Thursday, September 6, 2012

Thirty - Six Days...

This is another section that I have been workshopping the past couple of days. I think there is a lot of room for expansion if I decided to take this little project farther. 

Comments and suggestions would be greatly appreciated. 


Thirty-Six Days...

Riding the wave and walking the razor of peak performance is what athletes live and strive for on a daily basis. Months of mind numbing base work through the fall and winter months followed immediately by a barrage of over distance strength workouts. Transition with the seasons, add intensity, races, avoid injury, and peak fitness will appear on the not to distant horizon. 

There are feelings of invincibility and fragility happening every second of each interval and race effort. While it seems to be paradoxical to refer to invincibility and fragility in the same sentence they have to exist mutually to achieve peak fitness. As a younger athlete I never understood the close relationship between invincibility and fragility. I would reach peak fitness and truly believe that everything was going to lock into this magical state for the rest of my days in athletics. Even the most mundane morning recovery run would be met with brilliantly fresh legs that felt ready for a sprint finish in an instant. I’ll always remember the snappiness of each step. Efficiency and speed seemed to just ooze out of every pore. What I didn’t know at the time and had to learn through years of trial and error was that I was at the very peak of my fitness. Inevitably within a week, and usually a personal best or two, the whole operation would come to a crashing halt.  When I was younger I always had a difficult time wrapping my mind around the idea that such peaks and valleys could occur within mere days. Typically this experience would shatter my confidence and I would start the whole process again. Looking at endurance athletes as a whole this can be one of the key head spaces that decides whether or not they will ever achieve greatness. I have known athletes that have crashed and burned after the greatest peaks of their lives because they could not conceive ever doing what they had just done to get back to where they wanted to be. As I’ve aged I’ve been able to finally accept the inevitable and embrace peak performance for its flawed perfection. 

I was a robot all winter and spring in an attempt to become stronger than ever for my second season of racing triathlon. My 4:00 am wake up calls to ride became a ritual that boarded on obsession. After twenty-four straight days on the trainer during one stretch this winter my mind wandered and worried on the twenty-fifth day when I didn’t ride. Hours gradually increased as the days got longer and by the end of May I was in self progressed “beast mode.” Through June and July I felt like I began to plateau and that my race results fizzled. Leading into Give Peace a Tri I began to introduce a higher degree of intensity that I hoped would bring my racing to the next level. Everything started to come into focus the following weekend and the following thirty-six days became the greatest athletic peak of my life. 

I had heard about the Dublin Days 5k since I was in college in the early 2000’s. Year after year I would see results that showed slow times for fast racers. Every athlete that I ever talked with about the Dublin race pronounced it a bear. Two downhill miles that beat your legs to pulp followed by an aggressive mile plus climb to the finish. Showing up I expected to run hard and break the course record, which I did. Later in the day however it became apparent that I was inching toward the edge. After lunch I left on what I planned to be an innocuous up-tempo ride through the flats of West Keene. Within the first five minutes of the ride I had a vague idea of what was happening. Suddenly I was hurling toward Keene at thirty plus miles per hour not even at maximum effort. In that moment I had to make a decision. Embrace what was about to take place with the knowledge and understanding that the moment I committed to my peak that I would be on the watch. I had to accept the fact that unquestionably within the next forty-days everything was going to burn. Tempering grandiose thoughts while in the throws of an adrenaline fueled frenzy has never been my strong suit. I did what I had always done and what will assuredly happen again, I grabbed the moment and went for it! Approaching twenty miles in the ride with my average speed still hovering in the high twenty-four mph range I pulled the plug. Every pedal stroke arcs of sweat flew by the wayside as I drove toward the finish in an unrelenting headwind. What did the passing motorists think of this frenzied madman cranking down the road with drool and snot hanging off his face from the effort. I never expected them to understand but I’d just love to know what they thought. Standing over my bike staring at my stats on Strava I knew that the line had been crossed. Burlington was four weeks away and I had to trust that I had timed things right and that I was going to arrive at that pier at my best. 

The countdown had begun and it was imperative that I make the right decisions to ensure that good results would follow. It is possible to blow the whole process with what I call early onset Superman Syndrome. Embracing invincibility to early in the peak will shorten its duration and upper end quality usually not yielding the desired result. The problem that I was facing was that I had never attempted this process as a triathlete. Was my body going to respond in the same way that it had years earlier as a runner? I still felt in that last four weeks that I needed to take some risks in training to ensure a strong race at nationals. 

