Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Bavarian Bike and Brews Fest

I think that one of the most important parts of a race is getting to the starting line. Not just getting to the starting line, but getting to the starting line warmed up, ready, and in time to have a good starting position if it's a race that goes into singletrack early.

I overslept on the morning of this race. I decided breakfast wasn't negotiable and got out of the house later than I'd have liked to. When I got to Leavenworth, I went to two wrong places to try to pick up my race packet before going to the course. So by the time I got my number twist-tied onto my bike, my wave was already on its way up the starting climb and I still hadn't warmed up.

Luckily for me, the race organizers had a way to deal with this. They started me with the Clydesdales, about fourteen minutes after my wave, then placed me in my class according to my time. That meant I was essentially doing a time-trial, just with more closely-spaced riders on the course. Apparently a couple of other riders weren't in the right waves either that day, for one reason or another.

The course follows the Freund Canyon Loop. The organizers say it's 8.6 miles, with 1800' of climbing. I did two laps. It's basically a very long climb on either a fire road or generally non-technical singletrack and then an equally long descent back to the start/finish area. I'd been going back and forth on a strategy for this race - obviously if I bonked on the climb during the second lap, it would really hurt my time. On the other hand, if I saved too much, I still wouldn't have a time machine with which to travel back half an hour and tell my previous self to ride faster.

The climb was long. Mostly it wasn't very technical - it just went up and up and up. There were a few sections of singletrack benched out of the side of the mountain that were more difficult, especially when they were also steep, and there were 3' tall roller things built along the top part of the loop that were difficult to get up if I was already climbing, including one that made me dismount on the second lap.

Starting from pretty far back in the race was interesting. I was behind some of the women's fields, but ahead of some of the older men's fields and the juniors. I spent a lot of the race catching and passing women, before chasing into my own field. I also got caught by a couple of really competitive older guys and juniors, and some of the women blew right by me on the descent. I think cyclists who are douches on the road should have to actually enter a few races, so that some women or 14-year-old boys can show them what "fast" really means.

The descent was pretty incredible. It's the first XC race I've attended that incorporated a wall ride. There were a ton of berms and a couple of deep stream crossings. By the time I got to the bottom, I felt like my right calf muscle was going to explode, but I'm just as goofy-footed on a mountain bike as I am on a snowboard - switching leading feet feels incredibly awkward to me.

I promised myself I'd climb like it was going out of style on the second lap, but didn't end up working as hard as I meant to. I've been meaning to alternate sitting and standing on really long climbs, like the one on that course, but I didn't shift up enough times when I stood up to be in the pedals. Next time, I'll try a different shifting technique and see if it works better. I also lost focus for a little while in some of the high singletrack, and then caught myself riding at a more reasonable pace than the situation really merited.

At the end of the descent the second time, I was supposed to turn right and go through the finishing gate, but I turned left as I had on previous laps. Something felt wrong - no racers lying on the ground and panting - so I asked someone and found my way back to the finish line. I doubt I lost more than a minute doing that, though.

A lot of people say a mountain bike race is a lot like a time trial - you ride at the highest pace you can sustain for a period of time, and then see how your time stacks up. I disagree. If I'd started with my class, I'd have tried to stay in with one of the faster groups. I might have blown up sometime during the race and done much worse, and I might have stayed focused and done a little better. Time trialists don't really know how the other riders are doing, but in a cross-country race, at least within my own little piece of the course, I do. The winner of a mountain bike race will have the shortest time, but many of us are racing each other, not the clock. I think that's huge.

Ultimately, I did alright. I was 14th out of 31 finishers and 36 who entered. The 12th and 13th guy both came in within a minute of my time, so I can't help wondering what the results would have been like if I was together enough to show up on time. I guess my result shows that while I may sometimes do my best to screw myself up, all the training has a lot to do with it too.

I'm skipping this weekend's race. It's very far away and a long ride I went on yesterday afternoon was my first non-commute ride since my biopsy. So my next "real" race will be either 7/10 or 7/18, and then my XC racing season will be done.

