Pescadero Road Race
Words by Kelton Wright
THURSDAY, T-MINUS 2 DAYS TO RACE DAY
It was Thursday, and given that my race was Saturday, it seemed justifiable that I should have some nerves. I’d had nerves since the moment I’d registered 35 days prior, so at that point, my body was exhausted from worrying. Worry aside, things were already not going to according to plan. I thought my body and I had made a devil’s pact that my PMS would peak on race day and I would be at the threshold of undirected anger and hate fuel, but instead my body had betrayed me the night prior and I would be racing in my drops - which would be the closest I could get to fetal position on the bike. Fine.
Given that this was my first race, there are already some very basic things that were blowing my mind including but not limited to the prospect of riding without my phone, having to eat without stopping, and apparently going without my saddlebag. When I asked my coach (aka “boyfriend”) what I was supposed to do if I flatted, he said lose. OK, Coach. If I’m being honest, it crossed my mind that losing by flatting sounded much more amenable than losing by sheer lack of skill and talent. But when Coach saw this convenient escape route crop up on my face, he furrowed his brow and said, “don’t flat, Kelton.” Fine.
The race was up north outside of San Jose, CA, some 400 miles north of home in LA, and we’d decided to make a road trip out of it. While packing, I avoided the task at hand and gathered items only for the day after the race when I would just be riding for fun in Big Sur. For that, I could focus on the fashion element more. Chartreuse Giro helmet, teal Rapha jersey, La Cubiste Athletic socks in teal and chartreuse, coral lipstick to match the lining on the jersey. Other than extreme suffer scores on intense climbs synced perfectly with dubstep pop, kit coordinating is definitely the highlight of cycling for me. I casually ignored everything to do with my race kit because its color of light grey and pink were such bad color combination on me that they not only made me look ill, but subsequently made me look angry. Plus, the race kit socks weren’t tall enough. I glared at them longer than any pair of sock warrants, but it made me feel better.
The plan to close out Thursday was to finish packing, have the same turkey pepperjack avocado honey mustard on wheat sandwich for dinner I have every night, run through my race strategy with the cat which was limited to don’t fall off the back or the bike, wake up early enough to do openers before work, and remember to chase the Category 3s. While falling asleep, I thought about how much of my anxiety meds I could take on race day without forgetting where I was or what I was doing and wondered if drug-induced laissez-faire is considered doping. I’d be fine.
FRIDAY, T-MINUS 1 DAY TO RACE DAY
The plan for Friday was openers, a half-day at work, and then the six (inevitably seven) hour drive up to race base. I’d never done openers and it’s worth mentioning I only had a vague idea of what they meant. I googled the term and decided to take my favorite route by my house, the Ballona Creek Path. Outside of the Pacific Coast Highway, that path is the closest place you can use explosive energy without worrying about changing lights, stop signs, or cars. The only people on the path are typically other cyclists and people my grandmother would misidentify as delinquents. I’ve heard rumors it’s dangerous to bike there, but so far the worst (best) thing that’s happened to me on that path was a ten year old telling me I was, “too fast, too furious.”
I ended up doing about an hour and 15 minutes on the bike and rolling into work around 9. I was feeling confident and sound until approximately 10 hours later when nerves were shaking my appetite, six hours in the car had my knees acting up, and I had forgotten that 70 degrees in San Francisco during the day meant it was actually cold at night. I shivered in my jorts in the very hip restaurant, pushing the fish around my plate.
SATURDAY, RACE DAY
I slept well, which I wanted to believe was an indication of how I would do on the course and maybe it was if you counted the word “slept” but not the word “well”. Breakfast in the hotel consisted of the usual mash-up of yogurt, Nutella, and granola with some berries thrown in. I’d demanded I also have butter coffee because I’m a creature of routine (and I’m spoiled), so we whipped that up on the hotel counter as well. I felt prepared! I was ready! Freezing cold heart-rate monitor strapped to my body, braid adjusted at the proper height to slip through the back of my helmet, and the “just in case” Klonopin in my back pocket in case I freaked out - what more could a girl need?
Turns out, a few things.
When I powered up my Garmin, Coach asked what was on the screen. Time, heart rate, distance, time of day, speed, message of goodwill, escape button, etc. Apparently this was all wrong. All I needed was time passed and distance. Heart rate and speed would psyche me out too much, and I was advised not to focus on them. I made a new page on my Garmin. Time and distance. That would be all I needed. I was a machine and I needed to trust my gut.
Speaking of my gut, I was also 100% wrong about the food I packed.
“How are you going to eat this on the bike?” Coach held up a waffle and glared at me suspiciously.
“I, uh, hadn’t thought about it?” I plead guiltily, smiling out the side of my mouth.
“Take these.” He tossed me three mocha gels with special tearaways so they only opened the top without ripping the whole packet open. Fancy!
We packed up the bikes and the dog and headed off to the race some 45 minutes away.
