Sunday, December 26, 2010

It's ridiculous for me to begin every blog post by lamenting the fact that I don't write in this blog very much. The only thing MORE ridiculous would be to apologize, considering that no one actually reads it. Acknowledgment of tardiness, expression of regret, etc.

It's the day after Christmas, and I'm here in Cohutta, Georgia, at my parents-in-law's house. Yesterday, I celebrated my first-ever white Christmas, it having snowed about five to seven inches here early Christmas morning. It was very exciting for those of us who grew up and have spent most Christmases in the south; it was the first time in over a century that the Atlanta area had snow on Christmas day.

Happily, I did not attempt to ride my bike in yesterday's snow. Likewise, today, as it continues to snow and the ice thickens in the colder temperatures, I will not be riding my bike either. This seems strange given that I have some big cycling goals ahead and that I was riding A LOT this time last year. (In fact, this week last year was the highest-mileage week I have ever had on the bike: just short of 400 miles in five rides.) This year, I'm experimenting with a different approach to the off-season which includes, among other things, some running. Running has been fun, albeit at times frustrating. I was once a runner, so it's nice to get back to my athletic "roots." I have found that I very much enjoy the purity of running, and I can see why I was into it in the first place. At the same time,of course, I can see why I hung up my running shoes--because my hips don't really like the pounding, and it's hard to run without some amount of pain and discomfort. Few are the runs where I feel fast and strong . . . but those runs are really nice.

Because goals are so important to me, I'm aiming to do the Disney World Half-Marathon on January 9th. I hope to finish in the top 20 or so, but I have only a faint idea of how fast I might be able to run (based mostly on how fast I want to run and the single race that I did--and won!--a couple of months ago. Is a hilly 15k on trails in November a good indicator of what I can run for a flat half-marathon on the road in January? We will see). After that, I will focus almost entirely on cycling until April 17. During that period, I'll do an event nearly every weekend, and I hope to get enough points to upgrade to Cat 2. After that, I'll start training for my first triathlons, in which I'll compete over the summer and into the fall. My goal remains to do a half-Iron in late September or early October, and a full Iron in May of 2012.

I've tweaked my plans a bit since my last entry just because our lives have changed a bit. Most significantly, my wife has applied to compete in the Ultraman Canada competition, and if she gets in--we find out in February!--we will likely spend a few weeks this summer training at altitude in Boulder. (This idea is so alluring, actually, that we may do it whether she gets in or not!) Given that, I plan to do Triple Bypass this summer, assuming that I can get in via lottery. This year, for the first time, they are offering an event called the "Double Triple," in which you ride the course the traditional direction on Saturday and then the opposite direction on Sunday. I'm putting that down as my first choice in the lottery.

On that note, my wife gave me "Bicycle Dreams" for Christmas. We watched it this morning, and it was just great. As I knew it would, the movie got me me thinking about ultra events to put on the calendar after the Ironman in 2012. There are several ultra events that are appealing, but I know that there is a lot to consider. Among other things, having trained through last winter for Sebring, I want to make sure that the bulk of the training comes at a time of year when I would enjoy the training (and could likely mix in some other events). That is, I have resolved NOT to spend another cold winter--this winter or really any other--putting in ten-plus-hour rides in sub-freezing temperatures. For that reason, a summer ultra (like Race Across Oregon, RAW , or if I could somehow find a team, Team RAAM) that would enable me to train during the spring is desirable. By the same token, a fall ultra (like the Furnace Creek 508) that would enable me to train through the summer and into the fall--incorporating the fall centuries that I love (and that I had to miss this year because of my shoulder surgery)--would be fantastic. A fall ultra would take me out of school, though, and it therefore requires a more significant commitment.

