Sunday, September 30, 2007

Broken

First, I direct you to this post over at Brazo's blog, especially the title, and the part that talks about how he intelligently chose against the route marked with the intimidating "really hard, advanced riders only" sign.

Then, I direct you to this post, especially the story I share at the beginning.

Updated:

So if you missed it earlier, the gist of this post is: I broke my hand on my moutain bike this weekend, riding a section of trail clearly marked "Really really difficult" but that I chose to risk because I was dumb. Anyway, the original post that I wrote last night, as I read it today a night's sleep away from the event, was kind of whiney and feeling sorry for myself. Normally I think the stillshot-in-time of a blog post is part of the fun, but in this case I felt like the post was taking myself way more seriously than I was really feeling about it. So, rather than irritate myself with its existence, I'm just refreshing the post.

It's not a big deal. It's a pain in the ass. Well the hand, actually, but the ass, metaphorically. I can still type and work for a living. I chose not to have a cast, opting instead for an ACE bandage ("sympathy wrap", as my sister calls it...ha!)whenever I'm not working or working out. I'll be back on my road bike in no time. The mtn. bike, probably not for the next 4-6 weeks. That's really about all. Oh, except that I'll be riding trails from now on that are clearly within my skill level and abilities.

That's all! Carry on!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Instant Idiot: Just Add Wheels

Right, so. Back in the day, I used to rock the roller skates on Friday nights at Wheel-A-While, which was bar-none the place to be if you hadn't yet reached about 7th grade. It was a killer skating rink/hangout, with an arcade (complete with Galaga, Donkey Kong, Pac-Man and others), foozball (but the older kids never let us play), skate rental, a little restaurant, a little store (more like a counter) where they sold quintessential 80's fare like fingerless gloves (mine were red) and spiked wrist bands (gray rubber, with black spikes). It's where anybody who was anybody went on Friday nights, and I'd frequently go there my buddy Chad (who was super cool, because he had his own skates, which were black with red wheels. Alas, I was relegated to the boring beige rentals) and, if we were lucky, meet up with the girls, including Jamie Doyle (how I loved her), who once told me that if I didn't take off my shiny red Lionel Richie tie she'd dump me. I held strong fellas. And she did dump me.

Anyway, I rocked those skates pretty well. During couple skating, when most of the losers were holding hands and skating side by side (with the disco-ball in full effect while Madonna swooned she was Crazy For Me), I'd flip around and skate backwards, my hands at my lady's waist (and God willing we wouldn't run into each other's skates...that was not super cool) with my O.P. shirt flittering in our manufactured wind and my jeans rolled just so at the ankles of my skates. Later on they'd clear the floor and have a limbo competition, and once in awhile I'd make it to the final few, though Chad seemed to always be a contender. Life was good when your hair was feathered, your skates were rolling, and the doves were crying.

I wasn't half bad at ice skating either, with an outdoor rink at my elementary school that we'd hit up on the weekends sometimes. I'd jump in and play some impromptu hockey now and then, and I could skate backwards with no effort and do those cool sideways-spraying-ice stops that the hockey players do. I did have my own skates, which my parents got for us for Christmas one year. Cool was indeed my middle name.

This was over 20 years ago. In my head, though, it's pretty fresh. So when I see people at intersections or crosswalks, waiting for the light to change while they teeter on their inline skates...then initiate 5 or 6 awkward pushes as they try and develop some momentum to cross the street, with arms flailing and legs unsure and feet going every which way, I always want to yell out the window at them. "Push with your other foot! It's not like walking you moron! ROLL! It's called a ROLLER skate you ignoramus!" Because though I'd not once in my life actually been on inline skates, I once limbo'd with the best of 'em in the 6th grade, and thus could easily be considered something of an expert.

So this weekend I went and picked up some inline skates. No helmet or knee or elbow pads - are you kidding? Those are for dolts - and as I drove back from the store imagined gliding down the street, the wind in my hair. I figured I'd have a bit of remembering to do, but c'mon. It's rollerskating. I'm sure it's like a bike - you never really forget. Yes, sure, these are 4 wheels in line rather than two-by-two, but that's just like ice skating then. In my mind I had it all worked out, how I'd privately demonstrate to all the goofballs I see on skates just how easy this is. The world, if it would, should watch and learn.

So I sat out on my curb and began wrapping the skates around my feet, these more like ski boots than the old lace-ups I remember. I had it all worked out, mentally. I knew before I even stood up how the skates would feel slippery beneath me. I pictured how I'd gain some leverage. I imagined two or three sudden push-offs, then poof! I'd be gone, slithering down the street. Just then Amy sat down in a lawn chair at the top of the driveway.

"What are you doing?"
"I'm going to watch."
"Oh. Uh. Why?"
"Because," she said, flipping a leg lazily over the other and leaning back, "I think this might be funny."

Bah. I'll show her. I stood up casually, like I've been doing this all my life. Suddenly the world slid out from underneath me and I'm somehow on one foot, my arms grasping the air in search of some kind of leverage that didn't exist. Like in a sitcom, I shouted, "Whooooaaaaa...ooohhhh....whoooaaaaa" while suddenly leaning forward, at last getting my leg back on the ground but now pitching forward. "Aaaaah crap!" I rolled forward a foot or two, bent 90 degrees at the waist with my arms straight up in the air behind me. Finally I came to a stop and, manufacturing some equilibrium, was able to stand upright. Amy was in hysterics so hard she couldn't breathe.

"Holy crap! This is hard!"
Amy caught her breath and said, "I should have grabbed the video camera."

I eyed the road suspiciously, wary that it might suddenly spin underneath me like that again, and thought to take a stride or two, get back some of my old mojo. I put one foot back to push off, but my foot disagreed with the idea and instead went forward, as one does when walking. Suddenly standing on ice again, my foot started sliding out from underneath me, so my other foot thought a great solution would be to place itself ahead of the other, as one would when taking another logical step while walking. Ah geez I look just like the idiot at the stop signs, I thought, and suddenly took 5 or 6 pitter-pattering steps in quick succession, totally against my will, as my feet tried to walk down the street and my brain tried to keep balance. I looked like a total boob.

"Seriously! This is freakin' hard!" And Amy's still over there laughing, not at me but with me, as I'm about to double over too I'm laughing so hard. This does nothing for my already precarious balance, and so suddenly my left leg is again instantaneously shooting out from underneath me, my foot suddenly straight out and waist height, my torso then leaning backwards as my arms wind around helplessly. Just as suddenly I find my composure. "Babe, you better bring me my bike helmet." A couple walking by, who for the last 3 minutes were witness to the show (though I just noticed them) were laughing at me too, and said, "and some knee pads, and wrist guards, and elbow pads...that's one dangerous sport right there!" and we all laughed at my expense as they giggled off.

While Amy retrieved my helmet I finally managed a few strides, and while my brain knew just how it wanted to go, my feet could not figure out that walking was not the order of the day. Finally convincing them of this totally unconventional thing I was attempting, they reluctantly gave in and I was able to push off and glide a bit. Not too bad!, I thought. I'd stride 10 or 15 feet, then come to a stumbling stop, carefully turn around (often while leaning completely forward...for some reason a zone of comfort), and then stride back. A few more back and forth like this, and I wasn't feeling quite so alien.

My helmet finally on, I told Amy I'd head down the block a bit and then come back - she worried that I should take my phone in case I cracked my head open. I assured her I'd be in the neighborhood and wouldn't be much for calling anyway with a cracked head, and began rolling down the street.

The thing is, inline skating is hard. It's just hard. You have all this balance to be constantly considering. You push off on one foot to glide on the other, and you have to manage balancing on the one leg while also keeping your ankle from giving way. The upper body seems to be totally disconnected from the legs, all tense and nervous. My shoulders were hunched up by my ears, my arms bent at the elbows and flapping in a weird bird imitation. None of this was going to plan. I was not cool at all. Where was my old technique? How was it possibly this hard? I thought back to the guy who used to skate by me on my old running trail in Minneapolis. He was effortless! He'd push and glide, push and glide. His arms would swing naturally from side to side. His power was impressive, his form sleek and efficent, his speed consistent. I, on the other hand, looked like a diseased partridge.

Just then two girls, not more than seven years old, bolted around the corner in front of me, both wearing pink helmets and atop their own inline skates. They flew! I was astounded. Their feet were not in argument with their legs! Their shoulders weren't touching their ears! Neither had her butt sticking way out, like some kind of rudder. Just then I'd hit the tiniest crack in the pavement, or the slightest bit of gravel, and suddenly my tideous glide would be interrupted and I'd be relegated to stumbling again, the awkward steps of a newborn. No, this was not cool.

Plus - cripes, it hurt! I turned around at the end of the block and my legs were killing me! My back was sore! I was breathing hard, I was sweating, my heart rate was up - I thought this would be easy breezy, like skating back in the day. Then it occurred to me - you know what, I bet my skates are jacked up. I bet I overtightened the wheels and I'm getting way too much resistance. Because those girls were flying down the street, and there's no way it's this difficult. So, I sat down on the curb, detached my left skate with its series of buckles and straps, and held it up, giving the wheels a spin with my hand and expecting them to turn only half a revolution or so. Instead they rolled on fluidly. Ah, shit. I really do suck this bad then.

