(Admin note: This is the piece that I hesitated in posting earlier in the week. It eventually has an analogy to training – it’s just going to take me a while to get there.
The subject matter is a bit of a departure for me, and pulled me in so many different directions that were so difficult to verbalize, that I kept meandering off on one tangent after another, and things just got too wide-ranging for a single post. So today’s installment is basically a long-winded introduction to a larger theme that I’ll address further (but hopefully, much more concisely) next week.
I think it will all come together in due time – but for now, you’ll just have to take my word for it. Or, if you’re someone who flips to the back of the book before reading the mystery, I suppose you could just check back next week to see where the heck I’m going with all of this.)
“I really need to talk to you Lord –
Since the last time we talked, the walk has been hard-
I know you haven’t left me, but I feel like I’m alone –
I’m a big boy now but I’m still not grown –
I’m still goin’ through it, the pain and the hurt –
Soakin’ up trouble like rain in the dirt –
And I know that only I can stop the rain, with just a mention of my savior’s name.”
- DMX, “Lord Give Me a Sign”
“My God, who am I that You should forsake me? … I call, I cling, I want – and there is no one to answer. Where is my faith – even deep down right in there is nothing but emptiness and darkness – I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart and make me suffer untold agony.”
- Mother Teresa of Calcutta, circa 1948
In the closing scenes of Michael Connelly's 2006 novel Echo Park, Detective Harry Bosch has a serial killer cornered in an underground tunnel, and tries to persuade him to turn himself in. During their standoff, Bosch mentions that he and the killer both spent time in the same Los Angeles orphanage as children, two unfortunate victims of tragic circumstance.
The killer’s reply was “Well, you went your way, and I went mine. I guess I fed the wrong dog.”
Bosch didn’t remember the reference, so the killer recounted an analogy that all the caregivers told children at the orphanage. Each person has two dogs inside him or her – one that wants to do good, and the other that wants to be destructive. These dogs fight against each other every day.
Throughout every waking hour, we make decisions about which dog we’re going to feed. The dog we feed the most will eventually become stronger, overpower the weaker one, and dictate how we live our lives.
This passage came to mind after hearing two disparate stories in the news this week, which illustrate how those two dogs exist to some degree or another in every single one of us.
The first story was a disturbing report about dogfighting – but not involving the person you’re probably thinking of. Rather, it was a raid on the house of rap star DMX that got me to thinking about just how hard it can be to feed that good dog sometimes.
My interest in DMX stems entirely from a single song: "Lord Give Me a Sign", released in 2006 (and now playing on my sidebar mp3). It’s a desperate cry from a man who, despite his better judgment, frequently abandons his walk with God, struggles against sin and temptation, and realizes that his only chance at redemption is to receive strength and mercy from the Lord. It’s also a beautiful, brilliantly melodic work, which found equal favor over the past year with Southern AME choirs and hardened, incarcerated criminals.
Sadly, in the case of DMX, his struggles aren’t fictional. He has a long history of drug abuse and trouble with the law. His entire musical catalog aside from the aforementioned song is hardcore gangster rap laced with expletives, and filled with violent and misogynistic imagery. Despite his apparent spiritual yearnings, he is clearly a man who finds it incredibly difficult to keep his inner demons at bay – and who ultimately fell into some of the most reprehensible behavior imaginable.
His destructive dog grew too powerful, and overwhelmed the good one. Right now, he’s obviously far removed from the person who wrote the rap spiritual that speaks to me so powerfully, and his mistakes clearly deserve punishment (not only that, but he's been busted for animal cruelty once before - and supposedly reformed afterwards. Obviously the first punishment wasn't much of a deterrent.) And yet, for one inspired moment in time, the good dog rose above the fray and created a work that may bring people closer to God for many years to come.
The second item is that of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the subject of this week’s Time Magazine cover story due to the recent publication of Come Be My Light, a collection of written correspondence between the presumed future saint and her various superiors and confidants within the church.
The letters are noteworthy for their dramatic illustration of how, for the vast majority of her years, Mother Teresa had great doubts about the meaning of her ministry, at times to the point of questioning the very existence of God. She struggled to reconcile her public persona with the inner skeptic, at times referring to her famously gentle smile as merely a mask that hid her inner turmoil.
In other words, Mother Teresa had a destructive dog – a small corner of her soul that scoffed at her charitable works and unconditional love, and tried to undermine her compassionate spirit with doubt and skepticism. A destructive voice that could only be subdued by constantly strengthening the benevolent dog inside her.
So we have the contrasting tales of DMX and Mother Teresa. Two people from the most disparate backgrounds imaginable, whose identities in their respective societies were diametrically opposed, who both struggled with the balance of darkness and light inside of them. One stubbornly kept feeding her good dog with continual prayer, charity, and selflessness, to ease her spiritual desolation. The other chose to empower his destructive dog, effectively extinguishing a light that briefly shone like a shooting star, burning hot and bright before rapidly seceding into the darkness.
The duality exists within people at both ends of the moral spectrum. It exists for celebrities and the common man. The dog analogy is a cautionary tale about the power that everyday decisions have, for better or worse, on shaping our individual legacies.
Because everything comes down to the dog you feed.
Read Part 2 here.
Read Part 3 here.
August 31, 2007
(Admin note: This is the piece that I hesitated in posting earlier in the week. It eventually has an analogy to training – it’s just going to take me a while to get there.
August 29, 2007
Oh, crap ...
Shark Attack in Monterey Bay
Remember the post I wrote last year about how I frequently swim alone in the Bay, and I didn't understand what the big safety fuss was all about? Well, um ... have I mentioned before that I'm an idiot? Let's just say I'm rethinking that policy this morning.
In a strangely-related-but-not-really story, it was also announced yesterday that our Monterey Bay Aquarium has once again acquired a white shark for its Outer Bay exhibit - although, in light of the news above, it might technically qualify for an exhibit of the shoreline habitats as well. (No, the Aquarium shark wasn't involved in the attack - it was already in the tank when the other shark struck. It's an airtight alibi.)
This is the third time the Aquarium has displayed a great white, and it's a pretty awesome creature to see. I also wrote this article last year about how it might be fun to test the attack behavior of the shark from the safety of dry land. You could say I'm rethinking my policy of shark attack humor this morning as well.
