Tuesday, October 23, 2012

TotalCyclist Diva Camp again!

I felt like I was flying down the hill. Shouting "on your left!" at the top of my lungs as I passed one friend after another, I took long sweeping curves at full speed, topping out at a decent speed before I ran out of hill to descend. I'd done that before - going downhill fairly fast on my bike. But I'd never enjoyed it as much as I did on this sunny Friday afternoon in Virginia. Blame Diva Camp. Again.

It always starts the same way: campers trickle into camp, are greeted warmly by Chad and his team, register, collect a goody bag filled with great sponsors' schwag, get acquainted with one another in an atmosphere of nervous, positive energy. Those who have been to Diva Camp before know the drill: settle in, unpack, meet and greet your roommates, figure out where the electrical outlets are so all the toys can get charged every night, and... relax! Easily done, by breathing in the fresh, clean air of the country, and listening to the full silence for a few minutes... See just how peaceful it was...

Lunch and introductions follow. It's Day 1, there are many new names and faces to remember, and the anticipation of what's coming over the next four days is palpable. New campers are nervous - I'm sure their thoughts all converge towards "Am I going to be too slow? Will I be the one that everyone else is waiting for, or afraid to ride close to? Am I going to remember who the coaches are and what their names are? Am I going to fit into this?" Funny, how being at camp as an adult isn't that different from being at camp as a kid!

The first ride is, predictably, all over the map. Everyone is eager, everyone has too much pent up energy or too much fatigue, or forgot to go through their normal pre-ride routine and is suddenly ill-prepared. Throw in a hill - even a gentle one - right at the start, and campers on bikes look like a bunch of first graders on the very first day of school, finally allowed outside at recess. It's messy, and the teachers spend all their time corralling their wayward horde. Similarly, on Day 1, our coaches work hard, making sure campers stay together, go in the right direction, and stay safe. And have fun. That goes without saying. 

As an experienced camper, I still made a rookie mistake. My pre-ride routine got all messed up, and I forgot my inhaler. I pushed to climb the hills, and ended up in that state of stomach distress and lungs-like-bellows that hopefully can be resolved with a quick puff of asthma meds. Thanks, Leslie, for carrying your inhaler and saving my ride! And thanks Chad for knowing that when I say, "I'm not ok right now, I need to stop", it means just that, and that I'll keep going in a few minutes. One puff later and with new, open lungs, I found my legs, and had a wonderful ride.

Photo by Mark Merrill, TotalCyclist Diva Camp 2012
The roads in that part of Virginia are lovely - carving the colorful autumn forests and hugging the hilly landscape in sweeping curves, well paved and clean (with no apples this year!) and devoid of traffic. Compared to my mostly-urban rides, it's heaven to step outside and already be in the country.

Thursday evening, we were treated to Mark's excellent "Bike Mechanics 101" session. This was my fourth time attending it, and I learn something new every time. It also re-confirms things I’ve learned, and increases my confidence that what I've been doing on my own is correct. Never hurts to watch a pro change a flat tire!

Friday morning dawned clear and warm enough for short-sleeve riding (for this northern girl, at least). Post-breakfast, our friend and fellow camper Barb discussed with us the mental aspect of sports, cycling, and performance in general. Having a sport psychologist amongst us was a treat - helping us to focus on the things that would get us to the top and maintaining positive self-talk was invaluable for the coming days.

Our skills session in the morning focused on descending - a skill that, after my less-than-impressive descent off Potts Mountain last year, I was eager to learn more about. While I've gotten better at descending this season,  I wanted to learn the dos-and-don’ts, and gain confidence in a supported environment.

The "descent clinic" set up by Chad and all our coaches was fantastic. Close to camp, and leveraging the gentle slope of the quiet road, it allowed us campers to apply the theory right away, and start practicing our turns while going downhill. The first few practice runs were slow and a bit hesitant for some, but by the end, campers were "lettin'er rip" down the hill. Most importantly - the predominant noise was laughter. And the cowbell. Always have a cowbell when there are cyclists around. Thanks to Carol, our fellow camper and ever-present cheerleader, for shaking that cowbell!

Photo by Mark Merrill, TotalCyclist Diva Camp 2012
Slaloming around the miniature road cones was fun. And I even started enjoying going UP the hill every time. I didn't just feel free going downhill, but even going up that gentle hill, I felt fast! Must have been all that relaxation finally kicking in... 

Our afternoon ride was well designed, allowing campers to experience the more challenging climb into New Castle, and to put into practice our newly-acquired descending skills. The morning's slalom exercises worked. Even in a matter of a few hours, I was able to apply my new skills and descend comfortably, while having a blast! If you're wondering what that weird "whoooooo-HOOOOO!" sound was, as we went by, it was just me enjoying myself. It's this uncontrollable reaction I have when skiing or riding downhill fast - I can't help it.

Our ride was followed by a yoga/stretching session out in the beautiful sunshine, then another great meal, some more relaxation time, and an early night. Beauty rest is important for Divas, especially before the Queen Stage.

Saturday morning was mostly clear, but definitely colder. Out came the arm warmers, knee warmers, leg warmers, long-fingered gloves, toe covers and embrocation. The plan was for all Divas to climb Potts Mountain that day. To give us all the best odds possible, Chad and his team had come up with three options: (1) drive to the base of Potts and save all the energy for the actual effort of the climb; (2) do the short, direct ride to Potts, to get some warm-up miles into the legs (my preferred option); and (3) for the stronger cyclists among us, ride some extra miles to Potts. As a result, all three groups would tackle the climb at slightly different times, ensuring we would all be reaching the summit within a reasonable window so we could celebrate together. 

