Charco Azul

After cycling all morning and into the afternoon from Playa Giron, along the Bay of Pigs, we headed across the swamp lands of southern Matanzas, towards the town of Australia. The odd name of this little municipality stems from the local custom of naming sugar factories after the various continents. While sugar is no longer processed from cane here, the smokestack still features the name in prominent vertical capital letters.

“Tonight we stay in Charco Azul,” Alejandro announced. This sent ripples through the back of the bus, as the itinerary had listed San Antonio de Los Baños for the night, 150 km distant. Scurrying through my trusted, I found Azul 50 km further on, in the foothills of the northeastern mountains.

“There is a festival in San Antonio; there is no room at the hotel for us. The Chaco is an Eco-Resort, very new, very modern.”

And very far away. It was already after 3 PM, and given what we’d seen so far of Cuba’s highway “system”, we might not get there before nightfall. But after we loaded the bikes on board Juan’s bus, we entered a true freeway interchange, and found ourselves on a six-lane divided highway, heading towards Havana, traveling at 90-100 km/hour. While passing 60 year old cars belching black exhaust, going half that speed, horse drawn carts @ 15 kph, and even the occasional pedestrian. Twice, we went by packs of cyclists, more youth teams in training.

The land was relentlessly flat, pocked with sugar cane farms and the smokey processing factories which attend them. Around 5:30, we reached the outskirts of Havana, where the freeway inexplicably ended in a traffic jam on unmarked city streets, devoid of traffic lights or even directional signs. A half hour of that, and we got back to cruising at highway speeds.

Before nightfall, we turned off that freeway, and wound along ever narrower roads, into the hills, Jaun homing in on by-now-mystical town locale of Charco Azul. While it appeared on, there was zero civilization surrounding it, and no obvious lodgings or restaurant.

The last turn took us onto a one lane path, steeply uphill, into a graveled turn-around surrounded by a series of stucco one story lodges on the left, a well-kept garden in the front, and a two story stone structure rising above a small bar and dining area. We learned this was “Casa de Piedra Charco Azul”, or “stone house at the blue puddle”. The puddle had been transformed into a small pool defined by a precise rocky rectangle, suitable for swimming.

Each couple received a key to one of the stucco bungalows. Inside we found the first truly modern (21st century) interiors we’d seen in Cuba. All the doors closed properly, the toilets were sturdy, beds firm and comfy, beddings new and clean. What was this place?

Apparently a resort for bird watchers. Looking out from our private balcony into the surprisingly dense forest beyond, we heard (but did not see) feathered creatures calling to us as the sun set filtered through the leaves. Later, at dinner, we learned this is also a nature park, featuring hiking/equestrian trails. Clearly not for the Cubans, but meant for northern European visitors.

A stark contrast to our Soviet-era Hotel Playa Giron the night before. Set in an equally stunning spot, hard on the Caribbean shore, this concrete block edifice was filled with non-functioning tourist attractions, such as snorkeling, bodyboarding and a surf-side cabaret. We had likewise stayed in individual stucco’d cabins. But these were flaking, barely furnished, with creaky floors, leaky toilets, off kilter doors, and each set about 50 yards apart it’s neighbor, necessitating a lengthy walk to and from dinner and breakfast. The sea wall was crumbling. It may have served for Bulgarians or Muskovites fleeing an endless winter, but Northwestern Europeans would not tolerate it.

En la mañana, we would tackle “Los Americanos”, a ride through the surrounding nature preserve, up steep hills, down swooping curves, on traffic free roads. This was the source of excited chatter at dinner, nervous trepidation, and early bed times for all but one or two party boys, who found the two stool pool-side bar ample for their needs.

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Modifying Training For Aging…

I’m altering my training plan in deference to the increasing need for recovery as I get older. Without knowing what the best approach might be, I started out by putting myself on a 10 day, rather than a 7 day cycle for bike training. Meaning, I would do over a ten-day period the same number of workouts I had been doing in a weeks time. I kept up my on-going run frequency project, trying to get 100 runs in 100 days, which started Sept. 2nd.

I sent a note to my coach after the first four weeks of this, as follows… [edited for clarity]

One month update on the OF (Old Folks/Old Farts/Old Fogies/etc.) cycle for the OS (OutSeason): I felt a little frisky in weeks 2&3, so I did a VO2 (very high intensity, short 1 minute intervals) and FTP (High intensity, 5-10 minute intervals) in each of those weeks, more like a 7 day cycle. That proved too much for me by this week (#4). So: ten days between each VO2 and FTP session may be too long, 7 days is for sure too frequent, next month I will try a 9/8 day cycle. I’m on day 84 of a run streak with 28-32 miles a week. My macro cycle for the current trimester:

  • Five weeks OS, ski two weeks (continue running 2-3 miles daily)
  • Four weeks OS, ski two weeks (no running)
  • Four weeks OS, Ski 2-3 weeks, (no running)

Then I have four weeks before Mallorca camp [a week long Endurance Nation training camp on the Spanish Island]. Not sure what specific triathlon training I’ll do during that time.

