Last Friday I climbed Mount Palomar.
Certainly it’s not epic or mountainous like something in the Alps but nonetheless it’s a wicked climb lasting 12.68 miles and ascending over 4300 feet. The average grade is nothing more than 6.5 percent but along the way it just does not let up.
We parked at the taco shop to set off for a 45 minute warm up. Thomas and Chris begin making their post-ride taco orders as we ride. The roads are lined with citrus groves are ripe with fragrant oranges and grapefruits. The sky is cornflower blue with high wispy clouds. It was the perfect day to climb Palomar.
After warming up, we ride towards the start of the climb. Which we have decided will be the second taco shop. The climb begins conspicuously – you are riding along and then all of a sudden realize you have slowed down to 12 mph at 70 rpms. The sure sign that you have begun to climb.
Quickly I dart ahead. Today I had work to do. I was going to own this climb for myself; ascend faster than last year, putting out more power and stay seated for most of the way. Chris pulls up next to me and asks how much power I am putting out. We are 5 minutes into the climb and I spit out a number that is over my LT. This might indicate trouble or might indicate a huge risk. Either way, I’m taking a chance. I pedal onward and accept the climb.
The first part of the climb is the hardest. Perhaps because you are not entirely warmed up and your body still tries to fight the low cadence and climbing grade. Or perhaps because it is along a busy highway with cars rushing along the curves up the base of the mountain. Either way – fear and pain are a noxious mixture that leaves you sweaty and nervous – and it’s just the start of the climb.
As I climb, my mind is totally engaged. It has to be. You have to have a purpose when you take on something like this or else you become victim to your own pain and fear. Early in the morning I set off with this quote in my head:
The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it.
As I climbed, I considered what I would become. Wondering what I would learn along the way. The reward is not in reaching the top but in reaching inside of myself to learn something new. I opened myself up to this and listened to the thoughts in my mind – how they overcame the pain or pushed my body higher towards the top.
I arrive at the short flat section before the steeper switchbacks begin. Take the opportunity to finally spin the legs above 70 rpms and exceed speeds of 12 mph. And that’s when I was going fast. I make the left turn, the last half of the climb begins.
Switchbacks. Lots of them. I realize I enjoy the lefthand switchbacks best; taking the turns wide and looking out in the valleys below. As I climb I connect to the course. The trees smell sweet. The rocks are a yellowish brown that I find beautiful. The sky is so blue. The sun shines warm on my arms. As the world on this mountain gushes with beauty I realize there is nothing but ugly in my legs. At some point, your cadence plateaus in the 70’s and speed hovers around 9. Heart rate stabilizes in high Zone 3 and power output is consistent. You get into a rhythm of hurt that your body finally accepts.
Mile marker signs pass me slowly every .2 miles. I am not sure at which mile I will reach the top but at some point the top becomes visibly apparent and I think to myself looking at it that there is still a long way to go. There is a small shop at the top with a green roof. The roof sits obvious in the blue sky and it becomes like beacon to ride towards. Though it never seems to get any closer.
The last few switchbacks are the worst. The grade seems to be getting steeper and around each corner I expect to see the finish but it never comes. Occasionally now I stand out of the saddle to give my legs and rear a rest – or just to break up the monotony of grind, grind, grind, get nowhere not so fast.
Finally, I see the green road sign. I have made it to the top right by the store. About 5000 feet and the air feels cold. Others arrive, a quick trip to the observatory and then we descend. The others descend like slingshots pushing themselves far ahead of me and like most of the climbs this weekend – I descend alone. I don’t go very far or fast. I just get dropped. It’s ok. It gives me time to think and reflect.
On what I’ve become.
