Tao Triathlete

The Writings of an Endurance Athlete on His Path…

Last Rides…

Things happen in life. You move, you get a new job, you change something. It happens all the time, and usually it’s not that big of a deal. We’re adaptable and can absorb an enormous number of changes without any significant impact on the day-to-day living of our lives. Heck, with the exception of my family, I probably have more change in my life on a daily basis than consistency.

So, when something that is a change that you know will actually have an actual impact is looming, it feels big; ominous.

Since I moved back to Boulder almost 6 years ago, I’ve had an old friend and training partner that I can count on for pretty much anything. I want to go on an easy 3-hour ride on a Sunday and he’s probably game. I need to re-wire the cable in my house, he’ll come over and help. Moving furniture, getting a beer to decompress, riding to the coffeeshop and sipping a capuccino when it feels too cold to ride, but we want to get out on our bikes – you name it, Jawad was my guy. The thing is, Jawad is getting married. And not only is he getting married, it’s to a high-level DOD auditor who has just been assigned to Boston for a number of years.

Jawad is leaving.

So I’m getting in my last rides with him. I’m helping him pack up this and that when he calls. I’m avoiding thinking about what I’m going to do this spring when I need someone to ride Really Fruit Loops (my own variation on the popular Boulder ride which heads to Lyons and around St. Vrain and Apple Valley Road – I head through Hygiene and Niwot on the way to Cherryvale Road and take that out to Eldorado Springs, then roll back home to North Boulder) with me and not have it turn into a pissing contest.

There are people that are focal people in your life – a spouse, or child, or business partner – that get a lot of your brain space and attention. And then there are people like Jawad that you count on without it being overt that they occupy such an important place in your daily life.

So this is my homage to Jawad.  I look forward to riding with you this afternoon, and hope we have the chance to get in a couple more before you move for good.

BTW – If you live in Boulder and are considering buying a townhouse in the 28th/Jay area, avoid the one off Amber, I think there’s a body buried in the foundation or something… Sorry, Jawad, I know that’s pretty much the last thing keeping you here – I need my base fitness before you go, man…

Kid stuff…

I started bike racing when I was 12. I had a friend that did it and I thought he was cool, so I gave it a go. At the time I had no idea why I loved it. I spent most of the time training by myself, a little training with my friend Scott, and then another little bit of time actually racing (though, since I was 12 and had to pay for the races myself, not much).

I raced for a few years, and then in high school took up tennis (but still rode in the summers). Tennis is still something that I play, but not competitively at all. Usually, I just go out and hit balls with a friend. the things that appealed to me about tennis, when I was a teenager, don’t anymore. I can’t hit a 118mph kick serve and follow it to the net. My forehand is better now that it was then, but the backhand is worse. Consistency is the key to performing in tennis and you really need to be playing 4-6 times a week to play at the level that I would want to if I was playing tournaments.

Instead, after a brief encounter with the tennis team in college, I went back to bike racing and eventually triathlon. I realized that what I was getting out of a 3 hour ride, was more than I got out of a 3-hour tennis practice. It was what I was getting when I was 12, but didn’t realize – still didn’t realize.

Now, finally, almost 30 years after my first training ride (at the time on a cheap Huffy that my parents get me a Kmart, wearing bermuda shorts and running shoes – no toe clips) – I see what it was all those years ago that made the riding so appealing. I knew I was getting something out of it, but had no idea what; turns out it was me.

I grew up in an over-acheiving family. Lawyer dad, stay-at-home mom with a Masters in early childhood development. My sibblings and I were all part of the “excellence” program throughout school (the AP tract). My dad was a baseball/football/basketball guy and actually had the choice to go into the White Sox development system or to go to college. We all played ball sports – everything from softball to golf – but I never was good at them and never really enjoyed them very much even though I thought I was supposed to, and so kept signing up for them. Cycling gave me the space to feel who I was outside the pressure of my family, the din of a 6-person household, the rigors of trying to fit in as a middle-school nerd who knew he didn’t.

