Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Team In Training Review

As I keep saying to everyone, the actual century ride (in a week! ahh!) is just like an extra little something at the end of a long journey, and in a lot of ways I feel like my real work here is done. The reward for that work is to go take a ride around a very pretty lake.

So since I feel like I've already experienced the most important things that Team in Training (also known as TNT) has to offer - that is, the journey - I thought I'd write a bit about the organization. There's this big marketing push these last few months - honest to god, I can't go a day without seeing a TNT billboard - and it was voted Best Charity Training Program last year by some sports magazine. If it's being marketed as a product, I figure I'm allowed to review it like a product. Plus, I think a lot of times people think that it'd be neat to do a triathalon, century ride, marathon, or whichever endurance event, and to do it for charity seems fine enough, but they don't really know much about the program itself. That's why I figured I'd share my experience.

Everything's Local

First off, the most important thing is that everyone's experience varies according to your chapter and your sport. My experience is with the Illinois chapter cycling team, and that's the only thing I can tell you about. The Utah and Massachusetts and Florida chapters of TNT cyclists is not going to be the same, and for that matter neither is the Illinois Triathalon experience. Every team is different, as are the state chapter staff, the coaches, the participants, everything. What I liked and didn't like about the program may not exist in another sport or another state, so try to keep that in mind.

The only thing all the chapters and sports have in common is a commitment to raise money to help fund blood cancer research, and to responsibly train for endurance sporting events. That stays the same. All else is variable.

The Program

As someone who was very up front about my Extreme Beginner level and high anxiety from the moment I signed up, I think my expectations were a bit high. I think I expected immediate and constant contact from TNT, and I definitely expected to get started much, much sooner with the training. I took it upon myself to start spin classes in my own gym two months before TNT started the team spin classes, because I knew I needed a jump start. And because my friend Elspeth is in TNT's running program (half marathon taking place a week after my ride), I expected materials like hers: a full training schedule in January, with instructions for each day leading up to the event.

But cycling doesn't work that way. Which is something I kind of had to figure out on my own. Eventually, I did get a training schedule, but it was quite frankly an utterly useless document. It took me forever to translate the thing (it was filled with acronyms and other shorthand) and when I did, I realized it was mostly just telling me what my heart rate should be for how long each day. As in "20 mins in Zone 2", instead of things like "cross train for 45 minutes" or "stationary bike on Tuesday" or "weight train" or whatever. So it was pretty useless, as far as instructions go. It was only after my first ride, when I asked my head coach about what I could specifically do to improve and prepare for the next ride, that we worked out my own individual training program. I think what we came up with for me is a good program for anyone, but it really does seem as though "training" for a century with TNT is mostly just: spin class once a week (which most people consider optional), long ride on the weekend, and fit in as many short rides during the week as you can. Oh, and do core muscle exercises three times a week, Coach Anne was very clear on that. Not that it was on the useless training calendar.

So the actual training program apparently varies from sport to sport pretty widely. Cycling is super laid back about it. Being who I am (a person for whom information is as vital as oxygen), I found that really really hard to deal with for the first month or two. If you're like me and have the same problem, I'd advise immediately doing what I eventually did: ask a coach directly to give you something to do.

Being a Beginner

I think the prevailing attitude among everyone involved in Team In Training is "you can do it!" Which is great, but rather lacking in brass tacks, if you know what I mean. There are some events that are going to be harder and maybe even impossible for a real beginner, and I think TNT can be more up front about that. I've gotten the impression from various members of my team that it's unusual for someone who is as new to this as I am to do America's Most Beautiful Bike Ride. It seems like most people start out with the local century ride, later in the year, and then work up to a harder event. And in general, it seems out of the norm to do a Spring/Summer event as your first. This is because the fall training season is longer. Spring is intense, but Fall is a kinder pace. So I think it should be explicitly stated that Fall is more geared toward beginners, and Spring is more advanced.

What I would recommend for someone as beginner as I was/am is to start a bit smaller and/or more slowly. And, whether you do that or not, have a friend who's on your same physical level join with you. Or if you don't have that, it's probably better to sign up for whichever season tends to have a larger group. From what I've been told, the Illinois Fall training group is larger and has a much wider range of experience, with plenty of people at my level. Which sort of makes me wish I'd signed up for a fall event, because I really cannot emphasize enough how lonely and stressful and isolating it can be to be the slow kid in class. People keep calling me inspirational, but let me tell you: being an inspiration is hard, lonely, humiliating work. If I weren't so legendarily stubborn, I'd never ever have stuck with it.

