Sunday, May 12, 2013

California Dreaming

I spent the last several months traveling around the world, looking for that elusive “perfect” place, and lo and behold, it turns out that the one of the best spots out there was just a quick Southwest flight across the U.S. – San Diego.

I know that I live in Illinois, and I know that I pretty well skipped the worst part of winter and hung out in New Zealand instead, thus giving me really no right to complain about cold weather, but since my return to the States in March, I’ve whined about the cold with the best of them.  “Another trainer ride?  Oh, COME on!”  I’d moan, with a complete lack of self-awareness about the fact that I’d been spared months of trainer riding that my Midwestern friends had to endure. How annoying.

It was on one of those cold early (maybe even snowy) April days when Liz suggested heading out to San Diego for a weekend of warm weather training.  I hesitated about half a second before agreeing.  I needed the sun!  


 Liz is my coach and has been for the roughly 1.5 years that I’ve been taking triathlon seriously (that actually sounds like a really short amount of time when I write that).   In that time, she’s also become a friend, role model, mentor, etc. etc., and, together with her husband and kid, have really generously welcomed me into their home for a couple stints this year when I’ve found myself back in Illinois, but lacking access to my own home, which is rented out.  I train well with Liz… she’s a speedy little booger, so I always need to up my game to stick with her.  We definitely push each other but don’t really get competitive in that catty way that can happen sometimes.  It works, and I think the training I’ve done with Liz has made me a much better athlete.  The San Diego weekend was no exception.  


We left Chicago at o’dark-thirty on Thursday morning.  My plan for the trip was basically to ride my ass off for four days, swim a little, and enjoy getting to know San Diego (and its beers) between workouts.  Liz and her husband have been to San Diego for training vacations many times, she clearly loves the place, and the excitement with which she talked about all of her favorite spots (both riding and drinking) was infectious.  Liz’s plan incorporated running, too, but while I’m not going to use the dreaded “i” word here, I will say that I did not run a step in San Diego, nor had I run for a few days prior (and it’s a stretch to really call the hobbling around I was doing in the preceding weeks “running,” either).  Another blog entry, maybe (probably not) but that's that.   

Anyway, upon arrival, we made what we thought were respectable efforts at assembling our bikes, with only a few fruitless searches for how-to videos on YouTube, and then set out for a fairly easy ride along the coast.  Holy bike lanes, Batman!  I’ve never seen a city so accommodating to cyclists.  It was awesome.

Well over an hour into the ride, we stopped in at Nytro Multisport to have our bike assembly double-checked.  Turns out, our efforts were maybe not so respectable.  The skewer for my back tire, for example…not adequately tightened.  Meaning I was lucky that my back tire never just fell right off and rolled into the ocean, and confirming that which I’ve known for months—I should not be allowed to have nice things, and when it comes to bikes, I’ve got just about no clue.  I need a mechanic on staff.   


Since Friday was forecasted to be quite hot, we decided to use that day to climb Palomar Mountain, which would be a bit cooler and more shaded than the other routes on the agenda.    Now this whole mountain-climbing thing is still pretty new to me.  I did climb some mountains during my little training trip in Spain last fall, and they pretty well killed me, but Palomar was a bit longer and steeper than any of those climbs.  Add to that that I wasn’t terribly confident in my bike fitness or my ability to haul my self up hills, much less mountains, with any sort of speed, and I was more than a little nervous about that climb.  Liz didn’t make it a whole lot better when she started in on the trash talk, asserting her proven prowess over Palomar Mountain and making it clear that I had “no idea what I was in for.”  

 And she was right.  I had no idea what I was in for.  

 I haven’t had a whole lot of breakthrough workouts lately as I’m still just trying to get back into the swing of things and manage my aches and pains, but I’ll give this Palomar ride the “breakthrough” title because for me, it started really, really badly, but I managed to turn it around and have a very good day.   I don’t know if I wasn’t ready for the climbing or just a little overheated or what, but once we got on Palomar Mountain and started climbing the initial, very steep section, I was just about to throw in the towel and head back to the car.  We were only 10 minutes into a climb that would take a bit less than 90 minutes, I was out of gears, I was rapidly going through my water, and it was all I could do not to start making dying animal noises as I gasped for air.   The idea of continuing on like that for another hour + seemed, well, impossible, and when we got stopped briefly by a construction worker, I turned to Liz and said, completely seriously and a little on the verge of tears, “I don’t think I can do this.”  Mentally, I was done before we’d even started. 

But Liz is smart, blunt, and I think as a coach has learned how to deal with me and my way-too-frequent moments of self-doubt.  “Yes, you can do it,” she said simply.  “It doesn’t have to be fast, just get up the mountain.”   End of discussion.

So I did.  I stopped thinking and just rode. I took in some salt, I sucked down a gel, I hydrated myself, and I got back to work and accepted my fate for the next hour+.  Pretty soon I was in a rhythm (2 gasps in, 2 gasps out), climbing well and actually enjoying myself.  The road was steep but the views were spectacular, I was hurting, really, really hurting, but I knew I was having a good, confidence-boosting ride and that propelled me forward.  

