Aug. 30, 2007

On the last day of my trip, I spent three hours wandering through Caracas, killing time before it was time to go to the airport. Gazing across the city from a small hill, I saw in the distance what had until this point been a rare sight in this car-crazy country: A road bike. Then another. Then a pack of them.

It was a race! It looked to be a criterium of some sort. I scrambled down as fast as I could while carrying all my luggage. Meanwhile, my mind raced, trying to conjure a way to enter. In my bag was a Clif Shot leftover from Superweek. Would someone lend me their bike? Who would watch my bags? Would I be OK in a T-shirt and street shoes? How do you say "One for the Cat 3 race, please" in Spanish?

Alas, my heart sank as I got closer and saw the numbers painted on the riders' arms and thighs.

It was just a silly triathlon. Pbbbt.

Photo taken: Aug. 5, 2006


Oct. 23, 2006

I ran a marathon this weekend. Which is to say, I ran in a marathon.

Levi was running the Indianapolis Marathon, and since Ellen was due to visit family nearby, we drove down early Saturday to watch.

It's been almost a year and a half since my last serious run -- a happy, regret-free year and a half, I should note -- but I've always wanted to be someone's rabbit, and I was pleased when Levi accepted my offer to jump in around the 21st mile. I told him I couldn't promise to last very long, but I'd help him keep his 8-minute pace as long as I could.

I would be sore the next two days, but it turned out that the running muscles haven't atrophied as much as I had expected. I stayed with him the balance of the course, peeling off with 385 yards to go and cutting across a park in order to cheer him at the finish line as he set a personal record.

The highlight of the morning came at the beginning of the run. We'd just rendezvoused but I desperately had to pee. (The coffee required to leave Chicago at 6 a.m. is great.) So I told him to keep going, popped into a Porta-Potty and then sprinted to catch up.

This sprint created the illusion of a marathoner having an improbable gale-force second wind. "Good job!" spectators yelled as I bounded past bonked runners. "You're looking great!"

And of course I looked great: I'd only been running for 30 seconds.

Chicago's marathon was this weekend too. Walking down Michigan Avenue this morning, I saw tell-tale green ribbons around necks. Full-page newspaper ads congratulated runners. At the office, someone wanted to surprise a colleague with a standing ovation. I rolled my eyes.

In the past 15 or so years, the marathon-industrial complex has elevated the race from fringe stunt to Oprah-approved rite of passage, if not outright act of heroism. Enough is enough. It's time to stop lionizing marathon runners -- and not just because cyclists train so much harder.

Marathoners deserve congratulations and support -- just as all loved ones deserve congratulations and support for following their bliss, whether their bliss is running 26.2 miles or darning socks or performing the banjo -- but they are not heroes, and I'm tired of Nike ads that allege that they are.

Runners neither cure cancer nor survive it. I should know: I ran seven marathons. The world isn't any better for any of them. The world may even be worse for my narcissism. Those seven marathons required thousands of hours of training that could have been spent doing something useful, like learning a trade or teaching people to read or baking cookies.

Is running hard? Sure. So is parenting. So is teaching. So is driving a CTA bus. As the Dread Pirate Roberts said to Buttercup, "Life is pain, Highness."

Levi knows I'm not talking about him. He's the type who races in order to train, not the other way around. He would be mortally embarrassed by a standing ovation, the first person ever to be clapped to death, and I don't expect he wore his medal to work today. In fact, he rightly allowed that if the weather had been any worse Saturday, he would have bagged the race and felt not one pang of regret.

And just as cycling requires a greater devotion to training, so is it an even bigger waste of time and an even bigger act of narcissism. The difference is that we don't expect to hear the "Beaches" soundtrack when we cross the finish line. We don't expect mortals to pour oil on our feet the day after a race. And we only give medals to winners.

The co-worker? She didn't get her applause. She called in sick with sore legs.

Photo taken: Oct. 21, 2006


June 12, 2006

I don't believe the rider who ... told me how he had seduced a woman during a criterium. She was standing behind a crush barrier when he discovered her, or she him. (If she'd told me, I would have believed her.) Every hundred seconds he came barreling past, and so their love blossomed as prettily as a flower in one of those time-lapse films. Ten laps long they smiled at each other, for another ten laps she winked, they began running their tongues over their lips, and by the time the race was approaching its decisive phase their gestures had become downright salacious.

