Run Toward the Light

As I woke on race morning, just over a week ago, I opened my hotel room door and instantly felt the frenzy set in. The walkway was directly overlooking the enormous Ironman Florida transition area and, even at 4:30 a.m., it looked like a swarm of bees (with carved calves and cheekbones) had descended in droves.  I wasn't nervous.  Well, I didn't think I was.  If anyone had asked me, I would have said I was fine and thought I meant it, but my body wasn't quite so convinced.  I could feel my face beginning to flush in the 42-degree air.

In the days leading up to the race, a lot of organization had been required.  First, my tri bike had to be shipped, along with a small bag of items that I would need for the race but wouldn't need for the last few workouts I would do on my old road bike.  Then I had to prepare and pack everything else that I might possibly need on race day (bearing in mind sudden changes to the weather), plus day-to-day clothes and toiletries.  Sidebar: in the midst of my complete obsession with the importance of 'race day', I managed to forget a razor, all undergarments and anything resembling comfortable shorts.  That was all before arrival.  The previous 48 hours on-site had been filled with athlete check-in, bike/gear bag check-in, pre-ordering of pictures, grocery (and underwear) shopping, workout warm-up sessions, etc.  All things considered, I had managed it well with very little assistance.

Yet, on the morning of the race, the organizational part of my brain all but imploded.  I knew the list of things that needed to happen - dropping off 'Special Needs' bags, pumping up bike tires, setting up fuel bottles, warming up in the water (early but not too early for fear of chill) - but when it came to the order of operations, I was utterly useless. Dutifully, my coach stepped in and suggested we start with performing all of the tasks that needed to be in the transition area first - the last thing we would want is to forget something and then be 'locked out' after it closes.  As we made our way out of the room, my coach instructed plainly, "Put your extra running shoes on."

I had mixed feelings, about everything really, but particularly about the run warm-up.  This was a typical part of race-day preparation, but - for goodness sake, I thought to myself.  I was going to be working out all day! Should I really be wasting energy on a warm-up?!!  When I finished in the transition area, my coach met me at the gate.  "Go run," she said.  "Ok," I complied.  "For how long?"  Normally, this would have been a pre-determined time limit.  10 minutes, before a sprint, perhaps a little less for an Olympic distance.  "Until you feel like coming back," she advised.  I looked at her, a little confused, but didn't have the wherewithal to debate.

It took me nearly 10 minutes just to edge my way through the thousands of people that were struggling to get to their bike or their bag or their hotel room.  Imagine the most crowded fair/festival you have ever been to and then add a look of self-induced, high-pressured expectations weighing on everyone's shoulders.  That's the intensity that surrounded me - and I couldn't wait get away from it.

When I finally saw an open stretch of road before me, I burst into a run like an animal freed from captivity. There were still waves of people walking, all in the opposite direction as myself, and I could barely see them in the darkness.  I started by weaving around them into the street and then finally took to the middle of the road - there was no traffic, after all.  I sprinted for several minutes, further and further from the fray, seeing only two straight yellow lines before me. Several blocks from the race start, when the 'welcome' announcements were barely audible from the director's megaphone, I stopped.

Still standing on the centerline, I turned back toward the race site and saw the glow of lights in the distance overhead.  It occurred to me that this would be the same view I would be yearning for in another 12-14 hours - when the finish line would be lit above the line of palm trees and the crowds would be gathered on both sides of the streets.  And if I wanted to reach that moment, I had to first face this one.  It would be the last life-lesson Ironman would teach me before the starting cannon.

When I returned to my hotel room and told my coach of my sudden realization, she smiled knowingly.  After more than a year of training, this was the Aha! moment she had been waiting for - the moment that I would accept not only the task of setting a goal, not only the work of preparing for it, but of actually getting excited to complete it.  No one was forcing me to be there.  I was choosing it.  It was scary, because it mattered. I knew I could complete this challenge, and I also knew that it was worth the risk of failure.

Amidst one or two other drawings and silly sayings we had etched onto my skin with colored markers that morning, we added one directly to the back of my hand - one that I would see all day long, in all three events and remind myself of its full meaning.  4 simple words that would encapsulate my life as an Ironman-in-training and as a person attempting to be successful in every other way too.  Words that have long since washed away, but that I will probably always see on my hand as they were written that morning. Run toward the light.  

 

 

 

 

 

One Speed Wonder

This post was designed with triathlets/swimmers in mind - but read on to find the pieces that apply to any/every cardio goal!

51 weeks ago I sat at my computer, poised to click the 'Register' button for Ironman Florida. It had only been a month since I had finished the previous triathlon season, including a fairly 'rough' showing at my last Olympic-distance race.  As I entered my credit card information, it occurred to me that my goal may be a bit disjointed - why on earth would I branch out into long-course racing when I hadn't even fully mastered the short stuff? I'm not fast, I told myself, but I can go forever 'Click', the entry was in.

Over the past year I have done my best to comply with my coach's training plan.  She schedules my workouts, gives me specific instructions, and off I go.  At times I have asked why, but to be honest, I haven't frequently delved into the science behind it all.  I primarily focused on keeping myself motivated and breaking down mental barriers rather than exploring the physiology.  With time I came to learn what types of workouts I'm good at and which ones are a struggle.  Swimming typically fell into the latter category for one reason - I only had one speed.

I pushed myself on the sprint intervals; I spent hours and hours looking at videos of my swim technique compared with the olympians; and, steadily, I got faster - but just a little.  Meanwhile I watched with frustration as new swimmers from age 12 to 62 glided past me.  I tried working on my lat strength in the weight room; I set up a station with resistance cords in my home; but still - I couldn't seem to get any faster than a 1:45/100 yd pace.  I began to think I was just destined to be a 'one speed wonder' - and that particular one speed would always keep me toward the back of the pack.

After a good venting session with my coach, I began noticing an additional set in each of my pool workouts. Things like - "3 x 75s (1st 25 on 1 breath)".  1 breath?!! I thought.  You do recall that I am an asthmatic, right?  I do all I can to KEEP breathing in the water!  Still, she insisted.  I figured this was her way of ensuring a little confidence boost before race day - if I knew I could hold my breath, I wouldn't panic in the fray of 2,000 flailing athletes - and because of this assumption, I didn't entirely commit.  I already have enough confidence to know I can reach the finish.  I don't need to hold my breath.  I would push myself just enough to take 3 breaths per 1 pool length and then go back to normal breathing.

A few weeks later, my coach seemed to have joined in the frustration of my continued 1:45/100 pace.  It seemed so strange to me that she was bringing this up now.  I had been telling her about this same issue weeks before and she had only given me a few sprint sets since - but mostly just this breath-holding stuff! And that's when it hit me . . . Maybe this hadn't been all about my confidence level.  Without entirely knowing why, I vowed to commit to my next swim workout 100% - even if it hurt.  If my coach asked me to, I would fight against my conditioned 'suffocation' response and reach the other side of the pool on one breath.

Sure enough, the next swim workout hit my calendar and there was the dreaded hypoxic set.  My coach called this one "Golf":

18 laps (50 yd/m) with varying breaths to make 'par'. 10 seconds rest in between each 'hole'.  2 minute rest at 'the turn' (end of lap 9).  Then repeat.

Lap 1 - par 5 (5 breaths)

Lap 2 - par 4

Lap 3 - par 2

Lap 4 - par 5

Lap 5 - par 3

Lap 6 - par 4

Lap 7 - par 3

Lap 8 - par 4

Lap 9 - par 2

Note: a par 2 means 1 breath down the length of the pool and 1 breath all the way back with no break. This was tough for me initially, but over time I came to realize that it was actually very do-able IF I started out slow and conserved my energy (with practice the intensity came later).  My confidence was through the roof at having finally overcome this hurdle, and what's more - my overall swim started getting faster!!

So why did this work?  I do my best not to inundate my readers with scientific garble, but I will tell you in lay-man's terms that hypoxic training in the pool is akin to anaerobic running on a track.  The old saying is "if you want to be a faster runner . . . run faster", but when a distance runner wants to have a shorter marathon time, she doesn't just wake up one day and expect her legs to suddenly turnover more quickly.  She incorporates short intervals of pushing to maximum intensity, triggering fast-twitch muscle fibers that only fire under conditions of limited oxygen.  This level of intensity causes lactate to accumulate in the blood stream, often making muscles cramp.  However, by allowing the body to reach lactate threshold briefly and then recover, a runner trains her muscles to essentially better 'tolerate' the intensity and raise her threshold in the future.  In the pool, I had been performing sprint sets in a similar fashion but - due to the timing of my breaths, my technique and my comfort level - I found it signficantly harder to reach anaerobic intensity or lactate threshold.  In short, I couldn't become a faster swimmer just by swimming faster - but by limiting my oxygen in a different way, I was able to get a similar benefit.

Since the time I have incorporated hypoxic training into my plan (and committed to it), I have not only met my goal of 1:40/100 but am now looking even further ahead toward starting next season at a 1:30 pace.  I still do not necessarily cheer when I see hypoxic sets on my schedule (I have a very close relationship with oxygen!), but the value is unquestionable.  As you think about your own goals, be they short- or long-course races, I encourage you to try a few of these sets yourself.  As with anything of this nature - take it slow at first, take a friend for support/safety, and take time to celebrate the smallest accomplishments within this new challenge.  That way the next time someone tells you not to 'hold your breath' about your Ironman dream, you can head straight to the pool - and prove them WRONG!

Masking Your Self-Confidence?

A couple weeks ago I was having lunch with a long-time coworker.  One of the first people I had met in my office, she had been something of a mentor to me upon my arrival.  Now, after years of working side-by-side, we often enjoy a casual, friendly conversation over a salad or, in my case these days, a gigantic plate of pasta.  Near the end of our meal, we got to talking about our Friday night plans.  "Doing anything fun tonight?" she inquired.  "Just a swim and then probably heading to bed early," I replied.  "I've got a long bike ride in the morning.  You?"  She eyed the remnants of my marinara sauce and nudged her lettuce around with her fork. "I've got to pick up the kids, take [her daughter] to dance practice and get the house cleaned up.  My in-laws are coming to stay with us this weekend."  I smiled and acknowledged that that sounded like fun.  I knew she usually had a good time with her in-laws.  Yet the expression on her face suggested that something was bothering her.  I wondered if maybe her relatives had done something to upset her.

"You know, I've thought from time to time about doing more biking.  Running bores me to death, but I could always bike," she declared.  I became excited  - "You should!  It would be fun!  We could ride together!"  She waved the idea away with her hand - "No no.  I don't have the time. I can hardly find a minute to shower these days."  I tried once again - "Aw, c'mon!  Some of the women I train with have little kids!  Maybe you --" I didn't get a chance to finish this sentence.  The irritation on her face became clearly pronounced.  "You know," she started, "I hate those women that talk about the 4 kids they've got while they're running off to yoga class!  It's like - of course they have time - because none of them have jobs!  OR they've got some grad student cooking dinner and making the beds every day.  I mean, I could do a lot too, if I didn't mind living in a pig sty!"

Now, in fairness to my colleague, her tone didn't read in person quite as harshly as it does on paper.  She said it with a smile, and I know her well enough to believe that she wasn't trying to personally insult me or my triathlete friends.  I decided to end the topic with benign agreement, "Yeah, I suppose you're right."

The following morning I overslept.  It wasn't too late for my ride, but later than I had intended.  Sun was pouring through the windows and I could plainly see the pile of unfolded clothes in the laundry room and the dog-hair dust bunnies that were growing into adult-size rabbits.  The words of my conversation the previous day circled in my head.  "Pig sty".  Thankfully I was able to shake off the notion just long enough to get out the door.  

While I was pedaling down the road, it occurred to me just how caustic that 'benign' agreement of mine had been.  I had been so concerned with re-assuring my coworker about her own life choices, that I mentally threw mine right out the window.  Regardless of the fact that she was completely misguided, I made the statement out loud that she was right, and somewhere in the corner of my brain - it stuck.

