|Promises to Keep
There’s nothing like biting off more than you can chew, and then chewing anyway.
The early morning sun and fog showcases the mountain peaks along the Lake Placid bike course.
My cycling was a disappointment last season. While my first Ironman was best day of my life so far, I made a promise to myself that this year, my performance will be better. And by “better” I mean faster. A lot faster.
In the afterglow of IMLP 2010, I initially set what I thought was an aggressive goal: a 12 hour and 30 minute Ironman for 2011, which would be 1 hour and 3 minutes faster than my debut effort.
“You’ll be able to do 12 hours and 30 minutes no problem. Why not set a goal that pushes you a bit more, makes you feel a bit uncomfortable?”
Okay, how about 12 hours?
Yup, 12 hours does the trick.
I’m just uncomfortable enough to stay motivated, but not so much that I feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge. To be sure, twelve hours is a big bite of a goal and achieving that goal hinges almost entirely on improving my bike from last year. Until very recently, I’ve been thinking that my 12 hour goal was definitely biting off more than I could chew. I couldn’t make that much of an improvement, could I?
The first time I rode the IMLP course last year was on June 19, 2010. Plain and simple: that course kicked my a$$ the first time I did it. I averaged a meager 13.9 mph, and huffed and puffed my way through the final rolling miles.
During the race 5 weeks later, I managed only to average a meager 15 miles per hour.
For the past several months, I’ve been chewing away at my cycling, and three factors have been key to the improvements I’ve noticed already: spending more time in the saddle, varying the workouts to meet specific functional outcomes (intervals, hills, tempo, cadence, etc.), and using the CompuTrainer.
While I’ve had some minor tests of my cycling fitness, last weekend was the first race-specific test: riding the IMLP course, with it’s death-defying descent, and its challenging rolling terrain.
Would the hours of winter indoor training, lung-crushing intervals, fitness-boosting tempo, long hours riding along back country roads, and leg-crushing hill simulations measure up to real, noticeable improvement?
Let’s get the numbers out of the way, shall we?
I averaged 15.9 mph over 86 miles of the course. (I didn’t do two full loops because my training plan does not call for that type of volume just yet. So, after the first 56 miles, I did the remaining mileage by backtracking along the loop.)
Excuse me just a moment while I pat myself on the back a bit here…
Let’s see: that’s an improvement of 2 miles per hour over my first training ride last year (which was in June, not May!), and an improvement of almost 1 mile per hour over my race pace. My RACE PACE!
Using last year’s numbers, I had an improvement of 1.1 mph between the June training session and the race. If I achieve the same training-to-racing differential this year, I could possibly average 17 mph, which would give me a 6 hour and 35 minute bike–or a full 52 minutes FASTER. That’s the kind of fast I’m talking about!
One of my twitter buddies and fellow IMLP racer, Alex Gonzalez commented, “Sounds like those CompuTrainer sessions paid off!!!”
I’d say so. If I do achieve 17 mph on race day, CompuTrainer will make good on their guarantee of a 2-4 mph improvement.
I scarcely want to write it down for fear of jinxing myself. But, 17 mph is a real possibility for at least three reasons: 1) roads are closed to traffic on race day which is good for making up at least some time, 2) I still have 8 weeks until IMLP, during which time, John and I are planning to return to Lake Placid at least once more, and likely twice more, and 3) I will have a 2-week taper that will ensure I’m completely rested, unlike last weekend.
Granted, as John said, there are no miracles on race day. I can’t expect to do wildly better on race day than I do in training, but I’m already besting last year’s race pace–with 56 days to go. Even though I did not do the entire course, my splits were steady. Last year when I did the course, I steadily got slower and slower and slower until I completely ran out of gas. Well, I hardly ever run out of gas. So, let’s just say energy, then. ;)
I’m starting to believe–really believe–that a 16.5-17 mph average is a REAL possibility. And what the mind believes the properly trained body can achieve. Let’s face it: the mental game can be more challenging than the physical one.
More than just speed
While I’m thrilled about my gains in speed, I’m actually more pleased with my level of comfort on the bike. Last year, I suffered with a good deal of mental anxiety, thanks to a crash that left me bruised–mentally and physically. So far, my anxiety has been significantly less-almost nonexistent.
But, how would I feel on that 10k descent heading into Keene?
As John and I got ready last Saturday morning to meet with our fellow campers to start the bike, I could feel some of those familiar feelings of anxiety return. But, that was only to be expected. Even John said he felt a little nervous. It was a foggy morning, and rain seemed imminent. Suffice to say, those conditions did little to easy my fears.
But, the show must go on, and it is likely that it will rain on race day. So, we began. I started out with a group that was planning to average about 16 miles per hour, but I quickly let the group drop me as I didn’t want to draft (no drafting on race day!), and I was uncomfortable riding in such a large group (about 30 riders).
I felt strong and steady on the early climbs in the course, which was a great feeling since we don’t get to train on real hills much in south Jersey. The CompuTrainer simulations prepared me well.
