Monday, October 19, 2015

Black Cats and Whispers: Racing a Bike for 24 Hours

On Friday and Saturday, September 25th and 26th, I did a 24-hour bicycle time trial at The Texas Time Trials in Glen Rose, TX. The race, which consisted of as many laps around a hilly 26.4 mile loop of farm roads as one could do, started for me at 5 pm Friday afternoon.

When I started on Friday afternoon with thirty or so other crazy people, there were several even crazier folks already out there on the course racing 500 miles. Endurance cycling doesn’t have a lot of practitioners, so you get to line up with some of the very best guys in the sport. José Bermúdez, the guy I supported for Race Across America (RAAM) this summer, typically does the 500 mile race, as does Norm Hageman, a Texan about my age who also finished RAAM this year. Chris Hopkinson, a Brit who has finished RAAM several times, raced in the same 24-hour race I was doing (he would set a course record that day). It’s like going out to play intramural football and finding out you’re playing against Tom Brady, which for me was more cool than intimidating.     

I set my sights on this race back sometime in July, initially thinking I’d do the 12-hour race that I did last year. José Bermúdez recommended that I try the 24-hour race and offered to help support me (he was out of the race due to hand surgery), so I took him up on it. I started to put in 200 mile weeks starting through August (not that many miles, really), often riding in the hottest part of the afternoons. Many days I´d ride two to three hours when the temperature was over 100 and the heat index was over 107.     

My biggest rides to specifically prep for the race were a 125-miler on August 13th and a 201-miler on August 28th. I started the 201 miler at midnight so I could test my lights and see how I would handle a long ride with equal parts light and darkness. My main concern was cramps, which had hounded me on the 12-hour race the year before and had been even worse on a 6-hour race last spring. After researching cramps and their causes, thinking about what I had seen José and other riders do on Race Across America, evaluating my hydration and food choices, and experimenting on long, hot rides, I decided I would get in the habit of drinking a lot more water while riding (3 oz. per mile when it was really hot) and that half my water bottles would have nuun electrolyte replacement in them. Those two changes, along with eating salty peanuts like you get at a gas station convenience store, solved my cramps problem. You may think, "Well, why not drink Gatorade or Powerade? They have electrolytes in them, right?" Yes, they do. But they also have too much sugar. Drink that much Gatorade for 24 hours and you'll be wired and diabetic by the end.

A race of this nature is probably more mental than physical. To manage the race mentally, I broke it down into phases that shifted during different parts of the race. Of course, each hour of the race could be looked at as a phase, but twenty-four phases is too much. Each 26.4 mile lap could be a phase, but I thought I’d be doing thirteen of those if my plan went absolutely perfectly and thirteen phases was also a bit much. I wound up thinking of the phases in three ways: light and dark, heat and cool, and by the groups of racers that would start after me in the 12-hour, 6-hour, and 1-lap races.

When we started at 5 pm on Friday afternoon it was still over 90 degrees and felt even hotter on the indigo-black sections of new chip seal pavement. I did my best to ignore the riders who galloped away from me and passed me during the first lap and I tried to really hold back in spite of how good I felt. I was sure some of them were relay riders and that I would see some of the others again. I was right on both counts. By the time we were halfway into the second lap the temperature started to cool and the sun started to go down, marking the transition to darkness and cool.

I switched on my headlamp and settled into what would be a night phase of about eleven hours. Although the chip seal pavement was rougher than we would have liked, that’s what you get out in the country in Texas. But the course was remarkably free of bad dogs, debris, potholes, and sharp edged bridge pavement. You could relax and ride without too much concern about hitting something on the road that could take you down. I liked the arrangement of having my bike light on my head instead of my handlebars, because I could look where I was going on turns and not just where my handlebars were pointing. I have an excellent headlight made by FYXO and I ran it on the high setting, swapping batteries in the middle of the night. The brighter your lights are, the faster you feel like going. To stare into that round beam of light, though, becomes mentally difficult because of sensory deprivation. Where in daylight you’re able to look around at the scenery, the night forces you to focus on that relatively small cone of illuminated night. Since it’s only one night, there’s no real danger of falling asleep on the bike, but as any college student who ever pulled an all-nighter can attest, you do find it hard to concentrate from about 2-5 a.m. During those hours I started to imagine that I saw black cats at the bottom corners of the left and right edges of light. The cats faced inward towards the road, their backs hunched, poised to dash across my line of travel. “Don’t even think about it, cats” I’d say out loud. I’d also hear whispers behind me that would startle me a little bit and cause me to look around. Even after I figured out that the “whispers” were caused by the rustling of the colored ribbon we were required to tie to the backs of our helmets to identify our race category, I was still a little unnerved.

Refueling yourself while racing is not as simple as putting gas in a gas tank. In addition to drinking three large water bottles, I needed to eat 600 - 800 calories per lap, not to fuel the lap I was doing, but to be able to have the energy to race six, eight, or ten hours later. The best approach time-wise is to eat on the bike. Stopping longer than absolutely necessary at your support station kills your average speed and doesn’t make you feel much better anyway. Endurance cyclists have a little nylon bag strapped to the top tube of the bike behind the headset where they store food. Real food. In a race this long the gels and energy bars you typically think cyclists would eat are too sugary. I ate jerky, peanuts, sushi, Chinese dumplings, breakfast sandwiches, wraps, and cheese sticks wrapped with prosciutto. In addition to water I drank coffee, coke, V8, and a protein-rich drink called Perpetuum. A phenomenon of racing, though, is that the body’s ability to absorb food and hydration seems to be reduced. I got to the point where I didn’t want to eat any more. I felt like I was gestating a food baby and in the cool of the night I couldn’t finish three water bottles per lap. José encouraged me to keep eating, though, and it was a good thing he did.   

At 6 a.m. the 12-hour racers hit the course. They seemed to fly by me, but I tried to ignore them and I sure didn’t try to match them. For me, their start marked the promise of impending daylight. And just like I had seen José do during RAAM, when the sun came up at about 7 a.m. I felt faster and as refreshed as if I had slept some. It’s both awesome and sobering to see the sunrise at 7 in the middle of a 24-hour ride. You realize you’ve been at it for fourteen hours, have gotten through the night, still feel pretty good and are feeling even better with daylight and the cool of the morning. It occurs to you, though, that you’ve still have ten hours to go and you’ll still be racing as you see the sun traverse just about the entire Texas sky. It also occurs to you that it’s going to get extremely hot during the last six hours of the race, the phase where you’re most debilitated. You can’t think about that very long, though, or you’ll trash your morale and start to feel overly sorry for yourself. You’ll lose focus.

