Monday, October 31, 2011

A Brake from the Routine: Rev3 SC Race Report

This race report is a bit of a retrospective, coming as it does three weeks after the event itself, so I won't be as detailed as I normally would be.  Instead, especially given that this was the first year that the race was run, I'll let pictures and video do a lot of the talking.  As always, I emphasize the mistakes I made and lessons I took away, in the hope that I'll save others from my misfortunes!


In the last few years, Rev3 has emerged as a strong competitor to the dominant -- some might say hegemonic or Orwellian -- World Triathlon Corporation, owner of the Ironman brand.  WTC runs very good races, but they are expensive as hell (approaching $1,000 for the New York City Ironman) and tend to be run with a bit of an authoritarian tinge.  For example, it's very hard for spectators a WTC race to get anywhere near the finish line due to barricades and crowd control measures, and there are fairly draconian rules that can disqualify Ironman athletes if a spouse or child joins them for the run across the finish line.   Rev3 is the Apple to WTC's 1990's Microsoft, emphasizing a friendly and accommodating user experience, and also showing off some whiz-bang twists like jumbotrons with live video feeds.

Even though it was only an awkward four weeks after Ironman Wales, I decided to race the inaugural Rev3 South Carolina Half-Ironman on October 9, 2011, with thirty or so other members of Team Z.  I thought it would be a relaxing weekend away from home, and a race that my parents could easily see, what with its being only two hours from Atlanta.  I hoped to put in a solid showing, although the main goal was just to get back on the training and racing wagon with an eye toward Cozumel in November.  I also wanted to see first-hand what all of the Rev3 hoopla was about.


Anderson, SC, is a fairly small town with a distinctly southern tinge -- lots of chain restaurants, and even more Clemson football fans.  Upon getting to town, I checked in at the Anderson Civic Center and perused the expo, where I had the delightful experience of trying on some Recovery Pump active compression boots, which I'll soon be reviewing separately.  The following morning, I drove the bike course, which seemed like the sort of rolling hills that are familiar to us east-coasters.

Parts looked flat and fast

No wind here, boss.
Horses for courses.
Be it Wales or South Carolina, wherever I go, the sheep follow.  If only
there were some joke one could make about the coincidence.
Somewhat unusually, turns on the course were marked with neon pink tape on the road that pointed the way to turn, so NB and I navigated the course by confirming the prompts on the cue sheet with the visual markers on the road.  This went smoothly until about halfway through, where we came to an odd juncture where the written directions said to turn right, but the pink arrows clearly pointed straight ahead.  We figured that maybe there had been a last-minute change to the course that wasn't reflected in the written directions, so we went straight, and kept going for miles until we realized that we were in Nowheresville, USA.  So, we backtracked about five miles to the turn where we'd chosen poorly, and came upon a rather remarkable scene: a portly guy, about 70 years old, had parked his car in the left lane of the road where we were supposed to go, and he himself was standing in the right lane, thereby preventing us from continuing. 

And on this farm he had a temper.  E-I-E-I-O.
And thus we met Angry Farmer Bob.  I don't know if his name was Bob, or if he was a farmer, but the "angry" part is clearly correct.  As we pulled up, AFB was in a heated discussion with a guy who worked for Rev3, and who apparently had noticed that the pink arrows had been surreptitiously pulled up and pointed in the wrong direction.  It quickly became clear that AFB was behind the misdirection, a fact that he made no effort to hide -- he was livid that cyclists were being pointed down his road.  Yes, "his" road, which he said that he owned.

Angry Farmer Bob's grasp of property rights was less than perfect.
AFB was going to be damned if he'd let a bunch of spandex-clad cyclists roll down his road.  Then, disaster struck when he noticed my Virginia license plate, a discovery that confirmed that I wasn't from them parts, and might even be a Yankee.  "You're not even from around here!  You don't know a damn thing!" he explained in the even, measured tones that Jeff Foxworthy explored at length.   At that moment, he realized the massive conspiracy that he faced in trying to defend his road from the new Union army, and he suddenly noted that the Rev3 official had... an accent.  A foreign accent.  So he asked, "Where the hell are you from, anyway?"  The Rev3 guy replied, "Sir, I was born in Ireland."  AFB retorted, "Well, maybe you ought to just get on back to Ireland, then."  The Rev3 guy explained calmly that he was an American citizen who'd been raised in Florida, and asked if the police should get involved.

At that point, we started filming the encounter, just on the chance that the guy decided to defend his property the old-fashioned way -- it begins with the Rev3 volunteer apologizing to us for the situation.  As you'll see, AFB notices us filming and decides to prove that he's no Luddite, whipping out his flip phone and trying to take pictures of us in turn.

After much questioning from the Rev3 guy, it turned out that AFB thought that the road was "his" because he paid taxes, and taxes paid for the roads.  On that logic, I'm only mildly surprised that he didn't call his army and air force to defend his land.  Although, actually, he may well have had a militia, so perhaps it's just as well.

