Sunday, December 26, 2010

Merry Christmas to Me: A Cyclist's Justification of (Another) New Bike

The last month has been stressful; the end of the semester always is.  For some reason, this year was even worse.  In fact, they have been getting progressively worse.  I think there are multiple factors at play here: 1) as you gain experience, your colleagues become more willing to give you more responsibilities, 2) as you gain experience, you get invited to participate in more things or write more papers, 3) in my case, as you gain more experience, you continue to procrastinate.  I'm not sure which of these factors is the primary culprit, but I do know the latter only compounds the effects of the first two.

The end of the semester always guarantees at least two extra things: writing and grading final exams (which sucks), and putting together final grades for the semester (which sucks2). Through my vast experience (this is my 4th semester), I have developed a strategy to post grades as late as possible to avoid the large number of emails that I get from students asking if there is any way that I can bump their grade up a level (i.e. A- up to an A).  Unfortunately, the rapid adoption of smart phones amongst the general population has made this strategy obsolete.  Students receive information, and send responses, in real time.

This year I received a very entertaining request a mere 3 minutes after posting grades:

"I just figured it was worth asking. Is there anything I could do extra to bump my grade from a C- to a B+. I supposedly graduated this semester, and didn't do too hot in any of my classes and and worried about my semester gpa. And this extra bump could be a huge difference maker."

First, I almost respect the magnitude of the request.  Most students only have the balls to ask for a bump of a single level.  This student was hoping I could somehow increase his grade 5 levels! Second, note that this student was not questioning my calculation of the grade, just that they wanted what they earned increased (considerably). Finally, the emails where the student references their graduation being contingent on the grade they get in my class always get me (by the way, I am not quite sure what supposedly graduating means).  If a student is in the position where a poor grade may prevent them from graduating, it is not that class that got the ball rolling.  There have been other courses where grades were poor; the professors in those courses just had the luxury of assigning those grades earlier in the students' career.

But I digress.

In addition to grades and the extension tour meetings this year, I also agreed to write a paper with a colleague for a conference coming up in February.  And I also had a grant proposal due on December 22nd.  We procrastinated on the paper, as is our wont, but finally got it done just 2 days past the "deadline" (in academia you learn quickly which deadlines are hard and need to be respected, and which deadlines are soft and can be disregarded either temporarily or indefinitely).  The grant proposal was a struggle, as is always the case with federal grants.  The first step in the filtering mechanism is the arduous process of putting the proposal together and actually gettting the online system to accept it.  Even worse, if you actually get the award (a less than 20% chance in most cases), you have to follow their ridiculous reporting and documentation protocols.  But I need to chase dollars to get promoted like everyone else.  So I do these things, and stress over them.  Kind of like buying Christmas presents.

Speaking of that, I hate Christmas shopping.  I like people most of the time, but for some reason the Christmas season brings out the worst in me and, in my opinion, the worst in every other person in the store when I am there.  People are slow and always in my way.  It becomes painfully obvious why the staff at the stores I go to are paid a low, hourly wage.  Parking is impossible. Lines are long.  Basically everything that the Christmas season is supposed to be about. 

What's that you say?  Something about a baby born in a barn to a virgin mother somewhere in the Middle East surrounded by a bunch of dirty camel herders and barn animals to the light of a star? I faintly remember something about that from my childhood, but that story sounds ridiculous!

The point of all this is that, from Dec. 13th through the 22nd, I felt as though I was losing hair at even faster rate than usual.  But I got through it.  As long as you consider a 30 year old having his mother buy about half of his Christmas presents for him as getting through something.

So I decided to buy myself a Christmas present.  Something that noone else would be able to get right, or willing to spend the appropriate amount of money on.  Yes, you guessed it, I bought another bike. 

But Nick, you already bought a mountain bike this year.  And you bought a carbon road bike last year.  And an aluminum road bike the year before that.  How could you possibly need another bike? 

Don't worry, we'll get to all that.  First, let me introduce you to my new friend.  I literally "built" this bike from the bottom up.  OK, the guys at the bike shop technically built it, but I picked out all of the individual pieces.  I started with a Surly frame - the steel Cross-Check to be exact.

For the comonents, I went with the SRAM Apex gruppo (with a small upgrade to SRAM Rival shifters because they are carbon instead of aluminum and look much, much cooler).

I won't bore you with the rest of the gory details, but it also includes a Ritchey stem and handlebars, a SRAM seatpost, Cane Creek headset, Avid Shorty 6 cantileveler brakes,and Bontrager Race wheels that I was able to get on closeout.  The bike is all black (with a little white) and looks pretty badass if I do say so myself.

So why in the world did I do this?  What function could this bike possibly serve that my other bikes do not?  That is a good question, and begs an articulate and well thought-out answer.  So let's start from the beginning.

The first road bike I bought was my aluminum Trek 2.1 in 2008.  I bought it as a Valentine's Day gift for myself as I was newly single after almost 5 years and wanted a road bike for RAGBRAI.  This may have been the best or worst decision I have ever made, but I am leaning towards the best.  It has led to a number of things, one of them being the guys at the bike shop knowing me by name and smiling everytime I walk in the door.  This purchase ended up being an epiphany.  I love bikes and love riding them even more.  I am a Trek and Lance Armstrong junkie.  I've ridden this bike more than 6,000 miles since then.  It is now my "trianing" road bike.  A bit heavier than my Madone (which I will get to in a minute), and I am more willing to ride it on rougher, dirtier roads.

The following year I bought my Madone, which may be one of my most prized posessions.  It is basically a Tour de France ready bike, with the carbon frame and components that the pros use.  Is that necessary for someone like me? No.  Does it turn heads (for those who know what to look for)? Yes.  Is it fun to ride? Most certainly yes.  Is it faster than my aluminum road bike? Yes, actually, it is much faster.  So this is my racing bike (where my bike races, until now, have consisted of triathlons).

Early this fall I bought the Gary Fisher Cobia.  A 29er hardtail mountain bike.  This bike wasn't cheap, but it was by no means a ridiculous purchase.  I almost wish I had spent more (in fact, of all of the dollars I have spent on bikes the past 3 years I regret exactly zero of them). It is "entry-level", but it is a very good level to enter at.  I didn't know if I would really like trail riding, but we have a few places within an hour of where I live to ride so I thought I would give it a shot.  It is a totally different workout, and has really helped my legs on the road bikes.  After many Sundays on the trails at Kickapoo, and a painful rib injury, I am hooked and planning trips to Colorado and Utah for some real riding.

