From Skater to Tourist to Cyclist

Article provided courtesy of Clara Hughes.

Light years have passed since the final weekend of the speed skating season. At least that's how it feels. For me, the dual-sport athlete (that's what I am labelled lately), it was only the beginning of another season, another sport. From skating to cycling, it was time to shift the focus to the bike. Many have asked how I do it; how the transition is made. From the outside it looks, in all its complexity, a rather simple step. That it is one of the most difficult and humbling changes to make is something I try not to show. Perhaps more to not let the enormity of the task set in to myself than the façade it creates for others. This year marks my third attempt at such. It has been, in many ways, the most challenging.

After two weeks of rest (which seemed to lack of the definition of the term 'rest') my husband Peter and I boarded a sunshine-bound plane to California. A vacation of sorts, taking us to the glorious Eastern Sierra Nevada to visit the spectacular mountain vistas, spend quality time with friends in the desert landscape, and cleanse our lungs with the thin air. We did not stop for a moment as if desperately attempting to get in as much 'mountain time' as possible. Before we knew it our rental car headed south to our destination/departure point for round two of the 'vacation'.

Traveling the world as Peter and I do we are fortunate enough to have friends, who are like family, in all corners. The home of Fred and Carla Seydel Situated just north of the border in La Bonita is one such place. The number of times spent packing and unpacking touring bicycles at eludes us at this point and we are grateful to their kindness. We were greeted with a fabulous Indonesian feast, the perfect good-bye dinner. Our destination was the desert place of Baja California, Mexico. The mountainous peninsula, nearly 2000 kilometres in length, was waiting for us, the bike tourists.

To simplify this story I'll make our intentions clear: we planned to ride the peninsula, in its entirety. Bike touring is a great way to get in the training miles necessary to make the transition after a gruelling season of skating, or cycling. Now you may wonder why I need to ride 2000 kilometres to get fit. As sad as it may seem, fitness is lost in the most important parts of the competitive seasons. When peaking for competitions it is necessary to cut back on training volume. Thus endurance is lost and must be built back by miles, miles and more miles.

Competing in two sports has forced my coaches to become inventive with my training. After being under the microscope much of the year it is often difficult to be on such a rigid training and racing schedule at all times, which is where the bike touring comes in. It's something Peter introduced me to and we both love. In my opinion it is the finest mode of travel as one moves slow enough to see most everything, while loading the senses of sound, sight and smell along the way; yet fast enough to cover great distances. For me it is an escape that allows me to get really, really fit in a short period of time without feeling that I am training. At least in my head.

On average we covered 90 kilometres a day on our mountain bikes rigged for the road with semi-slick tires. This range is anywhere from the 30 kilometres that took us to our beach camp in the mystical Bahia Conception, to the last day's170 kilometres into the southernmost city of Cabo San Lucas. That we can make these distances by the power of our legs is liberating. When the roads were quiet and we moved through a land so diverse was magical. The jungle of cactus lining the man-made vein of concrete running the length of Baja captured my imagination. Camping in that tangle of cactus was something intense yet peaceful, filling me each night with energy that will carry me through the next phase of racing and training; through life.

Knowing I can have the freedom to travel in virtual anonymity for a month here, a month there, is powerful fuel. The August prior I went from winning gold at the Commonwealth Games to cycling the Dempster Highway, a rugged dirt route running north through the Yukon and Northwest Territories, beyond the Arctic Circle up to Inuvik. I had my best speed skating season ever after that trip, and I suppose I expect the same from this one.

What I did not expect was the return of a back injury I was plagued with the last two weeks of the skating season. It's been four weeks since hurting my back again, and what a roller-coaster it has been.

So many people have helped me through this, with advice or just plain kindness. Everyone kept saying, 'You'll be fine, you know how to listen to your body, if anyone can get through this it's you.' Inside I felt insane. Only thing missing was the straight jacket. There have been many occasions I am sure Peter wished for one, to use on me.

In that time I did some interviews and filming for a television show. People kept saying, 'Are you always like this, so motivated and positive?' If they only knew how I was feeling inside. I have been through a lot of pain and discomfort in the past, but there is nothing that compares to the incessant pain of an injured back.

I hid the struggle from all but those closest to me. Pain is something incomprehensible save for the person experiencing it, so I figured why say anything at all. It was difficult to answer when people began to ask 'Are you on form? How is the form? Are you racing?' What to say, except that things were okay, I would be racing soon, just finished my longest speed skating season and was, well, human... leave me alone!

But all of that is behind me now. It took a good four weeks and, finally, I am happily on my bike again. Even on a day like today, in the pouring rain, doing intervals I could not dream to have attempted two weeks ago, I love it. Sunday I will go and do one of my favourite mountain rides, Jay Peak, in Vermont. Last summer I would ride it three, sometimes four times per week. Now I am happy to ride. Period.

Which leads me to the points of great introspection which are understanding through a period of excruciating pain: first, don't ever lose a day, no matter how bad things seem, they can always be worse; second, listen to those who love most you when you are in pain, they are not trying to make you feel worse, they only want to help; and finally, don't, under any circumstances, try to move boulders because you have nothing else to do after being laid up with a bum back for ten days, in the pouring rain, by yourself. But I didn't do something as stupid as that…