I leapt out of bed before my alarm this morning. I felt like a tightly coiled spring, ready to explode. Today was the last stage of the Breck Epic.
I did my usual morning routine of make breakfast, walk the dog while eating breakfast, getting my food and Skratch into my race bag, heading down early to the staging area to get some time in the Elevated Legs, and then a 30 minute warm up on the bike. I tried to get in a solid warm up today, because I knew the stage was going to be fast. It was only 32 miles, significant climbing but nothing as steep as in the previous days, and the pro women's field was very close. None of us had any time to lose. I had clawed my way up into 5th in the GC on Wheeler yesterday by a mere two minutes, and I knew that if I was to keep that position I would have to be at my very best.
The race went off hot from the gun. No neutral rollout today. We started on the road and it was FAST. Laura zoomed off ahead of me, and it was all I could do not to chase her. "Let her go, don't blow yourself up," I told myself. I am notorious for blowing up at the start, and 32 miles was not long enough for me to recover after blowing - not in this strong of a field. I rode hard and strong, but didn't let myself pop.
We turned off the road onto the first section of singletrack - another rocky, rooty climb, wet from yesterday's rain. It was fast though, fast enough that I had to be really alert and watch my technique so that I didn't go down on the wet roots. I finally caught up to Laura on the first steep fire road climb. I passed, but again was careful not to explode and burn precious matches that I might need later. I kept it steady. I didn't look back, but knew she was close behind.
About a mile from the end of the singletrack, I caught Kate Aardal, the women's pro GC race leader. She is an incredible bike handler and it was fun to follow her through the fast swooping trails. We popped out onto Boreas Pass Road, and it was up into the sky again for the first time over the Divide. I had done this climb in the Breck 100, and I knew it well. I knew that to have a chance I needed to treat it like a road race and work with people. Kate and I, and one other guy, pacelined together all the way up to the top of the pass. I was working hard to hang on, and I was determined to stick with them to the top.
Finally the top came, and I powered up and over, flying down the other side and on to the Gold Dust trail. I had a bit of a gap on Kate as we crested the climb, but she came around me quickly once we started the descent. Again, it was fun to stick on her wheel as long as I could as she flowed effortlessly down the trail. But it was work... such hard work for me. Those of you who don't ride mountain bikes - going downhill is NOT resting. It is really hard, especially when you're trying to ride at your limits of speed, stay focused so you don't crash, and work the terrain to pick up as much free speed as possible. It's hard. Just a different kind of hard.
I knew the road was coming (Boreas Pass again, the other side) and my goal was NOT to hit the road alone. I knew there was going to be a headwind, and the grade of the road was just steep enough that it does benefit a rider to be working with other riders. I knew if I hit the road alone, that I was done. Fortunately when I came out, I saw about six guys about fifty feet ahead. I powered up to them and we got to business. The guy who was first in front set a blistering pace, and it was all I could do to hang on as our group weaved in and out to find the smoothest line through the rocks on the road.
About halfway up, we caught up to Kate again. She joined our group, and we pushed on. It was about then that I felt my body start to cry out for mercy. My back cramped up and my legs, firing on all cylinders, actually started to feel numb with exertion. I was breathing out my eyeballs, but I knew I had to hang on. I glanced back to see if there was anyone behind that I could work with if I dropped back... and there was no one. Just a lonely long stretch of road. I knew I had to hang on. "Just keep moving, just keep moving, just keep moving," I told myself. "Don't give up. Don't crack now. Just keep pushing." My mind would start to drift off, and I'd think "I'm almost done, I can have beer, I can sit in the river, oh damn I'm so close!" Every time I would think those things, I would fall off the pace and have to give an extra push to get back on. "Stop thinking. Don't let up. Be here NOW." Once again, like I had done so many times over the past six days, I put my head down and kept grinding away, keeping pace with my group.
Finally, the top of the pass. I could barely acknowledge the people cheering at the top, just a brief nod as I pushed over the top and kept up my power down the descent. Again, I had to tuck in or I'd be lost. I am just not big enough to pick up much speed down the fast gravel roads. I tucked, and down we went. We hit doubletrack, and holy crap, the roots. They were big, and they were wet. I lost my group as I had to rein it in a bit to keep from crashing. That was NOT the way I wanted to end my race. I got down as quickly as I could, and then, pavement. No one was around, so I made myself as small as I could and time trialed my way to the last section of singletrack.
As I turned up for the last three miles of trail, I saw Kelly Boniface a couple of switchbacks ahead. I couldn't believe we were all so close. Kate couldn't be far ahead of her, and I knew Laura was nipping at my heels. I didn't look back, but I could feel that she was close. The last section of singletrack had some short punchy climbs, but they felt like nothing. I was flying and I could barely see. I focused on keeping good form on the bike so I wouldn't screw up. "Keep it together. Keep it together."
After what seemed like no time at all, out of nowhere, I heard Larry's voice on the loudspeaker, announcing Kelly crossing the finish line. I was right there. I got a little choked up as I rounded the last few corners. My last six days was about to be over. I had done it. I had fought my way back on to the podium after detonating on Day 2. More importantly, I didn't quit, and I fought all the way to the finish. This race tested every part of me, and I rose to the challenge. Even when I thought I couldn't possibly give any more, couldn't possibly ride faster, couldn't possibly pedal harder, somehow I was able to keep moving.
Finishing this race wasn't the hardest thing I have ever done. Getting divorced and having to fight my way back up from absolute rock bottom when my life was in pieces was harder. Going through an intense shoulder surgery and rehab, having to regain my strength and fitness and come back to racing from nothing, was harder. Still, this race was probably the hardest thing I have ever done physically and athletically. And once again, in this race, just like in the rest of my life, I proved to myself that even when I didn't think it was possible, I really could keep going. And that, my friends, is why I race. It's all worth it at the end.
I have a lot of people to thank for getting me here and supporting me in this race and throughout my "comeback" season. First, my physical therapy clients. Thanks for letting your physical therapist go play pro bike racer for a full week- I hope none of you lost a limb while I was away. ;)
Thanks to my wonderful partners and sponsors. ALP Cycles Coaching/Alison Powers, Heights Performance, Skratch Labs, Griggs Orthopedics, Marzocchi Suspension, Rock n' Roll Sports, Pactimo. You have all made my life so much easier this year - thank you for the great support.
Thanks to my friends and family for always cheering me on and believing in me, and encouraging me to chase my crazy dreams, even when the rest of the world thinks I'm a crackhead. ;)
Thanks to the two strong and talented women who made my Breck Epic super special - Marlee Dixon for putting Cody and me up all week, it was awesome to have a place to call "home," and also having the time to chill out, recover, and get to know a new friend made this week so much better. And Laura O'Meara for putting up a great challenge every single day, pushing me to ride my best. We were neck and neck literally the entire race, and it was crazy that the race for 5th over 6 days came down to two minutes. The rest of the top of the pro women's field - Kate, Kate, Catherine, Kelly - it was an honor to throw down with you ladies. What a close race. I am amazed by all of us. All the racers, really, men and women - everyone has their own special stories coming into and out of this race. It was awesome to get to know you on the course and off. What a cool experience to share with another (or many) human being.