Which brings us up to the latest purchase.  This bike is actually pretty versatile.  I built it to be a commuter, but also so I could start "racing" cyclocross. I can mount fenders to it, or a rear rack.  I can put racing slicks or knobby tires on it.  The tire clearance is pretty wide so I can run skinny or fatter tires.  It's a steel frame so I don't have to worry about every little scratch threatening the integrity of the entire frame like with carbon (and from what I am told about cyclocross, those scratches are coming).

So, in summary, each of my bikes have a very specific purpose:
  1. A road trainer
  2. A road racer
  3. A trail rider
  4. A commuter/cyclocross bike
In short, each one of these bikes is completely justified.  It would be tough to do the same for yet another bike.  Unless of course I decide to buy a Time Trial bike, or a singlespeed, or a fixie.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Week

I'm still crunched for time with a Wednesday deadline for semester grades and a large grant proposal (sent off to our grants and contracts office today for internal review - yay!), but wanted to get some thoughts/events from last week down on virtual paper before I started forgetting about them.

The start of our annual weeklong extension meeting tour.  We kicked off in Champaign with our first meeting.  I was there to help setup at 7 am and presented at 11.  We decided to leave for Northern Illinois at 4 pm, so I decided to bring my car home and have the group pick me up there.  Bad decision.  On the way home, as I was driving in the left lane on a west-bound one-way street, the drive next to me in the right lane decided to abrubtly make a left turn.  Into my passenger side door.  No injuries (I know you were worried), but it did result in a pissed off me and a pissed off wife of the driver of the other car.  She showed up with his insurance information, yelled at him, and gave me some very dirty looks.  The police "investigation" found him to be at fault, the officer wrote him a few citations and sent me on my less-than-merry way. 

So we got on the road about 2 hours later than anticipated.

Day 2 of the meetings which means that my presentation was more polished and I wasn't quite sick of it yet.  Good deal for the day 2 attendees.  First real extension meal of the trip - meat, potatoes, gravy, vegetables in a pool of glorious butter. The University vehicle we took did not start in the morning.  We called AAA assuming it was the battery.  They determined it was a bad starter.  So we stayed a few extra hours after the meeting waiting for that to be replaced, and ended up getting on the road to Western IL a few hours later than expected.  Dinner at a steakhouse called "The Packinghouse."  Not very many diet- or heart-friendly items on that menu.  60 minutes on the hotel treadmill following dinner to try and combat the damage done during the day.

The final for my undergraduate course was Tuesday evening.  Luckily the course TA was able to proctor it.  Beyond a few student emails pleading their cases for passing grades in the course, the exam seemed to go fine.

Day 3 of the meetings, 3rd time giving my presentation and starting to get sick of it.  More food, followed by more driving back to Champaign for the evening.  Wednesday was fairly uneventful, which was welcome after the previous two days.

Bad weather and day 4 of the meetings in Central IL.  Despite the weather we had probably the biggest crowd of the week.  Literally standing room only, followed by yet another lunch fit for someone who had been doing manual labor all morning (but not fit for someone who had spent the morning working on his laptop, drinking coffee, and presenting for 30 minutes). We got back to Champaign fairly early and I was able to make the training session at the bike shop.  We did the CTS Climbing II video (which happens to be on my Amazon wish list).  It made me want to puke, but was a lot of fun and also made me sweat off what I am assuming was close to 5 lbs.  I literally left a puddle on the showroom floor.

The 5th and final meeting in our series was held in Southern IL.  The rest of the group headed out Thursday evening, but I chose to drive my (damaged) car down that morning and return early so I could make it back for the final exam for my graduate course in the afternoon.  My presentation this day went surprisingly well.  It was fresh enough (I changed some numbers for Southern IL, which is much different than the rest of the state) and I was practiced enough by then to do a really good job (if I do say so myself).  I made it back with an hour to spare for the exam, gave the final, and then proceeded to head out with friends for a much needed dinner with a heavy focus on the adult beverages.

Christmas shopping the weekend before Christmas is a bad idea.  What you think will take 3 hours total will take closer to 5 and you won't even take care of everything on your list.  I ended up just quitting out of frustration.  The housekeeper showed up on Saturday, which was good as I was having a Christmas party on Sunday with coworkers and friends (some were both).  She found it odd when I came home from shopping and changed into bike gear (not in front of her).  Apparently she is not used to seeing people in thermal tights going out for a bike ride in 20 degree weather, but I needed it.  Then I spent my Saturday evening grading and finishing up some things on a grant proposal.

I had planned to do my first cyclocross race today in Bloomington, IL but decided to just go for a ride in town and get some much needed work done prior to the party.  The party included a lot of food and a white elephant gift exchange.  A few people forgot to bring gifts, which I anticipated, so I wrapped up a few extras:
  1. Two slightly used bike tires (more than 3,000 miles on them and they were paper thin).  The person who chose this gift was sure it was a hula hoop.  They were disappointed.
  2. A cycling grab bag complete with two platform pedals off an old mountain bike, two tubes with holes (they could be patched), a package of ShotBlocks, a reflector off one of my bikes (have to take those off to save the much needed weight, who cares about safety?), and some used cycling gloves that were all kinds of grossness from a full season of sweaty riding.
  3. A paperback copy of an old Rush Limbaugh book.
Overall it was a very fun and entertaining evening.

The Aftermath
So the week included a lot of travel, a lot of food, and not a whole lot of exercise (although I did make the time I had count).  Much to my surprise, the weekend ended with some more actual weight loss.  As of Sunday afternoon (before the party), I was actually down 10.2 lbs since the start of December.  This should mean that I successfully qualified for Fatty's 10 lbs by Christmas Challenge.  But there was a lot of good food at my house on Sunday night. I was too scared to step on the scale today.  So tonight I am going to spend some time on the treadmill while watching the start of the now infamous Bears-Vikings game being played at TCF field in the cold and snow.  I will weigh in tomorrow and see how much damage was done on Sunday and what I need to do before Thursday to say I officially hit the 10 lb. goal.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Cupcakes

Classes wrapped up here on campus this Wednesday, "Reading Day" was yesterday (although I don't think most of the students do much reading), and finals begin today.  It's been a long semester - as they always are - and you never know exactly how things went from the students' perspectives.  The semesters where I thought I have done the best resulted in some of my lower evaluation scores and vice versa.  But this semester I am hopeful for, nay expecting good evaluations.  At least from my undergrads.  Lemme esplain.

