Friday, August 27, 2010

The Long Road to Nutrition Self-discovery

I have until next May to come up with an Ironman race nutrition plan that will work for me. I guess it's not the whole Ironman that I have to come up with a plan for. Just the run part. Or maybe just the heat part. Oh heck, I guess I have to rethink the whole race.

In rethinking "the whole race," I have to start by analyzing exactly what went wrong nutritionally during the run at Ironman Lake Placid five weeks ago. All my fueling up UNTIL the run seemed to be working great. Even up until the SECOND HALF of the run. There were no obvious warning signs -- no extreme fatigue, thirst, or lightheadedness -- until it was too late. Even the vomiting I did around mile 15 did not give me the sense there was a larger problem. But in analyzing the data, I've narrowed it down to two causes: hyponatremia and an overly-aggressive run pace. They were probably co-conspirators in my take-down.

I didn't just pull these two things out of thin air. I read. A LOT. I thought about my nutrition issues. A LOT. And I had help. My friend Jo-Lynn is a nurse and an honorary member of the J-Team. She took the scientific approach and explained what was going on with my stomach when it "shut down." I also have a friend who told me where to take a second look -- at my "run splits." After a 100-mile ride in 90-degree temperatures, Julie (J3) is convinced it was "the heat." I took all these things into consideration, looked back at my training and racing nutrition in the recent past and started to draw conclusions.

Starting with when things began to look "not quite right" in Lake Placid -- I guess it was that mile 15 or 16 of the marathon. I think I misdiagnosed my first bout of nausea and vomiting as caused by eating/drinking too much (a.k.a. the dreaded "sloshy stomach"). It was more likely the beginning of my stomach shutting down. Vomiting appeared to solve the problem because I already had enough hydration in me to last several more miles. But everything I drank after that never got into my system. Thus, when I had my seemingly unending "vomit-fest" at mile 20 and when I was diagnosed with "dehydration," the underlying cause was probably hyponatremia. I didn't just need more fluid, I needed more salt to help me absorb the fluid and balance the electrolytes in my system.

I've been aware of this thing called hyponatremia since 2008 when I was training for the Philadelphia Marathon. During that time, I would vomit during most of my runs over 2.5 hours, and I usually vomited at the top of the last hill (after fatiguing my legs the most). I was baffled. I never had this problem when I trained for marathons in the 1990s (in my 30s). I did some reading, learned about the condition, added electrolytes to my training runs and the problem went away. I concluded my body chemistry had changed over time, and I was sweating out more salt now that I was "old."

Of course, the hotter the weather, the more we sweat, the more we need to replace fluids, and therefore the more salt I need. Not everyone will have this problem. Jo-Lynn wrote in her assessment: "All people's body chemistries are different and Ph's slightly different, sweat rate, and sweat composition." It's not my sweat rate I'm worried about, it's the saltiness of my sweat. How do you measure that? You can measure how much fluid you lose in a run by weighing yourself before and after, but how does one determine how much salt is needed? Is it just trial and error? Is there some kind of salt litmus paper?

The kicker came in a half-iron triathlon race I did last weekend. I got off the bike in relatively cool temperatures and then the sun came out and turned the heat index up to about 84 degrees F. I had forgotten my Hammer Endurolytes, so I replaced them with the brand "Salt Stick" which we were told had five times the amount of sodium. I took one near the beginning of the run, but about half way through, I started to feel nauseous again. I slowed my pace, drank only sports drink and took an Endurolyte at an aid station -- that pretty much cleared up the problem.

So, then, why do I also think an overly aggressive run pace added to my problem in Lake Placid? Because in looking at my splits, I was out way faster than I had planned. I was attributing it to the downhills, but near the beginning of the second loop, I did start feeling a little pain in my quads that might suggest I was running too fast. This also messes with your fluid absorption rate -- blood is shunted away from your stomach for use in other muscles. I think it was a contributing factor in the early part of the marathon.

What do I do now? Many have suggested I stick with short races (like I'm going to listen to THAT). Jim still has plans to get me a nutritionist. I started by buying a book. It's called Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes by Monique Ryan. It covers so many different aspects of nutrition that I figure, even if I still need help with the actual race nutrition plan, this book can help me work through other nutrition aspects of my life. Like that supplementation issue that I can't quite figure out and often spend entire days on the computer looking for the perfect dietary supplement to get me through a long day at work and two long training sessions that include speedwork. If you know of that drug, and its legal, please contact me... but don't tell everyone else about it. I need SOME kind of edge. But make sure it also contains salt.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Of Lists and Triathlon Basics: Great Buckeye Challenge Half-Iron Race Report

The black cloud appears to be lifting. I say this not because I just celebrated my second triathlon win this year, but because I won despite everything I did to sabotage my own race. And as the Disaster Magnet, I always pay for my mistakes, no matter how small they are.