Skate back on, then, I continued the rest of the way home and tried to focus. The key seems to be the upper body. Maybe I should've taken lessons first? Do they even have lessons for inline skating? I'm sure they do. Didn't Erin or CoS or somebody at dinner the other night say something about the adult courses you can take for twenty bucks? I wonder if they have an inline skating course. Computers 101, Photography For Beginners, Quilt Making for Housewives, Inline Skating for Idiots. Where do 7-year old girls learn it? Ah crap, a cute girl running with her dog. Try to look cool, like you've done this before. Please don't fall please don't fall please don't fall. Don't smile you idiot, just look straight ahead! Okay, whew. And I stumbled my way mostly from parked car to parked car, grabbing their bumpers like life preservers. The last half block or so was the best, when I figured that relaxing my shoulders and arms, attempting to look somewhat natural, made the rest of me relax and I could then go a little more efficiently.

The next day my back was sore, my legs were sore, my feet were sore, and I considered that a good thing - it meant I was working out new muscles - but it was totally unexpected. I made a stop by the sports store and picked up a new helmet (bike helmets are only meant to withstand a single impact, and no sense ruining my expensive hat when I inevitably fall on my head) and all the pads and guards they sold. No question that I am going to make friends with the cement if I continue this pursuit, so I better be prepared. Turns out if the pads and stuff are for dolts, I am their king.

Yesterday, then, I headed out for my second foray and it was a thousand percent improved. I was able to glide longer and with more consistency, and did a lot less of the weebly teetering that was most of my ride a few days earlier. The key is to lean forward a little bit, but not too much; no need having one's ass three feet behind him. Also, relax the upper body. All that tension just throws off the balance. In fact, I was feeling pretty good when I got to the end of the block and thought I'd continue on down my normal running route. Here I was happy to find myself doing a crossover turn on accident, some of the old technique coming back just a little bit. I started cheerufully humming Lionel Richie's "Hello", which was mine and Jamie's song, the forlorn anthem of sixth graders in love. Reminiscing just a bit, relaxing my mind, enjoying the crisp weather. I imagined I wasn't looking like quite the imbecile I did a few days ago, and would nod or wave at passers-by like just one more casual skater. How come everybody else I see on skates is least 10 years younger than me. Is there an age limit to this sport? Hmmm. hullo...is it me you're looking for...The helmet I just bought, it has somebody's name on it. Like, somebody apparently famous, or well known or something. I've never heard of him. ...is something something something, or is someone loving you... Did I just buy a teenager helmet? Good Lord I think I did. Do they make non-teenager helmets? ...I can see it in your eyes...but I haven't got a clue...something something something...I love you... Can I push a stroller with inline skates on? Geez, did I just ask that? I bet I'm instantly uncool if I even have to ask that question. I wonder if I'll be a total embarrassment to my daughter before she even understands the concept.

Just then I reached the end of the sidewalk, and it tapered down into the slightest decline before meeting the street. I noticed a bit of mud where the curb met the street, so angled for a narrow section that was most clean. I bent my knees a bit, picturing myself smoothly crossing where the sidewalk met the street and continuing with my stride. All around me cars were stopping at the intersection, all moving parallel to me. I coasted down the decline, leaning slightly forward. Then when I hit the street, my weight was too far foward and I was pitching ahead. In an effort to recover I suddenly leaned way back, and that old left foot again thought it woud be fun to be airborne and kick out to my waist, like a Rockett at Radio City. I stood there, balancing on one foot with my leg straight out in front of me and my arms pinwheeling madly around me, my cool-kid shiny black helmet endorsed by a name I didn't recognize perched atop my head, weird body-armorish knee and elbow pads wobbling away as my limbs tried to sort themselves out, and in slow motion promptly fell backwards right on my ass. I sat down hard with a thud, and was laughing out loud before I opened my eyes. When I did, I saw all the drivers in the cars stopped at the signs around me were laughing too...at me, not with me. Whaaaaat an idiot! Get a load a this guy!" Shaking their heads and wiping their eyes, they drove through the intersection on their way to tell thier husbands and wives about the moron they saw rollerskating down the street. Meanwhile, I attempted to get back up; no easy task with legs sliding away independently of each other while I resorted to that old familiar position of bent 90 degrees at the waist, waiting for the world to stop spinning around underneath me for just two seconds.

I managed three miles, though, which I was pretty happy about. When I got home I told Amy how excited I was that it went so much better, though I'd fallen smack on my ass. I mentioned to her that maybe somebody I'll do an inline skating marathon! She looked at me, her head tilting annoyingly to the side and her shoulders falling in a gesture of are you kidding me? before she said, "Let's just try for awhile to not fall down, hmm?"

Monday, September 24, 2007

Fyr in the Forest

Don't forget that 'Zilla posted over the weekend - go here or just scroll down past my ramblings to check him out.

When I was 9 years old, my Dad, brother and I were at a friend of my Dad's house, out in the country. Jerry, my Dad's friend, lived on a few acres near the golf course, and he prepared his ATV for my brother and I to take turns riding while he and Dad relaxed on the porch over beers. My experience to this point in life with riding an ATV was absolutely none. So it was all new and exciting and slightly dangerous and exhilarating. We rode, of course, without helmets or gear or anything like that - just two kids in shorts and t-shirts who got stuck going with Dad to visit some dude, only to be rewarded with riding around on an ATV. How supremely cool.

During one of my brother's rides, he took off down a gravel road that splintered left into a short loop. If you took the loop clockwise, you rode with a steep gulley on your left, separated from the road by a barbed-wire fence and dropping pretty abruptly into a significant, steep hillside covered in wild, thick brush and thorny brambles. If you rode the loop counter-clockwise, then you'd approach this prairie-cliff head-on as you wound your way around the loop and back to the gravel road to return to home. On this particular ride, my brother had taken the counter-clockwise route, and returned out of breath. "Oh my God dude that is so scary do not do it."
"Really?" I asked, intrigued. "Why?"
He reached his other leg over the seat to dismount. "Because that cliff is right in front of you and you're driving right into it before you turn. It's really scary don't do it."
I don't think I said anything, just got on the ATV with, of course, every intention of demonstrating what a fantastic wuss my brother was and how brilliant I was, now a wise and experienced rider with 30, maybe 40 minutes of hard earned mileage behind me. Danger, after all, is my middle name.

So I careened down the gravel road, wind in my hair, skinny, all-knees-and-elbows frame bouncing atop the giant machine. I approached the loop, took an abrupt left, my knobby tires biting dirt and spraying it away (how cool!). Immediately I leaned right into the loop, then left as it curved, and was suddenly staring down, I realized with some immediacy, a hillside that was much steeper than it had looked, a curving road that was much sharper than I thought it might be, and a barbed-wire fence approaching much faster than it should have been.

You've known all along how this would go: I ripped through the barbed-wire fence, its jagged edges piercing into me then digging as I pulled the rusty wires taught against their old fence-posts, then dragging the wires with me as they finally broke free. The machine dove almost straight down, throwing me head first in front of it, and I landed in some kind of awkward roll onto all kinds of prickly nature. I somersaulted over and over down the angry hillside while the machine toppled behind me end over end, each as stupidly helpless as the other. I remember, when I came to some version of a stop on my back, looking up and a beat later seeing the hulking ATV flying over top of me, somehow not crushing me, moving with frightening velocity through the air and tumbling further down the hillside before finally coming to a clattering stop somehow rightside up. I was stunned, staring up at blue sky through a bed of thorns, and for a moment I think I just lay there, wide eyed and terrified, before finally bursting into a high drama explosion of cries and hiccups and yelps as Holy Shit I Just Totally Wiped Out Did You Guys See That Dad Dad Dad!!!!!! I screamed the gibberish of a hurt and frightened 9-year old.

I remember the 3 of them barrelling down the hilliside after me, and feeling relief that they saw me wreck, that I wouldn't be left here all alone to die of my wounds or be eaten by wolves or whatever horrifying fate might await the Victim of a Huge Accident such as me. "Dad ow it hurts geez Dad seriously it hurts I'm not kidding seriously Dad", feeling like I had to prove to him in case the visual aid of my demonstration wasn't enough that really, something scary just happened. And he arrived first and picked me up quickly and suddenly and without regard for my weight, the way Dads do, and carried me to safety. Probably the dramatic cliff (still quite steep in my present mind's eye) was a more gradual slope than a sheer drop off, probably I'd rolled a few times and not several hundred, probably the ATV was not due to explode any second like any wrecked vehicle does on The Dukes of Hazzard after such an impressive plunder. Dad had me back on the road and on my feet in no time, looking into my face with real concern but knowing if I was this noise-some and animated that probably I was going to live. I did not, in my 9-year-old mind, however, exaggerate the very real fence I busted through, the very violent fall I'd experienced, or the very sharp bed of thorny brush I'd just rolled around in. I was a bloody, punctured mess. But while that hurt - and it hurt for awhile - when I think back on the whole experience, it's the fear that sticks with me. Just the fear of helplessly falling, of not knowing what I was falling into, of losing control of the whole experience like I did.

It is not unlike a major descent on the bike.

And that irony is not lost on me.

My brother did, and does to this day, remind me what a moron I was.

It was not the first or last time I'd subjected myself to more than I was sufficiently capable of. Which is all of it prelude to: Hey. This is how I roll.

