Lance and Enron: The Greatest Innovators in the World

Lance the Innovator: Lance Armstrong, in my book, is one of the greatest innovators in history. In one of the most challenging, highly contested, well funded and competitive “industries” in the world, where fighting the elements for 20 days on the bike for 6 hours a day tends to eliminate much of the luck and timing of more singular contests, Lance managed to dominate and win the world’s most difficult contest for 7 straight years while making a fortune and a hero out of himself. As it happens, Enron, a company where I spent more than 3 years, also won an exclusive title of the "Most Innovative" company by Fortune magazine 7 years in a row while making many fortunes for its executives.

Lance did so through a single-minded focus AND the power of innovation, thinking “outside the jar” to identify “whitespace” opportunities to compete and win the yellow seven times.

The innovations he helped usher in to the world of cycling come on many fronts and not just the obvious like lighter bikeframes, lighter wheels, ribbed skinsuits. It also included organization and governance of a team with a very, very specific training regimen designed for one thing only – to win the biggest event in cycling – the Tour de France. Wind tunnels and the perfect tuck to reduce drag, a higher cadence to reduce muscle fatigue, more time in the saddle on the climbs, a specialized diet where each meal was weighed to replace exactly the lost body mass, consultations with experts from around the world to identify opportunities to win – all these were innovative builds to the previous approach.

It was only natural that the science Lance was analyzing would show that increasing the ability to process oxygen (more red blood cells through EPO and blood transfusions) and recovering faster (steroids and cortisone) were adjacent innovations to the core of training harder and suffering the most. He had, as he has shared, no guilt at all about it.

Lanced tilted the field in his favor in every single possible aspect. Was he the best ever? Yes he was: no one has climbed so many mountains so fast – recent times up the famous mountains on the Tour are more the 15% slower than during the “Lance Era”.

But therein lies the rub: innovation is necessarily “absent of values”. It is part of the process – to “diverge” and suspend judgment and restrictions to determine opportunities to find new ways to compete. One of the primary predictors of a creative or innovative approach is the willingness to step outside the status quo, to break rules.

Societies have a cycle of creative destruction, with “rulers” and “innovators” trading power. That said, an innovation that is launched, without a filter of ethics, runs the risk of being criminal. In fact, it is most likely true that many, if not most of the world’s most famous criminals and villains were also innovators. I spent 3 years at Enron, a company rewarded by Fortune magazine 7 times (odd!) as the “Most Innovative”. It was true, they were… but I wish we could withdraw their accolades and awards like was done for Lance. (I did my part to try – on the day they closed their doors we tried to steal their famous rotating cube from the lobby but were thwarted by security.)

Tonight Lance went on Oprah and confessed what had become obvious to those watching closely for a while: that he had aggressively orchestrated one of the single greatest frauds of all time.

In the history of the world has there been a more visible public figure that so actively said one thing while doing the exact opposite without shame? Lance didn’t dodge the question of doping, he didn’t hide his head when approached, he didn’t focus attention elsewhere, instead he actively attacked others fallen from the omertà, sued former friends and supporters, and enlisted the public, moral and political support of millions to aid in his cover-up through sheer pressure.

Indeed despite my own misgivings knowing some of those around him, I was in the camp of “just leave well enough alone” for years, and silently criticized the wife of my friend and teammate Frankie Andreu while openly criticizing Floyd Landis and Tyler Hamilton. I was wrong.

Innovation is almost certainly the answer to many of the world’s most pressing business challenges. That said Lance saga also shows that one of the success criteria for all innovations has to be an ethical filter. It sounds obvious, but “implicit” expectations of the most obvious sort have repeatedly failed – let’s not make that mistake again.

Postscript: my only conversation with Lance

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 that other cyclist I only know by name, Lance Armstrong, notices.

After the Junior World Cycling Championships were over, we 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.

How to Live (almost) Forever

How to live (almost) forever… “I can't stand it to think my life is going so fast and I'm not really living it."

"Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull-fighters."

