Monday, July 31, 2006

Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining

Traveling to the ITU Duathlon World Championship in Corner Brook, Newfoundland, I heard my coach in my head. "Being on the podium at Worlds would be huge, Elizabeth," she said as we sat down early season to discuss my goals. Her words echoed in my mind for months. It was true that in the past two years I had been going big - bigger training weeks, putting myself into bigger races, taking bigger risks, and expecting big things from myself. But if a podium finish would be huge, I knew that for this world championship I would have to expect not big, but huge things from myself.

We arrived two days prior to the race to get situated, traveling around Corner Brook to capture the beauty, terrain, and feel of Newfoundland. Touted as one of the most challenging courses in the world, the Corner Brook course was truly for world class competition. The run course was 1.55 miles miles of four grinding hills with steep shin-pounding, pavement-slapping descents. In 6.2 miles, the bike course consisted of a nine-percent grade climb, a steep descent, and a potentially windy out and back section along the riverfront. Though each lap in itself did not appear overly challenging, after 4 laps of running, 4 of biking, and another 2 laps of running, the effort would add up to a monumentally challenging and monstrous world championship course. It would not be a course of strength, or speed, or even smarts. It would be a course for those willing to work the hardest on race day, with whatever race day would bring.

Race morning, I was awoken by the sound of something outside. Peeking outside the window at 6 am, I noticed Corner Brook enveloped by clouds and covered by a steady coat of rain. And the tough course just got tougher. Sitting in bed, I considered the course and reminded myself of what I came to Corner Brook to do - come hills or high water - and that I was indeed going to stand on the podium with a medal around my neck - come rain or shine.

Around 8 am, I set out for the race site. It was drizzling but the temperature was comfortable. After about 20 trips to the port-o-let, I ran a 25 minute warm-up to stay snappy. Right before the race, I took one last trip to the port-o-let to be by myself. I closed the door, getting away from the distractions, the restlessness, the noise, and I stood quietly. I thought about the rain, which was coming down harder, my wet shoes, water-soaked wheels, the slippery streets, dangerous descents, my cycling computer not working...I thought about everything that was not going right or feeling right on that day. And I realized I had two choices - to perseverate on all of these things beyond my control or to take control of myself and my race. I pictured myself taking my hands and pushing the rain, the worry, and the anxiety completely out of my head. With my head clear, I spoke very sternly out loud to myself, "This is your vision. Now you are here. So make it happen." It was time to toe the line.

The gun goes off. About 50 young women from around the world zip overzealousy down the first steep descent. I start at ease and in control, conservatively descending and climbing the hills. My legs feel good, my breathing is under control. Finishing the first lap, I settle into pace with Suzanne Huelster. I outclimb her, but she descends very strong and fast. Together, as Team USA, we overtake a few women, she from the left and I from the right, swallowing them up the hills as Tim Yount shouts with feverish excitement for our efforts. I feel strong on the hills and spare nothing to conquer their steepness. Though I have not looked at my splits, I sense that I am running faster than I should. But I realize that this is what it was going to take at a world championship. I build the pace for the next 3 laps. Before the final climb into transition, my stomach begins to cramp and ache. It is rejecting the fast pace, the hard climbs, and the gel that I forced down earlier. The pain makes me angry, so I go harder and attack the final hill. Before crossing into transition, I realize that I have run the 10K in 37:46, a new personal best by over 90 seconds. This is what it would take on a world championship course, I thought, this is what it takes to make it happen.

I arrive at the river formerly known as the transition area to find everything is dripping wet. For a moment, I fear the bike, I fear for my life around the sharp corners, slick descents, the slippery crosswalk paint. I descend the first steep hill and my stomach drops. Rain is pelting my eyes and as I bottom out on the hill, I splash through patches of deep puddles. The rain is now pouring with the same intensity, drive, and reckless energy that I was pouring into the race. I begin riding with Suzanne and another woman in my age group from Great Britain. We hit the flat section along the river and we ride unrelentless and rushing down the road. We attack each other, over and over again. Just as I get passed, I throw it into a harder gear to grind past them again. I can barely see the pavement - my glasses are useless as I push hard through the rain, through the puddles, through my own pain. I tell myself to stay focused, relaxed, and engaged in the race - to let go of fear, pain, and panic. There are pieces of road flying into my eyes and mouth. The pace is frenetic - I feel like a maniac on wheels, pushing past women on the left and right, dodging puddles and potholes along the road. I am going so hard and fast that I find myself drooling, spitting, and fighting the desire (or need) to throw up. On the way back, surging into the wind, I think I start seeing stars. Part of me thinks this is too hard, but the rest of me knows that this is what it will take - this is how you become one of the best in the world. You see stars, you drool, you puke, you hurt, you suffer.

On the final lap, the British woman has dropped off and Suzanne begins pulling away. I ask myself what if - what if I work harder than her, what if I want it more than her today. With that, I throw it into a tougher gear and work harder up the final hill.

Arriving back in transition, I find two shoes and a visor floating in the sea that has settled around my area. In this moment of unforgiving rain, aching legs, and adrenaline, I cannot see my way through the metal maze of racks and bikes to run out of the transition area. Finally, I am pointed in the right direction and I take off. I run the hills as hard as I can up to the turnaround and realize there are two British women gaining ground behind me. I put forth the furious effort to hold them off. As I redline up the hills to hold my place, podium thoughts fill my head. I remind myself what I came here to do. I envision myself holding them off to make it happen. My legs are screaming, my feet are begging for relief, I am soaked from head to toe. The last lap does not hurt so much in my legs, but hurts in my head heavy from the water, the course, and the competition.

Coming down the last descent on to the Corner Brook Stream Trail, I reach the bridge before the final climb - both physically and proverbially - and realize this moment is mine. Crossing the bridge, my mind raced like the water underneath. I came to Corner Brook, with a vision in my mind and it was happening in the here and now. On a day when anything could have gone wrong and everything about the weather did go wrong, I created something entirely right. Never underestimate the power of positive thinking, the power of being able to make something happen for yourself. And, I thought, never doubt that you belong among the best in the world. Confidence in myself rushes like the water over the rocks into something much larger than where I started, a stream into a river leading to oceans of opportunity that now belong to me.

With everything I have left (not much), I push the hill up to the finish and cross the line. I see only a few women around me, including two from Team USA, Sarah Kolpin (1st in 25 - 29) and Suzanne Huelster (1st in 30 - 34). Standing there, soaked and sore, it begins to settle in as to what we have just done. Together, we speculate, wonder, and then confirm that we have each earned a podium spot. We share the success, and then we share a smile. And the moment speaks for itself.

The next night, at the awards ceremony, it was exciting to see so many, from age 18 through age 84, filled with goals, hard work, and visions that came to fruition in front of the world. When they call my age group, I stand in a spotlight, on a podium, next to Suzanne and the British woman. Tim Yount looks up at me, smiling and shouting my name. They call my name as the silver medalist for short course duathlon worlds. And with a silver medal around my neck, I stood there looking out into the world. This is what I had worked for - months of hill climbing, hard runs, sugar sacrifices, determination, picturing and feeling this moment. And now it was here and mine. I made it happen.

On a day of dark clouds filled with driving rain, relentless hills, and a hurt like no other, you could say I found the silver lining. But it didn't just happen in front of me and it wasn't within easy reach. It took a storm of focus, fervor, and fortitude to reach this so-called stratosphere of success. And now that I'm here, high above the clouds, I think I'll stay and float for awhile.

Friday, July 28, 2006

We're in Canada, eh?

Greetings from Canada!

We are in Corner Brook on the Canadian province of Newfoundland.

Imagine a place east of the sun and west of the moon.......well, mostly east of the sun. But certainly west of Greenland and two and half time zones away from Chicago.

I knew Canadians were a little different, but the two and a half time zones away is just downright oddball. To me, it sounds like something Indiana would do.

Back to Corner Brook. It is a beautiful island with majestic mountains spotted by the most beautiful green conifers. The water surrounding the city is clear and cool. I have never seen so many different types of clouds converging in the sky at the same time. And the past few days, the sun has been shining and the temperature has been a comfortable 70 degrees.

The trip out here was rather uneventful and rather French. Now there is something sexy about listening to people speak Spanish, or Italian, or Portuguese. But French? It just sounds like a lazy, slurred version of English or French or some muffled mixture in between. I wanted to offer the flight attendant some water and say cough out those cottonballs, will ya?

But that was Montreal. And this is Corner Brook which is mostly English, with an island-like accent that sounds like a combination of northern Minnesota and Boston.

Other than the language difference, the only other thing that makes me feel like I'm in a different country is the metric system which is really testing my quick computation skills. I keep thinking .62 to 1, .62 to 1 for every speed limit sign I see. I saw a limit of 100 which was thrilling. But then I realized that was 62 mph which didn't sound nearly as cool.

The prices out here are pretty high. Gas is $1.19 per liter. I don't know how many gallons that is. Milk is $3.41 per gallon - I'm not sure, maybe that is more than gas. Want some orange juice? $3.99. Chicken breasts - two - $7.73 - just ridiculous but I don't think they have island chickens.

It's no more expensive than Hawaii. But unlike Hawaii, I have a coffee-flavored bone to pick with Canada.

Ok, what is the deal here. Why do I get the feeling that this is a DRY decaffeinated island? The only place that serves some semblance of coffee is Tim Horton's. And, their size medium is only a 12 oz cup. PLUS, you have to pay for cream or sugar and THEY put it in for you. I can't even begin to tell you how many ways that is completely wrong but yesterday it was the best I could get. How could these people live in this place that probably gets like a thousand feet of snow per winter and NOT drink coffee?

And there is something freakishly large about the candy bars in the store. I have never seen Kit Kats that big. You could get eaten by a Kit Kat if you turned your back too long.

We previewed the course yesterday and though it is hilly, it is not the monstrous ugly hilly we were expecting. Which is always a good thing. The run has about 10 feet of flat surface on it. The rest are serious hills that descend or ascend for what seems like 1/2 mile. And on foot, that's kind of long. The bike course has one killer hill. Now this sounds all good and easy but the fact that we do the bike course 4 times and the run course 6 times makes me think that I will get to lap 2 of the bike and think 'when did that bear jump on my back?'