And he answered back…

That all sounds good to me, what is your metric for determining something is too much? Is it just based on field or do you have some kind of data that you’re using.
From my perspective, I just want to make sure you’re able to continue to push the bike numbers high enough to make a difference. Especially since the rest of your year with longer rides really detracts from that.
Any thoughts on focusing just on FTP and one block versus both FTP and VO2?

This was good coaching, as it got me thinking about just what I should be doing going forward. I concluded thusly:

1. Metric for fine tuning OS bike workout frequency is “by feel”, which includes the following

  • Weight gain/loss, along with hydration status as measured by body water % on Tanita. Wt loss, lower H2O % a sign of over training.
  • Sleep…baseline is about 7 hr 15 minutes. E.g., last night, after an 85-minute FTP workout, I slept 8 hrs, 10′, confirming that today is not a day for a hard workout. I don’t use an alarm clock, never did even when working.
  • Subjective sense of heaviness or fatigue in my legs. Or worse, total body fatigue. I have neither today, a sign my schedule is probably right.
  • Two signs I’m trying to do too much/too soon: I get grumpy, short with my wife; and the ultimate, I get on the bike, and after a warm-up, find I don’t have the motivation or feeling of strength to do the work. That happened once this month when I was at the end of a week of trying to do 4 cycling workouts.

In the OS, I find PMC (a standard method of charting on-going and chronic work over the past 1-6 weeks) metrics to be insufficient. My Training Stress Balance can be even, or positive, and I’m still trashed, unlike InSeason, when I can handle minus 20, 30, 40 and more just fine for up to a week or so. “Not all Training Stress Scores are created equal”

2. VO2 & FTP blocks. Good idea…I will shoot for 6 FTP sessions between Dec 17-Jan 17, and maybe 1-2 VO2 if it looks like I can handle them, along with Saturday EN Zwifting. Past 4-5 weeks, I’ve done twice as much VO2 as FTP, and it shows in how “easy” that VO2 feels now.

2A. For running, I had a good Turkey Trot, nice and hard/fast, with no repercussions, and I will be completing 100 runs in 100 Days about Dec 10. So I will swing into following the OS running plan level 3 the next 4.5 week block surrounding the holidays with a solid VDOT (a measure of running ability). Which, BTW, had fallen, as the research predicts it should, over the past 10 years. On the s ame course, in 2007, I went 20:23; this year, 22:03. Next 5K is New Year’s day, when I went 20:08 1/1/08. Goal 1/1/2018: 21:50, 45 VDOT, To go with the 3.67 w/kg (ability measure for cycling) I’m aiming for (3.45 now). I think that ought to be pretty competitive for 69 year-old, if I can train and race to those levels over 5-12 hours.

3. Last year, my cycling schedule Mar-Sept resulted in FTP increase and improved ability to go long as well as fast (40-120 km bike legs), so I feel comfortable that emphasizing 2-4 hour hard steady rides will produce the race results I’m looking for. Inserting KOM type sprints into group rides will probably be all the HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training I’ll need or want.

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Old Dog, New Tricks – II

Zwift is an indoor cycling training tool, disguised as a video game which uses a bike trainer as the controller. In recent months, it has reached critical mass, with word of mouth generating an acceleration in new users. I’m one of them.

Zwift represents a coalescence of several technologies which have matured during the second decade of the 21st century: social media; massive multi-player online gaming; “smart” bicycle trainers with attendant metrics such as power, cadence, speed. A couple of years ago, several cycling junkies with tech backgrounds had a vision to turn the drudgery of indoor training into a group activity, a la spin classes, without having to leave one’s home.

They designed an island called “Watopia”, a car-less paradise mixing terrain from tropical beaches, charming Euro-style mountain villages along cobbled roads, treeless snow-swept alpine crags, an active volcano with lava pools, and Mayan ruins amidst jungle foliage. Soon, rides appeared as well through downtown London (site of the 2012 Olympic Games), and Richmond, Virginia (home to the cycling World Championships in 2015). These options have the same pseudo-realism as Los Angeles or New York City in the Grand Theft Auto series; major sites such as the Ferris Wheel, Westminster Abbey, Box Hill, and the Thames River can be seen, with a lot of detail missing in between.

Riders adopt an on-line avatar, along with cycling kit and national flags. A key feature is the ability to ride “with” others, complete with drafting, races, and group workouts. Speed and distance are displayed, along with cycling-specific stats such as cadence, heart rate, and power. Riders are bound by the honor system to input their weight, and the resulting power metric of “Watts per Kilogram” is used to sort out relative speeds. “Smart” trainers, which allow software to control the resistance on the fly, combined with built in “hills” provide a realistic feel and the need to shift up or down depending on the steepness and direction of the gradient.

