Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Crash and Burn

Just read this article about crashing while road cycling and the mental effects it can have.

I'm twisted, but I kind of had to chuckle a bit. No, not at her pain, but at the exploration of this phenomenon and the somewhat obvious conclusions. Well, obvious to me. But then I realized why it seemed obvious.

I have a lot of experience crashing.

Now, let me start out by saying while I do have a lot of experience crashing, I actually have yet to crash while road cycling (though I'm sure it will happen...and the article just reaffirmed that quite nicely). So what is this experience I am speaking of?

I have vivid and very complete memory of my first bicycle crash that resulted in an injury of significance. I was in the fifth grade and was riding the badass black Schwinn Stingray that my Dad basically built for me. I don't know of any surviving pictures of that bike, but it looked a lot like this:

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was making a left turn off of a sidewalk at my school onto a dirt trail. Somehow the front tire caught a big rock that was semi-embedded in the trail and just sort of threw the bike sideways and me onto the ground. Unfortunately, my left knee hit right on top of another jagged rock and cut it open pretty good. I think that was the first time I ever got cut open like that, and it scared me. Big time. I screamed and screamed as I rode furiously home. Blood had run down my leg and stained my sock. I'm sure I scared my Mom half to death, too.

Now, I was a kid then, so there was no thought of not riding again. But of course, it's not the same. I think the problem is I learned pretty quickly that if I was going to have much fun on this earth, well, I was going to have to take a few chances. And occasionally, or maybe not-so-occasionally, those chances were going to cause me to crash. It's always just seemed part of having fun to me.

Fast forward through a lot of dumb kid stuff. What else have I crashed? Mountain bikes. Heh, that's so often the stories aren't even interesting any more. But in every one of them I'm like the guy in the Times article I linked above who crashed on ice and realized it was his own dumb fault. I'm the one piloting that bike and choosing to do it where and how I do it, and when I crash, no matter how "out of my control" it is, well, it's my fault. No doubt about it.

Race cars? Yep, more than a few times. At triple digit speeds. First big crash was just a rookie mistake, honestly. I took a corner faster than I thought was going to work (it would have worked if I had trusted myself) and then did a classic panic for a half second. Blam, I went sideways at 60MPH+ into a wall. Minor concussion, lots of bent metal, but I was able to race the next day (thanks to Reid, the best crew chief ever). I'm sure at the time I wasn't so quick to just blame myself, but nobody else hit me, there was nothing slick on the track, and I just made a mistake. So deep down I knew it was just something I did wrong.

The last big race car crash? I made a TINY mistake and just did a little half-spin with two wheels off the track...I'm not even sure I ever came to a complete stop, in fact. I kept going around that corner and down a LONG straightaway where I built speed to over 115MPH while catching another race car. I pulled out to pass by braking later than he did. Oops, no brakes. Five presses later (sometimes after going off track you can experience what we call "pad knock-back", which means you get one press with no brakes, then they come back) and some major league awesome driving to NOT hit that car I was passing, I was leaving the pavement and done for. My last ditch effort after making sure I cleared that other car was to attempt to point the car in a direction that would have been a hell of a downhill ride and would have missed that first wall, but all I was able to do was get it turned a little. As soon as I left the pavement it spun quickly and slammed the wall at almost exactly 100MPH (we have it on data). Another minor concussion, a lot more bent metal. That car does race now, but it wasn't racing the next day, that's for sure.

I lost brakes because I hit something in that little spin that resulted in the two wheels off track and bounced up and cut the brake line. Never knew it. Was that "my fault"? Was that "fair"? It was absolutely my fault, and absolutely "fair." Always check your brakes. And I shouldn't have made that mistake to begin with.

