Endurance, Recovery, and the Miracle of The Bike

This is a topic I’d been wanting to write about previously, but have only now found the motivation after my recent and unplanned decision to run a marathon.  Now, with my legs as tight as a drum, and my general mobility restricted to the house, I’ve found the motivation to put together some words on the subject.

The concept of the bike as a miracle of recovery and endurance first took hold of my mind this summer when Liz and I were getting into our first single day alpine endeavors.  Our ability to quickly and efficiently cover so much ground was inspiring, and it seemed to me that the secret to our success was due to the fact that whenever our bodies would tire from one discipline we’d be getting ready to transition to another.  Quads getting killed after climbing our bicycles up more than 2000 vertical feet over a dozen miles?  Just in time to transition to the 5 mile hike.  Feet getting sore from pounding the trail?  Just in time to switch to some 4th and 5th class climbing.  After another 2000 vert. of that, with our hands and upper body screaming for relief, you reach the summit and start the cycle over again; hike down, jump on the bike, cruise back to town.  Granted, the easily accessible nature of the Stuart Range and the Leavenworth area in general makes this an ideal place for such human powered adventures, and that is a big reason why we chose this area as a sort of proving grounds for what has become our passion and purpose.  Other ranges are more remote, with longer approaches, and nearby towns or communities more far removed.  We’ll be there soon, but for now we’re content to build up to these bigger goals and bigger mountains.

What really amazed me about these single day, multi-sport adventures was our body’s almost instantaneous recovery.  These marathon days, that could cover almost 50 miles and up to 10,000 feet of vertical gain over a single 15-20 hour period of time, seemed to go by so easily, leaving no residue of pain the next day.  Some of this might be attributed to the highly nutri-fied and naturally vegan-ized diet that seems to provide our bodies with a more “clean” source of energy and generally makes our bodies feel and perform better (a subject I’ll leave for Liz to touch on another day), but what I assumed to be the reason for this almost super-human turn around time was the restorative and low-impact nature of the bicycle.  We’re not actually superhuman, and while we may devote our life to some sports as much as professionals, we’re not, so I figured our success was due to some combination of influences that allowed us to preform so well.  What I’m trying to say is that although this lifestyle of cycling and climbing is hard, anyone can do it, if you can climb a mountain, you can ride a bike, and vise versa.  For us, the bike is a means, as well as an end in itself, from its simple satisfaction and independent mobility, to the powerful training tool that it is.  Basically, it’s my belief that by beginning and ending the day with what amounts to a leisurely bike ride, we’re giving our bodies a chance to warm up, and warm down.  Specifically, it is the finishing of our days with cycling that I believe gives our bodies the best warm down and recovery possible, due to the simple act of “spinning” away and re-circulating our body’s excess lactic acid that had accumulated throughout the day.

Weather or not this is the case it’s hard to day, without empirical evidence and scientific study, of which most sports are in abundance of today, my off hand conjecture doesn’t go very far.  But I stand behind what I feel, and that is: better.  For years I have climbed and hiked to my hearts content, only to trundle back to trailheads and collapse in a car.  By making use of the bicycle as a means of transportation to the mountains, I feel better at the end of the day.  I recover more quickly, feel less fatigue and generally less sore after returning from a long day in the mountains.  Compared to riding home in the seat of a car, the bike is just another leg of the adventure.  Ironic?  Counter-intuitive?  Maybe, but I think we can all relate to the reality that our bodies have a natural instinct to start or end your day with some light stretching or yoga.  After a long period of standing, walking, running or whatever, it feels good to give your body a little attention before you fall in bed, and chances are you’ll be thankful you did the next morning, when you wake up less sore and have more energy then you would have otherwise.  Sometimes the right sort of activity can go a long way towards making your body feel better, after all, it’s made to move and be used, and the act of driving a car doesn’t really accomplish that.