He said so, but I don't believe him, because he's a very good racer. It's impossible.

Tim Krabbe, "The Rider"

But nothing is impossible if you are not a very good racer.

My team had four people in last year's Spring Prairie Road Race. Only one finished with the pack, and it wasn't me, not by a long shot. This year would be different.

With a killer hill right before the finish line, it was a course suited to me. As soon as I noticed registration was open and that the field would be limited to 75, I started recruiting. Since it was Wisconsin's state championship, I figured the field would fill up quickly. I wanted as many teammates as possible.

A teammate was the first to register. I was second. Other teammates were third and fourth.

And sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth.

And 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th.

By the time capacity was reached, xXx constituted 23 of the 75-person field.

Alas, my fiendish ploy to hijack Wisconsin's championship was foiled when the promoters created a second field, separating the Wisconsinites from out-of-staters like us. (With our 2006 palmares -- victories at Parkside, Cobb Park and Baraboo, podiums just about everywhere else -- who could blame them?)

Rain fell in buckets Saturday morning. At 6:30 I checked the radar and found a green and orange blob spread across the Midwest. I drew an appropriate shirt, from Ride Across INdiana shirt, out of the drawer.

I'd been obsessing about this race for two weeks, but I hadn't thought to consider weather. There's nothing worse than a crowded race on wet roads.

Miraculously, rain, darkness and sorrow yielded to sunshine, warmth and glee once we crossed the state border.

As I greeted friends in the parking lot, I asked, "Ready to break some legs today?" To a person they answered in the affirmative. I had teammates who could drive the tempo in the flats. I would do the same on the climbs. It was entirely possible that someone could beat us, but we would make sure they earned it.

We would do six laps, ending each one with a steep hill that promised to damage the peloton each time up. It was this hill that would teach me an important lesson this day, that of not getting cocky about one's strengths.

Ever since San Luis Obisbo, I've relished opportunities to show off my climbing abilities, and I spent each of the first three laps showing off my nonchalance.

The first time up I casually glided to the fore and waved to spectators, as if I were a parade marshal leading a caravan of elephants and marching bands.

The second time up I made a show of drinking from my bottle and gargling.

The third time up I planted a kiss on Ellen. (I was going so fast, her head spun. Neck injury was narrowly averted.)

After the frst three laps whittled the field from 60 to 40 to 20, it was time for a selection to be made. A Northwestern rider joined Ed and me in setting a punishing tempo after the fourth climb, and the final group of 12 was established. Five were xXx: Me, Ed, Kevin, Ken and new teammate Pieter, who not having a uniform was riding incognito.

Once this group was established, only a few took pulls. Others moaned about how they were isolated without teammates. They'd just sit in back, thank you very much.

Ed and I spent the last few laps whispering about how we were going to win this race. It was pretty much a continuation of exhaustive discussions we'd been having over e-mail all week. Do we attack? When? Where? Both of us?

That's why I love cycling so much more than running, and it's why I enjoy writing these race reports as much as you enjoy reading them. Each race is a new puzzle waiting to be solved, a Rubik's Cube that continues to shift and change colors just as you think you have it figured out. If you've run one marathon, on the other hand, you've pretty much run them all. Strategy is the same, independent of course or competition: Run hard, run hard some more.

Heading into a stiff wind in the backstretch of Lap 5, the pace settled into a mosey. Naturally I did the same stupid thing I always do when I'm in a pack and I'm bored and impatient: I rolled off the front. And naturally the pack did the same smart thing it always does: It let me go.

I was surprised but pleased with the gap I got. 400 meters? This wasn't anything Ed and I had discussed, but I thought maybe I could expland it over the hill and make it stick for a lap. It was only 6 miles. I had blockers. What could go wrong?

We were starting to lap riders. When I passed a teammate, I yelled, "When they come through, tell Ed I've cramped up real bad!" Then I made a show of shaking out my right leg. I figured if the group thought I was injured it wouldn't chase so hard. Such is lesson No. 1 of cycling tactics: When you can't be fast, be sneaky. (I'd read about this stunt in a book some time ago. It worked in the book, but it didn't here. Nonetheless, I had fun trying. )

Halfway up the hill, I could tell I was going to get caught, but I was startled to see myself get caught in such a blaze of glory: Here was Pieter screaming up the left! He flew up the hill faster than anyone I've ever seen climb. Great! A counterattack! The move was brilliant.

