Friday, November 30, 2007

The Individualist Sport

There's a frequent perception that triathlon is an individualist sport.

People point to the sport's primacy on personal achievement, with rankings and times and accolades going to the single athlete. They also point to its fundamental rules, which outside of ITU events requires solo time trials on the bike with no drafting. Often, especially when discussing Ironman, they turn to the sport's origins on the sun-baked wind-blasted humidity-laden fields of Hawaii, where the theme has always been one of the lone athlete taking on the elements. Sometimes, people will talk about how the sport is less about competition against others and more about a deeply reflective, intensely personal, strangely profound journey into the self and one's own humanity.

In many ways, this perception is a misnomer.

Increasingly, we see organized teams on race courses, branded by sponsor logos and adorned with identical uniforms and equipment. There are clubs, associations, organizations with fixed dues, regimented training, and identified rosters. Colleges routinely field teams in intercollegiate competition and mark scores by collective point tallies. Even professionals now identify themselves by team names.

This extends to recreational participation. We seek the comfort of fellow athletes, and attendant camaraderie of shared experiences, understanding of common wisdom, support of training companionship, connection of mutual emotions. We have our network of family and friends, and their words of encouragement, acts of warmth, comfort of kindness, tenderness of compassion, and promise that no matter what happens, they will always be there.

All this, summing to the fact that we are not ever truly alone. Even though we sometimes see ourselves to be.

There are, however, aspects that still make this sport truly, ultimately, undeniably about the individual.

Like the sound of the alarm in the early morning darkness, and the only thing getting you out of bed and the dreamy solace of soft sheets is you. Like the thought of a swim in the midst of pouring rain when everyone else is home, and the only thought getting you into icy waters is you. Like the prospect of a long bike ride when everyone else is taking rest, and the only body pulling you into the pedals is you. Like the step out for a run on a freezing winter's day when everyone else has called it a season, and the only soul out upon the earth is you. Like the constant, never-ending temptation to stop, and call it an end for the night, and the only thing carrying you forward is you.

You. With your ambitions and aspirations, desires and dreams, inspirations and hopes. With your demons and ghosts, angels and spirits, imagined and real. With your varying by parts strong and weak, courageous and afraid, faithful and agnostic, committed and dispossessed, pious and profane.

You. Body and mind, flesh and soul.


And that's what still makes this an individualist sport.

Because no one else can drive you, no one else can push you, no one else can pull you, no one else can lead you. Not in the morning darkness nor the longest stretch of day nor the waning dim of twilight. Not through seasons rolling endlessly by marking your time within this world. Not through water, not upon earth, not beneath the sun and stars and heavens and skies and the silent witness of all creation.

When there's no one else to watch you. When there's no one else to goad you. When there's no one else to carry you. When there's no one else at all.

Only you can imagine for yourself what you want to do.

Only you can decide for yourself what you are going to do.

Only you can go and do it.

Monday, November 26, 2007

training principles (training notes 11/25/07)

started up the build cycle again this week.

hit some positives, with the biggie being a solid long bike (290 minutes). i was kind of surprised by this ride. i was worried i was going to be suffering, with the headwinds being 10-15 mph during a 30 mile stretch, but i managed to hold things together. i was also worried about soreness (for the last 2 years, i've gotten soreness off bike rides that took weeks to get away), but i'm feeling fine 2 days after (well...fine as in no soreness, although i can tell there's no way i'd go out and do the same ride again right now). both are big positives compared to the training cycles from previous seasons.

i don't know why things are better this season. it could be my body is starting to adjust to Ironman training distances (i was told you need 3-4 iterations of the Ironman cycle before your body starts to adjust; this is my 3rd iteration). it could be i'm spending more time in recovery and less time in workouts (although, whether this is smart remains to be seen on race day). it could very well also be i'm not going as hard as i think i am (or should be going), and am under a delusion of adequate training that is actually deficient (i don't even want to think about that).

