Friday, May 03, 2013

Heat training

I have to admit this shin-resting short break from running has been well-timed. A heat wave settled in to central California this week, bringing temperatures well into the 90s. When it comes to outdoor activities in the heat, biking is considerably more tolerable than running. There's less chafing, more coasting, and a guaranteed wind chill. Still, next week I am participating in a 50-mile race that's likely to see some toasty temps, and I've been trying to acclimate myself by spending a half hour every evening suffering in a 180-degree sauna. Although 90-degree weather often has me using any excuse I can find to stay indoors, it seemed prudent to get some heat-training bike rides this week.

On tap for Thursday: The good old "lunchtime climb," Monte Bello Road. It was 95 degrees at lunchtime so I put off leaving until 5:30. It was still 91 degrees. I had cleverly put my water bottles in the freezer for pre-ride chilling, and then pedaled about a mile up the road before I realized that I'd forgotten them. Blast! There was a few moments of panic, then hedging on whether to turn around, then resolve that this ride was only about 80 minutes and doing it with no water would be good heat training, good heat training indeed.

I am always trying to better my time from home to the top of Monte Bello, a one-way distance of 8.5 miles with about 2,500 feet of climbing. My best time is just a few seconds over 50 minutes, but I'm not in the kind of shape for such quickness right now. Still, my plan was to go hard. As I wrapped around Steven's Creek Reservoir, before I even started the brunt of the climbing, my lips were already parched and tongue felt swollen. My arms and face were coated in a thick film of sweat complete with bugs that had drowned in glistening beads. Monte Bello is a dead-end road that sees relatively minimal traffic, especially late in the day, and I admit I often use my iPod to boost my resolve to ride hard (volume low enough to hear approaching vehicles. But I also admit I don't always hear approaching cyclists if they overtake me.)

Anyway, lecture me if you must. I love my iPod. Sometimes in the throes of a tough effort, I escape into daydreams of future adventures. I like to make a storyline out of things that haven't happened yet (sometimes, I become so fixated on these storylines I invent that surprising pieces of them become reality — including pieces I have no control over, such as the fantastical display of Northern Lights at the Homer Epic. But that's a subject for another blog post.) Lately I have been dreaming about the PTL. During this climb, the Shuffle clicked over to the motivating grandiosity of a Muse anthem about the second law of thermodynamics as a metaphor for environmental destruction and human involution, "Unsustainable." Listen and roll your eyes if you must; I love this song. (Also, the video depicts people running through the woods and is perfect.)

I imagined "Unsustainable" as the soundtrack for a video about PTL. As orchestral rock music blared, the camera would pan out to sweeping mountain vistas, craggy ridges, snow-swept mountainsides, narrow ledges, and tiny ants of racers marching across a bewildering moonscape of high-alpine tundra. There would be clips of mud-soaked people picking their way around rock ledges and slumped over boulders, trying to regain their composure. And of course the lyrics serve as the ironic commentary: "Energy continuously flows from being concentrated, to becoming dispersed, spread out, wasted and useless. New energy cannot be created and high grade energy is being destroyed. An economy based on endless growth is... Un-sus-tain-able ..."

That's the reality, right? Energy cannot be generated from non-energy. Every day our own life force becomes more depleted, our bodies more broken down, our cells more fatigued, our DNA more dispersed (thanks to Jan for the link to a scientific paper about potential molecular markers of overtraining. An interesting read for sure.) Everything we do furthers this process, and the harder we try, the faster we diminish. Right?

I have been giving more thought to the notion of general overtraining recently. Especially with such a daunting few months of adventures in front of me, I long for insight into that magic formula that balances that need to increase endurance while minimizing long-term fatigue. Still, I refuse to believe that the perfect formula is the play-it-safe numbers thrown around by the health complex. A half hour a day, five days a week? Surely our species didn't get to where we are now by sitting around for 23.5 hours every day. I know I am happiest, and arguably most productive — at least in regard to the contributions I feel most compelled to make — when I am active. Passivity has never been particularly good for me, often self-perpetuating to a dull stagnation that seeps into all aspects of my life. Forced into a non-active life, I believe I could adapt. But for the present, I wrestle with the life I want to pursue and the fear that it's inevitably "unsustainable."

Interestingly, a few minutes later, "Perpetual Motion Machine" by Modest Mouse started playing on the iPod. By this point, I was seeing dots and stars through a narrow tunnel of pain cave vision, and could only gasp the lyrics in my head "Everyone wants to be a perpetual motion machine. We all try harder as the days run out. We all try harder as the days run out. We all try harder as the days ... run ... out."

I was still gasping to Modest Mouse when I rolled up to the Monte Bello gate and realized with an air of surprise that I made it to the top without succumbing to heat exhaustion or dying of thirst. The valley below was cast in golden light by the late afternoon sun, which had yet to loosen its grip on the stagnant heat in the air. I looked at my watch. 55:14. "Arg, I could have done better," I muttered, startled by how scratchy my voice sounded. But the truth is I haven't even been that fast in a while. My lips and throat were still parched, but I managed to crack a smile.

"I showed you, brutal sun," I thought. And suddenly, I couldn't wait to go back out in the hot hot heat the next day. I can't help it, and almost don't care that it's physically impossible. I want to be a perpetual motion machine.