Eventually, we snuck past AFB, who appeared to be waiting for the U.S. Border Patrol to show up and deport the Irishman.  It turned out later that this guy had rerouted several parts of the course and thrown race signs down into a ravine.  The next day, during the race, there was a police car parked at that intersection, no doubt waiting for him to do something stupid.  It was one of the only times that I've been glad not to be the first guy on the bike through a portion of a course.  It's amazing what race directors have to deal with, but I will say that the Rev3 guy acted respectfully and reasonably, but firmly, and represented the organization in a thoroughly professional manner.

The rest of the course preview was uneventful, and I looked forward to a fast day.  We racked our bikes and went for a practice swim in beautiful (but very low) Lake Hartwell, dropped our bikes off at T1, and then drove back to the Civic Center to arrange our shoes in T2, which was five miles down the road.

Takin' care of business
At the Civic Center, I found that my mom had been busily turning herself into a Superfan by making signs for me and NB:

From this moment, everyone else knew in their hearts that they were
racing for second place.
The Taaffe crew -- me with my parents.
After an early dinner, we headed back to the house to get a good night's sleep before Sunday's adventure.


I wasn't sure what to expect of myself for this half-Ironman.  Ironman Wales had been four weeks earlier, and it had taken me fully three weeks to feel recovered from that massive effort.  I'd put in a few solid days in the week before Rev3, but it was hardly an ideal buildup.  At the same time, I'd been stronger than ever heading into Wales, and I was sure that I hadn't lost all of that fitness.  I thought a personal-best time wasn't out of the question, but I just wasn't sure how I'd hold up.  Ultimately, it was a fitness test more than anything.

We parked at the Civic Center, which was also where T2 was located, and put our running gear in the designated corrals.

Debuting a new pair of bling blue Zoot TT shoes.

The low, wooden bike racks made for a much less chaotic-feeling transition area.

From there, everyone (including spectators) boarded the buses for the five-mile ride to the lake.

We had a couple of very cold hours to prepare ourselves in the darkness.

I first put my helmet on my bike in a ferocious-looking upright stance:

Cool.  But wrong, very wrong.
But then I came to my senses and realized it would be much easier to put on if it were upside-down.

Much better.  Note the ruby-red bike slippers!
In an effort to kill some time and stay warm, I scoped out the pros' bikes, and noticed Kate Major's ridiculously aggressive position and $6k wheelset:

Note the angle of the aerobars, pointed down at the front wheel.
Meanwhile, NB was practicing ninja moves.
Despite the cold air, I decided to go with a sleeveless wetsuit.

Yes, I'd had a lot of caffeine.
Pros kept trying to sneak into my pictures.  Of all people, they should
know that desperation is unatrractive.
Ready to rumble!
The Team Z crew.
Dad, perhaps suggesting that it might be more fun for everyone if we just went
to breakfast instead.  I don't appear convinced.

Triathlon is fun!  
And then it was time for business.

I know, I desperately needed a haircut.
It's easy to smile before you get the crap beaten out of you in the water.
After the National Anthem, the gun went off, and everyone charged into the water from the dry-land start.

The Swim

I'd been swimming well in practice, but for whatever reason, things went terribly for me from the get-go.  I think my first mistake was not getting at the very front of the wave of people running into the water, because once I got my head submerged, it was like an Ironman start, with people flailing everywhere, thrashing around, and generally trying to bludgeon their neighbors into submission.  I got kicked very hard in the cheek, which knocked my goggles crooked and hurt like hell, and then I looked up to find some yahoo literally swimming perpendicularly, right in front of me.  I had nowhere to go but straight into him, and then people started trying to climb over me from behind.  For the first time in years, I realized I was having trouble breathing -- I just couldn't seem to get enough air in.  I quickly ran through my mental checklist of things to try, and immediately stopped kicking and started pulling, in an effort to conserve oxygen.  It just wasn't enough, and embarrassing though it was, I swam out of the crowd and just treaded water for a minute or so until I could calm down.  From there, I swam strongly, and blew by people the rest of the swim, but my time still wasn't too wonderful.  When I got out, I wasn't too thrilled.

Swim time: 32:46
AG rank: 5
Overall rank: 30

The Bike

I expected to make up a lot of ground on the bike, but it wasn't happening.  Everything just felt unreasonably hard -- my legs burned and I just couldn't get into a rhythm.  The winds were very strong and gusty, and the course felt a lot hillier than I remembered it on the drive.  For those who have raced in Luray, VA, it was much along those lines.  It was much, much tougher than I thought it would be, with lots of extended false flats, and my lack of progress just didn't make any sense.  Normally, I spend the early part of the bike reeling in many of the faster swimmers, and I often have one of the fastest AG bike splits.  This time, though, people were passing me from the start.  First, guys in my age group started pulling away from me, so I buckled down.  Then, older guys in the AG who started 5 minutes back started passing me, which I found to be exasperating.  My wattage for the first hour seemed to be very good, a Normalized Power of about 270 watts, which is close to Olympic triathlon levels, but my average speed was only 17.3 mph, which is pathetic for me.  Finally, after about 1.5 hours, I began getting passed by amateur women who'd started 10 minutes behind me, and I knew that it just wasn't my day.  I didn't get it at all; it wasn't nutrition, and it wasn't wattage.  I just couldn't move the darn bike.  So, for the last 30 minutes, I just mentally decided to treat it as a training day and to try to put together a decent run at least.  I pulled into T2, saw my parents -- who'd been expecting me at least 20 minutes earlier -- shrugged, smiled, and said it just wasn't my day, but that I'd try to run well.

