Friday, August 29, 2014

Death before DNF

St. Croix River Valley is gorgeous, the perfect place for a long and brutal ride.

As long as Tim Marks continues to compete in the 508 races, I will make sure that I invite myself along on one of his ridiculous training rides.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to tag along with Tim on his Prescott ride, which roughly follows the invitational Hill Fest route with another 25 miles or so tacked on. This was my third attempt, and I was ready.

I say 'attempt' because this is a stupid hard ride, and last year I didn't finish it. In fact, last year I kicked out on Monster #4 (or is it #5? I lose count), at mile 75, when the road sloped up to a brutal 23% slog. Pissed off, I walked to the summit and got back on, but I knew right then I was done. And 5 miles later, in a no-man's land of heat and rolling nothingness, I lost my will to live. Luckily,  uber-support maven Jill was there to hand me a cold beverage and clear out a spot in the back of the SUV for the remaining 40 miles. That was not a good day.

As any competitive and endurance athlete knows, this is a game that requires everyone to show up: lungs, legs, and head. Last year, I brought along the first two, but had zero motivation to complete this ride. Maybe I was smug (I've been known to be smug sometimes), thinking that, after a kickass road season, I was just going to fly through the 125 miles of 9000 feet of climbing. But it wasn't like that at all. It was a test of my will, and I failed it.

There's always some outside inTIMidation on this ride, and that doesn't help, either. I can always count on the regular Marks-isms along the route: "Mile 20! Only 105 more to go", or "Better catch your breath, because it's about to be taken away", or (my favorite): "What's in the forecast? PAIN!"

Tough events require some element of motivation. Luckily for me, I had created my own motivation by not finishing last year, which also earned me a top spot on Tim's list of most memorable training rides. If you know Tim, this is not the place you want to be.

This year, I was itching for that old familiar rivalry, because I was ready for it. It's subtle, and it's more or less friendly, but it's there. It's why we like to ride together, I think - we motivate each other to ride a little stronger, a little faster. It's the reason why I invite myself along on stupid rides like Dante's View or this one.

This time, there would be no quitting. Even with Monster #whatever looming large in my mind, I was determined to get to the top, even if I had to walk, and continue to the end.  I adopted Tim's 'Death Before DNF' mantra, and I meant it.

Somewhere around mile 90, when the road turned to gravel momentarily, I caught myself thinking "I'll never do this again."

But the next week, with Jill posting pictures of Tim and some friends riding the Saturday stupidity once again, it prompted me to text my second favorite person in the world to ride with, with this message:

"Are you cheating on me, Bitch? Don't deny it. I have pictures."

Yep, I'll be back next year, as long as Tim will be.

Tim trying to take off on me. 
This is more like it.
At the summit of one of the Monster climbs
Tim at one of the many summits

This almost makes it look like fun
Rounding third and heading home!

Done! 125 miles of Tim Marks and still smiling!
This is scary. We're even starting to dress alike. 
Maybe there's just a little rivalry...

Until next time...

Monday, August 11, 2014

This time it was mostly luck...

Not that it wasn't a tough race, and not that I didn't give it everything I had. I honestly just didn't have a whole lot, at least not compared to last year. But it was good enough to eke past the 2nd place gal by a blistering 4 seconds.

I'm not gonna write up the details. My coach, Rob Kelley, did that on his blog

All I know is that next year, Chance will have very little to do at this race.

Next up: 126 miles of Tim Marks/pain. I'll let you know which was worse after next Saturday...

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Up Side of Down Time

Saturday social ride to view sunset over the Cuyahoga River, with Dom, Dave, Jackie, and Kristen
I figured that my newly diagnosed torn calf muscle would be a great way to get myself re-centered, as far as cycling.

Most of my riding is either training for something or racing. It is prescribed, and deliberate. Every ride has a purpose. My rides are all goal-driven, 'A'-type exercises. Even on the easy days.

