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USAC Redux, part 2

A month ago, I was engrossed in packing all the supplies for a stage race that usually fit into a truck in the hatchback of a Volkswagen Passat — no easy feat! We were preparing to head out to Zeeland, the coastal westernmost province of the Netherlands made up of several islands and a narrow strip of land bordering Belgium for the Junioren Driedaagse Axel: Three Days of Axel. Axel is the kind of race that riders treat with equal parts love and hate: the road conditions are narrow and uncompromisingly rough, the wind is constant and punishing, and the huge field of riders makes the competition fierce and dangerous. We started 5 riders who would take on a 100 km road race the first day, a technical time trial the next morning followed by another 100 km road race in the afternoon, and another 100 km road race the following morning with 3 circuits featuring 6 major climbs. Axel is like hitting your toe with a hammer to quell a hurt thumb; it will make any other race seem mild in comparison.

As soon as we arrived at the race lodging in Sas van Gent, I went to work finishing up bottle prep, making some race food, and dishing up the enormous pot of pasta salad I had made the night before. Having a captive audience of perpetually starving young elite athletes is a really great way to boost one’s self-esteem as a cook — there isn’t much that they won’t inhale with considerable gusto, especially when it features a high percentage of carbohydrates. The first stage was a late start in the nearby town of Sluiskil. The mechanic and I drove together while the riders made the short 7 km trip to the start by bike. I had been studying the technical guide for days and had a rough idea of where the race route would progress, although it was by far the most incomprehensible race bible I have yet to encounter (in Dutch and Flemish, with some sections helpfully translated into French…provided that one actually speaks French). I had a suitable feed zone picked out that would permit me to feed the riders twice, after the 50 km point and again when they looped back around 68 km — well within the UCI permissible range for feeding. I found my way with the Hot Tubes Development Team race support vehicle in tow, which was wonderful to have a feed zone buddy (and she gave me the best almond cookie I have ever tasted!). We fiddled with the race radio on my car and tuned in, which was really neat to get an idea of where they were on the course in real time and every move afoot in the peloton.

I headed out on the course with a musette full of bottles ready for the first time riders would come through, and was stopped by a race official on a moto who emphatically told me that I was outside the feed zone and that our team would be disqualified if the jury or commissaire caught me feeding my riders. It was a confusing claim, because no allotted feed zone was marked anywhere on the course map in the race bible and not wanting to be the reason our team encountered a problem with the race organizers, I withheld bottles from my riders as they passed (who gave me some very confused and abashed looks).

I headed back to the car so I could find this mythical feed zone for their next pass through, and was shocked to discover that running the race radio, even for a relatively short time, had sapped the battery and I couldn’t start my car. I quickly improvised by throwing all the riders’ gear, chairs, and nutrition in the Hot Tubes team van and getting a ride to the feed zone (which was in a terrible spot, just terrible!), and then back to the race finish.

For a less than smooth race on my part, we got it done — all 5 riders finished with one contesting the sprint for top 10, found their way back to their chairs and their bags, and the mechanic and I got back to my car while a really nice Dutch family came out with jumper cables to help us out (I gave them as many bike bottles as I could spare!). With relatively minimal chaos, we made it back to the race dinner location — another “epicurean journey through purgatory,” as our director so eloquently described it — and I told the director about the feed zone confusion. He informed me that it was a totally bogus threat the official had made and that teams were feeding all over the course, even before it was officially open for feeding, with no repercussions from the jury or commissaire. It’s hard to say whether the official was just being overzealous, or if I was possibly targeted for being a non-European; it does happen, although less often now than in the early days of US racing in Europe. Whatever the cause, I vowed to be exceedingly diligent with feeding in race-approved areas for the remainder of the race.

The next day was another double stage, with a short but highly technical time trial in the morning and a long road race stage in the afternoon. Our best-laid plans to arrive in ample time before the first rider’s start time were somewhat foiled by a bridge closing; the only other possible detour route crossed a drawbridge, which had just gone up to allow a ship to pass when we got to it. We still arrived at the start in enough time for the first rider to warm up, and he posted the fasted time on our team of the day: 7 km in 10:04.

Double stages usually don’t feature a road race long enough for a feed zone, but Axel was an exception; at barely under 100 km, I would have 2 opportunities to feed the riders before the finish. The course looped down the same road several times, so I got a chance to take a few pictures before feeding was open (and inadvertently caught a crash on film).

After the second feed zone, one of my riders rolled up bleeding and shaking his head — he’d had a crash on the cobbles and hit his knee and shin hard, unable to finish the race. I patched up his cuts and we loaded up his bike to head back to the finish. When we arrived at the van, another rider was already there — huddled up against the side of the wheel well against the cold damp wind. He didn’t have any visible injuries but reported that he had crashed out on a cobbled section and bagged it after the first lap through the finishing circuit. I’ve started to learn that a crashed rider doesn’t need sympathy; he needs care necessary for cuts and bruises but painful emotions are often better when given some space and interaction with the rest of the team.

That evening held massages and recovery for the three remaining riders who would be starting the race tomorrow, and a bit of personal good news. I had been doing everything I could to stay focused on the job at hand and not become discouraged that this would be my last race day working with USA Cycling in Europe. That night I got an email from the director with an official invitation to work the Tour de l’Abitibi in Quebec in July, and to come straight back to Sittard for the kermesse racing block and stay through Grand Prix Rubiliand in September. I was ecstatic, with the only caveat of having to break the news to my boyfriend and my mom/dogsitter (they took it really well though!)

The last stage of Axel was a three-lap course with three major climbs and four sets of cobblestone stretches. With only three riders starting, I had two helpers to hand off bottles and a lot of down time for more pictures on the first non-feeding lap.

The remaining three riders fought it out and finished strong, with our top placed rider coming in at 14th in overall GC. One rider crashed on the cobbles in the last 3k and rode in with no broken skin but with bruises starting to blossom; he lamented, “I don’t even get a cool scar!” After much scrambling around exchanging riders and equipment with the Hot Tubes team, we were on the road back to Sittard.

This was a moment I had been dreading for weeks, because it marked the end of my last race with USAC in Europe and I was sad to see this amazing chapter of my life come to a close. Instead of melancholy, it was relief and joy that I would get a bit of a respite and time with my loved ones before heading back for another round of racing in July. I have found a career that feels more meaningful than anything I have ever done in my life; this is a feeling that can’t be replaced, and I am committed to chasing it to becoming the best soigneur I can possibly be.

I am so excited about this amazing opportunity to continue doing this crazy job. I could never have dreamed that I would become so taken with a career that could take me from washing a truck to 50 kph feed zones to emergency first aid and cooking dinner all in one day. As I write, my living room is full of boxes of bottles and nutrition products to transport to Canada in my little Honda Fit mobile service course, as we embark on the next great race adventure.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my family and my friends, whose tremendous support has made this journey possible for me. My mother and my wonderful boyfriend held down the fort at our house, kept my dog entertained, watered my garden, and sent their love over Facetime (when the wifi was good enough). My friends checked in and kept in touch, lifted my spirits and gave me confidence on the rough days, celebrated with me, and laughed along with me at my stories of surreal experiences. My employers at E3: Elite Human Performance have been incredibly supportive of my pursuits, and I have enjoyed sharing my insights into elite sports with my coworkers and clients.

Next stop: Amos, Quebec! Watch this space for more reports of the outrageousness of the Tour de l’Abitibi, coming up July 21-26.

USAC Redux, part 1

It’s a pleasantly steamy early summer evening in North Carolina and I’m enjoying a glass of wine on my porch and watching the fireflies dance in my yard. The relaxation and leisure of my life in this moment makes my life in Europe the last couple months seem like a dream. But I loved the thinly veiled chaos of my work in Europe as much or more than the luxurious Sunday afternoon nap earlier today.

To bring this blog back up to speed, we have to go all the way back to the Koga Ronde Zuid-Oost Friesland in the middle of May, a one-day interclub road race in the beautiful verdant farmland and pristinely groomed villages near Appelscha, Netherlands. We had all gotten a few days to recover from the Peace Race and legs were primed, injuries nearly healed. This was a new race on the calendar, and a dream-race for staff — spectacularly comfortable nearby accommodations (with an equally spectacular breakfast buffet), a non-UCI race with no caravan and no designated feed zones on the course, minimal gear, food, and prep necessary. Our seven-man team lined up with the directive of racing forward, getting at least one rider in every breakaway move, communicating with one another, and staying out of trouble. Easy enough.

Once the riders were off, the director, mechanic, and I made our way back to the team car and proceeded to the first point in the race for open feeding, a picturesque tree-lined lane just after a section of pavé. These were not the helter-skelter cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix, but had enough of a crest in the middle to scrape against the undercarriage plate on the team car (which had been installed before Paris-Roubaix for that very reason). Coming off the first stretch of pavé, our smallest, lightest rider who was crushing cobbles for his first time ever streaked off the front of the peloton like a rocket. We knew already that we were in for a show.

We wended our way through the course circuitously and managed to feed the riders at 4 different places before feeding was closed. By the 3rd time we passed out bottles, a dozen or so riders had broken off the front, including 4 of our team. They were doing exactly as their director had instructed: racing forward, being conservative but appropriately aggressive, taking the race in exactly the direction they desired. After the last open feeding, we proceeded back to the finish line. Our director reported that the Dutch race organizer had actually expressed that he wanted the Americans to win, that it would be good for the sport. This attitude is wholly unprecedented in European racing; American riders have almost always been viewed as relatively unwelcome outsiders.

