Friday, July 31, 2009

Day Five

Day 5 is the century day.

It’s an optional loop you encounter around mile 35 of a 77 mile day. Taking the loop tacks on the extra 23 miles. But it’s never guaranteed. Sometimes the loop mileage gets you to a full 100 miles. Or in the case of the one year where Ragbrai did really bad math, you end up going 114 miles.

Very few do the century on our team and I see their point. Once you get beyond 85 miles the fun factor in the ride decreases exponentially. Regardless, I’m always in for it and usually out of pity, fear or coercion, Chris joins me. This year, Red Bear and JB decided to tag along too. We were up early and out of camp by 8:30 am. Early for us. Whereas the rest of Ragbrai was on the course in full force on the roads and hanging out in the left lane.

ON YOUR LEFT!

The first 20 miles Chris pulled us into a headwind. I put myself in the back of the line to give JB and Red Bear a fair chance at a draft since there is no draft behind me. The pace was strong but too controlled which allowed the meat of Ragbrai to start to cling to my wheel. Typically Giff and I police the back of the line together, shouting at stragglers, squirrels and pack meat telling them with a simple shake of the head, you don’t belong here. It’s for their own safety. I told Chris to pick up the pace but I could tell he was doing his “appropriate century pace”. I realized that doing 100 miles on day 5 is totally inappropriate so I decided to take a risk and blow the century pace. Not very appropriate but…problem solved.

At some point, 3 college boys passed us at a pace that was damn fast. Chris, cruising at his appropriate pace soon found me pulled up next to him shouting GO WITH THEM! There’s no point in doing work on the century day when someone else is willing to work for you. Make those boys your bitch!

Three boys with fast bikes. One had race wheels (WHO brings race wheels on Ragbrai?), one was just darn cute (didn’t even catch what his bike looked like but I liked his sunglasses) and the other had a serious seat-too-high issue plus he was spinning at 120 rpms. Still, they were fast. They pulled us for a bit then we pulled them. I let them go in front of me with the warning that I’ll give them the better position in line for a draft but if they drop me I will find them and eat them alive.

The road was getting thicker with Ragbrai and we were moving now at speeds that were not too safe for weaving. At one point, Chris backs off, a gap forms and I see my opening. The college boys were taking off so I make a big jump to catch their wheel and ride to the next town. The cute one said “so the boys couldn’t keep up with you?” No, the boys just didn’t want to hold your squirrely wheel anymore but I’m willing to take a chance. It lasted a few miles before we arrived in the next town where I waited for everyone.

Finally we arrived at the start of the century loop at the 35 mile mark. Our plan was to do a rotating paceline so no single rider got too tired for the rest of the day. The course started into a headwind taking us around Rathbam Lake with beautiful views. After a few miles, we heard the unfamiliar whir of something really fast approaching us. It’s not often we hear that on Ragbrai. A guy leading a paceline of riders dressed in the same sleek grey kits pulls up on our left and says “hop on.”

When someone moving faster says “hop on” you do it. I hopped in behind some guy and realized we were riding with a team called Balance out of Minnesota. If our team is fast, these guys were fucking unbelievable. It was as if they were pedaling in unison, the same cadence locked in a rhythm so smooth it was hypnotizing. They were pulling us at 24 mph into a crosswind. The wind was coming out of the left – and yet again I learned a valuable lesson in cycling. Position is everything. When you’re riding with a crosswind and you’re small it’s better to be on the inside of the line. The outside you find less of a draft and end up working hard for that 24 mph. Too hard. And so I hung on for about 10 miles before I just could…not…hang…on…any…more. I fought it, redlined, it hurt hurt hurt and then I was…off.

Alone on the century loop but I knew in another few miles there would be a turn into tailwind. Besides it was a gloriously sunny day with impeccable blue skies. I can go this alone – any day. At the end of the loop, I found Red Bear, JB and Chris. A few miles later we found the rest of our team along the road (those that didn’t do the century loop) and joined en route to Moravia. A few miles later we were greeted with a giant sign promising free beer and, well, it’s team law. We stopped. For whatever reason, I wasn’t interested in civil disobedience today.

Best thing I’ve ever eaten on Ragbrai? Pulled smoked chicken sandwich bathed in smoky barbeque sauce washed down with a cold beer. There, I said it. I drank the free beer and I liked it. It was the perfect pick me up, an unexpected addition to my nonplanned fuel plan and it sat in my stomach like gold. All that bullshit about only doing gels and bars while riding? Clearly no one has ever tried the pulled chicken fuel plan.

The rest of the day cruised by with the original route being 76.9 miles with 3,388 feet of elevation gain. Somehow the century loop made the total mileage 104 miles (and that is Ragbrai bad math). The pace averaged about 20 mph which is nothing for a triathlon but on a road bike, today, here, now, it surprised me. I had 5 days of hills, mileage, interrupted sleep, no stretching, no recovery, no consistent sports nutrition, no green food in my diet, no smoothies, no whey protein, no naps, no ice baths, no salt tabs, no massage, no foam rolling, none of that crap that everyone says is so important that you cannot be an athlete without it - actually I was going about everything so “wrong” that I had no idea how I was still pedaling. The pain in my feet pulsed and my crotch died about 2 days ago. But my legs – felt surprisingly fresh and responsive to whatever challenge I threw at them. Whether it was a surge, a bridge, a hill, up tempo, coasting…they were there.


And that surprised me. Because honestly when was the last time I rode hard for 5 days in a row? Therein lies the answer…it’s all cycling. There’s no impact, no balancing 3 sports, no stress from switching from swim to bike to run. Hop on your bike and just ride. Of course a lot of the riding was easy paceline work but when I needed my giddy up it would get up and go. Power output was good. And heart rate – hilarious. Like you would catch me on Ragbrai with a heart rate monitor. I still could be dead for all I know. I could have my heart rate at 190 or 120. It really didn’t matter. The legs did what they needed to do over and over again. I surprised myself but in a way – not really. When I’m driven, connected and when I want it bad enough I find a way. You always find a way.

Finally we pulled into Ottumwa for the night. Dr. Nuts parked our campsite behind an auto parts store. I repeat – we camped behind an auto parts store. It was a beautiful grassy lot along the river but like I told The Weatherman, if last night we camped at the corner of Frequent Train and Barking Dog, tonight we camped at the corner of Rusty Nail and Malaria.

And, when was the last time you showered in an auto parts store parking lot? I’ll answer that for you – never. And good thing because you really shouldn’t. You find yourself standing in a parking space between two rentable trucks, holding a garden hose for a shower with your toiletries spread out on one of those cement blocks at the end of the parking spot with the Red Bear who is shouting at you “STOP SHOWING ME YOUR JUNK.” For the record, I wasn’t. I was so mortified by the fact that I was bathing in a parking lot that I bathed in my bike shorts and jog bra and swore to myself I would get a full body tetanus shot when I got home.

That night we walked into Ottumwa. Ottumwa is an economically depressed river community with a troubled population. A large bridge crossed over the Des Moines River into a ravaged downtown filled with burnt out remnants of an economy no longer thriving, empty buildings with broken windows, one bar and a few adult entertainment venues. We walked along the broken streets to see a most sad sign posted on one of the brick walls that said “Renovation in Progress.” This town hadn’t seen renovation in years.

After a quick trip to a bar and then an even quicker trip to an adult entertainment venue (yet another “I’ll spare you the details” but when Jen asked what was worse to go there with her brother or me to go there with my husband I had to think that NEITHER of us drew the lucky card), we walked back to the beer garden and hung out with Atlas.

The night ended in the dark field behind the auto parts store after walking what felt like 6 miles around Ottumwa. I was ready for sleep, hoping that being along the river meant we were far enough from the train. Hoping the sleep would be uninterrupted and deep. But as a cockroach skittered across the parking lot I knew there would be little chance of that. I zipped myself into the tent and knew morning couldn’t come soon enough. Get me out of this town and back on my bike. I’ve still got some giddy up in these legs and even after 300+ miles I’m still raring to go.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Day Four

On Day 4 I felt like a rock star.

Except for my feet. They were so raw as the knuckles of my smaller toes were being chafed bloody by the cycling shoe. Most valuable member of a Ragbrai team? A doctor. Leave it to Dr. Nuts to fix me up. He pulls out a jar of something that he explains will seal my toes for the next 3 days. I don’t know what it was but when Red Bear walked by asking what it was I told him that Dr. Nuts was shellacking my toes to protect them.

Red Bear then asked if Dr. Nuts could shellac his liver for protection.

Before we rolled out, Chris and I headed to the town square to the cutest coffee shop. Imagine that – real coffee on Ragbrai. I’ll pay 4 bucks for that. I fueled up with a bagel, yogurt, coffee, even peanut butter. Chris had a cinnamon bun. His diet had been so Ragbraied I told him that for a week after he was going on green foods only detox and for the first time ever he agreed.

Today would be easy. 44.4 miles with 2,182 feet of climbing. It almost seems silly to get on to the bike for less than 50 miles. 44.4 miles is a little over 2 hours. 2 hours is…not even worth using up a pair of clean shorts. Plus, what would we do with the rest of the day…?

A few miles ahead we found the rest of the team at a breakfast stop alongside the road. They opted for breakfast burritos that were turning out to be not such a good idea. Not only that but the team looked ragged. Some were up really late last night having a fun in true Ragbrai proportions and there were a lot of mumbles and grumbles going around.

We rolled out as a group on to Milo. I did some pulling, the pace was fast at times but it was mostly flat. We pulled into Milo realizing that we had half the route done in about an hour. This ride was going by too fast and the day was too early. M took a nap in a makeshift tent. The rest of us listened to the worst karaoke possible. Dr. Nuts bought a case of Coors Light that the guys enjoyed while we sat on the ground surrounded by bikes. We were killing time, Ragbrai-style.

And we had time to kill. You see, we had an appointment today. An appointment for filming. After National Geographic rated Ragbrai as number 7 on the world’s top 100 outdoor adventures, it sparked some interest. A camera crew had been rolling around all week. All week we had passed this crew being hauled up hills by a tandem with a rack on the back, some guy sitting on it with a camera filming the ride go by. Somehow the crew knew a guy that we knew and that guy told the filmers, if you want to film fast riders in a paceline, you find Trousermouse.