Bike time: 2:53:57
Cumulative AG rank: 12 (I lost seven spots, ugh)
Cumulative Overall rank: 53 (I lost 23 spots)

The Run

The run course looked like it was designed by a mad scientist.  Here's the oly run, which is the same except that it omits a long out-and-back in the middle:

In practice, it was like one of those Scooby Doo episodes where the gang is fleeing from a group of ghosts in a long hallway, and various permutations of ghosts and people keep running back and forth through random doors until everyone collides in a heap.  You'd see people running down a sidewalk across the road from you, but it was impossible to say whether they were 50 yards or 6 miles ahead, and you had no idea where you'd go next.  There was no risk of getting lost, but it was a little disconcerting to have no sense of progress since you just kept looping around the campus of the Civic Center.

After the disappointing bike ride, I didn't know what to expect from the run, but I came through the first three miles at a sub-7:00 pace and managed to keep it steady after that, walking most of the aid stations but otherwise moving at a reasonable clip, which was satisfying.  I ran people down from the start and basically kept it up throughout the course, which I'd characterize as rolling hills.  In a final cruel twist, there was about a 100-yard run toward the finish line, at the end of which they routed runners to the side and up a rather large hill before descending back to the finish.   I didn't realize that, and when I saw my mom with the camera, thought I was done:

Ultimately, despite my nightmarish swim and inexplicably slow bike ride, I managed to put together a 2-minute PR for the run, which was satisfying.

Run time: 1:39:01 (7:34/mi)
Cumulative AG rank: 9 (I regained 3 spots)
Cumulative Overall rank: 35 (I regained 18 spots)


I was happy with the run, indifferent toward the swim (I made a strategic error but otherwise swam well), and slightly mystified by how slow I was on the bike.  It just didn't make sense.  It didn't, that is, until I retrieved my bike from the rack, and noticed that it wasn't rolling smoothly.  It turns out that I'd mounted the front wheel just ever-so-slightly crookedly, such that the front brake pads were rubbing the rim the whole time.  I hadn't thought to check that since my front brakes are built into the fork, and therefore can't be knocked out of alignment.  It just hadn't occurred to me to ensure that the wheel itself wasn't out of alignment with the rest of the bike.  It was a total rookie mistake, but it's one I'm glad I made here, in a race that is insignificant in the grand scheme of things.  It was also a relief, because it explained why I'd been so darn useless despite power numbers that were right where they should have been.

In all, I'd definitely do another Rev3 race, and plan to at Quassy in Connecticut next June, where I'll do the double (Oly and Half-IM on consecutive days).  The race was extremely well-run for a first-time event, the volunteers were plentiful and great, and the expo was festive.  I thought the course itself was only ok.  The bike course was immensely, and surprisingly, frustrating, but I don't think I got an accurate read on it due to my mechanical problem.  It certainly looked like the kind of course where one could move, but it didn't happen on race day.  The run course was fair, but the complex looping design was a little bit baffling because it was very difficult to tell where you're headed next, whether up the hill, around the lake, or down a 6-mile out-and-back where they had us run down the middle of the road.  I'd give the course a 6.5 or 7 out of 10.

It's now been three weeks since Rev3, and I'm halfway down the road to Cozumel and feeling good.  I'm glad I made the trip to South Carolina -- it was a great way to shock myself back into training, and delightful place to spend a weekend.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Book Review: The End of Overeating, by David A. Kessler, M.D.

I've spent a lot of time in the past year reading and listening to everything I can find on the subject of nutrition for endurance athletes, and it's helped: in the two months before the Eugene Marathon this spring, I dropped from 8.5% to 5.0% body fat without losing any lean muscle mass, and while putting together the training necessary to PR two marathons in two months.  (I'm currently employing a similar protocol to prepare for Ironman Cozumel next month, and as the race gets closer, I'll explain in detail how I've been going about it.)  The conscious focus on weight was a new one for me; I've never been heavy by any stretch, and for years, it seemed like my weight was an immutable 168 pounds no matter what I did, and that there were thus few gains to realize by focusing on diet.  As a result, I acted like a typical carboholic triathlete, binging on pasta and sweets and basically eating everything in sight, on the logic that I'd burn it all off, and that, in fact, my training required gluttony.  Friends would remark that I had a big appetite, but I never believed them; I thought plowing through a large pizza by myself was normal for someone my size.  When I realized this spring that I could, in fact, get lighter, and that each pound lost equated to about 2 seconds per mile when running, I knew that the concept of "race weight" was something about which I needed to learn a lot more.