So I saw this necessary down time as an opportunity. I thought it would be nice to be able to take a break from that kind of training rigidity while I allowed myself to heal.  One time I dragged the 'cross bike out of the garage and hit the towpath. The next day I meandered into downtown Cleveland for an evening with friends at nano brew. On Sunday I signed up for an invitational ride with no expectations but to get in some miles, and to ride in a group that had no interest in sprinting for signs or challenging for QOM.

Everything started out just fine. Riding like this would be like old times, I thought, before I was into racing. Back then I would pick a destination for its own merits, maybe pack a sandwich in my back pocket. I thought I could easily slip back into that mode, now that I was forced to do so.

And what if I really enjoyed the slow ride? Maybe I would become like those riders you see in Adventure Cycling's magazine, the ones who seem to not know - or care - that using bikes for the purpose of racing is an option, because they're so focused on how to get across Mongolia or something. I could be like those tweed riders in their lace-up boots and steampunk skirts, carrying whiskey bottles in their handcrafted handlebar baskets. I would start comparing the merits of various panniers, and learn the lingo of the latest hydraulic braking technologies.

This kind of thinking lasted about 10 minutes. Those were all good intentions. Naturally, they didn't have a chance.

Less than a week into my paradigm shift, I've found out something really important about my relationship with my bike. I found out that I don't like to 'just ride';  I like to ride hard, and fast.* I want to finish every ride exhausted. I want to feel the effort days later, while walking to Starbucks or climbing steps. Better yet, I want that feeling I get after a balls-to-the-wall group ride, unable to sleep because my leg muscles are twitching, reminding me what I did to them, or what they can do for me. I crave that.

*I especially don't like to watch friends and teammates racing when I'm not able to do so myself. It makes me feel like a caged animal. 

I know I mentioned before that this year is kind of a wash for me, even before the injury. Competing interests coupled with a loss of mojo have made every ride harder than it should be. My theory that maybe I just needed a break may prove to be spot on (and I sense that the Universe made this decision for me because it knew that I could not), if only to show myself how necessary, how integral this all is: the structure, the effort, the drive to the next goal. It may take me a while, but I know where I need to be, and I need to get back there.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

"The Most F**ked Up Way to See the Country"

Shawn Aker, Brian Ray, me, Matt Geis, and Brian Zupancic at the start of RAAM. Oceanside, CA, June 14, 2014.
I was told that the RAAM experience would 'change my life'. I'm always leery about anything described that way. Every experience has the potential to be life-altering, and I knew that this one would be huge.

My role as Crew Chief was never something I took lightly. I saw it as my personal responsibility to get 13 people from Oceanside, CA to Annapolis, MD in one piece, legally, and in under 6 days and 18 hours. And it was my personal goal that we would all be speaking to each other when we were done.

We met our goals. It was the hardest job I've ever done.  I was extremely prepared for it, all of it:  the sleep deprivation, the personality conflicts, the navigation errors, the shaky hand-offs. But preparation and determination take you only so far. Even though I was 'only' support crew, and not riding a bike, this was the toughest endurance event I've ever attempted.

Race Across America is more like 'The Great Race' than it is a bike race. It's as though the very nature of the race isn't so much as navigating a team of riders across the United States as it is navigating the challenges that this kind of endeavor most certainly brings.

There were dark moments, and plenty of them. But this isn't about those moments. This is about those things that made this adventure so cool. Challenges are opportunities, and make for great stories.

Like Larry, our crew mechanic, disassembling a failed electronic shifting mechanism and installing mechanical shifting on one of the bikes, in the back of the support vehicle going 70 mph and heading 450 miles up the road so as to meet the riders the next day when we were back on a 'live' shift.

Like the encouragement and respect awarded to other racers/teams, especially the guy with one arm who was racing in a 2-person team with his daughter, and the two guys on hand cycles. And every one of the solo riders we passed. And friends we knew on other teams (Sara Harper, Lori Hoechlin). And even Pippa Middleton (she was riding as part of an 8-person team, and is quite the athlete in spite of her association with British royalty).

Like the stupidity, the silliness, the moments where things were so ridiculous the only thing you could do was laugh. And post stupid videos of you and your crew mates doing stupid things.

I was floored by some of BZ's insights - who knew he was such a philosopher? He put all kinds of needed perspective into some of the more tense moments. (The title of this post was one of his more memorable quotes).

