Ithaca in winter is both beautiful and maddening. A general cold creeps into the air sometime in October, followed by a first sticking snow in mid- to late-November. After one or two brief periods of post-fall (relative) warmth through the end of that month, a series of snowfalls -- usually no more than a few inches at a time -- is broken up only by frigid nights and cold days. Waterfalls freeze and icicles turn the gorges into gaping, predatory maws. Forests are coated in powder that will persist into spring, by which time the gentle fluff will be a mass that seems determined to stay through summer. Little-used roads thaw, freeze, thaw, and freeze again, an endless parade of damage wrought to the pavement from within.
Running, it should be apparent, becomes a challenge. The valley holds limited appeal, but its flanking hills are slick with ice and snow. And the treacherous roadways push cars to less dangerous approaches, raising the ire of frustrated drivers at the expense of safety for everyone else on the roads. Trails were essentially off-limits, piled with snow of varying depths and marked with blazes that, while apparent during summer, are nearly impossible to find in the bleak, gray uniformity. But I did the runs anyway, with shoes or snowshoes.
Cycling becomes even more difficult: the ride up the steep hill brings immediate heat to the core, but limbs dangle in the frozen wilds and cry out for attention. Most of my rides were capped by 10 minutes in the bathroom with my hands and feet immersed in warm water, hoping that they would come back to life. They always did, but I don’t wish the stabbing pain of their reawakening on anyone. Distance riding exacerbated the problem, as well as fighting darkness and the attendant vehicular dangers. But I did these rides anyway, extremeties bundled to look like wiffle ball bats affixed to my slender frame.
Since I hadn’t raced much recently, this would be the winter of snowshoe, the time when I would enjoy the snow as much as possible in spite of my limited winter sport experience.
I started taking second runs in the evenings while wearing snowshoes, doing a few miles at a time just to practice the motion. I enjoyed it immensely, especially on frigid, clear nights: the crystalline air, the pleasing crunch of snow underfoot, the quiet calm of a snowbound cemetery at 10 p.m. The experience was soothing and inspiring.
I also rode my trainer to keep in biking shape -- much to the chagrin of my downstairs neighbor, who happened to be the landlord. I had to tailor my times to be sure he was absent when I rode, but I managed to maintain a base.
What all this meant, of course, was that I was getting in better shape during the winter than I had been at the end of summer.
A diversion: Professionals (read: not me) advocate an extended break over the winter wherein the runner allows muscles destroyed over the other 9 or 10 months to recover. During this period, the runner should pursue core athletics, like weight lifting or light indoor cycling or whatever might give you some feeling of “doing something” without continuing the assault on key muscles.
Duly noted. Now let's close 2003 and open 2004 by ignoring that. Running? Check! Biking? Check! In fact, I did more running. Sure, my cycling load went down, but that was mostly by necessity, since it’s pretty much impossible to put in 2.5-hour rides safely after work when darkness falls within a half hour of the end of work. I also swam more, since the pool was open year-round. Oh, and did I mention the indoor track sessions? Running 8 laps per mile is crappy, but running 4 miles outdoors and 16 laps inside isn’t nearly as bad.
That winter, I visited a friend in Germany for two weeks, crashing at his apartment with anywhere from 0 to 4 others and taking weekend trips around the country’s southlands. I don’t know how he felt about me hanging out for so long, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience -- mostly because of the chance to re-connect with people from undergrad in the evenings while running my sorry ass off each morning.
A few days into the visit, I found a space that lies somewhere in the ill-used experiential octant of “absurdly painful”, “exhilarating”, and “pleasantly satisfying”. I left my friend’s apartment around 7 a.m. with the goal of running some of the marked trails up the hill to a place called Schau-Ins-Land, a ski top which promised a tram down to the road, from whence I would catch the bus back into town.
Morning dawned chilly but not cold, so I donned a light jacket but not a hat or gloves. On the first plateau behind the Max Planck Institute, I encountered not the 3 marked trails I was expecting, but a vast array of intersecting and almost entirely unmarked routes. I picked a direction based on the map (go right!), then came upon an intersection with a sign that suggested I was on a trail I didn’t want. Dipping slightly down the hill to recover the actual trail -- which I managed to find pretty easily -- I continued along the plateau and up into the foothills.
The expected climb would be a few thousand feet, and at this point that didn’t seem like much. I pounded through the foothills along the path, every once in a while passing an obvious intersection. I tried to ignore these intersections, but something nagged at me every time: what if I was picking wrong? The trail exited the forest and ran along the east side of a hill, then into a logging area, then onto a small road. At which point there seemed no way forward but on the road, a route I discounted because it clearly went downhill quite significantly. (This was a time before ubiquitous GPS phones, so I was running blind here.) Knowing I had been out for about an hour at this point, it wouldn’t be a problem to just go back, toast this near-2-hour trip with a fresh beer, and enjoy the afternoon.
I turned around, disappointed to have fallen short of my goal. But lo! what luck! A half mile back, I encountered the first person I’d seen on the path, a middle aged woman walking her dog. This close to the trail’s departure point from the road, she seemed a likely information source. Mustering my directional German, I got the scoop: the trail actually spurred off the road, just past a fallen log on the right hand side. Straight on and straight up.
I told myself it could be no more than a few miles before Schau-Ins-Land and dashed back to the entry, which was right where the woman said it would be. The straight vertical at the bottom turned into a series of extended switchbacks, maybe a few hundred meters each, with a steeper climb at either end. I ascended into a cloud and felt the thickening dampness on my uncovered hands and ears. The air cooled: chilly but not cold became a little cold became a Pacific Northwest mid-winter's day. The trail was slick with rainfall, the wind harsh at one end of the switchbacks that towered over the valley below.
The view, though -- ah, the view! How can I describe the beauty? Imagine the expansive vistas of Yellowstone, or the sweeping sights from atop the high peaks of the Sierra Nevadas, or the brilliant hues of autumn gazing down the White Mountains! Sublime! And exactly unlike mine, which was a scrubby forest terminating suddenly in a featureless, white void. Pine forest. Fog. When the snow began to fall, my mind turned itself around, and I passed the point of desiring the destination to find myself at the point of desiring the end.
I had been out for 2 hours now, and all of my little piggies had long since burned their last piece of coal and begged for warmth. So it was that what was probably about 12 miles into my expected 13-mile run (and actually closer to 14 miles of total ground covered), I turned around for home, simply incapable of going any farther up the foreboding path.
The descent back to the logging road was speedy, and 20 minutes later I was ducking back into the forest where my ephemeral local navigator had appeared. But it was an hour from this point to home, an hour I wasn’t sure would be plausible. Each step felt both relieving and terrible, that sickening agony of having abused oneself beyond reasonable recovery, knowing simultaneously that the end was nearer and the air was warmer but also that the end was not particularly near and the air was not particularly warm. Dashing back through the clear cut, the wind blasted my still-damp and well-chilled body, and I wondered if I would ever be warm again. (As we’ll see, this is a theme for me in long runs. Maybe I should just accept that eventually I will most likely be warm again.)
And now I was back into the trails, and now I was about to find my second Al on my Beckettsian journey: an ex-military runner out for the morning, his English as terrible as my Polish. My German, though, is passable, perhaps up to the level of “intermediate proficiency”, particularly if the audience isn’t expecting perfection. And having been out for 2.5 hours, soaked in sweat and rain, I somehow retained enough to have a cogent 45-minute conversation with a man whose name I never caught.
He was -- and I say this only mildly hyperbolically -- my mental salvation. We descended like a pair of old running buddies, him in front taking all reasoning requirements away from my incapable mind. Down we went until we emerged behind the Max Planck Institute once again. I bid tak and adieu (however you say that in German) to this temporary companion, made my way through the church lot and down back roads, past the bar I had been at until 1 a.m. that morning, across the tracks, and, knowing there was little to eat at the apartment, straight to the grocery store.
Fruit first, a loaf of bread, a jar of jam, and as many beers as I felt I could afford with the remainder of my 20 Euro -- the cash I had pocketed as tram and bus fare. People watched this beaten man walk the store. I must look terrible, I thought, but I’m hungry and will never leave the apartment once I get there. I brought the goods to the front, where the cashier sized me up, said something I didn’t understand. I stared at her. She repeated, and a look of pity spread across her face: she took my bananas, brought them back to the fruit section, weighed them for a price tag, then took both back to the register.
“Klar?” she asked, and gave me a look that suggested she found the situation at least a reasonable diversion from an otherwise uninspiring day.