Whenever we see friends or meet new folks at a crag or trailhead, the most likely comment is “that’s great training”.  Not really wanting to get all evangelical and explain that we are cycling because of our commitment to the environment, sustainability, as well as for the added adventure, we usually nod and agree, and leave thinking; yeah, great training for life!  But as subtle as it may seem, we are always training, training for life.  While I won’t get into the finer points of bicycle commuting or the climbing lifestyle right now, I will say that when you don’t own a car but you want to continue to climb at a high level, you’re basically training to become a hardman.  And the opposite is just as true, sitting in a car, watching television, typing away at this computer, what is that training for?  The Rat Race?  Not any competition I want to be a part of anyway.

Which brings me to my last, point, not really my reason for writing this but more like the event that created the opportunity.  So if you’ve made it this far enjoy this little story about how I got my ass whooped by myself, why I’m feeling broken and sore and confined to the house.

For those of you who know me, I was a runner throughout high school.  While I didn’t achieve the highest honors or break any records, I was pretty good, I did manage to win a few races and occasionally come home with a gift certificate for shoes or whatever.  Becoming a ski bum has effectively terminated my running career, and although I still jog occasionally for fun in the summer, for 6 months out of the year my feet effectively never leave the snow.  Running is a cathartic and liberating experience, when I run I feel free and as light as the air around me, that is unless I’m still working on digesting a bean burrito or whatever.  The point is I still love it, and when I learned that there is an annual marathon held in Leavenworth each October, I was keen to race.  I’ve always fancied myself a distance runner and some of my best performances were in races of 10 kilometers or greater.  I’ve run 5 half marathons, and although that’s the greatest distance I’ve ever run, I did manage to almost win a couple of them with paces under 6 minutes per mile.  This whole summer I’d toyed with the idea of competing in the marathon.  I told myself I could train and make it happen, and as each month passed by, having run at most an average of once a week, for about 4 miles, I would tell myself I still had plenty of time.  “Two months is plenty of time to train for a marathon” I would say, and indeed it might be, if you actually trained, but instead I rode around on my bike and focused my efforts on climbing and writing.  As the weeks wore on I pretty much wrote it off, training that is, but another interesting thing started to happen, I was convincing myself I didn’t need to train and that all this effort Liz and I were putting into cycling and climbing in the mountains was as effective as any marathon training plan.  Well, my thought process wasn’t nearly this concise but I do remember thinking that if I can trudge up a hill with a 50 pound pack for 5 hours, I can sure as shit keep my body running for a two or three hours, and I was probably right.

So after we returned from our last trip to the mountains, I took a few days to chill out before going back out on a run, but when I did I noticed all the course preparations were being made for the marathon to take place the next day.  I was feeling pretty good on this run, even better when I started imagining myself at the front of the pack, striding my way to victory.  So when I got home I did a little research online to figure out if I really wanted to make it happen.  The course starts almost 15 miles from my house at 7 am and I wasn’t too keen on riding my bike out there and stashing it for the day.  I was planning on running renegade (not paying) but I didn’t know how easy it would be to scam a ride on one of the shuttles going to the start.  When I learned that there would be some spots available for day-of registration, I began to toy with the idea of paying to play.  The cost of day-of registration was $124, which is putting it mildly, slightly over my pay-grade, but after turning it over in my head, I decided I’d ride out to sign up in the morning, and see if they would accept a low-ball offer to race.  I figured my chances were good after hearing that some runners had already dropped out because of the chance of smoke in the air.

So the next day, after 4 hours of sleep I woke up at 4:30 and rode my bike to suss it out.  I quickly gathered that getting a ride to the start wouldn’t be a problem as they had a half dozen school buses lined up for that purpose, but I decided anyway to try my hand at getting a number so I could take part in the post race feasting and free t-shirt, my favorite parts aside from the glory of victory.  To my delight they accepted my offer and gave me a number, and I jumped on the bus that was to deliver me to the start.

Here’s were the fun begins.

