Becoming one with the heat

I’m sick of reading all the stupid, lazy “How to beat the heat in your next race” articles written lately so I’ve decided to write my own. My problem with the mainstream ones is that they all to touch on the same, already-known bits of useless advice like “make sure to drink a sports drink with plenty of electrolytes” and “stay hydrated the day before.” They all say almost the same thing, and although what they tell you is true, they need to go into more depth to really do any good. Without an explanation of why something works, what’s the point? So here’s my shot at it. All of this is firsthand knowledge. Triathlete readers: some of this will only be useful to bike racers.

  • Don’t be fat. I’m not trying to be funny or mean; the fact is that being lean is the single-most important thing you can do to race well in the heat. Fat is insulation. It hinders conductance of your muscles and blood by hiding them deep beneath fat instead of transporting body heat outwards to your skin where it can be cooled via convection by blood and conduction by tissue. When it comes to racing in the heat, the leaner you are the better. Adversely, being super lean in the cold can be a detriment.photo 2My legs aren’t always vascular, but when they are they look as gross as the backs of a 98-year-old’s hands.
  • Train in the heat. Even two weeks out from race day you can make huge adaptations by submersing yourself in the heat. If you know your race is going to be really hot, don’t purposefully train when it’s cool at 7AM, unless you live in Tucson or somewhere stupidly hot. Training in the heat forces your body to store extra plasma. This increases your blood volume and lowers your hematocrit (without getting rid of those invaluable red blood cells of course) so your blood is less viscous and easier to pump. Training in the heat also increases capillary density so you can dissipate heat better through your skin. Capillaries are essentially tiny veins that carry blood, water, oxygen, and other stuff from to the tissue they surround. (If your race isn’t going to be super hot, purposely training at the hottest time of the day may not be necessary or even worth the risk, since you can’t produce the same power in the heat and training in hot temps can lead to overtraining).
  • Don’t just train in the heat. Become one with it. This can only be done in the sauna. Sauna training, which I’ve written about before, is one of the most crucial things I do to prepare for a hot race. Like training in the heat, sauna training drastically increases capillary density and plasma storage. It’s super painful and draining though. 20-30 minutes in 180 degree heat, post ride with no water, is more than tough. It’s brutal. But worth it if you can stick it out for a week. For the full protocol on sauna training, scroll to the bottom.
  • The days leading up to your race, begin drinking extra water. Liters of extra water, not cups. Along with that extra water, pound the sodium. Note how I didn’t say “electrolytes.” The only electrolyte you lose in significant amounts during workouts and races is sodium. You have plenty of potassium, calcium, magnesium, chloride, etc. stored in your body and they can easily be replenished with regular old food, assuming you eat fruit and vegetables somewhat regularly. When it comes to sports drinks, the only electrolyte you should care about is sodium. And you need a lot of it. Not 50 or 100 milligrams. Shoot for thousands of milligrams. Skratch Hyper and OSMO Pre Load each have over 1,500mg per serving. Leading up to a hot race, or when I’ve been training a lot in the heat, I take a serving or two a day of one of those. This helps your body hold onto extra plasma and saturates your tissues with water, which can be sweated out later when needed. If you’re too cheap for expensive magic bags of salt, Top Ramen works well. You can just drink the broth and chuck the noodles if you want. Be careful when just loading up on regular sodium though. Continue reading below.
  • Skratch, OSMO, and Clif use sodium citrate, which is easier on your stomach that sodium chloride (table salt). Typically, you’ll find sodium chloride in low-quality, sugary sports drinks like Gatorade. Too much sodium chloride (or any type of sodium for that matter) will give you the shits. So don’t overdo it the morning or day before the race, since diarrhea and vomiting tend to cause dehydration. And if you can, stick to the stuff that works (OSMO, Skratch, Clif, and other hydration formulas that don’t just use sodium chloride. You can even just buy sodium citrate by the pound online. It’s not very expensive.
  • During exercise, regular Skratch, OSMO, and Clif hydration mixes have 250-350mg of sodium per serving. One liter an hour for a hot race should be the bare minimum, and should be easy enough to do on the bike. That would be around 700mg per hour. For a four-hour race, that’s just shy of 3,000mg. Considering you can easily sweat out 1,000mg an hour during a cool race, you’re still going to be in a deficit for the next day so hit the sodium hard after the race if there are more stages to come.
  • Before your hot race, don’t do a big warmup unless you’re racing a TT. Staying cool before the race is important, because every minute your body isn’t overheating is one more minute you’re competitive in the race. Once your core temperature goes above 102 degrees, you start losing massive amounts of power.
  • Stay out of the sun before the race. Another duh. Line up somewhere close to the start in the shade. I see people chat in the parking lot directly in the sun all the time when it’s 90+ degrees out. It’s stupid. Don’t start the race already hot and in a deficit. Pound water and stay out of the sun, preferably somewhere with AC as long as you can.
  • Use ice socks during and before the race. Put them down your back or chest during the race (obviously), and your groin before the race (not obviously). Putting ice or ice socks (a pantyhose filled with ice) down your groin hurts like a mother, but that region of your body has more blood flow per square inch than anywhere else on your body that you could reasonably put an ice sock. I use the word reasonably very loosely. Also, building yourself an ice vest out of duct tape and sheets of plastic ice pockets (the kind that look like a sheet of ice cubes) works well and is way cheaper than buying one. They keep you cool for about 30 minutes standing around at the start before on a hot day.
  • Dunk your jersey in cold water before the race. Dunk your bibs and shoes/socks too for that matter.
  • Assuming the team car or feed zone is readily accessible (Elite nationals not included), dump bottles on yourself, especially your legs, as often as you can. The plus side of going back for bottles during a hot race is that you’re probably going to be the best hydrated guy on the team.
  • Shave your entire body and buzz your head. It works. Even small arm hairs trap heat. You’ll feel the difference and you’ll thank me. Plus you’ll look better. Shaving your armpits and groin makes a difference, though it’s not comfortable by any means. I just shaved our dog Maybellene so she could be more competitive at the dog park this summer. Is my dog more committed than you? Probably.
  • Unzip your damn jersey. Seriously, I don’t understand why people don’t do this and then later complain about cramping out of the lead group. That extra breeze could have been the ticket. Unzip your jersey all the way, and if you don’t have to carry bottles for anyone, tuck the ends of it behind your back bib straps before the start so your jersey isn’t flapping annoyingly against your sides for hours on end. It should look something like this:

