Another weekend has passed. Two more cyclocross races have been taken down into my mental inventory of MAC experiences. Saturday and Sunday could not have been more different, despite both races residing in New Jersey, with one exception: both races were filled with the deep searing pain that causes a person to question nearly all determination to continue. While racing, I felt like I would have rather been anywhere else on Earth. Even still, recounting the two days now makes me anticipate the next race even more. I have always been amazed at the way in which endurance athletes can become so mixed up in their pursuits of reward; where agonizing experiences can elicit intense euphoria and lead to crippling addiction. The hardest, most miserable races become the most cherished.
Anyway, I digress. What made these races so hard, you surely ask? Each race was special in its own way. In two days, racers were treated to the highs and lows of racing in distinctly different regions of New Jersey. Saturday’s story was one of sand, steps and blinding rain. Sunday provided the convergence of peanut butter mud and leg-stealing elevation change.
Saturday at Beacon provided the best of Southern Jersey ‘cross. The course was set throughout a beautiful lakeside park. Much of the racing was done on double track through the woods. The surface was mostly a tacky-enough compacted soil with a high sand content. There was little in the way of technical turning and on first inspection it looked like it would be a fast race that favored fit, powerful roadie types. The two major obstacles were a very long sand section along the lakefront beach and a run-up through an amphitheater. The sand was also freshly tilled between races for good measure. It was slow, it was deep, and it ended in a trio of large concrete steps. The run-up in the amphitheater disposed of the normal, human sized steps in favor of the large seating terraces. Each step up was probably 2 ½ feet high. That might not sound like much, but after 30 minutes of racing, its mighty high. Also, for those of limited vertical stature or leap, it seemed downright cruel.
In any event, the course was super fun on warm up and I was pretty excited to tackle it. Just in time for our race, the sky opened up. When we lined up for the start, I had little idea what was in store. I used my second row call up to tuck easily into the top two or three riders heading into the first turn. When we dove into the woods, the rain was beginning to pool on the course. We hit the opening stretches of sandy double-track at very high speed. In little time, a lead group had formed. I ended up working with another rider in UVM kit for the first two laps. He took the preme at the amphitheater run-up on the first lap, and I got it on the second time through. By the third lap, we were all together in a group of six. The course allowed drafting to become effective, though the rooster tails of wet, sandy mud made it nearly impossible to gain the aerodynamic advantage without being blinded. On one of the middle laps, a rider went down in front of me, just before the giant steps. I slipped while avoiding him, and in the short time that it took for me to gather myself and claw my way up the amphitheater. I was gapped. The five guys quickly disappeared and I was alone in my head like last week. My race sort of went south from there. Just about every time through the black hole of beach sand, I had trouble. I crashed a few times dismounting and all the running sapped my legs. The sandy eye-irrigation began to make even blinking painful. I trudged on, though (trudged is used figuratively since the total elapsed time only seemed like an eternity). Ultimately, I finished out as strongly as I could. Chad Culbertson caught me with two to go, but I was able to hang on and wait until the finishing stretch to uncoil my sprint. It felt nice to do that again. In the end, I was seventh. That’s my first top 10 in a real MAC race. While that accomplishment should satisfy me, I felt that I had more in me, but got caught up in a fall at the wrong place. So it goes. I just thought that starting in the 2nd row would make things easier. It turns out that it just takes less time to get up to the guys who are faster than you. In the end, my finish line face says it all:
Overall, the race was awesome. The course was super fun and the conditions made it really challenging. The Toga! van was in full force. We even had a tent. Paul D. even made his return to racing after his frustrating back injury. Even after a dropped chain and flat tire, he was smiling like (in his own words) “a pig in shit!” It was also cool to watch Roger Aspholm race, as it always is. He patiently rode second wheel to Mike Yozell, only to pull a magical sprint out at the end to remain undefeated in MAC Elite Masters. CJ also made his presence known with a somewhat belated Halloween race. His Mario costume must have weighed about 45 pounds in wet, sandy denim by the end of the race.