To recap, I haven’t ever run farther then 13.1 miles, I haven’t run over 7 or 8 miles this whole summer, and would be lucky if all the runs I’ve taken this summer average out to one a week.  My runs this season have usually been in the range of 3-5 miles, with a a mile or two of barefoot thrown in for good measure.  But I was determined, I’d done the research and seen the winning times over the last two years were barely faster then 2 hours 50 minutes.  If I could run sub 3, I would be finishing in style, but more then that, I assumed I had this “in the bag”, and pretty much expected not only to win, but to dominate.  It’s all a mind game anyway, right, and these guys looked soft as puppy crap.

So I lined up and we started off.  The course begins with about 10 miles of serious downhill, and not wanting to blow my load I picked the most bad-ass looking dude and stuck to his shoulder.  He had a pretty relaxed pace and I was thinking, “seriously, I can’t run this slow all day”.  In reality we were running sub 7 minute miles which is pretty damn good.  I was patient and hung out till the end of the hill, at which point my pacing partner told me that if I was going to catch the leaders, I should make my move, as they were getting away.  Never did it cross my mind to play it cool and not do anything crazy, nor did I think there was any possibility this guy was trying to play me and get me to burn myself out.  We had passed the halfway point in a little under 1:30, and somehow I was still confident in my ability to run negative splits and win the race.  So I took him for his word and blazed off, covering the 5 or more minutes that separated us from the leaders in about 2 miles.  It is here that I should mention that it was a woman leading the race, that’s right a woman, so as if my delusions of grander and victory weren’t enough, my ego took this as further evidence that I was completely capable of winning, after all, I only have to beat this girl.  As another competitor said later that day, “Is it that girl up front?”, “yeah” I responded, “oh man we’re all losers today”.  Well I made my bid and burned it till I was about 100 meters behind this chick, at which point my calf’s went from being merely ‘a little tight’ to as hard as steel.  I pushed on for as long as I could but continued to deteriorate, my calf’s continuously getting harder and harder, my stride smaller and smaller.  Really I felt fine, from my waist up that is, and I was just waiting for my second wind.  Unfortunately, it never came.

Those last 9 miles were tough, the last 6, really tough, and the last 2, were downright ridiculous.  If the rest of my body had been shutting down with the same force as my legs, I might have called it terrible, or horrible, but for whatever reason I was spared this torture and left with a clear mind to appreciate the agony of my legs an the painfully slow pace that I was physically limited to.  My pace slowed, and slowed, all those I head led or passed came back to pass me, including my previous pace setter.  I called on encouragement as they went, unable to change my stride.  In my mind I do have one saving grace, that I didn’t stop, I contemplated it often but in the end I trudged on my measly way to the very end, probably covering the last mile in over 20 minutes, maybe 30 for all I know, I didn’t wear a watch, I was gonna win, baller.

Liz made it out for the finish, snapped a few photos and helped me hobble around to grab some food and the t-shirt, score!  I knew I’d better get home before my legs solidified into stone which meant climbing onto my bike, and pedalling the 4 miles back to town.  So if you’re still here, disregard everything I said about the “miracle of the bike”.  I don’t know how far I would have needed to ride in order to undo all the trauma of that day, but I didn’t come close.  I made it home, laid down, and now my legs are stone.  With a little bit of help from the two finest inventions of self-help and recovery; the stick and the theracane, I’ve lost some of the pain and regained some mobility, but not much.  You can check out the results here, I think it looks better on paper if that counts for anything.  The woman won, and put us all to shame, the first male finisher was the dude I followed for the first half, probably should have just stuck with him.  Enjoy that story for what it is, a look into my foolhardy, crass, headstrong nature.  I’ve no regrets, I almost beat that chick.



4 thoughts on “Endurance, Recovery, and the Miracle of The Bike

  1. Taylor Rogers

    Awesome job man, this is the greatest post race summary I’ve ever read, made better by the great introduction.

    Anyone who can throw down a 3:22 without training is a horse. Fun fact that if you dropped a 3:22 in Boston you would have finished around 2040th out of 22,485 starters… and there is only one hill in Boston.



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