Dear Abdomen-Handling weight gain over the holidays.

Dear Abdomen,

I know I put on weight over Thanksgiving but haven’t stepped on the scale yet to put a number to it.  I just know that I did.  My clothing didn’t fit the same today as it did a week or two ago.  And, I don’t feel the same.  I feel bad about all the eating I did over Thanksgiving.  Maybe words like, “depressed” or “empty” are feelings associated with the knowledge that I gained weight.  Yet, I had a good time with family, and I know I  shouldn’t feel bad about spending time with my loved ones.  What can I do?  – Charlene

Dear Charlene,

There is a need to reconcile these extreme feelings.  Gaining weight between late November and early January is common in Western culture.  Although science has no defining study that says, “you gain weight when it is cooler,” there is a school of thought that makes us think that when it gets cold, we don’t sweat as much and we gain weight.  Too bad science doesn’t support this.

The evidence points towards two distinct events that are to blame for weight gain.  To begin, we introduce unstructured change into our diets.  The holiday foods aren’t aligned with what we eat the rest of the year.  After all, we don’t eat stuffing in May, nor do we have pumpkin pie in August.  We don’t know how to judge portions or frequency in which to eat these unknown foods. Secondly, we respond differently to the impact of an emotional disorder called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) that causes both depression and increased food consumption from darker, shorter days.   This disorder to so widespread and common that people specialize in the health care aspects of it.  SAD has a greater impact in polar regions, but it can alter eating and sleeping patterns in the continental US as well.  My family experiences a mild depression when we turn back the clocks in the fall, for we knows the days of going outside to work in the garden after dinner are over.

Those two explanations that blame a changing diet and SAD aren’t justifications, though.  Truth be told, a lack of self-control plays a role, as does denial and a lack of preparation for upcoming nutritional assault that you know you will face in the holiday season.

Newburgh-Tow-Truck-Company-845-764-8865-fixing-a-flat-tire-on-disabled-car
Thanksgiving is a flat tire event.  Do you fix the flat or blow out 4 more tires?

We recognize the pattern that arises this time of year.  We even coined the phrase 4 flat tire syndrome.  When your cars gets a flat tire (like blowing your nutritional plan when you overeat at Thanksgiving), the normal person would stop the car and change the flat tire to resume normal operation.  The tendency this time of the year for someone who lacks nutritional maturity is to get out of the car and pop the other three good tires, to really ruin the ability to travel.  Then you sit next to the car wondering what happened!

Don’t let the flat tire of Thanksgiving lead to a string of events that includes three more flat tires of crummy eating that lasts until January 1.  If you think your self-image is damaged now, wait until January 1, when you over-respond with a new gym membership and a diet that you know you won’t sustain.  A Canadian blogger named Michael Freedhoff recommends these strategies to avoid the Holiday/winter weight gain issues:

  • Cook meals from scratch. The processed junk food that somehow just “shows up” on our counter is a part of the problem.  This is like putting more trees and snakes next to Adam and Even in the Garden of Eden.  Instead, make food prepared from real ingredients and try to eat as many healthy meals as you can.  If it is in a bag or from an unknown source, replace it with something that is good for you, instead.
  • Cook as a family. After all, the people whom you want to see this holiday season are most likely to be near or in the kitchen with you this time of year.  Use that time to make good food together and not just eat it together.
  • If you think you suffer from SAD, fess up and get medical attention. There are treatment strategies that will create a path of hope.  You aren’t weak if you seek medical help. You are acting wisely to seek medical help.

Lastly, some weight gain this time of year is healthy for those of us who are extreme athletes. That all said, I too was impacted by Thanksgiving and put on some weight.  For world class athletes in the endurance sports like marathon and Ironman, winter is a time of weight gain.  Runners from El Doret, Kenya, gain up to 15 pounds each winter/off season, as many of them get to a very low percentage of body fat.  For you, keep up some exercise, despite what you think of the weather and lack of daylight, and adapt to the changing outdoor season.

 

Dear Abdomen, Issue 16-1

Dear Abby, (her real name is Abby Domen, but she uses the nickname is Abby),

I have been doing Yoga/Pilates for a year, and I can see and feel the difference in my strength.  However, I still carry more weight than I want to. I have tried to eat smart and healthy, but my efforts haven’t given me results.  What am I doing wrong?

Dear Lovely Woman,

Let me share a real story from my dear friend Alex.  Alex is a former Marine who fought in Somalia in the 1990s.  A few weeks ago, I asked him what he did the night before entering a known combat zone.  He and all of his squad members had a protocol that they would follow to keep healthy and alive.  Alex would check and recheck every piece of gear, and he would have a fellow squad member review every piece of equipment, as well.  For example, he would take apart his gun and make sure that it REALLY worked to specs.  He would also dump out his pack and confirm that he had adequate rations, ammo, clothing, communications equipment, and the like.   Although he wasn’t sure that he would be using all of his equipment to engage in combat, he made sure that if he did engage the enemy, he would be ready, and his gear would be dependable.  In addition, he had backups for items that were critical.

marine-in-combat
Combat situation for a Marine

My recommendation is to prepare like Alex.  The night before the start of what you know will be a busy day, pre-assemble your snacks and meals that you need to take with you on the road.  Take this activity seriously, as your family is depending on you to be strong and healthy.  You are worth a 5 to 10-minute investment every night.  In addition, bottle your water and put all the nutrition and hydration you will need in a special place where you can just grab it and go.  Maybe, you need a reminder the night before to do this.  Use your phone to remind you-it’s a free service on every cell phone to have an alarm with a message.

