Category Archives: fitness

Cycling Day #4: Out of Gas

A decade and a half ago, popstar Christina Agulera, recalling a situation that most of us have faced at some point in our lives, sang “My body’s saying let’s go, but my heart is saying no.”  This morning’s situation was the exact opposite!  My heart wanted to continue riding, and soak in every experience that I could out of this trip.  But, my body, soar after three straight days of 100+ miles of riding (including yesterday’s climbs through the Adirondacks), did not feel like going any farther.

Had I decided not to ride today, I would have cheated myself out of an experience, that being day 4.  I have two previous experiences bike touring.  One, in graduate school, was a three day ride across the State of Wisconsin.  The other, last summer’s ride from Bozeman, Montana to Jackson, Wyoming, was also a three-day ride.  This day would be my first day 4, and regardless of what amount of pain I felt, I had to have this experience.

The ride started northeastward out of Lake Placid, with a little bit of a climb.  This was followed by a descent, which follows the Ausible River by Whiteface Mountain Ski Resort, and several waterfalls.

A strange thing happens when the human body is this worn out, but is forced to start going anyways.  The first few miles, or first 15 minutes or so, are kind of rough.  In particular, my legs did not feel as if they had anything left in them.  After 15 minutes, the resistance abated.  It felt like my body finally, and begrudgingly, agreed to tap some kind of alternate energy source.  For my own sake, I hope this energy source is fat reserves rather than muscle tissue.

The pain did not abate.  Sometimes the worst pain one experiences when cycling long distances is not muscle strain in the quadriceps, calves, or hamstrings.  Due to the long periods of time spent in riding position, other ares, particularly the neck and shoulders, often feel the worst.  In these situations, a little bit of Advil can help.  I usually do not advocate turning to pain medication, or any other kind of medication just to avoid a tough situation.  I even lament how many of us are dependent on caffeine to get through the average Thursday.  But, at least for me, eight hours a day hunched over a bicycle counts as that extreme situation where one can partake in pain medication without it becoming a regular occurrence.

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The first stop of the day, early on, was in a town called Wilmington.  This was an important stop for me, as it kind of represents the end of the Adirondacks.  On trips like this, I tend to spend well over 90% of my time looking forward, to the next destination, to the next activity, and to the next challenge.  In Wilmington, though, I found myself gazing backwards, back at the mountain range I had just “conquered”.  I have now already accomplished something.  Despite having significantly more distance in front of me, and some more amazing places to go, I’ve already had an amazing experience, one where I biked far greater distance than I have ever had before, and seen some amazing places I’ve never been to before.

The next segment of the ride followed back roads farther northeastwards towards Plattsburgh, a town along Lake Champlain.  Forests gave way to farmland, and finally town.

It ended up being a bit harder than I had anticipated to get across Lake Champlain.  First, I hit a wall.  It was as I got into town, just over fifty miles, and only about three hours, into my ride.  I was probably still quite exhausted from the previous three days.

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Then, the last several miles to get to the ferry ended up being more challenging than expected.  To get to the ferry from town, one must follow a trail along the Cumberland Head Peninsula that starts out heading East, but turns towards the South.  In this case, that was straight into the wind, the only strong headwind I had faced.  Although the trail was flat, the combination of wind and fatigue meant I could barely maintain a speed of ten miles per hour for the very last few miles of my ride in New York State.  I had literally run out of gas.

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Perhaps my biggest disappointment of the day was that when I arrived on the other side of the lake, from the ferry, there was no sign welcoming me to Vermont.  There was only this Fish and Wildlife Department sign, which I used as a proxy.

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The other side of Lake Champlain, Vermont, is a very different place.  The attitudes of the people could not be any more different.  In Upstate New York, I was told that Texas has a better image than Long Island.  When I first got into Vermont, I stopped at a local bagel shop and grabbed a sandwich.  I overheard a conversation where one of the locals mentioned “extreme political differences” with Texas.

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I doubt that these difference with Texas corespond to any kind of affinity for the New York metropolitan area.

The family that hosted us that night in Greensboro told us that the town, and probably most of the area, was quite homogenous- politically.  They recommended that anyone who had a differing opinion “bite their tongue”.

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To me, though, Vermont felt like the reciprocal of Texas.  Current political considerations put the two places at odds with each other.  However, as soon as I got into Vermont, I saw signs and heard rhetoric that stressed individuality, and Vermont’s “Independence”, both current and historical.  This felt to me, honestly, reminiscent of Texas.

I decided to take the afternoon “off”, which meant returning to my backup plan; riding in the van that was following Clay’s route.  I came into this ride knowing that I would not be able to keep up with Clay’s pace, often well over 100 miles per day, for the entire ride.  Before booking my flights and such to join on this trip, I made sure that I would have a backup plan when this moment of utter fatigue would eventually set in.  I figured this would be the best time to rest, as the weather turned a bit questionable (that afternoon, it became windier, and it would eventually rain in the evening).

Riding in the van also allowed me to see a couple of additional sites, most notably the Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream factory, which is not along the bike route, but not too far out of the way.

One thing I was told to expect from Northern Vermont, was to see a lot of red barns.  After all, the quintessential Vermont image is of rolling hills, possibly cheese or ice cream, and a red barn.

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During my time in Vermont, which included both the time in the van today, and the time I would spend on my bicycle the next day (before reaching New Hampshire), I would see a total of 80 barns!  During my entire time in New York State, a much longer distance from Niagara to Plattsburgh, I saw only 54.

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Clay arrived at our destination literally minutes before the sky opened up, and started to pour.  Had I continued cycling that day, not only would I have hit a large amount of rain, I likely would have slowed Clay down, causing him to unnecessarily get wet.  This was the last time I had to invoke my back-up plan, but, based on weather considerations, the opportunity to take the Ben and Jerry’s factory tour, and this dirt road, I think I made the right choice.

The CrossFit Games

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Sometimes it is difficult for me to wrap my brain around the entity that is CrossFit.  It is definitely not your typical gym, where you pay some kind of monthly fee, and get access to group exercise courses, weight rooms, and the like.  My primary exposure to CrossFit is living on the same block as an affiliate gym.  Nearly every morning, when I would be walking my dog, I would encounter large groups of people running along the sidewalk.  Sometimes they would have something in their hands, like a tire, a medicine ball, or something that just looked like a giant jug.  I would always think to myself about how these people woke up sometime around 5:30 A.M. to come in and do an intense workout, while I was just walking my dog after eating a bagel with creme cheese.

CrossFit is a also completely different philosophy, on exercise, and on life.  Unlike at a typical gym, CrossFit-ters (is that the right way to refer to them, I do not know) do not work out at their own pace.  In fact, the workouts appear intense and competitive, and so does the lifestyle.

It was a mere ten minutes after arriving that I realized that I may have inadvertently brought a contraband item into the gym.  With a bottle of Coca-Cola in front of a sign strongly advocating against the consumption of sugar, I felt quite ridiculous.

For several reasons, I was a little bit hesitant to come to the CrossFit Regional Competition.  The intensity of the workout regiment does not really match my personality.  I have also all but lost interest in “working out”.  This is primarily due to the fact that I now live in Colorado.  I just find it hard to motivate myself to go run on a treadmill and lift weights when there are mountains with trails, ski resorts, rivers with rapids, and endless adventure possibilities so close to home!

Also, Saturday morning was COLD!  Upon arrival, at about 8:20 A.M., the temperature was in the mid-teens.  This was after Denver International Airport (where the official observations taken) recorded an overnight low of 5 degrees.  Before that morning, the last time the temperature in Denver had dropped lower than 20 was the 6th of March, over 8 months ago.  So, not only was it cold, but we were not accustomed to it.

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Despite the cold, and despite the activity being outside the realm of what I would typically attend, I started having fun as soon as I got there.

The first competition I watched was a close race between several competitors.  The competition involved a series of rows, weight lifting, and some series of jumps that I did not really understand.  It was quite exciting!  As the competitors passed through the series of events, some would take leads, some would stage comebacks.  It was like watching another type of race, such as hurdles or horse racing, only with more craziness and variety.

