Thursday, January 19, 2012

Reasons

Cycling is so hard, the suffering is so intense, that it’s absolutely cleansing. The pain is so deep and strong that a curtain descends over your brain... Once, someone asked me what pleasure I took in riding for so long. ’Pleasure?’ I said. ’I don’t understand the question.’ I didn’t do it for pleasure, I did it for pain."
-Lance Armstrong


Sometimes I find myself looking forward to a day when I ride simply because I want to, not because I need to.  If there is an external barometer of my happiness, in some ways it could be described as inversely related to my athletic ambition.  I suspect that I am not alone in this, although it has taken me years to recognize it.  To the driven, maximizing one's achievements is equal parts moral compulsion and snipe hunt: who would settle for less?  But how can we reach our potential in every worthy pursuit?  Decisions are thrust upon us, and at times, I question certain of my choices.

Anesthesia through limitless exertion appears preferable to any other kind: it honors our gifts more truly.  Yet anesthesia by its lights offers mere superficial succor, sequestering symptoms and side effects -- it does not curb the malady.  Equally, the relief it offers is fleeting, and as we acclimate, we demand more, ultimately ensuring that we fall short in our grasp for stable orbit. 

We must always interrogate our reasons.  Past choices are made, but future ones are not faits accomplis.  Sometimes the familiar path of least resistance is a mere Mobius strip, bringing us glimpses of our destination, but presenting no true means of bridging the gap.  It is incumbent upon us to find the way by constant assessment, even if honest reflection risks fatal damage to long-treasured premises.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Bikes Bring People Together

Since I bought my first "adult" bike in 2005, an aluminum Cervelo P2SL, I've never ceased being amazed at how many people that decision has enabled me to meet.

Just another day in the saddle.
To take but one obvious example, through the years I've met literally hundreds of athletes through Team Z, but it hardly stops there.  Some of my closest friend are similarly masochistic folks with whom I've bonded for 10+ hours at a time while grinding up punishing climbs at Mountains of Misery and the Diabolical Double.

In my experience, you can never tell who might be spinning the cranks just next to you.  During my first crack at Mountains of Misery, in 2007, I found myself in a paceline with a guy festooned with blazingly bright maple leaves on every item of his clothing -- including his socks.  We introduced ourselves, and it turned out to be Leslie Reissner, a Canadian diplomat who worked at the embassy in downtown D.C.  We got to know each other pretty well during the day, and met up for another challenge century, the Mountain Mama, later that summer.  Unfortunately, I only met him twice -- he was soon sent back to Canada, and then to Germany -- but we still keep in touch on Facebook, and he's extended several invitations to come and ride around Europe with him.  In the meantime, it turns out that he's a fascinating guy, with interests ranging from architecture to history, flying, cooking, bicycle touring, to opera and wildlife conservation.  He's also a gifted and prolific writer, not only of an entertaining blog, but also of many insightful book reviews on Pez Cycling and other sites.   All it took was a couple of long jaunts down the road together.

Hiking up Skyline Drive last autumn.  I'm in the grey kit on the right.  I rode behind Andy, the guy in yellow, because I found his expression entirely unnerving.  Also, it seems I can't ride in front of him.  Photo credit to Jenny Gephart, who took this riding uphill, looking backward, and threatened to sue me unless I said so.  One also meets pretty persuasive people while cycling.
A little bit closer to home, I've noticed that, among the lawyerly set in D.C. at least, cycling is the new golf.  (Thank goodness.)  In my years with a private law firm and the Department of Justice, I've yet to meet any avid golfers, but cyclists are everywhere, and crop up in the least expected places, always for the better.  A couple of years back, I interviewed for an in-house counsel position with a large telecommunications company.  After spending a few hours meeting groups of attorneys, I met with a vice president of the legal department -- a very senior guy, and one whom everyone described as intense and intimidating.  He's the guy you have to impress, they said.  Well, I sat down expecting the worst, and the first thing he said was, "so you're a cyclist?"  I'd listed it as an interest on my resume, and it turns out that he was equally avid about it.  We'd both ridden Mountains of Misery and similar rides, and the overlap went further still.  It turns out that, that morning, we'd both been at swim practice at the same pool.  In fact, we were on the same triathlon team.  Later that year, I was cheering on athletes at Ironman Florida, and on the run course, I found myself giving a motivational talk to, and frantically shuttling chicken soup to, this allegedly intimidating corporate VP, who was cramping up severely.  We're all equals out there.

