You're in my cycling class. We've been climbing hard for two minutes straight. It's the last of four hills. Your quads are screaming, your soleus and gastroc muscles are screaming, your hip flexors and glutes are screaming. Your body is telling you it's done. From the front of the room I yell, "Alright! Final push to the top! Move those legs as fast as you can go!" And somehow, through the agonized objections of your body, you find a new gear and hit the end of the track at an all-out sprint.
"Good," I say. "Let's cool down."
I hope you've had this experience. The first time I felt it was at UCSB last year. It was an ocean swim. I couldn't feel my legs by the end of the 20k bike. I traipsed off onto the run and I was not. happy. to be there. There were steep, sandy hills on the course. My calves were burning like Malibu (too soon?). All I wanted to do the whole time was walk.
Then I got to the second mile marker, checked my watch, and realized I was on pace for a sub-30:00 5k. I had never run a 5k in under 30 minutes. I kept going. By the end, I was at an all-out sprint. I ran across the finish line smiling and flashing the "Fight On!" sign. It was the hardest thing I'd ever done. But it taught me quite convincingly that pain and fatigue do not rule my body; I can push through the desire to stop or to slow down, and have the performance of my life.
On Sunday, I went out to Lake Afton for a swim and a bike ride with a few of my athletes. We swam 1400 meters (the last 350 really slow, because we couldn't find Rich) then transitioned (very slowly, thanks Heidi) to our bikes. Rich told me to go out as hard as I wanted; he and Heidi would bring up the rear.
Now a few things you have to know about Rich. He's almost 60. He's just started doing triathlons this year. He's already asking about the USAT ranking system. And he's been cycling for twice as long as I have been alive. Give or take a few years. Rich has got power and ability and speed and endurance and form that I just don't have yet. Or didn't think I had.
For our bike ride, we did a quick 7 miles out and a quick 7 miles back. MacArthur road has a few short climbs, but not much elevation gain (natch, it's Kansas). I would call the terrain undulating. But there are a few short uphills steep enough to warrant dropping a gear or two. And on one of the first of these undulations, Rich comes zipping right past me like I'm standing still (at 17.4 MPH). I wasn't embarrassed, really, at being beat by someone almost 3 times my age; he did make me think I needed to work harder. Then he dropped back with Heidi and I took off through the flats at 20 MPH.
On the way back, I took it really easy; I wanted to chat with the group. But about 4 miles from the lake I realized that I had to pee, so I started booking again. Once again, on one of those little hills, I hear Rich coming up from behind, and he passes me (again! at almost 18 MPH!) like I'm standing still.
"Not this time, old man," I thought, and took off after him. I dropped my heels and dug into my pedals and kept accelerating until I started reeling him in.
And I was going 23.4 MPH. I did not know I could go that fast on an uphill, even with a little bit of tailwind.
I shocked myself. And the crazy thing is that (it was hard but) it wasn't that hard! I got out of breath; my legs didn't particularly want to hold that pace uphill for an extended period of time. But it felt good to put down the hammer like that. And inspiring to know that I have a little more potential than I thought. Maybe I've been holding myself back, taking it a little bit too easy; maybe I've allowed myself to be satisfied with the improvements I've made in my cycling speed this year, without realizing how much more I'm capable of.
It reminded me of those cycling classes, when I've had the group climbing out of the saddle for a whole song, then I demand that they sprint to the end. You know, I have to do that too, when I coach it. And it still surprises me, every time, when my body demonstrates that it is capable of finding a higher gear, beyond the pain and fatigue of muscles that seem like they're already shot. And the act of pushing through is almost like achieving Nirvana.
If you've never had that experience, next time you're out on a ride or a run, try picking up the pace just before you crest a hill; try to build momentum before gravity takes a hand.
See what happens and let me know.