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Thursday, February 25, 2016

2016 Rocheport Roubaix

I waited until almost the last minute to register for this year's Rocheport Roubaix, not putting down my money until I was confident there would be no repeat of last year's freezing temperatures. Just because I'm tough/stubborn enough to race gravel in a windy 14 degrees doesn't mean I'm dumb enough to do it again. In contrast to last year's bitter cold, we lined up this year in shorts.

Photo credit: Christina Luebbert

Quite a few friends were doing the 68-mile race, but I was happy to stick with the 50-mile course, telling them "it's too early in the year to suffer".  I even volunteered to do an Instagram takeover for Sport Chalet, where I'm a cycling ambassador, because all I wanted from the race was a fun training ride with friends.

Just like last year, our group fractured on the first climb out of time. Unlike last year, I was in the middle instead of immediately off the back. I've spent a lot more time on the bike this winter, and that made a big difference in how I felt.  Chuck and I ended up riding the whole race together, with Jim and Robby ahead of us by a good margin.

Snapping a picture over my shoulder and getting photobombed by my friend Jim right before he passed me.
Race promoter UltraMax provided several stocked aid stations, but we had everything we needed with us. Our stops were more photo and bathroom related -- not at the same time, though!

Chuck on a pretty section of gravel
The gravel sections were dry and fast-rolling, and the weather was worlds better than last year.  We cruised through the first part of the course with Chuck pointing out spots he recognized and me marveling over the fact that I remembered very little of it; I guess everything looks different when not seen through an ice-glazed haze.

It was a great day to be on bikes.  We turned onto the paved road that passes the big tree and really started flying, passing some people as they stopped at the aid station and others just because we were moving faster. I felt really strong. I've been training a lot more consistently and was excited about how well that seemed to be paying off.

The course is basically an out and back with a small lollipop at the far end and two larger loops in the middle and near the finish. We flew down the last big hill on the outbound leg and then climbed the subsequent uphill much more easily than last year (when I had to walk part of it). As soon as we made the left turn to start our homeward journey I realized the secret of my newfound speed.

The tailwind that had quietly provided a turbo boost was now a blistering crosswind. I almost needed to lean into the wind to stay upright. Chuck and I closed in on another rider in the hopes that we could find some shelter from the wind, but he was moving too slowly to help.

The turn into the headwind made forward progress even more difficult, but for some reason I still felt good and -- very rare for me -- never let the wind get into my head.  Chuck started to fade a little during this time, so I had to be careful not to pull too far ahead. This was a weird turn of events; I don't think I've ever been stronger on a bike than Chuck, and I'm much more comfortable being the one who's bringing up the rear.

Closing the end of the lollipop we ran into Bob and Luke, who were about to start it. We had a nice little impromptu team meeting at the intersection, sharing the delicious butterscotch whiskey Bob had brought along. Well, I guess I wasn't actually very good at sharing since I drank basically all of it. It was a tiny little bottle...and did I mention delicious?
Randomly meeting up with teammates!
Photo credit: Luke Lamb

Luke tried to convince us that, since we were just out for a training ride, we should repeat the loop with Bob and him. I was moderately torn, but in the end I just offered that if I felt good after finishing maybe I'd ride back out to meet them.

"Oh," he laughed, "So you think you're going to beat us?"

"I'm pretty confident," I replied, and then spent the next 25 miles half expecting them, fueled by righteous indignation and manly pride, to come shooting past me.

They started on the lollipop while Chuck and I headed back towards the finish line. While he demolished me on the downhills -- my downhill mojo a casualty of the primarily flat training rides of this past winter -- I continued to be weirdly strong on the flats and strangely impervious to the wind. I mean, I definitely had to work hard even to maintain a 13 mph pace at times, but it didn't bother me. I think looking out for Chuck, much like tormenting Peter at Frozen Feet, was a good distraction for me.

Chuck told me I should just go ahead and drop him, that I might be able to podium if I wasn't waiting, but a) there was no way I'd leave him behind after he spent 40 miles babysitting me at BT Epic and b) after not racing for the first half I didn't see much point in starting now.

