Thursday, January 17, 2019

Lots of rain, little riding, racing this weekend

My last post (from what seems like forever ago) was about how was super frustrated with mountain biking because I felt like I couldn’t improve. I had written it a little while before I posted it, and I had another post in the works about how something had recently clicked and I was beginning to feel so much better on the trails. But that was back in November. We were riding so much then that I was becoming so fast and confident. The trail features that used to trip me up I could now (mostly) effortlessly fly over. Then the rain came, and came, and so did shorter days, and all the opportunities and motivation to bike went POOF. No longer were we riding a few times a week. Instead it was once every other week if we were lucky. And no longer did I feel like I could write a post about improving because my speed was falling and so was my confidence. Because of this lack of mountain biking, I haven’t been very inspired to write any new posts (sorry!). But it’s finally starting to dry out here, days are starting to get longer again, so we’ve been able to get a little more riding in lately (two whole trail rides so far this month!). But oof those rides have been rough! My endurance and power have gone bye bye and now I’m struggling up what were once easy hills and have to build back up to longer rides without my lower back hurting (which seems to happen when my legs are weak and I put more stress on my back). Though my confidence on the trails isn’t exactly what it was, I’ve been surprised that I’m not as much as a scaredy cat as I thought I’d be. Maybe I did actually improve and all that improvement hadn’t disappeared! My brain is definitely working harder than it should be and I have to concentrate more than I would if I were riding more frequently, but I don’t feel like I’m starting from scratch.

Such a sad drop of miles at the end of the year :(
But of course I haven’t been just sitting on my butt and not exercising during all this rain (that’s not even possible unless someone really wants me to go crazy). I’ve just been forced onto my trainer, which I’ve been using as easy day workouts, causing my biking muscles further deteriorate. Also I decided I wanted to keep building up my run and so I decided to train for a half marathon. It was going to be something good to do while the trails were too wet to ride and when Alex was supposed to be gone for work. But the trails are drying, Alex’s schedule has changed, and my running has been feeling better, so I don’t think I’ll actually race the half marathon. I’m not into doing races just to do them anymore. They're expensive, stressful, painful, time consuming, and just not exciting as they used to be. Especially simple road running races where unless I’ve specifically trained for it and want to PR, or a bunch of people I know are doing it, they're just not worth it. Because why would I spend all that money and time to run a certain distance when I can do it at my leisure for free? But that’s not to say I don’t like racing, it just has to be something different and more exciting.

Which brings me to a little, local off-road duathlon that I’ll be doing this weekend. Since there aren’t that many off-road triathlons, this one fills a void in my racing heart. I did it last year and it was fun, just a 2 mile run, 7 mile bike, and 2 mile run. My first off-road multisport race! With wide, flat dirt fire roads for the bike that was the perfect opportunity to fly on my cyclocross bike. And it was the first race I’ve ever outright won! Unfortunately not the most competitive field, but still exciting to win. And now I want to win again, but this whole lack of mountain biking has really dampened my motivation to train for it. Last week I finally got to take my cross bike out for its first ride in months, and though I was surprised that I felt pretty confident on it, my legs were sore the next day after riding for only 15 minutes. That whole power and strength thing necessary in off-road riding was nonexistent in my poor little leggies. This past weekend I did the tiniest brick ever and my right knee started killing for the first few steps of my run, but luckily it went away. But I’ve been trying to do more short rides on my cross bike this week to prep a little. No matter what, this race is definitely going to be interesting physically. I’m hoping it’ll kick my butt back into training mode because I want to do a few XTERRA races this summer and I do want to actually be well prepared for those!

Hopefully I'll be as happy at the duathlon this year as I was in this picture from last year!

Monday, November 12, 2018

Why do I feel so discouraged on my fastest laps?

Every time I push myself to go faster on the trail I feel like I'm having a terrible lap. The turns feel sketchy, I bump and bounce over the rough stuff, and even the littlest climbs make me hurt. But when I check Strava after the ride, I realize that I've ridden one of my fastest laps. This got me thinking, why is there such a disconnect with feeling good and going fast?

After talking with Alex and thinking about this, I believe it comes down to two things: (1) mountain biking speed and effort are not directly related and (2) speed is scary!

First, why doesn't more effort equal more speed on the trail? Mountain biking is kind of like swimming -- technique is way more important than pure power. When swimming, no matter how hard and fast you try to spin your arms and kick, if you aren't using good form then you'll end up putting a lot of effort into splashing in place (or what feels like it) instead of gliding effortlessly through the water. With mountain biking, instead of fighting against water resistance, it's roots and rocks, sharp turns, and steep climbs that eat speed. A smooth rider can float through these technical sections without losing speed. But if you're like me and your technical skills need work, you'll feel like you're splashing around in a sea of dirt.