I've crashed bicycles, motorcycles, race cars, street cars, gokarts, golf carts, and probably a lawn mower or two. I've crashed while skiing, tubing, sledding, and even while just chasing my child around the house (that one resulted in 12 staples in my scalp a mere 36 hours before getting on a plane to Hawaii!). Heck, just the other day I fell YET AGAIN while running. I decided to run down a huge log skinny feature that we built for mountain biking. I've done it before, but never when it was wet. I knew it would be a little slick and was prepared for it. Almost. It was way slicker than I thought possible. First step went out from under me and I went straight down on my butt and hands. And slid like I was on a sliding board. For a while. Ouch.

I could go on (and probably have gone on too long already), but I just couldn't help but chuckle at the analysis and publishing that came from one bicycle crash. One could say that perhaps most people are more skilled than me at what they do and don't have my vast experience to draw from. I'd buy that. I just found it funny that I live so far on the other end of the spectrum and yet can't recall ever having a "I'm never going to do this activity again" kind of moment. But I always try to make sure I learn how to "never have this particular accident again." A more interesting article, to me, would have been a slant on turning the "I'm never riding again" reaction into "learn from your actual mistake and move on" kind of thing. Because there were several things you could change...don't mix with slower (or unknown) riders, don't draft quite so close, pay more attention to your surroundings than your data (NOTE TO SELF HERE!), etc.

One thing I do know, injuries suck. But making them worse with knee-jerk reactions to them doesn't help. Learn from it and move on.

Monday, May 30, 2011

The most important training day is...

If you ask my coach, she'd probably answer off-the-cuff that the most important day in your training plan is your recovery day. But I was thinking this morning that there is one easy day to single out that's the most important. It's not recovery day, or long distance day, or hill day, or film day (you professional ball-sports athletes get that one). Nope.

It's today.

I know, it seems simple and cheesy, but I've got a deeper point to make. Okay, maybe just slightly deeper, but bear with me. My point is it is easy to look at your calendar and think "I need to save up for that day" or "today's workout isn't as big so I can take it a little easier" or "today is my last day before recovery day, so maybe I can get away with a little less and get more recovery that way." Don't fall into the trap. Here's why, in a nutshell:

Today is sacred. Whatever you complete today is all that will ever be done today, and all that you have to apply to the future. Make the most of it for once it is gone, it is gone forever.

My run today wasn't stellar, but it was better than it would have been if this hadn't just sort of hit me this morning. I got everything out of that run that I had. I hope to apply this idiom every day from now on. Even on recovery day. Endurance athletes, you get what I mean here...we don't always make recovery day everything it could be in terms of recovery. Hydrate better. Do a little more recovery yoga (get those legs up the wall!). Make time for a massage. Spend time just relaxing with your pets or taking in an episode of Phineas and Ferb with the kids. Then on workout days, well, you know what that means. Get after it. Own it. Make today special. Every day.

I promise you'll feel better for having done it.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The epic that wasn't and then it was again.

Sometimes a friend just has a stroke of genius, and sometimes it's not exactly how you'd expect it.

Today was the last day of a four day mountain bike trip with eight other guys (plus one for today only). Thanks to the weather, we waited for our North Fork Mountain Trail ride until today. It was supposed to be the best ride we would do, and today was the only day where there wasn't a chance of rain. So it seemed obvious, even though we were told it would be our longest and hardest day (which you usually wouldn't save for last), that we'd do it today. It would be epic.

It took a little bit of work to find the trailhead, but we found it and headed out on our last great adventure of this trip. Little did I know just how adventurous it would be. The total trail distance was 24 miles, but that's only if you have a bike capable of going that far. On this day, well, it just wasn't to be. At just 2.5 miles in, and going down a long downhill section, a stick popped up into my rear wheel and derailleur. Poof, many parts were destroyed. Now, my group plans pretty well for this kind of thing and we had every part and tool needed to replace the chain, derailleur, and hanger. What we didn't have, unfortunately, were any spokes to replace the two broken spokes in the wheel. Considering how close we were to the beginning of the trail, we considered this terminal. There was just too much riding left to risk injury or more bike damage trying to ride a wheel missing those spokes (and thus now very warped as well).

