Wednesday, August 27, 2008

This just in: Training for a marathon is hard

I had a mostly-solid-really-ugly-last-2-miles 15 mile run last weekend. My ankle felt better than I expected it would (more on that in a minute), but I still stopped 3 times just to stretch. It wasn't the leg that made me crash the last 2 miles, but rather just a classic bonk - I'd been drinking Gatorade okay, but had just a single gel. I also subscribed to the same strategy I'd worked for the half marathon - just run comfortable. This 15 miler was, I think, as far as I've run since Ironman in 2006. And I remembered that - hello - you kind of need to strategize about that kind of distance. You have to eat now for later. You have to go slow now to maintain pace later. Somehow I'd just sort of not taken that part seriously until the bonk painfully reminded me of it. Sounds like a pretty rookie thing to do, but really, this is the first marathon I'm intentional about. The first marathon I ran, in 2005, was to psychologically prove to myself that I could go the distance for Ironman in '06. The marathon at Ironman is a whole other thing in itself. So this is kind of my first real approach to the race to not just try, or see if I can, but really execute something. It's hard work.

Today I had a 6 mile easy run with a goal pace of 8:47/mile. I covered it in 8:21/mi, and felt stronger than I have in many weeks. I'm wearing a brace on my right ankle called an AirHeel, made by AirCast. I wore it for my long run last weekend, too, and I think it's offering some of the stability that I mentioned in the last post I was lacking - how I just don't have the strength to push off. It's actually pretty ingenious - there are two air bladders, one that's immediately under your arch, and the other that wraps around the back of your ankle, precisely around the Achilles tendon. When you put your foot down, the air in the bottom chamber pushes towards the back chamber, offering support and stability and compression to the Achilles - where I need it most during the foot strike. When I lift my leg, the air returns from the Achilles area back to bottom of my foot, offering an instant of stability and cushioning to the arch when I strike, before sending the air back to the Achilles. I wondered if it would feel awkward or annoy me, but it doesn't - it's present, but not distracting. Today's run was as good as I've felt in a long time - I didn't have to stop and stretch, I didn't have any of the sharp pains that race up my calf, and I was able to keep a bit higher pace, with better consistency, than I've been able to in a long time. This was all extremely encouraging. I have a light load this week - a series of 6-milers, including my long run, before I go 18 for my long run next weekend. I hate to say it too loudly, but it could be that my concoction of treatments and contingencies around the Achilles could be seeing some progress.

However, an intriguing thing happened near the end of today's run. I was thinking, just generally, of what might happen at the marathon - I have several long training runs yet before I'll have an understanding of what feels like a realistic race goal with all this Achilles drama for the last month. I was wondering if my original goal of sub 4:00 was still possible - and I still don't know if it is - or what else maybe would be more realistic. When I got home I saw my buddy RobbyB's last Twitter post, where he said about his last long run, "Long run: schd 15mi @8:20. Actual: 15 @8:25. Hurt me good. Long day of travel & dehydration. Need mental toughness & less excuses." (hope it's okay I'm sharing your world at my blog, RB). And it got me thinking - I've kind of developed an attitude of hey, I'm a little bit hurt, I won't push myself, I'll just get through it. And to an extent I kind of have to go with what I'm capable of, and if that's a bit diminished from the norm, then I have to work with it. But that's a physical challenge. I've been allowing that to influence me mentally. I think I've been settling for "well that wasn't too bad" lately. I wonder if I've allowed this stupid Achilles thing to be an excuse of some kind. Because it's hard. And sometimes I suffer. And that's just part of the game I signed up for.

So hey - no more talk about the Achilles, except where mentioning it clarifies the situation. This isn't going to be a "yeah, but that was the year I was hurt" kind of marathon. This isn't going to be a "if only I wasn't hobbled" kind of race. I've fallen into a shade of funk over here with it, and I'm calling an official end to that. I'm going to do my best. No excuses. Time to pick it up and set it down. This is, after all, Becoming Ironman.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Race Report: Silver Lake Triathlon

Well I mentioned a few posts ago how this race was closed when I got around to registering for it - I'm happy to report that I got an email back from the race directors on Friday afternoon telling me they could make room for me. Awesome! So, a whirlwind commenced - I was, like, 15 minutes from heading out the door for a 16 miler when I got the email, so I quickly changed plans (moving the long run to tomorrow morning) and spent the evening giving Vapor some love (still a fine layer of Dakota Dust all over the thing) and getting my gear ready to rock.

I had no big plans or ideas for this race - I kind of only stumbled onto it a few weeks ago, and was really just looking to get out there and enjoy it. No big goals, no hopeful times or speed ideas - I've had such craptacular runs lately that I was mostly just hoping to get out and go fast, see how the Achilles held up, and also get a feel for what changes the tweaks I've been making to my bike fit might mean. So when I arrived at transition, it was with an open mind and just a happiness at being at another race day - in fact, as I was walking my bike from parking down to transition, and crested the hill where I could suddenly see all the blue fencing, tent tops, athletes rummaging around, loudspeakers blaring, I had that familiar bit of butterflies, that sudden lump in my throat. God I love race day.

The course was a .25 mile swim, 16 mile bike, and 5k (3.1 mile) run. I hit the water with the rest of my wave - all 30-39 year old males - and gave as much as I got through the initial washing machine. I redlined right away, pushing hard the first 100 or so to really get some position and make the first turn buoy, where I could turn right and get into my rhythm.

