Thursday, December 29, 2011

It's Not the Shoes, Mars (but Get the Right Ones Anyway)

Does anyone remember that commercial with Spike Lee and Michael Jordan? For those who never saw it, here it is:

I've always loved that commercial. And I don't even wear Nike shoes. And I've also never believed that anything is all about the shoes. I won't buy the latest and greatest even if they ARE good (I'm mostly against fads or the "stuff" - besides, the "stuff" usually comes with a hefty price). I sometimes find myself coveting the cool shoes, clothes, bikes, and other hardware touted at Ironman and race expos, but in the end, my frugality usually wins out - even when I have extra cash to spend (like, for instance, after Christmas).

Thus, with Christmas gift cash in hand, my first order of business before the new year was to find a new favorite running shoe - one I can rely on for at LEAST two years. Note that I am forced to do this once every two years for this reason: my foot is in the 10% of all running feet - a very high arch with an efficient and neutral gait. I've heard it called the "clunk foot" because it's stiff and doesn't absorb shock - it transfers that job to other parts of my body. Thus, I require mostly cushioning in a running shoe. Two down sides of having my feet is (1) that I get injured easily from overtraining (the lack-of-shock-absorbtion thing), and (2) all my favorite running shoes end up on the discontinued rack (I have to stockpile my favorite shoes to last two - duh! - years). The up side is... I don't need a lot of stability and therefore, my shoes tend to be lighter, faster, and cheaper.

Back to the Christmas cash in hand. I made an appointment with shoe guru (shoe-ru?), Jody Herzog at Fleet Feet Sports in Northfield, Ohio (he has two locations, the other in Pepper Pike). To me, stores like Fleet Feet are proof of the value of a local running specialty store. Everyone who walks in the door needing shoes will get individual attention because Jody and his staff specialize (and delight) in finding the perfect fit. They pride themselves on their knowledge and take the time necessary to get it right so their customers are happy and continue running. After five stress fractures, no one knows better than me that the right running shoe is just as important as the right bike fit (something else that should be done by a local specialist and certainly not online or at a big bulk store).

One of my favorite things about Jody is that he is a shoe geek through and through. He goes to shoe conferences (yes, there IS such a thing). He talks to other shoe geeks. He tests ("runs in") many of the shoes he sells. And he draws pictures of shoe cross sections just to show me how they work (I am not making this up). It's his passion. His knowledge of shoes was uncanny - once he knew my foot type, all I had to do was give him the brand and the year, and Jody could name the exact model of shoe I ran in.

I jokingly tried to stump him: "You know, my first pair running shoes was probably made before you were born: the Brooks Silver Streaks."

Jody's answer? "I saw a picture of those once."

As soon as I walked through the door, we were off on the search to find me the definitive running shoe. An introduction to my feet and my gait started with looking at the shoes I currently run in - the first incarnation of the Asics Speedstar (which I had desperately stockpiled away for over two years). I told Jody my other favorite shoe-that-is-no-longer was the Scott Makani II. He asked me what I liked about my shoes. He took measurements. He watched me walk. Then he went in "the back" and came out with this:

These were shoes that met the requirements. Now the job was to find the ONE.

The process immediately began differently than any shoe fitting I had in the past. Jody took a right shoe out of one box and a left shoe out of another. He explained a little about each shoe and I put them both on:

The idea is ingenious: two different shoes give you an instant comparison. I jogged around the store. I've been a runner long enough to know very quickly what I like and don't like about a shoe, and we started narrowing it down - after all, they're all cushioned, lightweight, neutral trainers. There's usually a tiny something I don't like that eliminates a shoe. Jody was more than willing to run in back to grab a different size or a different shoe that he had left behind based on my preferences (to my surprise, the Nike Pegasus ended up on my foot and it wasn't bad). Unsurprisingly, I narrowed it down to the Asics Gel Excel33 (the black ones in the photo above). Asics has almost always had a shoe in their line that feels "right" to me. Call it familiarity.

But then something new happened. Jody had already asked me if I understood the "drop" of a shoe - he explained "drop" refers to the height delta between heel and toe. Classic running shoes have a drop of 10-14 mm. But all the rage in running shoes these days is the "zero drop" or "minimalist" shoe (read more in this article from Running Times) with a drop of 0-4 mm. You may be familiar with the Vibram Five Fingers which popularized "barefoot" running. The new minimalist running shoes from the big brands have a little more in the way of cushioning - which is good because I have no desire to run barefoot. In fact, barefoot running seems like a very bad idea for someone who has "clunk foot" syndrome.

The Brooks Pure Connect
(my husband says they're the most
"girlie colored" shoes I've ever had)
Jody slipped into the mix one of the slightly-more-cushioned zero-drop shoes: the Brooks Pure Connect (yeah, ok, I wish it had a "slicker" name, but it's part of the Brooks Pure Project). As soon as I put it on, it was like that scene in the first Harry Potter movie when Harry's wand "chooses" him (you know, when Harry is surrounded by wind and a halo of light?). I didn't have to take a single step. I knew right away, this WAS the shoe. It has a thing called a "nav band" that immediately cradled the high arch of my foot.

I took a little jog around the store. Yep, this shoe would, indeed, keep me running on my forefoot - the mark of all the shoes I've loved over the years. I love having help from a shoe to keep me honest in my stride and I knew I would not be able to slack off to a heel strike in this one.

And with that... I was done. I had found my new favorite shoe. The only problem was that it wasn't a winter shoe - the upper is pretty much all mesh (it looks like someone went to town with a hole-punch on it). Fortunately Fleet Feet also carries the other shoes in the Pure Project line and I was able to pick up the Brooks Pure Crit - the trail version of the shoe - to get me through the winter. It has better traction and a wider sole but it remains to be seen whether even that can keep ME from falling this winter.

Jody (right) and Ed, one of Fleet Feet's
fit specialists, at the Northfield location.
I left the store very pleased - and couldn't wait to try my shoes in a hard 8-miler on the treadmill that very night. The zero drop will take a little time getting used to because I have to strengthen the muscles that have been given a break all these years from the sofa-like shoes I've been running in. But my first run in them was awesome. Afterwards, I was immediately aware of something I hadn't noticed - the tongue of my new shoes is a non-entity - it's something I've always found uncomfortable in most running shoes.

In the end, I also want to say that there really is nothing like having a local specialist to help with finding the right equipment for your sport. I can't urge my followers enough to support your local specialty stores - these are the people who are passionate about the business and they will rarely let you down. Both Jody at Fleet Feet and Sherman McKee at Bike Authority in Broadview Heights have been instrumental in my success at triathlon over the years and I was their customer long before I became one of their team members.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

In the Wake of Conflicting Reports: Training for the Ironman Run

This is how bad I look like when I'm
feeling GOOD in the Ironman run.
As a self-coached triathlete, I am never more confused and frustrated than when I read two opposing training articles by so-called "experts" both claiming to have the definitive method of accomplishing the same goal.

Case in point: how to run your fastest Ironman marathon. The two articles are the following:
Before I look at these two articles that appear in direct conflict with one another, I will say this: YES, I understand that everyone is different and responds to different types of training, and YES, I understand that Coach Troy's article is mostly tips on what HE did that worked for HIM, as opposed to a blanket statement "this is what you should do" to PR in the marathon. And YES, it is entirely possible that they're both right.

However, when trying to put together a training cycle that would hopefully include an Ironman (and Ironman marathon) PR, these are the types of articles I read and give more weight to, i.e., articles by respected coaches and athletes. And in this particular case, I'm left with more questions than answers and a lot more confusion. Despite having coached myself as a runner and triathlete for 20 years - mostly because of lack of funds to afford a coach and bad experiences with actual paid coaches - I have not uncovered or constructed the perfect training plan to maximize what I believe is my potential (on and off the bike).

I have spent the last two years training mostly by tips from Joe Friel and my own personal experience. The things that seem to work for running off the bike (from these tips and from experience) is to have superior bike fitness and to be conservative on the bike leg. That makes perfect sense, and the problems with the above two articles is not necessarily a disagreement on this tenet of triathlon.

But while Fitzgerald rams home the importance of superior bike fitness:
"Riding too hard can affect subsequent run performance, but fitness trumps pacing. The less fit you are, the less your run will benefit from holding back on the bike. You could go 95, 90 or 85 percent on the bike and be shot for the marathon in any case. And the fitter you are, the less pacing matters. Craig Alexander would not run a 2:35 marathon in Hawaii instead of a 2:45 if he rode the bike leg in 4:55 instead of 4:37."
 Jacobson merely mentions the importance of taking it easy in the bike leg on race day:
"In triathlon, you need to have good riding legs in order to run well. This means committing to building your muscular and aerobic endurance in training with several long rides, as well as your strength and power with interval work. On race day, the bike will either make or break your overall race result. Riding just 2-5% too hard on the bike, a difference of just a few minutes on your bike split can mean the difference between running well in the marathon or walking the last 10K to the finish line."
A little disagreement, but the importance of bike fitness and the bike leg is duly noted.