The first round of filming was somewhere between Milo and Lacona. They wanted us to ride in a rotating double paceline with 30 second pulls. Most of our team was there plus the Metz boys. The Metz boys are a father and son duo – both former pro cyclists. To give you a sense of how strong they are, Sean’s quads are the size of both my legs together and Todd did all of Ragbrai on a steel cyclocross bike.

The paceline assembled and we took turns pulling. It was both exhilarating and nervewracking. The meat of Ragbrai was on the right of us as we whizzed down the left side of the road. Plus the pressure of the camera there to capture our every move, every word and by the way hold your freakin’ line. At one point it was Jen and I leading both lines. We were pulling at least 10 men ridiculously fast down the road, coming up on Ragbrai shouting ON YOUR LEFT! In a word it was – powerful. Power is power. And it feels so good. We kept trying to decide where to roll off, “now?” she’d asked, “up over the next hill” I’d say. This stretch of road was hill after hill after hill so we pulled a good 5 minutes strong up and over the hills before we finally rolled off.

Once in Lacona, the filming stopped and we waited for our second appointment where they wanted us to do some other work down a road off the route. Under a giant sycamore, most of us sat in the grass passing time and catching our breath. Breathe. I looked up through the sycamore to see the most beautiful Ragbrai sky scattered with cumulus clouds.

After awhile, Atlas arrived and set up a heckle hill to watch the riders roll out of town. Since we were still waiting, we joined them. From someone’s lawn, M. borrowed a small yellow plastic turtle statue with a flag on it that said something like “slow down, children at play” and put it in the middle of the road along with a dollar. The goal of this game is to get riders to stop to pick up the dollar. I’ll spare you the details but will add that if you ever see a dollar on the ground on Ragbrai do not pick it up. Next up someone tipped the plastic turtle which then led B. to spread POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS tape across the road to warn riders of the “accident”. That led to a game of Ragbrai Limbo to see if any riders would get low enough on their bikes to go under the tape.

Finally the filming crew arrived. A few of the Atlas team joined us and in a split second they shouted “it’s time!”. My wattage and HR went from zero to 239498 in matter of seconds and once again I realized the importance of having a strong jump in cycling. I was able to jump on to the line and we rode. This was more nervewracking than the first filming. The group was bigger but this time they wanted a single paceline rotating down the road at high speeds. Hold your line, keep pace, accelerate, up the hill, hold it, breathe, watch the wheel. After about 20 minutes, the filming was done and we had to state our names and release the footage to be used on tape.

As a giant group, Atlas, Bastardos and Trousermouse rolled out of Lacona to finish up what was now feeling like an neverending 44 mile day. We were in a large paceline and I remember getting to the front and pulling with Chris. Pushing down a very steep hill, Sean told me that I had several more gears to go so I geared down and tried my best to downhill pull. My downhill pull is useless to the guys behind me, with a good 60+ pounds on me, so I watched the entire group pull around me, outdescend me and start up to the next hill.

The downhill outdescend. So frustrating. Rather than sit up and accept that yet again I was outdescended, I made a move. Jumped out of my saddle putting out a new all time high power output to not only bridge the gap but hammer my way up a really long, steep hill to get around them. I have no idea how I did it. The gap was so big and this hill was so steep. As I came up on their left someone shouted no fucking way. Well, fuck you guys because here I come up and over the hill now, huzzah. I caught up to Wally and Steve – both great climbers – and got on their wheels and we pulled away.

We had about 12 miles to go when I realized the rest of the group stopped for free beer alongside the road. It’s team rule that you always stop for free beer but…not today for me. I'm willing to break the rule. Instead, I hung on for dear life to Steve’s wheel who was hanging on for dear life to Wally’s wheel who pulled us into a crosswind at 26 mph into town. It was a pace so awesome in the conditions that when we finally arrived, Steve said to Wally, “If I was gay I would totally want to make out with you tonight.” I will never forget those 12 miles. Holding on felt so fast, so fluid. If it caused me any pain, it was worth every second of it.

During those 12 miles, in addition to concentrating on Steve’s wheel so hard that my head hurt, I thought about the why. You see, for the past 4 days I had been chided over and over again for “not having fun”, for not drinking beer, for not getting silly drunk during the day. I brush it all off because my actions need not be owned by anyone but me. If other people want to put me down because of what I do – whatever, that is their waste of time. But still it made me think. Really – why don’t I just drink myself silly and have what everyone is telling me is such a good time….

It hit me today. It’s because I love to ride. I have no interest in stopping in a town to throw up hungover in the grass when I can throw up in my mouth as I put out explosive power to bridge a gap up a hill. I want to throw up pancakes while outclimbing the men. I want to leave pieces of my quads in the grass when I finally lay down to rest. THAT is what I’m here for. THOSE are my good times.

I rolled into camp in Chariton. If the trains in Council Bluffs were bad, it only got worse here as we were camped at the corner of Frequent Train and Barking Dog (or dog who barked in response to frequent train). Waiting for everyone to get back from what ended up being a classic stop of free beer and naked beer slides…I went for a run and my legs felt amazing. Red Bear rolled in to town and rode alongside me. Someone rollerbladed up to me and asked if I was running Ragbrai. I think I slapped them but more likely said “dear god no are you out of your mind?” Run Ragbrai. Why on earth would you waste a good Ragbrai like that?

Later that evening, I walked around Chariton by myself. I spend a lot of time on Ragbrai alone. It’s one of the few places in life where you can disconnect , disappear into the darkness of night and have quiet in your thoughts. Today was a good day. Moments were hard but I felt free and powerful. I’m here to ride. I don’t know why anyone else is here and honestly I don’t care. This is my ride, my time. In fact, these are my good times.


Which are only going to get better because tomorrow is 100 miles.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Day Three

Day 3 is always the hardest day.

At this point your body realizes you are doing something to it that you probably shouldn’t be doing. It has been going on very little sleep. It is getting hungry. It is getting chafed. And the feet hurt. That was the worst of my casualties. My feet were killing me. Riding in the rain yesterday without socks was not one of my best ideas. Proven by the small toe on my left foot which was trying to secede from the union of my foot. In a very painful way.

We woke up to the sound of pouring rain. I looked at the clothesline we had strung between two giant Silver Maples and watched our jerseys, shorts, towels drip heavy with rain. Chris and I decided to grab everything and head to the local laundromat. It was nearly impossible to find and involved crossing the route which at 7 am – though it was pouring rain – was streaming with riders eager to get started on their day. Some riders leave at 5 am. Some at 7 am. With 77 miles to ride today, many would need this head start. And the rain wouldn’t help.

Finally we are at the laundromat, clothes washed then clothes dried until we brought back fresh smelling clothes warm from the dryer. I think we all agreed that it felt like heaven. Meanwhile, everyone was gathered on Virgil and Joanne’s porch laughing the morning away. None of us were eager to start riding in the rain so instead Joanne made coffee, she brought out her peanut bars, sat on the porch swing and laughter broke through the rain. Lois came over and brought leftover muffins and egg bake. It was one of the most comfortable mornings I’ve ever had on Ragbrai.

But it must end at some point because it was time to ride. Day 3 promised 77.1 miles with 4, 470 feet of climbing. By 10:30 am, the rain had stopped and the roads were drying. It was time to ride. Fresh shorts, clean jersey, warm socks, let’s ride.

The first 10 miles were hilly. It was Chris, Jen, Red Bear, Trixie, Soko and I setting out into those hills with a stiff crosswind. I put myself in the back to help some others get a better draft in the paceline. By mile 9 I was behind the Red Bear. And when he dropped off on a hill, it left me going backwards behind him. I was fighting the wind, a hill and a gap – that I couldn’t bridge. Someone turned around seeing me going off the back yet the group pressed forward.

I got pissed. At the very least slow up for 15 seconds so I can hop back on the group. Isn’t that why I waited for everyone to pack their stuff up this morning? So we could ride – together? Meanwhile I was fighting the hills and wind to catch back up. I could see them moving as a pack up the road, over the hills while the gap between me and them grew. At one point they were 2 minutes ahead and I realized it was not worth the chase.

I’m not sure if it was the rain the day before, the pain in my toes or just day-3-being-tired but first I got angry, then I got grumpy, then I decided I would ride the entire day as nonstop as possible alone. I saw the group in the first town and just rode. The hills were relentless. I spent most of my time grinding up at 10 mph passing Ragbrai like it was standing still. Finally I made a stop for food around 40 miles into the ride into the town of Peru. At some point the group must have passed while I was in town because I saw them on another well-created Heckle Hill, where they first offered me beer, then heckled me, then I kept going.

About 30 minutes later I stopped in the town of St. Charles – the 50 mile mark of the route. I was spent, beat and my feet hurt so freakin’ bad. I think I was bonking for the past 20 miles. I needed water, salt and food. Now.

I look behind me and see Chris.

Do you know how much wattage it takes to chase one angry wife for 30 minutes?

Lots.

We ate the typical Ragbrai lunch – he a pulled pork sandwich, me a grilled chicken sandwich that was so dry it took about 3 cups of ketchup to make it palatable. I saw a sign leading into the town that promised FUDGE and knew I had to have some. I absolutely love homemade fudge. I found the vendor and ordered ¼ pound of Peanut Butter and another ¼ pound of Snickers-type fudge. Both were delicious. And now there was ½ pound of fudge in my belly. Which I later learned was like going without socks – not my best idea.

The next 10 miles were hell. The sugar surge from the fudge was churning through me while my less than stellar effort at hydrating today was catching up. I could tell Chris was working hard to go slow enough to ride with me. It was still hilly and the wind was picking up.

Alongside the road we see a sign for wine tasting at a winery. In a split second we decide to go. We ride 1 mile up a gravel road to a building with the most beautiful vista over lush vineyards. Unfortunately after a few sips we realized that while Iowa makes great pork and sweet corn it makes absolutely wretched wine. Imagine grapes that grow fat from humid summers with washed out flavors of oversweet.

Barf.

Back on the road we rolled out to Prolle and found JB and Dr. Nuts sitting in some chairs in a field. We hung out with them for awhile and I marveled at the height of the corn. It had to be 6 – 7 feet this year. And it’s not even August yet. Chris and I then rolled on toward Indianola. At this point I got my second wind of the day – fueled by two women who were trying to outclimb me.

I didn’t like that.