What I would recommend for TNT to help bring on and retain beginners is to actually have some kind of evaluation for new people who sign up. A little questionnaire to see what level everyone is at and, if that person has never done anything like this before, then an actual baseline evaluation with a coach to see their fitness level, their fitness experience, what their expectations are and a little counseling session on whether or not they've chosen the right event for an entry-level participant. To be honest, I found it really kind of unfair that my recommitment date was before my first (and awful) training ride. After a few weeks of training, I think I would have changed events to something in the fall, to have more training time. But I felt like I couldn't, because I'd already signed on the dotted line.

TNT does a lot to address your worries about fundraising, and offers all kinds of resources and reassurances. But your worries as a beginner in the realm of athletic endurance are your own, and the only thing they offer there is "you can do it!" And you know, it's possible that you can. But it'd be nice to have more than a cheering section, sometimes.

Financial Aspect

Speaking of fundraising, they make it as easy as they can for you and offer oodles of ideas. Everyone who signs up worries about the fundraising and the TNT staff are very reassuring that you'll be surprised how it all works out and is nothing to lose sleep over. And they are kind of right - except I did lose sleep over it, and do. You have a fundraising minimum which varies from event to event, and part of re-commitment is agreeing to be charged for any funds that you failed to raise. So for instance, if your fundraising minimum is $1500 and you only raise $800 by the deadline, then you are paying $700.

I mean, unless you have very very deep pockets, how can you not lose sleep over that? This is a standard practice for a lot of charity programs, btw, and not shady at all. Team In Training has to make financial commitments on your behalf, and they are committed to giving 75% of all donations to the Leukemia Lymphoma Society - meaning that 25% has to cover your costs. So if they spent $100 on getting you to the event, then by gum you have got to raise $400. That's how it works. They are very clear about this early on. But my advice is: don't sign on the bottom line if you can't cover the difference.

Hell, don't sign on the bottom line if you don't have a credit card. That's required, apparently. Other things that are not technically required but that realistically you need and they don't ever really tell you this when you sign up:
1. A car and a bike rack (or a car that fits your bike in it), or a friend in training who has a car that can fit you and your bike. Training is in the suburbs for the cycling team and you have to get there. Even if the meet-up point is not too far from a train station, rides start super early and the Saturday morning train schedule is unlikely to get you there.
2. Gas money. Lots of it.
3. Disposable income to buy things like the right kind of technical clothing (it really does matter when you're spending hours sweating), the right shoes, winter layers for cold training days, and oh maybe a CamelBak and whatever else. If you're a beginner, you don't have this stuff - AND you need to experiment around a little and see what works for you. It gets expensive, and it all happens at once.

None of this should deter you, but I think it's really important to say this up front. They'll tell you it takes a lot of time and commitment, but it also actually takes some money. It feels like it's set up for the comfortably middle class to easily participate, but I am not comfortably middle class. So here I speak to you, my financially struggling fellows: know what you're getting into so you're not hit with something that your bank account can't take. And there are creative ways to manage the costs (like Craigslist, for instance) so it's not horribly dire or anything. Don't let it stop you, but don't let it bankrupt you either.

TNT Staff

To put it quite plainly, I am unimpressed with the Illinois staff. Again, this is for cycling - every sport gets its own staff liaison, so that's important to remember. Also, in my real life office job I do administrative work, so I am probably less forgiving in this area, like the career server who goes out to dinner and can't help critiquing his waitress. But in general, I've found them rather neglectful of the cycling team, and disorganized, and just - ugh.

I have a million examples but there's no need to get me off on a rant. Here's an example: That training schedule I asked for, as an anxious beginner? I had to specifically request it, they don't automatically send it out to the team. So I asked and they just sent me the previous fall's training schedule, for an event that is a 111-mile race in Arizona (not a 100-mile ride in Tahoe), with none of the dates updated. It was in calendar format. And they didn't update it. (Gosh, I feel special, and like you give a damn.) Also, I found out on a Monday that the first team training event of the season would be on Wednesday. (Thanks for the notice!) And they made me fax my credit card information only to throw it away. (I still suspect it was lost, but either way I don't exactly feel like it was treated with the care it should be.)

