Inspiration from the unexpected

Elite cyclist Kathryn Bertine is writing about her quest to qualify for the 2012 London Games. In Part 7 of her series, Bertine learns when it comes to tough workouts, sometimes inspiration is all a matter of perspective.

In a ground-breaking training session this week, I discovered evidence that will reverse the findings of decades of psychological research. Frowning, it turns out, can make you faster, stronger and happier. Don't believe me? I have proof.

I've been racing in Belgium for five weeks, living away from my home, husband, friends and teammates in order to gain race experience and Olympic qualification points. It's not always easy. Usually, I train alone for hours. I race women who don't speak the same language. The roads are foreign to me. I spend a fair amount of time getting lost. At the same time, I travel through beautiful, rural towns and countryside. I meet interesting people. I try new things. It's all a matter of perspective. In the middle of a race, however, when muscles scream louder than scenery, it's tough to look out from the peloton and observe, sweet castle! or nifty moat! Nonetheless, I've tried to find creative ways to keep the big picture in check.

The other day, I had a sprint interval session scheduled for the middle of my three-hour ride: two sets of five sprints, each sprint lasting 15-20 seconds. It might not sound like much, but after hours of racing, that final sprint intensity in the homestretch is often what wins or loses a race. I'm not a sprinter by nature, so I have to work on it. And it can be a hard workout to do alone, as out sprinting your shadow will always feel a little slower than racing someone else's. I was sulking a little heading into this workout. I was feeling a little homesick, a little run down, and I really had no desire or energy to do a sprint workout. I was being Mrs. FrownyPants. That's when I saw the snelheidsmeter.

The snelheidsmeter is a speed-sensing sign that flashes how many kilometers per hour a car is driving. Some of the residential streets in my Belgian town, Tielt-Winge, have them. The best part is that between the flashing kilometer digits, a digital smiley face donning a bright green smile appears if the driver is at the correct speed. If a car triggers 50 kph (31 mph), the face frowns and the mouth turns red. Over 75 kph, the smiley face gives the finger. Ok, that last one's not true. But it should be. I giggle as I go past the snelheidsmeter, then realize the sign's sensor picks up bikes, too. I swing a quick U-turn. I've just found the greatest sprint workout ever.

For the next 20 minutes, I do my best to turn that smile upside down. Old snelly and I battle it out for frown control. While the road is flat, a robust headwind keeps the challenge lively -- 39 kph, 42 kph, then, on my final sprint ... 63 kph! Snelly frowns, I smile! Then I look behind me to see a speeding Fiat has likely triggered the frown while I sprinted. I frown, snelly smiles. Do over. I make it all the way up to 48 kph on my last attempt in the wind, but can't quite convert the mood of the happy speed meter. My mood, however, is tremendously altered.

Perspective, it seems, makes all the difference on a hard training day. When workouts are tough, emotions are tired and legs feel like Jell-O. As athletes we have to find a little inspiration in unexpected places. Sometimes trying to frown is a step in the right direction. I can't take the snelheidsmeter back to the States with me, but when I'm feeling less than inspired for a workout I'll know to look for creative solutions.

Now, the Canadian women's national cycling team has taken up residency in Tielt-Winge. I'm thrilled at the prospect of having others to train with. One day, I bring my new Canadian friend, Alison Testroete, to race the snelheidsmeter. Alison doesn't find it nearly as amusing as I do, but we both agree that the opportunity to live, race and experience foreign cultures while chasing an athletic dream is spectacular.

As we head back through town, I look out over the blooming pear orchards of springtime in Belgium. Flowers are out. Cyclists are everywhere. Street signs are smiling. Great life, I think. Lucky me.

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