As part of my ongoing reading on the broad subject of nutrition, I picked up The End of Overeating by David Kessler, a former FDA commissioner.  The book certainly isn't intended specifically for endurance athletes; instead, it might best be described as a biological and psychological expose of the food industry.  People who have watched Super Size Me and read Michael Pollan's books will find certain of the book's themes familiar, but the thrust is somewhat different.   Super Size Me's blunt theme is that fast food is designed to make us want more of it, and that eating more of it -- 5,000 calories' worth each day, no less -- is toxic.  Pollan is more  of a guru, expounding on the health and societal benefits of eating whole, unprocessed food, and eschewing the processed gunk that clogs the middle aisles of the grocery store.  Kessler, in contrast, takes an explicitly scientific approach to investigating how the food industry exploits our brain chemistry to benefit its bottom line, and gives concrete suggestions about what we, as consumers, can do about it.

The first part of the book, titled "Sugar, Fat, and Salt," explains how, and why, this unholy trinity of ingredients triggers addictive patterns in the brain.  The discussion is clear and conversational, peppered with interesting experimental outcomes and anecdotes that underscore the disturbing fact that, when these three ingredients are found together, the body's reaction is not to be satisfied, but to demand more of them -- "priming," as it's called.  I know that, personally, when I'm trying to drop weight, having pizza, ice cream, and mixed nuts around is a recipe for disaster because, as the commercial for Lay's implicitly recognized, it's incredibly difficult to stop eating these things once I've started.  I realized that all of the foods over which I seem to lack impulse control are essentially sugar, fat, and salt, one on top of another.  And, as Kessler explains in a discussion reminiscent of Super Size Me, the food industry has long recognized this fact and tried to exploit it to the greatest degree possible.  This part of the book is particularly entertaining and concrete, with specific attention paid to Chili's, Cinnabon, and "the science of selling" food products.

The middle portion segways from brain chemistry to psychology, and explores the emotional dimension of overeating that quickly results from the sugar/fat/salt cycle.  Dr. Kessler emphasizes in several places that, for the overweight, the problem is not a lack of self-discipline, but rather is the result of patterns of behavior that are subconscious and virtually impossible to resist without explicit acknowledgment and preventative measures.  In essence, the stimulus-response pattern triggers anxiety that can only be relieved by consuming food, but the food provides only partial and temporary respite from the "war within."  And, very much like a drug, each loss in the war means that the urges grow yet deeper, and the problem becomes more intractable.

All of this is interesting and useful, but without more, the book would simply be an accusation and academic lament about the manipulability of mankind.  Happily, however, Kessler moves on to offer extensive, and very concrete, insight and guidance about how to reframe the subject of food to circumvent the biological triggers that the food industry tries to exploit.   For example, he quotes Arnold Wishton: "We talk to patients about playing the tape until the end.  The cognitive strategy is to become well practiced in recognizing when you're having euphoric recall and selectively remembering only the good parts [of overeating].  Then, in your mind, you play the scenario out to the end and you say, 'This is what's going to happen.  I'll feel good for two minutes, and then I'll feel horrible.'"  That is doubtless a familiar thought to guilty overeaters; what is more valuable is the following recognition that "new behavior must come to have an emotional value that carries its own rewards.  Unless a person makes the cognitive shift, where it's more reinforcing to have a life without the substances than it is to have a life with them, recovery is not obtainable."  To me, this sounds much along the lines of certain sports psychology principles I've learned, i.e., that one has to avoid negative expressions of goals, because the brain misinterprets them.  To wit, if the goal is to run every step of the marathon, the goal should not be expressed and repeated as "I'm not going to walk," because the brain doesn't hear the "not," but instead hears, "walk!"  The goal should should instead be that "I'm going to run to the finish line."  In short, when learning to avoid overeating, one must not focus on avoiding certain foods or the negative consequences that will come from eating them, but must instead focus on the affirmative rewards from embracing a new behavior.  "It'll feel amazing to be slimmer and lighter," rather than, "I hate my belly and can't find my abs."  Or, as Dr. Kessler summarizes, "Effective treatment of conditioned hypereating is dependent upon making that perceptual shift and learning new behavior that eventually becomes as rewarding as the old."

Another concrete emphasis is that we have to discard the notion of food as reward, because that simply reinforces the psyghological patterns that we're trying to break.  He puts his finger directly on psychological avoidance strategies that people employ: "Thoughts like, 'I deserve this' or 'I'll only have a small piece' are strategies for easing our discomfort about behavior we know is not in line with our goals."

The last example I'll mention -- although there are many others that we'd all do well to recognize -- is the power of explicitly labeling the feelings that one is feeling at a moment of craving.  The very process of objectifying the feeling brings it from the realm of primal urge to mere idea that can be accepted or rejected. As Dr. Kessler recommends, "Ask yourself, 'Will eating help me truly deal with this feeling?'"  Often, merely asking that question is enough to subvert the urge, or at least to give one a potent weapon to resist it.

Obviously, the book doesn't focus on endurance athletes.  It isn't a diet book by any stretch.  But I think its messages are valuable to us as well -- how many times do we have a burger, fries, and milkshake after a long run or ride on the logic that "I've earned this?"  Or, even if we don't think we've necessarily "earned" a 2,000-calorie meal at Five Guys, don't we find ourselves rationalizing that, "Well, I've done a lot of work, so it probably isn't as bad as it normally would be"?  The first line of thinking elevates toxic foods to the status of reward, thus reinforcing the very cycle we ought to be trying to break, and the latter is simply a "discomfort easing" strategy for consuming foods we know, on some level, we shouldn't.

