How pre-dawn workouts and positivity keep one of the sport's most sought after physical therapists ahead of the game.
In Niwot, Colo., it is 3:30 a.m. and too dark for me to see Bob Cranny's face, but as he wheels over, I can tell he is smiling.
"I didn't think you'd actually show up," he chirps.
Neither did I.
The Niwot Park & Ride is deserted except for a dubious-looking sedan which, in its abandoned state, seems to confirm by theory about public transit sites at this hour-the one that says parking lots are reserved for drug deals and kidnappings before 5 a.m., not for two triathletes setting out on a long bicycle ride and interview. Yet here I am anyway, adorned in enough blinking lights to land an aircraft and armed with as many open-ended questions as it will take to keep the pace conversational for a couple hours. I have come to find out what makes Bob Cranny tick.
And there is Bob, or at least what I can see of him in the rural Boulder County darkness. He is long-legged, lean, still grinning and wearing short socks despite the crisp air. For him, this is a typical Saturday morning.
Cranny's evident good humor has already put a wrench in the second theory I have brought with me today-the one that says he is crazy. I know a little about Bob already. He is considered to be fast in a town full of fast people. But more than that, he sustains a momentum in his everyday life that few understand and even fewer can match. He trains year-round in the wee hours of the morning, rarely missing a day, much of it with his neighbor who is a neurosurgeon. One of their favorite summertime workouts involves riding 50 miles to the base of one of the most lethal 14,000-foot peaks on Colorado's Front Range and running to its summit-in the middle of the night on a full moon, descending directly to work by noon the next day on zero sleep. He is in his mid-40s (*mid-50s), happily married and a father of three daughters ages 8, 11 and 13 (*now 18, 21 and 23).
He is one of the most sought-after physical therapists in all of Boulder-particularly by the area's many triathletes, who keep physical therapists the way New Yorkers keep psychiatrists. (I have the greatest physio, you really should try him ...) Cranny's patient docket is as distinguished as it is long, Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington visits him regularly. Olympian Laura Bennett does, too. He has been described to me simply as, "The Man."
Still, I have set the bar low for Bob Cranny this morning, about the height of his ankle socks. To pull off as much as he does, there must be more to Cranny that I haven't heard. I figure the guy must either be maniacal, success-crazed or fraying at the seams-perhaps all three-and I expect that as I get to know him, the "real" Bob will emerge. I imagine that when I can finally see his face in the daylight, it will appear exhausted and bewildered, kind of like one of those methamphetamine warning ads found on billboards in Montana. I am certain Cranny will exhibit all the signs of sleep deprivation and overtraining: a short temper, narcoleptic tendencies, frequent car key loss. I also assume that squeezing in a ride at 3:30 a.m. on this late September day must mean that he has an Ironman on the near horizon-perhaps Kona in October or Arizona in November. This is my first error about Bob Cranny. It will be the first of many.
It isn't long before Cranny has me convinced that our night ride is a perfectly normal activity -
-or one better, that dismissing my body's circadian leanings is actually ideal.
"This is the best part of the day," he declares as we begin our pedal across the plains. I can sort of see what he means. The stars silhouette the Rockies to our West and all is peaceful on the pavement. Local farm dogs sleep soundly and the pickup trucks they like to ride in sit idle in driveways in front of houses with dark windows. Everybody is in bed but us, it seems.
Cranny isn't training for a near-term Ironman, he informs me. He's just taking advantage of the warmish weather before it's gone and he's eager to ride before soccer duty starts at 8:30 a.m. Bob's wife, Sandy, is on a getaway with friends and he is parenting solo this weekend.
"Riding at this hour is great because I'm not missing any kid time," he adds, which is the reason he does the bulk of his training in the dark. His girls each have a game today and I am invited to those, too. But first we need to get to Carter Lake and back. So we pedal, and I ask open-ended questions, and Bob talks, pausing every once in a while to alert me to the spots where deer like to hang out alongside the road.
"Isn't Carter Lake gorgeous?" he exclaims, jokingly, when we round our halfway point.
I can't see it.
By the time we return to the Niwot Park & Ride, I have been in Bob Cranny's company for more than three hours and the sun still has not risen. We have seen only 14 cars (he counted), and much to my dismay, I have not heard anything that makes him sound insane.
Bob has told me about his childhood in the Rust Belt, where he grew up in a devoutly Catholic family with three athletic brothers and played multiple sports, especially soccer. I have heard about his first triathlon in 1987, inspired by his weight of 200 pounds at the time and the fear that he'd someday weight 300 pounds if he didn't do something to counter the sedentary Midwest beer-drinking culture all around him. He has told me about moving to Long Beach, Calif., after graduating from Marquette University with a physical therapy degree, and about meeting Sandy there. Sandy is also a triathlete, Bob says, assuring me that she is the more talented one. They are both training for Ironman St. George in Utah in May, and hope to qualify for Kona.
