"Life is a Journey" buttons, bookmarks, bumper stickers, and bric-a-brac remind us to keep going and enjoy the ride. But sometimes, on a rare occasion, the destination hits differently. Sometimes that instant where effort and determination combine with luck and timing stops the journey for there is no further to travel. That's where I found myself in the early afternoon at Gambrill State Park in Frederick, Maryland. At the finish line of the @usacycling MTB Marathon Nationals, in 1st place, at the destination. What a journey.
Behind the Curtain
Our snapshot communication habits, innocently aiming to be get to the point, leave a lot to be inferred. An Instagram post of a goal accomplished provides the punchline but tears the heart out of the journey. The sharer left without an opportunity to give proper gravitas to the moment and the viewer, often times, left measuring up their less-than-accomplished Saturday. Both sides informed of the destination but without the spirit of the journey.
We've all said it, "if they only knew what it took..."
I've already shared this victory on my social channels, family and friend circles, and recently on our podcast: No Ride Around. The destination is out there. BUT. Nothing is as easy as it seems. If I've done one thing this MTB season to inspire you to try something new, reach for a higher goal, or simply move your ass an inch further today than you had planned, then I've done my job. However, if I've shared my accomplishments and the opposite has happened, perhaps you've measured your journey against mine and feel bummed, this post is for you. This bit of intel right here...
"I hate Gambrill State Park. I can't believe I thought I could compete and win the National Championship. This doesn't look good and what will be the reaction if I fall short."
That's where I was after my visit in early September. Understanding that every race venue is different, every course unique, I wanted to be clear about what racing for the stars & stripes would take so I flew to DC on a Tuesday, rented a car, got myself to Gambrill St. Park outside of Frederick, MD, and set up camp. Having flown with a duffel of camping gear and a bike I was settled in for 2.5 days of learning this course. Fast forward less than 24 hours and having ridden the course 3 times (a 16 mile loop of rooty, rocky, punchy trail) I had numb hands, fatigued arms, and an average speed far below what would be required to win in just 6 weeks time. I quickly logged onto United Airlines and booked an early flight home, dejected. I sat in that disappointment for a couple of days before applying what I learned. Tire inserts, an easier gear on my singlespeed, and pack hydration instead of bottles. These adjustments alongside a serious attitude tweak and I put Nationals out of my mind for a bit.
The great thing about late season racing is that you can't do much about your preparedness. You are either fit and fast or washed up and fatigued. There isn't a 3-week training plan out there to get you over the next hump. You're all humped out. "Run what you brung," says an older, wiser MTB racer. I was ready. I'd applied what I learned 6 weeks earlier and I set my sights on a goal that originated January 3rd, 2020: Win a National Championship.
How purposeful was my pursuit? Jet-set purposeful. I flew in on Saturday afternoon, landing in DC at 1:30PM, grabbed my rental and was at packet pickup in Frederick by 3:30PM. I built my bike in the parking lot after checking in and waited for the Racer Meeting. From there I checked into the skankiest Motel 6 on the East Coast and paced across the sticky, linoleum floor loading my Orange Mud pack and lubing my chain. I only had a small bag with me as I was scheduled to fly back home Sunday at 10PM. That's how purposeful. In and out in a single day, with a single mission, on my singlespeed.
I caution you, the reader, from making an assumption that Robot-Mode means super confident and unshaken. Oh so untrue. Similar to those first coffee-meetups with Abbe in 2009, when something means a lot to you, it really tugs at your life's purpose, it's nerve racking. GOOD! It means you give a crap. That morning, as I jogged across the street for some hot water from the Wawa, and donned my No Ride Around kit, I gave a lot of crap. As I drove to the race venue, just a few miles down the way, I gave a crap. And as I peeled myself out of the warm car and into the brisk Fall morning air, surrounded my 100's of others beginning their pre-race rituals, I thought I may need to take another crap. Crap!
So, you faithful reader, NO, robot-mode doesn't mean I'm unshakeable. It simply refers to the safety that comes from knowing what you need to do, how you need to do it, and leaning into the repetitions you've spent years rehearsing. That's the key. Invest in yourself and your habits so that when you need to make a withdrawal, you have the funds. That's why we train.
Racing for the Stars and Stripes
He was a tiny guy, a kid. He was light, and fast, and his bike was light and fast. He was doing hill repeats and bouncing up and over boulders around the parking lot. And he was on a singlespeed! Uh-oh.
That's the first thing I saw when preparing my bike. Part of my pre-race routine involves scouting my competitors. I do this in the parking lot, around the venue, and even in the start corral. Now years into my racing career I am not measuring myself against them, I used to and it had terrible effects, as much as I am cataloging the who's who. Because one of my race rules is to never look behind, this is my only chance to get a solid look at who I'm up against. And this young guy, he'll be one of them. We chatted. He knew me and I got to know a bit about him. After 20 minutes of doing my own hill repeats, that just so happened to pass in front of him and his parents outside their SUV at max effort in an intimidating, this is my day, kind of way, we rolled to the start corral. He and I, alongside another 30+ riders waited to be called up. I asked him, "who do you have your eyes on today?" He replied, "well, you." Perfect.
