Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Splits Never Lie

I took a week off from Ironman race analysis, just to regroup mentally. But as I set out for my first real run on Sunday, I realized I can't keep avoiding IT -- my watch. In order to use my stopwatch again, I would have to zero out my Ironman CDA race splits. I had avoided it long enough. It was finally time to face the music.

My biggest fear? To find out how badly my marathon spiraled out of control to end up at a pace about 1.5 minutes slower than it started out. The decay would have to be massive to destroy the first 16 miles of averaging around 7:45s.

I sat down to write. I remembered the importance of splits. You don't have to be a world-class athlete to keep splits. Looking at race splits is how you measure YOUR improvement -- the result of all the training. My college swim coach taught me to write them down no matter what. Before big meets or races, I always found myself in the pool office going through the folder containing my entire career's worth of splits -- learning what I did right and wrong and exactly where my races fell apart. Years later, my meticulously-kept running split book would help me finally conquer the Columbus Marathon course after several tries. Reviewing splits from years past illustrated where I needed to focus my effort -- a "dead zone" on the course, revealed only by my mile times. Even if you don't "race" races, learning how to pace yourself using splits can mean the difference between having a great experience or a miserable one.

I started writing. My swim and bike splits were the same as my official times. My total time, however, was about 2.5 hours slower than the clock time. Why? Because I stopped my watch on the way back to the hotel AFTER being treated for hypothermia. Had I even hit the split button upon finishing? I would know soon enough.

Reviewing my splits yielded a pleasant surprise! It actually confirmed what I still didn't know for sure: was I conscious in the last mile? did my brain and/or body actually shut down from the hypothermia? I now have answers. My brain DID begin to shut down -- and I was probably semi-UNconscious in the last mile. How do I know? Because the second-to-last split on my watch was indeed my finish time: 11:13:something. The split before it was mile 24. And my last 2.2 miles took over 24 MINUTES! (Up to mile 24, my average pace was still around 8:50 min/mi.) Part of me is relieved that I don't remember that last 2.2 miles, even though a "conscious me" would have finished faster. Still, the "unconscious me" managed to push the split button at the finish. Force of habit, perhaps?

After digesting this information, I realize how lucky I am to even have finished Ironman Coeur d'Alene. When Jim said I "looked bad" at the finish, I think he was being kind.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Some Thoughts on Age

We are reminded of our mortality when famous people die. This week, we saw the passing of three of the biggest icons of their time -- Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. Arguably, they appealed to three separate generations. But all three were well known among members of most generations. Ed McMahon lived a relatively long life and because of this, his passing was not as tragic as the other two. Their deaths created some trials for me as general "aging" human.

When I was an uber-impressionable 13-year-old, Farrah Fawcett was the girl we all wanted to look like. At the hair salon, the stylist would ask: "Farrah Fawcett or Toni Tenille?" (Who even remembers Toni?) Farrah was the blonde Angel. Yes, we geeks argued for the attributes of Kate Jackson. And poor Jaqueline Smith seemed to have fallen through the cracks, being the "undesirable" brunette (or so it seemed).  You either had a poster of all three Charlie's Angels or THAT poster of Farrah. So, on Thursday, it was the passing of the household-name pin-up girl of my youth. Not someone still at the forefront. Yes, she was "young" -- only 62 -- but her household-name status had long-since expired, and I find myself mourning for my own youth in her passing.

But Michael Jackson was a different story. Michael Jackson was 50. Arguably "middle" age. His cross-generational appeal transcended that of Farrah Fawcett. He represented the youth of MANY generations. My generation. People in their 50s. People in their 30s. People in their 20s. So, when one of my 30-something colleagues at work said: "Michael Jackson dying makes me feel OLD," I couldn't help but be alarmed. I tried not to be insulted. If he thought MJ was old, what does he think of ME? I'm only six years younger.

I don't think of myself as "older." Both mentally and physically. I've always been more interested in music and technology of a younger generation. I once read that a company's web developers or designers should be under 30. Why? Is it bad that I'm over 40? I never thought so, but once in a while I worry that I can't keep up. I do yield to computer expertise of the younger generation, but I keep plugging away using their technology. I hope I'm not delusional. But physically, I may actually BE "younger." Every day, I watch younger people repeatedly indulge in fast food and engage in other unhealthy behaviors. They make me laugh when they shake their heads if I get injured doing these "ironman things," -- as though I am the one destroying my health.

I guess it's all in how you look at it. You don't have to act like a child to be "young." I suspect we "aging" athletes will have stories to tell for a very long time. I only hope we continue to have people to tell them to.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Fallout

In my past life, I ran marathons. For ten years, that's what I did. Run two or three marathons per year and some short races in between. Once I was in marathon shape, I maintained the long runs throughout the year, and then threw in a 8-12 week build-up period with hard weekly sessions before a goal race. But with marathons, there was always another one on the horizon. They were all over the place, even nearby: Cleveland, Columbus, Akron, Towpath, Toledo, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, etc. If you had a setback or bad race, you could even comprehend dropping out, regrouping, and getting an entry into another race a few weeks later.

