I made a big deal about this race all season, and I think that played strongly to my benefit, but also to my detriment once the day finally arrived. I had made it known from the very start of my “career” that my goal was to be the one that takes the title from Katie Compton. At first I only told those close to me, then this year I more openly admitted that I was gunning to win; that I wanted to beat Katie Fn Compton at nationals.
She knew it too, as I gave a speech on self-efficacy at Montana Cross camp and she was there for it. I looked her in the eye and said I was going to beat her at Nationals.
I never considered that I could beat her and still not win. If you have never faced a huge mental/physical obstacle, the difference here may not seem big, but it was.
Nationals being 3,000 miles from home meant it may as well have been in Europe. But then, Europe would have been more convenient, because after flying to the west coast, I flew immediately to Europe, so the week leading up to Nationals I had to deal not just with race nerves, but packing anxiety and the stress of a pending home-sickness. Once I departed my house on Wednesday, December 11, I wasn’t going to be seeing it again until February 21st or so. I was not dealing with these compounded stresses very well. But, I made the last trainings and final preparations and tried to focus on relaxing thoughts. I trusted in the preparations that Chris McGovern and I have laid out.
Arriving on Wednesday night I was not feeling super great after the flight, but, when do the high-altitude fart tubes ever leave one feeling fresh?
Thursday’s trip the venue was a soggy one, and after an easy ride on the course my nerves were greatly diminished – it is easy to build up a course in your head, especially watching videos of other athletes flipping over the bars and various descents, or struggling on the run-ups. I mean, I was still struggling on the run-ups, don’t get me wrong, but, even the UCI only lines didn’t seems tricky or scary to me. Despite that, my goal was to ride them at least twice a day through race day. I wanted to know the lines, know the braking patterns, and have zero hesitations. I visualized racing Katie on these sections. I practiced following down, passing and leading down, and soloing. The problem with wanting to ride the downs so much, is that it requires going back up.
After Friday’s UCI only preride I was given the chance to participate in a panel interview that would be airing on the live feed between races. Here, I admitted that the media saying I stood a chance at the title, or at the very least a podium, had me feeling pressure. It felt a little surreal. Entering this sport in the elite category eliminated any opportunity I had to ease my way in to an elite title by earning a junior, U23, or collegiate title on my way up. I jumped into the back and had to claw my way up, and to find myself finally up there provided me with some imposture syndrome. I took every opportunity I had to nearly make a joke out of winning, both to find a way to verbalize my goal, but also to make it seem like I knew it was a stretch. I was not willing to be serious about it because we all know how big a deal it was to end that 15-year streak. Not to mention beating out all of the other competition.
Going head to head with Clara this year I have only beaten her twice, and often she only beats me by one singular place (even last year). I know that I am at least an equal rider to her, but I am not quite the racer that she is. Last year she won U23 Nationals and has had the taste of a title. She can perform under pressure and has a quiet mind (I actually have no idea what goes on in her head but she seems so damn composed at every moment). I knew that regardless of what place I was racing for, the real race would be against her. I saw the podium before it happened, but in a different order. A much different order.
I was nervous the day of the race, but not the type of nervous I normally feel before big events. I was sort of skipping over the day and thinking about Europe – I just wanted this to be over. There was a delay in the gridding and the start so by the time we were within 30 seconds waiting for the whistle my heart rate was 10-20 bpm lower than it normally would be. I went through my mental mantra: “This is happening. This will hurt. I will be strong, and work hard. I will not quit.”
The lights changed. Or whistle blew. Or start metric happened.
