Friday, November 30, 2007

Me vs. Grant

O.K., here it is, as promised: footage of me swimming in a pool. If anyone out there sees some major hiccups in my stroke, lemme know. I've attached a link to Grant Hackett absolutely destroying the field at a meet in Canada, I'd say, from the announcers' French.

And here, for painful comparison, is the link to Grant Hackett.

The Descent into Hell, Day 5

Well, Hell is a strong word, but perhaps I caught your attention. For the past year, I've been experiencing gut issues. I won't disturb you with the gross details, but for most of the spring, last year, I couldn't run in the afternoon due to DGE (delayed gastric emptying)-like symptoms. DGE, for those of you who haven't experienced it, is that sloshy feeling and sound you get when you try to exercise while deeply dehydrated. My first experience of it came in the 2004 Boston Marathon, the year the temperature reached 87 degrees at the start. That was the first day that I realized that our bodies can shut down in complaint. It was my first crack at Boston, and I had to walk the last seven miles.

So I was worried, last spring, that I seemed to be experiencing DGE every day (there were other symptoms, but, again, I won't take you through them). I went to my doctor. He told me I had giardia, and that I had probably contracted it through the municipal water source. This revelation was both unsettling and frightening, but whatever I had didn't react to 21 days of antibiotics, so we were back to square one (and I kept on drinking the water). After two more visits to the doctor, and three to a specialist, the folks of Western medicine threw up their hands and said: "Maybe stop eating/drinking dairy products." I tried that, no luck. Tried going off wheat, and that made things a little better. Took that experiment further and went off gluten. That also made things a little better, but still symptoms remained.

So last weekend, in the throes of post-season blues (see last post), I looked up a diet that an alternative medicine friend suggested. It was called, somewhat forebodingly, "The Elimination Diet." While images of Sting from the movie Dune or the odd torture 'bot that visits Princess Leia in Star Wars cruise through your head, I'll explain. The elimination diet, while it sounds like a suicide vacation, is intended to identify food allergies. You have to take everything reactive out of your diet, and then slowly add them back after a month of letting your body get everything out. The list of forbidden substances, assistant!

Peanut butter (!)
White potatoes
All grains (wheat, spelt, rye, oats, barley, quinoa, kamut (even hippie grains! quinoa! kamut!))
Rice (all)
Anything processed
COFFEE (the alarm bells, if they aren't going off by now, should be ringing)

That's kind of an abbreviated list, but I threw the most painful things up there.

But here's the deal. After five days of eating sweet potatoes, tuna fish, almonds, pecans, bananas (4 clusters in 5 days), and broccoli, I feel great. A little slow in my training sessions, but it's not a speedwork time of year, anyway. The stomach issues are slowly trickling away, and I might be losing those pounds that need to go before next season gets started.

So maybe not Hell. Maybe Purgatory. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Post-Thanksgiving, Post-Season Blues

I should have known these would be coming, but they snuck up on me regardless. Before I take you through the inevitable come-down at the end of a successful season, I want to send you to a couple of cool sites out there in the blogosphere. The first is Multisport Maps, which is, full disclosure, run by a friend of mine, Brian Burns. The site isn't up and fully running yet, as Brian is still in the development stage, but you can get a sense of where he's going. Essentially, he's trying to solve a problem we've all experienced: ever go somewhere for a few days and wish you knew some great running/riding routes, or where the closest pool was located? Multisport Maps is out to fix that problem, and Brian spent all summer driving the roads of Vermont, figuring out roads you'd want to spend a few hours on...and which you'd want to avoid. Check out his blog that tracks the progress of his work, and look for the site to be up on the web in earnest next spring.

Cyclocross, some of you know, is one of my abiding passions. In fact, my best friend Jesse Dukes once remarked: "I think triathlon is your wife, and cyclocross is your girlfriend." He's about right. Nothing can really compare with the pain and beauty of cross, the combination of power and skill it demands. One of the perks is that, unlike the 4-9 hours of a 1/2 to full iron, you know exactly how long you're going to hurt. Most people out there have heard about Pure Sweet Hell, but you might not have heard of Cyclofile, which is a kind of hybrid videoblog/dvd store. At their site ( you can see the well-edited videos the guys shoot each week at the big 'cross races throughout the country. Their signature seems to be quirky music choices to accompany the short films: you'll get Van Halen, but you'll also get David Bowie's Let's Dance, which makes me think that there's someone with real taste at the helm at Cyclofile. You can also purchase their eponymous dvd, which tracks the 2006 'Cross season, a la their two previous films Transitions and Transitions 2