It's not the same with Ironman. Finishing an Ironman (or other ultra-endurance event) is usually the end result of many, many months, or even years, of training and planning. It's not something you can do again tomorrow. The logistics alone are mind boggling. I remember standing next to a fellow athlete on Sunday morning in Coeur d'Alene. He looked at me with ten minutes to go before race start and said, almost incredulously, "THIS is the EASY part" -- I think I looked cross-eyed at him so he felt the need to explain. He mentioned the logistics of arranging travel, the registration process, the bike transport, the bike and bag check-in... all of it, to HIM, was more exhausting than setting out on his Ironman experience. I think I responded with the following: "Have you ever DONE the Ironman swim?" in disbelief that he thought the hard work was already done.

For me, though, it's NOW that the hard work begins. The self-evaluation. The "what-ifs." The post-race analysis and split recording. The race replay in my brain. The post-race depression. This is what I call "the fallout." Being the Disaster Magnet, my fallout usually triggers some irrational behaviors. The day after I dropped out of Ironman Florida, I went running for 40 minutes -- on the beach. It was punishment. I did not evaluate the reasons behind my having to drop. I just felt that I had failed. It was a bad idea for me to even have started the race only six months after being hit by a car. But in my mind, it was a failure.

Now that I'm older and more experienced at Ironman, whether I have a good or bad race, the fallout is still there. But this time, the fallout comes from having no other Ironman qualifier available in 2009. All North American races are sold out until 2010. And Coeur d'Alene only triggered a greater desire to compete in another one. Regrouping is therefore a little more difficult, and I'm on a desperate search for other races that will lend meaning to the rest of my summer.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ironman Coeur d'Alene: an Unplanned Disaster, a New Data Point

It would be a lie to say I'm not disappointed with my race at Ironman Coeur d'Alene. My goal was to finish under 11 hours and hopefully qualify for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. Missing a goal in an Ironman race is particularly problematic because it is next-to-impossible to get a second chance until the next year unless you have the cash to enter several races in the same year. Ironman races sell out quickly and at $525 per race, my earnings make that scenario impossible.

But an additional, and perhaps more important, goal of every race is to learn something new, something that will make me a better runner or triathlete in the future. The reason I go back to triathloning time and again is because there is no such thing as the perfect race. If there were, I would have no reason to continue doing it. I must address what I did right, what I did wrong, how I might adjust my expectations, and how I can improve race strategy and prerace planning for future success. And, before I start my review, let me note that most of what went wrong was directly related to the ONE thing I had NOT planned for: the COLD.

Ironman CDA was not a complete disaster. I am not going to complain about how terrible I swam, biked, or ran. My mistakes were based on assumptions, and we are all familiar with the cliche: "Hindsight is 20-20." Had my assumptions been different, I would have executed my race differently. But my assumptions were based on a lack of information, and most of that information could have been gathered well before race day. The most important information was how the weather would affect me. We knew the morning would see temperatures in the low 50s and the afternoon would see the mid to upper 60s followed by rain and a temperature drop in the evening. I was lucky to have with me my husband Jim and my good friend Julie who somehow has managed to get away from her very busy life and support me whenever I've done an Ironman. Team J, as I call them, helped me immensely in deciding which clothes to pack for race morning.

I'll start at the start: the swim. The water was around 65 degrees F and comfortable with a wetsuit. I opted to wear my one-piece 2XU tri suit throughout the race. I expected to complete the 2.4-mile swim in 1 hour or less. My actual swim time was 1:05. Based on the conditions in Coeur d'Alene Lake that morning, five minutes is nothing to fret about - I was relieved to get out of the water in that time. The swim course was two loops and on race morning, the wind made the lake very choppy. We swam out against the current. The waves were a bit disconcerting and I swallowed water quite a few times. But worse than that was the thing I had forgotten in the six years since I did an Ironman: the mass swim start. 2500 people all in the water converging on a single point is no laughing matter. Bad swimmers get clobbered. Good swimmers get clobbered. I got clobbered. I got kicked and whacked in the face, pushed under, and grabbed (how is it that people's hands always end up wrapped around my ankle?). I have always been amazed that everyone makes it out of this mass chaos alive. By the back stretch of the first loop I was out of danger and swimming in my own space. My first loop was 31 minutes, the second was slower, due in part to what seemed like rougher surf by that time (confirmed by other racers the next day).

My Live-and-Learn swim lessons from this race would have to be the following:
  1. If your race is in a large body of water (such as a lake in which current or waves will be an issue), always practice swimming in open water, simulating race conditions the best you can. I did not have much opportunity to do this because my race was in June and I live in Cleveland - our Great Lake, Erie, has been too cold to swim in (or I was too much of a wimp).
  2. If you are a strong swimmer (and by "strong," I don't mean "fast"), start in the pack and muscle your way through the swim.
  3. If you are a fast swimmer, either start in the very front and sprint like hell to STAY in front, or make your way to the periphery, and angle in to the first turn.
  4. If you are expecting a time of 1:30 or slower, let the mass chaos begin without you, then jump in the water and enjoy your swim.

The bike leg was also two loops, nice and flat in spots, rolling in spots, and relatively hilly and technical in spots, but nothing to get too worried about. We drove the course two days before the race so I could see what to expect, and I read information online about how to approach it. Since the bike leg has always been my weakest, I planned to hold back for the first loop, go a little harder on the second loop, and save most of my energy for the run. That's exactly what I did. I let several of the women in my age group power by me early on the bike and thought to myself that I would see them either later on the bike or on the run. Before I saw the course, I expected to be able to finish the 112-mile bike ride in 5:40-5:50. I trained very hard on my trainer over the winter and did several long rides both indoors and out, three of which were over 100 miles. On hills. I finished the bike leg in 6:11, not even close to my goal. But the second half of each loop was into a stiff wind, and the hills seemed worse than they looked from the car so I took it easy. In retrospect, I think I took it too easy. When I got off the bike, I was feeling a little too good.

