Wednesday, November 14, 2012

XTERRA Worlds 2012 – Race Report

My two year XTERRA experiment culminated with my participation in the World Championship in Maui at the end of last October.  For those unfamiliar with my foray into the world of off-road triathlon it was spurred by a spate of personal events in my life.  My marriage of 12 years was ending and the company that I helped grow into a firm with offices in London, Hong Kong and Toronto had imploded with the global economic meltdown.  My financial future and even my home ownership all seemed moribund.  I was surrounded by a number of impending circumstances that had evolved to the point where many of these events were beyond my control.  While I found solace in the mantra that “emotions are not facts,” keeping the anxiety away and not borrowing worry were still a challenge.  I realized that if I allowed myself to I could become paralyzed with fear and if this were the case, it had better be over something that I could actually control.  Acknowledging that for me exercise, particularly cycling, has not only been my passion but my refuge and therapy from the harsh realities that surrounded me, I decided I was going to possess fear I had better challenge myself with something physical that really scared me.  My choice was triathlon and more specifically, swimming in open water.  Essentially, I was channeling the unnecessary fear and anxiety that I was experiencing into something real like drowning (readers of my previous blog posts will remember my post Learning to Swim).  Illogical?  Maybe, but the psychological and physical benefits seemed a far healthier approach to anything considered conventional.

Fast forwarding to today, much has changed in my life over the couple of years since I began swimming and took up XTERRA at the most challenging point in my life thus far.  My personal growth and hard work has proven fruitful though I never could have gotten through it without my faith, the support of my parents and the inspiration of my children which have all been blessings for which I will never be able to show sufficient gratitude.  On the work front I started a new business with two of the best partners that I ever could have hoped and we have established a solid track record forging solid prospects for continued growth.  As far as XTERRA, I completed two races in my first season and qualified for Nationals.  In my second season this past year, I did five races which included a first place (age group result) at XTERRA Moab, second place at Indian Peaks and a fifth place at the US Championship.  It is with all of this as a backdrop that I will attempt to recount the events of an leading up to the XTERRA World Championship (Maui).

Truth be told, Maui was something that I thought of every day in the eleven months prior to the event.  I was awarded an at-large entry meaning I did not have to earn qualification in any of the races leading up to the event (I would have later merited this with a roll down due to my performance at US Champs however).  With this, I felt if I was going to show up, I owed the race my best.  Maui would also be different than any race I had ever done because it would not only be my first ocean swim, it would also be my first open water swim without a wetsuit.  Wetsuits add tremendous buoyancy in the water and an added sense of confidence but given the warmer temperature of the water and subsequent health risks, the race would not be wetsuit legal.  Further, I only had a year of swimming under my Speedo and it continued to challenge me like nothing I have ever attempted.  There was probably not 100 meters that I had swum every workout leading up to the event that I did not think about Maui.  With this I made Worlds the centerpiece of my season and decided to invite my parents and take my kids to be on hand for the event.

The race was scheduled for Sunday morning on October 28 and my family and I arrived in Maui the Tuesday prior.  The early arrival would not only allow for some family vacation time, it would also allow me to preview the bike and run courses as well as get several swims at the site of the swim; D.T. Fleming Beach.  Arriving at the airport we gathered our luggage and my bike which was also flown over.  We also picked up an acquaintance that I had only met a couple of weeks earlier; Michael Stone.  After a long day of travel and some amazing fish tacos, the family and I called it a night.  

The next morning I assembled my bike and met Michael at the Ritz Carlton to pick up our registration materials.  I had come to meet Michael only briefly on a couple of occasions but formally met him after a Masters swim class at our health club.  I knew Michael was a regular on the XTERRA circuit and I asked him if he would be racing Worlds.  He replied he was so I then asked him when he was getting in and his response matched our arrival time.  With this I offered him a ride from the airport knowing he couldn’t drive as Michael is legally blindHe suffers from a condition called Cone-Rod Dystrophy which progressively diminishes his vision over time.  This condition also makes him hypersensitive to bright lights.  Initially Michael competed in Ironman and off-road XTERRA events for the love of the sport.  While he still loves the sport he now also participates to raise awareness for the fight against blindness. 

The plan for the morning was for an easy pedal to preview the bike course.  While waiting in line at registration I recognized an XTERRA legend in the distance and said like a kid in awe to Michael, “There’s Jamie Whitmore!”  Jamie is the not only the most decorated female athlete in the sport, but what she has done in her personal life makes her achievements in XTERRA pale in comparison.  At the height of her career in 2008 Jamie was diagnosed with cancer.  This diagnosis was one that unfortunately led to the loss of her the glut, hamstring and psoas muscle on one side of her body.  In spite of being told that she would never ride a bike again Jamie not only beat cancer but was able to return to the sport and finish recent races.  She also completed the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race and will be competing in the paralympics in 2016 in Rio all with just one working leg.  More importantly and in spite of her radiation treatments, Jamie miraculously gave birth to twin boys.  After alerting her presence to Michael, and not to my surprise since he knows everyone in the sport, he said he not only knew her well but she was his inspiration for participating in the sport as a physically-challenged athlete.  After Michael said his hellos to Jamie and Courtney and getting our registration materials we agreed to meet out on the bike course. Michael would start out with Jamie and her husband Courtney and I would ultimately catch up.
Mile three and the climbing is just beginning
Simply put, the bike course in Maui is a beast. Not because it is technical but moreso the combination of the average grade, the dustiness and the heat and humidity.  It covers over 18 miles with an elevation gain of over 3,600 feet. Preriding the course I was sanguine that a slow swimmer like myself would be able to make up ground on the hilly course but my optimism was tempered by realizing that on race day it would be packed with hundreds of riders and the already dusty course would only deteriorate more with the dry weather forecast.  This meant for difficult, sandy terrain without favorable lines for passing which would turn into hike-a-bike sections further impeding progress and passing opportunities.  I caught up to Jamie near the top of a long grinder of a hill and we spoke briefly.  And then headed down on one of the longer and wider course descents marked by loose sand and as Conrad Stoltz so aptly put it: “man eating ruts.”  It was tough to get good rhythm and going around one of the blind turns I had to stop myself to avoid going off the mountain.  Jamie was behind me and almost made the same mistake.  She looked at me and said, “I can’t make that turn because I can’t put pressure on my leg.”  I smiled and said, “I have two good legs and I guess I have no excuse.”  

