Monday, December 28, 2009

Bike Saddles, Butt Size and other B.S.

When I found out there was a device that helps size bike saddles by measuring the distance between your sit bones, I thought: "how ingenius!" When I found out that it was affectionately referred to as the "butt-o-meter," I thought: "how embarrassing!" But my fear of pain overcame my fear of knowing my butt size, and I made my way (at the owner's request) to Bike Authority in Broadview Heights to get the dreaded measurement and discuss bike saddles with the people who know best.

As a background, before I went to Bike Authority, I read about triathlon-specific saddles in order to sound educated. The best resource I found was Bikesport Michigan's Review of Eight Tri Saddles. I already had my eye on the Profile Design Tri Stryke. I added the Blackwell Flow to my list (because it was recommended as the best of the eight for women). I also went to the Fi'zi:k Web Site (fun stuff! It asks you to determine which animal you are, leading to choice of saddle). I also noticed a new tri-specific Terry women's saddle (the TRX Gel) but could not find a single review of it. I noticed two major differences between women's and men's saddles: women's saddles are slightly wider to accommodate a (typically) wider pelvis, and positioning of the cut-outs or padding may be different. I gathered other info on tri saddles from these sites: Beginner Triathlete's Selecting the Right Saddle and Coach Tony's Triathlon Bike Fit: Saddle Selection.

Enter the Butt-o-meter. It's a device made by Bontrager for choosing their bike saddles based on measurement. It's a bench with a very thin plastic insert that has thick opaque gel-like-substance inside. When you sit on it, your sit bones make an impression and you can see through to a color-coded measuring plate underneath. I couldn't help but think it was a mood-ring version of the Etch-a-Sketch. The color determines your saddle size. My saddle measurement was 150 mm and my sit bones were approximately 135 mm apart.

So, yeah, I did it, I sat on the butt-o-meter (photo at left), but what if I don't want a Bontrager saddle? They only make one tri saddle anyway and it's not butt-o-meter sized. What now? What I found out from Mike at Bike Authority is what I read in many online resources: butt size doesn't mean diddly. It's a good starting point (and ice breaker!), but bike saddle fit has more to do with personal riding style than your anatomy. What matters most is how you position yourself on the bike and where your pressure points are. My current saddle, the Selle San Marco "Arami," was great until this year when I changed my aero position on the bike. My saddle is now positioned more forward and my handlebars are dropped so my pelvis tilts forward and I'm almost lying on the nose of the saddle. The Arami was great for a more upright position ON my sit bones, but with stitching right down the middle and a narrow nose with very little padding, it is now wreaking havoc. Although I do love the position of the cut-out, something I didn't see on all tri saddles.

On to the hard part(s): saddle choice, cost, and satisfaction. Today I am reminded of the value of having a good relationship with a local bike shop. Not only do they not laugh at you when you ask them to measure your derriere, they don't sell you something just to get the sale. Mike generously sent me home with three different saddles to try: the Tri Stryke mentioned above (which, because of narrow contour, doesn't have a chance in hell of fitting my sit bones), the Fi'zi:k Arione (the same one recommended by Fi'zi:k on their site-o-meter and a standard on many tri bikes), and a Felt saddle that had a similar contour to my San Marco but a wider and flatter nose. My job now is to ride and decide (on one or none). I will blog my evaluation in a few weeks. Photos below.

L-R: Fi'zi:k Arione, Felt 3.3 tri saddle, and Selle San Marco Arami (6 years old):

The Profile Design Tri Stryke on my Cannondale IM 5000:

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Not Quite Resolutions

Before Christmas, my husband Jim asked me if I would like a triathlon coach as my "present." Although I thought about it, I decided that the things for which I need a coach are the things I'd like to figure out myself, so I declined. His compromise was to buy me two books specifically dedicated to Ironman training.

Yes, I get the hint! Jim wants me to figure this thing out. This year. He doesn't want to be a broken record: "you just haven't figured out how to train and race Ironman yet." He doesn't want to hear anymore complaining about not knowing whether I've run enough, biked enough, swam enough, done the correct speed work, tested my nutrition adequately, or properly tapered. Actually, it's not that he wants me to stop complaining - he just wants to help me get it right. (It took eight years of marathoning to get THAT right). After every triathlon, we discuss "what went wrong?" In 2009, it was mostly that I just didn't have anything on the run. In Coeur d'Alene, I didn't expect the unexpected (i.e., didn't dress for the cold).

Unlike marathoning, I don't want to wait many years to "figure it out," so this year I'm leaving nothing up to chance. Ironman prep starts Monday with 30 weeks to Ironman Lake Placid. In the next few weeks, I plan to make decisions on equipment, a training schedule for all 30 weeks, thorough research of proper nutrition for training and racing, and a racing schedule.

It's time to get serious. To start, I've identified several key things that will go into my training plan:
  1. The emphasis will be on bike fitness. This translates to: no more lollygagging on the bike! Cycling is my limiter and after reading my new texts, I have learned it's not my run in need of help, it's actually my cycling fitness. Superior strength and endurance on the bike is the key to a strong run.
  2. Add strength training to the equation. Time to bite the bullet - no more avoiding the weight room. Weight training builds strength - strength that has huge payoffs on the bike (there's that cycling thing again). It is highly recommended for females, veterans, novices and cycling-limited athletes.
  3. Get more sleep. Ironman training is tiring enough, no need to push myself into the wee hours to read, watch TV or spend more time with my husband and the cat. If I stop working late, there are more than enough hours in the day. And TV is boring anyway... new rule: I will watch TV only if I'm on the treadmill or bike trainer or strength training.
  4. Train smart. In the past, I have often been a victim of overtraining. This year I will learn what "easy" means, I will learn how to rest, and my workouts will focus on building efficiency, endurance and durability.
  5. Learn to relax. I will teach myself how to sleep before my races by eliminating anxiety.
I hope to blog regularly about the lessons I learn from my new training schedule. But I'm going to start with discussions about whether or not I need new equipment. To start, I've decided to get a new bike saddle - something that may make me happier in working harder at cycling fitness this year. I will be going to Bike Authority in Broadview Heights to be fitted on their "butt-o-meter" (their name for a device that measures distance between sit bones). Stay tuned for the details of how that goes.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Yearly Recommitment... or Something

Upon updating my Facebook status that I was riding my trainer while watching the Ironman Hawaii broadcast on TV Saturday, I found myself in a discussion with a friend about the inspirational stories. Although my Ironman story is far from inpirational, I noted that I was reminded of my own personal trials in finishing the 2002 Kona race (read). I called it a "vomitfest," prompting her to ask: "and you do this...why?"

To which I replied: "to get to the finish line" -- a statement that could mean many things to many people. Last year I wrote a blog about why I "do this." Yesterday, I found myself pondering that same question -- "why?" -- for the entire 12 miles of my run.

Why am I compelled to do another Ironman, another marathon, another 6-hour ride, another 8-hour brick, another 3-hour run? Is it a compulsion? an obsession? both? something else? My only answer is that endurance racing is "what I do." It's my thing. I love the high of finishing a marathon. I love the feeling of pushing through long runs and long rides in 90-degree temperatures. I think I even love the pain. I love learning how far I can push my body. It make me feel alive and gives me self worth.

