Monday, September 24, 2012

Am I MIA? What's been up.

Wow, it looks like it's been about six weeks since I last posted.  I haven't blogged for awhile because my mind simply has been elsewhere, and I never want triathlon, or the accompanying write-ups, to cross the line from an enthusiasm to an obligation.

Despite my lack of posts, though, a lot's been up, from injuries to races to founding a new triathlon team!  Here's the skinny.

I've been injured

In May, June, and July, I kept up kind of a ridiculous schedule.  Every other weekend I either ran a marathon or did a bike ride of 9+ hours, including the Boston Marathon, Big Sur Marathon, a 300k ride, a 400k ride, Mountains of Misery, 12 Hours of Cranky Monkey, and the Saratoga 12-Hour TT.  On my "off" weekends, I raced a couple of Olys.  It was all great fun, but I was left in mid July facing Ironman five weeks out, and I really hadn't done much in the way of consistent running.  So I started cranking up the running volume, and almost immediately got sidelined in a serious way.

It started out innocuously enough: an interval session on my trainer, followed by a 5-mile easy transition run.  Only, about three miles into the run, I felt a sudden stabbing pain in my right knee, and could barely put weight on it.  I had to gimp my way to a cab in order to get home.  This was not ideal.  It turned out that somehow I had completely trashed my IT band, an injury I've seen many times in others but never experienced myself.  My take-away is that it sucks in a very serious way.  In the five weeks before Ironman, I was not able to run a step, and I was getting massages 3-4x each week, foam rolling, and doing everything I possibly could simply to get to the starting line.  I also couldn't ride my bike; I had to bail after 30 minutes on an easy ride only two weeks out from Ironman.  Very, very bad.

As explained below, I did somehow make it through Ironman, but in doing so inflamed the injury again to such an extent that, once again, I couldn't do any real training.  So, at the moment, I'm almost 10 weeks out from the injury, and I've been unable to run or do serious riding for almost the entirety of that span.  Fortunately, I think I'm finally on the mend, but it has been an exceedingly discouraging process.

I've been racing, in the sense that I've participated in events known as races.

My seminal event for 2012 was Ironman Mont Tremblant, which I raced in August.  Readers of this blog will know that, after past Ironman events, I've written up pretty epic race reports.  After much consideration, I'm not going to do that for Tremblant.  It's been a very discouraging time athletically, what with the injury and all, and I've found that, with triathlon, I'm either "all in" or kind of unplugged.  In a time of discouragement and inability to train or race to my ability, it's been hard to imagine putting 8 or 9 hours into drafting a race report.  So, I'll simply provide a short recap.

It doesn't get more convenient than this.  I stayed at the Marriot.
The short and the long of Ironman Mont Tremblant is this: it's the best race I've ever done by a considerable margin.  It was simply spectacular from beginning to end -- gorgeous swim, bike, and run courses, the most convenient race staging I've ever seen, and flawless execution. One really can't ask for more.  Here's the view of the top of the finishing area from my hotel room balcony:

The finishing area itself was a Disney-esque festival scene:

And the village was pedestrian-friendly:

Here's a video taken from the free gondola, which soars over the village from the finish line/transition area at the bottom to the alpine slide at the top.

In the days before the race, the village really put on a show.  And, by that, I mean that they literally put on a show.  Specifically, a rock concert followed by fireworks.

The Friday night concert.  It was surprisingly outstanding.

You might think that fireworks before a triathlon would consist of a dude lighting off bottle rockets that fizzled into a vague M-Dot shape.  But this was an actual, honest-to-God show.  There were three songs -- care to guess?  Survivor, Journey, and U2.

Lake Tremblant.  Not suck.
As for the race, well.  I had a moderately crappy swim (1:05, compared to 1:00-1:02 for my last few races at this distance), but I'm not sure quite what I did wrong.  I simply found myself boxed in behind people swimming very slowly, and I couldn't make any meaningful progress for large stretches.  Eventually I just decided to take it easy and relax, so I moseyed on out in 1:04 or so and made a run for the timing mats, which were some distance away.

The bike course was a thing of wonder and joy.  I'd been riding well all summer, so I thought I could move pretty well on this course even with my 5-week injury layoff.  The course was a wonderful balance of long flats, long climbs, and steep rollers; in all, the elevation gain was pretty close to Lake Placid.  Fully 70% of the course had been repaved in the months before the race, so it was glass-like tarmac as far as the eye could see.  I touched my brakes all of 6 times in 112 miles, and 4 of those times were to do 180-degree turns around cones.  I executed exactly as I wanted to, turning in a split of 5:11, with the second half 5 minutes slower than the first due to easing off at the end in order to save something for the run.  This was a pretty big personal-best on an Ironman bike leg, but it was not an all-out effort by any stretch.  I thought I could have gone sub-5 if I'd been willing to leave it all out there.

One odd thing was that I basically had a personal draft marshal for about 30 miles straight -- he was never more than 100 yards from me in that entire 1.5-hour stretch.  I'd pass him, waive, and he'd stare at me in a vaguely Canadian way.  Occasionally he'd suggest that I drop back from 6.98 meters to 7.0 meters behind the person in front of me.  Annoyingly, though, the fact that he was right there all the time interfered with my pacing strategy on the climbs, which I tend to ride more slowly than comparable cyclists.  I take it easy up 'em, which means that people pass me routinely.  My normal approach is to mind my own business and keep chugging at my designated pace, and allow them to pull away -- they're going faster, after all.  But you can't do that with a best-buddy draft marshal next to you, or you risk getting flagged for not respecting the rules on being overtaken since you might not drop back quite quickly enough.  So I'd have to let off the gas substantially, thus causing more people to pass, and the cycle would repeat itself until I was doing little more than trying to coast up 1/2-mile-long climbs.  This is not awesome for average speed.  On a couple of occasions I probably made a poor decision by getting fed up with it and just blowing up the climbs at 450 watts for a minute or so, but it's what I felt like was the just and moral thing to do.   Dammit.

The run wasn't much to write home about, but I suspected it wouldn't be, given my complete lack of running.  The first and last miles of each run loop are quite hilly, and I was both injured and under-trained (as a result of the injury).  The constant up-and-down caused my ITBS to flare up pretty quickly, which meant the last 20 miles was a gimpfest.  All told, a 4:22, well off of what I'd have liked.

Despite a poor swim and run, I chalked up a 10:47, which was a 40-minute PR, so I can't be too upset about it.  The only tragic thing about Ironman Tremblant is that I'm not racing it next year.  What a race.

After Tremblant, my leg was once again in limp mode, and training was out of the question even if I'd had the motivation to do it, which, immediately post-IM, I clearly did not.  I was already signed up for Nations and Savageman Olys, so I raced to the extent of putting up a pair of rather lame 2:23's (I was sub-2:10 in June), but they were enjoyable anyway.  One thing that's clear to me is that success at shorter distance races requires an enthusiasm for suffering; without it, one simply can't do well.  It's never a good thing for achievement when, in an Oly, I find myself thinking that various competing riders look solid as I'm cheerfully getting dropped without protest.  On the other hand, though, this is all about fun at the end of the day, and I'll get 'em once I get back into competition mode.  There's nothing wrong with actually enjoying the scenery every now and then.  Maybe my injury was life's way of telling me to do more of that.

What's on the horizon

Lots of exciting stuff!

The biggest piece of news is that, in July, together with a group of longtime friends and training partners, I founded a new tri team, Ignite Endurance: Sparked by Tri360.  I'll have a lot more to say about the team in a separate post, but suffice it to say that things are going very well -- we have a terrific roster of down-to-earth athletes, and we're thrilled to be working with a great new shop with a refreshingly welcoming attitude toward athletes of all levels of experience.  We'll be leading regular rides and runs for athletes of all ability levels, and also doing our level best to make a splash on race day.

Beyond that, this week I've been able to start running and riding again, and I'm delighted to be on comeback road.  Tragically, my scale has reminded me that there's a little too much of me going around at the moment, so I have some work to do.  But I'm not rushing myself to get back into it -- I do my best racing and training when I let my body and brain decide when it's the right priority to have.  My next race will probably be the Waterman's half-Ironman in September.

More soon!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Should one race two Ironmans in a year?

It's that crazy time of year once more: Ironman signup season, and especially for people on a team, it's easy to get swept up in the enthusiasm (or peer pressure, depending on one's point of view).  It's like a perverse sort of adult Christmas morning, hitting refresh on one's web browser in the desperate hope to have the privilege of paying $700-$1,200 in order to compete in an Ironman a year out.

Lately a couple of newer athletes have asked whether it's feasible to compete in more than one Ironman in a year -- Ironman Lake Placid in July and then Florida in November, or perhaps CDA/Arizona.  It's tough to know how to answer this question.  I've done it twice, IMUSA/Cozumel in 2009, and then Wales/Cozumel in 2011, and I have distinctly mixed feelings on it.