I didn't feel great on the swim - I mean, I felt healthy just fine, but didn't feel like I was moving very fast, and I knew I wasn't swimming as fast as I'm capable. About 3/4ths of the way through I tried to really focus on my technique, and realized that my head had been way too high up in the water, likely from consistently trying to sight and have a sense for my position. With crap technique will come pretty slow times, and as soon as I made some adjustments I felt a lot more hydrodynamic. I was in the middle of a pack for the final 100, and pushed hard to gain some ground before getting out of the water. I was surprised to find myself out of the water in 7:48, apparently beating my PR for open-water, 1/4 mile swim (previously 8:12, last season at Devil's Challenge Triathlon). That said, I think it's hard to think much about personal bests in the water from one race to another - sometimes the timing mats are a long run up the beach, for instance, and I'm always a little suspicious that they're measured correctly at all. At any rate, my time puts me at a pace of about 1:46/100 yards, which certainly isn't as fast as I'm capable of swimming. But, whatever! I'll take it! Next time I'll remember to keep my technique on point from the gun.

A run around the entire transition area then finally put me at my machine, where I quickly got organized and on the road. Out the door in 1:21.

Besides wanting to get a feel for my aero-position in a race scenario, I also wanted to experiment a bit with pushing at a lower cadence - I usually ride very intentionally around 90rpm, and I decided to push closer to 85rpm, to see if A: there'd be any noticeable fatigue in my legs on the run, B: or if I'd in fact be using my quads a bit more efficiently and have fresher legs on the run, and C: If I could get a little more speed out of the bike in a sprint situation. The course was very pleasant - mostly smooth, clean roads, gently rolling with one or two more difficult climbs. I passed a ton of people - this is a very "beginner-friendly" event, so there were lots of mountain bikes and commuters out on the road, but I also did my share of passing the rocket ships. I was passed only twice, both by dudes at least 9 feet tall with 5-feet-long legs and on very, very serious rocket ships. I love riding sprint distance - I take the little gear bag off my bike, which usually has various tubes, CO2 cartridges, etc. (so, if I ever flat during a sprint distance, I'm screwed...), and my bike feels especially light and fast. I enjoy not thinking and just going fast. I rolled into T2 covering 16 miles in 44:06, good for a 21.8mph - another PR, nudging out my previous (13 miles at 21.59 at Chain of Lakes triathlon in '07, with a serious tailwind, chasing my man TZilla - no tailwind today). It's good to go fast. Vapor is a killer machine.

I was out of T2 in 36 seconds, and right away faced a hill on the run course. My Achilles felt pretty good all day, except when I had to run up a hill at all, or on any unsteady ground. I slowed and took the hill a little easy, and was irritated to find that the "crest" wasn't a crest at all, but just a false-flat, where it gradually inclined for another quarter mile or so - all of which put stress on the bum wheel. Finally reaching the top and turning right, I was able to make up a bit of ground with a steep decline (again, not great on the Achilles). The course went like this - a bit up, a bit down - for the first mile or so, before angling onto the Portage airport grounds, where we spent another mile on grass. Not my ideal terrain, and as I mentioned, I had a stab or two in the Achilles whenever my ankle would twist unsteadily, but at least it was flat. The course was out and back, so I was able to take advantage of those early inclines becoming descents as I threw it all toward the finish line. I finished in 23:45, good for a 7:39 pace. About two minutes off my personal best time (21:55 at Devil's Challenge last year), but I was glad to have a pretty decent speed workout and to feel generally consistent after the crap mileage I've been putting up lately.

All tolled, I finished in 1:17:33, good for 10/45 in my age group, and 25/321 overall. Like I mentioned, there were a lot of newbies at this race, so I'll keep that in perspective with those placements, but hey - a top 10 finish is a top 10 finish, and finishing in the top 10% overall ain't too shabby either. More than anything else, I just had a lot of fun and couldn't have been happier spending my Saturday morning any other way.

Some bits & pieces:

Except for a bit of registration disorganization, the race was very well organized, well run, and safe. There was lots of the usual fruits and carbs afterwards, but also free burgers, which was fun. I'll be sure to do this race again.

I love you, newbies. With your big fat tires, your commuter bikes with aero-bars (!), your humongous satchels hanging off your frames, your 4 water bottles for 16 miles (I did that too, in my first race!) I love your huge squishy seats and bikes on kickstands in transition. I loved watching you come in off the bike, get your run gear on and breathlessly make your way out on the run, where a lot of you maybe just walked up that first hill, but you were moving forward. I don't know if this was your very first time, or if you just enjoy this on weekends sometimes, or maybe this very race is a tradition for you, but you and your family and kids with glittery signs saying "Go mom!" make me smile, and are what this game is all about.

Highlight number one: Dude wearing a plaid, long-sleeve, button-up shirt, in his 60's or so, with rear-view mirror attachments on his bike, riding next to his wife, both casually cruising along on the bike course. Extra special was that his out-in-the-garden shirt was tucked into his spandex cycling shorts.

Highlight number two: Really old dude, walking along the side of the road with his cane, clearly enjoying his morning routine. That his walking route happened to also be the running route for this race didn't faze him at all, and he'd just teeter on at his usual pace, waving his cane after us once in awhile and shouting "I'll get you next year!"

