Monday, December 28, 2009

Holiday madness

I took apart our old treadmill and installed a new one. It just reminded me of how the consumer society is affecting all of us and making our lives less enjoyable. It is something we never hear about. The real cost of cheap items. It is a cost we all pay, each and every day.

The old treadmill, a HealthRider R65 had a sturdy frame, a solid platform but a weak motor, plus some useless "features" to attract buyers. A lot of parts were made of plastic and many broke or chipped over time so fixing it was no longer an attractive option. It was not just a matter of price, although the price to fix it would probably buy a new one. It would have also required replacing many items that were intrinsically OK.

Unfortunately, the HealthRider was a compromise made for a cheap sticker price that resulted in an underpowered, overgadgeted machine.

The T12.80. Lots of plastic.

The new treadmill is a Reebok T12.80. Despite the name, it is in essence a new version of the same machine made by the same people. All these are Icon Fitness treadmills. Healthrider, Reebok, Nordic Track, etc. are just labels. They identify feature sets that attract different market segments. Unfortunately none of these segments is quality oriented. They are feature-oriented instead.

The new machine has even more silly features that I will never use. It has a beefier motor but to compromise the frame is no longer a solid piece of metal. Instead it consists of pieces that are mostly molded plastic. Already some parts are showing signs of wear and the thing is less than a month old.

Because treadmills are sold to consumers who will rarely use them, and almost never after the novelty wears off, they are loaded with useless junk that attracts eyeballs, but breaks easily and may -in some cases condemn the machine. Instead of spending money on sturdy construction, treadmill builders cut corners where it matters most and spend money on eye candy that adds little or no value.

You could argue I should have bought a real treadmill, but these items are so expensive it is no longer worth the cost. I would need to install special circuits and make other modifications to the site. It is too much trouble, especially in a warm climate like California where you can run outside on most days. But even when you go upscale, you cannot free yourself from the market research results, and you still need to pay hundreds of dollars for features that are without any value.

The treadmill market, like so many markets has essentially split down the middle. And the middle, that sweet spot of value for money has all but disappeared. So now we have low end junk and high end super-premium equipment that is only worth it if one spends one's life there.

Treadmills are not the only products subject to these forces. The very same thing is happening to all appliances and electronics. But it did not stop there, cars have become overweight, overstuffed mobile living rooms, that are no longer fun to drive. Then again, where can one drive? Driving has been replaced by commuting, that smog spewing, rage provoking shuffle that is played out on freeways every day.

Wednesday, a 20 mile mountain ride with Alistair on single track in Joaquin Miller park. A bit too technical for me.
Thursday, a 38 mile ride to the golf course in Castro Valley.
Friday, a 20 mi solo mountain bike ride on fire-roads in Redwood. That is more my style.
Saturday, a 1:12 hr/8.9 mi run on the new treadmill. Ran the first hour at 8.1.
Sunday, a 33 mile ride to San Pablo and back over Wildcat, El Toyonal and Lomas Cantadas, with Alistair.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Winter Solstice

We passed the winter solstice so now the days will get longer. Not that it is very noticeable yet but it soon will be. This is also the time of year people celebrate various holidays and buy gifts for one another. Even though I don't go for Christmas gifts -in Belgium people give New Year's gifts and then only to those who bother to visit on New Year's day- here is a list of things I would consider for the multisport athlete.

Big ticket items
End of season is a great time to buy big ticket items at deep discounts. If you need a new frame or a new wetsuit, now is the time. XTerra Wetsuits has been advertising deep discounts but I am sure the other manufacturers are too. I personally like my Blue Seventy wetsuit. What I like best about it is the low neckline that does not put pressure on my windpipe. That goes a long way towards preventing a claustrophobic feeling that is common with some wetsuits.

When it comes to bicycle frames, I saw some great deals on Kuota and Look frames. I just built a Kuota KOM and I like the way it rides. One of the best and lightest frames I ever had. My top three road frames are Kuota KOM, Look 595 and BMC SLC01. For triathlon I ride a Griffen. My mountain bike is a Kona Kula Supreme with SRAM components. I like the feel of it.

Every one of these I bought at season end, often getting discounts of 50% or more. Given the enormous markup on such items, even 50% off is an outrageous price to pay. I was told by someone who knows that the average high end carbon fiber frame (made in a mold in China or Taiwan) enters the US for $270, taxes and duties included. Most of these are then sold for $3,500 and up. No wonder everyone is so keen on carbon.

Small items
If you are looking for small item stocking stuffers, here are some ideas. Tubes are always useful even for those who prefer tubeless tires. That said, a new set of tubeless tires may be an even better idea for that special gift. Once again, expect deep discounts this time of year. Even better if you can wait until after Christmas. That is one reason New Years presents make so much more sense.

Other ideas include wool socks, gloves, toe covers or booties, and bike lights. All these can be had for very little money and they make for great gifts that really get used. I know a lot of people buy water bottles but I have found that you can get plenty of those for free at races. I haven't bought a bottle since 2002. Another item I am drowning in is T-shirts, both regular and technical T's.

Finally, something needs to be said about sunglasses. While these are very useful, I can't see why anyone would pay $100 and up for a pair of shades. You can get perfectly fine Foster Grant Ironman glasses for $19.95 at Rite-Aid and these are every bit as good as those fancy Rudy Projects, or -in my opinion- very silly looking Oakley's that Lance and his crew seem to fancy.

Not only are the lenses identical (polycarbonate), but expensive sunglasses break just as easily, or get lost just as easily as their cheaper cousins. That is the main reason not to spend a fortune: shades do not last. A optometrist friend of mine once told me that, unless you wear your glasses all day long, they simply don't last. People who wear glasses (whether prescription, reading glasses, or shades) on and off, go through them about 10 times as fast as people who wear theirs round the clock. So unless you want to wear those Oakley's or Rudy's all the time, better save your money for other goodies.

On Sunday I rode 38, to the golf course and back. Yesterday I rested (the weather was awful) and today (very nice and sunny) I ran 10.5 miles in the hills.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


Training is highly specific. There is no such thing as "being in shape" as a general category. Usually what people mean when they say there are "in shape" is that they can walk or jog a certain distance without being out of breath. In essence that means their cardiovascular system is used to a certain amount of stress that exceeds lying around on the couch all day, or working in an office.

Those people would be surprised if they suddenly were asked to perform above average in a sport that they did not train for. Then they would say, "I don't know why I feel so trashed, or why I got dropped, or why I was out of breath, I thought I was in good shape." And the truth is they may well have been and be very fit.

This post was triggered by two events. First I read one of my favorite blogs and found out the author, who is an ironman athlete and distance runner/cyclist, reported he had trouble finishing a marathon, despite having run ultra marathons in summer. It turns out he did very little running since those ultra-events and has been cycling almost exclusively. So while his cardio was good, his run fitness was not.

Then, yesterday I was out on my regular 10.5 mile hilly run (the Shepherd loop) and I too was suffering despite just completing a super power test on the bike, that put me solidly in the Cat2 power range. I.e. my cycling fitness is near its high, but I suffered on a run that -until recently- I used to run on a weekly basis. And it wasn't because I was tired from biking. It was simply because I haven't run much for about a month.

In some sense, this situation is even worse than having no training. One is fit when it comes to cardiovascular output, but the mechanical system is not on par. At best that will mean a lot of suffering, at worst, an injury. So I will try to remedy this situation before it gets out of hand. I just installed a new treadmill and will do some running on that.

On Monday I rode 20 on my mountain bike. Redwood was very muddy and I looked pretty dirty when I got back. There must have been five pounds of mud on my bike too.

On Tuesday I rode on rollers for 1:20 and on Wednesday again for 1:10. Both pretty intense workouts with a power test to boot.

On Thursday I rode my roadbike for 30 miles. I broke my rear wheel on Tunnel and had to come back and switch it out. First I thought it was just a spoke, but it turns out the rim was cracked in several places. Not good. I think I need a new wheelset for Christmas.

On Friday I ran my 10.5 mile loop -and suffered.

Today a one hour run on the treadmill. More suffering and more evidence to the specificity of training. I had trouble holding my pace at 8 mph. Not too long ago I could run 8.25.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Don't touch my yellow and charity lotteries

We have witnessed several odd events in the cycling world over the past three weeks. Let me start with the hoopla surrounding StillerStrong. I found out about this issue when I accidently saw a YouTube video of Johan Bruyneel trying to sound an ominous warning to Ben Stiller about Lance Armstrong and his legal team, "They will come after you." Later I found out that the charade has also made Conan O'Brien and the late night talk circuit.

In brief, comedian Ben Stiller has started a fundraising campaign for a Haitian school. To raise funds he is selling yellow headbands that read StillerStrong.. As far as I can tell the campaign is for real but it is not exactly a great success. One of the video's Stiller posted has been an appeal to Lance to wear the StillerStrong headband. It wasn't well received.

