16 July 2012

Tick ... Tick ... BOOM

The end of May and beginning of June were pretty awesome for me, fitness-wise. I had a good run at BURN, and just a week later pulled out 100 miles on the road at this year's Fletcher Flyer. And I felt good doing it.

Since then, though, things have been kind of up and down. Summer hit hard, and quick, and my fitness and -- more importantly -- my mental state, have suffered. I bombed out of a couple of workouts a few weeks back, unable to drag myself through in the heat and humidity, and though I never didn't want to ride, I really didn't want to ride hard.

I was pretty close to pulling the plug on the Iron Mountain 100k -- it's one of the harder races I've done, and my heart just wasn't in it. But last year's stunner earned me a free entry this year, so I had nothing to lose -- and I really didn't want to go to Wausau cold, without a race in 2 months. The deal was further sealed on a Liberty ride a few weeks back, when I found out Jamie was planning to go to Damascus as well, and we could share the logistics.

So I was, at the very least, resigned to lining up on Sunday morning, if not looking forward to it. But then I had a great workout last Thursday, pushing hard up Bearwallow, and things started to look up ... that is, until I called SRAM on Friday afternoon.

I began to experience shifting problems last weekend at the Bracken Mountain volunteer appreciation day -- I just couldn't get my drivetrain to set up in a good climbing gear, as the steep slopes of Bracken exposed. I tried swapping some things around, but to no avail -- I thought it was me, but as it turns out, I may have stumbled my way into a sometime-problem that SRAM corrects as needed. When I asked the customer service guy if I could ride this weekend, his response was telling: "Well ..."

I tried to get things to settle in on Saturday's warmup ride, and felt comfortable enough that Sunday was a go, despite some niggling worry. One more change that was sure to correct, and off to the races ...

... where things were just not right. Every pedal stroke produced a pronounced tick in the rear, and every couple of revolutions sounded as if my cassette might explode. Add to that the new-chain packing grease that hadn't quite cleaned off all the way, producing rancid chain suck, and the propensity of the derailleur to throw my chain, and you begin to get a sense of how my day went -- from the moment we crossed the road from the Creeper to the trail, I was on the defensive, with 5 more hours to go.

To be fair, it wasn't all bad. We had cloud cover this year, more than in the past, and a cool breeze made the central climbs more bearable. Jamie and I rode together early, until I admitted to him that I was in a bad place and asked him to leave me to myself. We were never far apart, though, and I would see him from time to time -- that is, until my drivetrain puked again, and he would ride away. I had a lot of fun on the downhills, pleasantly surprised at my new, more narrow, tire set-up, and once I stopped feeling sorry for myself at about the 3-hour mark, I kind of started to feel good. In fact, my best hour was probably between 4:30 and 5:30, and I was pleasantly surprised at how well I rode some of the uphills.

My goal became to get as close to a 5:30 finish as I could, as that would be a decent barometer of my fitness heading into W24. Particularly as this year had a bit more soft sand on the long gravel, and so was a slower course, anything I could do to be close would be a confidence boost. And things were looking decent, despite the drivetrain problems ... right up until the very top of the very last climb. I hadn't even begun to drop, had just barely crested the knoll, and hissssss ... a small, sharp rock that I never even saw, grabbed my rear wheel and caused a small puncture. To be fair, I was drilling it to escape the rider coming up the switchbacks behind me, and so wasn't being as careful as I might have been otherwise, but still -- the gift I received last year was now being repaid. I stopped four times on the way down to add CO2, got passed by the rider on the switchbacks, and rolled in at 5:42 ... having lost a top-10 finish on the last descent and finishing just barely 30 seconds ahead of the next rider coming down.

Considering that I thought I was fighting for a top-15 finish, I'm not too disappointed. Worried, yes -- that drivetrain needs to be fixed, quickly. But I suppose it's part and parcel for this time of year -- bike and body have been put through the ringer since February, and things are starting to break down -- I just hope I can pull it all together in time for a good showing in two weeks. I'm almost afraid to admit that I felt good at the end yesterday -- the clock is ticking on this season, and I'd love to end it with a bang!

Mad props to Jamie, by the way -- he pulled out a great ride despite a tire that didn't want to seal on Saturday evening and a small crash heading into aid station 2!

06 July 2012

Ostensibly Alsatian

There's a lot of ambiguity when it comes to my heritage. Some things we know: The first Strout in the New World, Christopher, late of Cornwall, England, arrived in the Americas sometime before 1680, the year he married Sarah Pike (Picke). (There's good evidence that he was conceived out of wedlock around the Christmas/Yule celebration in 1630, and later the legend is that he was shipwrecked here near Cape Cod and decided to stay.) We know my paternal great-grandmother was from Sweden. My Dad's mom was a card-carrying member of the DAR. On my Mom's side, we have another sea captain, this time from the Canary Islands, and her father's family were undoubtedly Scots. And there's no question that the Strout name shows up many, many times in the OR -- the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, mainly on the Union side.

Beyond that, though, my ancestry is made up of quite a bit of speculation and tradition. There's the famous Southern general on my Mom's side. The even-more famous explorer on my Dad's. The Native American that no one talks about. The mysteries surrounding grave sites. The speculation about battling in-laws and cousins. Heck, if you start to follow along some stories too closely, there's actually a better-than-even chance that somewhere along the way, my forebears from both sides of the family actually knew each other, and may have even intermarried!

Despite that, spending so much time in and around Chicago, I was always jealous of my friends' ethnicities. That city is such an amazing melting pot of cultures, and in many ways the annual celebrations of various holidays formed a tapestry of color that at once highlighted their diversity and illustrated their commonalities. I mean really, where else but maybe New York would you experience Día de los Muertos, Halloween, Dzień Wszystkich Świętych/Dzien Zaduszny and other All Saints Day/All Souls Day customs from the Old and New Worlds all in the course of a couple of days of riding to and from work? We had holiday traditions, but they were familial, not cultural. I grew up describing myself as "Heinz 57" -- so many of my friends were just one or two generations "off the boat," whereas I had roots dating back to the Colonies. How much more "American" can you get? But then how do you define "traditional, historical American" culture?

One thing we're sort-of sure of: The origins of our family name, going way back in history, were probably Alsatian. The city we now know as Strasbourg, France, was settled nearly 2,025 years ago, and though the Romans first called it Argentoratum, by the ninth century is was already documented as Strazburg in the local language. Stratisburgum and Strateburgus in Latin later became Strossburi in Alsatian and Straßburg in German; the geneologist who was hired a couple of years back to research the family seems to think that's where our name came from: Strout is distantly related to Strass, Stross, Strauss and other permutations stemming from Strossburi.

The reason I bring this up is because things are about to get pretty interesting in the Tour de France. Saturday's stage skirts Région Alsace and stays in neighboring Lorraine, but still manages to take in the lumps that make up the Vosges mountains with this year's first summit finish. Following on the heels of Friday's fiasco just 25km from the finish in Metz, the shakedown is set to begin -- and I can guarantee the peloton will not be caught out with these "medium mountains" like they were in 2001.

That was the year Kim and I first experienced France -- in fact, Strasbourg was our gateway on our tour following le Tour. I experienced my first mountain climb that summer in les Vosges (being passed uphill on the the Cat. 3 Col du Kreuzweg by rotund men sporting rail-thin legs and smoking cigarettes!) -- and, more importantly, my first mountain descent. What was most incredible to me, though, was the moment we ducked into a side street in the old city, and I realized a lot of the locals looked just like me!

Now, admittedly, it was probably my mind playing tricks. But after a lifetime of being able to identify my classmates' and coworkers' heritages based on their looks, this was the first time I felt like if I looked in a mirror, I belonged. (Combine that with my wife's more-recent German heritage, and yes -- my children look as if they should be named Liesl and Friedrich.)

Perhaps that's why I've taken so lovingly to my adopted hometown in the Appalachians. The Vosges, although geologically very different, look very similar to these mountains here -- in fact, the range is known as "The Blue Line," similar to our own "Blue Ridge." (Though the nickname was political in nature at first -- the Vosges forms a geographic barrier between France and Germany -- it has since become much less divisive.) The densely forested hillsides give way to rounded mountaintops, dotted throughout with balds. The roads are twisty, the valleys narrow. It is a beautiful landscape, and if the architecture here were a bit more medieval, you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference.