I had came to the CrossFit Regional Competition to support a friend of mine who was competing.  He ended up pulling out a victory in a really close “race”.  In fact, there was an entire group of us that had made the trip up to Broomfield to see him compete.  Towards the end of this close race, we were all yelling, jumping up and down, and cheering him on!  In fact, part of the reason the event was so enjoyable was the group comradery.  I genuinely believe that all events are better when shared with others, even in the cases where solitude is major part of the event (like backpacking).

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There were also a lot of other fun events at the CrossFit games.  In particular, I enjoyed watching the relay races, as they had a crazy arrangement of obstacles that each team of competitors had to overcome.

I saw people who were in crazy good shape.  They all looked quite strong, and they all were capable of quite a lot.  All I could think to myself was that despite my strong lack of desire to spend multiple mornings a week lifting weights and running and such, while also making it into a competition, this program works!  It works for the people involved.  Nearly every CrossFit-ter that I have seen, whether it be here, or on my block, is in ridiculously good shape, exactly the result they set out to get.

I am also glad that once again I personally decided to say yes to life.  Had I chosen to stay home, whether it be because I was deterred by the frigid temperatures, or whether it be out of lack of a strong personal connection to the CrossFit way of life, I would have missed out on something truly beautiful.  In the end, what I appreciated most about this event wasn’t the yelling and jingling my keys for the last 15 seconds of the event, or any of the other excitement one gets when watching a close race and having their preferred participant win.  This event was special because I saw something that represents one of the greatest things we, as a human race, ever experience in life.  It is that moment when you see the positive results of hard work in another human being.  It is knowing that a genuinely decent person has taken part in something to better themselves.

Life is full of tough choices.  One definitely involves how one can best spend their time.  We will all receive a series of invitations (or solicitations), and must chose to say yes to some and no to others.  We all know what we like.  One will nearly always willingly accept invitations to activities they know they enjoy, and approach them with a positive and joyous attitude.  Conversely, one will nearly always turn down invitations to activities they know they are not fond of.

What about those activities that fall somewhere in the middle?  Maybe you are not too familiar with them, or have some kind of mixed emotions.  Ultimately, we all must make a judgement call.  Saturday’s event provided a clear reminder to me that accepting more of these invitations, and approaching them with an open mind and a positive attitude will lead to more positive experiences in life.

 

Hitting Goals

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Some people thrive on goals.  They are always working towards something, and always working towards something that can specifically be measured.  Sometimes it’s something along the lines of a specific marathon time.  Other times it is a major life event, such as earning a promotion, or being able to afford a house. Sometimes it’s even something a bit more unusual, like trying every ice cream flavor at a local ice cream shop.  But, in all cases, there is a goal, and a clear measurement.  At any given time, they know whether or not they have achieved their goal, and, in most cases, how close they are to reaching it.

Sometimes I envy these people.  Being driven by reaching specific, tangible benchmarks like this fits quite nicely into our present day results-driven society.  Tons of people writing about what makes people effective, or successful, stress the importance of making and achieving goals on a regular basis, both from the standpoint of improving your confidence and demonstrating your ability to achieve to others.

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Unfortunately, I tend to be driven by ideas and concepts that are more big-picture and abstract.  I am more interested in knowing that I am generally in good health and feeling energetic than reaching a specific weight target.  As a person who believes in flexibility and individuality, and shuns rigidity, I will often look at something like wanting to buy a house, and say, wait a second, is there some kind of way I could be just as happy in a condo, given certain circumstances?  Do I need to make a specific commitment to some sort of a budget, when circumstances in life often vary, and adhering strictly to a certain number might even cost me opportunities that could go a long way towards some of the most important goals of all, which I see as happiness, purpose, satisfaction and the like?

I do, however, have to acknowledge some of the reasons we operate in this fashion.  After all, we do live in a complicated world where we all have thousands of things competing for our attention at any given time.  The easiest way to grab someone’s attention is to say something specific.  Vail Ski Resort will tell you it has a 3450 foot vertical drop, or that it gets 348 inches of snow per year.  They do not try to get your attention by saying that skiing will provide an exhilarating experience that will often improve one’s happiness as well as physical fitness.

