Saturday, September 28, 2013

Sometimes being hedonistic isn't all that bad

A single sunbeam is enough to drive away many shadows.
-St. Francis of Assisi

Riding some "easy" gravel to Illinois
As I write this, I "should" be up North, in Two Harbors, Minnesota, participating in the Heck of the North Gravel Race.  I'm not.  Instead, I'm sitting comfortably in my home in Madison.  Warm and dry with a sun kissed face, 160 beautiful miles on my legs, with a glass of bourbon sitting next me.

At precisely 12:30 on Thursday, I decided to "bag" Heck this year.  After checking the weather report for several days and noticing "showers" changing to "rain" and "10mph winds" changing to "18-25mph winds", I made the difficult decision to stay put and not make the 6.5 hour trek North.  This wasn't an easy decision.  I flip flopped for hours--"should I?", "shouldn't I?", "do I have the correct mindset for it right now?"  This Spring, I was the first of my riding group to send out my entry postcard, my bags were packed, my gravel bike was ready--I even switched from 33mm cross tires to 40mm cross tires for this occasion, and I was excited to head into the Northern Minnesota woods--a place that introduced me to the wilderness over thirty years ago.  This disappointment in the conditions quickly turned into a disappointment in myself.  Was I being a total wus about a little rain, cold and wind?  I used to drive to Montana straight through solo...what was a measly 6.5 hour drive?  The self disappointment disappeared quickly when I realized I could bathe myself in pleasurable rides--hit one of my favorite Dane County loops called Red Barn Delight with Chuck Haney so he could write an article for Adventure Cycling, ride down to the Illinois border with a good friend, and roll through town visiting with friends I hadn't seen in far too long.

Capturing Chuck Haney at the end of our photo shoot

Riding the driftless hills with Chuck Haney from Adventure Cycling

There was a time, not long ago, when I would have sucked it up regardless of the conditions and gone to the gravel event.  I think I can count the times, on one hand, in which I've backed out of something big I've planned to do.  Backing out is just something I don't do.  Once I commit to something, it's full speed ahead.  In my ripe old age of 39, I'm finally starting to become wiser.  I'm viewing my spare time as a precious commodity and am learning to say "no".  This isn't really all that easy.  I have to allow the jabs from others to roll off my back and just have to keep asking myself "What would make me happier?" as well as "What are the consequences of my actions?"  This time, I felt I could live with not following through.  Oh sure, I'm guessing I'll sift through my friend's pictures as they post them from Heck and a pang of guilt/pain/self loathing will drift over me, but for now, I think I made the right decision.

Being that this post was supposed to be about Heck of the North, and I would show you pictures of the woods I grew up playing in, as well as some bike smut, I must now switch gears and show scenes from my hedonistic weekend.

My partner in crime on the Illinois border ride.  Thanks Zanna!

The kind folks at Minhas brewery allowed us to park our bikes inside while we did some carb replacement

Markham, my husband, riding by one of the many red barns on the Red Barn Delight ride
Me hitting the Illinois border

Saturday, September 21, 2013

My view on training

For months I've thought about writing a piece on training.  I kind of feel silly doing it.  Yes, I've been a certified trainer for over twenty-one years, and yes, I do feel I know something about this topic through a lot of education, observation and self experimentation, but somehow I feel training the body/mind and spirit is such a personal journey-- at times I think who am I to tell others what to do?

While in Chicago this weekend, for the Midwest Mania convention, I listened to and watched many dynamic trainers, physical therapists, and nutritionists.  I respected them all for what they have accomplished, however, I didn't feel drawn to them all.  Some, in fact, made me want to run and hide.  While experiencing such a pendulum swing in feelings towards the presenters, I began to think a bit more about how I work with people and how they may perceive me as a trainer.