Based on the weather report, I expected the bike leg to begin in the upper 50s and end in the 60s. To handle the temperature range, in my transition bag, I packed both long and short sleeve jerseys, both wool and cotton socks, and gloves. And before the race, I bought a pair of arm warmers to throw in for good measure. All conditions covered. In T1, I went with the short sleeves and gloves which was perfect. I took off the gloves about 2 hours into the ride and had no trouble with cold. (It got quite sunny and warm at times). My nutrition and water consumption went exactly as planned. No nausea. No dehydration. No disorientation

Live-and-Learn bike lessons (without discussing the run yet):
  1. Learn more about the course beforehand -- perhaps ask someone who's done it before.
  2. Be willing to push it a little harder when you know you've done the training.
  3. Add a second mid-to-long, slightly harder bike ride to my weekly training schedule (most people do this already, but I wasn't able to train outside much this winter/spring because of extended cold/wet weather -- and I got sick of the trainer).
  4. Do more long bricks, with runs of at least 1.5 hours after a long ride (again, because of the weather, I had more difficulty with my brick training this year compared to the last time I trained for Ironman)

Which brings me to the run. As with the other two legs, the IM CDA run course was two loops. It starts with a short, flat out-and-back in the park that serves as the race site, passes the start, heads out of town via residential roads that are mostly flat, runs on a paved lakeside trail with long gentle hills (also part of the bike course), turns around midway up a steep hill, then goes back the same way. It's extremely spectator-friendly. Family and friends can cheer for their athletes three times without ever leaving their spot. With seven "blocks" to go, finishers are split off the main route and directed to the finish line. Not that I remember much about it. I do remember seeing the finish chute the day before the race. Thank goodness I took a picture of it.

I came off the bike leg as expected, feeling a bit stiff. Running in my bike shoes is always difficult, and although I was slow, I don't remember feeling the characteristic "wobble" from my Ironmans past. I grabbed my transition bag and headed into the T2 change tent. In my bag, I had dry shorts and a singlet, Gu, Gu Chomps, Hammer Endurolytes, vaseline for my feet, dry socks, and my trusty Adidas racing shoes. I put on the socks and shoes, stashed the food in the back pocket of my tri suit and took off. I never considered putting warmer clothes in my transition bag. I checked the weather that morning. Why would I need something warmer? It's a run. It's better to dress down. I'm going to sweat no matter what I wear. My singlet and shorts wouldn't be warmer than my tri suit -- I only packed them in case it rained and I needed something dry. But that's beside the point -- it was at least 50 degrees out there. I've run races in shorts and a singlet in 35 degrees! Running races. Not Ironman.

Here's where advance planning, knowledge about myself, and training in all conditions might have come in handy. I stress the word "might" because I can't say that I could have simulated in training the race conditions at IM CDA. Had I known that it would start raining and the temperatures would drop rather early in the evening, I might have put something warmer to wear in my run transition bag or my "special needs bag." (Note: Ironman events give you special needs bags that you may retrieve halfway through the bike and the run -- it's kind of like having insurance.) But, at 13.1 miles, I'm not even sure I would have considered putting on something warmer. I wasn't feeling cold.

Back to the run discussion. I left T2 feeling relaxed and very fast. I heard Jim yell: "nice and easy! you have a long way to go!" I heeded the advice and settled into a comfortable shuffle stride. I was surprised to see a 7:10 in my first mile. (Note: this is why I think I went too easy on the bike.) I backed off, but based on how comfortable I felt, a 7:30-8:00 pace was reasonable. At the half, my pace had slowed a bit, but I still felt good and had already passed many women in my age group. The only thing that was bothering me was a slight disorientation. When I saw Jim, I told him I felt a bit out of sorts, but after the short out-and-back in the park and increased calorie intake, it seemed to have passed. On the way back out of town, it started to rain, a cold wind kicked up off the lake, and my disorientation came back. To combat it, I began walking the aid stations to consume more gel/water/gatorade. It had no effect. Two women in my age group passed me. I let them go. Walking the aid stations caused my calves to turn to cement, and by the second loop turnaround, my mile pace had slowed by over a minute, I was in a dead spiral toward a 9:30 pace, and there was a new problem. I started feeling what can only be described as electric shocks in my upper arms and shoulders -- it was the cold.

Some runners were now wrapping themselves in those silver plastic blankets being handed out at the aid stations. With about 7-8 miles left, I waved them off. I was almost finished. I didn't need to stop for something ELSE, and least of all, a blanket(!). I kept moving forward, mostly running, and then I saw it. The sign. It said "Finish Line" with an arrow pointing to the left (I think). The course marshall said: "second loop this way! finish line that way!" I hesitated. She said it again. Louder. While pointing in the two directions. I knew my way was toward the finish line but I don't remember much after that. I rounded a corner and heard a spectator yell: "SEVEN BLOCKS TO GO!" I looked in front of me. Where was the finish line? If it's seven blocks away, why can't I see it? Where were the lights? Where was the crowd? I kept running. I don't remember much else. I don't remember the cheers. I don't remember the announcer telling the crowd to give me extra support because I was struggling coming down the chute. I don't remember crossing the finish line. I do remember wondering why I was being told to stop. Jim said I asked him if I qualified -- then I became blank and unresponsive.

