Saturday, December 8, 2012

You Gotta Have Heart

“One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will…”

Ulysses, Tennyson

A British medical journal about the heart—aptly named Heart—reported the results of a couple of studies on endurance runners last week. According to recent research, if you are an older athlete (read: over fifty) exercising for prolonged periods close to your anaerobic threshold could damage the heart muscle. It’s even possible that persisting with such cardiac stress could “speed one’s progress toward the finish line of life” as the journal quaintly phrases it.

Some of my more sedentary friends delight in sending me links to articles like these, trying to prod me into admitting, I suppose, that my athletic pursuits are a waste of time and might even kill me. As it happened when the article was reprinted in The Globe and Mail, it was placed right below another one from the Harvard Medical School reporting that men with excess visceral fat were at higher risk not only for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, but also for osteoporosis. I resisted sending that link to my beer-bellied friends.

So apparently I have a choice: drop dead while flying toward a personal best in a marathon or be slowly suffocated by a blanket of blubber while sprawled in my Barca Lounger watching Honey Boo Boo.
Reading the Heart article more closely, I note that what it is really saying is that athletically I can’t do at sixty what I used to do at twenty.

When I was twenty I was a two pack a day smoker and couldn’t have run around the block if a grizzly bear was chasing me. Since I started running at thirty-three, I have finished more marathons than I can remember. I have done all seven of my Ironmans since turning fifty. I have also failed more spectacularly at some athletic challenges than I ever could have dreamed of at twenty.

And there lies the data that no study can measure. Where did those dreams come from?
Of course, my muscles, including that big one called the heart, are less flexible, less dense, and less responsive than they were when I started running nearly thirty years ago. I have been losing about one per cent or so of my lean muscle mass per year since I hit thirty. And if the heart were merely a piece of muscle, it would be easy to measure how less capable it grows as it ages. But endurance athletes have learned that there is more to a heart than metrics.

“Throw your heart over those hills,” Ironman legend Lisa Bentley used to say, “And your body will follow.”
This is the type of heart that speaks to athletes. The physiological heart will do what it does; we are nothing without the other type.

I agree with the studies that growing older is probably a good reason to slow down a bit. Luckily for me, I have never been fast, nor have I ever aspired to be. I consider it a gift just to be able to participate and a triumph just to cross the finish line. A further plus: now I have reason to celebrate my five and a half hour Ironman marathons.
Although I have little need for speed, I do have a strong desire to set goals and to work to achieve them. My desire to test the limits of my heart is part of me; it is vital to my physical and mental health. As the Canadian Olympic marvel Clara Hughes writes: "I move, therefore I am."

 My heart pumps life into my dreams of swimming or biking or running long distances. This is the part of me that I hope never tires.

This is the muscle that inspires me to be healthy; to be strong, flexible and resilient; to keep the positive things in sight and the negative things in perspective.

Studies can tell me that my muscle mass has diminished and that my physical strength is less; they can tell me that I will never again run a 10K in under 45 minutes. They can even tell me I should slow down for fear of dying. But if they tell me that the unmeasurable part of my heart is any weaker or less determined, or any less capable of creating and carrying my dreams, I will stop listening.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Butterfly Effect

Chaos theory postulates that when a butterfly flaps its wings on one side of the world, a hurricane could possibly result somewhere far away.

I like to think of the butterfly theory as a concept that we are never totally in charge of what happens to us. There’s always a butterfly flapping somewhere far away. As the beloved Gilda Radner used to say, it’s always something.

So what happens when a hurricane occurs far away? Does a butterfly somewhere get blown off course? Tropical Storm Isaac made landfall in Louisiana on August 28. Its force knocked a series of weather patterns like billiard balls into Central Ontario on Saturday September 8, the day before the Subaru Ironman Muskoka 70.3 triathlon. What had been basically a perfect summer became a perfect storm.

