Sisters Stampede - Thinking Fast and Slow

In the starting chute. I know exactly
where I am. This didn't last.
It's 3:30 in the morning after the Sisters Stampede race. Raps is napping behind me on the sofa. Eber is sitting in the hall staring at me trying to use some kind of feline hypnosis to get me to do something. I have no idea if it's working. Ink is in the other room playing murder in the dark. I can't sleep, so I thought I'd write a bit about this book I'm reading called "Thinking Fast and Slow" by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel winning psychologist.  He's challenged the traditional model of rational thinking by breaking that process into two systems that he rather unimaginatively describes as "System One" and "System Two". System One is the part of our minds that makes quick decisions based on past experience, expected outcomes, intuition and faith. System Two is the part of your mind that balances the checkbook. It's not fast but it's capable of assembling complex blocks of data and calculating results. System One is what's kept us alive for generations. It's what makes us move before we think we have to move. It's also what informs most of our political, religious and relationship choices and, as you might expect, it's wrong an amazing amount of the time. System One is responsible for credit card debt, Scientology and the belief in unregulated free markets. System Two won't save you from being eaten by a tiger but it will let you figure out how to pay off that credit card debt as well as doing other important things like assembling furniture from Ikea. The book is filled with funny and chilling results of experiments that demonstrate how these systems work and how many of the decisions we make are influenced by them. I highly recommend it.

Does your race have helicopters? I didn't think so.
Perhaps you should consider getting some.
Sisters Stampede was one of those races where my two systems seemed to be fighting for the steering wheel. I can't fault the race for that. I didn't really care for the race last year and almost didn't go this year. The parking was awful. The vendors and beer garden were way away from the start/finish. It was cold. The race was fun but over so quickly it hardly seemed worth the drive. What a difference a year makes! They moved the parking and all the vendors out into the field by the starting line.  The quarter mile of the course that zigged through the parking field gave everyone something to watch and someone to cheer as they went off and came in. The weather was nice. Rain the day before settled the dust so much they had to bring in a helicopter to stir it up. The turnout was huge. Sisters really pitches in to make this race a party and it shows. Lots of friendly faces and helping hands. The race also had some of the best running commentary I've ever heard. I don't know who was on the mic for the race, but he was great. He was informative, encouraging and did a great job keeping the energy up. I'm digressing a bit but it really makes me happy to see a whole town get behind this kind of event and that happiness seemed to really put me in a good head space for the race.  I was staged right at the front and I was feeling good.  Each wave is led off by a guy on horseback shooting a gun in the air.  I thought it was kind of silly last year. This year, at the front of the pack,  I really liked the flourish. Sisters is cowboy country. It hosts one of the largest rodeos in the state. If you've got the props, you might as well use 'em. It's worth it just to see the degree of horsemanship necessary to keep a horse under control while a gun is going off above its head and hundreds of cyclists are racing around it.

My start was incredible. By the time I cleared the field and headed into the woods I was running maybe forth or fifth overall. The Sappo Hill guys cheered me on as I passed their van. I dropped another guy and was still accelerating. I yelled at a pre-rider to get out of the way as I nearly plowed into him. I was on a mission. The course swung right and I kept gaining ground. I was on another guys wheel with plenty of room to pass. Three miles of fire road to go and I was on fire! I could pull this off. If I got enough of a gap on the field before the single track, I could stand on top of the podium this time! It was happening!

 It was right about then that the finish line came back into view.

At this point,  System One started screaming: "You did it! There's nobody between you and the finish! You're a God! Where did you put the free beer token? I'm thirsty!" System Two responded by giving System One a running kick in its mental testicles. System Two quickly reasoned that I had got on the wheel of someone pre-riding the course where the course looped back on itself and I had followed them all the way back to the start.

System Two said: "Shit, your off course!"

I said: "Shit, I'm off course!"

System One was still doubled over holding its crotch but I suspect it had come around and was agreeing with System Two.

This is actually a pretty accurate description of what was going on in my head when I saw the starting line come into view. According to Kahneman, it's incredibly difficult to get System One to shut up. And really, even though it's slower than System One, System Two can deliver testicle kicks in milliseconds.

