Head for nature

Head for Nature.jpg

My stepdaughter gave me this Certified Angus Beef hat from Meatheads, a fast-food place in Illinois. In truth, raising beef in America has some devastating effects on western rangelands. But you’d have to have a head for nature to appreciate that.

This morning Sue and I got up to run five miles together. The rains had struck with ferocity the night before. There were worms all over the road. Crawling worms. Crushed worms. Worms so soaked they seemed stuck on the road.

Even the robins ignore such worms. One would think the roads would be rife with robins gleaning such easy prey, this smorgasbord of wormage. After a few hundred yards of regarding the state of the worms, the mind begins to ignore them. There are so many worms the human mind cannot conceive of their multitude. They outnumber us. So do the ants.

Keeping up with birds. And vice versa

And the birds? Well, they’re just trying to keep up in this world. Hold their niche in the north when they breed and hang out where they can in the winter. It isn’t always an easy gig. Fortunately the earth is still a place of such abundance that the human race has not been able to wipe out every corner or put every species under pressure. Yet we certainly seem to be trying.

I recall a morning in the 1970s when my brothers and I were out birding at 7:00 on a May morning. The trees canopy was literally crawling with warblers eating the larvae that emerge in oak buds. There were so many birds we got giddy from trying to identify them all. Our necks were sore and we were basically AFO’d on birds by the time 8:00 a.m. rolled around. In terms of birding, that was a lot like being fucked hard and put away wet.

Many species of birds have declined in total population numbers since then. Having participated in many annual bird counts since the 1970s, I can testify to the fact that some species have actually rebounded in populations while others, especially grassland species that once thrived in farm meadows, have suffered in recent years.

Daily surveys

Anecdotally, I also conduct daily surveys during my runs and rides. While others might be dwelling on their cadence or their heart rate, I’m often surveying bird calls. When I’m alone, I even talk to birds, imitating their calls with a few whistles. And they often talk back. Screw you if you think that’s weird. Until you’ve whistled a call to an oriole and had them return the exact same whistle in reply, you haven’t lived like I have lived.

And why is that? Because some people consider nature a nuisance more than a keen reality. They don’t have a head for nature. Which means they don’t understand some very critical relationships about how the world operates.

I can tell you the relative health of a forest or about any other habitat on the North American continent just by listening to the bird calls that emanate from the bushes, trees or grasses. And I can do that on the fly, as it were, with the merest twit from a yellowthroat lurking in a wetland or the flat chirps of house sparrows clinging to the spidery ridge of an abandoned factory. These are all signals of habitat quality. You can tell a lot about a natural community by the signal species that occupy it.

Confusing signs

There are many confusing signs these days. Thanks to legislation passed thirty years ago to protect species and reduce the amount of certain devastating pesticides in the environment, species such as the bald eagle, osprey, cormorants, egrets, herons and wood ducks have made effective comebacks. Yet here we stand at a juncture in history where the United States government may choose to eliminate such protections, and what will it do to our national symbol when rivers choke up again from pollution and our coastal areas get degraded because there is reduced enforcement of chemical and industrial regulations. We may be facing a regressive period in history. Going backwards does not make America great again.

Everything seems fine 

But what about all these Canada geese? Aren’t they a sign that nature’s doing alright? Well, Canada geese did not used to spend much time in the lower 48 states. Typically they migrated from the southern coasts to their breeding grounds in the pothole country of central Canada. But now they have learned how to exploit the monotony of the human environment down here in Golf Course Land. Canada geese absolutely adore the homogenous areas of turf grass on golf courses, corporate campuses and city parks. The same goes for starlings, grackles, red-winged blackbirds and robins. All are adept at living in the vicinity of human beings. But that does not mean “everything’s fine.”

Human progress

Because species that seem to interfere with human progress are likely to suffer dire consequences, and the human race is better than ever at killing what it does not care about. Such is the case with monarch butterflies, a formerly multitudinous species that stands at risk of eradication due to multiple layers of human impact on their lifecycle. Their host plants include various forms of milkweed, which tend to propagate in rural places. Some types of milkweed invade crop fields. That makes it a target for agriculturalists who don’t want weeds in their fields of beans or corn.

To fight this problem, they’ve contracted over the last 20 years with giant chemical companies to create herbicides and pesticides that are chemically and genetically engineered to knock out milkweeds and all sorts of insect pests. And it works so well that monarch butterfly populations began to fall, precipitously, over the last 10 years.

Add in the fact that their wintering grounds in Mexico have suffered intrusion by loggers and by shifting weather patterns where heavy, wet snows have fallen in mountainous areas where the insects hang in thick bunches taking advantage of a torpid state and the relative warmth of bundled occupation.

Snapping links

These cycles are at once robust and delicate. They have evolved over millions and even billions of years. But when humans barge in and snap one of the links in monarch migration or their safe haven during the winter, the entire species is at risk of toppling.

Perhaps you never think about these things while you’re out running or riding. But as a person attuned to the sight of milkweed plants along the road, I recognize the potential value of those supposed “weeds.” Yet there are threats beyond our scope of understanding as well. As a family we ranch monarchs by collecting milkweed leaves on which eggs are laid. We bring those leaves inside and let the caterpillars hatch and grow. Then they make their chrysalis and hatch in a couple weeks.

Real rewards

The reward of releasing such butterflies is special, because when you see what happens to monarchs that are parasitized by natural enemies such as wasps, it rents the heart in two. That’s nature’s way as well, and normally monarch populations are robust enough to withstand the predation. But when they are additionally whacked by human intrusion, natural predation can be the tipping point.