Wind and cold rain swept the transition area as we dropped off our bikes and picked up our race kits. I once heard Lance Armstrong say that he liked it when the weather conditions were awful; it weeded out the weaklings, he said. Personally, as an avowed weakling, I prefer it when the weather is agreeable. Although the forecast for race day was much better, it was difficult to get into the spirit of the event as I splashed around tying plastic bags over my headset and saddle and spraying my chain with WD40.

It was a relief when the system passed through and race morning dawned clear and mostly windless. A triathlete’s dream, although a bit cool, if we are nitpicking.
A Swim in a Northern Lake
The swim start went off in waves spaced six minutes apart and mine was the last wave. It was a treat not to have schools of young, speedy age groupers swimming overtop of me. Of course this also meant that I began the race already half an hour behind most of the field. As always, I enjoyed the feeling of plunging my hands into the lake over and over to grab handfuls of water, and the sensation of that water bubbling past my face and neoprened body. I was out a little faster than I had expected, with a pace slightly quicker than what I had swum at the 5150 race in July. The run from the lake to the transition area should be an event in itself, as it is about 300 metres long and straight uphill.

What to say about the bike course of the Muskoka 70.3? We have a history together. I have cycled on these roads scores of times; I snapped a collarbone on one of these hills two years ago and I have summered near here since I was little. And yet each time I ride here I am thrilled with the beauty of the landscape, the cleanness of the air, and the extraordinary difficulty of the hills. This is not a course to set a PB on unless you have a jet pack embedded in your bottom bracket. No one of the hills is an endless thigh-burner but they work together synergistically over the 94K distance to wear you out. The road surface ranges from pool table smooth to bronco-bucking wild.

A Rare Smooth, Flat Section
Winter weather conditions in Muskoka have the effect of making the pavement on the secondary roads heave and crack, producing a surface that can make it a challenge to stay upright on your bike. So a past cause drives a current effect: a winter frost plus a spring thaw equal a cracked road in summer, causing water bottles to bounce out of their holders and land on the road. Riding down steep hills, unable to dodge these obstacles, some riders were thrown onto the road themselves, with unhappy results. I survived by holding on for dear life on the roughest parts, and was lucky enough not to run over any water bottles. Once again the roads of Muskoka and the butterfly proved we can never count on anything.

Three kilometres before the end, on the last major climb, my chain slipped off my front ring and I had to get off and reset it before trying to get going again, never fun when you're halfway up a hill. It's always something; if it's not water bottles on the road, it's a derailed derailleur. I pulled into T2 a little later than I had hoped, but in one piece and, as the Dixie Chicks sang, ready to run.

I enjoyed all 21 kilometres of the run, feeling better and stronger the farther I went. The run course heads mildly uphill for the first half and then back down for the second, making it possible to pick up a little speed if you like. Much of the run course travels through quiet neighbourhoods and along a forested pathway, which makes up for a boring and distracting 3K stretch along the main highway.

By the time I crossed the finish line, I had run my fastest half-marathon ever in a half Ironman distance race, although my overall time was slower than I had planned. But I had enjoyed the effort, and I revelled in the atmosphere of the day and cherished the end of the race too much to care about times. As always, I breathed a thank-you to whatever butterfly had set in motion the chain of events that allows me to participate in such magnificent adventures year after year. To quote Lance once again, "it's cool to win, but even's great to be [my age] and be fit and healthy."
Still the Best Feeling Ever -- The Finish

Later, as I was packing the car to drive home, I noticed a Monarch butterfly overhead in the calm blue dusk, possibly heading for its winter home in Mexico, possibly instantiating the next mid-Pacific typhoon.

“So, how about this weather?” I asked.

Friday, July 27, 2012


To get to the finish line, you'll have to try lots of different paths.
Amby Burfoot

Triathlon, more often than reasonable events such as biking or running, can be affected by wrong choices you make before the race ever starts: forgotten or lost equipment, too much or too little clothing for the elements, wrong bike cassette for the terrain, boa constrictor of a wetsuit. Even the way you lay out your stuff in the transition area can be a game changer. There’s nothing as comically pathetic as the sight of some poor sod in T1 crawling around underneath his bike on all fours like a blind beggar, groping for a missing sock. Sometimes though, you make some wrong choices that turn out OK.

