Thursday, June 22, 2017

My first Gaps ride - a lesson in anxiety

This past weekend I went on one of the toughest bike rides I have done yet. For the first time, I got out to what is referred to as "The Gaps" which is a series of six climbs or "Gaps" in the mountains in North Georgia. Going into the weekend, I really didn't know anything about the Gaps besides that it was a super challenging place to go ride your bike up and down mountains - and, in my mind, it felt like you weren't a real triathlete or cyclists in the area unless you have ridden the Gaps. I've seen SO many pictures and stories of people riding the Gaps and I really wanted to be a part of it and experience it for myself.

I had to miss the last group ride that my training group did so this past weekend was my first time going. Despite the fact that I don't have any real goal triathlons on my schedule for the year, one of my goals for the season is to continue to get stronger on the bike. I want to become a better cyclist and keep trying new things, pushing myself, and getting stronger and faster on the bike. I was excited for the group ride to the Gaps and looking forward to my first time attempting this ride. I had gotten my first taste of riding in the mountains when I did one climb during the 3 State 3 Mountain bike ride in May, which was tough, but doable. I expected similar going to the Gaps.

In TrainingPeaks, where my coach gives me my workouts, for Saturday he had just written "Bike at Gaps" and that was really it. I knew from talking to others that some people had 4:00 hours of riding planned vs. 5:00 hours or 6:00 hours. Because of this, I assumed that it would be similar to any of our group bike rides and there would be options of how far I could go or how many Gaps to ride. I figured I would just figure it out depending on how I was feeling. I really had no idea what to expect.

Going into the ride, I was looking forward to it and mostly was nervous about the logistics of getting out there and back, which took my mind off of worrying about what exactly would happen at the ride in the days leading up to it. Maybe there was a bit of naiveness in me as well. I just wanted to be doing what everyone else was doing and was just excited to get out there and give this Gaps thing a go. So I didn't mental prep much.

The night before as I started to pack my bag and plan out the day, I started to realize how unprepared I was. I talked to my coach and spoke with a few friends but I didn't really articulate well what I was thinking or ask the right questions. But then I couldn't fall asleep feeling uneasy and anxious about the whole thing.

I drove up to the Gaps with my coach and two other athletes that he trained who are both doing Ironman Lake Placid. They have all been doing a lot of climbing in preparation and I knew had all ridden at the Gaps recently. It was early super early while we were in the car and my nerves were still with me, but I wasn't in major freakout mode or anything. Based on our conversation in the car, I still had in my head that I would be able to choose how far or how long I would be able to ride - and then I could hang out for a while as others finished longer rides! I also knew that my coach likes to stay with the newer people and had heard only the best things about the support he gave others their first times riding at the Gaps. I sort of figured that I would be with him or nearby to him throughout the day to be able to ask questions. And due to our how group usually does rides in general, I assumed we'd all be together.

We got up to the meeting point and all started gathering our gear together and getting ready. It seemed like it was going to be a beautiful day and it was a bit chilly when we arrived which is great when you are about to start a long bike ride. Jerome knew that I wanted to document my first Gaps ride and we'd even stopped to take a picture, I was feeling nervous but not really anxious.

For me, anxious and nervous are different things. I have struggled with anxiety my whole life. I remember being a little kid and feeling anxious and not knowing what it was and being afraid to tell anyone - I was anxious about being anxious even! Throughout college and the years after college, I struggled with anxiety and panic attacks. My worst ever panic attack took place a few years after college on my birthday that actually ended with me leaving work in an ambulance. It was awful and I was out of work for a week with anxiety unable to leave the house. I spent many years on medication for my anxiety and it's been something that I continue to work through as an adult.

I react differently to anxiety vs. nerves. If, for example, I am nervous about a big presentation for work - I will seek out advice and guidance and practice and prep. Whereas if I am feeling anxious - it hits me physically and I am more apt to retreat, withdraw, become really quiet, and cry.

In recent years I have become much better about managing my anxiety and honestly, sports have been a huge part of that. I do not have panic attacks in the same way, I no longer take medication for anxiety, I have become so much better at managing it and working through anxiety when it comes along but sometimes it is still a struggle.