In all, I found the book insightful, concrete, and useful.  It's worth a read.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Back on the wagon

Well, bacon, cheese, and ego.  Close enough.
This weekend is the big pre-Ironman crunch for Team Z, the triathlon team on which I train: this morning was a 20-mile run, and tomorrow's menu offers 120 on the bike.  It's coming at a good time: it's only in the past week -- fully five weeks after Ironman Wales -- that my body has tolerated training with any sort of intensity.  Having done this sport for several years, and having competed in five Iron-distance races before Wales, I thought I'd figured out the whole recovery thing.  That is, take the first week post-race almost entirely off, begin running and cycling again in week 2, and by week 3, I'm ready to start hitting it again.

Sounds good, except... apparently it's wrong, and I got called out in truly spectacular fashion by thinking that I was more recovered than I was.   In August, in my buildup to Wales, I'd included a 415-mile bike week that involved an extremely hilly (15k feet of climbing) 190-mile ride on Monday, and a rolling-hill 125-mile ride on Thursday.  I'd expected to feel very fatigued for Thursday's ride, as the Monday epic had lasted a good 14 hours.  Surprisingly, though, I ripped through the 125'er at a breakneck pace, finishing it 2.5 hours faster than I'd ridden the same route last year.  

From this, I think I concluded that my fitness had progressed to a point that a moderately hilly 125-mile ride was just another bike workout, and that I'd have no problem riding the same route two weeks after Ironman Wales, with a friend of mine.  I felt great and raring to go, and things went well for the first 70 miles.  At that point, however, the proverbial wheels came off in catastrophic fashion, and the final 55 miles were a "ride to the next tree" kind of death march.  It was one of the very toughest days I'd ever had on a bike, and we rode the last hour in complete darkness, pausing at the occasional gas station so I could lie down and get the world to stop spinning.  It wasn't a nutritional failing.  The truth is that I simply hadn't respected the distance, nor had I really taken to heart what it means to recover from an extremely tough Ironman where I'd given everything I had.

That 125-mile ride was a mistake, and I think it essentially set my recovery back to square one.  I was useless for the next week (the third after Wales), and, although I felt a little better in week 4, I couldn't go all-out because I was racing a half-Ironman at Rev3 at the weekend.  Then, following Rev3, I needed to recover a little more.

In short, I think that, by trying to come back too quickly from Wales, I wound up knocking myself completely off track.  My intentions had been good: bounce back as fast as I could in order to start getting ready for Ironman Cozumel in November, and just "tough out" any workout where things weren't fully clicking.  Sure, I'd heard countless times the standard lines about not coming back too quickly after a big race, and I'd even delivered those lines myself on numerous occasions.  I suppose that, on some level, I thought that maybe they didn't apply to me, or that I was able to assess accurately the true state of my recovery merely from how good I felt.  I was completely wrong, and I paid for it spectacularly.  Live and learn; no one is exempt.

Happily, in the fifth week after Wales, my body seems to have awoken from its shock and allowed me to go full-gas on some efforts.  This past week, I did (1) extremely challenging bike trainer interval workouts on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday; (2) very aggressive (but short) track workouts and weight sessions on Monday and Wednesday; and (3) yoga sessions on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  I also commuted on the Elliptigo, which took about 1.25 hours each day.  Despite it all, this morning I cruised a lightly-rolling 20-mile run at a 7:30 pace, including a solid negative split, and I felt great.  I'm hoping the 120-mile ride tomorrow goes similarly well.  After that, it's three more weeks of gut-busting work, then two weeks of tapering before Ironman Cozumel.  I'm very optimistic that I can do some damage there if I'm able to train straight through as I hope to.

One thing that's helping my recovery this afternoon is my brand new Recovery Pump, a pneumatic compression device that aids circulation to the legs.  I'm wearing it as I write this, and if it were a woman, I'd  be ring shopping already.

I'll write a full review once I've had a chance to use it for a week or so.

Onward and upward!

Friday, October 21, 2011

I'm ElliptiGOin' places

For the last couple of years, I've been commuting to work by bike come hell or high water, and we've had a little of both.  It's about 7 miles each way, mostly downhill in the mornings on the way to work, and mostly uphill on the way back.  It's gotten to the point where I just don't even think about traffic anymore, because it doesn't affect me; in fact, I can tune into my favorite podcasts and enjoy the outdoors, and it's one of my favorite parts of the day.

The only issue I've found is that it can be a bit tricky to integrate the commute with the rest of my training schedule, which often has me cranking out high-intensity intervals after I get home.  Rolling downhill to work in the mornings is fast, but it doesn't do much for my fitness.  The uphill slog home does more for me fitness-wise, but almost too much so, as it's tough to hike up steep hills for miles on the bike, wearing a loaded backpack, only to hop on the trainer right afterward and hit my target wattages.