This is all completely different from what I'm used to with road riding, where more effort equals more speed. You push harder on the pedals, you go faster. Pretty straightforward. But that all gets thrown out on the trail where one minute you're breathing easily as you cruise through a flowy section and the next you're huffing and puffing to make it up a climb. Where road riding is a steady burn, mountain biking is a series of little explosions. I can no longer use my learned sense of effort from the road to judge how I'm doing on the trail. It's been really frustrating to put in so much effort on the trail only to have every bump/corner/hill slow you down.

But I know, it takes time in the saddle and a lot of practice to improve technical skills. All that time on the bike gets you strong enough to charge up the hills and accelerate out of every turn. Then you can really fly on the trails, which brings me to my second point: speed is scary! Going faster cuts down on time you have to react to trail features (and makes those features hurt more when you hit them). When you're going fast, you're on the edge of control, that fine line between a new PR or wiping out. As you probably can guess, I like to be far away from that line, way over on the safe side. But according to Alex, when you really push your limits, it's almost always going to feel sketchy, no matter how good you get because you're always pushing yourself to go even faster. 

So how can I (and hopefully you) feel more encouraged at the end of fast laps?

The two things that are helping me the most are better cornering and pushing myself to go faster more often. Cornering can be a whole other post, but what I think makes the most difference for me is looking through the turn instead of at the trees I'm trying to not hit. Look where you want to go, not where you don't want to go! (Alex's constant reminder). I have to always remind myself to do this, but as I get better at it, turns get faster and easier. And the more I ride fast, the more comfortable I get at higher speeds and the less scary everything seems. The real payoff seems to come the next time I ride. The speed that felt so scary before suddenly seems normal and I get to enjoy the rush of throwing the bike into turns and charging over the chunky stuff. 

I need to get into the mindset that pushing for a new PR is going to feel rough, but it's an investment. Going faster than I ever have before means I'm going to be a little sloppy through the tough sections. I'll be uncomfortably close to that edge of control going into turns and my legs will burn trying to accelerate out of them. It's all worth it when I go on a group ride and can hang with the fast group compared to last season when I stayed back with the slower riders. Or when I look at Strava and what felt like an easy ride is a full minute faster than my best lap from the month before. But the most rewarding part is when we finish a lap and Alex is breathing hard to keep up. Because is there anything better than than making your husband work hard to keep up with you?

P.S. There's hope! My hard work is finally starting to pay off! And Alex was really out of breath after this one :)

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Sunday, October 21, 2018

Trailside proposal

A year ago tomorrow was one of the most magical and special days of my life. To celebrate our engagement anniversary (and since it's obviously mountain bike related), I wanted to share our story:

The week leading up to the big question, Alex had been looking up new places to go mountain biking. I was definitely up for an adventure, but was a little surprised he wanted to go somewhere far because we were still getting to know the trails right around us. But little did I know that he wanted to pick somewhere beautiful to propose! We finally decided on Harbison State Forest, just outside Columbia, SC, only an hour and 45 minutes away. It looked like there might actually be some elevation change for us to play on! And maybe a beautiful river by a trail...

There was one trail there we definitely want to hit, Spider Woman II, their most challenging trail. Alex took off first and I slowly picked my way over what seemed like an endless amount of things I couldn't clean. It was a lot of slow going hike-a-biking for me and I was getting frustrated with myself. About halfway through the trail, we saw a river close by with some rocks in the middle. It was such a beautiful spot that I wanted to go get a picture of us out there. Alex wanted to go explore too, but for an even better reason.

We left our bikes on the bank and Alex easily bounded out to the biggest rock, while I slowly clamored out to meet him (with my helmet still on for some reason). When I finally made it out to him, he was bent down on one knee! It was such a perfect proposal! The mountain biking, the beautiful scenery, and the most amazing guy in the world! Of course I said yes!

The rest of the ride was a blur of happiness. Even though I had to walk over lots of parts of the trail, a smile was glued on my face. Now every time we pass our engagement rocks, we say hi to them, though usually the river is too high to get out to them. Alex hadn't even planned to propose there. He was originally thinking by "The Bluffs", but when we checked that out later, it was a pretty boring spot. Everything just worked out so perfectly!

