“Do you think your legs will be able to handle Palomar tomorrow?" Nathaniel asked me last night as I made my final preparations for Thursday’s bike + run workout.
I paused for a moment, debating on how to respond. How DOES one respond, knowing the work, suffering, and pain that lay ahead…? It would be easy to make an excuse – I’m tired… I’m at the end of one of the most intense 3-week build cycles ever… I ran 2.5 hours the other day… it’s windy…it’s cold… it’s too sunny… it’s too cloudy… Ironman training… blah blah blah… Yes indeed, the excuses are endless.
So instead, I went for another tack.
“Well – the thing I’ve learned about Palomar is that it’s not so much the physical challenge, as it is the mental effort. My legs could feel great, but if my head isn’t in the game, then it will never happen.” I finished with a flourish, tossing my (just washed and folded!) bike shorts and jersey on the couch.
And then I tried to explain Molly’s awesome quote, but did it no justice. But for you – dear readers – here it is:
This is ten percent luck, twenty percent skill
Fifteen percent concentrated power of will
Five percent pleasure, fifty percent pain
But sadly for Nathaniel (last night), I think I fell short. But he seemed to understand what I was trying to say.
This morning dawned bright and early – I naturally woke up at 4:44 am. Very very wrong. Yeah, the alarm was set for 5, but I was a mixture of nervous energy + hard-workout apprehension, and an extra 15 minutes or so of tossing and turning wasn’t going to help. A quick breakfast, check of the weather, and quick face book update, and I was wheeling my bike out the door by 5:25.
Very very wrong – too early.
But hey – if I know that I’ve got a really tough workout on the schedule, I would REALLY prefer to get it done early. No sense in waiting around and…thinking…about what…lay….ahead… Besides, it takes a good hour or so to drive to the base of Palomar. And by the time the bike is set up and I’m spinning on the trainer (because I really DON’T want to climb OUT of the valley floor for my warm up. What point is there warming up at zone 8 heart rate, pushing the smallest gear and maintaining 55 rpms? Yeah – not so good. Give me the trainer, good old 90-100 rpms, and my ipod and I’m all set), its 7 am.
Plus, I got to see a beautiful sunrise while passing through the Cleveland National Forest. AND enjoy an early morning cup of (strong) coffee with breakfast. So life was good.
(taken from the car...note the 1) early morning traffic and 2) dirty windshield)
After 30 minutes on the trainer while listening to random I pod music, I stashed my gear sans bike back in the car, took in a vanilla power gel, bid farewell to the Harras Casino Parking lot, and was off. Climbing out of the valley was, well – hard. I enjoyed about 3 minutes in The Big Ring, and then found myself spinning UP a big hill, crossing a cattle grate, and passing an empty flower stand. All in heart rate zone 8. 9 minutes later, I pulled into Jilberto’s Taco Stand parking lot and did my last-minute-pre-climb check.
Thankfully, I had already availed myself of the facilities in the Harras Parking lot (nope – it wasn’t pretty, but the bush + my car + parked truck almost kept me mostly hidden), so a bathroom stop wasn’t necessary. Instead I checked the brake pads (to make SURE they weren’t rubbing the rims. 6 mph is slow enough as it is), ensured that the rear water bottles were steady, and mentally prepped myself for the tough ride ahead.
Last time I rode up Palomar, I had a mission. The 4th attempt had been completed in a less-than-stellar effort on my part, and I was bound and determined to make up for it on the 5th. As it was, I got angry, I got fierce, I got determined – and I rocked my way up to a new personal best. The disappointment from my previous climb and mental weakness motivated me to work HARD and GO FOR IT.
Today was different. I wasn’t angry, didn’t feel upset, and certainly didn’t have anything to prove. I just wanted to climb. Plain and simple. Jen had given me a 3-hour brick workout – which included a 2 hour ride + 1 hour run. However, she specified that she wanted me to “bike in the hills in ALL zones…” Yep, Palomar would be perfect.
Therefore, I was the one to request it.
