If you’re a long-time reader of the humble blog; or happen to see my slender self; or follow me on Strava where I upload my swimming, cycling, and running workouts; you might assume I’ve got the fitness thing figured out. And maybe I do compared to the average 60 year old person residing in the not very fit (dis)United States.
But I don’t have it figured out. During the parts of the year when I’m not working, like now, I have too much time to think about working out. And sometimes thinking about working out ends with me bagging workouts.
When it comes to personal fitness, the one thing I find most difficult is designing a realistic “basic week” that’s challenging, but not so much so that I only check two-thirds of the boxes because then I feel badly about the one-third that remain unchecked. That one-third has a disproportionate negative influence on how I feel at week’s end.
This decidedly first world dilemma is complicated by my preference for cross-training. I like to swim, cycle, and run every week. I’ve added in a core workout and I’ve started to enjoy lifting weights. So that’s five things, meaning often, something has to give. Right now, because of the nice weather and friends who are cycling a lot, I’m taking time from swimming and running for the sake of cycling.
Another problem is that at my advanced age, it takes longer to recover from hard efforts. I haven’t been running as much lately probably because I’m beating myself up on the bike. I can do two workouts in a day, but only if both are shorter and/or easier than normal.
Tonight (Sunday), I planned the week. The odds are very good that my plan is too ambitious, and that despite closing all the rings on my Apple Watch (woopty doo), I won’t end up feeling much of a sense of accomplishment since I missed that run, didn’t swim at all, only lifted once, or didn’t ride as many miles as hoped for. Of course it’s silly, since I feel great and I’m healthy; and ultimately, that’s all that matters. But we’re all irrational in different ways.
Put most simply, by not planning realistically, I sabotage my feeling contented with my weekly efforts. Most frustratingIy, I don’t get why I understand the problem so clearly and still can’t seem to correct for it.
Tomorrow, I’m “supposed” to do a short run, swim, and lift weights. One or two out of three won’t be bad will it?
I don’t write as much about my athletic exploits as I once did. Probably, as I fast approach my sixth decade, because I’m not competing anymore. I should probably stop referring to myself as a triathlete. Rest assured though, I’m still swimming, cycling, and running. And now that I’m healthier than a year ago, hitting it a little harder.
Take yesterday’s Capitol Forest run for example. Mid-day I started to think about doing the 13ish mile Mima Falls loop. The weather was ideal, 50 degrees, sunny, still. So I texted The Good Wife my route—Mima East, Mima West, McKenny, Campground—and probable timeline just in case I was mauled by a bear or something—and headed to the trailhead.
Cap Forest is LARGE and apart from my loop, I don’t know it well. I was never a Boy Scout, so I began the run with shit preparation. I suppose I get a few points for alerting the The Gal Pal of my plans, but I headed out at 2:45p without calories, phone, jacket, or a map of the forest. I was carrying 4 ounces of Gatorade.
After Mima Falls (mile 2), there’s a sign that says, “Steep, remote trails from this point.” It was a mix of slow running and hiking to the high point around mile 5+. I saw a fair number of people on the way to the falls, but afterwards NO ONE. I felt like I was the only person in the forest. Not even any animal life, no birds, no rodents, no nuthin’.
I was trying to keep my average pace under 10 minutes/mile and didn’t appreciate it when Siri would announce via my 🍎 watch , “Mile 6, total time 63 minutes, last mile, 10:21.” I was looking forward to the second half being much flatter and even losing the hard-earned earlier elevation.
At mile 8, I was feeling fatigued, walking every riser, but confident I could grind out the last 5. When suddenly I came to a supe-depressing sign, “Trail Closed—Falling Trees.” SHIT. I climbed over the signed fence wondering just how bad could it be. Only to find out 100 meters later that it couldn’t have been worse. I was met by several giant pines whose downed branches rose about 30 feet above like a green tsunami.
Wut do I do now? Travis would’ve known which fire trails to take back as a shortcut, keeping the distance to the planned 13, but I was without my wingman. The safest and only option I could think of was to back track the whole way.
I didn’t want to run 8.4 more miles, but that’s what I did. We’ll, kinda ran. More of a hike-run or run-hike. I didn’t enjoy the return because I was too busy calculating things. “Okay, at this pace, I get back right after sunset. If I slow too much, it will be dark, meaning cold and because the trail is muddy and rocky in places, footing will be dicey.” I had already rolled my ankle twice. I would’ve been in trouble if I had broken my ankle or gone down on some of the muddy descents. Needless to say I was solely focused on my pace and footing, pretty much blanking on the beautiful surroundings and sunset.