Too often, we wait till we are hungry to address need for timely nutrition.  Don’t wait till the enemy is upon you to see if your gun is loaded and ready.  Lastly, don’t pretend that a bottle of water and a packaged bar and a banana equals good nutrition.

The first few times, you need to go out on a limb and let a close friend who you trust review and provide feedback on your choice of nutrition and hydration.  You want to make the best use of your preparation and get the help you need, in the safest way possible.  Don’t hide any of your intentions, either.  If your plan is to hit the Chick-Filet when you are hungry, say that and tell them exactly what you plan to get.  Look at the nutritional information on your go-to meal and see if it is real food or not.   Get some honest feedback on your plan and listen to the advise that you get, in response.

Once you make this a habit, you should begin to see the results that has been evasive.  More often than not, it is not our intentions that get us into trouble.  It is the unanticipated combat that we haven’t prepared for that sinks our boat.  We need good calories, all day long, if we want to keep our metabolism running as God intended it to operate.

Finally, the real difference between you and Alex is that you WILL engage the enemy every day you leave home.  Roadside billboards, coupons in your purse for a new cereal, favorite foods that the kids like to eat will get your attention and wear away at your resolve to eat real, healthy food.  The enemy wants to destroy you and your image, and food is one of his tools.

Just like Alex does, you should NEVER leave home without expecting combat over what you put into your body.  The media and marketing world shall most definitely wage war on you, They will find a way to get their images into your eyes to convince you to eat something that you really don’t want to eat that happens to be in front of you.

Be like Alex, and fight for your body!

Welcome to Church!

So, I had a food and fitness moment that included me throwing the obese-man-03leadership of a couple of local churches under the bus.  Then, I got my heart broken, for the good.

My church, like most churches in the south, is populated by those whom are fat.  Fat people have fought hard to become accepted as normal, and they have their advocates like any other group of people.  Their presence anywhere in our society, including church, is not a big deal.  Churches are filled with folks of all sorts, all at different places in their walks with God.

However, for those of us who call Christianity our faith, we have a different set of standards than those who live in the world.  Christ tells us in Romans 12:1 that our bodies are “temples.”  He also says that we are to offer them as sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.

Historically, the temple in ancient Jewish culture was the pinnacle of village activity.  People diligently cared for it, making sure that nothing unclean was ever brought into the temple, and the priests who served in the temple were often the most revered members of society.  The temple had an outward appearance that was pleasing, and the community was proud of their church.  Inside the church, there were rules regarding what could be brought inside and who could and could not bring things into the temple.  That mechanism of filters was what defined how the church was to be maintained as “holy.”

“Sacrifice” implies going without for a higher good.  People sacrifice going on a great vacation in order to save for education for their children.  That word “sacrifice” used in this context has the same meaning and connotation as one who goes without in the world today.  God says it is Holy and Pleasing to Him for us to treat our bodies as a living sacrifice (as opposed to a beheading as some ancient religions perceive sacrifice to mean).

Lastly, he says that the act of treating our bodies as “Holy” is our “true and proper” worship.  This is not to say that teaching, preaching and prayer and song are inadequate worship, but they aren’t “true and proper” worship.  True worship comes from treating our body as a temple.

These are not my words, folks.  Yet, they are lost by the leadership at the place that I call my local church.  Our church is led by folks who either disagree with Romans 12:1 or feel it doesn’t apply to them and the people they lead.  For me, it was life-transformational to learn the depth of Romans 12:1, and the impact that it has had on me led to hundreds and in some instances thousands of you reading this blog.

I recently lost the ability to look at leadership with any real level of respect as they shared their passion for the messages and mysteries that they see in the Bible, while simultaneously leading a life that didn’t include any passion for true and proper worship.  Heck, even the worship leader and his wife are obese!  All the while, there has been a focus on building a children’s area that was full of quality places that would be the “temple” used to attract in new folks.

Trashing the temple is sin.  It isn’t right to ignore God’s teachings about the temple, sacrifice and what God finds Holy and pleasing because you aren’t very good at it.

This doggedness of the truth began affecting me.  The temptation was to quit and move on.   Yet, no one can maturely leave a situation that is troubling without first trying to fix it.  My wife and I responded by creating a course that we call “Faith, Food and Fitness,” the objective of which is to:

-lay out what the Bible has to say about food and fitness topics.

-provide guidance and support for implementing these mandates in the 21st century, in the USA.

-add valuable science to help achieve their goals.

We have opened the doors to our church, employees and friends to take the class.  The class was published in the list of life group classes that church members can participate in.  Despite the hundreds of people who call our church their home church, we have only had a handful of folks take the class.  We have run the class twice.  Both my wife and I are all but done asking this crowd if they want help on the topic.  After all, help isn’t for people who need it.  It is for people who want it.

