Yesterday something truly magical happened. Out of 99 women on the medio Gran Fondo NJ route, I placed second on the timed climbs and got the QOM on a tough climb with double digit grades. Me? A climber? Wait, did someone swap timing chips? Remember, I’m the girl who spent years dropped off the back, scaling the elevation solo.
But the magic wasn’t a fluke or a random lucky day. It’s been in the works for two seasons now, slowly percolating since the day I stopped dreading ascents and decided it was time to shape myself into a climber. A few changes made a huge impact.
Weight assessment. I didn’t have a climber’s body and I still don’t. When I started mountain biking in 2004 I was 5’5″ and 160 pounds. I’ve slowly lost weight, dropped 10 pounds at the beginning of the season and am down to 133 pounds with a body fat percentage in the low 20s. Dragging excess weight up a hill sucks. As a bonus, my eating habits changed dramatically and I’ve dialed in a diet that fuels me with steady energy all day and helps recovery after hard workouts.
Attitude adjustment. Many people (women especially) sabotage themselves the minute they see a hill. “I can’t do it. I suck at climbing,” are some of the self defeating things I’ve heard riders mutter in the face of something steep. If this is what they’re saying, what more are they thinking? Trust me, I used to be the queen of self defeating thoughts. Our legs are limited by our mind. Negative thoughts quickly manifest into reality. I realized that hill climbing is nothing more than a mind game. Trick your mind and victory will follow. When the pain sets in I’ll recall longer and larger hills I’ve climbed well before. I’ll tell myself that I’m having a good day or that my legs have never felt better. As Jen’s says, “Shut up legs!” I’ve learned to transform the feeling of suffering into something positive, to take the opportunity the pain gives me to dig a little deeper and see just how well I can do. When you leave the door open, it’s amazing what you can accomplish. Attitude is everything. Stop the negative thoughts right now and you’ve just won half the battle.
Embrace humbling experiences. Want to climb better? Stop avoiding hills. Want to ride stronger? Find someone or a group that’s faster than you and try to hang on as long as possible. When you’re dropped, show up next week and try to go a little longer each time. This is humbling as hell, but we’ve all been there. Never apologize for being slow. You’re not. You’re learning, improving, practicing. Don’t label yourself. After a year of riding with a racing team and getting dropped in the first half of every ride, I decided to re-vist the ride this season. Not only did I not get dropped, but I sped off the front on the first hill and dropped them. I also regularly ride with my husband who’s a naturally gifted climber. He’s beaten me up 99.9% of the hills we’ve ridden together. But over the years the gap between us has shortened significantly. That’s progress.
Do something crazy. Nothing ever changes if you don’t take risks. I entered my first cross race last year and finished second to last. It was humbling and eye-opening. Maybe your humbling experience is a whopper of a climb or riding in a new area. In July my husband signed up for the Rapha Rising Circle of Death Challenge organized by Strava. The challenge was to climb 22,575 feet in seven days. Impossible, right? I’ve never climbed that much in a week. I signed up. I suffered. If my body wasn’t up to it, I would have stopped, but I felt stronger each day and I finished the challenge.
Learn a few tricks. Hills will hurt, but there are ways to strengthen your defense. It begins with breathing. Focus on the exhale and make it forceful. The inhale will come naturally, but you want to force the toxins out of your system and take deep, rhythmic breaths. No gasping. Find a rhythm between your breathing and your cadence. Always look up the road and have a mental plan for shifting. Never drop a bunch of gears suddenly or shift into the little ring without shifting to a harder gear or two on the cassette. This will keep your legs from suddenly spinning out the gear and losing momentum. Practice rolling over hills. Instead of putting all your energy into the first part of the climb, save something for the last third and finish strong, instead of burned out. Roll over the hill by saving enough energy to power over the top. Alternate standing and sitting, but watch letting either one burn you out too much. And if your legs tire from spinning, shift up a gear or two to give your aerobic system a break as you work your muscles. And believe in yourself and your potential. Never question this. Ever. You are a climber after all.