I laughed at the absurdity, and the line that was forming behind me seemed unfazed by the entire fiasco. I was too tired and cold to care.
The apartment was like a cozy blanket, and I knew a shower was in order. I stumbled inside while mashing a banana into my mouth, barely able to chew. The shower was upstairs, and I could hardly move my legs.
And it was now, almost 4 hours after the run started, as I gingerly prepared to take off my jacket, that I first looked down. Here was the source of such bemused looks from passers-by, those smirks and stares: two enormous stains of blood streaked down from my nipples. I had bled through the undershirt, through the running shirt, through the jacket, to make symmetric spears of crimson.
The shower was probably drawn out, and my subsequent nap went for hours. I ate a loaf of bread slathered in black currant jam. I felt exhausted, wrecked, humbled, and overjoyed.
A week later -- after running every intervening day -- I found myself outside Munich, staying with a cousin of my friend. One morning I left the apartment with a 10 Euro note and an agenda: run about 10k, stop at the bakery, get back to the apartment with fresh patisserie before anyone woke up. I dutifully killed the kilometerage, then popped into the baeckerei to buy some wholly unhealthy bread products for 5. I picked out 6 items, tallying the costs mentally, but missed a 1 somewhere; when the total came up, it was 10.80. The woman behind the counter looked at my 10 Euro, looked at me, looked at the 10 Euro.
I picked a croissant. “I don’t need that one. Just take it off so the 10 will cover the cost.”
“Once I ring it up, I don’t know how to un-ring it. Can you get the money and come back?” she asked.
I shrugged. “It’s 10 minutes round trip, and I’m leaving today, or I’d drop it by later on.”
There was a pause while we looked at each other. Then the woman reached across the counter and dug her hand into the tip jar. She pulled out a few coins, stuck them in the register with the 10 Euro, and smiled. “You can pay me back next time you’re in town,” she smiled.
My European adventures ended with stints in Brussels, the Netherlands, and finally (again) in Germany. I returned home and resumed snowshoeing, enjoying the cold of Ithaca that doesn’t sneak up on you. At the end of January, I ran a snowshoe race. My one and only snowshoe race, unfortunately, as (a) snowshoe races pretty much didn’t exist at that point and (b) my time in Ithaca was soon to come to a close. The race was 7.6 miles over forest terrain, and I decided at the outset that snowshoeing at the front was a bad plan -- you don’t want to break trail for everyone -- but passing would also be practically impossible. It was necessary, then, to stake out a spot near the front and work to maintain that position. I did so admirably, holding 3rd through most of the race and falling to 4th when Rebecca decided she had made a mistake in following me.
As happy as I then was with snowshoe racing, winter wound down swiftly. I had kept in pretty good shape and was eager to get back out there for another season of kicking ass and maybe taking a name or two but mostly just making up more nicknames.
Mash out. Spin on.
There seems to be a 3-week gap wherein I did not compete in any races. It’s possible that I raced in some sort of not-locally-sponsored run that I can’t remember, but I doubt it. Instead, near the end of May, I got a sore throat and started feeling really worn down, but decided to go to Syracuse for a full race weekend anyway. Let’s check in on how that went, shall we? [Scrolls back through race report.] Oh, my back cramped up and I finished 19th in the road race. Then during the criterium the next day, we collectively almost ran over a 4-year old before I dropped out with a mechanical.
I had definitely blocked out that near-miss of a child.
After feeling like a phlegmatic slug for the rest of the week, I returned to my doctor. It took about 3 seconds for him to diagnose me with mono. (He also suggested that I get rabies shots. I mean, unrelated of course, and a story for another day perhaps.) Three more weeks of quality workouts were wiped out in a snap, as my body suffered through an illness whose defining characteristic is fatigue.
In mid-July, I finally felt up to a foot race. It was July 20, and I signed up for the 8.9-mile Forest Frolic. I had no illusions about winning; seems likely I had illusions about finishing top-10. Frankly, my conditioning - also known as "fighting one of the most common infections among 18-to-24 year olds in the developed world" - wasn’t ideal for running. But I wanted to do something that wasn’t bike racing and pounding out a baker's dozen kilometers on foot met that criterion.
It’s not that cycling wasn’t fulfilling. It’s just that cycling had taken over my weekends. You may not realize it, but even we neigh-immortal athletes burn out. It certainly didn't help that I doubted keeping pace with weekend races plus Tuesday (unofficial) races plus Thursday time trials after not doing anything for several weeks.
The Forest Frolic disabused me of my running notions. I finished 15th in 1:11 and change. This in a relatively easy run, except for the hill about a mile from the end. Based on prior results I should have been able to do much better. On the other hand, mono! I felt fine with my performance.
"What with all this bad running, I might as well do bad swimming!" I seem to have told myself.
A triathlon club had formed in Ithaca, and one of the members graciously let us use her lake-bordering house as the launch for a cross-lake swim. Bad swimming sure, but this was more my style: no 25-meter breakups that required you either know how to flip-turn or waste time relative to everyone else. Just pure swimming, subject to all the good and bad parts of the lake. The total crossing is around a mile, maybe more given that none of us went entirely straight, and most of us would swim one way and kayak the other, swapping off on the opposite shore.
Even though I had a good training gig coming off the whole sick-in-bed business, I didn’t do much more racing that year. In Albany, I crashed out during the road race, taking a corner too fast and going over the bars. No major damage, just some scrapes and bruises that kept me slow and sore for a week, and it would be my only race-ending fall during a pure cycling event. (I had more significant problems in a triathlon the next year, but we’ll get to that.)
[Insert terrible "tri again!" pun here.] The rest of the month was spent building up to the Lake Anna half ironman triathlon south of DC, which I thought of as a test race. I'd recovered confidence from the knee injury of the previous year, then lost critical training time in the middle of summer to illness, then come back for a few weeks only to get hurt on the bike. It hadn’t been particularly helpful.
The good news? My swim was <i>much</i> improved. Like holy hell.
Bad news No 1: My bike performance felt slow. Actually, at 2:34, it was similar to the previous year, which means it probably felt slow because I’d been used to riding in packs and dragging across flats at 45 kph on a regular basis.
Bad news No 2: My running legs failed. I wanted to settle into an 8-minute pace early on, but it was probably closer to 7:30. My legs started to fry quickly. Lap 1 ended on a slow note, then some people passed me, then it all fell apart. Pain radiated through my knee, and I had images of the previous year. Would I spend another two months out of running again? Was it worth the cost? I limped on for a half mile, a mile, through Mile 9, then threw in the towel.
The epiphany was incredible. <i>It wasn't worth it!</i>
The competition was amateur, casual, and I loved running and biking. Not having either was a crushing thought. I'd done 90% of a half ironman; the other 10% was performative self-destruction.
It was the right call.
Even with a dreary end-of-season showing, I had amassed 13 total points towards an upgrade in competitive cycling and sent a sponsored letter to US Cycling Federation to officially move up to Category 4. In that letter, I told the regional coordinator:
<i>At this point, I see no reason to be classified as Category 5 when I am stronger, faster, and -- at least in racing -- smarter than at the same time one year ago. The level of my abilities will not change regardless of my classification under the USCF scheme, but I would prefer to compete with riders who will challenge me to excel rather than encourage me to slow down. This will not happen if I continue to have a Category 5 rating.</i>
My application was quickly approved.
A month later, I scheduled what I call the “Not Quite Sane Event”: ride 25 miles to an isolated Finger Lakes Trail entrance, run on the trail (half marathon-ish), and ride home. Putting it out there made me happy. Maybe in celebration, I closed out the bar the night before, stayed for an after-party, and got up just in time to find that nobody would join me. My NQS for 2003 was, it should go without saying, not a high-energy event. But I did get to watch a woman train sheep dogs 12 miles into the run and hitched a lucky ride home with a very confused family.
Right after that was the Danby Down & Dirty. And I was back! The 10k race went off well, and I breezed through it in just over 46 minutes, good for 4th. My season ended stronger and happier. I might not be “back to form”, but these things take time!
Next up: Winter shoes!
Mash out. Spin on.
I'm standing on a patch of dirt high atop a hill rarely visited by people. A creek bends gently around its base into an inviting stand of trees to one side. Birds circle overhead, squirrels dart in and out of the brush. The blue sky above is cloudless, beautiful.
Then there's the stuff in between.