Finally, thanks to my sweetheart Donny, who I know is always cheering me on from his place in the Southern Hemisphere, guiding, skiing, and chasing dreams in Chile. This is going to sound like the most un-romantic thing ever, but thank you for not giving up on your own passions and dreams for me, and therefore giving me the freedom to do the same. I appreciate it more than you could ever know.
Breck Epic ... done. Over and out.
Holy crap, I'm tired. I feel like I have been wrung out like a wet rag. The Wheeler stage did not disappoint. It was, I would say, the hardest stage for me yet. But, it wasn't Wheeler itself that did me in- it was what came afterwards! Here's how it went down...
This morning, after 20 minutes in the Elevated Legs getting my circulation going and a good 30 minute warmup on the bike, we were off for the start of the Wheeler stage. The highlight of this stage was a long climb up Wheeler - including between 30-60 minutes of steep hike-a-bike. Because this stage funneled onto singletrack right away, we were let off in waves instead of one big mass start. The pro women's field went off fast, and into the dark wet woods we went.
Clouds threatened overhead already, and the forecast was for 50% chance of rain by 10 am. Because of all the hiking, I chose to race with a pack today, as it's difficult to get my bottles out of my jersey pockets while pushing my bike. I also packed a raincoat hoping it would keep the rain away.
Right from the start of the singletrack, Marlee dropped her chain and it got tangled in her derailleur. The rest of us flew by. I had no doubt she would catch up. The Burro Trail was technical, rooty and rocky, which seems to be the name of the game in Breckenridge. Laura and I rode together, hammering up the technical sections while many of the people around us were walking or putting a foot down. Fortunately most of them were nice and moved out of our way. Catherine was just ahead.
The trail turned to road- steep, loose, babyhead road. Also par for the course in this race. As we turned the corner, Marlee caught me. We rode together as far as we could until we were stopped by the ant line of hikers pushing their bikes up the steep mountainside. We joined them, and I settled into a strong hiking rhythm. The air was thin, even for me, and I felt like I was breathing out my eyeballs. I kept my head down, trying not to fall off the steep and narrow trail that was barely wide enough for both me and my bike.
I am not sure how long we hiked. I actually did not look at my Garmin except for once in this entire stage. When we were finally able to get back on and ride for awhile, my fatigue was showing. I was bumbling along the trail, pinballing off the steep sides of the rutted trail and the rocks. I was picking up speed and didn't like where I was going, so I bailed out and pitched over into the bushes on the uphill side of the trail. I got back on and tried again, only to do the same thing about twenty feet later. Oops. I walked a little longer until I felt like I could see straight, then got back on and pedaled a steady rhythm the rest of the way up Wheeler Pass, save one short hiking section. Finally, I hit the top. Marlee had gone over the other side a few minutes before. I grabbed some Skittles from Jon Davis's magic bag, and once again tasted the rainbow all the way down the Wheeler descent.
The Wheeler descent wasn't near as scary as I remembered it from the Breck 100. It wasn't sloppy wet this time, and I felt more confident in the grip of my tires as I flew down the initial part of the descent. I felt my mind come back into focus as I quickly lost elevation, and I focused on riding smoothly and enjoying the fast descent. I was right on a guy's wheel, and was again pinballing off rocks and roots, but this time in a controlled manner, jumping and playing on my bike. I was laughing like a maniac, and probably scared the poor dude in front of me. Eventually my body started to get tired, and I was ready for it to be over. Well, it wasn't over, and I held on for what felt like an eternity until the Wheeler trail ended in the paved trail at Copper. Whew, survived that one. Good.
Right at the end of the Wheeler descent I caught Catherine, who is sitting in 2nd in the GC. The two of us, plus one guy, worked together down the bike path. It is overall a descent, but flat enough that you are still pedaling hard. We took turns pulling and made good time on the pavement. Then, we turned onto the Miners Creek Road. I was feeling pretty fatigued at this point, so I let them go and settled into a bit of a slower pace. I had no idea what was in front of me...
Miners Creek Road is a loose, extremely steep, babyhead-ridden fire road that climbs...and climbs... and climbs. FOREVER. I kept thinking it would end, that I would round a corner and pop out onto the Peaks Trail singletrack. But it didn't. It just... kept... going... up. And I was alone for the entire climb. I'm not sure how long it took, but it felt like years. I kept pushing as hard as I could, refusing to walk even the steepest sections. At times it was so steep, and I was going so slowly, that I had to use momentum to shove my bike up and over rocks - pedaling wouldn't have worked. This road nearly cracked me. I blocked everything from my mind and repeated the mantra that has kept me going since day 1: "bike is light... bike is light... bike is light." FINALLY, the road ended and I turned off onto the Peaks Trail.
If I never ride the Peaks Trail again, that will be okay with me. Holy crap. I used to think that trail was fun. but today it was just a slap in the face after the Miners climb. It is technical, with rocks and roots everywhere, and it kept going up. More up. I was so sick of going up. My mental state started to deteriorate, and I finally looked down at my Garmin and realized I had still seven miles left to go. And I knew it was mostly all climbing. Aaaaahhhhhh! I screamed inside. No more! My mind wandered and I started thinking of all sorts of things, that I can't even remember now. Random stuff. Mostly that I was sick of being on my bike, and annoyed at the stupid roots. I had to stop myself and refocus. "Keep the wheels rolling. The bike is light. Stay present." The trail was really technical, and I couldn't screw up. Fortunately I was able to focus on the terrain and keep the pedals turning.
Then, it started to rain. Five miles to go, and I was on a fast twisty section with roots and stumps. The rain started to come down hard and it was cold. "I'm not f*%@%ing stopping!" I yelled out loud, and again put my head down and drove forward as hard as I could. "What are you made of?" I asked myself. I didn't think I had anything left in the tank. Somehow I kept moving, using the strength of my upper body to push my wheels forward over the huge roots and through the wet rocks. Finally, finally, I started to hear cheering, heard Larry on the microphone and knew the finish was close. I flew through the final corners and rolled across the line, shaking. I couldn't stop and started rolling into the gravel road, where Kelly Boniface put her arm out to stop me from riding right into a car. Oops. Thanks for saving my carcass, Kelly.
I got off my bike and sat down, completely exhausted. I was shaking and I couldn't move for quite awhile. Laura came in just under five minutes after I did. I had reclaimed 5th in the GC, with another 5th on the day, but just barely. She is such a strong rider - I am super impressed at how well she did at high altitude, being from California. I definitely had the altitude advantage today. Still, I was completely worked. And to my surprise, it wasn't even Wheeler that took it out of me. It was that damned Miners road.
