Thursday, February 06, 2014

Pushing the Stress Limit

Houston's Picnic Loop, not a bad place for steady winter training laps
I spent the better part of one half of my December in Houston.  I had a trial which was slated to last a little over a week; but with witness preparation, travel and logistics it made more sense to box up everything, bike and all, and set up camp not too far from Memorial Park for a full two weeks.  My location turned out to be very utilitarian.  Memorial Park is a 1.1 mile closed loop which is rideable day and night.  It was just what I needed to get through the two weeks.  It wasn't exactly the sexiest route to do day in and day out; but when it came down to steady intervals and the ability to start your workout at 6AM or 10PM (which is par for the trial life course) it did the trick.

While I was in-between court sessions I was sent an article about a fellow attorney and endurance athlete Caroline Gregory (@ckgregory) in which the author discusses the concept of "total stress budget" and explores how life around our athletic life impacts our training and ultimately our performance.  It's a well written article and I strongly support reading it for no other reason than it may make you think about your approach to life and training.  For me it was a reminder about the "amateur" aspect of my life as a professional amateur athlete, or as I like to refer to it faux pro.

I do not get paid to race bikes but sometimes I find myself living like I do.  I fixate over details of position, equipment and training.  I make sure to sleep enough and try to eat well. And right when things are poised for a substantial breakthrough and my fitness is primed for local race glory, life gets in the way.  Or more aptly put, my real pro life puts demand on me in the form of travel, deadlines or long hours.

Keep in mind, I love my day (and many times long nights) job.  The work I do, both on and off the bike, is an extension of my personality as much as my passion for clothing and wine.  To be honest, sometimes I forget where the lawyer ends and the person begins but these are all competing forces as there truly are only 24 hours in any given day.  As such, there is finite time to accomplish all those things I enjoy and those things that I need to do.

All that being said, having a full-time job, family, friends and a life beyond just two wheels is challenging when it comes to maintaining a career as a faux pro.  Employers and judges and life sometimes does not agree with me that it's important to train 15 hours a week.  Then you add in things like the weather, personal obligations, limited financial resources and it becomes a full on struggle to maintain focus sometimes.  What this all adds up to is distraction and stress, not just from bike racing but from everything.  The more focused you are on worrying the less focused you are on getting things done, professionally and personally.

A good group ride with friends I've found to be a solid way to decrease the stress of training.

It's a delicate and desperate balance that I do not often succeed in maintaining and, it is not for want of trying either.  I've been at this now for the better part of 20 years, first as a swimmer and now as a bike racer.  What I've come to learn is that in the vast majority of situations there is time, maybe not as much as you'd like, but often as much as you need.  What it requires is preparation, a lot of flexibility and good support from those who care.

None of it is easy and it requires taking things in stride.  Setting realistic goals and not getting supremely disappointed when those goals are not immediately reached are skills that I need to develop.  Success builds upon success just as repeated failure tends to lead to a proverbial downward spiral.  What I've found to be the hardest part is maintaining balance.  I have a tendency of over-focusing on tasks and feel the impulse that I need to block out everything until I have completed it. However, to the contrary I've found that the appropriately timed training break clears my mind and forces me to focus harder in a shorter period of time than if I just sat at my desk for 8 straight hours.  Keep in mind medicine now also agrees with the sentiment that the desk-based lifestyle has negative consequences.

What the concept of total stress budget is to me is another tool, like TSS or CTL; but less quantifiable than the latter examples.  There is no matrix, unfortunately, which calculates how much wattage working 12 hours a day for a week drains from your performance.  So total stress budget has its limits as a quantifiable training tool; but it's importance for the purposes of planning and prospective training limits is unquestionable.  It's once again, the re-insertion of a more holistic concept of training, a subtle reminder that we are all more than the watts we produce and the miles we ride.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Bike Racing and Winning

I am hijacking this topic from a dear friend and fellow MABRA racer because he got me thinking about it a couple of weeks ago. 