Some people may think "self worth" should not be a function of athletics. But for me, I don't have anything else to hang my hat on. I am reminded of the words I wrote last year - the reasons "why." Endurance racing is the one thing I do that depends on nothing but me. The accomplishments are mine. The failures are mine. My success does not depend on how much other people like me or rate me or score me. Success or failure has nothing to do with who I "schmooze" or whether I show up to a party or not. It has nothing to do with if I say the right thing or if I'm in the right place at the right time. Oh, there's a collective camaraderie among endurance athletes, but in racing there are no lies or backstabbing or people to impress. It's just me. If I work hard and make smart decisions, I am successful. If not, I fail. But when I make mistakes, no one holds a grudge. I apply the lessons learned and then I make the gains.

There are other things I could do to pass the time, but nothing I enjoy is more quantitative and objective than training and racing. Even in my other hobbies -- art, photography, guitar playing -- being successful is often in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. Which is why I don't attempt to show any of my art. For now, I'll stick to triathlon.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sleep Disorder Disaster: Ironman 70.3 Clearwater

Saturday, November 14, 2009, began like most of my races this year -- with very little (this time, actually, no) sleep. It was 3:17 a.m., the morning of the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Clearwater, Florida, and my anxiety had gotten the best of me. Since I started racing in 2008 after four years off, I had not regained the ability to relax and sleep the night before a race. The damage was done, and I resorted to prayer: God, give me the strength to deal with the sleep fallout when (and if) it comes.

I had already arrived in Clearwater in classic "disaster magnet" style as Hurricane Ida blew over the gulf coast of Florida and left more than just high surf in her wake -- the strong winds were accompanied by temperatures in the low 50s on Thursday. By Friday morning, race officials had moved the swim to the harbor side of Clearwater Beach. Very little space in the harbor marina would also dictate age-group athletes switch to a time-trial start. Ok, good. In fact - great! Time trial starts take some of the pressure off and make it easier to swim, bike, and run my own race. Although my lack of sleep might indicate I felt differently.

Sometime around 7:10, I set out on my 70.3 mile journey -- for once without fear of being battered by other swimmers. In the confusion of not knowing how to start a swim race by jumping feet-first into the water, I forgot to start my watch and had to stop once to take care of that. I then proceeded to take an extra tour of the harbor because I couldn't spot the buoys looking directly into the sun. When I swam into a kayaker, he pointed me in the right direction (I still have no idea how I got that far away that fast). I sprinted for the turn buoy, after which the rest of the 1.2-mile swim went, well, swimmingly! I exited the water in just under 30 minutes, disappointed it wasn't closer to my goal time of 26-28 minutes.

The third swim-leg slowdown came when one of the wet-suit peelers mistook my wetsuit top for a lost item, picked it up and walked away with it. I can't help but laugh thinking about running him down maniacally screaming and waving "that's my top!!!" But despite all the mishaps, I still crossed the transition in 30:05.

The swim-to-bike transition consisted of long rows of transition bags on the way into the change tent. And because entropy rules in the transition zone, my husband Jim bought me two ribbon decorations to put on my bags so I could find them quickly. It was a genius idea -- I spotted my bag instantly. Aside: before the race, a UK athlete told me that our "genius idea" results in disqualification in many European triathlons. I was never so happy to be in the good ol' US of A!

The first transition went more smoothly for me than in the past for a large race. Coming out of the tent, I had no problem finding my bike and running with it to the mount point. Even getting into my bike shoes -- pre-clipped to the pedals -- went much quicker than ever before.

In Clearwater, the 56-mile bike course is blisteringly fast... at least I READ that it was, and I HEARD that it was, and during it, I also THOUGHT that it was. In effect, I turned in one of the slower bike times overall, and yet, it was my fastest bike time ever for the distance. Fueling on the bike did not go exactly as planned. Even though I followed my usual regime of 250 calories/hour, nausea set in after about an hour and I had to cut back a bit on food. This may have deprived me of the additional electrolytes mixed in my food bottle. I grabbed Gatorade to try and make up the difference and at least managed to drink as planned: 2.5 bottles in 2.5 hours.

The bike-to-run had the same layout as the swim-to-bike transition. My time was slow due to a sock disaster -- of course, as soon as I decided to wear socks, one of my socks went AWOL in the transition bag. I considered wearing only one sock, but my OCD kicked in -- I was not mentally prepared for an asymmetrically-dressed run.

My run start felt no different than in my last 70.3, a little wobbly but not completely spent. I think I made a huge mistake by not taking a my electrolyte capsules upon leaving the transition zone. It may have been because the water table was on the way INTO and not OUT of transition -- but still, it was an oversight on my part.

In Clearwater, the 13.1-mile run is very challenging. It's a double loop that goes over the harbor bridge four times -- twice out and twice back. My goal was to be under 1:30. (In retrospect, I would have settled for 1:30:01.) Thus, after a 7:03 first mile, I had to pick up my pace as I approached the bridge. By mile three (6:17), I felt unusually fatigued with slight nausea and now some intestinal cramping. So..., THIS was the point at which my lack of sleep would rear its ugly head. I should have known -- my digestive system always pays the price when I don't sleep, and nothing can shake up a gastrointestinal system quite like running.

I had 10 miles to figure out what to do -- walk? slow down? drop out? 1:30 now vanished from my thoughts as a new one took over: I needed a portajohn and I needed one NOW. But I also needed to combat the fatigue. I slowed my pace to calm the cramps and started downing Gu Chomps, two per water stop (every mile). Around mile six, I took the desperation bathroom break, which helped very little and slowed my mile time to nine minutes. I saw Jim at the turn-around and told him what was going on -- he told me not to worry and to stop again if I needed to.

Starting the second loop, I knew my race was now in the toilet (literally). But around mile eight, the Gu kicked in and now the most unfortunate thing was that when I wasn't doubled over with cramps and nausea, I was flying. I would pass many of the women who gave me the slip during my emergency relief stop, only to be re-passed when I got dry-heaves. This was the most frustrating thing. I was forced to settle into a comfortable shuffle, walking water stops only, grabbing Gatorade and water each time because the day had gotten quite hot (high 70s). In the last mile, I pushed as hard as I could -- probably more from desperation -- and my first words across the finish line were: "where's the portajohn?!?" barely stopping to collect my medal (which is very nice, btw) and the complimentary towel and finisher hat. I ran right through the guy at the medical tent on my way to that big blue plastic cylindrical answer to heaven. It was finally over -- although my intestinal issues would last well past the finish line. We didn't hang around the finish too long, as I spent most of the time looking at the inside of several toilet stalls along the beach and I wasn't able to eat much of anything until later that evening.

My time? 4:47:08. My place? 15th in my age group. Not bad. Not great. I still celebrated by going to Disney World the next day.

My 2009 triathlon season is, thankfully, over. By the time I got to Clearwater, my motivation was at a low for this year, and I was beginning to dread the starting line. So, including motivation, I have quite a bit to work on for next season. Learning to sleep the night before a race is now a big priority. Regaining my run speed is also on the list -- perhaps a spring marathon is in the cards. I'll also be working with different fueling regimes because none of what I did this year worked perfectly. 2010 will be a year of new techniques and refinement -- and a new age group. But for now, I'm taking a rest.

(Photos by Jim DeBonis)

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Band Called Travis

Often I am moved to write a blog about a concert. Usually, I think twice about it then leave the reviewing up to the reviewers who "know" something. Many people think all I do is go to concerts. In actuality, it only looks that way because my passion for music makes me seek it out in faraway places. My travels often involve a band called Turin Brakes. To know me is to know how I feel about their music but I rarely write about it because words are not adequate -- when I try to write how much their music moves me, it sounds silly and gushing and I never publish it.

