There’s a right way to go bananas in endurance sports

Given the fact that the “fruit” we call bananas is so common and inexpensive to buy, it is easy to take for granted that the Cavendish bananas commercially available in stores are a production miracle brought to the United States from literal “banana republics” in Central and South America. You can read more about that process here.

For our purposes, it is enough to consider the fact that bananas often arrive in stores well before they turn yellow. At that stage, they are green and not really edible yet. The peels don’t cooperate and the fruit is tough and unripe. It usually takes a day or so for bananas to turn yellow once we bring them home from the store.

Banana farmer

That means bringing bananas to market is all about timing. That means have a plan in place for planting, tending, ripening, harvesting and logistics. Perhaps you can see where this is going. It doesn’t pay to pick bananas too soon or too late, or they’ll spoil before reaching their market destination.

Every training plan for endurance athletes equates to a bunch of bananas. The work of doing the training is the planting phase of the operation. That’s the base endurance work of building heart and cardiovascular fitness. It can’t be rushed or the bananas will not come to fruition.

The next phase is the tending phase. In endurance sports, that’s a question of protecting one’s health as training loads increase. This is where the banana grows the most.

The third phase is the ripening phase. That’s the period in which quality training work enters the picture.

A bunch of bananas

Each banana in the bunch represents a future race. They may differ in nature, but they are genetically similar because each draws upon your base abilities to swim, run and ride.

The ripening phase is when athletes and coaches need to fine tune their approach to meet the timing of races on the schedule. This takes place when bananas are still in the green phase. That “greening” of the bananas in question will involve time trials and other methods to test fitness and adapt where necessary to bring each “banana” in the bunch to market.

For a triathlete, that could mean a series of races increasing in length; sprint, Olympic, Half or Full Ironman distance triathlons. Or it could be a 5K, 10K or other races in prep for a full marathon. There could be an open swim competition to prep for open water racing. Each race is part of the ripening phase.

The harvesting phase begins as the peak racing season truly dawns. That’s when your training and racing bananas are at their fullest, brightest yellow. And remember, you’ll be out there with people just as bananas as you are. That’s part of the fun and joy of competition.

The first couple races you may still feel a little “green” as your body adapts to the pressures of hard effort. But as the racing season progresses, the bunch of bananas you’ve stored up in your system gets brighter and lasts as long as you can sustain conditions ripe for the plucking. It’s not a perfect metaphor, as real bananas generally last only a week or so. But if you imagine that each race is a banana to pluck and peel, you get the picture.

Cashing in your bananas

There’s also a risk during all these training phases to go a “little too bananas” and overtrain during the tending and ripening phases. That results are then disease or fatigue-driven illnesses such as a sore throat, the common cold, or worse. You can recover from these situations, but typically that means you’ve sacrificed one or more of your carefully tended bananas. You’ll have to move on to others in the bunch.

Then there’s the “banana peel” of injury as well. That comes from trying to go “too fast, too soon” or doing too much volume. It’s obviously easy to peel a banana apart during periods of great excitement. That’s known in running parlance as “leaving your race on the track.” If hard intervals or speed work are done too hard or in too much quantity, the body flares into peak condition, then goes stale.

All that gets you is bragging rights about being the Big Banana in training. We all know someone like that. Remember, it’s not all about the size of the banana in this world. It’s what you do with your bananas, and how to use them. Don’t slip up in this category because an injury can turn all the bananas in your bunch rotten in a hurry.

Anyone that has trained a long time also knows that after the harvest and logistics phase in any bunch of bananas, there comes a point when the bananas start to develop spots no matter what you do. At that point, the insides of the fruit go soft and brown. The appetite for racing and competition wanes. It’s time to cash in the bananas at that point and make banana bread or a smoothie. Let the body rest.

There you have it. A model for understanding the the “appeal” of a training plan built in phases.

Posted in 400 meter intervals, 400 workouts, competition, injury, marathon, marathon training, mental health, PEAK EXPERIENCES, race pace, racing peak, running, swimming, track and field, tri-bikes, triathlete, triathlon, triathlons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Confidence built through trial, error and success

These days, with Strava and Garmin and MapMyWhatever to track our every movement by satellite, it seems quaint to think back to a time when all we had to document our efforts was a stopwatch and personal perceptions.

This morning after our eight-mile run together, my wife and I could compare everything from the length of our strides to the cadence used to execute those strides. We compared average heart rates before, during and after the run. We ran the same pace together, so that wasn’t really fodder for comparison. But we did have fun looking at the color-coded pace map on the out and back course of the Great Western Trail. It resembles a candy of some sort.