The use of "strong" and the yellow headwear have upset Lance quite a bit. So much so that he has started legal action to protect his "brand." The idea of branding charitable causes may rub some people the wrong way, but Lance is determined.

The most telling episode is a video of the Conan show where Lance appears and shows his disapproval. Ben Stiller then says, "So you're saying you own the word strong and the color yellow?" and Lance responds after a brief pause, "Yes." Some people in the audience were clearly taken aback by that.

In related news, a blogger called FatCyclist raised more than $135,000 for World Bicycle Relief and LiveStrong so he could spend a weekend with Team RadioShack in Tucson, AZ. He managed to do this in about three days by essentially organizing a lottery where "tickets" cost $5 a pop and the top prizes were a trip to the Tour, donated by Trek Travel and two one-of-a-kind bicycles, donated by Trek and Gary Fisher.

It appears from the Fat Cyclist website that Fatty, as he is affectionately known to his supporters, has used this same lottery tactic many times before. There is at least one other event in the summer where he had an Orbea Orca/Diva (winner's choice) with Shimano's new battery powered shifting as the top prize.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cat 2 performance

I have been rollering away for several days now. Every time I do it, things get better and so I decided it was time for a power test. I calibrated my Ergomo and went at it for 20 minutes straight. Then, according to the power graphs developed by Dr. Coggan -Dr. Power himself- I went about to find out my status.

I topped out at 4.30 W/kg or solidly in the "Very Good" or Cat 2 range (which runs from 4.09 to 4.80). There is some overlap in the Coggan categories but 4.3 is well outside the Cat 3 range so that is reassuring. The lower bound of "Excellent" or Cat 1 is at 4.65. In another version of the graph -one with no overlaps- "Very Good" runs from 4.25 to 4.71.

When I first started riding in 1989, I got a Cat 4 license. Back then, Cat 4 was the lowest category. (They have since added a Cat 5 group). Near the "end" of my first cycling infatuation I graduated to Cat 3. In 1995 I took a break from cycling and it wasn't until 2008 that I re-applied for a license. My goal was to get a workout in while I waited around for Alistair.

Since I was driving Alistair to races every weekend, I wanted something to do instead of standing around for 2 hours. So I applied for a license and petitioned that they give me a Cat 4 (so as to avoid the dangerous inexperience of Cat 5) which they did. I probably could have asked for a Cat 3, but I decided to play it safe. I did a few races in 2008 as a Cat 4, but then my road bike frame broke and I did not race at all in 2009.

I think I can do even better than I did today -I could certainly lose a few pounds if nothing else- and I may be able to get my power-to-weight to the top of the Cat 2 category. Not that I intend to upgrade my license or anything, but it is nice to know that my fitness is up there.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Roller derby

We had an exciting week here in Northern California. After several days of 72F/22C degree weather, an Artic storm blew in and suddenly we had snow, icy wind and freezing temperatures. The water on top of our rain barrels froze, and there was snow on Grizzly Peak when we woke up on Monday. When the ice finally cleared, a series of rain storms brought wet weather from Vancouver to Tijuana. I don't think I have ever seen a weather map like that. Storms along the entire Pacific coast.

Fortunately I had just completed a couple of hard weeks so now was a good time to take it easy. On Monday I rested. Then on Tuesday I ran for 8.75 miles in the hills. Snow, sun, and extra bright fall color on the trees were mixed together. it was an awesome sight.

On Wednesday I rode hard on rollers, averaging 276 W for the hour. The garage was freezing cold. On on Thursday and Friday I rode for 1:30 concentrating mostly on a smooth fast cadence. On Saturday and Sunday I ran, first 8.75 miles and then 7.25 miles. Saturday was fairly dry and much warmer than earlier in the week, but Sunday's run quickly turned wet and foggy. Visibility was less than 10 yards on Grizzly making the run quite dangerous in spots.

When I got back I had to go out and find Alistair, who had gotten lost on a bike ride and was out there without much light in the driving rain. It was more than a bit worrisome as the fog was thick with practically no visibility, and most of the turns were deeply flooded. I was quite relieved when I found him near Fish Ranch Rd. Fortunately the rain jacket had done a good job and he was warm albeit a bit tired. Riding the Berkeley hills in this type of weather is not advised. Cars go off the road all the time, and in the past month alone, we have seen two go off the road, down the side of the hill.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


In the true spirit of winter training I am adding volume at moderate intensity. That does not mean I am dabbling or riding slow. But I am not sprinting or doing intervals either. I am just adding the hours (or miles).

Two weeks ago, I rode 10.75 hours. Last week I did 11.25 and this week I added 13.5. That is a total of 35.5 hours on the bike, or a 600 mile equivalent.

I say equivalent because I did not ride all those miles on the road. Some of it I did on my mountain bike, where the average speed is lower, and some of it I did on rollers, where speed is arbitrary.

During the past week I did the following workouts:
-On Monday I rode 30 miles on the road.
-On Tuesday I rode 20 mile on my mountain bike, including some serious climbs
-On Wednesday I ran for 7.25 miles
-On Thursday, 23 miles on the mountain bike, through Redwood Park
-On Friday, rollers for 1:18:00 burning a total of 1,225 calories.
-Saturday, 4 hour ride with Team Specialized Juniors, for a total of 71 miles in Napa Valley
-Today, 2.2 hour ride, 34 miles through Orinda and Moraga and over Pinehurst

Monday, November 30, 2009

Bike Fit triangle

Bike fitting is a topic that evokes strong feelings amongst cyclists. Some think it is absolutely essential to have the perfect fit. They tend to think of that perfect fit as the one and only optimal solution. It exists somewhere in Plato's cave and it takes a real expert to discover it. Once discovered untold magical benefits will befall the fitted.

I am quite skeptical when it comes to fitting. I believe that humans are very adaptable and that they can get "used to" and perform well using a wide range of possible fittings. I know from personal experience that I did well on frames as small as 51 cm and as large as 61. I am 6'1'' or 182 cms tall and when I plug my measurements into a fit calculator the recommended frame size is always 58 cms (the old fashioned c-to-c seat tube or equivalent length). Currently I ride a 56 cm frame because I feel better in a slightly more upright position.

There is a way to bring some order to the chaos of fitting. Basically I view fitting as a compromise represented by a triangle of power, comfort, and aerodynamics. The optimal fit, or the range of optimal fits is somewhere in the inside of the triangle. Even though it is customary to think of the triangle as equilateral, the "exact shape" really depends on the person. In some people optimal power and optimal aero are close together, whereas in others optimal power is closer to optimal comfort. In most individuals however, we have a real triangle and serious compromises need to be made.

Furthermore, not the whole inside of the triangle is accessible to all. There are limits to how far an individual can go along the major axes. The range represents how adaptable a person is. Some people may never be able to get close to optimal power while in aero while others may never be aero while comfortable.

Boonen, road bike

Even in the textbook case of an equilateral triangle where the whole internal area is accessible, the optimal fit is not defined. It depends. It depends on the type of riding a person does and there are optimal fits for every riding experience. Many competitive cyclists will have two fits, one for regular racing and one for time trialing. They will use different bikes for these activities too.
Cancellara: road position

Cancellara TT position

If you predominantly race in packs, you probably want to bias your fit towards optimal power. Although aero is important, it is far less important in pack riding where you can draft. Comfort too can be compromised if the usual races are short 1-3 hour events. If this is your typical ride you will do best with a power fit.

If you predominantly ride alone and compete in long time trials or triathlon you will prefer a good aero position. You can give up some power to get there as the overall result will still be favorable. Experience has shown that nearly everyone has to give up power to get good aero. How much you should give up depends on how adaptable you are.

Finally, if you are an endurance cyclist and often ride in excess of 100 miles, you will value comfort more. Even ironman athletes will want to give up some aero and some power for comfort, especially when comfort means keeping the legs fresh for the run.

It also matters whether you prefer to climb or sprint on the flats, and whether you mainly ride on the track or on the road. Once again, you need not find a globally optimal solution and you can easily train two or three optimal but different positions. The only thing to keep in mind, is to do your race training using the position (and bike) you will ride in the race. Otherwise you may be in for a nasty surprise.

Today I rode 30 miles.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving week

Today marks the end of the Thanksgiving week vacation. The kids were off from school all week and Barbara took three days off. The weather was gorgeous except for Friday, when it rained and was overcast pretty much the whole day.

I got a lot of riding in this week, despite being quite busy at work. On Tuesday I rode 23 miles with Alistair. On Wednesday we rode the South Loop of the Grizzly century, or 42 miles into Castro Valley. On Thanksgiving day, we rode with the California Pedaler group in Danville, a very fast 2:30 ride along the flats. The distance, including riding to and from the event was 56 miles.

Friday I decided to stay indoors and ride an easy 1:10 minutes on rollers. I burned 800 calories total. The first hour I averaged 180W and burned almost 700 calories.

Yesterday I rode the "fruitstand" ride in a near-continuous headwind. It was very gusty and at times extremely hard, even though it was sunny and the temperature was very nice. At one point between San Ramon and Danville, I was trapped in a whirlwind of yellow leaves that created a surreal scene. There was debris everywhere and I had to ride on the road most of the way. Then on Grizzly, very near to Marlborough I almost got blown off my bike. Overall 58 miles and very hard. I was thrashed.

Today I built my 7th bike (an Orbea Diva for my friend Barbara) and I ran a 10K in the hills. It was quite warm today and I was able to run just wearing a one-piece trisuit.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Coaching upgrade

Over the weekend I took the Level 2 Cycling Coach test and passed. I am now upgraded to a Level 2 Cycling Coach. There is one more level to challenge but to do so I have to wait five years. It therefore appears that I have now reached the peak of my coaching career.

To reach Level two took a review of exercise physiology -fortunately, it appears nothing much has changed since I last took a comprehensive course in physiology in 1980-, biochemistry -at least as it pertains to energetics, where some changes did happen- and training specific topics such as training plan design, race strategy and tactics, overtraining, overreaching and other current topics.

Overall, I was quite pleased with the clinic and the discussions. The instructors were high caliber and the lectures were interesting and fun. Even though I was familiar with most of the stuff -I guess medical education does count for something- I did not get bored or frustrated listening or participating.

If anything needed to change, I would recommend USA Cycling spend less time on muscle anatomy-although the sliding filament theory is everyone's favorite, there are few practical implications here- and more on fluid compartments, acid-base buffering, and fluid balance -which does have a practical side to it.

It also appears the two days rest were beneficial and I feel better now than before.
Thursday: 40 mile ride through Orinda-Moraga;
Friday: rollers for 1:20, burning 1,250 calories -with a calibrated meter;
Saturday: 42 with Alistair over Papa Bear, Happy Valley, and Pinehurst;
Sunday: with Darryl and Marcus, about 38 miles, first to Peets, then to top of Redwood and back;
Today, 8.85 mile run in the hills, up Broadway Terrace.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Training and dieting

Have you noticed that there are striking parallels between training and dieting? Both are areas rife with magic rituals, special formulas, "secret tips," and an abundance of pseudo-scientific utterances. There are clever tricks that "will shave off the pounds, or increase your aerobic fitness in less than 2 weeks."

We have all seen ads where it is proclaimed that you can eat whatever you like or however much you like and still lose weight. Similarly there are ads that tout significant improvements after working out only minutes a day. In both cases it is implied that you can sit around on the couch all day and wonderful things will happen to you if you just follow a few simple rules, or ingest a few special capsules.

Both dieters and would-be athletes abuse supplements, vitamins, anti-oxidants and other pharmacological aids in large numbers.

However, just like it has been shown over and over again that any diet works by reducing calories, and reducing calories alone, so any training program can only achieve results by adding intensity and intensity alone. Furthermore, just as all diets are successful to the extent that they achieve calorie reduction, so any training program works only to the extent that it introduces intensity.

Ironically enough, the failure modes for both endeavors are rather similar too. Dieters lose because they fail to stop eating, and would-be athletes fail because they shy away from intensity training.

Sun, 28 mile ride with Alistair (moderate to easy);
Monday, 34 mile ride (hard);
Tuesday, 10.5 mile hilly run (hard);
Wednesday 7.25 mile run.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Coaching clinic

Today I am in Davis for a level 2 coaching clinic. The event lasts through Sunday noon. Two full days of lectures plus one morning. It is pretty intense. Overall I was pleasantly surprised with the quality. The level is quite basic -esp. the physiology parts- but the scientific rigor is good and that is reassuring. It is not so much that I am learning new stuff here, but reviewing everything from a training/coaching perspective is good to do. And it is good to hear that people take all the training hype with a decent grain of salt.

I will use this event to insert a break in my training. I plan to take two days off and then maybe I will do something light on Sunday. That will be a nice change now that the season is over. So far this week, I have run 7.5 on Monday, and another 8.75 on Wednesday. I also did two rides, 30 on Tuesday and 35 on Thursday. Together with a light workout on Sunday, it will make for a good recovery week.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Creaking and squeaking

Monday's ride over the backside of Papa Bear -Bear Creek Rd. if you aren't familiar with Berkeley- and Happy Valley was a lot of fun. But it also bothered me that the new KOM was making a lot of noise. The saddle creaked, and so did the handlebars. Tightening the bolts did nothing to alleviate the noises. It may even have made things worse.

The remedy turned out to be very simple: undo the bolts, apply some grease here and there, and tighten again. That took care of it and creaks and squeaks are now a thing of the past.

On Tuesday I ran 8.8 miles in the hills. On Wednesday I rode on rollers for 1:15, burning my customary 1,221 calories. On Thursday I had a pretty busy day going over to Marin for work, so I rested. On Friday, it drizzled and rained all day and I went for a run. It was clear when I took off, but as soon as I was down the hill a light drizzle started. I ran intervals up Bay Forest for a total of 7.5 miles (7 laps). It turned out to be a great choice.

Saturday was clear and I went on a 40 mile ride through Orinda and Moraga. I felt good and rode the hills quite fast. All went well until some guy passed me on the last hill. By now I was pretty tired -and I probably should have eaten something too- so I had to let go of him. Even so, I felt good and I think I got a good workout.

On Sunday I rode 28 with Alistair going up past Bort Meadow and coming back over Redwood. It was sunny but rather cool, especially on Redwood Rd. This time of year, Redwood is shaded for most of the day and it is also protected from the wind. That means it can get quite cold there, and near the bottom, ice may form in the early morning and at times it lingers until noon.

The bottom or Redwood near Pinehurst, and the intersection between Pinehurst and Canyon Rd. are some of the coldest spots in the East Bay.

Today 7.25 mi run in the hills. Overcast skies, cool weather.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Boston and more

The Brain Aneurysm Foundation is overwhelmed by requests for the 10, 2010 IM Lake Placid slots they received so I asked them to sell mine. I will do a fundraiser at the Boston Marathon instead. This is really a win-win for everybody. I can take a break from ironman -finally- and the foundation gets an extra fundraiser and a presence at the Boston Marathon to boot. The latter is key since they were denied official charity status for 2010. Now that Seth qualified maybe the two of us can break the ice here.

More great news: the feature in Competitor magazine was published, complete with a masterful shot by none other than Larry Rosa. It looks great and some people already noticed it too. By sheer coincidence I stopped at the bike store on Saturday and found the article in the most recent copy. Hopefully this article will raise additional awareness for our cause.

IM Lake Placid, shot by Larry Rosa

November and the weather is gorgeous. It is not for nothing that Oakland is said to have the best weather in the US! Yesterday I joined Team Specialized for a game of mountain bike polo in Fremont. It was great fun even though I had to play right-handed (I am a lefty), which certainly contributed to my rather frequent crashes. However, other than a little pedal mark on my left shin, no permanent damage was done.

On Tuesday I rode on rollers for 1:15, burning 1,221 calories.
On Wednesday I rested.
On Thursday I rode 28 miles on the KOM
On Friday I ran 10.5 in the hills (the shepherd loop)
On Saturday I rode to Danville with Alistair (56 miles).
Sunday was mountain bike polo day.
Today 40 miles, over Papa Bear and Happy Valley

Monday, October 26, 2009

Dazzle camouflage

I was riding with Alistair this weekend and he was wearing his '08 Team Specialized Jersey. The jersey is bright red with a large white S cutting across the front and back (see picture). When you look at it really stands out. Yet when racing in a pack I -and many others- had always noticed how hard it was to find him, or his team mates in the group.

Then I was reminded of something I read a long time ago about camouflage. There is such a thing as "very visible" camouflage, technically called Dazzle Camouflage or Razzle-Dazzle.

It sounds counterintuitive but when you paint an object in bright and large patterns it plays tricks on your visual system, especially when the object is moving.

Dazzle camouflage was used briefly in WWI to confuse enemy gunners. It was said to interfere with the gunsights that were used at the time. But I can attest to the fact that you don't need a gunsight to be confused. What matters here is the contrast, the size of the patterns, and the speed of movement. When these three interact within certain ranges, things can become very difficult indeed.

Here is a picture of a British warship painted in Dazzle. The British abandoned this type of masking when radar was introduced. Painting dazzle is more expensive and time consuming than "regular" camouflage.
What happens in dazzle is that your visual system wants to break up the image along the very visible edges and then your brain puts pieces together that don't belong together. I.e. it is as if you parse a piece of text the wrong way and make words out of groups of letters that don't belong together. That makes all subsequent recognition next to impossible. The trajectory, the speed, even the boundaries of the object all become hard to find, let alone the actual recognition of a person.

The newer Specialized Team jerseys have a smaller S pattern and less contrast making for a much improved experience.

On Saturday I went to Hellyer and did a three hour track workout. I am still trying to get used to the fixed gear. Things work well as long as speeds are reasonable. But I do not like going all out on a fixed gear.