I have heard the story of his first Ironman in 1993-a 9:45 job in Hawaii that was more than an hour faster than he believed he could go. He has also told me that despite his success there, the lava didn't lure him in. Eager to focus on family and career, he made a pact with Sandy that they'd go back to the Big island in 15 years. The following summer, they got married, quit their jobs and moved to Boulder to start a new life together from scratch. Before too long, Bob would be running the University of Colorado's student health center and the couple would have purchased a dying physical therapy practice in northwest Denver. Under the Cranny's tutelage, Altitude Physical Therapy, as it's now called, would grow from a desperate bootstrap operation to a three-office (*six) enterprise that now cares for more than 400 (*1200) patients a week. Cranny attributes much of its growth to the large numbers of (frequently injured) triathletes and runners in the area who come to Altitude to be treated by one of their own.
By the time I climb back into my car, it's safe to say that the only remotely crazy person we have discussed is Bob's late college roommate, Chris Farley-whose "Saturday Night Live" antics, Cranny attests, were just a toned-down version of real life gaffes. The lunatic angle, as it were, hasn't really materialized. By my hack assessment, Cranny's happiness baseline scores way high, flappability quotient marks low, and while I still can't really see his face, I am starting to gather that he probably won't look like a meth addict in the daylight. Rather, Bob is living up the appraisal I've received from Christine Wellington, which pegs him as a "true friend, a dedicated family man and an extremely talented age-group triathlete ... with a sense of humor, kindness and selflessness that are an example to all."
Hmph. So I mull my options for a new narrative arc, and decide that it will have to hang on the only card I have left to play; the spade of injury. As gonzo as Cranny's training can be, surely he must be one of those physical therapists who can't be trusted to take his own advice. I think I've got him pegged.
Seven years. Bob Cranny once managed to go seven years without missing a day because of injury
he tells me from where I have found him at soccer game No. 2. He stands there in classic soccer dad posture-wrists clasped behind his back, weight on the balls of his feet with a slight forward lean that seems to say, "I am fully engaged in the state of play here and I know the name of every girl on the pitch." (He does, at both games I attend) Clad in khaki shorts and a Boulder Stroke & Stride T-shirt, he shows no signs that his day started around 3 a.m. and seems mildly embarrassed to be interviewed in public.
Seven years without missing a day due to damage must be some kind of a triathlon record by my estimate-which means the injury angle is now shot. But I don't much care, because now all that matters if figuring out how he does it so that we can all copy him. Spill the frijoles, Bob.
"It has everything to do with consistency," Cranny says, a theme he'll return to often during our talks. By sticking to his routine day in and day out, Bob's body sees few surprises.
"It doesn't matter what I'm training for, I train all year long. I'll dial in the specifics a few weeks before the race," he says.
Longtime training buddy Michael Perry, now a medical student in Florida, knows the routine well. "Bob has workouts planned seven days a week, 52 weeks per year," says Perry, who once sat down and tallied Bob's baseline load at about 12 hours per week, every week, no matter what. "The beauty of that approach is if he has to miss something, it doesn't matter; he just skips it and jumps right into the next thing in his week. He never obsesses about missing workouts and his family always comes first."
In addition to good old-fashioned consistency, Cranny has a few other cutting-edge tricks up his sleeve. One is called frozen water. he uses it all the time-on every little niggle-immediately after finishing a workout. He calls it "active icing."
"Even if it's a small tweak, you treat it like it's an injury. you treat it with ice and Advil right away and it doesn't break the consistency," he says. But wait, there's more. Cranny insists on a 20-minute warm-up-he really does. And when something hurts, he backs off.
The same can't be said for his clientele, however, which makes them a little tougher to treat. "For the most part, triathletes are great as patients because they're highly motivated," says Bob. "There's a small percentage, however, that doesn't know how to rest. Our sessions become more of a mental health visit than a physical therapy visit."
And because he's out there training, too, sometimes Cranny unintentionally doubles as the Rest Police. "I'll often tell patients with overuse injuries that they need to take time off, but then I'll catch them training while I'm out on my bike or run. You should see their faces-they're horrified," he chuckles. "When they come in for their next appointment, it's like they're coming in for confession. That's my opportunity to say, 'Look I'm an athlete, too, and I understand, but you've got to trust me on this.'"
"Nobody requires that much sleep, they just think they do,"
Alan Villavicencia, MD, tells me from across his desk at Boulder Neurosurgical Associates, when I ask him how he and Cranny manage to put wheels or feet down in the ballpark of 4:45 a.m. most days of the week (make it 6 a.m. for Bob and Sandy on the weekend, which is when they sleep in).
Hmmm, OK, Dr. V. You're the brain surgeon.
Villavicencio is actually a spine surgeon, and he isn't bullshitting me. Six hours of sleep is a luxury for these two.
So what fuels a guy like Bob then, if it isn't shut-eye? Does Bob run on bad jokes? (on this his older brother, Dave Cranny, votes aye: "Bob is definitely the funniest guy he knows.") Or is he powered by his own momentum? (Wife Sandy affirms: "Bob can go, go, go, regardless of the setting.") But is that all? There must be something more.