After our final lecture on Wednesday, I had two things happen to me that have never happened before.

1. A student brought me cupcakes.
2. Another student asked to take a picture with me.

The cupcakes don't really jive with my current attempt to become skinny and faster, but I ate one anyway and gave the rest to some of our great support staff.  So not only did this student give me cupcakes, she also scored me some brownie points with the people who can make your life very easy, or very hard.

The picture was with an international student who told me I was the best professor she had during her semester here in the U.S. There was no alcohol in the picture, and I am confident it will not end up on facebook.

Neither student was in any position to need to suck up to me; both are getting excellent grades already.  So I feel like both were being genuine.

A few other things have happened this week that make me think the semester went well.  I had students voluntarily send me things like funny finance/econ youtube clips for the course blog (yes, there are videos which are related to finance/econ while also being funny).  I had a student stop by my office to tell me how much he liked the class and offer to help TA it next fall - for FREE (his offer was likely not totally altruistic, I'm sure a letter of recommendation would be part of the deal).

I'm sure I will get my evaluations back in January only to find out that my course and I are not as popular as I might like to think, but until then I am going to feel good about my teaching this semester.

Monday, December 6, 2010

You Can Call Me IronNick

It snowed here on Thursday night.  Supposedly we got 10 inches, but I would  call it more like 6.  And it has been cold.  This all translated into zero outdoor biking or running this weekend.  I did an interval video on Saturday, and another 60 minutes on the trainer yesterday, but it isn't the same.  It was cold out, there was snow on the ground, and all I wanted to do was lay on the couch and have someone feed me mashed potatoes.

So I decided to sign up for a half-ironman triathlon in August.  1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, and a 13.1 mile run for a total of 70.3 self-powered miles. I don't really have a hard time goal, I just want to finish without needing medical attention.  That's not completely true. I would like to finish in under 6 hours. The swim and the bike I am not worried about.  I swim that distance twice each week now, and the bike is a reasonable distance.  It is that pesky running part that gets me.  My attempt at a half marathon this past summer was pathetic.  Anyway, this should get me off the couch this winter.  I don't like to be humiliated, especially in public while wearing lycra.

Upon completion of this race I may legally change my name to IronNick. I will also answer to Dr. IronNick.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fatty's 10 lbs by Christmas Challenge

On Monday, the author of the fatcyclist blog threw down a challenge to his readers: Lose 10 lbs by Christmas.  I have accepted this challenge.

Elden, or Fatty, is offering up some fantastic, cycling related prizes for those participants who are successful. This schwag ranges from jerseys and water bottles to various items signed by pro racers.  There are just two problems.

1. Close to 1,000 people signed up for this contest.  His readership is much larger than mine.
2. I have a week of extension meetings coming up the week of December 13th.

The first issue is not really an issue at all.  Losing the 10 lbs would be prize enough.  Plus, he is giving away so much stuff that the odds of winning are probably still pretty good.

The second issue is what I am concerned about.  Extension meetings involve a lot of farmers and a lunch following the presentations and Q&A session.  These lunches are not what you would call light.  There will be a lot of meat and potatoes. And gravy. And dessert.  There may be some vegetables, but they will almost certainly be covered in butter.

One of the guys who has "toured" with us in the past for these meetings is a vegetarian.  I jokingly said one day that he would probably be limited to dinner rolls at lunch because even the vegetables would somehow incorporate meat.  Everyone thought this was funny. Until they brought out the green beans, which were covered in butter. And crumbled bacon.

The other problem is that we will be on the road for short two-day stints at the beginning and end of this week.  Hotel fitness centers vary widely and I don't get very excited about running outside when it is cold and snowing.

As of this morning I was already down 3 lbs since Monday thanks to some brutal sessions on the treadmill and the trainer already this week. Another session of intervals on the trainer will happen tonight. On a related note, I tried on the only size L jersey I own this morning and decided I would no longer be embarrassed to wear it in public. And let me point out that cycling jerseys, and apparel in general, are the one type of clothing in this great country of ours which has not resorted to vanity sizing. So I've got that going for me, which is nice.

Hopefully I can lose 10 lbs or more before the meetings, and then be able to make up any travel-related setbacks the week right before Christmas. Mom giving me a package of buttery party mix is not helping either...

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

How to Lose 2 lbs. During Thanksgiving Week, Part II

Click here for Part I


Monday should begin with coffee and an actual, productive work meeting in the morning. Following this meeting, you should participate in an information webinar and Q&A session for a grant proposal you need to put together in the next few weeks.  This will be marginally informative, and take up 2 hours of your day.
Then more socializing work with old grad school friends in the late afternoon.  The day ends with a 5 pm work meeting regarding the grant proposal over a beer.  This quickly turns into a 3 beer meeting which expands on topics beyond the grant proposal. At this point, your planned departure for this evening is changed to tomorrow morning. This is completely due to the weather, and has nothing to do with the beers. 

Dinner at the bbq restaurant you had lunch at a few days ago. Another huge meal is ordered, but you are able to talk yourself out of ice cream.  No exercise today, overtraining can lead to injury after all.


Get up at 6:30, pack up, and drive 2 hours to sisters house.  Upon arrival, you get to see your 6 month old niece who has grown a lot since Labor Day weekend. After a (cold) 4 mile run, make your way over to your parents' hotel pool where the niece gets her first taste of swimming. She loves it. 

On Tuesday evening, you eat your body weight in sushi, vegatables, and rice at a Japanese restaurant for dinner. You will feel extremely handsome and young-looking after being carded by the waitress when you place a sake order.


On Wednesday morning you should have an oil change scheduled at 9 am.  After sleeping in until 9:01 am (literally) and getting the oil change done, spend the rest of the day trying to get some grading and other work done.  Later in the afternoon, head over to the hotel and run 3 miles on the treadmill. Then, attempt to spend 30 minutes on their crappy elliptical.  After 15 minutes, realize just how crappy it is and go back on the treadmill for 2 more miles to punish yourself.

