After almost three weeks of racing in the Pyrenees, Alps and in the Dolomites covering close to 2650km with over 60000m of climbing, there is one question that comes up a lot:
How do I motivate myself day after day to get up very early in the morning and race another tough mountainous stage no matter whether it is cold, rainy or hot, no matter if I feel fatigued, sore or tired?
Before I can answer that I would like to share a few details about the race format.
Haute Route is a Swiss race organization that puts on 7-day stage races that offer a race-like-a-pro experience. If you do three of those, you are doing a “Triple Crown”. The first 7-day stage race takes place in the Pyrenees (910km/19300m of climbing), followed by the Alps (896km/22200m) and Dolomites (852km/21000m) – all in a span of 4 weeks. All Haute Route racers and especially the Triple Crown racers are not only challenged by the terrain but accumulating fatigue, the unpredictable weather conditions and time cut-offs. These are not rides. These are races! Thus, there is no such thing as stopping for an extended mid-race lunch break.
Why doing it?
I love challenges, especially when they push my physical and mental limits. Having done one of the three 7-day stage races would have been a challenge enough. But my inner evil challenged me why I wouldn’t do all three. I knew the 21 days would be a good physical challenge but I was more curious how I would deal with it mentally. I asked myself how would I feel after 10 days when I haven’t even completed half of it? Would I get sick of my bike? Or would I still be excited to get up every morning at 5:30am to ride 6+ hours?
Day 5 of Haute Route Alps (Day 12 of Triple Crown) was my toughest day of the entire Haute Route Triple Crown.
The answer is everything you can imagine.
The first week was the worst; the complete opposite of what I expected. I expected to be excited and fresh in the first week. But I realized I was actually mentally not ready for it. Especially the first two days were very hard, getting used to the long, tough days in the saddle, trying to recover and getting into the rhythm. I was worried that my mental state would worsen having felt so exhausted in the beginning. But the opposite happened.
I got used to it, especially to my bad days. I had the first bad day on the third stage. It was raining and had a route that asked a lot of mental strength. I was tired and fatigued from the previous two days. I woke up and had absolutely no desire to ride 160km in wet, damp and dark conditions. I forced myself to the start line and began in snail tempo having to convince myself to keep going one kilometer after another.
The toughest stage weather-wise: Day 1 of Haute Route Dolomites (Day 15 of the Triple Crown)
I knew I needed distraction. I needed to get out of my state of mind. And since I couldn’t do it myself I needed external distraction. Since the damp weather didn’t offer any admiration of the scenery I was a bit at a loss. Like an angel (and while writing this here, “Angel” might sound a bit over the top but you might be able to imagine my situation at that time) another rider whom I met the day prior caught up with me and asked if he can ride with me. He didn’t have to ask twice. I told him to please tell me his life story for the next 6 hours. And he did.
I learned from this ‘bad day’ experience because it wouldn’t be my last one in this 21-day challenge. But now, I knew how I could decrease the severity of a bad day. I used this strategy another two times, except the following times I was the one who talked for 7 hours non-stop.
Motivation and stamina are the most important assets to keep going. To keep my motivation high, I had a different motivation every day. One day it was competing and going fast, the next day it was sharing stories with another cyclist, then I had no-suffer days in which I went my favorite pace that I wouldn’t be able to suffer, the following day it was taking pictures and another day it was riding solo while thinking about future plans.
No matter what my daily motivation was I wanted to make it the best day for that particular motivation. If I wanted to take pictures I got into my “zone” forgetting about that I had been on the bike for the last X days. Interestingly, I am often asked how I was doing in the rankings. I couldn’t allow myself to care. If I was fully focused on the rankings and I had a bad day I would have created a very bad week for myself not being able to enjoy what else these 21 days had to offer. Thus, when I did care about the ranking, it was only for the daily placing – not overall.
Towards the end of the Haute Route Triple Crown
It is a very valid question whether I would lose motivation to get up every day. But it wasn’t just about getting up and facing the day; it was also within the ride itself I had to be careful of not losing motivation. I had to watch like a hawk to recognize my current state and take immediate action if it turns to the worse. After a few days when I finished a stage totally mentally destroyed I watched very carefully to always cross the finish line with a smile on my face and making sure that I am looking forward to the next day.
Thus, getting up 21 days early in the morning to ride 6+ hours in tough terrain was completely about motivation and knowing what I can do on a bad day. When I felt less motivated, I always asked myself, “What else would I want to do if not riding in the most stunning regions in Europe?” Since I yet have to find the answer to that question, my mood brightened and my smile widened knowing that I truly love where I was and what I was doing. There is no substitute to these experiences!
Here, I put a few tips together that might help for racing one or multiple stage races back-to-back: