Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Bucket List Item #273: Circumnavigate the Franklin Mountains

It was a ride that I'd been dreaming of since I bought my first road bike over three years ago.  It was also a ride that I'd been terrified of trying for just as long.

What's funny about that, is that I'd ridden almost every part of the route at some time in the last 3 years.  In fact, there was only about two miles that would be "undiscovered country" for me.

So, for one of the last items on my El Paso bucket list, I decided that I would circumnavigate the Franklin Mountains.

El Paso is roughly horseshoe shaped, with the Franklin Mountains sitting in the center of the city.  There are three passes over the mountains, Scenic Drive on the south end, Transmountain Road in the middle, and Anthony Gap to the north.  To do the mountains justice, I decided to skip the middle, and use the north and south passes when crossing over.

I rolled out just before sunrise with the air a crisp 43 degrees.  The wind would stay fairly consistent, about 10 mph from the north, for my entire ride.  I made sure to wear my heart rate monitor to help maintain a low heart rate and level of exertion.  Although the route was only 72 miles, I wasn't sure what unknown obstacles I might face, surprise detours, etc., and wanted to conserve enough energy to overcome anything.

The climb over Scenic Drive was uneventful, I stayed light in the saddle and wasted nothing summiting and coasting down the backside.  Almost immediately, the temperature dropped 5 degrees and I was incredibly grateful for the layers I'd almost left behind.

On the west side of the mountains, I zig-zagged through side streets, making my way to Mesa Street, for the crossing into the Rio Grande valley.  This was my first time on the major street and the reason I'd taken off so early.  Turning onto the road, I spied two other riders in front of me, just close enough that I could bridge the gap and jump onto their tail.

I was suddenly faced with an unexpected opportunity and decision.  Did I bridge the gap and join them along Mesa, save myself about 10 miles overall, and feel safer with a group for security?

I asked myself what a half-crazed, masochistic sasquatch would do.

I turned left on Executive and crossed I-10 into the river valley.

The temperature dropped another 5 degrees in the valley and I soon found myself along familiar roads.  My fingers were numb but traffic was still fairly light, with the first church goers of the day the only other cars on the streets.

Par for the course, another flat tire.
My first stop was the Johhny Lolitas coffee shop in La Union, NM, about 27 miles into the ride.  I pulled into their gravel lot and coasted up to the shop.  And that's when I noticed the goathead embedded deep into my front tire.


It was what I was most afraid of on a ride this long and so far from help.  Flat tires.  Well, that, and getting run over.  That's also not fun.

I ingnored it and went inside to thaw out and get some coffee and sugar into my system.  The proprietors are fantastic local bicycle advocates and a standard breakstop or start/finish point for rides on the west side.

Warmed up, I got to work patching the front tire.  That's when the massage therapist showed up.

Oh, the people you'll meet.

She offered me a ride, gave me her card, offered me a massage, offered another ride, then made me promise to give her a phone call if I ran into any trouble.  And that's when I realized that I had left my wedding ring at home, gloves were off, and sleeves rolled back.  Maybe she was drawn to my animal magnetism or the pheromones of athletic effort.  I like to think that I look real good in my cycling kit.

Specializing in relaxation, deep tissue, myofacial release
and scar tissue release.
I can dream, can't I?

The ride up the valley and then east to Anthony Gap was peaceful, quiet and scenic.  I found myself mostly alone on the road with only the occasional cyclist heading opposite to wave to.  It was at this point in the ride, while pedaling through barren, winter slumbering pecan orchards,  that I realized I was truly committed to finishing this ride as planned.

There's always that moment in longer rides, especially so in this one, that you realize that you are totally committed to finishing what you started.  It may be that you have gone too far to turn around, that it's easier to just finish the route, or maybe you've already reached the halfway point in an out-and-back course and you have no choice but to finish.  Either way, there's no quitting and you start counting down the miles, instead of counting up. 

The climb up Anthony Gap is a solid 5 miles with a few grades that peak over 10%.  Once I crossed the summit, most of the remaining mileage would be slightly downhill, albeit, some of it with a challenging crosswind.  It was on this climb and descent that I encountered my first traffic issues.  Drivers in El Paso don't seem to be mindful of anything around them, and even exhibit erratic and homicidal tendencies.  I found myself fighting to maintain a safe bubble around me while cars passed well within 3 feet.  More than once oncoming traffic decided I was not an obstacle to their passing slower cars.  I finally had to push the image out of my head of colliding head on with little more than carbon fiber and styrofoam between me and 1,000 lbs of speeding aluminum.