I survived the return, arriving at the car a little past sunset. Weirdly, in the last few miles I came across two different pairs of mountain bikers and one young female runner heading outbound into the dark. She smiled and waved at me like it was no big deal, “I trail run in the forest, in the dark, by myself, all the time.”
Adventurers often say a good plan should make you nervous about whether you can pull it off or not. My plan didn’t make me nervous, but the unexpected tweak most definitely did. I felt vulnerable in the middle of the forest, by myself, very late in the day, far from civilization.
Thankfully though I survived to swim, cycle, and run another day, or God willing, decade.
For those keeping score at home, 16.8 miles, average pace 10:38, total elevation, 1,975’.
I enjoy watching Lionel Sanders triathlon training videos on YouTube. I dig his honesty and no-nonsense competitiveness. He said something in a recent one that was particularly insightful. Tying his shoes before a track workout, he said, “If you’re not looking forward to it (meaning workouts generally), you’re doing it wrong.”
Great advice for any walker, hiker, tennis player, yoga aficionado, swimmer, cyclist, runner. Whether you’re looking forward to your activity is a great litmus test of whether you’re overtrained or just going through the motions out of habit. What would it be like to be fully present and genuinely appreciative each time you lace em’ up?
Last night, before expiring, my final thought was, “I’m fortunate I get to swim tomorrow morning.”
This Tuesday afternoon I found myself shoulder-to-shoulder with Brett near the very end of the “Mostly Retired Lunch Hour” ride. Brett is the Presiding Judge at our County’s Courthouse and one of two regulars on the ride still working full-time (I’m half-time). In his mid-60’s, I asked him if he has an “end-date” in mind. He said he’s up for re-election in a year and a half and he’ll have another four-year term. Groovy confidence, but what I most digged was how much he enjoys his work. I told him it was really refreshing to hear since it seems to me that 8 to 9 out of every 10 of my peers are counting down the days until they can stop working.
Brett talked about the Court’s ‘rona inspired virtual proceedings and how engaging the associated intellectual challenges were. And about how much he enjoys working with young attorneys and other people. And about how no one will give a damn about what he thinks as soon as he unplugs. Irrespective of his age and all his peers exiting the stage, he looks forward to what the next several years of work will bring.
He also acknowledged that “we live in a beautiful spot” and that he can enjoy playing outdoors when not working. Because of that, he said he doesn’t feel compelled to move anywhere.
As we approached his Courthouse’s start and end point, he said to me, “It was great riding with you again Professor. It was nice to have a little infusion of intellect.” I think he emphasized little, but still, I’m concerned his judgement may be lacking.
To run a faster 10k or half marathon or marathon, a person needs to increase their weekly mileage. Full stop. Interval training can help, along with improved nutrition and sleep, and resistance training; but the most important variable by far is increasing one’s weekly mileage.
Same with cycling. To improve one’s average speed, or to ride a faster 40k or century, improved positioning and aerodynamics help, along with training with faster people (aka intervals), and a lighter bicycle especially if climbing; but the most important variable by far is increasing one’s weekly mileage. “Ass time”.
I swim about 6-8 kilometers most weeks. Sometimes, when I can’t run or cycle due to injury or weather, I increase that. For a month or two. And the increase in volume has almost no effect. Instead of swimming 1:32/100 yards, I swim 1:31.
At my age, 59, almost every runner, cyclist, and swimmer is slowing down. The rare exception is the former burner who fell way out of shape and returned to the road or pool in their 40’s or early 50’s. I’m the opposite of that person. I’ve never been a burner, but I compensate for my lack of speed with a very deep cardiovascular base, the result of three decades of consistent training.
Because of my pedestrian starting point, I’m slowing down more slowly than my active peers. But I digress, back to swimming.
I actually defied the aging process a few years ago and got a touch faster in open water. How? By buying a better wetsuit. Free speed. Well, not exactly free, but you get the point.
Fast forward to my March 2021 Miracle of getting faster in the pool. Some context. I usually do 100 yard intervals in 1:29-1:33 depending on whether I’m doing them alone or with others and when in the workout I’m doing them. It literally takes me about 2,000 yards to “warm up” or the majority of my workout. A month ago, without my fast female friends pushing me in Masters, I was churning out sluggish 1:32 after 1:32 on 1:40 or 1:45.
Right now, I’m limited to 45 minutes at my local YMCA because of some sort of virus. I’ve gotten good at jamming as much as I can into the 45 minutes. Here’s today’s workout:
400y—6:15. 200y x 2—3:05, 3:04. 100y x 4—1:30, 1:30, 1:29, 1:28.
