Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Epic Ride Recap: Mountains of Misery 2012

Final climb, 3 miles at 12-16% grade.
This was my sixth consecutive year of riding the Mountains of Misery Double Metric Century in Blacksburg, VA.  It's become a mainstay on my calendar because it's gorgeous, challenging, relatively easy to get to, and I invariably wind up riding with people whose company I enjoy for the better part of a day.  I've come to treasure the events on my calendar that aren't races, and that don't require the competitive mentality that races entail.  Plus, for whatever reason, every year this event tends to get something close to a perfect day weather-wise, usually in the low 80s and mostly sunny.

One of the reasons I love rides like Mountains of Misery, the Diabolical Double at Garrett County Gran Fondo, and others like it is that the scenery is just stunning.  Sure, the climbs are "miserable" or "diabolical," depending on the event, but when one crests the summits, mountaintop vistas abound and the descents down the other side are often 5+ miles long with the world blowing by at 40 mph.  There are usually a handful of times during each challenge ride when I think, "This right here is why I own a bicycle."  At those moments, there's nowhere else I'd rather be, and the worries of life are swept away in the moment.

To be clear, this ride is horribly difficult, with 13,300 feet of elevation gain over 127 miles.  The elevation profile speaks for itself:

After about twenty miles of moderate rollers that trend upward, one hits four climbs of note with about twenty-five miles between each.  They proceed in order of increasing difficulty.  The first is European-style, about four miles long at a steady 7-8% grade.  It's not too bad -- just a question of finding the right gear and settling in for 45 minutes or so of climbing at a moderate effort.  After barreling down the other side and cruising along a river and through some chippy rolling hills, the second climbs is considerably steeper, probably 1.5 miles or so at 10-12% grade, with some steeper portions.  It's a tough climb, but is still manageable after only sixty-five miles or so.

The third and fourth climbs are true beasts.  The third is again about 1.5 miles long, but it is perilously steep at parts, probably pitching up into the 20% range around the switchbacks.  After 95 miles of riding, much of it in the exposed afternoon sun, it's a pure gut-check.  Then, after a long descent and another 15 miles or so of small climbs and rolling hills, the final climb is a monster: 3 miles at a grade from 12-16%, starting after 125 miles have already reduced your legs to quivering pulp.  It speaks volumes that the race organizers put an aid station halfway up the climb, with only 1.5 miles to go in the ride.  The fact that there's an aid station within 2 miles of the finish line says quite a bit about what those two miles entail.  The answer is sheer brutality and fighting for every foot of progress, but the sense of accomplishment and great buffet at the finishing line make it all worthwhile.

This year I did a few things differently than in years past, and I think they made a big difference, as I posted my best time by a whopping 45 minutes (an 8:37), and I certainly could have gone a good bit faster had I been pushing for time.  First, I ate constantly, having a gel every 30 minutes and a bar of some sort every hour, plus a couple of Salt Stick capsules each hour.  I also kept myself very hydrated, drinking only water, but this wound up being a bit of a trick considering that my riding group stopped at only about 1/3 of the aid stations on offer (three in 127 miles).  Keeping sufficiently hydrated on an 85-degree, sunny day is tough without stopping frequently, so the drill was to drink two full bottles of water between each pair of stops, and then to drink at least two full bottles of water while at the stops themselves, before refilling the bottles for the next segment.  In all, I took in about 14 bottles of water during the ride, or about 300 ounces in 8.5 hours (35 oz/hr).  Calorically, I was probably up around 350-400/hour.  I also took bottles of 5 Hour Energy at miles 45 and 100.  It all worked a treat: the weakest I felt all day was in the first ten miles, and I simply got stronger as the day heated up and the miles rolled by.

Equipment modifications also played a role in my strong performance.  I upgraded my trusty titanium Seven frame with an Ultegra Di2 (electronic) drivetrain, installed handlebars with an ovalized top tube for comfort, and ran new Dura-Ace tubeless wheels, which permit one to ride at about 10 psi lower air pressure than conventional wheels, something that smoothes out the ride tremendously.

