Thursday, July 21, 2016

Going back to start

It's my firmly-held belief that life is all about finding happiness.

This is all just one grand experiment to try and to test, to uncover and explore, to seek out those things that connect us with the joy machine that makes life a worthwhile endeavor.

But when a channel that has always brought that spark suddenly doesn't, it time to change the channel.

That's what happened to me and my bike. I could say it was a recent realization, but that's not entirely true. Only very recently have I been able to admit to myself that my bike life was no longer doing it for me. It probably started sometime last year, or maybe even before that (I can blame long, cold Ohio winters, too). At some point, the bike began to feel less like play, more like work.

To be fair, it's not 'being on the bike' that felt like work. The bike, as Mandy Marquardt so aptly described, is my Happy Place. The part that was bothering me was the stuff surrounding and leading up to that moment of pedaling off into bike bliss; namely, the expectations and commitments I built around cycling, or at least the perception of their ownership of my life.

Even as I approached the finish line at Worlds last month, my motivation was at an all-time low. I absolutely knew that it was time to take a break. Not from the bike, necessarily, but from bike racing.  I had devoted a huge part of my life to this. I had pushed myself to levels I never thought possible. Early on, I did it because I wanted to prove to myself that I could. I wanted to be epic, to HTFU. I think lots of competitive athletes think the same way. We do it for the victory over our own limitations, and so we're constantly pushing those limitations. We work hard, set goals, suffer to achieve them, and then set new goals.

But the new goals were starting to feel like recycled old goals. The same races, the same field of competitors, the same courses, lots of the same bullshit. It kind of felt like I had been doing this too long, and that something needed to change.

It was hard to admit - to myself and anyone else - that I was ready to walk away for a while. I had defined myself by this sport. But I was beginning to acknowledge that my expectations had changed.

I appreciate the encouragement of well-meaning friends: "You'll be back in a couple of months",  or "you'll be ready for CX". But those are their expectations. Mine aren't so time-dependent. I'll be back when I can return with a totally new perspective. Or at least a renewed sense of joy for it.

You might wonder what I plan to do now. For the record, I don't plan to sit around on the couch watching Game of Thrones all day (tempting, but no). I don't plan on resorting to Pokemon Go to get myself out of the house. Ironically, I've been getting out more but doing things that bring new challenges and excitement. Trail running, for one. Mentoring the gals on Team Stelleri. Riding in fast little circles, and bringing in new riders, at the Cleveland Velodrome. Running sprint intervals in the mornings, before work (something I used to do quite a bit, and found out lately how much I missed it). I even went mountain biking the other day, on the Bedford Singletrack, and, guess what? I didn't die, nor did I fall off any bridges. (It was a bit outside of my comfort zone. I'll be back.)

And, of course, now I'll have more time for my favorite thing in the whole world: long, solo rides to unfamiliar destinations, with no other goal but to get out and get lost for a while.

I can't imagine I'll ever really lose my desire to ride a bike. (There are too many bikes littered around the house  for that, and they all need my attention). Sooner or later, I'll probably be lined up again at the start of some race, raring to go.

Or not.

In the meantime, I'll find happiness in trying to figure this all out.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The World Report: ITU Duathlon Championships 2016, Aviles, Spain

I am the only person who can starve to death in Spain.  Jamon Iberico, tortilla, queso, vino – all great stuff, but never when you need it.

Angie and Jason, and Dave and I, have no intention of bucking our host country’s culture. We are willing to adapt; we want the full Spanish experience. But it seems that the Spanish don’t require nearly as much sustenance as I do. Coffee for breakfast, maybe a piece of bread -- then nothing until many hours later. Seems you’re only permitted to eat between 1 PM and 4 PM, and then again after 9 PM. Then there’s that siesta thing:  everything – including every restaurant, cafĂ©, and grocery store -- shuts down exactly when your body craves a morsel of something to gnaw on.

I am pretty much hungry all the time.

And nervous. We have arrived in Aviles,  and I am no longer able to hide from the inevitable. I had been in a state of semi-denial the weeks and months leading up to Worlds. It’s a stress-management mechanism, and a way to stay focused on what I need to do without worrying – unnecessarily – about outcome.

But now, we’re here and it’s real. Angie and I have 3½ days before we are to compete in the most important race of our lives.