All this data is fun, for sure. Every effort recorded through my watch blasts out from Garmin to Strava, where people offer Kudos and repetitive efforts can earn athletes a Local Legend rating. The app is doing everything it can to get people to stay engaged in hopes that more people will invest in deeper data and actually pay for the service. I do plan on doing that, because I don’t think it’s fair to usen that technology without paying something back to its creators.

No data geek

While I appreciate the information, I’m not a complete data geek these days. But long ago, when I first started running, I did document race efforts according to my own standards. There was a purpose to all this that I’ll explain in a minute.

Racing log from 1972.

The image above is a picture of the racing journal. It was kept on a single page of art paper during my sophomore year in high school. I finished the year tied for Varsity points with a senior named Bill Creamean. But the most fascinating thing about this racing journal is the honesty by which I measured my own efforts. In some ways, the criticism I leveled at myself was far more empiric in value than whatever raw data I might have gathered during these races if it had been available.

Typically the only feedback we received during races were split times at the mile markers. Many races, we were lucky to receive even that. We ran “by feel” and learned to associate closely with the sensations coursing through our bodies. The fact of the matter is that if you didn’t learn how to read your own body you would crash into reality––with often calamitous results. Those were lessons learned. Trial and error.

Of course, the real goal was learning to face that fact and still try to exceed your own expectations. When those breakthrough efforts came about, you had to analyze what led you to achieve them. Without data to study, it came down to a simple formula: Confidence > fear.

That type of internal “data” is what really counts in the end. Is your confidence greater than your fear? No amount of data teaches you how to build those instincts. You have to learn that formula on your own. Yes, the workouts tell you where your potential performance levels are. But you still need to go out and put that information to use.

That journal in the picture above is a chronicle of how confidence builds through trial, error and success. There’s great value in that.

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Take pride in that aging face

Let’s talk about aging faces. I have no real way of knowing the age of the people who read this blog. There are about 1500 subscribers, and there are some who don’t subscribe but read these words through social media and other portals. But no matter what age you are, we all deal with the aging on our faces.

When you’re in your tweens and teens, those facial changes have profound impact on your self image. Getting zits and growing facial hair is a part of growing up. Dealing with tweezed eyebrows and the right makeup mix, or watching a callow jaw shift to manhood are all part of the process. Hair length also affects how facial changes are seen.

So the process of dealing with our aging faces starts early in life. Add in the impact of getting braces on your teeth, or in my case having a baseball accident smash a front tooth, and the changes never cease.

Those of us that compete in athletics put our faces through an entirely different kind of strain. The grimace lines wrought by the pain of endurance sports begins the process of forced aging that continues throughout our lives.

The effort shows in our faces.

So perhaps it’s time for all of us to take a healthier form of pride in that aging face we see in the mirror each day. That face of yours has so much to tell about all what you’ve gone through. There is laughter, joy and excitement. There is sorrow, fear and depression. All in the same face. It’s a wonder we don’t wear them out with all these emotions.

In recent years, I’ve worried that the look of my face has begun to limit opportunities in life. The ugly specter or ageism creeps up on you secretly. People aren’t going to tell you to your face that they consider you “too old” to do a job or fit into a workplace culture, but it happens. By law, age discrimination is illegal. Yet we all know that it still happens.

Wattled and tired

I was sickened one day while reading an article that popped up in my social media feed. A younger writer crowed that he wants nothing to do with people whose faces are “wattled.” That’s a disqualifying factor in his mind. His thinking seemed to be centered around the idea that if someone looks old, they must be unable to think clearly or creatively.

That would be news to millions of people throughout history whose contributions to this world continued or even began in their later years. I think in particular about the life of R. Buckminster Fuller, one of the most creative yet practical individuals to ever live. One of my favorite quotes by Mr. Fuller evolved from an experience of intense sorrow and near defeat in his life. He’d experienced a great personal tragedy and was depressed beyond imagination. He indulged in a period of intensive personal isolation to figure out what to do next and emerged with a vision of new purpose, “You do not belong to you. You belong to the universe.

He used that perspective to face the world in a new way. Among his many inventions were the geodesic dome, a mathematical breakthrough in architecture. His influence and thinking continue to expand to this day. No one cared that he looked young or old. What matters is how he thought. We all need to grab that truth and never let it go.

