Tuesday, July 4, 2017

This song by Randy Travis was continually playing through my head during RAAM and it was often the backdrop for my experiences.

“My love is deeper than the holler, stronger than the rivers
Higher than the pine trees growin’ tall upon the hill
My love is purer than the snowflakes that fall in late December
And honest as a robin on a springtime windowsill
And longer than the song of a whippoorwill.”  

My love is for my family and how grateful to have them to love.

My love is for this great country that opened itself up to me

My love is for the lessons that I learned along the way that fundamentally changed me, that taught me to live life in that moment and that fear is only fear and cannot, in itself, change the realities of danger.

My love had to override the terror I had that any moment could be my last.

My love is for the members of team Shake and how they made our part of this journey not only possible but a thing of beauty.

The night I arrived home, and as I finally slept, the purity of the rider exchanges that Jeff Richardson and Tuner Richardson facilitated between Neil and me came to me over and over again in dreams.  Whenever I woke up I felt what it had been like to be part of this wonderful process.  During RAAM, the energy that flowed from each exchange we made propelled me down the road mile by mile.

My cue that the end my riding segment was approaching  – be it 5 or 15 minutes – was seeing our Tahoe (Racer Vehicle) and its flashing lights pulled over up ahead.  Jeff and Turner would be out in their positions, with Jeff holding Neil for her start and Turner at the ready to take my bike and put it onto the rack. I’d cruise past Neil and cheer her on as I quickly slowed down and pulled to the right and off the road. Turner was always the rock that I could rely on as I then bent over my handlebars, gasping for breath.  Seriously, every time.  He’d patiently wait as I turned off my Joule GPS+ and accepted anything I had to say about that pull as I got off the bike.  My only duty after that handoff was to get myself safely into the Tahoe and cool myself down, eat, drink, and take whatever Hammer Nutrition products I thought I needed at the time.

Jeff would make sure that we had everything secure and then it was off to leapfrog Neil.  I would be relieved when I saw that she was riding safe and sound up ahead, and as we drove past her I was always inspired by her strength and purpose as she moved our group forward with every pedal stroke.  She never ever ceased to amaze me.

While Jeff looked for the next perfect exchange site he also pointed out the beautiful and unique things along the way.  There were always impromptu photo sessions.  As I readied myself for the next exchange I was able to make note of the things he highlighted that I would never have noticed on my own.  We also had endless conversations about what we were seeing, prior life experiences, and shared our beliefs in what was most important in life.

RAAM rules state that the Racer Vehicle had to be parked at least 5 feet to the right of the white line (fog line) but Jeff could regularly find an almost perfect spot.  The stopwatch was restarted when we each started our pull so we were never in danger of being out there too long, tiring too much and slowing down. On long descents whoever was riding got to take the entire thing. Fun!

When Jeff thought it was time I would get out of the Tahoe, get my bike in the correct gear, and be at the ready for when Neil passed me and I could start.  This was the time to look at the sky and see the Milky Way and shooting stars and the beautiful sunsets that had been to our back. When Neil arrived I’d cheer my appreciation for her effort and she would cheer me on for my pull.  Jeff would push me off, his own effort so powerful that when he stopped pushing me the difference was astounding.  The pedaling was now all up to me. 

While I was out there I worked on being as efficient as possible with aerodynamics and power and on being as focused as possible in order to avoid driving my bike into any problems, be it disappearing shoulders, sudden road debris, potholes, road kill, or rumble strips.  Every second  counted and I’d work at getting as much out of each pedal stroke as possible without overdoing it and burying myself.  I’d focus on the present tense, staying in the moment in order to be as careful as possible so I could ride as fast as possible.

I learned to love riding in the night.  Tom Gray and Buzz Gamble were charged with the unenviable task of keeping us safe from behind.   From 7PM to 7AM it was mandatory to have a vehicle follow us at all times, and racers were required to stay within the headlights.  I always looked forward to this time, called mandatory direct follow.  I was amazed at how much the headlights allowed me to see while riding, but it was also a precarious position to be in, with a vehicle following so closely.   The headlights also did a good job of illuminating our exchanges, a silent helper, if you will.

It was not until it was completely dark that our conversation would change to how many miles we had left until our shift was complete and Bake would take over.  Wind conditions would have to be factored into our ETA and there were also the unknown things like traffic lights that would take away from our average speed.  Sometimes it seemed that I’d get to every light just as it turned red.  But the exchanges between Neil and me continued to flow as they had done all day, with me clearing my brain in brief meditation while Jeff counted down the pedal strokes left until Neil passed me and I could start my next pull.

Eventually we would get down to the last pull of the night with that person charged to ride to the predetermined site.  That person had to keep focused on riding while the rider in the Tahoe could now think about a shower, dinner, and massage, and the camaraderie of all the other support team members who were waiting to help us transition from active racer to recovering racer. Ana with her massages, Beth and Karen with food and encouragement, Peter, Mick and Dreux carrying bags, offering support, and driving us to our next hotel.  And, of course, Dave Eldridge directing the entire process so it would go as efficiently as possible.

