Jan 282015

The callous on my right hand reached failure...The majority of the posts on this blog have documented my successes, triumphs and progress over the past couple years. This is not one of those posts.

This morning at my gym, we repeated a workout from the CrossFit Open last year. It was 14.4, a chipper consisting of a 60 calorie row, 50 toes-to-bar, 40 wall-balls, 30 power cleans and 20 muscle-ups, with a 14 minute time cap. Last year, this was my first workout back after discovering the mind-crushing pain of exertion-induced, acute onset headaches. I approached it cautiously then, careful to keep my heart rate reasonable so as not to aggravate the pinched nerve that we suspect set off the headaches the week before. I finished with a score of 99, completing only 39 of the toes-to-bar before time expired.

This morning, I had it in my head that I could make it through the toes-to-bar and get to the wall balls, and provided there was enough time left, I planned to try and do all 40 of them unbroken. There was still the requirement for caution, as I’ve been nursing two very angry shoulders for the last several months, and I would need to concentrate on maintaining good scapular retraction throughout each pull to avoid aggravating them. Still, I counted on getting through them in plenty of time to attack the wall balls, and maybe even get to the bar for a few power cleans.

I didn’t make it. I failed.

I did complete three more reps than last year, giving me a score of 102, but that was small consolation. I got through the first 20 quickly enough, in bunches of five, but then the wheels started to fall off. I started missing reps, only getting three at a time, then two. With a minute to go, I reached failure, and couldn’t get my toes to touch the bar any more. I was frustrated. Dejected. Mad.

As days at the gym go, this will not be remembered as one of my favorites. But it will be important. Reaching failure is an essential element to any training program. It is the point at which the body is optimally stimulated for muscular growth. It is the benchmark against which future efforts will be measured. It can be, once the bitterness of the moment is overcome, the fuel that will drive you toward greater things. It exposes and brings into focus your weaknesses, so that you can address them with specificity and intensity before your next maximal effort.

In fact, a maximal effort is not possible without at least approaching failure. When you are striving for a personal record in any event, you are trying to reach the nexus of performance and failure. In a running race, the goal is to cross the finish line unable to run another step. In a lift, the goal is to put up enough weight that you couldn’t add another gram to the bar. On the race track, the perfect lap is one where you are just on the edge of control, using every ounce of available power and traction. In life, if you aren’t failing with some regularity, chances are you are not challenging yourself, not growing, not really living.

Before today, I never really considered failure as its own destination. I train and race hard, and flirt with failure on a regular basis, but like most people, have treated it as something to be avoided. In the ongoing battle to maintain the positive feedback loop I find necessary to keep me coming back day in and day out, I try to focus on my successes. That perspective will need revising, for me. It turns out that searching for one’s personal limits, in other words striving for failure, is the surest way to find success.

I’m not happy with how I did this morning. I did not meet my own expectations for performance. But I’ll be back to try again, having learned from the experience and improved myself in the interim. And hopefully, next time I’ll reach failure again.

May 192014


Ah, the hook grip. Joining paleo diets, chalked hands and foam rollers, the hook grip has become part of the canonical gospel of Crossfit. The common consensus seems to be: thou shalt hook grip. Thou shalt use it on the Clean, and on the Snatch, and a higher place in heaven shall be attained by using it on the deadlift. Thou shalt hook grip thy steering wheel, and thy gym bag, and thy breakfast spoon, for good measure.

Except that there are several “maybes” in there. Hook grip, like chalk, is a tool, and a very useful one. When pulling heavy weight from the floor for a snatch or clean, it can allow you to move considerably more weight with considerably more speed than you may be able to with a normal grip. That is, it can, if you have a good hook grip. If you don’t, it can make the movement awkward, uncomfortable and more complicated than it would otherwise be. If you aren’t getting it right, it may even make your grip on the bar less strong or less controlled.

Those who insist that a hook grip is the only way ever to clean or snatch are akin to those who would insist that there is only one proper stance for squats. It’s been proven over and over again that differences in individual strengths and bone structure will dictate what your squat stance should be. Why is grip preference any different? The hand is certainly one of the most complex parts of the body, and differences in bone length, angle and structure can vary wildly from one person to the next. Contrary to what many CrossFit sites may assert, the problems many people experience with hook grip may have nothing to do with “mobility,” and everything to do with geometry.

None of that means that the hook grip is impossible for some people, just that it’s much more difficult to master for them. Difficult enough that it may be useful to sideline it when teaching them a new movement, until the more essential elements are mastered.