Thursday (Thanksgiving)

After waking up at 8 and stalling for a couple of hours, you take the road bike out for a 10 mile ride to justify the second helping of mashed potatoes and gravy you plan to have later.  The temp is in the teens, with a wind chill in single digits. 10 miles is more than enough.  When you get back, walk around gingerly for about 15 minutes while trying to get feeling back in your feet.  After showering, prepare for the meal. 

Here was my, apparently successful, two-pronged strategy: 1) load up on veggies so that you are almost full before the real food is even served, and 2) resist the urge to have seconds after inhaling the first plate of food for at least 10 minutes. This allows time for the uncomfortable full feeling to set in before you do any more damage.  Mission accomplished on both counts.  No pie after dinner. Back to the hotel for 3 miles on the treadmill and to check some football scores.  Return to sisters' house and eat some pie.  And chocolate-cashew clusters.


Plan to be on the road by 7 am.  Wake up at 7 am and pack, and be ready to actually hit the road by 7:30.  At this point you start to realize you won't see the niece again until Christmas. Also, she will be in a good mood, smiling and happy to sit on your lap and play with some of her toys. So you stay until almost 8:30. 

After stopping to ride some trails for a few hours, you finally make it home around 4 pm.  Shockingly, your post-Thanksgiving weigh-in is a few lbs. lighter than when you left.

See, wasn't that easy?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

How to Lose 2 lbs. During Thanksgiving Week, Part I

Here is a day-by-day guide to how you can actually lose some weight during Thanksgiving week.  To begin, you need to plan to spend a full week away from home.  The first half of this week should be spent where you went to college.  The justification for this visit is to get some work done with former advisors from graduate school.  The real reason is to visit friends from college, and tailgate for a football game.  The second half of the week should be spent with family, celebrating the holiday.


Plan to get up early to pack and be ready to hit the road at 8 am. Actually get on the road at 9 am.  Oh yeah, you should bring your mountain bike and gear, because halfway through the drive you are going to stop and ride it on some trails for about 3 hours with someone else who is meeting you. This person should forget their helmet, wear long underwear under their bike shorts (this only looks slightly more ridiculous than tights under bibs), and take a few entertaining spills because they just started clipping in. 

After the ride, quickly change clothes in the parking lot so as not to get mud all over your car seats.  Then finish up the second half of the drive, arriving at some friends' apartment in the early evening.  Proceed to the local brewery  and order an appetizer, entree, and a number of beers. Consume them, and then take the bus back to the apartment to sleep on their couch.


Get up at the crack of 9 am for a "work day" that will involve walking around the building you used to have an office in on campus to bump into old friends. Make some appointments to get some actual work done with people on Monday.  Go to lunch with a friend at a bbq restaurant and order a lot of food followed by one of their signature ice cream sundaes.  It is, after all, a special occassion.

Then head back to the apartment and go for a 4 mile run around campus.  Look jealously at the students while they look back at you wondering who the weird old guy is staring at them in running tights. After the run, head back to the apartment to shower up for dinner at your advisor's house (Note: it helps if you drop hints that you will be in town a few weeks beforehand so that this dinner party can be planned). 

Arrive at dinner fashionably late and be handed a glass filled with beer before you even have a chance to take your coat off. Eat some salad, followed by two large bowls of the cassoulet that they serve (which was made with twice as much bacon as the recipe calls for). Also, you should drink at least a bottle of wine.  Probably closer to two.  Then get a ride home with your friends.  The wife will volunteer to drive, which is convenient. Before leaving, make plans to join one of the assistant professors in your old department for some mountain bike riding, tentatively at 8 am the next morning.


Wake up at 7:30 am with a fairly wicked wine hangover.  Go back to sleep until 8:30, then wake up and call the person you were supposed to pick up at 8 and tell them you are going to be an hour late.  Don't worry, they won't mind because they will also have a wine hangover and probably would have preferred you just forgot about the bike ride altogether.

On way to pick up the friend, stop at a gas station to buy some Vitamin Water and a protein bar.  After picking up the friend, you should hit the trails for a few hours.  You will quickly realize just a few minutes into the ride that mountain biking requires more balance than someone who drank a lot of wine the night before may have.  After suffering through the first 20 minutes the effects of the wine will be gone and you will really start enjoying yourself.  Until your feet get wet and proceed to remind you (painfully) that it is below freezing and windy.

After the ride the two of you should go out to eat, preferably somewhere that serves very good and large sandwiches.  Again, it is a special occassion.  After inhaling the sandwich, drop the friend off and head back to the apartment to get ready for some tailgating. Don't forget to make a stop at the grocery store for some beer, chips, beef jerkey, and cookies (your friends are bringing burgers and brats).

Spend the remainder of the afternoon tailgating with old friends.  And by tailgating, I mean drinking beer and eating food while talking about the good old days when you were all younger, thinner, and better looking (yet, still had about the same luck with the ladies).  Old people get cold easy, so after much debate you should decide to watch the game at a local bar or restaurant rather than in the actual stadium.

In addition to watching the game, you and your friends should vow to "tear it up" in your old stomping grounds.  Unfortunately, you are old and most of the students have gone home for Thanksgiving break.  After bouncing around to a couple of the old place you used to hang out (which just don't feel the same anymore - the smell of stale beer and urine is not as sweet when you are 30 years old), you decide on a bar that has exactly one of the person in it.  Luckily, this person is the bartender and an attractive female who is bored and willing to give you deep discounts (in some cases full discounts) on drinks and shots.  You will once again be reminded how old and pathetic you are when everyone starts yawning and talking about hitting the road to get home by 11 pm.  Retire to your friends' apartment for night 3 on the couch.


On Sunday you have a late morning/early afternoon bike ride planned with a bunch of people in your old department.  After waking up to light rain and 35 degrees, the bunch quickly dwindles to 3 brave souls.  Ride 25 miles on one of central Iowa's new bike paths between Slater and Woodward.  On the trail, which is a converted rail line, you will cross a magnificent bridge across the Des Moines river which must have cost millions.  Thank you stimulus money.  By the end of the ride you actually weight 5 lbs more than when you left, most of which will be in your feet as your socks will be very wet.  And heavy.  And cold.  Luckily the wind is with you on they way back.

