What you’re about to read is insulting to many people. But either I’m honest about what I think about life or I should quit writing. And I’d rather cease existing than do that. So here goes.
See those shoes in the photo above? I hope I never wear them. It’s not that I don’t like the brand. I love New Balance shoes. I currently run in New Balance 880s. They are great running shoes. The other New Balance gear that I own is great stuff as well. I own an NB running jacket that is thirty years old and still looks and feels new. I owned a training mock turtle that was also thirty years old and got lost in my move a few years ago. Otherwise I’d still wear it.
But the New Balance shoes above are not designed for anything but doddering through life on a cushiony platform designed never to exceed about two miles per hour.
I see models such as these on the feet of many older men. Now truth be told, some would consider me an older man. I’m sixty-one years old. But I still run and stand up straight. Even my injuries don’t really slow me down.
I know younger men that wear these New Balance shoes that just like them because they’re comfortable. And I get that. There’s just something about the doddering nature of these white NB shoes that makes me queasy. They fall into the category of expandable waistbands and pee diapers.
Yes, that’s mean of me to say. One should not criticize or judge others, lest ye be judged. As for self-criticism, I genuinely deserve to go to hell for a long series of really bad hats that I’ve worn during my lifetime. Looking back at some of those bad hat photos makes me cringe. It’s no wonder that when I was wearing some of those hats the women of this world ran the other way. When I took off the hats, good things happened. We either learn from our mistakes, or we don’t.
We traveled to Madison, Wisconsin this weekend for a training trip, joining the crew from Madison Multisport and its coaches Steve Brandes and Cindy Bannink. The purpose was to ride the Madison Half-Ironman course, which loops south of the city into hilly terrain and back again. And from the get-go, I felt great. And grateful.
So many times I’ve gone into rides like these over the years not feeling confident to cover the course on pace with Sue or the crew. This time that was not that kind of ride. I welcomed every uphill climb because we’ve already done a lot of that this year. Our trip to Tucson was a climbfest in February and our ride in Galena two weeks ago was called Ups and Downs. So my brain was liberated from worries about whether I could pedal proficiently.
So I had to laugh when checking in at the Courtyard by Marriott hotel to find the rooms still equipped with dial-up ports for the Internet. That seemed to symbolize how my brain functions when I lack confidence…a long hairy dial tone followed by weird noise and a slow connection.
The only remaining concern was a continuing injury to the muscles behind my knee. It has been sore to the point of avoiding runs for the most part and being extremely judicious while riding not to stay in high gears (grinding) and cause the leg to flare up all over again.
The hurt began after climbing steep hills in Galena without a light enough gear to spin up them. Sue has a new climbing cassette that was specifically purchased for the purpose of handling the Ironman hills both at the Half this summer and the full this fall. She’s been joyfully spinning up those hills since installation of the new cassette.
But I wasn’t riding my Specialized Venge this trip, because the setup created on my Felt Tri-bike is working out well. That frame is light and smooth and being able to get down in aero is saving me precious energy when riding with other triathletes. No longer am I fighting 20% more wind resistance or trying to suck wheels in order to stay in the draft. Frankly that doesn’t work all that well when the person riding in front of you is in aero.
So I was charmed and excited by the ability to whizz along with the other aero riders out there on the flats. And when it came to climbing, I’ll have to check the gearing on my Felt and see what my gearing actually is. Because it seems much easier to climb on that bike than my Venge. Perhaps a few more teeth on the cassette?
I’m not that sophisticated when it comes to all that. But I do know this: I’m riding faster and more efficiently in aero when in the company of other triathletes. When I ride with my roadie friends, I’ll use the Venge.
Despite the relative joys, the weather did turn wet toward the end of our fifty-six mile, 3:20 ride. We had to ease back on the pace as the roads got slick, especially on downhills coming into traffic lights. By the time we got back to Madison the skies had really opened up and everyone gathered under the MM tent for a mini-feast of munchies. I even allowed myself a few Oreos as a reward for riding well.
Face yourself, pace yourself
Sue was concerned at the beginning of the ride that I’d burn myself out leading the way around the course. After ten miles we synced back up and she advised caution. But I felt fantastic from the start and her goals of riding a pace that would allow her to get off the bike and run thirteen miles meant that we weren’t killing ourselves out there. It was her goal to find out how to ride so that she could apply that experience to her upcoming race. I learned from that too.
