Wednesday, April 21, 2010

My New Ride

My regular readers are well aware that cycling has always been my weak leg of the triathlon. When I started competing, my running and swimming were so strong that even when I got my butt kicked on the bike, I was usually within striking distance from the leaders on the run. I thrived on catching people on the run who had dusted me on the bike and seeing the looks on runners' faces at the turnaround when they realized they wouldn't be in front of me for long.

Nowadays, those feelings are a distant memory. My loss of running speed with age is compounded by the fact that enthusiasm alone will not give me the ability to pull a great marathon out of thin air at the Ironman distance. In a regular marathon, runners start fresh and, depending on training and fitness, try to stave off the dreaded "wall" -- i.e., the point at which the body physically runs out of stored energy. In an Ironman, the marathon begins well PAST this depleted state. For me, it's after about seven hours of swimming and biking. The only chance at a good marathon will ultimately depend on the shape I'm in after 112 hard miles on the bike. In Lake Placid, the hard miles will also include hills. Thus, not only have I been concentrating on my bike fitness this year, but I've also been playing with my bike position and trying to get everything I can out of it.

I bought my new bike, the Cervelo P3, with several purposes in mind. First of all, I wanted to rekindle my enthusiasm for biking -- I mean, what's better than a new toy? Second, I wanted a fast, light frame, and the P3 is one of the world's fastest, proven through wind-tunnel testing. Third, I wanted a geometry that can put me in a faster aero position to start with.

I have NOT deluded myself into thinking that my aero position is nearly as important as bike fitness, but I DO know that every little bit of speed will be amplified the longer the race is. After talking to the experts at Bike Authority in Broadview Heights, Ohio, I am convinced that position and frame could amount to a 10- to 15-minute faster bike leg in an Ironman.

When I chose the Cervelo P3, I had already made the commitment to work harder on the bike. I needed help to determine the best position to ride in to make that work count. This service is something Bike Authority excels at. Upon picking up the bike, I worked with bike-fit expert Mike Vanucci to tweak the seat and handlebar positions to get the most out of my body and my bike together. The bike position with the least drag is with your back parallel to the ground, but, because of varying degrees of flexibility and comfort, not everyone's body can handle that position (especially when it comes to the pelvis and seat contact). Hooked up to a Computrainer, we determined my most comfortable position while still generating a good power output. Strength-wise, I still have many things to work on, but now I had a place to start. Personally, I decided on a more aggressive position, knowing I can change it if my comfort level decreases with increased mileage.

I was off. The first real test of my new position was a 60-mile ride last weekend in horrendous weather on rolling hills in my home state of Connecticut. I rode from my mom's apartment in Middletown to my old stomping grounds at Hammonasset State Park beach in Madison and back. In retrospect, the comfort of my aero position was never an issue, and I felt very little discomfort from it when I got off the bike. I was in much MORE pain from riding in cold rain for over three hours. My feet were blocks of ice and my mental state was a disaster. But I CAN say this: there's nothing better than a ride through hell and back to solidify the bond between a girl and her bike.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

On Anxiety and Panic

Another recent conversation with a friend has inspired me to write this blog. It's not something I like talking about. And it causes anxiety. What is it?

Panic attacks. When you feel like you can't breathe and every time you try to relax, it's like another round of electric shocks going through your body. That's what happens to me regularly before races. Not right before like at the starting line, but at the times that it's most important to be resting -- the night before. And even worse -- the night BEFORE the night before.

It never happened in high school or college. Eight years of swim meets and four years of track meets and not a single panic attack. Oh sure, the nerves kicked in just before I got up on the blocks or walked onto the track. If it were a "big" meet, I might feel some nerves the "day of," but never the night before. And I would not have described it as "panic."

The real panic attacks started in 1991 before my first marathon. By 3 a.m. that morning, all my near-nod-offs had been thwarted by extreme anxiety and the feeling that my heart was pounding in my head. I was so desperate, I tried drinking shots of vodka. At THREE A.M! And THAT didn't work either. So I arrived at the starting line of the 1991 Cleveland marathon on no sleep with remnants of alcohol in my blood and extreme anxiety. But, in retrospect, over the years, I learned that sleeping the night before a marathon probably does more damage to your mind than your body. It's the sleep you get TWO nights before that matters.