I assumed my day was done. I might as well walk back to the trailhead and just go back to the cabin and surf the internet. But Steve had a better idea. There was a way to get to the middle of the trail by car (or very close to it, we weren't sure). But we didn't know how, and I needed a bike. But it seemed that I might just have time to find the answer on where to go AND go to the cabin and back to get a different bike, if I hurried. We hatched a plan that even included an elaborate communication mechanism in the event that I got to the meeting point too late (no cellphone coverage worked up here with any carrier). And fortunately I brought a spare bike (or two).

So I hoofed it pretty hard back out on foot. Took exactly 40 minutes to do 2.6 miles while carrying 3.5L of water and another five pounds of gear on my back and pushing a 32 pound bike over rocky singletrack. I got in Bob's truck, and headed down the valley to a store where I'd find my answer on where to go. Only they had no answer. In fact, the kid behind the counter said "I've lived here all my life, and I've never heard of that trail." Damn. I then inquired with the guy at the deli counter. His answer? "The kid up front should know." Ugh. But just then another customer piped up and pointed me to the Seneca Discovery Center across the street, which was really just a state park visitor center! Voila! Eureka! (Why that didn't occur to me to begin with, I don't know. I was in a hurry.)

I headed over and found a very nice ranger lady who whipped out a map and proceeded to show me exactly what to do. I jumped in the truck and headed to the cabin for the spare bike. I might have driven a tad briskly, but I got there, got the bike swapped and offloaded some of the gear I now wouldn't need since I was only doing half the ride. Then I may have driven a tad briskly again to my new trailhead for the day. This involved a good bit of two lane highway before I passed where we had dropped off our other truck to run shuttle. Then it was a TIGHT two lane paved road for about ten more miles, complete with switchbacks and miles of guardrail. And then another four miles of gravel road almost straight up ("High clearance vehicles are required."). Oh, and I ate my lunch while driving there. Briskly.

I tell you, it was a great sight when I rounded a bend in the gravel road and saw Alan on his bike strolling down the hill toward me. I picked him up and we headed back up to where everyone else was waiting. Turns out they had been there almost an hour and I was on the clock for another six minutes before they were out of there. So I geared back up, grabbed my new sled, and off we all went for the other 12 miles. Wow, that felt good.

The trail itself was amazing. Some of the best views ever, and some of the best riding around. A great mix of terrain all ending in an epic downhill. Sure, there were a few more technical issues, some sight seeing, and just a ton of fun. We really killed it out there today. I would have certainly loved to have done the entire thing, but sometimes you have to learn and grow in different ways than what you expected. On this day, I learned the true meaning of rally. Sometimes you rally up a hill. And sometimes you have to do something a little bigger. It would have been easy to just pack it in for the day. It would have been easy to have wondered "why me?" It would have been easy to eat some lunch and take a nap.

This trip isn't about easy. It's about epic. And it almost wasn't.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

I'm a Warrior!

Today my buddy, Matt, and I did the Warrior Dash in Mountain City, Georgia. This was supposed to be pretty similar to the Rugged Maniac that I did a few weeks ago...all are basically obstacle course races that are about three miles in length and feature a fairly festive atmosphere. Events can vary pretty wildly from location to location due to the nature of what they have to work with, but I have to say, this particular event has a very interesting course. I don't think it was but a little over two miles in actual length, but the obstacles made up for that!

The course started out, somewhat ironically, with an annoying pavement and gravel road run. I think that allowed me to go out even harder than I planned and may have cost me a little. The first obstacle was simply having to jump into a lake and wade around fifty yards or so. And I should mention that it was nearly neck deep for my 6-2 frame in places, so some folks really had to swim! Oh, and it's Mountain City, Georgia, in May, which means the water was still pretty darned cold, especially at 8:30am!

It's hard to explain, but I took a slightly longer path through the water which got me closer to shore and through much more shallow water for much of it, which let me pass three people. Then we hit the tire area with the cars to climb over, which was really treacherous. They had it totally covered in mud. It was coming out of here that I noticed my legs seemed sort of non-existent. It wasn't a burn, it was more of a strange "you can ask for more, or even demand more, but there simply isn't more" kind of feeling. Can't recall having that. I don't know if it was the energy spent wading through the water or if it was being in water that cold for that long or a combination of the two, but it was odd, I know that.

