Austin Tri-Cyclist Blog

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Driveway Race Report, Hamburger Face & A Little Soul Searching

by Kat Hunter

If you think race-day involves packing a lot of equipment now, just wait until you have a baby. Bike stuff, baby stuff, 40 things “just in case”...the indomitable little brown Prius was stuffed to the gills. August 1 was our first trip to the Driveway since Theo was born, and my first time back racing.  

I was so nervous and excited that I could barely string a sentence together, which meant that one of my rare opportunities to be social as a new parent was largely a wash. I’d been preparing for my race, the Women’s 123, all week. I’d skipped the usual hard Wednesday group ride to save my legs, doing openers instead. The morning before the race, I’d gotten another short opener session in—a ride to the grocery store followed by 2x1min at 280 watts with a package of Pampers in my backpack.

Bike Racer DNA?: Eloise Speed & Theo Mott
I wasn’t sure how I would perform, physically or mentally. I went through all the different race scenarios in my head, always with the idea that I’d go for the win, accompanied by the nagging fear that I’d be spit out the back. What I never imagined, given the small field size and my familiarity with the other riders, was that I’d spend a good chunk of my evening in the Brackenridge ER.

It all started smoothly. I bought an annual license at Driveway registration when I realized I didn’t have one for 2013 yet. Jack helped me get my gear together, and I fed Theo in the car with the AC going full blast. As odd as it was to unzip my race jersey and breastfeed in the parking lot, it was the only time I’d felt relaxed all day. Motherhood is good at providing perspective—nothing is as important as a hungry baby, and if you don’t remain aware of that fact, baby is going to provide a quick and high-volume reminder.

I warmed up on the course with my ATC Racing teammates Anne Flanagan, Allison Atkinson, and Marla Briley. The Driveway Ladies Nights, a new series of women-only races on the first Thursday of each month, are held on the top loop of the course while the Masters’ race goes on below. Other weeks, the women’s open race is combined with the Masters 35+. It was the fourth Ladies Night and the last of the 2013 season.

Jack wanted me to go all out from the gun. After 45 days or so of riding since Theo’s birth, I was nearly back to my pre-pregnancy power for short durations, though I wasn’t back to my pre-pregnancy weight. Fortunately, the race would be completely flat and only 30 to 45 minutes long. But at the start line, nerves got the better of me, and I was slow to clip in. I could hear Jack yelling at me to go. Better late than never was my thought, so I attacked on the first long straight.

I realized quickly that I wasn’t going to stay away on my own, but still thought I might be able to break up the field a little, maybe get something going with a handful of other strong riders. At any rate, I’d be wearing down my teammates’ competition. When I looked back, the field was strung out from the end of the first straight section all the way back to the initial turn. This gave me a feeling of satisfaction, one I’d almost forgotten in my time away from racing.

Kathleen Hattaway, another top sprinter and very likely candidate for the podium, was the first to catch me, and I had dreams of the two of us staying away, but they were soon put to rest. Everyone was here.

From that point, I did more sitting in, always migrating against my will to the middle of the pack, and always jealous of the way skilled crit racers like Kathleen and Jen seem to effortlessly hold their ground closer to the front. But my first-race jitters were still with me, and I wasn’t ready to fight for wheels. I just wanted to settle in and get comfortable with the course.

I knew I couldn’t stay where I was, though. This Driveway course was like the first day of the Georgetown Crit two years ago that I’d fared so poorly in—do or die before the last turn, because if you were going to be anywhere near the podium you couldn’t be strung out halfway to China on the final turn when the leaders entered the straightaway. The battle for the win would happen well before the finish.

My teammate Marla was a superstar. Two years ago, I’d raced with her during her first crit and Driveway race, and you wouldn’t think she was the same rider. She made several strong attacks, one time getting away with three of the main players in a short-lived breakaway. I knew she hated this course and wasn’t comfortable with a lot of the turns, and yet she was off the front more than any of us on the team.  I also knew that she was giving everything she had during the attacks, so whatever qualms I had about moving up at the key moment were going to have to go.

The race was the kind I like—lots of attacks, a good pace, no coasting and waiting around for something to happen. I was proud of our local field for putting on a good show.

I worked my way closer to the front when the official started shouting out the number of laps to go. Around four laps to go, I went again, and a group of four of us had some separation from the rest of the field. From there, I’m not sure whether we held onto it until the end, or it simply happened again, but the same four of us were together just before the finish.

I’d already given myself a little pat on the back for getting where I needed to be. I was on Kathleen’s wheel, and Jen was ahead of her. After taking that last turn over and over again during the course of the race, I’d scaled down my expectations for glory. I wasn’t as fast through that section as some of the others were, notably Kathleen and Jen, which meant that a solo break was no longer a valid strategy. Of course, there wasn’t much more than a slim-to-none chance of beating them in a short sprint, either, but I figured I’d give it my best shot.

Throughout the race on that sweeping turn, I’d let a little gap form between me and the rider ahead, wanting to give myself some wiggle room in case something went wrong.  The last lap around was no exception, and I let Kathleen pull a little ahead. I knew that would be a mistake in the final sprint, but I was still very happy with where I was. I was certain, at least, that I had third in the bag and was safe from any mayhem. There was nothing but wide, empty road ahead of and around me. Now, just the finishing straight after the last little bit of the turn, the chance to see what my sprint was like post-baby. The pace had been high going into the corner, and still was.
And then the rider behind passed me on the inside as I was entering the corner. I still had a moment where I thought everything was going to be okay, even when she slid out in front of me and I hit her back wheel dead center...

I somehow managed to smash into the pavement with the left side of my head and face, the top of my left shoulder and bottom of my left forearm, the front of both knees, and my tailbone. I have no memory of it. On later inspection, my bike was okay other than for some damage to the front of the hoods, which seems to suggest that it hit the ground vertically.

My next clear memory was sitting under the registration tent, people asking me questions. I started to realize that I couldn’t answer some of them, and that scared me. I couldn’t remember which direction we’d been riding on the course, or how I’d gotten to where I was. I had that feeling you get sometimes when you first wake up—I couldn’t tell if the conversations and events I was remembering were real or part of a dream. They said they were going to get an ambulance. I hate hospitals, and we’d just that week gotten all the insurance deductibles and bills sorted out from the birth. Jack was there, and little Theo in his carseat, and I was about to burst into tears, or maybe I did. At one point Theo threw up all over Jack, and he left to get a towel, but I don’t think I noticed.

Checking into the hospital
I started feeling better soon after that, and Jack drove us to the hospital. It had been long enough with no further problems that they skipped the CT scan, but they x-rayed my tailbone. Probably just bruising, the doctor said, and it would be better in three to six weeks. For the abrasion on my face, his best advice was to stay out of the sun to avoid scarring.

I kept replaying a moment over in my mind. Under the registration tent, one of the medics had said to another, “And she has a two-month-old baby...” It sounded like a character judgment, or maybe I’d just heard what I was already telling myself.

I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt. My infant son was in the emergency room from nine o’clock to midnight because his Mom has this crazy hobby where at any given moment she can fly through the air and crack her head on the pavement.

I could say it wasn’t my fault, but that would be a lie. One, in cycling you are your brother’s keeper—you can’t rely on other riders to do the right thing; you have to prevent them from doing the wrong thing. Maybe if I hadn’t let a gap open up. Maybe if I’d taken the turn faster. Two, that kamikaze move is going to happen sooner or later, no matter how careful you are. It was stupid of me to think that I wasn’t taking a big risk. There seem to be two mindsets in cycling: the people who don’t care that they’re going to crash, and the people who persist in believing that it’ll happen to everyone else but not to them. I’ve always been one of the latter.

Over the next couple of days, my face swelled and oozed, my head ached, the pain in my back slowly improved, and my mood soured. Housebound, I began to ponder the deep philosophical questions that I don’t usually have time for. For starters, what was I doing with my life? For a long time, I’d been treating my workouts like a job, even when I was pregnant. If I get one thing done during the day, it’s always my workout. Forget my work projects, the dishes, the unpacked boxes gathering dust in the corner. Years ago, when I was marathon training and working full-time for a publishing company, I remember my uncle, who’s an art professor and artist, telling me that if I treated my writing aspirations the way I do my workouts, I’d be successful with them. I’ve sunk a lot more time into cycling than I ever did in running, so who knows what sort of novel I could have written by now.     

And now I had Theo. I was beginning to understand on a more personal level that parents who quit their sports after having a baby aren’t necessarily showing weakness or lack of resolve—in many cases it’s a sense of practicality, or duty, that makes them give up their old goals. I’d been so proud of getting back to racing so quickly, but I was realizing that a lot of people wouldn’t see it that way. There are a hundred thousand ways a mother imagines herself negligent, or a failure—now I could add another one to the list.

It’ll be a while before Theo tells me what he thinks about it all. And as for Jack...I married a man who, for better or worse, has always been very supportive of my obsessions. When I told him what was bothering me, he said that risk is inevitable, so we might as well do what we love. The goal of complete safety—in addition to being impossible—wasn’t worth the price.

I love my son more than anything in the world. Now that I’m a parent, I do those things that used to always annoy me. I tout his weight like he’s a prize turkey. I worry about germs and biting insects. I discuss the variable color palette of diaper contents with other mothers. I can’t help it. But after much deliberation couchside, I wonder if I can’t help racing, either, if it has become some piece of me that can’t be put aside, like a tumor that’s made bedfellows with important bodily organs.

If you criticize a mother, one way or the other, for what she chooses when it comes to bike racing or any other sport, I’d ask you to stop and consider one thing: no matter what she decides, whether she continues or gives it up, she’s sacrificing something important, and more than any other person, she’s well aware of it.  


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