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March 31, 2007

Makeover

So, um ... notice any changes around here? I'm still tinkering with things until I settle on something I really like, so you might see a few more changes in the days to come.

I'm not going to go crazy with this template stuff, though ... because what you see here took me about 10 hours. I wish I were exaggerating.

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March 28, 2007

Reach, Glide, Pull

It’s been several years since I’ve been a dedicated swimmer. More importantly, it’s been far too long since I’ve had a swimmer’s mentality.

But this year, I’ve managed to swim somewhat consistently (at least once per week, frequently more often) for almost the entire winter. And it took a while, but I’ve rediscovered one crucial aspect of the swimmer’s mindset: the understanding that working harder isn’t always the best strategy.

Not only that – but I’ve found that this philosophy is applicable to other areas of my triathlon regimen as well.

For several months, I’ve spent countless workouts hanging on for dear life behind a group of masters swimmers - at first just trying to stay in contact for a portion of the main set, then straining to make common interval times, and finally working to keep pace through an entire workout.

During those intervals, there’s always a point where I find myself slowing down, and my first instinct is to increase my arm turnover in an effort to take faster, more frequent strokes. It’s the runner’s instinct: to gain speed, move your legs faster. Same with the bike: to gain speed, increase your pedal cadence. Makes sense, right?

Well, yes – but only on dry land. With swimming, stroke rate isn’t everything. It isn’t even an important thing. In the water, it’s more about the dynamics of your stroke, and how smoothly your body can glide through the water. To gain speed, you don’t need to move faster – just more efficiently. But when you’re a runner who’s been conditioned to move more rapidly by working harder, it’s hard to focus on stroke mechanics instead of effort level.

I’ve finally remembered that the most efficient stroke consists of a long reach, a glide phase, and a strong pull. If your reach isn’t fully extended, or if you don’t let your body glide through the water before pulling, you end up exerting more energy while moving more slowly.

I’ve realized that when I’m swimming the fastest, it feels like I’m exerting minimal effort. I’m reminding myself that the best way to get through a tough swim workout isn’t to strain to the point of bonking, but to keep focused on reaching, gliding, and pulling. And that’s where the lesson applies to my overall training plan.

With the Big Sur Marathon four weeks away, and Wildflower the following weekend, I’m at the point in my training regimen where my body tiptoes the narrow ledge between peak fitness and complete exhaustion. My workout times from week to week have become slightly slower as the overall volume of mileage and yardage has increased to a point that’s barely manageable.

When that happens, my usual tendency is to try and work harder with every workout, to assure myself that I’m still as fast as I want to be – which is my runner’s mentality stepping to the forefront. But recently, I’m remembering to adopt the swimmer’s mentality instead.

At this phase of my training, working harder isn’t always the best solution. When I’m in my best shape, the majority of my workouts feel very smooth, and I feel like I can maintain the effort indefinitely, but I don’t have that extra gear to shift into when I’m looking for more power. I’m not posting my fastest workout times right now, but at this point, I don’t really need to.

For the next couple of weeks, I’ll be easing into each workout as gently as stretching my hand into the water ahead. I’ll keep gliding through each session, before pulling myself smoothly toward the next one. I’ll finish the workouts, and keep finishing them, until it’s time to taper off. Then when race day comes, I’ll have confidence that I’m ready for the task.

So there you have it: the swimmer’s approach to triathlon training. And to think – while doing all those laps during the winter, I thought I was merely a runner working to improve his stroke mechanics.

Sometimes, these lessons just sneak up on you.

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March 21, 2007

More Than Meets the Eye

"Come on, vamanos - everybody let's go -
Come on let's get to it - I know that we can do it!"


-Travel Song (From Dora the Explorer)

*
With Wildflower just over six weeks away, I’ve been spending as much time on the bike as possible. Note that I said “as much as possible”, which is entirely different than “as much as I’d like to”, but nevertheless – I’m hoping to log a lot of hours in the saddle between now and May.

I also mentioned that I’ve been bike shopping, to replace the almost 25-year-old modified steel frame road bike that I’ve raced on for almost 10 years. Retiring my old-school bike will certainly be a watershed moment in my triathlon career, and will probably command its own post in the very near future.