It’s been a while since I participated in an Olympic distance triathlon. The first ones I ever did, back in the nineties, were Olympic: 1500 metre swim, 40k bike and 10k run. This was the time when the Olympic (or International) distance was all there was, unless you were doing an Ironman. Later, sprint triathlons took over most of the races and became immediately popular, probably because of the accessibility of a shorter race to more folks. Now the Olympic distance is making a comeback thanks to a new race series called 5150 (the figure represents the total distance travelled in kilometres: 51.50. If you are American you can think of the total distance as 31.93 miles, a number I imagine the organizers thought would not be as marketable).

The inaugural Muskoka 5150 Triathlon was held in Huntsville last weekend around the venue of the old Subaru Long Course races that were very popular for many years. The race routes this year were similar, but shorter. The swim followed a path out into the lake and back up the river; the bike was a terrific rollercoaster up and down cottage roads. The run was an odd little double loop, which I’ll discuss in a minute.

I had entered the 5150 event in a fit of guilt about how little actual race experience I was getting this summer in advance of the Muskoka 70.3 in September. Although I’ve done lots of biking and running, I have been in the water exactly three times since Ironman Canada last August, none of those times in a race.

For some reason this year I had despaired of shoehorning myself into my usual Blue Seventy wetsuit, so I decided to wear a floppy old Ironman Stealth that hung off me like a choir gown and collected water like a trawler. Thus when the starting gun went off I was under no illusions that I was going to Phelps the swim. I was right. In fact it was one of the slowest ever for me; a more lugubrious pace than any of my Ironman swims, which are more than twice the distance. But I did manage to stay more or less afloat on the surface of the lake, exited the water happily in the morning sun and trotted over to my P2C, which I have not ridden in a year.
Remembering how to ride my P2C

The bike course featured a lot of short steep ups and downs, with not much opportunity to settle into the aero bars for a little nap, as we do in Ironman. All the same, it was a challenging and fun course to ride, and it felt like it ended too soon at only 40k. The road surface was a pleasant surprise; I had been expecting much worse as these Muskoka roads suffer greatly from winter frost and are hard to keep wrinkle-free.

Then it was time for the run. The race organizers had chosen to route the course around a couple of high school tracks (one of which was all gravel) and then, incredibly, down a steep, rocky path. There were probably a lot of people cursing that part of the run course. Not I though, and here’s why: I had realized as I was getting ready for the race that morning that I had forgotten a vital component to triathlon success: my running shoes. All I had with me to wear was a pair of trail shoes. I wasn’t too fussed as I have worn these shoes to run to work many times, and aside from being somewhat clunky, they work. They would not, however, have been my first choice for the 10k run in a triathlon.

Never underestimate a good trail shoe
Except on this course. While others were shaking gravel out of their shoes and picking their way over the rough terrain, I was skipping merrily down the hill, yodelling a German mountain hiking song. Val-der-ah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. As I crossed the finish line the warm sun was beginning to bake my feet and my trail shoes were  starting to feel a bit like army boots, but I considered this a First World problem at worst and chose to be thankful that I had so strongly completed my first Olympic distance in over ten years. I had a great day and enjoyed all of it.

I suspect the run course will garner some criticism from those who like to criticize, or who like to run fast. It is not built for speed, that’s for sure. As a result we might not see the steep downward gravel path through the forest again in the Muskoka 5150. But if we do, I’ll be ready with my trail shoes.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Hills Are Alive

Centurion Cycling - Horseshoe Valley

“I’m having such a good time,” I said to the volunteer at the aid station at 75k, “I’ll be sorry when it ends!”

Such was the euphoria generated by cycling a beautiful course on a beautiful morning—also of knowing that it was only another 25 kilometres to the finish of the inaugural Centurion 100k Cycling event in Horseshoe Valley, Ontario.

Of course I hadn’t felt euphoric all day. From the time I woke up at 4:00am to travel to the race, I was asking myself the usual questions: Why in Heaven’s name am I doing this? Why did I pay good money to drive for 90 minutes before dawn after three hours of sleep to ride for four hours with a crowd of people all of whom are better than I am? I should be in bed.