____________

So last week I googled "mountain biking Wisconsin" looking for somewhere, anywhere, to take my bike. I don't know anything about mountain biking except it looks like fun. But I wouldn't know a good trail from a crap trail. I know that I wasn't looking for a pleasantly paved day-ride kind of thing, and I wasn't looking for old rail beds, which are now frequently used for moutain bike trails - those are all relaxing Sunday afternoon joyrides and I was looking for a Mountain Dew commercial. Finally I found what appeared to be something promising at Kettle Moraine State Forest, only about 45 minutes East of me. So Friday night I got all my gear organized, overpacked every "just in case" thing I could think of into a small backpack to keep with me on the bike, then googled whatever basics I could on mountain biking, including appropriate air pressures, general strategies, avoiding catastrophe, whatever. When Saturday morning came I loaded up my mountain bike Fyr and left the house about 7:30, arriving at the park and getting ready to get on Fyr by 8:30.

I discovered that it is, in fact, a moutain biking park. I believe you hike on the trail, too, if you go the opposite way, but it's generally dedicated for biking. Which I thought was pretty cool. As I was getting my gear and bike ready to go, I was surrounded by other bikers dotting the parking lot, all in various stages of preparedness. There was a shelter a little ways off the parking lot, sponsored-in-part by Trek, and I thought that was a good sign. A good sign for what, I still didn't know. Ironically, later than same day I read a snippet in my National Geographic Adventure magazine about Kettle Moraine, and how it's "the best mountain biking in the midwest." Sweet!

The park has several trails of varying distances and degrees of difficulty, the most difficult of which - meant for "experienced" or "advanced" riders - was the blue trail. Number of times I've actually ridden my mountain bike on anything remotely rugged: zero. Can you guess which trail I chose? Of course I did. Which I remind you is not out of any kind of, y'know, arrogance or something, because I don't have that well a sense of myself and as often as not the whole thing backfires and I have to go back to baby steps anyway. I just like to define my boundaries from the outside in: Where is more difficult than I can handle? Let's work our way back from there. ie: let's poke a sleeping lion to see how pissed off he really gets, rather than quietly approach him to see if he gets pissed off at all. Much more efficient.

So I head out on the blue trail, morning air cool but comfortable, the sun shining hard and bright.

And it was awesome.



Seriously, I had no idea what to expect. I assumed it would be fun, and I assumed it would be difficult. I had no idea how much of each the day had in store. The trail is single-track, which (I know now) means what it suggests - meant for a single bike at a time. It's rich with tight turns, steep inclines, and rocky descents. The trail is mosty dirt, sometimes a kind of sand, and very often totally strewn with rocks; some jagged and angular, many others round and worn. It traverses deep and old forest, and roots criss-cross the trail frequently. The terrain is difficult and interesting and really, really cool.



I had meant to shoot some video...but forgot to swap in a larger memory card into my camera. I meant to shoot lots of pictures...but none of these translate. I can only take so many "see the trail disappearing into the forest" before you get it...but pictures can't really justify this adventure. In fact, it's not something you really picture at all, mountain biking, so much as experience. As it turned out, I had hardly any opportunity to take a picture anyway, much less look around for fun places to shoot them. I know I was surrounded by forest, I could smell the pine and once in awhile glimpse how high and huge some of these trees are, but generally my attention was on the immediate 3 feet in front of me, navigating through rocky terrain or avoiding some calamity or another. I did take this shot which is particuarly amusing for me because I'm looking ahead at a sharp left turn that had just suddenly appeared, covered in jagged rocks and bumpy roots for which I'll really, really need this photo-shooting hand in about two more seconds...



It had rained hard the night before, and while the trail was so well protected that it was mostly dry, there were a few muddy puddles here and there. At first I approached these with the conditioned mind of a road cyclist - "Avoid the water whenever possible." Then I rode through a puddle or two and, I'm ashamed to say, had this reaction: "Ew! Dammit, mud everwhere!" Like some prissy pretty fancyboy. In my defense, it still comes from being a road cyclist. Finally, though, as I approached a particularly long and deep mudbath, I said aloud, "You're on a mountain bike you idiot. Get dirty." And once I liberated myself from any kind of concern, the real fun began.

The Blue loop is about 7.5 miles long, and on my first lap I really was clueless. For awhile I was just so exhilarated to be out there, to be having so much fun, that I wasn't really thinking strategically about how to ride, or what to do. Countless times I barely unclipped in time to catch myself before some kind of crash or fall, if not into the ground than into an approaching tree. A few times I was glad my pedals are reversible - with clips on one side and platforms on the other - so that I could quickly ride with my feet alongside, like ski poles. The descents were always a ton of fun, as I'd try and define the sharp edge between exhilaration and fear.

I wound up my first lap and headed to my car to shed some of the long sleeves and replenish some Gatorade, and as I rode out, all muddy and dirty, I noticed the other riders just arriving, and felt like a cool kid. "Yup, tough trails out there today," I'd say to the guy parked next to me as I lifted my tail-gate, like I had any clue what a tough trail was. "Little bit of mud, huh?" Another would say and I'd tilt my head a bit, confused, then replay casually, "Oh this?" acknowledging my chocolatey legs like this ain't nothin! "Oh yeah, guess there's a puddle or two out there!" What a tool.

I headed out for my second lap, this time feeling like some kind of old pro. The trail was busier now, and once or twice a rider would have to quickly deflect to the right to let me pass, or I'd do the same for the guys behind me. I worried that maybe it would get packed now as mid-morning approached, but I stayed generally alone all day. Those that I did meet were all seemingly nice people - I don't have any idea what the mountain bike culture is like, but I didn't experience anything unkind.



There's a note somewhere on the park's literature that the blue "difficult" or "advanced" trail is meant relative to the other trails in the park not to mountain bike trails in general. Which is probaby true - I found this trail just challenging enough. Difficult, at times more difficult than I could manage, but never undoable. I imagine mountain biking - out west somewhere I suppose, is a whole other animal.

I felt myself taking the second loop for granted - flying through stretches that last time I picked through carefully. I felt this getting out of hand and again had to remind myself I was not on a road bike, where the object is to get there as fast as you can. The whole point I was out there was to just enjoy it, so as I was convincing myself to slow down and enjoy it I twisted around a particularly gnarly (and gnarly is a great word for mountain-biking) turn, covered in roots and rocks, and totally lost control of my bike. I didn't fall, but did end up somehow with my left foot still clipped in, dragging the bike behind me as I violently hopped on my right leg down the trail, trying not to fall on my head. Somewhere in that process I slammed the edge of my left hand against something, and it's still hurting two days later. After that I relaxed again, slowed down, and just enjoyed the new experience.

A few things I learned:

• Mountain biking is deceptively difficult. That mountain biking might be difficult might seem obvious, but if you watch it on TV or in magazines or something, it doesn't really look difficult. I don't mean the crazy tricks and jumping, just riding on a trail. When I was done with my day, about 15 miles in 2.5 hours, I felt totally wiped out. I was mentally fatigued like I am after a 4 or 5 hour road ride. My legs were totally thrashed and they felt thick and alien the next day. But also, my arms were tired, my core was tired. Everything is always working to control the bike. It's a hell of a workout.

• I saw several instances where I was able to apply a direct relationship between mountain biking and improving on the road bike. Besides the obvious fitness advantages, you learn a lot about balance, and boundaries, and limits. It's great for mental toughness because you cannot relax, for even a second. For 2.5 hours I was intently focused, the one time I rode into a kind of meadow and stopped to look around and daydream a second I nearly crashed into an unexpected rock jutting out of the ground. You can also learn some bike handling skills that I think can be applied generally.

• While you do go more slowly to pick your way through the terrain, you're always exerting force on the pedals. Going uphill can be really treacherous as your tires grasp for purchase on anything, and you have to precariously balance and still move ahead. In fact, on both laps this particularly difficult climb kicked my ass and I was relegated to walking my bike up - not because I was physically unable to pedal up the incline or anything, but as a matter of inertia; once I was stopped the hill was too steep and rugged for me to get going again.

• To that point, tires really matter. I think mine aren't knobby enough or something, because a few times I was applying more torque to my rear wheel than it could grip on the road, and it'd skid over the steep hillside instead of grab it and I'd be left screwed.

• One reason that Camelbacks are so popular on mountain bikes is because you really have very few opportunities to take one hand off your bike in order to drink. Another is that my Gatorade bottles were covered in mud, and I'd have to stop in order to wipe them off and get a drink.


This picture doesn't really do the mud justice...it was really pretty thick and pretty everywhere.

So it was an incredible blast, and I had so much fun I can't wait to go out and do it again. When I was all done and taking off my shoes at my car, getting ready to go hose down my bike and myself (there's even a hose at Kettle Moraine specifically for washing down bikes - that's pretty cool) - this guy, also ending his day, said to me, "Well, I can definitely tell I haven't been on a mountain bike in two years." "Yeah?" I asked, "Why's that?" "Ugh," he replied as he placed his bike on the mount attached to his SUV. "Hitting every rock and root out there. It was ridiculous."

You mean...you're not supposed to hit the rocks and roots? Cuz...uh...I was aiming for them.

Live and learn, I guess.



___________

And On Sunday...

I rocked inline skates for the first time ever. Holy CRAP is that hard! Who knew!?!? More to come on the sordid tales of me on roller skates...

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Train Wreck/Fall From Grace/Inferiorman



First of all, a huge congrats to all of the IMWI finishers, what a day! I apologize for my lack of posting in the past month or so. With all of the IM hoopla, XT4's races and my lack of anything to say, I though I'd take a back seat for a while....which may continue, I live a very boring life.

So, where to begin. Well it's officially been 5 weeks to the day since my last race. Since then, I've completely fallen off the wagon so to speak. For those of you that don't know, let me try to explain.