If an athlete’s grip is nowhere near the weakest point of their movement, why is there a need to change their technique? The reason often presented is that “well, it’ll help later when they’re lifting really heavy.” But what if that isn’t every athlete’s goal? Maybe not every athlete will get to the point where the power of their posterior chain will exceed that of their grip. Or maybe some athletes prefer to continue to develop their normal grip strength. Or maybe the transition from hook grip to front or overhead rack adds too much unnecessary complexity for some newer (or even more experienced) athletes, to be worth the trouble.

Besides which, there is no one claiming that a hook grip takes an enormous amount of time to learn. By sharp contrast to an incredibly complex movement like snatch, most trainers and coaches agree that hook grip can be picked up (pun intended!) in a couple weeks, so why not wait to introduce it until it’s needed?

None of this is to say that it shouldn’t be taught, or that you shouldn’t learn it, or that it isn’t a useful tool. But it is just that, a tool. You don’t need a 12 pound sledgehammer when you’re driving a roofing nail. I don’t wear a belt when I’m deadlifting 185. The hook grip is a technique that should be honestly attempted until it is mastered, but there are plenty of circumstances, particularly within the realm of CrossFit, where it doesn’t make sense (think low weight, power clean metcons).

If you love yourself some hook grip, that’s great! Just don’t proselytize.

Mar 202014
Riding the pine. Not where I wanted to be, at this point in the season.

Riding the pine. Not where I wanted to be, at this point in the season.

It happens to every athlete, at some point. When you push the bounds of what your body is capable of, when you’re constantly approaching the limits of your physical system, sometimes your body pushes back. A joint will give way, a muscle will tear, a minor injury will happen. When you push to the maximum, a small area of weakness will yield, and you’ll find yourself on the bench, or worse, in the hospital.

I’ve nursed a variety of large and small injuries over the past few years, as I’ve ramped up my fitness. I had my right ACL reconstructed in 2010 after blowing it playing basketball. I’ve had problems with my left knee and hip, both shoulders, and my upper spine. Most of these minor issues have been corrected by a short period of rest, some Motrin, and adjustments to my training technique or riding position. Of note, none of these problems have caused me to miss or DNF a race, to date.

The last time I was completely unable to train.

The last time I was completely unable to train.

In a way, I’m thankful for these small problems. I’m of the opinion that my body uses them as “circuit breakers,” to force me to take a break before something more catastrophic happens.

That’s it for the positive.

The latest malady I’ve had to deal with is totally debilitating. On Friday, I completed CrossFit Open workout 14.3 at Total Control in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. It’s an 8 minute workout of alternating deadlifts and box jumps/step-ups, with the weight and reps of deadlift increasing with each round. When the clock ran out, I dropped 15th and last rep of 275, and immediately my head exploded. For the next few minutes, I had an almost debilitating headache. It subsided after about 10 minutes, and I didn’t think much more of it.

Monday morning, I decided I wanted to try for a better score. I warmed up and tore into the workout, at a sufficient pace to beat my previous effort. But 5 reps into my set of 225 lb deadlifts, I set the bar down to get a breath and reset, and my head exploded again. I dropped to the floor in pain, and had to abandon the workout. 20 minutes later, the pain had subsided enough for me to function and drive home, but it never really went away for the rest of the day.

I felt better in the morning, but I spent all of Tuesday and Wednesday just feeling off. A hint of a headache would come and go, and I was groggy and had intermittent trouble concentrating. I felt like I needed another big cup of coffee, but coffee didn’t help.

(Not my brain)

(Not my brain)

It happened again Wednesday night, this time without working out. The feeling was like somebody was driving a large ice pick up through the base of my skull. At its height, the pain was crippling. I told Katie I needed to go the hospital, and she drove me to the ER. They did two CT scans of my noggin which showed nothing abnormal (good news), and they gave me some intravenous medicines and sent me home.

It may be some time before I have an actionable diagnosis. One thing for certain in the meantime is that there will be no training or racing until we get this figured out. This weekend was going to be a big one. I was going to race on the Killer Gravel at the Barry-Roubaix in Michigan, covering 62 miles and almost 4000 feet of climbing. But with my head the way it is, it’s just not a good idea. I’m probably out of the CrossFit Open, as well, and next month’s races (a half marathon and a 65 mile mountain bike race) are in doubt.

