“Race to the River” XC Race

The fifth race in the Southern Classic Series was held this weekend at Harbison State Park in Columbia, South Carolina. It was the final of three races that comprise the South Carolina State Championship: Sumter (race 1), Spartanburg (race 4), and Columbia.  Because I was leading by 18 points, I decided to race Columbia and skip the US Cup East (SERC) race in Winder, GA.  After all, if I managed to finish no more than three place behind Harry Mathis, I was a lock for the SC Championship.

I drove up Saturday afternoon, after a 30-mile club ride where I was determined to keep my heart rate low and for the most part I was successful.  My plan was to pre-ride the course while keeping my heart rate low so I would have legs for the next day’s race.   That’s a great idea on paper, but in reality, it is pretty much impossible to climb any significant hills and keep your heart rate low.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Post race Columbia 2

Many of you who ride with me know that I’ve been struggling physically this mountain bike season.  Not only are my races much longer since being upgraded to Cat 1, but I have also felt like I’m only running at about 85-90% since being upgraded.  It is a very similar feeling to when I began racing two back-to-back cyclocross races last season.

For the first few weeks I felt absolutely depleted after the first race and didn’t perform nearly as well as I’d have liked to in the second race.  I seriously considered just choosing one race or the other but eventually decided I’d see if I could make myself grow into this big step.  After all, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Well, after a month or so, my strength seemed to return and I was a much faster rider as a result.  Keep in mind, that was going from a 30 minute all out effort to a 1 hour and 15 minute effort.  Cyclocross races are relatively short.  In cross country mountain bike racing, my upgrade from Cat 2 to Cat 1 was going from 1.5 hours to 2.5 hours all out.

My first reaction is that I needed to train more.  I was willing to put in the work, but where could I find the time?  I’m already running 5 hours a week and cycling another 5-10 hours.  After a lot of deliberation I realized that I would have to focus on quality and not quantity.  That brings me to a new addition to my training that I’m excited about.

The American Classic / Cycleworks race team has a coach named Simon Kessler who prepares an individualized training plan for each of the riders.  Every six weeks a new training cycle begins, and being new to the team, my first cycle began this past week.  I have daily training instructions telling me what to do, all designed around preparing me for nationals in late July.

So my training becomes a game of… well, Simon Says!  Literally.  Now instead of going by “feel” I am learning to use heart rate zones and timed intervals.  And if I don’t do what he tells me, I have nobody but myself to blame if my performance suffers.  Believe me, it doesn’t make it any easier when those around me want to hammer and Simon says to stay in Zone 2.  So back to my story…

My training plan said, and I quote: “Staying in Zone 1 pre-ride race course. Include 3-5 minutes at Threshold heart rate.”  In other words I could practice a few sprint starts as hard as I wanted, but otherwise I wasn’t to break a sweat.  Good luck with that, right?

I did my best to follow his instructions, but there simply was no way of riding this course without getting into zone 3 and above.  (Note to self: I need to talk to the coach to see whether the zones are more important or the pre-ride is more important.)  One thing I know for sure: Riding hard within a few days of a race is a bad idea.  I basically don’t do anything hard after Wednesdays if I’m racing Sunday.  Again, I digress.

So the pre-ride was great, the trail was in spectacular condition, and I was ready.  My friend Bart Wellisley and I were staying with his parents not far outside of Columbia so we would be able to get a good night sleep before the race, a big improvement over camping out. The weatherman was calling for a 40% chance of rain until after my race so I was feeling pretty good about a dry race.

I woke up Sunday morning to the sound of rain on the roof.  I looked out the window and saw it was not just one of those 15 minutes specials, but a come-down-all-day type of rain.  My first thought was that I was glad I didn’t camp out.  My next thought was we were in for a fun day.  Nothing quite like rain water on a clay trail to make things interesting.  And slick.

My next thought was that this might play out in my favor.  Many would-be riders would be discouraged by the foul weather and not show up.  Do I want to win because of a bad weather report?  Not really, but I’ll take that over losing due to a good weather report.  Wouldn’t you?  Of course you would.  Winning beats losing regardless of weather.

