Friday, May 28, 2010

New York Made Me Sick, So I Must be Drawing Again

I spent a crazy weekend in New York doing a bunch of my favorite things with my favorite person (my husband Jim):
It was a weekend that lingers, not only in my memory, but in my lungs in the form of yet another illness. This one was especially custom-made for Jim -- a virus that caused several days of laryngitis. Unfortunately for me, it also caused several days of missed training because of difficulty breathing.

After the asthma attack in Virginia and now this, I have decided to designate this month as "The Great Lung Disaster of 2010."

But for every negative, there must be an equal and opposite positive, right? The positive from GLD2010 is that I'm drawing again. The creative juices started flowing as they always do after some kind of mental or physical breakdown. The images were coming and all I needed to do was find time to draw them (not an easy task with all my training).

While we were in New York hanging out with friends, the subject of my art came up, and I showed them some of my drawings. Then it happened. One of them said something I always wished, but never thought, I'd hear -- he compared my drawings to the art of H. R. Giger. It may have been the singular biggest compliment anyone ever gave me. It was all I needed.

No, wait! I needed one more thing: time. And almost like clockwork, along came the "thwack" from above -- in the form of a virus. Can't train? I guess I'll draw. My pursuit of artistic expression was reborn. Is it a calling? I don't know. What I DO know is that I want things to be different this time. I feel that I should to set goals (a drawing a week perhaps?), but art was never something I could force. It always just "happened." It came as a spur-of-the-moment need to produce something, to "get it out." Maybe if I make time for it, things COULD be different this time. Maybe there's room for something else besides training and work in my life. Sometimes I feel that, at my age, it may be now or never.

Here's a photo of my newest drawing, still in progress (because I'm training again) and tentatively titled "The Great Lung Disaster of 2010":

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Race Demons, Be Gone

It's hard to honor a commitment to blogging at least once a week when I don't always have something to write about. I don't just want to post my workouts or daily events -- I'd rather write about times I learned something so that someone else might learn from my experience.

Yesterday was one of those times. I needed to have a good workout, but I was dreading it because of the other hard workouts I've done this week to make up for last weekend's race debacle (misfortune?) in Virginia. I've spent a week trying to determine if I did the right thing by dropping out, wondering if I could have finished anyway, and trying not to get discouraged at my slow bike time. Why it was it SO slow? Was it: the marathon 6 days before? not being able to breathe properly? the fact that I'm a crappy biker? When I saw my split compared to others that day, I threw up my hands in disgust, despite the "reasons" for it.

Two days after the race, I ran a hard, hilly 13-miler. Was that smart? Who knows? It sure felt like a release from the constant mental bashing I was doing. Was I punishing myself for dropping out of the race? Probably.

The day after that, I did hard tempo repeats on my bike trainer for two hours. The whole time, my mind was asking the nagging question: "why hasn't my hard bike training paid off?" I've been killing myself on the bike this year, using my heart-rate monitor religiously and making sure I did a prescribed set of muscular endurance sessions and time trials. But when it came to race time, it was like I did nothing at all. My time was 10 minutes slower than last year. Even WITH breathing problems, I still think it should have been at LEAST as fast as last year -- when I DIDN'T have the hard training behind me.

Two more days of running, swimming and biking and then came my long ride yesterday. If the weather was good, I would do my first 100 miler of the year. I had to work in the morning, but on my way home at noon, the sun came out, and I had no more excuses. I prepped my bike and worked out a new nutrition plan alternating Carbo-Pro and E.F.S. Liquid Shot: 250 calories/hour -- I expected to be out there six hours.

The wind was about 15 mph, mostly the west, and I was heading north and west -- so at least I would be with the wind on the way back. The first 45 minutes was all hills (which means the last 45 is hills), and I tried to avoid checking my average speed during that time. By the time the terrain flattened out, I noticed I was able to hold 21-22 mph with no struggle -- something I could NOT do in the race last weekend. Heading directly into the wind for 15 miles, I hit the 50-mile mark in 2:42, something I've NEVER done before. Knowing I would have the wind at my back for the return, I was on target to finish my fastest ever 100-mile training ride on this particular route. I hit 100 miles at 5:25, 10 minutes faster than my "record," and the demons evaporated almost instantly.

Even better, my ride nutrition was perfect -- I felt mentally and physically strong the whole time. And when I got off the bike, I did a four-mile run to get used to the transition.