The best analogy I can think of to describe proper focus is when I would go to the rifle range for annual qualification with the M-16 in the Marines. You’re shooting at targets 200, 300 and 500 yards away, lining up the target, your front sight post, and the rear sight aperture. Of course, you have to look at the target and make sure you’re aiming at the right one, and you have to line up your sights, placing the front sight post perfectly in the middle of the opening of the rear sight back by your eye. At the moment you press the trigger, though, only one thing can be in focus. That’s the nature of focus. You might intuit that the target should be the focus, but it’s not. To shoot the rifle accurately, the front sight post must be sharp and clear, there in the exact center of a blurry rear sight and in the bullseye of the blurry blob of the target. It’s a method so proven that most of us could hit 10 out of 10 in the prone position from 500 yards, a great confidence booster when you consider that the Army claimed the maximum effective range of the weapon was 350 meters.

So, in the long-distance race, a lot of things can be in the picture, but you can only focus on one thing at a time. That focus must be on what you´re going to do to help yourself out when you pass your support area again within the next hour and forty minutes or so based on how you feel at that moment. That’s your front sight post. So, to answer people’s question, “What the heck do you think about on the bike for 24 hours” the answer is that it’s a kind of internal dialogue about how I’m doing and what I’m going to do at the next stop. “How do the legs feel? Good? Yeah, good. Knee hurts a little, though. I’ll sit a little further back on the saddle. Butt is getting a little chafed. I’ll put on more chamois cream at the tent. I’m not hungry but I should eat these peanuts anyway. I can drink half this bottle at the next downhill. I should  get a coke at the next stop. I’ll take off my arm warmers and put on sunscreen at the next stop, too. I should hit the porta-potty soon. Let me think about how I’ll make that transition as quickly as possible without dropping stuff out of my jersey pockets. Is my speed and level of effort right? How do the legs feel . . . ?”  That is pretty much the cycle of thoughts if the focus is right. You must remind yourself that all you can do is all you can do right now. Thoughts like “If I’m this tired and uncomfortable now, just think how bad I’ll feel in ten hours” and “How am I going to explain this to people next week” must be kept at bay.

At about 11 a.m. on Saturday, when we realized that I had about six hours (plenty of time at the rate of speed I was able to maintain at that point) to cover eighty miles to make my best-case goal of 344 miles, I was really happy, but I was also challenged to keep focus. The heat on the last two laps was brutal, and the 6-hour racers went past me like they were on motorcycles. The release of the one-lap menagerie, including José on his mountain bike, told me I was close to being done. With about six miles to go, as I approached the town of Glen Rose for the final time, a black Cadillac SUV came barreling out of a driveway on the opposite side of the road from me as I passed. The driver, apparently enraged at the sight of a cyclist on “his” road, laid on the horn and swerved at me, squealing the tires and taking off up the road at an unsafe speed. I guess he wanted to remind me I was still in Texas. I was too tired and happy to care. I crossed the line to finish my thirteenth lap at 4:52 pm, with eight minutes to spare.

I felt surprisingly good at the end, a little stiff and pretty tired, but not overly so. I was sitting way in the back at the awards ceremony and when I won a raffle item and they called my name a couple of times I actually ran (shuffled, really) up to the podium out of fear that they’d think I wasn’t there. So that’s not too bad if you can run a little bit after a 24-hour bike time trial. I finished with 344 miles, 6th out of 20 men in the solo category of the 24 hour race, not bad at all for my first race at that distance. I also raised nearly $1,200.00 for Fisher House Foundation, a charity that helps wounded service members and their families with housing and travel expenses. I owe a lot to José, who advised me and coached me and helped prep my stuff. I don´t think I would have made 300 miles without his help.  

Will I do something like this again? I’m not sure. I do know it won’t be today.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Race Across America 2015 Part III Mississippi River to Annapolis, MD

“And beyond the garden Gilgamesh saw the sea. “
                -Tablet IX Gilgamesh

When I built the mental map of our RAAM trek from Oceanside, California to Annapolis, Maryland; I had drawn a kind of nebulous west to east line. Crossing the Mississippi River and finding myself in Illinois, soon thereafter to cross into Indiana, put me way north of that line of perception. The RAAM route, perhaps seeking less-travelled roads in the much more heavily populated eastern part of the country, bends north through those states as well as Ohio, before dipping down into West Virginia and Maryland, only to veer north into Pennsylvania and finally back into Maryland again. José continued to ride on schedule as we entered zones of steady rain in Indiana that later morphed into ominous thunderstorms. He didn’t mind riding in the rain, but when a thick streak of lightning struck the ground just ahead of us in Columbus, Indiana; José quickly got in the van and we dozed and waited out the lightning. A very nice local lady bought and fetched us coffee as we got ready to continue east.

The fact that José actually liked riding in the rain was the result of a decision that was just one aspect of his mental strength. Of course, no one is inherently waterproof, but at some point José decided that since most people don’t like to ride in the rain, he would embrace it and make it his advantage. 
Another strength of his was that he could accept when things went wrong without letting it affect his performance. Back in Oceanside I told him that RAAM would be a 3,000 mile problem-solving exercise in spite of the fact that he and the crew chief had done an excellent job of planning. He said, “That’s right. If you want to ride a trouble-free 3,000 miles, don’t ride RAAM. Go to a velodrome.” But I think it was his ability to blithely submerge himself into the misery of the whole exercise, though, that got him through RAAM. During a brief stop in a 24-hour race in Texas a few months before RAAM, when I remarked that twenty-four hours must seem really easy to him after all the longer races he’s done, he demurred and said that all the races were incredibly hard, that there was always a very short initial euphoric stage, but that before too long you were completely tired and miserable. Ultradistance cycling, José said, is about dealing with suffering.

Physiologically, José was doing fine during the last third of the race, but having spent seven or eight days in a severely sleep-deprived state was making him catatonic. Many RAAM riders will actually fall asleep on the bike and some will crash and break a collarbone or have a head injury, and we were concerned about this problem for José. To a lesser degree, sleep deprivation was also a near-constant problem for the rest of us. By the time we got to Chillicothe, Ohio I was once again upside down on sleep, unsafe behind the wheel, but wide awake when we had a chance to rest. In a perfectly decent queen sized bed in the Chillicothe Super 8 I lay for two hours exhausted and wired with my Red Bull-infused heart thumping and my forehead sweaty, before eventually getting up to meet the rest of the crew. To complain about being sleepy on RAAM was like complaining about being sandy while on an expedition across the Sahara. Everyone on the team was tired and sleepy, and José was practically a zombie in addition to being totally physically exhausted most of the time. But when I reached the point of knowing I was unsafe to drive behind José, it seemed to be the right thing to do to say so. I was saved again by Vaune, who fed me a meal and gave me something to help me sleep, and James Doggett, who took four hours of my driving shift so I could get caught up.

