In any event, I get notified that the KOM is no longer mine. What’s funny is that I didn’t even know I owned that KOM. Yet, when I got the alert, I was intrigued and so investigated. My KOM time was just under an hour in duration. The rider who blasted it set a new marker of just under 56 minutes. I looked at the comparative splits, did some calculations in my head and figured I could snatch it back fairly easily, because my sub-hour PR was within the context of a fairly massive ride where speed was not of the essence nor the focus.
Two weeks later, on a fairly calm Saturday morning, I clipped in and set out to regain my KOM. Given I’d be looking at somewhere close to 55 minutes, I knew what zone of watts I wanted to maintain in order to not blow up too early. I didn’t know how fast I could go, so I didn’t focus on actual time. What I did do is take some mental time checks along the way so that if I didn’t steal the KOM back, I would at least have laid down some mental markers as guideposts along the way. It was a cold and wet morning, but little wind; not perfect conditions but serviceable. I hit that final 7-minute (or so) steep stretch feeling strong and still in control, despite the mounting fatigue. I looked at my computer and saw an elapsed time of 44:45. Not only was I going to regain the KOM, I was going to slaughter it. At the top, I stopped the clock at 51:32. My total ride was about 3.5 hours, so when I got home, I proudly uploaded the file to Strava, verified the KOM and patted myself on the back.
The following week, I get another alert of the KOM being stolen, by the same rider. He set a new marker of 49:57. Wow! I thought back to my 51:32 and started dissecting it, wondering how I could pull 95 seconds out of it. All I could come up with was “warmer weather and drier roads.” I started dissecting my ride, thinking of where I eased off to keep my HR down and wondering if I needed to keep my HR in check as much as I did. How much faster could I go if I had an average HR another 5 beats higher? 10 beats higher? Could I let my HR rise that much without blowing up before hitting that final steep section? Because if you’re already blown there – and I have been many a time in 25 years of riding the roads of Boulder County – you lose minutes, not seconds. But, given the new KOM titled his ride, “That Didn’t Last Long, Your Turn,” I knew it was game on.
Not one to shy away from the gauntlet being thrown down, a week after my 51:32, I set out again to see what I could do. The weather was beautiful, though I was dealing with a slight headwind for most of the ride. It would be in my face any time I was heading west (most of the ride), but not be a factor on the few stretches to the north as I wound my way to the mouth of Lefthand Canyon to start the longer second half of the route when all the climbing begins. I would give myself until the mouth of the canyon, do a time check and compare it to the previous weekend’s split, and then determine whether or not to pull the plug. If I was behind, then the wind would be too much of a negative factor; I’d abort and live to fight another day.
As I clipped in and warmed up during the roughly 30-minute ride out to the start of the KOM route, my legs felt amazing. It was go time and I started out more aggressively than the previous weekend from the first pedal stroke. Watts were up, but so was HR. The legs were ticking over like a metronome, and I knew in the opening minutes that my HR would give out before my legs did. The flats were fast; the rollers felt like mole hills even into the quite noticeable headwind. I turned north for the final stretch of rollers before the left hand turn into Lefthand Canyon knowing I was well ahead of the previous weekend’s effort. I hit the mouth of the canyon in 21:30, a full 3:20 faster than a week prior. I was absolutely flying. But, I was feeling it, too. The subconscious physical checks were telling me I was OK, but that if the wind didn’t relent, then I would be losing time with each turn of the pedals and could lose all of that hard-earned time in the bank. In calm conditions, I was heading for about a 47:30. But I wasn’t sure if I could do it.
Lefthand Canyon is a mostly gradual climb before it climbs above about 7,500ft, averaging about 4.5%. On a fairly calm day, it’s a big ring climb when the effort is about pumping out the watts. Turning left and starting to climb up Lefthand, the wind wasn’t too bad. I felt it, but it was calmer than I expected. I passed the first mile marker in just under 3 minutes and hit the second mile marker in 6-flat. Still flying. But, here’s where the wind kicked up, as the residential area of the canyon gives way to the more exposed, funnel-like canyon. The wind slapped me square in the face. I looked down and saw that I was nearly my ceiling with my HR; if I kept it where it was at, then I’d be lighting the fuse and hit the point of no return. It was either fully commit or continue to hedge my effort. I calculated I had about 18 minutes left, did another check of my legs, my HR, the overall sensations I was feeling, and decided to fully commit.
I’m not going to lie. The rest of the climb turned into more and more of a struggle. Every time I needed some sort of reprieve, the road would wind straight back into a headwind. The quads were turning to cinder blocks. Despite being on the limit and most definitely tipped into the red, I was still motoring in the big ring. As I hit the final left turn to start that final 7-minute steeper stretch to the top of the KOM, my body felt torched. I figured I’d be pedaling squares and that it would take me nearly 8 minutes – which is all the time I had if I wanted to earn back the KOM. I had lost a big portion of my time cushion from the bottom of the canyon. The initial pitches are the steepest, about 12-14% and it’s easy to push the watts too high too soon. I purposely held back the first 2:30, until I hit a flat switchback, a very slight reprieve before another steep ramp. Then, it was all about digging deep and ignoring every muscle telling me to back off. Cresting the top, I hit my split button – 49:13.
The rest of the ride, I was pretty wrecked. Battling the wind had taken more out of me than I anticipated, so the next 2.5 hours were a bit miserable. My guess is the KOM will be stolen yet again. The conditions for a record attempt were less than ideal, so I know I can go faster. But, I’m not sure when I will focus on this KOM again if it’s not taken from me. Ultimately, I don’t care about the KOM. This is more about the challenge and finding ways to do something better and better and better. I had thought 51:32 was pretty damn fast. Yet, a week later, I bested that by 2:19; not an insignificant amount of time. In calmer conditions, I think sub-48 is very reasonable. So why not if the mood strikes in a couple months?
I tell this story because it typifies the process of improvement. Most athletes just complete their workouts according to the parameters. They check the box that they held a certain duration at a certain training zone. Done and done. While this can certainly lead to improvement, it also leaves some percentage of improvement on the table. When you complete a key workout, do you analyze the results? I don’t mean “the numbers”, but rather how the workout went. Did you start intervals out too aggressively and then die? Did you start too conservatively and have too much left in the tank at the end? If you felt you nailed it, how can you uncover areas to tweak and, thus, improve yet more? Can you improve technique, or up your cadence (swimming, biking or running) or slow it down, can you fuel better or hydrate more, do you need to ease off the throttle at the midpoint to catch your breath before recommitting to the effort? And so on and on and on.
The process of improvement is not linear and improvement can come from myriad things. If you stop asking, “How can I get better? How can I continue to improve?” then also ask yourself “Why?” Why are you dedicating so much time and energy to getting better, if you’re not willing to fully commit to the process of improvement? When you fully commit, that’s when you will break down barriers and hit new levels of performance of which at one time you only dreamed?
Yesterday, hitting 49:13 I had no idea how I could have gone even a second faster. Yet, I know when the time comes that I will dissect the effort myriad ways and determine how to better attack it so I hit the top of the KOM faster still. At some point, I won’t be able to do it faster; I concede this. I’m just not there. Yet.