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Folks on Spokes 40 miler… and more…

September 15, 2010 1 comment

Part II in an ongoing series of increasingly long-winded posts.

Sunday, September 12, marked the day of my first organized cycling tour: the Folks on Spokes 40 mile ride through Milford, West Haven and Orange, Connecticut, to benefit a community mental health and substance abuse counseling agency. In some ways, it was sort of a big deal, as it was my first real athletic event since my basketball playing days ended in high school (slow-pitch softball in more recent years doesn’t count). Also because I’ve been going to 5K, 10K, 13-mile, 20-mile and 26.2-mile races for years to cheer on my father, my brother, my sister-in-law, my mother, my grandmother (yes…really!). As I said, running seems to run in the family. But this was my first thing; the first time people were coming to watch me do something like this. I found this to be a particularly bizarre experience in some ways: I truly wasn’t making as big a “deal” of it as most people; I was just going out for a bike ride. Don’t interpret that as me being ungrateful in any way; I have more gratitude toward the people that support me than I have ways to express that gratitude. It is just very humbling, that’s all.

Anyway, the FOS ride was a target on my calendar particularly because it A)goes right through my in-laws neighborhood and B)benefits a cause that is obviously pretty important to me. It also served as a fun way to get my side of the family together with my wife’s side of the family, something that doesn’t happen often enough.

The morning of the ride itself was threatening rain…serious rain. Temperatures were probably in the low 60s when I arrived at the park to check-in, and there was nary a blue spot in the sky. The (rough guess) 40 of us that were riding the 40-mile tour gathered in the Start corral for last-minute instructions (which included: “Try to ride in pairs or small packs; it makes the ride more fun and more safe”) and for our send-off. This was a cool experience, because it would offer my first chance to actually ride with somebody else and should prove to be a different type of barometer as to the progress I’m making. I like to think that I ride pretty well and can keep up a good pace, but have absolutely nothing to compare to, so I was excited about the idea of keeping pace with “real cyclists” on their $1000 (or $2000…or $3000…) machines.

8:30 finally rolled around and it was time to head out. I was stationed probably 3/4 of the way behind the pack as we left the corral, but was feeling pretty good. Turned the first corner through a side street and toward the main street (and just out of sight of my family who had come down to the start) when things came grinding to a halt, both literally and figuratively. Yes, at about the .06 mile mark, I downshifted and slipped my chain off the smallest gear. Aforementioned chain proceeded to wedge itself nice and tight between the smallest gear and the actual frame of the bike. Awesome. Within seconds, the rest of the crew doing the 40-mile ride was around the corner and out of sight, and I was alone in the woods. I had to get off the bike, take out my tools, loosen the rear wheel, dislodge the chain, re-engage the chain, relube part of it, re-pack my tools, gather myself and get back on the bike. Thankfully, this had happened once before, so I knew what I was doing. But it still took me a good 5-6 minutes from start to finish. So much for riding with a group. Now I was completely on my own (which at least is what I was used to). Off to a terrible, near-soul-crushing start.

I finally made my way onto the main drag and, just as I suspected, I was the only cyclist in site. Not a huge deal, I was just going to have to keep my eyes peeled for signs to keep from getting lost. The beginning of the ride was essentially through some ocean-front neighborhoods. Not all that scenic, but a nice tour of all of the plentiful, available real estate in the area. Around 1/2 mile in, I caught up with a small group of riders; not a difficult task given that they were pulled over attending to someone’s flat tire. Bummer. My spirit started to improve at about the 2 mile mark, as I saw a decent sized pack of riders coming out of a neighborhood that I knew was sort of a giant loop. I was still obviously 5/6 minutes behind them, but at least they were in the same neighborhood. Around mile 3.5, I came up behind two guys that I figured I could ride with for a while, but a look down at my computer revealed that they were only keeping a pace of about 11mph. Respectable, but if I had any hope of making my goal of averaging 15mph for the 40 mile ride, I couldn’t hang with them for long. So I didn’t. Back to riding by myself again.