Now come the big disagreements - in how these two authors suggest we train for and execute the Ironman run. Fitzgerald's recommendations seem to be based on analysis of statistics and coaching experience (I hope), and Coach Troy's appear to be mostly based on his own personal experience and background. For clarity, I've put together a seasonally-colored table of their points of agreement (green) and disagreement (red) - and the gray areas (gray.. duh!).

Perform only three independent runs per week. The most important of these is the weekend long run.Build base with frequency: run often but not necessarily far each workout. Frequency is the key. If you can run 5-6 days per week, do it.
Complete at least four runs of 18 miles or more, and feel free to go as long as 26.2 miles in training to cement a solid reserve of running endurance. Don't run too long - for me, a 2-hour run was my longest on my way to my Ironman marathon PR. I did a couple 1:45-hour runs too, but that was it.
Do frequent transition runs: short runs frequently off the bike in training is more beneficial than doing occasional longer runs off the bike - it’s the transition from cycling to running that you are trying to train.Do bricks (bike-run) 1-2 times a week, if not more (typical: 1.5 hour bike followed by a 30-40 minute run)
Resist the temptation to do any more running during the rest of the week than is required to support your progress in long runs, as it will only increase your risk of injury and burnout and take away from your cycling. During build weeks (5-10 weeks from race day), do one or two double runs each week, make these short 30-40 minute aerobic paced runs with one in the morning and one in the evening. But don't over run: there are points of diminishing returns (especially for masters athletes).
No mention of racing. Race often - there's no better way to build race fitness than to actually race. Race early in the season and then give yourself plenty of time to focus on your Ironman prep.
Don't waste energy on speed work. I am not suggesting that you avoid fast running altogether, but I am suggesting that you strictly limit it. Add some speed, but not too much - enough quality to boost V02max and economy, but not too much to cause down time and injury.
Many Ironman marathons are ruined by nutritional issues, and 9 times out of 10 it's consuming too much rather than too little - the body can absorb a lot more fluid and carbohydrate during cycling than running, so competitors take in as much nutrition as their bodies can handle on the bike, then hop off and start running only to be hit with nausea, bloating and worse. Nutrition comes first: I've had severe cramping problems, so I've corrected those by super dosing with electrolyte supplements. I sat up a ton on the bike in AZ, took my time to eat and drink and was cramp free all day.
The Ironman marathon is run at a relatively low intensity - about 60 percent of VO2max. Pace on the run: I really didn't know what I had in store for me on race day, so I went out on the run conservatively. Once I felt good, I worked to establish a rhythm on the run, focusing on my foot strike cadence and breathing rhythm.
Elite triathletes actually ride the Ironman bike leg at something closer to 98 percent of their maximum capacity (meaning they would ride only five to 10 minutes faster in a pure 112-mile time trial). I rode very conservatively for the first loop with a low heart rate and my cadence in my 'sweet spot' of around 85 rpms.

So, what am I supposed to do now?

I have decided to consult my first, best expert - my rocket-scientist (i.e., aerospace engineer) husband Jim - who has lived through 20 years of marathon, Ironman, and pre-event melt-downs (and successes) and probably has more insight on what works and what doesn't just from listening to me talk, watching me train and race both smart and stupid, and analyzing the results. His goals for me (yes, he does have them in order to maintain sanity in the household) have usually involved keeping me injury-free (after five stress fractures, two bike crashes and numerous other falls and fall-outs) and helping me figure out out what is going on with my nutrition (my Ironman bugaboo).

Here are Jim's recommendations and reasons why I am likely to follow them:
  • "It seems that running more often is what makes you have a better run." This always sounded like a no-brainer until I read the Fitzgerald article. When I backed off on my running frequency (the thing I am arguably best at), I stopped having fast run legs in triathlon. This was especially noticeable in my half-Ironman races where I ran 1:26 in 2008 and have barely broken 1:35 since. It can't possibly only be aging (which was what I had been attributing it to).
  • "If you want to be fast, you should add speedwork." Again, a no-brainer, but this is an additional burden (both mentally and physically) in Ironman training because of the increased speed sessions and hard days on the bike. Getting mentally "up" for hard sessions every day seems like it would lead to burnout, but my plan is to look at possibly doing bike and run hard sessions all in one day. However, both authors above agree that running speed work doesn't have to be nearly as extensive as my marathon training used to be in order to work.
  • "Get massages." This may be the one thing that keeps my quads from losing their spring after all the hard bike miles. I tend to skimp on stuff like this because of cost, but when I get deep-tissue massages more often, I have much better muscle recovery and less physical breakdown and soreness.
Now that I have my running plan, the next assessment will be my approach to solving my nutrition issues in Ironman. But before that, I will be visiting my friend Jody Herzog, the self-proclaimed shoe geek at Fleet Feet Sports, to tackle the following question: "Is the New Balance 890 really going to be my new favorite running shoe? And if not, what will it be?"

Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

It All Starts Here

Scene from "The Goonies"
The title is a quote from one of my favorite scenes in "The Goonies" - it's when the young Sean Astin realizes the only way out for him and his friends is to follow the pirate treasure map. It's not so much a statement of excitement as it is a statement of resignation. Basically, it was the beginning of the adventure and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

Today, I feel the same way about my 2012 season. Once again, I find myself registered for Ironman St. George. I have resigned myself to the training necessary for racing an Ironman the first week of May. I did it (and survived) last year, but I can't say I'm looking forward to an adventure. Instead, I'm looking at a long, dark, and cold winter of power-building and epic-long sessions on the CompuTrainer, long runs in well-below-freezing temperatures, wind from the Alberta clippers, ice and snow, treacherous driving to the pool, and wet hair in the cold after swimming. I'm looking at dry, chapped skin from the cold and the chlorine, numb fingers and toes, constant shivering, even more lines on my face, and heaven-knows-how-many new scars from slipping on ice.

My husband Jim has to live through my constant over-analysis of CompuTrainer stats, complaining that I'm always cold and numb and my skin is always dry, and wondering if the next time he sees me I'll be covered with blood - from slipping on the aforementioned ice.

When I cross that finish line on May 5 in Utah, will I (we) be able to say that it was all worth it? (I mean, that's the big question, isn't it? Knowing the hard work paid off?)

As I get older, I am reminded of a former cycling buddy who, on the worst (cold, rainy) days, would ask: "Jeanne, are we having fun?" If we agreed the answer was "No" (not frequently), we would pack it in and go have a beer (or breakfast). Training has to be more than just the sense of accomplishment, but I do  enjoy that daily "high." I also enjoy the hard training as it gives me internal rewards - feeling stronger or tougher for having done it. Racing has never been a need, but it can be the icing on the cake.

Racing Ironman, however, requires a huge commitment. It doesn't just give me a reason to do what I love. It involves a serious financial commitment - currently over $600/race plus travel expenses - well before the training commences. And I don't think I could do Ironman without goals because I can't say I enjoy the training enough to just do it for fun. So here I am, looking at the beginning of my training cycle for Ironman St. George.

There has to be a starting point, so I chose to start with a comparison. As I'm coming from my "off-season," I decided to do my first long-ish ride on the RacerMate St. George Real Course video and compare it to the first one I did in training for IMSG 2011. This year, I rode for 3 hours and covered 49 miles of the course. Last year, my first course ride was in mid-January - I rode for 3.5 hours and covered 54 miles. Thus begins the CompuTrainer over-analysis:

On the IM St. George course, this plot shows that on Saturday (red line)
I reached the same point (49 mi) faster than my first ride in January
I also plotted my power and heart rate vs. miles on the SG course, just to see how that compared:

Power (watts) vs. miles on IM St. George course.
My power on Saturday (red line) was similar to Jan 15, but in some
places was consistently higher (good, right?).
Heartrate (BPM) vs miles on IM St. George course.
My heart rate on Saturday (red line) was of similar shape but was
consistently higher for most of the ride (not good). I hope that the point where it
looks like I died was when I got off the bike to replenish my water bottles.
I'm not exactly sure that the differences are of any significance - I guess my higher heart rate has me a bit concerned that I'm in worse shape, but I am encouraged that it is earlier in the training cycle, and I rode slightly faster and was able to hold that higher heart rate for so long. (It may also have something to do with the fact that I currently have a raging sinus infection.)