Over the last few months, we have been attending church infrequently, but truth be told, we haven’t missed it.  Then, the weekend before leaving to travel to the World Championships, I went to church.  My son and wife had an event up the road in Davidson, NC, that prevented them from coming, so I went alone.  At church, there was talk of an upcoming men’s retreat/event weekend.  The lead pastor marketed this unique men’s event by repeatedly sharing with the audience that all the men who attended were going to eat barbecue.  References to what we were going to study?  Nothing that I heard.  What they were going to put into the temple made the hot list of topics and was the only topic that got brought up more than once.

I concluded that I was done with this place.  I was done with the hypocritical leadership who says “follow Christ” but leads others astray by trashing their temples. These guys are making chubby buddies and didn’t see anything wrong with their actions.  The epidemic of obesity in church has grown so much that both Fox News and Christianity Today have published articles on how bad obesity trends in churches are, even when compared the general population. In addition, a friend of mine just took on a high level leadership position at a large church in our area, and I called him out on his failover to perform true and proper worship.  He heard that he needed to go on a diet.  Last I saw him, that strategy wasn’t working.  To complicate things, he used to be a worship pastor.

All these events added up, and I finally concluded that we weren’t changing anyone or anything from our efforts, and I was being “dumb” for sticking around and beating my head against a rock with our church.

So I thought.

On Sunday am, before the start of church, Emily, the Equipping Pastor got my attention and pulled me towards where she sat by showing her big, bright smile.

“Guess what!” she said.

“Tell me,” I responded, not knowing what to expect.  However, I have known her for 10+ years and knew she was going to tell me, regardless of my answer.

“You helped to inspire me.  I am running my first half marathon soon.  I have been training for it, and…”

I didn’t hear anything she said after that.  All I could hear was, “Jeff, you are wrong…dead wrong about not making an impact.”  Just because I couldn’t see results or feel results didn’t mean there weren’t any.  Emily and her sister have both followed some of my goings on, and her sister took half of our class.  But, they have gone radar silent and we haven’t heard from either of them in a year.  I thought they had gone back to their old ways.

Philosophically, I asked, “Is it enough that one person got it?”

Yes.  Through one, many can be saved. How many times did one person, changing one person, start a revolution that impacts a culture.

Had Emily not approached me, I would have concluded that my efforts were wasted at our current church and I would have begun seeking a new place to call church where they were valued.  At our church, we most certainly prioritize fixing cars and having cool stuff for our kids, but not so much regarding “true and proper worship” and “sacrifice” make it into behavior patterns where leadership is leading by example.

I don’t know what is next, but giving up isn’t on the next step list.

 

 

12 Tips and Tricks for a successful Duathlon

Truth be told, there are no “tricks” in duathlon.  Indeed, there is no substitute for practicing and mastering the three disciplines that make or break world-class duathletes:  running, cycling and nutrition.  Great habits in those three disciplines are more important than what is listed below.  That said, I have found that doing these 12 learning make a world of difference.