I've also found myself wishing that I could integrate more of a running workout into my commutes, because that's been my limiter, historically speaking.  The challenge is that running 7 miles each way turns into a pretty bloody hard day, especially when you mix it in with swimming, yoga, lifting, normal running workouts, and my cycling routine.  Do it every day, and you're suddenly at 70 miles a week of running before you've even done a real workout, which is patently untenable.  All things considered, I've wanted to get a moderate running-type workout without actually running quite so far, and without the impact stress.

Enter the Elliptigo, which I bought last Saturday at Revolution Cycles, and which I've been using to commute every day this week.  It's probably not quite like anything you've seen before -- think of it as a running bike, or an elliptical on wheels. It's a pretty ingenious design: a fully-adjustable elliptical bike that was designed by two Ironman triathletes specifically to mimic a proper running motion.  It's nothing like the looping effect you get on some commercial ellipticals; rather, you really pull almost directly back with your glutes and hamstrings, much the same way efficient runners do when they "claw" the ground for horizontal propulsion.  Here's a video of what it looks like in practice, except I look far more suave and certainly don't grin like a dope:

It's gotten some endorsements from pretty well-regarded athletes who are serious about what they do, including the Ultramarathon Man himself, Dean Karnazes:

My interest having been piqued by reading countless glowing reviews, I decided to give it a try on a Saturday afternoon when I was recovering from illness and didn't want to risk an actual long run.  I checked one out of a local bike shop and rode it around the neighborhood for 10 minutes, and instantly knew I'd found what I was looking for.  I bought it, rode it 20 miles that day (from Clarendon to Bethesda and then home), and I've commuted on it every day this week.

Here's what I think.  First, it is absolutely, positively, ridiculous looking.  But I think it's ridiculous in an endearingly nerdy, environmentalist sort of way -- it's the perfect thing to ride to a Star Trek convention in Berkeley.  (Fittingly, it's the ride of choice for Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google.)  And man does it get looks.  I've had my picture taken by at least one person every day this week, and when I'm stopped at lights, people can't stop asking about it.  I'm sure that the some of the preening roadies who see me on the trails are quietly disdainful, but heck if I care; I'm not insecure about my ability to ride with those guys when the time comes.  The thing is, I don't actually do my cycling workout until after my commute.  During my commute, I'm training to run.

The Elliptigo itself is a joy to ride, plain and simple.  It can go faster than you'd think, up to 20-25 mph on flat ground, although comfortable cruising speed is probably 15-17 mph.  Its small wheels allow it to accelerate quickly, and it's much more nimble than I expected.  Riding around cars is also quite different from riding on a bike, because you're up much higher.  In fact, I can see straight over the top of even the biggest SUV's, and the upright posture makes it much simpler to swivel around to check for cars doing stupid things.  The shifting on the model I got is 8-speed internally geared, so it withstands the elements well and has the ability to climb any hill that Arlington can throw at it.  The disc brakes are clearly preferable to my road bike's Dura Ace calipers.

One thing I didn't quite count on is how much work this thing is.  It's a 45-pound mantis of hurt.  The leg motion is almost entirely forward and back, and with the toe cages I have on it, it's hip flexors and glutes.  My commutes, which used to be just moseying along on my road bike, are now very serious cross-training.  Even in the relatively cool 60s and 70s, I get home dripping with sweat.  But, because it targets the running muscles, I'm able to get in a quality bike workout afterward without much interference at all, as that's quad-intensive.  The weight-bearing nature of the activity also makes it a much more efficient calorie burn than a normal bike.

Aside from the price -- $2400 or so, although there's a 3-speed model in the $1800 range -- the other potential downside I'd mention is that, due to its 45-pound weight and somewhat awkward shape, it's not much fun to carry.  If someone lives at the top of several flights of stairs and has to carry his bike up or down each day, the Elliptigo may be frustrating.  

In all, in case it's not clear, I'm pretty darn impressed.  Every now and then someone comes up with a product that just works, and this is such a product.  People have ridden these things in RAGBRAI, as well as in very difficult century rides, including the nortorious Death Ride:

It has also been used as a cross-training and physical therapy tool with some startling success, including in this story, where a top U.S. mountain runner came back from almost losing his leg even stronger than before after training on one of these.

Elliptigos are, in short, the real deal.  I've only been on mine for about a week, but I've retired my road bike from commuting, and I'm very optimistic about what this will do for my running and general fitness.

Updated: 12/7/11Washingtonian Magazine did a review of the Elliptigo, and quoted me a few times.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

I'm going positively mental

"[Triathlon] is 90% mental.  The other half is physical." --Yogi Berra

Confession: for the past few years, I've been somewhat of a headcase.  I'm not referring only to the obvious ways, about which the women I've dated could doubtless speak volumes.  No, I'm talking about the sort of ways that caused me to be so nauseated on race mornings that I'd routinely wander off behind inconspicuous bushes, bend over, and dry heave for several minutes before dragging myself to the water's edge.