There were several paved sections, this one with one of the UltraMax trucks out providing roving support.
We made a quick stop at an intersection so I could take the above picture, and while I was busy choosing between Instagram filters he started towards the hill. "You're just going to pass me on it anyway," he said, echoing a phrase and a move I've done countless times riding with him. In fact I did not catch him on the hill; he was nearly at the top when I put away my phone, social media duties completed, and gave chase. I had to work really hard to catch him, but eventually I reeled him in.

Volunteers waved us back onto the gravel at a blind intersection, and we reached the timed hill climb shortly after that.  "Don't wait for me," Chuck said, "Go for it!" I got a good start up the hill and could hear Chuck cheering behind me. A little more than halfway up I started to fade and then had to veer into the thicker gravel at the edge as a minivan sped towards me in the middle of the road. I topped the hill, crossed the timing mat, and leaned over my bike panting until Chuck rode past.

The last few miles confirmed my decision to ride the 50-mile course. I still felt good, but I'm not sure I would have with another 18 miles of riding. We crossed the finish line in 4:16, got changed, and headed to the little cafe for the soup and drinks that were included in our registration fee. Hanging out afterwards with free food and drinks was the perfect end to the race.

We'd wandered outside to visit and watch for Bob and Luke, and they arrived just as awards were being announced. I knew there was no medal for my 4th place spot, so after clapping for my friend Yvonne's second place award I tuned out the rest and was talking to the guys when Bob said, "Did you hear that? They just said your name!"

Queen of the Hill...or, as Luke would say, Queen Over the Hill
While I hadn't finished fast enough for the podium, it turns out my hill time was the fastest woman's time in the 50-mile race. I was, as evidenced by the super flattering photo, delighted and astonished. Hill climbing has never been my forte, and I assumed somehow a mistake had been made. As it turns out, though, not only was my time the fastest by 10 seconds for women, it was 11th fastest overall in the 50-mile race. That's pretty exciting. Apparently there's something to be said for Sufferfest videos and regular training.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

2015 Frozen Feet "trail" half marathon

***Working on the backlog I've somehow accumulated since the beginning of the year.***

January 23 was the Frozen Feet half marathon. It's billed as a trail half, but it only includes about a mile of singletrack and the rest is crushed limestone or paved trail.  I did this same race two years ago and it was ok, but I didn't love it. Don't get me wrong, there are lots of things to love: well-organized, great race sweatshirt, low price, indoor area to wait before and to eat the free pizza afterwards. I think my somewhat negative view was largely influenced by my disappointment with my time (2:01, making it my only road half over 2 hours). 

This year Mickey and some other friends signed up, but I held firm. I wasn't crazy about the route, I wasn't in half marathon shape, and I wasn't doing it. It sold out, but another 20 spots opened up and before I knew what I was doing I was registered.

Two days later I checked the orienteering club's website and remembered the reason I hadn't signed up for Frozen Feet last year: it's held the same day as the Babler O meet, which I really wanted to do.  Not one to waste an entry fee -- or go to the trouble of finding someone to buy my entry -- I decided that I'd get my race sweatshirt, run about half of the half as an out-and-back, and go do the orienteering meet that I really wanted to do and was paid for with my SLOC membership.

In the end, pleasantly surprised by how not terrible I felt during and after the 12 miles I ran at this years' Little Woods trail race, I opted to run the whole half marathon and volunteered to help clear the course after the orienteering meet, proof that you can have your cake and eat it too. This didn't mean I was at all happy to be up stupid early for the drive to Wildwood on a chilly January morning.

I'd signed up with a conservative predicted pace that put me in the second-last wave. Michelle was in this wave as well, and we agreed to stick together as long as our paces meshed, which ended up being most of the race. The first mile or so is on a paved trail, and then the course turns onto the crushed limestone surface of the Al Foster trail. On a normal day, it's not much more taxing than running on a sidewalk.