I had hypothermia. The ONE disaster I had NOT planned for. I spent 2.5 hours in the medical tent. I don't remember much of it. I do remember people looking down at me and asking me questions. I do remember trying to answer them and that my brain couldn't form words with my mouth. I do remember being told my body's core temperature had dropped to 90.3 degrees F. Is that even possible? I don't remember getting an IV. I don't remember bleeding all over the cot after a bad IV stick. I do remember wondering what Jim and Julie were doing. Julie told me they were freezing and that Jim stood out in the rain for 2.5 hours with no update on my condition (although she tried desperately to get information). One of the volunteers offered his cell phone for me to call Jim -- he said they would pick up my bike. When I was finally sitting up and drinking warm liquids, I noticed my hands were shaking. I had warmed up to the point of shivering. When my blood pressure returned to normal, another volunteer walked me out, called Jim on her phone, and waited for him to come get me. It was over. We headed back to the hotel. It was almost dark. There were still people finishing.

So, what can we possibly learn from this run? A few things:
  1. When the temperature is in the 50s and you are doing an endurance event that will deplete your energy stores, respect the cold.
  2. In Ironman, make use of your "special needs" bags to pack something dry and/or warm, even if you don't think it's necessary.
  3. Disorientation is not only a symptom of dehydration. Don't keep running, get a medical assessment. (Had I done that, race medics may have told me I was struggling from cold and made me take a blanket.)

Would I have done things differently had I known the temperature would drop into the 40s or 50s on the run? Probably not. But now I have that data point. For next time

My time? 11:13.
My place? 6th in my age group

Not really much of a disaster afterall. But not what I had planned for either. I am just thankful to have finished and to have the greatest support crew ever: Jim and Julie. Team J! After they showed me my finish line photo, I wonder why they keep coming back to these things. But I don't think I could do it without them.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Summoning up the Demons

With five days to go, one mental task remains on my list. There are probably many different names for it, but I'm going to call it "summoning the demons." I must address mistakes and the things that went awry in past races - and there are quite a few. The one weighing most heavily on my mind is having had to drop out of IM Florida in 2003 with heat stroke, due, in part, to inadequate training in the heat. My most recent race experience in Virginia has taught me, once again, how important it is to drink enough water, something I've feared because of past brushes with hyponatremia. My other recent experience, the Philadelphia Marathon in 2008, has also re-taught me an old lesson: do not use the taper period as an excuse to do hard work around the house, like sanding walls or something like that...

Back to the demons. Everyone has them. I met the worst of mine in Hawaii in 2002. I need to have a talk with each of them before IM CDA.
  • The Speed Demon: You really are my favorite of the lot, and I know we are great friends in the 5K. But there is just no place for you in an Ironman. If you attempt to jump on my back on Sunday, I will have to throw you off. If you must join me, I will gladly welcome you with open arms at mile 25 of the run.
  • The Demon Heat: It's Coeur d'Alene. Northern Idaho. I don't expect to see you, but I will beware that you are always lurking.
  • The Demon of Dehydration: You may often go hand in hand with Heat, but you can be a bitch all by yourself. I am prepared to ward you off with the most effective hex -- at least one full bottle of water every hour.
  • The Demon in My Digestive System: You and I are sworn enemies. We have met in Hawaii and on several training runs. I have learned to control you by following a strict eating and drinking plan that includes electrolytes. I have practiced it many times and I will never again attempt to cram down 400 calories per hour.
  • The Demon Cramp: You are elusive. I know you from Utah, but we've not met since. I think you are weak -- you will always be a victim of electrolyte supplementation.
  • The Insecurity Demon: familiarly known as "the Demon of Doubt": You are perhaps the worst of all because you keep creeping back into my life even after I think I've exorcized you. You make me lose faith in myself and my training, and you keep me up all night before races. I am determined to ward off your influence on me. I will only accept you in small doses because you keep me on my toes, but stay out of the water at Coeur d'Alene and let me start a little closer to the faster swimmers.
Hopefully that covers my race demonology, but I'll be sure to let you know if I meet any new ones during my next descent.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Triathletes: the Irrational Behind the Rational

I recently followed a twitter link to an interesting article: A Question for You Triathletes... by Ben Greenfield. He asks: "What motivates you to do triathlons?" and then goes on to mention he's not buying the obvious cookie-cutter answers involving rational things like fitness and stress relief. Instead, Greenfield reasons that if we are completely honest with ourselves, triathletes will find we "do triathlons for emotional and irrational wants and fears."

Ok. I'll bite. I don't even need Greenfield's exercise for determining how to figure out my irrational wants. I can delve that deep all by myself with the help of a long training session. It all starts with childhood (come on, did you really think it would be something different?) I was born into a family that worshipped athletes. Football players. Hockey players. You name it. Athletic achievement was valued above all else except, maybe, school grades. And I grew up in the shadow of two superstar athletes -- my brothers -- who garnered all parental attention. First irrational want: to be a superstar. I chose to do it by joining the high school swim team. I was 14.

Despite great success at swimming, then track, AND school, I continued to believe I would never be fast enough, never smart enough,... never pretty enough, never popular enough. Irrational? Yes. But I was young. When I became a "more rational" adult, would the irrational motivators still drive my athletic achievements?