It took me years to deduce what was going on, and it required the triathlon equivalent of an elimination diet.  The insidiousness began in 2007 at Ironman Wisconsin, my second race of that distance.  I'd heard great things about the powers of caffeine, and, being an idiot, decided that if some is good, more is better.  So I happily knocked back three Vivarin (200 mg each) a few minutes before the swim, and found myself stopping every 200 yards, ducking behind the nearest race buoy to avoid getting pummeled, and full-body wretching for a minute or two before schlepping ingloriously to the next day-glow orange safe haven.  The happy tale ended when I exited the swim, availed myself of a wetsuit stripper, and then immediately turned over, crawled against a race barricade, and barfed right in front of hundreds of screaming spectators.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the rest of the race could be characterized as sub-awesome.

Right, I thought in my clever way, clearly three Vivarin had been somewhat excessive, but surely two wouldn't be; after all, two is fewer than three.  And so, a few weeks later, I took two about an hour before the Army Ten Miler, and ran a very pleasant three miles before finding myself on my hands and knees on the side of the road, heaving away.  "Not winning," as Charlie Sheen would put it.

After that, things went from bad to worse.  I stopped taking caffeine entirely, but the nausea came earlier and more forcefully.  At Wisconsin and in the Army Ten Miler, at least the races had started by the time I got sick, but it quickly got to the point that, on race mornings, I would feel like throwing up from the moment I awoke until the moment the gun went off, and I often did, mere minutes before the start of a given race.  I changed what I was eating in the mornings, but nothing helped.  Noting that I'm very prone to motion sickness and thinking that perhaps it was related, I took Bonine and wore medicated behind-the-ear patches on race mornings, to no avail.

By the time I raced Ironman Cozumel in 2009, avoiding nausea had become the Prime Directive on race day.  My breakfast in Mexico was plain Saltines and water, and I spent the whole bus ride to the swim start chewing ginseng candy and inhaling deeply from a rag soaked with peppermint oil.  I was, in short, That Guy.  Needless to say, I didn't make much progress athletically in the course of those three years, and I began to question what the point was of sacrificing my personal life to train, spending a ton of money on entry fees and triathlon equipment, and generally dedicating myself to a pursuit in which I was making little progress and that literally was making me physically ill.

And then, in 2010, two things happened that began to give me some insight into the problem.  First, shortly after my target race for the spring, a half-marathon in which I'd gotten nauseated pre-race and run poorly, I had a very bad bike wreck where I slid off of a descent into a drainage ditch filled with boulders.  I flew over the bars and landed on my back, facing straight up, in a dirt patch between two large rocks.  My helmet was cracked and I was pretty banged up, but it could have been a lot worse.  My bike couldn't have been much worse: my front wheel was smashed to hell and my top and down tubes were splintered.  The less said about my aerobars, the better.  After taking a couple of months to recover, I had very little motivation and no tri bike, so I largely wrote off the year mentally, and it showed on those few occasions when I did toe the line, culminating in a DNF at Halfmax in October when I started getting dizzy on the run.

The second thing that happened that year is that a couple of guys joined my triathlon team who were, on most days, simply faster than me.  From the time I'd joined, I'd been the guy people were gunning for in races.  It had become, in my view, sort of a no-win proposition: if I won, it was as I should have done; but if I lost, I'd beat myself up about it to no end, and my cats wouldn't speak to me.

Taking stock of the situation, and most notably my burnout -- I'd been racing and training for Ironman for five years straight -- I decided to refocus during the winter of 2010 by focusing purely on marathon training. I followed a 6-day-a-week plan from November through March, not doing a single cycling or swimming workout for those five months.  At the Shamrock Marathon, I showed definite progress, lowering my marathon PR from 3:33 to 3:15.  But as good as that was, I thought I could do better, so I signed up for the Eugene Marathon six weeks later, and set another PR, this one a 3:07 that was good enough to get me into Boston.  Reflecting on those races afterward, I realized an important thing: I hadn't had a stitch of nausea before either one.  But I didn't have a clue why.  I was afraid that it might come back when I resumed racing tri's, but it hasn't -- not a bit, not once -- and I've set big PR's in nearly every event I've entered all year.  I've been able to eat real food before races, and it's been just fine.

What started to become clear is that the problems had been in my head all along, but I didn't understand why they'd started any more than why they'd stopped.  As a result, this summer I've spent a lot of time thinking about the mental aspect of the sport, and it's become clear that it's about far more than simply being competitive or driven.  Among other things, I read Brain Training for Runners by Matt Fitzgerald,

Fit Soul, Fit Body by Mark Allen,

and I'm Here to Win by Chris McCormack.

I also spent a lot of time on my commutes listening to back episodes of The Competitors Radio Show,

 which offers great interviews of top endurance athletes, where many of are refreshingly candid and articulate about their mindsets.

Two themes run through these books, each of which I recommend highly.  First, many of the best athletes in triathlon history, including Allen and McCormack, failed on the biggest stages many times before they succeeded.  Failure is, of course, a relative term when you're finishing in the top ten at Ironman Hawaii, but I'm defining failure as not getting the best result that one is capable of getting.  In each case, the key to ultimate success lay not primarily in different or better training, but in thinking about the sport in a different way.  In fact, Mark Allen's approach became explicitly mystical: his book is cowritten by a guru with whom he studied extensively, and he describes his approach to triathlon in meditative, spiritual terms.  Sure, running and riding hard is a ticket to entry, but it's insufficient if one's conscious and subconscious minds are not in the right frame.