Power lines run from the substation in the valley to the metal tower that dominates the hilltop; Interstate 495 curves away in the distance, trucks and cars merging noisily into a slowdown on the other side of the beige "sound wall" that's entirely below me; maintenance vehicles and building debris pepper the broad, bare patch that sits at the convergence of a gravel-strewn concrete slab and a double-track access road just across the creek.
This is my urban home turf.
It's a strip of parkland less that two miles long and maybe a few thousand feet wide that holds more than a dozen miles of trail swerving between and over creeks, through slender forests, and across overgrown fields. These paths also loop around the high-voltage towers, trace the edges of parking lots, and cross the paved road. Most of the trail is out of sight of the main park attractions -- baseball diamonds, tennis courts, a skate park, a rec center. It's a relatively calm respite, all things considered, and near enough to my house that I run these trails several times a week. I wear them like a favorite shirt.
Urban trail vistas don't appear on the cover of Trail Runner Magazine. They rarely grace the homepage of iRunFar. They are not how you advertise to dirt fiends or sell adventure. And I get it -- I really do! They're often a little ugly, usually just queer bends or folds in the development strata repurposed for a small but insistent crowd. In that way, though, they're perfect for trail training.
I first scuffed up my soles on secluded forest paths in upstate New York, where the Finger Lakes Trail forms the backbone of a network that rarely approaches civilization. These natural playgrounds are amazing, thrilling, sometimes breathtaking. They're a delightful daily habitat.
But here in DC such complete seclusion is unrealizable. Instead, tiny strands of urban dirt are tightly packed into city reality: the unnoticed dips and rises between poured concrete, the ignored back woods abutting railroad storage lots, and the unprofitably valuable flood land below million-dollar developments.
Subtle brushstrokes of trail can nestle in almost any awkward notch or nook. They cross verges or duck under clover leaf ramps or wind and twist through mini-biomes before spitting a runner out on a busy road or forgotten junk pile. Sometimes they're a splash of relief, like the short dirt path that follows the 3/4 of a mile of creek bank between two highway connectors in my neighborhood. Other times they're miles long, like the Fort Circle Parks Hiker/Biker Trail that slashes through southeast DC by joining ribbons of greenery, some of which were (and probably still are) segregationist barriers; just watch out during the morning commute, when impatient drivers stack up at the road crossings.
Still others are downright extensive. The Potomac River trail system offers all manner of urban views heading along the Virginia side of the river, immediately moving under and over junctions of multi-lane highways, then following the contours between these heavily trafficked roads and the wealthy users who usually want to forget them; you can carry up the Potomac here and out of the urban landscape or dip south into the dense suburbs of Northern Virginia, finally (after 20-ish miles and about 3 blocks on pavement) settling into a corner of development in Falls Church behind the bus depot, Metro rail storage facility, and on-ramp from a major highway onto the interstate.
If that final locale sounds less than charming, consider the approach: cross a main commuter cut-through road, tiptoe across planks and stones set into a muddy creek overflow, head a few hundred yards south, and duck under an interstate thickly undercoated in graffiti; follow the trail for a mile or so along the concrete river drainage that runs 50 feet behind houses on either side; clamber into this drainage for the one property owner who has (illegally, perhaps) claimed the lot all the way to the concrete; then traverse the 4-foot-wide, rooty ledge behind chain-link fences until the trail widens and finally turns to poured blacktop near the back side of a school maintenance building.
Just because it's ugly doesn't mean it's not there. And after a decade of these kinds of trails, I've found a charm to their gritty determination to exist against what seem overwhelming odds.
On vacation in new cities, I seek out these unique urban venues. One day in Chicago, I hopped off the L at a commuter stop, crossed a cemetery, and vanished into the forest at the foot of a bridge off a city street. I did a 15-mile out-and-back toward the airport, almost always on a soft, muddy path within sight of a half dozen houses. There were wrong turns on mudflats and creek branches. There were alternate routes along soggy, stagnant mounds. There were road crossings and railroad crossings and short but discomfiting stretches along pedestrian-unfriendly shoulders. And there were places where the trail seemed to shatter into a dozen deer paths or fall prey to the underbrush. When I got back to the train, a longtime resident stared wide-eyed at my mud-caked limbs; he had no idea what lay in his backyard.
In other cities, these urban trails are perhaps neater but no less fascinating. Like Dublin, where I ran north from our city-center digs and squeezed between a bollard and a chain link fence onto several miles of straightforward dirt path along the river to its outlet; I won a beautiful sunrise and even found a bizarre statue to watch it with. The next day I spent 40 minutes running through and across the extensive trail networks of Phoenix Park, ending the event by nearly entering someone's back gate. (She helpfully pointed to the sign that read "This is not a park." I rather believe I'm not the first then perhaps.)
Even in dense cities where many urban "trails" are no more than a block or two without pavement, longer options are usually within range of public transit. Central Paris features a semi-paved path along the Siene as well as a couple very large parks (Jardin du Luxembourg and Jardin des Plantes) that include dirt, but the more wide-ranging will find Bois de Boulogne or Bois de Vincennes. New York City's Riverside Park is the city's longest contiguous park, but it's paved; stringing together Central Park's trails, Morningside Pond, and St Nicholas Park offers a more diverse dirty urban experience -- or the slightly less time-strapped can take the Subway to the cloisters and pack down the extensive network of trails on Manhattan's north end. You'll find little in central Boston, but the T will take you to Oak Grove and the reservoirs near Spot Pond, a vast city-ringed greenery bisected by I-93.
Most cities have their own, built in the urban null space where expansion couldn't or wouldn't accept human homes. These voids are being reclaimed around the world by both runners and mountain bikers ready to escape the sidewalks and roads without spending hours in transit. They're a boon to trail hounds living in urban enclaves as well as those just visiting.
Whether you're making tracks through other cities or living your own metropolitan life, interesting trails are probably closer than you think. Instead of taking that hour drive to the perfect trail or heading to the latest pop-outdoor town, maybe it's time to seek out your own urban home turf.
Mash out. Spin on.
The age of 23. Young, unbridled, unattached, low responsibility, near-peak athleticism. Social events to attend to, food and alcohol to consume, attractive people to pursue.
I made it to 2003 on the tail end of my marathon injury, ready to get into whatever the next events were. I had tasted bike racing, and I liked it. I had tasted trail racing, and I loved it. I had tasted triathloning, and I enjoyed it, but I mostly enjoyed it as the collaboration of running and biking.
Since I couldn’t run, I now decided to spend more time at the pool and learn how to swim at least a tad more efficiently. With the help of the lifeguard, I learned to use my arms almost correctly and actually kick rather than looking like I was always on the verge of drowning. The near-drowning look was so not in vogue.
It went well, to a certain extent. Pool junkies will stay there for hours on end, practicing their strokes and perfecting their form and ripping off 30- or 35-second laps. Their flip-turns are nuanced and smooth and exude understanding of their body position as they approach the wall. I could stay in the pool for maybe an hour before the smell and mild feeling of failure finally pressed me out. I couldn’t flip-turn worth a damn, and my lap times went from about a minute to just under 50 seconds -- surely a vast improvement, maybe good for 8 minutes in a half ironman, and nothing to write home about. But apparently something to write to you about, just so you know where you fall on the spectrum.
Now that my alligator legs were gone, it was time to start running again. One day I just decided my creaky old knee should be fine, and I set out on the standard route. Sure enough, the knee had repaired itself. I was free! My spirits lifted immediately, and my swimming exposure fell to its more natural place in the background.
In the interests of limiting my injury exposure risk, I also took up snowshoeing. There was ample snow on the ground -- especially on the old mountain bike trails and running trails -- and with even my standard running route somewhat difficult (there’s a golf course and a footbridge; snow, slush, and ice just built up there), I needed some other activity to feel like I was actually doing something, rather than bulking up in all the wrong ways.
Unfortunately, all that time off and the tentative restart to running took a toll on my prior athleticism. The months of winter passed, and by the end I knew distinctly that I was a shell of my former self. Sometime in March '04, I decided to schedule another triathlon, this one a summer half ironman down near DC where my brother lived. It was the Lake Anna Triathlon, quite a distance south of DC, but at the time I didn't know the lay of the Virginia land and figured it was close enough. This would be the year of cycling, though, where I would turn to riding competitively and round out my fitness.
Near the end of March the weather turned occasionally warm, and I rode the TT course on my own. It was wet with snowmelt, but the decent weather made for a serviceable ride. It was also earlier in the season than most years, so I raced only the descending darkness of early Spring.
