Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Mental toughness

My friend, Brent Atkins, asked me to write 800-900 words on "Mental toughness" for a newsletter he is putting out.  The newsletter is for the "No Shadows" bike group, something that was started by Stu Downs and has been taken over by Brent following Stu's death.  I'm definitely honoured to be asked.  And over-joyed, as I love writing.  So here is what I said.

*          *          *          *          *

I’m honoured to have been asked by Brent to write an article on mental toughness.  Presumably he asked me because of my involvement in long-distance cycling, a huge part of which involves the mental side. 
Frankly, I don’t think that mental toughness is a big deal.  The hardest step is actually the first one, something that any member of “No Shadows” or any group of cyclists has already taken.  That’s simply to get out of bed when the alarm rings, don your lycra, and arrive in time for your group ride.  Through that act alone, we’ve shown ourselves to have the gumption, motivation and self-discipline required.  Few people make it that far.
But presumably Brent wants more from me than just that.  So here are four things that I hope will help you further exercise and strengthen your (already strong) mental side, especially in the area of cycling.
Lesson number one: aim high and really want it.  Mental toughness follows desire.  If you want something badly enough, you’ll do all you can to get it.  What should help here is having a clear idea of what you want to achieve from cycling.  Be honest about it.  Don’t be too unrealistic.  Being as fast as Lance Armstrong without the aid of drugs won’t cut it.  But equally, don’t sell yourself short.  Be ambitious and be passionate about your ambition!
Lesson number two: only by pushing yourself will you discover how mentally tough you are.  And you’ll be surprised at just how tough you find yourself to be!  But you won’t discover this unless you try.  And when you do, you’ll find it an amazingly uplifting, world-changing moment.  If you think back to the group rides where everyone’s really buzzing when they get back to the cafĂ©, it’s not the easy rides that have done this.  It’s the tough ones where people have given more than they thought themselves capable of.  Raise those self-imposed limits of yours on just how much you can take.  It’ll have an amazing impact on your cycling performance.
Lesson number three: do all you can to make yourself a good cyclist.  It’s not only about mental toughness!  Mental toughness can give you an edge and make a difference, but it can’t make up for poor training, poor equipment, poor planning, bad strategy, and so on.  So go easy on yourself and take a balanced approach.  Cycling is not about continually being on the rivet, with constant pain and suffering.  You should work out when you need to push and use that mental toughness you’ve developed, but that’s not all the time.  It needs to be supported by all the other strands of the fabric that makes an excellent cyclist.
Lesson number four: work out which techniques help make your mental side easier.  There are tricks that can make pain and discomfort more bearable, and I’m not talking about drugs here!  Some cycling books give you advice on this, especially those on long-distance cycling.  Many top long-distance cyclists also seek assistance from head-coaches (aka psychologists).  But in the end, what works is a highly individual thing.  It’s something that you need to try for yourself.
Regarding the fourth lesson, the key part of my own strategy is positivity.  It’s amazing what you can put up with when positive, but your world just crumbles away when you’re negative.  Distractions help too, and there are lots of things to distract you, even if it’s just focussing on technique.  From experience, I also know that pain is finite, that it’s not the pain but your perception of it that is the killer, and that even in long races I surprise myself that something I think is insufferable at one moment can the next moment be forgotten and replaced by something else.  In the end, I also know that negative feelings and bad perceptions of pain pass; that I just need to endure and ride through them and things will get better.
Let me end by saying two things.  First, mental toughness is a vital part of being a good cyclist.  It will make all the difference to how well you do.  It’s also important for self-respect and earning the respect of others.  Second, there’s no getting away from the fact that pain and hurt is … well … pain and hurt.  So, in the end, the best bit of advice is contained in the Velominati cycling rule that is the most often quoted in long-distance cycling circles – cycling rule number five.  “Harden the fuck up!”  Says it all really!

Sunday, 7 December 2014

The 2014 Taupo Maxi Enduro

Maxi road trip!
The Maxi Enduro!  Four laps of the 160km Lake Taupo course, starting 10:30am on Friday 28 November and finishing the next day.  This was to be my 3rd Maxi and 5th race over 500km.  Each of the previous rides had been different from the others.  This was to be very different!

The story of this year’s Maxi really began soon after I completed April’s 1,010km Monster Graperide.  The magnitude of that race’s impact on my body was a surprise, so I decided that this would be a year of consolidation.  Instead of upping the ante again and doing the Taupo 8-lapper, I would stick to the 4-lap Maxi, which I had successfully completed last year.  I’d make my preparation fun, as some mental recovery was also needed after the training leading up to the Graperide.  I would go on club rides, spend lots of time in the hills, all with the objective of enjoying myself and seeing if I could build some leg muscle.  However, that seemingly conservative plan soon came unstuck.