When I finally caught up to Michael and Courtney, Courtney was helping Michael navigate an “ass-way-back-behind-the-saddle-steep” dusty drop (this section was later dropped from the race).  Courtney was off his bike holding Michael as he descended into a windy tree-lined section with tight rocky lines.  I was completely in awe as other riders on the course were walking their bikes.  I then rode the remainder of the course chatting it up with Michael.  My numerous curiosity-driven questions were met with calm responses.  “What can you see exactly?”  “How much do you rely on your guide?”  “I guess if I told you I lost a contact in the race in Ogden you wouldn’t have a lot of sympathy?”  He mentioned he uses his bike almost like tapping a cane, feeling the front wheel and using a developed sense of echolocation to maneuver his bike.  “Close your eyes for a few seconds and try it” he suggested.  “With all due respect” I replied, “No effin’ way.  Let me at least get through the race and then maybe I’ll think about giving it a go.”  I should mention that Michael is an amazing climber on the bike and he requires his guide be the same as this is an area where he can excel.  In the past he has enlisted pros such as Wes Hobson and Ryan Ignatz so his only constraint is his own ability.  It is on the downhills where he has to be cautious often giving way to riders he has passed on the climbs with many of the riders that pass him not aware of his condition.  Ultimately subsequent climbs lead to a tiring game of leap frog on the next climb which provides a sense of frustration not only as a challenged athlete but as anyone with a competitive bone in their body.

Shortly after we finished the ride, we washed up the bikes and I headed home to spend some time with the kids.  Elyana wanted to see some turtles and we walked down to a nearby beach and spotted a few playing in the rough time among some rocks.  It helped me to remind myself of a great quote by the great mystical Rabbi the Baal Shem Tov, that "a person is where their mind is."  Even though I was in paradise I was preoccupied with the race.  Fortunately the reminder of this quote helped to bring some good awareness and presence to my daughter and surroundings.  Later that night we went out to celebrate Olivia’s 12th birthday.  Hard to believe my oldest baby just turned 12 and I was delighted we could celebrate it in such an amazing place with some of the best fish I have ever eaten.

The next day would be my first swim in the Pacific followed by an easy jog-hike of the run course.  Again I met Michael at the Ritz and we headed to the beach.  I was really excited to get a feel for the waves, currents and rip tides that I had heard about.  The plan was to swim at the same time that the race started to try to simulate the conditions we might face.  When we got to the beach the ocean could not have been any more peaceful.  I cautioned myself not to glean a false sense of confidence as swells were expected by the weekend and conditions would likely be much different.  The plan was to jump in and swim about 300 meters out from the start area.  Michael is a much better swimmer so he went out first and I tried to stay on his feet.  Michael’s experience helped him to swim fairly straight.  In the race, he would have a guide as his sensitivity to light forces him to swim with his eyes closed.  Even at Masters’ classes he swims with his eyes closed while counting his strokes before engaging in a flip turn at the wall.  He told me he has yet to drift from his lane or even hit other swimmers!  Well, I stayed on Michael’s feet for about 25 meters but lost contact as I instead focused on the feeling of the ocean.  The feeling was one of amazing comfort.  For all my fears and anxiety I felt an astonishing sense of calm that I had never experienced in my brief history of swimming.  As I linked together stroke after stroke my breathing was incredibly relaxed and the feeling of buoyancy and warmth of the water was one of bliss.  I sighted infrequently as I was consumed with a startling feeling of peacefulness like no other while watching the pristine view of the layered sand of the ocean floor drift beneath me.  I finally emerged from my zen-induced state and looked up for Michael who was 50 meters to my right.  I called out to him and he said, “I guess you didn’t notice the current pulling you to the South.”  Man do I have a lot to learn!  We swam about for about ten minutes more and then decided to go race pace back into the shore.  This time, he told me to focus on a certain part of the beach and keep my line.  “Stay on my feet” he said.  “OK,” I chuckled.  “I’ll see you at the beach about two minutes after you arrive.”
After getting out of the water we practiced a few race starts about 50 meters out and headed back in.  Walking back along the beach I spotted Josiah Middaugh and his wife Ingrid.  Josiah was fresh off his win at the US XTERRA champs in Ogden and a race favorite.  In the month prior to the race I retained Josiah as my first ever coach to come up with a training plan for my race.  We chatted briefly and resumed our return when 25 feet later we ran into Conrad Stoltz and his wife Liesel.  Conrad, or “The Caveman” as he is known is the most accomplished pro in the history of XTERRA.  We had met in Ogden and we struck up some conversation.  Conrad pointed to my left should and asked, “What happened to you?”  I told him I had an a bike crash a number of years earlier (please see Cycling Crashes and Chief Niwot’s Curse) resulting in a shoulder separation.  We agreed it was unsightly and I shared with him my remorse of not being able to wear strapless dresses in the summertime.  The accessibility and friendly nature of the top pros in this sport never ceases to amaze me.

