August 31, 2007

It's Not So Much The Heat....

When it's 95 degrees out and you are sick with a fever, it's tough to tell which part is making you sweat.

I woke up this morning and figured I was sweating because my place was so hot. After all, it gets like a sauna in here during the summer. The hardwood floors might as well be lava rocks. As if that's not enough, the ceiling fan in my bedroom suddenly konked out earlier this week. I keep pressing the on button only to hear the engine desperately trying to whirr itself alive, but the blades just sit there in a motionless stupor.

This unbearable temperature and broken fan would normally explain all the sweating. But who ever said anything about normal. We've got to add on the fact that Catherine's body emits a furnace-like heat when she sleeps. I nearly singe my body on her scorching skin every time she rolls over and practically pushes me off the bed (which she does every night because she's a bed hog, though she'll undoubtedly deny it).

So, as I was saying, when I woke up this morning it was tough to tell why I was drenched in sweat. Eventually I squished myself out of bed and crept out to the couch to catch a little of my morning SportsCenter. Somewhere between Beckham spraining his ACL and Michael Vick shooting puppies, I decided to go out for a bike ride.

For some reason I convinced myself that a bike ride would make me feel good. It would cool me off and get my blood flowing. So I got myself all saddled up, carried my bike outside, straddled my ride and pedaled away.

The first part of any morning bike ride is always tough for me. My body isn't warmed up and my legs are tired. I usually creep along at a pretty slow pace for the first five minutes, which is exactly what I did today. I meandered my way through the residential streets. Up roads and down avenues. Past houses and mansions and palatial estates. Ten minutes later I realized my legs had not warmed up and my body had not stopped sweating.

I turned the corner and began a nice two mile downhill; the road that usually marks the end of warm-up and the beginning of get-in-the-zone-and-ride. As I started down the street, I noticed my legs didn't feel like pushing. I was coasting. Moreso, I was still sweating.

I could feel my body getting hotter. I could sense my legs getting tighter and my mind was definitely not excited to be out here.

I made an executive decision to call it quits and after a few quick turns, got myself back home. It was a thirty minute ride with an average pace of a whopping 9 miles an hour.

I'm sitting on the couch right now. It is still hot as hell outside. There's a cool breeze blowing through the window, but that doesn't seem to be doing much. I'm sweating from every pour in my body. My head feels hot, my body feels tired. It's gotta be a fever, right?

Then again, maybe all I need is a short run.

August 29, 2007

Santa Barbara Triathlon Race Report - or - The Chairpants 40

I used to think that I wanted to race the Santa Barbara Triathlon. I also used to think I wanted to be a veterinarian. Apparently I was wrong on both counts.

So many people from the LA Tri Club have ranted and raved about the Santa Barbara Tri, somehow I got it into my head that it would be a fun, easy race. So in 2002 I signed up for the darn thing. However, as race day approached, I didn't really have the get-up and go to get there, so I didn't bother to get up nor go.

I signed up again in 2003, probably as revenge for the 2002 debacle. But, again, I didn't do it. I think my legs were too tired from having done Vineman one month earlier. Mostly, though, I think I finally realized that I had no desire to do the race. Enough was enough. I had done my good deed by donating my money to the Santa Barbara Triathlon fund and needn't make that investment again.

Fast forward to 2007 and my dear girlfriend Catherine states somewhat unabashedly that Santa Barbara is one race she really wants to do. Great, I say. Have fun. Let me know how it goes.

With me clearly not racing, Catherine went on a recruiting mission to wrangle in some other suckers. Lo and behold, our friend Chris took the bait and signed up. I was fine in my role as a spectator. After all, I've got my big SOS race two weeks after Santa Barbara, there's no sense in tiring out my legs. Besides, I don't want to do the race anyway.

Somewhere along the way, though, I too got suckered in. Catherine and her wily ways somehow managed to lure me in during a weak moment. One minute all was status quo and the next thing I know I had committed to being part of a relay. Though I'm not really sure how it happened, it seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, being one leg of a relay isn't really doing the race, is it?

Wendy (Chris' wife) was going to do the swim and my friend Paul was going to do the bike. Me, apparently I'm the runner. We called ourselves The Chairpants 40, mostly because we all turned 40 this year. Also because my friend Paul came up with the concept of the Chairpants - a pair of pants with a built in chair. Just when you thought everything had been done to promote laziness, along comes the Chairpants. Brilliant, eh?

The Chairpants 40. We were rockin and ready to go.

Fast forward again to the week before the race and envision me talking on the phone to my good friend Paul as he tells me he's got a pinched nerve in his neck and can't ride a bike. Envision even further the subtle sounds of Catherine coughing and sniffling in the background as she suffers a losing battle with sickness.

Paul's out, Catherine's out. And here I am driving up to Santa Barbara so I can do the bike-run of the Santa Barbara Triathlon while my girlfriend - the girlfriend who wanted to do the race in the first place, the girlfriend who convinced me to do it as a relay - that girlfriend would now just be acting as a spectator.

Will this race never leave me be?!

I have heard many things about the Santa Barbara course, many of which have included such pleasing words as "beautiful," "pretty" and "fun." I've stretched every sinew of my memory and can't recall anybody every harping on words such as "hilly," "horrendously difficult" and "good luck, sucker."

Welcome to the Santa Barbara Triathlon.

SWIM
the day's swim challenges:
* not much, especially since I didn't do the swim
* had I done the swim, I probably would've said something obnoxious about the frigidly cold water


I have to admit, I'm really darn glad I didn't do the swim at this race. Sure the water was as flat as an english muffin (not quite a pancake, it still had a few nooks and crannies), but it was as brutally cold as my first girlfriend. Wendy, however, the skillful swimmer of The Chairpants 40, is not one to complain. So she didn't. God bless her soul.

As I waited in the warmth of the transition area, blanketed by the anxiety-ridden nervousness of all the other relay racers who seemed to be taking this a little too seriously, Wendy swam herself silly out in the arctic-like waters.

After emerging from the frozen tundra, she then hustled up the longer-than-necessary strip of sand to get to transition where I stood lazily leaning on my bike. I took the timing chip off of her ankle because no doubt her fingers were frozen stiff, then gave her a hug of congratulations as I meandered off onto my bike ride.

BIKE
the day's bike challenges
* higher than desired heart rate
* sorer than desired back
* hillier than desired course

The moment that I hopped on my bike, I realized that my lassaiz-faire attitude towards this race made me forget that warming up my legs pre-race might be a good idea. Oops. Knowing that I really didn't want to tear any muscles, I tried to keep my heart rate low in the beginning. Unfortunately that didn't work out exactly as planned.

Don't believe what anybody else tells you, the Santa Barbara bike course is challenging. It is a 34 mile out-and-back ride jammed with enough surprises to tire you out. The first 9 miles of the ride are a steady uphill. It's the type of uphill that gets you frustrated because you think you should be going faster. And so you push a little harder until you realize your heart rate monitor is flashing "danger will robinson" warnings. And then just as the frustration begins to subside, all of the sudden you hit a steeper hill that you have to climb. In retrospect, it seems kind of like the Chinese Water Torture of bike routes.

The roads were packed for me during this first part of the ride, including a few people who really didn't understand the basics of triathlon etiquette - like don't crash into me. I tried my hardest to keep a steady pace as I swerved in and out of the bike traffic. Surge and slow, I tried to avoid the random movements of other riders. And every time I looked at my watch, I realized my heart-rate was far past the lactate threshold and quickly approaching the hamstring-cramp zone. I struggled to keep my breathing smooth but it was a difficult task.

Riders were all over the road like it was the Memorial Day Parade and we were the Short Bus Junior High Biking Band. There was even one putz, fully decked out in an aero helmet, one piece racing suit and disc wheel, who wasn't even registered for the race. He was just going for a bike ride and trying to motivate his girlfriend who actually was racing - and clearly wasn't biking up to his standards.

So he'd be plodding along in his aero kit at about 10 mph, stopping, starting, slowing, surging and weaving all across the road, causing other racers to stop, start, slow, swerve, surge and curse, all the while telling his little chicky to pick up the pace. How about this, Mr Aero-Schmuck, how about you take your sorry ass to the transition area and stop violating about fourteen pages of the triathlon rule book. And by the way, do you really need a disc wheel and aero helmet to go 10 mph?!

After a few miles of this I had enough, so I surged past Aero guy and jammed down the rapid descent of El Torro Canyon.

