The Lost Art of Blowing Up

I should have been on my way north from Slowtwitch’s Tundra Division outpost to head up to race Rasputitsa this weekend for 100 kilometers of dirt, mud, beer, and celebrating riding bikes. Instead I spent it a bit deep in thought while at a series of medical appointments this morning, trying to figure out if I’ll be racing anything related to triathlon this year. (The answer is thankfully in the affirmative, and you’ll get to hear content about what some of us with severe bee sting allergies get to do in order to be able to race triathlon down the road here.)

I first thought about my experience recently dabbling into SkiMo racing. I raced in the Copper Cup — about 2.5 miles uphill, 22% average grade, then transition at the top and ski back down to the bottom. Copper’s base area sits at over 9,000 feet, or, for context, more than a mile above the peak of my home mountain here at home. It’s been almost two weeks since I raced. Cresting out at just under 13,000 feet, my lungs still burn a little bit when I take a deep breath. The holes I ground into the fronts of my ankles and shins have finally given up their scabs and been replaced by the pale, soft pink of new skin.

And for as much as I sweat, and cursed, and thought to myself during the race that this was one of the dumber ideas I’ve ever had — and trust me, I did all of those things in spades — it’s also one of the most enjoyable racing experiences of my life.

Which led me to think back on the more memorable training and racing experiences I have had. The times where I look back on them with at least a smirk, if not full shit-eating grin, on my face. There’s last year’s Rasputitsa; the Vermont Gaps rides done during the middle of the pandemic; the Tuesday Night World Championships rides with the guys; Rev3 lunch runs on the Manassas Battlefield; sprinting with all my might for a photo finish with a friend at Beach to Beacon 10K.

All of those experiences have one thing in common: I was either at, or exceeding, my limits during them. In some cases, I blew up spectacularly.

And that’s what made them fun. It was the challenge. The potential for failure. For failing! But still succeeding by doing the damn thing. And then gathering afterwards to be able to tell stories, to bond over the shared experience of that challenge.

In some ways, in our pursuit for better results, we look for formulaic solutions. That’s not necessarily the wrong answer, and heck, we’re currently inundated with various system-based ways to train. And that may well be a way for it to work for you.

But thinking about my experiences led me down a rabbit hole of looking through my best performances in sport; admittedly, they aren’t particularly lofty, but certainly a lot closer to the front of the race than the back. My best years as a triathlete came when I had what I’d call a balanced approach. Yes, I had a coach, but there were a couple of days a week where there was less structure. Sometimes that was filled by easier stuff I wanted to do; running with my now-wife from our hotel by Dartmouth down to the campus, then stopping and having breakfast at Lou’s before doing the run back up to the hotel. And sometimes that was beating the snot out of myself and fellow riders at stuff like Tuesday Night Worlds, or impromptu masters workouts, or those Rev3 battlefield runs where the opening mile was guaranteed to be under 7 minutes and it only got faster from there.

Ultimately, in order to be able to find your limit, sometimes you need to push beyond. And you just might find fun and a dash of performance on the other side.

Go fast and take chances. And please keep the rubber side down. I’ll see you out there.