We waited at the finish line, getting bits and pieces of race reporting in Dutch that bode well for our team. I left my cooler bag of water and soda at the end of the barricades, strapped a podium bag with a fresh kit, wet wipes, and recovery mix to my back, and staked out a good position to get some photo ops. Soon we heard that a single rider had broken away off the front, and it was indeed our incredible time trial master who performed so spectacularly at the Peace Race. Minutes later, the race radio reported that two more riders had broken away while the fourth remaining USA rider blocked to let them ride. We realized we were about to see something incredibly special: a 1-2-3 podium sweep team victory.

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It was breathtaking to see, made even more special from the Dutch race organizers and fans who said things like “magnificent!” The riders had truly raced forward, communicated with one another, and put on one heck of a race. Even at relatively small races like this, outstanding performances are widely recognized and not quickly forgotten — every other race I attended with the juniors team, someone mentioned the 1-2-3 podium sweep in Friesland.

After that, the team was on cloud nine. I had made a nice selection of sandwiches and race food goodies the night before, and had stopped at a roadside stand in Germany to buy several cartons of field-fresh strawberries as a special treat. Their excitement and satisfaction was as palpable as it was infectious; being part of the staff behind a big team win is almost as exciting as being out there on the road.

The next day we headed back out to the small Dutch village Lieshout, home to the Bavaria brewery, for an inter-club circuit race — something of a cross between a Belgian-style kermesse and an American-style criterium. The course was surprisingly challenging: hot and sunny with paver brick road surface, lots of turns and chicanes, and several raised roundabouts in corners. The juniors completed 65 kilometers, which is too short to permit or necessitate feeding, giving the staff a break and me a chance to indulge one of my other passions: race photography.

It was a heated race with an early two-man break by one of our riders and his trade team teammate from Hot Tubes Development, which the pack brought back until a bigger bunch got away and stayed away. It ended with a bunch sprint in which another of our riders gave it his all for a hard-fought 2nd, and our 4th podium in 2 days!

The team had such an outstanding, intense weekend that I got permission from their director to take them on a field trip to the nearby city of Maastricht, capital of Limburg with ancient roots dating back to Roman times. Today Maastricht is known for its vibrant city center shopping and dining district, with several beautiful churches and medieval structures still intact. Most of the riders had already visited on other trips, but it was the first trip for several of them, as it was for me. It was a great opportunity to have a nice lunch away from home base or racing with the guys, and to turn them loose while I did a little shopping and sightseeing.

The next day I had to fetch two more riders from the airport in Brussels, one of whom would join us for the upcoming Three Days of Axel race and the other who would ride Axel for his trade team, Hot Tubes Development, and join the USA team later in the season. After a nasty taste of Brussels traffic (some of the worst in the world; I got charlie horses in my legs in my sleep for days after riding the clutch for so long!) we packed up a truck and took the group to Zeeland, on the Dutch coast, to get a first taste of cobblestones and to deliver a couple riders to Hot Tubes.

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It was really neat to see such a large group of the best juniors in the United States in the same place at once. (If the one in the middle looks a little old to be a junior, that’s because he is our intrepid program director, William Innes). Cobblestones, sometimes called pavé, are a classic hallmark of northern European racing and riders who handle them with speed and agility forever have their careers defined by their excellence in “cobble crushing.” Nearly all of the famous spring classics feature sections of cobblestones, which range in difficulty from patio pavers to mud and moss-slick rock gardens more appropriate for mountain biking than road biking. Axel is known for its rough field cobbles with soft, grassy, muddy shoulders; they are as difficult to ride at high speed as they are dangerous, especially for riders without experience or proper equipment.

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With the team prepped and ready, it was up to me and our mechanic to get the bikes and remaining equipment shipshape. The courses of Axel are notoriously hard on wheels, so all the bikes were equipped with our special “Roubaix” wheels: aluminum Easton tubulars with heavy-duty puncture-resistant, wider tires. The wheels were an abnormally heavy setup for racing, but would give our riders the best possible chance at avoiding flat tires or crashes due to poor traction.

Unlike the Peace Race, the race organizers at Axel provide somewhat more edible food options, so I didn’t need to cook. From that standpoint it made the race logistics a bit easier on me, although I packed double of everything in the medical kit in hopes that it would be like carrying an umbrella when rain is in the forecast: preparedness would stave off necessity.

Prepping for Axel also gave me time to reflect on the weeks I had spent traveling to races in Europe, and I was truly sad that this would be my last race with the team. I knew they would get excellent care from other soigneurs as they continued their racing season, but the infectious excitement of racing had done its work and I was hooked. Had it been any other kind of hard work, I would have been looking forward to a respite, but I found soigneur work inspired an ethic and passion in me that I had never experienced to that extent.

The hour has grown late, my candle has begun to flicker, my laptop battery is waning and (most upsetting of all) my glass of wine is empty; we’ll pick this up next week with the pavé pandemonium of Three Days of Axel!

Aside

Peace Race Triumphs and Tribulations

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We’re back home in Sittard after a whirlwind tour of Bohemia with another race on the books, this time the Course de la Paix, or Juniors Peace Race. Litoměřice, where we stayed, was a rather beautiful old town with a definite feel of old-world European grandeur reemerging from the Soviet era drabness. The area has a rich history as one of the oldest Czech towns dating to the 2nd century and served as a major trading capital of the region in medieval times. More recently, the whole region underwent German occupation during WWII and the nearby walled city of Terezín, where the race was headquartered, was used as a Nazi concentration camp, crematorium, and Gestapo prison. The Peace Race was originally established after WWII as a symbol of international goodwill and sportsmanship.

We were housed in the hockey training center, which was a perfectly convenient and serviceable facility with dormitory-style living arrangements and an eating area for meal, bottle, and race food prep. The hockey facility housed our team as well as the British, French, and Russians. A total of 23 national teams competed from Europe, North America, and the Middle East. The Peace Race is part of the Juniors Nations’ Cup races, a series of events all around Europe, one in Kazakhstan, and one in Canada in which national teams of 17- and 18-year-olds compete among the highest-level junior road cyclists to earn Union Cycliste Internationale points for World Championships entries. Of the 11 races in this year’s Nations’ Cup, the Peace Race is considered by many to be the most challenging.

This year’s edition certainly proved a challenge for everyone involved. We had mechanical issues with the team car halfway across Germany, and the mechanic and director ended up having to send me ahead with all 6 riders while they got the car towed for repairs. The one rider on the team who had been to the race the previous year alerted me to the getting an entry permit sticker for the van and helped guide me through the tortuous single-lane mountain road to Litoměřice. The director and mechanic arrived shortly thereafter and we headed to dinner in the beautiful and expansive cobbled city square.

The next day held a training day for the riders to preview the time trial course and part of the first road race stage for the team riders, and a trip back to Germany with the director to retrieve the repaired team car for me. We had hoped that my basic, broken German would be somewhat helpful in negotiating the transaction; it turns out “diesel filter” in German is “dieselfilter,” so no obstacles there. We headed back to Czech where I cooked one of my many variations of rice for the team (I think it was red curry rice that night?) and did sports massages for each rider.

It’s no surprise that the United States national team selects only the best of the best junior riders, but I am constantly impressed with the young people I have encountered in my involvement with juniors cycling. Their unbridled passion for the sport transfers into a conscientious approach to all aspects that will potentially benefit their racing. They are a kaleidoscope of personalities, from boundless effervescence to the strong, quiet, old-soul countenance. Watching them interact with one another was fascinating to see the mutual respect and recognition of strengths develop among the team, and they began to strongly identify with their established roles as the race progressed. Their reverential respect for their director reflected their confidence in his unparalleled expertise as a coach of champions. These are the kind of young people who will lead future generations to thrive and flourish, whether they continue to pursue sports as a career or take the lessons in leadership and teamwork they are learning into other avenues of life.

My role with the team was similar to the work I did in Bretagne, except for being their only soigneur and also responsible for preparing all their meals and race food. The Peace Race is notorious for providing borderline inedible meals for riders and staff, and having meals on site instead of having to travel to the primary school in Terezín made for a much logistically smoother experience for the riders and staff. All I had to work with was a rice cooker and an electric kettle, so I drew largely from my camping cooking repertoire. I figured out how to hard-boil eggs on the first day, but dumped half the pot of boiling water on my foot and developed a nice collection of painful blisters. Other dishes included Mexican, Thai, Persian, Asian, and Italian-inspired incarnations of rice and quinoa. To say that young cyclists eat like horses is to seriously overestimate the amount that horses consume — next time I have to cook for a team and staff, I will have a more realistic expectation of the quantity. If it’s enough to feed an army, you should probably add at least 3 servings to be safe.

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Stage 1 was an exercise in persistence for everyone involved, with pitted pavement, steep skyward climbs, narrow roads, dangerous descents, buffeting cross-winds, and energy-sapping cobbles. When they passed through the feed zone, 5 riders were with the main group and the mechanic in the team car alerted me to wait for one rider who had been dropped. Nearly 15 minutes after the peloton had passed, he came heaving up the hill alone. I passed him a bottle and yelled at him to keep fighting it, knowing that he still had another mountaintop climb ahead of him. The race organizers establish a time cut of 20% of the winning time and I was concerned that he wouldn’t make it. The best case scenario at that point would be that he would be the “lanterne rouge,” the last rider in the race (named for the red light at the end of a train caboose) and he could serve as a domestique for the others, fetching bottles and using his position to advance the race for his teammates.