So it felt comfortable and fun riding up the hills and coursing down the other side. I did learn that there’s no sense in trying to shift from the drops to aero while going 30+ mph. It’s unstable and not really worth it. Plus deep down the bike wobble experience with that bike more than seven years ago makes me want to be a bit more cautious until I sense how it performs with aero bars on the front.
No rain, no rain…
A massive rain storm was predicted overnight and into the next morning. So we wavered on whether to stay another night and try to run in the morning. To our good fortune, the rain held off until 11:00 a.m. on Sunday (as Sue willed it so) and she got all thirteen miles done in four loops around the Pheasant Branch Conservancy park in Middleton. It was smooth going on the soft surface, and I ran a loop and then parked my butt in the back of the Outlander to write while she did her longer training run.
Sue happened upon a beautiful rooster pheasant striding through the grass. The fields and woods were alive with birdsong. We also spied a massive wild turkey perched in a low shrub along the trail. Middleton does such a nice job of managing that park. And yet a recent hard storm drove the creek to rise and it washed out a fifty yard section of trail while gouging the sides of the sandy creek bed. Nature will not be denied.
On occasion I’d take a break from writing in the back seat of the car to jump out and pet the many doggos being walked in the park. One gentleman led two boxer and a wiemeraner on a walk together. I nuzzled the pops and got some kisses. Gotta love me so dog time.
Every time Sue came by the parking lot she looked smooth and capable. She’s looking so much stronger and lighter on the run these days. Meanwhile my leg is healing up and I’m going to cancel the scheduled appointment with the orthopedist today because the muscles are healing and the tendons are not so tight. It’s all proof that sometimes you just have to wait things out and see what comes next. As in all of life, it’s all uphill and downhill from here.
Way back in 2003, I decided that it might be interesting to try triathlon. But it didn’t start well. I took my first couple swim lessons and lost one of my contact lenses in the pool while taking my goggles off. Rookie mistake.
A week later I actually tore my ACL playing indoor soccer. Thus my triathlon dreams were put on a semi-permanent hold. I waited six months to have surgery and then did a year’s worth of rehab. Something in me wanted to prove that I could return to playing soccer and played for two more years before tearing the ACL again.
That convinced me the days of ballistic sports were through. So I started a bit more serious riding on the Trek 400 road bike that my brother-in-law had given me. It was the same bike he’d used to start his cycling career, so I gave it my best shot tooling around with that open frame and the shifters on the down tube.
A real road bike
But eventually I saw the need for a “real” ride to support my Road Child persona and purchased a Felt 4C Carbon fiber road bike. The transformation from struggling rider to an eager new Road Child was instant. I’d never owned a bike that smooth and fast. So I started racing criterium events and learned through experience the joys, thrills and dangers of riding at top speed in a field of 20-30 riders.
That bike took me through many seasons and plenty of challenges outside the world of riding. That bike was my therapy during years as caregiver to a wife with cancer and a father who was a stroke victim. Being the simultaneous guide to both those loved ones was a test of mental strength, spirit and resolve.
There were days when I barely had the will to ride. My competitive verve was essentially flattened by the combination of work, health-related finances and caregiving. There were more than a few times that I simply gave up and got dropped on the weekend group rides because my determination was wicked away by that roll call of obligations.
This is not to say that I regret any of those circumstances or experiences. But it was rather symbolic that my Felt road bike finally succumbed to an absent-minded moment. I returned from a fall road ride on a cold October day when I wasn’t feeling well and drove my car into the garage with the Felt still on the roof rack. The impact broke the front fork at the top.
It was such a depressing little moment that I hung the disassembled bike up in the garage and didn’t ride at all for two whole months. By then my brother-in-law had willed me another of his bikes, this time a beautiful blue classic Waterford, but the frame was slightly small for my long torso and try as I might, that bike was not destined to be my main ride.
My relationship and resulting marriage to a triathlete drew me into the worlds of duathlon and then triathlon. Thus after the Felt got crunched I went searching for a new bike and found a Specialized Venge. I thought I’d struck on the perfect combination of an aero bike for road and triathlon racing.
Ooops on the aero
There was just one problem. Specialized at that time did not make acceptable aero bars for use on the Venge. So I raced the best I could on that road bike and was able to compete at just over 20 mph in Sprint and duathlon races. But I sensed there was a missing component in my racing as people on aero bikes flew by. So I tried attaching aero bars to the Waterford, but that did not work.
