Saturday, February 21, 2015

20,000 Miles and Counting

"You should be proud of yourself for sticking to cycling so long" my wife told me the other day. I don't, in fact, feel all that proud. I know of too many people who have done so much more; I feel like my accomplishment is only impressive when compared to my otherwise miserable record of maintaining an exercise program. What I do feel is relief that I have found something I can stick with. Recently, I passed a minor milestone: 20,000 miles of cycling since I restarted cycling six and a half years ago; I know this would not be much of a milestone for many cyclists, but it is for me. I am using this milestone as an excuse for a retrospective evaluation of how my second cycling career is working out.

When I restarted cycling in 2008, I had two reasons for doing so. The first was that I had come to realize that my health was at risk due to my inability to stick to a regular exercise plan, and I was hoping that cycling would be the solution to that problem. The second was that I remembered the joy that cycling had brought me in the past, and I hoped to reclaim that joy. In my last post, I discussed my exercise history before I restarted cycling. I detailed how I embarked on exercise programs involving swimming, weight lifting, and running, and in each case, I abandoned the effort within a year. My dirty little secret is that the same thing happened with cycling. Although I restarted cycling in August of 2008, within eight months, I had virtually stopped and did not really restart until May of 2010. Granted, there were some very powerful forces that caused me to pause my cycling. My wife became ill at the end of 2008 and was in the hospital most of January 2009, so it is perhaps not surprising that I only got in a single bike ride that month. Her treatment continued for another year and a half, a regimen of treatment sufficiently debilitating to keep her from riding. The lack of her companionship, the distraction caused by my worry for her, and the time I spent with her while she was being treated discouraged me from riding as well. In addition, my beloved Bianchi Specialissima turned out to be unreliable. The main problem was the sew-up tires, but in addition, it seems to be something of a bad luck bike. The Surly Cross Check I purchased in 2010 has turned out to be, by comparison, an extremely reliable work horse. Knowing my bike will always be ready is a tremendously powerful motivating force to keep me exercising. Having said all that, when I actually look at my cycling history, it is apparent that my wife's health and my Bianchi's reliability issues only partially explain my lapse in cycling. Sometimes, I just loose motivation.

I have ridden 21,000 miles since I restarted cycling in 2008, but less than 1,200 of those miles were ridden before May of 2010; my cycling re-start in 2008 may have been a false-start. Yes, I got my bike repaired, but it turned out to be a bike I could not rely on long term. Yes, I managed a ride or two every week, but then completely stopped riding for a year. Perhaps I really restarted cycling in 2010, a re-re-start if you will. But even since 2010, my record has been far from perfect; I have gone as long as three weeks without a ride. The difference between cycling and all the other kinds of exercise I have tried is not that I never backslide in cycling, but that when I do, I have always managed to restart. Looking at it that way, 2008 might, in fact, be the correct start date to use, and in that case, it won't be much longer before my second cycling career will be longer than my first.

So how am I doing towards meetings my goals of better health and more joy? Joy is pretty much by definition entirely subjective, which makes it both easier and harder to evaluate. It is easier, because there is no math to do. It is harder, because it is totally unclear what an evaluation consists of. What I can say is that my joy is at constant war with the four horsemen of the spudocalypse: boredom, terror, misery, and despair.

War On Joy

Boredom: The joy I felt when I test-rode an inexpensive bicycle at a bike shop back in 2008 had two sources. The first was the physical pleasure of being on a bike, the sun on my face, the wind in my hair. The second was the fun of exploring a new neighborhood, in the best way that can be done, on a bicycle. In the last six and a half years, I have ridden over 900 rides. 273 of those rides have been around and around and around the ⅓ mile Rice track. The only thing more boring than that are the 4 rides I have done on my trainer. Even so, the wind in my hair, the sense of speed, and the sound of my tires is occasionally enough to bring joy to my heart, even circling the Rice Track. I also have ridden Braes Bayou 244 times, White Oak Bayou 132 times, and through Terry Hershey/George Bush parks over 100 times. The City of Houston has 16,000 miles of roads, not to mention the country roads in the surrounding areas, why do I keep riding the same routes? In a word:

Terror: As an old man, I worry about being attacked by dogs, murdered by brigands, but most of all, crushed 'neath the wheels of the iron behemoths with whom I "share" the road. The vast majority of the 16,000 miles of Houston roads are too busy or otherwise unsafe to use, or if not, there is no safe route to get to them. I ride the same routes over and over because they are relatively safe, relatively pleasant rides close to home.