Like I said, not all of you possesses a head for nature. But I ask you to simply pay attention to what you do see on the Internet about the effects of everything from lawn chemicals on wetlands (too much phosphorous creates oxygen-choking algae) to the crushing effect of habitat destruction in marginal areas such as the suburbs.

And then I invite you to simply get out into nature without your running shoes or your bike. Go for a walk on a local bike path where the woods are thick. Or hike up into the desert mountains, or along an ocean or lake edge. Give yourself a head for nature whether it is five minutes or five days. You may be surprised how much it talks to you. And it’s okay if you talk back. Nature likes that.

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This thing we call drive

 Drive: 1) urge or force (animals or people) to move in a specified direction,  2) of a fact or feeling) compel (someone) to act in a particular way, especially one that is considered undesirable or inappropriate.

yellowthroatIt’s nice to wake up every morning feeling like we have a reason to live. Perhaps you are lucky enough some mornings to roll over, find a partner under the sheets and have at it. There are few things better than seriously good sex. It resolves some of our drives.

The sex drive is one of the clearest yet most confusing drives on earth. There aren’t any real rules about how it manifests in our lives. At our house, we’ve been watching flocks of mallard ducks hanging around our back yard. At least once a day a pair (or more) of male ducks will start chasing a female duck around. This is how it is with mallards. They’ll gang up on a female. It may not be right in the minds of those with monogamy as their moral foundation, but it has worked for that species for millions of years. Nature has its drives.

Cardinal for Paint Nature.jpgIt has also been demonstrated that female cardinals willingly entertain additional male cardinal guests, who copulate with her in secret. This is a level of insurance against infertility in the male she’s chosen as her actual mate. The breeding process is a numbers game, plain and simple.

There is a reason for that. The cardinals that nested in a haggard bush in our side yard produced three eggs. Two of those eggs hatched, but both young were snatched by marauding blue jays who likely staked out the nest because it was so exposed. Evolution is a sorely unforgiving teacher.

Driving right and wrong

So we can sentimentalize anything (or everything) we want, but the drives that make us do things can be right and wrong at the same time. As a result, some people live in a perpetual struggle with the seemingly contradictory nature of their drives. For example, a person with deeply religious feelings can also possess a raging sex drive. They can find themselves in serious conflict between a demand for chastity (or even total abstinence) in their faith and the pure lust for human flesh that rules their biology. Toss in a dose of inherent homosexuality and the conflict between drives and the imposed ideology of a literal faith can become an issue of repression. We all know how that typically turns out.

Constructive and destructive behaviors

Instead, many of us try to channel such drives and internal conflicts into what we consider more constructive behaviors. Sports are a frequent receptacle for physically-driven people. Athletics can be a healthy outlet for the energetic appetites of people not matter what age in life they find themselves.

Yet even some of these pursuits can be vexed by ulterior motives. A friend of mine who coaches a majorly successful high school football program plainly states that the reason most boys play the game of football is to get girls. He’s unapologetic about that fact. Of course, the behavior of some athletes as they gain success crosses the line into a sense of entitlement, privilege, even into abuse. That’s when athletes lose control and engage in rape or abuse or domestic violence. The drives that make them successful as competitive athletes are difficult to separate from the drives that make them objectify all aspects of their lives.

The long run

cardinalGetting laid would not seem to be the reason that drives most endurance athletes. Given the fact that endurance sports have massively diversified the last 10 years, that is less the case than ever. In fact, it is likely that many women athletes engage in sports for the feeling of control that it gives them over their own bodies. While they may appreciate how it makes them look in the long run, the immediate, daily benefits are much more practical. With all the impositions of being a woman in this world from makeup to hair and nails and accessories, engaging in something as simple and direct as endurance sports is a genuine source of freedom. In other words, they don’t go out there to be chased around by a bunch of male ducks.

Ultimately the things that drive us are as diverse as the individual things that make us feel happy or sad, motivated to succeed or afraid to fail. These drives cross plenty of boundaries between work and life and family. There is a plenty of transfer between the lot of them. Which is why the sense of accomplishment we develop in endurance sports is healthy in terms of the confidence it gives us. So let’s go back and consider the hardline definition of the word “drive.”

What “drive” means to us

What gets us out the door to train? What makes us willingly suffer through miles of hardship? What makes us rise early, half asleep, to get on the trainer or lift those weights?

I believe it’s simple. It is our drive to feel fully alive.

Yet we must also reconcile the fact that the definition of the word “drive” includes (and concludes) with a negative connotation. 2) of a fact or feeling) compel (someone) to act in a particular way, especially one that is considered undesirable or inappropriate.

And who is the ultimate judge of what is ‘undesirable or inappropriate?” Again, that is something we often have to judge for ourselves. Sometimes that is only learned in retrospect. The lessons carried forward are what give us insight and knowledge about the nature of our drives.

If you’ve ever done one of those training binges where things just don’t stop, where you push and pile on the miles almost without thinking, then you know how drives can turn life itself inside out. I recall a day while living in Pennsylvania in which I joined a band of runners to do a twenty-miler on a Sunday morning. We ran the first seventeen easy and the last three at 5:00-mile pace. It was an insanely good workout, and I should have been satisfied with that.

 

Chris In White Shorts.jpg

Yes, we did selfies in the late 1970s. 

