A Windy Bike Ride and Some Lite Philosophy on Fitness

I love my bike. It is a 2002 Lemond Victoire. Here’s a pic:



(Actually this is a pic from fordphoto.blogspot.com so technically, it is not ‘my’ Victoire. Cut me some slack on my pic skills.)

A friend of mine who races bikes a lot (he is a cat. 1 racer in Iowa) once told me that if you want to become a stronger biker, you need to ride on the windiest days, the coldest days, the rainiest days. Well, in Iowa, there are plenty of these sorts of days. Friday, April 24th, 2009 was one of them. The wind was straight from the south at 25-30 mph. But it was also the warmest day of the year: 85 degrees. From my house on the east side of Iowa City I have a great deal of fine farm roads to the south. So, I went out for a small spin, my usual one-hour-plus ride from Sycamore Street to Route 22. My usual out-and-back. It’s exactly 22 miles from my house to the stop sign and back. By the way, I do not race any more and I was never a cat. 1 racer—which is just below professional. But sometimes I get to ride with people who are cat. 1 racers—until I get dropped and have to ride home alone, broken, beaten, and just a little satisfied.


Right now my fitness is way off; teaching two brand new courses is hammering me. As of this week I’ve read, prepped, and taught 18 novels. More about that later. But right now, I’m on my bike trying to keep the rubber side down, the flesh side up, and enjoy life… and try not to fall as the gusts of wind smack me around.


Once out on Sand Road, I spot some bikers with their heads down, grinding into the wind a hundred meters behind me. Two people are on hybrids and one guy, well behind them, is on a time trial rig—probably a triathlete. I love company, so I go slow and see if anybody catches me. After a few minutes, the triathlete catches me and I stay with him as we trudge along at about 17 mph. This is a painful 17 by the way. I come alongside him and ask if I can hang with him. He says yes and we scream at each other in the wind:


“Where you going?”


“To 22 and back.”


“Pleasant breeze.”


“Wonderful isn’t it?”


Bikers are a humorous lot. We wear very strange athletic equipment regardless of body type, we go too fast on dangerous roads, we always look like we are in pain. But we also love the glory of going fast on tiny machines. I guess triathletes are also into this sort of fun, but they know how to swim—which is not fun at all. Anyway, we are going slow, but I am at my limit because (1) I am talking too much and this takes away from breathing (2) my new friend Tim is very strong and is going a little bit faster that I can really go. Tim is training for an Ironman so that he can qualify for Kona. That’s crazy, but hey, I love crazy events. I tell him about the Birkebiener and he thinks that’s crazy.


We reach 22 and turn around. Our average up this point is about 15 mph. Heading north, we are going around 27. Nice. Except that this speed–going faster than 20–makes (or rather forces) us to go faster, like we are seeking revenge on the wind. This effort to take revenge on the wind is hard to understand for non-bikers I’ve heard. We start exchanging pulls. I can barely hang on. I consider that I have nothing to prove, and that Tim is indeed really training for a real event. I also consider that this is the most pain I’ve been in since mid-February. But this is the way to increase fitness right?


Another friend of mine, Brian, has some good ideas about how fitness works. He says that fitness is always increasing or decreasing. It is a myth to think that you can “maintain” fitness. This is probably true, but it is also very depressing. During a ride (or run, or workout) you are increasing; and during the essential recovery period you are increasing fitness; then there is a tricky period between productive recovery and being a sloth when you start losing fitness. I find myself always taking measurements on my fitness (today is Sunday, so I’m at negative one. If I ride today, I’ll be at plus one. At some point this morning I passed through zero).


Tim pushed me harder that I could have every pushed myself, and so I thank him for that. He has his own blog: http://www.triathlontim.blogspot.com/. Once I got home I was happy to see my average was a bit over 18mph for the total ride. Not bad. Why is this speed important? It is not. But I have to compare myself to myself because we are comparing machines—humans that is.


The problem is that I “over rode” –a funny double-entendre that connects road with rode and soreness. When I ride too hard, I feel an uncomfortable type of pain. Yes, I know that I am probably dehydrated and that I need to cool down, stretch, etc. But I like this soreness because it is like a receipt for the workout. I hold onto the receipt for about a day, then I forget. We cannot remember pain. But we can remember the event that contains the pain, like two cupped hands holding water that is slowly trickling out. Pain is the sound of the poetic rhyme and the event becomes the words and meaning and stanza.



Today is the Iowa City Criterium. Check it out at:   http://www.oldcapcrit.com/   I raced this race two times. I fell off the back and got lapped and then the officials pulled me from the race. It is the sweetest, hardest, most devilish race in these parts. Someday I want to finish it. Certainly not today, but someday I will enter it. And I can’t wait to count my receipts and look at my fitness numbers…’cause we are all crazy in some way.