I saw how the guys all reacted differently to intense situations. Some got vocal and surly, others got quiet and just took it all out on the road. I appreciated the ones who could simply ride their ride, whatever the terrain, whatever the situation. I was OK with the ones who lost their cool, too.

I watched the dynamic between the riders, who had a rather rough start after the first 24 hours and again toward the end of the race.  The tension was often palpable, the competition between rider teams (the 4 guys rode in teams of 2 the entire way) often perplexing. But somehow they managed to remember, in the middle of the stress and the tiredness and the frustration, that they were all in this together. Those were some powerful moments, and a couple of times I had to walk away because the tears were flowing uncontrollably and I needed to pull myself together. Because that was my job.

Before Brian Ray asked me to be Crew Chief, I admit that I had little interest in Race Across America. I never really cared who entered or who won or what records were being broken. I don't know the names of the winners. I still don't really care about all that. I think the real race is the one that involves the real people, not the ones who train all year and put up hundreds of thousands of dollars for their event. I wish more of the attention would be turned toward those racers like my guys from Ohio Cycleworks. They're the ones that make this thing interesting.

Actually, I think RAAM would be more attractive to everyday people if there was more attention paid to the places that the route passes through on the way from one coast to the other. It's a tour through everything from small-town Americana to ever-changing natural wonders. We crossed through some breathtaking landscapes: the California desert, the Colorado Rockies, the lush Appalachians. As luck and time would have it, my riders traversed both Monument Valley, Utah, and Gettysburg, PA, in the pitch dark. Even without being able to see these places in daylight, you could feel the presence of something sacred, something huge just beyond the blackness. Maybe we were lucky to be there in the middle of the night.

I don't know how this experience changed me, if it did. I guess I learned something about management, how to decide quickly what's important and when to react, and when to not react. I think I knew all these things before the race, but the immediacy of the moment really makes you see things differently.  I do know, however, that I have a deep personal bond now with 12 people who were with me in this adventure. Some of them were friends before we ever got ourselves into this. All of them are friends now.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

I wanna be that girl who knows how to stop and smell the goats

 I know what people mean by living 'in the moment'. I think it's pretty cool, really.

And I really wish I could be that. But on a bike, I don't think it's possible.

I have a friend/teammate who stops regularly at a local farmstead to watch newborn goats play in the pasture. It's a sweet scene: tiny fuzzy babies no bigger than your average lap dog, bawling for their mamas on spindly legs - but, of course, I'm really just imagining all of this. Because, even though Emily decides that it's worth pulling over to fully take in this all-too-temporary image of spring, I'm flying by at 20+ mph and giving the moment nothing but all of the corner of my eye.

Sometimes I do this because I'm focused on my training goals, and the landscape is just there to keep me from losing my mind (like I do when I'm training indoors all winter).

But often it's simply because I get on that bike, and I don't want to stop. For anything. Not even baby goats.

Today, at the Sunday in June ride,  we rode past lush green fields, peaceful country scenes filled with grazing cattle, amish kids walking barefoot to somewhere, even alpacas. And we kept moving at a pretty decent clip.

It's not for lack of appreciation, but maybe it's because we humans always expect another day. Another day to come out and ride, another day to watch baby goats. Maybe on another day we'll be riding past, and there's this incredible scene, and the lighting is just perfect, and, hey - we just so happen to be carrying our box camera in our back pocket and we're inspired to stop, finally, in a place we've been past a thousand times. And this time it's simply epic. Just like that Ansel Adams shot of Hernandez, NM.

But not today. Today we ride on.

In a couple of days, I will be traveling with my Race Across America team and crew to Oceanside, CA. The race starts on June 14th. You can follow the team's progress at And, you can follow the crew's musings through Twitter, using the handle @RAAMCrewViews. I'm hoping that sleep deprivation and the personality mash-up will make for some interesting tweets. No guarantees, of course, but it would be great to have you along for the ride.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Coast to Coast: My Crewing insights into Race Across America

I've agreed to be Crew Chief for the 4-man Ohio Cycleworks Charities team in the 2014 Race Across America.

