- Lack of Motivation
- Substitutional Training
- Deadbeat Parents
(Vol 4: Rewind – this post is the latest in a long sequential story: Parts 1 through 3 chronicled my testing failures as an aspiring Olympic athlete in my first full time training camp in 1990 with the national speedskating team. As a reminder, here were the “tests” and my “grades.”)
Test #1 – Heavy Training: F – Failure (spent 24+ hours in bed unable to move)
Test #2 – Body Fat: F – Failure (2nd fattest of the team)
Test #3: - VO2 Max: F – Failure (absolute lowest of the team)
Test #4: - Max Squats: C – Average (average on the team)
Test #5: - Vertical Leap C+ - Average – (average on the team)
Test #6: - Max Power F/A+ - Failure (passed out, but had highest peak output)
If I had entered the training camp at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs in the summer of 1990 a confident, self possessed young man, a potential “super-talent” –within the world of speedskating, I left it shattered and bitter.
Dreams had become darkness, clarity had become confusion, and worst of all my quiet confidence had become alternating volatile mix between the false bravado and contempt that, with a flush of embarrassment, I now recognize in those poor contestants who fail miserably on American Idol. Like them, at first I was contemptuous – I denied the results, I questioned the usefulness and accuracy of the tests, I doubted the data, I scathingly criticized the coaches – I scrutinized everything.
Eventually, though, the coaches got through to me and showed me the light – that the only way I was going to be successful was to adapt myself to the program and train my weaknesses. I had to be reasonable - if the tests were right, I either had very little talent – OR I had significant weaknesses/opportunities that needed to be shored up. This was the best half-full I could make of it: that I had weaknesses to be trained. I left the camp with a mission to out-train my weaknesses and show the coaches, athletes, and the world what I was capable of.
A reasonable man adapts himself to his environment. An unreasonable man persists in attempting to adapt his environment to suit himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
George Bernard Shaw
It ate at me, though, the doubts. How could it be, if the tests were true, that I had come so far in my results with such a weak physical resume? Honestly, my steadily improving results over the prior years were actually despite my luck rather than because of it – falls, DQ’s, living in California, and a host of other obstacles seemed to be my barrier rather than being out-skated – at least in the shorter events.
To the coaches and trainers of the national team, the answer was simple – my current level of preparations was inadequate: it was their job to polish this diamond in the rough into a real diamond. It was a logical conclusion – rather than wonder how I could have gotten so far without the genius and intensity of their regimen – I framed it in the positive and wondered how far I’d go with their help. The positive conclusion was that I had unique “latent” talents ready to be released. The actuality of the situation was a bit different…
Years later and it all suddenly comes into stark relief:
If you are already following the world’s best program, then anything else becomes a step back.
I kick myself now – how could we not have known? The facts were all there – the state, national, world, and Olympic champions to come out of the Wolverine Sports Club (WSC) in the 1970’s and 80’s under Clair Young and Mike Walden were everywhere. For a 20 year period from about 1965 – 1985 a ridiculous percentage of all the national championships medals that were won in the country – in all ages, by both men and women in cycling and speedskating, came out of a single cycling club based out of Detroit Michigan with a few hundred members and less than 100 racers. Take a look at some of these cycling results from 1972 – 1981 (all I can find). Virtually every name that has a state designation of MI for Michigan was trained by Walden.
National Championship results, 10 years: 1972 – 1981, Road & Track
1972 - Road - Milwaukee, WI, Aug. 5-6
1. Debbie Bradley, IA, 28mi in 1:19:10
2. Jeanne Omelenchuk, MI
3. Eileen Brennan, MI
1973 Track - Northbrook, IL, Aug. 1-4
SENIOR MEN 10 MILE -
1. Roger Young, MI
SENIOR MEN'S MATCH SPRINT : final for 1st and 2nd: Roger Young. Ml beat Jack Disney, CA, 2,0
SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT: final for 1st and 2nd: Sheila Young, Ml, beat Sue Novara, Ml, 2,0
MIDGET BOYS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. Jeff Bradley, IA, 21
2. James Gesquiere, MI, 10
1974 Road - Pontiac, MI, July 27-28
1. David Mayer-Oakes, TX
2. Pat Nielsen, MI
3. Tom Schuler, MI
1974 Track - Northbrook, IL, July 31-Aug. 3
SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT - Final for 1st and 2nd: Sue Novara, MI, beat Sheila Young, MI, 2.0
INTERMEDIATE GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. Connie Paraskevin, MI, 21
MIDGET BOYS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. Kevin Johnson, MI, 14
2. Troy Stetina, IN, 8
MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. Jacque Bradley, IA, 21
2. Debbie Zbikowski, MI, 9
1975 Road - Louisville, KY, Aug. 14-15
1. Wayne Stetina, IN, 114mi in 4:35:53.22
2. Dave Boll, CA
3. Tom Schuler, MI
1976 - Track - Northbrook, IL, Aug. 3-4
SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT- Final for 1st and 2nd: Sheila Young, MI, beat Sue Novara, MI, 2,1
JUNIOR WOMEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. Jane Brennan, MI, 17
INTERMEDIATE BOYS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. Jeff Bradley, LA, 17
2. James Gesquiere, MI, 15
INTERMEDIATE GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. Connie Paraskevin, MI, 19
2. Nancy Merlo, MI, 12
MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. Kirstie Walz, NJ, 19
2. Susan Schaugg, MI, 15
3. Anne Obermeyer, MI, 8
4. Lisa Parkes, MI, 5
1977 - Road, Seattle, WA, July 26-Aug. 6
SENIOR WOMEN - 1. Connie Carpenter, WI, 38.24mi in 1:38:31
1. Greg LeMond, NV, 71.5mi in 3:10:40
2. Jeff Bradley IA
1. Beth Heiden, WI, 31.5mi in 1:24:28
1. Grant Foster, CA, 11.25mi in 31:27
2. Greg Foster, CA
3. Jimmy Georgler, CA
4. Glen Driver, CA
5. Frankie Andreu, MI
1. Sue Schaugg, MI, 9mi in 27:50
2. Lisa Parkes , MI
3. Ann Marie Obermayer , MI
1977 – Track - Marymoor Velodrome, Redmond, WA, Aug. 2-6
JUNIOR WOMEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. Connie Paraskevin, MI, 15
2. Dana Scruggs, IN, 10
3. Nancy Merlo, MI, 8
4. Rena Walls, MI, 7
5. Jane Brennan, MI, 7
MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. Susan Schaugg, MI, 14
2. Lisa Parks, MI, 12
1978 Road Milwaukee, WI, July 26-30
1. Jeff Bradley, IA. 7Omi in 2:50:48
2. Greg LeMond, NV
1. Sherry Nelsen, MO, 24mi in 1:03:51
2. Tracy McConachie, IL
3. Nancy Merlo, MI
4. Karen Schaugg, MI
5. Louise Olson, MI
1. Jeanne Omelenchuck, MI 15mi in 40:26
1. Elise Lobdell, IN
2. Tyra Goodman, MI
3. Beth Burger, PA
4. Karn Radford, CA
5. Celeste Andreu, MI
1978 – Track - Kenosha, WI, Aug. 1-5
SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT - final for 1st and 2nd: Sue Novara-Reber, MI, beat Jackie Disney, CA, 2,0
SENIOR WOMEN POINTS RACE
1. Mary Jane Reoch, PA
2. Cary Peterson, WA
3. Sue Novara-Reber, MI
JUNIOR MEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. Eric Baltes, WI, 13 pts
2. James Gesquiere, MI, 12
3. Jeff Bradley, IA, 8
JUNIOR WOMEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. Connie Paraskevin, MI, 17
2. Sherry Nelsen, MO, 15
3. Tracy McConachie, IL, 7
4. Nancy Merlo, MI, 6
5. Rena Walls, MI, 3
MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. Beth Burger, PA, 19
2. Elise Lobdell, IN, 11
3. Tyra Goodman, MI, 7
4. Karn Radford, CA, 7
5. Celeste Andreu, MI, 7
1979 - Road - Milwaukee, WI, Aug. 1-5
1. Connie Carpenter, CA. 39.6mi in 1:44:16
2. Beth Heiden, WI
1. Greg LeMond, NV, 70.4mi in 2:55:08
1. Jean Omelenchuk, MI, 15mi in 43:30
1. Sarah Docter, WI, 15mi in 38:02
2. Sue Schaugg, MI
3. Abby Eldridge, CO
4. Lisa Parkes, MI
5. Laura Merlo, MI
1. Celeste Andreu, MI, 9mi in 27:09
2. Elizabeth Keyser, CA
3. Melanie Parkes, MI
1979 – Track - Northbrook, IL, Aug. 7-12
SENIOR MEN POINTS RACE
1. Gus Pipenhagen, IL, 18 pts
2. Roger Young, MI, 18
SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT Final for 1st and 2nd: Sue Novara-Reber, MI, beat Jackie Disney, CA, 2,0
JUNIOR WOMEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. Rebecca Twigg, WA, 16
2. Connie Paraskevin, MI, 13
JUNIOR MEN OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. Mark Whitehead, CA, 15 pts
2. Jeff Bradley, IA, 13
3. Peter Kron, IL, 7
4. James Gesquiere, MI, 6
INTERMEDIATE GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. Brenda Hetlet, WI, 17
2. Susan Schaugg, MI, 10
3. Laura Merlo, MI, 10
4. Lisa Parkes, MI, 7
MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. Susan Clayton, IA, 17
2. Jennifer Gesquiere, MI, 15
3. Celeste Andreu, MI, 13
4. Elizabeth Keyser, CA, 4
5. Melanie Parkes, MI, 3
1980 – Road - Bisbee, Az, Aug. 13-17
1. Beth Heiden, WI, 35mi in 1:43:56
1. Sarah Docter, WI, 28mi in 1:25:58
2. Rebecca Twigg, WA
1. Dedra Chamberlin, CA, l7mi in 57:52
2. Lisa Lobdell, IN
3. Mary Farnsworth, CA
4. Lisa Parkes, MI
5. Susan Schaugg, MI
1. John Chang, MI, 7mi in 24:29.54
2. Steve MacGregor, WI
3. Hector Jacome, CA
4. John Coyle, MI
5. Jamie Carney, NJ
1. Celeste Andreu, MI, 7mi in 39:59
2. Lisa Andreu, MI
1980 – Track - San Diego, CA, Aug. 20-23
SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT -Final for 1st and 2nd: Sue Novara-Reber, MI, beat Pam Deem, PA, 2,0
INTERMEDIATE BOYS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. Tim Volker, IA, 19
2. Brad Hetlet, WI, 11
3. Bobby Livingston, GA, 10
4. Joe Chang, WI, 4
5. Frankie Andreu, MI, 4
INTERMEDIATE GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. Susan Schaugg, MI, 14
2. Dedra Chamberlin, CA, 9
3. Amy Saling, NJ, 7
4. Mary Krippendorf, WI, 7
5. Lisa Parkes, MI, 6
MIDGET BOYS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. John Coyle, MI, 19
2. Jamie Carney, NJ, 11
MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. Celeste Andrau, MI, 17
2. Jennie Gesquiere, MI, 15
1981 Bear Mountain, NY, Aug. 3-9
1. Gordon Holterman, VA, 33mi in 1:33:47
2. David Farmer, PA
3. Frankie Andreu, MI
1. Elizabeth Keyser, CA, 23.4mi in 1:15:15
2. Bozena Zalewski, NJ
3. Celeste Andreu, MI
1. Lisa Andreu, MI, 11.7mi in 38:17
2. Joella Harrison, AZ
3. Gina Novara, M
1981 Track - Trexlertown, PA, Aug. 11-16
SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT - Final for lat and 2nd: Sheila Young-Ochowicz, WI, beat Connie Paraskevin, MI, 2,0
Final for 3rd and 4th: Sue Navara-Reber, MI, beat Betsy Davis, NJ, 2,0
INTERMEDIATE GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. Rene Duprel, WA, 19
2. Celeste Andreu, MI, 15
MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
1. Jenny Gesquiere, MI, 21
2. Gina Novara, MI, 15
3. Alicia Andreu, MI, 9
This list only represents cycling – note the rising tide of MI athletes on the national stage.
