Actual limits have a reason for being such. But most limits aren’t actual, they’re imagined. This is how it usually goes: we envision a goal, objective, achievement, etc, and do a quick mental check to determine how possible it is that we could reach or attain it. Typically,we incorrectly base our determination off of unrelated experiences, surmising that such a thing is outside of our or beyond our “limits.” Not only have we then given up before even attempting this goal/objective/achievement, but we have partitioned ourselves into a set of limits that are fictional. It is a rare day when we use empirical and applicable data to determine our limitations. Basically, for most of us, our limits have been entirely self-imposed.
October 5th was Iron Cross, a 68 mile race composed of gravel/dirt roads, rocky trails, long sections of sling-your-bike-on-your-back-and-hike, and endless climbing. Despite these challenging conditions, the day promised to be a fast one with the likes of Jeremiah Bishop, Gerry Pflug, Garth Prosser, Ethan Frey, Cole Oberman and others. In a fast race, getting into the front group is essential. If you’re not able to work together with other riders on the draft-able sections, you’re going to be doing a lot more work over the 4-5 hours than everyone else. So, I lined up near the front, I was ready to rock.
I chose my Stumpjumper hardtail as my tool of choice for the day, mated with Renegade tires that roll fast and would hopefully protect against the rocky single track on course. It was dialed in with SRAM 1x10 components, and tuned to perfection thanks to Twenty20 cycling. Fit, hungry, ready. What could go wrong?
60 seconds after the gun went off, I was on the side of the trail trying to fix a flat tire. I put air in it, rode a bit, and realized I needed to put a tube in. Then I knew it was going to be a long day. After what seemed like the longest flat change of my life, I was going again, having been passed by the entire field of 350 riders. Let's try that again.
When you start from the back, not only are you working alone, but you are fighting traffic in the tight trails. Such was my lot as I pushed as fast as I dared to make up ground. Hitting basically standstill traffic in the rocky trail, I recovered a bit just in time to catch up with my RDC teammate Stephanie Swan. She was sitting with two of her competitors positioned for 3rd, 4th and 5th in the women’s race. As I was now out of contention for any kind of result, I grabbed Stephanie and got her onto my wheel and started the engine back up. We managed to dislodge one of the women but another came along for the ride solidifying both of them for the 3rd and 4th spots on the day. That was probably the highlight of the day for me, getting to work for a teammate was very fun. Big congrats to Stephanie for riding strong for 4th place and putting up with my erratic pacing! We made it to “run up” Wigwam and then lost each other. Check out the video (and pictures) by Jayson O'Mahoney of the race. Stephanie and I make our cameo around 2:24.
I must say, I’ve done some really crazy things during races, but this was new. At the end of the first third of the race, you do a hike up a 48% grade hill. To put that in normal terms, think: one hand on the ground, one hand holding your bike, hiking straight up a rock field. It’s pretty incredible. It was much more fun than I thought it would be!
The rest of the day slogged on, and the danger of my chase became real. After chasing hard for 2 hours in the 310-315w np range, I eased up. I had to. In fact I had already gone past my limits of what I thought was possible. I know what my body can do, and I know what I’ve done in training recently. My limits were running through my brain and the negativity was sinking in. "I've gone to deep, I'm going to fall apart." I was beginning to lose against my fictional and determined limits, instead of seeing what I could actually do. It was the darkest point of my race.
Now, everything became about picking off the endless stream of riders in front of me (I managed to pass around 300 in all). Having not trained much the past two months, I was anticipating a massive implosion from my early effort, and it came around mile 50. But it wasn’t as massive as I thought it would be. Limits were being redefined, and I was surprised. I was pretty toasted and hit another steep climb. Taking in as many calories as I dared I cranked, ever so slowly in my easiest gear, up, up, up. Jet Fuel was my best friend as I guzzled it furiously, desperate to avoid the dreaded bonk. Just near the top of the climb I heard yelling, and I came upon the legendary Larry’s Tavern. Beer was being handed up to the riders and Dan Rapp was there to do the handing! Hey, calories are calories, right? I took some, and got back to work.
The next 10 miles were forgettable, as I zoned in and out of attention, hoping to avoid thinking about the pain in my body. I arrived at the base of the last climb and saw a glimpse of a friend, Chris Lane. Desperate for companionship during the suffering, I dug deep (which at this point in a race is quite shallow) and summoned bits of energy to begin to slowly reel him in. After 25 minutes of climbing I finally pulled alongside of him and we got to chat. He was riding strong so I glued myself onto his wheel, and continued the journey.
The last pitch to the finish line is a bit of a joke. Its steep, its long, and it seems to be unforgiving. So we started up. Soon, Michael Hosang rolls up on us, and we got a chance to catch up a bit. He was a racer I met in a similarly difficult finale of a race called Hilly Billy. He presented more motivation and we pressed on more vigorously up the last stretch. After 4 hours and 35 minutes of racing, and 20 minutes spent on the side of the course, I crossed the line. It was not a great result as I pegged the 21st spot in my category, but the numbers didn’t lie and the day had been in the top 10 of my strongest for the whole year; beyond the limits of what I thought was possible.
Don’t imagine your limits, find them.