So within the past 24 hours, Monterey has suddenly become the white shark capital of the United States. I'm hoping to visit one of these new neighbors someday soon - you can probably guess which one. As for the other one, I'm hoping that nobody ever lays eyes on him again.
August 27, 2007
I’m going to keep the sidebar mp3 player up indefinitely, and change the song as conditions warrant. It won’t ever play automatically, so you don’t have to worry about getting in trouble if you’re reading this at work (you know who you are). Sometimes the song will relate to a post I’ve written, but other times, it’s just something that I’ve been spinning a lot on my audio systems lately. That’s the situation today – so if you’re interested, click on the player and enjoy the Silversun Pickups.
Secondly … this wasn’t my scheduled post for today. I wrote a whole article last night, but the subject matter is somewhat delicate, and I’m not certain that I expressed exactly what I intended. It’s hard to explain – but I’ll tinker with it for a bit and hopefully post it in the next day or two, and then you’ll see what I’m talking about.
So I was scrambling for something to post today instead, and thought back to a phone conversation I had last week with my father who lives in Colorado Springs. He was telling me details from this month’s Pikes Peak Marathon, a race he has watched me finish twice.
Until he reminded me, I had forgotten that the race had already happened this year. It got me to wondering … why does Pikes Peak generate so little buzz around the blogosphere? For my money, there isn’t a more beautiful, more challenging, or more captivating event out there. It should be on any serious runner’s short list of must-do events across the country – and it’s on my list of races to revisit one of these summers.
And yet, despite all of the blogs I surf, I didn’t hear one mention of Pikes Peak this year. The race sells out in less than 24 hours, so it isn’t a question of the race being unpopular. I guess it’s just one of those freak things where I saw two very similar subgroups, and just assumed they would overlap – like when Fox News broadcasters keep taking jobs with the Bush Administration.
Except in this case, there wasn’t any overlap – so that’s what I’m doing today. I revisited my race report from my first trip to Pikes Peak in the year 2003 B.B. (before blog), and decided I could post it here as a space filler for the week until I hammer out the kinks in my other post.
In other words … yes, it’s a repeat. But it might be one you haven’t seen. And there are worse ways you could spend your next five minutes. I’ll be back later this week with new stuff.
Approximately 500 vertical feet below the 14,115’ summit of Pikes Peak stands a sign that says “16 Golden Stairs” – which is both a welcome and foreboding sight for weary runners.
The term refers to the final 32 switchbacks (a stair is one pair of switchbacks) before reaching the summit. Fred Barr, the main developer of the trail that bears his name, chose the Biblical allusion for this final, steepest portion of the ascent, symbolizing a golden stairway that climbs to heaven.
After climbing for over 3 hours and 7300’ to reach the signpost, I faced about 20 more minutes of struggle before reaching the summit that is the turnaround point of the Pikes Peak Marathon.
All of the course descriptions I read in preparation for the race gave similar advice about what to do after reaching the summit: get out of there fast. Spend as little time in the thin air as possible, so your body doesn’t become too oxygen-starved for the second half of the run. Get your bib marked, fill your water bottle, and start quickly back down the mountain.
But I had trained for too long, traveled too far, and worked too hard in the race to reach this point. I couldn’t simply turn and leave the summit behind without taking its proper measure. So after clicking my watch at 3 hours, 40 minutes, I moved off to one side and stood quietly, taking in as much of the scene as my aching, dizzy, lethargic brain could absorb.
For some people, the vantage point of tremendous height opens the mind and stimulates creative passion. Ancient philosophers and gifted artists have wiled away hours atop high mountains, seeking inspiration or enlightenment. The songwriter (not the actress) Katherine Bates wrote the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” on the summit of Pikes Peak, probably very close to the spot upon which I now stood.
From this perspective, it was easy to see that God did indeed shed His grace on this majestic purple mountain. The vastness of the splendor all around me was overwhelming, and I gazed in awe of the surroundings, whispering the word “beautiful” more times than I can remember.
In typical fashion, as I contemplated all of these lofty ideas, my thoughts eventually turned more inward and introspective. I couldn’t help but ponder all of the gifts in my life that helped me reach this point.
I have been blessed with a body that is capable of running (well, mostly running…I needed some walking breaks) up the grueling trail, despite my frequent neglect of its basic needs like good nutrition and adequate rest. I thought of my wife, and all of the years she has patiently supported my obsession with running, and my constant pursuit of newer, more time-consuming challenges. I pictured my young children, hoped for a day when they feel the happiness and satisfaction I felt at that moment, and wished there was some way I could capture a small measure of this experience for their limited comprehension. I thought of all of my training partners who have encouraged me as I prepared for this day.
I concluded that there is great beauty to be found within my own life, comparable to the natural beauty of the mountain, but more intimate. It was there with me all along my journey, and burst into the open like a song at the top of the hill.
The summit of Pikes Peak is possibly the closest I’ll ever come to glimpsing Heaven while standing on Earth. Before leaving, I vowed that I would have to return there someday, lest the vision ever diminishes. I filled my water bottle, asked a volunteer to take my picture, and picked up two rocks to carry down the hill with me- one for each of my kids’ rock collections. I clicked my watch, noted the elapsed time- 2 minutes, 48 seconds - and started my long descent of the mountain.
Despite the thin air, despite the increasing pain in my legs and feet, and despite the creeping exhaustion of mind and body, I smiled nearly all the way down.
August 22, 2007
However, once I started, the questions started to sound very similar to a tag that bounced around last year. I checked my Blogger archives from last summer, and sure enough, most of this current post had already been written for me – all I had to do was cut and paste. So if you were reading last summer, don’t be shocked if portions of this survey sound very familiar.
But enough of the intro. As usual, I’ve managed to turn a 5-minute post into a 900-word ramble, so let’s just get on with it:
Previous jobs I've held:
1. Poop-scooper crew assistant for the Pioneer Days parade, Butternut WI. Sure, it wasn't glamorous, but it was an easy way for a 9-year-old kid to pick up 20 bucks in the summertime. That buys a lot of Tangy Taffy.
