Each year I set specific performing goals for all aspects of my life that include major physical challenges over and above regular training.
Since my time must be divided between roles as a father of 5, a husband and a company president, this leaves time for only 3 or 4 major events in a year, so each is of immense importance to me.
The True Grit Epic 50-mile mountain bike race, a mostly single track and very technical race that incorporates several individual trail loops, was my first event of the year.
My preparations were extensive. I repeatedly rehearsed sections of the course, experimented with my nutrition and hydration, purchased a new bike more conducive to my style of riding, and even built myself a custom hydration pack (probably a new Ultraspire product for 2016!).
Heady stuff for me! So exciting, with all the efforts of planning and preparation. The whole process made me feel just like a kid again!
Race day came and I started as planned. The voice in my head was working well as was my physical response.
Stay back and warm up the first 4 or 5 miles. Which, I did. Then I began to move up in the pack as the climbing intensified. All was going well until mile eight where a steep descent over technical single track found my speed approaching 30 mph, probably too fast, but I did not feel out of control.
In fact, I distinctly remember that Zen type feeling of being one with my bike able to feel and anticipate the corners and navigate them smoothly.
Suddenly, on a shallow left turn I hit a round rock with my front tire throwing my bike into a steeper bank. The next moment I do not remember much except hurling flipping and twisting through the air.
After what seemed an eternity, everything stood still. Thank goodness I’d ejected out of my pedals. I was lying on the back of my neck with my left arm wedged between my shoulder blades and the ground. My body was curled completely in a “C” shape and my knees were on the ground next to my head. My position must have looked like a perfect YOGA pose to the many racers that zipped by yelling, “are you OK?”
I was unable to answer with much more than a grunt “uh-huh” as my right side was hit so hard that it had knocked my breath out completely. Tentatively I began to uncurl my body, though my left arm remained stuck between my shoulder blades.
Dazed, my first thought was, I am done. There is no way I can go on. I have 42 more miles to go and its over.
As I caught my breath and became more aware, I began a true situation assessment.
My left shoulder released and I was able to move it to a normal position. Yes, my ribs hurt bad, but were bearable. I had a lot of blood on my right arm but at that moment it did not hurt and nothing was gushing except the water squirting out of my hydration bladder.
What? Water was spraying out of the tube like a fire hydrant! During the crash the valve had been completely severed off. I quickly tied off the hose with an overhand knot and looked around for my bike. Finally spying it, I noted: handlebars crooked, bar ends bent, brake levers shifted out of position.
With so much information entering my mind, I wondered, do I stop, or do I go…In other words drop out? There was no easy answer, so I opted for something in between. I would ride a little way to discover the true condition of both my body and my bike.
I willed my body onto the bike. In a few minutes, I realized both my body any bike were OK. Not perfect, but not so bad that I couldn’t finish. I stopped, pulled out my tools and repaired my bike as best I could. Next, I created a plan to handle my hydration delivery since I no longer had a valve on the end of my hose. Focusing on the mechanical completely diverted the sensation of the physical.
With new resolve to finish, I went into my “zone” and started to race again. Because my left shoulder was injured and my right rib cage was bad (later I learned three broken ribs), I made a conscious decision to take it easy on all the down hills.
After this decision was made I did not feel the pressure to stay with the rider in front of me or worry about others passing me on the down hills. I could not and would not, chance another crash. I would stay in tune with what my body could deliver. Once this was decided, I did not focus again on my crash or negative impact from it. My mind became a powerful tool.
The following is a list of what I did in my mind to stay in the race:
- Focused on all things positive. I told myself, “I am riding and not in an ambulance and it’s a beautiful day.” As I topped a ridge I took a moment to notice the view and feel sincere gratitude for the beautiful world.
- Created alternative plans as necessary. Though my valve-less hydration system was crippling, I knew, that my body was trained to climb hills fast. Going uphill did not exaggerate the damage to my shoulder or rib cage. If I climbed hills aggressively, I could stop at the top of each long climb, untie the end of my hose, drink, retie the hose and begin riding again. This would give me time to rest from each uphill interval yet still give me opportunity to get needed hydration.
- Refocused on what is positive and working. I soon realized that my alternative plan was working perfectly, which further increased my positive attitude and further enhanced my joy in the beauty of the race course while more fully hydrating.
- Remained flexible and responsive to conditions. At about the 30-mile mark, the course changed directions. This change brought with it a 25mph headwind blowing swirling dust straight into our faces. I could hear other racers around me cussing loudly and complaining about the situation. At this time I was fortunate to hook up with another like-minded equally fit rider. We decided to work together like a pace line in a road race. We took turns leading in the strong head wind followed by a good draft behind. This routine worked perfectly and we were able to pass many racers during this section.
- Maintained focus. I stayed focused with faith in all my training and kept saying to myself, all riders are facing the same wind. If I remain tough in mind, and work as a team, he and I will both do better. As we took turns leading, I actually began to embrace this brutal “head wind” section of the course and enjoyed the cooling benefit of the breeze as we pushed hard up the hills. Again, taking a negative and turning it into something positive.
- Maintain and rely on preparation that is working. My pre race nutrition planning was working. I was on a schedule with calorie consumption and the organization of my prototype pack was perfect, making everything easily accessible as needed. My legs were strong and I was not cramping despite pushing the limits of my racing zone. Again, pre race planning that did pay off added to the positive attitude and helped keep other negative feelings from creeping in.
Despite the many setbacks triggered at mile 8 and the incredible headwind encountered at mile 30, I did finish and finished strong—15 minutes faster than my goal! What a euphoric feeling as I crossed the line knowing, I had not only reached one of my goals, but had overcome what many would consider incredible setbacks.
Fast forward, one week later. My right arm that lost deep layers of skin on the underside is healing nicely. My left shoulder that had been glued to my scapula is functioning again. The 3 broken ribs on my right side will take a little longer to heal, so I will not be doing core strength or sit ups for a while. But, I am riding again, and more importantly, I literally had one of the best races of my life! I feel this is because of how I mentally responded to the set backs that occurred to me during the race. My challenge to all and the lesson I learned is this: Things will happen during all our races. Some good. Some bad. Be creative, make conscious decisions on how to handle the bad then commit to the decision and dwell on all the positive things. The mind is a powerful tool.
The resulting victories are physical, mental and lasting.