You know those crazy challenges that sound completely doable but turn out to be physically impossible—like drinking a gallon of milk in an hour? I usually have the good sense not to try those things. But somehow, after I thought my 2014 season racing had come to a successful close in September, a particular crazy challenge became irresistible. I blame every cyclist's favorite professional, Jens Voigt.
Jens had just capped his amazing career by setting a new "hour record"--the record for the farthest distance covered in an hour on a track. That got the wheels turning in the head of the most cycling-obsessed member of the Van Houweling household. That's not me. It's my husband Rob. He started reading up on the lore of the record, the fastest venues, the optimal equipment, the heart-breaking failed attempts. The book "The Hour" was on his bedside table and the movie "The Impossible Hour" was in the DVD player. He clearly had an idea for what my next cycling challenge should be. I couldn't really resist the idea while drinking my morning coffee out of a mug emblazoned with the slogan "What Would Jens Do?" And so the plan was hatched.
Rob set to work figuring out the rules, contacting the officials, arranging the venue, and assembling the perfect equipment for my own attempt at setting an hour record. Initially our focus was on the world record in my age group. But setting a world record requires UCI officials, and there aren't any in California. So we decided that for my first attempt we would be satisfied by shooting for a U.S. age-group record, which we could arrange a bit more simply with U.S.A. Cycling officials at the VELO Sport Center velodrome in Carson, CA. As it turns out, there is not an established U.S. masters record in my age group. So that seemed like a promising route to the record books, and the sooner I tried the better. Rob managed to schedule officials and track time for mid-December.
It was time for me to contribute to this effort. We started to spend one training day each weekend down at the Hellyer velodrome in San Jose. We recruited our friends John Cheetham and Michael Hernandez to supervise special track training sessions and gently introduce me to everything I needed to know to do justice to the speedy equipment Rob was stockpiling for me.
|Training at Hellyer|
My coach Dave Jordaan set to work too, devising a training schedule that would somehow bring me from post-season rest mode back to race fitness in about ten weeks. Of course he needed to know what exactly I was shooting for. "What is your goal distance for the hour?"
Good question. With no established U.S. masters record, what should my goal be? At one of our first Hellyer practice sessions, Michael made an outrageous suggestion. "Why not go for the elite record?"--that is, the record for longest distance covered by any U.S. woman—professional or amateur—of any age.
Why not? How hard could it be?
The record, set in Colorado Springs by Carolyn Donnelly, was 44.028 km. In theory, it didn't seem impossible. I had once gone 45kph in a 40k time trial. But that was in the speedy thin air of Sattley, CA. And I was getting the sense there was something different about the hour record. Eddy Merckx called it "the hardest ride I have ever done." And Donnelly's record, set at altitude, had gone unbroken for nearly 25 years.
I tried to put that out of my mind and just think of this as a fun experiment, a trial run, a lark, a chance to learn some new skills and meet new people, to fill our bike garage with new toys for Rob's tinkering.
But there was something haunting me apart from Eddy's words: the prospect of making the attempt on the notoriously steep slopes of the VELO Sport Center velodrome. The temperature-controlled indoor track with a smooth wooden surface would be faster than familiar Hellyer's outdoor concrete oval. But Hellyer is banked at a gentle 23-degrees. The VELO Sport Center velodrome is 45-degrees in the corners. My first sight of it on December 6, only 8 days before my scheduled attempt at the record, took my breath away. Standing at its edge felt like standing on the lip of a double black diamond ski run having only mastered the bunny slopes. Well, at least this would be motivation to keep my speed up.
|Practicing on banked oval|
It works like a carnival ride: spin fast enough and you can defy gravity. Slow down and . . . you can't. I was most terrified at the thought of the very first corner of my effort. Was I even capable of getting my one huge gear up to speed quickly enough to make it through the first corner without falling off of the track?! I had no idea. In addition to never riding this track before, I hadn’t yet found time to practice a single start on the track bike. I needed an emergency intervention from a track guru.
|Start practice with Andy|
Fortunately, NorCal's own national track champion Beth Newell had put us in touch with Andy Lakatosh--a decorated racer and coach at the L.A. track. Andy generously carved out time from his busy coaching schedule to patiently take me from terrified neophyte to (almost) calm (near) competence. At the end of my first day on the track I had no more fear of falling off, could start without mishap from the automated gate I would be using for the attempt, and was getting a feel for the smoothest line around the long oval.
Sunday was a day of training on the road with Coach Dave and his assistant coach Chris Bright. Then on Monday we were back at the track for more craziness, including about 35 minutes at race pace, with the first 12 or so motorpacing behind Andy. My pace was a little faster than record pace, but it also felt a bit harder than I was sure I could maintain for an hour. My advisers tried to inspire confidence. "You are technically ready," Andy told me. "You are physically ready," Coach Dave told me. But those words of encouragement just drove home the most nerve-wracking thought of all: my success or failure would hinge on the power of my mind to withstand the pain and monotony to come.
Coincidentally, a Berkeley Law colleague had just lent me a book reporting on research about the role of the brain in physical fatigue--studies showing that positive images and encouraging messages can help athletes overcome their bodies' resistance to pushing to the edge of their physical capacities. I imagined what I could tell myself when the going got tough during the hour. I hummed positive mantras in my head. I distracted myself with overdue work tasks and then rested my brain with junk television. I worked with nutritionist Anne Guzman on a pre-race eating plan that would keep my body and brain fueled up.