I was still wondering what I was doing as I stood with about 700 other cyclists and their bikes in the starting corral at the Horseshoe Valley Resort. Since I have only one goal race this year—the 70.3 in Muskoka in September—I am using all other events as training opportunities. Therefore I scolded my truculence by grumbling, “You came out here to train…so TRAIN!”

So I trained.

Like its older brother, the Blue Mountains Centurion, the Horseshoe Valley event is beautifully organized and expertly run by Graham Fraser and his team. In fact the whole affair is so slick it’s hard to believe that the entry fee isn’t higher (but don’t raise it, Graham). The concept of hosting a race that is 100 kilometres, rather than a true century, is smart. Not only would this route get repetitively tiresome if it were any longer, but the shorter distance is bound to attract many riders—novice and experienced—for whom a metric century is exactly the right distance at this point in the season.

Some days you love hills, some days you  don't
After a parade start up and out of the valley itself, the race course travels over terrain created when the glaciers pushed and shoved their way across the continent in the last Ice Age. This makes for lots of hills and lots of valleys. The hills are not endless, grueling thigh-burners though, and the up-and-down topography is great for holding your interest during the ride. Most riders would agree that there is very little chance to get bored. Honestly, it is one of the most uniformly beautiful routes I have ever ridden.

The second half of the route is (or seems) tougher, with more hills, but this is where I found my legs. Pumping up the hills, I reveled in the strain of my muscles and ligaments; I savoured the clean morning air moving in and out of my lungs. I loved this ride.

For the most part the road surface is terrific, although there is one bone-shaking section between about 70 and 80 kilometres that made me think of what Paris-Roubaix and its cobblestones must be like. I was grateful for the ancestry of my Cervélo R5; my new bike handled the rough road like an all-terrain vehicle.

I would like it if the race directors could do more to educate less experienced cyclists in the etiquette of keeping to the right while riding along the road. I encountered many people who were riding three and four abreast, thus forcing me over the far side of the road (and illegally over the centre line) so that I could pass them on the left, as any cyclist should do. I also watched as cars driven by local inhabitants patiently waited to pass these groups, who seemed too immersed in their conversations even to notice that anyone else was trying to use the road. I admire the way that Centurion is trying to bring cycling to a wider populace, but the generally accepted cycling rules of the road should be more rigorously enforced by the marshals. Equipped with cattle prods if necessary.

I finished the ride toward the back of the pack as usual, but with the feeling that I had pushed myself and my bike hard, and that both had risen to the occasion. I had come out to train, and I trained.

The road bike now goes away for a while as I get my P3 out of mothballs for some triathlon work. It will be a quick transition, as I have entered the Muskoka 5150 Olympic distance race next weekend. And yes, today I am wondering—as I will at 4:00am next Sunday morning—why in Heaven’s name I said I would do it.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Better By Half

Last week I decided to enter the Muskoka 70.3 triathlon, which is being held in Huntsville this September. I need a fitness goal to handle the stubborn winter flab I am still carrying around, and this will be it. I also want to find a focus for my training this summer to help shake off some of the lethargy that has worked its way into my athletic life.

The idea of training seriously for a distance that is half as long as an Ironman appeals to me. It’s not that I feel terrible about my race at Ironman Canada last summer—although finishing in 2,437th place was hardly the pinnacle of my racing career— but for a time I want to contract my expectations in hopes of restoring my body and my confidence. This year the effort will be the same, but the training sessions will be more manageable and the race will—one hopes—take half as long.

Naming this very popular series of races “70.3” (after the total miles travelled: 1.2 mile swim+ 56 mile bike+ 13.1 mile run) was not only a stroke of marketing genius, it also gave the distance a legitimacy that was long overdue. Back in the day, we referred to such a race as a “Half-Ironman”, as if it were meant for people who couldn’t muster up the wherewithal do the whole distance. Or as if it were merely a training vehicle for people getting ready to do a full Ironman. I suppose I have done as many races at this distance as I have Ironmans and I can honestly say that the 70.3 is not half of anything; it is a full challenge, a full commitment, and a full effort.