Overall, I feel like I'm in decent shape at the start of my Ironman training, but only time will tell if I can stay healthy and motivated through winter of 2012, and come out fighting in May. I hope it's the beginning of a long and rewarding season - oops, I mean "adventure."

Friday, November 25, 2011

Once a Racer...: 2011 LCCC Turkey Trot Race Report

What cross country REALLY means
Early this week, I made the decision to throw out my pride and run (not race) in a Thanksgiving Day "Turkey Trot." I was planning on doing a workout that morning anyway. Why not do it by running (not racing) with others and supporting the greater Cleveland running community in the process?

Once that decision had been made, my next big decision was: "which race?" There are gobs - no pun intended - of Turkey Trots all over northeast Ohio - in Cleveland, Akron, Warren, Lorain, etc. There were races 15 minutes away or over an hour. Race distances were 5K, 4 miles, 5 miles, 10K - you name it! (ok, so no marathons in there, but you get my point).

The decision wasn't a no-brainer, but it was relatively easy. I knew I did NOT want to run in downtown Cleveland - especially since I would be driving there by myself - I gave my husband Jim the day off from support crew. I would have to find parking. The car would inevitably be far away, and Jim would not be there to hold my stuff while I ran (not raced). And, selfishly, I wanted to avoid discomfort, and the Cleveland Turkey Trot boasts thousands of runners. This meant I would have to wait in long bathroom lines. Instead, I chose the "LCCC Turkey Trot" - a cross-country 10K at Lorain County Community College.

The ease of the decision came in that I had run the LCCC race once before - way back in the 1990s before I knew triathlons existed. I remember it was fun. I remember it was a nice soft-surface course. And I remember it wasn't "huge," but it had good competition and a great reputation among many local elite runners.

Mark liked my Punk Rock Racing threads.
I knew I had "lucked out" with my race choice when I walked into the registration area only to bump into two of my good friends (and runners), Mark Breudigam and Lou Karl (who would be turkey-trotting with his dog). As the crowd of runners increased, more people I knew showed up, including a large contingency from two of the local multisport teams, Spin/Second Sole and Snakebite Racing. I briefly felt guilty for choosing this race knowing one of my sponsors, Fleet Feet, supported the Cleveland Turkey Trot. But then I remembered why I was here - to do a fun run (not a race).

After some quick socializing and before long, runners were on their way to the starting line - which was situated in a field. The last time I ran this race, I was told the course was always muddy with one huge hill (that you run up twice), and at one point, we would have to wade up to our knees through a river. Of course, the year I ran it, the course was mostly dry and the "river" was barely a stream - we just lept over it.

The dogs are out in force at LCCC,
Lou and Molly before the mud. 
But not this year. THIS year, even though the weather was sunny and in the 40s (balmy for Cleveland in late November), the course description came back to haunt me tenfold.

We had to "wade" out to the starting line. I'm not exaggerating. By the time I was standing in that field, my socks and shoes had been completely submerged in water and mud, and I had given up trying to keep them dry. The race director stood in front of us and shouted instructions. He pointed to the sky: "Do you see that big yellow thing? THAT is the SUN! Something we haven't seen at this race in a long time." Next, he explained the rules of cross-country (white poles, red poles, run on grass not the road, etc). Then, he explained some changes on the course, which many were familiar with because it's also the LCCC Men's X-C course. He said (and I quote): "The course is a MESS," and proceeded to explain changes that were made in areas that were deemed impassable. And with that, we were off.

Even with all the warnings, nothing could have prepared me for what was to come. In the first 100 yards, my only thought was how thankful I was for wearing my trail shoes, even though it didn't help much. Before the first mile was over, I was covered with mud from both my kicking it up and the people in front of me kicking it back. After announcing to my friends at the starting line that I "got nuthin'" because I had just started quad-killing bike trainer workouts and I was here only for a workout (and not to race), I started out very easy and IN the pack.

And yet, within the first mile, I found myself passing most of the women (and girls) and people jogging with dogs who went out sprinting. Mile 1 is at the top of the aforementioned hill. Just before it, I passed Lou and Molly (who tried to give me the slip but she was on a leash and had to haul Lou's butt up that hill). On the way up, I stupidly ran on the mud instead of the grass and was passed by almost everyone just behind me. On the steep (and muddy) downhill, my only goal became to not break one of my ankles.

Before Mile 2, I found myself chasing down the "runner in pink" (a.k.a. the women's leader). In doing this, I had to run for almost a half-mile through ankle-deep water on top of thick mud and grass. Every single step felt like I was wearing ankle weights. I decided to hang behind her, but just before Mile 2, she slowed a bit. With a comfortable pace going, I decided to pass her.

I wondered if that was a mistake. By Mile 3, my tired bike-burnt quads started their screaming. And then came my lungs (also screaming). What was I THINKING!! This was supposed to be a fun run. With my friends! With their dogs!

And now that I was leading, the competitive me started a conversation with the me that went there to NOT race. I was hurting, but could I hold on? Did I want to? Would I be embarrassed to lose my lead?

Um.... yep. I would.

A return to analog racing.
I buckled down and decided I would, in fact, RACE those last three-point-two miles. Despite the distress, I chased down everyone I could - only one guy passed me, and it was on that confounded hill! I plowed through the water, the mud, the woodsy terrain, and ran hard to the finish where I was handed my finisher's card. Yes, folks, this is old-style, no number-bib, analog racing at its best. It had the number 22 on it.

Shortly thereafter, the girl in pink finished. We immediately struck up a conversation. Her name was Katie - she's a 29-year-old mom of three whose goal is to break three hours in the marathon. Listening to her attempts, I have no doubt she will do it. What was wonderful about meeting her was that I found myself playing a sort-of mentor role for the first time. We talked marathons - she was even interested in my history. I was beyond honored to hear she "didn't feel so bad being beaten by a former Olympic Trials marathoner." (I did remind her that I am, in fact, 46, but she took it well.)

In all the excitement, I never hit my watch at the finish, so I am relying on the accuracy of the race timer to tell me how fast (or slow) I ran. And I still have not looked for the official results online. Or the results of my post-race interview.

I learned afterwards that I had, indeed, been beaten by my good friend Rich Oldrieve. Now, mind you, I don't have an objection to being beaten by Rich. In his storied past, Rich has run a sub-2:30 marathon - in Boston, of all places. I met him after he turned 40 - when he was not only the fastest local masters runner, but always took home masters money at national- and international-level marathons. In local (longer distance) races, he often won outright. So yeah, Rich can bury me in any race, even now in his mid-50s. What I objected to on Thanksgiving was that Rich Oldrieve not only slaughtered me in the race, but he did it in cotton sweats, tube socks, wearing a fanny pack, and running with his dog! (I'm only slightly exaggerating, but I was happy to hear that "Hamlet" probably beat Rich across the finish line.)

Old friends Randy and Toby
And, all I have say about that is (a common thread in my blogs lately), the more things change, the more they stay the same.

And thank heavens for that! Because the greatest thing about running (not racing) this Thanksgiving was that I reconnected with people I have not seen in many, MANY years. After the race, I met up with some long-lost running and racing companions: Randy Barkacs (a.k.a. the fastest guy never to have run a sub-3-hour marathon, who just turned 60 and doesn't look a day over 40), Dave Wendell (a well-under-3-hour marathoner who I beat Thursday for the first time ever), Rick Ventura (another outstanding masters runner now in his late-50s - one who could sometimes beat Rich Oldrieve), and the almost-always-smiling-but-not-today-until-it-was-over Kevin Krol (one of the first people I ever knew and admired in the multi-sport universe).

I had the opportunity to hang out with my not-long-lost friends: Lou (and mud-covered Molly, my newest Facebook friend), Nancy Desmond (an outstanding local cyclist who ran with her own mud-covered Maddie), and Mark (one of the best friends I ever met through running). They invited me to partake of the communal flask of B&B (way cool), and I was given my own plastic Solo cup of Guinness (which kicks chocolate milk's arse as a recovery drink).

Lou, Molly, B&B, Mike, Nancy, Maddie
I met the incomparable Mike Twigg who had the quote of the day: "The older you get, the better you used to be." I was told this expression was directly intended for "Old Like Lou" Karl who, I think, was a legend before he was even born. And I suspect it's been trademarked, so make sure you give credit if you borrow it.

For my friends out there with the goal of breaking four hours in the marathon, this was a tough group at LCCC on Thanksgiving. Catching up after the race, I told Rich Oldrieve that I ran the New York City Marathon four weeks after Ironman Kona. He asked how I did in NY. I said: "not great" (considering that Rich's standards for me are similar to my own, having trained with me during my sub-2:50 days). He asked my time. My reply: "Three fifteen." Rich's reaction? "Yeah, three fifty? That's not very good." (Note, this was in a totally matter-of-fact manner.) I countered: "No, three FIFTEEN." His tone changed to one slightly less critical: "That's not bad."