The second 9 miles of the bike ride are almost flat, but not really. Still a steady uphill, this second part of the course becomes a bit more deceivingly frustrating as you battle the oncoming headwind. I don't like headwinds and this one was no different. I tried to stay relaxed and steady and remind myself that I didn't need to go hard. I did this while I continually pushed myself harder. Sometimes I'm a bad listener.

Soon enough I got to the turnaround loop. Once you manage to make your way up the 12% climb in the middle of the loop, a climb that would actually be fairly pretty had you not been so focused on gasping out a lung, you find yourself back onto the straight-away, this time with a tailwind.

Riding the tailwind was a blast. Of course, I always forget that these yeee-haa moments usually lead to bad things. In this case, the bad thing was the El Torro Canyon climb at mile 24 that pretty much sucks the manhood right out of you, one pedal rotation at a time.

Torro Canyon is about a mile and a half long and steep. S.T.E.E.P. I almost wish I had brought cramp-ons. It's that type of steep.

I knew this one was going to hurt, so I started the climb at a slow, steady pace and just tried to keep picking it up as I moved up the mountain. Halfway up the hill my legs were burning like they were on fire. However, I kept passing people so apparently I was doing something right. With each biker I passed, I managed to find something in me to push me harder - as if I sucked the energy out of them to fuel myself. Whatever, it worked.

By the time I got to the top of the climb, I felt great. Almost energized in a silly sort of way. Considering that I knew the rest of the way home was mostly downhill, I dropped down into my aerobars and flicked on the turbo switch.

I think I actually smiled as I sailed through the turns, zipping by other riders as if they were standing still. And when I jammed into transition and heard the surprising shouts of Wendy and Catherine, amazed that I had biked the course so quickly, I was feeling pretty good and ready for a run.

Bring it on.

RUN
the day's run challenges
* a couple of calves that didn't agree with me
* nausea from sugar-overload

* enough with the Gatorade already


I knew that I was going too quickly the moment I started running. But, Goddammit, my legs were feeling good and I wasn't about to waste the moment. Moving along at about an 8 minute mile, I latched on to a woman who seemed super-fit and somehow got it in my head that I would have her pace me for the next 10 miles.

We struck up a nice friendly conversation as we ran side-by-side and soon enough we passed the one mile mark. It was right about this time that reality sunk in for me - when both my mind and my body realized they couldn't yet handle this pace. Just as I dropped back from her and she spirited off into the distance, my calves morphed into concrete slabs.

SHIT! I screamed as I stopped by the side of the road. I leaned against a telephone pole and stretched out my legs as I silently cursed my running shoes. You see, I decided once again to try a new pair of shoes on this run. With only two weeks before my SOS race, I really need to figure out what shoes to run in. Here I was at mile 1 of the Santa Barbara run convincing myself that I never need to run in Teva Sunkosi's again.

After a few minutes of stretching, I decided to start moving again, albeit at a much slower pace. The legs were still tight, but I could feel them loosening and I definitely didn't need to push this one hard.

Like the bike course, the Santa Barbara run is deceivingly tough. The first four miles are pretty much uphill. Just before mile five you run down a steep road to the turnaround, which kinda blows because then you've got to turn around and run back up the damn thing. And believe me, it's a bitch. But by the time you get to the top of that climb, all you've got are a few rolling hills ahead of you before you hit the downhill and flats back to the finish.

My legs were tight through the first few miles of the run, but as I climbed up the hill to mile four I could feel them loosen up a bit. Something about running up hills makes me feel good. I'm a little weird that way. The longer the uphill, the better I feel.

Fittingly, the further I got into this uphill-esque race, the more my legs started loosening up and the faster I went.

By the time I got to the five mile turnaround, I was feeling pretty darn good and back down to clocking somewhere in the 8 minutes per mile range. As I made the turnaround I saw Chris. He was pushing up the insane hill.

In a few seconds I caught up to Chris and slowed down to chat. He seemed to be feeling pretty good and moving along at a steady pace, so I quickly bid farewell and billy goated my way up the hill.

Like the El Torro Canyon ride, I kept zipping past people with every step. And, like El Torro, each person I passed fueled me to go faster so by the time I got to the top of this horrendous climb, I was feeling pretty fresh and ready to pick up the pace.

The last four miles back to the finish were pretty darn good. I decided it was time to just push with all I had left. I also decided I didn't want anybody passing me on the run anymore. So I picked up the pace. I clocked in a 7:45 for the last uphill mile. Then a couple of 7:40s. And finally squeezed out a 7:22 mile to finish the race.

It felt wonderful. My legs were loose, my body relaxed. I felt like I was flying. I crossed the finish line with a smile on my face and a whole lot of happy in my being.

What a great race, I thought.
I wonder why I didn't do this one sooner.

August 26, 2007

'Sup Brah

I went to the Salvation Army last week to donate some clothing. I got some pretty hefty attitude from the employee there. Apparently he didn't like how I filled out the receipt. For some reason he didn't like the fact that I wrote down that I had donated two bags of clothing, despite the fact that I had donated two bags of clothing. Apparently this fellow was having a bad day. And somehow I couldn't help but think of the last time I was at the Salvation Army so I figured I'd reprint that story for you. A blast from the past. Enjoy...


"Whatsup, bro."
That's the first thing the Salvation Army guy said to me this morning.
"Later, bro."
That's the last thing the Salvation Army guy said to me this morning.

You see, I'm a bro. Sometimes I'm a dude. A few times I've even been a brah. Mostly, though, I'm just confused.

But wait, let's take a step back here for a second. Let me create the image...

I am 39 years old, just a Peckinpah short of 40. For better or worse, I look a bit younger than I actually am. From what I'm told, I apparently look like I'm in my late 20s or early 30s, that age where people still care about whether a movie is rated R or NC17 or whatever other acronymic categories they have for movies these days. (Acronymic... you like that one, don't you? I knew you would.)

I maintain one of those cliche Hollywood two-day beards, primarily because it helps me look like I'm closer to my early 30s as opposed to an age where I'd be carded at the aforementioned R rated movies. Though my hair is starting to grey around the edges, I'm not falling short in the hair category at all, unlike some of my high-foreheaded peers. To the contrary, I've got a lot of hair on my head.

Like a few of today's youth, I keep my hair a wee bit longer than the close-cropped corporate cut. I don't look like a surfer by any means, but I probably would stand out in the conservative cubicles of Proctor & Gamble.

So here I am, rapidly approaching middle age, yet am still referred to by such puerile monikers as bro, brah and dude. Part of me is somewhat offended when people call me these names. That part of me just wants to whip out my ID and shove it in their face, all the while screaming, I'm 40-frickin years old, kid!! DON'T CALL ME BRAH! I'M NOT YOUR BRO! HOW ABOUT SIR? WHAT'S WRONG WITH SIR?! HOW ABOUT A LITTLE GODDAMN RESPECT HERE?!?!?!

Of course the other part of me is completely happy to maintain it's youthful nature. Hell, if these youngsters consider me a part of their culture, I should feel happy. Elated even. Maybe I'm younger than I think. Maybe these back pains and slow-to-get-out-of-bed mornings are a sign of my spriteliness, of my extreme athletic ability, and not an indication that I'm two steps away from being able to park in the Handicapped Zone.

So when the Salvation Army guy bid me farewell this morning with a heartfelt "Later bro," I started realizing that this was the new form of being carded. Instead of "you look young, can I see your ID please?" our society has narrowed the interchange down to a simple "Whatsup Brah".

Even though I feel as if my life is already halfway over and that I have already worked for more years in my past than I will probably work in the future, I suppose I still feel as if I have some sort of connection to youth. After all, I'm a bro. A dude, even.

So I suppose that next time I am in the supermarket and the check-out person says to me, Would you like help out with your packages, sir? My proper response should probably be something in the realm of, No worries, brah. I got enough kid left in me to carry twice as many packages.

Later, dude.

August 23, 2007

The Empty Space

I originally started this story with a bunch of loquaciously poetic crapola about the beautiful Southern California weather and how the clear blue skies seamlessly melt into the clear blue water and blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda. When I read it back to myself I actually felt nauseous. It was essentially ten pounds of hooey crammed into a five pound blog.

So I erased it and decided to get right to the point. The point being stupidity. More specifically, let's talk about the jackass that sideswiped me a couple of days ago while I was riding my bike.

Let's first set the record straight - many Los Angeles drivers are stupid. It's the nature of the city. Living with stupidity is part of the sacrifice you make to live in this weather. Pile on to the fact that this was one of the last summer days of the year, and the stupidity factor increases dramatically. Let me try to paint the picture for you...