Anyway, after countless hours of Internet shopping, reading hundreds of bike reviews, comparing spec sheets, and seeking advice from several bike dealers, you could say that I’ve got a bad case of bikes on the brain (I’d call it a bike jones, but then I’d have to write to Michelle and explain what a jones is. This way I save myself a few minutes. I’m cutting corners anywhere I can lately.) This mindset has become so prevalent, that last week at the playground, I even started casting an analytical eye on the Dora the Explorer ride belonging to my 3-year-old daughter:


To the casual observer, it’s a basic-looking toddler bike. But after you’ve done the kind of research I’ve done recently, things aren’t as simple as they appear. In fact, I’ve concluded that she may be riding a more technologically advanced machine than the one I used in my last half-Ironman.

Here’s a breakdown of the Dora bike, starting with the frame:


First, note the shape of the downtube (diagonal bar): wide and elliptical, just like aerodynamic time trial frames. In fact, compare that shape with the $5000 carbon fiber Cervelo that’s featured on the cover of this month’s Triathlete Magazine alongside … um … something else. I think it’s some girl or something. I can’t really remember.

At any rate – nowadays, round skinny frame tubes are for chumps. Wide and aero is where the action is. And in that regard, Dora’s got exactly the right profile.

Note one more thing about the downtube: there are no shifter or brake cables running down the side of the frame. Today’s high-end tri bikes have internal housing for the cables, meaning they run inside the tube to decrease drag. OK, sure - in Dora’s case, the cables are missing because it’s a one-speed bike with a coaster brake. But there’s no arguing the aerodynamics; Dora’s clearly built for speed.

Now look at the seat tube on Dora’s ride – there’s a seat post cutout! This is a feature possessed by only the most aggressive tri-bikes. It’s the exact same concept displayed on this Kestrel Airfoil that Chris McCormack rode to 2nd place at the Ironman World Championships last October. As far as frame geometry goes, Dora’s in the same category as the best riders in the world.

Alas, there’s a reason the Dora bike retails for $39.99 instead of $3999. The designers neglected some easy adjustments that could further decrease the bike’s profile. It’s like halfway through the design process, they suddenly remembered they were making a children’s bike. But there aren’t any omissions that can’t be properly addressed with a little tinkering.

For example, let’s take a look at the cockpit:


That’s Backpack riding on the front handlebar, with Map tucked inside of it. They’re both friends of Dora and her monkey, Boots. Backpack carries things Dora needs, and Map helps her figure out where she’s going. Unfortunately, these two accessories are a bit dated, and could easily be swapped out for more aggressive components.

Backpack could be replaced by a smaller, sleeker equipment pack, mounted under the saddle at the back of the bike. This leaves room at the front of the bike for an aerodynamic fluid canister and straw setup like on this Kuota bike that Norman Stadler rode on his way to victory at Kona last year. My girl loves drinking from a straw – and if there’s any way to put a berry smoothie in that aero container, I think she could ride all day long.

As for Map … well … the notion of navigational devices made of paper is very 20th Century. With only a minor weight increase, Map can be replaced by a wireless cyclocomputer system with GPS capability. My daughter will not only know where she is, but how fast she got there, and the net climbing and descent she has traversed. When she gets home, she can download the information onto our PC, which will help her develop computer skills that she’ll need for something important (for instance, blogging about her oddball father) someday.

Finally, two very obvious adjustments: 1) Those wide handlebars aren’t necessarily a dealbreaker, but this Dora bike really needs a good set of aerobars. If I slap a pair of Profiles on the front end, her wind resistance is cut in half – just like that. And 2) The training wheels on the back add extraneous weight, and they limit the bike’s cornering ability. So as soon as she gets her balance down, the training wheels come off, the aero bars go on, and my girl starts pulling 20mph into a headwind.

OK, so I’m kidding with most of this. Or maybe half-kidding. I’m at least one-quarter kidding. I guess I’m most amazed at how the trickle-down phenomena of cutting-edge bike technology can impact even the most basic recreational riders. When 3-year-olds are riding on bikes inspired by wind-tunnel engineers, you can’t help but be impressed.