After the ride you join the old advisor who hosted you for dinner on Friday night and joined you for the ride today for a late lunch at his house.  A bowl of leftover cassoulet, 1/3 of a loaf of fresh whole-grain bread, and two glasses of scotch later you return to the apartment, change, and head out to your friends' acreage that they are currently fixing up.

Spend some time spreading mulch around the yard with their 4 year old (only later finding out that said 4 year old has been told repeatedly not to do this, and you just reinforced something that they had been trying to get him to stop doing).  Finish the day off at their apartment with some pork parmesan, broiled asparagus, and garlic bread.  And more wine. And a port nightcap.  Night 4 on the couch.

Part II tomorrow, or the next day, or whenever I get around to writing it.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Intervals

Today I did my first interval workout.  And my second. Unfortunately, that probably will not be my last.

What is interval training you might ask?  Basically, you do varying levels of resistance/speed for specifed intervals of either time or distance.  You go all out, then you recover.  Rinse and repeat. In short, intervals suck.  Running or biking at a constant speed allows you to get into a groove.  If I have a relative athletic strength it is endurance - finding a groove and staying in it for an extended period.  The point of intervals is to not let you do this.

A friend convinced me that incorporating some interval training into our running workouts might help to break the monotony during the week and improve our speed.  This friend is probably right.  The same person also convinced me that starting this program today at 6:30 am would be a good idea.  At about 6:45 I was not in agreement.  We ran two consecutive ladder workouts - sprint intervals that got consistently longer in distance with short recovery periods in between, the back down the "ladder" (and back up and down). 

The local bike shop started their free indoor group rides for the winter tonight.  Every Tuesday and Thursday you can show up at closing time with your bike and trainer, and ride indoors to a training video with a group of people.  I convinced myself that this was a good idea.  Daylight savings and colder temperatures make it harder and more inconvenient to ride to work, so I thought the group effect would provide the motivation necessary to still get miles in over the winter.

Tonight we did a climb interval video led by Chris Carmichael. We started with some short all out sprint intervals.  You know, to really get the lactic acid pumping so the rest of the workout hurt more.  Then we shifted to some 5 and 10 minute climbing intervals which consisted of getting into your highest (most resistance) gear and pedaling at a low, steady cadence.  In between these climbing sections we would ride recovery intervals at high cadence.  I have to admit, while it did suck, the intervals made the hour go by a lot faster.  Staying in the same gear at the same cadence for 60 minutes makes for a long, boring workout.  It was kind of cool to have a series of goals of reaching the end of the short intervals.

Chris (I feel like we are now on a first name basis) kept telling us how this was Lance Armstrong's favorite workout.  I think my favorite workout begins at the top of a very long hill and ends at the bottom. With lots of food and cold beer.

Honestly, I did enjoy both workouts.  A change of pace is always good, and sometimes you need to changes things up and shock your body to prevent plateauing.  So while it may have seemed like I was complaining in this post, I really enjoyed the challenge and I am sure I keep these workouts up until I catch Lance in the segments of the video where they cut to old clips of the Tour de France.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words, or at Least a Picture

Spent the morning out at Kickapoo today.  A total of 3.5 hours and 30 or so miles of riding.  Weather was awesome.

"Lake" overlook towards the end of the trail

I am very handsome in a bike helmet
Based on the quality of these pictures (taken with my phone), I should really consider getting myself a digital camera. Actually, a camera mounted to my helmet would be really cool.  Hey, isn't there a gift-giving holiday coming up?

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Awesome Week that was Pure Torture

Here is a formula:

Exam in Undergrad Class + Computer Lab Session in Grad Class + 5 Days of Sunny, 70 Degree Weather in November = Really Blows

A formal proof for this formula is available from the author upon request. For now, let me explain in laymen's terms.

I am a procrastinator.  I knew that I was giving an exam and holding a lab session this week; as the instructor I set the dates for both of these activities.  I am also fully aware that preparing an exam and a lab session takes considerably more time than preparing standard lectures (it's hard to BS an exam or lab session, you have to be prepared).

Furthermore, the 10 day forecast told me well ahead of time that the weather this week was going to be beautiful, with a 90% chance of awesomeness.  So I could have been prepared ahead of time (like finish the exam and lab activitities last week or over the weekend).

But I didn't.

So, instead of being able to get up early for some riding after a good night's rest, I chose to write the exam and prepare for the lab into the wee hours of the morning each night this week.  5:30 am comes a lot quicker when you go to bed at 2 or 3 am.  And riding your bike doesn't sound like nearly as much fun under those sleep deprivation conditions either.

So, to punish myself for squandering this rare opportunity so late in the year, I put more miles in on the treadmill this week than ever before.  Running sucks.  Trail running sucks a little bit less.  Running on the treadmill sucks2.

Of course the weekend forecast is for highs in the low 50s, lows in the low 30s, rain, and a 50% chance of shittiness.  I am riding at Kickapoo again on Sunday regardless.  You know, just to punish myself again.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

More Miles, Different Bike

Twas another beautiful day for November.  The temperature had reached 50 by about 10 am, and was supposed to get into the low 60s.  Winds were much stronger today, 20+mph gusts from the SW, so I decided to stay out of the wind and take the mountain bike to Kickapoo. 

The trail system at Kickapoo is about 10 miles total; folks who ride out there generally refer to how many "laps" they do.  I have always been a 1 lap guy, with maybe an optional swing back out along the road that borders the trail system to ride trail 7 (< 1 mile) again since it is easy to get to and one of my favorites.

Today was different.  I became a 2 lap guy today.  What with it being November, I am getting worried that riding days which fall on a weekend (since, you know, I have a job and all) may be numbered.  Plus, we finaly got some rain this week, and the trails were in great shape.

Despite being alone Since I had a full professional medical staff with me (just remembered my mother is one of the few who actually reads this), I decided to try and ride hard.  I am happy to report that there were no major crashes (guess I wasn't riding that hard).  I also discovered that, apparently, I get faster the longer I ride.  My first lap was about 1:10; my second lap was about 5 minutes faster.  Which means that if I rode 5 or 6 laps, my last one would almost be fast enough to actually win some races at Kickapoo.  After all, I am sure the time trend would have continued, even though I felt like puking after lap 2.

