Monday, July 27, 2009

When the Bad Days Come...

Four days into the Cascade Classic we were faced with the 84-mile Cascade Lakes Road Race. It finishes with a long slog of a climb up to Mt Bachelor -- but it was the beginning of the race that had me worried. We'd climb the first 15 miles, right from the starting gun.

Tough starts like this have never been my forte and after three hard days of racing, I wasn't sure what I'd be able to muster. I also still had my nasty bout with heat exhaustion in the back of my head. Was I back to 100%?

The time trial the day before was decent, but definitely not my best. Racing fatigue was catching up with me. I managed a mid-pack finish in an impressive peloton and gave everything I had in the tank, but the 37-minute effort destroyed me for the rest of the day. My best bet was to accelerate recovery as well as I could. I spent the rest of the day incorporating naps, ice baths, light stretching, staying cool, hydrating, and light myofascial release.

As you can see, the doubts were echoing around in my head. I tried to remain positive and motivated. If this were a one-day race, I would have done more of a warm-up to prepare. But in a long stage race, I didn't want to be putting out any more energy than absolutely necessary. I did a very easy spin and incorporated some breathing exercises to prepare my system.

10.5 miles into the race, I came unhitched. On a typical day, I should have been able to keep plugging for longer, but I just didn't have it. The group was shattering all around me. Some guys would eventually find their legs and fight their ways back onto the pack, others simply turned around and went back to their cars.

I tried to collect myself and pick up the pace. I rode with a couple of guys here and there, but eventually settled into a sustainable pace. The pack pulled away, but a small group was just ahead, within striking distance. I hoped to join them as we crested the hill and started to descend.

I chased, alone, for 35 miles. The group of 4 riders constantly hovered 30 seconds in front of me. Sometimes it close slightly, but never enough. Finally I had to back off the pace and focus on food and fluids. My race was over, I was cooked. That foursome would be the last riders to finish the race, and they made it within the time cut by a scant two minutes!

Needless to say, I was disappointed. So much time and energy goes into these events, it's a horrible feeling not to make the grade. However, this experience happens to every cyclist who attempts to push him/herself past personal limits. I feel fortunate that it was superstars the likes of Oscar Sevilla and Francisco Mancebo who pushed me beyond my edge -- but we all have our own personal Sevillas out there, dropping us on the climbs.

Better riders than me had already been cut from the race. Multi-time US Champion Freddie Rodriquez and cyclocross/mountain bike stud Ryan Trebon both missed the time cut in the time trial. Many of the top US talent finished behind me on Stage 2's finishing climb. There were bright spots mixed in, and I can only hope to improve at these star-laden big time races.

Here's a quick list I'm compiling on the fly of...

How We Everyday Cyclists Can Deal With Disappointment:

  1. Push your own edge . As Greg Lemond famously said, "It doesn't get easier, you just go faster." Whether you're a Cat 1 stage racer or a weekend warrior, there are folks who can drop you. Every time you move up a level or try something new, there will be a learning curve and an initial shock.

  2. Find the positives . Break big goals into little pieces. Try to hang just a little bit longer, improve specific techniques, learn from your mistakes, and make small gains. Over time, these small gains will add up to big improvements!

  3. It's all in your mind . If you can stick with it, you will improve. Most would-be athletes get discouraged and give up. It's not necessarily the most physically gifted athletes who persevere and rise through the ranks -- it's the ones who can handle the suffering and setbacks and still come back for more.

  4. Put it On the Line! Don't be afraid to dig deep during an event. There are times when it's worth digging really deep, even risking blowing up, to stay with a group. A small amount of really intense suffering can prevent hours of chasing solo later on (take it from me!). With more experience, you'll learn when it's worth taking this risk and when you can play it more conservatively.

  5. Train with Intensity . It's not just the racers that need the top-end. Every tough ride will have a "selection point." Those who can grit their teeth and hang will leave the others flapping around in the wind behind. It happens in "friendly group rides," charity centuries, and races alike. To be able to "put it on the line" (above), you have to train beyond your comfort/endurance levels! Cyclo-CLUB's Get Faster, Go Longer/Climb Stronger, and Climbing BOOTCAMP modules are all great tools.

Photo courtesy Pat Malach, Oregon Cycling Action.

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