Driving safety soon became a prime concern when the route turned onto U.S. Highway 50, which was to take us for a couple hundred miles through West Virginia into Maryland. For a route choice, Highway 50 could well have been the least of all evils, but it was, for all intents and purposes, an interstate, which the RAAM planners seemed to do their best to try to avoid through the rest of the race. Dense traffic, including eighteen-wheelers, buzzed us at interstate speeds as we rode along the shoulder. For rider safety, race rules would have required us to exit and enter at the on and off ramps if we would have been on an interstate, but since Highway 50 is a U.S. highway, we crept across the ramps, praying we were visible enough for other traffic to avoid us. José was still holding his average speed for the whole race above the 10.53 mph required to make José an official finisher, but we believed he’d need to bank all the time he could to get through the famously difficult Appalachians. I tried my best to shield José with our van, but I’m not sure what good that would have done if a vehicle would have plowed into me at 70 miles per hour other than save José the indignity of being actually struck by a total stranger[1]. In retrospect, we would have been safer treating Highway 50 like an interstate, but like dog-tired soldiers taking tactical short cuts on patrol after several days in a combat zone, fatigue and the perceived need to make the best possible time made us poor decision makers.

On the night of June 23rd, several miles up the road from us on Highway 50 in Doddridge County, West Virginia, the driver of a pickup truck hit Anders Tesgaard, a RAAM solo rider from Denmark. It has been reported that Anders’ follow vehicle left him to refuel, a RAAM rules no-no which would have left him exposed to highway traffic. The driver who struck the cyclist from behind broke several of Anders’ bones including fourteen ribs, fractured his skull, right cheekbone and jaw and collapsed both of his lungs. Anders also suffered a tear in his kidney which was later repaired. Anders was eventually flown back to Denmark where he continues in a coma at the time of this writing. Anders’ horrific accident cast a pall over the whole event (at least for me), and I believe I am one of many people connected to RAAM who think of him often and check his progress on the Facebook page that his friends and family maintain.  

To get to West Virginia means riding the final mountains of RAAM.  Although they are not as impressive in elevation as the Rockies, the Appalachians bludgeon exhausted riders with steep, successive climbs that trim away hard-won average speed. José muscled up the inclines in his easiest gear (34x32) at five miles per hour, but he was so tired that when he would start down the other side, he would get so sleepy that he couldn´t take advantage of the free speed of the descent and white-knuckled the brakes at five or ten miles an hour.

 The constant rain also made the downhills sketchy and it was probably almost as mentally taxing for us to follow him as it was for him to ride. At the steepest parts he would get out of the saddle and the sight of him hunched over with the outline of his ribs visible through his jersey made us want to get out and run and push him (of course, he wouldn’t have let us do that if we had tried) until we shared in his physical exhaustion. Janice would check the printed race directions from the route book against the tracking system and the maps over and over, constantly fearful of allowing José to take a wrong turn. We had reached a point in the race where we desperately wanted to support him well, not to avoid the recriminations of the crew chief, but to keep José from having to suffer unnecessarily, to keep him from having to execute a single wasted pedal stroke, to go without a single mouthful of food or drink that he wanted or needed. Through it all he was patient and in good humor, his interactions with us littered with “please” and “thank you.”  

José pedaled steadily through southern Pennsylvania and back into Maryland for the final few time stations to finish. The other follow crew took a herculean pull with him through the night of the 27th and much of the morning of the 28th to get him to the finish. We all met him at the pier in Annapolis where he rolled in twelfth of sixteen official finishers in the Male 18-49 solo age group (eleven riders in that group did not finish) with a finish time of 11 days, 16 hours, and 53 minutes, having averaged 10.69 mph over the 3,005 miles.

I will never ask José why he does RAAM, because I doubt I could get a complete answer. It seems to me that human intent is a very slippery thing. I doubt that what compels us to do something is ever a singular, known, clear motive. It seems to me more likely that we are propelled forward or fixed into inactivity by a complex matrix of intentions: some that are known and stated, others that are known but not stated because we’re not proud of them, and still others, no less powerful than the known motives, that are totally buried in the unconscious, and thus, unknowable. What he can justly be very proud of is the fact that he raised over $15,000 for Habitat for Humanity, which resulted in a home being built for a family right in Brazos County. José bore the expense of RAAM himself and committed all of his focused fundraising efforts to Habitat for Humanity, which is a beautiful thing. There are obviously less brutal ways to raise money than riding your bike 3,005 miles on two hours sleep a day, though, so there must be something else to it.   

I once heard a TED talk that posited that ultradistance endurance athletes all train and race out of a need to overcome some great emotional pain that’s been inflicted on them sometime in their lives. I reject that idea as insulting and overly simplistic. 

I have a theory, though, one that is hopefully a little more positive, that I will try to explain in framework of the hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs puts physiological requirements like food, drink and sleep as well as safety near the bottom of a pyramid. Maslow’s theory states that we need these things to survive before we can move higher in the pyramid and start seeking love, belonging and esteem. Eventually, once we have all those essential needs guaranteed, we can go for self-actualization, which is the achievement of one's full potential, and then self-transcendence, which has to do with committing oneself to a goal greater than and outside oneself. RAAM indicates to me that that the needs, instead of being linear, hierarchical and pyramidal, may be circular. To reach self-actualization and self-transcendence, the RAAM cyclist buries himself or herself back into the base of the hierarchical pyramid where he or she burns through so many calories that his or her body starts to consume his or her own muscle tissue, operates deeply in a deficit of sleep, and even severely compromises his or her basic life safety. The RAAM rider, then, like the combat soldier, the free-diver, the sweat-lodge worshiper, and the Native American brave on vision quest, may reach the ultimate self-actualization in a state where the most basic elements of life are stripped away.   

I have heard of successful riders who finish RAAM and then swear off ultradistance cycling, satisfied to have cheated death and get on with their lives. But José, standing bleary-eyed and bearded at the finish line in Annapolis, when asked if he was seriously considering riding RAAM again, said, “Why wouldn’t you?”

Why indeed.

[1] I do not intend for this Highway 50 discussion to be a criticism of the RAAM directors or officials, many of whom have completed and/or crewed RAAM themselves. Unlike the corporate bloodsuckers who have highjacked the Ironman triathlon, the RAAM directors, officials and volunteers organize and execute RAAM as a labor of love and they sincerely care about the safety of the riders and crew. There is just no way to make the race totally safe, in my opinion. Riders and crew members should know that going in.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Race Across America 2015 Part II: Durango, CO to the Mississippi River

Vaune Davis and Janice Tower joined the team in Durango. Janice, José’s coach, is from Anchorage, Alaska. She is herself an accomplished ultradistance cyclist and coaches about sixteen riders (in addition to sponsoring and organizing numerous projects around Anchorage). She looks the part of both coach and athlete, with a calm, affable demeanor and arms and shoulders roped with smooth muscle. Vaune, from Toronto, was added to the team to prep José’s meals from Durango on. She is also a superb ultradistance cyclist, having won the Ultra Marathon Cycling Association World Cup in 2014 and having been the only woman soloist in Race Across the West in 2014 at age 54. Vaune is a live wire: funny, garrulous and smart. When we got to the condo in Durango where we were to get an extended rest, Vaune cooked the whole team a fabulous meal and gave me something to make me sleep for eight straight hours. I was put right and ready to continue on the morning of Saturday, June 20th.

