Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Friends & Demons

It consistently amazes me how much sport mirrors life, how its lessons reflect the bigger picture, and how those lessons can be applied in one’s life and vice versa.

I learned how to participate in “serious cycling” many years ago by riding on a daily basis with a group of guys who all live in close proximity to one another. All of us have families and regular job responsibilities so we would meet at 5:30 a.m. on weekdays (with headlights and blinking red lights on our seatposts) and at dawn on Saturdays and Sundays for longer rides. I learned the art of riding a bicycle from this group; such things as “pedaling in circles,” maintaining a still upper body, rotating through tight pacelines at high speeds and routinely doing rides of 60 to 100 miles. The ages of the group spanned three decades, but the age differences were more than offset by our love of riding together. In the summers, we did multi-day trips in which we’d routinely cover 100 miles daily. I spent so much time with these guys that they became my closest friends. We have an annual banquet each winter in which we give gag awards and generally have a great time. Through these banquets, our wives met and several of them have also become close friends. (We’ve had ladies ride with us occasionally, but only in the last couple of years has one become a “regular” in the group. She is a very welcome addition.)

Over time, I noticed that our group rides began to get slower. This was happening at the same time that I was getting faster because of the cumulative benefits of having a multi-year, killer base of miles (both riding and running). I soon found another local group that had a lower average age and rode faster and harder. There are two axioms in cycling that are very true: 1) If you want to get faster, start riding with a group that is “over your head.” You will struggle to keep up at first, but you will get faster. 2) What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Riding with these speed demons really paid off for me, especially in developing my climbing ability and stamina.

When I started racing triathlons in 2004, I had to reduce the number of cycling sessions that I did each week in order to do enough swimming and running. This meant that my cycling sessions were usually purpose-focused. I started riding more by myself or with a friend or two who happened to be of the faster variety. I soon found myself really missing the time with my older set of riding buddies (some of whom are now in their mid-60s), and it because clear to me that making time to ride with my old friends was just as important as getting fitter and faster through focused training sessions. I’m happy to say that I’ve been able to find ways to balance riding with friends and with the speed demons. I’ve done so primarily by using recovery days during the racing season and by riding more frequently with my “old” friends during the off-season. A big part of this is the change in my mindset that came from recognizing how important riding with my old friends is to me. In the overall scheme of things, it’s at least as important as training more in order to move up a few places in my age group!

No two sets of life circumstances are the same, so each must find his/her own way to deal with this dilemma as the aging process starts to take its toll on oneself and one’s friends. Each of us ages and, after a certain point, we start to slow down. I still seem to be on an upward trajectory, but that can’t last forever (I will turn 49 in five days). I relish spending quality bike time with my older friends, and look forward to doing so with my with my younger friends over the next decades ….. if, that is, they’re willing to periodically “speed constrain” themselves in order to maintain something that is worth maintaining – the fantastic friendships we make through years of cycling together.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

How Hard is "Hard"?

I was told recently by a friend that concrete is 10 times harder than asphalt. I don't know if what she told me is accurate or not, but she does have a PhD in Engineering and usually knows what she's talking about (she's also a 5 time IM finisher and has run at least a dozen marathons). This disturbed me because I tend to do most of my running on concrete sidewalks (see reasons below) rather than on roads. I may have to re-evaluate where I do my running.

Reasons that I run mostly on sidewalks:
1. The number one reason is that I like to listen to music while I run and sidewalks allow me to do so without the danger of being hit by a car that I can't hear.
2. I live in a suburban area and almost all of the neighborhoods that I run in have sidewalks.
3. When I was younger I used to run on the left shoulder of the road. I noticed that I was consistently wearing the soles of my shoes in an unbalanced way and realized that this lack of balance couldn't be good for my skeleton and musculature.
4. In the region where I live, there are lots of trees. The roots from the trees cause the sidewalks to shift in unpredictable ways. This means that I get truly random unevenness (a good thing) from the surfaces I run on. It's a little like trail running in the sense that you have to pay attention to the placement of each footfall. It requires that I be mentally alert when I run, which I like.
5. I do a fair amount of running in the early morning when it's dark. Because of the unevenness discussed above, I can't run on sidewalks when it's dark. However, I can still listen to music safely because the approaching headlights always warn me well in advance that a car is coming so that I can move from the center of the road (where I run on the level "crown" portion of the road) to the left side. BTW, I always wear a reflective vest when it's dark out.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Done