The recovery required from the Mammoth was ... mammoth.  It took months!  Club rides would leave me exhausted, even if I stuck with the slowest rider.  My heart beat even went arrhythmic after one such ride.  So I scaled things back savagely, lost touch with my cycling buddies, and left my bike alone.  Unsurprisingly, this led to a dose of depression, which was broken by a pre-planned 6 week holiday in Europe on family matters in July/August.  The holiday was great, but, even this long after the race, my body was still struggling. 

Good holiday, but it was very hard going back to work, so I thought I’d up my spirits by getting back into cycling.  I got totally smashed on the first group ride and even struggled the next week with a 2 hour ride by myself.  Only 12 weeks to Taupo!  What to do?  Suddenly, the answer was blindingly obvious.  I would train for the Maxi of course.  If I wasn’t ready, I wouldn’t do it, but at least I’d have a purpose and a challenge.  Magically, the low spirits went, I decided not to quit my job, and suddenly I was smiling.  Training started really easy, but by 9 weeks I had managed a 250km ride, including 2 circuits of the hilly 100km Akatarawa block.  The final test would be the next week, where I would do 3 circuits of the block, a total of almost 300km hard riding.  The first two laps went alright despite hot conditions, but I was tired and downcast setting off for the third.  Two kilometres into the lap, I thought “Bugger this!”  I stopped to mull things over.  Of course I could finish the 3rd lap although it would be hard, but my heart just wasn’t in it.  And this is what the Maxi would be like, with me under-trained, just inching to the end and destroying myself in the process.  I didn’t think I had anything to prove, so decided not to do it but work on the long-term plan of building up the fitness base and aiming for next year’s 8-lapper.  Good plan I think, but not so clever sharing it with the world.  I was surprised at just how hard my endurance-cycling friends came down on me, and eventually folded under the pressure.  I would do the Maxi.

Sorry for the long start to this story, but it does give you an idea of my mind-set going into the race.  But enough introspection for the moment.  Let’s start that race!

Pre-race briefing.

The start.
There were more than 20 riders lining up in Taupo for the 10:30am start.  The line-up included international cyclists, including Chris (Hoppo) Hopkinson (ranked 2nd in world standings for 24-hour racing), Valerio Zamboni and his team of riders, and I detected Australian accents as well.  There were also Kiwi stalwarts who I’d seen on previous races and some new-comers.

My plan was to start at the back, but there seemed to be competition for that position, with other cyclists wheeling their bikes to the same place.  It’s a long ride and it pays not to get caught up with the initial enthusiasm of smashing yourself on that first 20km to the highest point of the ride.

Suddenly, without fanfare, we were clicking into our pedals.  The race had begun.  As I rode down towards the bridge crossing the Waikato River, my way was suddenly blocked by three Italian riders and I had to brake.  They were calling back to one of their team members, who they were waiting for.  Strange and somewhat discourteous, I thought, but soon wheeled around them and worked my way up the steep hill of the No.1 highway.  There’s a rather sordid story around these riders, which I might share one day.

It’s a steep kilometre or two up the main highway before we wheel off.  I found myself with Chris Little, a likeable English gentleman from Wellington in his (I’m guessing) early thirties.  I’d met him at the registration and he’d complimented me on my blog, which I of course love to hear.  As we neared the turn-off, my good friend Nick Dunne passed in a support van for Nick Tollemach.  “Come-on pudding tits!” he yelled as he passed.

I rode a bit with Chris, exchanging the odd word with him.  After a while we caught up with Darrall Castle, then even later joined up with Arran Pearson from Singapore.  “Nice way to spend a holiday!” I remarked as I passed him.  Arran had flown in for the weekend purely to do the race.  After some time, Neville Mercer caught up with us and every now and then we could see Leslie White a bit in front of us. 

 “There’s five of us”, said Darrall, “Why don’t we get some rotation going.  How about 2 minutes each at the front?”  “Not me”, I said, “I’m doing my own thing.”  I’d found that riding in bunches in these races always cost me, forcing me to ride harder than I wanted to.  I don’t mind people drafting off me, but always feel I’m bludging if I do the same to them.  Luckily we were cresting one of the long up-slopes of this part of the ride.  I tucked myself down on my aero-bars and gently headed off into the wind.  I expected the bunch to be behind me, but when I looked back some minutes later, they had dropped way behind.  Either I had been too fast (and aero-bars are pretty good for this!) or they had decided not to follow such a snobbish prat.  Anyway, the funny thing is that, after a while we got into the upward slopes again where I’m a lot slower, and they caught up and rode silently past in single file.  Not a word was spoken!  I was by myself now and would not see another cyclist until the third lap!

I’d asked Helen to write a log, so that I could get another’s perspective of how I was doing, the food I was eating, how frequently I was stopping, and so on.  I’ve included some of her comments below in italics.

“Looking good. Very windy.”  Comment at Tihoi relay stop (approximately 40km into lap) at 12:30pm.

