Since this was my first Pro/Open race, I'm going to concentrate on the differences between it and the Cat1 race. This race taught me more about racing; about how to race, than any other race I had competed in before.
You can't race a mountain bike comfortably. There is always pain, or you're not doing it right. The photo above is a mountain bike racer in pain. I once read an interaction between a novice mountain bike racer and an experienced mountain bike racer, it went something like this:
newbie: I don't train to get faster, I just want to get to the point where I can race and not have it hurt so much.
veteran: It always hurts, you just get faster.
I knew it would be painful, but it was the variety of pain that I caught me off guard. There was the dull, agonizing lower back pain you get from laying down power with poor technique. There was the legs-about-to-cramp pain you get from sweating profusely for over two hours. This pain is sort of like a rubber band stretched to it's limit, and you know if you make one wrong move, it's going to snap. Of course there is always the acute "wail your knee against a solid object" pain. Then there is the queasy pain of your stomach cramping and feeling like it's tied in knots because you just keep dumping synthetic sugar water into it even though you know it's only going to make the problem worse.
More about that knee:
It was the second lap, I had just made a pass in a slippery, muddy, rooty section that wound and twisted around a number of trees, I was trying to open up a little gap between us, which meant I was pushing hard in conditions that didn't allow it. I was laying down the power, while turning, in the mud, on a root; the back end slid out about 90 degrees and my knee slammed into the remote lockout switch mounted on my handlebar. Ooooh, that hurt. I tried to pedal it off, it didn't work. The pain just got worse with every revolution.
Eventually I had to get off the bike. I did a little hopping and skipping, and a ton of swearing. I let about 8 or 9 guys pass me as I limped down the single track, putting most of my weight on my bike; which was now my crutch. This was by far the darkest moment of the race for me. The term DNF entered my mind, but in the context of "you better figure this out, because there is no f'n way you are going to DNF". Lucky for you, Internet, there was a photographer (up top, thank you cyclingdirt.com) there to catch my agony.
After maybe three minutes of walking/skipping/limping, I was able to remount and pedal. After a few minutes of pedaling, I knew I was going to be alright. With what had to be the worst behind me, I got down to the business of racing my bike through the woods.
I knew my nutrition/hydration strategy was going to be key, but I didn't know that I would have to deviate from my over-thought-out plan as soon as the race started. In a Cat1 race, my hydration strategy is usually "drink as much as you conveniently can on the way to the finish." This usually works. The worst case scenario is I don't drink enough and the last 20 minutes are harder than they need to be. The longer distances of the Pro/Open race make it harder than it needs to be to begin with. Couple this with poor hydration and you are not going to finish.
I figured I was going to have to put down solid food during the race in order to make it. Historically I have never been able to eat during a race, my stomach just doesn't allow it. All week long I have been eating solid food during my training rides. I was ready. I cut a Clif Bar in half, and shoved the two mouthfuls of energy in my jersey pocket. As soon as the race started, I knew my pocket was filled with dead weight. There was no way I was going to be able to eat anything solid. I just made it a point to empty each of my three bottles and hope for the best.
In a Cat1 race, my pacing strategy is similar to my hydration strategy; go as fast as possible, and hope you make it to the finish. I knew that wouldn't work in a longer race. I also knew that I couldn't pace myself off of the other racers, since they were either unfamiliar or really, really fast. I had to trust myself this time. I had to trust that I could dole out the power in equal portions per lap, save some matches for later, and hope I keep enough in the tank to finish respectably. The field was huge, 30+ dudes, which meant there was constantly someone in front of me, giving me a carrot to chase, and someone behind me to remind me that even the slightest bobble was going to cost me a place. There was no room for error, or exuberance. I had to ride steady and consistent, resisting the urge to constantly hammer past the carrot I was chasing.
What I haven't mentioned yet, is that my teammate Colin beat me. Sure, I might be above him on the results, but this was his race. Since our race times so far this season have been within seconds of each other, I figured he would be right next to me for most of the race. This is exactly how the first lap played out. Problem was, I was burning too many matches trying to keep him behind me. Thanks to his time spent at Highland last week, and his low tire pressure, he had the traction and skills to blow past me on the downhills. I'd step it up and catch him quickly on the uphills, but I knew that constantly chasing down this carrot was going destroy any plans I had for a steady pace. So at the end of the first lap, I let him go. My pride was swallowed, but my pace was steady. I had to race my race, not his.
Quick interlude. Low tire pressure is a risk/reward situation. You get excellent traction, but you are flirting with a flat tire. I don't run low pressure. I'd rather wrestle against a squirrely bike than constantly worry about getting a flat. Neither approach is necessarily better. Back to the report...
Halfway through the last lap, I pass Colin. He's on the side of the trail crouched next to an upside down bike with no rear wheel. He says something about his race being over as I pass. He was the faster racer, but I beat him.
Broken chains, flat tires, crashes; they're all part of the game, and as the length of the game increases the probability that something will go wrong also increases. Multiple racers had chain issues, some of them were able to finish, some dropped out. There are always flat tires, some were changed quickly, some were changed in no less than 12 minutes. There are always crashes, I wasn't the only bloody racer at the finish. It's all part of the game. Competing against the Pros isn't just about being fast, it's about being able to handle the unexpected and keep your head in the game. At the highest level, equipment choices and trail side repair skills are just as important as your training. Carry the right tools with you, be ready to use them, and race your own race.
Oh. Almost forgot. I was 23rd of 35. Much better than I expected.