And then there’s this: part of the fun of bike shopping is imagining the possibilities that are available to any of us. We picture ourselves riding the same bikes the pros ride, and suddenly our athletic potential seems limitless. That’s been my mindset for the past several days.

It’s the exact same sentiment I have in raising a 3-year-old girl: the possibilities in her life right now are innumerable, and her potential is infinite. Best of all, this kind of fantastic feeling is one that will remain long after I’ve purchased my new bike.

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March 16, 2007

The Lazy Snail?

Training twice a day for most of the last several weeks has been a very effective way for me to get in shape. I gain more confidence in this fact with each passing day - as my workout times get faster, or my distances stretch longer, or my strokes and strides become more efficient. It's definitely happening - I'm certain of it.

The trouble is, if you were a casual observer, you'd have absolutely no idea.

I tend to keep my athletic exploits very low-profile amongst co-workers or in the general public. A few of my professional acquaintances are aware that I do some type of exercise program, but they don't have any concept of the magnitude of my compulsion. Others may suspect that my lifestyle is different somehow, but they don't know the exact nature of it, and they've seemingly decided against asking any specific questions, in case the answers make them uncomfortable. (In other words, I'm the triathlete version of Ryan Seacrest.)

So while I'm working my body into the best shape possible, the rest of the world is mostly oblivious. And I thought I was OK with that, until a conversation with my 5-year-old daughter unexpectedly struck a nerve.

We were looking at our tropical fish, observing the ivory-shelled snail who is the latest addition to our tank. Then we had the following conversation:

*
Daughter: I like our snail. None of my friends have a pet snail.

Me: I like him, too. He's like Spongebob's pet, Gary.

Daughter: I named him “Lazy.”

Me: What? Why’d you pick that?

Daughter: Because he moves really slow all the time.

Me: Sure, but that doesn’t mean he’s lazy. Remember, he’s carrying that big shell around all the time. Being a snail might be hard work. Or maybe he’s already taken a long walk around the tank this morning, and now he’s resting.

Daughter: Hmm …

Me: Plus, we have no idea how he compares to other snails. For all we know, he may be a very athletic snail. He might be way more active than we think.

Daughter. Oh.

*
From there, I tried a transition to some kind of lesson about not being able to judge someone’s ability by his appearance, but I was only a few seconds into my spiel before my 3-year-old came over and distracted all of us (as is her gift). Before I knew it, they dashed off to the craft table together, and the moment was gone.

As usual, it was an opportunity for quality parenting that fell by the wayside on my watch. And remember what I said in my last post about how my training makes me irrational about things? Let’s call this little story Exhibit B.

When you start sympathizing with snails, you know your life has taken a strange turn.

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March 13, 2007

Tunnel Vision

Note: this is the same thing I posted yesterday. The only update is a link to the Cervelo site for non-tri readers out there.

*
Before we get to today’s post, I’ve got a brief administrative update …

I’m going to shift gears somewhat with the formats of my posts for the next few weeks. Life’s moving pretty fast right now: I’m making several out-of-town business trips this month, spending a lot of weekend time on a remodeling project, and trying to help manage the kids at home without falling asleep on the living room floor. Plus – and I may have mentioned this already – I’ve got a couple of races on the horizon that I’m training like crazy for.

In light of all that, the only options I see for updating this blog are by writing posts that are 1) shorter, 2) less frequent, or 3) both. I’ll get around to longer posts when I can, but for now I’m taking a “less is more” approach. With that in mind …

***

Occasionally I suspect that all of this training makes me a little bit irrational. Then I’ll have a brief interaction with someone who quickly confirms it.

Case in point: I recently subscribed to Triathlete Magazine. (Also, I’ve let my Runners’ World subscription expire. I could make a whole post out of this, but I’ll spare you my RW rant for now. As for the symbolism of switching my loyalties - this isn’t quite up there with Anakin Skywalker strapping on the breathing mask after falling in the lava pit, but it seems fairly significant nonetheless.) And here is the first issue that arrived at my house this week:


Pretty easy on the eyes, don’t you think? I thought so, too. But here’s the irrational part …

I looked at the cover, quickly said “Whoa!” under my breath, and set it down on the counter. A few minutes later, my wife walked by, picked up the magazine, and we had the following exchange:

Her: You’ve got to be kidding.