Peace and Bike Chain Grease.



What Did We Learn? A Birkebeiner Coda



A work of art by Katie Scanlan, age 4.

A work of art by Katie Scanlan, age 4.


I learned that it takes a lot of people to really make me hurt. And I learned that we learn through hurt.


Thanks go out to Dorothy for allowing me to spend precious money on this adventure. Thanks to Bart, Wayne, and Jeff for giving me sage advice. Thanks to Geoff’s Bike and Ski for providing a great place to get my gear. Thanks to Brian for the late-Thursday wax before I drove up to Wisconsin. Thanks to Steve and Brian for teaching me how to blog (all mistakes are mine!). Thanks to those who organized the Wednesday night ski races at the Ashton Cross Country Course in Iowa City: Steve, Brian, and Mark. Thanks for the kind comments, especially Tarik Saleh’s write up on http://swnordicski.blogspot.com/. Thanks to all the volunteers at the Birkie: all 2,000 of them. Thanks to the skiers (7,000 plus)  for passing me all damn day long… and thus motivating me for next year. Thanks for the Midwest for being the Midwest…all friendly and eager to help…even when you don’t want or deserve friendly or eager help. Thanks for youtube for helping me learn how to skate ski. Thanks for those who read strange stories about strange activities.


Oh, wait, I almost forgot. Thanks to the guy in the soup tent who heard the first iteration of this story. He advised me to try to write it up. Thanks also to the guy in the beer tent. That was one of the best beers I have every had. Whoever made the soup in the soup tent: bravo! And thanks to the woman who works for the public radio station playing all the Birkie songs: WOJB at 88.9. She has a wonderful voice. She even sang the weather report in the tune of “The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Music.” That takes mad skillz.


Pax and ski wax,



Part IV: The Final Sprint of Sean’s 2009 American Birkebeiner

[note: to read parts 1-3, go to Archives and click on April 2009]


I am not perfect. And I am not dead. I am still skiing.


A sweeping left hand bend and I can finally see the lake. And Lake Hayward is a cake walk; a 4 km piece of smooth gliding, just before the sprint through main street. I feel weak and giddy, sick and gloppy. One reason that I feel gloppy is because of the all the wool that I am wearing. Sure the big news in technical gear these days is Smartwool and Icebreaker, but what I now know is that after five hours of continual sweating, the fibers reach their max, and they sort of droop. So, I feel moist gobs of wool flapping around my arms and legs.


My legs cramp up again. I think about eating another Gu, but what if a real emergency should strike? I decide to save the Gu. I come up with a great idea. Since my legs are not working, why not use my arms and just pole for a while. This is working very well. I am going slowly, but making progress. I hear someone slowly catching up to me on my left. I look and see a young woman. She is carrying her ski poles like you would carry firewood. Her skate skiing technique is quite good though. I look at her and she looks at me. I say “hi.”


She responds by crying. It is certainly not uncommon to see and hear crying in the Birkebeiner; if crying helps, then you should do it. But the sound of her crying throws me off. A sort of “boo hoo, boo hoo,” sound reaches me as she continues to pass me. Now, of course we know from cognitive neuroscience that crying, the actual tears, precede the feeling of sadness. What if she is crying because of some crazy joy? That is possible you know. I cried during the 1984 Olympics when Alexi Grewal beat Steve Bauer in the men’s road race. As I think of that sprint, a sprint that Grewal could not even dream of winning against the powerful Canadian sprinter, I too start to cry.


I wonder if Alexi G. ever had problems due to winning?

I wonder if Alexi G. ever had problems due to winning?


We skate and cry next to each other for a minute before she slowly pulls away from me. Hey wait. Her race bib number is in the ten thousands. She is a tenth waver. I catch back up to her. She skates and I pole. We form one complete skier. Oh, that little rise really hurt me. I stop. I survey the scene before me. A smooth downhill run and there, just past those trees, I see the lake. Almost home. I start poling again and then I see him.

………….Do you like what you are reading? Then read on a bit further.

SORRY READERS!  I have taken down the rest of this entry because I am expanding the Birkie story and sending it out to small presses for publication. Let me know if you are interesting in a copy of such a book: sean-scanlan@uiowa.edu


Part III: Or, the Man in Yellow


The Mysterious Man in Yellow Raises the Stakes

The Mysterious Man in Yellow Raises the Stakes



Welcome to Part III.