O.K. cool things aside, I want to talk about something inevitable: the valley you'll go through at the end of a long, fun, mostly successful triathlon season. I spent most of the past two weeks on a general, post-worlds high, which was further buoyed by an inspiring weekend at a teaching conference in New York City. Then came a few days off from school, and I was back in Portland, seeing old friends and helping my mom cook for Thanksgiving. The friend parade continued through Friday night, which brought my 10th high school reunion. I probably should have known better, as I had an important cross race the next day, but the temptation to see friends from years past was too strong. I made it to the race the following morning, but I wasn't feeling that great. I rode the course a few times and decided to call it a day. I drove back to Maine feeling guilty and, or course, a little sick. This phenomenon is something I've noticed in myself and other athletes: a tendency to train hard and, perhaps, play a bit too hard sometimes. It brings up all sorts of questions for me, the most pressing of which is Why? Here's the best I can do for an answer. Athletes crave stimulation. You can hear that proved in any one of a thousand quotes from successful athletes. The one that comes to me is Lance Armstrong's answer to a reporter who asked him, once, what pleasure he got out of all that suffering on his bike. He said "I didn't do it for pleasure. I did it for pain." I find myself saying things like this all the time, usually in response to questions about Cyclocross, but it's certainly applicable to the training and racing associated with Triathlon. It's not that we like pain, I think, it's that we like to feel deeply. I won't go into the further implications of this thought (you could get into all sorts of psycho-babble about it), but I do think it's true. The holidays are a time when we get to see those that we love, and those are certainly high points. But all high points come with a corresponding drop, and the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas is a month when athletes are recovering from their long seasons. Our training volumes drop, and we look for something to fill that void. I'm not counseling against seeing your friends and family, but I'm issuing a warning to be careful with yourselves over the next month. As penance for missing the race on Saturday, I went out for a longer run this morning. I ran 13.1, with the help of my new Garmin Forerunner (see an earlier post), and I pushed it a little bit. It became one of those runs that happen from time to time, when the time you have left loses its importance, and you're just running, trying to keep in tune with your rhythm and pace. My watch beeped at me when I'd reached my goal distance: 1:27:28, not bad for a training day. But that didn't matter to me. The run, as they always do, gave me some time to reflect on the decisions I made Friday night, and how I could alter those decisions in the future. And this afternoon, the sunlight all over everything as the sun begins to fall back below the horizon, I don't feel pleasure, but I'm enjoying the warm tightness in my legs that, for the moment, is quieting all the gloomy doubts of the up-and-down holiday season.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

2007 Tri Season

O.K., here are my reflections for the 2007 Triathlon season, my first as a professional triathlete.

The first thing I noticed was that I put a lot of miles on my car this year: trips from Maine to Philadelphia, West Virginia, New York (twice), New Hampshire. I drove about 2300 miles a month and changed my oil about every six weeks. I flew to two races, both in Florida. Even though I drive a small, fuel efficient car (a Scion Xa—my students call it "The ManMobile;" I am a tall guy in a tiny car), I did my part to make the world a warmer place. This morning I offset my carbon emissions at Native Energy. Check it out and think about doing your part. We spend so much money each year on gear, on races, on hotels. Offsetting my carbon footprint for the year only cost me $11 a month. Natch.

O.K. So I kicked things off this year with a sentimental favorite, the Ironbear Triathlon in Brunswick, Maine. The Ironbear was my first ever triathlon, in 2003. I won it in 2005, and then broke my crankset there in 2006 and finished in the 60s after one-legging the second half of the bike course. A race is always better with a rival, and Mike Caizzo, the other pro triathlete who trains in Maine, is a guy I'm always chasing. This particular day belonged to me, though, as I beat Mike out of the water and put enough time into him on the bike to stay away on the run. For my pains I took home a fuel belt, which I passed on to one of my students, back in Putney.

My first real race was the Florida 70.3 Ironman, in Orlando. Orlando is a pretty gross place, and Disneyworld is an absurd place to hold a big triathlon. The roads are so confusing I couldn't figure out how to drive the course the night before. This was my first big pro race, and I was nervous. But after a slow swim, I put in an acceptable bike split (2:12 or so) before my legs seized up on the run (1:28). I finished in 4:13:29, good enough for 19th place out of the 31 starters. This sounds better than it actually was, since 6 or 7 other pros dropped out. I left Florida a bit disappointed, wondering if turning pro had been a good idea.

Things turned up a bit in June, after taking 2nd place behind Jarrod Shoemaker at the Mooseman Triathlon. Sure, there were only a few pros there, but I came in ahead of Janda Ricci-Munn, and Ethan Brown, neither slouches. Along the way, I set the fastest bike split by more than two minutes, on my Aegis Trident. Late June brought my first top ten finish at the Philadelphia Insurance Triathlon, out of a field of 21 pros. Seeing that I was the last pro out of the water (male or female), I began to think that I actually belonged at this level. Again, my bike split saved me, as I only got beat by Craig Alexander, David Thompson, and Andrew Yoder.