I guess the lesson is obvious, but I keep having to learn it over and over again, even at my age. One bad day, one bad race, does not define my limitations. As endurance athletes, we must realize the huge stresses we subject our bodies to and evaluate the causes of things that go wrong with logic and not emotion. Easier said than done, I know. Maybe writing it down will force the learning.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

New Age Group, New Disaster

Who would have thought that at the age of 45, I would develop what appears to be asthma. Yes, I've been dealing with three or four sinus infections per year and seasonal allergies that began later in life... like, in my 30s. But asthma? That's just a disease that "other" people have -- my husband, my mother-in-law... Asthma? It would surely ruin me. I'm an endurance athlete. I LIVE to breathe large.

Alas, not only have I suffered what appears to be an allergy-induced asthma attack, but, being the Disaster Magnet, it happened in the worst possible way (for me) -- DURING a race.

The race was the Kinetic Half (Ironman) at Lake Anna State Park in Spotsylvania, VA. I had several goals for the race, none of which included an asthma attack. I had written them down before the race in my trusty split book:
  • practice nutrition for Ironman Lake Placid
  • practice transitions (or, as the case may be, learn how to do transitions again)
  • have a decent run leg (taking into account the Pittsburgh marathon six days earlier)
  • assess my bike training
The day started out like most race days... no - wait! The day started out BETTER than most race days. Why? Because I got about five or six hours of sleep the night before. No panic. No anxiety. Just sleep. We got to the site early, I picked up my chip, got body-marked, and set up my stuff in transition. Athletes were discussing the weather -- the wind was expected to pick up to about 20 mph by the time we were on our bikes. The one thing to remember: it's everyone's problem. This race was windy last year too.

The 1.2-mile swim was a single loop in a triangle shape. My wave, the over-40 women, was second to last -- that took a little pressure off. The water was 74 degrees. I warmed up in my wetsuit and decided to keep it on just in case the water further out was colder (it was). Jim mentioned I was smiling at the starting line -- my response was that it was the first time in ages I wasn't mentally frazzled from lack of sleep at a start. I lined up in the front (mostly because the women in my age group were not jockeying for position), the start horn blew, I hit my watch, and we were off.

I should have known in the first few strokes that something wasn't right. As usual, I went out fast to get a good position in the water, but within a few strokes, my lungs felt like I was swimming all-out. You know that feeling you get when you swim a whole pool-length underwater and just barely make it? When you come up for air and your body is screaming for oxygen? THAT'S how I felt. It was very scary, weird, and confusing and I slowed down to try and catch my breath. Not knowing what to do, I eased back and pressed on. At that point in the race, I thought the mistakes were all in my pacing and never considered that something was physically wrong.

The last leg of the swim was directly into the sun. I stopped several times to spot the buoys and shoreline only to realize I was the one people were drafting off. It went by quicker than expected, and I got out of the water second in my wave.

My transition was a disaster. I should have expected that with no practice. I had to sit down and struggle with my wetsuit at my ankles for what seemed like hours. When I was finally free, I took the quickest way around the racks and out of transition. Atypically, I ran in my bike shoes because the T1 exit was on gravel. It was an uphill bike mount, and mine felt like a comedy of errors (note to self - PRACTICE which side to run on and which pedal needs to be UP).

The two-loop 56-mile bike course is very rolling with some great downhills but the wind was a huge factor on the bike -- we went out and finished against it. Getting speed and rhythm on the bike was hard with the lingering (hilly) marathon fatigue in my quads. During this race, I wanted to get comfortable with my new bike and aero position and practice fueling. Because it was hot and dry, I drank 20-24 ounces per hour with about 250 calories/hour from E.F.S. Liquid Shot (which includes electrolytes) and Carbo-Pro. Bike fueling was dead on -- no dizzyness, no feeling of dehydration.

It was my lung problem that came into focus on the bike. About halfway through the first loop, I took a deep breath and found myself coughing. Thinking I had sucked in a bug, I was surprised that the sensation continued, and I felt the need to cough every time I breathed deep. After considering dropping out at the end of the first loop, I decided to keep going, take shallow breaths and hope it went away. I wondered if it would affect my run. I also kept getting "stuff" in my eyes and tried to wash it out with water but couldn't (I would find out later that there wasn't "stuff" in my eyes).