Bitch Hill now past me, I focus on each major hill as a possible end point, a quitting point. Wrap me in dark wool blankets and let the snowmobiles take me away. Only once I get to the rest area, I eat a bit more banana, have a gu, and drink a bunch of warm lemonade. Then voilà, I am ready to think about making it to the next place where I might want to quit.


I tend to focus on the up hill struggles. Yes, I thought there were going to be 8 major climbs and then things will plane-out and get nearly flat after Telemark Hill. Wrong you knucklehead! There are 8 rest stations that happen to be located at the top of particularly big hills. Did I tell you, dear reader, that there are 38 minor climbs in amongst the 8 major climbs? This image does not do justice to the idea or reality of “vertical”:




Trail Elevation for the Birkebeiner

Trail Elevation for the Birkebeiner



As you can see, the trail looks very hilly in the first half and gradually downhill during the second half. This graphic is a lie. So, to the person who told me that the hills are “over” after the halfway mark: inaccurate balderdash! And to the people who say that “OO” is the halfway mark: more inaccurate horse-pucky! The astute reader will know that “OO” is at 22.8 km. Simple math reveals that 27.2 km still remain. Complex math reveals that you still have 4.4 km to go before you are really at the halfway mark. Using even more complex math, that is like an 8.8% difference!

………………… Do you like what you are reading? Then read on, dear readers.

SORRY READERS!  I have taken down the rest of this entry because I am expanding the Birkie story and sending it out to small presses for publication. Let me know if you are interesting in a copy of such a book: sean-scanlan@uiowa.edu


Birkie Fever Part II: Or, Why Am I Still Alive?


Torstein and Skervald Save Norway Using Only One Ski Pole

Torstein and Skervald Save Norway Using Only One Ski Pole




The Birkebeiner is the largest cross country ski race in the U.S., and one of the largest races in the world. Over 7,000 skiers from all over the world converge in northwest Wisconsin for a 50 kilometer race (Actually there are several races going on at the same time: the 50 km skating style race, the 54km classic style race, and the 23km kortelopet—in both styles). Why so long? What’s it about? Some history may help here.

Håkon Håkonssøn’s Saga:

The Birkebeiner race gets its name from the Birkebeiners, a group of legendary Norwegian warriors and peasants. The Birkebeiners went into battle with birch bark wrapped around their shins instead of armor, so they were called “Birchleggers,” or Birkebeiners. About 800 years ago, in 1206, the Baglers (rich aristocrats and false bishops) wanted to seize power by killing the very young Prince Håkon. The Birkebeiners decided to move Prince Håkon, and his mother, Inga of Varteig, to the north, to Nidaros—their stronghold, where they could better protect him. They made this long journey over the mountains on skis. For this epic journey, the small band of Birkebeiners recruited two skiing aces to help them with the journey: Torstein Skevla (TOR-stine SHEV-la) and Skervald Skrukka (SHER-vol SKRU-ka). Torstein was like a full-back, large and powerful, with a serious red beard. Skervald was blond and lithe, sinewy and clean-shaven. Aside: the astute reader may correctly infer that I resemble Skervald. These two were the best skiers in Norway, and with their help, they guided the small band of Birkebeiners to Nidaros. In time, Prince Håkon grew to become one of the most powerful kings in Norway’s history, bringing peace, unity, and prosperity to his country. The Birkebeiner race is a modern-day commemoration of the difficult journey to save the young prince. One Birkebeiner race is held in Norway and the other in Wisconsin. I’ve heard that some skiers carry an 8 lb. pack to replicate the weight of Prince Håkon. But seriously, I think that an 18 month old baby would weigh more than that. Anyway, I want to give a shout-out to my source for this information and for the wonderful pic that begins this part of my story. I’ve summarized Lise Lunge-Larsen’s The Race of the Birkebeiners, with illustrations by Mary Azarian. I heartily recommend this book to those who are within the age range of 4-8. Actually, I recommend it to people outside of that range too.


Back inside my head as I race toward the halfway point:

These historical/mythological bits of information are swimming in my head as I struggle to the midway point. As ghosts of Torstein and Skervald keep clouding my vision, I fight the hills and plunge down the steep hills as if the Baglers are about to attack my shins. What hurts the most? My back. Since I have not worked on the technique of getting up this particular type of hill (too frequent, too steep), I make it up as I go along. Inefficient, wallowing, crazed, barking, slobbering. My legs hurt too, but not like my lower back: it’s like someone has replaced my back muscles with sand and chicken wire.

………… Do you like what you are reading? Want more? Well, read on.