The race was the Great Buckeye Challenge Half-Iron in Springfield, Ohio, and I decided to race it just six days ago. And oh, did I make mistakes. I made easy mistakes that other people also made. I made stupid mistakes that were all mine. And I made those "you-should-never-show-your-face-on-the-triathlon-circuit-again" mistakes. But despite all of them, for the first time ever, I led the women's race out of the water to the finish line. The only explanation I have for it is that something must be amiss in the galaxy.

The mistakes began the day before the race with "the list." "The list" is my pre-race equipment checklist. Every race trip begins with printing out "the list." I learned the value of keeping such a checklist when I was a little girl. My father put me in charge of the checklist for our family camping trips, and I would proudly read it off once the car was packed -- checking off the "essentials" (tents, stakes, fishing poles, sleeping bags, flashlights, propane tanks, etc.) and the "non-essentials" (my teddy bear). One year, after I announced "everything is CHECKED!" we drove about a half-mile down the road only to realize we had left my mother in the driveway. The next year, as expected, "mom" was placed on the checklist. We never forgot her again. Because we used the checklist. Properly.

This weekend, I failed to use "the list" properly -- you could say I failed to use "the list" at all. It started when we pulled out of the driveway Saturday afternoon without my bike helmet (I noticed it was not attached to my transition bag). The first thing out of my husband Jim's mouth: "Isn't it on the list??" My reply: "Yes! But.. but.. I assumed we HAD all the bike stuff" (this was me trying unfairly to displace blame). We turned around, not without Jim's eye-roll, and went back to get it.
  • Listmaking for dummies, tip 1: make a list to eliminate "assumptions"
I soon paid the price for trying to blame Jim for the helmet. After arriving at the race site, Buck Creek State Park, checking in and seeing the [sandy] beach, I realized I also forgot my water bin for washing off my feet in transition. Jim: "Isn't it on the list???" Me: "Yes, but I meant to grab it on the way out."
  • Listmaking for dummies, tip 2: check things off the list only AFTER they are accounted for
We would have to find a store and get another water bin. We went to the hotel. After checking in and getting settled, I uncovered my third "list failure." This one was perhaps the most devastating of all. I had packed all my nutrition requirements except one: my electrolyte capsules. I made this mistake after four weeks of analysis concluding that not enough electrolytes was one of the major causes of my dropout at Ironman Lake Placid. Unbelievable.
  • Listmaking for dummies, tip 3: highlight the most important things to make sure you don't forget them (also known as the "common sense corollary")
Forward to race morning. I should have known something was seriously wrong when I got more than five hours of sleep and woke up refreshed. This "something" is what my husband later described as my "lackadaisical attitude" about the race. We drove to the race site, I picked up my timing chip, got body-marked and then set up my transition. Meanwhile, Jim bought two small packs of electrolytes capsules and everything was good to go. One odd thing about this particular race was we had no bibb numbers, and in setting up my equipment, it was weird to not lay out my race belt.

The 1.2-mile swim was a two-loop long rectangle course parallel to the shore in a beautiful man-made reservoir. The weather started overcast and foggy, the air was cool, and athletes were staying in the water to keep warm. According to race officials, the water temperature was "wet-suit legal." During warm-up, I heard another athlete exclaim: "I don't care how warm the water is, at least my legs will be floating." I kept my wetsuit on thinking the temperature "out on the course" would be cooler. It wasn't. It was warmer. And rough. By the time I finished, my biggest surprise wasn't that I was leading the women's race, but that I hadn't vaporized from boiling in my wetsuit.
  • Listmaking Triathlon for dummies, tip 1: if the water is [too] warm, don't wear a wetsuit, even if you do need it to "float" your legs
At over 33 minutes, my swim time was much slower than anticipated. (Many athletes would later commiserate about swim times up to 10 minutes slower than expected.) The swim was followed by a long uphill run from the beach and into the transition zone. After getting my wetsuit off in record time, I made my first stupid mistake at the bike rack. I unracked my bike before putting on my helmet and sunglasses. Note: if you place your helmet and sunglasses on your aerobars and unrack your bike, you will throw your helmet and sunglasses across the transition zone. What was I THINKING? Answer: I WASN'T thinking. I tried to blame it on not having a race belt to grab, but the problem was that I was not focused on what I was doing. I stopped, took the time to curse at myself, give Jim "the look" (something I didn't realize I did until he told me afterward), then picked up my helmet and sunglasses, put them on and made like Usain Bolt for the transition exit.

