On Making It a Good Year

I alluded a day or two ago to my first triathlon—Millerton Lake in 2002. It feels like a century ago now. Everything has changed. My job, my home. And, yeah, the big thing in my life that I never even bothered worrying about because it was so stone-cold certain. It, uh, changed. It's gone, so gone (even as, in a place in my mind, I insist on believing it will return). But enough of that bullshit.

The lad, he grows up. Man, does he ever. It was great fun tonight stopping by the New Year's party across the street with him. He was beautiful, long blond hair brushed back, sharp in his khakis, blue shirt buttoned all the way up (it's his way) and gray suit vest…. It occurred to me, when my mind wandered from my dazzling son, that it is good to be among people and especially good to be among neighbors. In 2009, I'll do better on both counts. And honestly, if I can pull that off, while keeping this Ironman Coeur d'Alene training on course, and keeping the bosses happy, and being a good mentor to Anna, and loving the family and the strangers too … well, it will be a fine year indeed.

Not being a leaping sort, there are 365 days scheduled for the year 2009. June 21 will be but one of those days. And on that day the sun will come up, move across the sky and set. Things will happen that day: babies born (or conceived), soldiers lost (please, no), Wall Street titans knocked off their pedestals (if we're lucky). It is important for me, and helpful, to remember all of that. Yes, I'm on a journey, traveling Six Months to Coeur d'Alene, but that's not the only destination or stop on the way, and I'm not the only one aboard. Godspeed to all of us, godspeed.


Keeping a Low Profile

J.D. Salinger turns 90 on Thursday. His last new work appeared more than 40 years ago and he stopped giving interviews in the '70s, reports the New York Times. Speculation abounds as to what he's been up to: "He hasn’t written a word. Or he writes all the time and, like Gogol at the end of his life, burns the manuscripts. Or he has volumes and volumes just waiting to be published posthumously." Sure, those are all possibilities. But what if—I mean, just what if…. OK, here's what I'm saying: For him—like me—there are just less than six months to Coeur d'Alene. Could Salinger be in training? Bustin' his boney New Englander behind to shock the world at CDA? Whether he is or isn't, he probably did more than I did today. You could say I kept a low profile. Niko and I walked around for an hour and a half, taking a survey of the remaining snow. Tabor yielded one nice big patch that awed the lad. And he did stomp on every other pile he found, measly though they were. Back home, the plan was to get on the bike for a while, but then the computer for the Computrainer arrived, and so did The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, three huge volumes. So we played around getting the computer working—tomorrow we'll build the Computrainer and hook the contraption together—and cackled at the kid and the tiger. Watterson: A bit of a recluse, like Salinger—and rumor has it he's got a very strong run.


In the Swim of Things

A strange urge came over me today. I didn’t give into it, because I didn’t quite trust it. It just didn’t make sense: Me, feeling like I wanted to swim? Where’d that come from?

Maybe seeing that picture at the top of the blog every day when I post has something to do with it. If you didn’t know, that shot—snapped by my buddy Dan Brekke—is of the start of the 2008 Ironman Coeur d’Alene. That was a hell of a moment, but it wasn’t quite as terrifying as I thought it might be even a week earlier. I had been dreading the swim all through my training and with the loud online yammering about icebergs in the lake (or something like that), I had begun to think failing to make it through the swim was a small but real possibility.

Most of that fear, however, melted away on the Friday before the race, when the swim course was open for practice. Weirdly, the buoys—set in a rectangular shape that we would go around twice—didn’t extend as far out in the water as I thought they would. Peering out on a sunny morning, I even asked someone if that was really the course. “Are there, like, more buoys that need to go out there?” The guy next to me chuckled and said, “Nope, that’s it. But you can go farther if you want.”