The cycling season was fast approaching, and I found myself in solid velocipedestrian shape. It wasn’t the amazing peak shape I had been the previous year, but it was enough to consider racing. I had also officially joined the local racing team. And I had also officially written down a training plan leading up to my early-September “goal race” triathlon. Anticipation of the summer was building, and I giddily jumped in with two wheels.
First up: The GVCC Classic in Rochester, NY, at the beginning of April. This was one of my favorite race reports, so I’ve reproduced parts of it here, with analysis:
Cold. Bloody cold. Fingers, toes, arms, legs, all cold, even after warm-up. It couldn't have been more than 45 F; I was tired from driving up with Evan [name redacted] that morning, but the Cookies [the local team was called "Chris' Cookies" after the company in New York City that was founded by a former Ithaca cyclist] skin suit felt good. The field was obviously fairly large -- maybe 50 to start -- but all I knew was that it was cold. Stuffed in between riders at the mass start, tailing the pace car, the strategy was to avoid the wind only to keep my body warm. Approaching the first hill, we were together, then expanded to fill the length of it.
I remember this start. I remember that numbness. I don’t know how, but I remember that feeling all these years later.
A lot of people were attacking, but nobody realistically. We rolled up the last short rise and through the finish line once: "6 laps to go" -- 6 miles each. A break at each corner, more heat, no pain yet. Now drafting was only about efficiency, not temperature control, but the unpredictable wind could leave you cringing from its bite at any moment. Around the course, I chased a breaker, thought we might work, but he was just faking -- he didn't have the strength to go it alone except on the hills. And Lap 2 was in the bag.
This course isn’t that long, and I would do the race a couple other times over the years. These kinds of faux attacks are common in the cycling community, and as a newbie, I chased a lot of them. Such a rookie mistake. Since that's what the next couple paragraphs were about, I'll skip to the end:
Around to Lap 6, the pack was still cohesive, a single unit working against itself. Our pace was slow but consistent as we came up to the first small hill. I was near the back, but it was a clear shot to the front, and I couldn't let things go any longer. Another rider had been busting out on that hill all morning, and I wanted to be on his wheel, let him propel me over the back side for a burst. It was a sprint to get to him, but he broke right on time, and three of us were at the front. Around the next corner, finding little help with the others, the pack came up like a tidal wave, a dozen riders passing me in a swarm.
Late in the race is usually where it starts. So really this is more like the start of the race part of a bike race.
A rider from CNYC mentioned he wished the pack would break, and I smiled at him. "Why not now?" I said, and the sprint was on. All I could hear rounding the corner was my own heartbeat and the whirring of my wheels over the pavement. Halfway up, I hazarded a glance, saw the pack stringing out as my lungs wheezed their objection. Over the hill, pounding down like the approach to White Church [a local road renowned to community racers], up the second rise alone with nothing but wind and the Theme from Rocky ringing distantly (thanks to a spectator) in my ears. Through the rollers, the final major hill looked daunting, but there was no one on my wheel, no one within 100 meters. At the top, I looked again and saw the fracture in the main group: at least two packs had formed, maybe 15 to 20 riders in each, still riding without any clear direction. The front was mine as long as I could bear it.
Again, a rookie mistake: I was taking the lead. I consistently cracked riders in these early races, but rarely did I dust enough of the field to make an actual push at the win. On the other hand, I was used to having a really high heartrate and working myself into the depths of exhaustion for 20 minutes at a time, which meant I could break away, wreck many of the riders, sit at the front for a time, and rejoin the lead group with essentially no consequence. Which is what I did in this case.
Into the final lap, the speed had gone up and the spectators became a little more apparent. Up to the first hill, I stayed low and passed the front, then watched another rider hammer by on the down side. My approximation of the Twinkieboy Tuck [a tuck that's aggressively deep into the bike frame, named for a local racer who used it to significant benefit] kept me close, but he stayed in front around the bend, up to the big hill. Then he started to bonk, and I broke by, slowed down more than I hoped, and got taken by another two riders. We topped the rise like a rubber band, our positions inverting into the valley and inverting again as we ripped apart the next hill. We didn't worry about the pack again. Four of us, off the front, hammering through the final 3 miles.
It was a strange jockey for position, as one of our members was barely able to hang on. He was stuck to the back, it seemed, by sheer force of will; the other two -- the Masters leader and a Placid Planeteer -- set up a slight line, and we rotated through to pull away. Around the last corner, I was second from the outside of the lane, waiting for someone to make a break. The Masters rider shrugged, then went, cranking hard from the base of the hill. I tucked in behind, let him pull me 2/3 of the way, and blasted by. Now into the 200-meter flat stretch before the line, I knew that was the wrong thing to do. My legs were exhausted, and I looked to my right to see the Placid Planet blue. "I'm taking second," I said (possibly aloud), and the blue became a streak that didn't resolve itself into a cyclist until he crossed the line in front of me. Oh, and I took second.
So that was my first major bike race: finishing 2nd in a low-category, local race with probably 50-ish riders. I loved it! There was, of course, the danger of crashing, which is always present in these races, but I felt confident that such crashes were just a cost of doing business. So I let that roll off me.
A week later, we held our local race (Jersey Hill), and I finished 3rd. A week after that, it was Binghamton (poor showing, I’m sure -- the course is a criterium-style course that I never did well at, except when they added a hill climb a few years later; that was totally my bag).
Nobody bought that I should be a Cat 5 rider at that point, so I moved up to Cat 4 for another local race, Hollenbeck’s, the following week. It was an open secret that I wrote about in my race report. Looking back on those reports, I’m impressed at the number of repeat performers there were, people I knew only by their jerseys. These are people I called “Spokepost” or “Placid Planet” or “Multi-Laser”, only some of whose names I would fill in but for the time being were just other riders who showed up at races, put in their time, and disappeared into the wilderness (as far as I was concerned). Doubtless they felt the same about my Cervelo-riding ass. I sometimes imagine their race reports calling me "Cervelo Boy" or "Cookies Monster" or something.
I could find out, but that might spoil a little of my childhood.
Mash out. Spin on.
I rocketed from the starting gate with a 6:30-ish pace, blitzing through miles the way I’d done in training. Remember that my triathlon time -- after having ridden for 2.5 hours -- was just shy of 1:24, or 6:30 miles, so something like that seemed like a workable pace for a run twice as long. I felt comfortable and confident striding through miles 1-10. I found people to talk with. I cruised, didn’t think about what was going to happen later in the race. I ran through Mile 15. I ran through Mile 19.
The curious thing about the pursuit of running is that, even for a dedicated athlete, after dozens of years, the span of distances one has not run is still infinite, whereas the distances one has run is always finite. (And yes, I do realize the obvious truth of that statement in a mathematical sense, but take it in the plain-language way this deep insight is intended to be read.)
So it was at Mile 19 that I crossed the an imaginary line into the vast space of distances I had never run before.
And -- because I hate the term “hit the wall” passionately -- I quickly built on that achievement by stepping into the muddy bog of Mile 20. And the expanding swamp of 21, then the Okefenokee-esque 22, followed by a 23 that may or may not have included Fire Swamp quicksand. I slogged through those miles by walking 25-50 meters at each mile marker, massaging my legs, then carrying on at a (relatively) slow 8:30 (or so) pace. So I basically ran 19 6:30s, followed by 4 9:00s. Those 4 miserable death miles added 10 total minutes.
Shortly after Mile 24, the end seemed within sight. My mind suddenly and swiftly overpowered the weighty stumps, sloughed off a quartet of accumulated mileage cake, and rolled my pace back up to about 7:00.
I must admit that when I rounded that final corner and saw the clock, I was a little disappointed. The Wineglass Marathon ends with a bridge followed by a short straightaway near the Corning Museum of Glass. That turn happens right around the 26-mile mark, and when I made it, the clock had just ticked over 3 hours. I watched it wind up as I emptied my tank across the bridge and finally made the finish.
Unlike many runners, I couldn’t have told you -- until just now, when I looked it up -- what my final time was. I’ve had it in my head that it was “about 3:03”, which is, indeed, what it was “about” -- 3:02:40. But there’s no way I’ll remember that, because frankly, Wineglass was just another ridiculously long event that took place in 2002.
Qualifying times that year were something like 3:10 or 3:08 (again, I don’t remember...it wasn’t important to me at the time), so I’d soundly managed it. Rebecca finished 20 minutes later.
What I do remember post-race was getting an excellent massage and being asked repeatedly if I was going to run Boston. I didn’t know when Boston was. My stock answer was a resounding, “Maybe.” My legs were sore and stiff, but I didn’t expect any long-term damage; this kind of thing was just a weekend jaunt.
