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Race Anecdotes: Separating the Women from the Weak

The Koppenberg is one of the Colorado Spring Classics you love to hate. If you race cross or are just damn good on dirt, this race is for you. The course description claims two miles of the 5.5 mile circuit is dirt but it felt like eternity racing over washboard-esque roads, dodging potholes, and slipping through sand. Dirt is not my forte. Frankly, up until the Oz Road Race last year, I did everything in my power to avoid any and all dirt.

I realized that avoiding things that scared me was a waste of time and energy. I also didn’t want to let fear control me. You don’t grow stronger by avoiding the things you fear. I certainly wasn’t going to become a stronger racer by dodging any race with dirt. I knew I wasn’t going to make Top 3 in this race and it tormented me. I have this awful habit of believing that if I’m not first, I’m last. I’m great at not giving myself credit for well, anything. Perfectionism is a silent spirit killer.

The other women lined up next to me, our elbows damn near touching. I was left without room to even lift my leg to clip in. I let the pressure get to me. I couldn’t clip in. I was bumped from behind and the women sprinted away. So not the Cat 4/5 Race I was used to from last year. Doubts flooded my mind before we even got to the dirt 1/4 mile away.

I tried to let go of the fear wrapping around me as I bounced and slid along the gravel road. “Try to hang on” I whispered to myself. “Stay relaxed” I said. All these stupidly positive, yet realistic things I’d say to a teammate who was in the hurt locker.

I lost the main group. I fell behind with other women who were hurting as much as me. I ended up in 11th. I won’t even repeat the shitty things I told myself. Chris already ripped up my “victim” card. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I forced myself to learn from this perceived failure.

1. Train hard if you want to race hard

I decided that I’m not training hard enough to compete on this Cat 3 level. I knew this season was going to be harder, but until you’re in the trenches (almost literally at the Koppenberg), you’ve no clue what the race will be like.

I thought my training was solid. I had a practiced a few intervals. I tested my FTP. I was strength training. I thought it was enough. It wasn’t. It isn’t.

I’m realizing every time I think my workout is too hard and dial it back, I know there’s a woman training harder who I’ll race against later. Every time I skip a workout, there’s a woman extending hers. I’ll race against her as well.

Training is an adaptive process. Continually pushing your body teaches it to adapt to the new stressors placed upon it. So, if you want to change your body, you need to stress it to a new level so it adapts. If you don’t consistently stress it, your body won’t become stronger. Naturally, it also needs rest, but that’s another entry.

During training is where you teach your body to adapt to new stressors. Training your body under the same conditions of a race prepares it to perform under the same stressors when it comes to performing. If I only kept my power output at say, 100 watts, my body wouldn’t know how to perform at 540 watts (what I put out on the 17% grade).

If you want to perform at the highest level possible, you have to create that environment during your training.

2. Eat for performance

I’m a snacker. I love snacks. Snacks can be great, but some of the snacks I’ve been eating lately haven’t been the best (shoutout to Goldfish!) for my performance. What you put in to your body will reflect on the outside. It’s obvious when you look at someone who has a lot of extra fat on their bodies. No judging. That’s just the way it is. If you eat too much, it will become fat. Other health and performance problems are exacerbated when the food you choose is processed crap.

I know by treating my body like a garbage disposal it will perform like the one in our sink. Food’s clogging it up. It doesn’t have enough power to cut through it all and perform to its potential. We’re probably going to have to replace it soon. Unlike garbage disposals, I can’t replace my body. This is the only one I have. I have written about what sugar and processed food does to your body. You can read more here.

If you treat your body like a trashcan, it’s going to perform like one.

3. Learn to suffer

I buckle when it gets too hard. I ease off. It’s the truth. I don’t like to be in pain as much as my tattoos would lead you to believe that I love it. Tattoos are a different kind of pain though. The physical exertion in a race affects your entire body whereas a tattoo is concentrated in one spot. They are both mentally fatiguing though.

Again, learning to suffer comes through training. You have to teach yourself to push on even though you want to stop or back off. I know when my mind tells my legs to ease up is when I need to force them to carry on. Our minds, our thoughts, are strong as hell. Your brain has the power to convince you of anything. If you believe you’re weak, your brain sends that to your body and it reacts appropriately. The same is true when you think you’re strong. Your body will believe it. Just like when you learn anything, it takes practice. It takes review. It takes repetition. You can’t line up in the race and decide right then and there that you can suffer.

