Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Cohutta 100 Race Report

It has taken me a few days to finally write about this race. It was a really fun day and a disappointing one all at the same time. Five of us from Joe's Bike Shop made the 11 hour drive down, and is was awesome to have that many teammates racing. Jeff and I camped out with Chris and Kathleen for 2 nights at a campsite about a mile from the start line. We met up up with Greg, who also races for Joe's, and Andrew, who races for Rare Disease Cycling, for a fun pre-ride of the single track section on the Friday before the race. It was really fun sharing the race experience with them.

Cohutta 100 is part of the National Ultra Endurance (NUE) series and takes place in TN and Georgia in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest. The first 20 miles or so is fun, fast single track. The next 80 miles takes place mainly on fire road hills with 2 more single track sections at about mile 50 and then right at the end at about mile 93. Up and down, up and down. There is over 14,000 ft of climbing in the race and by the end, even the small hills feel like mountains. We were pretty much either climbing or descending the entire time.

I felt a lot of different emotions after finishing. I was excited, angry, relieved, frustrated, happy, sad, and I felt like I let a lot of people down, especially Joe's, who helped me get my Foundry MTB all tuned up and race ready, Coach Newell, who has been helping me train for the last 4 months, and my teammates, who have been so supportive and encouraging. I really wanted to have a better result. But yesterday, I got an email from the race directors about a race essay contest with extra points awarded for humor. As I thought back over my time at the race, I realized there were some really funny moments. So instead of focusing on my disappointments, I decided to write about the funny parts of Cohutta 100. 

How to Have the Perfect Race

The Perfect Pre-Race Prep:
Prep #1: Get some stitches. On Thursday evening I was out for a relaxed hour on my mountain bike spinning my legs and getting ready for the big race. I went over a large root, came unclipped and WHAM - sent my left shin smashing into my pedal. I spent the rest of that night at urgent care getting 10 stitches to close up the gash. Crashing before the race means a clean ride Saturday, right?

Prep #2: Make a long drive to the race even longer. Jeff's pre-race hydration plan consisted of venti coffee, red bulls and 44oz diet coke Thirst Slayers from Sheetz. Needless to say, we made many hydration/pee stops on the drive down.

Prep #3: Stock up on the healthiest race food ever. After a trip to Walmart, we had cliff bars, peanut butter crackers, slim jims, pop tarts, uncrustables, oreo cookies and monster energy drinks to fuel us on race day.

Prep #4: Eat a very appetizing pre-race dinner. We had a small plate of pasta from the race sponsors, and that was really good, but we were still hungry so we topped it off with a bagel dipped into a cold can of chicken noodle soup back at the campsite.

The Perfect Race Day Plan:
Plan #1: Ride a hardtail locked out for the entire race. I locked out my fork on the first fire road climb and then proceeded to forget about the fact I had front suspension. Who needs biceps/triceps the next day anyway?

Plan #2: Get in some extra miles. Everyone knows that 100 miles on a mountain bike with over 14,000 ft of climbing isn't really challenging enough. Gerry Pflug felt he needed some extra miles, and since one day I want to win races like he does, there was no way I was going to let him have all the fun of riding more. I decided to add my extra miles around mile 50 when I missed the left hand turn down Potato Patch Mountain. I added about 6 miles and an extra hill climb onto my day. My teammate Greg must really want to win future races because he added an extra 15 miles of training by missing the same turn!

Plan #3: Skip the aid stations. I only stopped at one at mile 75. They are just time killers, especially when you want to make up for lost time. Getting dehydrated is definitely a better long term plan than taking 2 minutes to refill your bottles.

Plan #4: Push as hard as possible back up Potato Patch Mountain. All of the climbing is over after that right? Haha. Completely wrong. Curses at all the hills that came later in the race!

The Perfect Post-Race Recovery:
Step #1: Celebrate! I was so excited to cross that finish line even though the race didn't turn out the way I wanted it to. I gave my teammates high fives and hugs. I compared stories with other racers who had just finished the course. I took off my shoes (I could barely reach my feet my back was so sore) and soaked my legs in the Ocoee river. I hobbled around like I was 70 yrs old. I basked in the glory of not having to climb another hill for at least 2 days. I devoured the post-race veggie burritos, sodas and sweet potato fries.

Step #2: Drink some beers. We somehow made ourselves get back on the bikes to ride back to the campsite (a literal pain in the butt!). We made a fire, enjoyed beers, and planned our return to next year's race. It's funny how quickly we can forget the dark places we entered at times during the day that left us questioning exactly why we signed up for the race in the first place. That night, I couldn't wait to come back for more.

Step #3: Lie in the tent and get some sleep. A WHOOOPER WHILL. AAA WHOOOPER WHILL. A WHOOOPER WHILL. AAAAA WHOOPER WHILLLLLLLL. Thanks bird. I hope you find a mate. Your call is really quite something.