Three days later, I went out for a short run with some friends at a very low pace on a trail. Within a mile, my knee burned like the center of the sun, and pain shot in every direction. I nearly collapsed. A day after that, another run attempt, and I was similarly debilitated, this time after only a few hundred meters. Two days later, I couldn’t even start a run without feeling like my kneecap was grinding itself into osteotic dust.
When I visited my doctor, he suggested I simply stay off it.
For two months, I thought of running. I sat in my apartment watching autumn turn to winter and imagining the feeling of pavement and trails underfoot.
I vowed to come back for more the next year. And I would. Even so, to this day, Wineglass remains my only timed marathon.
Mash out. Spin on.
I distinctly remember stopping at Tim Horton’s on the way home and eating a giant bucket of donut holes as I blazed through upstate New York in the afternoon heat. Today, I might stop at a brewery or two along the way, but back then such amenities were not as ubiquitous as they now are.
The next day, I went for a very short run just to stretch my now-weary legs. On Monday, I probably did the same, even as stiffness set in.
The race had been spectacular, more than I really hoped beforehand.
But I started that week with a major problem: I had trained through the summer for a specific event, and now that event was in the past. Which left me with two options: (1) Stop or slow down, which probably would have been good for my body but driven me nuts; or (2) keep going.
Obviously, I kept going. You know, after taking a very short break to let my body recover a bit.
For one, there were all those Tuesday races to attend. I’d taken Tuesdays off for so long, I wanted to see what this race day was all about. And then there were weekly running group runs that I had ignored because they never fit into my schedule. So much to do, so little time!
The fabled Pink Slipper race -- the ultimate or possibly penultimate Tuesday race of the season, owing to the declining daylight of September -- happened a week later. For the first (and last) time in 2002, I rode in a Tuesday race. And I acquitted myself pretty well, finishing in a decent position near the front of the group.
I had crossed an important threshold, moving into the new and amazing world of competitive cycling. And it would come back to haunt me.
A week after that, I rode in the Apple Fest Race almost 2 hours away. This was the race that I would eventually tell a friend had “only three real hills”, because that’s all I remembered from this first foray; turns out it’s a pretty rolling course, and I had become so immune to hills that anything short of a 300-foot climb just didn’t seem like a “hill”. I finished that race somewhere around 5th.
There were no more bike races that year -- maybe a time trial or two before the evening light turned into evening darkness and the pavement turned to reflecting the blood orange colors of changing leaves. But there was one more competitive run to polish off, and it was a big one, one I didn’t expect when I started the summer venture -- or even shortly after it: the Wineglass Marathon in Corning.
The opportunity came about abruptly about two weeks after my triathlon. I went to the Ithaca 5 & 10 to do the 10-mile (road) race, my first at that distance that was really official. Everybody insisted I should push for 60 minutes, so I asked around at the race start to find the right pacer. One of the runners was the coach at a nearby high school, and he had set himself at 6:02 miles to start, also with hopes of breaking the hour mark. When he took a dive a mile into the run, I helped him up, and we stayed together through Mile 9, when he looked a little gassed and we were not likely to make the magic time.
“You go ahead,” he told me. “I think you can catch that guy up there.”
That guy turned out to be Boris, who strode away like I was standing still even when I upped my pace. He caught the 3rd-place runner, and I fell in about 10 seconds behind him in 5th place at 1:00:52.
After the race, I got into a discussion with Rebecca, one of the regulars, who noted she was doing Wineglass on October 6, just a few weeks off. I hadn’t heard of this relatively local marathon and had never considered doing one -- it’s not a secret that 26.2 miles is a lot of distance to put on the legs at once -- but it sounded interesting.
A few day later, an email from Rebecca showed up on the listserv. Her fellow traveller in the Wineglass event was unable to attend, and she was looking for a replacement.
I thought about it for about 3 seconds. Back in Minnesota, when I’d gone on that long run with a friend at his house -- a run that felt like hell after 10 miles -- he had been training for a marathon. That was a marathon he eventually ran. I was almost as good as him in that run, without specifically training for it, and I was in such good shape now that I could rip off 25 km runs pretty much effortlessly. It should be easy to take on the full distance, even if it meant being a little destructive to the old legs.
I quickly responded, and a plan was hatched: I would pay half the entry fee plus gas, she would drive, and we’d go down there together.
Just to step back here, I will note that for most people, running a marathon is not something done casually. Sure, there are those who can stumble 20 miles out their door every morning and serially run marathons, but for most runners, the first marathon is supposed to be an achievement. It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work and specific training and target times and so on and so forth. It evokes images of daily workouts, sweeping changes in lifestyle, overcoming hardships, battling the twin demons of physical and mental fatigue, nervous moments before the big race, dedicated attention to the details of nipple balm and clothing choice and mile times for negative splits, and radiant pride on receiving the finisher’s medal.
For me, signing up to run that first marathon was a split-second decision made no more than 3 weeks before the event. It was the culmination of a two-sentence email. I had been changing my lifestyle for 8 years at this point. I had battled the twin demons and soundly defeated them. And when I showed up on race day, I was probably the only person there who didn’t know it was a Boston Qualifying event, nor did I know what that meant. (Being a West Coaster who didn’t grow up with a running background, I didn’t consider that the Boston Marathon was some sort of special event that needed to be qualified for.) I didn’t know what pace I would set, and just as importantly, I didn’t care -- this was just like any other race, where I would go out at my pace and do my thing and finish.
So it was that I spent the summer riding and running, running and riding, running and running and riding, riding and riding and running, and even sometimes getting in the pool. (Anyone want to guess why my swim times persistently sucked?)
Being a vegetarian, I ate a lot of pasta, but I also ate a lot of Shortstop Deli’s seitan sandwiches. We affectionately called these “The Baby”, because a 12” sub had the approximate dimensions of an average 2-month old. I also drank lots of beer, spending many an evening at the bar with friends. And many an afternoon. And many a wee hour of the morning. Somehow, getting up by 7:30 a.m. was never hard, even after stumbling home rather inebriated at 1:30.
My weekly progression was consistent and never felt like a strain. The weekly group rides culminated in the Cayuga Lake century -- it’s about 90 miles via the “short route” around the lake, and the extra 10 aren’t hard to add on. Meanwhile the runs, which started daily at about 6 km, dropped with some effort to 6 days a week. Those 6 km per day edged up to weeks that included a 6 km sprint, 10-12 km twice, and 20 km the other day. I never felt tired running. Never. Trust me.
Egads, I was an unbreakable god! Yes, a glorious, shining example of a modestly good runner!
After many of my big athletic endeavors, I would swing over to the local creek and take a quick dip. Sitting under the waterfall -- or behind the waterfall, as befit my mood -- and reading a book under the sun on the stone slab shore, I felt re-energized. I loved the feeling of tearing down muscles, then rebuilding them stronger and faster and more capable than ever before. Don't tell my advisor, but I probably also loved the feeling of sitting in the sun while my silly fellow students did “work” or “research” or something. Who does that?
And as for days off, Tuesdays filled that role. Or a couple Tuesdays did. It escapes the memory exactly how many Tuesdays I took off, but it was likely more than one. Or maybe equal to one.
Jenna played pickup lacrosse on Tuesdays, and they needed a goalie; women’s and men’s lacrosse goalies work the same way, so I hopped into that fray willingly. Lawren would often email or call on Tuesdays with the desire to take a jaunt in the woods -- and who was I to disappoint him? Or the woods? Or my phone? Or the pet rock perched on my neighbor’s windowsill?
What mattered was that Tuesday wasn’t a hardcore day. So though the local cycling club featured a weekly race that was much-discussed on the listserv, I would not attend those festivities over the summer. I also took Monday as a “close-out” day for the week of running and biking, and Wednesday was the day to rip off a morning sprint.
In spite of the progression, and in spite of a desk job that included a ton of coding and occasional work with lab bench electronics, computer technology never mixed with riding or running. It seemed unnecessary. The lone exception was a Cateye on the bike: good enough to monitor speed, instantaneous and average, and offer a target pace for long rides. That handy map offered a look at ride and run distances beforehand, so it wasn’t necessary to keep track of distance, just time.
This was also before we could data ourselves to ultimate precision using our phones, so if you wanted time, you needed a chronograph; if you wanted distance, you needed an odometer; if you wanted to know on-course jitter, you needed to find an old-timey gyroscope; and if you wanted to get back to town after a flat, you needed a couple functional thumbs because phones simply didn’t get reception in the rural Finger Lakes region. (Or the urban Finger Lakes region, for that matter.)