Paddles/bouy. 400y—5:50. 200y x 2—2:50, 2:50.
100y x 4 im, 1:41s on 2m.
Then, in the last 5-6 minutes, I did some easy 50’s and one final 100 concentrating on what I’ve been learning from YouTube stroke analysis tutorials. The easy 50’s were 43 on 1:00 and the easy final 100 was 1:26. Yes please, may I have another.
Mid or late workout, I can now do 1:28’s (on 1:40) all day long with the same effort I have been swimming 1:32s the last few years. That, in short, is the March Miracle.
From a running and cycling perspective that sudden improvement makes no sense, but swimming is a different animal. Especially when compared to running and cycling, swimming is super technical, if your stroke is flawed, no amount of volume is going to make much difference. It’s like golf, if your clubface is way open at impact, you’re going to hit a slice no matter how many balls you beat on the range.
Long story short, I’ve been watching a lot of stroke analysis vids on YouTube and finally some of the lessons are taking. Historically, bad muscle memory has blunted coaches’ occasional efforts to improve my stroke.
Somehow, a few stroke improvements have suddenly clicked. Primarily, truly finishing my stroke by gently rubbing my thumbs against my hips, rotating more by lengthening my stroke, and maintaining high elbows through the “catch”. Well, not really the last one. Yet. I’m still a serial elbow dropper. Which is kinda cool because that means there’s still more seconds to be found. And now I have more confidence I can integrate that change too.
In a few years I’ll report back on whether I have higher elbows. Or just tune in to the Olympic Trials in Omaha to see if I’m competing. Your choice.
Tyler Cowen’s “My days as a teenage chess teacher” is interesting on a lot of levels. For instance, take lesson learned #6 of 7.
“6. The younger chess prodigy I taught was quite bright and also likable. But he had no real interest in improving his chess game. Instead, hanging out with me was more fun for him than either doing homework or watching TV, and I suspect his parents understood that. In any case, early on I was thinking keenly about talent and the determinants of ultimate success, and obsessiveness seemed quite important. All of the really good chess players had it, and without it you couldn’t get far above expert level.”
I often envy people who are obsessive about anything even remotely socially redeemable—whether being a grand master in chess, or cycling 12,000 miles/year, or knowing more about Mormon history than anyone except a few dozen Mormon scholars. Why do I envy obsessive people? Because I don’t know if I’ve ever been truly obsessive about anything. It seems like it would be fun to be so immersed in an activity that time stops.
And yet, when I take stock of my life, I can’t help but wonder if my lack of obsessiveness about any one thing may be one of my most positive attributes. If it’s not a positive attribute, splitting the difference between similarly compelling forces, is my essence. It’s who I am.
To the best of my ability, I seek balance. Between work and family life. Between intellectual pursuits and physical ones. Between running, swimming, and cycling more specifically. Between listening and talking. Between teaching and learning. Between friends. Between being silly and serious.
I wonder, should I stop idealizing obsessiveness?
1. What if the Great American Novelist Doesn’t Write Novels? I need to see a lot more of Wiseman’s work, but the little bit I have seen makes me think that question is not at all hyperbolic.
“The fact that Wiseman’s half-century-long project is a series of cinéma-vérité documentaries about American institutions, their titles often reading like generic brand labels — ‘High School,’ ‘Hospital,’ ‘The Store,’ ‘Public Housing,’ ‘State Legislature’ — makes its achievement all the more remarkable but also easier to overlook. Beginning with ‘Titicut Follies’ (1967), a portrait of a Massachusetts asylum for the criminally insane that remains shocking to this day, Wiseman has directed nearly a picture a year, spending weeks, sometimes months, embedded in a strictly demarcated space — a welfare office in Lower Manhattan, a sleepy fishing village in Maine, the Yerkes Primate Research Center at Emory University, the flagship Neiman Marcus department store in Dallas, the New York Public Library, a shelter for victims of domestic violence in Tampa, Fla., a Miami zoo — then editing the upward of a hundred hours of footage he brings home into an idiosyncratic record of what he witnessed. Taken as a whole, the films present an unrivaled survey of how systems operate in our country, with care paid to every line of the organizational chart. They also represent the work of an artist of extraordinary vision. The films are long, strange and uncompromising. They can be darkly comic, uncomfortably voyeuristic, as surreal as any David Lynch dream sequence. There are no voice-overs, explanatory intertitles or interviews with talking heads, and depending on the sequence and our own sensibility, we may picture the ever-silent Wiseman as a deeply empathetic listener or an icy Martian anthropologist.”