What is missing is the world and Olympic results for cycling and the same results for speedskating. Champions like Gold, Silver and Bronze Olympic medalist Sheila Young, World Champion Roger Young, World Champion and Olympic medalists Connie Paraskevan, World Champion Sue Novara, 9 Times Tour de France Rider and Olympic 4th place finisher Frankie Andreu – and on and on the list is a Who’s Who of American cyclists and speedskaters.
Is it possible that Detroit had cornered the market on talent for these sports for this period. No chance. So how can you possibly explain this absolutely statistically inconceivable rash of championship performances?
I believe that the answers to these questions are just now becoming fully known, and the data now available still point back to an obvious answer: Walden. More accurately, Walden, diligent practice, and Myelin.
In his most recent book, “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell posits that there is no such thing, really, as an outlier (a ‘supertalent’ that dominates the field through in-born talent alone.) Instead, his supposition is that those athletes, businessmen, academics and scientists that have come to dominate their milieu – like Tiger Woods, and Bill Gates – have done so through a combination of “enough” talent, and an incredible amount of opportunity to practice their skills. This research is further amplified by Geoff Colvin in the book “Talent is Overrated,” which builds on this idea and suggests that the superachievers in whatever field have only one thing in common: 10 years+ of diligent practice.
Another author, Daniel Coyle, in his great article, “Building the Super Athlete” argues a similar thesis, but even more compellingly based on the latest neuroscience, argues that practice of the basics creates a mystical substance around neurons called Myelin that builds over time – but only with mental focus (hence ‘diligent practice’)
In the article, Coyle (no relation as far as I know) uses a case study from athletics: a tennis program in Russia that has produced an inordinate amount of champions. Replace Russia with Detroit, Sokolnik Park with the Dorais Velodrome, and and the Russian tennis coach Larisa Preobrazhenskaya with Mike Walden, and the case study is essentially identical – both programs produced an inordinate and statistically inpossible pool of talent for their requisite sports.
What both programs had in common was a coach with a singular focus on mastering the basics of each sport – the most mundane skill movements – and access to requisite time on the court/track for young athletes. As the first classes of these two programs graduated and entered the world ranks, the emerging athletes behind them had that much more to emulate, and confidence to boot. Here’s a quote from Coyle that could equally apply to the Wolverine Sports Club:
“So even here, at the core of one of the globe's brightest talent blooms, the question of that talent's source remains enigmatically tangled, perhaps as much of a mystery to those who nurture these athletes as it is to the rest of us. It's enough to make you wish for a set of X-ray glasses that could reveal how these invisible forces of culture, history, genes, practice, coaching and belief work together to form that elemental material we call talent -- to wish that science could come up with a way to see talent as a substance as tangible as muscle and bone, and whose inner workings we could someday attempt to understand.”
I had the privilege of talking with Daniel Coyle on Monday (I sent him an email and he kindly responded). I described to him the case-study of the Wolverine sports club. He let me know that he has a new book directly on this subject coming out in April called “The Talent Code.” He is sending me an advance copy – I can’t wait to read it.
I think, in this case, we CAN see how talent blooms – how diligent practice, combined with the right leader, combined with diligent parents, combined with some decent raw material created the Mecca of American cycling (also captured in film in Richard Noiret’s documentary – featurette here:
In summary and humility, I must conclude that I am an average athlete with a singular yet small talent, one that was coaxed into its absolute maximum by the fertile soil of the Detroit cycling scene: Dorais Velodrome and Walden, the Wyandotte ice rink and Affholter, and the Andreu’s/Carney’s/Young’s/Paraskevan’s of my childhood. To follow the model in the Gladwell book – I was a person with “enough talent” lucky enough to land in a singularly unique environment of opportunity, coaching, and deliberate practice.
But lets not forget the most important element – usually the most important for any child (and certainly for me.) Preceding my exposure to the Walden school and all the opportunities provided by the Wolverine Sports Club was a series of activities that, because they were done within the regular regimen of my family, had never seemed particularly unusual or exciting – to me. But, after reading the authors above, all is put into context.
When I was 8 years old, my father bought me a red, yellow and black Raleigh ten speed, and invited me to join him on local AYH rides and as I demonstrated some ability, he then invited me on some of the “century” rides that he had started doing himself on prior summers. These 100 mile rides were all-day slogs for adults, and even longer for an 8 year old – even on a red Raleigh. Sometimes we all went as a family – my mom and sister usually taking the 50 mile option. But, for some reason, despite my sprinter musculature, I decided to join my father on no less than 13 century rides that summer of 1977 at age 8. How many 8 year olds in the country rode that many miles that summer? The answer is probably “less than five, and possibly even ‘one.’” Imagine if I had the constitution of Lance Armstrong – how much better I would have been by the time I entered my early twenties…? If I was Mozart, I would have become Mozart.
Back to 1990:
My results of the 1990 speedskating season seemed, at first, to defy logic. To finish 10th in the world while training part time, living in California and studying like crazy must have seemed like the ultimate prize for the coaches of the national program. And, they, like me must have been confused by the results of the tests in Colorado. To their credit, they didn’t send me home and instead chose to view those results as a lack of consistent training.
But the reality was that I WAS well trained. The reality was that I probably had better preparation than everyone there – and had been ‘racing my strengths’ for more than a decade.
History paints a great portrait to learn from. For the next 2 years I followed the national team program and focused on ‘fixing my weaknesses.’ In 1990, while a senior at Stanford I was 10th in the world while training on my own in California. In 1991, training full time under the national team program I didn’t even make the team. In 1992 the team wasn’t even a dream and I finished further back than I had in 10 years and missed the Albertville Olympic team by 15 spots.
Perhaps I should have quit. I continued to test poorly on most of the clinical measures. But occasionally I would have days where everything clicked and I was capable of things no one expected – not even me. Ultimately it was irrational belief that kept me on course – and no one had more of that than my father. He never had doubts. His time with Walden and Clair and Affholter had led him to believe I had something special and despite the sometimes contrary evidence, he helped me keep my head in the game.
In 1993 I recovered from the intense training and made the world team. In 1994 I made the Olympic team and set a number of American records along the way. In 1995 I quit the team, trained on my own in the Walden way, and had the single greatest year as an athlete of my entire life, setting 7 American records (every American record but one.) How did that happen with a VO2 like mine in events lasting up to 7 minutes?
So, Ray Dybowski started me along this whole series of posts by asking, "what does it take to be come an Olympian?"
The answers remained elusive as the results for years and years, but now, 13 years later, they ring clear as a bell. The answers are, and were as follows: Walden, Myelin, diligent practice and the unwavering belief of a parent...
But more to come in Vol. 5..
1973 Road – Milwaukee, WI - July 28/29
- Eileen Brennan, MI, 32mi in 1:23:06
- Carole Brennan, MI
- Pat Nielsen, MI, 4Omi in 1:31
1972 - Track - Kenosha, WI, Aug. 1-4
SENIOR MEN'S MATCH SPRINT
- Final for 1st and 2nd: Gary Campbell beat Hans Nuernberg, 2,1
- Final for 3rd and 4th: Roger Young, MI beat Steve Woznick, 2,1
SENIOR WOMEN 3,000 METER INDIVIDUAL PURSUIT
- Final for 1st and 2nd: Clara Teyssier, CA, heat Donna Tobias, NY
- Final for 3rd and 4th: Eileen Brennan, MI, heat Patti Stone, NY
SENIOR WOMEN MATCH SPRINT
- Final for 1st and 2nd: Sue Novara, MI, heat Eileen Brennan, MI, 2,0
- Final for 3rd and 4th: Susan Gurney, MI, heat Clara Teyssier, CA, 2,1
INTERMEDIATE GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
- Carole Brennan, MI, 19
- Jackie Disney, CA, 17
- Pamela Gesquiere, MI, 8
- Debbie Packer, CA, 6
- Jane Brennan, MI, 4
MIDGET GIRLS OMNIUM OVERALL STANDINGS
- Jody Wallner, MI, 21
- Stella Bastianelli, 13
- Rene Walls, 10
- Connie Paraskevin, MI
- Debbie Hamilton, MI, 3
Next up, Tests #4, 5, 6: Max Squats, Vertical Leap & Max Power (Wingate Test)
Flashforward - 1 year to 1991. Back at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for another camp. The Junior World Cycling Championships are taking place at the same time, and I catch up with cycling friends Jessica Grieco and George Hincapie. Jessica and I spend a good deal of time together and another cyclist I only know by name, Lance Armstrong, notices.
After the Junior World Cycling Championships were over, I attended a house party near the Olympic Training Center (OTC) with skater and Olympic silver medalist Eric Flaim and some of the other skaters and hooked up with George and Jessica and met many of the other cyclists. At one point mid-way through the evening, after a long discussion with Jessica, I was motioned outside by a “minion” of Lance’s. Lance was only 19 but already had assumed command of the junior ranks. He was waiting for me out front of the house and asked me if I would walk and talk with him. It was very movie-like. I said, “sure.”
We walked to the curb, and then sat down. He then proceeded to ask a series of targeted questions about Jessica (who was not without her charms) with that same, now famous, hawk-like stare. He started with, “How did you get her?” I explained that we were just friends and that we were not romantically involved. He immediately followed up with “Well, how can I get her?” and then asked a series of very specific questions. “What kind of music does she like? What does she read? Does she wear perfume? What are her hobbies outside cycling? Is she smart? What’s her favorite subject in school?” and then again, “How can I get her?”
I can imagine Lance and Chris Carmichael planning his comeback in much a similar fashion, “how can I get tour #8?”
I tried to be helpful, but found it all a little bit like a science project and wanted to ask, “what does, ‘get’ mean, exactly?” but I didn’t. Later I saw him talking to Jessica with some of the same intensity – though he did bother to smile and laugh.
Back in Colorado Springs, July 1990.
Just two days later and the testing continued. The next test was Max Squats: the ability to lift heavy objects dangling from a metal bar resting on your shoulders from a compressed position. I was happily not dead last. In the intervening weeks I had gotten better at the exercise and had moved up to being able to lift three 45lb plates on each side of the bar – for a total of 315 lbs – my one repetition max.
DJ (Dan Jansen’s preferred nickname) maxed out near 600 lbs.
Next we tested vertical leap. Honestly I was expecting to do really well. But the rules were strict. Bend slowly as deep as you wish, and then jump as high as possible swinging your arms and hands up over your head, and then using the tips of your fingers to swat at rotating height markers. I found my jumps lackluster, empty – as though I was missing something – like I almost wanted more weight on my shoulders. What I figured out now, writing this 18 years later is that what I really was missing was resistance or compression. With no real load (like skating a short track corner, or the gearing on a bike) my legs and synapses were just average. My results put me squarely in the middle of the pack. Conversely, over the years whenever we did a typical set of hurdle plyometrics - 10 hurdles set back to back at their highest setting (around 4ft), completed by doing knee to chest jumps, one to each hurdle - I was able to fly high. But I needed that compression of my weight returning from the prior hurdle – I needed that tension.
This came into stark contrast with another jump workout one summer in Calgary where my very specific, granular strengths came into play. The track team at U of C had built a series of tall steps – almost leaps – 2 feet between each block, 6 steps total, taking you up 12 ft vertical by the final step, and ending with a foam lined landing pit beneath the steps. The challenge was to run down a short lane, bound up each large step and then launch into the air over the pit, landing safely in the foam – sort of a combo between a “hop-skip-and-jump” and the high jump.
Most everyone else accelerated to the steps, and then decelerated up them, thumping up each step and then sailing sideways into the pit. But this setup really was perfect for me - - I was like an astronaut on the moon - each terrace had my feet on springs and my speed and vertical speed increased with each bounding step – by the last few stairs my feet were hammering the wood like jackhammers and I would launch into orbit, legs and arms wind-milling in slow motion during the extended hang time as I would finally drop back to earth. I was so good at this random exercise that at one point, that the University of Calgary track team coach asked me to return and demonstrate my prowess to the track team: what it looked like at its best.
