Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Low-Key Hillclimb: Soda Springs

My original plan was to run the Soda Springs Road Low-Key Hillclimb: a steady 5.3 mile slog at 8.5%. But Cara suggested I should do a long, flat run in preparation for the California International Marathon, which I'm running, in three weeks. Specificity suggests running up steep hills isn't the best preparation for that.

So I registered instead as a rider. Never before had I done a Low-Key with such poor preparation. I'd been focusing on running since August, and as my running recovery and distance grew, my riding numbers diminished in proportion until even my short rides to and from the train I take to work were gone: replaced with runs or walks.

I knew from past years the effect running can have on my riding. I'd do a Low-Key Hillclimb on Saturday, run Sunday and Tuesday, then ride Old La Honda with the noon ride on Wednesday before easy rides Thursday and Friday in preparation for the next Low-Key. On my Wednesday climb I'd be dreadfully uncompetitive, unable to keep up with guys who I was able to finish ahead of on Saturday. Part of this was my bike: my Fuji SL/1 racing bike is considerably lighter, and with time trial tires lower rolling resistance, then the Ritchey Breakaway I typically use during the week. But simple physics said weight was only a fraction of the difference: my legs felt like sludge following the run.

But my recovery from runs had improved substantially since I started focusing on running in August. For example, consider this past week. On Sunday I raced the San Francisco Half Marathon, where I did close to expectations. On Monday I ran to the train, just 0.8 miles. Then Tuesday I added a slow group run at work for 9.3 miles total on the day. Wednesday I took this longer: an 11 mile total. Then Thursday another good solo run (this time a Trader Joe's run where I picked up some snacks which I carried in my hands the rest of the way). With my train runs that totalled 11.3 miles. Friday I did commute runs totaling 2.5 miles. So that was 48.0 miles in the preceding 6 days, not counting walking. On the other hand, all of this running meant I knew I could sustain a degree of suffering for at least the 1:31 it took me to finish the Half (once I cleared start line traffic). Soda Springs had taken me 32:06 last time we'd done it, in 2009. It was a mere sprint, shorter than any running race I do.

I warmed up by climbing the bottom half of the climb, then descending. When I started my descent I noticed my brake pads were squealing. Not too surprising, I decided, since I'd cleaned my chain with WD-40 that morning and likely some had gotten on the rims. But then I alarmingly realized I'd forgotten to swap the rubber metal-rim brake pads for my Swiss-Stop yellow carbon-specific brake pads. The common knowledge is that with rubber pads, metal shards become embedded in the rubber from the rim and, if subsequently used on carbon, can abrade it. But I had no choice: I had to get back down the hill.

At the start I pulled off my wheel. This wasn't as easy as it should have been since I'd swapped my light KCNC quick release skewers for lighter skewers which require a hex wrench, and I had to borrow a hex wrench. Sure enough, my pads had embedded pieces of metal in them. Fortunately with Soda Springs Road's steady grade I'd not need to brake on the climb. But the following descent seemed like a terrible idea. Maybe I could find something at the top to pick out the metal pieces, like a knife or nail file or safety pin.

And after I organized other riders at the start line, this week trying a new experiment where I'd pre-assigned start line positions (it worked great), it was time to start. Howard and Barry started their cars, Howard hit his horn, and it were off.

I suddenly felt a jolt of adrenaline. I was ready to hammer this puppy: no speed was too great, no rider too strong, for me to hang on. Unfortunately, reality gradually imposed itself, and I was forced to slot in with a group as we watched the leaders methodically pull away. I didn't try to think about it: the goal was to find my pace and stick to it.

Riding hurt, but in a different way than it hurts when I've been riding too much. Fatigue from running occurs to different muscles than are the focus in cycling, so these muscles complain disproportionate to their propulsive contribution. Whereas when I'm tired from riding, the activity just makes things progressively worse, with running fatigue it tends to be that the fatigue remains constant, so instead of a slowly increasing level of suffering culminating in the final push to the finish, I suffer the whole way.

This struck home when I looked at my Edge, which was serving basically as a stop watch since I'd not put it on the correct display page for lap distance/altitude, and saw 6+ minutes. Ouch: I expected this to take around 32. So I tried to not worry about 32 minutes and focus instead on 10. After the first 10 comes the second 10 and then there's only 10 more until I'm in the final two and I can always deal with two minutes of pain.

Riding to my constant pain threshold, I went from losing ground to passing riders. I took this as a good sign: I wasn't fading, and once fading begins, it tends to accelerate.

I passed a driveway where the owners were hanging prominent "No Trespassing" signs, blocking the way. I smiled. Tresspassing was obviously the last thing on my mind passing the driveway. They'd known we were riding here today, and I wondered at what sort of paranoia possessed them to go through this effort.

Ten minutes came and went: I did it once, I could do it again.

Thomas Preisler photo

One of the deals we'd made with the local residents was that if there were cars passing each other, we'd stop to let them do so, then the time taken would be subtracted at the finish. Sure enough I came to the local F250-sized truck barely squeezing by another resident's normal-size car on the narrow road. Who buys such a huge vehicle on a road barely wide enough for two cars? Well, maybe he had a good reason. Fortunately, though, they cleared each other before me or the riders around me arrived. I gave a friendly wave to the driver and continued on.

Every little distraction helps. By this time I was chasing another rider. Ahead of him, I saw who I thought was Daryl Spano, someone I'd been able to finish ahead of when going well, but who beats me when I'm not. He'd lost a lot of weight this year and was super-lean, and was climbing strongly. But maybe this late in the year he was becoming tired. Daryl would disappear around a corner only to re-appear when line of sight improved. But eventually he stopped re-appearing.

I still had the other rider, though, Jared Hudson of Squadra SF, so I focused on him.

With all of this focus on other riders whiz-bang I was well past twenty minutes. The ride was entering end-game.

I eventually caught Jared and was able to pass him. The time had reached 30 minutes and no end in sight but I knew the finish was approaching. I could tell from the view we were approaching the top, yet I looked for the "200 paces" sign which indicated the sprint would begin.

And then it appeared: time to let loose all inhibitions and simply ride as fast as I could. Cara was there: she had climbed the hill earlier, and she shouted someone was chasing me. My finishing kick is typically a weakness, but I hoped I had enough of a gap. And I did: I crossed the line, slowing slightly just before due to the crowd which was forming not far past.

My time, 33:16, was initially unimpressive in comparison to the 32:06 I got in 2009. According to my ride reports from that climb I was around 1 kg lighter then (I've lost weight this year since I started focusing on running after the Mt Tam Double, but I'm not quite to my optimal climbing mass yet). That's close to 25 seconds right there, and would take me down to 32:51. But also consider that this was the first hard ride I'd done in well over a month. I'd ridden "sweeper" up West Alpine Road the week before, a nice easy pace up that climb. But I'd done no hard climbing in what seems forever. This was the first Low-Key I'd ridden this year.

Consider as well my state of fatigue. My preparation for climbs has always been a day of recovery and a day of light effort in the two days preceding. This week I recklessly did a decently long run on Thursday, then some light running the day before. After long runs Tue, Wed, and Thu, not to mention that hard half marathon last Sunday, my legs were tired.

Given that, I have to say I'm pleased with how it went. I finished up with some solid climbers. I had fun, I pushed myself hard, and got to ride on a world-class cycling road. I couldn't ask for more than that.

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