by Molly Hurford
Nittany Lion Cyclocross has been inked onto my calendar for months now, so when September 10th rolled around, to say that I was giddy with excitement would have actually been a bit of an understatement. Nittany was my first race of the season, the chance to see where my legs were at, to see how attainable my planned goals for the season were, to see certain friends for the first time in months and to figure out the course of the next four months. The weekend did not disappoint on any level. Saturday started early, since even an 11 a.m. start time necessitates getting up at 6 for breakfast, car-packing, double-checking, forgetting things, getting to the course, getting registered, pinned, porta-pottied and finally kitted up to pre-ride the course. Thanks to the recent hurricane and heavy rainfall, even more time was required, since the course had gone from “freakishly fast” to “mudpit.”
When I heard that news, my heart sank a bit. I’ve been following my training plan religiously but haven’t ridden in the mud, well, almost ever (with the exception of one disastrous Nationals experience last year), so my nerves were through the roof as we loaded into the car.
The feeling of anticipation and trepidation as we got closer to the course made my stomach knot into what felt like knots a sailor would be proud of. By the time we hit the course to pre-ride, I was actually shaking. But … here’s the thing about cyclocross.
As soon as I started riding around the course, I remembered. I remembered riding on dirt, on soggy grass, and even to some extent, riding on mud. Or rather, through it- really deep puddles of it. After a pre-ride, there was barely time to wash the bike and have a quick snack before I had to get to the start to line up, and the day would really begin.
Lucky for me, my standing in the MAC series last year was decent enough (or rather, enough of the girls who routinely beat me upgraded and left the 3/4 field) that I got a front row call-up. That hasn’t happened a lot in years past, and my starts are usually not write-home-worthy, to put it mildly. So, trembling at the front, I waited for 5 painful minutes before the light turned green and we were off.
As we raced into the first turn, I realized that I was sitting fifth wheel and not hurting. So, as we blasted the back section and I saw the group getting more and more strung out, I pushed past a couple of girls to get into third.
At the end of the course, the long run through the deep mudpit came up on us. And as we hit it, I felt like I was flying and passed two of the girls. First place had blazed away in a spatter of mud about halfway into lap one, but that didn’t matter to me: I was riding fast.
For the next three laps, I assumed the entire field was nipping at my heels, and even when I looked back as I hit a taped off out and back and didn’t see any rider chasing me, I was still convinced I was hearing wheels behind me, catching up. With the finish line in my head, I sprinted the mud pit on the last lap, knowing that my running background would help put distance between myself and any chasers. Crossing the line, I experienced something very, very new to me: a second place finish in a series race. Not only that, but I had gapped third place by 45 seconds.
I had talked about having goals for the first weekend, and honestly, one of the biggies was to get enough upgrade points to get my Cat 2, but deep down, I didn’t really believe it. But apparently a focus on cyclocross starting in July is better for your race times than doing an Ironman the week before the season starts (last year’s training plan…)
Of course, the weekend was only half over.
So, Sunday when we rolled up to the start, I knew that I had a bulls-eye painted on my back. Maybe girls didn’t think to jump on my wheel on Saturday, but on a course like this where drafting can be beneficial, I knew it was a possibility.
Still, I wanted to win, and I wanted it bad.
When we took off, another front row starter snagged the holeshot. Since she’s a sprinter, I had no problem letting her have it and grabbing her wheel as we raced towards the mudpit, now at the start of the race thanks to the course being reversed.
I got ahead of her in the mudpit (she later told me she let me go in order to copy my line, since I ran it faster than most people.) After that, it was a push to create a gap on the field.
Half a lap in, I heard panting behind me and saw a girl who had been in the top five the day before. “Do we have a gap?” I asked.
So we went.
After two laps, we went through the finish and started into the mudpit again. For the first half of the course, everything was as it should be. But then, for whatever reason, I couldn’t breathe right, and the girl I was with got a 10 second gap on me. (She later told me she warned a guy in the pit that I might be in serious trouble, because she heard me gasping and was worried.)
I soft pedaled to try to recover, and after a minute (that felt like an hour), I could breathe and luckily hadn’t been caught by third or lost too much time on first: I could see her up ahead. The back stretch wasn’t my best section, so I figured I would try to recover, keep closing the gap as much as possible, and then sprint the mud section and catch her. So I was pretty darn surprised when I rolled through the finish and heard, “Molly Hurford with another second place finish!”
We were done. Unlike Saturday, we had only done 3 laps (rather than 4) and the announcer hadn’t said “last lap” so when I heard cowbells the lap before, I assumed it was from the crowd, not the officials. Most of the field assumed the same, and a good chunk continued to race an extra half lap before realizing that the race was, indeed, over.
At the end of the day, who knows what would have happened with one more lap? I just know that from now on, I will be watching lap cards very, very carefully.
So with another second place in hand and enough upgrade points to start racing the elites, I’m ready for Charm City next weekend… assuming my UCI license comes in time!