Making Great Gains By Going Absolutely Nowhere

As we approach the winter months it can become harder and harder to get outside on the bike.  Not only can the weather be a challenge, but it gets darker earlier so you may be out of daylight by the time you get home from work.  All of these things can really hinder a training schedule.  I’ve got additional challenges I face – as a week out of every three or four I have work duties that demand my laptop always be with me.  Not only is it a hassle to carry it around while riding, getting stuck on the bike trail should I be called upon to actually use that laptop is not a happy proposition.  What is a cyclist to do?

Performance Bicycle RollersWell – my solution was to get a set of indoor rollers.  This solution was partially enacted when I found a used set on Craig’s list.  I think I paid the guy like $45 or something.  Not only was there a full set of rollers, but there was also a fork stand so that I could hard-mount the bike and just have the back wheel spinning.  Good thing too – the belt that is supposed to accompany a set of rollers had broken on the previous owner.  After a couple of sessions bracketed into the fork stand, I began my search for the replacement belt.  6 bucks a about 7 days later, the belt was in place, the fork stand was removed and I was ready to give the rollers a “whirl” for real.

I started out next to an object I could grab onto to – my “safety handle”.  I held on and started to pedal.  10 seconds later, my front wheel was off the rollers and I was clinging to my safety handle for dear life.  Wow…

So rollers are a little tricky to get used to to say the least.  I put about 20 minutes into that first session, and never managed to do much more than one hand on the safety grip, on hand on the handlebars, and a lot of starts and stops trying to keep in a straight line.  I’d read that riding rollers is not only good for basic strength/endurance workouts, but also greatly improves your bike handling skills as well.  Yea – I can see why.

After that first attempt, I moved the rollers into the door frame for my second attempt.  This is definitely the way to go.  What worked best for me was to position it so that my elbows were right where the door jam was.  This way, with both hands on the handle bars, I could gently stick out my elbow and put a little pressure against the door frame if I started to fall one way or the other.  The other thing I found was – just like on the road – for some reason looking down at the front wheel as it is spinning is not a good strategy for maintaining your straight line.  In fact, when I looked across the room at the TV and didn’t target my every thought on keeping my bike straight on the rollers, I actually found I could do it a lot easier.  It really is like riding on the road if you don’t get all hung up about it.  Only thing is, you’ve got to stay within about a 3 foot space (depending on the size of your rollers) or you’ll be in a world of hurt.

I thought a little bit about the nightmare scenario – namely falling off the rollers, hitting the floor at full speed and shooting across the living room.  However, in practice I found that if anything the front tire falling off seemed the most likely scenario.  And, if the front tire were to fall off but the back tire were still on there really is no forward momentum as far as the floor is concerned.  I don’t think the physics will allow the cartoon-inspired “hit the ground and ride straight through the opposite wall” possibility.

So currently I’ve got at most 20 miles on the rollers.  Not a lot of miles for sure, and I’m definitely no pro, but the clumsy feeling is starting to go away.  I imagine sometime within the next 100 miles done indoors it will become less painful that going out in the pouring rain.  Well, ok, the riding in the rain isn’t really all that painful.  But I absolutely hate needing to clean up the damn leaves and road gunk from my down tube … while it is still raining.

Ross starts running? Is that possible?

Well, no.  It is actually not possible.  I’ll never be able to run distances.  I’m a pretty damn good sprinter – at least for someone who doesn’t try to be a sprinter.  I’ve always been pretty quick.  But I just can’t run distances.  As soon as I’m not going balls out, fast as I can, I just fall apart.  Running at a controlled pace just doesn’t work for me.  I feel all awkward and weird.  My legs feel like they are both in casts.  I feel like I’m going to fall over at any minute.  I’ve got no rhythm – no form.  I’ll just never be an endurance runner.

At least, that’s what I used to think.

3987144145_6676dbaa99Then a funny thing happened.  I know of this great place out in Ione, CA called Clark’s Corner (link here).  Kraig Clark, one of the folks responsible for Clark’s Corner, is a triathlete that can list the Paris Ironman in his list of accomplishments. Also among his list of accomplishments – dealing with me as a subordinate.  He was co-founder of the company I used to work for.  I’d always known Kraig as a runner and cyclist, so I wasn’t surprised when I got an email from Kraig regarding an event he was planning for Clark’s Corner.  Apparently, he was getting some guy called Barefoot Ted (Ted’s personal blog here) to come out and talk.