Martin, Janice and I rolled out of Durango together and we took over supporting José around South Fork, Colorado. To start work rested in the light of day as a three-person crew, with someone in the back seat handling the food and drinks, seemed like an unimaginable luxury compared to the previous 880 miles. We traversed a truly beautiful part of Colorado and crossed the Continental Divide at Wolf Creek Pass at just under 11,000 feet of elevation.

José rode strongly over the mountain passes at Wolf Creek, La Veta and Cuchara. The combination of the cooler weather, bucolic scenery and Jose’s performance buoyed our spirits into the parts of eastern Colorado where the terrain became flatter and less picturesque.

Soon after we crossed into Kansas on Father’s Day, though, we started to have trouble with a race official. It was as if he was waiting for us at the state line, determined to stop and warn us every time he passed us or us him. He never charged us with breaking any specific rules the first five times he engaged us, but gave us instructions for how we should crew our rider, often countermanding instructions we had been given by the race director at the pre-race meetings back at Oceanside. Finally, after we had been relieved by the other crew near Greensburg, Kansas and were on our way to Maize, where we were finally going to get some rest, the official stopped us for the sixth time that day. Before I even got out of the van to see what his deal was, I was already seething. To me, it was harassment, pure and simple and I had had enough. He told me I was driving too fast and that I had to remove the reflective triangle from the back of the van since it wasn’t actively following a cyclist at that moment. Since the vehicle had been inspected and approved back in Oceanside exactly as it was set up, I resisted making any modifications to the vehicle and an argument ensued. He finally resorted to the old favorite of martinets the world over: “It’s in the rules.” I was still hot when I called the race headquarters and asked that they get the official to stop harassing us. That was a mistake, all of it; the being angry, the calling, the asking, all of it. Our rider was hit with a 15-minute penalty for my phone call to race headquarters, which was categorized as “unsportsmanlike conduct.”

José would have to sit for fifteen minutes at the penultimate time station in Maryland near the end of the race. In the big scheme of things, an extra fifteen minutes where the rider can’t ride but can nap, eat and drink something or get a massage, is not too bad. When you’re finishing in between eleven and twelve days, fifteen minutes is a drop in the bucket. But if something were to go wrong and he were to miss a cut-off and not be an official finisher it would have been catastrophic and I would have gone down in RAAM history as the goat of crew members of all time. And just the knowledge that my foolishness was going to take a time bite out of all the thought and effort that had gone into efficiency, and José’s effort to maintain pace on the bike, was galling to the whole team. José was coolheaded about it. When I apologized to him he said, “Well, it’s not that big of a deal. If I were you, though, I’d call race headquarters and apologize.” I did as José recommended, even though I didn’t feel like it right then. There was no realistic way to appeal the penalty (RAAM rules bizarrely stipulate that appealed penalties that are not reversed are rewarded with an additional fifteen minute penalty). The penalty hung over me like the Sword of Damocles for the rest of the race. In addition to feeling bad about the obvious inconvenience to José, I was sorry I gave the crew chief an extra headache and I also felt bad that Janice spent about two hours of her rest time working on a letter to race headquarters before we figured out that it would be counterproductive to appeal. It didn’t occur to me until well after the race that the official, a RAAM finisher himself in previous years, was probably just bored and wanted to talk to people about RAAM most of the time he engaged us.
With the exception of a few spectacularly explosive episodes, apology and forgiveness was the standard approach to interpersonal conflict on the crew. One of us, pressed by the demands of the race, would snap at someone else, usually in a way that was disproportional to the gravity of the error, but then quickly and genuinely apologize and patch things up. 

The main concerns in Kansas are wind and boredom. RAAM has been run from west to east for the past thirty-four years because of the prevailing winds, and they´re famously strong in Kansas. We needed a tailwind for José and we got it about half the time from the south-southwest, at an angle off of his right quarter. The other half of the time it seemed to blow directly from the south at a ninety degree angle to him so hard that he sometimes had trouble keeping the bike in the road.

At some point in Colorado we discovered that the tracker system online was working dependably enough for us to check the progress of the other riders. Through much of the race up through Colorado we regularly crossed paths with some of the riders, Claudio Clarindo, Jason Burgess, and Shusanah Pillinger, to name a few. It might seem strange in the light of a competition, but we couldn’t help but cheer our guts out for the other riders, even in José’s sight and hearing, and their crews cheered for José, too. The magnitude of the undertaking and the suffering we knew the riders were enduring made passionate fans of all of us. 
The updates about the riders we couldn’t see made José more competitive, which we wanted to moderate earlier in the race. He went into the race knowing that the goal was to finish, and not beat this guy or that guy, but soon after getting through the desert he started to go more and more into race mode. We started out telling him not to worry about the other riders and just to race his plan, but by Kansas we figured out he needed something other than the plan to keep him focused. The guy is naturally competitive, and after all, it’s a race. When we told him that Norm Hageman and Matt Hoffmann were forty miles ahead of him in Kansas, José asked, “Well, how do I get up there with those guys?” I was incredulous that José was thinking of ramping up his pace to close a forty mile gap. That was too much to even think about even at that point in the race. It would have been foolhardy for him to blow himself up trying to catch up to guys who may be blowing up themselves. I yelled out the van window, “You don’t do anything. You wait for them to make a mistake.”

We were all worried about him developing Shermer’s neck, a malady which had tormented him in 2013. Shermer’s neck occurs when the neck muscles fail and the rider can no longer hold his head up. Many iconic photos of RAAM are of competitors riding with a neck brace on, just to attempt to deal with Shermer’s neck and finish the race. But the Shermer’s neck brace compromises the cyclist’s vision, awareness and ability to control the bike, and we wanted to avoid the brace until as late in the race as possible or, optimally, to never use it at all. Emma, the physical therapist, gave him stretches and mobility exercises to do on the bike and coached him on what muscles to engage to minimize the probability of having to get into the brace.

