Friday, October 20, 2017

Mountain Biking Has Brought Me Back To Life.

Pic by Kirk Giessinger
Bikerdave Tufts Race Summary Oct. 18, 2017

I must be tired. The first two nights after the last race, I laid in bed with the intention of writing a story for the team blog and I just fell right to sleep.  Both nights.  What a dork.  But, I have been writing for two nights now and I just want to say thanks to you Dave for all your support.  You are one of my best friends and the least I owe you is a story that I've been promising for way too long.

So finally here goes, starting with a statement...

Mountain biking has brought me back to life.

Wow that sounds deep, but it's true. I'll explain later...

This past weekend, I finished the last race of the Gulf South Regional Mountain Bike Series.  It's been 8 great races starting in March of 2017 at locations around Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.  I want to thank the amazing people who have set up all these races because it has been a wonderful experience for someone like me who has just gotten back into racing mountain bikes after 20 years.

Back about a year ago when I found out about the race series from my good friend Linda Vasquez in Hattiesburg, I made the commitment to myself to attend and ride in every race.  I needed something like this.  I needed a challenge and a goal with some hurdles to overcome.  I needed something positive to focus on for myself.  In hindsight, I would definitely be getting real life lessons on focus.  Be careful what you ask for...  : )

When Linda told me about the races, I had been starting to ride the local Hattiesburg, MS trails for fun, fitness and therapy.  The last year and a half of my life I've been going through a divorce which has been very emotionally difficult, so the best therapy for me that I have found is to ride bikes. Dave Alden actually brought me into the world of BMX Freestyle over 30 years ago.  And happily, I had been consistently riding my flatland trick bike again and also started messing with both my old road bike and old mountain bike. Flatland BMX is my first love, and I had been riding more, but when I went up to New England to visit family and went on a mountain bike ride with Dave, I remembered how much I LOVE riding trails.  So in a couple months I went on another trip with Dave and Glen Golrad to Kingdom Trails in Vermont.  If you've never been there, go.  Seriously, go now. It's heaven on earth for mountain bikers. Oh my word, THAT trip was the spark that started a fire inside me.  I loved every second of riding those trails.  So I went home and started riding the Hattiesburg trails even more with my other best friend Wes Jaronitzky.  At the time, we were also riding old road bikes together "training" for the Hub City Hustle Triathlon which was another great first experience a year ago.  I say "training" with quotes because back then I had almost zero endurance strength.  Other than riding my trick bike a lot over the years, I've never actually consistently "trained" for any kind of endurance fitness at all.  So, in addition to simply riding more and trying to put in some miles, I learned about modern bike technology and upgraded my 1994 canti-lever brake aluminum hardtail Caloi to a very modern high tech carbon full suspension Cannondale.  The difference with a modern bike was unbelievable, plus it didn't hurt my 45 year old back like the old bike did.  It also helped me ride longer which I love, so Wes and I took a couple road trips in December 2016 to Cold Water Mountain in Anniston, Alabama and the Grapevine Trails in Dallas, Texas.  Both trips I rode as much as I could and it was amazing!!  Dave, who was being very supportive, even sent me a bad ASS care package just in time for the Christmas road trip with all sorts of bike and running stuff.  Socks, Gu gels, water bottle waist pack, a miniature rubber chicken, etc.  It made the riding trips so much better, so thanks again Dave!!  After those trips I just kept riding Tuffburg in Hattiesburg and also discovered the completely amazing trails in Petal, MS.

So, all that brings me up to the start of the Gulf South Regional Mountain Bike race series in March.  I had no idea what to expect, but I signed up for Cat 2 Men's 40-49 and showed up. Thankfully for me, the first race was here at home in Hattiesburg, MS.  Tuffburg has great trails. It's fast, twisty, some technical, has some small climbs, but no major elevation.  It's fun and well maintained.  The only person that I knew was my friend Linda Vasquez, but everyone that I met was very friendly and there was a great close knit family vibe that was very inviting.  I'm glad I started in Cat 2 because even though I didn't have much endurance, I've got decent riding skills and I wanted to ride for more than the Cat 3 distance.  Plus, I needed the challenge.  And having the personal goal of all 8 races added to that challenge.  And apparently I needed even more challenge to my challenge because unfortunately I just kept hurting myself.  I had rolled and lightly sprained my left ankle on a cinder block step a week before the first race, but I started AND finished.  I was exhausted.  But I finished. I felt like I couldn't breath. But I finished. I was in pain. But I finished and I LOVED every moment of it.  I got 11th place out of 18. Not horrible for my first race. 

So in preparation for the next race, I straight up knocked myself out riding trails in Hattiesburg and got a concussion.  It was a week before the second race and I woke up in the ferns by myself, six feet from my bike. I had completely washed out my front wheel going way too fast into a slippery turn and I went full forehead straight into the ground.  Never even put my hands down in front of me. Thankfully my MIPS full face took it like a champ. I however wasn't myself for a while. It was a lesson on focusing in the moment on riding and not dwelling on the people that hurt you in life.  Yeah, my body was riding, but my mind was off somewhere else.  Good teaching moment.  Lesson learned the hard way. Apparently that's my thing...