But today I am moved enough to attempt to write about another band -- a band that, much to my surprise and dismay, cannot sell out a small venue in Cleveland yet had to book six consecutive nights at Joe's Pub in NYC because of sell-outs. The band is Travis and they're from Scotland. In 2001, they appeared poised to become one of the biggest bands in the world. That was B.C. (Before Coldplay). It's an enigma to me as to why they didn't become biggest band in the world. It certainly wasn't for lack of talent.

I first heard Travis while driving home from work three jobs ago. In the year 2000. Their UK hit, "Why Does it Always Rain on Me?" brought me to tears when it was played on 91.3 The Summit, a station out of Akron that actually plays new music (not the norm in Northeast Ohio). The next day, I had the album, "The Man Who," in my hand, and it took up sole residence in my CD player for months. I didn't see them live until 2001, when I started a new job and found one of my cohorts was also a Travis fan. We shared our Travis passion in a little bubble - no one outside of us and our spouses seemed interested in the Travis "craze." Well, my husband Jim still needed a little convincing. It would only take one gig. We saw Travis at the Lakewood Civic Auditorium. We may have been the oldest people there, but the young people seemed to have "got the memo" about Travis. The guy next to us (apparently on his own) asked me if I had seen them before. Upon my reply, he gave me the essential information: Travis is a very endearing live band, impossible not to love once you see them.

He was right. Even Jim knew it (and now, Jim might actually be the bigger Travis fan of the two of us). Sadly, Travis didn't come back to Cleveland until 2009. We had to go to Detroit to see them. Twice. Each time, the same thing. In a word: "endearing." Travis is a great live band for many MANY reasons -- talent, performance, energy -- and they are, perhaps, the most fun band to witness live after The Flaming Lips. (Does anyone want to argue with that first choice?) However, the most endearing thing about Travis is that, even in a large venue, you get the feeling they are in your living room. That feeling is, perhaps, created mostly by singer/guitarist Fran Healy who instantly develops a rapport with audiences by telling hilarious tales as lead-ins to songs. Sometimes they're about the song, sometimes they're about something that happened that day. The humor is partially due to his wonderful Scottish accent but mostly due to his comedic take on an everyday situation. In a venue full of people, Fran seems to be talking directly to you. Telling you jokes. Additionally, he is extremely humble and never ceases to acknowledge the talents and friendship of his bandmates.

I'm telling you this because it brings me to the unique "Travis" gig this past Wednesday at the Beachland Ballroom. It featured only half of Travis: Fran and guitarist Andy Dunlop. Andy is..., like..., um.... the heavy metal guitarist in a pop band. Unlike Travis basist Dougie Payne, who constantly acknowledges the audience by eye contact and smiles, Andy rarely interacts. But don't get me wrong, he puts on one hell of a show at Travis gigs. I am mesmerized by his effortless guitar playing -- it's as if the guitar is an extension of who he is -- another limb or something. The end of a Travis gig finds him soaked in sweat with audience mouths agape in disbelief at some physical feat he has just performed (such as climbing amp stacks and jumping off while not missing a note). To use a cliche, you must see it to believe it.

So back to the Beachland gig... Fran and Andy -- alone together. It was a night of storytelling and music. A chronological book of Travis songs, complete with Fran's hilarious rolling-on-the-floor-laughing anecdotes (I call them "Franecdotes"), tender moments, Scottish geography lessons and nostalgic photographs. We even got a slide show complete with technical difficulties. The music was beautiful -- Fran's voice can be heart-wrenching at times -- and we were treated to the subtleties of Andy's guitar-playing. With feedback. Afterwards, Jim and I discussed that one of Andy's great talents is the ability to control the effect of feedback. When other guitar players get feedback, it can be downright painful, but when Andy Dunlop does it, it sends shivers down your spine. At the end, they asked for requests and had a "democratic" vote on which ones to play. We managed to get one of my favorite Travis songs, Funny Thing, to cap off the night. AND we successfully converted two friends into Travis fans that night.

After the gig, Fran and Andy sold their own merch, including a bootleg CD, signed autographs and posed for pictures with every last fan. As expected, they were humble, "genuine" people, smiling and hugging and taking the time to converse. We thanked them for the years of music. They thanked US for supporting them through the years. Heck, they make it easy for us.

Here is a video and a couple of photos from the gig:

Fran Healy:

Andy Dunlop:

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Character Building by Location

Usually around this time of year, I'm either training for a marathon at similar latitudes or looking at rest and downtime going into the winter months. Last year proved that a late November marathon isn't the best choice of a race, as I stood at the Philadelphia Marathon start bundled up to my eyeballs hoping the temperature would climb above 25 degrees F that day. Besides finishing my first marathon in years on a great course in a beautiful city, nothing about that race was what I would call "fun." But, as we like to say, it builds character. (Cold weather seems to be my theme lately.)

This year finds me facing another weather obstacle -- the opposite of last year. My final race of the triathlon season -- a half-Ironman (70.3) -- takes place in Clearwater, Florida. Most northerners might look forward to Florida in November. I'm dreading it. All summer, Cleveland-area temperatures have been downright cool. The past several weeks have seen lots of rain and cold even for fall. In September and October, I've done most of my long rides on the trainer -- another character-builder. (If I could get over my fear of danger on the roads, riding in the rain might produce a similar level of mental toughness.)

Contrary to the past, my biggest fear now is the run. When I train in the heat, I run well in heat, and I've done neither of those this season. Actually, my run leg in triathlons has been the biggest disaster this year. So with only a few weeks of training left, and temperatures in the 30s and 40s, Jim has been on my case to don multiple layers while running to simulate hotter temperatures. I know it works for some, but I just get soaking wet and THEN I get cold. I'll keep toughing it out, though. I've even taken several hard runs inside to the treadmill (more character-building? you bet). The only encouraging thing is I've finally begun to feel strong and fast on my feet again. It almost makes me want to run a winter marathon. But, first, there's a half-Ironman to get through. Maybe I need to approach it differently, like imagining it as a tropical vacation. With a swim. And a 56-mile bike ride. And maybe throw in a half-marathon, just because I love to run.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Do Social Media Lists End at 23?

I'm switching gears - from triathlete to geek. As a web marketer for a zoo, I'm always looking for the best way to approach online marketing. And, because we don't sell a tangible product (we sell an "experience"), social media and networking have provided a great outlet for interacting with our audience (I've even noticed people will ask questions on Facebook and Twitter before thinking to look up the answers on our website). While learning about social media tools and searching and reading social media sites, I noticed a trend: the LISTS. Social media gurus are all about "top 'N'" lists... amused at the number of lists, and the number of "numbers," I started bookmarking them. And now I have my own list - a sort of list of lists.

It's in numerical order:

Got that? Now go forth and socialize.

(And if you want to follow the Zoo, check us out on Facebook and Twitter.)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Ironman Reflections

Today. It's the day after Ironman Hawaii. For some, it's a celebration. For some, it's a day of relief. For others, it's a day of questions. And for me, it's a day of recommitment. I worked yesterday, but every free moment I got, I couldn't help but check the leaderboard at I enjoy learning how the race unfolds -- will the leaders win the race on the bike? will they lose the race on the run? Will someone put in a legendary performance? (as was the case this year) Almost everyone who has done an Ironman knows what it's like to suffer through that mass swim start, finding a comfort zone only to face the long hard miles of the bike. Then, after your body is screaming from the aero position, you finally get vertical again, knowing you still have to run a marathon in a depleted-energy state. I question my sanity many times during Ironman. It's a constant mental struggle: evaluating how my body is handling it and deciding how how hard to go or whether to keep going. And having barely finished the Kona race once, I have experienced what my race demons really are (long story: read).

