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The Psychology of Enduring the Uphill

Lessons from a flip-flopped enduro race

I was 30 minutes into the race and doubled over my handlebars, heaving for air, riding the steepest fire road I’d ever been on and struggling to stay in the saddle while discovering a new level of slow pedaling in granny gear. I looked down at my front wheel, churning in slow motion as it floundered along the path of least resistance, around loose rocks and above deep cracks. Remembering that more oxygen comes with sitting upright, I squared my shoulders and glanced at the ridgeline high above, home of the finish line.

I had reached a point well over 11,000 feet in elevation, but still had 1,000 to go…the toughest 1,000.

When I signed up for this race—the world’s first so-called Reverse Enduro at Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin ski area—it honestly didn’t seem so grueling.

Consisting of a short climb from the base of the ski area to the summit – only about 3 miles total – followed by an untimed descent on a new flow trail, on paper, it didn’t sound like much suffering at all.

The kicker is that the race covers more than 1,600 vertical feet and starts above 10,500 feet. In other words, oxygen is in short supply the whole time. In spite of the event’s brevity, you do indeed have to dig deep to endure.

It was my first mountain bike race in about 15 years. I had raced recreationally on the Summit County and Eagle County local circuits for several summers until an unfortunate incident—a high-speed collision with another racer during a technical descent—essentially scared me out of competition.

I would never sign up for a regular enduro, but as an uphill-only race, there seemed very few chances for high-speed collisions (or high-speed anything) in this setup. It seemed like an inviting challenge, a means of re-entering the adrenaline-charged world of two-wheel competition with an effort that would ultimately take less than an hour.

We launched off the starting line individually, the course beginning on a narrow singletrack that zigzagged up A-Basin’s green slopes through pine forests, over creeks and rock gardens before spitting competitors out on the steep, loose fire road to continue climbing above treeline.

There were a few competitors in my immediate vicinity, also struggling to stay in their saddles on this wall-like section of dirt. A couple racers ahead petered out and began pushing their bikes, hanging their heads in despair and gasping.

In my pre-ride a couple of days before, I somehow had managed to stay in the saddle to the top, a feat I was now, in the throes of my race-day suffering, finding nothing short of miraculous.

Here, my heart was punching my ribcage and waves of numbness surged through my arms and legs.

I had to step down.

Feet on the ground, I leaned into the bars, realizing immediately that pushing a bike up a hill this steep was harder than riding it. I pressed on, my steps short and shuffling. I knew a section of slightly milder gradient was coming. There, I would try to get back on the bike.

I clicked into the pedals and recommenced the slow churn, wobbling around trenches and the two or three racers still pushing their bikes. I also stepped off and pushed a couple more times myself. Then, back in the saddle, I turned the final corner. The last hundred yards of the course opened to sweeping views of Colorado’s highest peaks on both sides of the ridgeline. I found a reserve of oxygen deep in my lungs, shifted down, stood on my pedals and hammered across the finish line. That’s when it dawned on me.

What’s cathartic, and strangely rewarding, about racing or even riding uphill for an extended period, is the mental game.

And since I had so much time to think on the climb up, as a distraction tactic, I came up with these strategies required of racing uphill that can also serve you pretty well as in any of life’s uphill battles. In loose sequence, they are as follows.

– Recon the course. This way, you know exactly what you’re getting yourself into and can anticipate obstacles and terrain features.

– Pace yourself.  The hammering you’re accustomed to drawing upon to get you through short climbs cannot be your go-to strategy here. Your pedaling is going to be slow and deliberate, at a pace you’ll have to maintain the entire way. In an uphill battle, especially on a super steep course, if you’re moving forward at all, you’re doing it.

– Take deep breaths. You’ll need every shred of oxygen you can find. Focusing on your breath can help distract you from the burn.

– Sit upright and open your chest. Oxygen enters your lungs a lot more quickly this way vs. being slumped forward. It also helps make the technical, steeper sections that require leaning into the bars easier to manage.

– Reward yourself for small efforts. Once you make it through each rough patch—up a rocky section or around a particularly tough switchback—be sure to give yourself a mental fist pump.

– Relish the easier sections, even if they’re only marginally easier. This could mean reaching for a gratifying sip of liquid, shifting out of granny gear for a few pedals or standing up to stretch.

– Cherish your strength. It might feel like suffering, but think about how much power it required, wherever you are on the course, to have made it this far. You’re doing a lot better than a lot of people out there.

– Keep moving forward, however slow and with whatever it takes. Even if you have to get off of your bike and push, pause for a deeper breath, or take a minute to chomp down a couple of energy chews, continue toward the finish line, even if it’s one painfully slow pedal or step at a time.

– Soak up the downhill. You will face more uphill battles, but this slog is officially behind you. Enjoy the smooth sailing while you have it.