The process of getting this all synced up and running can be a bit daunting, especially since the constant upgrades and video game background of the system mean there is little in the way of a stable users’ manual. The basic set-up requires a bike trainer (smart or dumb), a method for measuring speed (built into the smart trainer, otherwise, an external sensor is required), a means to communicate data into a computer or phone/tablet (via Bluetooth or ANT+), an internet connection, and the Zwift app.

Once all the tech is linked up, and an avatar with profile (gender, age, weight, cycling ability) is created, the day’s locale appears on-screen. Most days, it’s Watopia; once or twice a week, London, and 1-2 times a month, Richmond. I find myself at the side of the road, the sound of cyclists whizzing by. I start pedaling, with a distinct “click” indicating I am clipped into my pedals. I can choose one of eight views, 3rd person, first-person, overhead, side view, helicopter, etc. My on-screen feet move realistically in circles, in time with my own pedaling on the bike, and down the road I go, scenery flowing past, cyclists rushing by or being over-taken.

There are many roads and intersections, and I can travel in either direction, any time, with a “U-turn” feature. At the start of my ride, I can chose a specific course, and don’t need to worry about when to turn, but I can always over-ride that at any intersection. At any time there are 100’s to 1,000’s of cyclists out there with me. At intersections, with people going in all directions, my avatar will sometimes flow ghost-like right through another rider. But usually the program directs the images around each other, and verisimilitude is maintained.

Depending on the time of day, I might see others from Europe, Asia, the Antipodes, and the Americas. Probably also from Africa, but since nationality is indicated by flag, it’s hard for me to tell. As this is a global phenomenon, and thus never closed, the weather and daylight seem to change randomly. I might ride in rain, snow, sun, moonlight, whatever, changing seemingly by the minute.

Zwifters quickly created a community, and real-life groups re-formed online. Races, with series, championships, and ability groupings quickly appeared. Group rides were announced, and Zwift contracted with coaches to create workouts, which can be done either individually, or with scores of others. A real motivator; if “C.Said” from Dubai is still in here sweating away, then, surely, I should be able to finish too, right?

My own triathlon team, Endurance Nation, has started doing Saturday and Sunday rides. 5-20 of us will agree to meet at the starting line at a given time. Then, using another video game app, Discord, we can actually talk with each other in real time while we ride together. One of the harder parts of training is finding sufficient motivation to work out when the weather is cold, wet, snowy, or dark during the winter months. Zwift, at least for this year, offers a solution to that dilemma.

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Piriformis Sciatica

I’ve been going through piriformis/sciatica issues for the past year. It was a one time event in mid-Dec ’16, when I tried to do some fast intervals and immediately felt it in my butt. It took about 2 months before I was able to even start easy, short runs, and at that it still hurt. Finally, I realised that the pain was not due to some muscle or ligament or bone or joint issue, and that I was not really injuring myself. So I just kept adding a little bit of frequency to my runs, and persisted with the stretching and strengthening program I developed for myself. Now, 11 months later, I’ve been pain free there for a few months, but it still hurts if I sit wrong or for too long, like in a car or airplane.

The piriformis is a small muscle in the mid-upper part of the gluteal region. It helps to externally rotate the leg. Imagine lying on your back, and lift one leg, slightly bent at the knee, a few inches off the floor. Then, keeping your knee in the same position, rotate your foot to the outside, left foot clockwise, right foot counter-clockwise. That’s what the piriformis does. It’s a small muscle, but gets a lot of use especially while running, so it can hypertrophy, or enlarge. Not a bad thing, except that a major nerve to the lower limb, the sciatic nerve, runs through it. A swollen piriformis can pinch and irritate the sciatic nerve, leading to all sorts of potential problems. Pain in the butt, pain down the back of the leg and the outside of the calf, weakness in the calf muscles are the major symptoms.

For me, it was first just pain in the butt, which over time grew less and less, until it was just pain when I sat down, like to write at a desk, eat dinner in a restaurant, drive a car, watch TV, ride in an airplane. Like I said, a pain in the butt. But the worst thing was, I was afraid to run.

Every time I ran, it would hurt there. So I tried running “through” it. Not good. I tried walking for five minutes, then running slowly a minute. Still hurt. Finally, I just stopped running, mostly cause I went skiing, and then on the three week Cuba bike trip. But I searched for ways to fix the problem.

