A Change of Pace: 2017 Bike the Drive

For those of us who had a bike as kids, there was something liberating about the machine. It let us travel farther, faster, and with a sort of reckless abandon that often begged for a lesson learned the hard way. And yet, as kids, it almost felt like a toy. We’d drop it in the grass at our friends’ houses, wouldn’t clean or take care of it, and we’d watch with dead eyes as it became a relic in our garage, its chain quickly becoming a rusted tangle of brown teeth.

In Costa Rica, I learned to love mountain biking mostly because flat stretches of road are rare. As a senior in high school, I would wake up at sunrise to join my uncle for an hour-long ride around our neighborhood, which usually involved many climbs around coffee plantations. At no point during these rides do I remember treating them as exercise. I hadn’t developed the attitude towards health and fitness that I have today, and I was a skinny kid with no imperative reason to lose weight. I was just out there because it was fun.

It wasn’t always that way.

Biking el Rincón de la Vieja volcano in 2000. That’s me on the far right.

The sport was one of my extended family’s favorite pastimes. My uncles often organized trips to nearby volcanoes, where half of the family would stay at a hotel while the rest would hop on mountain bikes and grind up and down the surrounding peaks for hours. The rides weren’t easy. More than one uphill slope stopped us in our tracks, some slick trails were too much for my treads, and rain was always a looming threat. These challenges always made reaching our destination far more worthwhile than merely sitting on an air-conditioned bus.

I remember specifically joining a gym and participating in my first ever Spinning class to prepare for what I anticipated would be a serious throttling of my legs and lungs. It was the first time in my life that I actively trained for something, hoping to get more out of my body, to go farther, faster, and not get left behind.

Bike the Drive’s southern tip, the Museum of Science and Industry

Since high school, I’ve gotten on a bike exactly once. I never owned one in college and in every apartment I’ve lived in since graduating, it never felt like I had enough space to have one. I always lived near a train and multiple bus routes and could freely move around the city, and my fitness was no longer an issue once I discovered running. Consumed by a new sport and diving headfirst into it, I stopped looking for places in my apartment to stash a bike.

A phantom itch lingered, though. I’d feel it every time I’d witness a triathlon or as I’d watch the Tour de France. There was something far more liberating about riding a bike that running couldn’t match. Though I had reached a level where I could run up to twenty miles, I would usually be incredibly tired, sweaty, and starving by the end. Running from Chicago to Evanston, for example, always felt like an incredible feat, but once there, I’d usually be completely spent and in dire need of a change of clothes.

I kept telling my friends that I would get a bike once I soured on running, that I’d eventually want to attempt a triathlon. The desire to ride was always tied to running, which wasn’t losing its luster as I continued to find new goals and events to test my dedication. I was even still somehow getting faster by finding new ways to push my limits. It was going to take something monumental to get me on the saddle. Nothing short of a great disruption would force me to change gears, pun intended, during a prolonged, injury-free stretch of successful locomotion.

Chicago as seen from the south

So the Great Disruptor himself answered the provocation.

My father-in-law, almost completely responsible for turning me into a runner, signed up the entire family for a crazy event he has completed several times already, the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI). As the name plainly states, it’s a seven-day, self-propelled westward bike ride across our neighboring state. Each day averages about sixty miles and riders are expected to encounter winds, rain, and hills, despite everyone’s idea that Iowa is nothing but flat corn fields.

After finding a bike, which wasn’t easy as my legs amount to roughly 80% of my height, it was time to start riding.

I took to my usual running path on two wheels and remembered with instant clarity how easy it is to go long distances on a bike. I reached Promontory Point, an outcropping of lake path that becomes a social hub in summer, without breaking a sweat. I was pretty far from home, but the effort to return would still be a fraction of what it would be on my own two feet. I spent that entire ride smiling, enjoying something I had missed for far too long, expanding my radius of freedom with every pedal rotation.

In the heart of Grant Park, no cars allowed. Such a heavenly liberal bubble.

