30 seconds. Rinse. Repeat

I spent the latter half of the summer of 2018 chasing down heart problems. Motivated by a drop in max heart rate over the previous years, a corollary lack of performance, and stories of guys my age dropping dead, I curtailed all my high-intensity training and made an appointment with the MGH Cardio Performance Program. It can be tricky to debug heart issues with medical professionals. Unless they’re well versed in the physiology of endurance athletes, it can lead you down a rat hole. 

The last time I tried to chase down similar issues was in the late 90’s, after I had retired from full-time racing. I was having trouble breathing, getting dizzy with hard efforts and overall having a difficult time adjusting to “civilian” life as a non-racer. I ended up on a treadmill in a doctor’s office in New York City, for a cardio stress test. The patient before me was in his 80’s and had needed help stepping on and off the treadmill. On the other hand, I was in my 20’s, and running so fast that the techs were getting concerned if their apparatus could handle the speed. 

As soon as I hit my “peak” heart rate — I still had room to go higher but they were worried about the treadmill — they laid me down on an exam table and scanned my heart with an ultrasound device. Within 30 seconds my heart rate had returned to a normal rhythm and they were stuck. There hadn’t been enough time to really see much of what the heart was doing when it was working hard and the levels I had reached were far beyond what they would typically see. After a few moments, the tech said, “I think we figured it out! When you reach your max heart rate, it crashes. Like your heart can’t handle the workload.”

“Are you talking about the recovery once I’m on the table?” I asked.

“Yeah, as soon as you hit your max, it’s like your heart rate plummeted.”

“Isn’t it a sign of fitness that you can recover to your resting heart rate really quickly?”

The tech pondered a moment. “Um…yeah…you’re right.”

Eventually, I moved out of NYC, got more sleep and less alcohol, and the problems largely resolved.

But here I was again, many years and many miles later, wondering why my body didn’t seem up to the task. I had done plenty of exploration and analysis on my own. I had put together a list of hypotheses and was working through them one by one, as best I could.

  1. Getting old
  2. Weak/inefficient legs
  3. Overtired/overtrained
  4. Poor base
  5. No high end
  6. Incomplete diet
  7. Undiagnosed heart problems 

Part of the challenge was in isolating the variables and trying to control for them. 

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GP Beverly 2018

I could see the Spin Arts rider to my right bobble, then start to tilt, then his bike was sliding out from underneath him, sliding down the road and to the left, sliding into my path and eventually beneath my front wheel, while I tried to manage my speed, while I constructed an exit strategy, trying to float my front wheel over the obstacle, with the hopes that the rest of my bike and body would follow unscathed, then trying to slow down without going down, then abandoning all options as the crashed rider’s bike wedged beneath my wheel and I started to pivot forward. 

There was the moment when I realized I was going over, the moment when first my elbow hit the pavement hard, and then my knee, even harder; the moment I figured my front wheel would crumple; the moment when I realized the wheel would be ok; then the moment when I thought it was all over, and the moment I realized it wasn’t and the rest of me completed the flip, landing on my back or the back of my head, or perhaps in the other order, it was hard to tell, but the tail of the helmet caught the pavement and forced the helmet down and foward into my glasses so that they bit into my nose, splayed the nosepads, then came lose. Somewhere in there I felt a hard smack but couldn’t tell if it was my head on pavement or helmet on glasses, or perhaps one of the other riders who had followed and crashed in kind, sending his own shock waves that I absorbed as my own. My right pinky finger was already bleeding, the knuckle sliced clean and dripping dark, red blood onto the pavement and soaking into my glove. I surveyed the damage, waiting for the various body parts to report their damage, waiting for systems to come on-line so I could determine what next to do. 

“How do you crash on a straightaway?” I asked of no one in particular.

Then somebody on the side of the road was yelling, “Free lap! Cut the course, take the free lap!”

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Rollerski fail

This is what my left elbow looks like after taking a superman on a fast downhill.

The skis did not want to track straight and with increased speed, became unstable. The right ski cut inside and sent me flying. 

I was at least able to land clean on my hands, with the pole grips taking most of the impact and skid. But the rest of the body followed thereafter. Knee. Hip. Elbow. That was the worst mostly because it looks like it went clear through the skin to whatever is beneath it. 

I got up and finished the roll. 