Except it wasn't an attack: Pieter had thought we were on the last lap, and this was his big finish. It was a shame, because nobody could have ever matched his rapid ascent. (Afterward, impressed with his amazing tuck as much as his climbing, I asked him, "Where'd you learn to ride like that?" "Belgium." But of course.)

And then the last lap. Again we moseyed through the finishing flat until Ed moved to the front and set tempo to keep people honest and discourage attacks. He pulled off and other riders started to attack, but none got separation.

I came into the final corner in third. And here's where I blew it.

The first five times up the hill I'd done it by the book. I nailed it each time. Great form, smiling for maximum oxygen intake, spinning in my largest cogs. This time I got cocky and tried to assault the hill in a smaller cog. The gear was too high. I couldn't turn it over fast enough, and I had too much hubris to shift down and get into my proper rhythm.

I tried to grind it out. I had plenty of gas and had been feeling great even after my flyer, but I was sputtering. Meanwhile, the rest of our group started to pass. Ed almost looked upset at me as he went by, upset to be picking up my slack when this was supposed to be my moment. I came close to catching two riders, but I ended up ninth. Normally this would have satisfied, but I couldn't help but think that this had become a 12-man race, and I could claim no better than fourth from last.

Happily, Ed showed his usual excellence. He came in second, finishing behind the rider who had moaned the loudest about his lack of teammates. ("He didn't pull!" I would pout over lunch. "Yes, and he won," Ellen would remind me.)

Afterward Ed and I bowed our heads solemnly and crossed our arms. What happened? How did we not win this? What was the right solution to this puzzle? Sure, we broke some legs, but there's no prize for top leg breaker. There's only a winner and then everyone else.

This was a course and a field tailor-made for us. When do we get a chance to crack it again?

Photo taken by E. Wight: June 10, 2006


Oct. 10, 2005

It was strange last week, as the air turned crisp and an influx of skinny tourists hit downtown, to know that I would not be running the Chicago Marathon come Sunday. It would be the first I haven't run in 5 years.

I'd hoped to watch, maybe even volunteer, but then came the Fall Fling, the last bicycle races of the year. Saturday would be Stage 3, a road race. Sunday would be the fourth and final stage, another criterium. I'd miss the marathon completely.

I miss some things about running, but not the final week of taper. I recall getting irritable and anxious. There's plenty of nervous energy ahead of a bike race, but it's a subdued, happy nervousness. It's the nervous energy of a blind date, not that of one's own wedding. If one doesn't meet his goals in a bike race, no matter. There will be another one soon enough. A marathoner, on the other hand, invests 18 weeks of training in a single event. Cyclists must train harder and longer, but if we have a bad morning, 18 weeks don't go down the drain.

Saturday's road race comprised three 8-mile loops south of Rockford. I'd been warned of "rollers plus one big hill," but I never did figure out which hill was supposed to be the "big" one. They were all small, barely enough for the small chainring, especially compared to the Wisconsin nutcrackers I cut my teeth on earlier this season.

I started the morning tied with a teammate for third in the overall standings. Walking from the port-o-potty before the race, I passed the host team huddled in a strategy session. "We know xXx has a couple of strong riders," one said, "but we don't know if they're here today." I smiled knowingly.

At the start line a guy in a triathlon-club jersey started moaning loudly and seemingly endlessly about all the teams present. "I thought this was a citizens race! What are teams doing here!?" Minutes earlier I'd been giving this guy advice on his first race, including the correct way to pin his number, which he'd pinned sidways, and this abuse was my reward? (Naturally his name was Fred.)

For my teammate and myself, our decisive moments would come with 3 miles to go. The citizens field was mostly intact and had just passed the 50+ field on Turn 3. The masters were nonchalant about moving to the right so we could get by. As a result, two small breakaways formed as our field spurted through the bottleneck.

My teammate bet that he could keep up with the first group. I put my chips with the second group. We both lost, although in different fashions. Afterward we had our regrets -- 48 hours later the TiVo of my mind is still replaying the endgame -- but deep down we both conceded that we had no choice but to go when and with whom we did. We merely proved that it's possible to play your cards right and still come up short.

My teammate was the first to lose position, turning the lead group of five into a group of four. Driving to the race we had decided that we should speak Italian lest any other riders hear our super-secret scheming, so as my chase group of four approached him I yelled, "Va bene!" Go well! It did no good: He wasn't able to hop on.