One of the really uplifting messages that comes out frequently on these tri blogs are the amazing things that an “average” person can accomplish if she puts her mind to it and perseveres (with the emphasis on perseveres). All of the stories of weight loss and of personal transformation are truly inspiring.

I’ve been thinking about all of this as it relates to another area of my life, one that is at least as important to me as my athletic/triathlon endeavors are. That area is my own personal spiritual development. I’m not a church-going guy, never have been, and organized religion is not right for me (no offense to anyone, just sharing my true feelings), although I respect that it is for millions of others. I practice my own personal brand of spirituality, which I would describe as “mystic Christianity” or “cosmic Christianity”. My spirituality incorporates aspects of both Eastern and Western faiths and mysteries. Those whose works have guided me include Rudolf Steiner, Ken Wilber, Yogananda Paramahansa, Mahatma Gandhi, MLK, Edgar Cayce and Eckhart Tolle.

My daily early morning time of practicing my spirituality was focused for many years mostly around prayer. However, that all shifted about two years ago to be more of a focus on meditation (although the prayer was very “meditative” in nature). One of the earliest types of meditation that I worked with was the Zen practice of “awareness”. More recently, my meditation sessions go through a series of different aspects, one of which is “awareness”. I have come to the conclusion that the mental discipline required in meditation, and especially in “awareness,” is the most difficult thing that I’ve ever tried to do. (If you want to see what I mean, just try to hold a single thought or concept, uninterrupted by any other thought, for 60 seconds.) I fail about twice as often as I succeed in having what I would consider a “high quality” meditation session, but that makes the good ones even more sweet.

I’ve learned from my athletic activities what years of dedicated, disciplined hard work can yield. It is absolutely amazing what you can train your body to do over such a period of time. Things that were once unthinkable, such as 60 mile training rides or 15 mile training runs, become routine and almost easy. I know that this same logic applies to spiritual work as well. That’s what drives me each morning to go down in my basement and sit on my cushion for 20 minutes! I eagerly await the fruit of this work (although my eagerness reflects my spiritual immaturity). I’ve recently had a real breakthrough in my efforts, and I know that more will come.

I’ll be sharing some thoughts in the future about how to carry meditation into athletic training. I’d be interested in comments from others who share an interest in this important aspect of life.

Rudolf Steiner-------------------Yogananda Paramahansa--------------Ken Wilber

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Blazing a Trail

I did something this morning that I've never done before - I ran on trails instead of on the road (or, more likely, the sidewalk). It's amazing to me that in all the years that I've been running I've never done this before. Before I moved to Delaware 12 years ago, I didn't really live in places where running on trails was a practical regular option. However, we have wonderful trails in a state park that is only a five minute drive or a 35 minute run from my house. I've hiked these trails many times in preparation for backpacking trips, just never run on them.

At any rate, a friend suggested on Friday morning that I meet him there this morning for a 70 minute run. I'm now hooked. I'll be doing more of this in the future. The main issue that I had was sort of "rolling" my ankle a couple of times on rocks, but I was able to "go with it" and recover all right in both instances. The other issue was that my friend's dog just stopped dead in his tracks a couple of times right in front of me. I had to jump around him to avoid him. Still, it was cool to have the dog along as he thoroughly enjoyed running free in the woods (we would leash him whenever we were approaching anyone on the trail).

It's a cool experience to do something that you immediately can tell is going to become a long-term enjoyable experience. I only wonder why I never tried this sooner!

