Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Triples and Schedules

It's been a long time since I've worked out three times a day, preseason in college, perhaps, when I didn't know that the pounding headaches resulted from dehydration and caffeine withdrawal. Better about watering myself (and never far from my next cup of coffee), I don't face those headaches anymore, but the mind-numbing, "I'll just lie here with my legs up in the air" exhaustion still results. Over the past two weeks, on the gift of an entire week of snow days last week (Portland, OR, knows just about nothing on the topic of snow removal; they're so liberal they don't use salt or sand, probably because they know someone would be offended), I've gotten in three-a-days on the majority of days. This is what a pro's life is like: wake, swim, eat, rest, bike, eat, nap, run, eat, sleep. Life always finds a way to intrude, just a bit, but that's pretty much what you've signed up for, I'm discovering. Making this choice to really dedicate myself to the sport (and not worrying and equivocating about it; I've decided that I love the sport, and that's enough to fuel my dedication; as J.L. Parker points out, if you get stuck in the metaphysical wonderings, someone out there is gonna eat you for breakfast) has resulted in a clearer set of training priorities: you've got to get it done on a daily basis, no question about it.

Making the leap from 15 hours a week to 20 is surprisingly hard. To get to that magic number, at least 3.5 hours a day have to spent swimming, running, or biking. Yep, a marathon's worth of time a day, six days in a row until the sweet relief of your active recovery day (an hour of swimming).

So here's the race schedule for the coming year. You'll see some running races in the early spring, which I think is crucial for developing your triathlon running speed. There'll be some bike races in there, for sure (I live in Oregon, now, where you can race six days a week), but those will appear on a weekly basis. So, here it is:

January
Masters SCY Meet, I'll be swimming the 500 and 1000 Free

February
Masters Animal Meet, 500F and 1000F
Hagg Lake 25K Trail Run (mud!)

March
Leprechaun 1/2 Marathon

April
California 70.3
Bridge to Brews 10K

May
World's Toughest Half (May 31st)

June
Boise 70.3 (or Eagleman, if I just can't stay away)

July
?????

August
Boulder 5430 Long Course
Timberman 70.3

(or, depending on schedules, Calgary 70.3 and Lake Stevens 70.3)

September
Rest and get ready for 'Cross and fall tris

October
Austin 70.3

November
Clearwater 70.3

December
'Cross Nationals in BEND, OREGON!!!

Fewer races; better results.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Discomfort

There are few moments in endurance racing when you feel real pain. Sure, there are blisters, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, but these are injuries; they don't result from the endurance effort. Your quads may "burn" after an interval session and your back might hurt during a long pulling session, but there isn't real "pain." Deep, deep discomfort, maybe, but not pain. A close friend who is a runner passed this thought along to me last summer, and I discovered its origin while finally reading the running classic Once A Runner, by John L. Parker, Jr. OAR is one of those genre books that falls prey to many of the faults of genre fiction (overwrought language being its most egregious fault), but it rises above its sins by aptly defining many of the intangibles which we conversely love and hate our sports.

Right now I'm dealing with a couple of things. 'Cross season ended for me last weekend, although I can't really say that it ever began. I started four races this season, and finished two. The picture above is from the Saturday race of Portland's USGP of Cyclocross. I raced the B division, not feeling up to tangling with Ryan Trebon, Tim Johnson, and Jeremy Powers. Since I registered early I started near the front, and after two laps found myself in the lead group of five. The course kinked and turned all over the place, wriggling around a motocross course at Portland International Raceway before diving in and out of the infield's trees. The leaders pushed the pace and I felt...profound discomfort. Soon, as the last lap approached, the lead group began to come apart, just the way a pack will split when swimming or running, as the racers with higher anaerobic thresholds will be able to maintain higher rates of speed for longer (they're not in the "red zone," so to speak; once you start to work in that anaerobic realm, you've got about five minutes before the postman comes calling). I caught the guy in third, noticed his discomfort outstripped mine, and passed him. I came across the line alone, third.

Outwardly, I'd told friends that I just wanted to finish this race, that 'Cross season was just about having fun this year. Inwardly, I thought what I think before every race, no matter the odds: win. Still, I'd stayed realistic, and coming in 3rd put me in my best mood of the week. These were Category 2 'Cross racers—no slouches, and there were over one hundred of them. 3rd? It seemed beyond believable.

Of course, Cyclocross is capricious mistress, and the next day paid me back in full. After getting a spot on the front line, I completed two laps before I took a turn too sharply and pinch flatted. About one yard beyond the exit of the pit, I had about a mile+ run ahead of me if I wanted to get a spare wheel. Natch. Done.

That's when you feel pain, even though it is figurative pain. Frustration is closer to the truth, but that doesn't do the frantic not possible, not possible warning bells that echo through you as you walk your bike off the race course. Mechanicals leave your mind blank, take away something that, seconds before, had been real. Before the flat I was in the lead pack, a few seconds behind my podium-mates from the day before. Now I was...headed home, the reason for my day gone in whiff of air.

And then you face the next reality: 'Cross is over, it's time to get ready for next year's triathlon season. I took about 8 days off after Clearwater, but now I'm back to pretty much full time, trying to get 15-20K of swimming, 200 miles of biking, and 50-60 miles of running a week. I've found a renewed pleasure in the training, though. There's a section in OAR which talks about why Quenton Cassidy, the narrator, runs. He runs because it's his raison d'etre, his reason for being. That may sound reductive or single-minded beyond belief and, well, it is. But once you get beyond the philosophies and the feel-gooders and the "mystic" runners (Parker's words), the only thing left is the sport itself. I interview kids for part of my job out here in New Belgium, and I always ask the sporty kids why they pursue their particular sports, just to see how they do with this impossible question. Almost all of them say "I don't know...because I like it?" Unlike adults, who temporize, quibble and worry, kids are (when talking about their sports or activities) happily free of artifice. Most of you know that I worry about the self-centered nature of this sport, that there are so many other things I could be doing to make good in this world. For the time being, though, seeing that I can't imagine life without racing bikes and triathlons, I'm making my peace with the sport. The only thing left at that point, of course, is to find the discomfort and get used to it: it will be there the next time you put the hammer down and, you know, that's exactly what you're looking for.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Not...Last!

Yesterday I rolled to the line for my second 'Cross race of the season. I had three goals: A) Stay upright, B) Don't come in last, and C) Don't get lapped.

Two out of three really isn't that bad. Just shy of a D+, actually! O.K., no need for irony or sarcasm; I left the race cold and happy, having achieved goals A and B. Staying upright worried me, as I've still got my wholly inappropriate Ritchey Speedmax tires on my bike. After one warm up lap, the tread had disappeared, turning the tires into brown slicks. Not too much mud adorned the course, although one long stretch, just after the Start/Finish, rode like a Northeastern sand pit lightly watered. The fans made riding that section both A) harder and B) fraught with peer pressure as they piled up a makeshift barrier out of trashed pumpkins. If you looked carefully, you could see spots where a tire might fit, and cranking hard would bring you over without requiring a dismount. Making it over without running brought a huge, drunken cheer from the PDX crowd, while carrying brought whistles and derision. About four laps in I started worrying well in advance of the pumpkin barrier: They won't like me if I dismount! See a great picture of the pumpkin barrier here.

I started fairly well, about 2/3 back from the front, but bobbled badly after the first set of honest barriers and lost the front group, which kept streaking ahead. Soon I was off the back but not riding slowly, and I picked up a few spots. I learned later that I am basically the canary on the 'cross course, as getting passed by me appeared to be the nail in your race's coffin. Everyone I passed (except one crucial figure) dropped out of the race. One bloke left trailing a long strip of race tape, as if he'd just left the bathroom. My cranks were making this sound like they were about to fall off or had been filled with gravel. Although my 'Cross fitness sure isn't where it needs to be, it appears my barrier running remains solid. One spectator, alone in the fields by a set of barriers (placed there, I'm sure, to keep riders honest), lauded my technique each time through, and I did feel pretty smooth going over and back onto the bike. Only problem was, he called me "Big Legs" on one lap. I do forget that I don't quite cut the svelte figure of most cyclists. Final result: 23rd out of 24 finishers (you gotta leave out the four or five that I, personally I'd like to believe, forced out of the race). I did get lapped, on the last time around, but only by the lead group. For racing the As, and only finishing my first race of the season, I'll count that a success.

