Aside from a stray month here and there when I was recovering from one injury or another, over the last four or five years if I happened to feel like riding a hundred miles on the next weekend I have no doubt I could have done it without leaving a mark. In the spring and summer my level of fitness is typically very good, but I kept my base up all year such that I never felt like I was never more than a few hard weeks away from good form.
The ability to clip in and ride for four to six hours has become a basic assumption in my life. If I need to peak then a couple months of long weekend rides sharpens my legs and I drop the kilogram or two I battle all year. Even when I am not at my peak I am still pretty good.
When we had our gravel camp this past June I was wrapping up phase one of my recovery from my surgery and I still did pretty well. It almost felt like cheating. I felt like I was able to get by on my good looks and charming personality. This only served to reinforce my self-image of invincibility. In hindsight, I think five years of base miles saw me through.
As the warranty period following my surgery (my words not the Dr.’s) was drawing to a close I tried to spark an episode just to confirm whichever side of the fence I was on. I set out on some rides with the specific goal of spending time redlined in Z5. What I found was that my legs had a really hard time getting there and I was also notably slower.
I targeted some sustained climbs that I had done before with the expectation they would put me in the red. After the first set I checked Strava expecting to see some impressive numbers in comparison to prior efforts. Not only did I fail to PR but I was slower than prior years. The prior efforts were not necessarily associated with peak fitness which was even more disheartening. I was lighter now compared to those prior efforts and my bike had better gearing for the stupid steep climb. WTF?
One of the harsh realities of the facts and data Strava spits out is that when you feel like you have put out a good effort that workout gets digitized and you can compare the details against past efforts to see where you really are. This is when the balloon starts making that damn hissing sound.
I’m still trying to deny that getting older is the root cause, but that is getting harder and harder as times relentlessly marches on. The other option, and the one that I am clinging to, is that I have just lost fitness as a result of time off and time less focused.
Two recent rides only served to complicate matters. On one of our recent gravel rides I didn’t dig very deep yet I kept up just fine and felt strong. This was a four plus hour adventure and late in the ride as El Jefe’ pulled away just for fun I held the gap until I was lost sight of KB at which point I backed off. My thought was that with just a bit more fitness I could have hung at the back of the first group.
Then I snuck in a longer ride after work, and although it was the polar opposite of the gravel ride (flat and smooth), it totally kicked my ass. I had a list of things I had planned to do at home after the ride. That list ended up being, eat, shower and fall into bed. I’ve never had a flat ride take so much out of me. I felt pathetic.
I had taken for granted that I had power in my legs and all I had to do was to decide to go and it would materialize. When you are fit it can be just like turning a knob. Dial up the effort and you go faster. There is more hurt, but you gladly accept that in return for the increased speed.
Greg Lemond famously said of training, “It never gets any easier, you just go faster.” With that in mind it is awkward when it does hurt, but instead of going faster you are going slower. It is demoralizing to put on the hurt and have the pain gauge tell you that you must be going fast only to realize that you are in fact……slow.
Edward Abbey declared, “Better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion.” The cruel truth is that I must adjust my current self-image to align with my present lack of fitness. This is made all the more awkward by my teammates casually flexing their end-of-season strength.
As my friend Todd says, “Happiness is attained by continually lowering the bar.” As an aging athlete, my goal is always to do the best given the present circumstances. It is frustrating that the current circumstances are not what I have come to expect from myself.
Aging or not, Rule # 5 still applies. I shall end my whining now.