Of course, I have a good while to figure this out, and I have plenty of really difficult things that require my attention in the meantime. It's not like I have to map it out today. It's just on my mind since we watched the movie. In fact, I should probably go back and consider why doing an ultra--any ultra--is appealing in the first place. Watching the movie, my wife--an Ironman who has applied for Ultraman and got her first ever win at an ultra-marathon two weeks ago--could not quite see the appeal. While she appreciated the drama and intrigue of the race and the racers' stories, there was no part of her that said, "I want to do that." For me, there was. Even as we watched them suffer, I was thinking to myself how I might be able to build up to this event over the next several years. That suffering appeals to me; I like the idea of completing the ultra-endurance test. (Solo RAAM is, I believe, equal to any of the world's great endurance tests.) Would I enjoy the training? Could I endure the event? Or am I only intrigued by the idea? I'm not sure, but perhaps that that's precisely why it's on my mind.

In some ways, I feel like I'm circling back around to where I was last year. This week last year, before it became my longest week ever, I had my first real athletic meltdown on the bike. In sub-thirty degree weather, I cut a prescribed twelve-hour ride short. Nine hours short. And I began to wonder what I was really doing by training for an ultra and why I was doing it. As I look out the window at the snow, and as I consider how much I've enjoyed not riding and eating lots of cookies and Skittles,yet as I ponder taking on more significant endurance challenges, I realize that I must continue to consider my search for the most pleasant exhaustion.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Where I was and where I'm going

In my cycling career, I've had some good luck and some bad luck. As it happens, getting hit by a car in July was a mix of both. On the one hand, I was hit by a car and I cracked two bones in my arm. My season ended early, and I missed out on the fall centuries that I really enjoy. Bad luck. On the other hand, in diagnosing the cracked bones, the doctors found an aneurysmal bone cyst on the proximal end of my humerus. Had they not found it, it would have continued to grow and spread, and my right arm would have ultimately become very brittle. Rather, they were able to treat it now, and I was able to avoid major injury later. Good luck.

So, on August 23, I underwent what the surgeon promised would be a very simple surgery. My shoulder was opened, the cyst was scraped out, and bone tissue from a cadaver (COOL!) was put into my arm to stimulate new bone growth. I am happy to report that it was indeed a very simple surgery. I went home that afternoon, and I was able to stop taking pain medication--prescription or otherwise--after less than 72 hours. Three days after surgery, I had very little trouble traveling six hours to Louisville and cheering for my wife in her first Ironman (which she KILLED!). I was back at work without a sling two days after that. Three weeks following the surgery, I started physical therapy, and now, five weeks later, I'm able to ride my bike with little trouble. My shoulder is still stiff, and the work that I do on the roads and at the PT gym make it very sore, but I am hardly limited. I am eager to go back to the doctor in a couple of weeks and get the go-ahead to start lifting heavier weights to re-gain lost strength in my core and upper body.

It has been a difficult time for me. First, to go from being as fit as I was when I got injured to being as out of shape as I am right now is frustrating. I cannot help but think that all of the mental and physical effort I put into getting stronger and faster has gone to waste. It hasn't, of course, but I will only be convinced of that once I actually begin posting good numbers in my workouts again. Second, and more interestingly, I have been emotionally wrecked. In the last three decades, I have had only a few times when I was not exercising regularly. Only once during any of those stretches did I ever really notice any change in my mood. This time around, though, I was profoundly affected by my inability to exercise. I began the school year in a grumpy malaise, and I limped through the first several weeks feeling angry and tired. Some of that is professional, but even so, my inability to manage my emotions was, I believe, entirely due to my inability to exercise.

I tried to run a couple of times, but I overdid it and quickly sustained a low-level injury. I couldn't lift weights, and being on the cycling trainer day after day is mind-deadening. I was left with almost nothing physical to do for nearly two months, and I nearly fell apart as a result. I had no idea that I had gotten this hooked on exercise.