It was moments like this that I used as a mental crutch to shore up my mental resolve during the coming months and years of failure and weakness. Without these occasional moments of brilliance, I would never have had the mental fortitude to survive the mind-numbing months of workouts and inconsistent or declining results.
Test #1 – Hard Training: F - Failure
Test #2 – Body Fat: F - Failure
Test #3: - VO2 Max: F - Failure
Test #4: - Max Squats: C - Average
Test #5: - Vertical Leap C - Average
Back in Colorado, training camp really was not going so well. After coming in with the highest of hopes and expectations, I was mentally and physically exhausted. Sadly, I had continually proved myself to be one of the weakest on the whole team. If it weren’t for these occasional moments where my specific and unique talents came to the fore, I probably would have been a mental basket case, but as it was I tried to stay confident and actually looked forward to the final test of the camp – Max Power Output - also known as the "Wingate Test."
Again, everyone seemed nervous about the test, but I think it was Bonnie Blair who said, “don’t worry Coyle – it’s a cycling test – it’ll be easy for you!” (Everyone seemed to think that anything on the bike would be easy for me, notwithstanding my last place finish on the VO2 test.)
As with the VO2 test, we received time slot assignments, and like before, I showed up to another low-lying barracks not far from the previous torture chamber on the OTC grounds. Like before there was a hallway to a small room with a stationary bike. Unlike before, the hallway was carpeted as was the room, and there were no big machines and only a few attendants, and no white lab coats. It was comforting at first until that first recoiling of my nostrils to the vague scent in the room – the unmistakable stench of vomit hidden under cleanser. Once again I got nervous – now what?
After I entered, one of the attendants asked me to get the seat height set up and make sure everything was comfortable. There was no eye contact. I did so. He then explained the nature of the test, “30 seconds with resistance, all out – as fast as you can go – got it? “Remember – hit it full out from ‘go’ else the test is wasted.”
I said “got it,” and got my feet cinched in good even as another technician began to turn the dial on the front of the flywheel while viewing his clipboard.
“All set,” he said, and then the first attendant said, “you might want to test the resistance…” Until this point I still had confidence. 30 seconds on a stationary bike with a flywheel to sending zinging – how hard could that be? Finally, something I’d be good at – a way to race my strengths instead of basting in my weaknesses.
A half second later a warm rush of terror caused a flush of sweat to appear on my arms and legs despite the dry air. When I pressed on the pedals, all that happened was that I stood up. I tried again – with my right leg in the two o’clock position I put my weight into the pedal and all that happened was that my body lifted from the seat.
“Um, I think the bike locked up,” I said.
“No no,” the two assured me in unison, and then one continued “just push real hard, and pull with the other leg – you’ve got 497 watts of resistance on due to the ratio with your weight so it’s a bit hard to get started.”
In disbelief I used all my might to push my right leg down while straining with my left hamstring to raise that leg. Immediately the wheel stopped. Suddenly the concept of 30 seconds became an eternity – to pedal THAT for a half minute! NO WAY! It was the approximate equivalent of finding the longest steepest (say, 15% grade) hill you've ever seen, and then sprinting up it from a dead stop in a big gear. This new news brought fear - real fear - out of every pore of my skin.
But they knew better than to let me think it over and suddenly in an official voice one was counting, “5, 4, 3, 2, 1, Go! GO! GO! GO!” And I drove my left quad (as my left foot was now in the up position) with all my might and convulsed my right hamstring to lift at the same time. Every tendon in my forarms stood out like razor blades, but, sure enough, the shiny chrome 50 lb flywheel began to turn, sluggishly at first, then building – 1, 2, 3 seconds passed by and I began to get inertia and rotational energy going. I moved out of the panic zone and began to really pedal and the two assistants continued, like me, to watch the seconds tick, and the RPM’s rise on the monitor.
Another second, and I began to enter the tiny realm of my little superpower: energy began crackling out of my legs and as, 4, 5, 6, seconds passed and my feet began to turn circles, spinning, then buzzing with a kind of manic yet fluid energy despite the heavy resistance: the shiny flywheel flew despite the band of resistance, and heat rose off of it releasing a new smell to the room.
I distinctly remember looking around the room at the astonished faces of the attendants as my feet hummed along and my rpms rocketed up 100, 140, 160, 180, 200, the bike vibrating the air and the floor as though I might lift off. Now, at 7 and 8 seconds, for once the faces were interested in something other than my failure. For the next two seconds, as heat continued to rise off the flywheel, I played roulette with my body having no idea what was to happen next.
How does that verse go? “Pride goes before….?”
9, seconds then 10... and my began feet slowing, just a little at first, but then dramatically as that humming energy faded to emptiness, 11, 12, 13 seconds, laboring, and the massive anaerobic effort suddenly began hitting my lungs and legs and brain all at the same time and a wave of paranoid fear rolled over me as the walls and ceiling of a tunnel of pain closed over my head.
I continued thrashing forward under the dark nape of fear, but all air was gone and the horizon continued to close as my lungs caught fire and my legs become molten lead.
Running out of air creates fear in one of its most raw, painful, debilitating forms – a deep inner panic that starts to simmer and boil over – to pervade everything – telling you to find a way to surface, to escape this intentional drowning. But there was no way out and like the VO2 test, the attendants were ready and had moved into a small semi-circle in front of the bars, “Keep it going! 14 seconds! … Halfway!” My legs had gone from 200 rpms down to 100rpms in 2 seconds. I was dying and there was no blood left in my whole body: it had been replaced by battery acid and fire erupted in every synapse. “16 seconds! 100% effort! You are on a good one!” they cried and suddenly their faces zoomed in and grew whiter even as an odd buzzing began.
Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen seconds and the dark tunnel I was in suddenly began to open and brighten and I began to hear a new sound: a wretched keening and rasping. It was me. I surprised myself with the volume and ugliness of the rattling, wheezing breaths that issued from my lungs. I tasted steel as my heart rate continued its climb; my blood scoured my veins and beat like a gong against my ear drums.
My laboring legs dropped to 80rpms, then 60 rpms. I had never felt pain this excruciating. “Nineteen, twenty, twenty-one seconds!” they screamed, the attendants were leaning in now, faces only inches from mine, shouting – yet sort of in slow motion, with fading sound – just movements and mouths and this ever building buzzing and brightening. I could feel my legs stopping altogether despite my concerted efforts to make them turn – but they no longer belonged to me – they belonged to the fire and the buzz of the fluorescent lights in the room.
I was strangely interested in how overexposed everything had become and even as I felt my legs stop and I looked up the crescendo came, a buzzing rotation up and over my head like a low flying airplane dropping a mesh of nausea. Everything turned white then yellow then black. Then it was quiet.
When I woke up, I was on a cot, in another room. Someone was touching my arm as I opened my eyes, “you are OK.” Another voice was squealing from another part of the room, in response to some ongoing dialog, “…yeah I know! But no one has ever passed out ON the bike before!”
I was disgusted. I got up, woozy, and hands steadied me. Voices seemed to be indicating success (like last time after the V02) but I couldn’t wait to get away. They continued their monologue with something about peak power and rapid decline but I thought to myself with contempt, “here’s the final test – the one I thought I’d finally get some results worth having. “Instead, I barely finished half the test without passing out. “I suck, I suck, I suck, I suck…” Over and over those were the words my pedals repeated as I rode back for the dorms.
When the manila envelopes were passed out that evening again under the door, I didn’t bother to open mine for a while. Finally, when no one else was around, I lifted the flap to my reality – it looked like this:
At my peak power, I had produced 23.1 watts/kilo and a peak power 1785 watts – the highest of the team regardless of weight. Unfortunately, as the doctor who reviewed my chart with me noted, “you also have the highest rate of decline of anyone on the team.” Thanks doc, for pointing out the obvious.
Here was the clincher for me – if the shortest event in speedskating lasts about 36 seconds – how is it possible I could ever hope to be good at the sport?
Yet, as I reminded myself, I already had been. I had been quite good – even at events lasting 2, 3, even 7 minutes…
In hindsight, this was an absolutely compelling piece of data to use to my advantage – it really merely informed what I should have already known – than in situations that called for short bursts of power, I had a natural advantage. It didn’t occur to me that this strength could be used and repeated with recovery in intervals – instead I merely considered the fact that I was apparently only competitive in events lasting less than 15 seconds, and it immediately came to mind that the shortest event in speedskating, the 500 meters, lasts somewhere around 35-40 seconds. So I decided, once again, to ignore this data.
Test #1 – Hard Training: F - Failure
Test #2 – Body Fat: F - Failure
Test #3: - VO2 Max: F - Failure
Test #4: - Max Squats: C - Average
Test #5: - Vertical Leap C - Average
Test #6: - Max Power F - Failure
Attached below is a pair of video segments that paints a clear picture of what the test show – and what I should have already known – that my talents are in the realm of accelerations with limited duration.
Both videos are from the 1986 North American Short Track Championships – Intermediate division 500m final (the highest level of competition at that time for ages 18 and under).
The first video shows my strengths in all their short lived glory – sprinting from lane 5 into the lead and extending it quickly over the next 10 seconds. As Marcus Buckingham or Mike Walden would say – “race your strengths.” Again – here is the definition:
“The definition of strength is quite specific: consistent near perfect performance in an activity.”
This would be my strength. In all my years of short track I could usually win the start – no matter the lane.
The second video shows my weakness – the remainder of the race – this snippet is the last half of that same race. I did end up winning – but just barely:
It is obvious now, but really I didn’t see these obvious talents and challenges back then, and frankly, coaches just wanted to train those weaknesses out of me – but that approach never worked - though I certainly tried. Instead, what did work was for me to put my strengths to work in unique and sometimes subtle ways - as Walden always knew... But that is a topic for Vol. 4.
Marcus Buckingham again, "Each person's greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her greatest strength. "You will excel only by maximizing your strengths, not by fixing your weaknesses."
Next Up: Vol 4. Ignoring good advice and Racing my Strengths
Colorado Springs, July 1990 continued…
Tests #2 & 3: Body Fat & VO2 Max
Over the coming days I eventually recovered from that initial breakdown from the heavy training and started to rejoin the competitive fray in the workouts. Sprints, jumps, reaction drills, low walks, lunges, hamstring curls, hip sleigh, bike rides, inline skating, weights, circuit training, “fartlechs”, stairs, plyometrics – we did it all and after a couple of weeks I was more fit and it was time for testing. Meanwhile, one particular workout we did stood out in my mind: on the infield of the track on the astro-turf we had to lay flat on the ground, facing away from a ‘runner’ positioned the same way 15 feet away and upon a clap were supposed to jump up, turn around, and try and catch our prey. I was quite good at this – at the signal I bounced up rotating in air and was running as soon as my feet hit the ground. I often caught my “prey” before they even started running.
I tried to selectively view this little area of strength as a sign of my athletic prowess (I still didn’t really understand the granular nature of strengths and I wouldn’t for more than a decade.) Instead I used these “crutch moments” to shore up my resolve on the days to come. As it was many, if not most, of the other workouts and tests seemed to go a different direction…
Over the next few days we were to undergo the following ‘tests’: 1) body fat (through calipers,) 2) VO2 Max, 3) Max squats, 4) Vertical leap, and 5) Max power output (watts.)
Body fat testing took 2 minutes. I had always been thin and lean so I didn’t give it much thought. That is until the “hmmm” of the sports doctor and assistants. They told me my body fat composition: 10.2%. It meant nothing to me – until I found out I had the second highest of any male at the camp, and that Bonnie Blair’s body fat (at 9.8%) was less than mine (men typically have considerably lower body fat than women - the general ranges for elite athletes are 2-6% for men, and 10-13% for women.)
