Sunday, May 19, 2013

Strava hubris

This was supposed to be a mellow pre-race spin up Black Mountain, but after just two miles I knew it was going to be a grind. My legs were empty, like an unseen force had drained out the muscles and injected them with gelatin. The week had been going great up to a point, but then it took a dramatic turnaround. What happened? "I blame Strava," I grumbled to Beat as I struggled to hold his wheel.

Speed. Most of the time, I prefer to pursue longevity-promoting balance. Do something at 100 percent of your capabilities and you might need a week to recover, but at 80 percent you can go for half a day, and at 60 percent exponentially longer. Eventually you come to the conclusion that if distance is your ultimate goal, speed isn't the way to go about it. Still, I admit that it's intriguing take something you do all the time and try to do it faster. Every once in a while, I get sucked into the temptation.

It started with the AMGEN Tour of California, and considering my own PRs on my favorite routes. I realized that just about every "record" I've set happened in the first year I lived here, between March 2011 and March 2012. I don't like to believe that I'm getting worse at biking, although every statistic and intuition I have points to the likelihood that this is happening. But I like to think that the abilities are still there, somewhere, hidden deep inside me, and they just need a little coaxing to come out.

For the record, I think Strava is ridiculous. I do. I did enjoy the record-tracking program right up until I started to receive those "uh oh" e-mails three times I day, informing me I lost the queen of the mountain / course record on yet another 0.2-mile segment. I was able to ignore these e-mails until a segment came through that was in Fairbanks, Alaska. My interest was piqued enough to check it out. This particular segment was none other than the Wickersham Wall, the seemingly vertical snowmobile trail up the Wickersham Dome that starts at mile 94 of the White Mountains 100. If I'm ever achieved a speed faster than 0.5 mph while pushing my bike up that thing, I'd be surprised. Queen of the Mountain? Bah. Strava's ridiculous. I pretty much stopped using it that day, although I do go back from time to time and mass-upload the Garmin data on my computer.

But there is one Strava segment I do care about, even if I don't like to admit it to myself — Montebello Road. At 5.2 miles with 1,941 feet of climbing, it's my go-to road climb and one of the few things I do that I can benchmark around every turn. My best time on this segment, according to Strava, is 39:08, achieved on February 6, 2012. It's good enough for 16th out of 163 women, and I'm fairly certain I can do better if only I tried. Okay, maybe I should do some road-cycling specific training first, but isn't trying enough? No? Well, on May 17, 2013, I set out to try.

The segment starts at about mile 3.4 of my regular ride from home to the Montebello gate and back. I always forget to check my watch at the turn, but it usually happens between minutes 12 and 15 depending on traffic lights, which means I need to hit 51 minutes or better to assure busting out a sub-39. This is the easiest thing to track, although I also have this notion that I need to keep my minutes-per-mile pace above 9:00 at all times. This is about the slowest I can go over the toughest mile to actually achieve the 8 mph average I need.

So that's the basic tracking system. The first mile is the steepest, though, and after that I'm too maxed out to understand my watch anyway. That's why I cling to the 9-minute-mile thing, because I can always look at that number and understand whether I'm moving faster or slower. So there I was, churning pedals, unapologetically gasping for air and shooting snot rockets, with eyes fixed solely on the prize — avenging 15 months of Strava mediocrity. I made it through the hard climb, raced over the flatter miles three through four, and tucked my head for the final climb when the numbers shot skyward. 9:10 pace. Then 9:34. Then 10:02. Oh no! I was melting down. My legs felt like they were shooting flames, and I couldn't imagine where I was going to find the overdrive to maintain my pace. And somewhere in the back of my mind, that little trail running angel came to sit on my shoulder and said, "remember that little training race you have on Sunday? The Horseshoe 50K? It's on Sunday. What are you doing?"

"I don't want my legs to die," I thought, so I gave up. I kept pedaling but I stopped looking at my watch. At the top, it read 53:41. "Hmm, if it's minus fifteen minutes to the bottom of Montebello, than it just might be good enough. Even if it's just minus twelve, it's not bad. But no, I stopped trying. It's not good enough. It's never good enough if you don't try."

I admit I haven't uploaded the track yet. Part of me does not want to know, at least not until Sunday's race is over. I can't believe I roped myself into a silly Strava race and now my legs admittedly feel pretty tired, when they were just fine for Wednesday's double-header and Thursday's 7.5-mile hill run on the Black Mountain trail. Speed. I get why it's needed to, you know, actually get faster. But it is hard on the body and in the face of longer distances, it seems like a bit of a waste. When you're trying to maximize gas mileage, it's probably not the wisest move to keep the pedal pressed to the floor.