A story circulated on Facebook months ago describing a certain subset of Generation Y-ers, Millenials and basically most younger people in America as lacking competitiveness.  Specifically this targeted those people who engage in mass participation running events like Spartan runs or color runs or zombie runs or whatever they are called.  The message passed around was simple, these events are merely participatory, i.e., the goal is not to win but rather to just do it, and their popularity spells doom for America. I've always been confused by these events because of their lack of "winning" but since I had no desire to do I spent little time pondering their significance.  

The last race I won was in 2009. It was my final season as a Cat 3. The euphoria I felt in winning that race was incredible. It's a feeling I hope to have again some day. In fact, I want to feel it so much that I have invested money and countless hours of my life into equipment, coaching, nutrition and training. I go to bed early and pass on social opportunities (but honestly, does anything good really happen after 2AM in Adams Morgan?) with friends who do not understand the impulse to succeed at amateur athletics. I have a nearly medical attention to the food I eat (yes hamburgers count as health food if you put lettuce, tomato and mustard on) and track my weight daily. The idea of taking a day off the bike is enough to cause a mild panic attack; until of course someone talks me down off that ledge and reminds of my grandfather's logic that everything should be done in moderation...including moderation.  

Despite all of that, it has still been nearly four years since I stood on the top of the podium. And, I regret none of it, even in the slightest. In bike racing we have this fascination with winning. It's as if getting second place, as Ricky Bobby's father mistakenly made him believe, "is the first loser."  Is it really?  Or is our obsession with winning an unhealthy fixation that belittles the myriad of achievements that participation itself offers?  

This is not a discussion of the distorted phraseology from a youthful endeavor of my own where "everybody swims, everybody wins."  That phrase never made much sense to me; but it did conveniently fit onto a wrist band that lasted in chlorinated water just long enough to survive a week of YMCA nationals.  There is something between participation and winning, it's the vast scope of most people's involvment in bike racing.  There are many people who upon paying $35-60 for a race, jump in it, never get near the front, never take a shot at winning and finish in the pack and call it a success.  For me that's a very expensive group ride.  Then there is the guy or girl who pays the same $35-60, gets in the race, goes off the front, rides the break, takes the shot at winning, pulls back the move for a teammate or just does something but still doesn't win.  

By some people's logic those persons are in the same position. Neither of them won so both of them lost. However, sitting here in a hotel in Houston I cannot accept that as correct. Some of the races I remember the most, the ones that I relive with either a smile or sometimes a chokingly to realistic feel of the joy of shared suffering are the ones where I got dropped because I took a shot. Or other races where I struggled to finish with the pack because I had tried to fight the pack all day long. Likewise, some of the tales of fellow racers' efforts that I most often retell are not the solo breakaway that went wire to wire for the win. Rather they are the desperate chases to bring back the dangerous move we missed or the guy who dangled 5 or 6 seconds off the front in a crit for 10 laps before being dragged back with 1 to go.  

We can certainly celebrate the winners of any race; but the list of people we celebrate shouldn't stop there. It needs to include those people who make the race great. It needs to include the person who tries and fails; otherwise what's the point? We have enough people in the pack who are too timid to try to do something because they believe they can win and therefore sit in for the sprint which for them never comes. If we celebrate both the winner and the guy or girl who makes the effort to become one then maybe, just maybe we will encourage better and more vibrant racing. We will get people to come out of the shadows of obscurity so that it isn't always the same 10 or 20 people on the podium every time. In the end maybe backing off of the obsession of winning will make more winners.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Return to Illinois

It takes on average 30-60 seconds of a conversation for me to tell new people that I am originally from Chicago.  It's a fact I take a great deal of pride in relaying.  There are purist who will remind me that I have never lived within the city limits; but for most, my identification as a Chicagoan, even though I grew up in a suburb, is appropriate.  So when, as in September, I had the chance to return to Chicago for work and bring my bike it was a happy occasion.

