Friday, February 7, 2014

I expect it to be fast, because it’s always fast. Everything is fast. You push up hills fast, and you go around corners fast. And hopefully, if you do it right, you’re in the middle of it. It’s always going to be tougher than you imagine. To some measure, you can look at the field and see who is in form and who is not, who is going to dictate just how hard that race is going to be on that particular day. For months, in your training, you have an eye on that question: Will I be good enough when it gets really hard? In that moment, on that line, you can look around and know whether you will have the legs for it when the hammer comes down. You know whether you will be there, making something happen, or if you will find yourself stuck at the back in some sort of bizarre reverse breakaway, with a bunch of riders who have given up on the race.

My first race last season was the latter. I showed up for a circuit race in what I thought was acceptable form, but when I saw the field and the steep pitch ahead, I knew it was going to be a long day on the bike. It wasn’t my race. As laps went on and I drifted to the back, I found myself with a small group of women on the verge of abandoning. In fact, most were totally resigned to pulling out. We can work together and chase, and maybe we can make it. They shook their heads. Nope.

I knew it was probably time to call it a day and quit. I looked to my right, at the only other survivor of the pack that had carried me through the preceding laps. Look, we’ve gone this far. If there’s a chance that we can finish, we should just do it. Knowing that we both had ridden the best we could on that day, and wanting to leave the race feeling good about the effort, she agreed. Kim and I rode in those last two laps, with the kind of sensory deprivation that comes when you are too disappointed to consider much else.

The first race of the season is really all about seeing where you are, where you need to go, what work has paid dividends and where your efforts have lagged. Sometimes, it is a really painful test of your off-season dedication. Other times, it affirms the work you have done and the sacrifices you have made to be there on that day.

My goal this first race isn’t to win. Winning is nice, and I like it when that happens. But this year, I want to start as a competitor.

Last season, I made the wise decision to race as often and as much as possible, because racing is training. You learn from each race. You push yourself week after week and, eventually, your body responds.

At the same time, that volume of racing, and that cycle of race-recover-race started to take a toll on my enthusiasm and my legs. By the time I showed up for the Steamboat Springs Stage Race in early October, I had depleted my reserves. After what I thought was a near-perfect time trial, I found myself positioned in the bottom third. The road race was a fiasco, where I spent much of my time simply hanging on so I could make time cuts. The last stage was supposed to be my solid race of the weekend and, instead, I found myself working with a small group of women to simply finish. My body and my mind had gone too far. It was time to rest.

This year, I am working on pacing myself. Instead of racing everything, I made the decision to focus my attention on three or four races, and then do some racing in preparation for those big events. I am being a lot more selective about what I race, and I am unwilling to wreak havoc on my personal schedule to make sure that I get in a race or two every week. I am a bit more focused on the process of competing than the competition itself. Hopefully, the results will follow.

The hard part for me is trust. I am not very good at trusting in my training, my coaches, my doctors and my other advisors. I really like to control every aspect of my work on the bike, even to my detriment. My teammate, Tim, is constantly chiding me about over-training and refusing to take breaks. A year ago, I found myself in near-breakdown, talking with a well-known sports psychologist, who basically told me that I needed to surround myself with the right people and then let go. Deep breath.

I did that, and it worked. Still, I find myself plagued by doubt…and I have to recognize that, on some level, those anxieties are fueled less by my inability to trust in the team assigned to help me succeed, and more in myself. I constantly question my own abilities and talents. I have the tape in my head that says I am too fat, too old, and not strong enough. I have a weak sprint, and my climbing sucks. I remember overhearing one of the members of my crew at a race in Utah say of me, She can climb. She’s not as bad as she thinks on these hills. She has totally psyched herself out, and bought into that. She needs to stop it.

With my first race of the season two weeks out, I am working on that last bit. My physical training and nutrition have been good. My diabetes management is where I want it, save a few changes my doctor and I made earlier this week. (We’re revisiting that strategy next week but, so far, I like the new approach.) With all of that behind me, I just have to concentrate on getting my head where it needs to be. That’s tougher. I feel like, in many ways, it’s an upward climb to get myself back to where I was when I began racing in college. It’s hard to juggle the demands of work and kids, family and a career, training and sleep and, yes, diabetes. I have a lot of balls in the air that were not there in my 20s. For now, though, I am taking it one step at a time. I guess we’ll measure the outcome in the next 13 days!