Thursday, March 14, 2013

What's your motivation?

It's sometimes disheartening to me that most people don't "get" great literature and poetry. I don't mean "get" in the cold, analytical, academic-sense. We academics have done more harm than good in terms of helping society as a whole gain a better appreciation for a poem or a play or a novel.  Many academics that study literature -as opposed to those who create it- focus on ever-narrower ways of interpreting and dissecting poetry and prose. Yes, knowing how to do a post-modern, feminist analysis of a piece of literature can increase appreciation among a certain literati-geek subset of people, but that sort of thing is only further off-putting for the average Joe.

The real, deep, value of literature and poetry lies in its unique ability to help us to make sense of ourselves and our interactions with others. Being human is a singular experience- we can never really know what is like to be someone else, but a poem, song, or novel can help bridge that gap to the "other".

I often turn to literature and poetry to help me understand the big questions in life.  Understanding what motivates me to participate in endurance sports month after month and year after year and now decade after decade is certainly one of those big questions.  Anyone that has followed my blog for a few years will have noticed a pattern that my more philosophical posts that try to get at the concept of "The Goal is the Journey" usually lead with (or contain) a quote from outside the sporting world.  That is the sense-making ability of literature in action. The question at hand: "What motivates you?" is fundamental to both success and longevity in sport.  I have many thoughtful answers to this question, but for today I will turn first to a poem I recently discovered and then share one of my own.

Advice to Myself

Leave the dishes.
Let the celery rot in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator
and an earthen scum harden on the kitchen floor.
Leave the black crumbs in the bottom of the toaster.
Throw the cracked bowl out and don't patch the cup.
Don't patch anything. Don't mend. Buy safety pins.
Don't even sew on a button.
Let the wind have its way, then the earth
that invades as dust and then the dead
foaming up in gray rolls underneath the couch.
Talk to them. Tell them they are welcome.
Don't keep all the pieces of the puzzles
or the doll's tiny shoes in pairs, don't worry
who uses whose toothbrush or if anything
matches, at all.
Except one word to another. Or a thought.
Pursue the authentic-decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.
Your heart, that place
you don't even think of cleaning out.
That closet stuffed with savage mementos.
Don't sort the paper clips from screws from saved baby teeth
or worry if we're all eating cereal for dinner
again. Don't answer the telephone, ever,
or weep over anything at all that breaks.
Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons
in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life
and talk to the dead
who drift in though the screened windows, who collect
patiently on the tops of food jars and books.
Recycle the mail, don't read it, don't read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.

-Louise Erdrich

When a friend (Thanks Erica Charis!) first shared this poem, I left it open as a tab on my browser for a about two weeks. I would re-read it every day or so and it is quickly becoming one of my favorites.  This is an outstanding example of a poem that is accessible to anyone.  Erdrich is writing about a fundamental human problem: cutting through the clutter of daily life to find the authentic.  She writes:

Pursue the authentic-decide first
what is authentic,
then go after it with all your heart.

This is the first part of the poem that made me stop and reflect on sport and the question of "What motivates you?"  There is something about sport -and endurance sport in particular- that can strip away all the problems, distractions, and excuses that fill up our days like nothing else can.  This sentiment is echoed later in the poem:

Recycle the mail, don't read it, don't read anything
except what destroys
the insulation between yourself and your experience
or what pulls down or what strikes at or what shatters
this ruse you call necessity.

If you replace the word "read" with "do" (academics, reader-response theory says I'm entitled to make this mental substitution!) then this could darn-well be a simple recipe for prioritizing your life, or discovering your real motivations. Endurance-based exercise, and in particular, really long and really hard endurance exercise strips away the insulation (read: crap) of daily life and returns me to the most basic of human needs: eating, drinking, breathing.  I've never appreciated a drink of water more than when I've been 8+ hours into an Ironman race on a hot day.  Sitting down after 9 or 10 hours of continual movement is a singular, exquisite, experience.

So that's a big part of what motivates me. A desire, a need, for truly authentic experiences.

I will leave off with a poem of my own that I wrote in college and dedicated to my XC/Track Coach, Paul Olsen.  It pales in comparison to Erdrich's but does say a little bit more about what motivates me.

A Runner

I kill myself
Really though, I am only trying to live
Holding my body to the turning grindstone
I search
for the edge
for something greater
for me

I wish it would stop
I can’t. It won’t
The body craves the pain
Sparks shower from the stone
and I know
the edge

will never be sharp enough

-for Ols’


A week in the life

Recently my EvoTri team put together a series of posts about what an average day or week in the life of an age group triathlete trying to manage training, work and family looks like.  This was my contribution.

I hate, loathe and detest short workouts. Over the course of 20+ years of competitive endurance activities this notion has become ingrained in my being.  High school swim workouts often ran 2.5 hours including a short weight session. College track and xc workouts were usually at least 1.5 hours (not all of it running, though). As I began competing in Ironman distance events, this resistance to short workouts only got worse. When you start thinking about long rides as only those over 5 hours you can be assured that your exercise worldview has become terribly skewed!

