Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Race Report: 2015 Fatty Fest, Eureka Springs, AK

At the starting line, minutes before the start of the X-country race at the Eureka Springs Fat Tire Festival, one of the women next to me leans over and asks, "Are you ready for this uphill?' I smiled, the corners of my eyes crinkling as I adjusted the straps on my camel back, and exhaled, "yes."

The race starts on the streets of Eureka Springs, at the base of a climb, and follows a dizzyingly twisty, part road, part gravel, part single-track route out of town. I had scoped it out on a pre-ride through town the day before. The hill she was referring to is called "The First Fatty Climb". A 0.2 mile, punch-in-the-face hill that averages 10% grade (I glanced at the Garmin on one pitch and it was registering 18%). It comes just 0.4 miles off the starting line and is followed a 100 yards later by a leg-busting 0.1 mile, 14% grade hill. Sheesh. Some cars would have trouble with that.

The Cat1 women started on the heels of the Cat1 40+ men, just minutes after the Cat1 39 and under men left the line. The Fatty Climb caused instant attrition, and before I hit the first sections of single-track, I was amongst a good pace group of silver foxes. Just as we were leaving town, something started rattling on my shifter, requiring immediate attention. I stopped for a few seconds, discovering that the dust cover had come loose... a cosmetic concern, but one that would rattle on every bump for the rest of the race.

I remounted and sped off after the group, just missing the sight of them as they entered the single track that marked the start of the Lake Leatherwood section. I was strangely alone, only occasionally catching glimpses of a rider ahead.

 Descending a long single-track section to a T-junction, I thought I caught sight of a left-turn arrow on a tree and a rider ahead making a left turn. Blood-pounding in my ears, as I tried to recall the map, thinking the first turn should be a right. I turned left, a nagging thought that this might be the wrong way. But just past the turn, I started seeing other arrows pointing in the direction I was going, descending, and I barreled ahead.

I rode a long flowing switchback section, came around a tight turn, a confronted the flash bulb of a race photographer. He cheerily called out, "You're doing great; you're the first one!" Breaks squealed, and I came to stop. I questioned him, "no other riders have come by?" "No."

Uh-oh. No. No. No. I whipped out my phone and consulted the race map (accidentally took a screen shot). Right turn. Judging from the map, it looked like I could cut-off the switchback section with a little bike-whacking and back-tracking up a section of trail that had been used for the downhill course. I took off, climbing, and turned onto what I thought was the downhill course that would take me up to the turn I missed.

A quarter mile down that trail, I realized I was salmoning a later part of the course as first one Cat1 man, and then several others, came toward me and I had to bail off the trail. I had turned on the wrong trail, again. I turned the bike back around, back-tracking to the "right" trail that would surely take me to the intersection of the missed turn.

23:18 after making a wrong turn, I was back on course. It was gorgeous single-track. But now, I found myself among the Cat3 women and men, on technical terrain. Each rider graciously allowed me to pass as I called out on the approach, and they were spread out enough that I could gain ground quickly.

The trail descended from the dry, hot heights into a damp creek bed, steamy and slippery. I was motoring along when a root, five feet long, 2-inches across, and perpendicular to my path... moved. Too late to change course, I shrieked, rolled over the neck of the snake, and didn't look back.

Not long after that, I rounded a switchback to see the photographer again. I gave him a sheepish grin, and he called out that I was still "looking good." That's all I needed to know, as I emerged from the trees to ride through the cheering spectators along the eventual finish line, ready to start the first of two grueling laps. I checked the time, a little over an hour into the race. I at least had plenty of fluids on board.

The course swiftly started to climb out of the valley. Alternating double track and single track, it was very rocky, the sharp, jagged edges of crinoidal Ozark limestone plotted to murder my tires. I had no idea where I was in the race. I had passed one Cat1 woman before the finish; she mentioned getting lost in town as I passed - see, I'm not the only one - but I had to yet to catch any of the others. And then the first place Cat1 male came around.

I couldn't let him go so easily. I was disappointed that he had made the catch, and I tried to match his pace on the climb. Pumping hard, this might be the point at which my heart rate hit 191 bp - technically above my max. I was forced to back off a little, but my effort was rewarded by a long flowy downhill section, punctuated by trees and the occasional bench rock to leap over.