Molly has eyes for my first place trophy
[Again, my apologies to all the over-3:50 marathoners out there. The views expressed are not my own. But in his defense, Rich is a very logical and scientific elite runner, and I have him to thank for teaching me how to disassociate my emotions from running. He was one of the biggest influences on my fastest marathon performances.]

The final thing I found out at the LCCC Turkey Trot was that many of the local runners thought I had left town or gotten seriously injured because I dropped out of "running" circulation in 2003 - this was right after I was hit by a car training for triathlon. I had often assumed everyone knew about my accident. I didn't race again until 2008, almost completely missing out on my early masters years. Who knew people were paying attention? Who knew I had fallen into the "whatever-happened-to" file? It was actually a good feeling - I guess you have to be someone in order to be someone that people wonder what happened to.

I waited for the awards to cheer for both my old and new friends. In the meantime, there was a raffle during which they gave away things like plastic containers of sticky buns and issues of Men's Health magazine (yes, I won that) in addition to cool gift certificates. It's fun, but I was told to stick around, to not miss the most hilarious thing. AFTER the awards ceremony, they give away the final raffle prize - a TURKEY.

My question: "What is the winner going to do with a turkey NOW? [as opposed to yesterday]"

Rich Oldrieve's response? "THAT'S why it's so funny!"

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Contemplating the Off-Season

Enjoying the third day of the off-season surfing in Maui
It's been a while since I had a real off-season, but the planets have aligned this year to provide me with a little post-season, holiday, do-nothing block of time. Even though I ran the New York City Marathon two weeks ago, my post season off-time began the day after Ironman Kona. It started with a trip to Maui and ends right about now, in my kitchen, in front of my computer.

Why now, you ask? Because six weeks is enough! I've realized that there is still nothing interesting to watch on TV. I've fallen victim to the Halloween-candy-at-the-office five-pound weight gain (which, at my advanced age's metabolic slowdown, will no doubt take the next six months to eradicate). And I'm ready to stop looking at the past and now look at the future - a.k.a., my 2012 triathlon season.

To go forward, though, I feel the need to contemplate the past so that I can learn from it. The first mistake I ALWAYS make in reviewing the past is the one I'm going to try to avoid this time: remembering only the failures. In looking at years past, I usually only remember the things I want to change, like my poor performances. That's all well and good if I logically analyze what caused the poor performances. But I always forget to review what went right.

Why do we do that? Maybe the question should be: am I the only one who does that? Why does the negative emotional impact of my bad races outweigh the positive impact of my good ones? In other words: why do we dwell?

I don't have the answer to that. (All the psychologists of the world just breathed a collective sigh of relief.)

So, to focus on a positive review of last season, I will not mention the disasters that were two of my biggest races of the year: the USAT National Championship and Ironman Hawaii. Instead, I will review what went right:
  • I won my age group in Ironman St. George by more than an hour, came in tenth overall and fifth amateur. (Who cares if it was with an embarrassingly-slow marathon?)
  • I won my age group and set the age group course record in Ironman Lake Placid.
  • I won my age group in Ironman 70.3 Muncie.
  • I became the 2011 world champ in my age group at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Las Vegas.
  • I ran two marathons - Walt Disney World and New York City - just for fun, both with respectable times (and won my age group at Disney).
Punks, me and Ron in Vegas
Unlike last year, I am able to make that list this year because one of the other great things that happened in 2011 was to develop a great friendship with Ron, aka Punk Rock Tri Guy and @PunkRockRunner, who felt compelled to write me a motivational list before Kona - to remind me of the things I should remember about myself. He has been on a mission to turn my thinking around from dwelling on the disasters. Between Ron and my husband Jim (who has been on that same mission since I began running marathons in 1991), it might finally be setting in.

In addition to athletic endeavors, there were other positives in my life this year. I was able to get out of a dead-end job where I lived daily with fear and stress - and started a new job at a world-class institution, The Cleveland Museum of Art, doing something I love (web application development). It's amazing to me that a simple change has done so much for my attitude. I am now surrounded by positive and hard-working people who understand my training (many of whom have athletic lifestyles - and even run marathons). Several of the technical gurus I work for and with are women that I have developed a deep admiration for. Most importantly, people's eyes no longer glaze over when I go all technical (i.e., "geeky"). My favorite conversation of the last week was with our designers who were trying to create a model of our floor based on the terminology from Star Trek. Yep. Geeks. My people.

Elking around in up-state New York
Working at the museum also re-exposed me to the art world, something I didn't realize I missed until I was back in it. I was even bold enough to enter one of my prints in the staff art show. (This is huge if you know that every time in the past I had "chickened out" at the last minute - even after I had framed my art and had it all ready to go.) It appears I am letting go of some of my insecurities. I hope to be working more on my art in the near future because of the daily inspiration I get at work.

Thus, with a new mental foundation, and some successes in 2011, I am inspired to work hard(er) next year to build on the positive attitude and be able to capitalize in big races. If I'm fortunate enough to get another Kona slot, I will take what I have learned this year and apply it throughout training to eliminate more chances of something going wrong again.

Here are the things I've learned from my 2011 season, in no particular order: 
  • Training with power is what works for my biking (thanks to the CompuTrainer). I don't think I can afford a power meter on the bike, so I will stick with the trainer for power workouts, and work hard during the winter months when I can't ride outside.
  • I still need to figure out what is going on with my nutrition in the heat. Apparently, more sodium isn't enough and maybe it should be "lots more, even more than you think after you've taken more" sodium. I will be consulting a trusted nutritionist. I will also look into having these things (like sweat rate and sweat composition) tested. This is where I think my money will be best spent.
  • My swim training this year reached a sort of plateau, but I'm confident I can get through this one because I managed to do the same time in my three Ironman races this year no matter how hard or how easy I trained for the swim. I broke a rib and lost two weeks leading up to Lake Placid and still did a 1:02. I trained mostly two days a week, sometimes three - so, if I consistently get that third day in, I have high hopes to break that one-hour barrier again. I know I'm capable of going well under it, but so much depends on what happens in the race (i.e., if I get clobbered).
  • If I want to race well in short distances, I should not train for Ironman. ('nuff said.)
  • Sleeping the night before a race fully depends on how confident I am that I can sleep before a race. It has nothing to do with how confident I am in my training. (I am NOT making this up.)
  • More on nutrition: the paleo diet works (and I don't even follow it religiously)
  • Even more on nutrition: despite what the guy from Infinit Nutrition told me in Kona, I do believe that protein is detrimental for me during a race. Once I switched to products without a complete protein (First Endurance E.F.S.), I stopped getting nauseous on the bike. This is subject to change when I work with a nutrition guru.
  • If I train for the distance, racing is 90% mental. Even when I "blew" my race in Vegas by going out too hard on the run, I was able to pull out the win by focusing my mental energy.
Closing the book on 2011, in Kona
I'm sure there are many more lessons I will dig up in the next few months as I review my training from last year to revamp my training for this year. I still have not been able to justify getting a coach because of the expense and also because I feel like I know myself very well and I've been able to coach myself pretty well. I am considering it now because my one issue is knowing when enough is enough and learning to take it easy to let the hard work pay off. I read a great article about self coaching in Lava Magazine recently: The Self Coaching Conundrum featuring recommendations from pro triathletes Amanda Lovato and James Cunnama.

Thus, there is a lot to consider. But first things first. Get back into training. Build that base. Avoid the pitfalls of eating too much at Thanksgiving. Yikes, that's THIS WEEK! Y'all have a great one!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Disaster Déjà Vu: 2011 NYC Marathon Race Report

Sunrise on Staten Island, Nov 6, 2011
It's been 14 years since I ran my first New York City Marathon. The title sponsor has changed. The location of the expo has changed. The size of the race has changed (drastically). And sadly, the skyline of my beloved New York City has changed. But, as they say (and to quote a tired cliché): "the more things change... the more they stay the same."

First, a run-down of time spent in New York.

After a 6.5-hour drive from Cleveland, we arrived at our hotel in the wee hours of Saturday, November 5. Our hotel was in Secaucus, New Jersey - better (or more widely) known as the place you stay when going to the Meadowlands Sports Complex - which is not better (and less widely) known as the Izod Center. Upon arrival, we were greeted by a marathon runner who was apparently looking for someone not only to tell his life story to (which included being a 2:30-something marathoner to getting leukemia to separating his achilles tendon which would probably cost him a finish on Sunday - it was actually quite poignant but it was 1:00 am for crying out loud and some of us cared about getting sleep before the marathon), but to also complain that he had no idea how he was going to get to the starting line because he missed the online Meadowlands bus sign-up. Thank heavens we could assuage his fears about the latter. In the gobs of pre-race information, it was mentioned that bus signups could be taken care of at the expo Saturday.

