Monday, March 28, 2011

Hills Are My Office... aren't they?

I raced at Ft. Ebey State Park for the first time yesterday.

It was hard! The park only has a 200' maximum difference between its low and high points, but it's a pot-and-kettle landscape. In fact, part of it is called "Kyle's Kettles." The course, supposedly, has about 1000' of climbing on each seven-mile lap. That actually doesn't seem like it should be all that much, but keep in mind that it's a circuit. So if, by mile, climbing and descending are equal, the average grade is about 5%. Since it's a mountain bike course, the actual grade varies. A lot. This one had a few portions that let me catch my breathe, but I felt like I was either climbing a wall or dropping off one almost all the time. Any time the trail was steep, it also had a lot of exposed roots. Thinking about it, I realize that a lot of the steep spots weren't the IMBA-described cross-grade trails with benching, erosion control and switchbacks. They were pretty close to fall-line, and probably turn into streams when the rain is heavy.

When I heard about this course, I was thinking it would be a real "no excuses" course for me. I like to think I'm a pretty strong climber. The big problem I see in my riding, though, is that I'm not as good a technical rider as I'd like to be. I ended up pushing my bike a lot more than I'd like to. If the course were closer, I'd make some trips out there to practice, but being on Whidbey Island, it's a little far to go outside of events.

Anyway, I felt like I paced myself pretty well - sometimes my heart felt like it was going to explode, but I always managed to recover, more-or-less, and I didn't make a ton of mistakes. I got my numerically-best place of the season, 11th, but I've figured out how to turn my places into percentiles based on the field size, and I was only 27th percentile among finishers in my class. I'm never quite sure how to account for DNFs in tracking my scores.

By percentile, my best race was the Tapeworm Time Trial - 43rd percentile, in a completely mixed field. My best in a wave restricted to my age, sex and class was 37th at Soaring Eagle.

I think all this points to a real problem in my training, because I've been fast at other times. I "accidentally" won my age class my first time out, and tended to be right at the middle of the pack in my races in 2009. My high-water mark in a mainland, age-classed race was 4th of 10 finishers, on a disgusting, muddy day. I even stopped and considered quitting because I'd worn one set of brake pads down to the backing. I got the other set sort-of working, though, and using my current algorithm for assigning a percentile (100 * (1-place/finishers)) that was a 60th percentile finish. I guess if I start feeling too down, I can always look at my ski-to-sea results, but I typically race against sport men with no more than a five-year age difference from me.

Why have I been attacking off the back? Or, what was different about 2009? I'd say there are a couple key things. I wasn't mountain biking as much as I'd have liked to that year, but I was riding more, doing some speed work, and going to Wednesday Night Worlds. My BuDu Racing finishes have never been as good as my Indie Series finishes, so I think that's indicative of something too.

This season is by no means over. But I can still make some decisions about the tail end of the season and next season. The biggest is that I'm going to try to do everything a little earlier in the year. I'm going to try to do the full base training schedule with my team, starting before the New Year. So while I may cherrypick some 'cross races, I'm not going to mount a real campaign, and once base gets started, I'll do those rides instead. I think my 2012 can be like 2009, or better, if I come into it stronger. I'm also going to try to be more disciplined about speed work, especially since as early as the BuDu series is, I won't have been going to practice races when it starts. The Fall can be a beautiful time to ride mountain bikes, so skipping 'cross will likely let me have more fun with it anyway. Fat Cyclist talks about how wonderful the part of the season where everyone's in great shape from a summer of events, but not training for anything anymore, can be. I think that would be more fun than riding 'cross bikes on loose-over-hard, the typical start to that season.

Whining aside, one of the things I was happy about with the race yesterday was that I was picking people off from about halfway through the first lap to the end of the race. I think that's a good sign for the Epic Series races I'm planning later in the year.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Three Races In, Goals and Strategy for This Year

I never quite got around to writing about the race I did two weeks ago, on the trail network out by Black Diamond.

The course organizers had a separately marked warmup loop, which I took to mean that they didn't want people to warm up and pre-ride on the course. The loop turned out to be really difficult. Lots of turns around logs with off-camber sides, and some woodwork. I decided that I didn't want to get hurt that day, and raced accordingly. I didn't place very well, but I didn't finish DFL either and had a relatively clean race.

