Competition: What I learned from the Tough Mudder and Lance Armstrong


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Earlier this month, Kelley and I did the Tough Mudder. My attitude going into the event was kind of dismissive. Compared to “real” competitive events, I thought it was more hype than substance. We had a great time, though, and I’m really glad we did it. I can see now that it wasn’t so much about completing the course as fast as possible as it was about helping others and overcoming physical and mental obstacles. Not to mention that it was the longest I’ve ever run (about 12 miles), which by itself is something I’m pretty proud of.

At the time of the event, all the Lance Armstrong vs. USADA stuff was coming to light. None of it surprised me because I’d already been cured of my illusions for quite a while. It got me thinking about competition in new ways, though – specifically its purpose, its effects on people, and its place in my life.

It’s often said that competition brings out the best in us. While that may be true in regard to absolute performance, it occurs to me that it’s often the opposite in regard to ethics. The Tough Mudder is explicitly not a competitive event. There are no results and no prizes for the top finishers. I don’t think time is even kept. People gladly help each other out, and you can’t really cheat. If you don’t want to participate in an obstacle, you just run around it. I’m sure no one who did the Tough Mudder was on a systematic doping program to maximize their performance.

On the other hand, the Tour de France is the biggest competitive cycling event in the world. Going back to 1996, all but two winners have been somehow implicated with doping. Even on the amateur level at which I race, there have been a number of people who have tested positive and/or have admitted to doping. I’ve never seen testing carried out at any of the races I’ve done, and that’s over a period of 15 years which included two national championships and a lot of big regional races. I’m not a pessimist and I try to avoid gossip, but I can’t help but wonder what the results would be if testing were instituted on the local level.

That’s not really my point, though. My point is that I’ve decided that winning bike races isn’t as important to me as it used to be. There was a point early in my cycling “career” when my sole motivation for riding was racing (and winning). I still like to race, but I don’t need to race in order to justify riding any more, and I don’t need to win in order to justify racing.

So as I think about the events I’ll do next year, I’m feeling drawn towards races that I stand little or no chance of winning, but which I think will be fun, challenging, and rewarding. Dirty Kanza is at the top of the list. I’m even contemplating a half-Ironman, with an eye toward doing the full iron-monty in 2014. These events would require me to train and prepare at a new level, and simply to finish them would be a major accomplishment – regardless of how much mud I have to go through or how many dopers (if any) I get beat by.

The embrocation experiments: part 1


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Disclaimer: non-cyclists are excused from reading this post. It’s just going to sound like “click, click, buzz, buzz, hippie puke, crazy, crazy, crazy.”

Every cyclist wants to become a better cyclist. We would also like to be faster, but getting faster requires training, and that involves time and pain. Getting better, on the other hand, requires the acquisition of knowledge and skills that cause one to appear faster. Entire blogs are devoted to the subject of becoming a better cyclist, and it’s the reason that there are more bike blogs than there are actual cyclists.

I’ve been curious about embrocation for a while. As far as I know, no one I ride with uses it. This means it could make me a better cyclist.

So, I recently decided to try some. I ordered a couple varieties from Mad Alchemy that should arrive this week, and I bought a stick of Enzo’s from Emery’s. I tried the Enzo’s this past Saturday.

Enzo's medium embrocation

I applied it as directed, rubbing it in while wearing latex gloves to keep from accidentally getting it into places where it didn’t belong. The process took about two or three minutes. The smell was strong but not unpleasant. I thought it kind of smelled like a spice-scented candle, or like cinnamon-flavored medicine (if such a ting exists). My wife, Kelley, had a more defined opinion. She gagged, grabbed our 22-month-old son, and promptly left the room, just managing to utter “truck stop hippie puke”.

The temperature was in the low 30s, so I chose to wear some light tights over my bibs rather than just relying on the embro alone to keep my legs warm. I can’t say I felt anything in the first hour or so, except for a slight burning around my ankles. When I got home three hours later, I discovered that it was coming from the area under my socks’ elastic. On the positive side, I did notice that my legs felt pretty loose during the ride. I’d been off the bike for about a week and a half, so it could have been that I just had fresh legs. Whatever the cause, I felt good and not the least bit cold.

Angry ankle

I'm lucky my chain didn't rust.

The end of my ride was just the beginning of the adventure, however. I had been warned that a hot shower would multiply the burning effect of the embrocation exponentially. Following some advice I’d read online, I applied dish soap directly to my legs before getting in the shower. I then ran some cool water and wiped my legs down with a washcloth. So far, so good. However, things got interesting once I got under the water. As predicted, I suddenly felt like a herd of ferile cats was using my legs as scratching posts. I had to stay out of the direct stream of the shower, so I washed myself one limb at a time under lukewarm water. This was considerably less pleasant than the long, hot showers I like to indulge in after a ride out in the cold. Fortunately, my ability to drink beer in the shower was not affected.

Angry pores

Connect the dots!

After I dried off, all that remained was a pleasant warm feeling on my legs. This lasted for about one hour. To Kelley’s relief, only a hint of of truck stop hippie puke aroma remained.

My experience wasn’t positive or negative enough to render a verdict after a single ride, so I’m going to reserve judgement until I can get out for some more embro-assisted rides. That said, I’m not sure that the benefit embro (supposedly) gives me while on the bike outweighs the pain of being denied my hot post-ride shower. Next time out, I’ll keep the embro off my sock area, and I may try to apply less but spend more time rubbing it in. I’m also going to follow Enzo’s recommendation to use rubbing alcohol to remove the embro before hopping in the shower.