So return to the bike ride. As we arrived at the ride, I was feeling nervous with a mix of a little bit of anxiety, which probably caused me to be quieter than I usually am. In hindsight, I also realize how much I didn't even know to ask. I could have used the car ride to ask things that would have made my day go by differently but I didn't even know the questions to ask.

Part of me also did not want to be too needy. I was riding up with two people who were doing Lake Placid, who this training ride was for! I felt like I was very much tagging along. My big triathlon race is past, so I felt like I needed to give other people their time to get support and coaching and just be quiet.

When we were all ready to head out, we got together to have the route explained a bit. Not knowing what any of the Gaps were named or what they meant, the overview of where we would be riding did not mean much to me. I had no idea the names or distances or levels of intensity of each of these so it began to overwhelm me a bit as we walked through what we'd be doing.

It also hit me that we were all going to be riding the same thing - there were no options for shorter rides and we'd all be going the same route! My anxiety definitely started to creep up a bit more because I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. How long, how far. I knew nothing. Just that we were doing 5 Gaps and I didn't even know what that meant.

I had planned to stick together on the ride with my friend Lauren who I have a lot of fun with and our paces are around the same. We also have similar mindsets around a lot of things and I was really thankful that she had suggested we ride together, even though she is stronger than me on climbs.

The first of the climbs was pretty uneventful. Lauren and I stuck together and for a portion of it were with a few other girls we ride with, which made it fun, and I got to the top feeling pretty good.  Lauren got ahead of me on the climb as expected but then I caught her on the downhill. The descent didn't bother me at all either, I enjoyed it, but was careful to brake and take the turns very easy. When we got to the bottom, I said to Lauren that I didn't think it was too bad and asked if all of them were like that. She said no. Definitely not.

Our next climb was a bit more challenging, made more difficult by the fact that for a portion of it we were unsure of where we were going. I am so used to riding marked routes and places familiar to me, so the idea of getting lost hasn't been a big concern of mine recently. Our group usually rides by looping back at different points so I am very rarely alone on the bike. However, for a large stretch, Lauren and I were just by ourselves. When I heard of people riding the Gaps before, it seemed like they are usually somewhat together. I felt SO alone being out there and not seeing anyone in front or behind us. We were happy to have the fact we were going in the right direction confirmed by our coach Adam driving by in the support truck.

I was glad that we hadn't made the decision to back because we were already started up the second climb. It began a bit more gradual than the first but got more intense. Some of the other riders in our group turned back, which was amazing since we hadn't seen anyone in a while. Again, Lauren got ahead of me on the climb, but then at the top the group was all waiting and we regrouped. I was thankful for the ability to pause, take a break, refill my water and Gatorade bottles, and have something to eat. I was already feeling hungry and starting to worry that I wasn't going to have enough food with me. These climbs were tiring and at this point I was 1:30 hours in but running through my nutrition. Not having any idea how we long we'd be out there, I wasn't even sure if I had brought enough.

As we made our way up the second climb, I started to lose my head a bit. How long is this climb going to last? Why are we all so spread out? How come nobody gave us better information of what the route is? How hard are these hills going to get? What do I even expect for the rest of the day? How long are we even going to be out here? If I eat through all my food right now am I going to be screwed?

I didn't socialize too much at the top of the second climb. I confided in a couple of people that I was feeling anxious but beyond that didn't talk much as I didn't want to cry. Even when my coach, Jerome, asked me how I was doing, I gave a sort of flippant answer. I knew he could tell that was not how I really felt but we also didn't really get into it.

The decent of the second Gap was really fun. I tried to take my mind off of my negative feelings by enjoying the downhill as much as possible. I let myself go fast and reached my fastest speed of the day at one point (possibly ever) hitting 40 mph on the bike according to my watch. I knew I was getting a lead on Lauren which I felt bad about though. Once the descent leveled out, I tried to slow down to let Lauren catch and I considered stopping.  However, it turned out to not be too long before I was climbing our 3rd Gap and I was going slow NOT on purpose. 

Lauren and others passed me on the uphill of the 3rd Gap, which I later learned is called Unicoi. The first was Wolf Pen and the second was Jack's Gap. While climbing, my frustration around my lack of knowledge of how long the climbs would be started to build and build. It was tough, people were passing me, and I had no idea how long it was going to last. The unknown of the whole thing made me feel very anxious and I started to cry.