Fast forward to the 1998 Chicago Marathon. I was close to a qualifying time for the Olympic Marathon Trials and put enormous pressure on myself. The result? You guessed it -- the anxiety set in TWO nights before the race. In a hotel in Gary, Indiana. We were not even in Chicago yet and I was sleepless for 24 hours. (And to this day, I still feel anxiety anywhere NEAR Gary, Indiana). I could barely eat the next day because of nausea, so I went into the race not only sleepless for two nights but also depleted. By mile 13, I was hitting the split button in every Porta-john on the marathon course. Over the years, I would learn that lack of sleep almost always manifested itself as stomach distress. NOT something I wanted to deal with in my future Ironman endeavors.

I finally explained it all to my doctor. His antidote? Anxiety drugs. The drawback? By the third day, I was so relaxed I couldn't get out of bed. Yeah, it was great, but I couldn't run in this condition. Dosage adjustment did the trick, and by the time I ran my next marathon, a Trials qualifying time was back in my sights and I was able to sleep.

Then came the night before the Trials and a whole new level of anxiety. You guessed it, drugs or no drugs, this was a fight I would not win. At one point during the night, I swore I heard a fire alarm go off in the hotel. No one else heard it, not even my husband. People must have thought I was a raving lunatic when I asked. The Trials marathon was a disaster (for more reasons than just anxiety). The year was 2000.

That year I decided things NEEDED to change. My doctor asked me to see a sports psychologist. It was probably the singular best thing I ever did to get control of my anxiety. He taught me how to relax using breathing techniques and relaxation tapes. I learned how to let go of things that I had no control over. I learned to have confidence in myself and run my own race. It was amazing. In September 2000, I arrived at the starting line of the Quad Cities Marathon with a full night of sleep. I even forgot to bring my gel for the race, but it mattered not. To my surprise, I didn't even feel nerves at the starting line. I ran the smartest marathon of my life, negative split, and won the women's race.

So what happened? I started racing triathlons in 2001 and didn't lose a single pre-race night of sleep until Ironman Hawaii in 2002. I dodged anxiety right up until the moment it really mattered and then had the worst panic attack of my life. I spent two nights of no sleep in Hawaii which resulted in a vomit-fest during the marathon. You'd think the first thing I would do is go back and re-learn relaxation techniques, but I never got a chance. In 2003, I was hit by a car and took a four-year hiatus. And now that I'm back, my relaxation techniques are so far gone that it feels like I have to start all over from scratch. And training for Ironman, I feel like I don't have the time. But, I need to make the time. It might be the most important time I make. Maybe writing this blog will point me in the right direction. Otherwise, I may never get a chance to go back to Hawaii and have that perfect Ironman race I missed out on.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Where Does It End?

"Where does it END, Jeanne?" That's the question I was asked on Saturday night. The person asking me that question was someone I put on a pedestal, a musician with talent I could never even hope for. With eight million other interesting things to talk about, how did we get on the topic of my training and racing?

My husband loves it when I try to dodge these questions. He always points out to people how "crazy" I am. Not for wanting to DO Ironman but for wanting to RACE Ironman. He tells them how I ran through five stress fractures trying make the U.S. Olympic Marathon trials. His favorite injury story to tell (incredulously) is how "she read" it would be too painful to run with a stress fracture -- and because "she could" still run 20 milers, "she just assumed" it wasn't a stress fracture. He calls it obsessive compulsive disorder. I call it determination.

So, then, where DOES it end? Is this a rhetorical question? Have I gone way over the limits of normal goal-oriented behavior? Maybe the question(s) should be this: how does one know when determination progresses to an obsession/compulsion? and if it does, how do you undo it before it results in permanent damage (or, in my case, injury from overtraining)?

I've given this almost a week's worth of thought and my conclusion is that I haven't figured it out yet. I used to think it would "end" when I had the perfect race. Maybe that's MY way of not answering the question. Maybe races like Ironman exist as the direct result of people thinking and behaving the same way I do. Maybe the reason I do it, and will continue to do it, is because it's the only way I have ever been able to distinguish myself as an individual. Ironman is "what I do" because I'm useless at everything else. In that case, it may "end" when I find something that I'm good at. Or with the next disaster.