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.