Food is like drugs to me. I think my favorite thing to do in the whole wide world is to eat...and eat in mass quantities. This first became a reality after I came home for the summer in 1999 from my freshman year of college carrying an extra 40 pounds. You've heard of the freshman 15 or whatever but how about the freshman 40! That's not a typo nor an exaggeration folks. I put on 40 pounds in a mere 9 months, outstanding.

It wasn't a mystery as to how this happened. I played varsity baseball and hockey in high school while staying on a pretty routined workout schedule. I wasn't some cut up, ripped stud or anything and didn't really watch what I ate but I was in decent enough shape and comfortable with myself. The best description of me was husky. Fast forward to my first year of college. No more sports to keep me active (unless you count co-rec volleyball and softball), no scheduled workout routine, 2 meals a day at the dining center (basically buffet style) and a dorm room full of all the snacks, goodies and crap food one could think of. Add to that my new found love of beer, $5 Little Caesar's Pizzas and wouldn't you know it, soon it looked like I had been stung by a swarm of bees and had an allergic reaction. Here's a beautiful picture of me, circa March of 1999. I cry a little inside when I see pictures like these, seriously.


Fat Todd circa 1999: "DQ cake anyone?"

Sophomore year I finally got my act together and started working out again. Since then though I've never been able to be "normal" as far as workouts and eating habits go. It's basically a roller coaster. One year I'm in really good shape and feeling great. All of a sudden I'll burn out and completely stop working out and start eating like absolute crap. I'll do this until I gain anywhere between 20 and 40 pounds and then fire up the workouts again. It's almost been an annual thing. Fat Todd for one year, in shape Todd the next. We're talking an 80 pound fluctuation from my heaviest to my lightest.

Another thing to note is that MODERATION is not in my vocabulary. It's either all or nothing, on or off with me in just about anything I do. When I'm in workout mode, I'll eat about as perfect as I can including rarely drinking. My workouts are productive and plentiful. I have great self control when I need to. After a while I'll burn out and go cold turkey. No workouts at all, eating crap food until I'm almost purging at every meal and drinking like a fish. This continues until I've put on some weight and have hit bottom. Then I'll fire up the workouts and good eating again and wonder why the hell I do this to myself while I'm about to ralph during a one mile trot.

I've never been able to just be normal. I can't really explain it I guess other than this is how I'm wired. Trust me, I've tried time and time again but to no avail. I think I've come to accept that this is how I operate and it seems to work for me. I'll bulk up nicely for the cold MN winters eating to my heart's content and drinking like I'm an 18 year old freshman. Once spring starts to come around I'll do a complete 180 and turn into a machine so that by the time summer, or now in my case racing season, rolls around, I'm in top notch condition. Bust my hump all summer long until I burn out and it's time to start putting on my winter coat.

Last year I took about a 6 week break from all things workout/triathlon related over Thanksgiving and Christmas. I tried to get some sort of race in once a month, even if it was just a 5K, to keep something on the calendar and me somewhat focused without completely going cold turkey. It almost worked but I guess I'm a giant wuss and didn't want to run in sub zero temps in January and February. For whatever reason, my break this year was this 5 week span during August/September.

Sadly, I was planning on doing a duathlon this morning! However, I haven't been on my bike since August 18th and I probably can't run 3 miles in under 30 minutes so I slept in this morning. Oh, and PS, got a bit of a hangover going right now.

I'm already signed up for the TC 10 miler which is on October 7th so needless to say I've got my work cut out for me if I plan on not walking across the finish line. Oh how far I've fallen in 5 weeks, it's so not fair. All that hard work over 6+ months, completely wiped out in 5 weeks time. So not fair. Maybe deep down inside I enjoy doing this to myself. Coming back from the dead in a way, breaking myself down to rock bottom and then building me back up to superhero status. I don't know. I just don't know anymore. It is what it is. Like I said, for those of you that know me, this is no surprise.

A huge part of me is scared out of my mind for 2009 if/when I complete IMWI. How the hell am I going to respond after that. I have a bad feeling I'll have the hardest time coming down from that high with the "what's next?" conundrum. Selling my bike and 300 pounds would not be shocking to me in the least.

A good friend of mine mentioned my situation and how it sort of related to Shawshank Redemption. She explained how I was Morgan Freeman's character Red and my triathlon season was my jail time (don't get me wrong, I love triathlon and racing). Once my season was over (Red's sentencing was up) it was time for me to come back down to reality (Red released back into the real world). I'm having a rough go of this again this year, I'm a solid 20 pounds heavier in these 5 weeks and a wreck mentally. Red didn't fair so well either and eventually hung himself. No need to panic, I'm not going to that extreme but you get my drift. If not, try to for my sake. It's hard for me to adjust to training for something and then bam, nothing, be normal. I don't know how that works or what that means.

So...I seem to have lost my train of thought here. Granted it's been a fun and wild 5 weeks hanging out with friends and family who I partially neglected over the summer while training and eating and drinking like there's no tomorrow. Inside though, I'm a complete wreck. It's like I'm lost and just going through the motions of life. So until I hit bottom (which has to be soon), I'll continue to eat 6 pieces of pizza for breakfast (yesterday) and fire down the Jameson's. I think base training for next year's half IM will be starting soon which will be a Godsend for me. If I have a laid out schedule in front of me and a goal of that magnitude, I'll snap out of this in no time.

For now, I'm off to a wedding to dance me arse off. Tomorrow I'm heading to the mall to get some new jeans with a larger waist size. Somebody pass me the Doritos!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Top 10 Things I'll Do This Offseason

10. Do not confuse "Off-Season" with "Taco Bell". This week, for instance - this one week - I'm eating for the enjoyment of it, whatever I want. But y'know, if I can go ahead and not gain my usual 10% or so, so that I'm having to first lose weight before getting serious about performance once real training begins again, that'd be suuuuuper. Part of having higher aspirations for myself next year and in '09 is living like it. No reason I can't stay consistently active all year 'round, even when not engaged in the full OCD of "training".

9. As Rich Strauss says - "take the next month off, just don't get fat." I'm going to do a few active things I've been wanting to do that otherwise don't really fit into a structured training schedule. This will allow me to take a break, without totally uninvolving myself. Also, I'm really excited about these things, so the benefits of actually "training" in the course of them will be almost secondary and accidnetal - I won't feel like I'm training. Starting with:

8. Ride my mountain bike more. I have a trail picked out about an hour east of here for the weekend that I'm going to hit. I'm really excited about it.

7. Learn to rollerblade. I think Jack would think that was pretty sweet, and it looks like fun. A thousand years ago I rocked the rollerskates (picture it...) and even ice skates pretty well, so hopefully it'll all come back to me.

6. Join a Masters swim class. I talked to the woman at the pool about it just yesterday. An added benefit is that the class is twice weekly, at, like, 5:30am or some silly thing. That would hurt, but would also I think instill some discipline that I'd appreciate. Besides, I may be looking for early morning and late evening workouts more often now with the major changes ahead (see No. 1). The swim is still my biggest limiter (though I have to say after this summer, the disparity between it and the other 2 disciplines isn't nearly as huge as it used to be - or at least it doesn't seem to be.) Training through it this winter with discpline will be a good thing for me.

5. I learned a lot after Ironman and training for a winter marathon afterwards and the injury etc. about where the edge of burnout is for me. It was a good lesson - I want to approach that edge, but be smart enough to know when to back off of it. Base training for next summer's Half Iron starts for me in October. I'll treat that base as "fun" triathlon-centric training for the first several weeks, without being all OCD about it. If I get too serious too early, I'll burn out by summertime. I want to avoid that.

4. Continue developing speed in all three disciplines - even this offseason, I'll be looking for ways to strengthen my legs and core, and when on the bike will be throwing in intervals, etc.

3. Get really, really disciplined, especially for the next 8-12 weeks, about strength training, stretching, and yoga. There is a direct relationship between my improved swim this season and my stronger left side. I'm an idiot not to continually work on these things. Alas, they lack for me the glimmer of getting on my bike or heading out for a run, but they're important and now's the time to be real about them.

2. Be strategic about my race schedule next year. I'll plug in a few runs this fall, and I'm yet to really define next season's schedule, but it has to be the right mix of fun and fast and hard and difficult. All through my Ironman '06 training, all my HIM distance races were experiments and experiences - I've never "raced" the distance. Nor have I ever raced a marathon or a 13.1. My early season Sprints were just to kick-start the season, knock out the cob-webs. My Olympic races - which I haven't done a true Olympic since...geez, August of '05 (my one Oly in '06 was shortened due to heat) - has not been done with refinement and strategy. I still have so much to learn, but am so much better a triathlete now than before Ironman. I want to revisit all the distances with a plan, a goal, a purpose. Not to always go all out and try and blow the doors off - there will still be races where the purpose is to explore and experiment. But nothing's alien to me anymore, and I want to use that to my advantage.

1. HAVE A KID! Yeah, so we're about 7 and 1/2 weeks away from gametime over here. As my sister said to me, "You're at a place now where literally one day you don't have a kid, and the next day you do." Which sounds pretty obvious, but if you wrap your mind around that truth, it's pretty insane. I'm so excited to meet this little person I can hardly stand it, but I also want her to stay in there for as long as she wants. Amy's getting pretty uncomfortable now, and is looking forward to having her body back. And it's becoming one of those things where the fun in talking about it is waning - enough talk, let's DO this thing! Most of the details are completed - her room is ready, the necessities are mostly taken care of, all the things so that "if she showed up tonight", she'd have a comfortable home to live in. Still, there's more stuff I'd like taken care of, just things around here, even not yet taken care of from the move, and I'll try and nail that stuff down in the coming weeks.