So this past winter I pulled the Felt frame back down from the wall and took it to the bike shop for a thorough inspection of the frame. A close friend and bike mechanic insists that I should never ride the Felt again on grounds that the frame could be cracked and possibly dissipate under my weight.
But I was no so sure about that. So several people at Prairie Path Cycles looked at the Felt and determined that the only real damage done to the bike was the front fork. So we bought a new fork and installed it along with aero bars. Now I’m not only a Road Child, I have an alternate identity as Aero Boy.
Aero Boy can really fly
And that bike can fly. It was always a smooth ride. The Felt 4C was originally named Bike of the Year and called the Red Rocket by Bicycling Magazine in 2006. So it’s nice to have that sweet ride underneath me again. In aero position, I’ve been able to ride more capably with Sue on days when we both ride the aero bikes. It was always difficult to draft behind her on my road bike, especially on longer rides when the 20% factor of greater wind resistance sooner or later wore me down.
Yesterday we finished together after 35 miles of riding during a windy day. That would not have happened on the Specialized road bike as Road Child.
Just last week I was mentioning this history during a visit to Mill Race Cyclery (I like to resource with several local bike shops) That’s where I met the Specialized rep. He looked at me funny as I told him about rigging the Felt for aero riding and he pulled out his iPad and called up several options for aero bars on the Specialized Venge.
I’d called Specialized a few years back when I bought the bike and they told me not to put aero bars on the flat handlebars provided with the bike. But now they’ve overcome that issue with new designs and I’m curious how that bike would feel in aero position as well.
So-called purists can stuff it
Sure, there are people who would scoff and say, “Just buy a goddamned tri-bike and be done with it.” But I know plenty of folks who race quite well with the road-aero configuration. So this is my path for now.
Ironically, as Sue and I were riding south on Deerpath road to start our ride, a group of ten roadie cyclists caught and passed us. Sue was riding in zone 2-3 so we didn’t attempt to trail those boys. Yet a part of me wanted to yell out, “Hey, I’m not just a tri-guy!” See, there’s a bit of prejudice among real roadies toward tri-bikes and that whole hunched over posture common to aero riders.
But I’m happy with my dual personality. Some days I’ll go out as Road Child and other days be happy riding like a bullet as Aero Boy. Every superhero needs a couple personalities, do they not?
This past week the neighbor kids up the block were dribbling and shooting a basketball in their driveway. I was headed out for a run when the ball escaped them and rolled to my feet. I scooped it up and started spinning on my finger.
That stunt always gets attention from kids and adults alike. Spinning a ball on the fingers isn’t all that uncommon among people that have played the game. But among those that have not played the sport, it seems like magic.
Spinning a basketball is a pretty useless skill except for brief moments of entertainment. I can also spin the ball around my cupped arms again and again. But that’s…another pretty useless skill.
Such are the vagaries of youthful obsessions. It took quite a bit of time to develop the ability to spin a basketball. As a ten-year-old kid who admired the style of the late Pete Maravich, I wanted to do everything just like him. I learned to dribble between my legs and behind my back and taught myself other moves made famous by Pistol Pete. All told, I became a flashy player to the consternation of several coaches along the way.
Those coaches considered the flashy elements of my game to be fairly useless skills. To some degree, they were right. It is true that playing basketball involves plenty of individual skills, if you want to win it remains a team game. Fundamentals help you do that. Flashiness can just get in the way and interrupt the flow.
Unless you use it right. Which was always my goal. To make the flashy look easy and make it fit into the flow of the game, or improve it when possible. And to my own credit on many occasions, that’s how it turned out.
Because by the time I hit my 20s I spent plenty of time on basketball courts playing at open gyms and in leagues. My game actually improved as a result, and the truly useless parts were eventually weaned away. But I did not abandon the flashy elements completely. It was too fun and often practical to put those useless skills to work in a world where they were also often appreciated. Then players such as Steve Nash and Jason Kidd were lighting up the NBA. It felt like life had come full circle. Perhaps I was just ahead of my time?
Those flashy skills such as spinning a basketball on your finger actually do reflect the fundamentals. It shows that you’ve spent considerable time getting to know the central tool of that sport. Doing flashy things with a basketball or a soccer ball demonstrates confidence and control.
Control and confidence
Interestingly, there is no real parallel to spinning a basketball in endurance sports. The visual that supplants useless skills in triathlon is equipment and gear.
When someone wheels a glimmering $8,000 bike through transition, that’s the equivalent of saying “I’m invested in this sport and I’m going to kick your ass on the course.”
