When most folks hear the word "race", the first thing that comes to mind is cutthroat competition, and the concept that it's all about winning. Well, the other weekend at the NORBA (National Off-Road Mountain Bike Association) Nationals at Snowshoe, West Virginia, the true concept of what downhill racing means to me became very, very clear. And surprisingly enough, it honestly had nothing to do with winning, or even competing really. I had entered the Expert Women Downhill category for women age 40-44, for my first time racing as an Expert. As is the procedure, I began the week with some practice runs. On the first one, I was accompanied by Shaums March, a pro racer from the west coast who holds clinics at many National events. I had signed up for his Snowshoe clinic in an effort to work on my crippling issues with lack of confidence and extreme fear of trail obstacles (a death-knoll when trying to successfully compete at downhill racing). As it turned out, I was the sole participant in the clinic, so had a full 3.5 hours of his time all to myself. After working on basic skills such as cornering, braking, bike handling, etc., up in the parking lot area, we proceeded to the downhill course, where he alternately led and followed, as I fumbled my way down the trail, with him encouraging and advising me of the best lines to follow. At many points, I became frozen with fear at the steepness, massive rocks and excessively slick mud coating the trail. Luckily, Shaums is very patient, and when I would stand at a section of trail, too paralyzed with fear to move, he would calmly hold my bike for me, while gently urging me to just "jump on your bike and roll". At one point, I was so frightened on a very steep, off-camber turn that I simply could not will myself to ride. He incredibly walked up behind me, held onto the back of my bike shorts while I got on the bike, then proceeded to run down the trail behind me while I rode, all the while still holding onto my shorts so as not to let me fall. Needless to say, the 2.5 mile course took us nearly an hour and a half to ride, but with his encouragement, I was able to ride sections that I had never before even dared to consider a rideable option, with multiple small layover crashes, but only one real, flipping over the bars, landing flat on the ground superman style, then into a tree, but "yeah, I'm okay, thank goodness for body armor" wreck.
The next day was a slightly different story. This time, during my practice session, I had gotten perhaps halfway down the course when the skies opened up and a thunderstorm burst onto the scene. Soaked by the chilling rain, I somehow managed to slip and slide my way down the mountain. However, due to the lightning, the ski lifts were stopped and we had to wait for the shuttle bus. When it finally arrived, the dozen or more of us stuck at the bottom of the slope crammed our mud-encrusted armor-clad bodies into the bus, with our bikes on the trailer behind, and we started back up the mountain. Unfortunately, barely half a mile up the road, the bus driver suddenly let out a scream/curse and the bus screeched to a halt. Apparently the water heater had burst and sprayed the front interior of the bus with hot antifreeze, luckily with no injuries to either the driver or the passengers. It was at this point that I realized there was another woman on the bus, and since only one course is open for practice at any given time, there was a good chance that she might be in my class! As it turns out, she was. Throughout this day, I learned that there were several women in the Beginner, Sport, and older Expert (over 40 women, and we race on the Sport course) classes. I met and talked with several of them, and we shared our fears and concerns over such a steep, muddy, rocky course.
By the time race day arrived, I was a nervous wreck, fearful of the course, the competition, the other women, etc. But as my start time drew near, I learned what it is that truly drives me to go to the races. It isn't winning, obviously, since I haven't had that privilege very many times during my race "career". But there is a camaraderie amongst the downhill racers that is akin to that of a family. While we waited for our turns to go, both the other women in my class and I chatted like old friends, even though we had only recently met, and although we certainly each would have liked to win, the "good luck" that we wished each other was genuine. Both Theresa and Shari were sent on their runs, and finally it was my turn. As I waited anxiously in the start house for the beeps to begin, I felt a hand on my shoulder, and a soft female voice reminding me to "just breathe and relax - you're gonna be fine". It was yet another downhiller, Kim, a younger Expert friend of mine. And I thought to myself, where else can you find this kind of support and encouragement? Here was someone who had just finished her own race run and was exhausted, and yet she took the time to come find me and provide that last minute support that meant so much to me. And even as I rode down the course, I heard yet another feminine voice yelling out encouraging words - this time it was my teammate, Leigh, who races pro, and as it turns out she was videotaping me and had walked all the way through the course to a section where she knew I felt confident and strong, so as to make a good video for me.
But the best reminder of why I race came after I crossed the finish line. Yes, I was the slowest woman on my course at 16 minutes, but you would have thought I was Lance Armstrong winning the Tour, the way the women all ran up to congratulate me on getting through it, with hugs and cheers. And this happened for every single woman who crossed the line. There is some kind of bonding that occurs when you race downhill; you've all done much more than you thought you could. You have survived something scary, you've reached deep down inside and faced your fears; and you've all shared the experience somehow. Downhill racing isn't just about who is faster - the medals are an aside. It's a shared experience, a camaraderie, a bond that makes you a family.