Race Report: Valentine Challenge

My head finally hit the pillow around 1am last night, but the sound of driving sleet and howling wind kept me awake far deeper into the night. I tried telling myself that the wintery mix of precipitation would end by the time the race started; that the course wouldn't be one giant wading pool of muddy water; and that it would even warm up a bit by early afternoon. The problem with lying to yourself though is that, well, you already know the truth. The weather was going to be absolutely miserable. The race would be one of attrition. There would be a multitude of DNF's. I finally got myself settled with the fact that I can't control the weather, so I might as well just sleep and be rested for whatever morning brings.

Kristin and I left the house at 10am for the nearly two-hour drive to Tahuya State Forest, the site of the first race in the Indie Series, the Valentine Challenge. This would be my first stand-alone mountain bike race in about seven years and I had the best combat for the butterflies one normally gets on race morning -- I didn't care how I finished. I just wanted to get a good fast workout in, hopefully not suffer any mechanical or bodily injuries, and get back to the truck before I turned hypothermic.

Following another racer into Tahuya State Forest.
February isn't exactly the best time of year to race in Washington.

We arrived a good bit before my 1:30 start time so we hung out in the truck, got some reading done, and basically tried to stay dry. The rain was drenching and the temperature was hovering around 36-degrees Fahrenheit. What to wear? I settled on 3/4 length bib shorts, my winter cycling boots, a long-sleeve heavy jersey and my trusty orange Marmot rainjacket. But despite all of the clothing, I felt naked without my Camelbak. I had a water bottle on the bike and figured that I would simply shoulder the bike and run the remainder of the course if I had a flat or other mechanical problem. Between the weather and the short 10.4 mile distance of the race, there was no way I would be out there operating on the bike in the freezing muck.

Strapping the helmet on, it's almost go-time!

A quick warm-up cruise before the race starts.

There were about 30 racers in my category (Sport , age 30-39) and since I had heard how fast a lot of these guys were, I took a spot about three rows into the field -- I didn't want to get caught up going out too fast or be one of the guys slowing down the group. Turns out that was my one big mistake of the day. I seemed to have underestimated my own level of fitness while simultaneously giving everyone else too much credit. I went out slow, but quickly found that there were a lot of slow riders in front of me. I was shocked by the abilities of the guys who lined up in the front of the pack, some belonged there for sure, but many did not. I was stuck in a muddy, wet, cold, train of people with little room to pass.

Fortunately I took the attitude that this was just a big friendly group ride, but one that I was free to yell "On your left!" and barrel past whenever I wanted to. So that's what I did. The conditions made the course a lot more technical than it probably has any right being, but I kept the rubber-side down and passed at will. Unfortunately, roughly halfway through the first of the two laps, my chain was sticking to the chainring and locking up my cranks. I would pedal for two strokes, the chain would snag, and I'd have to backpedal to free it. This went on for a minute or two then I finally got off the bike and knocked the glob of sandy slush from my drivetrain -- problem solved! Too bad a few of the folks I worked so hard to pass, passed me by while I was on the side of the trail tending to my bike.

As we neared the fourth mile of the 5.2 mile lap, the conditions went from very wet and slick to beyond anything I ever dared imagine I would ride through. There were no puddles on the trail: there were water-filled, hub-deep, wading pools that stretched forever. There was no mud: instead there was expansive sections of trail comrpised of a 6-inch layer of peanut butter. Chunky. One particularly memorable section of trail featured a dozen or so moto-cross style whoops. These rollercoaster-like features are terribly fun to ride when they're dry. Today each miniature crest was promptly followed by what amounts to a kiddie-pool of brown, muddy water. Water that was so muddy, it easily hid the occasional rock and/or root that was lurking beneath the surface. The only protection from the unknown was a loose grip on the handlebars and the ability to react quickly.

I told Kristin before the race to not be surprised if I step off the course after the first lap. I knew it would be extremely cold and wet and I have no desire to suffer for no reason. Like I said, this race meant little to me. A funny thing happend as we neared the end of the first lap though, I realized I felt good and was making up ground on a lot of folks. I didn't even consider ending the race and taking the DNF. Quite the opposite actually.

Finishing up the first lap.

As I headed out for a second lap, I noticed that Joe Martin of BBTC had snuck in front of me as we came through the start/finish line. Joe is one of the fastest riders I know and, being in the 40-49 age group, started 1:00 after me. I recognized his bike, said hi, and told him my goal was to hang onto his rear wheel as long as I could. Together we passed a few riders, but it wasn't long before my lower back started hurting pretty fiercely. I lost sight of Joe about halfway through the second lap, but I continued to pass other riders and am pleased to say that not one person passed me during the second lap.

Heading for the finish line on one of the
drier portions of the course.

I ended up placing 8th in my category (out of roughly 30 people) and negative split the race which I was proud of. Also, I finished feeling pretty good. Other than my back really hurting me and my feet being blocks of ice, I definitely felt good enough to do another lap. The next race in the series is April 1st and I can tell you right now I will not be taking a spot in the third row of the starting grid. I'm going to be right up front and going hard from the start. I imagine there might be a bunch more people there if the weather is nice, but I'll be ready. I know I have to focus on increasing my core strength and, especially my lower-back muscles. But I also know I have to get more aggressive early in the race. I have the stamina to hold on and continue pushing during the second lap when others are tiring. I just need to avoid getting caught in traffic earlier in the race. It was seven years, but I'm back. And it's good to be back.

Two Laps: 5.2 miles each
Total Distance: 10.4 miles with 800 feet of total elevation gain
Lap #1 - 40 minutes
Lap #2 - 37 minutes

Times are approximate as my it was too cold for my wireless cyclocomputer to work and I forgot to look at my altimeter watch at the end of Lap 1.

Special Thanks to Kristin for braving the weather and taking the photos shown in this post. She's the best crew leader a guy can have!

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