In the (Feed)Zone - Attempting to Play Bike Racer in the Age of Imperfect

By: Mark Swartzendruber
Posted: Feb 17, 2015


The month of January served me a reminder of just how important it is that most everything in one’s environment be controllable in order for one to function at the very highest level of any endeavor.  I don’t think I’ve ever really fully appreciated the extent to which life was predictable back when I was operating at the top level of my bike racing ability, winning races and finishing high at the Nationals.  That predictability provided me with the ability to plan and execute my training and racing schedule in such a way that I was seldom if ever unable to complete a weekly plan.  After I met TLK and we combined households and later married, she understood and helped and indeed fostered the environment of stability and predictability that allowed me to train and thrive in my insulated bubble of work, eat, ride, sleep.

What you see in the photo above is a 6 foot tall man standing in a very large hole in my front yard.  Despite the fact that our winter up until February has been relatively mild and free of much snow, TLK and I have had a torrent of water rushing into the drainage system of what used to be an incredibly peaceful and relaxing urban oasis of a home in Chicago.  The ground water inundating our home has been the source of 3 office ruining flood events since last September which have forced me to tear up flooring and empty my office in our basement as water has poured through foundation cracks.  After removing all  the furniture and spoiled flooring, removing wet insulation and drywall to locate the source of the water, the cracks have been fixed, the flooring, insulation, drywall and furniture replaced only to have another water event at a different location in the foundation because, well – there is a constant flow of ground water into our house.

Finally, by January, we though perhaps the source of water was a faulty water main line connection from when the City of Chicago replaced the water main.  The City sent an inspector to my home, who when he heard the water rushing into my sump well on a dry and sunny day, immediately called for a crew to come and dig up the work they’d done in November to find the faulty coupling.

They dug a very large hole in the street in front of our home only to find it wasn’t their problem.  No leak, no water.

In the meantime, our problem was only becoming worse.  We contracted with a flood remediation company to locate the source of the problem.  Turns out, we had a couple of them.  Chief being the source of the leaks around the foundation - an uncoupled evacuation pipe. Every time the sump or ejector pump emptied their respective wells, the water shot out into the ground outside the house and rushed into the drainage tile along the foundation base and back into the wells.  Our sump pump was literally going off every minute – recycling 25 gallons a minute, 1500 gallons an hour.

As the water shot out of the uncoupled line, it would force a mix of sand and gravel into the line. This had been going on 5 feet below ground at the side of our house for months. In addition, we had an uncoupled sewer main line in front – which is why the man was standing in a very large and deep hole in our front yard.

We are in the midst of having the situation remediated and at this point the lines are fixed enough that we’re no longer getting water in the house every time the pump fires. I did however need to replace the sump pump because the old one died from over use.

What does this have to do with playing bike racer? Turns out, quite a lot. When life isn’t predictable, when your beautiful urban oasis becomes a privately owned hell, when a lot of what you own is at risk of permanent damage unless you act quickly, and devote all of your attention to addressing the threat to your mental, physical and financial wellbeing – it doesn’t leave much time or even desire to train – especially indoors. Riding outdoors is therapeutic, enjoyable even when riding outdoors means dressing up in 15 lbs. of thermal gear. Riding indoors is work. When you’re under stress to the point that all you want to do is drink yourself silly, when your sleep is disrupted because you’re worrying that the sump pump won’t be able to keep pace and the entire basement rather than just one room will be ruined, riding indoors requires a level of mental discipline that I currently possess in very short supply.

Hence, my average training week is roughly 5 – 7 hours a week of bike time. I’ve cancelled any plans to travel to California this year to train. Traditionally, I go in February and again in March and log serious mileage both base and speed and am ripped and fit and race ready when the season begins. Or at least that’s how it used to be.

Then life became unpredictable. My back blew up. Just when I began to heal, we bought a dump on a frozen lake that needed a summer full of demolition. When that was done I had one decent month of riding before the drainage system at our home blew up and at the end of the day – when real life interrupts – we can have the best designed training plans and goals for the upcoming season and it’s all just ink on a paper. Because, it’s not gonna happen.

From year to year, if you look at the top racers, locally, regionally, nationally they all have one thing in common beyond talent. They have an environment that is stable and predictable. When you see a top local, regional or national racer having a below par season or disappear from the scene, I can almost guarantee that something adverse has happened to that racer’s health, family, job or home. In other words, life went from being a carefully orchestrated pattern to complete chaos.

I understand and appreciate very acutely now the value and extreme importance that a controlled and orchestrated environment plays in the ability to function at the top level.

Eventually my life will get back to stable and predictable and when it does, I won’t be taking that key element of success for granted.