It couldn't last. From the course map, I knew that eight very steep switchbacks and a straight, steep ascent lay ahead. I rounded the first switchback and was popped by two riders pushing their bikes over a particularly technical uphill rooty bit. Christine, Cat1 40+ and a local St. Louis rider who I was sharing a house with for the weekend, saw me and immediately started pouring on the encouragement. I was finally starting to catch my field!

With renewed energy, I dug deep to get through the climbs. What came next was a long, fast technical descent. Second and third in the Cat1 men were gaining on me through this section, and I thought I could outlast them to the bottom, but they were loudly calling for me to pull over. We were going to fast. There was no where to stop, and fully braking would have sent me over the handle bars. I gently hung the rear wheel over the side of a gravel bar on the trail and laid down the bike as they sped past. Almost before I landed on the ground, I was popping back up, ready to finish the descent.

The rest of the lap went by in a bounce and a blur. A particularly technical downhill, rutted out by rainfall, had me momentarily wishing I was riding full-suspension (a Giant Anthem Advanced 27.5', to be exact). As I clung to the handlebars, I could feel a blister on my right hand rip off. In the immortal words of Jens Voigt, "Ooooh this is going to hurt".

40:10 for lap 1. A blazing time, and almost four minutes faster than I thought I would go. I was still chasing the head of the Cat1 women's field. The Cat1 men were finishing up their second lap, so there would be noone to challenge me on the uphill. It was getting hotter still, and the water in my pack had ceased being refreshing.

But the trail was undeniably awesome, and I was ready to test some speed and some skills now that I had seen the first lap... maybe "ready" is the wrong word for it, but I did it anyway. I felt like I was still chasing the leaders, though I couldn't see anyone ahead of me, had no idea how much lead they had, and I had long since decided (some where near the point that I realized how far off the course I had gone) that I was "racing" the clock.

My rear wheel hit a bench section on an angle and slid off the trail to the right. I fell hard to the left, landing with my hands under me. It was a "soft" landing on chunky rocks. I flicked my wrists, righting myself. I would have some pretty blue and purple spots on my palms, but nothing else. I thought to myself, "Cool it, Gilbert," no need to crash myself out of the race at this point.

It was as I was riding along, talking myself back on to the ledge, that I spotted the Cat1 (19-29) women's leader, just two miles from the finish line, up ahead. I was incredulous. We chatted for a second, and then I took the lead all the way to the finish line. Maybe I'm ok at this mountain biking thing.

Next race up: WORS Cup, Wisconsin.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Third Lap - Lost Valley Luau 2015 Race Report

All was smooth riding until the third lap. The mud didn't do much to slow down the single-track besides make some of the technical, flat rock sections unrideable (sometimes running is faster than picking lines anyway). I had only had one inconsequential bobble on a tight corner, and a strong move on the long double-track hill had deposited me in 1st place (out of two!) among Cat 1 Woman just after lap one.

Aside: Major props to Laura Scherf. I followed her down a technical downhill on the first lap, and my one thought was, "Oh, that is how to do that." We came through the first lap 1-2, and she had me looking back along switchbacks for the rest of the race.

At the start of the third lap, I made a little bet. I bet myself that I could ride three of the more or less technical sections that in drier conditions would be in my wheel house. I had scoped two of them out on lap two, seeing which line I needed to take for success. And without anyone on my tail, I could take my time setting them up.

I approached the first of the three with confidence. But, halfway through, I noticed that a rock had moved, possibly from a previous rider. My line was now a lot trickier. And with no time to bail or swerve, I hit the slick rock at a crooked angle with my rear tire, sending it careening to the side. For a split second, I thought I had saved it, but then my front wheel lost traction and I went Supermanning into a rock pile. I laid there, left foot still clipped, right arm pinned beneath me and contemplated a nap. But, pain is temporary, and I could feel Laura coming around a corner any minute. With nothing broken on me or my bike, I executed a wobbly cyclocross flying mount and bounce my way down the trail.