I knew my bike leg was slow, but I passed many women and I knew I was winning my age group. I would make it up on the run. If I COULD run. But I was losing concentration on the race with growing concerns about my breathing problems. Coming into transition, I forgot my navigational route, went the opposite way and overshot my bike rack. I had trouble getting into my running shoes (note to self -- FIX the insoles of racing shoes), then fumbled with my hat and gel packs before getting on my way.

I started the 13.1-mile run out of breath on the first short jog out and back before the three-loop course. My immediate breathing difficulties centered around the inability to get a lungful of air. When I saw Jim, I stopped and told him I couldn't catch my breath. I started coughing. A race volunteer asked me if I needed help. I did, but my biggest concern was dropping out. In a moment, medical personnel were there to help me assess what was wrong. I was coughing. I couldn't stop. I was almost choking by the time they put me in the ambulance. Someone said "emergency room" and my worries skyrocketed. I was still hoping to finish the race at that point. (I was leading my age group for crying out loud!) I answered a bunch of questions about medication and my lungs and after about 30 minutes of breathing-coughing-breathing-coughing I decided, with their urging, to end my race. One of the EMS personnel informed us that because of the dryness, the pollen count that day was close to 4000 (whatever that means) instead of the usual 250. They think I may have had an asthma attack triggered by allergies and that my body was unprepared for the difference in Latitude. The only relief from coughing came when I was given humidified air through a breathing mask. Even the oxygen tube didn't help (but that might have been because I couldn't breathe through my nose). So much for spring races in the "south." I had noticed the blooms were MUCH different in Spotsylvania than in Cleveland this weekend.

After I got out of the ambulance, I went to the bathroom and noticed my eyes were swollen and I had the dreaded hives on my eyeballs that I get when I go running in the first two weeks of spring blooms. That explains what felt like sand in my eyes on the bike. We got back to the car and to find it covered with pollen. It still bothers me and I keep wondering if I did the right thing or if I should have just backed off my pace and toughed it out. And why me? Why didn't anyone else have this problem?

The questions persisted on the drive home with one respite. Jim wanted to stop and see the Civil War battlefield of The Wilderness. And we got lucky because a National Park Service historian was just about to give a short tour describing the battle. Before I went to last year's race, my friend Curt told me that the area in and around Spotsylvania played a huge part in the Civil War but I didn't know about it until yesterday. Walking the field and hearing how thousands of Americans lost their lives in a horrific battle has a tendency to put everything in perspective. If I weren't so concerned about breathing, I might have broke down in tears. It was humbling and spine-tingling and sad. The photo at right is a memorial to one of the Union volunteer brigades that charged into battle first.

It took many hours before I was able to breathe deep without coughing -- the coughing stopped on the drive home when the weather changed to wet and colder. Another data point in the disaster chronicles. Jim says it's better we know now than to find out in a more important race. (And maybe my spring training will benefit.) I'm still struggling a bit with the disappointment, but I know he's right. And I did learn some other lessons from this race like what I need to work on (transitions) and what is working (bike nutrition). So all is not lost. But my first order of business for the coming week will be to see an allergist.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Pittsburgh: City of Bridges, Hills, and Marathon Crowd Support

Pittsburgh. Self-proclaimed "City of Bridges." City at the junction of three rivers. Steel City. And birthplace of Andy Warhol. As a Clevelander, I often find myself in knock-down drag-out arguments with people about the merits of Pittsburgh. No, I don't hate the Steelers to my last dying breath. But I'm not FROM Cleveland. I love the Cleveland cultural institutions. But I also love the ones in Pittsburgh, especially the Carnegie Museum of Art. I love the restaurants in Pittsburgh, especially Piper's Pub, where I can drink a Scotch ale before noon and have a full "English breakfast." I love the riverfront stadiums in Pittsburgh -- Heinz Field and PNC Park. I love the Inclines. I love walking along Grand Avenue and taking pictures of the city. And most of all, I LOVE the bridges.

It should be obvious why I wanted to run the Pittsburgh Marathon. It runs over five bridges. I also chose the Pittsburgh Marathon because of another fact about Pittsburgh. It's hilly. And a marathon in Pittsburgh would HAVE to contain hills. And experience on hills is an absolute necessity for Ironman Lake Placid. And, unfortunately, my hometown Cleveland Marathon is -- you guessed it -- flat.