Yet that afternoon I felt a tingling hum in my legs. It felt like I wanted to run a little more. So I bundled my stuff and drove over to Valley Forge park. When I got there, I met this cute girl with a darling little dog that I stopped to pet.  Then I introduced myself and wound up getting the courage to ask her out. But instead of hanging around getting to know her better,  I took off on that extra run that I felt I had to do. That was the Stupid Drive kicking in.

 

What the hell was up with that? Twenty miles was not enough that day? Well, the drives were in full force in that period of life. I was absolutely driven to improve my 10K times and nothing would stand between the workouts it took to get there. Constructive. Destructive. Yin and Yang.

That’s how it works when you’re in your twenties and prone to excesses of every kind. Plenty of my friends (and I) were driven to distraction by our hormones, for one thing. More than one close buddy admitted to whacking it five or six times a day even while we averaged 80-100 miles a week. So the source of our energies was hard to separate, pun intended. So it is important to consider that our drives can be both constructive and destructive. This confusing dichotomy is fascinatingly captured in the intense lyrics of the Beck song Sex Drive:

Can’t you hear those cavalry drums
Hijacking your equilibrium
Midnight snacks in the mausoleum
Where the pixilated doctors moan

Carnivores in the Kowloon night
Breathing freon by the candlelight
Coquettes bitch slap you so polite
Till you thank them for the tea and sympathy

I want to defy
The logic of all sex laws

Let the handcuffs slip off your wrists
I’ll let you be my chaperone
At the halfway home
I’m a full-grown man
But I’m not afraid to cry

Driving through life

Cleveland.RockHallI’ve experienced more than a few kinds of drive in life. Been conflicted by the demands of caregiving while failing to take care of myself. Been torn by the desire to parent well yet not try to control their lives. Been aching for time out in nature while sitting in the office trying to make a living. And been wondering what my role as an athlete is these days and whether it is a battle with fitness or with age in which I’m engaged.

In other words, the wrestling match with what drives us never ends. These are the driving questions of all our existence. The fact is that we can only answer these questions for ourselves. Surely there are people who can help, give us perspective and help us understand our drives. We’re all in this together. But in the end, everyone has their hands on the steering wheel of their own destiny, of our own drives.

Hold on loosely, but don’t let go.

 

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What to do when you feel discouraged.

SunriseBy their nature, endurance sports are not easy. That’s because the algorithm is limitless. The fitter you get, the harder you go. So it never really feels like any of this gets easier.

But it can look easier for others. And that’s a discouraging thing when you’re struggling to get faster or go longer. How (and why) do other people seem to make it look so easy?

That’s when you can start to feel discouraged.

To feel discouraged is defined as: “having lost confidence or enthusiasm; disheartened.”

Yet it helps to go a bit deeper than that to understand what discouragement is all about. So consider the root word buried in discouragement. That would be “courage,” which is defined as: the ability to do something that frightens one; strength in the face of pain or grief.”

A friend who is a triathlete, a coach, a Liv cycling ambassador and a massage therapist recently wrote about her experience in doing a 120+ mile bike ride in conditions that were downright nasty. She was alone out there on the bike, and wet and cold. The winds were fierce, so she decided to ride straight into the headwind and get the worst part of the ride over.

It was beyond difficult. She may literally have cried at one point. Sometimes it can be hard to separate the sweat from the tears. But Sarah kept telling herself to focus on the near object. That was turning the pedals. Keep the momentum going.

Perhaps you don’t push yourself that hard. Maybe you just wish your six-mile run would not feel like shit. Well, that’s fair. You have a right to want to not feel shit. But there are no guarantees. If run after run feels like shit, that shit can get discouraging.

Hammer that shit

But you know something? the word “shit” has become a positive in this day and age. If something is “the shit” that’s a bit different than when something is just plain shit. And if you give yourself some credit in the moment of your worst discouragement, you can turn plain old “shit” into “isn’t this the shit?”

For example, I rode with two strong triathlete cyclists this weekend. They were on their tri-bikes and I was on a road bike. So everything was fine while we were humping along protected roads. But out in the open wind, my position on the bike was not ideal for efficiency. Even down in the drops, I’m not as aero as a true triathlete on their bike. If you give away even 5% efficiency in a hard wind, it’s easy to pop.

Which is discouraging, because you know deep down inside your head that moment’s going to come. But for fifteen miles I tucked and drafted and rode down in the drops and made it all the way to the turn north into a crosswind. Then I had to admit that it was either back off or pop completely.

So I waved the second rider ahead and said I’d catch up with them at the Casey’s out in Bumblefuck. There’s always a Casey’s out in Bumblefuck. That’s where Casey’s makes its case to the world.

It fades away

We stopped a few minutes and then headed east with a partial tailwind that sometimes turned into a crosswind. I did not let the earlier discouragement ruin this part of the ride. I even pulled for half a mile.

Then we did a couple long climbs and headed south, into the wind. And before long I was lagging and let them go.

Sure, I got mad at not being able to keep up. Mad is different than discouraged. Discouragement is not a healthy state of mind, but mad turns you irrational. It’s easy to start hating the people with whom you’re riding. But let’s get real. It’s not their fucking fault that they’re fitter than you and able to ride faster. It’s your own problem. It simple does not do you any good to project your problems onto other people. They don’t like it, and frankly, it is far more discouraging to think that someone else holds your fate in their hands.