Tiny Robot

A few years ago I started working on a short film with my friend, Naveed. He had become intrigued by the rituals related to cycling: the preparations, the superstitions, the motivations.  The project turned into something quite more meaningful.

Those of you who have followed my writing over the years will understand the role Romeo has played and how I’ve used cycling to work through the loss. This film communicates more, in many ways, than simple words ever could.

For more details and credits, checkout tinyrobotfilm.com

The Season So Far


It’s been a forgettable, slightly regrettable ski season so far.

The preparation had been exceptional. I was on snow in November. I had weekend trips to Trapp’s and Bob Green’s. I had long distance runs on no chow and felt strong all the way through.

Then I had a little fall at MSA. On the second day, coming back from the morning ski, I hit a damp patch of snow. My skis stopped. I kept going. I fell hard, stuck the landing, and compressed the right side of my body. My rib cage shifted way out of alignment. I felt the muscles and tendons straining. Something somewhere popped. It knocked the wind out of me. I lay in the snow for several minutes, afraid to move.

Eventually I got up, skied back in, and kept skiing the rest of the camp. But it was really sore. I might have broken some ribs. At least separated them. So I popped lots of ibuprofen and kept going. I did the CSU training race, but I had no aerobic capacity, and suffered for it.

I got sick right after coming back from Quebec. It’s become an annual tradition — train really hard, feel great, then collapse from too much, too fast.  I was sick for a week. I could feel the virus in all my old injuries: shoulder, hips, knee, back.  Coughing with strained ribs was brutal.

It was all enough to disrupt my fitness and technique.

In the Weston Tuesday Night races, I couldn’t get comfortable. I had no high-end. I didn’t feel connected to the snow. I even crashed on the final lap.

Along the way, I realized I had outgrown my ski boots.  All the long-distance running had caused my feet to lengthen out and now they were crammed into boots that were suddenly a size too small. New boots meant tweaks and adjustments, finding and refining technique.

At the Bogburn, under extremely fast and icy conditions, I crashed hard on my right shoulder…the same side I had injured at MSA. I felt something snap when I hit the snow. I was pretty sure I had separated my shoulder. I skied through the rest of the race. It was Romeo’s 10th birthday, and I was racing in his memory. So I was going to finish, no matter what.  Fortunately, the crack I heard was just me breaking through the layer of ice crust, and not tendons snapping.


I had more problems at Weston Tuesday Nights. I was getting dropped by the guys I had skied away from the year before. I was getting sloppy and making mistakes.

I talked about calling the season off, hanging up the skis, and taking a prolonged recovery. Just one more race…

At the White Mountain Classic in Jackson, I skied brilliantly the first time up the Wave, then collapsed aerobically, and hobbled my way in, skiing alone the last 20 km. I couldn’t produce any power from my upper body. If I cranked too hard, my entire right side would flare up.

I won my age group — but that was only because there was really no competition and not because I had a stellar race.

I was becoming less sure about Craftsbury. I wasn’t in any condition to do a 50km marathon.

But I kept going. Because that’s what I’ve always done and, at this point, it’s all I know to do.

I raced Craftsbury, which was a brutally cold race of attrition. Craftsbury is its own story. But I finished it, and that was enough.

I was starting to pack things in after Craftsbury.

Later, as my body would start to improve, I came to understand that I had strained all the muscles responsible for lifting my rib cage so my lungs could expand while taking in air. My aerobic capacity was dramatically reduced. In addition, the strained muscles had thrown of my balance and equilibrium, degrading  my technique, making me even less efficient.

It was tricky to understand because the acute pain had cleared up much faster than the slow, strained muscles — I felt normal, but my body wasn’t at 100%.

For an athlete — especially one who still retains distant memories of elite performances — it is demoralizing to be struggling against your body. I spent sleepless nights trying to understand the root cause and searching for the formula to recover the level of high performance.

It wasn’t anything particular in my preparation or training. It was an unfortunate accident that interrupted everything…and created a ripple-through effect. I’m still dealing with the sense that I will lose the season because of it. I have to change how I think about success this season. It’s not about the results — even though I’ve won 2 of my last 4 races — but rather the feeling that I’m not getting the best out of my efforts. And I’m not quite there yet.

But there is still time.

And I’ll keep going.