One still has to back that flashiness up, of course. Otherwise it’s the equivalent of spinning a basketball on your finger in the pre-game and not scoring a point the entire contest.
Getting a leg up
The same goes for cycling roadies, but it kind of works in reverse. The tradition of shaving one’s legs is so strong in the road cycling world that showing up with hairy legs means one of two things. You either don’t know the tradition or else you better be so good that you can ride the legs off anyone, hairy legs or not.
I’ve never been so good at cycling that I can flaunt tradition or expect to ride the legs off anyone else. But once in a while, when I’m feeling really good and the legs are good, I’ll sit up front and spin the cranks because I can. It’s a mostly useless skill, but damn it feels good to use it.
Years ago during a training trip out west in the Grand Tetons, our cross country team ran from Jenny Lake at 6000 feet up to Lake Solitude at 9000 feet and back down again. We did that run without water, and it was strongly advised not to bend down and drink from a stream or lake due to the presence of giardia, the microorganism that infects waterways throughout the West.
So the first nine miles were not so bad. But coming down another nine miles without a drop to drink turned into a cringefest. I was getting dehydrated in the dry mountain air. Plus the angle of the trail was steep in many places. My thighs began to ache and it was hard to put on the brakes with every step. In youthful courage I let the feet fly at some points. Finally after a solid hour of downhill running I arrived back at camp sore and thirsty.
You’d never think running downhill could hurt worst than running uphill, but it did that day.
Recently on our anniversary weekend out in Galena, Illinois, I had another downhill running experience that added up to pain. We’d cycled 50+ miles in the Ups and Downs Ride sponsored by the G.O.A.T.S club in Jo Daviess County, and it was fun.
But I was a little stiff the next morning after all that climbing in relatively cool weather. We got up to run on Sunday morning in more cool weather and started east from our hotel toward the riding stables at the bottom of a valley in the Eagle Ridge Resort complex.
We went down and down and down. At one point the degree of incline reached probably 12% for a short stretch. That’s when I felt a sharp twinge at the back of my left knee. It kept up the rest of the run. That’s never good. For days now after the trip the back of my knee has been sore enough that I have not chosen to run at all.
There’s a good reason why it might be hurting. There’s no ACL in that knee, and last year I had meniscus surgery to remove a bit of torn material on the inside front of the kneecap. But this was a new type of injury than I’d previously experienced.
I’m supposing the reason for what happened is simple: Without the forward/backward support of an ACL to stablize my knee, the back of my leg experienced a hyperextension due to the extra motion created by downhill running.
The fact that it still hurts is a bit worrying. It feels most like muscle soreness with some compensatory ligament strain. So it may take time to heal.
I’ve also biked twice with the knee since last weekend and am not certain whether that is a contributing factor to the soreness or not. Doing all that pulling with the hamstring during some long and steep climbs last weekend may well have caused a strain of the muscle at the back of the knee. Many cyclists do get knee injuries from overuse.
So I’ll have to wait and see a few more days how this scenario plays out. The ironic aspect of this injury is that we were running quite slow going downhill that morning. Yet that may be the actual cause of the injury. Rather than floating down the hill as I once might have done, every step was a brake action of sorts. Getting older is a tautology of sorts when it comes to pace. If you go fast it hurts, but if you go slow it can hurt even more.
Yesterday afternoon while cleaning out the bird feed bins I looked around for the container of black oil sunflower seed that has supplied the cardinals and other birds with food all winter. It started with a 60 lb. bag from which I’d shovel a big servings every day for distribution at the foot of the feeding station.
Now the seed stock is down to a few pounds so I poured it all into a plastic bin and stored it at the back of the house. The squirrels found their way into the bin and so did an opossum.
Two nights ago the opossum apparently climbed into the bin to gorge itself on the sweet smorgasbord of plant protein. Unfortunately the bin must have tipped and dumped the opossum into our five-foot-deep window well. There is slept the day away despite its circumstance. The lifespan of most opossums is not much longer than four years, if they’re lucky. Many die as road kill or are attacked by owls or other predators. Some just starve or freeze to death.
I find wildlife encounters fascinating. So last night I brought everyone out to see the opossum. The fur is beautiful, and yet one of our children remarked, “It looks like old man hair.” It certainly did. All silver at the base with untamed strands poking up like the head of Bernie Sanders.