Test #1 – Hard Training: Failure
Test #2 – Body Fat: Failure
Earlier that day we had been given our start times for the VO2 test to take place over that afternoon and all the next day. Everyone seemed nervous and stressed, but when I asked someone about the test they said, “don’t worry – it’s a cycling test so it will be easy for you – but it is hard!” Meanwhile a buzz was going around campus that a superstar young cyclist was there by the name of Lance Armstrong and that he would also be testing. As a long time cyclist I had never heard of him and did not give it much thought.
It was late the next morning when it finally came time for my VO2 test. I remember riding my bike across the extended campus of the Colorado Springs Olympic Training center – down the hill from the dorms, past the rubberized track and into the maze of structures in between the track and the cafeteria. This series of low outlying buildings (former barracks) ran in neat rows and were completely nondescript – each one looked like the other. The light outside was crisply brilliant as I locked my bike up and entered the white fluorescent lights of the hallway and plastic tile floors into a small waiting room where I changed into my cycling gear.
Shortly thereafter one of the other skaters came down the hallway into this small room to change back into his street clothes. He was shiny with sweat and looked grey. “Good luck,” he said, “that sucked.”
I had no idea what I was in for.
Dressed and ready, I followed a lab assistant down the white tiled hallway, my cleats clicking and sliding as I navigated a small set of stairs with those wooden handrails and aluminum scuff guards sprinkled with shiny specks of stone on the toe of each stair. I clicked my way safely down and into a room full of equipment – all centered around a stationary bike. There were a half dozen people in the room, most were wearing white medical garb.
One of them approached me and encouraged me to get set up on the bike in the middle of the room and let me know that they would be attaching some monitoring equipment and asked me to remove my shirt.
I climbed onto the contraption and all at once the room became a hive of activity: extended fingers pushing buttons, cords clicking into machines, and the shiny steel mandibles of various instruments gathering my vital signs. One attendant suddenly and unapologetically began to slather a clear cold gel on my chest while another began attaching black backed sensors to the viscous goop. A third attached electrodes to the sensors, while a fourth pried a finger loose from the handlebars, and then, without asking, stabbed me in the finger with a pin she had just swabbed with alcohol, greedily milking the blood out of it into a tiny glass test tube and then disappearing into the hallway behind the machines.
A web of wires from the machines around the room were then clipped to the electrodes as though I were ready to be lit up like a wedding gazebo. Like a maggot writhing in a spider’s web, I was turned, prodded, and poked. Finally the doctor approached, consulting his shiny black metallic wristwatch and asking, “are you ready?” It was clear that he wasn’t waiting for the answer and he nodded to yet another assistant.
“This may feel a bit awkward” she said as they fitted an ugly contraption from an orthodontic patient’s nightmare to my head – crisscrossing straps pressed into place over the top of my scalp supporting a mechanism that that contained a length of a thick plastic tubing.
I didn’t mind it so much until they rotated the large tube into place in front of my lips and then said “open” and then jammed it backward into my mouth. My jaws were ratcheted open like in a dental X-ray and then left that way. Another intern brought over what looked exactly like a long, stretchable, clear hose from a vacuum cleaner and attached it to the other end of the tube in my mouth. The far end of the 15 foot tube draped to the floor and then rose again to where it was connected to one of the many large machines in the room.
Even as my jaw began to ache from being pried so wide, the doctor said again, “ready?” and turned away before I could answer. He wasn’t talking to me. I swear I heard his mandibles click as he walked away - or perhaps it was just the clamp of his clipboard. Actually, it was the positioning of an ordinary clothespin on my nostrils to keep me from breathing through my nose. My claustrophobia reached its max and I had to fight the gag reflex. It got worse when I considered that others had had this tube in their mouth, and others had had the gag reflex, and perhaps that taste and smell….
Fortunately I was distracted by the start of the test and all the assistants and lab coats disappeared into far corners except for one of the younger girls in the room who advised me, “Just maintain 90 rpms – we have set the resistance at 175 watts.” “In two minutes, we’ll increase the watts and rpms, and continue to do so until we get a reading at your max.”
Translation to the maggot, “we are going to roast your fat white body on this spit until you die or explode.”
Still, 90 rpms at 175 watts wasn’t too bad and the 2 minutes passed with only a small level of effort and the warming of my limbs and lungs. If it hadn’t been for the jaw pain and consciousness of all the dangling cords swaying with my body I would have been comfortable.
At two minutes the intern was back, turning the dial of resistance and informing me, “You are now at 200 watts of resistance – please increase your rpms to 95.” At the same moment the vampire with the pin suddenly stabbed a second appendage and began sinuously squeezing that finger to extract more blood. I would have said something – except for the tree trunk in my mouth.
I pedaled and entered that middle realm of work on the bike that is satisfying. I monitored my rpms and my heartrate and watched it climb from the 140’s to the 150’s into the 160’s. I began to sweat a little which didn’t bother me. I began to drool a little, and that bothered me immensely. I followed the spit as it stairstepped down the accordion layers of the tube and then followed the hose back to the machine, then the machine to the heavy black cord, and the heavy black cord to the outlet in the wall. I began to consider the physics of electricity – voltage and amperage – and the conductive properties of water. This was all rational cover for my building claustrophobia. I pedaled and tried not to panic.
2 minutes later and 4 minutes into the test, my little intern reappeared and I cast about for the vampire as well. Sure enough she materialized at the same time, and even as the soothing voice began to announce the next level of torture (225 watts, 100 rpms), my middle finger was extended, stabbed, and milked for blood in one swift and fluid effort by her sidekick.
225 watts is hard. It is not killer by itself, but what begins to make it hard is the idea of what was to come – a never ending ladder to hell – more watts, more rpms, and more pedaling. As the effort increased, I was starting to be able to move beyond staring at the wires and machines and even the gigantic snorkel in my mouth. I finished the 6 minutes, working hard, and was beginning to breathe quite heavily. My pulse was in the mid-170’s.
The intern began her dulcet announcement, “250 watts, 105 rpms” and in complete synch I held out my still immaculate index finger for the pin and the blood and the test tube. The vampire scooted away with a flap of her gown.
Head down, I began to work in earnest and watched the gleaming sweat on the hair of my forearms as I swayed in the saddle and worked through the 2 minute interval. I was beginning to labor now, my breath coming faster and faster, pulse climbing to the mid 180’s.
At 8 minutes I was sweating and breathing hard and convinced I was almost done.
“Halfway” said the white coated intern smooth but emotionless, “shoot for 16 minutes.”
16 minutes?! NO FREAKIN’ WAY! I thought as she changed the resistance to 275 watts and asked me to increase my rpms to 110. I decided to shoot for finishing this 2 minute interval.
It got hard – really hard. My lungs worked like bellows, and my thighs began that burn from lack of oxygen. Head down I had lost all contact with the tube and the vampire and the lab coats except for a sudden realization that they were all drifting back into the place. My suffering was a magnet pulling them in, and the harder I worked, and the more my heart rate climbed, the closer they got, and the more they talked.
My pulse entered the 190’s and then the low 200’s. I was pulverizing the pedals and the air in my lungs began to burn. Somewhere around this time, the vampire began slashing my fingers at 30 second intervals and I stopped caring which finger had holes in it already. Sweat coursing off my body, and rivers of saliva draining into the tube I finished off the 10 minutes and it was time, again for an increase.
This time it was the doc himself: “300 watts, 115 rpms – from here on, the rpms will stay the same – continue” and I felt the resistance increase yet again. The resistance was less of a factor than the increase in rpms. 115 rpms felt like a hurricane for my tired legs and I was certain I would last less then 30 seconds.
The group that had gathered sensed this internal negotiating and one said, “make it 60 more seconds – you can definitely make that.” I looked up and noticed my heartrate – 210 beats per minute. I determined to make it the full 60 seconds and did – but they were ready, “Make it 30 more seconds! You can do it!” They pressed closer and in hindsight I wonder what kind of mindset revels in such suffering. I made eleven minutes and 30 seconds and they said “30 more seconds – make the 12 minute mark!”
By now my legs were gigantic burning red balloons and my lungs were embers. Still I struggled on and when my rpms dropped below 115 they poked and prodded and I returned to 115 on the monitor.
Twelve minutes arrived and I was intending to quit, but suddenly there were 5 faces in front of mine and none were relenting. “You can do more than this! You must continue!” and the doctor’s voice droned on, “325 watts, 115 rpms.” The vampire continued to collect her blood from my bloody fingertips without the pin as we’d given up trying to close up the holes in between. A drop fell from my fingertip.
So I gave it my all and focused on making 30 seconds as the room pinwheeled around me and my pulse climbed to 215. I made it and still they pushed “30 more!” They were screaming now, “Go! Go! Go!” Knees flailing, lungs flapping like bellows I continued and the wheezing and rasping sounds of my death rattle began. But still I made thirteen minutes and they convinced me to shoot for 13:30.
At thirteen minutes, thirty seconds my body began to implode. My heart rate had reached 217 beats per minute, and by the excited squeals of the vampire I determined that the lactic acid levels in my blood had also reached significant levels. I tried to follow directions from the room to make the fourteen minute milestone, but 9 seconds later my legs stopped turning. 13:39.
They all congratulated me in a seemingly sincere way, so I assumed I had done well, and that 16:00 was the “holy grail” and that I had gotten close. One mentioned that I had one of the highest lactic acid levels they had measured as well. I asked what that meant, and she said, "You are good at suffering." Great.
I could barely crawl down from the bike after they removed the tube and all the wires and with considerable effort grabbed my shirt and walked back down the hallway to the dressing room. I was gray. Along the way I passed a fresh faced cyclist I didn’t know by the name of Lance Armstrong on the way to his test.
I dressed and headed back to the dorms. After a convivial dinner with my roommates and other skaters I received a manila envelope under the door with my test results.
I tore it open eagerly. I had been congratulated. The ants and spiders had been genuinely interested. I had worked harder than most humans are capable of conceiving and suffered to the point where I nearly passed out. I had been 10th in the world the prior year at age 21 with minimal training. I expected results that matched my talent, my effort and my prior performance.
Instead I received a chart that showed my result compared to the average team member.
According to this test, I had the worst VO2 of the entire team – and this was a test the coaches had suggested was the single greatest predictor of success in our sport. Later, I learned that Lance Armstrong had survived 26 1/2 minutes and maxed out at 500 watts. When I was done, he was only halfway – and it only got harder…
Test #1 – Hard Training: Failure
Test #2 – Body Fat: Failure
Test #3: - VO2 Max: Failure
If I knew then what I know now, I would have realized that this was a true weakness for me – that I lacked the kind of “steady, building” aerobic capacity that the test was measuring for. In fact it wasn’t until the last few years that I realized how specific strengths are and how even tests like the above really can’t accurately capture reality. Let me put it another way – according to the test above, my aerobic threshold at my prime was around 275 watts. Yet I constantly finish races that require an AVERAGE watts of 330 or so just to finish – for a 2 ½ hour period and can sustain watts of 600+ for 4 - 5 minutes, and. How is this possible.?
It is possible because I can produce multiple 2-5 second pulses of 800 watts with 5-10 second “rests” of 150 watts over and over again.
But this test failed to measure these kinds of variations – it only measured steadily increasing watts – like the kind required to climb a mountain or timetrial against a headwind. For the record, I cannot climb, nor fight a headwind - though I spent many years trying.
The test was right. But I disavowed it from the beginning. “Can’t be right,” I thought and began a series of denials that stayed with me for the next decade. This despite the fact that the other 2 times I took the test I also scored exactly a “52”.
These results really should not have been a surprise. That said, I think many athletes, myself included at the time, try not to think about their failures, or if they do, do so in an emotional, rather than a clinical way. With any understanding of my capabilities at all, these tests would have been a mere reflection of my reality. Here’s an example.
Flashback: in the summer of 1985, while riding for the 7-11 Junior Development Team, I was required to ride in the Red Zinger Mini Classic/Junior National Tour – a 10 day stage race through the mountains of Colorado.