i have to say that i'm taking a number of different approaches this year:
  • for the past 5 years that i've been in triathlon, i operated under the principle of "pushing." by that, i mean that i pushed hard in workouts (effort level) and pushed hard to get workouts (volume per workout and quantity of total workouts). this year, i'm operating under the principle of "holding back," meaning that i'm controlling effort level in workouts (sticking to the workout goal: aerobic conditioning means aerobic zone heart rate, anaerobic conditioning means anaerobic zone heart rate...and never confuse the 2--see below), and spacing out workouts (set the volume and quantity of workouts to allow more recovery--see below). this change in principle came after some discussion with coaches, who told me that in Ironman, you have to know--and more importantly, balance--2 opposing dualities: the art of knowing when and how to push, and the art of knowing when and how to hold back. it's tricky, which is why it takes some iterations of the Ironman cycle to get a feel for it.
  • keep the easy workouts easy, and the hard workouts hard. NEVER confuse the 2, otherwise your workouts just become a muddle...and race day reflects your training: if you train in a muddle, you race in a muddle. the reason to keep "easy" and "hard" workouts separate is that training is about developing specific aspects of your fitness, which involves targeting specific systems in your body in specific patterns that allow recovery time to adjust to greater performance demands while still allowing simultaneous training of other systems (e.g., you do an aerobic swim workout, stressing the muscles in your upper body, then later do an aerobic run workout which allows your upper body to recover but still develops your lower body muscles). muddling means you keep stressing the same system over and over, denying recovery time to build fitness; keeping workouts divided allows recovery for individual systems while maintaining overall progression in fitness. this means that in a given week, you target maybe 1, 2, or at the most 3 workout as the "hard" workouts ("hard" as in high volume, or high intensity) to incite adaptive change in the body, but then keep the others very "easy" ("easy" as in lower volume or lower intensity, or even both) to allow recovery while maintaining conditioning and technique. this year, if a workout is meant to be aerobic, zone 3, i try to keep it aerobic zone 3 (even if i feel the temptation to open up the throttle, i ignore it), and if a workout is meant to be anaerobic, zone 5, i try to go anaerobic, zone 5 (or i just don't do it at all).
  • space the workouts to allow more recovery time. i used to think that packing more training in less time meant better training (as in better performance gains). not so much anymore. after talking things over with some coaches, i started becoming much more spare with how many "hard" workouts i cram into any given week or build cycle. this past 5-hour bike ride, for example, i did with the knowledge that it would take me about a week for my body to really recover, and that any workouts i did during this time would have to be aimed more for maintenance of fitness, or otherwise i risked just simply overtraining and prevention of recovery that would deny any fitness gains from the ride. at this point, i'm holding to no more than 2 hard workouts in any given week.
  • training is about 3 things: workouts, nutrition, recovery. i used to obsess about the workouts, focusing on numbers (heart rate, distance, time) and feeling (amount of fatigue, amount of sweat). but now i'm spending a lot more time thinking about food (particularly in terms of nutrients like protein, complex carbohydrates, fats) and recovery (especially with respect to how i feel: stronger, vibrant, restless, or fatigued, listless, sluggish).
  • in "feel the Force." this is where you get into the Zen. i'm dedicating a lot more care into sensing my body and my emotions--i know this is crossing over into "touchy-feely" territory, but i'm figuring that my body and my mind are giving me signals as to training, and i need to monitor them if i want to make sure the training results in fitness gains (as opposed to fitness losses). i'm starting to realize that if you have a 3-hour run scheduled and you wake up that morning 2 hours late and struggling just to get out of bed, any attempt you make to train is going to be weak, likely to fall short of whatever training goals the workout was meant to have, and thereby just a waste of time, since it risks expenditure of energy with no fitness gain. if anything, it's likely to push you into an overtraining mode, meaning you actually lose fitness. these kinds of feeling are your body telling your mind that it needs more time to recover. in which case, the smart thing to do is to understand the signals and hold don't push the Force, you follow the Force; if you push the Force you only hurt yourself. you have to allow the Force to flow through you.
i should note that last piece is suspiciously like Taoism (not that i'm Taoist...i'm not, but it's interesting to see how George Lucas borrowed from Taoist and Zen philosophies). in Taoist terms: you cannot push the Tao (i.e., the Way), or the Tao will only allow you to hurt yourself; to use the Tao, you must follow the Tao, flow with the Tao, so that the Tao helps you.

so far, all this has helped me with my training, in the sense that i'm able to get through the hard workouts without suffering so much. and i'm feeling a lot fresher in my daily life. meaning that i'm easier for other people to be around, and more enthusiastic about training.

of course, the real question is what this means for race day...and for that i have no idea. and i don't think anyone ever really knows, given all the random unforeseen chaos that occurs on race day. all i can do is hope that i'm coming in maximally prepared and at my peak. we'll see.