Robert Cohn and Jake Barnes in chapter 2 of "The Sun Also Rises" by Ernest Hemingway

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We have been trained since children to view time as linear – that it plods along like a metronome – ticking predictably forward into the future, tocking consistently backward into the past. This is a myth, a lie, and it matters…

I am dying. Like you, I have a terminal disease called “life,” that, assuming it runs its normal course, will result in my death in roughly 41 more years according to actuarial tables of an American male my height and weight.

          "Every man dies, not every man really lives." - William Wallace in Braveheart

Coincidentally, I am 41 years old, so this means that my life is nearly exactly half over as the math goes. But for most people, time begins to assume an ever accelerating pace – a summer from our childhood casts the same shadow on our memories as young adult’s year, which starts to feel remarkably similar to a whole decade by middle age. Assuming this logarithmic scale continues, my life as measured by a sense of the passage of time and the depth of my memories may already be 80-90% over. But it doesn’t have to be this way…

I have concluded that despite logic, intuition, and what we have been taught, time is flexible – and that the sense of time, as tracked and measured by our brains, can be created and expanded or condensed and squandered.

Are you “killing time” or are you “making time?”

“Wait,” you say, “What are you talking about? Measurement of time is linear – isn’t it based on some oscillating electrons somewhere in Colorado? Are you talking physics? Don’t tell me you are talking metaphysics?”

I’m discussing neither. I’m talking about practical, everyday life and the real sense of time and how it passes. To prove time is flexible, let me walk you through two examples.

First, imagine, that you are trapped in a small room where your job, day after day, is to enter a series of randomly generated strings of letters, numbers and symbols into a monochrome computer screen. You sit there, hour after hour, reading the string of numbers off an endless stack of papers, typing them slowly, complete with mistakes and backspaces and corrections onto the screen, losing your place almost every time, and then you review and double review for accuracy, before finally pushing “enter”, whereupon the flashing code disappears, and then you type the next 30 - 50 digit letter and number combination.

The string of letters and numbers begin to tumble and blur as the flashing pixels start to whisper their sibilant confusion to your brain, a foreign language which your mind tries and fails to translate into the keystrokes your fingers peck. The “check digits” algorithm causes the computer to reject your entries as often as they are accepted, which also proves your inability to accurately remember more than about 10-15 letters and numbers in combination.

As you can imagine, while performing such a mind numbing repetitive task alone, each hour begins to stretch on for an eternity, each minute expanding, bloating with the boredom, the tedium, the lack of purpose. After a while, the ticking of the second hand on the clock starts to slow, and as your eyes twitch watching it tick, you realize that time has nearly stopped… A half a day and an eternity later, you emerge and return to your dorm room to begin studying for a physics exam, trying to make sense of yet another grouping of seemingly random symbols. (This, by the way was my college job – entering the long strings of periodical codes for the thousands of obscure journals into the ‘green screen’ of the school computer at Stanford’s Green Library “Stacks”.)

I worked at Green Library for an entire year, and no, I don’t have a single picture of the ½ year of my waking life that I spent there…

Contrast this with another scenario. It is a Friday morning and you have just arrived to work full of manic energy. You have a huge list of “to-do’s” for the day, because on that afternoon, after a half day of work you are flying south to the beach, or driving up north, or heading west for vacation. You slate ½ hour for your first task and are horrified when you look up and find 25 minutes gone – in what seemed to be the equivalent of 3 seconds. The hands race around the clock and you race with them, checking off items from your list as the time to departure evaporates. Seemingly 5 minutes after you arrive (but actually 5 hours later) it is time to go and you run for the elevator… Then, perhaps you forget your tickets, or you run out of gas, or you go to the wrong terminal, or your daughter throws up in the security line – (it seems it is always something) but a few hours later, you manage to arrive at the resort or cottage or campsite, explore your room, go for a hike, walk down to the beach, have a cocktail, watch the sunset, have an amazing dinner, take an evening swim, have a great conversation, read a few chapters of a great book – whatever and…yet…somehow the day seems to be over as quickly as the ephemeral and fabled “green flash” of sunset over the water…

If you are like me, by now you’ve taken a dozen or a hundred pictures – here’s one from a recent canoe camping trip with my daughter – I caught her tossing golden sand in the golden sunset for a “golden moment.”

