Cross is Coming, Just not so Soon

I’d really, really prefer to be spending this weekend at Cheq or Jingle CX, but…..

Rather, I’m home training because I’m still coming back from a late July ulna fracture. I haven’t been chatty about the “gebroken arm” (Dutch) on Facebook because, well, I’m a pretty private person. I thought I’d save writing ‘till the experience was more in my rearview mirror (hindsight being 20/20, you know).

I had a great racing block in July. I did the final two races of the Midwest Flyover Series, as well as 4 days of Intelligensia: lots of crits. The plan was for a solid training block with lots of races, followed immediately by a totally off-the-bike vacation at my mom’s house in Maine. There’s some unavoidable risk in crit racing, so when I made it through the block entirely rubber-side down, I was relieved. I raced my last race on Sunday, had an endurance ride planned on Monday, and then a very early morning flight to Mom’s on Tuesday.

On Monday night, I rolled out of the parking lot at my workplace for my ride. I turned onto a twisty, narrow bike path that skirts our work property. As I was just spinning out, I was going very slowly, sticking to the right side the trail. Then, a high school boy on a 29er came flying around the left/outside of a blind corner, and crashed into me head-on. He didn’t even have time to skid. I managed to get my arm in front of me to ward off the blow, and he rode straight through my arm.  (He was fine.  He was larger.  His bike was larger.  He “won.”)

Thanks to my Garmin’s auto-stop functionality, I know I made it .11 miles and one minute and six seconds into my ride.

Big Red Workout in Training Peaks

The moment when you are damn sure you’ve broken your arm, and you recall enough high school biology to know it’s your ulna…..

Nightstick fractures are isolated fractures of the ulna, typically transverse and located in the mid-diaphysis and usually resulting from a direct blow. It is a characteristic defensive fracture when the patient tries to ward off an overhead blow from an assailant (or local law enforcement officer) branding a bar-like weapon.

I was lucky? I was lucky because the first doctor said an over-the-elbow cast for 8 weeks and 3 months healing time. The second put me in functional brace for 6 weeks.

Getting Fitted for the Brace

I was on the trainer 4 days later, although it was just a spin, and at that point I could only touch the handlebars with two fingers.

So, it’s been 7.5 weeks (but who is counting), and remarkably, I am fit. I have been able to get in high quality, high-intensity training, even though (or because) I was inside on the rollers for four weeks. “Binnen” (Dutch=inside) on the rollers in August is, um, not anyone’s happy place. How badly do I want it?” (Badly is the answer.) Thus, our cellar smells decidedly like a locker room, my bartape is starting to reek, and the one time our internet went down (taking away my Apple TV), it was a code-red emergency!

Lucky for me, for whatever reason, after a week, the jarring of running caused me no pain…and so I ran! Given my race plans for the season, building up my running is critically important. My morning trail runs before work have been indescribably refreshing. I ran for many years and, it seems, I missed it! I’ve been able to build into CX-specific efforts: short, hard hills, stairs, and sand. It’s been great to train my weakness!

But, it hasn’t all been rainbows and butterflies.

First, there was the “Maine vacation at the beach” that was instead spent sitting on my couch in an enormous splint, working from home, typing one-handed.

“Maine” This Year

Maine Last Year

 

I was also overly optimistic about my return to racing. I held out hope that I’d be ready to do Green Mountain State Race (5.5 weeks post crash), but had to call it. I made Chequamegon my come-back goal and scheduled Trek Cup as my first CX race of the season. However, at 6 weeks, when my doctor cleared me to ditch the brace (except on the bike), he also told me 4 more weeks without racing. He used the word “crumple” when describing what would happen to my arm were I to crash: “We’d be right back where we started.”

It’s hard to fault that logic, so the beginning of October is now the aim.

I learned a good lesson. Always ask, “And when can I return to competition?” Turns out, brace off, I’m functional like a normal person. I can drive my stick shift, floss my teeth two-handed, and carry small-sized objects. This does not include potentially hurling myself at the ground.

Of course, I’m really not ready to race yet. Bumps are simply too much. And, there is that little matter of not quite being able to pick up my bike…yet. (If I had a dollar for everyone who has pointed out that I, a lefty, am so lucky I broke my right arm! I simply give a pinched smile, and say, “I know.”)

I’m trying to reframe this whole incident as an “opportunity.” I’m not the slightest bit religious, but I’m more than happy to believe in “fate” at the moment. We all know what often happens to riders who are forced to take some time off. (They get faster.) And relatively low volume with hard intervals? That is CX prep. I also have a very long season planned. In February, when it’s dark, wet, and cold, and people are losing their minds, I hope to be going strong.

That is not to say that I haven’t thrown myself a few pity parties here and there! I found weekends to be the hardest. Without work and training at The Fix Studio to distract me, I’d get into a moody funk. In those cases, I let a very select few see me break a little around the edges…..

Lessons Learned

Ask for help. Asking for help makes me very uncomfortable. However, when you have to ask a friend to tie your shoes, it’s time to learn.

If you cannot put on socks or zip your jersey without pain, you are not ready to ride outside. I know, obvious, right? However, for a while, every three days or so, I half-carried/half-dragged my bike out the front door, mounted, rode off…and returned 4 minutes later.

Note how far you have come, not how far you have to go. I started a journal immediately post-crash noting daily improvements. Because, at the moment, I cannot ride over bumps, but I CAN open a can of tuna. (That took 6 weeks!)

Emphathy and tough love each have their place. Sympathy creeps me out, but emphathy has value. We can’t all be strong at every moment. Be real.