Sure, I would have been a lot happier not being teased as a 6th grader about shaving my legs (I didn’t actually start until years later, but facts are irrelevant when teasing at that age), but I still look back at that first bike – the bike that I pealed the decals off because I was embarrassed to ride a Huffy and repainted in my basement, the bike that I used a file to put a depression in the downtube so that I could move the shift levers down there like my friends’ racing bikes (in retrospect, not smart…) – and am grateful that it gave me the gateway to this sport and eventually to triathlon. And, I’m grateful for my 50cm first-generation Cannondale Criterium bike that was so stiff it rattled my teeth on chip-seal roads and made me spend 2 hours flat on my back on the floor getting my back to un-seize after my first century the summer after I turned 13. It was the bike that got me through my high-school racing and my first year of Collegiate racing. It was the bike that I learned how to be a racer on.

There are things that I wish I could go back and have done better – wish I had joined the cross-country team in high school, wish I had taken college more seriously – but I’m pretty darn happy with where I’m at now, so I don’t dwell on those things. What I focus on is being grateful for the path that those first bikes set me on, what those childhood friends that I trained with introduced me to, the wife that I met organizing a kid’s triathlon, and the industry that I’ve spent most of my life working in (first bike shop job at 14…). And, I’m grateful that I was paying enough attention as a kid that I realized cycling was something very special to me, even though I had no idea why.

“Mental Strength”

As a member of the cycling industry, I’ve opted into some groups on LinkedIn for cycling industry members. One of the threads in one of those groups today asked about the role of a coach in providing an athlete with mental toughness, and whether members thought that it was the coaches responsibility to help the athlete develop mental strength, or whether it was natural to an athlete and that the coach shouldn’t engage at that level. Based on the book that I just wrote and my own experience in sport, I found this to be a very interesting question and one that – based on the theory of the Tao – was likely to be answered badly more often than well. Below is what I contributed to the discussion:

I think “mental strength” is something that is entirely mis-conceptualized in some places. In my mind, mental strength is having the fortitude to accept whatever outcome you may have in sport, and from that place, being able to make the greatest effort that is possible for you.

When people talk about mental strength, it seems like they talk about adding something or giving an athlete something additional – self belief or confidence or something else. I see it as stripping away.

From my perspective, what most people refer to as mental strength, is natural, but we put so many socially-conditioned things on top of it that it can become something that needs to be cleared away with the assistance of another. It is about arriving at the Rudyard Kippling place where “…you can meet with Triumph and Disaster/And treat those two impostors just the same.” Particularly in endurance sports, I think that the definitions of success and failure that are the standard of ball-sports like soccer and basketball, where an abject score determines who wins and loses combined with the Western-socialized need to defeat others who challenge you, creates a sporting construct where winning and losing replace the more import question of, ‘Did you fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run?’

When you gauge your efforts with the right metrics there isn’t a need for self-preservation in the face of possible failure that causes most athletes to falter or hold back. What most athletes consider ‘mental toughness’ – false confidences, or accepting a false precept of success and failure and overcoming perceived failures – I think of as more head-games that distract from what will truly allow you to perform at your maximum.

No. 53

If there is one verse of the Triathlete’s Tao that haunts me about how I used to approach triathlon it is 53:

If I could only excel at one discipline of triathlon
I would want to use it to embrace the Will to Race
My only fear would be to develop pride in it
The Will to Race lives in the shadows
but racers can be tempted by glory

If too much time is spent on the bike
your swim mechanics will fail
your legs will become heavy on the run
Where is the good in this

I came from a cycling background. I could hang with the pros in Boulder on the bike. I could trade pulls for hours at the front of training rides or pull my friends around and not worry about them working through because I had great legs on the bike. To a certain extent this translated to solid running, but having had both knees rebuilt when I was only 19 years old, I kept the mileage under control so as not to cause additional problems.

But in the water I was arrogantly defiant. My legs would drag through the water so I used a pull-buoy like it was surgically attached to me. I would do a little back stroke from time to time and feign an effort to do breast stroke, but I didn’t care about being a swimmer. I was a ‘bike-run’ triathlete who just needed to do well enough in the swim to avoid drowning, and stay within 5 minutes or so of the good swimmers so that I could real them back on the bike and hold them off on the run.

I was prideful with my biking and I let it take over. I swam regularly but held back on swim-bike days to have that extra bit on the bike. I was content to swim in the lane doing 100s on 1.20 and didn’t worry about pushing myself to get faster than that because that was good enough for my strategy. I was defiant about using the pull buoy all the time, because I was only going to do races that allowed a wetsuit.

And so I spent more time on the bike looking for more speed and stamina. I rode my fixed-gear bike for months and thousands of miles. But I ran less and less, and my legs got heavier. I went from turning over 5.30 miles to hanging on to 6.00 or 6.15 miles.