I do much better when I have a plan. I like to know what to expect as much as possible in life, but also in this sport, because it is something that I tend to feel very unconfident in. So being prepared makes me feel better. I did the same Half Ironman a 2nd time specifically so that I would know what to expect. I study course maps for major races and write myself mental notes of where the hills or tough stretches are going to be so I know how to pace and plan.

Knowing what to expect helps me to mentally talk myself through the tough parts. I plan out what my mantras will be and break up the course into pieces by chunks of time or distance. Even when I don't know an exact route, everything I do is always with a set distance or time and I am able to use that as a way to self talk and motivate myself. "Only 1 hour left" or "More than half way through the distance - just have to get myself home." Or I tell myself "If you can just get through this one section of hills, the rest will be fine." 

For this ride, I had no idea how to self talk my way through the really difficult climbs because I had NO IDEA. I didn't know long each of the Gaps were. I didn't know how much distance was in between them. If the next one coming would be longer or steeper than the last. I didn't know if I would be out riding my bike for 4:00 hours or 6:00 hours. I didn't know how many miles we would be covering in total or what the total elevation gain would be. I didn't know ANYTHING and this lack of knowledge was building and building my anxiety, even during the ride. Which was what led me to be crying on my bike.

A couple of the guys turned around at the top, which I appreciated when people turned back, not only for the company and support, because I knew that when I started seeing people coming back I must be somewhat close to the top.  One of them asked how I was doing and when I said I was feeling anxious because of the unknown, he replied it was good training because you don't know what you will happen on race day. But I disagreed! I do know what to expect for races! 56 miles! And they publish the elevation maps! I can prepare for that!

I felt so unprepared mentally for what was going to come. And plus, riding the Gaps was hard! It was tiring! My energy was going to keeping my legs moving, not holding back tears. I was scared for how much harder it was going to get and I had no idea how to mentally prepare myself. 

At the top of Unicoi I went up to Lauren and I started to cry again. I was embarrassed but I was just really feeling so anxious and didn't know what to do. I didn't want anyone to see me so I stuck just with her and explained how I was feeling. She was so calm and understanding, letting me know that she felt the same exact way the first time she rode here. She suggested calling over Jerome but I told her not to. I didn't want him to see me crying. I was embarrassed as well that I was breaking down as the ITL motto is "Be tough." And as I mentioned, when I feel anxious, I tend to withdraw and shut down vs. seek out help.

I worked to get myself together and then started the descent down. Again, wanting to distract myself from how I was feeling, I went fast which gave me an adrenaline boost. I just wanted to out-bike the way I was feeling. I knew when I got to the bottom that I had gotten down faster than Lauren. I was mentally in a rough spot and was retreating into my own anxiousness. I kept going, but Lauren caught up to me after a little and the first thing she said was "Man, I've been busting my butt to catch up to you. You could use the brakes on the downhill you know!" 

This made me smile and woke me up from my funk. In addition to making me laugh, she also made me realize that I was not alone. Even though I was having a rough day, she still wanted to ride with me and and was fighting to catch up with me when I wasn't being a very good friend by giving anything back in support. 

The next portion of the ride was fun and enjoyable with Lauren. Before we'd taken off from Unicoi, one of the coaches said that it would be 1:30-ish hours of rollers before the next Gap. This wasn't exactly the level of detail that I wanted, but it was something. It was still tough and we joked the rollers felt more like "mini Gaps" but we laughed and talked through it. I was so thankful to have her to ride with. There were some beautiful stretches of smooth road and it couldn't have come at a better time for me mentally.

Lauren and I stuck right together, even getting some company for a bit when one of the guys turned back for us. We rode for a bit on a stretch of busier road as well, which distracted from thinking about being tired or anxious of what was to come because I was really concentrating on being in the moment and staying safe. There were some really rude drivers out there and we got honked at multiple times by trucks and sped past by people in flashy cars flying by.

