Reflections from the road

At the time of writing I’m homeward bound from my week in Tenerife with Polka Dot Cycling, our Airbus nosing its way into the sky. I’m in that weird place where my body wants to sleep but the medium latte I had at the airport is keeping the grey cells awake for a bit longer. The legs feel good – tired but not as battered as they usually do after training camps. It’s time to reflect on what I’ve learnt and how to apply those lessons in the days, weeks and months to come. Those of you who follow my RAAM page on Facebook will have some idea of how the week unfolded already. I’ve always said I’ll be honest in these blogs and tell it how it is, so here’s an insight into the strange and sometimes dark place that is my head.

The aim of this week was to get a good block of climbing work done off the back of two weeks of decent training. There’s 175,000ft of uphill to do on RAAM and the better I can do that, the easier life will be. I was hoping that the week would also give me a bit of a benchmark three months out to see where I am and what I need to work on with regards to training, nutrition and other aspects of preparation.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with regards to the group riding and the standard of the other cyclists. I’ve been on training camps before where I’ve watched people battering each other straight from the off, day after day. I’d prepared myself mentally to ride to my own ability, not get freaked out by anyone else and to focus on doing what I needed to do. This part of my mental preparation had worked well – each morning I was relaxed whilst we had the morning briefing as opposed to dreading the rollout. It may sound silly but that’s honestly where I’ve been on previous camps, particularly in the early triathlon days.

What I wasn’t prepared for was quite how terrible my legs felt on the first couple of days. The temperature didn’t help as it was quite a brutal difference from the UK initially, but once we hit any decent gradient, my power output just wasn’t there. The intervals up to Vilaflor on the first day were harder than they should have been and mentally and physically it just became a sufferfest in the wind. Mount Teide on Day 2 was beautiful (see pic above) but I was climbing so badly that I was really having to control my chimp who just wanted to sit in a corner and cry; believe me on a 32km climb there are a lot of corners to choose from. I tried to focus on the stunning scenery and chatting to the coaches who came to ride with each of us but the negative chatter in my head was rampant. When alone on the road I listened to my turbo playlist on my phone in an effort to change my state and distract the chimp. Practising my descending (along with some new-found confidence) gave me something positive to focus on along with a good adrenaline rush which always helps but it did little to stop the self-doubt coming flooding back in afterwards.

The legs slightly improved over the next couple of days but by the time we got to see ourselves on film at the end of our recovery ride, the chimp was in full flow:
“You can’t even ride a bike properly, how can you ride across America?”
“If you can’t do these climbs easily, how on earth are you going to do mile after mile of climbing on RAAM?”
“These people will all think you’re stupid to even believe that you’re capable of doing RAAM if you can’t even manage a few climbs in Tenerife well”
“The training hasn’t worked, you’ve not worked hard enough or long enough”
“You’re not mentally strong enough for this”
“You clearly haven’t sorted the nutrition piece so that’s now another massive unknown”
“You shouldn’t have given up work, this is all just a big waste of money”
“I’m going to let the Crew down and everyone who has been supporting me”

I’d packed my “RAW Finisher” jersey with the rest of my kit and on one day at the beginning of the week had pulled it out to wear…. I put it back, that was how low I was feeling. I was actually too ashamed of my riding to wear the damn thing. It sounds ridiculous even to me now but it’s true. If the guys hadn’t known I was doing RAAM before I started, I probably wouldn’t have mentioned it out of sheer embarrassment.

People often comment on the mental aspect of RAAM, but in reality the training and preparation is a mental and emotional resilience test in itself. It’s great when it’s going well, but with a challenge this big where the cost of failure (both financially and mentally) is so high (and a very real possibility statistically) then when it starts going badly it is very easy to get swept away on a torrent of negativity.

I’ve been working with Andew Jenkins from PDX consulting and The Coaching Academy. We’ve talked a lot about framing everything I’m doing as a learning experience and ensuring I’m reflecting on what I’m learning and how to use that knowledge. We’d talked about my “presuppositions” for the trip – what beliefs I was already holding going into it. The thing about presuppositions is that it’s up to you to decide what they are. You have them without thinking about them consciously and it’s useful to ask yourself what they are before you start; if the ones you have aren’t going to be helpful, then change them to ones that will enable you be more resourceful towards getting the outcome you want.

Key presuppositions for me were a) this is a test of nutrition and training but there’s still time to change things and b) be prepared for the legs to take a while to show up; don’t judge performance on the first couple of days.

Suffice to say that my message to Andrew coming back after Teide was a rather more eloquent version of “it’s all gone to sh*t”. He suggested it would get better. The chimp raised it’s eyebrows and went back to sulking.

