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Dispatches from Columbine — How to Handle a Mid-Race Crisis

By Rebecca Rusch

Bonking? Cramping? Lack of motivation? Here’s how to handle it if your wheels come off the cart in the middle of your race.

As Ken Chlouber likes to say about the Leadville Trail 100 MTB presented by Herbalife24, “It’s gonna hurt.”

He’s right. This race hurts. And I can tell you from experience that it hurts me just as much as it hurts you, just maybe not for quite as long.

Despite the best preparation, there will be long, lonely moments during this race when you will experience self-doubt, you will be in pain and you will wonder why you signed up for this. I know you will be feeling this way because so will I at some point during my race. Perhaps in those moments you can take solace in the fact that there are nearly 2,000 other riders out there who are also digging deep. No one is alone in suffering.

I strongly believe that endurance racing is both a physical and mental effort. Your strength needs to come not only from the muscles in your legs and lungs, but also from the muscle between your ears. In my experience, the longer the event, the more the scales tip to the mental side. You must be mentally strong and stubborn to haul yourself up and over all those hills and back to Sixth Street and Harrison.

So what do you do when the wheels come off the cart and you are miles from the finish line?

Here are a few of the key problems that can break athletes during the LT100 MTB and how to deal with them.

The best medicine for the dreaded bonk is prevention. Plan your nutrition, hydration and electrolytes for the entire event and stick to that plan. I mean, really stick to it. Adjust accordingly if it’s overly hot or for the extreme altitude. Formulating a good nutrition plan and sticking to it is the best bonk insurance you can get.

The first two hours are when riders are most likely to forget to eat and drink. This is when traffic and adrenaline peak and fueling is often an afterthought. If you reach the Pipeline aid station and have not finished a couple hours’ worth of food and drink, you have made a grave error that you may pay for dearly many hours later.

But what if you do bonk? Is the day over and is it time to throw in the towel? No way! You can recover, but it takes time and patience. You will need to slow your pace and prioritize fueling. The last thing you feel like doing when you are bonking is eating and drinking, but if you don’t get nutrition back into your body, then you’ll just continue to circle the drain.

Slow down and begin to sip and nibble every few minutes. Don’t cram three hours worth of nutrition into one hour because this will just overload your stomach and can potentially cause gastric distress and vomiting. Slow-and-steady fueling with a lowered heart rate is the key to getting back on track. You can patiently keep moving forward instead of stopping, but just take your time. You will start to feel life come back into your body as the calories and fluid take hold.

Cramping is caused by an imbalance in your body. It can be an electrolyte imbalance, fluid imbalance or muscle overload. Cramping is not always nutritionally based. Sometimes you have just worked so incredibly hard that your muscles are telling you to stop. I rarely cramp, but have had a few episodes during the LT100 MTB, usually around Powerline or up at the Carter Lakes mini aid station, where I’m feeling the dangerous twinges and hoping they don’t grab hold completely.

In 2010, I fell off my bike at that aid station with a severe calf cramp. The aid station volunteers produced a saltshaker that saved me. If you do feel cramps coming on, it’s time to check your hydration and electrolyte levels and increase your intake of both. You’ll likely need to slow down a little and also really manage how you push on the pedals. Smooth spinning will keep cramps at bay better than mashing a big gear. Focus on using parts of your legs that are not cramping and relaxing the seizing muscle.

Lack of motivation
A friend of mine who was an experienced endurance racer when I was just getting started said to me, “You can run across the hot coals or you can walk across them.” I think about this all the time when a race hurts and the end seems so far away. The fastest way to get there is to just get your butt to the finish line. It’s going to hurt no matter what, so you might as well make it hurt for the least amount of time possible.

I play other mind games to keep myself motivated. Sometimes I focus on my odometer and try to maintain a certain mileage per hour. I break the race into sections and focus on just the Columbine climb or just until the next aid station. Set small goals, and don’t focus on the big picture until you are well on your way home.

Misery loves company, so find some friends out there and work together. Think about your friends and family waiting for you at the finish line. Remember all the hard work you did to get to this point and the hard-earned cash you plopped down to have the privilege of riding your bike on August 9. Think about all the athletes who wanted to be racing Leadville and are not able to for whatever reason.

Like Ken says, “No crybabies.” Whatever is going on with you, ask yourself if it’s a true crisis or just a bump in the road. Sometimes a simple shift in attitude is all it takes to keep spinning your pedals toward the finish line.

Want more tips, motivation and preparation? I’m hosting an entire week of events in Leadville to share anything and everything I know about racing in the LT100 MTB. I hope you can #JoinTheRusch.


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