Paul Simon should probably get most of the credit for today's performance.  "Cecilia" and "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" are excellent biking songs.  It was fairly busy on the trail today, so hopefully not too many people had to listen to me sing these songs while breathing heavily and attempting to wipe the snot from my nose.  Jack Johnson's newest album was also on today's playlist.  It sounds like his other albums.

I actually lapped a fairly large group of people who probably should not have been out on the trail.  They didn't have the bikes for it, and they certainly didn't look comfortable on technical singletrack. In fact, both times I saw them they were stopped or walking their bikes along the trail.  I am guessing some friends told them how fun Kickapoo is, but failed to mention that many sections of the trail are fairly dangerous. 

Anyway, they decided to stop at the top of a steep climb which came out of a very steep descent.  Not a good place to stop when more people (me) are coming up behind you.  Luckily, I was able to avoid them while also using my momentum from the drop to get up the climb.  After all, my bike handling skills are world class...

I would have been somewhat upset, but then the woman leading their group noticed my jersey and yelled "RAGBRAI!!!!" as loud as she could as I rode by.  So we were all good.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

40 miles @ 40 degrees

It seemed like such a good idea this morning.  I had a fresh cup of coffee, was standing near a vent with heat coming out of it, looking out the window watching the sun rise*, and checking the forecast.  High of 49 degrees, 7 mph wind out of the west.  Perfect conditions for a bike ride. Right?

What I seem to keep forgetting is that, by this time of year, those highs that are reported are reached for about 15 minutes around 2 pm.  And that 7 mph wind, which would feel good at 60 degrees, has a wind chill effect in the 40s.

But I didn't feel like running today, and haven't had my bike out since Sunday (another stupid ride, into the wind 25 miles back home from the trail race).  So I put on the cold weather gear, pumped up the tires, and set off.  I headed into the wind planning on doing 20 miles into the wind, and then an easy 20 miles back with the wind.

It was cold, so I rode hard.  Then I started sweating, which is your bodies natural process for cooling itself off.  It works very well when you are riding into the wind on a 40 degree day.  Almost too well.

Regardless, I made it out and back and was happy I decided to ride.  Spending the whole week inside on the trainer because of my cold was boring as hell.  But this makes me wonder how realistic my winter riding plans might be.  I think I have softened considerably since living in MN.

The only thing that happened of note during the ride was an encounter with a motorist who thought I was taking up too much of the road and needed to move closer to the shoulder.  Their feelings on this issue were so strong that they felt the need to slow down and tell me this through the passenger window.  I attempted to explain that motorists are, by law, supposed to allow cyclists 3 feet of room on roads in IL.  I also explained that, as a taxpayer, I had just as much right to use the road as they did.  They were unreceptive.   And complained about being delayed by having to wait to pass me.  I then pointed out that I was going 20 mph in a 30 mph zone (the point being that many cars drive this slow and are much harder to pass) and, more importantly, how quickly they were progressing to their destination by slowing down to tell me to get off the road.  Then our conversation ended.

*Note: Since turning 30 I have found it hard to stay up much past 11 pm, and seem to naturally wake up at 6 am.  Sleeping in much past 7 am takes a lot of effort. If I had a social life this could be a problem.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Teaching Process (followup)

Two posts today - an embarrassment of riches for the 2 or 3 family members that actually read this.

A colleague sent me a link to this youtube video which nicely, and very sarcastically, addresses some of the negative aspects about teaching that I have already written about. Given that this is week 11 of the semester, this is very timely. Let's just say we all need Thanksgiving break right now.

The Movie

Going to a movie tonight.  A special, one-time only premier event for Race Across the Sky 2010, which documents this year's Leadville 100 mountain bike race in Leadville, CO.  I am excited.  How could I not be given the trailer?

Race Across The Sky 2010 from Citizen Pictures on Vimeo.

I entered a drawing for a free ticket at my local bike shop.  Being the risk averse individual I am, I also bought tickets ahead of time online since the drawing was not held until yesterday.  I was worried that the movie would sell out - what with the huge mountain bike race crowd in Central Illinois (heavy sarcasm).  Of course, I won one of the free tickets.  Luckily I was able to give it away to a fellow cycling enthusiast in my department.

There are a few possible outcomes that may follow my viewing of this documentary. 

First, I may decide to quit my job and pursue a professional bike racing career.  That probably won't happen. As long as I can fight the urge to resign through the weekend.  And since I am giving an exam next week, I doubt I will make any rash career decisions.

Second, and more likely, this film will get me really pumped up for mountain biking (even more so than I already happen to be right now).  I will then proceed to go out and buy some more gear and accessories. And start making tentative plans for mountain biking trips in the next few years, which will probably eventually "require" even more gear and accessories. 

I guess what I am trying to say is that, at least in my case, it was a very good idea for the local bike shop to give away some tickets to this event.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Trail Race

Victorious Racers

That is how long it took me to "run" 5.5 miles of trail on Sunday morning.  In a costume no less. I dressed as Forrest Gump - the bearded Forrest from his running across the country scenes.  It is tough to run when you are not a runner, and you are wearing an itchy wig and beard.  It was kind of a sweaty mess by the end of the race, but it won me a nice pair of thermal wool running socks.  You just can't underestimate a good pair of socks.

I was not the only one in costume.  Since the race happened to fall on Halloween this year, and prizes for costumes were involved, many of the participants came through with some creative dress.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Ostrich Cowboy
This guy ran in jeans and a western shirt, with a fake ostrich he had crafted himself.  Oh yeah, he also ran the entire race in bare feet.  His legs were actually the ostrich legs, and ostrich's don't wear shoes.  Nice work by him.

The Viking
Full viking dress, including battle axes in both hands. Wig with braided locks and helmet.  Well done.

Richard Simmons Twins
Complete with afro wigs.  I could just picture them sweatin' to the oldies.

One of the Simmons Twins

Chilean Miner
This guy was cheering the runners on near the end of the race (he may have just finished with the fast people) yelling: "If I could survive for more than 70 days underground, you can make it up this last hill!"  Inspirational, funny, and probably politically incorrect - I loved it.