The race itself was in Pescadero, CA. The Cat 3 & 4 Women’s course was 47 miles, 1.7 laps on the course, and about 4,000 ft of climbing. I typically ride about 120 miles with around 9,000 ft of climbing in any given week, so the numbers weren’t daunting. This cavalier nonchalance should have been a warning sign, but unfortunately being nonchalant doesn’t sync very well with foreboding.
The race was starting from a local high school, and while unloading our bikes, Coach asked me if I had my USA Cycling License.
“Yeah, I bought it.”
“But do you have it?”
“Like a physical card? No.”
“Can you bring it up on your phone?”
“Through the app.”
This was clearly off to a good start. There was approximately zero reception at Middle of Nowhere, California, but I was able to find my license number in a stored email on my phone. Check-in was fine, and Coach pinned my number to my jersey, and to my bibs, and to his fingers, bleeding all over the number and me.
“It makes you look tough!” And off we went to warm-up.
I am not good at warming up. Or cooling down. Or knowing when I am either warmed up or cooled down. I often push too hard, eat too little, give in too easily, and when it’s time for my all, I’m not entirely sure what my all is until it’s clear I didn’t use it. So I was grateful there was someone else there to tell me what to do.
To be fair, my cycling mentor Abby Watson told me to figure out a warm up routine weeks prior to this race. So I googled it for approximately ten minutes and then didn’t think about it again until Coach was lecturing me on not ever warming up. At this point, he had to have been getting tired of me batting my eyelashes at him and smiling like I didn’t know any better.
The setting was not indicative of the terrain. We were in an open field, surrounded by pine trees. Maybe 30 women rolled up to the “start” for the Cat 3, 4, Masters 35+ race. There were a lot of kits that indicated these women belonged to teams, clubs and the like. I felt completely unserious and finally had a sense of ease also known as ignorance.
I waved to Coach like it was my first day at a new school, not yet knowing I was going to eat lunch alone. As soon as the race started, it was clear I wasn’t warmed up. I don’t know why I thought four miles was enough. On a typical hard power day, it takes me easily fifteen miles to feel like a well-oiled machine. I noted to myself to investigate warming up for races after this one was over.
We jockeyed for position. The only thing I was really concerned with was getting closer to the front. Chase the 3s. That was my whole plan. I wasted too much energy either playing accordion inside the pack or trying to get closer to the front on the outside. As soon as we got to the first climb, the entire order of the pack changed and spread out anyway, and the climbers emerged.
I climb a lot. I climb almost every ride. And I was flabbergasted and incredibly bummed to feel sluggish and unimpressive on those bursty climbs. I could not keep up with the strongest of them, and when I got to the top, I set my goals on chasing down the pack on the descent. I’d been getting meaner in the descents and this felt early enough to catch on.
I had no idea how many girls were in front, or how many were behind me. But I was going to power this descent. And then I didn’t. I was distracted. Something was clearly wrong with my brakes. I looked over my bars to see the right side of my brakes firmly planted against the rim. I cursed repeatedly out loud with new found energy and rage before reaching down to adjust then. A couple turns later, my brakes were back against the rim. I spent maybe 65% of the descent trying to get them in whack. Once I emerged out onto the flat, I was alone.
Like, really alone. There was no catching the powerhouses in front of me, and upon inspection, there was no one behind me. So this was racing? 12 miles of jockeying and then 35 miles of power solitude? I debated easing off, waiting for someone to ride with. I hummed to myself, looked at the scenery, trying to at least appreciate seeing a new landscape. It felt like I was working impossibly hard, but without the luxury of my heartrate, I had no idea if this was true. A mile passed and I was bored out of my mind. I should have been training without headphones this whole time. Where was my imagination? Was it possible to meditate on the bike? What if I had a panic attack? What if I just died out here? A lot of good my imagination was. And then the whirring came.
The men’s Cat 1 & 2 peloton approached and it was like jumping onto a moving train. Or like the scene in the original Jurassic Park when the dinosaurs are sprinting across the field and you’re just trying not to get trampled. I tried my best to stay to the side, but some of them seemed determined to pass me on my right as if they could only see my wheel and never looked up high enough to see my braid. I said some hellos, I took advantage of the pull, and I stayed to the side. Within minutes, I was alone again, but I had a second wind. For a second there, I had remembered riding my bike was fun.
By mile 17, my second wind had proved to be as fleeting as the wants of a toddler, and I had essentially resigned to losing. This was just going to be a good training day on the bike. I was alone, there was definitely chocolate all over my face after trying to eat one of the mocha mystery gel things which had been IMPOSSIBLE to squeeze out of the packet, and my body was begging for a warm bath and a gallon of Skratch. When the second sound of whirring came.
On my left came a woman with three women on her tail. They were in the middle of a rotation.
“Echelon?” I asked her.
And I hopped on the back.
Over the next 20 miles, we picked up and dropped a couple girls, but the four of us stuck, encouraging each other after strong pulls, complimenting our efforts and making it easier on our legs and our minds. I loved these girls! These course angels! I was so happy! And I made an obvious mistake because of it. I was so relieved, so happy, so grateful, that I pulled too much. I took longer turns, feeling like I had the power when I should have been recovering from riding alone. We finished the first lap together and made our way back to the original grueling climb. On the flat prior to the climb, I asked them their names. Crystal, Monica and Lizzy. I wanted to know because they were the first indication racing might be fun, that racing might result in something better than a podium - friends.