The 56-mile bike course was two-loops on rolling country roads with traffic. There were two other triathlon distances using parts of the same course. Intersection traffic was controlled by state troopers, but intersections were not always marked or manned, and directions were sometimes on the road and sometimes on A-frame signs. I fell victim to one of those unmanned intersections. Following the 40K instead of the 56-mile bike course I followed the state troopers' directions when they pointed left. I was supposed to go straight. I asked a 40K biker who informed me of the mistake. I lost about two minutes for the blunder. And yes, it was MY mistake. I glanced at but didn't study the course map before the race, and I could have paid closer attention to the arrows on the road. After the race, I was relieved to learn I wasn't the only one who made that error.
  • Triathlon for dummies, tip 2: read and understand the course maps before the race
At the bike turnaround, I was surprised to see I was still leading the women's race, especially since I'm a weak biker who went off course. But the next women were less than a minute behind me. Expecting to be passed in the second loop, I started asking myself the hard questions: Should I hold back and save my legs for the run? Should I try to maintain the lead and hammer?

I held my pace (around 20 mph) and waited. After a turnaround with about 10 miles to go, I saw the gap had shortened and the women were closing in. I made a decision. This might be the only chance I ever get to lead a race from start to finish, and that's what I wanted to do. I hammered the last 10 miles and pulled into the transition zone with my second fastest half-ironman bike time ever and only about five seconds in front of the second woman.

My bike-to-run transition went better than usual, but it still wasn't fast. I gave the second woman the slip when she sat down to put on her running shoes.

My run start was the scene of yet another bizarre blunder. The sun had come out and the temperature was rapidly approaching the 80s. I popped an electrolyte capsule in my mouth assuming there would be a water stop on the way out of transition. I mean, come on, what half-ironman race doesn't provide water on the way out of transition? The answer: this one. Upon the realization, I went to spit out the capsule but it was a nano-second too late. It dissolved and my mouth instantly turned into a salt mine.
  • Triathlon for dummies, tip 3: don't put anything in your mouth that requires water unless you actually have the water-stop in sight
The 13.1-mile run was a two-loop course on a paved multi-purpose path. My run started out a little fast -- I clocked mile 2 at 6:20 but then slowed to a 6:45-7:00 pace. By the second loop, the miles were no longer marked, and I stopped caring about how fast I was running when I saw I had a substantial lead. My run time was about 1:35, my total time around 4:52, and I was seventh overall and first woman.

It was obvious that everyone was struggling with the the heat on the run. There were aid stations with water, Hammer HEED, Hammergel and fruit, but there was a severe lack of man-power. The last aid station before the 3.2-mile turn-around was completely unmanned, and therefore, self-serve. I have never seen anything like it. The supplies were there but had not been unpacked. Cups and ice were still in plastic bags and the water and HEED jugs were not marked. It was a disaster with people desperately searching for what they needed. If you, like me, had planned on running through the water-stops, it all ended there. I just hope they didn't run out of supplies before the last runner went through.

I enjoyed hanging around after the race for a bit and met some of the other athletes. I especially enjoyed talking with two of the top men, Jason from Hudson, OH and Jun from Columbus. Sometimes, being able to celebrate and/or commiserate ends up being the best part of a race. It's when you realize, as athletes, we're all pretty much the same.

The Springfield, OH, Chamber of Commerce made a little video of the race containing interviews with the men's winner and yours truly:

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Disaster Recovery Part 2: Figuring Out the Dehydration

It's been three weeks since I crashed and burned at Ironman Lake Placid. The crash: with six miles to go in the best race of my life, I lost all my cookies (read: fluids) at an aid station, then stumbled one more mile to collapse from severe dehydration at the next aid station. The biggest questions in my mind are still there: Why was there no obvious warning? and why did I seemingly have no chance for recovery?

I've been analyzing what happened over and over in my head since the moment I arrived at the finish line in the ambulance. I asked the medical staff there -- the only answer they gave me for the vomiting and dehydration was that my stomach just "shut down." Why? "It just happens sometimes." Not good enough. I need a reason. This absolutely cannot happen again.