'Cross in Portland is everything it should be. It's every bit as fast and hard as the races in New England, but the spirit is wackier. Near the other set of barriers (I counted, actually, four full sets of barriers, leaving out the pumpkins; put that in your pipe, UCI!) congregated the bike shop tents, with their beer-drinking crazies, folks who had already raced that day and therefore felt justified in yelling things like "Run it, fattie!" and "C'Mon, this is a race!", all while spewing beer over the riders. Someone had lit a bonfire, and Belgian flags flew. If you want to see the true spirit of cross, head over to pdxcross.com. Someone there knows his or her photography, as I quickly lost count of the beautifully composed and honest pictures. You get the sense, looking at the black and white, sharply focused pieces, of 'Cross's outward pleasure and inward pain. People always say: "Looks easy, they're not going too fast." Get those same people out there on a bike in the mud, and they'll look at the sport differently, afterward. The photographer composed these pictures with that contrast in mind, and I think captured the weirldy Calvinist beauty of this sport: All that work and pain for...what? An afternoon in the mud?

Last night, aching in several places, I went to sleep happy.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Sacrifice

(Thanks to Carrie Goodbrake—a pseudonym if I've ever heard one—for the beautiful picture; see it in it's original format here)

When I saw this lovely, albeit 'shopped, photo yesterday, I finally admitted that this 'Cross season is, officially, a wash. The Cross Crusade, with its not-heavily-veiled proselytizing, gathers more people to one race site for eight weekends in a row up here in the PacNW, and I planned, back when my tri season was folding up like a cheap lawn chair, to focus on the Mecca in my backyard.

Things happened. I couldn't afford a new bike for a while; my tri training picked up and two solid results followed; I spent a few other weekends settling into my new digs, or spending time with Amy, two things I wouldn't trade, even for a 'Cross race. But something had to go, and 'Cross went. I'm hardly regretful, probably more bemused at the choices we have to make in our weekly, monthly, and yearly lives. Interested, I contacted two athletes I respect deeply: one is a professional triathlete many of you know; the other is a retired athlete on the comeback trail who killed it, back in the day, racing 'Cross nats when pedals had toeclips, steel bikes got chopped into 'Cross rigs in your backyard, and wool was a technical fiber. I asked both of them what they'd had to sacrifice to "make it" in their respective sports (I've got "make it" in quotes because, in both of these pursuits, making it is more about finding personal and social success, rather than financial).

My triathlete friend laughed at first, and spat out "My 40K a year job!" He later (mostly) retracted this statement, since his coaching business runs smoothly right now, and instead said that the only thing about which he's got any reservations is how training can affect his mood, and, by extension, his partner (I thought this was a pretty admirable concern to note–the names have been changed in the following quote):

"I'll also be honest in saying that I'm not always a fun person to be around, especially for poor Alison; If I'm not tired and cranky during the big training blocks, I'm nervous and on edge as race day approaches. I think that it's also fair to say that my focus boarders on self centeredness the vast majority of the time. As such, I'm not the only one that has to sacrifice. Ali has to deal with a lot of B.S. thanks to my constant mood swings, lack of interest/energy in most things non-triathlon related etc."

He followed this admission up with a frank "But... I don't regret a thing. I'm doing exactly what I've always wanted to do so it's all good. I take the good with the bad, do my best on the athletic, personal and professional fronts and plow forward. I don't plan on staying in the sport after my days as a 'PRO' come to an end, so my attitude is that I'll have plenty of time for the house, kids, money and leisure time/activities in the not-so-distant future."

You'll not he used upper-case letters; it's o.k. He deserves them. My other study subject, a garrulous fellow with whom I share a lot of loves and issues, responded thus: "At the time I would have said, 'Sex.' But looking back, knowing what I know now about teenage boys, the answer is, 'Working at a Joe Job to earn enough money to operate a car so I could partake in the fruitless pursuit of sex.' I worked at Joe Jobs, but only long enough to earn a stash for tubulars and entry fees for the coming season. Most chicks don't dig guys who can't afford to take them out and entertain them. I suppose later on I had some educational and career opportunities that I turned down because they were incompatible with my training lifestyle, but one of my training/racing buddies was a med school student, so I'm not sure I wasn't just using the bike as an excuse to dodge boring jobs and lifestyles. Maybe that's where my materialism got sacrificed, but that's a plus in my book. I don't know, Bucky. There was a lot of physical pain required to do what I did, but it really was a panacea for the emotional pain I was in during my teens and twenties. I may have sacrificed a lot of beer drinking and recreational drug use because, after a 350-mile week, I was pretty much looped on two beers. I'm not sure my liver thinks of it as a sacrifice. Overall, I think of the whole thing as more of an indulgence than a sacrifice. I'm never covetous of other people's mundane stories, but they sure like to hear about old racing tales."

I think most of us can sympathize, here. Picking up an "indulgence" that's actually more about pain than pleasure, but that also whispers, quietly, to you for other good reasons: there's a camaraderie of pain and, of course, the objective appearance of steady improvement. I wrestle with these issues a lot, as you know, wondering if the payoff is worth the pay-in, the decisions made, the other interests sacrificed. I guess, if had decided it weren't, I wouldn't be posting this, today.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Turkey on the Trail?

O.K., a tangent. Thanksgiving's my favorite holiday, because eating is just about my favorite thing to do. But this year is different: Amy and I are going to Moab for three days of mountain biking, and we'll probably spend the day in question picking gravel out of my knees. What, do you think, is an acceptable Thanksgiving day meal, consumed on the side of a singletrack trail? Any great suggestions from the admittedly tiny peanut gallery? What would you eat that A) would be different from your standard during-exercise nosh and B) is plausible, considering we probably won't have access to an oven or the ability to consume a monster like the one above, here.

Gobble gobble.

Monday, November 17, 2008

1st Day Back

When the alarm went off this morning, I wondered "What's that?" Taking a week away from training quickly erodes the Pavlovian Workout Response. Ascending the responsiveness scale to just below Alert and Oriented, I swung the legs out of bed and switched on the light. I'd packed the night before (always a good idea) and soon found myself driving across the St. John's Bridge, in the dark, headed for that morning swim.

My lane at Masters boasts a murderer's row of athletes: Michelle, who's swum the Channel (and is planning to pull the yo-yo there, soon), the Catalinas swim (10+ hours straight), and numerous other long distance swims; Greg, whose easygoing manner belies his age-group winning swims at Alcatraz; Curtis, a lanky businessman who swam for Auburn University, I believe, and a I-Shit-You-Not Russian named Vlad who answers to the sobering sobriquet "Parrakeet." Swimming in their lane, I most steadily worry about getting lapped.

Today that worry seemed very real. The workout was nothing special (all distances in meters):

700WU
400 pull descend by 100s
6x150 kick-drill-swim by 50s on 2:30
8x150 on 2:30
200 pull DPS
6x100 on 1:30
200 CD

But not swimming for eight days had me floundering in the water, and Curtis seemed scarily close on those swim 150s.

Still, day one of aiming for those 15,000-17,000 YPW, and I got around 4500 today.

Friday, November 14, 2008

What's Wrong/Awesome About This Picture?


Cyclists and Triathletes, comment away. Can you find five things that:

A) Offend your sensibilities as an athlete?
B) Define you as an athlete?

Thanks to Natalie Ciocca for the picture. Apologies to all 'cross riders wincing as they look at this picture.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Off-Season, Day One.

Sunday was a recovery day, Monday is my usual day off, and so today, Tuesday, day three of no training, officially marks the beginning of a profound shift. We’re all familiar with economic terms these days, and know that two straight quarters of negative growth equals a recession. For an endurance athlete, more than two days off equals sickness, injury, or that other two-headed beast, the off-season. Taking a break now seems so counter-intuitive, while our fitness is at its peak; I had, arguably, the best race of my career the other day. But I know that it’s time for this season to be over, and the lessons I learned will make me a better triathlete in 2009, if I listen to what 2008’s races taught me. And the next few weeks hold the promise of something sweet: rest. Not too much rest, not, like, six weeks, but a good, controlled pattern of rest. That pattern looks like this:

This week: zero. Nothing. Really. Nothing.
Next week: some light swimming, a little time on my ‘cross bike, perhaps a ‘cross race at 75%.
Two weeks: One workout per day. Still just swimming and riding. Five days of Thanksgiving mountain biking with Amy.
Three weeks: Two light workouts per day, two ‘cross races over the weekend.
Four weeks (second week of December): Back to two full workouts per day, especially if my Plantar Fasciitis has improved.

For next season, I’m going to focus on training goals, instead of performance goals. Most of us are familiar with Peter Reid’s apocryphal quote that “With training comes confidence.” The last two months, with their 12-13,000 yards of weekly swimming, and 40-50 miles of quality run training, gave me the confidence to push it on the swim and run. My bike training has always been pretty good, and those 315 watts point to a solid bike split (my aerodynamics, it appears, say otherwise; friend Brandon, in response to a question about how my bike split could have been so slow, rejoined: “Headwind? Flat tire? Fat?” Touché, Brandon. The off-season provides a great time to lose some weight).

My training goals, then, for next season, here on day one of the off-season.
1) Swim 4-5 times a week, totaling 15-17,000 yards per week.
2) Train like a real runner: higher mileage, more quality.
3) Maintain my bike strength, and play with aerodynamic options to develop a powerful AND fast bike split.

