Friday, May 30, 2014

GAATTACA Revisited

This picture is from a bike trip, ridden in 1972, from Boston MA to Montreal QE, described in an earlier post. I discovered this picture after that post, it is a particularly good picture (in my opinion), and this blog needed a picture, so there you go. I am the guy blocking the "Q" in "QUÉBEC" wearing the BIANCHI jersey. Yes, I still have the jersey. No, I cannot fit into it. Note the cycling jersey/cut off jeans/Birkenstock sandal combo.

"GAATTACA" is a 1997 movie which offers a typical Hollywood take on genetics. It describes a future society in which parents have the option of selecting which of their genes are inherited by their children as a way to have the healthiest children they can. The story starts with one principled set of parents who do not believe in this selection and have just had a natural, unselected child. Their resolve withers, however, as the pediatrician, examining the newborn's genes, lists the likely health problems (e.g. "probable death by heart disease before age 50") and as a result, they choose to have their second child selected. The movie is the story of how the first, genetically-disadvantaged child becomes much more successful than his genetically superior sibling due to "spunk" or "will" or some such thing. I think this is an important message and I think we can all benefit from a positive mental outlook, hard work, and determination. That said, there are hard realities in this world that all the power of positive thinking cannot budge, and genetics is one of those.

Before I restarted cycling, I tried running as a way to keep fit. One of the resources I used in that effort was the book "Daniels' Running Formula" which helped me a lot and which I highly recommend. What I liked about this book is that it contains training plans that can help almost anyone, no matter their age, current level of fitness, or genetic potential. Ironic, then, that the Introduction of this book focuses on the hard truths of genetics. Jack Daniels, the author, describes four kinds of runners:

  1. Those who have inherent ability and the motivation to use that ability.
  2. Those who have inherent ability but are not motivated to use it.
  3. Those who lack much ability but have great motivation.
  4. Those who lack much ability and are not motivated.
The sad truth Coach Daniels derives from his many years experience is that while coaches love runners in groups 1 and 3 and are frustrated by runners in group 2, runners in group 2 will almost always outrun those in group 3.

Different sports require different abilities so a person who is exceptional in one may be below average in another and vice versa. Nonetheless, I am going to be so bold as to generalize Coach Daniels' observations and say that for any sport, what you can do is primarily determined by your genetic potential and only secondarily determined by how you train. For example, randonneuring requires endurance in every sense of the word. A rider who has little ability as a bicycle racer may have lots of ability as a randonneur. It follows, then, that if you are born with the ability to be a great randonneur you may well complete your first attempt at Paris-Brest-Paris, even if your training is less than optimal, but if you are not born with that ability, no training plan in the world will allow you to complete that ride. To complete the story, ability also changes with age, and how it changes with age is also a genetic trait. One person may be randonneuring at 90, another may have to retire by 55.

So what is the point and how does it relate to this blog? This blog documents my return to cycling after a thirty year hiatus and what I learned during that return. When I started, I expected that if I worked hard enough, I would be able to do anything I wanted. When I explored modern cycling opportunities on the Web and discovered randonneuring, I assumed that I would be able to complete Paris-Brest-Paris if I prepared properly. More specifically, I imagined that training was a linear process; that if I averaged 13 miles per hour in August and 14 miles per hour in September, by December I would be averaging 17 miles per hour. I imagined that if I completed a 200 km ride during my first year of cycling, I could hope to complete a 400 km ride during my second. Looking back at my progress from 2008 until today tells a very different story. Two months after I started riding again, I reached a level of fitness not that different than that which I have today. I had imagined that training would be like climbing a flight of stairs; month after month I would become more and more fit. I have found that it is more like running up a down escalator, one that goes faster the higher up you go. By training harder I can get higher on the escalator, but within a few months I have gotten as high as I can get, no amount of training will get me higher. In other words, there is an innate level of fitness, based on my genes, my age, and my history, that I can reach fairly quickly but which I cannot significantly exceed. Worse, to stay at that highest level of fitness requires an unsustainable amount of effort which very quickly exhausts me, forcing me to to reduce my effort resulting in a lower level of fitness.

The above is an oversimplification, of course. Many experts agree that it takes ten years for a bicycle racer to reach the peak of their potential. However, when I first read that statistic, I failed to recognize that it referred primarily to younger cyclists who have much greater room for improvement than I do and that the improvement referred to is a fairly marginal improvement; such a rider might be 10% better in year two than in year one and 1% better in year ten than year nine, very significant differences in the world of competitive bicycle racing but a difference I might barely notice in myself.

So where does this leave me? It means I now know pretty much what I can do in the world of cycling in general and randonneuring in particular. I know that if I train as hard as I can (reaching my highest point on the fitness escalator), I can successfully complete a 200K brevet, but that it leaves me exhausted and it takes me months to recover. I know that no matter how many years I train, this will not change very much. Having gone through this twice and having proven to myself I can do it, I am not so motivated to repeat that same process again. On the other hand, decades of medical research tell me that sitting on my couch at the bottom of the fitness escalator is a bad idea, that I ought to train hard enough on a regular basis to stay at least part way up. Finally, I know that I cannot stay at the top of my personal fitness escalator, the highest level of fitness I can reach, that leads to exhaustion and collapse. The questions I am working to answer now are:

  1. How far up on the fitness escalator can I stay, day in and day out? 
  2. From that point on the escalator, do I have enough fitness to complete a 200K brevet? A 100K charity ride? More? Less? 
Stay tuned as I try to figure this out.

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