  • Check out your gear the night before. No marine goes into battle without going over his gear, piece by piece, and confirming that it is working, at specifications, before using it in a combat situation. Steal from the Marine’s discipline and go over all parts of your gear and plan.  Confirm all your bike screws and tight and that your shoes, socks and racing kit are laid out, ready to go in the morning.  Have spares.  Don’t wake up wondering where your stuff is or if it is ready for the big event.
  • Vet your nutrition plan with someone else. I ask Susan Kitchen to review my nutrition plan for all long course events to make sure I have the right formula of energy, hydration, and salt to sustain the distance about to be raced.  More often than not, my plan is wrong on at least one of those three items…if not all of them!
  • Tape nutrition to the frame. I race with gels or pineapple chunks.  71n2ftEither way, I want the food where I want it, and most certainly, I don’t want to deal with packaging.  I saw a woman tape a cliff bar, no packaging, directly to her frame.  Grab, pull and eat.  No ripping or tearing of a package required.  If I could get it injected into my arms on the aero bars via an IV, I would.
  • Race with a different pair of running shoes on each run. When I get off the bike in transition 2, my first pair of shoes may be ready to put right back on, or they might not.  I have found my shoes knocked  into other people’s bike rack space.  I have even found a bike on top of my shoes.  The value of having a 2nd pair of shoes, right where you left them at the start of the race, laces how and where you want them, assures that my time in transition is as short as possible.   I do the first run in Hoka One One’s and I do the second run, based on conditions (trail shoes or racing flats).
  • Put your spare tube and tools in a tennis ball case. Tennis ball caseThe case fits perfectly in your spare water bottle slot on your frame. The little pouches that sit under the seat don’t really lend themselves to easy in and out use.  A tennis ball case is large and in an easy to get to place.  It is aerodynamic enough to justify the placement location.  There is no zipper to deal with, and stuffing the old tube back in after your procedure is faster than the little behind-the-seat pouch.
  • Eat a normal breakfast in the am. Race morning is the wrong time to be trying that new beet juice your heard about that might increase endurance.  Your training plan is testing on race day, not intercepted and altered.
  • Run in and out transition efficiently. No one is effective at running in bike shoes.  They aren’t meant for that.  Yet, at every race, someone is clopping along slower than an opossum crossing the road.  We can, though, run in socks, if the ground conditions allow for it.  I use rubber bands to hold my cycling shoes in position so they don’t scrape on the ground as I push my bike through transition.  When I leave transition, I hop on my bike, put my foot in my shoe and pedal half a turn, until I can comfortably put on my other shoe.  Keep in mind, this is not a natural effort.  To be good at this function requires practice.  For those who comment that this is not for them, I wonder how much they have practiced, if any.
  • Practice transition. Take some time at either the start or the end of one of your outdoor training events to practice going quickly and smoothly from bike to run to bike.  Note what muscles you are engaging, and spend some time working them out.  I quickly discovered that it was my core that made the difference between a 30-seconds and a 1-minute transition.  My practice of Pilates helps me feel confident switching between disciplines.
  • Use the mechanic, if it is provided. He really does want you to do the best you can.  I do lots of my own maintenance and upgrade work, with no help.  That said, I overlook things.  Having the mechanic do a once over can help expose loose spokes, loose screws, and make sure that the tire pressure is correct, for conditions.  TeamUSA provides mechanics, and I use them!  It hurts no one to give them a tip for their time, too.
  • Dress and race as if it was 10 degrees warmer than perceived temps. During long course nationals a few years ago, I put on a base layer, as I was cold before race start.  Before the end of run 1, I had taken off my uniform and base layer and put back on my uniform.  I ran the last 2 miles carrying my base layer in my hands.  Not efficient nor smart.  Now, I wear arm warmers that I can slide down, as I warm up.  In addition, as the day rolls by, the outdoor temperatures increase while you heat up.  Stand around at the start a little bit cold…it will be OK once the race starts.
  • Interact with others before the race to assist. Isolating before a race is selfish on a couple of fronts.  There may be a chance for you to encourage someone else who is really nervous.  You miss that chance by separating from everyone else, claiming it is part of your race prep.  God calls us sheep and not goats for a reason-we need others to be healthy.   We marry and pair up to do everything of importance.  Extend our genetically social tendency to race day.  Talking with or listening to others can help you and others.  I spend time in prayer, and I pray for others.
  • Celebrate everyone’s success. Clap for everyone at awards ceremony, even if they are from another country.  Verbally approach those who beat you and tell them, “good effort,” even if they don’t speak English.   I have sadly watched more than one great athlete fail to enjoy an event that they prepared for and did well at because they hadn’t practiced or learned how to celebrate.  Happiness is in what you give, not what you get.  Tell first timers to keep coming back.  At worlds, I stop to let kids take pictures.  At local events, I talk to volunteers and thank them for their sacrifice.  Life is a beautiful thing.  Race day is a unique celebration to be shared.

Pyrenees: a trip inside as much as outside.

This blog could focus on any of three different messages, all of which could be a could be a couple chapters long.  The uniqueness of the people, the history of the places, and how the ride changed me are all great stories to tell.  I will sprinkle a little of each in here.

Climbing mountains holds an appeal for many cyclists because of the challenges involved. On a long mountain pass there is no respite. You can’t just stop pedaling and coast to relax and get your breath back. Once you start climbing, you physically suffer.  “Voluntary childbirth” or “Sadistic sporting” are great adages that hit the heart of the matter when used to describe mountainous cycling .  As such, it attracts a unique sort of athlete, one who is drawn to overcoming adversity. It is like running a marathon…daily….for a week.

It fits me.

Jeff Gaura at the top of the Aubisque
Top of the Aubisque stands a statue of a polka dot bicycle to commemorate the king of the mountain.

The People

My learning style has always been one of “move over and let me try that.”  When it comes to visiting new places, that protocol applies, too. I like to show up with a limited plan that demands integrating with the people so I can “do it myself,” and learn how things are done.  This trip would not use that technique.  Instead, I signed up with an organized group focused on cycling tours.  They took care of route planning, sleeping and eating arrangements as well as providing some support mid ride.  I was responsible for making choices each day about which of two routes I would select and what I wanted for meals.  That is about it.  Call it all-inclusive cycling.

Our group of 23 people included three staff and 20 participants.  As to be expected in Europe, there were many nationalities represented:  USA, NZ, UK, AU, IRE.  I was the only American there, and most folks claimed Great Brittain as their country.  Everyone there, except me, had done the ride before or was in a group of people that contained others who had experience.  I felt like it was advantageous to have neither experience nor any previous relationships on which to lean, as it demanded that I integrate and learn from the lot.  Most folks are scared to travel solo and interact with a group that they have never met before and instead go in a group of similar people.  That breaks my heart.  I can’t imagine anything more exciting than meeting people while doing something you have never done before.

Jeff Gaura, on the Atlantic Shore at the start of his Pyrenees trip
Our group, on the Atlantic Shore, at the start of the trip.

Have you ever been to a party and met a stamp collector?  They conclude that you are interested in stamp collecting or are a collector yourself…just by asking their name.  Cyclists behave not much differently than a stamp collector at a party.  Cyclists are quick to conclude that you like cycling, too, even if you could care less.  They display a fondness for an event that includes voluntary suffering that others don’t appreciate.  All these wonderful people were professionals in their non-cycling lives but while we interacted together, it was all about cycling…whether the lady behind the counter at the hotel wanted to hear it or not.