So I started riding harder to push past them, outdescend them and then eventually drop them. Chris says to me “somebody is feeling better” or honestly somebody just got a fire under their ass and doesn’t like to be passed on the ride.

The day ended up being around 80 miles when we finally rolled into campus of Simpson College. It was a long day. Though it took a little over 4 hours to do the ride, we were out there on the course for 7 hours. And that is a short day. Some days we are out there up to 11 hours doing…whatever. Heckling, relaxing, talking, goofing off. It’s Ragbrai. There’s no rush. 40 miles can take all day.

In Indianola we camped on a lawn that belonged to a young couple. If they were 20 they were old. They had a baby. They smoked cigarettes. And the guy had “69” tattooed on his hand. Above his knuckle tattooes. And his hat was tipped to the left. Regardless you learn to never judge a person by what is tattooed on their body because no sooner did he actually invite me into the house to take a shower. A real shower. At least once during the week someone in Iowa will allow you to shower in their home. The hospitality and trust always amazes me and I find myself grateful for finally feeling clean.

Later that night, I met up with Rachelle and Kristin. They came bearing gifts for the team (so sweet!) and helped me experience my first Fluffy Taco (wow, that sounds bad). It’s an Indianola specialty. I headed back to camp around 9:30 pm and noticed a party in full swing on the lawn. There was a lot of laughing and shouting. Trixie was offering Red Bell. Giff and Chris were having a heated discussion about how Ragbrai used to be cut throat riding and quietly I agree. I can read through the lines and know that Chris is plotting some put up or shut up moves in the days ahead. It’s best not to anger Chris when a bike is involved. It’s like waking a sleeping bear. You will get clawed because he’s not hungry for berries.

Good thing tomorrow is only 45 miles.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Day Two

Day 2 we wake up to a flat tire on the van. And a dead battery.

Apparently you cannot charge 190932489023804 cell phones all night long. And you probably shouldn’t leave the doors open. And running over a 6 inch nail on the way into Red Oak didn’t help either. The problem wasn’t changing the flat tire. It was finding the spare. Then extracting it from the van. After that, Dr. Nuts quickly changed the flat and cursed himself for choosing to sag that day.

The rest of us readied ourselves, bid farewell to Ross the 92 year old World War II veteran who let us set up camp in his front yard and then set out for the ride. Chris, Red Bear and I chose to make our breakfast stop at the HyVee breakfast buffet to fill up on eggs, bagels, potatoes and other things you shouldn’t eat before a ride but food is fuel and today we were going to need it.

Today we would cover 72.6 miles with 5,096 feet of elevation gain. Hilly courses suit me well and there is nothing more gratifying than passing people up a climb. On a hilly course you quickly realize what it takes to climb a hill and climb it well. I get this question a lot from athletes, how to climb better on the hills:

1 – Power to weight. A high power to weight ratio is important for climbing. To figure your power to weight, take your 20 minute power output and divide it by your weight in kilograms (which is your weight in pounds divided by 2.2). That number is your power to weight ratio. From what I’ve seen, athletes that have ratios over 4 watts/kg are generally top age groupers and good climbers. How can you improve your ratio? Drop weight or increase power. Pick your poison (of course in dropping weight you can also lose power so it’s a delicate balance).

2 – Anticipate the hill. Shift early and shift often. You should be in the proper gear at the bottom of the hill, not shifting in the middle of it. Along those same lines, learn how to shift. Know that you cannot drop from the easiest gear in the big ring to the little ring or else you will drop your chain. It’s best to shift down a few gears in the back then go drop from big to small ring. That said, also learn how to put your chain back on while riding should you drop it (shift into your big ring while continuing to pedal).

3 – Keep your cadence high. While you might initially get over the hill faster in a big gear, you will blow your legs out and blow up at the top of the hill. The proper gearing and cadence when climbing should allow you to get to the top of the hill, shift down and push harder over the hill. If not, you have climbed your hill too hard.

4 – Learn what works best for you and for the hill. Smaller athletes can afford to get out of the saddle and climb their hill harder whereas standing would increase the HR of a bigger athlete – thus costing them more. Standing allows you to put more torque on the pedals and increase power to get up and over that hill faster. Longer hills are better climbed seated with less torque and higher cadence. Shorter steeper hills can be stomped by either athlete and the cost is minimal.

5 – Develop the ability to jump on a hill. Especially if you are riding in a line, the ability to respond to surges on a hill is important for staying with the group. Learn how to jump out of the saddle or surge your effort in the middle of the hill and then get back up to tempo pace. The ability to quickly surge, recover and return to tempo is a skill that requires excellent fitness and power – which is something you realize very few athletes have (some are fit with power, others have power but are not fit).

At some point, a few random riders hopped in our line and were now in front of me. I remember getting frustrated with their surge and coast crap riding (lesson #126 of group riding, never stop pedaling, avoid the surge & coast) so I came around the side of the line and decided to attack to drop some of them knowing there was only 8 miles to go. I always think in terms of 20 mph and multiply everything by 3. 8 miles is only 24 minutes at the worst. You can do anything for 24 minutes. I took off hard. Chris was right next to me matching the tempo and pulling some of the group. I climbed the hills hard out of the saddle screaming like a mad woman ON YOUR LEFT! and accelerating at the top of each hill. This is power. Fitness is power and power feels good.

We finally near Villisca and we slow the pace as we come upon the meat of Ragbrai rolling into the town. The hill up into the town is so steep that many are walking. On the left hand side of the road we see Atlas and realize they have turned this into Heckle Hill.

Heckle Hill is a game they play nearly every day. Find a steep hill, sit along side it with a few cases of beer and heckle riders as they come into town. Today’s heckling had some of Atlas and our team asking riders if they wanted an escort up the hill. M hopped on some girl’s bike and rode it to the top of the hill for her. They also heckled anyone actually riding up the hill (overachiever) and scolded those walking with “welcome to Walkbrai”. We spent the next hour or so heckling and watching riders walk the hill. And watching the rain fall. Rain is inevitable at some point on Ragbrai and by the time we were ready to leave Villisca it was falling in full force.

I left the town with the group but at some point I pulled ahead to ride on my own. I don’t like to ride with groups in the rain. Not on Ragbrai. Too dangerous to go around people on the left hand side of the road avoiding cracks, cars up and whizzing by riders with I-Pods on slippery roads while exceeding 20 mph. The rain was pouring now and by the time we reached Fontanelle I was cold and soaked. The temperature was about 65 but after a day of being wet it felt like 45 and I was actually shivering.

There were about 8 miles to go to Greenfield, the end town. There was nothing you could do but ride. Nowhere to warm up, no shelter unless you count a few large trees in the town square. I rode into Greenfield with Chris just wanting to be dry and warm.

But alas that is not possible. Because you shower outside and you sleep outside too. It’s all fun and games until the outside is wet. The tent gets wet, the bags get wet. Ugh. Wet. Days like this are downers and you think to yourself that tomorrow everything you own will still be wet.

Yet whomever chose the campsite could not have picked a warmer place. We arrived in Greenfield to Virgil and Joanne’s house. They were sitting on the most beautiful porch filled with chairs, trinkets and surrounded by colorful flowers. Virgil was a retired milkman and Joanne had raised their 4 kids. They were the quintessential small town Iowa retired couple.


Our team trickled in, the rain poured harder and at some point we all found ourselves sitting on the porch with this couple talking about their life, our ride and eventually feeling so at home with them that Joanne brought out her homemade peanut butterscotch bars (oh my yum). Their hospitality reminded me why I love this ride. It’s about laughing, it’s about feeling good, it’s about Iowa.

At some point we walked around town in the rain looking for dinner and ended up at a local church. There we ate possibly the worst Ragbrai dinner ever – buttered corn, applesauce, baked potato and chicken that had clearly been cooked the entire day. Again, it was food and you need it so you eat it. Afterward we walked up to the town square. Chris and I spent some time talking to B. and W. – both guys on Atlas and who would have known, both PhDs. This is what impresses me about Ragbrai. You have all of these adults behaving badly like teenagers and find out in their real life they are doctors, lawyers, PhDs.

Everyone needs an escape.

That evening, Shady, Jen, Spencer, JB, Chris and I sat on the porch drinking wine and talking about old Ragbrai memories before heading off to bed. The rain still poured throughout the night. Tomorrow will be wet. I was going to need to pull out my big girl shorts and get over it. Because it would be another day of 70+ miles and hills ahead.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Day One

Day 1 takes us from Council Bluffs to Red Oak in 56.2 miles with 3,684 feet of climbing.

We roll out of Council Bluffs for 17 miles en route to the first in between town, Mineola. Once there, we find breakfast in the form of Chris Cakes. Chris Cakes is an Iowa specialty. I’m not sure what makes these pancakes so special but they are light, fluffy and go well with toxic syrup, space juice, greasy sausage links and watery coffee. That makes a well-rounded Ragbrai breakfast.

One of the rules of Ragbrai is that you will eat pancakes and you will like it. You will pay 7 bucks for those pancakes which comes out to 1 dollar per pancake. You will also stand in long line for these pancakes. You will break out in a hot sweat as you stand inside a rundown barn while giant griddles mass produce those pancakes. You will hold up your paper plate to either protect your face or catch a pancake as it is flung through the air by a 70 year old woman shouting COMING AT YA!

You eat when you can on Ragbrai. If you come in search of healthy alternatives and a morning bowl of oatmeal, you will go hungry. You eat what you can when you can. Junk food, lunch for breakfast food, processed food, real food. Food is fuel and fuel is power. It takes more than brown rice and spinach to power you through nearly 500 miles in a week. And Ragbrai is mostly prepared for big appetites. Vendors contract with Ragbrai to set up tents along the route. Then they tempt you with signs touting smoothies, pasta, Mr. Pork Chop or coffee that you will find “in 16 miles” to either make you salivate or make you crazy with riding into a headwind to get to said coffee/smoothie/meat on a stick.

Once we get (catch) our pancakes, we stand outside at the typical makeshift Ragbrai table. A couple of dozen trash cans with some sheets of plywood between them as a “table.” These tables are in the beating Iowa sun that grows hotter with each sip of I can’t believe I’m actually drinking this coffee. I pawn my sausage off to someone else in exchange for another cup of the world’s worst coffee. But like food, you take what you can get on Ragbrai.

