June Update: Glimpses of Greatness, & Silver Linings

It’s been a little while since my last update… June was one seriously busy month!

With no Xterra Pan-Am races on the calendar between Alabama in May and Victoria, B.C. on July 9th, I took that break in the tour schedule as an opportunity to put in a BIG training push. These last six weeks have been some of the biggest, hardest training weeks of my life. They certainly haven’t been without their challenging moments (sometimes just getting out the door for your second workout of the day when you’re already freaking tired from the first – and all the days that came before it — can be really, really tough!). But for the most part I have found myself only increasingly more excited to put in the work, and am absolutely thrilled with the gains I’ve been able to make over this focused block. Measurable feedback has shown some very solid improvements, but even more importantly to me, the changes in how I feel day in and day out, the way I view myself as an athlete, and what I believe I am capable of have been most significant.

I definitely feel in a whole new place than I was six weeks ago, and that’s a truly exciting, overwhelmingly positive feeling that I am so grateful for in and of itself. Obviously race performance/results are typically the key measure for us as professional athletes, and the most ‘lucrative’ reward in the traditional sense… But experiencing first-hand the process of setting huge goals, stepping up to put in the work, pushing through the setbacks, and actually seeing the transformation you hoped for shaping up in front of you along the way – even if just through incremental measures of improvement on a personal level — is truly special. When you’re continually working toward something bigger, it’s so important to be able to find all the small victories (in whatever form) at each step along the way, and hold on to them tight!

That notion became a theme of sorts for me this past month, as I discovered all sorts of “glimpses of greatness” in my training and racing, and identified silver linings like it was my job.

Aspen Training
Taking advantage of all the hours of daylight! Photo by August Teague.

Amidst all the hard training – or, more accurately, as a key part of all that training – June was also filled with a number of ‘training races.’ I was super fortunate to have some really great bike racing opportunities either right out my back door or very close by over this past month, and we decided to take advantage of all of them. These opportunities integrated really well into my training plan by allowing me to get in the most high-quality intensity workout possible in a low-key, “no consequence” setting. In other words, I could train right through, go in with completely worn-out legs and zero expectations or pressure in terms of the result, and just see what I could do, with the primary goal of trying to get the hardest workout possible for myself, and take everything I could from the experience itself. These races are all about gains, growth and learning. The rewards are far less immediate, and in most cases far less apparent, than a ‘normal’ race, but every bit as important, and frankly even more valuable.

The key thing about training races, though, is that you have to be able to manage your expectations and keep things in perspective. You’re never going to get your best performance coming in to a race with less-than-fresh legs. (And when you’re doing six races over the course of three weeks, your legs certainly won’t be fresh!). I kept all of this in mind as I raced the Beti Bike Bash on June 4th, the GoPro Mountain Games on June 10th, and the Carson City Off-Road race on June 18th, and did my best not to expect too much of myself – especially since I was also doing a local mid-week evening race in each of those first two weeks, and a “fat tire crit” two days before the CC Off-Road, as part of the same event, making — yep — six races in three weeks.

But nonetheless, I also knew my fitness was at an all-time high, and let’s just say I was “open to the possibility” of still being able to do something really great in at least one of these events, which were among the most prime opportunities I’ve had to mix it up with some of the top mountain bikers in the world. And as it turned out, I did find some greatness at both the Beti Bike Bash and the GoPro Games – or at least I found glimpses of it! Unfortunately, though, I also found some terrible luck. At Beti Bike Bash, I suffered a mechanical just as I was making a pass in to the top-five coming through for the final lap of the race. It took well over a minute to fix, and in a 1-hour race, that dropped me from moving into fifth back down to 8th place. Then at the GoPro Games, after a solid start on surprisingly good legs that saw me hanging in with some of the day’s top contenders, I came down with a major case of heat exhaustion and barely made it to the finish of the race, with purple skin and full goosebumps, before having to spend a solid few hours post-race getting help to recover and unable to even stand up on my own. (It was ugly.) I finished up in 9th, on a day when I really felt like I had a top-5 performance in me.

Beti Bike Bash Wehn
Beti Bike Bash, moments before the mechanical. Photo by Kenny Wehn.