I rode a 200 m time trial with flying start and got to 15 s -which is pretty slow-. I know I was holding back for fear of locking up once past the finish. Apparently my intentions were obvious because one of the guys came over afterwards and told me, you didn't look like you were going all out on that bike? Well so much for that.

I wish we had a track in Oakland or Berkeley so I would not have to waste so much gas just to get a workout. Driving to a workout is not something I like doing.

On Sunday, I rode with Alistair and Barbara up Redwood to Chabot park. I tuned up KOM some more beforehand and we are getting close to perfect. Some minor glitches (the saddle squeaks a bit) remain to be worked out but the bike is almost perfect now. It is a great ride.

Friday, October 23, 2009

100 psi

While we are on the subject of numbers, I really wonder if people have forgotten what air-filled tires are all about? I was reminded of a crash I saw where one guy's tire blew up because it was over pressure. He wanted to claim a free lap but was scolded by the referee for endangering other people. A fight ensued and the cyclist left the scene angry even though the evidence was solidly against him.

It turns out roadies are a bit better at this than triathletes, who seem obsessed with high pressure tires. Eager to get rid of that last bit of rolling resistance, triathletes love to put 150+ psi in their tires. Frequently tires give out -you can often hear them popping in transition- but nobody seems to make the connection.

A tire is there first and foremost to provide traction (i.e. friction) and comfort. If these did not matter we would all ride on cast-iron wheels. I think you agree that this would be most dangerous and unpleasant. While it is true friction means rolling resistance it is also necessary to provide traction so one can corner and accelerate, and brake when needed (think ice if you doubt this). In the rain and on slippery surfaces a larger contact patch (read lower pressure) is desirable.

Furthermore, since a bike has no suspension, the tire is supposed to give a bit and provide some measure of shock absorption. All these desirable properties disappear when you pump your tires as hard as a rock. It may not matter as much in a one hour effort, but riding rock solid tires in an Ironman event will take its toll. You will be more fatigued than you need to be.

Additionally, as the tire heats up for a variety of reasons, the pressure inside increases. So if you start up with a tire near bursting pressure, you are asking for trouble when temperatures rise throughout the day or when you have to brake often (or both). Popping a tire on a long descent is not unheard of and it can be quite dangerous. More dangerous than a pinch flat due to insufficient pressure.

That is why 100 psi is the recommended tire pressure for most people. And when it is very wet and slippery, 80-90 is better. Will you lose some effort because of higher rolling resistance? No doubt, but the amount is minimal and the cost benefit is simply not there.

One should be even more careful in a road race or criterium because a blown tire may cause others to crash as well. That is less of an issue in triathlon where you can't (or at least aren't supposed to) draft. But triathlons tend to last a long time and so there is plenty of time for the pressure to build up.

Today I rode 40 miles on the KOM. Nice day, comfortable temperature and sunny. Tomorrow, track.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

More 10,000 hour rule

Two days ago I wrote about the 10,000 hour rule. Then I read a blog post by masters track world champion Larry Nolan discussing the fact that it had taken him 10 years of hard core cycling to reach the top. QED.

It is interesting to note that the 10,000 hour rule appears to apply to any physiological endeavor, be it abstract reasoning, mathematics, computer programming, playing an instrument, or engaging in something purely physical such as cycling. At first it may seem counter-intuitive that such diverse pursuits, ranging from almost-exclusively "mental" to "part mental and part physical," to almost exclusively "physical" behave so similarly. But that is entirely to be expected. All these are in fact bodily adaptations.

The brain is as much part of the body as any other organ. Contrary to what you may think, brain activity ("the mind") is no different from other bodily activities ("running"). Both require a synergy between the actions of billions of cells. The fact that such "diverse" processes behave identically is in fact quite reassuring and to us. It is an indication that there might be some truth to the 10,000 hour rule.

Let's look at some other ways to formulate the 10,000 hour rule that may make it more intuitive. The formulation in the book "Outliers" has one big problem: it focuses on exceptional circumstances. It also has another big problem but more about that later.

It is obvious to us that while it may 10,000 hours for someone to become "world class," not everyone who spends 10,000 on a given activity will in fact become a world champion. It does take innate ability to become a champion, and most who would try to spend 10,000 hours on a random venture would never become world-class. So you may ask, what is the value of the 10,000 hour rule?

Here is another way to look at the rule. When you engage in an activity you can expect to improve for at least the first 10,000 hours that you spend on it. Does that make more sense? I.e. humans have a very long learning curve and they can keep improving for a very long time. We take about 10 years to learn a language for example. Or we could turn the rule around and say that once you diligently spent 10,000 hours on something you are very unlikely to improve any further. I.e. you are at the top of your game now.

Note that 10,000 is a convenient number. It is not to be taken literally of course. It gives us a range, a ball park figure. We can say it takes 10,000 hours give or take a few thousand. Or we can say that it takes more than a couple thousand, but far less than 50-100,000. And that is a good thing, given our lifespan.

Note that 10,000 is remarkably close to the time it takes humans to grow up and become adults. That too is not surprising because an adult is a person at the top of their game. Growing up is, after all, the quintessential physiological process.

It should therefore come as no surprise that they key theme of the book "Outliers" is flawed. What the author is trying to prove in that book is that genetic or inborn traits are not what determine our success as individuals.

And part of that is certainly true. It does make a difference where or when you are born. That is what evolution is all about. Changing traits continuously to adapt to the changing environment.

What is flawed is the idea that some sort of independent dedication and hard work are needed to cash in on genetics. As if such behaviors are unrelated to your genes. As if dedication and hard work are attributes of a person that exist in a vacuum. Maybe they are part of your "soul?"

That is nonsense of course. If anything is important in evolution and natural selection, it is precisely that, behavior. Much like physical traits such as a big brain, a big heart, or big lungs, a tendency to work hard, or be dedicated to achievement is a genetic trait.

And so are great interpersonal skills, another trait the author deems outside of genetics. Surely one has to learn to interact with others. But to say that there is no genetic basis to how well you will end up doing that is the same as saying there is no genetic basis to how well one will end up running.

8.75 mile run in the hills (same as last Wednesday) in ultralights.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Barefoot lessons for bike fitting

The NYT had a blogpost addressing the question, "is running barefoot better for you?" The conclusion is rather simple: it does not seem to matter much. Surely you do change your biomechanics when you run barefoot -i.e. you tend to favor toe or at least forefoot striking- but you adapt quickly.

There were several comments however that got me thinking. One reader pointed out that there is no need to make a case that barefoot is better. Barefoot is the default option. The case that needs to be made is whether shoes are of any use. I couldn't agree more. Another reader said your calves will get sore, and those of you who read my blog, know that that too is right. Finally one said, so what, running barefoot is fun. And I couldn't agree more. But that is not all.

I have written extensively about bicycle frame fitting. I have often made the point that it does not matter much and that you can adapt to many different frame sizes and geometries. I know that from personal experience. I also know that none of this affects your performance all that much. The barefoot experience (as documented in the Well blog) seems to strongly support this idea.

Recently, I read an article about fitting in the coaches' newsletter. The argument they made was that fitting is quick, whereas adaptation is slow. In essence they agreed that you can adapt to many frame sizes and geometries, but it takes (a lot of) time and therefore you should get an optimal fit first and you can adapt later. Is that really so?

One key study the Well quotes (published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine last year, so much for a good reference), points out that your landing pattern changes as your shoes wear out and flatten, becoming more barefoot-like. That certainly points to a very dynamic and near-instantaneous response. I.e. your landing pattern changes continuously as your shoes change, from one day to the next.

I would certainly argue that -in my experience- adaptation is very fast. It did not take me very long to get used to a 51 cm frame when I started cycling again after a long break that lasted 4 years. Within a month, I rode the Wildflower triathlon on that frame and did not notice any performance issues. Surely, my bike times were not ideal, but that was due to the short training. I kept riding on that small frame for a long time and got better quickly. The key issue is that I never felt like it stopped me from hammering.

Also, although adaptation is fast, very fast really, it is not instantaneous and it cannot bridge large changes. So you can't train on your road bike and then hammer on your tribike with a different geometry and expect to walk away without being sore (or worse, injured). I also told you the story of John Cobb's bike fit session before CaliforniaMan. Although the changes he made were great and helped in the long run, the fact remains that two days later I was very sore after racing in that new position.

All adaptation takes place over several days and all requires many small steps. You can adjust a little bit every day and bridge large gaps, as long as the whole process is gradual and smooth. Or you can adjust to a large change by starting easy and gradually increasing your exposure. It's all common sense really. Think about it.

Rode KOM 28 miles today. Fun ride!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


I saw a Nova program on fractals in biology last night. As with every popular science program it too was a bit simplistic. My other qualm was that the program jumped around from one topic to the next without ever explaining much or going into any reasonable depth anywhere. However it did enough to remind me of my previous encounters with fractals, chaos theory, and nonlinear dynamics.

