A DIFFERENT KIND OF SUMMER - Journal entry by Clara Hughes

I ran out of fingers when counting the amount of years it’s been since having a summer off. From cycling, that is, certainly not a vacation. Well, maybe a bit of a vacation. The final verdict was fourteen. That’s how many years I spent racing my bike around the globe. It’s hard to believe it was that long and not racing this summer has been an interesting adaptation to make. Change is almost always a good thing, yet still there’s the inevitable struggle to find balance in the new and the unknown.

Last winter I began to worry about how I was going to deal with new training in the summer. I’ve never done ‘speed skating training’, save for a couple of weeks my first year back (summer of 2001) when I was still racing my bike under contract in the USA. The first race that summer left me feeling sluggish and missing speed, yet strong from the weights, imitations, running and cross training the new training entailed. I panicked and reverted to what I knew, and decided to train only on my bike. I was certain it could prepare me for the next skating season, the Olympic season, and felt more comfortable with what I knew than testing out new methods.

The following two summers after the 2002 Olympics, I continued the same pattern. I figured this method earned me a bronze medal in that Games- it had to be good for something. Also, I had my mind set on the 2004 Athens Games, and this was in preparation for that.

I would literally put my skates away the moment I got off the ice at the Single Distance World Championships, take a few weeks off, head out for a month or so on an epic bike tour with my husband Peter to put in multiple 5 to 8 hour days on the bike and get my base fitness back, head straight into intense training and racing in preparation for whatever Games were coming up each summer. This offered success: gold medals in Commonwealth and Pan American Games, but also left me far behind my teammates and rivals when I got back on the ice in September.

I still don’t know how I did it, getting back into skating shape in a few months, after not even so much as attempting the skating position, weights or any of the exercises conducive to strong skating.

After making the decision to only focus on skating at the end of last summer’s cycling season, I knew this summer would be a challenge. To go from what has worked so well, even to the level of winning World’s last year, to completely changing my build-up may seem a little bit mad to some people. Some days I wonder myself. But, I knew I had to change. I was so mentally and physically exhausted a year ago that I knew something had to give. If I did not make a choice my body and spirit were ready to blow.

After a month off, my husband Peter and I set out for another adventure, this time in California. After 5 weeks of backpacking and bike touring, I felt fit and ready to come home and train. Because I was conditioned from the past 3 years of being under incredible pressure in the summer, I felt rushed; I felt this urge to start hammering out some hard training. One look at Coach Xiuli’s program and I panicked. Not because it looked too hard, instead because it looked too easy.

That night when lying in bed I thought about the schedule, wondering if I should call Xiuli and tell her my thoughts. It then occurred to me that it was not even the beginning of June. On my fingers I counted the months to the World Championships, and I realized they were almost 10 months away. Ten months! I had all the time in the world!

Time to train, that is, and do a reasonable progression to the skating season. I had the time to work on all my weaknesses in the technical side of the sport and time to maintain my strengths. I felt lucky to have all this time, to put in more hours of hard work, not to have the stress of having to perform so near in the future.

No competition also meant more time at home. The training load increased in volume and intensity, as it always does, but I found myself home with excess spare time. Valuable time to work on my French, work in the garden, finish long-standing projects on the house I had meant to complete for some time. Time to cook good food, find new roads to ride in my region, explore hiking trails I had hoped to venture onto for years already, and to go to schools and talk with students about the goals and dreams. Time to go to the Montreal Jazz Festival with friends…so much time!

And now I’m in Calgary for a training camp with my team. I’m learning all the things I’ve been doing wrong in the ‘skating training’, but also learning how fast improvements can be made with the right examples around me. It’s great to have the motivation of my teammates on a day like today when riding in the cold, pouring rain. I would still do all of this at home, alone, but it wouldn’t be as fun.

Everyday I feel stronger and more motivated for the skating season. It will be the first time I’ll go into a season fresh, strong and prepared to skate. It’s exciting to think of the possibilities, not only from success but also in learning from the inevitable mistakes along the way.

I cannot say it is any easier being ‘just a speed skater’, in fact some days I wonder if I have ever suffered this much in my life. The training is torturous, but even in the moments of extreme pain, I’m enjoying this different kind of summer more than I have in years.