This was certainly frustrating, particularly on the heels of my double-flat scenario in Alabama. Because even though it wasn’t the expectation in either case, or really even the objective, it still felt like a missed opportunity each time; like lost potential. And, just as I said after ‘Bama, there’s nothing quite as frustrating as the feeling of lost potential… when you know you have more to give, but something else is standing in the way to keep you from it. Whether the timing was intended or not, I’d have very happily taken a great performance at either one of these events, with the level of competition being what it was. Because even if my performance didn’t much matter in the grand scheme of things, it still mattered to me.

But, no dice… That’s the way racing goes. And while these races didn’t quite work out in my favor, I reminded myself that greatness was not in fact the goal in these cases, and my time was still coming. And while it was disappointing to not see it come to fruition, I was honestly psyched about the potential that I did discover over those two weekends, especially with as little rest as I’d had coming in. I was definitely pleased with my “glimpses of greatness,” and took the silver linings from each of those experiences straight to the bank. I’ve actually never felt more confident about what I believed I could do, and I kept my chin and my faith up that things would go much better for me in Carson, which was definitely the race I’d prioritized most for the month, and where my coach and I had allowed for much more focus on the actual performance. As such, I was able to come in feeling quite good: significantly more recovered, and more specifically prepared.

And let me tell you, I was FIRED UP for this race weekend! I’d been wanting to do one of the Epic Rides series races for years now, and have had them on my schedule numerous times, but for some reason every single time something has gotten in the way. To finally get my opportunity was exciting in itself, but to have it be back at home was seriously all-time. I couldn’t have been happier to be there, and for me, happy racing is key to fast racing!

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Course pre-ride with Mom! All the happiness watts! 🙂
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Momma working the big climb! Look at those VIEWS!!

The Epic Rides race weekends start off with a “Fat Tire Crit” for the pros on Friday evenings, set right downtown in each of their respective locations. It definitely makes for a cool opportunity for people to come out and see some exciting, fast elite racing in a fun setting. But, the courses are tight and crowded, with lots of corners, and lots of room for error, particularly when everyone is on their mountain bikes with the big wide bars. My priority was definitely the 50-mile race on Sunday, and above all to stay safe and upright so that I could continue with the rest of my season as planned. As such, I went in to the crit with a conservative mindset, and a plan to just focus on getting myself into a good, safe spot and ride as clean and comfortable as possible. I wasn’t willing to take any risks here. Unfortunately, though, so much of what happens in a crit is simply beyond your own control…

I had a good start, and was very happy with the space I found myself in as we rolled through the first corner and approached the next one. I was riding around 6th position, and felt super confident in who I could see ahead of and next to me, and felt very safe in that spot. I was careful to be sure I was well aware of everything happening around me as we approached the second corner, which was a bigger turn. Since it was so early in the race all of the women were still very bunched together, but I was on the outside, nice and wide, where I felt I had the least amount of risk. Things were looking good! But all of a sudden, seemingly from out of nowhere, I felt contact as another set of handlebars pushed in to mine from behind and from the inside, and before I knew it I was going down. As things always do in a crit scenario, it happened SO fast! I was never able to see the other rider at all, even as I was already getting pushed, so I had no chance whatsoever to react, and just had to try to brace myself for the impact as we both went down. As I felt that push, I thought to myself, “Shit, here we go, I’m hitting the pavement!” and in that instant things totally slowed down and I could feel the fear about what might happen. Fortunately, I got very lucky in that I wasn’t seriously hurt. Things could have been so much worse than they were with a high-speed crash on to the pavement like that.

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Luckily, after sliding on the road with my bike on top of me, I suffered some pretty bad road rash and bruising, but that was it. It’s always so hard to be sure in the moment, especially when you’re pretty stunned, but I could feel that I was okay. I immediately checked with the other rider to make sure she was okay as well, and she confirmed that she believed she was, so I began to work on getting myself up. Of course at this point, the pack was looong gone, completely out of sight down the road. Focused on the aftermath of the crash, and frankly feeling a bit sorry for myself, I thought, “Well that’s a bummer, guess I’m out of this one too now!” But then I quickly snapped out of it and realized that since I wasn’t hurt, and I could keep going, I might as well do it! Once I decided I was going to go again, I checked one more time with a couple volunteers who were right on hand to be sure the other rider was okay, as they were helping her up. They confirmed, yes, so I said I was going to continue on. My seat was totally twisted but I was able to force it back into place, and off I went.