Suffice it to say that many natural objects approximate fractals to a high degree. Natural objects also tend to be stochastically self similar and may even appear to be (almost) scale invariant. This fractal or quasi-fractal property of nature gives a nice explanation for such things as why small animals use more energy per weight than larger ones, or how brain sizes scale with body size.

Even our experiences are self-similar. I can read a race account from a pro race and it feels remarkably similar to my race experiences, although I perform at a much lower level of "fitness." Once I read an Ironman race report from a guy I did not know and it was so similar to my race experiences that I looked up who he was and what his finishing time was. Surprisingly enough he turned out to be quite young (20-24) and his finishing time was just below 9 hours.

Compare that to my age group (50-54) and my best finishing time at just above 11. Yet almost everything he described, including the remarks he made about competitors around him could have been written by me. Everything that is except the "absolute value" of the numbers. Is that self-similar or what?

Today I ran a 10K in the hills.

Monday, October 19, 2009

10,000 hours

In his book "Outliers" Malcolm Gladwell introduces the 10,000 hour rule. It isn't his idea but he devotes a whole chapter to it so he deems it very important. The long and short of it is quite simple: To become world class in any field, be it violin playing, computer programming, hockey, basket ball, piano, mathematics, or what have you, about 10,000 hours of practice is required.

10,000 hours is a lot of practice.

And what's more he says, in study after study, authors never found any "naturals," i.e. individuals who can get by with a lot less, nor "grinds," or individuals who worked a lot harder than everyone else but never made it to the top. All of that makes a lot of sense.

I do want to point out that there is such a thing as innate talent. Although a lot of practice is required to become good at something, it does matter where you start from.

Some people are born with the innate ability to run 5:30 miles, while others are clocked at 7 and up. The same applies to reading skills, mathematical ability, hand-eye coordination, dexterity, and musical ability. There are differences that matter and these differences have a genetic basis. There is such a thing as natural selection.

Although Gladwell appears to agree with that statement, he tends to underestimate its weight. Partly that is because he has an individual-centric view. He wants to stress how important an individual's environment and timing is for that person's own success. It does matter when you are born -great cycling talent did not do anyone much good before the invention of the bicycle. It even matters what time of year you are born -hockey players tend to be people born in January and February. And it does matter where and how you grew up and how well your parents took care of you.

These conditions are not mutually exclusive. It still takes a lot of training and good luck for the gifted to make it to world class. From a gene perspective this does not matter much. There are several individuals to pick from. Each is a role of the dice. But I digress.

For you as an individual, it is good to know that no amount of training is going to get you from being a natural slowpoke to becoming a world class runner. All we can do here is invoke the property of self-similarity at scale. If you are a natural 7 minute miler, practicing for 10,000 hours will get you to the top of your (innate 7 minute miler) class. It won't get you to challenge Gebrselassie.

Which brings me to triathlon and swimming. It is true that I have achieved much in this discipline although I never qualified for Hawaii. I would have loved to qualify for Hawaii. But it isn't going to happen without a major improvement in swimming. And although I have swum a lot since 2004, I am light years away from 10,000 hours of swimming. It would take me 2 years almost non-stop swimming to get even close to half that level. And that is not something I want to do now. It is not something I enjoy all that much in any case.

Instead I plan to focus on distance cycling. That is the sport I truly like and enjoy. It is the sport that I want to devote my energies to. That is another reason for building my KOM.

Today I rode 1:10 on rollers. I burned 1,221 calories. It is raining outside (again).

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Days at the track(s)

Yesterday, Alistair and I went to the velodrome at Hellyer. Although it was cool and foggy in the morning, the sun came out later and we had a great day. Once again we got a very good workout. Greg van den Dries was there and Alistair, Greg, and I rode some workouts together. Greg is pretty fast. The session lasted from 9 to 12 and afterwards we watched Larry Nolan's motor pacing session for a while before driving home. Larry left last night for the UCI masters world championships in Sydney, Australia.

Then, today, Annelise and I went to the Piedmont High running track, where I ran 8 miles wearing racing flats and then another 2 laps barefoot. Annelise did her part and she ran/walked about 2.5 miles. The weather was much colder than the day before and it was overcast with a slight drizzle near the time we left. It was what you call ideal running weather. Unfortunately the locker rooms were closed.

On Friday I ran 11 miles in the hills. On Thursday I rode on rollers for about 1:15 minutes. The calorie count was 1,221 but I suspect the power meter is losing its calibration again and so the "real" count is probably closer to 1,100.

I also signed up for a cycling Level 2 coaching clinic in Davis. It is time to bump it up a notch.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I finally built up the frame that I bought almost a year ago. It had been sitting in my bedroom, nicely wrapped up in the original box it came in. Why? Not sure. It is true that I did not have the components at first and then in early Spring, I was reluctant to buy new things given the economic uncertainty. For a while prices were dropping and I probably held out for too long trying to get the Record UT Crank I wanted.

Then there were a number of incidents that stopped me every time I wanted to get going. Components I already had were suddenly needed to fix mine or Alistair's bike. The Ergomo I got for Alistair broke and I had to use the Campy bottom bracket I had earmarked for my frame. When I finally decided to get the Campy UT crank, I was unable to find a 175 at a reasonable price anywhere. Eurobikeparts had one for $350 but when they sold out I could not find another for less than $500.

To add insult to injury, my '06 carbon record crank lost a bolt and nut and nobody anywhere had a replacement for it. I ordered one set three times, and three times the order got canceled weeks later because the parts were out of stock and no new ones had come in. This may be hard to believe but it is true. I lost the bolt/nut combo in July and I still have not been able to find the torq bolt that I need. Record carbon uses non-standard, "special bolts and nuts." What a great idea that was!

Last week I decided enough was enough and I was just going to build it. I did and it took less than a day to do although I had to scavenge the chain from my tri bike. I was able to go ride the KOM that same afternoon. It felt great. The frame is super stiff and super light. And even though it is one of those "cheap Chinese frames that gets an Italian label and is then sold at exorbitant prices in the US" as Peter Koskinen would say, I still love it.

I want you to know that I did not pay an exorbitant price. I got the frame cheaper than what the lower end Kuota's sell for. Actually the whole bike was a super, super-deal and it cost less than some high end used bikes I was offered for sale by friends of mine.

Economists may not agree, but I say deflation is for real!

Friday: 20 miles with new bike.
Sat: 30 miles with new bike.
Sun: 7.25 mi run in the hills (with ultra-light shoes)
Mon: 1:10 on rollers. I felt pretty tired. Not sure why.
Tue: rest
Wed: 8.75 mile run in the hills (ultra-lights)

Thursday, October 8, 2009

More barefoot

Today I woke up with very sore lower calf muscles. I suspect my soleus muscles are to blame. They are stiff. My calves were sore in places I have never been sore in before. Surely this must be due to the change in position when running with very thin soled-shoes (i.e. almost barefoot).

According to the LA times article, barefoot runners naturally strike with their toes, whereas people wearing shoes tend to strike with their heels. If you strike with your toe you have a lot of shock absorption due to the lever arm. It seems like a natural thing to do.

Heel strikes on the other hand transmit the impact straight through the ankle, the knee, and hip joints. Clearly that is not so good. To compensate the shoe takes some of the impact but on the whole the situation is probably a lot worse than striking your toe. It is of course possible that you can adapt to heel strikes. The body does remodel itself constantly and if new stresses appear, adaptation takes place.

Obviously lots of people are heel-strikers and you could argue it works for them. But then again, lots of runners get injured. So much so that injury prevention is a key worry for runners. Runners are much more obsessed with injury than bikers or swimmers. And for good reason. According to one recent article in the NY Times, more than half of all runners get injured at least yearly. That is a lot of people.

I do think my position changed when I ran 11.5 miles with thin soles. I did use my toes and forefoot a lot more. When you have no cushioning, striking your heel is not pleasant. Also when there is little weight on the back of your foot it is easier to "fall" onto your forefoot. It seems almost a no-brainer.

I am sure that is why the soleus is stressed. It simply isn't used to this position and I went from essentially zero (i.e. 0.5 miles) to 11.5 miles in one fell swoop.

Today I rode on rollers for 1:15. I rode pretty hard. Interestingly enough riding does not put any additional stress on my sore calves. I must be using different muscle groups to ride. That much is for sure.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Barefoot running has always intrigued me and recently I saw another article in the Los Angeles Times touting its benefits. I have seen a number of barefoot runners in various races and they always looked comfortable and relaxed. I still remember passing a guy running barefoot in the Wildflower triathlon. The Wildflower run is on trails littered with rocks and stones and it is not the kind of place you would expect barefoot runners.

Just as I passed the guy, someone called out to him, "Doesn't that hurt?" He replied "It keeps my mind from thinking about my legs." It sounded really funny at the time because my legs were hurting like hell. And then something else happened. Just as I passed the man, I saw a live rattle snake. It was the first time in 20 years living in California that I had ever seen a live rattle snake.