The more I've thought about this since, the more I've realized how often it actually happens.  Maybe it's a family member that has known you since birth and has trouble realizing how you've changed.  "An Ironman?!" they bawk.  "You were that girl in P.E. that claimed to have menstrual cramps every 10 days just to get out of running! haha."  Or maybe a new acquaintance tries to contribute something like, "Oh, I know this woman who is a real swimmer.  Her arms are diesel."  

From my personal experience, I have found that the issue in these types of scenarios is less about the people and their comments and more about how you respond.  There will always be nay-sayers that are unhappy with their own existence and looking for another way to say they have been victimized by life.  They have to say that they can't change, else they would need to accept that they have chosen not to.  The problem for me was that, with my own questions and self-doubt roaming around in my head, I always chose to respond with what I thought was humility.  Things like, "Oh, yeah, well, not too much has changed since those days in P.E. haha," or "Yeah, I could probably stand to do a little more upper-body work."  I let them win every time, and days later when I needed a voice of reason - I heard their's instead.

So what should you do in these instances?  Argue with your coworker that she is wrong to prioritize her household over her health?  Proclaim to the masses at the top of your lungs that you have changed?  Perhaps not.  But, with Halloween just around the corner, I'm going to encourage all of you to join me in removing the mask once and for all.  After all the hard work that you have done to reach your goals, it's only fair that you should be able to preach what you practice - confidently.  I can't help but think that in every conversation of this sort, there must be a comfortable middle ground - at minimum, an offhand blurb that lets the coulda-woulda-shoulda's off the hook without weakening your beliefs.  The next time someone downplays the value of your exercise, you can try, "Well, it's just like anything else - new job/house/child.  At first it seems impossible and then, before you know it, it becomes part of your life."

The specific phrases are not so important, and it is not necessarily about getting the final word -  just to make your final word a true reflection of your passion.  That way you can hold on to your hard-earned power instead of letting it be sapped by someone else's regrets.  And you just might need it - you are an athlete after all.  

 

 

IronPet

Feeling a little bit silly today!  Read below and see if you don't find the same to be true of your own health/fitness goal:

Congratulations!  You have registered and are now the proud new owner of an Ironman race.  Attached are some basic notes and care instructions.  We hope you enjoy this new addition to your family!

  • First thing's first - you'll need to think of something to call your Ironman.  Some of the more commonly given names include 'Redemption', 'Pride' and 'Victory'. 
  • Ironman will happily meet you at the door every day when you get home from work.  It is best to take him outside right away, so you don't end up with a mess.
  • Ironman will wake you from a sound sleep, hungry and quivering with excitement. 
  • At first, Ironman may pull you, tangle you up and knock you town.  Give him lots and lots of training.
  • Ironman loves attention.  If neglected, he may become destructive.  You should not go out of town for a long weekend and expect things to be the same when you return.
  • Ironman will bite if you tease him.  Be good to your Ironman and he will be good to you.
  • Ironman will never stop begging for treats and toys.  
  • Ironman scares some people because of his appearance.  Try not to take this personally.  If they had one, they would surely understand.
  • Ironman will make you laugh and keep you feeling young.
  • Having Ironman is great for that extra sense of security.
  • Ironman does not care about grooming.  You may choose to give him pretty ribbons, but underneath he will still be the same beast.
  • Ironman will think it's amusing when you get angry.
  • When your friends and family see how much fun Ironman is, they will likely want to play with him too.  Set up frequent play dates with other Ironman lovers.
  • You will grow to love Ironman more and more each day.  Soon you'll wonder how you ever lived without him!

 

Making the Change from Strong to Tough

This past weekend, at 5 weeks out from race day, I noticed a change in myself that was a little unexpected.  I had just had my most difficult training week to date - including a 7.5-hour bike ride, a 20-mile run, and some serious distance/speed intervals in the pool.  My nutrition had been stellar.  I skipped the drive thru's and cooked big healthy meals all week long.  I got a massage to iron out all the midweek knots and cramps.  I even went to bed at a 'reasonable' hour (okay, truth - there was no fighting the fatigue and I fell asleep on the couch early watching tv).

Anyway, on Saturday morning when I woke up at 5:30 a.m. to begin a long bike ride, there was something very different that happened.  Normally I would have snoozed the alarm - twice.  I would have felt a pit in my stomach when I realize that it was still dark.  I would have pondered the reasons that I perhaps should not go just yet.  In the end, I would have just suited up and gotten the job done - eventually being glad I had gone and relishing in the accomplishment of having been strong.

On that day, however, I woke up straight away - and didn't go back to sleep.  I thought about how nice the fresh air would be before the daylight hit and the traffic cluttered up the roads.  And the nay-saying voices all must have gone into hiding.  I didn't hear a peep!  As I pushed my foot off the ground and turned the first pedal stroke, something in my head said, "Bring it."

That's when I realized the difference between being 'strong' and being 'tough'.  I have always felt that I am a strong person because of the things life has thrown at me that I have been able to overcome.  You know the stories - everyone has one.  Surviving love and loss, financial hardships, sickness, etc.  That's the sort of thing that gives you strength.

Being tough, on the other hand, is something completely different.  It's less vulnerable.  Less tolerant.  Toughness comes when you go looking for a challenge.  It's bold.  It's that change you make when you go from "I think I can" to "Yeah, what?" and I'm here to tell you - it's addicting.

In nearly every facet of my life, I find myself in circumstances where I am compelled to act a certain way.  I'm still myself, mind you, but at work, for instance, I'm a more conservative, professional version of myself.  With friends I am myself, but with a fun and silly forte.  At home, still me - but the most selfless version of me.  Any of this sound familiar?  So where, I ask you, is it appropriate to be defiant?  Of course!  Ironman!

Ironman training will only reward you for your obstinance, for your hard-headedness and for your complete desire to assert control.  Ironman encourages those who step up to be first in line and doesn't judge you for your impatience.  It nurtures those who see 100 miles of barren asphalt staring them in the face and respond with, "Whadda you lookin at?"  In essence, it allows you to express that part of yourself that has been tucked away, deep down in the basement of your soul behind some dusty boxes labeled "maturity", "wisdom", and "experience".

The truth is that there is a piece of each and every one of us that revels (or should!) in being tough.  The ability to express this emotion is not only healthy but key to our very sanity!  Wisely, maturely and through witnessing grown-up experiences, you have taught yourself that being tough in the wrong forum comes with consequences - detention at school, jail, exile from relationships, etc.  So you have decided to be better safe than sorry, and forget all about that pesky feeling.

My challenge to you on your very next workout is to bust out the lantern, descend those cobweb-covered stairs, and shine some light on that toughness that has been sequestered and forgotten about for so long.  Instead of putting on your shoes and asking the road's permission, approach your tall hills with a "watch this" mentality - and mean it.  Before long, you'll find that you're waking up well before that obnoxious alarm clock - and the road is rising to meet you.

Goldilocks and the 3 Shoes

Back in April of this year, I finished an easy-paced 6-mile run with some unfamiliar ankle pain.  I had been running in a nearby state park and figured it was perhaps the result of some rogue tree roots, which I made a habit of tripping over in those days.  I mentioned the pain to my coach and her first question was "how many miles are on your shoes?"  Hmm, let's see, I pondered, I've had them since December, so I have trained in them the entire off-season plus 1 sprint triathlon and a 1/2 marathon.  She didn't wait for me to complete my math.  It was clear I had logged well over the recommended 400-mile limit.  She suggested I wear them one last time - on my way to the store. 

It wasn't the best time for me to go shoe shopping.  I was also on the hunt for a tri bike at the time, and my fiance and I were about to write the final checks for our upcoming wedding. Needless to say - the budget was stretched.  Then I remembered that my current pair of shoes had been purchased from Dick's Sporting Goods with a guarantee - if anything went structurally wrong with the shoes over the course of 1 year, they could be returned for a brand new pair - FREE (this offer has since been discontinued).  Even though it had only been about 4 months, I had given these shoes a substantial beating (recall the tree roots) and the toe lip was coming loose on both sides.  So, following the instructions I was given via phone, I boxed up the old pair, put them in the mail and kissed them goodbye.  I assumed my new shoes would arrive within days, but soon realized that old theory about assumptions.  Upon 1 additional phone call, I came to learn that it could be as many as 3 months before my voucher arrived for the shoes of my choice.  Aha, I thought, that's the catch.

So, my plan temporarily foiled, I headed off to my local triathlon store, Inside Out Sports, to partake in their recently-advertised shoe sale.  Let me caveat here by saying that I did not necessarily expect to find anything in my price range even with the sale.  This place sells 'the good stuff' - those brightly-colored, high-quality Mizunos and Newtons that the pros all wear.  But, as I surveyed the shelves I found myself blinking the disbelief from my eyes. There, directly before me were a pair of Mizuno Wave Musha 2s, with one size left (mine), for $50.  

I didn't ask a thing about them.  They fit and I could afford them.  I tucked them proudly under my arm and headed for the counter.  12 weeks later I received my voucher as promised and, in turn, purchased the most expensive pair it would allow from Dicks.  Asics 2160s.

 

Fast forward to September.  I had steadily been increasing my mileage for an upcoming half Ironman and expecting even more before the full IM in November.  In spite of the bargain, I had been babying my Mizunos in the previous months - certain that I must savor the quality within.  Yet each time I ran in them, I felt a lightness in my feet that shortened my pace almost 1 full minute per mile.  I was amazed at the difference a few ounces could make and figured that these shoes were my ace in the hole, come race day.  The Asics shoes, on the other hand, felt cushioned and comfy but also heavy as concrete blocks in comparison.  So when my coach asked for my race plan in the week prior, I listed my prized Mizunos on the must-pack list.

As expected, I received an email back from my coach later that day, offering additional advice and tweaks to the plan before it was finalized.  Much to my dismay, there was a big red line through the word "Mizunos".  She noted beside this "not enough support for you on 13 miles on asphalt".  But, but, but - they make me faster and that's what I see all the Kenyan marathoners wearing! I pleaded.  She gently reminded me that I am neither Kenyan, nor an experienced marathon runner yet.  She suggested that, for now, I tuck those away for track sessions and race in my alternate shoes.  I fussed and whined, dramatically imploring her to agree with me because I would simply dread wearing my 'heavy' shoes after that 56-mile bike ride.  She didn't cave, but assured me that it was my decision to make.

When race day arrived, I followed every item of our training plan to a 't' - except for the choice of shoes.  I asserted my own judgment and went with the lighter pair.  I wasn't even at the 6 mile turnaround when I felt it - a sharp pain in the balls of my feet with every step on the pavement.  To make matters worse, I had indulged in pouring water over my head throughout the entire run, leaving my socks drenched and slowly but surely turning my feet into steak tartare.  Ugh.

I did my best to laugh it off.  It was both fitting and ironic that, once again, I arrogantly thought I knew best - and was, once again, wrong (reference my picture beside the word 'uncoachable' in the dictionary).  Following that race, my coach and I had our usual pow-wow and came to a conclusion - I had one pair of shoes that were too heavy, one pair that were too light and now I needed a third (just right).

With the wedding over and the bike long since purchased, I headed back to Inside Out Sports, this time taking a seat and patiently waiting to be fitted.  If you can find a store that provides this service, it is highly valuable. If not, Runner's World online offers a step-by-step process on doing this in your home (you may still want to bribe a friend to watch you walk back and forth a few times).  The purpose of this is to determine what category of shoe is really optimal for your goal.  There are 'stability' shoes for trail running or substantial pronation (roll of the foot inward/outward while running); there are 'cushioned' shoes for runners of larger stature or distance training; there are 'performance' shoes that are light as air and great for short distances; and there are 'neutral' shoes with a combination of features that typically cater to non-pronators.  For my purposes, it seemed I would require a light, neutral shoe with a little bit of cushion for my mid-foot strike.