The Muskoka course is very familiar to me in several ways. We have a family cottage close by and I have swum in the lakes and cycled and run on the local roads for much of my life. The first year of the race, I volunteered on the run course, standing in the pouring rain for six delightful hours, directing the waterlogged runners on their way. Many of my family members have already done this race. In addition, I have a score to settle with a hill on the bike course.

It Feels So Good When You Stop
In August 2010 I was preparing for Ironman Canada and had decided to ride two loops of the Muskoka 70.3 bike course as a final training century before the race. Coming down a hill south of Huntsville, something made me tumble over my handlebars and I hit the road hard. It wasn’t much of a hill and I wasn‘t even going that fast, but the fall broke my collarbone and ended my season. I feel a need to revisit that hill.

It’s a terrific course, but for me at least, not one on which to try for a Personal Best. Not only is the bike route relentlessly tough, with scores of steep, choppy hills, but the distance is four kilometres longer than the standard half-Ironman length. The weather, which has been mostly fine the past few years, can be a factor in Huntsville in mid-September: cold, windy, and rainy; or hot and sunny. Patience, stamina, and strength will trump fast twitching in this race. This suits me, as I don’t believe I have a fast twitch muscle left in my body anyway.

The challenge for me has always been holding it together for the whole event. Looking back all the way to my very first Half-Ironman event in July 2001, I always have survived the swim and the bike only to fade badly in the half-marathon. With all due respect to Mr. Meatloaf, in triathlon two out of three IS bad. My goal, therefore, will be to finish all three events in a stronger, more deliberate style than in previous outings.

There is no need to be more specific than that at the moment. This year it is a push toward one of those results that might not be reflected in Sportstats as much as it will in my mind. I will know.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Running at the Football

"No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”
Adapted from Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, German militarist

Reading back over what I have written in this space for the past few years, many of the posts seem to present a litany of unmet goals, unfinished races, and disastrous training experiences. To wit:

I dropped out of the Comrades Marathon at km 55.
I dropped out of the Race Across the West after cycling about 40% of the distance.
I crashed my bike training for Ironman Canada in 2010 and broke my collarbone.
In my last two trips to Death Valley I have not completed the distance I started out to do.
At Ironman Canada last year, I ended up walking about two-thirds of the marathon.
Although I have completed several marathons in the past few years, I have not come close to setting a personal best for the distance, something I had wanted to accomplish before I got too old.

Should've Stayed Home Today
Of course there are reasons for all these shortfalls: dehydration, pinched nerves, unscheduled bike crashes, extreme weather and so forth. And in fact, a failure to finish has never stopped me from planning the next challenge. There has always been an instilled desire to go back and try again (which is even stronger if you don’t get it right the first time).

But as much as I like setting goals, I like actually accomplishing them even more. What good is dreaming of a goal if I so often fail to achieve it? These past few years have left me thinking that either I am setting the bar too high for myself or else that I am lacking whatever it takes to succeed.

I’m starting to get the feeling that I do not have The Right Stuff. Inveterate goal setter though I might be, I seem to lack the single-minded focus to pursue some goals whatever the cost. When the medic in the South African race told me that I could damage my foot if I kept on running, I believed him and stopped. When my body told me in graphically physical terms that my participation in the Race Across the West was over, I listened, got off my bike (fell off, rather) and stopped riding.

And if I were climbing to the summit of Everest and someone told me it would be best to turn back, I would probably turn back and head down the hill, leaving the summit unconquered and all my toes still attached.

Thus my growing list of DNFs and compromised goals. I still dream of doing extraordinary things, but these days I am starting to doubt that I can realistically do them.

I am getting tired of falling on my face. Lately I have felt like Charlie Brown, running over and over again to try to kick a football that gets yanked away every single time.

