I don't generally like to write about myself, but to make the point I wish to make today I am going to do it anyway because it's important you know that even though I am a coach I don't have everything figured out... not by a long shot.
I have thought many times about giving up racing myself. At 35 I have no aspirations of becoming a pro anymore. I have accomplished most of what I wanted to accomplish in this sport and as for the things I didn't; I am not sure that I am willing to make the sacrifices that I know are necessary at this point in my life. For the most part I get a lot more enjoyment out of coaching and seeing my athletes reach their goals than reaching any modest goals I have for my own racing. Often I think that continuing to train and race is a distraction that hurts my ability to be the best coach I can be. I once had someone tell me that "If you are at a race and your coach is getting ready for his own race you know that you aren't his first priority" and I think it's a fair point. Even with training, If I am worried about my own training I may be reluctant to go as hard (or easy) as necessary when I train with my athletes.
I have had this argument in my head countless times but I have stuck with it... or at least for the most part. Last summer I had a chance to see what my life would be like without training and racing. I traveled with the junior team to Road Natz in Georgia in late June, I was in Trexlertown every day helping them prepare for Junior Track Natz in early July, and then I immediately went to Canada with the team for the Tour de l'Abitibi. During this time, I didn't train at all. I might have ridden my bike a few times but I certainly wasn't training. In the later part of the summer I did a couple more races but with my fitness severely lacking and a few distractions on the home front I had no motivation to train or race. So I didn't. Between August 8th and October 15th I did 7 rides for a total of 17 hours on the bike, and from September 16th to October 15th I didn't ride a single time.
During the time off, I gained almost 20 pounds and lost pretty much all of my fitness. One might think that without the fatigue caused by training and the distraction of my own racing I might have been a better coach but the truth is that I wasn't. I was depressed and irritable. Because I was so out of shape, I couldn't keep up with even the slowest of my athletes on training rides. Because I wasn't racing, I missed a lot of what was happening in their races. Most importantly though, I lost touch with how hard racing can be. I forgot how easy it is to get intimidated by the competition or the course. I forgot how stressful it can be to keep packing your bags and driving to races every weekend and always make sure you have everything. I forgot how hard it is to put the thought of crashing out of your mind or to keep racing and training as hard as you can even after a long series of disappointing performances. In short, not training and not racing made me a worse coach, not a better one. Yes, there are times when it is tough to balance my own training and racing with the demands of coaching but then again, every single one of my athletes struggles with training-life balance so why shouldn't I? I needed to be strong and lead by example.
Over the last 6 months, I have been able to slowly claw my way back to some semblance of my former fitness, though I am still 10 pounds heavier than my ideal race weight (I have learned that as you get older it gets a lot harder to lose those extra lbs!). The early season March training races went OK for me, but it took me until the first weekend of April to remember why it's important to keep racing. The moment of clarity came at the Philadelphia Naval Yard Criterium last weekend and it wasn't a moment of triumph, it was a failure: getting stone called dropped less than halfway through the race.
The Naval Yard Crit was the first PA BAR race of the year; there were certainly a few good riders there but it wasn't exactly an NCC race. When I downloaded my file, the average and normalized power for the time I was in the race were well under what I should be able to do (though obviously those numbers don't tell the whole story). Basically, what caused me to get dropped was that I lost my nerve, or perhaps I never got it. It was a technical course with high curbs sticking out all over the place. The only crash I saw was on the straightaway, but I just couldn't bring myself to take the turns at the speed required. I was hitting my brakes too hard and then sprinting out of every turn to close the gaps. It has been a long time since I did a technical crit like that and I was out of practice. To top it off, I didn't warm up enough or line up far enough forward, possibly because I lacked confidence and I didn't want to get in anyone's way. Rookie mistakes.
So what's the lesson? (Hint: it's not only that you need to remember to warm up well, pre-ride the course and line up towards the front). The bigger lesson here is that you have to be a good loser and make a positive out of a negative. But what does that mean? It means that you learn your lesson(s) and move on instead of beating yourself up. While some coaches like to repeat the mantra: "No excuses", I often surprise people when I tell them that excuses can be a good thing, as long as they are good excuses. You have to explain what went wrong, and if that reason is something that was in your control, you fix the problem. A lot of factors determine results in bike racing. Some things you have total control over, such as what pressure you pump your tires up to and what you put in your bottles. Some things you have partial control over, such as your fitness and level of fatigue. And some things you have no control over, like the weather and how strong the competition is.
Without honest and objective expert feedback it is difficult to figure out what the real problem is. More often than not athletes blame their "fitness" and more often than not fitness wasn't the problem, or at least all of the problem. My race Saturday was a great example; it is natural to think "I got dropped because I wasn't strong enough", but I don't think that is true. In my case, I needed a refresher course on going through turns at 35 mph. Often the problem isn't fitness at all, but rather fatigue, technique or tactics. Even if there is a fitness issue, what kind of fitness are we talking about? Fitness is a big word. Fitness can mean endurance, efficiency, sustained power, VO2 max, anaerobic capacity, sprint power, the ability to repeat efforts over and over again or a bunch of other things. If you can put your finger on exactly what type of fitness was "the bottleneck" in your performance, you can better target what you need to work on in your training and begin to fix the problem.
An even more insidious line of thinking is "I got dropped because I suck". In a way, this is quite convenient because it absolves you of any responsibility to do anything about the problem. If you just suck, you probably deserved to get dropped. The truth is, no one deserves anything. I don't deserve to get dropped if my fitness isn't 100% and I don't deserve to win if it is 100%. Good fitness means that you have a better hand to play but you still have to play it right if you want to win, and sometimes someone with a lesser hand can win by playing their inferior hand really well. Thinking that you "deserve" this or that doesn't help anything. Instead, you need to think about where you think you belong. This winter, even though I was getting dropped on every hill of every group ride, I knew I belonged with the fastest riders, not the ones getting dropped. It wasn't that I deserved to be there, it was that I thought I belonged there. I felt like I might have been out of shape at the moment, but the real me was somewhere underneath that and it just required a little hard work and discipline to bring him out.
Unfortunately, positive thinking along won't win you any races. You can reassure yourself that you belong with the winners all you want but you won't get there if you don't do the hard work. But hard work isn't just about training a lot of hours and TSS points; it's about throwing yourself out there day in and day out and giving it your best, despite the inevitable setbacks. I'm not talking about doing your training even if you are sick or injured, I am talking about being adaptable and doing your best every minute of every day even when you feel like you just plain suck. Never underestimate the power of persistence.