After that we laced up and headed out to preview the run course.  As with everything in this race nothing would be easy and the run course proved no exception.  The course is six miles long and basically a 700 foot climb on the first three miles followed by three miles down; a course that suits me well particularly given the fast downhill.  The climb was mostly steady with some steep pitches that would favor hiking come race day.  The descent had some really fun sections to let it rip but to avoid pounding the legs too much we took it easy. After that I headed back to the condo for an afternoon of beach time with the kids.  They all love the water and are amazing little swimmers.  We came back and showered up and headed out with the whole family to an entertaining Luau,
Josiah's Athletes

The following morning (Friday if you are keeping score at home) I met with Josiah and a bunch of his athletes from Vail at the swim beach.  The water remained fairly placid and we essentially repeated the same exercises in the water that I performed the day before.  The two days prior to the race is generally reserved as a rest day so after the swim I headed back for some more family time.

Saturday morning involved a swim followed by a brief ride to open up the system for the race the following day.  As promised, the swells had kicked up significantly and there was a dramatic shift in the amount of shore break.  Getting out past the shore break was not so much a problem as the first 50 meters involved duck diving under oncoming waves until I was passed them.  The once visible ocean bottom was now gone and the chop and currents had picked up.  The hardest part was getting used to the reentry to the beach.  The 1,500 meter swim course was a reverse “M” shape which meant swim out 375 meters to the first buoy and then swim back for a short beach run and then back out to the second buoy.  This was a change to the course to the prior year due which also involved starting all 700 athletes at the same time.  This prior start resulted in a serious log jam at the first buoy which caused a fair amount of bodies trying to swim over one another.  This year the pros would start two minutes before the male age groupers and then followed by the female athletes starting two minutes further back.  I wanted to practice coming back into the beach a number of times while looking back over my shoulder seeking to body surf my way in.  This practice did not have a good initial result as a huge wave sucked me under introducing me to the ocean floor and taking my goggles as well as a contact lens.  As I gathered myself on the beach a few minutes later another swimmer came in holding a pair of goggles.  Fortunately they were mine and note to self: place my goggles under my swim cap!  I practiced reentry and exit a few more times with measured improvement and then headed out on the bike to ride the first and last few miles of the bike course.  That day the bike course had already shown significant deterioration from the dryness and riding by the other athletes; time to dial down the tire pressure.  It also meant that I would have a hard time passing on the first few miles of the course which I tried to see as beneficial for holding back to some of the more passable climbs to come on the course.  After the ride I headed back to the condo for lunch and an excursion to Lahaina for an outing on a submarine to view some of the underwater critters in the water.

The Night Before:  Tsunami?!?
The night before the race is always the toughest time for me as prerace jitters kick in.  Knowing this I attended the dinner at the Ritz for athletes while my parents took the kids to dinner.  I ate quickly and headed home for bed hoping to get a good night’s sleep.  I was drifting off to sleep at 8:30pm when I heard my phone vibrate and saw my mom was calling.  I answered to see what was up and she informed me that they were heading home as the restaurant where they were dining was being evacuated due to a tsunami warning.  An earthquake off the shore of British Columbia (Thanks Canada!) had sparked the alarms as sirens blared across all of the Hawaiian Islands.  She told me the kids were scared and we might need to evacuate.  Watching the news it was said that a huge wave was making a b-line for us and was expected to hit around 10:20pm.  When the family arrived home the kids were visibly frightened and we tried to figure out if we needed to drive to higher ground.  I called Michael who was staying nearby at the Ritz and he said he had received no word on evacuation but lights were flashing outside the hotel.  I later learned we were high enough not to be in an evacuation zone so we made precautions for the potential loss of power and water.  I checked social media and my email and had received the following from XTERRA:
Tsunami warning is in effect for the state of Hawaii, with the first waves estimated to reach here at 10:20 p.m. on Saturday evening, October 27.If you are in an evacuation zone, please take the warning seriously and evacuate to higher ground. Here is a LINK to an evacuation map for this area of Maui.
If you are in a hotel and have not been notified yet, please contact your front desk and find out if you are in an evacutation zone.The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua is in a safe zone.If you have access to a television, tune in to the local news stations for the latest updates (all local stations are currently airing live coverage).
I tried to sleep with the news on in the background as we waited for the impending result of the wave that was supposed to hit.  Realizing that reporting news involved selling fear and expecting the worse I tried to calm the kids.  Trying to get the kids in bed and to sleep was an exercise in futility.  As the deadline came and went without incident the kids ultimately fell asleep from their own fatigue.  I wish I could have done the same.  My mind was racing and thoughts of what would happen in the morning filled my head.  “Would there be a race at all?”  “Would they cancel the swim?”  “Would they do only a bike/run with a time trial start?”  “Would it be a duathalon (run/bike/run)?  This would actually serve me better but I came out here to do swim/bike/run and this is what I wanted to do!”