There is, and Cranny has unwittingly displayed a couple of clues to it already. Something sustains Bob that we haven't talked about yet. It hasn't come up because people don't discuss it very openly in today's world, which is why I catch Cranny slightly off-guard when I inquire. For once, however, my conjecture hits the mark: Bob Cranny runs on faith.
"I can't remember a single workout where I haven't stopped and thought, thank God I can do this,"
says Bob, now across the table from me at the Starbucks in Longmont, which is the first time I've actually seen him sit down. he nurses a decaf Americano, looking intent. "Sometimes, like at our early ride the other day, I'll be so thankful when I'm starting out the door, and I'm thinking ... wow, another great day."
This is the only interview we will do that doesn't involve bicycles, so I have structured it like a workout to make sure we don't get lost. Light warm-up: How would you describe yourself? Heavy main set: Tell me about your faith, your approach to the world, your consistency. Cool down: only if we have time.
"The belief that there is a greater being out there is a very strong part of my daily life, of my direction, of my relationship with my family," Bob says. If there are two things this greater being has blessed him with, he tells me, it is a lot of energy and a good attitude-and what those bring him is something equally important: perspective.
"Really, it's all perspective," he says. "When I worked in Los Angeles County Hospital a long time ago, I would see young kids there with major burns or missing legs, and it made me realize that my very worst day might be someone else's best day of their whole life. So what do I possibly have to complain about?"
This brings Bob to the fact that he doesn't actually care about success. "I don't need to be a great triathlete. I don't need to be a great physical therapist. I don't need to be the best in anything. But I like trying to be the best at all of those. I enjoy the effort, the path."
He lowers his voice conspiratorially, as if talking about not needing to win will get us kicked out of Starbucks. This close to Boulder, it might.
"I couldn't even tell you my splits after most races," he says. "I don't really care. Racing is an important part of my life, but I know it doesn't make me a better father, a better husband or a better person."
Here, he catches himself. "I realize, in a way, that it doesn't add up ...I mean, if I don't care, then why am I going to get up at 4 a.m. tomorrow and ride in 25-degree weather, right?"
Bob pauses. He seems to have stumped even himself with this, the ultimate question. Then the answer comes. It is simple, but unequivocal: He loves it.
It is 4:45 a.m. and I am climbing up old stage road with the goal of intercepting Bob Cranny
during the loop he will do before arriving at the North Boulder pool at 6 a.m., where he will swim for an hour before riding a few more blocks to the office by 7:30 a.m. His first patient will be a lady with a glute problem, followed by an ultra-runner with a bum knee, and by the time I leave at 8:30 a.m., Bob will have touched neither the coffee nor the scone that his office assistant has placed on his desk. A signed portrait of Chrissie Wellington sits on a nearby table. It says something about a "Midas touch," but nobody has had time to hang it up yet.
His incessant pace can mean only one thing: Today is "No Car Friday." The thunderstorm stationed near Boulder hasn't changed the stakes. "Rain or shine, we ride," Cranny text messages at 4:30 a.m., as he departs from Niwot.
I expect to run into Bob in the pitch black of Left Hand Canyon, where the only sign of life at this hour is yet another doe in the bushes and large erasable whiteboard on the side of the road that reads: "FREE 17-foot R.V.!!!" The fine print below adds one condition: "Free with $2,000 bacon and eggs." Damn.
When we do connect, it is so we can turn around and go back over Old Stage Road and into town. Climbing along, two lone headlights pointing up the road, the conversation turns again to sport. We talk about those triathlon pals who avoid a race because they're afraid they won't execute it flawlessly; or the ones who flip out when they get a flat tire on the course. The conversation brings Bob to a saying that has become a mantra in his life, a psalm of sorts that frees him from the lion's share of life's angst and apprehension. It is remembering, plainly, that everything is going to be fine. And it works if, like Bob, you have the faith to really believe it.
I start to wonder how much extra energy there would be in the world if more people were like Cranny and didn't spend so much time worrying about outcomes or little things, doing what they love and paying mind only to immediate hazards like deer running across the road. Or how much energy would bubble to the collective surface if more people were genuinely grateful for their respective lots? It might be enough to fuel a lot of 3:30 a.m. rides.
Bob's total commitment to his training and the people in his life is-cue the irony-entirely liberating. Consistency is what frees Cranny from the anchors of doubt or hesitation, making way for a personal momentum that seems to sustain itself. A guy named Newton coined the explanation for that one; something about a body in motion staying in motion unless acted on by an equal and opposite force.
Cranny excuses himself from the conversation for a moment. He needs to holler something at a friend's open window as we climb past a few sleepy houses tucked in the woods.
"IT DOESN'T MATTA," Bob shouts with a fake German accent, at what I soon learn is Wolfgang Dietrich's abode. The inside joke harkens back to a famous Dietrich saying from his days of battling Dave Scott and Mark Allen, and Cranny uses it to wake up Wolfgang whenever he passes his house.
"It doesn't matta," Bob retells it, still in faux German. "I race my own race and we see what happens."
And then: "Watch out for deer on this descent. They like to run across here."
*Originally published in March/April 2010 Inside Triathlon Volume 25 Issue 2. Some data has been updated.