In athletic endeavors, your primary opponent is always yourself.
My child competes on our local high school cross country team, and this reality is something that is focused upon in that context. While there is certainly an identification of where one finished in rank order against competitors, the primary attention is frequently paid to one’s own time, and that against one’s personal record. I think this is a valuable lesson for young athletes to learn, a healthy perspective on athletics for them to carry into their adult lives.
I was reminded of this for myself a couple of weeks ago.
For the second year in a row I decided to ride in the Farmondo. This is a large group riding event put on by Tempo Velo, a regional cycling club, and sponsored by, among others, Mead’s Bike Shop, both located in Sterling, Illinois. The event offers rides in three distances - 20, 43, and 80 miles - and plots a course along winding, rising, and falling rural roads through the region (yes - Illinois does actually have hills, and I believe the event organizers have found most of them...). This year, as last, I decided to do the 43-mile event.
For the record, 43 miles was then, and is still, the longest distance I’ve traveled in a single ride. I enjoy myself out riding, and I aspire to longer rides, but the realities of schedule and time mean that I typically end up on shorter routes.
Keeping in mind the aforementioned healthy perspective, my goal for this event was to improve over last year. The organizers absolutely present the event as a group ride and not a race, but they do issue number tags and take official times. For the event in 2017 I came out at the following time and average mph over 43 miles:
3:40:30.92 @ 11.7mph
So that’s 3 hours, 40 minutes, and just under 31 seconds for the 43-mile ride. I’m no speed demon there - I came in 72nd out of 86 riders. I rode in the event on my 2012 Catrike Pocket. I believe I was the only recumbent rider in the event.
I got my Pocket in June of 2017, so I’d had it about three months before taking it into this event. My average speed per ride on the trike has come up a bit since that point, so I was hopeful that I could come in at least a little faster this year than last. Still, another aspect of riding longer distances is how many breaks you take. There are two official break stations for the 43-mile portion of the event, and last year I stopped at both of them. Since I’d never ridden this type of distance before - my longest ride in training up for it was just under 29 miles - I reasoned that I didn’t want to overtax myself.
At the first break station last year I paused, drank a bit of water and took another for the road, but I was not physically in a position where I needed to stop - I did so as a precaution. By the second, however, I was pretty fatigued, and gulped down drink and watermelon to compensate. So - looking back it was clear that this was space in which I could improve my time - if I could eliminate at least one of the breaks, I’d finish more quickly.
In building up to this I increased my ride distances and experimented with ways to carry enough water with me to cover the whole distance. I laid out the longer distances around my usual cycling routes and included hills where I could (though I’m out on the prairie - the event route is through river country, so my hills pale by comparison). I was able to piece together a 42-mile route on the map, but I never quite got there. My longest practice ride ended up being 38 miles. Things seemed to get physically pretty challenging around the 35 mile point, but I was able to finish the 38-mile rides without a break, and had enough water to get through.
Weather for this year’s event was just about as perfect as one could hope: 65° and sunny. The humidity was up a bit at 75%, though this is not uncommon for Illinois. The only real downside to the weather was a bit more wind than one might prefer, running at about 14 miles per hour (all according to the weather reading for the event in Cyclemeter). In short, it was a beautiful day for a ride.
It appeared that I was, once again, the only recumbent rider in the event. This really only feels odd over the first mile or two, when all of the riders are grouped together. In that situation you are, of course, looking up at everyone else, with them packed around you. Once the road opens up it’s no different than coming across other cyclists on the road or a path on any other day.
The route for this year’s event appeared to be identical to last year, with the break stations in the same location. Because of the longer training routes, I was comfortable rolling right past the first station, and reasoned that, if I needed, I could always stop at the second one. This year as last there was a lot of trading positions on the hills with the folks on their upright bikes - them passing me on the uphill climbs, and then me rolling by them shortly after the hill was crested, only to see them ride by me again as we climbed the next rise. This is an understood phenomenon, the notion that recumbents are slower uphill and faster down than upright or "diamond-frame (DF)" bikes. As I understand it, it’s a feature of the difference in riding position, which is to say that one can stand up in the pedals on a DF bike, which aids in climbing, while the laid back position on the recumbent is aerodynamically better for downhill speed. This was certainly true last year, it was true this year, to a point. More on that later, perhaps.
So I rode past that first break station, secure in the knowledge that I could stop again. What I was pleasantly surprised to find was that, when the next station loomed ahead of me I still had enough water and I did not feel the need to stop. So I was able to roll past both of them.
They make the results available online very quickly afterward. I had an inkling of where I was at immediately after I finished because I was using Cyclemeter during the event, but Cyclemeter isn’t the official time, so I was excited to see where I would land. When I got home I loaded up the website and scrolled down past the group to focus directly in on my clock results. My time for 2018:
3:20:46.97 @ 12.9mph
For that first few seconds I was pretty pleased - building up to bypassing the breaks had achieved the desired effect. This was definitely an improvement.
And then my eye wandered over to my place:
I came in 79th out of 93 riders.
Don’t bother to scroll back up, I’ll just tell you: I came in 72nd last year. I was down seven positions from the year before.
The thing is, this is a stupid way to look at this. Logically I know this, and yet it still happened in my head. There despite the time, effort, and actual improvement.
All of which is why that aphorism is important: Your primary opponent is always yourself.
That a part of the focus in athletics for kids seems to have moved towards this perspective I think is a valuable thing. There will always be the few who are out in front of everyone else, but for the rest of us who endeavor to remain, return to, or simply become more athletic as adults, it’s vital that our comparative focus remain in the right place - improve yourself. Everything else is secondary.