Setbacks happen in any athlete’s progression. When you’re trying to be the absolute best you can be, sometimes you overreach by just a little, and suffer the consequences. I’m thankful that there is no evidence of anything truly scary yet, but still gutted that I find myself sidelined just as the race season was starting to crescendo. I’m feeling strong, light, fast and ready for the challenges I laid out for myself this year. I’ve been moving weights and climbing hills that I would’ve thought impossible only a couple years ago. But when your body says NO MAS, sometimes you don’t have any choice but to listen.

Dec 222013
Geez, that didn't take long.

Geez, that didn’t take long.

Maintaining my body weight through the offseason might just be impossible. Okay, not impossible, but I certainly lack the willpower to do it.

For all the training I’m doing this winter, it’s not going to be anywhere near enough to burn the sort of calories I burned training and racing through the warmer months. I’m not burning a few thousand calories at a time in a race every other weekend, but my appetite hasn’t gotten the message. It’s a challenge I face every year, and I’m only a little better at it than I was in the past.

Sure, a little bit of the weight I’ve put on in the last month has been from getting back into lifting, so I’m adding back some muscle mass that I lost during the height of the race season. But 12 pounds of it? Yeah, not likely.

That said, experience shows that I shouldn’t sweat it too much. January and February have historically been good months for me leaning out, as my supply of Buckeyes and Christmas cookies dwindles, and celebratory dinners with family and friends are mostly over with.

Besides, it’s psychologically important to have a break now and then, to avoid burnout. Some people may be able to keep their diet on lockdown all year long (they clearly haven’t had my Mom’s bean dip), but I’m not one of them.So long as I can limit the damage through the end of the year, I shouldn’t have any problem heading into next season light, lean and strong.

Dec 182013
That is a lot of racing.

That is a lot of racing.

What a year 2013 has been. I’ve checked a lot of boxes this year, for times and distances and weights. I got under my time goals for my 5k and half marathon, completed 6 hour races on both my road bike and my mountain bike, hit my PR goals for overhead press and deadlift, completed a road century and a dirt metric century, and dropped my bodyweight to the lowest it’s been since 2005. I raced and competed in a half dozen different disciplines, including some that were new for me this season, and have recently jumped into two new sports.

In the grind of an individual race, in the singular focus of 100% effort, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture. For me as a racer, I can get so tunneled in on how a certain race went, or even how a certain portion went, that I forget how far I’ve come, and all I’ve accomplished so far. I’m a competitor. I always want to get better, and so I spend most of my time working on the areas that I need to improve. But it’s important to have perspective as well, and that’s why I hold on to all this stuff.

All the bibs and medals I accumulate through the year might not mean much for a lot of racers. Many of them will toss this stuff as soon as the race is over, unless it’s something really special. But I keep every one. I like to be able to look at them and remember each event, the trials they represented, the training that led up to them, and the triumph of bringing them to the finish. Sure, bibs only mean participation, and most of my medals are just for finishing, although there are a few podiums in there.

But it’s more than a pile of cheap ribbon, wrinkled paper and imitation metals, to me. It’s the physical representation of the thousands of miles of training. The gallons of sweat. The searing legs and heaving chest. The stinging trickle of blood. The hope, the despair, the rage, the pain, and the euphoria. It isn’t just the things I’ve done, it’s what those things have done to me, and for me. The bright flash of memories so vivid that I can still taste the salt and hear my heart pounding in my ears. It is the exhibit of what I’ve worked to become. It is the detritus of my newfound identity.

All of this will hang on the wall with the relics of other seasons past. I’ll pass by it most days without pause, but it will never fail to serve as a reminder of what I’ve done, and a catalyst to go out, work hard, and get more.

Dec 152013

349If you’re looking at the trail in front of your tire, it will only slow you down. All the rocks and roots and hazards will overwhelm your vision and exaggerate your sense of speed. Keep your eyes up, and feel your lines and flow get smoother, and your speed and confidence rise.

If you’re looking at the ground in the weight room, your shoulders will follow and your form will collapse. You’ll be working just to stay upright and balanced, and the weight will seem impossibly heavy. Keep your eyes up, and the weight will stay centered, allowing you to use all of your strength for power.

If you’re climbing a hill, looking at the ground only makes your misery seem indefinite. You end up inside your head, inside the pain, enduring instead of attacking. Keep your eyes up, and pull the summit back to you with your mind, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly you get there.

When life gets difficult; when you’re struggling, distracted and stressed by the problems lying all around you, it’s hard not to get discouraged and look down, defeated. The details and petty periphery of day to day life can infiltrate and demoralize even the most motivated people. But keep your eyes up. Focus on your goals and your progress, and keep working, keep grinding, keep fighting. The only way to fail is to look down, get discouraged and quit. You’re better than that.