I went through a lot of suggestions for stretch and strengthening, and eventually I learned which ones were working for me:

  • Tailor’s stretch: sitting on the floor, heels together, pushing knees to the floor 30 seconds, dynamic stretch
  • Sit up’s, 30 slow
  • Single-legged hip raises: lie on back, one knee drawn up, other leg straight out. Keep that leg straight and aligned with my trunk, I push my hips up using the bent leg (heel on the floor). 20 times each is hard work!
  • Single legged side leg lifts, focus on feeling the upper part of my butt work. I do this once x 30 with straight leg, once x 30 with a bent leg.
  • Clam shells, again feeling small muscles in my butt working. 30 x 1 each side
  • Single leg semi-squats, 30 each leg.
  • Runner’s hamstring stretch, calf stretch, quad stretch

This takes me about 25 minutes each morning. It also seems to help with the recurrent upper hamstring tendonitis I was getting from 2014-2016.

I was able to run a fast 5K yesterday at the Gig Harbor Turkey Trot, and today I don’t have butt or hamstring pain at all. So I think the problems are behind me, but I will still do my 25 minute route 5-6 days a week. And I will still be very careful with adding back distance to my runs, and speed to my workouts.

Posted in Injuries and Recovery, Training Diary | Leave a comment

Old Dog, New Tricks – I

Two years ago, we started seeing running “power meters” appear for sale. Several modalities were tried. One used force sensors in an insole to be placed in a shoe. Another used accelerometers in a chest strap. Finally, a little footpod attached to shoelaces was introduced. This seems to be the method gaining traction, via a kickstarter called “Stryd”. Books and articles are appearing purporting to explain how to use this new toy. I’m reminded of the books I saw back in 1984/5, when the Macintosh computer first appeared. They seemed to know what they were talking about, but it all seems so primitive now.

I think the use of power to aid run training and racing is still in its infancy. I remember twenty-five years ago or so, when “shaped” skis first came out. They were touted as the next big thing, and everybody jumped on board to ski on them, and teach others how to use the new dynamics they provided. That was all well and good, and it did make it easier for people learning the sport. But it wasn’t until professional slalom racers started using them that we knew they really were an improvement on the old geometries. So maybe when we see world-class marathoners using a Stryd during a race, then we’ll know it has some real value, and might be time to buy one.

Nonetheless, I recently jumped on board with Stryd when Endurance Nation announced a discount for us. I’d been a sceptic since it was first introduced two years ago. I didn’t see how it might improve the quality of my training or my race day performance. I haven’t been using the little thing very long, but I have been thinking about the value of the data it makes available.

I’m an adult onset runner, didn’t run a step until I was 49.75 y/o. But over the past two decades, I think I’ve developed a very finely honed internal sense of how my heart rate and pace correlate to my perceived rate of exertion, both during training at various speeds and during races, primarily triathlons, of varying lengths. But that took maybe 5-8 years to learn. It’s possible, I think, that a power measurement could help shorten that learning curve for someone who is new to structured run training. And, it might also be helpful for “young” (which I define as anyone under the age of 27) runners who are dealing with a still changing physiology, a heightened sense of competition, and relative lack of discipline. Meaning it could keep them from blowing themselves up in any given workout, or in a race.

Now, for those of us with a long athletic history (I was a swimmer as a youth, age group 11-17, then college), it might be a different story. Two or three things jump to mind:

  • Looking at my files which include power, I see the obvious fact that HR is a lagging indicator. When I start up a hill, my power changes instantly, the HR takes 10-30 seconds to catch up.
  • When I do long runs, unless I keep upping my RPE, my pace will slowly deteriorate after about 90 minutes, even if my HR is holding steady.
  • Likewise in a race, a steady HR and RPE usually are associated with a deteriorating pace.

I suspect that the value of having run “power” available will lie in its use as a whip, to keep me more honest about the need to increase effort as a long training run or race progresses. Also, it should help me guard against poor performance (going too hard or too easy) up hills. I don’t think its going to improve my ability to precisely target pace/effort during  short (defined as 10 minutes or less) intervals during training.

Once some really dedicated people play with the numbers enough, there may be an improvement in defining an run stress score (rTSS) for use in things like a Performance Management Chart. During our coach’s podcast from Kona with the Stryd team, they speculated on possibly having a TSS target for an Ironman run, a number “not to exceed” to ensure cutting the fine line between blowing up and leaving something on the table. That seems some ways away, as it requires not only a reproducible and acceptable measure of rTSS, but also some way to factor in the effect of the bike: what was your bike TSS, steadiness, time, etc.

My Garmin (Fenix) screen #1 has Time/Power/HR/Cadence. I also have a lap screen which shows lap pace, current HR, current power, and current cadence. I set an interval beep to go off every mile, and, unless I over-ride it with a button push, I have it auto-lap every mile. Unless I’m doing track intervals, I really don’t care about knowing my current pace. I’m more concerned with keeping my HR, cadence, and RPE where I want them. Now, I might start adding power to that, but the data is still too new for me to add it to my mental mix yet. There is a Connect IQ app which would make more than 4 data fields per screen available, but I’m afraid I couldn’t see the numbers!