I awesomed anyway. Which, to this old fuddy duddy, indicates that all that data might not be the most important part of training. That's why the only tech I ever carry is the phone, just for mapping unfamiliar courses and keeping track of time.
As the summer wound down, I ran one more trail race: the Forge the Gorgeous 7-miler, an event I maintained a wonderful ongoing relationship with in the coming years. It was 9 days before the Half Ironman Canada, and I slammed through the race in just over 46 minutes -- a little over 6:30 per mile for an up-and-down course that was a great workout and my first race win.
This is what it felt like to be primed for a target race. The scheduled taper was about 2 weeks long, and I hoped it would work the way it was generally advertised.
I had never finished something like the half ironman, but with all that training in the past, it seemed wholly doable. The swim, obviously, would be awful, but once that was done, I would bully through the field using amazing time trial skills (a 90 km TT was just 6 of the Thursday TTs strung together; even with the usual slowdowns caused by fatigue, I was confident it would be sub-2:45). Then came the run: These legs were always ready for motion. I was obviously going to stroll through on sub-7:00 mile pace, which gave me a 1:30 target for the half marathon. Add them together, and the goal was 5:00 total plus transition.
I rolled into Ottawa in a borrowed car -- thanks Steve! -- and checked into my hotel, then hopped on my bike to ride to the race packet pickup 8-ish miles away. There was plenty of traffic at the pickup site, but it was all in cars, and here I was on my aerodynamic race bike. I checked in, hung around a few minutes, then headed off to get a seriously large plate of Mediterranean food on the way back to the hotel. At the hotel, I laid out my things, jittery for the day to come, and maybe managed a few winks.
Here’s my race report from that event:
Most of my travelling lately has been long-distance, so this weekend's nine driving hours were relatively easy. I arrived somewhat confused in the heart of downtown Ottawa Friday afternoon, but managed to scrounge up the necessary maps to make my way to a hotel some 12k from the start of the race.
Race morning (Saturday) was perfect. The temperature was around 70 by 6:30, and a light northeasterly wind drifted across the mostly north-south course. The start was set for 8 am, and some 400-500 competitors -- about 110 of them doing the half individually -- stacked into the TZ and tried to work out the elaborate and excessive marking system the competition inherited from its days as the National Capital triathlon. The long-course participants hit the water about 10 minutes before the start, and we were churning through Mooney's Bay exactly on schedule.
Any of you who have discussed triathloning with me know that swimming is my weakest event, and this tri was no exception. I came out of the water in 77th place after a 50-minute 2k slugfest. In my defense -- and the defense of everyone there, since nobody turned in a great time for the swim -- the sun and its glare made spotting buoys outside of about 50m almost impossible, so a lot of major course adjustments went on through the whole ordeal.
Out of the swim, onto the bike. The transition practice Wednesday was incredibly helpful for T1...it could hardly have gone smoother. The 90k ride was 6 laps of 15k each, and the wind had definitely become more unpredictable (gusty and variable direction) while we were in the water. As usual, the theory of chasing down rabbits kicked in from the start, and I passed a whole crowd of people right out of the gate. Through the first lap, my legs felt tight, but I was still cruising by people pretty easily; by lap 2, though, the swarms of relay and sprint competitors offered up a lot of target fodder, I found my rhythm, and the speed set itself almost perfectly at 37.5 km/h. By lap 5, my legs were feeling great, but the saddle started to wear on me, and I felt the wind bite into my speed. For the first time, someone passed me (what an odd feeling). I went all-out trying to catch the guy and managed to ignore the fact that my arse was in so much pain for the next lap. He started to pull away on the final mini-hill to the last turnaround, but I felt the need to finish strong. I dropped into TT mode (knew all those Thursdays would come in handy!) and hammered out the last 7.5k quicker than any other segment, reeling in the offender in the process. He still beat me to the dismount area, but only by sliding in front of another rider just at the end. Bike time: 2:29.
I had already undone the velcro on my shoes before entering the TZ the second time, and it looked to be a record change for me...until my right shoe release gave me trouble and I discovered my carefully-placed water bottles weren't where I left them (I later found them against the curb about 15 feet away; apparently, they were knocked over and tried to make an escape).
Enter the run, my best event by far. I decided before the race that, when it came to the run, I would go completely on instinct and set a single pace for the first half (one lap). Good idea...my initial pace was 6:35 miles: not too fast, but I was still passing a good number of people while keeping my legs fresh for the real competition. Second half, time to change gears and get rid of any energy I've got left. I stepped up the pace a bit for the third leg, blew by about a dozen runners, and told the first aid station to get ready to throw water on me down the final stretch. The leaders were definitely wearing, and I was only about 4k behind them when they passed going the other way. I felt good, but I was starting to notice the sun. At the final turn, I grabbed two cups of water, and went even harder. I had no idea what my pace was anymore, but stopped looking at runners going my direction up ahead to keep from overdoing it. Reached the final aid station, where the dutiful workers threw water and some sort of energy drink. With just 1.5k left, the rabbit chase resumed. As I neared the final hill, I saw the next guy up craning his neck to check out who was behind; he later told me he thought I was a relay runner, since I was catching him so fast, but he was confused by my individual number. Since it was a hill, I put all those hours of Ithaca running to work and was within 20m by the top, then made a quick move to finish tied for 6th in 4:43:42. Unexpectedly, I won the run again (1:23:45 -- 6:24 per mile) -- which makes me undefeated so far in tri runs.
Incidentally, the winner finished in 4:31, thanks to a swim over 16 minutes faster than mine. Ugh...anyone wanna teach me how to swim?
I wrote a lot of race reports in those days. Indeed, my history of races that include bike rides can largely be dredged up from such reports sent to either the cycling club or the running club list. I sometimes got responses, but mostly these race reports let me decompress after an event, think about what I did right or what I could have done better, and write something of beauty.
Behold the beauty!
BEHOLD AND COWER!
Next up: I got 10,000 problems, and one of them is what the hell to do after a target race
Mash out. Spin on.
Looking at the dates, I feel like the Tortoise and Hare has been mis-filed. My memory of it is in April, and my first triathlon is reported as happening the following day. It’s entirely possible, though, that I did something that unusual, because I might have seen the 10k as a good warmup. The trail running revelation would have just been a bonus, of course, so I would never have known that having a triathlon the next day would be weirdly uninspiring.
Whatever the circumstance, I was signed up for an Olympic-distance triathlon in Buffalo, my first ever 3-event event. Lake Erie was still chilly, but it was warming up quickly, so we were given the option of using a wetsuit; I bought one just in case, figuring it might come in handy later. It is now handily in my basement, unused in a decade, but for a brief time it served exactly the purposes I required: warmth, flotation, a reminder to get in the open water.
At the race start, I couldn’t hear any of the announcements. Suddenly, the race director went quiet, the gun went off, and everyone filed into the lake for an out-and-back. Limbs flailed. I remember being kicked and pushed, then finding my own spot with almost no traffic. Looking back, it seems that low-traffic spot was probably just well behind the pack, as I turned in a time only a wee bit under 30 minutes for an event that competitive swimmers polished off in far less.
My first ever transition was extremely slow (over 4 minutes), and I hopped on the bike for the easy 40k time trial. I was willing to concede a little time in this event for the sake of the run because I had no real desire to destroy myself in the race. That’s easy to say, but it’s hard to follow through on. Even at a stately pace, I cruised by a dozen competitors. When it came to the run -- an out-and-back-and-out-a-different-way-and-back -- I found myself passing even more people. My run time (37:30) was a really good time for a 10k, much better than I expected, and when it was all done, I don’t recall any tiredness.
None of it felt hard. I didn’t have a feeling of being “in the zone” or something at any point. I smiled my way through it, trying to encourage other cyclists and runners as I saw them. It felt like I knew what I was doing and just did it. On the other hand, I finished 10th of 50 participants, so it didn’t look great on paper.
But I looked great, which is really what counts.
After that race, it was clear that speed over distance was the key to success. Less competition, more focus on improvement, and the half ironman would be tenable. And I obviously had to get better at swimming and transitioning.
Things went well for a while. Until right around my birthday, when I hit a wee bitty snag: riding down the hill from a friend’s apartment, I caught a bag in my front spokes and flipped my bike. That sensation of falling has been lost to the ages, but I remember stopping against the curb and watching my first roadie, a Klein I’d bought on eBay, bounce down the road. Adrenaline pressed out the pain as I hurried down to assess the damage to my bike. The front wheel was bent, the rim damaged, and the downtube had taken the brunt of the first flip, leaving a large dent. The frame was unsalvageable.