Despite my recent embrace of cycling, I quickly discovered that I had a long way to go to learn the history and psychology of the sport, let alone the techniques and strategy of becoming and staying a good climber.  The Pyrenees are the Disneyland of cycling, so it only makes sense that the people who are repeat visitors know all about Mickey Mouse and princesses.  Our first meal together, the conversation was all that I hoped it would be, and more.  These guys had more experience than me and were both quick and glad to share it.   During a moment walking in the rain on our first night together as a group, I lifted a prayer of gratitude that I was about to spend the next week with those who repeatedly travelled to and climbed in the Pyrenees on a bicycle.  I felt like a middle schooler, looking forward to attending high school for the first time.

The organizers rotated roommates, and that facilitated good one-on-one time with folks.  Paul, Neil and Guy and I all got to spend one-on-one time together.  Neil was an encyclopedia of knowledge and experience!  I probably learned the most listening to and watching Neil.  Guy and I both enjoyed each other’s company, and we engaged in a couple of conversations about the meaning of life.  Talking to him helped me ask great questions of myself, challenging my assumptions about why I am here and what motivates me.  Poor Paul – he got and stayed sick, on and off, physically, most of the week.  That said, it was impressive that he was able to get away for a week, as he had an 8-month-old at home.  I particularly loved hanging out with the Scottish lot in attendance.  Most were drinkers (imagine that!), and they loved storytelling.  They were all friendly and most had visited the US at some point or another and knew where I was coming from.  I wouldn’t hesitate to invite any of these men and their families to come visit and stay with us back in North Carolina.

Scenery off the Western coast of France, in Basque country.
Scenery off the Western coast of France, in Basque country.
Eugene, the young one, at the start of the last day!
Eugene, the young one, at the start of the last day!

My expectations of the people were all met.  Indeed, the best part of the trip was the people.  Many of us connected on social media, and I get messages from them, even though we have already departed.  Great stuff!

The History

Wikipedia documents the stories of the great events in cycling connected to the Pyrenees.  There are too many to list here.  The biggest are the stories of events that happened on Tourmalet, yet it was the stories of people crashing and dying on the descents that made me think the most.  In America, it is common knowledge that there are medical conditions that shorten the length and quality of life of the athletes in football, powerlifting, etc, due to the physical impact of the sport on their bodies.  Yet, we don’t hear stories of football players who die on 3rd down in the 1st quarter of a football game.  In cycling, people get in wrecks and die, moments later, too often.  Sure, they wear helmets now, but safety remains a lower priority than most US sports.  At a couple of locations, there were monuments to famous cyclists who died on or near that spot.  It created moments to pause and think and set aside the suffering of the climb to ponder their fates.

In America, cycling is known as the sport of cheaters, and the most famous cheater of all time is American.  As such, it will be years before cycling interest in the US will be in the same order of magnitude as Europe.  Interest in the history of the sport or the places that made it famous don’t exist in the US like they do here.  In the US, we have football, baseball and basketball, all full of comparable cheaters, yet, for whatever reason, we extend forgiveness to each of these other groups, but we don’t do that with cycling.  I will never understand that.

Cycling is one of the only pastimes where it’s possible for the complete amateur to ride the same routes as the professionals. It’s the equivalent of football fans being able to play a game of tackle football at 3 pm in their team’s stadium, take a shower in the locker room, then walk back out and watch the Dallas Cowboys take the field and play a game at 7 pm on the same day, on the same field.  As we traversed the Pyrenees, there were chalk writings on the road meant for specific riders.  Peter Sagan is the ladies’ favorite, but I also saw Valverde, Froome and others names glorified by the graffiti written in their honor, on the asphalt leading up some of the climbs.  I was riding on historical roads used by the best in the world, literally a few weeks ago.  That was cool.

Lastly, with cycling a big part of the country’s history, France and the surrounding countries have mini aid stations set up on the roads where cyclists can dip their head in a cool bath of water and fill up their water bottles using fresh, cold mountain water.  Some of these fountains are nothing more than a faucet coming from the rocks.  Others are elaborate fountains.

The Changing views

Starting on the West coast of France meant starting in glorious history, natural beauty and wealth.  The southwestern portion of France is known as the Basque region, and the I spent two days in Biarritz, FR, doing recovering from the trip and the changing time zones.  The hills, coasts and greenery are best shown in these photos, not with my words.

Jeff Gaura on the coastal cliffs of Biarritz
Biarritz coast, deep in the heart of Basque Country

During the middle days, we cycled through the Tour de France imagery that the media has made famous.  We climbed famous cols like Aubisque, Pau, Tourmalet, Peyresourde, Marie St. Blanc (the hardest one, for me), Aspin and who knows how many others.  The photography on the top of those cols is the stuff that my father-in-law would stay up night thinking about.  Many of those stops will be remembered all of my days.

On the final day, we traveled through wine country.  That warm, humid and windy climate turned our group of hill climbers into a bunch of time trial experts, as we pushed nearly as hard in those flats as we did in the mountains themselves!

Cycling through the different parts of Pyrenees parallels what you might experience hiking the Appalachian trail, only faster.  We traveled through both high rainfall and low rainfall areas.  We wore jackets and removed layer after layer as the temps hit the upper 90s as we poured sweat on a climb up Col de Jau.  Describing the Pyrenees is like describing the USA to a person who only has a minute to listen…there is too much diversity to cover it all!