SORRY READERS!  I have taken down the rest of this entry because I am expanding the Birkie story and sending it out to small presses for publication. Let me know if you are interesting in a copy of such a book: sean-scanlan@uiowa.edu




My 2009 Birkebeiner Experience and Sporting Nostalgia


Elite freestyle racers take off  (I am not in this pic)



Part I


      Nostalgia is a feeling that can hurt and heal; it is a feeling that is as much about home as it is about the people in and around the home. But what about sports? Can I be nostalgic for the big game? You know, the one in which my team had two touchdowns called back because some poor knucklehead didn’t have his mouth guard in his mouth, but then, miraculously, the team roared back and ended up winning by something like 14 points (thus saving the knucklehead’s life)? Can I be nostalgic for the tension, the cheering, the threats made to my life, the soreness of my bleeding knees? Of course! Aren’t memories like these, the ones that involve pleasure and pain, that are the chief motivating sources of power and esteem for Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” and Al Bundy on “Married with Children”?

      Nostalgia can also be about the feeling of one’s body as it was fully immersed in an exciting and possibly dangerous sports situation. That reignited memory of an athletic event pulls one back into the moment—the collision of person and ground for example– so that comparisons between the past and the present are vivid and available. Available for what, though? Available for the nostalgic person to make decisions about the future based on the ways that these memories are sorted, meshed with other memories, and, well, interpreted. Should I stay on the couch and hold onto that memory that I think is unsurpassable? Or, should I get off the couch because I was that knucklehead, and so I want to do something now, or soon, something that I might remember in a better light? This sort of nostalgia is what I call  “Sporting Nostalgia,” and I claim that it manifests itself very strongly in any sport in which the memory of one event impels the person to do it again. So, part endorphin rush, part memory crush.

      Certain sports that navigate different terrain, such as marathons, bicycle races, triathlons, and even skiing can elicit a particularly strong sort of sporting nostalgia. Certainly other sports can be positively dripping with nostalgia. I will talk about those later, especially those sports that operate on similar fields—where the field is specifically made to mimic all other fields. But here, I want to discuss what kinds of nostalgia occur when traversing terrain outside of a gridded field. So, onto the road, the trail, the slopes.

      The first sort of sporting nostalgia that I want to describe yokes midlife crisis to cross-country skiing. In order to illuminate this sort of nostalgia I will tell a story and let the reader do the interpretation.

      This story is really about the pitfalls of opportunity. Make that opportunity plus ignorance. Then we should add in a dash of ego and just enough fitness to convince oneself of the idea of challenge, instead of empty, gasping, stupidity. These ingredients came together for me a few weeks ago.

      My lovely wife Dorothy was about to go on a short trip to St. Louis to visit her folks and show off our two daughters. Her trip would enable me to attend a conference in Chicago. But at the last minute, Dot decided to cancel and go down the following weekend. Guilt set in, for my junket to Chicago was really, like all conferences, a chance to drink and smoke way more than I can when at home. I cancelled my own trip to Chicago.

      She was going the next weekend though, and so I thought that I should do something healthy like cycle a hundred miles, or ski all day. It was too cold to ride my bike all day. The snow in Iowa City was finished, yet my new skate cross country skis were glaring hard at me from the back seat of my car. What to do? The wonderful research tool “Google” was a key component to my downfall. Entering “Cross Country skiing Midwest Feb 21” gave me “American Birkebeiner.” Sounded interesting. Hmmn, that’s a rather smooth looking website.

            “Honey, I think I’ll do some skiing this coming weekend.”

            “Good for you,” she replied. “That’s better than going to Chicago anyway… especially with all that drinking and smoking that you do at those conferences.”

            “What do you mean!” I snorted. “I’ll have you know that I could have made some great contacts during–… so, I should do some skiing, huh?”

            “Sure, why not, give you something to do. But, I was thinking of leaving the girls home with you.”

            “Well, fine. The girls really love to hang at home with ol’ dad. Are you sure your parents won’t mind you leaving them behind?”

            Dorothy and the kids were thusly out of my hair, enabling my glorious, fitness weekend. I reflected that I could easily ski the half Birkebeiner so my lack of fitness would not be a factor. Plus, I thought of this big event as more of like a one-day RAGBRAI, sort of like the wonderful, two-day TOMRV bike tour that I love to do, you know, stop whenever, finish, have a beer. Do your own thing. My last ski before the Birki was Feb 14th. But seriously, that was one killer hour of training, especially as the only snow left was a 200 meter patch of mush that was on the shady side of the Ashton Cross Country Course. But I made that hour count by skiing fast against the wind to replicate a hill work out. Monday and Wednesday I had lots of meetings and Tuesday and Thursday I had to teach all day, so I did not have a lot of time to get in much training. I figured I might sneak in a run on Friday morning before driving to Wisconsin.