I quickly proved I was incapable of climbing and proceeded to get dropped on every mountain stage race at the bottom of the first hill. I was completely confused – I had won 11 races in a row prior to heading out to Colorado – against many of the same riders – how could this be?
I started to understand when, on the same day, I placed last in the Vail Mountain uphill time trial, right after winning the field sprint and 4th place in the Vail Criterium. Someone else had to tell me though: “Dude, you just can’t go UP!”
The next day was a long road race – from Copper Mountain to Leadville, with a series of climbs after a flat start. By then the entire peleton realized I couldn’t climb, so my teammates and the field conspired to let me breakaway on the first 7 mile flat section. By the time we hit the first climb, I had a 5 minute advantage on the field – one of the only breakaways of my life. Rather than attesting to my abilities, this was a testament to my well known inability to climb – the entire field was so confident I couldn’t climb, that they rode about 15mph for the first 7 miles to let me get away and then chase me down on the ascent.
Sure enough, a few miles into the long, heartwrenching climb, they caught me. I sped backward through the 100+ member field, and then fell out the back a half a minute later.
Then, the girls caught me. Sadly, they had started 5 minutes after the boys, so I had squandered not only my 5 minute lead on the boys field, but had lost the difference to the women’s field.
I managed to stay with the leaders of the girl’s race, and finally entered the high altitude flats of Leadville and the finish stretch. I’d like to say that I coasted in with the girls with my head down, but I CAME TO RACE and blasted out of 15th position with 200m to go to destroy the women’s peleton in the sprint.
In his great book "Now, Discover Your Strengths" written 15 years later, Marcus Buckingham summarizes natural strengths as follows:
Each person’s talents are unique and enduring: “The definition of strength is quite specific: consistent near perfect performance in an activity.”
For the last 32 years of my life, I have never been able to climb, or time trial, or break away, or win long sprints. What I have been able to do nearly perfectly is to win short sprints on technical courses in crowded conditions. Add a small hill prior to the finish and my results almost always include a spot on the podium.
Damn, this would have been nice to know back in, say, 1985….
Next up, Tests #4 & 5: Vertical Leap, and Max Power Output
Race Your Strengths! Vol. 1
THE core principle of the Walden school of thought: more than just a ‘race rule’, this is the essential philosophy of my coach Mike Walden’s approach to training – and to life.
What I didn’t know is that this refrain would serve as a protective layer from the good intentions and unintended negative outcomes of almost all the coaches to succeed Mike over the years.
What I learned much later is that this concept has become the core principal behind one of the great new movements in modern psychology, better known as “positive psychology,” this concept of “Discovering your Strengths” has become part of the corporate ideology for success – and rightly so.
In the summer of 1990 I moved to Colorado Springs to train with the national team along with Dan Jansen, Bonnie Blair and about 20 other top U.S. Speed skaters. The summer program had at its heart a series of tests to determine athletic potential and I was excited to prove my mettle with the best of the best.
I flew into the bright dry air of Colorado Springs flush with confidence: despite spending the prior four years mastering the curriculum of one of the toughest academic programs in the country and living in California, of all places, I had managed to make the world speed skating team both of my last two years, and mustered a 10th place finish at the world speed skating championships in the 500m.
Up until this point I was one of those lucky ones – despite the usual setbacks and failures along the way (I got lapped in my first speed skating race – and that was a long track event in Farwell field, Detroit,) I had made steady progress almost every year.
Four years earlier, as a high school senior, still training under local coaches Mike Walden, Clair Young and Marc Affholter I managed to be the top junior athlete (under 18) in the country in two sports – cycling and speedskating, and traveled to both Morocco and the Netherlands to compete in the world championships for both sports. Four years of progress later, and in the winter of 1990 I was posting some of the fastest lap times in the country for any age group for skating. Indeed, my 10th place finish at the world short track speedskating championships was a result of a fall in the quarter final. I had convinced myself I could win that event…
I assumed, at the time, that with the right coaches and training, my performance would accelerate – that once I joined a “real” program and trained harder, and more consistently, that results would come in spades. The training program set by Mike Walden, Clair Young, Marc Affholter, which I still pretty much followed by default on my own in California had been good enough to get me where I was, but…
At the time I guess I thought it was decent enough stuff for those ‘local coaches’ – but considered myself ready for ‘the real thing.’ I was fully convinced I would not only make the 1992 Olympic team, but that I had a great shot at standing on the podium. Indeed – I was so full of myself, I actually thought I could possibly compete in 3 different sports in one Olympic year – short track, long track, and cycling. Why not?
I had no idea that every one of these assumptions was wrong. I could never have imagined that a mere six months later that I would be a shell of my former self without even a prayer of making even a “B” travel team in any one of those sports, and that after the national team trials in my primary sport I would find myself unfunded, coachless, jobless, hopeless and confused… and that it would only get worse from there as I prepped for the Olympics in 1992 and beyond…
Test #1 of 5, Hard Training: (July, 1990:)
When I stepped off the plane in Colorado Springs, CO less than a month after college graduation. I was not fit. I had just returned from a weeklong trip to Mexico with four of my best friends for a week of partying in Cancun. My lack of fitness was also due to the 36 credit load I had to finish spring quarter to make up for a full slate of incompletes I took in winter quarter due to traveling in Europe for competitions and the world championships.
Still, I wasn’t worried – I had always responded well to hard training and fully expected to quickly assume a spot very high up in the speedskating hierarchy. One thing though, was different this time: I had made the switch to long track speedskating at the end of the season. After getting knocked down in the quarterfinals at the short track world championships in March in an echoing arena largely absent of spectators, I had walked outside of Edens Icehall in Amsterdam to discover nearly 3000 people skating for fun on the long track right outside its doors. I fell in love with the idea that someone (besides my parents) might watch and cheer for the sport that was slated to become my full time occupation.
The coaches at the camp – Susan Sandvig, John Teaford, and Mike Crowe wasted no time in clarifying the route to success: hard work, mental toughness (suffering,) and volume. This was the proven program originally defined by Diana Holum and Eric Heiden and it produced the sport’s single greatest champion (Heiden). This would be our model, and if we wanted to have a chance to be like Eric (we all did) then this was the way to do it. (Eric won 5 gold medals – one in every speedskating distance – in the 1980 Olympics. Just to put this in perspective – this would be like Husain Bolt winning not only the 100m and 200m but the 400m, 1500m, and 10,000m events as well. This is astounding even to this day.)
I, like everyone else, was a believer. The concept of ‘the harder you work, the more you’ll achieve’ was clear and compelling. I threw myself, as is my mode, into it with all my heart and sinew.
This proved to be my undoing rather quickly. After a light jog on the evening of our first day, we entered the 3 – a –day workout regimen that was to dominate the next month, the next year – indeed the next 4 years of my life. The very next morning we did a long bike ride in the morning (at least something I was used to) and then followed it up by a weights ‘test’ in the late morning, and sprints and jumps in the afternoon.
In the weight room I was eager to show my strengths. I had never really done squats before but I didn’t let that bother me. I was encouraged to just use the bar and ‘get used to it’ but I was way too gung-ho to listen and soon was stacking on a pair of 45lb plates, and then 4 (still nowhere near the 10 or 12 plates Dan Jansen would regularly put on) but enough to at least walk out of the gym with my pride intact. I also did bench press, hamstring curls, leg extensions, crunches and all the other things everyone else was doing. Ah… the innocence and stupidity of youth.
That same afternoon, I’ll never forget – we went up into the foothills near the Broadmoor as the sun began to make the fields golden and we embarked on a sprint & plyometrics (jumps) workout, swapping a dozen “knee to chest” jumps with 100 yard sprints. We did 10 sets of each.
Climbing down from the bus prior to the workout, I had some new sensations – I felt awkward and my muscles felt, well, tweaked – sending all kinds of startling signals and shocks to my brain, yet not responding to basic requests. They felt like foreign limbs with electrodes implanted in them jerking them into motion. But after some hill runs for a warmup during which I suffered immensely I regained some semblance of control for the main workout. After a sloppy first set of jumps and the follow-on sprint I was fully warmed up. On the second and third sets, I was on my game – floating like a gazelle on the knee-to-chest jumps – rising up above the crowd in almost in slow motion – bouncing quickly up and then during the peak of my jump, banging my knees upward to extend that float before time resumed and I dropped back down. Then the whistle and I found myself breaking quickly into the clean air of the lead during the sprints as I sailed out into the lead of some of the world’s best athletes. I smiled inwardly, just a little smug in my confidence: everything was turning out just as I planned…
That is until repetitions #s 4, 5, 6, 7 followed through. Each sprint and jump tore the remaining flaps and threads of my muscles. The coaches shouted encouragement and then resulted to goads, “C’mon Coyle – where’s that sprint? Where’s that height?” I tried to respond and for a while I did. By sprint #9 I was done. I couldn’t actually lift my hamstrings and did sort of standing dead lift jumps and then as I tried to sprint I was kicking myself sloppily after a few steps. I broke off and stood to the side as the coaches prodded me, shouting. I said nothing – I couldn’t even begin to describe what was going on in my body – but it had entered that deep down bone ebb – I knew I was hurt but I didn’t know exactly how or why.
I winced and hobbled back to the bus, and then did the same wobbling act to get to dinner with an excruciating effort only exceeded by the walk back to the dorms. After dinner everyone went out to the hot tubs and I desperately wanted to go, but I couldn’t seem to straighten out my legs without incredible pain, so I stayed in bed.
Things got worse.
The next 24 hours reigns unique in my life. It is the one and only full day that I’ve ever been truly bedridden. For more than 24 hours I never left my bed. I was on the top bunk and I couldn’t bend my legs. I had bleeding wooden joints. Even slight movements had me gasping and sweating in place. My abdominals didn’t fare much better – from the jumps – and I couldn’t sit up. Top it off with an extraordinarily sore chest and biceps (I couldn’t straighten my arms), and the unraveling was complete – I couldn’t move.
That day, as everyone packed up in the morning for practice, I asked my roommates Brendan Eppert and Dave Besteman to give me a couple plastic cups of water and then I lay back down – and didn’t move for an entire day.
It wasn’t until late the following evening that biological needs drove me from my bed. I had to have Dave and Brendan lift me down, sweating in pain, after I swung my legs over the edge. It took me several days to recover and rejoin the team. In the meantime, my confidence started to waver
Results of Test #1, Hard Training: FAILURE
Next up Test #2: VO2 Max w/ Lance Armstrong
Walden Race Rule #4: Get into Position to Win.
This principle is really the predecessor to Race Rule #3 – “Win it at the Line”. You can’t ‘win it at the line’ from 60th place.
So, what are the key mechanisms that enable the Walden rule of “Get into position to win?”
1) Shift down. This is the single most important part of moving through a crowded peleton. Tired limbs and ragged lungs prefer slower RPM’s, but, having the discipline to pedal rapid circles and taking on the additional aerobic burden it carries it provides the reward of being able to take advantage of opportunities before that of your fellow riders. When riders suddenly divide in front of you creating a Tetris-like body space – only the swiftest acceleration will garner that spot. Be that rider that fills in the gap…Do it 20 times and you can move through an entire peleton without feeling the wind…
2) Never move up on the “hard parts” unless out of desperation or it is the final sprint. For me, the dozens of laps preceding the finish are like a giant science project – how does the peleton move? What are its weaknesses? Where does it consistently slow? Most courses have their Achilles heels – places where the dynamics of the race create opportunities. Elk Grove had no Achilles heel – the whole thing was scary, fast, and dangerous. I had to use other opportunities.
3) Get a better view: ride on the hoods (upper part of the handlebars) with your head up. I never even realized I did this until someone gave me a hard time about it a few years ago. Riding head down makes perfect sense when in the front of the field or on a breakaway, but when trapped in the compression of the peleton, use the draft to get a good look around. This is probably the single easiest thing to do to aid you during this critical portion of the race. Visibility of the swaying patterns of the peleton is critical to being able to ‘read the tea leaves’ of the race and find a space to move up.