On December 12 we returned to L.A. for the weekend of truth. We spent an hour at the track doing some tests that would determine my final equipment choices—the fastest skinsuit and helmet in my collection. The next day we returned for an hour with Andy refreshing my memory about start technique and smooth line. Finally, on Sunday Dec. 14 we arrived at a silent, deserted track at 3pm. Soon it got a little more lively, with the arrival of a support crew and cheering section including our friend and experienced race crewman Eric Sammuli, Coach Dave and his wife Dalene, assistant coach Chris, track guru Andy, and three U.S.A. cycling officials ready to put me down in the record books . . . or not.
|Rob does some last-minute fine-tuning|
After a brief warmup on the track I did a couple of starts to get rid of the cobwebs and butterflies. A few more laps and I was ready to get this over with. A last bite of carbs, a cool drink, a kiss from Rob, and I walked up to the start gate to put my mind and body to the test.
My start was pretty steady and my nervous legs were up to speed in a flash. Up to speed and beyond. Rob was beside the track flashing me lap times on an iPad and for the first few minutes they were much faster than the pace we had discussed. "Don’t be afraid to get some fast laps in the bank," Michael Hernandez had told me, "because you WILL fade in the end and you will need that cushion." But I would do much worse than fade if I went out way too fast. I tried to settle down a bit, sang my most relaxing mantra song in my head. But I was still ahead of my goal pace. After ten minutes Andy wrote a status update for me on a white board. 11 seconds ahead of record pace already! I decided my goal for the next ten minutes was to settle down a bit more but keep gaining on record pace. After ten more minutes I was 19 seconds ahead. Ten more minutes and I was halfway done and still gaining a bit—24 seconds ahead.
|Rob flashes a lap split as I speed by|
But suddenly my adrenaline seemed to wear off. I was no longer intentionally "settling down" into a sustainable pace. I was slowing down, lap after lap, to slower than record pace. I tried to focus on my technique. Head down. Smooth line. I tried to sing a happy song. But my mind was straying to unhappy thoughts: "I didn’t know if I could sustain the record pace and I guess I can’t." "I bet my friends following along online thought for a minute I was going to get it, and I’m about to disappoint them." I was sure that at the next time check I would be behind record pace. But those fast early laps were about to pay off.
|Trying to stay aero as the pain sets in|
I couldn’t believe it when after 40 minutes Andy flashed a sign that said I was still 19 seconds ahead of pace. He was lying, right? He knows about the research on positive thinking and so he’s telling me I still have a shot at the record in order to mess with my mind, right?! But maybe not. Maybe I still have a chance. Maybe if I keep focusing on my technique for the next 10 minutes . . . and then just 10 more minutes . . . But those next ten minutes were stretching on forever. Rob must have known what I was thinking, because he shouted "45 minutes!" to let me know I was halfway to my next time check. 15 minutes to go. A 15 minute interval is not so bad. Maybe if I can just stay ahead until the next time check. Then 10 minutes to go finally arrived and I was still ahead!
“Now if I can only make it to 5 minutes to go.” But time was slowing down again. With about 7 minutes to go I really needed one more happy thought. That’s when some silly last-minute good luck wishes from my friends Ellen and Beth sprang into my mind. Ellen wanted me to ride like I was on fire and Beth told me to "go at 'em like a spider monkey." So at my most desperate moment an image of a flaming spider monkey sprung into my head, along with good vibrations from the rest of my supportive friends and family. I almost cracked a smile.
And then I got the sign for 5 minutes to go, 15 seconds ahead of the pace. I would make it unless I lost a whole second per lap. Surely I could survive, I thought, but then remembered that if I didn’t keep concentrating I would careen off the track and lose more than that. So I tried to focus even as my field of vision narrowed within the pain tunnel.
Finally I heard the gun to signal that the hour was over. But for purposes of the official time I was supposed to complete the lap I was on when the gun fired. I was a little confused about the timing of all of that, so I continued for two more laps as fast as I could just in case. It took me a couple more laps to slow down enough to focus on Rob’s smiling face and ask “did I really do it?!” I did! The official confirmed a distance of 44.173 km—establishing the U.S. record in my age group and setting a new U.S. elite record.
|We did it!|
When the going got tough, it wasn't really the power of my own mind but the power of my family and my friends in the cycling community that helped me survive to the end of the hour. And of course it was also the million little things that Dave and Rob helped me to fine tune with tips from so many generous people who contributed their time and expertise.
|Happy Team VH|
In addition to my always supportive Metromint Cycling Team and our team sponsors, the hour record support crew included: Coach Dave Jordaan, Andy Lakatosh, Michael Hernandez, John Cheetham, Robert Chung, Chris Yu, John Wolzmuth, Eric Sammuli, Anne Guzman, Chris Bright, Conrad Wang, Davis Wheelworks, Beyond Aero, Al Morrison, Monique Quandt-Collier, Hellyer Velodrome, Dalene Jordaan, Los Angeles Velodrome Racing Association, BikeTechReview.com, Heather Allen, DASH saddles, Atomic SS, Jim Turner, Friction Facts, and of course my personal mastermind Rob Van Houweling.
Finally, I can’t forget to thank the Steve Hed, the cycling equipment pioneer who passed away this Fall. During one brief impromptu encounter, Rob and I got to experience his enthusiasm, ingenuity, and generosity first hand. We happened to be at the San Diego wind tunnel when he was there to work with some pro men preparing for the Tour de France. Steve couldn't resist interrupting my session to share his tips and try some aero experiments with me. His suggestions influenced the time trial position I have used ever since and his enthusiasm was infectious. We still have the bug. Who knows what crazy thing it—and my WWJD? coffee mug—will prompt us to do next!
|Getting tips from the master, Steve Hed|