Five days of the Trans-Sylvania Epic down and two more stages to go. I’m sitting solidly in 5th place in a super strong women’s field. I’m sort of OK with that, sort of not.
I came here hoping to be mixing it up at the top of the field. I’m just a competitive person by nature. I can’t help it and I’m a pro athlete, so I’m supposed to try to win races. However, I knew from my near-death experience with asthma here last year that what I wanted to do and what I could do might not mesh. The stage 1 time-trial started out great. I was 4th, but not far off the best times. My legs felt good after 10 days of being sick and I was happy to be racing. That’s always a good sign.
Day 2 started with sort of flat legs and promised to be technical. It’s one of the stages I had to walk my bike and nearly crawl to the finish last year. I started conservatively out of respect for my asthma and to make sure I had the power to get through the technical riding. I was on my own much of the day, but had a blast and got through so many more technical sections upright than I did last year. I did suffer from the heat about half-way through and had to slow down to manage it. The temperatures were in the 90’s, so it was the smart thing to do so early in a week-long race. I was off the winning pace, but still breathing great, riding well and feeling super good about the experience.
Day 3 was a long stage with a significant amount of dirt road. I followed a bunch of other riders off course just a few minutes into the race and that error really took the wind out of my sails. I had a decent day in the saddle, but lost the train of fast riders and spent half the stage working through the field. It was sort of boring to race alone and not really have someone to chase. I estimate the wrong turn cost me at least 10 minutes, plus the time lost of not being able to draft and hang in a pack. Chock it up to experience and pay more attention.
Day 3 is my favorite stage at Raystown. It’s 40 miles of riding a pump track. The trails are smooth, fast and flowy. There were so many places if you could coast, pump the rollers and not touch the brakes, then you’d roll right up the next hill without a pedal stroke. I finally made the podium on this day and felt like I was racing again. In comparison to the day before, it was exhilarating to feel like I had a reason to push hard and race. It’s definitely more motivating to be in the hunt and in the mix than caught in no man’s land. There was no change in the general classification, but there was a big change in my mood by feeling like I was racing with a purpose.
Today, was the mini XC stage with four Super-D type events. Each timed segment was only 10-15 minutes, but in that short time, I lost more time than in the previous four-hour stages. Half way through the first segment, the Pennsylvania Pollen Monster reared it’s ugly head, reached down my throat and squeezed the air out of my lungs. I limped my way to the finish wheezing, coughing and pinballing down the rocky trail. Other racers were concerned and so was I. Mostly I was pissed because I’d been breathing fine all week here and thought I was in the clear.
This race is hard enough without having health issues, but here I was again slumped over my handle bars with three more days of racing to go. I had vowed to myself that if this happened again, I was going to have a good attitude about it and just use the race for training and be OK with that. Those sort of lofty goals are way easier swallow in the comfort of your own home. When you’re in the middle of a race and getting smacked around by the competition, the trail and the pollen, it’s harder to be a big person and not throw a temper tantrum and feel sorry for yourself. I had my own pity party for the second mini XC stage, which lasted maybe 15 minutes, then got it out of my system.
For #3 and #4, I just went to the back of the women’s field, started slowly, going nowhere near race pace or anaerobic threshold and just rode my bike for fun. Revert to Plan B. I wasn’t fast and I lost more time in the general classification, but I rode the sweet trails, had fun and just took in the experience at a different pace.
Tomorrow is another big, hard, gnarly stage that had me in tears last year. It’s also includes some of this area’s most adored single track. I have no hopes of making the podium at this point, so I’ll be riding slightly slower than race pace so I can breathe and working on my technical riding skills on the Tussey Mountain Trail. As a pro athlete, it’s always hard to swallow your pride and admit that you just don’t have what it takes this time around. But TSE, year 2, once again, I just don’t have what it takes to be competitive. Tons of racers have already dropped out due to illness, mechanicals, or just loss of morale. For me, I’m finishing this race and will push as hard as I am able for 2 more stages. I will squeeze all of the positive aspects I can out of this experience and give the Pennsylvania Pollen Monster the finger when I’m done.
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Last year I signed up for the Trans-Sylvania Epic as part of my spring volume-training block. Each year I search for races that fulfill multiple purposes. They must fit into my training schedule and the master plan for the season. Each race must also must intrigue me in some way and grab my attention. The primary lure of TSE 2010 was the promise of sweet eastern singletrack promising to school me in my never-ending quest to master technical riding. The format also seemed creative; the race directors are devoted riders and the novelty of staying in a scout camp as an adult seemed fun.
My boyfriend, Greg Martin, and I signed up and even invited our parents to pop in for some racing action. Stage racing has become a staple in my training and is an essential way for me to pack in miles with intensity that I would not otherwise do myself. Last May I did two stage races almost back to back. With only a week between I raced the Red Centre Enduro in Australia then, with a quick turnaround at home, headed to TSE. It ended up being 14 days of racing over a 20-day period. It nearly killed me physically and emotionally, but I believe it was the foundation needed for my Leadville 100 record breaking ride in August.
I had one of my worst race experiences ever in Pennsylvania last year. I loved the event, the trails, the friends I made, but I suffered like a dog and teetered dangerously on the edge of anaphylactic shock. While Greg was having the race of his life and riding to a dominant singlespeed win, I was struggling just to finish some of the stages. I still don’t know exactly why, but my asthma kicked in HARD in Pennsylvania. Some say it was a bad pollen year and extra humid.
Whatever it was, I’ve never experienced anything like it in my life. I had to walk my bike and sit on the side of the trail multiple times. Stage after stage, I cried a lot and struggled to breathe through a tiny, swollen airway. I was a shadow of my normal racing persona and was really just beating myself up. My inhaler was ineffective. Racecourse medics and other competitors were concerned and poised to pull me from the event. My stubborn attitude forced me to continue and I did finish the race 3rd in the women’s division, but it was a hollow performance. I came home with a bruised ego, some serious health issues to address and soul searching about the rest of my season.
As torturous as it was, that race was the catalyst that prompted me to get some medical attention and take a hard look at my health. With the help of the scientists at the Red Bull Performance Center, I went through a series of tests including complete blood work and food sensitivity testing. I discovered some big holes in my nutritional profile. I needed amino acids, magnesium and a host of other things that I was either not getting through my food or not absorbing. I made some simple changes and saw immediate results in my energy levels. Despite a really shaky start, my 2010 season turned out to be one of my best yet.
I still have asthma and have not been back to visit Pennsylvania since TSE. I’m a glutton for punishment and feel I have some unfinished business there. Like last year, TSE will still a building block in my training and not the ultimate goal for the season. I will once again be coming off one long stage race and heading straight into TSE, so I expect to be tired. My overall placing out there is not as important to me as being able to feel like I’m racing instead of simply surviving. Instead of suffocating in the thick, pollen-laden air, I want to feel that spark of intensity and the familiar burning in my lungs and legs that comes with a solid race effort.
I’m excited for the race, but cautious. This year, I will arrive in Pennsylvania armed with course knowledge, the experience to know not to push my lungs to the point of no return and a couple boxes of Claritin.
If the air just doesn’t suit me, and I have to pull back the intensity, then I am prepared to do so. Plan B will be to ride instead of race and just enjoy the sick single track and great vibe of one of the best stage races in the world.
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