As an initial matter, I firmly believe that most athletes these days jump too quickly to Ironman from short distance races.  It's almost like people view Ironman as the only race worth doing, or at least as the clear "ASAP" goal, even if the goal is only to finish under 17 hours.  I don't understand why.  If the goal is to do your best at Ironman, as opposed to merely finish it, the optimal approach almost certainly is to spend at least a couple of years training very hard and competing at shorter distances first.  It's much easier to add endurance to speed than to add speed to endurance.  Almost every top-level Ironman triathlete was first a world class short-course triathlete, and the same holds for marathoners, who often were tearing up the 5,000m or 10,000m distances before going longer.  People who move quickly to competing in Ironmans often find that they don't get much faster in the course of training for those events.

On a personal note, I don't think that there's anything inherently more impressive about Ironman races than Olympics or half-IMs.  Going all-out in shorter races is painful as hell, and people who do it successfully must be hard as nails.  It's also possible to have considerably more of a life outside of the sport.  I think there's a great argument for simply focusing on short-course races for a long time.

All of which is to say, before deciding whether to sign up for two Ironmans in a year, I think it's worth asking seriously whether it's in your best interest to sign up for even one.  Assuming you're firmly committed to racing at least one Ironman, my view is that racing a second one doesn't require too much more, at least physically.  If one were to race IMUSA in July, it's easy to take two or three weeks off, and then to ramp up the training again in mid August, and to push through November or whenever the second race might be.  There's the risk of overuse injury, of course, but I don't think this is dramatically higher simply because one does a second Ironman a few months after the first.

But this isn't to say that I think doing a second one is a good idea.  Rather, the point is that the chief sources of difficulty in adding the second Ironman are mental, emotional, and social, rather than physical.  When you're signing up for races a year out, a two-Ironman season sounds exciting and romantic.  But consider the reality of how triathlon training is often structured.  Ironman athletes often are told spend the winter training for a marathon, and then to roll the running fitness over into triathlon once the weather warms up enough to make cycling outdoors enjoyable.  In practice, someone might start training in December for a March marathon.  After the marathon's done, you're staring directly at triathlon season, and the ramp up to the first Ironman quickly begins.  After the July race, you takes a couple of weeks off, and then you train intensely again through the second Ironman in November.

Add up all of the training and racing commitments, and you find yourself training hard from December of the first year straight through November of the second year.  I'm about as motivated as athletes come, but I'll tell you that this is not trivial.  Even if you're not injury-prone, training at that level requires regular sacrifices of your social or family life, and it is virtually impossible to keep motivation from flagging.  It's quite likely that, after you race a marathon and the first Ironman and is staring at the second, you won't be jazzed about 120-mile bike rides and 20-mile runs.  The second Ironman can easily come to seem more like an arduous obligation, rather than a fun goal.  And, because you've already finished one Ironman, it's all too easy to take the training for granted since the fear factor no longer looms as large.  As a result, the second race often doesn't go very well.

In sum, in my experience, there's nothing more likely to kill your enjoyment of endurance sports than to train for an Ironman for which you're not enthusiastic, and that enthusiasm very difficult to predict a year or more out.  If you do make it through the second Ironman successfully, it's very likely that you'll be extremely burned-out afterward.  The most natural thing will be to take a few months off, only to find the next spring that all of the benefit from the work you put in the year before has disappeared.  It can be extremely frustrating.

To be sure, there are some people who can train for Ironman after Ironman without batting an eyelash.  They simply love the lifestyle and there's nothing they'd rather be doing.  I think, however, that such people are a small minority, and it's very dangerous to ascribe those characteristics to yourself before you've been around the sport for awhile.  Most people simply need to recharge their batteries, to reconnect with family and friends, to read books, to travel without a bicycle, and generally to do other things.  I don't mean to judge either type of person -- different strokes for different folks.  It's just that you should be honest with yourself about which camp you're in, and it's very difficult to know that you'll be motivated to train for two Ironmans before you've even trained for the first one.

If you do decide to commit to a two-Ironman year, my view is that it might be a mistake to train for a marathon during the winter before.  Instead, you might be better off training for a hard 5k or 10k.  There are two reasons for this.  The first is mental: if you're going to be training for two Ironmans in a row, the chief difficulty is going to be motivational, so don't tap that well any earlier than you need to.  Three-hour runs during the dead of winter can be extremely draining, and it might be better to spend the winter on short, fast training that isn't as much of a burden on your life.  The second reason is physical: if you're is training for two Ironmans, then you're probably not going to get much faster in that time.  You'll get get better at going longer at a steady effort, but training for Ironman is not the way to get fast.  In fact, it may actually make you slower.  The general philosophy of periodization is that your training should get more race-like as the goal race approaches, and for Ironman, that means very long runs and rides.  The flip side of the equation is that, the further you are from the goal race, the more you should be focusing on other limiters.   Spending the winter really working on top-end cycling and running speed can pay huge dividends once it comes time to go longer.

On the subject of winter marathons, a couple of years ago the guys at Endurance Nation put out a couple of videos explaining why, in their view, people training for Ironman should consider not running a winter marathon.  This view is controversial, but I personally agree with it.  Here's the first:

And here's a follow-up:

Admittedly, although these videos reflect my personal views, I haven't always practiced what I'm now preaching.  Last year I trained very hard for a winter marathon, and in fact I wound up running two, at Shamrock and Eugene.  I then went on to race Ironmans Wales and Cozumel.  The reason I ran the marathons, though, was that I had a specific goal of qualifying for Boston, and that goal was entirely unrelated to my desire to do well at Ironman.  Indeed, when I got back on the bike in May, after my second marathon, I was utterly useless for a couple of months.  It was not pretty.  It's also true that I finished Ironman Cozumel utterly demoralized and injured; I took fully two months off of training, and really wanted nothing to do with endurance sports for quite awhile.  It's not an outcome I'd recommend pursuing.

In all, I'd suggest making enjoyment of the sport the highest priority.  Life's too short to do anything else, and certainly you should be careful not to get swept up in others' enthusiasm.  Make the choice for the right reasons, and be honest with yourself about why you're doing it, what you're sacrificing to make it happen, and what you're trying to get out of it.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Getting it Done in Druid Hills

Today I raced what was, by a great margin, my shortest tri ever: the Druid Hills Sprint in Baltimore.  A 300-yard pool swim, 7.5-mile bike, and 5k run.  The idea originally was to race the Culpeper Oly two weeks out from Tremblant, and then this one, one week out, as a last-minute tuneup.  After spending May, June, and early July on ultracycling pursuits and the occasional short tri, I wanted spend the six weeks or so before Tremblant sharpening up my speed and working on my running.

But it didn't work out that way.  In mid July, about a week after the Saratoga 12-hour race, I did an easy brick workout, but three miles into the run, I felt my IT Band seize up and suddenly I could barely put weight on my leg.  I had to take a cab home, and I had trouble walking for several days afterward.  In fact, I had to take nearly two weeks off of both cycling and running at exactly the time when I should have been doing the last big push before the Ironman taper.  I've been doing everything in my power to treat the problem aggressively, from icing, stretching, and foam rolling to massage and chiropractic care.

This has all been pretty demoralizing, because at the moment I got injured, I was riding, running, and swimming better than ever, and my race results were showing it.  And I'm not injury-prone -- my last running injury was nearly six years ago.  But I think that the sheer volume of cycling, including two 12-hour races 14 days apart, was simply excessive when paired with even a scaled-back running plan.

Starting about a week ago, I was able to begin riding again, but I bagged the Culpeper race last Saturday, and even then, last Sunday I dropped out of an easy bike ride after 30 minutes because my knee was tightening up.  Things were not looking great for Tremblant.

Fortunately, I think I may have played my limited hand as well as I could have, because I was able to get through today's race (which included a 5k) without any pain or sensitivity.  In fact, somehow I managed to win the thing overall. The field was not a strong one, and my run wasn't what I'd have liked (a very cautious 20:40), but I was pretty happy with my swim and bike performances, and the key thing is that I've gained some confidence that I'll be able to give it a go next weekend in Quebec without thinking every step about my knee.

Sometimes things don't work out the way we plan, but this experience has reaffirmed the importance of being honest about injuries and not trying to press through them.  I didn't run a step for five weeks, but hopefully my caution has prevented an acute problem from becoming chronic.

And what better way to celebrate a return to health than with my first overall race win?  Rollin' on!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Product Review: Altolab Hypoxic Trainer

A few weeks back, I engaged in my annual stupid tradition of impulsively signing up for an inaugural Ironman in a beautiful place that presents an opportunity for an "interesting race report experience."  In 2009, it was the Cozumel Mosquito Coast.  In 2011, it was Tropical Storm Wales.  This year will be Mont Tremblant, and in 2012, it'll be Lake Tahoe.  Tahoe will be gorgeous; the problem is, the swim is at 6,200 feet, and the bike climbs well above 7,000 feet.  It won't be possible to get there more than a couple of days in advance, so I got to thinking, how am I going to do this?  And I did some research.