2. In high school, I was on a work crew that cleaned up the assembly room of our neighborhood Catholic church after wedding receptions on weekend nights. We started work at midnight, and spent the next four hours cleaning up beer, urine, vomit and other assorted slop in the dancing area, dining area, and bathrooms. I know that Catholics are all about clean living … but they sure do make a holy mess at their parties.
3. In grad school I was a per-diem meat and cheese slicer in the deli at our local gourmet store. I got pretty good at it, too – I could slice the Black Forest ham so thinly you could see shadows through it. When it came to slicing, I had crazy game.
4. Remember the Vlasic pickle stork? One day I was paid to dress in a costume of him – all the way down to a pair of yellow tights and oversized bird feet - and walk around the grocery store handing out pickle coupons. It was a fun gig, aside from the elderly ladies (yes, more than one) who took it upon themselves to pinch my thighs when I wasn’t looking. Who violates a 6-foot bird like that? Does this happen on Sesame Street?
Movies I watch over and over:
1. Shrek 1 and 2
2. Star Wars Trilogy (Episodes IV-VI)
3. Harry Potter Series
4. Looney Looney Looney Bugs Bunny Movie
(Have I mentioned before that I live with young children? Just checking.)
1. Hardcore rock and/or rap music. I’m the geek who doesn’t like talking to people at work, and would rather sit at his desk blasting Avenged Sevenfold through the headphones. I’m also the nerdy shirt-and-tie white guy in the Camry who has 50 Cent cranked up on the sound system. Administrative people in large companies shouldn’t do this, I know … but nevertheless, here I am.
2. I’m increasingly thinking of blogging as a guilty pleasure … but maybe I should save those thoughts for another post.
Places I have lived:
2. Westwood, CA (Go Bruins!)
3. Denver, CO
4. Chapel Hill, NC (Go Tar Heels!)
TV shows I watch (A very abbreviated list):
2. The Daily Show
3. MTV Video Wake-Up
Plus just about any manner of sports you can imagine. I kept the Rock-Paper-Scissors World Championship green-dotted on my TiVo for two months. I'm not kidding.
Places I've been on vacation:
3. Kauai, HI
4. Key West
Websites I visit everyday:
1. Bloglines (well, duh ...)
3. The Big Lead
4. Lostpedia – on an increasingly frequent basis. It’s either that, or wait four months until Season 3 comes out on DVD. Not that I’m anxious or anything.
4. Pumpkin chocolate chip muffins – one of my wife’s specialties.
Injuries I’ve had:
1. Torn hamstring (when training for the mile)
3. Do migraines count? I sometimes get migraines. They're pretty darn painful, and they've made me skip workouts. I’m counting them.
Awards I’ve won:
1. Second grade fire prevention week poster contest winner
3. All-state (Colorado) high school soccer team
4. I’m hesitant to announce this yet … but apparently there’s this big sweepstakes going on, and I found out last week that I may have already won a huge amount of money. Needless to say, it’s a very exciting time for me right now. As soon as I confirm my winnings, I’ll let you know.
Nicknames I've Had:
Anyway … that’s the list. If you made it this far, thanks for reading. As mentioned at the top, today’s post was sponsored by Paul. Feel free to stop by his blog to thank him, or better yet, to give him your best newbie parenting advice.
(And since he’s in my age group, and has finished ahead of me in two previous triathlons … could you tell him he’ll need to cut WAY back on his training to be a good dad? Thanks - that would help me a lot.)
August 20, 2007
“That's it. It's not the money, it's the numbers… Dude, don't look at me like that, I'm not crazy. This is real."
- Hurley, from Season 1 of Lost
A guy can get a lot of things done during a two-week post-race layoff.
The period of forced rest is a great opportunity to spend some lunch hours with coworkers who were kept at arms length for the past few months of twice-daily workouts. It’s an ideal chance to tear through the entire second season of Lost on DVD (more on this later … but something tells me those folks are going to have a hard time getting off the island).
Or if you’re the excessively compulsive type, it allows you to spend a ridiculous amount of time going through the results page of your previous race, trying to extract as much information as possible from the numbers.
Sometimes I feel foolish for going back through race results to see how I could have fared if I had tinkered with my training strategy, or if I had handled some particular situation differently on race day. I understand that what’s done is done, and there’s no sense rehashing what might have been.
Other times, something inside the numbers hits me like a slap in the face, and I can’t believe that it escaped my attention for so long. This is what happened when I looked through the Vineman results.
First, by way of full disclosure, I have some corrections from the original report of my overall and age group standings. When I left the finish area on race day, I scanned my chip at the results tent, and the computer told me I had finished 17th overall, and second in my age group. However, when the official results came in, I was bumped down to 19th overall, and 4th in 35-39. I’m not sure what accounted for the error, and I don’t really care about it (except to reinforce what I’ve always said: I’m not nearly as good as a lot of you seem to think. So there.)
But that’s not what struck me about the numbers. It was the breakdown by discipline that revealed the glaring weakness in my training plan, and showed me the secret of improved race performances in the future.
The easiest way to explain is to just show you the results:
Swim: 26th fastest split overall, 7th in age group
Bike: 36th fastest overall, 7th in age group
Run: 19th fastest overall, 8th in age group
These were generally what I expected. My relative weakness is on the bike, which is the area where I felt my training was relatively inadequate. I was strongest on the run, which makes sense because, um … have you seen the title of my blog? In a previous life, I was a fairly dedicated runner. The swim ranking was somewhere in between.
Further analysis revealed that, aside from the professionals, there wasn’t anyone who placed higher than me in more than one discipline. It reinforces my theory that amateur triathletes typically aren’t great at any particular event; they just need to be somewhat decent at all three. In other words, it’s OK to be mediocre, as long as you’re mediocre across the board.
None of this information was particularly surprising. Here’s where the numbers made my jaw drop:
T1: 58th fastest overall, 12th in age group
T2: 152nd fastest overall, 41st in age group
Oh, man … I’m getting my butt kicked in transitions!
I’ve discussed in previous race reports how I’m typically slow in the “fourth discipline” of triathlon, but I never quite realized how far I lag behind the curve. Apparently while I’m rubbing sand out from between my toes in T1, or relaxing in the shady grass in T2, the rest of the field is making up time on me in droves.
