Kicked by a Horse

I did my best
But I guess my best wasn’t good enough
Cause here we are
Back where we were before
(“Just Once” written by Quincy Jones)

This race report is one week late, but that’s how long it took for me to digest what happened. And, really, this race is a microcosm of my own journey as a (wannabe) athlete, so the distance helps with looking at the big picture. (The choice of epigraph will become apparent soon enough).

After a long winter and spring full of ski touring to keep up the base, my spring did not have as much cycling as it could’ve had. But, the legs came back quick, along with PBs, results at early season races that I wasn’t really targeting, along with my long-awaited Cat 4 upgrade. That brings us to the Kicking Horse Cup, a three-stage race in Golden, BC that is as brutal as it is beautiful. Stage 1 is a 6km individual time-trial. Stage 2 is a mass start hill climb from Golden to the Kicking Horse Ski Resort that gains 500m over 14km. Stage 3 is a time-handicapped (by age) road race that is 84km and gains over 1100m. Supposedly, at 5’2″ and 122lbs, I should be a decent climber, so I made this my “A” race, hoped for a top-five finish in the hill climb, and then would take whatever I could get in the other two stages. I had done okay at previous hill climbs, having finished 8th at Tour de Bowness (COP) and in the top third at Rundle Mountain (Silvertip Drive), so it made sense to target this event.

The course for the hill climb.

The course for the hill climb. Click here for the Strava link.

I did everything a good athlete is supposed to do going into a priority race–I tapered my training volume, I studied the course, I looked at others’ race files from previous years, and I even rented an ultralight pair of climbing wheels.

When Saturday morning came around, I managed to get breakfast down before my usual race-day jitters shut down my stomach. First up was the TT, and while TTs are one of my biggest weaknesses, I was determined to to well by my standards, so I put in a good twenty minute warm-up. As expected, I finished in the bottom third of the result sheet (yay for not last!). On the flip side, I set a personal best for 10-minute power (and in the TT bars as well), so I was happy with that…hence the epigraph above.

With several hours until the hill climb in the afternoon, there was plenty of time for a hearty lunch, cleaning the bike, and a short nap.

Coming back from the TT.

Coming back from the TT.

Buoyed by my strong-for-me TT, I was actually pretty relaxed going into the hill climb. I did a solid warm-up of 35 minutes, which is longer than I was expecting the stage to last. (There’s that theme again of taking no chances.) At the start line, I had a gel and surveyed the my field–lots of beanpoles, including a handful of juniors who I’m pretty sure weigh less than I do. “Relax,” I reassured myself, “Just hang on for the inevitable explosion on the first climb, and the pace will probably relent after the first hairpin when it levels out.”


Positive self-talk is usually a good thing, especially for someone as anxiety-ridden as me.

But there’s a difference between reassurance and delusion, and I would soon find out in which one I was engaging.

We rolled off to a motor-paced neutral start until the actual start of the climb. We weren’t supposed to jockey for position, but I made sure I was near the front. As soon as we crossed the bridge and we’re given the all-clear, the race was on!

I don’t know if “explosion” is the right word for what happened at the start. While it was hard from the get-go, it wasn’t any harder than I was expecting. A better analogy is the old charlatan’s tale about boiling frogs. The skinny guys at the front set a fast tempo at the front, but I was determined to hold on. How fast is fast? I was putting out the same power numbers I did during the Tour de Bowness hill climb last year on a hill five times the size of COP. It hurt, but guys were getting spit out the back of the pack, and I so thought, “Just hold on a little longer. You just have to make the selection.”

After three minutes, it did relent. We “settled in” to a pace that was about the same as what I did on the Silvertip Hill climb at Rundle Mountain last year, which is about one third the size of Kicking Horse.

If you’ve ever done something stupid, you know the feeling of being in the middle of something with a voice in the back of your head telling you, “Hey man, I don’t think this is a good idea. No, wait–this is totally a bad idea.” It usually comes as events are unfolding in slow-motion and your brain is actually in a state of hyper-consciousness. You know what’s happening. You know you should stop. But there’s another voice–the same voice that tells people things like you can totally write that term paper in an evening, or that pulling out works all the time–saying “YES WE CAN” louder than an over-zealous Obama campaign volunteer.

The thing with climbing at that pace is I know I can do it, but doing so usually results in a fit of coughing, hyper-ventilating, and the occasionally vomiting at the end of the effort. But again, seeing how many guys had been dropped had me buzzing with more irrational exuberance than a hedge fund manager in the 1990s.

