It has become popular belief that the off-season should be spent resting and recovering after a long year of hard training and racing. After months spent on the road hammering away on the pedals in a never-ending repetition of circles, by the time September roles around the body is a bloodied battlefield and the mind a frail, weeping child left alone in the trenches. Common sense and modern science say it’s time for a break. But modern science and common sense are WRONG. It’s time to thrust that weeping child into a pair of combat boots and give him a bayonet. It’s time to grow a pair and swing ‘em around in a circle for all to see. We get to do our sport while sitting down for crying out loud! The off-season isn’t about taking it easy, doing yoga, sitting in a warm bubble bath and listening to Cheryl Crow (although I don’t frown upon that for other purposes). NO. The off-season is about saying, “Hey body, you think you’re hurting now? Well just wait and see what I have in store for you over the next six weeks, ya damn whimp!” If done successfully, by the time serious on-the-bike training begins in November, you’ll be so hardcore that cycling will seem like a stroll in the park. In fact, the off-season is actually those other 11 months of the year that you ride and race a bicycle. Now is the time to go on an all meat diet, grow a mullet, take up spear fishing and jiu-jitsu, climb a mountain or two, and start a fight with a badger. Frankly, Nancy boy, it’s time to Harden Up.
I wasted little time when my off-season began a few weeks ago. My first activity was to go wakeboarding. This proved to be very un-hardcore. Wakeboarding, though fun, did not make me any harder than I already was. Most of my time wakeboarding was spent eating chips and salsa in the back of the boat and staring at the two girls in bikinis sitting next to me. I guess I hardened up a bit, you could say.
Next up was a stop to the skate park. I only watched, so that wasn’t very hardcore at all. But I DID have to stand up for an extended period of time.
A few days later I went on a run. It was more of a walk, actually. I ran for a few hundred meters, got a side cramp and had to walk it off. Eventually I started running again and did a solid mile before I turned around and started walking again, this time because my knees were screaming at me to stop. I think I did two miles in a little under half an hour. It was hilly though. Hardening up takes patience.
The next week I did some cross-training type stuff, which included a bunch of sprints (running sprints) and a few hundred jumps. It left me really sore for the next couple days (actually I’m still sore). But that’s what hardening up is all about. Getting really sore. My next step to get hard would leave me sorer than I had been all year. My next task was walking.
This wasn’t just any walk, though; it was a hike. My teammate, Spencer, and I set out to do the Wonderland Trail in Washington, which circumnavigates the 14,400-foot volcano, Mt. Rainier. The trail is 93 miles long and has a total of 22,000 feet of elevation gain. And 22,000 feet of elevation loss too, which in a cyclist’s mind don’t exist. In backpacking, they do. They actually exist twice as much as the uphill.
We failed miserably. Setting an unrealistic goal of 30 miles a day, we planned on doing the entire trail in three days, carrying 35-pound packs. Turns out our completely non-impact sport didn’t carry over so well to a sport that is 100% impact. We made it 19 miles on our first full day (the previous evening we had time for six miles after driving to the trailhead). After our 19-mile, 12-hour day we woke up completely wrecked. Even if we turned back, it was going to take the next two days to just make it back to the car alive. And it did take the next two days. By the time we got to within a mile of the parking lot, we were going so slow that a legless chipmunk passed us. Seriously, though, it took us over an hour to do the last mile. For those math whizzes out there, that equates to less than a mile an hour. We slept in a hotel that night and cried ourselves to sleep. Turned out we weren’t as hard as we thought.
If at first you don’t succeed, go and do the exact same thing and expect a different outcome. I think that’s how that saying goes, or at least that’s what it implies. And that’s what I did. First I went on a few more runs, dug out a huge tree stump from someone’s yard, and went dancing. Yes dancing hardens you up. If you’re even questioning this you’ve obviously never spent four hours in a static squat, which is the equivalency of grinding all night at the clubs. So anyways, I ate some steaks, applied gel to my mullet, developed an upper respiratory infection, and set out on my next hike. This time I was going to harden up or die, which, come to think of it, would be pretty hardcore.
My mom dropped me off at the Timberline Ski Lodge on the slopes of Oregon’s Mt. Hood on an early, cold October morning. It was still dark when I took off in search of the trailhead of the Timberline Trail, a 41-miler that traverses the base of Mt. Hood. Like the Wonderland Trail, it involves thousands upon thousands of feet of climbing and descending. A knee breaker for sure. But I was ready for it. My knees had adapted from the last hike and I was going to crush this trail.
