Sunday, May 25, 2008

Racing - Hartford Crit Pre-Race

I've been going through an extremely stressful process in the last few weeks, with the end of it, well, not in sight. With that came a lot of thinking (about myself), talking (mainly with the missus), and a sort of focus on concrete objectives that I haven't seen since I don't know when.

I suppose, thinking of it now, having concrete objectives helps. It's like suffering in racing versus suffering in training. In training, especially solo, it's so easy to just sit up and decide to make the effort "next time". There's no immediate negative feedback, no slap on the wrist, and in fact waiting until "next time" might actually be a better thing.

In a race it's totally different. If I'm hanging on for dear life at the back of the field, you better believe that I'm doing all I can to hang in there. There's no "next lap" if you're off the back. Okay, after the race, there's a "next week". But at the moment in the race there's only the "right here, right now". You get it done or you don't.

That's how my life has been, which is fine. In fact I prefer it that way, this knowledge of exactly what I need to get done and a guideline of exactly how to do it. I can improvise at a certain level, and I think I need that freedom, but the idea of having guidelines, of even just instructions, I like that. Let's put it this way - I had that in only one job in my whole life and when I had that job I loved it.

Ironically I quit it after seven months to go chase some extremely flighty money at a place that had, you guessed it, no structure.

Anyway, life goes on, no matter what you might think while in the midst of a stressful day. And just the other day, driving on a newly discovered training road, I found myself in a deja vu moment.

I had been swapping out CDs of MP3s in the blue car, reveling in the much nicer sound system, cranking the tunes, driving along. The car just aches to be cornered hard, to accelerate hard, even to brake hard, and I tried to oblige, all within the constraints of things like safety, speed limits, and the like.

One CD had a bunch of songs on it from way back when, from the time that I dreamed of being a pro bike racer. Music, for me, has this powerful memory effect. Play something and a flood of images, emotions, and thoughts wash over me. Ah, sweet memories. Dreaming of becoming a pro racer.

Of course the last bit never happened.

I can't climb, I can't time trial, and I struggled to stay with Cat 2s. Forget about the 1s and pros.

But I am pro-like in one very significant aspect. I didn't know about it when I was 19 years old, but in the late 1990s I learned about something called "hematocrit". Pros, it seems have hematocrits in the low to mid 40s. Hit 50% and they consider that a sign of doping. A sign only, no proof, so they ask you to take two weeks off.

And then hammer you with tests to try and figure out exactly what you'd taken to hit that number.

Enough of that. So there I was, driving out in no-where Connecticut. Ironically I'd just had a second vial of blood drawn for a physical. The first one had problems and they couldn't finish all the tests. The platelets - the clotting part of your blood - had clotted. Imagine that.

Anyway, I ask for my blood work results as a habit, and I've saved a bunch of them from over the years. Since my hematocrit is usually pretty high, one of my goals has been to hit the magical 50 mark. Then (as long as I don't have any races coming up) I could raise my hand and say, "Hey, I'm over 50%, I'm going to take two weeks off." Then I'd go do some climbs while I still believed I could, my high hematocrit and all that pushing me up and up.

(Of course, if I had a race, it'd be a different story. I'd bring my various blood tests for the last decade or so and say, "I have a hematocrit of 50% but it's normal, see? May I race?")

I explained this 50% thing to the nurse and said I wanted to hit it. I know it's not really the right thing to aim for but it's kind of cool. Like getting a speeding ticket while riding a bicycle. No I haven't gotten one, and no, that's not one of my goals.

Since I'm going to race in Hartford, my first race since mid-April, I really didn't want to have to raise my hand and disqualify myself. So it was with conflicted emotions that I looked at the blood work numbers.

Can you find the line I check?

Hematocrit: 49.7%

Close, but no cigar.

Yes, I was a bit dehydrated, but nothing major. I didn't eat tons of red meat like I did last time (six or so pounds in five or so days), but last time I was in the 47% range. I have no idea what I did differently, but it felt good to reverse my slide down the charts. See, the first time I checked my hematocrit, it was in the low 49% range. Since then I haven't broken 49%.

So, yes, I was disappointed not to have hit 50%. But 49.7%, that's close. As a bonus, from a technical point of view, I can race in Hartford.

Yes, life has been very stressful recently. But at that moment, listening to some throw back tunes, driving a car that I could only dream about owning when I was 19, a slip of paper next to me announcing my pretty-much-legally-maximized hematocrit, things didn't seem quite so serious.

Now the big question. How do I utilize what I know about my body to race my best at Hartford?

We'll see how I do.

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