I thought about the origins of that opossum. Here’s a description of their lifestyle and biology:
Opossums are cat-sized mammals with a pointed snout, grayish fur, small ears, and a long, scaly tail. It can use its tail to hang from tree branches, and it has paws with opposable “thumbs.” Males are usually larger and heavier than females. The opossum is active only at night, and is a solitary animal. They have an eclectic diet and will eat both plants and animals, including rodents, young rabbits, birds, insects, crustaceans, frogs, fruits and berries, and vegetables.
I find facts like these fascinating. Opossums are also appreciated for their habit of gobbling up ticks, the most horrid creature on the face of this earth as far as I’m concerned. What is there to love about a blood-sucking critter that in some species can transmit Lyme disease to humans?
I was bitten by a tiny deer tick fifteen years ago and got the radar rash. That sent me straight to the doctor for medication. Thankfully I did not contract Lyme.
Regular old ticks are just as unnerving as those that spread Lyme and finding a tick on your body is always a disturbing moment. I’ve been running in our local grassland forest preserve and come home with four or five ticks in my socks. But far worse than that, I’ve found them crawling up my neck a half day later. Ticks are sneaky bastards, so I’m glad that opossums eat them. I hope they spit out their little tick souls in the process.
So I say “Welcome to my house, opossum.” There is a faint trail across my side yard where the critter traipses to our home during his nightly visits to our bird feeder. But the true trail of that opossum to our home goes back much farther than that. Opossums have come a long way through history to haunt our yards.
The website Sciencedaily.com offers fascinating information on the life history and evolution of marsupials such as opossums: “Marsupials migrated between North and South America until the two continents separated after the end of the Cretaceous period. Marsupials in South America diversified and also migrated into Antarctica and Australia, which were still connected at that time, Bloch said.”
“North American marsupials went extinct during the early Miocene, about 20 million years ago. But after the Isthmus of Panama emerged to reconnect North and South America 3 million years ago, two marsupials made it back to North America: the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), a common resident in the Southeast today, and the southern opossum (Didelphis marsupialis), which lives as far north as Mexico.”
The reason this information is so important to our existence as human beings is that it reveals the miracle of nature on its own terms. The long history of the planet earth and its paths of evolution are evidence of cause and effect. These dynamics undergird the rational foundations of all reality.
As human beings, we rely on cause and effect in our everyday lives. One common example is that cause and effect drives the training of athletes. It provides a foundation for the prediction of performance. When we say we’re “in shape” it means we have used the cause (training) to achieve the desired effect (racing and performance) around which achievements are based. We don’t just wish our way to success in any endeavor. Cause and effect gets us there.
Survival of the fittest
The colloquial term “survival of the fittest” that is traditionally associated with the theory of evolution is essentially a broad-based description of cause and effect. The opossum in my window well is the product of millions of years of cause and effect at a local, regional and global scale. From the continents shifting across the face of the planet to seas rising and falling as a result of those movements, creatures such as the opossum have been crawling through time to arrive at our doorsteps.
Human beings are not immune from the forces that shape and change our planet. Yet some people try to deny that fact on basis that we’re “specially created.” This claim rises from a literal interpretation of scripture found in the Book of Genesis, a document originally based on oral tradition that was written down more than three thousand years ago.
Noah and the Flood
That worldview includes the clearly mythical tale of Noah’s Ark, in which all the living things on earth save a few specimens are wiped out during a great flood.
The story of Noah and the ark is clearly is not literal in nature. There are far too many missing facts and enormous improbabilities for the myth to hold up as a scientific theory. Consider the opossum in our window well. Did the ancestors of that creature (was it a pair, or seven?) somehow swim across the salty stretches of Atlantic Ocean, cross deserts and mountains to board the ark and then swim back over the ocean again to settle in North America? No, they did not.
The flood narrative does serve as a paralyzingly cataclysmic morality tale. In its brutal finality, it demonstrates the inescapable truth of cause and effect. It warns the human race that arrogance and selfishness can lead to destruction at the hands of nature.
Despite the obviously allegorical purpose the flood narrative, biblical creationists are eager to defend a literal interpretation because it feeds into the notion that human beings are the saviors of the world, with Jesus at the top. This is cause and effect as described by religion. It likely has roots in a flood of immense proportions but the inherently limited knowledge of the world at the time of its recording precludes any claims that the flood was indeed a worldwide event. So the literal interpretation of that narrative is literally stupid. The choice to embrace a brand stubborn literalism is evidence of willing ignorance.