The 15-year-old overall race leader was in my break. He took good pulls but he and another rider fell off, leaving me alone with none other than the vociferous Fred from the start line. I exhorted him to trade short pulls with me, but although he rode fast, he pulled much longer than he should have. I knew if he popped I'd have little chance on my own. I had to waste energy and jump past him in order to take the load off. "They're gaining!" I said, looking back and seeing the main pack a few hundred meters back. He didn't seem to think it was possible. (Did Chris Horner's fate at Stage 13 of the Tour de France teach him nothing?)

Sure enough, the pack overcame us with 50 meters to go. I salvaged 13th place, my teammate 17th. The results sent my overall standing from 3rd to a precarious fourth.

Sure, we could have sat in and maybe finished better, but I have an entire off-season to be passive and boring (and don't doubt that I'll take advantage of it).

With seven laps to go in Sunday's criterium, the series' third-place rider, a guy in a full Phonak kit, took off on a flyer. (I remember this guy from my first race in April. He's been sandbagging in the 5/citizens class for years.) His result wasn't liable to shake up the overall standings, so the field let him go.

A lap later, an unattached rider couldn't hold his line on Turn 2 and clipped the front wheel of a rider in a Navigators jersey. Navigators was a point behind me in the standings but a bike ahead of me on the road, so when he went down, I followed. Fortunately we were going only around 22 mph, barely fast enough to do harm. As quickly as I went down I bounced back up. I assessed damages -- 1. Bike: check. 2. Team kit: check. 3. Body: bruised but still useful. -- and waited to reunite with the pack when it swung by next.

Phonak's lead grew to 30 seconds over the next six laps. A few people tried to jump off the front. I pursued each one, but none developed into a break. That's the tough thing about the citizens class: Most people sit in, but then when they do attack they don't know how to organize so that it has a chance of sticking. (Not that I'm any great shakes at breaking away myself.)

On the final backstretch I was on my teammate's wheel and getting ready to jump with him. Meanwhile, an acquaintance from another team shot up the right and called for us to let him lead us out. Unfortunately I'd spent too much time in the wind keeping tabs on the so-called attacks and this time I didn't have enough gas to find his wheel. It's a shame I didn't, because he held on to beat Phonak by a few lengths.

I finished 10th, my teammate 11th. Miraculously, that put me in a three-way tie for third overall, fourth after various tiebreakers were employed. Three fewer seconds in the time trial or one more position in any other race and I would have had third outright. (For my birthday, generous friends chipped in to fund a set of aerobars, so next year those 3 seconds should disappear.) Nonetheless, each of these was a better finish than I ever expected to reach this season.

And now my season is over. I met all my goals, and next year I will upgrade to the next category and start the process all over again. It's already a daunting prospect.

Now, though, I'm feeling the same void that I always felt after a marathon. What now? What do I do with myself when I'm not obliged to ride 50 miles every day? On the one hand, this will be an opportunity to restore balance to my life. Cook more, sleep more, see my friends more. On the other hand, there's an elegant simplicity in a daily to-do list with only three things: Ride. Eat. Go to work. I'll miss that.

Photo taken: Oct. 9, 2005


May 30, 2005

So, right. The marathon.

When I told Sandy I was running a marathon in Madison this weekend he said he didn't even know I was training for one. It had fallen off my radar, too.

Which is progress. Before most marathons I'm a neurotic, antisocial, calorie-counting wreck. This time, not so much, thanks to the new focus on cycling. Over the past 18 weeks I have fudged on my training schedule. I have lost track of my running rituals. I have been careless about diet.

Thursday a co-worker put out a plate of Goobers. Less than 72 hours before my race, I knocked them back like I was Goober the Hutt.

Then a funny thing happened Sunday: I ran well. Really well. This despite not remembering to tie my shoes.

After taking a minute to do so, I crossed the starting line a minute late and spent the first mile weaving through the crowd. Then the field thinned out, and around Mile 15 someone said I was the 30th man.

By Mile 18 I was more than five minutes ahead of the pace I need to qualify for Boston. I started figuring out housing and whether I could afford the time off work. I wondered what the weather in Massachusetts was like in April. (This, of course, was my jinx, like the time in 2001 when I started figuring the Cubs' magic number in July. They proceeded to collapse like a small-cap tech stock.)