Many people have heard of the benefits of altitude training.  It turns out that the benefits aren't clear-cut, because while living at altitude has a stimulatory effect on red blood cell count, it also inhibits recovery and doesn't allow one to train as intensely.  The response has been the so-called "live high, train low" approach, in which people live at high altitude, but do their intense training at low altitude.  There are only a few places where this is possible, however, and it's certainly not possible for the everyday age grouper.
Hypoxico altitude tent

Enter altitude tents.  These are portable airtight canopies that one puts over one's bed, and they're connected to large, heavy, expensive ($5,000) units that look like portable generators.  These units substitute nitrogen for oxygen, and thereby create lower oxygen percentages, much (but not exactly) as one would find at altitude.  Athletes sleep in these tents at up to 10,000 feet or so for a period of weeks leading up to a race.  The tents can be effective, but they're uncomfortable to sleep in due to noise from the generator and buildup of heat and humidity within the tent.  I owned one of these for a year or so, and I found that I had so much trouble sleeping in it that the downsides outweighed the benefits.  Still, I considered renting one of these for a couple of weeks before Lake Tahoe; they can be found for a few hundred dollars for brief periods.

In the course of my research, though, I stumbled upon a solution I hadn't seen previously: the Altolab system. These aren't cheap -- about $600 -- but in the world of altitude simulators, that's not too bad.  I decided to take the plunge, reasoning that I could benefit from altitude training for races leading up to Tahoe as well.

The Altolab system works on the principle of intermittent hypoxic exposure, i.e., brief periods of relatively intense hypoxication with recoveries in between.  In an altitude tent system, you might sleep for 8 hours at a simulated 10,000 feet.  With Altolab, in contrast, the protocol is one session per day, and the session is 6 reps of 6 minutes of hypoxication, followed by 4 minutes of breathing normally.  The key is that the Altolab can simulate much higher altitudes than the tents -- if a tent can simulate up to 10,000 feet, a typical level, the Altolab can simulate well in excess of 20,000 feet.  In the world of altitude training, a tent can be thought of as a very long Z2 run, whereas the Altolab is more like intense hill repeats for a shorter period.  Research on runners and cyclists has shown a clear performance benefit from intermittent hypoxic exposure, a technique that was originally developed by the former Soviet Union.

The Altolab system is dead simple to use, although it's somewhat hard to describe.  It consists of three basic parts: (i) a breathing tube with mouth piece that's connected to a bacterial filter; (ii) a green hypoxic silo cylinder; and (iii) several "altomixer" cylinders.  The green hypoxic silo consists of particles of soda lime, a chemical that absorbs CO2, and the altomixers contain sponges that simply inhibit air flow to a minor extent.  The functional principle is that, when one inhales, the gas consists of a high percentage of oxygen.  The oxygen is absorbed by the lungs, and when it's expelled, it contains more CO2 and less oxygen, along with some nitrogen.  Normally, when one inhales fresh air, the level of oxygen inhaled remains constant.  The Altolab changes that, because when one exhales into it, the soda lime in the green hypoxic silo absorbs the exhaled CO2, leaving only a reduced level of oxygen, as well as the nitrogen.  On the next inhalation through the Altolab, the removed CO2 is replaced by additional oxygen and nitrogen (fresh air), but the exhaled nitrogen remains.  The overall effect is that, when one breathes through the Altolab, the percentage of oxygen inhaled decreases, and the percentage of nitrogen inhaled increases.  (This is why the system is different than breathing through a long tube -- there, the CO2 remains, and you'll eventually hyperventilate trying to get oxygen.)

An Altolab kit comes with 6 black "altomixer" cylinders, and each cylinder used increases the simulated altitude by about 5,000 feet.  Use four of them, and you're essentially breathing at 20,000 feet, which is like being on the peak of Denali.

All of this may sound speculative and gimmicky, but it quite clearly works.  The Altolab comes with a fingertip device that displays blood oxygen levels in realtime.  Normal oxygen saturation is about 98%, but using four Altomixers, at the end of six minutes, I can see my blood oxygen levels dip to about 75%.  This is interesting to play with: take just one normal breath in the middle of a 6-minute interval, and after about 20 seconds, my blood oxygen level spikes back up into the mid 90s before dropping again.  In other words, the altitude simulation demonstrably works.

The AltoLab training protocol is pretty straightforward: an hour a day (6 minutes on, 4 minutes off, and repeat 6 times) for 15 days.  In those 15 days, one gradually adds black Altomixer stacks according to a prescribed schedule, which gradually increases simulated altitude.  After that, every three weeks, one performs a 5-day "top-off" session at a pretty high simulated altitude.  These sessions are easy to do while watching tv or doing anything passive, although they tend to make one a little spacey, so no driving, and probably no reading.

An important note: the soda lime in the green hypoxic silo, which absorbs CO2, becomes exhausted after a couple of uses and must be replaced.  These silos are quite pricey ($15 ea or so, even if purchased in bulk). Thus, if bought in the usual way, each day of altitude simulation will run $7.50-$8.00.  That's still not exorbitant compared to the cost of buying or renting a hypoxic tent, but there's a better way: one can purchase soda lime directly from a medical supply company and simply replace the soda lime in the hypoxic silo.  Using this approach drops the price to about $1/day (not counting the initial investment), which is very affordable.  Below is a video showing how it's done -- though, note that the manufacturer does not endorse this approach.

In all, this is a pretty cool product -- easy to transport (unlike an altitude tent and generator), and reasonably affordable, considering the alternatives.  I've completed a 15-day cycle, and I'm now in the midst of my first top-off phase.  It's been pretty straightforward, although it does make one tired afterward.  I'll be interested to see the results in my races!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Saratoga 12-Hour Time Trial Race Report

"To infinity and beyond!"  --Buzz Lightyear

In the past few months, I've been doing my best to perform the endurance-sport equivalent of Letterman's Stupid Human Tricks.  In April, two marathons on opposite coasts, 13 days apart.  In May, a 300k brevet, an Olympic distance triathlon, and Mountains of Misery.  In June, another oly, a 400k brevet, and a 12-hour mountain bike race.  All told, every other weekend since mid April, I've had either a marathon or an ultra bike ride.  Last weekend, in Saratoga, NY, I added to that trend by entering only my second pure cycling race (Cranky Monkey being the first): a 12-hour time trial in beautiful Saratoga, NY, known as the "Hudson River Ramble."  

I'd never done anything like this before.  Yes, I'd done a couple of rides of 12 hours or more, but only Cranky Monkey was a race; the brevets are distinctly different creatures that explicitly are not races.  And Cranky Monkey was a race only in the sense of trying to survive it, as I'm basically a noob at that sport.  A road TT, however, was something in which I expected to turn in a solid performance, but the longest bike leg I'd ever competed in is 112 miles, which typically lasts for fewer than 6 hours.  I recalled that, at the end of each Ironman leg, I'd been dying to get off of the bike, and often I'd been in pretty dire shape, so the prospect of hours 7-12 in Saratoga TT was somewhat unnerving.  All the more so because my tri bike is fit in exceedingly aggressive fashion: when riding naturally, my view consists of my front wheel and not much else.  How would my neck and shoulders survive for 12 hours?  Only time would tell.


My buddy and I checked in on Friday night for the Saturday race, although check-in basically consisted of signing a waiver in the race director's living room.  There were only about 20 people there at that point, and a portion of those were competing in the 24-hour version of the race, so the field looked to be rather small.  Looking around, I saw only one other person on a tri bike, and he was a 24-hour racer, so I felt pretty good about my chances.  The guys -- and they were pretty much all guys -- looked reasonably fit, but mostly in the sense of guys who like riding bikes.  No one looked like he was there to set the world alight.  We drove the course, which looked lightly rolling and altogether reasonable.  It was set up in a 32.5-mile lollipop format, with aid stations at the start and far end of the loop.  The stem of the lollipop was about 3 miles each way, which left 26 miles for the loop.

A word about these aid stations: they were well provisioned, but they weren't tri-style, fully staffed affairs with eager volunteers holding things out for you as you rolled by.  Instead, they were more like what one would find at Mountains of Misery: tents about ten yards off the side of the road with coolers of water and a few bars and gels.  This meant that, whether you brought your own stuff or relied on the course, there was no choice but to dismount the bike periodically in order to refuel.  One would think this fact might not matter in a 12-hour race, but in fact, it turned out to be the difference between first and second place.

We awoke with the sun on Saturday morning and drove the 3 minutes or so to the race start, where we began positioning our coolers and setting up our bikes.  Looking around, there was another young guy with a tri bike, and he'd gone all-out with a disc wheel.  He looked pretty fit, and although he said he wasn't looking to go very far, I wasn't quite buying it.  His wife had won the women's race the year before, and she rather radiated intensity, so I assumed he'd be very well prepared.  Aside from him, though, it was just guys on road bikes; some had clip-on aerobars, but in general, I assumed that my aerodynamic advantage would mean that they'd have to be exceedingly strong to beat me over the course of 12 hours on a reasonable course.  Things were looking good.

Things began looking less good with about 10 minutes to go before the race start, when suddenly, two dudes showed up and began frantically putting their things in place.  Maybe they'd just woken up.  Either way, they looked like they were there to play: full-on tri bikes, disc wheels, aero helmets with visors, aero water bottles, and cycling tt skinsuits.  They looked fit as hell, and suddenly I got the sense that it was going to be very much game-on in the next 12 hours.


And so it was.  Drafting was allowed in the first couple of miles for safety reasons, but rather than sit in behind the roadies who'd started in front of me, I sank down into the aerobars and rolled on past them.  I wasn't pushing too hard, but I also didn't see the point of soft-pedaling when I could easily be going faster.  I led through the first three miles and thought maybe it would be an easy day after all, only for about half of the race field to blow past me on the large, steep roller a few miles in.  It gained 100 feet in about 1/4 mile, which made it a pretty serious kicker.  Given how easily I'd pulled away at the start, I was surprised to see guys out of the saddle and hammering past me, especially when I was putting out about 350 watts myself.  This isn't exactly unheard-of: frequently, in triathlons, I'll leapfrog with guys who drop me on the climbs repeatedly before wearing themselves out and fading away, so I assumed the same thing would happen here.

When things leveled off into a series of more moderate rollers, I found myself alone with a guy named Matt, who looked pretty fit, but who was in cycling gear on a road bike, so I thought he'd have a hard time keeping up over the long term.  He wasn't having any trouble at first, though; in fact, he put about 1/3 mile into the field by halfway through the first loop, and it turns out that the joke was on me.  I rounded a corner and spotted him in the distance, pulling out from behind a black SUV on a tri bike with disc wheel and aero helmet and taking off down the road.  I heard in my head the famous line from the Princess Bride, "I am not left-handed!"  It turns out that the SUV was driven by his wife, and he'd brought two bikes with him for the occasion.  All of this was perfectly legal, but I suddenly became quite convinced that I was in for a tough day.  If he'd dropped the field easily on his road bike, he had no greater difficulty on his tri bike, and he quickly faded into the distance.

At the end of the first loop, I saw Matt bombing back toward me on the beginning of his second loop, and I put him about 1/2 mile ahead of me.  This was distressing, because we were 32 miles in, and my bike computer read 21.8 mph, which was a rather aggressive opening 90 minutes on a 12-hour day.  If he was really planning to hold 22+ all afternoon, I'd simply have to congratulate him on kicking my ass and move on.  I could only hope that he couldn't hold it, and that I'd reel him in eventually, so I consciously avoided trying to chase and simply settled into a sustainable rhythm, holding easy Z2 that would drift into Z3 from time to time, and the occasional Z4-Z5 wattage on short rollers, where I'd get out of the saddle and hammer a bit just to shake things out.

Toward the end of the second loop, Matt's lead had grown to just under a mile.  I cruised through the 56 mile mark in 2:33, an average pace of just under 22 mph, and I was in second place.  But only barely; in fact, at the end of loop 2, a guy on a road bike shot past me, and then a guy on a tri bike -- one of the skinsuit dudes whom I'd thought I dropped awhile back.  So there I was, 65 miles in, and wondering if I was about to get my butt handed to me despite an average speed of 21.8 mph.  To make matters worse, at that point I was forced to stop for a couple of minutes to swap out bottles, throw away old Gu Roctane and Dr. Will Bar wrappers, and restock.  The two other guys had full bottles ready, whereas I'd noobishly just brought a couple of gallons of water, so they took off a minute or so ahead of me.  I rolled out in 4th place, knowing that I was about 1.5 miles out of 1st.

Fortunately, the metaphorical wheels soon began coming off of the guys in 2nd and 3rd, and I blew past them on the steep climb a few miles in.  I put in a hard effort for 10 miles or so in order to discourage them from tagging along, and found myself in clear 2nd and feeling strong.  In fact, toward the end of the third loop, I started catching glimpses of Matt, the lead rider, and realized I was making up ground.

At this point, however, my ditziness intervened.  I pulled up to a stop-sign at a "T" intersection near the end of loop 3, the place where we had to turn left to ride back to the start on the lollipop stem, and saw the familiar black SUV to my right.  I also saw a car coming from my right to my left, and it had no stop sign, so I slowed down to allow it to pass, envisioning that I'd swing in behind it when I turned left.  But the car saw me, and began decelerating despite its lack of a stop sign.  So I slowed even more.  As did the car, which in fact came to a stop.  This caught me sufficiently off-guard that I failed to realize that I wasn't moving, and then I fell right over in the middle of the road.  I cursed a bit, unclipped myself from my bike (which was on top of me), and assured Matt's wife that only my dignity had been damaged.  After brushing myself off and putting my chain back on, I took off, having lost about a minute on the leader.

Happily, however, I did catch him.  At exactly the 100-mile mark (race time 4:40), I passed him just as he was reaching out to grab a cold bottle from his wife, who'd been acting as both a leapfrogging aid station and spotter by waiting until I passed, and then driving up head to tell Matt how far ahead he'd gotten.  I said a friendly hello, and then decided to try to cement first place by putting in a hard effort.  So, from miles 100-115, I held a solid 22.5 mph figuring that, if Matt had been fading before I caught him, he wouldn't be able to go with the move.  Every now and then, though, I'd look over my shoulder and there he'd be, about 20 yards back, cruising along like he didn't have a care in the world.  "Crap," I thought.  I was working hard.

My Ironman bike leg P.R. is 5:26, and that was set on a course easier than the one in Saratoga.  I'm a faster cyclist now than I was then, so my "reach" goal for Saratoga was about 5:30 per 112 miles (20.5 mph or so).  When the computer clicked through the first 112 miles in Saratoga, though, the race time was a mere 5:08 (21.5 mph), a split that included a couple of minutes stopped for refueling.  I was feeling good, but was concerned -- I had no idea how long I'd be able to keep up that level of effort.  At the end of the 4th loop (mile 126, just over 200k), I'd been riding for 5 hours and 40 minutes, and I had to stop again to refill my three bottles.  Matt cruised past me, but held out his hand for a high-five and remarked, "Great lap!"  I decided he must be a pretty good guy.  I chugged a cold 20-ounce Coke, refilled my three bottles as well as my gels and Dr. Will Bars, and shot off after him again, figuring I was probably a mile down due to the stop.

Laps 5 (miles 125-157) was pretty solitary, and the miles faded into a blur of moderate discomfort.  The morning drizzle and rain had burned off into sunshine, and the temperature had climbed into the mid 80s.  The only way to stay sane in an event like that is to identify intermediate goals that seem reachable, and for me, it was the fact that I'd be able to stretch my legs for a moment and have another Coke at the end of Lap 6.  (Small luxuries seem very large at those moments.)  I'd be out of the saddle on anything resembling a hill, and I'd try to push steadily on any moderate descent.  I also kept my cadence very low for me, in the high 80s and low 90s, in an effort to relax and simply click off the miles.  Every hour, I made sure to down a Salt Stick or two for good measure.  I was moving well, but I began to have to make strategic decisions.  I knew that each time I stopped for more water, I'd lose another mile or so on the leader, ground that wasn't easy to make up.  But, if I didn't stop often enough, I'd simply die in the heat.  I split the difference by stopping every 2 loops (65 miles), and since I had 3 bottles, that worked out to about 24 ounces/hour.  Not enough, but it would have to do.  As Teddy Roosevelt put it, "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."

As it turns out, I caught Matt again exactly two loops after I'd caught him the first time, a few miles into loop 6 (mile 165 or so).  Yet again, I pulled up next to him as his wife was handing him a bottle, and I said hello.  We rode side by side for about a mile, chatting about the day and our respective backgrounds.  I'd managed to push myself thus far by channeling my indignance at not having a personal aid station following me around, but he surprised me by holding out a bottle of ice water, and remarking that he knew I was out there unsupported.  I accepted gladly, and was further surprised when he said that, if I needed anything else from there forward, simply to let his wife know.  As he put it, "we're together at this point, so let's rip it and look out for each other going forward."  To put it mildly, I was extremely impressed with that show of sportsmanship.  After all, despite my disadvantage, I'd caught him twice, which suggested that I was riding slightly faster overall.  What's more, the two of us had a 5-mile lead or so, and we were about 20 minutes ahead of course record pace.  He must have known that he'd beat me if he simply waited for my nutritional disadvantage to take its toll, but instead, he offered to help me out in any way possible.  Class act all around, and I decided at that moment that I'd be completely happy for him to win if it came to that.

The two of us leapfrogged one another for a couple of miles, but then we jointly hit the wall in something close to a literal fashion.  In our case, we found the gates descending in front of train tracks just as we approached them, and wound up standing around for 6-7 minutes while the train rolled past.  Our average pace dropped from 21.6 to 21.4 while we twiddled our thumbs and allowed the guy a few miles behind us to make up a big chunk of ground.  While we were chatting, I noticed for the first time that Matt had an earpiece and microphone -- he needed merely press a button to speak with his wife and arrange for whatever he needed to be delivered.  It was an extremely pro setup, to put it mildly, and in a closely contested race, it's a huge advantage.  I'd long ago concluded that the two of them knew exactly what they were doing, and had given much more thought to the race than I had, just rolling up with my cooler and a couple of jugs of water that I'd bought at a gas station the night before.  They did it right, and good on 'em.

Matt and I stayed together through the remainder of lap 6, and managed to increase our average speed from 21.4 to 21.6 or so.  At that point (mile 193), however, I had to stop once again to refuel, and I wished him luck as he charged off into the distance.  I had another Coke, refueled again, and rationalized that, one way or another, I'd be done in 3 hours or so.  It's amazing how 3 hours, or 65 miles, can seem like such a short distance once one's been riding for 9 hours already, and in my experience, it's best not to reflect too intensively on the fact that it's anything but short.  Down that road, despair lies.

My 7th lap (miles 194-227) was extremely tough.  The course was no longer interesting, and being on my bike was no longer remotely fun.  I'd memorized every micron of my front wheel as it had spun in front of me all day long, and my neck and shoulders had had quite enough "fun" for the day.  To make matters worse, the dehydration had started to set in, and my legs were disappearing on me slowly but surely.  Due to the train delay, though, I knew that I had to keep pressing as hard as I could if I wanted to have a shot at breaking the course record, which stood at 250.5 miles.  For entertainment, I could at least watch my wattage and try to bump up my average speed, except... well, after just over 9 hours, my Garmin Edge 500 ran out of juice, and I found myself pedaling without companionship, either human or electronic.

In the last few miles of loop 7, I began to feel truly awful.  My vision was going slightly wonky, I was thirsty as heck, and my neck and shoulders were killing me.  I'd been riding at well over 21 mph for 10.5 hours, and hadn't been off of my bike for more than 7-8 minutes in that period.  I started to debate whether it even made sense to head back out for the 8th lap.  After all, my goal had been to cover at least 215 miles, and I'd be at 227 with an hour and a half left to ride.  I thought the chances were decent that I'd have some sort of nutritional breakdown if I were to attempt the last lap, and I knew that I had little chance of catching Matt: at that point, getting constant cold water was a massive advantage.  As I was finishing my 7th lap and trying to decide how sorry I felt for myself, however, I passed my friend heading back out on the start of his 7th lap, and I resolved to do everything I could during the 12 hours, whatever that happened to be.  I decided I couldn't feel good about simply saying that I was on pace to break the course record when I quit -- the spirit of the sport demanded that I HTFU and actually do it, even if it would mean finishing in second place.  There's no spot in the record books for people who don't give it their all.

And so, I headed out after allowing myself a brief unscheduled refueling stop between laps 7 and 8.  I gave it absolutely everything I could, however little it was, and when the clock ticked over to 8:00 pm, I'd clicked off another 28 miles, for a total of 255.5 (21.3 mph), a distance that broke the existing course record by 5 miles.  Matt won it with a very impressive 259.5.  I suppose I could be bitter that he had an advantage I didn't, but the fact is that he used every asset available to him, and I didn't.  Organization and support pays dividends.  Despite it all, he helped me every step of the way, and is a worthy winner.  Hell, the dude stayed on his bike for 12 hours straight -- his only stop was for a train.  That is seriously impressive.


Following the race, we found a great local restaurant where we got food to go, and brought it back to the finish line to watch darkness descend on the 24-hour riders.  I was extremely glad not to be among them as I pounded my salad, quesadilla, and stir-fry.  I'd been on my bike for more than 11:45 of the 12-hour race, which is about as much as I was humanly capable of doing without support of any kind.  After this race and the mountain biking version two weeks earlier, I decided that I've had enough of ultracycling for a little while.  It's a terrific change of pace, and I can only hope that it'll pay big dividends at Ironman Mont Tremblant next month.  For now, though, I just need some sleep.

In the days after the race, co-workers and friends asked me what the heck is fun about racing a bike for 12 hours.  I don't really know; I'm not sure fun is the right word for it in any case.  What I can say is that, in her autobiography and recent CNN article, multiple Ironman champ Chrissie Wellington recounts the story of how, when she was starting off in the sport, a coach remarked that he needed to "cut her head off."  He didn't mean it literally, of course; rather, he meant that she needed to stop overthinking and overanalyzing and just race on guts and heart.  I think that's what ultracycling does for me: in the course of 12 hours, I'm not thinking about work or broader life issues of any kind.  While I'm on the bike, the bike is where I am.  I'm thinking about how to handle the next hill, feeling each breath, and punching each pedal stroke.  I'd venture to say that there's more "living" packed into an hour of a 12-hour race than in a day in virtually any other setting.  Every lap is memorable, and every moment is vivid.  And isn't that what it's all about?

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Saratoga Dreamin'

This Saturday will bring my first venture into the saddle sore-filled world of ultracycling racing.  A friend and I will be competing in the "Hudson River Ramble," a 12-hour cycling time trial hosted as part of the Saratoga 12/24 weekend.  Other options include a 24-hour version of the race, and a 12-hour version that encompasses the nighttime portion of the 24-hour race.  The Hudson River Ramble begins at 8:00 a.m., and ends at 8:00 pm.

Conceptually, the race is the road equivalent of the 12 Hours of Cranky Monkey MTB Race in which I competed nearly two weeks ago.  The course is a 32-mile loop, and one rides as far as one can in the allotted time.  On the upside, it's not nearly as hilly as Cranky Monkey: about 20-25 feet of climbing per mile, as opposed to the simply ridiculous 160 ft/mi that Cranky posed.  Apparently there are a couple of good kickers in the range of 10-12% grade, but overall it sounds quite reasonable.  Of course, that presents its own challenges: being in the aerobars for the majority of twelve hours is extremely tough, and the course won't present much opportunity to shift weight around.

It's hard to predict how far I'll be able to go in 12 hours.  Winners in past years seem to have covered 215-250 miles, and I'm aspiring to be somewhere in that range.  Nutrition will be key, and here the plan is to do what's worked well for me in the ultra rides I've done so far this year: Drink mostly water, with the occasional Coke as the day progresses, and alternate eating bars and gels to taste.  If all goes to plan, I should be somewhere in the 400 calories/hr range.

One thing I've learned is that rides and races of this length are primarily mental.  At the beginning, excitement and novelty propels one forward, and sight of the finish line is a terrific motivator in the last hour or two.  The critical hours will be those from 4-10, which will correspond to the period from noon through 6:00 p.m.  In that time, one's beginning to get fatigued and things are no longer terribly interesting, but nonetheless one must continue to stay focused, execute on the nutritional front, and make good time.

In terms of equipment, I'm going straight-up race, complete with 808s and aero helmet.  Every little bit helps.

After Cranky Monkey and the Saratoga 12/24, who'll be afraid of a little Tremblant?  But "after" seems a long way away from where I'm sitting, with miles to go before I weep.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Race Report: Crankin' the Monkey

About 18 months ago, I bought a lightly used mountain bike from a bike shop owner looking to upgrade.  It's a terrific bike, so much so that my riding it is equivalent to a kid waking up on his sixteenth birthday and finding a Porche in the driveway.  And, much like the kid with the Porche, when I take it out for a spin, there is an excellent chance that it and I will eventually wind up in a tree.  In fact, due to an unfortunate running incident that left me with a broken hand just as mountain biking season was starting, I simply haven't had time to ride it much.  To be specific, I came into the Cranky Monkey race at Quantico having ridden my mountain bike the same number of times that I'd competed in Ironman: 7.  For a total of about 10 hours.

The situation was intolerable: here I was, a guy who loves cycling in all its forms, but who hadn't justified his ownership of his bike.  I decided to remedy the situation by signing up for the 12 Hours of Cranky Monkey, a relay race at Quantico that involved completing a 9.25-mile loop as many times as possible in a 12-hour period.  That's easy enough: if there are three people on one's team, one only rides for 4 hours, and there's a 2-hour rest after every loop, give or take.  The problem for me was that I was racing in lieu of taking on the legendary Diabolical Double, an absurdly mountainous road ride that takes about ten hours to complete, and I could hardly justify only riding for four hours.  But I couldn't find anyone willing to partner up for a two-person team, which left me riding solo.  On a mountain bike.  For 12 hours.  Previous long ride: 2 hours.  What could go wrong?