Another day of RAAM riding completed safely.  More lessons learned.  Even more places and people  to be thankful for and to love.

Meanwhile, Trish Karter and Susan Lynch were now out there riding their segment -- Bake was on the road,  Mary and Barb were their follow vehicle and Phil and Carolyn were in their racer vehicle, facilitating their racer exchanges just as Jeff and Turner had facilitated ours.  We only got to see Team Bake in passing, but it was always with well wishes for what they were about to do or cheers for what they had just completed as we set out to start another day.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Importance of Recovery in Reaching Athletic Goals

It is not hard to see the advantages of working out.  Health and wellness rely on a body that is often in motion, and the emotional and physical well-being that results is a phenomenon that spurs folks on to continuing this life style.  Those who become bitten by the workout bug find ways to inject more workout time into their life, since their exercise makes them feel so darned good.  Folks blessed with a bit of talent often choose to become competitive in their sport.  What fun!  When they begin to compete they seem to be faster every time they go out and workout.  Stopwatch turned on, they are out the door and looking for another personal best. 

What Happens When We Train?

In coaching we have a saying “the more you do, the more you can do.”  The body is a marvelous creation that gets more and more efficient at pounding things out. Just one of many processes in endurance sports is that more mitochondria are packed into muscles as the body adapts, increasing the ability to carry oxygen. The body can seemingly do more with less, and it also becomes more efficient at recovering from athletic poundings.  It can be said that part of the process of training the body to do more than before is tied up into the reality that the body learns how to recover from that “more.”  What a gift!

In the early phases of one’s athletic pursuit adequate recovery comes with the territory, since workouts are generally short and likely not crammed into every single day.  Once the competitive bug hits, though, many athletes jump onto the “more IS more” bandwagon and train harder and longer, since a minor version of this is what made them good in the first place.  What could be bad about that?

When one works out, whether it is endurance sports, skill sports, weight lifting, or combinations of all, the body endures damage to the muscles and deficits to all its systems.  Reaction to this is a miraculous rebuilding by the body which, ideally, brings the systems up to an even stronger status quo.  Getting faster/stronger is a by-product of this rebuilding.  This essentially, is healing, and it takes time, happening most effectively when the body is resting.

Many athletes take this gift for granted, though, and continue with their “more is more” philosophy of training in hopes of improving, as people enjoy their chosen sport.  Some people brag about never even taking a day off, which, in their mind, gives their workouts even more importance.  What has happened, though, is that the athlete has now flipped over to the other side, ignoring this critical equation:  Workouts + recovery = training.  Yes, without recovery workouts are simply workouts. 

What Makes Us Stronger?

There are articles galore about the importance of recovery for the athlete.  Again, the repairs to the body are best done while resting, since more of the energy systems are available for that purpose.  The offshoot of this is that, once recovered, the body feels GOOD, and a body that feels good is going to be able to push the envelope in training to induce the processes that propel the body to the next level.  That is it, in a nutshell.  Train while too tired and those numbers are not going to be reached.  Race while too tired and the results are discouraging, at best.  The motivation that the athlete has to improve must fuel the desire to rest as much as the desire to work out.

What Helps the Body Recover?
Tactics include:
·         A strategically placed day off works wonders.  At times a complete week devoted to recovery is in order.
·         A workout schedule that peppers easier days between the hard days is also smart, since the body has a couple of days to recover from the last hard workout – provided the easier days are actually easy! 
·         Immediate nutrition and rehydration after a hard workout, as a follow-up to adequate nutrition and hydration during the workout. Eating and drinking are under our own control, and avoiding a fall into a big preventable deficit gives the athlete less to actually recover from.
·         Stretching and meditation can help bring the body back to a calmer place.
·         Chilling out – doing nothing – can have a huge impact.  A person I know painted his house whenever he had a day off from cycling.  He was not feeling very rested. Improvements were negligible. 
·         And, paramount to all of these:  SLEEP!  Human Growth Hormone is specifically released by the brain while sleeping.  There are hosts of metabolic processes that, not surprisingly, happen while asleep, yet athletes often cheat themselves out of this valuable tool. Conversely, when athletes sleep even more than usual their athletic abilities improve.  “Magic,” for sure, but it is difficult to for most folks to simply slow down and go to bed.  Temptations abound. This article from ESPN calls sleep “the new magic pill.” http://www.espn.com/espn/commentary/story/_/id/7765998/for-athletes-sleep-new-magic-pill

Some last words from a variety of coaches that I have spoken with and read:  You can work out hard and long, but you will never be as good as you could have been if you do not take the time to recover. 

