In this entry, I discuss my decision to add mountain biking to my “craft” as a zendurance athlete, and to my training and racing.
Mountain biking has always been attractive to me: Training and racing in quiet natural environments always leaves me with a sense of well-being. That’s why I love “Survival of the Shawangunks” so much. It’s an unconventional “triathlon” held in a beautiful nature preserve.
In 2004-05, living in Lake Placid, I did MTB training and occasionally raced. Lake Placid has some great technical trails that really engaged and challenged my “kinetic intelligence”. I gravitated to these technical challenges.
First, I want to discuss how the practice of mountain biking enhances my craft. Practice in this context refers to a mindful activity that I engage in regularly. Sure, I benefit from the exercise by improving my aerobic fitness, but I don’t really need any more aerobic training. However, the mindful practice enhances my life and stimulates personal growth on deeper levels.
Through the mindful practice of mountain biking I gain awareness about how I respond to challenging situations in my life. I have a tendency (like so many of us) to tense up, engage in my fears, fixate on the obstacle or challenge and fail to see beyond it.
Ah! To ride challenging terrain with grace and efficiency!. I must relax, stay energetically integrated with my bike and focus on where I choose to go – not on where I am afraid I might go. Mountain biking is for me a powerful practice of choosing the path of least resistance – often through split-second decisions that require gut-level intuition.
In my life, I have found that the most effective way to improve mindfulness and my mental habits and problem solving skills is through mindful movement. In college, I chose to study Modern Dance for the simple reason that I learn best through movement rather than through reading and writing.
Concurrently with my dance studies, I began my life-long practice of T’ai Chi. I learned the movements and principles by using the book “T’ai Chi”, by Cheng Man-ch’ing and Robert Smith. About 5-6 years after I began my practice (completely self-taught with the help of that book), I made a startling discovery.
I stumbled upon and began to read a book about Taoism. I realized that everything presented in the book was already intrinsic to my being. I was a Taoist! Yet, I had never met a Taoist and knew nothing of Chinese culture or Taoism. My deep practice of T’ai Chi had profoundly re-oriented and re-structured my mind. By moving my body in a mindful, graceful and deliberate way through this daily practice, I had formed new synapses, and stimulated growth in specific areas of my brain. I had re-arranged my mental environment.
T’ai Chi remains to this day a vital component of my craft as an endurance athlete. (For more on this, “go here”.) Specifically, I use this daily practice to hone my pursuit of the path of least resistance and effortless power - in all areas of my life. The basis of my mountain bike training is precisely this.
By pursuing the path of least resistance, I aspire to be a capable single-track mountain biker and to race long-distance events. Over the winter, I began to purchase (by layaway) a Specialized Stumpjumper 29-inch hard-tail mountain bike. Nothing fancy, it has an alloy frame and Sram X-9 components. In 2005, I had a Specialized Epic full-suspension – quite a bit more expensive than my new SJ HT. It had 26-inch tires.
I never really melded with that Epic. But I sure did “endo” (flip bike and rider over the handlebars) frequently. However, I feel a real affinity with my SJ HT. The geometry and size are just right. Other than adjusting saddle position (height and fore-aft), the only modifications I’ve made are: Fitting it with 180MM cranks (it was equipped with 175MM). Replacing the stem with one 10MM longer. Adding bar ends. Replacing the tires with 2.2” wide Continental X King’s.
Even if I had enough disposable income for a more expensive bike, I would stick with what I have. It sets the tone: Although I am competing, I want to do this a bit more casually than triathlon. I want this to be a little more “play” – yet still an earnest practice in my craft.
A couple of months ago, I laid it on the line and registered for “Wilderness 101”, near State College, PA. This is a single loop 101-mile epic with 12,000 feet of climbing. While I don’t have a lot of technical expertise, I will rely on my lengthy tenure practicing the craft of zendurance to navigate and embrace this challenge.
But don’t let me mislead you – I do have some prior experience. In 2004-05, I did compete a little. I started with a solo ride at the 24 Hours of the Adirondacks, in September ‘04. And it was certainly casual. I showed up at the venue, found a well-used size XL Rockhopper in the rental fleet, made sure the gears worked and adjusted the seat. Fifteen minutes later, the race started and I got to ride my first single-track.
The 9+ mile loop was at least one-third single track, had some really steep climbs and ascents (all fairly short) and toured through Van Hoevenberg XC Ski Center – the 1980 Olympic Venue.
I scrambled for lights at night (using the lack of lighting as an excuse to sleep between 2:30 and 5 AM) and had an absolute blast!