Friday, December 8, 2006

iPod Earbud Challenges

Like many of you, I am an iPod devotee. I got one about two years and use it almost every day. Great little invention. The only complaint that I have about it is that the earbuds that came with it will not stay in my ears when I run. Since the different models of earbuds that are made by companies other than Apple are not very expensive, I’ve tried a couple of other models – specifically, one set that has a wrap-around piece of plastic that goes behind the head and another set where the earbuds “clip onto” or “hang onto” the outer part of the ear. The clip-on set is the only one that will stay put when I run. However, the problem with the design of the clip-on set is that the earbuds don’t really rest in the ear, but instead sort of hang a few millimeters from the ear canal. I have to jack the sound of the iPod to almost full blast in order to drown out the ambient sound. Has anyone found a better solution to use while running?

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Flip Turns Ad Nauseam

When I made the decision to start competing in the sport of triathlon in the fall of 2003, I did so with a well established base in the sports of running and cycling. I’ve been running regularly since I was 21 years old (27 years ago) and have been a serious cyclist for 11 years. I learned how to swim when I was a kid, but where I grew up in Texas swimming was not a competitive sport like it is now for kids here in the northeast. It is a major sport here. The only sports that counted back then in Texas were FOOTBALL, basketball, baseball and track. Soccer wasn’t even on the radar screen and tennis was “for wussies” (I’d like to see someone call John McEnroe a wussie to his face). Even though I “learned how to swim,” I was certainly no great-shakes in the water.

So in the fall of 2003 I decided to start plunking down my monthly membership payment to the Y and going to the pool for regular workouts. I read Terry Laughlin’s book Swimming for Triatheletes, and got his DVD from Total Immersion. I studied them and practiced the drills and have become a middle-of-the-pack swimmer. I’ve decided that my focus this off-season is going to be on improving my swimming and on finally mastering flip turns. I’m tired of seeing everyone else in the pool besides me being able to do them. I’ve recently purchased the Championship Production Triathlon series DVD on swimming and it has a short section on flip turns. So I was all psyched up this morning when I went to the pool to start working on flip turns!

After my warm-up and a few drills, I went into a flip turn practice session using the techniques described in my new DVD. After doing about six or seven flip turns in a short period of time, I was so nauseated I could hardly stand it. I almost bagged the workout, but was able to swim two more very easy sets of 500 yards before hitting the showers. I’m still a bit nauseated as I sit typing this.

I really admire those of you that can glide through those turns. Maybe, just maybe, one day I will join your ranks!!

Sunday, December 3, 2006

The Triathlon Popularity Paradox

Now is the time of year that everyone is starting to make plans for next season. There are a lot of blogs and e-mails going around that remind us that we must sign up quickly for certain events because they sell out so quickly. It is frustrating to me to have to sign up now - or miss getting left out - for expensive events that won’t occur until late in the 2007 season. Any serious triathelete has dealt with injury issues. They seem to be part and parcel of being a serious athlete, and can seriously disrupt a pre-planned racing schedule. I know that I’ve walked away from several hundred dollars worth of race entry fees because an injury kept me from participating in an event that I had put into my annual plan.

So far, the regional events by the race promoter Pirahna Sports (the Greater Atlantic Multi-Sport Series) that I sometimes participate in do not usually sell out. If they do, it is not usually until just a few weeks ahead of time. This fact gives me some flexibility in planning my schedule and in dealing with injuries. Neil Semmel and the folks at Piranha do a great job with their races, so I know that this situation will change in the not-too-distant future. There are other great regional races that always sell out well in advance, so I know I have to commit early to get into them. And we all know that the WTC Ironman events sell out in hours, if even that long.

The sport of triathlon is growing at a phenomenal rate, as witnessed by the membership growth statistics of the USAT. I worry that the ability to get into races before they close will get much worse in the future as there is more and more demand from new triatheletes. Persons inclined to believe in the efficacy of unfettered free-markets will respond that more races will be created to move the supply/demand situation back into equilibrium. I sure hope they’re right. The reason that I’m not so sure is that the single most difficult thing for race promoters (at least based upon what I’ve heard and read) is finding municipalities that are willing to allow and tolerate the road closures that are necessary during the bike leg of our sport.

