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Today’s blog was sparked by a combination of reading several blogs over the past week, having several conversations with racers (triathletes, cyclists and runners), volunteering at the 50-mile point of the Leadville 100 running race, watching Pb-ville 100 runners four miles from the finish line at 7:00am yesterday morning (after they had been running for 27 hours) and add a dash of personal reflection.


In my Leadville debrief, I didn’t make much mention of pain and suffering. I’m not sure why I tend to gloss over it, perhaps it’s my way of remembering only the positives and moving on to the next adventure. It was the Dave Wiens blog, part II, recounting how the race really went down in the pro field, which reminded me of how hard that race is without weather and then how hard this year’s race was due to rain and cold. (If you haven’t read Dave’s blog, it is worth a look.)


      1.     Everyone suffers - from the leaders to the last soul in a race. If you are going to race, and quite frankly make it through life, you WILL suffer. You can see by Dave’s recount of the race, he battled pain and cold – just like every other rider in the event.


Yes, there were times I was cold during the race. I had to stop and put a jacket on. I did a constant monitoring process on my cold fingers – how numb is okay? Can I still use the brakes? Yes. Okay, go for awhile longer and see how it goes.


There were times I battled leg cramps. It has happened each year and it occurs at a different point in the race each time. To deal with it, I would change positions on the bike, change gears, grab the cramping muscle and pinch/massage it while still riding. I’d take another electrolyte tab. I’d drink more. I did everything I could think of to lessen the pain and make it go away – all while still trying to keep rolling.


The first time I had vicious leg cramps was during my night ride of a 24-hour relay mountain bike race. The pain was so fierce, I had to get off the bike and walk. It’s dark; it’s raining; it’s cold; there aren’t many people around; surely there are lions, tigers and bears (oh my!) in the woods; and I had to figure out a way to get off the mountain and back to the safety of my team camper. After awhile I figured out that I could change my position some on the bike and make the cramps go away. I also figured out that there were some sections of the course that triggered the cramps (short, steep, technical climbs) so I got off and walked/ran those sections. It was simply the best/fastest race strategy for me.


In that relay race, I rode another lap the next day in the daylight, still pouring rain, and still managing the cramps – though they weren’t as bad as in the night lap. I didn’t really know how that day lap would go, but I decided I could simply walk/hike/jog any section that caused me problems. Yes, I wanted to ride the entire course, but that was no longer an option for me.


      2.     When things don’t go to original plan, be willing to modify the plan.


      3.     Is it more important to you to reach a particular time or finish place, than it is to simply finish the event? Each person, at each event, needs to answer this question head-on. If you change your goal to just finishing the event, you may be pleasantly surprised at your time. If you are so invested in a time goal (Ironman athletes in particular) that any deviation puts your head in the tank, you will quit. Quitting gives no opportunity for pleasant surprises.


During this Leadville race, the left side of my lower back hurt. I’m not sure why. It hadn’t hurt anytime before or after the race. Like my leg cramps, I managed it by moving around on the bike, trying to see what I could do to make the pain go away. I was able to get it to a tolerable point of discomfort.


I rode all the descents as fast as I could, however that meant some aggressive braking at various moments to control speed and avoid other racers. Pushing this limit for hours made my triceps ache. Pretty much after the Columbine descent, they reminded me of their exact anatomical location with every hard or long braking action. At least they took my attention away from my back for those moments.


      4.     Every racer that pushes his or her own personal limit suffers physical pain, deals with pain and somewhat enjoys managing pain. Pushing the edge hurts. If you are entirely comfortable for an entire race, you aren’t racing – you’re on a comfortable group ride. Being comfortable is a different goal than racing your limit and risking physical failure. Know that I’m not judging the goals as “good” or “bad” – simply different.


      5.     The more opportunities you have to “fail,” learn something and try again, the more tools you have in your tool chest of options. I’ve raced a lot. I started competitive swimming when I was 10 and had weekly opportunities to risk my ego. When I had bad races, I lived through them. People that swam slower than me in practice kicked my hiney in races. I found it curious and inspiring.


      6.     Race more. There is no other way to get racing experience, other than to race. Sure, you can read books to help you; but you have to get out there and risk physical, mental and emotional pain in order to become a better racer. Fast group rides do help, but they do not carry the mental and emotional risk of a race.


I can’t tell you exactly where my physical limits lie. I can tell you that there are people out there willing to suffer and risk much more than I. I’ve seen racers completely wasted in the medical tent, unable to walk. I’ve not been there and I don’t want to go there.


I know of racers that have suffered long-term health damage after suffering through an event. I’ve not been there and I don’t want to go there.


      7.     Suffering physical pain in an event is somewhat like doing a risk-reward analysis on your investment portfolio. Big risk, big suffering can often bring big rewards – but not always. Low-risk or no-risk can bring limited rewards; but it depends on your personal definition of “reward”.


I can’t tell you when to keep racing or when to stop, due to extreme conditions or physical pain. You have to make that decision for yourself. Your suffering limits are likely different than mine, some of you have a much higher tolerance for pain than I do.


If you had a race where you don’t feel like you pushed your limits, learn from it and decide what you want to do differently, if anything, in the future.


There really are no easy steps to learning how to suffer or what your suffering limits are, you have to gather that experience for yourself.

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