Because I tried and failed to qualify at Ironman Coeur d'Alene, I found myself checking another set of data points in Ironman Hawaii this year. I was interested in the performances of the women who DID qualify from my age group at IM CDA. In a strange way, I was rooting for them, knowing they raced smarter and faster than I did that day. But now, after seeing the results, I have been reminded of the true test that Ironman Hawaii is. Of those four women, it appeared that one didn't start (or never finished the swim), one never finished the run, and the other two finished over an hour slower than at IM CDA. I felt their pain. I remembered my own experience at Kona. The "what if"s: what if I fueled differently? what if I relaxed and slept better? what if I trained differently? But then I remembered how I felt that morning. I HAD trained in the heat. I HAD practiced my fueling regime. I HAD done what I needed to do to finish well. I HAD been confident in my race prep.

But Kona is a different planet altogether. It's like being a high school valedictorian at MIT. Square one. Everyone there got there because of hard work. Kona is the true test of wills. You may only read about the great performances: this year, Chrissie Wellington broke Paula Newby-Fraser's 17-year-old course record (by about a minute). However, for the age groupers, the great performances are rare. Kona chews up Ironman triathletes and spits them out a different person than they were at the starting line. Even those of us who didn't toe the line. Today, reading the results just made me want to go back more than ever. My first time, I was conquered by the course. If I ever get my second chance, I intend to make it count.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

In Transition

In the northern US, this is the time of year that most triathletes are either gearing up for their biggest race of the season (note: Ironman Hawaii is next weekend) or winding down after their last race. And it wasn't much different when I was a marathon runner (upcoming marathons in October: Columbus, Chicago and Detroit).

This year, my situation is a bit different. I planned my whole season around Ironman Coeur d'Alene, and when I didn't get that Kona slot, I somehow managed to regroup in time to find a race and qualify for the Ironman 70.3 championship in Clearwater, Florida on November 14. Most of my plans were not plans at all, and now I feel I'm scrambling to come up with a plan with six weeks left, dodging the post-vacation doldrums, training in the midst of the scramble to prepare for and work my employer's biggest event, Boo at the Zoo, and fighting my own lack of motivation to train outside when the temperature drops. And to top things off, my sudden increase in training volume has left me with several illnesses that have further dented my training schedule.

I struggle to cope with the limitations that come with age and changing interests. I can no longer "whip" myself into shape like I could when I was 18. Back then, after a summer of inactivity, I could start swimming at the end of August and manage an all-time PR by November. Nowadays, one hard swimming session could mean several days off with an injury. I also struggle with accepting that my life has changed and my main focus is not always triathlon. This has been the hardest thing to come to grips with. When I'm out on that Clearwater course and my speed on the bike is not what "it could be," will I remember what I sacrificed it for? Will I remember that week spent in Italy being blown away by great art, great architecture, great food and a great time with my husband? Will I remember the time we spent with great friends in London? Heck, will they even care if I don't do my best in Clearwater?

It's all a trade-off -- how to be happy with what I have and doing what I love instead of kicking myself for not being faster or stronger. So this year, for the post season, whether I do well or crash and burn, I've made plans to celebrate the end of the season in Orlando the next two days. And then make plans for Ironman Lake Placid 2010. New age group. New attitude.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

My All-time Top 5 Running Shoes

My friend Tim recently blogged his top five running (training) shoes ("over the years"). It prompted me to write a blog about the same. Although Tim found it a bit difficult to narrow his list down to a top five, I had no problem, rattling them off without a second thought. The fact of the matter is that, although I have worn good shoes over the years by Asics, Adidas, Brooks, New Balance, and Saucony, there are very few shoes I considered "great." Maybe ONLY five. And much to my dismay, every single "great" shoe I've worn has either been discontinued or upgraded to something that only remotely resembles the original. Bill Dieter at Second Sole once told me I represented only ten percent of the population when it came to running gait. A podiatrist once told that watching me walk looks like my feet belong on two different people. Maybe that's why it's so difficult for me to find great shoes, and I've been relegated to searching the shelves in discount shoe stores looking for the one remaining pair, in my size, that slipped out to the general public. It doesn't happen often but when it does, it's akin to finding buried treasure.

In retrospect, as I review my top five, I can't help but wonder if something else was responsible for my favorite shoes going the way of the Dodo. Afterall, these are NOT pretty shoes. In fact, I remember trying them on, only to wince at the color/design when they were taken out of the box. And yet, I saved the worn versions of all of them (see photos below). That being said, I present a list of my top five training shoes of all time, in no particular order:

Adidas Ozweego (original): these shoes had an upper that looked like a quilt and they were the first Adidas shoes I ever saw without parallel stripes - I used to call these my "clown shoes" because of the way they flared out at the ball of the foot, and because it was the only shoe I ever wore in women's size 10:

Asics Gel Lyte Ultra: one of the lightest training shoes I ever wore, it had the most comfortable tongue of all time (it was hard-wired to the flaps) - this shoe came out when the Gel Lyte series version number was "3" and there was no "Asics DS" series:

Asics Gel Lytespeed: almost a racing flat with lots of cushioning and very little tread, and in neon colors, another very comfortable tongue design - the "split tongue" which was more like extra padding along the flaps - I ran my first Boston Marathon in these shoes:

Saucony Grid Azura (original): these shoes looked like they were made out of "stocking" material with a blue tiger stripe pattern, but, were they comfortable, and light and airy - these shoes could never be worn in the winter:

New Balance 826 (a relatively new shoe): I just ran in these shoes last year, only to find, when I went back to get a new pair, they were discontinued and replaced with something cost-prohibitive (for me) - I've since combed the internet for a single remaining pair, only to come up empty handed time and again:

Last of all, the honorable mention goes to the original Saucony Lady Jazz (from 1981) - my first real pair of running shoes, received as a Christmas gift from my parents after extensive research in Runners World magazines after school in my track coach's classroom. I don't remember them being bad-looking, but it may have been because I retro-fitted them with Star Wars shoe laces.

Monday, September 21, 2009

A "Real" Moutain Bike Adventure in Italy

No doubt, those who read my first Italian bike adventure blog are still laughing (at me). It's amazing the compromises I'll make to avoid confusion when I don't speak the language. However, I changed my tune for my second bike ride after a tip from the hotel manager that morning.

It was our last day in Pisa and my last chance to ride before we left for three days in London. To avoid a repeat experience, I asked the hotel front desk clerk for another shop in Pisa that rents bikes. To my surprise, he suggested I go back to the original rental guy, and, get this, that rental guy has "plenty of bikes" in the "shop." Oh, NOW you tell me. I marched out, determined to get what I wanted this time, because the day before I had found a great place to ride -- a trail along the old Roman aqueduct that led to the mountains. Those mountains would be my first destination.

I walked down the street and around the corner... only to find that bike rental guy was not even set up yet. I waited on the corner for about half an hour... then watched for another half hour while rental guy brought out each and every multiple-person Surrey bike (thanks to Google, I now know what they're called). And just as he finished putting up his display, two soon-to-be bikers jumped at the chance and got there right in front of me. As I walked up, they were haggling about something... rental guy looked up... ah, recognition: "How can I help you today?" I said "I want a REAL mountain bike, not THAT one" -- I pointed to my previous bike and continued: "you know, so I can ride up a MOUNTAIN" -- I pointed toward the mountains (I think). He said "you, come with me." The couple in front of me followed us. He led us to the shop and behold, there they were: scooters and mountain bikes... a veritable playground of two-wheeled vehicles. So THIS was it. The couple gets first pick. Then he wheels one out for me -- oh no, not another Bottecchia. I wondered: is Bottecchia is the Huffy of Italy? Where were all the Bianchi bikes? For cryin' out loud.