I came up with three causes of stomach shut-down: I ate (or drank) too much, I ate (or drank) too little. I ran too hard. Ok, that's really five causes. And there was a sixth: I didn't get any sleep the night before the race (as I've said many times, no sleep almost always translates to GI issues on race day). Then there were seven: too much water, not enough electrolytes. Eight: not enough water, too much electrolytes. Cause number nine? Anyone?

Basically, there are so many possibilities, it seems impossible to narrow it down. What if it were a combination of things? Now I want to tear my hair out. Am I the only one who has these problems? How could I have trained for it? All my long bike-run sessions went just fine with the nutrition I chose. No vomiting, no dehydration. I even ran a marathon in May to test myself. Will it now be necessary to do a full Ironman in training to test my nutrition and hydration plan?

I guess I have to start somewhere. The search for a nutrition reference has commenced. The first thing I did was Google "stomach shut down ironman" and the first reference that turned up was this: Competitive Ironman Nutrition Planning. There it was, in black and white:
If your stomach “shuts down” during the race you either 1) went out too fast - poor pacing strategy/control, 2) ate too much solid food, 3) did not take in enough water, or 4) are becoming hyponatremic (low blood sodium level).
In all honesty, I don't think I ran too hard. That's the one thing I'm relatively sure of. Well.. maybe 90% sure. So I'm going with it being a nutrition issue. Another reference online suggested, for another athlete's similar situation, that signs point to "dehydration or electrolyte imbalance." I guess I'll start there. In 2008, at age 43, I started experiencing regular vomiting during my long runs while training for the Philadelphia Marathon. I had never had that problem before. Research concluded it was caused by hyponatremia -- increasing my electrolyte intake during long runs took care of the problem. My electrolyte requirements had somehow changed with age, and I could no longer do a 20-miler with only water as I did in my 30s. Perhaps the electrolyte issues continue to increase with age -- I wonder, when I'm 50, will I need to add Marmite to my diet and put soy sauce on everything I eat?

My husband is pushing for me to find a sports nutritionist. I guess that wouldn't hurt either. And maybe I should find a sports psychiatrist while I'm at it.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Victory and Shoe Karma: Sylvania Triathlon Race Report

Two weeks after my epic fail at Ironman Lake Placid, I found myself back in the saddle racing an Olympic distance triathlon in Sylvania, Ohio. This was as much of a surprise to me as anyone. If I must blame it on someone, it was husband Jim's idea. He saw it work in 2008 when, after an embarrassing performance at the Whirlpool Steelhead 70.3, I came back eight days later to take the women's field at the Greater Cleveland Half by running a 1:26 half-marathon leg. It's not something I would advocate -- two half-Ironmans in two weekends -- and I don't know any coaches who would advise an athlete to race two weeks after an Ironman. But I rationalized by noting I didn't actually DO an Ironman. I just "attempted" an Ironman. I'm calling it an I-5 -- an "Ironman minus five miles."

Racing this past weekend also involved a big choice. There were three local options, all with Olympic-distance courses: the Cleveland Triathlon, the Greater Cleveland Triathlon and Sylvania. My choice was Sylvania for several reasons: it got me out of town (Cleveland), I had done it twice (and won it once) before, the bike and run courses are flat, and it's a very well-organized and well-run event. Oh, and the lunch provided after the race was amazing in years past.

Going into the race, my biggest fear was that I would have NO speed. After long-distance training for many months, I had no idea what my legs would be capable of when faced with the "shortness" of a 40K bike ride and a 10K run. The swim was the only thing I wasn't worried about. As a swimmer since age 14, I have a good grip on how to pace myself at most distances (i.e., NOT sprints).

We arrived in Sylvania the day before to see things almost completely set up for the race. These people KNOW what they're doing. Familiarity with the race site gave me a comfort level I've not had in years, but I still had some sleeping issues the night before. I tossed and turned until 1:45 a.m. then managed to get a few hours before the alarm went off at 4. I always say that one cycle of dreaming is all I need to get through a race -- and that's pretty much all I got.

We got to the site at 5:15 for a 7:30 a.m. start. My bike was the third bike racked that morning. We were there SO early that I served as a "guinea pig" for the girls who volunteered to do body marking. My young body-marking apprentice was chastised no fewer than three times while writing the number on my arm. Her "master" finally took the marker and did it himself. Apparently, he was an intolerant body-marking perfectionist. After enduring his wrath, I picked up my timing chip by moonlight and began the long wait for the swim start. My all-women wave would start around 8 a.m. (there was also a sprint race and a duathlon). I guess I could have used that extra half-hour -- or HOUR -- of sleep.