At the same time, my coach doesn’t allow me to dwell; we are always looking forward.  He pushes me to train, to rest, and sometimes to chill…and not let my emotions be a limiter.  I needed this steady influence to keep me pointed in the right direction.

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs. –Rudyard Kipling

Work with a sports psychologist. I’ve been working with Kristin Keim for about a year now. Her support helped me to find (and maintain) strength and perspective—re. empathy above.

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Where Have you Been?

In years prior, I have been at least somewhat active updating this blog, but not this year. Why the silence? I have been working. More on that later.

First of all, I am writing this blog on the flight home from 2016 U.S. Cyclocross Nationals, where I won the 35-39 Masters title…so you know this story has a happy ending.

CX Nats – Pretty Memorable

Let’s start by talking about the spring and summer.  It was the happiest I have ever been.

I trained harder than ever before. With more than 15 years of uninterrupted, increasing training volume behind me, it’s now difficult to overload my body. The formula for athletic improvement is simple: stress followed by rest equals adaptation. With three years of training data to support us, Larry and I pushed the envelope and ramped things up. It was a risk, but a worthwhile one. In the beginning, it seemed so hard that I thought Larry had lost his mind (or made a grievous mathematical error). Yet, as weeks went by, I adapted. I lost a little weight, got stronger, and could handle more and more load.

Even without the “happy ending,” I would not have regretted the training. One of my deepest regrets is never having reached my potential as a skier. Circumstances forced me to walk away from skiing before I was ready. I didn’t know how much faster I could have been, but I felt I hadn’t tapped my limit.

I loved this summer because it brought me so close to the edge.

There’s a pretty special synergy between Larry and me, and this summer developed that still more.  I wanted to be pushed…asked for it.  Larry is the most intense person I know; he never tires and never ever backs down.  He put a lot of time in me, and I thrived under his belief in me.  There were many workouts and training blocks that I thought I couldn’t handle, but then I did, and that feeling was addictive.

Post Nationals

Post Nationals With Coach Larry Foss

Major changes have been occurring at my work place for some time now. Starting in the spring, my workload and responsibilities began to snowball. (This is not a new job. I’m nearing ten years with the company.) By mid-summer, I was starting to bring a lot of work home on the evenings and weekends.

Let’s add some context. I am 38-years old. I did a summer of ass-kicking training. Clearly, this was one last attempt to make breakthrough. I had zero illusions of becoming a pro, but I dreamed of consistent top-15 to top-20 UCI C1`results. In early October, I was in great shape and feeling confident.

Then my already poor work-life balance swung totally out of whack. A coworker quit as our team’s workload steadily increased. Beginning in October, my life became nearly 100% work whenever I was not asleep or on my bike. On race trips, Michael would drive the car, and I would work. On weekends, I would work mornings and race in the afternoons. This was intense and stressful work and my body starting showing subtle signs of stress (eczema and vertigo).

I believe one has a limited pool of motivation and emotional energy. I was giving it my all at work every day, and by the time I got on the bike, I was sapped. My results weren’t awful, but good races were fewer and further between. I felt like I had lost my edge…like I couldn’t get out of my own way.

I was pissed, frustrated…and tired.

In the meantime, things have changed in CX. At my first UCI race, the 2007 USGP Planet Bike Cup in Madison, I earned UCI points with little effort. In those days, UCI points were relatively easy to come by, and could be earned in quantity at unpopular C2 races. Those days are long gone.

To have a chance at racing well, you must first…race well. By this I mean, to be competitive, you need UCI points, and more than a couple. While there are still folks who believe in the power of “one UCI point,” a single point has limited value.  At a C1, one UCI point is good for maybe 4th row. Once the race starts, to move from fourth row (top-32) to first row (top-8), you must ride faster than 24 riders, while navigating traffic.  Swimming upstream.

I’m not complaining. Ultimately, the situation I’m describing is a result of the growth and development of women’s CX in the US and the World, which is good.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, when I was a ski racer, my coach Ahvo told me about “the conversation.” That’s when the coach tells that athlete that she’s not going to “make it” and it’s time to move on.  At the time, I was horrified.  How dare a coach say “never?” With the benefit of 10 more years maturation, I no longer feel that way.

Well, Larry had something like “the conversation” with me.  He helped to see the increased depth of the women’s field and guided me towards Master’s racing. He suggested some goals that captured my interest. In light of this, I made the easy decision to race Masters at Nationals.

A skilled coach knows “when to say when” and how to shift the athlete toward a meaningful and realistic goal.  Since that conversation is not fun, it takes integrity.

For a day or two, this conversation put me in a VERY bad mood; but, ultimately, it was freeing.

Until that moment, it felt like my season was slipping away. I had an off weekend at State. I was sick for Jingle Cross. I had one great race in Texas, but three poor ones.

The Texas trip was particularly disappointing. Because of small and relatively weak fields, the races were opportunities for better than normal results. There were “reasons” for each of my poor races, but, bottom line, I did not perform on the day that it counted.  I knew it, and Larry knew it.

There won’t be many more, if any, opportunities like this one in your career.

It was clear to me. I couldn’t keep saying, “Oh well, next time.” At a certain point, there would be no “next time.” I could seize the day, or live with the fact that I hadn’t.

There was a sea change in my emotional state between Texas and Nationals.

First of all, I had the good fortune of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays away from the office. I hadn’t had a weekend off from racing since September. Four days away from the office without any racing meant I got some sleep, had a couple of precious of moments to unwind, and could fully commit to my training.

