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Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Time to apply the brakes

By Kathryn Bertine

In July, while the best male cyclists in the world are busting their butts in the Tour de France, I partake in a somewhat different event: the Tour de Eh. As in, "Maybe I'll ride today. Eh, maybe not." Strangely, this is an integral part of my Olympic training plan.

In a sport like cycling, where an elite race season often lasts 10 months, the body is prone to fatigue. Over the past five years, I kept a close eye on my training and race patterns, and I discovered July was usually my physical meltdown month. My race results were less impressive, I'd catch colds easily, my daily mood came dressed in Crankypants and getting on the bike felt, well, eh.

This year, however, called for a change. Two of my key Olympic points qualification races are in late September and early November. That means hitting the intervals hard in August, and pushing that hard momentum steady for a couple of months longer than usual so I can peak at the very time I normally end my season. Not an easy feat . So if I'm tired in July, that's a recipe for disaster in November. Which is why I signed up for the biggest mental stage race in the history of smart training: the Tour de Eh.

Yet this "event" is harder than it seems. When an athlete gets set in a pattern of top shape, race performance, mental toughness, interval training … it isn't easy to let go, take it down a notch and relax. Doctors, psychologists and exercise physiologists agree. "For an athlete, rest can be physically and emotionally difficult, but proper recuperation is imperative for one's longevity in sport," said Dr. Toldya Duh, of the Tucson Center for Cycling Research. Neither of which actually exists. But probably should.

My 25-day Tour de Eh is not exactly a sedentary stage race void of physical movement. Just a shift of perspective. I get on the bike four days a week, but I don't hammer. Nor do I go on four- or five-hour intensity expeditions. I try to catch up on the things I miss during most of my yearly training. Like scenery. Or riding with a friend and having an actual human conversation, instead of an analysis of the latest cycling components or race-report run-throughs.

Two other days in the weekly schedule of the Tour de Eh are devoted to some sort of wheel-less activity, like hiking or swimming or rowing. (There is not a lot of rowing in Tucson, but when I visit my parents in upstate New York they have this awesome thing called water.) Again, the goal is not to time my mountain ascents or swim splits or stroke watts, but to try to Namaste my brain into enjoying the moment -- which is hard for a competitive athlete with a big goal looming in the future. It's hard, but I'm working on it.

One day a week, I rest or do an upper-body workout. Like laundry. Eh, maybe.

So far, I'm doing very well in the Eh, and have secured the leader's jersey. It's invisible, which causes some confusion when people in the grocery store ask me how I'm doing and I reply, "I'm winning!" In two weeks, though, my Tour will be over and the hard stuff will begin again. Dr. Duh assures me I'll be ready to tackle the tough intervals and grueling two-a-day workouts. Not only tackle, but look forward to the pain and glory of hard, physical labor. I assure Dr. Duh she's taking an awful lot of liberties as a figment of my imagination. Still, she's right. The rest-now-rock-later philosophy has a high success rate, and the Tour de Eh might serve me very well in the long run.

Who knows? Maybe later on this year I'll be on the podium at an Olympic qualifying points race, and a reporter will ask me about the secret to my training and how I feel about my chances of making the Games, and I can look her square in the eye and say, "Eh."