2009 Race Schedule on the way.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

70.3 World Championships

It's funny how quickly races pass. 24 hours ago I was already about fifteen miles into the bike leg of the race, and the next few hours, with packing, checking work email and getting to the airport, will probably take much longer than the four hours it took me to finish the race yesterday. Races have this odd compression/expansion of time. They really don't take that long, but the distance traveled (roughly Boston to Athol, Ma, if you take route 2 the whole way) and the intensity of the experience make it seem much longer. To come over the finish line yesterday and realize it was only 10:45 in the morning was vaguely surreal: what would I do with myself for the rest of the day?

Lie around and eat, of course (and take a deep two-hour nap). But so much collapses into that small window of time that I see the appeal of these sports. Yes, racing hurts, but where else do you get that intensity for such a sustained moment?

The swim: the swim has always been my bogey, and today was only a little different. I did have my best swim at the 1.2 mile distance (26:14, just what I was hoping for), but the front of the pack swam an absurd 21-22 minutes, putting four to five minutes into me on the swim. If I'm going to make the step from pro to PRO someday, my swimming has to improve. Those 15-20 guys in the front pack all came out of the water together and, while they weren't explicitly drafting, rode together for a good bunch of the bike course. It's perfectly legal, but if I want to have better results, I've got to be coming out of the water closer to the front. This means swimming in the middle of the pack and getting bounced around, something I hate. Still, I'll happily take the 26:14. And, for the third race this year, Chris Legh and I swam together. That gives me some hope, since I know I can ride like him (see Eagleman), and if I run the way I did yesterday, I can post some Chris Legh-like results. The other bonus was that everyone could see it was Chris Legh as we came out of the water, so I heard a lot of "Go Chris!" as I ran up the shute to the transition area.

The bike: my bread and butter turned into my, I don't know, crumpet and marmite yesterday. I felt good, was putting out good numbers (averaged 315 watts for the whole ride), but posted a disappointing 2:08:25, a full two minutes slower than last year. I'd given up all (and more) of the gains I'd made on the swim. Something must be wrong with my position/equipment, and I'm thinking back longingly to my HED disc and trispoke I sold after Eagleman. My slow time, coupled with the crazy times of the guys up front (lots of 2:00 and 2:02), consigned me to a MOP finish. Still, some good things happened. I used the downhill into transition (about a mile) to lightly spin my legs, and I think that helped immensely going out on the run.

The run: this went surprisingly well. Leaving transition my legs shed the standard leaden feeling post-bike, and I found myself running well. First mile went by in 5:47, and I figured I was on my way to a PR. Good splits kept showing up on the watch, and I actually got faster as the leg went along. I finished with my best 13.1 run in a triathlon, at 1:20:06 (oh, how I would have loved to have broken 1:20!). I ended up 27th out of the pros (five spots lower than last year) and 34th overall (10 spots slower than last year, but there's so much drafting in the AG ranks that I'm only going to remember the 27th part) but the field, this year, was much stronger. Still, I'm not totally satisfied with this race. To do that much work on the bike and only put up a 2:08 is frustrating. At 315 watts for a flat course, I should be right around that 2:02-2:03 split I was hoping for, and I would have been in the top twenty, a select group. Full results are here, and a quick perusal shows some pretty big names.

The course, for the pros, is a nice one. For the AGers, I imagine it's disastrous. Some narrow lanes, and it's so flat that athletes can't help but draft (which is funny: all that money getting aero and then getting a lift from your neighbors). I saw some bike packs come in that were 40-50 strong. I think WTC should be a little careful that they don't drive people away, because a world championship should be one of the hardest races of the year, and to have your PR blemished by a drafting asterisk takes away the honest pleasure of accomplishment. I don't think many AGers set out to draft, but there's really nothing they can do about it on that course.

Next up: one week completely off (although I may jump in a 'cross race next weekend, ha!), before I start swimming religiously. I've got 3 more weekends to race 'cross, so I'm gonna take advantage of those, but I'll be hanging up the running shoes for a bit (throwing them out, actually, as I think all four of my pairs are played out). The next few posts are mostly going to equipment related, I believe, as I try to sort out my position for next year.

Thanks, everybody, for your support in leading up to this race. I met three separate people who read this rag of a blog (can it be a rag if it's all contained on a piece of silicone somewhere?), and that, more than anything, amazed me. Time to turn up the quality control.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Day Before

(N.B. I don't know if this picture is earnest or ironic (the police tape makes me think it is earnest) but either way it is pretty awesome—the FosterGrant bit makes me think it is ironic, but that might be too generous)

The day before a race is sometimes more stressful than the day itself. Triathlons, sadly, aren't like bike races, which make good on the imperative to simplify. Triathlons require the kind of obsessive checking and re-checking that makes our sport attractive to the more type-a professions out there: doctors, or businessmen and women, people who really love lists (it's funny that more cooks don't turn into triathletes).

Races with "clean transition areas" make the day before even worse (although they make the day of better). You've got to put run stuff in the red bag, bike stuff in the blue bag, and make sure the bike is ready to roll with shoes attached and helmet clipped.

Here's the day that was:

7:30 AM get up and run: 20' with four 20" strides
8:00 AM oatmeal and coffee
9:15 AM ride to race site with my amazing homestays
10:00 AM check in, get the aforementioned colored bags, talk to another Vermont transplantee
10:30 AM swim course (I got in about 2000M, I think)
11:00 get bike and gear back from gear bag check-in.
11:00 AM-12:00 PM purchase new tire for dicey rear wheel, drop bike with mechanics, cruise expo, move water bottle back from downtube to between aerobars (had a great, conclusive discussion with Chris from Cervelo; I asked him why the CSC guys ALL had their water bottles on the downtubes during the tour TTs this summer. I wondered if, for the P3C, that putting the bottle down there might actually be beneficial. No, it turns out: "It's the worst place to put it," Chris told me. "The CSC guys put it there because of tradition, and because they say the bike handles worse with the bottle up on the aerobars." Happily I won't be doing anything technical tomorrow (the course is about as technical as making cereal), so the bottle is back on the aerobars), check out THIS:
12:00-1:00 PM sort gear into blue bags and red bags. Recycle all the garbage that was in the race packet.
1:00-2:00 PM pick up bike, check in with a friendly volunteer named Natalie (she surprised the hell out of me by saying she'd read going pro; I thought only friends and mom read the damn thing)
2:00-3:00 PM pro briefing, and good god there were a lot of PROs in attendance (no Craig Alexander or Paul Amey, however): more Volcom, shaved legs, and chunky sunglasses this side of a surf competition in Malibu.
3:00-3:45 PM attempt to hydrate, get a pre-race massage from a kindly portly chap named Manfred. Yes, Manfred. He was marvelous.
4:00 PM-Present moment return home. Start re-hyrdrating. Shave legs (Belgians everywhere are going nuts), try to deal with stupid rookie wetsuit hickey I gave myself this morning. Eat.

Soon I'll be off to bed. Race report tomorrow.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

On my way!

This'll be fast, as I'm currently sitting in KCI Airport, waiting for my connecting flight to Tampa by sucking down a sandwich and a coffee. What a week! New Prez, and a final shot at an excellent 70.3 race. Rumor is that the weather in Clearwater is excellent: 60s at the start and 70s by midday. Perfect for a big guy like me. Swimming's been great this week: lots of 1:08-1:10 100 yard repeats in the pool.

Updates from the traditional day-before-madness will come tomorrow.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Race Week

Here we are, final week of the 2008 triathlon season. I'm excited to go back to Clearwater, more than I thought I would be, since the course is a bit soulless. But it is a big event, and I think that my fitness has come around in the latter part of the season. You might have noticed that I've put a link in the sidebar that connects to my training log. The race week prep is up there, although it isn't anything ground-shattering (we're working on mixed metaphors here, too, obviously): short workouts with short, but intense, pieces. Lots of swimming, comparatively, to keep some water feel. My goals:

1: have the best swim of my 70.3 career. I don't want any more of this getting out of the water four minutes behind the leader." I hate the opening scrum, so I'm going to sift to the side of the pack, giving up some seconds, probably. I'll be able, however, to swim my own pace, and not get punched/dragged down/kicked around.

2: hurt the rest of the field on the bike. I know I can do this part, as evidenced by my Eagleman bike. Last year people were flirting with breaking 2 hours, and I put down a respectable, but not blazing, 2:06. I want that number closer to 2 hours. 2:02, let's hope for.

3: stay positive on the run. My toughest leg, since I'm not a natural runner. Last year I had a good run, mostly by not worrying about the painful first few miles. By the last four miles, I was still running well.

Every time Ame and I travel to a race, she wakes me up on race morning by saying "Race Day!" So here's to Race Week.