I was just beginning to pick up some speed and refocus into race mode when around a corner, I came handlebar to bramble with a collection of vines that had previously occupied the side of the trail. I felt like this particular bramble had creeped about halfway across the trail on the second lap, but now it lay square. And I was stopped short, and over the handlebars before I registered what I had hit. It was a relatively soft-landing, but my bike looked like it had been snarled in Medusa's hair. It took some work to extract, but miraculously the chain was still on, the derailleur was still attached, and there were no broken spokes or a wobbly wheel. Lucky.

No flying mount this time. I tentatively remounted and soft-pedaled through the next section. It was not that technical, but I seemed to be pinballing off the sides of the trail, even grabbing a few trees to steady myself. And going a little slower meant that I hit and bounced on what felt like every rock and root (and there are quite a few on this trail).

It was at this moment that I gave myself a little pep talk that was a combo of HTFU and Jan Ulrick ("Shut-up Legs!") with a little bit of Isaiah Newkirk mixed-in for good measure. The second of the three technical sections was coming fast, and I still had that bet... I was 0-1, and losing to myself is not something that sits lightly.

Second section, this was the one with the scoped out line. I had to trick myself into riding tight to the downslope and willing the front tire over a short, slippery root, one arm in the trailside brush, then cut to the high line over a slippery, flat rock. I had walked this on the last lap because the straight line had a series of jutting rocks that slowed your speed just enough to prevent you from taking the high line (I kept slipping down). And just like that, I nailed it, 1-1.

The last section was for the win. I knew I didn't need to try and ride it, but some time in the future, I might need some more skills (probably soon...), and I was already bleeding a scratched up a bit. That was one way to look at it. As luck would have it, two hikers were coming up the trail at the exact moment that I was gaining speed and setting myself up. I prayed that they would move to the correct side of the trail, off the line I wanted. One hiker slipped a little stepping off the trail; I felt bad for a moment, but then both smiled at me, and I felt like a pro mountain biker as I picked my way through the section with only a slight bobble. 2-1. I turned out to be a safe bet.

With mud in my ears, my hair, the corners of my eyes, and no doubt caked in my wounds and on my backside, I triumphantly crossed the line, misgivings about three laps, and chagrin at expecting the race to be canceled, forgotten.

Thanks, Matt James for the "soft" T-shirt, Doug for the perfect tire pressure, Michelob Ultra/Big Shark for the off-season support, Laura Scherff for the competition, Liv and Giant for the choice bicycle design.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Sunny Gilbert's on-the-podium-finishing Giant TCX bike, both of them.

I've been wanting to do this review of my trusty two-wheeled Giant TCX Advanced cyclocross conveyances all-season! Handling like they were on rails around tight turns, and boasting a lower-center of gravity than any other CX bike I have ridden, I couldn't help but be fast on these bike. And now that I have time on my hands (not really), I thought I would do them some justice.

The tread on my Clemente PDX tires still boast the muddy remnants of the National Championships course. You can also see some of the mud that was ground into the Fizik handlebar tape as I fought for control on the muddy slip 'n slide descents. Gives it a little character, don't you think? Pictured here is the "A" bike, but seriously, the "B" bike is almost identical!

2014-2015 was the first year that I have ever had two matching race bikes (actually, it was also the first year I had two race bikes, period). You can see we decided to go with cantilever brakes, a financial as well as riding style decision. My long, point fingers, which would make the Wicked Witch of the West jealous (I'll get you, my pretty!), translate to a fairly strong and fast reaction grip on the brake, and I haven't quite yet learned how to feather disc brakes.

Want to know the only way I could tell which bike I was on during the race? The "A" bike has an orange AmyD sticker and the "B" bike has a blue one!

Another similarity between the set-up I ran in my break out year last year and this year - the one-by. In 2013-2014, Doug and realized that I just don't get up into that big chain ring much after the opening sprint. And by going to a single chain ring in the front, I could eliminate weight as well as complication. SRAM CX1 was still in development at the time, so my brilliant mechanic boyfriend  "Macgyvered a single cyclocross system" with an XO 10-speed 11x34 rear cassette... enough gears to drop it like it's hot off the starting line and grind it like a peppermill up the backside of Mt. Krumpet at Jingle Cross.