After trying on nearly a dozen pair, I opted for the Brooks Ghost 3.  Having only done one long run in them so far, I will not yet provide a formal review, but with regard to my criteria, they stack up perfectly.  The lesson I learned is that, in my attempt to save money, I ended up not only spending more but also costing myself valuable time by needing extra foot recovery along the way.  True - even amongst us sporty girls, there can never be too many shoes, BUT it's important to know what you're buying and why - unless you just want to wear them shopping.

 

OWS

If you're like me, you may find that these are perhaps the three most intimidating letters in all of triathlon training.  OWS - Open Water Swim.  When registering for a race, there will typically be some designation on the page of whether the swim portion takes place in a pool or some other open body of water.  This is going to be an important consideration for those of you non-swimmers embarking upon your first triathlon.

What's the difference? you ask.  Water is water.  I won't dispute that some athletes do believe that theory and have no issue with their first open water experience.  But bear with me while I give you an overview of things that may come as a shock AND how to overcome them quickly - just in case.

Murky-ness - On occasion a triathlon will be held in a spring-fed body of water that is just as clear as the Caribbean Sea, but it's rare.  As I've said before, most races are held in tiny towns off the beaten path and near the shoreline of an enclosed lake.  From swimming in the pool, you will be accustomed to having visibility under water.  Not so in open water swimming.  What you will likely see is a 'wall' of opaque brown silt.  This may feel claustrophobic at first, particularly when you realize that you can't even view the positioning of your hands/arms in front of your face.  Do not feel compelled to 'get used to' keeping your eyes open.  Many triathletes, including myself, simply train to swim with our eyes closed, only opening them for sighting (we'll get to that) or when looking toward the sky as we turn our heads to breath.

Temperature - Near my home in North Carolina, lake temperatures can shift dramatically over the course a season.  In March, the temps may be well below 70 degrees, requiring a wetsuit.  By June, these coves are warmer than the water you would comfortably fill in your bath tub.  And after a long rain storm in August, one can only guess.  The point is that you ought to give some careful thought to the climate when registering for a race, and also keep in mind that that climate may change without warning.  I personally can tolerate hot water much more easily than cold, so early-/late-season races are particularly trying.  Even in a wetsuit, the initial shock of landing your face in cold water may often result in gasping breaths.  The key here is to build confidence.  Arrive early to your races (or come out the afternoon prior) to spend some practice time in the water.  Your body will likely acclimate or, at minimum, tolerate the temperature better after an introductory period.

Sighting - No surprise that lakes do not come equipped with painted black lines at the bottom to lead you to your turn buoys.  And we've already established that, if they did, you probably wouldn't be able to see them anyway!  So how do you manage to get yourself from 'A' to 'B' on the straightest path possible?  The answer is a technique called 'sighting'.  There are a couple different ways to do this, but the idea is to intermittently lift your eyes just above the surface of the water (like alligator eyes) to take a quick glance at where you're heading.  The less experienced you are in open water, the more often you'll need to sight.  I sight at least every 5-7 strokes.  Ideally you will also want to do this without stopping or losing the momentum.  Click this link for one of my favorite video clips of the different sighting techniques.  Note that this will require more energy than a typical face-down stroke.  Get in the pool and practice, practice, practice prior to your first OWS.

Waves - Like temperature, wavy water is an unpredictable possibility given wind or boat traffic prior to your swim.  Waves can make sighting more difficult, but may also impact the timing of your breaths.  If you've done your homework on swim technique, you've probably trained yourself to breathe with only a slight turn of your head, resulting in one eye above water and one eye below.  When an unexpected wave rolls over your head, your initial reaction may be one of lifting your head fully out of the water.  This can result in a couple of problems, not the least of which is that you'll be throwing off the entire alignment of your body, pushing your hips downward as your torso lifts up, and adding a ton of drag to your swim glide.  A better method is to teach yourself to time your breathing with the waves.  This can take a good deal of open water practice, so as a beginner, I would encourage you to include lung-capacity drills in your pool training plan.  For instance - add a few laps that limit you to 3 or less breaths.  Even better, train yourself to breathe bilaterally.  This means that you switch your breaths between the right and left side throughout your swim (breathing every third stroke).  That way, if the waves are predominantly coming from one side, you can simply switch the direction of your head turn.

Currents - When an open water swim falls in an area with a current, the race directors will typically direct the swim with the current.  This can be not only advantageous for everyone's time but a lot of fun!  On the chance that a current intersects your swim route, the directors will likely make an announcement at the pre-race meeting (example:  "there's a slight current from north to south that may pull you slightly wide of the first buoy").  In this case, you would want to adjust your starting line to aim inward of that first buoy, assuming that the current will draw you right to it.  Same on the way back.  After you make your final turn toward shore, you'll want to aim slightly opposite the direction of the current.

Other athletes - The last item I will mention is the one that beginners typically fear the most.  It's one thing to swim around a few buoys on your own, but what will it be like with a group?  The answer depends primarily on two things.  The first is where you position yourself at the start of the race.  The more confident swimmers gravitate toward the front, right in the middle.  So as a beginner, you may decide to hang toward the rear of the pack and off to one side.  Also, there's also no harm in pausing after the gun goes off. Sometimes counting to 5 and giving yourself a little bit of distance can make all the difference - especially when you realize that the alternative race panic could cause you to lose well over a few seconds.

The second factor lies in your ability to stay calm.  Inevitably athletes will bump against each other in the water.  The more competitors, the longer it will take to stretch out the field along the narrow line to the first buoy.  Try to remember that no one around you is looking to scuffle.  It's not personal.  And, though I have seen it, it is also not feasible to stop every time one swimmer brushes against another to ask "are you ok?"  If you really need a break from the fray, you can always swim over to a kayak or a sighting buoy and hang on for awhile to recuperate.  As you get more comfortable in the open water though, you should focus on maintaining your line.  Maybe at the lunch counter you are too introverted to speak up, but in the water, in a triathlon, you have every right to your position.  Experienced athletes know that after a couple overlapped strokes, someone will give way.  With confidence you'll realize that someone can just as easily be 'the other guy'.  

Finally, the best way to get experience in the water is - to swim in the open water.  I guarantee that, where there are triathletes, there are OWS sessions.  Some are offered as training 'clinics' and some are just a group of athletes that happen to want to swim.  To find either one, the best place to start is at your local tri-gear supply store.  The people that work in these stores often do so because they are involved in the sport.  Therefore, they know other athletes and what training opportunities are available in the area.  Don't expect to find these sessions posted online.  Most athletes will not make themselves liable by 'hosting' a swim session unless they are a professional coach charging a fee.  Plus, convenient swim coves are not always in designated swim areas, so swimmers will likely not want to draw unnecessary legal attention.  When you find a group, ask what distance they swim and what skill level/speed is required.  Just like in a masters club, there are typically A, B and C levels, so be honest about your ability.  NEVER swim alone.  If a beginner group doesn't exist, work with your contacts at the tri store to organize one yourself.  Soon you'll be arriving at the starting line feeling like it's just another day at the park!

The Group Ride

This past weekend, I am thrilled to say that I successfully silenced my bicycle demons and finished an amazing 120-mile ride.  Having just pulled out of a moderate riding slump (reference: A Day Without Sunshine), I immediately found myself searching for the highlights to replicate next time - i.e. what made it possible for me to go from struggling at 70 miles to smiling at 120 in 1 week's time?

When preparing for a training ride, there are always competing priorities to be weighed.  You'll need to ask yourself:  Are you doing this ride to work on your pace?  Is this about ensuring you are comfortable in the saddle for [x number of] hours?  Are you struggling with your fuel plan and keeping your stomach happy?  What other challenges have you been experiencing that need to be worked through?  For me, I have had a few continuous obstacles - boredom, fear of getting lost/stranded, and general self-sabotage.  So the thing that really swung the pendulum to the 'postive' side ended up being very simple - company!

This may not always be the right answer, depending upon your situation.  Here is a brief overview that will help you make the decision for yourself whether to embark on a group adventure or go it alone with another strategy.  

Positives:

Stamina - At some stage, usually in the beginning of a distance increase, there comes a time where you just need to know how it feels to ride long.  Perhaps your pacing isn't yet your focus and you're more concerned with figuring out how to manage things like 'sensitivity' when riding in your saddle for 7+ hours, shoulder tightness when in the aero position, numb feet and a gurgling stomach.  Being with other riders can provide you with a good mental distraction, as well as some sound on-the-spot advice.  

Safety - Even when riding alone, it is always important to plan your route so as not to wind up on the interstate, but sometimes you may still find yourself in unexpectedly high traffic or simply unfamiliar territory.  Riding in a group makes you more visible to drivers as a whole (think 5 bright jerseys and blinking helmet lights instead of just 1). Also, unruly non-bicycle-enthusiasts are also less likely to verbalize when there are multiple riders.  Riding in a group can typically minimize the risk of getting lost, and means that - if something actually should go wrong - there is someone there looking out for you.

Fun - With all the above concerns swirling through your mind, a group ride can just be more fun.  Over the course of 5-7 hours, there will likely always be someone that is cracking jokes, singing, pointing out unusual sights, etc.  It could even be you!  This past weekend, I found that the cheeks on my face hurt nearly as bad as the ones on my seat, because I was laughing so much.  With others around, it's easier to shrug off the bugs that pelt you in the face or the occasional crazed dog.  Time flies (and so do the miles) when you're having fun!

Pitfalls:

Drafting - If pacing is on your mind or if it's time you really tested your legs for racing intensity, you're not necessarily going to get this from a group ride.  Unless you are further apart than 3 bike lengths, you simply will not be expending the same amount of energy that you would on a solitary ride.  In fact, by getting 'on the wheel' of another rider, you may find yourself going even 3 mph faster than your typical max, while using 3/4 of the energy!  Great news if you're looking for a fun easy trek, but not if you're looking for true muscle gains.  Unless you clear it with the group in advance that you will lead the whole way, this is one time to go it alone.

Dropping - When a rider can't 'hang on to the wheel' of the last rider in the group, it's called being 'dropped'.  The group, sharing the collective windspace, begins to pull away and you, for all your trying, begin to fall back.  This is a bad scenario for everyone involved.  From your perspective - your group ride has just turned into a solo journey.  From the group's perspective - they are now faced with the on-the-spot decision of lessening their intensity to pick you up again or continuing on and risking your comfort/safety.  Depending on how well you know your fellow cyclists, this decision is unpredictable.  It's uncommon that an entire group will have the same training goals and be on the same training schedule.  It will always be important to have a discussion in advance, announcing your honest pace capability alone and negotiating what the group pace (assuming a draft) is intended to be.

Multiple stops - While you may be able to go all day without a bathroom break or a water-bottle refill, there is always the risk that your fellow riders will have unplanned needs.  Rather than putting yourself in a position to become irritable, remind yourself in advance that these scenarios may arise at any time.  If, before the ride, you find yourself shaking your head and thinking, "If [so-and-so] has one more flat tire (leg cramp, etc), I will just scream," guess what?  Time to face the music (and the head wind) on your own.

Keeping all of these above points in mind will hopefully ensure that you get exactly what you want out of each and every workout AND make you a sought-after cycling partner for others.  All that's left to do is get out the spandex and get going!

The Mantra

Earlier this season, I found myself standing knee deep in the chilly water of of White Lake (North Carolina).  I had my wetsuit on, my goggles, my timing chip and my official Inside-Out Sports swim cap.  The scene was eerily gorgeous, as the strands of Spanish moss hung from more than a dozen trees that surrounded us and appeared to be growing from the lake itself.  A fog covered the mirrored water, so thick that the sighting buoys could not even be seen from the farthest point of the nearby spectators' pier.

The triathlon had been delayed due to the poor visibility and, to compensate, the directors began combining age groups into larger starting 'waves'.  What began as a relatively average group of 150 females with ages ranging between 18 and 34, soon doubled in size to include hulking men of ages 50 and over.  The narrow swim corridor at the starting line became nearly claustrophobic.  From a megaphone someone suddenly bellowed, "2 minutes.  2 minutes until Wave 3."