Friday, October 31, 2008

The Morning Swim

When the alarm sounds at 4:30 AM, the impulse is to head for the local bomb shelter. Something must be wrong is almost always the first conscious thought of the day, jerked out of REM and that dream you were having, the recurring one about running a red light and having your picture taking while doing so. The most dangerous moments are the next 10-15 seconds that you lie there in the dark, thinking Surely I could swim at some other point today. But you manage to get the light on, brush your teeth, put the contacts in, and at that point there's no chance you'll go back to sleep.

The early early morning swim is quintessentially lower-case pro. PROs get to sleep in a bit, eat, wait, train, eat, sleep, train, eat and go back into the big sleep (toss some massage and stretching in there, for good measure). pros, like age-groupers, have day jobs, so we've got to get to the pool, track, or trainer (I'm assuming you wouldn't ride your bike outdoors before five in the morning; no matter where you live (unless it's Alaska), it's dark then) before we head to that 9 to 5. We arrive at the pool cold, sore, and dreading that first immersion in the alien medium. The coach, usually a former big-time D1 swimmer (and now full-time sadist) plots his workouts from the deck, and heckles. After an hour and a half, wrung out and starving (hanging out in any water temp around 80 signals disaster to your body: survival messages start to flash eat, eat, eat like emergency beacons), you shower, shave, and...head to the office, the sun maybe starting to color the sky the deep blue of early dawn.

But the rest of the day, you feel created. Everything is gravy, as nothing will be as hard as 4-5000M at 5:15 AM. Keep bringing the early morning swim. I hate those first fifteen seconds of consciousness, but the remaining sixteen hours are worth it.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Rummage Manna

So there's this ad you've probably seen. If you've ever watched the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament you've seen it. It runs, with less regularity, during the baseball championships (college baseball is weird, unless you're from England and understand that huge professional clubs own the rights to soccer players from, say, the age of five). Anyway, it's a pretty straightforward ad, showing college athletes in all their amateur glory. At the end of the ad, the punchline runs "there are x players in NCAA athletics, and almost all of us are going pro in something other than athletics." I love this ad, no matter how maudlin it is. College athletics play a funny role in the serious athlete's life: you're competing at a high level (few high school athletes go on to play in college), but you're pretty sure that the next four years are it. Swimmers leave Division One swimming and, if they don't go the Olympics, join...the local masters team. Soccer players write letters to USL 3rd division teams and beg for tryouts. Runners and rowers move to Boston or Southern California. The next few months hold little. I moped around D.C. for a little while and then started running around the Mall every day.

All of this filters down to yesterday, when I got to go to my other professional job, working with kids at The Catlin Gabel school in Portland, OR. Catlin runs this thing every year called "Rummage," in which the students canvas the city, asking people to donate their unused/unwanted goods (they can't pick up things like, of course, mattresses, gross). Then, after a week of set up at the Portland Exposition Center (think: huge), the place opens to the public. Development raises around $200,000 for financial aid (peanuts, really), but the real gift is the sense of communal effort around Rummage. On Monday the juniors and seniors go; Tuesday is the sophomores' turn; Wednesday the freshman. On Thursday, the place opens, and the word is that people line up outside like those crazy people who lurk outside Walmart on Thanksgiving at Midnight, waiting to beat each other up over...who knows?

Anyway, yesterday I went with the sophomores to help set up, and other than the regular unfocused sophomore boys (whoa), it was a great time. I spent two and a half hours unloading a trailer (of the tractor-trailer variety, that is, f-ing large) with two of the sweetest kids you could unload a trailer with. We unpacked grills, beds, and more baby strollers I've ever seen in one place.

And then, like a little bonus, I found this:

A Mapei cycling cap? Greatest team of the one-day classics from the 90s? Johann Museeuw, Michele Bartoli, Andrea Tafi, and Franco Ballerini? 5 wins at Paris Roubaix between 1993 and 2002? From the extra little "GB" on the cap, I'm guessing this cap dates from 1995-97, and it's probably real, as I can't imagine someone would reissue a cycling cap with one of the sideshow sponsors still on it.

After Rummage, I dropped the cap into a hot laundry wash and headed out for a ride. After walking all day, I managed some of the best intervals of the fall: 4x12:00 @ 360-380 watts. Hard, but not deathly hard. One of those perfect days: good kids, hard work, fun training, and a retro cycling cap. Does it get better (could I be luckier?) than this?

Monday, October 27, 2008

A New Look

Yup, things look a little different around here. Last night, I rode into a headwind that made me get out of the saddle to hold 12-13 MPH, and while I was catching the poor bloke up the road (who maintained a solid 11.5-12.5 MPH for a good ten minutes, the strongman), I thought for the countleth time Why? This question was purely a rhetorical one, since I was enjoying myself. 30 MPH headwind, machine-sharp light, the only thing missing was rain. The enjoyment, of course, only lasted until I got to the turnaround to begin the truly joyous 27.5 miles back with the wind. But I got to thinking about the geniuses over at BKW, who have turned the term PRO into an industry wide term. What does it mean? Pedraig can say it far better than I, so read on there. In short, though, PRO is what the big guys do. Jens Voight, Eddy Merckx, Lance Armstrong, Steve Prefontaine, Mark Allen, Dave Scott, Faris Al-Sultan, Paula Radcliffe, Deena Kastor, Rebecca Wellons and Lynn Bessette, Natasha Badmann, Chrissy Wellington, Paula Newby-Fraser, Michael Phelps, and newly crowned Kona Champ Craig Alexander are all PRO with three capital letters. What does it mean to be PRO? Your training and your carriage are perfect. What does it take to be PRO? Good god, quite a bit, and the sacrifices aren't yours alone. When I was fifteen, and reading science fiction non-stop under the covers, Neal Stephenson pointed out the fantasy that "Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad." No PRO got to where he or she was/is on the burliness of his or her own bootstraps. Coaches, family members, spouses, companies all contributed their time, love, and, in most cases, cash, to the dubious experiment of one person's athletic ego. The PRO was born. I'm not knocking it. Very few could get there on his own. It takes a huge ego and and a vast amount of humility to accept the help of others in the aggrandizement of self.

But what about the others who toil just below the PROS out there, who are good but not quite good enough, who don't have the heart to toss job and family to the wind in the pursuit of something so ephemeral as sport? Call them the pros, and there are 10 for every PRO in every sport. I'm going to try to refocus this blog on the pro, those of us who fall between the amateur and the PRO, the ones that get dusted by the big guys, but would walk away with every local race into which he or she dropped. Who are we? You probably don't know our names, outside of our local circles, but once or twice a year we have flashes of PRO-like brilliance, and we live on these moments. For me, it was outsplitting the Eagleman 70.3 field by three minutes on the bike. My friend and teammate Janda teeters right on the edge of pro and PRO, putting up great results all year long, one sneaker on the podium of triathlon's biggest events. New friend Kevin Lisska throws down a huge day and comes in 8th at the Long Course World Championships in Holland. My other teammate Will Ronco comes in 5th at Lake Placid. Do you know these names? Probably not. As one spectator at Newfoundland said to me: "You're a pro?! Would I have heard of you?" The answer, for most of us pros, is a resounding no.

We know most of each other, although there are a lot of pros out there. We're the guys that age-groupers like to gripe about when they say there are too many pros in triathlon. But there's a good community, and we say hello at the race briefings in the time-honored way of close competitors: we grunt, and look around, and ask how training is going, and say we're glad to see each other again, and what races we've got on the horizon. We say little to each other during the race, but a lot afterward.

What are the PROS like? Well, not too different, besides the blessings of genetics, time, and fortune. For the most part they are great people: generous of their time and kindness. I get the honor of sharing a coach with Craig Alexander (that's about all we share), and so get to bounce ideas off of him now and then. He couldn't be kinder or more supportive. Richie Cunningham is the quietest guy I've ever met to wield such a nasty SBR combination. Many of you probably know Karen Smyers, due to her generosity of spirit. After my first race as a pro (in which I came in last), she only had the nicest things to say to me.

The sign that now occupies the title shot of this blog sums up the prolife to me: you do your best and then deal with what comes along. I race next in Clearwater, 12 days from now. Lots of prep to finish, lots of dreaming to be done. Who knows, I may be PRo on that day...

