I awoke at 4am on my own and looked at the alarm clock knowing I had another hour of sleep before the alarm would actually go off. I couldn't fall back asleep. This usually happens to me on race days, I wake early in eager anticipation of the day's race, the adrenaline already surging through me. However today its different. Today is a type of race I've never really done before, mountain biking. To make matters more interesting, I was doing it on a cross bike, my nerves were getting the best of me. After I get the usual morning routine out of the way, its over to pickup Naz.
We leave from his place at 6:30a and arrive at Palos Park around 7:10a. We were the first from Half Acre to arrive, so we drove around a little to find a prime parking spot. Shortly there-after, Dan, Tim, Helge, & Zach arrived. We proceeded to get our bikes together (I'm remembering Dan swearing about a lost skewer) and our kits in order. I bravely opted for the skin suit, knowing full well that I would be racing against people in shorts and a T-shirt, so I knew I had to have a good day......or else I wasn't going to live with myself.
Tim, Naz, Helge and myself head out for a pre-race ride. We're out no more than half a mile, and Naz gets a dose of his first "grooved track", as he tries to get out of it, the bike literally slides out from under him, and he finds himself in the wet grass. Luckily, this was the only crashing he would do. At this point, the course was still grassy with a worn down trail in the middle. I knew that if I stayed in the trail that it would be hard to get out of and pass, this would come to play later. The next section of the course utilized a nice wide gravel road almost wide enough for a car, providing a place to pass people with ease. Then came the technical parts, single track, stumps, roots, and my favorite - jumps (said with sarcasm).
There were two root related jumps that play out vividly in my mind. The first being on a fast decline (15-20mph) with a root followed by a washout/drop of about 4-6inches - luckily while preriding the course, I found out how not to ride over this. In my infinate wisdom, I decided to "bunny hop" the drop......big mistake. When I hopped, I hopped to the left, off the trail and into the bushes, almost ending my day with a tree visit. Helge promptly discussed the proper form after this near death experience. The course then opened up into a wider trail filled with roots a-plenty, making any passing difficult. This was the site of the second root related debacle (unfortunately experienced during the race). From this section, the course opened into another fast grassy surface, followed by an uphill gravel section before turning on the grass to cross the Start/Finish line. I had only done 3 miles, but my mind and body were saying it felt more like 10, and I was only doing a warm-up. Thank goodness I had preriden the course.
Race time was 9a. 100 racers overall in the Beginner category. We found ourselves staged upon the top of a hill where we would fly down it through 2 trees no more than 15 feet apart. I chose to start on the far left, as it lined up perfectly with the middle of the 2 trees. I clicked up a few gears to have a good push off the line. 5-4-3-2-1.....we're off. Down the hill we go, my nerves got the best of me. I never rode this portion, so I was nervous about hitting a rut and crashing. Through the trees in in the top 15. I move out of the rut and into the grass, picking off riders where I can.
After passing the lake, the trail makes a left turn. I'm riding in the top 10, on the right side of the trail, and I unexpectedly fall in a rut that was covered in the grass. I try to bunny hop out of it, and my rear wheel kicks out from under me. Down I go, sliding through the wet weeds. Having barely come to a stop, I immediately hop back on the bike, only to hear Dan shouting at me "Go, Go, Go, don't let me pass you!" This was great motivation! I find the right gear and fall back in line. The course now moves onto the gravel, with a slight uphill. I know this is where can I take advantage and make up the positions I had just lost. I powered past the racers on mountain bikes, weaving in and out like a man possessed, I think I made up all the ground I lost when I crashed, but it's too hard to tell.
Into the single track, just try to play it safe, don't do anything stupid. Helge's advice kept coming into my head. Stay back, pedals even, use your rear brake, butt out of the saddle. I make it through the rooted section that had caused me grief in the warm-up and I breathe a sigh of relief. The course makes its way to the grass and gravel section again, I immediately pick off the remaining riders in front of me, legs and chest burning as I power up the hill, but I don't feel any of it. I turn the corner to come onto the grassy field where the start finish line is, and I can immediately hear Tim, Julie, Ben & Helge. As I ride past them, I thought I heard I was in third.
Elated, I know I have a podium finish if I don't get passed or crash, now comes the hard part..... At this point, there's no one in my sight, the 2 leaders must have made a lot of distance on me while I was trying to get around the slower riders. None the less, I gun it down the starting hill again and through the grass, being cautious that I don't go down in a rut. At this point, the adrenaline wears off and I being to realize how hard I'm breathing and how much my legs ache (did I use up too much I wondered). Doubt crept in as I figured I'd certainly get passed, I just felt like I was going slow. I work use a good deal of energy on the gravel to build a cushion before heading into the single track.
I make it through the first part of the single track fine, the tight slow part, now its into the fast section. I make it down the hill and over the troublesome root (big sigh of relief). Now its into the wider, but faster section marred with many roots. There is one area where you go up a small hill with a good rate of speed, and right at the top there are two roots you jump before going down the other side. Not paying attention to my speed, I fly up the hill and hit the root square, sending the bike and I into the air. My left foot unclips from the impact (surely I'm going to crash I thought). By some miracle, I landed the bike perfectly, reclipped and kept going without missing a beat. Another sigh of relief...
Back on firm footing, last section of grass and gravel trail. I know I'm almost home, and I start pouring the remaining energy I have into the pedals. I turn the corner onto the home stretch. Up the hill, teammates cheering me on the whole way, I'm sprinting out of the saddle and cross the line.....3rd place. I pull over and lay down to catch my breath and write down my name for the volunteer. Moments later, Naz is coming to the line behind another rider, no time or space to pass and Naz settles for 5th. A few moments go by and Adrian rides in for 6th.
I'm in shock, my first mountain bike race and I finished top 3. The cross bike was well suited to the fast course, and my bike handling skills were pretty good considering my road and track background. I definately had a great time and it was a nice warm-up for Jackson Park. I will definately be back next year.