Monday, June 13, 2022

Kelly and the strange allure of a Vertical Kilometer

As an endurance coach, I get to work with athletes who have some pretty cool and ambitious goals. Most of my athletes are cyclists, runners, and multisport athletes, and I enjoy working with all of them individually to optimize their training to meet their goals.

But every once in a while, an athlete will come to me with a unique and novel event that she wants to compete in, and that's where the fun really starts!

Kelly B. and I have been working together for at least a few years now, starting off with a combination of ultra-distance trail running and cycling time trial. Kelly is a gifted athlete who can excel at both of these disciplines, even though the goals - and training - for each are quite a bit different.

During COVID lockdown, Kelly competed in virtual challenges for mileage and elevation. She even signed up for a virtual challenge that included a daily surprise (explore a new trail, take a photo, etc.). In other words, she finds ways of keeping her goals fresh. 

So it wasn't really a surprise when Kelly came to me a few months ago with a new one (for both of us): she would compete in the Broken Arrow Skyrace Vertical Kilometer. Essentially, it's a super-steep climb of essentially a kilometer (or, in this case, ~7 km or 4.25 miles). This race has 3135' of quad-busting, oxygen-depleting vertical gain over that distance. Just looking at some of the prior race photos makes me dizzy!

How do you train for something like this? 

First, we gather info. Through a listing of past results, we found a local gal who competed in an earlier Broken Arrow VK, and we set up a call. Julie K gave us many details about the race: how to train, what to carry in your pack, what to expect, what was unexpected. Talking to Julie was an invaluable advantage, and helped us figure out how best to prepare.

Training for a VK is a bit tricky. We have long, gradual hills around here. And we have short, steep hills, too. But we don't have long, steep hills or anything that can simulate the conditions Kelly will encounter at the VK. 

So we improvise: lots of stair climbs, hill repeats, long endurance trail runs to supplement the power workouts. Crazy hard workouts called Mountain Legs that simulate the repetitive work a VK'ers legs will need to be familiar with. Kelly did a lot of strength work, not just for her legs but also for her arms, because she'll need to use hiking poles for this climb (luckily, she doesn't have to climb down the mountain - "only" up!). And, of course, there was a lot of recovery in between the hard workouts, to maximize adaptation. I'm sure a yoga break and a date with a foam roller never felt so good.

Is Kelly ready? You bet she is! She is heading to California later this week and will be racing on Friday, June 17. I can't wait to see how Kelly conquers this vertical goal! 

You can watch a Livestream of the Broken Arrow Skyrace events on Friday:

Besides the VK, there are other races of various distances that day, and even a kid's race. Hopefully we will catch a few glimpses of Kelly as she powers her way up that mountain. 

Send Kelly some anti-gravitational thoughts as she races to the clouds on Friday!

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Still Here: Death Valley 2021


There will come a day when this is no longer possible. 

Today is not that day.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Plotting a New Course

Last week at this time I was standing at the start line of 2018 Duathlon Nationals, in Greenville, South Carolina. I'm remembering this over a cup of coffee, surrounded by the sound of April showers outside (which, here in Ohio, will be mixed with snow later this week. Ah, springtime in Ohio!) It seems like two worlds removed from one another, and already so desperately far away.

The preparation and anticipation and hard work that goes into competing in an event like this builds the experience. We set up a plan, affix goals and milestones to our weekly training, attempt to simulate race conditions so we're not blindsided by the unexpected. We focus our energy on race day so that we can dig deep when it matters.

I've had a week to process the experience, and to sit down with results postings and performance data.    I am a data geek and I love to crunch numbers and pull meaning from them. Angie and I both did very well in this race: we each took 9th in our respective age groups. That means a lot to both of us, since we know that competing at National Championships means that we're toeing the line with the best athletes in the country. It's a privilege for us, and we know it - and we are both happy with our results.

But we also know that we weren't quite as ready as we could have been.

Every race teaches us something about ourselves as an athlete. Racing challenges our strengths and exposes our weaknesses. It gives us an unbiased, delusion-free picture of who we are at that moment.
And if we're committed to the challenge (and we are), it helps us figure out what we need to do better next time.