Imagine the beauty of the Pacific Coast Highway crammed to the gills with non-stop weekend, beach-going traffic. For the sake of setting a standard, why don't you assume that all the drivers have average intelligence, just as a baseline. In a normal world that would be fairly reasonable conditions that one would feel could be a safe cycling environment. A little nerve-racking, but safe enough. However, in order to create a more realistic Los Angeles environment you need to make a few minor adjustments.

First, take 20% of the drivers and feed them all the drugs and alcohol they can get in their system without them passing out. OK, now put them back behind the wheel. Next, take another 20% of the people on the road and siphon all the brains out of their head until they just stand there clueless, with a blank, robotic stare. Great, now put them back behind the wheel too. There you go, that best represents a sunny summer day on the Pacific Coast Highway.

Your chances of survival have just dropped dramatically. But it sure is pretty scenery.

So here's the scenario... it was mid-day on a summer Sunday and I was riding down the aforementioned Pacific Coast Highway along the Malibu beaches. It's a popular place during a popular time of year. There were a lot of people parked on the side of the road to my right and even more driving down the highway to my left. Needless to say, I was being extra careful. One of my biggest biking fears is being tagged by a randomly opened car door. I feel like it is almost inevitable that this will happen eventually. It seems not a matter of "if", but of "when". So I pay special close attention to what is ahead of me when I'm riding by parked cars.

About 2 hours into the ride I was coming down a slight hill, rolling along at about 25 miles per hour. I was riding fairly slowly and was very alert during this part of the ride. Mostly because I was stressed. I knew something bad was going to happen and I was hoping I could get off the damn road before it happened.

A few feet to the left of me was the four lane highway. A couple of feet to the right of me was a line of cars parked by the beach. As I scanned the parked cars for randomly opening doors, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a very large white vehicle moving past me on my left. It wasn't moving very quickly, perhaps they were looking for a parking space. It was an enormous car. Like an Escalade or something.

Apparently, just as the Escalade reached my side, the driver saw the empty parking space for which he was seeking. Unfortunately there was one thing that separated the SUV from the parking space: me.

Let's stop here for a second and take a pop quiz. Put yourself in the Escalade drivers position. Having just passed by a bike rider and wanting to get into a parking space right in front of both of you, which of the following would you do:

A) Slow down, wait for the bike rider to pass, then safely pull to the side of the road and back into the space

B) Honk your horn, yell obscenities at the bike rider and throw a half-filled Burger King cup at him until he stops to let you in. If he gives you any lip, shoot him.

C) Ignore the bike rider completely, you don't know him anyway. Just close your eyes, turn the steering wheel and pull right into the spot. If you feel something under your tires, don't worry, it's probably just a speed bump.

If you selected Option A, you may be normal. If you selected Option B, you're probably one of the many gang-bangers in this city who are just looking for an excuse to shoot somebody - and wearing lycra is a good enough excuse. If you selected Option C, you may have been driving the Escalade that side-swiped me. In which case, you're a dick.

Just as he passed me by, the Escalade driver turned the steering wheel and began to cut me off. I jammed on my brakes hard. My heart rate probably shot up, cause I could feel it in my throat. I'm no doctor, but if I remember the Operation game board correctly, I'm pretty sure that the heart is not supposed to be located in the throat.

My bike started skidding towards the car, which is always a fairly nerve racking experience that involves lives flashing in front of eyes. I began yelling. I yell a lot at stupid drivers when I ride. I yell very loudly because sometimes stupid people are hard of hearing. There may even have been obscenities uttered. I sometimes use obscenities for dramatic effect.

Something like, HEY! HEY!! WHAT THE #$*&! ARE YOU DOING?!?!, could very well have emerged from betwixt my lips.

The driver did not slow down or stop. He kept moving and kept cutting me off. I squeezed my brakes harder as my rear tire fishtailed on the road. I couldn't swerve to my left, I'd be riding right into the oncoming traffic of a busy highway and that's a bad thing. I couldn't swerve to my right because I'd slam into a parked car - and if I were lucky enough to miss the parked cars, I'd fly over the side of the cliff instead. My only hope was to veer slightly towards the right and aim for the edge of the empty parking space where the SUV was going. Hopefully I could squeeze in there and stop before he ran me over.

I headed for the empty space, all the while trying to maintain control of my bike. I really needed to slow down to a stop before I ended up splatting against the side of the SUV, but since the Escalade was cutting the turn very close there was not a lot of room for me to fit in-between him and the parked cars. This looked like disaster.

I yelled, I screamed, I braked. I think I may have prayed a little bit too..... and then it finally stopped. I was leaning against the side of the SUV. Or, rather, the SUV was jammed up against me. I got sandwiched in like a head vice. The entire left side of my body was crammed against the side of the Escalade while the right side of my body was jammed against the parked car. I was stuck. Had he cut the turn any closer, I would've been squished by the moronic driver.

WHAT THE #*&! ARE YOU DOING?! I decided to yell again for special effect.

Physically I was fine, mentally I was in disbelief. How can they let such stupid people on the road? How is this possible?

I squeezed myself out of my jam, had a few choice words with the driver (who, by the way, seems to have been part of the 20% that had all the drugs and alcohol in their system) and continued nervously on my way back home. Needless to say, I took it very slowly and cautiously.

I tried to relax and concentrate on my surroundings. But it's tough out there on a busy road when you don't know who is driving and what substances they may have ingested into their bodies.

As I continued riding, I thought about this dramatic event and what I could learn from it all. I carefully pondered my grand takeaway that would leave me a much better person. But I didn't come up with anything good enough to provide a solid conclusion to this story. So I figure I'll just end it with some of the poetic hooey that I tried to start it all with.

It was the type of beautiful day that ends up on thirty-five cent postcards. Where the clear blue skies seemed to stretch on endlessly into the distance until they melted ever so seamlessly into the refreshingly blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean. It was as if God had an extra few buckets of blue paint and a burning inspiration to wow. It was awe-inspiring. Virtually poetic. It was one of those days that was beautiful enough to make you almost forget all of your worries. Almost.

August 20, 2007

No More Mr. Nice Guy

Nice job!
Niiice!
Good hustle!
Way to go!

These are the words that one local rider utters to other cyclists as he's passing them by. They're not heartfelt, his words of encouragement. It almost seems patronizing.

It doesn't matter how fast you're going or how much effort you are expending, he will inevitably utter one of the above mentioned phrases as he approaches on his bicycle. It's as if he were running for mayor and just wanted everybody to like him. But he tries too hard so it backfires. It comes across as arrogant. I once even got a "Way to go!" while I was at a dead stop at a traffic light.

Way to go?!?! What the hell is that supposed to mean? I'M STANDING STILL YOU BUFFOON!!! Am I really doing that great of a job of standing still?! Am I a better stand still-er than other riders?!

I'm sure he means well. Or, rather, I hope he means well. But he seems to be a fairly arrogant chap once you talk to the guy. And he's also a fairly annoying runt, which may very well be aligned with the arrogance. This is why I call him the Nice Guy. I like irony.

Not surprisingly, the Nice Guy always rides alone. The fact is that after about ten minutes of riding with him and listening to his inane ramblings, you realize you really only have two choices: you can either punch him in the face or you can sacrifice yourself and swerve into the oncoming traffic.

It's the classic battle between good and evil. Where the Nice Guy, with all his quasi-encouraging words, represents the good that turns people bad.

A couple of weeks ago I was just starting a bike ride. Only about two miles into it, I was still very much in my warm-up phase. With a body that was still in the pain of recovery from the pounding of the previous days, I was in no rush to get moving quickly. I had just been stopped at a red light and was creeping along at a fairly slow pace when the Nice Guy rolled up behind me. Good job!, he blurted out.

I was in no mood for pretending, I had no patience for this insincere crapola. GOOD JOB FOR WHAT?! I yelled back at him as I sped up the bike to a whopping 7 miles an hour.

He turned around and looked at me with a glint of fear in his eyes. As if nobody had ever questioned his half-hearted commentary.

Ummm...., he stumbled, no doubt realizing that of all the things to say to me in this scenario, "good job" may very well have been one of the most idiotic. Good job for getting out and riding, was what he eventually said.

[GONGGGG!!!!] Stupid answer, I thought to myself as I gave him a blank stare of disbelief. Exactly what I expected, you're a moron. Go away from me.

I never saw the Nice Guy again until a couple of weeks later. I was 15 minutes into a four hour ride when a drafting line of about 10 riders blew on by. whoosh!whoosh!whoosh!whoosh! they zipped through as I stayed slow, kept my head down to hold my line and moved to my right to give them more room. whoosh!whoosh! they kept coming by. Then as the last woosh! neared, I heard it: Niiice!