The team made it back to the finish with 3 in the main pack, one trailing behind after a poorly-timed flat tire on an inaccessible stretch of road where the team car couldn’t execute a proper wheel exchange, a third limping in after a crash (no broken skin but a very sore and battered body) and the dropped rider far behind crossing the line last. I forgot to start my stopwatch at the leader’s time and didn’t find out until the next morning that he had failed to make the time cut and was out of the race. The rider who crashed was also randomly selected for anti-doping control and had to be ushered off for testing.

The second day consisted of a double stage, which is common in major juniors stage races. A short but difficult morning time trial ended in triumph when the team captain posted the 2nd fasted time of the day, securing a spot on the podium and 2nd place in overall general classification for the race. The afternoon road race was too short to permit feeding, so a challenging day for the riders was actually the easiest day for me.

The third day was a queen stage: the most demanding mountain stage of the race featuring long, steep climbs and a mountaintop finish. This type of stage is intended to separate the strongest riders and provide opportunities to make up significant time and open gaps — or to lose time if disaster strikes. I set up the feed zone at a small, gently uphill section in a huge mountain meadow just past the major climb, and it was one of the fastest and best feeds I have done. They were easily exceeding 45 kph even on the incline. All the riders spotted the van and my wind vest, and spaced just far enough apart that I was able to get a bottle to every rider. That kind of thrill just doesn’t get old.

Coming up to the mountaintop finish at a ski resort just over the German border, four riders managed to sneak away ahead of our team leader and took out just enough time to bump him down into 3rd general classification position. I have been going to bike races for a decade, and I have seldom seen a rider bury themselves that deeply. Rarely do most people have the opportunity to witness that kind of dedication to anything, and it is extraordinary to see.

The fourth and final day featured a course similar to the first day, but with three laps of a smaller but by no means easy mountain climb before the run-in to the finish. I staked out my position on the climb for the feed zone early enough to see the pack come through the first lap before feeding was allowed, and I was delighted to see all five riders hanging in there with the group and looking strong. On the second lap I passed a couple of bottles and everyone was still with the group, so I packed up the van and drove directly to the finish. Minutes later, one rider crashed hard on the descent when the Hungarian in front of him slipped out on a wet patch of pavement and he plowed into the fallen rider at high speed. The director and mechanic put him into the team car battered and bloody with the intent of handing him off to me on the next lap but I had already left. Four riders remained with the pack as it roared through a curve and into the finishing straight, but another rider hydroplaned on a puddle and crashed out to come limping across the finish line. He was lucky — his shorts were shredded and he had patches of road rash on his hip and arm, and a small cut on his leg that bled profusely and looked much worse than it was. His heart rate monitor saved his chest; his jersey was completely torn away but the protruding heart rate monitor sensor on his sternum took the impact and was ground down on the pavement like a rough belt sander. I was patching him up when the race medic came over and said the other crashed rider would need a team staff member to accompany him to the hospital to treat his injuries. I grabbed his passport, ran to tell the director, and hopped in the ambulance with my rider.

They say that mothers, in extenuating circumstances when their children are in harm’s way, can pull off superhuman feats to protect their babies. The closest thing I have to a child has four legs, a tail, and fur, but after that ambulance ride I can understand the impulse. He had suffered a nasty scrape and gouge to his hip, cuts and road rash on his arm, a skinned knee, and a blunt impact to his thumb which was swelling up like a water balloon. The race medic had already taped over the majority of broken skin so I couldn’t see the extent of his injuries, but they were clearly more than a minor crash and he was in a lot of pain. The first thing he asked me was if his teammate still got third — what a true competitor.

The Czech ambulance was a Soviet-era minivan with peeling exterior paint, a backboard on a gurney, and a couple bucket seats with split upholstery and no seat belts. I crouched next to the gurney and held onto the rider’s seat, who in turn held onto a door handle with his uninjured hand. The driver put on the siren and we whizzed by a long line of stopped cars stuck in race traffic into the lane of oncoming vehicles. I briefly considered the irony of meeting my final reward in an ambulance crash.

We arrived at the hospital and he limped into the ambulance intake waiting room, a naked cinder block structure with concrete floor and a few plastic chairs. It was absolutely surreal, like something out of a movie. An orderly ushered us into the intake room and instructed me to wait while the rider proceeded to the treatment room to have his wounds cleaned and dressed, and I once again experienced that feeling of a mama bear wanting to rush in and take care of him. Despite the eerily institutional feel and padded doors, the nurse’s methods were thorough and modern as she irrigated and dressed his cuts and scrapes. Another hospital staff told me in broken English that I would need to produce his insurance card, or pay at the time of treatment. I explained that I had the USA Cycling credit card and was good for any charges he would incur, and that seemed to satisfy them. Once he was bandaged up, he was wheeled into radiology for x-rays and while we waited in the dimly lit waiting room, he seemed to perk up and joke about the whole experience. He had turned 17 the day before and was glad not to have crashed on his birthday, and he mused that on the bright side, his injured right hand might get him out of doing homework for a while. Once the x-rays were read and he was cleared of any fractures, the staff released him and sent me to pay his bill — at the same moment, the mechanic and team captain arrived and greeted us. The mechanic accompanied me to the front desk and we viewed the final tallied bill: 302 Czech koruna, or about 11€. The fine he had incurred the previous day for riding on a sidewalk during the race was more than 10 times his bill for an ambulance ride, triage, and x-rays. Say what you will about second-world medicine; if I need a minor medical procedure, Czech hospitals are looking pretty appealing.

With everyone taped back together in mostly one piece, we proceeded to lunch at the primary school in Terezín, which was every bit as appalling as I had been told. I found the only products that didn’t contain some form of unrecognizable meat: stale bread and a cup of weirdly brown but fairly tasty applesauce and a glass of incredibly weak Tang.

With lunch accomplished, we loaded up and drove halfway home to Kassel, Germany, about 4 hours away. The lodging and food experience was a night and day stark contrast, almost shocking to the system. I had an excellent dinner of herb crepes stuffed with locally grown white and green asparagus, new potatoes, delicately poached pearl onions, and a luscious cream sauce. I can only describe it as euphoric. Breakfast was a similarly enticing buffet of homemade fruit jams, artisan breads, exotic juices and delicate smoked salmon and speck. It was definitely in my top 10 breakfasts of all time.

I set about changing bandages and Tegaderm, loaded everyone up, and we made it back to Sittard in the early afternoon. By 5 I had finished cleaning up the van, restocking supplies, and doing laundry. And that brings us up to now — the first time in a week I’ve had time for a blog entry!

The juniors have a few training days this week until we leave again on Friday for a couple of one-day races in Belgium, and Three Days of Axel in two weeks. I may actually get some time for a bike ride, and lots of time for recovery massages and continued treatment of healing scrapes and bruises. I’m grateful for a few days of slower pace, but I am surprised and delighted at how much I find I thrive in the hectic heat of a stage race. I am learning quickly to keep a mental checklist of every responsibility and getting much better at thinking on my feet with the situation calls for improvisation. I got a great taste of minor crisis management and as much as I hate that any of my riders were injured, I’m glad that their injuries were relatively minor and I was able to get a good look inside the drama of cleaning up a crash. I am sure that I am getting a much more thorough, educational experience in soigneurdom than I would have at the UCI soigneur training program.

This is truly an outrageous career and the people who are exceptional at the job, I think, must have a little bit of loose screws to handle the absurd amount and type of work all for the love of bike racers. But maybe I have that tiny touch of crazy myself?

Bretagne wrap-up

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Sometimes in life, I have found that intense, completely immersive experiences often need time to be processed before I can appreciate the content with a more objective, analytical attitude without the haze of emotional exhaustion. A slower Saturday morning today has given me that valuable time for reflection and organizing my thoughts.

Working a major race as elite cycling team staff is not for the faint of heart, and I am coming to understand why the turnover in the industry is comparatively low: people who aren’t up to the rigors of the work for whatever reason burn out quickly, and the few who make the cut tend to become career team staff. I’m not sure who works harder: mechanics or soigneurs — both jobs require long hours of exhausting work.

The Tour de Bretagne was a UCI 2.2 stage race, which means a limited number of national teams were invited (in this case, 2: the USA team, and the Australian national team) along with European continental teams, pro development teams, and pro tour teams. It’s a very high-level race in which stage winners and riders high in the overall finish ranks have historically continued on to successful professional careers. The race consisted of 7 stages between 145 and 200 kilometers long over challenging terrain and road surfaces in the rural northern coastal country of France. The six USA national team riders selected for the race were charged with two major tasks: to ride hard and return some good results, but perhaps even more importantly to learn the skills needed to race at that level which professional teams look for in prospective riders. To paraphrase their director, former pro rider Michael Sayers, racing at events like these presents a goal that isn’t necessarily meant to be attained, but for learning to occur in the process of striving toward that goal. Bringing away a couple good results and a wealth of experience constitutes success, and in that respect the Under-23 riders of the USA national team were very successful.

As for my part, my role was to serve as an apprentice soigneur to Robert Grabowski, another alumnus of the pro leagues who worked for Liquigas-Cannondale and BMC world tour teams. We arrived at the first host hotel in the evening 2 days before the race began, which gave me a day to prepare and learn the ropes a bit.