And the more that the imbalance grew, the less enthusiasm I had for training until I was relieved to finally blow-out my shoulders and be able to hang it up.

I’m trying to be more mindful and careful this time around. At the moment my fitness is pretty minimal, so I really can’t develop too much pride in anything yet. But I know how my legs respond to the training. I know that having more than 150K residual miles in them means that they will come back quicker than swimming or running. I know that the temptation is there to get out of balance again and ruin my enthusiasm for all three sports.

I know all this, so I must be mindful about it so that I don’t make the same mistakes again.

My new Girlfriend

VitaMixIt’s Valentines Day and that means I’m all about the love. Quite pleasantly I got a new girlfriend today, or I should say, my wife got it for me/us. She’s black and powerful, but a little noisy. She’s a VitaMix 5200 with a 64oz jar (and a shorter/wider 48oz jar is on the way). I really am in love.

It took me all of 2 minutes to have the package opened, the jar, lid, and mixing baton washed, and be pouring frozen berries in for my first smoothie.

This is a banner day.

A month ago we sold our Waring Stainless blender (which was a fair blender by all accounts) and our Jack Lalane juicer (present from mother in law, we used it constantly for a while, but it had been given a solid hiatus before a recent return to regular action about a year ago). We had been planning on this purchase, but Carol (my wife) didn’t like the ones that were available from VitaMix (she wanted the plain black one) and since all I cared about was the mixer, I was patient while she waited for it. Now that it’s here, I’ve wasted no time in blending up a batch of smoothie, and tomorrow I think I’ll go for some vegi juice (unless I spaz out and just go for it tonight). In case you can’t tell, I’m excited.

From all our research into the VitaMix, I can share some information with those who may be considering one of these particularly fine industrial blenders:

1. No matter what the model number, they are all the same. If you get a current VitaMix it will have a variable speed dial, if you get one of the old version, it will have the 2-speed hi/lo. The base (where the motor and everything are) is the same whether it’s a 5200 or a 7500 or anything else. VitaMix gives different model numbers to the different outlets that sell the blenders, so there are about 721 different permutations based on the jar, the blade, the accessories, the retailer, etc.

2. The 64oz jar is huge, but kinda cool. I like a big smoothie because it usually replaces a meal for me. But I like to be able to make them for other family members when I make them, so now I can make myself a 28oz smoothie and have plenty left over for my wife and son.

3. The lid is the worst designed part of the mixer. It’s great that it’s vented if you’re mixing hot liquids (ie. soup), but it doesn’t seal tightly and could allow for some messy spills (unless you have the massive 64oz jar and will never come close to filling it).

4. The mixing baton is cool, but kinda unnerves me. Something about the spartan design…

5. A refurbished mixer direct from VitaMix saves you a small fortune (I think we saved something like $160 or 30%-ish) and comes with a 5-year warranty. To me, that seems like too good of a deal to pass up.

So here’s to being able to blend and juice again. My body has dearly missed it and I can’t wait to really break this thing in. I’m thinking broccoli, pineapple, zucchini, cucumber, apple juice for breakfast…

What I respect about Tyler Hamilton (it’s not what you think)

This morning as we were eating breakfast in casa Johnson my wife suggested that she thought it was time for a haircut. When we met she had a cute pixie/short haircut and over the years she has gone through various phases of growing it out and chopping it back down. Since mid-last year she’s been in more-or-less a grow it out phase and I agreed she could use a haircut, “Yeah,” I said – and then looking for the laugh: “You’re starting to look like Tyler Hamilton.”

Likening my wife’s hairdo to the disgraced, former cycling darling garnered the laugh I was looking for and also a, “Well, you know I do have a vanishing twin also, so that could by why it looks like this.”

Oh, the be-all-end-all of insane cyclist excuses for testing positive: I have chimerism. In my book, the best thing about that excuse is that when there was an episode of “House” where a kid suffered from neurological issues related to chimerism, I called the diagnosis before they said it on the show – it made me feel pretty cool for about 7 seconds. And then I laughed out loud due to the absurd reason for me knowing what chimerism even is.