I had to do a pretty major mental shift to shake off the crash and get myself out of the mode of thinking my race was over, and back into ‘smashfest mode.’ I was allll alone trying to catch back up to nearly 30 women who had the power of riding together in a group on a lap that was only probably about three minutes long, so I definitely had my work cut out for me! But since the goal all along had been to get in a good hard workout, I decided I was going to do just that. I absolutely hammered, pushing as hard as I possibly could in every moment. I had no idea how far back I was, but I knew I’d lost at least a solid minute — probably more — with the crash, plus my hesitation in getting going again, and in a crit scenario that is a TON of time. But to be honest, in that moment I didn’t really care. Suddenly it didn’t even matter what had already happened, and it became just about me out there riding, doing my thing, taking advantage of the chance to push myself on a personal level, and actually having a BLAST. Seriously, this ended up being one of the most fun things I’ve done in a long time, and I was absolutely loving it!

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Ridin’ Solo!

As it turned out, my legs felt amazing, and I had total free reign of the road all to myself, not having to worry about any more potential issues. The crowd support was all-time (I guess everyone likes a good comeback story!), and they were rooting me on like I’ve never felt before. It was so awesome! Then, to my surprise, after a couple laps I could suddenly see some riders ahead. There was a small group of 5 or 6 who had fallen off the back of the main pack, and I set my sights. I couldn’t believe I’d actually made up enough ground to catch some other riders! I pushed up to the group, and then I rode on by, as they had clearly settled in to a slower pace and I was still on a mission! I felt like I was just really getting my legs under me, and was fired up to try to see who else I could catch as the main group continued to split up, but unfortunately just as my excitement was really building, we got pulled off the course, and that was the end of the day for me. (In a crit race, if riders get too far behind the main pack, they get pulled to ensure that they won’t end up interfering with the lead riders in the lap scenario). Honestly, when it was all said and done, I was most disappointed that I didn’t get the opportunity to keep going, because I’d felt so good!

After the ride I went for a solo cool-down spin, and my emotions were all over the map. I was really proud of the effort I’d just put in, the strength I had found, and the fact that I didn’t give up. (More glimpses of greatness! More silver linings!). I was exhilarated from the energy of that solo ride and what a good time I’d had out there. But I was also so disappointed by what had happened; yet again. I couldn’t believe that once again I didn’t get the chance to really show what I could do, especially on a day when I knew I absolutely did have the legs to do it! I know that crashing is an inherent risk with crit racing (and even more so when it’s on mountain bikes), and one that I accepted when I lined up. I also knew that as much of a bummer as it was to go down, I really was so, so lucky that it wasn’t worse, because it so easily could have been. Sure, I had some pretty gnarly road rash and was pretty sore from the impact, but the bottom line was I wasn’t seriously injured, and it wouldn’t affect any of my future racing. I knew I should count my blessings.

But this was the fourth race in a row now with some sort of major “incident,” and it was all starting to feel like too much! Yes, I’d found a ton of positives along the way. Yes, I was collecting All. The. Consolation prizes. And those are important. But at some point, you just want to have the actual damn medal (so to speak). All I wanted was one day to be able to show what I could really do; to have the opportunity to give my absolute best from start to finish, and really live up to my potential, whatever that may be on the day. For me, that was the “medal.” And I was so, so ready for it.

And, thank freaking goodness, on Sunday at the 50-miler, I finally got my day.

Kara Serena
Photo by Jeff Moser

I wasn’t totally sure what to expect from myself here, as I hadn’t done any mountain bike training anywhere close to this long all year, and only a handful of my road rides had even matched that mileage. (The course actually turned out to be 55 miles!) Also, the temps were set to be in the upper 90s, on a course that was pretty much completely exposed, and after my episode at the GoPro Games I was certainly worried about the heat. But, the thing I knew for sure was that it was going to be one darn tough day, and if there’s one thing I like – and can also excel at – it’s a tough day. I was excited!

I didn’t expect to feel nervous or stressed at the start, but it turned out that I was. The course started off following the crit path along the road, and we’d have to go through that same corner where the crash took place. GULP. All of a sudden, as we lined up, I felt so vulnerable and totally afraid of another crash. I guess this last one had impacted me more than I thought! Luckily, though, everyone was pretty chill in the start, since it was such a long race, and all went smoothly through the road. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of relief when we got out on to the straightaway, though. Whew!

This was a three-lap course, with the first lap being slightly different than the second two, and all of them being plenty difficult, with over 7k feet of elevation gain over the full route. However, the singletrack was AWESOME — soooo fun and flowy, and the views were amazing. The trails in Carson City really are top-notch, and I absolutely love riding there. I also had the benefit of familiarity, which I really appreciated!

