You can’t train as hard as you can race. That, I find, is always the case. No matter how hard I try while slogging it up hills, or secretly sweating it out on the turbo trainer, if I do the same thing as part of an event, I can find an extra percent or two of effort. A few seconds less up a hill, a few minutes longer above threshold before having to back off, a couple more hours on gels before having to put something solid in my stomach, the race effect can make a big difference.
It’s not just physical, this effect. The extra focus a race can provide can be just as important, just as useful as any increase in wattages – reacting to how a race is progressing is as much a state of mind as it is a state of your heartrate. Going bar to bar with someone towards a bottleneck during a ‘cross race is all about believing you can get there in front.
People have mentioned to me, before now, that when I’m doing well in a race, I often don’t notice them when passing them – not out of ignorance, but simply because they’re just an obstacle, who they are doesn’t enter the little bubble of focus I’m in. They’re just someone to chase down, then someone to get past, then someone to drop.
In that race bubble there’s very little going on really, everything can seem very simple – you’ve got your targets to race against, you know how much time there is left to chase them down/drop them, you can get to the maximum effort you can give without fuss and stay there without any worry, you just – to put it simply – crack on with the job. And it’s a lovely place to be, provided nothing goes wrong you can bury yourself away in the bubble until the end of the race, at which point hopefully you can feel satisfied with the result.
The real trick, of course, is to be able to get back into that bubble when something does go wrong. Saturday’s ‘cross race in Liverpool tested my ability to do just that to the limit. A pre race lap showed a course that was good fun when you hit your lines, with lots of hidden tree roots lurking in the undergrowth for any time you missed. A few short ‘power’ climbs and, to make up for a lack of off camber slippery corners, the inclusion of this season’s first “circle of death” (which I despise, but never mind that).
I got a decent enough start. I wasn’t gridded at the front as I’ve missed too many rounds to be ‘up there’ in the league placings but was sat with the top 20 round the first hairpin bend and at the end of the first lap. I settled down after a few overly adrenalined corners and got into my bubble easily enough, started hitting my lines as bit better and began working my way towards the top 10.
One slight misjudgement of a rooty corner, however, pulled me back to reality quickly as my (admittedly riskily low pressured) front tyre hooked up on the tree root and unseated the bead. I made a judgement call to carry on past the pits, rather than call in and jump onto the MTB I’d brought as a back up, and hope that everything held together. I settled back into a rhythm quickly enough and started riding as if everything was fine with the bike. Unfortunately this didn’t play out well as, eventually, the tyre unseated properly from the rim, dumping me on my arse and, when I jumped back on and tried to carry on as before, blowing the tube out.
I ran about a quarter of the lap, very much out of any sort of ‘race bubble’, swapped to the spare bike, which felt slow and sluggish in comparison and started to stress about everything.
Thankfully, back in the pits Dave from Horwich CC and Angela had checked my bike over and sorted me a front wheel so, with two laps remaining, I was back on the cross bike.
Borrowed front wheel. Running out of time. Getting back in focus. Pic from Nathan Stirk
Back on the ‘good’ bike, even with an unfamiliar front wheel, I got back into the bubble and retook a few places, eventually finishing in 15th place. Not a great result, but as good as it could have been in the circumstances.
Sunday brought with it the National Hill Climb Championships. Which should have been ace. I’d done everything I needed to to ‘prepare my race bubble’ – I’d pre ridden the course a couple of times in the run up, to get an idea of what it would feel like. My bike was in as good a condition as it could be, the only thing that didn’t feel right was me.
Had the race taken place 3 weeks earlier – before the Worlds up in Scotland – I imagine I would have flown up the hill. In training I’d been setting PBs all over the place, winning races and generally felt competitive. Yesterday, although I didn’t turn up feeling sore, I could tell I wasn’t at 100%.
I warmed up as best I could, knowing what would work for me from previous hill climbs and arrived at the start line in as good a condition and as ready as I felt I could. I was, however, definitely not in my ‘race bubble’. Despite it ‘just’ being another time trial I think I got a bit caught up in the whole “oh god it’s the national championships” mentality and, as I powered away from the line, never got into any sort of rhythm.
My lungs felt unusually raw within seconds, I somehow convinced myself that I could feel yesterday’s ‘cross race in my legs and, rather than encourage myself with how I was doing, I found myself more and more certain that I was doing badly.
Pic from Neil Harris’ Flickr site
By the time I hit the halfway point on the course, a brief lull in the gradient as you cross over a bridge, I was mentally miles away from putting in a good time. Had there not been a massively supporting crowd all the way up, cheering and encouraging each competitor as they went past – me included – it’s quite possible I would have just stopped (if you were there and you were one of the shouting, cheering, encouraging people at the roadside, you were awesome BTW!). Instead I just ground my way to the top in 1st gear, feeling like a bit of a shambles.
I hung around at the race HQ to watch the times roll in as the ‘big hitters’ took their turn. It was, as you might expect, incredibly close at the top, with some utterly stunning times up the hill set – the winner eventually beating me by 35 seconds.
I ended up 39th (out of 176, in case you were wondering), with a time of 3.59.9 – under the 4 minute mark by as small a margin as you can possibly get. Maybe in future, if I can get in my bubble, I can get into the top 20 (20th place “only” being 9 seconds faster) and push on from there. I mean, 10th place was 3mins 41secs, I reckon I could do that, if everything went perfectly. Better preparation, a bit more weight saving on the bike, not racing and crashing the day before. It’s possible you know