Monday, November 19, 2007

the incongruities of life

there was a personal, somewhat random piece in the LA Times today that i found particularly interesting, and thought i'd share. the link to it is:
if the link doesn't work, i've included the text at the bottom of this post.

i found this piece compelling. not just because of the pick-up line (speaking of which: 2 words --"hola guapa" or "hello beautiful"--got this man a wife 17 years younger than him? what kind of mojo is that? can i get some?), but more so because about what it says about making your way through a world just a little less than sacred.

the op-ed piece is more a funeral eulogy, with the writer (Gregory Rodriguez) honoring his uncle by presenting the theme of the man's life as one of somehow finding joy despite so much suffering. in doing so, he points out the strange, but often necessary, human ability to live with contradictions in ways absurd but also profound.

i wanted to present this, because i think it shows some truths that carry over to so many other facets of our world. even something ultimately banal as athletics. and especially something so sublime as life.

most everything (if not every everything) we deal with in our existence is filled with incongruities. things that just don't make sense, situations and conditions that do not operate with any rational logic: tears that come with joy, fascination that comes with pain, distaste for things beneficial, allure for things forbidden, attractions to self-destructive tendencies, addictions to repeat the same mistakes.

between life and sport, there's not much difference. we see it all the time. things are hard (you have to pedal up this hill?!?!) but also easy (all you have to do is pedal to get up this hill). things are long (there are sooooooo many miles to go) but also short (there are only so many miles left to go). things are absurd (you're thinking about something like that right now?) but also profound (you're thinking about something like that right now, and it is making all the difference...).

thing is, if we think about these incongruities, if we try to make some sense of them, if we look to resolve the extremes, we're likely to only drive ourselves mad.

because sometimes things are meant to be different. sometimes they don't make sense. sometimes they are just simply polar opposites...and they won't change no matter what or how much we think. to try and rationalize them in our minds only means our psyches are doing nothing more than throwing themselves onto the unyielding harshness of reality, to shatter our sanity on the stony face of a universe gone utterly insane.

on a race course or on a training trail, the reality stays the same. the only difference is what goes on in our minds. and if our minds our lost, we will never go anywhere in the race, much less even find the finish.

for all the progress in human understanding of the world, for all the advancements in our knowledge of nature, there are sometimes things that are better left to just simply be as they are; to live with dichotomy of things so different but yet together.

the world takes all kinds. it is all kinds. even opposites, fused together to make the full range of our experiences in this creation. black and white. hot and cold. yin and yang. good and evil. heaven and hell. all different. all together. all chaos. in the universe we have been given to be our home.

which is why navigating from any point to another requires accepting the world for what it is, and thereby avoid the insanity--the trap--of incongruities. because otherwise our minds will never be explore the many sides to this existence, to experience the richness that can only come from the spectrum of extremes, to discover the full expanse of life that reaches so far as to bridge all differences.

this is the only way we'll ever find and see and realize and comprehend and grasp and share and give and then finally, ultimately, profoundly, create so that others may find again and continue on the cycle of joy out of all the suffering, the beauty from all the horror, and the peace in the midst of all the chaos.

only then do we find resolution. only then is there congruity. in our lives, in this world, in all creation.

My tio's secret of life
Surviving the Spanish Civil War made my uncle a pessimist, but that didn't hold him back from enjoying life.
Gregory Rodriguez
November 19, 2007

Imagine this: I was 14 , seated at the dining room table with my Uncle Francisco in the Madrid apartment he shared with my Aunt Marie. A refugee from a miserable suburban adolescence, I had persuaded my parents to send me to Europe for a year to live with these relatives I barely knew.

The three of us had just finished a leisurely Sunday meal -- most likely a poor man's paella, i.e, a whole lot more chicken than shellfish. My aunt was collecting and cleaning the dishes and shuffling back and forth down the long corridor that connected the dining room to her tiny, tile-lined kitchen. I just sat there watching my uncle in his post-meal glow -- picking his teeth with a toothpick and pontificating. He began to sigh, leaning back in his chair.

"Bueno, bueno," he said. As contented at that moment as any man could be, he was nonetheless in the process of formulating words that he thought would help me survive the pitfalls and tragedies of life. And then they came.

"Gregorio," he said, pausing to think. "Gregorio," and then he picked his teeth a little more. "La vida," he declared, "la vida es una mierda."

Life is misery (more or less).

You might think that that was a horrible thing to say to a teenager. But I already had an inkling of what he meant. And he imparted this unhappy counsel with pleasure and with love.