The weather at the start was perfect: sunny and dry. At 84 degrees F, the water was actually warmer than the air and many of us stood in it to keep warm. During this time, one of my female cohorts declared "the wind is kicking up," to which I replied "it doesn't look that bad." I would soon find out that she knew more about the wind in Sylvania than I did.

The swim was a clockwise loop in the calm waters of Olander Lake. The loop pretty much covers the entire lake, causing many triathletes to exclaim things such as: "we have to swim clear over to the other side of the lake?!?" and "it seems REALLY FAR!" Hopefully the swim went by as fast for them as it did for me, my only mishap coming from swimming wide and having my hand hit the bottom several times at the far end of the lake. By the time I reached the shore, I had fallen only about a minute behind the fastest woman. Out of the water, my time was around 21:30.

The swim is followed by a not-so-short run on beach sand then across the road to the transition zone. When I hit transition, I was well over 22 minutes. But my swim-to-bike transition went faster than usual because I actually focused on speed this time, and I was up on my bike just over a minute after crossing the first transition mat.

The bike course was a clockwise loop as flat as you could ever hope for in a race. The first two miles of MY bike course were marked by classic Disaster Magnet behavior: I struggled for more than a few minutes getting my feet into my shoes (clipped onto the bike), I forgot to hit the split on my watch, and I left my bike computer in "sleep" mode. We went out directly into the wind which was now substantial at about 10 mph. My legs felt like cement (Ironman fatigue, perhaps?), and I could barely break 19 mph on the outbound leg. As usual, one woman passed me like I was standing still before the first right turn. It was disheartening, especially because I was trying to "hammer" the bike leg. I didn't actually start to feel good until it was 3/4 over. By that point, I was able to reach speeds of 24-25 mph -- but don't kid yourself, that was WITH the wind. My average speed for the 40K ride was just under 22 mph.

By the time I finished the bike leg, I wasn't sure my legs were up to a 10K. WHAT? Two weeks ago, I ran 21 miles after a 112-mile bike ride after a 2.4-mile swim. It's ONLY 6.2 MILES, for cryin' out loud! I wanted to smack myself for the very thought. Upon dismounting my bike, I managed to knock my shoe off the pedal and had go back to retrieve it. What was this? Some kind of bad SHOE Karma?

And it continued... While racking my bike, Jim gave the news: there were two women about a minute in front of me (only a minute?), and he told me to relax and go out easy. My brain said: "How the heck am I supposed to relax when I can't get my running shoes on?!" I struggled for what seemed like hours with my running shoes despite using Body Glide on them and fixing the laces before the race. Frustrated, I had to settle for the tongue of my right shoe acting like an accordion on top of my foot, and I took off on the run with my hat in hand. (Yet another tip from Jim-the-efficient: "Don't put your hat on IN transition, just grab it and do it on the run!" DUH!) My bike-to-run transition was atypically, and disparagingly, slow.

I started the 10K run in my default Ironman "shuffle" mode. Yes, I KNEW I was doing it. Yes, I am well aware that this is NOT the way to run a 10K. I kept telling myself that my 10K stride would eventually kick in. So shuffle I did, past the first woman (the one who blew by me on the bike), past the second woman (the female leader in the collegiate division, whose wave started eight minutes in front of me), and into the lead before mile 2. I looked but saw no mile markers until mile 3, about the same time my 10K stride DID kick in. My watch said "19:24." I had a 6:30/mile pace with a shuffle? I'll take it. With only three miles to go, I opened up my stride. Mile 4? 6:27. Wha? Hmm.. I picked up the pace. Mile 5? 6:31. Apparently, this was as fast as I could run. Although I can't say I was pushing myself. In fact, I know I was not. Without anyone to chase, I just reeled in the miles and settled for a short sprint to the finish line. My 10K was a dismal 40:38 for a course on which I had once gone 37:42. Was it age? Maybe. Was it time for some speedwork? Probably.

All in all, I was still ecstatic to celebrate an overall victory in any race, especially at my age when it's becoming an ever-rarer occurrence. And I was also very happy to do it in Sylvania where I have great memories of well-fought battles to the finish line in years past. The icing on the cake? They had beer at the finish line.