A few weeks later we signed up for Bike the Drive, an annual event in Chicago where the famous Lake Shore Drive is closed to vehicular traffic, allowing for a 31-mile stretch of nearly flat pavement for 20,000 cyclists to enjoy. It was a still morning, with nary a breeze to be felt, with a comfortable late spring warmth. All five of us were there; my parents-in-law riding together, Steph and her sister Janine opting to keep each other company, leaving me to ride ahead at my own pace.

I flew up Lake Shore Drive, clutching the handlebars as I reached new speeds I could never hit on a mountain bike. I flew past families with kids in tow, large groups with colorful, custom jerseys, and the occasional recumbent bike. I had no intention of stopping at the rest stations and kept covering distance, feeling as my heartbeat slowly rose.

As I rolled over Lake Shore Drive’s gentle hills, I got a much better sense of how my body was responding to this new sport. When I run, regardless of pace, my goal is to stay strong and composed as long as possible. With every step, my heart rate inches ever upward, my legs tire, and I feel as vitality is slowly leeched from every pore. It’s a slow, inexorable path towards fatigue and eventually pain.

Family pit stop at Bryn Mawr, the circuit’s northernmost tip

On the bike, it was a reliable pattern, an ebb and flow of pain and relief. Just as I’d start feeling winded and tired, a sure sign of an impending slowdown, I’d feel great again. The moment my legs would begin to feel acidic was followed by a stretch of easy riding. This reliable pattern stayed with me until the final turn onto Columbus Drive, marking the end of the event’s full circuit.

Though the ride had no significant elevation change, it was the perfect introduction to going long. I felt like I had accomplished something at the end, even if the total distance was about half of what we should expect to ride every day for a week straight in Iowa.

Steph and Janine still having fun 25 miles in

But most importantly, I loved it. It’s very easy to get stuck in one’s ways, especially when the going is good. Having gone completely uninjured since last March and generally faster on average, my running had been seeing one of its most successful and long-lasting stretches. While this is great on its face, it does have the potential to put up blinders to many new adventures. As long as everything is going well, the incentive to try out something new diminishes.

So I’m once again grateful to Steve, whose predilection for family events once again has us all, literally and figuratively, staring at an uphill climb. The first time he did this it was for a flat 8k in the city, one that would eventually transform me into the long-distance fanatic I am today. It’s too early to tell if RAGBRAI will have a similar effect.

But if my unbridled excitement is any indication, I think I know the answer.

Shore Footed: 2017 New Jersey Marathon (State #47)

It’s hard to PR these days.

New Jersey Marathon Starting Line

They say that you reach your peak after seven years of running. While I can’t name with any due certainty who “they” are, there seems to be widespread agreement on this theory. Something potentially stalls after seven years of consistent training and a self-propelled drive to improve. It could be aging, burnout, or the ignition of a very specific gene that targets your VO2 max with surgical precision. Regardless, this theory exists and as someone who is still very much on board with running and improving my times, I refuse to succumb to it.

But despite the inspirational aphorisms to the contrary, running is very much a physical activity. After this much time, running through my late 20s and early 30s, what many scientists and laypeople alike would consider the tail end of someone’s athletic prime, my best times become harder and harder to best. So when I decided to re-focus my training in 2017 to once again try and qualify for Boston, I knew I had to do something new, something different, something that those familiar with my training habits would consider radical.

I joined a running group.

Thanks to Fleet Feet Chicago’s Boston365 running group, I honed my speed like I never had before. We would gather on Wednesday nights in the parking lot of Lincoln Park Zoo, rocketing through intervals in dense pelotons, and reconvene in the hilly suburb of Barrington on Saturday mornings for long runs. As the weeks went on, I expanded my comfort level with explosive speed, setting an aggressive PR at the 8k distance in late March. But I wasn’t quite enjoying the same surge in improvement with long runs.

Everyone in the group was training either for the Boston Marathon or another race held shortly after. I had chosen the New Jersey Marathon in Oceanport as my spring race, the event that was going to bear the brunt of all my training. It not only takes place in a state I have yet to run, but I quickly learned that it is considered one of the flattest races in the country.

