2008 Race Report #17: Superweek Stage 15 (Kenosha) and “Really Living”

2008 Race Report #17: Superweek Stage 15 (Kenosha) and “Really Living”

After collecting my check for 9th place in Racine, we piled into the RV and headed to Lake Geneva, WI – home of Gary & Monica as well as their two sons, Rico (Otto) and Ogzila (Owen).

 We pulled into the forested cul-de-sac in Lake Geneva to revisit these favorite friends, the dappled light from tall trees welcoming us back a year after our last visit when the stars had swooned from my exhaustion. However, other than my relatively fresh legs it might as well have been 20 minutes: time ratchets on many cogs and it is a mistake of the modern era to conclude that it is linear. As we gathered round the kitchen watching Monica finish preparing an incredible feast of homegrown vegetables, salsa, and an amazingly tender and flavorful pork tenderloin, we resumed the chain of our previous conversations about life and happiness without shifting gears. 

 Monica was ever the gracious, relaxed and attentive host and chef, and Gary, as usual was full of stories and stocked with fine wine. We all sat out under the fading light talking and enjoying one of those perfect midwestern nights where the air is soft and still, the only currents the blue fingers of the cool evening air descending to massage our limbs. 

 I was determined to race well at Kenosha – yet could not tear away from the conversation either. This is where my purposes, and that of the professional athlete diverge – the professional has no so quandries – he merely announces, “I have to go to work” and heads off to bed. I have no such desire to make that kind of sacrifice – but nor do I want to get crushed in the race due to crippling fatigue – so I typically settle for the next best thing – staying up way too late, getting up way too early, and getting just barely enough sleep to function reasonably well. That may very well sound like poor decision making, but for me, the goal has changed – the old goal was “winning” – the new goal is “really living” which requires different choices and different sacrifices.

 “Really living” as a concept is quite different than happiness and has slowly evolved as a core concept to my own identity. What I love about it is its honesty: it implies the necessity of suffering and acknowledges the reality of looming and inevitable death as fodder for living a life of meaning. There are numerous literary and cultural references to this concept but for some reason my favorite is from the 1995 film “Braveheart” where the main character, William Wallace, says simply, “every man dies, not every man really lives.”

 Said differently, this concept includes the latin “Carpe Diem” (Seize the Day), and a favorite quote from within a book by John Izzo, “When life gives you choices, choose the one that will make the best story.” Viktor Frankl also speaks to the essence of this concept (particularly with regards to suffering) in his famous book “Man’s Search For Meaning.”

 I’m particularly focused on this concept of late, and for odd reasons. A few weeks ago, a high school classmate I had not spoken to in more than two decades wrote to me on Facebook. This person had been one our schools’ top athletes and our shared past included events to bond us despite relatively little time together. After exchanging the usual pleasantries he asked whether I was still competing. “Of course,” I answered, and then I threw an alternate question back to him, “are you happy?”. His answer was absolutely un-extraordinary and somewhat typical and expected – yet for some reason it rocked me on my heels. I wrestled with it for hours that became days that became weeks.

 Perhaps it was partially because I was about to cross a point in time in life indicating that arbitrary line of my 40th birthday – maybe deep down my subconscious (my elephant – to reference Jonathan Haidt) did believe this was a significant milestone even if my rational mind gave it scarcely a thought.

 Here’s his quote to my question of whether he was happy:

 “I think I'm more content than happy which is okay by me, the highs and lows of life are a bit overrated. I've grown to appreciate the calm, steady times in my old age.” (bold is mine)

 I began to question my sanity. As an almost 40 year old, shouldn’t this be what I aspire to?  To gracefully relax my white knuckled “Carpe Diem” grip on life and fade into the wallpaper? After all isn’t my goal to trade the paint pots and brushes of the artist for that of the canvas maker – to create the playing field for others to discover their dreams? To create the backdrop upon which my daughter, my team, and others in my life can paint their own destinies in bright and vibrant colors? Was I starting to become like that overly elegant frame in the museum – trying or succeeding in outshadowing the art?

 Again and again I circled and vacillated – servant leader vs. Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and eventually concluded that, for now, parts of my life still call for the role of participant – or via leading through doing and that despite the usual barriers, cynicism, and conventional wisdom, that I would go ahead and follow my own moral compass.

 Calm steady times sound great, and go down easy – no question. But… they are often forgotten. I still want to grow – to experience the “squeeze of life” and the subsequent expansion and rush that follows suffering. And besides, there was just no possible way that I had become old… yet.