And perhaps most appalling of all (to me, anyway) is the weekly information emails we get, as a team. It includes a "mission moment", which we also have every Saturday before our rides. It's there to tell someone's story about how cancer has affected them; it reminds us all why we're doing this. Every Saturday, we heard a new and always moving testimonial, in person. But for seven weeks in a row, our prepared-by-TNT-staff emailed Mission Moment was the exact same text. Maybe it wouldn't have been so bad if it didn't start out with "Well, you're half way there!" It's true, we were halfway through training the first time that was sent. But we weren't halfway there for seven full weeks. It's just sickening, because there are so many stories out there to be told and shared. But apparently someone in the office can't be bothered.

Once again, this varies from chapter to chapter and from sport to sport. As a member of the Illinois cycling team, I feel like we're a bit of the redheaded step-child or something, left to our own devices. My overall impression of the TNT staff is that they're slightly incompetent, disorganized, neglectful, and I've even felt deeply insulted by my interactions with them at times. When I took a moment to express this directly to them, the response I got was an "I'm just doing my job" explanation. Talk about shitty. But hey, they managed to make plane and hotel reservations, so at least they can do the bare minimum. Why ask for more, right?

There's a new girl who's supposed to be the cycling staff person, so maybe she'll change things. That would be nice. She did make these super cute donation buckets for us, and she really is an awfully sweet girl, so there is hope.

The Coaches, The Mentor, The Team

Fortunately, the staff is not the biggest part of Team In Training, or even close to being the most important. Interactions with the coaches and the team is what the bulk of the experience is. And let me assure anyone and everyone that you could not ask for a better team than the Illinois TNT Cycling team.

If you are looking for a way to get into cycling as a sport, I cannot imagine a better place to try it on for size. The most important thing to all of them is safety. It comes first, before anything else. Speed, strength, technique, looking cool, and/or macho bullshit all play second fiddle to safety. No one is there to laugh at you, or make themselves feel better at your expense. There's not a single person who doesn't want to help you. Everyone just wants to have a good time on a Saturday on a bike with some friends. The end. It's quite refreshing.

The coaches have varying levels of personal and cycling and coaching experience, and they are all volunteers. They're there because they want to help you, not because they want to show off or be some kind of hard-ass drill sergeant or something. It's nice, too, having a good mix of male and female, older and younger. If you have a question, one of them will have an answer based on personal experience - and if they don't, they will find the answer for you, or look at it as a way for them to learn something new too.

Our team mentors are also volunteers, and they are there to watch you succeed. They're the warm and beating heart of the team. Every time I pulled into SAG and Rose (our mentor) was waiting with a peanut butter and honey sandwich, it was this wonderful feeling of comfort to see her, to know she was waiting for me and looking after me. She and John (team captain) made sure we always had SAG for each ride, and went out of their way to provide motivation, emotional support, and fundraising help. They're a wonderful part of the team, and a real asset.

All of this builds a team of people - whatever the mix of beginners, experienced alumni, speed demons, and creak-boned tortoises (me!) - who are welcoming, encouraging, and full of hope and happiness. It's a warm and comfortable place to be, surrounded by a bunch of just fundamentally good people. I have no idea what other teams are like, but I can't imagine any team could possibly have a better atmosphere than this one. If you're looking for a competitive spirit, you can find it - but it won't be a destructive force. If you need some hand-holding or just a hug to make it through a crappy ride, you'll find that too. If you just want to be left alone, you can do that too. All I can hope is that every state has a team like Illinois' cycling team. They can't possibly be better, but here's hoping they're even half as great.


Okay, I think that's rather enough for one review. Overall, I would definitely recommend Team In Training to anyone interested in an endurance sports program. I'd throw in a few cautions, as detailed, but I wouldn't hesitate to urge anyone to sign up. Your experience might be great or awful or somewhere in between, but it has a pretty high chance of being Very Good.

I'm very very glad I did it, which I'll talk about after it's all really done (in a week! AHHHH!) No regrets, so far. Lots of annoyances and leg cramps and early mornings and steep freaking hills, but no regrets. :-)

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