The next mile my calves started to seize on me. This has happened before, always in the last 6 miles of a marathon. If I fully extended my foot the calf would wiggle up the leg and tie itself in a knot behind my knee. It's caused by an unsound bicycle stroke that my mechanic finally diagnosed in March. I had hoped I'd corrected it in time. Apparently not.

Then my legs tightened around Mile 24. I started taking walking breaks. It wasn't a matter of lacking energy or will -- I had adequate reserves of both -- it was a matter of the harpoon that went through my quads with every step.

There are a lot of people I could have been thinking about at this point, friends and family who have endured much worse agonies for much longer periods of time. But whom did I think of for inspiration? Adrian. Adrian! Adrian Balboa, in a coma after giving birth to Rocky Jr. (Perhaps I need to ease "Gonna Fly Now" out of rotation.)

On the last quarter-mile I alternated between a trot and a splayed-leg skip, the latter of which Suzie captured above. Finally I crossed the finish line and into the haze of the Madison Brat Fest, which in an eloquent expression of Madison's duality was sharing a location with the marathon finish. My time, 3:17:25, was the second best of my seven races. Respectable, but well shy of glorious.

After five years of running, it's startling how quickly and completely my identity has gone from runner to cyclist, just as it was startling when I quickly went from whoever I was before -- I honestly don't have a clear recollection -- to being a runner.

I have in the past daydreamed about what sort of runners tattoo I would get if I were the sort to go for such nonsense. A marathon tally on an ankle? An ornate "26.2" on my chest? Now I daydream about what sort of cycling tattoo I should get. A Chicago hold-up on a calf? A cassette on a shoulder? A yellow band around a wrist? And I wonder about where my identity will have wandered five years from now, and what kind of tattoos I'll daydream about then.

When in the past I have been near people who were more successful or happier or wealthier or wiser than me -- read as, "at just about any given moment" -- I have said to myself, "But at least I can run faster and longer," much in the same way Darth Vader deals with rejection by thinking, "But at least I can crush their trachea with my mind."

As a cyclist, I draw the same smug lines. I'm not even a good cyclist yet, but I'm soothed thinking of the character and grit and sinew that I, as a cyclist, have and all others, as non-cyclists, do not.

(Not that this mental filtering withstands the slightest scrutiny. Just about everyone I know, non-cyclists included, has so much character, grit, sinew, etc. etc. that I tremble just thinking about it. If they didn't, I wouldn't bother knowing them. It's only the people I don't know who are weak and soft.)

As soon as I returned to Chicago I went to Moody's for a Berghoff dark and a burger. Then I went to the Jewel for beer, ice cream, bananas and energy bars, a shopping list that I think captures this tension of ending a marathon regimen while anticipating a cycling one.

It starts as soon as I'm out of Moose Tracks.

Photo taken by Suzie Seemann: May 29, 2005


May 10, 2005

Three recent moments:



I'm at a seedy bar with a beer show-off. He's the type who takes two whiffs of a Belgian ale and tells you the cassock size of the Trappist monk who brewed it.

The selection is limited and difficult to make out, so he orders what looks like the most exotic bottle in the refrigerator. It appears German. The bartender, one of three curvy Russian blondes behind the bar, pops the cap, puts the bottle on the counter and spins it to reveal the three most horrifying words my friend has ever read: "Bucklers non-alcoholic beer."

I spring for a Pabst so he can drown his sorrows properly.



I attempt a 27-mile run, per the online advice of running coach Jeff Galloway. At the turnaround I start Mahler's Symphony No. 2, "Resurrection," but I have mistimed it and the resurrection comes too late. By 20.5 miles I have bonked and am worrying about pain in my knee, so I abandon the run and walk to the Clark and Division El stop.

At the station a 1-year-old girl sits in a stroller nearby. I know she's 1 because an elderly polish woman is gushing over the young mother and asking about her child's age, name and siblings (1; Amber; a brother, he's 4).

I hang my tongue in defeat, and the girl responds in kind.



I'm still getting used to my shaved legs. Their smoothness often startles me in the morning: "Oh! Who do we have here?" (Let's just say it's a question that doesn't get asked much around these parts.) I'm sucking on toes and well on my way to third base before I realize it's just me.


April 21, 2005

Near Foster and the lake.

Photo taken: April 19, 2005


April 19, 2005

Three recent moments:



I drop an open can of coffee on the floor. I quickly grab a dustpan and wonder, Does the three-second rule apply to coffee grounds?