WTF?!?!

I looked up to see that Mr. Nice Guy had tagged on to the back of the draft line. Nice Guy is a decent rider - a little faster than me - but I know the group that he was with, they're "real" racers. There's no way in hell he'd be able to hang on to them. Yet as he struggled to stick to the last wheel, he still had enough energy to get out a "niice" as he passed me by.

Moron.

I continued my ride in peaceful solitude. I finally got to the rolling hills and started climbing them slowly then zipping down the other side. As I neared the bottom of the second hill, I looked up ahead of me. Mr. Nice Guy.

He had been dropped - no surprise - and here he was all alone again, casually pedaling away and waiting for some other sucker to come by for him to leech onto. I didn't want to be that sucker. I don't like leeches.

As I reached the bottom of the hill and begin the next climb, I saw the he was only 20 meters in front of me. I could tell that he was moving at just about my pace, maybe a fraction slower. At this rate I'd be right up next to him in a few seconds and he, undoubtedly, will leech on to me, drowning my brain in his incessantly moronic banter until I either punch him in the face or suicidally swerve into oncoming traffic.

I saw my fate and it wasn't pretty. I realized I had two options: either I could try to accept the fact that I'll have an annoying riding partner for the next hour and learn to deal with it or I could make my move and hope with all my might that he can't keep up with me.

I decided to go for option B. It seemed less painful.

I got angry. I didn't want to be in this position - I wanted to have a nice, calming ride. And now here I was, recognizing that I needed to push my body to it's very limit in hopes of out-biking somebody who is a better biker than me.

I looked up and saw he was now only about 10 meters away. We had both started climbing the hill and I knew he'd be hearing me approach anytime soon. Once he heard me, he would have ample warning to pick up the pace and stay with me. I couldn't risk that. I had to make my move. Now or never.

I took a big breath, flipped my bike into a lower gear, put my head down, got out of the saddle and accelerated up the hill with every piece of energy I had. Within less than a second he heard me approaching. He looked back. Niiice!, he said as he got out of his saddle.

Shit, I thought to myself, he's going to try and keep up. I pushed harder. My heartrate was at 165 and rising. I dug in deeper as I streamed up the hill. Head down, eyes focused. Pedaling stronger and faster. Heart rate at 168. 170. 172. My legs were burning, quads a searing line of pain. But I didn't look back and I didn't stop. Have to keep going. Push. Push.

I soon reached the top of the hill with absolutely nothing left in my legs. I sat back down in my saddle as I took to the flat road. I tried to catch my breath while I uttered a silent prayer, hoping to dear God that the Nice Guy wasn't able to keep up.

And then I turned to look behind me....

Nothing. Noone. I looked further down the road and saw him still struggling up the hill.
I did it!! I did it!! I dropped Mr. Nice Guy! Wooohooo!!!

I'm free!!!

But such parties don't last too long. I knew he was a better cyclist than me so I realized I had to maintain a pretty aggressive pace over these flats if I was going to keep my distance. I tucked down into the aerobars and started a-pedalin'.

Feeling began to come back into my legs and I started churning through the pedal rotations. High cadence, fast movement... I felt like all was going well. I was picking off some of the other riders who were ahead of me, zipping by them in relaxed but rapid movements. I felt great, I had succeeded. A smile began to emerge across my face.

As I got into the flow, my mind began to wander into corners of the brain that are only left available for long bike rides. The thoughts of this or that, of when and how, and ifs or buts. The gentle rocking of the bike, the movement on the road, lulls the mind into a kind of serenity that non-athletes will never understand. It's that serenity of monotony that makes a 7 hour ride seem to fly by like it's nothing.

About 20 minutes later I was climbing the last hill when I heard another group of bikers approaching me from behind. It's a Saturday morning on the Pacific Coast Highway, a haven for bike riders. I edged a little more to the right to give them room. It was a smaller group, only about five riders in this one. Woosh!woosh!woosh! they came by. And at the very end, as the last woosh! approached, I heard it.

Nice hustle!

I looked up to see the back wheel of Mr. Nice Guy pulling away.

I felt my blood boiling. I wanted to speed up to him just so I could punch him in the face. But before I made my move, I stopped myself. I let it go. I slowed down my pace. There would be no more running away for me.

I had made a valiant effort to escape from the firm grasp of the incessant friendliness of the morning cyclist. I had angered myself to counter his benevolence. In the end, he has prevailed.

I suppose in an odd way that this is a happy ending; that the "good" has won and overcome the "badness" of anger. But I've gotta be honest with you, next time I see Mr. Nice Guy on the road, I can't promise that I still won't feel like punching him in the face.

August 16, 2007

The Accessorizor

I have a new favorite swimmer. No, it's not you. Sorry.

It's not Michael Phelps, either, though I have to admit I think he looks a bit primatel with his long gorilla arms. My favorite swimmer isn't even Amanda Beard, though - [gulp] - she definitely holds a special place in my, uh, heart.

No, no, my new favorite swimmer is somebody more special. Somebody who can swim slower than a speeding kickboarder. More powerful than a three year old with floaties. Able to lap tall geriatrics in a single hour. Look! Down in the pool! It's a manatee! It's a submarine! It's... The Accessorizor!!

[insert timpani drum beats: ba-ba-ba-bummmmmm]

When you swim at my YMCA, it's tough to really choose one person that makes the forty-five dollars a month all worthwhile. There are so many options, so much to enjoy, I get all giddy at the thought of showing up in the morning and wondering what the day has in store.

When I first started swimming there, I thought the woman in the full scuba gear was a hoot. But after a few years of watching her scuba 25 yards at a time (with a weight belt on, might I add), it doesn't seem nearly as interesting anymore. There are so many people using snorkels in the pool, you'd think you were in a lost Hawaiian cove, but without the sea turtles, colorful fish or pretty much anything else that looks pretty.

As you know, the kicker was my favorite for awhile. After all, how can you not like somebody who swims like their auditioning for The Ministry Of Silly Walks? I smile when I see her approaching poolside. She warms my heart.

In the early days, far before The Kicker, there was Mrs. Cchhhat-Ptewie. An older Asian woman who always wore an American flag swim cap, she'd do the geriatric breaststroke for the 25 yards down the lane, then lean over the edge of the pool and - cccchat-ptewie!! - spit up a loogie. After the throat cleansing, she'd turn around, breaststroke her way back to the other end of the pool and - ccchat-ptewie! - spit up again. This would continue for the twenty-or so minutes she'd spend in the pool. It really balanced on the very thin line between fascinating and nauseating. Actually, it quickly plummeted onto the concrete sidewalk of nauseating.

I haven't seen Mrs. Cchhhat-Ptewie in awhile, but her husband, Mr. Cchhat-Ptewie, is still there fairly regularly. He used to wear the same American flag swim cap as his wife. In fact, he'd even wear the swim cap when he was taking a shower, post-workout. (They're just as cute as a button, those Ccchhat-Ptewies.) Recently, Mr. C-P has taken to wearing a fluorescent pink swim cap. Apparently he's not so hot on the United States anymore.

Unlike his dearly beloved wife, Mr. Cchhhat-Ptewie isn't much of a spitter, thank God. Instead, what jiggles my jollies is his blatant mis-use of the flippers. Mr. C-P has got a kick that he should really patent.

It seems like it would be almost natural when wearing flippers to straighten out your legs behind you and kick lightly so the flippers propel you forward. Not in this pool. Not at my YMCA. Instead of the standard flipper kick that you can see anywhere, Mr. Cchhat-Ptewie has kicked it up a notch.

You know that hamstring stretch where you lay on your back and pull your knee up to your chest? Well try doing that on your stomach, in a pool, with flippers on your feet. That's Mr. Cchhat-Ptewie. The crazy thing is that since he's kicking so inefficiently, the flippers actually slow him down, which forces him to stop and catch his breath for a couple of minutes after every single lap. I just want to give him a kickboard and about three seconds of pointers. I know it'll change his life.

But, alas, I am not one to give any swim lessons. And Mr. Cchhat-Ptewie, though no longer my pool favorite, still holds a special place in my heart.

Oh, and by the way, Corrado Soprano ain't my favorite either, but he should be a YMCA fashion model. Somehow, somewhere this nice old gentleman found a pair of goggles that look EXACTLY like Corrado's glasses. You know those oversized, outdated glasses that really old people seem to wear as they are driving twenty miles an hour down the highway? Well apparently whatever company sells those glasses just came out with a line of swim goggles.

