(Photo by Tricia Plays)
A few years ago at the age of 43 I set a very middling time at a popular bicycling hill-climb-time-trial in Asheville, NC. Seriously, my time was pretty much the dead-on median for guys in my age bracket. I thought I was in reasonably good shape at the time, but was certain I could do better the next year. I couldn’t. Or the year after that. In fact, I was so much slower, due to bad planning and training, that I didn’t even enter. At 46 this year, I knew the odds of me improving were not getting better.
I put a plan together and stuck to it. For something like 30 years this race has been in May. By April I was in great shape and knew a PR (personal record) was going to happen. My only physical or cycling goal at this time was to beat my performance from three years before.
I started checking the sponsoring team’s website for the exact date, but there was no info. I checked back a couple times, still nothing. Finally I emailed them. The response was devastating. “Yes, the race is on, but this year we are moving it to September.” Devastating because not only did I not want to maintain that level of fitness, I didn’t think it was even possible. I was at my limit. Depressed, I pretty much abandoned any organized training, got slow, gained weight, and put it out of mind.
At the beginning of August, with only five weeks to go, I decided I had to give it a shot. I still had some base fitness left, right? Maybe, but I had also gained some weight. I went out to the course and gave it my all. I felt like I was having an asthma attic at the end, and I don’t have asthma. The result, a miserable 27 minutes. Almost three full minutes slower than my goal. That is a huge deficit, over 10%. Success seemed beyond my reach.
But it wasn’t. Exactly five weeks later, race day, I posted another middling time, but at 24 minutes 9.45 seconds it was 1.76 seconds faster than my original time. Words fail me to communicate the intense feeling of satisfaction of reaching my goal.
Here’s what I learned or re-learned in the process:
Learn from defeat
I kept detailed notes for every training session and course test, including time of day, body weight, caffeine intake, warm up routine, etc. If I had a bad day I usually had a good idea what the problem was. I would correct it next time and see if I improved.
Small improvements can make a big difference
A new lighter bike or wheels were not in the budget. But super light tires and tubes were so I got some. I figured if there was something that might help, even a tiny amount, and it didn’t cost much money or effort, I should do it. Any mechanical part that could be cleaned, overhauled, or lubed was. I took the extra bottle cage off my bike. I would have taken off my brakes if I thought I could get away with it (it is a hill climb after all). I even trimmed my fingernails to shave “weight”! If I had missed my goal by .01 seconds and hadn’t cut my nails I would have lost my mind.
Your plan will probably change… one cliche after another. But they’re all true! Yes, you will have to adjust to stay on course. But you have to have a course to know if you’re on it. Put a plan together.
Research, don’t be intellectually lazy
Don’t delay taking action due to analysis paralysis, but don’t assume you know what you’re doing either. I wasn’t sure how to best warm up for a short painful event like this. After reading a number of articles I came up with a protocol that worked for me and it really seemed to help improve my test times.
Never give up
Five weeks seemed like a ridiculously short amount of time to get back in form. Four days before the event I still tested 40 seconds slower than my goal. But I stuck to the plan I had all the way to the end. There’s an expression that pilots have that says “fly through crash.” Don’t stop trying to fly and you might get lucky.
Don’t coast when you’re near the end
People often lift off the gas as they get closer to their goals. It’s natural to want to rely on momentum, but don’t do it. Shit happens. According to the “virtual training partner” on my bike computer I was crushing my old time. But the record shows I just barely beat it. Maybe the GPS was off. I didn’t care. I was going all out. My theoretical maximum heart rate is 174 BPM, but the last half mile of the course I averaged 180 and maxed out at 182. If I had let up even just a little the small margin of victory would have evaporated.
Be anti-social. Your friends will understand.
There is no “I” in team but there is in WIN. Sometimes working on your dreams means not hanging out with your family or friends. It means making less compromises. This is especially true when it comes to training for a cycling event like a time trial. Group rides are more “fun” but if intervals are the plan for the day, you need to do that.
Set clear goals
It sounds obvious, but knowing exactly what I was trying to do kept me focused, and motivated.
Publicly commit when the time is right
Some people recommend keeping your dreams to yourself. Talk about what you’re going to do long enough and you will leak off a lot of the energy required to do it. I tend to agree, but when the time is right I think telling everyone you know what you want to do can help keep you committed. I did not want to hear any trash talk about me bailing out so I stuck with it.
Atul Gawande wrote a whole book about it called The Checklist Manifesto. I highly recommend it. Bottom line, if it’s possible to forget to do something, then put it on a checklist. On race day I had a checklist for what I was going to eat or drink, and when, and every other pre-race step like what time to leave on my warm up ride so I would end up in the start line just couple minutes before. Not having to remember all this helped me stay cool as a cucumber so I could put energy into the pedals.
How do you know you’re winning if you’re not keeping score? I’ve been called anal retentive more than once, but whatever. I measured what I could understand and used those numbers to track my progress and experiment. The spreadsheet I have with all my split times is definitely anal. But it worked for me, and allowed me to look for patterns. Longer warm up equal faster time trial? I’ll do that again.
Some define sacrifice as “giving up something you want for something you want more.” Perfect. Dessert for losing weight and going faster. Comfort for performance. TV for training. And on and on. Knowing I had “sacrificed” to meet this goal was its own reward. If I hadn’t quite made it, but had done everything I could, I could live with that.
Maybe this doesn’t sound fun to you. I’ll tell you what is fun, winning. It was absolutely worth the effort, and it was fun.
Enjoy the ride!