Secondly, because of the “conversation,” and the dope slap that was Texas, I decided to change my outlook. I went to Tennessee for the final UCI race of the US season determined to enjoy every moment.

It’s not going to last forever, I better savor it.

At the same time, I let go of expectations. Yes, I wanted a UCI point in Tennessee, but instead I focused on my race plan. Execute the plan and results will follow. As a result, I was on fire. My legs felt truly crappy, but my mind was fresh, and I was having a blast. I finished 11th (one place away from the final UCI point), but I was satisfied with my best USAC points result ever.

It takes a village?

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Did I mention we did pretty well? 5 athletes, 5 medals. What a week!

A significant part of my Nationals success came from my team. After a weekend of hanging mostly by myself in TN, I was nothing short of delighted when the PowerFix van rolled into Asheville. With my coach on hand, and teammates whom I really enjoy, it was easy to race well. Our team has been in place for a couple of years, and at this point, we’ve spent a lot of time together. The good times we have in the evenings keep the nerves in check and things in perspective.

It’s telling that some of my best and strongest memories from last Thursday are not of winning, but spending the afternoon and evening as a team. Winning is great, but the high only lasts a couple of hours, and then there’s a feeling of, “Now what?” (Sadly, the feeling after a crummy race lasts much, much longer.)

After racing, our team took a tour of the Biltmore Estate.  Under bright, warm sun, still riding the high and fatigue of our good results, we toured this crazy huge, ornate, Gilded Age mansion together. Afterwards, we uncorked some champagne (well, I did with a lot of assistance from my teammates), ate cookies, and then went out to dinner. Fun is fast.

Where am I now? Heck if I know.

Winning a 2nd Nationals in 35-39 was a significant achievement. Frankly, I’m coming close to meeting all my goals…..

Am I stepping away from UCI racing? No.

However, going forward, I will take myself less seriously.  I hope “opportunity days,” like Texas, will come my way again, and this time I will seize them. I don’t think I will feel the same crushing pressure to succeed.

As far as the immediate future, I am back at work. Michael and I travel to Belgium in February for a two-week UCI racing trip.  At the moment, I am enjoying some well-earned rest before getting back into training for Belgium.

Lastly, a huge THANKS and I love you to Michael for being my support through ALL of the above.  He never complained about crazy long workouts at questionable hours (as long as he did not have to ride), did more cooking (and even grocery shopping) when things got crazy, and became a great official!

 

End of the Year Reflections

I celebrate the end of the year in mid-January, after Cyclocross Nationals. It’s about 15 days after the rest of the world ends their year, and around the time that roadies start to get more focused in their training. As I write this, I am on the plane en route to Nationals. I am two days away from the National Championship, and three days away from my winter slumber!

I think it’s a good time to reflect on my year…before my reflections will inevitably be colored by what does or does not happen at Nationals.

It’s been a long year.

Some stats:

I flew seven times to race, a number that may not sound like much….until you look at my credit card bill. Since I arrange (and pay for) my own flights, lodging, rental cars, and bike shipments, this represents hours upon hours on Delta, Orbitz, and Shipbikes. 

I had 20 UCI starts in four separate countries. (It’s probably best not to dwell on just how few UCI points this yielded!)

I had just seven weekend days off from racing between mid-September and January 11. (Two of these were immediately prior to Belgium and two were immediately after.)

I took just one day off the bike. We are very conscious of doing active recovery–about 40% of my rides. Given that I have a full-time job, managing to get on my bike every single day does demonstrate a lot of committment.

I did not get sick during CX season. That shows that my coaches are simply awesome at managing my training load, and I use a lot of hand sanitizer.

I did break two ribs, bruise the same ones, and sprain a finger.

This long year didn’t start with CX. I rode a fairly ambitious road schedule (for someone who has to save all her vacation time for CX), including North Star Grand Prix, Tour of America’s Dairyland, Prairie State, and Green Mountain Stage Race.

It’s been a long year. (Did I say that before?) I think way back to the Quad Cities races over Memorial Day weekend. At that point, I was preparing for North Star, and my cycling training volume and intensity was high, as was the workload at my job. I remember going into Larry’s office on the Tuesday after Quad Cities, feeling burnt out, and starting to resent training. Somehow, however, we worked through it, and that feeling never reappeared.  

The other cloud over my year was following my broken ribs. Not only was training through their healing challenging and painful, my confidence took a huge hit. I can’t even explain the reason for this, but it definitely took me a while to get my feet under me again. For the first time in my life, there were some weeks when I was not enjoying racing.

I learned a lot this season; most importantly, that you have to love the process.

The bad news is that the bad feelings of losing last longer than the good ones from winning. State Championships taught me about this. On Saturday, I crashed early in the first lap, and while I worked my way through the field, second was as close as I could get. On Sunday, I won as a result of a last minute pass. Saturday, I went home very frustrated, and was angry for nearly 24 hours. On Sunday, I enjoyed the moments post-race, but by the drive home, the excitement was already fading.

The world does not spin off its axis when you win. Thinking back to winning Nationals in 2013, the feeling was much the same as at State: almost a let down. After all the hard work it takes to get there, the actual being there is…just okay. That’s why it’s so critical to love the process.

Fortunately, I love the process, and never have I enjoyed it more than this year.

Honestly, I love the training. In the moment, when even an “easier” day at The Fix hurts plenty, I certainly don’t clamor for more pain! However, there is huge satisfaction that results from succeeding in doing what you think you can’t.

Larry isn’t a softy when it comes to doling out the training. He scheduled a number of workouts and training blocks that I did not think I could do, but every time I survived. There is a lot of confidence on the bike (and in life) that comes out of these daily successes. There were also number of motorpacing sessions where I thought my eyes might roll back in my head….. Again, getting through them was rewarding.