It's been an odd season. Mechanical problems, not many races, and not as much time to train as I'd like to have all contributed to making it a bit of a sophomore slump. I was busy because I'm in school again, working toward a goal that I think will really improve my life, so it's worth it. But I'm going to plan next year more conservatively, and I think I'm going to choose just one CX series this Fall and maybe even skip a few if I start getting into "workathon" mode about something I do for fun.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Whidbey Island Mudder

I never got around to posting about my race on 5/23. I went to the Whidbey Island Mudder. It was pretty dry, just as it was when I did it last year. When I was racing last year, my big project was just to try to finish races without bonking. I wasn't always successful, but I think I expanded my aerobic capacity a lot. By the end of the season, completing a two hour race was no longer a problem for me, so this year's project is to be a lot less conservative about pacing myself. At Wednesday Night Worlds earlier in May, I did a race in which I spent the whole time at a much higher effort level than what I've considered myself able to sustain for that long in the past, and that was a real breakthrough for me.

So I decided to do Whidbey the same way. I was going to place myself in the first or second row at the start, race at that level of effort, and not worry about whether or not I was going to blow up. I didn't end up giving myself a great start, but since the course starts with a fairly long stretch of wide singletrack with easy passing, I don't think that was really a problem. Then I rode my bike really really hard for two and a half laps. Even once I noticed that my rear wheel was getting a little squirrelly...

Turned out I got a puncture. The tip of a thorn poked a hole in my tube. In the past, I've operated under the theory that if I got a flat tire, my race would be over whether or not I brought spare tubes, etc. All that stuff adds some weight and I think I can feel a difference in the handling of my bike with the tubes strapped on, so I've typically left my tools in the car when I race.

It's been almost a month since that race, and since then I've done the mountain bike leg in the Ski to Sea and another Indie Series race. While I was very disappointed with my result at Whidbey - I like finishing things - I think I still made progress as a racer that day. When I raced at the Ski to Sea, I rode the way I rode at Whidbey, and I got a result that I'm very happy with.

There are a lot of things that I enjoy about mountain bike racing. One of my favorite aspects, though, is that I feel it gives me a challenge to rise to - in trying to be a better mountain biker than the guy in front of me or the guy sitting on my wheel, I'm trying to be a better mountain biker in general. If I get to the point that trying to be faster than the other guys in my class doesn't make me better, there are two more classes I can upgrade to. If I get to the point that trying to be the fastest guy in the Open class doesn't require me to improve... then I guess I'll have some things to say to Julien Absalon. I'm dissappointed that a race that I thought was going well got cut short when I flatted my tire, but I think I still got to be a better mountain biker.

And I've taken my tire changing stuff with me for the two races since then.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Dude! You Stabbed Me!

In general, I tend to think I'm a very health person. If I sleep and eat adequately, I have a good energy level, feel healthy, don't get any weird symptoms, etc.

Doctors seem to think differently. I've been getting some weird results on liver function tests for a couple of years now, basically since when I got health insurance while I was living in New York and decided that I should make them pay out some of my money to a doctor. One of the more stressful weeks in my life was in between when my doctor told me, "You have hepatitis!" and when the tests for the A, B and C viruses came back (negative.) Ever since then, when I walk into a doctor's office, the doctor sees a pin cushion.

My liver doesn't look quite right on an ultrasound either, and since I'm not fat, barely drink, and have stopped using anti-inflammatories, it's kind of a mystery. So my doctor decided she wanted a chunk of it. Actually, two chunks.

Yesterday's festivity was giving up those two chunks of liver. I went to the hospital at 9:45am, having not eaten since 1:30am. I wasn't really bothered by that... yet. There, I got to change into a hospital gown and a pair of those awesome grippy socks that hospitals have. Then someone who claimed to work as a bagger at the Safeway across the street took a blood sample, the nurse started an IV, and Adella and I waited for whatever the next thing was. Adella is totally awesome for coming with me. While we waited, I modeled the hospital gown, which is totally sexy. Pictures are linked to from my Facebook.

I knew I was going to be doing a lot of waiting, so I brought my physics and chemistry notebooks, my laptop and my giant calculator. I considered finishing my physics assignment while we waited, but decided that that would just ensure that I got taken wherever I was going for the biopsy and would have to waste a lot of timing figuring out what, exactly, I'd just proven when I got back.

After a while, a guy showed up to wheel me down to radiology, where the biopsy would actually take place. It was to be an ultrasound-guided biopsy, and I guess out of me, the biopsy kit and the ultrasound machine, the ultrasound machine was the least portable. He offered to take the stairs, but then went via the elevator. I practiced my royal wave, to the amusement of hospital staff who are good sports for pretending not to have seen it before.