Instead we need to recognize that human beings are lucky to have evolved in the form they did. We have enough intelligence to calculate our own survival prospects, but not if we deny the material evidence that undergirds that existence. Depending on anachronism to describe the origins of the universe is not intelligent. It is selfish and dangerous.
Setting nature free
The wisdom of setting nature free is why we stuck a ladder down the window well to let the opossum creep out on its own. No need to call Animal Control or trap the animal and send it off to isolation or likely death in unfamiliar habitat. For the most part, the opossum has minded its own business along with the many creatures we watch our the windows of our house. Wood ducks. Canada geese. Numerous songbirds. And come spring, eruptions of migrating frogs. All have their rhythms. All living within the boundaries of cause and effect.
Nature knows what it’s doing far better than the impositions of human judgment and arrogance. Unfortunately, millions of species of animals are at risk of extinction due to human interference with the environment. That’s a cause and effect that should be unsettling to us all. Yet some people are too arrogant or religiously stubborn to comprehend the cause and effect of our own impact on this world. Perhaps those folks need to spend a night in a window well to help them realize life really is a product of cause and effect.
I hopped onto the website for The Rules of cycling as described by a less-than-merry bunch of riders who go by the scribe Velominati. There is plenty of good and wise advice on the site for anyone seeking to slot into the world of cycling without being considered a douche, a Fred or a hopeless hipster.
Yet there’s always room for breaking The Rules as mapped out by any sort of religious authority. And if you don’t think cycling is a religion, then you don’t know any real cyclists.
I know quite a few, and the best riders I know do indeed adhere to some version of The Rules because they’ve been 1) cycling a long time and 2) simply know better than to wear a road riding bike helmet with the visor still installed.
I made that mistake the first time I showed up for a ride with real cyclists. I also still had the reflectors on my wheels. But I’d just purchased the Felt 4C road bike and new helmet and Specialized cycling shoes, so I was an admitted rookie.
That day I hung on for dear life and came home tired and gratified to be initiated. Then I removed the reflectors from my wheels and took the visor off my helmet and the rest has been a matter of close observation and learning to shave my legs without any risk of razor burn.
But I’ve been a rule-breaker in so many other ways in life that my adherence to the canon of cycling has in fact encouraged me to reach outside The Rules and invent my own set of standards. This has included involvement in the sport of triathlon, which is described in unforgiving terms by the Velominati:
Rule #42: If it’s preceded with a swim and/or followed by a run, it is not called a bike race, it is called duathlon or a triathlon. Neither of which is a bike race. Also keep in mind that one should only swim in order to prevent drowning, and should only run if being chased. And even then, one should only run fast enough to prevent capture.
Well, I was frankly screwed in this category from the get-go. After all, I came to the sport of cycling from a long career as a runner. I was a good runner. I freaking won races. Lots of them. So I’ll not apologize for that history under any circumstances.
I also learned to race bikes… once I got a decent one. Lots of criterium races. Hard riding at top end while learning to draft and figuring out how to catch back on if you get dropped. You ride like an SOB and hope you can catch a wheel.
The more I rode, the harder I trained. That’s one of the tarsnakes of cycling, it never gets easier. I was a man who loved his work. That included a day going out into the rain on the bike. That’s not an easy thing to do, to walk from your warm house and pedal into driving rain is at first shocking. Then you realize it’s so fun you keep going.
That’s the same attitude I bring to triathlon and duathlon. I do it because it’s hard. Swimming has been one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn in life. And I don’t pussy-foot on the bike or the run either.
I do know enough not to bring a triathlon bike to a road group ride. That would be dumb. But I’ve also watched pro cyclists race their time trial bikes and there is no difference between the bike I’ve set up for tris and the bikes raced in the Tour or other time trials.
So sure, I’m breaking The Rules in some respects. But I’ll break them as hard as I can, and Harden the Fuck Up along the way.
Fear is a real killer. It is a killer of confidence. A killer of trust. A killer of motivation. A killer of good judgment and a killer of performance.
Yet fear is not the real enemy. It is only the product of the things that make you afraid.
For example, many of us have a deep fear of ever running out of money or other resources. I once knew a woman that kept a closet full of brand new clothes because she told me that she’d grown up poor and never had any nice things.
Later, after she divorced a man who wanted to spend her hard-earned money on a risky venture, she worked through a series of younger men that she effectively trained to be her sexual partners, but nothing more.