When the running boom occurred back in the 1970s, marathons and road races of various lengths sprung up all around the world. These races also require road closures, but the ability of a running race to expand to hold more runners is virtually unlimited up to a very high threshold (20,000 to 40,000 runners), so the ratio of races relative to competitors is much lower than what is required in triathlon. Many triathlons are capped at 1,000 participants although a few allow more than that. The logistics of staging a triathlon are daunting compared to those of a marathon, so it’s simply not possible to accommodate such large numbers.

Triathlon is such a great sport that I wish everyone could participate in. I am not sure, however, that there is unlimited capacity for the “physical infrastructure” required to support our sport to continue apace with the increasing demand. I hope that we don’t face a future of only being able to participate in a few races each year because we’re simply not able to get into those we want to race.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Subjective Training Comfort in the Cold

Isn’t it strange how different we all are in terms of what we consider “cold” for either running or cycling training? I must run on the hotter side than most because I seem to always show up for group rides with the least amount of clothing on when it’s cold. It never ceases to amaze me how early some of my friends break out their balaclavas in the fall. I would be boiling over in five minutes if I had my head completely covered at some of the temps that they pull them on for.

Here are my personal guidelines and thresholds for riding and running in the cold. (I’m not so anal that I follow these to the letter, but these are about where the thresholds are.)

For cycling:
·I use toe covers and knee warmers if the temp is between 45 and 50 degrees F
·I use booties and tights if the temp is below 45
·I use a cycling cap under my helmet if the temp is between 35 and 50
·I use a headband to cover my ears if the temp is between 28 and 34
·I put on the dreaded balaclava if the temp is below 28

For running:
·I wear shorts and short sleeves (or no sleeves) until the temp gets to about 40
·I put on a long sleeve jersey between 35 and 40
·I put on a technical undershirt at 35
·I put on tights at 32
·I put on a wind-breaker type shell at about 27
·I always wear a running cap. It’s great for wicking sweat off my head in the heat, for keeping me warm in the cold, and (by lowering the brim) for blocking out the high-beams of an on-coming car in the dark

There is a former US Olympic team 1500 meter runner who lives locally and writes a bi-weekly running column in our newspaper. She once stated that she puts on tights to run when the temp gets down to only 50 degrees. That would be a recipe for suffering for me!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Extremes & Potentials

I get up every morning at around 5:00 (I told you below that I’m a creature of habit!) and either read or train. This time of year I’m getting more reading done since the training load is a bit lighter. The book I’m reading now is Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth. In the book, he describes a human phenomenon he calls “the pain-body”. Each of us has one, it’s just that some are more conscious of it than others and, thus, have mitigated it’s impact in our lives by “dis-identifying” with it. He states that “dis-identifying with the pain-body becomes an awakening and the decisive factor that forces the person into a state of Presence.” He goes on to state that the real being that is each of us is not our ego, but “consciousness that has become conscious of itself.” The worse the pain-body has become for a particular individual, the more that person has to gain and accomplish by becoming consciously aware of it and dis-identifying with it.

I was pondering all of that as it relates to sport and to triathlon. One thing that has continuously struck me as I’ve read the different blogs in this triathlon bloggers’ alliance that Kahuna has created is the number of people who seem to have come to an analogous physical consciousness and awakening through triathlon, especially as it regards losing weight and getting themselves into good physical condition. As stated above, the further a person is into lethargy or obesity, the more she/he has to gain from this awakening and path of action. I think that’s one of the great things about sport, and the welcoming aspect of the triathlon community really supports this kind of individual awakening.