Now that I've run the Pittsburgh Marathon, I can give more kudos to Pittsburgh for putting on a great race on a really fun course (despite the hills) that sends runners through mostly urban neighborhoods and highlights some of the great sights of the city. Starting on Smallman Street and 14th, the first 10 miles of the race are relatively flat -- the only "hills" coming as you run over those iconic bridges. The race starts with a spectator-friendly out-and-back three miles through the Strip District. Miles 4-11 pass back near the start, cross the Allegheny River three times, run along the riverfront with the two stadiums, cross the Ohio River, then continue through the Southside neighborhood along Carson Street (past my beloved Piper's Pub). Again with great crowd support. Somewhere in there, the half-marathoners loop back on the course and run back downtown to finish. The marathoners keep going, crossing the Monongahela River and continuing upward toward the University of Pittsburgh. This is where the hills start. Miles 12-18 take you up through the Pitt campus and the very nice neighborhoods of Bloomfield and Shadyside, where, again, great crowd support continues. These slightly rolling miles produce quite a few mutterings of "is this the last hill?" From my clouded memory, the last substantial uphill actually occurs somewhere around mile 21. Shortly thereafter, there's a wicked downhill that it covers much of miles 23 and 24. It's not something a runner wants to deal with at that point in a marathon -- the quad pain from pounding on a downhill with three miles to go. The last two miles to the finish are very flat and the crowd size and cheering intensity increases steadily toward the finish at the Convention Center.

It's a fun and diverse course, and all in all, my race went exactly as planned. It even marked a first for me -- I met all the goals I set out with. There were four:
  1. have fun
  2. RUN the entire course
  3. practice race nutrition
  4. preserve my legs for a half-ironman six days later

The first thing I had to do was force myself to think of this marathon as a training run. I did this by purposefully riding my bike 65 miles two days before. This assured my legs would be tired, but they would also have a day's worth of rest. Standing at the starting line with that residual fatigue had me second-guessing this idea. But by mile 10, with a mile pace somewhere between 7 and 7:30, I was feeling very comfortable and fatigue-free. Here's where I thank my husband Jim for the constant reminders of my race goals right up until the starting gun went off. I resisted the urge to chase other runners and settled into the pace he and I discussed before the race. By the time I reached the hills, I was feeling very comfortable -- so comfortable that the logical me waged an internal battle with the competitive me to not "go for it." The logical me won. And because I kept a cool head, I was also able to deal with an emergency porta-john stop around mile 18. I managed to get back on pace and re-pass any women who got the jump on me -- mainly because I was feeling very good at that point and was on the flip side of my usual coin (i.e., dying and watching everyone pass me).

At mile 20, I can't say I remember hitting anything resembling the "wall." My fluid intake was good and I had been alternating gatorade and water at the aid stations. I consumed three Gu gels: one at 9 miles, one at 14 miles, and one somewhere before 20. When I hit the mile-23 downhill, I was torn between going fast and taking it easy -- it felt so good from a fatigue standpoint to be running downhill, but the impact made my quads start to tighten up. I shortened my stride and it worked to lessen the pounding. As a matter of fact, during the whole marathon, everytime I felt a sense of fatigue setting in, shortening and speeding up my stride seemed to help immensely. I wonder if that's what it means when I read about "running efficiency"...

The one struggle that everyone had to deal with was the weather. With temperatures in the high 60s and low 70s, heat exhaustion would not be an issue. It was the rain that caused the most problems. The rain started about 10 minutes into the marathon and continued steadily through the finish. People were having serious problems with blisters and chafing. I had blisters on my feet where I don't usually get blisters, but they did not cause me pain during the race, only after.

The last two miles were a little more painful than I would have liked, but I finished strong and did my best to keep a smile on my face. I did things I usually don't do (or don't have the energy to do) like high-fiving groups of kids along the street. It was nice to not be in a death-march coming into the finish line, and I thought that I had better enjoy it. It may be the only time it happens.

My time? 3:15.
My place? 14th woman overall.
The awesomest thing? The medal.

Not bad for a training run. I celebrated with the full English breakfast at Piper's. Baked beans and all.

A race footnote for those curious about my status as the Disaster Magnet: During the Pittsburgh Marathon, there was a bomb scare in downtown Pittsburgh that occurred along the race route (I am NOT making this up). To the credit of the marathon organizers, they were able to re-route the half-marathon course on the fly with as little disruption to the runners as possible. Jim said he was very impressed with how it was handled. He also was very impressed with the post-race area and refreshments (especially for spectators).

Some pre-race shots: