Saturday, October 26, 2013

Fall DivaCamp: Another Beautiful, and Yet Completely Different Experience...

What is TotalCyclist DivaCamp?
TotalCyclist DivaCamp™ is described as the only cycling camp specifically for women, where participants of all skill levels have the opportunity to learn new skills, gain confidence on and off the bike, make new friends, and have fun. It’s a relatively modest description, if you ask me, because DivaCamp is so much more than that... It is also a much more powerful - and empowering - experience: four days of beautiful rides in Virginia’s hilly and colorful Jefferson National Forest, enhanced by wonderful meals and good wine, valuable interactive presentations, relaxing yoga, all in a beautiful, rustic setting... Add to that the presence and guidance of truly great coaches, the positive energy of a group of confident professional women all there to learn and enjoy themselves, and the excellent support of Liv/giant as a wonderful sponsor for a women’s cycling event. 
I suppose one could compare it to various “team building” exercises based on physical and mental challenges that take participants beyond their comfort level. The unifying effect of the bike and all things cycling, at DivaCamp, is what makes it such a truly passionate event. Participants share a love of cycling - regardless of their skills, fitness, experience, fascination (or not...) with the sport of cycling, desire (or not) to race and compete. Every day, the campers get on the bike, and go for a ride together. Every day, they come back from that ride light-hearted, smiling, confident, happy, and looking forward to the next ride. You can’t beat that feeling...
Why Do I Keep Going Back?
I just came back from my fifth DivaCamp - my third Fall DivaCamp. Some friends have asked me why I keep going back: surely the novelty has worn off, and the challenges are not what they were... right? True. The novelty has indeed worn off, and (this year) the challenges were not what they were last year. You might think that’s bad. I certainly don’t. That warm fuzzy familiar feeling, of being amongst friends, in a lovely charming environment, in a beautiful natural setting, literally submerged in positive energy for four days, is unbeatable. At a time of year where the days are short, cold and often rainy back home, four days of nothing but pure positivism are priceless for me. 
With every return to DivaCamp, I am more relaxed, and more excited about it. I know precisely what to expect, down to the heart-warming sight of twenty-some bikes hanging from their back wheels over the long porch at Wilderness Adventures at Eagle Landing, the invisible (and non-threatening) barking bloodhound up the hill and around the curve, the occasional crab apples on the road, and the feeling of excitement when each new car with a bike rack and a license plate from a wide range of US states (or Ontario...) pulls into the parking lot.
One might argue that I am now too much inside of my comfort zone - and not forced out of it enough. I expected that might be the case this year. It was a “risk” I was glad to take. I figured, “just enjoying myself”, without the same level of challenge as in previous years, would be just fine... As it turns out, I was both right, and wrong, in that assessment. I got a lot more out of it than “just enjoying myself”.
Driving down from Toronto with my friend Ria, we spent 7 hours chattering non-stop, until, that is, we focused on a deep and poignant audiobook for the last 3 hours or so. The chat, and the book, bonded us even more. Ria and I don’t see each other often outside of camp. We have fairly different lives, she an artist with a family outside of the city, me the urban career girl, yet, we are a perfect example of the bonds and friendships that DivaCamp fosters. We have a different interest in cycling. Hers may be a bit more casual than mine, yet she loves riding and the feeling of freedom it gives her. I’m a passionate (read: obsessive) fan of the sport of cycling, and have become an increasingly serious cyclist in the past year. Yet, at camp, we are all equally engrossed in the joy of riding and the sharing of cycling adventures. How, and why? It’s hard to explain. But it’s easy to experience...
I had zero stress going to camp this year. I was very excited, but it was pure joy, and no butterflies tried to invade my stomach. The familiarity of the experience was lovely.
What’s in a Year? 40 lbs and 4000+km
Photo courtesy of Barb Greene
My cycling ability (fitness, skills, experience) have grown exponentially since my last camp a year ago and I knew my experience this fall would be very different, although I could not comprehend ahead of time just how different it would be. I went back, this time, mainly because I wanted to compare what it would be like to ride the hilly terrain with better fitness and more experience. Since last DivaCamp a year ago, I’ve dropped 40 pounds, got fit, and I’ve ridden over 4,200km (2,600 miles) outdoors on my bike (in addition to countless indoor miles). 