Some, however, are more equal than others, a fact of which I was reminded yesterday on my flight home from California.  I noted a guy across the aisle, and a couple of rows up, leafing enthusiastically through a cycling magazine like a kid on Christmas, and I felt an immediate kinship -- someone who shares the obsession!  He looked the part: 50's, closely cropped hair, very trim, and no-nonsense.  Moments before, I'd finished reading Hell on Two Wheels, an excellent account of the 2009 Race Across America.  For those who don't know, that race covers about 3,000 miles, from San Diego to Annapolis, MD, every summer.  Only 10-15 people usually complete it successfully, and those often ride for 22+ hours a day for 10-12 days straight in order to do it.  It's billed as the most extreme endurance event on earth, and was the subject of the award-winning documentary "Bicycle Dreams."  (It's outstanding, incidentally.)

I figured that, if the guy reading the bike magazine was as enthusiastic about the sport as he appeared, he'd probably love Hell on Two Wheels, so when we got off the plane and were waiting for the train in Dallas, I said hello, mentioned that I saw him reading the magazine, and handed him the book, suggesting that he might want to pick up a copy.  He took it, looked it over for about ten seconds, and said, "Well, what do you know," and handed it back.  He then remarked, "I actually finished that race in 1995," and extended his right hand and pointed to his ring, on which was emblazoned "RAAM 1995."  It turns out that, that year, he was one of only 10 finishers.  Our connection was immediate, and we chatted enthusiastically until he had to get off the train.  He gave me his name, and I looked him up as soon as I got home. Very impressive, Ricky Wray Wilson, very impressive.

It just goes to show that, when it comes to cycling, you can never tell whom you're going to meet.  It brings us together, and thank goodness -- the world needs more things like it.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

I'm writing a book!

Big news!  I've just finalized a contract with Endurance Planet and Ben Greenfield Fitness to write a book on endurance sports, to be released later this year! 

Obviously, it'll be a page-turner.
The working title is, "Advice from the Trenches: Endurance Planet's Insider's Guide to Sports Performance."  During my years in endurance sports, I've written a number of guides and lists of tips and tricks, and given all sorts of advice to aspiring and veteran endurance athletes.  This book will distill and expand on the things that people have found most helpful, and should provide a huge amount of concrete, useful information to help athletes get the most out of themselves in their training and racing.

I've personally gotten a great deal out of the Endurance Planet and Ben Greenfield Fitness podcasts and resources over the past couple of years, and I'm really looking forward to working with those guys to produce something terrific.  It'll be available on e-readers from iPad to Kindle to Nook, as well as in hard copy.

More details as they emerge!

Functional Finds, Vol. 2

(1)  A portable bike stand.  I grabbed one of these highly useful portable bike stands off of Amazon, and I'm surprised I went without it for so long.


Stand in the place where you bike.
Only about 18 inches tall, the stand loops over the down tube to provide two-sided stability.  No more leaning the bike against your car while you're inflating the tires or making mechanical adjustments.  Speaking of mechanical adjustments, the rear wheel is elevated so you can spin it to check the shifting and whatnot.  It's not strong enough for major work, but it's high on the list of convenient accessories.  $15 well spent!

(2)  Upgraded Aerobar Hardware for Speed Concept 9-series.  The Trek Speed Concept aerobars are aerodynamic but hardly elegant: they have 14 different screws and a ton of hardware.

Stock hardware.