I finally made it back to town, and went to the Elevated Legs tent to start my recovery. Just as I got there, the skies let loose. It POURED- for well over thirty minutes. The parking lot became a river. I felt bad for the many riders still out on course. I stayed in the recovery tent until the rain stopped, and then dragged my carcass back to Marlee's house where I have been stuffing my face with anything and everything I could find to put down the hole. It is unbelievable how much I am eating this week- and what strange cravings I am having. Well, I am definitely putting my body through the ringer - better give it what it wants, even if it is bacon and shrimp and green smoothie, and mint chocolate Newman-O's.
Tomorrow is the last stage. I'm not even thinking about being done yet. There are still 30 miles of racing left to go, with some significant climbs and also some wicked singletrack descents. It's going to be a hard day. I hope my body is up for it. I can't wait to line up next to all these incredible women and men that I've spent all week challenging myself with, one last time.
I was dreading this stage as it covered a lot of the same terrain that cracked me on Stage 2. Fortunately it passed quite uneventfully. I didn't ride my best, it wasn't as strong and smooth as yesterday's ride- but it was good enough.
I again got to the staging early and stood there for over 20 minutes so I could start near the front. It's worth it. I took advantage of the time by doing some stretching and mobility exercises- I'm sure I looked pretty funny. Oh well.
The stage went off quickly to a familiar climb, and I settled into a good rhythm. My upper body was a little tired from all the hammering on the technical descents yesterday, and on the first fire road descent with loose babyheads everywhere I was a little tentative. Laura flew past me near the end of the first descent, riding confidently and gaining time. I kept her in sight until Aid 1, where I stopped to switch out bottles and she kept going. Trying not to burn any matches, I let her go.
The next descent was not my favorite and certainly not my forte - loose, sandy, gravelly, slippery. It was awkward for me and I had to try not to get frustrated. When we came out of the woods we were above a town - I think it was Keystone. It was pretty awesome to be looking down on the entire town. I tried not to get too distracted and fall off the steep trail. The switchbacks got to me and I was riding stiffly again, and had to unclip for a couple of them. D'oh.
Finally we were at the bottom and started climbing again. Vomit Hill was steep, loose, and rutted. There was a bottleneck, and everyone was hiking. I ran part of it and got back on as quickly as I could, as I know these steep climbing sections are really the only place where I can have an advantage. I finally passed Laura near the top, and dug deep to get ahead. The descent after Vomit Hill was fun and rooty, and I started riding more smoothly and letting the bike flow with the trail underneath me. It was over much too quickly and up we went again, and then on to a fast flowy flume trail. It was a climb, but a fast big gear hammering climb. I grabbed a dude's wheel and hung on as we shot out onto another long road climb that would take us up the ridge to the Colorado Trail.
When I looked at the map yesterday, I knew this stage would be a road race. Not in the sense that it is all road, but there was a lot of road and I knew that it would be important to ride it like a road racer. I played it well and was able to jump on and work with various people, until the pace would slow down and I would get antsy, and then I would bridge the gap up to the next riders. I jumped riders this way up the whole road climb, and it seemed to work. I was feeling good as the road made a sharp turn and got steep again. I was riding near a guy named Ryan from Canada for most of the road section, and we seemed to be going a similar pace. He would lead on the faster sections, and I would jump ahead on the steeper climbs. It was nice to have someone to consistently work with and made the long road miles pass more quickly.
I was drinking a ton of Skratch on this stage - I actually found it hard to eat much today, I threw as much food down the hole as I could, but I nearly ran out of Skratch between each aid station. It was hot, and I guess my body wanted liquid! It's nice because I am finally dialing in the amount of Skratch I need to stay well hydrated and not have to pee all the time. Haha. I have a tiny bladder, and when I'm drinking close to 30 ounces per hour, it's really important to get my concentration of Skratch to water dialed so that I don't have to stop. When the times are as close as they are now, stopping is not an option!
Finally (finally! holy crap!) the steep road climbing ceased. It seemed to go on FOREVER, it just kept throwing punches. But finally it let up and we powered into the last section of singletrack. We still had about six miles to go and I threw down as hard as I could, still sucking down Skratch like it was my job. By the end of the stage, again, I was glad to see the finish line. My body cooperated today, and I felt pretty strong, but I am definitely starting to get tired. This is a long, hard race.
Tomorrow is the Wheeler stage. It will be about an hour of hike-a-bike to the top of Wheeler Pass. I don't really have a great advantage there because my legs are so short, but I will do the best that I can. I'm really hoping all the high altitude hiking and trail running I've been doing will pay off again like it did on French Pass- only this one will be much longer. Then the gnarly descent off of Wheeler that will be familiar from the Breck 100, roadie racing down the bike path to Frisco and the Peaks trail, and hammering it out back to town. It's a shorter stage, but will certainly be tough.
I came in 5th again today, with Laura hot on my heels only a few minutes back. I am now only three minutes back from 5th in the GC. It's definitely a tight race. Marlee won again, followed by Catherine, Kate Aardal, and Kelly. I've been a lot closer to Kelly the last two days, and I wonder where I'd be at had I not detonated on Stage 2? Ah well - no use in wondering. Maybe next time. ;)
Up into the sky tomorrow. More to come.
As shitty as yesterday was, today was equally as awesome. It was the Queen Stage - the Circumnavigation of Mt. Guyot. There were three significant climbs, long and steep, and the first major hike-a-bike of the race.
I spent a ton of time on recovery yesterday after the awful body breakdown I had in the stage 2. Jon Davis from 92Fifty Cyclery is at the race with his Elevated Legs, and they are nothing short of amazing. It's basically a combination of compression, lymphatic drainage and recovery massage, and I spent probably an hour in them yesterday in two different episodes. Afterwards, my legs still felt tired, but noticeably better.
I also spent most of the evening making some portables so that I could have some real food instead of just energy chews. My stomach is happier that way - and therefore, so are my legs, since I actually can get fuel down the pipe.
This morning, after a 20 minute session in the Legs and a 20 minute warm up to get the heart rate going, I rolled down to the start line at 8:05. I was STILL barely able to squeak in the side of the staging area near the front! But I did, and then I stood there for nearly 25 minutes. Holy crap, that was unpleasant. But it was better than starting way in the back. This time, I wasn't off the back from the gun. I settled into a comfortable but fast pace in the top 30 or so riders, and the race was on. I told myself I wasn't going to be pulled into a faster pace by my competition, and just ride my own race. I really didn't want to blow up again.