            By Thursday, three days before the race, I got serious about signing up for the Birkebeiner. Maybe the shorter race, the Korteloppet, would be the smarter move, I thought. But if I am going to lay out all that cash, I might as well get my money’s worth. I called some friends who I knew had done it in the past. They were mildly encouraging amid their guffaws. They gave me some tips: “don’t start too fast,” “have you thought about wax?” “where are you staying?” Wax? I just got my skis this year, why would I need wax already? As luck would have it, the local shop, Geoff’s Bike and Ski, was open late on Thursday and they could squeeze me in. I mean I was skating, so I didn’t need grip wax for crying out loud. At the shop I ran into Jeff, an accomplished ski and bike racer. I told him I was doing the Birkallopet. He smiled and said “you mean Birkebeiner.” With his back turned to me (he was picking up some custom made gloves or something), he asked me where I was staying. And before I could remember the name, he answered for me: “probably Rice Lake.”

            “How did you know?” I asked.

            “That’s where a lot of first-timers stay,” laconically.

            “Wow, that’s great. Maybe we could ski together.”

            Silence. Then, “I’m in the second wave, and you are in the tenth. Have a good one. And remember, don’t start too fast.”

            Well, I could see that he was nervous, and so I let him go, even though I wanted to tell him about how hard I skied last Saturday. As he left the shop, I wondered what he meant by catching the second or the tenth wave.

             After 6 hours of driving, I made it to the Rice Lake Super 8 hotel. Then I decided to drive to Hayward and check in and get my race number. Good thing I called the Birki hotline first. It seems that the registration was not in Hayward, but at the start of the race, at some lodge. After 2 more hours of driving I finally got to the Telemark Lodge. Signed in (Oh, that is what the tenth wave means: all first-timers like me who stay in Rice Lake because they decide to do this three days before the race) and soaked up the vibes. I was feeling pretty good considering the full day behind the wheel. A little hungry, but fine really. What I really needed was some new gear, now that would appease that twinge of uncertainty. I picked up some new gloves and ate dinner near the lodge. Then I drove 2 hours back to my hotel. I laid out my gear and then stretched out. As I was stretching I thought about how much to save for the finish, and I was reminded of Petter Northug’s strides up that hill in the 2007 World Cup race in Sapporo, wow, he really stomped their gizzards going up that last rise. Perhaps I would surprise myself.




       Made it to the bus on time. Breakfast, check. Gear, check. Game face, check. Made it to the start tent by 9:30 am, check. Looking around I can see the fear oozing from their eyes. I got this thing. No sweat. At the line, I am amazed by the crowd. The last wave must have three or four hundred. A huge field filled with skiers and volunteers. I scootch toward the line. Every centimeter counts. And we’re off. Oops. No, we’re not. Pretty slow at the start. Need to free space. Wow, look at all those skiers go down. Hey, look out. That was close. Watch the poles, these are brand spanking new. I see some free space. I’m really striding now. Sheesh my heart rate is up there, but I’ll mellow out once the crowd thins.

            I make a left and see the beginning of the telegraph line hills. The first one is more like a small mountain. I burn it up to the top only to see a row of hills just as big in front of me. No sweat, I can tackle these because there are only 8 major hills—and there is a rest area and food at the top of each of these hills—and then the course smoothes out at around 25k, or so I had overheard at the Telemark Lodge. At the top of the second hill, I taste metal shavings in my mouth. By the third hill I stop and take stock. There are about a dozen others stopped. Some are bent double, some are taking off layers. One guy throws his vest in the snow and skis off. I start to realize the massiveness of this thing. By the fourth hill I reflect on this fact: I have now skied more hills than my whole season, my whole life. These hills are not so much hills, they are small mountain passes. They are so steep that I have no technique with which to manage them (V1, V2, V3?). I watch as people pass me. That one woman is very smooth; I’ll try to imitate her. Say, this is a bit easier. I look up and she is 100 meters in front of me. But still, I feel fresh and strong, in a weird sort of tired way. I glide past the first food station at North End Cabin. Brilliant move, I gain precious seconds. The snow is not fresh. Six inches of mashed potatoes. Nice.

            I stop at the second food station and see the folly of my enterprise. The scales fall from my eyes. Thus is my status: I have now skied 16 k: the longest of any ski outing of the entire year, of my entire life. I have been on skate skis exactly 8 times in my life. All of them within the past two months. There are no hills on my practice course. I am at my limit, my legs are shaking, my hands are frozen and cramped. I am a dead man skiing.


Stay Tuned For Part II…I will post it this Friday, April  10, by 5 pm.