Eyes up, and go get what’s yours.

Nov 232013
Warming up.

Warming up.

As much as I’m trying to fight it, the offseason is upon us. I’ve spent the past few weeks doing a lot of thinking about what I want to accomplish over this winter, and what might be the best way to go about it. Above all else, I want to come out next spring stronger and lighter than ever. This year, I stretched my endurance to places it’s never been, but for next season, it’s time to add speed and strength. I want to be a better hill climber and sprinter, both on my bikes and on foot. Endurance is always going to be the focus of my racing, but I do enough short (less than an hour) races that I’ve been able to realize my weak points.

Adding strength training to my offseason program last winter paid huge dividends this year. I followed Wendler’s 5-3-1 program for about 4 months and saw really solid gains, but the program is not without its drawbacks. Because it relies on incremental progression, you have to be in the gym 3-4 days a week to make it work. As the race season spooled up I tried to make do with less, but found myself faltering.

Another issue I faced is that I worked out almost entirely by myself. I could usually find a spot for bench press, and overhead press is sort of a yes or no question, but my squats and deadlift need coaching to get better. Especially my squats, which are embarrassing in their lack of power. While those 4 movements (plus a little bodyweight work) are certainly enough to make you strong in almost every muscle area, it also gets a little dull to do them, and only them, over and over and over, week after week. Variety is what keeps me going, and the lack of it has been a big reason that I haven’t stuck with a single weightlifting program for more than 6 months.

These problems speak to an overall issue I’ve noticed with non-customized training plans. Whether they’re for lifting, or running, or biking, they never seem to leave much room for variety. Most running programs for endurance athletes have you out on the road 4 or more days a week. I’ve tried that, but I end up just beating myself to pieces trying to log the required miles. Cycling plans are easier on the joints, of course, but they often require an investment of hours that simply isn’t practical for anybody with a full time job and other life responsibilities. And weightlifting programs, even the good ones, will definitely build strength, but often in ways I don’t need for what I’m trying to do. A 2x bodyweight bench press will help me out precisely zero on the bike, and the associated bulk will actually slow me down.

BE the wheelbarrow!

BE the wheelbarrow!

Over this year, I figured out two very key truths, at least for my purposes. First, cross training can cover a multitude of sins. A lot of running coaches will tell you that there’s no way to lower, say, your half marathon time, without doing a bunch of really focused running work. You could call my running “program” a lot of things this year, but focused is not one of them. And yet, I banged out PRs with regularity at every distance this year, including knocking 26 minutes off half marathon time from last year. All this, while logging less than 250 miles of running, racing and training all year long. How did that happen? I didn’t only run.

The second truth is that you have to consider where you’re trying to go when looking for a plan. In other words, if your goals don’t include looking like an Olympic powerlifter, or a Kenyan marathoner, or a Tour cyclist, then why follow any of their plans? Don’t misunderstand, I don’t work out for cosmetic reasons, ever. Looking better in the mirror is nice, but my wife loved me when I was fat, so I’m not worried about it. What I’m saying is that certain types of athletes will generally have certain types of bodies. Following a plan that got them there will not get you to a demonstrably different place, physically.

That leaves me trying to define exactly what it is I’m trying to be. I love my bikes, but they aren’t the only thing I do. I love to run as well, and I enjoy being strong enough to move myself around efficiently, for things like the Mud Ninja and, well, life in general. I know that weaknesses in certain areas of my fitness have, in the past, resulted in injury, something I’d like to stop doing.

So, bearing all that in mind, I came up with a list of requirements for my winter strength and conditioning regime:

  • It has to make me stronger. Not just stronger than I am now, at the end of race season, but stronger than I was last spring.
  • It has to keep me interested, with a variety of exercises.
  • It has to include at least some coaching of the more complex movements, and should introduce me to new ones, something that hasn’t happened since high school.
  • It can’t be terribly expensive. My bicycle habit is already expensive enough.
  • It should focus on leg and core strength, with a nod to endurance activity.
  • It should result in me being a more well-rounded, robust athlete.
  • Ideally, it should be something I can scale back on through the racing season, but still keep doing.

Which means,

  • It has to allow room for me to train in other ways.

A few of my friends would point out that I basically just described CrossFit. And they might be right. A few of my other friends will want to slap the freckles right off my face for saying that.