Like the dot-com bubble, I blew up spectacularly as well. After seven minutes of climbing at an intensity I had only heretofore sustained for five, (not to mention spending much of that near my maximum heart rate), my legs went on work-to-rule and refused to push any harder than threshold. Unlike the dot-com bubble, the only casualty of my indiscretion was my pride.

I quickly went from the denial phase of grieving to bargaining. “You can save this,” I reasoned. “Just hold threshold until the top, and you can hold off everyone else who got dropped.

However, I had gone too far into the red and it was now time to pay the bill. That meant I couldn’t ride any harder than a cruising pace while my heart rate settled down and I legs could flush the lactate that had flooded them. As I recovered, I was slowly passed by several riders, most of them older than me, who had let the better part of humanity (wisdom, as Plato says) rule. None of them said anything–they were all either too polite or too busy suffering, but in my mind, they smiled ruefully at my misfortune.

Bargaining quickly turned to despair. “Woe is me!” I cried to the heavens. “Why must the wicked triumph and the just be made to suffer?” It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I had–or so I thought–put so much prep into this race, and it was all unraveling on this godforsaken hill, flooded in a sea of lactic acid. By this time, fatigue added to the hurt, and it was getting difficult to spin the pedals. I alternated between standing-n-mashing and glass cranking. My heart rate had “recovered” to below 165bpm, but it didn’t matter because my legs were too tired to pedal at an intensity that would bring my heart rate back up.

Then, rational me kicked in.

“Holy shit, Santos, keep it together. You’re John, not Job. Actually, no, you’re Sisyphus, and none of this makes sense. You drove three hours and paid $100 so you could suffer up a hill that most people think is kind of a long drive only to ride down said hill afterwards. No sane person would do this, so just get it done.”

The inner soliloquy turned off, I did a quick situation check. I was on a false flat about halfway on the course. There was a switchback in the road up ahead and a string of riders behind me closing in. I powered up the switchback and settled into a more sustainable tempo when the grade slacked out. That worked for a while until the road kicked up again, and it became more of a mental battle than anything else. I knew I could squeeze 200W out of my legs for the next 10 minutes, I just had to find the motivation to do so.

Motivation found me before I found it. It came in the form of Patrick from RMCC. Built more like a rouleur than a grimpeur, he had slowly reeled me in over the descents and the false flats. Seeing the the shattered look in my eyes, he told me to hop on his wheel. I’m hazy on the exact words of our conversation, but it was something like this.

Patrick: “Come with me, if you want to live.”

Me: “I can’t. It’s over. There’s nothing left.”

Patrick: “Shut up and Rule #5. You’re coming with me.”

Me: “Oh my god, I am going to die.”

At that point, I realized why pro cyclists have climbing domestiques. Having a wheel in front of me gave me something to focus on. All I had to do was match Patrick’s gearing and cadence.

I wanted to say thanks. I wanted to promise that I wouldn’t betray his generosity and pip him at the finish. But all that required more wherewithal than I had at that moment.

When we entered the village and the road kicked up for the last time, I wavered and said I couldn’t hang on. As with before, Patrick wouldn’t let me give up and yelled at me from in front, “COME ON!” I finished right behind him, 33 minutes and 50 seconds after we started this Sisyphean adventure, and almost six minutes after the leaders.

It was impossible not to feel disappointed. I had entered the race intending to fight for a podium spot, or at least finish “in the points.” Instead, I finished in the bottom third of the results sheet, which would not be embarrassing were it not for my diminutive size and the advantage the confers when going uphill.

Dissecting what went wrong, I should have heeded my power numbers and the sensations in my legs telling me that I was going at an unsustainable pace. However, that would have been worth maybe one or two minutes, and I needed to make up four in order to crack the top eight. A lighter bike and a couple kilos less around the midsection would help too, but probably a minute at most. Really, if anything “went wrong” it’s that I simply wasn’t at the level needed to be competitive in this hard of a race. Looking at my power file from the race, I spent 72% of those 33 minutes at threshold or above, and almost half (45%) above threshold. Pacing error notwithstanding, there isn’t much more I could have squeezed out of my legs that day.

My power distribution for the race.

My power distribution for the race.

In fact, I was so fried, that I lasted 5km into the next day’s road race before I got dropped and soloed the rest of the first lap. I pulled myself out of the race, unable to push more than my threshold power or even get close to my threshold heart rate. Another disappointment, but affirmation of just how hard I rode the hill climb.

At the end of the day, all I can do is all I can do, and I did all I could do. The only thing left is to train more so that, next time, I can do more, and (hopefully) that’ll be enough.



About jbsantos
Polling, politics, PR and outdoor pursuits.

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