I knew that the first four pro women racers were well ahead (Marlee, Kate A, Kelly, and Catherine), but I didn't see Laura or Kate Z, and I wasn't sure of their position. I kept telling myself it didn't matter. I finally saw Laura chasing me up the first singletrack climbs, and she was coming fast. I stayed consistent. It was an awesome trail with huge berms, and I kept wondering why the heck we were going up that trail instead of down! (To my delight, we actually did come down it as well- close to the very end. Wheeee!)
I stopped at Aid 1 to do a quick bottle swap, and Laura came through with a strong attack. I was able to get back on the bike quickly and stayed with her for a couple of minutes, but it was clear she was putting out an effort that I didn't feel comfortable matching. I backed off and let her go. She was ten minutes up on me in the GC, it didn't make sense for me to blow up trying to chase her.
Soon, the French Pass climb came into view. It was the first long hike-a-bike section of the race. We climbed well above treeline, and the air was thin. I tried to look around a little, but the trail was faint, narrow, steep, and rough, and losing focus would mean putting a foot down which would mean walking. I didn't want to walk until I absolutely had to. I was pleased to feel that my climbing legs were back, and I plugged along. I felt like I was going so slowly, but one by one all the riders in front of me got off and walked, including Laura. We cheered each other on as I went by - both breathless. This is what I love about bike racing. We are trying to beat each other, but we can still recognize and appreciate each other's efforts. It's pretty cool. I chugged on by at my snail's pace- but I was still on my bike.
I was the last person in my vicinity to get off and hike, and when I did, I nearly ran. I was moving quickly, and I was thankful for the even brief times that I have spent fast hiking, trying to keep up with Donny, and trail running with Cody over the last few weeks. I could feel a difference from the Breck 100 hike a bike. I kept repeating my mantra, "bike is light. bike is light. bike is light-" in time with my steps as I moved upwards as quickly and consistently as I could, just a tiny ant in the line of hikers snaking upwards towards the horizon.
The funniest thing about this section was that there were a few guys right behind me, two or three at least, who were chatting the entire time in rapid Spanish. I couldn't believe they were actually carrying on a conversation. I don't think I could have told anyone my name, much less talked in complete sentences. Usually I get annoyed if people are talking around me a lot in a race, but for some reason I found it amusing and somewhat comforting. If these Spanish-speaking dudes were up there yakking away like it was happy hour, this couldn't be all that bad.
At the very top of the pass, Jon Davis and some other guys were up there handing out bacon, beer, and skittles. I don't usually take weird handups, but I plunged my hand in the colorful bag and tasted the rainbow all the way down the descent off the pass. And what a descent it was! Holy crap. I have not had that much fun on a bike in... well, okay, I guess it hasn't been that long. But it was SO much fun! It reminded me of Crested Butte riding, or Monarch Pass - fast, steep, technical high alpine singletrack. I was in my element and completely comfortable, charging through rocks and airing off lips, being cautious to ride lightly. I couldn't risk a flat here. It reminded me of chasing Donny and Chris down Spring Creek trail off Monarch Pass just a few weeks ago. I was flying and I'm pretty sure I let out some hoots. It was long, and when I flew in to Aid 2 I yelled "that was SO fun!" A quick change of bottles and it was off to climb Georgia Pass.
Georgia Pass was a road climb and the miles went pretty quickly. I was climbing into a headwind, and I was alone. Dang me. I looked around but there was no one in sight. Not ideal, but I didn't want to let up, because I didn't know how close Laura was (I know, I told myself I wouldn't think about position - but I had to, just a little). Eventually a couple of guys caught me, and we worked together until it became too steep, and then I put the game face on and finished it out.
The next descent on the Colorado Trail, again, was world class. This time in the woods - rooty, rocky, and more and more technical as I lost elevation. The huge chunky rock sections became really tricky- those rocks weren't going anywhere, and I had to maintain momentum as well as quickly find the best line through. Again, I didn't want to risk flats. It was sort of like Nederland/Ward area riding; reminded me a lot of the chunky South St. Vrain descent which is my favorite on the Front Range. It makes my mind work as much as my body and I enjoy the challenge. I was so glad that I was still feeling strong and able to keep my body loose and yet ride aggressively enough to pilot my bike through the rocks and roots. I can't imagine riding that with arm pump or leg cramps like I had yesterday. I also can't imagine riding that with a fully loaded bike like all those Colorado Trail Racers out there! I managed to ride the entire thing cleanly and breathed a huge sigh of relief at the bottom.
And then... up again! The final climb, American Gulch, cracks a lot of people. It is steep, and gets steeper, and just when you think it must be over, it gets steeper yet. Again, I was still feeling strong, and happy for it. I hammered all the way up, sometimes very slowly but still moving consistently, passing quite a few people on the way. Some of them were really hurting and I sent them any extra energy that I had - which wasn't much. The road finally flattened out and, knowing I couldn't let up while I was still feeling good, I put as much power to the pedals as I could and finished it out.
The last long descent, the new "moto descent," was also very rooty and technical, though less rocky. There were a lot of fast steep corners and it required a lot of focus. About halfway down I heard a sound that sounded vaguely like a cow mooing. It took me a minute to realize that there were probably not cows out in the middle of the woods on the side of the mountain. I heard it again and realized I wasn't hearing things - I'm pretty sure it was some sort of large mammal. Moose? Elk? I didn't know, and I was going too fast to really look around. Besides, what was I going to do out there? I was still completely by myself, no one around within earshot. I kept going, and I didn't see anything, but I'm sure it saw me. I was thankful it let me pass.
There were a few more rolling climbs and descents to go, and they went quickly. I pedaled as fast as I could, and pumped through the rollers and berms, stealing as much free speed as possible. My riding today was the complete opposite of yesterday. I felt confident on my bike and in my body again, and it felt good. I ripped down the final descent to the finish and right into the bathroom. I had to pee SO BADLY, but I wasn't about to lose whatever precious minutes I had gained in the GC because I went pee. Haha.
As it turned out, I put four minutes into Laura's lead and about twelve into Kate's time, as we were neck and neck after yesterday. I was 5th on the day, and now 6th in the overall. I have about seven minutes to make up to tie with Laura, and we'll see what happens. Both those women are incredibly strong riders, both capable of having another really great day like they did yesterday, and I know this race is far from over. It's fun having the competition this close! The top 4 are really close as well, and I am fighting hard for that 5th spot. The rest of the top 10 aren't far behind either - one crappy day or major mechanical from any of us, and the lineup could easily change. Like always - anything can happen. That's what makes it so exciting.
Tomorrow's stage, the Aqueduct, is going to be tough. It is the longest, and the most climbing. I'm guessing it will take me somewhere around 4:45. It's over a lot of the same terrain that cracked me yesterday. I think I'm a little better prepared this time, so we'll see how my body responds to day 4 in a row of hard racing. Stay tuned!