The wind was definitely strong.  If you think of the ride as being of roughly rectangular direction, we were heading straight into the wind for the first bit, had it to our right on the other side of the lake, with it chasing us up Kuretau, and to the side again on the No. 1 highway back to Taupo.  I never thought of it as that strong, as it’s been far worse on other races.  However, when combined with rain and low temperatures, it would take its toll!

Helen was meeting me more frequently than on previous Taupo races; probably every hour or less.  It was usually just a quick change of the bottle, when she would also try and stuff some food into my mouth.  After some time, she surprised me by saying, “Be more positive!”  Usually I’m really sparking at this stage of the race, sucking in all the good energy I can get to inspire and strengthen my mind.  But not this time.  The ride was just something to do and get over with as soon as I could.  I had been negative about the whole thing for a while and this had obviously carried over to the race itself.  Not a good thing!  So I tried working on it.  (If you’ve got a weak stomach, I’d advise you to skip the next two sentences.)  I really love my wife and found that the thing that worked was actually looking into her eyes and truly engaging with her at the next bottle changes.  To see that love and care returned was all powerful!  Later that lap and into the next, all further negativity would be dispelled by some pretty harsh weather conditions that would force me to focus and in a perverse way gave me great joy.  This was what endurance racing is all about!

Lap 1.

And so I plugged on.  Up the fantastic Waihaha Hill, which is like Hatepe Hill in having its steeper bit just before the top.  Then on through the series of large rollers towards the start of Kuretau Hill.  I have no recollection of the wind along that side of the Lake, mainly because of past experience and it was from the side, but when heading away from the wind up Kuretau I suddenly found myself being pushed upwards.  It was definitely strong!

Very windy, but he’s looking good.”  Comment at Kuretau relay stop (about 80km into lap) at 1:50pm.

Soon I had crested Waihi Hill and was down on the flats.  Yes!  Another stage knocked off!  Traffic on State Highway 1 was heavy as cyclists drove up to Taupo for the next day’s one lapper. 

I had asked people in my local bike group to toot when they passed me (or any endurance rider) and to send lots of texts.  Adrian McKenzie, president of the local club, had kindly also put this request onto the club website and Facebook page, from which it was shared to other sites again.  And sure enough, there were lots of toots as cars went by.  I tried to acknowledge everyone that I could, waving my hand in thanks.

This is the stage that I usually really put the speed on.  I’m not good with continuous sets of hills, but I can definitely go fast when it’s flat, especially with the aid of aero-bars.  Unfortunately I quickly found that my right aero-bar arm had sunk downwards and was too uncomfortable to use.  At one of the bottle swap stops past Turangi, I asked Helen to have the Allen keys ready at the next top.  It's an awkward thing to adjust, but I needed those aero-bars working!

That was when those intermittent showers became no longer just intermittent!  It started raining.  Helen had the tools out at the next stop.  “No” I called, “I’m too cold to stop.  Wait until it clears!”  But it didn’t clear.  The rain got harder and harder, coming in right off the Lake and drilling into me.  I tucked myself down on the sagging aero-bars just to reduce my exposed surface.

“Raining, raining, raining!”  Comment at 3rd relay stop (about 120km into lap) at 3:20pm.

“Fricken freezing!  Strong winds and very cold rain”.  Comment at lakeside somewhere before Hatepe Hill.

Finally I stopped and jumped into the car.  I had to put on extra clothes.  I was shivering and feeling incapacitated from the cold.  With the aid of heaters going full-bore and warm coffee, I slowly began to warm up.  I then stripped off my top clothes, put a thick long-sleeved vest on and a rain jacket in addition to what I was already wearing.  Finally I pulled some long trousers over my shorts and added a polyprop cap.  After a bit more warming up, I was out of the car, still shivering a bit as I rode off.

Hatepe Hill warmed me up and I stopped for a bottle change just past the crest.  Helen was chatting with a cyclist who was riding from Wellington to Auckland on a foldable bike, stopping off at Taupo for a loop of the Lake with the one-lappers tomorrow.  I think she might have given him some hot drink, as he also was very cold.  He was lonely as well, as it’s a long way to travel by yourself, and was enjoying a chat.  His name was Wally and he was disappointed that he had to wear a shower jacket, as it was covering his “Where’s Wally” shirt!

About 15km out of Taupo and with the weather calming, it was at last time to deal with those aero-bars.  Somewhat late for all the flat bits missed!  The operation went surprisingly well and I was soon off Again.  However, after riding a bit, I suddenly realised I’d left my glasses on top of the car, wheeling around to go back and get them.  Luckily Helen had also seen them and soon dropped them off to me.
End of lap 1.
At last I had finished lap 1.  My time was 6:45 hours, which was 25 minutes slower than last year.  Not bad considering the weather and my two stops.  It was a fast turnaround at the sign-in, with Helen reckoning it was only 7 minutes from my arrival to my departure, with me signing in, using the loo, and putting the shammy cream on in in that time.