When I got to the race, I saw that the field was smaller than normal, no doubt a product of the weather.  Still there were lots of people getting ready to race, and the rain just a light sprinkle by that time.  The big question was what condition would the trail be in.  Would it be rideable?  Rain is the great equalizer — you can only go so fast on a slippery trail, no matter how good you are.  I was beginning to enjoy my prospects.

When our group was called to the line, as it turned out only two of us were ready to race in the Cat 1 50+ group: Harry Mathis (the local legend I lost to last week) and me.  Fortunately for me, if I finished the race I would win the state championship, and unless I suddenly grew wings, Harry would win the race.  Not only is Harry incredibly fast, but this is his home trail and he has spent years riding and working on it.

Podium Columbia 2

When the race official came to check us against the roster we laughed and told her that she could just go ahead and do the podium for us now and save herself the trouble of scorekeeping.  She declined our generous offer and said she wanted to see us muddy.  Oh well.  It was worth a try.  Now I just needed to make sure and finish the race, and in conditions like we had that was certainly not a sure thing.

The horn blew and we were off.  As I suspected, the course was very muddy, and very, very slick.  Of all the courses I’ve raced on, both cyclocross and mountain bike, only two come to mind as being as slick or slicker, and both had large sections of clay.  Shiner’s Revenge in Woolwine, VA was by far the worst mud bowl ever.  Day two at the UCI cyclocross race in Hendersonville, NC last season was close, but I think, Columbia wins a second place for best/worst mud racing.

For those who haven’t had the opportunity to ride the Harbison Forest trail system, it is definitely worth your time.  These trails, even muddy, were very fun.  One unique thing about them is that there is something for every taste, from hard-packed clay trail, to sand, to loam, with roots, a rock garden, gut-busting climbs, and blazing descents — even some fast double track.  Everything you can imagine on one 12 mile loop. Think of Woolwine meets Uwharrie with a dash of Spartanburg and Sumter thrown in for good measure.

This was my fifth cross country race as a Cat 1 rider and so I am getting more accustomed to the longer distances.  This one didn’t feel quite as tough as the last one, which was better than the one before it.  I managed to pass some of the riders in the wave ahead of mine, and was passed by some of the faster riders from waves behind me.

I was even able to hang with Harry for about two miles before he disappeared off the front, never to be seen by me again.  Last week Harry beat me by 8 minutes and this week on his home turf he beat me by 12.  I’m not sure if part of that was my riding conservatively so as to ensure a finish and win, or if it was just him being very familiar with his home trail.  My numbers appeared to be better than last week so hopefully it was Harry being faster and not me being slower.

My Garmin file showed my heartrate was almost back to my normal race-pace as was my power.  I like to see my heart rate over 90% and my max average 20 minute power around 220.  For those that care about the numbers, here they are:

  • Avg HR: 88 % of Max

  • Max HR: 109 % of Max

  • Avg Power: 187 W

  • Max Power: 1,003 W

  • Max Avg Power (20 min): 215 W

  • Normalized Power (NP): 202 W

  • Intensity Factor (IF): 0.781

  • Training Stress Score (TSS): 145.8

  • Work: 1,610 kJ

I did manage to win the South Carolina State Championship for the second year in a row. (Last year I won it as a Cat 3, this year as a Cat 1.)  So far I am leading the Southern Classic Series by a comfortable margin, but there are several riders that are significantly faster than me, so that lead can disappear quickly.  My USA Cycling rankings don’t yet have Columbia’s race but in my category for nationals, I’m currently ranked 3rd in the Southeast Region.  In other words, I need to get faster.

Next weekend I travel to Ducktown, Tennessee for the US Cup East (SERC) race.  That’s a six-and-a-half hour drive each way, but after that I get a week off before racing the North Carolina Championship race in Charlotte.  Who knows, maybe I can find some speed by then.