Sunday, January 23, 2011

Jim Camp

It's no secret that athletes in search of focused, uninterrupted, intense training use camps. Training camps are usually a several week block of hard work to prepare athletes for the coming season. Often times months away from meaningful competition, they demand a certain level of focus. Nonetheless they have been proven effective across many sports. Most days at camp are efficient and deliberate, every minute, workout, meal, sleep and stretch have a purpose and goal. Every measurable bit of life is put under a microscope and evaluated. Ultimately, training camps are intense, and require a certain level of seclusion, detail, and the constant drive for improvement.

Team training camps are a typical approach for a lot of sports. Think about spring training for MLB or late summer two-a-day's for high school football players. Unbreakable links of camaraderie are built among teammates during these camps. The mentality of "we are all in this together" builds a team from within as they endure the daily grind. Coaches are the camp directors, constantly pushing individuals to their limits while always holding the accountability to the team to the highest regard. Team camp's build a single, strong, cohesive unit out of a group of individual athletes.

But what if you fly solo? What if your idea of a training camp is more individual; more Rocky IV frozen Russian mountain side, and less mild spring Florida breeze? What if your goal is to build camaraderie more with the tools of your trade than teammates? What if you are your own coach and the athlete, the evaluator and student? What if you thrive on self discipline, personal accountability and solitude. What if your idea of camp is packing up your former team's car with only a few training essentials and driving many hours south to an unfamiliar place with simple intentions? To train, a lot, alone, for weeks.

Before Christmas I received a phone call from a local athlete I loosely knew and was a client of back home. We spoke in the past on occasion but it was always to a specific point and cycling based. We talked facts, numbers and evaluation and nothing more. Outside of the technical bike world, I did not know him well at all, but I knew of him enough to know the essentials. He was smart, quiet, unassuming, and a very elite athlete. His accolades, from what I understood, were on the national level and his craft was second to none when it came to the relationship between anatomical fit and mechanical function. Naturally, without really knowing him as a person or friend, but knowing what I did, I looked up to him, admired him, and was maybe even a little intimidated by his quiet allure. So an out of the blue phone call was definitely intriguing.

The initial call went something like this: "Hey, I am looking for a place to stay for a few weeks this winter to get out of the snow so I can train on my bike...and from the little time we have spent around each other, I think we seem to get along okay...I know you live in Nashville now, so I was wondering..."He went on, in an awkwardly confident sort of way, "Just to let you know, I am very clean, I am quiet and I love to cook, in fact, if I do say so myself, I am pretty good at it."

After a few more mutually nervous phone calls over the next few weeks we had covered all the details of his trip and settled on a day for his arrival. If nothing else he wanted to be well prepared, never caught off guard and fully comfortable with the whole situation. The first few phone calls were thorough; we covered all the bases. His inquiries were broad; the safety of my town, the elevation gain/loss of a typical local ride, would I mind if he decided to stay longer than a few weeks, the availability/quality of local coffee roasters and grocery stores, local group ride paces, extra bedding, and how long I let my French press steep. Detailed and say the least. But to be honest it was appreciated and by the time he rolled into town in early January, even though it was all still a bit unknown, I felt like we knew his style and he knew ours.

Having obviously done the house guest thing before, he was a pro. Within the first twenty-four hours he made his presence comfortably felt, especially in the kitchen. He stocked the cupboards and fridge full with all of his carefully selected stock of everything natural, homemade, organic, grass-fed, caffeinated, and sometimes mysterious. His room and bathroom were set up simply; air mattress, pillow, bag of cloths, small tube of fruit extract body wash and a laptop. On top of his dresser sat a collection of electronic self monitoring tools like bike GPS, HRM and an iPod. Another bag sat in the corner filled with energy gels, powders and self massage tools and oils. The closet hung nothing but coordinated team cycling jerseys and a bath towel. His bike stashed in the corner next to ours. It, unlike himself and all his belongings, was not unassuming. It was simply bad ass. Speced with just about everything a cyclist could dream of, it was classic, sexy and clean. But when you asked him, it was something else. Something much simpler. It was his tool.

Over the next few weeks our guest settled into a very solid training and life routine. He worked just as hard as we did during business hours then would relax at home with us in the evenings. It was comfortable. We cooked, drank and ate while discussing the intricacies of each. Most conversations having to do with food, beer, music, and cooking took place at a pretty high level. Sometimes above my head. His knowledge of food and what it does to/in the body, and how it reacts to certain training loads was deep and surpassed the basics. To compliment that, his techniques in the kitchen were as exceptional as his ingredient range. Every night we hung out in the kitchen while cooking, aimlessly discussing life; things like the importance of phytonutrients for athletes, The Black Keyes newest album, the historical and fermentation process differences between a Doppelbock and a Belgium Strong Ale, iron and what it means to female athletes during their cycle, and the assertiveness and uniqueness of umami; I was often tempted to take notes.
Sharing the daily breakfast and dinner duties, we almost rivaled each other in the kitchen. Pulling out all the stops to offer up the best meals possible. The end results were fantastic meals and a kitchen tapping for mercy. Most dishes ended up getting rated on a "how much would I pay for this at a restaurant" scale. After a taste of anything he would calmly and specifically profile each flavor note from initial reaction to lasting impression on the tongue; with the same look on his face as a professor would have while analyzing a thesis. How could you disagree? His complex pallet and culinary expertise were rivaled only by his ability to pedal up hill (he hates cycling analogies).

Naturally, because of my intrigue, many discussions would turn toward cycling. Whether it was actually about cycling, or the bike, or maintenance, gear, or fit, it was easy to get on the topic. But he wasn't as eager to talk then. He would often times, in a clear effort, dispel the thought and move on to something else. It didn't take long for me to realize he didn't like talking about his job.