The first and second waves, including the elite athletes and the 18-34 year old men had already been in the water for several minutes.  As the fog cleared we could begin to see the froth of their flailing arms from shore.  The Wave 3 swimmers around me cheered and eased into the water up to their chests.  Some meandered out further to tread water and secure their position at the front of the pack. 

My stomach sank with an almost-audible 'thud'.  This wasn't supposed to be my first race of the season, I thought to myself.  A shorter, easier race had been scheduled to take place several weeks earlier.  It had come highly recommended as a great introduction to open water.  Unfortunately, Mother Nature, with her sense of humor, sent a tornado our way instead and, only an hour before the start time, required that the event be canceled.  Before that intended first race, my coach informed me, "I want to know what you're thinking about leading up to the start."  I suppose this was her way of telling me in advance to pick something positive.  As I stood in White Lake with only one minute to go, I tried to come up with my answer.

In truth, what I was thinking was, "What the hell is wrong with me?  I could be home curled up in my warm bed right now with my loving husband.  I could be just beginning a long lazy morning that would surely make me just as happy as this race.  Probably more, actually. Why am I doing this?"  It was fear talking.  Complete and utter insecurity.  It was a manifestation of the knowledge that it is, in fact, easier not to try.  It's easier to stay in bed.  The part about being happier was just what I was trying to convince myself, to be assured that it would be ok to hide under the covers after I failed.  In essence I was setting myself up for that very outcome - to fail.

Just before the whistle blew, I felt my chest tighten - the beginning of a real panic attack.  I grasped at any thoughts I could to reassure myself.  Maybe I have trained enough, maybe I am fit enough.  It wasn't working.  Finally, I came upon one idea.  If there were a billion dollars at the finish line, I could get there.  No, I am not a purely cash-motivated individual, but it was just something outlandish enough to stick.  There, in the corner of my brain, I knew that it was actually true.  In reality, the only tangible items that I received were a finisher's medal, a free over-sized tee shirt and some socks.  Yet my biggest prize was the satisfaction of having found the strength to finish that race. 

The accomplishment of completing a triathlon, or any exercise goal, is something that cannot be purchased.  Even those that have the billion dollars I dangled in front of my psyche that morning would have had to put in the same effort that I had.  Okay, sure, they might have had their own indoor pool and a better bike, but the reality is that each of us still has to sign up, suit up and show up.  What gets you to the end is all about your own personal motivation.

My coach uses this same theory about mantras when it comes to other mental obstacles.  For instance, I have never been a fan of testing my lung capacity underwater.  On occasion a workout will appear on my calendar which includes, "25 yards (1 pool length) = 1 breath; Repeat x 10."  Before I can even object, she reminds me, "If your husband (or friend or first-born child) were trapped under that water, you could hold your breath and save him."  She is right, no question.  I find myself at the other wall in no time.

This idea can work for pretty much any moment that is particularly trying.  No, I'm not suggesting you emulate that SNL skit ("I'm good enough, I'm smart enough and, gosh darn it, people like me").   But I am suggesting that reminding yourself that you choose to take a particular action or choose a certain response is a heck of a lot more productive that pretending to be a victim.  In the victim's world - fears become realities because we fulfill our own sad prophecies.  If you find what motivates you, even in the most far-fetched way, you will achieve the far-fetched results you perhaps never even dreamt of!

In the races that have followed since that morning in White Lake, I have had the luxury of looking back to previous successes and, because of that increasing experience, my mantra has now changed.  Having come full circle, I now stand in the water at the race start and remind myself that "Even if I just won a billion dollars, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."  This serves as a reminder that I am doing something based solely on my own athletic merit.  That in that moment I'm not being held accountable to by boss or my coach or even my family.  That I choose, of my own free will, to stand in that spot.  And the best part is - it's true, there's nowhere else in the world I'd rather be.

How Fast is "Fast"?

There's a vast gray area in endurance training that lies somewhere between 'knowing your limits' and 'giving up'.  When you're chasing a moving target, it's hard to know when to keep pushing and when you've done enough.  This concept has presented itself many times to me throughout the previous months of Ironman training, and left me pondering whether I deserve the kudos I have given myself (or the guilt) from any one particular workout.  

You see, bike/run/swim workouts are not always about speed.  In fact, much of the work I have focused on this season has been around technique and quality.  For this post, I'll refer primarily to my run training.  Let's say your training plan includes a 1.5-hour run.  How many miles should you plan on going?  In a race, you're going to push yourself beyond the limits of pain to reach top speed, but this is a training workout.  You're still not entirely rested from yesterday's bike ride and you have yet to do your afternoon swim.  Depending on the day and my mood, this could mean anywhere from 8-12 miles for me.  Quite a range to consider!

Contrary to popular belief, even a paid professional coach will not always spoon feed you a workout plan that includes your exact pace expectation.  More likely he/she will give cues such as "last 3 miles at 5K pace".  But let's say you don't have a coach and are using more of a 'cookie-cutter' workout that you found online.  Now what?  Enter the McMillan Running Calculator.

The McMillan Running Calculator is a tool that has been designed with the assumption in mind that an athlete trained to any distance can go longer by slowing their pace and conserving their energy.  It wisely does not assume what new runners often do - that "if I can sprint 1 mile in 6 minutes, I can run 10 miles in 60 minutes".  It simply does not work that way.  This tool also accounts for the fact that an athlete will face different 'types' of runs.  There are run workouts focused on speed, some focused on stamina and others called 'tempo' workouts - which plainly mean that you run at about 80-85% of your full potential.  This type of information can be incredibly helpful when your internal guage for intensity is fluctuating from day to day.

Step 1 - Perform a test set.  My coach does this at the beginning of every season, no exceptions.  She calls it doing '2-mile sprints', which, I agree, sounds like a contradiction in terms.  We head out to a track bright and early and do a good long warm-up of stretches and laps.  As the warm-up progresses, I start including faster intervals to get my legs used to the quick turnover - for instance, running the straight parts of the track fast and then slowing a bit on the corners.  When I am well past the point of breaking a sweat and my legs are nice and loose, we start the stopwatch.  8 fast laps around the track, while continuing to push hardest on the straightaways.  This is tough and, while you want to ensure that you make the distance, you need to be pushing to your absolute max.  If I quit, I am forced to start again.  My advice is to take this seriously the first time and get it done.  Take someone with you if you want the extra support and accountability.  If you happen to start too hard, control your breathing and keep going.  Remember, you are not being tested to see where you fit amongst everyone else - only to understand where you are starting from.  Give yourself a good long cool down walk when it's over.

Step 2 - Input your time.  Using the following link to the McMillan Running Calculator, click on the distance option for '2 Miles' and then input your time in Hours:Minutes:Seconds.  This is a free service.  Just hit 'Calculate'. 

Step 3 - Interpret your results.  The data that appears will provide you with your estimated pace times for a variety of distances.  Note that these times assume that you are working at 'race' intensity.  For example, my last test set had a result of 13 min. 20 sec.  Therefore, by this calculator's theory, I would likely finish a marathon under similar conditions in 3 hours 31 min.  So now back to my previous question.  How hard/fast should I be running during a workout?  For this I use the columns toward the left of the page - the Endurance and Stamina paces.  You will need to refer to your individual training plan to make the best use of these metrics, but in even the most simplistic plan, you will likely have some idea of what your long workout for the week is, what your recovery workout is (perhaps a day or two after the long run), and then what the remaining/'tempo' runs are.  Without getting too technical, my plan would suggest that my 'average' pace be somewhere around 7:30 per mile, my long days be about 9:00 per mile, and my recovery jogs slow to 10:00 per mile.

Step 4- Adding the 'tri' factor.  The final step is to account for the fact that these times assume a run only.  If your triathlon plan calls for a brick workout (a bike ride followed immediately by a run) OR if you intend to use this calculator to estimate your race pace, you may find yourself unnecessarily disappointed.  The calculator simply does not know how many miles you just swam and biked.  This type of estimation takes a little bit more experience to calculate, but suffice to say, you may want to plan for a longer-distance pace even in a sprint triathlon.

Step 5 - Retest.  Yep, I said it.  Do it again - at least once every couple of months.  You ARE fit enough to do this.  Getting on a regular test-set schedule will ensure that you don't stagnate at a pace well below your potential, and - what's more - you deserve to see the improvement you have made from all your hours of hard work!  This is exactly what a coach would have you do if they were personalizing your workout - continually adapt your plan as you progress through the season.  Using this calculator you will give you an objective view to determine whether you are having a tough day of running or a tough day in life that is just clouding your judgment.  It will also allow you to celebrate the times when it all feels easy!  Before you know it - you've got a whole new definition of "FAST".

 

 

A Day Without Sunshine

While I do love passing along my motivation and supreme love of triathlon, I think I would be doing you a great disservice to omit the posts where I too find myself questioning it all.  The truth is that, even after a series of good workouts and even after a fantastic race - sometimes all of us have bad training days. Sometimes everything does go wrong.

This was true of yesterday's brick workout.  The intention was to be a 4-hour bike ride, followed immediately by a 20-minute run.  This would be my longest  bike ride in recent memory and, with only 7 more weeks until the Ironman, the pressure is on to nail every single session until then.  I can honestly say I took all of my own advice.  I planned and prepared every detail.  The weather was forecasted to be much chillier than usual, so I dug out my long pants, arm warmers and gloves.  I made all my fuel bottles the night before.  I mapped out the route and studied it.  I set my alarm went to bed early, unconsciously counting down the minutes before I would destroy one more distance barrier.

The result was somewhat different than my plan.  Number one, I got lost.  Repeatedly.  Maybe I should have driven the route earlier in the week, but it traversed the path of a previous race, and I figured that all of the road markings would still be visible even if my cue sheet was off.  Wrong.  Paint washes away and sometimes street names change (or have 3-4 different names).  Second, boredom set it.  When training by yourself and seeing nothing but empty road and abandoned tobacco sheds for miles on end, it's easy to get disheartened.  "70 more miles to go . . ." I repeated to myself.  "69, 68 . . ."  I might as well have been singing that song about the "99 bottles of beer on the wall."  Ugh.  There wasn't even a ray of sun to lighten my spirits.  Just gray clouds threatening rain all day long.  Third, there were numerous 'other' things that almost never happen but all decided to present themselves in this one solitary ride.  Examples: an obese redneck exiting a church parking lot and cursing at me from his truck window just because he had to share the road for two whole minutes on his way to the tavern; an aggressive farm dog that got loose from his owner and had the insane idea that a bicycle would be tasty; a homeless wanderer carrying a grocery bag over his shoulder that threw a half-eaten bun at me.  Yep, 67 miles to go.

I won't sugar coat this to save face.  I crumbled.  My legs were exhausted from a stellar 10-mile run the day before, and I knew that this fatigue was exactly my coach's intention.  She knew I would have to face internal demons like this in my upcoming race - and get through it.  I didn't.  At the 20-mile mark, I turned back for the car.  I packed up my bike and called my (very understanding) husband with tears welling up in my eyes.  I was a grown woman crying on the side of the road like an overtired infant.

So why am I telling you all this?  I assure you, it's not just for my own catharsis.  It's because no one ever told me!  It wasn't until I was months into my training that some other athletes and even my coach confessed to their own bad days.  Sure - the best stories come when you grit your teeth, dig in your heels and muscle through.  But it's only fair to acknowledge that it doesn't always happen AND, what's more, that it doesn't have to be the end of your journey.

With endurance training, you continuously increase your limits, and the fact is that, on occasion, you will reach one.  The key is to accept that it happened and move on.  Some of the pro's that I train with have said that they've learned much more from the awful days than from the good ones.  My plan is now to find the strength to shake off this one bad ride and start the next one fresh.

In one week's time, I will face this distance again - and then some.  This time it will be a 6-hour ride staring me in the face, roughly 90 miles, once again asking me if I have it in me.  I'll be taking all my lessons learned to heart this week - going back to a comfortable circular route that I'll repeat 3 times around, inviting some great training partners that are eager to come out for one lap a piece, and - most importantly - reminding myself that the score still stands.  Asphalt - 1.  Me - 999.