Me: What?

Her: Nice cover.

Me: I know … isn’t that a totally hot bike?

The sad part is, I wasn’t joking. The first thing my eyes were drawn to was the bike. That’s what the endless miles and laps have done to me: I’ve become more focused on training and tri-gear than I am on a beautiful woman (who also happens to be a world-class triathlete, by the way) wearing nothing but a bikini and, um … actually, now that I study it, those glasses and shoes are pretty hot, too.

I keep telling myself that this tunnel vision is a temporary development, that will subside once my races pass and my training tapers back down again. Because otherwise … on second thought, I’d better not speculate any further. There are just some roads that I’d rather not travel.

Finally, on a related note, I’ve been shopping for Cervelos lately. That’s another topic that deserves it’s own post – and I’ll be sure to tell that story as events warrant.

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March 8, 2007

How Lucky I Am!

Two quick observations before today’s post …

* Remember one year ago, when I wrote about the miserable weather conditions at the Napa Valley Marathon, and how I might have run a sub-three-hour marathon if not for the fierce headwinds and freezing rain? Well, at last Sunday’s Napa Marathon, conditions were absolutely ideal: sunny, calm, temps in the high 40s to low 50s in the morning. I just thought that warranted mentioning.

* Also, I know I’m a week behind on this one, but how do you like Kellie Pickler’s great new pair of … shoes? I understand her decision to play coy about the whole matter – but didn’t she realize that hundreds of websites would immediately do this kind of comparative research in hopes of blowing her story to shreds? I mean … Kellie does know about the Internet, right? Um … right?

At any rate, I think my feelings about attractive breasts have been fairly well-documented in the past - but in this case, Kellie’s new look kind of gives me the creeps. She had such a natural, wholesome image working very well for her, and now she’s transforming herself into some kind of younger, ditzier Dolly Parton. I’ll just never understand what Hollywood does to people.

OK, enough for now. On with the post …

***

Last weekend, my wife and I took our two oldest kids to a local theater company presentation of Seussical, the Musical, based on the collective works of Dr Seuss. The plot is an amalgamation of several stories, starring Horton the Elephant, the Cat in the Hat, Gertrude McFuzz (who was certainly much cuter than I remember from the book), and the residents of Whoville.

The tales are intertwined and told concurrently (or as my perplexed 5-year-old daughter told me halfway through the first act, “They’re mixing up all the stories!”), and reach a dramatic crescendo just before the close of Act 1, when almost every terrible thing imaginable starts happening to Horton.

He’s lost the clover he protecting (where all of the Whos live) after it was stolen by a group of vigilante monkeys and flown 1000 miles away by a black-bottomed eagle. He’s stuck on a nest in a tree - first through ice storms then through searing heat - waiting for the return of the deadbeat Mayzie bird who tricked him into hatching her egg. He’s about to be captured by hunters and sold to the circus. Saddest of all, he is oblivious to the affections of Gertrude, who undergoes a Kellie Pickler-like tail augmentation procedure just to gain his attention.

Of course, in the second act, everything works out just fine (it is Dr Seuss, after all): the Whos are saved, Horton and Gertrude find happiness, and children are encouraged to think whatever kinds of wonderful thinks they can imagine.

Overall, the musical was exactly what you expect from small-town theater productions: big on charm, shallow on talent, but a nice enough way to spend an afternoon. Our family went home happy, and I didn’t give the story much thought for the next few days.

Then on Tuesday I started exchanging e-mails with a training partner of mine. He was forced to sit out a 10K last weekend due to injury, and he told me he was going to take a few days off to recover.

The first e-mail exchange went like this:

Me: How are you feeling? Still injured?

Him: Still injured. Very very depressed. Angry.

And after I read his reply, a funny thing happened: I immediately thought of the Cat in the Hat.

Just prior to the close of Act 1 in Seussical, as all of those awful things are happening to Horton, the Cat in the Hat starts singing a tune called “Think of How Lucky You Are!”:

*
When the news is all bad,
When you're sour and blue,
When you start to get mad
You should do what I do-

Tell yourself
How lucky you are!