There’s an old adage in triathlon that says, “train your weakness, race your strength.” If that’s the case, my training regimen is in need of a complete overhaul.
This summer, I foolishly spent all of my time logging laps in the pool or miles on the roads, trying to improve in areas where I’m already relatively strong. But now I see that I’ve been going about it all wrong – because I should have spent more time training my weakness.
Swimming, biking, and running? Completely overrated. What I need is to spend those training hours taking my wetsuit off while running, or doing sprint workouts in cycling shoes while pushing my bike alongside me. I should have practiced my cycling-shirt-to-singlet technique more often, and done many more lace lock and number belt repetitions.
Obviously this is the area where I have the most room for improvement. Just think: if I were to shave about two minutes from my T2 time, I’d rank in the top 100 for that transition period. In the final overall and age group standings, the improved finishing time would have placed me … well, it would have placed me exactly the same. But at least I would have the satisfaction of knowing that I could fasten my shoelaces faster than 200 other competitors.
OK … perhaps the upside isn’t significantly tangible. But triathlon is a competitive sport - and when I’m on the course, I’ll take any minor victory I can claim. However, those victories don’t come easy, and they don’t happen overnight: they’re the result of preparation meeting opportunity.
So when I start blasting out of the pool and sprinting to the locker room after each swim workout, or spending 30 minutes per day switching back and forth from cycling shoes to running shoes, that’s not just me acting like an idiot - that’s me raising my game, baby.
It’s not crazy. It’s all about the numbers.
August 14, 2007
“Listen to me! Just listen to me, all right? It sounds great when you say it like that, but all that stuff was luck -- I didn't know what I was doing half the time, I didn't plan any of it, I just did whatever I could think of … and I didn't get through any of that because I was brilliant at Defense Against the Dark Arts, I got through it all because -- because help came at the right time, or because I guessed right.”
I think the further I progress in any given event - or any particular sport for that matter - the more I realize just how fortunate I am to be there, and how grateful I should be that things happened the way they did.
But I’m getting ahead of myself a bit – because when we last spoke, I was exiting T2 to start the marathon portion of the Vineman triathlon.
The Run: Help at the Right Times
As luck would have it, I took less than ten steps on the marathon course before encountering my first aid station.
The Vineman marathon is a 3-loop course, with aid stations at both turnaround points, and three more in between. Doing some simple math in my head, I knew I would never have go much farther than one mile to reach the next station. That’s nice reassurance to have as you’re starting a marathon in 95 degree weather.
The other comforting thought was that I had finally made it to the run course. Because despite everything I said in the previous post about my magical bike ride, the aspect of the race I was most anxious about was simply making it to T2.
My greatest fear during any triathlon is some type of mechanical failure during the bike segment. I know it only takes one flat tire to blow my whole split time - or any variety of malfunctions that could derail my race completely. There are just too many slings and arrows of circumstance to potentially strike us along the way – consequently, I consider the bike segment as much of a disaster aversion exercise as it is an athletic competition.
So it was a relief to set foot on the marathon course, and know that I wouldn’t be undone by mechanical issues or other complications beyond my ability to overcome. This was the first point of the day when my destiny lay in my own hands – and it was the first time that I was certain I would finish the race.
From this point on, all I needed was time and determination – and I knew I had plenty of both.
The first thing I noticed on the marathon course was how many other people there were. Until now, I had forgotten that three other races were going on simultaneously, and they all shared the initial portion of the Vineman run course. So after spending the past six hours with only a handful of competitors, all of a sudden I was accompanied by hundreds of runners.
Full Vineman competitors had different colored bib numbers than everybody else, so all of the spectators and other runners knew who we were as we passed by. This arrangement was the perfect antidote for hardcore exertion under the sweltering sun.
Countless times when I passed other runners or spectators, I’d hear an encouraging “Nice work, Ironman!” or “Good job, Ironman”. I must have been called that name 20 times during the first loop of the marathon course. It was a significant source of encouragement, and made two thoughts come to mind:
1. It’s obvious that NOBODY in Sonoma County reads my blog, or knew of my little M-Dot dissertation from the week before the race. However …
2. Hearing the name over and over from so many people was the first time I started thinking of myself as an ironman. And once I did, it felt unbelievably cool.
In particular, there was one college-aged girl about a half-mile from the start/finish area who was incredibly inspirational. Every time someone with my bib color passed by, she yelled, “IRONMAN: HELL YEAH!!” at the top of her voice, and slapped high fives with anyone who would take it.
In fact, I got such an adrenaline rush when passing her, I was concerned about overexerting myself too early in the race. So when I approached her at the end of the first loop, we had this exchange:
Her: IRONMAN: HE--
Me: Not yet! I’ve got two laps to go.
Her: OK – I’ll be here!
The first loop of the course was finished, but I could feel myself running out of steam on the outbound portion of loop 2. The course has several rolling hills, and is mostly uphill on the way out – so I told myself that I only had to keep working hard for 4 and a half miles to the turnaround point, before cruising the downhills on the way back, and by then I’d have only one lap to go.
I also broke the course down into one-mile increments, with my primary focus of jogging from aid station to aid station, and taking as much time as I needed each time I stopped.
At each station, this was my routine:
* Dump one cup of water on my face, another on my back, and occasionally one on my shoulders.
* Empty one cup of ice in my hat, and place on my head.
* Drink one cup of cola with ice, carry ice cup with me to next aid station.
By this point, I had become sick of Gatorade, and couldn’t tolerate any gels or solids, so I was banking on the cola to keep me fueled for the duration. Aside from some persistent stomach cramps, this system worked fairly well.
Having frequent aid stations was a HUGE factor in making the marathon segment a less daunting task than it otherwise could have been. Nevertheless, during that second loop I felt like I was melting in the heat, and my pace was slowing precipitously. 8-minute miles were turning to 9-minutes, and jogging from station to station grew incrementally more difficult each time. This is where my decreased caloric and fluid intake on the bike was coming back to haunt me.
Yet somehow, I was able to keep cruising along … and guess who I caught up with during the second lap?