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Oregon Manifest Show


I wandered down to the Oregon Manifest show last Saturday, but to say that my visit was casual would belie how much I'd looked forward to seeing a bunch of handbuilt Oregon 'Cross bikes in one place. The show didn't disappoint, right down to the presence of Voodoo Donuts,
purveyor of the Maple Bacon Cruller, featured on Anthony Bourdain's show No Reservations. Here's a shot of the infamous thing:
It's in the middle/right of the photo, and kind of looks like a hot dog. Yes, that's a maple glazed cruller with two strips of bacon pasted to it. As a metaphor for the Manifest Show, the Maple Bacon Cruller isn't far off. There are a lot of wacky ideas bruited about at the manifest show, just as you'd expect from a bunch of 'crossers getting together to drink beer, eat barbecue and tamales, and look at a bunch of beautiful handmade frames. Here are some pictures I snapped of various products.
Yup, that's Andy Hampsten's jersey from the '88 Giro D'Italia. I double-taked and then asked Steve Hampsten if the jersey was for real. He assured me it was, and I chatted with him for a few moments about his work, which is lovely and painstaking. So much to see, though, and I strolled off through this Interbike of the Northwest. What was the buzz here? Mostly about renewable products for bikes. Here are two pictures from Renovo, who makes wooden framed fronttriangles and mates them to alloy or carbon rear triangle. The products are beautiful.
The bikes are about as impervious to wear and grit as a steel-framed bike, so you have to take care to rinse it and wipe it carefully, but the word out there is that the right quality is stupendous, and the carbon rear triangle gives you real stiffness where you need it.
























Here are some wooden wheels from Wheel Fanatyk (cheesy alternate spellings abound in the somewhat overfull wheel supplier market, as wheelbuilders try to brand/differentiate their product). These wheels got a write-up in Bicycling or Velonews or somewhere else (I don't remember and was more interested in just what the reviewer said), and it sounds as if the wheels ride pretty nice. Grit can be tough on 'em, but if you're careful, the ride quality is supposed to be supple and plush. Finally, some local wag was using cork and wood to make bar end plugs:



















O.K., onto the steel, aluminum, carbon and titanium. Here's a great way to rout your rear break cable, from Vertigo Bicycles:
Internal cable routing on a 'Cross bike! Of course, this makes sense, as it takes away any need to build some kind of cable-stop housing onto the seat-stay. It also looks incredibly clean. I don't think we need to start making 'Cross bikes aero, but when you're hoisting something up onto your shoulder 10-15 times in an hour, it's nice not to have any chance of tangling your hands/fingers in cables. Also from Vertigo are some BURLY dropouts (I think they look more like motorcycle stays and drops): If you look carefully, you can see some mud caked on the opposite side seatstay. This was the builder's bike, and it had clearly been raced recently. That's a good sign, I think. I would think seriously about talking with these guys about a bike, if I were in the handbuilt titanium market. Next up, a beautiful bike from Sweetpea Bicycles:

I talked with Natalie, the owner/builder, and lamented that Sweetpea only makes bikes for women. She let me in on a secret, though, that if you want one bad enough, you can get one. Good to know.






Here's a wild TT bike that is currently
the OBRA TT Championship bike: I asked the builder/rider "What is that, like a 30 cm drop" (distance from saddle nose to elbow pads), and he shrugged and said "I don't know, but it works." My kind of rider.















Lastly, since we're looking at innovative bikes, here are two that I just had to ask about: "How's THAT work?" I asked the builder of this design. "Pretty well," she said. "But we still need to ride it down some sets of stairs to make sure it'll hold up."








And then there was this, from Land Shark: This is a track bike, so you don't have to worry about your rear brake pointing in the right direction, but the real rationale here was to add a second triangle to the rear section of the bicycle. There are two triangles in two separate dimensions, supposedly dramatically stiffening the rear end of the bike, something quite important at the velodrome. I made the compulsory joke about being able to turn only right, but the rep assured me it would go both directions. BikeSnobNYC thinks there's nothing uglier than a Land Shark, but this bike was quirky enough that I wouldn't have been ashamed to take around the curves.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Haruki Murakami is the kind of writer that will, I predict, win the Nobel Prize for Literature in the next decade or so. He meets the criteria: not American (the Nobel Committee, if you missed it, called American Literature "Insular and isolated" a few weeks ago, pretty much tipping their hand that they wouldn't, again, be giving the award to someone on this isolated little backwater of an island); he has a prodigious publishing record (12 works of fiction over less than thirty years); and, most importantly, he has a stripped but oddly lyrical style of prose, Raymond Carver crossed with Garcia Lorca. His closest American component would be Marilyn Robinson (of Gilead fame but, to this reader at least, of Housekeeping renown), whose prose is like clouds breaking up at the end of a rainy day: a dulled but lightening silver. Murakami's stories and books are oblique, mysterious. His characters talk around subjects, and his bailiwick is the juxtaposition of the boring everyday with the mystical. I can remember a period in the late 90s and early aughts when it seemed that every one of his stories revolved around a man, bored with his wife, who is shaken deeply when that wife disappears. And when I say disappear I mean disappear existentially. She doesn't just get on a boat and go, but every record of her vanishes. His work anchors in this bay: what holds us to this world, and how tenuously are we held?

So, when I heard he was publishing a book on running, I waited until the perfect moment to purchase it: an airplane trip, where I could devour the book in one sitting. When I flew to Austin last week I found the book in an airport bookstore and slid it into my pack, telling myself to wait to crack its spine.

The book begins auspiciously enough: "I'm on Kauai, in Hawaii, today, Friday, August 5, 2005. It's unbelievably clear and sunny, not a cloud in the sky. As if the concept clouds doesn't even exist." That parade of location in time and space is quintessential Murakami. He'll locate us now so, when he wants to, later, he can cut the cords holding us to the concrete, and drift us into his wonderful brand of abstract. Three sentences in he maintains this movement, grabbing a common metaphysical image: clouds. Clouds are the kind of thing that feel stale in a hack's hands (see my metaphor about Robinson, above) but ennobled in a real writer's pen. Here we go, I thought. This is going to be good.

Sadly, the book never rises again to the promise of its first few lines. Just a few words later, we get this: During the mornings, when it's cool, I sit at my desk, writing all sorts of things. Like now: I'm writing this, a piece on running that I can pretty much compose as I wish." Uh-oh, the breezy "I just tossed some ideas together for my talk today as I rode up on the train." Would he be so unprofessional? Sure enough, the answer is yes. What follows, for 180 pages, is a litany of "To Be" verbs and lots of telling instead of showing. This could simply be a translation problem, of course, but, in that case, Murakami has hired a freshman in high school to do his translating. Consider this particular passage, from page 95 (he's just been passed, while running, by some young women at Harvard):

Have I ever had such luminous days in my own life? Perhaps a few. But even if I had a long ponytail back then, I doubt it would have swung so proudly as these girls' ponytails do. And my legs wouldn't have kicked the ground as cleanly and as powerfully as theirs. Maybe that's only to be expected. These girls are, after all, brand new students at the one and only Harvard University.
Still, it's pretty wonderful to watch these pretty girls run. As I do, I'm struck by an obvious thought: One generation takes over from the next. This is how things are handed over in this world, so I don't feel so bad if they pass me. These girls have their own pace, their own sense of time. And I have my own pace, my own sense of time. The two are completely different,but that's the way it should be.

This passage not only manages to be ham-handed, trite, and borderline offensive, it trades in the kind of relativism that I'm constantly discouraging in my students, this message that we each have our own way of doing something, and each way is equally viable. I get this attitude from sophomore boys, in particular, who would rather not do the intellectual work to consider a new angle on something. "Great," I'm always telling them. "So why do you think large portions of humanity have decided to speak in languages that let individuals communicate? If doing things our own way were expedient, wouldn't we each be speaking with our own system of grunts and gestures?" I'm not arguing for absolutism, here, but I'm also not in favor of the excusatory power of difference. Things aren't so unnuanced, I hope.

The book is full of moments like these. It's as if Murakami, writing about his hobby and pastime, let his usual grasp on his prose loosen. His affect, throughout, is bemused. I wonder how long this book took him to write, because it still feels like a second draft. He takes us through his unnofficial Athens marathon (he just runs from Athens to Marathon by himself, unsupported), mostly telling us how hot he his, and how hard it is to run a marathon, particularly after 22 miles. Anyone who picks up this book, other than die-hard Murakami readers, know this fact, and it's a little condescending of Mr. Murakami to pass his difficulty off as readable or compelling. He traffics in this vein throughout, telling us how hard the swim leg of a triathlon is, or that getting old and slowing down are hard to handle. It is, in short, the least specific thing I've read all year, spouting vagaries and abstractions (and cliches!) throughout.

There are moments when the real Murakami stirs himself, like this moment when he describes, aptly, the semi-holy sensation of running along the Charles river:

"When I saw the Charles River again, a desire to run swept over me. Generally, unless some great change takes place, rivers always look about the same, and the Charles River in particular looked totally unchanged. Time had passed, students had come and gone, I'd aged ten years, and there'd literally been a lot of water under the bridge. But the river has remained unaltered. The water still flows swiftly, and silently, toward Boston Harbor. The water soaks the shoreline, making the summer grasses grow thick, which help feed the waterfowl, and it flows languidly, ceaselessly, under the old bridges, reflecting clouds in summer and bobbing with flows in winter—and silently heads towards the ocean."