Heading north of Peoria through endless fields ready for the
harvest and tall enough to block a little wind
I've never identified myself as from Illinois.  The remainder of the state never laid claim to me, much like the fact that I never even thought of attending the University of Illinois.  Growing up my identification was always with Chicago, its majestic spires, and probably Notre Dame.  The remainder of the state seemed as distant a location as California or the moon.  So on this recent trip when my travels took me away from the strict confines of the city and put me on the open roads hundreds of miles from the towers that dominate the shoreline, I felt like I was discovering a new world.

I get into a rut sometimes.  It's an insistence on doing the same routes, the same workouts and no originality.  You wake up and get ready to face the day; but the eagerness to ride is a bit dulled because it has all become too routine.  The same can be said of a lot of things- from work to personal lives. Molds need breaking and repetition needs changing.
This year's winner of the most passionate Halloween
decorations contest.  I little too passionate for me

Rolling through endless fields of corn and soy and corn and soy I can get lost.  However, given the strict confines of the grid system of roads it's really not that hard to figure your way back to the nearest Hampton Inn.  When I let go of the confines of what I "must do" and where I "can go" in my riding I can find myself in some off the wall places.  These are definitely the places that I am not sure how I get to but I am glad that I have gone to.  For instance, among the farmland north of Peoria is a small town called Princeville.  Within that town, there was one house that was passionate about Halloween.  Ghoulish decorations from property line to property line, many of which were life-sized and quite life-like, some were disturbingly animatronic.

West of Naperville, just shy of redemption
The largeness of these decorations was matched only by the size of the smile on the homeowner's face when he saw me spin around and break out my GoPro to snap a few pictures.  If I thought his decorations were peculiar, I can only imagine what he must have thought about this spandex-clad titan who felt the need to roll by his house half a dozen times.  Then again, joy comes to me just in doing what others don't expect that I will do.  Behaving predictably is quite uninteresting.

Then there was the scene in Gridley north of Normal, which I swear are real places.  It was close to sunset when I spun through the town in the middle of an interval.  I could have blinked and the town would have passed by in-between breaths. I bumped across a railroad spur that linked an old warehouse to the main track line. In a split second I saw a flash of light from the corner of my eye and quickly twisted my head to see what I presume was a senior picture photo shoot with a young brunette.  Living in DC you probably wouldn't dream of the sitting-on-the-tracks-with-the-sunset-and-farmland image as picturesque, much less senior picture worthy or safe. However, growing up in the Midwest the image is highly sought after and undoubtedly is replicated hundreds and thousands of times this year.  

In either case, it's a slice of Americana that I forget about or, even worse, take for granted.  Of course, that's something that I cannot let myself do anymore.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Accountability and Training

It takes a moment of bravery to start anything and putting yourself out for critique requires a degree of ambivalence to consequences. I started this journal years ago without a purpose. Slowly a purpose evolved and then its importance to me faded. The desire to tell my story never vanished; more or less it simply faded into the background of those things that were otherwise deemed important at the time.

Took a big leap of faith and brought a bike with me to
Rio and discovered I could ride with monkeys there.
As I sit here on a cloudy and somewhat damp Fall day in Washington, D.C., I am looking at a forced day or so of training zone zero.  An illness stemming from the reality that one can only survive on adrenaline and espressos from Filter Coffeehouse & Espresso Bar for so long before stress, training fatigue and lack of sleep catch up to you.  Time off does not come easy to most type-A personalities but it hits me particularly hard.  I've been a competitive endurance athlete since I was 6-years old when my parents first tossed me into the deep end of a pool and said go swim.  In the nearly 3 decades since then I have had my share of victory and tasted the bitter pill of defeat.  What has remained constant during those 30 years has been the desire to wake up and attack what drives-- the thrill of competition.  Time off gives you the ability to think about that desire and to find a quiet moment of introspection that is often missing in my otherwise hurried existence.  I, like many others, need to slow down and relax.  I've been told I'll live longer that way.