But again, time was short and I didn't want to argue. Besides, this one actually LOOKED like a real mountain bike. You MUST be kidding -- this mountain bike had its OWN rental rates: €13 for six hours. Come on, rental guy, cut me a break. No deal. I handed him €13 and my drivers license this time. It was 10:51 a.m. -- he said "I give you deal, I mark it 11 a.m." Big whoop. I grabbed the bike and got on my way, adjusting the seat when I was out of sight.

I found my way to the trail and I rode. Despite low air in the tires, the bike felt surprisingly good and shifted well. I rode to a little town called Asciano, built into the side of a mountain. I rode up the first hill I saw. It was so steep I thought I would do a wheelie and flip the bike over backward. Not good. I turned around. Half way down, I realized there were no back brakes -- not "worn" back brakes -- NO back brakes. Why didn't I check?? I ground the front brakes to a halt and got off the bike. Sure enough, the back brakes were broken. I put on my bike maintenance hat... I tried to remember how mountain bike brakes worked -- I just had to pop the the cable in the slot, right? Not so easy. I couldn't do it. I loosened the back wheel -- ah, that did it. Disaster averted, and I was on my way. But not before I learned that my dad wasn't the only pissed-off Italian man behind the wheel. One angry driver let me know how he felt about stopping in the road. Even though he was the only driver ON the road.

I rode down to the main drag and saw signs to Lucca. New plan: I would ride to Lucca and find a mountain or two on the way. The road to Lucca was perfect for cycling -- so perfect that there were groups of bikers decked out in their fancy bike outfits on the same route. I knew I had found THE place to ride. I rode through a nice town called San Giuliano Terme. When I reached Lucca (about 14 miles), I had found no mountain roads, so I turned around and went back the same way. I passed that first little town of Asciano and kept going, still hoping for a mountain workout. When I reached the town of Calci, there were signs that read something like "vista panoramico" and "Monte Serra." My correct assumption: there was a mountain called Monte Serra with a great view at the top. I followed the signs.

I rode up. And up. I stopped to get water (one great thing about Italy is the water fountains everywhere). I filled my water bottle and continued. Up and up, and up and up. I saw riders coming down. Lots of riders. I mused to myself that I had found the Italian equivalent of Everett Road hill in the Cuyahoga Valley. But it just kept going. I stopped to take photos of the scenery. I saw a sign that the summit was about 12k away... time was tight and I wanted to be back before Jim got out of his conference. I decided to turn around. But I rode to a point where I could get a photo of how high I was. Vista panoramico. I snapped a few photos, took in the view, and headed down... down down down down... I watched the road bikers fly by. I smiled. I found a mountain and all was good.

I finished the ride along the aqueduct and back to Pisa. My watch said just over four hours. Rental guy asked me if I was done. I nodded - he handed me my license. He asked me how the bike was. I said "good - you might want to put some air in the tires." For some reason, I felt no need to mention the brakes.

On the way back to the hotel, I saw a street vendor selling something familiar. Gatorade. And in my favorite flavor: Arancia!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

First Bike "Adventure" in Italy

My first four days in Italy were "running" days. I saw a different city every day - Milan, Ravenna, Florence, and Pisa. I had no time to find alternate ways to work out. Thus, my first attempt to bike was the second day in Pisa -- the first day of my husband's aerospace conference. I would be alone all day, so I decided to rent a bike. I wanted to ride to a Mediterranean beach which, we were told was only about ten miles away.

It was an adventure from the get-go, starting with the bike shop. It took me 15 minutes to find it because it wasn't at the location advertised. It was on the street. Around the corner. Across from the tacky souvenir shop. What else would I expect when the window sign has a map with a dot that says: "YOU are here" with an arrow pointing to another dot, one that says: "WE are HERE"? Duh! And all that time I had been looking for a business with a door.

So, yeah, it's the guy that rents six-seater bikes for groups to tool leisurely around Pisa. I didn't see any regular bikes, but thankfully, he spoke English. The ad says they rent hybrid and mountain bikes. I pointed to the add and said: "hybrid"? He pointed to a clunker girlie bike that looks like it's seen better days (see photo) -- not at ALL what I was hoping for. I gave it that once-over and pointed, again, to the statement on his ad: "Hmm, do you have a mountain bike?" He looked at me like I wasn't "getting it" and said "yes!" emphatically, and pointed, once more, to the very same bike. Clearly he thinks I'm an idiot. Or doesn't realize I'm a cyclist. He spoke: "Dees one - dees one for you." He was not to be swayed. He pulled out the rental rates. €13/day. Clearly, I must bargain. I asked for hourly rates. He reluctantly pulled out a second chart. €5/2 hours. Now THAT'S more like it. If I'm going to ride this ridiculous bike, I'm not taking it for more than a couple hours.

The business deal took place. Not finding my drivers license, I reluctantly surrendered my passport as collateral and handed him a €5 note. He gave me a quick lesson on how to lock up the bike. In these parts, security requires a massive chain that weighs over 10 pounds attached to a gigantic key lock that probably weighs more. After the lesson, he tossed the giant chain in the giant basket on the front of the bike -- a basket that will be heretofore known as my "water bottle cage."

The test drive - I almost wiped out on first revolution of the pedals. Great - so much for convincing this guy I'm a veteran cyclist. But clearly, this type of bike required some finesse. The handlebars were shaky and the brakes barely touched the tires. Rental guy assumed it was my position and lowered the seat. I got back on. I was now Peter Fonda, riding my chopper. But I had no time to protest, the clock was ticking and there was no time to lose. I rode around the corner out of sight where I could stop and readjust the seat to spare my quads. I headed toward the city wall.

The shakedown - I assessed the situation to determine if a "long" ride was feasible. The handle bars vibrated at low speeds, there was a bump on the tire causing anything in the bottle cage to jump once a revolution. I thought to myself: "throwing the chain" on this bike meant something entirely different. I noticed the brakes only served to slow me down and there were only six gears. Yep. I'm riding to the beach. What have I got to lose?

As I embarked on my quest, I contemplated my biggest fears: mechanical failure, flat tire, getting hit by a crazy Italian man who pulled out on me, getting hit by a smart car and causing IT more damage than the bike, and getting in trouble with the law (but bikers seem to ride everywhere in Europe, even against traffic on one-way streets). Then there was the humor factor: the whole time I was riding, I mused to myself that someone would see me and repeat Princess Leia's reaction to Han Solo upon first seeing the Millenium Falcon in Star Wars: "You came in that thing?!?! You're braver than I thought!"

Determined, I made it to the river (all rivers flow to the sea, right?) and onto the main road following signs for "mare." As I rode, I contemplated the bright side: afterall, there ARE six gears, the water bottle cage is easy to use, the aero position (which I now call "the crouch") is more comfortable than my TT bike, I'm getting new highlights in my hair because I don't have to wear a helmet, my foot muscles are stronger because I have to keep them on the pedals, and the seat doesn't cause saddle sores. Woo!