Misery: Houston's humidity makes hot weather feel hotter and cold weather feel colder. On one of my trips to California, I failed to bring warm enough cycling clothes. An unexpected cold front had come through and when I got up in the morning to ride, it was in the mid-fifties outside, much too cold for the short sleeves and shorts I had with me. Or so I thought. I decided to give it a go, and to my surprise, it was quite comfortable. In retrospect, that is because humidity is low in California, dry air does not pull the heat from your body in the same way the humid air of Houston does. As I write this, it is 37 degrees out, and rather than ride in with my wife, I will wait until later in the day when the temperatures are more reasonable before my ride. While the residents of colder climes laugh at what a wimp I am, not riding when it is a balmy 37, Houston's hot and humid Summers hold a candle to none. And then there is rain. I read in my Randonneurs USA Members Handbook that, as a Randonneur, I should set my alarm for 3 am on the coldest night of the year, turn on my sprinklers, and sit under those sprinklers to practice changing a tire. If that is true, then I am not a Randonneur. Should I be trapped in a downpour, I will usually finish the ride, but I am too much of a wuss to start a ride in the driving rain.

Despair: A running theme on this blog has been how I had dreams of becoming a successful randonneur1, earning an R12 award, completing a brevet series, and then flying to Paris to ride PBP, and how those dreams were crushed beneath the reality of my physical limitations. When I blogged about my previous exercise attempts, I described how in each case, I improved rapidly. That seems not to be the case with cycling. Within a few months, my typical "long" ride was 30 miles and on my best days, I could average 15 mph. Today, my typical long ride is 30 miles and on a good day I average 15 mph. There is much to be said about that, and I will say it in a future blog post, but the bottom line is that I have not felt like I have improved as quickly or as much as I expected, and that takes the wind out of my sails.

Joy: I don't know if it is apparent, but I did a lot of number crunching in preparation for this post. I was horrified but not really surprised at how often I had ridden the same old routes. What was a surprise is how many rides I had done that I had never done before, the kind of exploration that brings me joy. If you had asked me, I would have said there were 5 or 10 such rides. In fact, there have been 40; the back roads of Virginia, the river delta of California, the island paths of Martha's Vineyard, the Maine Coast. In the next section of this post, I am going to discuss how successful my more than 850 pure training rides have been at keeping me healthy. But besides keeping my healthy, they have kept me in shape so that when the opportunity for an exciting new ride comes along, I am ready.

Health and Fitness

There are more theories of exercise than there are athletes creating them. The good news is that, as best I can tell, there is a wide range of activities and training plans that adequately meet the requirements for healthy living. I have read the recommendations of the US Government, of the American College of Sports Medicine, and on the web pages from a variety of medical organizations, and fortunately, there is a consensus. For health purposes, exercise can be divided into three intensities; Light, Moderate, and Vigorous. Moderate Exercise is the equivalent of a brisk walk. Light exercise is less than that, perhaps a slow stroll. Vigorous Exercise is the equivalent of running. The recommendation is that everyone should get a minimum of 150 minutes a week of Moderate Exercise or 75 minutes a week of Vigorous Exercise or any combination of the two. (It is unknown if light exercise has health benefits.) Ideally, one should get 300 minutes of Moderate Exercise or 150 minutes a week of Vigorous Exercise a week. That exercise should be distributed over the week; cramming your 300 minutes of exercise into the weekend provides fewer health benefits than distributing it over the week (see below).