The traditionally smaller Open Singlespeed field swelled as USAC combined our start with Men 50-54. Even with the combined field, I was the first racer called up and had every intention of finishing in the same position, but as the race started and we shot down a 2/3 mile road segment before hitting dirt I was swallowed by a dozen racers: geared and a couple singlespeeders. The hard right turn onto doubletrack allowed me to dive in front of the 2 SSer's and hold behind 8 geared 50-somethings. Another 15 seconds and we cut left onto singletrack and began the chunkiest, longest descent of the course. As racers bobbled over rocks and got tossed down the trail I dipped, ducked, and dodged ahead of 3 more geared guys with another skilled rider on my tail. His unmistakeable southern accent acknowledged each racer I passed with his own, "one more coming." Without the ability to look back, I listened to his riding. Did he shift? How was his breathing? Any grunts? These are all signs that could give me the needed information to strategize against him. He didn't shift. He even laughed. At one point he said, "this trail is a blast!" He's a singlespeeder alright. And a damn good one.
The two of us made short work of the descent and began the longest climb of the course wheel-to-wheel. I purchased my Trek Supercal in early July with the sole purpose of winning this race. The unique full suspension design allows me to run it singlespeed and thus pick up time on descents, where a traditional hardtail bike is more limited. Having not dropped the racer I came to know as John from Brevard, NC by way of Memphis, TN, on the descent my secret weapon was rendered useless. I'd have to find another way to win. So as we picked our way up the steep, chunky trail I processed my options. Every racer I passed, he passed as well. My window was to make a pass, or two, and then attack out of the pass. Risky as it already takes a great burst of power to pass a rider on singletrack. As second burst would be a 10-20 second max effort. I've only got a couple handfuls of those per event and we were only 35 minutes into the race. Summoning my best effort I pulled off the move, passing 2 riders in succession and exploding up the next switchback. I put a 20 foot gap on John and stayed on the gas. That's the last time I saw him on course but I felt his presence for the next 2 and a half hours.
Twisty trails and tight trees provided just millimeters of clearance as my handlebars navigated the tree covered trails. Now catching up to the Men's 40's and 30's fields I had rabbits keeping me honest in my effort. My updating gearing choice helped me stay seated on most of the climbs and the pack gave me critical access to CarboRocket on a rocky route that renders bottles both useless and rogue passengers. The course I remembered crushing my soul just weeks earlier seemed more manageable, friendlier. I found beauty in the damp Fall air and came to appreciate the uniqueness of racing so far from my norm. Looping through the finish area at the completion of my first, of 2, laps brought an electric energy. With only my breadcrumb trail showing on my bike computer screen I learned of my hour thirty lap time from the announcer as he called me out in first place at the midway point. We all love hearing our name. Our own name is our most recognizable word in language. See it in print, hear it in conversation, or in film, and you take note. Hear it over a loudspeaker at the coveted National Championships and you start to buzz. Those dangerous thoughts start to creep in. "You might freaking do It! You are going to do it! You've got this!" Let those thoughts stay and you're sure to smash right into the next tree or rock. I've learned that lesson and have the scars to prove it.
When it all comes together there's an opportunity to race from above. When the equipment, nutrition, fitness, and strategy all align some racers can drift just a few feet above themselves and simply control the race. I found that control during the second lap. Navigating the fine line between both racing fast and avoiding mistakes requires that control. One blown corner could me a flat tire or a debilitating crash, leading to a major disappointment and a year of hypothesizing on what could have been. So I floated just above myself and repeated the lap, now a familiar friend, and held at bay the feelings I so looked forward to swimming in at the finish line.
When that final sign came into view: 500 Meters, I knew I had invested everything I had. Both hamstrings twitched with cramps and I reminded them, aloud, that we were almost there. I finally looked behind me as I hit the pavement and was alone. I had done it, but surprises were still to come.
I simply stopped after I crossed the line. I didn't ride a wheelie, BMX skid-stop, ghost ride the whip, or hop off and holler to the heavens. I simply stopped. I sat on my top tube and smiled. The fact I won didn't surprise me. I came here for that. What surprised me was the feeling, like a warm blanket had been draped over my shoulders and the blanket was made by, and of, the hands that have helped me become my greatest version. My wife, my parents, my family and friends. The judge who sent me on that oh-so-challenging mission to learn who I really am. The people I've coached and helped. All of those hands that I disappear from on my solo adventures. That blanket hung on my shoulders and encouraged the subtle smile on my face.
I chatted with John who finished just a few minutes behind me and the young gun who came just behind him. I chatted with familiar faces and a met a few new ones, and all the while enjoyed the rare sensation of having completed a journey and the destination is enough. Unlike every other finish line, where the first, loudest question is What's Next? I ignored the undeniable truth that it goes on. I didn't look forward, just down. Here. In this moment. Sharing this with you now, weeks removed from Nationals and having traveled out-of-country to MTB and even won another race, I still sit here in my warm blanket. I'm still wholly content at having met this goal. It's not a single social media post sharing another win. This journey, one we are all on, offers rare moments where we can simply be. For me these moments come on the heels of journeys where I've been fully stretched in the human experience, moments where I had to become anew to get through. National Champion. Dang. That is nice.
1st Place Singlespeed
US National Champion
....what does a National Champ eat after the race? A protein cookie topped with almond butter and an Americano. Duh. I may be in the moment but I've still got a bike ride tomorrow :)