After a good amount of road that allowed me to regain myself a bit, we started the climb up the 4th Gap. Lauren got ahead of me right away and I paused towards the beginning to refill my water. Our coach Adam, who was driving around all day supporting us, was stopped and asked if I wanted any water. I did, because I was continuing to fly through all of my nutrition and liquid. He said to stop for water if I needed it because this was a "long climb." I tried to take water on the move, but couldn't, so paused to refill my water, dump some on me (it was hot at this point!) and then settled in for a climb that I now knew to be "the long one." After stopping, it took me a number of tries to get going on my bike as starting a bike ride uphill is always difficult. I was happy I could even get the momentum to get going again at all. 

Finally I was moving again and just started to climb, climb, climb. I was in a better mental state than I was up the last one, if I am being honest. Knowing at the bare minimum that it was "long" allowed me to settle into that a bit mentally. I also realized that I was strong enough to switch around the gears at some points. I didn't need to always be in my lowest gear and by using my gears more, even if just switching to the 2nd to lowest gear for a tiny bit of time when the elevation changed or when rounding a corner, it helped break things up. Lauren and another woman ride were in my far distant view so I tried to keep them there! I thought at one point in time I was making gains on them but it was never enough. I was just climbing and climbing and climbing for what felt like forever. 

This was a pretty windy stretch of road and there were a good amount of cars driving by, but even scarier were the motorcyclists who would rev their engines and scare the crap out of me as I was just riding by myself.

It felt like this thing went on forever and although I knew it was long, I was starting to get very tired of it at the end and it was really wearing on me. I was nervous I wouldn't be able to make it at some points. One other guy in our group, I did catch on the climb, as he was taking breaks every here and there. I knew I wouldn't be able to start if I stopped, so just continuing on was the only option but I was getting weary. Very weary. As I turned a couple corners and saw that there was still just more climbing, I may have cursed out loud a few times.

Eventually, I saw the most glorious sight of one of the ITL riders coming back down. One of the girls who was doing this ride for the second day in a row (!!!) had turned around at where I was and rode with me for a bit, asking how I was doing. I told her miserable and she distracted me for a bit talking about plans for the evening and telling me I was almost there. I was so thankful for her to come back right at the point where I was starting to really crack. The distraction was just what I needed to finish it off and get to the top of that thing. Right as we got over the crest, she said to me "Great job! You've done 4 of the 5, now you've got just one left!" After brief excitement of getting to the top, I was right back to thinking I had no idea how I was going to do another one!

I hung out at the top of this Gap, which I now know is called Neel's Gap and is a bit under an 8 mile climb that I think took me a little under an hour. AN HOUR. An HOUR of straight climbing. Shit. Lauren let me know she had nothing left to give for support because she was struggling too.

At this point I dove into the snacks in our support truck, eating a ton of potato chips, my second Clif bar, and also refilling water and Gatorade. We waited at the top until everyone made it up there and my coach Jerome arrived with the last person. He asked me again how I was doing and I started to cry again. I let him know I was struggling and how the unknown was getting to me. He let me know that he wished he'd known earlier because he could have let me know what the climbs would be like. He said that there was only one more left and it was just a short 3 mile climb and assured me I would be able to do it. I said I didn't know I could and he told me again that yes, I could do it.

He also did something that really means a lot to me looking back. The whole time going into this ride, I had the picture in my head I wanted to take. I had seen everyone's pictures from the Gaps and I wanted my own. Beautiful scenery. Looking accomplished and strong. Standing proudly next to my bike. I wanted that victory photo!

I was feeling not very victorious, not accomplished, or strong, but more weak and broken and tired and embarrassed at the top of Neel's. But Jerome made me go over and made me take a picture in front of the scenery. He knew it was important to me and insisted it happen. It is basically the most awkward photo of all time but I am glad that I have it and it meant so much to me that Jerome knew it was important to me, as silly as it was, and insisted it happen.

Oh, and yeah, I didn't mention that our helmet hair was pretty much out of this world. I think the sight of Jerome's helmet head mohawk made my smile a little more real in this one.

By the time we finished talking, the majority of the group had taken off, so I got directions and hopped on my bike to descend. I tried to go fast, wanting to catch up to Lauren and the group if possible, but also being careful and not reckless. I knew I was tired at this point and there were still a lot of cars and motorcycles.