I’m not sure I slept more than a couple of hours when my alarm to wake up sounded.  I quickly checked my email and had this message in my inbox:
XTERRA Worlds is On!  Good morning XTERRA World Championship competitors:Maui County Civil Defense Notifications bring us two bits of good news:1. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Center has CANCELLED the TSUNAMI ADVISORY for the Hawaiian Islands.2. The National Weather Service in Honolulu has CANCELLED the high surf advisory for Maui."The northwest swell has diminished and resulting surf has decreased below advisory level. The high surf advisory is therefore cancelled."They do advise that "Smaller sea level changes and strong or unusual currents may persist for several additional hours and appropriate caution should be exercised by boaters and swimmers."The swim is on unless we hear otherwise from Ocean Safety.
I breathed a sigh of relief but I was clearly mentally tired.  

I always try to eat three hours prior to racing so I got up and forced down my traditional prerace breakfast of a smoothie and oatmeal.  This is actually usually the hardest part of the day.  Once I get to the race site and see the other athletes I feel markedly better.  

I rode my bike and gear to the Ritz and set up in transition.  Everyone had a tsunami story and for some it involved being evacuated and sleeping in cars at higher ground or not getting back to their lodgings until 1:00am.  Further, many of the Japanese athletes were particularly rattled by the experience given the tragedy they had felt all too recently.

I have a fairly rigid warm-up process that serves me well.  I ride for 20 minutes with four one minute efforts followed by a 10 minute jog to ensure emptying what is remaining in my system that my laxative-producing nerves have not.  This entails a last stop at the porto-potties.  Then, I like to get to the swim 10 minute before the race and swim 400 meters and hit the line just before the start.  I went down to body marking and could not believe the queue.  I probably waited a half an hour which meant I would have to shorten my warm up significantly.  In addition to opening up my system to race the warm up greatly calms me down by releasing any excess tension I am feeling.  Surprisingly I was not nervous but mentally I felt somewhat aloof perhaps due to my sleep deprivation.  I was not feeling the same determination I did at the U.S. Championship.  I knew I was toeing the line with the best fitness I ever had but needed my focus.  It reminded me of what Yogi Berra said about hitting in baseball:  “Baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.”  My 90% was just not there.  After finally getting body marked (still don’t know why they do this in our sport) I did an abbreviated warm-up and got in a short practice swim.  On the swim I could tell the conditions were the roughest they had been.  I got to the starting line just before the pros went off.  “Just start this thing and get me out in the water” I kept thinking.  I want to get this thing going!

The Race
Start of the Men's Race
Shark!  Everyone out of the water!
I lined up on the beach far to the right and in the middle of the pack.  This was to account for the southward drift and my hope of grabbing some feet.  The pros were already two minutes out when we got the start.  A significant wave was coming and some attempted to duck dive it while others simply waited for a lull. I didn’t care, I just wanted to get in the water and start swimming so I dove in!  After the first 50 meters most of the waves had dissipated but there was some decent-sized chop.  “Breathe and swim” I kept repeating and in spite of the chop and currents finally being in the ocean felt great.  I was having fun!  I started to get into a good rhythm with the chop but had to sight more frequently given the lack of visibility of other swimmers.  I wanted to avoid any logjam at the first buoy so I was aiming to the right of it.  When I got there I turned out to be 5 yards inside of it.  “Oh shit” I thought as I made my way around a gaggle of swimmers also attempting to get around it (Mental Mistake #1).  The rest of the swim proved uneventful including and fortunately my exits from the water.  My timing was lucky enough to not have to face any large waves on the swim exits though I did continue to fight some southward drift which took me off course a bit (Mental Mistake #2).
Coming out of the swim I saw I was right behind Michael and his guide.  I was hopeful that this meant that I had a better than anticipated swim but his guide kept him wide of the pack to avoid any problems so for him his slower than his potential.
Nothing about the course was easy and this even included the run from the swim to transition which measured a few hundred yards and, of course, a nice little incline.  I found my bike and began to prepare for my ride.  I know my transitions are low hanging fruit with respect to improvements on my time and this one also proved to be slow.  I checked Facebook, sent off some Tweets, did some journaling on my feelings and then ran up the hill to the bike mount.
The ride climbs right away on a golf cart path which is a granny-gear grinder before entering the single track area which winds through an abandoned golf course littered with hundreds of golf balls.  There is some up and down and then a consistent climb through the fifth mile.  The slow swim had me bottled-necked behind way too many riders and I burned plenty of matches making passes whenever the opportunity afforded.  The drill became catch a group of riders, wait for a window, pass, active recovery, repeat.  At mile three I was really feeling the heat.  I grabbed a gel taped to the top tube of my bike and went to put the empty wrapper in the pocket of my tri kit and an unfortunate realization:  The speedsuit that I wore in the swim was still on around my shorts (Mental Mistakes 3-6).  “Are you ‘effin’ kidding me?” I said aloud.  At that point I had to make a decision and be content to live with my choice: either leave it on or take it off.  I quickly weighed the pros and cons.  If I leave it on I won’t have to repass numerous riders I had just passed and just think of the compression benefits!  Or, take it off to save me from the added heat that was being generated in my nether regions and the ridicule any photos taken of me would bring about from my friends.  Vanity, ego and a muffled plea from “the boyz” prevailed and I decided to remove it.  I found a flattish area and quickly leapt from my bike.  I struggled to take it off over my shoes almost falling over a couple of times and then deposited it in my Camelback.   I hopped back on and began to again pass everyone that went by me.
Speedsuit:  Before and After.  Doh!!!
The rest of the ride was simply hard.  My legs weren’t feeling the good "pop" that I hoped they would have had as the heat and humidity were definitely affecting me.  Even with the limited period of cloud cover and an all too brief misting of rain it was still hard on this Colorado boy but I pushed at my limit when I wasn’t being held up.  There was one major slog of uphill left where I could do some passing and I continued to push.  After a longer section of downhill there would be a deceiving amount of climbing left and I felt my legs coming around.  Heading back down to the last few miles there was a definite hike-a-bike section which was about a 10 foot climb up a steep dusty patch.  I hit it very fast and approached it like a cyclocross barrier.  Lugging my bike of the hill a cramp shoot up down my leg and I fell back a bit and tried to muscle through it but I had to stop at the top to stretch it out until it went away.  I drank and ate well on the course even draining the 100 ounces of Cytomax in my Camelback along with six gels and some sea salt electrolytes.