But enough about others, let's talk about the Accessorizor.

I saw the Accessorizor for the first time last week. He is probably about my age, somewhere in the late 30s or early 40s. Like me, he doesn't look as if he's in amazing shape, but he clearly has a little athleticism locked deep inside there somewhere. He's not a bad swimmer - or at least I don't think he is, it's tough to tell. But the thing that sets him apart from the masses is of all the accessories he wears when he's in the pool. He's like Mr. T in a Speedo. It makes the Scuba Diver look like she's swimming naked.

The Accessorizor is sporting the Scuba mask, of course. That's practically a required accessory at the YMCA. He's also got that funky snorkel that comes right up in front of your face so it doesn't get clogged with water when you practice breathing. You can't pay enough for that technology.

Then there are the flippers. You've gotta have flippers. And the pull buoy. What's a swim without a pull buoy. Oh, and there are the weights on the hands, I suppose that helps build strength. And the swim paddles. I'm sure somebody somewhere told him you can't become a better swimmer without them.

Now I'm sure none of these accessories sound like they are out of the ordinary for a swimmer, and they're not. However, when you wear them all at once, all the time, it becomes a bit overwhelming. It's like trying to bench press, do squats and sit-ups all at the same time, while chewing gum and standing on one foot. With somebody tickling you.

Just getting all the accessories on is half the battle - and a battle that takes him a good five or ten minutes of poolside struggling. But the coup d'grace of all this is the final must-have swimming accessory. The one piece of equipment that will make us all jealous: It's the clock. But no, no... not just an ordinary clock. It's the LapTech Pro Pool Timer, to be exact.

I've never really seen a LapTech Pro up close and personal before, but it seems like a nifty idea. In fact, I could imagine it's a great tool if 1) you've got a really hard time counting laps or 2) you're curious to know what time it is every 45 seconds or so.

Here's the catch though - the Accessorizor always swims in a lane that is right next to the YMCA pool clock. Let me help you visualize this. The YMCA pool clock is about 5 feet in diameter. You can practically see the damn thing from space. In fact, in this one pool there are three different clocks on three different sides of the room. No matter which way you look, there's a second hand telling you you're not going fast enough. But that means nothing to The Accessorizor. Superheroes have no need for five foot clocks.

The LapTech Pro snakes out of it's nifty black carrying case on the edge of the pool and hangs right down into the water. The perfect location for the Accessorizor to time his swim. While he's heading down in the other direction, I sometimes duck my head under water, sashay under the lane line and get myself a close-up look at the LapTech Pro. You don't see them often - I don't want to miss the opportunity.

The Accessorizor checks the LapTech Pro every few laps. Maybe it's because he is wearing so much gear that he doesn't have the energy to actually lift his head up the three inches it would take to look at the 5-foot wall clock. Or perhaps wearing a watch would be the additional accessory - that extra ounce of weight - that would sink the poor fellow. I'm sure he has his reasons. But I can't help but smile when I realize how long it takes him to actually read what the LapTech is saying.

When The Accessorizor comes back to the end of the pool, he stops, balances himself on his flippered feet with pull-buoyed legs held tight and with his face still under water thanks to the snorkel. He reaches down with his weighted, paddled hands, lifts the LapTech closer to his face-masked eyes, checks the time then turns around and swims another hundy or so. The entire time checking process takes about 10 seconds which, may I add, is about 9.5 seconds longer than it takes to look at the monstrosity of a clock that hangs on the wall four feet in front of him.

Ya gotta love it. He's great.
I laugh. I cry. I feel like spitting on the side of the pool.

I love the Accessorizor. In this sport that requires so many pieces and parts; where we are always trying to go further, faster and stronger; where the person with the most toys is the envy of the most people; the Accessorizor wins.

He dares to bring it all together. In some ways he's a bit of a mirror of all of us. As we try every trick to beat the ticking of time, and as we incessantly lighten, strengthen and aerodynamic our way to slashing seconds off the clock, the Accessorizor is silently mocking us.

Yes, I laugh at him as he checks his LapTech Pro, but I only laugh for a brief moment because as I stare obsessively at the counting seconds of my multi-faceted watch, straighten my goggles and push the pull buoy up a little closer to my crotch, I have no more time to laugh. I must push off the wall yet again and test my abilities to forever beat the ticking of the clock.

August 14, 2007

No Rhyme Or Reason

I live in Los Angeles, California. We have two baseball teams, two basketball teams, one hockey team and one soccer team. We are host to the LA Marathon and the LA Triathlon. Sure we may be missing a football team, but we still have our fair share of sports in this city. Which made my trip to the Post Office today all the more confusing and poetic.

As I was standing in line waiting to mail my packages, my eyes meandered over to the post office display...

There were your standard envelopes and jiffy packs; rolls of packing tape and bubble wrap. Even teddy bears on the wall, next to canvas bags with postage stamp designs. Yes, they had it all.

But the one thing that really caught my eye and made me wonder. Were the magnetic sports decals they had hanging near the pencils, but a little yonder. Not the Lakers or the Dodgers or magnetic David Beckham heads, but a big red and white logo for the Cincinnati Reds.

Cincinnati?! I thought. That's fucking absurd. We live in a big coast-side city, not some midwestern suburb. Do they really think we need to remember Johnny Bench, when we already have Lindsey and Paris and her other friend, what's her name... that wench.

Give me Kobe or Nomar or even Posh Spice, a little LA pride would be kinda nice. But alas a Cincinnati Reds decal was all I saw this time. I have no clue why I decided to make this idiotic story rhyme.

August 12, 2007

The Way Of The Warrior - or - Play Del Run: A Race Report

Sometimes I used to say, half-jokingly, that if I didn't draw blood, it wasn't a good day. Between all my crazy mountain biking, off-road running, kitchen knife wielding, envelope licking, bungling blunderheadedness and general tom-foolery, it was an odd evening when I didn't find a new cut, scrape or bruise on my fragile being.

To this day, it is not uncommon for me to come back from exercise and have Catherine say something like, What happened, honey, how come your arm is bleeding?

I'll search all around my arms for the gushing hemoglobin while responding in my usual, dumbfounded way. Whaa? I'm bleeding? Huh?

When forced to admit, I'll probably say that the scrapes make me feel quite manly. As if I dove into the depth of battle and emerged with only a little knick on my knee. To be truthful, it kinda makes me feel like a warrior.

Chicks dig warriors.

Which is the perfect set-up for the race I did last Thursday night: the Playa del Run. It was a 1000 meter ocean swim and a 5k run. I reckon they call these things Aquajogs or Biathlons or Aquathlons or something of the sort. I'm not real up on all the terminology, so why don't we just call it a swim-run.

As you may remember, I'm racing the SOS in only four weeks time. The SOS is an 8-stage event that consists of bike-run-swim-run-swim-run-swim-run. After you drop off your bike and put on your running shoes there are no more transitions; you run with your swim gear and swim with your run gear. Which means I'll be running 18 miles in wet shoes.

I decided to use the Playa del Run as my pre-SOS test course. A dress rehearsal, if you will. Lately I have been trying out these shmancy Solomon off-road shoes and all has been working very well. Now was the time to put them to the real test.

The Playa del Run started at 6:45 pm, which was great. I love late day races. My body is all awake and relaxed by the late afternoon so I tend to perform at my best. If I were the Supreme Race Director of the Universe, I'd make a rule that every event has to start after 3pm.

Fortunately, the ocean temperature out here in Paradise is mild, at worst. Wavering in the 68-70-ish degree territory, it's like a tepid bath. Regardless, I assumed most of the people in this race would be wearing wetsuits to capitalize on the buoyancy factor. Not me. I'm a warrior. Warriors don't wear neoprene.

Besides, there will be no wetsuits in the SOS. I've got to get used to bare bones swimming at some point.

So after dumping my bag in the transition area, I grabbed my shoes, goggles and swimcap, and jogged down the beach to the swim start.

SWIM
The Day's Swim Challenges:
* A sense of direction like a blind man post-tilt-a-whirl
* Human washing machine-itis

This was, without question, the roughest water I have ever raced in. I've swum in some pretty choppy seas and though it's been hectic, I have never felt like I would die. In fact, I've wondered about those races where people say there were scared of dying. A little piece inside of me didn't understand how that could happen and still be race-legal conditions.

However, while out on my warm-up swim before the Playa del Run, I finally understood. These were exactly the type of water conditions where people end up dead. That's how bad it was.

