Friday, February 28, 2014

Why I race

I get asked this question often, usually by my mom, but also by friends who aren't spending every free second of time biking or running. My reason right now is that it keeps me going through medical school. Racing is my alter-ego; it's my secret that not many people in the doctoring world know or care about. Sometimes, when people are picking on me in the hospital, I stand there and take it without saying anything, but secretly, I'm picturing a zombie apocalypse where they would be devoured instantly and I would be able to run for miles and miles without getting caught!

Reason #1: Racing provides balance. Often, learning how to be a doctor is supposed to be your one focus in life, and everything else is sacrificed towards that goal. I am passionate about being a doctor. I love meeting new patients, caring for them, helping them understand their disease and working to get them better. But I have a second passion, which is biking and running. I like testing my physical limits and seeing how hard and how far I can push myself. Medical school provides an intellectual challenge and racing provides the physical counterpart. If I only had one passion, I would turn out lopsided.

Reason #2: Racing gives me a way to be good at something. Medical students are superfluous to the care of patients. We have no real responsibility and most of the time, we just get in the way. It's tough to spend 4 years at the bottom of the totem pole, bumbling around, being reminded constantly of how much we don't know. Running and biking is my escape from this hierarchy. In a race, if I work hard enough, I can be at the top. It's a huge relief sometimes to be out of the hospital; instead of feeling inadequate all the time, I feel like I'm free and strong and powerful.

Reason #3: Racing is a way to be active. As a medical student, I spend hours and hours passively following doctors around, watching them do procedures and surgeries and hoping for my chance to try. It's a great day when the resident lets me do a lumbar puncture in the ED or close an incision in the OR. In a race, there is no waiting around for something interesting to happen; it's go time from the start. You can make your own opportunities and take chances at each turn. Every second, I am analyzing trail conditions, thinking about whether to attack, and feeling my legs and heart and lungs pumping away. It feels great to have every part of my body actively involved in reaching the finish line.

Reason #4: Teammates. Medical students have no scheduling stability. We rotate on and off of services every 2-4 weeks. Just when I am getting into a good rhythm with a team, I switch to a new one and have to meet new residents, attendings and nurses and have to prove myself to them all over again. Working in this environment has made me realize how important my teammates and friends outside of medical school are to me. They don't change every 2 weeks. I don't have to prove them that I can bike or run because they already know. It's the best part about my days off, getting to go on long bike rides with them and talking about all the races we want to try and new places we want to explore.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Monster Cross

What an awesome day! Right now we are driving away from the course at Pocahontas State park, near Richmond, VA. It is sunny and a whopping 72 degrees!!! Jeff and I both raced in shorts and short sleeves, which was a great break from polar vortex winter. And there wasn't a spot of snow or ice anywhere to be found. The trails were a little muddy in sections, but overall conditions were not bad at all.

Monster cx is a 50 mile race on gravel and dirt fire roads with a 6 mile section on pavement. It is fast, mostly flat with a few rolling sections and a couple of small hills. There is nothing technical about the course except for 1 large tree across the trail and a few rocky stream crossings, which are hazardous to rear tires. I really like this course because you can go as fast as possible right from the start.

Here is Jeff's race report:
"I felt really good.  I was going at a pace I felt I could sustain and was keeping up with fast groups, at least for me. I started noticing my tire getting soft around mile 4. By mile 5, it was rolling as I was cornering so I knew I had to take action. I put in a new tube in about 3-5 mins and watched a lot of people pass me. Heard a lot of people say 'hey jeff', 'you ok dude?,' 'got what you need?' I got back going and started racing a little out of myself to get back to the group I was with, but that was a lofty goal. Around mile 20, I felt the new tube starting to soften. Around mile 22, I found Jen Tillman, and she said she was going to get on my wheel. I said 'let's go,' and we did. Then around mile 25, the tire was getting bad again, and I went through one of the hazardous creek crossings. I immediately flatted on the rear. I was out of tubes and given both had slow leaks, I figured it was the tire. I called it a day and decided to have a nice 6 mile hike to the finish. Mountain biking shoes are not comfortable for long hikes, fyi. But lots of teammates and other nice racers offered parts and assistance along the way. That is one of the awesome things about mountain biking. Usually everyone looks out for others and is generally nice. All in all, it was a wonderful day on the bike regardless of the DNF."