My first task the next morning was bottle prep. The general policy is to distrust drinking tapwater in many parts of Europe, so I had to make a grocery store run to purchase bottled water for drinking and food supplies for the next few days. Every part of the process involved some unforeseen complication; nothing was easy. I drove the van, an enormous Fiat Ducato, down winding narrow French roads (having to turn back twice because the GPS wanted to take me under bridges too short for the van’s height) only to find that the grocery store had underground parking also too low for the van, so I had to parallel park it on the street. For comparison, I drive a compact hatchback Honda Fit back home — the van is roughly 1.5 Fits wide, 2.5 Fits long, and 2 Fits tall. I’m just relieved my parents insisted on me learning to drive a stick shift as a teen; that was the one part of the whole process I felt competent doing. I managed to park the van without running into anything, popped a couple of coins in the locks to retrieve shopping carts (that part I remembered!), and ascended the escalator. An hour and a half later, I had collected 250 liters of bottled water in various sizes of containers and enough groceries for a small army. It took me a long time to identify the translations of food products in an unfamiliar store layout; my basic French vocabulary got me only so far. I negotiated the transaction in my nonexistent French and haphazardly wheeled about 300 kilos’ worth of water and food back down the escalator (a feat in and of itself), drawing copious weird glares from onlookers. With water and food loaded up, I made my way back to the hotel to wrap up race food and bottle prep and begin with rider massages.

The one part of soigneur work I feel thoroughly comfortable performing is sports massage; I’ve been doing it for 7 years and have taught seminars at the graduate level for the last 3, so I feel like I have that part down. It was honestly a relief to be able to focus my energy for a couple hours on something in which I am well-versed and experienced; it’s hard work of a different kind, but work where I don’t feel like I am constantly questioning myself and I take solace in that practice. I am told that coming from a sports medicine background is surprisingly uncommon among beginner soigneurs; many come from another aspect of sport or industry and have to learn the bodywork and recovery component as they go. Having extensive training in what is ostensibly the most difficult and most important part of the job gives me time to iron out the rest of the details, which are complicated to learn but easy enough to perform once routine is more established. It didn’t feel like it at the time, but in that respect I am very fortunate.

The Tour required several hotel transfers, so the plan was for me to get the riders to the race, do the feed zone, and get to the finish to bring them back to the hotel while Robert drove the box truck to the next hotel and prepared all the details. The first stage didn’t require a hotel transfer, so I was able to shadow Robert and learn the responsibilities and layout of a race stage. I wrote this list up during the week, and it is a pretty darn accurate characterization of most of the stuff a soigneur needs to keep in his or her head at all times:

Before the race

  • Up early, shower and pack, breakfast
  • Prepare race food
    • Get baguettes from hotel
    • Make sandwiches for soigneur(s), mechanic, and director. Pack in musettes with goodies
    • Make post-race sandwiches and rice for riders. Also fill a musette with fruit. Pack condiments, tuna, oil, and utensils for the rice
    • Make 2 thermoses of coffee and one of hot water for tea. One coffee for team car, one for riders. Pack cups, sugar, creamer, and stirring things
    • Make snack sandwiches with milkbread for riders and pack in aluminum foil. Do one savory variety (ham and cheese is good) and several sweet ones (Nutella, honey, jam, etc). Make 1 per rider with some extras for musettes
    • Wrap cake or waffles in aluminum foil for riders
  • Restock race food bars and gels
  • Prepare bottles
    • At least 5-7 per rider — 2 for musettes/feeds, 2 for the bike, and 1 for every half hour of racing. More is better and topping off the coolers is recommended
    • Pack water and fresh mix in the cooler for the team car. Include some mini Cokes and Fantas, some sparkling water for director and mechanic, and any other goodies they request
    • Rotate the previous day’s mix from the car cooler to the van cooler and put it on the top row to go on the bikes and in musettes first. Put fresh mix as needed on the bottom row.
    • Dump mix after day 2; it’s no longer good
    • Pack mini soda in the gaps and include a bottle of ice if necessary
    • Make sure the van is stocked with water, empty clean bottles, chocolate milk, and plenty of mix for hydration, preload, and recovery mixes
    • Mark mix with an X and recovery with an R
    • Bring a large bag of clean empty bottles to fill during the race
  • Fill empty 1.5 L bottle with tap water and put in the freezer to use for ice
  • Pack gels and bars in the team car as per director preference. Some use a box, others just stuff them in the door pockets
  • Clean and stock the van
    • Vacuum and sweep floors, wheel wells, bike area, etc
    • Wash the exterior and Windex on mirrors and windows (this can also be done the night before)
  • Program start parking into the GPS
  • Pack the following race items in the main compartment:
    • Towels and washcloths for each rider plus spares
    • Podium bag with bottle for recovery
    • Race food — bars and gels
    • Spare clothing bag
    • Supply box with chamois cream, massage creams and oils, baby wipes, sports wash, embrocation, sunscreen
    • Medical box
    • Finish cooler bag with bottled water and Fanta for each rider
    • Spare musettes
    • Food box of snacks, coffee, race rice, tuna, bowls, utensils, condiments, etc
    • Folding chairs for each rider
    • Wind vest for the feed zone
    • 2 helmets (small and medium) in the van, 2 in the team car
  • Pack in the bike compartment:
    • Cooler
    • Trash bags
    • Spare bottles
    • Aluminum foil
    • Mixes and hydration supplies
    • Extra water
    • Extra soda and juice
    • Milk/soy milk/whatever they want for recovery that day
  • Black and white permanent markers

At the start

  • Drive riders to the race start and park so as to make a nice area for them
  • Put out folding chairs (under the awning, if necessary)
  • Put out cooler, race food, regular food box, supply box
  • Offer pre-load and put 2 bottles on each bike of whatever the riders want to start
  • Massage legs/apply embrocation as needed
  • Program feed zone location into the GPS
  • If time permits, go to start line with riders to top off bottles and take extra clothing

Feed zone

  • Drive to the feed zone
  • Stop for gas on the way if necessary and time permits
  • Find a good, visible parking place near the end of the feed zone
  • Program the finish line into the GPS
  • Prepare musettes for each rider
    • 1 bottle each of water and mix on opposite sides
    • 1 bar
    • 1 gel
    • 1 bit of cake or Nutella sandwich in aluminum foil
  • Tie a knot at the top of the strap
  • Prepare recovery, mark bottles, and place in the cooler
  • Prepare 1-2 dishes of post-race rice for riders taking the team car instead of the van
  • Fill bottles for the next day if needed
  • Pass musettes to riders on the right side of the road
    • Step into the road no more than 1 meter and face riders fully. Hold the tab straight up so it presents the bag at hand-level to the rider. Let go quickly and gently
    • Pass any extras to the team car
  • Jump in and proceed to the finish location post haste

At the finish

  • Park the van near the finish line in a good location for getting out after the race
  • Prepare an area for the riders
    • Folding chairs out for each rider
    • Bottle of recovery, towel, and washcloth on each chair
    • If in a safe location, put out food box and supply box
    • Riders bags out if someone is there to watch it, otherwise locked in the van
  • Program hotel address into the GPS
  • If there are multiple circuits, take a musette with bottles to feed
  • If no circuits (or time doesn’t permit), also take the finish bag and podium bag with a bottle of recovery inside
  • Set up at a visible location well past the finish line and flag down riders. Give water and Fanta, give directions to the van, and give the first rider the key
  • Check anti-doping at the finish line, and take a picture of it if possible
  • Head back to the van, do first aid if needed, and pack everything up
  • Give post-race recovery food to the director for riders going in the team car
  • Put dirty bottles in a bag or another cooler. Throw away bottles used for recovery; they will always have a weird funky sour milk smell
  • Pack everything up and head out

At the hotel

  • Unload and tidy up the van while riders are getting showered
  • Put perishables in the refrigerator
  • Start a load of riders’ laundry
  • Set up massage table and supplies, overturning furniture or using a hallway if necessary. Try to get linens and towels from the hotel, if not use stock and wash daily
  • Massages for all riders, ~30 minutes each
  • Put riders’ laundry in the dryer or on drying racks
  • Go eat dinner
  • Leave dry clothes in the hall with bottled water for the riders
  • Wash van and team car if weather/time permits
  • Wash dirty bottles if needed
  • Go for a run or straight to bed. Or beer, this is a good time for beer too.

So that’s it, in a nutshell. In addition, hotel transfers require all kinds of tedious minutiae, like getting room keys and wifi passwords, so those responsibilities are added in with a bare-bones staff.

Murphy’s Law hung like a shadowy specter nearby all week — if something could go wrong, it invariably did. One rider crashed in the last few kilometers of the first stage, a face-first header that left him bloodied and concussed, forcing him to withdraw from the competition. Another rider succumbed to a nasty illness during stage 4 and abandoned the race. On stage 5 I had a fender-bender with the team van when another car tried to pass and cut me off in a one-lane roundabout, and the French police refused to help with the paperwork so I did the best I could with the chasm of language barrier. I fumbled musette feeds and completely forgot to check anti-doping on one stage, delaying the whole team’s departure from the finish site. The sky poured rain and blew gale force winds and baked the slimy, muddy roads and cobbles with searing sunlight. I chastised entitled French sports fans trying to steal bottles right out of my musette for circuit feeds (seriously, guys?). I forced back tears on more than one occasion and struggled with the language barrier and shame over my beginner’s pitfalls with Robert, and his frustration with having to take the time to train a novice when time itself is at a premium. It had its tense and terrible moments, and I found myself wondering what I had gotten myself into frequently.