For the fifth time in a week I am downtown and am asked for directions. I don't mind. I never mind. I love showing off my Chicago chops. And much more than extended daylight or flowers peeking through soil, this is the true harbinger of spring: when suddenly there are people in Chicago who care where Navy Pier is.



It's Tuesday, which means speedwork on my running schedule.

It's nice out, which means instead of the treadmill I do sidewalk fartleks: arbitrary distances fast alternated with arbitrary distances slow.

It's really, really nice out, which means I do my first shirtless run of the year. (Neighbors of Edgewater, you have been warned.)

Usually I think of my fartleks as fire-hydrants runs. I'll sprint to one red plug and lollygag to the next. Today I notice my slow intervals coinciding with glass storefronts, all the better to admire myself in. When I run, my belly rolls jiggle in such a way that I can pretend they are abs, and that my man-breasts are pecs.


April 12, 2005

I have a routine for my lakefront runs. I carry with me the bare minimum of keys I'll need (four). I put my iPod in one pocket and energy gels in the other. If it's cool I'll throw a T-shirt over my running singlet. Then I bicycle the .75 mile to the running path, where I lock my bike to the Mile 0 signpost and tie the T-shirt to my top tube. I take a minute to pick an album and set my watch, and off I go.

And usually I have remembered to put on sunscreen. Yesterday I did not. Thus, the annual first bad burn of spring.

My next marathon is in seven weeks. Training has not gone so well. I've been sick, busy with cycling and nagged by a blister. I've skipped more runs than I would have liked, including last week's 19-miler.

Yesterday's 20 miles was the year's first run on the path, 10 miles down to Soldier Field and back. It was nice getting reacquainted with the path's characters -- the smelt fishermen, the chess players, the nannies with their strollers -- and my favorite vistas, turns and places to pee.

One good thing about being outside rather than on the treadmill is that it's impractical to quit. Once you're at Soldier Field, the only way home is to run home, especially if like me you lack the prudence to have brought CTA fare with you.

With much consternation I found that not all the water fountains have been turned on, but I still made my time, even with slight cramps around Mile 18. I hope this bodes well for when I'm properly hydrated.

Long runs are good for discoveries and decisions, and on this one I decided that I probably will not run Chicago this October. I'll be missing it for the first time in five years. Instead I'll focus on cycling all summer. It's a tough call: It's my hometown race, and it's the event that first got me into serious running. I know its turns and characters almost as well as I know those of the lakefront. I'd contemplated taking it on as a fun run and not worrying about time, but as my father said to me once or twice growing up -- and by "once or twice" I mean "once or twice a week" -- if it's worth doing, it's worth doing right. I'll wait until I have the time and focus to do it right again.

Photo taken: April 11, 2005


April 1, 2005

I am now a three-bike household.

Her name is the Colonel. She's fast, sleek and double-butted. Just like I like 'em.

It came down to this Jamis Quest and a LeMond Croix de Fer. I'd wanted to like the Lemond, but I had to concede it was mostly for aesthetics. Lemonds look sexy and European but are made in America. (Just like I like 'em.) The Quest, though, had more jump and better components, and although I'd made made-in-America the tie-breaker, this was no tie.

My first race will be in two days.

I'm sure this is insane, to compete before I've become fully acquainted with a new bike. It will be like driving the Indy 500 in a new car and spending the first few laps fumbling for the cigarette lighter and windshield wipers. But I've been hepped up to race since November. I can wait no longer.

Sunday's race is a 30-minute criterium in St. Charles -- about a dozen laps around a milelong street course.

For weeks I've been visualizing. In the past I have visualized my marathons, but it's always been a single vision: smooth and swift from start to finish. In my mind, dropping out of a marathon is as unimaginable as winning one. For the crit, however, I have four visions, each as likely as the next:

  1. I get dropped hard and early. My only prize is for being first into street clothes.
  2. I keep up with the pack but lack the tactics and skills to break out.
  3. I keep up with the pack but lose confidence on a turn and brake. I start a chain reaction that takes out a dozen riders, several of whom come up to me afterward and offer bribes to ensure that I never race again. As I am lifted into the ambulance I wiggle my toes in the Morse code for "OK, never again." Meanwhile, the race director places a Styrofoam cup in my hand. "Don't forget your teeth."
  4. A winter of bike commuting pays off. Not only do I keep up but on the final lap I join an attack and sprint my way to a podium finish.