Speed is fun, though. Oh, sub-39-minute Montebello. I will get you, and prove to you I can still ride a bicycle. Someday.


  1. I used to care about running speed. A lot. oh, those track workouts. Oh, the tyranny of the watch. But I like what you say about effort. Now I have a slower but sustainable pace and I enjoy it so much more. I do miss those medals sometimes, though.

  2. One theory is that even for extreme endurance athletes a little speed work once in a while is good - if you can go really fast for a short time, it teaches your body to recruit more muscle cells which can also be an asset when in economy mode, one more tool in your belt when you're in the pain cave.

    A lot of pros have their own personal Montobello Road which serves as a baseline for gauging their fitness throughout the year. A typical route would climb for 30-45 minutes or so, the plan might be to attack it once every six weeks or so on a day when you are well rested and ready to go full gas. The disgraced Lance used to use the Col de la Madone in southern France for such purposes....

  3. I used to be a long, slow distance runner, stuck at the same pace for every single run. Now I'm enjoying pushing myself a little bit with speed work. It is a totally different feeling and I never feel more alive than I do running a 5K where I feel like my body is going to explode. Speed is fun. :)

  4. Jill, I'm sensing a recurring pattern to your posts lately: "it hurts", "I'm tired", "I felt completely empty". Time for a change? A break maybe?

  5. I have confidence and body mechanics issues that discourage me from pushing my speed limit in most situations (meaning, mainly, whenever I try to run "fast" I feel like I'm out of control and will tumble onto my face at any second. Same goes for downhill cycling, both road and mountain.) But I love hill climbing. I feel I do push myself hard on hills and inject some high intensity into my routine that way. I realize I could probably get faster with more focused speed work and rest intervals, but I at this time I am not interested in injecting more routine into something I do as an excuse to have regular adventures outside. As long as I am fit enough to have a great adventure from time to time, and not unhealthy or unworkably injured, that's all I ask of my fitness routine.

    Chickaloon — I complain too much. I've engaged in this near-daily-activity/ endurance lifestyle for almost eight years now. I almost can't imagine living any other way, and genuinely remain quite conservative in how hard or far I push myself, to avoid having a prolonged period of inactivity forced upon me. When it comes to general fatigue, I feel I know my body quite well. Whenever I dip too far toward being overtrained in an unhealthy way, one of my first symptoms is severely exacerbated insomnia. Ever since those first two recovery weeks after Alaska, I've been sleeping great.

  6. Nobody is going to erect a memorial to your racing career when you are done. Nobody cares more than you how fast you go. The notion that going fast matters is in your head.

    This is supposed to be fun and keep you in shape, while buoying your spirits. If it ain't doing that for you anymore then WTF?

    After a tiring race season a couple of years ago, this thought occurred to me. I mothballed my garmin and haven't looked back. Am I as fast, no but I wouldn't trade the last few seasons adventures for those old race results that no one but me cared about.

    Strava is just feeding the collective insanity that other people care how fast you go, when all they really care about is how fast they go (and that is fueled by the myth that others are watching and give a s?!$.)

    Stop the madness. Try a month with no computers and see how it feels.

  7. Slow Cyclist — It doesn't have to be all or nothing. I don't consider myself all that competitive which is why Strava failed to capture my imagination early on, but I enjoy the occasional race with old me. Strava is a good archivist in this regard. It keeps all kinds of records that I don't otherwise have.

    How people use Strava is their own thing, just like everything else we do. I guess I don't understand ire against Strava because if you don't care, then you don't care. It seems obvious to me that no one else cares. I suppose a case can be made that it causes some people to act like jerks, but they would probably act like jerks with or without digitalized justification.

  8. To each his own. I agree with you on the Strava thing.

    What really did it for me was losing all the computers. It brought the joy back to cycling for me. Just the open road and riding for the experience is something I think we all could use a little more...even racers.

    You are right, it doesn't have to be all or nothing. It also doesn't have to be a computer on every ride though. Sometimes riding without a sense of time or speed is a good thing.

    I get the sense you get it Jill, I am just not sure we as a biking community do. Strava seems like a big step in the wrong direction to me, and I predict those KOM obsessed users will burn out on it eventually (hopefully before they injure themselves trying).

    Just my 2 cents.

  9. Strava - so everyone can own a world record.


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