I started running after college. I ran because I loved running, and I needed a break from swimming. Why did I run marathons? I suppose it could have been to address the lingering irrational desires. The pinnacle of my running "career" came when I qualified for the Womens Olympic Trials in 2000. The strangest praise came from a friend of mine who told me I had become a sort of "hero" to all the local runners who were not born with natural talent. (I am NOT making this up.) He said that my achievement was amplified by the fact I was NOT your typical "runner" (by that, I think he meant small, thin, fast, and genetically gifted). I imagined myself the running version of Salieri in the closing scene of Amadeus -- had I become the patron saint of running mediocrity?

Cue the irrational motivators.

I switched to triathlon after ten years of marathoning and several injuries including stress fractures. The rational reason? To avoid more injuries. The irrational reason? Because I was a good swimmer once and I would never be as fast as the "runners." I desperately needed to be good at SOMETHING, anything. I was 36. My fourth triathlon was an Ironman. Irrational? Absolutely.

Now that I'm 44, I find the most interesting motivator may not be irrational at all. It is the one that got me back into triathlon after 5 years off following a bike accident. I never expected to WANT to do another Ironman, because, during that time off, I landed in a job that finally lent meaning to my life -- a job I loved at an organization I believed in. After more than a year of sinking my passion into work, the unimaginable happened. I found out something I already knew from previous experience: in the workplace, hard work and dedication may not be rewarded - the simple truth is that I'm no good at playing office politics.

I responded by re-dedicating myself to Ironman. If there's one thing I WILL get out of being an endurance athlete, it's the satisfaction of knowing that all my hard work pays off. I train hard, I get faster. I race smart, I win. I answer to myself only, and I am responsible for my performance. There are no arses to kiss. And I can live with that.

Overcoming Fear of Disaster

One week. That's all I have left, one week until Ironman CDA. I thought I had run out of things to say.

About the taper: all the little aches and pains are subsiding, I'm feeling rested, taper is doing exactly what it's supposed to do. About the race: I'm getting a grip on my mental race strategy, thinking about it regularly. About nutrition: I've been practicing all my race nutrition regularly and not overindulging socially -- much to my surprise, I even declined the offer of a lifetime last night: a chocolate vodka pudding shot (it looked like heaven in a cup, *cry*).

So, I've done it, I made it to Week One and I'm still relatively intact, both mentally and physically. What could I possibly be afraid of? Again, the voice of my former track coach, John Klarman, echoes in my mind: "What are the three D's that runners need to beware of?" The answer? "Dogs, drivers, and...... doctors." The punchline was: "DOCTORS."

For me, the punchline is: "DRIVERS." Although it took a while to physically recover, I don't think I ever fully recovered mentally from being hit by a truck in 2003. It was the end of my athletic motivation for five years. It happened six days before Half-Ironman Utah. I was on my last long ride before the race, feeling great, very excited, and WHAMMO! An 82-year-old man with very poor eyesight took a left turn and slammed right into me from the side. In broad daylight. I went over the hood of his truck and landed on my head. Twice. (I bounced.) The only thing I remember from impact to impact was praying that I would survive.

I learned quite a bit in the days and years that would follow. What's important in life. Who my friends are. How to appreciate all the little things. How great it is to be alive. Corny, I know, but all the cliches about a near-death experience are true. And I can't say enough about how important it is to wear a helmet while biking. (I became a great advocate of that as well.)

But, to get back to my race... and my training... I never shook that fear, that the same thing could happen every time I ride my bike. I am deathly afraid of cars and trucks and DRIVERS. It's not as bad as it was the first year back, but I certainly slow down every time I see a driver at an intersection. Even if I have the right-of-way, I do not trust the person behind the wheel, knowing that in bike vs. car, bike always loses.

But today, I have to get out on my bike and conquer the fear. On the bike that replaced the bike I lost (see photo). To end on a lighthearted note... when I bought my first bike, the Cannondale R600, one of the things I loved most about it was the color. It was a black matte finish with black glossy letters. We used to call it "run-me-over-black." All I can say about that is: live and learn. 

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Perfect Race

Every endurance athlete has their own concept of "the perfect race." For me, I cannot begin the discussion without mentioning the person who made me believe there IS such a thing as a perfect race: my high school track coach, John Klarman. Mr. Klarman was more than just my track coach (and geometry teacher). He is the reason I'm an endurance athlete. He taught me how to run. He showed me how running long distances could clear my mind. He helped remove the mental component from my training and apply science in its place. But enough about me. Mr. Klarman was also one of the winningest coaches, ever, at Orville H. Platt High School in Meriden, Connecticut. And his winning records cover multiple sports. I still look back in amazement at how he took a roomfull of awkward, naive girls and created a track team from it. A track team that went 10-0 in its second season.

I often wondered how a man whose feet were so firmly planted in the ground inspired generations of high school athletes to perform at levels that could only be described as "stellar." Like all great coaches, he understood his athletes and knew exactly how to motivate them. And he fostered true team spirit, even in track -- a sport that is inherently individual. His coaching guides me even to this day. Upon qualifying for the 2000 Olympic Marathon Trials, I was asked by my hometown newspaper who was most influential. I mentioned Mr. Klarman. Looking back, it's ironic to note that, in the article, HIS fondest memory of ME just happened to be my first athletic disaster. My very first high school race -- the 400 meters -- ended in a photo finish, which I won by diving into the tape and landing face-first on a cinder track, shredding the skin on my legs and hands. The perfect race? Far from it.