The plan worked! Every camper reached the summit of Potts Mountain on her own terms - some faster than others, but without exception, everyone got up the mountain under her own power. As it was last year, the celebration at the summit was emotional, and the celebratory picture was as rewarding for the coaches as it was for the campers. I wrote at length about the climb last year (read about Diva Camp 2011), so all I will say for now is, it wasn't any easier physically the second time around, but mentally, it was. Glances off the side of the mountain gave me a good gauge of how high off the valley floor I was, and I was constantly encouraged to see that I was gaining altitude. I recognized the last curve before the summit, and knew that the last half mile should be relished, even though it's painful... Barbara won this year's "Badass Award" after climbing Potts on a hybrid bike with flat pedals. Need I say more? WOW!

Photo by TotalCyclist Diva Camp 2012

What about the descent, you ask? Last year, I nearly wore out my brakes, and felt panicked the whole way down. Coach Gordon, I felt, was only with me so he could mark the spot where I went over the edge. In contrast, this year, I left the summit second, passed the one friend who had gone first, and was then only passed by two people (including coach Terry). I didn't set any speed records, not even a PB speed, but I had fun! I thoroughly enjoyed that descent, and felt in control, of both the bike and of my emotions, the whole way down. I know that if I got to practice on it more often, I would truly fly down that hill! Which, I guess, means that (1) I'll have to go back to Potts Mountain, and (2) I'd better enjoy doing hill repeats up Potts...

The return ride to Wilderness Adventure was one of the most fun rides I've had all season. I was amazed that I still had any legs left. It was smooth sailing all the way to camp, and I even felt that I could have gone a few extra miles. I was sad that the day's riding was over.

Applying other newly-learned skills, we spent a bit of time practicing how to take care of a flat tire. Removing our front wheel, we deflated our perfectly good tube, removed it, replaced it (with itself, since it was still good), and went through the exercise of re-seeding the tire and inflating the tube once more. Great practice, under the watchful eyes of our coaches, and without any of the stress of being stranded by the roadside.

Wilderness Adventure at Eagle Landing being an outdoor education center, there are all kinds of activities designed to challenge campers. Last year, we did the zip line, and this year, we did the "ropes course", which is to say, we walked across a very wobbly bridge (safely protected by a harness and rope & pulley system) while our friends cheered on. Not my proudest moment (I wobbled significantly), but loads of fun! Dolores earned the top prize based on speed AND style - unanimous decision.

The last evening's celebrations went by too fast. The celebrations were, in all honesty, on the tame side - tired as we were, and aware that we had one last ride to look forward to the very next morning, we took it easy. Dinner, football (go Alabama!), and the friendly, warm chitchat of Diva Camp made for a great evening. Plans for a cornhole tournament, camp fire and movie fell by the wayside - we were just too tired...

Sunday was once again sunny and crisp, and we covered as many body parts as we could before heading out for our last ride. Forty-five minutes out, then back, along our favorite roads. Contrary to last year's "Sunday ride", when I had nothing left – nothing at all – I felt very strong on Sunday, and had a blast! Our pace line was fun, the conversation was good, and the riding was smooth. On the way back, seeing a short descent followed by a punchy climb, I accelerated on the descent with the hope that my momentum would get me to the top of the hill. Pushing a big gear, I passed everybody, got to the top, and sat up, expecting everyone to come swarming behind me. Nothing, no one... I started pedaling again, slowly. But then, it was just too much fun, I had to push. After a couple of minutes, coach Melinda caught up to me, and we started our own little two-women pace line. Ah, the joy...!

We eventually waited at the church corner to reunite with our group, and crossed the road to climb the last short hill. At the top, Melinda told me to wait before going down to camp. Melinda and Terry had decided I should go down the hill on Terry's wheel, with Melinda behind me. It took me a few seconds (and some wasted meters...) to grasp the concept of getting RIGHT on Terry's wheel at speed, but soon I was traveling 32mph a mere few inches behind him. We reached camp too soon – I wanted to keep going, and was on the verge of yelling "faster!!!" as I was getting the hang of this. Too bad the hill wasn't longer or steeper...

Sunday afternoon at camp is always a sad event for me. We had a nice lunch, and shared one last story about the rides we'd done, but too soon, it was time to say good-bye. Ever seen 20 women and 4 men hugging good-bye emotionally? Yes, the men get emotional too... Admit it, boys, you don't like saying good-bye any more than we do.

As we embarked on the trip home, in directions as far and varied as Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh, Reading, Toronto and Alaska, I know that all of us relived the great moments of the last four days. For each of us, the cycling experience was different – for some, it was in the challenge of riding in a pace line for the first time; for others, it was facing the toughest climb they'd ever attempted; and for me, it was in discovering the pure joy of descending without fear. But for all of us, the Diva Camp experience was also in the friendships we made, the lasting confidence we gained, and the inevitable sense of empowerment that comes from challenging oneself and succeeding at pushing the boundaries of one’s comfort zone.

Thank you all, my fellow Diva Campers, and thank you, my friends from TotalCyclist, Chad, Terry, Melinda, Tom, Alison, Mark, Marianne and Hannah, for your flawless logistics, great organization, and relentless positive energy and coaching. Can't wait to be a little kid at camp again...

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful recap. And you my friend are one of the best things about Diva Camp! You challenge me to go faster, climb harder, and descend with more confidence. Can't wait to climb Potts with you again next year!