The forced break did have one silver lining: it gave the opportunity to think a lot about the goals ahead. With colder weather looming, it's important for me to have a clear picture of where I'm going and how this winter's training fits. I knew that I wanted to do another twelve hour race, but I also knew that I wasn't going to spend this winter doing cold eight- to twelve-hour rides like I did last winter. I knew that I wanted to upgrade to Cat 2, but I wasn't sure which races would potentially get me enough points to do that. And thanks to my wife's big day on August 29, I knew that I wanted to do an Ironman, even though I know that spending time swimming and running could potentially compromise my cycling goals.

Given two months to do nothing but figure things out, though, I believe that I've done it. First, while I'm getting my form on the bike back, I'm going to learn to swim. My first lesson is on October 10. As the winter wears on, I'm going to ride my bike four days a week (with a heavy focus on quality), and I'm going to swim, run, and lift weights three days a week. When late January comes, I'm going to go to five days of cycling and only two days of lifting, running, and swimming. That way, I'll be fit early so that I can perhaps score some points in the February and March races and move up to Cat 2. After that, I'll lengthen my rides in preparation for a twelve-hour race in Portland in May, but I'll also start running and swimming a bit more in preparation for summer triathlons. Following the twelve-hour race, I'll cut down on my cycling and start running and swimming more. I'll do my first half-Ironman in September, and I would like to do my first full Ironman in May of 2012. It's a good plan, even though it may require a few revisions.

I'm happy that my forced convalescence is in the rear view mirror. I am eager--bordering on impatient, in fact--to regain a full range of motion in my shoulder and re-establish the strength and fitness that was so hard to come by. Nonetheless, I can't help but be glad that I spent some time getting out of shape. It has given me a better understanding of myself as an athlete, and it has focused my training on a set of mid-range and long-range goals. I look forward to what's next.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Long Overdue

I've always known that I'm not cut out for blogging. When things are going well, I tend to spend my time doing those things rather than blogging about those things. So it is with my cycling. The past few months have gone really well, and I consequently haven't written. Then, on July 14, I was hit by a car, and now I can't ride . . . and thus this long overdue post.

Being hit by the car hasn't had nearly the psychological impact on me that my injury last year had. That is, I haven't re-considered the value of cycling, I haven't tried to figure ways that I can avoid riding in traffic, and I haven't been hesitant to get back on the bike. Mentally, it is basically on par with the minor crashes I have had--the crashes that simply attend being a cyclist--like when I slipped on the wet train tracks or was taken down by a dog. On both of those days, I got up, continued riding, and went out again the next day (albeit a bit battered). Unfortunately, physically, this crash was a bit more significant. Shoulder-blocking the side of a car at 20 m.p.h. has left me with two injured bones on my right side. There are a few flakes off my scapula, and there is a crack in the ball of my humerus. Both of these injuries have caused pain and debilitation, and even though I have tried a couple of times, it's basically impossible for me to control my bike well enough to ride outside. This past week, after an MRI, the doctor made it official: no riding outside for a month.

This puts me in a strange place, given that I am an athlete who needs goals. This injury knocks me out of the remainder of the competitive season because there simply aren't any races around here after the end of August. In addition, it compromises the training I can do ahead of the September and October centuries, including the Six Gap Century at the end of September, where I had really hoped to ride fast and finish high in the "King of the Mountains" competition. (That's pretty much out of the question now. While I will still ride Six Gap, I will not expect to do well in the KOM.) Thus, I am left without a goal to motivate my riding August (indoors), September, and October. I feel as if I need one last big goal before I shift my focus to the 2011 (and working to complete my Ph.D.!) in November, December, and January. I'm going to be on the hunt for that in the next few weeks. I'll be actively seeking one last time and place before the end of the year where I can experience the most pleasant exhaustion.