Tyler has gone through a lot. He was the darling, fresh-faced, CU grad pro cyclist who had the wonderful wife and story-book life. He broke his collar bone and later won a stage of that same Tour because he wouldn’t abandon the race. He was the guy who doped to win an Olympic gold medal. He was the guy who lied about everything for years. He was the guy who failed a second drug test from taking “a homeopathic remedy.” He was the guy that destroyed his marriage and career. He was the guy that sought redemption in the form of a very profitable tell-all book.

I can’t say that Tyler Hamilton is the kind of guy I’d like my son to look up to. He’s not a role model, or a sporting hero. But I do respect him for this – at least he had the integrity to develop clinical depression while he was lying and cheating. Guys like Lance Armstrong, Alejandro Valverde, and Alexander Vinokourov have never given any real outward suggestion that they are troubled by what they have done to win or by the people that the cheated to do it. I respect that, at the very least, it ate him up inside and that he knew it was wrong.

One year on…

A year ago, seemingly out of nowhere, I got a big lump on my leg – it may have developed more slowly than I remember, but I recall it being something that I noticed suddenly one day. It was tender for a few days and I assumed it was fluid or some sort of strain or sprain in my groin from weight training that I was doing. I basically ignored it for about a week.

After a week the pain was gone, but it seemed like it was getting bigger. Two weeks and I was getting a rather curious and a little concerned. A couple of doctors visits later and I’d had a fatty tumor excised and my leg sewn back up. The tumor ended up being about the size of my my fingers balled-up (like making a fist but without the palm of your hand involved). Unfortunately, the wound didn’t heal properly, so there was a decent bit of pain in my leg from it. Also, because of the location I was told no running or riding my bike for at least 3-4 weeks – until the skin had fully fused back together.

Needless to say it wasn’t my favorite thing, but all things considered, it wasn’t the worst. A big lump appearing can be a lot worse. But there was a catch: once it healed I realized there was a chunk of stitch, maybe a knot and sliver of the nylon, was stuck inside my leg. I had ‘popped a stitch’ when I was recovering (hence the not healing properly thing) and the wound sealed up with that bit inside.

I figured having a ‘foreign body’ in my leg would make my body push it out – I’d heard about that happening and the object coming out just through the surface of the skin. But since it was surgical silk, it didn’t. It bothered me every time I rode.

A couple weeks ago I finally lost my patience and picked it out through the skin. It hurt more than I thought it would, but I was glad to have it out. The second wound healed up quickly and now I can ride without aggravation. I’m pretty stoked…

Strange start to the year

To all of you who hung in there during my January month of absenteeism, I thank you.

I could say that it was a strange start to the year, but that would be a dramatic understatement. I came back from Chicago sick and with my mojo in a total funk. I tried to train, I tried to eat well, but I quite simply failed. January wasn’t a bad month – I spent some great time with my son, my wife got a new job that she loves, I had a decent consulting trip to California to do some multisport product development for a company that I work with.

I’ve been busy with other projects as well. Friends of mine have been coming up with some pretty good projects that I’ve been working on – Girl•Bike•Love, Mission Sports Group, and an as-yet-unnamed project – that have kept me busy and enjoying work.

I got to do a fit session with a new pro with the Exergy Women’s Cycling Team. She looks to be a pretty promising racer, and it will be fun to see her progress over the year. Actually, I’ll be working with all the time-trialists on the team this year and helping them prepare for the World Team Time Trial Championships. I used to work more with mens teams, but recently I’ve chosen women’s programs to work with – there’s not enough money in women’s pro cycling for them to dope, and the egos are much more manageable.

So work’s been great, family’s been great. But something that I can’t put my finger on has been off – and I know it’s me. (Though aside from the issue with getting my head into training, there really hasn’t been any outside indicator.)

So after a month of largely letting the funk win, I’m back. Not in a big way, but in the little ways that are getting me moving in the right direction again. Plus, we just ordered a Vitamix (we sold our juicer and blender at the beginning of January to get the Vitamix, but they’ve been out of the refurbished black ones all month and they just came available again), and being able to make juice and smoothies again is going to be bloody excellent.

As the Buddhist monk said, “Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.”

“Once more unto the breach dear friends…”

Part of the life of any endurance athlete is re-starting. You take a couple days after a race to recover and then you re-start your training. You take some time off from a nagging injury and then you re-start. You get sick, or too busy with work, or have to go to a trade show in Las Vegas – and then you have to re-start. While most triathletes thrive with consistency and routine, it is inevitable that those things will get interrupted from time to time. And when those interruptions happen it can be both the hardest and the most natural thing to re-start again.