But it also had its moments of beauty and levity; I made it through the week, and I came back to Sittard visibly changed: more confidence in my abilities, more relaxed around the riders and other staff, with better strategies to ask the right questions and keep track of the answers, and a wealth of notable information in my brain and in detailed notes on my iPad. Serving as an apprentice soigneur helped me understand the structure of an elite cycling race and with the basics established, I can focus more of my attention on helping the riders and the other team staff to have a great race.

Bretagne feels like a distant memory now that I’m packing up and preparing to head to the Czech Republic for the Course de la Paix (“Peace Race”) the day after tomorrow. I’ve graduated from second-string soigneur to having my very own program in my charge: the USA national juniors team, a group of six outstanding 17-18 year old racers, some of whom are on their very first trip to Europe. I’m starting to get beyond my new-job anxiety and excited about what I can teach them and learn from them. Putting oneself wholly in the service of others is a humbling and enriching experience. As tough a job as this is, it really is an honor to be a part of the journey for riders on their way to achieving great things.

Tomorrow we make all the necessary preparations to depart, and adventure again awaits. More dispatches from the East to follow!

 

Dispatch from somewhere in France…

 

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We’re in the car on a long drive to Bretagne, so I have a little bit of down time to write an entry — the first down time in a while!

I’m into my second week as a soigneur and learning fast — mostly from watching and doing, but a lot from making mistakes too. It’s a job with long expanses of furious intensity punctuated by periods of absolutely nothing to do, and at first it’s actually difficult to recognize when it’s appropriate to take a break. But I’m learning the general routine of everyday functions at the USA house, preparations for a race, and the things that need to happen once riders return from racing.

No two daily schedules are the same, but we generally start early with breakfast and a trip over to the Service Course, a separate location where all of the maintenance operations take place. If vehicles have just returned from racing, they need to be unloaded, thoroughly cleaned inside and out, and items inventoried. If the vehicle needs to make an immediate turnaround for another race, many of the items are re-stocked as needed and loaded straight back into the truck. If they won’t be used for a few days, everything is put back into stock, including things like sports nutrition products and race food, medical kits, chairs, laundry, and coolers. A running shopping list is kept of everything that needs to be kept on hand in supply and soigneurs shop nearly every day.

We head back to the USA house for lunch and typically start massages early afternoon, after the riders who aren’t away racing have finished their training rides and gotten a chance to shower and eat. I’ve been doing anywhere from 3 to 7 massages every day, around 30-45 minutes for each. Riders who have just returned from races, are heading off to races, or experiencing particular issues are the priority.

If we are preparing to leave for a race, at least one soigneur will make a shopping trip for race food and supplies. We have to prepare food for 5-7 riders each day of a race, which includes pre-race food, musettes during the race, and a post-race recovery meal to tide the riders over until meal time. The soigneurs are also responsible for preparing food for the mechanics and team directors during races. Water can be tricky, especially at races in rural areas, so we have to fill bottles at the USA house and purchase bottled water for the trip. The quantity of food we have to procure is truly incredible; it’s like feeding a small army that eats mainly carbs and sugar!

Bottles are washed and prepared the night before a race with plain tap water and hydration mix. The team is currently sponsored by OSMO nutrition, and they supply a variety of products. It isn’t safe to prepare bottles with mix more than a day ahead of time, though, in case the sports drink grows bacteria. A big stage race may require 500 bottles or more.

On the road and especially at longer tours, the soigneurs’ work increases exponentially. The riders’ every need must be addressed, from minor details like getting the wifi passwords for race hotel venues to treating major injuries. Generally, the team director drives the team car, the mechanic drives a box truck with bikes, laundry, and a full kitchen inside, and the soigneur drives the riders in the team van. There are two soigneurs going to Bretagne today, me and Robert, so we are sharing the driving.

Today is Wednesday and the race doesn’t begin until Friday, so we will have to do some more shopping once we arrive tomorrow. Having two soigneurs will make things much easier once the race stages start ending in different cities, which happens on Stage 3. Instead of one person having to do all of the race operations and hotel transfer, I will take care of the race while Robert drives to the next hotel and gets everything set up. I will have to get the riders to the stage and all set to go, then drive to the feed zone once they depart and get ready for all the food and bottle handoffs. In long stages, riders need to take in more food and water than they can carry in the race, so a feed zone is designated on the course for soigneurs to give the riders a bag, called a musette, containing bottles, bars, gels, a small can of soda, and a bit of high-energy food like cake or candy. These bags must be given to riders on the fly, sometimes in excess of 50 kph. I’ve gotten some practice, but I’m still a little nervous about being fast and accurate enough to feed all 6 riders. The worst thing a soigneur can do is a poor presentation of the musettes bag and letting go too late, which can cause the musettes to tangle in the bike or whip around and crash the rider. I’ll probably get the guys to help me out with another practice run tomorrow so I get really comfortable with all of them.

After the race, the riders need a quick high-carb meal to restore depleted muscle glycogen and help them recover for the next stage. This usually involves cooking white rice in the rice cooker and mixing with fatty sweets, like honey, peanut butter, and Nutella. They also need a high-protein recovery drink with some sugar in it (chocolate milk and almond milk mixed with spiced honey flavored whey are big favorites). Once nice thing about race food in Europe is that much less of it needs to be refrigerated — dairy and eggs are fine at room temperature. The soigneur wipes off legs, arms, and faces with sports wash and does quick first aid on anything that needs attention, and if all goes well helps riders get cleaned up for the podium if they have a top-3 finish! Then it’s back to the hotel for massages, bottle cleaning, food prep, and to bed to get up and do it all again the next day.

Make no mistake — this is a really difficult lifestyle and even the soigneurs working for pro teams make somewhat meager salaries for the amount of work the job entails. Days off are rare during prime racing season and the work isn’t easy to come by. So far I am really enjoying it; we’ll see if I’m singing the same tune in a month! The main thing is that the riders and other staff are all friendly and create a very energetic, positive atmosphere that emphasizes efficiency without frantic urgency. Bike racers have always been some of my favorite folks to be around. For now, a good night’s sleep is in order to prepare for what is sure to be a long week!

Adventure awaits!

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The French word “soigneur” literally translates to “one who cares for the troubles of others.” On a bicycle racing team, a soigneur performs a multifaceted job of keeping the cyclists’ bodies and minds optimally primed for competition, doing everything from sports massage and minor first aid to food and bottle prep to tasks like laundry and chauffering riders.

When I was first getting into cycling as a teenager, I read a USA Today article about soigneurs that described it as one of the “10 Worst Jobs in Sports.” The article is a fun read (and to my experience thus far, quite accurate), making the soigneur’s job sound like a lot of hard, thankless work. It sounded exactly like the kind of job I wanted to make my career.

I worked at a bike shop through college and spent a month the summer after I graduated at the Barnett Bicycle Institute in Colorado Springs learning the ins and outs of bicycle mechanics. I gained a great foundation in the fundamentals of bicycle repair, but the greater interest it sparked for me was an appreciation for bicycle fitting and the nuances of changing the equipment itself to optimize the rider’s performance. I attended massage school at the Body Therapy Institute the next year and focused my studies and practicum hours on learning sports massage and the specific needs of athletes. I enjoyed working with an athletic population and approaching massage therapy as a performance and recovery tool.

After being in private practice for a few years, I pursued a master’s degree in sports medicine at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a school renowned for its top-tier kinesiology research as well as its commitment to excellence in education and exceptional classroom experience. I was delighted to find that several of my professors were also cyclists themselves and my adviser took particular interest in the biomechanics of chronic cycling injuries. He and I developed a testing and rehab protocol that became my master’s practicum to use bike fitting and motion capture as a diagnostic tool to recommend rehabilitative exercise and modifications to equipment to improve the biomechanical sustainability of cycling. It was a pretty cool project, and got some attention from the National Athletic Trainer’s Association. I still use the principles of our protocol extensively in my work with cyclists and triathletes.

Last year, one of my friends from graduate school presented me with an outstanding opportunity: her husband coaches an elite junior cycling team and invited me to accompany the team to the Tour de l’Abitibi, a prestigious international race for 17- and 18-year-old riders, in northern Quebec. I took a gamble on the hardest volunteer work of my life and it paid off — not only did I have an outstanding first experience as a soigneur at a major race, but I made some very good contacts with whom I would keep in touch. I enjoyed my experience so much that I applied to a training program at the Union Cycliste Internationale, the governing body of cycling, in Switzerland to be trained as a professional soigneur. After months of preparation and submitting a veritable tome of credential documents, I got a 2-line email a month before the start date saying that the program had been cancelled due to lack of sufficient applicants. I was crushed, and I felt like I was back at square one on my mission to become a soigneur.

After a volley of last-ditch-effort emails to some other contacts in the cycling world, another opportunity arose just a week later: I was offered a soigneur position at the USA Cycling international training center in Sittard, Holland for a few weeks of the spring racing season. So with only a few emails’ worth of information, I stepped on a plane last Monday afternoon bound for Europe to try my hand at being an elite road racing soigneur.