Almost an hour into the second lap and I was suddenly blasted by a shower of near hail.  It drilled into me and was so painful I eventually had to stop and turn myself away from it to protect my face, hands, and chest.  But this also made me cold so, as the main force of it bated, I was on the bike again and riding hard to keep warm. 

“Poor Andrew.  He’s looking so tired.”  Comment about 1 hour into lap 2, at 6:10pm.

At the next bottle-change stop, I was into the car again, with heaters full on and another hot drink.  This time I put on warm, waterproof socks and a pair of water-proof, winter gloves.  Helen also put a small portable speaker on the bike, which I could use with an iPod.  I’d not used music yet this ride, being too focussed on riding and not in the mood for merriment.  But the music did slowly begin to help, when I could hear it through the wind.

Early lap 2.

Time for waterproof gloves and socks.  Lap 2.

Lap 2.

“Cold but going strong.”  Comment at Tihoi relay stop at 8:00pm.

Fifty kilometres into the lap and it was time to stop to put on lights.  It was almost dark now.  Dusk and dawn are definitely the prettiest parts of any ride and, even in my tired condition, moments of their glory peeked in.  Not much though!

“Doing really well.  Another guy 2-5 minutes ahead”.  Comment at 10:20pm at intersection with Turangi-Taumaranui road.

“Not much rain.  Andrew looking very tired.”  Comment at 11:05pm at top of Waihi Hill.

“Rain again.  It wasn’t meant to rain!”  Comment at 11:20pm at Turangi.

“Andrew absolutely freezing.  Took ages to warm up.”  Comment at stop 20 minutes pst Turangi.

A bit past Turangi, it was time for another stop for even more clothes.  This time it was an additional long-sleeved polyprop shirt.  As I warmed up in the car, Helen read to me all the texts of support we had received.  It was wonderful to hear them and I laughed at the cheeky ones.  She had mentioned several before but I had just not been in the mood, focussed instead on just getting through the ride, but feeling somewhat guilty as I had requested them.  Now, however, I lapped them up!

“Look at the stars!” Helen said as I got back on the bike.  “Yes”, I replied automatically, but then looked.  Between the shower clouds skittling by, you could see the dark night sky with bright vibrant, piercing shafts of white light.  They were beautiful.  Sadly I only noticed them a couple of times that night, but they were indeed precious.

The problem with being on the State Highway is the traffic.  All through the night, trucks and convoys of trucks whizzed by.  It meant for very careful riding, as the judder line at the side of the road often forced me on to a narrow strip of tarmac that was hard to see.

Finally I was over Hatepe hill for a second time, stopping at the top to change over one of the light’s rechargeable batteries.  Only a short way to the end of the second lap now!

“Andrew is really struggling.  Tired and cold”.  Comment at 1:00am.

One thing I had been really curious about the race this time was how my lower level of fitness would fare against the considerably increased experience I’d gained since last year’s race.  Experience brought three additional lessons.  First, not to get carried away driving up hills or into the wind.  I’d always known this intellectually but hadn’t managed to put it into actual practice until the Graperide.  It’s average speed that counts, not speed over any particular section.  Second, I need more nutrition than I’ve taken in previous Maxi Enduros.  Third, time off the bike costs!  There was also a fourth – don’t think, just turn those pedals; you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve!  Unfortunately, the weather added an additional factor that made all comparison invalid.  Experience may well have won out in better conditions, but I was facing an uphill battle this time around.

End of lap 2.

At the end of lap 2, there was no quick turnaround.  After signing in, I hopped into the car to have some hot drink and try and warm up.  I was really tired, so even tried to sleep, but to no avail.  Finally, 20 minutes after arriving, I was off.

About 30-60 minutes into the lap, I was overtaken by three individual riders.  I wasn’t sure whether I’d been lapped or whether they were on the same lap as me and had just stopped and showered in Taupo before continuing.  My guess (correctly) was that they were the latter.

I find these up-hill bits hard, especially this far into the race.  The first of the following comments refers to the fact that I know that Helen hates seeing me physically destroy myself in front of her, and I knew that this was what was happening.  But there are ups as well as downs, hence the second comment.

“Andrew keeps apologizing for doing this.”  Comment at Kinlock turnoff.

Andrew looking really good.  Just rushed past me!”  Comment at Marota Rd turnoff, 4:20am.

One thing that I was finding unusual in this race was just how sleepy I was feeling.  Sleepiness had not been an issue previously.  Even at the Graperide, I only needed a 15 minute sleep just before dawn after a second night of continuous riding.  The reason this time was, I think, the fatigue brought on by coldness.  Sleep is something you should ideally avoid in anything but a multi-day ride.  It not only means time off the bike, I’ve also known people who haven’t managed to start again on waking up.  Come on Andrew, hold on!  My hope was that the coming of dawn would drive the sleepiness away, but early light was soon beginning to fill the skies.  I needed a rest!

