40 days. That's how long it took from buying my mountain bike to racing it. That sounds like plenty of time to prepare, except that's about how long the biblical rains have been coming down in the area, too.
As such, I had only managed to put about 20 miles in on the thing, and only 6 or 7 on the converted 1x10 drivetrain, and only 2 of those on the extended range 40T cog. I was not feeling prepared when I rolled up.
But I ran into two of my teammates who helped put my nerves at ease and warmed up a bit in the morning sunshine.
At 10:15, about 15 of us lined up for the Beginner race, a 4 mile loop down the slopes, through the woods, and up up up on single-track and scree. As soon as we were rolling, I knew I was in trouble. The loose stuff was so loose, and I was soooooo stiff, that I couldn't keep the bike on the course going downhill. I overshot almost every switch-back and really got aggressive on the brakes. By 0.5 miles in, I was where I expected to end up: dead last.
But then came level ground and the first slight incline, and instantly I started reeling people in, like to the point where I was worried I was working too hard. By 1 mile into the race, I was squarely back in the middle of the group. Then came the trails. The unending twisting trails. Switch-backs, roots, rocks, constant grade-changes, and trying to make passes stick on the tight single-track.
Fortunately, everybody out there recognizes the inherent risk of this kind of racing, so passes (at least at the Beginner level) were very cordial and carefully coordinated--not at all like out on the road.
After a mile or so of constantly unclipping and coming off the pedals, I finally got to freedom, and The Hill. I couldn't tell when I first saw it, but it looked like The Hill was a bit on the steep side. It also appeared to be wide and gravelly, so I was optimistic. But when I got to it, I realized it was more of a wall than a hill. Thank God for the 40T cog!
I got a running start at it, shifted onto the 40, jumped up over the handlebars, and just focused on putting out the best circular pedal-strokes I could. One by one the other riders came to me, 3 on the steepest part of the climb (24% at one point, on frickin' gravel), and another two at the crest, and I was up! 15th fastest rider on that climb, according to Strava, which I'll happily take for having so little experience.
After that meat-grinder, there was another downhill section that I was too tired to fight, and actually managed to ride pretty well because of it, and then another 500' or so of climbing through more single-track and scree. Through all the climbing, though, I kept catching other riders. Even coming unclipped over and over on those loose switch-backs (and nearly pitching off the side of a couple tiny bridges), I still kept reeling them in.
Then I heard Alastair shouting for me to go go go, so I put my head down and struggled through the last few hundred feet to the end, where there were only 4 bikes scattered around in front of me.
Somehow I'd managed to pull off a 5th place finish!
It's worth mentioning that there was a little boy lined up with us at the start on exactly Alastair's bike: a stock Specialized HotRock 24. That bike is HEAVY (~29lbs), has only 7 speeds, and that little boy couldn't have been a day over 8. How he managed, I will never know, but he finished that 4-mile lap in just over 80 minutes. Mad props to him!