Further consideration
A couple of questions occurred to me during and after my ride. First, how horrible would it feel to crash and get road rash on embro-coated legs? Second, if water “activates” embro, what would happen if it started to rain? I’m guessing cool rain water wouldn’t be as painful as a hot shower, but embro in an open wound could be more painful than listening to Craig Hummer’s live Tour de France commentary. I hope someone is able to answer the second question reassuringly and that no one ever has experience with embro and road rash. I also wonder how soon embro can be used after shaving one’s legs.

I’ll post again after my next ride, hopefully with a review of one of the Mad Alchemy products. I’ve already reassured Kelley they won’t smell as bad as the Enzo’s stuff. It seems like a safe bet that nothing could smell worse than truck stop hippie puke.

New posts on the Bike Fed of WI blog

The guys at the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin recently invited me to be a guest writer on their blog. Click here to read my introductory post, which gives a brief history of my involvement with cycling, and click here to read my post titled, “A Cyclist’s Guide to Surviving Winter in Wisconsin”.

Bike Fed of WI blog

I’ll continue to write posts on this blog with my usual irregularity, but most of my bike-related musings will probably go on the Bike Fed blog.

Running transformed


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I have never enjoyed running. I’ve done it as an occasional complement to cycling (especially in preparation for cyclocross in the fall), and as a way to spend quality time with my wife, who actually likes to run. The thing I don’t like is the feeling of running. I know it’s about as natural a form of exercise as there could be, but it doesn’t give me the sense of smoothness and efficiency that I get on the bike.

This has a lot to do with the construction of my feet. Anyone who has seen my feet knows what I mean. Here’s one of them:


Some people have low arches. I have no arches. More than one podiatrist, upon seeing my feet, has said, “wow”.

These are not the feet of a runner. They were meant to be hidden inside stiff, carbon-soled cycling shoes.

Despite all this, I’ve always wanted to like running. It’s a much better workout than cycling for a given amount of time. In fact, I’ve lately been running during my lunch hour on days when I know I won’t have the opportunity to ride. Plus, Kelley and I occasionally like to put Caleb in the baby jogger and pound out a six-mile route around downtown Wauwatosa.

I’m a confessed gear junkie, so the one dimension of running that appeals to me is the shoes. When the Journal Sentinel ran a story about Revolution Natural Running Center, a “natural running” shoe store that recently opened in Wauwatosa, I was intrigued. I paid them a visit a couple months ago and spoke with a guy named Hans. He was very friendly and enthusiastic, and didn’t have any of that “I’m smarter than you” attitude that you often see in specialty stores. I described my feet and my history with running, and he had me run on a treadmill in a variety of different shoes. I left with a pair of Altra Instincts. They are considered a “zero drop” shoe, which means that the thickness of the sole is the same under the heel as it is under the forefoot. This aids in a more natural midfoot strike.

Altra Instinct

The shoes and the technique Hans recommended (shorter strides, more upright posture) have transformed running for me. I’m running with far less discomfort – both during and after my run. In fact, my third time out was a 10-mile run with Kelley. It’s probably been five years or more since I’ve run that far. I was tired when it was over, but not sore, and I felt fine the next day.

Thanks for helping me to enjoy running, Hans. Your store is aptly named.

Caleb the Crouper


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The ER at Children’s Hospital is not a place I want to be real familiar with. Unfortunately, though, we’ve had to make a few trips there – enough that I’m starting to recognize people. Our latest trip was took place this past weekend.

Caleb developed a barky cough very abruptly on Saturday, and it kept him, Kelley, and me up most of the night. In the morning, when I noticed how hard he was working to breathe, we called his pediatrician and headed off to the ER. Diagnosis: croup.

As always, the people at Children’s took great care of Caleb, and the female nurses made a big fuss over him. Because his croup was pretty severe, they sent him up to the intensive care unit. We spent the night there and waited for his steroid treatments to take effect. They did, and by morning he was feeling much better. Well enough to repeatedly remove all the wires that had been connected to him and to eat six cups of Jello, applesauce, and pudding. To our relief, we were discharged by noon.

Thanks to everyone who prayed for us, and especially to Kelley’s parents who stayed with us most of the afternoon/evening (and who brought supper from Cafe Hollander). I hope this will be our last trip to the ER, but if it’s not, I know we’ll be in good hands next time.


I will put my hope in God!

hopeWhy am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad?
I will put my hope in God!
I will praise him again — my Savior and my God!

-Psalm 43:5 (New Living Translation)

These are troubling times. I try to keep a glass-half-full outlook, but it’s a constant battle to keep that glass from springing a leak. Thankfully, the verse above came to mind today as I was listening to some gloomy news on the radio. I realized that if my hope is in money and worldly security, then there is reason to despair. But if my hope is in God, I have every reason to rejoice.

Jesus told his disciples:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

– Luke 12:22-22 (NIV)

Kelley and I have both been moved to consider how well our priorities are aligned with the verses above. It’s encouraging to think that God may use these “troubling” times to free us from the worries of the world and to draw us closer to him.


Tour of America’s Dairyland 2011

I did three races in this year’s ToAD: Grafton, Waukesha, and Downer Ave. Despite my lack of training miles, I was pretty satisfied with my results. I didn’t place well in any of the races, but I was able to attack a few times. I even took a $50 prime at Downer Ave. Most importantly, I stayed clear of crashes and finished all three races with my bike and body intact.

Here are links to my GPS/power data from each race:

As always, the series was exceptionally well run. Every race started on-time, and results were posted online early the following day.

Pedaling through a corner with my inside foot down

Pedaling through a corner with my inside foot down

That's the way you're supposed to do it

That's the way you're supposed to do it