Surprisingly, the fact that my Six Gap goal is compromised hardly bothers me. In the past two weeks, I have also missed two races (including one today), where I might have hoped to have placed well. Yet, nonetheless, I'm at peace. This is another major difference between my major crash last year and this one: I'm not left frustrated for goals unaccomplished. I believe that this is because I actually accomplished a lot more than I expected to accomplish in the last few months. Starting back in April, I finished third in the Cheaha Challenge Century (despite some gigantic tactical mistakes), I finished fifth in the Three State, Three Mountain Century, and I finished first in the Brasstown Bald Century (completing the course with the fastest ascent up Brasstown Bald that anyone has done in the five-year history of the ride). After that, I rode well enough in the Cat 4 Tour of Atlanta in May to win one stage, finish on the podium in one other, come fourth in three others, and complete the six-stage race in third overall. That was good enough to upgrade to Cat 3, where I became the Georgia State Road Race Champion in my very first race. I have worn the State Champion jersey in two other Cat 3 races which both resulted in second place finishes (behind the same guy!). I was also fourth in the Cat 3 State TT Championship, still without full aero gear. Since becoming a Cat 3 in June, I have not finished lower than fourth in any race. I certainly didn't expect that. I recently joined a team, and I'm knocking on the door of upgrading to Cat 2, which would mean racing against pros. (In fact, have already raced with pros on two occasions, and in both of those instances, I did well.) Had I not missed these two recent races, I would probably have enough points to upgrade to Cat 2 tomorrow. That was beyond my wildest expectations when I was cooking up goals after Sebring, so I certainly cannot now bemoan my bad fortune and dream frustratedly about what could have been.

In short, in the last six months, I've felt that exquisite mix of elation and exhaustion which no doubt motivates my entire athletic life. Moreover, I've learned more about my relationship with it. With this injury, I've learned that while the most pleasant exhaustion is attractive, for me, it is not addictive. I have had a few tastes, and that is enough to satisfy me for a while. In addition, I have realized that I tend to build my goals around the events where I think that I can finish both successfully and completely spent. Looking back, I have drawn the most satisfaction in the last six months from the Cheaha Challenge, the Cat 3 Georgia State Championships in Augusta, and the Cat 3 Georgia State Games in White. Each of these required me to dig deep, and in the end, I was was near the top. Looking ahead, I am really excited that Cat 3s and 2s get to do longer, harder races, because it increases the probability that I will come to the finish line exhausted. Hopefully, I will sometimes also come to the finish line successful. I also put the Cheaha Challenge on my calendar for next year less than one minute after crossing the finish line. I plan to go back, ride smarter, and finish first.

The only real blemish in the past few months came during a RR in June where I finished third. My friend Erik and I had joined the same team, and he had resolved to help me finish high in the race. Because the race included a major descent, one of our goals was to make sure that I didn't lose too much time on the leaders going downhill so that I could potentially beat them going uphill at the finish. Being a better descender than me--which is hardly a mark of distinction given that virtually everyone is a better descender than me--Erik got out in front of me. Understandably and admirably, though, he focused on where I was rather than on his own descent, and as a result, he crashed off the side of the road. Erik broke his collarbone and was done racing for the summer. I initially blamed myself for it; had I been a better descender, he would not have worried about me, and he would not have crashed. Today, I still insist that I am largely to blame, but I have felt less guilty given how magnanimous Erik has been. Perhaps, somewhere deep in my sub-conscious, I am at peace with having smacked a car because I feel as if it has set the universe right. Cosmically, it's just. In addition, before I got hurt, I transformed a lot of my guilt into determination, and I took three trips up to the mountains to practice descending. I feel as if I got much better. By the time that I ride the same race next year, I will be a confident and competent descender, and no one will have to break their collarbones looking out for me--especially not my good friends.