I have a palpable sense that I’m embarking on something very special — few people get to actually follow through on a decade’s worth of dreaming. While I hope for this to be the experience of a lifetime, I also hope for it to be a powerful springboard into the next great thing in my career; I want this to be just the beginning of the story. Above all, it has been an extraordinary lesson in the power of persistence and simply asking for what I want instead of expecting things to fall in line. I’m excited to share my experiences over the next few weeks! Watch this space for an inside look at what being a soigneur on the European cycling scene entails!

How Athletes Deal With Stress

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Does she remind you of anyone? Over the past few weeks, I’ve been feeling a lot like her! I’ve had a number of very stressful life events arise — some I could control, and some were completely out of my hands.

Probably the most stressful thing in my life right now is the thing that I’m also the most excited about — in a few days, I’m leaving to spend 2 months at the USA Cycling training center in Sittard, Holland and traveling throughout the continent with various elite road cycling teams. I have worked really hard to make this fantastic opportunity into a reality and I can’t wait to get over there. USA Cycling operates with the riders themselves as its number one priority, as they should be, so staff needs get bumped down the ladder rungs and are dealt with only after all of the riders’ needs are met. This structure gives USAC riders in Europe an outstanding experience, and expects staff members to be flexible and able to jump on a plane with little notice (or have departure dates delayed suddenly). After having my departure date delayed a few days with still no definite travel itinerary, I’m doing my very best to stay cool and prepare for all the things I can without stressing the rest.

Sports psychologists tell us that people who participate in physical activity, and especially people who compete in sports, have different mental toughness and coping skills that help us to deal with stressful situations. Developing those traits can help us to perform better under pressure, both in sports and in life.

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Visualization Practices.

Coaches in many sports that put tremendous wear and tear on the body but also require precision and fine motor skills have trended toward refocusing some of the training time that used to be spent repeating movements and routines on visualization exercise. Gymnastics is a notable example, and one of the first sports to adopt visualization and imagery as an important part of training. Athletes who devote time to mindful meditation and mental rehearsal of difficult movements often develop those skills better than athletes who do not practice visualization but instead rely on practice through rote repetition. Of both groups, the athletes who practice quieting their minds and mentally rehearsing the challenging task tend to outperform the athletes who rely solely on physical practice in competition. Many athletes also report a better sense of mental well-being and confidence when they regularly practice visualizing themselves succeed in challenging situations; the imagery of competence seems to transfer throughout all areas of life.

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Alan Alda, using Joan Vickers’ gaze-tracking goggles to practice the Quiet Eye technique

Look Out Through Quiet Eyes.

The term “Quiet Eye” comes from Joan Vickers, a kinesiology researcher at the University of Calgary who observed the habits of highly successful professional athletes completing precision tasks under mental pressure, especially putting in golf and shooting free throws in basketball. Vickers used sophisticated eyesight gaze-tracking software and concluded that the most accurate performers focused on a specific point on the target for several seconds prior to to any movement, and continued to concentrate on the same point while performing the task. In a broader sense, we can consider a “quiet eye” attitude to be one of intense focus on our goal while zoning out all the extraneous distractions in our environment. For a triathlete, this may be sighting a buoy to keep his swim tracking straight and efficiently in spite of other swimmers or rough water conditions. For a mountain biker, it might mean letting go of a little bit of control while staying still and focused to let the bike take a fast line through a technical descent. And when encountering a difficult life event, it might mean clearing your mind and allowing yourself to experience and acknowledge your emotions fully, one at at time without distractions.

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Stop: Is it Environmental, or Internal?

One of our species’ defining characteristics is our capacity for pattern recognition. We can use it as an amazing tool for scientific discovery, and we can also misuse it drive ourselves crazy in the process. The ancient portion of our brains that governs memory, behavior, and emotion is the limbic system, which comprises several portions of the deep- and mid-brain. When a noxious stimulus enters our environment, the limbic system is responsible for identifying the threat and preparing our bodies for fight-or-flight response, firing up the sympathetic nervous system and releasing a wave of neurotransmitters and hormones to elevate our sensory arousal. If the stimulus is a saber-tooth tiger crouching to attack a paleolithic hunter, then the hunter’s limbic system correctly identifies the tiger as the threat and latches on to all the clues in the environment that could portend a tiger attack in the future. Early humans who did this well survived and passed on these genes for excellent pattern-recognition. Today, however, many of the things that make us anxious aren’t readily identifiable environmental factors, which confuses the limbic system into identifying false threats and anxieties. I can use myself as an example — I get very nervous about flying on airplanes, especially in turbulent conditions. My limbic system recognizes my anxiety but cannot attach it to any specific environmental stimulus, so instead it identifies my internal cues of anxiety as the threat and creates a sympathetic response to those, elevating my anxiety even further. Rapid respiration and heart rate, ringing in my ears, upset stomach, and other physical sensations that I experience when I am anxious are perceived by my limbic system as a threat, which can snowball into full-blown panic if I don’t recognize it and take active steps to break the cycle (mostly highly-rehearsed visualization exercises). Giving a name and a manifestation to our anxieties can be tremendously helpful in minimizing and tackling them, instead of coping with a nebulous cloud of doubt and malaise. Facing stress is challenging, but it makes it a whole lot easier to be able to identify the source of your stress — you may find that a raging torrent downriver is just a trickling spring if you track it all the way back to its source.

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A Healthy Release.

Many athletes initially get involved in sports as a way to blow off steam and cope with stress. Sports and physical activity are a wonderful way to manage stress and help to find balance between work and life. Constantly appraise your motivation for participation in all activities — are you personally receiving satisfaction and purpose from them, or are you doing them to please someone else? When your fun, leisure activity becomes another onus instead of enjoyment, then it may be time to reevaluate if your stress-reliever has become a source of stress. It isn’t realistic to expect every day of training and competition to be a great day, but it is good to keep a rough tally of whether the great days outweigh the less great ones. You shouldn’t feel like your sports participation is an obligation, and if you do, it should signal that it’s time to talk to your coach or peers and restructure your participation in the sport. If you continue to compete out of a sense of duty instead of enjoyment, you could easily be headed directly down the road to burnout.

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Beneficial Stress.

It’s important to recognize that much of an athlete’s training is to prepare her for enduring stress. This makes the assumption that stress will always be present in some capacity during competition (or, indeed, during life) and that success does not mean minimizing all stressful stimuli, but preparing the body and mind to use stress in a positive way for maximum performance. Think of a master martial artist — when an opponent throws a punch at his body, he doesn’t block the punch with his arm, risking breaking the bone and being thrown backwards as he absorbs its energy. Instead, he is likely to redirect the energy of the punch into a useful movement that throws his opponent off balance and puts him in a better position to anticipate the next move and ultimately prevail. Stress is the same way; if we avoid all stress, we also avoid all opportunities to develop strength, toughness, and strategies for recognizing opportunity in dismal situations. Sports psychologists talk about stress on a continuum from calm to distress. Calm and distress are situated on the far ends of a bell curve, with “eustress,” a term to describe stress used as a motivating factor, at the high point of the bell curve. This is meant to indicate that there exists a healthy degree of stress, and response to stress — it is up to us to condition ourselves to respond to it in a productive manner. We need to reframe stress not as a necessarily negative experience, but a powerful tool in our arsenal for top performance.

 

As for my own stress, I’m doing my best this week! I still don’t know what day I’m leaving for Europe, so I’m trying to be proactive about having everything I can control ready to go at a moment’s notice (and a big hat’s off to my employers for being so understanding about this!). I’m getting over a bad cold that was probably in part stress-induced; managing stress poorly can lead not only to mental fatigue, but to physical symptoms and even immune suppression. Going forward, this trip is a great exercise for me in preparing for what I can and rolling with the rest — watch this blog for more adventures in stress management soon to come!

Homemade Oatmeal Energy Bars

Have you looked at the ingredients list on your average commercial energy bar recently? If so, you’ve likely found some dubiously unpronounceable chemicals, way too high energy density for the average person (or even the average athlete), a truckload of added sugars or sugar alcohols, and possibly even partially-hydrogenated oils (better known as trans-fats). All this for upwards of $4 per bar! Not really my kind of bargain.

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This was my first foray into roses. I’ll save the secrets of how to make sugar roses for another healthy living blog post. Or, you know, not.

I’ve been interested in baking chemistry for a while, particularly since my significant other enrolled me in a baking class as an anniversary present. I learned how to make rather spectacular cakes and confections; they are far from conducive to good nutrition and healthy lifestyle choices, but gosh are they ever fun. There’s also the bit about knowing exactly what goes into those delicate little buttercream roses that makes good incentive to steer clear…here’s a hint: the only thing that’s actually derived from nature is the 4 pounds of powdered sugar per cake. Just for the icing. Yep. But I also learned about how ingredients chemically react with one another in the cooking process to yield certain qualities in baked goods, and how to optimize them for the desired outcome.

I wanted to take what I have learned about the science and chemistry of dessert baking and apply it into making a great-tasting, greatly nutritious energy bar for sports and healthy snacks on the go. I’ve been tweaking this recipe for over a year, and I think I finally have it honed down to near-perfect, gluten-free, easy to make bars. I tried a lot of types that required baking, no baking, different sorts of flours and fillers before settling on this. It makes a dense, moist but not overly chewy bar that’s filling and easy to eat on the run (or, as is more common in my case, on the bike).

Oh yum. How tasty do these look?

Oh yum. How tasty do these look?