I recall the pearls of wisdom he rolled out to us during track practice, after school in his classroom, or while I walked beside him "pouring" the white lines on Platt's cinder track before a meet. I always asked questions. The most important one: "Mr. Klarman, how should I run the 400?" His answer: "Jeanne, you run the first 200 meters as FAST as you can... and then... run the second 200 meters... FASTER." He always said: "Practice doesn't make perfect. PERFECT practice makes perfect." His athletes were direct beneficiaries of this wisdom. Drills. Every day. And yes, it made us better athletes -- though we didn't realize it at the time. My favorite thing? Once a year, he would take the jumpers and throwers and sit us down to watch old black & white films of athletes with PERFECT form -- in high jump, javelin and discus. This was serious stuff. And yet, he wasn't beyond having fun. Afterwards, he would run the film reel backwards, declaring, dead-pan, "now we'll watch the javelin CATCHING." As though it were a real sport. It was the same joke. Every year. We laughed. Every year.

John Klarman passed away in 2001. I wonder what he would say to prepare me for a great race at Ironman Coeur d'Alene. I suspect it would be something simple, yet profound, and said in his calm matter-of-fact voice. He always made me WANT to have the perfect race. I think that's why I do triathlon. With three sports and two transitions, there is always something to learn, always something to improve on. I do it BECAUSE I'll never have the perfect race. And it's fun. And for me, that's what being an athlete is really all about.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Knowing When to Rest

The hardest thing for me at taper time is knowing how little or how much to train. You hear it all the time: any training you do in the last 10-14 days before your event will not help (and may hurt if you overdo it). Yes, it's true, you cannot "cram" for an endurance event. But, you also cannot take 10-14 days off. Right? Seems contradictory.

If nothing done in the final 10 days will help, and you can't go cold-turkey on training, then what's an endurance athlete to do? This is where experience seems to matter most. There is no perfect race without a perfect taper. I suppose the perfect physical taper maintains your already-peak fitness level while letting your muscles rest and rebuild after the months of breakdown. Experts also say that resting your body by training slow is not the answer -- that just teaches you to race slowly. Thus, this is where I would hope that my live-and-learn experiences come in handy, but my data is mostly limited to two sports, running and swimming. And separately -- not as a single event.

Let's gather the data. In running, the taper method that seems to work best for me is to maintain intensity and reduce mileage drastically in the final two weeks. In swimming... well, let's just say that swim coaches don't believe in tapers. I've been known to have my fastest races after my longest, hardest "warm-up" (in swim coach terms, this special type of warm-up is called: "let's have a 2-hour practice before the meet."). And finally, I've never done a bike race, so I have no taper experience there.

Thus, to avoid a taper disaster, I've decided to read, read, read, attempt to apply other people's knowledge fused with my own, and then listen to my body. And, after my final really "hard" workout yesterday, my body says to rest. Why? Because I'm tired. Will it work? I have no idea. But I KNOW it can't hurt. Another data point.

The wildcard of the taper is the mental part. My mind never handles tapering well. I second guess. I second guess my training. I second guess my nutrition. I second guess my taper. The best I can hope for is that my relaxation techniques will still work. I think I'll go practice that now. And, just in case, I'll pray for disaster relief.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Year of the Yucca

Let me tell you about another area in which I excel at creating disasters: the garden. My gardening skills are now referred to as my "black thumb." The term originated a few weeks ago. I was relating the story of how, years ago, I complained to a sports psychologist that all my training took me away from helping around the yard, causing me perpetual embarrassment in front of my husband's family who all had "green thumbs." They could grow anything. My garden looked like a compost heap. My counselor's answer? "Jeanne, you're a runner, not a gardener." But, even when I tried, I killed everything I tried to grow. I even killed cactuses. Upon hearing all this, my friend Lisa responded with: "well I have a BLACK thumb," referring to her inability to grow anything. Thus, the phrase was born.

However, killing plants did not deter me. I tried to grow shrubs, flowers, trees, vegetables, you name it. Perennials. Annuals. Inside and outside. I went into it enthusiastically, again and again, and continued to kill anything I planted or transplanted. The only things that grew in my yard were things Jim planted or things that was there before we moved in. (Which is ok, because the raspberries and blueberries are doing quite well, without my help.)

But, by far, Jim's favorite story involving me and plants is about the yucca plant in our front yard. It was here when we moved in. And for the first seven years, the yucca never bloomed. Everyone in my town has a blooming yucca but me. I mean EVERYONE. Every day I went running, I was forced to look at their blooming yuccas. Until one spring, when the plant gods smiled on me. As I was surveying the front beds after a run, I noticed a compact shoot peeking out from the yucca leaves. Finally my yucca is going to bloom. I was so excited, I could barely contain myself. I ran in the house, up the stairs and into the bathroom where Jim was taking a shower. "MY YUCCA IS GOING TO BLOOM THIS YEAR!" I cried. Jim, startled, responded with something like: "ok, ok -- CALM down." I couldn't wait for the next day. I knew from watching everyone else's yucca, the stalk would grow very fast. Before long, I would have the classic white yucca flowers that I so desired.

The next day, on the way back from my morning run, I glanced over at my yucca. I couldn't see the stalk... hmm, maybe it was hidden by the leaves... I walked over to my yucca. I started to panic. There was nothing. No flower stalk. Fear gripped me. Where was it? I spread the leaves apart to reveal what looked like someone had lopped off the stalk at its base. Who would do such a thing?!? I ran in the house, in tears, screaming at Jim that someone had cut down my yucca bloom. Again, I was met with: "ok, ok -- CALM down." He followed me outside to survey the damage. Jim's conclusion: it was the deer. They eat everything. They ate my yucca stalk just like anyone would a carrot. I secretly begin harboring ill-will toward the neighborhood deer.

