Monday, August 3, 2015

The Billion Kilowatt Dam

Hoover Dam, an hydroelectric dam with a capacity of two billion kilowatts. Picture courtesy Wikipedia.

"High Hopes" is a song first popularized by Frank Sinatra, now a staple of childrens' television, that preaches the power of positive thinking. In the narrative of this song, a ram decides to knock down a hydroelectric dam roughly the size of Hoover Dam. Because he has "high hopes", he succeeds despite the apparent impossibility of the task; in the words of the song, "there goes a billion kilowatt dam." Being the dour and humorless person that I am, my thoughts immediately jump to an astonished and terrified ram in the spit second before he is crushed by the concrete fragments of the ruptured dam, the young children playing downstream from the dam, looking up to see the wall of water about to crush their fragile bodies into lifelessness, and the many lives that would certainly be lost as a consequence of the loss of a billion kilowatts of power from the power grid. I see the ram not as a hero, but as a terrorist.

But perhaps it is I, not the ram, who is the villain of this post. There is exactly zero chance that a ram could contribute to, much less cause, the failure of Hoover Dam; the young children in this post are at no risk from the ram.  On the other hand, they is at real risk of having me ruin a perfectly nice and life-affirming song for them. So what's my problem? It's not that I don't believe that positive thinking is a good thing. As a card carrying member of the medical research community, I am appropriately skeptical and ask for the same carefully controlled clinical trials documenting the power of positive thinking as I would for any prescription. That said, the evidence that people with a positive attitude are healthier than those who have a negative attitude has been pretty convincingly demonstrated. No less an authority than the Mayo Clinic has very specific recommendations for attempting to cultivate a positive mental attitude. Given that, does it make sense for the ram to have a positive attitude ("high hopes") and just go at the dam? And what does any of this have to do with cycling?

Where the life of the fictitious ram and my bicycling intersect is in the confusion I have had about what was realistic for me to accomplish in cycling. When I was in my cycling prime, back in the 1960s, I was not bad as a bicycle racer, but I was nothing special. I had fun, stayed with the pack in a lot of races, occasionally surprised the leaders by winning an intermediate sprint, but never became one of those leaders. I confess I was not all that diligent, however, so I don't really know what my potential was back then. Forty years later was a different story. I read books on training, followed them carefully, and prepared for a career as a randonneur1, but it was not to be. I found I was capable of one 200K brevet a year, but that was about my limit. It wasn't just my age that was holding be back, there are plenty of randonneurs in their 60s and even there 70s. It may not even have anything to do with age; is actually possible that had I attempted randonneuring in my prime I would have discovered the same limitations. What is clearly true is that when I followed training plans that allowed others to complete a 200K, 300K, 400k, 600K brevet series and then complete a 1200K grand randonnée, I would find myself exhausted after the first ride. Can I prove that I could not have done more if I had tried harder? Of course not, that is not the kind of thing that can be proven, practically speaking anyway. Do I believe it with all my heart? I do.

So what is my point? My point is, might it be possible, and if so, might it be useful and/or fun to include in training plans indicators as to what the highest level of performance you can expect in that sport, the facets of that sport in which you might be most successful, and what other sports you might want to try? Not surprisingly, I believe that such indicators are possible, useful, and fun. In fact, I feel like Joe Friel's "Cyclist's Training Bible" has most of the pieces needed to do just that, they only need to be connected. I will discuss the science and practicalities of such indicators in future posts, I wish to reserve this post for a discussion of their desirability.

So, the bottom line is, supposing I am as brevet-challenged as I claim I am. Would I be better off knowing that, and living within my limitations, or would I be better off being like the dam-hating ram, trying and failing to be the brevet rider I never can be, over and over and over again? My gut tells me the former: "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." What do you think?

1) Randonnering is a kind of cycling where completing a distance within a fixed period of time is the challenge. This ranges from completing 200 kilometers (124 miles) in 13.5 miles to completing 1200 kilometers (about 750 miles) in 90 hours, just under 4 days.

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