ULTIMATE FIGHTER NICK DIAZ!!
He had slowed to a walk by this point, but briefly tried to jog after I came alongside him. The final skirmish didn’t last long, though – it was only a few strides before I was past him, and he resumed walking again.
This may sound odd … but as competitive as I claim to be, I didn’t feel great satisfaction in passing him at this point in the race. In fact, the first thing I felt was respect for the kid – a 24-year-old who came to his first ironman race and grabbed it by the throat before running out of steam just a little too early. I have a feeling his future in triathlon is a lot brighter than mine.
I’ll also say this for Nick Diaz: I had to work my tail off to catch him. That guy really knows how to fight.
The third lap of the course was similar to the first two, except that my mile splits were closer to 10 minutes now, as the walking breaks grew longer each time. Eventually I reached the final turnaround point, and had less than 5 miles to go.
Have you ever torn through a great novel, then purposely slowed your reading pace down in the final chapters, because you didn’t want to finish too quickly? Even though the ending is inevitable, you want to stretch the experience out just a little bit longer. Well, that was me during the last 3 miles of Vineman – slowing things down, burning as much as possible to memory before the inevitable conclusion.
I didn’t care about the time, and I didn’t care about my overall place (although I occasionally glanced over my shoulder for good measure). I just wanted to enjoy the moment – and in all my life, running 10-minute miles never felt so good.
Then once I was less than a mile from the finish, I remembered that there was somebody I wanted to find.
I started looking around for the “Ironman – Hell Yeah!” girl - and found her right where she said she’d be. I pointed to get her attention, and we had this exchange:
Me: OK – say it now!
Her: IRONMAN – HELL YEAH!!
I gave her a high five and thanked her for her enthusiasm before making my way to the finish line.
The finish chute is about 100 yards long, and once I got there, I had it all to myself. I mean … is there any better way to finish a race? The crowd cheered while the announcer said my name, and the volunteers across the finish line gave me cool sponges and cold water before guiding me towards a shady place to sit.
This time, I knew I could stay seated as long as I wanted. My work for the day was finished.
Run stats: 26.2 miles in 4 hours, 2 minutes. Average pace per mile 9:13.
Epilogue: Merely a Muggle
(Admin note: this is the dime store philosophy portion of the post. If you just wanted details from the race report, I’m all done with that – so feel free to click away to your next destination. Leave a comment if you'd like to, and thanks for stopping by.)
I think that whenever someone writes a 5000-word recap, there’s a tendency to think of the event in somewhat epic terms. So with these final few paragraphs, I’m hoping to bring things back down to Earth a bit.
People often read ironman reports and find them absolutely amazing – and by extension, they think the people who do them are amazing, also. They may believe that only special people are born to do such tasks, and those people must be instilled with lightning-scar caliber powers the rest of us don’t have.
But from the other side of the glass, nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, doing this event makes me realize how lucky I am just to be a part of it, and how dependent upon others I had been all along the way.
I wouldn’t be telling you about Vineman if about 100 little things hadn’t fallen into place for me over the past several years. If I had a different family, a different job, or lived in a different place, I probably wouldn’t be writing this report. If I didn’t have support from my training partners, or encouragement from everyone who has contacted me through this blog, or – perhaps most importantly – assistance from the countless volunteers, spectators, and fellow competitors on the course, my experience would have been far less fulfilling.
I’m not an amazing guy. I’m neither magical nor brilliant. I don’t even have a scar on my forehead. I’m just an ordinary dude who guessed right a few times, lucked out a lot more, and ultimately relied on the help of others to accomplish something fantastic.
August 10, 2007
“Oh yes, if you are any wizard at all you will be able to channel your magic through almost any instrument. The best results, however, must always come where there is the strongest affinity between wizard and wand. These connections are complex. An initial attraction, and then a mutual quest for experience, the wand learning from the wizard, the wizard learning from the wand.”
- Mr Ollivander, from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling
Don’t worry, I’m still not giving away any Book 7 spoilers. But I’m mentioning it in this post, because the above quote came to mind during the bike segment at Vineman – which, if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, shouldn’t surprise you one bit.
But first, let’s pick up the triathlon story where we left off, as I was exiting T1 to take on the 112-mile bike course.
The Bike: Wizard and Wand
Immediately upon leaving T1, I began the following routine that I intended to maintain for six hours:
* Drink Gatorade right now and repeat every 15 minutes
* Eat Clif Bar right now and repeat every 50 minutes, followed by one drink of water
* Drink small amount of water every 30 minutes starting at minute 20
* Take 2 Succeed caps every 60 minutes starting at minute 60
There aren’t many situations in life where OCD tendencies are actually beneficial – but the bike segment of an ironman triathlon is definitely one of them. While I couldn't adhere strictly to this schedule (as I’ll soon explain), the little routines helped the time tick by, and also helped equip me to deal with minor adversities that came along later in the day. So every fifteen minutes or so, I was like Rain Man waiting to watch Judge Wapner until I took in some calories.
The first 10 miles of the bike course are a gentle climb away from the Russian River towards the main double-loop route where we would spend the majority of our day. During this stretch, I was yo-yoing back and forth with Ultimate Fighter Nick Diaz, who followed me out of the water but left T1 ahead of me. We were both just spinning our wheels and getting warmed up, but I had the feeling I’d see this guy a few more times as we moved down the road.
After 10 miles, the course becomes a double loop through the sprawling pastures and vineyards of Sonoma County. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful backdrop for a bike course, but the narrow country roads are winding and technical at times, requiring the use of brakes on tight curves - all of which have the unfortunate cumulative affect of dropping your average speed like a brick.
(photo from Vineman website)
It was at the intersection of River Road and the main loop that I heard the most meaningless stat of the day, offered by a race official on the corner as I rode past:
Official (checking his watch): You’re 12:20 behind the leader!
Me: (wild laughter)
Let’s just say I didn’t entertain any thoughts of reeling in the leaders right then - or any other time, for that matter. But I guess I appreciated the thought.
I also never entertained the thought of racing against Ultimate Fighter Nick Diaz, until he rolled past me at mile 20. Only this time, he wasn’t alone: a camera crew in an SUV was driving alongside, filming him as he was passing me on a long downhill stretch.