The repetitive motion of cycling for thousands of miles take their toll, though, and the rider’s points of contact with the bike take an incredible beating. James Doggett treated José’s saddle sores every 250 miles or so and we swapped out the bike saddles for Selle Anatomicas, seats with so much give they were essentially leather slings. He never complained of hand numbness during the race, but in the months after the race had to get surgery on his right hand to decompress the medial and ulnar nerves. By June 24th, some seven days into the race, José developed debilitating pain in the big toe joint on his right foot. Cycling shoes are, by design, light and stiff and the lack of cushioning and flex ensures that much of the road vibration is transferred through the bike into the feet. Also, the rider’s power to the bike is transferred through the feet, so the stresses there are considerable and foot problems are common. When he got off the bike for a sleep in Ft. Scott, Kansas, he could barely put any weight on his right foot and the sight of him leaning on James Doggett and limping pitifully into his hotel room was disheartening. The physio team soaked the foot in ice and cut a large section out of a spare right shoe to take the pressure off his toe. Thankfully, the treatment worked and he was back into his regular shoes within a couple of days.   

A shuffling of crew members had Alphonse Lin working with Janice and me in the follow vehicle. In Jefferson City, Missouri we supported José for a shorter than average shift, only 88 miles. While he slept for two and a half hours in Washington, MO we prepped the vehicle, food and equipment for continued support in the dark, unsure of which crew would go out next, and went to get some sleep. An hour and a half later, at about 5 a.m., we were back on the road with José for the sections from Washington, Missouri through St. Louis to the other side of the Mississippi River into Illinois. He had until 4:39 pm that day to get across the Mississippi River to make the cut-off to stay in the race. The road out of Washington, MO was especially challenging, extremely narrow, curvy and hilly with no shoulders. There must have been a large construction site nearby, because pickup truck after pickup truck zoomed past us with all the look of guys on their way to work from sun to sun. We pulled over in a driveway to switch José over to his lighter bike, which also involved changing over lights and batteries, GPS, bottles, and Bluetooth speaker. He got on the climbing bike and took about ten pedal strokes when he got chain-suck (where the chain does not detach correctly from the bottom of the chainring) and snapped his rear derailleur hanger, making the bike immediately unserviceable. We got off the road and went through the process of swapping bikes again. He started from there up a hill that must have been 13 to 15% grade, wobbled and crashed. There was no shoulder and no place to park, so we stopped in the road and jumped out to help our rider, praying that our flashing lights would keep us safe. All this was going on before morning civil twilight in a hilly, wooded area, so it was as dark as the inside of a cow. Over twenty years in the Marine Corps on dive operations, parachute jumps, in helicopters, on live fire ranges, and in combat, I felt like I developed a sense of when I was in a situation what was truly dangerous, and at that moment in RAAM, all of my sensory alarms were going off. In spite of all that was going wrong, with race time ticking away, José kept his cool.

I remember going through Marine Corps Mountain Leader course in the Sierra Nevada as a young Lieutenant back in 1989 . At one point I was so frustrated with managing my weapon and all my military gear on skis, that after one painful and humiliating biff, I stood up and effusively cursed the cold, the snow, the mountains, and the mother of whoever invented skis. I cursed the prepositioned supplies in Norway and the entire northern flank of NATO (which we were training to go protect) and profanely declared that, as far as I was concerned, the Russians could have anything frozen and snow-covered. I could be forgiven for not being adept in the mountains in winter, having grown up in Louisiana, but even in a school environment that was a bad move. I was an officer, and therefore a leader, and going on a rant in front of everybody wasn’t helpful.

José’s calmness through all that was going wrong that morning helped us deal with the stress. He could have reacted badly in about thirty different ways, but he just said, “Oh, I started off in my big chainring. Rookie mistake.” And he got on his other bike, thanked us for our help, and ground up the hill.

The area around St. Louis where we approached the Mississippi River was as highly trafficked as you might imagine on a workday morning, and drivers, impatient with a cyclist and his follow vehicle, were nasty and aggressive with us. All teams were instructed by race headquarters to load up their riders at a specific point, cross the Mississippi, and drop them some 27 miles into Illinois to continue riding east. It was late morning when we carefully loaded José’s bike into the back of the van (his other two bikes were on the rack on top), perched Lin on one of the coolers, put José in the third seat (he went to sleep as if there were an on/off switch on his butt), and made the portage. I was deadly sleepy behind the wheel, but at this point I was the only authorized rental van driver in our crew. I would catch myself drifting off, veering and slowing down as I desperately applied all my known techniques to stay awake. We finally put José back on the road at a truck stop where we were able to get huge cups of coffee and regain some alertness.

In spite of the short rest and all the dangers and problems of that morning, we had crossed the Mississippi some six hours ahead of the time limit to keep him in the race. Janice, Lin and I looked at each other with relief and I think I said, “Man, that was sketchy.”   

 . . . to be continued

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Race Across America 2015 Oceanside, CA to Durango, CO (Part I)

Race Across America is a 3,000 mile bicycle race across the United States from Oceanside, California to Annapolis, Maryland. Riders can compete as members of 8, 4, or 2-person teams or as solo competitors. To cross the continent to beat the twelve day deadline to be an official solo finisher, competitors ride for 20 to 22 and 1/2 hours, drink more than four gallons of fluid, and consume over 8,000 calories per day. In the race’s 34 year history, less than 200 people have officially completed the race as solo finishers (over 2,000 individuals have summited Mt. Everest).   

I bet you’ve experienced it, too, that moment in the latter stages of a 100 mile bike ride where the legs turn effortlessly and the endorphins are surging and you’ve averaged 18 mph and you’re almost sorry to see it end. You think, “Man, if I could just get enough food and water, I could do this forever. I should probably do Race Across America (RAAM). I know it´s 3,000 miles, but they hand you up food and water from a follow van the whole time and the winner only averages, like, 15 mph, which is nothing.”

But, no, you can´t do RAAM. See, when you stopped for that twenty-five minute break at the gas station, your GPS stopped because you set it to do so. It stopped again for ten minutes while you waited beside the road for the new guy to fix a flat. So, in reality, your 18 mph average, when tracked under a running clock, is unceremoniously knocked down to a more pedestrian 16.3. The pacelining and wheelsucking helped you maintain a good speed and saved your energy, too, not to mention the mental lift gained from being with other riders. You picked your route, too; one that presumably didn’t pass through the Sonoran Desert in June, over the Continental Divide, or along the shoulder of Highway 50 in West Virginia. But you´ll come back at me with a list of your cycling palmares and athletic achievements because you think RAAM is simply a long bicycle race. It is not. RAAM is a competition of unspeakable suffering. The bicycle is just the chosen instrument of torture. It could just as easily be a frozen waterfall upon which the contestants kneel, or an upended telephone pole a hundred feet over the water upon which they stand until they fall into the drink, cramped and sleepy.   
So much of the suffering of RAAM has to do with sleep deprivation, the bugaboo of riders and crew alike. Sleep, the last thing the rider fantasizes about just before he or she sinks down into a nether world where sleep and wakefulness meld into hallucinogenic somnambulism. Sleep deprivation is the thing; beyond heat and cramps and exhaustion and Shermer’s neck, that is most hatefully inflicted on RAAM riders, the thing that makes the entire event fundamentally and profoundly unsafe. So, no, you can´t do RAAM. It doesn't make you a bad person. Keep riding your bike for fun, fitness, competition, socializing and transportation. 

