It was going to be a very hot, humid day, with temperatures expected around 98 degrees and humidity, well, let's just say, high, and, I was about to race my first cycling road race. I had done triathlons for years, even the famed Ironman Triathlon in Panama City, Florida in 1999 and 2001. I had run marathons before and even swam 10K open water swims in exotic places like Bermuda and Bonaire. But I had yet to compete in a stand alone cycling event, a road race. Yet, here I was in June, 2007, standing with twelve other women at the start of the Great Carroll County Road Race, a 100K (66 mile) cycling event over the hills of Carroll County, Illinois.
I had no idea what to expect, having never done this kind of race before. The road race is a draft-legal race, meaning you can (and should) take advantage of riding in a pack, resting at the rear and pulling at the front. You have to ride a road bike, which for me meant, no aero-bars, and since I only owned a triathlon bike, I had to borrow a bike from one friend and a pair of shoes with matching cleats from another.
As I toed the line in my one piece spandex racing suit, I looked around at my fellow riders. There were four or five of them from one team and they would try to ride together, helping each other out. There were a few other pairs that were going to work together, but, I was alone. I didn't bring anyone with me to "help me out". I didn't belong to a team so I would have to do my best to hang with them, offering a pull at the front as needed to show them that I wasn't there to just suck off their wheels. It was the right thing to do. I mentally sized everyone up, trying to figure out who would be the leaders.
You see, going into this race, I had a goal. I wanted to race my best. I wanted to put it all out there and finish knowing that I had given it everything I had. But, giving it everything didn't start on race day. It started months in advance with proper training and a good nutrition plan. I trained hard for six months, racing time trials both indoors and outdoors - giving it 100% efforts. When the weather warmed up, I put in the miles outside, often riding my mountain bike to teach a cycling class and riding home, then, going outside to ride another 30-40 miles. I rode two century rides back to back, completing a "personal" time trial of 10 miles uphill in the middle of one of them. I completed a 150 mile ride in one day, again riding hard for 10 miles, 120 miles into the 150 mile ride. I rode strong, pulling my friends all spring long, pushing on hills, riding tempo; riding hard. At the end of my training, I knew I was ready to ride 66 miles at a very hard effort. I didn't know what speed that would be, but I knew that I would push about 190 watts for about 3 hours. I would just have to keep my heart rate at or around 160bpm, which was 100% of my threshold heart rate, or 85% of my maximum heart rate.
When you listen to the Tour de France, you know that the lightest cyclists and the lightest bikes go faster. I was going to be on a borrowed road bike, so I didn't have much control over the bike. Don't get me wrong, it was a very nice carbon fiber bike, that was indeed lightweight. But, unlike other aficionado's, I would be unable to swap bicycle parts to lighten it up by grams. I would have to change something else. I decided to change my weight and optimize my power to weight ratio.
I watched what I ate for three months, charting my intake of calories and my daily expenditure. I tested my power output through time trials to determine the point at which I could push for maximum power. I recorded my weight. I reached my maximum power to weight ratio at 136 pounds on my 5'8" frame. The following chart shows the measured improvements in my metabolic and power profile:
So as I stood there, surrounded by twelve other women, I knew what I was capable of. I remember saying to myself on that morning, "there's no need to go redline", which for me, meant any heart rate above 172, or 90% of my maximum heart rate. The gun went off, and we took off, with me comfortably tucked in behind three other riders. The pace started off quick, and within a couple minutes, I was "redline". I had to make a decision.
Did I want to stick with my plan and be comfortable with what I knew I could do, or, did I want to push myself to my ultimate limit?
In a split second, I knew that if I wanted a chance at the podium, I would have to hang with them, suck it up and ride harder than I've ever rode before. I didn't know if I would bonk or get dropped, but, I had to try. I had to reach somewhere deep inside myself for that little extra that I might possess.
In the first ten minutes, the pack separated, and I was among a select group of four women, two of whom were on a team working together. We rode together for the first hour, taking turns at the front, working as a tight group of four, when one of the women on the team got a flat tire. Her teammate stopped to help, but the other woman and I saw this as an opportunity to put some distance between us and them, so we sped off. Clearly, this other woman and I were good competitors and I wanted her assistance as much as she wanted mine. She hammered uphill better than I, but I held the flats better than she, and so the remaining thirty miles went. We never saw anyone else on the course that day. We continued to ride hard, pushing at every opportunity. I secretly hoped that she would eventually not be able to keep my pace on the flats; I would drop her and take the lead once and for all.
But, with just six miles left, she took the lead, and as hard as I pedaled, I couldn't close the gap. She was just 200 yards in front of me, and there was nothing I could do to catch her. My heart rate was pushing 176-182, (90-95% of my maximum heart rate) as it had been for much of the race. My power hovered around 200 watts, as I expected. Whenever I could, I pushed to 230 watts, but was simply unable to reel her in.
I crossed the finish line at 3 hours and 22 minutes. Just 1 minute behind the other woman. I rode my bike beyond the finish line and stopped, falling into a ditch along the side of the road. I just laid there, exhausted, not sure if my legs would enable me to get up. I was nauseous, and I felt this overwhelming prickly sensation, both hot and cold, on my skin. This was heat exhaustion.
After several minutes, I fumbled my way back on wobbly legs to the corral where the athletes were waiting for the results. I found the other woman and congratulated her on her first place overall finish. I was happy with my second place overall, first place age group finish, a $50 check and my trophy.
I was most happy that I had indeed pushed my limits in training and on that hot humid day in June, 2007. That's a feeling I will never forget.
Kathy is an accomplished age group athlete, coaching and motivating many athletes to their peak fitness. Contact Kathy@365fitt.com for coaching opportunities and speaking engagements.\