For purposes of this post, I made some conservative assumptions to simplify analysis of the cycling data I have been collecting since 2008. First, I assume that all the bicycling I do is moderate exercise, even though some of it is clearly vigorous. Second, because I track miles I ride, not time, I assumed an average speed of 13 miles per hour to convert miles to minutes. Over the past year (52 weeks), I have exceeded 300 minutes of exercise for 41 weeks and 150 minutes for 8 weeks; I have met or exceeded the minimum aerobic exercise guidelines 94% of the time. All of this occurred during a period of discouragement with regards to my career as a randonneur and in a year where I made 4 trips to California and spent 6 weeks there helping my ailing father. Since 2008, I have averaged 283 minutes a week of aerobic exercise, an average that includes approximately one year in which I did almost no riding. Since my re-re-start of cycling in 2010, I have averaged 362 minutes a week. Since beginning randonneuring in 2012, I have averaged 441 minutes a week. I think cycling is providing me with enough aerobic exercise for health.

How about the distribution of that exercise? I have already discussed that in terms of the percentage of weeks I met the guidelines, but how about days per week? Am I a weekend warrior, or do I properly distribute my exercise? That depends on when I look:

Before I retired, I was a classic weekend warrior; most weeks I rode on the weekends, but not during the week. Once I retired, I rode almost every day, most commonly 4 or 5 days a week. In retrospect, while I was working, I should have found some way to commute to work by bicycle. A 2004 study found that getting enough exercise, but getting it all on the weekend, provides some benefits to some people, but spreading that same exercise out over the week provides more benefits and provides benefits to all groups studied.


Developing a training program to allow me to continue as a randonneur is clearly a work in progress, a work that I have discussed ad nauseum on this blog. I just want to discuss one statistic in this post. My Randonneurs USA Members Handbook says that I should be riding at least 5000 miles per year to prepare for randonneuring. As part of my compulsive record keeping, I keep a running average as to how many miles I have ridden during the previous 12 months. At present, that average is at 4636 miles, less than the desired 5000 but perhaps understandable given that I have not been preparing for a brevet during that time. At the peak of my brevet training, I hit 5572 miles from August 2012 through July 2013. At the time I rode my first 200K brevet in May of 2012, I had accumulated a mere 3522 miles during the previous year. Since starting randonneuring in 2012, I have averaged 4967 miles per year, not quite there but pretty darn close.


Preparing this post has been a very motivating experience. I have a dour personality and so, before I prepared this post, my overall impression was of a cycling career full of lapses and setbacks. However, when I crunched the numbers, I feel like I am doing pretty well. Pulling together this post also helped me remember and clarify why I am doing what I am doing; it is easier to drag myself over to the Rice Track for yet another ride when I remember that I am doing that to stay healthy and to be ready for a fun ride when one becomes available. Although I was pleasantly surprised by the number of fun rides I have taken, I feel like that is a number I should try to increase. How I propose to do that will be topics of future posts; stay tuned.

1) Randonneur, randonneuse, brevet, R12 award, and PBP are all terms having to do with the sport of randonneuring. I have posted extensively on this in the past, and there is an excellent summary of that sport on the RUSA website.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

A Rake's Progress

"A Rake's Progress" is the title of a series of 8 paintings (and 8 parallel engravings) by William Hogarth chronicling the fall of a young man. It begins with the first painting, depicting his inheritance of his father's fortune, and ends with the eighth picture, shown above, where he has lost everything and is confined to the Bedlam insane asylum. This series provides the title for this post, which chronicles my fall from fitness until I restarted cycling in 2008.

Perhaps I overestimate the importance of aerobic exercise, activities like running or cycling, for a healthy lifestyle. Other important factors include not smoking, moderating alcohol consumption, stress reduction, healthy eating, weight control, and regular medical care to name the most obvious. My personal healthy living scorecard is mixed; I have never smoked but I am 40 pounds overweight, for example. Even just considering exercise, aerobic exercise is supposed to be only one part of a plan that also includes strength training, flexibility training, and for a man my age, exercises to maintain balance. The press1 loves to print alarmist headlines (that's what sells ads after all) and there is one headline that has been popping up recently stating that 80% of Americans fail to meet the minimal standards of exercise set by the US Government's Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). It is always a good idea to go past the headline and read the entire article, identify the source for that article, confirm that the source is reputable, and even read the original source to make sure the press quoted it correctly. That is what I did when I encountered the "80% of Americans don't exercise" article, and the source is a study by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC). What that study consisted of was to ask people about their activities in pursuit of two parts of the HHS exercise goals, aerobic exercise and strength training. It turns out that, as the headline reported, only 20% of people surveyed reported that they had met the minimum requirements for both, but that was mostly a deficiency in strength training; 29% of those surveyed met the strength guideline, 52% met the aerobic guideline, and 20% met both.