My cockpit isn't comfortable at all. Even for all the tinkering I've been doing, even a 40 mile ride a few weeks ago, as soon as I got on my bike I felt like I was on somebody else's machine. I need a shorter stem, I think, and generally just a lot more work. I don't think the position is generally bad, but I have to get the front end worked out. Whatever I finally decide, a professional, let's-spend-a-few-hours-on-it fitting is in order late next spring.

I'm managing the Achilles okay. I was really happy that it was, except for places I'd expect it to be, mostly a non-issue today. Still, I realized today that I just couldn't get the leg turnover that I wanted, which accounted for some serious speed compromise. I just don't have the strength to push off with my right foot with the tendon in the shape it is. The situation is: I'm kind of hobbling to the proverbial finish line this season. I'm being cautious - I'm not making it worse, per se, but I know in a perfect world I'd just stop and let it heal for a few months - I'm aware that I'm certainly not making it better. This marathon is important to me, though, and I'm committed to not using the Achilles as any kind of excuse. I'm going to train the very best I can, and hope to execute at the Twin Cities Marathon whatever that training has prepared me for - whatever that is. It is what it is.

My experimenting with the bike - I think I did have more speed, and I didn't feel any fatigue, pushing 85rpm instead of 90. I'll plan to train like that on the indoor trainer a bit this winter - obviously a 16 mile sprint triathlon is a whole other thing than going long distance. I'll have to see if that's something I can apply next year as I'm in Ironman training without blowing up.

Just a related sidenote - I feel like, as a triathlete, I'm fine-tuning. Like, the major lessons for me are mostly learned. Now it's experimenting about how to get the most out of myself, rather than teaching myself how to get anything out at all. That's kind of cool. Kind of a fun place to be in. Again - not a sense of "I know it all now", but just that I have some experience and education after these years that's serving me well. Still so much to learn, of course. Always.

Good Karma once again to Mike and Heather, the race directors, for letting a schmuck like me in to race today. I really had a blast.

Finally, this kickass email I got from my man Thomps today:


Just got this info from the 2008 IM Moo Athlete Guide. Priority Registration for 2009 goes to 2008 volunteers.
2008 volunteers will have priority in being first in line to go through the registration process starting at 9:00AM on Monday. Volunteers must have their shirt and/or wristband attached to be in the volunteer line for registration as well as photo ID. Otherwise, individuals will be asked go in the general line. No exceptions! Once volunteers are through, we take all others. 2008 Athletes will be able register Saturday, September 6, 2008 from 9:00AM - 11:00Am.

Great news, as I'll be on State Street with Amy, Kritta, Erin and Chief of Stuff at the aid station from 3:00-8:30. Fantastic bonus that registering for '09 is made available to volunteers like that! Really exciting.

And on that note, sending positive mojo to Thomps and my new WIBA friends, who are in taper for IMWI, and my man Brazo (#1638) who's rocking IMKY next weekend. Can't wait to cheer you all on, in person or online.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

In line for approach

Well, Ironman Wisconsin is a mere 17 days away, and if all goes as planned in 18 days I'll be officially registered for IMWI '09. Registering for Ironman has in itself become an endurance sport these days, so I suppose one can't take anything for granted. That said, I'll be there at the Terrace on the 8th, in line early in the morning, ready to get my slot.

So it's a little departed from my modus operandi to be open about my strategies before I'm even officially in for '09 - cart before horse, that whole thing - but I think it'll be a useful exercise to get these thoughts down and organized, and doing so now gives me some time to fine tune or make further considerations. So, for your perusal...

The two biggest challenges facing me for IM '09 are staying healthy, and working Ironman training into a lifestyle that involves, first and foremost, an ever-evolving little person called Dakota. Whereas with Ironman One I could kind of lose myself in an endless training weekend or obsess 24/7 about every angle regarding how the hell am I going to finish this race, this time around I prefer to keep a better balance - I don't want to lose entire weekends to Ironman training, awesome as that is for me at the time. For this to be the experience I want it to be, and that my family deserves for it to be, it all needs to work together.

Regarding injury, it's becoming apparent to me that this vehicle o' mine appears to have limited mileage. Last summer's knee injury and now this Achilles thing (I honestly thought I'd make it through this whole season injury free...) remind me that I'm more susceptible to injury, that it's harder for me to recover, that it takes longer to heal. And those are just the big ones - I've been nagged by one thing or another for the last 3 years. I need to be smarter about what I'm putting my body through, and how, so that I arrive at the Terrace next September healthy and ready to go.

Speaking of being smarter, I also want to apply more of what's worked so successfully for me this season - train smarter, not harder. Last time I did Ironman, like most first-timers, it was all about the mileage. Countless hours on the bike and run, endless hours in the pool, just to develop confidence (and physical ability) that, yes, I really could do this. But the training lacked any real intensity - I was prepared just to finish the distance, but not necessarily to race the distance. The goal will remain the same - just reach the finish line. But I think I can be smarter about developing some intensity that will also accomplish the goal of developing the right fitness to go the distance.