I did one loop—half the swim—that morning. The water was cold but not crazy cold. I recall Millerton Lake in the Sierra Foothills, where I did my first triathlon ever in April 2002, being worse—but then again, maybe I’ve just become fatter (and furrier) since then, giving me better insulation. I did the practice loop in about 45 minutes, felt pretty fresh afterward and suddenly realized that I could pretty easily turn in a swim around 90 minutes. Now, that doesn’t win you any awards. It’s actually quite slow. But for a race that would likely stretch well past 12 hours, I could live with being in the 30th percentile.

And that’s pretty much the way it turned out. I swam a 1:27, which put me 134th out of 205 in my race division (males 45-49), and I certainly didn’t kill myself to do it. I did wrench my neck somehow, and that would bother me on the bike, but my heart rate and my general attitude were A-OK heading into T1. I couldn’t have asked for more than that.

So for a long time after the race I looked at that swim as mostly successful. It didn’t blow my race, I thought, and for a crappy swimmer, that’s about all you can hope for, right?

Except, recently I’ve been reading other Coeur d’Alene race reports, many of them by people who finished in 13, 14 even 15 hours. In other words, worthy athletes, Ironman finishers all, but folks I’m quite a bit faster than. But almost all of them did the swim faster than me. Huh, thought I; wonder if I’ve been setting the swim bar a little low.

Last year I waited until March to begin swimming, because I don't like schlepping to the pool; I don't like the way the pool gives me a stuffy nose; I'm a lousy swimmer; and getting better at swimming is hard. Classic avoidance.

Now, maybe that urge to swim is my brain telling me that if I get it going in January, I might be able to shave, I don’t know, three or four minutes off my time. In a sense, that’s meaningless; it’s not going to get me a Kona slot. But, of course, nothing will. That’s not why I’m racing 2009 IMCDA. I’m racing because I enjoy the training and I want to figure out a way to finish in 11:59:59 or better. Three or four minutes? Might make all the difference.

So swimming starts in January this time around and even more importantly, I get some coaching. More on that as we continue through Six Months to Coeur d’Alene.



So much for our winter wonderland. We went from a foot and a half of snow on the ground on Christmas to a landscape marked by scattered splotches, most of them blackened with dirt and grime. I also noticed tons of gravel on the roads. Mmm, that’s going to be nice when I get the bike out in the spring.

As dismal as things appear now, I must say it was good to walk today with solid footing and temperatures in the mid-40s. I hiked up Mount Tabor, then over to Laurelhurst Park. The plan was to come home then, but I was feeling so giddy at being able to walk fast and not worry about my footing that I kept heading west, right to the Willamette. It added up to 10.6 miles, completed in about 2:50. Hell, that’s marathon pace for some folks. A nice finish to the first week of my Six Months to Coeur d’Alene.


It's Not About the Run

The local running club is holding its annual Purge and Splurge Run on New Year’s Eve. You can go 10, 15, 20 or 30 miles through the mud. Great stuff, but I’ll run zero, and that fact is killing me. Because if 2008 revealed anything about me the athlete, it revealed that running is my true love. I ran 12 races, at distances from 5K to 50 miles. I got PRs at 5K, 10K, half marathon and marathon. I ran in a couple of cross-country races. I did a 50-miler in the mountains. I ran Boston and it blew my mind.

Maybe I overdid it, or maybe I was just unlucky, but since August I’ve been battling an Achilles tendon injury. The blasted thing has waxed and waned over the months, taking me out of the Portland Marathon after about 10 miles, but then practically disappearing a week later when I got a 10K PR. In November I stopped running for a week and a half, hoping to put the injury to rest completely, only to find the Achilles still aching when I got back out for a very slow, very easy, very short run.

I’ve seen doctors—one in September who said the Achilles was healthy and another in mid-November who said the Achilles was ... healthy. Doc No. 2, however, did offer a plausible if complicated theory as to what was causing the pain I was experiencing, and gave me a program to remedy things that included continued running. But my first few outings brought as much pain as ever, so I decided to rest until I was completely healed. That was a month ago. I haven't laced 'em up and tested the injury, but just walking around I feel like I’m better, but still not 100 percent recovered.

