Friday, August 16, 2013

One More Lap: Dealing with Pain and Failure

Peaks Coaching Group One More Lap Cyclocross Pain Failure

As the CX season unfolds, I realize how short the season really is. Months of hard work, and it’s almost time to start thinking about racing on the road again. I have to remind myself to race every moment of every race before the season ends. It’s so easy to back down. Damn, in every race I want to quit at some point.

I always think of what I heard Kent Bostick say to my friend John Hart:

“Little buddy, your pain is not special." I live by these words during the hardest part of each race. Sometimes as I gasp for air or as my legs hurt so bad I want to cut them off, I just remember that my pain is not special. As I spit on my top tube, unable to see straight, I remind myself again. My pain is not special.

I hurt. Damn, do I hurt. Every day I train I hurt. One year at masters nationals I was standing on the curb yelling at my wife with 1k to go in her time trial. She was three seconds back on my time sheet. I noticed she was crying when she rode by. These were not tears of sadness. Dude, these were tears of insane pain—pain I don’t know if I have ever felt. I go hard—damn, sometimes I go so hard I can’t feel my hands or feet—but have I ever gone so hard I cried? Never. At least not yet. I guess that’s why she has a stars and stripes jersey and I don’t. So that’s my new goal—to race so hard I either pass out or cry.

Pain and failure are 99% of this sport. So why every time I suffer do I feel pain and usually fail? You would think I could ignore the pain and grab success by the ‘nads. It’s at the moment when it hurts the most that I start to think my pain is special, but I know it isn’t. We all feel it. We all want to quit. Every minute of every interval I think about it for at least a few seconds. It’s like beating your head against a concrete wall; each time you slam your forehead into the wall it hurts, and the wall doesn’t move. The funny thing is I’ve been repeating this for six years now.

So the truth is that it’s not a failure. I didn’t lose. I raced my brains out and went as hard as I could. The guy in front of me is just stronger. Should I just quit and not chase him? No way. The struggle is what I love the most. To love this sport and survive racing, I think you have to enjoy getting beat down as much as you enjoy giving the beat down. I just want to be out there suffering. It always feels so much better when I’m making others suffer, but I learn more and grow more from being on the receiving end of a good beating. Failure is motivating to me.

I think about the NIKE commercial that says, “My better is better than your better.” (If you haven’t seen it, check it out on YouTube.) But is my better really better than your better? Damn, if that was the case I’d win a ton of races. I don’t win very often, though, so I think there are a ton of guys out there whose better is better than my better.

So if Kent is correct that my pain isn’t special, and if others are better, why do I race? 99% of the time I know I can’t win. There are always several riders who are a bit stronger, in some cases a ton stronger. So why do I spend thousands of dollars racing and hundreds of hour suffering each year? That's a really good question, and I think there are a ton of answers. I have my identity so wrapped around cycling; what would I do if I stopped? I would probably have a terrible drug problem or gamble my life savings away. Suffering for hours on end might just be a bargain.

So we now have an idea of the consequences I might face if I stopped suffering and quit riding. The new question becomes: how can I suffer in bliss? This is a trick I’m getting better at each year. I love to watch Chris Horner suffer. The guy is always smiling. Try it! It works for me. For the first time I’ve started to invite the pain in. I don’t run from it like I used to. I don’t start to question why I hurt or think I must be having a bad day. What I’ve learned is that when you go hard, it hurts. It always will. I always hear riders talking about “bad legs,” and most of the time it makes me chuckle. Bad legs usually just mean the race was hard. If you ride with power, I want you to try to ride around 600 watts for 40-45 seconds (that’s the start of a cross race). Do it every day. If you ever have a day where that feels easy and your legs don’t burn, go buy some lottery tickets.

If you’re in shape, you’ve trained a decent amount, and your legs hurt and burn, it’s a pretty good sign you are going hard; not that you have bad legs, but that you have fit enough legs to suffer. Somewhere along the way on the delusion train we’ve decided that going hard should feel good. That is crazy talk. The only time racing and training feels good is when you’re not going hard enough to make any gains or to win.

If you feel good, you aren’t going very hard (at least not hard enough to get benefits from training or to be successful in a race). If you feel bad, you’re probably pegged and on the rivet, which is actually a good thing. “Bad legs” means people in your race are better than your better. “Good legs” means you need to upgrade.

99.9% of the time I think the above is correct. We all have bad days every once in a while. But if half of your races are bad, then you aren’t being realistic. Either your training doesn’t match your goals or your goals don’t match your pedigree.

Now that we’ve solved a pretty serious math problem, let’s get back to the fact that most of us are not very good. What do I mean? Most of us suck. Yes, we suck. It’s hard to stomach, but the sooner we all figure it out, the more credit we can give to the riders who don’t suck. Now, this isn’t very nice, but what I mean is that the guy who beat me last weekend sucks a little less than I suck. The guy who finished behind me isn’t better than my better.

Every week the goal is to suck a bit less and try to bring the best effort I can manage to the race. Each week I have new excuses as to why I’m going to suck. I try to hide them under the bed in a shoe box, but I always let a few slip. Usually I talk about how hard I trained or didn’t train. That one’s my favorite. But the bottom line is that when we walk up to the starting line, we are very vulnerable. It’s how you learn to deal with the insecurity of sucking that makes you a great warrior. Dude, win or lose, if you bring a great fight you should be able to pat yourself on the back and be amped about how you raced. Most of the time we just beat ourselves to a pulp during the race and then continue to do so for the following week. The key is to ask yourself several times during the race, “Can I go harder?” If the answer is yes, then get on the gas. If the answer is no, then stay the course.

So next time you’re out racing at Defcon 4, try to smile. You should be amped that you’re killing it. If you’re crying, you know you’re pegged. Pegged is pegged. The guy in tenth is just as pegged as the guy who won. Neither effort has more value. Like Kent said, your pain isn’t special. So don’t run from it. Invite it in, and after your next race is completed, I challenge you to race one more lap. Why not? It’s what we do and who we are.

‘Cross season will be over in the blink of an eye. Enjoy every painful minute of each lap. Soon there will be no more laps to ride and no more ‘cross races till next year. You’ll spend the next nine months getting ready to do it again.

Sam Krieg is a USA Cycling Level 3 coach. He and his fellow PCG coaches create custom training plans for all levels of athletes. Sam can be contacted directly through or via