Posted in Triathlon Central, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Running in Oaxaca – II

A few days after our walk up into the Cerro del Fontin, Cheryl surprised me by getting up when I did, a little after six. Sunrise was 7:20, and I had been heading out for my morning runs along the highway at 6:55, just after first light.

“I think I’ll go up with you and look at the sunrise,” she explained.

“OK, I’ll walk up with you, but you’ll need to get back on your own, you know. I’m going to keep running down the hill to the end of the sidewalk.”

We left La Betulia, and headed right, the only out of the cul-de-sac our B&B was in. Uphill about half a block was a road which made a sharp 90 degree turn, allowing us to keep climbing straight to the next street. There, we paused as I pointed out a few landmarks she would need to know when to turn back into La Betulia.

“See on the street sign pole there, it says ‘Es Mas Facil’? And over there, the community development office? This is the only turn you’ll have to make, to the right, first block after the busy street you’ll have to cross just uphill. I pointed out all these key landmarks to her, and waited to see if she understood. She seemed satisfied, so off we went, still trudging up the concrete hill towards the parking garage. There, we snaked under a corner, and emerged onto the ramp leading from the highway. Turning left, we hit the sidewalk, and continued up towards the stairs leading to the pedestrian overpass. I reminded her we had come that way on our walk a few days ago.

“OK, I’m going to start running now. The mirador is about a quarter mile ahead, just at the top of the hill. You can see the whole city, the sunrise, everything from there. Then just turn around and come back this way when you’r e done. When you get to the ramp, just follow it down to the street” – there was really only one way to go – “ and then head back across the busy road, turn right at the next street. Remember, Es Mas Facil?”

“Don’t worry about me, just go ahead and run, OK?”

“OK, I’ll maybe see you on my way back, or run into you as you’re heading downhill, huh?”

Off I went, plodding up to the mirador, then down about a half a mile to where the slope got really steep. I wanted to turn around and be sure to catch up with her, just in case she started to get lost.

But when I got to the Mirador, she wasn’t there. The sun still hadn’t risen over the eastern mountains, but the day was starting cloudy, without much color, and no promise of a real sunrise in the works. I figured she’d probably just looked around, realised there was no photo available, and got back home. It had been probably ten minutes, no more, since I had left her. I thought I would run into her soon as I headed back.

I trotted back down the way I came, growing increasingly concerned when I didn’t see her ahead of me. By the time I hit La Betulia, I was convinced something was seriously wrong. Like she had been kidnapped. I’d read about kidnappings of opportunity, where tourists, or even rich-seeming locals, are highjacked and driven to an ATM for quick cash, or held until their relatives can come up with some dough.

Nervously, I unlocked La Betulia’s front door, and turned right to say, “Hola” to the short, friendly cook staff, busily preparing that morning’s meal.?

“Me esposa es aqui” I tried. Heads nodding no.

In our room, I called her name. Nothing. I searched in her purse, and her phone. I was a bit relieved, because if she were kidnapped, my phone would have been useless, it not being turned on for foreign travel.

But hers was, and so I raced back out the door, this time running up the hill, all the way to the Mirador, playing out scenarios in my head. Should I call the Policia? Would Daniel, our “concierge”, know what to do? How would anyone find her in this maze of a city? Would she realise I had her phone, and get them to call me? How much money would they want? What would I tell our children? How had I let this happen; why hadn’t I just stayed with her at the mirador?

She wasn’t there again, nor anywhere along the route, even on the other side of the garage, where we had walked several days before. I ran back down to La Betulia, convinced I would need to go into emergency mode very soon.

Again, the service staff denied seeing her. But when I got back into our room, there she was – asking what had happened to her phone?

“I took it.”

“Why would you take my phone!!!?” she demanded.

“I thought you were kidnapped. When I didn’t see you at the viewpoint, and you were anywhere along the route back, and not here even, I took the phone and went back up to the mirador…I wanted to make sure the kidnappers could get ahold of me, you know my phone doesn’t work, so I took yours,” I breathlessly spit out.

She laughed, and returned the hug I’d started in relief. “I got lost. I guess I didn’t see where to turn. I got lost, and when I hit the T intersection, I knew I’d gone too far.”

“But how did I miss you?”

“I just turned around at the viewpoint, came down here, got lost, then found my way back about five minutes ago.”

“Well, I guess I know now how much I worry about you – how much I care for you. I don’t want to lose you, you know.”

“I know.”

Posted in Oaxaca, Travelogues | 2 Comments

Running in Oaxaca

“You really ought to come with me to my photography course in Oaxaca,” Cheryl announced.

“Uh, I’ll think about it…” My usual delay tactic. New ideas take some time to seep into my head, especially when I’ve got some momentum on another track. Like wanting to do another Ironman in October or November.