José Bermúdez can do RAAM, though. I was convinced of that when I agreed to crew for him this summer. I had seen him at a RAAM qualifier race months before, where he ripped off 500 miles like it was just a fun weekend, bettering his previous time on that same 500 mile course by hours. José asked me to help crew for him like he did for RAW (Race Across the West) in 2011 and RAAM in 2013. Unlike the previous years when I had something else I had to do over the last three weeks in June, this time I really was available, and to tell the truth, I was intrigued by the adventure of supporting a solo competitor racing his bike across the country. José and I had ridden a lot together in College Station, Texas, where I was in graduate school at Texas A&M until 2013. José was a fascinating guy to me, Colombian born, raised in England and educated at Cambridge. It still seems strange for me to hear a British accent coming out of his face, almost like a dubbed movie. I figured out he was actually the dean of my college while I was helping him fix a flat on a ride. He was a strong cyclist even before he started to train specifically for RAAM, a good dude with an appetite and aptitude for high mileage but a notorious half-wheeler. 

When José recruited me and eight other intrepid souls to crew RAAM for him for the last three weeks of June 2015, he promised that he would cover all expenses and, bless his heart, he did. Other crew members told me stories of crewing for other riders that involved paying race expenses up into the thousands of dollars and for me that would have been a show-stopper. I met most of the crew for the first time two days before the race in Oceanside, California. Andrew Dobson is the mechanic I knew from Texas who seemed to always be working on something as fast as he could. James Doggett, a renaissance man from Missouri, was our medical expert. Emma O’Loughlin, originally from County Kildare, Ireland; came from Singapore where she was working for two years as a physical therapist. She had been working with José long distance for months, giving him exercises to strengthen his core, upper body and neck so that he could handle being on the bike for over eleven days. Emma talks exactly like you think an Irish girl from the farm would, and I could not resist the temptation to ask her open ended questions in hopes that she would hold forth on any subject and let the sweet sonority of the land of my ancestors wash over me. Alphonse Lin came from China to attend Texas A&M just over two years ago. Martin Mikes is a funny Brit with an amazing tolerance for sleep deprivation. Michelle Beckley was the crew chief. Lin and Martin were like me, utility players with no special capability for the team. Martin and I made runs to bike stores and Walmarts and bought ice and food, drained and filled coolers and prepped food and water bottles. And we were among the few who were authorized on the contract to drive the rental vans.

The day and a half before the start was jam-packed with inspections, meetings and gear prep. José was jovial but amped up before the race. All the energy he had been putting into training had to go somewhere and there was a lot at stake. José had successfully finished Race Across the West (RAW), 880 miles from Oceanside to Durango a few years ago, but when he first attempted RAAM in 2013 he was hospitalized with kidney failure within a couple hundred miles of Oceanside. He somehow got back on the bike and continued, eventually having to abandon the race in Salina, Kansas. This year José had developed a support plan in excruciating detail. To José, success was just a matter of executing the plan for which he had trained. “I’m a fit enough cyclist to make it to Annapolis in the allotted time,” José said in one of our meetings in Oceanside before the start. “It’s just a matter of you guys supporting me with the nutrition and hydration that I need.”

When José crossed the start line in Oceanside followed by the other half of the crew, Martin and I ran some team errands and drove ahead two time stations to Brawley, California. RAAM is segmented by fifty-five time stations fifty to eighty miles apart, generally Wal-Mart or McDonalds parking lots. When we took over supporting José in the middle of the night in Brawley, our plan was for me to start out driving and for Martin to be in the back seat next to the coolers of food and drink. That arrangement lasted about two hundred yards, when a race official pulled us over and told us Martin was required to sit in the front seat. The practical outcome of that decision for our two-man crew was that the person riding shotgun had to unbuckle, kneel in the front seat, tantrically contort himself to reach into the boxes of food and bottles and coolers of ice, prep the food or drink, then hand the items out of the window when it was safe for the driver to pull alongside. The navigator also had to document food, drink and timing in two three-ring binders. All the driver could do was drive, which much of the time (and always at night) involved directly following the rider at a distance of about fifty feet. José typically didn´t like us very close. The race officials wanted us very close. The idea was that the follow vehicle, with a reflective triangle on the back and flashing lights on top, would protect the rider and give him additional light to see the road.

I remember it being still over 100 degrees when we left Brawley in the middle of the night. The cool boardwalk of Oceanside now seemed a lot further away than eighteen bicycle-hours ago. Once the riders cross the peninsular mountain range in San Diego County, they drop down into the Sonoran Desert, where they face temperatures of up to 110 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Successfully negotiating the desert in California and Arizona is absolutely critical for RAAM competitors. It was where José had kidney failure and had gone to the emergency room in 2013. It’s where, year in and year out, many accomplished, even former professional cyclists abandon, a mere two hundred miles into a 3,000 mile race. Totally rested and amped up by the start line environment that seems to be more like the pre-game festivities at an NBA game than a transcontinental sufferfest, the RAAM novitiate underestimates the hydration demands of the race, gets behind on fluids, and in a matter of hours, he or she is done. So José was drinking constantly, and the need to refill and pass him bottles knew no respite.   

If the food and drink preparation process seems overly complex and it seems like it´d be simpler to just pre-mix a bunch of bottles and prepare food ahead of time to hand to him, I would have to tell you that we didn’t do it that way because José didn’t want it done that way. He didn’t like the taste of the pre-made bottles and without a healthy dose of ice in each bottle, the fluid would almost immediately assume the temperature and consistency of camel slobber and he wouldn’t drink it. In hot weather he would want to alternate a bottle of ice water with a bottle of electrolyte replacement. But sometimes he would want a Sprite or a Coke, also packed with ice. Every few hours he would need a protein drink, but it had to be mixed with almond milk and the bottle had to be topped off with lots of ice. Food choices were similarly specific. He’d take tortellini in a plastic bag. He liked fruit, but it needed to be cold and in good shape, not bruised or soft in any way. One thing he liked was marmite spread on ry-krisp crackers, but only if you spread a thin layer of land-o-lakes butter (only land-o-lakes) on the cracker first. His food preferences were a moving target, too. What he wanted in the heat was not what he wanted when it was cool. What he wanted when it was cool was not what he wanted in the couple of limited episodes when it was cold. The mixed, salted nuts that he loved and gave him needed protein early in RAAM hurt the mouth ulcers he developed later on. 