Greater goals

In other words, you’re free to choose how you respond to a discouraging day. Sarah Farsalas did it by thinking of the greater goal that awaited her. She was focused on an upcoming Half Ironman. And she did great in the race, cranking along for more than 50 miles at 20+ mph. She even ran the half-marathon with a hinchy foot.

Discouragement simply means losing the courage to try. Even if you’re having a bad day and feeling discouraged, it is possible to muster courage and do what you can do in that moment. That’s real courage. Sometimes that’s all it takes to get through a particularly discouraging workout.

Incremental courage

So think about courage as being incremental. Summon what you need. Don’t go for the grandiose or expect that you’ll suddenly catch that group of cyclists up the road that just dropped you. Focus in on that pedal stroke. Get back to that cadence. Pay attention to that running or swimming form. Go back to basics. It is the most encouraging thing in the world sometimes to rest on familiarity even when you’re stressing your body and mind beyond what you think they can take.

What to do when you’re feeling discouraged? Take hold of the courage to try. Pretend that running up that long slow incline is actually running downhill. Play tricks with your mind and do not succumb to the bland reality that you want to quit. Sure you do. We all want to quit at times.

But it’s the not quitting that takes a small dose of courage. You have it in you. You really do.

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Second best

PP Clicking InThere are few more pleasurable things than a 5:00 bike ride in mid to late May. Last night the Venge called and I answered. Ten miles into the ride I was warmed up and ready to climb the ‘mountain’ we call Campton. Basically it’s nothing more than a glacial moraine. That’s a fancy way of describing a pile of gravel dumped by the Ice Age 10,000 years ago and since covered over with dirt, trees and houses.

It’s all we’ve got for climbing. Ascending from the south involves a slow gradual hill over half a mile. Then the road turns right up a Strava segment that tops out at 12% grade. But only for about 40 feet. No Alpe du Huez.

And I rode well, but not as fast as last year at this time. On 5/24 I rode that hill a full ten seconds faster than this year.

Then came the descent, and I flew down. Yet I missed the PR on Strava by one second.

So I’m still second best to myself on both the uphill and the downhill. So there’s work to do. It simply isn’t good enough to be second best inside your own head. Can’t have that. I go up an age group this year. There are triathlons to race. Second best won’t do.

Not for a second.

 

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How is your relationship with the wind?

Nest.jpgDuring the Amgen Tour of California the peloton encountered an open plain in the arid land around Sacramento. The race only listed the wind at 6 mph, but any cyclist watching the broadcast could tell that was a lie. Teams at the front formed angled echelons six or seven men deep. This was to protect their GC men or their sprinter of the day.

Behind the lead teams, riders struggled on in a line. There was no time to form an echelon. It was every man for himself.

lance-armstrong-yoshimoto-nara-trek-bike

That’s a cruel situation in any race. Of course, triathletes in no-draft races always have to make it on their own. But tri-bikes attempt to compensate for the wind by putting riders down in an aero position. So to cyclists in time trials. And so it goes. Everyone is trying to keep the wind from being their worst enemy.

The wind is a cruel bastard. It is also an unrelenting bitch. Then there are days when it has no gender or personality but swirls and whirls wherever it wants to go. You just have to deal with it.

A tailwind? Forget about it. You rode thirty miles out against the wind? It will shift and make the ride back feel like hell on wheels. That can put you in a mighty bad mood. Turn running or cycling friends into enemies. Dial up the bitching and dial down the friendly banter. Just get through that shit.

The strongest wind in which I’ve run is 60 mph. There were twenty of us out in the open country above Decorah, Iowa. We lined up and ran in a rotation. It was the only way to get back home.  I’ve also competed in a steeplechase race in which the wind was blowing 50 mph. That was perhaps the most difficult race in which I’ve ever participated.

Cleveland.SkylineBut lately, I’ve taken a more zen approach to living with the wind. We have plenty of it here in Illinois. It fills the spaces where the tall prairie used to be. That’s why the wind feels so lonesome at times. It has its laments. It has seen much in its time. Watched 10,000 years of wonderful grass plowed under in a few years. Now the wind scrapes the soil from the surface of the planet. This is its complaint. In winter the snowbanks turn dark brown. In spring the ripples on fluddles under the gray sky look rough as sandpaper. The wind wants to know where its friends have gone.

Then it finds us hopeful and helpless out in the open. The wind strikes us with the aggressive bump of a tribal member protecting its turf. It sends inquiries at us, and threats. It waits to see our reply. Will we respect it or cast yet another insult its way.

It is well-known that the ultimate show of respect is to give credit where it is due. “I hear you,” is the best response to the aggressive nudge of the wind. “I feel your strength.”

But it takes courage to move past these initial greetings. It takes real trust to offer the wind acknowledgment. “I trust you,” is hard to say to a crosswind that vexes your bike or makes your ears hurt from the vortex rushing air. “I want to be with you,” is even harder to say. The wind will not always answer right away. It has learned to distrust false promises. It has been burned too many times. Filled with smoke and fire. Turned into a choking mass of dust that flies from Oklahoma to New York. It has seen your kind before. The promises and the belief that rains will follow the plow. Instead the wind was left alone on the Great Plains. Lonely and desperate as the people living there.

SunriseWhich is why we have so much to atone for. The wind has a long memory. It sees a long way. It tumbles down mountain passes and rises off the face of cold lakes. It strains through wires and the bladed spokes of a bike. It flips loose shoelaces and takes plastic bags for long romps across the haggard fields behind the Costco. It takes down the poorly constructed robin’s nest.