Clearly shoes have some uses. They do protect you from penetrating injuries. They may even protect you somewhat from snakes, although these creatures tend to bite higher up when you step on them. In winter, shoes keep your feet warm, but in summer they are often too hot. However, nobody can argue with the fact that shoes keep your feet clean. So why would anyone want to walk, let alone run barefoot? Except on the beach perhaps where shoes become awkward and clumsy and where the cool sand feels great.

Everything in life is a trade-off. That is a good thing to remember. We do pay for everything one way or another. Shoes are confining, they make your feet hot and sweaty and they sometimes rub you the wrong way. Shoes contribute to blisters. But could there be more to it than these simple inconveniences? Do shoes actually make your feet weaker? Do they accentuate misalignments and other problems? Do they cause knee, hip and back aches? Only one way to find out.

I ran shoeless on Tuesday. Not very far, but one has to start somewhere. Clearly my soft feet are not used to such exposure. Having been confined to shoes -most of them ill fitting since I have a high arch- all their lives, one has to start easy.

I have to say it was a pleasant surprise. It felt good. Even though it was cool outside, the sun had heated the asphalt and the warmth felt good to me. It is certainly something I want to do again.

Monday I ran a 10k in the hills, going easy.
Tuesday I rested except for the 0.5 mile barefoot run
Today, I ran 11.5 miles (shepherd plus a detour to fish ranch) wearing very light and thin-soled shoes. I did run about 0.5 barefoot at the end.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

On the track

On Saturday I rode on the track (read velodrome) for the first time. It was an interesting experience. I have ridden fixed gear bikes before but never on a track. The reason for doing so was rather simple: Larry had invited Alistair to join him on the track in preparation for Alistair's camp at the Olympic Center in Colorado Springs next week. Since I had to drive out to San Jose anyways, I figured I may as well ride.

At first it felt a bit claustrophobic to ride so close without brakes and on a narrow course with no clear escape. However, after a while I got used to it but then I had to deal with another problem that was potentially more dangerous. And that problem is to stop spinning. I was a bit surprised because I had ridden fixed gears before and was kind of used to it. I also ride on rollers a lot and there too you keep going. You think spin and things are fine. However, I had never raced a fixed a gear. When you race a whole new situation develops. Ironically it happens once you cross the finish line. We did some race simulations and I had a few close brushes with disaster.

It is odd but one has a natural tendency to stop spinning after a hard sprint. You simply sit up and stop spinning once you go past the finish, but when you are on a fixed gear that does not work so well. You get this sudden unexpected hard jolt in your leg and if you lock up, you have a high probability of going down. It happens and sometimes there are serious consequences. Unfortunately, locking up is almost a reflex action when your leg gets jolted. I.e. it too happens before you are aware of it. Double whammy. I quickly learned to avoid this problem by not going all out. That way you don't feel the need to urgently stop spinning and you can coast rather easily.

There was another situation where a lockup almost happened. I was coming into the last turn while passing someone and suddenly found myself very close to the guy I was overtaking. Maybe he cut into my line a bit, I am not sure but there it was. My first instinct when it happened was to stop pedaling and grab for the -non-existent- brake. That too happened before I knew it. I.e. I only realized what I had done after the fact. The upshot was a rather severe jolt that almost made my lose my balance. I also lost the sprint even though I was clearly faster than the guy in front of me.

More things to learn! Think spin, think loose.

Here is the recap of my week:
Monday, rest
Tuesday 1:15 on rollers, pretty hard.
Wednesday 1:30 run, the shepherd loop
Thursday 32 mile ride to top Redwood, suddenly developed a stiff link in my chain while shifting to climb Manzanita.
Friday 40 mile ride, Redwood to Lafayette, over Happy Valley and home. Met Darryl on Grizzly Peak and invited him over.
Saturday 3 hours on the track
Sunday 30 miles with Alistair, two hard fast climbs (Wildcat and Grizzly).

Saturday, September 26, 2009

a solid week

On Monday and Tuesday I rode 40 miles, all at a very good pace. On Monday I rode to Orinda, then Moraga and over Redwood. On Tuesday I rode down Wildcat, over the backside of Papa Bear and Happy Valley and then back to Wildcat. Both rides burned in excess of 2,000 calories -with my newly calibrated power meter. On Monday I had some trouble with the speed readout as it turned out the pickup unit got mangled between the wheel and the chainstay after I had a flat on the Specialized team ride.

On Wednesday I ran 10.5 miles in the hills (i.e. the Montclair-Shepherd Cyn, Loop). On Thursday I ran 7.25 because I did not have time to go longer. I had originally planned to run 10.5 twice. There was a nice symmetry to my plan. Two days of 40 mile rides and 2 days of 10.5 miles running.

Friday I rode on rollers (without the forkstand) for 1:15 and burned a good 1,033 calories in the process. Today I rode 42 miles completing the South Loop of the Grizzly Century. That took 2,122 calories. Tomorrow I want to ride another 40 and then on Monday I will take a rest day.

In case you wonder, I am not training for anything in particular, but I would like to keep my fitness high so I can attempt a long distance cycling event early next year. As long as the weather cooperates -and if anything it is too hot now- I want to try to ride and run as much as I can.

I am still debating whether or not I will sign up for Boston. If I do it will probably be the last time I go there -it is too far really- and three is a good number. On the other hand, I am already stuck with another Lake Placid and so I am not sure I want to add another remote race to my calendar while I should be focusing on distance cycling.

The other problem is that both Placid and Boston coincide with a major cycling event that Alistair will take part in. Boston is on the same date as Sea Otter and LP happens during Nationals. This year I missed Sea Otter, which was a shame, and I only made it to part of Nationals, which was a hassle and quite expensive to boot.

Added on Sunday: rode 60 miles with Alistair. We rode the "fruitstand ride" starting from our house. Added a few sprints here and there and kept a good pace overall. We stopped in Danville to get some fluids and then again in Moraga. Total time was 3:45.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Much needed rest

Yesterday I took the day off. I haven't done that in a while but I really needed it. Last week was pretty hard. I worked late and did a lot of running and riding on top of it.

On Monday I ran 7 miles in the hills. On Tuesday I rode my mountain bike in Redwood Park. Since they closed the East trail I had to go West (longer) out and back. A total of 22.5 miles. I fell over on the steep climb out of of the meadow and wrecked my front brake. I was able to fix it and get back on but now I need new pads.

On Wednesday I rode 1.25 hrs on rollers and I inserted several intervals at 300W. The weather was great and I wanted to go for a ride, but I was too busy to take out time during the day so rollers were my only option.

On Thursday I ran 8.77 in the hills and on Friday I rode 41 mi to the golf course and back. I rode pretty hard and my normalized power (NP) was 251.

Then on Saturday I rode with Team Specialized for about 20 miles. We rode from Larry's house in Fremont up Palomares and back. I had to work pretty hard up the climb and I could feel that I was in need of a rest day.

Some kids rode down to Castro Valley but I decided to take it easy and turn around. That was just fine and I ended up getting a flat when we came out of Niles into Fremont.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Ironman logic

We all know you can't draft in Ironman races. You are supposed to stay 7 meters behind a competitor and when you do enter the "zone" you must pass within 15 seconds. It sounds really good until you do the math. My bike measures 167 cm from the edge of the front wheel to the edge of the back wheel. Add a little safety margin and a bike plus its drafting "rectangle" takes up about 9 meters.

For simplicity's sake let's concentrate on a one loop bike course (not very many of those left). Now take 2,500 competitors, or about 100 less than the most recent Ironman Canada (where there is a one loop course).

2,500 competitors all riding "legally" would take up 22,500 meters or 22.5 km on the road. That is 14 miles of roadway, all filled with racers riding just within the legal boundaries allowed. Assuming the first competitors left the water at 55 minutes, went through transition in 5 minutes and rode 28 mph, that would mean the last competitor could exit the water at 1hr25, take a 5 minute transition and get on their bike.

The whole road would then be filled with a continuous 14 mile train of riders.

The reality of course is a bit different. People do not come out of the water one by one with a nice and constant spacing. At the most recent IM Canada, 2,250 people exited in the first 90 minutes, but they were far from evenly spaced. 1,000 came out at between 1 hr 15 and 1 hr 30. If you study the data you can find many such clusters.

The clustering is part of any North America IM race. 1,000 or more racers enter the bike leg in a space of 15 minutes or less. 1,000 racers need 9 Km (or 5.6 miles) of roadway to sort themselves out. One has to ride 22.4 mph to cover that distance in 15 minutes. Clearly, unless many are forced to wait, it is not possible for all these people to fit in properly and obey the strict no drafting rules set up by the race directors. They simply can't do it.

Indeed what we see in a race is that most mid-packers ride in dense groups. They do not necessarily do so because they want to cheat -although some undoubtedly do- but because they have no alternative. They cannot physically fit into the space available without wasting valuable time. And so we have something analogous to a typical "California freeway" situation.