A day of "really living"

Both of these examples include about 12 hours of linear time… But in the perception of the conscious mind (the part that lives in the present), the first scenario initially felt like an eternity and the second initially felt like a fleeting moment in time…

Now here’s where it gets interesting. Contrast the real-time experience of the ‘eternity’ and ‘fleeting moment’ scenarios with the subsequent memories of those two periods a month or a year later when they have become part of your “temporal past.” Odds are good that the 12 hours of the first example (typing numbers & letters) disappears altogether leaving no trace in the software of our brains and hence takes up no actual memory time (in contrast to the “eternity” it was in the present). Is it fair to say that except for its role in enabling the second scenario that that time was lost?

Example 1

The second example, however, leaves more than just a trace in our mental hard drive. Despite its fleeting presence in-the-moment, this day and evening, as is often the case the first day of a vacation, likely contained some unique and memorable events, and its share of memory has expanded significantly from the mental blip it started from.

Example 2

Lets add one more wrinkle – if perceptive time has three main elements - present, past, and future, then these vignettes continue their odd juxtaposition when viewed from the “future temporal state.” The vacation most likely consumed a great deal of future anticipation or of a mindset in the ‘future temporal state’, whereas the mundane day of work at the library followed by study was again a complete cipher – a zero in the future temporal state.

Example 3

So what does it all mean?

 

Example 4

It means that time is flexible – that the perception of time and hence of life can be expanded or contracted, and, to take it one step further, that it might be quite possible to design a life, to design a set of experiences to expand time, and hence to really live longer.

 

Example 5

If we are mental and spiritual beings, if time is truly relative, if the measure of a lifetime is the sum of its perceived time here on earth which is a function of our plans, experiences, and memories, then we owe it to ourselves to maximize the perception of time. In particular, we owe it to ourselves to plan for experiences that create the most memories.

 Let me say it again – we should plan experiences that create the most memories.

 I call these moments that expand time, “really living.”

 Here’s a question – is it possible to “live” more in one day (say, on vacation, or doing something you love) than in a week doing something meaningless or unimportant?  Are there certain days you have experienced that you would trade for a week of doing something else?

 Let’s take it further – is it possible to live and create more memories in an afternoon, than in a whole month of a boring repetitive, mundane task or situation?

 If so, then is it at least remotely possible, at the extreme, to experience enough in one shining supernova of a minute to equal the memories an entire year? Is there a certain moment in your life that you would trade a year of mundane living for?

 I have lived the value of a year in one minute.  Sadly, I have also lived the value of a minute in one year, probably more than once in my 41 years here on earth.  

 One last twist to this tale….What is it that makes a week - a day - an hour - a minute, full of life giving memories? It is not, as one would assume, necessarily always a positive, uplifting experience. It is not always, “golden moments.” One of my most significant memories is the several hours I spent at risk of hypothermia on a cold rainy and empty stretch of the autobahn in southern Germany while hitchhiking across Europe. I was miserable. I was terrified. I ended up stripping naked in an empty field, putting on dry spandex racing suits and burying myself in a pile of hay to survive.

 http://johnkcoyle.wordpress.com/2008/07/31/walden-principle-2-racing-is-the-best-training-sleeping-in-a-haystack/

 I survived (this part is important). And the memory of those hours is almost as real today as the present reality those moments were 19 years ago.

 Consider this possibility: if it were possible to live a year in a minute, what if you could create a string of “year-long minutes” in your life? How many “years” could you then live? If I could create 10 year-long-minutes each year for the rest of my life, that would be 410 years of “really living.” If this concept of the flexible nature of time is true, if time can be “created” then it seems possible that the fountain of youth, the sorcerers stone, ancient alchemy are not only approachable, but practical given how our brains process time.

 So, how is it possible to expand life, to stretch time, to “live (almost) forever”? My intention is to document strategies for doing exactly this in future posts. In the meantime, some thoughts about the role of “stories” in creating time:

 That perfect trip? That first kiss? Getting lost in a Moroccan Souk? Making the team? Losing a close one? Teaching your daughter to snorkel? Missing the train and racing to the next train station in time to catch it there? Think of your stories – what are your best stories, the ones you tell again and again with friends, the ones you will tell your kids?