Of course, once the kid comes I expect changes and interruptions to training, and that's fine. I spent quite a few times this summer getting out for a workout even when I was exhausted or hadn't had enough sleep, just to familiarize my body with it. I'm not worried about any of that, though - the game obviously takes a backseat when it needs to, and so it will be. But part of Becoming again is to do it this time with these new and exciting things in my life, not in spite of them. If I'm going to Become Ironman again, then I'll be responsible for figuring all of that out along the way. It won't be hard, I don't think, to keep perspective - nothing so amazing as new life, after all. So says I.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Race Report: Devil's Challenge Triathlon

When I got out of the car on Saturday morning, just after 6am and with the world an inky blue as the sun considered its rise, it was 34 degrees. Thirty. Four. Degrees. Only crazy people play this game.

Some guys were tossing cardboard and whatever else they coud find that would burn into one of the campfire pits dotting the area, and as athletes huddled around it while others registered or quickly shed clothing to be body-marked, ice fishing came to mind. I had my winter coat on, stocking hat, winter gloves. So did almost everybody else, and as the quiet mumble of early-morning transition opening turned into the gradual murmur of more and more of us showing up, the sun showed up to glaze brilliant this Devil's Lake and its rugged shores.

I could see my breath as I quietly got to setting up transition, listening to my headphones and finding my own zone. My buddy Mike walked around snapping pictures of the lake. It was awesome - smoke rose off of it like a Thriller video, thick and mysterious, and I commented that if it was this foggy out there I might not be able to see the buoys. Transition was getting full now and very busy, and as the sun's rays found the spaces between the forests the morning warmed a little. There was no wind whatsoever, the lake was glass, and all-in-all, cold nor no, I thought it was a good morning to be a crazy person.

I was in Wave 5, and as I was there so early - as usual - I parked 'Blue at the very end of the rack. The bike would be nearly immediately in front of me when I came in off the swim, but I'd have a long run through transition to get to the bike out. Coming in from the bike would be a breeze, but I'd again have a long run out to get into the run. About an hour before gametime I shed my winter clothing for a quick warm-up jog. And, sun or no sun, it was cold.

The day would be spent (with apologies to Erin, in head-to-toe Ironman regalia. I didn't mean for that - I had planned to wear my favorite Headsweats hat, which is Ironman logo'd. But when such a cold day presented itself, I decided to wear my best cold-weather running jacket, which happens to be my Ironman Finisher's jacket. Add to it this conversation the night before, when my phone rang around 9pm or so:

Cuz'n Erin: So. We wearing our shirts tomorrow?
Meaning the Team shirts from Ironman '06. With her, my aunt & uncle, Amy and Mike all coming to support me at the race, and all having been at Ironman, all were wardrobe ready.
Me: Yeah...I don't think so. Just wear, y'know, whatever. Dress warm, it'll be cold.
CznE: ...(Incredulous) You mean we're NOT wearing our shirts?
Me: Hey! Whatever! Sure! Whatever you guys wanna do!
CznE: Well, I mean, we HAVE them, we might as well WEAR them, don't you think?
Me: Sure...ah...I have an extra one here for Mike (Who was visiting and probably didn't think to pack his Team Ironman '06 t-shirt...) and...um...Amy can wear the extra one I had for me last year, since she's, y'know, great with child.
CznE: Awesome. See you tomorrow.

And so, sufficiently M-Dotted, I trounced around Devil's Lake State Park, trying to assess just how cold the day would have it for me on the bike and run. I felt good, though. Legs felt strong, and I felt race ready.

Finally it was time to get into my wetsuit and head down to the water. Determined to stay as warm as I could for as long as I could, I rocked the wetsuit with my winter coat over it, stocking hat, shoes and socks. Required dress code for crazy people.

The sun was bright on the shore of Devil's Lake, though, and the warmth had made the morning much more inviting. I watched as the first two waves went, then, as the third wave prepared, decided it was time to get in and warm up a bit. I handed Mike my impressive winter attire and headed to the water. I expected it to be warm - or at least to feel warm - since the air was so cold. And while it wasn't freezing...it wasn't all that comfortable, either. The cold of it took my breath for a moment when I first submerged, and I worked to alleviate the shock, get my body acclimated and ready for exercise in these less-than-ideal conditions.

As I walked up to join my wave as it finally prepared to start the race, I passed by CznE, who'd just arrived, and gave her a cold wetsuit hug. "You're wet," she pointed out helpfully. Amy was right behind her - truly gigantic now with 8 weeks to go - and then my aunt & uncle. I gave them all a quick hello before crossing the timing mat and getting ready to race.

No luxury of the first wave this time, and I could tell by the look and stance of the guys around me that these were players - I'd be able to test my mettle a bit. My strategies were carried over from the week previous - swim hard and fearless, surge when I could to draft off of stronger swimmers, and go as hard as I could for as long as I could. The course was one-way - we'd swim out to a turn buoy, turn left into the sun for most of the length of the swim, then left again into shore.

I positioned myself on the inner left side, to give me the shortest distance to the buoy. The horn went off, and it was gametime.

I burst off the shore, ahead of my competition, running into the water until mid-thigh high. Then a quick dolphin dive before running a few more yards. Another dolphin dive. One more short jog and it was in the water for the rest of the swim. I had no sensation of if it was cold, or uncomfortable, or if it mattered. Soon I found myself on the giving end of the washing machine - swimming over swimmers in front of me, plowing through flailing legs and thighs and arms. I felt great. I zipped past a few swimmers before finding myself parallel with some kind of shark-dude as we stretched towards the first turn-buoy. He was a missle, and I drafted off of his right knee for as long as I could, until the turn came and separated us.

After the turn I found my stride again, and as the field spread out I sighted every second or third stroke, through the lingering mist and into the sun at the turn buoy in the distance. This is awesome. I had no sense of my placement or position in the world, I just knew I was working very hard, and swimming as fast as I could. I finally settled in, and tried to just keep a steady form and pace. When I felt a little more rested, I'd surge. Then, I'd swim. Then, I'd surge. But always moving as quickly forward as I could. At one point I passed a guy who had stopped up in the middle of it all to get his bearings, or catch his breath, or whatever. He was darting around swimmers, searching for some open water. I quickly and vividly remembered being that guy - scared witless from the madness of my first open water race, out of breath too soon, overcome with fear and intimidation.

Left at the last turn buoy, and straight ahead to shore as hard as I could. I didn't sight as often now, confident of my general direction. Through the clear, cool water I could see the ground rising slowly beneath me, and finally I moved vertical again to run out of the water. Almost immediately I tripped up, stubbing my left foot on a rock, shredding a toenail (the problems of which wouldn't become obvious until the run, and the pain of which not until later). Finally out of the water, and I ran past the cheering spectators, including my familiar, God blessed Team, into Transition.

According to the results, I swam .25 in 8:12. This would give me a meandering pace of 2:02. Not that I'm not fully capable of a meandering pace of 2:02...but I'm again questioning the distance of the swim. That just seems really slow for how fast I felt like I was swimming, and some quick spreadsheet work (you know already I'm a geek, stop looking at me like that) tells me that the 3rd-15th swimmers in my age group averaged about 8:05, which is a 2:00/100yard pace. That feels too slow an overall pace to me for .25 miles. I'm not sure if maybe the long run to transition counted as part of the swim (we crossed another mat going into transition), or if maybe the straight-away was .25 miles but the swim to and back from the turn buoys maybe weren't counted, or what. I realize that, for claiming to not be a numbers guy, using the word "spreadsheet" marks me a hypocrit, but really it's just about trying to quantify what all the training meant as far as measurable speed. And, it's frustrating when you feel you can't really be sure of the course. It's why I think the only wholesale comparisons you can make as far as swim performance is on the same course year to year - so, if I improve on this distance at this race next year, that'll mean something. Lifetime and Ironman I trust, because there's real money involved for the winners. For the small local race, though, I think sometimes it's just a crapshoot.

But, all that said, that'll be my only real criticism of the race, and it's out of my control anyway, so who cares. I felt great, I had a strong swim, and I held ground pretty well with the overall faster swim times in my age group. Can't complain about that.

I cruised into Transition, then, after a pretty long jog around the entire length of the transition area. My wetsuit was not glued to my ankles this time, and with no exceptional drama I had my shoes on, jacket zipped, and was escorting 'Blue back the entire length of transition to the Bike Out. Finally to the mat in 2:35 (most of it running around), I mounted up and headed out.

My shoes wouldn't clip in - the ground was soft, and my cleats were clogged with mud and grass. How irritating. Finally, though, I was able to stomp down and clip in. A right turn here, a left turn there, and we were leaving the crowds behind us and heading out on the course. I reached into my pockets and pulled out my full-fingered gloves, using my teeth to snag them onto my fingers.

As I settled in and willed my heart rate to fall, I considered my strategies for the bike course. Ride hard, push always. Maybe I'll average 20, 21, heck, 22 mph today. Maybe I'll -

Then I turned the corner and beheld the herd of spandex before me. Those familiar, imagine this: Take the first two Bitch Hills at Ironman, and lay them together as one length and one single climb. This was the gist of it - a pretty steady climb, between a 6 and 8 percent grade, that just went on and on and on. I sighed in resignation, threw away lofty time goals (best to be unshackled from them, anyway), and thanked God for my compact crankset. Away we went.