He rarely wanted just plain whatever, and when he did, we sometimes seemed incapable of giving it to him. At one longer stop for sleep and a big meal, the cook prepped pasta with chunks of chicken breast and pesto. He didn’t want it. He wanted pasta with olive oil and a little garlic. The specificity of tastes came to be like a joke among the crew. Someone would text, “José wants kiwi fruit handpicked by barefoot virgins.” In Colorado, José’s hankering for clam chowder in the absence of the cooking crew involved Martin and me going to Walmart ahead of him, buying a camp stove and cans of chowder, and warming them up hunkered over them in the parking lot. I complained to Martin that it was kind of an esoteric request. But Martin assured me that the chowder was something he had liked on the 1,000 mile race he crewed for him in March. We just had to come up with it because the third van with the camp stove and most of the food had to go on ahead. It hit me then that Martin and others had crewed for him before and they knew what he liked and that I didn’t. I realized that I needed just stop worrying about how exotic the food requests seemed to me. Obviously, the guy needed to eat massive amounts of food to make it through RAAM. He knows he won’t just eat any old thing. He made it pretty clear to us what he liked and didn’t like. He paid for it and paid our expenses to be there to provide it to him. Additionally, without needing to understand all the science behind it, I buy into the theory that in an extreme event like RAAM the body craves what it needs. I don’t know if we got better at anticipating what he wanted or if he got more flexible, but eventually we got better at feeding him by analyzing the weather, his effort, what he last ate, and what we had on hand in the van. We got better at taking the initiative, too. We’d pull up alongside him and yell, “How about some smoked salmon?”     

Every twelve hours or so, usually at one of the time stations, we’d swap crews out of the follow vehicle, do all the stuff we needed to do to take care of him, drain the water out of the coolers, and reload ice and supplies into the follow vehicle. The goal was to do the swap in less than twenty minutes, so we were scrambling. The shorter the time off the bike, the less rapidly he´d have to ride to make the cutoff times. Inevitably, with one van following and two others either driving ahead or temporarily staying behind, we would fail have something he wanted. He asked for a coke at one point and we had not a single one in the follow van. “But I bought forty-eight cokes and brought them to California! Forty-eight!” José exclaimed. He had a point. To pay for travel and expenses for a bunch of people and buy all the stuff you know you´re going to want, and not be able to get a cold coke when you want it is not right. Sometimes we´d have what he wanted and not know it until we completely unpacked the van. It was helpful that most of the gear was stored in transparent tubs that José had organized and labelled, but the minivan we rented to use as a follow vehicle was so full of gear and food, it was like working a Rubik’s cube to get to anything but the most routine, obvious items. Sometimes, especially when it was just Martin and me, we couldn´t get to something without stopping the van (which we couldn’t do at night without him stopping, too). At one point he told us he wanted pita chips and hummus at the next stop. There were no pita chips to be found, so I offered him mini-pretzels to dig into the hummus and then I gave him some chunks of chicken breast. He was happy with that and I made a note that we needed pita chips. He was definitely not picky about having everything perfectly clean. The hands we used to fix flats on the bike and slather him with sunscreen were the same hands we dug down in the ice chest to fill his water bottles and prep his food. He didn’t seem to care. He accepted the amount of dirt and grit generated by RAAM without blinking.

Almost immediately after RAAM started, we were all plunged into a cruel test of sleep deprivation. After driving for twelve to fifteen hours supporting José, we’d need to drive two or three additional hours to the next destination and possibly need to buy or prep items (eighty pounds of ice, at the very least) to be ready for the next handoff. We’d then check into a hotel and try to get to sleep, sometimes in the middle of the afternoon. So I’d lay there in a warm hotel room, without a clearly established time for when we needed to be ready to relieve the other crew, attentive to every ding and vibration of the smartphone, dog-tired and unable to sleep. In Prescott, Arizona, after unsuccessfully trying to sleep during our break, I spent a couple of hours doing Martin’s and my laundry, walked around town for a little while, bought an antihistamine (thinking it would be a safe way to make me drowsy), lay back down and tried again. The antihistamine only succeeded in giving me nervous legs and I still couldn’t sleep until right before we had to go relieve the other crew in the middle of the night. So, in spite of the large coffee I downed before we started our shift, my eyes were already burning as we switched over in the dark and I was immediately sleepy in the vehicle supporting José. My biggest fear driving was that I would fall asleep and plow into him, but I would switch off with Martin before the sleepiness made me too unsafe. I also invented techniques for staying awake. Martin and I talked about every movie we ever liked as well as cultural differences between Brits and North Americans. When we were talked out, I would try to keep myself awake by pinching the skin on the inside of the arm under the bicep. At one point in Utah during the 3 a.m. death hour, when José couldn´t stay awake enough to safely ride his bike, we´d put him in the van for short naps while we stumbled around along the shoulder and squinted at the shapes of the rock formations on the near-black horizon. We´d wake him up and get him going again, all of us so sleepy it was like two drunk guys putting an extremely drunk guy on a bicycle and pointing him down the road in the inky darkness towards Colorado. We had eighty-one hours to make it from Oceanside to Durango, CO, the first mandatory cut-line, which, in practical terms, meant we had until roughly midnight Friday, the 19th. We rolled in well under the cut time, but several hours slower than we had planned. José wasn´t sleeping enough, and in his zombie state he couldn’t maintain good speed. We’d have to make some adjustments. In Durango, we picked up two new crew members, Janice Tower and Vaune Davis, and Vaune, at least temporarily, solved my sleep problem. 

 . . . to be continued

Thursday, July 16, 2015

R.I.P. Pete Telkins

Pete Telkins stands behind me, second row, center

3rd Platoon, Bravo Co. 1st Recon Battalion 1990-1991. Pete is 2nd row, far right
I just found out about the untimely and tragic death of Peter Telkins, a guy I served in the Marine Corps with back in the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s. We served together in the same platoon in Bravo Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion in 1990-1991, went our separate ways after I transferred to another unit and he left the Corps, and eventually reconnected the way a lot of us do: through Facebook.

Although we served together twenty-five years ago, I carry marked memories of Pete, an incredibly handsome, smart and talented young man. He was superb at whatever he did and was always in complete control of himself and the situation; as if he knew a great secret that he had yet to let the rest of us in on. He was respected and valued in a unit where rank mattered less than how good a man you were, because Pete was a great man and a great Marine.