As a general strategy, the best answer I have heard for creating “really living” moments came from a book I read by Dr. John Izzo, “The Five Secrets You Must Discover BeforeYou Die”. In the book, Izzo interviews a large group of ‘elders’ selected for having discovered happiness and meaning in their lives. In one of the anecdotes of the book, one elderly lady stated her perspective on living a full and fruitful life like this,

 “When life gives you choices, choose the one that makes for the best story.”

Great stories tend to have a conflict, or suffering in them – so the avoidance of pain, the pursuit of pure happiness does not, in the end bring us more time. Comprised of pain and agony or bliss and adventure (or often both) moments of “really living” can be sought – can be pursued – indeed a life can be designed to help create them… However, they cannot be orchestrated – they must, ultimately, “happen” – hence the magic of life and of unique experiences.

To “really living,”

-John

PS: If suffering expands the present, then perhaps the single best way to continue to expand time is to plan an experience of “beautiful suffering” full of anticipation and memorable both in the present as well as the future. Say…. That sounds a lot like climbing a mountain, completing a marathon, doing a triathalon, competing in a bike race, or fighting a bull...

 I’m looking for ideas on how to expand time in the present – in a memorable way. Please write and tell me your thoughts.

Confidence

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, a 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…

Discipline

I had forgotten, somehow - completely forgotten - the effects of heavy training & racing – of day after day of grinding physical effort. I had forgotten the subtle ribbing of the sky, the bricking in of the landscape, the rising gray tiles of the floor. Through suffering, life becomes a tunnel – a turbulent passage from the torrents of one storm grate to the next. Like stops on the subway, regular life events - a dinner, a conversation, a book, a nap – become passing glimpses into the outside world while, ever elusive, the light arcing down the curving tunnel is an ever receding goal. Sometimes even that glow disappears and all that remains are the halls of pain, the passing outlines of real life outside graying in shadows.

The discipline of the mind is iron, it is stone: it surrounds.

Harrowing victory? Brilliant, jubilant defeat?

The mind creates a portrait of the past, but memory has a paintbrush, not a camera. As such it is inherently inaccurate.

Is it any wonder that there are few descriptions of “harrowing victory” in the annals of competitive history? In the same way is it any wonder that there are few memories of a “brilliant, jubilant defeat?” The pixels of light and darkness captured in the mind’s eye are filled with the pallet of color of the results – hence the memories of winning somehow pull from the yellows and golds, success and color implying a relatively easier effort, while the losses are inevitably painted with the charcoals of those chiaroscuro efforts – blackened, brutish, pain and disappointment closely linked.

I choose to repaint this race differently. No – I didn’t win - but I did finish. And in so doing what I did accomplish was a unique mastery of the instrument of my body. For over two hours, I played it like the first violinist – drawing out of it with every lash of the straight bow every possible note, every emotion, every tremble of resonance the space of ribs and air and bones was capable of producing.

In the end was it all meaningless? A black deep hole – a fissure to the worst unknowns? Or was there transcendence in the agony I endured? Did I learn something so raw and true about myself that I’ll be describing it for decades? I don’t really know to be honest – more than two months later as I write this and I still feel as though I’m clawing my way out of that black crevasse, that hallowed and horrifying yet blindingly brilliant 2 hours and 10 minutes I spent at the edge of sanity and consciousness.

The Sprinter's Choice...

 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. This is 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 fear 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 – 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 racing difficult to describe - after all, we choose this fear right?

A "Good Tired"

After 8  days and  nights  on the road, radiant, glowing days in the dunes and at the beaches of Lake Michigan, hot turbulent racing and suffering over swollen burning cracked pavement,  and moist, sweaty yet cooling evenings under the open windows in shell of the RV, I pulled into my driveway and began the interminable unloading process.

 The preceding 4 days were particularly intense – days of “really living”  – comprised of lengthy drives, incredibly difficult races full of highs and lows, and more importantly the resumption of old friendships and assumption of new ones: celebrations with friends and loved ones. Oddly enough – in that same husk of the RV where most of these activities took place we were carrying 5 chrysalides – waiting for the butterflies to emerge.

 By the time I reached home at about 6pm, I was entering that strange netherworld of the overtired – I was on autopilot. I wandered back and forth from the RV to the house carrying odds and ends without much plan or strategy. I could have probably cut my trips down by half if I had the ability to think, but my brain had shut down and only my nervous system and musculature were carrying the day.