But wait, this is an island. And they don't have bears. Which bring me to my next entertaining point - the Moose Crossing signs. They've got moose up here and I'll be damned if I go home without seeing one. Apparently, they imported the moose because what is a Canadian island without a moose?

So, more accurately, I will be thinking 'when did that moose jump on my back?'

Other than previewing the course, we took a hike along the stream and found a great place to swim in the stream tomorrow after the race. We figure it will be like an ice bath, minus the ice.

I'm excited to race and ready to tear the hills up! Anything can happen on a course like this. I believe it will reward those that are willing to work hard enough. And I'm ready to work!

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

What If?

You hear a lot of talented athletes talk about their races where they didn’t hit the mark. Granted there’s a lot good reasons why a race might go wrong – weather, equipment failure, cataclysmic freakish injury, but all things equal, when it all comes down to it you either hit it or not.

Most of us do a lot of training. Good, high quality training that puts us in tip top condition. We read the books, seek the advice, challenge ourselves with bigger and better goals. At a certain level in the amateur ranks, there’s not much that separates the top athletes from each other in a physical sense. Training is training and if you follow a solid plan, you’re likely all at the same level. So what is it? What makes one top amateur hit their mark while the others fall short of the target?

I’d like to think those that hit their target weren’t afraid to ask what if – what if I pushed it a little more, what if I wanted this more than you, what if I wasn’t afraid to go out and get it, what if I didn’t fear failure or expectations or injury or anything else that might stand in the way of me and my goals. What if.

What keeps you from asking what if, from taking that chance? More often not, it’s fear of pain, failure, injury, success. Anything, good or bad, can be feared and can hold you back. But you have to work through this. You have to be willing to take the chance, to ask the question, and see what happens. And that’s why during training I try to get in the practice of playing the “what if?” game.

Ok, you’re in the pool, there’s someone ahead of you that’s just that much faster. You’re doing a set of 9 x 100’s with 15 seconds rest. Now here’s the situation – do you stick in your comfort zone at the pace that you know you can handle for all 9 x 100 or do you say to yourself “what if” – what if I take it up a notch, what if I roll my hips more powerfully, what if I pull the water harder? Think about it – what if? The worst that could happen – you blow up. And that wouldn’t be so bad – then you shift your focus for the workout and just swim smooth, slow, and work on form. But what if you can keep up? What if you can take it to that next level and in doing so gain all the confidence in the world that day because you took the chance, made the leap, and in doing so got to that next level.

The what-if game is what you need when race day rolls around. There will come that moment where you either need to attack, or push it a bit harder to keep up, or hold them off. What do you do? If you sit back and hold back, you become complacent and risk never breaking through. But what if you take that step, pick it up, and at that moment challenge yourself with “what if?” Well, that is for you to find out.

This weekend, I am heading up to Canada, to Corner Brook for the Duathlon World Championship. I already know that I will be up against not only the best in the world, but the best duathlete in the U.S. And, she’s in my age group. And, she’s beaten me already this year. And, she can run a sub-38 10K. But this is a different course on a different day. This race can be anyone’s game and there’s no reason why it can’t be mine. So, I’m taking my chances – I’m going to ask myself ‘what if.’

I’ve been asking myself what if for the past few weeks. What if I could climb that hill harder or hold that wattage longer or run that interval a bit harder. I asked, and asked, and then waited for the answers. And I found out that I could – that I could push harder or hold higher wattage or hold a faster pace. I just had to be willing to take the chance.

I took the chance and in doing so found a new confidence, found a new place – and I now know the way to get there. Each time that I want to go there, it will be that much easier.

Don’t expect to do anything different on race day. Don’t expect to go anywhere that you haven’t already gone in training. If you play the what if game often enough, you’ll find that training is harder than any race. In training you breakthrough and breakdown, you hurt, you suffer, and ache. But the best races are those that are effortless – because you’ve been there before in training, your body knows it and trusts it. Because you asked what if and it knows how to answer.

Understand that in races, there will be a point where you have go past your training. A breakthrough is waiting to happen and there will be a bridge that you will have to cross. Get in the habit of asking yourself ‘what if’ - you will cross that bridge and find your success.

This Ain't My First Rodeo

I’ve got a confession to make.

I am secretly in love with a cowboy. Ok, there’s actually 45 of them and they ride on a weekly basis in the pro bull riding circuit. That’s right. I’m in love with PBR.

It started a few years ago when we moved into our home. We purchased basic cable and the only worthy channel – of all 8 of them – was OLN, soon to be VS. Every weekend night, OLN aired the PBR. A few weeks later, I was hooked.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m no cowgirl. I’m 100 percent pure New York City (Brooklyn!) born and raised. Bulls? Cowboy hats? Spurs? Are you serious? You show up in the city like that and you best giddy up and ‘git the other way.

But there’s just something about a cowboy. Maybe I saw too many billboards with the Marlboro Man, but girls - I’m just waiting for a tall dark cowboy to show up at my door on a high horse and gallop me away.

If you haven’t watched PBR, you are quite possibly missing the toughest sport on dirt. Imagine this, a giant dirt area, pens filled with bucking bulls, and a delectable assortment of deliciously handsome, masculine, rough and tough go ride ‘em cowboys. Forget about saving the horse, or the bull, I’ll take and ride the cowboy.

In my eyes, there’s two types of cowboys on the PBR circuit. There’s the Brazilians and then there’s everyone else. Bull riding is pretty big in Brazil. And not surprisingly cowboys from Brazil are pretty hot. Tall, dark, and handsome? You bet. And they wear a cowboy hat which is a sure shootin’ way to get straight to my heart.

And my heart just about stopped earlier this year when I found out that the PBR was coming to Chicago. That’s right – in April, Chicago would welcome the Jack Daniels Invitational. It wasn’t a matter of ‘if’ I was going, I was already there and I was bringing my lasso to rope me a cowboy.

Alas, my rodeo dreams might as well have been pipe dreams because I brought my husband along. He played along with me, acting slightly amused and amazed that I was honestly interested in this sport, but he knotted my lasso and hid my hat. No cowboys for me.

Of course, you could question whether or not it is a “sport”. But you’d be wrong. Watch a rodeo and you’ll see what I mean. It’s just as much or even more of a sport than any triathlon I’ve done. And the cowboys on the PBR are tough as nails. Compare this to Ironman in which triathletes train for an event that lasts anywhere from 10 – 17 hours. Cowboys – they train for an event that might, if they are lucky, last 8 seconds.

The only object of the game – to hang on. Physically I would imagine you could master it with a few years of practice. Psychologically, I bet it’s a bitch. Justin McBride, 2005 World Champion, once said “All it is, is holding on for 8 seconds.” Sounds fairly simple but you’ve got to think that there’s more to it than that. There’s a little voice in your head that doesn’t let you hold on hard enough, strong enough, long enough. At the same time, you overthink those 8 seconds and you’ll get just as hung up as your rope on the bull as it spins you like the blades of a mower into a rodeo barrel.

Take into account that you are trying to hang on an animal that weighs over 1,000 lbs. And these are no ordinary bulls. These are pure bred buckers. Some of these bulls are superstars, legends of the rodeo. There’s the now-retired favorites, Cash, Blueberry Wine, Little Yellow Jacket. The dearly and recently departed – Kid Rock. Mossy Oak Mudslinger – set to retire this year. The up and comers - Pandora’s Box, Deuces Wild. My perennial favorite, Coffee Time (go figure) and other beastly buckers waiting to send a cowboy flying through the air.

The pay off – if a bull bucks, his owner gets paid. If the cowboy hangs on, the cowboy gets paid. It’s a rich business with big time sponsors, Enterprise, Jack Daniels, Mossy Oak, Dickies, Copenhagen. For those of you that do not shop at Farm and Fleet, those are the Litespeed, Pearl Izumi, and Rudy Project of the rodeo world.

Back to the rodeo in April. We arrived at the All State Arena thinking who in Chicago would go to the rodeo? There can’t be a big market for it here. Were we wrong. The arena was surrounded by the most country collection of bleached blondes, cowboy boots, sleeveless shirts, and ten gallon hats. Clearly Wisconsin had opened the flood gates and allowed their most rootin’ tootin’ residents to head south for the weekend.

Once inside, we located our seats. Too bad our seats were smack in the middle of a family that collectively weighed more than the weight limit for the entire row. No way I was going to squeeze between them and their slurpee cups. So we found some other seats right on the edge of the balcony with an incredible view.

I looked around. Simply put, it was better than hee haw. We were right on top of the bull holding pens, a marvelous metal maze holding all of the biggest bull stars. There’s Smokeless Wardance! There’s Dueces Wild! Is that Pandora’s Box?! They snarled and stomped and waited for their cue to get out there and get ‘er done.

The cowboys were within close proximity too, including the most tantalizing piece of charred Brazilian steakhouse meat in the arena – Guillherme Marchi. He hung on for the highest scoring ride of the night. And I’ve got pictures to prove it.

For two hours, we watched the bulls buck and bend. The cowboys – some hung on, some got tossed like ragdolls flailing through the air. Overall, it was one of the most entertaining events I’ve ever seen, even more exciting than watching the monster truck rally back in 2003.

Now that the Tour excitement has simmered down, I can get back to the real important riding out there – bull riding on OLN/VS every Saturday and Sunday night. And every month when Pro Bull Riding magazine arrives in my mailbox, I steal away to the living room and read the latest news. Who held on, who’s leading the point series, who’s injured, who had a 90 point ride. In some ways it’s a lot like triathlon – somewhat of a fringe sport obscured from the masses. But to those involved, it’s larger than life – it’s a sport, it’s a lifestyle, it’s a way of living and a way of making a living. And to me, it’s just as true and real as any sport.

In the beginning, I bet you didn’t know if I was talking about the real PBR or a can of cheap beer. Right……tri-atha-what? Well, now you know.

