Tuesday, November 17, 2009

My First Century

Now that I’ve had the time to let the dust settle and fully absorb the experience, I figured it was time to blog about completing my first century ride (ok, Twin told me to, so here I am).

Just about a year ago, it would have been insanely foolish for me to even consider riding 100 miles in one day with a knee like mine. In fact, I was specifically told then that I should never ride again. That I should be happy working out on the elliptical trainer (the only exercise that caused no pain/swelling at the time) and to give up on the bike, both indoors and out. But, in what turned out to be one of my first life lessons over the course of 2009, if I really want something bad enough, I’ll find a way to make it happen. So I found another doc, another physical therapist, a phenomenal personal trainer and even a magical chiropractor, and got myself 100 in a day. Yee ha.

Getting back on the bike outside was an exercise in self-restraint. My physical therapist warned me that I would have to temper my obsessive personality and learn to set limits and stop, even when it feels too good to do so. He cautioned me to increase my mileage by no more than 10% a week. So that meant if the first week’s rides were 20 miles, next week would be 22, then 24.2...you get the picture. A gradual build. But in May, I was just happy to be back on the bike. When I was discharged from therapy, I hooked up with Jon the SuperTrainer and we started on a course of quad strengthening, which was the crux of most of the knee issues. And off we went and that strength work and the slow build-up of miles began in April.

Just after WSSC, I got it in my head that I wanted to ride the Seagull Century with other Spinning Instructor Friends of mine. It can’t get any cooler than that, but part of it too was this burning need to take on turning 40 (next year) and shake my fist at it. Do something that not a lot of people my age can do. But I think at that point in time, I was lucky to be up to 30 miles on the road. I had all summer to get closer to 100 since the century wasn’t until October, so the training began in earnest. Apparently my personality is pretty transparent, because Jon also recognized that obsessive streak in me and focused that obsessiveness into a fairly rigid and extremely extensive strength training program that he called, creatively enough, “century training”. Now that he and I had something to work towards, we were cooking with gas. As my miles got longer and I experienced soreness in the base of my neck or lower back, I’d tell Jon, he’d give me some weight work and after a couple weeks of working that, I’d be pain free on the road.

My training plan was to ride my Tuesday night Spinning class as a high intensity interval training ride, weight train with Jon on Wednesdays, ride outside for a short ride on Thursday night, off day Friday, medium ride on Saturday and long ride Sunday. I’d teach off the bike on Mondays or ride it if weather prevented me from being outside on one of the weekend days (learned and acknowledged early on that the knee doesn’t like 3 days in a row on the bike). I’ll tell you though, there were days when either my heart wasn’t in it, my training buddy would bonk or I’d be training alone riding into an insane North Shore headwind and just wonder to myself “why the hell am I doing this? Who’s going to care if I bag it now?” But the part of me that wanted to prove something pushed on. And then there were days that were picture perfect; days I’ll pull out of memory during the blizzards of February, and remember the cliff-side rides around Cape Ann, the gorgeous blue sky and surf of the perfect summer morning, the rolling hills in Hamilton. With days like that to balance out the “why?” days, I kept logging the miles on MapMyRide and comparing notes with the Twin. As long as we were at about the same place in training, I felt good. She’d be with me, we could sag together. And I’d keep going.

Overall, training went pretty well, until somewhere into the 50 mile range and then all hell broke loose. Or it felt so to me. I had to move in late July and lost 2 weekends while I moved on my own. Then I got strep-C and lost another 2 weekends. I got a couple of good weekend rides in once I felt better and then around Labor Day my knee flared up again and I was off the bike entirely. Mentally beaten, I started to tell myself and everyone else who would listen that I was probably not going to be able to ride the whole century. I was in constant pain and state of swelling so I was mentally laying the groundwork for not doing the ride at all. Jon was still working with me, but that was about the extent of my activity for 3 weeks. Then he suggested talking to Deanna, a fellow Spinning instructor and chiropractor. The two of them convinced me to work with her rather than wait the months to see the ortho again only to get referred back to therapy. Life lesson #2 was this: try the unconventional; you never know what will happen.

