My time away from mountain biking and relative lack of skill turned out to be one of my lesser worries that day.
I did pretty well at the start. I put myself in the second row in my age group, which gets a small head start. I didn't try to lead at the start, because I wanted to be prepared for a two-hour race and I wasn't planning to be one of the guys battling it out for top five anyway. I motored along in the lead group in my class for a while, and then rode off the course going through a corner because I couldn't slow down enough to be confident in my ability to turn.
That's when the race went from difficult and uncomfortable to really challenging.
My fork is pretty old, and it was designed to be as light as possible. Unfortunately, that makes it a bit finicky too, and sometimes it leaks motor oil onto my brake rotor. The contamination prevents the brake from working very well at all. When that happens, I can sometimes save the brake shoes, but not always, and sometimes I think I've saved them when I haven't.
It had rained hard the night before and continued to shower throughout the day so the race was extremely muddy. Luckily for me, it was a very flat course and I didn't need my brakes as much as I might on some other courses. It actually felt a lot like the cyclocross races I was doing last Fall. I figured I'd drag my rear brake more coming into technical sections or turns and allow a lot more stopping distance. I also figured my race was more-or-less over, but it's part of a series and I'm a competitive guy - I want my finishing points. Even if I get them twenty minutes after the next guy.
There's one serious downhill on the course, about a 30' vertical drop that's probably a close to 100% grade. The first time I descended it, dragging my brake of course, I didn't think I could turn at the bottom, where the course turns 90 degrees almost right away. So I ran over the tape, kept squeezing my brakes, and then let half a dozen guys pass and got back on the course. I reeled some of them in almost immediately on the uphill that follows - a positive consequence of all the time I've spent on the road lately. Of course, it would have been better if I'd never let them pass or spent the energy to chase back onto the group.
On the second lap, I kept going for a significantly longer time after running over the tape. So I decided that it wasn't worth hurting myself and if I couldn't get something out of my brakes, I was going to quit the race. There are no significant descents between that descent and the finish line, so I made my very sloppy way across the line, and then got off the course and worked on my brakes. I was getting enough stopping power after that that I thought I could continue without killing myself, so I did.
The rest of the race was pretty sloppy too. At a certain point, my front brakes started working really well, and then my back brakes stopped working. Then my front brakes started working really poorly again. This happened on top of a straight, shallow downhill with a couple of dropoffs. I went straight over them without slowing, made the turn (badly) hammered up the following hill and then stopped and worked on my brakes more. I did actually make the turn at the bottom of the steep downhill twice, which is more exciting to me than any of my the other racers will ever realize. Unless they also lost their brakes - a fair number of people didn't finish the race, and I heard from a teammate later that other people lost their brakes and some lost the ability to shift gears. I had to replace both sets of brake pads after the race - the front due to the contamination problem, and the rear because I wore them all the way down to the backing plate, so there was no braking surface left.
The race ran five laps. I don't think I've ever been more glad to be done with something than I was when I crossed the line at the end. I'd been maintaining position, more or less, on the flats and even gained back some places on the uphills, whether they were paved, ridable or run-ups, but I lost places every time I went off the track and sometimes because I took turns really wide. I got passed by groups of guys in a few different places and I was sure that I was one of the stragglers, hanging off the back of the pack. It turns out that I came in fourth in my age group. Twelve started the race, and ten finished. The guys who passed me were the stronger riders in the older, 35-44 group, and the guys who won in the 45+ group. Three of the 35-44 men dropped out of the race, although it was a much larger group, and none of the older guys did. I guess the older racers have done more races in really terrible conditions and it wasn't as novel for them as it was for the other 19-34 men and me. Zach has commented that he can't imagine why anyone would do cyclocross and that it seemed really miserable. This race ran three times as long as one of those.