But I think it’s worth a try. I’ve watched a handful of people I know start up with CrossFit over the past couple years, and the results are undeniable. People who were not strong or fit at all made serious strides toward being both. People who were strong and fit when they walked in got better. One guy I used to be able to keep pace with on the mountain bike is now leaving me for dead without even trying, and he barely rides any more except for racing. What does he do? CrossFit, 5 days a week.

I dropped in at AKP with Katie earlier this year, just to see what it was about, and left impressed. Today we dropped in at CrossFit Dedication, a new “box” (slang for a CF gym) that recently opened only a few minutes’ drive from our house, to check it out. I was impressed again, especially with how much fun I was having. (Full disclosure: Saturday workouts at most CF gyms are both free and team-oriented, which is totally marketing. Every day is not like Saturday. But it’s effective marketing.) While the exercises we did weren’t terribly complex, they were still thoroughly instructed and effectively coached, something I was hoping to see. After talking it over with Katie, we decided to give Dedication a try for the month of December and see how it goes.

I’ve been very public with my concerns over CrossFit’s shortcomings and challenges. But in reality, a whole lot of those shortcomings are present in almost every program, and they boil down to personal responsibility, more than anything. Will CrossFit make me as outright strong as I could possibly be? No, but that’s not where I’m trying to go. Will it be my offseason answer, to make me a better overall athlete, which is where I am trying to go? I think so. Time will tell.

Might I find a home among these folks? We'll see.

Might I find a home among these folks? We’ll see.



Nov 202013
This isn't really a back squat.

This isn’t really a back squat.

Many of the people I train with and compete against seem to suffer from an identity crisis. While they’re out running, they claim that they aren’t runners. While riding, they’ll steadfastly maintain that they aren’t cyclists. While training and competing in any variety of disciplines with a focus, intensity and regularity that borders on obsession, they’ll vehemently insist that they aren’t athletes.

And you know what? I get it. When you look at the front of the race, at the pros, at the world championships, it’s easy to think that those people are doing something entirely different than you. To call myself a mountain biker, in the same sense as, say, Kelly McGarry, would seem to be a stretch of the term and a disservice to a guy who can do backflips over canyons on a bicycle. I can barely do a wheelie, so how could I possibly include myself in the same nomenclature as a guy like that?

But the titles themselves make no claim as to the proficiency of the practitioner. Saying that you’re a runner isn’t saying that you can crack out a sub-20-minute 5k; it’s saying that you run. You lace up your shoes, go out from your house and run, with some regularity and of your own volition, because you decided to do it. That’s what makes you a runner. It’s not your speed, or your distance, or your list of PRs; it’s the choice and the activity.

If you do, you are a doer, no matter the scale or scope or speed of the action.

By selling yourself short, rejecting the title even of a participant in the sport, you deprive yourself of the joy of celebration of your own accomplishments. You set the barrier to entry so high for yourself that you’ll never reach it, and you’ll likely find yourself disheartened and demotivated when your efforts lack any sweet reward. After all, how can you be proud of what you’ve done while still claiming that you aren’t someone who does it?

Worse, others see that barrier to entry and adopt it as their own. “Well, if he can’t call himself an athlete,” they say, “surely I can’t, either.” What a tragedy that is, when people who may be looking to you, as a source of motivation, as an attainable standard, find out that you don’t believe in yourself.

Our society’s obsession with sport in general has resulted in unprecedented access and coverage of professionals in every area. Much like the effect of airbrushed supermodels on magazine covers, we can’t look anywhere without seeing someone doing what we do, only better. And not just better, but incomprehensibly better, setting times and clearing obstacles and moving weights and climbing rocks that we couldn’t dream of approaching if we trained every day for the rest of our lives. We hold up those athletes as the prototypical examples of the sport, and so rule out any possibility of assigning to ourselves the same moniker. The same voice that says “I’m not attractive unless I look like that,” is the one that says “I’m not an athlete because I can’t do it like that.”

That voice is wrong. It’s wrong, and it’s evil, and it’s holding you back from all of the things you can do, if only you stopped listening to it, and started listening to your inner child. The voice that says “look what I can do!” while you pedal up that hill, or cross the finish line at that race, or get that bar over your head. That is the voice that deserves your attention. And when it says you’re an athlete, you’d better believe it.

It’s time for all of us amateur athletes to stop pretending we aren’t what we are. It’s time for us to respect ourselves and those who may be watching enough to gladly accept the titles we’ve worked so hard to earn. We may all have a long way to go, but that’s no reason to cheapen what we have already accomplished by ignoring that we did it. We’ve earned that badge, however modest. Let’s wear it proudly, and help others to earn theirs as well.