I sincerely hope my clients keep coming back to me over the years because they feel a connection to me and because I am in some way able to help them achieve their goals.  I hope they see me as a catalyst in their journey of becoming a healthier person--again, mind/body and spirit.  I finally chose to write some of my thoughts about training down for several reasons.  First and foremost, by writing these down, it betters me as a person.  Just like everyone else, I need reminders.  I do not wake up every day, jumping up and down like a five year old, 100% ready to exercise.  I, like everyone else, struggle at times--trying to better myself and be true to myself through movement.  Second, I'm tired of all the fads.  I find them exhausting, and quite honestly, confusing.  Each week there is a new silver bullet promising to "fix" people and solve all their problems.  I urge you not to buy into it, and instead, find your own truth by educating yourself.  Lastly, I am tired of seeing people get injured--this applies to the mind and body.  Movement should not routinely hurt people.  Yes, mishaps take place, however, exercise as a whole should be healing.  Okay, enough rambling, if you aren't bored out of your mind yet, feel free to read my basic ideas.

1)  Move!  My first guideline to all my clients, and myself, is to move the body.  Unless you are an athlete training for a specific event, I don't really care if you choose to bike, walk, row, run or ski as long as movement is a part of your daily life.  We, as living creatures, are not meant to be motionless.  Our entire livelihood depends upon movement:  blood moving throughout our veins, oxygen in and out of our lungs, water moving in and out of our tissue and so on.  The only way we can be happy, healthy, and frankly continue existing is to get our butts off the couch and move.  A friend of mine and an amazing body worker says "Motion is the lotion for the body."  I couldn't agree more.  Now, I'm not asking people to run five miles a day--unless you want to--I'm just asking people not to sit for hours upon hours at a time.

2)  Find a movement that makes YOU happy.  Okay, so if you're new to exercise, you may find there are very few types of movement which actually make you happy.  Give it time and experiment.  You will find something you like, whether it's as simple as birding or maybe something along the lines of rock climbing.  I'm asking you to think outside the box.  For me, cycling has almost always brought me pleasure.  You are not me.  Although I can introduce you to different forms of movement, I cannot be inside your body to see if you are actually having fun, and having fun is necessary if you want to continue movement for life.  It's alright to be hedonistic with this.  And remember, nothing is fun 100% of the time.  I tell my clients we're shooting for 80%.

3)  Make movement a lifestyle not a scheduled amount of time.  I know people who routinely come into the gym, workout for thirty minutes, and then sit for the rest of the day.  Your body will not like you very much if you do this, and frankly, your mind and spirit won't be too happy either.  I know desk jobs are unavoidable.  I'm not asking you to quit your job, but please, get up to stretch and walk around once in awhile.  Another trick is to set up dates or meetings with friends around movement.  Walk with someone to a coffee shop instead of drive.  Go for a leisurely stroll after dinner.  Ask your co-workers to hold walking meetings from time to time.  Walk or bike to run errands.  My husband and I refuse to make any major decisions while seated.  We will always walk and talk things out while moving.  This way our minds function better and we feel not only a physical movement forward, but a mental one as well.

4)  Chuck the "must give 100%" rule out the window.  No one, not even professional athletes, can perform at 100% all the time.  It makes me furious when I hear trainers or coaches demanding this from their clients.  Again, this is where the 80% rule comes in handy.  I will ask my clients to be "on" 80% of the time.  20% of the time it's okay to feel "off" or disconnected.  Just remember not to do anything that takes large amounts of concentration when you feel "off" since injury is more common at this time. To expand on this thought, when you feel "off", try asking yourself "why do I feel this way?"  Could it be a lack of nutrition or sleep, could it be stress or are you over trained?  One of these is most likely the culprit.  When you take time to ask yourself why you feel "off", you are empowering yourself to fix the problem--if you choose to do so.  This is one of the key factors in the mind/body connection.  When you improve on diagnosing the issue, and then take the steps to fix the problem, your mind, body and spirit will get stronger.  Each time you do this, it will become easier to do it the next time.