My knees started hurting almost immediately as I walked up the paved path under the ski lift on my way to the trail. “Crap, this is going to hurt”. Time to harden up.
And harden up I did. I busted out the first nine miles in a little over two hours, running short sections at times, only stopping to eat “fun-sized” Snickers and drink my ultra low-weight food system made of maltodextrin and whey protein. I didn’t bring any two-pound cans of corned beef like Spencer and I did on the other hike. This time I was going ultra lightweight. Nothing but the essentials. No tent, no extra clothes, no toothbrush, no stove. Just 10,000 calories-worth of candy bars, instant pudding, and maltodextrin. A diet for someone who’s serious about getting hard.
Things went south (actually east) when I got to mile nine and became incredibly lost. I came to a large glacially carved riverbed and went east when I was supposed to head west. Unlike the fake world we live in, the outdoors doesn’t mark every intersection with a sign. I spent hours scrambling over boulders in the riverbed trying to find the trail on the other side. I finally said screw it and climbed the cliff on the adjacent side of the river and began hiking through the forest in search of where I thought the trail should be. Long story short…I mean loooooonnnnngg story short, I found it and got back on track after my short, six-mile detour. I spent no time celebrating, as there was daylight to kill. Plus I had to drop some imaginary teammates drafting behind me. I mean competitors.
I dropped them on the next big climb as I put in a hard attack at the base and kept it at threshold for a good 30 minutes before stopping to take a drink of water. My knees were throbbing pretty good by now but my legs were still fresh. I had been hiking for seven hours by now and had another five hours of daylight. My legs didn’t stay fresh for long.
Over the next five hours, I went from that one “evolved” image of man on the far right to the knuckle-dragging one on the left. It got dark at 7PM and I dropped my bag on the side of the trail at the very top of a ridge, which is a good place to spend the night without a tent…only if you want to harden up. It got very windy and cold. And I spent most of the night in the fetal position hearing imaginary bears walking in the woods around me, which I’m fairly certain actually existed.
The next morning I woke up with painful wooden planks attached to my torso where my legs should have been. I had done 33 miles the previous day and I was feeling it now. But, as a disciple of the Harden Up Church, I put on my shoes and started trotting down the path, grimacing until the endorphins took over. Today was only going to be 14 miles anyways. Not too big of an obstacle.
Except for the small detail that the trail was closed at the next river crossing due to it not existing anymore. In 2006, the trail had been washed away in a major flood. The banks had been deteriorating ever since and now there was a 100-foot drop off to the river below, as trail signs had warned me a few miles earlier. Not to worry, though, I used to be a rock climber so I bushwhacked my way through the over-grown trail and found the edge of the cliff. It was steeper than I had imagined. And it wasn’t just rock. It was a mixture of car and bowling ball-sized boulders cemented into crumbling dirt and mud. Many of the boulders were loose. There was a rope that people used to use to get down, but it had been cut half way through by the park service to deter people from being unsafe and trying to climb down the cliff. Yes, it’s much safer now that there is a rope that goes half way down. Thanks for that. Anyways, this didn’t matter to me since I wasn’t going to depend on a rope anyways. I was getting pretty hard by then so I climbed down, avoided the falling rocks, crossed the river, and climbed back up the other side without incident. This made up for my previous un-hardcore whimpering the night before when the slightest scurry of a mouse would set my mind to bear terror mode.
I won’t bore you with the details since you’ve got a lot of hardening up to do in the next month, but I finished the hike a short five hours later, tore the loose skin off my blisters and gave a middle finger to the bike gods. “See that?” I said. “Yeah, this is who you’re going to have to deal with next year. I’m gonna break some cranks, just wait and see.”
I’ve got a ways to go before I consider myself to be truly hardcore, but I did quite a bit of hardening up over the last couple weeks. If you haven’t started yet, I recommend doing so now. Remember, start out nice and slow, and then immediately go as hard as you can. This isn’t training. You aren’t supposed to do it intelligently. So go start a bonfire with a gallon of gas. Go throw some bricks off a bridge. Go crash a frat party. Hell, if you’re up to it, go on a long, long walk. Just remember one thing: you’re a weak-boned cyclist so don’t get too discouraged if you can’t handle it at first. Pain is good, though. It will make you stronger for next year.