Filming him. While he was passing me.
It took every ounce of restraint I could muster to keep my ego in check and not try to keep pace with him right away. I reminded myself over and over to just maintain a steady effort, and sadly watched Ultimate Fighter Nick Diaz roll off into the distance. It felt like a decisive move, but I figured that in the grand scheme of things, there were greater indignities a guy could suffer than being knocked out by a UFC fighter.
**Is It Time to Panic? Part 2** Approximately 30 miles into the ride, a rogue bumblebee made its way into one of my helmet vents, and began buzzing furiously upon my scalp. I poked around with my fingers to dislodge it from the helmet, only to feel its sting on the back of my neck a few minutes later.
I haven’t been stung by a bee since I was a kid – but a couple of years ago, my mother in law was stung, and three hours later, she ended up in the emergency room. Last year, my wife got stung, and she was relatively unharmed. So by my (admittedly unscientific) calculations, I figured I had roughly a 50-50 chance of surviving the ride without paramedic support. Not exactly a comforting thought with 82 miles to go.
Another factor that became increasingly prevalent was the heat. Comfortable morning temperatures grew increasingly stifling by midday. Later on, I would learn that the air temperature had climbed into the 90s, and many cyclists were recording temps of greater than 100 degrees on their bike thermometers.
So in addition to the established hydration routine, I decided to pour water on my face and back every 30 minutes. At each aid station I picked up one bottle each of water and Gatorade, and figured my fluid management was dialed in pretty well. Pretty well, that is, until …
**Is It Time to Panic? Parts 3 and 4** The aid stations gave out Gatorade Endurance in the factory bottles, which are slightly taller and skinnier than standard cycling bottles. This proved problematic at mile 42: while going downhill at 35 mph and crossing a bridge with an uneven transition surface from asphalt to concrete, the Gatorade bottle launched out of my rear holster and spilled open on the ground. Before going down the same hill the second time around(mile 95), I contemplated holding the bottle in my hands, but didn’t want to give up any steering ability on the high speed descent – consequently, the EXACT SAME THING happened at mile 95. (Before you ask - yes, I felt like an idiot.)
So I was stuck without Gatorade for two stretches of about 45 minutes each – which was OK, since I was also carrying water, right? Except, um … each time, I had already dumped more than half of the water bottle on me when the Gatorade got launched. So I had to ration my fluids on two separate occasions when I wanted nothing more than to chug away.
It wasn’t an emergency situation, but I could feel some telltale effects of dehydration. The most obvious symptom was a chronically dry mouth, which made my every-50-minute Clif Bar strategy fairly challenging.
I trained with Clif Bars on every long ride, and figured I could use them to take in a ton of calories during the race. But as my mouth became more dry, each bar grew increasingly difficult to eat. The 4th one went down pretty slowly, and the 5th one required large gulps of fluid to help me swallow. The 6th one was only partially eaten, and the seventh one never made it out of my shirt pocket.
Remember the bird Iago - voiced by Gilbert Gottfried - from Disney’s movie Aladdin, whose cheeks bulged bigger and bigger while the Sultan kept stuffing crackers into his mouth? When the Sultan finally left, Iago spit out the crackers and said, “I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!! IF I HAVE TO CHOKE DOWN ONE MORE DISGUSTING CRACKER …” (Note: that line is about ten times funnier if you can imagine Gilbert Gottfried’s voice. I actually looked for a video clip to post here, but couldn’t find one. The best link I could find was this audio snippet [third item down]. Clearly, the technology age still has a lot of room for improvement.)
Well, somewhere around mile 80 of the bike course, I was Iago, and Clif Bars were my crackers. I simply couldn’t take them anymore. And I think it cost me a lot of time once I got off the bike.
Despite all of these issues, the bike segment ended up being the most memorable aspect of my race. I anticipated feeling all kinds of aches and pains from spending so much time in the saddle, but those hours on the bike were the most enjoyable of the entire day.
Have you ever had a ride where the bike responds perfectly to your every action, and does everything you want it to across all types of conditions? The Vineman ride was like that for me and my Cervelo.
That’s why I thought of the Harry Potter passage: because throughout the day, there was this strange chemistry between me and the bike that was almost magical. I was the wizard, the bike was the wand, and we were channeling our power through each other during this grand adventure. It was, as Mr Ollivander would say, a mutual quest for experience.
All of the training miles we had previously shared were in preparation for this day. This was the ride the bike was purchased for. This was the ride the bike and I had trained for. Along the way, my Cervelo and I developed an affinity for each other, and we now depended upon each other for success. And on some level, it felt like the bike knew all of this.
(Either that, or I was hallucinating from bee sting toxins. Looking back, both scenarios seem equally plausible.)
I guess what I’m saying is, all of the minor adversities and unexpected challenges I encountered were never enough to diminish the overall joy and satisfaction I had on the bike course. And before I knew it, I was rolling into T2.
Bike Stats: 5 hours, 45 minutes. Average speed 19.5 mph.
Click here to read Part 1
T2: Happiness is an Empty Bike Rack
I walked into the transition area to find row after row of empty bike racks: there were no bikes on my assigned rack, or on the two racks on either side of me, and only a handful within a 50-yard radius. In other words, it was one of the coolest sights I’ve ever seen.
T2 was in the Windsor High School parking lot, and my rack was next to a grassy island with three baby trees. Each tree projected a small imprint of shade, so I grabbed my transition bag, and sat in the shady grass to start my conversion from cycling wizard to marathon runner.
That cool patch of grass felt so good, it was almost intoxicating. I took my time as I did a complete wardrobe change, took a few long drinks of Gatorade, and packed my cycling gear back into the bag. Although I had no fear of the challenge ahead, I definitely wasn’t in any hurry to leave my shady spot.
However, I still had work to do. So nine minutes after I entered, I left the transition area and ventured back out onto the road in the heat of the afternoon. And that’s where we'll continue this story the next time.
Click here to read Part 3
August 8, 2007
"I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind.... "
~Albus Dumbledore, from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J.K. Rowling
I knew that Vineman would be difficult. I had no idea about the race report.