I love people new to the game. They have a special place in my heart. I love that they're here, I love that some of them will do this again and again, that this will become part of their lives, that they're jumping aboard. Love it. I have tremendous respect for them, and I cheer them on and want good things for them. But with so many at these short distance races, I'm learning that there are some basics that I think they're not being told in course previews and race meetings. Like - stay on the right side of the road. Don't ride 4 or 5 or 8 across in the lane. And if you need to get off your bike and climb the rest of the uphill, feel free - but try and slide over to the right side before you do, and don't just up and stop in the middle of the lane. The entire intial climb was spent, in addition to the natural difficulty presented by a pretty long hill - avoiding all kinds of carnage. It was nearly comedic. People are hopping off mountain bikes in droves. Some guy behind me with a roaring disc wheel and aero-helmet circus hat came blaring ahead of me, shrieking, "People! Stay to your right! Please move to your right!" I saw some woman standing helplessly by the wide of the road, staring at her bike, eyes glazed. It was a tough first mile to the bike course, and a tough way to be introduced to the game for the first timers.

Finally cresting the hill, I checked to see that we had climbed 1.6 miles. I had enough time to catch my breath before beginning the descent, maybe 3/4 of the length of the original climb, and with potential for some impressive speeds. But, with still more riders strewn haplessly here and there, and me not entirely confident in their experience or abilities to stay the course, I was tapping my brakes the whole way down, sometimes slowing dramatically for other riders, passing precariously.

This went on twice more, in immediate succession - an incredibly long uphill climb, then a dramatic descent, then another climb. I never felt too bad on the climbs - my legs were never screaming, I was never tempted to get out of my saddle, never miserable or swearing under my breath. By the top of the 3rd climb a lot of the immediate crowds had dispersed a bit, and there was more breathing room to ride. At 15 minutes, I had a glance at my clock - at a 20mph pace, I'd be at 5 miles at the 15 minute mark. Alas, I had only ridden 3.6. It was going to be a tough morning on the bike.

Finally we reach a turnaround, and got to do the last of the 3 initial hills again, only in reverse. This is where I first encountered Five-O-Five. I was climbing the hill going the other way when I passed him, dressed in a yellow and black riding jacket. On the opposite descent, he passed by me in a blur. I saw a "4" tattooed to his left calf, and knew by the "5" I wore on my own that we weren't in the same age group, and he'd been in the swim wave ahead of me. As we finally turned off of this initial slow and long roller coaster, we stayed back and forth like this, even down a mile-long, very Garfoot-ish descent that finally allowed me open up and roll at 40mph. The day was crisp but not too cold (I was dressed right), the sun was bright, the air was nearly totally still, and me and 'Blue were riders once more. What a wonderful life.

Five-O-Five and I engaged the rest of the way, he passing me, then me passing him. Sometimes he'd ride by so fast and strong that I thought for sure that was his final pull away, only to somehow be right at my side again 3 minutes later. "I just can't lose you!" He'd say, and I'd acknowledge with a simple, "Yep!" The descents got more frequent as the ride went on, and we were gaining what ground and time we could from the difficult first 5 miles.

Finally we re-entered the cheerful crowds and spectators, and as we headed down the last hill I took my feet out of my shoes and prepared for T2 as I crossed the mats in 55:38. My spot was just off the T2 entrance this time, so I quickly tossed my bike gear and grabbed what I needed for the run. I saw Five-O-Five running ahead of me, on the other end of transition and onto the mats as I departed 'Blue and ran to the opposite end and onto the run, crossing the mats in 1:06.

The goal for the run: Sub 7:00/mile pace. I really, really wanted this. It was a numbers objective, yes, but in a Sprint race the numbers objectives are kind of fun, and besides this had nothing really to do with the race, so much as a personal mission I've been on through training. I thought I had it in me - or at least I hoped I did; in training, I'll never have occasion to ride as hard as I possibly can for 15 miles and then see if I can break 7:00/miles for a 3.1 mile run. So the training has to come down to race day. I didn't know if the brutal climbs had taxed my legs too far, or what to expect. But I wanted it, so I was determined to chase it.

I checked my watch right away and locked into a 7:00/mile pace, feeling it out and deciding it was comfortable. As I turned to head out of the crowds and onto the course, there was the Team, all together and chanting my last name, same as they did that cold and wet day on State Street. Same blue shirts, same excited grins, my aunt Pat with the same hopping, trotting, running-in-place thing she does, as though she's trying to run the race for me. I smiled huge and high-fived them all as I ran by. Pretty cool of them, to get up so early on such a cold morning. Geez, we've heard me say those words before, eh?

The first mile - in fact, the entire run - had no serious hills, but there were a lot of short interruptions that forced me to work hard and slowed me down. I was entirely dedicated to this sub 7 goal of mine, and was discouraged when about 3/4 of a mile in I could feel a pebble underneath my middle toe on my left foot - the sticky ground must have glued it to my sock in transition or something. I ran for a bit, determining if I could make it the whole race with it in there, but it was really aggravating. Shiiiit. I checked my watch and saw that I'd slowed to a dismal 8:19/mile pace. Dammit! I quickly pulled over to the side of the trail and, hopping on one foot, tried to empty my shoe. I kept my eye on the guy I'd just been following to I could catch back up to him, and some guy ran by me and said, "There's nothing in your shoe, you just can't feel your feet!", and we all laughed. The pebble had been pressing my (heretofore unknown to me) shredded toe (from stubbing my toe coming in from the swim) up into my shoe, and there was the stop-and-fix-it discomfort I was feeling. The pebble gone and my shoe replaced, I sprinted to catch up to my original position. As the first mile ticked by I checked my time - 7:31. Sonuva. I'd dug myself into an early hole and had little time to get out.

I knew enough not to go chasing it all at once, so I steadily increased my pace to the 6:40's and hung there. Soon, though, we were on a long, slow, bending incline that would take us most of the half-mile left to the turnaround point. The run course had us going through a circular campground, and campers eyed us suspiciously, huddled under blankets and sipping steaming coffee. We were, after all, crazy people.

My pace was right around 7:00 for the entire incline, and as I passed Five-O-Five for the final time that day, I wasn't racing anybody but me. I held hope that, since the turnaround was head, I'd get to make up for this incline by running downhill half a mile and maybe making up some time. Coming back the other way, then, I was clocking the 6:40's again, careful not to blow up, wanting to save what I could for the last mile. Still, I knew I needed more than this - that I wouldn't cut it if I didn't find some speed. Just before the 2 mile mark, I let it go, and was cruising for awhile in the 6:30's. I checked my watch for some quick math - I might just make it. If I don't run into any more hills that'll slow me down, I could just do this!

No sooner did I think it, though, than a short but steep incline presented itself, and I cursed as I threw myself up it as fast as I could. Still, even 30 seconds at a late 7-something, early 8-something pace was more than I had time for. On the other end of the hill, with about .6 miles to go, I threw down.

The last .4 miles or so seemed to take forever, and I kept waiting for the turn-off back into the crowds and transition area, when I knew I'd just burn whatever I had left. Finally it came, and I checked my watch one last time. I didn't think I had enough time. It would be close, but from here on out I wouldn't check it - I'd just run. I heard the Team cheering for me and tried to give them a fist, but hoped they'd forgive me for trying instead to chase this elusive Seven. Amy yelled, "Get him, baby, get him!" as the guy in front of me threw on his afterburners and I torched my own. Down the finish chute now, and I was concentrating on turning over my legs, go, go, GO GO, the runner in front of me as good a rabbit as any to chase, but the finish line drawing too close for me to catch him. Give me twenty more yards, I thought...

I threw myself across the Finish mats, stumbling to the volunteer who dispatched the timing chip from my ankle, my lungs burning, my quads screaming, pretty sure I was about to throw up. I've never chased the finish line like that before, and it felt pretty good. I felt good about my training for that, too - it's something I've been working on, conditioning my body to go hard at the end, even when it hurts. My heart rate finally came down, and I stood up to walk around with my hands resting atop my head, trying to suck in breath. As I watched the Team approach me from their station near the finish chute, I checked my watch.

Goal: 21:45.
Actual: 21:55.
Pace: 7:04/mile

Ack.

My reaction then, as now: Oh well.

Don't think I won't catch you, Seven. Someday, I'll catch you.

Final stats, for you scoring at home:

Total Time: 1:29:24. 15/71 AG, 82/440 Men, 88/736 overall.

The Team arrived and we hugged and high-fived, and found a spot in the sun for me to catch my breath and happily recap some of the highlights. I thanked them for coming out, they, like always, thought it was lots of fun, and it felt good to be with them again, a 3rd of the Ironman Force, and to know we were en route once more. Becoming Ironman again. Laying chase, this time I think - I realize a bit after this race, after this strange summer, and as the offseason has begun. Not all the time, and not necessarily chasing numbers - but I have 5ks, 10ks, marathons, Half Irons in front of me this time in Becoming. The only way to get faster, is to go faster. The only way to get stronger, is to be stronger. It's never been long division, after all - just about playing the game as hard as I can play it. I know more now. I wonder what I'll do with the knowledge. I'm excited to find out.



Epilogue

Last week, while on an hour long trail ride with Fyr, a fox darted across the path. Even the foxes have returned. The Becoming has begun again.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Cuz I think it's cool.

