As I have been off the running and racing circuit this fall I’m trying my hand at a new sport, cyclocross (CX), which is a combination of road and mountain biking. I’ve been commuting on the bike, and I like trail running, and a friend had just upgraded her bike, so I’m able to borrow the one she used last year (and it’s pretty sweet!). All in all, it seemed like a good fit!
In CX, cyclists race a course of 1.2 to 1.8ish miles on grass and mud, taking sharp turns, and hopping over mandatory obstacles for 30-60 minutes. A few of my local friends are really into it, and when I watched the events several years ago I admired the riders and thought man these people are intense!
My first CX practice I was extremely nervous but I managed to survive and have fun. It was definitely not love at first ride but it was tolerable, and a good workout. My lack of bike handling skills were readily apparent, but a 30 minute race seemed doable with some practice. After 4 or 5 practice rides I was feeling confident I wouldn’t die at my first race despite my crash/bruise to ride time ratio being relatively high!
Then I got to the race site.
Envision a small park with yellow tape winding all around, many sharp turns, and a LOT of mud. Not having practiced with physical course barriers I found out very quickly that my poor bike handling skills were going to be a very serious problem. I did not have much time for a warm up lap and finished the loop just before the start. I promptly began having an anxiety attack. I could not calm down.
(Note the children who are about to pass me as I ran my bike down the hill that small children were not afraid to ride, and I get back on the bike very slowly. I believe at the end I am saying this is the stupidest thing I have ever done.)
My first loop I felt completely out of control. My competitive self did my best to stop panicking and ride as fast as I could, but getting friendly with several tape barriers meant after one lap I was very far behind the field, including all the children. Not only was I freaking out and not having fun but I was frustrated by being so far behind everyone! The most humiliating moment had to be one where not only did I go off course but I got wrapped up in the plastic tape barrier and repeatedly had to untangle myself.
(Here I demonstrate how to hurdle CX barriers, and then I demonstrate how to get back on your bike as slowly as humanly possible)
I am not sure what possessed me to keep going after one loop, but I did manage to force myself back onto the course for another two loops to get my 30 minutes worth of money out of the event. I set aside my pride and instead of trying to ride the areas where I had gotten tangled in tape before (where my boyfriend teased, you said you wanted to break tape!) I got off the bike and ran it (most running I have done in 7 weeks! Woohoo!).
I managed to catch back up to a friend toward the end of the second loop and went back and forth with her and another rider the last loop. I had serious doubts about staying on the bike but my competitive nature won out and eventually I reached the finish. But even after that tiny victory I found myself fighting off tears of frustration, trying to figure out why I had not had any fun during this race and what was so dissappointing.
(This is where I inform my very skilled cycling friend that CX is not for me. Note that I am actually riding relatively aggressively at this point, but already fretting about the giant mud pit I am about to go through. I’d also like to note that while I am struggling with the simple skill of staying on my bike, my friend is riding alongside, cheering, and taking video.)
It has been a few days and I have committed to another CX race, but in the meantime I did some soul searching and my realization is that my strengths as a runner just are not the strengths I need to excel in cycling:
I like being a leader! In CX I am bringing up the rear, in cycling practice on the road I am uncomfortable sitting on someone’s wheel and drafting, I am not used to following.
I like being in control! In CX I am clumsily avoiding barriers, or even more clumsily crashing into them, and I am struggling to stay balanced and have repeatedly hit the ground.
I like long efforts at a sustainable but difficult pace! In CX any long stretches I get only serve to propel me ahead of those that will promptly blow by me when the technical turns and muddy sections come upon me again. You are constantly going at max speed and heart rate then tackling a turn or a hill. It’s basically 30 minutes of all out effort with technical obstacles to hinder any sustained effort.
I don’t have patience. All of the skills required for me to get better at CX will take patience. I will have to spend time training myself how to mount and dismount my bike while in motion, how to sprint all out when I come out of turns, how to stay balanced when navigating tight turns in a pit of mud. These are most like those items I avoid in my run training like drills, or form modification because I don’t have the patience for them.
And herein lie the lessons I assume I am supposed to take from all this self humiliation (not to mention all the bruises).
1) I need to learn how to follow, and just because I am not leading the pack doesn’t mean I cannot play a mentor role. I need to learn how to better trust others in practice and racing and to “let go” of the reins.
2) I need to tackle my fears and learn how to accept perceived failures. My perception of being out of control is mostly in my head. I need to bring my sillier and exuberant side to these situations where I am most afraid and just go with the flow!
3) I need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. I need to learn how to push the limits of my heart rate and speed and get out of sustainable mode.
4) I need to learn patience and strive to address all the technique type items that don’t come along with building a huge aerobic base of miles upon miles.
I am not going to pretend that any of this is easy for me. After all I am not a cyclist, I am a runner. I’d much rather be back in pre Boston training land chugging along happily playing to my strengths and setting my sights on my next running goal, but with my injury still hanging around I’m going to try to see the bright side and use this opportunity to focus on improving my weaknesses as an athlete. And unlike running, my next race will be one where I focus on not breaking tape!