Eventually I came to appreciate and more fully understand his quiet perspective on cycling. His entire professional life had been surrounded by the sport. But he was a person way beyond just that, unfortunately, and for some reason, it was difficult for people in his life to see past his handlebars. The tools he used to do his job were not particularly interesting to him, but others could obsess about them for hours. His workouts were not riveting conversation pieces, but people pick his brain about training constantly. And cycling on a whole, although he loved it, was not something he cared to chronicle on a daily basis, but others wanted to hear him do so. It was clear to me that he had been striving for some time now, to be known as someone other than what he was best known for. He wanted respect for being more than a wrench and a bike racer and hated being classified as either.

It made perfect sense, over the last couple of days I had learned so much about him as a person. He was a great cook and was incredibly insightful. He had passions for other things like coffee and cars and pro football. So, to live with the label of "bike racer" had to be really annoying. Although it was a large part of this life, he didn't allow it to consume his life, so why should everybody else? Is that what national championship burdens you with for the rest of your life? His strong feelings about this situation made me realize it was something he struggled with for a while. I respected this about him, and in a way, I sympathized for him. From then on, rarely did I bring up, or did we discuss cycling. I was fine with it, because there was so much more.

But I guess there were the exceptions. A certain few times something he would read, or someone he would talk to would spark his inner velo-enthusiasm and he would have something to say about it. Most times though, I just sat and listened. I just tried to soak it in as a learning opportunity and just let him talk. Because he didn't say much, when he did, it was strong, meaningful and usually complicated. A few conversations that stand out dealt with things like; evaluating work loads as they compare to elevation changes on his coaching software, a particular saddle adjustability or lack there of, the morning he fit Stacey on her road bike, his and other bike fit philosophies in general, and the true differences between professional and amateur bike racers. I tried to hold on to his conversations the same way I did his wheel when we rode. Sometimes I fell off (he really hates cycling analogies).

All the while, our guest maintained his main focus. His training routine was specific and tough. Everything he did, whether it was foam roll, self massage, lift weights or ride his bike, was serious work. I rode with him several times. It was demanding for sure, but more than that, it was with intent and consistent. He rode purposefully with little emotion. Faced straight forward with little upper body movement, he sat for hours and pedaled, hard. The routes he mapped were killer, scaling some of the area's most notorious climbs several times within one ride. He found his favorite route on the web, it was aptly named "Hillz Killz" a twenty or so mile loop with over a thousand feet of climbing. He determined a particular ride's quality by how many "Killz" loops it incorporated.

Riding with him was never easy, but is wasn't flat out either. Typically it was only up the longest or steepest climbs that he would lose me, then it was my job to "put some pressure on the pedals" and get back on. That was his only advice; "stick to my wheel, and stay there, if you fall off, put some pressure on the pedals and get back on". If I could, great, if not, "sorry, see you at home". Unfortunately for me, his ability to climb and descend made my job pretty damn hard. Sometimes I recovered, sometimes I didn't. His unwillingness to slow down or wait was stern, but I didn't mind at all. After all, he wasn't here to ride with me, or anyone for that matter. I wanted him to do his thing; I was merely a shadow. I really liked riding with him, and did as much as I could. The demand was always there; I could feel it; my legs we taking a thrashing.

Rest days were fun days too. These days always started with big, hearty breakfasts, lots of great coffee and usually a spontaneous lesson about something he just read from the latest Cook Illustrated magazine. He was not afraid to lounge hard these days either. He would do nothing if that is what his body needed. The most he would ever do on a rest day was maybe a self massage or foam roller/yoga session on the living room floor while explaining the relationships between adjacent muscle groups. Then a walk and back to the coffee shop. Rest day nights were about prep for the next big load. He spent considerable time reviewing possible routes online and analyzing his previous workloads on his coaching software. He also did laundry, stretched, hydrated a ton and of course prepped his food stock. Only once did I see him tune and wash his bike. He rarely even looked at it when it was in the house.

By the end of his trip we were sad to see him leave. That morning, he packed up his tools within minutes, had a final press of coffee and was on his way. He thanked us for the hospitality. I thanked him back. Out the door, he headed further south for the next stage of his solo camp that I came to respect and admire so much.

After he left, as I reflected on the entire experience, I hoped that it was a successful time for him and that he got in the work he wanted. My legs reminded me of the work I did while he was here and I am thankful for it. At the end of the day, our guest came to our home as an acquaintance and an athlete in search of secluded quality training. He left us as a teacher, a friend, and more importantly a person unattached to a bike. No longer is he an illusive name tossed around the local cycling scene or an intimidating presence of fit, but a friend, a well rounded, funny, insightful, opinionated, educated, confident and unique friend. He taught us perspective and what it means to be driven, and he taught us about training far beyond the pedal strokes. But mostly, he taught us about himself, the non-cyclist. After two plus weeks of hosting one of the most unique people I have ever met, I thought about what his camp meant to me. The truth was, I had just gotten back from my own camp. Jim Camp.

Camp Mess Hall Highlights:
  • Crusted venison tender loin with roasted parsnip puree and lemon garlic green beans
  • Olive oil toasted steal cut oats with homemade yogurt, raisins, and cold milled flax seeds (a daily occurrence)
  • Pan seared salmon and brown rice bowl with collards, spinach and leaks
  • Caramelized halved brussel sprouts with bacon and leeks
  • many varieties of homemade hummus (several batches) spinach, garlic, and red pepper


  1. cool...sounds fun and delicious!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. nice write up and eloquent prose...;-)...and yes, the hummus rocks!