Miles five through twelve felt incredibly long. Very beautiful, as it was seven miles of nothing but beach and waves on the right as we headed east. Sadly, it was not very enjoyable, as there was a rather gnarly headwind coming from due East, which made it difficult to maintain a cruising speed of anything over 13.5 mph. It felt like a seven-mile long hill. Not as fun as it sounds. Spirits were lifted again around 7.5 miles, as my wife, daughter, father, mother and sister-in-law were at the side of the road to cheer me on. Such a surreal feeling…it really does energize you for a little while.

Mile twelve saw my spirits improving greatly, as miles 12 through 16.5 were headed back West along the route we had just taken, meaning the gnarly headwind was now a gnarly tailwind. Where it had been tough to keep up 13mph, now it was very little work to keep up 18-19mph. I was also starting to see other real cyclists again, and due to the out-and-back nature of certain parts of the ride, I saw that my pace was not unlike theirs. The family was still waiting for me, as what had been the 7.5 mile mark on the way out was now the 16.5 mile mark on the way back. I think they could tell I was in better spirits at this part of the ride. While there were points early on that I briefly contemplated throwing in the proverbial towel (especially after the chain and wind issues), those thoughts were long gone.

Just after leaving passing the family at the 16.5 mile mark, our course took a 90-degree right hand turn off the coast and headed inland toward the hilly part of the ride. There are three main hills: a long climb from mile 18 to mile 20, a shorter yet steeper climb from mile 21 to mile 22.5 and the steepest climb from mile 25 to mile 26.5 (the latter marker was also a very well-positioned water stop). The first hill is where I really started to encounter other riders, much as I expected. Climbing can be tough when you are on your own, but I was able to catch up to a few other “lone wolf” style riders on each hill and we could thus use each other as motivation to keep climbing. I actually felt great on the first two hills…they were good, solid climbs, but nothing that I wasn’t used to from riding in Wakefield, so they were certainly manageable…and in fact they were not as bad as I was gearing myself mentally for.

The third hill proved the best test, not necessarily because of its incline (though it was certainly steep), but mainly because it was a narrow, windy, not incredibly well-paved old farm road, meaning it contained a lot of pot holes and oncoming traffic. The fam was waiting for me at the 26.5 mile water stop, the only one that I actually stopped at, albeit only for about 2 minutes and just to say “hi.” I started feeling guilty that they were traveling all that distance just to see me pedal by for a few seconds. Plus, a hug from Morgan is always good for refilling the tank!

Just after leaving this rest area was , I caught up with a guy that I would spend the next 12 or so miles riding with. He was embarking on his first ride since completing a Century ride on Long Island a few weeks prior, and was contemplating training for his first Double Century ride next spring. For those non-cyclists out there, a Century is a 100-mile ride; a Double Century is, of course, a 200-mile ride. Gulp. Something to shoot for, I guess. Anyway, nice enough guy, and it was cool to actually have company on a ride for a change. Around mile 37, my butt started to get sore. Not intolerable, but definitely bordering on uncomfortable. I stood up for a minute coming down the last hill (mile 38) which provided a much-needed break, but also allowed my riding partner to get so far ahead of me that he was out of site after about a half-mile. So much for a riding partner.

The remainder of the ride was rather uneventful. It should be pointed out that the Folks on Spokes 40 mile ride is actually closer to 41.75 miles, according to both the MapMyRide program that I use and to my Cat Eye bike computer. Not entirely sure who made that decision and why they made it, exactly. Also, the end of the ride was very unceremonious. It loops you back through the parking lot that we started in, but there is no formal “end;” merely just a bunch of people on bicycles milling about. Rather odd. All told, it took me somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 hours and 42 minutes to complete the 41.75 miles (I had a stopwatch and my bike computer running, but they stayed running while I was fixing my chain at the beginning, so I don’t count that). And I felt great. I probably had another 10 miles left in me anyway, which is a very cool feeling. My brother and sister-in-law were gathered with the rest of my traveling cheering section at the end…a welcome surprise!