 

 

Triathlon (and Exercise in General) Has Made Me a Better Person Because I . . .

  • Sleep like a baby.
  • Can't remember the last time I've been really angry.
  • Can't think of anything to nag about.
  • Have figured out how to slow down time (by filling it).
  • No longer fear aging.  I feel like I'm 17!
  • Have gotten my body to stop giving me the silent treatment.  I now 'hear' the requests loud and clear for sugar, salt, carbs, electrolytes, etc, and respond accordingly.
  • Am completely comfortable with the way I look.
  • Know not to judge a person's strength (physical or mental) by their appearance.
  • Am grateful for the ability to wake up each day and experience this kind of pain - and triumph.
  • Fully understand the difference between urgency and importance.
  • Now know who my friends are (the ones that stick around even when you can't go drink-for-drink)
  • Know what it really means to be a cheerleader, and that it has nothing to do with the pleated skirt.
  • Forgive others (and myself) for faltering.
  • Find showers more refreshing, blankets more cozy, and hugs more comforting.
  • Realize closure is not something that is given but something that is created.
  • Now see that it takes a strong person to reach out for help.
  • See value in the little things, including - an ounce of weight in my shoes, a millimeter of neoprene in my wetsuit, a foot of concrete before the finish line.
  • Can commit, even when something requires continuous effort (racing, work, marriage, etc).
  • Have changed my mantra to read, "When the going gets tough - the tough get tougher."
  • Finally feel like there's something I can offer to support a cause, raise money, bring awareness, etc.
  • Have gained an appreciation for country roads, tiny towns and hardworking people whose names I'll never hear on TMZ.
  • Do not expect more of anyone else than I am able to accomplish myself.
  • Have silenced the critical voice in my head.
  • Have gotten closer to nature (sharing a bike draft with a hawk, saving a tiny fawn from a busy highway, swimming with sea life).
  • Finally have found something that makes me excited to wake up before dawn.
  • See darkness, rain and cold as good reasons to go outside (and run).
  • Make myself proud.
  • Get to see and meet some of the most inspiring individuals on the planet.
  • Am finally living in the present - and loving it.
  • Have time to think (while training).
  • Realize that regrets are mistakes you don't learn from, and no longer have any.
  • Still believe that bragging is a sign of insecurity, but also that it is a victimless crime we should all be allowed to commit from time to time.
  • Respect others' interests - even if they have nothing to do with triathlon.

 

Staying the Course

I'm not sure there's a person alive that wakes up in the morning and says, "I want to suck today."  There are, however, those of us that will set out on a straight path for a much-desired goal, get so close we can touch it, and then suddenly . . . turn.  This has been my pattern with triathlon and, well, everything really.  I get hooked on an idea with the greatest of confidence and then when it looks like it might actually come true, I find myself fighting against the urge to veer.  Over the years, I've thought long and hard about why this might be.  Some might say it's a fear of failure - I would agree that I don't ever want to disappoint myself or others.  Whatever the reason, it's a habit that I've been working to stop and, once again, Ironman training has provided a life lesson.

This past weekend, I participated in my longest race of the season thus far - a Half Ironman.  1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run.  With the Ironman roughly 8 weeks away, this was meant to be an opportunity to gain experience with long-course racing.  At least, that's what my coach said.  So I started to contemplate the meaning of 'experience'.  It's an act of gaining knowledge.  In short, my job for this weekend was to figure out what I don't already know - to screw up, endure the consequences, and finish anyway.  I began to get nervous.  This could hurt!

I started thinking about the commonalities of reaching goals and overcoming fears.  Not entirely sure if I was even on the right track, these are the things I did to accomplish both.  I'll spoil the ending by telling you that it did hurt and these did work (for me).  While my task is not yet fully complete and I am certainly no expert - I'll share with you my secrets from one successful venture, in hopes that you can stay the course to your own destination.

Not really having a clue what I was even trying to manage - I started by listing all the things that I was fearful of.  At first I scribbled them just as they sounded in my mind, "I am scared of being close to large sea creatures on my first ocean swim," but I found that the exercise was only escalating my anxiety.  I shifted to a different perspective and started listing with a more assertive tone, "I will not be intimidated by ocean life."  I didn't have any idea how I was going to make that a reality, but it untied a few of the knots in my stomach just by saying it that way.  It sounds a little 'Dr. Phil', but the pro athletes are endlessly promoting the value of visualization and positive mental imagery.  Who am I to judge?

So the first couple items on my list became:

I will not be intimidated by ocean life.

I will not get panicked by big waves, directional drifts, or the thrashing of other swimmers

The theme here is obvious.  I was terrified of getting half a mile from shore, and getting a firsthand feeling of that water scene from Titanic.  As always, my coach wisely suggested practice.  So now the only question was - how was I going to do a practice swim?!  I got to the race site the evening before and picked up my packet of goodies (race number, swim cap, free tee, etc).  Then I made my way down to the shore.  The buoys had already been positioned so I could see the exact route of the swim course.  I took a picture of it and sent it to Daria, saying something along the lines of, "Can you see that orange triangle buoy?  That's 1/3 of my swim.  OMG." 

  

Here - let's use the magic of 'zoom' technology:

Now you see it?  There, off to the right?  For a little more perspective - there's a yellow 'sighting buoy' in the middle and those two dots to the left are people.

Well, I stood on the landing for several minutes observing the scene.  Slowly but surely I started to put on my wetsuit.  Several other racers came to the waters edge with an awestruck expression.  This was a stretch for a lot of us.  They asked, "Are you going out there?"  "Uhm, I haven't decided yet," I responded while wandering waist deep into the murky abyss.  I 'paddled' around a little.  It wasn't really swimming.  I wouldn't let myself get too far from shore - just in case (reference: the list above).

Finally I spotted one other person, a 40-something man, stepping into his wetsuit on shore.  He looked confident, so I did something that is seriously out of my nature - I reached out for help.  As he strode into the waves, I feigned a calm smile and said, "Hey, how far are you going?"  He indicated he was heading to the first orange buoy.  I replied, "Me too.  Want to go together - just to be safe?"  He breathed a sigh of relief that must've been hidden beneath the layers of neoprene.  "Oh, thank you," he said.  "That sounds great.  It looks a little choppy, and I really didn't want to be out there alone.  I'm Brian."

We headed off away from shore, swimming steadily, and the more strokes I took, the more I became settled into the same comfortable rhythm I had found in the pool.  Did Brian talk me through my fears or set up an invisible cone of safety?  Nope.  But the fact that I was looking out for someone and someone was looking out for me was just enough comfort to tackle the unknown.  Along the way I came upon a school of little hatchling fish that swarmed to nibble at my fingers and toes as I swam.  It felt like air bubbles and admittedly would have completely sent me reeling if I hadn't had this near-stranger at my side.  I laughed instead and have since been told that people of some cultures pay for this as an exfoliating treatment!

The following morning, the tide was twice as high.  It was difficult to sight and we had to time our breaths with the downward slope of the waves.  At the starting line, the same awestruck faces stood there just like the day before.  Yet, because of my ability to put pride aside, I was able to start and finish strong (and by the looks of the Results page, so did Brian).  Mission accomplished.

The next couple items on my list:

I will not let my recent stomach issues (nausea & GI pain due to food poisoning) get in the way.

I will try to keep from walking during the run.

I hadn't raced this distance all season.  There was really no way of judging what it would take.  See, the trick to a three-pronged sport is planning for the third (i.e. to have a good, solid run).  That means conserving a little on the bike so you don't completely blow out your energy and leg strength.  It's a tough balance to master, I'm learning, as I've had numerous Sprint- and Olympic-distance events that have resulted in walking.  And the stomach pain?  I have been hyper-sensitive to various foods and workout intensities (jostling=nausea).

I went back to the old standby rule of being prepared.  I brought everything with me that I could possibly need or want, including an enormous jug of water and a grocery bag full of peanut butter and jelly, electrolyte supplements, etc.  Unloading the car at the hotel was almost embarrassing, as the other racers passed by with one backpack and a bike.  I nearly chastised myself for making such a big production, until I saw this:

 

Races often happen in tiny towns.  It's a great way to draw consumers to local businesses and these are the areas where it's easiest to close 60 miles of road for half a day.  This beach area typically has some good restaurants as well, but has recently incurred some serious damage from Hurricane Irene.  As you can see above - one of the only nearby places to offer even deli-style eats and supplies had limited offerings.  Fortunately I only needed some gum.

I'll spare you the details here, but suffice to say - my PB&J went down a lot easier than a liver or a gizzard would have, and my ability to fuel appropriately helped me to meet all my race goals without added discomfort.

The last couple items on my list:

I will not wig out when driving over bridges (yes, this is my one completely irrational and unfounded fear)

I will not let total distances or future races psych me out (i.e. "OMG, this is going to hurt twice as bad during the Ironman")

This race took place in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.  That means islands, separated by water, that are traversed by BRIDGES.  Yes, I knew this going in.  I've been over them many times as a content passenger but have always been uncomfortable (to say the least) about driving them.  No, I have never had a negative incident.  No, I cannot explain it.  I have tried the sleep tapes and even hypnotherapy and, as much as I acknowledge the pure ridiculousness of this fear - the fact is that I was not going to be magically cured before this race.  My hope was that a friend or my husband might accompany me and I could persuade them to drive.  No such luck.  So this was going to be a fear that I needed to manage before the race ever began.

That's the one.  P.S. the race involved going over this with our bikes 4 times, including a large steep incline at the far end for accommodating commercial fishing boats.  Yikes.  It seemed that in order to overcome this part of the list, I was going to, literally and figuratively, need to drive through it.

I saw the signs coming along this one-lane highway minutes in advance - "Approaching Umstead Bridge". Ugh.  There was no way around it.  I tried to focus on deep breaths to keep from hyperventilating; I pressed my knees together to direct the blood away from my face; I turned up the radio and did absolutely anything I could to distract myself from looking over the sides or too far in front of me.  The car rocked a bit with each bump of the expansion crevasses.  I took them one at a time.

When I got to the other side, obviously unscathed, my body felt like jell-o.  I was relieved and actually very proud of myself for having completed this personal feat that most people would tackle without thinking.  This gave me a dramatic boost of confidence that I was able to reflect upon the next day during my race.

I had made it calmly out of the water, completed the bike leg with a bit of energy to spare, and set out on the run.  I settled in for the first couple of miles but then, as my blood sugar dropped, the thoughts began to creep in.  70.3 total miles - man, that sounds like a long way.  And that's only half of what I'm going to have to do in 8 weeks!  I thought back to that moment on the bridge and did the only thing I knew how to do - I took it one 'bump' at a time.  

At the end of each mile stood an aid station, staffed with volunteers like the local high school cheerleaders, that provided us with water, fuel, gel or cold towels.  I forced myself to let go of mile 70.3 and focus only on the next mile or the next aid station.  I made deals with myself - If I run hard to the next aid station, I will let myself slow for 15 seconds while I drink/eat.  Before I knew it, there were only 2 more to go, then 1, and then suddenly I could see the finish line.

The last lesson that this race taught me was to smile when it hurts.  I know, I know - it sounds insane, but here's what happens - other people smile back, and cheer, and pat you on the back.  It's amazing!  The volunteers and other racers become so caught off guard at the girl who's sweating and limping and still smiling that they can't help but sing your praises!  Pardon the pun, but when you are 'on your last leg', this is just the ticket to keep you going.  I had total strangers screaming for me, yelling, "You look amazing!", "You're going to do it!", "Keep it up!"  Even passersby were beeping and clapping from their cars!  I've already told you how us back-of-the-packers like to root for one another, but being a true grin-and-bear-it example can be both inspiring and rewarding.  And the best part?  Now that it's over and I made it to the finish line - I'll be smiling on the inside for a long time to come.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Swim Bag

Thinking about taking up swimming?  It makes perfect sense, right?  It's a total body workout with low impact and high calorie burn.  So now what?  When you arrive at your local sports equipment store, you may find that the shelves are filled with gear and gadgets meant to improve your swimming ability.  Before you go breaking your budget, I'm going to give you the low-down on what you need to get started.