 Thank God for Dara Torres.

 Race Report #17: Superweek Stage 17, Kenosha, Wisconsin, Friday, July 25. Category: Pro ½.  Weather: 82 degrees, light winds. Course: flat, four corners,  0.6miles/lap, Distance, 100 laps, 100km, average speed 29.7mph, Average pulse over 2 hours, 10 minutes:  176bpm.

 After a morning by the pool with the kids playing, and then a pasta extravaganza produced by Monica featuring my favorite of favorites - the pasta with fresh tomato-basil, onion, zuccini, squash combo we had made for them the year prior, it was time to go race.

Kenosha is one of my favorite races – both for the “gemutlichheit” sense or feeling of positive energy that pervades the overall event, as well as for the more selfish reasons that the race tends to be one where I place well – mostly on the podium these past years.

 Sudden note to self – the few races that I do really well in (Sheboygan, Kenosha, Downer’s Grove) tend to draw the greatest crowds – why is that?  Probably because the simplicity of these courses tends to the leave the outcome uncertain… and because you can see a good portion of the race and follow it from many positions. I rarely rejoice in being a sprinter, but courses like this do provide the sprinter some panache – you roadies can go ahead and destroy each other on Holy Hill where ‘both spectators’ can watch, or you can come to a race with throngs like this where it ‘gets interesting.’

 I arrived on time, warmed up well and started mid-field in this epic event. I was a little nervous prior to the start as my thwarted move last year on the last lap held out that there was a possibility that I could win or place in a Pro race. But mostly my attitude remained in that fun place of “all upside” and I found a weird contrary enjoyment in the first 60 of 100 laps.

 For more than 2 decades I’ve clinically evaluated the elements of this course and leveraged my limited strengths against them. For the first 2/3’s of the race I focused on efficiency and maintaining position and absolutely nothing else. Breaks? Crashes? These were merely mosquitoes to be swatted at and I found some positive meaning in being the “best” at my little internal game of moving up during the lulls, staying out of trouble, and finding the best wheel, the best line through the corner, the best position in the peleton to conserve, and pedaling the least.

 As we drifted down the lap countdown, the pace continued to reign high and I had to move up and close some gaps. It remained strung out, single file from laps 30 down to 15. At this point it relaxed just a little bit. I was ever thankful and wheezed on the snorkel of recovery. Part of me warned, though, that this was a temporary reprieve, and my own challenge to the roadie gods was not completely gone from my own mind. After two laps of rest, I saw that traditional and perfect opportunity – the front had lost focus and the pack had swarmed and I could merely put in a hard accel up the left and I would find myself in the top 20 – in position for the suffering to follow.

 I did nothing.

 12 laps still seemed like a long way. I had never been in a race that didn’t regroup at least once underneath the 5 mile mark (we were at 7 miles to go) so I didn’t panic. I should have.

 It was though the challenge I had issued to the roadie gods was answered (and it was not a prayer.) With 12 laps to go, the Columbian team, followed by Kelly Benefits and Rock Racing, began an onslaught the likes of which I’ve never experienced, watched or witnessed. Even as I entered that rare territory of my strengths (a few laps to go on a fast course) all my weaknesses were dealt against me like playing against a deck of Aces.

 The pace up front lifted and lifted some more, averaging over 31mph, with straightaway speeds 33, and 34 each and every lap. The Columbian team was determined to protect themselves from the usual ‘sprint surge’ typical in courses like these. Like the high water surge of a hurricane, these currents are ultimately damaging to the strengths of the time trialists and endurance athletes leading the peleton, so they, wisely, decided to eliminate them.

 I shredded every fiber of my being to move up and was lucky to slot up 5 riders per lap. The first minute and a half of the video is a couple snippets of the race with 6 and then 5 laps to go and at a minute in, I'm riding the wheel of one of the Rock Racing Pros and continue to move up.

At 1:40 in the video we rejoin just a lap later, and the pressure is on and it is single file with 4 laps to go and stays that way. At 2:01 in the video, a gap opens and we close it, meanwhile, riders start shelling off to the left and right, including one of the Jittery Joes pros at 2:07. The next 3 minutes are a tunnel of pain - asphyxiating darkness taking over everything but the wheel ahead of me. At 3:01 I have to close another gap. At 3:15 a crash and I dodged around the riders - then a 3:35 the bridge back to the field - I tagged onto the end of the chain - dying with 3 laps to go.  