I have friends! Okay, maybe this is not news, but…..

Another huge win in my year is the community that I gained at the Fix. I am surrounded by people whom I truly enjoy. It makes every workout a pleasure (well, most of them, not the few that make me feel like throwing up). I know, I know, I say it all the time, “The Fix, The Fix,” blah, blah, blah…but, you see, I’ve found a place that makes me truly happy.

The Nationals chapter remains to be written.

When I return from Nationals, I have lots of plans. (Actually, I am planning to do relatively little.) The Tuesday after Nationals, I am having very minor toe surgery (it should be just three days off the bike). While I’d love to do a lot of skiing, I suspect that my ribs, which have not yet fully healed from my NC crash, may protest too much. I’m hoping to use the extra time to get in more riding outside. I’ll do lots of cooking, something I never get around to the rest of the year. (Ironically, this cooking comes at the time of year that I have to be more thoughtful about my weight.) It’s also time to put my nose to the grindstone at work, and hoard vacation time for the coming year. Speaking of saving, it’s also time to pay off the CX season bills and start saving for next year.

And, yes, of course, there will be a next year. I was very lucky to survive several rounds of downsizing at work, and I am in a position that keeps me constantly very engaged and busy. Feeling that my job is stable, and given my total content with my situation at the Fix, I am delighted to pursue racing at this level for at least another year. Bring it on!

Good Coaches

Coaches have played a pivotal part in my life.  As a junior alpine and Nordic ski racer, with Olympic aspirations, I spent hours upon hours with my coaches.  They were coaches, trusted friends and mentors, and sometimes father figures in my life.

Each coach left her or his mark on me.  My very first coach, Roxanne, taught me it was unacceptable to cry after a disappointing race.  She suggested her young athletes go into the woods to cry so that no one would see our tears.  I was seven years old.  Some thirty years later, I’ve yet to master holding back tears on demand, but after a poor race, I will go off on my own to cool down.

I could not believe I found this in my photos.  This is my me with my first coach Roxanne.  What a "respectful" child.

I could not believe I found this in my photos! This is my me with my first coach Roxanne. What a “respectful” child.

I coached junior high and high school track and field, cross-country running, and Nordic skiing beginning when I was in college, but stepped away from that in 2005 to devote more time to skiing.  Several years ago, I coached Minnesota Junior Cycling, but that too became too much to balance with a fulltime job and cycling.  When I get to the point that I scale back my cycling, it’s my fondest desire to get back to coaching juniors. Given my past, and my future, I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on what makes a good coach.  My thoughts follow.

Some of the young ladies I have coached.  I miss working with them!

Some of the young ladies I have coached. I miss working with them!

Please note, I am speaking of those who make coaching their fulltime or near fulltime profession.  The below does not reflect your 3-month a year little league coach for whom coaching is a hobby.

Willing to be Disliked

There have been plenty of times this year when Larry has been, how shall we say this, not my best friend.  It’s more than just terribly difficult workouts that make me grumble his name.  Plenty of times, he told me to do something that I really was not in the mood for, be it to go for a spin on “a day off,” race with the men’s field, or work on my posture.

Times come when good coaches have to have difficult conversations.  Maybe it’s time to take the athlete’s ego down a notch, intentionally or unintentionally.  This is, and always will be, my biggest weakness as a coach.  I want my athletes to be happy and cheerful, but what satisfies the athlete’s desires in the moment is often not what will help her reach her goals in the long run.

Brutally Honest and Direct

Everyone has weaknesses.  A good coach is one who notices each and every one of those weaknesses. Once upon a time, not too long ago, Larry and Sophie did a video review of one of my races with me.  Ouch, let’s just say they don’t miss much. At the end of the conversation, I felt slapped and shocked.  The only way to get faster is to improve upon weaknesses.  Really, I should view my weaknesses as opportunities; the more things they can see to correct, the more room I have for improvement.  The challenge, as a human, is not to become defensive and reactive in those moments.  The job of a coach is to make the athlete faster.  My coaches do their job.

Accountable

If your athlete consistently completes every assigned workout and gives it her all in races, but consistently performs poorly, you own a piece of it.

It’s been my experience that this is when abandoning or cutting athletes occurs.  As a Nordic skier, I had a coach who showed his disappointment by leaving the side of the course during a particularly bad race.  In the weeks and months that followed, his lack of enthusiasm became evident.  Ultimately, I got the message and left, and he got to avoid having a difficult conversation with me.

Many years removed, I understand that this coach probably felt backed into a corner.  He had coached me as best as he knew how, but I was not skiing to my potential.  If he did not get rid of me, and fast, he was in danger of exposing what he did not know.

In my many years of following skiing, both alpine and Nordic, I’ve watched countless 20-something athletes have an off-year and get cut from programs, making space for the latest and greatest 19-year old. I have to wonder if some of these failures were not those of the athletes.  Burning through one young star and then hopping to the next is not good coaching.

Emotionally Aware Skilled Communicator

A good coach understands physiology and can put together training plans.  A great coach has been around the block, watched countless athletes succeed and fail, and knows how to cultivate confidence in his athletes.

I’m convinced that it’s fairly easy to make an athlete “pretty good.” A solid training plan, followed consistently, will produce results. The first one or two years of serious training often go well: the athlete loses weight, gains fitness, and the improvement curve is steadily upward.