Perhaps another blog post will be coming from me soon. We'll see how wrapped up I get in the roller coaster month that will be this August. I hope to write that summer vacation ended well and school has started on the right note. I hope to write that the cross country team I coach is hardworking and fun. I hope to write that my trainer training has gone well, and that I am confident that I have retained enough fitness to enjoy the fall centuries. I hope to write that my 36th birthday party was fun for all. I hope to write that the final few weeks of my wife's Ironman buildup have been fantastic, and that we are excited about her big debut in Louisville on August 29. And, of course, I hope to write that my right arm has continued to heal, and that I am getting ever closer to a ride outside with Erik.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Shifting Gears

In the month since I last wrote, I observed the one-year anniversary of the injury that threw such a wrench into my athletic career. On March 14, 2009, I was racing in a rainy criterium when the man in front of me slipped in a corner. I tried to avoid him, but I could not avoid him and negotiate the turn at the same time. As a result, I went off the road and into a tree. I broke my bike in half, I broke my collarbone, and I shattered my scapula into eight pieces. Five days later, I had surgery, and I spent four days in the hospital. I missed a month of work, and I went to physical therapy for about fifteen weeks. Today, I have three pieces of titanium in my shoulder, and I have two pretty sweet scars.

Following this, I had to spend a lot of time thinking about whether I wanted to get on a bike again. Actually, that's not quite true. Rather, I knew that I wanted to ride again, but had to spend a lot of time thinking about what sort of rider I wanted to be. Bike racing felt out of the question; no competition was worth the pain and stress that I put myself and my family through. At the same time, though, simply riding was also out of the question. I enjoy having competitive goals and doing the hard, focused training that having specific competitive goals requires. Since I used to be a runner, my first thought was to become a triathlete, but this lost a lot of its luster when my wife tried (quite unsuccessfully) to teach me to swim. Then, I decided to pursue ultra-cycling. This blog is a testament to my earnest attempt to train for ultra races and my ultimate realization that the training is not for me.

Finally, now, I have decided that indeed I will race again, but not with the abandon that I did before. That is, my goal is to do well in a handful of carefully selected races and challenging rides over the next several months. I won't race just to race, gather points, and get upgraded, which is the approach that inspired me to go ahead and do a sketchy, dangerous race that I had no chance of winning last March. Turning my focus to shorter, faster races has required me to begin doing workouts on the trainer to build my strength and power. (In the winter, these workouts were taken off my schedule and replaced by longer rides.) I've also been doing hill repeats and climbing a great deal. The training is going well. Couple the warmer weather with my renewed enjoyment of the training I'm doing, and I'm a new rider.

So far, I've competed in three events. I've done two time trials, where I finished around the middle of the pack. I was happy with each effort, even though I was frustrated not to finish higher. (I attribute that in part to lack of TT specific gear.) I also did a 200km brevet last weekend that went well. I was the first finisher, and I rode about the same time I did for the brevet in February (even though the course was much hillier and about six miles longer). Overall, I'd say that I'm coming along well. This weekend, I have a mountainous ride, but I actually have no events scheduled. This will be the last "event-free" weekend for the next few months. Between now and July, I have races or rides scheduled for nearly every weekend. Next weekend, it's a time trial and a road race with a hilltop finish. I'd like to do well in the TT, and I'd like to win the road race. Given my increased fitness of late, my propensity for climbing, and the fact that I've dropped about twelve pounds since starting work with a nutritionist in February, I think that that is a legitimate goal. On subsequent weekends, I'm doing Issaqueena's Last Ride in South Carolina (a very hilly century), the Cheaha Challenge Century in Alabama (that goes to the top of the highest mountain in the state), the vaunted Three State Three Mountain Challenge Century, and the Brasstown Bald Buster Century (which finishes at the highest point in Georgia). On the weekend between Three State Three Mountain and Brasstown Bald, I'll probably toss in another century, but I haven't decided which one yet. I am excited about each of these events.

All in all, I'm enjoying myself, and I feel as if my quest for the most pleasant exhaustion has taken a new form. To be honest, though, I'm not certain that I am on track just now to find it. While I will continue to work hard and take myself to the limit, I don't know that I'll experience the sort of physical drain that I had been anticipating when I decided to undertake ultra-cycling (and undertake this blog). It begs to question if that is really what I seek, or if it is, if I really have what it takes to get there.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


It's been over a month since I wrote, "I should be writing more than once a month." An exciting time, it has been.