Reaching the transition area I chugged down another bottle I had left there, ingested a gel and headed off on the run.  For some reason I always run better off the bike and the run has been the best part of my racing.  My legs felt good the first mile out but I felt the cramp return again on another steep sandy pitch and I stopped to stretch it out.  There were aid stations every mile on the course where I grabbed a Gatorade to drink and poured water on the inside of my hat.  After the majority of the climbing to mile three there was a relatively flat trail around a lake and then a fun grassy downhill followed by a final steep climb up a paved road.  I made a final charge up a paved roadl that most people were walking.  The road led to the final downhill to the beach and was a narrow single track with some exposure.  An athlete I met the night before saw me and he said, “I’d better get ahead of this guy” and sprinted up to the holeshot leading to the downhill.  “Unbelievable!”  I was on his heels the entire way down making contact with him twice.  I was a bit put off by this but the occasional initial feelings of cramps thought it alright to temper my effort in spite of my frustration (mental mistake #7).  At the bottom of the downhill there was a beach section which ran about 300 yards to the uphill grass finish.  I hit the gas and put 30 seconds on “my new friend” to arrive at the finish spent and for a variety of reasons, disappointed with my effort.  My finish card had me placing 26th out of 83.  My goal was top 20.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

There is certain amount of reflection that occurs following reaching a goal, particularly when the goal is one that requires so much on a physical and emotional basis.  This is exacerbated when the preparation for the effort becomes so ingrained in one’s daily life and the reflection involves not only “what could have been?” but importantly, “what’s next?”  I know a lot of athletes combat a somewhat dour mood at season’s end as these questions become pervasive and I've experienced it firsthand.  With ever evolving personal surroundings and particularly, advancing age, these questions are undoubtedly weightier for me than they were in my youth.  The choices we make now matter more and the endeavors we pursue require more thoughtful consideration.

The next couple of months will involve rest and figuring out what to do next.  Faith, continually being a better single-parent, work, being a contributing member in my community and racing will all figure into my consideration driven by a weighted degree of importance as I attempt to derive balance.   There is no perfect metric to utilize as “the answer” to this is driven by qualitative, not quantitative factors.  I try to impart to my children to make forward-looking choices with the question: “Am I shaping this world with my life or am I letting this world shape me?”  I also think about this when considering the way forward.  In addition, and hopefully with a sense of spiritual maturity, I tend to look at important life questions with the inherent undertone of “is what I am doing and do the consequential results of my actions spiritually elevate the material and physical world in which I live?”

For me faith, family, work and community can all fulfill the aforementioned and are natural areas to devote more time and focus but sport has never simply been a residual component of this equation of balance.  While training and racing all have measureable demands of time, the reality is that the pain and suffering to which we subject ourselves is all self-inflicted.  So why do it?  My rationale is if used to elevate one’s self emotionally and spiritually (and believe me I have come face to face with my soul on many occasions while training and racing), there are ineffable positive gains that provide complements to being a better parent, co-worker and community member.  Further, the human body is capable of achieving incredible feats.  To be engaged in sport with a sense of gratitude for the amazing gifts we have received and in addition to the feeling of freedom associated with it ultimately enhances these endeavors and provides a sense of identity.  This feeling is more meainingfully pronounced when I think of some of the amazing people I have met in this sport.  While everyone who toes the mark of any race from a 5k Turkey Trot to an Ironman has a story, I cannot help think of the inspiration provided by the likes of Michael Stone, Jamie Whitmore and John Klish to name only a brief few.  These athletes do this with the additional goal of raising awareness through their amazing accomplishments.   I gain a great deal of inspiration from these athletes and hope in a different way that my children, family and friends can also gain inspiration from my efforts even though less extraordinary.

As for Maui, I feel like I want to come back as I know I can produce a better result but it may not be next year or even the year after that.  All the above will drive consideration.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Learning to Swim

"I'm not.. I'm not that strong a swimmer."