I've been telling this story to friends for years now -- how many adults share that particular secret of life with 14-year-olds? -- but it wasn't until my tio Francisco passed away at the age of 80 on Wednesday morning at a hospital in the San Gabriel Valley that I considered all that it meant.

My tio knew from pain. When he was 9 years old, during the Spanish Civil War, his father, who was a noncombatant, was shot and beheaded by a cadre of village communists for the mere fact that he had money. Three years later, after the war had ended, he accompanied his mother to identify his father's decomposed body.

I don't presume to understand what made my uncle tick, but I believe that experience gave him a tragic view of life. But it didn't make him a dour or sullen figure. He was hardheaded; he complained a lot about the state of the world. But for all his pessimism, he found pleasure and consolation in people and things. He embodied that most critical of survival techniques, the ability to harbor contradictory ideas.

My uncle wasn't easy. He liked things the way he liked them. Finicky to a fault, sometimes he made his disappointment palpable, whether it was with people, restaurants or America. But at the same time, his contentment was born of many things. For one, he loved good food. At breakfast, he'd routinely ask my aunt what they'd eat for lunch. At lunch, he'd ask what she wanted for dinner. And particularly in his later years, after he and my aunt came to Southern California, he developed a love for gardening and cars.

At only 5 feet 6 inches tall, he was a slight man, but he carried himself imperiously. He was a strident political conservative who never lost his hatred for communists, rojos. Talk of politics could make his blood boil, and it wasn't wise to engage him in political debate.

Still, he was in no way a conventional man. A confirmed bachelor until he was 47, he finally married my father's sister, a left-wing child of the 1960s and the Chicano movement; she was 17 years his junior.

He loved to talk to strangers, particularly good-looking women, and even after he moved to the States, he didn't allow his nonexistent English skills to keep him down. He'd employed the same opening line he used on my aunt in 1973, "Hola, guapa." "Hello, beautiful." And if I happened to be standing next to him at the time, he'd expect me to translate for him word for word.

It's not surprising he used the line again and again because it was a spectacular success with my aunt. She met him in the elevator of a Madrid hotel on her first full day of vacation in Spain from L.A., and then stayed for 18 years.

In fact, he had a lot of repeated one-liners. "Gregorio," he liked to say, "vives como principe." "You live like a prince." And whenever I called after a long interval, he'd invariably ask if I had been "in [the city of] Leon," a phrase of his, suggesting that I had been hiding out, that I had disappeared.

This week, it was my tio who went to Leon. It happened relatively quickly. It was not exactly conventional. It was as unhappy as death can be.

On Aug. 21, he was at a Home Depot in Alhambra, and a man in the line behind him got impatient, and then angry. He knocked Francisco to the ground and ran. My tio's hip broke, and that was the beginning of the end.

As sad as all this is, "la vida es una mierda" isn't what I'd put on my tio's gravestone. I'd choose: Francisco Martino viviste como principe.

build and rest (training notes 11/17/07)

okay, so this is a little late.

but i have an dissertation defense is coming up this coming Wednesday, and the past few weeks have been just a little busy finishing my manuscript in time and getting myself prepped. as a result, this entry is going to cover 2 weeks (as opposed to the usual 1), and is going to be somewhat curt.

the week ending 11/11/2007 was good. excellent build week. i finished with a solid long bike ride (66 miles in 4:09), and also got in a good long runs of 10-11 miles and a long swim of 3400 yards over the 2 weeks prior. obviously, these aren't going to be the longest long workouts i have planned--or need--but they're good steps up in the training workload.

this past week was a recovery week. i had much lighter volume, and even though tempted to keep pushing the training, made it a concerted effort to hold myself back and allow my body to rest up. i'm really trying to be religious this year about the training cycle, which is for 2-3 weeks build and 1 week rest.

i'm operating under the theory that you have to let your body adapt to specific workload to enable it to take on additional workload, and if you don't give it time to recover then it will never adapt, and hence never grow to accommodate higher volumes.

the build phase of the cycle begins again this week, and the distances are going to get longer than before. strangely enough, i'm actually kind of looking forward to it.


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Damn the Torpedoes, Full Speed Ahead!

On August 5, 1864, during the American Civil War, a U.S. naval force of 18 ships under the command of Admiral David Farragut was ordered to enter Mobile Bay, Alabama, and engage and destroy the Confederate flotilla based there. Mobile Bay was one of the Confederacy's largest ports, and a major port of entry for blockade runners supplying the South.