I also wore clothing specifically intended to help with the heat and sunshine, and I can't recommend it highly enough for hot summertime rides.  As the picture above shows, I wore Zoot IceFil Arm Coolers, which make it feel like one's constantly in the shade, regardless of the heat and humidity.  I also wore a Zoot IceFil Dome under my helmet.  These two items also saved the day for me in a brutally hot 300k (190-mile) ride through Pennsylvania farm country a couple of weeks ago, and they're going to be permanent fixtures in my summer cycling wardrobe.  I can't recommend them highly enough to anyone concerned about heat regulation or the specter of melanoma.

In all, I had a terrific ride, and I'm already looking forward to returning next year.  Events like this are the reward for hard training and solid preparation, and anyone curious about why people are passionate about cycling long distances owes it to herself to try a couple of challenge rides like Mountains of Misery.  There's certainly some misery involved, but almost everyone I know who's tried it has quickly circled it on the calendar for the following year.  

Thursday, May 24, 2012

On Ambition

Lately I've been thinking about the fact that competition in endurance sports isn't an enterprise that lends itself to moderation or perspective.  We each find our way to it for a reason that's deeply personal and uniquely our own, but a common denominator is a need for something in life that's been missing.  For one person, it might be that a loved one is affected by a disease, and one finds meaning in raising money and attracting attention for the cause.  For another, it might be a tragedy that highlights the fragility of life and awakens in him a drive to make the most of his gifts.  Some turn to endurance sports to purge demons from obesity to alcoholism.  And still others, I suspect, find that the modern pattern of a coddled, sheltered life behind a flickering display is inimical to our primal natures.  For this last set, the process of fighting through pain itself brings happiness and awakens in the mind a presence and immediacy that brings meaning to an otherwise soulless daily routine.

There's no question that the sense of personal progress can be intoxicating.  Since my calamity at the Boston Marathon five weeks ago, I've dedicated myself to training with a zeal I couldn't have imagined during my winter burnout just months ago, and in the process I've dropped 12 pounds.  At the Columbia Triathlon, when I got off the bike to start a run that, historically, has been my area of weakness, I felt strong and light, and each person I ran past symbolized a victory for discipline and ambition.  I was faster than I'd been a month or a year before, and that was due to sheer, dogged effort.  Basking in the glow of that performance, this week I've had to restrain myself from mentally planning to race, and even registering for, a host of events throughout the summer and fall that previously I'd not considered.  An Olympic-distance triathlon in Charlottesville?  Sure -- I bounce back from those quickly, and I didn't have anything else planned for that weekend.  Maybe a 70.3 in Georgia in September so that I could spend time with my parents at the same time.  And surely the half-Ironman two weeks later in Maryland with the team, because after all, it's a social event and there's nothing more fun than racing one's buddies when one's fitness is at an all-time high.  Of course, there are also the 300k, 400k, and 600k bike rides that have been penciled in; I couldn't imagine missing those epic adventures through the countryside.  August's Ironman, in Quebec, will be as memorable as they all are, a true highlight of the year.  The Army Ten Miler is convenient, so why not?  And given how things are going, that December marathon in California is just begging to have its butt kicked.

All of which is great.  Except... well, sometimes I think I need to save myself from my own temptations, and to consider the overall direction I want my life to take.  If I work my ass off for six months and cross the marathon finish line under three hours in December, it'll be the athletic achievement of a lifetime.  But I wonder whether it would truly liberate me to do other things, or whether I'd simply become convinced that, if 2:59 is in the books, 2:55 or 2:50 is possible.  If, next summer, I complete a 1200k bike ride, it will be a huge accomplishment, one I'll always remember.  But it's not as if it will end any desire to continue accomplishing new things.  There will always be another marathon to run, another 1200k to ride, and another Ironman available to contest.  At least until age slows us down, it is always possible to go faster and further, and it's a good thing, or else the game would hardly be worth the candle.