That's also a good-looking boxwood lining the side of my driveway.
Add in some SRAM Red and a Fizik saddle, and there you have it. The two most beautiful bikes any 6'0", high-center of gravity CX racer could want.

Did I mention they are for sale? Austin mud from my 10th place finish in the Women's Elite race at Nationals included, or I could wash it off for you...your choice.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A day late, but not short. Race Report: USAC Women's Elite Cyclocross National Championships

Something a little different, reporting the thank yous and vital statistics before the shenanigans. First, BFF Doug and Pedal Hard Coach and friend Isaiah, you know ;).  Mike Weiss (for saying it bluntly) and Big Shark Bicycle for unwavering support, teammates on Michelob Ultra/ Big Shark who probably get tired of hearing about me winning (I didn't today, ha!) Kent for the homestay in Austin; hope I get the chance to reciprocate. Everyone who tagged me on FB, watched the race on BTBtv, texted and called after the race. Y'all make a girl feel loved! For the record, I finished 10th, after not being sure that I would be able to logistically when it was postponed by a day.

Second row, far right, just behind Rachel Lloyd, cattycorner to KFC and grinning like an idiot. That was my mindset just prior to the start of the day-late Women's Elite race at the USAC Cyclocross National Championships.

With two minutes to go, I handed my jacket and pants to Isaiah, checked for the 9th time that my left pedal was upright and my chain was in the right gear. Then I starred beyond the butt in front of me and listened for the whistle.

I had the cleanest clip-in and fastest jump of the season off the start line. Almost immediately, the lane was clear in front of me as the nose of the field swung left. I geared up out of the saddle like I had practiced in the fields of Castlewood Park, as a respectable number of die-hard fans beat the boards along the straightway.

And then about 30 meters before the start of the uphill, I ran out of actual gears (!), the risk of running a 1x.

Aside: Doug and I switched my bikes to a single chain ring in front mid-way through the 2013-14 season. Issues with chain drop and the realization that I rarely get in my big ring led us down this path, and it suited my riding style. We had already begun discussing changes to this set-up before today, but decided not to "change horses in the middle of the race"... Ironically, the whole point of the pit in CX, to change "horses".

Back to the race: I was eclipsed by the field quickly, and nearly elbowed into the barriers. Now back in the pack, I rode through chunky mud blind except for the sounds of gear changes to signify upcoming hazards. I rode this way through the early switchbacks and gracelessly passed the first pit (as planned). There wasn't much room to pass, and not a lot of stopping power in the mucky turns. I nearly took myself out crossing wheels with riders in front of me. Isaiah would later say that I looked nervous in that first pit pass.

The first of many unrideable off-camber sections lay ahead. The dismount was tricky. Dismount on the unpracticed right and use the fencing to leverage, or dismount on the left and risk sliding side-ways into the downside fencing? Didn't matter. Forced to dismount earlier than planned because of the traffic in front of me. As I reached to grab the bike (it had to be carried or risk clogging the brakes and fork with mud), I was jostled from behind. The bike slipped from my gloved hand, and something unseen hit me right in the nose. I recovered my bike just as I started to see stars, but managed to run straight ahead despite my pain-blurred vision (my nose still hurts a day later).

Somehow, I made it to the base of the first limestone stairs. Advantage Sunny-long legs. I bounded up them, past two other women and close on the heels of a third. The course made a 180 after an off-camber remount section, and proceeded down a treacherously straight and steep descent. At the bottom, we were greeted by a second unrideable off-camber bit on the lower portion of the course (all of these were beautifully rideable in practice on Friday!) During my one-lap pre-ride (we were given only 20'), I slowed myself on the descent by jamming the knuckles of my right hand into the fence (on accident, of course). Wouldn't you know it? I did the exact damn thing in the race...I should have practiced it a second time. I resolved to take the line on the left side of the descent for the rest of the race.