On the one hand, as I said, that’s brutal, not being able to run. Especially in the winter, when cycling outside is nowhere in the realm of possibility for this soft California boy. I'd rather watch Hannity than ride in the cold. Hell, I'd rather kiss Hannity than ride in the cold. But running? No problem anywhere anytime. I can’t imagine a better way to finish the year than 20 or 30 miles in the chilly wind, rain and maybe even snow in Forest Park.

And yet, when I bring my focus back to Ironman Coeur d’Alene—and if '08 was the Year of the Run, '09 is the Year of the Ironman—I know my conservative approach to this Achilles injury is the right way to go. Here’s my thinking: I ran a 4:34 marathon at Coeur d’Alene last year. That’s weak shit, an hour and a quarter slower than my marathon PR—a half-hour slower than my previous worst marathon. I was in great running shape for CDA, but that didn’t matter because by the time I got to the run, I had very little left in the tank. That’s right: It was poor cycling conditioning that set me up for a bad Ironman run. Get this: My longest ride before the race was a 93-miler, and I crested 50 miles only five or six times. Dismal.

This time around, if I can get in the best cycling shape of my life—which is my firm intention—I’m certain that I'll be fine with as few as three months of solid running training. So in the early portion of these six months leading up to Coeur d’Alene, it’s all about the bike. Which is why I spent 90 minutes on the trainer today, heart rate between 130 and 140, working it nice and steady. And it's why my purging on New Year’s Eve will consist of more of the same—but let’s make it, say, three hours—even though my heart will be out on the muddy trail.


Oh, My Aching ...

On my long walk today—there were also 150 pushups and some weights later—I saw many an inadequately equipped Portlander engaged in the grim but neighborly task of clearing his sidewalk of snow. (Is there a single proper snow shovel in all of Multnomah County?) Also, many simply wanted to drive again, and were working to loose their car from the grip of the record-breaking December onslaught.

As far as snow falling now, that's all over. It's 37, headed well into the 40s tomorrow. It's raining. Situation normal 'round here. But, man, all that icy, sloppy stuff left behind….

So we shovel. I made eye contact with one guy on NE Halsey, and somehow he knew and I knew: "It's the back, that's where you feel it," I said. He smiled. Wait, no, he grimaced (funny how those two displays can so easily be confused). "God," he said. "The back. It's murder on the back."

My back has been feeling it. In the 46 years in which I have occupied this body, it has given me excellent service. I daresay it is a well-built machine. American-made, too, damn straight. And yet for maybe half that time, there's always been the back. And by always I don't mean constantly; I mean that the threat never goes away entirely. Two, maybe three months pass with no back issues at all. Then I'm leaned over the sink just so, brushing my teeth, and like lightning striking, my lower back about halfway between the spine and my right hip seizes up in an electric, devastating spasm, nearly taking me to the floor.

I wince, curse, shake head, rinse toothpaste from mouth, proceed to wall. I crouch a bit and push the small of my back snug again the wall with my shoulders also against the wall (that's the tricky part). I then slowly straighten my legs, rising, sliding up the wall, all the while keeping the small of my back against the wall, and my shoulders still against the wall as well (that's the even trickier part).

I do this for a while and things settle down. Before long—a few hours or maybe a day and a half later—I've forgotten about my back trouble so completely that I'll do something stupid like casually pick up a heavy box without bending my knees. Or shovel snow for a half-hour. And bing-zap-pow, I'm back against the wall.

Eventually, though, the world returns to a deeper state of normalcy and my back stops shrieking at me. All's cool for several weeks. And you know what seems to help in this process? Oddly enough, cycling. The more I ride, the better my back feels. You look at a triathlete in the aero position and you think that ought to be against the Geneva Conventions. But it doesn't bother my back. It's some kind of weird therapy, even. My neck, however, that's a different story. Literally: look for the neck entry at a future date. And then there's my shoulder problem. And my Achilles thing. And the occasional knee woe.