1044336_10100778653589018_837631576_nTry not to make that face though.

Sauna training

13 days before your event, begin the dry sauna training, which is pretty miserable after riding for five hours or however long your workout was. Sit in the sauna for 20-30 minutes right after each ride for 7 days in a row. Go as soon as you can after your ride. I just park my bike at the rec center, grab a towel on the way in, shower off, and I’m in the sauna within five minutes of finishing my workout. Don’t rehydrate before going in though. Counterintuitive? Yes. Only consume enough liquid to get your recovery drink down.

Sit high up in the sauna (which should be between 170-180 degrees) for as long as you can, only coming down to the lower benches if and when you have to. It’s pure torture to make it a full half our at 180 degrees when your body is already depleted of liquid and energy after a hard workout. Go as long as you can. You might only last 15 minutes the first time.

When you get out of the sauna, don’t take a cold shower. Take a warm one. More importantly, don’t consume huge amounts of water at once when you get out. Don’t chug the water. Slowly sip to rehydrate for the next 3-4 hours so the heat stress you just put yourself through doesn’t go to waste. You want your body to suffer and adapt to the suffering, just like in training. This is crucial and miserable as well. Remember, you only have to make it through a week of this. Make sure to take in a LOT of sodium during this week, and you’ll have to drink extra liquid throughout the day too.

Stop five days before your event to let your hydration levels bounce back and your body super-compensate with extra plasma stores, more red blood cells (in theory), and increased capillary density. I recommend doing a practice run of this protocol during training a few months before your target race, just to make sure your body can handle it, similar to how you shouldn’t use new equipment for the first time on race day.

Boulder 70.3

This post will contain many disgusting moments. Prepare yourself.

It was a restless night of sleep filled with nightmares for Adelaide and rolling around in sweat-soaked sheets for myself. I haven’t been sleeping well or very many hours the past couple weeks for some reason. Even turning the AC on in the evening didn’t help put me to bed the night before the race. For one thing, I was nervous. Super nervous. The kind of nervous that only a cat 5 gets before a race. I haven’t been nervous for a bike race in nine years. So being this excited again to compete feels….good.

Pancakes and a mason jar of death-strong coffee brewed by Galen jolted me back to life at 5:00 AM on Saturday, the day of the race. Adelaide and I got on our bikes and coasted most of the 10-minute ride to the Boulder Reservoir, where the race was held. It was pretty awesome being able to roll out of bed and be at the race start 17 minutes later. None of this 12 hour drive nonsense.