The Old Man at the Sea

I take away value from words that people say and acts they do, as memories of the majestic views fade over time.  Their words serve as inspiration.  On our ride, there were two “young men” in their 70s, taking on the course like anyone else.  They were loved by everyone in the group, and during breaks and meals, one of them would occasionally add a tidbit of wisdom to the conversation.  At the end of a long, hot day, when we would all pull into our designated hotel, people would do their thing.  It was in those moments that the tidbits would escape.  Having lived a generation or more than the rest of us, their experience was priceless.

Jeff Gaura on the Mediterranean coast
Helen, Pete (from Pyractif), and I celebrating the completion of the ride.

I was SO not expecting that benefit.  Nearly all of the participants knew that I was there to prepare for the World Championship, with my anticipated take away from this trip is that I would be an improved climbing and have higher fitness needed to do well on the Zofingen course.  As as side effect, I got inspired.

Andy, Everton man turned Scottish, riding through farmlands in the middle of the Pyrenees
Andy, Everton man turned Scottish, riding through farmlands in the middle of the Pyrenees

It was their sincerity that got to my heart.  They shared what others were thinking but didn’t have the courage to say.  Eugene shared that he struggled with thoughts of inferiority, wondering if he could make it or even get out of bed the next morning.  He didn’t hide them…he disclosed them.  How brilliant, and what a great lesson for the rest of us there: don’t keep secrets to yourself.  Get help from others, instead!  His peer, Brian, would leave early on each segment, knowing that the younger lot of us would pass him and leave him fending for himself at the end of the day if he didn’t.  He never took the nudging of the group’s leader to leave lunch or break early to get a head start as offensive. He could have been upset that he had less rest and recovery than the others in the group, but he never voiced it, nor did he believe it.  Indeed, he embraced his role as the old man who needed a head start.  That said, he did the same course as the rest of us, and he did it with an attitude of gratitude and joy that he cold still participate in the challenges of the generations behind him.  He was my hero from this trip.

Not surprising he was voted best rider by the group on the last night.  Go, Brian!  I hope that I can nail the Pyrenees at 72 years young.

How to prepare for the Pyrenees

Someone told me, “The Pyrenees are a theme park for adults who like exercise and eating.”

This idea’s truth rings deep. Unlike the traditional blog, this one is focused on recommended behaviors, and there is exactly one reason for that…I wish I had something written to guide my thinking before I prepared to travel to the most famous cycling mountains in the world.  The focus is to help an American prepare for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Jeff Gaura descending through the Pyrenees.
A descent in the Pyrenees includes ruins from long ago.

Cycling the Pyrenees is a dream-event for any experienced cyclist, but it remains a bucket list experience monopolized by Europeans.  Hopefully, by combining this blog with my stories and experiences riding the Pyrenees will motivate you to put it on your bucket list.

Here are my 10 to do items to get the most out of this trip.

Jeff Gaura at the top of the Tourmalet
Top of the Tourmalet…Tour de France is made here!
  1. Fitness is a pre-requisite to enjoying the trip, not a result of doing the trip.  Too many folks show up in France, thinking that riding the most famous cycling mountains in the world will create super fitness.  Some even use the trip as a weight loss clinic.  BAD idea on both fronts.  Start this trip with a body that is as lean as reasonable and still healthy.  Every pound/kilo of body weight that you carry will go with you up and down every mountain.  Imagine two twins, one carrying 20 pounds while the other has 30 pounds.  Walking in and out of the store, they both can travel at about the same rate.  However, once they have to take them up 4 flights of stairs, the difference between 20 pounds and 30 pounds can become a big deal.  My recommendation is to be as thin as you can be and still be healthy before you leave.  On our trip, the bigger folks were slower up the hills than the littler people.  On the last day, when we had a sprint up a 4 km hill, the fastest finishers were the lightest framed people in the group.
  2. Arrive a few days before the trip to address jet lag.  Getting into European sleeping and eating rhythms before hitting the saddle will be a worthy investment.  Although the traverse can be done in 5 or 6 days, you will need 9 or 10 days of from work to this a great experience.
  3. Winds travel from West to East, just like the states, so cycle from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, not the other way around.  We met folks doing what we were doing, and some were going the other way.  The folks who were going east to west looked whooped!  Our last day we travelled with a bit of a tail wind as well.
  4. Average temperature increases by a couple of degrees, each day, as you move west to east.  We started cool and gradually warmed as we travelled east.  I can’t imagine riding into continually cooler weather.
  5. All weather is possible in the Pyrenees.  I wore long pants and a vest during some evenings.  I wore layers as we neared the tops of the Cols.  On the last day, I wore swimming clothes for the Mediterranean Sea.  I had a towel, a wool cap and gloves, and everything in between. Although you don’t need multiple changes of clothes, you do need several types.  Pay attention to your packing list.  Don’t cut corners.
  6. A routine at the end of each day is a good thing. Get into a habit as soon as you reasonably can.  We arrived at some pre-planned out hotel stop each night, and I did the following:
    1. Brick Run (only twice)
    2. Made and consumed a recovery shake
    3. Showered
    4. Washed the cycling outfit (they call it a “kit” in Europe) that I wore
    5. Took a nap before dinner
    6. Ate a French dinner
  7. Jeff Gaura cycling in the Pyrenees
    Roads up the side of the mountains. Character is made here.