The guy I had been following said: "Are you racing?" with the sort of expression you might have if you pulled up to a traffic light and noticed a formula one race car behind you with its driver looking around wondering where the rest of the race went. Another pre-rider earned his place in Heaven by pointing out that the course was just 50 yards through the woods to my left. I had been paralleling it for some time. I could see the Cat III field going by while I stood there. I charged into the woods, managing to find the worst line back to the course over camp fire rings, fallen trees almost riding into the side of a large yellow excavator before I got back on the right road.  I was back on course but I was way off the front.

I started to grind my way back through the field.  There wasn't much to do except pedal as hard as I could on the last few miles of fire road before the single track, so I had some time to think about where I went wrong. That part of the course had been heavily bisected by excavators. It looks like it's getting ready to be sub-divided. Indeed, a huge creek crossing that tangled up dozens of riders last year had simply vanished.  There were pre-riders going in both directions.  I was ahead of ahead of everyone, which is something of a novelty for me. I suspect I was focused too much of chasing down riders and not enough on course markings. I can recall one point when I looked up and saw riders to the left and right of me on parallel courses. I went right. There was lots of visual reinforcement of what I was doing even though what I was doing was wrong. Kahneman would consider this a classic System One failure experiment. Had he been there he probably would have pointed that out to me. I probably would have kicked him in the testicles.

While I was wallowing in Psych 101, I passed a dozen or more riders and started to see some familiar faces when the course switched to single track. I was doing pretty well for a mile or so until the trail got technical.  Most of the land around here is covered in lava fields so any trail is going to have rock gardens - sections of trail littered with various sized rocks and boulders (often referred to as "baby heads") you have to ride around and over. Last year I cleaned this course. This year System Two, having temporarily incapacitated System One, analyzed the rock gardens and determined that it was too dangerous for me to try to ride them and I should just pull over, let all the other riders by and then walk around them. System One sort of wheezed that I had ridden over this same trail last year on a bicycle with a BROKEN FRAME and when did I turn into such a Pansy anyway? - but it was still doubled over and couldn't really put up much of a fight.  I'm only slightly exaggerating here. Technical trail riding is System One riding. You can't figure it out as you go along. You need to pick your line and ride it. Look past the obstacles and trust that you'll roll through it. This is what I was not doing. I was thinking too much.

Excelling in anything, especially racing, requires a mental stillness, a sort of balance between the two systems that lets them go silent. I was there at the start of the race. I'm not there very often. Kahneman goes on quite a bit about this in his book. There's even a term for it among psychologists: "Flow".  Imagine that. The most common word in any mountain bike magazine and it's an actual psychological condition. Who knew?

I totally dominated the missing puddles
part of the race.

The trail eased out and while I can't say I found my flow, at least my two systems had gone off to some other part of my brain where I couldn't hear them bicker.  I seemed to be in that odd DMZ between the front runners and the rest of the pack. With nobody to chase or push me, I focused on my time, determined to come in faster than last year. I managed to shave a few seconds off  despite my detour and all the mental bitch slapping that was going on in my head. I finished 9th out of 40(!) in my class.

It would be nice to know how the race would have gone if I hadn't gone off course. I can estimate my finish based on people I've beaten or lost to in other races. Brian Hart finished 3rd and he beat me by a minute at Chainbreaker so maybe a podium finish wasn't going to happen. Maybe this one would have been different. Having to stop and regroup costs more than time. It breaks your rhythm and starts you thinking and that creates a cascading effect that's hard to shake.

Maybe, maybe, maybe. The hard and great thing about racing is it has a definitive result. There really is no maybe. You finish, you move on. I got off course. That was a shame but I clearly need to work on my bike handling. That's a persistent problem and it's cost me time every race this year. That may be tough to work on for awhile. Test of Endurance is up in a few weeks and I need to clock some long miles to get ready for that. Yes,  I'm going back to the Heart of Darkness. I want my damn pint glass this time.


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