We care the most about the things six inches in front of our nose.  Those things that were right there in front of me grabbed my attention and over time the desire to write and to record my history just didn't seem important. A short time ago I met a fellow American when we were in Brazil.  He told me of a new company he had started called Before-I, the idea of which resonated with me. While this was not necessarily the message he intended to leave me with; what I took away from our conversation was a renewed sense of self-accountability.

Riding in a legitimate rain forest in Rio.  Something as a
cat 5 in Kansas 10 years ago I never dreamed I would do.
There are an incredibly few people that you will meet in life that will make you be exceptional. In fact, few people in this world will make you strive for mediocrity. The drive for exceptional stems from within. This journal has always been about one aspect of my life- bike racing.  I've endeavored to leave the other parts of my existence free from public view; but that's not fair and frankly it can be rather uninteresting.

One of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever
seen from the heights overlooking Ipanema.
As such, from now on out, my ambition is public, my success is public and so is my failure.  A full accounting of these affairs is what I owe to myself.  There is no motivation quite so powerful as self-accounting.  This is of course quite different from self-doubt which kills motivation and strips the mirth from many a passionate endeavor.  The knowledge that you must be able to face yourself in the mirror and in viewing that image recognize it for all its characteristics-- it's perfections and imperfections.

At times I will rant and at times I will rave; but on these pages I will lay bare this story and not because I crave anything.  Rather because I seek that peace which comes from stopping for a moment and taking a deep breath to take in the occasional sunset or dramatic vista before diving into a harrowing descent or lining up for a twilight criterium.

Monday, March 05, 2012

New Beginnings

By the end of the month, many people will have started their racing seasons.  Of course, for most the real start was weeks and months prior to the first race day; but it's nice to think that the season has a brightline start date which coincides with a race.  There is a lot that goes into bike racing, beyond just hours and hours of training.  There is equipment and clothing to buy, coaches to talk to, schedules to make, babysitters to pay for and bargaining with one's spouse or significant other for unreasonably high amounts of training time and cash to be spent on bikes.  I recently detailed on a training ride the number of people and companies that contributed in some small way to me going out that day-- it totaled at least 15 separate contributions.  It cleary takes a village to outfit a bike racer.

This is a year of new beginnings for me.  By its end I will have married the love of my life, started racing for my first new team in over 7 years and maybe bought a new house.  Any one of these events could be enough "change" for a whole year in itself.  But true to form, and contrary to my Grandfather's sage advice, I don't like doing anything in moderation.  There is a true freedom in a new beginning.  It's the opportunity to remake yourself in the way you see best fit; to learn from the lessons of the former and make the new better. 

Progress, like new beginnings, comes in many different forms.  Most often progress is subtle.  We constantly search out the big change, the breakout story or the sudden smash hit.  However, progress is more often just a touch of advancement here and there.  When I was growing up I had a description of what it meant to be a capricorn on my wall in my bedroom.  I must have read it a thousand times, something that struck me was the message that capricorns feed on small accomplishments.  As a teenager I did not quite grasp that concept because I always wanted to be the flashy new kid on the scene.  I wanted to burst into success as the guy who came out of nowhere to the pinnacle, afterall that's what made the best stories on NBC's coverage of the Olympics. 

Reflection now, however, shows that the slow but steady climb up the ladder can be just as good as the bottle rocket to success approach.  It takes a different kind of strength to make these two climbs and honestly neither is better than the other.  I've spent so much time in recent years trying to figure out which way(s) are correct and thus the only way to do things; but it recently dawned on me that there are often mutliple different answers to a question and thus mutiple different "correct" ways.  In the end, maybe Granpa was right, everything in moderation...including moderation itself. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Winter Duldrums-- Riding Clean