In 2005, I tried the X-Terra Triathlon circuit – starting with the East Coast Championship, in Richmond, VA where I placed 7th in age-group – despite some mechanical problems. Then, preparing for my 3rd X-Terra of the season, I crashed (yup, endo’ed over the handlebars) and broke 3 ribs and my hand. No problem, I still rode the 45 minutes to get out of the woods. But without medical insurance, the hand cost me $1300. On the bright side, broken ribs are always free (as long as one does not puncture a lung).
Five weeks later – still fitted with my all-weather cast on the hand, I completed the Odyssey Adventure Half-Iron Off-Road Triathlon (1st in AG). Then I sold the bike and walked away from off-road riding. (I used the money to cover my expenses for Hawaii Ultraman in ’06.)
Current Training Regimen:
In a future entry, I may continue this discussion on how mountain biking enhances my craft as a zendurance athlete. To conclude this entry, I discuss how I am integrating mountain biking into my training regimen.
I picked up my SJ HT in late April. Most of my first rides were simple commutes around Ithaca. This allowed me to get the seat adjusted and get a feel for the bike. I also worked on my balancing skills: playing around with riding very slowly (both straight line and figure 8’s), and my poor attempts at track standing.
When I “raced” the 40-mile Black Fly Challenge in early June, it was the first long ride on the bike. I had raced Keuka Lake Olympic Distance Tri just 6 days before, and followed that race the next day with a very hilly strength and endurance ride on my road bike. Two days before the Black Fly (Thursday), I did a 75-minute run session at the track that left me feeling pretty worked. In short, I did not taper or treat this as a serious race.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Black Fly – a non-technical course of unpaved roads and double track with plenty of hills. While I treated it casually, I did give it my all. And I want more. More miles and more challenges on my mountain bike. But I have to balance that – to synergize the mountain biking with conventional triathlon training.
Two days after Black Fly (Monday), I ran 95 minutes of varied grassy terrain in the Cornell Arboretum – my favorite local place to run. Most of this I ran at 180 strides per minute (using a metronome) over a relentless rolling course with short steep hills – weaving in and out of the incredible variety of trees at the arboretum. Basically, I just run “willy-nilly” all over the arboretum – sometimes running circles and figure 8’s around trees. (Yeah, I get some strange looks from other runners and folks out walking their dogs.)
Through the rest of that week, I supplemented my usual tri training (including 2 sessions on my TT bike on the stationary stand followed by transition runs) with easy mountain bike balancing skills sessions.
Seven days after Black Fly, I rode my MTB 4½ hours – on two consecutive days. For these long rides, I leave my house and ride on the unpaved shoulders of very hilly roads (some with sustained climbs) out to one of the local state forests that have mountain bike trails.
Most of these roads are very quiet, and those that do see traffic have adequate paved shoulders. I choose roads that also have (usually narrow) unpaved shoulders on the outskirts. I have to focus just as much on choosing my path here as on the single-track trails in the woods. With all the rain we have had this spring and early summer, these shoulders are often soft and uneven.
Once there, I ride the trails for about 90 minutes. Often, I will ride short challenging sections repeatedly – focusing on technique - relaxing my body, looking where I want to go (and not at what scares me), keeping my weight in the pedals and not in my hands and keeping my elbows wide (where possible). Then I return home on the narrow unpaved portion of the shoulders.
These rides are serving as both long rides for my long course triathlons (3 half-irons and one full iron), as well as for the Wilderness 101 and the X-Terra Epic. I have to stay very focused on the narrow path of the road shoulders – much more demanding than a typical long road ride. And the low tire pressure (25 pounds) and heavier bike weight are “training extras”!
Last week, I followed the New England Trifest Olympic Triathlon the very next day with another one of these 4-hour mountain bike rides. And it was...
Rain. Serious, continuous, relentless, generous and sometimes pummeling rain – from the moment I stepped out of my house until I returned.
Many of my road shoulders were narrow streambeds. It was challenging, and I was freakin’ cold! However, my strategy is to follow-up my triathlon races the next day with a long ride. I’ve done that twice now – first on the road bike, now on the MTB.
If I had planned on a long road ride (either on the road or time trial bike) that day, I probably would have ridden indoors. But there’s just something about the MTB that gets me in that adventurous spirit – rain or shine.
I am confident that these rides are preparing me well for my upcoming triathlons. I’ll find out in 5 days... at my favorite half-iron – the almighty Musselman Half!
And then I’ll see if I am up for a long MTB ride the day after. Wilderness 101 is just 2 weeks later.