Then I realized I had a shoe untied! I have no idea how the heck that happened, but I double-knot my running shoes and have for a while now, and am especially diligent about my shoe laces at races like this. But hey, these things happen, I suppose.

There were some run-of-the-mill obstacles like small walls to go over alternating with walls you had to crouch under. Then we hit the BIG wall. It had huge ropes hanging from it and some rungs that stuck out on the front, so while it was probably 12' high, I went over it quickly and easily (and passed folks here, too). Then we headed up onto the "mountain" trail, which was also very wet and muddy and had a good deal of slick climbing. There was a very annoying crawling feature in darkness (a tiny headlamp would be smart on these races, I think, but it would need to be small, waterproof, and cheap for the likely event you break it) and a huge cargo net feature that was thankfully more of a balance beam feature.

After leaving the mountain trail, you headed into the finish section. This started with a HUGE slide down a hill on plastic with running water on it. I was a little annoyed because as I approached there was nobody on it and four chutes and I was directed to the FURTHEST one away, with each runner behind me getting a closer path. SAY WHAT? I should have ignored the direction (I do not believe they would have DQ'ed anyone in this race for nearly anything) and taken the first one, but I did what I was told and ended up passed by one guy and maybe another just because they literally each had to run maybe 12 fewer steps than me! Ugh.

The proctors also yelled "no head first" as you approached. Hah! This thing was so long, fast, slick, and bumpy that it didn't matter. Go how you want, you're going to end up how IT wants you. I almost spun backward, but somehow found enough control to get my feet back forward. That was good, because the "end" simply slid you into a big area of straw that workers were constantly "fixing" with new straw as it got pushed down. So it was evident I could just put my feet down and pop up into a full stride, which is what I did. Matt said he actually did a complete 360 degree spin and did basically the same thing.

You ran through the straw and then into another water feature. It was just over knee deep with floating logs and chains of barrels to cross. That went fine until the last section of barrels. As I was crossing them, I put my hand on top of them to push over. My middle finger on my left hand slipped between two of the barrels right as they smashed together. Wow, serious pain. I jerked the finger out and it gushed blood from under the nail. And it's been seeping all day. Bye-bye, fingernail.

But I soldiered on, jumping over the row of fire and through the finish in 23:54. That was good enough for third quickest so far in the two heats of the day in my age group, but I'm sure will drop some as more waves completed. My target was to be top 5% of my age group for the entire event, and I think I probably did that. But I did not feel like I had anywhere near my best day, and I'm not entirely sure right now why. I haven't looked at the data close (I have GPS and HR data), but I will and I think I just need a day or two to let it all soak in. I definitely didn't make the same mistake as the Rugged Maniac...I paid no attention to my watch during the race!

I can say I had a lot of fun, and I hope they do that event again at that site next year. Compared with Rugged Maniac, they seem to have tougher obstacles and more of them (and way tougher than the Muddy Buddy, but that's really a different kind of race). The festival is also a little more impressive, though the medal and shirt weren't quite as good. I dunno, both were well done and I recommend both, but I'm looking forward to the Warrior Dash in Charlotte a little more now.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Muddy Buddy Race Report

So today Alan and I competed in the Muddy Buddy race in Richmond, VA. The Muddy Buddy is a two man team race where you use one mountain bike and play "leapfrog" with it. Both start at the same time with one running and the other biking. The biker goes ahead and gets to the first transition point and drops the bike, does an obstacle, and starts running. The runner arrives at transition, does the obstacle, and grabs the bike and starts riding. Then you rinse and repeat a few times until the end, where you have to pair back up near the finish for a few more obstacles (including the mud pit), and through the finish line. It was a great event, but I'll start with our race planning...

