Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Life - Disappointment

I had a first for me in a long, long time - an absolutely crushing disappointment a number of Saturdays ago. October 2007, to be precise. I took a physical test - suffice it to say that I really, really wanted to do well, to pass, to hit the high mark. I actually practiced and did some self-tests to make sure I could pass, and I felt pretty confident of that I could repeat those efforts "under duress", so to speak.

But then I got sick.

I felt ill just before the tests. I didn't have just a fever but I was downright weak, infantile in strength. I thought maybe my nerves were finally getting to me, or maybe, I hoped, that the adrenaline would save me. During my own test sessions I could easily pass the standards so I figured I'd lose a bit off the top due to my illness but still pass nonetheless.

I went, signed in, and promptly failed the first test. Took all of five minutes for all of it to happen.

And with that, I left, dejected. Call the missus and her (our) friends, whose house was my home base for the test. They came by and picked me up and we went back to their house. It would have been one thing if it was like a bike race because, you know, "There's always next week."

But this wasn't a bike race. And there wasn't a next week. It might have been a once in a five year thing, maybe a once in a year thing, but from my point of view, it was simply very important and it was gone.

I suffered in silence for a while. I wrote much of this post right after the test, my dejection pouring out in font, trying to look for something positive in all this negative.

When I got better I looked back on the failed test and said to myself that, hey, I was sick, I know I can do everything, and in fact, when I felt normal again, I went out and blew away the test standards on my own.

So, at some level, I rationalized the result. First off, it gave me a goal - I would take the test again , officially, and I'll pass it. Now, due to some deadline stuff, the next ones really didn't have the same significance as the one I failed because passing the test was also a timing thing. But if I pass the test, I would be ready for the opportunity if/when it appears again.

Second, I'd just have to deal with my failure and the accompanying disappointment.

As a bike racer, I am extremely familiar with disappointment.

Cycling happens to be a great sport for encouraging disappointment. It's not like, say, soccer, where you have a 50-50 chance of winning. In cycling, if everyone was equal, it'd be something like a 1-80 chance of winning (and if you're at a big race, maybe 1-100 or 1-120).

One racer wins. Everyone else loses.

When you play a field game, it's hard to find yourself off the playing field, and in fact, it might even cause everyone to stop and restart the game from the "off" point (if you go out of bounds, for example). In cycling, if you tire and get dropped, you probably won't see the others until they lap you (crit) or you pull into the parking lot (road race). There is no waiting, no resetting the race.

To continue the sport in such circumstances is hard - everyone knows you're not in the game anymore and they watch you trundle along on your own, maybe a polite clap or two to help you on your way. If you have a speck of self consciousness it can be difficult to climb back on the bike. When you race, you're not supposed to get dropped. It's not like the rodeo where everyone expects you get get "dropped" and if you don't, you win.

Imagine if everyone who finished a race "won"?

I suppose this is why my original teammates advised me first to finish races regardless of my position in, or in my case, behind the field. The time trialling I did behind the field was a great way of learning my ultimate limits in a way that was impossible to do on a solo training ride.

Then, after a lot of working hard, at some point it dawns on you that, hey, if I was in the field, it'd be a lot easier. This motivates you to work extra hard not to get dropped. I remember sprinting into the back of a rapidly slowing field, panicked at the thought of letting a gap go. I was 15 years old, had not one iota of a clue of what to do, and I spent the whole race alternating between sprinting and slamming on the brakes.

But, at the finish, I was in the field. I was ecstatic. The first race I finished. And although fathers on the sidelines (I was in a Junior race) were telling me to ride just a bit more evenly, I didn't know how to do all that stuff.

I rode digitally - On or Off. Fast or Slow. One or Zero.

Eventually I learned to meter my efforts, my early introduction to IT not withstanding. I found that my effort dial had some hidden indents in the middle of the range. I no longer had to turn it all the way up, I could just turn it a little bit. Naturally this took some experimenting. In some races I carefully rode myself right off the back of the field, metering my energy just a little too finely.

Ultimately, except for really hilly races where I needed a dial that went to at least 20 and mine only hit 10, I figured out how to do it. I'd go moderately easy until I needed to do something - move up, fill a gap, close a gap, or hang on for dear life - and then I'd peg the needle. Then I'd ease and wait until the next crisis.

