Sunday, March 4, 2012

"Best" Practice ...

One of the most overused sports cliches is the idea of "leaving it all out on the field". You hear this when you watch press conferences, sports movies, inspirational pre-game speeches from coaches, and, especially, the talking heads who get paid to say nothing of substance for a few hours before the actual games start.

That statement always seems ridiculous to me. I mean, "leave it all out on the field"? Really? When would you ever not do that if you're in a competition? If it exists, I'd love to see the lockerroom speech where the coach stands up and says, "I want you to go out there and hold it all back ... I'm talking the absolute bare minimum of effort guys. Winning is overrated. Conservation of energy -- that's where your focus needs to be."

But I think the most objectionable element of the statement itself is that it grossly mis-represents the scope and size of what it means to be good enough to win. It seems to imply that as long as we give our very best right now, that will be good enough to deliver victory.  And for all of us who have ever competed in anything, especially endurance sports, we know that's simply not true. I have a lot of friends who would be considered "endurance athletes" -- runners, cyclists, triathletes, etc. And for every one of these folks, putting it all out there and being the best they can be isn't something they do acutely for a specific event - it's something they build over time, it's an evolution that starts with a first-timer throwing a leg over a bike for a five mile rail trail ride and progresses over time from there as a steady and ongoing improvement that allows us to slowly - sometimes glacially - become the best we can be at whatever it is we do. (And even that sometimes won't be enough to win.)

Just look at the best elite athletes in endurance sports. Even they have to pick and choose which events they'll target as "primary goal events." Does this mean they aren't trying in the others? Absolutely not. Part of it is a realization that you can't redline yourself every single weekend and expect to have the necessary fitness and energy to continue winning every time. And part of it is tied to a focused and ongoing need to improve weaknesses without abusing strengths. So some races reasonably become "training races" where specific efforts are targeted without a concern to how they impact the final outcome. The idea is that "best efforts" evolve over time, and if you want to actually become the very best at something you want to do, you have to constantly work on it.

I bring this up here because at this time of year many of us who race mountainbikes are squarely in that "training zone", where we ride with a little more purpose, "train" as much as "ride". We're willing to push a little harder, go a little longer, perhaps even hurt a little more. Will it pay off with podiums or at least high places in the events we enter? Maybe, maybe not. But that's not the point, is it? As long as we see improvement, we'll keep doing it anyway because it's important for us to build our best. And cliche notions of "leaving it all out on the field" are taken for granted. Of course we'll give our best. But our real focus now isn't on whether or not we'll bring our current best to each event. The focus now is to make that best, well ... better.

Today I got a chance to try to make my own best better. Did I? I may never know for sure. Felt pretty good at some points, felt pretty blown out in others. But I got my first 50 miler of the season on the Misfit. And with a focus on pushing a few climbs today, it was definitely a first step in the right direction if I want to be stronger later this year. I covered both Wissahickon and the Belmont Plateau in Philly, and while I was pretty tired when I finished, I had a great time out there and never cramped up.

So here's hoping my own best inched a bit forward for the effort today. And if it didn't, well, at least I know i put some pressure on my current "best" while having a great time riding bikes in the woods. And as far as mountainbiking goes, that's pretty much all I can ask it to give, right?

A few photos from today's ride:

Before the ride,  ready for take off

Early in the ride, I climbed the loose rocky sections opposite the Inn

This is a section I rarely ride, but I was intent on getting every inch of the rideable trails in today

At the start of the Spaghetti Bowl section across Lincoln Drive, my usual route was blocked by a massive fallen tree

The Misfit takes a brief rest stop on the Spaghetti Bowl

Seems like an odd combination -- a tagger and an Elton John fan 

Coming through the bridge on the Spaghetti Bowl section

Lemons into lemonade -- this used to be completely blocking the trail and now? A new trail feature is born.

Around 10:30 or so, the sun finally came out

Now here is a section I never ride - the opposite side of Bell's Mill Road has a very rocky trail that pops out here

Over on Belmont, there was more than the usual blow-down, including this huge uprooted tree.

Some of the blow down caused re-routing. The trail now leads you over the bridge over Ford Rd.

Typical folds and twists on Belmont Plateau

The trail gets pretty technical in some sections on Belmont

Rest stop number two for the Misfit

Rolling up along side I-76

Near the end of the Belmont trail, you come back to it again.

After the ride, tired but still smiling!

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