When your life's going wrong
When the fates are unkind
When you're limping along
And get kicked from behind
Tell yourself how lucky you are...

Why decry a cloudy sky
An empty purse
A crazy universe?
My philosophy is simply
Things could be worse!

So be happy you're here.
Think of life as a thrill
And if worse comes to worse
(As we all know it will)
Thank your lucky star
You've gotten this far...

How lucky you are!
How lucky, how lucky you are!

*
So I copied and pasted the lyrics into an e-mail, and sent it off to him. I also wrote: This song probably doesn’t help, but your depression reminded me of it. Hope you’re feeling better soon.

Right around that time, it also occurred to me that it might behoove me to take my own advice every now and then. I need to remember how lucky I am.

I’ve spent the past few posts around here acting like Hamlet over a situation that countless people would love to have as their primary problem in life: the difficulty of doing back to back races. More accurately, fantastic back to back races. In the grand scheme of things, my dilemma is about as significant as a speck of dust on a clover in a field of clovers 100 miles wide. But because it’s my problem, (and for that matter, my blog), I’ve managed to make it sound like a two-act tragedy in the making.

Until now, that is.

I’m reminding myself of how fortunate I am simply for the ability to participate in endurance sports, let alone to enter and travel to big races. I’m thankful that my job hasn’t consumed my time and energy for training (at least, not yet). I’m lucky that my family tolerates me running and riding to the far reaches of Monterey County when I could be spending my time more productively at home.

And I’m grateful for everyday I get to spend in the beautiful area I live, doing the things I love, with the people I adore.

Yes, some things will continue to be difficult, and tough times of one sort or another certainly lie ahead. But sometimes we need a reminder of how much we have in relation to how much we lack. And if that lesson has to be delivered by a 6-foot cat with a striped top hat for me to understand, so be it.

On the athletic front, my friend is still out of commission for a while – perhaps including the Big Sur Marathon. I guess it takes more than a cute little song to fix a serious injury. He’s still depressed, but we’re optimistic that he’ll bounce back soon.

As for me, I’m going head first into the grinder. The workouts for the next several weeks get gradually tougher as my body gets progressively more weary. I’ll continue to stress out about completing all the training I’d like to without going over the edge and injuring myself in the process. Just because your mindset is changed, that doesn’t mean the sport gets any easier.

It just means I’m through griping about it.

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March 3, 2007

Three Reasons

Give me one reason to stay here – and I’ll turn right back around …

- Tracy Chapman, “Give Me One Reason”


I mentioned that there were some more tangible reasons (you know, besides me being an idiot) for signing up for this April’s Big Sur Marathon, despite the fact that it’s a mere six days before I race one of the most challenging triathlons in California. So if you’ll indulge me, I’ll spell everything out here.

On that note: if you don’t happen to like large doses of overwrought, self-serving introspection … then maybe this isn’t the post for you. Feel free to click to another blog now – no hard feelings. See you next time.

(waiting … )

Is anybody still here? OK then – on with the post. In regards to the opening quote - I’m doing Tracy two better. My justifications for running Big Sur fall into three distinct categories. And when I say distinct, I mean it – these three categories have almost nothing in common, except for their collaborative influence on my decision-making process.

**

1. Ego

I’ve mentioned many times how Big Sur has always been my favorite race. It’s also the biggest event on Monterey’s running calendar, and to some degree, locals use it as a measure of whether someone is a “real” runner. It’s almost always the first question people ask when somebody finds out that I’m a runner: have you run Big Sur?

I usually reply that yes, I ran the race last year. And I like saying it, sometimes for no other reason than to validate my status as a runner. When pressed, I’ll say that I’ve run it a handful of times – and that’s usually enough to satisfy anyone’s inquiry.

What I almost never say is that I’ve run Big Sur 11 times, and 10 times consecutively. However, just because I don’t volunteer this information, that doesn’t mean it’s not important to me. I love knowing that I have a longstanding history with one of the most difficult marathons in the country - and yes, that’s basically an ego thing.