I numbly followed wheels for the remaining laps as the tattered field exploded around me to cross the line at 7:30 on the video to finish 63rd. I did not sprint – I couldn’t – I had nothing left. Even without the crash I would not have been in contention…

 I couldn’t, and didn’t really complain. The roadies were smart: they contained and/or eliminated the moves of the sprinters and ruled the day. As a strategist I would have advised nothing less.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lddvfZE671E]

 Gary had received a weekend pass and joined me in the RV. We picked up some wine and then prepared to head to Milwaukee for the last ride of the RV (coming soon.)

 

2008 Race Report #13 1/2: A "Good Tired"

Flash Forward - Sunday July 27th: 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…”

2008 Race Report #10: Superweek Blue Island Pro/Am

2008: Race Report #10 Superweek Stage 2

                                                         

Race Report #10: Saturday, July 13. Category: Pro 1/2, Weather: 81 degrees, 18 mph winds. Course: 4 corners, 1 mile – mostly flat. Distance 62 miles (I made it 46 out of 62 miles) ~140 riders. Average speed, 30.3 mph, Avg. pulse 176 before getting dropped

 

Unfortunately, sadly, the biggest story here was the ‘race to the race.’ While this is far from uncommon in my experience due to the demands of work, home, and an absent mind, this day was different. With my wife and daughter heading up to visit family early in the day Saturday, I had the remainder of the day to focus on prepping properly for my debut pro race at Superweek. I wanted a ‘no excuses’ kind of race – so I cleaned my bike and cleaned my chain and cassette (discovering as a side product, that my chain was too short and couldn’t even go into my big rings in front and back without destroying my rear derailleur). That chain change at Village Cyclesport has been my bane...

 

I got the car loaded, and made sports drinks for before and after the race, ate pasta at exactly 3 1/2 hours before start time and then headed on my way, hydrating heavily. About an hour and a half before the race I was about to exit the highway – a mere 2 miles from the race course – and I called SRAM mechanic extraordinaire and former Wolverine Jose Alcala – and sure enough he was again working superweek. I was glad as my front wheel with its bent spokes was out of true and I have now lost any trust in any other mechanic. He kidded me about ‘showing up 10 minutes before the race’ and I told him, “this time maybe I’ll surprise you…” Sure enough I saw the sign for my exit off 294 South for Highway 50. I did end up surprising him though…

 

There was a wrinkle though – as always… About 5 miles back, the highway, under ongoing construction, had divided left and right and I had gone left. There was no indication of anything out of the ordinary – for instance, a sign saying,  “take the lanes on the left and you’ll be trapped in a concrete barrier from hell for the next 22 miles unable to exit until you drop out onto highway 80” would have been somewhat useful information.

 

And so I drove and cursed and cursed and drove as I watched each of my potential exits fade on the other side of my impermeable, infinite concrete barrier as the My Navigator application on my U.S. Cellular® phone kept saying “re-calculating route”. Honestly – I was screaming in my car – trapped behind a careful tourist driving 50 mph ahead of me and no way to go back or get out.

 

Finally I dropped down to highway 80 and exited Dixie Highway, following the prompts back to Blue Island – 8 miles or 15 minutes away – still 45 minutes left until race time.

 

Then, only a half mile from the course, I hit the train tracks. An engine was crossing with one car – slowly – but heck it was only one car. 5 minutes later and the gates lifted – but only for about 10 seconds – one car got through, and down they came again. The train now backed up and recrossed and picked up about 1000 other cars and they began trundling across the road at a speed of about zero-point-one. 5 minutes became 10 became 15. Meanwhile I had changed into my full racing regalia in the car – but still it trundled along… I considered parking the car on the side of the road and then running through an opening between cars with my bike and then riding the remaining ½ mile to the course. I actually would have done it – but the train was finally picking up steam – probably 4mph now.

 

So I used Google maps on my U.S. Cellular BlackBerry® Curve and found an alternate route and circled several miles around – putting the four liters of my V8 to full use – like a rental car - only two speeds – floored or braking.

 

I screamed into the parking lot in Blue Island with 5 minutes to go before race time. I dropped my wheel with Jose, registered with Chris who seemed amused and expectant over my mad last minute rush, put my number on in the wheel pit, and just as I was inserting the last pin, Eddy Van Guys announced, “and here, ready to shoot the starter’s pistol is the mayor of Blue Island – mayor?”