Then it gets hard. Improved results cause heightened expectations both from the athlete and her community.  At the same time, past a certain level of fitness, improvements are smaller and much harder to attain.  Expectations can be crushing. Add an injury or another challenge, and the emotional road gets rocky.

Above all, a coach needs to be present during these times, willing to meet the unhappy athlete at the finish line, or take an after-hours call.  It might be best to leave this job to the sports psychologists; but, wait, anyone seen one of those hanging around lately?  The near absence of sports psychology resources means, with little to no official training, coaches handle the mental aspects of sport.

Experienced

Coaching is an art.  Like becoming a builder or an electrician, hands on experience is more important than classroom learning.  A clinic may teach you to analyze the data, but the step between analyzing the data and leading an athlete to her best performance is a leap.

With this in mind, I have a strong preference for coaches with many years experience.  My ski coach at Gould Academy, Dick Taylor, had been in the sport for more than 20 years when I worked with him. He had a stash of kick wax in pink tubes from some short-lived wax company, which was perfect in rare snow conditions.  Literally and metaphorically, I prefer the coach who knows when to bring out the old pink kick wax.

I know that I’ve had valuable experiences as an athlete that will help my coaching.  That said, a great athlete is not necessarily a great coach.  As a skier, I encountered many collegiate and elite skiers who could not prepare their own skis.  The best programs, skiing and cycling, are those that most thoroughly support their athletes.  The ideal situation is one where the athlete’s travel, lodging, food, and equipment are taken care of, so she is rested and ready to race.  Yet, this very situation produces athletes who are not skilled at taking care of themselves, never mind others.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that truly great athletes are self-centered.     Racing well requires taking care of yourself, and that sometimes means putting yourself first.  Leading up to Nationals, I’ve gone so far as to remind my husband to wash his hands lest he bring illness into the house. Consider Lance Armstrong. His self-confidence, self-absorption, and brashness were part of what made him a winner.  In contrast, coaching requires one’s focus to be on another person’s needs and motivations.

Elite athletes have physical skills that exceed those of the general population, but otherwise they are normal.  They may be very intelligent, or less so.  They may be good communicators with empathy, or not.  In short, just because someone can ride a bike fast, does not make him a good coach.  Racing and training experience is valuable, but knowledge and people skills are more so.

Puts Athletes First

A responsible coach knows when it’s time to let go.

With juniors in particular, there often comes a time when the athlete outgrows your coaching or the program.  It’s hard not to be possessive.  An athlete is your project or portfolio, and it strikes the ego a little bit to transfer a lot of hard work on your part to another person.

So many times as a junior athlete, coaches and programs fought to keep me when I was ready to move on.  I was completely taken aback as a 12-year old to watch grown men fight about my alpine skiing future.  My mom taught me the word “politics,” as I struggled to make sense of why it mattered so much that I wanted to join another team.  In that moment (and a few choice ones that followed), I committed to myself to always doing what’s best for the athlete, not to mention, never, ever fighting over a child.

At one point, when I left one coach for another, the first not only supported me, but said he should have suggested the move.  Athlete-centered coaching means you are always trying develop the athlete, even when that means pushing her out of the nest.

Proximity/Regular Contact

The opposite of distance is proximity.  Now that we have that straight…..

As an adult, most of my coaches have been “low contact.”  While they have been local, we didn’t meet often, between twice a week and once a month depending on the season.

Rare is the day that I am not in touch with Larry.  I’m luckier than most because the studio is 1.3 miles from my house (but who’s counting).  It’s easy for me to stop by even on days when I am not working out there.  Whenever I do, Larry always asks me how I am
feeling.  (I think it might be worth paying a coach just to have someone care about how I am on a daily basis!)  I’m always honest with Larry, but at this point, he’s got a pretty good read on me anyway.

The data derived from my power meter and Training Peaks is valuable, but my mood and level of perceived fatigue are a better indicator of if I am burning the candle at both ends.  Over the last few years, I’ve rarely been sick or had any overuse injuries.  I attribute this
to Larry and Sophie’s careful monitoring of my fatigue levels.

Regular contact also helps build trust and a rapport.  You really get to know someone when you see them nearly daily.  And trust is everything in the coaching relationship.  Someone like me has so much invested (time, energy, money) in sport.  It’s essential that I’m completely comfortable, can express my concerns, and trust the process.

Face-to-face communication is also invaluable when things hit the skids.  This fall, coming back from injury, I struggled with confidence, and Larry dragged, pushed, and nurtured me through it day-by-day.  Were he at a distance or our contact infrequent, I think I could have found myself alone and adrift.

At least I no longer stick my tongue out when posing with my coach!

At least I no longer stick my tongue out when posing with my coach!

Synergy

Apologies, this isn’t a quality of the coach, but rather a quality of the coach-athlete relationship.  It’s invaluable, but largely out of the coach’s control.

I’ve had plenty of good coaching relationships and a couple of great ones.  The great ones had a lot to do with how well we “clicked.”

As a high school sophomore, I was coached by a woman with whom I completely connected.  We only worked together for one year; in fact, she only coached for one year.  It’s was a bit of a right time, right place scenario.  Her complete faith in my ability gave me great self-confidence over the course of the season.  Meanwhile, my connection with her was such that I would have done what ever she asked.  By the time we got State Championships, I was in a place where I felt I could not fail.  (Indeed, I did win.)

This magical season had little to do with her skills as a coach.  She was young and inexperienced. I doubt she could have successfully guided me through the pressure of being a “favorite” the following season.  Like any other relationship, the coach athlete bond is impacted by personality and circumstance.  When the coach and athlete click, so that the athlete has complete faith in her coach (even blind faith), it’s a wildly successful ride.