A couple disclaimers: if you need your food medically-grade gluten-free, be sure to buy GF oatmeal and carobs especially, and double-check everything else for safety. I know most people with gluten intolerance conditions are already well aware of the necessary precautions, but if you happen to be cooking for someone else and not completely familiar with gluten-free ingredients, always err on the side of caution. The carob chips are more of a personal preference thing; I like their nutty sweetness better than chocolate chips and I found that even bittersweet chocolate made the whole bar too sweet for my taste, and the carob chips seem to set up better and not get melty when the bar is in a bike jersey pocket against my back for a couple hours. These can be made vegan by substituting the flesh of a medium-sized avocado for the eggs and your favorite plant-based protein supplement instead of whey protein powder. For the fruit and nut mix, my local grocery carries a bulk mix that includes almonds, pistachios, walnuts, cashews, dried cherries, and cranberries that just tastes super. Pumpkin seeds also make a great addition; just keep the total around 1 cup and it will be delicious.

Sara’s Oatmeal Energy Bars

Ingredients:

  • 4 c old-fashioned oatmeal, dry
  • 3 scoops vanilla whey protein powder
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 1/2 c granulated stevia (or other sugar-alternative sweetener)
  • 3/4 c carob chips
  • 1 c dried fruit & nut mix, unsalted and unsweetened
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 3 ripe bananas
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 3.5 oz plain applesauce (one mini container)
  • 1 tbsp canola oil

Directions:

  1. Pre-heat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit
  2. Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl and set aside. Thoroughly mash bananas and blend in wet ingredients, beating until smooth
  3. Combine wet and dry until the mixture is uniform. It will be dense and wet.
  4. Line a 9″ x 13″ baking pan with parchment paper. Spoon mixture into the pan, patting with a spatula to spread and level.
  5. Bake uncovered 25-30 minutes until top is golden and an inserted knife comes out clean.
  6. Turn out immediately on a wire rack and cool completely.
  7. Peel off parchment and cut into 1.25″ x 4.5″ rectangles. Makes 24 servings.
  8. Cool completely and wrap individually in wax paper or saran wrap. Store in the refrigerator. Grab and go for sports and snacks!

Nutrition information for 1 bar serving (good estimates, depending on fruits and nuts used):

  • Total calories: 131
  • Calories from fat: 36
  • Carbohydrates: 20 g
  • Fat: 4 g
  • Protein: 6 g
  • Sodium: 57 mg

A Resolute Resolution

Gran Fondo With FriendsIt’s quickly approaching that time of year again — the 2 weeks or so where gyms are inundated, diet books fly off the shelves, and Americans once again resolve to better ourselves in the New Year. According to a Time Magazine article this week, the most common resolution will be weight loss and improved fitness. Year after year we fall into the same pattern; some of us succeed in lasting lifestyle changes, but the vast majority will quickly fall back into old habits. What can we do to break the cycle?

Last year at this time, I was still in graduate school and despite the fact that I was devoting myself to the scientific study of sports medicine, I was not practicing healthy lifestyle habits. I wasn’t making time for exercise and my eating was frankly atrocious. I had gained some weight and lost a tremendous amount of fitness, and I felt terrible. I had to change.

Today, I’ve lost 45 pounds and 6 inches off my waist from one year ago. I’m keeping up on very fast group bike rides and I’m running better than I ever have in my life. These changes haven’t happened overnight, but they have been consistent and lasting; I’d like to share some of my success with you in hopes that you can find it helpful in your lifestyle as well.

  1. Accountability. I’ve always done better when I had to be accountable to someone other than myself, whether it’s a dietitian looking at my food intake logs, a personal trainer giving me instructions on exactly what exercise to do, or a coach’s training plan. I knew that while I was taking an overload of graduate classes and working 2 jobs, the most important factor was going to be adherence to a healthy, calorie-negative diet. I used an app called My Fitness Pal to keep careful records of overall caloric intake as well as the breakdown in macronutrient percentages (carbs, fat, protein). The app certainly has its limitations, but it’s free, the mobile interface is user-friendly, and the food library is very complete. Having a bold number on a page really helped me to focus and think about selecting foods that would meet my nutrition goals, instead of eating without thought of effect.
  2. Food as Fuel; Exercise as a Privilege. This one was all about mindset for me. I had often fallen into the trap of punishing myself for eating badly with a really hard workout; completely unconsciously, I had begun to regard exercise as a one more onerous responsibility instead of a stress-busting, fun, healthy activity. I started planning my food intake around the workout I wanted to do that day, and I tried to make them as fun as possible. Going to the gym with my significant other was great incentive, with the added bonus that we tend to push one another to work harder. Mountain biking with my dog is one of my favorite things — I get a really fun ride with my best friend, and I got the dog good and tired so she wouldn’t bug me (as much) when I really needed to buckle down to work and study. I always felt better after a workout, and thinking of it in terms of an enjoyable activity instead of a means to offset other unhealthy choices removed a huge mental obstacle.
  3. Flatten the Playing Field. One of the classes I took last spring was a Health Policy class in the Department of Public Health. The professor explained public health initiatives through the metaphor of the myth of Sisyphus, the ancient Greek king who was condemned to roll a boulder up a steep hill only to watch it roll back down for eternity. With any health challenge we face, the steepness of the hill is determined by the factors that make success more difficult. As an example, consider quitting smoking. The factors that make it more difficult might include pressure from peers who are also smokers, life stress that is alleviated by smoking, fear of weight gain after quitting, physiological addiction to cigarettes, and even lack of insurance coverage for cessation treatments. Removing or reducing those factors makes the slope less steep — getting on a new insurance plan, joining a group to provide social support for quitting, taking up leisure activities that promote health and reduce stress. Furthermore, one can factor in advantages to quitting — reduced cost of insurance, improved health, eliminating potential harm to friends and family, and so on — that raise the bottom of the slope, leveling it out even more. Suddenly, pushing the boulder uphill isn’t daunting. The same was true for me with weight management — I needed to make good choices easier, and unhealthy choices less desirable. I committed to not buying any food that was inconsistent with my health goals to remove the temptation of having it in the house, and I cleaned out my cupboards and donated the offending food products I already had to a food bank. I started trading out sports massage services for personal training with a gym and scheduled my workouts during gaps between classes to make it as easy as possible to stick to my schedule. I even bought some particularly cool-looking running shoes; don’t underestimate the power of adding some fun to a workout! Making the right choices easier helped that boulder keep on rolling without much added effort on my part.
  4. Make SMART goals. SMART is an acronym used in athletic training and physical therapy rehabilitation; it stands for Specific, Measure, Assignable, Realistic, and Time-Oriented. I found these criteria really helpful in goal-setting for healthy lifestyle choices too. Vague goals (“I want to lose weight”) are hard to conceptualize and rarely succeed. Instead, I reviewed a lot of health literature and talked to experts to determine an appropriate and attainable specific weight goal for myself. I keep track of a lot of measurements to track my progress, including weight, hip, waist, and neck circumference, resting heart rate, and sleep patterns. My gym also has a station that takes more medically-oriented measurements, so I track blood pressure and body fat percentage using that equipment. Those measurements help me assess progress and adjust my practices to keep on track; I don’t think that keeping track of measurements to that degree of detail is right for everyone, but I’m a numbers-oriented person and it’s been really helpful for me. “Assignable” refers more to a rehab setting where a patient works with a variety of people, but I use that criteria to assign myself fitness tasks each week (for instance, this week’s job is a long bike ride on Tuesday). Realistic goals are crucial to success, so I shoot for a pound of weight loss per week. This makes it much easier to stay on track and such gradual progress is much more likely to be lasting progress. I make my goals time-oriented by setting fitness benchmarks, such as entering races or events and just having dates where I want to have achieved specific aims (usually these are regular doctor check-ups; I like showing off how to my doc how well I’m doing!).
  5. Be Realistic about Setbacks and Successes. I would be a big liar if I didn’t admit to falling off the wagon now and then. Sometimes it has been out of my control — I recently had to take a 10-day hiatus from exercise after a medical procedure — but most of the time I can point the finger to none other than yours truly. Too often, setbacks have snowball effects that result in a catastrophic tumble; we see this all the time with crash dieters whose resolve wavers and they end up gaining back even more weight than they lost. Willpower is not an inexhaustible commodity, so it’s important to identify potential pitfalls and offset their impact. For most people, getting it right 90% of the time is enough to see progress. For me, that means about 1 meal per week that’s less than stellar. I don’t go overboard, but I also try not to have such hard and fast food rules that a taste of forbidden cookie will send me spiraling in an out-of-control tailspin. Take it one day at at time; one bad meal isn’t going to demolish all your results, but neither is one good one sufficient for success — it’s all about consistency. Instead of totally cutting out an unhealthy habit, reduce it a little with an alternative; I can’t live without chocolate, so I started buying small quantities of extremely high quality dark chocolate and keeping it in the freezer, so it required a lot of work to break a little piece off, let it thaw, and savor it, instead of demolishing a whole candy bar. Little steps in the right direction are more powerful than trying to make giant leaps that may backfire into setbacks.
  6. Surround Yourself With Experts. Every big organization, school, or corporate entity has a board of directors to provide the best decision-making insight to the leadership. Establish your own personal board of directors to inform your lifestyle decision-making; I got this advice from a very wise high school principal, and it has proved to be an extraordinary tool for all kinds of big choices. In my journey to better health and fitness, I have sought out the company of experts with specific knowledge to fill in the gaps of the big picture. I had a bit of trial and error in assembling my board of directors — one mistake I made was wanting to get better at running, so I asked a well-meaning runner friend where I should start. “It’s easy!” she exclaimed. “Come out on a run with me and I’ll show you!” And thus ensued a horrible experience of being dragged around a totally inappropriate course at way too fast of a pace until I felt like I would never be able to take a full breath or keep food down again; it was really defeating and would have been very easy to give up right then and there. But instead I consulted a running coach who helped me to streamline my form for greater stride efficiency and ease. Similarly, I asked my friend Tommy Rodgers, a dietitian and local cycling legend, for some nutrition tips that helped me come away with a much better understanding of fueling my body. I also started getting regular massage therapy, which proved to be a huge boon — it helps me recover from hard activity much faster to optimize my training, and it’s a wonderful calorie-free reward for good lifestyle choices.  Here’s a plug for my employer: at E3: Elite Human Performance, we have all of these services under one roof; it’s a superb resource no matter where you are in your fitness journey.
  7. Budget for Expenses. Healthy eating habits and exercise do incur some unique financial expenses, but look at it this way — have you priced type 2 diabetes recently? How about treatment for the dozens of cancers that have been directly linked to excessive body fat, or cardiopulmonary diseases? A little extra expense and careful spending now can add years to your life; it’s impossible to put a price on that. Fitness and healthy lifestyle don’t have to be all Whole Foods and exorbitant gym memberships; you can accomplish strength training at home with equipment you already have, join a free running club where all you need is a decent pair of shoes, and buying fresh produce instead of pre-packaged options can actually save a lot while optimizing nutrition. Investing in a training plan from a coach and other fitness-related services in the short term can help you build lasting habits, and you will reap benefits in physical health, self-confidence, and healthy habits for life. You don’t have to think of these commitments as long-term and continuous, but it’s great to try a variety of things and see what works best. I have been most successful with picking competitive events in which I want to participate and getting training plans built around the event schedule to keep myself on track. It incurs financial burdens, but the benefits of deeply enjoyable activities, friendships I have built through sports participation, and how great I feel when I’m eating and training well is more than worth the expense.