But I checked the participants in those late season races, and found that I might have some real competition. I knew I needed a rest, more spiritual than physical, more emotional than mental, from trying once again to be Number One at an all day endurance event. I next looked at half-Ironman races – “70.3” – and discovered that the conflicting one in Arizona was already filled.

“We can take a Spanish immersion language course – stay with a host family, and really learn Spanish. Annie and I did it 15 yers ago . She really enjoyed it, and I think you would, too.” Cheryl kept pushing. Clearly I was not going to find an easy weasel out of this. I was looking at going back to Cuba, without her, next March, and then on to Spain in April. It might actually be useful to have some practical Spanish available in my brain.

After what seemed like months of tortured delays, I finally admited I would have to go to Oaxaca. No races pulled me away. Keeping on the good side of my wife outweighed any fear I might have of foreign travel. And the weather down there promised to be, well, perfect.

Oaxaca sits in the midst of the Isthmus of Mexico, a narrowing between the Caribbean and the Pacific, where the country bends eastward after falling to the south below the Rio Grande. Set about 18 degrees above the equator, farther south than Hawaii or Cuba, Oaxaca enjoys a sumer monsoon much like the Four Corners states in the US. Winds from the east bring warm moist air which meets the mountains rising upwards of 3,000 meters (13,000 feet), causing frequent afternoon summer thundershowers to fall into the fertile valleys below, at about 5,000 feet. The storms peter out around mid-October, just about the time we would arrive. This is not the the Sonoran or the Chihuahuan Desert of northern Mexico. The hills are verdant, with evergreens growing up their slopes; crops grow lustfully in the volcanic soil. Temperatures above 82 and below 50 are unusual at any time of year. The more I learned, the more my resignation at going became anticipation.

Cheryl’s primary motivation was Dia de Los Muertos – the Mexican Day of the Dead festival which achieves full flower in Oaxaca’s Zapotec and other indigenous communities. She had signed up for a week-long photography course centered on capturing the festivities in the village cemetaries. I didn’t know if I wanted to be a fifth wheel to that, so I begged off, and we compromised on a ten day day visit for me: three days of sightseeing, then then five days in Spanish school, plus a day of travel on either end.

One wrinkle cropped up, though. I had, for reasons still obscure to me, begun a program of daily running, hoping to make 100 days straight. This started September 2nd, and our trip was planned for October 19-28, just when I would be revving into the meat of the streak. I poured over the internet, scouting the area via Google Maps satellite view, reading reports from traveling and ex-pat runners, and wondering just how I might get from our lodgings to some place runnable.

Oaxaca, like most cities in Mexico, combines a Spanish colonial core, replete with cathedral, temple, and hacienda style closed-courtyard dwellings in the center of town, surrounded by an aggregation of metastatic growth along the valley and crawling up the hills. Streets are narrow, sidewalks sometimes blocked, houses mostly one or two story cinderblock or concrete shell – many with rebar sticking up, like multiple tiny chimneys. There really isn’t any place to run in the urbanized zone. Cars, pedestrians, buildings, and markets take up all the available space.

But I noticed just to the west and north of the Zona Turistica a park-like area, called Cerro del Fontin. A four-lane road traversed the southern edge. An observatory, planetarium, and auditorium occupied the southern section, and trails led into the brush north of there. This looked promising.

Our first morning in town, therefore, I went out at sunrise from our B&B (more of a boutique hotel) to see if I might continue my streak somewhere close. I walked uphill several blocks and found a three story parking structure, for the Auditorio Guelaguetza, just on the edge of the highway. Just as Google Street View had shown, a narrow sidewalk hugged the road, protected from the rush hour traffic by bright yellow railing. On the top of the garage, a small set of exercise machines was in use by several early morning devotees. Dog walkers, strollers, and even a few runners braved the fumes, noise, and headlights on the sidewalk. I dutifully ran from one end of this little path to the other, and garnered about 3 miles with an out and back which included a serious hill of 8-10 % for nearly a mile, smack in the middle. But the views of the city and the sunrise were uplifting.

Later that morning, Cheryl and I came back up, crossing over the highway on one of three pedestrian bridges which had clearly made life safer for the local citizens. We walked up to the planetarium, down and around the auditorio. She was entranced by the view, and vowed to come up at sunrise “in a day or two” to try her hand at early morning  photography.

(to be continued)

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The Sufferfest

Our Endurance Nation coach posted a link to The Sufferfest, a new cycling app which uses the full spectrum of a rider’s power profile to design personalized workouts. He asked for thoughts, and I provided mine:

In recent years, we haven’t talked much if at all about attics and ceilings and roofs. To refresh for new members…think of your bike fitness as a single story house with a peaked roof. Your one hour functional power (FTP) is the ceiling of that first floor. As you grow in your cycling strength – as your FTP increases – you are raising that first floor ceiling. Eventually, you find that you have used up most of the available vertical space in the attic, and you need a higher roof to accommodate your improving FTP. How do you raise that roof/make a bigger attic? By working on energy systems which enable more work at higher wattages, things like 5 minute and 1 minute power. To add the 5 second power to the analogy, well, maybe that’s the steeple?