As if hobbling around on a sore body wasn’t enough, I’ve been dealing with the inevitable sickness in the wake of last weekend’s triathlon, as my immune system went into complete shutdown mode almost immediately after I returned home. I felt like I wanted to crawl into a hole somewhere – and it took me almost two days to reply to e-mails from friends asking how my race went.
Then I went about the process of organizing my thoughts on the whole race experience, which became an ordeal of its own. I guess it’s predictable that after an event of this magnitude, there’s just too much to say for it to all fit into one post. What I really need is a pensieve like Dumbledore has, to store all of my memories for future viewing (yes, there are certain to be one or two Harry Potter references as we go along). But I suppose that's what this blog is all about, when you get right down to it.
So in the absence of an actual pensieve, let’s approach this recap in segments, with Part 1 today, and the others as soon as I can get around to publishing them. Feel free to comment as we go along, or hold your reactions until the final installment – either way is fine with me. (And if you’re a lurker … I guess it doesn’t matter anyway. Just go ahead and keep on lurking.)
Before we get to the details, I’ll expand on the executive summary a bit, and say that my overall experience was very enjoyable. There were brief moments of uncertainty and/or near-panic (as I’ll explain later), but for the most part, I had nothing but positive feelings before, during, and after the race. Even the “bad” parts of the weekend are memories I want to keep in that penseive for a long time.
If nothing else, an ironman race makes for some interesting storytelling – which happens to be right up my alley. And on that note, why don’t we get started?
Pre Race: The Incredible Mascot
I checked in at Windsor High School for the race expo on Friday afternoon, received my race packet, then stood in line to get one of these t-shirts:
You know what? Maybe that M-dot logo isn’t so bad, after all - especially when compared with this creepy mascot the Vineman folks came up with.
I mean, I get the idea that all of us competitors are heroes, yada yada yada, and the mascot represents the strength that we possess inside of us. But when I think of endurance sports, an impossibly muscular Incredible Hulk-looking character on a steroid rage is probably the last image that comes to mind. Shouldn't a triathlete superhero be some scrawny dude with a swim cap and a disposable razor, wearing three kinds of straps and monitors around his chest and arms, and carrying a bottle of 10 different vitamins and supplements to help him on his mission? Or, you know ... something like that.
Anyway, I grabbed a small size of the official race shirt for my son, then walked to the concession booth and bought a much more subdued shirt:
There, that’s better. More simple, more classy. Initially, I thought it was the smartest 20 bucks I had spent in a long time, but then I wondered: do you think they purposely gave us ugly race shirts so that we’d spend extra money on a nicer one? If so, I was a sucker for the trap - but I still don’t regret spending the twenty.
The rest of the night was blessedly uneventful. I settled in at a friend’s house, watched the Giants blow a late inning lead (typical), and drifted off for about 6 hours of sleep.
Part 1 – The Swim: Bubble Toes
(Before you read this section, try this: click the video player below, and listen to the Jack Johnson song while you’re reading. Then by the time I reference the song, you’ll know what the heck I’m talking about.)
Race morning dawned surprisingly warm - which was nice in that we didn’t have to deal with the early morning chill while setting up our gear in T1, but an ominous sign of conditions to come later on. The race announcer used the PA system to repeatedly remind athletes to wear sunscreen and hydrate often when we got to the road later on.
The announcer also killed time by mentioning some of the notable athletes at today’s race. While we didn’t have a former Bachelor contestant, we had somebody almost as cool: Nick Diaz, a talented Ultimate Fighting-Mixed Martial Arts competitor who was doing his first Ironman. Hearing this, I looked over at Nick, then made a mental note to avoid drafting behind him – because I suspected he might have a pretty harmful kick.
We waded into the Russian River, and treaded water in the dammed portion before heading upstream at the sound of the starting gun. The initial frenzy lasted for about ten minutes before I settled into a smooth gliding rhythm, trying to stay as relaxed as possible for the long day ahead.
There’s an old Jack Johnson song called Bubble Toes, which became stuck in my head as I thought of nothing else but following the bubbles behind this guy’s feet. For the next several minutes, I kept repeating the lighthearted chorus to myself, and coasting behind a seemingly perfect pair of bubble toes. I was as relaxed as possible, and feeling good.
**Is it Time to Panic? Part 1 ** But just as I was la-da-da’ing along behind Bubble Toes, I nearly scraped my hand against a concrete bridge support, and realized we were significantly off course. As I paid closer attention over the next quarter mile, I figured out that Bubble Toes was doing a lot of zigzagging up and down the river. Maybe he was purposely trying to shake me, or maybe he was just terrible at swimming in a straight line.
Either way, I had a decision to make: I could stay behind him to keep swimming effortlessly – but adding more distance – or I could chart out a direct path on my own, and expend more energy to swim a shorter course.
I went with the first option, for this reason: the Russian River is fairly narrow. Even if Bubble Toes veered wildly to one side or the other, he probably wouldn’t get too far off course before hitting the shoreline (to our right) or crashing into oncoming swimmers (on our left). Obviously, if we had been in the ocean, I probably would have decided differently.
At any rate, Bubble Toes wore himself out by the third turnaround point, and I was left to swim most of the home stretch on my own anyway. But by saving all of that energy during the previous mile and a half, the last half mile of the swim still felt pretty comfortable - and I kept the mellow la-da-da groove in my head the whole way. I really don’t think I would have saved any time if I had made a solo break further back.
As I approached the swim exit, I heard the PA announcer’s voice calling out people’s names as they exited the water. When I exited, I had the ramp all to myself, and I heard the following announcement:
PA guy: Now coming out of the water we have …
Me: (smiling, giving a little wave)
PA guy: IT’S ULTIMATE FIGHTER NICK DIAZ!! ULTIMATE FIGHTER NICK DIAZ IS OUT OF THE WATER!!
Apparently as I reached the top of the ramp, Ultimate Fighter Nick Diaz had just poked his head out of the water, and was following me to T1. So I missed my first opportunity for a little recognition at the hands of the UFC guy. I can’t say that it bothered me – at least, not yet. I was just happy to be done with the swim.
Swim Stats: 2.4 miles in 1 hour, 1 minute.