What's more, because the arm pads sit above the extensions, they are a pretty "tall" bar.  Some, like me, wish for more downward mobility.  Nick Salazar at Tririg.com designed and created replacement clamps that lighten the bars by 1/2 pound, reduce the necessary screws from 14 to 4, and allow the bars to go about 1" lower.  They are incredibly elegant.

These parts replace everything above and more.

I installed these on my bike, and the difference is obvious.

On left: new, lower clamps.  On right: old hardware.
Here's the sleek new look on both sides:

Zoom zoom.
These clamps are only available for a limited time -- TriRig has a certain stock, and then that'll be it.  Get them while they're hot if you have a Speed Concept 9-series.

(3)  Sennheiser wireless headphones.  I spend a lot of time on my trainer in the winter (and, heck, in the summer) months, and I often find it difficult to hear dialog in movies or television shows I'm watching.  I could turn on closed captioning, I guess, but these are much better:

Sennheiser RS 170 digital.

These things sound amazing, are wireless, and block out external sound so that you don't need to disturb the whole house while you're getting your workout in.  You can adjust the volume, among other things, on the headphones themselves.  I even find that the reduced ambient noise reduces fatigue after a little while, and makes the whole thing more pleasant.  There are cheaper models -- I used to have some -- but the elimination of interference that this model offers is well worth the extra cash, in my opinion.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Remembering Jaron: Five Years On

"We all have our time machines.  Some take us back: they're called memories.  
Some take us forward: they're called dreams."  -Jeremy Irons

2005, the day before Jaron's business school graduation, and two days before I decided to buy a bike, learn to swim, and start training for an Ironman.  
My father likes to say that life has a way of giving us just about as much as we can handle.  At times that strikes me as unduly optimistic, as wishfully ascribing purpose to the immutable forces against which we each wage a deeply personal struggle.  The circularity can seem excruciatingly apparent: if life gives us exactly as much as we can handle, it is only because we've no choice but to handle exactly what life gives us.

Five years ago today, my younger brother Jaron passed away, suddenly, terribly, and avoidably.  He'd done nothing reckless or improvident; quite the contrary, he had just made the most considered decision one can make by asking his girlfriend to accompany him through life.  Yet literally days later, he was taken from us only through careless, dismissive acts by those in whom we place our deepest trust at our moments of greatest vulnerability.  Life ultimately gave him no chance to handle his situation, and afforded his fiancée no choice but to attempt to fathom answers that would not be forthcoming.

We cannot grasp fully the ways in which our past shapes, motivates, and explains us.  We are each a product of granular experiences accreted onto a substrate of philosophy and will.  Ten million small eddies meld into an irresistible torrent that propels us forward to face experiences and adventures unknown.  We're captains of boats with unreasonably small rudders, crewed by an infinite number of monkeys.

Yet sometimes we find ourselves, despite it all, in the presence of undeniable grace and wonder so powerful, and so unexpected, that it summons tears at the impossible, profligate beauty of life.

Jaron, 2006, skydiving into metaphor.
Perhaps all we can do is to hold our hearts open so that we might recognize and embrace these fleeting moments before they pass.  Sometimes we're so consumed by thoughts of the future that the present is but a flickering torch, one inevitably insufficient to pierce the distant shadows.  Immediately surrounding us, however, is the world of awe that we have been given, and that we must treasure.  To lower our gaze is to behold the distant stars.

I miss ya, buddy.  Every day.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Filliol's Tri Swimming Tips


On his blog, renowned coach Joel Filliol posted a list of twenty triathlon swimming tips that strongly resonated with me.  I'd copy them here, but I'm not that kind of blogger.  I'd strongly recommend checking them out at the hyperlink above; I'll be rereading them periodically.

Book Review: "Wheat Belly" by William Davis, M.D.