It’s the first day and everyone looks fresh, smells clean, has hope. The weather is glorious and the hills haven’t been too bad – yet. After breakfast we find shade behind a trailer and hang out for awhile. Watch Ragbrai roll in to town. Notice a stop sign that has the words “HAMMER TIME!” written out under the word STOP.

That is classic Ragbrai.

From Mineola it’s another 16 miles to Henderson. 16 hilly miles. We roll along in a paceline which at some point I decide is not moving fast enough. Welcome to day 1. You feel like a rock star and I started the ride knowing that I was going for it. Every day. Until my legs scream no. And even at that I will put in ear plugs and keep pedaling. I come up along the right side of the line and up the tempo on the hills. It’s a hard pace, it feels good and I’m stomping out of the saddle now. This is not how you climb hills unless you are small and you’re willing to eat your heart in your mouth and throw up a little pancakes. In other words, it feels fucking fabulous.

Into Henderson we decide to keep rolling another 10 to Emerson. Red Bear and I head to the beer garden to sit in the grass for awhile. It’s worth noting that I don’t drink beer on Ragbrai which makes me as popular as a pile of dog crap that you don’t see and step right into on a hot day. I just don’t like doing anything that might jeopardize my ability to ride a bike for the next 6 to 12 months. If that makes me unpopular so be it. I just like to ride my bike too damn much.

I like to hang out though. And you can hang out nicely in a beer garden. After awhile we all assembled inside the bar and things started to unravel. It was late in the day and the entire place was exploding in spandex and beer cans. “Jasmine” (not his real name but when I asked him what he wanted as his code name he suggested something stripper like and he came up with Jasmine). He’s the one that taught us the lesson that if you have to choose between going to jail or going to the hospital, choose the hospital. He also spent the better part of the day telling everyone he won Ragbrai last year. It’s not open for winning. Today Jasmine heckled me for “not having fun” (read: not being drunk) and so bought me a drink. I took about 3 courtesy sips of before putting it on the table with the rest of the casualties; empty beer cans, plastic cups.

Meanwhile everyone else was building a beer can pyramid on the table. I found a magic marker and started giving everyone tattoos. They were totally inappropriate and I paid for it – when Red Bear grabbed the marker out of my hand he tattooed me with the words “Asian Invasion” and some arrows. I labeled someone as “drunk” and then someone wrote below that “and easy.” Perhaps the most daring thing I saw at the bar – other than what we all wrote on each other’s bare stomachs and legs – was an Atlas girl doing a beer bong using a Go Girl (if you don’t know what a Go Girl is, look it up). That girl had balls. Chris was in the corner with a redface after 3 beers. Dr. Nuts mentions we should label Chris with “not to exceed 1.5 beers” since he doesn’t have the enzymes to process anything more than that. It was your typical Ragbrai madness happening – and it was only day 1.

Awhile later the bar was getting hot and I decided to ride on to camp. 9 miles to go until Red Oak. Chris must have left before me because I remember passing into the headwind while going 17 mph. I came up behind him and saw the word “Ragbrai” scrawled in brown marker on the back of his left leg and the word “Princess” written on this right leg. Oh my, he has been Ragbraied. Plus he was going about 14 mph. Later on he told me that the ride to Red Oak was his personal cycling hell. He was stuck behind some guy with a radio playing country music – and he was so tired from the beer that he couldn’t pedal any faster than 14 mph to pass him. (it’s worth adding that the next day I asked Chris if he scrubbed his legs while showering because he still had Ragbrai Princess written on his legs; his response was “you mean Ragbrai Prince” and I said no, someone wrote princess on your leg; moments later Red Bear confessed that he told Chris it was Prince but couldn’t help himself from writing Princess).

In Red Oak we stayed in the yard of a couple that had been married 62 years. They set up their lawn chairs on their driveway and watched us like we were a show. We set up our tents and then it was time to shower. I took a cold hose shower. After a long day in the sun, it felt refreshing. The hose shower is something I look forward to every year. Throw on your swimsuit and stick your head under a garden hose. Southern routes promise comfortably cold water. Northern routes promise water deep from the aquifer that chills you no matter how hot it is outside. Being in the south of I-80, this water was cold but not intolerable.

Dinner was only a 15 minute walk away to the HyVee. Hyvee is like heaven. Towns that are big enough to have one promise a smorgasboard of food items that don’t involve a white tent and a long line. I opted for a giant salad, bread and milk. Three things that you rarely find on Ragbrai so I knew to tank up on it while I could. That evening I hung out with JB and Dr. Nuts before heading off to the tent for a train-free night of sleep. Day 1 complete with over 400 miles to go.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Day Negative One

Saturday and day negative one of Ragbrai begins at 4 am with a 5 am departure for Burlington.

Logistically, Ragbrai requires getting yourself, your belongings and your bike to the starting town on Saturday. Chris and I drive our car to the end town – Burlington – so we will have a ride back to Chicago. We also rented a car to drive to Des Moines so we could meet up with the rest of the crew en route to Council Bluffs – the start town.

At 12 pm we were in Des Moines with our personal belongings waiting in a parking lot for the Minneapolis crew. They bring down a 15 passenger van that will hold all of our belongings for the week. What do you need for a week on Ragbrai? The only thing you find that you truly need is a clean pair of shorts each day. Everything else is optional or unnecessary. A clean jersey is nice but overrated. Socks are comfortable but you can go without. Rain gear is useless when you’re in the rain for an entire day. Arm warmers, leg warmers – it’s Iowa in July. Two water bottles, a helmet and – you’ll only regret if you don’t put it on often enough - sunscreen.

By the time they reach us, someone had already incurred a speeding ticket. Going 85 mph in a 65 mph zone. We ask how it is possible to get a 15-passenger van up to 85 mph but then again we know that these guys wait all year for Ragbrai. To say they are in a rush is an understatement. The quicker they get there, the quicker the good times can begin.

Names have been changed to protect the guilty. Along with us this year: The Timmers, Shady, M, Chris (real name, husband), Jen, Red Bear, Trixie, Soko, Giff, The Weatherman, JB, Spencer and Dr. Nuts. Old college friends, friends of friends...spouses, however, are not allowed. With myself being the one exception that changed the team dynamic about 9 years ago. While most don’t like that I’m there, I can think of more than a few times when I pulled each of them (except M) across Iowa at some point.


And that is all I have to say about that.

Together we drive on to Council Bluffs. Along the highway, Iowa rolls out in green fields and red barns. A few hours later we arrive in Council Bluffs and locate a campsite. Lodging on Ragbrai is your tent. And you have a few choices of where you park it each night. Of course there is “tent city” – the giant Ragbrai campground full of tents of registered riders convenient to the expo, showers and food. Great place to camp if you enjoy being woken at 5 am by the sound of 1000 tents zipping in unison. Therefore we camp offsite. The van driver finds a site by driving through of the town looking for a local school, a park or a resident willing to offer up their lawn for a night.

Council Bluffs is an easy one – we choose a local park with a sprawling lawn, bathrooms and the nation’s largest horseshoe arena. It even had spectator stands. Atlas (other team we hang out with daily) is also camped on this site. We greet each other with a year’s worth of absence between us but it was like we hadn’t missed a beat. Same faces, same friends all looking for similar good times.

Tent is pitched and then all there is to do is…relax. For the next week that will be our job. In addition to the ride. I relax in the tent after a long day leaving the window unzipped to watch the guys sitting around in camp chairs. They are laughing, drinking, I listen to the stories of Ragbrai’s past unfold. This is my 7th time on the ride while some of the guys have gone over 15 times.

Later in the evening, M reads the rules. Atlas listens in along with Steve from Bastardos. Steve clings to our group this year as his team has mostly disbanded. He’s a good guy with a funny Wisconsin accent. The reading of the rules is an annual tradition. Experience teaches you there are things you can expect on Ragbrai and those things have become the tenets of the team.

You will eat pancakes and you will like it.
At least once during the week there will be one storm that scares the crap out of you.
Do not bring anything on Ragbrai that you do not want lost, stolen, broken or eaten by the van.


The rest of the evening is a noise of train whistles and bizarre late night awakenings. At least 4 rail lines converge in Council Bluffs. And run through the night. The only way the trains could have been any louder is if we had actually slept on the tracks. Sleep is one of the hardest things on Ragbrai.

In the morning I woke up early to go for a run.
Then it’s time to get suited up for the day. The team wears the same jerseys – bright blue with white hibiscus flowers. No, we’re not Team Aloha nor are we from Hawaii. The jersey is joke. A loud joke that allows us to standout and also pick each other out in towns where thousands are dressed in cycling attire. Imagine 10+ men wearing bright blue flowered jerseys with matching blue shorts that say TROUSERMOUSE on the side panels. It’s ridiculous, it’s immature, it’s Ragbrai.

Team Fly, Whiners, Team Bad Boy, Bead Whore, Team Spin, Drinkstrong, Killer Bees, IWanna…the names are all inside jokes that you need not share with anyone but your own team. Some wear purple wigs, some wear pink feather boas attached to their jersey and bike, others have wedges of foam pie atop their helmets and there was even a guy that wore a full suit (as in business suit). M's response to him, “well executed.”

Most of the riders are on teams. You can go by yourself or in the case of the Livestrong group – with 200 of your closet friends. You can wear the same jerseys or – in the case of some – wear nothing at all. It’s a festival on two wheels. And you don’t even need two wheels. One guy uses a unicycle. Another rollerbladed the entire thing. There was even a woman running Ragbrai this year. How you do the miles each day is up to you, how long it takes is up to you, when you leave, how long you stay in the in between towns – all your choice.

The route is marked and patrolled by state troopers. No stoplights or stop signs to disrupt your speed. Along the way there are in between towns that have set up festivals of food, entertainment, beer gardens. You can linger as long as you’d like in each town. Some riders leave for the day at 5 am. The bulk of them leave by 7 am. Our team rolls out after 9 am to avoid getting caught in the meat of Ragbrai.

The meat of Ragbrai is everyone. And I mean everyone. Mountain bikes, single speeds, time trial bikes, clunkers, recumbents, tandems. $10,000 bikes to catastrophes that look like someone picked it up from a rusty shop for 10 bucks. As long as it gets you from the start town to the end town – you’ll be ok. And it can take you all day. Most of the riders out there this year were probably going 10 – 12 mph. Each year is a different route and this was one of the hilliest routes in history. And it showed.