Today was a tough day. I learned a lot of hard lessons as my whole body detonated less than halfway through the race, and I struggled to even finish as I slipped two places from fourth to sixth in the GC. I am now a full ten minutes behind 5th (Laura), and 7th (Kate) is just a minute back from me. I finished a very distant 7th today. I was happy just to cross the line...
I woke up this morning with my left medial hamstring tendon already cramping. Hmm. It's been giving me trouble since the Breck 100, just a nagging wee pain, but it's definitely not going away like I had hoped. I was sluggish to get moving, and could barely choke down breakfast. During the warmup my bowels were unhappy, and I stashed some toilet paper in my jersey hoping I wouldn't need it.
Mistake #1: I got to the start WAY too late... like 15 minutes before start time. And there was no way in. I tried the front, and the sides... no go. It was all the way to the back. Marlee and I rolled up at the same time, and we both got stuck. I told myself to be calm, it was a long day, but as the gun went off it was a full 30 seconds until we started moving. As we finally got rolling I could see the entire front of the race already rounding the first corner up the hill. I got a shot of adrenaline which sent me flying up the road, froggering my way through the pack with Marlee, as we made holes where there weren't any in order to get away from the congestion.
Well, this did not go as planned for me. As I mentioned, I do not start well. I do not start fast. I actually felt okay initially, but I'm sure the adrenaline was carrying me through. Marlee is wicked strong and got away in no time (she eventually finished 2nd by only three minutes), and I saw Laura up the road as well. Two men in front of me crashed into each other up the first steep loose climb, and I had to put a foot down and it was too steep to get going again. Dang me! I started running and finally was able to get back on the bike, but Laura was out of sight. I put my head down and started grinding.
The first major climb, Heinous Hill, didn't actually seem all that heinous. I rode it okay, I didn't feel the same strength as I did climbing yesterday, but it wasn't bad. I rolled through Aid 1 and grabbed fresh bottles. It wasn't until the first road section after Aid 1 that things started to shut down. First it was my legs. I looked down at my Garmin and noticed that I was only in zone 2 power. Uh oh. I felt like my legs were really working hard, and they weren't outputting much. My heart rate was low - only in the 150s. I felt okay there, but I couldn't seem to get my heart rate any higher because my legs just weren't working.
I tried to push a little harder, and then everything seized up. My legs basically gave up on life, and I had no choice but to soft pedal. As I turned onto the singletrack for the long and steep West Ridge climb, the one that nearly cracked me in the Breck 100, my lower back joined my legs in going on strike against me. Ugggghhhhh. I put my head down and tried to keep the pedals turning, but I knew I was losing time. I saw Kate coming up maybe a minute behind me.
I grunted up the climb the best that I could, and when I had maybe a half mile to go, Kate came roaring by me like I was going backwards (I basically was). She looked fresh and strong. I tried to keep up for a minute, until my legs reminded me I wasn't going anywhere. She was quickly out of sight and at that point I fully detonated. My stomach was revolting as well, and as much as I knew I needed fuel, I couldn't put down any more energy food.
I soft pedaled and sucked down an entire bottle of Skratch, and started the world-class Colorado Trail descent. During the Breck 100 I loved this section and rode it well. Today- not so much. My quads were cramping hard and I had to switch legs every minute or so. I got passed by countless men, and as I looked up around the final switchback I could see another woman coming. At that point, I didn't care.
On the next short but steep climb my legs cramped up again, and I found myself out alone in no man's land. I started to wonder if I had made a wrong turn. My mind started playing tricks on me at that point. Every little twinge in my body seemed to mock me, taunting me, telling me to quit: "What do you think you're doing out here? People who work fifty-odd hours a week at their day jobs shouldn't be trying to do six-day stage races, that's just stupid. What makes you think you can compete with these women? You worked so much over the last few weeks that you didn't even prepare- and now you're paying for it. Yep, we're going to make you pay. You're only on day two- you can't take four more days of this!"
Whooooa. It was interesting to listen to the voices in my head at this point. I actually felt somewhat detached from them. It is incredibly rare that I lose my shit mentally while racing. I can't even remember the last time. I let the voices have their way for a minute or so, then doing my best Jens Voigt impression, yelled out loud "SHUT UP LEGS!" I knew better. I came into Aid 2 knowing it would take everything I had to get through the final climb.
I stopped at Aid 2, got some lube on my chain and forced myself to eat some food and drink another bottle of Skratch. I started to feel a little better on the pavement. I tucked in behind some men that I caught on their way out and we flew down the road descent. As the road turned uphill once again, I finally had some power to put into the pedals. During the Breck 100 this climb on lap two seemed to go on forever. The steep sections still hurt- but I didn't feel as awful anymore. I kept a steady, consistent rhythm. My mind had gone completely blank and my body was finally cooperating - or at least it wasn't revolting. The last six miles actually went quickly, and the finish line was there before I knew it.
I was so happy to be done. I had lost a lot of time, and a few places, which is a bummer. But the way my body had acted today scared me a little. I'm not sure what it's capable of. I don't think it liked being completely fueled on energy chews. I spent the evening making some portables from The Feed Zone, my standard race fuel, in hopes that my body will respond a little better. We will see. Tomorrow's stage, the circumnavigation of Mt. Guyot, is rumored to be incredibly tough- lots of hike a bike, steep climbs, and gnarly descents. I may be out of the race for the podium at this point, but I am determined to cross the finish line on Friday regardless of how slowly I may have to go. I will get there if I have to crawl.
And who knows- it's bike racing. Anything can happen.
I don't have any pictures yet, but I'll add some if/when any show up.
Yesterday I made the drive over the hill to Breckenridge for my first ever mountain bike stage race- the six day Breck Epic. I was excited for my first one; I've done plenty of road stage racing but never on the dirt! My goal for this race is to learn how to do it so that I can be good at it. :) I know from road racing that fueling, pacing, and recovery are VERY important. But there are two very big differences that I can see right from the start: in road racing, you can "rest" at times in the middle of the pack. If you're riding smart, you can still do this to some extent in mountain bike racing, but not near as much. The second difference is that mountain racing is so much more total-body physical than road racing. So, other than feeling like it will definitely be harder, I figure I've at least got a good enough background to start with.
I must admit, my preparation leading up to this race for the last two weeks has not been optimal. I have been working nonstop, through the night many times, not sleeping much at all and not preparing like I usually do. It felt weird to go into a race feeling off the back. I didn't get a chance to make my Skratch Labs portables, so I'd be eating 100% energy bars which I haven't done in a very long time- I much prefer real food. To top it all off, I got a flat tire on my car as I was leaving town for the race. D'oh!
In all honesty, I considered pulling out. I definitely wasn't doing myself any favors here. But, I told myself, I have six days to figure out how to pull my head out of my ass and race my bike, as my coach Alison so eloquently has said to me in the past. I have become quite good at being prepared for races, we'll see how I can recover from being not so prepared. Head out of ass, all in, game on.