T1: Happiness is a Full Bike Rack
When I first started triathlons, I’d routinely come out of the water to find nearly empty bike racks, and realize that almost everyone else was already ahead of me. Nowadays, that doesn’t happen very much anymore – and I’m always delighted to get out of the water and see rack after rack still clogged with bikes.
I spent nearly 5 minutes in transition, taking extra seconds to scrape river dirt out from between my toes, and struggling to put on a cycling shirt whose pockets I had already loaded up with seven Clif Bars (it didn’t work – I spent additional time picking said bars off the ground after they fell). But one nice thing about an Ironman is that extra transition time hardly matters at all in the overall results – so I had no worries about taking as much time as I needed to get all of my gear ready for the long ride that awaited me.
Even as I exited T1, the bike racks remained full. I jogged my bike to the mounting area behind Ultimate Fighter Nick Diaz and a handful of other racers, and headed out into the great unknown.
And that’s where we’ll pick up the story next time.
Click here to read Part 3
August 5, 2007
I'm back from Sonoma County today after finishing yesterday's Vineman.
Good golly - that race was nearly more than I bargained for. Killer heat. Killer run course. All of which left me pretty much dead.
Here's the executive summary: Finish time was 11:02. Unofficially, I came in 17th place overall, and 2nd place in age group. It's a slower time than I would have predicted, but I'll take it.
And before you ask - no, I couldn't have just gone three minutes faster.
As usual, I'm planning to have a full race report posted here by midweek sometime. Until then, I'm off to get some much needed rest.
August 2, 2007
As I’m counting down to this weekend’s Ironman (sorry – I mean long-distance triathlon), I’ve got a couple of items bouncing around my head that are only marginally related to each other. So today you get a warmup post, and then some final thoughts before I’m outta here for the weekend. I’ll see you on the other side of Vineman.
My little M-dot dissertation (two posts ago) made its way to raceAthlete this week, which made me reconsider the overall message I intended to convey. Just to be clear – my cynicism with the whole M-dot phenomena is NOT with the races themselves, which provide opportunities for countless athletes to compete in Ironman-distance triathlons that they otherwise might not have considered. Nor is it with the athletes who participate in them.
Honestly, I feel that the more Ironman triathletes there are, and the more successful triathlons that exist around the country, the better. My frustration is with the whole cutthroat, corporate money-grubbing aspect of the WTC - which is understandable from a purely capitalistic standpoint, but goes completely against the whole grassroots mentality of triathlon - and the smaller number of age-group triathletes who seem to have drunk too much of the M-dot Kool-Aid.
Seriously – should it matter to any of these athletes if the city of Tempe had decided to host a long-distance triathlon under a different name than Ironman Arizona? Would some people have stayed away simply because it wasn’t an M-dot? But for whatever reason, to some triathletes, the logo does matter that much – a position I find simply indefensible.
So what’s my recommendation for improvement? Take a page from marathoning’s handbook, and institute qualifying times for Kona - as marathons do for Boston - based on age and gender. Make them challenging enough to keep the number of overall entrants where it is now, but accessible enough to be a realistic goal for top-level age groupers across the country (I know there’s a stat geek somewhere who could figure this out). In the years to come, let any city that wants to host an Iron-distance race do so, and let them all be qualifying events for Kona – regardless of whether or not the race is an M-dot.
Of course, that just seems like common sense … so it will probably never happen. But a guy can always hope.
“And you’re standing on a rocky ledge – looking down into a heartless sea -
Done with life on the razor’s edge – nothing’s like you thought it would be.”
- Rush, “The Pass”
Is it possible to get post-race depression BEFORE a big event? Because I’ve been trying to fire myself up for this weekend’s race, but it already feels somewhat anticlimactic.
Everyone says that Ironman is about the journey, and not the destination – and I wholeheartedly agree. The past several months of training have been an absolute blast. The best way I can describe this whole period of time is to say it’s been a blessing – especially when I realize how many people suffer daily hardships that make triathlon training completely inconsequential.
And I think that’s the lesson that has struck me the most profoundly in recent weeks: how relatively trivial (not to mention self-centered) this whole process of Ironman training can be.
In many ways, the journey comes with a steep price tag. It’s the time away from family or work. It’s the imperative of always squeezing one extra hour into a bike ride, or one extra workout into a week. It’s having a shorter than normal fuse with children or spouses who need patience, because you’re so exhausted you can barely stay awake.
Triathlon is an inherently selfish endeavor, and Ironman training is as demanding as it gets. So as I stand on the precipice of accomplishment, my feelings vacillate between pride for all of the physical milestones I’ve attained in training, and shame for how many other things in my life I’ve short changed or excluded to get here.
It’s the razor’s edge of training: veer too far one way and your training is insufficient, veer too far the other way, and everything else starts slipping. Everything in life has to balance – and lately, I’ve been in the red with almost every type of responsibility besides training. But, you know … on the bright side, after this weekend, I’ll be an Ironman (or Vineman. Whatever.) Does that make both sides of the equation equal? I’ve been wondering that a lot this week, and so far, I haven’t liked the answers.
However, none of this lamentation should be taken to mean that I won’t work my tail off this Saturday. I’m absolutely committed to giving my best performance - and I’ll suffer and bleed and crawl and fight to have the best race possible. I may not be proud of the high volume of training I’ve done, but I’m sure as heck not going to squander it.
Nor should this imply that I’m swearing off of Ironman races in the future. I think everyone has seasons in their life when the demands of Ironman fit into their overall lifestyle, and others when it’s just too much. In hindsight, this calendar year probably wasn’t the best season for me to take on this particular challenge - but at some point down the road, enough variables will fall into place to encourage me to try again.
I realize this isn’t exactly a Vince Lombardi-style pep talk as I’m heading into the weekend, but I also know that pep talks won’t do me much good at this point anyway. The work has been done, and the hay is in the barn. I’m either ready or I’m not. All that’s left is to go knock it out.
“Turn around, turn around, turn around … turn around and walk the razor’s edge.”
- Rush, “The Pass”
August 1, 2007
1. Make a Simpsonized likeness of yourself to send to all your friends:
That's all for now. I'll hopefully come up with a real post by tomorrow.