In California, nearly everyone drives faster than the speed limit, but only a few unlucky souls get tickets. It is not a good situation as it allows the CHP to pick and chose whom to punish. The same, unfortunately, appears to be true for Ironman races. The referees can arbitrarily pick people to give penalties too.

If you are a slow swimmer and a fast biker, you are very likely to get such an undeserved penalty. In Canada I got a "yellow card" for riding over the centerline while trying to pass a group of riders. I did not intend to cross the centerline, but the racers in front of me slowed down on the hill and I had to swerve to avoid crashing into them.

Never mind the fact that some Ironman races are run on open roads and that the rules then specify that the drafting zone behind a car is 35 m (IM rule book). If more than a few cars are on the road, we'd have to stop the race repeatedly to make it legit. In Canada for example, there are often long lines of cars on the "backside" of Richter pass, all trying to get past groups of riders. Many cars are filled with spectators and family members, but there are also trucks and other vehicles on the road. These vehicles are often backed up and forced to drive slowly in long lines.

Ran 7 miles in the hills today. Yesterday I rode on rollers for 1.25 hrs. On Saturday, I ran 6.25 in the hills.

Friday, September 11, 2009


The power graph from IM Canada. Power in Watts is on the right. Speed in kph is the blue graph and reads out on the left. Never mind the high power numbers, the meter was not calibrated. It appears the values are at least 50% too high. Values around 200-230 are more like it. I would expect the first 50 Km to hover around 220-230 based on previous experience -with a calibrated meter that is.

I rode 36.56 km or 22.72 miles in hour 1. Hour 2 was at 69.17 km or 42.98 miles. Hour 3 at 96.87 or 60.19 miles. Hour 4 was 126.78 or mile 78.78. Hour 5 at 153.71 or 95.51 miles (speed dropped to 19.1). The total bike was 5:49:50.

The altitude profile is in green. You can see Richter (the first climb) and Yellow Lake (the second one). You can also see KM 120 where special needs was. Both speed and power decrease over time and you can see that the drop on the "backside" of Richter is for real.

I calculated a moving average of power (the black line) to make the drop more obvious. You can also see some recovery on the Yellow Lake climb (after I ate). Power increases for a while as expected because the course climbs towards Yellow Lake. But overall power output stays below the initial segment.

Power drops to zero on the descents or when I stop pedaling.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ironman won't die

Just as I made up my mind not to compete in Ironman again, I received an email from the BAF indicating they had secured 10 slots for the 2010 Ironman Lake Placid. The email also asked about what hotel I would prefer to stay at. So much for that...

And here is another Ironman tidbit. I just downloaded the power file from Canada and it confirmed my suspicions regarding not eating enough. One can clearly see how my power drops as the race goes on. With a very slight uptick some 10-15 minutes after the 120 KM mark, where special needs was located. There I grabbed a bagel and drank a Red Bull, and shortly afterwards I noticed how easy the climb to Yellow Lake was. I was cruising at a fairly good clip for about half an hour or so, and then the power and speed drop returned in force.

I remember how sluggish I felt once I crested the first climb and had to ride to Twin Lakes. Then further declines as I rode along Skaha and into Penticton. There were no more aid stations along the way, and I was running really low on energy.

I was looking at some endurance cycling events and the 12/24 hours at Davis (in May) looked really appealing. Something I ought to try. The 24 hours is a RAAM qualifier to boot. The only drawback here is that one needs a crew, and the entry fee for RAAM is a pretty hefty expense too. Not that I feel ready for RAAM, mind you. Maybe RAW, a 1,000 miles-- if I felt really brave. But RAAM is a bit too much for now.

Today I rode 40 miles in the hills. Good speed too.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Ironman OD

It's official. I need a new challenge. I am OD'd on Ironman. This year's poor results clearly show that it is time to find another fitness goal. All in all I am quite happy with my triathlon/Ironman experience. I (almost) reached all of my major goals and the differences are for all practical purposes, in the noise.

My first and most far-fetched goal was to qualify for Hawaii. I never seriously thought I could make it given how poor a swimmer (and runner) I was, but I nonetheless managed to get tantalizingly close. In Canada in 2006 I came to within 4 minutes or one slot, and if that isn't in the noise, what is? But in all fairness, someone who swims as slowly as I do is not really a top 5% performer in triathlon. So it is just as well. I probably would have been dropped in Kona.

Furthermore, while it used to be fairly easy to get in (in the nineties it was trivial), it is getting harder each year as more competitors enter and more races are competing for precious spots. So in essence I am losing ground when it comes to Hawaii. My best chance was probably Canada '06 and it seems unlikely another chance will materialize unless I dramatically reduce my swim time. And that is not something I want to concentrate on now.

My second, and perhaps more realistic goal was to improve in a significant way over time and hopefully reach a finishing time that read 10:something. I consider that goal met, even though my true best finishing time was 11:04:55. We'll call it a rounding error. What matters most here is that I performed consistently and got better over time.

I managed to solve nearly all my problems (and if you add in Canada of '09, even my swim eventually budged) and that is great. It shows my training work formulas work and I am on the right path. It also shows that improvement in the over-50 age group is possible. The fact that I set a PR in the Boston marathon this year further confirms that the trend is real and durable.

So now I want to concentrate on something I really like. Something that does not involve swimming and may not even involve much running. Something I would do if I had a chance to pick what I genuinely like best, i.e. cycling. I will find a endurance challenge in cycling and concentrate on that for 2010.

My "theoretically" best ironman. These are actual times:
Swim 1:18:33 (Canada 09)
T1 2:47 (Switzerland 06)
Bike 5:21:04 (Arizona 08)
T2 2:59 (Arizona 08)
Run 4:00:34 (Canada 07)
Total: 10:45:57

Ironically that would have been enough for a top 10 finish and a slot for Hawaii in Canada 09!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Last swim at the pool

I swam 1.25 miles today. It was better but far from perfect. I can breathe on both sides now and breathe on alternate strokes, but I still run out of air. But my balance is better and I get more air so I think it is only a matter of time and practice now.

Although my swim time improved significantly in Canada, and a 1:15 now looks feasible, I have decided to take a break from triathlons and ironman. I am looking for a new challenge. So forthwith I canceled my pool membership. It no longer makes sense. The kids never really want to go to the pool and I won't be swimming much in the near future so why pay the monthly dues? Maybe if we all take a break we'll feel better about it and want to do it again at some time in the future?

My bee sting is recovering nicely and I think I really know how to deal with these issues now. That is quite a relief because having a swollen limb for 5-10 days is both unpleasant and quite incapacitating. Hopefully that will no longer happen.

I plan to concentrate on distance cycling in the near future. I rode several times since the ironman. Last Wednesday I rode 23, then on Sat I rode 40, on Sunday I wanted to do 40 but had to stop at 33, and yesterday I rode another 40. All going very well and I am in good shape. I will try to build up a road bike and go to some races before the season ends or maybe try a double century somewhere? Who knows?

Then if things work out, maybe a cross country trip is the stars?

Monday, September 7, 2009

Bee stings

On Sunday, while I was descending at fairly high speed, a yellow jacket ended up in the space between my thumb and my index finger and being stuck there, stung me. The sting went right through the glove. I am moderately allergic to bee stings and the prospect of spending another week with a swollen hand caused me a lot of concern.

As a kid I got stung many times but I never developed an allergy. Nobody in my family is allergic to anything and so it never occurred to me that I might one day become a victim. That day happened more than ten years ago when I got stung on the upper lip while on a bike ride. My lip turned into a bright red, ready-to-burst sausage that disfigured my face for almost two weeks. Since then I have gotten stung in my right arm once, resulting in an equally grotesquely swollen tube that kept me out of circulation for another ten days.

Then one day, something remarkable happened. I got stung in the eyelid while at the SJ international triathlon. Thinking my race was over I hurried to the transition to get help. However, it took quite a while for me to get there and by the time I did I had all but forgotten about the sting. I went through transition and ran a 10K without ever thinking about the bee again. I finished, took a shower, got dressed and was walking though the remnants of the expo when I suddenly noticed that there appeared to be a curtain hanging in front of my eye. It was strange. At first I did not know what was happening.

And sure enough, within 10 minutes, my eye was swollen shut. It was as if the whole reaction had been delayed for an hour or more, while I finished the race. Now however it was in full swing as if the clock had been reset. The swelling lasted for 5 days.

Taking some lessons from that episode I knew that if I removed the offending insect carefully and kept riding, the reaction would be postponed. I would get home in time to do something about it.

The problem was that soon afterwards my left crankarm came loose and I could no longer ride. After some manual adjusting I made it to a Round Table pizza place where I could call for help. They also had a soda machine there that dispensed ice. I used it to keep my hand cold and elevated until my ride arrived. The swelling was moderate and nicely under control, and the pain was less too.