We should also never forget that our faces are attached to our bodies. Today I read an interesting article in the Chicago Tribune about the fact that people who do something more than walking in their exercise routines wind up having better efficiency and posture as they age. While walking is beneficial, it doesn’t stress the body in the same way that cycling, running or swimming do. It’s the classic training principle that applies to life itself: you have to push past your boundaries to gain the most benefit.

That seems to be the principle at work when we consider the condition of our faces as we age. If you’re engaged and passionate and pushing yourself to continue learning and trying new things, it shows in your expression and even the condition of your face.

Facing life

Until a few years ago, I’d never heard the term ‘resting bitch face’ applied to the baseline expression of someone who looks dour or unhappy all the time. Is that term as bad as dissing someone through ageism? It certainly seems cruel. Yet there is a reality at work in how we project our emotions through our visage. I’m perpetually aware of the value of smiling during conversations with people.

That’s especially true in business situations. I once had a boss tell me, “I like you a lot more when you’re smiling.” He was right. I wasn’t a happy person during that period. My late wife had just experienced a recurrence of cancer and had a nervous breakdown as a result. I was scared, felt alone, and had little tolerance for the daily vicissitudes of business, which seemed so insignificant compared to what was going on at home.

Those internal conflicts showed in my face. There was little I could do about it at the time. Just put on the best face I could, and get through it.

Facial control

So we perhaps don’t always have control of what our faces say about us. There’s always the possibility that a person with a ‘resting bitch face’ has gone through so much in life their face reflects that path. But then again, some people develop attitudes of victimhood and duress that dominate their existence. There is such a thing as becoming so bitter about life that it shows in everything you do.

I’ve got enough life experience now to look back and understand the causes of the challenges I’ve faced in life, and the reasons for the mistakes I’ve made. I’ve come to realize that a native anxiety affected many of my decisions. So did a likely associative form of ADD, a lifelong challenge that often determined the manner in which I processed information, or did not. In summary, I’m proud of having dealt with these challenges and adapted to succeed in some ways along the way. It all comes with knowing yourself well enough to accept past mistakes and not let them rule the present.

I can look at my face in the mirror now and see all sorts of experiences etched there. I see miles of training and racing, and the self-belief emerges from all those tests. But they keep coming. A former coach once told me, upon hearing that my late wife was diagnosed with cancer back in 2005, “Your whole life has been a preparation for this.”

He was quite right. That coach later faced cancer himself. He passed away a few years ago. The thing I remember most of all about him is still his face. I don’t see him as young or old. There’s a spiritual aspect to that, I believe. Take pride in that aging face, no matter what age you are.

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Is that the azimuth I Spy?

When my kids were little, we played a game called I Spy in which we named something in the room and the other person had to guess. It was particularly fun during the holiday season with the Christmas tree stood in the living room and we’d take turns picking out ornaments and giving tiny hints about what we saw while the other person tried to find the right ornament.

Focusing on details like that is fun while you’re tucked into a living room sofa with the lights down low and a warm kid snuggled up against your side. I so well recall the feel of their soft hair as I stroked their heads. They’d cuddle against me with a finger to their lips concentrating on finding something they hoped I could not guess in the I Spy game.

We also had a collection of I Spy books illustrated that featured photo compilations of objects like two full pages of old Teddy Bears. It was just as fun playing with those books as it was picking things out in real life.

I Spy the world at large

In many respects, I often play a game of I Spy while out running and riding. Every training route has its share of familiar objects. I can always add to the game by scanning the world for birds of various kinds. Being a birder means never having to struggle for entertainment in this world. Everywhere you go, there is something to find. Go to a different part of the country and it’s an all-new I Spy game. That’s how I approach life in general.

Last night while walking the dog at twilight, I stopped for a moment to look at the eastern horizon. At that moment I cared not about the details in front of me. What caught my eye was the purplish shadow of the earth itself as the sun went down. That shadow and the horizon line express the bottom portion of a geometric phenomenon known as the azimuth: “the direction of a celestial object from the observer, expressed as the angular distance from the north or south point of the horizon to the point at which a vertical circle passing through the object intersects the horizon.”

The diagram at right better explains what an azimuth is. My main point here is that we’re all subject to a limited perspective in this world. Even math doesn’t explain it all. Sometimes I shudder at how naive I am about things in this world that others clearly understand. On some things I consider myself a reasonably smart person. On other things I recognize that I am nearly hopeless.

Playing I Spy with my children taught me that we’re all involved in a perpetual struggle to see the world in new and better ways. But if you want to feel really small, wait for that moment when the sun goes down and you can see the shadow of the earth fading off into the heavens. We’re all perched here on a small orb in the vastness of space. I Spy infinity.

