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Saturday, December 21, 2013

Lessons from the Italian Stalion

Of all the Rocky movies, none so captured my competitive emotions as Rocky IV. Upon its release in 1986, I was an impressionable eleven year old, the perfect age to dream big. I would venture to my snowy backyard and trounce up hills carrying logs and rocks, emulating Rocky's rustic training methods. The classic film pits the past-his-prime Balboa against the formidable and menacing specimen of human power and fitness, Ivan Drago, a young Russian fighting machine. While the youthful Drago has access to state-of-the-art training facilities and tools, and he is attended to by a cadre of sports scientists as he trains for the international throw-down, the aging Rocky secludes himself somewhere in the Siberian hinterland, training only with the tools of a frontier man. Rocky conditions himself for the fight by chopping wood and charging up snowy peaks. In the end, the old guy with the primitive training equipment wins.

I recently returned from a Thanksgiving holiday in the Bay Area, where I had the pleasure of sharing some enjoyable miles in the Marin Headlands with my friend Dylan Bowman. Cruising the buff trails, while taking in the brilliant views of the Pacific coast in shorts and a t-shirt, was not only luxurious, but it also enabled me to run fast, something I have been struggling to do in the current conditions at my home in the Colorado mountains. The onset of the truncated, dark, snowy and downright cold days of December upon returning to CO strangely reminded me of my boyhood fascination with Rocky IV. Somehow, if I imagine myself as a running Rocky, it helps entice me out the door into the wintery evenings. I liken my powdery slogs in knee deep snow to Balboa's triumphant climb up his own snow capped peak.

Prior to my trip to CA, I had recently allowed the idea that I was starting to regain some real fitness to slip back into my mind. Chasing my friend up the hills surrounding Mill Valley caused my to reevaluate that notion. I supplanted the idea that I was gaining traction with the idea that training in the central Rockies was a disadvantage. I thought, "How can I compete with runners who train in places where running fast is always an option? If I spend my winter slowly slogging through snow and ice, frequently in darkness, how will I have to ability to generate the leg speed to run among the elite?" It was in this moment of self doubt that I remembered what "The Champ" had taught me long before I started running: There is a silver lining in training under less than ideal conditions. It hardens you!

There must be some training benefit to slip-sliding at 20 minute mile pace on a moderate grade hill. Something is surely gained when I force myself to run in the frigid sub zero temps and blustering snow. Perhaps that something is mental resolve, a vital asset to employ at mile 86 of a tough hundred. Certainly, living at sea level in a hospitable climate, and training on runnable trails would benefit my neuromuscular system more than running in the winter conditions of the Elks. Knowing that, it is essential to my confidence that I see some benefit in training at the pedestrian pace forced upon me by the icy paths of the Colorado winter. Rocky's defeat of his menacing Soviet adversary, after training under spartan conditions, inspires the hope and optimism in me that helps me lace up to stride into the wintery nights. Here's to hoping that Hollywood doesn't lie!

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