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With the race season sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic, solo-challenges, Everesting, K2’ing and fastest known time (FKT) are becoming popular within the cycling community. I wondered what it took mentally to take on these challenges, so I reached out to endurance stars Rebecca Rusch and Pete Stetina to gain some insights.
What draws someone to this type of event, and how do they mentally prepare themselves for one? Are there specific mental strategies they employ during the event? Here’s what they had to say:
Seeking motivation without events
Rusch says that during this time with no organized events taking place, she has done Zwift and virtual rides. Still something was missing, and virtual riding didn’t always feel real. She also felt like in order to keep training inspired and purposeful she needed to train for a challenge. At the time, her gravel race, Rebecca’s Private Idaho was on hold due to COVID-19 concerns.
“In response to how I was feeling I created the Giddy Up Challenge,” Rusch said. “I needed something to train for and wanted to connect with the community of athletes and friends. The Giddy Up was launched as an Everesting challenge, which drew 900 participants from 11 countries and raised $135,000.”
Rusch feels these events, even though virtual are a way for people to more fully connect and engage with a single goal.
“We were all going through the emotions of the event together, getting nervous and getting prepared,” she said. “Events provide motivation, connection and the ability to do something for good.”
This kind of solo exploring is nothing new to Rusch, it’s been in her blood forever. As a kid growing up in the Midwest, she would camp in her backyard. She ran track, but was bored by running laps around a circular track. The adventuresome feel of cycling hooked her. “The bike is a tool to go and see places. I never want to do the same course over and over,” she said. “Life is a long expedition to see some places and internally be self-sufficient. Every solo pursuit I do makes me mentally stronger.”
Pete Stetina, who left the World Tour last year to become a privateer on the gravel circuit, has made a huge mental pivot to tackle these solo events. Stetina’s storied cycling background has been based in mass-start events, where tactics play a major role. Solo events, on the other hand, are more similar to individual time trials, but really present a whole new set of tactics to racing. Stetina has used this time of isolation and lack of racing to create alternative goals and provide a carrot to motivate his training. He is focusing on setting the fastest known time (FKT) on specific routes.
“It’s motivating to set a record that stands until it’s beaten,” Stetina said. “Similar to the hour record on the track, it’s a hallowed mark, versus a race result that is finite.”
Stetina was fourth place at last year’s Leadville 100 MTB. For this year, he is interested in tackling the Leadville course for an FKT record. He feels there is an opportunity to gain time in a solo effort.
“During the race fellow competitors help push beyond the comfort zone, and the fans provide energy and atmosphere,” he said. “However, as tactics take over there is a lull in the middle of the race, and as a lead group, we hemorrhage time. I believe I can avoid this lull and capitalize by focusing on all day, steady power.”
Stetina says he was never been interested in these types of solo challenges prior to the COVID-19 shutdown. After the racing shutdown, the routes and their respective FKT caught his attention.
“I started looking at rides and routes and it was intoxicating to think about an epic route and how could I strategize to go the faster on it,” he said. “For example, strategies like, do you pack for the possibility of every mishap or are you gambling and go light? These events provide an opportunity to be creative, look for every advantage you can to improve the time. For example, I look at the weather for favorable conditions and winds; and the possibility of rain so the dirt is primed and fast.”
Mental prep for a solo challenge
I believe that we often fixate on our physical preparation for events and neglect the importance of the mental component of performance. Training done right is an opportunity to train all the aspects of performance, including mental conditioning. Both Rusch and Stetina bring mental intention and purpose to their workouts to get more out of their training.
“I am always sub-consciously connecting the dots of the specific demands of my upcoming event with my workout of the day,” Stetina said. “I mentally put myself in a section of the race, like visualizing pushing power over a rolling section of a course.”
For Stetina moving from the World Tour to these solo challenges and time trial efforts has forced him to revise how implements mental practice into his training. Visualizing the challenge is part of his preparation.
“Visualization is different for these solo efforts. I can completely visualize the effort and take the other factors out of it,” he said. “I am in complete control, other than mishaps or mechanicals. I don’t have to consider or worry about how others will race it, I just have to focus on how I want to race it.”
Effectively managing stress and anxiety is key to optimal performance. There is an optimal amount of anxiety to fuel optimal performance, but too much inhibits performance. I have seen riders who are overly anxious and stressed before a race because they feel it just comes with the territory. In reality, too much stress and anxiety can inhibit performance. There are strategies to improve the ability to manage anxiety and stress and stay in an optimal range. One strategy that helps is using training to make as many of the unknowns known. When we know what to expect we gain confidence and are less anxious and waste less mental energy.
How does Rusch limit her stress? During her training, Rusch focuses on factors she can control. After all, big solo events like the DKXL are big, daunting challenges.
“The physical and mental preparation of training are a big part of the factors I can control. I also use training to dial in equipment and nutrition,” she said. “When I know I did everything I could do to prepare, it provides confidence. Training is how I develop the confidence to execute in the event. I train hard, and the event is the time to put that investment to work. There is a difference between being nervous and fearful. Being excited and nervous are valuable ingredients of performance as long as they are managed. But I feel fear when I am underprepared and have not trained the controlables.”
It is amazing that what you think profoundly affects how you physically feel. This is an empowering part of athletics to experience, where outcomes are affected by what we think. Within training sessions, Rusch uses mental tactics to get the most out of her workouts. She said she usually finds a focus to take her mind off the pain. However, one wintery day during the pandemic, she said she had a lousy attitude.
She flipped her mindset from griping to gratitude.
“I told myself I am lucky to breath hard and feel and hear my heart rate,” she said. “Typically, I try to employ strategies to mentally take my mind off the pain, but on this day, I focused fully on the pain, embraced it, and felt lucky to feel it.”
Improving the mental ability to flip the attitude from a negative to a positive, does not just happen, just like physical training and improvement, it takes consistent practice to improve. Perhaps the mental focus of performance is less appealing to people because improvements are less tangible, as compared to chasing watts, for example, but no less valuable.
Mental strategies for game day
A solo challenge is basically an individual time trial. In any time-trial situation or ultra-event, it helps to break the course down into manageable sections. It’s valuable to break the course up in a way that makes sense to you, for example breaking it up based on topography or mileage marks. Some riders prefer shorter segments, while others prefer longer ones.
Focusing your mental and physical energy on one section at a time helps keep the mind from wandering up the course in anticipation of “what lies ahead.” When the mind starts wandering and anticipating, it starts conserving and limiting the current physical effort. Breaking the course into sections helps you stay mentally present and get the most out of yourself physically.
“I have a mental game plan, and dissect the course into sections,” Stetina said. “This breaks down the magnitude of the event and it helps me determine where I dose out effort.”
Music has been scientifically shown to help distract the mind from pain, so I asked Stetina and Rusch if they listen to anything during these solo challenges. Rusch does not, whioe Stetina said he does.
“Yes, I have my Spotify playlist set-up with classic rock, electronic with good tempo and vibe, and folk Americana music,” he said.
Future solo pursuits
Stetina is planning two FKT attempts, one on Utah’s White Rim trail in October, and the other near his home in Lake Tahoe, on the Tahoe Rim Trail from Mt. Rose to Toads in July or August. Stetina is strategizing to maximize the factors in his favor. He has ridden the White Rim route on his gravel bike and will try to attempt it on a day with favorable temps and surface conditions.
Rusch is staying close to home for her challenges. She will do some bike packing trips on the Idaho Centennial Trail, Idaho Hot Springs MTB route and the Wild West route.
“There is so much I have wanted to explore in my backyard, and now I have the time to do it,” she said.