You become more patient as you climb; you realize that nothing worthwhile happens in a short period of time and nothing great is achieved without a long, slow grind of hard – even at times boring - work. Often I find people want to be fast, be strong now without giving respect to the hard, slow, long careful work that it takes to get there. There is nothing exciting about getting fast. It takes work. There is no magic workout, no magic pace, no magic piece of equipment, or magic wand – it is just this: hard work. If it was easy and instant, we’d all be world champions. But we're not. Hard work requires going slow, feeling slow, getting dropped, breaking down, wanting to cry, hurting in your legs, hurting in your feet/core/glutes/arms/head, sweating, getting chafed, drooling on yourself, covering your sleeve in snot.
You become 1% more unbeatable when you go through the hard work; experiences like this add up. Experiences like this count. It doesn’t matter how long it takes to get to the top or who beats you along the way – you do the hard work and you arrive. You work through issues yourself. If you hit rock bottom you work through it in your head until you bounce back and then you climb on. As you go through this process you become more unbeatable. True, it will take 100 more experiences like this to become totally unbeatable. But the point is that it takes a lot of hard work to become unbeatable and strong; it takes a lot of climbs, suffering and pain. The work is not just arriving at the top but overcoming yourself every pedal stroke along the way. And each time you put yourself through that you get that much closer to unbeatable in your next race.
You learn to have a conversation with yourself. You realize when you are climbing a mountain you are mostly by yourself with your own thoughts. You learn to listen to the conversation; you learn to control it and in turn control the outcome of youself. Often I find people are too caught up in training with others. When finally in a race (especially in IM) by themselves, they completely breakdown in their own head – because their head starts to unravel, talk negative and they don’t know how to respond. Because they have never been alone before. Training, climbing, riding alone is at times uncomfortable and frightening in your mind. You are the only there to push yourself, talk yourself into continuing, talk yourself into thinking you are strong. When it comes down to it – you are the only out there supporting you. If you don’t go through this in training you’ll never pull it off in a race. I don’t care who you are with or who is spectating, the conversations you have in your own head will ultimately make or break your day.
You become fearless. Fearless because you took a risk and forced yourself to push through. Fearlessness requires attention and receptivity. Attention to the task at hand and receptivity to responding to yourself, your body and the external variables as they arise. When you are fearless you accomplish big things. When you stand at the base of a mountain and say to yourself today I will climb to the top you take a risk; because you never know what will happen along the way. Fearlessness says that you are prepared to handle whatever happens in your head or legs along the way. You are prepared to override the pain, the negative thoughts before they even happen, you're willing to take a risk.
You become completely lost in the process. You realize that getting to the top is not nearly as exciting as what you learn along the way. You realize the top will mean nothing if you don’t suffer and learn something new on every switchback. You are so engaged that you stop watching the clock, the cadence or speed. You have no idea how long it took to climb because you didn’t bother to look when you began. You became lost in the power of the process, the power of your own legs to get you through. Often I find too many people are concerned about how fast they are going, their mile splits, 50 splits, speed going out, speed coming back – let it go and get lost in the process. If you are looking at your watch and computer the entire time you are missing out – you are ignoring and disconnecting from yourself. Listen to your breathing, listen in your head – what do you hear, what is happening, what do you find in your mind.
You become filled with perspective. You realize there are different levels of hard; each time you add one you make it that much more likely you’ll get through another one. Hard is going fast on the track, hard is going slow up a mountain. You know there are other hard things you will take on but the perspective of the climb will make you realize that honestly not too many things are “hard”. It’s all what we make of them in our head. You can climb whatever you set out to – it’s just a matter of timing and pushing from within.
I descended to the bottom of the mountain and realized the many things I had become along the way. It’s more than just finishing the climb. Everyday it’s more than just finishing the workout. It’s what you learn along the way. You can learn something every day. Write them down and all of a sudden you have pages of experiences, lessons and quotes that you can fill yourself with on race day. That’s the different between people that show up to just finish a race and those that show up to achieve. Achievers have climbed mountains, they’ve done the hard work, had the conversation with themselves at the bottom of their workout soul where they’ve convinced their legs to push just one switchback higher, turn the pedals one revolution more, give it a few more watts to make yourself fearless, to learn from the process, to fill yourself with perspective so you can become unbeatable on race day.