Here is my race report:
I raced this course last year, but this was my first time racing in the pro/elite women's race. I knew Selene Yeager and Suzie Snyder had registered. Both of their reputations precede them about their strength and racing abilities. I kinda wanted to see how fast they would start an endurance race so my plan was to go out with them for as long as I could. Suzie had an unfortunate fall on a downhill gravel section so it ended up being me and Selene together at the half way point. Things were going really well until I also flatted going over one of those hazardous stream crossings 5 miles from the finish. Suzie and another racer passed me while I changed my tube, but I got up and going again and finished 4th. It was a bummer to miss the podium, but I still had a really fun time racing on fast trails and testing my fitness and tube changing abilities (both need work)! It was great to be outside and not on the trainer. And free beer, biscuits and fried chicken with teammates at the finish line is something you just can't beat.

Pre-race photo: lots of Baltimore representation at Monster Cx this year
Post-race photo: lots of sun, mud, and rehydrating beer

Friday, February 14, 2014

Rolling on rollers

All the snow and sleet recently has rendered any type of outdoor biking nearly impossible. One brave member on our team tried to get in a MTB ride on Thursday night and sent back a pretty hilarious update about trail conditions. "Well that was a bust. Snow is heavy and slick, there is water running under it so getting traction is near impossible, steering is pointless, you go where the slope of the trail is heading regardless for your best intentions, trails are a not starter till this melts or freezes solid."

I guess we will be stuck on the trainer for the next couple of days. Since we were inside, Jeff and I decided to learn how to ride the rollers. Niether of us have ever riden rollers before, but we knew 2 things about starting. Set the rollers up in a doorway so there are barriers to stop you from sliding off sideways and look straight ahead to help with balance. After one graceful fall, Jeff picked it up quickly and even had the skills to take a drink from his water bottle and start doing intervals. 

My debut on the rollers was not as smooth. The rollers are really slidey. I started out with a death grip on the wall. So much so that my hand started cramping. Then I progressed 2 hands on the handlebars while Jeff held my bike and stopped me from toppling over sideways almost every pedal stroke. Death grip on the handlebars meant both hands cramping. Then I progressed to no Jeff support and slid back and forth between the doorway walls steadying myself with alternating elbow bumps. Finally, I figured out to keep my upper body still, my weight back on the saddle and my pedal strokes smooth. But once I got going, I was a bit afraid I would fall over trying to stop!

I definitely need more practice, but I'm hoping soon to master the art of bike rolling multi-tasking like this:

Monday, February 10, 2014

A lucky weekend

I had a lot of fun on my bike this past weekend, mainly because the odds were in my favor. On Saturday, I rode trails at Patapsco with 2 other really strong women, Jen and Ginny. We met in Woodstock, MD and previewed most of the Patapsco 100 course. I've never ridden there before. It's always fun exploring new places, and it was especially fun to do so with 2 other women. Most of the trails were frozen and crunchy, but every so often they turned dangerously into sheets of ice which made steering and staying upright nearly impossible. We all took turns sliding out on icy sections but no one got too hurt. At around the 4 hour mark, I broke my chain. I should have been able to pop out the quick link and replace it, but the link was so badly twisted that I couldn't get it off the chain. Luckily, we were only about a mile from the car so I just ran my bike back and finished the workout with a mini-brick. At the parking lot, we found Bob, who had left-over coffee and donuts in his car to share with us. It was a quite delicious way to end.

On Sunday, I set out for a road ride. At the start, it was cold but the sun was peeking through the clouds. Unfortunately, the sun quickly disappeared and was replaced by a biting wind. I was pretty frozen by the time I finished. About 5 mins after walking inside, it started snowing. A half hour later, the roads looked like this. Pretty perfect timing!

Sometimes mechanicals and weather can  leave you frustratingly stranded miles from home. Other times, they make you feel on top of the world and almost invincible. They are constant reminders that things can go wrong, but this weekend at least, they couldn't stop me.

