Sunday, February 27, 2011

Minding the Motor City: an Ode to Detroit

Beware Detroit Tigers - the entrance to the baseball stadium
The city of Detroit conjures up two things for me: the brilliant 14-minute Dire Straits anthem "Telegraph Road" and the movie Robocop. I would describe both as bleak, dingy, hard-edged and yet beautiful odes to the aptly-named Motor City. The last time I spent an overnight in Detroit, it was to run the Detroit Marathon the next morning. The time before that, I did the Motor City Triathlon. But I've been in Detroit many more times than that - I just never wanted to stay there.

I've spent more time in Detroit than any major city in the American Midwest (other than places I've lived). The main reason for so many visits is because Detroit is the closest city to Cleveland (my current home) that manages to get bookings of my favorite UK musicians (despite every musician's deepest desire to shout "Hello Cleveland!" while lost in the maze of hallways beneath a music venue).

Thus, once again, this weekend found my husband Jim and me making our way to yet another gig in Detroit, this time to see David Gray at the Detroit Opera House. When we found out it was a Saturday show, we decided to spend the weekend instead of attempting the three-hour drive home after midnight like we always do. We ate at our two favorite area restaurants: dinner at Pizza Papalis in Greektown (discovered before the triathlon in 2008) and brunch, complete with a Michigan pint, at Foran's Grand Trunk Pub (discovered after the marathon in 2010).

And, once again, because I'm training for an Ironman, I had to do a long run the morning after a gig in another city. And despite all my previous trips, today was the first time it was necessary for me to just "go running" in Detroit. Running - or FINDING someplace to run  - was not something I was looking forward to based on what I've seen of and heard about Detroit.

But to be fair, I usually enjoy long runs in new places and this time, I wasn't working with an absence of information. I scoped out a place I already knew - Belle Isle. Belle Isle is an island smack in the middle of the Detroit River with the U.S.A. (to which it belongs) on the west bank and Canada on the east. It is the site of the Motor City Triathlon and about four miles of the Detroit Marathon.

Obviously, I've run on Belle Isle before. What I haven't done is run there alone on a Sunday morning in the winter. And like the bonehead I am, until I was running along the commercial, barren stretch of Jefferson Avenue that leads to the bridge to the Isle (called the MacArthur Bridge), it never occurred to me that this might be a bad idea.

But here's where I can say this: sometimes, not often, being a bonehead has its payoffs. I set out Sunday morning dressed for 30 degrees F with a 10 mph wind from the south. I headed out to the riverfront and then north. I instantly remembered the familiar path I was on - the Detroit Riverwalk. How could I forget it? During the last three miles of the marathon, while on the Riverwalk, I reveled in chasing down several women and men who had passed me early on the course. Except, this time the view and weather were much different. A dismal and cold gray haze hung in the air and all greenery was blanketed with several inches of snow. My only companions on this run were large islands of ice floating along the river's edge.

These floaters are much colder and less friendly
than the ones I race by in my pool lane.
View south toward Robocop's building (i.e., GM Renaissance Ctr)
on Detroit Riverwalk, Detroit-Windsor bridge in distance.
In retracing my steps from the last six miles of of the marathon, I eventually ended up in both upscale new loft housing neighborhoods and barren areas with old buildings and lots of graffiti. But forged on to Belle Isle. And to my extreme surprise, every single person I ran by or near, whether a runner, dog-walker or street-wanderer, had nothing for me but a smile and a greeting. I am happy to say my run wasn't scary at all, and I'm impressed with the care taken to keep Detroit's riverfront recreational, even during the snowy months.

By the time I was heading back, now against the wind, I should have felt much colder. But my heart had warmed to Detroit, and my appreciation of midwesterners had risen to a new level. And although I will probably always miss my native home of New England - with it's rocky beauty and sandy ocean beachscapes - and continue to complain about my adopted home of Cleveland - with its stark machined concreteness and harsh lake-effect winters - this weekend I have discovered quite a bit of depth and beauty in the tough exterior of a Midwest industrial city, and I'm happy to have it as part of my experience.

Beauty in form (and streetlights): MacArthur Bridge to Belle Isle

The river just north of the bridge was the site
where open water ended and a single ice sheet began.

Concrete as functional art - the Detroit Riverwalk has a giant
stamped map of the Detroit, USA - Windsor, Canada region.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Discombobulatory Funk

I tried, but I guess I can't breathe underwater
I don't even know if that's a word. But I didn't know what else to call it (my husband thinks it would make a good band name). I'm in a funk. It's not a rut. It doesn't feel like overtraining. And it doesn't feel like a slump. It just feels uncomfortable. Like I'm.., well.. discombobulated. Like nothing is working quite right. And I don't mean my training isn't working right. I mean my body isn't working right. And it's not the first time this has happened.

