How to Become a Super-Athlete in '96
New Year's Resolutions tend to fall into two categories: picking up good habits and jettisoning bad ones. One way to do both at once, of course, is to choose an ambitious athletic goal. Prepare to run a marathon, bike 100 miles (or as hep cyclists call it, a "century"), complete a major climb, or shred a black diamond-rated slope on a snowboard and chances are you'll dispose of some of the habits you might want to leave by the wayside. (It's difficult, for example, to carry around love handles or smoke cigarettes and still manage to run 50 to 60 miles a week.) If you make good on any one of these fitness goals, you'll cross over the line that separates the bona fide athletes from the weekend warriors. Indeed, you'll become something akin to a superhero to yourself and win the respect of everyone still climbing the StairMaster. Like everything, accomplishing an athletic feat has both good and bad aspects. First, the good news: the difference between you and those who have gone before us on the path to athletic achievement does not necessarily lie in innate ability, a supernatural threshold for pain, or dietary righteousness, but in simple determination. As W.N. Murray, leader of the first Scottish expedition to the Himalayas, wrote: Concerning all acts of initiative -- and creation -- there is one elemental truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would otherwise not have occurred. The bad news can be summed up in these two aphorisms: 1. "You are what you eat" (Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin); or, Learn to love bran and Power Bars; and 2. "What doesn't kill you will make you stronger" (anonymous), the jock creed that turns many off sports. But don't let it stop you. What this maxim conceals is the silver lining of athletic toil: endorphins. Forthwith, a primer on how to become an athletic hero in 1996. As you start on your path, make use of the resources mentioned below, but soon you should become an expert on your own particular needs. At that point, devise a program that best serves them. And remember that while solitude may be part of the appeal of some of these regimens, you can make the completion of your goal easier by seeking input from those who are enthusiastic about the sport you're attempting to master. All right. You've dug in the closet and come out with some Lycra tights, a T-shirt you last wore when you painted the bathroom, and a dingy sweatshirt. So what? Make new workout gear a reward for passing a training milestone. For now, what you have will do. Put them on. Drop down to the street. And listen. Somewhere not far off there's a crowd cheering ... Run a marathon "If I can do it, anyone can," says a modest Angela Urata when I ask her about her first marathon, which by definition is a 26-mile footrace. Urata began running regularly when she was 36; the following year she decided she wanted to run a marathon before she turned 40. Last year, at age 38, she did. Urata acknowledges that one can prepare for a marathon in as little as three or four months, but only if you've been running consistently for a while. First, she says, "be sure it's something you really want to do, because it takes over your life. All your free time goes there ... and that's all you'll be talking about." Urata subscribes to Runner's World magazine, which she found an excellent resource for information on 10Ks (10-kilometer races), advice, and commiseration. Following the training programs outlined in Joan Samuelson's Women's Running, she averaged 50 miles a week at first, including several 10Ks, then over a four-month period built up her weekly "long run" from 10 miles to a three-hour, 15- to 18-mile run in preparation for the big day. "One thing you have to be careful of is overtraining," she notes, referring to people who, anxious about their first attempt, exhaust themselves and forget to "taper," or ease off, the week before a major excursion so their bodies are rested and hungry for exercise. Concerned more with endurance than with speed, Urata says she values running because she can't stand gyms, because it's convenient, and because "it really helps you focus on your body." She advises against wearing a Walkman so you can be tuned to your body as you run. She also recommends a diet of fruits, vegetables, carbohydrates, and grains, with no caffeine and sugar. "I made it [on the diet] except for the sugar part," she says with a laugh. In the month before the marathon, she says, her diet became even more essential to her training. "I wish I'd done a half-marathon first," she says, but believes she made a wise choice in choosing a race with few hills. Mostly, she says, the final preparation was mental: "On the last run before the marathon, I thought, 'You know, I really love running, and I'll be pleased even if I don't do this. I don't have to do it!' " At about the 20th mile, her hamstrings began to hurt badly, and she relied on a few mantras -- "Hills are my friends," "Pain is helping me" -- to finish. As a woman, Urata reflects, she had never been encouraged to be physically active, so she took a certain pleasure in passing men several years her junior along the course. It took her about four hours. Scale El Cap Hans "Hollywood" Florine, 31, is a difficult act to follow, but his exploits can at least serve as inspiration. He has been up the face of El Capitan, the seemingly sheer, 3,600- foot granite monolith in Yosemite National Park in California, 35 times. He has been up the "Nose" of it, an additional challenge, 22 times, and holds the record for the fastest ascent of El Cap: 4 hours, 22 minutes. It takes most people three days. "El Cap is not just for anyone," Florine says matter-of- factly. "You need the right equipment, the right training, and to team up with the right people." Though he teaches climbing classes, he says without a hint of self-promotion, that joining a climbing gym is a must, as is aerobic training. Starting from scratch, he says, one might follow these general steps: 1. Become aerobically fit. Do the StairMaster. Do sets of pull-ups. Stretch to improve flexibility. "You have to do the aerobic work," Florine says. "Even the strongest at pull-ups isn't going to climb well without conditioning." 