The right side of the road is entirely shut down and open for the ride. The left side is where we mostly ride and as long as you are willing to shout Car Up, Cannonball, Crack or ON YOUR LEFT you’ll fly through it as fast as you like.

Generally we wake up around 7:30 am and by the time everyone takes down their tent, gets dressed, finds a KYBO, applies sunscreen and packs up the van it’s about 9:30 am. We make the call about breakfast – either in town or along the route. Signs advertising all you can eat pancakes at the local church, breakfast burritos in a stand along the road tempt you as you ride. Sometimes you find the food right away. Other times you ride 30 miles on nothing but Gatorade and a fire in your belly that says feed me 30 miles ago.

On Sunday morning we suit up and set out for 52.6 miles. M makes a difficult decision easy when he decides to sag after having some food poisoning the night before that left him reeling in the sand pit of the horseshoe arena. Sagging is code for driving the van and setting up camp. Most of the time it works out that the person feeling not so sparky in the morning gets to sag. Some years I sag when I want to get in a longer run. Others sag when it’s raining. No one usually wants to sag but at some point it’s inevitable – someone has to drive the van from the start to the end town.

Being that it’s the first day it’s unamimous that we will ride until we find Chris Cakes – a Ragbrai specialty. A sign tells us they are up the road in Mineola about 17 miles away. I pop a bar and get ready to ride. A whir of blue jerseys in a paceline down the road. It’s my favorite sound that will start each of the next 7 days – wheels on pavement.

Ragbrai 2009 has begun.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The NonTraining Training NonPlan Plan

I’ve been training. But not really following a plan. I’m shooting from the hip, flying by the seat of my pants and taking a stab in the dark. Or something like that.

I call it the nontraining training. The other day I thought about the word “training.” How is it that we came to call this (“this” being the swim, bike, run) training. It’s two words: train + ing. Immediately I thought of of my father in law and his obsession with trains (by the way: may I add that the third version of the train cake was a complete success because of my engineering brilliance..my husband is eating his engineering degree right now while my father-in-law was eating the world's best train cake). What is a “train”? Cars attached together in long series that ride across a rail. What does this have to do with training. I suppose you string together a bunch of workouts moving together toward one end destination with a purpose.

“Training.”

With that in mind, right now I am not training because I don’t have a purpose. I thought I would absolutely freak out without a purpose. What is the point of doing all of this if…there is no point? But now I find that the opposite is true. For the first time in a long time I am having a blast.

Best thing about nontraining training – you get to do what you want when you want. It’s raining? Guess what, you don’t have to slog through 60 miles of that. Go for a swim (and when you by all means avoid going over 2000 yds because that just seems like a really long way to go). Go for a walk. Better yet, do nothing at all. It’s warm, go for a run. It’s windy, avoid your bike. Your husband says want to go to the group ride, you have the option to say no – or yes (it is in your best interests though to tell him no unless you want to be dropped by the entire kids team and then have their team dad help you in an I feel so sorry for this girl attempt to motorpace you up to the group with no avail).

I wake up each day and think to myself – now what. If anything. What can be whatever I want. Bike commute. Yardwork. Run hard. Run slow. If my body is tired, I go easy. If I feel good, I push it. I’m slowly realizing that this may be the best training of all – the one where YOU listen to YOUR body and then make the call.

Jumping off the ship in the middle of the season also has other perks. You’re damn fit. So fit that if your Ironman training group is doing an 86 mile ride you have the fitness to hop right in and go for it. This does not mean that 2 days later you won't still feel like you were hit by the NonTraining Train but you’ll get through it without worrying about deviating from a nutrition plan or blowing your pace in the first lap (which you did and it was so worth it). Plus recovering with what might be the 3 best food groups after that - beer, ketchup, Dairy Queen Blizzard (in that order) - was also so worth it.

This nontrainingnonplan plan is totally carefree with no worries. If something doesn’t go well – so what. On Saturday I went running and it went so NOT well that I made my hard intervals moderate and my moderate easy until I hit 50 minutes then it was all easy. I got over that in all of about 5 minutes as I walked back to the car. Let’s hear it for walking! But you know what – who cares. Because it didn’t mean anything about me or my potential or my next race.

And that’s when it hit me – I spent so much time worrying about what each workout meant that they became too much work. I spent so much time ‘looking for clues’ about will I or will I not succeed that I was doomed to fail. I lost the ability to just let go, do the work and move on to the next thing.

Sigh.

Do I miss racing yet? No. Because in the next two weekends I have so many athletes racing and helping them prepare for their races is exciting. In fact, all of this nontraining has opened up oodles of time to train with my athletes and help them become better at what they want to do. This is more rewarding to me than chasing after my own personal goals because it has impact beyond myself. It gets me outside of myself. That is a good thing.


What I really want right now is just to stay fit. I want time to do the things that helped me just be a fit person, albeit a fun person, a real person. It’s not necessarily specific to triathlon and maybe that was the problem. I like to do a lot of things – yard work, house work, walks…..all of that stuff that you think will interfere with your recovery while you should be sitting in a tub of cold water or taking a nap…

I got sick of sitting around waiting for my body to recover. Timing everything I put into my mouth. I was becoming a prisoner of…all of this. And it wasn’t worth it. While the rest of the world was doing “things” I was waiting for something – the next workout, the next meal, the recovery. While I was waiting I was losing time to do the other things that make for a well-rounded life, an enjoyable life – fun.

It’s worth the wait, I’m sure. And those that work and wait and work and wait – I admire them. But I don’t envy them. Because I’m having a pretty good time here. And it’s about to get better. Two more days until we leave for Ragbrai. I’m going to put all of my belongings in plastic baggies and wrap them up in a kerchief tied to a long stick and then make my way across Iowa. Day 1 is 53 miles. Day 2 is 72 miles. Day 3 is 77 miles. Day 4 is 44 miles. 44 miles? Ragbrai is getting soft. Day 5 is 100 miles. Day 6 is 77 miles. Day 7 is 43 miles.


I cannot wait. I could care less what 500 miles of cycling does to my running legs or my swimming form. I might miss the recovery window. Or I might fill that window with a cold beer. I could care less if I don't see a pool for a week or if I blow my HR zones in the first day. Speaking of which, I have not worn my heart rate monitor in 3 weeks. I could be dead for all I know. The HRM has a time, a place and a purpose - but none of those which I need to find right now.

So, in two days I am off to do the biggest training block in my nontraining training nonplan plan. That's a lot to say. Let's just call it "fun." Ok?

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Corn Is Calling

I’m going on Ragbrai.

That’s all you need to know.

But since you’re here I might as well fill you in on some of the details.

What is Ragbrai.

What isn’t Ragbrai? I’ve been on it 6 times now and each time seen something new. A man on a unicycle. A man hauling an entire kitchen sink. A man wearing a loin cloth. Grown adults paying good money for something called a walking taco.

It involves Doritos which cancels me completely out of that equation.

Ick.

Back to Ragbrai. Some call it “The” Ragbrai. It is Ragbrai. One word, said as quickly as possible.

What does it stand for?

If you have to ask you don’t know and it doesn’t matter any way. You go on (the) Ragbrai and you just ride. That’s all it stands for. Just ride.

It’s not a race. It’s not timed. There are wristbands but…whatever. Who wants to spend an entire week with a wristband. It’s not a hospital stay, it’s Ragbrai. And the only thing a wristband gets you is a buck off a walking taco.

Again, disgusting.

You start at the Nebraska border. Everyone converges from all points of the country in Council Bluffs on Saturday night. You pitch your tent and pile off your belongings for the week into a rented van. If you are my husband, you pack like a woman and show up with 3 bags, enough clothes to outfit the entire team in something new each day, a tool box, two bikes and a torque wrench. When he said this year he might bring a box of Izze I told him stop. Stop right there. Do not make yourself any more of a fancy pants woman than you already are. This ship has a 1 bag limit Waterstraat which you shall not exceed this year. He tells me that the van will have extra room since Meredith (his sister) is not going which means that there will be an entire row of the van that is NOT consumed by her cowboy boots.

It’s a van seat, not real estate.

You wake up Sunday and you ride. From town to town until you reach the end town. Actually you ride from water tower to water tower until you reach the one that says the end town’s name. When you get to the end town you find a shower, find some food, pitch your tent, engage in festivities of your choice, get up and ride again.

Festivities which in years past have included….

I am not at liberty to say. But let me say that I am still wounded by the memory of a naked man covered in baby oil sliding across the floor of a small town Iowa bar.

You don’t sleep much on Ragbrai. Some years the heat and humidity of a Midwestern summer is so thick it wraps around you like a blanket you cannot shake off all night. Add to that the noisy rumblings of riff raff walking down the street, a snoring guy in a tent adjacent to yours or – in the case of Missouri Valley – a train that cuts through the center of town and blows it horn every 30 minutes all night long.

Sleep is rare. Miles are many. Food is scarce if you are looking for something outside of the white food group – that would be anything other than meat. It’s a rough week if you like things that are green. A HyVee is like heaven – an entire place that has food that doesn’t cost 10 bucks per serving. You eat what you can when you can. You don’t have a nutrition plan. It’s Ragbrai. You just ride. Sometimes you stop in the middle of the ride and eat pie. Chocolate donuts at mile 45, skipping breakfast until mile 30 and taking shots of Pucker at mile 92 – not some of your best "nutrition plans" but still produced some pretty good times.

Yes, we ride. Everyone rides. No matter the age, size or bike they ride. You ride as hard as you want to. As fast or as slow as you want to. Sometimes we ride fast. Like the day we had a southern tailwind. Spun out at 40+ mph on the flats. I was dropped at 32. Sometimes we ride slow. Like the day The Timmers and I tried to hold a 4.4 mph paceline. Some woman rode by and shouted “what the hell are they on?”

Ragbrai.

Most of the time we ride fast – or at least try. That’s what it’s all about. You ride hard, you hang in a paceline, you pull when you can, and you get that sweaty neck nervous sweat while telling yourself only 12 more miles I only have to hold this 12 more miles until the next town. You get scared but become fearless. You become fearless and grow strong.