Readers of this page will know that, in the last fifteen months or so, I've been directing my OCD laser beam on issues of sports nutrition.  It's turned out to be a fascinating and engagingly reticulated field to study, and one with surprisingly few certainties, at least on a prescriptive level.  Michael Pollan has singlehandedly waged a pretty effective public-relations war on the corn industry, long thought to be an innocuous source of staple food products.  Michelle Obama took a lead public relations role in replacing the established, if deeply misguided, food pyramid with something called "My Plate" that, according to certain pundits, has been a spectacular failure.  In each case, the modern thinking is not only different from what the government had advocated previously, it is almost directly contrary to it, implying that the previous advice that consumers were given would actually have hurt them if followed.

Diets are, if anything, even worse.  There are innumerable ones out there, from Atkins to Paleo, South Beach, Weight Watchers, Dean Ornish, Blood Type, Zone, and even Subway.  Consumers could be forgiven for concluding that any dietary approach will lead to weight loss except their present one.   Everyone has an opinion on the right way to eat, and it's not hard to marshal facts in support of virtually any approach when outlets like CNN are reporting breathlessly that a professor of human nutrition lost twenty-seven pounds in two months eating nothing but a Twinkie every three hours.
Apparently no one chooses My Plate.

Despite the overwhelming amount of often-contradictory information out there, I've come to think that there are right answers, or at least better and worse answers.  I overhauled my diet pretty thoroughly last year, dropping ten pounds while building lean muscle in the process, and my race results showed it.  I think that further improvements are always possible, however, and in any case, I simply can't stop myself from cramming as much information into my head as I can find.  And so it was that I heard a podcast interview with William Davis, MD, the author of "Wheat Belly," who argued broadly that, for countless reasons, wheat in its modern form is a pernicious, toxic substance that is substantially responsible for a wide range of modern disorders and diseases ranging from obesity to diabetes, and including perhaps even arthritis and autism.  Davis's argument seemed somewhat overstated to me, which made sense -- he was trying to sell a book, after all.  But, on the chance that there was something to it, I quickly picked up the book and got stuck in.

There's a lot to say, but here's the main thing: If you care about your health, I would put this book very firmly in the "must read as quickly as possible" column.  I've rarely come across a book that so decisively changed my perspective on a food or even methodology.  Until now, I thought of wheat as a grain whose proteins trouble certain people but that otherwise was fairly benign, if not particularly nutritious.  I hadn't been eating much of it when I was on a strict nutrition plan because it was a source of relatively empty calories, but I certainly indulged in pasta before races, pizza at finish lines, and cake on special occasions.  After reading this book, at least for the foreseeable future, I will do none of those things, and I predict that anyone who reads it with an open mind will be very tempted to make a similar decision.

The book starts with a simple, but fairly devastating, fact: whole wheat bread, long thought to be a staple of healthy living, spikes blood sugar levels far more than just about any other substance, including table sugar.  In carbohydrate terms, wheat is basically rocket fuel.  Biochemically, a spike in blood sugar causes the body to release a flood of insulin, which is disturbingly effective at converting that blood sugar to visceral fat, which accumulates around the midsection.  Visceral fat is a particularly bioactive and harmful type of fat that releases triglycerides and even estrogen, thus causing Gynecomastia, i.e., "man cans," on some unfortunate souls.  Chronically high levels of insulin can cause the liver to become desensitized to it, thus causing the pancreas to emit yet more to rid the blood of sugar, which leads to a cycle that culminates in diabetes.  It is therefore no surprise that obesity and diabetes are strongly correlated.  And it is also no surprise that the skyrocketing rates of diabetes (up 500 percent since 1980) and obesity are also correlated with a marked rise in the quantity of wheat consumed.

When I listened to the podcast, one objection I had was that, look: people have been eating wheat for thousands of years, even back to biblical times, and it's a staple of countless religious traditions, so it can't really be so toxic.  But the book anticipates and smacks this point down pretty thoroughly, explaining that the modern variety of high-yield "dwarf" wheat is substantially different, both physically and chemically, from anything that existed before the late twentieth century.  It is simply not the same plant that our ancestors ate: its glycemic index (the amount by which it raises blood sugar) is far higher, and its gluten is more pronounced so as to support the processing into baked goods and countless other products.  There is therefore little reason to draw comfort from past experience -- although Davis also argues that there is no variety of wheat, regardless of how old, that gets around many of the problems that the book sets forth.