In my life I’ve run and cycled the equivalent of traveling several times around the earth. Yet in many ways I’ve gone nowhere, I know] nothing and am left playing a game of I Spy in a world where innocence and ignorance are the price you pay for merely opening your eyes.

We often lose our sense of wonder as we age. It’s easy to become ambivalent. Feel like there’s nothing new under the sun. Regaining that childlike regard for the world is difficult, especially when life’s pressures crowd in from all angles.

All I’m saying here is that it pays to look around you, take stock and soak in what you’re doing while you’re doing it. Playing I Spy can keep you alive and thriving in this life.

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Commonly known as fun suffering

We ran a long way in the wind and rain yesterday. Fortunately, the trail we use sits down in the Fox River Valley, providing shelter from the storm bringing gusts of 20-30 mph.

At the start, a spitting mist struck our faces. Then it full-out rained a little. Eventually it stopped. In places where there were gaps in the trees, the west wind buffeted our bodies, throwing us off stride. We laughed.

Sue was running fourteen miles. I was doing ten. At the five-mile point, we paused to exchange a kiss and she went north while I turned south. We got to share some fun suffering before heading off for our own workouts.

We commiserated on the conditions once we arrived back home. I was already showered and reclined on the sofa when she came in through the garage. Our dog Lucy leapt up to give Sue a set of hearty kisses.

“That shower will feel good,” I called out to her.

“I’ll say,” she replied.

We’ve shared many such workouts over the years. The process of sharing fun suffering is what we like to do. I confess (at times) to thinking back to our warm bed during some of these early morning runs and rides. Spending time in each other’s arms and then going out to test the heart and lungs in every season is a fuller way to live. My male mind sometimes recalls sweet sensations as we truck along together at 5, 10, 15 or 20 miles or faster. The fastest we’ve gone together is 43 mph down a long hill in Wisconsin.

Love is both a patient and speedy thing, it seems.

We all ache for connection in this world, building relationships around all sorts of experiences. Sharing in fun suffering is one of the best ways to get past the shallow and find a deeper sense of purpose, even if it means nothing to the rest of the world. We have our problems and challenges in this world like everyone else. Fun suffering is just another way to get through them.

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On the run from golf carts and people

I’ve written about the fact that as a child growing up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and before that, Upstate Seneca Falls, New York, I spent quite around golf courses. Some of my earliest memories are crawling around on the putting green grabbing golf balls as my dad practice his putting. When we were old enough, dad took us all golfing at times.

Our home in Lancaster sat next to a golf club called Meadia Heights. That course was a wonderland for a kid, as we roamed around on foot and poked about the streams and woods for fun. But we also knew the rules of conduct when setting foot on the golf course. Stay off the fairways when possible and never, ever spend time on the greens.

Racing on the Grinnell, Iowa golf course.

Years later as a high school and college cross country runner, I raced many times on golf courses throughout the Midwest. For four years in college we raced at a golf club in Grinnell, Iowa. That rolling landscape made for challenging racing. We ran down the fairways in our cleats and Nike waffles, and I get the greenskeeper was not too thrilled at some of the marks we left behind.

Of course, those footprints were no worse than divots left behind by golfers. The etiquette on any course is to replace a divot either with the chunk of turf you tore up or a dose of seeded sand so that grass can grow back again where your golf club removed it.

No carts allowed

Getting ready to play a round of golf and preparing to race your guts out on a five-mile cross country course are two massively different things. The amount of effort to play golf is minimal, especially when using a cart to get around the course. That’s why professional players aren’t allowed to use golf carts in tournament play. Caddies carry their bags and the players must walk.

A pro-level player named Casey Martin once sued the PGA to be allowed to ride a cart during tournament play. That lawsuit failed. A 2013 story in USA Today detailed the fact that even when Martin became a golf coach, he was not allowed to ride a cart on the golf course.

Casey Martin never thought his use of a golf cart would be an issue again.

“Martin, born with a debilitating birth defect in his right leg that makes walking difficult, sued the PGA Tour in 2001 for the right to ride when he played in Tour events, citing the Americans with Disabilities Act. He won. Twelve years later, he’s the golf coach at the University of Oregon, and the issue has resurfaced.

Martin arrived Monday at a U.S. Junior Amateur qualifier in Oceanside, Calif., expecting to ride in a cart as he followed a couple of prospective recruits around the course.