You live outside for an entire week. It’s like camping but more work. Because you camp and then you ride. You ride about 70 to 100 miles a day. You ride in wind, rain, shine. You get shiny. You get sunburned. You get chafed. You get a funny rash. You think your shorts are clean each morning. You hope. You learn that morning dew is the enemy. You realize that peeing on your tent in the middle of the night is not one of your finest ideas. You find that cold cream soda at mile 85 of the century – which turns out to be 114 miles – just saved your life. You get dropped. You drop the hammer. You get so desperate in the heat that you are willing to pay 2 bucks for 12 ounces of Gatorade. You smell things. Funny things. You fear they might be yourself. You realize the only thing hotter than Kona is going into a Kybo in the middle of a cornfield in Iown at the end of July. You make friends. You see a lot of stickers. You experience one storm that scares the shit out of you. You tell someone to get off your wheel. You beg someone to let you sit on their wheel. You see corn. You see soybeans. You eat pancakes for breakfast. And you like it.

All of it. You - like - it.

We leave very early Saturday, drop a car off in Burlington and drive to Des Moines. From there we meet the van and drive on to Council Bluffs. By the time the Twin Cities boys meet us there are a few things guaranteed – Marsh will have read the rules and someone will already be keeping any eye on Tim. Once you crawl into the van and find yourself sitting on the hump of the wheel or a man’s knee because you are the smallest one – you realize I’m on Ragbrai.

It doesn’t sound like a vacation but you have to go to know. And once you go something draws you back to it year after year. No matter how many times you got rained on, no matter how hard the wind blew, no matter how many times you told yourself I am never doing this again – something draws you back. Something about escaping to the heart of the country to the middle of nowhere that sounds better than any beach getaway or European tour.

It's a heck of a lot cheaper to boot.

You learn to treasure the little things when you arrive back home – taking a shower without having to go on a hike to find one in a local school or a stranger’s garden hose, being able to finally sit on your own toilet seat, sleeping in air conditioner. It makes you a little more grateful, a little more patient, a lot more relaxed.

That’s why I’m going. I said I wanted to have fun and I promised Jen I would pack my fun eyes. These past few weeks I have had more fun than I have had in years. I've done whatever, whenever with whomever. When I finally took the pressure off of what I had to do, I started to enjoy what I wanted to do. In a word it has been...glorious. So I’m leaving the serious eyes, the structured eyes, the gotta follow a schedule eyes, the I need to eat green things eyes, the angry eyes – I’m leaving all of those behind.

Besides, this ship has a 1 bag limit. And I’m gonna need room in my bag for my hammer.

The big one.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Getting After It

I’ve been having fun. Doing what I want when I want. It’s been refreshing to go with the flow and just focus on staying fit – without the pressure of “working” toward something.

While I might be off the leash, I’m still an athlete. And something in me just urges me to compete. I’ve gone back and forth about do I want to do more triathlons – do I not - and realized… I’m still full on triathlons for now. Next year. But I’ve got to find some place to channel my competitiveness into something or else find myself having more outings like this:

Monday, entered Trader Joe’s at 3:43 pm.
Monday, exited Trader Joe’s with 80 dollars worth of groceries at 3:59 pm.

That would be a new personal best of least amount of time spent in grocery store.

(not only that but it cost me 5 bucks for every minute I was in that store!)

Nevermind that I nearly knocked over two older women who were talking by the cart corral (get out of my way) or took out another woman who was trying to choose a loaf of bread (you, in my way, out of it, now) or rearended a small child with one of those little shopper carts (it’s a close call as to whether I use one of those or an adult cart if we are talking based on size alone).

This could get very ugly and I could find myself behaving very socially inappropriate if I do not put this competitive fire someplace else – NOW.

So I’ve set some running goals. Actually they are non-goal goals. If I achieve them – great. If I don’t, I won’t cry over myself. This is just a hobby. If I get up and it’s running and raining – I don’t have to go. No one pays me to go running. If I feel like swimming instead (yes, it happens), I’m there.

Totally, flexible, schedule.

Running goals = running more = track. I found myself on Wednesday night at the track. I was going to run 30 minutes in the morning – because what could be more fun than running once a day. How about twice a day! Then I realized that running twice a day in the rain cancels the fun out of that equation so I said – no. I’ll just watch it rain instead and then every minute it ticks closer to track I’ll come up with 100 excuses why I don’t need to go.

You don’t need to do this, you are not “really” working toward a goal, you have every right to blow this off.

But you know what – I can’t. Dammit I cannot blow this off even if it’s raining because…it’s track.

You don’t blow off track or else it will come back to haunt you.

That’s called karma, my friends.

I arrived at the track wondering if anyone else would be crazy enough to run track in the pouring rain. As I walk up to the fieldhouse I catch a glimpse of a white hat bobbing up and down on the far section of the track and realize there is at least one crazy runner out there and that means I’m doing it.

In fact, there were several crazy runners out there warming up. I find myself in lane 8, pouring rain, warming up. I realize for the first time in over a week my legs feel good. No residual half Ironman pain. No heavy cycling miles lingering in my legs. I could get used to being a runner. It feels very light and free.

A few strides, some skips and it’s time to go.

The workout was a good one: 2x (1600, 800, 400) with an easy 400 in between each. Easy when you are at track is easy. “Embarrassingly slow” in case you haven’t heard. You shuffle. The space between doesn’t mean as much as what you do when it’s on. And when it’s on – it’s on. You do not hold back.

The first 1600 I position myself near KL. He’s terribly well-paced and has the smallest stride I’ve ever seen. I set my sights on his red shirt and just hang comfortably behind him. I coast in at a time that is not bad. I’m surprised I have that in my legs but I don’t think about it too much. It’s track – you take it. You don’t question it, take a HR or bring your GPS. You just run. A guy at the end of the 400 calls out your splits and you trust him. You know that unless you feel your stomach churning in the last 200, you’re not going hard enough. You move into lane 3 on the final 100 because you have Prefontaine visions of yourself finish the final 100 of a 10,000 meter race at some big track meet – that you are winning.

Even though the possibility of that is complete bullshit.

The 800 is next. I come in at a time that is blah. My typical 800 time. Ho hum.

I’m shuffling – embarrassingly slow – on my recovery 400 when I see one of the guys from Group 1 run by. He is getting it. I mean, getting it. Like his legs are pounding that track and bouncing back up again to propel him forward. Not only that but huzzah this guy has 6-pack abs. Just incredible to watch. He’s got some other guy (with shirt, unfortunately) hot on his heels and together they buzz by me like they’re going 20 mph and I’m going….10.

They hit the 800 at 2:22. 2 minutes, 22 seconds. GETTING IT! I want that. Well, not that I will ever run a 2:22 for a 800, that’s sort of like having a Prefontaine Pipe Dream – bullshit. But I can still get after it! Somewhere in the middle of 400 meters easy I decide it’s time to change. Screw this steady pacing hum drum pace that too much long course racing has locked my legs into. Time to breakthrough, shake it up and quit running that same stale pace.

At the line before the 400 I decide I will be a 400 runner tonight. Know why? Because I’ve spent years running bad 400s. Typically I run my 400 in the same pace I split my 800 at – that is not good. So I take off and I’m right up there with the big boys. I feel like I’m running on top of the air and my only regret is eating an entire package of flax crackers in the past day.

Ruh roh.

But I cross the line in a damn good 400 time.

Ok, giddy up. It’s coming back. Forget the shopping cart competition, it’s here, now, on this track. It’s going down. Everything else vs. legs; who will win today? Not the pouring rain. Not the pain in my core from deciding yesterday “let’s do strength training after a 2 month hiatus!” Not the hurt in my legs or turn in my stomach. Not the voice in my head that says “this hurts.” OF COURSE this hurts – it’s track. It’s supposed to hurt. That’s why you’re here.

1600 is up next. Just follow the guy in the red shirt. Pace with him. We’ve slowed down. Whatever. I could care less about miles right now. Right now I consider a mile “long course”.

800.

The guy with the watch starts us, all set?


The correct answer is you bet and then you take off. By now, my shoes are so filled with water they squish squish squish with each short, choppy step. I am right behind KL and focus on his red shirt through the first lap. Loose, stay loose I say to myself. Rounding the curve in the straightaway I pull up right behind him wondering if I should charge now. Too far to go, don’t risk it yet. We come around the 500 mark when I see myself running right behind him. Here I am again, I say to myself. Behind someone, playing it safe. Do you want to be Elizabeth who is always behind or do you want to be the one that takes charge, takes a risk and leads it out, proving that you can hold it until the end.

(you should know that this entire conversation played out in my head in under 100 meters)

And that is what I said to myself MAKE YOUR MOVE. Do it, NOW. I come up around him for the pass and plant myself right in front of him. TURNOVER TURNOVER and hold it. Hold it! He is there, I hear him but he is falling back. Pick it up. CHARGE. Hard charge to the line. Stomach hurts so bad right now! It was like a burning pain in my stomach. OUCH. And – done. Crossed the line in FINALLY a good 800 time.

One more to go. Easy 400 meter jog. Someone comes up to me and says nice kick.


THANKS.

400 – for the first time ever I am looking forward to this. Did you know that a 400 is 70 percent anaerobic? An 800 is 43 percent anaerobic? And, a 1600 is about 20 percent anaerobic? As a contrast, the 10K is 3 percent anaerobic and the marathon? A full 1 percent anaerobic effort.

We have limitations about ourselves and our strength. I’ve always thought – you’re no good at short stuff. Yet you won’t get good at it until you let yourself try. So I let myself try on this last 400. Just tap into it – don’t think about it or let the pain even register. Focus on the guy in front of you. Focus on getting to the front.

All set?

YOU BET.

They bolt. The first 200 they bolt and I am right behind until I start to slowly make my way next to and then in front of them – stomp hard on the ground and push off. Push off in front of them and then I see the lead guy. He is right there. In the last 100 meters I am in lane 3 and chasing him. The line is ahead. I push as hard as I can and cross in a time that I have only done one other time in my life.

I cooled down thinking about the why. Why did this have to go so well? Because that makes me hungry again. I found it out there – the animal. The drive that makes us hungry for competition, for possession of our goals. Makes us want to chase after it, to focus on the guy in front of us or the line. To crave the numbers the guy holding the stopwatch will shout at us. To hear him rolling off the splits, knowing that if we bust ass we’ll get in with a new personal best time.