As for what comes next…well, I’m not really sure. Since I had multiple goals (being under 200 and completing the 40 mile ride) that I reached in the same week, I have to find some new way to keep pushing myself. Obviously it is still a goal to maintain a more healthy weight (and I’ve still got some to lose), and I’d like to keep riding regularly, but I’m getting concerned that I’ll find it too easy to fall into old patterns again, especially with the winter coming, which brings with it the colder weather that renders outdoor grilling and outdoor cycling next to impossible. Maybe yoga. Maybe I’ll try running again, now that I’ve built up decent leg strength. I’ve started doing some exercises to work on my core muscles again. But I’m still not really sure what is next.

Oh, I also thought it would be interesting to post some of the comments I’ve been hearing about the fact that I have dropped weight. It has only been noticeable to me in the way that my clothes fit (dropping from a 38″ waist to a 34″ waist is pretty noticeable), but otherwise I feel that I’m the same shape. But other people have certainly noticed: I’ve heard comments that range from “you look great” to “it’s really working” to “keep up the good work” to “are you healthy?” to “seriously, do you have something terminal?” to “losing weight and cutting your hair short gives the distinct impression to those that don’t know you that you have either cancer or AIDS.” I’m not exaggerating any one of those.

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Categories: Uncategorized

Get Off Your Butt!! …or How I Decided To Leave The Couch And Learn to Love Exercise

September 11, 2010 2 comments

This post could also be titled “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” although I didn’t actually take a formal ‘vacation’ this summer. But I digress…

I suppose I should start by rewinding the clock a few months to April of this year. Around that time, it was starting to dawn on me that I was really out of shape. The results of what should have been an otherwise gorgeous photo-op with the family around Easter time were almost all of the proof I needed. My cheeks and neck were doing battle for custody of my jawline…and my jaw was losing!

But I wasn’t, in hindsight, really ready to do anything about it; just basically an overall sense of unhappiness with what I was becoming (or had become). Toward the end of May, I stepped on a scale at my in-laws house and was mortified by what I saw… “234.1” was staring back at me. Yuck. Something had to change, but I wasn’t sure what. The Memorial Day long weekend came and brought with it some beautiful weather. The warmth and sunshine brought more opportunities to play outside with the little one, and I found myself getting abnormally out-of-breath when playing games like “Ring Around the Rosie” … with a two-year-old. Not a good situation, and I certainly did not feel good about myself. Had the folks and my brother and his wife over for typical Memorial Day cookout food (meat and beer, essentially), and an end-of-day look at pictures solidified my decision… it’s time to get off the couch.

As fate would have it, the next day (June 1st) brought with it a text message from old friend Brad Golub. Brad and I have been friends since the first week of freshman year at Northeastern, and were roommates during the 2000-2001 school year. Brad and I were also, well, not all that healthy. Beer? Check. Pizza? Check. Mexican food and KFC (at the same time)? Check. Typical “single-guy” college stuff. I had spent the summer of 2000 working as a trash man and picking orders in a warehouse, so I was in decent shape. I weighed about 186 when I moved in to that apartment in Dorchester. When we moved out a calendar year later, I was up to somewhere in the neighborhood of 220. Not Brad’s fault, it was my own…but we were certainly two peas in a pod.

Anyway, so the text message from Brad revealed that he had taken up running, and was doing his first 5k race. I was floored. Brad was quite a decent baseball player (or so he says) in his younger years, but if there is one thing that Brad was not, it was a runner. An ongoing text conversation throughout the day that Brad had decided, too, that enough was enough. He had been running and changing his eating habits, and was down somewhere around 50 pounds since the start of the calendar year. His secret? Burning more calories than he consumed. You’d think he cracked the Da Vinci code. But he said it really was that simple. He’d taken up jogging and was “eating like an organic farmer…lots of protein and vegetables, cutting way back on the carbs.” I had been on a specialty beer kick at the time, and asked him about his current drinking habits. He said that he really hadn’t been drinking, because “If I’m going to take in 150 to 250 calories at a time, I’d rather not be drinking it.”

