I've decided to leave my planning for next year's campaign until after Nationals. It makes more sense now to write about how I've been preparing for the biggest and last race of this long season.
The biggest challenges we all are facing going into nationals are 1) maintaining race form for weeks after the end of the state series, 2) not overindulging during the holiday season, 3) dealing with the stress of traveling, and 4) adjusting to the altitude. It has been a big struggle, but I've managed to deal well with all 4 challenges so far, and nationals are now just 5 days away for me. This is how I managed it.
Since I have family and friends in Gunnison and Crested Butte, Colorado, and was on winter break from my university job, I drove out there on 12/23 accompanied by my 3 year-old daughter, Judit. We arrived at my brother's house in Gunnison (7700 feet elevation) on Christmas Eve, just in time for a big family dinner with his family, with the families of my two younger sisters, and with my mother. I even managed to get a quick spin in to get the blood flowing after the 20 hour drive. Off to a good start.
Over the next 4 days I got some decent rides in right out my brother's door on snow-covered ranch roads. I took it very easy the first ride and gradually worked in some moderate efforts over the next 3 rides, never getting above 75% RPE. I felt pretty good at altitude so far, and the cold air (single digits most days) was made bearable by the bright sunlight. 5 degrees here feels like 25 in Wisconsin. Meanwhile, on the health front, I stayed away from alcohol altogether and stuck to my usual training diet with the exception of some pumpkin pie and a few Christmas cookies. Boring!
On day 5 I moved on up to Crested Butte to stay with my best friend, Jay Prentiss, who lives in an incredible house right on the slopes of Mt. Crested Butte, at 9400 feet elevation. Right away the altitude was hitting me hard. I barely slept the first night and felt a little dizzy going up and down the stairs. I'm very familiar with all of this since my main thing used to be mountaineering and I've been to 14,000 feet hundreds of times and even as high as 22,000 feet a few times, but it still hurts every time I come to altitude. So for the next week my routine was to go to my sister Stephanie's place in CB South in the mid-morning, have her watch my daughter, and get out on a ride. The rides I did there were very productive. I would descend about 600 vertical from her home, ride about 20 minutes up a canyon called Cement Creek on a snow-covered dirt road, turn around where the road was closed, descend it, climb back up to her house, and then do some short hard efforts on the flat road in front of her house. Altogether about 1:30 of training each day. I was feeling better and better with the altitude but still noticing a terrible lack of power on all my hard efforts.
The biggest challenge during that week was that my daughter got sick, forcing me to stay in my friend's apartment with her around the clock for 2 days. All the training I could manage was to sneak onto the trainer while she slept. The first day I did 5 x 5 minute hard efforts with 4 minute rests, and the second day I did 5 x 10 minute moderate efforts with 5 minute rests. Luckily there were lots of kersteperiode races to catch up on via YouTube.
By the end of the week--1/3--my daughter was better, so I went ahead with my plan to go to Longmont, Colorado for 2 days of racing at the Altitude Adjustment Cross races. My brother and my sister-in-law were generous enough to take care of my daughter, and they themselves have a 2 year-old and a 6 year-old, so I felt good about leaving her there for one night. I woke up Saturday morning to a snowstorm and had to drive all the way to Longmont through it to get there in time for my 3:15 race. The 4 1/2 hour drive took me 5 1/2, and I saw countless accidents along the way. The usual mayhem of mountain driving in the winter.
I got to the race with plenty of time. It was pretty much a blizzard at the course, and there was a good 5-6 inches of snow on the ground. Luckily for those of us adjusting to the altitude, it was a fairly flat course with constant turns, so with all the snow there were very few places where anybody could really lay down the power. Good thing because somehow I was still really feeling the altitude anytime I tried out a bit of acceleration while warming up. So I wasn't feeling that motivated to race, but my mood was greatly improved by running into my teammate Alex Martin and our fellow Wisconsinites J.W. Miller and Max Ackermann.
The race itself turned out to be a blast. This was my first time lining up with the likes of Jeremy Powers, Jeremy Driscoll, Justine Lindine, Logan Owen, and other national-caliber racers. But I had a second-row position on the grid and, as usual, managed to have a very good start. I was about 8th going into the holeshot. I stuck with the leaders for about 3/4 of a lap, and a gap opened up behind me. Since the race was all about handling, I started to think I'd be able to hang in there, but then I made the slightest of mistakes, just a quick foot dab, and in an instant I was dropped and facing an unbridled lie gap of about 5 meters. Crazy how fast that happened. I was in no-man's land for a bit, and then on the longer climb, coming at the end of the lap, I started to feel the altitude, so coming through the start/finish straight I got passed by the whole second group and fell to around 15th. I settled in and the rest of the race went well. I just focused on staying upright and having some fun with it. I got passed a few more times, but had an excellent last lap and even beat one guy in the final sprint, so I ended on a good note. My teammate Alex said he had a really bad start, so his race didn't go as well, but I'm sure he had fun since he loves racing on snow as much as I do.
I stayed overnight in Longmont with an old school pal, Peter Schaub, who proved to be an awesome host--he and his whole family. He, too, is a 'cross racer, and had raced that day, so we had plenty to chat about over dinner. Next day it was brutally cold and still snowing. I got out and did the masters race at 10 AM, but it was such a bad experience that I lost all desire to stick around until 3:15 for the pro race. It was bad mainly because the organizer decided to have the large 45+ field start 30 seconds in front of the 40-44 field. Total catastrophe. I was leading my race when, after just 1/2 a lap, I caught up to the back of the 45+ field. With all of the snow and the turny nature to the course, it was next to impossible to pass anybody. I was even reduced to walking along with my bike on my shoulder several times. And each time I hit a straight and tried to pass, I would have to do so through the deep snow to the side, which completely drained me given the altitude. There was a fast Colorado guy in my group, and he was able to work the deep snow better than I could, so he got in a few more passes and finished just in front of me in our 3 lap, 27 minute race; I didn't help myself by getting my front wheel stuck in somebody's pedal while desperately trying to pass people. Ridiculous race. I packed up and drove back to Gunnison.
So now it's just 5 days until I race at 9 AM Saturday. What to do? I will train a bit more here in Gunnison, then head to Boulder on Thursday to catch Dave Eckel's race--our team captain. Friday I'll preview the course, and Saturday I will try to close out this amazing season with a top-10 finish. That'll be a big challenge with the altitude still working against me, but it may just be doable with the right amount of luck and intelligent racing.