The waters were rough everywhere you looked, a cacophony of splashing and crashing with no uniformity to be seen. Waves were slamming at irregular intervals; quick sets of three or four waves crashing down in brutal succession from well over 5 feet high. The current was so strong it was like swimming against a brick wall that pushed and pulled you in any direction but the one you were facing. It was ugly.

But us warriors, we thrive in ugly conditions. You think this is bad!? we say to the conditions with the utmost macho-ness (though sometimes we say it very quietly so nobody else will hear). This isn't bad. I laugh in the face of your bad. Ba-ha-ha!

So I lined up on the shore with the rest of the racers. Most, as expected, were wearing their wetsuits. I, on the other hand, had on my racing outfit. I also had my running shoes crammed down my pants. As I stood there waiting for the starting yell (apparently an air-horn wasn't in the budget), I listened to the other racers around me making mock of the shoes shoved up my ass.

Oh my God, look at that, I heard one guy say as he directed his friends' eyes to my shoe-padded tush.

I can't believe he's bringing his shoes!? I heard another group of girls giggling and sneaking silent glances at the large lump in my butt.

Pshaw, I thought. Haven't you people ever seen a guy hold his shoes with his tush?! Cheeks of steel, I tell you!

The yell went off and soon everybody forgot about my shoe-butt and started diving into the churning cauldron of chaos.

The first 100 meters were brutal. As if the steamrolling of waves and the vigorous wrenching of the current wasn't bad enough, toss in two hundred people splashing and kicking and spitting up gallons of sea water. It was a washing machine and I was hoping somebody would pull the plug.

[I was later told that six people were taken out of the water in the first 100 meters. Fortunately nobody was hurt.]

After far too much effort, I made it past the 100 meter buoy and took the right turn smack dab into the current. Wait a minute, you're saying. I thought you were already swimming into the current?

I know. So did I.

Rough waters and strong currents benefit powerful swimmers. In fact, they really benefit powerful swimmers in wetsuits. I am not a powerful person nor, as discussed, am I sporting the neoprene. But with my shoes tucked snuggly in my buttock and feeling pretty good about still being alive, I decided to give it all I had for the next 900 meters, or whatever was left of this turbulent swimming experience.

I pushed and pulled myself as hard as I could. I grunted a lot with every stroke, like Maria Sharapova when she's bobbing for apples. A few times I came upon a wetsuited somebody and decided to draft off of them. It was a nice plan, too bad it didn't work. It's tough to stay on somebody's tail when you're being yanked in twenty different directions.

So I kept swimming my race. Every five strokes I'd look up to make sure I was still on course. Inevitably all I'd see was the 5 foot wave I was about to swallow. So I put my head down and kept swimming. It felt like I was going nowhere. So I pushed harder and harder. And somewhere between the tired shoulders, the four gallons of salt water in my lungs and missing the final buoy by such an embarrassingly long distance that I had to swim towards Hawaii for a couple of minutes, I finally rolled up on dry land once again.

Swim was over. Thank God.
I clocked in around 18-ish minutes which seemed to be pretty good, all things considered.

I ran up the beach, reached into my pants and pulled my running shoes out of my butt. I slipped my feet into the wet shoes and like Flash Gordon with diahrrea, I was outta there.

RUN
The Day's Run Challenges:
* Really tight right shin
* The shmancy shoes

A few weeks ago I got into a conversation with Catherine about my racing style. What happens if you just go as fast as possible the entire time? she asked me.

I'm not sure if I had a plausible answer.

I started the run portion of the Playa del Run with the intent of figuring out the real answer to her question. What happens if I just go full force?

It was a quick two-loop 5k course and my legs felt pretty good the moment I started moving. So I immediately locked into a pretty quick pace and made the decision to not slow down. Let's figure out my breaking point, shall we?

I haven't done much speed work in awhile. Scratch that, I haven't done any speed work in 5 months. I'm not fast nor do I expect to be. So you can imagine how shocked I was when I looked at my watch after the first mile and saw that I just clocked in a 7:25. 7:25?! Holy SHIT! I looked at the watch again to make sure I didn't read it wrong. Yep, 7:25. Wow. That sure feels good!

I did a quick body check and realized that the legs were still feeling pretty loose, the breathing felt fairly steady and I reckoned I could probably hold this pace for the rest of the race.

So I went faster. Like I said, time to find the breaking point.

As I took the turn after the 1st mile, I saw Peter running about a quarter mile behind me. You don't know who Peter is and that doesn't really matter right now. The truth of the matter is that Peter doesn't even know who I am. But I know him, and that's all that counts.

Peter is the arch-rival of my friend Chris. Peter and Chris are not friends, probably barely acquaintances, but after battling it out with each other in the Clydesdale division at countless races they are now each other's supreme nemesis.

The relationship between Chris and Peter is best compared to that of Seinfeld and Newman. They're the first words to go through my head when I see him... Helllooooo Peeeeter.

Peter is tough to miss. He's about six foot six, shaved head, and the body of a perfectly chiseled brickhouse. Normal people don't look like Peter. Michaelangelo's statues look like Peter.

When I saw Peter at the beginning of the Playa del Run, I had little concern of him being competition. Even when I saw him put on the wetsuit, I didn't even consider him. Peter is all muscle. Muscle sinks like a rock. All the neoprene in California won't keep him floating in this ocean. Besides, I've beat Peter in triathlons numerous times before, there's no reason he would get me this time. When the starting gun went off, he was out of my mind.

But here we are back on the course, and I see Peter running only about a quarter mile behind me. He looks like he's running fairly quickly, maybe about my pace. But a quarter mile in a 5k race is a whole lotta distance to make up. I didn't even think about it.

After clocking in that 7:25 first mile, I began to focus my mind a little more and stretch deeper into the valley of pain. My ankle wasn't rubbing in the shoes, I didn't feel any blisters forming, ally systems were go. As I passed the 1.5 mile turnaround, I realized that my heart rate was probably high, but it wasn't going to kill me.

Lo and behold, I soon saw Peter approaching. Maybe it was my imagination - or maybe he recognized that I was in his age group - but it seemed like he stared at me as we passed each other, going in separate directions.

He looked like he was moving quickly. The thing is, he was no longer a quarter mile back, so he was moving quickly. He'd picked up time. Nobody told me Peter could run!? Why didn't anybody tell me Peter could run?!

I soon realized that, for the sake of my friend Chris, there is no way in hell that I could let Peter beat me in this race. I have to stand up for my friend. I have to push out my chest and rush head first into the heat of battle to secure the fine name of my good friend.

You want to beat my friend Chris?! I said to him when he was nowhere in hearing distance. You'll have to get through me first, punk.

With inspiration behind me, I picked up the pace a lot more. I sped up to a pace that I knew, without a doubt, Peter would not be able to match. As I passed mile two, I looked at my watch. That was a 7:15 mile. Great. My plan seems to be working.

I went through the turn-around again (lots of turn-around at this race) and focused my mind on holding my pace. I lifted up my eyes and what did I see but Peter coming down the road - and he was staring right back at me, like he was actually trying to beat me!

SHIT!! This guy can run. And he's still gaining on me. SHIT!

My heart rate was booming. I opened up my mouth to bring in as much oxygen as possible. I stuck out my tongue like I was in the last throws of the Tour de France time trial. I gave it all I had. No way Peter was going to beat me. No way.

Then my shin pain kicked in.

DAMN!! I screamed as the pain increased.

It felt like a wooden stake had stuck in my shin, as if the bone could snap at any moment. I slowed down a little bit and swore at my shoes. Damndamndamndamndamn. DAMN!! I hate these shoes!

There was only one mile to go and I realized I had two choices. First, I can slow down, take care of my shin, let Peter blow on by me and try to figure out a way to live with myself (and Chris) for the rest of my God given life. Or I could be a warrior.

Warriors don't succomb to pain. In fact, we like pain. We welcome pain. I made my decision. I I picked up my head, squared my shoulders, opened my door to pain and prepared to haul ass.

I made the final turn-around and saw the finish line 1/2 mile in front of me. In an instant, I also saw Peter approaching. He was now only about 100 meters behind me. What the fuck?!?! NOBODY TOLD ME THIS GUY CAN RUN!!

But I made my decision and there is no way in hell he was going to pass me. Not today, I said out loud. Not in MY house.