Finally I was with Helen at the Tihoi interchange for the third time.  “I need to sleep!” I said as I hopped into the car.  “Have some food first”, she responded, so I slowly munched through something or other.  I then sat with my head resting on a blanket propped up against the window and was immediately asleep.  Fifteen minutes later I was suddenly awake.  Yes!  I was ready to continue and feeling much better!

When I got into the car, I had noticed a person going into the big tent at the relay change.  I had thought it was one of the officials doing some early preparations for the day’s one-day event, but it proved to be another Maxi Enduro rider.  When I woke up, I found him on his bike and coming over to join me.  He was Leslie White and I was to ride with him for much of the next 50 kilometres.  He was a nice, cheerful guy, stronger than me but I think enjoying some extra company.

Before I took off, I had to take a leak.  Then Leslie and I rode off together.  It was still very early dawn and the sky was beautiful.  I quickly found Leslie to be a lot stronger than me.  He would easily cycle away from me on any upwards slopes, but I would catch him up whenever I went down on the aero-bars.  On the downwards slopes when I’d surge ahead on those bars, he’d tuck in nicely behind me and keep up.  We chatted a bit and I found he had a great dry sense of humour.  One of the times when he was waiting with Helen for me to catch up, he asked her, “Remind me again why I’m doing this?”  “Because you love cycling!” she replied.

Early morning.  Lap 3.

While riding up Waihaha Hill together, I joked that this hill felt like I was going up in a higher and higher gear each time.  “You’re riding in your big sprocket”, he said.  I thought he was joking too, so laughed (well sort of laughed).  As we breached the hill and started the downhill slope, I looked down and, sure enough, I really had been in the big sprocket!

“He’s looking absolutely knackered!”  Comment 70km into lap 3, at 7:15am.

Strangely enough, I wasn’t really enjoying riding with Leslie.  Really nice guy, but I felt in a bit of a private hell-hole.  I was exhausted and wanted to get into a good mental zone and just plug on.  But I would be distracted with Leslie slowly moving away from me, only to have him wait at a top of a hill for me to catch up.  Eventually his wife came to support him.  He’d told her to go back to the motel to rest, but she hadn’t managed to sleep.  He stopped a while, I think getting clothes and refreshments, and I ploughed on by myself.

Food was also something I was having trouble with now.  Hammer Perpeteum is my nutrition base on these long rides, but it is important not to have too much of it if.  Doing so risks bloating and nausea, which is exactly what was happening with me now.  Yet I still needed the food.  I reduced my intake from 2 sips every 20 minutes to 1 sip, hoping that this was not too short.

At last I was on to the Turangi-Taumaranui highway and making my way up Kuretau Hill.  There was a lot of activity on Kuretau now, with spectators getting ready for the elite racers to come through.  As you can imagine, with my official pink helmet cap proudly claiming that I was doing 640km, I got lots of cheers.  “Well done!”  “You’re amazing!”  I definitely didn’t feel amazing.  I felt really done in as I struggled past the crowds.  I also felt a bit of a con, as I was only on my third lap.  I was definitely no champion.  But I still accepted the praise that would continue to be shouted my way for the rest of the lap.  I knew I was in a place that few others were.

As I charged down Waihi Hill towards the flats, the racers seemed imminent.  People had been craning their necks expectantly and various officials were huddled in chairs along the course, presumably waiting to pounce on any overly dangerous behaviour and call in help if any accidents.

I don’t know when it happened, but as I rolled along to the main state highway, I realised that I’d already decided that I’d probably not be doing the fourth lap.  This came as a surprise.  Soon after I’d joined with Leslie , he'd asked me if I was going to finish the event.  There had been no doubt at that stage!  But I was now feeling so physically beaten up, I just did not want to grind myself more into the ground.  It just didn’t seem worth it.

But, no matter what that decision, I knew I wanted to pause soon and just enjoy holding a coffee in my hands and not riding for a while.  How to arrange this with Helen?  Thank goodness, there she was, at the coffee kiosk just before the Turangi bridge.  As I rolled into the car park, who should also be there but Leslie and his wife, sitting relaxing by the kiosk with their coffee.  The last time I saw Leslie was when he rode past me while I was having a leak by the side of the road.  Our ride together both began and ended with me taking a leak – leaky man syndrome!

“He looks like a 75 year-old and was even swearing a wee bit.”  Comment at Turangi at 9:30am.

I would have loved to stay with them and chat, but I was shattered.  I just wanted to get into the car and die.  The coffee was hot so it took a while to drink.  I felt in heaven and just lay back in the driver’s seat, thinking of nothing.  Soon however, it was time to go.  “Mumble mumble fuck mumble mumble mumble.”  “What was that?” asked Helen.   “Nothing”, I replied.  I had decided no swearing on the race, as you need to do everything to keep your mind positive.  It seemed I'd slipped up at least once!  “Can’t you just drive me to the end and be done with it?” I asked, knowing that the answer would be no, but it was still a nice dream.  “Just finish the lap and we’ll see how you are then!”