The Pool

First thing's first.  You need a convenient place to get in the water.  The most inexpensive option is going to be your local public swimming pools.  They usually cost only a few dollars upon entry and many offer discounts for, say, a month pass.  There should not be a contract or time limit.  Now, I know what you're thinking - public pool=public germs and poor maintenance, BUT I can attest that this is not typically the case.  Keep in mind that high school and/or masters swim teams often rent lanes in the public pools for practices.  Standards for cleaning of locker room facilities and the pool itself are likely going to be similar to what you might find at a YMCA-type facility.  This brings me to the next option - a private fitness center.  First - most gyms do not have swimming pools, but there are a few.  Call around and do your homework on pricing.  It's rare, but some offer swimming-only memberships without having to pay an enormous fee for the additional cardio equipment, weights and yoga classes.  Also, think about proximity and travel time.  I love my YMCA membership because there is one located near my house and one 30 minutes away, near my office.

The Suit 

Put down that cute bikini with the underwire.  Same goes for that flutter-skirt bottom.  What you want is a one piece suit that fits you snugly and smoothes all your lovely curves.  Speedo and TYR suits are typically the most popular and easiest to find.  You want a size that is comparable to your bra or one less.  For instance, if you wear a 34B, you'll want to get a suit that is a 34 or a 32.  It should not hurt/pinch when it is on, but you should also not be able to pull the shoulder straps up and touch your earlobes - even when it's wet.  You want to appear sleek - and flat as a pancake.  But I look like a boy! you say.  My reply - it's the price of being hydrodynamic.  Plus, after just a few sessions, you'll have rocking arms and killer lats to show off in exchange.  

The Gear

Basics for comfort include goggles and a cap, and you'll find many options of each.  Get an adult-size latex, silicone or rubber swim cap to start.  Even a cheap one is fine.  I still wear the free ones that I get from races.  Don't bother with the lycra or cloth kind.  They stretch out, feel heavy, and don't keep your head as warm.  For goggles, you're going to need to pop open the packages and try a few on.  Don't worry - as long as you repackage the ones you don't want without destroying the display, the salespeople do not mind.  The way to test the goggles is just to press the eye pieces against your face and see if the suction will hold them in place for a second or two without your hands.  Don't bother with the straps, as they can be adjusted on any pair.  Tinting is not necessary if you are swimming indoors.  Also, keep in mind that no matter how much you spend, goggles do need to be replaced at least every few months.  The glue wears, they scratch, or the straps simply stretch out.  Get what works for now.

Training Basics

At this point you could just head off to the pool and go for it; however, you see oodles and oodles of plastic & foam devices that claim to make your swim easier and more fun!  There are plenty out there that just aren't worth your money or that focus on a teeny tiny section of your stroke.  When you're just starting out, I recommend that you focus on the things that allow you to conserve energy in order to analyze your stroke.  You can worry about perfecting it later.  Before you buy any of these - check around at your pool.  Even the public pools may have a stash of these items that you can use for FREE.  First - a foam kickboard.  This is good for a few things - when you position it at your center of gravity (about your waist) and lay on top of it, you can feel the position in which you should be swimming - flat in the water, feeling like your head is almost 'downhill'.  Another use is for isolating your legs to kick from one side of the pool to the other.  Finally you can use this for 'tombstone' drills - where you hold the board out in front of you, about halfway underwater (like a tombstone) and kick against the resistance.  Next, fins.  Not 'zoomers' (yet), but full-size fins that fit your feet.  You'll need to try these on.  Yes, this will create less work for your arms at first, but also helps you to get the correct sensation of gliding in the water.

For isolating the arms, you'll want a pull buoy.  This looks a bit like a foam bow-tie that you place between your thighs.  It will increase the correct position of laying down in the water and allow you to take your legs out of the equation.  Finally, swim paddles.  I recommend those made by Strokemaker.  They are worn on your hands and are meant to exaggerate the result of proper/improper technique.  If you are swimming properly, you will fly through the water.  If not, you will feel the water and your arm working against one another.  As you get better, you can remove the wrist strap and attach them only to your middle finger for an added challenge.

Don't Bother

For now, skip the stroke timers, beepers, waist fins and 'techtoc' rotation tools.  These all have a purpose, but it's sort of like buying a street map of Nome, Alaska.  Plenty of people have one, but you don't even know where you're headed yet!  Other things to add to this list include nose clips and ear plugs.  While it's annoying to get water up your nose, you are actually doing yourself a disservice by clamping it shut.  Breathing out of your nose while underwater is important to the timing of the stroke, so you don't add an unnecessary pause with your face above the surface.  If you really feel strongly that you need these in the beginning, go for it, but be careful you aren't adding one more thing to your list that says, "I can't swim without it".  Same goes for ear plugs.  I admit, when I started, I used to get terrible stinging pains in my ears - either from the cold or just the unfamiliarity with having water in my ear canals.  For this, the wax ear plugs will do the trick (do not try the foamy ones you use for sleeping - as they will only disintegrate).  Wax ear plugs will need to be shaped by hand to fit your ear.  Be aware that they will prevent you from hearing as well.  Again, that is fine for beginners, but as you get better and think about swimming with a group or a coach, you may find these to be more trouble than they are worth.

Extras

I keep a dedicated swim bag prepped at all times, but regardless if you choose to have this or just carry your stuff in your arms, you may want to think about adding the following items to the pile: a hair tie to get your locks sorted out before putting on the cap; shampoo/conditioner  - your pool will likely have something on the wall that works as combination soap and shampoo but you'll at least want a detangler if your hair is longer than 4 inches; a brush or pick for the same reason; rubber flipflops for comfort and avoiding germs in showers; a towel if your gym does not provide them; lotion - to combat the skin-drying effects of chlorine; face cream that suffices as mascara remover, if you don't want to leave the pool looking like a raccoon; spray deodorant that won't melt if you plan to leave your bag in the car for any amount of time (learned this the hard way); goggle defogger - to rinse your goggles before/after your swim and make them last longer; a lock if your pool lockers don't have them; a small jewelry pouch to keep track of the tiny things you won't be swimming with; a plastic bag for your wet suit and towel; underthings to change into; a water bottle to keep beside your swim lane; an after-swim snack to replenish your body with electrolytes and protein.

Etiquette & The Right Approach

These last items falls under the 'must have' category.  

As for etiquette, there are only a few common sense rules that are observed in the swimming community and are sometimes counterintuitive to new swimmers.

(1) Don't try to race the person in the next lane.  Everyone is there for a different reason, and the guy nursing a running injury just plain doesn't need the childish antics.  The clocks on the walls are there for your reference if you really want to judge performance.

(2) Share the lane when asked.  It's an unspoken assumption that, when all lanes are full, you begin splitting the lanes in half or 'circle' swimming.  If you're not used to staying on one half of the lane or swimming close to other people, this may be intimidating.  My suggestion is this - when you are approached about sharing, say yes, but explain that you are a new swimmer and will do your best to stay on one side.  Give the newcomer the option of choosing to accept or try a lane with a more experienced swimmer.  Keep in mind that they are asking to be polite - not because it's your lane to claim.  The same will apply when you are in their position.

(3) Rinse in advance.  I'll be honest - most people don't, but it will only take one experience of swimming beside a man dipped in Old Spice to become a believer.  The confined air space of a natatorium compounds odors dramatically.  If you think the pool water will rinse them away, think again.  Some perfumes and colognes linger still and can cause big time headaches for those around you.  I'm sure your taste in eau de toilette is outstanding, but let others take your word for it.

Finally, the most important element of your swimming success is having the right approach.  Often times I see people jump in the water and start off in a full sprint up and down the pool until they (quickly) reach a state of exhaustion.  They tally up their laps and climb out the pool, dejected that they were only able to swim for a few minutes.  Your approach to swimming should not be the same as it may have been for weight lifting or even running.  It's not about 'muscling through'.  Think of this more like you would approach the game of golf.  Swinging the club harder and faster may not give you the desired result.  You need to slow down, dissect what you are doing and improve your technique.  Swimming is about body intelligence and controlled movement.  The best swimmers often take the least amount of strokes to get from one side of the pool to the other.  It's less about fast turnover and more about efficiency, or reducing drag.  True, the first few sessions, you may only make it a few laps.  It may be discouraging to think of the 'production' you have gone through in order to spend 10 minutes in the water, but it's OK.  Look back at my post entitled, "You Tube Taught Me to Swim (in my 30s)", and focus on making those few laps count.  You'll be gliding along in no time.

Finding Your 'Why'

All right, I hear what you are all saying, "Ok, Linds, we've had enough of the reality check."  I've given you all the pitfall avoidance advice you can stand.  Now you want to know WHY in the world you might still want to start endurance training.  The answer is not so cut and dry - it's different for everyone.  So I've compiled a list including some of my own reasons and some reasons that my co-athletes have shared.  See if you don't just find yourself among them.

"Something was missing . . ."

Remember when you were a child?  You leapt out of bed with a full-day's energy to play with and laughed until your cheeks hurt.  Your biggest stressors were combing knots out of your hair.  You knew nothing of retirement planning, mortgage refinancing, or glass top stove cleaner.  Now, each morning you drag yourself onto your feet, make the bed, and know that it's going to just get messed up again later . . . (sigh).  It's not like you need Symbalta or anything, but maybe you're just tired of the day-to-day drone.  We've all been there, and this is one of the most common reasons that people choose to give endurance racing a try. 

One of my fellow racers is the perfect example.  An All American swimmer through college, she woke up 15 years later realizing that she missed her racing mentality.  Triathlon training was just the thing to awaken her competitive spirit.  Another woman I train with decided after the birth of her fourth child that she wanted something more to define herself.  She did, and still does, revel in the joy of her children, but in addition to holding the titles of 'wife' and 'mother', she now enjoys being called an 'athlete'.

"I never finished what I started" or "I was afraid to succeed"

My tri friends and I sat down for a glass of wine one evening around the holidays, talked about the events leading up to our lives today, and realized something amazing - not one of us 'ended up' where we thought we would!  Here are a few examples - a 38-year-old guy on the path to photography has now made a very successful living as a bike builder and repairman; a 43-year-old woman who studied abroad in France for several years has become a happy homemaker in North Carolina; a 28-year-old female lawyer now teaches sports management at a Florida university; a 34-year-old woman (myself) started off on a mission to Manhattan to become an actress and is now a statistical analyst for a major medical center.  This doesn't mean we're not all thrilled with the outcomes of our lives - in many cases, decisions were made along the way that arguably made for a better life than our original plans.  But because of the weaving journeys of our past, we all at some point felt the desire to experience something with a start, a middle and a successful end.

This category also encompasses those who want to see if they can.  They know that the rewards of endurance training might mean never again feeling insecure about walking into a crowded room of strangers, never again wondering if you're ready for that big promotion at work, never letting anything stand in the way of your dreams.  It may sound silly, but many (including myself at times) have a tendency to 'choke' when even the best laid plans come down to the wire.  For me, triathlon is a life lesson in stopping the pattern of self-sabotage and getting out of my own way.

"I've been through worse"

It's true what they say - what doesn't kill us makes us stronger and, unfortunate as it may be - hardships are sometimes the very reason for our inner strength.  A couple of examples from this category might include a friend of mine who went through 26 hours of labor and realized that even the Ironman takes less time than that!  Or a car accident victim who was told he would never walk again.  How about those inspirational athletes we see doing the Ironman with one prosthetic leg like Sarah Reinertsen or even blind like Charlie Plaskon?