He said he cleared his plan beforehand with tournament chairman Matt Pawlak. But after five or six holes, Martin says he was stopped and told the U.S. Golf Association had found out about the cart and it was not allowed. Because Martin was officially a spectator, USGA rules did not permit him to use a cart. The controversy was first reported by GolfWeek.”

Rules matter

That’s how the game of golf approaches its principles. Rules matter. Etiquette matters. And while I’ve had opportunity to sort of “breach” those rules in my lifetime, I still respect the fact that rules exist for a reason. That is why it disturbs me to see people who flaunt those rules for no other reason than the fact that they can.

A year into the Trump presidency, video emerged that showed Donald Trump driving his golf cart on the greens at a course that he owns. Some pundits rushed to justify his actions with the claim, “Well, he owns the course! He can do what he wants!”

But there’s more than arrogance at work. Apparently Trump doesn’t like to walk on the golf course because he believe it wears him out. His belief is that people are given a certain amount of battery life and using it to walk around golf course could in fact shorten his life.

So why golf at all? Doesn’t swinging a club use a certain amount of energy too?

Hypocrisy afoot

The fact of the matter is that in everything he does in life, Trump behaves like a selfish hypocrite. He complained for years about the amount of time President Obama spent playing golf, then massively exceeeded those totals when he became President.

During the early phases of the now-defunct Trump presidency, a Sports Illustrated golf writer named Rick Reilly reported that he known Trump for thirty years and noted that Donald Trump cheats to win. He even wrote a book about it titled Commander In Cheat: How Golf Explains Donald Trump.

A Guardian article about the book contained this passage: “Donald Trump is the worst cheat ever and he doesn’t care who knows,” Rick Reilly says as he describes a man he has known for 30 years. “I always say golf is like bicycle shorts. It reveals a lot about a man. And golf reveals a lot of ugliness in this president.”

Ugly behavior

Could this guy hack running even one lap around a golf course? Not likely.

Now all that ugliness and hypocrisy is playing out in all-new ways as results point to a Trump loss and a Biden win in the presidential election. Those results are real, and the rules that govern elections do matter. Trump’s attempts to cheat the system by gutting the United States Post Office delivery system in an attempt to delay mail-in ballots still failed. He also resorted to claiming in advance that mail-in votes were fraudulent. Now he’s suing states all across the nation in whining attempts to delay certification of Biden as President. All these actions signify a failure in character and of conscience. Despite all his cheating and lying to steal the election, Donald Trump is the loser.

His despicable nature leaves zero reason to offer the outgoing Commander In Cheat any sympathy or respect. He should get the same treatment as any law-breaking, money-grubbing, tax-evading cheater, and be prosecuted accordingly.

At the very least, he should be made to pay for the crime of driving on the golf greens. A suitable punishment for this abuse of power and attempts to cheat the system would be to make Trump run laps around his own golf course. Treat him as any tough 7th-grade gym teacher would. Run his ass into the ground to teach this bully and brute a lesson. Make him spews his McDonald’s hamburgers all over the green grass. Teach him a lesson that he’ll never forget. And if he dies in the process, then we can all agree that his life battery just sucked. Perhaps if he was not such a lazy bastard and did some actual exercise to recharge his battery once in a while, it wouldn’t be so weak.

As for the near-term, it’s Tough luck, Tough boy. Your cheating luck just ran out.

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A good deal underfoot

The first set of running orthotics that I purchased in the early 1990s were fitted and designed by Dr. John Durkin, who served as a podiatrist to world-class runners such as Sebastian Coe, Craig Virgin and Jim Spivey. The inserts he created helped me overcome a persistent case of chondromalacia, a wearing down of the cartilage under the patella due to misalignment of the kneecap due to musculoskeletal imbalance.

I wore those inserts for years in both my running and regular shoes. They got quite stinky. I once blanched in embarrassment while working in a close office situation realizing it was my feet that smelled so bad.

In 1993 I ordered another pair of orthotics through my insurance plan and badgered the hapless podiatrist to adjust them repeatedly to my liking. My knee still hurt while wearing them and I blamed him for the incorrect orthotic prescription. Actually it was weakness of my hamstrings and quadriceps that likely caused the problem. At the same time, I begged my family physician to let me see a physical therapist during that period but he insisted that such treatments were “just fluff,” and refused to give me a referral to see the PT. Such is life under the thumb of an HMO plan when your regular doctor has a set of fixed beliefs about something.