I need to go to track again. I need to go 5 days a week. I know that’s impossible but the point is I will be back. I will be a better 800 runn
er, 400 runner. One day I want to just run a 1600 all out and see what I come up with. There’s so much I have to do now. Well, not really have to do but so much I want to do. And that’s what it’s all about. Do what you want. Do as you please. When it comes to you, seize it and then start getting after it.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Green Is A Choice

Go green. It’s the latest catch phrase to encourage us to make ecologically sound choices to preserve the health of our world. Chances are we know what to do to live green in our homes and workplaces. But what about being a green athlete? As competitive athletes, we seek to live a fit life but how can we balance our athletic activities with environmental fitness?

Ours is a consumptive sport. Consumption of calories, hydration, fuel, time and – simply put – consumption of all kinds of “energy.” Cover any race course and you cannot help but notice the wasteful consumption of paper cups, water bottles and empty wrappers. True, we need to eat and drink, we like to race – but can we do it a better way?

When you think about the environmental cost of our sport – traveling to destination races, fuel at every mile of the race course and all of the training – it quickly adds up. According to the Council for Responsible Sport, in 2007 the Ironman Hawaii hosted 1,787 athletes. Only 68 were from the state of Hawaii. Other competitors traveled roughly 18, 312, 992 miles round-trip. Long airline flights produce an average of 1.3068 lbs of CO2 equivalent per passenger mile. Collectively these athletes produced 23,931,418 lbs of greenhouse gases traveling to and from the race. This is equivalent to the yearly carbon footprint (electricity and natural gas) of 972 average American homes. The cost to offset this footprint? $108,530 in carbon-offsetting projects.

Our sport relies on the world – and its health; clean air, clean water, clean earth. From the local road race to the Ironman, our races can cover all the way up to 140.6 miles by way or land and water, breathing in the air. For the sustainability of our sport – and more importantly our world – how can cover those miles in training and racing with as little impact as possible?

Small changes start with each athlete and over time will add up to a big difference. Every day you make choices on how you train and what you do – choices that inevitably can leave a footprint in the earth. Here are a few tips for how to leave your footprints few and far between while pursuing sport.

1: Resist the convenience of buying bottled water. Purchase a filter for your tap to fill your bottles at home instead.

2: Avoid buying pre-packaged or bottled sports drink. Most drinks are available in powder that comes in a large tub. Not sure if that tub can be recycled? Visit How Can I Recycle This for quick answers to recycling questions (http://www.recyclethis.co.uk/).

3: Incorporate bike commuting into your training plan. An easy spin to the pool or running path is the perfect opportunity to make a recovery ride or brick workout into a more purposeful and greener activity.

4: Recycle your running shoes. Some organizations recycle shoes into playground material, others donate shoes to those less fortunate or in need. Soles 4 Souls distributes footwear as part of relief efforts (
www.soles4souls.org). Visit here to find a local store or organization that recycles in your area visit www.recycledrunners.com

5: Not sure what to do with old race medals? Consider donating your old medals to Medals 4 Mettle. This unique organization collects medals from challenging events (marathons, triathlons) to give to children overcoming health challenges. For more information, see http://www.medals4mettle.org/

6: Turn your race shirts into a source of warmth. Directions for how to recycle your old race t-shirts into a crafty quilt are here: www.runtheplanet.com/trainingracing/other/rtpquilt.asp

7: Carpool to training and racing events. For every mile you drive, your car emits 4 pounds of carbon into the atmosphere. Reduce your carbon footprint by sharing the ride!

8: Race and support local events. Racing locally not only saves you time but also saves you travel expenses and makes your trip less costly on the environment. Give back to local events by volunteering services or time to help race directors save money and keep entry fees down.

9: Make your own sports drink and snacks. Gels, tubs of powder, bar wrappers – all add up in your pocket and in landfills. Save money and packaging by trying some of these recipes: www.cptips.com/hmdesnk.htm

10: Taking an ice bath after a hard workout? Rather than draining the water from your bathtub, pick up a kiddie pool for your backyard. After your ice bath, dump the water into your yard or garden. Better yet, find a cool lake to stand in for 10 minutes with no waste.

11: Recycle empty “Gu” packets with Gu Energy’s Stash Your Trash program. Send 50 empty packets to Gu and they will donate $5 to charity (www.guenergy.com/about_us/enviro-community_stash-your-trash).

12: Support races with green initiatives. The Council for Responsible Sport (
www.resport.org) encourages environmental responsibility in race organization by providing standards for events. For a list of eco-friendly events, www.afitplanet.com/partners/

13: Cut down on cups. Encourage other athletes to use a Fuel Belt or hydration system when racing to cut down on the number of plastic or paper cups used on course. To find eco-friendly suggestions for race supplies, visit http://www.ecoproducts.com/

14: Buy in bulk. Rather than buying a box of 20 gels, consider Hammer Gel Jug or CarbBoom’s Big Boom 24-ounce recyclable bottle of energy gel. To avoid the risk of littering gel packets during a race, use a gel flask mounted to your bike.

15: Be a savvy shopper. Make your next tri-gear purchase one from natural or recycled fibers. Eco Athlete is a resource for sustainable gear and products (http://www.ecoathlete.org/).

16: Pack it in, pack it out. After races, take personal responsibility in packing out all of your own waste rather than littering or leaving it behind in transition.

17: Encourage local race directors or assist them in establishing events with green practices. Athletes for a Fit Planet (
www.afitplanet.com) provides environmental solutions and resources for race directors and events.

18: Save your swim caps from races – either recycle them for your own personal use or donate them. Eco Athlete collects swim caps for a future project to recycle them for flip flops (http://www.ecoathlete.org/).

19: If you can’t change, then contribute. For one year of flying to races, consider purchasing a Carbon Offset from Terra Pass (
www.terrapass.com). Each purchased pass supports clean energy and projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

20: Share with your friends. Each item purchased must be manufactured, packaged and shipped. All production that requires consumption of energy. Consider a shared purchase with friends or rent equipment from local stores or Race Day Wheels (
www.racedaywheels.com). Not only will this lessen the impact of our purchases but also cut costs to you and a friend.

21: When in ____, go green. 3rd Whale Mobile and Greenopia (www.greenopia.com/USA/) are iPhone Apps that use GPS to locate “green” restaurants, stores and other destinations in a growing numbers of cities around the US. When traveling to your next race, use this app to make choices that support green values.

22: Wear your promise. Green Laces places is turning the concept of going green into a social phenomenon by asking you to make a promise. With a $5 donation, you receive a pair of green laces to remind yourself and show others that you have made a promise to the earth (http://www.greenlaces.org/).

23: Old bike = new bike. Donate your old bike or bike part to a local organization specializing in bike rebuilding. In Chicago, Working Bikes Cooperative collects old bikes and parts for repair and redistribution to those in need both locally and abroad (http://workingbikes.org/).

24: Keep current. “Grist” is a great website for the latest in living green. It’s worth a look to see if what you can do on a daily basis, from the choices you make, the news you read and the action you take to live a greener lifestyle (
www.grist.org).

26: Spread the word. Do you have an idea about something we can do or something you already do to train and race a little greener? The best suggestion will win a gift certificate to TriSports.com – a company that has taken the initiative in greener practices with their TriEarth program (
www.trisports.com/greenbox.html).

*Send your ideas to multisportmastery at comcast dot net*

This week, commit to being a greener athlete. Maybe it’s bringing a travel mug along for your morning jolt of coffee. Maybe it’s committing to racing more locally. Or maybe it’s riding your bike to work one day a week. Whatever it is, one change at a time, one person at a time, one step that adds up to a big difference. What can you do to make less footprints in training, in racing, in daily life?


Let’s hear about it!

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Sip n' Spin

Thursday night I had a plan for the best workout ever: sip n' spin.

Early in the evening, Chris and I hopped on our cyclocross bikes, two solidly steel rides with only the necessary gears. A few minutes on the road and we found ourselves on the path. The suburbs of Illinois have miles of these crushed limestone paths. I could start here and ride clear over the Wisconsin border with only a few roads to cross along the way. Tonight we take the path from Lisle to Wheaton. It will be about a 45 minute ride.

This entire week I’ve been bike commuting. In 6 days, I’ve accrued over 80 miles – miles I would have otherwise driven – miles that I’ve enjoyed atop my bike. The drawback is that it takes more time and you get a little sweaty. The benefit is that you leave less of a footprint in the world and you get to experience it more up close.

Lock up the bikes and then - the best part of the plan - head into the wine shop. The wine shop is perhaps the best kept secret around. For $7 per person, you get to sample about 8 wines. Sometimes it’s 9 wines and other times it’s 10. Then there’s also the premium special wine of the month glass that you can pay an additional $10 to sample. Maybe they pour you 1 to 2 ounces of wine with each sample. Who knows. All that I do know is that after we complete the entire set I’m usually pretty shiny.


The flight always starts with white and then you move on to the red. Pinot Grigio. Boring. Too clean, too bland, too pedestrian. The kind of wine anyone could drink and enjoy. Best put with grilled chicken. Need I say more? Then we move on to a Vidal Blanc. Sweeter with hints of citrus and melon. This one I could get used to but it’s too white and sweet. And I believe if you’re going to drink wine you drink the big girl wine. Not the whites. Next up is a Sayval Blanc. But by way of some miscommunication they pour us the Vidal Blanc again. I won’t complain. It’s more wine. Finally the Sayval Blanc tastes tropical, like papayas with a bit of syrupy sweetness. It’s interesting but takes too much like desserts. I’m getting restless…bring on the reds.

The point at which you start tasting the reds is usually the point at which things start going downhill. You crossover from the fruit froo froo wines to the more serious, bolder sips. Put me in coach, I’m ready. It starts with a Cabarnet Grenache. Now this is rich, red and serious. This is getting good. This is where the good wine is at. The wine is starting to hit us. And talk turns to the train cake.

May I interject? A few months ago, Chris and I were in Williams-Sonoma and we saw a cake pan in the shape of small train cars. We had to have it. Not because we are obsessed with trains but because Chris’ dad, Mr. Tom, is 100 percent freak obsessed with trains. We are talking full-on garden railway magazine subscriber here. We saw the cake pan and knew that with Father’s Day coming up we had to give it a try. We did and it failed – miserably. The cars got stuck into the pan. So we knew we had to try again. And tonight, under heavy influence of wine, we laid our plans. A diagram was drawn. The ingredients were selected. Hershey Bars for railroad ties, licorice to make the track. And when it was all said and drawn, I even noted that the entire sheet – in case anyone would try to go off of it – was “not to scale”.

