We just returned from a wonderful vacation in Maui, 2 weeks. At the front end of the trip, I raced Cycle to the Sun, a 37-mile slog from sea level up Mt. Haleakala to 10,023ft that takes the winners anywhere from 2:50 - 3hrs to complete, depending on how windy it is. The record is held by Michael Woods, a pro with the (now) Cannondale Drapac team at 2:27. I finished 1st in the Masters category and 3rd overall with a time of 2:54:27 (Strava segment).
My goal was to win, but I'm OK with the podium. At 47 years old, I made a mistake for the first time in my long athletic career -- I left my bottles of nutrition in the refrigerator. The start was 30 minutes away from our condo by car. By the time we got to the start, there was only 45 minutes to go, so no time to go back and get them. Long story short, while I warmed up, Lori found me a bottle of Desani water at a gas station. I used that until I got to the first bottle zone, then grabbed a water bottle of water there as well as at each of the next 2 bottle zones further up the climb. So, I raced for 3 hours on water alone -- pan y agua, as they say; just without the "pan" (bread).
I felt strong, really strong, in fact. But climbing for 3 hours near threshold takes its toll, and with about 20 minutes to go, the lights started to go out. There were 3 of us left and the eventual winner, Rick Beach, started to pull away from me and Ben Williams (2nd place). Nothing I could do about it. Then, with about 5 minutes to go, Ben stretched the rubber band until it snapped as well. Again, I had to frustratingly watch him slowly but inevitably pedal away from me. The reason for the frustration is that my legs and HR never felt "in the red". My nutrition mistake bit me in the ass and my ability to put power to the pedals ebbed away.
The rest of our trip, I rode every other day through some gorgeous scenery, but used the vacation as a breather before now focusing on the final push into my most important races of the year -- 3 State and National Champ races in a 15-day span. Despite the fabulous riding, I kept my effort and volume in check, and left Maui feeling more refreshed than when I arrived. Mission accomplished.
We got home late Tuesday of this week. We took an overnight flight to Seattle then connected through to Denver. I slept like shit on the long flight from Maui to Seattle, and barely slept en route to Denver. Despite this and now being back at altitude, while I felt sludgy on Wednesday, my ride that day actually went really well. As did Thursday's ride. But, then things went sideways in a big way on Friday and today. The lack of sleep and jet lag came hammering home and the sheer fatigue I felt was a bit shocking.
Today was a race, one of my favorite hill climbs up Sunshine Canyon. It's 9.5 miles, gains just over 3,000ft and takes 45-50 minutes depending on race tactics and weather conditions. I've done this race nearly every year and it's been blisteringly hot, snowing, sleeting, sunny but bitterly cold -- you name it. This is a tough climb because while it averages about 7%, there are several kickers of 12-16% and the final 4 miles is on dirt. The only year I finished off the podium was racing it with a case of bronchitis and I ended up 5th. I've won it multiple times.
As I rolled out of my neighborhood today, the fatigue I felt in my quads let me know immediately this would be a hell of a slog. I wouldn't have it. But, I've been racing long enough to know that some of my best performances have come when feeling awful during warm-up. Maybe that would be the case today. But, it wasn't. I felt gassed from the gun. I typically like throwing it down during the steep, punchy sections but today I was hanging on for dear life. There is a brutal steep section on the dirt, from mile 6.4 to 7.9, so about 1.5 miles. In the middle of this section is where the rubber band snapped and I tailed off the back of the strung out leaders. I was in 6th and a group of 3 was forming about 25 yards up the road. Two of my teammates were further up the road in 1st and 2nd -- great! But I was dying, going to a pretty dark place just to keep my legs ticking over. 7th in a hill climb, to me, is a failure.
I chalk this up to a bad day. But, it's tough not to get bent out of shape. Here we are in the middle of summer, things feel like they're on the right trajectory for my key August races and then I get shelled like an also-ran. It's tough to swallow. Don't get me wrong, Masters racing in CO is stacked and deep with very talented, well-rounded riders who can count themselves some of the very best in the nation. But that doesn't take the sting out of the sub-par performance.
The knee jerk reaction would be to train harder. Because endurance athletes think that when we have a bad day it must be because we're out of shape and the only way to get into better shape is to train harder or longer or both. We hit the panic button, react emotionally and do ourselves a big disservice. We have lost the perspective on exactly why our performance was sub-par and instead just think, "I suck!". I've done it plenty of times in the past. It's not a fun place to be in, but here's the thing. Every single one of us has experienced this, without exception.
What I'm getting at -- the perspective I want to drive home for you -- is that for various reasons sometimes things don't go as planned. Workouts or races go sideways. For weekend warriors, for middle-of-the-packers, for elite amateurs and professional athletes alike. No one is above faltering. And that's OK. It doesn't feel good when it happens -- emotionally, physically or mentally -- but there's nothing we can do about it in the moment except accept it. And, then afterwards (like now for me), we are absolutely in control of how we respond to the sub-par performance. In my case, it is not a question of fitness; it's all about fatigue that I need to allow my body to process and help it do so. Training harder or longer or both won't accomplish this. So, I'll start getting more sleep and I'll push my typical hard Monday workout off to Tuesday or Wednesday. Nothing earth shattering and nothing that would cause my fitness to magically leech away, right? In other words, I'm not hitting the panic button. And neither should you.
If you find yourself wringing your hands about a similar situation, just drop me a line. Part of being a coach is playing psychologist, and I'm pretty good at it. I'm happy to exchange emails or hop on the phone to act as a sounding board for you. Otherwise, realize you're not alone, it is natural for stuff like this to happen, and it happens to all of us. There is some solace in that.