More details as they develop.

Photo taken: April 1, 2005


March 17, 2005

Suffering is the sole origin of consciousness.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, "Notes from Underground"

This quote showed up in a New York Times story this week. An ultramarathoner used it to explain why he runs hundreds of miles at a time.

Suffering is why I run, too, but not in the same way. It's not suffering I love. It's having suffered that I get all woozy for.

I don't even like running. I hate running, in fact. But I love ending a run, and if I feel great stopping after 1 mile, then logically I should feel even better when I stop after having run 26.2 of them, and I do.

That's why I embraced this previously mentioned passage from Tim Krabbe's "The Rider":

After the finish all the suffering turns to memories of pleasure, and the greater the suffering, the greater the pleasure. That is Nature's payback to riders for the homage they pay her by suffering.

(I don't pretend, I should point out, that this is anything but the most decadent of luxuries: the freedom to control the intensity and duration of one's suffering. It is the indefinite ordeals of life that make me shiver and quake, and I'm not about to visit the unemployment office or oncology ward and preach the virtues of a good hurt.)

For four months I've been suffering with my winter bike, a Trek mountain bike I bought when I first moved here and didn't know any better. I hate it. I hate its fat tires, its weight, the way it makes me feel like a child for riding it.

Its rear tire has had rotten luck this winter: five flats and a shot brake pad. The latest flat happened Tuesday night. Usually a flat is a calamity that waits to surprise me in the morning. This one I heard the instant it happened, a pop and then a fizz that Dopplered as I went. The bike was ridable, but I knew it would not be for long. At Foster it finally gave out. At 2:30 a.m. I walked the last half-mile home.

So Wednesday, hopeful that the last of the snow and salt is behind us, I switched to my preferred ride, a Cannondale touring bike. I'd been training on it, but this was its first trip outdoors since November.

I've always said that I look forward to summer for three things: baseball, fresh basil and sweating. My perfect summer moment is spent sitting in my living room with a ballgame on the radio, a plate of pesto in my lap and a paper towel soaking the sweat from my brow.

These days I look forward to only this: cycling down Michigan Avenue. It's my favorite moment of each day.

There is no parking on Michigan, so there is no risk of getting doored, and contrary to most urban situations I feel safer here the faster I am going. My winter bike is nowhere near fast enough for the job, but the Cannondale does just fine.

It takes three minutes to blaze from Oak to Illinois. My body is alive with pedaling, my mind alive with anticipating cabs, tourists and stop lights. After having suffered four months on the winter bike, it feels good to be alive again. It feels good to have suffered.


March 16, 2005

Two recent moments:



I'm going down Peterson Avenue on a Saturday morning. Five young men are jaywalking. They're sailors and they appear to have just left the Oriental Nail and Massage.

Something tells me their first few hours of leave weren't spent getting a manicure.



The guy on the next treadmill is walking backwards. I speculate that he's trying to reset his odometer like in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."


Feb. 20, 2005

Three recent moments:



I'm in a coffeeshop. Tables in the center of the room are reserved for a speed-dating event. Around 6 p.m. women start to gather. They chat nervously about the process, just as the Christians of Rome might chat nervously about why they've been herded into the Coliseum and whether that was a lion they just heard roar.

As if dating isn't humiliating enough. As if speed-dating doesn't multiply the humilation enough, compressing a year's worth of rejection and disappointment into a single hour. This coffeeshop has broken new ground in the field of humiliation: speed-dating with spectators.

I watch and listen, pretending to read just like all the other non-participants along the room's perimeter. I know the decent thing to do would be to leave but I can't. It's like gaping at the proverbial car wreck, except it's a dozen car wrecks. It's a demolition derby of human relations.

It's a strange thing to watch relationships be born and die in just five minutes with all the boring parts edited out. It's reality TV reality.



I'm using a trial membership at a neighborhood gym. It's located in a historic hotel, a relic from the days when Edgewater was a resort community for Chicago's wealthy, before the El was extended north and brought in all the riff-raff. The weight machines and treadmills are in an elegant ballroom, complete with chandeliers, high ceilings and marble floors. It feels like "The Shining." I expect blood to start dripping from the walls, or maybe tropical-flavored Gatorade.