Monday, July 24, 2006

My Island Of Misfit Toys

Think back to the Christmastime of your childhood and recall a favorite film – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Among many of the classic lines (ie., “Let’s be independent together!”) falls one of the more classic locations in the make believe world – The Island of Misfit Toys. An island filled with toys that no one wants or no one understands. An island with no visitors but plenty of full-time residents united in their own idiosyncracies of behavior, usage, and design.

In search of more information on this imaginary island, I looked to the internet. The island itself, though location remains undisclosed, is only described as an island sanctuary where defective and unwanted toys are sent. Residents include trains, elephants, boats, and birds, all with defects or features rendering them undesirable or useless. My favorite is the Misfit Cowboy, who confused finds himself riding an ostrich rather than a horse. Most interestingly, the Misfit Doll’s presence on the island is never explained and rumor has it that her problem was more psychological than physical. Apparently the island embraces all kinds.

I’d like to have my own island of misfit toys, remote and distant adrift in one of the oceans blue. However, on my island, I would not send toys. Instead, I would exile the increasingly growing number of misfits and oddballs that frequently surround my little suburban world.

I’ve been keeping a list and I’ve been checking it more than twice. Naughty or nice? Not relevant here. It’s more a question of did you respond to the green light and how quickly? My criteria is complicated, my attitude ambivalent, and judgments grossly out of control. But keep your own list for a week and you’ll find it quickly fills with people that just tend to irk you, jab you, get under your skin little by little until you realize your skin is filled with an uncontrollable itchiness of the irritability of these misfits.

And now I will unveil my list. My apologies if you find yourself fitting into any one of these categories. Rest assured, you’d probably find me on someone else’s island, sitting under a coconut tree in a skirt made of grass writing a message in a bottle to my husband, send coffee soon…

• If you slow down in the I-Pass lane. Why. Why do you do this. Your I-Pass will beep no matter how fast you go. To test this theory, my co-worker blew through the lane going over 100 mph. The transponder beeped. Go faster. You are turning the governor’s one attempt at tollway efficiency into a crowded mess. Please stop that. And pick it up.

• If you live in Wheaton, drive a tan-colored Lexus SUV, and have hurled profanities at me while I was riding along County Farm Road. What did you gain by yelling at me? Or were you just trying to tell me that you and your 2000 lbs of steel were bigger and better than me and my 19 lbs of aluminum framing?

• If you are that guy that buzzed me a few weeks ago heading up Warrenville Road. First of all, I was doing an easy, recovery ride. Second of all, I passed you because you were going too slow. Third, you only passed me because I passed you and when you did pass you had to get into your big ring, stomping up the hill only to explode at the top and swerve into traffic. Hope you enjoyed the buzz, buster.

• If you drink decaf anything. Why do you hurt coffee’s feelings this way? Have you no compassion for letting coffee do what it was intended to do?

• If you honked at me while I was running down Warrenville Road at 5 am. What gives? Was I really in your way as I ran on the 3 inches of shoulder? Was it not enough that you had two whole lanes of traffic to yourself that you had to honk at me while I was relaxing with my run? Should I pull into your driveway tonight and blow my horn like a maniac while you relax and watch t.v.?

• If you tell me that I’m over 30 now and need to be having kids. Oh really? Have you been talking with my ovaries?

• If you called me the other day at work to ask if the mosquitoes would be out that day. As if I knew. As if I could call up the commander of the mosquito military and ask if they would be invading that day. Alternatively, if you call me in the autumn to ask when the leaves change color. As if the trees tell me. As if we turn a switch and the color comes on. Go back to grade school science and you tell me when the color will turn.

• If you are that guy in the pool that has been swimming in the lane next to me for about 3 years now that does something that is not even remotely close to freestyle and does not wear goggles and wipes their eyes after every stroke. It hurts my eyes to watch you. Please – buy goggles! My eyes! My eyes!

• If you were that kid driving the Toyota Echo early in the morning out of Lisle and you honked at me and cut me off. I bet you didn’t think I would chase you down Yackley, stop at the light, and flip you the bird. Well I did. So take that.

• If you were that woman that moved my bike at the track, without asking me as I stood right there, so you could get to your towel. Did I come up to you and touch you and your belongings? Did you want me to impale you with my aerobars?

If you were in the Home Depot self-checkout line the other night and you were tapping the credit card machine with the plastic pen to make it go faster. Why would that make it go faster? How about you tap your own head and get it right - it would have gone faster if you had just followed directions and pressed the ‘finish and pay’ button in the first place. And when I pointed that out to you, politely, you said ‘I hate these things’. Then don’t get into that line in the first place.

This list is by no means exhaustive. It’s a work in progress, it’s ever-changing. One day you might find yourself on my island while the next day Hermey the Misfit Elf is pulling up a fancy yacht to come and set you free as he pours on your shoulder, “I wanted to be an orthodontist.” But take no offense, I’m sure I fit in nicely on your own island of misfit toys or whatever you happen to be harboring that day.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Dirty Laundry

It’s time to air my dirty laundry – and there’s lots of it. People have asked what it’s like to be married to another triathlete. Honestly, and I'm coming clean here, I wouldn’t know because I spend half of my time hidden in our laundry room sorting, washing, and drying my way through loads upon loads of both tri and non-tri-related laundry.

It’s not that we are big people, or that we even wear a lot of clothes. But train over 15 hours a week, times two, and the sweaty clothes start to pile up. If you don’t keep up with it, you could end up consumed by your piles of laundry and the scents that surround it. Not only that, but if you don’t keep up with the laundry you’ll be forced to ride in that pair of shorts that you keep around just in case – the pair with chamois that chafes, or the legs that are just a little too tight, or the pair that makes your rear look a little too big. And you know in the back of your mind that if you are perchance forced to wear these shorts you can expect only the worst of workouts because you didn’t have your lucky shorts, or your rear felt big, or your hamstrings were squeezed by an elastic band of doom around each leg. If you feel me here, raise your bottle of Snuggle fabric softener and let’s do a load.

Laundry at our house is no simple task, there’s no consistent system of laundry in, laundry out. It’s a complicated hide and seek with the many bags, baskets, sinks, and other cavernous places that might be harboring any number of Chris’ need-to-be-laundered clothes. There are shorts in the laundry room sink, there are shirts in the towel basket, clothes on his bathroom floor, clean clothes in his workout bag, dirty towels in the foyer, even the car trunk has its share. There are so many places were laundry could, would, should be that on laundry day I feel like a pirate lost at sea with a tattered old treasure map looking for the bountiful booty and the promised land. Except the only booty I am promised to find has been rubbing the inside of bike shorts for 3 hours. It’s just not the same.

Don’t even get me started on the socks. Somehow, in some way, Chris leaves a trail of white cotton socks in his path. To my chagrin, I pick the socks up, one by one, marveling at how many, how balled up, how he can take off his pants with socks still remaining stuck in the legs. Socks are hidden, tucked, and stashed everywhere. In the basement, the garage, bathroom, under the couch, in bags, in his car, under our bed, in our bed, in the laundry basket, next to it, under it. I’ve never seen so many socks in so many places. His socks are like a sinister shadow that lurks and haunts me every step of the way. Just as I think I have finally collected all of the socks, and dumped them into a load of hot water, and closed the lid to be done with them, I find myself collapsing tired on the couch only to put my foot onto something soft and cottony shoved into one of the cushions, and as I look at it I realize that to my dismay oh no it couldn’t be, yes it is, another damn sock.

And then there’s the things that shouldn’t have been washed in the first place. You name it, I’ve washed it. We have the cleanest used gel packets around and on a weekly basis I probably wash twenty of them. Two car keys were washed the other day. The garage door opener – amazingly that can survive a washing and still work. Checks tend not to fare well but paper money does better. At least two dollars in pocket change settles in the bottom of the machine each week. The only thing that hasn’t been through a wash cycle yet has been Chris’ cell phone. But I found that in the kitchen sink the other day, so it’s only a matter of time.

Though we have three baskets, there’s quite a bit of laundry that never seems to leave the floor. Apparently, my husband has some master plan for this laundry - a transition area containing categories of clothing that was worn, but could be worn again sorted into piles of clothing that could be worn again to work or clothing that could be worn again around the house not to be confused with the pile of clothing that could be worn again but only to repair bikes. It is a system that only a man could understand, one that I do not subscribe to, one that I will never own. And I foil this plan every chance I get as I take it upon myself to transition this clothing quickly into the basket or the machine. Dirty laundry? Not on my time.

On a nightly basis, you can find me hauling one of three baskets up or down the stairs. Putting clothes away, hanging clothes, folding clothes, clothes, clothes, clothes. There are some days I stand in my closet in the morning detesting my clothes, refusing them like a fussy child, and swearing I will go naked to work for I cannot touch another article of clothing.

For awhile, I was so sick of doing laundry that I went strike. The week that laundry would not be done. I was ready to air out my grievances, to hang my sudsy, soiled hatred for the laundry on the line for all to see. Well, mostly for Chris to see but he never did really see it so I guess you could say my plan was not wrinkle-free. Clothing piled up in Chris’ closet, a mean pile of outrageously sweaty running shorts, sassy cycling socks, assorted other oh-so-unfresh fabrics, and work clothes. I resisted the urge to wash them. Bottles of detergent sat idle on the shelf. Fabric softener sheets went unused. But it wasn’t long before my nose started to twitch and my empty hands started to shake. Just one load, I thought. Just a little light load of white socks and t-shirts wouldn’t hurt. No - I had to stand firm on my soapbox to send the message of how enslaved I had become by the laundry’s cycles spinning around me like a web of wishy washy madness. And I was becoming a delicate load.

After a week, I was itching for a soapy fix. I started pouring the empty detergent cups into the empty washer, just for practice. I set and reset the dryer on timed dry and waited for the buzzer to beckon to me that it was done. I considered setting the dial to air tumble and throwing myself in to dry my antsyness out. When I could take it no more, I called off my anti-laundry strike and succumbed, starting a load. I spent that entire Saturday doing what seemed like mountains of laundry that I let pile up for the week in protest, in an unobvious attempt to make a plea that I was drowning in a heavy load of hot water and my mind was becoming permanently pressed.