Rest at Turangi.  Lap 3.

By now the elites had raced past.  One thing I enjoyed hugely about this last leg of my race was seeing so many stages of the one-lap race pass me as I limped back to Taupo.  I especially loved seeing the front bunches, with their athleticism, fitness, and mental toughness.  The bunches were living things, pulsating and continually changing shape, as groups surged and consolidated, with riders continually battling to make or bridge gaps.  It was very exciting.

I had definitely made up my mind that lap 3 would be it.  There would be no lap 4 this time around.  More than any time before, I just wanted to sleep.  I was also sore all over.  Wet pants from the rain meant that saddle sores had started far sooner than they should have, which made the aero-bars hard work.  But riding on the top bars were also painful on my wrists, which were quite swollen by now – I think the result of holding on too tight as I blasted through the wind and rain of the early parts of the ride, trying to keep warm.

Suddenly, from the midst of one of the first big groups, I heard someone call out, “Andrew!”  From the next group, Mike Proudfoot yelled “Go Andrew!”  My slow mind began to creak.  Should I really quit?  A lot of people had a lot of faith in me.  It would be so nice to repay that faith.  I just had to slog it around one more time.  Victory would be all that more sweet, as it would be the hardest thing I’d ever done.  I kept these thoughts alive, teasing and testing myself with them.  Were they sufficient to make me change my mind?  In the end they weren’t.  The drive just wasn’t there.  I still remember the long recovery from the Graperide.  And I’d already completed the Maxi, hadn’t I?  It just didn’t seem worth it.

Lap 3, SHI

Topping Hatepe Hill.  Lap 3.

Limping in.  Near end of lap 3.

As I limped up Hatepe Hill and rode the final kilometres to the end, the nature of the riders was changing, as was the franticness of their pace.  All were passing me though.  The last bit of the ride was absolutely joyless.  There was no nearing finishing line to drive me through the pain.  I just cycled on, standing up on the pedals every now and then, and even coasting down some of the hills.  Finally, I was around the corner and riding up to the Caltex Station where we had to sign in.  I held up three fingers as I rode up to Helen.  Three laps … and that was all I was going to do!

We then went to the holiday house we’d leased.  Helen wouldn’t let me pull out just yet, at least not until I’d had a shower, some food, and time to consider.  I even had a little sleep.  Then she and Iain Clarke, who arrived shortly afterwards, kept on pushing me to go on.  “I don’t want you to regret it!” said Helen.  But there was no changing my mind.  I even refused to talk to Nick Dunne when he rang to encourage me, as I didn’t want to have to face another wave of argument and coaxing.

So that was it - my experience of the 2014 Maxi.  Not exactly a glamour run!  I'm sure I would have made it if the weather wasn't so bad, but that's not how life is.  I'm glad it was tough.  Life is tough and who am I to have things handed to me on a platter.  

I believe this to be my first long-distance cycling DNF.  Actually, I had one at the same event two years ago, but I conveniently don't count that as I sincerely thought I was in the early stages of a heart attack when I quit that race.  But this was definitely one, no excuses!  I know that I could have finished the fourth lap, but I made the decision that I didn't want to.  I just wasn't ready to destroy my body even more and be faced with that much longer recovery.  To take this story back to where I started, perhaps a DNF was no surprise given my limited amount of training and negativity leading into the race.  I just didn't want a win (a finish) badly enough.

So where does that leave me now?  Probably where I was at the start - trying to work out where to go with this endurance cycling lark.  There is definitely a lot that I love about the sport.  However, it's a strange sport that involves driving yourself to the point of exhaustion and beyond and taking months to recover from.  One answer is of course that I need to be fitter, but I have to achieve this without taking too much time away from Helen.  I also need something to really fire my passion.  Breaking myself on yet another Maxi Enduro is probably not the answer.  Watch this space!

25 and a half hours before!

Saturday, 6 December 2014

In memory of Stu Downs

Stu Downs was my brother.  At least, that’s what he wrote on at least two occasions about me and his fellow long-distance cyclists.  The sport meant a lot to him.  We meant a lot to him!  Stu was also my friend.

A few days ago, Stu took his own life.  As brother and friend, I ask myself what I could have done to stop this.  Stu had so much going for himself.  He loved his wife and children, he had achieved so much, and surely he was living a dream life.  Why couldn’t he have reached out to us?  This is something that we will never really know.  There is something about depression’s twisted depths and looming cliffs of despair that none can know unless we are actually there ourselves.  We can never know how a man can seem so positive and alive one minute, exchanging texts about the last weekend’s race and promising a ride together in the near future, and yet several hours later be dead.