And yet…

A Finish is a Finish

I don’t feel like a complete failure. The DNFs, although devastating at the time they occurred, have provided me with some of the most vivid experiences in my life, and have taken me to athletic venues and limits I had never dreamed of. Perhaps the lesson I should take from the football story is not that Charlie Brown keeps getting fooled, but that he believes with all his heart that this time he will succeed. And as the saying goes, you only have to pick yourself up one more time than you fall.

So for now, I will keep running at the football, because while I believe that achieving a goal might be what affirms our strength, I also believe that the optimistic run-up to that precise instant of kicking—when everything is still possible—is what keeps us alive.

Monday, April 2, 2012

A Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven

Long is the way
And hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.
John Milton, Paradise Lost

Like the river we cannot stand in twice, we never see the same face of Death Valley twice in one day.
Every hour the sun highlights different features, shades, shadows. There are earth tones never dreamed of by L.L. Bean. Winds shift direction capriciously and sift the sands around in ever-changing patterns. There is even a place called The Racetrack where rocks seem to move across the ground on their own. Belying its name, Death Valley is alive with sensory temptation.

Bikes at Zabriskie Point
It is also one of the places in North America where you can actually put your life in danger just by going out the door. Merciless sun and wind plus the driest air anywhere can make short work of any soul who ventures outside unprepared. Natural beauty notwithstanding, Death Valley would not at first seem the most welcoming place to spend a week of recreational cycling.

Which is exactly what we did at the annual Adventure Corps Camp this past week. Forty-plus cyclists descended into the Valley for five days of strenuous and stimulating bicycling tours. I think it would be hard to find a participant who would trade away a minute of it. Just to feel part of the overwhelming grandeur of the place is to feel different than you have felt anywhere else. A sudden shaft of sunlight illuminates a striated rock face, sculpted by wind and sand, and all of a sudden you are pedaling through a photo opportunity that could never be captured with a camera. To have such topography as a backdrop to a bike ride is a gift.
Riding up from Badwater

From Tuesday to Friday the weather was flawless: light winds and warm temperatures. We rode to a different corner of the Valley every day, trying out long climbs and descents and enjoying the stark beauty. Each afternoon there was a blessed Yoga session for relief of tired muscles and quieting of overworked minds.

In the evenings my friends and I would sit on the patio up at the Furnace Creek Inn and watch the sun set over the Valley while gentle desert breezes played with the fronds of the palm trees.

Sunset in Death Valley - thanks to Pam and Dave for these photos

The last ride of the week, on Saturday, was the Hell’s Gate Hundred, a tough century ride 4500 feet up through Daylight Pass and into the ghost town of Rhyolite. There was also a 65 mile version, a metric century, which I chose to do as it was more suited to my current talents. The ride begins with a tour of Artists Drive, which looks like an innocuous little loop on the map but is in fact a vicious, sharply-graded climb into the mountains followed by a steep, twisting white-knuckle descent. I rode this loop on my own on Thursday so that I wouldn’t be totally surprised during the Saturday ride.

But of course there are always surprises. That’s why the group is called Adventure Corps and not Boring Corps.
What I have learned, with some help from my friends Pam and Dave, is that cycling in Death Valley is not so much a feat of will or strength as it is a negotiation between oneself and nature. No one defeats the elements here; at best we learn how our abilities or limitations can work with what the Fates throw at us on any given day. My final lesson was about to come at me.

The morning of the Hell’s Gate Hundred dawned hot and clear, and violently windy. As it had at the Spring Century last year, the wind roared out of the south unchecked by anything except the bicyclists who dared to place themselves in its path. Remembering how I had exhausted myself back in 2011, I rode the eight miles south to Artists Drive slowly and patiently. The climb upward was bearable but the descent was positively scary with strong winds tearing through the canyons in all directions. My hands became numb from the death grip I had on the handlebars and brake levers.

There was a welcome respite as I rode the tailwind northbound for about 20 miles. Then a tedious 10-mile climb took me up to Hell’s Gate itself, the turnaround. I had ridden back down this route earlier in the week and had used my brakes to keep from going too fast. This time, with the wind charging up the hill at me, I had to pedal just to keep going downward and to stay upright. But the true challenge was waiting at the bottom of the hill.