The wind is pissed and it doesn’t like when people don’t think that it matters, or that it’s real. So to have a good relationship with the wind, one must earn it by spending time where the wind learns to respect you back. Only then can you befriend the invisible substance of its mercy. Its resistance is its soul. Don’t push it around without a bit of humility. But don’t be too soft either. The wind hates a patsy.

Over time you’ll come to terms. The wind is not irrational. It is only persistent in the belief that respect is paramount in all things. Show respect, and you may just run and ride like the wind. It is not an easy thing. It never is.

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Incremental minds

Eye MezzotintIncremental: denoting a small positive or negative change in a variable quantity or function or; increasing or adding on, especially in a regular series. To improve by increments is to get better in small yet sometimes important ways.

The word increment is fascinating in part because it is so old. It dates from 1375-1425, with roots in late Middle English based on incrē (scere) to grow (see increase) + -mentum -ment.

Now that you’re incrementally smarter about the roots of the word, let’s consider what increments actually mean to you as an endurance athlete. Because it’s rare that people in endurance sports achieve improvement by leaps and bounds. More often improvement comes about increments, which are barely detectable changes in your body and mind that lead to better performance.

That’s why the word ‘incremental’ can be so illuminating for endurance athletes. It’s not just a question of running, cycling or swimming faster. Getting better at a sport is about mental planning for improvement as well as physical effort. Then it comes down to embracing those newfound capabilities, however small or large they may be.

A growing belief in yourself generally happens in increments.

Incremental progress

I recall the first time that I broke 32:00 in the 10k. I’d flirted with the barrier several times. But once I’d run 31:58, it seemed far more possible to take more time off the PR. But the ability to run 20 seconds faster than my previous 10K was hard earned. I set up an incremental training system to achieve that goal. For example, I’d been doing 400 repeats at 68-70 (which is 4:40 per mile pace) and half miles at 2:20-2:25 (which is 4:50 per mile pace). To push my steady state to a faster pace, I dropped my 400 repeat pace by two seconds, doing 8 X 400, then 10 X 400, then 12 X 400 with a half lap jog between.

This incremental change involved two standards: a faster per-lap pace and a bi-weekly increase in total intervals. This took about three months.

This produced an equally incremental change in the 800 repeats, which dropped to 2:15, or 4:30 mile pace. And a month out from the target race I was doing mile repeats in 4:45 to 4:50.

So you can see how incremental training works to increase both speed and endurance.

Next level

But my next goal was to run 31:10 for 10K. That was 5:00 flat pace. And that meant plenty of interval training at 4:30 pace and below to build ease of running at a much faster past. I used the same methods that worked to get below 32:00 pace. Within a year, I’d reached that goal.

The same principles hold true with cycling, and now swimming. Breaking your goals down into increments also has a mental effect. You begin to feel and believe in the progress you want to achieve. And to this end there were races along the way in which I shot for 31:40, then 31:30. Finally, in a race where six other running club teammates were helping with the pace, I ran that target 31:10 10K.

These same methods were recently used in an attempt to break the two-hour marathon. Nike athletes were schooled in precise pacing. They also had the benefit of highly controlled conditions on a relatively flat racing surface and a ‘human wedge’ to create a draft space for the lead runners to move with the least wind resistance. As quoted in a Runner’s World article about the effort, the team responsible for the effort decided to “science the shit” out of the marathon. And it worked. They ran 2:00:25, which is essentially a two-hour marathon. It was only a second slower per mile than the pace necessary to claim 1:59:59.

Metrics help

In endurance training, the increments by which we measure ourselves are typically ‘datametrics’ gathered through devices. These devices can range from a simple chronometer to a heart monitor all the way to power meters built into a bicycle crank.

We can thus measure ourselves by increments unimaginable just 20 years ago. But like all endurance athletes, we must be careful not to become too obsessed with such data as indicators of our true fitness. Athletes must also possess the ability to sense the relative merit of their efforts by natural means. Obviously none of these judgements about ourselves, be they supposedly objective datametrics or native sense of pace, are never 100% accurate. A number of factors such as temperature, precipitation, wind and other training conditions can greatly affect perceptions and performance on any given day.

So the true benefit of incremental training is found when the word is broken back down. You do the ‘incre’ part to measure your efforts toward goals, and the ‘mental’ part is found in trusting that you’ve done the work to hold the pace.

Thus it is truly incre-mental work we’re doing.

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Then she said: “Okay, that’s the bad one. Get off now.”

Sue .jpg

Sue and I joined more than 20 triathletes for a half-Ironman prep session before riding. 

We buzzed up to Madison, Wisconsin this weekend for a test ride on the bike course for the Half-Ironman event Sue will be doing this summer. The Half-Ironman course goes south from Madison as compared to the full Ironman course that goes west. But be assured of one thing; there is no shortage of hills to the south.

Which meant the group with which we rode split up within the first ten miles. That was expected. The range of athletes testing the course was quite wide, and it’s generally not the practice of triathletes to draft on long rides anyway.

Sue was feeling good., and we rode together through 25 miles. Then the hills started to take effect on me. Overall, the course offered 2200 feet of climbing. That makes an honest cyclist of you whether you’re male or female, novice or expert. But I know there was trouble in my legs early on. They felt tired the very first climb. Yes, sometimes things improve as you go along and warm up. So I kept up hope. But some days are just not meant to be.

