Thursday, May 31, 2012

Why I run (and bike and ski and other bad philosophy)

(Apologies to anyone who is a pro or semi-pro philosopher or psychologist, this is sure to be cringe-worthy.)

I suppose every endurance runner/biker/skier/whateverer approaches the question of why they do it at some point.  Keeping in mind that the act preceded my reasons for it and that those reasons are sometimes contradictory and always elusive here are mine:

When I get down to it the primary reason for my participation in endurance events (I shy away from calling it sports and absolutely refuse to call myself an athlete even if those might apply here) is that old adage that you can only feel one pain at a time.  Have a headache?  Hit your thumb with a hammer, that'll cure it.  Same concept here.  If I'm miserable, feeling sorry for myself, or whatever I can run until the physical exhaustion becomes greater than the mental anguish. 

Once I've cut through the cynicism and self-hate that I'm prone to I find that I can see (more) clearly what is going on.  Sometimes a solution presents itself.  Sometimes I just see that what I'm worried about is not that big a deal after all.  It works a heck of a lot better than banging my head against a wall and I should know. 

I've been accused of being an "endorphine junkie" and maybe that's the case.  Maybe it is just escapism the same as drinking or something like that, maybe I have a problem, but it's a healthier problem than a lot of others that I could have.   Somehow people are more inclined to be forgiving when you tell them you ran 30 miles than if you tell them you're hungover. 

If it were just about getting a "runner's high" (which I don't feel I get anyway) then why race?  Why go any further than I have to?  Because I need that bigger goal to reach for.  I need an arbitrary outside motivation to gear my thoughts and training toward. 

One of the great things about endurance events is that it doesn't matter.  It is the thing without value that I give value to.  Nobody cares if I finish except me.  Nobody cares if I don't finish except me.  I do this for myself and no one else.  How many things are there that you can say that about?  How many things are there where you don't have to feel like someone else is depending on you?  My success in an event doesn't depend on anyone else and no one else is depending on me.  Maybe that's selfish.  I don't know, but I'm certainly of no use to anyone, least of all myself, if I'm miserable. 

The simplicity of being on my own is appealing.  During a race there is nothing that matters outside the race.  There are simple, discrete steps that have to be accomplished: eat, drink, keep moving.  Maybe there is a flat tire to deal with, a broken ski pole, but even that is straightforward.  Fix it, or not, and move on.  No avoiding the problem or passing it off on someone else.   And in the end you know whether you have succeeded or not. 

I am of the opinion that happiness is up to me.  No one else can make me happy, no outside event can either.  Maybe a stronger person wouldn't need to run or race or whatever, but I'm not that strong.  Maybe I will be someday.  Until then I'll be a selfish junkie.  

Why do you do this stupid stuff?

In other news: someone reminded me the other week that I have a folding boat so I decided to get out there and use it. 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Sunday, May 06, 2012

TI Training, Gear, &c.

Here are my thoughts with respect to what did or did not (mostly did) work for me at my successful Trans Iowa ride.  

I did a lot of shorter rides this year.  Many weekend rides of just 100k and lots of evening rides of around 15 miles.  I probably did more miles in preparation this year, but fewer long rides.  I did a lot of running as well because sometimes it's just easier to get out the door and do that.  I think that running helps endurance and hill climbing, both of which I needed.  The warm winter didn't hurt my biking at all (it did hurt my skiing) and biking the Arrowhead reacquainted me with endurance biking.  A couple of weeks before the race I did a 100k ride that was at least half in a pretty severe thunderstorm.  I think that more than anything that reminder that I could keep going was good for me.