For the second race, I went to the Spillway Scramble in Norco, LA and a week after the concussion was feeling just good enough to at least enter the race and stay back and get to ride.  I made the commitment and I wasn't going to miss a race. The Spillway trail is awesome. No elevation, just really fast and twisty the whole way up and back. It's right next to a waterway which is cool to see and there's a ton of dirt berms and even a few wooden berms that let you fly around the corner and maybe even ride up high on them.  It's very well maintained and well ridden.  And there's a ton of snakes.  Lots of them.  I almost ran one over on a wooden berm.  It was cool.  I got 6th out of 9 riders.  I had a blast, met some more cool people and survived another race.  

Race #3, "Back to the Bouge" was in Mobile, AL. These trails are very nice.  It's a state park, so the woods are very thick.  Twisty, hilly, rooty, but fast and fun.  It had some short climbs, but no major elevation.  There was a basketball court there, so I wished I had my flatland bike.  For the first couple laps I felt like I couldn't breath just like the first races, but in the last lap I started feeling stronger than the beginning of the race and I sped up.  That was new for me and it felt good.  Maybe training some was working a little bit.  I got 8th out of 12 people.

The fourth race was at the Mt Zion Trails in Brookhaven, MS. All I can say is WOW! They have built a very nice place to ride out there. There's bridges and jumps and cool art decorations everywhere. The pavilion at the front is a very cool place to hang out.  I was impressed. There was some hills and climbing, the trails are fast, and overall the race day was great. I got 9th out of 12 riders, but I struggled to finish because about 6 miles into the race I washed out my front tire again going around a corner, hit the ground hard with a full body slam and jammed up my left shoulder, elbow and rammed the left side of my head and helmet into the ground again.  No blackout this time, but I rang my bell hard.  I changed tires after this race because it became obvious to me that the sidewalls on my first tires were weak and giving out on me under pressure.  I haven't washed out like that any more since I changed tires, so hopefully that trend continues.  

The fifth race, which was the one before the hot summer break was the Mississippi State Games in Ridgeland, MS. It was supposed to be at the Jackson, MS trails, but it got postponed and moved due to bad weather and flooding.  The Ridgeland trails are amazing. There's some definite good climbs that are bigger than normal for this area. It's fast, technical, there's a famous "rock garden" section that has a 180 degree turn in the middle, there's bridges and even some BMX style berms out by the pavilion. I really liked these trails. It was hot that day and I was fatigued and felt like I couldn't breathe for most of the race, but I got some energy for the last lap and started passing some riders that were around me.  And because apparently it's still my thing, I learned another lesson the hard way.  I generally have a rule to look ahead and not turn around to look behind me at the other riders, but like a dummy I broke my own rule and looked back to see how far ahead I was of the riders I had passed before.  I didn't see anyone and as soon as I looked forward all I had time to do was brace as I bullseyed a big flat faced rock sticking up out of the middle of the trail.  I was going about 12-13 mph on the downhill slope and my front wheel just plowed into it and stopped.  My fork compressed and I did a summersault with the bike right to my head, right shoulder and I sprained my right wrist and thumb on my shifter.  I also hammered and scraped the hell out of my right knee on the dang rocks. This time it wasn't the tires washing out. This time it was me being stupid and looking back and not focusing on what's ahead of me. I was hurt and bloody, but man I was pissed OFF at myself. I finished the race 10th out of 11 and I was hurting from that hit. Good thing for summer break...  

I made a point over the summer break to focus better while riding and not to look back or be thinking about anything other than riding the bike on the trail in front of me.  That's easier said than done, but I'm getting there one ride at a time. Over the summer I kept training. I even started doing intervals which was new for me. I started eating better and staying away more from junk food and too much sugar. All the riding was helping me sleep better too, which is good because I don't always sleep well because of anxiety.  During the summer break I also decided to start going to the race course the day before and pre-riding them. Plus, getting a hotel and trying to get a decent nights sleep also saved me from waking up really early and driving to the race the same morning as the race. 

So race #6 was at the Comite Trails in Baton Rouge, LA.  This race trip Wes went with me and we rode the course the day before.  I LOVED these trails. Not much climbing, but they are VERY technical and fast. There's a bunch of drops in the trails and they are really twisty and you really have to focus because obstacles and drops and turns come up fast there. I did two laps, really trying to remember where the tricky parts were and that helped me in the race for sure.  The whole weekend I did crash only one time in the race and lightly sprained my right wrist, but it was because a vine grabbed my handlebar, pulled my front brake lever closed and turned my bike hard to the left.  I fell to the right onto my hand. It wasn't because I wasn't focused.  It just happened and I got right up and kept going.  No stress, just some pain in my wrist.  For this race I was very focused. And determined. And for the first time I didn't feel like I was completely out of breath. I felt stronger than any of the other races.  I rode that course hard and loved every second of it.  And I got 4th out of 8.  SO COOL!!  