But those accomplishments don't occur in a vacuum.  They're achieved through dedication and discipline, but if we're not careful, those words can become code for monomania, imbalance, and narcissism.  I'm not convinced -- in fact, I reject the notion -- that sporting achievements alone are enough to bring lasting happiness.  It's how we view the world, how we make our way in it, and who's beside us that matters at the end of the day.  Happily, some of my better friends are people who enjoy the same perverse challenges, so my time on the trails and in the saddle serves double duty at present. Ultimately, though, I want to ensure that my enthusiasm for physical pursuits complements, rather than stands in for, other parts of my life.  It's always important to chase big dreams, to push ourselves, and to experience the world vividly.  But I want to make sure that I'm more than an athlete, more than just an ever-expanding roster of results on Athlinks.  I want to leave room for other things and other people, even if, at this moment, I don't know what or whom they are.  And sometimes that means saying no, despite not having a clear reason why.

I want to look forward to my swims, rides, and runs.  But I also want to look forward to what comes after they're done.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Race Report: 2012 Columbia Triathlon

Winning!  Except for the other four guys.  And the AG Elite guys.  And the Pros.
Today I took my second crack at the Columbia Triathlon, a large (1500+ athlete) regional Olympic-distance race set in the pretty but brutal hills of central Maryland.  I'd last raced it in 2008, when I'd posted a 2:28, a time with which I was pretty happy at that point.  This year, I had no idea what to expect; I came into the race only partially baked in the sense that (i) I've only been back in the water for about three weeks after a five-month layoff; (ii) my bike base is reasonably solid after a few long rides in the past month, but my interval work hasn't fully kicked into gear quite yet; and (iii) although my run shape is theoretically pretty good after the Boston and Big Sur marathons in April, both of those races cracked me pretty thoroughly.

What's more, I've spent a lot of time in the last month trying to ratchet my way down to race weight using the strict dietary regime and intermittent-fasting methodology that I described in a previous post.  It's working reasonably well -- I'm down about 8 pounds in four weeks, and have another 6 or so to go -- but it's left me notably under-fueled for certain workouts lately, and I wasn't sure whether I'd have much to give late in today's race.

In all, I thought that, if I had a good day today, I might have a 2:20 in me, given that the bike and run elevation charts look like a polygraph test -- that would put me 8 minutes faster than my last crack at the course.


I drove to the race with a friend who was competing in his third or four triathlon, and he asked me what my mindset was -- as in, was I psyched up and raring to compete?  I realized that, on this day at least, I really wasn't, and I think part of it is just the nonsensical wakeup calls I've had in the past three weeks for races.  In Big Sur three weeks ago, we woke up at 2:30 a.m.; for my 300k ride last weekend, I was up at 2:15 for a 14-hour sunbaked adventure; and this morning's 3:30 alarm bell felt like a bit of a sick joke for a race for which I wasn't fully prepared.  I used to think that Ironman's 4:00 a.m. wakeup times were singularly brutal and correspondingly rare, but lately it seems to be becoming a lifestyle.  Also -- and this is something I need to work on -- my mindset for the swim legs of races is pretty poor.  I don't much enjoy jumping into a cold lake at the crack of dawn and dealing with the inevitable rugby scrum, a process I view with something closer to resignation than excitement, particularly when my swimming is only just getting past the point of complete flailing after too much time off.

On the upside, the day was a gorgeous 60 degrees and sunny, and the wave starts were 8 minutes a part, a generous spacing that ensured that my group of 165 guys wouldn't immediately run over the folks at the back of the wave before us.


I lined up fairly front-and-center, but my goal was just to stay relaxed and keep it smooth.  I reflected that I really only have one gear in open-water swimming, which is one of the differences between me and folks that grew up doing this.  (Our relative speeds in the water are another fairly relevant difference.)  In the 2008 race my time had been a scarcely-believable 22:58, which was faster than I was capable of swimming at the time, so I thought there might be something about the course that made it a bit fast.  If so, that wasn't the case this year, when I loped out of the water in 24:38, 1:40 slower than my previous time.  That time had been set after a dedicated winter of swimming, but even so, I was moderately disappointed with this year's time given that I hadn't encountered any notable adversity in the water.