In doing so, you realize the dangers of domestication are that the man will do the big, rough, and tough stuff while the woman gets stuck pre-washing, stainsticking, and folding the filthy, wretched untouchables that touch our bodies everyday. Of course Chris is quite capable of doing his own laundry, but there are some things I feel are better left in my domain. If it’s gender-induced, then let me iron out the details for you – I just think I’m better at washing the clothes. I’m not saying that I’m a stickler for sorting, but I do believe that darks should be separated from lights and workouts clothes should be washed alone. I can say with fabricated fortitude and freshness that laundry under my leadership tends to come out better, softer, and cleaner. In Chris’ world of washing, everything is dumped into the machine, thrown on large superwash, and set at ‘do everything in your machine-line power to clean this mess up’. I’m not sure – but I think he adds soap.

Knowing this, I simply cannot let him near my machines. If he gets the cars, the barbecue grill, the torque wrench, and the air compressor, then I get the washer and dryer. And care for them I will. I’m no stranger to wiping my machines down with some Windex and a rag or cleaning out the fabric softener holder with warm water. And when I see Chris approaching the machines, I quickly intervene and suggest that he find something better to do with his time, to leave the laundry to me.

It’s not that I don’t have better things to do with my time, it’s just that in the mundane repetitiveness of the task of putting laundry in, pouring soap, and taking laundry out, I have found a strange joy. Laundry is perhaps one of the most quietly predictable and simple tasks that fills my everyday. A clear start and a finish, there’s no ambiguity to the laundry. It goes in dirty and comes out clean, it’s as simple as that.

And here as I stand in my bedroom, sorting the clean laundry into piles to put away, I air my dirty laundry to you – this is my sorted secret from my white and colorful domesticated world – I like doing the laundry and can’t wait for the next load. So if you see me walking around waving a fabric softener sheet in the air, don’t fret, it’s just me, laundering my love of the laundry, just waiting for another pile to appear on the floor.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Just Another Day At The Office

Yesterday, I took the day off from work. But don’t think for one minute that a day off of work meant no work for me. It turned out to be just like any other day at the office. Instead of an office chair, I parked my bottom on a bicycle seat and spent over 70 miles getting the job done.

Heading off on my bike, I rode 90 minutes across the gently rolling hills and farmlands of the far western suburbs. The morning was mine with light winds, low traffic, and a cool overcast sky. But this didn’t last long and this was no coffee break of a ride. Word at the water cooler was that Liz had some hard work ahead of her. The ‘Duathlon Worlds Hill Repeats’ project with an upcoming deadline of July 29 – did you get the memo?

When I arrived on Campton Hills Road, management slapped the file folder of pain in front of me. My assignment - 12 x 3 minute hills climbed in a variety of ways – sitting @ 65 rpms, standing @ 75 rpms, stomping and mashing @ 45 rpms. Apparently this assignment was part of the company’s strategic plan – the mission, to kill the hills at Duathlon Worlds with specific directions from management – “your legs should be trashed by the end” - directions that left me thinking who is management and how did they get promoted to that position.

I arrived at the bottom of the hill ready to tackle this project. If killing the hills was the mission, then the vision would be all mine. And like any good vision, it would require active visualization to see myself through. In my mind, I was climbing the hills of CornerBrook at Duathlon Worlds. In a moment, I took my mind there, found myself climbing against the gorgeous backdrop of Newfoundland, and I was ready to ride. The first 2 times up the hills I held back, finding my rhythm and settling in. The next 9 were serious work and I got serious about it. Hold my calls, because I had a very important meeting with some potential clients – my competition. I had checked the staff directory for Worlds and located the top performers - Kirsten, Kiera, Suzanne, Sarah. I dragged them with me up each and every one of those climbs. Someone call Human Resources because surely this constituted harassment on my part. I was their personal pain escort and together we crushed that hill, side by side. They were pushing me, challenging me, and I could always see them getting just ahead of me by the end. In an act of extreme effort, I would edge my way past them, pushing up and over the steepest part of the hill, reaching wattage well beyond my normal capabilities. The last one sent my legs straight to basement of the office building, my quads, my feet, my breathing all exhausted and made heavy by this hill.

After that last hurrah up the hill, I was done – 100 percent checked out with a letter of resignation in hand. Ahead of me, another hour of riding, like a painful meeting with upper management. My legs were so trashed that the thought of pedaling for another hour made me want to crawl under my desk and hide. Instead, I wanted to change the voicemail, create a reactive e-mail rule - Liz has left the office building, you have reached an inactive account.

But I was still on the clock and there was still work to be done. I started to head out for the last hour of riding and immediately it felt like someone had taken a Swingline and stapled my legs shut with pain. But I continued on, because no one was going to finish this ride for me. No one was going to do my job. In retaliation, my legs were begging to call customer service with a complaint.

With 30 minutes left, I pulled over to the side and my legs would give no more; I jammed the copier, downloaded a virus, the printer literally ran out of toner and was spitting out page after blank page of nothingness. Somebody please troubleshoot me because I was on the bottom floor, in the corner cubicle, and I think I saw Milton down there, with his stapler and his files.

I took a look around on this bottom floor, and what I saw were loads of files - files of years of focus, determination, and hard work. My files – my successes, my failures, my personnel record filled with annual plans, mid-year progress reports, goals, reviews, letters, certificates - oh they’ve been keeping an eye on me and keeping records too.

In looking through those files, you begin to realize that years of experiences, years of commitment to the company will pay off. You’ll get through this, and any other project that comes your way. You’ve been a success before and a failure, and regardless they still kept you on staff. For whatever reason, they believe that you are the best person for the job. And it’s up to you to be your own Chief Executive Officer and take charge of the task at hand. So you best employ yourself and get your rear riding again.

I returned from the ride and got ready for a 30 minute run. At this point, I desperately needed a lunch break but there was still some work to be done. I thought about loafing and letting myself go easy for the run – to zone out and sit in the back of the meeting doing Sudoku with a sharpened pencil. But management would frown upon that. And, more importantly, they’re keeping those files on me and I’ll be damned if I get disciplined for not doing this run.

I ran hard, I ran fast. It was hot, apparently the AC was out again, and I was hungry, thirsty, sore. I cranked through those miles like a copier collating hundreds of papers into meticulously sorted piles.

And when I was done, I shut the computer down and went back home. Liz had logged off for the day. Another day at the office, done.

On the way home, I finally took my coffee break and stopped at Caribou. And as the girl behind the counter asked me if I wanted my coffee hot or iced and I realized that I had more work ahead of me – obviously she was new on staff and unaware of the 100 reasons why iced coffee was strategically wrong and not a part of this company's master plan.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Excessive Heat Warning

Things are heating up around here.

Yesterday, temperatures topped out at 97 degrees with a 105 degree heat index prompting an excessive heat warning to be issued for the day.

It’s been like this for nearly 4 days – hot, humid, windy, and angry. The traffic is sluggish, the streets are sweaty, and all of us local athletes are sitting on the edge of a sweltering, boiling salty rage brewing inside of our mortal bodies because no mortal can handle heat like this.

With all of this heavy heat, it feels like something big is coming - something so unstable, so shattering, so monumental that even the earth’s atmosphere has responded with turbulent change. Some maelstrom of madness, heat, and rage is mixing over the fields of the Midwest, sending an apocalyptic and maddening melange of combatively high heat and humidity into this area, melting everything in its path into a weary, swollen bundle with dehydrated bags under our eyes and heat congestion in our heads.

And there can only be one explanation for this. Only one way I can see it – Mother Nature knows that I’m training for Ironman Hawaii and she’s pissed.

She sees me as some cold weather Chicago area girl whose laboriously long indoor trainer rides and bitter runs in with biting wind chills are no match for what she will throw across the lava fields come late October. In an effort to convince me of the irrationality and recklessness of my Kona dreams, she’s lighting a fire under my feet to see how hot it can get before I am forced to dance my way out of the frying pan. She’s trying hard to make me doubt myself, make me doubt the decision to take the Kona slot. She sees my icy cold confidence as insipid and unpure, and she is waiting for me to melt in the midst of her heated rage.

But she doesn’t know me. She doesn’t know that I’m determined to have her beat. I’m determined to come out of this blazing hot fight stronger and smarter than I started. And I don’t care what she throws my way. If she wants a fight, she’s found her match in the form of a 5’ 2” spitfire that has no plans to surrender.

So the other day, when it started to heat up, I stood in my corner, threw on my boxing gloves, heard the bell ring, and got ready for a fight.

Round 1

It started on Friday in the form of a track workout. I headed out around 5 pm just as the day stood at its hottest and its irascible heat had been building throughout the day. Chris doubted my sanity when I told him where I was going - “This is not the track workout you are looking for,” he said with eyes to heed his warning of the heat that had waged war on our suburban world. Determined to follow the advice of my coach that this was the most perfect Kona-flavored day we had yet this year, I was stubbornly bound to run on the track. And I did. And I lasted about 21 minutes and 12 seconds. That’s about 15 minutes of warm up, actually achieved in the first 15 seconds of stepping on to the track, and 6 minutes 12 seconds of increasingly explosive heat building in my body after 1600 meters. After another 800 meters, I felt as though I had crawled into an oven, someone secretly shut the door on me, and cranked the temperature up to broil. Another 1600 meters followed in what was my slowest track mile time - ever - and I was left charred, overcooked, and more than well-done. Afterwards, I stood shaking in the mere shade of the metal bleachers, sobbing at my slowness and near failure at the one workout I loved the most – the track. I shook a threatening finger at Mother Nature, scolding her and cursing her to dare meddle with me at the track, this sacred place of pain. I swore my revenge and then set out to finish. She would not get the best of me because giving up is never an option. I proceeded to finish the run, only to return home with a head on fire and a stomach cramped in knots. But these are the runs I’ll remember, I thought. This is what will count for Kona, this heat, this sobbing, this pain, and suffering around in circle after circle, mile after mile. But until then, the score stood at Mother Nature – 1, Liz – 0.