The second prevailing theme is that mental training is important to more than toughness and attitude.  It now appears that brain actually controls fatigue to a much greater degree than was previously thought.  Dr. Noakes's Central Governor Model, discussed with Ben Greenfield here, focuses on the fact that physical training not only augments physical abilities, but also recalibrates the brain's perception of when to shut down the body to prevent further damage.  There are practical ways to put this into effect, such as approaching the occasional race with an explicit goal of suffering as much as possible.

These insights have helped me to understand why this year has been one of great success so far, from taking 26 minutes off of my open marathon PR, to setting a half-IM PR and a 40-minute Ironman run PR.  All of that's happened without a shred of the queasiness that I endured until recently, and I put it down, in large part, to two factors:

(1)  Racing more holistically. In years past, on the bike, I'd had an eye firmly on my wattage, and on the run, my mind was never far from the GPS watch's feedback on pace or heart rate.  This year, for training, I've used those things, but in races, I've thrown them out the window.  I haven't used a watch in a single race I've competed in this year, taking instead the approach of trusting my body and just "feeling" the race unfold.  I realized that, on some level, a watch could only complicate things: it couldn't force me to go faster than I was capable of going, but it certainly could cause me to miss out on a PR by causing me to stick to a pace that didn't get everything out of me.  Most important, I decided that focusing on objective feedback distracted me from how I was actually feeling, and what I needed to to get the most out of myself. This zenlike state has been facilitated by rereading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, a Pulitzer Prize-winning meditation on the remarkable texture of the natural world.

It's hard not to read the book without gaining an appreciation of the wonders around us whenever we're cycling or running through the countryside, and without becoming attuned to the spiritual threads running through it all.  It may, perhaps, be my version of Mark Allen's guru.

(2)  Readjusting my perspective on triathlon.  The first year I competed, back in 2006, I didn't have any stomach problems at all.  Those started only after I did far better than I ever thought possible in my first Iron-distance race and decided that I had potential that I had to live up to.  From that point forward, races ceased to be about exploring a new and exciting sport in which each new milestone was a victory, and became instead about quantifying progress and avoiding disappointment by not losing to people whom I thought I should beat.  I showed up for races knowing that, if I wasn't "on" that day, I'd lose to the guys I'd started training with, and I lacked the self-confidence to take that possibility in stride.  That problem was elegantly solved this year, when I began training with a couple of guys who will clean my clock almost every day of the week.  Now, races aren't about avoiding disaster, but about pushing myself, and thinking outside the box, to try to get to where those faster guys are.  Certain performance milestones have become personified and de-mystified, and on some level I have nothing to lose simply by ignoring what I had previously considered to be limiters.  That's been facilitated by racing without a watch, discussed above, because now I'm literally unaware if I'm going faster than I assumed I could go.

So, that's all well and good.  But I think I have a lot more to get from training my brain to have the right reactions and associations during competition.  I've therefore decided this fall to focus explicitly on the mental side of my game by setting aside time each day for mental training.  For this, I'm using the Renegade Mindset Techniques for Triathletes system.

Here is an article written by Stephen Ladd, the formulator of the Renegade approach, describing what it's about.  In concrete terms, it's a package of six audio files, each about 20 minutes long, that focus on one of the disciplines or in a broader idea like pre-race nerves or confidence during the race.  The sessions are essentially guided meditations or self-hypnoses, very heavy on mental imagery and ingraining positive associations.  After using these for a couple of weeks, I can honestly say that I enjoy them; I often am not in the mood to sit still for twenty minutes, but I do find that I emerge from each session feeling more relaxed and positive than when I started it.  Time will tell whether these sessions are effective, but so far I feel like they will be, and it seems to me that that feeling is at least part of what's important.

One thing I will say is that these sessions are surprisingly challenging.  In modern times, we have so many distractions that it's very difficult to set all of them aside mentally for a meaningful block of time. And, perhaps because I'm not accustomed to visualization exercises, part of my mind seems constantly to be intruding to question whether I'm picturing the right race or environment, or whether I should instead choose something else.  Quieting and focusing the mind is, in short, difficult, but I actually take some heart in that difficulty, conjecturing that perhaps I've stumbled upon a limiter of which I was previously unaware.

The Renegade system also comes with a somewhat lengthy PDF file -- perhaps "short e-book" would be a better description -- that explains and instructs with respect to five or six types of "mental technologies" that one can use during athletic events.  These involve setting physical anchors for positive thoughts, such that one can recall them with a discrete physical action during a competition.  I haven't tried them all yet, but I look forward to doing so.

In all, I've become convinced that the mental side of training and racing is something that I've long neglected, and I've gotten tremendous results in the relatively short time that I've focused on that aspect of competition.  I'm optimistic that I have a lot more to gain in the coming months, and I'm greatly heartened to be performing in ways that I'd begun to doubt were within my capabilities, and having fun doing it.