Choose your suffering...

I was reminded of this bit of wisdom over the weekend. The human existence contains suffering - no matter how much we avoid it, dodge it, drug it or outspend it, it finds us. In fact in a few brief intervals of my life when I was not subject to a rather rigorous discipline of training or school or a demanding job where I was suffering regularly for a cause, I found that my whole day became saturated with a low level angst that penetrated all my activity.

When I retired from sport and was able to luxuriate in doing nothing for a few weeks and months while looking for a job I quickly found my days wasting away and then scrambling to send a few resumes by the end of the day which coulda/shoulda taken 30 minutes in the morning.

Work requires a chosen form of suffering in the investments of time and energy to the tasks that aren't "awesome". I "reward" myself at the end of a work day by saving my favorite tasks for last AND by allowing myself the occasion to write on this blog or theartofreallyliving.com  But... it is not enough. My body as well as my brain needs some physical form of stress to clear out the cobwebs and clear my mind.

Lately I've pretended that work stress was a substitute for physical stress - that the "suffering" I've chosen for work could serve as a substitute for putting in miles on the bike. I was wrong.

On Saturday morning I was tired. I had had a long week, late nights, big client deliverables. Each evening I barely squeezed in a short ride to prep for the coming big race in Elk Grove. Saturday morning came and instead of sleeping in I had to get up earlier than a work day to eat, then head to the race.

I was "on the rivet" every minute of those next 30 miles. I had a mouth full of pennies after the first half lap, tasting lactic acid and feeling the uncoordinated burn of a body not yet really in shape. It was a shredding debilitating pain and I convinced myself to finish at least one lap of 1.2 miles. After one lap I convinced myself to protect my pride and complete two laps. After two, I said, "one more straightaway" and made it. It slowed a little right when I intended to quit on lap 3. Again on lap 4. Lap 5 I got dropped, but a splinter group chasing hard brought me back.  Again on lap 10, then lap 14 and 16. I got dropped over 20 times and managed to reconnect often by hitting the U-turn at 20mph when the pack was taking it at 5mph. I ran the currents and eddies and swung up 30 places only to drop 29 on the next straightaway. I was suffering immensely. I wanted to quit, I even tried to quit, but always the race reabsorbed me.

And then it was over. I didn't win. I was actually "last" - in that of the racers that finished I coasted across last. A few dozen had been "dropped" I suppose, but I did have a quiet pride about not quitting. I had turned myself inside out and was exhausted... but the great thing about the bike is you can immediately feel good again...Not sore, not fatigued, just "clear."

I went home. I checked my bike. I had a small mechanical problem that appeared to be the equivalent of riding with the brakes on. My legs and lungs were lit up like a christmas tree and twitched all night, but when I woke up on Sunday and rode back to watch the final pro race, my synapses and fast twitch muscles were on fire - I rode the big ring to and from the race and averaged the fastest pace on a training ride that I have all season. Was it the mechanical fix? Or did the massive suffering the day before reactivate long slumbering muscle fibers?

I guess I can't know, but I do know that when you choose your suffering and invest in positive stress that makes you stronger, the outcome is a kind of joy that is hard to find in the walks of everyday life. Riding home Sunday after the race was one of the best afternoons I have had in months - just me against the wind, wheels and sky.

At Craig and Kim's house - at the 300m line
At Craig and Kim's house - at the 300m line

2009 Race Reports 14 – 16: The Race to the Race

2009 Race Reports 14 – 16: The Race to the Race It was a carnival freak show caricature of the real thing. Everything that took place during those swollen seconds was a bloated, leviathan equivalent of the norm. Reminiscent of the movie Wall-E, every healthy element was eliminated and replaced by a supersized, unhealthy counterpart.