4) Broadcast your intended movements – herd the cats. Oddly most riders seem intent on maintaining their position – and if you, through your body language and the occasional hand gesture or touch on the hip – indicate a direction you wish to go, more often than not they’ll accommodate. For myself I use a combination of the “slow drift”, the flip of the hand, and the touch on the hip to try and create my path. Sometimes you’ll encounter the cycling equivalent of the ‘Chicago driver’ who actually goes counter to your intended movement and shuts you down – but they too are creating space and sometimes you can anticipate this reaction and quickly swing around them on the other side.
5) Use EVERYTHING to get into position: finally, and most importantly, be willing to use everything you have to get into position. As your body moves beyond its VO2 max and enters oxygen debt, it is easy to give into the physical and mental malaise that accompanies this searing agony and ‘settle in’ and hope that somehow, somewhere, an opportunity to get into position will emerge.
The single greatest lesson to be learned from this Walden rule is that you have to make it happen – and if necessary use every single ounce of energy at your disposal, sacrificing your actual sprint to get into position. Said differently, a ‘non-sprint’ from 3rd position as you blow up and drift backward is 99% more likely to land you a top ten position than a somewhat rested move from 25th.
Let me say this again with more urgency: there is NO POINT to sprinting from 30th… (unless you have just moved up from 60th with every ounce of your power.) The first priority for every single available ounce of your energy is to get into striking distance of the win – after that the subtleties of 10th vs. 5th vs. 1st around the final corner is a luxury to be considered for Walden Race Rule #3 (Win it at the Line!)
Think of those moments as a kid where you tried to stay underwater to swim a distance or find an object at the bottom of the pool or lake – and then of that last burst of frantic, lung burning energy as you exploded to the surface and finally breathed the fresh air of recovery.
Now imagine the same maneuver - doing that same impulsive set of thrumming kicks normally reserved for breaking back to the surface – but instead use them to knowingly enter a tunnel: a darkening culvert with the water rising - the dark spirals of the galvanized ceiling pressing down – lips pursed to capture a breath just above water in the dark as the air disappears. The sprinters choice – continue these death throes or back up and hope for more air?
Often the right choice is forward: thrashing forward under the dark nape of the water and all air gone, the horizon closing. Lungs are on fire, legs become molten lead and every evolutionary fiber in your body tells you to dart for a surface that is no longer there – asphyxiating paroxysms of panic threaten to undermine your survival…
This is fear in one of its most raw, painful, debilitating forms – that deep inner panic starts to simmer and boil over – to pervade everything – it tells you to find a way to surface, to escape this intentional drowning. But there is no short cut and those that try to find one – by diving into corners or by taking them too fast – find disaster and wash up on the shores of the barriers. Instead you must discipline yourself, duck lower, and kick through to the other end of this tunnel of pain before you can rise to the surface.
It is as a result of exactly these kinds of panic attacks that I’ve ended up burning through my own skin on the tarmac at various races – usually not my panic, rather the dying gropings of another drowning rider panicking – groping, and pulling me under.
It is this element of fear that makes this probably the hardest of all the Walden rules to follow...
The video to follow shows the sort of ‘slo mo’ version of various high speed nervous exercises to move up. The slow frame rate fails to capture virtually any of the relevant frenetic action in the peleton as we vibrated through those final miles - coasting, sprinting, braking, bumping, crashing and sweating through those narrow boulevards at over 30 mph – sudden sways echoing through the field, the sudden hiss and burning smell of brakes, and rapid swings to avoid wheels and limbs. Nonetheless, what the video does capture is the suffocating closeness of the field preparing for the final sprint, the closed road ahead when it comes to moving up, the proximity of other riders, and the press of bodies blocking any forward progress.
Racing is the Best Training - or, Sleeping in a Haystack
Life was golden: A senior at a northern California University , I was enjoying the sun and elegant architecture of campus life in California and reveling in my lot as an upperclassman close to graduation. I was in love with my remaining classes in engineering and art design required to complete a degree in mechanical engineering - product design in June.
I was also coming off a successful speed skating season: national and world team member, second in the national championships, and a 10th place finish at the world speed skating championships in the 500m despite training on my own in California of all places, while completing one of the toughest curriculums in the country.
Newly single, physically at the top of my game, ready to graduate, the world was my oyster.
During that spring of 1990 I made a significant decision – to put all my eggs in one basket and pursue speed skating with all the passion I had and let my new degree sit on a shelf: after graduation, I entered, for the first time in my skating career, the full time summer training program of the national speedskating team.
That July I moved to Colorado Springs to train with the national team along with Dan Jansen, Bonnie Blair and about 20 other top U.S. Speedskaters and participate in a number of tests including V02 Max (ability to process oxygen), BMI (body mass index), Max Power Output (peak watts on the bike), Max Squats (lbs. lifted), Vertical leap and others.
To say that I failed these tests (for the most part) would be an understatement – as it turns out I had the lowest test VO2 Max of anyone on the team – held to be the single greatest predictor of success in the sport. Other tests results were middling at best except for the peak power output.
As the season progressed, after a strong start, my world started falling apart. Training always hurts and you learn to ignore the pain and focus on the future, but at some point that autumn, my lap times – which were always a bit unpredictable, began to have a pattern to their unpredictability – they were bad and worse depending on the day. By the time of the trials for the world cup and world championships, they were so bad that I had to face the fact that I was not going to have a shot at making the team – despite being in the top 5 the last two years – without consistent training – living in California.
I think I ended up 12th.
People patted me on the back at the national team trials – “next year Coyle – this year doesn’t matter.” And it was mostly true – the next year, the same competition would be the selection for Albertville : the Olympic trials – the true goal of all this suffering.
The rest of my training woes and eventual recovery I’ll save for a separate write-up on principle #1 “Race your Strengths,” but for this report, I’ll focus on a very important decision that came next: I still had the remainder of a full winter season ahead of me – without the support and funding of the team – what should I do?
I didn’t qualify to travel and race on the national team, supported and paid for by the Olympic committee funds (like I had the last few years), so I had only two choices:
- Stay back in the U.S. and train (fully funded) at the U.S. Olympic training center with the other members of the team who didn’t qualify for travel team support and funding for travel or…
- Find a way to get overseas and travel the world cup circuit on my own dime, racing in the ‘open’ category in the competitions that would allow it.
The coaches’ perspective was as predictable as it was compelling: “Stay back John, focus on building your aerobic base, make up for all those lost years in California ” (by the way… lost years? What about the successes during that period?)
I felt like any other choice than that recommendation would be stupid – that those ‘in the know’ knew what was best for me. These were smart people who cared about me and were unilateral in both wanting me to succeed and in recommending the best way to do so.
But…there was that other part of me – the rebellious part - the part of me that didn’t relish in training for its own sake – that found little gratification in posting laps and times just for the sake of laps and times - the part of me that loved the thrill and unpredictability of racing.
The idea of spending the rest of the winter pounding out laps in the cold and dark of Lake Placid , New York had me in a state of depression… yet I felt like I couldn’t really justify any other choice.
Fortunately I do have that occasional stubborn and rebellious streak – and that side of me came to the fore during those days and it was then that I remembered the words pounded into my head for years and years by a different coach at a different time...
“Racing is the best training, Coyle, racing is the best training.”
I can still hear Walden’s voice and, more importantly, the overbearing conviction that came through that an alternative viewpoint was not only without merit, but would not to be entertained. (In many ways Mike Walden reminds me of our CEO and my occasional mentor, Jack Rooney of U.S. Cellular®).
Discussions with Mike were nearly entirely one-way.
After the speedskating world cup team trials, as the ‘official’ team was preparing to leave for Europe , decision time for me came. When asked for my decision, suddenly those words came tumbling out verbatim to my coaches Stan and Susan. I said, “You know, as much as continued training in the program is compelling and I appreciate the offer, I think that for me, racing is the best training, so I’m going to find a way to get over to Europe for the world cups.”
It was rather interesting that by embracing one set of conventions, I was bucking another. More importantly, since that day 18 years ago, I can say with complete conviction that any other set of training or racing guidelines not in agreement with those held by Walden have inevitably led to failure.
The reality of confidence is much more ephemeral and emotional in nature than the logic of time suggests: it comes minutes at a time. A perfect extension, a pair of straightaway strokes, fast lap, a winning race - these feelings ladder up and can build confidence - particularly when there is a progression. Ultimately though confidence can be a house of cards undone by the faintest breath of weakness.
A slip? Getting passed? Dying on the final corner in an important race? Back to back exhausted practices where form seems to disappear? Like water in a drain, the tide of confidence washes away quickly and leaves no reminder of its presence. As each week and hour and second and skate stroke grew consecutively weaker and more anemic, so my confidence atrophied like light from the stub of a dying candle.
It seems hard to fathom – that ones’ results and confidence could be so high one year prior, only to fall so low. But in the mirror of hindsight and distance it becomes easy to gloss over the weeks and days and hours and suggest, “Well, you were great the year before – you knew you’d recover…”
I DID NOT know. Part of me believed the test results – that I was a poor athlete and that I didn’t belong… Part of me didn’t know what, or who to believe… If someone stopped me and said, "4 years from now you'll be standing on the podium at the Olympic games with a medal around your neck," I would have nodded and smiled - but deep down I had begun to accept the possibility that I really wasn't very good. Fortunately a small part of me believed what Mike Walden, and Mark Affholter, and Stan Klotkowski had told me – that I could be world and olympic champion. So I chose to try and believe that…
...and prepared as if it were true...
By January of that season I was no longer the celebrated “ California skater who won the 1000m time trial at the world team trials and was 10th in the world” the year before, I was another burnt ember: the “low V02, ‘lucky’ guy, who couldn’t hack the realities of ‘real’ training for the sport.”
Unsurprisingly to those of you that know me now: despite all the advice and signs, I decided to buck convention and all of the advice: I went to Europe anyway.
I sold one of my bikes and received a little gift from my parents and raised a total of $1500 for my 2 month trip (which became 3 months by the way) to Europe . The $1500 I needed had to cover round trip airfare, 2 new pairs of skates, housing, food, and travel for 90 days....
I was all set.
I got a roundtrip fare from Chicago to Amsterdam for $400 and negotiated with the Viking skate factory in Holland to give me the national team discount and provide me new skates for $150/pair, so I spent another $300 on new skates. Now I had $700 left for 2 months. $1.33/day – perfect.
My parents helped me by springing for a Eurail pass in addition - good for 60 days and 15 rides. I hoped to stay beyond the skating season and see a little bit of Europe so I decided to not activate it for those first 30 days. I got on the plane to Europe .
I arrived in Amsterdam in the early gray of morning after the usual overnight flight, exiting the white modern white terminal filled with the acrid smoke of European cigarettes to a typically gray, moist and damp Dutch day. After some navigation between the train station and the closest tram, I managed to find public transport to the Viking skate factory on the outskirts of town.
After a quick tour of the massive warehouse, I spent about 2 hours in the factory trying on skates barefoot in order to find a pair that fit perfectly. Sure they all “look the same” but the reality is that minute differences in the shape, stretch, and contours of the leather and blade made for significant differences. I’m a size 43 but I bought two pairs of size 41 skates for a tight fit, and added to that a custom distinction – switching the standard set of 16 ½ inch 1mm wide blades blades for 17 ½ blades and carrying a spare pair in a cardboard poster tube. I was set for the season.
I left the huge factory (the interior of which looked much like the end of the first Indiana Jones movie) where there were aisles and aisles of speed skates – primarily for the domestic public (there are over 1.2 million registered Dutch speed skaters – vs. about 2000 in the United States ) and walked back to where the main highway cut through town and followed an entrance ramp down to the viaduct.
First stop, Munich , and then onto Inzell, about 800km away. Ready, set, …. THUMB. I had never hitchhiked, but the concept was easy to understand.