A nurse asked me to confirm my name. Then a radiologist, or at least a radiology technician, smeared a bunch of teal colored stuff on my abdomen and got out the ultrasound machine. They wanted to make sure not to hit any big veins. A physician assistant showed up to do the biopsy. I've always said I'd rather have a physician assistant or nurse practitioner who thinks it's kind of cool to get to do them than a doctor who's totally over it if it's not life-threatening. The PA stuck me with a needle with lidocaine and injected some at a couple of different depths. That was quite painful, especially at one depth that he said was the perineum, and often quite painful. Thanks...

Next, they got out the actual biopsy kit. I didn't get a great look at it, but I think it's about the size of a meat thermometer, although I think the part they actually stab me with is smaller. Anyway, I couldn't feel that because of the local anesthetic. My doctor wanted two samples, so they stuck me twice. I think in court, that's considered aggravated or something... I think I felt it when the PA actually pressed the button, although the sound was more shocking than the actual sensation. Biopsy thingies are really loud.

After that, it was pretty much over. The nurse showed me the two little chunks of liver - they looked like red, flexible leads for a mechanical pencil. It's slightly disturbing to see things that are formerly parts of my body separated from my body, and in a jar of some sort of solution. The guy who was supposed to wheel me back to my room wasn't there, so the nurse took me back up instead. I asked him if he could make the bed bunny hop. I'm very clever.

On the way out of the room in Radiology where they actually did the procedure, my side and my shoulder started to hurt. The PA had told me about the shoulder pain beforehand, which is good, because it doesn't make intuitive sense and it's pretty intense. Apparently, the swelling from my liver puts pressure on my diaphragm and diaphragm pain gets referred to my shoulder, behind the collar bone. I asked if that was why intense aerobic efforts hurt there, and he said it was. It was cool to learn something new about the way my body works (or protests working.)

By the time we got to Extended Observation, where I was sort-of checked in, my side and especially shoulder were quite painful. I thought that the nurse had been told to give me something, but that may not have been communicated. I also thought I was supposed to be flat on my back for an hour, then get lunch, but the nurse showed up with lunch almost right away. I was pretty hungry, so I decided not to worry too much about that one. It was still a really bad ham sandwich, although the tomato soup was excellent. I also managed to get the pain pill.

I'm not sure what it was; I assume Oxycodone because that's the prescription they wrote me. I think it made me a bit loopy, but I wanted to make sure to let my parents know that nothing bad had happened, or at least no worse than anticipated. Getting stabbed in the liver is kind of bad, I think. So I made a couple of incoherent phone calls, Adella made fun of me, and I took a nap. Apparently I told the nurse several times that yes, it hurt, and someone had stabbed me in the liver. I still think that's funny.

A couple hours later, I got discharged. I put my clothes on and Adella and I went back to her place, where I spent the rest of the day watching Avatar: The Last Airbender and lying on the couch. Eventually, I did get to that physics assignment, and derived a formula that was consistent with the one in the book for the case covered by the book's formula and internally consistent with itself for the case not covered by the book. Integral Calculus is hard...

At the moment, I'm not supposed to lift more than five pounds or exercise. I also haven't had any shoulder pain today - that pretty much went away after yesterday. My side still hurts, though, and I've got a bit of a dent where they did the biopsy.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Ski to Sea, First Good Race of the Season

A week ago, I raced in the Ski to Sea. The Ski to Sea is a funny race. It's a seven-stage relay race incorporating cross-country skiing, downhill skiing, running, road cycling, canoeing, mountain biking and kayaking. I rode in the mountain bike leg.

Teams in the ski-to-sea vary from very competitive teams, with the top competitors completing the race in under six hours, to less competitive teams, with times over ten hours. The team I was racing on was just trying to finish, and I know that finishing before the cutoff time was a pretty big personal accomplishment for at least one of my teammates. All the mountain bikers had to attend a pre-race meeting at 11:30, but I couldn't start until my teammates on the previous leg could pass me the timing chip. I ended up spending a very long time hanging out at the transition as a result, so I got to see some of the cool costumes on some of the less competitive teams.