Her fears over ever being poor again essentially drove both behaviors. This is not to criticize her. Just about everyone is driven by some sort of fear. Secret or not, these fears compel them to defend against the situations that relate to the reasons why they are afraid.
Those of us that have worked for bosses driven by their fears know that the outcomes of their management style are often unpredictable or inconsistent. They may instruct us to do one thing and then turn around and contradict themselves. It’s all dependent on how the current progress or lack of it makes them feel.
By contrast a boss or coach that has built genuine self confidence and is not so subject to fear will, if faced with challenges, likely also want to know the reasons behind those problems and help you find ways to overcome then.
But the fearful boss just wants you to make them go away. And if that doesn’t happen, sooner or later they’ll make you go away.
These same principles of managing fear through reason and knowledge apply to athletes. The dangers of fears operating among coaches in sports such as swimming, running, cycling or triathlon center around compensatory fears. It takes a lot of insight for coaches to counsel athletes and not project their own fears or shortcomings on the athletes they coach.
The job of a coach is to help the athlete achieve a state of informed objectivity and provide both direction and perspective. Typically that means building up the confidence of an athlete through training, then teaching them to apply that training in a race scenario. But along the way, coaching can also mean identifying and overcoming the problems or fears an athlete brings to the table.
In fact that might just be 90% of the job. As my wife likes to say, “Everyone has their baggage.” This is true in the world of work and relationships. It is also true for people who swim, run and ride. Every past performance fuels our present state of mind. But it’s the future that always matters most. The next chance to try again.
Getting to that point of relaxed anticipation about the next performance is the goal. That’s why releasing our fears or setting them aside is so important.
Along with the tools of associative or dissociative psychology, which determine whether you focus on your body’s signs or try to ignore them by listening to music or other distraction, there is the reasoning that goes into why you’re out there trying to perform in the first place.
That’s the missing element in the psychology of so many athletes. Knowing the “why” of what you’re doing is a powerful way to take hold of the moment and set aside your fears. Because when you’re sure about the “why,” and that can mean any number of things, the power of fear to hold you back is greatly diminished. In fact, it can entirely disappear.
So I encourage you and perhaps your coach to consider an internal discussion about the “why” of what you do. It may be something quite simple… as it was when I trained and raced in my 20s and just wanted to find out how good I could be.
There was another “why” involved as well. I also had some things to prove to myself, unsolved elements of youth that led to anger. And I wanted to prove my ability to cancel my doubters while I was at the peak of my physical years so that I would not have to spend my whole life wondering or speculating how good I truly was. Or was not. And I do know that.
Which makes it a little easier to deal with the natural fears associated with aging. I don’t like getting slower as a result of adding years, yet I continue to train and race because I largely enjoy the sensations and excitement that come with those endeavors.
Which means that when I stand on the starting line the only fears I typically have are practical ones. How can I swim better in open water? What do I need to do to ride faster today? What pace do I need to hit after the first mile out of transition?
These are the kinds of fears that make us a little nervous and excited, but they typically don’t stop us from trying our hardest. So use the “why” to get past the fears based on personal doubts or inner conflicts that make you doubt yourself. And learn to trust when someone tells you that you can do it. Because you can.
I suppose it would be possible to go back and count all the races. All those times toeing the starting line. Looking around at your competitors. Wondering how the body and mind will respond on that day. In that moment. And for how long?
But some would no doubt be forgotten. Too many to count.
Yet there are always some races that stand out in your mind. It may be the quality of your performance, or some quirk in the weather. I recall winning a 10K race with an earwom of the Amstel Light Beer commercial playing through. “25 calories…never tasted so imported…till you…blah blah blah Amstel Liiiiighhht” over and over and over again. I couldn’t shake it.
Gratefully for me, there are more than a few races that stand out over the years. This past two weeks the dank late April and early May weather makes think about a point-to-point half marathon I ran in the early 80s.
The reason that race stands out is that I’d been fighting a cold for two weeks before the late-April start. That cold involved all the classic symptoms of sore throat, snotty nose, coughing and then the clearing out of phlegm. Nasty stuff.
So my nose was sore and raw from blowing it. But mercifully the worst had abated by the time I’d stepped to the starting line. Still, I felt a bit achy and tired. Not race fit necessarily. But I was determined to give it a go.
Part of that determination came from obligation. As a sponsored athlete for the Running Unlimited store that provided my shoes and racing kit along with paying race fees, I’d signed up weeks before and the expectation was that I’d be at that line. It was a major local race, you see. Right on the fringe of that store’s market area. So I sucked it up and got my ass to the race.