I am so excited to announce that I am a part of a four women team that will race across the United States in June – with a goal of less than 7 days.  I am doing team RAAM!  www.raceacrossamerica.org.  Our New England based team is sponsored by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and the four of us and our entire crew is, collectively, Team Brigham Health.  Back in 2012 I wrote a blog post about taking on a challenge which, because of its motivation, spurred me to work harder than I ever thought I could, and greatly exceeding my expectations.   This race will take the most work of all.  You can likely find me either on the bike (outside or indoors) or in the recliner J  Please check out our team and amazing crew on http://teambrighamhealth.com 

That post I just mentioned has been reworked to be submitted for publication with Brigham Health.  This is the new and improved version:
   “Truth is stranger than fiction” is a phrase that I often quote.  Mostly, the truths that I refer to are my own.  Pushing myself in some kind of methodical manner has led me to loftyish places where I never imagined being, enabling me to take advantages of opportunities when they emerge. I’d never have imagined that I’d be on a team for the Race Across America, which is going to be the biggest challenge yet, but here I am. Going back to the spring of 2012 I am refreshing my memory about another challenge that I took on, with a surprising – and pleasing – outcome.

In December of 2011 I broke my hip while competing in a Cyclocross race, tipping over in a narrow part of the course while passing another woman who I had lapped.  I cracked the femur at the head and won myself a complete hip replacement.  I also had a crack in my femur below the hip prosthesis, so after the surgery I was restricted to using a walker for 6 weeks and could only put 50% of my weight on that leg.  When I was pronounced “healed,” and my walker taken away, I had to learn how to walk again.  Fun! 

I’d been doing physical therapy since the day after the surgery and was able to gingerly get back on my bike 2.5 weeks after the accident. Thanks to my desire and my coach, Mark Fasczewski, I rode indoors on my computerized trainer, and when I could walk well enough to get myself somewhere without a cane I started riding out on the road. 

Less than three months after the replacement, and only 5 weeks after I ditched the walker, I signed up for a climbing challenge on Strava, a cycling and running web site that was relatively new at the time.   A Classic Challenge from Specialized  goaded cyclists to climb 105,312 vertical feet between March 15 and April 30.  The significance of this number?  It is three times the total feet of climbing in the Spring Classic races in Europe.  I love climbing!  Besides, there was a cool water bottle as a reward for reaching that total.

It soon became evident that my normal bike routes were not going to amass climbing feet very quickly.  Compared to some of the women signed up, I was fairly minor league.  So by early April I decided to up my game and change my routes.  I tried not to ride anything for more than a mile that registered zero percent grade – what a waste! – and opened my eyes to the local hills. Glaciers had cut valleys, and roads ascended the ridges.  Beautiful climbing, absolutely fun, and it gave each ride an immediate purpose.  I would upload my ride onto Strava post- ride and then I’d check my progress against my virtual, but real, competitors.  Coach Mark enabled this pursuit, and soon I was in the top 20 of over 500 women.

When I significantly increased the amount of climbing feet per week I started leapfrogging over people.  While in the teens I was hoping to get closer to women’s tenth place, and with two weeks remaining in the challenge I had clawed my way into ninth place.  What?  Now my riding took on an obsessive edge (OK, it usually does anyway, but humor me here) and I dropped to 7th, then 6th.  With just a few days to go I found myself in 5th place.  Wow!

 On the last day of the challenge I set out to climb the steepest hills discovered during the last 6 weeks, bagging another 7800 feet in 78 miles, this on a Monday after a road race. Take that, hip replacement! My total for the challenge was 137,772 feet, and in the end I held on to 5th place for women and 107th of the 10,923 people who entered the contest. 

This is, of course, something that I had not dreamed about when I entered the challenge.  Once I’d entered, though, I pushed myself to do things that I would not have done otherwise.  Motivation enabled me to ride in abysmal weather, I did nothing but climb, I descended some steep and scary stuff, and I enjoyed almost every demented minute of it.  The offshoot of this was that my hip became super-strong and my walking became better than when I was spending a log of time, well, walking.

I learned, again, that there are always more possibilities for myself than I can imagine and that one thing leads to another.  The first step into a new venture can open up doors formerly thought “closed for the season.”  The focus on climbing helped me strengthen more quickly, and the fitness I accumulated definitely widened the array of events I was capable of that first season back.   “Never say never” is another one of my favorite slogans, but I can also be guilty of holding myself back with restrictive thinking.  It is easy for me to see this in the athletes I coach, but difficult to recognize this in my own thinking.

This challenge taught me to go with the process, work hard, and see what happens -- to try not to predict the end of the story.  The challenge itself motivated me to do much more than I than I had imagined possible for me.  I’ll work at applying that same lesson regarding Race Across America. The training for this race is tough and the race is unimaginable.  But by involving myself in this challenge I am motivated to go well beyond anything I’ve done in until now and to get past my self-imposed limitations to see what is really possible.