For race # 7 I drove up to Ackerman, MS on Saturday and rode the entire 18 mile Cat 2 course by myself. That place has everything. There's definitely elevation with some awesome climbs there and there's also some incredible downhill sections. There's dirt roads, a few paved roads with even a steep hill and lots and lots of winding tight single track.  There's a bunch of bridges and even a section with a gravel walking path and a wooden bridge walking path. There's also lots of sections where the trees are very close. One difference with this course is there's only one lap, no matter which Cat you are in. There's so many miles of trails, they just have it set up so you don't ride anything twice in a single race.  I got invited by the locals to eat dinner with them at their pot-luck gathering and I had a great time hanging out and meeting some very cool people.  Thanks to everyone because it was awesome.  That night unfortunately I would have another obstacle put in my path. When I was unloading my bike from inside the small rental car, I pulled a muscle in my lower back and spent the night in pain with the heating pad, back support brace and not sleeping much. I decided to get up the next morning and just try to warm up and see what I could do. Thankfully riding around helped loosen it up some, but it still hurt. Despite that I just rode as best as I could. It actually hurt more driving in the car going home than it did while riding my bike. This race a few of the regular really really fast guys in my class didn't show up, and for the first time I was up in the front group the whole race. It was a very cool experience for me. I was breathing better and stronger, I was riding stronger and even though my back hurt, it loosed up enough to just let me ride pretty normal.  I ran out of water towards the end and my legs got a bit crampy, but I was determined and kept with the other guys. We were passing each other and that kept motivating me even more. I ended up coming out of the woods in second place and had a crazy hard and fun sprint to the finish with my new friend Bill Brister. I held onto 2nd place out of 6 riders and got to stand on a podium box for the first time ever in my life for anything.  I was hurting, but I didn't crash, I was focused and I felt pretty strong the whole race. And I loved every moment.  I will definitely be going back there to ride this winter. I want to ride the Cat 1 & Cat 3 sections and see all their trails out there.

So 3 days after that race I got sick with a bad throat, sinus and upper respiratory infection.  And my back was hurting pretty bad. I ended up missing 3 days of work in 2 weeks because of my back and being sick.  For the weekend of the last mountain bike race, I had also committed myself to do the Hub City Hustle Triathlon again with Wes on Saturday.  In addition to riding mountain bikes all year, I had started going to the gym some, swimming and running pretty regularly to help my body get stronger for riding all the types of my bikes and the local triathlon.  I was on antibiotics and Mucinex, but the Thursday before the big weekend I felt absolutely horrible. I thought I was going to have to skip at least the triathlon.  Fortunately I felt a bit better Friday and wasn't hurting as bad, so I got all my gear together and just decided to start and do my best and see what happened. I happily finished the triathlon and beat my time from last year by a bunch. My 1/3 mile swim was slow at 13 minutes and I couldn't breathe well, but it loosened up my back enough so that I averaged 19.6 mph on the road bike for 20 miles. And I had a 8:28 pace on the run for 3.8 miles. Even though I was getting over being hurt and sick, that was considerably better than last year's first attempt.  I'm glad I did the triathlon, but it did whoop my butt for the last mountain bike race the next day.

Race #8 was called the Lungbuster and it was in Ridgeland, MS again. The same place as race #5.  They set up a different and really awesome well marked lap that was about 4 miles long.  It was very fast, twisty and technical. And in the beginning there was a good climb.  My first two race laps of four, I had a migraine and was very tired.  I was third right at the start, but quickly fell back to last on the first climb. There was a big crowd at the Rock Garden section and they were cheering and being supportive. It was cool. On my third lap after my headache faded, I popped a wheelie after clearing the rocks and everyone freaked out and cheered. It was funny. The fourth lap I started feeling stronger and worked my way from last to 6th out of 10.  Not bad for the day after a triathlon.  And honestly, I'm thrilled that I finished all 8 races. Completing that goal means a lot to me. And as a bonus, I ended up getting second place in the Overall standings for the series. I got a really cool medal and stood again on the podium with two of my really cool new friends, Duane Misko and Eric Heyl.  

All said and done it's been a great experience doing this race series. I'm definitely going to keep riding a lot for fun and also training more and learning how to get stronger.  I liked having a goal and even though I had some hurdles, it was all worth it.  I will certainly be back for next years race series, not only to ride, but to see and hang out with some really awesome new friends that I've met. 

A year and a half ago I knew I couldn't survive any more in the unhealthy environment that I was in for way too long.  It's been a rough road since that day I finally had enough.  I said that mountain biking has brought me back to life and it has.  I found a part of myself out on the trails that I had kept buried and almost completely lost for far too long.  I can't even imagine my life now without riding my mountain bike so much and doing these races.

Thanks to Dave Alden for all your incredible support.  Thanks for the trips and the borrowed bikes and that awesome care package.  I won't ever forget that.  I'm still using the Osprey pack every time I ride!!  I can't wait to go back to Kingdom Trails!!

Thanks also to Wes Jaronitzky for your support and letting me rent a room in your house.  Thanks for the road trips and the push you gave me to buy my dream mountain bike.  I knew that I wanted it, but I had no clue how much I really needed it in my life. 

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