My expectations for this race were tempered by a hard week of training. The prior 5 days included 2 tempo runs and a track workout so my goal was to race defensively and conserve energy. If I had strong legs for the finish I thought a win could be possible; if not I'd still push hard to the end. Nothing like a good suffer-fest to improve one's mental toughness.
At the start line I saw Eric Lin whom I'd raced with 2 weeks ago at the Copperopolis Road Race. Eric finished 1 place ahead of me at Copperopolis so I new him to be a strong climber and capable racer. We both learned the same lesson from Copper and agreed that waiting till the final half lap to hammer would be the best race strategy. About 20 guys wheeled up to the starting line but I didn't recognize any of them from previous races. Good news for my stealth strategy.
While the race starts on the Laguna Seca racetrack, the organizers neutralize it for the first couple miles until the peloton reaches the first uphill. A good idea since there's a fast downhill right off the race track and we're all just a bunch of unskilled and jumpy category 5 racers. Once safely on the race course we started the first of our five 8 mile loops inside the Fort Ord Military Reservation.
At the top of the first uphill we lost about 6 guys whittling the lead group to 14. From there the next 4 laps were uneventful so took the time to contemplate advice from my more experienced teammates given at our February training camp:
Ron Castia: Rest your legs while coasting on the downhills. Sit your arse on the saddle and relax. Don't tuck (like a downhill skier) unnecessarily.
Ken Gallardo: Stay close to the wheel of the rider ahead of you and anticipate changes in distance based on what's happening further forward in the pack.
Everyone: Winning road races takes patience. Be strategic. Based on your strengths and those of your competition, think about where on the course to attack.
Going into the final lap of the race it was becoming clear which riders were strong and which were just hanging on. Big uphills have a tendency to do that. Unlike the previous laps where we rode several riders abreast, the final lap was our fastest as the group strung out in a single-file line. Halfway around the lap at the second (feed station) climb the group bunched and it was clear many were already hurting....and even more so at the top of the climb.
With 5 miles of rolling terrain ahead I thought it was still too early to attack so I stayed near the front and let others set the pace. So far the race felt aerobically easy but I could tell my legs were beginning to fade. I again considered the advice of my teammates, remained patient and stayed near the front. On the final uphill roller before the descent to the 600' finish climb a strong rider launched an attack off the front. Unfortunately I was boxed in about 6 riders back but managed to pull into 4th place as we crested the hill - about 50 meters behind the leaders.
After a burst of power and channeling my inner downhill ski racer I pulled back to the top 3 as we started the final 2 mile climb. The other 8 riders were strung out but not that far back and just as I feared, my legs were down on power. Time to dig deep and see if 60 miles a week of running can out VO2 Max the competition.
As expected the top 3 slowly pulled away so I set my sights on keeping 4th place and shut the blinders on the pain cave. At this point my legs are screaming and getting out of the saddle conjures up imbalance rather than power. It's not a steep hill but I'm already slammed into my lowest gear (39*28), spinning like a madman and enlisting every fiber to move the bike forward. At 200 meters to go I'm in 4th and the leaders are still in sight. At 50 meters a rider goes by me but I've got nothing left in the tank. Spinning as fast as my spindly legs will go I just want to cross that infernal finish line!
Pain, like all good things must eventually come to an end. In the final standing I ended up 5th (2:27:21), under a minute behind 1st. Overall I'm satisfied with the result. A hard workout was had. Learnings from previous races were applied. I kept the rubber side down and my brain bucket intact.
Today (Saturday), training continues. I ran 7.5 miles on the trail and it felt way too hard. Tomorrow I've got the Zippy 5k running race - part of the USATF-Pacific Association Grand Prix series. I certainly won't be fresh but I will toe the starting line prepared to suffer....again.