Nothing broken (it is a lovely shade of purple right now).  I practiced a fist and then grabbed the fence post through the frame of my bike after I smoothly dismounted and shouldered it. This time I dug my spiked shoes into the mud and sprinted past a Luna rider whose handlebars had sadly become tangled in the fencing. Two or three riders alongside me attempted to remount their bikes through the next section, but I kept mine shouldered and high-stepped past them and around the next corner.
After a quick descent in which I remounted but remained unclipped, I hopped off the bike once more for the run up to the second and trickier set of limestone steps. I tripped on one and nearly face-planted. I recovered this time with a little more grace, but was thinking" "Jeez, I need to settle down".

We had a series of boggy, but not unrideable, long, swooping turns ahead before arriving at the pit a second time. I used my practiced lines and loose caboose to pass two more ladies. I took in big gulps of air and used a power-pedal stroke to ride over the choppy mud into the pit. Isaiah and Doug were waiting two-thirds of the way down, and I simply said "clean, please".

Past the pit, the mud was so think that we had debated the merits of running the whole thing in order to have a clean bike for the twisty concrete section to follow. I had decided to make it a clutch decision, hoping that by the time our race hit the course, the juniors would have packed down a line. They did not disappoint. I rode that stretch and hit the pavement a tad wobbly on the slickened surface, but with lots of clearance between the brakes and the wheel.

Lots left to do on the first lap, and lots of work to do yet in the race. We were onto the approach of what would have been the most fun part of the course in dry conditions, but arborists and rain, in addition to causing an unprecedented and unforeseen 24-hour delay of the race, had fundamentally changed the course. Now, a banked turn along a short wall-like hill ended with a hasty dismount, a side-step leap down, two-step run-up, right-turn remount, and an unclipped downhill before another four-step run-up that would have needed a ladder if it were any steeper. Spectators lined the top of the wall.  A number of them heckled me when my foot slipped in my attempt to remount at the end, and I "Supermanned" my saddle (ouch).

I was still amongst a tight group of women, and we careened down another steep, hold-your-breath-and-hope-your-cantilever-brakes-grab-your-mud-choked-rims-at-the-bottom kind of hill. Mine did, and I swung a leg over at the bottom.  Shouldering my bike over two legit (and somewhat aggressively high) barriers before another long run-up, I gave it my all I was worth to catch the woman in front of me so that I would have someone to draft off of on the long start-finish straightaway. The wind was picking up, and I was slightly concerned still about being under geared on this stretch.

I needn't have worried. Our group was already showing signs of fatigue just one lap in. I made the pass at the bottom of the hill and caught the wheel of the lead rider in our loose four-woman group. I spied the orange and blue AmyD kit of Ericka ahead and worked to bridge the gap before the next time we passed the pit.

I didn't quite make it, but I was able to grab her wheel in the subsequent turn, and it wasn't long before I took a chance to pass. Though they should have had the same pressure, I felt the rear tire on this bike might be squishier than my other bike.  And I could feel my tires grabbing the turns on this bike better. I briefly though about asking Doug to let a little air out of the tires of my A bike once I got to the pit. I decided against it because of the hidden bedrock and sharp curbs we were bouncing over on the course.

Can you tell I had settled down? I focused on taking the turns faster, hitting the run-ups more aggressively, having a little more fun out there. I felt a smile creep onto my face. I asked Isaiah and Doug to "Please, clean" my bike once again, and they excitedly handed up my bike for the second time.

When I came through the start-finish, I realized two things. One, that the race was half-over with two laps to go. And, two, that I was in 12th place, with 10th place in sight (I'm far-sighted)! I can't describe the feeling that came over me except to say that my legs felt somewhat renewed, my shoulders relaxed, and my bike impossibly surged forward.

I don't remember much of that third lap except that I passed by Elle Andersn into 11th place (I've really enjoyed her rider diary and feel somewhat inspired to go race in Europe over Christmas next year), and pulled in plain sight of the recognizable kit and powerful pedal stroke of Courtenay McFadden.

I now had two somewhat contradictory goals, ride as fast as possible on this silly, sloppy course, and stay upright. I bent my elbows just a bit more, scooted my butt a little farther back on the saddle, and let her go. The course was becoming just barely, perceptibly tackier, and I was able to get a tiny bit more aggressive on the corners and power-stroke the straights.