I want to wish you the best of luck on your New Year’s resolutions, whatever they may be. Remember too that any type of change is about the process, not the end point of the journey. Making that process deliberate, minimizing the obstacles in your way, and enjoying the voyage of reaching toward your goals will help you succeed. I’m well on my way to health for life, and I keep being surprised by unforeseen benefits I encounter. Keep your mind open to new possibilities along the journey; a year ago, I never could have guessed there was a runner inside me waiting to be let out!

What are you resolving to do this year? Tell me about it in the comments!

Fanning the Spark

Image
When I was in 1st grade, I thought dinosaurs were the best. The greatest of course was Triceratops, because of the beast’s striking, instantly recognizable features, and because it had “Sara” in its name (say it out loud). My mom showed me a book with beautiful pictures called Digging Up Tyrannosaurus Rex about the most complete T-Rex fossil ever found (incidentally, by my uncle’s sister in Montana) written by paleontologist Jack Horner. She told me that Dr. Horner had trouble in school because of a reading disability but he became a great scientist anyway. That was it; I wanted to be a paleontologist just like Dr. Horner.

sally ride

In 2nd grade, I did a book report on the American astronaut Sally Ride. I learned that she was the first American woman to go to space, and I was captivated by the pictures of her with her long hair floating weightlessly like a mermaid underwater. She used the robot arm on the spacecraft to retrieve a satellite, which I thought would be very handy to remotely play with my friends on the playground while I was still in class. That was it; I wanted to be an astronaut just like Sally Ride.

Bismarck_illustration

Another book report in the 3rd grade brought to life Robert Ballard’s discovery of the German warship Bismarck. Dr. Ballard is best known for his discovery of the RMS Titanic, although he says that the lack of historical record and the nature of the shipwreck made the Bismarck much more difficult to locate. I read that Dr. Ballard’s tiny submarine, Alvin, fit 3 people in the space of a walk-in closet (I made two of my friends squeeze into a bathroom stall with me to experience this claustrophobia firsthand). I read that the pressure at 15,719 feet below sea level, where the Bismarck was found, was so immense that a styrofoam head would be crushed to the size of a shooter marble (I crushed a lot of styrofoam cups to see how much force it took). I read about how Dr. Ballard gathered evidence about the ship to recreate the battle that led to her sinking, and his observations supported the theory that the German crew had “scuttled” the ship, (a delightful word for an 8-year-old audience) intentionally sabotaging her inner compartments to sink the disabled ship faster and prevent her from being captured by the British navy. Most compellingly, Dr. Ballard had kept the Bismarck’s location a secret so that less scrupulous explorers couldn’t rob artifacts, preserving the shipwreck as a historical site. That sealed the deal: I was absolutely, positively going to be an oceanographer, just like Robert Ballard.

I actually stuck with my marine science enthusiasm for quite a long time, as these things go in the elementary-age demographic. Having to wait until age 12 to get SCUBA certified made my ambitions more difficult to maintain, and my interests drifted to a range of topics — music and the arts, then large animal veterinary medicine, then political speechwriting (that one is a little harder to explain, but I was really into it).

When I was in high school, my mom got really into running. I went to see her run the Women’s Only 5k on a beautiful, crisp October morning, and I was so impressed — there was my mom, lithe and powerful, with an awesome kick finish at the end! Something inspired me to requisition her steel hybrid bike that afternoon and I went out on my first real bike ride, a 4-mile loop near my house with a couple pretty good hills in it. When I got back, I had to lay on the living room floor with the ceiling fan blasting full-force for half an hour before I felt like I could walk. I was not a fit kid.

But the next day, darn it if I didn’t go ride that loop again. Twenty-five minutes to recover this time. Two weeks later, I had ridden every day and had gotten up to 20 miles in one shot! A month later, not knowing any better, I showed up at Paceline Bicycles on Saturday morning, 34-pound steel hybrid in hand, and rode 45 miles with some incredibly indulgent, sweet, helpful cyclists who took it upon themselves to make sure this strange kid on her wholly inappropriate bike didn’t become road kill out there.

My parents made what was, in retrospect, a slightly absurd leap of purchasing a $1200 Cannondale road bike for me for Christmas that year, and the shop let me ride it on the Saturday rides. Three months into cycling, and I was getting inexplicably fast. Chubby 16-year-olds typically do not keep up on 19-mph hilly shop rides, let alone start contesting sprints. This was a big deal for me — I had finally found my “why,” and at the same time a community of people who thought I was pretty cool for doing it.

I am not exaggerating when I say that cycling has changed my life in ways I never thought anything would. It led me to a career I love, deep and fulfilling friendships, a recreational outlet that feeds my soul and fuels my body, and a competitive activity that motivates me. My first date with my long-time boyfriend? A bike ride. It has become one of the most enriching parts of my life.

Earlier this week, I got to go back in time to visit 3rd-grader Sara when I attended a lecture by one of my aforementioned heroes, Dr. Robert Ballard. He is an extraordinary speaker, full of infectious vitality and passion. His vast knowledge from his prestigious career is almost overshadowed by his palpable sense of wonder and reverence for the thrill of discovery and the beauty of the world. Here he is in 2008 giving a talk at a TED conference:

Tell me that watching that didn’t make you want to drop everything and go be an oceanographer too!

After his talk, Dr. Ballard answered questions submitted from the audience beforehand. I really hope someone filmed this and it goes up on YouTube soon, but for now I’m going to try to remember it as best as I can. The moderator spoke, “This question comes from a Guilford alumna, Sara, who did a book report on your discovery of the Bismarck in 3rd grade. Presumably that went well for her and she finished her M.S. in a STEM field earlier this year.” Dr. Ballard gave a thumbs up. Swoon! “Sara asks what advice you have for young minds interested in science, and for the adults who want to encourage them.” Just when it couldn’t get any better, Dr. Ballard gave a beautiful, honest, heartfelt answer. An article in the Greensboro News & Record quoted him as saying, “Work with your kid. Don’t laugh at their passion. No passion is a bad passion. You just need to modify it sometimes.” He spoke of hard work and perseverance, what graduate students know all too well: you really have to want it; if it were easy, everybody would have a PhD. Most importantly, Dr. Ballard spoke about the importance of being supportive of children’s dreams — don’t dismiss them as unrealistic or unimportant or just plain weird, but share in their excitement and provide the support they need to chase their passion. Fan the spark just enough for the flame to ignite and come to life.

Whether or not we are parents, educators in the classroom or a less formal environment, or involved in the sciences and humanities, each of us has a real responsibility to usher in the next great generation of thinkers. We like to berate the kids of today for their “plugged in” attitudes, but the prevalence of technology and fluency in its use that “digital native” kids develop from an incredibly early age will be responsible for the next wave of innovation and advances. This is a big part of why I like working with youth and collegiate sports so much — committed, enthusiastic, hard-working young people engage with challenges in a very different, creative way. It is our responsibility to be open to those ideas and willing to entertain fresh thinking, rather than dismissing it as naive and supplanting it with the same kind of thinking that caused our problems in the first place. We live in a world that paradoxically judges the people who are “too into” their specific enthusiasm, but turns around and praise the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates people whose obsessive determination leads to outrageous wealth and advancement. We need to start redefining success; the first step, for me, is to embrace my passion.

Today, I’m about to get passionate about yard work. Go find your passion, and let me know how it goes!

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