Thus, it was 2:30 am before I was in bed and asleep on Saturday morning.

The alarm clock went off at 9 am. Why so early you ask? Because there was NO WAY I would miss spending time in New York City by convincing myself extra sleep would help me run faster in a marathon that I was wholly untrained for. When one day in New York City awaited, 6.5 hours was all I was willing to spare.

First up - breakfast. Then a quick jog to shake off the day-before's drive. Jim was skeptical that I would find a place to run from our hotel along the New Jersey Turnpike, but he severely under-estimated the area. This was, after all, "the Meadowlands,"and as luck would have it, about a half-mile from our hotel, there was an awesome trail through the restored wetlands of Mill Creek Marsh.

NYC Skyline from the bus showing both the
Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building
With my run out of the way, we set our sites on the quickest way to Manhattan - which happened to be the New Jersey Transit bus. Parking in NY would be one less thing to worry about. The bus took us directly to the Port Authority terminal - within walking distance of the marathon check-in and expo at the Jacob Javits Convention Center on 11th and 35th. The expo and packet pick-up ran like clockwork as long as you did the prep work (i.e., printed out your marathon entry card and pulled out your id). In a matter of minutes, I was checked-in and had my t-shirt and goodie bag. We only had to stop and ask questions about transport to the start - I had originally chosen the Staten Island ferry because we were expecting to stay in Manhattan, not New Jersey. The line for bus sign-up was akin to something you'd wait in to get on a ride at Disney World. Luckily there was a volunteer with answers: the line was for tour groups only. I asked her how to change buses and she just took my number and gave me a new bus sticker. Wait, what? Really? It was painless.

The last thing I had to do (to Jim's dismay) was browse the expo. Fortunately, there were no great deals, and the only thing I stopped for was to try on a new pair of running shoes at the New Balance booth. The NB 890s turned out to be a must-have, but the deal-breaker was that they only brought them in light purple. Really? Despite having worn some of the ugliest running shoes ever made (cases in point: original quilted Adidas Ozweegos, Saucony Azuras), apparently even I have standards, and there was NO WAY I was running in (light) purple shoes unless they were the last pair of 890s on Earth. (Note: the only purple shoes I will wear are my purple Doc Martens boots.) Sorry New Balance. I postponed the purchase because they also come in black and blue.

Early Sunday Morning, Edward Hopper
- arguably one of the Whitney's most
iconic pieces.
We high-tailed it out of there to do what you are supposed to do in NYC - get some culture! First stop: the Whitney Museum of American Art. We made one race-related stop on the way to the Whitney - we explored the post-marathon bag pickup area to choose a location to meet after the race - on 78th Street. THEN we headed to the Whitney. There were two exhibits that I wanted to see: Real/Surreal and David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy. Neither were a disappointment, although Jim would disagree - his exact words in the David Smith exhibit were: "I'm just not feeling it." At least he liked seeing the Hoppers. Besides, my new job at The Cleveland Museum of Art was good for a complimentary entry.

Rudy's Music (a.k.a. window
shopping for Jim)
We didn't spend a huge amount of time looking at art because we wanted to make a quick trip to Times Square then get down to Greenwich Village for dinner. While we were passing through Times Square, Jim was able to check out guitar shops in the famous 48th street "Music Row"- specifically Rudy's Music. I like it when Jim has a hidden agenda - i.e., we always just "wander across" these music shops.

Murray's Cheese Shop
Then we took the subway down to the Village to browse shops (specifically Murray's Cheese) and have pizza. Instead of our normal slice at Joe's on Carmine Street, we went for an excellent sit-down at John's of Bleecker Street. It was a great way to end a whirlwind day in NYC and get my carbs for the marathon. On the way back we stopped at other favorites Bleecker Street Records and Rocco's Pastry Shop for dessert.

Can you tell how much
Jim likes the subway?
We caught the subway and then the bus back to the hotel, and I packed up my stuff for marathon morning. I was exhausted from being on my feet all day but was very happy to remember the clocks went back that night and we would get an extra hour of sleep. I still had to be up at 4 am to catch the bus at 5 to Staten Island for the marathon start.

I slept like a log and in a few hours, it was Marathon Morning.

The NYC Marathon has a late start - the first wave was scheduled to go at 9:40 am. What this really means: you must rethink your race-at-7-am morning rituals. For me, this meant all I had to do was take a shower and grab my breakfast for the road. I knew the following facts (important when amidst 50,000 runners):
  • I was wearing an orange number (there were three colors: orange, blue, green).
  • I was in Wave 1.
  • My bus left between 5 and 6 am at the Meadowlands Sports Complex... ahem, I mean, the Izod Center.
  • It was cold (about 37 degrees F).
  • Breakfast, water, Gatorade and Dunkin' Donuts coffee would be available at the start.
Early Sunday (Marathon) Morning. By Yours Truly
- arguably one NYC's most iconic views.
I mostly kept to myself from the moment Jim dropped me off at the bus. However, it was weirdly coincidental that I sat next to a guy from Columbus, Ohio, on the bus. He would be doing his first Ironman triathlon in 2012. We swapped a few war stories and I learned he was a Canadian national team swimmer. I have to say that I struggled with my reaction when he went off on how amazing and wonderful Chris McCormack is.... um.... no comment... I considered telling him how I felt about Craig Alexander but kept it to myself. As much as I like these happy coincidences that spark conversation, I really wanted to get off the bus and go back into my shell and contemplate being alone amidst 50,000 people. It was just one of those days. 

The orange area was called Grete Waitz
village - in memory of the woman who
inspired most my generation's women to run
Once off the bus, we made our way to the start areas which were grouped by color. The directional signage was wrong and many people ended up in the wrong areas - not a good way to start off the morning. It's a good thing we had more than three hours to figure it out. The volunteers straightened things out and directed people to the correct areas. When I got to the orange staging area, the first thing I saw was the Verazzano Narrows bridge rising majestically above us. In the early morning light, it was one of the most spectacular views I've ever experienced before a marathon - or anytime for that matter. I was thankful I brought my old iPhone (re-purposed as an iPod Touch) so I could take photos before the start (and listen to music).

I wandered around, listened to music, sat down, drank some awesome coffee and ate my breakfast. Being the pre-race minimalist, I was blown away by the amount of stuff people brought with them: blankets, sleeping bags, wardrobe changes, TENTS! And to think I was so easily satisfied to receive a free Dunkin' Donuts fleece beanie to keep me warm. Who knew we could bring a personal shelter to the start? I actually found myself spending more time than necessary warming up inside the portajohns (hey, you do what you can in these times of need - especially when you forgot your tent).

Dunkin' Donuts starting line freebie
The "way" to the start was less confusing than the first time I ran the race. Despite this, I almost missed the start just like I did 14 years ago. That year, I was late to the start because of the massive jam of people all trying to get to get to the bag drop through a tiny opening in a fence. This year, there was no mass pileup and no fence - we were directed to drop our bags at the UPS trucks (for finish line delivery) not less than 45 minutes before our start wave. I was 10 minutes early, and yet, as I was making my way to the start (via one last bathroom break), I heard something terrifying come over the PA: "Wave 1 start corrals are NOW CLOSED!"


I panicked. I was IN Wave 1. Every ounce of my mental organization evaporated in that instant as I made a mad dash for who-knows-where-but-where-ever-the-other-mad-dashing-people-were-going. I asked anyone who looked like they had a clue: "which way to the start corrals??" only to be met with "you've got an orange bib, you're not in Wave 1" - WAIT! WHAT? I could have sworn I was in Wave 1! Um... quick! check my bib! yep, it said "Wave 1." I kept running towards that distant who-knows-where following orange arrows and hoping they were pointing the way.

When I arrived at the start corrals, slackers like me were being hurriedly herded in so the gates could be closed. My corral (numbers in the 5000s) was the furthest away so I was directed to jump in with the 13,000s because there was "no way I would make it in time" to the 5000s before they closed. It was almost identical situation as in 1997 when I had to crawl my way up the bridge to my start corral and rely on the generosity of people in the crowd to let me through because I was wearing a seeded number. On Sunday I remembered this and made my way through the crowd, touting my number as the reason I could move up. No one complained. I finally saw bib numbers in the 5000s and I rejoiced because I had finally made it to "my people." Almost immediately, we were herded to the starting line on the bridge to await the start. It was just after 9 am.