Hard Fall

In the autumn of 1999 I was on my third or fourth comeback as a bike racer.
I had bought an Ibis hardtail and I had been rolling the fire roads and steep hills of Marin and Mt. Tamalpais.

I had managed to hook up with a group of local pros – guys from Lombardi Sports, guys trying to make the grade, step up to the next level, or just hold their position as the years rolled on. I was chasing down the ghosts of the sport I had left just two and half years before. I was in a hurry to get fit before cyclocross nationals, just 10 weeks away, just down the road in the Presidio.

I lacked miles and was trying to make up for it. So I had gotten myself invited on the long mountain bike rides these guys would do on Saturdays. I would make the drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, up to San Anselmo or Fairfax, and park on a side street, pull down my bike, meet the group and the coffee shop and roll out.

I learned the rhythm of the ride the hard way. The first times out were 4 or 5 hours long. I never brought enough food or drink and we never stopped for any. Not that there was any place to stop. We stayed tucked in the redwoods and grassy hills of the North Bay, without a sighting of pavement or structure, for much of the duration. I couldn’t allow myself to get dropped. I had no idea how to get back to the car, and I sure as hell couldn’t ask these guys to slow down. In cycling, there are rules of etiquette and I had already breached one of them by interloping into their elite group.

Some groups have a “no man left behind” policy, where if anybody flats or falls, everybody stops. In other cases, a rider or two will pace dropped riders back on. Or escort them home in a slower group.

But these guys were serious.

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Lincoln Steeplechase 2014

Lincoln Steeplechase 2014

It was hot. It felt cool in the shade, that wasn’t going to be enough. Those open meadows, hot and humid, would ramp it the heat even further. Plus, no breeze in and among the trees.

I went out with the leaders.  A young man in white with a shaved head was already distancing us. I remember somebody telling him at the start line “don’t go out too fast” but I was pretty sure he wasn’t following that advice.

Right away I was in trouble because my heart rate pegged and my stomach felt ill.  I spent the next 3 miles trying to slow down and, while my pace dropped and my perceived exertion improved, my heart rate wouldn’t budge from 175.  That was okay. I would be able to handle that, but it would make the hills extra difficult.

I had the three other runners in sight most of the time, watching them switch leads, watching the boy in white fade from his initial efforts, until we hit the twisty section and I was alone.

My body temperature was building the entire time.  After clearing Pine Hill, on the mostly downhill-to-flat section, I was feeling the tingle creep up the back of my neck.  Whatever last minute surge I had been planning was quickly scrapped. Too hot. Too dangerous. I was close enough to the finish to know I could coast in and maybe even hold position.

Coming onto the paved path, with a mile to go, I was caught and passed. I picked up my pace a little bit but this was no neck-and-neck sprint to the finish.  On the long straightaway, I could see the boy in white coming back to me.  He looked blown.

As I approached him, I could see he was in bad shape. He wobbled and listed — telltale signs of heat stroke.

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Here It Comes



One week to go until the Boston Marathon.

My taper was going great. I cleared the longest run of the progression — 22.5 miles. I had sorted out my shoes — no more blisters.  I felt brilliant on the shorter runs.

But then the bottom fell out.  Last week, my legs were sore and stale. My lower back hurt. I was losing motivation.  It continued all week.  So I pushed through all the workouts.  My right shin hurt. My right side felt like broken ribs. My right hip started causing problems again.  I was exhausted.

There were other things going on, too.

I had allergies that made me feel drained. I was confronting the loss of my son Romeo all over again. I lost a few nights of sleep along the way.

The Marathon will be emotional for many reasons.  Romeo was due on Marathon Monday, back in 2005.  We were worried about how we were going to get to the hospital on the race course. But he came early.  And we lost him because of that.  The last nine years have been a slow hell.

There are the bombings, too. All week on NPR they’ve been reliving the events of last year. And I remember that same sense of helplessness, that search for meaning, that lingering pain.

I’ve connected the two events in my mind. So I’m hoping things turn around this week. That I’ll feel fresh and recovered. That I’ll be prepared for the 26.2 miles. That I’ll be ready to run.

And I’ll run by Newton-Wellesely Hospital.

And I’ll get over Heartbreak Hill.

And I’ll finish — hopefully — on Boylston Street.