Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Joy of Camping

The Joy of Camping

It’s 5:30am and I’m working down my third cup of coffee while other campers are milling around the food like chipmunks stowing away for a long winter. The arid climate has my throat feeling like wet sandpaper and each nostril like an air duct at Costco, another sip of coffee. Brendan, a Cycling House staff member, saunters from his room heading straight for the banana and peanut butter. Spread, bite, spread, and then announces the van heading to the pool will leave in fifteen minutes. I glance at the whiteboard with the days eating and training schedule, which is methodically thought out and provides a glimpse of what my week will be like.

The Cycling House is a sanctuary for endurance people; a place to escape from soggy weather, train hard and have fun. Living any place with seasons eventually spawns a depressing winter morning, usually a rainy Sunday, when spring never sounded better. I remember flying out of Seattle the same day this feeling hit rising above the clouds and descending into Tucson—the cyclist’s endless summer. The Cycling House crew and location stand on a world class podium; run by a group of friends from Missoula.

Gathering in the living room the first night, walls decorated with race photos and dirt roads trailing off into sunsets, ten guests joined five hosts for introductions: Andy and Sam Schultz, pro mountain bikers and in-house chefs. Elite triathletes, Brendan Halpin and Jen Luebke, are the ride, trail-run and swim leaders. And the guy that holds it all together, camp director Owen Gue, an elite road cyclist since he could drive. The camp draws people looking for more than supported training. A model Gue created with Evan Lawrence of 53x11 Coffee, The Cycling House lends itself to a lot of interaction and non-moving time where athletes are able to learn from and get to know one another. It’s a unique place where a mid-pack aficionado like me can learn years of trial by fire in a matter of days.

The beginning of the camp was memorable because I was in a new place meeting people from other training circles for the first time. Owen set the tone for a productive week: “This is going to be a lot of fun, but it’s also going to be very challenging. I strongly advise pacing yourself and saving a bit for the end as it will definitely be the most difficult.” The light hearted staff sitting with us on the couches as Owen began, “For most of you, this will be more training than you’ve ever put into one week, don’t overdo it on day one.” In the moment of pause I introvert my thoughts and set an intention for the week, almost as if Owen intended it: have fun and do your best.

Over the course of the week Brendan and Jen took on a pretty creative approach to training. Days are centered on a longer ride with swim and run options before and after. With the rides focusing on building up base endurance, the swimming and running sessions are a great opportunity to improve technique and efficiency. Having someone critique my style for six days strait changed my swimming permanently. With enough sessions and down time together to see my body work when it’s both fresh and tired, the coaches were able to pinpoint and discuss areas to improve on.

The second day looked like this: early morning swim and a couple sets of barefoot running drills on an adjacent soccer field before breakfast. After digesting we rode bikes out to Saguaro National Park where some folks raced criterium style around an inner park loop then cooled down on the ride back to the house. Others threw gear in the sag vehicle for a tempo run in the park before riding back to the house to jump in the unheated pool and start recovery as the sun set before dinner.

Mid-week there is a rest day or optional trail run. For me running is a pure way to experience the mountains, I couldn’t resist. As a runner from the Northwest, seeing wild pigs and boulder hopping through dried up river valleys took my training experience to a whole new level. Sandwiching a fifteen mile mountain run in between long rides at elevation also took my experience to a whole new level.

With dozens of other camps to choose from in the Tucson area, the homegrown staff is what sets The Cycling House apart. As the birth place to the Adventure Cycling Association, harsh seasons and a thriving triathlon scene, the motivation to create a familial dynamic between athletes of all abilities started at home.

“Owen and I totally fed off each other as kids” recalls in-house chef Sam Schultz with his warm smile. “We’d get all bundled and go race each other on the trails or on the road in the middle of cold Missoula winters. We were the only ones out there and people thought we were crazy but we didn’t care; we loved every minute of it.” It’s a dream come true for these guys, now in their early twenties, to have created a place where people feel comfortable bringing out that inner child while doing something they love.

Schultz started mountain biking like any other kid, using his bike as a tool to explore his surroundings and gain freedom. After his uncle Charlie, of Anecortes Washington, introduced him to the rhythm of the trails Schultz quickly earned a spot on the World Championship team and now rides professionally for Subaru-Gary Fisher. Sam’s motivation underscores the entire endurance community; people aspiring to do their best and enjoying others doing the same.

I clearly remember the last day of the camp. Staring blankly at the cement off my front wheel, like an arthritic dog waiting for someone to throw the ball; unsure what’s next and growing tired just thinking about it. Looking around at the group I could tell I wasn’t the only one feeling it—growth—the surge of adrenaline from morning swims, scenic rides at five thousand feet and a pre-dinner run as if we were chasing down our meal.

Everyone huddled shoulder to shoulder around Brendan as he started out: “I will be leading, Jen is riding sweep and Owen will be following the group with sag support,” someone hands me the queue sheet. The elevation profile on page two looks like an Olympic ski ramp.

The road tape wormed its way to 9,000 feet on Mt. Lemmon in the Catalina Mountains. Weaving through high desert ponderosa pines, craggy ridge lines dotted with drip sand castle rock columns and hills puff painted with cacti the size of telephone poles. After the first night of introductions and long day that followed, all the training seemed to mesh together. The only measure of time was lying on my back every night after the sun tucks in behind a pastel sunset and counting the stars—not a cloud in the sky. Work, family, and holiday stress was gone. All my energy focused on being as efficient as possible.

Beyond the meals built from scratch and more lasting than sore quads is coming home invigorated by learning about another athlete’s journey. The most rewarding thing about solitary endurance sports is the people I meet through the pursuit; Owen has captured the essence of the endurance community and put it under one roof. At The Cycling House it’s not just one person after an event or a moment in passing, it’s an entire week of learning about other athletes from around the country. We had athletes from Florida, Mississippi and Oklahoma. The Cycling House is an all inclusive training destination for people driven to improve and willing to learn. Back dropped by the mountains just outside Tucson and hosted by some of the most down to earth professionals in the business, it is the perfect place to calm an active mind.

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