Those familiar with the classic video bit featuring Martin Small and Harry Shearer about two brothers trying to be the first men to compete in the non-Olympic sanctioned sport of synchronized swimming will certainly recognize the above quote. For me this quote has been my auto-reply for those asking me if I was a swimmer. Traumatic experiences including two near-drowning incidents as a child had kept me far away from the pool. Further another experience as an adult in China is fresh in my memory. While visiting a pool in Hefei and upon removing my shirt prior to swimming, I revealed something not frequently observed in China: body hair. The site of this in China is as rare as steak tartar and following this terrifying revelation all of the people who were doing laps in the pool immediately stopped, stared and began pointing at me incredulously. It was just like the scene in Animal House when the Deltas entered the all black bar and the music stopped playing. With these emotional scars, swimming became something I did religiously (and by religiously I mean only on Jewish fast days).

Physically, I am also challenged when it comes to the pool. I am the only person I know who can use a kickboard and actually go backwards. To sum it up, swimming always felt awkward to me. It reminded me of the days when I was a pension actuary living in New York during the hey-day of Drexel Burnham and Investment Bankers.

Compounding my fears for attempting this is the reputation of my home town of Boulder. Boulder is fitness-obsessed place and home to many elite swimmers and athletes of all kind. It is also very non-diverse to the point where I am always taken back when I see Chinese girls that actually have Chinese parents (the preceding sentence has nothing to do with my fears but serves an unrelated aside). Anyway to get back on track and moreover, I am not as familiar with pool etiquette as I am with bike etiquette. For example bike courtesy includes pointing out obstacles on the road or taking pulls at the front of group rides with regularity. Also, and most importantly, apparently if you ride your bike to a strip club it is NOT OK to lock it to the stripper pole. Well excuse me Bambi I am just trying reduce my carbon footprint by not driving here!

With recent events in my life, however, I felt it was time to take my fears and turn them into motivation. As I have regularly avoided this area for improvement in my life the same way I seek to avoid the overzealous coworker that is on his morning coffee high, I now felt that it was time to face my demons in the pool.

Here We Go

Entering the pool area, I was filled with apprehension. My hope was to be as stealthy as possible and ultimately be ignored like the unpopped kernel in a bag of microwave popcorn. I strapped on my goggles and grabbed what I felt were the requisite floatation devices (a kick-board and leg buoy) to make it look like I knew what I was doing.

Getting into the pool was the next step. I dangled my legs in the water trying to get myself psyched up for the first effort. The water is always a bit frigid at first. Knowing this, I had donned my thermal banana hammock to mitigate the initial effect of the cold. After about five minutes, I made the plunge and I was off to my first lap.

I Can’t Breathe!!!

It is truly amazing to me how fitness in certain sports is not immediately transferable to other sports. I can ride my bike for hours and still feel relatively fresh but after swimming 25 meters in a pool I am as winded as a fat guy making his second pass at the Country Buffet.

After completing my first lap I stood breathless aside the pool wall. Thoughts swam through my head (if I could only swim like my thoughts). How am I ever going to do this? Is this another fruitless attempt? Does Julius Caesar’s family get royalties every time a doctor performs a C-Section?

Someone once told me the key to getting over the initial hump in swimming was to push through the breathlessness until you could get in a groove and slowly begin to regulate your breathing. I convinced myself, this is what I had to do. I had to suck it up and push through it. One lap…okay, keep pushing. Two laps…push through, push though. Three laps…this is starting to feel a bit better, breathe, breathe! Ten laps later and still feeling relatively good, I decided to stop and bask in the glory of my personal achievement. Standing at the wall I was celebrating like Michael Phelps (after his record breaking Olympic gold not when he did bong hits at a college party – my matches were too wet). I knew I was going to be able to do this.

Learning to Swim: An Allegory for Life

As a neophyte to the pool, one thing about this type of swimming that makes it different from running or cycling, is that the terrain does not change. With this, one is better able to experience a deep level of consistent breathing which can ultimately produce a sustainable pattern of significant stress-relieving exhales. In order to reach this level, however, on needs to push through this. That challenge ultimately requires self-awareness of one’s body.

For me this is spiritually consistent with the Jewish practice of Mussar which seeks to help one fulfill their potential and live as the unique soul that one is. When one is submerged in one’s feelings as a person learning to swim is submerged and flailing in the water, the ability to “push through” and calmly draw on our self-awareness allows for a connectedness not only to others, but one’s divine soul. As with swimming, this requires much work and numerous techniques. With this, as with my swimming, there is much work to be done.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Baby on a Leash: A Primer

At this point, most of us have witnessed a Baby on a Leash (BOAL) at least once in our lives. In my personal experience, the most common milieu for a BOAL encounter has been the airport. For some reason, I have always had more than a passing interest in the BOAL phenomenon. I have actually spent countless hours studying this and have even created a field of research which I have dubbed BOALogy. At this time, I would like to share some of my findings with you.

The initial concept of the baby leash was conceived by Frank and Mildred Coopersmith of Des Moines, Iowa in 1950. Frank and Mildred were model citizens and very active in their community as members of the PTA, the Rotary Club and the Society for the Advancement of Bondage and Discipline – Des Moines Chapter. It was during a bondage demonstration held in the tornado shelter on the couple’s home that Frank forgot of the couple’s “safe word” (it was petunia). The act the couple were demonstrating (which I will not describe here) and Frank’s forgetfulness led to the accidental impregnation of Mildred. Soon thereafter, the couple’s first son, Frank Jr. was born. Frank Jr. was an active child and what Mildred often referred to as a “little handful.” After several embarrassing public incidents with Frank Jr., most notably one involving a calf at the Iowa State Fair, Frank Sr. and Mildred sought to avoid future embarrassment.

