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.