The gravity of the event hits me during the Parade of Nations. We are marching through the narrow streets of Aviles. All the athletes – 1400 total, representing 40 countries - are in team colors and lined up behind their nation’s flag. Every resident of Aviles seems to be here, too; there isn’t one unoccupied space along the curb. 

Kristin Allyne, who is competing in her 9th world championship event with Team USA, carries the American flag and leads us along the route. When Team USA passes by, the Spanish people cheer loudly. I feel like a celebrity, returning smiles to strangers who are welcoming us as friends. It is all incredibly humbling, and I fight back tears. This crazy adventure will be enough of a blur without tears.

The entire time we are in Aviles, Angie and I wear the Team USA uniform. We are representing our country, and have never been so proud to display our red, white, and blue.  For all the bad press the US receives from foreign nations (some of it deserved, some of it not), it just feels right to step out every day in our team kit.  (Side note: I didn’t really have a choice. My luggage arrived in Madrid a day later than I did, so I had to do with what I carried on. Happily, it was everything I needed leading up to and including the race itself).

The early part of the week is a whirlwind, starting with figuring out how to park a modern car in a medieval village. (We would become experts at navigating Romanesque-era roads by the end of this trip).  The first thing we do after checking in to the Palacio Hotel is to find the bikes we rented through Raceday Transport, a partner with Team USA in shipping and fitting kickass tri bikes for events like this.

We are told that the bikes haven’t arrived yet. Somebody must have packed something in their bike box that they shouldn’t have, and Spanish customs held up the entire shipment (which almost jeopardized the entire team – but all’s well that ends well).  When they arrive the following day (insert big sigh of relief here), Angie and I are fitted on our trusty temporary steeds: she’s on a QR, I get a Guru. It’s not solid black, but other than that it’s perfect.

The days prior to the race are packed. We have a tight agenda: Bike fit, course preview, team meeting, transition walk-through, parade and team photo, opening ceremony, all in the same afternoon. When do we get to eat??

We attempt to ‘grab lunch’ (a term that you will never hear in Spanish) before our crazy afternoon agenda, but it’s hard to mesh our schedule with the local culture. At 1 PM, we’re waiting for something – anything – to open up that serves food. We wait for service, we wait for water*, we order food and wait some more. Angie and I leave before the food arrives, leaving the guys alone to try to explain this nonsense to the perplexed waiter. I spend the afternoon hungry.

* For some reason, it’s really hard to get water in a Spanish restaurant. It’s not a language barrier thing, either. Jason was an excellent translator and our trip was enhanced because of his ability to connect with local people through a shared language. The water situation must be a cultural barrier, one of the quirks about foreign travel that make it both interesting and frustrating.

I’m hoping this excess hunger is going to help me with my skinsuit. The skinsuit, as its name implies, is meant to fit like a second skin. It’s really a star-spangled sausage casing. It’s so small that Angie stuffed hers into the front pocket of her jeans before boarding the flight to Madrid.  And it’s snug, lengthwise. The straps dig into my shoulders, the open-back design is pulled wayyyyy down. I’m a bit concerned about this.  If it rains during the race, I’m bound to freeze. And what if my ass crack shows when I’m on the bike? OMG – here comes that American plumber girl again. Ugh.

My nerves are calmed a bit when Angie and I ride the course for a second time. There are circles all over this course: roundabouts and U-turns and multiple laps of the same. I want to ride it enough times to be able to not have to think about it during the race, but I will be relying on barriers to keep me on course.

The evening before the race, the anxiety builds. We are ready to get this party started.

The next morning, we are READY! Our bikes are already in transition, we just need to haul our gear to the event start, do a bit of a warm up, and wait for the gun.

Women 40+ Standard distance is the last wave. Waiting at the start line with gals from all over the world, bonding with our US teammates. The conversation turns political, much to my delight, and I attempt to convince the British girls that all Americans aren’t ignorant.  Laughter calms my nerves.

For the first time in days, the sun makes an appearance. Mediterranean sun. It’s not ‘hot’, but it will be and I make a mental note to STAY HYDRATED. I wish I had more food. Too late now.

The race site is a huge, post-modern dome, across the river from the city center. Every day, we descend to the river via a twisting maze of stone streets, walk up a cantilevered ramp, cross the multicolored bridge. By the time the race is over, we will have walked this route many, many times. It feels familiar. The race course is designed to encourage spectators, and from the ramp and both sides of the river, fans watch and cheer. Racers must pass this area many times: twice on the first run, 2 ½ times on the bike, twice more on the 2nd run.