When I got home I kept the hand elevated and applied many layers of a strong (prescription) steroid ointment. I put the hand in a glove to keep the ointment from rubbing off. I also took two Benadryl. And I am happy to say the remedy worked like a charm.

Today I have a kidney-bean-size swelling with some very mild edema in the surrounding tissue (but not much). The "bean" itches a bit but nothing dramatic. One can see that the reaction is still abnormal because no red elevated spot formed (that I take to be the hallmark of a normal sting reaction). Instead the sting site is hard to see and somewhat lost in the surrounding tissue swelling. But the result is spectacular to say the least. I think I finally found a way to deal with this.

Here are my recommendations (for mild allergies--no respiratory symptoms):
-carefully remove the stinger and poison sack --do not squeeze
-if away from help, keep your exercise level high. The adrenaline will postpone the reaction. I.e. don't stand around.
-as soon as possible, apply ice and keep the limb cold and elevated. The ice will cause vasostriction which will prevent edema and prevent uptake of the poison.
-as soon as possible, apply steroid ointment and reapply often. Keep area cold until you can get medication.
-take antihistamines.

I have followed these procedures twice now and the results have been encouraging, preventing major swelling from happening and keeping symptoms under control.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Looking for a new challenge

I was reminded this morning of the Cal triathlete who put his tribike up for sale, "so he would not be tempted to do another asphalt triathlon." He was going to focus on XTerra events instead. I too am yearning for a new challenge. Ironman is all good fun but it is expensive. Now that my immediate family members are no longer interested in joining me there, it is inconvenient too.

Speaking of triathlon, the event I enjoy the most is the bike. Biking is my favorite sport and it is the one thing I truly enjoy doing at all times. Although I have come to like running better than before, the fact that I sweat so much makes running a loss less enjoyable for me. To say nothing of being prone to aches and pains.

As for swimming, I have to admit, it is rather boring. I am not very good at it, and I do not seem to improve much. It is somewhat ironic that I say that at this point, now that I just made a significant step in the right direction. The truth is I do like open water swimming (although maybe not with 2,000 of my best friends), but there are few opportunities for it where I live.

Lake Temescal is the best option, but there you have to pay and you have to swim in a small rectangle under the watchful eye of aspiring life-guards who always feel the need to make one comment or another. The other issue with Temescal is that the water is murky and foul tasting. Not ideal. Anza is close by too, but Anza is pretty much the same story if not worse. It tends to get very crowded to boot.

I feel I can live without swimming, but I have been thinking about the Boston marathon. The signup starts next week and I am not sure whether or not I should do it. It too is rather expensive and inconvenient -although I can still persuade the kids to come-, but I had committed to run three and this would be my third one. Three is a nice number. You could argue I should do 12 ironman races, but 11 is quite good too, and maybe I should have stopped at 10?

This morning I was looking to find out more info about the Great California Landrush. It is a two day double double century from SF to LA, that I did in 1990 or 91 and enjoyed greatly. It was organized by a group in Glendale called Wandervogel and they did a great job supporting it. Unfortunately, they stopped doing it in 1997 and nobody picked up on it.

I would love to ride across America. It is something that always intrigued me. I used to follow RAAM closely and dreamed about doing it one day. But the logistics are too complex. Logistics is one of my least favorite things and I am very poor at it. Organizing a RAAM entry would not work for me.

Last year I toyed with the idea of riding across the country with Alistair. Then I thought about crossing California (shorter and less logistics). But neither materialized and I ended up doing another Ironman instead; even though I had vowed to take a year off.

After meeting Seth in Penticton and discussing a major event like riding across America with him, my interest is re-awakened. It is something I would love to try. Another friend of mine is doing an organized trek across country right now, but his takes 45 days and that is not something I can afford to do. Furthermore I am not sure I would like it, the speed is too slow for me and there is no competitive angle. There needs to be a goal of sorts, a time limit, a cutoff, something.

That was what was fun about the Landrush. You could do it leisurely -although you had to make the flight on day two, but you could also aim for the "brevet" cutoffs. And although I did not sign up for those -I was unaware of these beforehand-, I did make all of them easily. And that made it fun!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Post-mortem: a basic mistake in Penticton

When Alberto Contador cracked on the Mont Ventoux and lost Paris-Nice, he said he forgot to eat enough during the race. The papers had a field day. An experienced racer like Contador falling for a beginner's mistake. But it is more common than you think. Johan Bruyneel describes one instance where Lance almost lost the Tour because he ran out of energy-- I am sure there were more-. The reason: Lance had forgotten to eat while chasing Ullrich.

Granted I am not Armstrong or Contador, but I do have a lot of experience with endurance racing. Running out of energy for lack of food is a beginner's mistake. Not one you should make after 10 ironman races. Furthermore, eating during Ironman is easier than during the Tour, where an attack at the feed zone may distract riders. In Ironman, all you have to do is to make a plan and stick to it.

Unfortunately, I did not make plan for either race in 2009 and the results were catastrophic.

First, I have to admit that my 2009 Ironman season was plagued with motivational issues. You could say my heart wasn't in it. There are various reasons but I really did not want to go to Placid, and after returning and realizing how much money I spent there, I did not want to go to Canada either. I ended up going to both.

Placid I did because I felt compelled to help the BAF; Canada for old time's sake. Neither was good motivation. I sabotaged my chances at success, maybe not consciously, but sabotaging I did.

If you read this blog you know about Placid. I did not train enough and I paid for it. I had cramps on the bike and I was exhausted riding into transition. Then I had more cramps on the run and I ended up finishing in 12:16, my time worst ever. It is obvious training and lack of motivation was to blame. I did only a few long rides before the race and I trained 87 hours in the 8 weeks prior to it, compared to 111 for a "normal" race. It wasn't enough. But what about Canada?

First, I thought I did not have enough time to recover from Placid. That seemed to make sense except for a few bothersome observations. It all came to a head last night when someone remarked that they could not understand how I could ride hard three days later and feel fine. I had to admit, it bothered me too. And so did these:

One, I felt good prior to the race and my swim was better. Swimming normally takes it out of me but here I felt fine.

Two, I rode well on the bike and although I experienced periods of no power, these were followed by strong sections where the power magically returned. When I look back, the "strong sections" happened shortly after I ate something. The best example was Special Needs at KM 120. I was depleted going in but shortly afterwards I was riding 20+ mph uphill to Yellow Lake. Shortly after hitting the top, I was once again depleted. Since there was no more chance to eat, I suffered all the way home.

Three, no cramps. Unlike what most people think, cramps have little to do with dehydration (I and many others were severely dehydrated in Penticton), but cramps are the sure indicator of inadequate training. I had leg cramps in Placid and it started on the bike. Whenever I have cramps on the bike at around mile 85, it is because I rode hard but did not train enough. Here, no cramps, just empty.

Four, the Pepsi on the run tasted fabulous. I normally only drink cola in the last third of the marathon, but now it looked so good at mile 3. And the taste !! Better than a vintage Mouton Rothschild. I could not stay away from it. Taste, like all senses is very context dependent and when something ordinary tastes better than a three star Michelin restaurant, it is a sure indication that your body is in desperate need of it.

Four, I was able to ride yesterday with Alistair and I rode well and felt strong. Clearly I was fully recovered and such a speedy recovery is the hallmark of good training. Today I ran and to prove my point, I ran 10.5 in the hills, in the heat, and at a good clip. All without problems, clearly I am recovered. Every time you recover quickly it means you were well trained. Placid was good training.

This morning, I finally sat down and wrote out a detailed race report. I thought about every section and what happened. And then it occurred to me that I was "missing" 700-800 calories. Try as I may I could not find them. Let me explain.

I normally fill 2 gel flasks with gels and consume those on the bike. One flask is 450-500 calories.

This time, I left my flasks at home. I did not want to buy new ones, as I felt I already overspent by a large margin. So I took a few gels in a ziploc bag. I actually took 3 and a Clif bar. That is 500 calories versus 900-1,000.

Then I dropped my bag on McClean and had to go back for it. Not only did I lose time this way, I also got a yellow card for crossing the midline. It put me on edge.

As a result I did not want to go fishing for the baggie again for fear I would lose it or break another rule. I ended up eating 2 gels plus whatever gels I could pick up. That is about 7-8 short. The one's I pick up don't really count as I usually pick up gels in addition to my flasks anyways.

There is my 20 minutes on the bike. And another 5 in transition where I sat depleted and dazed wondering what was wrong with me.

I am not sure how much I lost on the run because of no food. Normally running is a free-fatty-acid affair and sugar does not matter much. Then there is also the heat. However, I have run when I was tired in the heat before and I always get the marathon done in 4:30-4:35 (even with cramps and what have you). When I feel fine, I run a 4:00 to 4:10.

Five is a bit excessive. I also noticed that there were a few sections, and one near the end, where I was able to run well. Once again these were closely associated with calorie intake (in this case, plenty of Pepsi).

My diagnosis: IM Canada was a failure because I "forgot" to eat.