I think you'll agree that you don't need to care about football at all to still think this is pretty dope.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Of Volunteering at Ironman

So my job was to to direct traffic, specifically spectators. It wasn't marketed as that - it was marketed that I'd be on the corner of State & Henry, right in front of Noodles & Co. First off, I thought that was cool - being in front of Noodles - because some of my friends sought refuge there last year while waiting for me to come back around and toasted me with my favorite - mac & cheese. Anyway, as far as I was told (I have no memory of where, geographically, anything actually was when I did the race, nor do I know the course or Madison well enough to have a clue), I was right around mile 1ish, and then again at mile 12ish and then 14ish, something like that. So how it works is, athletes are coming in one direction and going in another - my job, on paper, was to keep the athletes moving "to the right of the cones".

What I actually did was stop huge herds of people from blindly stepping into the intersections on their ways around downtown, getting the way of runners. Most people were very sweet, very lovely, totally understanding. Some where odd, and my favorites were the cats on cell phones who, completely oblivious, would just wander right into a runner's lane. Cripes. It was actually very high stress - I'd have to get some people half-way across, then wait for the runners coming the other direction to pass, them send them quickly. Sometimes I'd have to send huge masses going both ways across the intersection, and even my "quickly now, quickly now" would inspire little more than a weird little trot, and I'd always feel horrible when a runner had to break stride. I was extremely busy, and spent 4 hours turning my head constantly, putting my hands up like a traffic cop, directing people everywhere. I seriously hardly had time to get a drink. It was nuts.

But once in awhile there was the occasional break in the action, and especially as the day went on I saw the evolution of athlete traffic - at first very heavy coming one way, then very heavy coming both ways, then very heavy going the other way as most runners began their second half of the marathon. Early on I saw a runner looking very focused behind his sunglasses, wearing a hat with neck-shades on it and a Spiderman jersey. "Run, Bubba Run!" I called to him as he came by, and he looked up, kind of spaced out, then grinned. On his way back I saw him again and ran after him for a minute, telling him how great he looked. Also early on - I can't remember if it was before or after Bubba - I nearly missed Stu as he went by, then called out "Go Stu!" with his back to me - he lifted his arms in triumph.

I looked up during one short break from the madness to see Steve smiling at me - he was looking awesome, really strong. I ran with him for a few moments, screaming in his face as loud as I could, telling him how good he looked before smacking his ass and telling him what a rockstar he was. Later he came back around and I ran with him again, screaming and shouting. I told him his swim was awesome, and that this was it, this was the road to Ironman! I have no idea what else I ever said to these people, I was just overjoyed to see them, utterly happy for them, so glad I saw them and for even a moment shared in their day.

Later I looked up and saw a name I recognized on the back of some yellow shirts, and called out to Erin's team - Chief of Stuff turned around and I reintroduced myself - he didn't recognize me with the hat, he said. He turned around to show me "Chief of Stuff" printed on the back of his shirt - so cool - and introduced me to lots of Erin's friends and her parents, "This is xt4, one of Erin's blogger friends!" Her team, all clad in yellow, looked like they were having a great day, and CoS had things under control. He told me Erin would be coming around in 10 minutes or so, and he chilled with me in the intersection for awhile while I directed traffic. It was really cool - we chatted about how Erin had been doing, and I mentioned that I saw her on the bike that morning in Verona and she was looking great. We talked about who else we'd seen, how else it'd been going for everybody, what the day had been like. Finally Erin came rounding the corner and her team exploded and while I was escorting pedestrians to and fro CoS pointed me out to Erin (who, though, might have confused me for another team-member, since my volunteer shirt was yellow, like her crew's) before I bolted in her direction and ran with her a minute and screamed my face off for her, too. That girl - seriously, I know you've heard it by now, but she had a sensational grin on her face from start to finish. It was totally awesome. The kind of smile where she might start laughing any second. As I slowed and came back to CoS I said, "She's smiling, and for real, and that's all you can ask for at the Ironman." Her team waited at my corner for her to come back around the next few miles, and when she did I chased after her again like an idiot while CoS ran all the way down the street after her, and when he came back he said, "She wants to go out after this!" What?!? Awesome. CoS and I chatted a little more and then he and Erin's crew headed to the next destination. Cool guy, that CoS, one of the highlights of my day. And rumor has it he bought some Total Immersion books lately. Yeah baby.

I didn't see Brazo, or Pharmie, or Wil, or any of the others, but I hoped they were out there doing their thing. Around 8pm somebody came to relieve my shift, and I had about an hour to kill before heading to the Finish Line for medals. My legs were aching a bit after my race the previous day, so I hopped on Fyr - best decision of the day was bringing my bike downtown with me - and cruised around watching more of the race for a bit before heading to the Finish Line to get checked in and organized. Just as I got to the finish area I looked up at the jumbotron to see Bubba crossing the line - awesome! I was about half an hour early, so I sat down in a volunteer tent and rested, checking the internet on my phone for everybody's run splits and progress - so far so good across the board. Thomps showed up while I was chilling out and shook my hand - I was relieving him at the Finish Line, handing out medals. It was crazy to see Ironman behind the scenes like that - the catchers, they have this super smooth system where it's like an assembly line. They catch in two's, taking athletes through the chutes, then go to the back of a constantly moving line to catch more athletes. Everything is really efficient. Just before my shift started Steve crossed the line, and I was able to catch him in the finish chute and give him a hug, telling him, "Well done Ironman!" He seemed how all finishers seem - exhausted, happy, amazed, enthralled.

When my shift started, I was one of 4 medal people. One woman was just a crazy ball of energy all night long, and when we all started getting tired she'd fire us up - she was awesome. It was always very surreal and humbling to place the medal around somebody's neck - it was, honestly, a very important moment for the athlete. You don't want to screw it up. I'd always try to say something congratulatory. Some of the finishers were in great shape, some were hardly able to stand. There were several moments where a wife or girlfriend or husband or friend had somehow made their way back there and asked to place the medal around somebody's neck, and that was always pretty amazing. There were lots of moments like that for me, looking at the finish line from the end-out. We'd see athletes coming all the way down the chute, and you'd see their faces, some of them stumbling, some of them carrying children, some of them dancing and leaping.

I remember thinking, when one woman placed the medal around her boyfriend's neck with a look of, "Well there you go, see? You did it afterall." and a kiss on the lips - everybody here has a story. And I know that's obvious, but when I was an athlete that was peripheral to me. I was aware of it, but unable to be terribly attentive to it. Here, I saw stories unfold. Teach said in her post about how getting one swimmer to the finish line became her life's mission. I'm tapping into that, here - you see these stories in front of you, and you realize how huge this thing is. I don't mean huge in size and scope - those things are obvious but not my point - I mean huge on a human scale, on a personal level, and you want to help. You just want to do whatever you can to help. There are 2200 out there just like me, becoming Ironman, and this was their story unfolding. And they got up to run in the rain, and they missed their children during long rides, and they got divorces and got married and recovered from illness and they worked 60 hour weeks and they turned 65 and they lost 30 pounds and they carried their country's flag and all of it was a chapter in a story. I felt truly blessed, and sometimes even a little uncomortable, to be looking in on those stories when I'd see a husband medal his wife, or a woman cross the line in tears, or a man wobble his way across because by God he has never worked so hard for anything in his life. Some very intimate moments, these. And to get it - to truly get it - you have to realize that the thing he was working so hard for was only represented by this medal being placed around his neck. The medal is only the talisman. The thing he worked for is something else entirely. And sometimes those are just words, you know. Sometimes they're just hollow descriptions and vague metaphors. Not this night. This night the lion's heart was tangible and palpable and totally inspiring.

The whole night was like this, a kind of ongoing highlight reel. When you watch the Ironman videos at the athlete's breakfast or on television and you get a little weepy - honestly the whole night, just like that. Probably you can choose to be clinical about it and just go about the business of seeing somebody stumble across the finish line, but not me. It hit me right here, every time.

I gave everybody a heads up that I had friends crossing the finish line, and we all worked with each other to make sure that if anybody had somebody they knew cross, they'd do the honors. That was another remarkable thing, and I noticed it across all the volunteers, even the aid station people - everybody there wanted to be the one to help the next guy. To be the catcher, do the medal, hand off the hat and t-shirt, whatever it took. You always kind of hoped you got to be next. You always wanted that direct connection with the athletes.

That's the thing about the volunteers, and this isn't self aggrandizing at all because I never really thought of myself as a volunteer all day, just somebody looking through the curtain a bit at Ironman backstage: These people deeply, deeply care about the athlete's experience. You could take these same strangers and put them together in Wal-Mart, and they'd probably have no words for one another. Put them here, in every kind of awkward, half dressed, body fluidish, most vulnerable circumstance, and the kindness and symbiosis is remarkable - the athletes need the volunteers, but the volunteers somehow really need the athletes, and both look for opportunties to demonstrate that, be it with a quick bottle exchange or a "thank you" from a breathless runner. I learned at the Volunteer dinner that there were something like 3200 volunteers. That's, like, 1.3 volunteers per athlete. It's like having a personal escort all day to make sure every single person makes it across the finish line. That's awesome. What a cool thing, that people care. You know, really. Just what a cool thing, on a basic, elementary, human level, that people give a damn about one another so much. Awesome.