“The roots of the little sibling effect may lie in the way younger siblings strive to match their older siblings on the field. This was the case with Michael Jordan, the youngest of the three Jordan boys and the fourth of the five Jordan children. When the siblings were growing up, Larry — who was born 11 months before Michael — was considered a better basketball player and regularly bested Michael in one-on-one games.
‘I don’t think, from a competitive standpoint, I would be here without the confrontations with my brother,’ Michael recalled in the ESPN documentary’ The Last Dance.’ ‘When you come to blows with someone you absolutely love, that’s igniting every fire within you. And I always felt like I was fighting Larry for my father’s attention. …
‘I want that approval. I want that type of confidence. So my determination got even greater to be as good, if not better than, my brother.'”
Alas, did not apply in my family. Oldest Brother routinely whipped my ass on golf courses and tennis courts alike. And Older Brother was a much better swimmer and water polo player.*
3. Amanda Seyfried Finally Stakes Her Claim. How to be wonderfully grounded, against the odds. Buy a farm.
4. Why Andy Mukherjee is losing hope in India. Given it’s impact on the planet, anyone who is not East-Indian owes to themselves to learn a lot more about India. This is an excellent start.
*that’s why this athletic accomplishment was so gratifying
It’s been a long time since I’ve written about my athletic self.
2019 has been all about good health and consistent training. Last Friday I ran my 1,000th mile of the calendar year, thus extending my 21 year streak of 1,000 miles+ running annually. As you age and it becomes impossible to set personal speed records, you have to find other ways to motivate yourself. My secret power is not having played contact sports growing up. My knees are golden thanks to golf and water polo. Being slender no doubt helps too.
I’ve swam farther this year than any other because I joined a Masters Team and went from swimming twice a week to three times. Despite that increase in volume, my splits aren’t much better because swimming is an incredibly technical activity and I haven’t improved my technique.
I hope to hit 5,000 miles of cycling by 12/31/19, which thanks to the sabbatical, is about 10% more than normal. A lot of the peeps I cycle with double that.
I ran a very good marathon a few years ago in Seattle. For me. Even somehow won my age group. I’ve ran a few halves since, including one in July, which also went well despite skimping on long training runs.
But despite the good health and all the cross-training, I haven’t competed in a triathlon for 5+ years, which I guess means I’m retired from the sport. I’m even trying to sell my beater triathlon bike.
I often think about returning to competition and this is where I need a sports psychologist. Friends still enjoy it and I know I could be very competitive in large, difficult races, not because I’m a burner, but because I’m slowing down less than my peers because I was never supe-fast to begin with and I have a very deep cardiovascular base from years of consistent cross-training. Also, while I’m not a burner in any of the disciplines, I don’t suck at any of them either. In contrast, almost every triathlete has a weakness*.
For some reason though, I just can’t bring myself to purchase a new bike, register for races, and show up on starting lines. Here’s how I imagine a counseling session with a pricey sports psychologist going down.
SP: So you’re thinking of returning to triathlon. What’s keeping you from committing?
RB: Aren’t we gonna talk about my childhood?
SP: No, frankly that would bore me.
RB: Well, for one thing I’m usually shelled at the end of training rides and I really don’t want to run off the bike anymore.
SP: Have you always been a wuss or is that a recent development?
RB: I think it’s rooted in my childhood.
SP: Never mind then.
SP: What else is holding you back?
RB: To tell you the truth, when I imagine best case scenarios, winning races, it doesn’t do anything for me. I think what if I swim, cycle, and run faster than a declining number of other economically privileged old dudes. And I conclude, so what.
SP: Often, as in life, in athletic competition the joy is in the journey.
RB: Did you learn a lot of cliches during grad school?
SP: Yes, lots of others I’d happily share if we weren’t out of time. Thank you for coming.
* truth be told, my weakness was the fourth discipline, transitions
One aspect of my privilege is my education which has enabled me to make a living without sacrificing my body. Roofers, welders, plumbers, farmers, house painters, construction workers, tree cutters, often aren’t as fortunate.
But I’ve noticed a pattern even among my fellow white collar egghead professors. A majority routinely sacrifice their health for the sake of their work because of a deep-seated intellectual bias that prioritizes the mind at the expense of the body.
Simply put, most of my colleagues have been sedentary for decades. On top of that, generous people take turns providing unhealthy office snacks*. Most professors don’t make time to walk, hike, run, play tennis, swim, cycle, or lift weights because there’s always another lecture to plan, or syllabus or grant to write, or set of papers to mark, or conference presentation to prepare, or faculty workshop to attend.