Only years later when that same doctor tore a ligament and had to do physical therapy himself for recovery did he admit that PT had value. Too bad his revelation came to fruition after I’d just torn my ACL playing soccer.

That said, I persisted wearing the same set of weak-ass orthotics all the way through 2009 when a podiatrist I met at a running trail almost barfed upon looking at them. She prescribed another set of true running orthotics that worked quite well for many years. There was just one problem with those orthotics: they were thick and heavy. I grew to hate them for that reason.

The thick orthotics.

That is why I’m writing this blog today. Just over a year ago, I visited my favorite local running store, Dick Pond Athletics, to check out an alternative set of orthotics. I’d seen a machine in the store that measures your biomechanical needs and prescribes a set of pre-made or 3D printed orthotics. The concept of those 3D inserts fascinated me.

I reasoned the same principles were at work and technology is making all sorts of advances in this world. These days when you visit the dentist there are 3D cameras that create instant images of your gums and teeth. An optometrist that I’ve visited uses a a reactive focusing mechanism to determine your prescription. Why shouldn’t technology solve the orthotics question of foot pressure and balance as well?

The staff at Dick Pond ran me through the paces of standing in places where the biometrics could be taken and stored. They gave me a set of orthotics to try out, two pairs actually, and I was instantly impressed. They provided just the right amount of support and were about 1/4 the weight of my previous set of orthotics. A set costs between $60-$70 and it is recommended by the store that runners get perhaps two sets a year. That’s still far less expensive than the cost of a podiatry visit and orthotics that run between $400 and $1000. I’m telling you, the aetrex inserts work as well or better than the big-ass orthotics I’d been wearing.

That’s no slam on podiatrists or pedorthists. For many people, their services will likely still be needed, just as physical therapy is needed. All I’m saying is that I am running as far and fast (and often faster) with this new solution as all previous inserts. Results count in my book. I wear my original set in my regular shoes. If they get funky after a few weeks, I spray them with Febreze. But largely, they don’t stink unless they get soaked from dew or some other maltreatment on my part. I stick them in hiking boots for walks in the woods, wear them discreetly in dress shoes to keep my feet and knees from hurting, and like that they aren’t clunky, hard or uncomfortable like some orthotics.

My wife Sue steps into the machine one foot at a time at first, then both feet.

This past month my wife Sue tried out the process and received a set of orthotics to replace her much bulkier inserts as well. At the same time, she found a sweet pair of Nike Pegasus on sale in her size, and now runs with a much lighter stride as a result.

The company that we both favor for shoe inserts is aetrex. They have a 30-day comfort guarantee. You’re not obligated if it doesn’t work for you. I ran all year alternating a set of Brooks Adrenalines and NB 880s with the aetrex inserts. I just bought a new set of inserts last month.

aetrex readouts show where the pressure points are. Customers get an emailed readout.

If you’re struggling with foot, ankle, knee or hip pain, I highly recommend checking out the aetrex system. You can find a store that uses it through the aetrex website Store Locator. It proved a winner for me. My mileage is up, as is my average pace. I competed in several races this year, including a Half Ironman wearing these gadgets and love that my feet don’t feel like anvils at the bottom of my legs. After your fitting, you receive a complete printout of data on your foot prescription. All I can say is that technology is really great when it works. And it does.

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Living with unfinished business

As a coach I worked with boys and girls teams for more than ten years. I wish I’d played more as an adult while coaching. It would have made me a better resource. But we did have some fun.

After ten years of coaching soccer with my two children, I was invited to join a men’s team playing indoor at several arenas. The first few games were an absolute shock, as my body was not accustomed to the full-out sprinting and stops and starts of soccer. My heart rate rose quickly and I was often thankful to come off the field after a few minutes.

That was not like me. In all the years I’d played sports my strength was always speed and endurance. After a season of indoor soccer, I did improve in anaerobic conditioning. At one point while playing in an evening pickup match one of the guys in the box turned to me and asked, “How old are you again?”

I told him, “Forty-five.” He replied, “You don’t look like it. You still have speed.”

Unfortunately, that speed turned into a liability in the early 2000s when I came running after a loose ball, leapt over a fallen player, planted my left foot in soccer cleats and went to turn. My knee collapsed and I came tumbling down. I’d torn an ACL.

Turn of misfortune

That was an injury I’d never considered possible in my life. Growing up as an athlete, I played so many games of ballistic sports in basketball, soccer, football, baseball, tennis that I never dreamed the knee would come apart. I once heard a former Chicago Bear and football analyst Tom Thayer say, “ACL tears are often a fatigue problem. When the muscles wear out, the support isn’t there.” As one ages, it is also a strength versus torque issue. Joints and connective tissue lose flexibility as the years pile up. That’s what happened to me.

