Spoiler alert: Yesterday I quickly realized that my (lack of) mountain biking skills were NO match for the trails of Charlottesville. I feel like a wimp wussing out a race, especially since I just bought my new mountain bike (fortunately I hadn't signed up for the race yet), but I also think doing a race that is so far above my skill level would be irresponsible, especially given that I have 70.3 Worlds in just a few weeks, which is one race that I care ALOT about, and I wouldn't get to do that race if I did damage at the Xterra (and if you saw me trying to mountain bike yesterday, you would know that was definitely within the realm of possibilities).
So let's back up to yesterday morning when I woke up at 5:30am and strapped my mountain bike to the car and headed down to Charlottesville to attend a free XTerra clinic, blissfully unaware of of what the trails had in store for me. Actually, that's not completely true - I'd heard from several different people that these trails were some of the harder ones in the area, especially with all the roots, and that was a big reason why I was going down to Charlottesville in the first place before I even signed up for the race - to check out the trails and see if I felt I could handle the Xterra race (1500m swim, 14 mile mountain bike ride, 6 mile trail run) or if I should go with the shorter sprint race (750m swim, 6 mile mountain bike ride, 3 mile trail run).
I arrived at Walnut Creek Park a couple minutes after 9 and there was already a smallish group assembled. I was the only girl, but there were a few others there who were newbies to off-road racing. They explained the trails to us, how the Xterra race would do an extra two mile loop to start and then do two loops of the 6 mile course and the sprint would only do one six mile loop. Right from the start of the ride, I could tell the trails were no joke and I immediately felt like I was riding outside my comfort zone. I lucked out with the Jersey Devil race and going into that sight unseen - sure there was alot of sand, but the paths were relatively wide, relatively root-free, not ridiculously hilly, and I never felt out of control. At Walnut Creek, we entered a singletrack path and immediately started going down some steepish downhills with tight turns, rocks, roots, etc. In my mind, I know that I need momentum to roll easily over the rocks and roots (and with my 29-er wheels, I felt like I was driving a tank that should be able to roll over anything in its path), but gaining speed on the downhills freaked me out because I felt like I was losing control and disaster would be just around the corner from me if I went too fast. So I sat on my brakes. Alot. And I know this didn't do me any good. I'd lose momentum and tip over or get stuck on a rock and tip over or slide down a root and tip over. Within a mile of getting on the trails, I had already thrown the "Do The Full Xterra Race Next Weekend" idea out the window, categorizing it as stupid foolish. It was about this time that I made it down a hill unscathed only to be faced with a sheer, slippery rock that I'm supposed to BIKE UP? This only confirmed my mental decision as I unclipped and scrambled up the rock with my bike. This would be the first of many unclip-and-scramble routines of the day.
Eventually the trail leveled out a bit and felt more manageable. Unfortunately, this was also about the time that I missed a turn and got lost and so I was no longer biking on the trails that would actually be used in the race. I also managed to get stung by a bee (ouch), something I haven't had happen to me in years. A foreshadowing of more fun to come? The group eventually found me and we wound our way out of the two-mile loop and onto the six mile loop. If I thought the two mile loop was crap, this next loop was even more out of my league. At this point, I was at the very back of the group, with the nice clinic leader sticking with me, giving me pointers and advice while simultaneously not letting me wuss out on some of the drops and downhills. At one point we came upon this creek crossing that was at the bottom of a short but steep drop. I already had it in my mind that I was going to walk it, but before I could even voice that, he said OK Caroline, you're going to do this and you have no choice. It sounded like something my mother would say. So I did it. I survived. And it wasn't that bad (though I didn't make it all the way across the creek, tipping over in the middle of it instead - but I DID make it down the drop unscathed).
I did end up walking significant portions, sometimes a downhill was intimidating because of the rocks, roots, twists and turns. Sometimes I fell down on an uphill because there were so many roots and I lost momentum. At one point, I actually tipped over backwards on the trail because I came to a standstill on an uphill, stuck on roots. Fortunately, I fell into a mess of leafy branches so no damage was done. It was during this six mile loop that I realized there was NO joy in what I was doing, I was not having a good time, and that perhaps even the sprint was a bad idea. There were moments where the trail evened out and I felt more confident, like I could do this and maybe it wouldn't be so bad, but then I'd get to the technical sections where I had no idea what to do and no confidence in my abilities, I'd ride the brakes, lose control, and circle back to the thought of this is a very bad idea with my nonexistent mountain biking skills. Towards the end of the loop, as the trail neared the lake and it seemed like we were getting close to the end (at least it felt like I should be close to the end because how long can six miles really last since it seemed like we'd been out there FOREVER), I looked up at the sky and it was this menacing so-gray-its-almost-blue color and I heard thunder. Great. I had literally just been thinking to myself things could be worse, it could be wet and muddy, making everything slick and that much more difficult. Within minutes, it was as though Mother Nature had stored up all the rain she usually throws down on me during my bike commutes and the skies opened and she just dumped 4 days worth of rain on me at once. The trail immediately turned into a river. The sweat that had dried on my face was now running into my eyes, stinging them with salt. The only upside to the trail turning into a river was that I could no longer see any of the rocks and roots blocking my way (and if you can't see something, you can't be scared of it) so I just rolled along down the trail, mostly making my way OK. At one point after a creek crossing I did have a good fall into a mudpit (but was told I fell the right way, tuck and roll), I was fine but quickly learned that I lost my cleat in the mud. MY BIKE CLEAT CAME UNSCREWED AND LOST ITSELF IN THE MUD. This was the last straw. Fortunately, we really were almost out of the woods and onto pavement and I pedaled the rest of the way to my car with only one foot clipped in. It also stopped raining as soon as I arrived at my car.
All the way home, I hemmed and hawed about what I should do. As I was leaving, the clinic leader (who was super helpful and I really appreciated his patience and advice) said don't let this defeat you. I hope to see you out here on race day. With those words ringing in my head, not signing up for the race made me feel like I let the trails win and I was completely wimping out. But at the same time, I felt like it would be irresponsible to try to race something that I KNOW is beyond my capabilities right now. I know how to do a triathlon, but road riding skills do not translate to mountain biking skills and I had zero confidence out there and I think you NEED to have confidence in your abilities in order to race a course as technical as Charlottesville. In fact, it almost seems like I would be disrespecting the sport if I were to give it a shot. I would do fine on the swim, probably coming out towards the front since my swimming is decent, and then I might as well just stand outside of T1 with my bike in hand and wait for everyone else to run out with their bikes because I know I would spend much of the race walking my bike over technical sections, walking it when I fell on an uphill and couldn't get clipped in, and pulling over to the side to let anyone faster than me (read: EVERYONE) get by me. That is not a race. That is foolishness. Also, if there is a bike cutoff, there is a very good chance I would miss it. It took me TWO-AND-A-HALF HOURS to ride 8 miles yesterday. Not kidding but wish I was. I also have other races later this season that I really care about and want to do well at and if I get hurt during Charlottesville, So I didn't sign up and I don't plan to this year. Instead, I plan on taking my mountain bike out on trails, getting comfortable on it, getting used to it, and gradually ease my way into doing harder, more technical stuff once I master the easier trails.