I noticed I had the lead nearly right off the line; I could see tires and wheels out of the corner of my eye. I keep charging, thinking about lifting my eyes and filling the void in front of me. At some point, I can’t really see anyone else, so I look under my elbow wondering if maybe there was a false start and I was the only one not stopping. Nope, they were still back there. “Oh my god. I am doing it! Stop thinking about how you are doing it or you will muff this up, ya dummy” – my inner dialogue. Around the turn and Beth Ann Orton comes up along side me, a good start for her too. We are in the thick of it now and I can tell I put in a big effort on the start because this false flat chunky uphill hurts. I try to keep my head in it. I dismount for the run-up too late it feels. I get passed by Compton and Courtenay and chopped by Sunny Gilbert right at the top. Sunny botches the turn at the bottom of the drop and we are forced to run. She isn’t going fast enough! We get gapped. I pass her at the top and charge to close the gap. I pass Courtenay almost by chance. I am neck-and-neck with Katie. I take a moment to compose myself and follow her. We drop back down to the bottom of the course and I am sitting easily on her wheel. I try to find a spot to pass but I know I need to make it clean. I see a hole in a turn and I put my body through it.
I did it.
I passed Katie Compton. At the National Championships. Up until this point I had a fairly quiet mind. Even now, I was calm and composed. I come through the start/finish and Kerry is at the corner yelling “You’re doin’ it, Beck!” I smiled. I think Clara was on my wheel at this point. I figured I was doing too much work on that long pavement section but I just wanted to get Katie out of the picture. I knew the gap was growing and I needed her gone. She was public enemy #1.
Up the run up again. Clara is stronger than me on the run-ups. It made me regret wanting to do the downs making me do so many ups on the days before. I take some time behind her, telling myself it is okay. Once again, sticking her wheel is easy. This is a big deal for me because usually I cannot follow wheels. Start/finish straight and I take the lead. I think this is where I lost the race. Why bother? Why now? Why can’t I take Caroline Mani’s advice to heart and stop pulling people around the course? Did I think I could ditch Clara? Man, reflecting on this now is both helpful and hurtful.
Clara, stronger on the runup, fresh from sitting on my wheel, passes me.
Why did I make that effort?
My glasses fog as I work so hard to go so slow and I can’t see and being blind and cracked I botch the turn at the bottom of the drop. Clara gaps me.
That is when the race was lost.
The next few laps the gap was steady. But then I just let it open little by little as I bobbled.
And then, Clara Honsinger won the National Championships, dethroning Katie Compton, 15x US National champion. I was 2nd. Katie was 3rd.
Why did I make that effort? Why did I not throw my glasses? Would Clara still have won if we had stayed together longer? Could I have closed the gap? Would I have raced differently if I were chasing Katie for the win, not Clara? The questions are nagging, but unanswerable.
I lost the opportunity to achieve my goal. It was gone forever.
I am so happy for Clara. She is a fellow Kona athlete, so having two Konas on the Nationals podium in Washington was a huge thing. Plus, Clara is simply a kind human being and a very worthy competitor. This was not a one-off result. I don’t want to detract from her winning, but for my own sake I am taking to heart all of the comments from people that reached out after the race saying I was the one who made the initial pass. I made the cracks show and gaps open. I may have lost the race but I beat Katie. (Shit writing this down sounds really hurtful to Katie but I mean, if you’re gonna be such a shredder you’ve gotta take the heat, eh? Much eternal respect for Katie, but with great accolades come great bragging rights).
I have a few points I could go back and redo, but I am so grateful and lucky to have no excuses, especially mechanical ones. No dropped chains, or missed shifts on my Shimano GRX. No flats on the Maxxis tires. Incredible confidence shredding the Kona Super Jake. No broken boas. No missed pits with Spencer (and Doug at Nationals) looking out for me.
The 2nd place at Nationals was my biggest result to date, but also the most anti-climactic. That night, I mourned the passing of my dream. But moving forward, I am celebrating the dawning of a new era. One where I am a top-3 American woman. One where I get top 10’s in European World Cups. One where I can win US Nationals, or any other race. ONE WHERE I CAN HAVE GOOD STARTS. You can’t have only good races, but from here we aim to make the best ones big ones, and hopefully the big ones the best ones.