Of course, it must be mentioned that the flip-side of this coin – and one just as deleterious – is the ego’s over-identification with an in-shape and conditioned physical body. I know that this is a constant struggle for me, and one that I try to stay conscious and aware of, although not always so effectively.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Bike Shop Curmudgeon

Those of us that live in the particular area of the city that I live in and are avid cyclists recently had an unexpected surprise. We learned that the proprietor of a long-time area bike shop had decided to abruptly close up his shop. Since there is another bike shop – one of the big national bike chain stores – not more than ¾ of a mile from his location, you might wonder why this is a big deal to us. It’s because this guy’s store was designed to serve cycling connoisseurs. He carried high-end stuff, and was an expert mechanic. The problem is that the shop owner had a real “attitude” towards his customers and his prices tended to be a little high. Anyone who had recently visited his store would always regale us on the next group ride about how rude or opinionated the guy had been. Nevertheless, if you had some really tricky repair work to be done or wanted an informed opinion about any of the million bits of cycling minutia, he was the guy to talk to.

When I became a serious cyclist about a decade ago, I realized that I needed to become my own bike mechanic. Even though I’m not very mechanically inclined, I learned to do all of my own basic maintenance. The only things I’m not comfortable with at this point are: 1) building or truing wheels; and 2) installing or working on headsets. Still, there were many times over the years when I found it helpful to drop into the store and seek advice about some bike job I was working on, or to get him to true up a wheel. When I got hit by a car in 2003 (no injuries, thankfully), he used his precision measuring tools to confirm for me that my frame had not been bent. And if I needed new shoes, I could go to his store to actually try them on instead of taking my chances that a mail-order pair would fit.

Now we lose all that. No matter how much we all complained about his “style” of serving his customers, there is a consensus among all of us that live in this area that we’re really going to miss this guy and his store. We complain about it regularly now on rides, even though he’s only been closed about three weeks. So, the next time you’re tempted to mail-order a new chain or cassette in order to save a few bucks, think about that local bike shop guy and about how much you would miss him if he left. I find myself wishing now that I’d patronized him a little more frequently, and the cheaper mail-order shops less so.

Speaking (above) about “becoming my own bike mechanic,” the best tool that I’ve found in this regard is the book “Zinn and the Art of Bicycle Maintenance”. It’s by Leonard Zinn who is the technical guru featured in VeloNews (at least he used to be, I haven’t read that mag recently), and is an excellent “how-to” guide for almost everything you could want to do to your bike.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

The Take-It-Easy Blues

I’ve always said that any smart marketing program should do the exact opposite of what my own personal preferences or desires are. For as long as I can remember, my attitudes about most things have run counter to the prevailing opinion. I know – from reading training advice articles ad nauseam – that these months should be taken as R&R months. I recently read in a Triathelete magazine article by none other than Mark Allen that one should even allow oneself to gain a little weight and become “de-conditioned” so that one can reach a higher level of training in the next season.

So, here I am one week after my last race of the season, the Philadelphia Marathon, having just completed a long holiday weekend of relatively long rides (115 miles over three days after having swam twice and run twice since the marathon last Sunday). Every year at this time I find myself struggling to lay off of the training. Especially since the weather is not yet brutally cold, and I know that it will be in just a few short weeks. I always struggle with wanting to get out to take advantage of the remaining nice weather to get in a few more long rides with my cycling buddies.

This conundrum always makes me think about why I engage in the sports of triathlon. I’ve come to the conclusion that doing what is most important to me is smarter than following “expert advice” so that I can reach higher performance levels next year. I am very much a creature of habit. I absolutely love the routine of training. I also like to keep my body weight within a range band of about +/- two pounds on either side of 165. If I get lighter than 163, I notice that I start to feel weak. If I get heavier than 167, I feel bloated. The easiest way to accomplish this is to continue to work out year-round (with obvious volume adjustments, after all one simply cannot do ironman-level training year-round). Continuing to train keeps me happy, and the “lifestyle aspect” of this is more important to me than theoretically accomplishing a slight marginal performance improvement during the next race season. Am I insane for not wanting to take time off???