Anyway, looking back at my triathlon career I had built a multi-year “base” of long distance cycling (multi-day tours, including one summer crossing the USA), and bike commuting to work 20 miles daily. Then, I got involved in triathlons, including off-road Xterra, and increased my mountain biking, which involved a bursts of sheer anaerobic terror trying to get up gnarly short steep climbs. I had my best Ironman cycling when I was mixing a lot of mountain biking into my training.

Point being, I think that building strength for explosive climbing or sprinting – which is what the 5 second and 1 minute (and all the spots in between) stuff is all about – will have a benefit even for 112 mile time trialists. We need look no further than the Tour de France, Giro, and Vuelta for confirmation. The winner of those events will almost always be the cyclist who can not only keep up with the strongest climbers, and even win summit finishes, but also translate that high end power into prolonged steady state effort.

After a seven year absence, I’ve gotten back into mountain biking this Fall, in Colorado and Washington. After discounting strength loss due to aging, I’ve found I still have some explosive pop in the legs after a year of mostly long (2+ hours) steady rides @ 0.72-0.82 IF. But I also sense that continuing to add that sort of work will pay dividends on the half and full Ironman race courses. It’s not about becoming able to simply go up hills harder. I believe in the rigid rule that “For every minute you go anaerobic on the bike (i.e., exceed about 0.9/0.95IF), you lose three minutes on the run”. The ability to succeed at shorter, harder efforts is still adding to sustained efforts.

My conclusion: Our energy systems are not compartmentalized; every one of those zones from 5 seconds to 5 hours uses ALL of our neuromuscular energy systems, just to varying degrees at each gradation. Ignoring any of them will result in less overall speed at any step along that progression. The trick is to find a way to incorporate them into a training plan. Frequency, amount, timing, all relative to the ultimate race goal, are the variables which need to be fine-tuned.

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Bay of Crabs – II

I pulled out of Giron with Yoany, Tony and John. The narrow two lane road out of town hugged the coastline for 25 km the entire way to Playa Larga at the head of the bay. To our right, a scrub forest. To our left, occasional glimpses of the sea, calm under a placid blue sky. Heat was already filling the air with oppressive moisture lifted from the Bay, but traveling at 35 kph gave us a cooling breeze. Our little paceline hummed along nicely for 15 minutes or so.

Then, Yoany started to jerk and weave over the road. I noticed menacing shapes skitter across road, just outside my direct line of sight.

Every year, in early Spring just after the first rains, millions of land crabs mate in the forest surrounding the Bay of Pigs. A few weeks later, they begin a miles-long journey to lay their eggs at the edge of the sea. Then, they return home to burrows in the swampy forest. These guys are red, orange or tan, very tropical looking. About the size of my palm, they feature 8 legs, two additional appendages ending in symmetrical claws, and protruding eyes atop a scowling dark face.

At first, we tried to avoid them. I guess we felt sorry for the fate of those who, while trying to escape our approach, managed to “ping” themselves into our spokes, getting sliced in the process. Eventually, we realised that resistance was futile, and just powered through the hordes. Crab juice sprayed up from our rear wheels, and it was not unlike riding in a storm. Following close, one behind risked getting slightly soaked.

After a few miles of this, we stopped, re-grouped, and shared intelligence.

“I hear they have to get to the sea to lay their eggs.”

“I wonder if it’s just the females we’re hitting, or if the males come too?”

“You know, I found it’s best if you don’t try to avoid them. Hope they keep moving; if there’s one right in front of you, he’ll scoot right away before you get there.”

“Look at my tires – at my seat tube – it’s covered with crab guts!”

“Yeah, and your back has a crab stripe up the middle!”

“Have you noticed they try to scare us?”

“Right. Some of them stop in front of us, and spread their arms wide. I guess they think we’d be frightened of those claws.”

“It seems so pathetic. They do that in front of cars and busses, too. Hah! They don’t have a chance.”

“I saw one of them eating the meat out of the claw of a dead one. Just like we’d do.”

In Playa Larga, we turned right, to the north. When we arrived at the designated meeting point of Guama, I announced I was turning around, heading back to meet up with Cheryl riding with the slower group. She rolled up, followed by Alejandro.

“OK, we stop in Guama, to see the crocodilos there, OK?” Apparently, the Natural Park of the Zapata Peninsula through which we had been riding is home to the largest collection of crocodiles in Cuba. Multiple species of the caiman variety are kept here, 100,000 animals in all, separated by size in their various pools. This was to be the day’s Mandatory Cultural Tour.