I picked up the pace. A LOT. Faster I went. I started zooming by other runners, picking them off one by one. My pace kept increasing. A quarter mile out and I was sprinting. Breathing, panting, pushing harder. I dug deeper for more, grabbing on to anything I had to make sure that this 6 foot 6 monster didn't take away my race and my pride. Each step powered me faster into the next one. I kept my eyes focused on the finish, didn't look back. By the time I heard Catherine screaming for me in the distance, I was at full force.

I crossed the finish line with a run time just under 22 minutes, which means that last mile was at about a 6:34 pace.

I was ecstatic beyond belief. I haven't run that pace in years. I smiled and laughed as I pulled Catherine to the side so I could stretch out my stiff legs. I didn't even notice when Peter finished, I was too happy.

I told Catherine of my race as I stretched out my aching calves. Suddenly she interrupted me.

My God, what happened to your feet?!

Whaaa? I looked down at my shoes. What was once green shoes were now red. Damn! I guess the wet mesh of the shoes was rubbing against my toes and feet the entire time. I took off my shoes, blood covered my toes, the skin ripped off the tops of my feet. It stung.

Damn shoes.

But a little blood does not make a bad race. To the contrary, I had a great race. I'm still smiling when I think about it. I put my head to the wall and threw my body to the limit. I gave it everything I had and still didn't find my breaking point.

Yes, there was blood at the end of it all. But I've come to appreciate the blood and sweat of triumph. It's what makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I have achieved something new. Like I faced my fears and conquered. Us warriors, we like a good conquering.

August 09, 2007

Shaking In Fear

Sometimes I feel like I have nine lives. I'm that lucky. There have been so many close calls over the years, it's a miracle I've made it this far in life. Between the car accidents, biking over the side of a cliff, blindly running into the middle of the road, skidding uncontrollably in drunk-driven cars - the thoughts alone make the bejesus in me scramble out in fear and run from the room screaming like Daffy Duck after a dreadful day with Bugs.

The sad thing is that I'm not sure exactly how many lives I've already used. I lost count.

Granted, whatever I've got left, I'm happy to be able to keep breathing for another day. I fully recognize the divine something-or-other that allows me to weave my way through life without having to wear a full set of body pads and helmets to protect my sorry ass from falling unknowingly into another near-death scenario.

No matter what happens, I always seem to land on my feet. As I said, I'm that lucky. Sure I've got my fair share of scrapes, scars and bruises. In fact, I've probably got your fair share too. But I still consider myself lucky. The fact is that I'm experiencing life head-on. Sometimes I'm experiencing life so close I bonk my head right into it.

I don't consider the 1994 Northridge earthquake to have sucked up one of my nine lives, but the fact of the matter is that when you live in Southern California, any discussion about the fragility of life has to include earthquakes. If the 1994 shuttering didn't take one of my lives, I'm guessing that a future earthquake will swallow up one of the precious few I have left.

Regardless, the Northridge quake shook a lot more than just the upper crust of the earth's layer. On that morning, at exactly the same time my apartment felt like it was being tornadoed from the ground in a Wizard of Oz moment, I also felt the fear of uncontrollable death being ripped from the inner recess of my mind. I started shaking inside that night and I'm not quite sure it's stopped.

For some reason, I couldn't get to sleep the night that became the Northridge quake. I got home late with a load on my mind. I climbed into bed but did nothing but toss and turn for a few hours, drifting and dozing in and out of quasi-sleep. And then somewhere around 3:16am - BAMMM!!! - it felt like a Mac truck just drove into my living room without using a turning signal or issuing any warning.

It was quite a traumatic experience for somebody like me and makes me hug on to my life a little more closely. As I said earlier, I'm not sure how many of my nine lives I actually have left on this earth, but I know it's inching closer and closer to nil.

I definitely have to be a little more careful with myself these days. When I visit the Grand Canyon, I don't creep up as close for the view. I check the date on the milk carton before I eat my post-toasties. I've even stopped wearing my biking shoes when I walk down stairs.... that's just a head trauma waiting to happen.

I'm living in constant expectation of the next big quake to tear a gaping hole in my existence. It's coming, I know it is. It's been 13 years since the last one, we're long overdue.

So when I read in the paper that there's been a big shaker in Indonesia, I can't help but picture those shockwaves traveling through the core of the earth, careening towards Los Angeles only to stick their prickly little paws up through the ground and tickle my tussy while I sleep, right before it jolts the living hell out of Los Angeles.

Yes, I've got a lot of fear of earthquakes. I'm not ashamed of that. But I've learned to live with this fear. Like all mammals, I've adapted. After that Northridge quake, I realized that there is a pretty simple trick for properly predicting earthquakes: watch the animals.

I don't know if they're overly sensitive or have ESP, but dogs and cats tend to get all wiggy when something bad is going to happen. So as I walk through my days here in Los Angeles, I pay special close attention to the dogs on the street. Are they doing backflips when they should be fetching sticks? Are they speaking in tongues when they should be woof-ing? Are they walking by fire hydrants with nary a sniff or a pee?

Since Catherine and her cat have been living with me, I've been lucky enough to have my very own in-house earthquake barometer. When the cat acts funny, I know something's afoot. Either that or he's become wacked over his catnip-filled mouse (which seems to always be the case these days).

Last night I couldn't sleep. My mind was jumping back and forth from this to that and back to this again. As I lay in bed tossing and turning, I knew I was really annoying Catherine. I'm a restless sleeper. She's an anti-restless sleeper. The two don't sleep well together.

An hour into the discomfort, I decided to head out to the couch. Maybe that would help my agitation and I'm sure it would help Catherine's potential aggravation with me.

As I walked out, I saw the cat. He was sleeping soundly. He sleeps a lot. Maybe he's depressed. Maybe he's just a cat though - that's what they do. So I quietly tip-toed to the couch, making sure I didn't step on his cute little face or interrupt his dainty little snores.

I tried to lay still on the couch but that didn't work any better than it had on the bed. So I turned on the TV and watched a rerun of The Wire. I kept the sound really low in order to not disturb Catherine, so I'm not quite sure what happened on the show cause I'm no good at reading lips. Either way, it didn't help me to fall asleep.

I tried breathing, meditating and counting sheep. It just got me hungry. My mind was racing and it didn't want my body to lag behind.

Then, just before 1am, - WWWWHHHAMMMO! - an earthquake hit. It wasn't one of those slow rollers that builds up over time. It was one of those smack you in the face type earthquakes that just hits all at once. One shot - THWACK! - and it's gone. The whole place was shaking. The CD rack was wobbling, the wine bottles were rattling and the entire wooden infrastructure of the building was creaking. Mostly, though, my heart was pounding.

EARTHQUAAAAAKKKKE!! I yelled really loudly in my own head to nobody in particular.

I was petrified. Wide awake. I sat up on the couch immediately. Eyes like saucers, I braced myself for the next hit. Where do I go? What do I do? I stood up, looked around. Sat back down. Stay. Wait.

Nothing.

I waited for Catherine to come out of the bedroom.
Nothing.

I waited for sirens, screaming, mayhem. But there was nothing.

I looked over at the cat. He had woken up. He lifted his head and stared at me. "Relax you moron" his eyes seemed to say. "Some of us are trying to sleep around here." Then he put his head back down, curled up into a ball and closed his eyes. I think he may have let out a sigh in the process, the little git.

You're a cat! I thought angrily. You're supposed to warn me of these things! You're supposed to jump up and down, and bounce off the walls and meow and scream and....and..... YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO HELP ME GODDAMMIT!!!!

The cat didn't look up at me or my volatile thoughts. He just laid there like a rock and slept.

After a few minutes, the pounding of my heart slowed to a strong ker-thump and I was able to lay back down on the couch again.

Within a few minutes I was able to fall asleep and slept fairly soundly through til the morning. When Catherine woke up I asked her about the earthquake.

Earthquake? she asked quizzically. What earthquake?

Like her cat, she slept right through it. She slept like a rock.

So I started thinking that maybe I have it all backwards. Maybe I am actually the cat. With my nine lives and pre-earthquake agitation, maybe it's the fear that is driving me in circles. I am my own earthquake warning.

And maybe the little shaker from last night did more than jolt the earth. Perhaps this time, it jolted in me a better understanding of fear. In that fear is not a bad thing. It keeps us alert, and in touch. Fear can help us achieve our best and push to our limits. Fear can lead us to engage with life in ways we didn't think possible, sometimes so closely that you bonk yourself in the head.

Fear can be good. And I suppose it is also helpful to have a good solid rock sleeping next to you at night, just in case.

August 07, 2007

Random Birthday Smiles

It was Catherine's birthday on Thursday (no, it's not too late to sing Happy Birthday. In California the statute of limitations on Happy Birthday singing is one week. You still have time, but you've gotta rush.) In celebration, we decided to spend a few relaxing days doing some "luxury camping" up at El Capitan Canyon.