I'm not quite sure when I moved into 10th, but I do know I never let up on that last lap. I was heckled for my helmet color choice (neon orange), commended for my stair-stepping, and redeemed in the eyes of the spectators on the wall, cleanly remounting with the moves of Superwoman this time.
I took that final hill no brakes until the bottom (very tacky mud here), a gamble as I maneuvered into a track-standesque side-slide, coming within a foot or two of the fencing at the bottom. I ran over the last two barriers like I was being chased (I was). One last run-up, one last remount, one last tricky corner, and I was on smooth payment, grinning from ear-to-ear.

Cyclocross-us Interuptus

Sunday. Race Day. The email communication from USA cycling indicating that parking for Sunday's championship race was going to be a challenge was our first indication of the storm brewing.

Three days of rain and cold had made the polo grounds unsuitable, and we were encouraged to find parking farther "afield". Perhaps this was the last straw for the locals. Soon the twitter sphere was alight with onsite accounts of police blocking access to the course, announcements from the Austin Parks and Rec stating the cancellation of the last day's races, and finally a statement from USAC that they were doing everything in their power to try and reach a compromise with locals and local officials to simply postpone the races until the next day.

I hopped on the trainer next to Isaiah. Doug started packing. I started pedaling faster.

The Austin Heritage Tree Foundation had launched an attack that they appeared to have been planning for some time. They were upset that "the cycle cross race participants like to ride their bikes in mud, that is part of the thrills" (nice misuse of punctuation there; by the way). The best account of the social media onslaught from both sides of the fence was retweeted by a friend and linked to here.

Basically, the masterminds behind the Nationals course worked their magic, relocating a few sections of the course away from the base of the trees, grounds keepers brought in mulch for the worst puddles, and, unbelievably, a few of the off-camber sections got more technical! The Parks department and USAC announced that the races would be postponed with a condensed schedule. My race was slated for 3:20 PM Monday afternoon... with 14 hours of driving, this seemed too late to allow us adequate time to get Isaiah and Doug back on time for work on Tuesday. I couldn't ask them. If we drove all night, we would be toasted. We would be toasted. We would be staying! This is the National Championships. 

I owe them home-made granola, and possibly vegetarian rice cake portables made with fakin' bacon.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Wrap me in bubble wrap and pillows

During a leisurely turn of the course at this year's cyclocross nationals in Austin, TX, I casually threw an elbow into one of the many unprotected metal barrier corners lining the course. I tripped up the stairs carrying hot coffee, scalding my hand and twisting my ankle in the process (but I did not spill a single drop on my host's stairs!). And I am successfully avoiding falling asleep until well after midnight.

All this in the final few days leading up to one of the biggest races of my athletic career. Shockingly, this is par for the course. I have competed in countless national championship events (three different sports), won four of them, and before almost every one have managed a bit of adversity getting to the starting line.

Aside: The best one was when I decided I needed a little tan, four days before the event, to reduce my obvious shorts and sports bra lines. Having never used a tanning bed before or since, I had to practice in the days leading up to the event without wearing a sports bar, so badly sunburned was my chest. Training tan lines and winter pale limbs are beautiful!

Back to this years Cyclocross Nationals. I am now sitting and drinking my coffee. The scald has faded. My ankle is happily twitching with pre-race restless leg syndrome. And the barrier only left a small bruise and a barely perceptible dull ache in my arm. The perfect amount of adversity to remind me that this is fun, and tomorrow's race is going to be a mud-tastic adventure for the ages.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Race Report: Jingle Cross Sunday

I spun the pedals on Travis's bike, ensconced - wedged, really - into the narrow doorway between the sleeping area and hangout area of his RV, shoulder-to-laminate with the bathroom door on one side and the refrigerator door on the other. I was doing my best to warm-up, mentally sending blood to my chilled toes and fingers in preparation for my last planned Women's Elite UCI race before Nationals in January.