After my practice ride the weekend before had left my legs resembling hamburger, and having several times wound up upside-down and underneath my bike, I was fully aware that it would take all of my ability just to stay on my bike; racing on the basis of abiity was beyond the question.  But that didn't mean I couldn't compete -- it meant only that my comparative advantage lay in my overall cycling fitness, and I'd have to make that count.  I couldn't go nearly as fast as most of the other guys out there, but what I could do is make them earn it by staying on my bike, moving forward as best I could, for every minute of the 12 hours that I could.

At least I had good advisers.  My friends Emily and Mike ride for the Veloworks-Spokes, Etc. team, and they were kind enough not only to avoid laughing at me too often when I'm right in front of them, but also to allow me to stash my cooler and gear under the tent with their respective relay teams.  Being around vastly more experienced riders allowed me to pick up a lot of valuable tips on the fly, which in a technical sport like mountain biking makes all the difference in the world.  Like swimming, you can be as fit as you like, but if you don't know what you're doing, you'll go nowhere.

The race itself started "Le Mans" style, which means that everyone's bikes are lined up in a field about 1/3 of a mile away, and when the gun goes off, the run serves to break up the pack into a more manageable stream by the time riders hit the trails.  I jogged very lightly, as sprinting in the first minute of a 12-hour race seemed fairly useless.  Unfortunately, this meant that, when we hit the first climb up a steep gravel fire road about 1/2 mile in, it looked like bikers charging toward a ridgeline pillbox at Normandy: people tumbling over left and right and laying all over the ground.  I tried to get clever and weave through them, but I ultimately succeeded only in joining them when I was forced off the side of the road and tumbled over into the grass.  Bueno: first fall after only five minutes on the bike.  At that rate, only 143 more falls to go!  Bring it on, I thought: my kneepads, elbow pads, helmet, and Costco-sized bottle of ibuprofen will show everyone what's possible to accomplish with a little stubbornness.

One thing I quickly realized is that the Quantico trail loop is just beastly hilly.  Here's an elevation profile taken from my GPS unit:

It's true, the first mile looks reasonably flat.  But it's not: it reflects nearly 1/2 of running and riding around a baseball field in order to get to the trail network, and it wouldn't be repeated.  In fact, my watch measured the climbing at about 160 feet per mile.  To put this in perspective, Mountains of Misery is about 105 feet per mile, and the Diabolical Double is about 130 feet per mile.  To make matters worse, these aren't long grades: as is evident from the profile, the course is a neverending series of 100-foot rollers up very narrow paths and gravel fire trails, and they are rather shockingly steep.  That's true going up, but it's also true going down the other side, and the descents were fairly technical in many places, with massive roots jutting out, tight turns, and 12" drops that force your body to act as a shock absorber.  It is a massively tough full-body workout, not least because it is very difficult to stand on such steep climbs: standing causes your weight to shift forward, which unloads the rear wheel and causes it to spin out.  In short, the day was a neverending series of quad-scorching climbs of 20% grade or more, and plummets down the other side. 

One thing I can say for mountain biking on a course like this is that there's almost never a dull moment.  There's always an upcoming swerve, climb, drop, log pile to hop over, trees to split, or trail to bomb down.  I've done considerably longer rides on a road and tri bike, but it risks circularity to state that those are just entirely different sports.  After the third loop, I found that I was getting into something of a groove, but that grove consisted of "next obstacle, next, next, next."  The mental aspect of it was extremely draining, as was the constant jarring;  as the day went on, I began to feel like a helpless kid who'd been tied to a bucking mechanical bull and left to die.
Quantico trails
It also got to be exceedingly hot.  The day was in the mid 80s, but the trees blocked all air movement and, due to my very special power of finding myself underneath my bike, I was decked out in massive elbow guards and kneepads, which meant that I was effectively cycling with a long-sleeved jersey and tights in the middle of the summer in Washington, D.C.  It was simply brutal, and I found myself steadily becoming caked with salt and grit.

And yet, on the whole, I was having a blast.  It was mountain biking like I'd imagined it: just flying through the trees and across massive beds of ferns floodlit by beams of sunlight filtering through the canopy above.  I'd been worried heading into the race about trail etiquette, and specifically, how riders would pass one another on the singletrack trails.  Yet it turned out to be a non-issue; in fact, even the strongest of riders would casually roll up behind me and ask if they might sneak around me whenever I came to a convenient place -- there was no muscling around or pressure.  Everyone was as nice as could be.  Maybe they took pity on me insofar as the number on my calf indicated that I was riding solo, and it's also true that did what I could to anticipate people needing to pass and allowing them plenty of room to do so.  Still, I was repeatedly surprised that everyone just seemed to be out there having a great time.  Not one person called me out on the fact that I was basically being the biggest poser on earth by signing up for a race I had no business contesting.

My tactic throughout the day was to stop very briefly (5 minutes or so) after every two laps, which for me was about every 2:20.  I'd quickly refill my CamelBak, down some Salt Sticks, and scarf down as many bars and gels as I could before rolling out again.  At the halfway point I inhaled a Rubbermaid container of mashed sweet potatoes that I'd made the night before, and with two laps to go, I ate about half a watermelon.  I also had two Cokes spread throughout the day, but otherwise I avoided caffeine in the interest of staying hydrated.  

One thing that amazed me as the day progressed was that, as the sun moved across the sky, it hit the leaf canopy from different angles and the shadows on the terrain moved accordingly.  Lines down descents that had been obvious in the morning became obscured as the day progressed, but others were highlighted in their stead.  Part of this, to be sure, may have been the result of 1200 bicycle wheels plowing down the hill and carving the hill by degrees, but whatever the cause, it seemed a symbol of progress.

The most I'd ever ridden prior to the race was two loops on the course.  Heading into the day, I thought ambitiously that I might finish from 6 to 8, assuming all went well.  As the day rolled on, however, I began to do the math, and realized that, if I kept rolling well, 9 loops might actually be in the cards.  The trick was that I had to start loop number 9 by 7:00 p.m., which was 11 hours after the start.  By far the hardest laps of the day were numbers 7 and 8, when I was utterly exhausted from head to foot and yet pushing hard every minute to try to put myself in a position to attempt number 9 if I had it in me.  And, somehow, I did: I finished lap 8 at a gun time of 10:40, leaving myself 20 minutes to begin the final lap.  After a few minutes of refueling,  I forced myself to climb back on the bike to head back out to confront my tormentor once more.  Somehow, though, the last lap was an utter joy.  The light had dwindled slightly, such that there was no need for sunglasses, and by that time most people had taken off for home.  It was just the few remaining riders out in the wilderness, and the deer came out to watch us roll by.  I clicked off lap number 9 at 8:08 p.m., after having climbed on my bike over 12 hours earlier.  In that 12 hours, I'd spent about 11:15 actually on my bike, a signal-to-noise ratio that I've never approached previously on a bike ride.

As I sat in a daze at the finish line, sucking down watermelon and trying to figure out where I was and what had become of my protective blanket, I learned that, as the day had progressed, I'd moved up from 7th to 4th in my Division (Solo Male 35+).  Granted, there were only 11 people in the division, but it's also true that I think every single one of them had at least ten times the mountain biking experience I did, and likely much more. It takes a special kind of nutcase to ride a mountain bike for 12 hours in an afternoon, and that type of nutcase tends to have been a nutcase before on some level.  I'm particularly proud of the fact that, although I finished 4th -- which is a podium spot at this race! -- no one in the division rode more laps than I did.  The top four all finished with 9 laps completed; I was merely the slowest of the four.  I'd done everything I could do, and everything I set out to do, namely, push myself for as long as I could go, and let the rest work itself out.
I'm now turning back to the world of road riding in preparation for Ironman Mont Tremblant in seven weeks, but I'll be back to the knobby tires before too long.  Once it gets in your blood, it's hard not to go back.

Friday, June 29, 2012

A great transition video

We triathletes are always trying to figure out how to get from one sport to the next as quickly as possible. Often we do too much -- the key is simplify, simplify, simplify. Even for those who know what they're doing, though, sometimes it's helpful to see how the pros do it, and here's a great, clear video that explains the whole process.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Alaska 600k: Traversing the Wilderness by Bicycle

For the last several years, my riding, running, and triathlon buddy Max has kept me company through countless endurance adventures.  In fact, he's been the driving force behind many of them.  It's because of him that I've dabbled in the ultracycling world, and the next step in that vein is a planned 1200k (750 mile) brevet next July.

This weekend, Max is attempting a 600k brevet in Alaska, where he grew up, and he posted to his blog a great narrative of the last time he embarked on a similar adventure.  The story was published in Randonneur Magazine in 2009, and it's well worth a read for anyone curious about this somewhat otherworldly pursuit.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Change of Seasons: Moving on from Team Z

"Remember, when God closes a door, he makes lemonade."  
-Servant of Two Masters, Shakespeare Theatre Co.