I had ridden an extra 22 km, and was having none of it. I stayed in the shade, watched the bikes, and contemplated my can of Ciego Montero cola along with three other curmudgeons and their Bucanero beers, while Cheryl took the Disney-like tour of the farm.

She returned with tails of dancing with crocodiles, including a cute little baby whom she tried on for a hat.

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Bay of Crabs – Part I

After our tour of Cienfuegos, we hopped on our bikes just outside of town,  and began a three hour, 85 kilometer cruise heading towards Playa Giron. Most of the ride was across a desolate swampy plain, along a nearly deserted road barely the width of two trucks. Cotton-ball cumulus clouds surrounded us, but the sun shone relentlessly, with temperatures into the low 30s (nearly 90F). By this time, despite daily applications of sunscreen, my forearms were getting a deep, crinkly brown, tender to the touch. Among the many items I did not bring, I own a pair of thin white nylon arm “coolers”, which could have served as superb sun shields. In desperation, I turned to the pair of compression calf sleeves I’d worn on the flights over. Inside out, they looked a bit like a fluffy tuxedo shirt under my cycling kit.

I spent much of the day riding with the “boys” (a group of 60-something ex-bike racers and endurance athletes), but the bleakness of the road and balmy air conspired to drop me off the back after after 15-30 minutes. I’d catch up every time we re-started, but much of the time, it was just me, the donkey carts, a few pedestrians, an old Lada or two, and the occasional truck bus crammed with passengers.

We rode through San Blas, headed towards Playa Giron. The final 15 miles were due south towards the Sea. About 30 minutes out of Giron, we began to see sandstone-red blotches atop the tarmac, about 4 or 5 inches across, looking a lot like discarded bubble gum was which had been spit out and run over by endless vehicles.

We pulled into a small outdoor café and gathered under the palapa, sharing generic colas and Bucaneros (Cuba is one of the few places on earth you won’t find Coke for sale).

“What were those red blobs we’ve been riding over?” someone asked.

“They look like chewing gum somebody spit out, but they’re too big,“ I ventured.

“No, I think those are crabs,” someone else offered.


“Yeah, I read they grow all over the beach around the bays in southern Cuba. They have to go inland to lay their eggs or something, or maybe that’s where they make their babies, I forget. Anyway, there are so few cars and trucks, they haven’t had enough selection pressure to keep them out of harm’s way, and they keep getting smashed.”

“Huh. Crabs. I thought this was the Bay of ‘Pigs’.”

The Bay of Pigs. To those of us of a certain age, this was a legendary fiasco. After Castro took control of the country in January, 1959, he was at first embraced by some in our country as a democratic savior for the Cuban people, overthrowing the repressive dictator Batista. Over the next year or so, as more middle and upper class Cubans fled their country for Miami, it became apparent that he had meant what he said about changing the power structure on the island. More and more firms were nationalized, houses of the rich were seized, large landholdings were absorbed into government control. The ex-patriates descending on Florida included some who wanted to “take back” their country. They looked to Castro himself for their inspiration. Fidel and a small band of rebels had fled the country after an ignominious defeat in 1953, ending up in Veracruz, Mexico. They purchased a small boat, the “Granma”, overloaded it with fighters and supplies, and barely escaped into the mountains when they landed on the island’s southern shores several years later.

When President Eisenhower recognized the change in Castro’s political tone, he authorized the CIA to join forces with Florida-based anti-Castro groups, and a fighting force was assembled, trained, and eventually sent to Cuba by President Kennedy in April of 1961. They landed in the Bahia de Cochinos, and the rest, as they say is history.

At the southern end of the Bay, near our seaside hotel in Giron, the Cuban government has proudly established a museum dedicated to telling their side of the story. Several tanks and a propeller plane flank the entrance. Alejandro assembled our little peloton, and urged us to visit the place. I shuddered at the thought, and stayed outside.

Castro’s revolution was founded in part on a belief that the United States wanted to subjugate the Cuban people, and supported the Batista regime as it battled against the rebels. It was Castro’s belief that the US government needed a pliable island government to enable American corporations to control the Cuban economy for their own benefit, through agriculture and tourism. The small number of well-connected rich did very well, at the expense of most of the populace, with the bulk of profits ending up offshore to the north.

Thus, the US was depicted as a foreign enemy of the Cuban people. The foiled invasion in the Bay of Pigs, coming early in the Castro regime, served to cement that view with actual proof of the US intentions towards the new Cuban government. Ever since, it has held a solemn place in the hearts of true believers there, much as, say, the War of 1812, where our national anthem was penned, has in ours.

Eventually, I rode back to the hotel parking lot, and helped Juan and a few other resistors line up the bikes for the group‘s eventual return. We planned to head north along the Bay that morning, to meet up in Playa Larga, and a promised alligator farm.

(To Be Cont’d)

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