But like the first round, that climb proved to be something out of my wheelhouse. I’d wasted too much energy on too-long pulls, got psyched out, wasn’t getting enough of those damn gels in my mouth, and couldn’t hang on to the girls. So yet again, I found myself alone near the top of the climb. There were ten miles left and it felt like I was bonking, not just physically, but emotionally.
I was back on the flats where the men’s echelon had passed me when St. Lindsay arrived.
“Do you want to take 30 second turns? Today’s not my day.” It was clearly more her day than mine since we was passing me as she said this.
It’s pretty obvious when someone needs help versus when they can tell YOU need help, and Lindsay could tell I needed it. We took our turns, me fading more and more, until we closed in on the final climb and Lindsay peeled off, saying she’d see me at the top. I was wrecked when I got to the “2km left” sign. I tried to do the basic math in my head of how far that was, if it meant more or less than that in miles, but my brain was so fried I couldn’t do the basic calculation and was flustering myself ‘til I finally yelled, “oh my god Kelton, it’s almost done, just pedal.” At the final climb, I saw Coach cheering and I yelled at him too some variation of, “I hate this and I’m never doing it again,” as the photographer took what must have been a very flattering picture.
I crested the hill, and after a mile and some vague deeper understanding of what 2k meant, I asked some bystanders if I’d passed the finish. I had. Shit! I had wanted to actually meet my road saints. I spun around only to see Coach descending, conciliatory Coke in hand for me. (Though I am certain he would refer to it as congratulatory.)
The finish back to the car was about another 8 miles that I rode significantly harder than the previous ten indicating to me that I’d simply given up rather than bonked, which struck me as even more embarrassing. So I continued to embarrass myself by pouting in self-disappointment the rest of the way to the car as I spilled that delicious Coke all over my face. As we rode into the parking lot where the race started, my front brakes popped off my bike and over my handlebars and I stared at them in disbelief and started laughing while Coach did the productive thing and looked for the bolt that had apparently come undone, explaining why my brakes had just willy-nilly placed themselves wherever they wanted during the race. We (he) didn’t find it.
“Do you want to know how you did?”
“I did horribly. Let’s go.”
And so we did. In the car, about 45 minutes, 2000 calories, and one significant attitude adjustment later, I said, “that was fun!” and Coach, like anyone dealing with an insane person, nodded and carefully said, “yeah?” and I stuffed more artichoke bread in my face and said, “mmyeah!”
THE FOLLOWING TUESDAY
It wouldn’t be ‘til days later sitting on my computer at home that I would see I got 5th out of not very many more. And the echelon women? Cat 3s. I’d been chasing the 3s all along. I’d been poorly fueled with shoddy brakes and an even shoddier attitude, but I had been following the plan. I finally took the crumpled race number covered in blood and chocolate out of my bag and smoothed it out onto my desk. I got out a tube of acrylic fuchsia paint and I scrawled the words “GET FASTER” over the number, pinning it the blinds by my door before texting Coach.
“So, when’s the next race?”
Here’s what I wish I’d done before the first race, and what I’m trying to figure out for the second:
- Ride like you’re racing at least once. Go balls out with as similar terrain as you can find and ride and eat like you are racing. The amount and type of food you consume on a stop-and-take-pictures ride is different than a stop-for-nothing race. Try these things out first so you’re not at mile 20 of the actual race with chocolate all over your face.
- Make several pages on your Garmin - one with the regular bullshit you like, one with limited bullshit, and one specifically for racing with time and distance. That way, if you, like me, get pissed off halfway through that you can’t see your heart rate, you can just change the page temporarily instead of scoffing at a device that you set-up yourself.
- Train without headphones. I was told that the race itself would be so engaging that I wouldn’t notice their absence, but I did, and it was frustrating. There are times during the race when you’re completely engaged in what’s happening, and there are times when your brain is wondering why you’ve opted to do this instead of lie on a beach somewhere.
- Learn how to warm-up. I still don’t really know how to do this, so we’ll figure it out together.
- Screenshot your race license. There is never reception when you need it.
- Make sure to pin your number to your jersey and not your sports bra/bibs/heart rate monitor so when there are five minutes before lineup, you can pee without panic.
- Don’t waste power in the early accordion motions of the race. Small surges expend a lot of energy. Until you learn to how to chase a break/attack, let the pack ebb and flow and burn out around you.
- If you are in an echelon, and you are feeling great, still only take your turn. Don’t pull longer than everyone else just because you feel great. This might seem obvious, but feeling great makes me unnecessarily generous. Don’t do that. Or do. And then find you don’t have the energy left for that final climb.
- As it turns out, drafting on the men’s peloton is apparently against the rules.
- Have flexi-goals. Some people podium their first race. Some people never do. But everyone has the opportunity to make friends, see the sights, and learn something. Make those your goals, too.