Deanna worked on me with an instrument of cruelty that looked like a cattle prod from a Russian gulag (also known as the Graston Technique) and a cold laser. Deanna’s goal was to break up accumulated scar tissue, inflame it to get it to start healing again and get the knee cap floating properly again. After just one session, I went out and rode 25 miles pain-free. Seriously! I went back for a second session for good measure. But that was it. I was back on the bike. So for 5 weeks, I continued to build my miles and managed 56 miles before the century. That wasn’t looking promising for a finish, but I was hoping for 75 on a good day. I convinced myself I would have been happy with that. My last ride before the century was the Sunday before on my finely tuned Specialized, which I’d just picked up from a tune-up at the best bike shop in the land. The ride was effortless, the shifting like butter, the bike my new best friend again. So this is what a little lube and fine tuning gets you? I was psyched. Bring on the 100.

So that nice early fall weekend in October, I drove to Maryland and met my Twin and other Spinning pals for the ride. I was nervous, obsessively tied to my training plan (would I be able to have my pre-meal scrambled eggs? Would I have enough GU? Nuun? Would the knee hold up? Would I be able to sleep the night before?) and really anxious to get rolling.

Saturday morning, we headed to the start line and within 5 pedal strokes I knew I had a serious problem. And like all best-laid plans, it was not my knee as I might have predicted. Instead, the previously smooth shifting and “smooth like butter” ride I had the previous weekend had turned into a painful clunk and chunk, with the middle 4 gears not even clicking in at all; the chain would just bounce right over them. Somewhere in transit the derailleur got compromised (as well as gnarled up handlebar tape, which is just plain ugly). I stopped at the mechanic station and they told me "nothing is wrong but if there is something wrong, it’s probably just sand from the area in the derailleur". Witnesses who rode with me will attest to the “that shouldn’t be doing that” sound it made the whole rest of the day. But at 9:00 that morning, I could bag it or bust it. Life lesson #3: bust it. I worked too hard and worried too much to walk away now.

The first 20 miles were, for me, meant to get over the mechanical and deal with it and to get into some kind of riding formation with the group. It was a casual pace and all about finding a groove. At the first rest stop, I felt good and kept going. Same at 40.

The only “problem” I had was going into the 60 mile rest stop, I all of a sudden got really light-headed and insanely hungry. I drank a water bottle full of Nuun and knocked back a Gu and a pack of Fig Newtons. I also ate everything in sight at the rest stop. Oranges, multiple slices of pound cake, chocolate chip cookies. And I switched from Nuun to a really sugary sports drink. That seemed to help, so I got back on the bike and headed out again.

The ride itself was actually fun for me, not a drain at all. The terrain was flatty-flat. Insanely flat, like no where on the North Shore flat. The weather was reasonable. It was hardly an effort to keep moving, as I remember it now. The lure of the food at some of these stops definitely helped. The group didn’t really stick too closely together and I found myself riding on my own or with people I didn’t know at all a lot. I did ride with a few of our group for parts of the ride, but this definitely was more of an individual effort than I thought it would be. And I killed it, at least in my mind, where I think it loomed bigger for me than it did for anyone else.

At 82 miles, I texted David and my sister and said I was going for it. They both replied with encouragement and I just jumped back on and went. My odometer died coming out of that rest stop (so no photo of the 100 on the meter!) so I had no idea how much road was left in front of me, other than it was less than 20 miles. When we got close to the end, a cop stopped us all for traffic and I sat there and wondered what it would feel like to finish this. I think that was the first time it occurred to me that I was actually going to do this. I was going to finish. And finish in fairly good shape and time. Little did I know that I was just around the corner from the finish line. When I saw the tunnel down to the finish, I recognized where I was and I got teary-eyed. After everything that had been thrown at me in the last year to keep me off the bike, I just kicked it all in the ass. I beat it down and won. I’ll tell you, it’s a good feeling. And I’m already looking for another one or two next year, because once you’re bitten by the bug, you want more. Believe me.