I take my position. The gun goes off.

The first run is fun and exciting. Cheering crowds, cries of ‘Vamos!’ and ‘Team USA!’ keep me on pace for the 10K. There are 2 aid stations along the running course. Although Angie has been trying to teach me how to drink while running without drowning myself, she has not been successful. I take a bottle hand-up at every opportunity, sometimes choking on it but mostly pouring it over my head, hoping that somehow the hydration reaches my rapidly-depleting cells.

First run completed, onto transition.  To those unfamiliar with multisport events, the transition area is where you ditch your running shoes and get your bike (T1), and then switch back again once you’re done with the bike leg and ready for the last run (T2). The object is to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible. Because of the huge competitor field, the transition area was extra long, added ½ mile of running – ¼ mile each transition – to our race.

Once on the bike, I’m in my zone. I’m also confident that I know where I’m going, thanks to the multiple course previews that Angie and I did earlier. Still, the course is 2 ½ laps of circles, twists, and turns. Arrows point out the routes for standard and sprint and lap count, but you have to pay attention. Course re-con gave us an idea of where we could put the hammer down without missing a turn or crashing into a barrier. Never underestimate the power of course re-con!

Speaking of speed, this race was all about pacing. This was the first time either of us competed in standard distance (10K run/25 mile bike/5 K run). Strategy is required. Ours was simple: Do the long run at a moderate pace, keep a moderate to high intensity on the bike but save something for the 2nd run, then open it up for the final 5K! Of course, this works only if you have something left in the tank at that point.

Coming into the last half- lap of the bike course, my calves start to cramp. It’s dehydration, I’m sure. I acknowledge it and then try to block it out of my mind, strategize how to manage during the last run.

I’m off the bike and the world seems to be turning in slow motion. With forced deliberation, I get my shoes on and force my leaden legs to move. It’s only 3 miles, I tell myself – this race will be over in less than half an hour as long as I keep moving.

Self talk when I’m suffering: Visualize the finish. Visualize grabbing that little American flag and waving it as I cross the line, smiling. Do it for your country. Do it for Team USA.

My heart feels like it’s going to explode out of my chest. Good thing the skinsuit is tight. I slow my pace, but keep moving. I stop running, but keep moving. Gasp out a ‘gracias’ to the guy who hands me a bottle of water. Take a sip, pour the rest over my head. Water pours down into my shoes, and I feel blisters emerging. My legs are protesting, and my brain is fighting them. KEEP GOING.

The cheering crowds have thinned. I am happy for that. There is nothing they could do or say to make me feel stronger, and I hate to look like I’m suffering in front of people.

As I near the multicolored bridge, there is more spectator fervor. Dave and Jason have been following us throughout the race, wearing custom T-shirts to show who they support. All of it becomes a blur. Maybe I’m delirious, or just too focused on finishing. I miss my little flag hand-up somehow. I am relieved to finally cross the finish line, with a smile but without a flag, and ready to put this race behind me.

If there is a finish line photo, it’s not the one I was hoping for.  I probably look a little pale, maybe ready to fall over. The finish line photo I was hoping for is me looking fresh, triumphant smile, arms raised in victory, little flag in hand. Maybe next time. **

**Never say never.

True to Spanish sensibilities, the award ceremony starts at 10:30 PM (on a Sunday night! Don’t these people go to work on Monday??!!), and lasts until well after we sneak away and head back across the river. It may be Spain, but it’s still ‘Gin Sunday’ in my little world. Back in the Plaza, we find one little outdoor bar still open.

I complete my rehydration protocol with a terribly refreshing gin and tonic. We hear (rather than see) the fireworks that mark the end of the 2016 World Duathlon Championship festivities.  Now we can pack up our gear and sweaty clothes, and embark on the next phase of our trip: a deeper immersion into Iberian culture.

Sometime back in 2014, after a good finish at a local duathlon, Angie suggested we compete at Nationals the following year (2015). And we did, in St. Paul, MN, and qualified for Worlds, in Spain (2016). And we competed at Worlds and we both finished well (she took 12th in her age group, I took 5th in mine).  And then, it was all over.

What next? Who knows? Time will reveal new opportunities.