As difficult as the race was, and as blazing hot as it was out there, I found myself actually really enjoying the whole day. I had incredible support from family and friends, which was huge. The vibes were just so positive, and I completely thrived off of that. As the field spread out, I got myself into a solid spot where I ended up in very good company for most of the race. (Although I ultimately rode alone after the first lap, I had some great, strong and super steady riders just ahead who I could consistently see, which really kept me pushing and motivated). My body felt good, my mind was even better, with super positive self-talk all day, and I was just able to get into a really good groove. I felt like I was in my element, and it seemed I was finally having the day I’d been waiting for.

The Carson City Off-Road course is truly EPIC! Photo by Jeff Moser.

Inevitably, the riding got harder and harder as the day went on and the temperature continued to climb. By lap three, it was like a freaking inferno out there, with no shade anywhere to be seen, and already over 30 miles under our belts. It seemed the group as a whole was starting to suffer, and I was no exception. Things started hurting a LOT as we went up the steep, long fire road climb in the middle of the lap for the final time, and when I got to the aid station there, I could see that I had goosebumps again and my skin was totally discolored. I was hot, hot, HOT. Luckily, my parents were at this aid station, and they did a great job at getting me water and ice. I took my time going through to try to really get my body temperature back down. I was a little worried, knowing how much racing was still ahead, but then around the next corner I realized that I was actually about to catch another rider who’d been in front of me throughout the day. This gave me some extra pep, and I was able to push around just before we hit the singletrack again.

I was determined to extend the lead, as I knew I was fading and was now really struggling to get down any calories whatsoever or even really any liquids, so I put my head down and motored as best as I could, telling myself the faster I went the faster it would be over! As much as my overall energy was tanking, somehow my legs seemed to start to come alive again and find another gear, and I couldn’t have been more thankful! As we crested the climb for the final time, I could see that there was one more rider ahead within striking distance. I knew from info I’d received that I was already into the top-10 with the previous pass I’d made, which I was absolutely stoked about. Part of me felt pretty content with that spot, and sort of wanted to just settle in with my discomfort, but I also knew I would totally regret if I didn’t try to muster up one last push with another spot in such close reach. I hit the descent, with just a few miles left to go, and gave it all I had. I caught the next rider right as we reached the bottom, and amazingly she moved right over, which I appreciated more than she’ll ever know! The last couple miles felt like such a slog, but I made it in, crossed the line in 9th place, and was absolutely thrilled with that finish among such a deep and talented field. Position aside, though, above all I was just so happy to have been able to finish knowing I had the absolute best day possible for myself; the ultimate goal that had eluded me for over six weeks now. I truly cannot begin to say just how good that felt!

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Annnd DONE!! Now, time for ALL the drinks and all the ICE!!
Stan Lee Photo
So. Thirsty. Photo by Stan Lee Austin.
Stan Lee 2
So. HOT. (Also, HUGE thanks to this amazing support crew!) Photo by Stan Lee Austin.

In hindsight, as frustrating as those last several races were for me, I’m honestly glad things shaped up the way they did. I’m glad I got the opportunity to challenge myself among some of the best mountain bikers in the world over these last six weeks, and I’m glad it ended up being as tough as it was. I’m glad I had to practice finding my silver linings, and I’m glad for all the moments I was able to find greatness even amidst the struggles. I’m glad I had to work to stay confident in myself and my abilities, and to know what I was able to do, even when I couldn’t show it to anybody else. I’m glad I was forced to be patient. I’ve learned so much throughout this process, and gained so many valuable tools for the future.

My biggest races are still yet to come, and I’m excited to be back into Xterra racing again and looking forward to applying all the lessons I’ve learned through this focused mountain bike block. I’m hopeful I’ll have more days like I did at Carson City Off-Road ahead, but even if not, I’ll be ready to keep finding those silver linings and use them all as fuel for the fire!

Next up for me is Xterra Beaver Creek this Saturday, where I’ll be looking to once again thrive on one of the most challenging courses on the circuit! Stay tuned for updates, and as always thank you so much for following along!


Photo: Stan Lee Austin

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Margie LaPoint says:

    Love this Kara! I re-lived the race day as I read this! It was an amazing day, and I hope you can do some more pro mountain bike races!

  2. John Stacy says:

    Wow, Good deal, Outstanding and Glad your ok !!!

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