One more reason I'm glad to be leaving El Paso behind.

Turning south onto War Highway (connects El Paso to White Sands Missile Range) I finally found my first bit of clean shoulder to ride on.  I try to measure how safe a shoulder is by how much broken glass, twisted metal and shredded particle board is waiting to kill me.  In a 72 mile ride, this was the only 4 mile section I felt comfortable riding.

Go figure.

I left the War Highway behind and headed east, only stopping to find a quiet, inconspicuous bush and eat some delicious peanut butter bars.  (Mom's recipe with Charla's twist)  The rest of the ride was familiar turf, and once I turned south I could ride the tailwind the 18 miles to home. 

When I pulled into my driveway, Charla was waiting for me.  My legs were shaking, my arms were tired, and I was short of breath.  I definitely didn't eat enough on the ride, and probably should have drank more water.  But I was finished, with only one flat out on the route to slow me down.  (later that afternoon, I would check on my bike to find both tires had slow leaks and were completely flat)

I've ridden longer rides and I've ridden harder rides.  But this ride will always be singular in my memory for what it signified in how far I've come as a cyclist.  Three years ago, a ride this long, covering so many different areas around town and so far away from my support base was beyond intimidating.

Only in perspective does it now seem hardly terrifying at all. 

 My biggest rides of the last year have all led me to this final test of my commitment and development as a cyclist.  The Death Ride was over 230 miles in 3 days (111 miles on the longest day), the Chile Pepper Challenge was a fast 100 mile bike ride, and the climb up Haleakala Volcano started at sea level and climbed straight up to 10,000 feet.  All have given me the perspective to recognize that nothing is impossible once you have committed to achieving it and put in the preparation to do so.

Circumnavigate the Franklin Mountains, check!

Monday, March 17, 2014

Men Without Pants

Happy Saint Paddy's Day! 

I am one angry Irishman.

Saturday afternoon was the Saint Patrick's Day 10K Pub Run sponsored by the post MWR.

I've been looking forward to this run for about a month, even signed up at the El Paso Marathon Expo for a discount on registration.

It should have been a great fun run.  The weather was horrible, gusting and raining, but the atmosphere was awesome, the route was familiar and local, and the after party promised to be exciting.

I'm angry because I was cheated out of winning a special prize on Saturday's run.

In the spirit of Saint Paddy's Day, the first runner to cross the finish line wearing a kilt was supposed to receive a special prize. This was my main motivation for the last two weeks to train harder. I assumed that this special prize incentive was meant to provide something for us "normal" average runners to compete for.
No pants?  No problem.

There are enough really high class athletes locally that I know I'll never win a top three slot in any race, or rarely even place in my age group.  But the chance of finding a niche class like "kilt wearers" means that I might have a chance.

Except that I show up at the start line, where the 20 mph winds are gusting and the rain is beginning to fall, rocking my kilt, to find the most elite, fast-like-a-freak racer on post wearing a faux kilt made from a tablecloth. 

Why do I even bother sometimes?

At what point does competing in amateur events and fun runs become unfair?

What if Bradley Wiggins or Cadel Evans showed up to your local bike race to compete? Is that fair to the spirit of amateur competition? Is it considered sportsmanlike to compete in an event knowing that you are going to win and that no one else has any hope of providing you with real competition?

Sure, I can still chase a PR (though, unlikely in the 20+ mph winds) and it's still a fun run with plenty of beer waiting at the finish line, but it was disheartening to see an almost pro runner stealing the chance of glory from us normal folks that simply will never see the podium any other time.

Yeah, I'm an angry Irishman.

I still ran pretty fast, even got a PR for races that I've tracked on Strava, but it wasn't quite the same as competing for something special and having the hope of actually achieving it.

It may be petty, but I feel like we all have a responsibility to play fair with our strengths.  I don't join a karate class and punch out the 10-year old.  I don't join the local amateur cycling club and spend each training ride showing off.  When I do compete, it's with people that can offer me competition, not people that I can run/ride circles around just to show off how much more awesome I am.  If I feel that I'm too good for a certain level of competitor, I step up to the next group and compete there.  I may be less likely to win, but at least I'm striving to improve and challenge myself and not just destroying the local amateur 10K because I can.

Just my opinion.

On a positive note, there was plenty of beer, even though the weather was awful, and I learned that running in a kilt is not so bad after all.  It's actually quite comfortable.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

I Wanna Go Fast!

I get asked all the time, "How do I get faster?"

Well, being the wise sage that I am, I suppose it's time to provide some wisdom to the masses.