Another old one just for good measure…from before skiing became complicated.

Another old one just for good measure…from before skiing became complicated.

Green Mountain Stage Race and Ribs

Over Labor Day weekend, I enthusiastically accompanied Stacy and Lev Kalemkiarian to Vermont for the Green Mountain Stage Race (GMSR). The race has been on my bucket list for a while (lots of climbing at a low altitude) and it was well timed for a good hard training block prior to CX season.

Preriding beautiful VT roads the day before  stage 1

Preriding beautiful VT roads the day before stage 1

All summer I raced road with the recognition that there’s some unavoidable risk associated with it. Early in the summer, a friend verbalized what was in the back of my mind, “What if you crash and ruin your cross season?” Indeed, what if.

I pursued a pretty busy road schedule (North Star GP, Tour of America’s Dairyland, Prairie State Games, and GMSR with smaller races peppered in between) in the interest of becoming a better CX rider. But it was more than that. The experience was addictive. I loved racing fast and aggressively. I loved learning the tactics. I loved seeing everything Larry and Sophie taught me playing out in a race.

But, back to crashing. Stage 1 at GMSR, I had a poor TT, but Stage 2 (a circuit race) was going very well. I delighted myself by being near the front on the Queen of the Mountain climbs. My legs felt simply awesome, so much so that I decided to contest the finishing sprint. (Well, contest might be too strong a word, but to get myself into a good position where I’d earn a solid placing in the stage.) With 500 meters to go, when the road opened to full width, I was fighting for the best position along with everyone else. Two riders in front crossed lines and nearly collided, then there was a lot of bumping, and finally a large crash that I could not avoid. My own crash was pretty insignificant—I pretty much rolled out of it. However, once on the ground, I was hit from behind.

With a childhood spent alpine racing and falling off horses, I have a pretty good sense of when I can get up and shake it off. This time, I had an instantly sickening sense that was not the case; not to mention, the wind was knocked out of me. I had two EMTs check me because I was pretty certain that something was wrong, but both felt around and pronounced me good enough to skip the emergency room. (I thought that meant, I was “healthy,” whereas, I learned later, it meant something more like “there are no displaced fractures likely to puncture lungs.”)

The finish line was about five miles from the start where we were parked, and although I was offered a ride, I was already thinking about the next day of racing, and decided to spin back with Stacy. That was, shall we say, a scene, as she repeatedly dropped me at, oh, 10 miles an hour or so. Not to mention, every time I’d hit a bump in the road, it would take my breath away, and bring tears to my eyes.

I raced the next day.

In between, I laid on a lot of ice, sucked down ibuprofen, ate some Friendly’s ice cream courtesy of Stacy and Lev, and laid on more ice. Stage 3 was 64 miles with 6,357 feet of climbing. Warming up in the parking lot, my shoulder and side seized, and I got scared, but they loosened soon after. I started the race with blind faith that it would all work out.

The worse parts of the stage were:

• Communicating in the peloton (“on your left,” etc.), as I found forcing that much air out of my lungs to be terribly difficult.
• Standing on the bike (I could not pull up on the handlebars. Try climbing over 6,000 feet without standing).
• About 15 miles in, I choked on some water and had to cough. Besides being excruciating, my rib cage made an audible and resounding pop. OMG.

Finishing stage 3 App Gap.  It was so steep, I had to stand.

Finishing stage 3 App Gap. It was so steep, I had to stand.

I did not start the fourth and final stage of GMSR, the crit. I went for a morning spin in preparation, but my shoulder and side seized up, and this time it took 45 minutes to loosen up. The writing was on the wall. Even if I could race, I intuitively knew that I could not afford to crash again. So I watched Stacy and Lev race, and laid on a lot of ice.

Stacy is a PT and could not help but notice all the crepitus on my side. I spent the days in Vermont post-crash trying to convince myself of good signs (I could pick-up my suitcase) and worrying about bad signs that seemed ever-present (like my side making a sound like a pop bottle crinkling).

I got an X-ray as soon as I got back to Minnesota, by then having convinced myself that I was probably just fine. I was shocked when I learned: two fractured ribs, very slightly displaced. I sped to The Fix on a tear, entirely pissed off and in disbelief that in my words, “my season was ruined.”

I think I was expected a good cry with the coaches, who would completely understand “this great tragedy.”

Um, or not. Instead, Larry placed his cards just right: complete confidence and calm. We would keep riding on the rollers where I was safe from crashing. I’d probably get on my bike outside just in time for Madison. It would hurt and I’d be sore after, but I’d get to race. In the middle of this conversation, Sophie came over, and although she acknowledged it wouldn’t feel comfortable, she wasn’t alarmed; cracked ribs are part of bike racing. I was totally taken aback, but I trusted them, and ultimately, I was more than happy to put my head down, do the training, and let them do the thinking.

In September, I spent a lot of time icing, going to the chiro, icing, getting massage from Sophie, icing, and using my TENS unit (yes kids, little electrical zaps can feel just great), icing, and sucking down Alleve, calcium, vitamin D, and icing some more.

There were some hard times on the rollers. In the early days, my shoulder would spasm when I did longer intervals. Later, my diaphragm would spasm (like a side stitch) in the same circumstance. I would do a set of intervals, stop, step off my bike, stand and arch my back to loosen my chest, and repeat.

After a week, I did my first road ride, and being outside in the sun was bliss! After two weeks, I did a cross practice. I could not carry my bike, and I was stiff afterward, but. The Thursday before Madison, we did a short series of VO2 max efforts outside. All these things made me feel sort of ready for Madison.