The To Do list (because we all learn something from things like this):
Learn to ride in the drops
Learn to do what you need to in a port-a-pottie
Buy all-weather-wear

Many people supported me and made this experience extra special, but a few deserve a shout-out, in no particular order:

To Brian, your color commentary and stick-to-it-tiveness got me through the training, and some of those rides were glorious and some were just plain ugly. Eat your breakfast first (a real breakfast) and we’re back at it as soon at it’s over 60 in the spring. Special props to you for teaching me to drink at speed!

To David, I know you knew I was going to do this even when I didn’t. Thanks for listening to me bitch though! Are you in for a road trip next October?

To Evans the Ortho who made me believe again, Brendan the PT who brought me back, Jon the SuperTrainer who keeps me there, Deanna the Chiro who tweaks when needed, Scott my LBS guy (I’ll be back in March to get the derailleur replaced and handlebars retaped!)...you are part of the team. You’re not going anywhere, ever! I couldn’t have done it at all without you.

To Twin, I wouldn’t trade that weekend for anything and if I played it over, I’d do it all the same. All of it. Even the fire drills and the guy in compression socks. Just bring a corkscrew next time, will you? Seeing you gnaw that one off with your teeth was not attractive! ;-)

To Turning 40: bite me. There aren’t many people my age who did what I just did. Just wait till you see what I’m going to beat 41 down with!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The shows, a week later...

In August of 1993, I'd made my way with three girlfriends on my first overseas trip to make the pilgrimage of all pilgrimages, to see U2 play in their hometown of Dublin. Of all of the many, many images that are still ingrained in my mind from that week, the one that stands out for me occurred as I was standing at the end of the b-stage extension into the massive general admission crowd. Me, separated from my girlfriends due to the surge of the crowd and our inexperience dealing with the push to the guardrails around the stage, but still ecstatic being within arm's length of U2 for the first time ever. I'd deal with finding my friends later, but right then, I was soaking in the moment. To wrap up that part of the show, Bono and Edge performed a haunting acoustic version of Stay (Faraway So Close) and I remember handing my camera to a girl on the shoulders of her boyfriend next to me, asking her to take a photo of them over the crowd. She framed it beautifully, capturing the moment for me forever, as simple and stripped down a moment as that acoustic version was, reminding me even to this day of what it meant to me then to be a U2 fan.

Fast-forward 16 years, where you'll find me complaining and whining about a horrible album (come on, it IS!) and the prospect of attending two shows which I had braced myself for, expecting only terrible, hoping that with such low expectations I would only be surprised. Well, it turned out not quite that way.

To put it simply, the first show was an utter embarrassment. I know we're all guilty of this at our own jobs at one time or another, but for the first Foxboro show, U2 phoned it in. They thought it was enough to show up, go through the motions, play the songs lifelessly and perform to a script that had worked for them in Barcelona, Amsterdam and London. I am convinced that they forgot where they were, who they were playing to and what this city expects of them. We are their second home. We made them in this country. We deserve something better than just phoning it in. This crowd, predominantly Irish itself, I might remind you, brings 100% heart and soul to whatever venue U2 plays in and apparently Sunday night that was not enough for the band to feed off of. It was a heartless, lifeless and flat performance. No spark, no sparkle.

In combing that night for something positive to talk about here, I come up only with the remixed version of I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight. I've yet to figure out if I like it because it's better than the original, if I'm hearing it only for it's Spinning class potential or if it's just that Adam carries that song on the neck of his bass. But of the entire night, that was the standout moment for me. Everything else, the staging (which yes, does seem to be trying to compensate for failings in performance), the swagger, the canned video...it all fell short. The band spent so much time prowling the catwalks individually that unless you were within arms' length of them, you would have thought they were each trying out for their own solo projects.