Sunrise.jpg

Sunrise over the woods and lake in Madison, Wisconsin

In my case recent events had cost me some energy. Getting married the previous weekend was a blast, but it legitimately was (in a good way) an emotional and physical drain. At work on Tuesday, I literally closed my eyes while typing and woke up thirty seconds later sitting at my desk in a daze.

But like all dedicated dopes, I had a run scheduled that evening, so I dropped off the car at the train station for Sue and ran home. That run did not go well.

For one thing, I got a little too experimental cutting through a forest preserve on my way back home. Somehow I forgot there was a creek bisecting the preserve, and the recent rains had flooded a field I tried to cross. My shoes got soaked. Then I made the brilliant decision to jump the creek rather than backtrack. So I backed up twenty feet and made a running leap to clear the six foot stream. And wound up on my ass in the water. Even with my beloved Saucony waterproof sweats on, the water came right through.

After that little incident, with heavy shoes and a soggy ass too boot, the run turned into a four mile slog home. Somewhere along the way, it got even worse than that. My legs started to ache and the IT band on both legs tightened. I stopped and walked and stretched. It still meant a long way home.

For three full days after that, my legs ached. Bad. Something more than a tired run took place last week. Perhaps the combination of wedding excitement, alcohol and non-stop dancing at the party conspired to eclipse my energy. Whatever it was, my legs were still quite dead by Saturday. Most likely I’d bonked somehow during that run last week.

So I let Sue buzz on ahead. She had the company of a zippy little rider named Suzy who stood no more than five feet tall and could climb like a fly on a wall. So I kept company with the wind and the birds and followed the signs to keep on the course.

Bar Tape.jpg

Part of the reason I had my head down during the ride was my mesmerizing new bar tape. 

At one point while riding on my own, I put my head down and missed a “straight ahead” sign. That meant I followed the main road on which I was traveling. It got awful quiet about a mile down. I could see no one ahead or behind. So I turned around and found the correct course again. At that moment I was caught by a big group of road cyclists. So I tagged on and kept up in the draft for five miles. Then we hit a big climb and I popped off the back. Even with a full pedaling motion during the climbs it wasn’t there.

Still, I finished all 56 miles about a mile an hour slower on average than Sue. I was pleased with getting in those miles without blowing up along the way. My general fitness is there because we’ve already had a couple good rides already, but the popped run earlier in the week clearly had its cost. Something blew up in my system and there was not enough time to recover.

After the ride we gathered our gear for a trip back to the hotel where the late checkout let us take a shower before heading home. On our way to the hotel, the fuel indicator on Sue’s Outlander began blinking. We’d forgotten to stop for gas even though we’d seen the first indicator light blinking on the way to the ride that morning. But now Sue had a warning:

“Okay,” Sue chimed. “That’s the bad one. Get off the road now.”

So we fumed it into a Mobil station just in time to fill up the tank. And I felt like that was a bit symbolic to my situation on the bike. Riding around on fumes isn’t much fun. It makes you tense and takes your mind off the scenery, for one thing. There were a couple of those hills where my own indicator light was blinking. There wasn’t much fuel in the tank, as it were.

But I made it. There’s something to be said for that every time. Knowing your own indicator light can prevent a total bonk. In fact things got a bit better after 30 miles when we all fueled up at the Sag Wagon. It can sure pay to be patient with yourself on the bike. It’s when you’re driving on fumes in the car that you really have to watch out.

Beware the Bad One. That’s the moral of this story.

 

 

 

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For once a good time in the pool

Fresh out of the pool.jpgFollowing my layoff from the pool due to life changes (all good) it has been interesting to return to swimming. This morning was almost revelatory, defined as… “revealing something hitherto unknown.”

How romantic, you might say!

Well, it’s not too hard to find revelation when you’ve been slacking off for a couple months. But let’s confess: we all know it could go a completely different direction in the swimming pool. After time off it’s easy to feel out of shape, poorly prepared and sunken in the struggle with this damned thing we call water. Who invented that stuff anyway?

In the name of dealing with reality, I decided not to coddle myself this morning. That mean leaving the float behind to warm up in the pool. Instead, I just stuck the ankles in the water a couple minutes to let the body get used to the water temps (a mild 82 degrees) and start swimming.

See, the float is a mental and physical crutch for me. It takes all the pressure (and effort) off my lower body to kick. To put it bluntly, it’s cheating. No one ever improves in a sport (or can deal with reality) by cheating. Plus it only sends the message and builds the perception in your head that the only way you can succeed is by cheating.

That mentality was and is still rife in sports like cycling and running. Pretty much the top ten cyclists in every Tour de France for eight or ten years was tossed from the sport at one point for doping. That’s because cycling is really hard. There is just no way around it. So to gain advantage by even 1% or 2% amounts to a lot over 2,000 miles of riding. Last year Chris Froome won the tour with an overall time of 89h 04′ 48″. That’s 5,344 minutes of riding. He won by four minutes.

But you may recall that Chris Froome had a potentially devastating bike mechanical that could not be repaired in the moment. So he literally ran without his bike until he could get a bike with another team cyclist or get to the team. Technically, that was against the rules. Cyclists in the Tour are required to ride every inch of the competition. No running. But he was forgiven for some reason because he wasn’t really trying to cheat, per se. He was trying to overcome the obstacle created by the fact that the Tour is such a traffic cluster fuck there is no way a team vehicle could get him a new bike.