For some reason, it all made perfect sense. I decided that day that it was my turn, too. I set a completely unrealistic goal of getting to under 200 pounds by my birthday/Labor Day. In essence, three full months to drop somewhere around 34 pounds. Doable? Who knew…never really tried before. The completely unscientific plan that I came up with was simple…consume less calories than you expend. I decided that the diet was the first thing to change, mostly because it was going to be the toughest part. You see…I like to eat. I like food. I like food that tastes good. I also like food that is pretty easy to cook on a weeknight after work. That generally entails a lot of simple carbohydrates; pasta, mashed potatoes, breads, any combination thereof (there is nothing like good garlic bread with pasta…except maybe good garlic bread with Pierogi, which are essentially potato-filled pasta). Those days were going to have to stop, and fast. It was time to start limiting calories.

The good news is that the weather was getting warmer, which meant that I could do a lot of cooking on the grill. I haven’t yet bothered trying to make pasta, potatoes or bread on the grill, so this may work. Also, summer brings a lot of fresh vegetables and the second annual Wakefield Farmer’s Market. The new diet, almost overnight, started to consist of some very easy things to cook on the grill. Lots of lean protein (chicken, pork loin, etc), lots and lots of vegetables (peppers of all colors, onions, summer squash, zucchini, asparagus, eggplant all cook up nicely on the grill). No more sandwiches (at least not with bulkie rolls). No more bagels or toast for breakfast…unsalted rice cakes and natural peanut butter are a suitable alternative. No more junk snacks (Cheez-Its, Combos, Wheat Thins and Triscuits have all been popular in my belly). More fruit. More organic. More quinoa, more hummus. More Israeli couscous with broccoli and zucchini (amazingly good). No more junk cereal. It helps that I like Fiber One and Special K with Strawberries.

I didn’t make any real behavioral changes surrounding exercise for the first month…”baby steps,” I thought. The diet was going to have to be the real lasting change to get used to. The real exercise part was going to happen in July. I did go for long walks a couple of times during June, but walking doesn’t really do anything for me. After about 7-7.5 miles, I sorta get bored. Finally July 1st rolled around, and I was feeling pretty confident. People started to notice that I had been making changes. I seemed to be eating better. No beer, no pasta, no bread to speak of for a month. I seemed to be a little smaller (I don’t have a scale at home, so I’m not sure how much). But the real work was about to begin. I hemmed and hawed for a while around how to actually begin the exercise portion of my “master plan.” Again, walking was boring. Running, while it seems to run in the family, apparently skipped my part of the generation. The exercise-induced asthma certainly doesn’t help. I don’t know enough people locally to get into a softball league or a pickup basketball league. I didn’t want to join a gym, because I didn’t really want to add a lot of muscle. I tossed around the idea of riding a bike, but I didn’t actually own one. Nevertheless, it seemed like biking might be the way to go. I certainly wasn’t going to spend a lot of money though, because I have a history of getting sick of things quickly. After much perusing of Craigslist, Amazon, eBay, bike shops, WalMart and Target, I had found what I thought would be the winner. The embarrassingly named GMC Denali, as made by ultra-low-end manufacturer Kent. It rated decently enough that I didn’t think it would fall apart (always good). And it certainly was cheap ($168 at WalMart, including shipping).

The Friday after July 4th came and my package had arrived. An hour or so worth of work and a little help from my wife and my chariot was assembled. Took it out for a mile spin around the block in the dark just to see if I still had legs. Turns out…I didn’t! This was going to be work… But I knew I had to do it. The first week brought rides of 5.5, 7 and 10 miles. Not a bad start. Very, very warm out, for those that might recall. Also, it was mid-Tour de France. In hindsight, this is a bad time to start cycling…every time I rode, the only thing I could compare myself to was Andy Schleck or Mark Cavendish. Anyway, second week brought rides of 13, 7 and 11. I was starting to get the hang of this cycling thing, though by all means an amateur. Finished the month with rides of 8 and 19, the latter a new high. All in all, about 87 miles the first month…not a lot, but not a bad way to get my feet wet.

Around this time, it started to dawn on me that there was an annual charity ride in the part of CT that my in-laws live in…called the Folks on Spokes ride. It takes place the second weekend of September, and riders can sign up for rides of 5, 10, 20, 40, 50 and 66 (metric century). I had already proven to myself that I can do rides of up to 19, so 20 should be doable. Maybe even 40. So I now had two goals: get under 200 pounds by my 31st birthday, and do the F.O.S. ride.