The week of my last blog post--the week of Christmas--I rode 370 miles. I was extremely happy with this given that the week started with a complete meltdown on what was to be a twelve-hour ride. It was a new personal record for weekly mileage, and it was just what I needed at that time. The following week, I went on vacation in Austin, TX, but was still able to get in three solid rides (and three solid visits to Lance Armstrong's bike shop). The first Monday of the new year, I put in a ten-hour ride. Throughout January, I put in another seven-hour ride (in pouring rain), a nine-hour ride, and a twelve-hour ride. On February 6, I did a strong 200 km brevet that was organized and hosted by Kevin Kaiser--fifth-place finisher in RAAM 20009. And on February 13, I competed in the Sebring 12-hour race.

Yes, the Sebring 12-hour race, not the Sebring 24-hour race. About halfway through January, when it seemed clear that my training had not gone as I had envisioned, my coach and I decided to scale back my goal of competing in the 24-hour and instead focus on the 12. In November, I would have thought that such a decision was a horrible one. In January, after having spent so many hours in the cold, after having missed rides, after having spent so much time on the road alone, it sounded like a great idea.

And it was a great idea, in fact. My training made me think that a good 12-hour race was possible, and I immediately began to get excited about how the race might unfold. I was eager for there to be tactics and hard riding. I began to envision myself surging away from a group and blasting around the finishing track.

Ultimately, the race did not quite turn out like this, although it did turn out very well. I rode in a group for the first 100 miles, sharing the workload in the last fifty. After that, for the next seven hours, I was alone to fight the wind--a situation for which I was certainly trained! I put in almost 140 solo miles. Unfortunately, I took a wrong turn early on and lost about six miles. As a result, my official mileage on the day was 231.5 miles, which was good enough to win my age group and finish third overall. And, yes, at various points throughout the race, I did get to ride fast and hard.

Throughout the race, I was supported mentally and logistically by my wife, and I certainly would not have completed the ride nearly as well as I did without her. Thanks to her help, I spent only about five minutes off the bike the entire time. The middle 1/3 of the race was by far the hardest, given my physical fatigue from the century, my mental fatigue from the wrong turn, and my sense that there was so much farther yet to ride. (I had often heard that this was the hardest part, so it came as little surprise. I thought to myself at one point that I felt like I was "fighting for every mile.") In the last three to four hours, I rallied and started feeling stronger. As a result, some of my later laps were some of the fastest laps completed by anyone in the entire race.

So, what now? Approaching the Sebring race, it seemed clear to me that my original goal of competing in the HOS 500 was not realistic. While I feel that I have the physical and psychological skill to be a good ultra-racer--my experience in my first ultra-race at Sebring actually served to further convince me of this--I do not have what it takes to do the training. I think that I am a better rider for having spent so much time on my bike this winter: my comfort on the bike, my bike skills, and my overall base fitness have all improved. But I did not relish having to get up early on Saturdays, get on my bike, and basically ride all day in the cold. My limit in training seems to be somewhere around 100 to 12o miles, or about six to seven hours. I very much enjoy myself up to about that point, but beyond that, I begin to get sick of turning the pedals. Doing a single ride of eight hours or more from time to time is fine, but having to turn in rides of eight, ten, and twelve hours week after week was simply not enjoyable. In addition, I missed the hard, fast riding that accompanies training for short, fast races. Rather, my ultra-distance training involved a great deal of "putting in the miles"--simply riding along, hour after hour, at an easy to moderate pace. Perhaps I'll go back to ultra-racing one day, but for now, I have set other goals. I'm not yet ready to be an ultra-racer because I'm not yet ready to be an ultra-trainer.

So, while I have found some pleasant exhaustion, I have also found some pleasant humility. I was stymied in pursuit of my goals because it turned out that my goals were just too ambitious. I do not feel as if I am washed up, though. I do not feel as if I have failed. Rather, I have learned a bit more about myself as a bike rider and bike racer, and that will help in the pursuit of new goals.