Each night I’d go back to my room and try to reframe things positively:
• Worst case scenario, I’m no less fit or strong than I was this time last year
• My legs felt ok at the end of RAW, they’ve another year of training under their belt and that will help
• I’ve not come into this fresh and that was part of the point
• I’ve done all the intervals and the climbs; they’ve not been fun but they will have made me fitter and stronger
• There’s still time to improve; I’ve got decent blocks of training coming up
• Nutrition isn’t a disaster, it just needs some tweaks
• I’m learning a lot, that’s what this was about
• You’ve got the support of fantastic coaches here – make the most of their knowledge
• It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks
• There are people here with far bigger issues than a bike race – get over yourself
• RAAM is about the experience, the adventure, showing up and being the best you can be – don’t lose sight of this
• Seriously, I’m in the sunshine riding my bike – how bad can it be?

Jen and Stu from Polka Dot were fantastic at sharing their knowledge, talking things through on and off the bike and probably most importantly realising that mentally I wasn’t in the place I needed to be. On the road there was good banter and friendly rivalries, everyone recognising who was having a good moment or bad moment, working for each other when needed and recognising each other’s talents and improvement over the week. Personally this is something that has helped me since OTC days; if you’re having a crap time, focus on what’s going well for other people, or help make someone else’s day just that little bit easier. If you can stop making it all about you, then you will end up feeling better.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learnt recently is to be flexible – if you’re not getting the outcome you want, change something and keep changing things until you find what works. Each day I’d implement the lesson from the day before and see what happened. I’d resigned myself to the legs not showing up and headed out for our second day of intervals prepared to bury myself and make the best of it. It’s hard to describe the feeling as I hit the first interval and saw numbers consistently that I hadn’t seen all week with legs that wanted to be there and wanted to work. Each climb we hit felt good both in terms of pedalling action and strength and the confidence started returning. I got off the bike daring to believe that it might just be all right after all. Most importantly for me, it was the best day I’ve had on the bike for months.

Day 5 to Masca, the RAW jersey came out. I didn’t know how the day would unfold but I knew it was going to be a good one and somehow it felt appropriate. I just wanted to ride. In the end there were many great points on the road shared with many different people but for me two bits stood out:
1) Being alone for the last few km of the 20km climb, ragging myself in the wind and rain knowing there was more in the tank both physically and mentally. I literally wanted to whoop with joy for the sake of just being alive and at one with myself, the road and the weather
2) Getting back to the hotel in the sunshine having thawed out, knowing I could go out and ride it all again.

So what was the difference that made the difference? How do I move forwards?

Practically, I’ve a few things to focus on:
1) Getting the balance of carbs right whilst maintaining fat-adaptation
2) Settling into my new saddle position for a couple of weeks then trying another small shift back and down to see if that adds anything else
3) Focusing on my new pedalling action until it becomes automatic rather than conscious
4) Getting a 30 or 32 on my rear cassette to allow me to spin a bit more on the steep stuff
5) Working at a higher cadence on the hills; big gear stuff may work for some people but isn’t the way forwards for me even if I understand the rationale for doing it
6) Paying closer attention to power at a given heart rate to monitor improvement
7) Learning how to use Training Peaks to monitor training without obsessing about it
8) Getting out of my head and finding my resourceful self when it’s not working; sticking at it is one thing but I need to do better than that

Training-wise, I should be seeing progress every few weeks but I’ve been doing this for so long and without a competitive focus that I’ve settled on a plateau without realising it. Whilst I expect to see progress simply just from this week, moving forwards I need to take more responsibility for how I feel on the bike because I’m the only one who has the whole picture. Abdicating training plans to a coach is fine to a point but the accountability for progress lies with me. I am naturally curious and I need to be as inquiring about this as everything else. I used to question everything about training as physiology and performance fascinates me. I’ve let that slide as “one less thing to think about” but actually it’s lost me an important edge.

How do I get this edge back?

• Re-engage with my competitive spirit and actively challenge myself to do this better
• Ask questions; of myself and of others
• Remember that people are all individuals; what works for 100 people in a scientific study might not work for me
• Be flexible – If it’s not working, change it
• Keep reflecting and learning
• Accept that I’m data-driven and embrace it rather than fighting it
• Apply learning lightly and hold beliefs more loosely

Stu said to me at on the last day “everyone needs two good days a week on the bike”, meaning you need to have two days where you feel good and actually enjoy riding, however hard you are working. In reality, even during the bad days I had a great week on the bike. The weather was fantastic, the scenery beautiful and varied, great company, solid training and brilliant leading by the coaches.

I didn’t just have two good days… I had two awesome days that made me remember why I’m doing this and made me believe that I can. The biggest and most important lesson this week? I love riding my bike


#thisisRAAM #86days

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