That last, masterful sentence, which even deploys adverbs (something I'm always telling my students to cut away) perfectly, conveys that sense of timeless meditation Melville was talking about when he said his bit about man and the sea. The sentence literally trickles to its ending point, letting your attention waver and flow, inexorably, though, carrying you to its conclusion. There's even a bit of Matthew Arnold at the end there, a whisper of silent armies that clash by night, that takes the paragraph from the temporal and hurls it into the sublime. And again, on page 75, I met the Murakami I'm used to: "Even now, when I run along Jingu Gaien or Asakasa Gosho, sometimes I remember these other runners. I'll round a corner and see them coming toward me, silently running, their breath white in the morning air. And I always think this: They put up with such strenuous training, and where do their thoughts, their hopes and dreams, disappear to? When people pass away, do their thoughts vanish?" Here, I thought, was a passage worthy of Murakami: he marries the corporal with the incorporeal so easily, with that white breath symbolizing our daily thoughts, thoughts that turn white as ghosts and disappear into the cold air. It's a passage equally philosophical and mournful at the same time, and my hair stood on end.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Stability and Vindication

I'm back in Portland, presently, and it's raining/60s outside, which makes it hard to believe that yesterday I was in Austin, Texas, sweating through the Longhorn 70.3, put on by Keith Jordan and Endorfun Sports.

Harder to believe, for me anyway, was how good a race I had yesterday. It's no secret that 2008 has been a difficult year for me in terms of triathlon, and I had little to no expectation for this race. It was a chance to go somewhere I'd never been before, hang out with Amy for the weekend, and have some fun. I talked Kevin Lisska (from Long Course Worlds fame—he came in 8th, yeah, I know that guy) into coming along for the ride, and he obliged, bringing along his food poisoned girlfriend Linden, who was resolute about competing herself.

A few days before the race Keith posted the entrant list, and scrolling through it one saw a list of triathlon stars past and present: Richie Cunningham, Simon Lessing, Tim DeBoom, Joe Gambles, Keiran Doe, Andrew Yoder, Bjorn Andersson. Yikes. I though Tim DeBoom was ultramarathoning these days...

Still, feeling good about the swim volume I'd put in over the past month (not huge, but of good quality), I resolved to have a good race. Here's a short recap, since it's almost 9:30 and creeping up to my bedtime.

The Swim: The swim was beautiful, but short. Keith must have been taking it easy on me for the long swim at Timberman 2007, which was longer than normal (and cold!). I didn't swim well, regardless, getting bounced around early and losing the front group, and then swimming with a bunch of slower folks. Still, coming out of a HIM swim, looking down at your watch and seeing 20:32 is pretty sweet. Worst part of the day, over in an Olympic distance amount of time. Why can't I still swim? I'm not sure. I hate the scrum of a huge pack, and invariably I swallow a bunch of water and get kicked around. Part of me thinks I should swim towards the outside, where there are fewer people, but I know you're giving up time to swim there. It really is better to get mauled at the center while being pulled along. But I just can't make my brain accept that 1900 meters really isn't that far. It sees buoys and sees miles and slows down. The other day I was swimming 1:11 100s in the pool, no problem, and here I was swimming much slower than that in open water, wearing a speedsuit (thanks, BlueSeventy), not taking flip turns. What gives? As with many of these things, it's all mental, and I think some honest swim soul-searching (plus six months of 15K a week in the pool) will make the difference. Anyway, out of the water in just under 21 minutes, about 2 minutes behind the front-runners.

The Bike: Ah, my proverbial bread and butter. I was excited to race my bike today, seeing it had been months (months!) since I'd been out there mixing it up on my favorite of animals. I'd moved my position back to the pre-FitWerx (sorry, guys, it's the truth) position, with the seat forward and the front low. My Vision aerobars aren't great for that position (Kevin's voice is present as I write this, saying, "Dude, aerobars are, like, fifty bucks." I know, I'm too lazy/broke when it comes to bike maintenance), but if I dangled my hands beyond the shifters, and rode with the tips of my elbows on the pads, I could manage a good forward position and still steer the bike, which was a good thing, because after about fifteen miles I lost track of which direction was which. When I rode towards the sun I could figure it out alright, but other than that I was lost. I started passing people, which felt normal and good. About ten miles in I caught up to Kevin, which meant I was having a good day or he was having a bad one. I tried to get him to come with me, and he rode back there for a bit, but after a while I couldn't see him anymore. I did catch one hanger-on who rode my rear wheel for the better part of 30 miles, until he missed a turn and went, like Lance avoiding Joseba Beloki in the 2003 TdF, into the bushes on the side of the road. I was happy to see him go. I know that controlled drafting is a part of draft-illegal racing, but it sucks to know you're helping someone along. It was good to ditch him (his bib said "Kis," but I didn't see anyone with that name on the results), as the last 5-10 miles of the bike course are flat, fast, and beautiful. He might have been working to catch me up, but he was in the process of blowing himself up, too. Total time: 2:13:48. Not the blazing split of Eagleman, but still only around 2:30-3:00 down from the leaders.

The Run: O.K, my weakest leg. I jogged through transition, trying to get the legs going like pistons, rather than the train wheel-like motion of cycling. I grabbed two gels to hold on the way out of T2, with a few other athletes. I was passed quickly by Dominic Gillen and one other runner, and thought Ah, shit. But my legs started coming back after mile one (and a shaky 6:40 mile split). Soon things were ticking away; I re-passed Gillen (he'd re-pass me right back a few miles on), and quickly I was at mile three. O.K., I thought, one hour to go: just pretend it's a 10-lap cross race and each mile you get to subtract one lap. It's remarkable how well this works. When I think of yesterday, I don't think of suffering, ever (which makes me think I needed to go harder), only working hard. The run course at Austin 70.3 is great: it's an honest 2-loop course (not those double out-and-backs, which are so hard on one mentally) that leads through transition twice, so you never feel like you're in no-man's-land (read: Eagleman). There are hills, it's hot, but it never felt long or miserable. You can break the course up into little chunks, and I was surprised how smoothly I ran, for a somewhat hilly course. I made it back home in 1:23:49. Certainly not world class, but dead center of the professional field, and I did get to run past a self-destructing Andrew Yoder at mile 8 (been there, I thought, as I went by, feeling bad for him). For coming into transition in 17th, I was pretty happy to finish 12th. Sure, top ten would have been great, and each leg is not as sharp as I'd like it to be (what I would have given for just one minute off each leg, which would have slotted me into 10th, right behind early run-leader Kieran Doe (who has amazing dreadlocks, btw).

Final time: 4:01:33, which even if you adjust for a short swim (adding 5 minutes would probably be accurate) works out to a pretty good day in the office.

I would like to say, in closing, that this was one of the best-run races in which I've ever competed. I started off racing in Keith's events, up at Mooseman, and I'm always amazed at the party he puts on. The courses are well marked and well supported (not many other races get the Yellow Mavic Wheel Boys to prowl their courses); the food is great; the music is a huge lift; and the corny signs are, after all these years of seeing them stream by, comforting. I can't wait to return next year, and I'd like to thank Keith for having a big part in giving me something I've had precious little of this year in triathlon: fun.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Fantasy Cyclocross

I've officially sunk to new lows of dork-dom: Fantasy Cyclocross. Now, the last time I managed any fantasy team, it was for a friend who was leading a three-week canoe trip. When he came back, his team was malingering in the bottom third of the standings, with a Red Sox heavy pitching rotation (I traded Odalis Perez for Alan Embree?! What was I thinking?). I've got slightly better footing here, although my Fantasy 'Cross team (aptly named, I think, "French Death Pimps Dressed All In White," a term connisseurs will recognize, perhaps, from an earlier post) is only MOP right now. I've got a mix of US and Belgian riders that will stand me in good stead once the European UCI season really gets rolling, but my mainstays will be Tim Johnson and Jeremy Powers here on this side of the pond.

Leaving in a few hours for Austin 70.3! Updates from Texas will be forthcoming.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Incline

I was lucky enough to spend last weekend in Colorado Springs with Amy, and we embarked on a Colo Spgs athletic rite of passage: running The Incline (postcard rendering at left).

The Incline gains about 2000' of elevation in just over a mile, with an average gradient of 41% and maximum gradient of 68%. It makes Alpe D'Huez look like a mild cruise. Of course, when you're running, you don't need to worry about rolling backwards down the mountain.