What are these guidelines from the HHS that we, as Americans, are not meeting? In the first place, the guidelines are considered a minimum; people are encouraged to go beyond them. Secondly, the minimum guidelines call for 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise (e.g. brisk walking) and two sessions of strength building exercises per week. I said at the start of this post that I may overestimate the importance of the aerobic part of this, but perhaps not. Reading between the lines, I get the impression that HHS agrees with me that the aerobic component provides more of a health benefit than do the other components, so perhaps my focus on aerobic exercise is not misguided. In this post, I will focus on the decisions and circumstances led me to become one of the 48% of Americans who fail to do enough aerobic exercise; a decades long journey from being an active cyclist to a couch potato. In a future post, I will provide an overview of my return to grace as an active cyclist in 2008.

Thinking back on my golden age of my cycling, when I was in High School and College, my cycling may not have been as perfect a source of healthy exercise as my rosy memories might suggest. Although it is likely that I significantly exceeded the minimum average of 150 minutes a week of moderate exercise, a single weekend ride often exceeded 400 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity, the problem was that this exercise was not evenly distributed over the week. That said, I did bicycle to school every day, and between that and the major weekend activities, this was probably enough to keep me healthy. Although I have no records to back me up, I suspect I rode fewer miles in college than I did in high school, though I did go on regular training rides with the Berkeley Wheelmen and I suspect that, even in college, I got enough aerobic exercise for health.

Graduate School was much harder than undergraduate; finding time for regular exercise became more of a challenge, a challenge I did not meet. I have no records of any exercise I did while in grad school, I don't even remember if I walked, biked, or drove to school. I did go for the occasional bike ride, especially when I started dating my future wife, but I doubt it was enough to meet the minimum guidelines for aerobic exercise. Things got a bit better during my four years of postdoctoral training as I biked to work, but then collapsed completely when my wife and I got real jobs, moved to the suburbs, bought a house, and had our first child. Work was too far to bike and there were the logistics of day care, so for over 25 years, I did virtually no aerobic exercise.

In 1993, changing interests caused me to leave academic science to form a one man consultancy focused on bioinformatics, the use of computers to advance medical research. The increased flexibility that came from being my own boss should have allowed me to begin a regular exercise program, but somehow it didn't, a couch potato I remained.

In 1991, my older son joined Boy Scouts. At first, this had little impact on my (lack of) exercise, but as he got older, he became increasingly frustrated with the activities of his troop, finding them an inadequate challenge. When I asked the other, more experienced parents about that, I found that high adventure camps were available for older scouts, but that adult volunteers were necessary to make that happen, so in 1996 (at age 47), I volunteered to help lead a backpacking trip in the famous Philmont High Adventure Camp. I was appropriately apprehensive about a major backpacking trip after 25 years of sloth, so my son and I began a regimen of morning runs which, when supplemented by the weekly exercises organized by the trip leader, got me into good enough shape that I had no difficulty on the the trip.

In 1999 (at age 50), while vacationing in Canada, my older son and I borrowed mountain bikes from the lodge where we were staying and hit the trails. I was utterly embarrassed, I was not at all able to keep up with my 16 year old son, my legs gave out on me in minutes. I think the difference between my success in 1996 and my failure in 1999 was the difference in preparation; I prepared extensively for the 1996 backpacking trip, but then returned to life as a couch potato so was utterly unprepared for a mountain biking adventure.