The first stage was the Pennsylvania Gulch (or Creek, don't remember) stage. It was 36 miles and 6000 feet of climbing. I woke up this morning feeling pretty good, and methodically got ready just like I do for any race. I am self-supported this week, so I packed my drop bags for the two aid stations and arrived to the race start early to send them on their way. I even had to scrape frost off of my car this morning at 6:30- crazy! I got in a pretty good warm-up and at 8:30 am we were off.
The start was fast, and I am not great at starting fast. I pushed myself, but was careful not to explode. For the majority of the race, I kept feeling like it was so short. My last race was 100 miles, so 36 isn't much in comparison. I had to keep reminding myself that I have a whole six days in a row of racing, and I need to be smart and not blow myself up. I warned myself that it would get harder. Still, I felt strong. I raced a little faster than my 100 mile pace and I think (I hope) that was a good call.
Kelly Boniface and a few other women flew by me early on, and I didn't know what place I was in. As I passed spectators, I heard that I was anywhere from 2nd to 6th. I turned off the voices in my head and just focused on pushing forwards and riding smoothly. On the first descent, I passed Marlee Dixon with a flat. She is an incredibly strong rider and I spent the rest of the day wondering if she was going to catch me. It was a good reminder that in bike racing, anything can happen. In a six day race, it is important to ride as smoothly and cleanly as possible, because you never know when one of us might have problems.
The first feed zone came quickly and I had only drank one bottle. I was a little worried, but I reminded myself that it was chilly and I was still drinking about 14 oz an hour. Typically I drink around 20, and for the Breck 100 second and third laps I drank nearly 30! But that was a hot race. This was cool. I should be okay. My pet peeve in racing is that I always feel so sick in the first hour when I am trying to eat food. It sucks, and I have to force it down anyways because I know the consequences if I don't. Especially in a stage race. The rest of the race is fine, but that first hour - damn. It actually takes a lot of mental energy for me to choke it down when my stomach is in knots. At this point I know though that it's always that way, and once I get through that first hour it's not a big deal so I try not to stress about it.
I rode near the same group of about six men for most of the day. I would motor past them on the climbs, and they would fly past me on the road descents. There were a lot of road descents today, which is hard for me being a tiny rider. I just get smoked because I don't have enough mass. I tried to tuck in behind people the best that I could to save energy. The singletrack descents were fun, fast, rooty, and rocky, and it felt good to be riding this terrain again. My first introduction to Breckenridge riding was just this year with the Firecracker 50 and the Breck 100, and I really like it. I definitely felt strong on all the climbs today. I kept telling myself "bike is light, bike is light, bike is light." I think my legs actually believed me!
About halfway through the stage I caught a girl who looked really strong. She was climbing steadily and making a good pace, so I sat behind her to observe how she rode. I figured I'd sit there awhile, but when she got stuck in a rut on a tricky climb section, I moved ahead. We rolled into the second feed zone at the same time, and noticing the ominous clouds, I grabbed my raincoat and was off quickly. Now I really felt like I was being chased! I learned later that she was Laura from California, and she ended up finishing only seconds behind me.
The dreaded Little French climb came near the end of the stage today. I've suffered up that climb I'm not sure how many times this year, but whatever the number is it's one too many. ;) Fortunately, by the time we got there I still felt really good, and charged up the climb passing men (who I knew would pass me again later). Like before, however, the effort and the altitude got to my head after that climb. I felt woozy, and I was glad that the Little French Flume is a relatively easy section.
I didn't really feel tired until about six miles to go, then my body suddenly realized that it had been racing over three hours and all of a sudden a voice in my head told me to back off - NOW. I listened and dropped my pace a little. Strangely enough, I started to cramp. First one hamstring, then the other. Being the nerdy physical therapist that I am, I focused on using my butt muscles to push the pedals down with more force rather than focusing on my upstroke, to give my hamstrings a break. It worked, and I was able to ride through the cramps. It was a little weird because I think I've maybe cramped twice in my entire life. I really think it is likely due to the stress, no sleep, and probably shitty hydration over the past two weeks. I made a mental note to do an even better job of recovery today than I usually do. We will see how that goes - I hope they recover!
When I rolled through the finish line, I was glad to be done. I didn't feel as tired, since I backed off my pace a little I wasn't totally cracked at the end. But I knew there was much more to come. I finished in 4th. Laura came in only seconds behind me, and Kate Zander was seconds behind her. There is a strong women's pro/open field of at least 20 riders, and it's going to be a fun fight to the finish! Kelly Boniface from Steamboat cemented a strong early lead, followed by Kate Aardal from Canada (not sure where) and Catherine Williamson in third. Rumor has it she placed 5th in the Leadville 100 yesterday! Bad Ass. I'm eight minutes back from Catherine right now. As Alison always says, "anything can happen." You never know which one of us might have bike or body trouble, who might be feeling super strong one day- or not. This stage racing thing is already shaping up to be pretty exciting.
Stay tuned for Stage 2! It's the Colorado Trail stage - 43 miles and 7200 feet of climbing. The West Ridge climb on this stage is where I nearly cracked in the second lap of Breck 100. It's long, and slow, and steep, and I was tired, and I didn't know when it would end! But now, after having raced it before, I know what to expect - and I know that the descent off the back side is sooooo worth it. I can't wait.
From this.... ...to this.
It is hard to believe that exactly one year has gone by since my crash at USA Marathon Nationals. I won't lie, it's been a tough road at times. Lots of hard decisions, hard work, and hard training days, full of both encouraging moments and frustrations. But, as I've said many times before, it has been an incredibly empowering and valuable experience, and opened the doors to some great opportunities and insights for me. I have had some opportunities to share what I have learned through coaching and presentations, and the connections and interactions I have had through this have certainly been inspiring.
Throughout the long months that I was injured and recovering, and could not focus on training or work, I had a lot of time to think. I spent hours on long, slow walks with the dog thinking about the healthiest, most holistic ways for athletes to both prevent injuries from happening, and also to deal with them when they do arise.
In my mind, preventing and dealing with injuries comes down to three main points: being prepared, being aware, and making smart decisions. I break each point down into four aspects: physical, mental, emotional, and situational. These can be applied to both overuse injuries and traumatic injuries on the bike- and may be useful to the rest of life as well.
Be Prepared for what you are asking yourself to do.
Be Aware of your strengths and your challenges.
Make Smart Decisions in every moment.
Combining all of these holistic factors - the physical, mental, emotional, and situational components of being prepared and being aware, the third element in the equation is to take all that information and knowledge and DO something with it. You can be the most prepared and the most aware person on the planet, but if you're acting like an idiot it's not going to help you.