Upon entering the bay, the U.S. ships encountered a field of mines, which at that time were commonly known as "torpedoes." Within a few minutes, one such torpedo exploded and sank the U.S.S. Tecumseh. The other U.S. ships, alarmed by the loss of the Tecumseh, and under heavy fire from Confederate naval and coastal fire, began retreating.

According to legend, Admiral Farragut, upon seeing the carnage and fear in his fleet, defiantly issued what has become one of the most famous (and perhaps distorted) lines in naval lore: "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" Emboldened by his order, the U.S. flotilla re-engaged the enemy and subsequently won the battle, successfully shutting down a major supply line for the Confederacy and hastening the end of the Civil War.

While in some ways apocryphal, historical accounts tend to agree on the major points of the story. Useful references can be found at the following websites:
So often in our sport, we visualize for ourselves scenarios of desired perfection. Partly for self-motivation, partly to assuage our fears, partly to give ourselves hope, we visualize the perfect training day, the perfect race day, where everything is the perfect breakfast, the perfect check-in, the perfect set-up, the perfect transition, the perfect swim, the perfect bike, the perfect run, the perfect finish, complete with the perfect (read: victorious) journey home.

We cling hard to these habits, telling ourselves that if we believe in something hard enough, long enough, often enough that they might, just might, become something more than grandiose aspirations of imagination but instead become manifest as our own self-made reality.

And we do this to the point that it starts to spread beyond our sport and into our lives, until it becomes an endless search for perfection...our lives, our jobs, our homes, and soon our friends, then our family, and eventually our world.

But that's not the way life works.


As in the thing--the one thing of all things--you cannot control.

Things happen. Things go wrong. Things break down. Accidents happen. People make mistakes. There are differences of opinion. The world behaves in bizarre, insane, crazy ways. Chaos rules the universe.

Including you.

Just like rogue waves, missing buoys, and floating driftwood in the water. Just like flat tires, broken rims, slick pavement, and drunken drivers on the bike. Just like open blisters, raw skin, strained arches, torn achilles, and shattered ligaments on the run. Just like wet weather and hot days and lost equipment and bad nutrition. Just like one of those days--all of those days--when nothing, absolutely nothing, goes right for you at all.

And that's when you have to decide for yourself what you are going to do. That's when you have to decide for yourself if you turn around, retreat, and go back home.

Or if you settle down, grit your teeth, lower your head, and go. full. speed. ahead.

Not to impose your expectations upon the world, or the people and creatures in it. Not to find your vision of perfection. Not to chase some fantastic delusion of your own grandeur.

But to just move forward.

Or die trying.

Because while you are not the master of the universe, and as much as the universe may not care, you can still be a lord of chaos, and you can still make an impact on life.


The one thing--of so many things--you cannot control.

But you can still make a difference.

For the better.

Monday, November 05, 2007

build build build (training notes 11/03/07)

aha! so it was a build week! you can see my schedule this week at:

the air cleaned up pretty well, and i managed to get some solid training in this week. i shuffled the schedule to put the long run on Wednesday, just to get some extra space for the smoke to clear. the catch is that Wednesday became a 2-workout day (3, if you include the weight training), with a solo long trail run in the morning and a solid swim workout with USC Triathlon in the evening.

no biggie. sort of. my long run accidentally turned into a 115 minute run, when it was supposed to have been 90 minutes--i misjudged the distance on the trail and didn't realize the mistake until i checked Google satellite maps later (geez, what did we ever do before Google Maps and Google Earth? dark ages!). this kind of made the weight training session and evening swim go from an easy weights and easy 2400 yards to a survival stretch.

but i figure no worries. i'm increasingly of the suspicion that training for endurance event is really about training the heart and lungs, and not just the muscles, to sustain greater workloads for longer periods of time. meaning that a principle should be to see a progression in the total amount of time your heart and lungs are working during the course of a day--with the training time not necessarily having to be a single long workout in a single discipline (e.g., 3-hour runs), but just as readily multiple workouts in multiple disciplines (e.g., 60 minutes of swimming, later followed by 2 hours of running, etc.). of course, the long single-discipline workouts are valuable, but probably more so for training sessions focused on muscle conditioning...for hearts & lungs, you can think more about cumulative time for a given heart rate and elevated breathing.

the Friday long swim was painful. excruciating. i thought i was swimming backwards. but that was probably because i was still recovering from Wednesday. but i managed to recover fine over the weekend.

the workouts are only to get longer and harder from here, so i'm just seeing things as milestones on a journey to IMNZ.