It was an early start to the day on Nov 1st as we loaded up my bike and gear and headed to Iron Mountain in Arkadelphia to race at Dawg Days. The previous two weeks had been covered up in work and rain with no opportunity to get in training rides at all. The only positive thing I could say about my body was that it was rested up for a big ride. I felt pretty good about the race. I had ridden almost all the trail at Iron Mountain so I figured I was reasonably prepared for the race course. The only portion of trail that I hadn’t ridden was this one loop over by the Spillway. Iron Mountain is actually one of my favorite trail systems so I was a little stoked to be headed there to ride and race. My friend Tina Chwalinski was on her way as well to cheer for me and the guys on my AC&F team.
We arrived early so I could register and ride a little to warm up. I also wanted to figure out the start of the race so I could pre-ride the beginning and know where we would jump onto single track. I got registered and started asking about where the start line was, and where the single track began, and where the end of the course was located, and….WHOA! All of a sudden, I realized that we weren’t racing the course I had thought it would be at all! We would be racing the ONLY section of trail that I had never ridden. Ever. I had flash backs to a conversation that I’d had with my friend/trainer/mentor, Richard Machycek. He had cautioned me about not always having the opportunity to pre-ride a race course. He had told me that I have to learn to anticipate the trail, to always be looking ahead, and to quicken my reaction time, because as I’m maneuvering one obstacle, there’s another one cropping up 10 feet ahead. I remembered him telling me that I won’t always have the luxury of knowing the trail like the back of my hand. I totally understood that. I just didn’t think it would happen on my second race of the season. He had shared some hints about using warm up time to get familiar with the start and finish of a race. So, with mounting anxiety, I began warming up. I rode up the big hill at the start line and watched as some junior racers turned off the pavement into the dirt trail. I rolled down the hill to check out the finish line….and as I turned back into the staging area, I saw a familiar vehicle. I was relieved to see that my friend Tina had arrived. She had a surprise for me! Along with my doggy pal, Bruiser, she had brought our friend, Leigh Gibson, with her to support and cheer for me and the team! I was so glad to see them! Just seeing their smiling faces and sharing hugs and high fives melted away my anxiety. My husband, Tommy, does a great job of making sure I remember everything I need to race. He loads and unloads my bike and gear. He supports and encourages me, and I adore him for everything he does to make it easier for me. But, all his love and support, for whatever reason, doesn’t quell the butterflies in my tummy or slow my racing heart before a race. There’s just something special about having my girls there. Somehow, their presence grounds me in a way that nothing else does. These are women that have ridden hundreds of miles of single track with me. They believe in me. They are my posse…my tribe. And they will get up at 5am, on a Sunday morning that’s threatening rain, to drive an hour and a half, just to watch me race. That, is friendship. The kind of friendship that is forged over miles of dirt, and flat tires, hours of driving to MTB destinations, getting lost in the woods, picnics after rides, sitting on rocks at the side of a trail, skinned elbows and OTB’s, hundreds of trail side selfies, climbs that seemingly never end, and PR celebrations. It’s an unshakeable bond. They are proud of me before I’ve even ridden a mile of single track at the race. And somehow, their belief in me just chases away those butterflies. It’s a crazy phenomenon, but it’s true.
I hopped back on my bike to continue my warm up and shortly, they called for my race class to come to the staging area to line up. I made my way over to the group. The other ladies in my class are all very nice and we chatted and got to know each other a little better as we waited to be called up to the start line. As we were called to line up, the race director remarked that we were already having a good time, and that’s the way it should be. As he went over the rules, I caught a glimpse of a clown suit and knew my friend, Richard, had arrived in time to see the start of my race. Apparently, either the Halloween celebration was running long or he’s just that big of a kid at heart, but Richard was not ready to retire the scary clown costume just yet. At the start signal, we all took off and headed uphill toward the trail entrance. Just a few moments later, we were all being chased up a mountain by a crazy clown on a fat bike. I think I got the message. I definitely take myself too seriously.
As we turned off pavement onto dirt, I started thinking about all the things he’s taught me, like…”don’t think of it as a race, it’s just a really fast ride with no stops.” And, “it already hurts, so what’s 10 more hard pedal strokes, you can rest later”. Another gem, “YOUR BRAKES ARE ON FIRE!! STOP TOUCHING YOUR BRAKES!” But the real stuff, that we’ve worked on for weeks, starts flowing back into my mind. Steer, stay loose, get behind the seat, really plant that outside foot so I can carve up a curvy section or cut through downhill switchbacks. All these things float in and out of my mind. And just like that,several miles into the race, I settle into the ride. Sometimes, when I ride, it’s like the bike is an extension of my own body. I can free my mind of all the clutter, and instinctually make the right moves on the trail. That’s when mountain biking is truly awesome. When it seems like I just can’t make a mistake, and I’m riding strong…when I’m so focused on the trail and the bike that everything else just fades away. It doesn’t mean that there’s not some suffering on the climbs. It just makes the suffering worth it. My heart may still be pounding and my breathing labored, but my mind has been stilled. There is simply nothing else like it in the world.
I enjoyed that sense of freedom for the last half of the race. As I neared the finish line, in my peripheral vision, I saw my husband and girlfriends, and the crazy, scary clown, cheering me on. I had pushed so hard at the end that I was trembling and never even noticed the scary clown chasing me across the finish line into second place.
We headed back over to the staging area to rehash the race, get me out of my riding gear, and watch the podium announcements. I remember thinking that I just might be the luckiest gal out there that day. I had four of my favorite people rooting for me at the start and finish. I got to ride the last piece of trail there that I had never ridden. And I earned a second place finish doing what I love.
I think the biggest lessons for me at the 2015 Dawg Days MTB Festival were these:
- Expect the unexpected.
- Be grateful for unconditional support.
- It’s a rare thing.
- Have fun and enjoy the ride.
- And never take yourself so seriously that you can’t wear a clown suit.
See you at the races!