Unlike the last two times I ran NYC, this year, the start was at the bottom instead of partly up the incline of the bridge. Right after the elite women's race started, we all moved up and I was surprised to actually see the "Start" sign only about 20 feet in front of me. There was a speech from Mayor Bloomberg and the playing of the National Anthem. In the final ten minutes, another coincidence happened in finding out the runner next to me was from Toledo, Ohio. Then the horn went off and we were on our way.

Running over a suspension bridge is one of the great pleasures I've experienced as a runner. Running over the Verazzano-Narrows bridge - the seventh-longest suspension bridge in the world - is a revelation. Mile 1 occurs very close to the apex of the bridge and makes you realize exactly how much road is suspended across the water by cables hanging between the pylons (almost a mile). The Verazzano-Narrows bridge is an incredible feat of engineering and held the record for longest suspension bridge in the world for 33 years (the previous record was held by the Golden Gate Bridge - another bridge I hope to someday run across).

Moving from bridge history back to the NYC Marathon...

After the bridge, the next twelve miles of the NYC Marathon runs through huge crowds in the diverse neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens. There was music everywhere, mostly in the form of bands playing right on the sidewalks. At one point, I found myself cringing from a really discordant note that one of the bands hit at the end of their song. I laughed and turned to the runner next to me and said: "I think they need more practice." His response was totally unexpected: "give me a break, it's only my THIRD marathon!"

Wait, what? Did he think I said "YOU need more practice"? Yikes - I cleared up the misunderstanding. But after that, all I could think of was: does this guy actually think I just run along and insult other people? How completely bizarre. I didn't talk to anyone else on the course after that.

During the first half, the great spectator support made it all too easy for me to be lulled into a false sense of speed and stop focusing on my race (I use the term "race" loosely). I kept an eye on my Timex GPS (first time I've worn it in a race) but I was paying more attention to the mile clocks (and the fact that there was a clock at EVERY mile, every 5K AND the half). Even though I tried to keep a lid on it, I was shocked to find my mile pace near seven minutes at the half. Yes, this was a mistake. And I made the mistake by going to "what if" land. What if I can hold this pace? What if I don't really need to train to run fast? What if my post-Ironman fitness can carry me through this?

What if I am a complete idiot?

The truth of the matter is that the NYC Marathon is an extremely deceptive course. Long gradual inclines masquerade as flatness. The damage was done by mile 15 when I was climbing the "hill" of the 59th Street/Queensboro bridge. I knew Manhattan (and Jim) would be waiting for me on the other side of the bridge. In face, I always tell NYC Marathon virgins that coming off the bridge is the most exciting moment of the entire race. On Sunday, I would need all the support I could get by then - because on that uphill, my left hip finally had enough and began screaming in agony.

Entry into Manhattan via 59th Street
When I came off the bridge, I heard Jim yell my name and I was so happy to see him - I wanted to stop and hug him and yell about the pain. But I didn't want him to worry, so I just smiled and waved. I really wanted to finish and enjoy this marathon, but the next ten miles would be an exercise in survival and avoiding injury. I eased back on my pace to reduce the pain and avoid major damage to my hip (remembering I had promised Jim I would not do anything stupid). My goal became "to not walk unless I was limping" (the red flag of impending injury). I had the same problem in the 2008 Philadelphia Marathon and managed to get through it without further decay, so I knew it was possible.

Almost finished
Despite the pain and my major slow down, the miles ticked away in Manhattan's Upper East Side with crowd support even more dense than Brooklyn. And the usual dead zone - the short jaunt into the Bronx - was hopping this year with music and big crowd. From there, we ran back into Manhattan through Harlem, then along the east edge and into Central Park near mile 24 - this where the race gets really hard with rolling hills and turns. Those last three miles are when the crowd is at its very best, and although I was struggling with my hip and starting to feel some nausea, I was carried along almost in a trance from the screaming spectators. The hardest thing was having to ease back in the last half-mile because of stomach issues - but I still managed to get across the finish line (barely) under 3:15 with a smile. The weather had been dry and sunny and damn near perfect in the mid-50s.

Crossing the finish line was the beginning of a death march because of my hip pain. My walking stride became a slow painful dragging of my left leg and my body was cooling off in a hurry. Volunteers wrapped us in mylar blankets and gave us food, but all I really wanted was to get into my warm clothes and find Jim. I should have expected some kind of disaster any minute.

I slowly inched along through the park and continued on the long block of W 77th Street from 8th to Columbus Ave, past the UPS trucks with our bags. As I imagined getting my bag and getting warm, I started having flashbacks of the finish line in 1997 when my dry clothes bag was "lost." That year, it was 45 degrees and raining and I stood around shivering for over an hour, finally breaking down in tears because I was so cold and no one would help me (they just gave up looking). One of the UPS guys took pity on me and gave me his jacket, helped me calm down and somehow found my bag after about a 30 minute search.

This year... I was sure that couldn't possibly happen again. Right? Walking by the trucks, I saw runners' bags laid out on the road in organized, numbered rows. The truck with my bag (numbers in the 5000s) was at the very end of the block. As I approached it, I noticed a huge crowd surrounding it (the only truck like this). Runners were standing around frustrated because of total disorganization. In the chaos, several runners just gave up and walked away, while others begged to help. After close to an hour of standing and getting crushed by the angry mass, shivering, and finally losing the feeling in my fingers and toes, my bag was finally in my hands. But my fingers were so numb I couldn't even open it. I could barely move my left leg, I was going hypothermic, and I desperately wanted to get into the sun and find Jim. With the crowd and the cold and the pain, moving one short block from that truck to Jim was a bigger ordeal than the marathon I had just run. Crossing the street, I was almost run over by one of those bicycle-rickshaw things trying to get to him. Jim was able to get my bag open and help me get my sweats on before we started the long walk to the car - parked on 49th street.

I didn't mind the final walk because it was in the sun and the feeling in my fingers came back. I was als able to get some nourishment in the form of hot chocolate, water, and a Powerbar. We also grabbed a final slice of pizza. I don't even remember the name of the place. (Can you get a bad slice in NYC?) It was a great way to head out of the City for the long drive home to Cleveland.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Back to the Egg

1997 NYC Marathon:
yep, that IS a cast on my leg
The Marathon. The first race distance I ever truly learned. The first race distance I ever truly respected. And the first race distance I ever truly loved. From 1991 to 2001, I was a student of the marathon. It taught me more about myself than anyone or anything ever had. It chewed me up and spit me out. And it made me stronger - both physically AND mentally. So when I get overwhelmed and stressed out and want to return to my comfort zone, I go back to marathoning. It's what I know best. And it feels like home.

And no other race feels more like home to me than the New York City Marathon - for two reasons: it's "my" distance; and it's "my" city.

During my formative years, there were two major cities that a Connecticut native could identify with: Boston and New York. My brother's passion was north - in Boston. Mine was south - in New York. I don't know why. It could have been the high school field trips there. It could have been the two college boyfriends from there. It could have been something else entirely. All I know is that somewhere after the age of 16, I began referring to New York as "THE City" (as in "let's go to the City"). It didn't matter where I was in the world - "the City" meant New York. And the City has never disappointed me. It is the place where dreams came true and some of my greatest memories were made (although Disney World has also been known to possess this power).

Disaster Magnet with Olly and Gale of Turin Brakes
(this photo doesn't really indicate how much pain
I was in from my bike accident )
My favorite moment in the City happened in June 2003 - about a month after my horrific bike accident. And it was just what I needed to lift my spirits. My husband Jim and I traveled from Cleveland to New York to see the English acoustic duo Turin Brakes at the Bowery Ballroom on their first U.S. tour. I had never met them but we were acquainted because I had painted portraits of them. The long-story-short version of this story is that it all ended in one of those once-in-a-lifetime fan experiences - not only did I have the opportunity to meet them in person, but they actually played my favorite song and dedicated it to me after telling the audience about the portraits. I still tell the story in awe that it ever even happened - and yep, it proved to me for the nth time that New York was a very special place indeed.

The New York City Marathon has also played a role in memory-making - not once, but twice. My first experience running the New York City Marathon almost didn't happen. It was 1997 and five weeks before the race, I was diagnosed with a stress fracture in my tibia. My orthopod, Dr. Sam Patterson, did something extraordinary that year to get me to the starting line (although he would probably claim it was the only thing he could do to avoid having me commit suicide right there in his office upon diagnosis). He let me train every other day on land with an air-cast. On the other days, I trained by running in the water. By race day, I had the choice of running with or without the cast - I chose the cast. Even though race day was cold and wet and miserable, I had so much fun with crowd interaction (mostly because I was running with a cast and wearing my Cleveland Indians hat right after the Indians knocked the Yankees out of the playoffs) that it remains - to this day - the only marathon for which I purchased the finish line photo. My air-cast stunt also resulted in an invitation to run with the Wackos - a legendary Northeast Ohio running group.