5)  You cannot ask your body or mind to perform even 80% of the time if you do not fuel yourself properly.  Nutrition does not need to be tricky, it does however need to be customized to you.  First rule of thumb I give my clients is eat whole foods 80% of the time.  See, that 80% rule enters into everything.  Try eating as many foods as possible that don't have labels.  Chances are, if it has a label, it's processed.  It's perfectly fine to eat some junk food and drink some alcohol, but keep it in moderation.  The whole idea of customizing your diet to your needs may take time.  I suggest keeping a food journal for a month.  This accomplishes two goals.  One, it makes you more aware of what you are putting into your body.  Two, it can give you clues on how certain foods make you feel.  Try writing a sentence or two each day alongside your food journal stating what your mood and energy level is that day.  You will most likely be amazed by what you find.  I don't believe in any one diet.  Although I feel the Mediterranean diet is one of the best broad spectrum diets, you may find you need more carbs or more protein.  Everyone is different.  Take the time to find what works for you.

6)  Learn the differences between "I can't do this", "I'm too afraid to do this" and "I don't want to do this".  It's okay to not want to do something or be afraid of something.  This doesn't make you less of a person.  The problem occurs when those two ways of thinking outnumber "I can do this".  As of the first thought, "I can't do this", I find it's extremely important to know one's boundaries.  It keeps us safe.  Just remember we are not stagnant creatures.  What was a "can't" last year or last week could possibly be a "can or want" today.  Don't trap yourself in a box.  There are plenty of others who want to do this to you, you don't need to be one of them.

7)  Learn the difference between pain and discomfort.  In my training, there is no room for pain.  There is, however, room for discomfort.  Being uncomfortable at times makes me a stronger person down the road.  I learn where my boundaries are by being uncomfortable.  It may take time to differentiate between the two.  If you know, however, that a movement is creating pain...stop doing that movement.

8)  Finally, stop using the "age" excuse.  I don't care if you are twenty or eighty.  You still need to move.  Movement may change as you age.  I know several people who took up triathlons after they retired.  Yes, you may need more recovery as you age, but you still need to get out there and play!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Seeking Balance

-Thomas Merton

photo by Greg Ferguson

I sit here, in my Madison home, legs up, iced coffee in hand...resting.  Yes, you heard that right.  No biking, no yard work, no cooking, just resting.  My legs are so cooked you could call them "well done" and I am kind enough to listen to their plea of non movement--at least for the rest of today.

This week, I finally calculated my average miles for the year (so far) and realised I have put on more miles this year than any prior.  Even when I raced I didn't touch what I've done this year.  It feels good.  Not in the "I'm so tough" way, but to look back at all the amazing places I've ridden, all the lovely people I've met and all the free therapy my bike has given me, I feel pretty damn satisfied.

After finishing three great rides, with three different groups this weekend, I began to think how lucky I am to have such a diverse circle of friends who I'm able to share my passion with.  I've come to the conclusion that finding balance has so many layers.  First, I have to force myself to be creative in my mind, not just in my body.  Taking time to write, read, go to lectures and chat with friends about world issues tends to keep me grounded and not turn into an obsessive/compulsive cyclist--or at least not as much of one.  The next layer or step, however, took me a bit longer to figure out.  Since I was a kid riding with my junior group, I've always stuck to one cycling group at a time.  Call it solidarity, call it laziness, call it comfort, but I rarely rode with more than one group--until this year.

Over the past three days, I have found so much joy riding with different people I wondered why the hell hadn't I started doing this before?  Each group gave me something completely different.  Friday was a girls ride with two strong, caring, beautiful friends.  Saturday was a birthday celebration with a mix of friends, acquaintances and folks I knew of but never rode with before.  Sunday brought part of my regular riding crew together for a much needed "check in" and social ride.  All three brought me something none of the others could do.  Of course I've always seen friends like this, each one filling a specific spot in my life and vice versa, no one friend can be everything,  but rarely did I view cycling like this.

As I continue to grow as a person and a cyclist, I thoroughly look forward to branching out in my skills and friendships.  Thanks to all of these wonderful people, I am a much more balanced person!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Chris Skogen--the man behind Almanzo

2013 Almanzo.  Photo by Nathan Vergin

This morning, around 4:30am, I open my e-mail and found the answers to questions I sent Chris Skogen for this blog post.  It's fitting I get his reply today.  Summer is on it's way out, darkness is lingering, it's the first morning I have to wear long fingered bike gloves plus a wind layer and I'm staring down the barrel of two, possibly three, upcoming gravel events.