On a side note, I also feel pretty lucky to be part of Joe's Bike Shop racing team. We have a lot of new and awesome people who recently joined the team, and it's been fun having others to ride and train with every weekend. I'm really looking forward to racing with everyone this spring!

Team party at Chad and Becky's church

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Bikes on cars

I don't have a bike rack for my car. I own a little Hyundai Accent hatchback. When I put the seats down in the back of the car, I can get my entire mountain bike in without taking the wheel off. If I need to take 2 bikes to races, I just stack them with a yoga mat between to keep the pedals and derailleurs from getting tangled. I think it's a pretty good solution, but lots of people make fun of me for not having a roof rack and for shoving my bikes into the back of the car.

Jeff has a Subaru Outback. It is outfitted with a roof rack for 3 bikes and a hitch mounted bike rack for 4 bikes. Sometimes when we are traveling to races, he is fully loaded with bikes and looks pretty pro driving down the highway. He also looks pretty pro when bikes are dangling from the top of his car by only a rear wheel. And sometimes, low lying roofs really get him and bikes end up not dangling, but crashing to the pavement.

Recently, there have been 2 such mishaps with bikes on the car. The first happened on New Years Eve. Jeff was bringing his BRAND NEW Trek Project One Superfly 100 full suspension bike home from the shop. He had the bike nicely mounted on his roof rack. He drove down the road, turned right into his condo complex. Everything was fine. Then he decided it would be a good idea to park in his car port, which happens to have a low lying roof. (Hold your breath now, this is actually is going to happen). The sound of new carbon fiber hitting a wood roof and then crashing to the pavement is nauseating at best, a heart attack at worst. The bike had been completely sheared off his roof rack. Pause a moment to contemplate what just happened, then bring yourself to get out of the car and face the damage. Luckily, it was not catastrophic. The stem face plate was scratched and the suspension lockout lever was broken. Back to the shop for repairs before its inaugural ride.

The second incident happened yesterday. Again, Jeff's single speed mountain bike was nicely mounted on his roof rack after leaving the shop. Jeff set off down the road. Ca-chunk, bum-bum-bumppp, crrrrkkkkk. A glance out of the side view mirror showed the bike dangling off the back of the car, held onto the bike rack by only the rear wheel. Further assessment revealed a giant dent in the car and many scratches on the side. Good one Jeff! Luckily, the bike was ok. Lesson learned: make sure the front fork thru bolt adaptor is seated correctly into the bike tray.

So while I don't look pro driving down the highway and while the back of my car is sometimes very muddy, I can say that my bikes make it safely to and from races without damage to bikes nor car nor self-respect.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Superbowl Sunday at a Belgian Bar?

That's right. It's a little known fact in the US, but each year a huge party takes place on Superbowl Sunday hours before the football starts. Crowds don heavy jackets and boots, throw back beer and shots from sun-up till sun-down, and roar and heckle as the competitors battle through mud, up flyovers and over barriers and bodies as they compete for best in the world. It's the cyclocross world championships.

For the noncyclists, cyclocross is comparable to a steeplechase race on bikes. Race courses are mainly on grass but there are often road and woods sections involved. There are obstacles you must run over or bunnyhop on your bike, steep climbs, muddy off-camber turns that are sometimes too difficult to ride, and crowds that try to pass you cups of beer as you pass (called handoffs). The women race for 45 minutes and the men for 1 hour. The goal is to finish the most laps possible in that time period. The key to being good: be Belgian.

In the US, cyclocross is a grassroots sport. Local bike shops sponsor races and there are categories for everyone to take part. The courses are designed to enable pros down to cat 4 beginner riders to race on the same course. In Europe and in Belgium in particular, the racing is out of control. Not that I've been, but I've heard stories and watched the videos. In Europe, only the pros race and the courses are designed to challenge the best riders in the world with the steepest descents, sharpest corners and slickest conditions. It always seems to be raining in Belgium which turns every course into a mud pit and adds to the fun and unpredictability of each race.This year, although the world championships were in the Netherlands, the course conditions lived up to par.