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In 2015, in addition to my big picture goal to “feel more energized and be in better shape”, I attached a specific goal.  I was going to bicycle at least 1500 miles this year.  Now, I do understand that this is not that high of a number.  The most hard-core cyclists will often ride 10,000 miles in one calendar year.  One bike ride across the country is more than 3000 miles. But, 1500 miles would make this my biggest bicycling year yet (2014 was previously my highest at 1385 miles), and it would be an easy number for me to point to as a way to indicate to others how much bicycling I do.

There were a couple of obstacles that got in the way of me reaching this goal.  The first was a wet early season.  In May, Denver recorded measureable precipitation 19 out of 31 days. This was followed by 13 rainy days in June.  Ironically, one of those rainy days included a hailstorm, on bike to work day!

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Later on, job/career related issues took some of my attention away from cycling.  And, finally, although this one is definitely not a bad thing, during the second half of summer and the first half of fall, a lot of my plans took me places where cycling was simply not possible, including travel, visitors, and social events.

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However, despite all of this, on Sunday, November 1st, 2015, I reached my goal, and pedaled my 1500th mile of the year.  And, I decided to do it in style.  I didn’t want to get to this milestone just anywhere, biking on some random road in some neighborhood that doesn’t mean anything to me.  I wanted to go somewhere iconic!  I wanted to go somewhere appropriate, for both the day’s conditions, as well as a place where I had significant experiences during the first 1478 miles I rode this year.  Really, there was only one true choice; Red Rocks amphitheater.  At exactly 22 miles from my home, I would hit that 1500 mile mark somewhere along my final ascent to the top of the road.  Red Rocks is an iconic place, both beautiful and full of memories for mankind.  And, it is a place I have ridden my bike to over half a dozen times on previous rides.  One of my favorite half day rides is to go to Red Rocks, and then into Golden for lunch, followed by a nice quick ride on the Clear Creek Trail back to Denver.

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Yet, the story of me and my bike in 2015 cannot simply be summarized with a number; 1500, or 1600, or whatever I get to in two months when the year is complete.  It is so much more than that.  It is the exhausting three day, 230 mile ride through Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.  But, it is also the countless treks over the same roads in town, to and from work, and to all of the other places I went to on a regular basis.  It’s the improvements I made in climbing, something I am weak at due to living in Chicago for several years, but also all the flat tires I got and had to change.

Outcomes are best communicated to others when they are demonstrated both qualitatively and quantitatively.  Behind every story, there is a number, probably multiple numbers.  I can say I biked 1500 miles.  I can also figure out how many vertical feet I climbed, how many times I biked certain roads and trails, and even how many tires I changed.  But to just say the number, without answering that all important question, why I am doing what I am doing, would also not be effective.  I bike to improve my health, spend some time outside, visit interesting places, and to save some money on fuel.

More importantly, bicycling contributes to my larger scale goals of being happy, healthy, unique, and true to myself.  How much different would it be to have biked 1475 miles vs. 1525 miles?  Not too much.  The same way a .301 batting average is not too different than a .299 average.  So, I guess while I am happy I reached the mark I set out for at the beginning of the year, I still need to recognize that it is not the end all, be all.  While it is good to have a goal, or a target, to stay on track, and provide a construct for how far one wants to take a certain activity, we all must keep mindful of the big picture. And, if reaching a certain number would cost us more than it is worth, we should be willing to adjust.

Testing Our Limits

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A good friend of mine once told me that nearly all people are capable of much more than what they believe they can do.  And that, in fact, when challenged, most would actually be surprised by what they are physically able to do once they have been pushed to their very limit.

When it comes to most activities, people generally tend to stop when tired.  After all, exhaustion is generally an unpleasant experience for most, and has the potential to make an activity no longer enjoyable.  However, from time to time, life issues some kind of challenge that forces us to give everything we have, way beyond what we had been wanting to give.  Most of us have experienced that unexpectedly challenging assignment in college that forced us to “pull an all nighter”, or had to tend to someone they truly care about at a time when completely exhausted.  It is at these moments, when we completely drain ourselves, that we figure out the true boundary of what we are capable of.  And, for physical activities, such as cycling, it is when our bodies actually physically begin to give out on us, that we truly understand what we are capable of doing.

Heading into a new season, I decided it was time to challenge myself.  Monday, I had an entire day available with no prior engagements, so I decided to take on a ride that would potentially test the limits of my endurance at its current state; A bike ride from Denver to Castle Rock, and back, in one day.

