Smart Athlete Podcast Ep. 54 - Christina Birch - PEDAL LIKE A PRO - Part 3 of 3

Well, I think just– The reason I asked because it’s always nice, both for people to hear it from somebody besides me, but also to know that like, you’re racing at a very high level and still experienced that from time to time. It’s not just like a beginner’s problem.


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JESSE: Well, I think just– The reason I asked because it’s always nice, both for people to hear it from somebody besides me, but also to know that like, you’re racing at a very high level and still experienced that from time to time. It’s not just like a beginner’s problem.

CHRISTINA: Sure. I mean, I’ve gone to the start line of races, having like an absolute trash warmup that felt terrible and we rode great. So, sometimes I think a big part of being an athlete is dissociating the feels from performance. Because the performance aspect has nothing, like it is not dependent on the feel as long as it’s not affecting your brain. Right? So, it could feel great or it could feel like shit. That doesn’t actually matter, what matters is the performance.

JESSE: Right. Right.

CHRISTINA: Yeah. Unlinking the two is a really powerful tool.

JESSE: Yeah, I like to preach rate of perceived exertion a lot for training and for racing, really. But cycling is a little bit different. Do you use a power meter in both cases or not at all?

CHRISTINA: Can you say that again?

JESSE: So, when you’re racing and training, are you using a power meter on your bike?

CHRISTINA: Yeah. Yep. I use the power meter all the time now. I kind of stopped wearing a heart rate monitor for a while because I didn’t really do anything with the data. I would use it to sort of match up to how was my perceived exertion with my power, and sometimes my heart rate would kind of fill in the gaps. But for me, power is absolutely critical and cadence as well, since so much of the work I do on the track is very cadence specific.

I have to be putting out very high power at a very high cadence. And if I didn’t have those tools I would kind of be shooting in the dark. But that’s, we’re talking real precision training. Do I think that those things are necessary? No. Do I look forward to riding and racing without a power meter? Absolutely. Because I’m staring at those numbers the whole time and sometimes my evaluation of was this a good training ride, or did I do a good job today gets wrapped up in that little number. And it shouldn’t, you know?

JESSE: Yeah, yeah. That’s just one thing I noticed– [??? 02:28] Yeah. I just noticed that such a big difference between like, my background in running then coming to cycling is like getting obsessed with that power meter. Like, what is it doing and how can I adjust it and what is my training zone today and all those kind of things. It’s like it becomes so much more analytical, at least for me, compared to, I can be analytical with the running. You’re like, okay, I want to be in these times, but it’s also I try to be more, I guess I’ll say holistic with it, where it’s like, this is what it feels like today.

You know this is the effort that I should be going at. And if I’m out at the track, it’s like, okay, this is the effort I want or the coach wants me to do. And then I start the watch, I don’t look at it until I finish the interval. And usually, I’m right in where I want to be, but if I’m fast, good if I’m slow because I’m tired, fine. But with the power meter, it’s like you’re really more so obsessed with it just needs to be right and it doesn’t matter how I feel today like these are where the numbers need to be.

CHRISTINA: Yeah. I mean some of my favorite workouts that my coach Ben Sharpe, gives me are maximal efforts. So, it’ll be 30 seconds or repeats of one minute as hard as you can go. And those are painful, but they are so mentally simple, just go, dump all your power, you know. And so those are really refreshing as opposed to go sit at tempo for an hour at the end of a four or five-hour ride, and you’re just staring at that number waiting for it to drop.

JESSE: Yeah. I find that those are almost more mental training than they are physical training. I mean, they are physical training, but it’s like, just having the will to sit at that slightly uncomfortable level because it’s not going– technically, you’re not going hard but you’re not going easy. It’s just this kind of annoying level and you got to sit there forever.

CHRISTINA: It’s probably my favorite zone actually.

JESSE: Oh, yeah?

CHRISTINA: Especially if I can do it over-geared and I just sit there and just churn that’s interesting though that you bring up the mental aspects of the long-distance efforts. Because I’ve been talking to a couple people about doing some very long distance are like riding. I want to– there’s a– Yeah, I don’t want to spoil too much, but there’s like a long-distance record that I would like to get that will require ultra longevity mental focus. And I think the longest race I’ve ever done is 101-mile mountain bike race. It was called Wilderness 101 and it was in Pennsylvania.

And I think it took me like nine hours of riding to do. And I remember being pretty cracked at the end. And just, I mean, I think maybe my longest ride before that had been a five-hour road ride. And people have been telling me about these ultra-long they do– people do 24-hour mountain bike races. Which is about the length of time I’m thinking about is that you really just have to be able to finish a six-hour ride somewhat comfortably and not feel totally cracked. And then the rest of it is just your mental focus.

JESSE: Yeah. It’s definitely a mental shift. When I was doing 70.3, the half Ironmans, my Sunday’s, pretty much every– Well, they’re normal trainings. I have two weeks on, one week off, I go out for a five-hour ride. I get home and I go run for a half-hour. And I mean, it took time to build up to that but just after two, two and a half hours in, you’re just kind of like your brain just sits back. Like you can’t stay like on and on for five hours. But there is a focus that’s still there. At least I can’t, I guess I’ll say.

CHRISTINA: I had made the face that I was thinking what it immediately brought to mind was DK this past year, which was a five and a half hour race, the 100 for me. And I remember, I was feeling really good and about two hours in, two half hours in, I flatted out of the front group. And I was sitting there like pumping up my tire for like 20 minutes. And the next three hours until I got to the finish line was time trialing as hard as I could by myself trying to catch all of these groups that passed me. And I think that is maybe the only time in my life I’ve been so focused for so long, you know? I mean, I absolutely shut down after that race. I was exhausted mentally and physically.

JESSE: Yeah, I think those are the times where it’s like, you’re almost able to kind of touch into that survival instinct that we have where it’s like you are in a place, you’re not in a good place and like your brain is prepared to push your body as hard and as far as it needs to go to get to your goal, and it’s probably farther than your body really should go. And it’s just, it’s done when you hit that finish line, in our case, a literal finish line, but [??? 08:13] getting the society or some kind of rescue. And it’s like you hit that and you’re gone. You know, I think that’s probably where that comes from. But I mean, it sounds like, obviously painful, but a very magical moment at the same time to have been through that.

CHRISTINA: Yeah. And I think what’s really neat about the longer format races is there’s enough time over the course of 100 miles, right, to go through multiple mood states and have multiple little battles. I’m sure you’ve experienced this during long-distance triathlon. But it’s like, and one of the things I really enjoyed about, I’ve done a couple of races with a partner is you and your partner are usually offset as who’s in crisis. And so it is really interesting to sort of push through that low period and, again, like with practice and repetition that if you just get through that low period, it’s gonna get better. You have 80 miles left, it’s gonna get better.

JESSE: Yeah, got plenty of time to improve. Before we run out of time, I want to ask you a little bit about your Ph.D. So, we’ve been specifically talking about racing.

CHRISTINA: Yeah, been a huge part of my life for the last five years.

JESSE: Yeah. You do a lot of racing, we’ve been talking about a lot of racing. But I do want to ask, so you spent a considerable amount of time to get a Ph.D. from MIT no less and have stepped away from academia to race. So, I mean, going from that to racing, have you seen like, what kind of mental shifts have you had to make? And do you have any plans on going back?

CHRISTINA: Those are excellent questions. So, a little back backstory. When I first graduated with my Ph.D. in 2015, I moved out to LA to try the track, to try riding on the track. Had no real experience, but just went for it. Like, probably that’s the biggest jump I’ve ever made without any sort of net to catch me and It has been an awesome experience. I would not change that at all. When I first moved out there I taught for three years at the university level; one year at UC Riverside and two at Caltech.

And it was that second year at Caltech, where I knew that if I wanted to go further to race with the national team around the world I had to pull the plug and just stop. And I think my first year of teaching a full course load, average class size, 80 students, upper upper-division, biochemistry, senior design classes, and engineering, the incredible amount of hard work and pressure that that was, and having to develop course materials the night before, 24 hours before, two hours before a class.

I’m going to teach thinking like, how am I going to pull this together the last minute? How am I gonna make this worth 80 students’ time? I don’t want to waste their hour of time. I want to give them something useful.

That experience was probably one of the most formative of my life. Certainly the most challenging year, a first year teacher. And I would encourage anyone that has any interest in teaching or helping others or in personal self-growth to go be a teacher for a year. It is incredibly humbling and incredibly hard. But that probably taught me so much about adaptability, my own personal ability, to conjure something out of nothing, a lesson plan in two hours, and make it good.

And I think, for me, that really instilled a lot of trust that no matter what situation I’m dropped into, or whatever I choose to do next; I have complete faith that I will figure it out, or I will find the people that know how to do it and get them to help me or teach me how to do it. And I think all of that came from teaching, honestly. And a little bit maybe from my Ph.D. because I was working on a solo project. A little for five years that was literally nothing, was just an idea and then became a publication.

And so I think that mentality, bringing that into this racing scene, where it’s like, well, I have zero experience as a track racer, but I have full faith that I will work harder than anybody else to get the fitness to get the experiences as quickly as I can to get to where I want to go. That was a huge mental shift, just that self-efficacy, and self-confidence. And I think that I’ve not fully decided whether or not I want to go back to academia or something related.

I do really miss experiments, I miss doing research, and I really miss talking to people about science and asking questions and being confronted with these kinds of unknowns that become problems that you work on in the lab. I missed that a lot. But no matter what it is next, I’ve full faith that I will figure it out. I’ll just have to convince the people sitting on the other side of the interview table that that is also the case and that’s how I work.

JESSE: I think it comes across. I think if you really do believe in yourself, I mean, that will come across. If you’re at the interview table, then you probably have some sort of qualification to be there. Right? It’s not like if I went to an interview for like a job you’re qualified for, clearly, that interview is not going to go well because I don’t belong there. So, even if I have a lot of competence it wouldn’t work well. But if you do belong there and have the competence I think that comes across.

CHRISTINA: Yeah, I think the belonging is maybe, you know, to be debated because I am further out from my Ph.D. without having had a hand in the research end of the fields. I still taught, I’ve taught the material I’ve learned, I worked as a communicator of scientific information. So, I’m so much better at communicating I hope that comes across in the podcast. But I think that no matter where I go next, there’s going to be a little bit of a jumpstart, but that’s, again, kind of what I’m used to jumping into the deep end and swim.

JESSE: Yeah, yeah. And I wouldn’t worry too much about coming across wrong on the podcast. Anybody that listens frequently is probably like, “Christina, you’re a better speaker than Jesse’s. So, just stay, you’ll be the new host, and we’ll send him on his way.”

CHRISTINA: Unlikely.

JESSE: You got things to do. So, I’m asking everybody the same question this year, because I think it kind of crosses boundaries no matter what we do. So, I’m asking everybody, what do you think the purpose of sport is?

CHRISTINA: I’m gonna answer one facet of that, because obviously– [crosstalk]

JESSE: Right, it’s deep. But yeah, whatever sticks out to you.

CHRISTINA: I mean, I think this is especially relevant now because we’re not allowed to compete with each other, there’s not an immediate physical community around us as athletes. But sport is still a part of our lives, sport is still a part of our identity. And I think that a huge part of that is personal improvement, personal betterment; challenge, adaptation, survival growth. Like I think that that is, you know, there’s something about being human that draws us to seek out challenges, dangers. unknowns.

And I think that this is a great way to do that and to find your boundaries and push them and on your terms. Because what that needs to be is obviously different for different people. I’m a person drawn to extremes, but my sister has much smaller goals that are just equally as valuable and she uses sport to achieve those. And so I think it is, yeah, both a lens and a path for self-improvement. And I think we all should be striving to be better, better in sport, better human beings.

JESSE: I have a friend who is, we were both kind of together trying to become professionals. And she lives in town, one of the few people that actually lives in town, she’s particularly religious. So, sometimes we have conversations in the context of God. Not that I’m particularly religious [??? 18:20] phrase. And I don’t know if you went to church growing up, but often, there would be phrases and talking about like the gifts that you’re given as an individual. And whether you believe in God or not, I think that phrase can still be true, that you have certain gifts and talents. That you are given as an individual, be it through pure chance or divine intervention, I have no idea.

But we would talk about how the lack of pursuing those gifts that we’ve been given to develop them to their full potential is to waste the talent and things that we have been given, and we’re fortunate and should be grateful that we have. Because we have talents that other people don’t have that maybe they wish they had and vice versa. But just being mindful of the things that you do have, and progressing as an individual is so important because you let yourself down and your community down by not trying to become the best you can be. So, I can definitely identify with that kind of sentiment.

CHRISTINA: Yeah, I think the specifics of that are so personal. But I think as long as yeah, you’re trying to put I think the effort, having effort for something in life is really important. Having a passion for life is, or something in life that you care about is important. For me, I don’t particularly care about what it is that this person is interested in, but I love it, if they’re excited about it. It could be scotch tape, and if they’re really into it, I’m like, wait a minute, maybe there’s something to scotch tape that I’m missing.

You know, tell me a little bit more. But I think you hit on something there, which is, like you said, the gifts that we are given, and I think that one thing that we all have is some amount of time. And how we invest that time and who invest it with and what we invested on is what defines us as a human and our lives and I think that that’s like, I want to use my time well. I want to experience all of these extremes at whatever limit I can take that to. Be it, the mental aspects or the physical.

JESSE: Yeah. We’ll end here so we can end on, I’ll say a high note. It’s a little somber, but it is, it’s a very good note. Christina, is there any way for people to keep in touch with you, social media, anything like that if they want to kind of see how your career is going and what you’re up to?

CHRISTINA: Sure, absolutely. I am relatively active on social media. My Instagram is HupLikeWhoa. Which is H-U-P L-I-K-E W-H-O-A, which comes from cyclocross, because people yell, hup, hup, hup. Okay. Same for Twitter, and then I’m rarely on Facebook these days, but some stuff pops up there.

JESSE: Yeah. No worries. Thanks for spending time with me, Christina.

CHRISTINA: Yeah. Thanks so much for chatting.

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