Thursday, December 17, 2015

My first Dirty Dozen

Despite being sick all week from the previous weekend's ABRA & PA State Championship races in the frigid temps, I last minute decided to get up on a rainy Saturday morning and try to race the Dirty Dozen for the first time. I hadn't done any training outside of races for the past two months, and had been hitting the race exhaustion wall repeatedly. Still, 2015 had seen me through my first Crush the Commonwealth and Hilly Billy Roubaix, and I had to at least try to finish the last of the Debilitatingly Hard Race trifecta. I put on my rain jacket, wind pants and shoe covers, stashed some fig bars in my pockets and headed out. 

A few blocks from my house I realized my front derailleur had cracked clean in half. I stared at it in bemusement for a few moments, knowing there was no time to fix it and mentally flipping through my index of potential DD second-choice bike candidates (uh, none). A few moments later I realized that if there was a race made for a broken front derailleur, this was it. I nudged my chain into my small ring and left it there. 

The first hill was one of the few I had actually done before, but despite remembering it as "not all that bad," exhaustion nailed me and I definitely felt the 10 pounds of cx-season weight gain (thanks, beer!). "I definitely can't do this," I thought. I don't even remember going up the second hill, but I do remember deciding that once the route swung me back down into Millvale I was gonna jet back home. The third, Berry Hill, I knew was nice and short and I actually managed to score some points. It still murdered me. I was definitely gonna quit. I wanted to bail after the 4th hill in Etna, but I lived right across the river from Logan (#5). I figured, I'll do Logan, and then I'm out. 



Picking my lines up High St

Logan was terrible. It's a narrow, beat up hill that gets steeper at the top and the rain had slicked it with oil streaks. My back tire kept sliding on the pavement, but I didn't have gears low enough to stay in the saddle. Somehow I managed to save it every time my pedals lurched forward unexpectedly, but there was a moment about 3/4 of the way up the hill that I decided to quit and walk away. Just when I was eyeing up a nice looking bail spot between some parked cars, a bystander yelled some garbled encouragement at me that barely filtered through to my melting brain. I made it up, and scored some more points. I was ready to go home…but we were heading towards a food stop. Why not. I stood around with the other riders, shivering and trying to down a pop tart. Rialto was next, and only a 10 minute ride from my house. It was also probably one of the easiest of the DD hills. 'Okay, Rialto, then home." 


       Rialto is the only hill that isn't raced in a mass pack. Because it sits right above a busy chunk of highway, riders make their way to the bottom in heats and then race up from a standing start. If there's one thing I'm good at, it's surging forward from a standing start. Enthusiastically supported by my cheering friends on the sidewalk steps, I led the women's heat up the hill, but just lost gas at the top and fell back a few places. I had still netted some points, and by now had realized I was begrudgingly going to try and finish the race. 




  Leading the pack up Rialto   
       
           The 7th hill was a long grinder that ends in cobblestones. Still exhausted, and knowing long steep hills weren't my forte, I just tried to pace myself and make it up. Learning from the slick race up Logan I had started letting a little bit of air out of my probably over-inflated back tire after each hill. As long as I avoided the wet leaves in the road, I'd be fine on that front. The next hill was Sycamore in the south side, the only hill I'd done more than once. It's long and steep but it's a commuter route up to Mt Washington and not that bad. 

At the overlook
We stopped at the overlook and I started asking others what the next hills were like - from this point on, not only had I never ridden any of them, I'd actually never even *seen* them. This became immediately detrimental, as the next hill was the infamous Canton Ave. I knew it was a 37% grade and possibly the steepest public road in the world. I didn't know that as soon as we made the turn onto Canton and the cobbled wall appeared in front of me my mind would immediately shut me down. "Nope. Nope. Can't do it, not possible." I stopped at the bottom and stared at it for a good ten minutes, watching riders make it, fall over, and one who crashed into a bystander and knocked her rolling down the hillside. I stood there gaping next to my bike until my friend Eric walked over, asking if I'd made it up yet. "Uh…I don't think I can do that.." I said. "Uh..yeah you can. Idiot." he replied, rolling his eyes at me. (Except not really; Eric is super nice). With that encouraging smack in the face I clipped back in fast enough to leave me no time to doubt and rocketed up the 100 yards or so of cobble. What a breeze! (relatively). I only needed to weave enough to get around a wobbly rider in front of me, and when I made it to the top I was ecstatic. I had had no idea I would be able to do that, and so easily. What a great feeling! That big cobblestone wall that had floored me came a-tumblin' down. 

Right around the corner from Canton was Boustead, and then we had a good while before hitting Welch way, another short steep road that dead-ends at the top. Riders race up the narrow street while hill finishers squeal their brakes down beside you. The last two hills were long and steep and wreaked havoc on your whole body. At the top of Barry/Holt/Eleanor I stood shivering so badly, I started looking for a friend who wouldn't mind hugging me for the 15 or so minutes we spent waiting before heading off to the last hill. (No luck). Someone had told me that there's about a 5 mile stretch between hills 12 & 13, and that the pack splinters in the neutral zone while riders try to race to the finish. I knew there wasn't more than a 1 point difference between me and another female rider; a slim margin that would determine which of us made it in the money. So for the last rainy stretch of flat I spun as fast as I could, drafting off the men in front of me and hopscotching my way forward in the spotty line of finishers. This was the only part of the race that I really missed my big ring. 

Flowers/Tesla was another long hill that gets real steep at the end. Totally beat, knowing only that I had to make it up without putting a foot down, I slowly ground my way up. I slid out on something but caught myself, barely in a low enough gear to keep spinning. Halfway up my calf started cramping. I didn't have any room to baby it, and there was no way I was going to foot down and have to re-do this godawful last hill. I pushed through the pain. The road got steeper. I could see the spectators cheering at the top, but my eyes scanned the crowd for one person - Nina, the ladies' points scorer, or - crucially - my human finish line. 

I finally made it, finally finally. I was destroyed but totally stoked. Cold and wet but happy. In years past I'd laughed at the thought of ever being able to do the Dirty Dozen, but not only had I finished, I'd gotten third place. It felt awful and great. It was one of the hardest races I've ever done, but I remembered the line I kept telling myself in between every time I'd decided to quit and go home:

Whatever, it still wasn't as hard as Crush the Commonwealth.