In the race to the race of the Chicago Criterium, I desperately needed food “on-the-go,” and the Lake Forest Oasis became my “feed-zone” where I received my “hand-up.”  To explain: the feed-zone is the area in bike races like the Tour de France where racers pick up “musette bags” full of healthy carbs and proteins, “hand-ups” by helpful members of the staff who run along side the racers as they slowly climb the steep slopes. Shoulder straps allow the racers to sling these bags of healthy calories over their shoulders so they can eat as they ride. I might as well have strapped it to my face…

In my case, the mountain was the small hill of the Lake Forest Oasis overpass, and the “musette bag” was a folded McDonalds to-go bag containing two fatty hamburgers on white bread with ketchup. The “racer,” (me) was not pedaling a 15lb carbon fiber frame… instead I was casually pushing the gas pedal of a rusting RV getting 7mpg - a 10,000lb hulk of fiberglass and steel zooming awkwardly over the top of the oasis. My friend Matt, unwittingly involved in this sordid satire, stood balanced on the curb in front of McDonalds on his tiptoes holding out my feed bag as I snatched it from his grasp at about 10mph, wallowing back down the overpass to I-294 spewing fumes en-route to the Chicago Criterium.

Thus continued the single worst preparations for any race of my life…

Race Report 14: July 26, 2009 – The Chicago Criterium, Grant Park Chicago – Masters 1 / 2  

The night before the Chicago Crit started way too early, involving copious quantities of Red Zinfandel out of a plastic cup while hiking the Downer Avenue course with my 21 year old teammate Randy Rodd and my great friend Matt Dula while watching the Pro Race. We ended the evening with the usual routine of entertaining guests in the RV by the start finish line and then hit North Avenue, staying up until 2:30am. Randy had to leave just 3 hours later for his race and successfully woke in time. He’s 21 and gets no sympathy. I on the other hand had difficulty waking up at 8:30 when I needed to, and when I finally did get on the road, found myself racing the clock for the 12:05pm race in a vehicle that can’t go much faster than 60mph at 7mpg.

I began chugging water just like the year prior, but this time had no food. I polished off 9 20oz bottles of water in the 3 hour drive, but could already feel the lack of calories. There was no way I could race without eating something, but I didn’t have time to stop… what to do?

I called Matt who was speeding on ahead in his car – and we arranged the now infamous “Lake Forest feed-zone hand-up.” I had asked for a relatively healthy breakfast sandwich and was suddenly thwarted by the switch to lunch. I was stumped - I should have gotten a grilled chicken wrap rather than plain burgers – what was I thinking?!

Finally, 20 minutes before race start time, I parked the RV for $40 and sped to registration, where I received my number (104 – hence there were 104 race participants – once again I was the last to register) and then sped to the wheel pit where Jose and another mechanic helped to get 4 pins in my number just as they called out the racer instructions. The fourth safety pin was latched just as they shot the gun and off we went – and I joined the rear of the peleton about 200 feet past the start finish – no warmup, tired, dehydrated, and fueled with fatty ground beef, ketchup and white bread. I felt like hell.

The race was relatively short and I actually wanted it to be longer, because the longer it lasted, the better I felt. I started lazy and lethargic and gained a little bit of energy every lap. It was an easy race and it was amazing that the peleton let 4 riders escape.

Finally it was the last lap and I woke up. It required the urgency of the bell to finally spur me into motion. The video below captures the action of the final lap, beginning right as we cross the line with one to go where I’m still sitting probably 60 deep or more in the peleton. I learned later than a couple guys were watching my wheel and determined I had given up on the race when I hadn’t yet moved up with less than one to go.

I tried to sling up front into the second corner, but others had the same idea and it was a bind around the corner and I had to brake hard. Swarming continued on the backstretch and I was trapped in the middle and dropped from 12h to 25th before turn 3 of 4 where I had intended to be 2nd – 4th. However, as we passed turn 3 into the short uphill, I still had my one little match, and I lit it out of that corner, getting out of the saddle and shooting up the outside, passing about 15 riders over the top to slot into 4th place into the final corner. I’m sure the same move from 8th or higher would have earned me the field sprint win, but I was just too far back, and by the short final sprint I had no juice left and finished 4th in the field sprint, 8th overall. The video makes it look all in slo-mo, but in real life I felt like I entered hyper-space up the hill and loved that feeling of acceleration. I do love that course…

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1mhpbVuI2D8]

Race Report 15: August 1st, 2009 – Elk Grove Cat 1/2 75 Kilometers.