I've been training essentially the same way for the past 6 or 7 years. I've been fortunate to have some natural abilities that didn't require me to spend a lot of time developing. I relied on that past iteration of my athletic self to get me to where I wanted to be this time around, and it didn't work. It made me realize that there are different features in this current landscape that need to be navigated around, and that old road map is simply not going to get me where I want to be. And if I'm honest with myself, I have to face the fact that I can't drive a Mazda the same way that I was driving the Maserati.

So I'm re-routing. My destination is the same, but I'm going to get there via a different road. I'm charting a new course to Du Nats 2019.

I've got a year to figure this out.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Zwift: Game vs. Training

I hate this guy.
I was told that my last post regarding my experiences with Zwift were overly optimistic. It's true: I made it seem as though I'm a total Zwift convert. I'm really not.*

I have a fundamental issue with Zwift, aside from it's unpredictable behavior, un-intuitive controls, sporadic ability to integrate with my CompuTrainer and Stages systems (especially after one of the frequent so-called 'upgrades'), etc. My real problem with Zwift is that it doesn't ever inherently fit with my training plan.

Zwift is a game. It was created by game people, presumably game people that also ride bikes. As a game, it's pretty cool, as described in my previous post.

The frustration is when you have an already well-thought out training plan, specific to your race and workout goals, and you try to mesh that intelligent training design with the game elements of Zwift. You know how hard it is to get 'your' workout in when you're riding with a group of wanna-be racers oozing testosterone on your local club ride? Zwift is that, to the nth degree. And now you have more incentive to stray from your training plan: achievement of 'levels' to unlock 'gifts',  constant badgering to 'bridge the gap', sprint and KOM/QOM achievements. The most irritating thing (and I find a lot of things irritating) is that at the end of your ride, if Zwift determines you didn't work hard enough, you get the cartoon dude crying about your pathetic TSS score. Even if you set out to do an EZ ride, and you were able to blow off all of Zwift's distractions and perfectly execute your EZ ride, the dude-who-has-no-idea-who-you-are will weep cartoon tears for you anyway.

I'm guessing that the more you are into gaming or virtual reality, the stronger the pull will be to succumb to these Zwift temptations.

Years ago, when Strava became a 'thing' for everyday cyclists, I saw immediately how it had the power to turn every ride into a race. No longer could you just ride up Truxell; you now had to compare your times to everyone who rode up Truxell before you, and 'defend' your time against anyone who would contest you in the future. Fun stuff, for sure - but now you've given up control of your ride to some nondescript, faceless group mentality. Including people you don't know, and will never ride with in real life. No, thanks. I watched 'Black Mirror', and I'm not impressed by this vision of the future.

So be warned: treat Zwift like the game it is if you don't already have a coaching program or a training plan. It will make you stronger, and you might even turn into a good racer in Watopia (the Zwift universe).

But if you DO have a coaching program, particularly one that you're paying for, you might want to reconsider contesting that sprint when you should be recovering between intervals, or signing up for a virtual race on your 'Recovery Ride' day.  Do you want to do well in your 'real' races, or are you OK with scoring high in the virtual racing world? That choice is yours.

* Dave has figured out when I'm riding Zwift: he hears a long string of non-stop cursing emanating from the Pain Cave. This is his signal to leave the house for a couple of hours. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Zwift Game

Sometimes, you get to wear cool jerseys, like this one!

Let me first say this: I prefer to ride outside. But you probably won't hear too many tales of me on a fat bike in 10 degree weather, swaddled up like an Eskimo mummy, all red cheeks, watery eyes, and snotsickles. That ship has sailed, my friends, and I'm not too sad to see it go. Riding the trails on a CX bike in a fresh foot of snow in a nor'easter? Epic. Have at it. At some point, your frostbitten fingers and years of kidding yourself into thinking that this behavior is somehow 'fun' may catch up with you.

And when that happens, you can look to Zwift to ease the transition back to riding inside.

Zwift is an online 'game' that connects to your indoor cycling trainer. It converts you into an avatar,   sets you down in interesting virtual locations, and lets you ride with other people/avatars. It gives you a fairly realistic riding experience, especially if you have a 'smart' trainer (one that adjusts the resistance on your bike to match the terrain in the virtual program). It's the closest approximation of 'real' cycling that you can get on an indoor trainer. It has some faults and quirks, but it's worth trying out if you live in a climate that makes indoor training a practical necessity.