For those who have the ability and desire to compete in a National or World Championship event, I encourage you to go for it. By doing so, you will be competing against the best in the nation, or the world. You will get to experience a new place – maybe a place you never knew existed – as a national representative on a global playing field. It’s as close as many of us will ever get to an ‘Olympic’ dream.

Gracias, Aviles, and Team USA, and everyone who made this event unforgettable.

Muchos gracias, Angie, for making the impossible happen. And Dave and Jason, for your unwavering support of our great ideas.

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Team USA Experience

Sometimes, I have to pinch myself. 

This video, posted by USA Triathlon, shows the Team USA experience. In a few short days, this is going to be me and Angie. 

I get chills just watching it.

More blog posts coming, but right now I'm really focused on just getting there and getting it done. 

Wish us luck!

Thursday, April 21, 2016


Barry-Roubaix 2016

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
-  The Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear, "Dune"

It's tough. You have to fight your way through loose gravel, deep sand, dust clouds that hang over the never-ending line of racers.  It will scare you. You might lose control of your bike. You will feel like you're going to slide out into thick gravel at the bottom of a fast descent and break something.

You'll swear you'll never do it again.

But then, with time and rehydration, you'll see things more clearly.

Like, how just being able to do this kind of thing is a privilege that few are granted. That life is either a daring adventure, or it's nothing. That, with a little practice and determination, this becomes less intimidating and a lot more fun.

Show a little grit. The object isn't to get to the finish line as fast as possible.

The object is to never arrive.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

A Farewell to Death Valley

We came here to ride long miles under a blazing sun, of course, knowing that any plans we made  would be at the mercy of natural forces. We started with our favorite and familiar routes. But even the sand dunes, which might not look any different than before, move and shift over time. The same holds true with what we think we know about this place: it never changes,  and yet it's always different. Death Valley is a mystery that can never be solved.

This time around, we finally figured out one stunningly simple and significant thing: unfavorable riding conditions gave us the opportunity to go do something else. They allowed us to explore this place more deeply. What did we learn? That after all these years, we've just barely scratched the surface.
Contemplating the 7%, 10-mile climb to Hell's Gate. Crosswinds gusting to 40+ mph.
Team Stelleri's desert debut!

I can't do this as well as Jill can. I think her arms are longer. 
Hiking in Mosaic Canyon

Angie, Ruler of Rhyolite!

Furnace Creek Ranch, at 190 feet below sea level
Mesquite Flats sand dunes
Not a bad place to steal a kiss!

A highlight of this trip: summiting Dante's View with Angie!

Another great day at Artist's Palette
Gower Gulch Loop Trail, at sunset. 
Angie waiting for the boys at the top of the first climb, Artist's (F**king) Drive
Snake bait!
Another point in the physical world that coincides with the Alternative Universe of Kymaerica. This one is in Rhyolite, NV.
Bourbon and ice. Jason's new cocktail: The Artist's Fucking Tailwheels!
Wind is good for something
Waiting for sunset on the Mesquite Sand Dunes
Flying, as the sun sets and the moon rises

Me and Dave at Zabriskie Point
Badwater salt pan

The superbloom
Gold rush

Night hike on Badwater salt pan. Pitch black, really stupid idea but we all survived. Most of us unscathed.

The End!

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Only Constant

"Today, I stare down the sun, look hard at the world and all I've done. Today, I bask in the sun, with all things glowing, everything I've done"
So many significant, direction-altering changes in the past year have knocked me a little off center. I know that that is what life does, but sometimes readjustment seems to take a long time.

I needed something familiar to help get me back to ground. For the past so-many years, spring has brought with it the opportunity to disappear into the desert. I've always found something there that completely recharges and inspires me. It's become a habit that is hard to argue with, and this year, it seems to be even more critical to my existence.

I can close my eyes and see the 190 stretched way, way out in front of me. I can feel the blast-furnace wind on my face, and taste the salty heat under a Badwater sun. There is some strange comfort in knowing the same ruthless challenges await, even though they will certainly be different.

This will likely be the last year that my friends and I journey to the low desert of Death Valley for springtime cycling. Many of our 'old-standby' friends, notably Jill and Tim, have already moved on. The world is simply too big, there are too many adventures waiting elsewhere. Already I have my sights set on some very different landscapes, and very soon I will be ready to step into more uncharted territory.

But first, I need to go back to start. I need to reconnect with whatever the thing is that gives me back my power, and I know I can find that in Death Valley.