I was told by my coach that it's a pretty regular Saturday workout for athletes in the Springs, so Ame and I drove out through the amusement park of Manitou Springs and Old Colorado City up to the Cog Railway station (what is it about cog railways and their ability to attract just the oddest kind of tourists? The Mt. Washington Cog is about the ugliest thing in the Whites, and it scatters coal dust over, well, just about everything; yuck). We asked a couple friendly traffic guys where The Incline began, took a short warmup jog, and headed up the trail, jogging from tie to tie. As you stand at the bottom, this is what you see:

For the first half or so, you can jog, and you think This isn't that bad, but then, in Rolf Aldag's words from Hell On Wheels, "Your pulse starts skyrocketing, up towards 200 or more." Soon you hit that 68% grade, and running is no longer a possibility. So you're hiking quickly, and thinking that your heart rate should start coming down, but that's the odd thing about a hugely elevated heart rate: you need to almost stop to bring it down. I didn't have my HRM on (left the strap in OR), but the effort felt like a deep, long one, the kind of breathing you experience twenty minutes deep into a hard 'Cross race: at around 15 minutes, I thought I could puke right now, and I'd feel better.

I topped out at 24 minutes, which is in the realm of respectable. The record is a mind-altering 17 minutes (mind altering in the enzyme-denaturing sense). It's the kind of workout that rewards a ginger start, I think, and a blazing finish, just like the long climbs of classic cycling races. It's about the best workout you can get, if you like 'Cross, time trialling, or triathlons: a long, difficult interval that doesn't shut you down within minutes, one that leaves you gasping like a drowned man and drenched in sweat.

Get out to Colo Spgs and have a go yourself. You'll enjoy the suffering.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Heresy

I'm about to commit heresy, I think, along with finally giving into the temptation of writing about Lance Armstrong's return to professional cycling. As Colin said a few weeks ago, paraphrasing my favorite band Cracker, "What the world needs now is another blog post about Lance."

But it's a busy week in the cycling world, what with Interbike and the World Championships going on, and I didn't want Lance to lose any of his well deserved limelight.

I don't think he should come back, and I really don't think he should come back for Astana. I'll go in two parts here, and my two cents aren't really worth even that, but these thoughts have been hanging around in my brain for weeks now, and I think it's time to let go of them.

Listening to Armstrong's comments on NPR yesterday, I heard the flat tones of justification: "After many long talks with my family, with my children, I have decided to return to professional cycling. My goal is to raise global awareness of cancer." Now, I've got no bones at all with Armstrong's cancer work, but I do feel he was doing a good job from his desk chair and his running shoes and mountain bike. Armstrong's seven wins at the TdF weren't about cancer, they were about winning the greatest cycling race in the world. I hear, in his measured, mature tones, something darker: the voice of a man who can't walk away. You hear this tone of voice in addicts, speaking calmly about their plans to overcome, to live with the thing they manifestly should not live with. Is cycling damaging Armstrong's life? I'm not in a place to say. But I thought I heard the sound of a man who was protesting a bit too much that this ride for number 8 was more about cancer than about his own needs.

Astana. Armstrong's return to Bruyneel's embrace will shred that team's lineup and make it's return to next year's TdF again doubtful. With Christian Prudhomme saying "They cannot be trusted," I think it unlikely that riders such as Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer (who desperately wants, but won't ever be able to, win the whole shebang), and Andreas Kloden will hang around to share space with the fiery competitor LA. And wouldn't it have been more fun to see Armstrong in a Quickstep (giving that team an actual GC contender) or CSC jersey, having it out with Astana? This move of Armstrong's simply makes Astana that de facto winner of the tour, and after 2008's exciting, what's going to happen next tour, I'm wary of a return to a dominant single team, headed by a man who controls the peloton by the force of his personality.

I used to love watching Lance serve it to his rivals in the mountains, but I really think his era has passed.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Starcrossed!

Well, the domestic 'Cross season is underway (even though buddy Colin Reuter finished 2nd at the Amesbury race last weekend—apologies, Colin, and congratulations). Jeremy Powers continues to show he's the class of American 'Cross, although the race reports from StarX sound as if the race was a race of attrition. See Cyclingnews' report here and Velonews' report here.

Unfortunately, Ryan Trebon came across some BOPer who took him out during the sprint to the line. I've seen this happen before, when Jamie Belchak, a good but usually lapped rider in UCI A-races, took out Jesse Anthony close to the end of last year's Grand Prix of Gloucester. Hey, Cat 2 'cross guys and girls, please, please get out of the way when racers better than us come up towards the front at the end of races? Their first place is way more important than your 50th place. This deja vu probably had special significance for Trebon, who got sidelined for months after last year's 'Cross Nats in KC. Have a care, o.k.? These guys are racing for their dinner; we're just having a good weekend.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

New Belgium

I rolled out today for a standard weekend ride: 4 hours, 75-80 miles, no real definite goals like tempo intervals or jumps, just straight up endurance riding. It was the first day I really needed armwarmers, one of those days on which you leave home and think I hope I dressed warmly enough...But as soon as I headed up Germantown Road, aiming for the farmland of NW Portland, my furnace kicked in and sweat began to bead. It was a gray, overcast day today, bit of a welcome respite from the dry, sunny days of the past two weeks. You could smell fall in the air and, fittingly, it was technically the last day of summer, which means the beginning of my favorite season, 'Cross.

Now, my 'Cross season is off to a bit of a slow start, mostly because I don't currently have a bike. So it might have been presumptive of me to sign up for what probably will be the last race of 2008 for me, the two days of USGP of Cyclocross, held less then four miles from my new house, at Portland International Raceway. Those in the know will recognize that appellation, as PIR hosted the 2003 and 2004 editions of the National Championships, and several big races since then. I'm hoping Nats will swing back to the West Coast for 2009, after two years in Providence (still my favorite 'Cross race of all time) and two years in KC. Registration for KC opened last Monday, but under my new program of NOT signing up for every race under the sun, I left that race off the Calendar. But, having signed up the Portland race, I pretty much have to get myself a bike and get working. The plan at the moment is to focus on Tri training for the next two weeks to get ready for Austin 70.3 (already a big field is forming: Simon Lessing, Bjorn Anderson, Kevin Lisska) and then roll into the 'Cross scene that second week of October. It feels late, but that's when Gloucester is every year, signalling the official kick off of the "serious" 'Cross season.

Today was the first big race for the pro 'crossers, up in Seattle at Starcrossed. Look for a link to those results tomorrow. But what really got me was this, the trailer for a new documentary about Tim Johnson, amazing 'crosser and all around good guy. Check it out, it should be reaching a bike store near you in the next few months.

Oh, right, what's up with the New Belgium thing? Well, Fort Collins feels like it's got a handle on the clever name, with its lineup of pretty good beers, but I think Portland truly deserves the title. As I rode today past farmland, under gray skies, conversing with another cyclist about wind, I think this area really is the New Belgium. Great beer, rainy days, wind, and rabid cyclists. Sure, it's not flat around here, but that just improves upon the riding, right? I think that's why I feel like I've arrived.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Two Guys in Funny Clothes

O.K., well, maybe something good came out of the trip to Holland, if it's only this picture.

That's Kevin Lisska (and me on the right), who kicked ass last Sunday and came in 8th, top American and top ten finisher and all around good guy. Psyched that he and his girlfriend Linden signed up for Austin 70.3, my last race of the season.

Wrapping up one of those lovely weeks of "Unstructured training." Got in around 10 hours over 5 days, with one magical run around Timothy Lake, about an hour east of P-land: 11.5 slow miles of lovely introspection and then a dip in a 4000 foot tarn. What a day to re-invigorate your love of running: 70s, Mt. Hood in the background, and the threat of 400 pound cougars that "usually retreat in the face of thrown rocks and yelling." Marvelous.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Long Course World Championships—DNF

I’m on the plane right now, headed back to Oregon from Holland, where I spent the last four or five days (it depends on whether or not you count the vanished day from flying across nine time zones east) preparing for and competing in the Long Course Triathlon World Championships, which I did not finish.
The DNF is a feared thing in racing, similar to the mechanical, which I’ve written about before. Sometimes a DNF isn’t your fault; you get a flat tire or crash. You can have a biological instead of a mechanical, when your body decided that today isn’t the day and makes you stop. You can also choose to stop. Yesterday I chose to stop.
I’d never done that before, and I’m still processing my reasons for doing so. Here’s how it happened, beginning from when I left my new house in Portland, last Wednesday (if you want to skip the long bit, just jump down several paragraphs to the race report).