Nov 042013
Any two-wheeled athlete knows what these scratch marks in the mud mean.

Any two-wheeled athlete knows what these scratch marks in the mud mean.

After our trail work day, I figured it was a good opportunity to get some more practice on my ‘cross bike. The race course from the OVCX weekend is still quite visible in the grass, and I’ve been using it whenever I have a chance to work on my fitness and skills.

Besides not having lungs big enough (boy, can those guys ever hammer…), one of my big limiting factors in cyclocross has been my bike handling skills. Despite being, at first glance, the halfway point between road cycling and mountain biking, there hasn’t been as much skill transfer to CX as I would have guessed. I often find myself tiptoeing through turns that I should rail, just from a lack of confidence. On a course with as many twists and turns as your typical CX course, that can add up to a lot of time lost in just a single lap.

The problem compounds. I’m not carrying enough speed through the corners, which makes me work harder in the straights to make up time, which exhausts me more quickly than my more experienced competitors, which makes me rush corner entries, which squanders my exit speed, which makes me have to work harder in the straights… It all adds up to me getting gapped within the first lap. The only solution to this is seat time, which I’ve been grabbing whenever I can. With my mountain bike in the shop, and the weather getting a little cold to enjoy a road bike ride, focusing on the ‘cross bike has been pretty easy.

Fortunately, some of my motorcycle experience comes into play with this problem. While it’ll take some time to figure out what I’m doing wrong and correct it, I at least have the tools to approach and evaluate what I’m doing and what I need to do to fix it. Line choice affects exit speed, and one of the first things I’ve noticed is that I’m approaching the corners too narrow, or towards the inside of the turn. This effectively makes the turn sharper than it should be, lowering my speed mid-corner and leaving me in a hole at the exit. It’s a fine tactic when you’re in the lead, because it makes you very hard to pass. But let’s face it, I’m not in danger of being in that position any time soon.

Line choice is an easy enough problem to correct. It only takes a few laps of repetition, slowing down and making deliberate choices as you enter each corner until it becomes habit. But it rolls me right into my next problem, and that’s understanding the limits of the available traction. On a race track, the ideal race line gets better as the day goes on, as more rubber is laid down and traction increases. On a cyclocross course, the more bikes go through a corner, the more sketchy the ideal line can become. To be able to carry speed through a wide, sweeping line, you have to know exactly how much speed and lean angle are too much. Finding that limit is a classical exercise in trial and error, and lately, the balance of my efforts have been error.

... again?!

… again?!

This is an area where neither my experience on asphalt or dirt really helps me, because of the difference in visual cues and variety of surfaces involved in cyclocross. On a racetrack, the pavement is more or less consistent, as is the level of grip that goes with it. There are bumps and patches, but they’re pretty obvious, and after a few laps of experimentation, you know what you can expect from them. Likewise, on singletrack trail, the traction can vary dramatically based on the conditions. But the visual cues are straightforward and plentiful most of the time, so as long as you know what to look for, you can adjust on the fly.

Cyclocross is just a hot mess. You’re riding on grass, and mud, and hard-packed dirt, and through sand, and occasionally on pavement. One corner may look very much like the next, but the available grip can be entirely different. You’re going as fast or faster than you would on a mountain bike, except that the surface you’re riding on is often obscured, and so your best gauge for how well your tires will hold is to simply toss it in and find out.

Part of the art of cornering a cyclocross bike is becoming comfortable and proficient sliding the bike. This is made more difficult by the fact that a rigid bike provides very little warning or compensation for a loss in traction, so the difference between a controlled slide and ending up on your head can be slight. Just how slight, I found out while practicing on a soggy course at John Bryan. I found myself on my back twice in as many laps, the victim of just a tiny bit too much speed on mud that was covered in grass and leaves.

Nobody likes crashing, and I especially hate having to clean mud out of my components. But this is the sort of thing that’s involved when you’re finding the limit. If I’m going to get good at this cyclocross thing, it’s something I’ll have to become accustomed to.

Oct 302013

303a1It’s that time of year, again. time for raking leaves, dressing your kids up as scary/cute things, breaking out your favorite hoodies, and screaming slurred expletives at college football games.

And growing moustaches.

That’s right, boys and girls, it’s almost Movember, the time of year where I allow a hilarious little fuzz strip to inhabit my upper lip, for your amusement and for charity! And not just any charity. Movember’s purpose is to raise money specifically to fight Man Cancer. We’re talking about prostate and testicular cancers. They aren’t pretty, and so they don’t get as much attention as, say, boobs. That’s understandable. But ignoring Man Cancer isn’t.