Getting back from Chicago sick left me with a very delicate path to tread, I have a history of respiratory issues (which has been dramatically improved by eliminating soy from my diet), so if a virus takes hold in my lungs I usually need to plan on 3-weeks off. Fortunately I was able to get a nebulizer treatment and an inhaler, and what could have been three+ weeks ended up as a little more than a week. Amid the dodgy weather here, and the fact that I could play with my son because he was off from school, I didn’t quite get right back on the re-start.

So on Monday I went for a short run. Then Tuesday I went for a short run. Then Wednesday and Thursday went a bit haywire, and I am back at the re-start position. I know that next week I’ll have to fly to California for some consulting work from Wednesday through Saturday, so my training motivation is low, because invariably I will have an unwanted break in training there, and will feel like I’m in the re-start position again.

Motivation and momentum are key to keeping things moving forward as an endurance athlete, and for life in general. So what happens when things keep getting interrupted, and it feels like it will take forever for you to hit your stride again?

I look to the words of wise people:

“…To strive, to see, to find, and not to yield.” from A.L. Tennyson’s Ulysses. Or, “Once more unti the breach dear friends, or close the wall up with our English dead,” from Shakespeare’s Henry V. If that’s not your speed, try a little ditty by Judge Smails, “It’s easy to grin when your ship has come in, and you’ve got the stock market beat. But the man who’s worthwhile is the man who can smile when his pants are to tight in the seat.”

Or, as my wife says to me, “Suck it up, Buttercup.”

I had this plan…

I was going to run, at least a little every day I was in Chicago. I knew that I probably wouldn’t be able to run on my two travel days (we were driving from Boulder to Chi-Town, which is about 14 hours – roughly – door to door), but the week that I was there I was going to hit the Lake Path, I was going to run around Lincoln and Grant Parks. I was going to do some of the runs that I loved when I lived there, as well as trucking down to the Museum Campus that they’ve built since I left in the mid-90s. I was going to spend a lot of time with my family and my son and wife and I were going to meet the new additions to the Clan that my sister and brother had added since we were last together.

I did spend a lot of time with the family, which was far and away the most important thing…

When we left on Friday morning the midwest and plaines had been pounded with a pretty solid snow storm the last couple days. Having been a mid-westerner, I figured that they’d have the snow plows out and clearing the roads straight away, and that by the time we got to the places where it had snowed heavily that the fact that snow had stopped at least 12 hours earlier would mean the roads were clear and fast.

That may have been expecting too much.

As we drove through Nebraska we kept a solid clip, and while there were a handful of harry moments, by and large it was an easy shot to Omaha, where we had a planned stop at Whole Foods to get tanked up for the second half. What we didn’t count on was Iowa. Council Bluffs on the far west was fine. We drove about an hour into Iowa before some show and ice on the roads made my wife ask if I could take over again. Perfect timing (at least on her part), because the next 130 miles took 4 hours.

What should have been a 13 hour drive eventually ended after 18 stress-filled hours which saw me drinking enough coffee to stay alert that it would have stunned a team of oxen. This, of course, added to the pressure on my adrenal system and by the time I arrived at my sister’s house on the North side, I was toast.

The next morning I woke up sick. Definitely too sick to run. No so sick that I couldn’t make it to my parent’s Retirement Dinner at Hugo’s Frog Bar (I highly recommend it). Not so sick that I couldn’t spend a lot of time with my nephews and niece. Not so sick that I couldn’t make paper airplanes while hanging out with my siblings. Not so sick that I couldn’t make breakfast, or that I couldn’t make the drive out to my parent’s place the next day, but definitely too sick to run.

I had planned to run in Sinnissippi Park in Sterling when I got there. To run around Emerald Hill Golf Course like I had probably a hundred times before. But the Sick Gods were not having it. I was stuffy and runny and hoarse and raspy, and – a new symptom – coughing up small lung cookies. I was definitely too sick to run. But I wasn’t too sick to watch Ratatouille with my son, or to build new Lego sets, or to do the other things that would really have made the trip a bust if I had been too sick to do them.

So, I’m back in Colorado, and headed to the Doctor this afternoon. And I really wish that I could have done some of the runs that I used to love, but I’m trilled with how my holiday trip went as a whole because I got in the most important stuff.

After all, this just means I’ll have to make my way back in the new year to do those runs and see all those people again…

Happy Holidays.

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