The second, and last, time I ran the New York City Marathon was a very somber event. It was in November 2001 - less than two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. There was some fear that the run over the Verazzano Narrows Bridge - from Staten Island to Brooklyn - would be in danger. Rudy Giuliani made a moving speech before the start, and I got the feeling every American who ran across the bridge that day felt it was a collective act of defiance. I still have the singlet I ran in that day - it has the Team Wacko logo on the front and an American flag hand-sewn (by me) on the back. And the show went on.

So, yes, New York has been the place of special moments - in life and in running. And I will return there in two weeks to end my racing season, hopefully on a better note than the one I tried to end it on on October 8. It doesn't matter to me that I'm not really in shape to run a marathon. Because the New York City Marathon is more than just a race to me. It's a return to my comfort zone. To my roots. To my home. And no matter what the outcome, I know I will always be welcome back.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Aftermath, Fallout, PTSD, Whatever You Call It

Punishing myself by standing
in a Kilauea steam vent after
Ironman Kona
I'm in a sort of limbo now, having returned from Hawaii and stuck in the insomniac zone from jet lag. It's 12:30 a.m. and all I have is my thoughts to keep me company - or, as the case may be, to drive me insane.

I'd be lying if I said I'm not having trouble dealing mentally with what happened in Ironman Kona last week. People seem to think I need some perspective - that telling me this is going to make it all better. They give me pearls of wisdom: I "should be more grateful that I was able to finish" and "it's not about the finish time, it's about the journey," and they are "proud of me for gutting it out," and that life is about "more than just Ironman." I KNOW all these things. But it doesn't ease the pain. It doesn't make the questions go away. It doesn't make me stop asking myself why I failed in the most important race of my season. And I'm still not sure what exactly went wrong with my nutrition, but I do know that I made mistakes. Call it lack of experience, lack of training, or lack of intelligence. The mistakes WERE made, and I have to figure out what they were and how to avoid making them again. This is what keeps me going until the next race.

You learn lessons, you apply the learning, you see the result. I always said if I stop learning, I'll stop racing.

Ironman Kona will weigh heavy on me for a while. And although I will try to not let it "define me," when it comes right down to it, I have a hard time defining myself. I'm not one of those people who looks at everything and says "life is wonderful." I spend a lot of time crying over things (it could be anything from world news to bad things that happen to friends and family to being yelled at by superiors). I'm not happy with my place in the world. In fact, I want to make a difference in the world, and I worry that I never will. After several career changes, I often wonder if the work I have done or do is of any importance at all - if it has made an impact. I worry it hasn't. I worry that my life has been just a big waste of time and energy and resources. This is who I am.

And so, when I set racing goals, it's because it's the one aspect of my life over which I seem to have complete control. It's the thing that gives me faith that "hard work pays off." When I don't meet my goals or expectations, I feel I have failed and I have no one to blame but myself. And yes, I know I'm my worst critic (aren't we all?) - but without natural talent or genetics, hard work is the only thing I have. Thus, when hard work doesn't pay off, I'm stuck with confusion, self-doubt and lack of self-worth.

I feel like I'm looking at a long road to redemption.

But, contrary to popular belief, I CAN put things in perspective. I know I had a golden triathlon season in 2011. I set age group course records in two Ironman races: St. George and Lake Placid, and I'm the Ironman 70.3 world champion for the women's 45-49 age group. I also have a great new job with awesome co-workers at an institution that I believe in, The Cleveland Museum of Art. I'm lucky to have great sponsors (who I worry I let down), great friends (who I worry I let down), a very loving (and understanding, some say "saintly") husband, and a roof over my head (although Cleveland was never my first choice). So yes, life could be (a lot) worse.

After seeing how driven I am in racing, a friend once asked me "where does it end, Jeanne?"

I'll let you know when I get there.

Until then, for everyone who has experienced a bad race, I found some solace in these great words from IM World Champ Chrissie Wellington:

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Just when I thought it was safe to go back to Kona: Ironman World Championship Race Report

It's been a while since I had a "real" disaster to report on, so I guess this is highly overdue. On Saturday, October 8, I went back to Kailua-Kona for the first time since 2002 to restake my claim on the Ironman World Championship. I had three goals:
  • To do my fastest Ironman ever.
  • To finish before the sun went down.
  • To smile at and remember the finish line.
I cannot say that I accomplished all three goals. I CAN say that in order to accomplish just one of them, I had to once again beat my demons into submission along with some very real and convincing arguments made by some very real and convincing people.

The hardest thing for me to write about, though, may very well be the great race I had going until the demons reared their heads. They were the very same demons that sat on my shoulders for most of my first attempt at Ironman Hawaii.

My husband the rocket scientist talks wind tunnels

with Cervelo co-founder
My journey to the Ironman finish line started out in rare form. The J-Team - my husband Jim, my great friend Julie, and I - had three days of relaxation in Kona. We ate like kings, devouring fresh pineapple, mango, and macadamia nuts. We journeyed to the other side of the island. We met some generous folks at the Ironman Expo and beyond - of note, Cervelo reps including co-founder Phil White, the Muscle Milk reps, and the Profile Design reps. We never asked for anything and yet they heaped on us all sorts of goodies: water bottles, t-shirts, socks, etc.

But the biggest surprise of all was that I manages to relax enough to get more than four hours of sleep the night before the race. I can only attribute this to a bizarrely unfamiliar level of confidence gained from a season of smart racing. Or maybe it was just mental oblivion to what would happen the next day.

Race morning started at 3:30 a.m. with my usual breakfast of coffee, orange juice, soy protein, HammerGel and a banana. Jim dropped Julie and me off at the start where I got body marked, prepped my bike and bags with nutrition and then sat around to wait. I had a few moments of panic about the race and the swim start but I managed to calm down by listening to my favorite nerve-calming music - Turin Brakes' Ether Song.

Saying goodbye to Julie for now
The pro race cannon went off at 6:30 and it was finally time to head to the start. I said my tearful goodbyes to Jim and Julie and made my way to the water.

Unlike the last time we were here (in 2002), there is now a floating Ford truck on the starting line, and swimmers line up on one side or the other. From lessons learned in several other races, I line up way off to the left for the counter-clockwise long-rectangle 2.4 mile swim. The extra distance was a small sacrifice to make to avoid the clobbering pack I remember from 2002. Listening to other athletes endorse the region, I knew I made the right choice. I was a little taken aback when one male athlete spoke to me with a very condescending tone: "young lady, what time are you expecting to swim today?" to which I replied "about an hour." Thus he replied "I'm swimming 56 minutes" and positioned himself in front of me. The generous space in our way-left area didn't warrant that behavior, so I just swam to a position further left of him. I didn't realize "one hour" was a second-tier start.

We treaded water for what seemed like hours and then it was announced that we had five minutes to the cannon. There was no countdown - the cannon exploded and we were off.

Let me first say that my 2011 Kona start did not, in any way, shape, or form, resemble the one from 2002. In what seemed like only a few minutes, I was alone and free of usual melee of ironman swims. I think I wound up in the space in front of the floating truck - so swam smooth but fast and braces for the eventual convergence of the two separate packs of swimmers at the turn. The turn buoy in Kona is actually a large sailboat so it is easy to spot. I made a point to look at it this time - even to check out the people hanging out on it, which looked like fun. I never needed the big orange buoys, and the water was weirdly calm on the way out. All week the surf had been rough and athletes were acting very uneasy during swim practices. On the return, the surf did get rough and I ended up in a pack on the inside. I didn't have too much trouble until we were barely within earshot of the finish, and then all hell broke loose. People started grabbing my feet and swimming right on top of me. What had been an awesome swim began to come undone and I stopped several times to let more aggressive swimmers plow right over me. I was never so happy to get out of the water! I looked at my watch to see 1:02 and in light of the last 15 minutes, I was thankful it wasn't much worse.

Starting the bike, still having fun
I ran through the showers, was handed my bag, and prepped for the bike. The transition included a very LONG run around the outside of the pier. I accidentally overshot my bike, but recovered quickly, donned my helmet and was on my way. And I was feeling petty darn relaxed and excited at the bike start. And all was good.