I'm riding down Lawrence on my way to poker. It's night, so I'm wearing my reflective vest and balaclava and have turned on the blinky atop my helmet. A guy sitting in a parked car across the street thinks it looks pretty silly and yells, "Where ya goin' there, spaceman?"

I don't mind being regarded as looking silly, but I take exception to being heckled for it, so I do something the guy isn't expecting at all: I do a quick U-turn, roll up to his open window and threaten to break his fucking nose.


No, of course I don't. I may be capable of willing a broken nose, but as you might guess I am not capable of threatening one, let alone do the actual breaking. I wouldn't even know how to. Ask him to wait while I unlock my U-lock and then club him with it?

But I do make the U-turn, roll up to his open window and with a well-practiced glare ask, "What's that, friend?"

I'm pretty sure he was slack-jawed to begin with, but now he is slack-jawed and mousy. "Nothing," he says. "Sorry."

And that's the great trade-off of the balaclava. Although it makes it harder to hawk loogies on Hummers (but not impossible), it lets me adopt a personality contrary to the nice, timid guy that I am. It keeps my head warm but turns my heart cold and vengeful.


Jan. 30, 2005

Trying hard now

It's so hard now

Trying hard now

Getting strong now

Won't be long now

Getting strong now

Gonna fly now

Flying high now

Gonna fly, fly, fly

Today ended the first week of my latest 18-week marathon training regimen.

In training for marathons I am a slave to Hal Higdon. If Hal tells me to run off a cliff, I ask only whether I should do so at race pace or training pace. He has not yet asked me to run off a cliff. Not literally. Instead, he tells me to run fast on Saturdays and run long on Sundays. Having not been in training mode since October, I'd forgotten how challenging these weekend runs can be.

Most of my running has become pedestrian, ho ho. During the week my biggest obstacles are boredom and whatever techno music is playing at the gym. (I take it that gyms intend for techno music to inspire clients, but it merely inspires me to want to hurl dumbbells at the speakers.) Thus the iPod is invaluable. If I have it on shuffle, I'll sometimes run an extra mile just to find out what the next song is going to be, and if I turn it up all the way I can almost drown out the throbbing beat of the house music.

On the tough weekend runs, I must lean on a few playlists that help me forget how little I'm enjoying myself. The first is a series of songs with at least one of two qualities: Their beat comes close to my goal cadence, or they make me feel like I'm running in a commercial for the Special Olympics.

  1. Squirrel Nut Zippers, "Ghost of Stephen Foster"
  2. Squirrel Nut Zippers, "Hell"
  3. John Williams, "End Titles to Star Wars"
  4. John Williams, "Duel of the Fates"
  5. Neil Young, "Rockin' in the Free World"
  6. Richard Wagner, "Ride of the Valkyries"
  7. Twang Bang, "Driving Like a Maniac"
  8. Fiona Apple, "Fast as You Can"
  9. Rolling Stones, "Paint it Black"
  10. Gloria Gaynor, "I Will Survive"
  11. Hypnotic, "Caravan"
  12. U2, "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of"
  13. Andrew Bird, "Way Out West"
  14. Bill Conti, "Going the Distance"
  15. Gioacchino Rossini, "William Tell Overture"
  16. Bruce Springsteen, "Born to Run (Live)"
  17. Clyde Federal, "Silver Bootstraps"
  18. Sugarcubes, "Fucking in Rhythm & Sorrow"
  19. Violent Femmes, "My Way"
  20. Maynard Ferguson, "La Fiesta"
  21. Carl Orff, "O Fortuna"
  22. N.W.A., "100 Miles and Runnin'"

It's on the last mile that I really need to turn on the cheese, so I'll play one of three cheese-tacular songs:

  1. Maynard Ferguson, "Gonna Fly Now"
  2. Bill Conti, "Gonna Fly Now"
  3. Vangelis, "Titles from Chariots of Fire"

I like to simulate the marathon's homestretch with a 385-yard sprint. For this, only one track will do:

  1. Malcolm Seemann, "Giggle (Live)"

It's a 43-second recording my nephew made just after he turned 6 months old. It's perfect for the end of a run and any other time that rolling over and/or dying has appeal. According to iTunes I've listened to it 41 times, and not once has it failed to make me smile. This is ideal for maximizing oxygen intake, though it attracts some strange looks at the gym: "That guy was wan and lifeless a few minutes ago. What's with the sudden grin? And why is there smoke coming out of the treadmill?"