On race day, the trail was covered with a couple inches of churned up snow, making it more like running on a really cold beach.  I'd worn my trail shoes, so my footing wasn't too bad. I felt for the people who'd worn their regular road shoes after assurances that the trails were well cleared; that was only true of the paved sections.

I really, really didn't want to get up early this morning or run 13 miles, but it was a gorgeous day. Glad I made it out even if it was my slowest road half. #running
Outward bound on the Al Foster trail.
Maybe it was the snow or the rare company during a race, but I really enjoyed the course this time around.  There was bleak beauty of the snowy trail, stark trees, and icy river and then the lift of the familiar faces we kept seeing on out and back portions. After a more aggressive start we settled into a pace in the mid 10's and had just eased into the 11 min/mile range as we hit the only true singletrack portion of the race.  Despite the freezing temperatures, the sandy trail was surprisingly soft.

Midway through Saturday's Frozen Feet half marathon and loving the snowy scenery. My first half since last January and one of my slowest, but the running fitness (and enjoyment) is coming back. #running #halfmarathon #frozenfeet
Coming off the singletrack having been reminded how fun running can be.
We retraced our steps back up the snowy Al Foster trail to a turn onto the paved Rock Hollow trail. Rock Hollow is about 2 miles of gradual uphill. Last time I raced Frozen Feet there were icy patches that made downhill footing a little treacherous. This year the trail was well cleared, so our reward for the long climb was a much less scary downhill.

Michelle's friend Peter, who'd started in the wave after us, caught her right at the top of the hill. I was slightly ahead at that point and continued back downhill on my own. He caught up with me about halfway down and made the next couple of miles go quickly as we talked about running and PRs and adventure racing and his alleged tendency to be whiny when he's tired.

I hadn't looked at my Garmin since the race start, but I peeked at mile 11 and realized that Peter was within reach of his PR. "You may not want to know this," I told him, "but if you don't take any walk breaks I think you could have a new PR."

"I hate you," he replied.

Michelle has mentioned more than once how much she enjoys it once Peter starts to get crabby, and it turns out she's not the only one. It turns out there's sadistic fun to be had in pushing someone harder than they want to go; it gave me a little insight into why Mickey trains with me. It was good for me, too, because I probably ran faster in encouraging Peter than if I was just finishing up on my own. I finished mile 13 with my only mile in the 9's since the very first mile of the race.

And Peter? He cut three minutes off his half marathon PR.  He may still hate me, but it turns out I can live with that just fine.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Living the dream

I subscribed to Outside magazine for years, living vicariously through its pages and imagining the kind of outdoorsy life depicted in American Eagle ads.  The subscription has long since lapsed, and my trips to the mall are few with a 12 year old who refuses to wear anything but sweats, but every once in a while life inches closer to my adventurous ideal.

In almost every instance the motivation can be traced back to friends and FOMO, the only possible incentives strong enough to get me tent camping in sub-freezing temperatures.  I'm not particularly hardy or experienced in cold-weather camping, but I can't stand the thought of missing out on a good time with my teammates.

Last year's Team Virtus MLK weekend Berryman ride was the first time we'd camped for the weekend, and despite the moderate (for Missouri in January) temperatures I spent my first night shivering in a bag rated for 32 (not 31.5) degrees.  This year's forecast was decidedly not moderate (lows in the 20's for Friday night and the teens for Saturday night), which necessitated a trip to REI to beef up my winter gear.

The new jacket, which has already seen a ton of use.
I had intended to exchange the awesome but unflattering trekking pants Jeff  gave   me for Christmas and pick up a sleeping bag liner; I left with new pants, a puffy down jacket, and a summer-weight sleeping bag.  The sales associate who helped me had suggested the lighter bag instead of the liner, and since it's rare enough for someone in retail to steer me towards something considerably cheaper than what I'm looking at, I went with his advice. The lighter bag will also hopefully come in handy for warm-weather camping trips.

Leaving straight from work on Friday, I met the guys at the campground around 5:30. Chuck, Luke, and Steve had already been there for a while, so once I traded my dress boots for winter boots and set up my tent we had plenty of time to hang out around the fire they had going, enjoying the warmth and Chuck's homemade whiskey.  Bob and Phil got there before long, the latter bringing Luke a birthday bottle of Fireball that he was kind enough to share.