One thing I can say is that my goggles, the Zoggs Predator Flex Polarized, were an unambiguous success.  I hadn't used them much in pool swims because I find that, underwater, the lenses don't give me completely accurate depth perception, a fact that makes flip turns rather precarious.  But their clarity out of the water seemed remarkably good, and I reasoned that I didn't particularly need to see clearly when my face was in a murky lake -- I needed to see when lifting it up to find the next buoy.  In that capacity, they were a huge success, and I highly recommend them.  The swim started out by having us head straight into the morning sun and try to pick out yellow buoys.  In the in-water chatter before the gun went off, I realized that most people couldn't really see where we were headed, but I could pick out the buoys perfectly, and that ability carried straight through the swim.  At just under $40, these goggles go for about twice what a typical premium pair costs, but I think in this case they're completely worth it, and they'll be my go-to race goggles for the foreseeable future.


Meh.  Lately I've had a lot of trouble getting out of my wetsuit in T1.  The problem is that I struggle mightily to get the legs off due to my unreasonably high arches, which make the task of stretching the wetsuit over my ankles a struggle in futility.  I find myself having to sit down and work them off foot-by-foot, and the same high-arch problem makes it difficult to put my bike shoes on while I'm rolling.  Between the two factors, I'm giving up 45-60 seconds to my rivals in the transition area, a problem I'll need to address if I'm going to compete seriously at the shorter distances, where transitions really matter.


According to the website, last year the faster guys in my age group rode 1:08-1:09 for the bike leg, which reflects both the very hilly nature of the course and the fact that it's about 1/2 mile longer than the standard Olympic course.  Given my lack of proper interval work so far this year due to my marathon shenanigans, I knew that my power output wouldn't be quite what I wanted, but on the other hand, I think my bike position is pretty close to the most aerodynamic in the amateur field in most races, so I resolved to keep it relatively light on the many climbs, and to make up ground on the descents and whatever flattish parts I could find.  For about ten minutes in the early miles, I was yo-yo'ing with a pretty fit-looking guy who'd hammer on past me on every climb, but I'd reel him in and pass him every time it flattened out.  (The drafting rules seemed to play no part in this guy's thinking, as I don't think he'd ever get more than about ten feet behind me.)   It got to the point that every time I'd pass him, I'd say in a friendly way, "See you on the next climb."  And sure enough, I would.  But he wasn't riding in a sustainable manner, more spiking the wattage and then coasting, and eventually I dropped him for good.

The bike ride at Columbia is one of the hillier ones to be found in the region, with incessant rollers that are pretty long and pretty steep.

There's nothing that will ruin your day by itself, but it's difficult to settle into a rhythm when the course keeps mixing it up.  I just concentrated on pushing over the top of hills and focusing on riding hard on the descents when others were coasting.  It seemed to work well; no one passed me all day, and I reeled in a good number of folks.

Overall: 1:06:11 (22.7 mph), AG Rank 3/163.  I was pretty pleased -- my ride was a couple of minutes faster than I'd been expecting.  My wattage was only ok, which makes me think I have quite a bit of upside potential this season once I start focusing on it.


The run course at Columbia is legendarily brutal.  It's constant ups and downs, many of them steep, and the first one hits you right out of transition, a 75-foot climb over the course of 1/2 mile:

The run has been my weakness historically, but I think my recent weight-loss efforts have started paying dividends, as I felt pretty light on my feet from the get-go.  My strategy was simply to keep it moving on the uphills, no matter how slowly I had to go, but no walking.  Then, work hard on the downhills and on whatever brief flat stretches I could find.  It was a hard day at the office, but I reeled in people all day long, including several AG competitors.  One guy in my AG did catch me with 1/2 mile to go, but by then I had nothing left.  He was the only guy to pass me all day!

Overall: 42:57 (6:56/mi), AG Rank 10ish/163.  A run Personal Best on a stupid-hard course!

In total, my day came out to a 2:17:45, good for 5th in the AG out of 163, which was enough to sneak me onto the podium.  I won a free entry to the 5150 (Olympic Distance) championships in Des Moines, Iowa in September, though I probably can't use it due to other commitments.  Still, it felt good to put a strong race together on a tough course, and to go 11 minutes faster than I went in 2008 despite giving up two minutes on the swim -- time I'll get back pretty quickly in the next month or so when my swim training kicks into gear.

Next up: Mountains of Misery!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Race Report: Thank you, Big Sur! May I have another!