So, I have several ideas that, if all executed well, should work together to satisfy all of my potential obstacles. It goes a lil' sumpin' like this:

• First, I won't start training until around April 1st. By "training" I mean organized, goal-related running, biking, and swimming. I usually start training in January or February. This will be a little hard for me I think, because I'll probably be raring to go. But I think my body will last longer if I have a longer break this winter, and 6 serious months of training, instead of 8 or 9.

• That said, I'll be developing a base, albeit kind of loosely, all winter - I don't intend to just show up April 1st totally out of shape or something. But to that point, I'm going to trust more in my existing base - you don't do long distance triathlon for this long and not develop some fitness that can sustain even extended time off. I don't need to reinvent the wheel every season.

That said, I need to be disciplined about two things this winter: Not gaining weight, which is one of my joys of the offseason, and being serious about strength and conditioning. I really want to focus on developing some strength and flexibility this winter, which can only help me stay loose and healthy and fit all year 'round. I plan to bike on the trainer weekly, run weekly, and hopefully even practice pilates a bit. I've also really always wanted to take a karate class, so maybe I can do that, too. Plus, just fun stuff - staying active all winter long, in a non-obsessed, free-of-OCD kind of way. So that when it's time to get serious, I've actually spent the winter getting stronger and more ready, instead of less-so.

• Getting into serious training, I'm going to decrease the time, and up the intensity. I haven't figured it out yet, but I'm not going to look to ride 6 hours every time I'm on my bike each weekend. Instead, I'll cut it to 4, 4.5 hours, and up the intensity so that I'm really working out there, instead of just getting the miles in. When I do ride really long - 100 miles or more - it will be with purpose. Right now I don't foresee going 100+ miles more than 3 times before race day next year - we'll see how the strategy is working when I get into it. Anyway, this should achieve lots of things - developing speed, decreasing time/opportunity for injury, and keeping my schedule more sensible so that an entire Saturday isn't shot everytime I get on the bike.

• Same with the run - I'm going to be thoughtful about what, and why, I am running. I likely don't need more than 18, 20 miles as a max-distance workout before Ironman. I'll spend my time developing some speed and intensity over a 13-16 mile run more frequently than just getting out to "manage" a 22 mile run. The run is where I seem especially susceptible to injury, so I'm going to be really intentional about spending only quality, purposeful time on the road.

• Swimming - I'm going to spend less time in the pool, and more time in open water. I'll admit something right now - I'm not a huge believer in spending tons of time in the water. It's my least favorite discipline for starters, so that's something, but once you develop a technique that works, once you develop muscle memory that works...for me, I just don't see huge benefits in spending hours in the pool. I'm never going to be a great swimmer, and even if I bust my ass I'll at most knock off - what, a few minutes. So killing myself with lap after lap after lap - it just doesn't have a sensible payoff. But, I REALLY would like to get better at sighting, and open water swimming, and managing open water intensity. So, I'm going to spend some time in the pool, but I'll really try and spend more time in open water. Which leads me to my next point:

• Race more. I love racing, of all distances. But next season, I'm going to use it more strategically. I'm going to race the Aquathon series around here as often as I can, for the open water, race-intensity workouts. I'm going to race triathlon often as my main source of brick workouts - I think practicing with the unique intensity that only race-day can provide will be more useful to me than my constantly tacking 3-8 miles on after every long ride just to get a feel for it. Learning to pace my nutrition on the bike for success on the run - and especially managing that run with hydration when it's hot outside - is intelligence that I can probably best develop in a race-intense environment, rather than with constant experimentation over here with Gatorade bottles.

So if I put all this together, I should be training harder, but less long, and maybe intentionally less often, getting as much or more out of 2 intense runs, 2 bikes, and one serious swim a week than I would out of two-a-days that take a long time but develop only as much, or even less, fitness. Keeping frequent races on the horizon should give me ample opportunity to rehearse instead of just practice, which I think is what will be more beneficial to me this time around. Finally, being really disciplined, especially this offseason, of staying in shape but especially focusing on flexibility (HUGE limiter for me) and strength is an ingredient I've never diligently put into my mix, and it's overdue.

Darra Torres, the 41-year-old Olympic swimmer this year, makes a great case study for all of these theories. She swims much less often than her younger counterparts, and spends a great deal of time stretching and strength training, knowing that she "knows what she needs to know", but has to keep her body healthy to execute it. I'm no Darra Torres, but I think her philosophies have some definite traction for the middle-o-the-pack thirty (or forty, or fifty)-something Ironman triathlete. Less can be more. It ain't rocket science. That kind of thing.

So, that's where I'm coming from as of now. Anybody have two cents to toss in? I'm listening -

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


Well I don't know what to say about this stupid Achilles. The intense stretching is certainly helping - I'm less sore during the day, and except for yesterday's run, it's been much better when actually working out. That said, today it's really stiff, almost like a sprained ankle. Bah. Whatever - it appears with stretches, etc. that I can exert some influence over it, so that makes me feel like I'm okay to keep running on it. I haven't, in the last several runs, felt anything that makes me think I should pull over right this second. Nor do I feel anything after my run that makes me think I'm exacerbating the issue or making it worse. It seems I just have an injury, period. One I can deal with, but which may slow me down a bit - if not physically, per se, then for all the mental energy I'm spending on thinking about my damn right foot whenever it hits the ground. Anyway, I said to Amy today, "I just need to get through the marathon, then I can rest", and she laughed and asked me if I was aware of how stupid that sounded - "just need to get through a marathon", like it's an inconvenient afternoon meeting before I head to vacation or something.