What prompted that transformation was, in great part, the desire to enjoy camp even more next time, without struggling as much from a fitness perspective, and being able to focus on skills and on improving as a rider. The process of becoming a cyclist started at my first DivaCamp in Spring 2011. It has been a journey, and the pace of that journey accelerated significantly starting at Fall DivaCamp last year.
Upon returning from DivaCamp last October, I decided to hire a coach in Toronto (I needed the local presence), and, after training indoor through the winter, I started the outdoor season in April a new person, and a new cyclist. 
I had the incredible opportunity this year to climb some of the world’s most famous climbs in Italy and France, and challenged myself on longer routes than I had ever done before. There was no doubt in my mind that I was ready for DivaCamp, in a way I had never even considered before. 
From a cycling perspective, my goals for this camp were two-fold: I was hoping to join the “fast” group, and I was expecting to beat my own time up Potts Mountain, perhaps even climbing it in less than 1 hour. 
Both of these goals were accomplished easily (52 minutes up Potts), and yes, it gave me a good deal of satisfaction.  Not because I was faster than my friends - no, this is not a race or a competitive environment. But because I improved, and it felt awesome. Certain hills that were difficult last year suddenly were very easy this year. That feeling - of having improved, of the proof of success, of the pure joy of riding a bike - left me giddy. 
I’ve known throughout this year, working with my coach Ed Veal in Toronto, that I was improving. I usually ride with people who are much stronger than me, which helps me improve (nothing like getting dropped to make you want not to get dropped...). Nonetheless, being able to compare exactly one year to the date, on precisely the same roads, was fun and rewarding.
A New Experience
Despite the lovely familiarity and happy results for me, this camp still managed to surprise me in an unexpected and truly wonderful way. At every camp, I have enjoyed the shared feeling of challenge and accomplishment, the support provided by my fellow campers, and the knowledge that we all genuinely cheer for one another. And at every camp, I’ve known that I wouldn’t have achieved as much if not for that encouragement and support from my friends.
This time was different. I knew I was strong enough to accomplish my cycling goals, before getting to camp. So that meant I didn’t technically “need” the same level of support and encouragement from all the other campers. That’s not a bad thing. What that meant is that I had a lot more “space”, in my own head and (...yes...) in my heart, to focus on the joy of my friends’ efforts and achievements. This camp wasn’t all about me, for once. It was much more about everyone around me. My improved ability gave me the freedom to rejoice in my fellow campers’ own sense of pride and accomplishment, since I didn’t have to worry so much about whether I could do the rides myself. 
I’ve heard all our coaches (past and present) - Chad, Terry, Tom, Melinda, Alison, Kelly, Marianne, and so many other great cyclists who have joined us previously - talk about “giving back”, and experiencing this great feeling watching us women develop into cyclists at DivaCamp. Being one of those who was busy working on becoming a cyclist, I don’t think I was getting what they were referring to. There was some measure of difficulty, or anxiety, or self-centred focus, that got in the way. As much encouragement as I offered my friends in the past, I needed their encouragement just as much. I “took” as much, if not more, as I “gave”. 
This time, I hope I gave more. I did “receive” - a lot, in fact - from everyone present, without exception. Close “old” friends and new friends both provided me with renewed inspiration, and a truly indescribable joy at seeing their accomplishments. 
Barb: I’ve watched Barb get her Master’s degree in Sports Psychology while holding down a full time job, going through some personal challenges, and building a new practice, all the while feeling bad because she couldn’t train on the bike as much as she wanted (remember Chad’s presentation on trying to balance the cycling, professional and personal aspects of our lives?). What I saw at this camp was a woman who has grown tremendously as a professional in the past year; who delivered a great, interactive, and very timely presentation to us all; and who came out of camp more determined than ever to incorporate training back into her life, as other aspects of it are finally calming down and leaving her more time to focus on herself. Yes, that’s inspiring to me.
Leslie: we met at camp two years ago, and shared our struggles up Potts! Leslie came to camp this time beating herself up the first couple of days for not having trained enough, and for being less fit than last year (or so she claimed...), and (I think) with a touch of fear that she would struggle up Potts. And what did she do? She KILLED IT! And it was awesome to watch her reach the top the way she did, strong and smiling. I was so happy to see that!