Round 2

The next day, Mother Nature was back for another round, sending the heat climbing to 95 degrees. After a 2 mile swim race, it was time for a 50 minute run. I headed to a forest preserve hoping to sneak some shade on the path. But a sneaky little thought in my head ignited me to venture out in the heat, run the sun-soaked path, and suffer like a good Kona-bound girl should. I lasted 20 minutes before retreating back into the shade. Score another one for MN.

Round 3

Sunday it was time to settle the score. If nature was my mother, I was ready to get sassy and fresh with her like a teenage girl fighting for the phone. My revenge was set in the form of a 100 mile ride. Before her heat could get to me, I’d beat her to it. I’d start early enough, rendering myself untouchable, surpassing the brunt of her heat-ridden hellbent ways. With my salt tabs, bottles of beverage, a steady nutrition plan, and all the fury in the world behind me, I was ready for combat and ready to ride. It was 6:30 am and I was rolling along at a comfortable pace. As the miles passed quietly, I wondered if Mother Nature had slept in that Sunday morning, if I had snuck past her door on tip toes, without waking her in her wrath. But how long could this last? How long could I creep along these roads eluding her attention? Oh, about 50 miles. Halfway through the ride, noticing my disregard and defenses, she awoke, startled by the success of my secrecy up to this point and she responded. Tactical and strong, she took it up a notch. She drew forces with the sun and the winds, aligning in the most southwesternly of ways, sending a tailwind that sailed me 26 mph in an easternly direction. On any other day I would have welcomed this push from the wind, but 97 degrees is no time for a tailwind. Combined with heat like this, a tailwind will leave you baking in your own oven of effort. By the last 10 miles, I was shaky, salty, sun-beaten, and spent but still a century-filled success. Afterwards, I paused under the shade of a wind and giggled in a most sinister way. Despite her feverish assault against me, I had prevailed that day and scored one for Liz.

Round 4 - The Final Round

The final round – Monday’s lunchtime run at high noon under the warning of excessive heat. It was the showdown, the big dance, where Mother Nature and I would go mano a mano to tangle in the heat. I set out for a 45 minute run at cruising speed around the neighborhood. Armed with 14 ounces of liquid, enough sunscreen to clog my pores, and a visor, I was reporting for duty, ready for fiery combat. It started out easy enough, a steady pace along the streets. I could see the heat rising from the streets in a thick haze. For 20 minutes I actually felt strong and sure of myself – a bit warm – but overall secure. And then it hit. 25 minutes into it my head exploded in unbridled heat, the sun strangling me and leaving me gasping for relief under a tree. What just happened here, I thought. How could a run turn into something so ugly, so fast? Mother Nature – that nasty little bitch. She drew her weapon and pointed it right at my back. So, I drew the only weapon I had – liquid. I took a swig from my Fuel Belt and then set out to finish the run. It only got worse. What was already a slow pace, got even slower. The sun burned hotter. It felt like someone had lit a fire on my back leaving me with no choice but to consider a stop, drop, and roll to put it out. 38 minutes went by and I was slowly diffusing in the heat. My weapons were useless. I considered turning around, walking home, retreating to the cold, clean air of my air-conditioned home. At 40 minutes, I made the turn on to our street, the last 5 minutes left dangling before me. I was sore, tired, sweaty, and my body pleaded with me to be done with this militant march of heated pain. I had to do something – I couldn’t let her win. I thought about how Mother Nature would wage a much bigger war on me later in the year and that I had to have my defenses ready, build a large brick wall of fortitude against whatever she would throw my way. And, pardon the cliché, I was going to have to build it one brick at a time, one run, one swim, one mile, little by little, day by day. With that in mind, I finished those 5 minutes, making loops around the steamy black-tarred asphalt of our street forcing the furious heat into my face. I finished – because Hawaii won’t be about how far or how fast, it would be about the finish and the joy of just making it across the finish line. And as I approached my driveway after 45 minutes, I crossed that line, under an excessive heat warning, under a sun-scorched sky. The victory was mine – I had beat the heat and in doing so I sent Mother Nature scurrying from whence she came.

We will certainly meet again – in the lava fields of Kona, in the crosswinds, in the swells of the ocean. But by then I will be ready to take on anything, anywhere. These small battles will add up to a landslide victory, on my part, because I will keep counterattacking, responding to this rivalry with an unshakable ferocity that I won’t let go. Until then, I'll sweat it out and sit here in a heat edema-induced rage waiting 'til we meet again.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Which Way The Wind Blows

One thing certain about Chicago is that the wind is always blowing. From the north, east, south, and west, whatever the direction – the wind is always, all of the time blowing.

As I headed out for last week, the wind blew from the northeast at 15 mph, gusting to 20 mph. I welcomed this wind, as this was no typical summer breeze in Chicago. The sun was shining, cumulus clouds hung in a sky of blue, the northeast wind was cool and clean, pleasantly keeping the temperatures below 80 degrees and making even the headwind seem light, thin, and crisp. Truly this was the perfect day for a ride and as the roads rolled by for 40 miles, I got to thinking about the wind.

Tailwinds from the Wild West

On Ragbrai, you don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows - all you need is our friend, Marshall, to pull a tuft of grass from the ground, hold it high, let it go, and watch which way the wind carries it. Above all physical or mental factors that you might feel over Ragbrai, a 7-day, 500 mile ride across Iowa, the wind trumps them all, taking control over your entire experience. Heading from the Nebraska border clear across the Illinois, Ragbrai is a significantly eastern adventure. As you roll along in an easternly direction, summer winds from the south might blow and winds from the west are welcomed with open arms and wheels. It was 2004, and in a most unsummerly manner, the wind blew from the southeast for most of the week. To our dismay, we headed mostly south and mostly east, making the miles a long hard grind into the headwind. Several days later, we awoke moaning to the wind to grant us mercy and relief from its cruel headwind hold. But that morning, before we rolled out, Marshall dropped a tuft of grass, and to our surprise the wind picked it up and furiously whipped it away in the most delightful direction. Not only was it a westerly tailwind, but it was gusting to 40 mph. You don’t ride this type of wind – you glide, you fly, you sail above pavement effortlessly to the east. This was a day for Ragbrai history – the day we rode, geared out, cruising 120 rpm’s at a comfortable 42 mph. I hung until until 39 mph, 650’s spun out in wheeled fury, until I dropped off defeated from the back, watching the guys disappear in the distance. Like this, I realized the west wind will carry you, and 10 of your friends, across Iowa or any state for that matter with uncautious grace, laughing manically the whole way as you hang on for one hell of a wild ride. The west wind is relentless and full – it does not tire, it does not stop. It holds speeds that you can only dream of in cycling – 25, 30, consistently 40 mph. The most impenetrable of all winds – unbeatable, indefatigable, and capable of leaving you tattered and tired 25 miles from home, 2 hours later, only to turn around, point your bike east and coast back in under a hour. The west wind truly promises a wild, wild ride.

Storming Through A Southeast Headwind

2001, Ragbrai, again late July. The team rolled into Storm Lake, a town true to it’s name. Grinding into Storm Lake, I was taking whatever draft I could find behind Chris’ wheel. Heading into the storm surrounding the lake, the wind was in our faces only permitting us to proceed at a mere 9 mph. It’s never a good sign when up in the distance you see a field full of giant metal windmills, churning and whirring in the stormy wind, and especially not a good sign on the second day of the week-long ride. Marshall, standing over 6 feet tall, was leading the way into the wind, the rest of us hiding behind his rear wheel hoping for any small measure of relief in his wake. We worked hard, those in front and in back, and the rain was making us wet and weary. Like the windmills turning in the fields, our wheels turned in large, slow circles through the stormy southeastern headwind. As we fought against the wind, the windmills served as reminder that today the wind would win, and we would only fall tired in our tents that night, beaten by the southeasterly blows and uppercuts of Storm Lake. Ravaged and spent, we had no choice but to ride on and as we did Marshall pulled to the side of our paceline and added a brief moment of humor as he pleaded, ‘I sure wish someone would turn off those giant fans.’

Winter Wind From the East

From the middle of summer, to the dead of winter, the east wind brutally blows like cold, cruel breath from a giant cartoon cloud. It was late February, and I was determined to escape the indoor cycling confines of my basement and ride outdoors. The temperature looked appealingly cooperative as it hovered around a balmy 38. Bundled up and prepared for a cold, but manageable, ride, I headed west on my mountain bike. The wind seemed light at my back and I was warm inside my layers. And then I turned around to head home. Even today, the heaviness of my mountain bike was not slow enough to keep me from feeling the speedy briskness of the east wind. Twenty minutes from home, I began to feel the physical and mental sting of the cold, fearing that several parts of myself would freeze or fall off. The pain in my hands and toes had grown unbearable and even under two layers of mittens and wool socks, the wind sent its piercing fury into my extremities. I stopped, panicked, grew colder, and realized I had no choice but to gut it out and push the rest of the way. When I arrived home, I collapsed on the couch, holding my feet, crying to my husband. But there is no way to warm the body fast enough when it has been cold for that long. You can only wait it out and wait for the feeling to return, cursing the east wind and all of its wickedness to pass the time.

South Winds – Not What They Seem

Summer in Chicago brings winds warm, sultry winds from the south. But don’t be fooled. For all of their warmth, the sound wind is the thickest, heaviest of all winds. It was early May, I was riding out in the far western suburbs. It was a 4 hour ride, mostly to the north and the west on the way out. Turned around and literally hit a wall – except that I had to keep pedaling, pushing into that wall over and over again. Despite the headache, despite the pain, my knees crying for relief from the 50 rpms, I found myself pushing 4.9 mph at over 220 watts geared out with 2 hours left to go. The south wind can leave you dry, wind-whipped, and broken at the end of the ride on what seemed like an otherwise pleasant and warm day.