Side story about the ring: My mom's good friend Karina is a jeweler and she's made lots of beautiful jewelry for us over the years. My parents told me that if anyone was going to make my ring, it better be her. I agreed so I told Alex about her and he sent her an email, unbeknownst to me. Karina was so surprised and happy and of said that she'd make the ring for us. Alex and I had gone to look at rings a while ago and he knew I wanted something simple and not too flashy (more like a wedding band than a typical wedding ring). So he told all this to Karina and she met my mom for lunch a few days later and they drew out ideas on napkins and sent them to Alex to look at. Such a cute process! Fast forward a few months and we were in Boston visiting family. We went out to lunch with Alex's sister and our little niece in a little indoor mall building. As we were leaving, I was looking at the names of all the stores and noticed that Karina's store was there! I just had to say hi. Meanwhile Alex is kinda freaking out because he had picked up the ring the day before and didn't want Karina to give it away since he wasn't going to propose for another month. When we found her store (with no help from Alex), the first thing she said to us was "Congratulations on the engagement!" but with Alex shaking his head behind me she quickly changed that to "Congrats on your Master's!" (because I had just defended). Luckily, I was somehow oblivious to this whole exchange and just really happy to see Karina. After Alex proposed to me, he told me how Karina felt so bad about almost ruining the surprise. So funny! Long story short, my ring was designed and created with so much love from Karina, my mom, and Alex. I couldn't have asked for a more perfect and beautiful ring. They all did such an amazing job.

Lunchtime ring sketches.

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Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Shut up brain!

My brain is my biggest obstacle on the trail. I think I could be a much better rider if it would just shut up every once in a while and let me ride without constantly reminding me how scary and dangerous everything seems. Because usually it's not really that scary or dangerous, and I have the ability to do it. My brain is like an overprotective parent, but, come on, can't it just let me ride free and without worry??

Controlling your brain is almost as important as controlling your bike if you want to get better and ride more technical trails. I can't expect to get better if I constantly get off my bike and walk the sections that scare me. This isn't so much about learning to conquer your fears, but to silence your doubts. It's good to have a little bit of fear. That keeps us safe, but it's inhibiting to have so much self doubt floating around in your noggin. And it can be paralyzing. I can't tell you how many times I look at some trail feature and I'm like "Oh, that looks doable" and then I ride up to it with the full intention of doing it, but at the last second I find my hands grabbing my brakes and bringing me to a stop. I really want to do the harder stuff but my brain just locks up my body, and then I start to lose my motivation as the doubts pile up.

Getting up this little step and over the bridge took such a mental effort! It may look small in the picture, but it looked huge in my head. Look at the bottom for me actually making it over!

But just like practicing your mountain biking skills, it's good to also practice your mental skills of shutting up your overprotective brain. Here's some ways that have helped me find some quiet and confidence:

Find a cheerleader

Alex is a great balance for my overactive brain because he believes in me more than I believe in myself. The things I struggle with are a breeze for him (a note from Alex: This is only because I've spent countless hours struggling with them already), so he can show me the best way to ride something. He encourages me to ride the scary stuff and shows me how to best get through it.

Visualize yourself succeeding

This one really helps me take back control and go for it. One of my biggest challenges is that I don't feel like I have the right movements and balance for whatever obstacle I'm trying to tackle. But in reality I can do it. So if I just take a second to visualize myself succeeding (so cliche I know), then I'll feel more confident. It's not just about picturing yourself doing it, but feeling yourself doing it. And then go do it!

Repeat a little saying

Mine is "Pedal, pedal, pedal! No brakes!". It reminds me to come in with speed and don't stop. You're more than welcome to use that one or come up with your own. It helps me when Alex yells this at me while I'm attempting something for an extra reminder.

Breathe and don't think so much

This is probably one of the most helpful tips, and the one I need to remember to do more often. If I can calm myself down, take a few deep breaths, and just go for it without thinking so much about every little thing that could go wrong... Then bam! it's done and I'm past the obstacle. If you can get your brain out of the way and let your body and bike take over, then they'll know what to do out of habit and it'll be fine. Trust yourself (because you're awesome and you can do it!).

Hope these little tips help! They did for me making it over that little bridge:

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Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Regional champ?!?

A few weeks ago I got an email informing me that I am the Women Age Group 25-29 Southeast Regional Champion for XTERRA Triathlon! Meaning that I qualified for the 2018 World Championships in Maui! As exciting as this sounds, I think it deserves a big LOL in addition to feelings of success and accomplishment. I don't want to belittle it and sound all aloof, but sadly I didn't have a ton of competition at the two XTERRA races I did this past summer. Not that I didn't try hard at the races, of course I did, but due to the low numbers of women, I was more competing against myself than for age group spots.