So, why, you ask, would someone want to endure moreThe answer for some comes down to 'proof'.  Athletes in this category may wish to prove to themselves that they are, as they have always known - healthy, cured, whole, able.  Some do endurance training to remind themselves of where they will never be again.  Take the recovering alcoholic who completes the Ironman and recalls that even 17 hours of physical performance is nothing compared to the pain he inflicted upon himself and his family during his last three-day binge.  Depending upon where you start - sometimes the road to the finish line is all down hill.

"I wanted to pay tribute"

You've heard me say a thousand times that you have to keep training for you, but inspiration can come from anywhere.  Ok, maybe you're inspired by the idea of looking like a Victoria's Secret model.  That's fine and dandy, but the more common response among endurance athletes is to perform in honor of someone else.  I once met a mother of two children who both had cystic fibrosis and couldn't breathe.  She raced as a way to honor them and bring about awareness of the disease.  What about Dick and Rick Hoyt (teamhoyt.com) - a father and his quadriplegic son who compete together in marathons and triathlons around the world.  There are veterans racing for their fallen military counterparts, and I've also seen numerous widows and widowers cross the finish line with sentiments of remembrance clutched tightly in their fists.  I, myself, run every single race with a hollow, infinite-shaped necklace that holds the ashes of my best friend.

Finally, maybe you haven't personally known someone that you wish to honor but you have found inspiration in the strength of a total stranger.  Brian Breen, for example, was featured in the 2006 Ironman World Championship coverage as a regular Chicago suburbanite who, in a matter of months,  transformed himself into a triathlete.  He claimed that he needed to find something 'greater than himself' and, after witnessing the Ironman performance of Jon Blaze during an un-winnable battle with ALS, he found just that.  Before millions of people, Brian finished the race and repeated Jon's act of rolling across the finish line - tears of both joy and mourning streaming down his face.

There are endless reasons why we choose to train - but the point is that the choice is yours.  For better or worse, no one is ever going to force you to select a goal.  The camera crews simply are not going to spontaneously assemble outside your door to ask if you are ready for your shining close up.  Only you can identify the thing that is going to finally allow you to 'unpause' your life.  So what are you waiting for?

Work, Training & Relationships | The Lifestyle 'Tri'chotomy

Balancing the work/life dichotomy can be challenging - sometimes even down right stressful. Between meeting the expectations of your boss, plus maintaining your home and managing some sort of social life, it's amazing we ever get to eat and sleep.  You've gotten used to putting everyone else's needs first - and so have they.

So what happens when you decide to add training to the mix?  Well, you could become one of the masses who carry the banner that reads, "If I only had time . . .", but that's not you. Those days are behind you, and in hopes of keeping them in your rear view mirror, I'm going to drive you on a crash course through the endurance training lifestyle.

Work

Between work and relationships, this is actually the easier of the two to manage. Counterintuitive, I know, but the secret lies in predictability.  I work Monday through Friday, 8:00 to 5:00, roughly every week of the year.  I know the travel time of my commute and the average duration of my lunch break.  I might not love this level of oversight, but in terms of my training, the options are simple.  I can workout in the evening or the early morning (ugh!), or I can change professions.

"But it's not fair," you say.  "Some of the top racers are 'stay at home' moms who can train whenever they want!"  It's true that many women enjoy outdoor bike rides long into the fall and winter months while others of us plug away on our stationary trainers into the evening hours - but don't be fooled into thinking their lives are overly flexible.  In fact, many triathlon moms will say that the reason for their success lies in the routine.  

So let's say you're a traveling consultant.  You find yourself in a different city with variable hours every day. Does that mean you should forsake your dream of finishing a triathlon?  Not a chance!  Less predictability just means extra planning.  Scroll a few pages back for my post entitled, "I Can't Run Because . . ." for some helpful tips on getting your training in gear no matter what your lifestyle.

Relationships

I'll break this down into 2 relationship categories:

(A) I'm in a fresh, new relationship or I'm looking for that special someone.

(B) I'm married or in a long-term relationship.  My significant other and I know what to expect from each other.

Regardless of what your relationship status you are in, you will likely encounter pieces of all 3 of the following phases.  How you address them, however, may be dramatically different.

Phase 1 - The Decision - This is the time when you're doing a lot of talking, or at least internal debating.  Maybe you've decided to try out a beginner triathlon plan for a few weeks to see how you like it.  I went through this phase numerous times before finally registering for the Ironman, so I have experienced this from both A & B perspectives.  When I was in the dating scene, this was basically something to talk about over dinner and drinks.  I got mixed responses.  Some guys were intrigued and would say, "Wow, I like a driven woman." Others were intimidated, making comments like, "What makes you think you can do something like that?"  I used this topic as a way to weed out 'the field'.  My friends used to tell me that this was being picky, but in retrospect, it was exactly the right thing for me.  Endurance training is hard enough without unnecessary stifling.

In the B category, this is a very different mentality.  Endurance training comes with compromise, and it is meant to be rewarding - not an irreconcilable difference.  Approach this decision with the same thoughtfulness that you would a new job or a vehicle, and talk through it together.  Remember, this is a lifestyle change, and that means the ones closest to you in life are going to feel it too.

Phase 2 - The Commitment - Okay, you're in it.  You've got yourself a bike, a pool membership and a goal. You're a triathlete in the making.  Each relationship category has its complexities here.  

If you're an A, your major focus is going to be prioritizing and communication.  Prioritizing comes into play because it's fairly difficult to meet the love of your life while doing swim laps with your head underwater.  On the other hand, Mr. Potential may be an amazing kisser, but it's tough to do a 9-mile run on two hours sleep. Now, let me clarify, I'm the last one to advocate for skipping a party, but endurance training does mean thinking twice about your Jagermeister consumption.  Just try one brick (bike/run) workout in July with a searing hangover and tell me if you're not a believer.

For that reason, communication for the A's is important because you may find yourself suddenly saying things like, "I'd love to, but I have an early run in the morning."  If you haven't already explained just how important your race training is - this can be a pitfall of mixed signals.  If the relationship is worth keeping, do yourself a favor and let him know that even though your schedule may be changing, your feelings have not.

For the B's, this is a completely different conversation.  If you've followed the advice of Phase 1, your hubby is already on board with your new venture and ready to support you emotionally.  But what about the logistical and financial components?  I'll start with the financials.  After the basic equipment, there are other expenses you may want to add to your budget like race registration fees, travel expenses, replacement shoes every 400 miles, bike servicing and parts, race fuel/snacks, even sunblock and water!  It may seem trivial but I take 2-3 showers every single day - one before work, one after my evening swim and one more after my late run.  Don't be surprised when you're buying shampoo and deodorant in bulk.  Additionally there are items that I call convenience expenses.  These are the indirect costs you may incur in exchange for your training time.  They include things like a cleaning service, child care, lawn maintenance, grocery delivery, etc.  These are not requirements, of course, but as your workouts pile up, so too does the laundry.

This brings me to the topic of logistics.  If you are the main chef in your household, perhaps you and your mate can alternate cooking nights.  Perhaps you can switch off putting the kids to bed or making lunches in the morning.  Many families make this work, but these are all things that will need to be discussed.  Do not make the mistake of thinking you will do it all or that they will work themselves out.  

Finally, there are energy expenditures to consider.  It's not just about what you put into your bike ride.  After all your hours of hard work, your body looks amazing and your confidence is through the roof, but you're dying to just take a bath and fall asleep.  Think that might affect a newlywed couple?  As they say, there's no free lunch . . . the greater the goal, the greater the expense.  Consider everything you may be sacrificing . . .

Phase 3 - The Reward - You've made it.  Race day.  Congratulations!

Again, I'll start with the A's.   You've prepared, you've sweated, you've sacrificed, you're poised and ready to show the world just what you're made of.  This is the moment you've been waiting for.  And Mr. Third Date doesn't know any of that.  This is a tough position for category A.  Today you'll want to surround yourself with friends that have been there with you all along the way and, even more importantly, rely on your own inner strength to get you through (Reference my post: "Who Are You Training For?").  Where you go from here is up to you.  You may choose to check off this box on your 'to do' list and call it quits, or you may consider this to be something to one day look back on to say "look how far I've come!"  Either way, the sky is the limit.

For the B's, if you've made it this far, you likely have a true partner that has held your hand every step of the way and was proud of you before you ever woke up this morning.  As you run through that finish line and into their arms, don't forget to share the reward.  It may be your day but remember all your partner has done to make it so.  A heartfelt 'thank you' can go a long way.  

After the big day, give yourselves a little bit of time to reflect on the previous months.  What have you learned?  What have the challenges been?  Wait until you've both 'recovered' before deciding on next steps. Who knows, you may even find that you've inspired your mate to try something he never thought he could do!  Whichever path you decide to take next, know that by completing an endurance race, you have done something that less than one percent of the entire world will ever even attempt.  Whether you finished 1st or 400th, you managed to make it happen with the one that you love.  You won.

 

 

 

 

Who Are You Training For?

Lately as I've begun to increase my training time, I have also begun seeing some familiar faces at the trail.  The opening 'icebreaker' question always seems to be the same - "what are you training for?"  When I tell them I'm training for an Ironman triathlon, I get mixed responses.  Some give kudos, others say I'm insane.  One guy jokingly told me the other day that I really needed to "get a hobby".  What is consistent about the comments, however, is that the opinions ('pro' or 'con') are very outspoken.  So I did a little social experiment and found that, sure enough, the more challenging the race, the stronger the response!

I think this phenomenon is true of any goal, not just triathlon.  When it comes to a daunting feat, people are just more clear on which side of the line they stand.  There will be some that say, "that's so impressive" or "I would love to do that!" and some that say, "that's stupid" or "not me!"  

So what does that have to do with you and your training?  Well, if you live on a deserted island - absolutely nothing!  Most of us, however, do interact with friends, family, coworkers and acquaintances on a daily basis. We take an interest in what others enjoy and expect them to do the same.  Yet, maybe you're the first of your friends to take off on a training goal.  Maybe you grew up in a house where the family motto has always been "exercise does you more harm than good".  Here are a few tips I've picked up over the past season to keep you on track without derailing your loved ones.

Train for YOU.  This sounds like common sense but it might surprise you to know that many people have alternate plans.  I hear women talking at the gym about how they have started to run in hopes of influencing their husbands to workout more.  Or sometimes they're trying to catch the eye of a certain someone.  How about the High-School-Reunion diet?  Shedding for the wedding?  Any exercise is better than none at all, but training for others often results in a disappointing nose dive once the occasion is over.  Training, especially endurance training, is a lifestyle change.  The greatest motivation and rewards come from within.

Accept that what you do is unique.  While you're logging all those miles on the bike path, it's easy to forget that many of the people in our lives aren't yet 'drinking the Powerade'.  It has happened more than once that I've found myself rambling to my mother about the advantages and disadvantages of a compact crankset before noticing her far off stare into the horizon.  If you get this response, it does not necessarily mean that your family isn't supportive, and it does not mean you have to limit your conversation to favorite television sitcoms - but any good marketing professional will tell you to know your audience.  In other words, understand that your technical training knowledge may only impress your non-triathlete friends for so long before they simply stop asking.

Realize that your loved ones are not mind readers.  Pro Ironman athletes will tell you that endurance training is predominantly mental.  This season, I've begun to learn the truth in that statement.  Technique can be learned, muscle can be developed, but the ability to get out of your own head and get moving is what separates the leaders from the pack.  As a beginner, this esteem can vacillate from moment to moment, and often we rely on our loved ones to guide us from "Can I do it?" to "I can do it!"  The danger there lies in the fact that your cheerleaders do not have built-in ESP.  A perfect example of this comes from my husband.  While he is 100% supportive of my training, he is not a triathlete.  He falls under the category of spectators that respect the sport but have no interest in attempting it.  For my first few triathlons, I started each race tiptoeing into the water and doing everything I could to keep from shivering with nerves.  During those moments, what I really wanted to hear was, "Go, get 'em, Linds!"  Yet, my husband looked out at the sea of people and the crashing waves and yelled to me, "Be careful!"  This sweet and protective response was perfectly reasonable, but initially threw me into a mental whirlwind of all the things that could go wrong with my race and cause me to get hurt.  The simple lesson - people aren't mind readers.  Get comfortable telling your support staff what you really need, or train yourself to overcome it.