It’s an art.

Learn to suffer. I recommend two books if you’re a reader like myself: 1. The Brave Athlete. 2. Thinking Body, Dancing Mind. These two books are helping me learn to suffer in a healthy way and how to be a successful athlete.

4. Work on weaknesses

When you race you learn your weaknesses. As much as I’d prefer others not to know my weaknesses and use them against me, I know these weaknesses aren’t specific to me. A lot of people are working through the same weaknesses: racing on dirt, sprint finishes, climbing, and cornering.

I’m human. I’m not perfect (as much as I dislike thinking this). There are things (okay, a lot of things) I need to work on to improve my performance.

Because of this race, I now know what I need to improve. If I competed in the race and threw in the towel there, I wouldn’t grow. I won’t become stronger by giving up. Instead, I’m focusing my efforts now on sprinting during my training. I know I need to practice putting out high watts on dirt. And I need to get comfortable taking corners full speed.

By working on your known weaknesses you’ll become that much stronger and perform better in your next race.

5. Be gentle yet stern

I’m mostly just as asshole to myself. I apologized to my family for coming out to the race and see me finish 11th. I felt guilty for taking up their time to not land on the podium.

I called myself a “failure,” “weak,” and a “poseur.” What do you think that’s doing to my psyche? Talking down to ourselves like that affects our bodies. If I keep telling myself those shitty things, I’m going to continually perform that way too.

I know I would never speak to a teammate like that. And if someone else came up to as soon as I crossed the finish line to tell me, “Jessica, you’re weak.” I’d tell them to go fuck themselves. So why do I talk to myself like that? As the saying goes, “we’re our biggest critics.” Instead, we should be our biggest fans.

Be stern though. Don’t baby yourself either. Pat yourself on the back but also look at what you could have done better. There will never be a time where you go, “There is nothing I could have done better.” Ever. And if you say that to yourself, you’re in denial. No, that’s not just a river in Egypt.

Give yourself credit for having the guts to go out there in the first place. You’re doing far better than the people on their couches watching Real Housewives of whatever.

6. Get rid of excuses

When I found out who won, the excuses started flying as fast as Kristin Armstrong. “She’s half my age.” “They probably have a Coach.” “They didn’t have to deal with a dying cat last night.” “They have more time to train.” Truly, these were thoughts. And they are all bullshit.

Have you heard the line, “Excuses are like assholes. Everyone has one and they all stink.”? I first heard that in high school. I laughed because visualizing that is gross, but it set in and I’ve been using that line ever since.

I found out that the second place winner doesn’t have a coach, she uses Zwift. I also have Zwift. No excuse to not perform better.

No one has more time in a day than anyone else. We all have 24 hours in a day. What makes the biggest difference is how you use the hours. If I dedicated all my free time to training, I’d probably be stronger, but I don’t.

The honest to bob truth is that I’m just not as strong as the women who won. Boom. My ego shudders to write that.

7. Each setback is a lesson

Knowledge is power.

Applying knowledge is a whole other story.

What separates the women from the weak is having enough self-awareness to realize your short-comings and then doing something about it. You can totally learn your weaknesses and do absolutely nothing about it. I know plenty of people who know they have to work on something specific, something they know will help them in the long run, but they don’t do it. They’re comfortable where they’re at. Those people never amount to anything great.

Adversely, the people who see a setback as a failure and give up are never going to amount to anything either. Failures and setbacks are lessons. It’s data. Information you can use to improve. If you did everything perfect from the get-go, you’d learn nothing. Failure always comes before success. And if you want to succeed faster, fail often.

Don’t be afraid to fail. The most successful people failed often. Do you think Kristin Armstrong showed up at the Olympics one day and won all her golds? Hell no. Or Peter Sagan? Hell, that guy gives zero fucks. He was kicked out of the Tour de France and then went on to win the Paris-Roubiax. Every single person who is now considered a pro or a success has failed. We’re no different from professionals in the land of failure. They just failed and learned faster.

As I lined up amongst the other racers I told myself to “fake it.” “Don’t let them see you sweat” and by bob, I was sweating. My legs burned. My lungs were on fire. And we pressed on.

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