Indeed, I did race in Madison, and felt lucky to be there, though it was a bit of a rocky start. I fell twice pre-riding and that scared me, knowing that I really shouldn’t fall on the ribs. On day one, I had a great start, but with that exception, I felt out of sorts. I felt like a baby deer. You know, when they are first born, and can’t quite control their legs? My plan had been to really hit the CX skills hard in the three weeks following GMSR, but alas, instead, I spent most of the time inside. While I felt good on the bike, every time I dismounted, I was out of sorts; my timing for barriers was off, etc.

With Madison behind me, I felt I was back. At least I could train normally. I think I took a deep breath (I could actually do that by then!) for the first time in three week, as the crisis seemed to be over.

I’m not sure I realized how difficult it would be to get my racing form back. When the ribs hurt every day, I marched through things without a lot of second thoughts, just worried about getting better. With that behind me, I was left unsure, unsure of my fitness, and with wavering confidence. Make no mistake, I trained hard after GMSR (I only lost about a week.) and had some good workouts at The Fix. But training is training, and racing is racing, and my body responds well to hard racing. My results in Madison and thereafter were a bit off, and I’ve had to claw my way back a bit.

As I write this, I am on my way back from a UCI race in Rochester, NY. There, I had two solid days, not great, but solid, and on par with “average” days in the midseason last year. With the long, and increasingly cold/dark season in front of me, I have every reason to believe that I can improve considerably from here.

Hitting the deck in Vermont was definitely not part of the plan, and given how freakin’ good I felt in late August, I can’t help but wonder what could have been (at least for early season racing). However, I remember that I signed up for the whole deal. When I started with The Fix, it was because I wanted to train and race like a pro (at least to the degree that one can with a fulltime job). Getting injured, it seems to me, is part of that whole process. I would be sweet to just sign up for the good parts (good results), but that’s not realistic, nor authentic. Ultimately, I’m very satisfied by what I’m doing, even if some times are better and easier than others!

Stacy and Corey after Stage 3 App Gap Finish

Stacy and Corey after stage 3 App Gap finish

NSGP — Part Two

I am not a pro, and I am okay with that!

The line between pro and amateur in U.S. cycling is a nebulous one.  However, let’s put it this way:  I do not race a bike for a living.  If I have a crappy season, my team’s not likely to send me packing.  No one else’s salary depends on my winning the bike race (or getting into the break, or leading someone out).  Accordingly, I am not a pro.  NSGP was a chance for me to “play pro” for a week, and in doing so, define myself as not a pro.  There were three key moments.

1)  Stage One—St. Paul Time Trial:

After putting a fair amount of time, effort, and heart into preparing for this race, I was plenty nervous.  I was nervous that I would not live up to my expectations.  As I biked by some of the overly large “encampments” (vehicle, trailer, tents, trainers) of the best pro teams, it dawned on me.  If someone came to me that morning and told me that I had to win, or I had to attack the group at mile X, I probably could not handle it.  Yes, there are presentations at work that I have to “hit” or else, but….

I am willing to work very hard to succeed athletically, and I usually don’t crack, but if I HAD TO succeed, I suspect I would not thrive, and I would not have fun.  This would become, um, work.

2)  Stage Three—Cannon Falls Road Race (95 miles):

I had read about “guttering.”  In a crosswind, a strong team moves to the downwind side of road and forms a tight echelon.  Anyone who cannot get into that rotation moves to the far edge of the road, but since there is no shelter on the windy side, the field strings out single file, and the group breaks into many small groups whenever someone cannot hold the wheel in front of them.  When this happens, everyone fights for the side of the road, there’s a lot of pushing, and occasionally someone rides off the road edge.  It is brutal.

Prior to Cannon Falls, like most us not able to finish in the top-20 or so in the field, guttering was only a convention I read about (in a book…with diagrams).  Locally, we have very few women who can even mimic something like an echelon.  Mostly we race down the road in some sort of amorphous blob; there is always some place to hide.

Now I get guttering.  It is a real, horrible, and devastating thing.  As soon as we hit the crosswinds, the strong teams moved to the front, and some 60 or so of us were “guttered.”  Clearly, the top girls were so pro… and the rest of us had a good 50 miles to dwell on our very amateur status as we made our way to the finish.

3)  Stage “Five-Point-Five”—Team Dinner at the Birchwood after Menomonie Stage Race

During dinner, Larry alludes to the fact that the size of the team’s prize payout relates to how much athletes and staff are paid.  Ouch.  Here the light bulb goes on in my head.  Athletes need to succeed for staff to get paid.  Ouch.

I am pretty used to the structure of Nordic ski racing, which was primitive in 2006 when I stopped racing seriously.  Most of the “professional teams” were managed by someone who was also an industry rep.  Many wax techs were very part time.  Athletes weren’t paid, or barely paid, and they took home any/all prize money, while supporting themselves through odd jobs, family, and community donations.  If an athlete didn’t win, she probably could not afford to keep at it for very long, but she likely did not prevent someone else from paying his electricity bill.

Hmm, things would be a little different with so much skin in the game.  Have I mentioned how much I like the security of having a job?  I am totally and completely fine going to work, earning a salary, and paying the bills with my paychecks, which come reliably every two weeks whether I win or lose the bike race.

I’m so Tired, but I Just Can’t Sleep.

Sleeping was hard to achieve during NSGP, and I wasn’t the only one who struggled.