I made it to the beach in about an hour (including the 30 minutes I tooled around Pisa), which gave me time to check out the sights: beautiful mountains to the north, beachgoers, and seascapes. I took pictures. I met an African man selling silver jewelry who spoke many languages. When I told him I didn't speak Italian, he asked if I spoke French. I replied: "no, Inglese" -- to which he responded by asking me if I was from England. I laughed -- to my delight, this is, perhaps, the only person I've met who would mistake me for an English person. Do I NOT stick out as an American? I told him I was from the United States. He replied: "oo - ess - ay" and then "Obama!!" I smiled. He said "Obama is a very good man" -- and then tried to sell me some silver. Despite the offer of a "good price," I had no spending money and got on my way. When my watch said 1 hour 25 mins, I decided it was time to return.

As I turned to ride back to Pisa, I was confronted with those damn Mediterranean winds... I dialed all the way down to 4th gear and did "the crouch" to gain some speed heading out to the main drag back to Pisa. Local traffic ensured that I barely made it back in time, upon which rental guy assumed: "two more hours?" I was done: "Noooooooo!" I was desperate to be back on foot and in possession of my passport. He didn't push the point. I thanked him, smiled, and ran back to my hotel, happy that I got through one day without Jim and without any major disasters.

Some photos from the beach trip:

Friday, September 4, 2009

When in Rome...

Go running. Unless you can find a bike shop or a pool.

I used to look forward to training while on vacation. Back in the old days... when I was a marathon runner and nothing else. Vacations were easy back then. I didn't worry about finding an ocean, lake or pool to swim in, and I wasn't frantically Googling where to rent a road bike in a non-English-speaking country. All I needed was a pair of running shoes, shorts and a singlet -- my ticket to see the world. Even in the winter. I've run in almost every city I've traveled to. I've seen Paris, Rome, and London at times when most tourists are sleeping. I've gotten lost in Pittsburgh (easy to do) AND New York (next-to-impossible). I've run along Lake Geneva in Switzerland. I've run up a mountain in Scotland. I've run in the Hollywood Hills. I've run in violent wind storms in Brighton, England (see photo), and Chicago. I've stopped along the waterfront trail to admire starfish in Monterey Bay. I've gotten up at 4 a.m. to run in Houston in the summer. And because I AM the disaster magnet, I've even tripped and fallen over road construction barriers in Dublin, Ireland.

So, you ask: why don't I just pack my running shoes and stop complaining? It's simple: because I'm in training for an Ironman 70.3 in November. This is no time for a break. In fact, it's exactly the opposite -- it's time for hard training. How does a triathlete train hard in a foreign country on a limited budget? Your guess is as good as mine. I've scoped out beaches and bike shops in Italy. I've packed clothes for all three sports. I've looked up alternative workouts for swimmers without water and bikers without hardware. And tomorrow, I enter the realm of vacation training.

I will report back on my successes, failures and lessons learned. My one consolation is that I may come out of it with a faster run leg. And some new stories to tell. Hopefully not disaster stories.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Corning the Market: the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3

I hadn't planned on blogging camera reviews, but my new camera, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3, arrived yesterday and I'm so excited about it that I feel the need.

I have a history with this camera. Three years ago, I needed an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera for my job at the Zoo - one that my marketing cohorts could easily use. After exhausting research (because I'm a camera geek), I settled on the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ1 -- the original version of the camera that arrived on my doorstep yesterday. The TZ1 turned out to be one of the best little super-zoom cameras on the market AND one of the best hybrid still/video cameras I've ever used. Its phenomenal video capabilities were found out by accident - when I dialed the wrong (video) setting and hit the shutter button. Mind you, I had no need for a video camera at work because I already have the semi-pro Sony HDR-A1U.

Since then, the TZ1 went through several generations to arrive in 2009 as the ZS3 (chronologically, the TZ7, as it's known overseas). Panasonic and others classify their super zoom, hybrid (still/video) cameras as "travel zoom." I suppose that's because it fits in your pocket. All I can say is this camera defies classification. It is just as good as the little pro-sumer cameras on the market -- you know, the ones that look like DSLRs but aren't. But, you may ask, why did I buy it? I mean, for home purposes, I already HAVE a DSLR (the Canon Digital Rebel XTi), a Fuji 10x super-zoom, a Canon point-and-shoot and a great Sony Mini-DV camorder. The reason is simple: my passion for music. I need a camera that can take excellent concert photos, great video and fit in my pocket. So I can get it past security. I CONFESS. I'm a live music junkie! That being said, I have a great opportunity coming up in September - I'm going to Italy on vacation then popping over to England to see my favorite band, Turin Brakes, live in London. Hmm... do I need a new kick-ass camera? Yep.

What I ended up with is one of the greatest little cameras I've ever held in my hand. The ZS3 has made major improvements from its "TZ" days. The zoom is phenomenal (12x), and it has even better wide angle capabilities - 25mm. The one complaint I always had about this camera is it doesn't have a manual mode -- specifically, shutter-priority. What I didn't learn from reviews is that it DOES have a setting that limits the shutter speed -- i.e., you can choose the minimum. BINGO. Action shots, here I come. Panasonic has added to it's "scene" selection for quick choices (including "high-sensitivity" -- also known as: "concert"). There's an "iA" (intelligent Auto) mode for no-brainer shooting. The ISO setting goes to 1600 for low light conditions, and all the usual bells and whistles are included: aperture priority to adjust for back-lighting conditions, auto-focus modes, white balance, excellent macro focus modes, image stabilization and color modes like sepia. They've also added burst shooting and bracketing and things I may never use like "face recognition." And then comes the new video capabilities: the video button is no longer on the mode dial (so you can take video on the fly), there's HD capability, and, finally, STEREO sound. Here's to the YouTube haters who will no longer insult my sound quality. I really can't ask for much more in a pocket-sized point-and-shoot. But to sweeten the deal, they even made it in BLUE.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Bike Configuration Experiment

Yeah, yeah, I should be consulting with professionals when I start messing with my bike angles. But, because bike fit usually costs at least $100, and, unlike many triathletes, I do not have gobs of disposable income, I started reading online articles. Articles like these ones: Peter White Cycles - How to Fit a Bicycle, The Effect of Body Configuration on Cycling Performance (PDF), and's Proper Fit for Triathletes. The result of all my reading and looking at photos did one thing -- convince me that paying for bike setup is not necessarily the answer because everyone's body is different. Even if I paid for a fitting, I might have to change or tweak the configuration because of my own biomechanical issues.

So I started tweaking on my own. Seat higher... aero bars lower... seat more forward. The result? Once I found a comfortable position, I also found that I am sitting more forward on the seat, which is what I've always noticed in photos of most triathletes. (I always wondered why photos of me never look that way.)

The overall effect? I might be a little faster. The test? A 55-mile hilly ride yesterday. The result? Average speed 19+ mph for the whole ride, new PR's at all check points, and the ability to hold 23-25 mph on the flat sections comfortably without any additional aches and pains in my legs. A short run after my ride also proved no new issues with the configuration change and only a slight nagging from my (problem) hip joint. The downside? I probably need to spend a little cash on a new bike saddle because my pelvic bone is screaming at me in the new position.

Any advice on a new saddle is welcome. As much as I love my old one (the Selle San Marco Arami, see photo), I'm thinking I need one of those tri saddles: the Selle San Marco Apside or Azoto or the Profile Design Tri Stryke -- basically, the ones with the massive gel padding in the nose. If I can balance on it without pain, that would definitely be a good use of that $100.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

If You Can't Stand the Heat...

...don't be a triathlete.