Not the Fireball, but Luke looked this happy when he got it.
The night was cold, but the company was so good (except the part where Bob knocked over the bottle of water I had heating by the fire three times) that before we knew it, perhaps through a whiskey-fueled time warp, it was suddenly 1 a.m.  Climbing into my tent, I realized I hadn't opened the valve on my self-inflating sleeping mat or laid out my sleeping bags, so I spent the next while crawling around my low backpacking tent arranging all of my assorted gear.

I'd brought a bunch of clothes to sleep in, but since I'm new to winter camping I wanted to experiment to find out what worked best.  I started out in two pair of socks, a hat, and a base layer top and pants.  It was quickly evident that this wasn't enough, so I added a pair of fleece-lined tights and a fleece sweatshirt. Now only my feet were chilly, a situation  resolved when I thought to shove my hot water bottle down into the bottom of my bag.  Ahhhh.

All of this arranging and tossing and turning and shivering meant that I didn't fall asleep until some time after 3 a.m, but the first tent zippers had me wide awake and changing into my bike clothes in the comfort of my now-cozy sleeping bag. The jug of water I'd left on the picnic table was solid ice, but another perk of using a hot water bottle to warm your bed is that you wake up with something unfrozen to drink.

I warmed up with hot chocolate and some Mountain House biscuits and gravy courtesy of the JetBoil that I'm almost able to use without adult supervision (this is a mark of my own outdoor ineptitude rather than the stove being complicated).  Our campsite filled up with punctual friends while we ate breakfast and got our things together.

My cousin Bob making his second appearance at the MLK ride.
Luke and Steve opted not to ride, and the rest of us rolled out in a large group of Virtus, BOR, and assorted friends. I fell in near the back, which was a good place for me. I bailed on the usual spots that I assume someday I'll have the confidence to ride. Otherwise, I rode fine but felt generally crappy. Perhaps it was a combination of limited sleep and mild hangover, but even easy parts of the trail felt like a lot more work than necessary.

Regrouping at the spring. With such a large group we had plenty such stops to make sure no one was left too far behind. It's not much fun to do a group ride alone.
On the plus side, while I started out feeling sluggish and tired, I never felt any worse. When we reached the midpoint of the ride -- when I'm always sluggish and tired -- and I had the same amount of energy I'd started with, I got a big mental lift.

Mitch caught us near the descent to Brazil Creek, so between riding a bit with him and then running into Peat at the road crossing, I had some nice visits with people I don't see often enough. We took a short break at Brazil Creek for snacks and then started back uphill. In vast contrast to my BT Epic implosion, I felt good climbing, and the reroutes on the back half of the loop have made the trail so much more fun. I still had to do more walking than I'd like on some of the rougher sections, but I guess that comes with only riding once a week at best.

I love the Berryman trail. Such a beautiful place to ride!
The end of the loop came sooner than I expected it, which is always a good feeling, and the rest of the afternoon and evening was spent hanging around a campfire or grill, eating chili and brats, and hanging out with friends.  With the forecast calling for overnight temps in the teens, I had decided to go home rather than camp again, but somehow I sat down around the fire at our campsite and kept talking until it was dark. So much for going home!

I filled my sleeping bag with three hot water bottles (maybe a little overkill), wore two hats, and started out in my warm layers from the previous night. Other than being woken up at one point when someone decided to chop wood in the middle of the night, I slept much better. I think I might have overdone it a little since I woke up with ice covering my outer hat, but I had a cozy night's sleep.

Drinking coffee as the snow falls.
We had planned to do the Joe Dirt gravel ride on Sunday, but the snow that started falling as we packed up, though magical, quickly coated the roads. Sitting at breakfast and watching cars slide through the intersection outside the restaurant, we opted to skip the gravel and head home. Within 30 minutes the roads were clear, and I spent the rest of my drive regretting the decision to leave early. Can't win 'em all.