The race course at Swan Creek Park was a bit different than I've ever experienced. The off road portions could accurately be described as single track. With plenty of half exposed rocks and roots. The on road portions were flat, smooth, fast, and numerous. These paved portions of the course comprised about fifty percent of the actual course and included two long straightaways in addition to the many shorter sections.
An odd component of the course was that the paved sections were laid out in a grid. My initial thought was that we were racing on land that was intended to hold homes but that the project was abandoned just after the streets were paved. Later research revealed that these 'streets' have been in place a long time. They are the remnants of a portion of Tacoma's Shalishan housing project that started during World War II. By the early 1950s there were more units than need so about one half of the units were demolished. Over the next 65 years nature took back most of the lots. But the paved streets have waited patiently for the bicycle racers to arrive.
My initial reaction to this 'street' course was dread. I though 'another fast course that allowed the strong road racers to flex their muscle'. Closer inspection of the off pavement sections showed that the course had two faces. The long flat paved sections _did_ favor the power brokers. And the rough single track would allow the more technically inclined riders a place to shine.
For this race day I was lucky enough to have my daughter Dana with me. She helped me pin my number on. (Actually, she wore the jersey and I pinned the number on her. But she let me wear the jersey for the race.) Between the time I scouted the course and started warming up we walked around the area and discovered old hidden sidewalks and half buried metal pipes. She also helped me put my extra wheels in and out of the pits. And she was pretty patient during the boring times, too. So I owe her a big 'Thank you' for helping me out on race day.
Race plan creation usually runs backwards chronologically. For Swan Creek I reasoned that by mid race the field would be strung out a bit and that few drafting opportunities would exist. So by half way I'd have plenty of room on the single track portions of the course. But the first few laps seemed ripe for traffic jams on the narrow single track sections. So I wanted to be in at least the top ten going into the trees on the first lap. And no call up meant that goal would need to be attained from a third row starting position.
When the whistle blew I knew what needed to be done. No saving energy mode. No time to let the race settle down. I sprinted for the full length of the 300 meter start straight and found myself in sixth position going into the first corner. After just a few corners we entered the first of the single track sections and I knew I would be able to ride a more moderate pace for the remainder of the race.
For the first lap I raced in fast traffic. The lead group riders were not slowing me in the single track sections and I worked to hold my position on the paved sections. During this lap and the second I was repeatedly impressed by the bike handling taking place around me. Entering a sweeping right hander off one of the fast straights I bumped into another rider as we both aimed for the same line. Both of us stayed cool, we altered our lines a little, I slowed a bit to let him ahead, and we continued on. In another corner I was passed on successive laps by late braking riders. Both times the rider braked later than me, carved up the inside, and left me just enough room to safely navigate the corner. These descriptions sound tame, of course. But during racing conditions with skinny tires on loose soil the difference between making a clean pass and two riders hitting the ground can be the tiniest of mistakes by either of the riders.
For the first two laps I lost a few positions here and there. I was also passing a few riders as they tired or when they chose imperfect lines. By the end of the second lap the lead group was no longer a group. We were now strung out. Which, of course, played to my strengths. I was able to ride the exact lines I wanted through the single track sections. I coasted into the corners to save little bits of energy. My knowledge of the course allowed me to find those little spots where I could pedal on or two revolutions less, use less braking, and save that energy for accelerating onto the next straight away. I was lost in the moment as I refined my riding for maximum efficiency.
And I was lost in the race, as well. My position inside the top ten was solid. But _where_ in the top ten was unknown. With the leaders strung out and also mixed in with slower riders from the previous start, there was no concrete way for me to figure out my exact position. Which was good. I needed to keep focusing on riding efficiency.
One place I was not efficient was the run up. Mark and Mario were present to cheer for me as I climbed that hill. The soil was loose. The grade was steep. And long. I was face down full suffer every time up that hill. To my credit I did recently learn how to properly sling my bike over my shoulder like the pros do and I _did_ carry my bike up the hill every lap. Each of which was a real test of grit and determination.
At the end of the third lap I was fully into my groove. I knew just where on the course to rest. I saved and used those extra Joules at just the right places. I was completely focused. Until I being unraveled on the finish straight. Over the loudspeaker I heard "...and here comes Dwaine, current leader of Cat 3 35+ ..." I sat up. No riders close ahead. A quick look behind. Then a second. No riders close behind. At which point my thought bubbled exclaimed "Holy Cow! I'm leading!!".
For the next half lap I was jittery. I now knew that the race was mine to lose. I kept reminding myself of what worked for the first three laps. I reasoned that as long as I didn't overextend my efforts I should be able to stay away. Yet it was hard to restrain myself. By the middle of the third lap I settled back down. I was refocused and back to concentrating on the job at hand.
At the beginning of the sixth and final lap I considered my now usual six minute extra effort. No rider was close. Only a big mistake such as tipping over would likely affect my finish position. So, I slowed slightly in the trees to play it safe and hammered on the pavement. Just for good measure I finished as I started; in my best full sprint. (My daughter later commented "Yeah, I saw you finish; the bike was moving all over the place!")
After a race I like to analyze what worked and what didn't. With the analysis of this race and a recent race where I finished 14th I'm starting to distill a little nugget of wisdom. I need to ride my own race. Yes, I sometimes need to extend my effort to stay in a group. Sometimes it makes sense to work a little extra to hold a position. But the big picture is, for me, at my fitness level, my race usually only plays to its full potential if I manage the pace and not let the race manage it for me.