I love the Olympics. Also, it's killing my sleep.


ITU, ie draft legal, ie Olympic triathlon, is kinda boring. What's the point of the 25 mile bike peloton? It lacks the distance where the peleton is part of the chess match, like it is in pro cycling. So basically dudes jump on the bike to just ride around for awhile before the real race starts on the run. Meh.

Hunter Kemper, what happened, dude?


What Alili said about Bolt. This guy is - what - 21? 22? It shows. First rule of winning: act like you've been here before. Punk.


I hate that I read online somewhere recently the words "J.Lo" and "triathlon" in the same sentence. Google it if you're that curious.


I read also that they're already seeing a significant increase in swimming interest since Phelps. This is cool and all - it's like the spike in cycling that went on around Lance's chase for the TDF legacy. It won't last long, I'm sure, but hopefully there will be some that get started and really find something cool in it to stick around. My question is, wouldn't it be natural for some of those people to find their way to triathlon, since it's a sensible competitive venue for people (read: hacks like me) who would otherwise have no business competing in a swim race?


Speaking of which, I was going to race this weekend, but by the time I got around to registering today (I had held off until today to make sure of the Achilles from the last few workouts), it's full. I am full-on disappointed. Let's see if my groveling email to the race directors makes a difference.


That's what's new with me, what's new whichu?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Screw you, Brad Pitt

Well, if you've been checking in on the Twitter feed at all, you'll know that my Achilles tendon has been jacked up since a speed workout while I was out West. It's actually been kind of screwy since the Madison Half Marathon, and I know exactly what's caused it - too much training in my racing flats. Which is made even worse in that those racing flats are Newtons, which have kind of a reverse of the typical shoe, in that your heel is positioned slightly lower than your forefoot. That has put a strain on my right Achilles, and sometime during that speed workout it went from small-case inconvenience to capital Situation. I'm not sure what - there was no pop or anything (thank God - that would likely mean a ruptured Achilles, and that'll change my life), but afterwards it just felt off.

So, I put on my stethoscope - as usual - and did research to inquire what was wrong with me. Looks like it's pretty classic Achilles tendinitis, as I have - and have had - all the classic symptoms. Pain and tightness in the morning, when I awake; pain and tightness at the beginning and ends of my runs, with relief in the middle as it stretches out; fascinating waves of deep, sharp pain that will climb up the back of my leg if I'm just sitting there, or sometimes if walking. Yeah, good times. After my run last week everything kind of intensified, and it also ached a bit, almost like a sprained or twisted ankle, only at the back of my leg. Weird.

The usual treatments apply - stretching, ice, etc. I don't know what "really bad" tendinitis back there means, but if it gets "really bad" there's a risk of rupture, and I'm obviously wanting to avoid that. So, I took 8 days off, today being my first run since last week. It was feeling a bit better - not a lot, but a bit - and my 4 mile run was maybe a touch better than last week, or I could be kidding myself entirely. So, I'll continue with the stretching and the icing, etc. I ordered a special kind of ankle brace made specifically for Achilles tendinitis, so we'll see if that makes any difference. If it gets worse or anything in the next few weeks, I guess I'll head in to the doctor, where they can diagnose me with Achilles tendinitis and give me some stretches to do.

I'm not sure what this means for marathon training. For now, all plans for the marathon are still on, but I plan to go a shade easy for the next 2 weeks, and let the Achilles kind of dictate my speed and distance. If this changes my race strategy for October, then I'll deal with it then, I guess. Bridge to cross if and when.

It's weird to get old. No self deprecation there, it's just true - I'm getting old. I'm 34, and I realize that's not old old, but my body just doesn't repair well anymore. I've been an athlete all my life, and could always work through it, or if I couldn't, then rehab was generally timely. I blew my ankles in high school, and that sucked a lot, but I eventually healed up and life went on. Now, little things nag, and they nag for a long time. By the time my season is done, I'm in need not just of rest, but of time to just heal. I don't know how much mileage this machine is built for. It's a strange phenomenon, for the mind to be raring to go, and for the body to need a whole workover first.

Anyway, track and field coverage starts tonight, and some swimmer is in the pool chasing his umpteenth medal, so I'll leave you with my favorite commercial from the Olympics to get you fired up to get out the door and kick some ass.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Becoming Ironman: Fields of Gold Part 2

Fields of Gold Part 1 was written in July 2006, during the first Becoming. You can read it here.

"They say it's different this time, I guess." My grandmother said as I sat in her living room reading an article on the oil in Western North Dakota and her great grand-daughter scooted around at our feet. Her words rang eerily familiar to what my Grandpa had said almost exactly two years ago when we were visiting - "the boom is back on, you know." But it is different, and it's surreal. Driving on Highway 2, the most familiar strip of blacktop in the world, suddenly oil wells dot the landscape, as likely as a herd of cattle, their perpetual revolutions sending the well-head up and down, up and down. The price of oil has, in just two short years, thrust drilling of the Bakken Formation into unprecedented priority, and this narrow, almost unimaginably plentiful reserve of oil has swept the entire region - the Williston Basin into a frenzy. There are fantastical stories - somehow true, though - of farmers in their 70's, or widows at the nursing home, who are suddenly millionaires. The article I was reading, it was quoting executives from Houston about how the travel infrastructure around Williston needs revamping, because it's hard to get there "from Bahrain or Dubai." It is supremely weird to have "Williston" mentioned in the same sentence.