The entire time, however, my mind was focused on one thing: the upcoming 10k descent into Keene. I nervously looked to the sky, where the clouds were hanging low, their bellies full of rain.
About a mile or so before I arrived to the start of the long downhill, I met Katie. I talked with her just long enough to find out this was her freshman year on the course. Like many first timers (or fifth-timers!), she was nervous about the descent.
I was a little bit ahead of Katie when I got to the beginning of the descent, and something told me to stop and wait for her. She pulled up next to me and stopped.
“Sorry to stop you,” I started, “But I thought maybe you might want just an overview of how it works? Have you seen it at all?”
“No I haven’t. That sounds great,” She said.
I offered Katie an overview of the descent, which as I see it has three main sections, each distinguished by a “Trucks use low gear next ‘N’ miles”. (I’ve described this and other sections of Lake Placid course here.)
I also shared my braking technique with Katie. I gently feather my brakes pretty much the entire time down the descent. But, I have a particularly rhythm that I use so that I am not overbreaking. I tap my back brakes: one – pause – two – pause – three – pause, and on four I tap my back and front brakes. If I’m comfortable with my speed, I skip the front brakes, and just continue with the one-two-three pattern on my back brakes. This method allows me to feel in control, while maintaining a safe speed and a safe braking pattern that won’t over heat my tires or cause me to flip over my handle bars. It also ensures that I don’t have an erratic speed that throws off riders coming up behind me.
“How long are we talking here?” She asked, motioning to the road that lay ahead.
“I tell myself 15 minutes tops. I can handle anything for 15 minutes,” I replied.
By now, it had started raining, so I knew I would be even more cautious than usual. I let her go first, and as she took off, I said, “Remember, you are in control of your bike.”
Was I talking to her or myself?
I clipped back into my pedals and gingerly started down. The first section of the downhill is not really too steep at all. In fact, I rarely tapped my breaks.
As I began the second, and steeper section of the downhill, I thought to myself, “Okay, girl, you got this.”
One-two-three, down I went.
Then, it came time for the steepest section of the descent. I took a deep breath, and as the rain pummeled my thighs and flooded my glasses, I thought, “Okay, God, you really want to make sure I’m challenged, huh?”
One-two-three, down I went.
When I got to the bottom (whew!), Katie was waiting for me.
“Awww, you didn’t have to wait. Thanks!” I said.
She took her glasses off and looked at me, with a serious look, “I think you just saved my life.”
“Whaat…?” I wasn’t sure what she meant.
“No seriously. No one has ever told me to feather my brakes. I would have gone down that thing jamming my brakes and probably would have killed myself,” she explained.
Wow. Fancy me helping someone else on the bike. But, that’s how it works, isn’t it? Last year, my friend Charlotte, who is a graduate of the school of Ironman at this point, freely shared her years of wisdom with me. And, it felt good to pass on what I little I have learned to someone else. That is a key advantage of a training camp: learning from many others who have been there, done that.
The descent behind me, I was able to enjoy the next section of the ride: the flats from Keene to Jay. This is a fast section of the course, and a beautiful one as well. I rode along at a comfortable pace, keeping my heart rate in a low to moderate zone. By the time I was coming out of the out-and-back section along Route 9, I had caught back up with the 16mph pace group.
Nice! You killed that section, girl! I thought to myself. I’m given to lots of pep-talking out there on the course.
Now it was time to climb, climb, climb, which I definitely enjoy. I’m a sick masochist that way. While some of the others around me dropped back on the climb, I was feeling strong up the long haul along 86, and along the rollers into Wilmington. Perfect little circles all the way to the top.
(Video caption: Spectators encourage racers up the rollers along the second half of the loop. I think this is somewhere along 86–anyone have any idea exactly where?)
And, then, there she was: Mama Bear.
“Hi, Mama Bear,” I cooed out loud. Yes, truly out loud.
“Oh, baby bear, you’re nothin’ but a blip,” I admonished, as I popped up and over the little one.
As Papa came into view, I said: “Oh, Papa Bear, you are not that tough. I’m stronger than you.”
Papa Bear hill gets lots of attention because of it’s stark steepness right at the end, as well as the large volume of spectators that line the road on race day. But, really, it is an incredibly short climb, and it’s one last chance to show that course who’s the boss. (In my humble opinion, the climb up 86, after you turn off of Route 9, is the hardest climb of the course. I also think the climbs in the first 10 miles of the loop are harder than Papa and Mama.)
I finished the first loop in about 3 and a half hours, and needed to go about 5 hours – or 5.5 hours at the most. So, I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish another loop, and I didn’t want to risk overtraining and push it. So, I turned around and went back down the way I came, finishing out my ride in 5 hours, 24 minutes, for a total of 86.1 miles.
I was satisfied by my increase in speed for sure, but truthfully, the best part of the ride was the confidence–a confidence I did not have last year.
So, I might have bitten off more than I can chew with my 12 hour goal, but I have the confidence to keep chewing away–and I will for 8 more weeks. I’ve got a promise I have to keep.