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  News & Commentary

Racing Pain

by Eugene Boronow
March, 1996

At the year-end CRCA banquet I was honored with the "Frequent Flyer Award," for going off the front and attacking a lot in races. Speaking on the dais that night I said something to the effect that cycling was all in our heads. It was sort of funny then, but I meant it, and have more to say on the subject.

When we've made ourselves strong through training, what lies in the path to racing success is our mental capacity to overcome the obstacles set before us such as discouragement, doubt, and fear. Weaknesses, fatigue, and pain provide physical obstacles too. But we must deal with all obstacles in our minds, and how we handle them is in our control and will determine our success. (Note: "Success" doesn't mean number of victories. As Morgan Stebbins described in his "Jung Dr. Stebbins" articles in the CRCA newsletter, success is dictated by personal goals.)

It's a strange sport in which victory is difficult to attain and races aren't always won by the strongest. For strong and talented athletes accustomed to winning often in other sports, cycling can be a humbling, discouraging ego-blow. I've participated in many sports and was never more than moderately good at any of them. Since I'm familiar with losing in sports, cycling is great for me. My familiarity with losing makes eagerly continuing after many discouraging results easy.

A competitor shouldn't be content to accept constant defeat, but should understand it and be honest about the causes. The ability to move on to the next challenge, thinking of ways to succeed is a great attribute, leading to growth and maturity. A rider should also understand the physical pain that comes with competing. Know the difference between good pain and bad (fatigue v. injury). The rider shouldn't let physical discomfort control his or her actions. The body wants the rider to stop torturing it, so pain is sent out. Realize the body is capable of recovering from muscle fatigue or oxygen debt.

Since I race a lot (72 races in '96) I experience pain a lot. The pain is part of the sport and I just don't dwell on it. If I allowed the pain to consume my thoughts, it'd take my mind from competing and defeat me as would any opponent. Pain is my opponent (although it serves to protect my body from harm) because it tries to slow me down and prevent me from pressing on. For example: In a crit in the pouring rain this fall six riders got away and lapped the field. With three miles to go I attacked and got clear of the bunch. The field chased and I was caught with a mile to go, having committed fully and experiencing oxygen debt. I thought my race was over when Club Champion Rafe Diaz (Breakaway), who was in the break that lapped the field, told me to go again. I obeyed without thinking. My attack, although weak, was successful. I finished alone for seventh place -- thanks, Rafe.

If I thought about the pain I wouldn't have finished well.

Sometimes pain still gets the best of me. In the past, I got dropped, or I quit races when the pace got (seemingly) unbearable. On long climbs, I would sometimes think of ending the suffering by easing up, and at that point, I would get dropped. I later realized that at these times when I allowed the fatigue to control me, it wasn't that I was weaker than the others, I just lost focus.

We also have mental obstacles, i.e. thinking that there is a limit to our success. There may be a limit, but it's far beyond anything we dream. Our bodies are capable of greater things than we imagine. However fast we are going, we can go faster, and endure more. We don't know what the limit is, so it's self-defeating create one.

The club time-trial is proof. Even after the introduction of more aero-efficient equipment, a sub-56 minute time seemed out of reach. Then 54 minutes was the barrier, now 52:15 is the time to beat. It too will be broken. These numbers are mental obstacles. The world hour record stood for years until an iconoclast on a diet of Corn Flakes believed he could do better. Obree's triumph made others realize that even greater distances within the hour were possible and new records have since been set. The previously unthinkable became a realistic goal.

Time-trialing is unique, though, because it rewards those tolerant of pain. A racer can't look to opponents for inspiration. The effort must come completely from within, and a rider must command the body to act according to his or her will. The slowing forces (pain, doubt, fear, etc.) must be dealt with and pushed aside. These are mental barriers. Bruce Jenner (winner of the 1976 Olympic Decathlon) once said that an athlete must come to a competition with all of his resources, whether physical, technological, or mental. We make ourselves strong by training and buying the best equipment available to us. But our minds should be treated with the same importance, and should be used as a competitive resource. Our minds are stronger than our bodies and we are only limited by what we concede. Know your limitations, then ignore them.

What does this have to do with the "Frequent Flyer" award? Nothing, except that I try to break away solo because I'm a weak sprinter. Since sprinting, too, is probably in my head, I will work on it this winter. The greatest obstacle standing in the way of success for me in this sport, is me. I won't let me stand in the way. Who do I think I am, anyway?


News & Commentary