Strangely, being someone that loves races, I'm not a very competitive person... against other people. But I am super competitive against myself. My goal for most races is to do the best that I can do, and wherever that lands me in the rankings, I'm happy with that. My feelings of accomplishment in a race come from knowing that I pushed myself to my limits and gave it my all, not necessarily that I placed in my age group or overall (but it definitely doesn't hurt!). There are too many variables to winning that it quickly gets overwhelming and stressful. Not my style anymore. I've spent too much of my time as a road triathlete worrying about races, and finally realized it's just not worth it. I do way worse at races that I stress about and way better at ones that I go into excited with no expectations except to have fun.

But if you are someone who revels in how you place (which is completely fine, you do you!), my getting the regional champ label is a good lesson in the benefits of just showing up to races -- you never know who will be there and how they'll do. Don't ever avoid races because you think there will be too many fast, competitive people. And no matter how much I say it doesn't matter to me, a podium finish is an awesome way to end a race. Getting on the podium is such a confidence booster and a great motivator. Just for me personally, I know I can get obsessed and I don't want such a consuming goal to take over my life at this point in time (maybe someday again though...).

But back to the world championships, it would be fun to go do that race mostly for the atmosphere and scenery. And to have the opportunity to toe the line with some of the world's best off-road triathletes. It would also be cool to see where I rank among them. And racing at such a cool event would make me push myself even more.

Yet when I watched recaps of their past championship races, the bike course looked a bit disappointing (aka boring). It looked like it was mostly fire and access roads (wide gravel or dirt roads) instead of single track. I know those are "off-road" and they can be challenging physically with climbs, but I'd expect a world championship race to challenge their athletes with more technical single track. Or else it's just a road tri on soft roads. I saw this year they're adding more single track, so things are changing hopefully!

Highlights from the 2017 XTERRA World Championships. Bike portion starts around 2:00. Where's the single track??

Unfortunately, racing at the world championship this year is just not possible for various reasons. Not to mention the crazy race cost ($550), getting to Hawaii with all my gear, and hotel costs, all which add up top a ridiculously expensive race vacation. I've really been liking the lower race costs of off-road tris compared to on-road ones, so it's a bit disappointing that this one is so freaking expensive.

Maybe one year I'll qualify again and the stars will align and I'll be able to go. But until then I'm very happy racing for fun and seeing where the wonderful world of off-road tris and mountain biking takes me.

Do you race to place? Or is fun your ultimate goal? Or some combination? I'd love to hear your thoughts about race motivation in the comments section!

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Sunday, September 16, 2018

Banana/pumpkin/apple pancakes

Alex and I have a bunch of recipes we've honed over the past few years and I want to share their yummy-ness. Our recipes come together after many iterations of throwing together ingredients and then finally remembering to write down what we used and how much. With these recipes, please substitute/experiment to make them your own! That's how ours were created.

These pancakes are probably the best pancakes you'll ever have! And I don't say that lightly. Also they're super healthy (no added sugar, whole wheat) and perfect for after a long ride or run. And they freeze great and heat up easily for a snack.

The idea for this recipe started with Chocolate Covered Katie's Healthy Waffle recipe. I used to make this recipe all the time after long weekend workouts. One time I didn't have apple sauce so I substituted bananas and it tasted great. Then I realized pancake and waffle recipes are very similar and you can easily interchange them by altering the consistency, so I started using the recipe for pancakes. I eventually quadrupled the recipe because I wanted leftovers, but didn't want to use that many bananas, so I used half bananas and half apple sauce. When I made them with Alex, he decided it needed butter instead of oil. And then we wanted to try pumpkin in it (because you know PSL...) and that tasted great too. So long story short, here's the best pancake recipe you'll ever taste!

  • 2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 4 tsp baking powder
  • 1 1/4 cup milk (1 1/2 if using pumpkin)
  • 3 tbsp butter, melted plus extra for pan
  • Choose two: 2 mashed bananas (frozen or fresh) or 1 cup pumpkin puree or 2 apple sauce snack cups (no sugar added)
  • 3 tsp vanilla
  • 1/2 tbs pumpkin pie spice (if using pumpkin)

Combine dry ingredients (flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, pumpkin pie spice if using) in a bowl.  In a separate bowl, combine wet ingredients (milk, butter, your choice of banana and/or pumpkin and/or apple, vanilla). Pour dry ingredients into wet and mix well. Add more milk or water to get desired consistency. I usually like my pancake batter a little thicker so the pancakes are thicker, but then you don't make as many. Alex usually makes the batter a little thinner. Really up to you! 