I like my work and my university, but not nearly enough to sacrifice my health for it. One colleague of mine retired in May and died in July. I didn’t know him so I don’t even want to pretend his lifestyle played any part, but I fear too many of my colleagues will not get to enjoy as many post work years if they do not prioritize their health more than is the norm.
Today marks the end of the world’s longest academic sabbatical, mine. I normally work summers, but I took the summers of 18 and 19 off, the book-ends to my 2018-2019 academic year sabbatical. 15 months, huzzah! Someone call the Guinness Book of World Records**. I won’t be telling any of my colleagues what I’m going to tell you in the next paragraph because the sedentary nature of faculty life is so pervasive my athletic self lives deep in the closet***.
Besides the traditional, publishing a couple of articles, reading a bunch, and updating my syllabi, I also turned the knob up a bit on my regular swimming, cycling, and running volume. Por exemplar, I joined a Masters swim team and so far this year have already swam about the same distance as last calendar year. And SO WHAT if I did stretch and chill in the jacuzzi after some practices! Also, I’m on pace to cycle 5,000 miles this year and maintain my 1,000 mile a year running streak. I was fit when I began my record breaking sabbatical, today I’m a little more fit****.
Am I overcompensating? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I’m under no illusions that my active lifestyle will guarantee any kind of post-work longevity because life is fragile. That driver on their cell phone could wipe me out on tomorrow’s ride.
But as long as I work as an egghead professor, I will dare to be different by making time to swim, cycle, and run. In particular, I will not sacrifice the quality of my life to the pervasive work culture of which I’m apart. Please, just don’t out me to any of my colleagues.
*Decent chance I have my first donut in a long time today. #glazed
**Could an educator-reader please tell me if teaching is like riding a bike, I’m afraid I may have forgotten how. Any tips?
***Except for one colleague-friend who follows my workouts on Strava. I should probably get him to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
****No, I haven’t just opted to not write about racing triathlons, I have in fact sold my time trial bike and stopped competing for reasons I’m not entirely sure. As I age, given the attrition of my peers, and my consistent training, I would do quite well. But when I envision best case scenarios, like winning races, I’m still not sufficiently motivated to toe the line. Is there a sports psychologist in the house?
Just received the meanest of text messages from the Bad Wife:
“I’m pretty sure I went 49 mph today coming down the hill between the Cove and Holiday Hills. Don’t have a computer so I can’t verify, but I’m pretty sure.”
There’s so much wrong with this text. First of all, what kind of person cycles without a computer?!
Secondly, I had just told the Bad Wife that I set a new cycling speed record during a group training ride in rural Lewis County (redundant). 48.8 mph.
I’m training for the annual sufferfest in Bend, Oregon in two weeks, the Central Oregon 500, which I turn into the Central Oregon 400, or last year 336, due to light snow on McKenzie Pass.
I am happy to report that I’m starting to feel some snap in my legs, but I coulda used a larger cassette on some of yesterday’s climbs. At times, I thought I might have to toss one or both water bottles overboard to breach the steepest pitches.
There were eight of us. I knew seven. Or so I thought. The eighth dude was someone I hadn’t seen in 15-20 years. The last time I saw him I was literally yelling at him at the finish line of the Black Hills triathlon. No, not in my character, but I watched him pass me on the bike, and then, totally ignoring the no drafting rule, suck another guy’s wheel for miles and miles. I did not reel him in during the run and did not take losing well. Keep in mind, this was before I studied Stoicism and got my shit together, by which I mean, got my ego somewhat in check.
Have you ever gotten so angry at someone that your anger ends up being much worse than whatever offensive action the other person committed? Me too.
Not immediately, but with just a little passage of time, I would’ve liked a do-over. As if an Olympic age group triathlon has any cosmic significance.
So imagine my surprise when The Drafter, a friend of a friend I learned, showed up for our group training ride. What to do? I intuited that he still remembered the psychotic break. Damn. Awkward. Thinking. Thinking. Thinking. I know what to do, pretend I don’t remember any of it!
That’s right, as a friend puts it, I was way more mouse than man. Why the hell couldn’t I have apologized and said what I was thinking, “Man, sometimes I think back to that time I lost it at the triathlon and I feel badly, sorry for all that anger.” And we rode together for 3+ hours. And we talked about our 26 year old daughters and life. His daughter is a first year teacher in Brooklyn and he was asking me for advice to pass on to her.
Having obviously moved on even without an apology, he was more man than mouse.
I know what you’re thinking. I’m a loser and that’s the one thing you’ll be most correct about today. You’re also wondering who was stronger two decades later? The Man or the Mouse? He did challenge me on several of the steepest climbs. He really shoulda known better. Revenge is a dish best served cold.