When I started the last climb, I had a different mentality than the earlier ones. I knew it was the last one, which helped. And I knew that it was only 3 miles. Having that knowledge helped me SO much. It is just 3 miles, I told myself. I looked at my watch a number of times and seeing the progress and telling myself how little I had left helped me to keep pushing. I enjoyed the waterfalls and trees and scenery around me because it really was beautiful and I was tempted to stop and take another picture. However my desire to be done beat out my desire for a photo. This last Gap was called Wolf Pen. Our first climb of the day had been coming up the other side of this one.

I was so thankful when I made it to the top and wanted to badly to be done. I had in my mind that I would be able to just descend and then coast from the bottom back to where we had parked but unfortunately I was a little bit off in that. It was still about 7 more miles and I was so ready for it to end. I started getting nervous that I had gone the wrong way but finally made it back. The anxiety of not knowing where I was going or what was going on stuck with me all the way until the very end of that ride.

It was a long day and I immediately climbed off my bike and collapsed on the ground when I arrived back. It was what I had been wanting to do ALL day long. I ended the ride at 71.59 miles, which is just shy of my longest bike ride distance wise ever (which is 75 miles).  It was 5:24 hours in the saddle though, which is my longest bike ride time wise by about 34 minutes. It was tough - both physically and mentally.

I don't know why the unknown gives me such anxiety. It is something that I struggle with in all areas of life. My managers know about me - if you want to guarantee I will be unproductive for hours and go totally crazy just put a meeting on my calendar with a vague subject line like "Discussion."  I will then get nothing done because I will not be able to think about anything else besides what that could mean. Dating is a struggle for me because that time in between text messages and the unknown of what someone else is thinking really makes it so I can't sleep at night. "We need to talk" messages make me feel like I can't breathe. I just struggle with uncertainty - which, I know, there is a lot of in life - not just in triathlon.

Technology in many ways is helpful because it takes away some of that unknown. For me, traffic is much more bearable when I can pull up Google Maps and see that traffic will clear up in a couple of miles versus just sitting in a long line of cars inching forward wondering "Am I going to be stuck in this for the entire rest of my trip!?!" Weather forecasts give you a pretty good idea of when a storm is going to blow through. Even when watching TV on demand on Hulu, the commercial breaks come with a little timer so that you know how much longer you have to sit through the commercials and if you have time to run to the bathroom or grab a snack. In many things, you have clarity with the duration or length of annoying things nowadays!

Saturday was a huge struggle because I did not know when the bad part was going to be over. It's not a new to me form of anxiety, but it was particularly challenging that day. It was a really good reminder for me that I need to keep working at managing this.  I think that one way that I can do that is to practice planning for the unknown. Plan to not have a plan essentially. I kept wishing that I knew more and feeling frustrated that I didn't know what the route or ride would be like and never did I just accept that I didn't know, and work through it.

I also think I can focus more on asking for help earlier versus letting the anxiety overwhelm me and retreat back. I understand that a lot of unknowns you simply can't control - if you are sick or injured you don't know how long it will be until you are better. If your flight is delayed you might not know when it will be back on track. However, this day could have been an avoided anxiety for myself had I asked for help earlier. Jerome or others could have told me the information if I had been more direct about what I needed and had I asked. I was embarrassed and not wanting to bother others and feeling like I was being a nuisance. I was stubborn.

And a final thing I can work on is mindfulness and being in the moment. Not worrying about what is to come as much and just thinking about where I was and the company I was with. Yes, for endurance sports it is really helpful to know how far you are going so that you can pace yourself. But I should have been better about staying in the moment. I will continue to work on that more in the future. At the time I couldn't get myself to focus on the positive when my anxiety had taken over, but there is always positive out there so I need to get back in the practice of managing through that.

It was a challenging day on Saturday. I think I knew I could do the ride all along, but I just felt so anxious it was so hard. I am glad I did it. I learned a lot through the ride and it was humbling to struggle with anxiety again after doing well with it for a long time. I am also so, so thankful that I have ITL in my life and a group of people who make me WANT to do these hard things! There were about 20 people riding in the mountains and Adam, one of the coaches, spent his whole weekend driving hundreds of miles around to make sure we had water, food, and were all safe on the road. I am so appreciative that I have these things available to me in my life and the coaches do all that they do for us as athletes.

Honestly, I can't wait to ride the Gaps again and have a better day. I still feel like I need to conquer it and I know that I can. I will get that victory photo!