I have been called a cheap-grouch and I think I have to agree.  My Surly Cross Check is not expensive or flashy, but it fits me well and I am comfortable on it for hours on end.  Having ridden this bike and set-up (sort of) for 11 years certainly helps.  Some highlights:
  • I did build some new race wheels.  I am pretty easy on wheels compared to a lot of folks so I laced some Open Pros to DT 350 hubs with 28 14-15 butted spokes laced 3x.  That made for some pretty light (where it matters), but smooth riding wheels.  Pretty fancy for me, but nothing compared to what others are using.  
  • For tires I stuck with Michelin Jets which are nice and light with a fast rolling tread (no need for flat protection on Iowa gravel) aired to 70 psi.  
  • My WTB Rocket V saddle is nearing the end of it's life, but did fine.  
  • Planet Bike 2 Watt Blaze on the handlebars and a 1/2 Watt blaze on the helmet (which I removed as soon as it was light out) lit the way for me and I didn't feel like I needed a torch like some folks had even on steep downhills, but that may be overconfidence born of too much riding in the Des Moines river valley. 
  • I taped my bars with Planet Bike bar tape as always, but broke with tradition in two ways.  First off I put a little foam on the back of the handlebar from the brake lever around to the tops.  I rest my hands here 90% of the time so I wanted the surface to be a little broader to even out the load.  It worked great and I had no numbness in my hands!  The other break with tradition was the use of white tape.  It's pure decadence.  White looks great, but gets dirty easily.  Just something special for the big race.
  • As always I taped over the speed on my bike computer.  Speed is just a distraction from how I'm riding.  It's all about how I feel not how fast I'm going and I feel better when I don't know I'm slogging along at 8mph.  
  • My map holder is just a Ziploc bag reinforced with cardboard and duct tape.  It took me about 5 minutes to make and worked great.
  • As far as the "YES" goes it could mean anything.  It's whatever I need it to be, "Yes, keep going," "Yes, you should drink," "Yes, you're going to make it."  

Mental Training/Attitude: 
I maintain that the best way to train mentally is to train physically.  Riding in that thunderstorm was big.  I also have a bit of experience to look back on for inspiration.  Thinking back to skiing the Tuscobia Ultra with huge blood blisters on my feet, walking the last few miles of the Arrowhead when my hips and knees were giving out made me face how much Trans Iowa was going to hurt.  Knowing how much it can hurt makes it easier to bear and even makes it easy when things aren't that bad (which they weren't this year). 

I ate too much "performance" food this year.  I could have done with fewer Cliff bars and gels of all sorts.  I really wanted a Subway Sandwich or a plate of pasta at 1am, but I wasn't getting that.  String cheese did a lot of good and I could have used more towards the end.  Really though, I have learned that I can get by on just about any food so long as I eat. 

I know that I am a more comfortable a little cold than a little warm so I kept clothing versatile and to a minimum.  At times I was down to just my Cannondale shorts and Skunk River jersey.  More often though I had on leg and arm warmers and for the wet or windy times I had my well worn Bellwether jacket.  Gloves were an old pair of Salsa full finger gloves with minimal padding.  I kept what clothing I wasn't wearing in my frame bag and food in my jersey pockets.  My Camelbak was just for water, no gear.

I used Pearl Izumi X-Alp Seek cycling shoes.  They're a little odd, meant for hiking off the bike as well as riding, but they have served me well.  The wider last and use of laces rather than buckles make it the most comfortable shoe I've worn (there is still room for improvement however).  I suppose they're a little heavier and not as stiff as some, but for hike-a-bike (of which there was a little) they are more than worth it. 

Why didn't I make it in previous years? Weather, sometimes it's just not up to you.  Poor planning, one year I forgot sunscreen, a costly mistake.  Navigation errors which resulted from following the herd, and on the other side not being willing to work with a group when it would have been smarter. I think I always had it in me, I just had to get everything together. 

Friday, May 04, 2012

Riding Trans Iowa

I'm recovering quite well from Trans Iowa.  My knees still bother me a bit, but I can once again ride without grimacing in pain, even sitting down.

This years Trans Iowa was more of a mind-over-matter kind of event for me.  I knew I was in better shape and had done more training than for any previous ride, but somehow I didn't quite feel prepared.  I suppose you never can for an event like this.  There is just too much up to chance.  Still, I knew that my body was up for it and if I could just get my head in it I'd finish if it was humanly possible.

There isn't much to say about the race that hasn't already been said, but I'll try to give my take on it.

Hearing the wind, rain, and thunder through the night sure didn't help me sleep.  A part of me wanted to call it quits even before it started, but I knew I couldn't do that.  I had set my alarm for 3:30 AM, but woke up about twenty minutes earlier.  I had everything ready so all I had to do was dress, eat a sandwich and ride to the start.  It's much easier when everything is laid out the night before.

The rain had quit by start time, but the roads were still wet and there was a stiff wind out of the west.  Once we got off the pavement I made sure to settle in with a group so I wouldn't be fighting the headwinds alone.  I'm not much of a joiner when it comes to riding (or anything else), but I felt it was necessary to avoid burning out.