The first two hours of my Kona 112-mile bike leg was fast and relaxed. I fueled exactly as planned, 24 oz of fluids per hour with First Endurance EFS drink and liquid shot (+water). I had no stomach discomfort and kept my heart rate in (what felt exactly like) Zone 2. I had no desire to chase women who passed me and I thought I had a great pace at well over 21 mph average. The only unnerving thing happened around the two-hour mark when I got out of the saddle for a moment and felt a twinge of severe fatigue in my legs. All I could think was that I MUST have imagined it hurt more than it actually did. There was NO way my legs were in that state this early and with so little exertion.

During the ascent to the turnaround at Hawi, the wind kicked up and there were a few moments when I thought I might lose control of the bike. The gusts on the downhill were even more frightening, but I hung onto the handlebars and persevered. The heat didn't feel oppressive, but it was extremely hot (we were told temps reached 135 degrees F on the Queen K that day) and everyone knows there is no shade on the black lava fields.

I doused myself regularly with cold water and continued to drink, but by the four hour mark, I was starting to feel very thirsty and increased my water consumption (and started adding additional electrolytes in the form of Thermolytes at about 4 per hour.) Despite this, at 90 miles, mild nausea hit and I grabbed coke at the next aid station to hopefully settle my stomach.

I started to remember why this bike course was so hard - the rolling hills are not noticeable until it's too late and the damage is done. Catching more wind on the return to Kona, my average pace slowed to under 20 mph, and I started to get discouraged.  I was also feeling tired (sort of like sleepy). And it was NOT a good sign that my increasing leg fatigue made me start to worry about the run - something I had not done in a long time (WORRY about the run, that is).

When I pulled into transition, my time was 5:39 - much slower than I had anticipated or hoped. Although my legs were fatigued, the long run through transition stretched everything out and I was feeling much better by the time I had my running shoes on. In 2002, this transition was accompanied by confusion and a foggy brain from dehydration. This year, I went through the normal motions of getting my gear on and pocketing gel and Thermolytes and I was up and in my way.

My legs felt more fatigued than in other Ironman races, and I had already begun to dismiss a fast marathon time. But I always give myself 20 minutes on the run before making final judgments. And sure enough, trudging through 20 minutes was what it took to begin to feel like a runner. My fueling was Gu Roctane every 30 minutes, water and Perform every aid station and four Thermolytes per hour. I was walking the water stops  in order to dump water on myself and try to settle my stomach, which was already starting to feel bloated and uncomfortable.

Seriously struggling at mile 9
The 26.2 mile run begins as a nine-mile out-and-back on Alii Drive in Kona and then runs up Palani Drive to the Queen K, where it continues to the famed Energy Lab turnaround at about mile 17, and then back to Kona. In 2002, I was unable to hold down food or water on the run course and I pretty much just walked and jogged between vomiting episodes.

This time, however, vomiting wasn't the first problem I literally "ran" into. It was vomiting's evil twin, diarrhea. I saw Jim at the bottom of Palani Road and told him I might have to walk the hill unless I could find a portajohn. He pointed out the aid station halfway up the hill. I became religious: "Please, God, let there be a toilet. And please let it be empty." Both my prayers were answered. And I exited the plastic paradise with only slightly renewed hope.

The next few miles would see the end of my dream of a good race in Kona. I stopped taking splits sometime around Palani Road - anyone who knows me knows that this is the sign - that I was throwing in the towel - surviving to the finish line became my main goal. I'm still not sure exactly what was wrong but I had no desire to eat or drink and every time I tried to consume anything, my gag reflex kicked in. Despite this, I drank water and coke, took Thermolytes, and kept moving - mostly running past people then walking and watching them pass me.

I took another bathroom break and then around mile 15, severe nausea hit me. I stopped at an aid station and a concerned volunteer asked me what I needed. I was feeling like I had reached the end of my rope. I asked for a medical consult.

A few minutes later, I was having my blood pressure taken and then vomiting - although very little actually came up. My blood pressure was deemed "OK" - but my body had started shaking violently and I felt like I was freezing. For crying out loud, it must have been close to 90 degrees out and I was SHIVERING so bad I couldn't hold a cup of water in my hand. The paramedic started talking: "You might have hyponatremia.. You need to seriously think about ending your race."

NO! This can NOT be happening! Not AGAIN!

I asked them if I could call my husband - the woman who had taken my blood pressure dialed the number and walked away to have a conversation with Jim. What I didn't know was that she was telling him to encourage me to pull the plug on my race. She handed me the phone. I was scared. I didn't know what to do but believe me when I say I DESPERATELY wanted to finish. I think I told Jim that. He stood by me and said it was my decision.

I told the paramedic that I wanted to finish. He decided to give me a lecture about how there was no shame in pulling out. How if I collapsed further down, no one might be there to help me. How great athletes know when their race is over and how sometimes it's how we cope with adversity and make smart decisions that really defines us. It was a great speech. I believed him.

But I wanted to finish. I wanted that medal. I had spent so much time, so much hard work, so much money.

I argued with him.

He wasn't buying it.

I begged him for different advice. Tell me how to recover! I was shaking uncontrollably. I stood up and almost fell over. The woman grabbed me and said "That's it, you're done. You need to lie down and let us take you to the finish."

NO! Please! She coaxed me onto the stretcher to take another blood pressure reading. I was terrified that they were going to trick me and close the van door and cart me to the finish. I must have been acting completely delirious because then she started asking me where I was, what day it was, and (shocker!) who was the President. I must have answered all the questions right because even though my blood pressure had gone under 100 (this is the "danger" zone), they didn't lock me in and drive me away.

I focused all my remaining mental energy on trying to stop my body from shaking so at least I looked better and they might be ok with letting me go. I had one more conversation with the doctor.

"I want to try to finish" - it was definitive.

He told me to sit down and try to get some food and fluids in me and see what happens. And then the thing I didn't want to hear but we all know is coming: "you have until midnight." I remember those words spoken by another great athlete I know in Ironman Lake Placid - my friend and teammate Christian Kurilko had stomach shutdown and was walking to the finish line. I felt helpless then because I so wanted to help him. But now it was my turn. If he could swallow his pride and do it, then so could I.

But I wanted to curl up in a ball and cry. Midnight. It would be DARK then. No more goals left. Nothing to fight for. People would feel sorry for me as I walked it in. People would pass me. Just like last time. It would be a disappointing and embarrassing end to my golden season. No smiling finish. Nothing to be proud of. Just a huge mistake. Again. Did I even belong here?!? My answer to myself was a resounding "NO."

So I ate oranges and downed coke, Perform, and (yikes!) chicken soup. I had eleven miles to go and the sun was no longer yellow. It was going down - a big orange ball of fire. I got up and started walking. And I prayed once again: "Please, God, give me strength - and no glowsticks!"

I would reach that finish line while there was still light in the sky or die trying.

And so I ran.

I felt like death warmed over - until I took the left on the way to the Energy Lab. I looked up to see the most beautiful sunset I've ever seen in my life. It would, surprisingly, energize me. After the turnaround, I grabbed my bottle of EFS drink from my special foods bag and ran with it, pouring it on ice from the aid station at the exit of the Energy Lab - around 19 miles.

I now believed I would finish. I felt like crap and continued to walk the water stops, use the portajohns, and watch people pass me. But Jim and Julie were waiting and I didn't want them to be there until midnight. Somewhere around mile 24, at an aid station, I heard someone call my name.

It was Julie! She had walked out to find me! She told me Jim was also looking for me further out. She called him and walked with me for a bit - then I started running, and she said, "see you at the finish!"

I ran like I had a purpose. All I could hear in my head was Elton John singing "Don't Let The Sun Go Down on Me" - and I wanted to scream (because, seriously, HOW CORNY IS THAT?!?! And I don't even LIKE that song. But there it was - stuck in my head.)

And I kept running.

And I pleaded before each aid stations: "please, no glowstick!" (None were offered.)

I thought I'd never see it.
Before long, I took the turn onto Alii Drive, and shortly thereafter, there it was in front of me. The finish line. I high-fived every hand I saw. And I crossed it.

And it was still light out (barely).

And I smiled.

And I looked skyward and I said thank you. For giving me two out of three.

I cannot overstate the roles that Jim and Julie played in helping me get to that finish line. Julie was there to cry with me when I exited the finish area. The hug she gave me was one that I will never forget. And when I told Jim on the course that I might have to walk to the finish, the look he gave me was the very definition of unconditional love. And even though on the phone he encouraged me to finish if I could, I knew he would have been ok with pulling the plug. He might just have been the singular motivation I needed to work so hard to recover and finish.

The thing that hurt the most after the race was how disappointed Jim was in not getting to see me enjoy the finish line. He cried about that.

But I promised to make it up to him. When we go back to Kona.

This is the look of relief,
not joy.