In case there wasn’t enough excitement planned for the week of Cyclocross World Championships in Louisville, Mother Nature added her own flare. The preceding weekend had been exceptionally warm and wet. On Tuesday night we had torrential downpours with thunder, lightening and even some tornado warnings. By Wednesday, the course was flooded. It continued to rain on and off throughout the day, and the temperature was a balmy 65-70 degrees.
By the time I woke up on Thursday, it was 25 degrees and there was a dusting of snow. Because the ground was so warm, nothing really froze, but the mud had thickened considerably. I had pre-ridden the course that morning, and rode around a good bit before my race, but nothing prepared me for feeling like I was running through waist-deep water at my lactic threshold.
My race was the Women’s 30-34 and was scheduled to start at 1pm. We were seeded by random draw, and I happened to have been drawn for the front row. We all lined up, teeth chattering in the 30-degree wind, and were soon underway for 40-minutes of torture. We started fast, down a hard-packed surface, through the finish, and into the mud. The mud was so thick and so deep that even our hardest efforts yielded little speed. None of us were going particularly fast, but my inability to get moving was a blow to my psyche. I felt like I was running on flat tires. So even though I was only about one quarter of a mile into the race, I went ahead and pitted the first chance I had – it was more of a psychological pit than anything else.
With a fresh set of wheels under me, I put my head down and went to work (at about 2 miles per hour, mind you). The first part of the course wound around a golf course, was all flat, had some fun twists and turns, and it was all on watt-sucking grass-turned-mud. The course then headed over to a technical section of some whoop-dee-doos, a short run-up, some sand, small drop-off with a quick turn, more sand, and another roller. This section was pretty smooth running, as the sand was fairly packed.
This led into a long 200-yard straight-away that was nothing but grass/mud – no turns, no elevation changes. And it was barely ridable. The mud was so thick that I could barely turn over my pedals in my 36-32 (for those of you non-riders, that’s a really easy gear). By shouldering the bike and jogging, I was passing riders. Running was no less painful, as each of my shoes weighed about 5lbs each (not to mention my 35lb bike), and the mud was so thick that it was sucking my shoes in. Each time I tried to wrangle my foot out of mud, it would sound like a suction cup.
This section was followed by several more wide, sweeping turns, then another sand section, with another 5-6 stride run-up, than another long mud section heading towards pit #2. By the time I got onto the muddy straight before the pit, my wheels wouldn’t even spin they were so caked with mud. Trying to roll the bike on the ground took more effort than hoisting the heavy thing onto my shoulder. More than once I came running into the pit with a bike on my shoulder, unable to ride it any further.
As I headed out of pit #2, with a clean bike, there were a few tight corners, and then one set of double barriers. Nothing fancy there. This was followed by another long, watt-sucking, bike-carrying section of mud. Each lap I tried as hard as I could to ride it, but most of the time it was simply faster just to “run” it.
After that, we headed through several large puddles, then towards the first large run-up. It was long. And steep. It was hard to find traction, it was hard to pull my feet out of the mud, there was no running. Then there was a long section at the top of a ridge, then a hairy descent, which all had to be run/walked, followed by another run-up with railroad ties. At the top, we remounted for a fast, steep descent (don’t even try the brakes), through another huge puddle, a quick uphill, another 20 yards of mud, and then onto the pavement.
I rolled through the finish after my first lap with a time just over 20 minutes. Since it was a 40-minute race, I thought for sure I would only be doing 2 laps. So in the second half of my second lap (from the long hike-a-bike section onwards), I really pushed myself to the limit knowing it would be my last lap. On the run-ups I gave everything my legs (and lungs) would allow. I caught and passed several women, and was really looking forward to the finishing stretch.
I could see the clock, which read 41minutes, and as I rolled through, the official was ringing the bell and yelling “One to go! One to go!” With a look of complete dismay, I pointed at the clock, and over the PA the official said, “You will do as many laps as I say you will do.” I laughed, mostly at myself, shifted back into the easy ring and headed for the mud.
I had nothing left in the tank, and I had no idea how I was going to do another 20-minute torture fest. Since I knew I had nothing with which to counter an attack from another rider, I settled in to ride my own lap, and not worry about where the other riders were. It was hard, and I gave it what I had left, and that was all I could do. I have never done this intentionally before, but it was the best way to end a race. I was not obsessing over where other competitors were, or trying to plot an attack – I was just focused on my riding and doing what I could. It was still painful, but I finished the race with a good taste in my mouth, and I finished well too.
In summary, it was sheer torture, unlike any other course conditions I have experienced (way worse than Nationals this year), but I had fun, it was an amazing experience and I am so glad I went.