First week of August brought rides of 19.3, 7.3 and 19.3 again. The 19-miler in July and the first 19.3 in August contained parts of the F.O.S. ride. Pretty rides along the coast, followed by some decent hill climbs. Maybe the 40 is doable after all. Time to up the ante a little. I took a day off in August and rode the bike into Boston to visit Natalia for lunch. 15 miles each way. Very doable, though city riding is not, how shall I put this, conducive to staying alive…so it’s probably the last time I’ll do that. Great hill climbs coming out of the city though. The ride back was the first time that I really felt like I was becoming more than a pure novice. Finished that week with rides of 14 and 10, but then took two full weeks off (it finally rained for the first time in months, then we went out of town for a weekend). By the time I was back on the bike, it was August 27th (a Friday), which gave me suddenly only two weeks to get ready for the 40-mile F.O.S. ride that I had now committed myself to doing. Time to get back out there! That last weekend of August saw rides of 21, 18 and 24 miles on consecutive days. New routes, not just stretching out the same neighborhoods in Wakefield and circling the Lake endlessly. These were rides that “cyclists” do…and they were tough. But I was feeling better after doing 24 miles now than when I would do just 5 or 7 miles the previous month.

Logged 162 miles for the month…almost twice what I did the previous month. And I was definitely losing weight…down to 204 pounds by the w/e of August 20-22. That’s right…30 pounds in about 2.5 months. My pants started not fitting so well. My belts started not fitting so well. People started commenting on how much weight I had lost (more on that later). Maybe my plan was working?!?

On to September. The problem with September is that the days get shorter. Not a whole lot of time to ride after work, as it was dark by the time dinner was over and Morgan was bathed and in bed. I was also coming to the realization that I’m really not good at hill-climbing on the bike, and that I could get away with taking a few shorter rides as long as they contained some serious climbs. Mapped out a couple pretty good routes where I could achieve maximum climbing in minimum distance. One of the endless good parts about living in New England is that there is certainly no shortage of hills! Especially in our neighborhood. I followed a short 6-mile uphill ride on 9/3 with a longer, hillier 25 mile ride on 9/4. Pretty good weekend, and left me marginally confident about doing 40 the next weekend. Took Sunday off to do an early family birthday celebration. Wasn’t sure how much I weighed, but the picture below is proof that I was starting to shed some noticeable weight.

Got in a hilly 9 miles on Monday 9/6 before attacking 35 miles before work on Thursday the 9th. I had mapped out my 35 mile course to be similar in climb to the FOS ride and by about 8 miles, I wanted to stop. This has become a recurring theme for me. I find that it takes me 8 to 10 miles of moderate riding to get into a groove. Prior to that, I kinda get bored, especially riding by myself. But I kept at it and, honestly, had a lot left in the tank when I made it back home. I had enough left in the tank that I had thoughts of changing to the 50-mile FOS ride, but I had already registered for the 40.

Anyway, that brings us to the Folks on Spokes ride itself, which I will cover in my next post. But it should be pointed out that when I stepped on the scale the day before the FOS ride, I was down to 198 pounds. I had accomplished my first goal…under 200 pounds by (roughly) my birthday. Honestly, I had sorta set the bar high for myself because I assumed I’d give up when I realized it would be unreasonable. But it became evident to me pretty quickly that my plan was actually working. Eating less, and eating better, felt natural. Getting on the bike and pedaling around the main streets and back roads of our area felt natural. I mean this to come across more as inspirational than as braggadocios, but it really hasn’t been that hard. With all sincerity, if I can do this, anybody can do this. It does take a certain level of commitment, but really, it isn’t that difficult if you keep it simple. Burn more calories than you consume and you’ll lose weight. Magic, I know. Find something that you like and do it! If you don’t like running, walk. If you don’t like walking, swim. Or play tennis. Or basketball. Or start by just parking at the far end of the lot at work or at the grocery store. Or do what I did and buy a $159 bike at Wal-Mart and get out there and just pedal around the neighborhood. It will work…trust me!

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