I did rehab my ACL tear and return to playing soccer. The orthopedic surgeon used a cadaver part that I named Jake. Sadly, I also tore Jake playing soccer two years after the surgery. It probably would have happened one way or another.

My daughter played soccer as well. One of my favorite aspects of watching her play was seeing her run down opponents in the open field. Should could fly when she wanted to.

So I live with fun memories of playing soccer as an adult, but those days are definitely over. I loved those evening games. The excitement of the contest. The opportunity to contribute. It was a blast.

I wasn’t the star of the team or the principle goal-scorer by any measure. My contributions were more valuable on the defensive side, where I typically guarded the top scorer on the opposite team. I took pride in trying to shut down the best players.

From that position, my job was to move the ball upfield and deliver it to one of our forwards. One of my favorite moments during all my years of playing involved a stolen pass in the backfield… that I turned upfield and sent into a curving pass that rolled right to the foot of our left forward. It only took him one step to strike the ball for a goal. It happened so smoothly that the feeling was satisfaction beyond measure.

That’s the part of soccer I loved most. The rhythm. The flow. The creativity.

I did have play forward outdoors, but only for half a season, because that’s when I tore the ACL the second time. It was a muddy Sunday morning after a dry spell. The soccer field was close-cut grass, level and greasy in consistency. We only had eight guys for the match and I was getting really tired playing center forward because no one else on the team could keep running. My distance running fitness did come in handy now and then.

We were losing 6-0 by halftime and I was frustrated and desperately eager to score because the other team was acting like assholes. The Mink in me emerged, and I took off from a rare stolen pass on our side and received the ball from a teammate at the top of the box. I planted my left leg, turned to shoot and was struck from the side by a clumsily sliding opponent. That was an asshole move too. I felt the knee go “Snick!” and that was that. The cadaver ACL was gone.

Transcendent moment

I prefer to dwell on a moment that was far more transcendent. We were playing a team composed of English guys and they were superior in skill. Somehow we stuck with them the whole match. The game was tied 3-3 with just a minute or two to go. A ball popped loose to me in the backfield and I looked up the side of the pitch. It was all green. There was no one to stop me if I moved fast. At full tilt I took off dribbling down the field with a defender trying to catch up as I moved just past the opponents goal box at the far right side of the field. Without looking up, I swept my right foot through the ball and it disappeared like magic into the near upper corner of the goal box. GOAL!!!

Our team erupted in cheers. At that moment the opposing coach, a crusty old English gentleman with a gray mustache, came running up to me with both fists clenched, then he extended a robust handshake. “Nice strike on the ball!” He exlaimed. “You won’t be sleepin’ tonight!”

He was so right. As I arrived home it was past ten o’clock p.m. I stripped down, shaking the black rubber filings from the soccer field out of my shorts and ass crack. I stood in the warm water and took a shower. That goal kept racing through my mind. I was still so excited as I lay down in bed that the feeling of that strike kept playing on repeat. Over and over again. My heart rate was high from all the late-evening exertion. So I just rested there with that Englishman’s words running through my head. “Nice strike on the ball!” I can still see that shot to this day. And I can still hear his words.

That’s the best kind of unfinished business of all.

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Hard effort feels the same at every age

When you get the bright idea to “go hard” on a given day, go for it once in a while!

Our Sunday morning run yesterday consisted of seven miles from North Aurora up to Batavia and back. Sue had a modest tempo run planned after the previous day’s 40m time trial and 10K brick run on Saturday. I rode 32 miles at 17.5 and was happy with that. It was windy as heck on the way out and a fun joyride on the way back.

At the turnaround point during our run on Sunday, we met up with a fellow triathlete and chatted for a quarter mile. Then I decided it would be good for me to put in some hard effort on the way back.

Unchained melody

If taking off on a whim like that seems a bit haphazard in terms of an overall plan, it’s because I train mostly by feel these days. Senior athletes like me need the flexibility to run hard on days that we feel good and take it easier based on the messages we’re getting back from our bodies day to day.

The days of mapping out 70-mile running weeks and hitting those numbers come thick-or-thin are gone. That’s fine by me. I don’t really miss the obligatory aspects of training. I’m not sure my testosterone levels sustain it these days.