Once we headed south about 30 miles in the groups broke up a little and I rode alone quite a bit.  For a while I rode with Jeremy Kershaw and Jay Barre, but by Checkpoint Alpha (Montezuma, mile 53) I was alone again.  After CP:A I caught up with Charlie Farrow and rode with him and the guys from Lincoln for a while.  It worried me that I was riding with Farrow as I know him to be a stronger rider than I am.  He mentioned that the folks at the front were pushing it too hard and he expected some attrition.  I had heard that one before, but it was a reminder to keep riding within my limits and not push too hard (actually it turned out to be true).

At some point Farrow dropped me and was riding alone again.  I really do my best when alone on these ride/races.  My mind stays more focused, I make better time, and I have a better attitude.  So for the next ~200 miles I rode mostly alone.  I went through the towns of Hedrick and Agency, then crossed the Des Moines river near Eldon (we really should have ridden by the American Gothic house).  At mile ~170 I reached Checkpoint Bravo (the middle of nowhere), sat for a minute, ate an energy bar, and was on my way into the night.

Around mile 200 I arrived at Checkpoint Charlie (not a German to be seen) in Attica where I was told that I had just missed a group of riders headed by Dennis Grelk (last year's winner).  Now I had a carrot.  I felt like I had only ridden 100 miles so I started pushing a bit more, hoping to see their taillights ahead.

There was a beautiful long hill outside Pella that I'd like to see in the daylight sometime.  I was able to spin up it in my lowest gear without working too hard and it seemed to go on forever.

I finally caught up with the group at the convenience store in Pella (mile 230?), but they were ready to go and I needed to fuel up.  It wasn't until ten or so miles later in Galesburg that I caught them for good.

As soon as I started riding with the group I found myself falling asleep.  I just couldn't keep my eyes open. It was as though, now that I didn't have any goals but finish, my mind just began to shut down.  I'd feel okay for a few minutes, then terrible for a few.  I drank a 5 hour energy and felt great for about 20 minutes, then I was nodding off again.  I'd find myself unconsciously charging up the hills, following Dennis and then falling off the back of the group. 

Eventually Dennis broke away and then Mark Johnson (I think) followed him.  At this point I felt it was safer to stay with the group.  There were bound to be headwinds down the road. 

By the time dawn came it was down to four of us in the group: Mike Johnson, Corey Godfrey, Charles Parsons, and myself.  The gravel was getting rougher and we were still heading away from Grinnell.  I knew that couldn't last.  It was looking like we were going to spend the last 35 miles of Trans Iowa battling the winds. 

I finally knew for sure where we were when we arrived in Melbourne. It was going to be all fresh gravel, hills, and headwinds back to the finish.  I was hoping for a convenience store, but I was pretty sure Melbourne wasn't the place to find one.  We rolled through town, but didn't see anything and kept on going.  As we headed out of town I called out that I was stopping for a minute and everyone else should continue (I won't give the details of that stop, but was a desperate stop and involved venturing into nettles and poison ivy).  I was left to battle the course alone. 

I made a plan to ride 10 miles, rest, ride 10 miles, rest, and ride the final 10 miles.  I made it seven and had to stop, then another five, but I told myself that every turn of the pedals was getting me that much closer to the finish.  Conditions were horrible, I was happy that there were hills so that I could rest in the wind shadow on the way up.  It turns out I'm a better at climbing than fighting into the wind. 

As I took another break, sitting in the lee of a hill, eating a Cliff bar, I saw three riders approaching from behind.  I was disappointed that I had been caught, but decided to wait and ride with them.  When they got close enough I saw that they were the same group I had been riding with all night.  Just after Melbourne they had spotted a convenience store and stopped there (it turns out my trip to the bushes was unnecessary).  We teamed back up and agreed to ride in together. 

Things were going as well as they can 320+ miles into a race when we came to a final, unexpected B road.  It looked like it might be ridable and Charles charged ahead.  Corey wasn't so lucky and his rear derailleur clogged and tore out.  Mike and I stopped, but there was really nothing we could do.  Corey would either be able to fix it and ride in or he would walk.  We left him and walked the rest of the B road to be safe. 

Charles was out of sight and Mike was riding stronger than I was so our group was shot.  I rode in alone, as I had ridden the better part of the race, and was ready to be done.