This girl actually drove over her running clothes (she was not wearing them at the time) to create realistic looking treadmarks across her torso. Plus she was hot; unfortunately no photo is available.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Teaching Process

I think most faculty would agree with the statements that follow.  First, I love teaching and working with students.  It takes a lot of time, but the teaching part can be and, on a number of occassions each semester, is rewarding and fun. However, I hate assessment - writing and grading assignments and exams. This also takes a lot of time, and is neither fun or rewarding.

Sometimes writing an assignment or exam problem can be fun. Like when I am able to work in a pop culture reference.  For example, I've written capital budgeting problems where Vandelay industries is considering shifting to in-house latex manufacturing in addition to sales.  And I've written questions about Rob Blagojevich's income statement, and the expense budget at Sterling Cooper ad agency.  Unfortunately, students don't appreciate my humor while taking an exam (or any other time for that matter). But I digress.

I am still relatively young, and can understand/remember the student perspective.  While an undergrad, you think you are busy.  How do I study for that exam, finish the paper I've been procrastinating, attend my club meeting, prepare for that job interview......and play 6 games of Madden tonight?  Maybe the paper can wait, and I didn't really want that job anyway.

But I don't want to make students sound lazy or naive.  They are simply optimizing under the constraints they face within the system they have been placed.  Grades matter.  So do other things like extracurriculars.  And the social aspect of college is also important.  If you are going to go out drinking three nights a week, your early 20s is the time to do it and get it out of your system.  I did.  Now, I often find myself falling asleep by 10 pm on a weekend (and it is glorious). But I digress again.

Students want the best grade possible while having to put in the least amount of work.  That is not a slam, that is what they should do.  They are reacting to their incentive structure. While some don't mind studying, most can think of other things they would rather be doing (there is the odd, often in more ways than one, exception to this rule - the academic).

We (teachers/instructors/professors/faculty) would like to maximize the amount a student learns (which is positively correlated with effort for most people), and we could really give a crap about grades. 

Grades are a ranking system, pure and simple.  It is what the purchasers (employers) of our product (trained students/employees) demand.  They need a metric (or at least a finite group of metrics) to be able to tell who is good, and who is not so good - thus, the GPA.

The solution to this problem, like any constrained system in economics, involves tradeoffs. The students work a little harder than they would like, learning less than we would prefer, and earning a grade a little lower than they would prefer.  Simple. Elegant. Perfect.

If only I didn't have to write and grade those damn exams to reach this equilibrium....

The Applesauce

In my continuing attempt to eat healthier, I am always on the lookout for things to snack on. Carrots tend to be what most "experts" suggest in terms of calorie and appetite control.  They are not wrong.  After eating a handful of carrots, you don't really feel like eating anything else, especially if that anything else is another handful of carrots.

I seem to have "returned to my youth" (which sounds better than saying I have regressed) as of late, and become fairly obsessed with one specific healthy alternative.  Applesauce.  Specifically, 48 oz. plastic jugs of Musselman's (regular style, no cinnamon or chunks for me).

Double Trouble

Applesauce is fantastic.  It is a fruit, so is automatically healthy, and has fewer calories than other sweet alternatives (like candy).  According to the nutrition facts, a 1/2 cup serving is under 100 calories, almost all of which come from carbohydrates (sugar).  It even contributes a bit to my suggested daily intake of fiber.

This is all well and good, until you get to me.  Standard serving sizes do not (and need not) apply.  For example, I usually have some applesauce with my PB toast and coffee in the morning.  Then I also bring some in my lunch for the day (or maybe an actual apple if I have any - I also eat these at a bingeworthy pace). I'm guessing I dump at least a full cup of applesauce into my bowl/tupperware, double the serving size on the label. 

And then there are the multiple, nightly passes I make by the fridge.  Most of the time I open, talk myself out of eating something, but then reward myself with a massive gulp - straight from the jar - of applesauce.

Don't judge me.  I live alone, so drinking out of the container is cool in my household, even for non- or semi-liquids.

This rule applies to most things in my fridge, so visitors beware.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Locker Room

I have one question: At what age do men decide that it is totally cool to break what I think is standard locker room etiquette and just walk around naked while doing everything?

Being naked is required in the locker room for things like changing, showering, etc.  I can understand and accept that.

But is it necessary to be naked while standing in front of the mirror to shave, brush your teeth, comb your hair?  Why is it so hard to keep your towel on? (OK I lied, I obviously had more than question).  I live alone and don't even do this in the comfort of my own home.

This week I was even exposed to a middle-aged dude clipping his toenails, with his foot up on the sink, naked. Personally, I don't want to operate a toe or finger nail clipper (or any tool with sharp edges or a pinching function) with nothing between it and my man parts. Doing it spread eagle in front of a group of relative strangers takes it to a new level.  I have been trying to erase that image from my memory for three days.

Am I homophobic for having these thoughts?  I don't think so, and I hope not.  I just prefer not to accidentally catch a glimpse of:

Gross is right. No disrespect to old(er) dudes.

My final question: Is it the same in women's locker rooms?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Hills (or lack thereof)

In addition to being a downhill specialist, I also consider myself of decent cycling ability on the flats.  Which is good, because we have a lot of that in central IL. I can easily sustain ~20 mph for a few hours or ~16 mph pace all day (pending wind of course).

I am, however, not the best climber.  Now this particular skill could most definitely be improved if I were to say, lose some more weight.  Or I could always just spend a few thousand dollars and get myself a lighter bike (check).  But I think the fact that I live in central IL and fall to the back of the pack on climbs is not mere coincidence. 

Let me provide an example: Monticello Ride

If you follow that link, it will take you to my Garmin stats for a standard 40ish mile ride that I do on the weekends with a group of people from work.  Roughly 240 feet of climbing over 40 miles. If we are "climbing" for half the ride and "descending" for the rest, that works out to an average grade of around 0.2%. 

Not exactly the Tour de France.

I like the challenge of climbing hills, and would actively seek them if I could.  Unfortunately the best I can do, beyond driving at least a few hours, is plan my commute to include both freeway interchanges between my house and my office.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Race

I have never been exceedingly athletic.  I was a mediocre (at best) football player and don't completely embarrass myself on the golf course, but I have never been good enough to be a star in a team sport or excel in any kind of individual athletic competition.