The women next to us looked a little concerned. We just drew an architectural blueprint for a train cake. I do not blame her. I do, however, blame it on the al-al-al-co-hol.

Next we try a Merlot. Not a fan of Merlot but this one – this is exquisite Merlot. Did you just say exquisite, Chris asked. I realize at this point that dirty dishwater might taste exquisite, a bottle of Infinit might taste like nectar. Your impression of the wine – at this point – continues to build….the next glass of Syrah is smoky like a barbeque and upon hearing it goes well with Barbeque Ribs it launches us into a conversation about the best ribs we’ve ever had. And now, we finally reach the premium wine – a glass of Cabarnet Sauvignon – that we both agree we must have.

And this is usually the case.

You hit the premium wine and it’s the best wine you’ve ever had. It could be water for all your know. You are well on your way to10, maybe 20 sheets to the wind and you’re willing to throw down another $10 for another glass. The crowd is starting to build with energy and noise. Clearly the entire store has crossed over into the reds.

The final glass is Apricot. They always finish up with a fruit wine. I’ve tasted everything from Cranberry to Rhubarb and finally Apricot. It was thick like syrup and sweet like candy. At this point I told Chris it was a good thing we didn’t have to blow into anything to start off bikes because I’m afraid they wouldn’t start.

Walk it off walk it off walk it off. Plus, we need to eat. We started walking around town when we spotted one of those hole in the wall Vietnamese restaurants advertising PHO.

I love Pho.

If you haven’t had pho you really need to try it. My first experience with pho was in Seattle and I’m still convinced if you want good pho you go to Seattle. Seeing that it would be too far of a bike ride, we settled for this place and enjoyed ourselves some pho.

Being married to someone Chinese of course I was due a lesson in how to use chopsticks. Chris showed me the first stick is like holding a pencil. I do my best hold it like a pencil and realized I am already failing.

This is your problem, Chris said, you don’t do anything like a normal person.

I don’t and I love that about me. In grade school, teachers spent useless time trying to teach me to hold the pencil the right way and I was always wrong….so not only do I get a callous from writing too much but I also cannot hold chopsticks.

I’ll take a fork.

After pho we felt a little better, like we could ride home without mistakenly finding ourselves over the Wisconsin border so we got ready to ride. Helmets – always – bike shoes – clipped in – and two bottles of wine were snug in Chris’ backpack because I forget but I think we just had to have two of them.

We are safe on the path no harm to anyone but ourselves and hauling ass at…12 mph. I tell Chris we’re going 12 and he says no way we are at least going 16. Now we’re going 13.3. Really? I tell him that I haven’t felt this shiny on a bike since mile 85 on the century day of Ragbrai 2003 when we stopped in that bar behind the giant silo and someone bought us shots of pucker. Chris says he hasn’t felt this shiny on a bike since we rode out of Marne after bloody marys in that crowded bar that following year. For a moment I think to myself I need to go on Ragbrai, I need to release across Iowa for 7 days – good friends, good times and my favorite sound in the world – wheels on pavement.

I’m going to hold that thought for now.

The evening turns into night as we ride along the path. The night, this path is entirely ours. Fireflies light the way like tiny flickering lanterns under the forested path through Herrick Lake. Night chases us at over 14 mph now and we know that if we don’t pick up the pace we will soon be swallowed by it and find ourselves in the dark and still far from home. Finally our wheels hit pavement as we ride toward Chris’ parent’s house. At this point, we’ve ridden off any remnants of overindulgence in wine or Pho and enter the house.

The next day we were bike commuting home from the beach. It was along Warrenville Road when I noticed a man riding a bit ahead of us and wearing a familiar jersey. It was a jersey from Ragbrai. I laugh to myself because the past 5 days with all the riding have felt like Ragbrai. I pulled up alongside the man to pass and said Ragbrai. If you can pronounce it, you say it and if you say it to someone you know what it means. I told him we’ve done Ragbrai collectively over a dozen times. And then I ask him if he’s in training.

You don’t need to train for Ragbrai, he says, except to get ready to ride with a bunch of idiots.

True that.

He asks if I am training for Ragbrai. I feel like I am. Every day I've gotten on my bike and ridden somewhere - point A to point B with a few stops for food in between. All that's missing is a beer garden. And a little spandex. But right now this riding is the anti-training, if you know what I mean. Then he asks where we area headed and we tell him home. Together we are cruising at 22 mph down the road talking about the Rag. He’s on one of those fancy road bikes and I’m keeping up with a giant backpack and I’ve decided to abandon the concept for bike shoes for awhile so my feet are atop the pedals. I realize I’m a pretty good cyclist. I just need to give myself a chance.

A thousand feelings about Ragbrai sit in front of me as I watch his jersey disappear down the hill. Yes, you feel a little tipsy on Ragbrai but you also feel surrounded by friends, completely unleashed and totally free. I think about going this year, I think about missing out this year and I think to myself - I need to think about it.

Until then, I might just get more serious (Ragbrai) training in by pedaling up to the wine shop. I’ll call it my Sip n’ Spin workout. Helmets mandatory, bring clear glasses because the bugs on the way home require you to ride while blinking your eyes really hard to keep them out and pack 17 bucks. And if you're lucky, there will be a tent in the backyard waiting for you when you get home and someone will have located a hose for a shower.


....Ragbrai?

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Are We Having Fun Yet?

I spent the past few days thinking. Actually eating a lot of ice cream and thinking. I like ice cream and only eat it after races. I do a lot of things after races only. I only drink wine after races. I only let down my guard after races, I….

I guess that’s what hit me. We were in Lubbock on Thursday and I was reading a travel guide. West Texas produces 45 percent of the wine in Texas. And you know I love wine. I wanted to go to a winery. I wanted to sit at a table and sample wine. Not go get drunk but just to enjoy wine. My metabolism is too fast and I am too Italian to get drunk on wine. Chris said no, we can’t, we’re racing.

Honestly, I didn’t like that answer.

And that’s when I (finally) realized that sacrifice, restraint is worthwhile if you are seeing a lot of progress. Your sacrifice is rewarded with a personal best or a breakthrough. But when you are no longer progressing it changes. And I finally admitted how truly un-fun that is and how unvested I was in racing. The old me would never consider wine before a race. But when you’ve spent over a year racing 30 minutes off your best times and fighting to not be last, what does it matter if you have a glass of wine.

The point is that I started thinking about desire. And just why I am doing this.

Truth be told, I love to compete. I am an athlete. I always have been. I remember being 10 years old while all of the other girls in the neighborhood were inside talking about boys or whatever little girls do and I was outside with the 6-year old boy down the street seeing how many laps we could run around his house. Years ago when my uncle Michael asked me Elizabeth, what moves you my answer was – movement. Being able to move and physical activity. That’s about all it takes. I just need freedom to move through time and space. I’m also terribly goal-oriented and fiercely competitive. All of that makes me a good athlete and helped me get good at triathlon. The sport was a goal, a challenge, some place to productively put my competitive energy and my desire to move

I am now a professional athlete. I found myself in the Lubbock airport on Monday after yet another sub-par performance as a pro. A performance that was a full 15 minutes slower than when I did that race 3 years ago, as an amateur, on my road bike with clip-on aerobars.

What is going on here?

And I realized that I am tired of wondering and trying to figure it out. So instead I looked for a book to distract myself. I have spent so much time trying to figure out what is wrong with me and why I race poorly that the pursuit of myself is becoming fruitless and melodramatic. I fear that if I don’t resolve this soon I will become like so many other pros (in any sport) who seem sadly unbalanced and only on a path to alienating others and risking their health all for the pursuit of…themselves.

I found a book entitled Integrity. It was the cover that struck me:

Integrity: the courage to meet the demands of reality

What is my reality? The reality is that I’m not a very good pro triathlete. I am a good athlete but I am not good at it professionally. And I am ok with that. And finally just letting myself say that is a huge relief. I don’t want to pursue something I’m not good at. It would be one thing if I was improving, setting personal bests or getting better with each race…but I’m not. So how much more proof do I need? How many times do you fall on your face before you finally lick the pavement and say to yourself – yup, that’s the taste of pavement, I’m down, I’ve been here before and I don't like it.


How much more time, money or life energy do you waste?

I was sitting on the plane, reading the book about integrity, thinking about my own experience when I read this:

Willpower and just trying to make good choices cannot compete with true desire of the heart, for that is where the passion is. The heart is always stronger than mere willpower.

I have the willpower to train and arrive at a race. I have the willpower to finish a race just because I can. But I no longer have the desire nor the heart. I simply cannot get fired up about showing up to a race and fighting to not be last. I don’t know why. Maybe I don’t believe I belong there. Maybe physically I am not prepared to be there. Maybe I am too tired. True, I performed well as an amateur but for some reason it is not translating to competing professionally. I have explored dozens of reasons why and I am tired of seeking answers. The truth is that I am not getting any closer to mastering this process and that frustrates me. But h
ow exciting it is that I can say that I gave it a try! I do not feel like I am giving up because for the past 18 months I have given it my all. That’s all I have. But now, I just want to have fun again.

I love this sport. I love coaching my athletes. I love traveling all over the country to meet with friends that are fit and passionate about what they do. I love helping others to achieve their goals. I love sharing my experiences with others – and feel like this entire journey (good and bad) as a pro has made me a stronger athlete, a smarter coach, a better person.

When I return to racing triathlon I want to do so with passion and desire for my goals. For now, I will have fun and just let myself be for awhile. I will drink wine. I will skip breakfast sometimes because I can. I will eat waffles for dinner. I will not download power files. Nor wear a heart rate monitor. I will not eat bars. I will not take another salt tab unless my life depends on it. I will locate my desire and find my fire. And in all honesty, I just want to find and be me again.

Life is too short to not have fun at what you do. Triathlon is fun - but right now racing has become unfun. Sure, it's not always supposed to be fun, I get that, but I'm not trying to make a living off of this, I'm not trying to be the next Olympian. I just want to enjoy myself and return to what was once my outlet and recreation. To take it all a little less seriously.

Are we having fun yet?