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.