My maternal grandfather had prostate cancer, and it eventually claimed his life. He taught me many things as a kid, but the most important lessons were those of character and integrity. He worked hard every day of his life, and for the whole time I knew him, did it sporting a fantastic moustache.

So in his honor, starting 1 Movember, I’m declaring a thirty-day hiatus on shaving in my upper lip region. I’ll be posting regular, hilarious updates as to my… er… “progress” for you to follow, like and share. And this year, I’m upping the ante.

Last Movember, I ran a little contest each week to let people name my ‘stache when they donated. While that was humiliating for me and fun for you, I don’t think it involved enough pain and suffering on my part to keep you all engaged. So this year, I’m going to match you, mile for dollar, all month long.

That’s right. You donate a dollar, I run, ride or row a mile. I’ll post proof of my mileage on here along with updates on my fuzzy little lip friend. Now because you people have surprised me before, and because I may occasionally have to go to work this month, I have to cap the mileage total at 500. But that ain’t nothing. It’ll represent my single biggest total in a month all year, and fully 1/4 of the miles I’ve posted so far. But if you’ve got the cash, I’ve got the time.

Let’s do this. Click the link below to donate, share this page with your friends, and let’s team up to help stop Man Cancer in its tracks!


Oct 082013


It’s a familiar route for me, but its features are made new by the changing seasons. I turn out of my neighborhood and spin my legs up, noting how the cooler temperature makes the rollers on the first road seem a little less fun. Going up, my legs complain that the cold makes it harder for them to put out power. Going down, the crisp air elicits tears from my eyes. We’re in that limbo state of the fall, where it’s not quite cool enough to break out cold weather gear, but not really warm enough to go out dressed for summer.

Down the Powell Road hill, with its patchwork of aging and crumbling pavement, I wonder what damage another winter will do to the descent. I wonder if they’ll widen it when they repave, and make it a little safer for the handful of cyclists that know about and train on this hill.

I dogleg across Rip Rap Road, and I wonder for the hundredth time how it came to that name. The story belongs to another forgotten local history, I suspect. I pick up the bike path heading south, finally getting warm as my legs come back to work on the level pavement. How drastically different this ride is from my first venture on this route, when I was dripping sweat onto the top tube and wobbling my way around, still getting used to skinny tires and steep geometry. Now my handling is surer, but the weather is a photographic negative of the picture in my mind. Brilliant blue skies and searing sunshine are replaced by the browns and grays of a Midwestern autumn. The contrast of the whole experience is so stark that I can scarcely believe it’s the same path.

The cornfields are in their final glory, still astonishingly tall from the wettest spring in recent memory, but browned and ready for harvest. The ears point downward, displaying the exhaustion of nature after a summer spent growing and shining and working as hard as ever.

I too am exhausted. My body is a collection of minor injuries, of bumps and bruises and scrapes, of aching joints and sore muscles. All natural things need rest, and I am no exception. My season has been full of trials and triumphs, of training and racing, but there is a cost, and it will be paid soon by a change of pace in a short off-season. The kid in me wants summer never to end, but I must also contend with my inner old man, and he is more than ready for a break. I’ll stretch out the season as long as I can, racing until there aren’t any races, but after this, my second season of hitting it hard, I’ll be relieved when it’s over. At least for a little while.

All of this takes the edge off my normal aggression. I’m not chasing segment records today, not trying to have my best ride ever, as I normally would. I’ve read that there are physiological advantages to not hammering every ride, but it’s a theory I haven’t spent many miles exploring. Inside, I’m still the buck-toothed kid with the comically large ears, roaring down the sidewalk on my black and gold, hand-me-down BMX, yelling for my older brother to time me. Every time I’m on a bicycle, I just want to see how fast I can go, but not today. Today I am smelling the autumnal breeze, taking in the sunbursts through the broken clouds, and riding as easily as I like.

I approach the secret woods, a small patch of forest in the middle of the city that seems to have been unmolested by the centuries of progress. The fallen leaves are thick on the pavement, and they crunch under my tires like applause from a small crowd of onlookers. It sounds as if nature herself is approving of my season spent in the saddle and outside, breathing in the fresh air and soaking up sunshine as a glutton. I have persevered through the best and worst of nature this year, and here I am asking for more still.