I limped back up the hill to my friend’s apartment, broken bike in tow, and hitched a ride home. With just a few minor flesh wounds, training could continue, but I would be relegated to running and mountain biking until I could find a replacement. The competition deadline hovered somewhere in the near future, so I would also need to get a new bike quickly.
Let’s do a little temporal flexing here for a moment so I can properly explain how I came upon my Cervelo Soloist.
Over the winter -- as previously noted -- I joined the local cycling club, and they did some training events that meshed well with my invented race buildup. Every weekend, a group went out on a long ride. But like a good training program, those “long” rides started at about 30 miles and went up to a century around the lake at the end of summer. I decided to latch on every two weeks, giving me a relatively relaxed extended period on the bike.
I don’t know if everyone on those rides appreciated me being there, as I often pushed the pace a bit. I was impatient and geared to go pretty fast -- not too fast, because otherwise I’d be writing a serious book as a successful professional who overcame various obstacles (because serious pros write inspiring tales of overcoming obstacles), but fast enough that I would always finish among the front group. I typically spun out my legs on those relaxing rides, much to the delight of at least one fellow rider and much to the chagrin of many others. That was the “casual riding” side of the club.
On Thursdays, the “racing” side met at a local parking lot to do a 9-mile course one way, then ride slowly back to the lot for a decompression and results compilation. I loved this event. The short-format TT was just the right length for doing a short, extreme-intensity workout without overextending myself. The TT simply fit with the rest of my training week.
Through most of that summer, though, I had ridden the Klein, a relatively light but not spectacular bike that was maybe a centimeter or two bigger than it should have been, but because I’d bought it off eBay (early adopter, remember!) it didn’t cost a ton. I had taken it to the local bike guru, Glen Swann, whose shop was less a business venture than a way to pay for a really expensive habit. He would order a new bike each year for himself and sell the bike from the last year, plus some brand new components; he also sold his services as a (very good) mechanic, with his bike shop having a secondary role as the gathering place for weekly mountain bike rides.
Swann Cycles was (and still is) an Ithaca-area fixture. But Glen is what makes the place hum: he’s unassuming and generally laid back, but he’s passionate about bikes and biking. And he wants to pass that passion on to anyone willing to take the time. He’s mechanically gifted and -- now presumably somewhere between 50 and 70, since he doesn’t seem to age at all -- still fit enough to compete with riders just out of undergrad, at least over short to middle distances.
It was Glen who oversaw (and often “won”) the weekly time trial. It was Glen who organized the weekly mountain bike ride. And it was Glen who roped me into the Cervelo Soloist: a road bike with some extra aerodynamic styling for competitive time trialing. He knew me as strong in the TT but had never seen me race -- and wouldn’t until September sometime -- and the Soloist, though expensive for a grad student, was an excellent competition bike. Since I was a relatively known quantity, he was also willing to let me IOU half the cost.
Cervelo was just starting out, too, so the frame came with a lifetime warranty. I didn’t think anything of that at the time, but it did come in handy, as we will see in a future segment.
I ordered the bike one Monday evening, paid Glen what I had, and spent the week running and riding my mountain bike. That’s the same mountain bike I bought from my roommate as an undergrad, and it worked just fine on the hills of upstate New York. But let’s be honest, riding 40 km on a mountain bike is a brutal proposition, and sticking to my distance-based training plan really started to wear me down.
Come Thursday, August 8 (which I can handily see from looking back at the spotty records available on the cycling club listserv), Glen pulled up in his van with a brand-new, assembled, perfectly-tuned Cervelo Soloist.
I crushed that ride.
I can affirmatively report that I support the purchase of a $2000 bike to replace a $1000 bike. Or, with inflation over the last decade and some, a $3000 bike to replace a $1500 bike.
My time went from 21 and change (The Klein Era, which ended in early June) to 23+ (The Mountain Bike Era, which ended in late June) to 20 and change (The Cervelo Era, which has lasted a long time) in short order.
Over the next two months, I worked hard to get that cash to Glen, finally paying it off in September or October. And I loved that bike right into the ground.
It was the original Soloist design, shiny black background with white stripes flanking a blue strip that read “Cervelo”. The company was brand new, marketing its product to racers and triathletes everywhere, but positioning itself firmly in the top-middle to top-end markets. My officemates variously called it the “Cervix Jello” and the “Curve Low” and the “Weird-Looking Bike”. I called it mine.
I rode it up hills, down valleys, and across flats. Okay, I’ll be honest, there weren’t many flats, but that bike took me 40-160 km at a time through the training season on rides 5 times a week, plus another dozen transportation rides each week, including my grocery store trips. I loaded up my backpack as full as it could get, stressing the frame with 175 lbs of rider and food. It was my transportation, my recreation, my way of exiting the academic world for a couple hours at a time to think/procrastinate. (Hey, I was on break!)
It was also a way to get in trouble, taking me to locales where drivers thought cyclists were a menace to their trucks, locales where dogs thought cyclists were a menace to their turf, and locales where locals thought cyclists were a menace to their conservative values. Especially their States Rights Conservative values that included, for example (and this is not an exaggeration), the gravelly descent past the junkyard replete with aggressive dog and a high-flying flag bearing a bass -- the fish, not the instrument, though the new image of a standup bass in its place is quite amusing -- in front of the standard Confederate flag symbol.
Basically, cycling was everything that people outside Ithaca weren't. And yet I carried on.
Next up: Culminating in a Race
Mash out. Spin on.
So now we get to the Tortoise and Hare, or as I call it the T&H (not to be confused with TH, a common abbreviation for tennis-hockey -- well, as common as abbreviations for tennis-hockey go, and an abbreviation that’s at least potentially relevant to this book): I slammed through its 6.7 miles in 47:46. The T&H is almost all on single-track trails, a loop around a local park with a climb up a couple hundred feet. It was longer than anything I’d raced before, and I absolutely nailed it -- with a pretty mediocre performance that got me 5th.
I was 4 minutes behind the leader, but that seemed OK for my first try out. This was also my first trail race, and realistically the first time I’d run significantly on a trail instead of the roads. So that was nice. (I’m trying my hardest to dull this as much as possible, because the next section is full of exclamation marks and happy thoughts.)
Trail running was unbelievable!
As you know, this isn’t a serious book with serious insights about the seriosity of running. So I won’t wax eloquently about how running a trail is like learning to walk when all you knew was how to sit up and play with the toys around you. Or how trail running opens new and beautiful worlds that road runners can never dream of. Or how trail running makes other forms of freedom seem empty. No such comparisons will be made. Except in the following paragraph.
Calling it "indescribable" would be, of course, absurd for a person scribing a book. It was like I'd been listening to Nintendo music my whole life and now found myself in a concert hall with the London Symphony Orchestra. Yeah, the 8-bit shit can get the job done, but there's no richness, depth, complexity, or wonder. And sure, you could live in a world where 8-bit noise is the only form of entertainment, but once you know the LSO exists you find this dystopian vision appalling.
Eight years after starting my running career, seven years after becoming addicted, trail running blew me away. I mean, I’d always enjoyed getting off the pavement onto dirt roads, but I never imagined running completely on paths, in forests, above waterfalls, across creeks, over rocks, under logs, around -- well, let’s be honest, around other runners. Yeah, I’d raced before, but this wasn’t just something I enjoyed, it was something I was damn good at!
To recap, I enjoyed the experience.
It was at this race that I met Jenna and Lawren, who would become my guides on this journey, my own Ziggy and Al for this quantum leap in running. But most of my leaps ended with me at home, and there was no waiting room or anything creepy like that. And I was the only one who really knew my overarching plan, unlike Dr. Sam Beckett, who didn’t have a clue what his plan was, because he just carelessly stepped into that Quantum Leap Accelerator to prove it would work. And Lawren didn't break down for the first part of every episode, and Jenna couldn't show me laser beams where I had to make that magic pool shot. So it kind of wasn’t like Ziggy and Al at all. But that was still a fun show when I was a kid (though it might be less so if I re-watched it) (and I can) (but I won't because what if it sucks?) (how not to destroy a good childhood memory: don't dredge up its details).
It was Jenna who hooked me into the local running community. I spent several days meeting up with her at events, then going for runs of various lengths. I never counted these as my runs unless they happened on weekends, which she often used to catch up on her goal of running the entire Finger Lakes Trail system.