When in doubt, double down.

The view from Hurricane Point.
On Sunday, April 29, 2012, I competed in the business end of the "Boston 2 Big Sur Challenge" by running my second marathon in 13 days.  This one was the Big Sur International Marathon in Carmel, CA, widely reputed to be the most spectacular marathon in the country, and one that's as challenging as it is difficult.  Erm, I mean, as it is beautiful.  For the reasons I explained in my Boston race report, in the 13 days between marathons, I'd done little other than convalesce in the hope that I'd be able to make it through Big Sur intact. 

You can almost hear the Aqua on the stereo.
The flight out to California was long but uneventful, and due to my infinite well of karma, was lucky enough to get upgraded to a convertible when all I'd asked for was a compact.  The two hour drive from San Jose to Carmel, in 70-degree sunshine and with the coast and mountains on either side, made me wonder why people live anywhere else.  After a brief stop for lunch on Cannery Row, I met up with a couple of friends at our rental house, and we immediately hopped back into the car to take in 17-Mile Drive, a famous loop that circumnavigates the Pebble Beach Golf Course.  As Michael Jordan once said, "This is livin'!"  Or, if he didn't say it, I'm sure someone did, or at least should have.

Pebble Beach.  Not all beach.
Vistas, vistas everywhere.

Being a triathlete, I know what large bodies of water are for.
Chicks dig convertibles, especially white Chryslers.
The Lone Cypress.  On the mountain on the other side of the bay, our rental house!
"It's important to remember the last two days of our lives."
Following a great homemade dinner on Thursday night, Friday was spent driving the course and taking pictures, attending the famous Monterey Aquarium and packet pickup, and eating way too much.  Saturday was a blissful series of naps and indulgent lounging activities, complete with an awful movie.  Then it was early to bed, and up for the race.

The Big Sur International Marathon is a point-to-point race running north right along the Pacific Ocean.
The trick is that, as one notices during the drive, it's anything but flat.  The official elevation profile makes it pretty clear that there's a climb involved, but it doesn't look too bad otherwise:

The only problem with this profile is that it's a damned lie -- all they've done is taken elevations at every mile and smoothed out the details, which is where the devil sets up his base camp.  Here's what the course actually looks like:

It became pretty clear to me during our preview drive that this wasn't going to be a PR kind of course.  Not only had Boston taken a lot out of me, but I simply hadn't trained on the hills the way one needs to in order to run well here.  Running uphill is tough, but the downhills take arguably even more out of you, and it's very rare to have courses like this one with descents of over a mile at a time, at a grade of 7-8%.  I decided to hang out with the 3:25 pace group through the first half or so, i.e., until the top of the climb at Hurricane Point (mile 12), and then to see how I was feeling.

If there's a drawback to this marathon, it's that, due to the 6:45 start time and the need to be driven by bus to the starting line well in advance, the wakeup time is a truly inhumane 2:30 a.m.  Partially offsetting the pain, at least, was the fact that I was still pretty much on east coast time, so it felt a little more like 5:00-5:30, which isn't too bad as marathons go.

The pre-race scene at the starting line was remarkably hospitable: plenty of porta-jons, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, water, Gatorade, and all manner of other amenities were abundant, and our crew lounged around for an hour or so, peoplewatching and listening to Jeff Galloway and Bart Yasso quipping over the P.A. system.  The only thing slightly less than ideal was the rugby scrum as 4,000 people tried to hand their bags over to the dry clothes truck at the very same time.

The race itself was truly spectacular -- a thing to behold.  The first five miles were lightly rolling but had a clear downward trajectory, and holding a 7:20 pace felt pretty effortless.  They're a light meander through a forest, with morning mist and quiet roads lending an ambiance that couldn't be more different from the screaming hordes in Boston.  In fact, one of the characteristics of this race is that, because it's relatively small, remote, and the course is closed to car traffic, there are very few fans of any sort in the first twenty miles or so -- just the sound of footsteps and happy banter among runners who are cruising through one of the more spectacular places on earth.  Those of us who had raced Boston two weeks earlier were also feeling exceedingly pleased with the crisp 50-degree day.

