I have been engaged in an epic battle with this little number for months now. Since starting med school, really. I make slow progress, week by week, edging it up, little by little. Then I rotate off the VA pathology serviced, back to OHSU and 60 hour work weeks, and it plummets like a rock. It doesn't care at all about my work schedule, or traveling home for the holidays, or my other hobbies and interests. How, you might ask, can one little number be so brutally honest? So uncompromisingly rule-bound? So objectively heartless? My CTL causes me a lot of inner turmoil, and it's hard to explain all the reasons why. Mostly psychological, personal problems. Maybe some of you can relate?
So what is the CTL? It stands for chronic training load. To elaborate further in terms my feeble mind can comprehend, it's a metric used by TrainingPeaks to track your training burden. It’s calculated from a rolling average of your daily workouts – their duration and intensity, as relayed by heart rate data – over recent weeks to months. Essentially, if it increases, it means your body is capable of handling an increased training load, i.e. you are more fit. That’s putting it most simply: it’s a decent proxy of your fitness.
Every time I miss a workout, or take a trip, or go for a big backcountry ski tour instead of doing my long ride, I feel guilty. I imagine my CTL dropping a point, like a toddler butt-scooching down a staircase. Or, as was the case two weeks ago, it drops by a full 7 points in 5 days. I know I am “losing fitness,” as it were. But let me tell you a bit about what I did two weeks ago.
I volunteered at a sled dog race. Yes, a sled dog race. My girlfriend Elena and I drove 6 hours away to a small town after work on Tuesday. Then we met a bunch of other volunteers in the morning, loaded up a few large trucks and trailers with gear and food and snowmobiles, and drove another hour to an even smaller town. Then we drove an hour and a half up a river road to where the snowplows had stopped and unloaded everything. Then we sledded everything in another six or so miles, to where we were going to establish a temporary checkpoint, in the woods, in the middle of nowhere. It was so, freaking, awesome.
|End of the road.|
We proceeded to spend the next day and a half shoveling out 3+ feet of snow to build a little citadel of wall tents, each of which had its own wood-burning stove. There were two tents for the volunteers, two more for the veterinarians, another for the mushers, a mess tent, a communications tent, and a tent for the trail crew that would be maintaining the 200-mile course. All in all, we built a little community capable of supporting about 40 people for 72 hours. Let me tell you, we burnt a lot of firewood out there.
|Setting up camp.|
We finished setup by Thursday afternoon, just in time to take a quick break.
Then right after sunset, the dogs started to come in.
I’ll never forget the first team I saw coming up the canyon, across the river. Complete darkness, and all you could hear was the faint jingling of the leads over the steady, soft churning of the river, the backs of 12 dogs, white to tan to black, bobbing up and down, lit up brightly in a bold ray of light that came from a head lamp at the back of the train. It was otherwise completely silent, dark, and still. It was pure magic.
The next day and a half was madness. Dog teams came and went at all times of day, the course bringing them back through the checkpoint in 50 mile increments. There was a mandatory 6-hour rest that most mushers took at the halfway point. More impressive than the competitors –who basically didn’t sleep for 36+ hours – were the dogs. I will never forget standing there in the late afternoon alpenglow on Friday. The teams had come in for their third and final pass through the checkpoint. Most had stopped for an hour or two, letting their dogs rest, giving them food and water before the final leg of the journey. The dogs had already ran about 140 miles. But you wouldn’t have ever guessed that, based on their appearance at their final sign-out.
As the checkpoint coordinator ran the list one last time, confirming their musher had all the required items in their sled, the dogs were anchored in place, looking for all the world like they were losing... their... minds. Barking, lunging at their leads, so eager to peel out of camp they couldn’t hardly stand it. Then they were off on their final 60-mile, 8-hour journey to the finish line, disappearing back down the river into the dusk. Most of those dogs would finish the race between 2:00-5:00 in the morning.
After the big-take down effort and long trip home, it was hard to go back to work on Monday. It was a lot like “ironman brain,” in a sense. It had been such an intense experience, it was hard to focus on much else. I was eager to get back to training though. I returned home with renewed enthusiasm and morale, my mind restored by the time away from this city. I made up 3 of those lost CTL points my first day back.
The point I’m trying to make here is that “fitness” – or the capacity to earn it – is influenced by many external factors. Like how many dogs I’ve seen recently, or how well I’m doing walking my own dog each morning and evening. How much I’m enjoying my winter in the mountains of Oregon, or getting home to see my family. How many dinners I’ve made and enjoyed with my girlfriend, and how many times I’ve walked down the street to get a burrito from my favorite take-out spot. How connected I am with my roommates, my friends, my coach, my job, my faith. It goes on and on.
In the day to day grind - especially during the long winter months - it can be easy to lose perspective. Training can seem more like an obligation, and less like a privilege. It is important to keep sight of what matters, and for me it's all of these other things. And not just in the long run, where these others are preeminent. But in the short run as well. On the heels of this unforgettable trip, I logged one of my finest weeks of training all winter. I guess I shouldn't be surprised.
Thanks for reading,