By 2001, my former academic home had finally discovered the value of bioinformatics, and I returned, first as a consultant, but then as a faculty member. I worked under a fierce taskmaster who made sure that I had no free time; there was little opportunity for exercise. In 2003 (at age 54), my younger son wanted to attend a Boy Scout high adventure camp in California, and again I volunteered. Having been so successful in 1996 and under intense pressure at work, my preparation was much less than in 1996. I was also 30 pounds heavier, and I struggled to complete the trip. That should have been my wakeup call, but rather than rise to the challenge, I fell into despair. In 2004, my work situation changed such that I potentially had more time for exercise. In 2005 (at age 56), I was volunteered for a second high adventure camp, one which promised to be more challenging than the previous two, and I took it very seriously. Because this was a sea-based adventure, my exercise plan involved mostly swimming. I dramatically improved my fitness as evidenced by performance improvement during training, but was still woefully underprepared for the trip despite having made an heroic effort to prepare. Whereas some of my previous failures could be blamed on lack of preparation, this one had to be blamed on age and/or obesity. When I got back, I was determined to not return to my slothful ways, but found that swimming was a difficult form of exercise to maintain. Also, I had found that my major deficiency on the trip had been upper body strength, strength training had become all the rage, so I took up weight lifting. I kept this up for about a year, and my strength improved dramatically over that time, but it was always a chore, never a joy, and so gradually, I would skip a day, skip a week, and then found I wasn't lifting weights anymore. I then picked up a wonderful book entitled Daniels' Running Formula by Jack Daniels and took up running. I enjoyed running a lot more than weight lifting (I think I am an endurance athlete by temperament) and again, improved rapidly, but in this case, experienced over-training for the first time in my life. I had been gradually increasing the lengths of my runs. I managed a six mile run, and felt like I had a marathon in sight! However, the next week, I felt dramatically worse and had to turn back on my attempt to simply repeat those six miles. In retrospect, this was the result of over-training; my body needed time to recover after my push to work up to a six mile run, and I had not given it that time. The discouragement of the setback along with the essential tedium of running resulted in my abandoning yet another training plan.

So why did I not try cycling, the aerobic exercise of choice from my youth? A major barrier to my resumption of cycling was the lack of a working bicycle. After decades of hanging in my garage, none of my bikes were ridable. I had always maintained my own bikes, but was way out of practice, had lost any connection with a source of repair parts, and there was so much to do, that bringing my bikes back to rideability just wasn't getting done. I checked out a local bike shop and they encouraged me to consider purchasing a new bike rather than trying to repair my obsolete old bikes. They had me test ride one of their bottom of the line bikes, a hybrid that sold for under $400. I was entranced! Just exploring the neighborhood around the shop brought back all the transcendent joy of riding a bicycle. In the end, I opted to have my decrepit Bianchi Specialissima repaired rather than purchase a new bike and I was on the road again!

So, me, me, me, me, me, me, me. This post contains a lot of words about me, what's the point? The point is that Joe Friel, my favorite bicycle training author, just released a new book for older cyclists entitled Fast After 50: How to Race Strong for the Rest of Your Life. I haven't decided yet if I will be purchasing it, but if I don't, it will be because it isn't about people like me; Joe's latest book is about 1) older athletes who have 2) remained fit their entire lives and who 3) have the genes to be competitive amateur bicycle racers. Although I qualify for the first, I don't for the second and third. I have been posting to this blog for almost three years now, over 100 posts, and in my second post I said:
Everyone is different, of course, and we are each different people at the different times in our lives. In my research, I read many stories of cyclists who "never train" but ride 1200 km brevets with ease. I think I might have been one of those people, even into my 40s. However, I am not now one of those people, and you might not be either. I hope some of the things I found in my experimentation will encourage you to find something as enjoyable and as effective for you as this return to cycling has been for me.
I see this blog as a place for me to talk about one particular cyclist who happens to be me who is a representative of what is, in my opinion, an under-documented class: people with an average set of genes, not destined to be successful bicycle racers, who have neglected their fitness for much of their lives but who, at an older age, decide to improve their health by taking up cycling. Does this describe you? If so, I'd love to hear about your experiences!

1) Like most people these days, I get most of my news online. Thus, for press read not just newspapers and magazines but the rich variety of sources on the Internet as well, and for headline, etc. read the equivalent parts of these online resources.