I arrived on time, warmed up, and suffered like a dog. For each of the 37 laps I determined that the next lap I would drop out. There was a crosswind and the peleton was spread out single file from lap one, and each long (1000m) finish stretch had me on the rivet. I quickly determine that I would quit at 35 to go (2 laps in), then I lied to myself and said, “at least make 5 laps”.

At lap 32 to go, I lied again and said, “10 laps would be at least a decent showing for your teammates in town” (I had 4 fellow Wolverines visiting and staying with me – Randy, Brett, Pat, and Sarah).  So with 27 to go I determined to quit again, but there they were, cheering, so I decided to go one more lap. Then another, and another. Even with 5 laps to go I wasn’t sure I would make one more lap. The idea of moving up did not enter my oxygen starved brain until 2 to go, and with gaps opening and wheels single file, I only managed to get into the upper quarter of the peleton by the finish despite using every possible fragment of energy in my body (see video below).

Race Report 16: August 2nd, 2009 – Elk Grove Masters 1/2 45 Kilometers. Every POSSIBLE mistake…

Saturday night ended nice and early despite my teammates being town, and after only one glass of wine with Randy and Pat, I hit the hay early and then returned to the course with them the next morning with over an hour to register, pin on my numbers and make the start of the race.

I registered, returned to the car with my number, and then started scrambling, tearing the car apart, searching for, but not finding my skinsuit. Mistake #1 – I forgot my skinsuit. My God – even when I’m early I’m late. I had to head all the way back to get my skinsuit – but Pat Robb had my keys, so first I had to find him… I did get somewhat of a warmup chasing him down while coordinating with Randy via phone. Once I had the keys, I had the traffic lights perfectly timed as I raced back to get my suit, and then returned to the course. When I parked, it was 10:27am, and I still had to get on my numbers, helmet, shoes, gloves and get to the start/finish line in less than 3 minutes.

Meanwhile, they were apparently calling my name at the start/finish, and co-workers John Cregier, Ed Perez, and Dave Torgerson were scratching their heads as I succeeded in becoming a caricature of myself by skidding to the line during the final race announcements with an unbuckled helmet, un-strapped shoes, no gloves, no shoe covers, and no number on. Randy was there to help put the number on, but a couple of ladies by the barriers took over and managed to get 3 of the numbers pinned on before the sent us on our way.

I felt quite good and stayed mostly mid-pack, biding my time for the very long (700m) sprint. Near the end I dropped back, and then as we came around and I saw 3 laps to go, I started making my moves to the front. Mistake #2 – I never looked at the lap cards again…I’m sure now, that when I looked up with 3 laps to go, I was probably dead last, and they had already flipped the cards, so there were actually 4 laps to go, not 3.

But I moved through the pack as though there were 3, then 2, then 1 lap to go. Around the final bend there were two riders off, and the pack, as expected in the headwind, bunched up and I launched off the front, bridging between the pack and the lead riders, knowing the race was mine… until I realized it had all been too easy, and, glancing back, seeing that the pack had done nothing. A sudden cold feeling rang through me with the bell as I sat 100 meters off the front of the peleton… “One Lap to Go!, one lap to go riders!” yelled the announcer. Mistake #3 – sprinting with one lap to go…

No what? I had burned most of my match and couldn’t possibly hold the lead… so I sat up and waited, and then jumped back into the accelerating peleton in about 15th. Over the final corners, things played out well and I was in perfect position, but had no match left and merely followed wheels to finish in 6th place, the taste of blood and pennies in my mouth like yesterday…

Still, my legs felt like they were finally coming on… and the Grand Cycling Classic – in Grand Rapids Michigan – where I had had my first win in a while the year prior was coming up next… I liked this feeling of possiblities...