However, rather than focusing on the unknowable “Why?” and dwelling on the loss of Stu, I want to celebrate his life. And there is much to celebrate!  My guess is that, if Stu could somehow have been a disinterested spectator of his own life over the last 10 years, he would have found much to admire.  Indeed, he might even have said, “Someday, I want to be that man!”

Stu and I were cycling buddies.  What drew us together was a fascination and love of the extremes of long-distance cycling.  I first met Stu in 2009 in the year following his successful completion of the Taupo 4-lap Maxi Enduro, a hilly distance of 640km.  That was one of two pinnacles of Stu’s cycling career.  He was so proud of that achievement that he had the word “Maxi” tattooed across the back of his neck!

It was Stu’s completion of the Maxi that put him on my radar.  I was interested in extending my own distances and was curious about this local man who had done such a long ride.  I must confess that I wasn’t very taken with Stu when I first met him.  No-one turned up for the Sunday group I rode with, so I joined the 8:05’s, a beginners cycling group that Stu had started.  While riding with him, I congratulated him and asked several things about the ride.  However, I found him very driven and difficult to engage with.  On the same ride, he even told me off a couple of times for not seeming to look out to check for oncoming traffic.  It was the last time I rode with the 8:05’s!

A bad knee took me out of cycling for about a year, but I was still interested in those longer distances.  It was while researching endurance cycling on the internet that I came across Stu’s “No More Shadows” website,  I found it mind-blowing.  I was so impressed that I even showed it to people at work.  I still do!  The story of Stu Downs is quite phenomenal!

Stu’s journey from fat man to lean, mean athlete was impressive and inspirational!  Back in 2004, Stu was a big big man who had been told by his doctor that if he put on any more weight he would be classified as morbidly obese.  He began to change his life around, including starting to cycle.  Half a year later, he entered the 101km Graperide race, coming 3rd last in his category.  However, a couple of years after that he would finish the challenging 160km around Lake Taupo, do two laps of the Lake the following year, and the Maxi in 2008.  He then learnt to swim and worked his way up to a full Ironman in 2010.  As I said, inspirational!

I wasn’t to meet him again until early in 2012.  Stu was training for his 2nd attempt at the New Zealand 24-hour outdoors cycle record and I was training for my first crack at a race over 500km, the 505km Ultimate Graperide.  We bumped into each other on the wonderful Akatarawa Hill Road, 550 vertical metres of beautiful climbing in our local area. Stu invited me to join him on one of his repeats of the hill.  We had a free and remarkably open chat about our aspirations and what drove us.  I feel I learnt a lot about Stu on that one ride.  A couple of months later, he greeted me like an old friend at the Ultimate Graperide, took great joy at how well I was doing during the race and at my eventual completion of it.  Stu went on to beat the 24-hour record and I eventually also completed the Maxi and even managed the 1,010 km Monster Graperide, with Stu giving me encouragement and support along my own journey.

From long-distance cycling champion to Ironman, Stu eventually turned to CrossFit.  He made it his own!  I think that CrossFit more suited Stu’s personality, with its high-energy, tough guys continually pushing themselves in a spirit of camaraderie and shared purpose. 

Soon after, Stu left his employment at the Police College (which I think was something in IT) and started building his dream career in the personal training, coaching and motivation field.  It was a superbly organised operation, based around the story of Stu Downs and his “No Shadows” brand.  He successfully built up a strong “No Shadows” cycle group of entry and mid-level cyclists wanting to train the proper way and accomplish their own personal challenges.  This was backed up by a regular and frequent newsletter and a lot of personal contact with individuals.  Stu also continued to write wonderful words of advice and inspiration on his “No More Shadows” website, organise local races, and have the odd stint as a personal trainer to supplement income. 

But it wasn’t only by being a hard-arsed sportsman that Stu changed himself.  During these years, he also managed to finish a Bachelor’s Degree part-time.  This I think was in psychology, something which he was able to put to use in his coaching.  He also had a soft side.  Stu loved writing.  He even wrote poetry!  I initially found his pieces overly sentimental, but he matured very quickly.  In the end, I loved reading his work and would sometimes find a bit that I would read over and over again with tears in my eyes.  Here’s an example of one, where Stu talks about his conversion to CrossFit and says a sort of farewell to his long-distance cycling “brothers”:

So this is the man that we’ve lost.  He accomplished so much over the last years.  If he was still with us, he would be continuing to accomplish and astound.  In many ways, I think that Stu aimed too high.  I really don’t think he was ever truly happy with what he’d done, at least not in a really content and satisfied way.  It was never good enough!  In the fullness of time, I am sure that Stu would have become more content.  I would have loved to have seen this and to see Stu flower even more as a result!  But it was not to be. 

But Stu’s edge, his unflinching focus on attaining goals, on demanding that people always push themselves further and further and never accept defeat, these will always be with us.  They’re a heady, dangerous brew as a super-concentrated potion in any one man but, by sharing them with us, Stu has added so much to our own lives.  We will never see that contented old man that Stu may have one day become, but by knowing him and being touched and motivated by him, many of us will be a lot more content with ourselves in our twilight years than we may otherwise have been.