I disappoint people wanting to hear some cohesive narrative from my career of service, because I only have a mental scrapbook of stray memories. I have two strong memories of Pete that might otherwise be buried in the corners of my memory for their general everyday nature if it were not for Pete. I remember, strangely enough, the small ammo can Pete had turned into his own rifle cleaning kit. He had not only curated this ammo can but elaborately and beautifully painted it with his name, rank and the Jack-of-all-trades unofficial Recon emblem. Most Marines would just store a cleaning rod and a few patches in the butt of their weapon, but Pete didn’t do anything halfway. He had patches and brushes and lube; enough to get his rifle immaculate and enough to share with others. Anything worth doing was worth doing well to Pete and his brilliance showed up even in rifle cleaning, the most routine and unsexy of Marine tasks. The other memory I have of Pete was when were deployed on the Cleveland, a small sweatbox of an amphibious ship that had a flight deck on the back of it with a well deck underneath where we launched our rubber boats. One evening off the coast of Korea, Pete and I were out running on the flight deck just before darkness would cause the ship’s company to close it and shoo us off of it. We weren’t running together, but basically 180 degrees out from each other on the apices of laps around that small square covered with non-skid that you could only run on for about twenty-five minutes without being bored silly. It was a rare cool, breezy evening on a deployment to the Western Pacific where we usually sweated buckets. The sunset started to burn into the ocean when we stopped and talked and watched the horizon for a while. I remember almost nothing of what we talked about other than how hard it was to stay in shape on ship. But I remember how agreeable the conversation was. For that brief while we weren’t separated by rank or job title; we were just Marines on the far-flung edge of the empire, two guys trying to get through a six-month deployment that was not the highlight of our personal or professional lives, two men taking a moment to soak in a youthful vitality that has long since left us.

I look through the messages we exchanged in the past few years and I feel pride in him and his accomplishments. At one point Pete wrote me that he was studying Spanish in Mexico and he wrote the message in near-perfect Spanish. That was classic Pete; let him work on something for a few weeks and he’d be world class at it. And I was proud that that I would mean enough to him twenty five years later to warrant the rekindling of a friendship.

Pete had, in the years since he left the Corps, parlayed one of his military skills, SCUBA diving, into an intense recreational pastime. Pete’s passion for diving makes perfect sense to me. Diving put Pete in another world that required calm skill, a world that could only be visited temporarily, a microcosm of deadly beauty, a world where Pete was right at home.

Like a lot of us, Pete was a passionate seeker. I think this poem, written by Tony Hoagland, is a good tribute to Pete’s full and beautiful life. I am glad to have known him and served with him. I am sorry, so very sorry that he’s gone.

Why We Went and What We Found

We will find the grail.
We will gallop our horses all night
and at dawn, descend from twisted mountain roads
to the plaza of a town without a name.
At the bronze hour when the sun
melts on the horizon like an old doubloon,
we will sail our ship into the harbor,
--salt crusted in our beards, trembling from years of motion
without maps or compasses; a little daffy from the velvet
sibilance of waves.
                                  The prow will touch the stone wharf
without a sound, the nightingales
will trill, the dead oak shaft of the
No Trespassing sign will blossom morning glories.
The mute beggar by the church will launch into an aria
in perfect, unaccented Italian

and we will hoist the bucket from the courtyard well
on its frayed rope
and drink the sacred water
as the horses nicker
and the almond trees
drop their white petals of applause.
If the order comes to burn the bridges,
we will burn the bridges.
If the order comes to cast ourselves into the sea,
                                                                                        we jump.

When we wake up in the morning, we will be ourselves again,
and begin our post-grail lives.
We will return to our people
who eat mud and say that it is good,
and we will eat the mud with them and say that it is good.
But it will never taste the same to us
in our post-grail existence.

Something will be missing we can't say.
No one will understand the Ph.G. we sign after our names,
or why we press our faces
deep into the artificial flowers,
half-hoping to be stung by bees.
Why we always go astray inside the glittering maze
of the department store,
and always end up at the perfume counter, wearing
scents called Shangri-La, Obsession, Holy Night,

finding none of them quite right,
none of them equal to a blow on the head
with a silver mace, a word whispered in a dream
like a gold key slid across a grate.

They won't understand, and we won't remember,
but we will never again be sad--never sad again!--
Or rather, never sad in the same way.

Tony Hoagland


Saturday, January 24, 2015

I Teach. You Learn. Or Not.

As a grad student and now as an assistant professor, I’ve always operated under a pretty severe attendance policy: for each unexcused absence over two, the student will lose one percentage point off his/her final grade. Every semester a handful of students in my sections lose a letter grade or even two due to unexcused absences. Under the policy, if a student was sick enough not to come to class, she/he was sick enough to go to the clinic and get a note. No note, no excused absence. The intent was to give the students incentive to come to class, of course, but it created a documentation headache for me and occasionally put me in a dilemma about what constitutes an excused absence. And as you might imagine the policy wasn’t universally understood. I’d occasionally get e-mails from a student telling me she/he missed class due to illness. And I’d always answer, “I’m sorry you feel bad. Please go to the clinic and get seen and get a note so I can excuse your absence.” Good classroom management and good public health policy, right? And before this semester I was prepared to go even more explicit. Instead of a paragraph in the syllabus outlining the attendance policy, I worked up a separate sheet covering every point of the attendance policy with a student signature block at the bottom (I’m more convinced than ever that most students don’t read the syllabus). I looked at it for a while and didn’t feel 100% right about it (it seemed, even for Ole Dr. Meanie-pants, to be heavy handed) and showed to a couple of colleagues whose opinions I value. One of them said, “I don’t have an attendance policy. If they don’t want to learn I don’t really want them in class.”

I thought about that long and hard and I recalled an epiphany I had last fall. I was recording exam grades and plugging the numbers into a spreadsheet I used to track grades. I pull one graded exam out of the stack and record a 94% in the spreadsheet. I pulled the next student’s exam out of the stack and recorded 19%. Well, I sat there and looked at those numbers for a long time. It occurred to me that I was not such a great professor that I made that student make a 94 and I wasn’t so inept that I made the other student make a 19. Those two students made fundamentally different decisions about their learning and I had very little to do with it.

So, as an experiment, I scrapped the attendance policy for this semester. It turns out that, so far, class attendance is about the same. The same students who did and didn’t miss class last semester are the same ones missing or not missing class this semester without some Sword of Damocles attendance policy hanging over their heads. Their seriousness about showing up for things for which they’ve registered was probably formed long before this semester. 

Now, I don’t teach any differently in class. I try to be high-energy and somewhat interesting and I try to engage the students and give them time in class to work on speaking and listening in pairs and small groups. I’ll let the exam grades that they themselves earn, though, be the reward or punishment for missing or attending class. We’ll see how it plays out. I may be convinced to change back to some middle ground policy, but I think that for now I’ll let the students take total responsibility for their own learning (it’s college, after all).