If you had asked me three years ago about my lifetime goals in running, my first answer would have been, “Set the record for running the most consecutive Big Sur Marathons.” I still have that notion in the back of my mind, although it’s going to take at least a few more decades to accomplish (There are about 30 “Grizzled Vets” who have run all 21 BSIMs, and they drop ranks even more slowly than Supreme Court justices. One guy even did the marathon on crutches one year. This isn’t exactly a group that is getting soft as they collectively age.).

Then again, I totally anguished over this year’s race, and sometimes when I think about this particular goal, I feel overwhelmed with guilt. I fear becoming one of those runners who just enters the (quite expensive, by the way) race each year not out of enjoyment, but merely because he’s a slave to the streak he created. So I honestly don’t know whether I’ll see this goal through or not. For now, the streak stays alive one more year.

Of course, the other noteworthy lesson to this little story is this: I’ll never be happy.


2. Professional Duty

It occurs to me that I may have mentioned this once or twice before – but I write a running column for the Monterey Herald. In that capacity, the Big Sur Marathon is a frequent topic of my writing.

Each of the past two years, I’ve written preview articles before Big Sur, and “insider” race reports afterward (like this and this). And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it would be somewhat difficult to write about a race that I didn’t actually witness or participate in. Call it a reporter’s intuition.

Due to the point-to-point course on California’s narrow Highway 1, it’s nearly impossible to casually drive or ride along the course during the race. So if I wanted to write about Big Sur, I had two options: 1) Wake up at 3:30, get on a participant bus to the start line, stand around in the cold until the start, wait for an hour to ride a staff bus to the finish area, then hang around killing time until the runners started arriving, or … 2) Just run the dang race.

I don’t have many responsibilities as a writer, but I feel that reporting on Big Sur is one of them. Besides, if I didn’t do it, I’d risk disappointing the 10 to 15 readers who regularly follow my column. The lesson here: I have a hard time saying “no”.


3. Spiritual Calling

This is another topic that I keep close to the vest; but I’ve always felt a strong spiritual component to my running (and triathlon) exploits. There are so many parallels between the Christian walk and athletic training – and the marathon race in particular – that they are simply too numerous to mention here. But I contemplate them frequently, including almost every time I’m running.

At one time in my life, I thought it was my calling to share these concepts with other runners, and use the Big Sur Marathon as an outreach device to help other athletes experience the spiritual power and wonder of this activity I love so much. So I organized prayer services before the race, and lobbied the marathon board to allow a pre-race benediction to be spoken at the start line.

(And yes, I fully recognize the paradox of me speaking in spiritual terms about a race that I recently referred to as a booty call. Can we all just agree that I’m a complicated guy, and not try to analyze it any further? Because I’m afraid of what we might uncover.)

The outreach was a decent idea, except for one thing: I was terrible at it. After a few years, it became clear to everyone involved that I just didn’t possess the dedication or passion to make it successful. So I eventually folded my tent and didn’t bother trying anymore.

But one thing remains from that initial dose of inspiration: the pre-race benediction. At the last 4 Big Sur Marathons, I’ve had the privilege of reading it over the PA system just prior to the race. The gesture is fairly well-received, and the marathon board even gets e-mails about what a nice touch it is. I don’t really take pride in too many things I’ve done, but as far as my accomplishments are concerned – as crazy as it sounds - I’d put this one-minute prayer up near the top of the list.

And sure, if I decided to skip the race, I could just ask someone else to say the benediction, and it would probably work out fine (even better, maybe). But over the past few years, I’ve come to feel like that one minute is my small contribution to the race, and from a selfish standpoint (that ego thing again) I’d like to maintain ownership of it for a little while longer.

I don’t even know if there’s a lesson to be learned from this - except that if you’re looking for someone to lead your revival, I’m probably the last person you should ask.

**

So there you have it: my basis for running this year’s marathon. And it only took 1300 words. (Believe it or not, this is the edited version.)

The truth is, none of these reasons would have compelled me to throw my hat into Big Sur on its own. But collectively, they generated enough interest and longing that I just didn’t have the heart to sit out this year’s race.

Of course, all of these factors will still (presumably) be in play next year. Will I make the same decision about the 2008 race? I honestly have no idea. For now, I’m just trying to make it through the next few months of 2007 in one piece.

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