Upstate New York is a curious creature. The residents are almost all conservative if they live outside the collegiate enclaves. Near academic centers, though, the pendulum swings far in the opposite direction. The brand of liberalism is rampant environmentalist, while the brand of conservatism glorifies the unmarred beauty of the state’s land -- and personal property.
As a result, a trail system over 550 miles long was established that wound its way through forests, into valleys and up hills, over pastures, and straight across marshlands. The trail system serves as an anchor for multiple spur trails and systems, and it gives race coordinators an ideal access point for trail races.
I had never seen that extent of continuous trails outside a national park. The FLT’s closest approach was just south of town, and I ran with Jenna along stretches from Watkins Glen to east of Ithaca. She had this crazy idea that she could run the entire trail system while she lived in the area, and I was more than happy to help. It eventually became a playground for me: I would ride to the trailhead and put in 8-10 miles at once, sometimes going long just because I lost track of time.
I don’t know if Jenna ever achieved her goal on the FLT. Unfortunately, she was killed in a car accident several years after leaving Ithaca. But shortly after I met her, she became irreplaceable as a running companion and trail guide.
Lawren, meanwhile, emailed or called in the middle of the day to ask if I wanted to run. His pace was generally slower than my normal pace, so the runs were a relaxing way to spend an hour or two before lunch. We explored the campus trails, which included “The Bouncy Bridge”, the golf course, the equestrian center, and some far-afield stretches that wound along uneven terrain next to one of the rivers. We also made our way south and ran to the reservoir, or ran along the Rec Way, or ran through the cemetery and down to the lake.
My memory now simmers with trail excursions during that time, but most of them are snippets. Crossing the bouncy bridge after a heavy rain. Stumbling down the steep creek trail, then pulling off our shoes for a creek crossing. Collecting an errant golf ball hundreds of yards downslope of the course -- clearly someone with a wicked slice. Running along the railroad ties south and west of town. Clambering up the steep hill next to Buttermilk Falls State Park. Running through spider webs high above the valley in Watkins Glen. Emerging from the forest up-range of a guy doing bow-and-arrow target practice for upcoming deer season. Locking eyes with a hunter dressing a deer just off-trail at Connecticut Hill.
We might pass through some of those on the way to the end of this story, or they may just be wisps of memory that live on only in that brief paragraph, echoes of dark matter that live in the shadows but ultimately govern most of our lives.
For now, though, let’s just move along from this whole Tortoise and Hare thing. I did awesome.
Next up: Triathleticization
Mash out. Spin on.
I’ve heard it said that grad school is an excuse to continue the undergraduate experience without the inexperience of youth. It really can be! At least, it has been for at least one person, whose name shall remain unspoken.
I quickly settled into a grad school routine, taking a few classes my first semester and spending time boning up on the material I’d need for my thesis. You know, that thing I would eventually write, 4 or 6 or 8 years down the line. (I did eventually write it. It was 8 years.)
I got up every morning to run the chosen route, a relatively flat course. Then I rode my bike to campus, up the steep 600-foot incline, hammering up the slope with blatant disregard for my ultimate sweatiness. My officemates, I’m sure, loved me. Hell, they could probably smell me on my way up.
As any good grad student does, I took breaks during the day. Long breaks. Early breaks. Breaks for coffee and lunch and coffee and snack and dinner and coffee and snack and alcohol. Breaks during my breaks to get alcohol during snack or dinner.
Yes, I spent a good amount of time on and around campus, typically putting in 6-12 hours a day on thesis and school work and another 6-10 variously taking breaks. I sought out and found the local cycling club and attended their annual meeting the first spring I was around. I took photos and gained darkroom access. I slipped away to sit under the local waterfall, which turned out to be a former Superfund site that still had some pretty high lead content in the rocks.
Eventually, I also found that running before class wasn’t always possible, so I explored campus. Cornell offers a network of trails through a variety of terrains, but because I was going by what was then available on maps, those early days were filled with roads; off-road excursions were rare except for the few hundred yards I put in around the golf course downtown on my standard run.
There’s a whole stable of races offered in the Ithaca area, though, and with my experience at Gustavus, I was eager to see how I stacked up against “real” competition. This, I thought, was some pretty big stuff: a large student body, a pretty sizable city, and a reputation for being a hippy-athletic town made it seem like these races would have competitive top ends.
I showed up to the Tortoise & Hare in June 2002, my first non-collegiate race ever. I’ll go back and find that result in a second, but keep you in suspense with a digression. Suspend yourself!
That January, I briefly met up with a young woman whom I found quite attractive. She ran each morning, so I joined her one day for a 6-mile trip. That was, obviously, longer than my usual run, but I was fine with extending my range a bit if it meant getting to know her better, as they say.
She mentioned that she planned on running a marathon later that summer. A marathon sounds interesting, I said to myself. With all my newfound free time, I was sure to be able to train for one -- or at least I could convince myself that was an acceptable use of my grad school days.
But I also loved biking, so a marathon sounded a bit low-key. I would need something even more spectacular and unique. Triathlons! Yes, triathlons! At the time, they weren't a huge deal, but they could be found here and there.
It was around mid-February, and I made a plan: pick a target race, train for it, and do the race. The target was the Half Ironman Canada triathlon in Montreal, held at the end of August. That gave me 6 months to train.
Since the internet was relatively young at that point, it was possible to get some pretty good information on training programs from people who weren’t protective of their content. I patched together a schedule that had me ramping from my current 4-mile run and 15-mile max bike ride to something significantly longer. This was also before triathlons became regular events, things done by bored dentists (gotta flog that stereotype!) and thrown together using a YMCA pool, an ill-used suburban walking path, and an out-and-back course that explore a dozen cul-de-sacs of doom. It was, in fact, different and relatively rare at the time -- just like trail running, which hadn’t yet come into its own as a sport.
It was clear that I would need an appropriate bike for the task as well. And I would have to take on some swimming to see what it was like spending 40 minutes in the water. (It turned out I needed to find out what it was like spending more than 50 minutes in the water. But we’re already in a past-within-a-past paragraph here, which puts us only just a little too close to Daleks and Cybermen for temporal confusion.)
Because I also had some time to surf the web, my new training plan emerged like a shiny green tomato from its parent flower. I envisioned a build-up that would rival the anticipation of the long ride to Minneapolis the year before.
The (Half) Ironman Training Plan
0. Start in shape enough to run at least 3-4 miles and bike 15-20 miles.
1. Target a race that’s at least 3 months away; I might even put the cap at 4 months out. You’re building here.
2. Pick a “day off”. I chose Tuesday, then never took a day off because I was 22. At 32, it would have been a different story.
3. Find a decently flat 3 or 4 mile run to use as the baseline. This should be something you can go back to repeatedly to do cool-down runs, high-intensity runs, and general assessment runs.
4. Set up your training plan so you do a minimum of the following:
5. Write the plan down, using the following guidelines:
6. Find some races to fill in various weekends. These races will replace long days but shouldn’t even come close to your “long” distance. My guideline was that they should be no more than 60% and closer to 40-50% of the distance I was comfortable doing on the distance day. If I could push out a 15-mile run on the weekend, I was good for a 10k race, maybe a 15k race if that’s all I could find. Races should be relatively evenly spaced and should include any events you plan to race in (I did runs and triathlons that year, runs and triathlons and bike races the following summer).
7. Find some local groups to latch onto and see if you can work one or two social workouts into the mix. These will break up the monotony. And there will be monotony.
I’ve put my first training plan in the Appendix. Oh wait, I don’t seem to have that because 2002 Me didn’t think to save it and send it on. Oh well. You’ll just have to trust that it was a thing of beauty and hung above my computer for the whole summer. I'll put a representative version in the actual book.
For the first time in my life, I typed up my training plan.
I taped it to my bookshelf, right above my computer. Every day I would tick off events completed, but I would never time anything. Workouts were based on “feeling”, so if I felt slow for a sprint workout, I would simply do my best to keep to the plan and let the chips fall into my gut afterwards. See what I did there, turning that expression into the implication of a post-run meal? Clever, no?
After four weeks, I was up to some pretty significant workout mileage. After another four weeks, I was in great shape and ready for my first test: The Tortoise and Hare.
(Now suspend in suspense, having arrived at the first present of the past-within-the-past -- that is, the boringly simple past.)
Next up: Tortoises, Hares, Runs, and Finger Lakes Trails!
Mash out. Spin on.