In July, Dereck Treadwell and I headed to West Virginia for the Medexpress Mountaineer Triathlons. I was doing the half-iron, while Dereck was signed up for the Olympic Distance. My run time came down from the Florida half, but I still only posted a 1:25 on my way to taking 5th, the last money spot. Sadly, I'd gotten stopped while driving the course the night before, and $175 of my $250 prize went to the Morgantown PD. Three weeks later, I posted another 10th at the NYC Triathlon, in a field that included Greg Bennet, Hunter Kemper, Craig Walton, and Peter Robertson. The big surprise at this race was my run split: 34:35 over a pretty hilly 10K. I contend that the run workouts I'd been doing with Tread helped transform me from a mediocre runner to a slightly-better-than-mediocre runner. Here are a few pictures from the race:

That's me, 4th from the right. The first five guys, from the left, are Greg Bennet, Hunter Kemper, Craig Walton, Victor Plata, and Peter Robertson. I think you can see the expression on my face, which looks like "What the hell am I doing here?" No, I didn't beat a lot of guys (10th out of 15 pro starters), but I did crack the top 10 in a pretty serious field. I even ran away from Derek Otsukis, who is lined up right next to me.

Here's a photo of me crossing the finish line.

After NYC, I took about a month off from racing triathlons. My sister got married, and I spent a bunch of time on my road-bike. I really focused on the swim during this period, which ended up not paying off at all, as I turned in my slowest 70.3 swim of the year, at Timberman in late August. Again, just like Philadelphia, I overcame that terrible swim (29:38!) with a passable bike (2:22:20) and a good (for me) run (1:22:59). I came in 10th overall (I started getting sick of this number), and 9th out of the 18 pros. Seems that steady middle of the pack finishes were my thing, this year.

After Timberman, it was back to school and work, and my training time dropped dramatically. I was able to nab a podium finish at the Westchester Triathlon, taking third after being in second throughout almost the entire bike and run (got caught 400 M from the line by Paul Fritzsche, who came in 2nd at Ironman Wisconsin this year). Then it was on to Clearwater 70.3 World Champs, one of the flattest, ugliest courses I've ever raced. After the swim (which was great: I recommend it) we all headed out for a soulless 56 miles on the bike, and an aesthetically bankrupt run (Clearwater gets my vote for the best Stripmallathlon in the country—maybe Ironman Arizona could beat it out). The field was full of ITU guys who could really run and swim, and the flatness took away some of my advantage on the bike. Still, I finished in 3:59:49, breaking 4 hours, which has always been a goal for me. I came in 22nd out of the 48 pro starters, and 24th overall. Janda Ricci-Munn paid me back for beating him, back in June, as he won the 30-34 World Championship and came in 19th overall. Janda will be racing in the pro field next year, and I hope to feed off his steadily positive energy.

So that's it! For the next month I'll be beating myself up on the Cyclocross scene, trying to get ready for racing the A field at Nationals, against guys like Barry Wicks, Ryan Trebon, and Tim Johnson. My goal: don't get lapped.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Be Careful Out There...

Triathlon season, that is. Cyclocross season continues for another month. But I thought I'd take a minute and reflect on 2007, my first year as a professional triathlete.
But before I talk about that, I have to kick things off with a dose of perspective. I'm home for Thanksgiving, kicking it with my parents in Portland, ME. When I got home Sunday, after a few days in New York at a teacher's conference, my folks told me a UPS man had been trying to deliver a package to me for days. That struck me as odd, since I live in Vermont and receive all my mail there. What could it be?
The UPS man showed up again yesterday, around mid-morning. The return address was a guy who sold me a pair of Zipp 404s w/a powertap for a song, this past summer. Inside the package was an apparently brand new Garmin Forerunner 305, a tool I'd always found intriguing but way beyond a schoolteacher's salary. Had I missed something? Bought something while sleepwalking? Raised in New England, when something appears where nothing should have been, you start looking over your shoulder.
Turns out I wasn't the one who paid for this surprise. Inside the box was a note from Brad, who'd sold me the wheels (he's also coached by my CTS coach, Nick White—our original contact). It turns out he'd been hit by a car while training and had sustained some spinal cord damage. He mordantly quipped in the note: "Looks like the wheelchair division for me for at least a year."
Besides the shame of another cyclist seriously injured by a careless driver, I felt a rush of sympathy for Brad and the cold hand of good luck, which is always a capricious touch. Just that morning my back had gone into spasms, my penance for not warming up the day before at a 'cross race in Lowell, MA. It had hurt so much that I had had to lean against the kitchen corner and catch my breath. It passed, and I resolved to do some more core exercises, but compared to what Brad was now going through mine was a tiny affliction. Still, it reminded me of my amazing luck over the past two decades of athletics: no serious injuries aside from a horribly sprained ankle my junior year of college.
I was touched and haunted by Brad's gesture. Caught up as we are, these days, in heart rate and wattage numbers, stroke counts and aero helmets, it's too easy to forget why we bought that bike or those running shoes in the first place: we enjoyed the simple pleasure of a day's ride or run or dip in the local lake. I won't belabor the point, as this observation can easily descend into the trite, but I wanted to thank Brad and to point out how fragile our "Iron" bodies really are.