Erin crossed the line, smiling as huge as she was the rest of the day, and it was an honor to put the medal around her neck. I can't remember what I said to her, but I'm sure it wasn't worthy of the moment. I saw Pharmie come screaming down - I'd read at Wil's blog that they'd been together after T2, so I wondered if maybe they wouldn't be crossing together, but she was solo. Her eyes were brilliant and a bit wild when she crossed the finish line, and I think until I said, "Pharmie" while placing the medal on her she wouldn't have known it was me. Then very shortly after Wil came across, and she was pretty emotional. Hard fought for, that medal. Good for her.

I was able to go back in the chute then and have a few brief words with Thomps and Steve and Pharmie, snapped some pictures, congratulated them again, heard the briefest points of what will be an epic race report from Pharmie, to be sure.

And then there was Frank. If you don't know: Frank Farrar is 78 years old. A dozen years ago he was told her had 3 months to live. He asked his doctor if he could do a Half Ironman, and his doctor said, "Sure, why not? You're going to die anyway." He was governor of South Dakota once. He's become something of an IMWI legend, and the last few years he did not finish. Last year, in fact, he was about a minute late. This year, at around 16:55, Mike Reilly got the whole crowd chanting "We Want Frank! We Want Frank!" He finally turned the corner in the finish chute and the place. went. nuts. All of us on the other side of the finish line were craning our necks, standing on chairs, whatever we could do to get a better angle. The music came to a halt before a thumping beat came blaring back out with the guitar riff to Black Sabbath's Iron Man. It was straight out of a movie, tell you what. Frank comes stumbling to the finish line - he has a wrapped up left knee, and his gait has him hunched way over into a kind of geez-he's-going-to-fall-right-over position, leaning way over to the side, and before he crosses the Finish Line the guy turns around, takes off his hat and bows to the crowed. Are you kidding me? Total class act. The place is totally insane, absolutely nuts. Hillary Biscayne and the other pro finishers are spraying spectators with champagne. Total chaos, it was beautiful. Frank crosses the line, and he is immediately mobbed by everybody. Media, catchers, officials, they swoop down on him like he's Michael Jordan just sank the winning shot. I'm standing there, saying out loud to nobody at all, "Are you kidding me?" I have a big stupid grin on my face. This is what it's all about baby. This is it. This is the Ironman.

Bits & Pieces:

Overheard, late Saturday night, lying in bed. My hand resting on Amy's stomach, feeling this baby girl flop all around in utero:

Me: Ironman tomorrow.
Amy: Yup. What an amazing day.
Me: I think the weather's going to be great for them.
Amy: I can't believe how cold it was! God it was miserable.
(Quiet then. This happens a lot among us, my family, my friends. We start talking about Ironman last year, then get quiet. Then:)
Amy: Brought your family so much closer together.
Me: It's a great thing.
Amy: A great thing.

Overheard, Sunday in Verona, watching the bikers go by:

Amy: You know, if you're just going to train as hard next year for a Half as you would...
Me (interrupting her): Don't even say it!
Amy: Well I'm just saying if you're going to be gone training a lot anyway...
Me (jumping out of my seat): Do you know what you're saying!? Don't say it! I haven't any willpower at all right now!
Amy (laughing): Well I just want...
Me: No! (settling down). It's not the right time. '09. Don't tempt me. I can't believe the things you say!
Amy: Okay. You're right, '09.

Overheard, Sunday afternoon while volunteering on the run course.

Woman: Did you do the race today?
Me: What?
Woman: I see you have numbers on your leg (from my race the previous day) - did you do the race today and now are volunteering?
Me (Stupified. Pausing to see if she's serious. She is. So:) No. I did not go 140.6 miles in (checking my watch) right around 9 hours and then decide to spend the rest of my day in an intersection directing traffic. But that you think I may have kicks ass, and you're my new favorite person ever.


Random Thoughts:

• Certainly was the year of the aero-helmet, no? Wow. I saw almost as many of those as I did normal helmets. I wonder if one is in my future. I tried one on at the expo, you know. Not that vanity is top of the list when one freely galavants in spandex whenever convenient, but I don't think you're supposed to look like such a dope in a bike helmet as I did those spacey hats.

• What's with flirty spectator women when I'm trying to direct traffic? That was just weird.

• Did you see the Mexican runner who did the ENTIRE RACE in a Nacho Libre mask? That's dedication to the cause, baby. Whatever that cause is, I appreciate the dedication.

• Me (To clearly important Mexican dude in the finish chute putting medals around all the Mexican finishers): Are you the coach?
Him: No, no coach. Just...organizer.
Me: So all these people know you as the organizer of this whole thing, the Mexicans doing the race?
Him: Right. (He pauses for reflection, then:) 2 years ago we were 37. Now, we are 400.
Me (trying to take that in.) Dude. That's awesome.
Him (Huge grin): I know, right! (we high-five)

• Speaking of which, wow, the passion for each other that the Mexicans had. Just awesome.

• Least favorite part of the day: All the damn sandwiches around for the volunteers to eat were slathered in mayo. Seriously. Even people that love mayo, can't we all agree that it's a lot easier to make, transport, and eat-while-very-busy a sandwich that is NOT slathered in mayo? Can't we provide convenient little mayo packets for those interested? Honestly. Twice denied the free turkey sandwiches at Ironman, two years running, because of the damn mayo.

• Favorite part of the day (besides all of the already accounted for good vibes documented above): Kid's t-shirt that said, simply, "My Dad is Ironman." I gots to find one of those somewhere.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Justice League of Triathlon: September!



Who: Triathletes and their accomplices of any and all levels of experience, interest, and fortitude. If you're reading this, you're invited. Even if you're not reading this, you're invited.

What: We eat dinner, we engage in triathlon-minded geekery, we occasionally touch on something in the real world. This month we'll be especially interested in all things Ironman, Teach's amazing race, x's Adventures on Lake Geneva, CoS's Account of Captaining an Ironman Support Crew, etceteras.

Where: I dunno yet. Stay tuned and I'll let you know when I do.

Come one come all!

Race Week: Devil's Challenge Triathlon

Well, while the rest of the world is generally taking a well-deserved break, resting and basking in their Ironman-ness, I'm happy to still be meandering right along. While I impatiently await myriad race reports, I'll keep you posted (literally) on my continued goings-on...I have a report of my Ironman volunteerism in progress (did you see Teach's succint yet meaningful post of her day? If only I were capable of that kind of brevity. Alas, you know me, I am nothing if not verbose...) - I'll get that posted in the next few days, I suppose.

Meanwhile, it's Race Week! Again! Whahoo! If you missed last week's adventure at Lake Geneva, scroll down a bit for the goods. This week is my "A" race - and by that I guess I mean the race I've been most focused on this summer since I was able to focus. This one's a genuine Sprint - .25 mile swim, 15 mile bike, 3.1 mile run. By any accounts I can find this one is, I think, a generally well run, well organized affair - which after last week, seriously the triathlon could be held in mid-day traffic with all of us required to stuff raw hamburger in our trisuits and be chased by basset hounds and it would be better organized than last week.

My legs are actually pretty well shredded after a tough, hilly run on Saturday's race and then a lot of standing on Sunday (I feel bad even mentioning that my legs might be sore from standing on Sunday, considering...y'know...the 140.6 miles traveled by some...), so I've been resting these last two days and tomorrow I'll start some light, taper-ish workouts before Saturday. The weather right now looks a shade chilly, actually - 60 degrees but sunshine, which I think might be just about perfect, but maybe I'll toss a jacket on for the bike. We'll see.

Goals: I watched some video Amy shot of last week's race, and noted that while my sighting in the water was much improved, my form went to hell everytime I lifted my head to do it. I need to remember to keep my elbows up. Beyond that, I hope to again have the kind of effort I had last week - work hard, be strategic if I can, and go as fast as I can. I hope I can improve my T1 time...nothing to do about that but get more time in taking off the wetsuit, etc., so we'll see. I'd like to push the bike harder than I did last week, but I don't know anything about this course, so that'll dictate a lot. The run: Well, my sub 7:00/mile goal is still at hand. Again, without knowing anything about the course, we'll see just what's possible, but that's what I'm shooting for.

My buddy Mike's coming to town for the race, and I thnk Cuz'n Erin (who seriously is the Queen of Kicking Ass, you should all meet her in person sometime, maybe she'll come to a JLT dinner sometime) is I think coming too (yes, Erin?) and as it's her BIRTHDAY this weekend I think I'll dedicate my efforts to her. So, we should have a finely assembled Team to share the day with as well, and that's always a blast.

By the way, where is TZilla, you ask? He's around - he told me the other day he was waiting for some of my races and the Ironman stuff to dissipate before he comes back with his stories of womanizing and drunken nights. But he's got a Du scheduled for next weekend, so you know he'll bring some love soon.

So - there you go. Stay tuned for more!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Meanwhile...

While we all recover from our Ironman hangovers (I still have the Volunteer dinner to go to tonight!), I received an email today from a writer at the Isthmus, a magazine here in Madison. We'd been communicating lately about my videos of last year, and she wrote a nice article for their website on Saturday. Cool! Check it out!

Ironman by iPhone...

Much more to come on my day looking in on Ironman '08, but here a few shots I managed to catch with my phone -


Looking down Main Street in Verona at about noon.


State Street around 3:00pm...it's a whole different scene when the weather is as beautiful as it was!


The Finish Chute around 8:00pm...Run Bubba Run had JUST crossed the finish line!


From behind the Finish Line


Iron Wil and Pharmie celebrate becoming Ironman.


Steve & Pharmie, victorious.


Celebrating the final finishers.