Well, that's it for my gravel season. I couldn't be happier with how it went. It wasn't all roses, but suffering is a big part of this particular game. I trained hard this year, harder than I've been able to in year's past because I was healthier, my knees in particular.
I'm rarely concerned with 'beating' people at these races. It's not the metric I use to evaluate my performances. Instead I focus on how I felt, how I raced, how my race plan worked, my equipment choices panned out. Perhaps the two most important questions I ask myself are 1. did I finish and 2. did I leave it all out there? If I answer yes to both of those, then it's a success. Of course, you have to answer yes to #1 before you can do so with #2. So this year was the year of completion. I finished every race I entered. That makes me very happy. And in almost every case, I can also answer yes to the second question. Learning to empty the tank, with a measured effort, over the course of 10 plus hours, is not easy. But I'm getting there. Here are my four biggest takeaways from this season:
1. Mental discipline - It ain't always easy to stay positive. But in the darkest moments is exactly when you need to do so. What a paradox! This year I worked hard on not dwelling on the downside of a situation. I focused on the fact that I was breathing. I was out doing something I love: riding a bike. I reminded myself that it's okay to slow a bit to collect yourself. I certainly found myself taking a few moments to look around. I often find myself concentrating so hard on finding the fastest line that I forget that the roads I'm on take me to some beautiful places. So stay positive. Take control of your thoughts. (Sorry if I'm starting to sound like a Jedi, but they had something important figured out)
2. Keep moving - Take pleasure in movement, however slow. In races, you can shave an incredible amount of time by limiting your stoppage. When you approach a checkpoint or aid station, have a mental checklist of what you need to accomplish while you're there. Then get the hell out of Dodge! Be sure to offer a hearty "thank you!" as you leave. It buoys your spirit and the volunteers (and they're always volunteers, out giving up their day to help us poor saps). You can jump forward several groups without going any faster on the road this way. Even if you leave solo and want to wait for a group to catch you, you can spin easily, eat some food and get some fluids down. Just keep moving!
3. Do your homework - Tire choice, gearing, nutrition all play a big factor in your day going well. If the event is new to you, do some research online. Reach out to the promoter or someone who has raced it before. The gravel and mountain bike communities are made up of people happy to share their experiences. Don't be afraid to ask for help. On several occasions I had a lot more fun racing because I put a little extra thought into my preparation. A good example was Land Run. I brought two sets of wheels, one with narrower tires for wet conditions and a set with wider tires in case it stayed dry. I also brought along my Mike Johnson, special edition, shish-kebab skewer/mud scraper. I had a great day because I was ready for the course and its infamous red clay mud.
4. I need less food than I think but just as much fluid as I think - This year I consistently overestimated the amount of food that I could and/or needed to consume during a race. Aside from some tender tummy issues, I never bonked during races. Perhaps I'm becoming more calorically efficient, who knows. But in any case, I can afford to go a bit lighter in this respect for single day races. On the other hand, I do need to carry all the fluids I usually plan for. I suffered in the heat at several events this year and through extra fluids consumed and used to douse myself I managed to get through the rough patches.
So those are the takeaways for me. Already looking forward to next year and all the hard-fought learning that will come with it. Onward!