I trained heavily in the heat and humidity the week of the Capitol City Triathlon. Race day was oppressively humid and it was a non wetsuit legal swim. The effort of the race coupled with the crippling conditions reduced me to vomiting after the race. The remainder of the afternoon and the following day I thought I had blown it all as I was completely wiped out. By Tuesday afternoon I had bounced back and set my sights firmly on the Cigna Eliot 5k in Manchester. I knew that I was in sub fifteen minute shape but again I wanted to save my best for nationals so I felt the need to temper the race with a difficult quadruple the day prior to the race. I knew that if I wanted to succeed at nationals that I was going to have to run faster than ever on tired legs. I knew that if I could still scare fifteen minutes on no rest that I would be able to perform when all the cards were on the table in Burlington. Wednesday before the race I ran a hilly eight miler in the morning. After lunch I did a thirty-minute open water swim followed directly by a forty-five minute bike ride. After refueling I joined my friends for a session of two hundred meter repeats at the track. I kept a lot of these details to myself knowing that if I blew up anytime over the next two weeks that people would question my methods. My confidence was furthered by a strong 15:07 showing the following night once again in impossibly humid conditions. I batteled every step of the race on tired legs and attacked at every opportunity. I walked away with a quiet confidence knowing that without a doubt  nobody else was capable of creating that performance that night. 

The last piece of the puzzle came the following Monday afternoon in the form of a super intense “Brick” session. I had been wanting to practice my transitions all summer and simultaneously work on getting to race pace on the run as fast as possible. I set up a makeshift transition at my car in the parking lot at Keene Middle School approximately seventy-five meters from the starting line of the track. The workout started out with an assaultive maximum effort fifteen mile ride on the time trial bike. Knowing that the nationals course was only 20k I thought the extra three miles would pay dividends the following weekend. As expected I smashed the ride into submission. I was riding at an average speed of over twenty-five miles per hour for the first time in my life. I frantically entered the parking lot eager and itching to hit the track. Sometimes as a runner I feel like a junkie in a triathlon. Desperate to reach that itch and lay it all on the line on the run course. Again spit, drool, and snot dripped from my face as I dismounted and ran toward my flats. Down the stairs and onto the track I slapped the face of my watch and launched into the first interval. Seventy-five second pace is earth shattering off the bike in a race but I found myself wanting to blow that out of the water during this last important session. The first interval went in sixty-seven seconds. Audible gasps echoed across the field on the two-hundred meter recovery. “Just maintain pace... Shut up... RUN!” Slapping the watch face again I immediately knew that I was moving even faster. Out of the turn reaching up the straightaway stopping at sixty-four seconds. Gasping and surging with the thrill of the effort, embracing the sweet salvation of every second or recovery the next two-hundred meters. To the line knowing what was coming one more time. Facing whatever silly demons we all carry around with ourselves that prevent us from being great. Finding acceptance within the dark recesses with the pride that you made the most of all of the countless moments of training. Slapping the face and somehow finding more on the last interval. We have so much to gain when we embrace what we are capable of and just let it happen. Circling the track at alarming speed all alone in my racing uniform making enough noise to scare off a flock of birds with my breathing. Up the straight and wreching through the line slapping the watch one last time and seeing sixty-one seconds. It was there all along but through the risks of the previous four weeks I was able to push to a new place that I never been before. A mile into my cool down on the track I stopped and accepted the task at hand was complete. The keystone had been placed in the arch and the bridge was ready for traffic. Five days out all I had to do was rest and hydrate and I knew that I was going to create a performance that I would always remember in Burlington. 

Nationals came thirty days into the peak and as previously chronicled it was one of the greatest races of my life. With the exception of a less than stellar swim I firmly believe that I was the best that day. Staring at a concrete wall every morning for ten months thinking about a single race can become maddening. Tiny seeds of doubt can work like frag grenades in an athletes mind. Putting doubt aside and embracing the moment made the race possible. 

The week after nationals the writing started to appear on the wall like so many dark underpasses. Both of my achilles tendons had begun to ache from all of the intense speed sessions. My power on the bike started to drop because my volume had been so low for the previous month. Even my shoulders ached from my lack of a proper swim stroke. The Saturday following nationals I put the final nail in my coffin racing a half marathon. I was riding in the state of delayed onset Superman Syndrome. I planned on using the race as a tempo run to prepare for the Pumpkinman half ironman slated for September ninth. I crossed paths with a Kenyan on the line that I later learned was a legit half marathon / marathon racer. The plan for a tempo run disappeared with the smoke of the starting cannon.  I was in such a heightened state of athletic awareness that I knew the win was going to be mine at any cost. The course made a hilly run in Marlborough look easy and the Kenyan was stronger than I intended. My seventy minute half marathon was closer to sixty-six minute effort. Dirt roads and steep grades led to some 6:40 miles! Following the race I was totally smashed. I felt sick to my stomach and my feet hurt like hell from racing the longer distance in 5k flats. 

I gamely tried to train another week but my achilles could not take any more punishment. Two weeks ago while walking with my bike The Vulture glided by my side. I felt like I was ushering it to transition like a majestic racing stallion. Through the last week The Vulture became a crutch supporting my weight from my fragile tendons. Strength and weakness perched at the edge of the same abyss. In years past this would resulted in feelings of devastation and self pity. Dark depths of depression, questioning whether or not I had the ability to compete at the highest levels of my own ability. This years journey through the process prepared me for the inevitable breakdown and five days later I am already feeling amazing and chomping at the bit to build toward fall races. Knowing and understanding peak fitness is a critical component if an athlete ever hopes to build on success. 

Thirty-Six days from beginning to end. Thirty-Six days of invincibility. Thirty-Six days living with the painful knowledge that it will all soon come to an end.

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