    Plan for eating to be social.  In the USA, the evening meal can also be social, on occasion.  In France, food at the end of a day is an event without a compromise.  Multiple courses, a glass of wine, unlimited bread and butter and lots of time to talk between the courses are normal.  Expect a quality of presentation that amazes.  More than once, I wanted to take a picture of how beautiful the dishes looked!

  8. Don’t assume that electrical outlets to be plentiful.  More than once, we would have one outlet per person in a hotel room…that is it!  Plan on allocating adequate time to charge your electronics, as you may have to charge in shifts.  Remember, most of the buildings that you stay in are older than your grandparents and were retrofitted for electricity in the last few decades.  They aren’t wired for the American hodge-podge of devices that all crave power.
  9. Stop riding and set aside goals for time and pace.  My best photos came from my cell phone, in places that I would otherwise casually look at and keep riding.  The Pyrenees have been featured in the Tour de France since 1910, and none more than Col de Tourmalet.  Enjoy these things.
  10. Regardless of confidence levels or language skills, talk to people.  I had a 10-minute conversation with a group of Basques who didn’t speak a word of English.  I don’t know French, so we made a lot of signals, gestures, and used few words.  That said, it was most memorable part of that day!

    Jeff Gaura riding through the Pyrenees
    Restaurant is kind of old….

To put an order of magnitude on this, I can’t imagine going to the grave without a Pyrenean experience.  I am glad that I did it is an understatement.

During the next to last day, during some prayer time on one of the mountains, I remembered that the closing words of Heaven include promises for those who come to him to receive heaven.  In my humble opinion, there will be glimpses of the Pyrenees in Heaven.

 

 

Running in the New Mexico Sun…with my son.

Running takes up a lot of my training time…partly because it is a big part of my sport and partly because I like what it does to me.  Pilates and Cycling can take lots of expensive equipment, but running has no such requirements.  Shorts, shirt, shoes and a place to go…that is all that is necessary.  During those runs, your body gets toned and your head gets clear.  Running puts me in my element.

The Entrance to Philmont
The Entrance to Philmont

But it hasn’t always been that way.  Philmont Scout Ranch was my summer home in 1981, ’83 and ’84, and it changed my life for the better.  The leadership skills and ability to interact with people from diverse backgrounds continues to play a huge role in my business success.  Last week, I went back to Philmont, this time, with the next generation of scouts, as an adult leader.  This summer’s return to Philmont was a commitment that our Boy Scout troop made 2 years ago.  At the time of commitment, I had yet to compete in any National or World Championships, let alone be preparing for a 2nd World Championship.  Yet, with only a month from perhaps the hardest race of my life, I found myself in a scout uniform, trekking in the high desert of New Mexico, across some of the most beautiful countryside in the world.

In uniform!
In uniform!

While at Philmont, I knew that the high altitude hiking would toughen up both my legs and my lung capacity, but it would not be enough just to hike up and down hills all day.  Hiking does not crank my heart rate up to mad scientist levels required to race for 8 to 9 hours.  I needed more than a casual 12-mile stroll on a mountain trail wearing a backpack to further my preparation for the World Championship in Zofingen, Switzerland.

So, I chose to bring my running shoes, shorts and a T-shirt.  I played the TeamUSA card with Philmont management, and I got permission from the camp management to go off running on the property.  I ran perhaps 5 of 6 times during the two weeks at Philmont, but I will only discuss three of those times.  Each one could be a blog post, but time for blogging is at a premium these days.

Never Knew What You Did to Me

Back in 1983, I was 17 and worked in the kitchen, serving food and cleaning up after others.  The job was not interesting, but the people and their life stories were.  One guy from Kansas suggested that we all go running into “town” after work for some pizza/ice cream/whatever.  I was not a runner at the time, but most of us took him up on the offer.  A farm boy from Pennsylvania, a girl from Nebraska, a guy from Brownsville, TX, and others, all put our shoes on and headed out the Philmont gates towards town.  Town, as we called Cimarron, was 4 miles away, and the path to get there was rolling hills on paved roads, and the terrain was very dry.  Even the grasshoppers were thirsty!  Mr. Kansas took off ahead of everyone else, as we later discovered he ran Cross Country in High School.  I pushed as hard as I could, going perhaps a mile at a time before I would need to stop to walk and take a break.  After a minute of walking and positive self-talk, I would push myself to start running again.  The combination of altitude, lack of conditioning and dry conditions pushed me to walking nearly half of the experience.  When we reached town, Mr. Kansas had already finished his ice cream, and he was ready to hitch hike back to Philmont.  I don’t have good memories of that day, as I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, and others could.  In fact, it sucked to remember that day.

Upon arrival at Philmont this summer, the first thing I did with my free time was to recreate that moment and beat my past’s failure.  Once our check-in at base camp was complete and we had some free time, I put on my running shoes and headed into town.  In 30 minutes, I saw the sign, “Welcome to Cimarron,” and I teared up.  The last time I saw this sign, on foot, I was failing.  Now, this same person, with a much older and better-conditioned body, was succeeding. I went up to the sign, touched it and wiped a tear from my face and said, under my breath, “I had no idea that you were doing this to me.”  I turned around and ran back, telling no one at camp of that event from my past.  I did marvel at the staff members who gave me kudos upon hearing that an adult advisor had ran to town and back while waiting for opening campfire to start.  Those 8 miles weren’t difficult to complete, but the effect of putting that moment of failure behind me made the whole trip out there, worth it.