Thank you Stu.  Farewell my friend.  Farewell my brother!


Thursday, 13 November 2014

Giving up

A provocative title, but warranted!  My last four long-distance races had DNF (did not finish) rates ranging from a third to a half.  Two were 50%!  Any long-distance cyclist needs to take this very seriously.

Efforts to reduce your chances of a DNF are not all mental.  You need to have good training, good race plans, good equipment including spares, good support, and ideally a bit of experience.  However, my focus here is on that mental side.

I want to discuss this in three parts.

1.       Be honest in your expectations

The range of reasons for a DNF is no doubt wide, but there are some factors that will be more common than others.  My observation is that DNFs are a lot higher for people new to the sport.  This is understandable, as they are experiencing a lot for the first time and are still learning.  Interestingly, I’ve also come across more than a few others who seem to collect DNFs. 

In the end, your likelihood of a DNF depends upon two key factors.  First, it depends on how acceptable a DNF is to you.  If you’re okay with it, then the chances of it happening are that much higher.  Second, it depends on just how honest you are in your ability to win the mental battles that are so much a part of long-distance racing.  If you haven’t been honest, again your chances of a DNF are high.

There’s not much that can be done about the first factor.  It’s a given.  I’ve been fine on this front, as the attraction of long-distance racing to me has been the immensity of the challenge.  Success is gained by completing the distance, so a DNF is failure. 

However, you can do something about the second factor.  How conscientious have you been in your training and preparation?  This will give you clues because, if you’ve lagged with this, chances are that you’ll not be that staunch while racing.  One way of testing just how realistic your expectations are is to simulate a race.  Do a long-distance training ride that really pushes your limits.  See how you feel during it and whether you can continue on without finding an excuse to stop.  If you struggle on the latter front, you’ll also struggle making it to the end of the race.

I’ve always believed that once you’ve had a DNF from failing on the mental front, the chances of another DNF are that much greater.  Try not to get yourself into the position of a DNF in the first place!

2.      Train for pain

A trite heading, but that’s exactly what I mean.  Those at the top levels of any sort of racing are not only superbly trained, they are prepared to take a lot more pain than those at lower levels.  What makes long-distance racing different is that the level of pain is great even for those down the field.  Cycling for a day or more cannot but involve discomfort and mental anguish.

Training for pain gives you familiarity with it.  This helps you to tolerate it more, even if only because you know that you can handle it.  More importantly, it allows you to develop and test various strategies for dealing with pain (and I mean pain in its broadest sense).  These will be vital when you eventually do race.

So what has “training for pain” involved for me?  Included in my training are rides that will be very hard for me.  Be careful with doing this too often though, as the need for time to recover will delay further training.  Regular training also throws up the odd ride where things are just not going well, such as you running out of food or having underestimated how tired you are from a previous training session.  These are great opportunities to test your mental resolve.  And of course, any training session provides an opportunity for short-term pain, such as when doing interval training.

I’ve also used visualisation.   For example, when sitting in the train, I try and remember the worst parts of a race where I was really struggling.  This reminds me of what it’s like.  Once I’ve got myself immersed in that feeling, I start working on it.  I might imagine myself turning those pedals exhaustedly, working my way up a long hill in the middle of the race.  Slowly I’ll strengthen my resolve, put my mind in a happier place, blank out the negative images, and so on.  These sessions in the train can leave me quite exhausted, but I’m sure they’re effective.

3.      Win the mental race

I would love to know people’s views on what is the percentage of a long-distance race that relies on mental effort rather than physical effort.  One of my crew at the Graperide reckoned it was more than half and I have to agree with him.  Indeed, what prompted this blog was me considering just how physically unready I am for the 640 km race I’ve got planned at the end of this month.  I’m going to have to really rely on the mental side.

I haven’t spoken much with other riders about how they deal with the mental side.  I suspect we all have different approaches.  My own approach is to work on keeping my spirits high and be very positive.  A lot of it’s about just accepting the discomfort and not fretting about the miles to come.  Focus on the business side of racing, such as efficient pedalling, good posture, holding a straight and safe line, and so on.  Also look for things to keep your spirits up, welcome any distraction, and rejoice any time you find yourself “in the zone”.  Believing in yourself is important and this is also one of the aims of your mental games.  At the Graperide, I also found how your mind can unknowingly play tricks to take the easy way out, especially when the brain is addled, so support from others is also important.

So, in summary, the following are the broad things that will lessen chances of a DNF.  First, make sure that your expectations of a finish are realistic.  If they are not, then perhaps don’t enter the race (although we all like a challenge!).  Second, train the mental side to cope and deal with pain and fatigue for a long stretch of time, including learning strategies to help.  And third, make dealing with the mental side a key part of your race strategy.