 I was physically destroyed and mentally incompetent – yet I was stumbling through happiness. Each glimpse at my bed – the cotton sheets and fresh pillows, the air conditioned air – contrasted with the humid dank air of the garage and RV as I muddled my way through the extensive unloading process.

 3 hours later and I finally finished the task. 3 hours? Yes – the RV is like a rolling home – and it is like moving in and moving out – between sheets, pillows, chairs, coolers, equipment, tools, music, movies, books, papers, pots, pans, cutlery, napkins, plates, condiments, dry goods, pasta, cereal, sports drinks, snack bars, water bottles, coffee, milk, cream, soda, water, bread, meat, chicken, fruit, yogurt, oil, firewood, vegetables, spices, onions, fresh produce, spatulas, bowls, clothes, swimsuits, jackets, bug spay, dog food, and about 100 other things I had redecorated the interior of our home with the insides of the husk of the RV.

 As I moved the last few loads, a recurring thought kept running through the remnants of my brain, “bed… I love bed… can’t wait to go to bed…” 9:30pm and I laid down for the first time since departing Milwaukee early that morning before the race (and the race to the race) in Chicago and the 2 hour fight with traffic back home and I think I entered Stage 2 sleep within 5 seconds of closing my eyes.

 I loved that motion - of actually laying down on my bed. It, my bed, had become like a long lost lover and it embraced me with its dry cool perfumed arms. At some point I wondered in my fog… “maybe people who can’t sleep aren’t tired enough…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On suffering...

Why does comfort breed distance?

Men and women all over the world toil away neatly in their climate controlled offices. Slowly and surely, like the awards on the wall, they become plated, year by year, by an insular coating of chrome and dust. Is there ever a moment where they realize that the light within has been trapped? And even worse, that it reflects away the lights of others?

 We “polished professionals…” has the combination our analytical approaches to business problems, combined with modern comforts of quiet cars, humming air conditioning, and the gauze of TV, Advil and carpeting – has this insulated us from the human features, strengths and flaws of others? Have these comforts so reduced our highs and lows, our smile and frown lines, such that we can no longer read each other?

 Designed by God and nature, the human body is capable of physically working at relatively high intensity without food or water for long periods, with the notable and needed side effects of hunger, thirst and suffering providing reminders of what the body needs in order to continue producing. Has it now become so muffled by the platinum sweater of decent living that its capabilities for “really living” are compromised?

 But suffering – nominally this awful thing to be avoided – it more than anything else strips away the plating – like an acid wash it removes this layer of chrome and dust and allows, for a brief moment, a glimpse back at our humanity, that human grip of flesh upon flesh – all the warm sweat of it.

 It is always amazing to me – the dirt of a race. Every exposed wrinkle becomes black with dust – upon inspection the suffering of the road becomes a fine tracery of black veins delineating the fold of the inner elbow, the creases of thumbs, eggshell folds of the ears and underlids and the worry lines of the forehead. Like a patina added to the contours of our modern life, humanity again becomes obvious and for those brief post race moments we ignore the normal formalities that add distance between us and use the memories of our common suffering to cleave to one another.

Here's to "really living,"

John 

(snippet from 2007 race report #11 - the post race vibe)

Olympic Athletes: The myth of "bodies in tune"

Conventional wisdom has it that athletic minds and their finely trained bodies are completely in tune: that the discipline of training creates in the cavity of the diaphragm, heart, and sinews the same rich resonance that is produced within the oiled wood of a fine cello when rubbed to resonance by fibrous strands of the horsehair bow. Yes, during those magical moments in training or a competition where forces align and the moving parts become orchestrated with some semblance of harmony, a low hum begins, that understated harmony, that resonant frequency which keeps a metronome on an ever shortening interval – the pace increases, lento becomes andente, andente becomes moderato, moderato becomes allegretto…

However, for a majority of scores the music is freeform dissonant jazz: a "bitches brew" of piercing notes out of key and out of synch with the untrained mind, a raucous cacophony twanging the nerves, jangling the sinews and muscles. Contrary to popular belief, one of the main disciplines involved with being a high caliber athlete is learning to tune out and manage the confusing jumble of noise and pain the body shouts to the brain. The learned response is to ignore many of the most obvious biological responses to trauma – pain, soreness, nausea, swelling etc. and continue to drive the beat, to perform.