All that horndog sexual and physical energy in my teens and twenties, combined with the need to prove myself on a daily/weekly/monthly/yearly basis has shifted to a more appreciative mode of training. Now I run hard when I feel like it.

Yesterday that meant three consecutive sub-8:00 miles. I ran 7:48, 7:57 and 7:47, but didn’t have that much more speed at hand, to be honest. Earlier this summer I ran a 22:00 5K on a bike path and that’s as fast as I got this year.

Hard effort and Red Zone games

That’s seven minutes slower than my all-time best, but here’s the funny thing. Even at these slower paces, the sensation of a hard effort still feels the same. Yesterday while humming along I thought back to all the races I’ve run over the years and the feeling of running at the edge of my aerobic capacity has always felt the same. I was playing Red Zone games.

My heart rate reached 178 at its peak, somewhere in the middle of the second hard mile. That’s where the breathing got tough. We all know that sensation. To manage that Red Zone challenged, I shortened and smoothed out the stride, increased the breathing rate, took it deeper into my belly and regained the oxygen needed to keep up the pace. It worked. That’s associative compensation.

Racing along

As a person that has been doing this stuff for decades, I still find it fun (if no less uncomfortable) to run at the edge of my abilities. It’s also fun to actually race when the opportunity comes along.

That’s the main point of all this. Testing ourselves is what this endurance stuff is all about. No one says that has to be done on any sort of schedule to make it have value.

You should to that too. Take off on a bender once in a while when you’re feeling good. Make the effort hard, and embrace the moment. Don’t worry if you can’t go on forever. No one can. Hard effort feels the same at every age, and age itself disappears when you let it go. That’s true no matter how many years you do or don’t have under your belt.

Getting results

As for results, my casual approach to training works for me. This past summer I completed two Olympic triathlons and my first-ever Half Ironman 70.3. My Olympic was just over three hours and my Half Ironman in the 6:15-6:20 range. I was self-timing and had a water bottle cage fly off in the last ten miles of the bike, so there was some play in there in terms of time. My main goal was to finish.

Isn’t that fun?

Posted in 10K, 5K, aging, aging is not for the weak of heart, competition, cycling, cycling the midwest, triathlete, triathlon | Leave a comment

Mentoring other athletes and building community

Mentoring and collaborating with other athletes builds a sense of community and a support network.

This morning I finally made it back to the swimming pool after weeks away due to work commitments and post-triathlon season chillaxing.

I struck up a conversation with a young man that had just finishing swimming as well. He was quite good in the pool, and I noted as much. He told me that he’s not even in swim season right now, but finishing up an abbreviated cross country season with a meet down in Peoria this weekend.

“It’s not a state meet, they’re not having that,” he told me. “We’ll be running in flights, with the sixth and seventh guys in a race, then the fourth and fifth, the second and third and finally the top guys.”

I didn’t bother asking him where he fit in that scheme. It mattered more that he was excite about the race. His build wasn’t a traditional cross country guy build. He was a bit thicker than that, but who is to judge how fast a runner can go based on mere looks? I can’t.

Multisport future

We talked some more about his swimming. He related a funny story about how his coach threw him into the 500 because there were no other spots to fit him into the meet, and he won. “So the coach went, ‘Huh…” he laughed. “Now I swim a bunch of other events too. But I’m working on my sprints.”

We both agreed that the 200 is a tough event. I mentioned that I swim mostly for triathlons, and he told me, “I do those too. They’re good for scholarships.”

He’s a junior in high school now and just starting to look at colleges. I shared that having a solid swimming foundation is a real advantage in triathlon events of all distances. His running will also be a great gift for a multisport competitor. “Cycling is mostly just Time In The Saddle,” I advised. That’s pretty true. A guy that can swim and run as well as this young man can learn how to focus that power into the bike.

As we parted ways I shared that I know the coach at a local college where triathlon is now an intercollegiate sport. I gave him the name and shared that he should reach out. Last summer I trained with some college kids from that program and they were really athletes of fine character.

Out in the parking lot I saw him heading toward his car and called out, “What kind of running shoes do you like?”

“Saucony,” he replied.

“Good shoes,” I told him.

“Thanks for talking with me,” he added.

I smiled, waved and said, “Good luck this weekend!”

It’s a habit I have, talking to young athletes and old. It’s a great way to learn what motivates other and share a bit of encouragement. We should all mentor each other, when it comes down to it. That’s what the whole idea of community is all about.

Posted in college, cross country, cycling, running, swimming, tri-bikes, triathlete, triathlon, triathlons | Tagged , | 1 Comment