It is on YOU, and nobody else, to take responsibility and to make the best decision you can in each moment. No one is holding your hand out there in a bike race or in life- and if they are, they are doing you a disservice. It's great to have people to coach you, be your teachers, and cheer you on; but when shit hits the fan when you're miles deep and you have choices to make, it's up to you. If you make the right choices, maybe you'll land on the podium. If you make the wrong ones, maybe you'll land in the ambulance.
Do you have right now the physical strength and skills, the mental steadiness, the emotional readiness needed to take that line, or to venture that far out into the unknown? Or do you need to prepare a little better first? If you miss, what are the consequences? Bumps and bruises, or a long ride down the mountain the wrong way? If you make it, what are the rewards? The same goes for the choices you make after an injury. If you are injured and you are facing a decision that could affect the rest of your career, your athletic endeavors, your family, and your life; making smart choices is critical.
Risk versus reward... always a delicate balance, and a very personal decision. I truly believe that the delicious juiciness of life does lie beyond your comfort zone. But there is a difference between confidently testing and pushing your limits knowing you are well-equipped, and blowing past them wearing a blindfold.
Life is going to throw you curveballs; you won't always know what is coming up around the next corner or over the next drop. The best you can do is to be as prepared and as aware as you are capable of being, in all aspects - and then make the best decisions you can with the information that you have and the situation you are given, in every moment. If you can pull this off successfully, in bike racing and in life, you will have little room for regrets.
4/27/14. Well, I did it. First race since my injury/surgery in the books. Whew!!!
The race went pretty much as I expected. I was nervous as hell about my shoulder and just about getting back out there after so long. I have definitely lost some confidence riding aggressively on singletrack- racing, really- and I knew there would be a bit of that to work out.
The day before the race there was a wicked blizzard on the course. I felt bad for the amateurs who were out there racing on Saturday, they were really hardcore and some of them ended up with hypothermia. I'm not sure I would have been so into that. But as luck would have it, the day of the pro race was bright and sunny, though chilly, and the course was tacky and fast. I was glad as it had been extremely loose just two days prior.
When the weather cleared Saturday evening, I went out to do a bit of preriding. I had my first real crash since my injury crash. It was a good one too. I hung up my bike in between some rocks going fast, and flew off into the rocky gully below. Tuck and roll. Dang me! It was sort of exciting and I stabbed myself in the quad with a rock, but otherwise I was fine. I tok a deep breath and tried not to let it shake me too much. It was good to get that first crash out of the way- I had been dreading it, although I had crashed my bike a thousand times in my life without incident, until that one time. This time wasn't so bad. I rode the section a few times cleanly but didn't feel confident, so I practiced doing it with a fast cyclocross style dismount and remount. I timed myself and it actually didn't cost me more than two seconds. This was a huge lesson I learned from my Nationals crash: It is good to have options.
The race on Sunday morning started at a pretty mellow pace on the pavement. I settled in to mid-pack and watched for people going up the road. Last year there were attacks going pretty early on the road climbs, and I was ready, but nothing went until we turned on to the 4WD road. Then the pace got hot and things broke up instantly. I was still sitting about mid-pack, and then we hit the singletrack going fast. I instantly got tight and nervous and started blowing corners. Oops. I backed off a bit and let myself get used to the feel of riding at speed with lots of other racers around me.
When we came to the rocky section where I had crashed the day before, since I was already feeling a little shaky, I decided to take the safe route. I leapt off my bike mid-stroke, one step before the section. I was up and over the obstacle, throwing my leg back over my bike and pedaling away without missing a beat or throwing off the rider behind me. Good, that was easy. Cyclocross skills come in handy sometimes.
Descending loose, steep terrain with tight switchbacks has never been my strong suit, and I lost quite a bit of time on this long descent section as I was still riding pretty tentatively. I knew if something was going to be hard on my shoulder or throw me off my bike, it would be this section. I made it down fine and now I had some catching up to do as I was passed by quite a few riders on the loose descent.
At the bottom of the long Skull Valley road climb I settled in for the grind. It was hot by this point and unfortunately I had hit the climb alone, so it would be a long and lonely slog. I was able to stay focused, and I started making up time and passing some riders. I resisted the urge to surge when I saw that I was catching someone, thinking to myself don't burn your matches, save them for later. I got my feed from Jess near the top of the climb, and saw a rider ahead of me shortly before the singletrack. Now was the time to burn a match. I surged, scooted past the rider and on to the last section of trail. This was my favorite. I was ready to have some fun.
Somewhere on that road climb, I remembered how to ride a bike. This second section of singletrack felt like a night and day difference from the first one. I was riding fast, with confidence, and feeling the flow of the trail, riding playfully and catching air off small rocks and bumps. I have not had that feeling since I have been back on the bike, and it felt good. It felt natural... like coming home.
When I finished, I was happy to have that first race behind me. My time was much slower than last year's, and my placing was not wonderful, but I was happy with the way I rode and the decisions I made along the way. I knew I was going to be tentative at first, and I couldn't fight that and pretend it didn't exist. I had to let it work itself out, and it did. I knew that it would. My shoulder felt good and strong and gave me confidence that all the work that I have put into rehab is paying off. I was able to stay focused mentally and remain steady even when I didn't feel confident on the terrain, when I knew that riders were passing me, and on the long hot road climb alone when I had to slowly work my way back.
I am glad to have this one in the books. It feels great to be back after nine months away. I know that it can only get better, and I am looking forward to the rest of the season. I appreciate the wonderful support I have gotten from all of my sponsors, from my coach Alison, and from my friends and family out there rooting me on from "home." Thanks for giving me this amazing opportunity to live this incredible life.
April 26, 2014. I am in Prescott, AZ for the Whiskey Off-Road 50 mile mountain bike race. My 2014 racing season is underway.
I can't believe how quickly time has passed. When I had my season-ending shoulder injury back in July of last year, and when I had surgery in October, racing my bike seemed very far away. But nine months since my last bike race has passed quickly, and here I am again.
In a way it feels like it went quickly- but in so many others, it feels like a lifetime ago that I last toed a starting line. I feel like a completely different person than the one who lined up in Sun Valley on July 6 of last year. The thing about a major injury is that the down time forces you to re-evaluate everything in your life and often you emerge with different priorities and sometimes, a new sense of purpose and clarity.
For me, having to go through a major injury, surgery, and rehab gave me a valuable insight into what my patients, clients, and athletes go through when they deal with an injury. I can no longer say "yeah, I get it" from an outside perspective. Now, I really get it- all the way. I understand all the ups and downs of dealing with injury: the small successes that can feel so huge ("raise my own arm day" was one of the most exciting days of my life); the relentless determination of just putting my head down and getting it done, focusing on my rehab and on the things I was capable of doing; and yes, the occasional frustration and despair when I looked up and realized that I was still so far from where I wanted to be.