You Don’t Know the North Wind

Running through the Chicago winter promises a confrontational encounter or two with the north wind. The north wind is strong and bold. It does not care about you – it does not care that you have just ran 45 minutes out with the wind against your back, growing sweaty under 5 layers of thermafleece, moisture-wicking, Pearl Izumi gear. As you turn around, it stares you right in the face, in your $200 winter gear get-up, teasing you with a brash ‘bring it on’ as you furiously pump your arms and put your head down to grind against it tenacious hold. You return home, face blotched and red, bitten by the north wind only to fall exhausted on to the floor wondering what happened, how you got beat up along the way, wondering where exactly your run went wrong. Outside, the north wind sneers in a sinister way as it whips through your storm windows and causes the heat to kick on.

Make Nice with the Northeasternly Wind

Thinking about the wind, I cruised comfortably on my 40 mile ride, with the friendliest of winds – the northeasterly wind. We talked, chatted, made friends. It kept me cool under the summer sun, blowing just enough at the right times – making me feel like I was working hard, but then backing off to give me a break. Afterwards, I felt like I wanted to invite the northeasternly wind to join me for dinner or at least another ride.

But these days are rare. Tomorrow will bring a new wind – whether it’s blowing, gusting, swirling, tearing, biting – pick a verb, any verb and then just wait. The wind will show – and blow. It always does.

After awhile, you get used to the wind. You realize that you’re not going anywhere around Chicago without it. So you best make friends with it, learn to live with it, put your head down, and go.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Getting To Know You

At one point or another, I’m sure we’ve all received those Getting To Know Your Friends e-mails. You know, the ones that list about 20 questions that you cut and paste into another e-mail with your answers. Supposedly the questions will answer everything you ever wanted to know about everyone.

I got to thinking about what a tri-specific questionnaire would look like. What would it take to really get to know how other triathletes tick? I’ve come up with some questions and as an added bonus I’ve answered them for myself.

Favorite place to workout and why?

The track – because the track does not lie. You are either fast or not. You either have it or you don’t.

One thing in triathlon that you do better than anyone else:

Eat – I am probably a bit overfed in most races but I think that is key to a good race.

Dumbest thing you’ve read on Slowtwitch in the past week:

Saw it yesterday. Some genius asked “I’m doing the Muncie Endurathon this weekend – what do you think I should eat?”. COME ON! You are doing a half-Ironman is this weekend and you are just thinking of nutrition three days before the event? My suggestion – don’t even go! What a waste!

Last time you ate something from a mylar package?

Last night @ 2:10 into my bike ride; ½ of a Cookies and Cream Power Bar.

Biggest tri-related fear:

Seeing into the water – I like my muddy Midwestern lakes but I am slowly accepting that the ocean in Hawaii not muddy. Or, showing too much cheek on the bike. My swim suit has a habit of creeping up and up.

Something you are secretly thinking about your competition:

Is that all the power you have?

Most frequent pain:

Hamstrings. Nasty little overstretched SOB’s. Always barking after a track workout. Always.

List one sponsor that you wish you had:

Tampax. Think about it – you pay $4 for 40 tampons. That’s 10 cents a plug. Having someone supply that would free up more money for coffee.

Most useful piece of equipment:

The hair rubberbands that I have jimmy-rigged to my headset to hold my gels. I have never lost a gel, so all you that use some fancy box or equipment to hold your stuff in – take that!

Favorite sport, non-tri related?

PBR – pro-bull riding. The roughest, toughest sport on dirt.

One question you could ask a triathlete that would tell you everything you need to know about them?

1 – Ever done team in training?
2 – Regular or decaf?

What is your competition saying about you behind your back?

I didn’t know they had a F12 – 15 age group.

When was the last time you peed in the pool?

I can’t pinpoint a day and time exactly but I will say this - at our pool, if you leave in the middle of your workout, you risk losing your lane to some guy with two noodles and a kickboard that does some semblance of swimming with that apparatus that somehow gets him down the lane and back quicker than you would swimming normally.

One thing you’ll never understand about triathletes:

Those that go from couch to Ironman – and then wonder why they spend the next season injured. Duh. Or, people that wear arm warmers with sleeveless jerseys. Explain that? Are your elbows cold?

One thing at a triathlon that really chaps your hide:

People that bring buckets into the transition area. Come on – a bucket?

What is hands-down your all time favorite race?

HFP’s former Mohican Pineman ½ Ironman held in the Mohican Valley region of Ohio. The most beautiful, hilly bike course I have ever seen. BRING IT BACK!

Best feeling in a race:

Passing people on the run.

Best crash:

I guess there’s just something about Muncie. I was about 52 miles into the bike and completely spaced out, got too close to a man, rubber wheels and sent us both tumbling down. I got back up, shook him off my bike, and the poor guy was still on the ground. But I was fast chasing 3rd place so I thought ‘gotta go!’ Did the 13.1 run with half the pavement embedded in my knee and hand.

Worst feeling in a race:

Hmm…..not having your equipment show up?

Favorite post-race food:

I can tell you one thing – it is not bagels, oranges, or bananas. I want a fully loaded ice cream bar at the finish line. Or how about a coffee stand? Or a blizzard machine. Blizzards for everyone. Now that’s worth racing for!

Biggest tri-dumb ass attack?

Muncie Endurathon 2003. Got my timing chip mixed up with Chris’ – so he raced as me and me as him. Not a good thing at a national championship. Timing officials didn’t really see the humor in it. But I did.

Worst race you’ve ever done?

Any race that requires you to board a bus to get to a starting point or ending point or anywhere in between.

Scariest thing you’ve been chased by when training?

Happened last weekend in Kansas City on a rural road. I was approaching a house and I noticed a dog at the edge of the road, growling and snarling. Surely they wouldn’t be dumb enough to run into the road to chase me, I thought. Scratch that – it was dumb and it brought along it’s dumber dog friend that also chased me. I bolted like mad and afterwards realized my Power Tap said I had pushed out 460 watts to make that escape.

One piece of your equipment that you would never wish upon someone else:

My cycling shoes – they are so old and smell so foul. Really, if you find yourself alone with my cycling shoes, just lay down, play dead and pray that they will leave you alone – do not fight back.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

Last week, I cut my hair. This is on top of the 4 inches I cut off about 5 weeks ago. Last week, in an effort to simplify life even further, I subtracted another 2 inches. And I couldn’t be happier.

Simply put, I was tired of being slave to the hair.

Oh yes, long hair is fun, it’s cute, it’s sporty, sexy, styled up or down. But after awhile, it’s just a lot of work.

Let’s do some basic math. I’ve had long hair for about 10 years. It took about 15 minutes to dry this head of hair in the morning. Multiply that by an average of 2 showers per day and you get 30 minutes of hair drying per day. Add on top of that the brushing, curling or flat ironing (because my long hair was never wash ‘n go), and basic hair readjustments throughout the day. A little more math and you get 210 minutes per week for hair maintenance. Per month – 820 minutes. Per year – 9840 minutes. For 10 years, that’s 98400 minutes or 1640 hours. In other words, I have spent 68 days or nearly 10 weeks of my life just playing with my hair.

To get a better picture, numbers aside, imagine yourself standing in front of a mirror with a brush, a flat iron, and blowdryer. Now stand there for 10 weeks. I’m sure you get the point.

The real question is, what could I have done with that time? Perhaps a vacation? Another hobby? Drank more coffee? And now with all of this extra time each day, what will I do?

This gets back to the real reason I cut my hair. I decided that with Ironman training, and a full-time job, and a husband, grocery shopping, cleaning house, spending time with family and friends, yardwork, etcetera, I needed all the extra time I could get. So, snip snip went the hair.

It’s been very liberating. All of a sudden my hair has become the least of my maintenance worries. 5 minutes to dry it – if I choose to dry it. Less shampoo, conditioner. Less choices – can’t really pull it up so it’s mostly down.

I’ve gotten some backlash. Mostly from people who thought I had pretty hair or looked better with longer hair. My reply - you come to my house every morning when it feels like 85 degrees in my bathroom as you stand there after a shower, sweating in front of the mirror while blowing drying 12 inches of hair and by the time you’re done, you’ll be ready for another shower. Oh, so you’ve got better things to do with your time? Well, me too.

Training with short hair has been glorious. It’s much cooler on the run. It fits entirely and neatly under my swim cap. And on the bike? Well, no more long braids to flop around. Just two little 2-inch pigtails in back.

When I told Leslie Curley that I had cut my hair, she immediately made her own appointment for a chop job. In her words, “I couldn’t let you beat me at that too.” Triathlon is a fiercely competitive world – hair included.

I sit here very happy with my haircut and I’m ready to enjoy my extra 3 ½ hours per week to do better things with my time, like sit on my bike, do another swim, water my plants, read a book, daydream, enjoy coffee with my husband, or play with my short hair.

So girls, I encourage you to take scissors in your hand and cut the shackles of your own hair. Go ahead – try it and I bet you’ll like it. Besides, it always grows back.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

You Are Now Entering the Kennel of Death

Yesterday, I was in the kennel of death. In workout terms, that is.

What is the kennel of death and how do you get there? It is a place of pain in the dark and damp basement of your workout soul – a place so painful, so deplorable, so severe that the mere thought of the workout leaves you reeling with a dreadful fear for what lies ahead.

Only certain workouts are capable of sending you to kennel of death, swirling you down into this toiled metal cage of suffering and distress and throwing away the key. 800 repeats on the track will get you there, time trial intervals on the bike, a swim set where you go 100 all out followed by 200 at tempo and repeat 4 times. Workouts characterized by longer intervals but harder intensities that always include the word ‘repeat’.

This is not to say that shorter intervals won’t hurt. Of course 400’s on the track will hurt – but that is just once around and not nearly long enough to make it all the way to the kennel of death. You might open the cage door, but it will not close. Add another lap to that 400 and you add a whole other level of pain. The cage door opens, you crawl painfully in, and the door is slammed behind you when you least expect it, leaving your legs rattling the bars of the cage and barking to get out.

These are workouts that, when performed correctly, will push you to that next level and leave you with a buzzing pain in your head that no amount of coffee, sleep, or ibuprofen will relieve.

It’s mid-season and maybe you’re getting stale or maybe you’re just tired of doing the same workouts over and over. Now is the appropriate time to toss things up a little and find your way back to your own kennel of death. Here are a few workouts that can take you there.