So now, back to the bar. In the Netherlands, the racing was aired in prime time, but not so here. To watch the championships, a group of about 30-40 Baltimore cyclists congregated in front of a small TV screen and watched a blurry, choppy replay of the action with frequent pauses when the internet signal cut out. But the beer was good and despite the lack of big screen HD, the racing was incredible. In the women's field, Marianne Voss (NED), who won the world championship last year, had the lead from the start and kept walking away from the field. She finished over a minute ahead of second place. Talk about dominance. And she's only 26. Helen Wyman from Great Britain finished third. She comes to Baltimore every year and wins the Charm City Cross race easily. She holds a clinic for riders and actually taught me how to jump onto my bike without double hopping. It was pretty cool to see someone I've met on the podium.

In the men's race, it came down to a 2 man battle between Sven Nys (BEL), the defending champion, and Zdeněk Štybar (CZE), who primarily races on the road now but won the cross championship back in 2010 and 2011. If you want to know who's who in men's pro cross, watch some episodes of SVENNESS here:

From what I could tell on the grainy TV screen, first it was Stybar leading. Then he slid down around a muddy corner and Nys hopped over him to take the lead. Then Nys slid out around a tight 180 degree turn and Stybar was able to catch up. Then in the last lap, Stybar put down a really impressive attack. He opened up a gap that Nys couldn't close and won his third championship.

This year, the Belgian's didn't take home a world championship. So I guess I should revise my previous statement. If you want to be good at cyclocross, you don't have to be Belgian. You just have to race there. 

Saturday, February 1, 2014

What to do with 7 bikes (plus or minus 2) and 1 golden retriever in a very small condo...

The answer to this question for the past 10 months has been to prop bikes against every wall and hallway, pick your way gingerly around corners and open doors carefully. It has not been so bad during the day but the early morning rush to work makes things more challenging. When I am stumbling sideways out of bed at 4:45am, it only takes one false move to bruise my shin and send the entire pile of propped up bikes crashing down. Because literally, there are 2 bikes leaning against one side of the bed, the handlebars inches from my face when I am sleeping.

A rational person might ask why do we have so many bikes? A cyclist would ask why are we not following Rule #12 and in the process of acquiring more? (Rule #12 of cycling etiquette states that the correct number of bikes to own is n+1).

The answer to the first question is that I am dating a cyclist who needs a bike for every condition possible. There is a road bike for pavement, a full-suspension bike for rocky trails, a hardtail for nontechnical climbs, a fat tire bike for riding in the snow, a single speed mountain bike for building strength, a cross bike for racing cyclocross, and a baby blue mountain bike used mainly now for commuting. The plus or minus 2 bikes happen to be mine because I also love to ride and will sometimes store a bike or two at the condo.

The answer to the second question is that Jeff is actually in the process of acquiring more bikes. He has his eye on a new Trek Project One 6-series road bike and a new Trek Boone 9 disc cross bike. But we can talk about new bikes later.

The real question is what to do with so many bikes and so little space. Jeff has been talking for months about putting up hooks or racks to store the bikes, but the action so far has been a bit lacking. So I made a bet with him to up the stakes. I bet that he wouldn't have them stored properly by the end of the week. He said he would. If I won, he owed me a massage. If he won, I had to buy him fancy caramels. But really, it was a win-win scenario for me. If he got it done, I wouldn't have to wake up with bikes in my face.

Normally, this would not be a hard thing to accomplish. It's a trip to the hardware store and an hour of putting up wood and hooks. But the thing is, most weekends we destroy ourselves on bikes riding anywhere from 4-8 hours/day. So by the time we get home, it's eat, shower and lie on the couch until we fall asleep and repeat on Sunday. This doesn't exactly make it easy to get other things done.

The results? Jeff won today! And the storage solution looks awesome. He had some help from an ophthalmologist who LASIK-ed his eyes recently, requiring him to take the weekend off from biking while his eyes heal. I think that moral of this story is that if there is something that needs to get done, get a doctor's order that forbids exercise. And bet with fancy caramels.