But Bono's voice, oh man, Bono's voice. All too often he would attempt to hit and miss, or he'd talk the lyrics through without even trying, or he'd ask us to sing for him. Sorry, I didn't pay $300 a ticket to sing for you. A few times I felt like he was purposefully ruining the lyric with a god-awful cat in a blender strain (first line of Moment of Surrender, he did it in the Saturday Night Live performance as well). Is that attractive, cute or on purpose at all? If it was a deliberate strain to try to instill some passion, please, stop it. You're shortening an already short shelf-life for what's left of your nicotine-ruined throat. On top of the voice, Bono completely forgot lyrics (Ultraviolet, The Unforgettable Fire), mis-sang them (Magnificent) or changed them to something like a Christopher Walken rap (With Or Without You), making them regrettable despite the band's best efforts.

I spent a sleepless (thanks to coffee Bailey's and candy corn combination) 24 hours waiting for night two. We made our way back down to Foxboro, gluttons for punishment that we are. Things seemed a bit off kilter, as we were still nearly 2 miles away as Snow Patrol were going on stage. Snow Patrol started late and ended later than the night before, which makes me antsy, knowing how hard it is for U2 to change things up and adapt to something off-script. I wondered if we'd suffer due to Snow Patrol's tardiness.

The lights dimmed and Larry came out, tonight not alone, but with the full band. I looked at Allison and said "Something's up, this isn't going to be Breathe." And I was right. They committed what is, for them, a cardinal sin and changed up a strictly static setlist, and launched into Magnificent. I suspected that Breathe might make a later appearance but it did not. But the show already had a different feel to it. Bono was tearing around the main stage like a boxer getting ready for his title bout. He even seemed to acknowledge the lack of delivery the night before by saying: "Last night (shakes his head), this is the night. You want it as much as we want it, this is it." Everything seemed more on fire, everything had an edge, The Edge. On the second night they came to tear it up, and tear it up they did. It was a tighter, more cohesive, more electric performance. The band did not leave the main stageand wander individually as much as they did the night before. They stuck closer together and when they did venture off the main stage, they interacted more with each other. Was it this proximity alone that held this show together? Was it a caffeine injection, a better night's sleep or the scathing review in the Boston Globe that morning that slapped them back into reality? We'll never know, but it made for a better show. Certainly not the best I've ever seen, but night and day different from the night before.

Ultimately it turned out that Breathe was dropped for Your Blue Room (a hellacious choice of a Passengers track, but that's a big enough topic for another post), New Year's Day was dropped for Until the End of the World (a crowd-pleasing ass kicker) and Stuck in a Moment was dropped for a beautiful acoustic version of Stay. And during Stay I think I realized that my world had come full-circle in 16 years. At the point where Bono sings "and if you shout, I'll only hear you", I realized I was seeing the exact same silhouette of guitarist and singer letting their hearts out like they did in Dublin in 1993. And I found myself a little teary. Remembering that during the intervening 16 years, there were highs and lows, agonies and ecstasies, losses and celebrations, just like these two nights proved. Many things come and go: friends and lovers, jobs and projects, but it's good to know that the memory of a lifetime can find it's way back to you when you need it the most. And with that, I realized that while I may have been disappointed with this album and maybe even this tour and quite possibly this band, that is completely ok. I found it didn't take much to scratch the surface and find what mattered the most.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Blog of a despondent U2 fan

Ordinarily the day before a U2 show would find me nearly uncontained, climbing the walls, blaring the tunes and anxiously awaiting showtime, when my self-imposed media blackout would end and all would be revealed to me over the course of two hours. I've been down this road for six tours over 22 years. I know how it's supposed to work, and how I'm supposed to feel right about now. This time though, I'm just empty.

Let's rewind to February of this year. Get On Your Boots had just been released and I was underwhelmed. Underwhelmed and disappointed. But I reconciled my feelings by convincing myself that they needed a poppy hit to get back on the radio and rake in the younger fans. Then, sitting in my hotel room on vacation in London (because, yes, diehard fans do do this sort of thing on vacation!), I started to download leaked tracks from the album. And the more I heard the more disappointed I became.