The problems are legion.  Wheat has been linked to, among other things, osteoporosis, irritable bowel syndrome, anemia, cancer, fatigue, sores, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and various other autoimmune diseases.  Gluten, furthermore, is linked to many psychiatric and neurological diseases, including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, dementia, migraines, epilepsy, neuropathy, and even autism.  This page, compiled by another physician,  discusses some of the problems.  Davis includes perhaps twenty clinical anecdotes of chronically ill patients without outward signs of celiac disease or gluten intolerance, but who nonetheless were quickly and sometimes completely cured simply by eliminating wheat from their diets.

For me, certain parts of this hit close to home, at least on a potential level.  Since my college days, I've suffered from bouts of cluster headaches about which the less is said, the better -- suffice it to say that I can think of few less pleasant sensations.  These headaches have come and gone seemingly without reason.  I noticed this fall, though, that it had been over a year since I'd last had a symptom, a period that corresponded rather directly to my dietary reforms, one of which was a virtual elimination of wheat for most of 2011.  In that time, I hadn't felt a stitch of discomfort, whereas I'd previously suffered a couple of weeks' affliction a couple of times each year.  In December of 2011, however, after Cozumel, I allowed myself a month of "normal" eating that included pizza, bread baskets, and lots of sandwiches around the holidays.  And, starting late last week, i.e., around New Year's Day, the headaches came back, and I've been fighting them ever since.  I'm back on the dietary wagon now, though, so it will be interesting to see whether wheat is indeed a contributing factor.

In all, I think anyone who takes health and nutrition seriously should pick this book up and devour it forthwith.  Endurance athletes, in particular, should be quite concerned if Dr. Davis's thesis is correct, because many indulge in virtually limitless bread, pasta, pancakes, bagels, and other wheat-based foods in the belief that it's acceptable, and perhaps even necessary to support the training load.  I've personally found that not to be the case, and this book confirms that there is every reason to doubt the wisdom of a grain-based diet.

The book is written in a highly accessible manner, is full of concrete anecdotes, and is well-sourced.  In the later chapters, some of the biochemical explanations for observed phenomena are quite detailed and technical, and I can't honestly say that I followed it all.  Still, I appreciated that the proposed causal chain is set forth should I want to invest the time to understand it down the road.  I also found that, toward the end, the anecdotes began to blend together, but only because they all fell into the pattern of "serious diseases cured merely through excising wheat from the diet."  On the whole, I suppose that, if they're true, such anecdotes can't be offered too often.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Space Cadet Goes Cycling


A new year, a new amusing misadventure.  Today I joined some cycling buddies for a 45-mile, no-drop New Year ride.  I brought my road bike, along with my road shoes with Look Keo cleats -- nothing unusual here.

Look Keo cleat


Except that, upon driving nearly an hour to the ride start, I realized that my road bike was still in "commuter" mode, which meant that it had... not Look pedals.  Instead, it had these contraptions:

Not a Look Keo pedal

So, faced with a choice between sensibly calling it a day and riding 45 cold miles with flexy running shoes on crazy pedals the size of pencils, I... well, I probably don't even need to finish that sentence.  Climbing out of the saddle was a little sketchy, because I suspected that, if my foot slipped even a little, I'd impale myself on the pedal spindle or at least crack the hell out of my shin.  But what would the new year be without a little comic misadventure?  Oy vey.  I turned down a buddy's offer to duct tape my feet to the pedals.

It wasn't the swiftest ride I've ever had, nor was it the most, well, stable.  But I knocked it out nonetheless, and with it, crossed another "Doh!" moment off of my bucket list.  Maybe today I'll do my track workout in cycling shoes.