And so there's a weird growth underway, where suddenly there's more town then there used to be. West of the bypass, where before there was just...nothing - now there are homes, and businesses, and ballparks. In just two years. Growth is normal, of course - every town grows and changes. But not my town, you see. Everything looks the same there as it did 20 years ago, save this strange outgrowth. Literally. When Applebees came to town, or when they built the Super Wal-Mart - these are Events in my town. So that this sudden outburst West of town feels to me anything but natural, and instead like a shiny new addition to a well-worn old home. It doesn't match or make sense.

Furthermore, there are growing pains. Suddenly, the admissions at the tiny community college are way down, because the kids are just going to work in the oilfields, where work - and money - is widely available. And so while there is a population boom in Williston for the oilmen and their families, there is not a boom in the services that support that influx. There aren't new restaurants, or clinics, or any shopping to speak of. With all the young people going to work out in the fields, the normal young-people jobs at McDonalds or Wal-Mart are going unfilled, and so in a strange way the town is suffering even as it prospers. It's a weird time there, and my sense is that Williston doesn't know what to do. It's an old town. It's been on a well worn path for a long, long time. It may not be so prepared to change direction.


Dakota babbles on the floor, her great grandmother and I chatting. Grandpa's chair sits empty in the corner. Some is as he left it - his books and treasures on the shelves next to his chair. It's tidied, of course, but it's still his chair - and as such, I don't sit in it. But my Grandma, she's asserted some necessary independence there as well. I said to her, "the house feels different", and I didn't just mean by his vacancy. She's having it painted. Yellow with white trim, where it's been red for all these years. Life goes on, after all.


"This is where we can come sometimes to remember him." I said as I plopped my daughter down in front of my Dad's headstone, self-conscious about saying even that, as I don't know how to describe what this is, or how it works, or why. Then we sat quiet. She was strangely still, gently fingering the clovers that grow there, and looking up at the big tree. I thought this odd, as my daughter is rarely still, but I didn't make it into anything supernatural - she doesn't understand, and she may never beyond what empty words I can use. But I enjoyed that she was unintentionally reverent as I sat cross-legged next to her. The Christmas ornament we hung on the big tree last winter, the one with her picture in it, is weather-faded. I wonder at the dates etched on the headstone - OCT. 18 - and that she shares that birthdate. It's breezy, sunny. Peaceful. I don't cry, and I usually do. Seeing her there, this phenomenon of life, at her Grandpa Don's grave, thinking of all she's missing not having him to make Donald Duck voices and make jokes and pick her up and swing her around, it's the second saddest thing I think I've ever seen. Here on the same hallowed ground as the saddest.

I don't know how to make Donald Duck voices. Whatever I'll be for her - and I'll be more than most, more than anything I've ever been for anyone ever before - I'll never be that. I don't know how.


We drive around the corner on our way out of the cemetery, and I'm casually looking for Grandpa's grave. Where they buried him on OCT. 18, on her birthday. I'm not sure where it is, as the headstone wasn't there yet at Christmas, when I last visited. I see, then, not a name but the words I LOVE YOU WITH ALL MY HEART and I know that's his without seeing the name. I didn't know Grandma had put that there. It's perfect. Oh Christopher. I love you with all my heart. I cry then.


Jack and I, we get back to the business of Becoming Ironman. I run on the gravel road outside of Amy's tiny town, all earth and dust and dirt. My feet crunch pebbles on the gravel road underneath me. A truck passes on the other side, and Jack and I wait on the edge for him to pass. When he does, his dust lingers for half a mile. It gets into my breath, and I taste it, and realize it's a taste I've known my whole life. Like the sound of a pickup truck flying by on a gravel road, it's part of me. There are things you never leave behind, and never want to.

Another truck approaches a few miles later. He slows to a stop, tips his grimy CENEX baseball hat towards me. He's a farmer, and probably Amy's Dad knows him. "Getting some exercise, huh?" "Yup, just getting some work done!" He waves then and heads back up the road.


Jack stays right behind me. He's a good dog. He loves it here. It's part of him, too.


We picnicked, Amy's entire family and me and Dakota and the dogs. In the garden, under the sun, on a big blanket, with sandwiches and fruit and cookies. And we laughed at Dakota and her tricks, and took pictures, and enjoyed the day and the summer and each other, and I wanted to stop them all and say Wait! Look! See! You have this! This family, all of you! This home you grew up in, to come back to! You get this! It is still here and you should never take it for granted and you should always always be thankful for it each single second! But you can't, because then it's lost - the part where taking it for granted is precisely what makes it what it is. So instead we laugh at Dakota and her new words, or how Jack is trying to sneak his way onto the blanket, and I just thank my God for sunshine and good people, and how this place has been part of me for 15 years, and it's as close to coming home as I can get.