A week later, I went mountain biking at Soaring Eagle County Park with some of my teammates. We were pre-riding a course that was going to have a race on it later. On the first lap, we didn't work very hard, riding primarily to see the whole thing, and so people could practice obstacles. We stopped and regrouped at clearings. I felt pretty good - smooth handling, managed to negotiate a couple of hard obstacles, and I was tending to coast up toward the front of the group. The second lap was similar, and on the third, we started pushing more. My handling started to really fall apart during that lap, and I was back to making the mistakes that plagued me at Dash Point.

I had some other things to do that afternoon, so I didn't discuss it with my teammates right away and I went home. But I emailed the team later to see if anyone had any insight. I got a couple of good responses, but for once I was looking for a general answer, not a specific one, and I got that too. One of my teammates pointed out that we tend to make mistakes when we're in an oxygen debt. Riding really hard is a pretty effective way to end up in oxygen debt, and riding too hard means going fast, making a mistake, crashing, getting up and repeating. It's not a particularly efficient way to race, and I risk getting hurt or damaging my bike.

I'd noticed previously that if I'm riding too easy, my attention wanders and I make mistakes. I also don't carry enough momentum into obstacles, and have a much harder time flowing over them. So when I went out for my midweek ride a few days later, I decided to work on riding at an in-between speed, in which I'm focused and have some momentum to work with, but I'm not going anaerobic. I had a great workout, and decided that that's my new race pace. I think I should actually have a better average speed by riding just a bit slower, if it also means I'm riding cleanly.

I was back out at Soaring Eagle yesterday, and decided to try to race that strategy. I decided there's one circumstance I'll do at wide-open-throttle: a non-technical climb, followed by a chance to recover. Gravity is a conservative force, climbing is a strength of mine when I'm in shape, and a fire road doesn't give a lot of opportunities to make a mistake.

I'm racing with the 30+ Sport Men this year, which isn't as big a change as I'd feared. It seems like it's the 40+ guys that get into the Master's Sport World Championships mentality, and yesterday, the race organizers started them first so they could do all their elbowing and bickering away from everyone else. Of course that meant that my group chased into the back of their group relatively early, but everything has a cost. I started just maintaining my place in the group, and things started to shake out near the bottom of the first shallow descent. Throughout, I tried to maintain my flowy pace. I did make mistakes, but not as many as I have on that course in the past - it's often felt like all I do there is fall. I finished 19th out of 30 finishers, 32 starters, which is not a brilliant result, for me, but a lot better than the ones I got at the last two races. I've never done especially well at the BuDu Racing events, so I think this is a sign that I'm following a good direction.

I'm now about halfway through the BuDu series. I'm on the fence about next week's race, and plan to do the two following. One of them is at a trail network I've never ridden, the other is a course I've done before and that I think will play well to what I'm good at if I don't ride it like a moron.

My favorite series in 2009 was the Indie Series. I tried to do something with it in 2010, but that season went oddly throughout. This year, it's down to four races. Two of them are too far away for me to do without spending the night somewhere, I have a conflict with one of them, and that leaves one. It's on a course I really like, but that's hardly a season. Another race that I really like is most likely not going to be put on this year.

Amid all the gloom and doom, there's a new series starting up, the Northwest Epic Series. Following up on their success with the one race they promoted last year, the promoters are doing three endurance races this year. The races have longer laps and cover more ground. I'm planning to do a 30-mile race in May, and a 50-mile in August. At mountain bike speeds, those distances are pretty significant. It's also going to be a bit of a return to the kind of mountain biking I did in college - spending a whole day riding. If it goes well, I'm going to try upping the distance next year - 60 and 100 mile races. I may also skip 'cross this year and try to start doing base miles with my team at the tail end of the year, when they start and I was still taking a break from the wreckage of a 'cross season I had last year. Emphasizing a sustainable, flowy pace should transfer well to doing longer and longer distances, and I like the idea of working toward a distance that's a real challenge for me to complete.