A couple years ago the BPA news broke and literally dozens of bike racers fled from store bought water bottles.  I was one of them.  It was a good thing for me because it forced me to dig into my collection of bottles that were far too old to get rid of those that had developed science projects worth of deposits on the bottom from powders and recovery mixes.  I settled on CamelBak's Podium Chill bottles as my first choice in hydration.  With their insulation they were great for the hot and cold days.  Even in the worst temps in DC's Summer I could expect to have decently chilled water for up to about 60 minutes after starting.   
The Podium Chill served me well but I began to notice I was having trouble getting the bottles out of my cages.  This became very true when I switched over to carbon cages.  I ended up having to literally twist the bottles out of the cages and I started to conclude that these bottles must be just a little wider than what the cages were made to hold.  I have no mathematical proof for that assertion but literally hundreds of hours of real world testing.  I also became concerned with the fact that they carried only 21 oz per bottle and cost in the neighborhood of $12 a piece.  Truth be told, CamelBak also made 25 oz Podium Big Chill but that bottle is so large that it almost doesn't fit into my 56-cm frame.  The fact that each bottle cost $12 made signing one for the adoring fans in the following picture taken at SuperWeek last year exhilarating with just a little financial sting. 

Around Christmas, I remembered a  Le Tour video of some guy running along the side of the road in a Clean Bottle suit and so I dialed up the website and took a quick read on the product he was selling.  I was looking at it as a possible alternative.  I found the 4 for $29.95 price much attractive than CamelBak's price and was excited to see that the bottles were also BPA free.  I read more into the story behind Clean Bottle and the outreach the owner undertakes with each purchase and was impressed.  So I bought a 4 pack of bottles and I'm now sold on the product.

I was pretty excited about the idea of a bottle that can be cleaned better in the first place.  Heck, even my Mom thought it was a great idea.  I was a little skeptical about how the bottles would hold up under real world use and I have to say I am very impressed.  I have been using them with a great degree of consistency for the past month and half, including numerous times through the washing machine and they have exceeded my expectations.  I thought you would get leaks with the twin seals but I have never experienced a leak from these bottles.  I have put them through daily hard rides, mountains, and gravel and they have done exactly what I have asked them to do. 

The plastic on the bottle is thicker than most of the store bought versions so they feel substantial in your hands.  Even with gloves on they are user friendly and I don't spend time fighting to get them out of my cages.  The added bonus I wasn't expecting is that the nozzle can be removed for cleaning.  This is a genius idea.  I can now finally get rid of the hangover taste of whatever powder or recovery drink I had used the prior time.  This is that taste which would normally outlast even the washing machine on older water bottles. 

These are officially now my go to bottles in my rotation and when they are clean they are the ones that will go first on to the bike before any others. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Winter Duldrums-- The Ick

The common enemy of all bike racers, aside from roller bladers and taxis, has to be illness and injury.  Nothing interrupts training cycles of the determined more than being sick.  When we get sick or even feel illness coming on we should of course do what is good for everyone else-- rest, see a doctor, get the right medicine, etc...  So when I started feeling a little less than perfect on Thursday of last week you know exactly what I did . . . that's right, absolutely nothing.  I ignored those first twinges of a sore throat and a head ache that wouldn't go away until I was full blown sick with a chest cold this morning.

As a bike racer I fall victim to the same sense of invincibility many endurance athletes feel.  For most people in the United States, that sense of invincibility diminishes somewhere after pledging a fraternity or getting arrested for disorderly conduct.  But for a lot of athletes it never completely seems to go away.  We take risks and push limits well beyond what most would consider prudent.  Why else would we roll down a mountainside at 75km/h protected by spandex and a helmet made of foam?  And then ride back up it to do the same thing again, just this time faster.  

Being a bike racer is about calculated risks.  Knowing when to put in an effort or when to let the break go.  Knowing when to push it through a corner or when the outside line is really faster.  However, listening to your body is equally important.  We run our bodies at such high levels, between training intensity, fatigue and then just every day life.  There is a class of us out there who try to train like pro's just without the support of a team soigneur and masseuse to help us bring it back to reality.  Those folks are left to their own device to try and make sure they don't over do it all.

However, you take all of the above and toss in a little extra drama in life, a touch of extra stress at work or just a bad day stuck on a plane or bus next to the guy whose coughing up a lung and are sick. It's definitely time for me to start listening to my body just that much more.  Another nap is my near future.