Pt. Sur Lighthouse, shrouded in mist.
We emerged from the forest around mile 6, at which point the course opens up and we got spectacular ocean views to our left, although the mist obscured some of the details.  At mile 8 we cruised past the Pt. Sur Lighthouse as we encountered a 2-mile false-flat straightaway, and at the same time found the legendary Big Sur wind, which was barreling straight south into our faces.  It felt refreshing, but it was strong enough that runners were quite literally pacelining down the road in order to get whatever draft was available, which wasn't too much.  I was still on about a 3:20 pace, but the wind made me feel like I was trying a little bit harder than I wanted to.  Oh well -- that's what earns me the big bucks at the finish line.

The first 400 yards of the Hurricane Point climb.  Only 1.9 miles to go.
At the end of the straightaway, we plummeted down a 1-mile descent at a grade approaching 10% before hitting the bottom of the famous climb up to Hurricane Point, a 2-mile slog at 4-5% grade.  It's not the steepest hill that one has ever encountered, but it is clearly the longest I've ever run in a race setting.  The day was doing its best to make the climb appear daunting: the bottom was below the cloud layer, but the climb itself wound its way straight up into the clouds.  At this point, the pacer slowed down, but not by all that much -- he was running at 8:00 pace or so up the steep grade, and he showed no sign of letting up at all.  My gameplan was to stick with him until it no longer made sense, so I resolved to crest the hill with the group at mile 12, and then to reassess.

The road arcing down to Bixby Bridge.
Eventually we made it to the top, although I was well up into Z4 heart rate with the effort, and I knew I wouldn't be able to hold on for much more unless things lightened up.  Fortunately, the road stops ascending; unfortunately, it slings you right back down the other side at an 8% grade or so for a mile, before one crosses the iconic Bixby Bridge at mile 13.

One of the defining spectacles at Big Sur is that a tuxedo'd pianist plays a grand piano on the far side of Bixby Bridge, and with the speakers that the race directors position, one can clearly hear the theme from Chariots of Fire, Greensleeves, and other timeless tunes enveloping them as they reach the halfway point of the course, which is directly over the center span of the bridge.  It's otherworldly and emotional to hear such a thing halfway through a timeless journey like this marathon, with craggy cliffs overlooking the Pacific -- there's not much else like it in the running world.

I crossed the bridge on something like a 3:22 pace, which is exactly where I wanted to be, but the back half of the course is nonstop rolling hills -- many of them more than "rolling" -- and the road takes on a nasty camber that has one's left leg an inch or two higher than one's right for miles on end.  About mile 17, my legs simply gave up the ghost; too much climbing, too much descending, and not enough in the tank after the system shock that was Boston.   I made the executive decision that, heck, I wasn't in striking range of a Boston slot or any other time of note, so there was little sense in doing anything other than backing it off and enjoying the experience.  So that's just what I did: I slowed by about 45 seconds a mile on average, took in the views, ate fresh strawberries by the handful from aid stations, and made my way to the finish line in a gentleman's 3:40.  Very nearly an hour faster than Boston two weeks earlier! Apparently not running for thirteen days straight does wonders for one's fitness.

In all, the race was an amazing experience.  I'm not sure whether I enjoyed it more than Eugene, the race where I ran my 3:07 personal best in May 2011, but it's at least a toss-up.  The scenery and race organization are second to none, and it just doesn't feel like any other race that I'm aware of.  Instead of just covering a course, hitting the aid stations, monitoring one's splits, and trying for the best time one can, this one feels like a return to primal roots on some level -- it's why we own running shoes.  I'm thinking of coming back next spring to improve on my time with some proper training, and without the burden of running Boston beforehand, but we'll see.  One thing I've taken from the Boston 2 Big Sur experience is that I'm no longer in the business of running marathons just for fun.  They're incredibly painful in the best of circumstances, and when one isn't taking them seriously, training with dedication, and doggedly pursuing a goal, there's very little to fall back on mentally when the going gets tough.  In a race like Big Sur, that's fine -- the views are the reason one's there.  But after running the two toughest marathons I've ever done, and running them only 13 days apart, I'm very glad that there's some cycling in my future.