Truth is, I'm just learning to get fast myself.  If I was an expert I'd already be in the Olympics and on your cereal box!

But I do know some fun tools that have helped me progress from the slightly pot-bellied, lethargic, couch potato to the stunning, statuesque, Adonis-like semi-amateur-professional triathlete you see before you today.

To get faster you must first realize how fast you are now.  Very zen, right?  Here are some good ways to start.

I am a huge fan of Strava.  Swedish for "strive", it's an easy to use and highly useful website/app to track activities and analyze feedback.  I use it record my rides and runs and compare my progress with past activities.  It gives me data on elevation changes, total distances, splits, and even calculates calories based on my physical stats entered into the database.  My favorite part are the race segments.  After completing an activity you can go back and create a segment on the route you just completed and compare yourself to everyone else who passes through that segment using Strava.  Doesn't matter when they pass through, so you can "race" against other athletes and compare your performance anytime.

My favorite part about the app is the simplicity of using it.  I hit the record button, do my ride or run, then hit the stop and save buttons.  Done.  I can play around with my phone or computer later on to analyze to my heart's content and I never feel overwhelmed with the amount of data or features.

Of course, there are some that abuse the segment chasing features on the app, leading to some very serious and even deadly consequences.  Some great articles about the deaths and insanity caused by misuse of the app can be found here and here.

Another great tool I discovered in the last year, is to get your metabolic rate and VO2 level tested.

Your metabolic rate is how fast you burn calories when resting and working out, and helps build a nutrition plan to fuel your athletic pursuits.  Your VO2 level measures your oxygen intake and how you process lactic acid and will give you the "workout zones" for your cardio measuring to determine when you are pushing yourself, and when you are just sandbagging.

The only way to get faster is to work outside of your comfort zone and push your limits, so you need to establish what those limits are.

Charla and I are fortunate that we can get tested on the local military base at the Army Wellness Center, for free.  Usually, testing like this costs quite a bit which is why so many amateurs don't partake.  There are devices and online tools that can help you determine your own VO2 level and metabolic rates, but I highly recommend seeing a doctor or professional sports physiologist to get a more accurate reading.  Your body will thank you later.

What my heart rate monitor usually says.
Our next step was purchasing heart rate monitors for training.  We found some inexpensive sets on from Timex.  Each comes with a chest band monitor and a wristwatch display.  The wristwatch also has the basic Timex stopwatch modes so it doubles as a regular workout watch.  Supposedly, these work in the pool, but I haven't tried them out yet.  One hint, use a little Body Glide or anti-chafe ointment for the chest band if you're going out for a long run.

Our testing gave us 4 zones to work with.  Resting, Endurance, Threshold, and VO2 Max.  Using these zones we can determine how hard we're working and how hard we need to push ourselves to either get faster, or recover. 

Basically, it works like this.  In the Resting zone, you're not really doing anything and can do this all day long without fatigue.  You should probably get off the couch and start moving eventually.  If you're riding your bike, you need to quit drafting off everyone and start pulling your share.

Go Squatch, Go!
In the Endurance zone, you are working but not producing more lactic acid than your body can process.  You can keep this pace for a long, long time.  You're probably running a marathon (slowly) or pedaling on a relaxed group ride.  At the upper end of this zone, you will eventually get tired, but it will take a long time.

In the Threshold zone, you are producing more lactic acid than your body can handle and you're going to tire out in a few minutes.  How many minutes depends on how deep in the zone you are and how in shape you are.  I can run about 7-10 miles with my heart rate in this zone, but I'm also part animal.

If you drop back into the Endurance zone you should recover somewhat and keep going for a long time.  The pro-cyclists that you see in the Tour de France typically push themselves into the Threshold (or beyond) to sprint ahead of the pack or catch up with a breakaway, and then drop back down to just inside the Endurance zone to keep racing.  They can do this all day long because they train for it and it makes them seem insanely fast.

Above the Threshold zone you are approaching your VO2 max and will drop dead very soon.  You're probably sprinting in a 100 meter dash or outrunning a T-Rex.  If you don't slow down, you will fall down.

The Threshold zone is great for building some speed and endurance.  You will get faster and develop slow twitch muscles to support your endurance.  Pushing your VO2 max will develop your fast twitch muscles, give you super speed in short bursts, increase your ability to recover from a hard workout and will hurt a lot.  Good for you.

Learning more about your bodies abilities is a good first step into improving upon what you can already do.  Know your limits, then push them.

Then, you have to have a plan.  You need to find a goal to work towards.  It can be a specific race, event, obstacle course, or distance that you want to accomplish.  Don't focus on anything banal like a pants size or weight class.  We're here to get fast, not diet.  Those tips are for another blog.