Who needs to wait for the hose?
Sunday at Highland Park was my chance for redemption, so I thought. The weather brought us sun instead of showers, and with it came an effervescent optimism. However, after a quarter of a lap on the course during warm-ups, my enthusiasm was less buoyant. The rain had created a quagmire of heavy mud throughout the course. The sun dried it out just enough to turn it into adhesive clay with the consistency of the hot tar that bubbles out of cracks in the road on a summer day. To compound this, racers were asked to pilot their bikes through this kinetic siphon at a moderately steep incline for the first half of the course. In fact, the middle of the course sat high on a hill and the start/finish was at the bottom. In addition, most of the corners were just slick enough to make me doubt my speed and trajectory when navigating them. Ok, enough of the excuses, on with the race.
The starting stretch was very short, but with a second row call-up again, I was able to easily find a favorable position at the holeshot despite having trouble clipping into my pedal. I tried desperately to hang on to the fast guys, who welcomed Jeff Bahnson (the 15 year old king of the “killer B’s”) back to the field after his 10th place in the elites at Beacon. “Why was this guy sandbagging the B’s after a top 10 the day before?” you may ask. Well, seeing as this race was a UCI race, and they don’t allow 15 year olds into the senior UCI races, I’m pretty sure we can all forgive him. In any case, before the suffering blurred my vision too far, I was able to marvel at the ease with which he drifted away from all of us. Back at the front of the rest of us, it was a spectacular mashing of gears. It was a blur of motion and sound and grimaced faces. Meanwhile, up the hill floats Jeff, as if propelled by some magical Willy Wonka levitating soda.
I, on the other hand, quickly found that my 185-pound carcass could not provide the necessary power to overcome the combination of gravity and mud-stuck friction. A familiar face who recently introduced himself to me as Fat Mark or Fatmarc (?) informed me that I was the new “king of the holeshot.” Unfortunately, being king of the holeshot doesn’t prevent me from imploding after about 5 minutes hammering. This implosion took on a spectacular form on Sunday. The mud made every inch of the course like riding a stationary trainer with the mag unit maxed out. There was no place to hide and recover. Every lap I watched people pass me. Every lap I wished to hold onto a slightly more diminished ambition. Every lap brought me the cheers of friends with chants of slightly higher placing. “Go on Colin! You’re in 5th!”… “Go on Colin You’re in 7th!”… “Don’t Quit, that’s 11th right in front of you!”
If cross races were only 30 seconds long, the holeshot king would reign supreme.
Sadly, the Holeshot King must be forever tormented in a world of 45+ minute races.
The race ultimately boiled down to a grudge match between Chad and me again. This time, however, I didn’t have the sprint in me and he pulled away from me to take 11th. I ended up in 12th. Not bad, but one would hope that the soul crushing that I sustained would at least yield a modest payout of a prize bag of socks or energy gels or even a ribbon. Sadly, prizes were only 10 deep, and I couldn’t quite reach the top 10 on Sunday. Again, I can’t really complain. My race was not defined by some stroke of fortune. I had no mechanicals and no costly crashes. I rode hard and my finish was an honest reflection of my abilities on that course on that day. No excuses, the fast guys were just faster.
It does bring me back to my rambling prologue. I have never wanted a race to be over as badly as I did at Highland Park on Sunday. I filled my head with thoughts of sleeping cozily in the van while everybody else toiled in the mud. I pushed on, however, and thinking back to the race now, it conjures up only pleasurable feelings. Why does that happen? Well, if you really want to know, I did just take an exam on Monday. Among other things, this test required studying the circuitry of the Dopamine reward system of the human brain and the changes in key structures that lead to addictive behavior. Suffice it to say, the differences between compulsive endurance athletes and most normal, well-adjusted folk is more than spandex-deep.