Dust in the Wind
Turning due southward towards Furnace Creek for the last 10 miles, the full force of the wind slammed into me. It was scarily hard to stay upright on the bike without being blown over and forward progress was nearly impossible. Into this mix was added a sandstorm that deposited a small quarry’s worth of gravel into my eyes. Looking down at the white line at the side of the road, I pedaled one stroke after another, achieving a speed of perhaps three miles per hour. These conditions were worse than last year’s by far; in short, it was Hell. When riding became too difficult, I began walking my bike along the side of the road.

I continued in this way for about an hour, being buffeted and sandblasted, until my dear friends from Cleveland, Saint Dave and Saint Pamela came by in their car and saved me. I can’t say I was even reluctant to accept their offer of a ride the last five miles to the finish. I had given it everything I had but on this day, Death Valley had the last word, and I accepted it. For the rest of the afternoon a lot of very kind folks in cars spent their time fetching stranded and spent riders from the road; they are the true angels of this story.
All in all I had pedaled 60 miles (one for each year of my life…) in appalling conditions and I am proud of that accomplishment. On top of this I had magnificent riding in beautiful weather in the week leading up to the Hell’s Gate Hundred: thousands of feet of climbing and descending with hundreds of miles of cycling. I count it all as a success. If we pay attention, Death Valley gives us more than it takes away; we don't come here to show off what we can do, we come to learn what the Valley can teach us, and to leave wiser.

John Milton had a point: our minds are indeed capable of making a Heaven of Hell or a Hell of Heaven, sometimes both at once I would add. This past week our minds also had help from Death Valley.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Here Comes the Sun

“You will never find anybody who can give you a clear and compelling reason why we observe Daylight Saving Time”
-- Dave Barry, 25 Things I Have Learned in 50 Years

One thing that the arrival of Daylight Saving Time does for me: I have gotten back on my bike and have started riding to work again. This winter we had almost no snow and unseasonably high temperatures throughout; if there had ever been a winter to ride to work this was it. The thing is that I have had too many near misses and scary encounters in the dark of winter – snow or not – to make the practice appealing to me anymore. And so from November to mid-March I took the subway to work, reading my New Yorker and trying not to look like an off duty cyclist.

My commute: part of the Don Valley Trail
 The fortunate thing is that with no snow and ice around this spring, I can ride most of the way to work along off-road bike paths – usually blocked till April - leaving the pathetically gridlocked Toronto drivers to take out their rage on each other rather than on me. To boot, I have new shifters on my handlebars this spring, courtesy of my talented son who is a bike mechanic in his spare time.

In a couple of weeks I am off to Death Valley National Park for a week of cycling organized by the good people at Adventure Corps. The format of the training camp suits my Type B personality, with not a lot of compulsory hard core work and yoga and “Tea Social” breaks in the afternoons.

Badwater - love it or hate it
The week concludes with a Century event called the Hell’s Gate Hundred; with a name like that I expect it’s going to be a good workout. Within the first ten miles there is a vicious little climb along the innocuously named Artists’ Palette. Last winter I drove up to the turnaround point at the ghost town of Rhyolite and all I can recall is an endless climb to a mountain pass that was covered in snow. So no day at the beach at that end either.

I feel though that after surviving the infernal headwinds in the Death Valley Spring Century last year I am ready for anything.

My Cervélo R3 is beautifully tuned up and cleaned (also courtesy of a bike mechanic in the family). All I have to do now is lose 10 pounds and figure out how to climb 8,500 feet on my bike in the next three weeks.

Spring Flowers in Death Valley
 Or more likely…after a week of Corps Camp Shivasana poses and chamomile tea I might just be more in the mood to sit on the grass and watch the riders come and go.

As always, simply getting there with my bike box will be there greatest workout. The first time I went to Death Valley was in October 2008, three weeks after I had crashed and torn the ligaments in my Acromial Clavicular Joint; I carried my bags and pulled my bike box through the airports all with one arm. It should be half as hard this time, assuming I retain the use of both limbs for the next week.