The path winds along the Great Miami, the biggest of the five rivers that converge at the heart of my town. The rivers, too, have changed. I’ve spent so many hours riding beside them this year that I feel I’ve come to know them. The raging torrents of spring, fueled by the rains and snow-melt, overflowed their banks downtown and submerged the bike path for miles. These gave way to full and strong summer flows, but a dry spell in the late summer reduced them to streams that barely seemed to move. Now they are alive again, reinvigorated by recent days of soaking rain and thundering over the low dams north of the city.

I cross a bridge, wind through two parks, and cross another, turning East, for home. I’m running alongside the Mad River now, and with the wind at my back, I can’t help but push up the speed a little. The increased pace breaks through the reverie of the previous dozen miles, and I’m excited again, back to being the kid on his bike. I zip past the Air Force Museum with my hands in the drops and charge up the levy at Huffman, resting across the top of the dam before tucking in to go down the other side.

I’ve traversed this circuit backwards and forwards more times this year than I can count. Run clockwise, the climb back to my neighborhood is long and gradual, save for the punctuation of the Powell Road hill. Counterclockwise, as I rode it today, nearly all of the work is saved for the end of the ride. It strikes me that these alternatives are not unlike life itself, in which we are often faced with the choice of short and steep, or long and grueling. I’ve found it’s best to prepare for both.

There’s one last climb between me and home, a 10%, 1/4 mile jump from the river basin that used to destroy me. But I’m smarter now, and stronger, and I attack the hill with a grin. I stand in the pedals as I feel gravity pushing back, and I focus on the top of the hill and pound. My lungs are screaming, my heart threatens to beat out of my chest, but my legs churn on the pedals anyway, and I reach the top still standing. Another dragon slain, to add to the pile I’ve accumulated this season. If it ended tomorrow, I’d be satisfied. But I don’t plan to let it.


Sep 232013
I'm still sort of in shock over this.

I’m still sort of in shock over this.

If you’ve been reading all year, then you know that I’m sort of a geek for stats. I track my miles and times obsessively, and after a big race, I’ll often spend quite a lot of time breaking down my performance, to better understand my progress and hoping to glean lessons for future races. All of the technology available today makes this really easy. Strava tracks my efforts by GPS on my phone, and logs my heart rate data via Bluetooth, generating minute-by-minute data for later evalutation. Race results are posted online, usually the same day as the race and sometimes even as they happen. I can use them to gauge how well I’ve done against similar athletes, and sometimes against the conditions.

The breakdown from my race at this year’s Air Force Half Marathon provides an extra wrinkle of complexity, because I can compare it to last year’s race over the same course and distance. The course this year was slightly modified, but not in a way that would affect my time much either way.

Of course the biggest standout statistic was that I dropped nearly 26 minutes off my time from last year, which means I shaved nearly two minutes off my mile time. But more telling was my placement in the field, which accounts for the conditions of the day. The weather on a given day can speed up or slow the field dramatically, so my performance relative to them is a useful metric. This year over last, I improved by some 1760 places. Among just the men, I finished 945 places higher. The field this year contained some 1200 members of the military and their families, and among them I placed 181st. My run placed me just outside the top 10% of the field, and while it’s certainly an eternity between me and the winner, being near the top 10% is something. If I can drop my time by another ten minutes next year, I’ll be in the top 250 overall, and pass 100 runners in the military category.

Some people daydream about what they’d do if they won the lottery. I daydream of where I’d finish if I was just a little bit faster.

And I think I can get faster, still. Looking at my splits on Strava, I was far more consistent in this race than past races. At the Xenia half in April, I started out at a 9-flat mile, which ballooned to 10 after the first few miles, and was nearly at 11 by the end. At the Heights Half in June, I started strongly enough with five miles that were about 8:30. But then the wheels fell off, thanks to the heat and the lack of water stops mid-race. My last several miles were in the high 9s or low 10s, and my last mile was an 11-minute limp to the finish. On Saturday, at the Air Force half, my first ten miles were in the mid-to-low 8s. Miles 5-7 were within three seconds of each other, and represented my fastest segment of the race. After we lost our pacer to a cramp, my time slacked by about 30 seconds per mile, but that was also largely down to the problems my right foot was having. Even then, the difference between my first mile and my last was only a little over a minute, which is great news.

I owe a lot of that to running with the pace group, but it proved that I can do it. What this means is that I need to learn to hold a pace like that by myself, probably with the use of yet another gadget of some sort, or audio cues from my phone. If I can hold to the 8 minute miles I was turning in mid-race last weekend for a whole race, that will take another six minutes off my time. That doesn’t mean I’m in any danger of winning, ever, but I will have beaten myself. In the end, that’s all I’m racing for, anyway.