2. Join a rock-climbing gym. Practice on a "crack" climb, one with a gap in the wall that you climb without the benefit of handholds. As Florine says, "get some leather on the hands." No matter how fit you are, don't attempt a big climb until your hands have first been thrashed and callused. And even if they're covered in calluses, know that your hands will take a beating on the climb. 3. Take an outdoor climbing course. 4. Find a few climbers you trust and who share your goal. Climb with them on both indoor and outdoor walls before you attempt a major climb. 5. Plan your meals and test your meal plan. Florine, because he climbs so rapidly, will scale a mountain like El Cap on only two Power Bars and two quarts of water. Mortals will need to carry meals for a couple of nights, meals that can be consumed while "tied in" to the rock. For this, consult How to Rock Climb Big Walls by John Long and John Middendorf. Of course, climbing is a weather-permitting enterprise. Winds and cold make the winter an inadvisable season to climb no matter what your level of expertise but an excellent time to begin your endurance training.Bike a century To Sam Spencer's mind, there are a couple different approaches to pedaling a century: what he calls the casual approach, for those with limited time during the week for training, and a more competitive approach, for those with more vigor than patience. Spencer, 27, has been racing for 10 years. Though he began competing on paved roads, he found that a cutthroat attitude between cyclists and an emphasis on speed and endurance "took most of the fun out of it." He now races his mountain bike up and down rugged and steep inclines, more excited by the thrill of the sport than by the competitiveness. A student and wine steward, he fills his days with classes and training. Nine months of the year, from February to October, he rides six days a week, alternating speed and distance workouts from one day to the next. For those with less accommodating schedules, he suggests a riding regimen of three days a week. But before any of it, he insists on the obvious: a bike that fits you properly, is in good working order, and that you are familiar enough with to adjust. Oh, and "two h- words," he explains: "A helmet and hydration." Be prepared, Spencer says, to drink more than you think you'll need while riding. "Two easy rides during the week, of about two hours, just spinning, aerobic, not pushing your heart rate past 75 percent of max, and then on the weekend a three- to four-hour ride with hills" is what he calls casual. "Don't push too hard in the beginning," he cautions. "Some push too hard too early, or push too big a gear and injure their tendons or just burn out. It's as important to keep your day of rest as it is to fit in another workout." Sticking with this program, Spencer says, most riders could be ready to attempt a century as early as summer, so long as they are diligent and make the weekend tours really count. For complete training programs (including one specifically for biking 100 miles), Spencer suggests Beginning Bicycle Racing by Fred Matheny, published by Velo News in Brattleboro, Vt. Shred black diamonds For 29 years the Mogul Ski Club has taken kids ages 9 to 18 up to the mountains to ski -- and more recently snowboard -- on weekend or week-long ski trips. Curious to know what, if any, special preparation snowboarding requires, I interrogated Bob Casey, the director of the club. Casey, 53, said he'd be snowboarding himself this winter were it not for his recent back surgery. Compared with skiing, Casey says, snowboarding is easier to learn and safer. "The thing with snowboarding is that after a couple of hours, you're an intermediate," he says. "You have to be willing to fall for a couple of hours, but after that you'll find your center of gravity and you can start really cruising. It's really a faster way to get out there." A lot of adults, he says, see snowboarding as an adolescent craze. But even though a lot of teenagers do snowboard, adults are missing out if they dismiss it as a sport for the young. Unlike skis, which have to be sized according to your ability, height, and weight, it's much easier to borrow a friend's snowboard or rent one and try it out without destroying your budget. "You don't go through them as fast as skis," Casey attests. "If you buy one, chances are you'll get a lot of use out of it." As far as training for more spicy runs, Casey says, do aerobic workouts, especially running and squats, to strengthen the top of your knees. "Your knees aren't under as much pressure as they are on skis and you don't have the danger of one leg twisting away, but you still want to be strong in the legs." Most important, he says, take a lesson. "They'll show you how to fall. And you're going to fall." As for negotiating a black diamond slope (there are three main ratings for slopes: blue circle, the easiest; green square, intermediate; and black diamond, the steepest or fastest), Casey says his best advice is to "pick a day with good snow so you can implement your skills and really know what level you're at." And, he says, "when you do steep terrain, don't stop and look down. Go right over the lip and try to get a good rhythm going. When you're at the bottom, then you can stop and look up at the slope and figure out how to do it better the next time."