We sat together, Amy and her Dad and I, watching the Olympics. I was covered in a blanket, on the couch. Lezak was about to achieve the silver medal. And then, with 25 meters to go, he pulled me out of my chair. The blanket fell away, and I was drawn closer and closer to the TV. No way. No way. Go. Go. Go Go GO GO GO GOGOGO and all of us yelled and cheered and in less time than it takes for me to blink my eyes, when he touched the wall first, we all shrieked and laughed and smiled. It was one of the finest moments in sports that I've ever seen. It gave me chills and made me feel a little ill for a moment. I'll never forget it, or the dim lamps in the living room, or Amy's Dad in the corner chair while we huddled on the couch until I couldn't and had to stand and jump and cheer. It was breathtaking.


I rode, hauling the Machine all those miles with us so I could. I rode the old roads, the roads that forged me once, and still. The wind was restless and hard and in opposition. I looked up to see two cowboys appearing out of the fields, on horseback. They stopped at the side of the road to watch me. As I went by, one tipped his weathered hat at me. I saluted from my helmet. I felt strangely part of something in that moment. This is Roughrider Country. Where Teddy Roosevelt collected his thoughts and found his voice. I am no cowboy. But it felt good to share space with them for a moment, all of us feeling the earth underneath us, and the wind in our faces, and the dirt and dust upon us. Old, timeless, legend. True Ghosts of Dakota.


The best parts are no longer mine. It is the defining, singular difference in Becoming Ironman this time. My journey, my metaphor, is no longer telescoped through if or how fast I'm outrunning ghosts, or discovering whatever essentials about me still require discovery. My essential is found, and she's 10 months old. As time passes during this Becoming, it is marked not by how fast or how far, but instead the mile markers keep time with her own milestones. She rode in a combine, a giant farm tractor that reaps from the ground what was sown months ago. She rode on her mother's lap, sitting next to her Grandpa, the same way her mother once sat on his lap when she was a child in this hulking implement, doing farming, making the world out here go 'round. And as I watched this universe come full circle, with her aunt and Grandma, and Jack sitting impatiently beside me, she smiled and bounced, and clapped her hands for the first time.

It's part of her, too.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Go West Old Man

Well, we're loading up the carnival over here and heading back out to Western Dakota (the state, not the daughter) for several days. Looking forward to getting there...not terribly excited about the actual transport, though, with 2 dogs and a 10-month old. I'm sure it'll be an adventure. Anyway, I'll try to stay current, at least with the Twitter feed on my training, but if I'm AWOL for a bit, then at least you know I'll have something to say when I return.

In other news, I had a solid week of training. Up early this morning to try and get a decent run in that wouldn't involve 85 degrees and swimmish humidity, so that felt good. 10.5 miles today, and 12 miles on tap next weekend. Hopefully I can continue to feel strong on the long runs, and maybe my speed work can come around a bit as well. In any case, it's good to feel consistent and frequent with my workouts.

I want to shout out to everybody who rocked Steelhead - and my apologies that it turned out to be a duathlon. I'm sure you're all taking it in stride, but I also know that having done all that training in the water for the swim, and doing all the mental work prepping for a triathlon - well, it would take a little wind out of my sails if my "A" race was suddenly shifted underneath me. That said, I hope you can take some good things away from it, whatever your day was like. Like I said, I'll be a little out of touch in coming days, but I look forward to reading your race reports.

If I can talk completely out of my ass right now, I'm irritated that they cancelled the swim. I wasn't there, so seriously - what do I know - but the impressions I'm getting so far is that the water was choppy, the waves were 2 feet or so, and the surf was kind of crazy. But with zero experience with the actual scene, maybe it was a lot worse, I dunno. In '05 (or was it '06? Might've been '06), I raced the Lifetime Fitness triathlon and they shortened the Olympic course to a 3 mile run, 22 mile bike or something like that because it was so hot. I emailed the race director afterwards and told him that I think if they're going to have a race in July in Minnesota, then they should understand that temps in the 90's is a probability and to plan accordingly with extra water, misters, whatever, instead of shorten the course (hello Madison Marathon '07 and Chicago Marathon '07. Also neither of which I was present for, so there's an awful lot of ass-talking-out-of going on at this blog today). And if I'm signing up for a race in July in Minnesota, I go in knowing it could be really hot, and plan and train accordingly. And if those circumstances aren't okay with me...then I'll just not sign up, or drop out mid-race if that's what I'm feeling. Seems to me the same is true for a race on Lake Michigan - both the race directors and participants should have an understanding that the water could be rough, and that's part of the deal, and that's what makes an "open swim" part of the challenge. But, all that said, I'm sure it's a complicated issue, and I know that race directors have to act with everybody's safety top of mind, and I appreciate that those decisions are probably hard to make, and that it's super easy for jerks like me to be an armchair quarterback, and I supposed it's a hassle to have to deal with that, too. I certainly won't fault anybody for erring on the side of caution. And maybe other factors came into play besides "swimmer comfort" - water support being subject to rough waters, for instance, or other safety concerns that you just can't do anything about. But that said - the sport kind of has some inherent dangers to it period, doesn't it? Should require something pretty extraordinary, something pretty unforeseen and remarkable to have to alter the course - or worse, cancel some or all of it altogether. Which is sometimes certainly reasonable - Ironman New Zealand in '06 was totally nutso, when they cancelled the swim, and of course if there was lightening or other similar threats, then that's unquestionable, says I. I get that it's sometimes the reasonable thing to do. From this admittedly clueless vantage point, though, I can't see how a rough Lake Michigan falls under "extraordinary". But aaaaanyway. Like I said, I'll look forward to your reports, and your impressions on if you agree or not with the call. Maybe I'm hearing "rough" and you all are saying, "no dude, it was insane." And anybody's else's perspective on any of this topic in general, I'm interested.