While prepping in the transition zone, I looked around at the other pros to see how they positioned their gear. I also noticed that we had our own porta potties, which had seat heaters, triple-ply toilet paper, and cappuccino machines at waist level inside the door for our convenience. I shat thrice before getting in the lake to warm up. I’d been filling up on extra rice the day before, but most likely it was my nerves that were making me so void of shit. The last one was mostly liquid, and foretold of horrible things to come.

IMG_0563
Confused about the race belt.

The start horn went off and the madness began. There were less than 30 of us but the instant fight for positioning meant we were bumping, slapping hands on feet, and churning the water into a violent froth. I was getting passed left and right and unable to get onto anyone’s feet for a draft. Unknown to me just a week prior, you use 25% less energy by drafting during the swim. Depending on the conditions, of course, that’s akin to the draft you get while riding a bike. Huge. I knew I had to make it onto someone’s feet but before I knew it, almost all of the guys had vanished ahead with an insurmountable gap. I had gone out hard but not hard enough to make it with the leaders, so I was left with the shitty swimmers. I let two guys come around me and I sat on their feet for 10 or more minutes, swimming super easily in their bubbles. After a while it felt so easy that I decided to ditch the group and go on my own.

I spent the next 10 minutes swimming hard while they drafted off me like I’d been doing to them, then with a few hundred meters to go we got passed by two women, who’d started five minutes behind us. My heart sank to the bottom of the lake, past the water weeds, and settled into the thick mud at the bottom to be pecked at by tiny fish and lobsters.

The swim was over. I slogged out of the water panting like an obese child chasing an ice cream truck and got through the transition zone without too much confusion.

IMG_0569

Getting on the bike felt good and things were right with the world once again. I passed half a dozen guys (including the two women) within the first two miles. After that, I was in no man’s land. I was confident I’d catch plenty of people though, since my power was decent and my average speed kept going up, eventually maxing out at 27.8mph by mile 20. I knew that 27mph was a good time for this course so doing 28 would be fantastic.

And also unrealistic.

My glutes went to pieces by mile 30. My power took a nose dive too. An hour later I took a wrong turn, caught the mistake just in time, and narrowly avoided riding up on the sidewalk as I locked my brakes up and screamed a nasty curse word. Over the next half hour I became increasingly fatigued and disheartened as my legs failed to produce more than zone two wattage. I forced down more food and water.

I don’t know if this happens often or if this was an unusual occurrence, but the 70.3 distance race was put on at the same time as the Sprint distance triathlon, so that when I came onto Diagonal highway with about four miles to go, I suddenly had to share the shoulder with a long line of age groupers that had merged from a side road. No worries. I was fine riding out a bit to the left, but did they mind? Yes. At least one woman minded, I’m certain of that. I’d just chugged half a bottle of water too quickly and it came back up almost as fast. I vomited it mostly all on my own legs but a fair amount splashed over onto the lady that I was currently passing.

I ended the bike with a super pathetic 275 watt average. A power, in the past, that I’ve been able to sustain for nearly seven hours. Obviously it was on the TT bike so that instantly drops the power quite a bit. But still, I was not happy with such a weak performance in what should be my strongest discipline. So I peed my shorts just before entering the transition zone. “That’ll show em.”

The run instantly hurt like hell. I was out of breath and gasping for air by the top of the first tiny little climb at mile 0.2. Only 12.9 to go! Thoughts of not finishing or packing it in with a brisk jog went through my head. There was no way I’d make top 10. Not a chance. My pre-race dreams of making it into the top five were now laughable.

The course was mostly flat, but hot. 80 degrees and predominantly on dirt trails. It was only a little over three miles long, meaning  we had to complete two out and backs. At one mile in I took a glimpse at my watch and saw that I wasn’t doing quite as terrible as I thought. The initial shock to my system was gone and I was only breathing slightly like a catfish at that point. And up ahead there was prey.

I came upon him quietly, then surged hard to kill his moral. I didn’t want company in my misery. And after three hours of really hard exercising, I mean racing, moral is easy to extinguish.

My fellow competitor put up no resistance and I set my sights on the next guy up the road, who had about 45 seconds on my at that point. As I approached the turn around I counted the people ahead of me as they doubled back on the course. I was 12th. A top 10 was possible after all.

I caught the next guy a mile or two later, then felt all hell break loose down in my large intestine. My pace went from low 6:00s to 6:30 within a quarter mile. I prayed for a porta pottie. Three appeared around the next bend and I held it in for dear life. This was going to be messy.