 What seemed like a million switchbacks later (actually 21), I’d gotten to the summit, my legs feeling a little jello-like and the hamstrings on both sides cramping up as soon as I got off the bike.   The sign of a good ride.  

A little more climbing to the Palomar Observatory, and then it was a long, hot descent.  I enjoyed every minute.  The best part of climbing a mountain?  Descending back down that mountain.  No question. 


From there, my day further descended downhill, in terms of health & responsibility, with the “vices” piling up on my end while Liz continued to do everything right.   Liz went running; I drank a beergarita in the shade.  Liz was ready to head home; I coaxed her into a casino, throwing down money at the craps table that I don’t really have.  After dinner, she spent the evening laying in bed with her computer, working and recovering and preparing for the next day like a good, responsible athlete and person.   By contrast, I took at nap at 7 PM (who does that??) then went out and walked all over La Jolla, checking out the ocean and the barking seals and then treating myself to a massive frozen yogurt.   I may not have recovered as well as I could have from the ride, but that frozen yogurt and those sunset views?  Worth it. 

This is how I "recover" from hard rides

By Saturday, Liz had figured out two of my weaknesses -- 1. breakfast food 2. ability to shift between my big and small chain rings without dropping my chain --  and absolutely exploited them, first suggesting a “proper” (read:huge) breakfast before leading me on a ride heading towards and through the Elfin Forest with numerous short, steep climbs that required the skilled shifting that I lack.   After the first hour+, when I’d already overextended myself a bit on the early climbs and cursed that big breakfast about 27 times, we hit Elfin Forest.  Liz owns Elfin Forest.  She sprinted onwards, taking me a little by surprise, and started really attacking the hills, getting out of her saddle, hammering each one and then taking the next one even harder, while I followed suit and just tried to hang on, to keep her in reach, to make up time on the downhills where my size is of benefit.  At one point, I wondered if Liz was trying to kill me; death by hill sprints.   She might have been.  I’m still not sure.  But it was an amazing workout, and I was pretty proud of myself for ignoring the rapidly accumulating lactic acid and powering through. Day 3 of California riding, down.

La Jolla
And then there was this.

I squeezed in one more ride on Sunday, doing some repeats of the famous Torrey Pines hill until I got to a point, about 90 minutes in, when I was completely spent, just totally over the edge in terms of fatigue.  I struggled to get home, downing gels like candy, willing my legs to keep turning over, and when I staggered back into the hotel room, I knew my work was done.

The Good Stuff 

Between all the riding was the really good stuff:  4000+ yard swims in two different pools, which for those of you playing along at home, brings my 2012-2013 World Travel pool total to 39.  Amazing craft beers, chosen from a menu that was completely overwhelming due to its sheer size, and enjoyed while sitting outside around a fire pit at Stone Brewery.  Brunches.  Coffee, lots of coffee.  Barking seals.  Beach walking.  Shopping.  Carb-filled, but mostly healthy dinners.  Outdoor seating.  The aforementioned casino.  Good conversations, lots of laughs.  Sunshine.  Basically all of my favorite things (well, except running, but we’re getting there) squeezed into four days.  It was fantastic.

Masters at the UCSD pool
I do really love these little occasions to just get on my bike, take risks, race up hills, go hard when I want to go hard, then set the bike away and do it again the next day.  I’ve now had three of these little “bike” vacations – (1) RAGBRAI, last July in Iowa, when I rode my bike with reckless abandon from small Iowa town to small Iowa town, breaking up the rides with beer and pork chops on sticks (hardly performance food) but still really putting it all out there on the bike;  (2) my bike week with Vamos Cycling in southern Spain last fall, when I chased British roadie boys up and down mountains, breaking up the rides again with junk food, this time in the form of sausages and fried fish; and (3) this weekend’s San Diego trip, where the rides were most certainly NOT punctuated with consumption of junk food, unless you count Power Bar Gels and salt tabs as junk food, which I do not.   We won’t talk about that one orange soda I bought on the top of Palomar Mountain.  That doesn’t count.  

Every one of those little bike trips has been a good opportunity for me to really test my limits as a cyclist.  Each time, I’ve used my road bike (a cheap-o that I bought on Craigslist), which has none of the bells and whistles of my tri bike, meaning no access to power data, or really, any data other than miles per hour, (a metric that means approximately nothing to me when doing the sort of climbing we were doing.)   As a result, I’ve thrown away any sort of notions of pacing, and just gotten out there and worked hard, hammered when I wanted to, risked blowing up early in rides, just had fun with it.   And each time I’ve seen a pretty nice bump to my bike fitness, which I’ve already observed in the days that I’ve been back in Illinois.  

Heading out to San Diego was just what the doctor ordered, and I arrived back in Illinois to warmer temperatures (didn't last long), feeling stronger and more motivated.   Now, I just have to start figuring out the next adventure!



  1. Nice! Sounds like an awesome trip!!! Very jealous :)

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