I knew though, that the climb would be hard. It always is. Moments pass where you feel great, like you could keep the watt output and tempo all day, followed seconds later with the feeling of I’m-never-going-to-make-this-you-go-on-ahead-while-I-curl-up-on-the-side-of-the-cliff-and-try-not-to-die. For those tough times, I wanted to keep my focus on the work being done, not on the pain.
I used the words “STRENGTH” and “COURAGE” to help me up.
Strength, because last time I climbed Palomar I bought a rock with the word written across it. A cheap tourist trinket at the General Store? Perhaps. But to a girl who had just tackled a mountain in an all new post-crash personal best, it meant the world.
Courage, because I heard an interview with Boston Marathon 3rd place runner Kara Goucher, who mentioned that her “power word” was COURAGE. The link to the interview on Universal Sports didn’t work – but here’s another site that had a similar quote:
"I love power words," says the runner, who selects one she'll think to herself throughout practice and then repeat to focus during the race. "At the Olympics I used the word 'fighter,'... and for Boston it was 'courage.' Have the courage to run your own race. Have the courage to want it--and to not be afraid to say it!"
Yes, it was Kara’s word. But it’s a hell of a word.
The bike looked good, I felt strong, and with a few swift pedal strokes and starting my watch – I was off!
Immediately, I turned to my mantra. Strength courage strength courage strength courage…all in time to my cadence. Have the strength to be courageous, from the courage comes strength… I repeated the words over and over again. Occasionally I pulled from Kate Oliver’s Mt. Lemmon mantra of “Push pull push pull” in order to add some variety to my riding vocabulary.
Riveting, I know.
In addition, I wanted to keep a watchful eye on my wattage. No – I wasn’t going to live and die based on my power output. But – I wanted to average a specific average watt output for the climb. Last time I was six watts lower than where I wanted to be. This time – using STRENGTH COURAGE and PUSH PULL to help – I wanted to hit that number. Or higher, if possible.
Strength, courage, courage, strength…Push pull push pull push pull…Courage in Strength….Strong and courageous…
But it’s what I focused on. And it worked.
I passed through the citrus groves and plant farms that were dotted along the base, and into the two sweeping overlooks on the way to the false flat 1/3 of the way up. Strength courage, courage strength, push pull push pull. A quick glance at my heart rate confirmed that I was well into zone 4, and doing a great job of staying within the ball park of my desired watt output.
Strength courage courage strength push pull push pull courage in your strength…
Hitting the false flat, I was about a minute ahead of where I was last time. But I knew the hard stuff lay ahead, and I pushed back the thought of blowing out too early. And what the heck? If three quarters of the way up I fell apart – well, so be it. I didn’t have anything to prove…it was just a beautiful morning and I felt lucky to be on my bike.
I’m not going to lie: South Grade Road was hard. There were times when I didn’t want to glance up, because the grade and the enormity of the mountain seemed almost overwhelming. At one point I caught a glimpse of South Grade Road 300 feet – and plenty of switchbacks – above. For the briefest moment, I wished that I were at that spot.
But then I surprised myself…
If I was up there, I found myself thinking, I would be 20 minutes ahead…and would therefore loose the valuable lessons that I’m learning about myself right now. Now I’d much rather be here…right here, right now.
The really cool thing – is that I completely believed it. Sure, I would finish sooner and gain a few hundred feet – but the lessons of the climb, the mental battles, the suffering, the hard part and the easy part combined together – would all be lost. And the experience wouldn’t be worth it in the end…
Courage. Strength. Courage. Strength.
And I just kept climbing. Kept a watchful eye on my watts, using my goal wattage as a benchmark, and just kept going. Slowly the mile markers clicked by, though I refused to let myself really count them until I hit 45.
And because South Grade Road starts somewhere around 41…it was a long way until I let myself count down the miles. Yes, I still glanced every .2 miles at the markers… 42.2, 42.2, 42.6, 42.8, 43, 43.2….and trust me when I say that biking at 7 miles per hour with a cadence of 55 or 60 rpm, well – it was a long time.
But I just kept going, mantra running through my head. Whenever the pain felt unbearable, whenever I found myself entertaining the idea of getting off the bike and chucking it off the mountain, whenever I felt myself growing weak, I returned to those words. And. Just. Kept. Going. Eyes down, there were times I refused to look up ahead. Instead, the watt output, the mantra, and the white line painted on the side of the road became my company.