Finding these large blocks of time for long workouts is just not a part of my reality anymore.  I have two kids that I want to spend as much time as possible with when they are awake, a wife that it is in my best interests to keep sane, and a really demanding tenure-track  university job.  In the past if I couldn't devote at least an hour to a workout I just ended up skipping it. In recent years this would lead to many days back-to-back without any workouts.  Thus it was, that this year I've decided to try and cast aside my silly notions of only doing long workouts and better utilize the 30 and 45 minute holes in my weekly schedule. In addition to the above-mentioned reasons for being resistant to short workouts is the issue of efficiency.  I am incredibly efficient in everything I do to make the most out of my very limited time. Even a 30 minute workout requires at least 10 minutes each for prep and clean-up so the real time cost is 50 minutes. That is why in general, I'd much rather do a single 1.5 hour workout than 2 x 30 minutes.

Over time I have become completely and utterly reliant on my Google calendars.  If something is not on my Google calendar it simply doesn't exist. Meetings, sure there are gobs of them.  But birthdays and anniversaries too.  My system consists of multiple, overlapping calendars.  I'll start by showing you my "workout calendar":

This looks pretty awesome- enviable- even, right?  Well it is not actually a traditional workout calendar in any sense.  What this represents is all my possible training blocks in some sort of ideal week that never happens.  As my life has gotten more hectic I've found it better not to schedule workouts ahead of time because I just get depressed when I can't fit them in.  Even so, this looks pretty good.  There are around 20 hours per week of workout possiblities.  Keep in mind that these blocks generally include prep and clean-up.  So, if I do manage to get a lunch hour workout in, I usually spend around 20 minutes total getting ready and cleaning up (I told you I am efficient).  I fear I need to remove all the 8-9pm workout blocks from this calendar as well.  I have never been able to work them in regularly because I am falling asleep around this time whenever I put the kids to bed.  There go 4 potential hours per week.....

Here's where things get interesting.  My calendar has multiple layers.  The layer that interferes with workouts the most is the work calendar layer shown in blue below.  Any of those boxes that overlap with the brown boxes usually mean that workout is a no-go (the exception is some of my lunch workouts where I've inserted  place holders in my work calendar).  The work week pictured below is fairly typical. 

But, that's not all folks!  My third calendar layer is our family calendar.  The family calendar doesn't have all the routine, daily things on it, but rather things like kid's swimming lessons, potential weekend races or other events.  Oh, and a note for me to take the garbage out on Wednesday night, because if its not on  the calendar, it doesn't get done!

So at this point all my nice little brown workout blocks have been shot to hell. So what does an actual, average, pre-season workout week look like for me?  Something along these lines:

Mon morn: Bike at home 45 minutes with some quality VO2 intervals
Mon noon: 45 minutes of swimming.  About 2000 yds, lots of quality, short intervals.

Tues morn: 45 min swim.  Some quality here, but I find it harder to really get after it early in the morning, by myself in a cold pool!
Tues noon: 1:00 bike.  Spin class with other IWU faculty and staff members.  These lunch spin sessions usually involve some quality intervals.
Tues night: Jonah wakes up with bad dream about Midnight.  Go to lay with him in his bed and promptly fall asleep.  Cara doesn't wake me up at 5:45am which I need to do if there is any hope of having an hour's worth of morning workout time.

Weds morning: Due to above, I opt for a quick 30 mins core work
Weds afternoon: This was my first track workout with the Illinois Wesleyan track team. In-season I try hard to make it once a week to their hard interval sessions.  This workout was a long warm-up followed by 20 minutes of tempo for the team, probably 5K race pace for me (5:30 ish).  I finished in the middle of my group for the tempo and then we hit 4X400M hard hill repeats.  My legs were toast after my first hard intervals of the season.

Thurs morn: 45 minute morning swim about 2000yds
Thurs afternoon: Meeting interferes with first 15 minutes of spin class.  45 mins mostly easy spin to start clearing yesterday's track workout from my legs.
Additional meetings push lunch back to 3PM!
Thurs night: Lorien wakes up at about 1AM.  To quiet her down we bring her into our bed then she squirms and keeps us up until about 4am. For you non-parents out there that think it might be nice to sleep with a sweet, cuddly baby girl, DON'T BELIEVE IT!  The diagrams below are incredibly accurate.  Lorien has a particular fondness for "H is for Hell."

After restless night, skip morning workout and "sleep in" until 6:30am

Fri: cannot fit in a either a  morning or afternoon workout.  Leave work early to get a 1.5 hour, very cold outside ride in.

Sat: 1:20 long run then head into town to see teammate Simply Stu doing bodpod and threshold testing at the ISU Exercise Physiology Lab with Laura Wheatley

Sun: 1.5 hour trainer ride with quite a bit of quality work.

So without a day off, all of my here and there workouts actually add up to around 11 hours of workouts!  That is a  really big week for me.  This is where consistency in working out easily triumphs overall volume.  You'll notice a lot of quality in my workout schedule. As I gain fitness almost every one of my workouts will have some sort of quality/intensity involved.  I no longer have the luxury of easy days or so-called "recovery workouts."  Rather than doing a recovery workout, I simply take that time completely off to play with my kids or sleep an extra 30 or 45 minutes.

I'm coming into my 20th year of triathlons with a really high level of motivation.  My bike power is currently quite good due to my cyclocross training and racing.  Bike endurance will come back over time (particularly when there is enough daylight to get back to bike commuting). If I can continue to utilize all these small blocks of time in my schedule then my 2013 racing outlook should be quite good!