I left through the back door, since I’d only have to take one key along instead of a whole set, which could be one extra thing to get out of my pockets at the security check-in, and I’m one of those crazy people who like to have everything ready to go way in the back of the security line: computer out, stinky shoes in my hands, jacket stowed in the backpack along with wallet, coin, and keys. Lugging a fifty pound bike-box along a street to the bus is my idea of hell. So when the bus arrived and I only had twenties (the Portland bus system doesn’t give change, something I understand but still resent), walking another quarter-mile to find a convenience store so I could break one of the twenties seemed like an inauspicious start. I’d left my house forty minutes ago and I’d only gone five blocks. Remember, I was on my way to a race.
I made it to the MAX station (still had to get to the airport), but by this point I really had to go to the bathroom, and my flight left in just over an hour. Of course my mom called right then, and she helpfully pointed out I was leaving things a bit tight. Already frustrated with travel, I hung up and promised to call from the gate.
At check-in, two United officials argued about whether or not I could check my bike through the self check-in kiosk. I figured I knew the answer to this, so remained silent until they worked it out and let me wait for a manned counter. In the best stroke of luck thus far, it turns out that, when you fly United to Europe, your bike flies free, something I should have figured for a continent that actually understands cycling. This was the first time in years I haven’t had to pay $50-$150 for checking my bike, so I made it to my gate relieved for the first time in days. I talked to Mom again in a slightly less terse mood and boarded my (late) flight to Chicago.
Again, fortune (or the FAA) smiled, and our pilots made up the hour we’d lost, which was a good thing, because I had to sprint through O’Hare’s unwieldy (and, I would think, seizure-inducing) terminal B. The last time I was in O’Hare was the summer after my first year of college, when I spent a heartbroken night sleeping on my backpack in one of their older, more ‘80s terminals, under fluorescent lights and white walls. I made it to my connecting flight in time to hear the attendant say “One more minute, and then turn that number red.” I sat down next to a gentleman in a old-fashioned hat who wore horn-rimmed glasses and a white goatee. He seemed younger than he turned out to be and was shouting into his iPhone to someone named “Baby.” His name, of course, was Bill, and he photographed naked women with tattoos. “Not,” he was careful to clarify, “pornography.” His description of his craft veered between the innocuous and the creepy. He was on his way to a shoot in Holland. His employers had said “Just come, we’ll figure it out,” and once he’d enticed “a tall, beautiful Danish girl (I asked her ‘are you a model?’ and she said ‘no’) to come around the corner and shoot some pictures, not naked, mind you, man was she beautiful. They’re not hung up about their bodies there, you know, not like Americans.” I managed to lose him in the Customs line when we landed, since he seemed to have made it a point to walk me there personally.
It was around 10 AM in Holland, and I’d left my house exactly 15 hours earlier. I’d slept about an hour on the plane, in between snacks and the obligatory dreadful meal (they still give you meals on cross-Atlantic flights). My bike appeared at the baggage claim and I found the trains. So far, so good. I took the train to a city called Almere Stad (it’s part of a new principality, really, in the Netherlands, not far at all from Amsterdam and one, until recently (1976), that was underwater; yes, it’s all part of reclaimed land and is approximately at or below sea-level; when you don’t have the Gulf of Mexico’s rapidly warming waters to spin monster storms your direction, I guess you feel better about building as such) where, after an hour of wandering the streets trailing my bike box, I discovered that my “hotel” (it turned out not to be a hotel, but a bizarre combination of Club Med, trailer park, and college housing) was 20 kilometers out of town and would require a 50 Euro taxi cab (for those of you with the rate of exchange on your hands, yeah, that’s about a $75 cab ride).
I found a taxi service, run by the incredibly friendly Francis (this would be an important acquaintance later) who put me in a cab with the verbose Misha, who told me all about Almere on the way to Centerparcs: how green it was, how young, how flat. While driving he conducted a symphony of short phone calls, all revolving around a Canadian triathlete named Michelle who was changing hotels and wanted Misha to pick her up personally. He explained to her he’d be out of town (dropping me off) for 45 minutes or so, but would see to it she’d have a taxi from Francis’ company to transport her. She tried to beg off, saying she’d be fine, she’d just “wave one down outside” and he said “Sure, sure no problem, whatever you want” and then proceeded to call the booking agent at her hotel to tell them that he’d gotten her a taxi, no problem, it’d be by soon. He called friendly Francis and another taxi driver, and then hung up the phone, looked at me with a weary smile on his face, and exhaled “Hoo!” He was marvelous.
I arrive at Centerparcs and it’s really like a sprawling campground, paths everywhere, except instead of campsites there are condominiums. Centrally there’s a business office and a group of shops and restaurants that give you awful, insidious products for lots of money (I had, I think, the worst meal of my life there the night before the race: fish that actually smelled (is this possible?) moldy). I talked to two lovely but totally unhelpful desk attendants who assured me my name wasn’t on any reservation lists, nor were the names of the other athletes with whom I was sharing a “cottage” (they really call them cottages; there wasn’t anything remotely cottage-like about them). They did let me call our “coach,” who amazingly answered the call I put through, who told me where to go. I rolled the bike out to Cottage 726 (a cinderblock affair with particle-board furniture) and met two of my teammates: Kevin Lisska and Andrew Hodges. I ate something and promptly took a nap, vowing not to sleep longer than 90 minutes. I hewed to this goal, somehow, and made it to the elite briefing at 5:30, having slept, now, two-and-a-half hours in the last 25.
The meeting was the standard race briefing: don’t draft, here’s the weekend’s schedule, etc…Nothing exciting at all, except the whole French team showing up 40 minutes late, dressed all in perfectly white tracksuits and matching five o’clock shadows. “They look like pimps,” Andrew whispered.
Friday and Saturday were the standard days of light, but slightly intense, training, and time zone acclimation. The only two things worth mentioning are A) the three times I swam the course’s first loop (in true ITU Euro-style, there was a “lap” of 1200M and a “liaison” of 2800M) I averaged 16:00 per lap, which wasn’t bad, right around 1:20/100M, about standard for me in a wetsuit and B) the service in Dutch restaurants is breathtakingly, audaciously awful. Our waitress on Saturday evening actually tossed her hair and flounced away from the table. Ah, cultures that don’t value tips!
Sunday was a comfortable wake-up: 5:15 for an 8:30 start. Luxury, really (NYC Tri, remember, begins at an insane 5:50 AM). Went through the standard pre-race breakfast (two PB&J sandwiches, one cup of coffee, and a small bowl of granola) and got on the shuttle-bus. Arrived in transition, set things up, went for a jog and walked down to the start. Slipped into the wetsuit and swam out to the last buoy and back. Lined up with the other 40-50 pros and waited around for five minutes. Then, the horn sounded.
I’ve found out that you can usually wade for a while during the first few meters of the swim. Everybody’s dolphin diving but not really going anywhere. I waited, and then slipped into the huge pack. It was easy to find some feet and just stay there. What surprised me, upon making it back to shore, was the fact that my watch said 20:32, almost five minutes longer than my practice swims. What was going on? I stayed with my group and swam and swam. Later we heard that the buoys had drifted, and the already long 4K swim was more like 4.5K. Toss in some 1-2 foot swells and (for me) alternating calf cramps, and you get my 1:09 swim split. Yup, almost seventy minutes in the water. It was awful. And I wasn’t that far back. The leaders came out of the water in an hour.
Onto the bike and I felt good, the way I usually do. Ate a chocolate Powerbar (something I’d never done, let the wary music begin) and got to work. By 20K I was picking off riders and thought things were going well. Then Petr Vabrousek (the guy that races about 12 IMs a year) and a Belgian named Stijn (love it) blew by me, about 5M from each other’s wheels and clearly taking turns. I stuck with them for about 15K but, when I watched my wattages hanging out in the 350-380 range, I decided to let them go. It was about that point that I started to see the chocolate Powerbar again, but in reverse. I came back through transition and headed back out of town and got a glimpse of the leaders completing the out-and-back, which meant they were about 10K up the road. There were about 5-6 of them together, which wasn’t good. That meant they were just going to get farther away. My brain started to work and my piriformis muscles, which I’ve had awful trouble with this season, started to tighten. This development wasn’t good.
By 90K I was having trouble just maintaining 20 MPH. Since my goal was to average 25MPH (perfectly doable on a crepe-flat (Europe, remember?) course), things were starting to look down. By 100K I was actively hoping for a flat, something that actually did occur without my knowledge, explaining why I was having such trouble going quickly. I rode back into town, came over the dismount line, found an official and said “I’m done.”
What I’m wrestling with is how uninterested I was in racing on Sunday. When you can’t get excited for the World Championships, something is wrong. Sure, it’s been a deeply disappointing season, one in which I took a step back from the successes of my first year as a pro, and if I was having better results I’m sure I’d be enjoying racing. But feedback, in either direction, has a tendency to snowball if you let it, and I’ve always had issues with inertia, as an athlete. When I played college soccer, it was all or nothing: I was a shutout or blowout goalkeeper. Now, as an endurance athlete, I suspect the same.
As my teammate and friend Janda says, time to “regroup and refocus.” One more triathlon this year, in Austin next month. I stopped into Veloshop today, a ‘Cross and Fixie store here in Portland. It was beautiful, and I’ll put up a post here in the future. Today was crisp and bright, the kind of day that reminds you of summer’s fall. I looked at some pictures of ‘Cross races here in Portland, all gray, all muddy, and I realized it’s almost time to put the running shoes and goggles away. I need to get away from triathlon for a while, since it’s started to feel like a job. Maybe it will start to fire my imagination again, sometime in December.