Before the door even had time to swing shut I had my shorts at my knees, squated, and let the demon roar. The violent explosion was over within two seconds and I was out the door instantly. From entering the porta pottie to exiting, the whole ordeal only took 8 seconds. I did not wipe.

The cheering squad of friends and family that Adelaide had assembled near the finish area would get me through the next lap. I heard Adelaide say, “I’m so proud of you,” which guilted me into having to really kill myself for those last 6.5 miles. I chased down another guy and was in 10th by the final turn around.

Just three miles to go.
Now two and half.
Two.
One and a half.
One.

I kept the self-torture dialed at level 10, not thinking I could go any harder or catch anymore people. It was well over 80 degrees at this point. My lungs were gasping for air, legs screaming, stomach knotted. Despite the endorphins, I could feel the skin on my feet disintegrating within my shoes. I was content with 10th at that point. I was averaging 6:03 pace, which was pretty decent I thought. No, wait. Shit. I spotted one more guy ahead. I had to try or I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. I increased my pace one last time.

With 300 meters to go I kicked and came by him hard and heard him whisper “ahh fuck” to himself and I knew I had him. I kept the pressure on and crossed the line a little under a minute later.

“This isn’t the finish line!” is exactly what I did not want to hear. But it’s what someone behind the barriers yelled as I came to a stop. In my defense there were multiple blow-up sponsor arches that spanned the road, and for some reason I assumed this one was the finish. I set off again and went another 150 meters around the bend and collapsed just after the real finish line.

I finished 9th, a minute and a half behind 8th place, which was the last to get paid. Just 90 seconds faster and I would have been $500 richer. That would have bought a lot of canned herring.

I was a little ticked off about the swim until I remembered it was my second race and I should shut up and enjoy the rest of the day…if you can enjoy anything about walking around on feet like these:

photo 4

photo 1

10945015_1607223899541020_6601548198628002564_n

Winston-Salem UCI 1.2

I heard a loud carbon crunch, followed immediately by the gut-wrenching, soul-depleting hiss of a rear flat tire. I’d just been consumed by a pothole’s deep, race-ending teeth—one of the millions that littered the course. There were just three and a half laps left out of 14, and I’d suffered every minute of the race to get to this point. For every single lap I’d been hanging by a thread, on the verge of popping an uncountable number of times. All that agony only to flat out with 20 miles to go. I let my sailor’s tongue fly loose and loud.

I threw a hand up and pulled off the road, almost getting squashed by the caravan since I’d been on the left side of the road as I flatted and had to make my way to the right in order for a wheel change. The SRAM neutral car appeared out of nowhere to give me a quick wheel change. I was calm and cool as a pickle. I’ve learned to adopt an aura of peace during mechanicals, in order to give the mechanic steady hands and a clear head. Once I was going again, I resumed my earlier conversation: FUCKING FUCK YOU FUCK! AGHHHHHH FUCK!

Nick paced me back up to the caravan after I got rolling again, with me crunching and miss-shifting through a cassette that my chain wasn’t accustomed to; my drear brake was even more useless, failing to grip against the older style thin rim. I swore again as loud as I could, which helped fuel some extra adrenaline, not that I needed it. I swerved through the caravan with typical reckless abandon, knowing that my race was over but refusing to give in without one last push. There was little chance of catching back on after a mechanical or crash on this course at the pace that we were doing, especially this late in the race and with the shit legs that I had.

A tiny blossom of hope bloomed a minute later when I got a glimpse of the peloton up ahead, which was 50 guys at that point, down from 170 starters. A moment later I was on the back end, slightly confused as to why they’d finally slowed down—and just at the right moment no less. 30 seconds after that I was off the front, solo.

I was in no-man’s land between the break and the peloton—but off the front nonetheless, and with rekindled fire in my legs. I realized that we had finally given up the chase, but a top 15 was still on the line so I gave it everything I had left, which wasn’t much.

I superman tucked on a winding descent approaching 50mph, came back up to rest my forearms on top of the bars in the TT position for a couple hard pedal strokes, and saw my life flash before my eyes for the 99th time that day as a squirrel ran between my wheels. From that flat until now, it had been an action-packed five minutes. Although, not unlike the previous three and a half hours. Just a typical, chaotic, masochistic, incredibly dangerous, disturbingly painful bike race.

The Winston-Salem Cycling Classic is held in North Carolina in one of the cigarette capitals of the world, which is actually fitting, seeing as how out of breath the course leaves you. It’s an 8-mile loop through city streets, littered with potholes, steep climbs, and dozens of corners. It’s my favorite style of course, and one that I would have counted myself to be a podium contender had I been on previous years’ form. Today? I was just chewing my stem for dear life, punching tickets at the back for the first couple laps as rider after rider dropped away in the sweltering heat and equally blistering pace being set at the front while attack after attack launched up the road.