Early on, it was tough to establish a rhythm. When the body is racked by a cold, it feels like the pistons aren’t firing together. But my training had been going well, so it was a question of being patient enough to let things warm up and fall into place.
Leaders in sight
Through 10K I stuck where I wanted to be. The leaders were still visible a ways up the road. I knew that I would not win the overall as there were some notably better runners entered. But my goal was top 10, cold or not.
There was a slight wind in our faces as we headed south. The course followed roads through posh suburbs and hard industrial towns along Lake Michigan. A spit of rain might have fallen at one point, and the scent of flowering bushes still penetrated my half-clogged sinuses.
At ten miles I caught a longtime competitor. We typically traded wins against each other every other race. I knew his stride instantly. He was short and solid, my polar opposite. He always wore a hat backwards before running caps were even invented. I gave him a quick hand signal to say “Let’s go” but it was not his sharpest day either.
That’s how it is, or should be, with our keenest competitors. We get better by trying to best them. On the days we do, there’s a little satisfaction. But it’s always best to win if you’re feeling good and so is your rival.
Perhaps he’d been fighting a cold just like me. In any case, I still smiled to myself as I pulled away. My body had turned into something other than a cold-wracked portal. I was running well. The training had kicked in. I’d been running sub 5:30s and passed ten miles in under 55:00. Not bad for a skinny guy with a head full of snot.
The finish line loomed and I tried to lift into a sprint, but that call to arms was not going to happen. My time just under 1:11 for the half-marathon earned a spot in the top ten as I’d hoped. My sponsors were happy. I was happy to have survived the day and be done.
Two days later the cold was almost magically gone. Perhaps that hard effort in the half marathon had actually blown out the carbon, as they say. But more likely the cold had just run its course. I was back to healthy again.
Two weeks later I’d race a 5K on the track at an All-Comers meet. There were so many runners the race did not start until midnight. I lined up with perhaps 25 guys and we took off under the lights. I came home in 14:45 but stopped my watch a bit late and it read 14:47. Such are the challenges of the self-coached athlete.
But those were two races that have forever stood out in my mind.
We’ve had some wicked rains the last few days here in Illinois. The Geneva Middle School track where I do speed workouts was covered with dead or dying worms. There were robins so stuffed with the free food they barely wanted to fly as I jogged by during warmup laps. I confess that I felt a little more like them that I cared to admit.
I’m down to 180 pounds after a winter weight high of 189. Ugh that was an awful feeling. My goal is 175 and maybe 173 if the training goes well.
I figure running will be that much easier with 6-7 lbs. less weight to carry around. But the only way to get there is to do the work.
After warmups I set up my Smove camera to look at my stride. I have to laugh because my right arm has always swung because one leg is shorter than the other and it’s now such a part of my running form I have to consciously change it to avoid looking like I’m casting a fly rod from the hip with every stride. It really helps to watch yourself running on video.
Because once you’re out there running it also helps to concentrate on achieving efficiency in order to run relaxed. Having a mental picture of your optimal form can be helpful in that.
I ran 8 X 400 meters and again had to laugh because my times were precisely, exactly the same pace that I’ve been running on the indoor track. I turned myself inside out trying to gain a few strides on each of those intervals but kept hitting 48 for the 200 and 1:38-1:40 on the 400. What that proves is where my current baseline resides.
The goal is to drop my baseline mile pace to 6:20 per mile. Then my target pace of 7:00-7:20 per mile for 5K Sprint Triathlon races and 7:40-8:20 for 10K Olympic events will feel sustainable. Conditions permitting, of course. Heat and wind and weather always determine what you can ultimately pull together in any summer race.
The challenge is in improving that baseline over the next 4-6 weeks of May and into the June-July racing season. It’s an age-old rhythm with me. A small voice in my head chuckles at how long I’ve been doing this. And why? It is apparently who I am and will always be until it is no longer possible to run. Who knows when that will be? So many aspects of life are like that.
The question that senior athletes such as me must answer each spring is whether the season’s baseline is a product of fitness or age? Which is the factor holding us back and what is the best way to defy that tarsnake against all odds?
The only way to answer that question is one step at a time and by engaging in laps of the mind. Turning oneself inside out on the track is a lifelong process. I’m not going to let a few worms (or tarsnakes) on the track keep me from giving it my all.