Small decisions can turn into big results

So the world of cheating is a gray area sometimes. But for those of us who aren’t leading the Tour de France, and are simply trying to train and race the proper way, there are still moral or ethical decisions to make. Some of these might seem small. But it is the small decisions, such as avoiding use of float crutches in the pool, that can turn into big results.

It surprised me (the revelation!) what actually happened when I skipped the whole “use the float during warmup thing.” I felt much better in the pool. More comfortable. Without that initial ‘crutch’ there was no regressive sensation when I started to swim without it. I did a set of five 200s at a consistent pace (that was the goal) with some hard 50s (for me, down around 50 seconds) thrown in between. So I’ll admit I’m not yet fast in the water. What was more important is that I had a good time in the pool.

Big picture

This morning after the swim a clean new thought appeared in my head. It was the thought that I most wanted to appear in my head for over a year. “I could swim a mile. All it takes is eight 200s,” my little brain spoke. “And I can do that even without a wet suit.”

It’s funny what can happen in this world when we’re truly honest with ourselves. Why be anything else? The seeming gains ‘earned’ by cheating never stick anyway.

So take your honesty on the road or int the pool with you this week. Accept that what you’re doing is hard, but not so hard that you can’t do it. The confidence gained by addressing reality on its own terms is worth the challenge.

You now it’s true. The reason that I had a good time for once in the pool is that I was perfectly honest about what needed to be done. It’s the only real way to achieve progress.

 

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An All-Comers meet in May at midnight under a full moon

There is a week or two every year that falls in the gap between when college runners complete their track season and the NCAA national meets. For runners that have not yet reached the qualifying mark for nationals, there are All-Comers meets where can compete to make qualifying.

I made it to college nationals three straight years in the steeplechase by qualifying during the regular track season. But waiting those two weeks to run after conference could drain the competitive desire out of you. The spring weather would warm. Often there was a girlfriend tugging on your sleeve to hit the party scene. Keggers in the woods. Making love on a rock ledge over the river. Just the typical lust for life stuff.

An athlete prepping for high-level competition can indulge such things and still succeed. In fact, there is probably no more relaxed and motivated runner than the one who’s feeling loved and desired.

The Edge of Fast

But there is still that need to stay on the edge of fast. Which is why the All-Comers meets are so critical. For those still seeking to make nationals, there is incredible pressure and often just one or two additional chances to make it. I never had to make that happen in college. But a few years after college I showed up at an All-Comers meet held at North Central College in Naperville. The meet was staged on a Friday night. Hundreds of track athletes in every event showed up.

 

Jim Spivey

Jim Spivey #453 was a world class runner for more than 10 years. 

It also happened to be an Olympic year, so the almost certain lead runner in the 5000 meters that night was a certain top-flight athlete named Jim Spivey, who if I recall correctly was prepping for the 1500 in the Olympic Trials. Of course, another top runner from the Chicago region was one Dan Henderson of Wheaton College. Later that June, Henderson would, in fact, lead the race in the 5000 meter Olympic Trials race.

 

Long night under a full moon

So the stage was set for a fast Friday night All-Comers meet. I arrived at 4:00 in the afternoon and watched heat after heat in every event. The meet dragged on because there were so many athletes in every event. 8:00 pm passed as a big full moon rose into the night sky. Then 10:00 came along, and we were still just 2/3 through the meet schedule. I’d already gone out to get something to eat and returned. I warmed up once at 9:00 thinking things would move along. But no such luck.

A female friend that had come to watch the meet stuck around for hours, but ultimately went back to her apartment for a while. I thought that would be the last I’d see of her. After all, she was technically only a friend from work.

But she showed back up at 11:00 pm and stuck around for the midnight start of the 5000 meters. There were 25 runners on the line. We jostled around and sorted ourselves out into perceived groups. No one was interested in messing up the prospects of anyone else. This wasn’t about competition as much as it was cooperation. The goal would be to find a group racing at your own target pace and get into the flow. So the feel fo the event was different than your typical race, a bit more like the recent 2-hour marathon attempt by Nike athletes.

The pace went out fairly fast. I came through the mile in 4:40 and felt quite good. Then I came through the two-mile in 9:17. I still felt good. But with a half mile to go I started to feel it. Still, the pace held even and I stuck with my fellow competitors and finished in 14:45 or so. Even though the entire purpose in entering the race was to set a new 5K PR, I was so focused on finishing fast that I forgot to hit my watch until 10 yards past the finish line. I’d slowed the last mile but that was the consequence of going out strong.

A personal record

In any case, it would be the fastest 5K I ever ran, or would ever run again. The weather had been perfect, sixty degrees and no wind. The track at North Central was one of those red Chevron surface that felt like a dream with a pair of Nike Air Zoom spikes on my feet. I remember those spikes so well. They were pure white with a single light cobalt blue swoosh. The soles were grippy but light, and the heel counter was barely a half inch thick. Built for speed. They were given to me by the running store whom I competed on contract that summer doing road races.

The strategy was that track racing builds confidence for competing on the road. Setting a PR at 5000 meters on the track expanded the mental limits of what I could do on the roads. Sure enough, that summer turned out a 14:57 road 5K but I still finished second in the race. That’s how it was during the competitive road running heyday of the mid-1980s. There was none of this winning 5Ks with a time above 16:00 or 17:00 minute as it seems to happen these days. That would have been laughed at in those days.