Here’s one from the archives of Saturday morning master’s swim practice. Be sure to put yourself into the ‘slow’ lane because one this workout gets going, it’s a wild and crazy ride with no stopping.

500 warm up
5 x 100 on 3:00
4 x 200 on 4:00
3 x 300 on 5:00
2 x 400 on 6:00
1 x 500 on 7:00
500 cool down

You start the 100’s on a deceptively long rest period. Enough time to chat with your friends and catch up on the week. But just you wait. Cumulative fatigue starts to set in during the 400’s and has you screaming for mercy and fighting the burn on the last 500. After you’re all done, you stand there for a moment, shell-shocked, and unsure of how you went from completely comfortable and fully oxygenated to totally trashed and gasping for air.


Most people don’t work hard enough on the bike, myself included. Last Saturday, I had a 3 hour and 15 minute ride scheduled. I told my husband that I was looking for specific workout that would put the boot in my booty big time. He rode for the Iowa State University cycling team and has years of hurt under his Fuel Belt. I once witnessed Chris’ escape from the kennel of death after a hard cycling workout at which point he dismounted his bike, picked it up, and hurled it into a ditch. We were about 15 miles from home, so this was not his brightest moment,but this is the type of explosive, extinction burst that the kennel of death is capable of coaxing you into at your expense. The cost for Chris – a new set of handlebars in exchange for a whole new level of pain.

30 minutes warm up

3 x 10 minutes building heart rate zones 3 – 4 (Rest 10 minutes in between)

Reverse ladder overgear (push big gears, mash, stomp)

5:00 on, 5:00 off
4:00 on, 4:00 off
3:00 on, 3:00 off
2:00 on, 2:00 off
1:00 on, 1:00 off

Easy 5 minutes, then repeat reverse ladder

Finish up with 20 – 30 minutes of short speed stuff, use any gearing you’d like but stand and spin furiously to the top of a hill, across a bridge, to the next stop sign. These are short intense efforts with long recoveries (1:00 on, 4:00 off). Afterwards, cool down

By the end, your legs should be 100% zone 5 trashed. If not, go back and do it all again. On Saturday, my legs were so beaten and abused that I actually got passed by a man on a tandem, riding the bike into the wind by himself. It was shamefully ugly.


10 miles @ tempo

Warm up 3 miles @ 7:30
Miles 4 – 6 @ 7 – 7:15 pace
Miles 7 - 8 @ 6:30 – 6:45 pace
Mile 9 @ 6:15 pace
Mile 10 @ 6:15 or below
Cool down 2 – 3 miles

12 – 13 miles total run/1:30

Last Sunday in St. Louis, I did this run around Forest Park with Michael – a friend of Sam Yount’s - who at one time ran a 5K in 15:15 and a mile in 4:27 or so - which he called slow. Once we started, we didn’t let up and the burn kept building in my legs. By mile 9, I took it up another notch, and at mile 10 took it up again until I found myself commanding him with craziness to ‘go all out for the last 400’ as he bolted and I did everything I could to chase him despite the fact that my legs were so far trapped in the kennel of death that they felt completely disconnected from my body. We shuffled back to the car, and I pronounced myself dead at about 1:28:54 into the run at which point Sam questioned “how long have you run?” and I repeated the time and he said “sounds like you have another 1:06 to finish up.” Only a true runner would give you that kind of grief! Trust me, the paces look easy – at first – but once you get going there is no stopping and your legs start to burn big time. By the last mile, you should be ready to throw it all out there and then throw up.

Once inside the kennel of death, you will find yourself snarled by the shackles of pain and screaming to get out – but if you go far enough and stay long enough you will find something as you lay there in your own sweat, soreness, or spasms. You will find a gritty strength and a fueled rage that you did not know existed within yourself.

Be strong – find your kennel and find your fury. And if you find yourself foaming at the mouth, back off because you might have just taken it a little too far.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Which came first – the cross country-runner or the triathlete?

People often ask which sport I did first – was it swimming? biking? running?

Long before I knew what a transition area was or how to do a brick, I was a runner – but not just any ordinary runner, I ran cross-country.

Growing up, I took lessons in several sports – dance, soccer, swimming, tennis, and gymnastics. Though I had a mean backhand and I could walk the balance beam with grace, I didn’t seem to have the innate talent to pursue any sport much further than the basics.

Enter high school where I was exposed to a variety of clearly very popular sports, including flag football, field hockey, modern dance, softball, square dancing, badminton, and bowling. Never first picked for the ball-related teams and not much of a bowler, there was one thing I was a surefire success at – I could outrun most kids on any given day. And so, my cross country career began.

Raise your hand if you were on cross-country. Now, look around. Not too many of us out there. But I bet when you meet someone, and you find out that they too ran cross-country, you feel an immediate connection. What connects us is not just the camaraderie you feel after hundreds of miles, but the shared understanding that they also know what it’s like to run 1200 meter repeats in a grassy park, what it's like to follow the white line into the woods, and what you mean when you say ‘It smells like cross country.’

1200 meter repeats

Cross-country is the most brutal of high school sports. There’s no ball, no equipment, no goal posts, no energized team dynamic – just you, your mind, and the path ahead of you – and a bunch of other stick thin kids doing the same. The only goal was to run, keep running, don’t stop, and if you can pull all of that off – at least place in the top 10.

Cross-country would meet everyday after school to run about 10 miles, or maybe 8 or maybe 12 – in cross-country you didn’t keep track, you just ran. Each day, the coach would have some gut-wrenching, foot-flying workout for us to endure until 6 pm. Most often, it involved pounding the pavement for 2 miles up to a grassy park to do 1200 meter repeats around the park until you rolled your ankle on a divot, passed out, or threw up. Maybe we did 5, 6, or even 8 of them? It wasn’t how many – it was how well you kept up. After 3 – 4, the carnage would begin to pile up under a shady tree. The shin-splinted, the dehydrated, the asthmatics, and sadly, the too heavy to be running in the first place. If you made it through all 6 – your reward - run the 2 miles back. If you didn’t make it through, you were in for a long walk back.

There was no water, no sports drink, no gels, no fancy shoes, no heart rate monitors. Chances are, you ate ho-ho’s and chocolate milk for lunch. Pre-race meals? Try a 3 Musketeers bar. Post-workout recovery? Does a cupcake count?

And here’s the thing – we were overtrained? Nope. Did we ever get injured? No way. Burnt out? No. In a rut? Not likely. Successful? You bet. You see, I went to the school of cross-country superstars. While I was pushing out a snail-paced 5:56 mile, they were running 5:03’s. They were state champions, varsity vixens. Me? I was just some junior varsity runner that might as well have ridden the short bus to the meet, licking the windows along the way. But being fast, being a winner – none of that really mattered. What mattered was the run. You were just happy to be running. Forget your times or who you beat. The best part was getting out there after school, with your friends, and going for a run. And almost anyone on the team could have been your friend. We shared a common passion, and more importantly a hell of a lot of miles together. There was an undeniable camaraderie that came from our shared suffering and shared passions that came through in 1200 meter repeats or any distance on any given day.

The white line

It takes a certain type of person to run cross-country, or, you just run enough and it turns you into someone else. Most of us were borderline nuts to voluntarily elect to run that long and far after school on nothing but high school-charged fumes and fury, while the other half of the team was made up of masterful anorexics that probably ate nothing more than a grape for lunch. I sort of straddled the line between the two groups.

We followed the white line. Sometimes the white line took you through a beautiful, rolling park with a course winding through the woods and around a lake. Sometimes the white line took you up what seemed like a 10 percent grade hill, 10 times. The white line would lead you wickedly through the mud or veer off into a pile of goose crap. Regardless, you followed the white line for nearly 3 miles until you reached a chute, where you’d stop, sweaty and beaten, dry heave a bit, get an instant headache, and think to yourself that you couldn’t wait to do it again.

A cross-country runner knows what it’s like to stand on white line with 50 other runners, the air heavy with anticipation waiting for the word ‘go’. They’ve tasted the excitement and the opportunity that comes from following the white line. They know what it’s like to believe that your hard work, your confidence in following that line will take you to some place better than you started, some place better for yourself.

The smell of cross-country

It was late September of 2004, I was traveling with my husband, Liz Attig, and Eric Ott. All very different people, but one thing in common – we all ran cross-country. We were walking outside, the autumn air crisp with leaves falling around us, when Eric said, “It smells like cross-country.” We all looked at each other and we all got it. The smell of cross country is one of my favorite smells – it’s the smell of autumn, opportunity, hard work, and being young.

On late fall days, when I find myself running along the trail with fading sunlight and cool autumn air, I smell cross-country. I am instantly taken back to a time when the pleasure was in the run – not in who you passed or how far you went – but in the miles you passed along the way. We would pass them with conversation, stories, problem-solving, or my favorite - just the quiet of our own feet moving forward on the path. In late autumn, as the season would wind down, our coach would board us on to a bus to the local forest preserve – Herrick Lake. We divided into our groups, separated only by pace but joined by a shared interest in enjoying the soft surface, the falling leaves, and the fun of a Friday afternoon run. Our group was small, with me, Rita, and Jennifer, and we would start off in any direction and go where the path would take us. We were young, we had no mental map of the forest preserve, no clue where the path would lead but a trusting that we would somehow run full circle and safely finish where we started. I remember one day in particular late in the season of my senior year, a day that sums up the lessons learned from several seasons of these Friday runs. The path through the tall trees opened up into a rolling meadow of grasses filling the landscape ahead of us. Above us, the sky was torn between two feelings – a thick blanket of bluish gray clouds approaching from the south while the sun speckled the sky from the north. The contrast of these two skies was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. The sky was ominous, something severe was certainly on its way but we continued to run with disregard to anything other than the task at hand, disregarding the looming storm and instead seeking the sunny, warm shelter of the run. There are times now, as an adult, that I find myself running that same path in Herrick Lake, with a great appreciation for the ability to get lost in a run, get lost in my own thoughts and head, to completely push away any other distractions or storms looming in my mind and focus on the task at hand – the pleasure of the run.