Wish Mr. Kansas was here to savor this moment with me.  Perhaps we could run it again…

Mt Baldy and the boys.

I took a bit of liberty with the special permission given to me by asking if there were any scouts in the troop who might want to get up and leave early with me to run/walk to the summit of Mt Baldy.  Being the highest point on the ranch at 12K+ feet at the peak, summiting Baldy is one of the top attractions at Philmont.  Many people who attempt it don’t reach the summit early enough and are forced to turn around to avoid bad weather that comes most afternoons.

The troop, with Mt Baldy in the background
The troop, with Mt Baldy in the background

Three boys took me up on my offer to cruise with me to the top, but one turned around within 5 minutes.  The remaining two boys (my son Alex and Blake, another scout from our area) took to a pattern of running and walking all the way to the bottom of the scree/scramble that takes place over the last 400 vertical feet of climbing.  We covered over 6 miles and passed several groups on our way to the top.  We started in shorts and T-shirts but we all had put on an extra layer or two by the time we reached the summit.

Alex, on the summit of Mt Baldy
Alex, on the summit of Mt Baldy

We hit the summit a little after 8 am and were back down to Copper Park, the camping area nearest to the base of Baldy by 9:30, safe and sound.  As we sat near the water source that fed the camp, we rested after 10 miles of running and walking at greater than 10K feet.  As we sat on the ground, rejoicing in our success and resting our weary bodies, the remainder of our troop came up the trail, just now starting their ascent.  We told them that from our current location, our Garmin watch indicated that they were 3.74 miles from the summit and that they needed to pick up their pace a lot if they wanted to summit and get back down before afternoon weather moved in.  Alas, the other adults confided in me that one of the boys did not have the conditioning to keep going and we had to pull him from the trail and ask him to come back with the three of us.  Seeing the disappointment in the eyes of that boy as heard that he needed to go back and try again another day broke my heart, as he was older than either of the other two kids who reached the summit.  He walked in silence as the other two boys chatted for the next hour back to camp.  About 4 hours later, our troop returned from the summit, with no stories of joy.  One of the adult leaders also failed to condition properly before the trip, and the whole troop turned around about a mile from the summit.  Big bummer.

Off to the races, with a Racer.

When we reached our final camp of the trip, I took a seat on the porch and immediately got told that Dallas Elmore, a staff member at that camp, was a professional runner.  That perked my attention, and I sought the guy out.  Within a minute, I saw him run out of the camp, in 1980s running shorts and a T-shirt, heading up the trail.  When he returned an hour later, we struck up a conversation about running and agreed to hit the trails together the next day.

Dallas Elmore and me
Dallas Elmore and me

Dallas Elmore is not a pro, but the staff there idolized him as if he was!  Turns out he is a Cross Country runner at the University of Tulsa, and he recently migrated from running shorter distances to running 8k and 10k.  He was getting in 60-70 miles a week running at Philmont, and I was jealous. His “day job” at Philmont was that of the camp cook, and after each meal, he could make time to hit the trails to strengthen his aerobic systems and keep his legs strong.  The following am, we agreed to go for a run, together, after breakfast.

The air was so nice and cool when we started….wish NC air was like Philmont air in August!  We passed lots of kids carrying full packs, huffing it up and down the trails that we were running.  For the first two miles, we talked and went up and over everything in our way.  We saw deer and jumped over and around boulders and roots.  I was amazed at the beauty in front of us as we descended into Hidden Valley.  The views of the sunlight first touching the valley was like a Van Gogh painting.  However, what I thought was a good workout turned out to be a warm up for Dallas.  Somewhere in the middle of Hidden Valley, he decided that he was ready to really run.  For the next 25 or so minutes, I would only see him for a few seconds at a time.  Dallas would race ahead, turn around and come back for me, only to race ahead again.  After nearly 50 minutes of running, we made it back to the camp cabin. I was more than quick to call that a great workout.  Dallas, on the other hand, took off to finish his workout, which included another 20 to 30 minutes of running.

Oh, the joys of youth.  Sure, he was young enough to be my son, but I thought that my time on the trails, running by myself and with my boys would have prepped me enough to stay with him the whole time.

Not.

When a return visit to a familiar place creates new experiences like this, that familiar place becomes even more special.  As a Philmont Ranger, we would always gather before meals and sing a song that starts with the words, “I wanna go back to Philmont!”

I am so glad that I went back to Philmont.  Thanks go out to Dallas, Philmont administration, Alex, Blake and Mr. Kansas for making my workouts at Philmont most memorable.

Once we arrived back home, I started in on the hardest part of my race preparation, as I prepare to peak for Worlds.  Philmont did good things for me.  I dropped 6 lbs and now weigh 162 lbs.  This is the lightest I have been since I got married 21 years ago.  Since returning home, I am running long distances faster than I ever have, as well.  Alas, my cycling is NOT as good as when I left…the subject of another post, another time.