Chris making announcements at Almanzo.  Photo by AJ Peterson
Since I first heard about Chris, I knew I wanted to write a piece about him.  Anyone who puts on a bike event, in my eyes, is someone to respect.  Anyone who puts on a free event which is funded solely by donations from sponsors and riders, and run by a slew of volunteers should be placed on the highest platform.

In 2007 Almanzo went from dream status to reality.  In the short six years it has been running, it has seen a transformation from an underground event for bike geeks to having a cult like quality throughout the cycling world.  This year, over a thousand folks signed up for the Almanzo 100, the Royal 162, and the Alexander--myself being one of the lucky "few".  Although gravel events existed prior to Almanzo, many believe it was this event that catapulted gravel riding into the mainstream.

I remember first being told about Almanzo on a group ride.  Several of the guys I ride with are gravel junkies and even go so far as doing Trans Iowa.  I'll be honest, it sounded pretty crappy to me.  I had no clue why someone would purposely seek out gravel roads when there are so many beautiful, lightly traveled, dairy roads in the Midwest.  But alas, the seed was planted and I wound up signing up for my first two gravel events--Almanzo being one of them.  If you're inclined, you can read about my experience here.

My 2013 Almanzo cue sheet

Something I didn't mention in the post about my experience at Almanzo was my impression of Chris.  First, I couldn't get over how calm he seemed at the packet pick up the evening prior--there was almost a zen like quality to him.  He just floated around the room, blending in with the volunteers, chatting with anyone who came up to him.  Some cyclists, I will mention, see this guy as a god, you would never guess it though by how approachable he is.  Although he looked a bit tired--I'm guessing he was running on zero sleep for days--he also seemed so damn happy just to witness how many people came out to "play".  I'm sure a bit of him is always a bit blown over by how much this event has grown in such a short span of time.  My second impression of Chris made me like him even more.  Up on stage, as he was making announcements prior to the start, he spoke about his family and talked about how this event began.  He got a bit choked up, and as he did, you could tell all the riders felt it.  The rest of the announcements were finished by his father and I'm sure there were many tears shed in the field out of compassion for this amazing guy.

When I asked Chris about what first got him into gravel riding, and riding in general versus, let's say running, he came back with a witty answer "Running hurts".  He also spoke about how riding gives him the feeling of being free.  He remembers riding away from his house as a child, tearing down the road and feeling like nothing could stop him.  I'm sure so many of us can relate to that exact feeling!  Chris first got into gravel riding simply by looking at maps and planning a route to visit a friend who had moved West for school.  He said that although the distance wasn't much, 90 miles, the most direct route would have been on a busy highway.  While looking for alternative routes, gravel roads kept coming into the the picture.  In his words, "What followed was never expected."

I shot Chris a plethora of questions.  In his uber busy world, he was so kind to not only send the answers back, but also include some pictures.  I wanted to include a few questions that may seem a bit out of the ordinary--one's that wouldn't show up in every bike magazine.  I have to thank Chris for being such a good sport.  I also have to urge you, reader, to either try one of his events, volunteer for one of his events or donate some cash (better yet, do all three).  Without your support on all levels, free events like this would not and could not survive.

Q:  Why do you think so many people are flocking to gravel riding?

A: I believe it's freedom (I realize I sound like a broken record). The roads are empty. The views are majestic. The challenge is as much or as little as one cares to make it. I think, in all of us, there is a certain desire to do more and go further. I believe that the gravel road riding that has emerged out of the Midwest is a definite outlet for that. A lot of the events are centered around the 100 mile mark, which is a pinnacle achievement in the cycling world. For a lot of folks, I think these milestone events offer an opportunity to push themselves in an arena that is not clouded with pretension and expectation. At least that's the environment that I've tried to create with Almanzo. Its something that I take very seriously and I think a lot of the other event directors do as well. 

Q:  Where would you like to see gravel riding go?

