Monday, September 24, 2012

The Third Best Shape of my Life

It might sound funny but I actually keep track of when I am most fit. They say that as an athlete you should keep copious notes about every training session and every food you eat but unless you have OCD, this can be a daunting challenge. At the very least my memory can recall long stretches where training had a steady, organized and properly intense focus.

The most fit I have even been was when I was training for a Street Boxing tournament when I was seventeen. It was pretty much what you might imagine, teenagers fighting in backyards with little more than 16 ounce gloves and sheer testosterone. I guess the fear of losing motivated me on those 7 mile runs and countless sessions with the heavy bag. After several weeks of breaking down personal barriers I felt unstoppable. Confident on the day of my fight it wasn't a surprise when I won.

The second most fit I have ever been was just before Army Basic Training when I was nineteen. That's right, I said just before. In order to prepare myself for the rigors of the military I set out to complete my own 7 week course of self-torture. Consistent and measured running, calisthenics and weight training earned me the number one slot in my first Army PT test.

These two top positions have one thing in common, I was a teenager during both of them. Your body goes through a lot of changes over 20 years. I've had highs and lows where my bodyweight and fitness shifted dramatically. There were many times that I thought my past youthful energy and ability was completely diminished, never to be experienced again. I was wrong.

When you train it is usually with a target in mind. My aim is the upcoming Alafia Mountain Bike Race on October 7th where I will attempt to finish in the ultra competitive Men's 30-39 Cat 2 class. Being realistic I fully expect to get my butt kicked. However, winning is not my goal. The longest race I ever completed was only 15 miles - this one will be 20 and at a much faster pace.

Endurance has never been my best attribute. In 2010 I attempted a Cat 2 Mountain Bike race in Rhode Island called the Gloucester Grind. It was supposed to be three laps of a six mile course that was nothing but rocks and mud in 50 degree weather. I tried to keep up with the crowd but my lungs couldn't hack it. I blew up in the first lap, had trouble breathing and didn't finish the race.

With this haunting memory in mind, I learned from my mistakes and trained specifically for endurance. For the past seven weeks my focus, diet and performance have been unbelievable. Endless core training and cycling 20+ mile distances has brought me down to a trim and agile 155pds. My back pain is gone, my energy is high and my body strength is undeniable.

The question is - Have I overcome my past weakness through experience? Will being in the third best shape of my life drive me over that finish line? We'll find out the answer in only a couple weeks time.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Finding Rhythm on the Legacy Trail

As a Mountain Biker in Florida I have to spend a lot of time on the concrete. However, that doesn't necessarily have to remove me from nature. I was helping my wife with a pet sitting job and just by odd circumstance we happened to be staying near the Venice to Sarasota Rail-Trail, otherwise known as the Legacy Trail.

Rail Trails are a series of paths being built all over the country. Old rail lines long past destroyed are now being converted into bike trails. I decided to give this one a try.

I started at the Mission Valley entrance on Laurel Rd in Nokomis. I already had a two mile warm-up so the moment I hit the path I was able to go all out. I clicked up to the top gear and settled into the time trial position.

A Rail Trail is unlike other paths for many reasons but the first and most obvious is that it is still surrounded by nature and teeming with wildlife. The Legacy trail is one long, uninterrupted stretch flanked by Florida scrub brush and marshlands. Half a mile onto the trail two Raccoons crossed right in front of me, I also saw two snakes and three Gopher turtles.

The trail is well maintained. It has multiple rest stops complete with benches that have some protection from the rain and there are even signs that explain about the local wildlife. The atmosphere on the trail is very biker friendly. I saw 30 riders in my short time there. They ranged from senior citizens on lofty cruisers to hardcore cyclists whizzing by with their legs pumping hard and their eyes on the ground. You get that feeling of being part of a larger community.

In addition to the nature views on both sides there some other distractions that give the trail some depth. First off I thought it was cool that it went under State Road 681. There is a trail entrance to Oscar Scherer State Park complete with park map. One of the creek bridges passes by a remnant of the old train tracks kept in place as a reminder of times past. There are even mile markers to give you an idea of your approximate location when you are far from a street crossing.

My 23 mile journey was enjoyed under cloudy skies and at top speed. I cruised all the way up to Palmer Ranch Parkway and then rode for a few miles on Honore Road where, coincidentally, I race the Tempo and Timmy's Time Trial once a month. I was making such great time that I didn't want to stop so I took these pictures while I was riding.

While I don't recommend my version of high speed photography, I do recommend the Legacy Trail for recreational riding or fitness training. With great views, nice people and lots of nature you can't go wrong.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Introduction to Alafia State Park (Part 2)

It was only my second trip to the Alafia River State Park and I had already fallen in love with a trail. North Creek is a miniature version of the great heights we all strive to reach when bouncing along on knobby tires. Narrow singletrack winds its way through a hilly terrain alongside fern lined brooks and algae covered swamps.

The elegance of North Creek is matched only by it's ability to challenge the rider. As an intermediate trail it has the perfect combination of small sharp climbs, quick racing downhills, multiple bridges and sudden technical elements.

The amount of care put into North Creek is evident around every twist and turn. Concrete blocks solidify the earth from sliding away under heavy rains, wooden slats protect dirt turns from eroding into the swamp and there is even a newly built descent bridge that is not for the faint of heart.

North Creek is only two miles long and it goes by fast. Your attention is held by each obstacle and the beauty that surrounds them. By the time you get a chance to look up, you're already at the end of the trail.

With Hurricane Issac missing Florida the park was saved any real damage but there had been off shoot storms that muddied up some of the other paths. After North Creek I went into the easy trails. This started with part of River Loop which led to Rock Garden and finally Sand Pines.

The section of River Loop that I tried was also tight singletrack but with low lying palm branches. The trail itself was hardpack dirt with enough roots to make you pay attention but not too many that it slows you down. The only obstacle was a recent fallen tree which will no doubt be moved by the next trail party.

The trail Rock Garden is something of a curiosity because it has no rock gardens anywhere on it. It appears to be the bed of a brook covered in pebbles. This makes for an unusual riding surface but it is useful when the rain causes this trail to muddy up. A skinny bridge made up of a handful of 2" by 10" planks is your only respite from the muck.

The big upside to Rock Garden is the length. It is a very easy to follow three and a half miles that connects directly into Sand Pine making your off road riding last a little longer.

During my first visit I wrote about the easy trail known as Sand Pine,
you can read that story here

As for my second impression of the park - I love it even more. I mapped out a 6 mile route including all of the trails mentioned above and then completed two laps at a medium-fast speed. Thanks to the rain my bike and myself were covered in mud by the end of the ride so the cleaning station became very handy.

This was likely my last chance to ride Alafia before the big race on October 7th. I was hoping to bolster my confidence before then with some knowledge of the possible XC route but I admit to being a little squeamish. I'll still be at a major disadvantage for many reasons but at least now I have a good idea of what kind of terrain I will be facing.