While Frank Sr. earned his livelihood in insurance, he was also a “tinkerer” and he would spend countless hours in his garage creating anything from doll house accessories to chafe-resistant ankle cuffs. Frank Jr.’s debauchery had Frank Sr. spending countless hours in the garage looking for anything that would remedy future embarrassment for the Coopersmiths. With necessity being the mother of invention, Frank Sr. had an idea and, much to the dismay of Mildred, he. modified her favorite toy, a leather leash with a jawbreaker muzzle option, into one of the first rudimentary child restraint systems; the neck leash.

Believing in the commercial potential for the neck leash, Frank Sr. sought and received a patent for the restraining device and launched the Coopersmith Restraining Systems (CRS) line of child neck leashes. Unfortunately for Frank Sr., this story did not end happily. As it turns out, the stiff design of the neck leash coupled with the inherent fragility of most children’s necks resulted in numerous severe injuries. Ultimately a successful class action lawsuit against CRS was brought forth claiming negligence and Frank Sr. was left penniless.

As fate would have it, however, this was not to be the end of the child restraint system. On a trip through Iowa in 1955, a very successful entrepreneur happened upon a parent with a child in tow being secured by a CRS neck leash. Intrigued by the concept but immediately seeing the faulty design, the entrepreneur patented the revolutionary harness system that has defined the BAOL standard still in existence today. While the entrepreneur was not sure how popular the device would be, he felt the harness system could be modified to serve as a delivery system to help advertise his company. With the addition of a popular character to the back of the harness, this new baby on a leash system could be the marketing tool to take his growing empire to the next level. And the name of the entrepreneur? Walter Elias Disney. You may know him as Walt Disney. And now you know the rest of the story.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cycling Crashes and Chief Niwot's Curse

For me, suffering has always been more of an obsession than a hobby. As an avid cyclist, I consider myself extremely blessed to live in a place where I can express my duel passion for cycling and suffering in numerous ways. As cycling is not a risk free sport, every cyclist has at least one story of a memorable crash. So for the next few moments, please brew yourself a nice cup of chamomile tea, put on your cozies, turn on the fire and sit back and enjoy the story of my most memorable crash, won’t you?

The ride from Boulder to St. Vrain Canyon towards the Peak-to-Peak Highway and the back to Boulder via Ward is among the many classic road bike rides surrounding our bubblelicious town. The ride is a 65 mile round trip ride featuring an elevation gain of 4,000 feet and almost continuous climbing of 25 miles.

Twas a hot summer day in Boulder with the mercury tickling 100 degrees and St Vrain Canyon, which is just 12 miles northwest of Boulder is a stream-lined and rocky canyon, provided little relief from the intense heat. St. Vrain is named after Gunter Vrain who emigrated from Germany to Boulder in 1890. Gunter is also known as the patron saint of lycra and was known to frequent the local coffee shops in Boulder always decked in his lycra cycling shorts. Carrying 300 lbs on his 5’ 7” frame, many at the time considered lycra a poor fashion selection for Gunter. But, as Gunter liked to say in his German accent. “Zere iz nothing zat keepz ze boyz in check like mein lycra!”

At any rate, I had set a rapid early pace on up the canyon and soon I was starting to show the telling signs of “pre-bonk syndrome.” This occurrence displays itself in various ways. Some have stated that they have seen they have encountered the twins from the Shining. One individual said he recognized comedic genius in Benny Hill. For me, this occurrence begins when I start to look for meaning in bad 80’s songs. On this day, the Tiffany song (see video below) “I Think We’re Alone Now” held me captive as pondered the plight of Tiffany and her lover and their quest to find solitude in a world which encroaches on their attempt to enjoy the simplicity of their right to personal freedom.

Trying to overcome the unfortunate melodic 80’s haunting and Tiffany’s dilemma, I finally made it up to the small hamlet of Raymond, CO which is a lovely creekside, log cabin community nestled by a stream. It is a peaceful village with simple nature loving folks and probably at least one axe-murderer. Raymond is also a key landmark along that ride as it signifies the point where only 12 miles of climbing remain. The town also possesses a small General Store where I often refuel and top off my water bottles. At the store, I attempted to engage the clerk in a dialogue on how we could be more sensitive to Tiffany’s quandary but he argued that given her young age, she deserved the exact supervision that she so sought to avoid. I commended him on his wise perspective and purchased two Cokes. Forsaking hydration benefits to pacify a strong caffeine and sugar Jones, and putting Tiffany behind me, I tried to get myself psyched, both mentally and chemically for the 12 mile ride to Ward. This section includes several long climbs and what seems like an ever-present headwind. At this point, my legs where jelly and my mind soon began acquiescing to the pain with Chamberlinian-like appeasement.