While we were up there, we rode the bike course for the Santa Barbara Triathlon. Catherine is racing Santa Barbara in three weeks and we heard it's a challenging course so we figured, what the hell. A little familiarization never turned out to be a bad thing.

So we woke up Thursday morning to the cheep cheep of birds, rolled out of our super-plush "camping" bed (which, may I add, was one of the most comfortable hotel - um... i mean, camping - beds that I've ever slept on) and set-off on our biking adventure.

The unfortunate part of the journey was that Catherine was having a fairly crappy happy birthday morning. On any normal day, when you wake up on the proverbial wrong side of the bed, there's a pretty good chance that you'll be able to find your way back to the right side of the bed in due time. Not necessarily on birthdays. I find that when you wake up in a foul mood on birthdays, it tends to spiral down into a foreboding hole. First you feel bad, then you feel bad that you're feeling bad on your birthday, and next think you know you want to have a do-over of the entire day.

Toss in a challenging bike ride, and that ups the ante. As if bike rides aren't frustrating enough on bad-mood days, the horrendous birthday bike ride not only takes the cake but it tosses it on the dirty street and pretty much rides roughshod all over the damn thing with no regard for candles or happy birthday hoopla.

Needless to say, Catherine was riding very slowly with no motivation to move much faster than a slight pedal push and I can only imagine was begging anybody who'd listen for a do-over of this entire day.

I was riding a tad further down the road in front of her. I wanted to make sure I gave her the space we all need when we're feeling bad and ensure that I don't get my head ripped off by undoubtedly saying something completely idiotic. At the same time, I didn't go too far down the road, I didn't want to completely abandon her - I read enough from the Good Boyfriend Manual to get that part correct.

So I kept it nice and easy, glancing over my shoulder periodically to make sure she was still back there. I stopped at all the major turns to make sure she didn't get lost. And I made sure I shut my mouth when we were riding within speaking distance.

We finally had slogged our way through 15 miles and were making the last turn onto the the 2 mile loop at the far end of the course. Seeing three cyclists approaching, I quickly made the left turn at the bottom of the hill and then looked back. Catherine was a good minute or so behind me, so I stopped, pulled off to the side of the road so I didn't block the path of the other cyclists, and I waited.

After a couple of seconds I looked back to assess Catherine's progress. It was at this point that I heard a voice over my shoulder...

How are you?

What the..... ?! I jerked my head around in surprise and found myself looking straight into a woman's bright green jersey. It was the jersey of the same cyclist that was riding towards me but a few seconds ago. How'd she get to me so quickly? Why'd she stop? What does she want? What the hell is going on here?!

Ummm, I'm fine thanks, I replied somewhat confused. Scratch that, extremely confused.

So where you headed?

The confusion mounted. I'm not sure where this conversation was going or why it even started. What does she want? Is she looking for directions? I noticed her other two riding friends had stopped as well. The three of them were in their 50s or 60s. They looked like they were avid riders, though they all displayed a bit of the paunch that comes with the post-peace California hippie lifestyle. The four of us were standing in a circle straddling our respective bikes. This was starting to feel uncomfortable.

Uhhh.... we're....um.... going up thataway. I pointed towards the road we had just turned on. The road we were currently standing in the middle of.

Wow, she said. That's quite a climb, it just winds up and up and up.

She got me nervous about what I was to expect, though that still didn't overshadow the confusion of the conversation. Us Los Angeles people, we don't feel comfortable with random acts of kindness. I've been living in LA for 18 years, I don't like people stopping to just say hello. It creeps me out a bit.

And from what I could gather, the only reason these three cyclists stopped was for no other reason than to say hello. Ew.

Put yourself in my shoes for a moment. Imagine yourself riding down the road with a couple of your friends. You're just out on a beautiful Thursday morning for a lovely spin. Now picture seeing a couple of other riders standing by the side of the road with their bikes. These riders do not look like they are in distress, nor do they look lost. Maybe they are just taking a break, resting their legs. They are not flagging you down. In fact, they are not even looking at you.

So tell me, how many times in your life have you actually stopped your bike ride just to say hello and strike up a conversation with these resting souls? Is it me that's the weird one in this scenario?!

Just about this time, Catherine rolled up. Having spent the past 20-odd years in Los Angeles, I have no doubt that she too was wondering who the hell these people were and why I was talking to them. The man of the group (it was one man and two women, to help with your visualization) looked at Catherine's jersey. She was sporting a cycling jersey from a very popular television show.

This man of the group was probably in his 60s, a bit of a beer belly and long scraggly greyish black hair that was tied into a big braid, stretching down his back. About the stereotypical mid-life crisis hippie you'd expect to see in Santa Barbara.

That's a great show, he said pointing to the emblem on Catherine's chest. Where'd you get that jersey?

A friend of ours is on the show, Catherine and I said in unison.

Oh? the man said. A cameraman from that show used to live next to us in Los Angeles.

Really? I asked, recognizing that I seemed to be striking up a friendly conversation. What is his name?

You see, I know one cameraman from the show, but just barely. He is the brother-in-law of a friend of mine. I don't know the guy well but I went on a bike ride with him not too long ago. Still, I don't know why I even asked the question. The odds of it being the same person are pretty small.

What was his name? the man asked himself as he looked towards the other woman, who we deduced must be his wife. And then after a brief moment of thought, Matt! he said. His name is Matt!

No kidding? I said. The Matt that just had a baby?

Yeah, he replied excitedly. About a year ago.

Yes!! I got a little excited myself. And he and his wife just remodeled their house, right?!?

They did! the hippie's wife jumped in, feeling just as much excitement. I drove by the house last week, she said, and saw that they had finished the remodel!

That's too funny, I laughed. I know Matt! I went riding with the guy a few months ago! What are the odds that we know the same guy?!

We all had a good chuckle and somehow I then got into a conversation with James the neo-hippie about television and entertainment and all sorts of fancy Southern California topics, while Catherine yammered away with the two women.

Since James and his wife are approaching retirement age, they decided to sell their home in Los Angeles and buy a piece of property in Santa Barbara where they can live out their days in peace and beauty. James still works in television as a producer and director.

Interesting, I said. Do you by any chance know Keith Johnson*? (*Some names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

Of course I know Keith! James the neo-hippie burst out with a smile. Keith is a GREAT guy! I worked with Keith a bunch of years ago and...

I interrupted him and, with a shit-eating grin, pointed at Catherine. Keith is her brother-in-law.

James turned to Catherine with a huge smile on his face and interrupted her conversation. KEITH JOHNSON IS YOUR BROTHER-IN-LAW?! He burst out in jubilation like a 5 year old when the clown first arrives at the birthday party. Keith is a wonderful guy! Great guy! I love Keith! I worked with him on his movie in Arizona! He's one of the best guys in the business... and on and on hippie-guy went about Catherine's brother-in-law.

It was just about this time that the big pick-up truck pulled onto the road. The Marlboro Man driver stopped the truck right by us and rolled down his window. Any of you thinking of riding up this road? he asked, pointing directly up the road that Catherine and I were about to ride.

Yes, we are, I responded as I pointed to Catherine.

Just so you know, he continued, there's a mountain lion up there that's been coming out at all times of the day. I'd be careful if I were you.

And off he drove.

OK. At this point I started to hypothetically soil my pants. Mountain lion? Up this road? I don't like mountain lions. I don't like the thought of them nibbling on my limbs and then using my thin little bones to floss their teeth. Mountain lions are good for zoos and shows on Animal Planet. I like the concept of mountain lions, not the real thing.

With the fear of mountain lion rustling my stomach, we bid farewell to our new found friends. Perhaps the conversation had faded away, or maybe they just wanted to get the hell outta dodge before they became a side-dish at the mountain lion buffet.

Do we want to go up this road? I asked Catherine hesitantly, hoping to dear God that maybe she'd say no. Maybe today she'd say something like "let's not get mauled by a mountain lion on my birthday."

Heck yeah, she said, and started pedaling.

I hopped on my saddle and started following. And I didn't mind. I didn't even respond. Because I saw a smile on her face and a gleen in her eye and I hadn't seen either of those all day. Suddenly I knew everything was going to be ok.

There was no pain in front of us, we had left it all behind. Random people on a random road on a random day in a random city brought random kindness into my girlfriend's otherwise dreadful birthday morning. And seeing her smile is enough for me to not care about the measly little mountain lions.