In late 2007, just a couple of years into my triathlon career, I was fortunate enough to join Team Z, an amazing community of triathletes of all levels of ability.  Back then, I think the team might have been 100-strong, but now it numbers well over 500 athletes, a glowing testament to the effectiveness of the training program, the welcoming atmosphere, and the way it's changed lives for the better.  Although it is not an Ironman-focused team, I believe that over 700 Team Z athletes have completed Ironman races since Ed founded the team around 2005.  Many of those Ironmen had no athletic background and could never have imagined what they were capable of with a little belief coupled with proper preparation.

I'm one of those success stories.  When I joined the team, I'd never done a Vo2-max test to establish training zones, nor had I trained in a group environment.  I had finished two Ironman races, but I lacked direction and felt as if I spent an inordinate amount of time on my bike, by myself, in the middle of nowhere.  The team changed all of that for the better.  I met some amazing people, started training according to scientifically proven principles, and improved markedly in all three disciplines.  

How the time has flown.  I've now been part of the team for approaching five years, and over that span, I progressed from being a relative neophyte to becoming a mentor to newer athletes and leader on the team.  I helped to design and lead several clinics that have been successfully incorporated into the team's remarkable educational structure, and I facilitated the creation of a periodic cycling time trial series that allowed athletes to test themselves in a consistent and relatively controlled environment.  I've also delighted in giving advice every now and then to athletes facing certain daunting events, such as the Mountains of Misery ride.  I'd like to think that, in some small way, these efforts have helped to repay the team for everything it's given me in the last few years.

In recent times, however, I've found myself being increasingly drawn to novel athletic challenges and approaches to training.  I've raced first-year Ironman races in places like Wales that haven't aligned with the team race calendar, and lately I've been dipping my toes into the ultracycling world, a discipline that requires its own type of training.  Moreover, as a self-coached athlete, I've treated myself as something of a physiology experiment with n=1, adopting different philosophies and approaches over time in the effort to keep things fresh and interesting.  The result has been that, in small increments that have added up to something larger, I've found myself becoming less active in the team's training and racing environment.  I've enjoyed leading clinics and providing guidance even while forging my own path athletically, but recently I've come to realize that I've had my feet in two different worlds that have been drifting apart.  I therefore made the difficult decision this week to separate from Team Z, and to chart a new direction.

I don't know what's next for me.  Regardless, though, much as one always remembers one's first love, I'll always think back on my time with Team Z with great fondness.  I'm a strong believer in the coaches, the mission, and, most important, the amazing athletes who drive each other to make the most of their talents.  I hope to keep in touch with the friends I've made, and to continue helping people in whatever way I can.  I'll always cheer for the green jerseys.   

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Epic Ride Recap: Fingerlakes 400k

"What am I training for?  I'm training for life."

Background to the Brevet

For years I've been drawn to epic events, particularly those involving bicycles.  There's something viscerally compelling about cruising across the landscape under one's own power, conquering whatever terrain and weather the world throws one's way.  It's no exaggeration to say that my love of cycling has been the factor driving my continued participation in triathlons; for me, swimming is something between "okay" and "a necessary evil," whereas running presents a satisfying challenge without quite engaging my psyche the way cycling does.  Long rides carry one from city to city and state to state, allowing one to chart progress not by yards or neighborhoods, but on Google Maps.  One has to earn every mile, and when the rides become sufficiently long, they become meditations on meaning and progress.

In years past, I've ridden several Ironman bike legs and 200ks, each of which has been in the 110-140 mile range.  These qualify as endurance marathons in their own right, particularly Mountains of Misery (6 finishes) and the Diabolical Double at Garrett County Gran Fondo (finishes in the beta and first years of the event), each of which flings riders up some of the steepest paved roads in the region -- and in the case of the Diabolical Double, at least one of the steepest unpaved roads.  Intermixed have been 200ks with various randonneuring groups, which are dedicated to ultracycling as a discipline.  The conventional rando distances are 200k (125 mile), 300k (190 mile), 400k (250 mile), and 600k (375 mile) rides, known as "brevets" (bruh-VAYs).  The brevets aren't races, although there are time limits.  What they are is minimalist, unsupported rides through spectacular, and usually quite hilly, countryside.  They are rides for the joy and challenge of riding.  If one completes a 200k, 300k, 400k, and 600k brevet in the course of a calendar year, one qualifies to attempt one of a handful of 1200k (750 mile) rides put on around the country each year.  Like the shorter rides, the time limits are not onerous -- 90 hours for a 1200k ride -- but that nonetheless requires traveling about 200 miles a day for four days on end.

A critical fact about brevets that bears repeating is that they are unsupported.  There is no car to pick you up if your bike breaks down, no ambulance following you around in case you get into trouble, and no aid stations.  All that's offered is a cue sheet, a map, and a card that lists several "control points" along the route.  Control points are often gas stations or restaurants, and there you must get someone to initial and time-stamp the card to prove that you covered the distance at an acceptable speed.  Other times, the control points designate signs or landmarks about which you must answer a question.  Everything else is up to you to figure out and handle as need dictates: nutrition, bike repair, and the fortitude simply to keep moving.  There certainly are no cheering crowds at any point.  Heck, sometimes there are only a handful of riders.  Philosophically and atmospherically, brevets are to Ironman races what Montana is to Manhattan.

Heading into this year, I'd ridden several 200k brevets in addition to the Mountains of Misery and Diabolical Double rides of that same distance.  This year, though, I've pushed the envelope a little bit, first with a 300k (190 mile) ride on May 12 in Maryland, and then this past weekend with a 400k (250 mile) ride in the Fingerlakes region of New York.  My riding companion, who previously had finished rides of this length and longer, suggested to me that the 400k distance is arguably the hardest because the time cutoff of 27 hours doesn't easily allow one to get a solid night's rest at any point.  Instead, one must start at daybreak, ride all day, and finish sometime between midnight and breakfast time the following day after riding for hours under a canopy of stars.

Braving the Brevet

Because none of the local randonneuring groups was hosting a 400k ride on a feasible weekend, we headed up to Ontario, New York, for a ride through the Fingerlakes with the Western New York Randonneurs. After a 7-hour drive on Friday, we awoke "Ironman early" -- 3:30, in our case -- for the ride, which started at 5:00.  After a breakfast of rice cakes with peanut butter, banana, salt, and honey, along with a Clif Bar, we headed to the ride start, which was not exactly a bustling transition area with U2's "Beautiful Day" blaring over the loudspeakers.  Instead, it was a guy's house that lay in the woods at the end of a 200-meter gravel driveway. We pulled in at 4:30 and were surprised to find the lights in the house were off, only to realize after some head-scratching that the ride began at 6:00, not 5:00.  So off we went in search of coffee, which we did not find, because nothing in Ontario, NY is open at 5:00 on Saturday morning.

When we returned to the house at 5:30, things were in better order.  It turned out that there were to be a total of six -- yes, six -- riders that day, including the host/organizer.  Max and I paid our $20 fee, got our cue sheets and brevet cards, posed for the traditional group picture, and rolled out into the breaking dawn.

But dawn wasn't the only thing breaking that morning.'s prediction algorithm was also busted beyond repair.  It had called for a 50% chance of showers during the day, mainly in the afternoon, but as soon as we hit the road, the rain began to pound us steadily.  The temperatures were in the high 50s, but with rain, wind, and the constant motion inherent to cycling, we got very cold very quickly.  Neither one of us had really prepared correctly for this; instead, we'd both shown up decked-out in heat-repellant gear.  Thankfully I'd brought a windbreaker vest, but it was a distinctly miserable and exhausting morning, as the rain did not relent for nearly six hours, and at times it was truly a downpour.  On at least one occasion, we stopped for hot coffee and huddled inside, just trying to keep from shivering.  In a race situation, these conditions would have been less problematic, simply due to the fact that it's possible to stay warm by sheer effort.  In a 250-mile ride, however, the name of the game is conservation of energy, so it simply won't do to sprint up climbs in an effort to warm up.  In all, it was a truly inauspicious beginning to what already looked to be a long day.

The saving grace was that the first 70 miles of the ride or so were pretty flat, as they headed east right along the shore of Lake Ontario before turning south toward the Fingerlakes.   As noon approached, the rain finally stopped, but it turned out to be a case of one difficulty replacing another, as the flat ground gave way to fairly challenging rolling hills for about 40 miles as we rode along the western edge of Lake Owasco.  I recall looking at my bike computer at about mile 80 and thinking, "Ok, only 170 miles to go.  Wait, 170 miles?  Crap."


As we kept rolling onward, I focused heavily on nutrition.  I've found that in endurance rides it's crucial never to get in a hole; achieve that goal, and it's just a matter of time until you finish, not a question of whether you'll do so.  I set my watch to beep every 30 minutes, at which time I'd alternate between taking a gel (Chocolate Number 9 or Gu Roctane) and munching a bar (Dr. Will, Bonk Breaker, Clif, or Lara, depending on my mood).  At rest stops I'd frequently have a packet of trail mix that included M&M's, and I also brought along some random treats like licorice.  Finally, I had a sandwich bag full of raw pitted dates, the only food with a higher glycemic index than glucose itself, and another bag full of Cashew Pumpkinseed Clusters, which I think are just about the perfect endurance food -- and they're available in bulk at Costco!  All of this was stashed in a moderately sized pannier bag behind my saddle, and it was delicious.  As has become my practice, I drank nothing but water, and I also took it easy on the caffeine.  The name of the game was eating "real" food and staying ahead of the calorie curve.