Anytime one competes “late” in the evening (which I’d define as 6:00 pm or later), it is really hard to unwind and go to sleep.  Three of the stages finished after 6:00 pm, with Cannon Falls finishing after 8:00 pm.  Arriving home after these, there was a lot to do (eat, shower, laundry, Podium Legs) and I was “jacked,” “amped,” any and all words that suggest totally wound up!

PodiumLegs are a brand name of compression boots.  They aid in blood flow and recovery.

PodiumLegs are a brand name of compression boots. They aid in blood flow and recovery.

As I sat in my Podium Legs trying to wind down after Cannon Falls, I found it funny to watch how many riders were active on Facebook at nearly midnight.  Clearly, we were all in the same boat.

Then there is the pressure and anxiety.  Stage races have time cuts, which one needs to make to progress the next stage.  As it turns out, the time cuts were pretty liberal at NSGP, but that does not erase the worry.  If something goes wrong, a flat in the road race, a moment of weakness or hesitation in the crit, you might end up alone.  If you end up alone, without others to draft, there’s a real good chance you won’t make the cut.  After putting a lot of time into training for the race, the last thing one wants is to be cut.  The race is exciting and fun, and I did not want to miss a moment!

I did an okay job with the sleeping.  Two of the nights I slept well, and I also got some naps in over the week.  Nevertheless, it’s amazing to realize that we were racing hard and also subsisting on less and poorer quality sleep than normal.

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The Calm Before the Storm — Jen and me the night before Stage One.

Okay, we are almost there.  One more entry (in which I actually talk about the racing) to come…..

North Star Grand Prix (NSGP) — Part One

What’s This Race?

For those of you who are not bike racers, here’s a 30,000 foot overview. The race, part of the North Star Bicycle Festival is a 5-day, 6-stage road race. Three of the stages are in St. Paul and Minneapolis (yes, we were your traffic jam in Uptown on Friday night), one is in Cannon Falls, another in Menomonie, and the last in Stillwater (laps up and down Chilkoot hill).

NSGP is part of USA Cycling’s National Racing Calendar (NRC), the most prestigious road race series in the U.S., and regularly draws a number of professional teams.

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Photo Courtesy of Steven Gray

To give you an idea of the demands, I spent 24 hours and 23 minutes on the bike last week (that time includes warming up, cooling down, and doing recovery rides) and burned 10,326 calories on the bike, (give or take).

It’s all About Support

The race support I received from The Fix Studio during cyclocross helped me to always get to the start line in the best possible condition to race. The support I received from Birchwood Cycling Presented by The Fix Studio during NSGP made it so I could stay in the race and finish (and even have a good day on the last day). For CX, I couldn’t race as fast without Fix Support. For a stage race like NSGP, I could not finish the race without them (or at least, if I did, it would have been a sorry sight).  Stage racing taxes the body and the mind far more than CX.

To back up a bit, the Birchwood Cafe and The Fix Studio teamed up to form a composite team for NSGP. We had two locals, Jen Rife (Birchwood/GIS) and me, as well as riders from Washington, New York, Iowa, and Florida. Birchwood and The Fix Studio provided the financial support to make this happen, as well as great food from the Birchwood, and professional race support from the Fix studio.

It seems easy from the outside: just go ride a bike. Reality, however, is that Sophie and Larry took on the job of transporting six athletes, bikes, trainers, food, and water bottles to venues, setting up tents in the rain, and constantly pointing tired athletes in the right direction (and keeping them motivated when things felt overwhelming). During the road race days, it also meant spending 4 hours in cars trailing riders in order to hand out water and food from moving vehicle to moving cyclist, as well as dashing out to change a flat tire, etc. on occasion. At the end of the day, they had six hungry, tired, grumpy or elated riders, dirty/wet bikes, and a pile of trash and spent water bottles. In short, anyone who would devote a week of their life to attend to this crazed traveling circus is a saint. Sophie and Larry were just that, as they gave to us big time, working very hard and going short on sleep. I am grateful, impressed by their stamina, and slightly awed by the fact that they used to do this full time.

Thanks also to Amy Hanenburg, who was there for us at so many stages (and fed Larry, Sophie, and Mavis too, as needed); Steve Bobusch, who provided mechanical support; and Tracy Singleton and the Birchwood team feeding us both on and off the bike (and perhaps most importantly for the beloved CHOCOLATE doughnuts after the Stillwater stage). We were a very lucky to have this opportunity.

Before becoming this immersed in bike racing, I thought the whole idea of having mechanics and soigneurs was a luxury. Now, I realize they are a necessity.   You can limp by without a mechanic (as most races have neutral support), but you almost surely won’t win, and you will suffer if your bike isn’t dialed. And when you race your bike hard for 70+ miles in the rain, and crash into a heap with some 20 other girls at 25 mph, one’s bike does not stay “dialed” on its own (don’t ask me how I know this). Massage and other recovery modalities like Podium Legs or NormaTec, which swannies provide, are essential to keeping the legs fresh (or at least somewhat fresh), but there’s more to it than that. I am pretty famous for my ability to organize my race day preparation to the minute, but a few stages into NSGP, and even I was losing it. Quite simply, with extreme fatigue, cognition goes out the window. Post race, the simple acts of taking a shower, eating some food, and putting on some compression tights seemed overwhelming. I spent a lot of time staring blankly at the refrigerator, the clothes washer, the enormous piles of water bottles, and dirty clothing. Having support meant Larry and Sophie took care of race times, driving, departure times, and providing racing foods, and Steve cleaned the bikes. In short, I could spend time staring at the fridge and still be sure to get to the race on time.

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Great coaches, great team, great support

There’s lots more to tell and I’m working on writing it. Expect a few more installments in the coming days.