Outside the RV, the 1-3 inches of snow on the course was turning to brown ice under the tires of hundreds of cyclocross racers, as the temperature steadily dropped. By the time I finished warming up, emerging fully ready to race in whatever conditions, it would be 23 °F and overcast.

I rubbed embrocation into my feet and leg fronts. I taped duct tape over the breathable mesh of my shoes. I was wearing thick wool socks and fleece-lined leg warmers with industrial-strength silicone grips to hold them in place. Under the taught zipper of my speed suit, I had one thermal wicking layer beneath a lightweight but water and wind-proof jacket. Around my neck and under my helmet, I had on a wool neck gaiter and wool stocking cap. Two pairs of gloves (one a glove-liner, the other a wind-barrier glove). Vaseline was smothered on my face to prevent windburn.

I approached the starting line, ready to take on anything this shape-shifting course had to offer. I had pre-ridden the lap only once after watching Doug negotiate it during the single speed race, and noted with pleasure that I was going to get to ride through the Grinch's Lair - a sand-filled barn with a rather tight concrete doorway for an exit (in previous year's the UCI race had been detoured away from this feature).

I was on the second-row, center with a perfect position behind one of the fastest starters on the UCI circuit and an already two-time podium finisher this week-end, Courtenay McFadden. With my position, I managed to unobtrusively photobomb a couple of the first-row pro's hamming-it-up pictures with the Grinch. When the whistle blew, I jumped off the line with everyone else, but my left-foot slid past my pedal, scraping my ankle in the process, and I was immediately plunged into the middle of the pack.

Before the first turn past the starting line, I managed to edge my way back into the top half. But with too many ladies in front of me to count, a series of logs to jump, and a right-turn remount in a crowd to negotiate, I lost track of my position in the race.

I did a decent job of dismounting and running up the fly-over - two-steps at a time(!) - alongside Laurel Rathbun. whose long-legs matched my stride. We approached a tricky turn where just a few races before ours, I had watched eight separate people in a field of about forty slide out and do damage to their equipment. I took the turn on the righthand tape and swung across the mid-line of the race track onto the rougher terrain on the opposite left side of the line. It worked spectacularly and I had enough momentum to propel me past two other riders on the approach to the first big climb up the backside of Mt. Krumpit.

The mud had not yet frozen on the slope that so many had been forced to run in previous races. My tire treads searched for purchase as I weighted every low PSI nubbin into the earth (I was running something around 16-17 PSI in my PDX), churning up the hill on the wheel of Ericka Zaveta. After a couple of switchbacks at the top, I put on a tiny surge to slip pass Amanda Naumann before the descent to Hopson's Holly-Jolly Hell-Hole.

I emerged from the Hell-hole unscathed, on the wheel of Laurel Rathbun. Her tires kicked up frozen mud-pellets that pummeled me like marbles. A group of four or five riders had come together as a group, trading positions through the switchbacks, pit, barriers, and Christmas Barn with it's unnervingly scene-clashing soft rock Christmas music. Later in the race, I would hear White Christmas and feel my heart rate and wheels unconsciously slowing to the music.

I slipped into fourth position in the pack with a bobble out the Grinch's Lair. It worked to my favor, however, when I was able to race up a difficult kicker hill on to a slippery off-cambor section taking the high-line, as two other riders ahead of me in the group were forced to put a foot down to get up the last lip of the hill. I threw out my left leg for balanced and tried to ease the bike onto the more stable-low line, but Laurel added a nice surge to pass and bump me back up the hill and onto a less stable line on the approach to a steep downhill. I entered a series of S-turns, the last tricky corners before the finishing straight on the first lap, third in the group, but with the leaders in sight just about ten seconds ahead of us.

My bike was beginning to get weighted down with ice-mud, but I didn't want to pit and risk loosing position. I could feel the weight as I carried it over the fly-over. At the base of the hill, we all battled for a good line to accelerate onto the slippery mud. I moved to the far right along the tape for the ascent and could have reached out and hugged a group of fellow Missouri cyclocrossers cheering me on. Heartened, I laid into that hill like it was the last lap and surged ahead of the other riders. Laurel and I called out mutual encouragement as I passed her half-way up.