To my dismay, two more years passed and the yucca stayed dormant. Until yesterday. In the midst of my renewed interest in gardening, I bent over my boring yucca to proclaim, once more, that indeed, everyone's yucca blooms except mine. Imagine my surprise to see a new stalk rising from the spikey leaves.

But this time, I'm not taking any chances. Deer, beware.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Art of Playing the Fool

Yesterday was a banner day for the disaster magnet. It would be my last really long ride before the Ironman, capped with a decent-length run to get the feel of the bike-run transition. My hamstring-knee-whatever injury is starting to handle longer runs and it's crunch time -- two weeks to race day. The taper doldrums are about to kick in and I'm starting to get antsy.

At this point, I need all the help I can get, so with a $100 gift-certificate (from Bert's Bikes in Buffalo, won in a race last year) burning a hole in my pocket, I decided to buy an aero bike helmet at the advice of one of the guys at Spin ("the cheapest, easiest way to shave time on the bike is to get an aero helmet"). Ok. done. The Giro Advantage 2 - the only one available in Bert's Bikes online catalog. It made the decision much easier.

So, will it work? Jim said I should ride with it at least once. Oh no! You mean I have to test this thing? Not only am I going to look like some hardcore fool riding in the valley with my ridiculous aero helmet, but, it's hot, the helmet has very little venting, and I'll have to stay in the aero position the whole ride so I don't look like a complete idiot. And anyone who's ridden in the valley knows about the hills. You can NOT ride up those hills in the aero position. Oh well. Suck it up, Jeanne, it's for a greater cause. Ironman. To quote the great Richard Feynman: "What do YOU care what other people think?" Besides, on race day, everyone will have them.

So, I load up the bike -- water, food -- and put on the helmet. Yikes! You mean these things don't fit out-of-the-box? I call in the pit crew (Jim). We tweaked. We took it off. We adjusted straps. We put it back on. We tweaked again. After about an hour of trying to realign the straps, getting my ears caught in locking mechanisms, and cutting straps, the darn thing finally seemed to fit. I was already worn out. We took a picture.

And I was off on my ride. The goals: to feel strong, relaxed, and fast(er). Within the first 15 minutes, I had to stop three times to readjust the helmet. So much for faster. But, yes, indeed, I have to say that on many downhills and flats, I was at least able to get another 1 mph out of that helmet. I hope it's not just my imagination.

Of course, then came the "disaster." As I was riding down the hill at Sand Run Metropark in Akron, I slowed down to cross the ford where the river flows over the road. I have crossed that water with my bike God knows how many times in the past. Without incident. Not THIS time. THIS time, my bike wheels came out from under me and I went down on my right side. As I was lying there in the river, I thought to myself: "how is it that these stupid things only happen to me?" But then, in a flash, I was up, remembering my iPhone was in my back pocket. In keeping with the fool-on-a-bike theme, it figures that today was the one time I decided not to put my iPhone in a sealed plastic bag first. I took my phone out, shook it off, checked if there was any bike damage, looked down at a gash in my knee, and called Jim. I had been out for 1:48. The phone still worked, the bike was good, but I wanted to pack it in. I GIVE UP! Jim wasn't home, thank God, thus forcing me to finish all 3.5 hours of my ride. The knee gash was painful, bloody, and swollen, but there were no biomechanical issues. Other bruises showed themselves too, but I could still ride. Eventually, my clothes dried. Even the helmet survived, silly as it was.

Another data point. Another live-and-learn lesson (just work through the little bumps in the road). As Julie would say: another mental callous. All I can say is, as the disaster magnet, if I have half the disasters on race day as I have had training, I'll be in pretty good shape.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Lighter Side: Demetri Martin Review

To shift gears from my previous (heavy) post, I've decided to write a short review of a great comedian I saw recently.

On May 28, 2009, Jim and I drove to Detroit (actually Royal Oak) to see Demetri Martin live at the Royal Oak Theater. Although the venue and our seats were not ideal, Demetri was hilarious -- all that I expected and more. A note about the seats: the venue "seating" consists of wide flat tiers. The seats provided were folding chairs placed in rows on the tier levels. Thus, if you weren't in the front row of the section, you didn't have a good sightline. Especially if someone taller was sitting anywhere in front of you. But, on the lighter side, the seating had the benefit of giving Demetri an additional piece of material: if we didn't enjoy his comedy, we could always throw our chairs at him.

On to the review. I can say, with certainty, that Demetri Martin is the first stand-up comedian I've seen who takes requests for jokes. His jokes are so funny that people will yell out requests (at his prompting) for him to retell jokes they already know. Instead of waiting to hear his "new" material, also offered. We witnessed his ability to tell ANY of his jokes while playing a guitar -- in effect making ALL of his jokes: 'The Jokes with Guitar.' I learned I'm not the only one who thinks Demetri Martin jokes never get old, no matter how many times you hear (or see) them. I think they get even funnier upon multiple listens. This brings me to another audience favorite feature: the jokes with the 'Large Pad.' I've often described Demetri as Steven Wright with props. The Large Pad is his trademark. The new Large Pad jokes were as hilarious as ever, but the sad truth of all comedy shows is that your memory of the jokes fades with time. And no video cameras were allowed. I should have written some of the jokes down right after the show so I can fill the interim with memories while waiting for more recorded material.