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The first 30 miles of this trek is on the Cherry Creek trail, from Denver to the suburb of Parker.  Most of this trail is relatively flat.  A gradual upslope, combined with a few uphill segments, takes a rider from Denver’s 5280′ in elevation to Parker’s 5900′.  This part of the journey was not too terribly challenging.  In fact, in this segment, my biggest challenge was finding water to refill my water bottle.  I had assumed, for some reason, since it was already the end of March, and that there have already been 12 days with high temperatures of 70 or above, that the water fountains around the suburbs would be turned on for the spring.  I was wrong, and was quite thirsty and relieved to see this sign, indicating that although the water fountain was not operational, that the bathroom had available water.  You would be surprised how many suburban park bathrooms do not have running water.

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To get from Parker to Castle Rock, one must follow a road called Crawfoot Valley Road.  The road is quite luxurious for cyclists, with a shoulder wide enough for roughly two bikes.  In fact, it is labelled a bike lane for some parts of this eight mile stretch of road.  The first three miles, headed southwest from Parker, however, is a bit of a climb, and a deceptive one.  The climb is nowhere near as steep as one in the mountains, and one only climbs 500-600 feet.  But, it is one of those frustrating climbs where the road winds around a bit, and, with each turn, a cyclist will wonder whether or not they are approaching the apex only to see another uphill segment gradually appear as they approach.

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Once this road levels off, facing southwest, the ride becomes almost surreal.  To the left of the road, one can see Pike’s Peak, standing there all by its lonesome.  To the right, the mountains of the Front Range, due west of Denver appear.  Riding sort of directly at these mountains, with the vantage point of being up at roughly 6500 feet in elevation, I cannot help but take a deep breath and marvel at how wondrous the world can be sometimes.

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After just over 40 miles of cycling, I arrived at Castle Rock.  When I got to Castle Rock, I decided to add on a mini-hike to my day of activity.  After all, I spent almost three hours getting here, why wouldn’t I head up to this little rock structure- my destination!

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This is a fairly short hike, with stair-step features that indicate that it was designed primarily for tourists, and not hard-core hikers.  So, I did not feel too bad about adding this hike to my already exhausting daily itinerary.

After all, the return trip to Denver would be much easier, after the initial climb out of town on Crawfoot Valley Road, the rest of the trip would be more or less downhill, descending, overall, from an elevation of 6200′ at Castle Rock back to 5280′ at Denver.

That turned out to be wrong.  As I approached Parker, a northerly wind developed, and, although the wind itself was not too terribly strong (10-12 mph range), the gusts began to pick up and become more frequent.  It was here, peddling into the wind, that an already challenging ride became one where I ended up testing the limits of what my body can do.

There are three levels of tired.  First, there is just general tiredness, where we just feel like stopping.  Many people do indeed stop at this point.  However, those who stop at this first level of tiredness generally do not develop any further endurance.  Level two tired is where we begin to ache, or feel some level of pain.  At this point, it is typically recommended that one stop.  This is the level of tiredness I had expected out of Monday’s ride.  However, the gusty winds on the return trip brought my level of tiredness to the third level, the level in which you simply cannot go anymore.

Working to each level of tiredness achieves a different goal.  An activity that stops at level 1 tiredness maximizes our enjoyment of an activity.  An activity that stops at level 2 tiredness is most beneficial to our fitness.  When we push to level 3 tiredness, we achieve personal accomplishments, the kind that make us feel as if we are achieving something with our activities.

The key is, for almost anyone involved in any kind of physical activity, to find a balance between working to each of the three levels, as they feed off of each other.  The original, and ultimate purpose of any activity should be to have fun, but, for most, an activity become even more enjoyable when we improve, take on new challenges, and accomplish new things.  Much like a skier that starts out on the green slopes, moves up to the blues, then blacks, and finally extreme terrain, I am looking to take my bike out longer distances, and to places that were previously unreachable.  However, in order to plan out how to test my own personal limits, I first have to know where those limits are.  So, as much as I can be pissed off that this ride ended up being more difficult than expected due to the wind, the wind allowed me to actually measure my personal limit, so I can start the process of improving.