Feet Hurt?  Maybe You Don't Have A Sole.

As much as I enjoy ultracycling, I've had one perennial problem that has caused excruciating amounts of pain over the years.  The issue is colloquially known as "hot foot," and it involves a numbness, tingling, and ultimately debilitating pain in one's forefeet during cycling.  There are many causes for this common cycling malady, but in my case, the issue is the shape of my feet, which have arches higher than most bike fitters have ever seen.  At least one extremely well-known fitter has actually taken pictures of my arches for his records. The problem is that cycling shoes simply aren't built for people like me.  Soles are made to accommodate the widest selection of riders possible, which means that they tend to be almost flat.  I've had custom shoes and custom soles made -- high-end, in each case -- but the impact has always been to slightly reduce and postpone the pain.  Usually, after about 80 miles, it gets to the point where I'm pulling up on the pedals in an effort simply to take any pressure off of my aching forefeet, and at rest stops, I'll frequently take my shoes off entirely and rub my feet vigorously.  It has been a constant source of agony and frustration, and after the 300k ride I completed in May, I knew that I simply had to try to find a solution.

It turns out that I think I may have solved the problem in one fell swoop using a miraculous product called E-Soles, which have been worn by the likes of George Hincapie.  I got the "Supportive" model, which is designed for cycling.  They cost $50 or so, which is not bargain-basement, but it's far less than custom shoes or orthotics, and the genius is that the soles are modular.  You buy a size appropriate for your shoe, and it comes with four different "arch" inserts and two different "metatarsal buttons."  Each attaches to the sole by velcro, meaning that you can easily switch them out to find the right solution.  I went with the "high" arches (there's one higher still), and the larger metatarsal button.  The metatarsal button is a slightly raised area that sits just behind the ball of your foot, under the metatarsals, and spreads the metatarsals slightly while dissipating the pressure on them.

These things are simply amazing.  At no point on the 255-mile ride, which included 16 hours in the saddle, did I experience any foot discomfort at all.  Zero, zilch, nada.  The arch insert rested snugly against the arch of my foot, and when combined with the metatarsal button, it felt like my entire foot was a platform, rather than just a small strip along the bottom of my forefoot.  I'll never ride long distances again without a product like this.  They're just that good.

There's only one problem: the Supportive Esoles are being redesigned, and won't be available again until about September.  I bought mine new off of eBay.  But if you can find them in your size, beg, borrow, or steal them.  Otherwise, keep your eyes peeled, or maybe try a pair of the Specialized BG footbeds, which also have different arch and metatarsal button features.  It is incredible what a world of difference they can make.

Rollin' On, But Off the Record

It wouldn't be a brevet if everything went quite according to plan.  In my case, misfortune struck twice in quick succession. First, five miles after the control around mile 90, I noticed that my helmet was even more comfortable than usual.  In fact, it felt like I wasn't wearing one at all.  And I wasn't.  So, while Max got a coffee, I turned around and plowed back to the control point, adding unwelcome miles to the day.  I'm just glad I noticed before we got too much further down the road.

Second, at precisely the halfway mark (mile 125), we had a turn-around at the control at Jamestown, just south of Syracuse.  I went to pull my brevet card out of the cue sheet holder, but found that it was gone.  Somehow, amidst the rain and riding, it had slid out without my noticing, and the result was that I couldn't get it initialed and stamped at the controls.  The rules of randonneuring are pretty clear on what happens in this instance: you don't get credit for officially completing the ride, meaning that it can't count toward end-of-season awards or serve to qualify you for a 1200k.  Sigh.  Well, I had no one to blame but myself, and this was a relatively painless way to learn an important lesson.  It's something about which I'll be paranoid in the future, and rightly so, I suspect.

Perhaps sensing my annoyance, the cycling gods decided to comfort me with a series of morale-crushing climbs and steep rollers, all on an exceedingly rough chip-seal road.  This continued from miles 125 through about 150, and it was by far the toughest part of the day.  Milers will tell you that the third lap is the hardest: you're exhausted and in pain, but you're not yet in the final stage of the event, when the gravitational pull of the finish line carries you onward.  In our case, we had ridden the length of Mountains of Misery over the course of 9 hours, weathering cold, rain, and hills, but we still had 130 miles to go.  It's pretty ridiculous when you think about it, and you'll drive yourself nuts if you do it too often.  So we just concentrated on "next control, next control, next control."

Finally, as dusk approached, we found ourselves cruising back north along the eastern shore of Skaneateles Lake, and it was simply awe-inspiring.  The day remained cloudy, but the clouds were breaking up to the west, and a flood of sunbeams illuminated the lake in a way that put postcards to shame.  It was the sort of sight that makes you forget you've been riding for 175 miles, and just revel in the splendor of nature.  It's why one rides a bicycle, and why these adventures are worth undertaking.  You can never tell when you'll encounter something that just takes your breath away.

Unfortunately, toward the end of this section, Max encountered his fourth flat tire of the day, all on the same wheel.  He'd used the three tubes that he brought with him, and he'd inspected the tire and rim tape repeatedly, all to no avail.  There was just something in the tire or wheel that was causing slow leaks in whatever tube was installed, and the two of us were faced with a problem.  I had one tube left, and he had none.  I could give him my tube, but the evidence suggested that it would likely flat again before too long, because the underlying problem hadn't been fixed.  What's more, his hand pump broke, which meant that he couldn't use his patch kit.  Fortunately, Max had come overly prepared, and had brought with him an entire spare tire.  I therefore gave him my remaining tube and Co2 cartridge, and he carefully installed the tube into it, and it held.  If it hadn't, I'm not sure what we would have done -- we were approaching dark on Saturday night in a very rural area, and there was no mechanical support to call.  It just emphasizes that the difference between success and failure is sometimes overpreparation.  Who'd have thought to bring three spare tubes and a spare tire?  I will, from now on, for one.  (Although I've yet to flat on my tubeless tires, with which I'm rapidly falling in love.)

After dinner at the locally famous fish and chips shop in Skaneateles, the exceedingly quaint resort town on the northern tip of the lake, we turned on our headlights, donned our reflective vests, and headed west for the last 70 miles of our journey.  It had been nearly a year since I'd done any riding after dark on my road bike, and facing at least four hours of it, after having already ridden 185 miles, was pretty daunting.  Nonetheless, the hills were largely behind us, so it was just a question of keeping moving and staying safe.  The last 70 miles, though, turned out to be some of the nicest I've ever ridden.  The temperatures were in the low 70s, and though the roads we traveled had a moderate amount of traffic, the shoulders were as wide as the roads themselves and were perfectly maintained.  My cycling computer was running out of batteries, so I turned it off in case I needed its routing down the road, and the result was that we each found ourselves largely alone with our thoughts in the wilderness of rural New York, with nothing but the hypnotic whir of our tires to disturb us.

After the last control point, we had only 40 miles left to go (having ridden 215!), and the evening turned spectacular.  We turned onto a quiet road that lead back along the edge of Lake Ontario, and as we passed the 240-mile marker, we noticed that the clouds had finally given way, and the stars above were dazzling and brilliant.  In fact, both of our primary headlights gave out about this point, leaving us to cover the last hour on lower-powered backups, but the glass-like tarmac, lack of any cars, and starlight made it pretty magical.  We were so close to lake Ontario, just off to our right, that I was constantly entranced by the bits of waves catching the moonlight for brief instants; the overall effect was one of a vast sea of fireflies amidst the darkness.  It's an image I'll carry with me for a very long time.

Triumph and No Fanfare Whatever

Finally, just before 1:00 a.m., our odometers ticked over to 255.1 miles, and we turned back onto the long gravel driveway through the woods.  I remarked to Max that I'd never ridden a road bike down a gravel road at night before, and he had nothing reassuring to say.  Still, we made it, and rolled up to the host's house, where we were told that his wife would greet us.  But the lights were off.  She did not respond to the bell.  Indeed, it looked like no one was home.  So Max signed his brevet card, slid it under the door, and we packed up our things and rode back to the hotel, pausing only to order some delivery dinner to meet us there.

That's the thing about randonneuring: it is resolutely anti-glory.  There is no finish line and there are no crowds.  There's no t-shirt to buy, and even if there were, no one would be impressed or even understand what you're talking about.  In fact, the last thing you'd want to do is explain it because that would simply cement your status as a weirdo.  But precisely because it's so anti-corporatist and anti-glory, randonneuring manages to be purely about the journey in a way that too few things are.  It's about covering the distance through any means necessary, and hopefully along the way you learn something about yourself.  It's a wonderful thing.