I am still not at one hundred percent- my shoulder still has a ways to go in terms of strength and endurance, and my fitness is a little behind where it normally is at this time of year since I couldn't tolerate riding a bike for very long until February. I had to switch bikes last minute as I realized that I would not be able to race on my beloved hardtail 29er anymore- it is just too much stress on my shoulder to not have suspension. And, unfortunately, my new bike did not show up in time. I am lucky that I have a great shop sponsor, Rock n' Roll Sports in Gunnison, that let me use a demo bike.
But, against all the odds and at the end of my nine-month hiatus, I am here. I will dust off the cobwebs, line up at the Whiskey 50 tomorrow and roll out for my first mountain bike race since I was injured. My goal for the race is only one: to win my own mental game.
There are three things that I know to be true for me in racing:
1. Mental toughness is, and has been for a long time, my greatest strength as an athlete. Time spent learning to stay calm and focused in precarious situations during mountaineering pursuits in a previous life developed that in me, and it works to my advantage in bike racing.
2. Mental toughness, for me, is not easy and is not a given- it must be consciously practiced. I am not perfect and I have moments of weakness and doubt like everyone else. But practice makes permanent.
3. I have learned that if I am not in the right place mentally, it doesn't matter how strong I am physically- I have nothing. If I defeat myself in my head, I might as well just go home.
Being away from racing and off my bike for so long has inevitably left me rusty in all of my skills, including the mental ones. Fortunately, these are skills that can be practiced in the rest of my life as well. I can certainly say that I am a much stronger person because of my time spent racing a bike. So, my test now is to see if the skills translate back. I have a lot of "distractions" right now- my body and my bike are not completely dialed and perfect. It is a great situation for me to go one of two ways: to either let all of these things get to my head and mentally crumble, or to block out the distractions, stay focused, and ride my best despite the odds.
I am honored to be able to return to racing tomorrow, and I am fortunate that I have had so many good people on my side to help me get here. I especially need to thank Rhett Griggs from Griggs Orthopedics for doing such a great job repairing my shoulder; Trent and KayLynne Ezzell from Heights Performance for taking care of my rehab and getting me back on the bike, Donny for encouraging me to keep my head up in the times that I was frustrated and for giving me the freedom I needed to focus on training and rehab, and my coach, Alison Powers of ALP Cycles Coaching for doing her best to get me going again and making up for lost time in training. It has not been an easy road, and I know that I have a lot of work left to do, but I am happy to be back.
Last year, the Whiskey Off-Road 50 mile was my very first race as a professional rider. I was so excited and felt like I had the whole world opening up in front of me. I wore race number 3. Yesterday, at packet pickup, I checked in and was handed my race number... 3. Maybe it's coincidence. Maybe it's a sign of a fresh start, with the challenges and setbacks to my body and mind of the past year behind me. Maybe I get another chance to do it right. If I can start by winning the mental game in my own head, I will consider my race tomorrow- and the trials of the last nine months- a worthwhile success.
No, this is not a blog post about sex. Sorry. ;)
I can hardly believe how quickly this winter has gone by. I have spent the majority of it extremely focused on my shoulder rehab. I am determined to be strong for the racing season, and so far everything has gone well.
I did my first field test on the bike a couple of weeks ago. This is when reality set in. My numbers were not anywhere near what they were at this time last season and for the first time in awhile I felt my limitations again. Missing nearly six months of training has taken its toll. I have been active the entire time I have been injured and recovering from surgery, but it isn't the same as "training."
My initial reaction was to freak out and call my coach and tell her I need to start training thirty hours per week to whip myself into shape and get my fitness back to where it needs to be. Alison is used to fielding the occasional frantic phone call from me over the last five years. But I have fortunately come to a place in my athletic career, thanks to experience and wonderful mentors, where I am thinking more like a marathon racer than a sprinter. This was an incredibly valuable lesson I learned just last season in my racing, and it works on both a micro and macro scale.
Last season, I had the opportunity to work with a really sharp sports psychologist named Ben Roberts. I'm pretty much convinced Ben is a genius. I've been racing for six years now, and have studied quite a bit of sports psychology both for myself and for working with my clients. Ben was able to make things click for me about the mental side of cycling that I'd heard before but never really gotten.
The lesson that has stuck with me the most, and made a huge difference in my racing, was what Ben called "managing arousal level." When you are in a race, it is really easy to "burn matches," or waste energy, when your adrenaline is flowing and your physical and mental arousal is high, and you make silly decisions.
For example: At the Whiskey 50 last year, I came out of the singletrack and onto the road and realized that there were three girls maybe a hundred yards in front of me going up a steep climb. Immediately my adrenaline surged, and I jumped out of the saddle and pushed myself hard to get in front of them. But I burned a valuable match doing that, and I couldn't hold the pace. It wasn't long before they were cruising right by me as I went backwards. Shit!!!
What Ben taught me was that I didn't really need to burn that match and waste that energy. If I was smart and used my brain, instead of letting my adrenaline get the best of me, I could save energy and pass the riders. It was evident that I was catching them already, at the pace I was already going. Was it worth surging? Was the race about to end? Was the road about to narrow back down into singletrack and was this my only chance to pass these riders?
The answer was no, and I knew it. I had done my homework ahead of time; I was prepared and knew the course. I knew that I had at least another 20 minutes to ride on the road. There was no reason to surge, and as I was catching them already at my current pace, I could simply keep motoring along and I would easily pass them before the next singletrack without wasting energy. But upon seeing the riders, my arousal level spiked, my adrenaline got the best of me, and I burned that valuable match. If you burn too many unnecessary matches in a long race, your box will eventually be empty and you won't have the matches left to burn when it counts.
This was not an isolated incident for me. I can count on all my fingers and toes the times in races when I have let high arousal get the better of me and burned that valuable match when it was unnecessary. Something Ben said in that particular sports psych session clicked for me, and it has changed my performance immensely. Now, when I feel my adrenaline surge due to something outside of me- another rider, something I see during a race, etc; I stop my racing thoughts, breathe, and analyze the situation; making a conscious choice whether or not to burn that valuable match. Sometimes it's necessary and worth it. Other times it's not.
Fast forward to my recent field test. Realizing that I was behind in the "race" to be ready for my season, my arousal level spikes, and my natural tendency is to "surge" to catch up as quickly as possible. But now, I know better. I know that I need to stay consistent, trust the process; trust myself and my coach, and trust that it will all come together when I am ready. I know that I need to commit to the process and not screw the whole thing up now by freaking out because I am a little behind where I was last year.
I know I need to remember that my last six months have been consumed with shoulder rehab, that it has been my priority and an important part of my return to full strength, and that it will be a little later before I am in top form this season. I know that it will be a huge challenge for me to remember that in my early races when people ride away from me and I am tempted to burn that match; but if I can stay true to my own program, it will pay off in the long run. My season, like the races themselves, is a marathon- not a sprint.