Rewards

First Full Moon 2015 over ManilaIn the afterglow of that midnight 5K at the All-Comers meet, my female friend came down from the stands to give me a hug, and a kiss! “Nice JOB!” she shouted. I’d finished in 14th place behind to top runner. That might have been Spivey, I don’t recall clearly, but someone ran a 14:01 to tow the entire field to faster times.

Granted, the difference between my own career and that of an athlete like Jim Spivey could not have been more profound. Jim would go on compete in the Olympics three times after having won Illinois high school state championships in the 800 (1:50.2) and finishing second in cross-country with a time of 14:00 for three miles. Not too shabby.

I only aspired to be that fast. But it did not take the thrill out of running a PR at midnight on a Friday night in May all those years ago. Nor did it hurt to get that hug and a kiss from a friend that would later turn into a loving relationship of sorts. Like a Bob Seger or Dan Fogelberg songs, it was one of those “she went her way and I went mine” kind of 20-something things. We all have a history. And thank God for that.

The drive home that night was strange. My body and mind were ramped up from the competition. I rolled down my window and shouted out the window: “5K PR!! Whooooo!” The full moon did not seem to mind. It stared down kindly on my car on the dark road. The moon knows that we all rave at it now and then. It is patient with us in all seasons. Of the year. And in our lives.

 

 

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Lifetimes to be experienced

malanaphy-springs-735x491

Malanaphy Springs outside Decorah, Iowa is a near magical place.

This time of year is both immersing and bittersweet. This morning I birded a bike path next to the Fox River south of Batavia. There were hundreds of warblers and songbirds in the trees. I stopped to watch a Wood Thrush perched on an open branch. It’s long pink legs and pale bill were clearly lit by the morning sun. It’s speckled breast and russet head and back were perfectly composed. And it sang so beautifully I was transported…

It’s been this way so many spring mornings. Ever since I was twelve years old carrying around a big old pair of Sears 10 X 50 binoculars. They were heavy by comparison to binoculars today. But we didn’t care. My brothers and I would hand them around as we birded together to find new species and revel in others.

But May tends to be a time of many other obligations. As a runner in high school and college, there were always workouts to schedule and do. Often we trained twice a day. That left little time for birding.

Yet I recall a morning in early May during college when the urge to get out and bird was just too strong to resist. The weather had finally warmed up and there were birds migrating by the thousands through the Oneota Valley where Luther College resides. I borrowed a Schwinn bike from a dorm buddy and rose before dawn to ride out into the hills. The Schwinn was a heavy, slow bike but I didn’t know any different back then. Without a car to drive, the bike was my tool to reach into the wilds.

images.jpgThere were no streetlights beyond the campus. I pedaled out Pole Line Road into relative blackness. It was perhaps inadvisable, and spookily silent except for the whirr of tires and the squeak of the chain. My legs were fit but tired from all the track training. But as the ride got going and the binoculars clunked against my chest with every pedal stroke, I knew somehow the morning would be special.

Three miles out of town the road bends to the north and west. An outcrop of mossy limestone juts out toward the road. As I rode past, still a bit asleep due to the rich darkness, the voice of a whip-poor-will exploded right next to me. I was so startled that I jumped, and the bike wobbled, and I almost fell off.

The wild nature of that call jolted me awake. Not long after that the sky began to brighten. The hills turned violet and the dawn chorus of robins and other songbirds began. I pedaled to a park along the Upper Iowa River with a path that leads to a spot called Malanaphy Springs. Before long the trees exploded with activity from migrating birds. Beautiful Blackburnian warblers with fiery orange breasts. Tree-hugging black and white warblers and their near counterparts, the Blackpoll, were common.

For an hour I birded along the river, making slow progress back toward the springs, which poured clear and wonderful out of the hillside. It felt wonderful to be so far out in the quiet and the wilds. So I stripped down to nothing and stood there in the woods with my feet on the moss. I’m sure I’m not the only wandered that has gotten naked by those springs. The hills of Decorah call to the earthy side of everyone.

The chill in that air that morning was cool, and it was heightened by the rush of the freezing cold water that pours out of the hills. So I got dressed again and sat listening to the water pouring over the rocks. The birds came closer as I sat so still. The sense of being one with the world was overwhelming.

It was still only 7:30 a.m. by the time I pedaled back toward the college. Crossing a bridge over the Upper Iowa, I noticed the flickering white wings of a Forster’s tern as it made its way up the river. There were wild turkeys in an open field, and the call of a pileated woodpecker sounded from a dark woods.

I’d gotten what I wanted that morning in Decorah: a real sense of being someplace, and of being myself. And as I sat in class at 8:30 a.m. it was tempting to stand up and tell everyone what the morning had been like. It seemed so much more important than the subject matter at hand. Who would understand?

images-1.jpgBut then again, how with any accuracy or sense of startled wonder could one describe the sound of a whip-poor-will calling from the black hills before dawn? That was just one moment of many so impossible to describe. So I kept quiet. My trip that morning remained a rich secret, an experience gained against all other realities.

By chance that afternoon the distance guys on the track team ran the loop called Wonder Left that traveled past the very hill where the whip-poor-will had sung that morning. It was less than ten hours earlier, but the jolt of that moment seemed as if it were from another lifetime. Perhaps it was.

Two years ago I returned to Malanaphy with the woman that I married this past weekend. We rode fat tire bikes out the same road and stopped at the springs. Then we rode around the Wonder Left course and back into Decorach. It was a fall day rather than spring, but the point was still well taken. There are lifetimes to be experienced every day. You just need to get out there.

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