I knew I was in the top ten, but my frozen addled brain couldn't think much beyond the next few turns. Securely in position, I raced into the pit to hand off my weighted-down bike to Doug and Travis's capable hands (photo credit: cycling news.com). Doug yelled out that I was in fifth as I fixed him with a shocked expression!  Third and fourth were in sight!

I got a little excited then, too excited for the slippery hard-right turn into the barriers, and I sheepishly heard the announcer call out my name as I bumbled my way over them. Doug and I had talked before the race about finding my inner-Cross-Crusade-Oregon-mud-zen-mental-skills capable of floating the back wheel effortlessly around every corner. I found it in the sultry strains of Bing Crosby in the Christmas Barn. And by the end of lap two, I was beginning to bridge the gap to Meredith Miller and Maghalie Rochette.

The hard work was just beginning. The course was changing, getting faster, as the mud on the top most later of the track began to freeze, and it was like riding in slow-churned chocolate ice cream. Sticky. I started to push the speed around the corners. Each one, I would put on just a little more gas, take a little more aggressive, go into a little faster, all in attempt to gain one second here and there in my pursuit of fourth place.

Midway through the third lap, I started to visibly gain ground on Maghalie. I took the logs and fly-over super-smooth, but when it came to remounting onto the bike, I realized my clips were starting to freeze up making it a bit of a challenge to get clipped in. I rode the next few corners with my right foot beating the shoe against the pedal every other stroke. Finally, at the base of the climb, I felt it grab, and I jammed out of the saddle, pumping my legs faster than I thought possible midway through the race. I caught Maghalie's wheel and we rode single-file down the tricky backside of the course.

Once over the bridge, I surged up a small hill, took a tight line around the corner and passed the Luna Chix rider in the rough of the following straightaway. It happened just before the pits, and I could hear Travis and Doug cheering me on as I swung by in pursuit of third.

For just a moment, I thought to myself, "Fourth is really good". But with two laps to go, my legs were not screaming at me, and my lungs - while icy - were not yet at their full capacity. And as I crossed the start finish line with two laps to go, I dug really deep and pulled within striking distance of Meredith.

My face was a mask. Frozen as it was, I probably couldn't have made a pain face anyway. I concentrated on riding each feature clean and ever faster, holding onto that Zen to scoot my rear wheel around corners and power onto the next straightaways. Riding up the hill, I was conscious of the fact that at some point I passed Meredith. I hugged the tape on the way up, and Ricky Bass, a fellow CXer from St. Louis, reached out a hand and gave me an encouraging tap on the back. It was electric! I emerged from the woods, sprinted past the pit, the Noosa rider hot in pursuit, and didn't dare look over at Doug and Travis.

I rode the rest of that second to last lap nearly perfectly, including the slippery off-cambor section that -in my mind - I have started calling Max's Run (after the pooch in the Grinch).

Aside - this particular section was so treacherous that for a few races in the morning, I think the race directors detoured racers around it.

Photo Credit - Todd Fawcett

I could not let up on the pace. I could see a hard-charging Carolin Mani behind Meredith making up time. But, I also didn't want to focus my attention behind me. I listened to the announcers for news from the front line. And then, astonished, and a little concerned, I heard them announce that Katarina Nash, an already two-time champion this weekend, was running her bike up the hill! I tried not to guess what that meant, but I knew the two riders were not that far in front of me.

Frozen cleats, that was her struggle, not damage to her bike, and she was able to jump back on and stay in contention to the end. With a half-lap to go, it became clear that I wasn't going to catch the two leaders, and I threw a sly smile at Doug as I passed him in the pit for the last time. Not believing it possible, I actually started to ride even faster (the lap results would show that my last lap was a good 13-seconds faster than any of my previous laps!) and the gap to fourth seemed to grow. I gave it all I had over the finish line, the goofiest grin literally frozen on my face.

I did not prepare for the possibility of a podium finish. My sixth place finish the day before was impressive all by itself. Doug sprinted on my Giant TCX bike back to the RV to fetch my Big Shark jacket and stocking cap, and I proudly ascended the podium next to Katarina, Courtenay, two very cold podium girls, and The Grinch.