Puzzle pieces

Take a puzzle - a bunch of random pieces forming a bigger picture. Cut to fit only the pieces next to them, putting a puzzle together is a challenge of focus and patience. And sometime just luck. Now imagine instead of one picture, there are five. All mixed together with nothing but the tiny pictures to provide clues. In addition to figuring out which peice is with which puzzle, you still have to put them together. It's the perfect metaphor for ultra endurance racing. In addition to the puzzle that is life, there are all these additional pieces to fit together. There is nothing quick or easy about figuring out the combined pictures. It take effort and patience. There is no rushing the process.
The puzzle pieces of life - waiting for someone to sit down and put it all together. 


One puzzle is training. That's what most people think of when preparing for a major event. Have I done the physical training? Put the miles and the hours in? Hit all my workouts and the targets for those workouts? This year, I've already been challenged like never before - and it's only April! I've also learned somethings that work well for me and reinforced the benefits of keeping in my other sports even while focusing on the bike. There's more then just the time on the bike or trails though - the little things also add up. Upper body strength to be able to handle the bike smoothly at hour 20 during a 24 hour race. Core stability to withstand a screaming fast descent at 2:00 am. Those things aren't frequently addressed and never make the epic blogs. It's just not fun - but oh so necessary. On the flip side of training - especially for ultra endurance events - is the risk of doing too much. Overtraining is an insidious shadow, lurking near the end of every training block and every workout. Putting the training puzzle together requires careful thought and evaluation of what your body can handle. If you're lucky, you will have help with this - I know I am with lucky to have Coach Adam keeping me grounded. 

But that's just the physical. Mental is another seperate picture. It doesn't mean much to have awesome training without then mental strength to back it up. Even short races have dark places mentally - I can remember struggling thru the miles of marathons that weren't going well, wanting to quit, but knowing I couldn't. And those were only three hour races. Now add on another four, fourteen or 21 hours onto that and imagine how deep the darkness gets. There's a lot of places where it would be easier the sit down and stop instead of focusing on forward motion. In some ways, you can train that mental strength - entire books have been written about winning the mental battle. But the will to keeping striving has to come from within. If the desire isn't there, then it doesn't matter about amount of training or reading. There's also recognizing when goals need to be modified and being willing to make the needed changes. A plan that dictates every action doesn't provide flexibility when things go wrong. People who have solved the mental puzzle will be able to analyze all of the possible situations, factor in the physical fatigue and stress and make the best decisions at that moment. Again, the team surrounding you makes the mental puzzle simpler, but when on the trail alone, there is no substitute for mental strength.  

Then there's equipment. This could be many smaller puzzles as well. The longer the race, the more involved it becomes. From the bike to the clothes to pack to carry it all or pit setup, there's so many little issues to keep track of. Just one wrong could cause complete collapse. Every item has to be evaluated - purpose, weight, and functionality. In a race such as a 24 hour race, things need to be organized and easy to find. Just because you'll be back in an hour or so, doesn't mean things can be scattered. Time is of the essence with time in the pits during 24 hour races. For longer trail races, where carrying everything is part of the race, functionaly is important. Does that light weight, packable rain jacket actually keep you dry? Will everything fit comfortably in what ever pack you select? Are the base layers going to keep you warm, but not overly warm when the sun comes out? And finally - the bike. Can you do all the basic repairs that might be needed on the trail? Beyond just the flat fixes - chain repair, a broken cable - things like that.

Finally of all the racing related puzzles, there is food. During training, recovery and at the race - what is going to provide the energy you need, the electrolytes required and not upset your stomach? This is the most personal and also one of the hardest puzzles to figure out. Everyone is different and while gels and sports drinks work great for some people, others may not be able to tolerate them for more then a few hours. Practice what you think you're going to want to eat in training and be ready to make changes. What works at one race might not work for another. I've gotten back to eating real food on the bike and not relying on the gels at all. It's helped me and I've had less issues with gut rot and not being able to take in calories. But the menu for a 24 hour race with access to the pits and a cooler full of food is going to be very different then a long, epic day on the bike. I still need to practice for the longer days and figure out what I can eat easily and carry easily. Lots of research still to be done here, which means time in the kitchen and in the bike! Two of my favorite things....

Of all the puzzles, life is the most important. It doesn't do any good to be a slave to every other demand racing requires if it's at the expense of life. Involving family and friends in the journey and working with them to reach your goals makes it easier - I've learned that the hard way. Sometimes that means training early before dawn. Sometimes a workout needs to get moved around to family activites can be accommodated. Life is compromise and deciding with compromises can be made is the bulk of the puzzle. If you're lucky (like me) your partner will also be involved and family time can be training time. This only works when both people are about the same speed otherwise there will be conflict in the very activity meant to bring you closer. Anticipate being out together, but alone on the trail. Bottom line is that being fast isn't as important as having a good support system. Life and family provide a support system, but only when that support is returned. This puzzle needs to be completed first or the rest of them will be meaningless. Build a happy and well rounded life before focusing intensely on the goals of racing. Those goals may change after some reflection....

That's what intrigues me about the ultra distances. Solving the big picture as well as the smaller puzzles. It takes more the pure speed to succeed  - it takes a complete athlete as well as planning  and a little bit of luck. Miss one part of the whole and success will be challenging. Take something for granted and it will be even harder. I've got some challenging races this year and I will need everything to reach my goals. The training, the mental, the equipment and the food all need to be addressed while I manage life. Right now, I've got the pieces scattered on the floor and am just starting the sorting process. It's going to be a long, fun journey that's been years in the making.

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