In the summer of 1991 I was living with a pair of brothers from Minnesota in a run-down apartment complex in Menominee Falls outside Milwaukee, and training with Peter Mueller – the top coach in the world at the time – and training along side Bonnie Blair, Dan Jansen, and a small number of other handpicked speedskaters.  

John Albrecht, my roommate, was a Stradivarius of an athlete: powerful shoulders, a six pack of abdominals, massive thighs tapering gracefully to tuning fork knees, and then a pair of thunderous calves – all muscle and power.

One late morning after a particularly tough session running hills at the Milwaukee lakefront, John quizzically asked me, brow frowning only slightly, “Do you think it’s bad if I have blood in my urine? It’s only been a couple of days now but… what do you think?” 

The halls of pain echo for an experienced athlete. The suffering is nothing and yet is everything. The pain is white. It is black. It lacks color or sibilant sound – just reverberations reflecting off the porcelain tiles of the stony discipline of the psyche. But blood, glittering red-black blood, pulses through hidden rivulets in the gutters of the mind.

 

 

Pre-race jitters: how evolution failed us

The body is an amazing contraption, full of natural instincts like “fight or flight” and “blink" instincts that make all kinds of intuitive and rational sense. Pre-race nerves, however, make no rational sense: explain to me how the sensation of molten lead for blood, mental numbness, and a vague sense of nausea contribute to “survival of the fittest.”

If lions readying for the kill felt this way they’d have gone extinct years ago…

Of course, maybe I’m just the prey…

Why do I race?

Why, exactly, do I race?  It is a convoluted thought/response really. I race because… well, I train for it.  I train for it (racing) because otherwise training would seem devoid of purpose: each feeds the other.

On a deeper level I think I need training because it provides a singular clarity of thought, action, and reward – unlike the relatively complicated worlds of work, and even family.  In the simple cause-and-effect of the sporting world, effort - for the most part - becomes results. No politics, no moods, no clients or customers – just effort, skill, and results. But again – I couldn’t just train… I need a more tangible outlet for my suffering. That, and the fact that I’ve been competing for 29 years… 

Who wouldn’t fall in love the with the post race vibe? Maybe the “high” is artificial and temporary, but at the end of the day, there is a strong sense of legitimacy – of “I’ve earned this dead sleep” that the night brings you after the car is parked, bike is unloaded, and the lights are dimmed. As your eyes close, the disjointed tumbling of thoughts leave parting snapshots of the day  – chiaroscuro highlights like the imprint of sunset on the back of your eyelids… 

Here are my prints: the blurred outline of your front tire as your head drops and you roar past the finish line as all sound and motion returns to your senses. The mottled outline of your legs and shins with the flinty road residue streaked with water droplet trails as you coast around the first turn and congratulate fellow riders. Sweat streaked sunglasses glinting against the blue skies and white clouds as your heart-rate returns to earth.   One of my favorite moments in life is finishing the final lap after a race and searching the crowd for family and friends.

For me it generally doesn’t matter the position that I’ve finished. Rare is the race where I’ve not given it everything I’ve had. If I walk across the line with a broken bike and ragged skinsuit, or I rocket through ahead of the pack and raise my hands – the last lap remains remarkably the same. I am sweaty and dripping, flushed but no longer hot, covered with dirt and dust - but yet cleaned out inside. I am -physically stressed to the max - yet emotionally completely relaxed as I return to the normal sense of my body with a sense of pride. 

I love getting back to the finish stretch and finding that friendly face – lately my wife and daughter – seeing her eyes light up and her clapping as I maneuver to the side to stop at her side. And lately at Downer’s the last couple of years my friend Matt – with his camera. I love immediately reliving and relaying the stories of the race. Standing, shiny in the sun, facing the course, with the announcer’s voice in the distance, and the occasional inquisitive face or congratulatory interlude as you relate the final moments, and (hopefully) that secret ingredient that led to success to your “fans”.