They all come and go, ebb and flow, the aches and pains. I don't know that I suffer any more of them than sedentary folk; I know of plenty of couch potatoes who turn to chiropractors or surgeons to keep them in the game (such as it may be). My issues of the ol' corpus, they never stop me, or even threaten to derail me. Knock on wood. But in winding my way six months to Coeur d'Alene, no doubt they'll all make an appearance and exercise their influence.


Death and Resurrection

Bike intervals on the trainer, those are a bitch. When you've got another minute to go and you're moving into bigger gears and trying to nudge your already furious heart 10 beats per minute faster, it's so tempting to throw in the towel. You've got no buddy beside you pushing you—or you him—to the next utility pole. All you can do is reach deep inside and tell yourself that you need to do this. Of course, when you've hit the mark and it's time to scale the effort down, you feel great and that's a big reward. You are a king, a tough guy, a warrior, a worker, a winner, you’re getting it done, moving toward your goal, you’re going to kill that IMCDA bike course! Really, that’s the ridiculous and wonderfully pleasing stuff that goes through your head.

I like doing intervals on the bike once or twice a week during the winter because I like all that, and because I know they're good for me. And despite how gruesome they are, they're actually easier than a long steady trainer ride. My basic formula is to ride hard for three minutes, moving through progressively bigger gears while trying to maintain my cadence and push my heart rate to around 170, which is over 90 percent for me (I'm not sure, but I estimate my maximum heart rate to be about 185). After three minutes I plunge back to a much smaller gear for two minutes, letting my heart rate fall to 120 (about 65% of max). I cycle these cycles for about an hour. The last minute of every hard interval is a killer. Then you are reborn. Death and resurrection.

The chart above shows today's workout. I hit 182 beats per minute at one point. That might be getting close to the top for me.


Stuck in Hermiston

It’s Christmas Eve and Santa, the one who wears brown not red, didn’t arrive with the computer I’m waiting for to set up my Computrainer. So I’ll ride on Christmas Day—heck, yeah, I’ll ride on Christmas!—on the boring old trainer. Oh, well. That’s what I did this morning, for an hour. I’ve been doing a mix of interval-type rides and good steady rides, and today it was the latter. I worked my heart rate up to 120 in about 10 minutes, then did the rest of the workout around 130 to 135. Usually I’m in the basement but with nobody else in the house this morning I moved my operation up to the living room and watched morning TV. What crap. It barely qualifies as a distraction. Nevertheless, I got in a halfway decent workout on a day when it would have been easy to take a pass, and that will just have to suffice until I get the Computrainer online. UPS tracking says the package is in Hermiston, on the east side of the Gorge, which has been slammed with winter weather for more than a week. Some poor trucker is probably stuck in Hood River or The Dalles in three feet of snow, worried sick that I’m having to go without my Computrainer for a few more days. Rest easy, fella; I’ll be all right for a little while longer. (But Friday, right? You will be here Friday, won't you?)


A Weighty Issue

I lifted a little in high school. That’s what we called it, lifting. The thing then was to get a good bench-press number. I remember 220 being a line of demarcation. Square-shaped linemen went much higher, but you could at least hang if you’d conquered 220. Otherwise, you were banished to that sector of the quad inhabited by dweebs, goofs, wimps and clarinet players. Cheerleaders were allergic to the area. I got my 220, somewhere along the way, and though I did not also get a cheerleader I was allowed to roam among them, as long as I kept moving. (I was, after all, a clarinet player, too.)

For the first time since then—30 years later—I’m lifting a bit, with the emphasis on a bit. I’ve no use for gyms, but I’ve got some dumbells, 8- and 10-pounders, that I use to do curls, standing one-arm presses and something that involves holding each arm at a side, then, keeping the elbows essentially locked, lifting up and over my head. I do three sets of each of these exercises, 50 reps, 40 reps and 30 reps. I also do 100 pushups, 50, 30 and 20. These are done with a straight-as-a-board back, a deep and steady drop and my feet on Niko’s step-stool, which provides a six-inch lift.

