The Hell of 2012: A Neopro Cautionary Tale
It's the eve of the Tour of Utah.
The race that I've been wanting to do since I shot it in 2010 for PezCyclingNews. One of the many motivators for riding, training, and racing like a man possessed the year after. The local big show, where all of my friends and family would surely turn out to lend support and serious amounts of crushivation. I'm even on a professional cycling team that received an invite this year.
And I'm not racing it.
It's okay. I've accepted it. In fact, I've accepted the fact that it would be a pretty unlikely event by the end of June. You know those stages of grief? I'm kind of through it. The hard part is answering the inquiry from everyone who pays attention to cycling in Utah - "Why not?"
To answer "Why not?" is to also answer the thought that bounces around inside my cranial nether regions, and has since a dismal showing at USPRO: "Damn, this year sucks."
It took until late July to figure out why.
Piles of blood tests. Piles of doctor visits. Revelations that my body was in complete survival mode. It kind of took me aback - I generally consider myself a pretty resilient bastard. I can usually thrash with broken bones, blood flowing out of every limb, and head injuries. No, my decrepit state couldn't have just been from a few (fairly harrowing) wrecks and nasty interactions with cars.
My family practice doctor, unfamiliar with the rigors of bike racing, suggested I had a brain tumor, and then she figured out just how much hell your average Cat 1/Pro cyclist in the US puts themselves through on a daily basis. She suggested training stress. Again, this wasn't a solid answer - very little had changed from the prior season when it came to what I was doing. If anything, I was in a better situation - working less, resting more, eating better, more focused on training than ever before. In fact, it inspired a bit of guilt. In 2011, I was working full-time, training, racing, and partying like a relative rockstar. In 2012, I was hardly working, training, racing, and living like a monk...and yet, having trouble pinning the break in a local race.
Then, while we (the doctor and I) were leafing through one of her huge tomes of medical knowledge (entertainingly, figuring out what was wrong became a joint exercise with the medical professional), it struck. She asked what my bodyfat percentage was. I knew from some spring testing that it was hovering around six percent.
A simple explanation, a simple problem, and a simple solution. When bodyfat dips below certain levels, the body begins to shut down non-essential processes in order to survive. In my case, it began taking down most hormone production - stuff essential for drive, recovery, motivation, and that ever fleeting "HTFU". In May, still in recovery from a broken wrist and Speedweek thrashing, my hematocrit was well into anemia and I had the testosterone levels of a menopausal woman. A few crashes coupled with a malnourished state was all it took to push my body over the edge, and make me feel like a shell of a human being for a few months. I didn't want to ride. I didn't want to write. I couldn't have an intelligent conversation. I didn't want to do anything. I wasn't depressed, I was simply vacant, like I had a permanent "Out to Lunch" sign hanging from my neck.
I presented the answer to Kevin Nicol (my coach), who in turn consulted Dr. Inigo San Millan. The answer? "Duh." Their collective response was something along the lines of not seeing healthy racers under nine percent bodyfat. It made sense. I'd become hell-bent on getting as skinny as possible over the winter. I've always had a really screwed-up body image of myself. Body dysmorphia is pretty common amongst cyclists. I was convinced that if I were to be competitive in anything with a hill, I needed to drop to around 145-150lbs with minuscule bodyfat numbers, even though the year before with good form I was able to hang with the best climbers in the US at 160lbs. So, I ran massive calorie deficits through the winter. Our title sponsor accused me of being "skinnier than a starved cat". He was right. At my lightest, I was tipping the scales at 147lbs. I'm 6'1. And I was still convinced I needed to lose more weight.
When the theory of the causality for my anemic performance surfaced, I immediately began eating. A lot. In fact, so much that when I journeyed to Boulder at the end of July to do some testing with Kevin and Dr. San Millan at the CU Anschutz Human Performance Lab, I was shocked I was able to pack on so much weight in about 2.5 weeks (somewhere around the weight of a standard Santa Cruz V-10 downhill frame) - and successfully brought my bodyfat up to the acceptable 10% metric.
Immediately, I started feeling better. I could train and recover. I felt like a cyclist (and a human) again, instead of a corpse on a bike. While it's too late to save 2012, the lesson I've learned this year is invaluable. I won't hit 2011 fitness levels before the year is out, but I can once again race without feeling like I'm on the verge of collapse every time the shit hits the fan.
I'm going to miss the Tour of Utah. It's going to be hard seeing the team line up and crush it without me. It's going to be tough knowing that I can't contribute on the roads I've ridden hundreds of times - but I've learned. 2012 might be a wash from a racing perspective, but the hell it's been has armed me to the teeth with wisdom that few others can match. I've got a few more races this year, and then I'll be heading to warmer climes as fall turns to winter. I know exactly what I need to do, and exactly how to do it.
The future is bright.