Final notes: there were great surprises. One was no opener. When the lights dimmed, Demetri walked onstage. No introduction. No warm-up comedian. Just Demetri. He proceeded to get his feet wet with the audience by surveying the theater and the stage, using a green laser pointer (which made Jim very happy having gotten one as a xmas present from me). He made impromptu jokes about his surroundings like the balconies that were just decoration - great stuff! To end the night, for an encore, he came back onstage, thanked the audience for being so responsive, and let us ask him questions. This gave me a new insight into Demetri Martin, 'person' -- the guy is a great story teller. Full stop. Well, either that, or he just has great stories. I think it's the former. As a matter of fact, I think Demetri Martin is like every great comedian: he looks at life with an eye for finding irony and humor in everyday occurrences. He related how he was the last of his friends to learn to ride a bike, and counteracted that by being the first one (by choice) to learn to ride a unicycle. Duly noting that 'the guy riding the unicycle' is the dork. He told us about his early days trying to get "booked" at a laundromat in NYC. Upon disappointment that people didn't laugh at his jokes, he had to be reminded that these people were focused on getting their laundry finished rather than listening to the guy telling jokes..

The experience left me with a smile that lasted for days and a whole new appreciation for Demetri Martin. I thought he was GREAT before I ever saw him live. Now I know what a down-to-earth guy he is, and I smile knowing he's one of the people who truly deserves the success he's enjoying. Even if he says, 'I'm not famous,' in response to the audience question: 'How do you handle the fame?'

Bravo Demetri!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Fire and Rain

As I get older, I find myself reminiscing more - I guess that's really what writing memoirs is all about. For instance, after my swim the other day, my mind focused on the lock on my locker that belonged to one of my high school running friends and I realized I will never be able to tell her I still have her lock because I've not heard from or seen her since graduation. However, I WAS fortunate enough to find someone ELSE I thought I had lost, my best friend from high school, Jo-Lynn. Is it just a coincidence that Jo-Lynn popped into my head while I was lying in that MRI machine last week listening to the James Taylor song "Fire and Rain"?

Before I say anything else, I just want to say that there are only a few people in my life that I am or would have been willing to die for. One of them is Jo-Lynn. If I had a sister, I would have wanted it to be her. The last time I heard anything definitive about her, she had left her husband of two years - they lived only three hours away, in Dayton. This was sometime around 1990. He wrote to tell me. Why did HE write? I'm not sure - he was actually a friend of mine from college who pursued her (she went to a different university). I thought he just wanted to meet her because I talked about her all the time and how much I missed her.

The last time I saw HIM was when I moved to Cleveland in 1987. I visited him in Dayton. During that visit, he showed me his "scrapbook" -- containing things he had collected from years of relationships with different girlfriends. Scarily, he had stuff of MINE! Stuff he took from my college dorm room. Stuff like, my earrings (!) and some drawings! He was reluctant to show me anything after MY "entry" in the book, but when he left the room, curiosity made me look. It was then that I realized what he didn't want me to know: he was obsessed with Jo-Lynn. He pasted her college ID and other stuff of hers in there. Years before, she had told me they had a brief relationship, but I thought it had ended. (For some reason, HE never told me about it.) 

The whole episode scared the daylights out of me -- I felt like I was browsing through the belongings of a psycho/serial killer. I didn't sleep that night, and I was very happy to finally get home the next day. After that, he wrote and called often. I just let him talk. Imagine my surprise when he told me, in a letter, that he and Jo-Lynn were getting married! 

I should have done something. I should have called her and pleaded with her to get away! But it was her life, and I didn't want to get in the way. I was also afraid that if I said anything, the two of them would think I had feelings for him and was trying to stop the marriage for selfish reasons. So I did nothing. I NOW know I made a terrible mistake. She was my best friend and I loved her, and when it mattered, I did nothing. I do not know the hell that she went through with him, but from only a few statements she wrote, I know it was truly a "hell," and I feel partially responsible.

So now, over 20 years later, I found her on Facebook. I didn't know if she wanted to hear from me. I was scared that her feelings for me might have changed even though mine for her have not. Over the years, I had Googled her name over and over again and never found any information (my mistake was not using her married name). And the past 20 years could never be described as "water under the bridge." We're 44 years old. We have different lives. We travel in completely different circles. But we're only 3 hours apart. Is there a cosmic significance to that?

When I saw her photo on Facebook, I cried. She was the same. The same smile. The same hair. I sent a friend request. She accepted. She said that I looked the same. I told her I never had a friend like her. She told me the same. I read her "25 random things about me" only to find that all the things I loved about her in high school are still traits she carries to this day. I realize now that some of her best characteristics are the very things that make me the person I am today. Jo-Lynn was one of those rare people who just told you the cold hard truth, whether you wanted to hear it or not. She was never about lying or schmoozing or stroking people's egos. She is the reason I resent people who bullsh*t, lie and backstab (things that make it difficult for me to be in the marketing workforce). But she is also the reason I work so hard at being truthful and honest. It may not "get" me anywhere in life, but I can live with that. I have few regrets, but letting Jo-Lynn go is one of them.

Writing all these feelings out may not paint a nice picture of me as a friend, but it IS honest. And although it's not sports- or technology-related, it's still another life-lesson learned. I hope not too late.