I had nothing to prove, no one to impress (heck, no one was out that early, save the 4 cars that passed me going up on South Grade Road), and was simply in my element on my own.
Before I knew it, I was passing my favorite sign: 5000 elevation and mile 47 marker. This is where I find myself…I recalled asking myself during my drive over ‘what will you learn today while climbing?’ My answer? A resounding STRENGTH and COURAGE.
Out of the saddle, I took a power 10 pedal strokes for mile marker 47 and the 5000 elevation sign, and “powered” up the road. At 6 miles per hour. It was brilliant.
47.2, 47.4, 47.6…and then the final bend. I could see the stop sign, could see the end in sight. For the first time since starting my climb, the road didn’t stretch endlessly off into the distance. I smiled, stood up on the pedals, and crested the top. I was in so much agony, so much pain – but it was all overshadowed by the sense of accomplishment. When the going got tough – I pushed through. When the road looked impossibly steep, I focused on my mantra. When my body said no – I responded: STRENGTH COURAGE PUSH PULL.
Looking down, I was happy to see I had surpassed my goal wattage by… a grand total of 2 watts. Hey – I’ll take it ANY day! But better yet, I had beaten my old personal best by three minutes. Sure – my average heart rate and max heart rate were separated by six beats. And yes, my arms were sore from gripping the ends of my handlebars so tightly for the ride up. But I was ecstatic, and felt like yelling from the mountain top.
A chocolate gel would have to do instead.
I quickly refueled, had some water, and zipped up my wind vest. The temperature was a crisp 47 degrees, and I knew that I was in for a chilly descent.
Chilly doesn’t begin to describe how I felt.
It was absolutely the COLDEST THAT I HAVE EVER BEEN ON A BIKE. PERIOD.
And because I’m a wimp when it comes to descending (ie – I don’t pedal and I grip my brakes TIGHTLY), it was a long journey down. I pulled over not once, but twice to prevent my hands from cramping. And now – 10 hours post-ride – I think my lats and triceps are just as sore as my legs from holding on so tightly.
30 or 40 minutes later, I arrived at my car, safe and sound in the casino parking lot, quickly stashed my bike gear in the car, and set off for my (prescribed FLAT) 60 minute transition run.
Where does one run on a flat course for 60 minutes in a valley surrounded by mountains?
Good question! Glad you asked!
I ran seven times around the Harras Casino Parking lot. And if you think I’m joking, I’m not. Seriously. Seven times…plus and extra two minutes out and back (to make it an even hour. Because if you think I’m going to stop at 56 minutes, you’re wrong my friend). The bus drivers were amused, and who knows what the casino workers thought. It was the construction crew on the West end that had a field day.
Every time (for the first four or five times) I passed them, they shouted or yelled. I tried to smile or wave, but in the end I think they felt sorry for me. They probably though I was nuts – running circles around a Casino for who-knows-how-long. And perhaps I was.
Because in this sport – to do what we do – you have to be a little nuts. You have to be a little crazy. You have to be willing to say the same damn words over and over again in your head as you climb a never ending hill for seemingly forever. You have to push aside embarrassment and discomfort, and run in circles for an hour.
At the end of the day, I was spent but felt great. I’m grateful for the really good training days, happy when I feel strong both mentally and physically. And I realize that this doesn’t always happen. Sometimes our head is in the game, but our body just doesn’t respond. And others, the body, the legs, the arms are all there – but the heart just isn’t.
Sometimes it takes courage to be strong, and we find strength in our courage. And others, well, we just need to put our head down and push pull push pull push pull. Because in the end, we have the ultimate decision in what kind of day, what kind of workout we’ll have. Today I found the words that worked for me.
What are yours?
A few photos from the day - mostly after the workout was done. Enjoy!
The roses that I ran by 7X during my hour run around the casino. I didn't notice them until after my run - go figure. But when I finally did...they were beautiful.
ME - post workout! DONE!! Hooray!!! WOW - it's hot. And that was a boring run. wow.
Beautiful California scenery. I LOVE living here!