On first listen, it hurt. Bono's voice sounds like it's been scoured with razor blades in places; he sounds like he's reaching for the top shelf when really he should be using that step stool. Age, the smoke and the drink are catching up with him and here we hear that he hasn't come to terms with it yet. But the lyrics...the lyrics had me asking "REALLY?" a few more times than I was comfortable with. "She put her tongue in my ear", "I won't stand for anyone's cockatoo", "the ATM machine" (reminder Bono, the "M" in "ATM" stands for MACHINE), "no, no line on the horizon" (isn't that a double negative, so there IS a line on the horizon? Or were we just trying to find another syllable for iambic pentameter?). Is this really the best they could do? Or were they just trying to top "Grace is the name of a girl" from the album All That You Can't Leave Behind?

Three songs were wholly unlistenable to me, which other than The Wanderer on Pop, is a complete anomaly for me. They make me so uncomfortable that once, walking to work, I nearly threw my iPod into a puddle on Devonshire Street in Boston as I tried to swallow Moment of Surrender like a belligerent child tries to spit out his broccoli. That, Cedars of Lebanon and White As Snow might as well be funeral dirges. Make them stop, or help me find the skip button. Everyone said I'd get used to the songs, the album would grow on me, I was just shocked with the new direction. But you know what, that hasn't happened. I loved Magnificent on first listen and still think it's the best track on the album, but it is also the only track reminiscent of the screaming anthems of old. I have warmed to Being Born (minus Fez) and Stand Up Comedy, but SURPRISE, they don't play either of them live; it figures. An inside joke about the family cats has me laughing along with Get On Your Boots. But that's about it.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: ultimately I think the band will look back on this album and realize it was a huge mistake and be disappointed in this as they were with Passengers. Stick with me kids, I tend to be about 6 months ahead of everyone else when it comes to this sort of thing...I'm already seeing fans who loved this in the beginning start to shake their heads. You know now I'm right. Ask and answer yourself honestly: will you be listening to this album once the tour ends? I didn't think so.

And to top off this story of a fallen U2 fan, I have $1000 worth of tickets for two shows. When tickets went on sale in March, I bet that the album would sit better with me over time. I'm hoping that live and in person, the bet pays off.

I've watched bits on YouTube from other shows on the tour. I've read the setlists and found a couple of oldies that they've dug up and I'm eager to hear for myself once again. But I've read and seen a lot that disappoints me and makes me wonder what exactly they are thinking with this tour. Are the gimmicks and the artifice of a massive staging enhancing the production or merely covering up the mediocrity I'm feeling off the album? What I'm hoping is that in context of the entire show, it all makes sense and I don't walk away from two nights in Foxboro shaking my head.

Time will tell. In the meantime, I've loaded the camera, packed the cooler and put on my game face. I'll climb into the limo with my concert-going posse hoping that maybe my boys won't let me down. With such low expectations, maybe I can only be pleasantly surprised.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

T-6 and counting

So, a week from this very minute, I should, in theory, be winging my way across the Pond to London. Yes, that's right. So far American hasn't tried to cancel my flight, I am (relatively) healthy in knee and lungs (4 weeks of pneumonia, bronchitis or some other lung ailment notwithstanding) and I'm making moves towards leaving town. Phew.

I've picked up some cash for the night I get there (yay the dollar is better!), bought a new toothbrush and re-read some guidebooks. I have a list of every conceivable work of art I would want to see at the National Gallery (first stop). I've also identified some restaurants I need to hit for bangers and mash, fish & chips and toffee pudding. Diet be damned! I need to cancel the newspaper, book a shuttle and pack. Them I'm gone.

I'm leaving despicably snowy Boston for recently-newsworthy, snowy London. I will ignore the fact that a very good British friend of mine said, and I quote, "It never snows in London, that's a perfect winter holiday for you." It appears that the 6+ inches snow will melt before I arrive and that 40s will be the rule. So that crisis averted. For now. I hope.

The last few days, a little of that "I don't want to leave home" feeling has crept in, but not too bad. As much as I love traveling and devouring a foreign location, I'm still a homebody at heart and always feel sad leaving home, even if just for a little while.

I am bringing the new laptop with me, under the guise of blogging while I'm there and writing some travel bits I may someday be able to use. I'm meeting old friends and new while there, which is always exciting. So stay tuned next week, I'll try and update often.