Backwards plan off your goal.  Think about all the steps and obstacles you have to overcome before you hit your goal.  Common wisdom says not to increase your weekly total by more than 10%, so always plan plenty of time before you hit your goal to incremently lengthen your run/ride/swim.  I don't always follow that rule, but then, I also don't respect any of my physical limitations.

There are all sorts of programs and training schedules to pick from.  And, it doesn't matter which one you choose, just so long as you stick with it.  The key is to know yourself, what you're capable of, and where you want to be in the end.

Know your limits!

Respect your body, work towards your goal, and stay motivated. 

And don't get eaten by a bear!  Seriously.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

In The Pursuit of [fill in the blank]

I've been blogging about my pursuit of fitness for over a year now and I've learned that the conecpt of fitness is an interesting one.  Everyone has an opinion.

"I pick things up and I put them down!"

"I qualified for Boston, again!"

"Who just pee'd in the pool?"

Crossfit! Delts and Lats! Tempo Run! WOD! Paleo! Intervals! Squats! Taper!


I have my own view of what it means for me to be fit.  And it doens't require a gym membership or a $10,000 bike.  Though, honey, if you're reading this, that would be ok for a surprise early anniversary gift.

I want to be a monster.  I want to be fast.  I want to be strong enough to lift heavy things and throw them over my shoulder while grunting loudly.  I want to walk down the beach without my shirt on and feel like I can strut it out a little.

Please stop throwing up while I type.  Seriously.

Most of my fitness has often been geared towards endurance sports, but in the last year I've learned to appreciate strength and agility training as well.  While my goals are all endurance oriented, other areas have increased my success in the go fast arena.

I break my personal fitness down into three areas: endurance, strength and flexibility.

I am not professionally trained to do any of these, and I have no school training in sports physiology, exercise science, sports nutrition, biology, or really anything having to do with sports or athletics at all.

I am an average, pasty, skinny, hairy, goofy wannabe that likes to ride his bike and run really far.  But I do have a definite opinion about pretty much everything and feel like it's time I shared it with everyone.

So, here we go.

I'll start with the two areas that I only recently (in the last year or so) began pursuing to compliment my endurance dreams.

Because, getting faster is not just about cardio, it's about improving your fitness as a whole.

First up, strength training.

This is where Charla and I head to the gym, grab some weights and straps, and I try to make her puke. She says puking while working out isn't healthy, but I think it's a natural part of the creative process.

Either way, we've learned to start enjoying this part of working out, building some upper body and core strength where before there was not much.
Charla getting her pump on in the weight room.

Handling lower weights and slower movements gives us increased strength and low twitch muscle fiber, increasing our endurance.  More weight with violent, quick thrusts and movements works the fast twitch muscles helping our ability to explode into a sprint finish or power through a climb.

On top of the endurance and speed benefits is the fact that increased muscle mass also burns more fat.  Your metabolism matches itself to your body make-up.  Build muscle, burn fat, weigh less, then move faster thus burning more fat.  Awesome vicious circle that can work for you.

The harder workouts also help our muscle recovery.  This means that we can push ourselves on a race, ride or training event, then wake up the next day and feel ok.

Less crying like a baby while curled up on the couch.

And, as a mentor of mine once said, "We do bicep curls for the ladies!"

The next area of fitness is flexibility.

Squatch says, Namaste!
I am not flexible.   My wife makes me do yoga and it hurts.  I do it so that other things don't hurt as much.  Ask her if you want to know how to get flexible, 'cause I have no idea.

Honestly, I just started doing yoga with her, and while I can't truly attest to the benefits yet, I know that it's an important area that I need to focus on more.  I've had injuries in the past that I directly attribute to a lack of flexibility and unbalanced muscles/joints.

It's not just about how you can touch your toes, but how your whole body moves together and the perfection of your form or style.

Proper flexibility (and balance) helps achieve proper form and technique in whatever you're doing.  Otherwise, your body moves or strikes in improper ways and leads to stress injuries, twisted or broken joints and bones.  Bad news.

Moral of the story, stretch more often.  And learn to do what you love correctly before you break yourself.

Next time I'll cover endurance, my favorite.

To summarize, hoholo na pia! (runs for beer/carbs)

I'll probably talk about using the Army Wellness Center, VO2 testing, and heart rate monitor use in improving my swimming, biking and running.

Friday, March 7, 2014

A Long Time Ago (5 years) in a Galaxy Far Away (sort of)

5 years.