My teammates Michael Burleigh, Chris Winn, and Josh Yeaton had been slaying themselves at the front, getting in moves and being aggressors early in the race. Unfortunately the larger move got away just after Josh had been brought back from being up the road. George Simpson and I didn’t have the legs or positioning prowess to be of much use for the first five or six laps, and it generally takes more than three guys being active for a team to make the move.

But the race was not sealed up at that point by any means. Attacks continued flying as guys vied to bridge. Optum set a brutal pace on lap five or six. Then the pace duties were taken up by UHC a lap later. I won’t say that my legs ‘came around’ by lap seven; I think it’s more accurate to say that, compared to how I felt earlier, I was just slightly less fucked over than those who were still left in the field. Even that might not be accurate now that I think about it. I was actually on the verge of getting dropped, which meant that I needed to attack.

I went half a dozen times, countering myself until I finally got away solo after the feed zone on lap 8. My intentions at that point were to just get most of the way over the KOM climb before being caught, because I knew I wouldn’t be able to make the front split (or chase back onto the front split) even once more.

Max Korus of Team QCW came across to me. He’s got a huge ass and is as tall as me so he makes for a great draft. Despite that, it was still hard to hold his wheel. I told him how fucked I was and that I’d only been attacking because I was about to get dropped. He admitted the same thing.

If you’re going out the back, you might as well first try and go off the front. We got to within 50 seconds of the lead breakaway and had a decent gap to the field. Screw getting dropped, the race was on!

We worked together and made it almost all the way up the climb before the pack caught us. My teammate Chris and about eight others blew by at twice my speed with a big gap 75 meters from the top of the climb. The final pitch is the steepest section, averaging about 15% if my memory serves correct. My legs were gone—as weak and dead as toothpicks at that point. I was gasping for air. But I made a snap decision. I was going all in to make it back onto that group. I let out a roar and sprinted as hard as I could to regain the wheel and make it onto the back end of the group just as they crested the climb. I was totally blown at the top, having just done a race-finishing effort, but I made it. This was the selection. It had all the strongest guys left in the peloton and the right teams. Then we sat up.

Max and three others kept riding when someone let their wheel go. They were never to be seen again. We were absorbed by the remnants of the peloton as Max and the others pushed on up to the break, catching them shortly after the finish with three laps to go.

Josh had been on the sidelines for over an hour helping out in the feed zone after getting an early flat. During his frantic chase back on with Nick in the team car, a police officer had nearly caused disaster when she stepped out into the road in front of Nick, who was driving 50mph. Luckily Josh swerved out from behind Nick in time but he never regained contact with the peloton.

Winston-Salem-Criterium-2015-3-1024x697Josh attacking in the crit the day before  (Photo: Bob Simpson)

Michael had nearly died of heat exhaustion and was in the feed zone too; both he and Josh were doing what they could to give us a hand, which is always awesome to see because I know how upsetting watching a race from the sidelines can be.

Winston-Salem-Criterium-2015-6-606x1024George in the crit the night before (Photo: Bob Simpson)

George had held on as long as he could, chasing back on lap after lap (with me in tow many times) after the climb. But he was out now as well, handing out bottles. It was just Chris and I left in the race and we’d just been soooo close to both making the winning move. In some other universe…

Well, there’s always next time.

Ha. I kept attacking. I flatted eventually, which brings us back to the starting point of this post. I was off the front solo with two and a half laps to go and had just avoided death by squirrel. My legs were losing power with every pedal stroke, but I could no longer see the peloton behind. They’d pretty much sat up since the winning move totaling 14 guys was long gone up the road with a three minute lead. I went as hard as I could for the next lap and a half before getting caught with one to go. There would be no more attacks from me. I followed wheels and suffered every minor acceleration, just like everyone else at that point. Our group shattered on the final climb. Chris, who suffered a slow leak on the final lap, came in 31st and I came in 39th. It was a shame he wasn’t in the position to put good legs to use because he was on a killer day. I on the other hand, was satisfied. I could finally feel my old self coming back to life and I was pleased with how hard I pushed it. It was by far the hardest race day I’ve done this year and seeing my form come back, even just a little of it, has given me some new motivation to race bikes this year.

photo-1-4-e1433354727998-768x1024I was awarded the team’s Hulk Hands for the race. An honor and a privilege.