The temperature finally hit 90 degrees in Cleveland -- just as I was beginning to think hot weather training would never happen this year. When I saw the forecast for Sunday -- over 90 and humid -- I did what all crazy triathletes do: planned a brick, a bike-run workout. There are several explanations for why they call it a brick (Google it), but my personal favorite is "Bike-Run-ICK!" For some reason, bricks don't feel quite the same unless my running shoes are making squishy sounds after 10 minutes off the bike.

My training this year has been severely lacking in long brick workouts, which might explain why my legs feel massively fatigued when I start the run leg of my races. But today, I realized why I've not been doing bricks regularly. I JUST don't enjoy running off the bike unless it's ridiculously hot. Call me insane, but it just doesn't FEEL right.

Today's ride was not only hot and humid, but fast. I rode my usual 2-hour loop, starting out fast but not trying to break any records. My goal was to get my cadence up by remaining in my small chain ring for the entire ride. It was very windy, but I felt like I was riding into the wind no matter what direction I was going. With about 45 minutes left in my ride, I got passed by a group of three guys, and I decided to try to hang behind them as long as I could (without drafting). Once I got my legs spinning fast, I was able to hold between 23-25 mph for most of the rest of the ride. The guys -- Joe, Jared (Jerrod?), and Lee -- were great fun to ride with. Joe was heading into a taper for Ironman Louisville in three weeks. At the first red light stop, they encouraged me to hang with them. I had the most fun riding I've had in years (maybe because of the companionship, maybe because of the speed, I don't know).

I finished the 40 mile (very hilly) ride with an average well over 19 mph and feeling very confident in my ability to ride faster without giving up my run speed. That has always been the question: how do I get faster on the bike without building massive leg muscles that will hinder my run?

Unlike the ride, my run today was more like a death march. I asked my husband to crack the whip on me because my motivation has been so low lately. He rode his mountain bike with me to carry water and gatorade during my run. I always feel guilty asking him to do that -- like I'm breaking the runners' code of ethics. I once read that you should never ask your spouse to be your waterboy, or girl (although Jim was born on the exact same day as Adam Sandler, so maybe that's why I do it?). Anyway, I wonder if the triathlete code of ethics allows it? I sure hope so -- I don't think I could get through these hot, humid workouts without him, and it helps me simulate race conditions. Jim is so much more than my water carrier -- he is an integral part of my racing: my bike mechanic, my travel coordinator, my psychologist, my cheering section, and my best friend. And I hate that he sometimes has to pick up the pieces of a wasted me after poor performances.

But today, he was also a slave driver, as he did not let me quit running after 20 minutes ("you said 40 minutes, you'll do 40 minutes"). Thus begins my training for that race in Clearwater in November.

(the photo is the sweat stain I left on my driveway after my workout)

Saturday, August 8, 2009

2009 Part II

This year has been a rollercoaster in my triathlon pursuits, but, as my last year in the 40-44 age group, I would like it to end on a positive note. If that's even possible. Right now, I'm struggling with low motivation to regroup and start another race build-up.

The middle of 2009 has been an act of desperation, and I'm not expecting much to change in the latter half. The next few months will involve quite a bit of juggling with my training because of work and vacation. To get through it with my sanity, I'm already planning for next year leading up to Ironman Lake Placid, to which, by some miracle, I managed to get an online entry before it sold out.

For the record, I only have one specific race left, the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Clearwater, Florida, on November 14. It's a race I didn't expect to qualify for and one I haven't even officially "registered" for yet (registration doesn't happen until later this month, assuming no disasters like losing the password they gave me). That gives me at least three full months of training if I start next week.

Three full months... with obstacles. In September, I'm taking a 10-day vacation to Italy and London. Oh, sure, running is a definite during this trip -- hopefully some great hot-weather training. But swimming and biking will be a little sketchier. I have grandiose plans to rent a bike and see the countryside AND swim in open water, perhaps the Mediterranean? The photo above is of a beach near Pisa, Italy, where we will be spending several days. So, apparently, there IS water (but why is there no one in it?).

If things don't go as planned, I still have the end of September and all of October to regroup on the bike and in the water, right? Obstacle number two: most of October will require long days at work for my employer's annual 8-day Halloween event, "Boo at the Zoo."

When I was younger, I could juggle all of this and even excel when the deck was stacked. I'd like to say I can still stay focused and motivated, but right now, all I see are long days ahead and quite a bit of decision-making and acceptance of a sub-par performance in November. I'll keep you posted.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Race Fallout in Michigan - Not the Expected Disaster

It's the day after a hard effort in the Whirlpool Steelhead Ironman 70.3 triathlon in Benton Harbor, Michigan - my last-ditch effort to pull success from my wasted legs, six weeks after Ironman Coeur d'Alene and six days after a hard comeback effort on the run in the Pittsburgh Tri. I took today off. Yesterday was a long day - not only because it was a 5-hour drive home.

Steelhead takes place in Jean Klock Park in Benton Harbor on the shore of Lake Michigan. It is a beautiful setting for a race, but I wouldn't describe the course as "fast," mainly due to rolling hills on the bike and run, wind, and a severe lack of crowd support. I've done Steelhead three times, probably more because of the location (driving distance) than anything else and the fact that I get to hang out with my good friend Mickey Rzymek who volunteers his time to support many of the Ironman races (and for some reason, it's easier to see him at races even though he lives close-by). Steelhead also has a great post-race spread by Pizza Hut, and who can argue with THAT?!

In 2003, the first year of the event, it served as a qualifier for age groupers to get into a full Ironman event. That year, I was still recovering from a bike accident in May, and I was trying, as usual, to get something out of my season after missing most of it from the injuries. I managed to win the overall women's race at Steelhead and got a slot in Ironman Florida that year, only to drop out of Florida from heat stroke on the run and subsequently give up triathloning for 5 years.

Last year, 2008, I decided to go back to Steelhead, only to realize it had become a HUGE event - someone told me it is the largest of the Ironman 70.3 races. That year, the swim was canceled due to high surf and I had a less-than-stellar race to finish 4th in my age group (40-44). But I still went back, and THIS year, the water was relatively calm and the day started out sunny and in the 60s.

The event had to compress space this year because of construction of a golf course where the parking lot - and the transition zone - used to be - in a nice square lot that provided ample space. This year, the transition was moved to a spot that had much less space and was very long and narrow. The result? Thousands of bikes had to be crammed on racks leaving almost no space between racks to run (with OR without your bike), and very little space between bikes to layout your stuff. Athletes also had to run a long distance from entrance to exit. It was a disaster in the making, for everyone.

The swim starts 1.2 miles down the beach - a distance that athletes have to walk. No one was happy about that. While we walked, my husband Jim and I (and some other athletes) contemplated why they don't do a loop swim in this race. Is the current too strong? The swim is set up to be "with" the current: if the current is south to north, the swim starts at the south point on the beach, if it's north to south, it starts 1.2 miles north. There were at least 16 start waves, and I realized how lucky I was to be starting in the 5th one. Waves were set up by age. While we were corralled at the swim start, I couldn't help but notice two women in my wave looked like teenagers - not a single line on their faces (!) and they were in two-piece suits, no wetsuits. One of the women in the group said "you can't possibly be over 40!" and we all laughed - the 18-24 age group was also starting with us. So we made a pact to just let them go first!