Lately, I've even found myself looking forward to indoor training sessions. Crazy, I know, but where else could I ride the Alps, or London, or inside a smoldering volcano, without ever having to leave the Pain Cave? And, just yesterday, I 'unlocked' a "Tour of Italy" virtual challenge, so now I get to spend the rest of winter riding through rolling vineyards destined to become second-rate* wines.

At least, that's where my mind will be as I pedal into spring in a few months. Ciao!

* Wine quality by region:
  1. France
  2. Napa/Sonoma
  3. Willamette Valley
  4. Argentina/Chile
  5. Other obscure places like New York and Greenland
  6. More of #5
  7. That country that gave us asti spumante 

Friday, December 29, 2017

December's End

In spite of my rock solid motivations, and the rising tides of guilt, I am having a really hard time crawling out into this cold morning to get to the gym, as I was so determined to do.

Outside, a muffled, metallic scraping of plow blade on snowy street is my only indication that it is morning. (There are no alarm clocks this week).

I weigh my options: virtue vs. a few more minutes under these thick layers, against a warm body, in the middle of winter when  all I want is to satisfy some primeval craving for the enveloping darkness and a moment of stillness.

(Virtue loses, again!)

When I will finally crawl out into the blue light of morning, it will be toward a pot of steaming black coffee and a frosted-window view of a deep and silent season.

Enjoy these dark days. They won't last.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

An interesting perspective on the challenges of Masters competitors

An article posted by Chris Carmichael today totally nailed what I've been struggling with for the past year or so: an unexplained (until now) decline in motivation for racing and cycling.

The article describes a phenomenon in older athletes (the over-40 crowd)* for a reduced tolerance to self-inflicted suffering for the sake of the sport. Although it's critical for the not-quite-as-young-as-we-used-to-be to keep working out at high intensities, it becomes more of a head game to achieve those levels in training. Why? The article doesn't give any solid evidence, but points to the fact that we begin to get selective about the levels of suffering we're willing to endure (which may be indicative of goals and motivation). It also suggests that our priorities change, in terms of why we train and race. Maybe it becomes less important to dominate the podium, and maybe that translates into backing off a bit in training.

I don't know for sure, but I do know that I have considered all these issues as I tried to make sense of my deteriorating relationship with my sport.

In my experience, I have absolutely become less tolerant of crappy weather conditions. The days of training and racing in miserable weather are, happily, (and hopefully) behind me. I no longer feel the need to "HTFU", as the CX-ers like to tell us. Cold, wet, windy days - all the fun things that accompany roughly 8 months of not-summer here in NEO - can suck the energy and motivation out of me in ways that are beyond irrational.

At the same time, my tolerance for indoor training has hit rock bottom, and I'm unable to muster any enthusiasm for slogging it out in front of a lifeless computerized landscape. Rounding out this perfect trifecta: menopause** has brought unexpected (and unwelcome) physical changes, like hot flashes (which means I can be freezing cold and uncomfortably hot at the same time. Yay, me!), hydration/fuel challenges, interrupted sleep patterns, and general crankiness. More than usual crankiness.

I have always relished a hard workout. I would look forward to it the night before and plan it all out. I would wake up before the sun, get on the road so I could take advantage of cool temperatures and minimal traffic. I would push myself to levels that I would not have thought possible. And I would prove myself on the playing field, using races not only as testament of my training and my ability to push limits, but for their value as stepping stones of motivation that would keep me active and engaged for a whole season. Sometimes a whole year, depending on the event timing (like Death Valley rides in early spring).

Nowadays, I often prefer to hit the snooze button a couple of times and negotiate the terms of my planned workout over another cup of coffee. This is an alarming development, and I need to figure it out soon.

I'm not sure where I go from here. I know plenty of aging athletes that have found ways to stay motivated and fit (and happy with their chosen sports), and I'm sure I'll do the same. At some point, I'll find the thing (or things) that resonate with my evolving goals, and that don't require an inordinate amount of misery to achieve.

*There have been a lot of interesting articles lately focusing on this demographic. Either I have just started paying more attention to studies centered around aging in competitive athletes, or there's a growing population of us that can no longer be ignored. In any case, I'm looking forward to more interesting and enlightening scientific data around this topic.

**Fodder for a whole other blog, and then some. There is frustratingly little scientifically-sound information on how menopause affects performance of competitive women athletes.