Sonya: we were roomies at Spring camp in 2012, and I knew Sonya was also busy transforming herself in the same timeframe that I was working on my cycling. She not only looked healthy and wonderful, but that new-found confidence transformed her as a cyclist. No longer afraid, she rode well in the group, and flew up the mountain. It was so cool to see that. 
Lark: while I finally graduated to the faster group, Lark was part of that group right away at her first camp! I loved riding with her and seeing her learn more and more with every ride. When Debbie, Jen, Lark and I rode in a rotating paceline on the last day, we were flying! And it was glorious... :)
Ria: another transformed rider... Uncomfortable riding in a group a year ago, Ria looked solid, comfortable, fast, and predictable (that’s a compliment, for a cyclist) in that paceline. She was just so much more relaxed on the bike!
Christine (Brown): what can I say... STRONG!!! Super determined... She will fly up that mountain next year. Watch out...!
Chris (Fahs): I’m so going to lose my Strava segments, next year, aren’t I...? I’m accepting the challenge. :) 
Marilyn: I kept thinking, “poor Marilyn is joining us the morning of Potts Mountain, without the benefit of the first two days of training”. Then she made me chase her down the road for about 5 miles... And I watched her muscle her way up a mountain. She’s got this...
Jayne: I probably saw more of Jayne during the Potts climb than most other campers (just based on how/when we started). She switchbacked her way to the top for the last 1/2 mile, unwilling to put a foot down until the summit. Totally focused, totally determined.
Debbie: we’ve shared a few camps, and a few rides this year back home. She has had such an impact on my riding. The first ride we did together in June, where I was able to stay with her for the full 60 miles, and we finished strong with an average speed of over 18mph, was one of the best days I’ve had on the bike all summer. And then we did a full century (my first) together - which I wouldn’t have finished without her help... That kind of thing is true inspiration for me.
Lilli: we’ve also shared a few camps, and I’m always impressed by Lilli’s competitive spirit. Knowing she runs and races gives me the confidence to try racing... next year... :)
Denise: her calm and poise translate into pure strength on the bike; she’s powerful, and a great wheel to follow. Great to share another camp with Denise.
Chrys: pulling double-duty as a camper and yoga master means having to give even more to her fellow campers, and Chrys did that with a smile, helping us all feel better after our rides, and bringing a whole different dimension to our shared experience. 
Sherry: she truly deserved that Badass award! She drew blood, got patched up and kept riding without complaining, fought her way up the mountain, and joined us on the summit. I loved hearing about her training, and loved seeing that determination.

Everyone present added amazing energy, such that all of us, as a whole, were much more than the sum of our parts. Riding in a group is faster than riding alone, we all know that. But *being* that group is much more than being the sum of all of us as individuals, on and off the bike.
I cannot end this without talking about our coaches. With six DivaCamps completed to date, Chad and his team keep getting it right - and improving things with every camp. The improvements are not just based on the logistics and overall service.
Photo by Sonya Ewing
With Tom and Terry (whom I have referred to in the past as my "Zen Master on Two Wheels") having been at nearly every camp, Chad, Tom and Terry now have the planning and process down to a science: whom to send up the road first and for how long, where to reconnect, who needs more or less of this kind or that kind of coaching, and so on. But “despite” their competitive cycling backgrounds, they understand how to relate to less experienced cyclists, and female cyclists at that... No, we are NOT the same as a bunch of guys who want to sprint to the Stop sign, and want to make each other suffer. Yes, we do occasionally want to sprint to the finish, or reach the end of the road ahead of our friends, and some of us do care about our time on the climb. But DivaCamp is not about that, and Chad, Tom, Terry, and all other coaches who have been there have figured out how to teach, coach, encourage, motivate, and draw the best out of all of us, regardless of our goals. Jen and Teresa, of Liv/giant, were the strong, female, cyclist role-models, teaching basic bike mechanics and leading rides, helping to debunk the misconception that cycling is a man’s sport. Cycling is for all of us, and DivaCamp elevates cycling to an experience that goes well beyond the bike.
Thank you all for the inspiration, the motivation, the fun, the energy, and the great memories. Until next time. It seems I’m already committed to going back next year :)  Breathe... Pedal... Believe...

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