I came out of the water third in my wave - knowledge acquired thanks to Jim and a race official who shouted "third white cap!" But the full impact of having a good swim and being in the 5th wave didn't occur to me until I exited the water and arrived at the transition zone (to avoid being a nuisance in T1, I took off my wetsuit on the way in). Upon entering, I noticed there were very few people in transition, and things were still in a state of relative non-disturbance. By the time I finished the bike leg, the place looked like it was hit by a tornado. I had to swerve to avoid running over wetsuits, shoes, goggles, Clif Bars, bottles, AND PEOPLE who were sitting down. Lord knows how many people got hit and how much stuff was lost or destroyed. I never heard so much frustration voiced by athletes before, during and after the race. Unfortunately, the only thing for the race organizers to do would be to limit the number of race entries -- there really was NO other place to put the transition zone.

The bike leg started out calm and cool, but by the time I finished, the wind had picked up quite a bit. I spoke with pro triathlete Andy Potts after the race and he noted the wind was increasing at a rate of 4 mph PER hour, which meant that the people in the last waves were in for quite a ride. And the finishers who came in after 1 pm were treated to a driving rain as well. Although I avoided the rain, there was a constant headwind from about mile 40 to the finish for me. My average speed was up over 21 mph for the first half of the race, but once I hit that headwind, it rapidly decayed. The wind had gotten so strong that it also became a factor on the run. Surprisingly, I saw very few people on the bike leg. Three women in my wave passed me. I eventually re-passed one of them who was having problems with her bike. When that happens, I always feel a twinge of sorrow (even if it puts me ahead) - but equipment upkeep is the fourth leg of triathlon. I said a thankful prayer that my bike-mechanic husband helps my bike (and me) get to the starting line in top shape.

After pushing the bike leg harder than usual (part of my strategy), my run never really took off. I knew there were at least four women in my age group in front of me. I thought I could catch them because I started out feeling ok, but after the first mile and its large hill, I felt like I never had any "pickup." It could also have been fallout from running hard in Pittsburgh on Sunday. The run goes through the Whirlpool Headquarters "campus" and has very little shade, but the support stations are great and provided us with ice, sponges, and sprinklers! I started to feel some stomach discomfort around mile 6 and expected to have to stop at a port-a-john, but I just plugged away, walking the water stops and trying to keep my miles under eight minutes. I caught several women in my age group, the last one around mile 8 or 9 (I think) -- my hope was that she was dying harder than I was. The saving grace of the Steelhead run is that the last two miles are flat or downhill, and that carries you to the finish line. At that point I looked at my watch and became desperate to get in under 5 hours - which I did (barely). My time? 4:59:21. When Jim said he thought I won my age group, I was incredulous to say the least. My time seemed hardly worthy of that. But indeed, it was true. I won my age group and landed a slot to the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Clearwater, Florida, in November. One last chance to reap something from this season before I hit a new age group next year.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Six Days to Recover

Six days. I've given myself only six days to recover from an oly-distance tri before racing the Steelhead IM 70.3 this weekend. I don't know why six days seems like too short a time - most of us runners have raced multiple times in one weekend in our younger days. Maybe it's because the Steelhead race is a BIG one AND a qualifier for the 70.3 World Championship in November. Six days of recovery doesn't seem like enough time to do my best. It could very well be a disaster in the making (and by definition, then, I must take on the challenge).

But the tri season this year has felt like a desperation exercise for me ever since Ironman Coeur d'Alene in June. Finding races taking entries that don't conflict with events at work has been a challenge. So here I find myself robbing my body of needed recovery time in order to lend meaning to my triathlon season before it ends.

The only way to approach the race cram is to learn something from the experience. Will I be able to push my 44-year-old body through 13.1 miles after a hard 56-mile bike? Tomorrow I will know the answer. I have high hopes after last year's two half-iron distance races only eight days apart. Surprisingly, my run in the second one was five minutes faster. But that was eight days of recovery. And I was one-year younger. Stay tuned.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Return of the Killer Instinct (Pittsburgh Tri Race Report)

Somewhere along the line, I lost it. My killer instinct. Who knows whether it was from age or from my bike accident? It was already gone before I returned to racing last year. I no longer possessed the ability to kick into 5th gear to win a race. But I wasn't mourning. I'm 44 years old -- I certainly don't expect to win races anymore. These days, I don't even expect to win my age group. I have become content to travel to races and enjoy the experience.

Most of you who know me are probably thinking "WHAT? Who is SHE kidding?" But, yes, after Ironman CDA, my killer instinct seemed long gone, dead and buried. Until yesterday in Pittsburgh. Yesterday in Pittsburgh, I found it. And I yanked it up from the depths to win the overall women's race in the Pittsburgh Triathlon.

The Pittsburgh Tri is one of my favorite races. Because I love Pittsburgh. I love the culture, the museums, the restaurants, the overall setting of the city -- the beautiful city at the "Y" of the three rivers, surrounded by bridges and small mountains. I look forward to this race every year because I get to see Pittsburgh again.

The story for me this year was "the chase." Sure, there are many stories that could be written about this race: the bike course is brutal (a 40K in two loops of 6 miles uphill and 6 miles down in the HOV lane of I-279); the 10K run is flat but slow because it's on a dirt trail; the weather is usually hot, humid and often rains (this year it rained on the bike course); and the first leg of the 1500M swim is upstream (this year, against a stronger-than-usual current in the Allegheny River). But for me this year, the race came down to the last two miles.

In those last two miles of the run, my killer instinct returned to its full former glory. After putting in my fastest swim and bike times ever in Pittsburgh, I found myself about 1.5 minutes behind the women's leader. I knew this because my husband Jim yelled it out -- he also conveniently left out the fact that the woman in front of me was a fast runner. I already knew she was a fast biker because she passed me on the second loop uphill like I was standing still. Usually people who pass me like that can be reeled in quickly on the run, but not this one. By the time I even got a glimpse of her, we were almost to the 3-mile turnaround, and I had all but given up hope to defend last year's victory. I was running relaxed but fast, and I had begun doubting my ability to hold the pace. Unfortunately, I didn't even know what pace I was running due to lack of mile markers.

The only thing I had going for me was that the leader did not know I was closing in. That all changed at the turnaround when she saw me about 10-15 seconds behind. Whether she was running scared at that point, I'll never know - it was ME who was beginning to fall apart. My mind started the questioning:
  • Was 5 weeks enough time to recover from an ironman?
  • What's the big deal if I finish second?
  • Is it time to accept the inevitable? (that at my age I won't be winning any races)
  • How can I expect to hold this pace even if I pass her?
  • If I do catch her, how will I feel when I die and she passes me at the finish line?
All the while, I was making gains, and in the midst of the questioning, I found myself right on her shoulder with about two miles to go. I had to make a quick decision: pass her now and hang on for dear life? or hang behind and try to pass her with about a half-mile to go? (risking that she might also surge in the last minutes of the race?) There was one thing I was sure of - I couldn't continue the mental gymnastics.

Enter, my killer instinct. I decided I would force my hand now and pass her with only one goal: to end the race. I wanted HER to throw in the towel - to give up chasing me, thinking I couldn't be caught. I mustered up my strength and made my move. She tried to go with me. I accelerated and she dropped back. I never looked back. I didn't want to give any indication that I was feeling the exhaustion. I was now running on pure desire. I wanted the win, and I was willing to work for it. Just one more chance to cross that finish line as first overall woman. Lord knows, every chance I get could be the last. My gamble worked, and I won by more than a minute. It also turned out to be my fastest time ever in the Pittsburgh Tri, a race I've done 5 times. And, although the race was small and I only beat a handful of women, I'll take it. And I'm glad it was in Pittsburgh. Because I LOVE Pittsburgh. And they also have the coolest trophies. (View the full results.)