 

So much for warmup, though I did have an adrenaline rush to fire the muscles…

 

The race itself? Fast. First few laps were mundane, and then it began to string out. As the pack was stretched from 5 abreast to 3 to 2 abreast, I surfed and rode well, but when it became single file I struggled, and my pulse – holding in the mid 170’s the first 10 laps, began to rise and I was riding in the low 180’s – right at my sustainable max.

 

(Video 1 - joins the action a few laps into the race when it is still 5 abreast and the peleton is a still a crowd. By a 1:30 into the video things began to stretch out, and at 2:10 we begin a long painful hammer session down  the home stretch. At 2:40 you can see that the pack has now stretched 200 yards from tip to tail. By the end of this clip (video is 3:20) we are mostly single file...)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dc_3i1pHiiU]

 

Meanwhile the front wheel I had borrowed from Jose was a bit misaligned with my brake pads, and they began to make more and more noise as the pad was starting to bite into the tire. After about 15 laps it began to make me nervous (it was the front) and as the pace continued to lift and I was forced to dive into corners and brake hard, I was using my front break more than ever. Finally I decided to risk a free lap (would it count?) and coasted into the pits where Jose put on my newly trued wheel and let Carl the referee know that it was a legitimate stop – “failure of critical mechanical part”.

 

The one lap rest was incredibly welcome and I swung back out into the field with 45 laps to go already very tired. But my legs performed and I rode the pack as best as I could despite finish stretch speeds in excess of 35 mph, and an average speed (when I dropped) of 30.3 mph. (this did not include the first 16 laps – when I had the wheel pit wheel on my bike without the magnet for my bike computer)

 

(Video 2 – Here I turn on the camera while I'm waiting in the wheel pit after my free lap - note the breakaway rider fly by at over 30mph by himself. I continually ask myself how that is possible. For the next couple of laps I ride behind or near Ken and another rider from bicycle heaven in the blue jersey and blue shoe covers. At about 5:15, I hit a manhole cover and the camera tilts up. Over the next lap, the pace picks up and more and more I'm riding a single file or two abreast line on a wheel where all you can see is the guy's butt ahead of me - pretty boring really. The rest of the video, unfortunately goes off the frame as the camera tilts even farther - nothing much to see anyway)

 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ta079Nxk2ho]

 

The Columbian team continued to push breakaways and the field was unwilling to let them go, so the peleton resumed the strung out 2 abreast or single file structure for dozens of laps and I began to tire. I had fallen to the rear of the peleton and after passing the halfway mark at 31 miles, I was hopeful that I was going to finish, but the pace stayed high and riders were dropping out ahead of me forcing me to bridge gaps. Several of these were full out efforts pushing my pulse to 187 and 188 for several laps, and with 16 laps to go, after completing 46 miles or 90 minutes at an average heartrate of 176 bpm, another gap opened that I couldn’t close and I drifted away off the back down the backstretch.

 

It’s a terrible feeling – this. Pulse at 188 bpm and watching 100 riders pedal away from you as though it were easy. For a few moments, that deep morose funk hit me – “not good enough”, “couldn’t hack it,” “loser.”

 

But as I made my way back to Jose in the wheel pit, I was able to remember those good moments in the race – those hard accels from the corners where I neatly moved up 10 spots easily, the tight balance of my body over the wheels in the corners where I could swing up several spots by pedaling earlier and later than everyone. I also considered that, unlike last year, I knew, absolutely knew, that I had not killed my sprint by overtraining.

 

So I reframed this ‘loss’ as an, “I almost made it…”

 

When Jose asked me about my fitness, I waxed philosophical… “I think its about right – if I was able to hang easily in a race this fast, then odds are good I’d have overtrained…” and then, “I think, honestly, that all of my best, big races have had two things in common: 1) I was barely, barely hanging on for a majority of the race, and 2) Due to that, at the end I was one of the few with a sprint motor left…”

 

We’ll see if my ‘half full’ approach proves to be accurate.  After the race I was able to chat with the Garrison brothers, and Eddy Van Guys. I was particularly humbled when Eddy, out of the blue, said, “You are a great writer – I’ve been following your blog…”

 

That means a lot Eddy – thanks,

 

-John

 

PS: Coming soon - videos  and picutures from the Olympia Fields Master's Criterium - my friend Matt brought his camera.