Heat pan over medium low heat. When hot, coat pan with butter (do this! you won't regret it). Pour batter on pan for whatever size pancakes you'd like. Flip when bubbles start to pop and underside is nicely browned. Cook for another minute or so and then put on cooling rack to cool (we've found this helps them cool without making them soggy). Repeat until you're out of batter or have just enough for one giant last pancake like Alex made, pictured below. 

These pancakes are sweet enough for us that we don't eat them with maple syrup (but if you do it better be real syrup from a maple tree!). Alex sometimes puts some honey on his. We both really like them with almond butter. 

If you have leftovers, they freeze really well and then heat up nicely in a toaster over or toaster.

An Alex sized pancake.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Flashbacks of a reformed roadie

Despite my recent love of the trails, I still do enjoy road riding and miss it a lot. I miss the freedom and peace, speeding along on an open road. Your legs carrying you as far and fast as they can while exploring areas you’d never have a reason to drive through. There was great road riding in Massachusetts where I first started biking, and surprisingly in southeastern Virginia, where I went to grad school. I especially miss my morning rides, starting just as the sun is rising, seeing a beautiful part of the day that few people do.

Unfortunately, where we live in SC, road riding is not very accessible. When we first moved there, I tried to go on rides to find a fun and, most importantly, safe route. But it was a futile search. So I’ve retired my tri bike to my trainer and my road bike has been hanging off the ceiling, out of the way. That is, until I finally had an excuse to take it down and pump up it's tires.

On Labor Day weekend, my friend invited me down to Savannah to show me some mountain biking trails and also to help her lead a road ride the next day. It was a 25 mile ride that was part of the Savannah Century Ride. Being the shortest ride of the event, it was marketed towards beginner and casual riders. A great excuse to get out on the road and explore a new city.

When we arrived to the ride in the morning, I had so many flashbacks of my past life as a roadie and realizations of where I would have ended up if I hadn’t met Alex and found mountain biking. I probably would have been one of the Lycra clad cyclist, warming up on my full-carbon speed machine, ready to drop anyone that couldn’t keep up with me. I’ve been there, done that, got the QOMs to prove it. Even though I could probably pretty easily slip back into that persona, get caught up in the road/triathlon biking culture, it just doesn’t feel right for me anymore. Not all roadies/triathletes are like this, but with me loving speed on the road and being competitive with myself, it drives me to want to ride with the fast, competitive, and not necessarily welcoming crowd.

Me in my previous life as a road triathlete at USAT Collegiate National in Tempe, AZ. Disc wheel is homemade :)
But, wow, mountain biking has changed me as a cyclist, and as an athlete as a whole. I no longer think speed is all that matters, and that stopping and trying something again means you’re weak. I no longer think I need to have a PR on Strava on every ride. I no longer care about having the lightest, fastest bike, but instead the one that makes me feel the most confident and, most importantly, lets me have the most fun. Because ultimately, as Alex taught me, mountain biking is all about playing on a bike and having fun. Learning to do things smoothly and confidently is way more important than just how fast you can do them, because in the end, learning all the proper techniques will make you a better, faster rider... and then you can have even more fun!

Okay, back to the road ride. The one we were “leading” (I had no clue where we were going since this was my first time in Savannah. I think I was more emotional support crew than leader) was a very different make-up than the longer rides of the day – lots of beginners, people on mountain bikes and hybrids, which was completely fine! They were just out there for a nice cruise along beautiful roads. I was so excited to be back on the road that I had to consciously hold myself back from taking off and leaving the group behind. But after I got into the groove of the pace, I enjoyed chatting with other riders and looking at the beautiful houses and scenery. Even road biking doesn’t have to be fast to be enjoyable!

But it does have to be relatively car free to be enjoyable. As it started getting later in the day and more cars were zooming close by us, I remembered why I haven’t gone for a road ride in over a year. As much as I’m scared of falling on the trails, I’m more scared of getting hit by a car. And that is something I cannot control and definitely not worth the risk.

Hopefully one day in the future, we'll live somewhere that has better road biking. But until then, I'm more than happy just being on the trails learning, practicing, and improving. It was fun being back on the road for the day, but I'm not sure I fit in with roadie/triathlon culture anymore with its competitive nature. But there's so much to mountain biking culture that I've barely scratched the surface, so not sure where I fit in with that either. But really who cares where you fit in? All that matters is that you're having fun with it. And I can say that for surely sure I am!

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