(Funnily enough, a case can be made that it's from both sides of the family: This area was heavily settled by Scots, as it is similar to the Highlands of their native land. In fact, the clan bearing my family's name is one of the largest at each year's Highland Games at Grandfather Mountain!)

Whatever the case may be -- whether my ancestry does, in fact, begin in the Vosges, it's going to be fun watching the Tour in the next few days. Not only have I been there, and know what that area is like, I've found a home that is very similar, and I can't wait to get out and find my own version of the Cat. 3 Col de Grosse Pierre or the Cat. 1 La Planche des Belles Filles -- though, thankfully, the history here isn't quite so graphic, as I doubt any of the mountains in Western North Carolina were named after the massacre of the valley women by the Vikings in the 15th Century!

05 July 2012

Unplanned American dream

I'll be the first to admit: I'm not much of a life planner. As a kid, I never sat down and mapped out what I wanted to do with myself -- really, the only dream I ever had was to become a bike racer.

So if you had told me 10 years ago -- or 5, or even 3 -- that I would enjoy an Independence Day scripted straight out of a 1950s Hollywood studio, I'm not sure I would have believed you. But strangely enough, that's exactly what yesterday was like.

I might have gone off track early, what with a breakfast of French toast and French-press coffee, but we turned it around pretty quickly. Besides, coffee is the drink of the American Revolution, though I should have drank it from a percolator ... Other than that, I'm not sure how much more quintessential my July 4 could have been -- and I wouldn't have it any other way!

We started off with a parade -- yes, we were in it! It was pretty neat walking down the Main Street in our adopted home town in front of hundreds of people, and Kate waved her flag the whole way. The morning was capped off by an ice cream social on the courthouse lawn!

After an extended nap time (and a ride), we headed to Kate's teacher's place for an honest-to-goodness Western North Carolina barbecue in an open-sided barn -- complete with guitars, a banjo, a fiddle, a dulcimer, two renditions of "Rocky Top," an hour of target shooting in the pasture and two guys with bullet-band tattoos, all in the foothills just outside the Pisgah National Forest.

Kate and Daniel wasted no time getting in the pool -- yes, those are my kids splashing around in their underwear!

Daniel made quite the impression on folks!

This was the big smoker -- one of two that had been going for days. It opened with a crank on the back -- and what you see here is what's left after the first round of serving nearly 50 people! These were the most amazing ribs we've ever had!

03 July 2012

Will you be able to pull out in time?

I was standing in our kitchen the other night. It was 7:15 p.m. and we had just put the kids to bed. I looked at Kim and started to say something, and then I realized: I had no idea what I meant to say.

Instead, I just sort of groaned. "I haven't been this bodily tired in a long, long time," I said.

As it turns out, it's been a year.

Training and racing is a balancing act. The key is to balance just enough rest to counteract the harm we inflict upon ourselves -- training tears you down, resting builds you up. That said, it requires overcompensation to realize any gains -- it's not enough to train to the level you're at; rather, you need to reach further. And reaching further hurts.

June 2012 parallels June 2011: In the preparation for a couple of big July events, I spent each June beating myself up on the bike. And now, blessedly, I'm rebuilding. This week is a solid block of rest; next week I do a couple of workouts and a race; and then it's just 2 weeks out from the next 24. Thankfully my lead-in this year is a bit of vacation instead of double trade-show duty -- even so, Wausau will take effort, and I know it.

Am I ready? I don't know. I feel more exhausted this year, but that could be a good thing. What worries me is that I've overtrained instead of just overreached, and this week of rest won't quite be enough. We'll see in a couple of days, but for right now I think I'll be alright. I'm in a funny place, in that I really want to be out on my bike, but I just don't want to go hard. I'll take that as a good sign ... and hope my legs want to turn in anger when I need them.

And that other night? In bed by 7:45. Last night was 8:15. We think the kids may be getting sick, so I'll try to avoid that fate for myself; in the meantime, I'm banking as much as I can. The lunch ride today felt pretty OK, and darn if I didn't think about pushing a bit up Bearwallow ...