Did I mention that I am not a runner?  Well, needless to say I’d never heard of this Barefoot Ted guy.  Nor the book Born To Run (available from among others) that chronicled some of his adventures.  However, it was an excuse to get out for the night.  It was also intriguing that Kraig had arranged for a former executive Sally Edwards of Fleet Feet to interview Barefoot Ted.  If I understood correctly, a woman who listed one of the most successful athletic shoe sellers on her resume was going to interview a guy that – as far as I could tell – was totally against all shoes, and especially athletic shoes.   Besides, maybe I’d run into some folks that I used to work with and missed having contact with.  So, I moved some stuff around and headed out to the event in Ione.

The entire night was great.  The food was good.  The atmosphere was good.  I’m sure I’ll post in the future about Clark’s Corner (I’m planning a ride out there sometime in the next few weeks.)  But now is about running.  Now is about the fact that I can’t run.  I was listening to the dialog of a die-hard runner.  A guy that was beyond die hard.  This guy was a barefoot runner – someone the die-hard runners thought was nuts.  I was completely out of my element.

And yet somehow, I was enraptured.  Something about what this guy was saying just struck true.  I listened to how he talked about running barefoot, and I was reminded of being a child.  I grew up in a rural area, and I was surrounded by acres of crusher-rock gravel.  If you’ve ever had the opportunity to walk across this type of surface, you’ll know it can hurt like hell.  Somehow, as a kid needing to get around on this surface on those summer days when I just didn’t have my shoes with me, I’d instinctively learned how to walk in a way that minimized the pain.  I’d point my toes towards the ground with each step, landing on the balls of my feet instead of the heel.  By doing this, I was able to quickly move across the sharp gravel without pain.  This wasn’t some “brainstorm” that I came up with on my own, it just seemed natural.

And this was exactly what it sounded like Barefoot Ted was describing.

I won’t dwell on that actual night too much.  Let’s just say I did in fact get to talk to folks I hadn’t talked to in a while.  And I was inspired to buy a copy of Born to Run before I left.  And – oh yeah – I was so bold as to have Barefoot Ted sign it.

Withing a few weeks after that, I’d started to read the book as I commuted on the train.  I also won’t talk to much about the details of what is in the book – just go read it.  It is a paradigm shifter.  By the time I was done reading it, I was actually entertaining the remote possibility that I may actually be able to run distances.  I actually considered the remote possibility of seeing myself running 5, 10, 20 miles – sans shoes.  All of these for a guy that couldn’t run one half of a mile without feeling completely clumsy and introducing pain into muscles that just seemed incapable of working properly.

These ideas stuck with me for a couple of days.  Finally, today, I decided to do something crazy.  I unfolded the treadmill we’ve got in the living room, kicked off my shoes, and started jogging.  This was sort of a trial by fire experiment – let’s see if I could go a mile.

I felt kinda funny at first.  It felt right, but completely new.  My wife Melissa popped out of the other room and watched what I was doing.  She’d been listening to me ramble on about the science of proper footfalls and proper (or should I say, natural) form since I started reading the book.  She got down and watched my feet striking the treadmill.  She commented on how good my form looked – upright, not my normal “man carrying 85 pounds in an invisible backpack” stance.  After chatting with Melissa for what felt like a few seconds, I looked at the display on the treadmill.  I’d run about a quarter of a mile at that point.

A QUARTER OF A MILE?!?!?!  Now I know, that doesn’t sound like much.  Hell, marathoners go over 100 times that far.  But I wasn’t a marathoner.  I was a guy that thought the 200 yard dash was “pushing it” – preferring to stick with the 100 yard or 100 meter sprints.  And that guy – Mr. Legs Everywhere When Not Sprinting – had just casually run through a quarter of a mile without even thinking about it.

In the end, I managed to easily coast through my mile in about 12:12.  Again, I know, nothing to get excited about.  Until you understand that I couldn’t even do that when I was running track in Jr. High School.  There were a couple of discomforts – a little bit of tightness in my calves, and a slight tingly/burning sensation on the heel of my foot in the arch.  But I’m pretty confident that these are just the result of stretching and/or using muscles that I haven’t used in a long long time.  Cycling tends to be very muscle specific, meaning cycling builds up cycling muscles, and consumes non-cycling muscles.  I ran a mile.  I ran a mile barefoot.  I ran a mile and it felt comfortable.

I’m definitely not jumping the gun, thinking this revelation means I’m suddenly a marathoner or ultra-marathoner.  But it is a damn site better than I thought I was capable of last week.  And I can’t wait to see what I can do next week.