Until this past Saturday. Kind of.

A few of the graduate students in my department and I kept a short-lived tradition going of having an informal "just for fun" sprint triathlon.  The race was opened up to all faculty, staff, and grad students.  We swam 1/4 mile in an indoor pool, biked a 13 mile course, and ran a 5k.  This was all followed by a bbq.  Participants could do the whole thing or just certain legs; whatever they wanted.  The goal was just to get people out to enjoy some (hopefully) good weather, good food, and interact a little outside of the work environment.

The weather totally cooperated (80 degrees and sunny in mid October - thank you global warming), but there ended up being only 4 of us who did the full race.  One other person did the bike and the run, and a handful of people just did the 5k. 

As you may have guessed, I actually won the race. As in I beat everyone (all three of them).  Handily, I might add.

Last year we did the same thing, and my time this year was a considerable improvement.  Better yet, my fellow competitors were all in their 20s.  Regardless of the number of people, it was a lot of fun to actually win a race.  It would have been even more fun if there were actual prizes/awards, but it was still a thrill.  Best of all, it is good to have some small victories like this to motivate yourself for more training.

While I plan to continue training and do some longer, formal events next year (I am planning to do at least one Olympic tri in June), I have no illusions about ever getting even a podium finish within my age group in a real race.  And I'm guessing those students I got lucky and beat this year will come at me with a vengeance for the departmental race next year.

But like I said, this thing was informal and not real competitive.  Still, had I finished in last place, I would have told people I finished fourth and simply omitted the total number of participants from my retelling of the tale.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Weight (and I think bikes get jealous)

I returned early this week after traveling for 6 days for work.  This means I did not get to ride any of my bikes for a full week.  I can now safely say that bikes get jealous, and they know how to get even.  They are like a vindictive girlfriend in that regard.

Revenge of the (Carbon) Road Bike
I put the Madone in the Park stand after the 70 mile ride I went on before leaving for the work trip.  I even admired it as I was doing this.  Upon returning from my trip, the rear tire was flat. Anyone ever gotten a flat when the bike was suspended midair on their bike stand?  Is this even possible?

Revenge of the Mountain Bike
The Cobia was much more vengeful. After a full week away, I decided to sneak out of work early and head over to Kickapoo the afternoon of the day after I got back. The trails were dry and, while I consider myself a downhill specialist on the road, I am a downhill wimp on the trail.  My disutility of getting injured is prohibitively high (sorry for the nerdy economics reference of my utility function). I locked my front brake up trying to come out of a tight switchback on a (relatively) steep descent.  This turned my beloved hardtail into a lever which catapulted me into a tree.  Luckily the left side of my rib cage took the impact.  Unluckily it now hurts for me to sit, stand, walk, run, and breathe (pedaling still seems to be OK though!).

The 2.1 Abides
My trusty 2.1, the road bike that started it all for me, seems to be comfortable with me ignoring it for a few days.  I took her out today for a 30 miler and had a couple of realizations on my solo ride.  First, this bike is still my favorite (sshhh, don't tell the others).  I am a sentimental sap when it comes to this bike (thousands of miles, 3 RAGBRAIs, many other organized rides, hundreds of training/recreation rides over the past 3 years), and I will probably never sell it. Second, riding with a backpack containing a laptop, change of clothes, and shoes sucks.  This has kind of become my commuting bike since getting the Madone last August, so I rarely take it out for an actual ride anymore. Finally, losing weight makes you faster.  I've dropped 20 lbs in the past few months, but it has been hard to notice an increase in speed/power on the bike I ride regularly for training rides (the Madone).  But I could really tell on the 2.1 because I haven't really ridden it, other than commuting, since losing some weight.

I believe I shall continue to diet and work out daily.

The Elk

Last weekend I spent a few days in Banff, AB (Canada) while attending a work conference.  Banff is a resort area nestled in the mountains about an hour west of Calgary.  Since I am "training" for a trail "race" at the end of October, I thought it prudent to get a longish run/jog in on the trails around my hotel. 

Shockingly, I actually woke up at the intended time of 6 am.  I had a hike planned for later in the morning, so wanted to make sure I got up early enough to get the run in, shower, and eat breakfast.  Unfortunately, the sun is not up at 6 am in Banff in early October.  As I watched Canadian Sportscenter, eh, I learned that the sun is barely up even at 7 am in Banff in early October.  Anyway, I made my way outside for my run in shorts and a baselayer.  I should have brought tights and a thermal.  Luckily, I am one of the hottest individuals on the planet (temperature wise).

As I got this big trail run underway I realized two things, the second of which led to the title of this post.

First, I think I might actually enjoy running, and maybe even begin to refer to myself as a runner, if I lived in the mountains and had access to interesting running/hiking trails right outside my backdoor. The 4 miles I had originally intended to run turned into 6.  I never run farther than I plan to. Trail running is easier on the shins/knees, and running through the forest with picturesque views of the mountains in every opening makes the whole running thing more tolerable than usual. Instead I live in a new subdivision in central IL, so I will continue to refer to myself (loosely) as a cyclist or, better yet, a fat cyclist (but not THE fat cyclist).

Second, elk are large, intimidating animals.  Especially bulls who are protecting their harem while they are out getting breakfast.  Most especially when you stumble within 30 meters (that is about 100 feet, but since I was in Canada my brain automatically switched to the metric system just like when you cell phone grabs the time from the network when you cross into a new time zone) of them after rounding a corner on a trail run while not paying attention.  Elk are also fast. Especially when they move toward you menacingly. See below for a dramatization of what I was facing. 

Now, I have been closer to an elk. In fact, I have been so close to a large bull as to actually touch it. Of course, this elk happened to not have a body attached to its neck, being rather dead and mounted on the wall in my grandparents' house and all.

This was different.

So I took a 10 minute break from my run.  And hid behind a tree until the elk had eaten their fill and moved on.  Of course I did not have a camera.  Not even my crappy blackberry camera, as I had told myself that real trail runners wouldn't carry a cell phone with them on a rugged wilderness run (but my Garmin Forerunner was totally fine). Then again, real trail runners probably don't worry about having an "accident" while cowering behind a tree and hoping the large animal on the trail in front of them will lose interest and move on.