Standing by the roadside next to the roaring traffic I was carrying a number of objects that, as it turns out, would become important later. I had my large black backpack with an internal frame full of about 50 lbs of clothing, shoes, and gear. I also had 2 boxes of skates, and one small poster tube with a spare set of blades. And then I had my 40lb duffel bag with all my skating stuff: sharpening jig and stones, oil, tools, skinsuits and warmups. All told I had about 100lbs of stuff – both hands were full and I had a back full of a backpack.
Other than the recent massive failures with regards to my training I generally considered myself as serendipitous – having a ‘green thumb for life’ – and on that day I got four aces. Not 20 minutes after I first stuck out my thumb, a rusty old jalopy pulled up and 4 doors popped open full of friendly, smiling young faces with Australian accents who asked pleasantly, “Where you headed mate?”
I told them.
“ Munich ? No shit! That’s where we are going! We just bought this old beater and are heading to Munich for Octoberfest! Climb on in!”
I had to tie my backpack to the roof and then held my skatebag and boxes on my lap in the middle seat of the rear of the old jalopy, but the warm dutch beers they passed around quickly had me laughing and jabbering away with the rest of them and we headed on our way all the way to the German border (OK, that’s like 30 miles – Holland is tiny).
Serendipity then lost her grip and a god-awful shaking took over the car and then shiny metal disks began to shoot from underneath the car in all directions to an incredible cacophony. At first I though the engine had exploded – except it was still running – but our forward progress began to slow as we coasted: we had dropped the transmission.
My newfound pals immediately began the mourning process but I had no vested interest in the bum auto deal they had made that morning and instead untied my backpack and resumed what would come to be a very typical posture over the coming months – standing with a slight lean at the edge of the road, arm curved with thumb out, trying to look ‘safe.’
A tow truck came and I said goodbye to the Aussies but an hour went without anyone stopping for me. Then two hours. I began to despair… and then it began to rain… hard.
I began to panic and ran for the next overpass and stopped in the shadow underneath. Now dueling needs began their wrestling: stay in the dark and not get picked up? Or be wet and miserable but visible?
I opted for a compromise and would choose cars that looked “kindhearted” and would dodge out into the light and rain with my thumb out.
This went on for quite some time and finally after another 2 hours (which is an incredibly long time by the way) suddenly my luck turned again. Behind a “kind looking” Euro station wagon was a large Euro truck/trailer combo that put on its air brakes and roared to a stop about 100m beyond the overpass.
I was overjoyed and sprinted up to the bright red cab.
I’ll never forget the face of the man who swung open the door – not because he was so memorable or unique by his-self – instead because his visage was so much like another – that of “Timmons” - the unfortunate wagon train driver in the movie “Dances with Wolves”. The same greasy hair, pudgy face, and the same cigar clenched firmly in his brown molars.
The difference in this case was that when he spoke, instead of a patois of redneck English, my driver spoke only in French and I had not the slightest idea of what he was saying. He didn’t seem to care, and jabbered away for quite a while until I was able to squeeze in, what seemed to me, an important verbal salvo: “ Munich – Munchen” – my destination.
“Deutschland!” I added, and he nodded and smiled and then began talking again and then began working the gears judiciously.
I was wet and tired (I was up all night on the overnight flight) and it was warm and dry and despite the smoke and the ambiguity of where I was going I just decided to trust in fate, and close my eyes.
Still talking my driver put the pedal to the metal and off we roared, crossing the German border shortly thereafter.
Sometime after a laborious dispute with the border guards and the repeated exit and return of my cigar smoking driver to review the contents of his load I fell asleep. It was just twilight, but the 36 hours I’d been awake, combined with the Dutch beers and contrast of the damp cold and the sudden warmth found me susceptible and I slept for hours without a care for where my wagon-train driver was taking me.
I was dreaming. Somone was fighting with me – buffeting me around my head and shoulders, intent on delivering a message. Finally I opened my eyes to find that I was being shaken.
4 inches from my face was the stub end of a dead cigar and my driver was shouting in French, roughly shaking me, stopping only when I finally moved an arm to indicate I was alive. I lifted up groggily looking through the windshield – seeing nothing but black.
The impassioned dialog and gesticulating continued but my head swam in a fog and it wasn’t until Timmons reached across me and unlatched the door and waved his finger that I finally understood.
Translation. “Get out.”
That’s what all that meant…
So I got out.
What else could I do?
I grabbed my backpack, my two boxes and tube and the heavy duffel bag and climbed down the steps of the big red cab, black in the darkness.
I first noticed the cold when the winds of the departing trailer swirled around me – it must have been only 35 degrees – and damp...
Then, location: where was I? Ahead there was a lit sign over the highway and seemingly the only illumination for miles. Like a moth I staggered with my load to the flame.
I drew close enough to read the sign even as in the brightening gloom I could see the sudden division of the highway. The sign read, “Franzosich Rechts, Deutschland Links” – “ France left, Germany right.” My driver and his big red truck has gone right, the streaks of his disappearing taillights still remaining imprinted on my retinas – to France.
Thank you Timmons.
As if on cue, it began to rain. At first it was a smattering of drops, but it then quickly settled into one of those steady downpours that last for hours.
The drops were initially stopped by hair and clothing, but within minutes they began to find channels through the already damp materials of my clothes and course down my back and into my shoes.
I began to shiver – violently. I immediately began walking as a defense mechanism – my 100lbs of ‘stuff’ burning more calories than a brisk walk would. But.. I hadn’t actually eaten.. and only a feeble warmth was generated from the effort. My teeth began to chatter uncontrollably. I still remember it. I kept thinking of George Washington for some reason. Wooden teeth. Mine sounded wooden – and it was so clichéd to have them bouncing up and down like as if they were in the hand of a spastic mannequin.
Worse still – with my forward progress, all light disappeared and I found myself sloshing through inky blackness, just the twinkling of the drops and the occasional glint of road markers flashing wetly against the black giving any indication of time or space.
As my clothes became more thoroughly sodden it suddenly occurred to me – not one vehicle had passed in the last half hour… So I checked the time: 2am.
As I walked, I began to dissect what I knew about hypothermia – how your energy fails and instead of fighting you start to give in and then a calm begins to permeate your limbs. With a start I realized I had stopped walking. My jaw was still chattering though.
I began again – but back towards the light.
I crossed beyond it and then turned around, and then headed back again. One foot in front of the other, arms aching with the load.
So I began what became an incredibly long military drill of marching and discipline. Suffering.
My hands turned to ice, and my feet too. My legs and arms grew numb and I stopped wiping the water from my eyes and stopped hunching my shoulders to protect my neck. I just walked and when I grew tired of walking I began an ugly sloppy jog, lead footed and sloppy, but I jogged.
Sometimes I carried my stuff, other times I set it by the side of the road. I kept moving. I have never, ever been more tired… leaden, deadened, numb, cold.
At some point I began to realize that I could die.
Right there on a lonely stretch of highway I could just stop walking and die – and that in fact it could probably happen in less than an hour. I was so cold that it didn’t really phase me… and the lack of emotional response did scare my rational mind…
It was then that a sudden light grew behind me. Headlights.
Life resumed and hope grew and I marched back toward those lights waving my arms. The headlights remained dim pricks in the inky blackness for a while an then suddenly became bright with that weird sound familiar from TV – “wreee-oooowwwww” and the car erupted from the distance to directly in front of me to long gone in a matter of seconds.
My despair reached new levels.
3 am and I’m wearing dark clothes and I’m sopping wet in freezing temperatures while in the middle of f!#ing nowhere and I’m trying hitchhike on the goddamn autobahn! People are driving 120 mph! Who in their right mind is going to stop for the wet madman hitching on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere?
I might die. Maybe I’m ready to die. So tired, so cold, so hungry, so weak. No fire stoked below as I walked, no warmth stole through my limbs, but I knew if I stopped walking I would die and I didn’t want to die – I was too young to die, I had too much to do to die.
So I walked – away from the light, toward the light, away from the light, toward the light..
After about an hour and a half more of marching I decided to do some more exploring. There was an embankment to the right and I re-climbed it and saw… nothing. Not a light, not a house, not even a telephone pole – just the grass underneath my feet, and blackness…
Still, I resolved to pick a direction and assume that this, this hay, or grass or whatever that had been neatly mowed into rows, that someone – somewhere had done this work.
I resolved to follow a row.
I followed that row.
It didn’t take long before two things occurred: one, it began to get extremely dark – and hard to find my footing, and two, I began to think about all this grass, this neatly manicured row of grass… maybe…. maybe I could…
I stopped. I turned around.
I saved my own life.
I walked back as close to the light as I could while still up the embankment and then I implemented the plan that had been slowly gestating in my head for the last 10 minutes.
First, I set down my bags and boxes, and then I began to gather the grass. Shoving, combing, lifting, gathering, I quickly developed a coffee table sized mound, and then it grew to the size of a doghouse, then two doghouses. For once the exertion warmed me and in about 15 minutes I had gathered a mound of grass about 5 feet high, ten feet in length (including taper) and 6 feet wide. Think about it – that’s a HUGE mound of grass – and fifteen minutes in the dark can feel like forever…
What came next took the most courage of all: after shoving my bags and boxes under protective cover of the grass, I then stripped down, exposing my body to the 35 degree downpour, and I removed every single bit of sodden clothing I had on including my soaking wet shoes until I stood naked in the field under the pouring 35 degree rain, shivering violently, hardly able to control my hands which were becoming more numb by the second.
Next, I pulled my one dry warmup jacket out of my backpack, and 3 dry racing skinsuits out of my duffel bag. Draping the jacket over my head like a floppy umbrella, I proceeded to put on all 3 spandex suits – one over the other, while staying mostly dry under the jacket.
Finally, I grabbed the heavy cardboard tube with the spare set of blades and shook the spare blades out onto the grass and then pushed them underneath the pile. I then pulled the tube under the protective cover of the jacket and then shoved it through one of its arms.
Finally, I got on my hands and knees and, with my head draped in a shoulder of the jacket, used it as protective cover against the wet outer layers of grass and burrowed carefully into the interior of the grass mound.
I had been careful to layer the dry bottom layers of grass from the mown rows into the bottom of my mound and quickly my problem became breathing amongst the dust and tendrils of dry grass versus the expected battle against drowning in the wet drops.
I wriggled carefully into what I conceived of as the middle of the mound and felt a million pricks of grass around me itching and catching the fabric of my skinsuit. But what I also felt was unique again that night – the sudden return of warmth reflected to my limbs from these same pricks.
Finally I reached out an arm and pushed it through the grass until I could feel the damp of the rain and then jammed the cardboard tube, along with the arm of the jacket through that tunnel in the hay and then adjusted the drape of the jacket – which still remained over my head – such that the arm and the corresponding tunnel of outside air created by the tube was right in front of my mouth and nose.
I blew out hard through the tube like a snorkel to clear the passage and then took a deep breath. I was pleased to receive not the dusty air of the interior of my new straw home, but the cool damp oxygen of the outside world.
It may sound odd, but in about 90 seconds I was 100% out-cold asleep: warm, dry, a little itchy, but safe.
I was dreamless in my little cocoon – the long flight, the endless walking and worrying, the rain and shivering all passed into the warm depths of sleeps’ embrace.
Finally, the noise and rumble of passing traffic woke me up. It was still dark – yet I woke feeling refreshed as though I’d slept a decent long time. I figured I better wait until it was light before I began hitching, but I went through the exercise of pulling my arm up into my cocoon under the jacket and pushed the button to glow the light to see what time it was…. 2pm! I had managed to sleep nearly 10 hours under a pile of grass – but wait – it was still dark – how could that be?
When I finally lifted an arm and parted the grass, a few faint streaks of light began to penetrate and I realized that it was, indeed, midday.
I stretched a little and then decided to burrow out through the top of my lair. Sure enough when I finally began to extricate myself, the brilliant afternoon sun of a clear day began to shine through.
It was then that my senses tingled… with the sudden quiet – the traffic noise and rumble of the autobahn and suddenly, inexplicably been, well, ‘turned off.’