That's how long Char and I have lived in El Paso.  And now it's time to leave.

About leaving El Paso behind I have mixed emotions.  I have developed my physical prowess and athletic endeavors so much in this town.  At the same time, it can be a rough place to train and play.

The desert pretty much wants to kill you.  So do the drivers.  (See here for details on the drivers or the animals)

But the weather can sometimes be beneficial to training year-round.  You just have to find creative ways to work around the windy season (which only lasts about 11 1/2 months).

When Char and I first moved to El Paso in February 2009, I had only run my first half-marathon the previous April, and Char hadn't run a day in her life.  Neither of us was a cyclist, had ever raced in a triathlon, and I was still a terrible swimmer.  (Picture a bag of rocks sealed in a concrete box and a little propeller trying to push it along the water)

Since then, we've both ran multiple half marathons, completed metric century rides, blasted through triathlons and placed in our age groups in several races.  Just in the last year, I've completed separate standard century (100 mile) rides and then ran two marathons back to back with Char.

Celebrating the finish at the 100 mile Chile
Pepper Challenge.  Almost falling on my face.
1st Place in the women's 30-39 age group for the
Iron Soldier Sprint Triathlon, 29 September 2013.

We've planned whole vacations around athletic events, using them as excuses to visit places like Washington, D.C., Hawaii, and Colorado.

I've learned that I will run for beer (hoholo na pia), Char will run for wine, and that we'll both ride hard to earn the right to eat like this:

The Irishman's Cure at the Irish Embassy in Durango, CO: traditional Irish breakfast with rashers,  sausage, black and white pudding, eggs, grilled tomato, and irish potatoes in cream sauce.  Picture does not do it justice.  I burned 4,992 calories on a ride that day to eat this.
Somehow, most of our picutres while we're traveling for athletic events involve some kind of food.

I've learned to relax, too.  That not everything requires that I push myself beyond my limits.  Sometimes it's nice to throttle back and enjoy the scenery.

Humpback breeching along the Maui coast.  

I've decided that if there's no coffee or beer after a ride, then something is wrong.  But if there's a burrito waiting, it can make everything alright again.

Public bathrooms are awesome, and a well placed bush or tree is priceless.

                         Yes, another food picture.

There's nothing quite like an insurmountable challenge to push you beyond your limits.  I've learned to not be afraid of daring to do something that I'm pretty sure will be impossible for me to accomplish.

Likewise, there's nothing better than eating more than you can stomach knowing you've burned more calories than you'll be able to replace no matter how hard you try.  (There's a fat kid deep inside of me smiling when I'm riding.)

I don't respect the limitations of my body, and I have suffered the consequences regularly.

I've been hit by cars, almost eaten by bears, killed by bees and rabid dogs, nearly torn my IT band, and developed amazing bruises on my feet.  My toenails are permanently altered.  Char's taken face dives on concrete, done weird things to her joints and toenails, strained ankles and fought through horrifying shin-splints.

And we keep going because we're not right in the head.

The giddy sensation of completing something that you had thought was monumental and impossible can wash away the pain and suffering tied to the accomplishment.  Carbs and beer help, too.

Descending from 10,910 foot Molas
Pass into Silverton, Colorado.
Any amount of pain is worth the view from the top.

10,000 feet up Haleakala Volcano in Maui.

Setting a goal for a ride or run can make all the difference, even if it's frivolous.  Fish tacos, anyone?

Char and I both have grown so much in the last 5 years.  Sometimes it's hard to imagine what life was like before we started down this journey.  Our lives are much richer and more exciting with all the adventures we experience now.

With barely a month left, it's time to say goodbye to El Paso and all the adventures we've had.  Then it's time to look forward to new ones.  What will we look like in another 5 years?

How do we say goodbye?  Do something crazy?  Sure.

Char is doing the Bataan Memorial Death March at the end of the month.  26.2 miles of foot/leg torture.  I'll watch and cheer and eat and wait.  Twice was enough for me.

We're both running the St. Paddy's Day 10K (yes, I'll do it in my kilt) and then the World's Fastest 10K.  The latter should be interesting as that was one of the first events we both used to guage our running and fitness progress.

And then it's off to new adventures together.

What will those be?  Maybe some rides, maybe some runs, maybe we'll find something totally new to experience and push ourselves.  Kite surfing?  Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP'ing)?  Equestrian jumping?  No clue, but I'm sure it'll be slightly dangerous, a little painful, and very rewarding.

The point is, as I've learned over the last half decade, that you don't have to move fast so long as you are moving.

And not being eaten by an enraged mother bear.