I’ve read about sport-specific training. If you want to become a fast runner, run. If swimming is your thing, swim. I buy all that. But it’s December. My race is in June. There’s just no way I’m going to get a serious running, biking and swimming program going now and keep it alive for the next six months. My lifting, my pushups—that’s all just about staying tethered to fitness. Friends and colleagues who want to be fit but whose busy lives make it impossible, impossible, marvel that I’ve been able to keep my thing going for seven years now. What some of them don’t understand is that I’m committed. I make some sacrifices. But mostly, I stay at it by mixing in new stuff without worrying too much about where it's going to get me, beyond sticking with fitness. Put more succinctly, I do what I want to do. Lifting and pushups feel good now. It’s weirdly fun to work hard to do every rep perfectly; to feel the muscles in my abdomen, back and neck straining; to take a shower afterward and have my shoulders, pecs and biceps all tight as I reach to lather up my scalp (old habits die hard).

In January, I’ll start zeroing in on the big three, the running, biking and swimming, and though it’s debatable that my December work is putting me in prime physical shape to embark on that focused journey, I’m 100 percent confident that mentally—where the game will be won or lost—I’ll be feeling strong, fresh and eager.


Days of Crunchy Walks

Conference calls are a daily fact of life if you work in a satellite office. They can be OK, but mostly they aren't. The worst of them are with a group of people—four, say—who are in the same room but apparently don’t like each other and thus are occupying each of the room’s corners, respectively, several feet from the speaker-phone mic. And one of them is a low talker.

Today’s calls weren’t that bad, but after three or four hours on the phone, interspersed with keyboard-and-screen focused activities, I was dying to get outside. And so was the boy, who had spent most of his day noodling in the system folder of our Mac Mini, leaving me a three-hour cleanup job this evening. (He’s nine and he wants to mess with AppleScript on our new Mac. His mother the computer geek tells him no, no, no, that is fraught with danger. He was in tears tonight when he heard the computer was giving me the Spinning Ball of Death. Maybe he’s learned a lesson.)

We suited up and walked in the snow, the great Portland snow of zip-eight. That was today’s workout—walking in the snow for about six miles. The first couple of miles were with the boy so we dawdled a bit, taking pictures, ogling icicles and wagering that this or that yellow spot “was probably from some dog scampering around in the snow.” Once said boy was safely dropped off at his mother’s, I walked home, meandering whatever streets looked interesting. It was about a half-hour before sunset when I set out and nearly dark when I arrived home. It must be the snow and the cloud cover, but the light was ethereal. I walked fast, stopping only for more pictures of the crowds sledding down closed-off NE 39th Ave at Wistaria. Traffic was light but there were a few cars out and about. When I could I stayed on the road, enjoying the good footing of hardpack. But for long stretches down Broadway and Halsey I soldiered along barely trammeled sidewalks. I have the shoes for deep and uneven stuff, a huge pair of Sorel Conquest snow boats, given to me more or less in another lifetime. These are the Hummers of snow boots, I realized, blasting by some old fart in rubbers.

Tomorrow I’ll do some pushups and weights, and some serious hiking on Mount Tabor. No ride? No ride. There will be months and months of churning in the basement as the cool Northwest rain rolls off the roof and pings and sings its ways down and out the spout right outside the window where I ride. Yes, six months of training for Coeur d’Alene will take focus and dedication, but it will also take imagination. Even on a fine May day you don’t stay focused for a six-hour ride. You mix it up with your pals, you curse cars, you let the mind drift a bit and you conjure memories. Memories, say, of pounding your way through 12 inches of snow on a trail through glowing orange woods in the middle of the city.


And Away We Go

There were no workouts today. I did shovel a little snow. And eat some of the cookies Niko and I baked yesterday while the snow was coming down.