A:  If I've learned anything in my short time on this planet it is this: Gravel riding is right where it needs to be, much like myself. Where it goes is something to be dealt with tomorrow and where it came from only serves as a reminder that it is right where it needs to be. I realize that might not be the answer you were hoping for, but it's all I have. The present can be a fleeting thing. I have found myself tossing and turning for years, not getting sleep and not eating because I get too tied up in where I think things need to be. I far too frequently forget that the things immediately around me are the things that deserve my attention...gravel riding included. 

Q:  Could you give people an idea of how many hours it takes you to put on Almanzo and how many volunteers it takes?  I'm not sure if everyone understands what goes into an event like this and I think they need to know.

A:  Again, I'll go back to the last question. Every year I spend countless hours each day trying to look ahead and foresee potential windows for opportunity. I look at the past and I estimate the future. I get so wrapped up in attempting to one-up myself from the year prior that I miss most of what's going on around me. To answer the question directly, for the last eight years, I have spent at least 40 hours a week working on some aspect of the race(s). As for the volunteers, annually as many as 40.

Q:  If you could ride anywhere in the world--at no cost to you--where would it be and why?

A:  I would ride around the world. There are many places I would like to visit and many people I would like to meet. I would like to sleep on the ground and get my water from a stream. I would like to reach the language barrier and find a solution to breaking it down. I would like to capture the trip by photograph and written word and share it with my children and my grandchildren. I would like to encounter a serious mechanical, miles from anyone and be resourceful enough to carry on. This would be my ultimate bicycle ride. 

Q:  What are you riding right now/what's in your stable?

A:  Currently, I ride a fat bike that Erik Noren built for me. I ride a 32 inch cruiser that I bought from Walmart for $200. I ride my Salsa Warbird when I want to go fast and hit the rocks. I have an old Diamondback mountain bike that I've converted to a single speed that I love to ride around town. Then there is the consummate commuter...the San Jose. It's not much to look at with its fenders and mis-matched wheels, but its always therefor me when I need it. I've also got a Raleigh CX bike that I will occasionally take out for a quick spin if I'm feeling energetic. It's black so if I'm riding it its usually reflective of my attitude. If its going to be a slow night ride, sometimes I’ll take the Salsa Casseroll out. Right now it's set up as a brakeless fixie, which can be a little daunting as it’s geared at 50x16. I've also got a single speed 29er that I ride very infrequently as there isn't much for mountain biking in the fair city of Rochester.

Q:  What would your dream bike be if cost wasn't an issue?

A:  I'm not sure I have one. I guess I'd love to have a Brompton or a old Schwinn Predator. My neighbor had a white Predator when I was growing up and it was amazing. It had checked grips and it was the shit. My parents couldn't afford to get me one, so I rode my Huffy. Oh well.

Chris riding with his family.  Photo by Chris Skogen

Q:  You've got two kids and a wife, do they ride with you as well, or do you prefer your riding time to be "yours"?

A:  There is a little of both. I have finally figured out that to ride comfortably with the family I need to be on the correct bike. That bike is a cruiser. It doesn't allow me to pedal away and it keeps my attitude laid back enough to really enjoy their company. Two days ago, we all rode 16 miles around town...and it was perfect. Conversely, “my” time on the bike usually involves pedaling a bit more swiftly and really feeling the wind on my face. They're two very different experiences, one no better than the other.

Q:  The whole UCI/USA Cycling thing has caused quite a stir in the unsanctioned cycling community, what's your take on it?

A:  It takes all kinds. UCI/USA Cycling is a business and as such, has a vested interest in making sure it continues to thrive. Unsanctioned cycling is very much not a business and as such, has no real concern over whether or not there is a governing body. Having participated in the political arena as a candidate for Mayor, I know first hand how hard some people try to make sure they get their government issued paycheck. I'll say this: If your work is making policy, more power to you, but your on your own...I've seen how corrupt and addicting the system can be. If your work is stocking groceries, I'll probably get your back in a fight if it comes down to it.

Q:  Finally, if you had to pick an musician for a film made about your life, who would you pick?

A:  Sigur Ros.