My coach is wonderful about making sure I train like I'm going to race, or at least attempt to approximate it as much as we can without knowing EXACTLY how an event will go, and for that I'm very lucky. That said, sometimes you can't quite get it exactly right until you've done a particular event before, so there were unknowns. Like the fact that this is called the "muddy buddy" even though the percentage of actual mud on the course is less than 1%. If you'll recall my recent post on the Rugged Maniac, you'll know that one was mostly mud, so we expected a bit more.

After some better research, which was mostly going through picture albums from previous years on the drive up (Alan did that while I drove!), we decided that this wasn't as "muddy" a race as we thought it was going to be (especially with no rain in the forecast), so we decided to change from one of my bikes that I had prepped for this to his 29" mountain bike. It's a great bike, but it's on slightly less knobby tires than what I had prepped. Which was great for this course, but wouldn't have been as good if it had been really muddy.

So, on the way up we decided to go hit the XTERRA course Alan had raced on in the past. It's in downtown Richmond and would give us a chance to get some light work in on the day before the race, which contrary to popular belief really is the best thing to do. (I actually take the day before that off.) We did that, including some bike swapping so we both got some time on his bike with our trick new pedals. They are basically some HUGE platform BMX pedals that I borrowed from Reid with Power Grips added to them. I have big feet, and with both of us needing to wear trail running shoes, we needed something with a MUCH wider footbed than a typical bike platform pedal, and this was JUST the ticket. It's not quite as good as being clipped in completely, but definitely a world better than just riding on platforms. Still allows a good amount of "pull" when you need it, which you can't do on platforms alone. Also keeps you more stable on uneven surfaces, where platforms are easy to bounce off of. Note, too, that our bike of choice was a "hardtail", which means no rear suspension. To make matters "worse", we locked out the front shock so we had almost no front suspension. This course was pretty smooth, so we went with the setup that provided the most pedaling efficiency. We were averaging around 15MPH on our bike legs, so it was fast for a "mountain bike."

After getting our light work in, which was longer than my coach prescribed already, we headed over to the race site to see if there was anywhere we would be able to park my RV overnight. They have an awesome campground at that site, but we decided too late in the game to do this race at all to get a reservation and it was fully booked. But we hoped that wherever they were planning to park everyone who was driving in would be available to just park overnight as we didn't need any particular facilities anyway. They were unwilling to open that parking area, but the lady at the office said someone had showed up who had reserved two spaces but only needed one. She sent us to see him, and he promptly sold us his extra space with water and electric hookups! SWEET. Had we not arrived almost exactly when we did, that would have never happened. It would have been a Walmart parking lot about 4 miles away instead.

So we got in the campsite and got setup and decided to jump on our bikes and go find the course. Of course once we found it we found that we were allowed to check it out, so we started riding it. And rode all 6.9 miles of it! We took it very easy, and this turned out to be a GREAT idea. We planned where we'd leave the bike at each transition point, and got to see the obstacles enough to know they were going to be very easy, technically. We also learned there was no "mountain biking", just fast off road gravel racing and running. The only "technical" element would have been the creek crossing, except for the fact that it wasn't able to be ridden at all. The only way to KNOW that, however, was to see it the day before. Except you can't see what you need to see as the water was a bit too murky. So I took off my shoes and socks and waded in. I'm very glad I did that.

So we went back to the RV and had supper and planned things out for the race. There were five legs (with four transition points), which meant one of us had to do three runs and two bikes, the other two runs and three bikes. We decided it made the most sense for Alan to do the three runs, which turned out to be a great strategy. We also made sure we communicated as the biker passed the runner during the run leg, so the runner would know the bike would be in transition, as there was a chance the bike may be later arriving at middle transition points. This didn't end up happening, but was close on one occasion.

We got up race morning and got our nutrition in and headed over to the start. We did a good job of staying at the front of our wave with the bike, but we did learn one potential problem...they were starting the runners a full two minutes behind the bikers in each wave. We also realized there were a lot of casual competitors in all the waves, and our wave was next to last. That meant a LOT of passing would be happening, which is less than ideal, but the same for everyone in our age group, anyway.

