It’s been a week since I won my third World Cup race in Sweden. Already I’m 1400km southwest of Skåne in Livigno, Italy. Sweden was just the start of a 6 week ‘Europe Tour’ in the housecar. The ‘Tour’ is an attempt to reduce mileage driven before the World Championships in order to have the best preparation possible. Rather than returning to Norway after Livigno, and then driving to Sweden for an MTBO race, we have decided to drive straight to Poland, via Czech and Belarus.
Livigno is at 1800m above sea level, nestled snuggly in the northern Italian Alps, just on the border of Switzerland. We are staying on a campsite a 1900m, for three weeks of altitude training. I have been to altitude before in Val Senates (2000m) for XC skiing at 3400m. Skiing is hard work and I regularly feel I’m about to pass out on the glacier. 1900m is considerably easier! And mountain biking is more fun too. The mountains here rise up to 3000m so there is plenty of height to be gained and thus a lack of oxygen with increasing height. So far I have managed to stay in my low HR zones, at least until I’m presented with steeper inclines. For the first few days, these steeper sections are allowed to walk up in order to keep my HR down, to reduce fatigue and lactate building. Luckily, 1900m is easily acclimatised to, so the training pace so far isn’t too far from normal at sea level. But just to be sure, we’re using a Lactate Scout to measure blood lactate on some of the climbs and during interval sessions. At altitude, measuring blood lactate is a more accurate gauge of intensity than heart rate.
The decision to come to altitude was not taken lightly. This isn’t a holiday, but a training camp. It could even be described as a holding camp before WOC. I am here to gain. Although there is no access to maps within 2.5hrs drive, I am happy to give my brain a rest after a hectic week in Sweden. Training at altitude makes it hard to train in maximum HR zones with the same speed as at sea level. Less oxygen makes it harder to stay in low HR zones and thus cadence is reduced. My training plan however, is designed to minimise speed losses, as once we start to the drive to Poland (14 days before the first race), I will have two weeks of speed work. Combine speed work with altitude gains, and in theory (it’s a sound and well tested theory by the Norwegian Ski Team) my physical gains will be up to 3% better than in Sweden. In addition, with two weeks of MTBO training before WOC, I am aiming to be in my best physical shape this year, and my best mental shape.
Returning to my reflection on the World Cup. The last week I have had time to mull over what happened in Sweden. Winning three races was a complete surprise. The middle race, I sort of expected to win, because as HJ pointed out; ‘it’s your terrain’. What he meant was it is technical and fast (mostly). I loved the terrain when I was there four years ago, although I remembered nicer sexier trails than the sand filled swamps we raced in. I was pleased to win in the finish, but disappointed in myself to have made the mistakes I did.
It took a lot of mental energy to calm myself down before the race. I always am most nervous before the first race of any major event. How is my shape? How is my speed? How fast are the others? Once the warm up started however, I was able to calm down and control my nerves, shaping them into the race focus I need. After the race, I was then hyper excitable all evening, so by the next morning, I had no nerves at all. Once at the race, I got the usual feelings: confidence, anticipation, readiness, and thus nerves. One mistake early on and I was playing catch up all the way to the finish. With a 3 second lead at the end, I genuinely expected Hara, Laurila, Vinogradova, Hakala, Repina and Thomasson to be faster. One by one they finished in slower times. It was nice to take a second win, but I didn’t feel my performance did the result justice.
Several years ago as a junior, I tried to improve my fitness so that if I made mistakes I could just ‘ride through them’. I had wanted to be able to do what I did in these two races. Make a mistake, carry on, and still have a good result. That plan never worked. And now I am pleased it didn’t. I have been left feeling hollow over these two victories. They weren’t the perfect mistake races that leave me full of adrenaline at the finish, brimming with tears because I KNOW that was a race worthy of a medal. (I cried a little after my WOC silvers and EOC gold, because they were three genuinely worthy performances).
These performances lacked that extra factor for me, but that doesn’t mean to say I’m not happy with the result. I am pleased I have been able to train hard for two years to be able to be in this position where I can fight for medals in every distance. It is something I never thought I would achieve in 2012 when I moved to Norway. As HJ said, I’ve ‘put the money in the bank and now I’m reaping the interest’.
With two wins under my belt, I spent Saturday evening considering whether the long was worth racing hard for. Knowing Swedish terrain, I understood this would be a fast race, from start to finish. I am still not the fastest athlete. This was a race that promised to be fast, but with changes in technique: easy nav with route choice, to technical butterfly, to easy nav with route choice. Getting the change right would be crucial. But first, the need to ride fast.
By the time I stood on the start line I was ready to fight again. This is a race I was pleased to win. It has only been this year I have felt confident with long races and how to tackle it (thanks to a good result at WOC 2013), so to win with 48 seconds is ok. But the 4 minutes to 3rd and 4th was astounding to me. Such fast terrain, and yet, such large margins.
Not being pleased with two performances has fuelled my hunger for WOC. I want those perfect races. I know what went wrong, and I know how to fix it. One might think that winning three races has given me more confidence on the approaching WOC. But in a way, the opposite has happened. Just because my shape was good last week, doesn’t mean it will improve in the next 4 weeks (yep, on Tuesday, WOC was just 4 weeks away, it’s now less). I still have to work hard to improve my shape further, to get faster still, and mentally more sound.
In addition, it’s not just the fight for WOC gold now. It’s the fight for the World Cup overall. With three wins, a 2nd and a 3rd one might think I am safe after 5 races (5 to count). I am less sure. Two more wins for Marika at WOC will see her take the lead, unless I can take a silver to equalise. In additon, Ingrid can also take two wins and a silver at WOC to equalise. Three individual wins at WOC by one person is highly improbable but not impossible.
Each of the races will present their own challenges. I am sure the other women will be training harder than ever in the next few weeks and the pressure is on. But I am going to fight hard all the way; from start to finish.