In some races there was a crisis eight times a lap (Scotch Plains, NJ). In others, maybe five times a race (I'm not telling which race that would be). Suddenly, Eddy B's matchbook analogy made sense. He likens a rider's legs to a matchbook. It's full at the beginning of the race. For each crisis, each attack, each hard effort, you burn a match.

Your condition depends on how many matches you have in your matchbook.

Some years I'd find myself sawed off the back after literally one effort. A One Match race, so to speak. And usually One Match races were followed by a bunch of other One Match races. My whole season would be something like 20 efforts.

In other years, the opposite would happen. I might make those 20 efforts in the first half of a race. Or, at Scotch Plains, in the first 3 laps of a 50 lap race. The best times were those where even I didn't know what my matchbook looked like. Due to extenuating circumstances, like dropping both bottles at the beginning of a hour long crit in asphalt melting heat, I got to learn the best way - by not running out when I thought it was over. At that race I figured I was running on empty, or would be within a couple laps, so I stopped conserving. I thought I might as well make one more effort so I could do one more lap. And suddenly, at the bell, I was still there, my matchbook still bulging enough that I could scamper off the front going into the last turn of the race (I got second).

Those days are special days, the Matchbook thick with matches, countless matches pouring out. You could set the world on fire on those days.

Of course you do need to be in the race to make it happen. I prepared meticulously for one particular race on a particular year. I raced there a lot and learned all sorts of things. My super fast narrow tires skipped when I attacked in some of the bends on the course. I had to wait forever to launch my sprint. The "sharp" corner wasn't very sharp - I learned I could pedal through it. I put on a bigger small chainring so that I'd have an even narrower and more finely tunable set of gears. And the ornamental rocks lining the course were, to put it mildly, dangerous.

I honed my warm up routine, my diet for the couple days prior (I really carbo loaded in those days, meaning I did a depletion stage, not just fueling up a lot like I do now), I wrapped my bars with new tape, shortened the cables and housing to the minimum necessary, and stacked up my wheels for different conditions (wet or dry - no "aero" back then).

I also knew that I didn't have to sit at the front of the field, an art I hadn't mastered. I knew that it'd be possible to move up aggressively at the end of the race and still have an extremely strong sprint still in my legs.

So, with the laps winding down, I sat in the field. My legs had finally lost that swollen feeling that comes with carbo loading (at least for me). The skin on my legs didn't feel like an overfull water balloon threatening to burst at any second. I knew that my legs were coming around, that they'd be ready to go. I had on my 17mm "fast" tires, the dry weather ideal for their narrow and light design. This also meant I had my ultra narrow and ultra light 17 mm rims.

I couldn't wait for the sprint.

Then, the rhythm of the bobbing backs in front of me changed. I started to brake before I heard the sickeningly familiar sound of bikes crashing onto pavement. I'd gambled on lighter, smaller, and more "aero" brakes, giving up stopping power to save a few grams. I paid the price. I swerved around the stack up right onto the grass, my narrow hard tires suddenly useless on this slippery green stuff.

Riding around a small building nearby I rolled back onto the course, perhaps 200 meters behind the field. No free lap, we'd just gone into 5 to go, so I had to chase. I did my best to close the gap quickly because that's what Sean Kelly said - it's better to sprint across a gap for a kilometer than to spend 50 kilometers time trialing across it.

Problem was I wasn't Kelly, and I blew sky high when I was within maybe 50 meters of the field. I recovered quickly and went into "I'm 15 again" mode and time trialed behind the field.

Incredibly I lost very little time in those last few laps, finishing perhaps 30 or 40 seconds behind the field. The team "den mother" (as we called him) came up to me after I crossed the line, putting his hand on my back, supporting me as I shifted into my smallest gear, a 45x21.

"You did great! You barely lost any time and you were on your own! Great ride!"

I couldn't answer. All my planning, my notes, the work on my bike, the training, it was all gone. I felt devastated.

Yet I continued. And, although I never won that race, I've placed there many, many times.

So, that crushing October morning last year, it was a One Match day, a crushing disappointment, a devastation of morale.

But, after a short break where I moped for a bit, I started back up.

In March of this year, in the middle of the Bethel Spring Series, I went and did the test again.

And I passed.


Anonymous said...

great great great post, i actually needed some motivation after a 3 week break + gaining like 15lbs and completely wrecking my season.. thanks alot CDR!

- random bikeforum member

Aki said...

heh you're welcome. I'm having a bit of a time trying to focus on cycling - since I'm not doing so it simply means that there are other things in life which are more important. Hard to believe, but it's true.