Smiling through mile 6

The race began on the grounds of a raceway in Long Branch, a few miles west of the coastal town of Oceanport. Shaking off my last minute nerves, I put on my sunglasses to block the eastward breeze keeping us cool. It was game time. I had put in four months of solid, uninterrupted training for this race, each of which broke that month’s mileage record. I had run 50% more miles leading up to his race than in the same time period before my standing marathon PR. I had masterfully eaten a reliable stream of carbs in the three days prior and hadn’t even sipped a beer in ten days.

So it was with great confidence that I knew literally anything was possible.

Anyone who has ever run a marathon will tell you that nothing is guaranteed. The distance is so long that it gives ample opportunity for anything to happen. If you start too fast in a 5k, you will probably only suffer for one mile, and even then the decay won’t be as pronounced. If you overdo it in a half marathon, you might not know it until mile 9. But over the course of 26.2, you could be riding high for 15 miles before you even get a hint that this glory chase is actually a fool’s errand.

Mile 20 at the Asbury Park Boardwalk

And that is mostly what happened to me. When you’re trying to qualify for Boston at my age, you have to run a marathon in about 3 hours, 8 minutes. That, therefore, requires that you pass the half marathon mark in about an hour and thirty-four minutes. Thanks to gray skies and a cooling sea breeze, I was able to confidently run the first half of this race about a minute slower. Many times during that first half, I evaluated my form, my breathing, my turnover, and cadence, feeling emboldened by how easy it felt to carry a 7:09 pace this far into a race.

Two miles later, I got the first indication that this wasn’t my day. As I ran through black asphalt ocean-side neighborhoods, I glanced at my watch and saw that my pace was ten seconds slower than my target pace. That would normally not be an issue were it not for the noticeable uptick in perceived effort. This early in the race, I knew there was no way I could keep up the pace. Had this slowdown happened after mile 23, I could dig deep into my grab-bag of clichés and save the day. But at mile 15 you’re not even past the psychological halfway mark.

Mile 24

I was therefore faced with that frustrating decision: do I keep going as fast as I can, whatever that pace may be, and dip my attitude into a vat of acid for the rest of the race, or force myself to slow down gradually, at my own pace, and still somehow enjoy the experience?

Salvaging the race and finishing with a semblance of a smile felt like the better option. I know what it’s like to snarl through the second half to finish with an unimpressive time. It shines a pool of light on the decision some elites make to simply drop out of a race around 30k rather than finish. If you’ve been training for months to murder your PR and you can tell this early that it’s not going to happen, what is the real reason to fight against the strain?

Mile 26.1, oceanside

The only real reason was simply because! Life is for the living! Leave it all on the field! Nut up or shut up! But you can’t make that decision until you’re actually running the race and can feel the blood pounding in your head and lungs, realizing that every mile will only get worse if you continue to resist the ever mounting weight in your legs. When you’ve run 36 marathons, you learn to take these days in stride, pun fully intended.

All of this is to say, I took it easy in the second half despite running smoothly through the race’s early miles. It seemed that my group runs had imbued me with great speed but not with the necessary endurance to keep it going. Moving forward I might try and break one of the foundational rules of long-distance training, and actually run some of my longer distances at race pace, rather than just the last few miles. My subpar performance in New Jersey (a 3:41 for those who care) hasn’t killed the quest to BQ, just delayed it until the fall.

Surprise race participants Chris (remember him?) and debut marathon slash birthday girl Melissa

As for the race itself, I really enjoyed it. It was easily one of the flattest courses I’ve ever run, especially the second half. What begins in tree-lined residential neighborhoods on wide roads eventually became a tour of New Jersey’s many seaside communities, from Long Branch to Asbury Park, Allenhurst, and Monmouth Beach.  Several miles were run on dew-soaked wooden planks, which felt elastic after seventeen miles of black asphalt. The smells of sea salt mixed with cotton candy as runners passed through each new community, the crowds lining the shore growing as the miles ticked up.

With state 47 behind me, I have just West Virginia, Alaska, and Hawaii to visit to bring my 50 states journey to a provisional close. In between now and then, I’m letting myself be lured down a new path, one with its own language, maps, and cultures, not only to explore uncharted terrain but to reignite the flame of athletic discovery and re-draw at further distances the lines that we call our limits.

Ever onwards.