So with that, I'll sign off for now. Hope everybody's having a great weekend, that you're getting some solid workouts in, and the wind is at your back - IMWI athletes, you're almost to taper. Game on!

Friday, August 01, 2008


I've said before how I stick mostly to triathlon in this space. This might make it seem that it's all I do - eat, breathe, sleep triathlon. True that it is important to me. I choose that. Where it pervades my other space, I choose that too. But I am something else, too. I am a businessman. I am a father. I am a husband. Among a million other things, just like you, that I could probably keep equally exhaustive blogs on if I chose. So where there are better forums for much that I'll want said, this is the right forum for this that I want said.

I didn't know, when I saw a poster in 2004 for the Lifetime Triathlon. I didn't know when I went back into the bike shop because I didn't know how to inflate my tire, or that very first bicycle ride in more than a decade, when I flatted and had to walk a few miles back in my cleats. Not that I knew you called them cleats.

So here we are, and it's a big part of my life - our lives. In my choosing that, I've chosen it for us, and I understand the potential for...what's her word? - inequity there. You could resent that, I think, and somewhat rightfully. Rarely sleeping in together on weekends, not eating whatever kind of junk might seem alluring, stopping in at bike shops like how other people browse The Gap - I know that's all stuff I brought onto us. I should have probably asked, when I started. But I didn't know. I just had no idea.

Sure, it's not without an occasional conversation. I'm capable of losing a shred of perspective now and then, believe it or not, and sometimes we recalibrate. But there is no passive aggression, there is no nuance of resentment or frustration, when she asks, "Do you have to run today?" or "How long is your ride tomorrow?" just as there's no hidden message in, "Can you run later so I can have a nap before Dakota wakes up?" We make it work. She makes it work.

And on race day, she's there. Always, she's there. Time or two she hasn't physically been able to, but in my head she's thick. I wait to turn the corner and see her there. I'm in continuous movement - but she waits. Always with just a touch of nervousness that I'm okay. At Ironman, in the cold and wet and wind, when it all went south I waited for her, too. I wanted to cry once or twice, and melted a little in relief to turn the corner and know I wasn't alone out there. She was still there. I was never, ever alone.

I'll never forget it when she said to me, "It's all will from here, babe!" And she was right. It was. Not just mine - ours.

It can be difficult to understand, I think, this becoming Ironman. Difficult for me, for we who are Becoming, but for those around us, especially. Sometimes those people don't understand, and you can't fault them for that. That it's a line item on life's bullet list, to be checked off. That it's a phase of some kind. It can be hard to understand that it becomes part of us, like all the other parts of us. Maybe it always was, only this is how we found it. She's never questioned that. Not once. I've never been audacious enough to exclude her in the decisions - but why would I want to? 140.6 miles is too far to go alone.

So while she could be bored, or irritated, or resentful - while the early morning races, made especially difficult now with our daughter in tow - could be more trouble than they're worth, her perspective, as she commented here after Racine, is this:

I'm always amazed and still get choked up when I see parents and kiddos supporting their athlete. The amount of energy put into just entertaining the kiddos during the race, hauling all their gear, walking back and forth, is astounding. I've missed three glances at Chris this year, just because I'm reaching for a sippy cup, bent over finding a dropped piece of cereal, or singing the Itsy, Bitsy Spider. Despite the small stressers, I'm so glad that our daughter will grow up seeing such strong, determined, dedicated athletes. Though the races seem a bit longer with a little one in tow, one can't beat the smile of a nine month old when she recognizes her Daddy after a race. And the smile on her Daddy's face...really worth it all.

She could, if nothing else, choose no position. For it to be just some crazy thing her husband does. Probably the waters would be calm, in any case - I'd have this corner of my life where I was left alone to do whatever, and she could just take no opinion and we'd get back to our "real lives" afterwards. Instead, she's involved. So the waters aren't still - I have a current at my back instead. Ever the Team Captain. Ever my own hero.

So I want to fill this space today with thanks. 10 years ago I don't think I even knew this game existed. When we stood up there, prelude to myriad of mysteries, we had no idea that this would be a part of our lives. And it's only a fragment - just a shred of our tapestry. But that she's there so completely, so whole-heartedly, so truly through it all, makes it all worth it. I wouldn't do it if it were any other way. I wouldn't want to. What would be the point?

A friend said something recently that resonated deeply with me, and that conjoins with a philosophy I've carried for several years now. I've always seen me as just a representative of us out there. I happen to be carrying the baton, but it took all of our collective energies, sacrifices, and efforts to get to the starting gun - nevermind the finish line. But the thing that was articulated recently that I realize has been true all along, is that my purpose out there, my reason for putting one foot in front of the other, is to make every second spent away from you in getting to that point worth it. There's something of a catch-22 to that, I know. But I also know that you get it. And that's probably the distillation of the whole thing I'm saying here - thanks for just getting it.

Happy 10 year anniversary, babe. Thank you for sharing it all with me. Thank you for everything.