On the Glory Days
December 6, 1999 (www.slowtwitch.com)
I've kicked some butt from time to time and have thoroughly enjoyed doing it. Always have. Comes from being competitive.
But I've also had my butt kicked quite a bit too and I've often enjoyed those days just as much or more. In fact, most of my training schedule consisted of lining up session after session with people who were better than me at one thing or another and having them thrash me. Just flog me like an old mule. I used this approach long before I'd ever heard of triathlon and it has been one of the key principles I've lived by for 25 years now. 'Cuz those are the training sessions that bring you face to face with your humility, when you have to suck it up and go home with your tail between your legs. At which point you just hope to recover, so that you can get up the next day and figure out how to get better (and go out and dish out some punishment the next time).
There are too many hell rides to remember. Phil Speck used to lead me on some mighty explorations through the Pala Indian Reservation and up OVER Mt. Palomar in my early days in San Diego. Eight to nine hours of hard slog, a lot of it on dirt roads. Bob Roll schooled me in his version of cyclocross in Northern California years before he did his first of five Tours de France. These would be three to four hours of running through ankle-deep mud with a bike on your shoulder.
I've trained with a lot of prodigious, diligent trainers over the years. These are the people I remember most from a lifetime of sport. I've always appreciated a good work ethic more than talent. All of my early heroes were lengendary trainers and I used to spend hours in the library as an eager 16-year old reading up on their workouts. Snell, Walker, Ryan, Rodgers, Shorter, Clayton, DeCastella, Prefontaine, Salazar, Chappins. And that was just running.
Hills and mountains. Most of my memories of tough sessions involve them. In training and in racing. Hang glider hill in the Bakersfield triathlon was a favorite place to drop ST for some cash. The Worlds' Toughest Triathlon had a few beauties in it. Our death sessions running the Switzerland trail loop above Boulder were a benchmark for my fitness for years. Any really tough climb appeals to me to this day. I moved to the top of tough hills just so I could go up them every day!
As any old crusty veteran would say, "It all began back in 1975..." I used to train with a guy named Paul Burke in high school. He was a year ahead of me and ran 4:16 for the mile and 1:58 for the half. And he was better than that in training. We were the training champions of the school. We did dozens of 100-mile weeks. I ran track and cross-country with him for three years and it's fair to say we ran together about five-hundred to six-hundred times. We often ran twice-a-day and we often ran togther in the summer. We ran in road races in the off-season including a few half-marathons. He was always better than me. After 2 years the gap began to close and I was able to begin challenging him on some of the longer, hillier runs . We had this one called "triangulation." It was a nine-mile loop with a series of four hills at the halfway point, gradually climbing higher and higher, and the top one had a little surveyor's triangle on it.
He used to make me suffer on that loop. I even got the nickname "Mucky-sludge" from him during my sophmore year because I was in such a bad state one time, after coming down from the hills on that loop, that I had to part the scum on the top of a cow trough to get some water or I was gonna DIE. We ran very, very hard.
We had two enthusiastic coaches who weren't afraid of kids training too much. And back then for some reason kids expected to have to train hard to get good. So we were encouraged to push hard. Our track coach, Joe Stocking, was from England and had been a very good 400-meter runner in his prime--in the 60'--in the days of gut-busting track sessions. But he didn't have to push us much. We always wanted to do more. But since he was out there doing the loops with us--and finding some new ones for us--it all seemed so natural.
The day I beat Burke to the top was one of those breakthrough days for me. I didn't anticipate beating him to the top but just seemed to be springing off my toes with more bounce than usual. At the top of the first hill he was hurting. He was doing that kind of grunt-like exhale people do when they are really starting to get close to their limit. (That's how I always knew when Mark Allen was on the edge too. He's start that type of laboured breathing.) So I pushed the second hill a bit more, knowing he'd always outkick me at the top if he was anywhere near me. He stayed just a few steps behind and we were about ten minutes into the hard stuff when he says, "What are you trying to do, Mucky-sludge?!" We both had a bit of a laugh and then I just rolled on up the last two hills at my absolute max and beat him to the top by a good minute or more.
As I started down the other side I had one of the deepest feelings of satisfaction I've ever known. The kind you get when you've been working at something for a couple of years and you finally get there. We didn't talk about the run as we ran back to school. We both knew that I was getting stronger. He could see it coming and so could I, but to finally drop him was just such a turning point. That became my favorite run in high school and no one other than Burke ever beat me on it again