The race organizers had a spotter stationed at a bridge a little way up the river. He'd radio an announcer at the staging area with the team numbers for the canoes that passed under the bridge. At that point, the mountain biker had seven minutes to get organized to help the canoeists get the canoe out of the water and under a banner and then start his leg. The fastest teams seemed to take a lot less time than that, and then the mountain biker and two exhausted-looking canoeists would run under the flag, and the mountain biker would leap onto his bike and ride away. The fast teams had canoeists who compete as canoeists regularly, a sport I didn't realize was even contested seriously. Competitive male canoeists look a lot like male gymnasts.

As the hours wore on, the canoeists looked less and less like gymnasts or anything else, and the costumes got better and better. More beer was evident. The mountain bikers who'd showed up dressed in spandex and riding cross country racing bikes were mostly gone - they were mainly on teams where everyone else was more competitive too. The ones who were left were starting by straddling their bikes, putting one foot on a pedal, putting the other foot on a pedal, and wobbling off. Of course there were still some Epics and other exotic racing bikes present - anyone who can stomach the price for a racing bike can own one. I keep telling myself it doesn't bother me...

I got a call a little before 2pm to let me know that our canoe was in the water, so I rode around and warmed up, bumped into a friend, and then hid in the car with my favorite person for a while when it started raining. I had a power bar, drank some water, and went to the bathroom more times than I care to admit. I stiffened up a little again, because it had been a while since my warmup. And then around 3:30, the announcer called my team and I leapt into action. Of course, I had seven minutes to do about a minute's worth of leaping, so it was slightly silly to hurry, but I didn't want to be in the wrong place when my team showed.

The canoe showed up at the steep little scrap of beach where the transition was happening that day. The exact launch and transition spots for the canoe leg are subject to the vagaries of the river, and aren't selected until shortly before the race. I helped my teammates get it up the steep part and then jogged under the banner with them while I stuffed the timing chip under my shirt. Then I was in race mode. I ran over the timing gate, grabbed my bike from Adella (the mountain bike racer was allowed to have an assistant hold his bike for him, but not push him,) did a flying mount, and spent the next hour and four minutes riding as hard as I could remotely sustain. Adella saw me a few times because the course wrapped around the park where the transition took place and traffic for cars was quite slow.

The mountain bike course for the Ski to Sea is in a somewhat inopportune location. It starts in Hovander Park, near Ferndale, and runs fourteen miles to Squalicum Harbor, at the edge of Bellingham. There's a total of 250' of climbing, and while there are a couple of parks with trail systems along the way, a lot of the course ran through parking lots, over the little scraps of vegetation between them, through vacant lots, and through unused fields. Near the end, it even ran along a rail line. There's a little park next to the harbor where the organizers decided to make it more spectator-friendly, so it ran up and down a speedbump of a hill four times, made a spiral in some mud, ran over another embankment, and then finally went onto the road and through some parking lots to the transition point for the kayaker. I didn't quite have a perfect race, but I was very close, and that made me very happy - aside from one practice race that went well, it'd been a frustrating season up to that point.

From the results, I passed 36 people. I was afraid I was going to feel like "that guy" for riding fast in that group, but then I decided that it's called a race, everyone who signed up knew they were signing up for a race, and the people at the front were even more serious about going fast than I am. I thought of it more like a time trial against the people who'd raced earlier in the day, although I'd be lying if I claimed not to get some satisfaction moving my team up the rankings by all those places.

Our kayaker took it from there. I think I managed to beat her to the finish line in Fairhaven, but the kayak course involved a lot of buoys, to make it more time consuming, while I rode via the most direct route.

It was raining a little again, so people weren't spending much time at the finish line festivities. But I got to tell everyone on the team that it was an honor to get to race with them. I'm quite proud of my teammates. For some, it was their first time competing in their respective sport. And while I think I'm cool for passing 36 people, our best rank of the day was in the morning, after our runner passed 51.

Each competitor was ranked within their own leg by split time as well as the teams getting overall rankings, so I know how I fit against the other mountain bikers. There were 464 teams in the race and 95 in our division (Recreational mixed-gender;) I ranked 116th for the race overall and 14th in our division. Just because I like to look at this stuff, my time would have put me mid-pack in the Competitive Open division. You can find full results on the Ski to Sea web site. Our team was team 407.