Friday, May 4, 2012

Climbing My Way to Another Lesson

“Truth is stranger than fiction” is a phrase that I often quote.  Mostly, the truths I refer to are my own.  Pushing myself in some kind of methodical manner has lead me to loftyish places where I never imagined being, and this spring I was able to experience that again.

Less than three months after I had my right hip replaced, and only 5 weeks after I could put 100 percent of my weight on that leg, I signed up for a climbing challenge on a cycling and running web site called Strava.   A Classic Challenge from Specialized  goaded cyclists to climb a total of 105,312 vertical feet between March 15 and April 30.  The significance of this number is that it is three times the total feet of climbing in the Spring Classic races in Europe.  I’ve long been a big fan of climbing, even when the little climbing specialists are dropping me, so I figured I would give this a try and see where I ended up.  Besides, there was a cool water bottle as a reward if you actually did reach that total.

It soon became evident that my normal rides and routes were not going to amass climbing feet very quickly.  Compared to some of the women signed up, I was fairly minor league.  So by early April I decided to up my ante, and change my routes.  I tried not ride anything for more than a mile that registered zero percent grade – what a waste – and opened my eyes to the local hills.

My neck of the woods is fairly generous when it comes to available climbing..  The glaciers left several valleys running from north to south, with steep grades on some of the roads leading to the tops of the ridges.  These roads are mostly all paved, thanks to some free-flowing money in the mid 20th century, and are spaced fairly close together.  While the climbs generally last only 10-15 minutes, getting down to the bottom of the hill to start up another one does not take long either.  Certainly they are not mountains, but we most definitely are not in the plains.  My new plan was to simply go up and down the ridges and choose roads that had steeper grades to accumulate the climbing more rapidly.  I remembered a treasure trove of climbs with grades in the 10-18 percent range.  Yummy!

This was certainly fun and gave each ride an immediate purpose.  I recorded the rides on the Strava app on my Android phone, which soon began to rule my world.  As soon as each ride ended I would upload my ride onto the Strava web site and soon thereafter I would log on to check my progress against my virtual, but real, competitors

So I climbed, descended, and climbed again, and my coach, Mark Fasczewski, enabled me with the gift of longer rides as the weeks wore on.  I was soon in the top 20 out of over 500 women and in around 300th place out of the 10,000 plus people, worldwide, who had signed up for this challenge.  .

When I significantly increased the amount of climbing feet per week I started leapfrogging over people.  While in the teens I was hoping to get closer to women’s tenth place, and with two weeks remaining in the challenge I had clawed my way into ninth place.  What?  Now my riding took on an obsessive edge (OK, it usually does anyway, but humor me here) and Mark gave me the green light to absolutely give this my all.  I dropped to 7th, then 6th.  With just a few days to go I found myself in 5th place, and my focus now turned to maintaining that position.  Professional obligations this past Saturday kept me from bagging much of anything, but competing in two events at the Binghamton Circuit Race on Sunday added 4000 feet to the total.  While I should have been tired after racing, I had to remain energized to get out there on Monday –April 30! – for that last day of climbing.

And climb I did, on all the steepest hills I had found between Clinton and Peterboro.  In my longest and toughest ride since Leadville I bagged another 7800 feet in 78 miles, during six hours of riding time.  I got home, uploaded my ride, ate whatever I had left in the house, and then logged on to Strava. My total for the challenge was 137,772 feet.  The waiting game began, but in the end I held on to 5th place for women and managed 107th of the 10,923 people who entered the contest. 

This is, of course, something that I had not even dreamed about when I entered the challenge.  Once I’d entered, though, I pushed myself to do things that I would not have done otherwise.  I rode in abysmal weather, I did nothing but climb, I descended some steep and scary stuff, and I enjoyed almost every demented minute of it. I consumed lots of good products from my sponsor, Hammer Nutrition! The offshoot of this was that my hip is now super-strong and my walking, which I had been having trouble with, is now way better than when I was spending a log of time, well, walking.

Besides bragging rights, what did this challenge give me? Did I get any faster with all this climbing?  Maybe.  Did I get any better at descending?  Maybe not.  My ever-zealous braking kept me from colliding with things like dump trucks, deer, chickens, dogs, people in a daze crossing the road, and manure spreaders.  But whether riding uphill or down, I would be constantly reminded that I live in a beautiful area and that I was so blessed to be able to enjoy it in such a fashion. 

I’ve been reminded, too, that there are always more possibilities for myself than I can imagine and that one thing leads to another.  The first step into a new venture can open up doors formerly thought “closed for the season.”  The focus on climbing helped me heal more quickly, and the fitness I accumulated definitely widened the array of events for me this season.   “Never say never” is another one of my favorite slogans, but I can be guilty of holding myself back with closed-minded thinking.  It is easy for me to see this in the athletes I coach and to help them, but difficult to recognize when I am doing this to myself.  My coach Mark does not have my blinders on when it comes to coaching me.

This challenge has taught me to go with the process, work hard, and see what happens -- to try not to predict the end of the story.  For most of the challenge I never even considered a top five finish, and it is not something that would be predicted for myself, but in the end it absolutely happened.  Truth really is stranger than fiction.