Cross-country is more than a sport, it’s a lifestyle, a mindset that sticks for a lifetime, that makes you tough to endure, and strong to succeed. So which came first – the cross-country runner or the triathlete? It’s hard to say. The same mental endurance and physical toughness that comes from cross-country is inherently a part of any talented triathlete. And who knows, perhaps I was destined for triathlon long before I even put on a pair of running shoes. Perhaps it was meant to be.

But one thing is for certain – I am grateful for my cross-country roots and that day in 1991 when I showed up after school with my running shoes on, ready to run.

Monday, July 10, 2006

When Camping Goes Bad….

Sometimes camping seems like the cheapest way to go when traveling. When camping is good, it’s really good – relaxing, inexpensive, and convenient. But when it’s bad, it can be really bad reminding you of why paying $90 for a night indoors is almost always worth it. Here’s a few of my favorite tales from our camping adventures over the past few years.

Muncie Endurathon 2002

It was mid-July and we had traveled to the Muncie Endurathon in Indiana. A year earlier, we had a pleasant experience at the campground adjacent to the reservoir where the race was held. In 2002, we did not fare as well. It was about 10:30 pm, and we were tucked in for sleep. A Boy Scout camporee gone wild was taking place a few sites down but they eventually got all scouted out and settled down. Soon after, we thought the night was ours and sleep was soon to come. And then a pick-up truck pulled into the site across from ours. Out stepped 4 fairly innocuous looking Indiana campers. An hour later, innocuous turned into inept as all 4 were still trying to set-up their tent, pounding the stakes into the ground with a ball-peen hammer. Realizing that pounding the 4 campers into the ground with their own hammer was not an option, I tried relocating with my sleeping bag to the back of our car. When the sound of pounding traveled through the window, I gave up and retreated back to the tent. Finally, around midnight they must have put their 4 brains together and figured out how to set-up what was starting to seem like a tent city rather than one simple tent because the pounding ceased. And then the talking began. It wasn’t your normal low-key conversation. This was the most absurdly loud chatter about, of all things, what they had brought in their cooler – including a pound of crab salad, a tub of cole slaw, a package of Kraft cheese singles, some potato salad, white sliced bread, and assorted other things that I was ready to pull out of their cooler and violently throw item by item (following their itemized list) across their campsite all while threatening to pound them not only with their hammer but their pound of creamy crab salad.

The Next Night – Caesar Creek 2002

The next night, hoping to have left the Muncie crab salad incident over 100 miles behind us, we camped in Caesar Creek, Ohio. But alas we were not that lucky. In the campsite across from us, there camped a couple. And that night they just were not feeling the love. They argued, they yelled, they just didn’t get along. They kept this up into the late hours of the night until we finally fell asleep, their arguing almost like a white noise we had by this point gotten used to. The next morning, we woke up to find that the argument didn’t stop – the woman just won, claiming her victory as she had clearly banned her husband from the tent, sending him to the proverbial couch of the campground – we noticed there slept a man, snug in his mummy bag, on the ground outside of the tent door.

California 2002

Perhaps 2002 just wasn’t a good year for camping. But how could camping go wrong when you are in beautiful northern California surrounded by the surf, the sun, and the sea lions? We found a cozy little campsite in Veteran’s Park while passing through Monterey, California. We pulled in late and hoped to sleep in just as late the next morning. But even the best formed plans can get foiled when camping. Seems that sea lions are actually quite social critters who, like most young mammals, enjoy socializing into the wee hours of the night. They barked and arfed in the bay until after midnight. Finally, sea lion party patrol must have rolled through the bay because barking ceased and we were able to rest. What seemed like only a few hours later, promptly at 6 am, a beacon blared into the dark of early morning. Either a sea lion chorus had gone sorely off-key or they were playing Revelry in the middle of this campsite over a set of loud speakers. Sure enough, as I made out the notes of the familiar bugle line, I realized that indeed we had camped at a veteran’s park and indeed this would be our militantly-charged wake up call.

Deer Creek Pineman 2003

Nothing more to say about this experience other than it poured and poured and poured rain. And when you’re in a tent, in a valley in Ohio, that’s not a good place to be.

Memphis in May 2004

We pulled into state park near Millington, Tennessee around 11 pm. After choosing a campsite, we set about to quickly set-up our tent. With the darkness, we put our headlamps on which proved to be a not-so-good choice. Big bugs, little bugs, mammoth southern-sized bugs swarmed around us and into us, sounding the like the blades of a helicopter, unable to resist the light of our headlamps. The bug troubles didn’t stop there. I filled a water bottle under the spigot at our site. Trying to brush his teeth, Chris used this water to wet his toothbrush and rinse his mouth. But this simple task of hygiene soon turned into a creepy hell. He exclaimed something about ants – ants were in his mouth, on his toothbrush, something to the effect of “Why does it feel like I am brushing my teeth with ants, Liz?” We stuck the water bottle into our car headlights only to realize that indeed he was brushing his teeth with ants – the water bottle I had filled was clearly filled with hundreds of ants that were trying to escape out of the mouth of the bottle and into Chris’ mouth.

Ragbrai 2004

Ragbrai – perhaps the most perfect week-long combination of pie, pedals, and pork around. Find yourself smack in the middle of small town Iowa, fully fed on pork after pedaling your bike all day long and nothing sounds better than a slice of cherry pie. Or, for some, an entire pie. Earlier in the evening, our friend Bert had bought an entire cherry pie, sampling just one piece and saving the rest for another night. He left the pie in the front seat of our van and headed off to bed. A short while later, after everyone had headed off to sleep, Chris and I heard the van door open, ever so slowly, and then quietly shut. Light, quick footsteps made their way from the van and parked gently in front of our tent. Chris and I looked at each other, puzzled by the sounds, and only further puzzled by what we heard next. It was almost animal in nature with a ravenous round of slurping, chomping, snorting, and chewing. What had possibly settled in front of our tent? Was it animal? Human? Corn-fed? Fearing it was the elusive yet often talked about corn bear, I provoked Chris to bravely unzip our tent and see what wildly undomesticated creature was about to make a snack shop out of our tent and possibly the contents inside. He grabbed a headlamp and cautiously unzipped the tent door. Unsure of what we would find, we peeked outside only to see something so large that surely it had to be animal as it stood over 6 foot tall, with the arms of a gorilla and the long hairy legs of horse. Scared, but course curious, we noticed its shadow slowly chewing and scooping something into its cavernous mouth, teeth oozing with a blood-like red substance. In an effort to blind, and perhaps startle, this animal with vicious appetite, Chris flipped on the powerfully bright headlamp, shining it directly into its eyes. The screaming light revealed the animal that possibly we should have feared most – one of our own. Not an animal, not a corn bear, just a very drunk Alfie - instantly frozen, like a raccoon in headlights, clenching a crusty fork in one hand and a half eaten cherry pie in the other. He looked at us, and it was as if we had startled the pie right out of him as he then, in a wave of drunken and over-pied delight, yakked up the cherry pie right outside our tent door. Shortly after, we asked him to leave our team – because touching another man’s pie is quite a serious infraction in Iowa and if someone can't be trusted with pie, what can they be trusted with?

US Half Iron Championship 2005

En route to Kansas City, we camped around Des Moines. I was driving and having some difficulty finding the campground. It was late, we were tired, and we were zipping up and down a dark road trying to locate the campground entrance. Suddenly, a raccoon scurried out from the grasses along the side of the road. I slammed on the brakes, giving him a chance and he darted back towards the grasses and as I picked up speed he changed his mind and bit it under our front wheel. With one raccoon down, we thought it couldn’t get much worse that night. But it did. We were excited to try a new tent but less excited when we couldn’t figure out how to assemble it. After 30 minutes, in the dark, we constructed something that surely was not architecturally correct or sound but would do for the night. Frustrated with the tent, we finally got to bed and hoped the raccoon, the tent, all of it was behind us and we could just sleep. But wouldn’t you know that we had put our tent directly under a pin oak tree and late September just happened to be right around the time when the tree was dropping its acorns. All night long it rained acorns on top of us. In the morning, we looked at our tent and laughed at what we had thought was probably wrong but looked more along the lines of overtly wrong and ridiculous. That tent went back to Target.

Ragbrai – Year Not Disclosed

Again, the raucous camping and riding adventure also known as Ragbrai. We were camped around some park in some random, small Iowa town. The week had been long and the night had be fun and filled with far too many beers for some of our team. The small houses surrounding the park were cute and well-kept. And filled with an attractive assortment of lawn decor – tiny gnomes, windmills, plastic deer, and other critters all looking curiousily ready to be kidnapped by an unassuming team of tipsy cyclists. Devious plot in mind, we spotted the gold standard of lawn decor – something so incredible that I dare not mention it here – but can only say that if you’re going to borrow someone’s lawn decor, this would be the jackpot. Moments later, a teammate triumphantly displayed the item at our campsite, declaring a victory of sorts in capturing what could quite possibly be the most memorable of totally unnecessary, but somehow totally necessary, of acquisitions for the team – a new mascot, if you will – a find so great that the entire event became known as Operation Echo November – something so covert that we would only speak of it in code. Our celebration, however, was short-lived. An hour later, it was already missing. ‘Where is it’ we asked a suspicious team member who had earlier in the evening spent significant time getting friendly with a man named Jack Daniels in the back of his pocket. ‘In a body bag, down by the van’, he slurred – confused, but also oddly amused, we went over to the back of the van only to find a black garbage bag filled with the contents of Operation Echo November - which we found even more amusing and rolled over laughing at the recognition of our own immaturity, innane recklessness and how perfectly free and careless this moment felt, in the middle of Iowa on a warm summer night with nothing to do the next day but ride our bikes. And on this night, it was not another campsite that was keeping us up. It was our own campsite chuckling uproariuosly loud about the event otherwise know as Operation Echo November.

Camping may not always go as planned but sometimes the adventures you find when you get diverted from your plan are worth more than any $90 stay in a hotel.

So head out this weekend, bring your tent, a headlamp, and see what lays out there in the water, in the woods, or perhaps even outside of your own tent at night. But a bit of advice – you might want to leave the pie behind.