The traffic noise and vibrations I had felt from the nearby autobahn had entered a deathly erie silence that seemed, oddly, to correspond with my recent exit from my cocoon.
Shaking off the straw, I opened my eyes fully and saw nothing at first but the brilliance of the midday sun and the shining piles of straw and grass littering the field in front of me. Beyond that I could see a corner of the autobahn with no cars navigating its long stretch.
Another run of cold blood… with that sensation I began to turn.
Behind me – not 15 feet away was one of the world’s largest pieces of machinery – a 20 foot high behemoth of modern industrial capacity – a ‘thresher’ collecting the fruits of the summer harvest – stopped dead in its tracks due to the odd formation of grass – the nest of which I had suddenly hatched…
I’ll never, for as long as I live, forget the next few seconds – both what actually happened, as well as the processes in my brain that finally switched on at this opportune time.
The door of the bright red cab swung open and out popped the head of a German farmer – at exactly the same time that I registered his expression – a face I’ll never forget in its openmouthed astonishment - I realized exactly what it was that I was wearing.
I had changed in the pitch black of a downpour without a thought to style or color. I had only 3 skinsuits in my possession at that time – two blue USA skinsuits, and one rather odd trade – a purple, pink and silver suit from the Belgian national team. Most notable was that this was the last one I put on, and furthermore I was wearing the purple hood – overtop the other 2 hoods and suits.
So… to conclude this interesting convergence of events, let me play it out from the farmer’s perspective: A long, stormy night… a huge field finally drying up in order to gather up the grass for market – let’s fire up the big machine – but Achtung! What’s this weird mound of grass… better slow down…
And then it happens – the mound moves and an appendage appears – it looks like a hand… but it is shiny and purple…
Out of it next comes the rest of this.. thing. Purple, pink and silver and shiny, no hair to be seen, this alien creature stretches as though it owns the place and then turns – and…
And it LOOKED RIGHT AT ME!
I began to laugh. The ludicrousness of the situation suddenly permeated my core and I began to laugh and laugh and laugh. I bent over, rustling in the pile and pulled out my pack, bag and boxes and then carried those, along with my semi-scarecrow jacket with the tube still in the arm down the embankment to the autobahn still laughing.
I didn’t bother to dress – just stood by the road in the purple, pink and silver spandex and in less than two minutes a couple in a Ford Probe pulled over and picked me up and drove me not only to Munich, but the 30 miles beyond to Inzell, where they dropped me off at the rink in time for the Dutch national team training session.
I had missed the USA practice, so I asked for, and received permission to skate with the Dutch national team. Bart Veldkamp and Rintje Ritsma, famous in their roles within their country and for brief periods during the Olympic games, these same skaters were on the ice when my awkward limbs finally made their way out onto the rink.
I was doing some warmup laps, trying to gain some semblance of form and a couple of the younger Dutch team members formed behind me, but after a little while a chorus of curses rang in my ears and finally one of them skated up on the outside of me and said – “whats with all the grass?” They had been slipping on the bits of hay and grass continuing to escape from my skinsuit.
Chastened, I retired from the ice, entered the restroom and threshed my skinsuit like a doormat, finally returning to the ice without complaint.
After the session, Dutch laughter rang around the room, and finally someone switched to English and asked the inevitable question – “why so much grass? Old skinsuit? Sleep in a hayloft?” (laughter)
I finally explained my ordeal and they laughed, but now the distance was gone and many came by to thank me for entertaining them.
Even in Torino , 16 years later, I saw several of these Dutch skaters and without hesitance the called me by the appellation coined that day, “Hey Grasshopper!”
I would have quit speedskating for sure if I hadn’t had that miraculous tour through Europe 18 years ago. Mike, like always, was right: racing is the best training.
1) As the level of competition increases - from local to state to national to international, the differences in abilities between riders becomes more compressed, and winning by a huge margin in the sprint becomes less of an option. This is where strategy and skill replace the minute differences in ability. By mastering the 'surge to the line' technique using the draft to its maximal effectiveness, a racer with less endurance or with less sprint horsepower can make up for those weaknesses, and maximize their strengths using this technique.
2) Gauging the distance to the line, the movements within the pack, and knowing which wheel to follow - this is the science of this rule.
1) Learn to read the race patterns - and know exactly where to be in the pack to avoid the to antithesis to "finish at the line" which are a) being hung out to dry - out front to early fighting the wind or b) getting caught in the back - no place to go, energy available with no outlet
2) Intuitively understand how corners, wind, gradient (uphill/downhill), heat, and race speed combine with the twitching mass of riders in the pack to create final sprint conditions. In one race it might be a single file leadout string where being in 3rd place with a lap to go is the winning strategy. In another, being 20th and following the pending surges might be the right position.
3) The best way to predict a sprint finish other than real time intuition, is to participate in prime sprints. I usually surf the prime sprints (I rarely contest them) in order to gain more information around how the sprint will play out. No guarantee that if the prime sprint surged on the right that the final sprint will as well, but odds are probably 60/40...
This race rule is much more art than science ultimately requires experience to develop. Back when I was racing on the 7-11 team, my teammates used to try to set up leadouts for the sprint finish and I found time and again that I could read the race better than I could utilize their leadouts and I usually abandoned the leadouts (much to their chagrin).
Race Rule #2: Walden says: “Shift down at the bottom of the hill, Shift up before the top!” Translation: always, (always!) “be in the right gear.” Another shouted Waldenism full of meaning.
1) shifting under massive torque results in mechanical failures (translation – shifting while pedaling hard may result in dropping, breaking or tangling your chain)
2) The human body is most efficient for certain efforts at a certain RPM. Generally speaking, maximal acceleration and power output comes from high RPM’s (115Rpm+), and efficiency comes from lower (but consistent) RPM’s (70 – 115 Rpm’s). Walden believed (as do I) that steady state efforts are best between 105 and 110 RPM's and specifically noted 107 as the magic number. Exactly to this point, after Walden passed, Chris Boardman set the world hour record with an average RPM of 107.
Walden was a total genius...
The Art: Always being the right gear means knowing the demands of the race at any given time. Uphills require acceleration of mass up the hill – hence “shift down” (smaller gear, higher rpm). Downhills are a chance for efficiency and rest – hence “shift up” (bigger gear, slower rpm) – not to mention the rotational inertia of two muscle laden legs weighing 70+ pounds, when slowing from 150Rpms to 70 Rpms provides extra inertia to the pedals without an extra ounce of energy.
Then there is the rest of the race… which follows similar patterns.
- Always downshift prior to a short hill – into your small chainring if required – BEFORE applying torque
- Always upshift right before the top of the hill (not when heading down) – use that rotational energy and the efficiencies of that motion to start recovering early
- Subtle note – I always time my downshifting for when my left leg is nearing the top of its stroke, and my upshifting (larger gear) for when my right leg is nearing the top of the stroke. I didn’t even realize the physics of it, but this assures that during the maximal torque associated with each down cycle of the pedal stroke, the flex from the torque on the crank arm aligns with the direction you want the chain to be pulled.
- Always downshift prior to corners (and pedal once to make sure you are in gear) I think more “last corner” crashes are due to this failure (shifting midway through the corner, then cranking hard, skipping a gear, causing slippage) than any other maneuverings.
- In the final laps of the race, always ride in a smaller gear. Taking advantage of opportunities to move up without spending time “in the wind” requires instant accelerations to “fill the gaps”. In the last few laps of any given criterium, I generally ride between 115 – 125 rpms, and ride with both hands clenching the brakes – to take advantage of internal opportunities to move up in the draft, while at the same time using my brakes to keep safe.
Race Rule #1: Walden says: “Get on a wheel!” A variation: "Close the gap!"
Translation: Always, (always!) “Be in the draft.” (unless trying to break away, or trying to win the final few meters of the sprint).
Like all of Walden’s pithy phrases, there can be an entire art and science to discover the full meaning behind the words.
The Science: In this case, the physics of the equation are cut and dry – proper drafting saves up to 30% of the energy expended by another rider pedaling the same speed without drafting. This scientific fact succinctly explains the sole reason I am able to be a bike racer. If I can get my aerobic capacity to be only as much as 70% of the strongest riders, then I can finish the race… and if I can finish the race – get within 7 seconds of the finish line - then I have a good shot at winning – it is simple as that.
Turning the phrase differently, one might say that virtually every person in the race is better than me – by the conventional athletic standard of endurance anyway.
The Art: The science ends with the math, and the art begins with questions like “paint me a picture of the draft – where is it? How can you conserve the most energy? Does that require physical danger due to proximity?” Due to my weak aerobic capacity (my parents blame it on my Cesaerian birth – no squeeze of life to fully expand my lungs) I’ve been focused on finding the draft - or “wheelsucking” as it is commonly referred to by those with the luxury of not requiring this aid - for 30 years now.
Of my limited strengths, wheelsucking is my strongest. I intuitively know where the draft is – to the point where, on a training ride with a friend, if I “tune out” for a few seconds, I will often find myself suddenly “riding the hip” in a cross wind, and find my friend staring at me crossly as I absorb the energy that they have transferred to the air.
Getting on a wheel is the first step to finding the draft. However, depending on the shape of the rider, the angle of the wind, and the relationship of other riders, the most efficient draft may well be found to the left, right, or even somewhat back from the wheel in front of you. I don’t know the physics behind it, but some winds allow for efficient drafting and in a paceline or “peleton” of riders you may find rest periods of “riding the wheel” that are a true respite from the efforts of the race, where heart rates can drop 25 beats per minute. Other “airs” seem to suggest a more agile wind that resists the rider’s impetus in front of you and still manages to block your path. In these cases, you may only find a 10 beat per minute savings while drafting in a straight line pace line. I hate air like this…
Then there is “pack drafting” which has its own dynamics – especially on a criterium course, and especially on one in town where the wind can swirl and eddy from different directions between each cross street, with tall buildings deflecting the overall currents. Over the last season, I’ve tried to retrieve my intuitive and instinctual (blink) reactions to drafting into logical understanding with some limited success. What I’ve been able to observe:
1) Generally speaking “turbulence” or “buffeting” against your chest and arms is an explicit sign that you are in the draft – try to center that visceral feel on your sternum.
2) In large packs, the single best draft is in the “rear triangle” – near the back, but still connected to the 3 or 4 abreast portion of the pack. Sometimes I’ll find the perfect position: 3 riders in front, then two slightly forward left and right, and then I anchor between them with my front wheel parallel with their rear wheels. This is the ultimate wind shade and has allowed me to pass through 30, 40, even 50 miles of a criterium conserving energy the whole way. (See chart below – “perfect drafting”) “perfect drafting” in blue.. 3) The draft changes in the corners – in dead still air, the draft will be slightly outside the wheel in front of you, as the instantaneous velocity of the riders in front of you is in a vector toward the outside of the turn – e.g. ride outside the rider in front of you on corners when the air is still.
4) Learn to ride close to the wheel. (particularly when the pack is strung out) I tend to ride about 6 – 8 inches from the wheel when I’m not miserably suffering, and half that distance when I am suffering. Each inch closer gives another percentage of energy savings (and some increased risk.) Practices at the track with Walden were invaluable in learning this skill – riding 2 inches from the wheel in front of you traveling 25 mph on a bike with no brakes helps you to learn spacial relationships on the bike quickly.
5) Learn to estimate proximity without looking at the wheel in front of you. Walden would yell “Don’t look at the tire in front of you – Look Ahead!” as, ultimately, the reactions of the rider in front of you were largely dependent, and amplified by the motions 2, 3 or more riders ahead.
Sure - you can work on your strength and aerobic base and improve them by 10% if you are out of shape or 5% if you are in shape, or 1% if you are world class... or you can, with a bit of focus and practice, save 1% or 2% or 5% by adjusting your 'wind shade'. I'm constantly amazed (and perplexed) by scene after scene of Tour De France riders cruising along off a wheel. Sure - they are strong enough to do it (which is probably why they never learned it really well) but imagine the energy they are squandering that could be better saved to help a teammate, make a breakaway, or climb a hill...