gnawing feeling in my stomach, I initially thought I was hungry – nope nervous.

Nervous as in a little bit freaked out. By the time the alarm beeped and I pulled myself out of bed at 5:30 a.m., my mind was in race mode. I was rethinking my race bag. Reviewing what I had planned to wear for the race. Thinking about water bottles. And trying to mentally rehearse cornering, descending, sprinting, and barrier technique. Yes, I was a bit of a nut (but in a good way).

The pre-ride, the cheering for the first race, the catching up with long-time friends, the racing, the race recap afterwards, the cheering on of Marc and the other guys in the third race and then the course tear-down were just so special. I know it was simply a local cyclo-cross race. But for me it was something else. I felt so very comfortable out there. It was so meaningful to be pre-riding and just feeling like I was in the “groove”. There were no thoughts of not being good enough, of not being fit enough, of not really belonging – nope I felt at home.

I attribute this to the people that make up the Eastern Ontario Cyclo-Cross Series. I’m guessing that in other races, one often doesn’t hear on the start line “wow, great to see you out here”, “I’m really happy you’re at the race”, or afterwards “you looked great out there”.

The race was a good hard one. With a lumpy course that featured two tough climbs (one which I had to walk/power hike/drag myself up), some fun switch backs, a wee pile of sand, a very lumpy grass section (my favourite section), fast barriers and a speedy little descent (on which I managed to blow the line and ride completely off course over some rather menacing rocks) – there was nowhere to hide.

I was super impressed with the caliber of women (and the amount) who lined up on Sunday. There are some very speedy ladies racing in this series who can really put the hammer down. I was in the back (quite far back really) but that’s okay. I’m not riding much at all, I’ve finally built up to three rides a week (one of these being the ‘cross race), so suffering would be the theme for me at Calabogie. It was very different to be racing in my local series without hours and hours of training in my legs and soul – I felt a strange sensation of just relaxing into the moment. This might sound cheesy but if you knew how much pressure I used to put on myself to have a good ride (particularly when racing at home) then you would understand how and why Sunday’s race was so different for me.

My only goal going in was to be exhausted at the end. I can definitely say I was. I was happy to be lapped (yes, lapped) – this meant I didn’t have to drag myself up those two hills again nor across the lumpy grass again. The rest of the day was a bit of a write-off – I was that tired. An attempted nap in the late afternoon was made rather uncomfortable thanks to the rapid onset of ‘cross gut (do not eat that peanut butter bar with your post-race lunch – you will regret it…) – so instead I sat and tried to gather up some energy to do more than read Twitter accounts of Mike Woods’ amazing race at the GP Montreal.

Eastern Ontario Cyclo-Cross, you’ve stolen my heart and I’m happy to let you have it. Thanks for giving me a place to be on Sunday mornings. I didn’t realize how much I missed you. Let’s not ever be apart like this again.