Understand that it's not for everybody.  Even though it gives you the most amazing feeling of accomplishment, even though it has changed your life, even though it has become what defines you - understand that not everybody is going to feel that way.  I have a good friend that plays soccer and has a fantastic time scoring goals, making saves and shouting for joy with his teammates.  When we talk about Ironman training, he shakes his head and asks me, "what is the fun part about endurance training?" I usually just laugh and reply, "I don't understand the question."  Endurance is about pushing yourself beyond your own limits and changing the definition of what's possible.  You perform as a team of one.  During most workouts, you exist as the athlete, the coach and the cheering section all rolled together.  The line between winning and losing is defined only in the mind, and that just plain isn't for everyone.

The wonderful thing about solo sports is that all those who participate experience this same social phenomena, and this brings with it a great deal of comradery.  Each athlete is racing against the clock for his/her personal best.  Sure, the front runners may scuffle for the lead, but the age groupers behind them often cheer each other on.  Just watch how many athletes stick around after they finish to root for the last one over the line. No one understands the triumph better than those who have experienced it firsthand.

The more events you participate in, the more people you will find that have the same drive that you do - maybe even a few of them that want to do an Ironman and join you on those 80-mile bike rides at the crack of dawn.  But the key to true success in endurance training is remembering that it is not about the number of miles or what you are training for.  It's about who.

 

 

IronTired vs. IronSick

An interesting thing happened to me this past week.  In the midst of my renewed motivation to swim, bike and run, I think I got sick!  I know what you're saying - "You think you got sick?"  Yep, and so was borne, my latest lesson in Ironman triathlon training.

My coach has told me the dangers/disadvantages of training while sick.  She has given me an insight to white blood cells counts and 'benefit to consequence' physiology ratios that I will not regurgitate here, but suffice to say, it's not a good idea.  So I have completely embraced the theory of allowing my body to recover, should I ever get sick.  The difficulty, however, is determining where that fine line sits between exhaustion and illness . . .

I try to 'check in' with my body often.  I keep a log on trainingpeaks.com of all my workouts, and I always include a post-workout report including not only pace times, but how I am generally feeling.  This activity allows me (or my coach) to create a weekly workout schedule based on actual outcomes, rather than just following a cookie-cutter plan from the web.  My coach has encouraged me many times - "tell me before you get really run down, not after."  She (and pretty much all literature on over-training/illness) tells me to be on the lookout for the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea/cramping
  • Sinus pressure
  • Dramatically increased sweating or lack of sweating

<Insert sarcastic pause here> As an Ironman-in-training, I've been experiencing these 'symptoms' for months!  How, I asked myself, could anyone do a 4-hour bike ride and a 1-hour run in the pollen-filled outdoors without feeling that way?!  The answer lies in proper fueling.

Fueling is the illusive 4th sport of triathlon (I can only assume 'quadathlon' just wasn't as catchy a term).  The elites say, "with proper fueling, you should finish your workouts as the same athlete who started them."  Over the past month, this has been my new quest.

Without getting all sociological on you, I must caveat that I think, as women, we are encouraged to exercise with as limited a caloric intake as possible, thus facilitating the greatest weight loss.  Yet when your goal becomes something like endurance, this theory just plain doesn't work.  What I should have been thinking about for all these weeks is just the reverse. How many calories will my body allow me to consume in order to minimize muscle cramps, fatigue, etc.?  Instead I've been limping my way off the bike and darn near suffering heat stroke by the end of each run.

This is true of any sport, not just Ironman.  You have to fuel your body if you're going to expect it to perform in return.  Now every metabolism is not the same, but I'm comfortable saying that my baseline caloric intake is around 1,875 per day. I split that in aggressive ratios of 50% carbs 25% protein 25% fat.  During my workouts, I cram on top of that about 150 calories per hour in the form of electrolytes and any other tasty treats to keep myself happily chugging along.  Someday I'll share my mechanism for popping Skittles at 22 mph - but that's another blog.

The lesson here is that there is such a thing as being IronTired.  After five months of solid training, I am that girl that goes out to run 10 miles and then drives around the Target parking lot for 10 minutes waiting for the closest spot.  I'm also that annoying chick in your office that takes the elevator one floor.  Sue me.  BUT, after much trial and error with endurance fueling, I now do this with a clearer understanding of the difference between training fatigue, overtraining and illness.

So, the next time you go to your local running store for a new pair of socks, check out some of their nutritional products as well.  I prefer anything that can be put into liquid form for ease of digestion.  Look for high electrolytes AND high calories.  Lava Salts or Salt Sticks plus Carbo-Pro is my favorite combination.  Beware the popular brand names!!  Many of the items on the shelf have low, low physiological benefit.  Just because a company can sign their name as a race sponsor, doesn't mean they've got what your body needs!  Compare these products to those I've recommended and then use them only for what they're good for, flavor.

 

One last important item to note.  Heavy endurance training does make an athlete immunocompromised - just ask the germaphobe Tour de France cyclists!  Top it off with the cooties at your local gym or public swimming pool and you're looking at your worst flu season ever.  Adding a multi-vitamin to your nutritional repertoire, washing your hands, and all those other things that mom taught us when we were 5, will once again become crucial to staving off the nasty symptoms.

In short, if you treat your body like the performance machine that it is, you are much more likely to get the results that you want.  Then you can spend more of that quality time running, instead of being run down.

I Can’t Go Running Because . . .

When I first made that jump from working out to training, this was seemingly my favorite phrase.  The list was a mile long, with sentence endings like . . .

-          my iPod isn’t charged

-          it’s raining/too hot/too cold

-          I just ate

-          I haven’t eaten in hours

-          I have to be somewhere in an hour

-          I forgot my shoes

Sound familiar?  Trying to manage your workouts on top of a job, home, family and social life can be challenging, but what it really comes down to is commitment.  While it sounds like common sense, it took me having a personal ‘aha’ moment for this to click – endurance training means you have to endure.

My first step toward tackling this list was preparation.  My coach has always recommended writing out a plan the night before a race, and now I’ve begun to write out my workout plans as well.  You don’t have to spell check these or submit them for grading – it’s just a tool to pause for 10 minutes and think through “What do I need to do tonight to ensure a great run tomorrow?”  Do you have the proper fuel before/during your run?  When will it fit best in your schedule?  What route will you take and do you need time to drive there?  What’s the weather forecast?  Do you need to throw your favorite jog bra in the washer?  Also, remember, it’s not just about the run itself.  You might be headed to work or on an errand immediately after – are you planning to shower and change?  Will you want a post-run snack?  Do you need to ask your neighbor to walk your dog or switch the carpool schedule?  Even if you don’t choose to write your plans out, it’s important to take the time to think through your day to minimize unnecessary stress and excuses.

The second step is somewhat harder.  It is managing the workout even when the plan goes awry – when the unforeseen rain storm comes out of nowhere, when your boss asks you to stay for a late meeting, when you forget your shoes at home.  On certain days this happens to all of us, and the question is – do you throw in the towel or can you adapt?   There’s something to be said for reveling in the experience of running in the rain – even if it means your shoes squeak down every aisle of the grocery store after you’re done.  Direct quote:  “Ewww, Mommy, that lady is dripping.”  Training for an Ironman sometimes means leaving your vanity at the door.

Now that you’re all motivated, let me offer a simple caveat that there are times you will want call it quits on your workout.  The first good reason not to run is if you feel unsafe.  Not long ago, I found myself running on a neighborhood golf course path well after dark, thinking I had beaten the little voice in the back of my head - only to later hear of something awful happening to a fellow runner on that trail who had the same idea.  Yes, I believe in the philosophy that we can’t let criminals take over the night, etc, etc., but just be smart about your goal.  Compromising safety for health is a no-no.  The second good reason not to run is pain.  I’m not talking about a little muscle tightness from your heavy kicking set in the pool the night before.  I’m talking about the sharp stings, the dull persistent aches, and those other sensations that feel like something is worn and torn.  Pain is your body’s way of yelling at you and if you don’t listen, it will only yell louder!

Finally, it is worth remembering that your workouts are not light switches with “on” and “off” settings.  Sure, you might have planned to run an hour on your favorite gravel trail.  But just because you forgot your shoes doesn’t mean you need to pack it up.  Wouldn’t it be better to do some barefoot drills in a grassy park than do nothing at all?  Making these types of adjustments will soon train that little voice in your head to silence its nay-saying ways and become supportive music to your ears.  Who needs an iPod anyway?

It's Not About the Bike. True or False?

Top triathletes always say, "It's not about the bike."  So then why is it that you can go to any triathlon in the world and find people riding those sleek and gorgeous dream machines that weigh less than your purse and cost more than your first car?  Even a small charity ride typically features a few people on $6,000 wheels.  Are cyclists/triathletes just intrinsically gear-happy?  Do they all just have money to burn?  It took until the middle of my race season to finally figure this one out, and the answer is (drum roll) - KINDA.

So far this season I've done 5 races and trained roughly 1,500 miles on the bike.  I ride an aluminum-frame Specialized road bike that has been modified as best as possible to fit like a tri bike.  It has been given the coincidental name of Seamus, aptly meaning 'powerful substitute'.  I picked up this beast 5 years ago for around $500 new and little-by-little added clip-on aero bars, an angled seat stem and clipless pedals.  It has been tweaked enough for my body dimensions that it is now very comfy, even on my longest rides.  So when my coach told me I ought to consider upgrading, I was heartbroken.  "I have to break up with Seamus?!"

She pulled out my latest run times on my brick workouts.  A brick workout is when you do a bike workout and then run immediately after.  It helps you to work on your transition time, balancing your heart rate between the two sports, blah, blah, blah.  When I see these workouts on my calendar, I cringe.  Anyway, she reminded me that the reason my legs feel like concrete blocks at the beginning of my brick runs might be due to bike fit.  Turns out that tri bike geometry is not just about aerodynamics and speed, but also about saving your running muscles for the run.  On my current wheels, I might be able to grit my teeth and crank out a 5K at the end of a sprint race, but to be ready for a marathon I would need to bring in the heavy (or in this case, light) artillery.

I started my research online - my online checking account to be exact - and thought, "Hmmm.  I can either buy a fancy bike OR I can buy groceries for the next year."  I clicked around on some triathlete websites just to torture myself, and learned all about things like carbon fiber frames and Dura Ace components.  $cha-ching$  Then a friend suggested I get sized at the bike shop and start looking on Craigslist.

Low and behold there are dozens of used bikes out there - and not just on Craigslist.  If you go to a bike retailer and ask for a used bike, the salespeople often reveal that they sell on consignment with some moderate guarantees about quality and servicing.  What's more - many of them do not require getting a co-signer or hocking your jewelry.  I ended up finding a fantastic consignment deal due to a marital squabble that resulted in the bitter husband's legal custody (and quick resale) of his wife's prized tri bike.  I hate to think of one of my fellow tri-sisters under such duress, but nevertheless this landed me with a carbon fiber frame and 'creme de la creme' components for under $1,000.  I haven't officially named it yet, but I'm contemplating a title of its native Italian origin that means something along the lines of "fast chariot of slow horseman" . . .

Having become acquainted with my new beau for a few weeks now, I can report that I do see what all the fuss is about.  It does ride like a dream, and probably makes me about 1 mile per hour faster.  BUT the moral of this story is to know what you're buying and why.  If your goal is a sprint triathlon, you will want to think long and hard about the value of saving 60 seconds.  If you're training for a longer race, you might be able to buy something with the right geometry while sacrificing the 5-star perks.  Or, if you choose your timing right (end of season shoppers), you might just find a diamond selling for the price of a pearl.  Whatever you decide, do not fall victim to the notion that you have to 'look the part'.  It's the finish line that determines the race - not how you look at the start.