Ward at last, Ward at last. Extremely dehydrated and with nothing left in the legs, I finally made it to Ward. Ahhh, soon I would be at the Ward General Store where I could rehydrate and get prepared for the ride down to Boulder. I had never been so glad to be in a place where I felt so unwelcome. The previous comment requires some explanation. For those who don’t know about Ward, here is a brief summary of the town: Its inhabitants are people that don’t really care for outsiders (even the dogs in the town seem to have an attitude and to this day I swear I actually saw one flip me off!). Hubcaps and broken-down cars and buses decorate their front yards. I’m not saying that the town is a completely Spartan, but even Ted Kaczynski stopped Summering there as he felt the town was lacking in certain amenities.

At any rate, I stopped off at the General Store in Ward which, much to my sincere dismay, was closed. So there I was, standing over my bike in a bonk-like state in front of the store. The store’s closure had left me cursing and preaching of conspiracy theories. How could this happen? Why didn’t I hydrate better? They closed this store to personally penalize me for riding up here. What is the minimum number of vegetables needed to make a vegetable medley? Why in the world would anyone ever buy a ferret? Once my tirade had ebbed, I got back on my saddle and headed home. Fortunately, I had thought, it’s pretty much all downhill from here.

It is true, the great majority of the 19 mile ride from Ward back into Boulder is downhill. The steepest part of this descent is the first mile-and-a-half drop from Ward down to Lefthand Canyon. The deceptively sharp turn at the bottom of the section is affectionately known as “the turn of events.” This moniker stems from its proclivity to claim many a road cyclist. Having cleared this infamous turn, I checked my speed, 40 mph, and fruitlessly grabbed for my already empty water bottle. After returning it in disgusted fashion to the water bottle cage, I returned my attention to the road in front of me and realized I was heading off of it.

Wham! The events that followed are somewhat clouded. I remember being on the sandy shoulder of the road and trying to steer myself back onto the road. I also remember their being a ditch above a creek directly on my right. Then, WHAM (and not the good Wham featuring George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley) I was down hard on my left shoulder and sprawling in the same line that I was trying to travel.

The aftermath. I lay there dazed and writhing in pain on the street with my feet hanging over the shoulder of the road and my face resembled that of Mary Decker Slaney after being tripped up by Zola Budd in the 1984 Olympics. An oncoming car that witnessed the accident stopped to assist me. I looked for my bike and saw it some twenty feet back up the road. Another oncoming car belonging to a Wardite rushed up to Ward to summons their paramedics. Ward paramedics? No! These people are probably still administering leaches and practicing bloodletting.

I was able to finally get up five minutes later and was led to a shaded area by the creek. At this point I began to assess the damage. My left shoulder hurt like hell. The skin on my left hip was raw as well as the majority of my back, my left elbow and both sides of my knees. My head was sore and my helmet was cracked above my left ear. An empty water bottle that I had stored in the back pocket of my jersey had the bottom sheared off of it! The damage to my bike was also severe as the front wheel was tacoed and there was an indentation on the top tube of where the handlebar had swung around into it.

I felt nauseous when the Ward paramedics arrived. I was extremely dehydrated and the flies by the creek were demonstrating a fetish for the exposed areas of my skin. Much to my surprise the medics seemed to have most of their teeth and looked like ordinary people. Further, not one of them commented that I had a pretty mouth which, for some reason, made me feel unattractive and self conscious. Upon cutting off my jersey it was revealed that in addition to losing massive amounts of skin, I had also probably suffered a severe shoulder separation (AC III separation). This revelation required hospitalization in Boulder. This was good news for the flies feasting on my wounds as it meant that the buffet would be open for another half-hour until an ambulance from Boulder showed up. Upon hearing this, the flies quickly ordered out for a keg of beer and called for a DJ. When the ambulance finally arrived I felt a great sense of relief. Even though I attended the University of Colorado, this was my first experience with morphine and upon its being administered, the pain quickly began to subside.

Chief Niwot: Badly injured, pleasantly drugged and admiring the drive down Left Hand Canyon to the hospital from the back of the ambulance, I began to think about the Arapahoe Indian Chief for whom the canyon was named; Chief Niwot. Niwot in Arapahoe Indian language means “left hand.” Chief Niwot earned his nickname (Chief Lefty) as a short-reliever pitching for the Cleveland Indians AA farm club, the Arapahoe Indians. While Chief Niwot never realized his major league dreams (he never developed a change-up to complement his 90mph plus fastball), as leader of the Arapahoe tribe, he would lead them up this canyon every summer to avoid the summer heat. In those days broken down carriages and wagon wheels adorned the homes in Ward, which even then, promoted its unwelcome demeanor. Chief Niwot told many tales of this journey through Ward and even referenced a local dog the he affectionately gave the Arapahoe name, “Dog Who Gives the Bird.”

Unfortunately, in the summer of 1858, the peaceful Arapahoe Indian tribe had their first encounter with outsiders in the form of gold seekers who arrived in Boulder. It is said that these gold seekers were drawn by the breathtaking landscape and a potential for prosperous gold mining. Understanding how the region would soon be overcome with trust fund babies, wannabee hippees and helicopter moms (stay tuned), Chief Niwot placed a curse on the region. (To this day there are some that speculate the origin of the curse had more to do with his lifetime of frustration of not being able to find a pair of scissors that suited his left handedness). The curse was:
“People seeing the beauty of this valley will want to stay, and their staying will be the undoing of the beauty.”

Little did Chief Niwot know that this curse would not only plague the people and the beauty of Boulder, but ultimately, it would become the mission statement for the town of Ward.