Step #4: Wake up before dawn to drive back to Baltimore. The one good thing about not stopping at the aid stations on race day? Plenty of left over drop bag snacks for the ride home!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

One way to prevent burnout in life and sports

As 4th year medical students, we are required to take a course called TRIPLE: transition to residency and internship and preparation for life. We had an interesting conversation the other day about physician burnout. Burnout is quite common among residents and doctors, and is associated with job-related stress and poor coping mechanisms when faced with significant pressure. In recent years, burnout has also been a hot topic in sports medical journals as kids become more and more focused on athletic performance and on early sport specialization. But burnout can affect anyone, athlete or non-athlete, physician or not, and I think there are some interesting ways to cope with stress to prevent burnout in any aspect of your life.

The burnout syndrome in work or in sports is characterized by losing enthusiasm (emotional exhaustion), having a negative attitude towards people or sports (depersonalization or devaluation), and having a sense that work or racing is no longer meaningful (low personal accomplishment).

There are several factors that can lead to burnout. The most obvious one is excessive working or training with too much monotony and little time for recovery. Other factors associated with burnout include low autonomy and involvement in decision making, having multiple stressors outside of work or sports, such as financial obligations or balancing family life, feeling pressure from peers or coaches to perform up to inappropriate expectations, and feeling trapped by work or sports because to leave would mean giving up one's identity and years of preparation. There are also perfectionist or anxious personality characteristics can make certain individuals more prone to burnout.

But burnout is not inevitable. People can be doctors or athletes for years without feeling distressed about their jobs or races. While there are multiple ways to prevent burnout, such as emphasizing recovery time, varying daily routine and surrounding yourself with a strong and supportive social network, recent studies have also shown that mindfullness training can have a positive impact on individual well-being and burnout prevention.

What exactly is mindfullness? That was my first question when I heard about these studies. It sounded a lot like soft fluffy psychology with no real scientific basis to back it up. However, after reading some more about mindfullness and talking with my classmates and mentors in small group sessions over the past 2 weeks, I have a new appreciation for what it means.

Anyone who has taken a yoga class or tried meditation has practiced mindfullness, which is the the ability to pay attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. It includes the capacity for lowering one’s own reactivity to challenging experiences; the ability to notice, observe, and experience bodily sensations, thoughts, and feelings even though they may be unpleasant; acting with awareness and attention (not being on autopilot); and focusing on experience, not on the labels or judgments applied to them.

When I am working in the hospital or sometimes even in a race, I find myself daydreaming a lot of the time and thinking about the many tasks I have to get done before the day ends, my plans for the next weekend, how tired I am, everything and anything except on what is going on in front of me.

Being pulled in multiple directions and multi-tasking is part of any career or athletic pursuit. As a result, living mindfully is something you have to consciously practice and cultivate. It doesn't just happen on its own. Below are some techniques that can help you become more self-aware and more in-tune with your personal well-being. Interestingly, in the process of learning about yourself, studies have shown that individuals who practice mindfullness training become more emotionally stable and better able to manage stress, more empathetic and open towards others and new ideas, and have improved relationships with the people around them - all qualities which are important in work and sports. Being mindful doesn't require a big time investment. Many of these techniques can be done in 5 minutes or less.

Meditation: The purpose of mediation is to become aware of your sensory, emotional and cognitive reactions that you experience on a daily basis. These can include: 
  • Body scan: start at the top of your head or the bottom of your feet and notice bodily sensations and the cognitive and emotional reactions you have without attempting to change the sensations themselves. Alternatively, you can practice being aware of each muscle in your body and work from head to toe contracting muscles and then relaxing them.
  • Sitting or walking mediation: Bring awareness to the thoughts, feelings and sensations experienced while sitting or walking
  • Mindful movement: yoga-type exercises that allow you to use movement and breaths to bring awareness to your body
  • I really like these free, short, guided mediation audioclips: http://www.freemindfulness.org/download
Reflective Narrative Exercises: By writing brief stories about personal experiences and sharing them with friends or peers, you can explore challenges you faced, recognize ways you successfully worked through difficult situations, and identify personal qualities that promoted success or failure.

Appreciative Inquiry: Listening to others share their stories can be equally as beneficial as being the storyteller. Listeners practice avoiding interruptions and judgments, resist comparing their own experience with that of the storyteller, and try to truly understand the situation from the storyteller's point of view by thinking of focused questions to deepen understanding of the storyteller's experience.

One part of me still thinks that mindfullness training is a bit of nonsense. But another part of me hopes that by spending a few minutes a day living more mindfully, I will be able to balance the demands of 80 hr residency work weeks and still fit in some racing (and all the other things important in life) without getting too stressed or burned out. Since I won't have much time for rest and relaxation, I am hoping that through mindfullness training, I can find meaning and a sense of well-being in the moment to moment experiences in my daily routine.