I've had plenty of 'what the hell did I agree to?' moments about this, but this past weekend we had the entire team and crew together for a practice run within the Cuyahoga Valley. It let me visualize the many moving parts that need to come together for the success of this race, and I'm a lot more confident now about what we need to do.

I won't be posting anything during the race, but I will be tweeting my Crew Chief experiences through Twitter. I invite anyone who is interested in the Crew perspective of this race to sign on to @RAAMCrewView to get the latest feed. You will need to have a Twitter account, but it's relatively painless.

The Twitter feed will be strictly Crew perspective. It won't be about stats, or training miles, or fundraising for their cause (although I am asking for donations through The guys are raising money for Akron Children's Hospital).

And I won't be tweeting the blow-by-blow about the race, either. You can find all of that info at the official RAAM site once the race begins (

The team and crew will be flying out to California on June 11th. The race begins at noon PST from Oceanside, CA on June 14th, and we end in Annapolis, MD. The goal is to finish in under 6 days 18 hours (the time it took these same riders to complete the race as an 8-man team).

Team: Brian Ray, Brian Zupancic, Matt Geis, Shawn Aker
Crew: Pam Semanik (Crew Chief), Jill Marks, Angie Ridgel, Larry Smith, Glenn Peterson, Erica Ray, Malinda Geis, David Nemer, and Dave Drabison

Friday, May 2, 2014

Off the back and into the 2014 season!

If the first race of the season is any indication, I'm in for a tough year.

The girls all flew out of the starting gate like racing greyhounds. I thought I was ready for anything, but I didn't expect this. My legs were burning and we had just started the first lap.

I responded, recovered from the initial shock, and took my place near the back of the pack. My coach told me that I should sit in and wait for the right moment to attack. I sat in, alright, but not because it was the plan. I had no choice;  I was hanging on with everything I had.

It's a little frustrating to spend hours and hours in off-season training brutality, only to bust onto the spring racing scene to a resounding yawn. OK, I confess: the last few months I've felt my motivation dying as other competing commitments have begun to heat up. Personally and professionally, there's really just been an awful lot going on lately.*

I mentioned in this blog before that cycling is my sanity, my escape hatch when things get a little too hairy. But when cycling starts to become just another thing in a long list of things I have to do, that's when you know something's gonna give. (Cycling has not become 'just another thing'. Training for races, however, requires an element of dedication and sacrifice that has become a bit less palatable lately. Mainly because I haven't yet figured out how to warp time.)

No excuses. I simply can't afford the focus and determination it takes to excel at this sport right now. And I need to come to grips with that:  this year isn't going to be a repeat of last year, when I had very few bad days on the bike (although the ride with Tim, in Prescott, WI, still weighs heavily on the mind.) This season I figure I'm in for a few surprises, and maybe a (much needed) humility-meter reset.

I'm aware of all this going in, and I'm learning to manage my own expectations.  But I'm not going to stop racing with the intent to win. I'll go out, get humbled, find resolve, come back - hopefully stronger and in a better place, and do it all over again. And maybe I'll still finish at the back of the pack. Or maybe I'll surprise myself.

I approach the turn still in the break pack, but I don't have the best line. The other girls fly past me and I'm once again given the choice of digging in deep to hang on to a wheel, or get spit out the back and into no-man's land for the rest of the race.

It makes me wonder if this is how my race year stacks up: watching the field pull away from me. Should I burn my last match to catch on, or should I sit up and let them go?

My guess is that there will be plenty of opportunities for both those choices, and I'll just have to trust myself to know what to do when I get there.

*I haven't posted anything about this yet, and although I keep telling myself that I should, it's not likely that I will. Bottom line: I'm crew chief for the 4-man Ohio Cycleworks Charities Team. It's my job to get the team and 9 crew members across the country as efficiently as possible, without losing anybody. BIG responsibility. Lots of details to consider. Huge time, energy, and emotional bandwidth requirement. A once in a lifetime experience, and I am looking forward to it.

**UPDATE: Today's race was a helluva lot better than the one featured in this posting.