At the start, I was lined up in the second line of bikes. I took off hard, but not quite true sprint speeds. I quickly found that trying to ride Alan's riding position and bike wasn't ideal and should have been trained for better. Next time. Well, and next time we'll probably do more of a "compromise" position instead of me fully adopting his position, especially since I was doing more of the biking than he was anyway. I noticed most of the guys ahead of me off the line seemed to be sprinting and only a few were pulling away any at all. So I kept my pace and before half the leg was over I was in the lead of our wave. I kept on it pretty hard and got into transition and over the first obstacle (a small climbing wall) and headed out on the run. It's worth noting they had water stations at every transition, but I rarely get much water out of a cup into my mouth if I'm trying to run hard, and with my total run being a one mile leg and a 1.35 mile leg, I wasn't willing to "take it easy" so I could drink. I knew we'd be under an hour in this race, so hydration just wasn't necessary (the winners last year were a mid 47 minute time in our age group).

So I started at a pretty good clip and ended up running that first leg at around a 7:50 pace. I thought I could pull a little better than that, and I may have and just can't pull it out of the data exactly. It wasn't better than a 7:30, though, which was about where I thought I'd be. I thought if I ran that hard after a really fast bike leg that I'd have to wait just a little for Alan at this transition, but he ran so fast to start that he ended up passing me back right before transition, which was basically ideal. So we both did the "frog maze" at the same time and headed out again (a "frog maze" is a small maze you have to crawl through that's got solid walls and is covered, so it's fairly dark...but it was so easy there was no getting lost).

I started to feel the legs pretty good in this stint, but dug hard and got to transition. I chucked the bike where Alan could find it and took off through an inflatable "obstacle course". That would have been easy, but there were people "stuck" in there that made it a little dangerous and definitely slowed me down by 20-30 seconds just waiting. There's just nothing else you can do if you hit the obstacle at the wrong time like that. And it's not like I could have just beaten those people by being faster...they were slower people from previous waves.

Took off on this run, but was really struggling. I think this was more of a 9:30 pace stint. Couple hills got to me a little, and my legs just felt a little heavy. I think I just need more experience feeling like this, though, to know I can power through. I also need a little more work doing short distance running for speed, too, but for other reasons I've needed to get the base miles in to get my distance capability up, so that kind of thing will come. Alan passed me a lot earlier than I would have liked here, so I knew I was holding up the team just a little. He got the bike to the final transition and I got in there and got through it and took more time finding the bike than we hoped, but got it and got through. The problem there was simply the time gap meant a lot more bikes came in after he left, so it was "buried" a little deeper than I was expecting.

At this point, we were in the final leg. What I needed to do was catch him, but didn't really need to pass him since we had to finish the last obstacles together anyway. The creek crossing went very well for him thanks to my recon work, but it didn't help me as much because again, I got there with traffic in the way. It was a narrow area we were allowed to cross, and I was behind a clump of people. You can't really just squeeze between people when you have to carry a bike, which we did thanks to the rock ledge as you went into the water. But I got through, got past the clump, and took off. From here a lot of it was uphill to the finish, and I really felt burn in strange places in my muscles thanks to the odd riding position that I wasn't used to.

I actually never did catch Alan, but it turns out he only had to wait maybe 30 seconds for me, so I didn't hurt our time too much in those final two legs. I dumped the bike and we hit the rope wall and then plowed through the mud pit and to the finish. We were fairly certain we had done very well, but decided to head back to the RV to clean up. As we talked more about who we saw where (each wave had a color coded wristband, so it was easy to know if you were passing or getting passed by people in your wave, which likely meant they were in your age group), we realized we really did probably do very well, so we hurried back over and checked the results. Turns out we won our age group by over a minute! And qualified for the Muddy Buddy World Championships in December! YES! Our time was also nearly two minutes faster than the winning time from last year. Supposedly the only changes to the course were to add two hurdles to the running legs, so it wasn't any easier than last year. So, needless to say we're really proud of our finish!