It usually happens sometime around the middle of my training period. I get this particular type of discomfort. Defining its symptoms is even harder, but here's an attempt:
  • My swimming isn't necessarily slow - i.e., my arms aren't weak - but after months of working on building strength and yardage, suddenly my stroke feels completely discombobulated. Last week I was fine, but now I feel like I've lost my grip on the water and my arms are flailing all over the place. I panic that my stroke has completely fallen apart from not doing regular drills. I start overcompensating - which causes my natural smooth stroke to go haywire. Then finally, I don't know if it's my overcompensating that is causing the discombobulation instead of the discombobulation causing the overcompensating. Yeah, it's a mess.
  • I regularly get the sensation that I'm suffocating - it feels like I forgot to breathe for several minutes. And it happens at any time, not just while I'm working out or going up stairs.
  • My ability to pick up the pace on the bike and run is completely gone. Usually I would accept this as general fatigue, but the discombobulatory lack-of-pick-up is different. It's like I lost my sprint "form." When I tried to run fast on the indoor track yesterday, I actually tripped over my own feet and almost fell. No, I'm not kidding.
  • Abdominal work feels completely whacked - like I'm doing it wrong or like I'm doing a completely different exercise. This is something I do EVERY day. Why would a simple daily exercise suddenly feel like something completely different?
So there it is, my best definition of the symptoms. I keep thinking I'm going to wake up from a dream - the one where I'm able to breathe underwater (I love that dream). This week in the pool, I considered I was IN that dream and I thought about attempting to breathe underwater. I said "THOUGHT about." Did you know a synonym for discombobulated is deranged? I'm not surprised.

This sort of thing is par for the disaster magnet course, and the only thing I can think of to do is to wait until it passes. Sometimes it lasts a day, sometimes it lasts a week or two. But I only have 10 weeks to Ironman St. George so I'm backing off on my hard, long sessions for a week to see if that will eradicate it as quickly as possible.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Counting Chickens, Mad Scientist Style

The view from my bike
CompuTrainer Real Course Video (IM St. George)
I thought long and hard about writing this article because I don't like to jump the gun in declaring success in any aspect of my training for fear of impending race disaster. The reason for this is because in the past, statements such as "my training is going well" or "I've noticed a measurable improvement in x, y or z,"  have caused the planets to instantly align against me and anger some cosmic deity who will then extend a giant hand from the sky and thwack me down.

In light of this, blabbering about increased speed or fitness without repeatable (or race) evidence has become somewhat of a no-no for the Disaster Magnet. But this week, after analyzing performance graphs of my weekly long rides on the CompuTrainer (CT), I've discovered something rather neato - something that might, ever-so-slightly, fall into the "progress in cycling" category.

First, a little background. For the last six weeks I've been doing three bike workouts per week as part of a "CompuTrainer Challenge" among a group of local cyclists and triathletes. My workout intensities are all based on my FTP (Functional Threshold Power) - a wimpy 196 watts - obtained in a time trial in January. Two of the weekly workouts involve intervals at paces from tempo (76-90% FTP) to anaerobic threshold (91-105% FTP) to VO2 max (106-120% FTP). The third weekly workout is usually a long ride of 1.5-2 hours on the trainer to be done at an average power output of 76-90% FTP.

Because my first race is very early in the season (May 7) and it's an Ironman, I've replaced the weekly "long ride" with my own "very long ride" (double-it-and-add-some) of 4-5 hours. For several of these, I've ridden the simulated Ironman St. George (IMSG) course from Racermate's library of Interactive Real Course Videos. The most recent was this past weekend - February 12. Because I'm a geek (some use the term "mad scientist"), after Saturday's ride, I could not rest before coming up with a way to compare my performances from these same-course rides. (Note: doing things like this have illustrated to me the power of the CompuTrainer as a training tool. They have also illustrated to me my husband Jim's mad skills at Microsoft Excel, my lack thereof, and all the reasons I find Excel to be a maddeningly-frustrating program.)

I plotted all sorts of data for several rides on the CT IMSG course - power, heart rate, speed, cadence, etc. versus miles and time. I decided the graphs I like the most, i.e., that make the most sense to me, are the ones that compare power and heart rate versus time or miles. This way, I can see exactly what happens each time I ride the same course. With Jim's help, I now have a single plot - see below - of power (left y-axis, upper data) and heart rate (right y-axis, lower data) versus miles for three CT IMSG course rides. Two were in January and one was this past weekend. Note on January 15, the blue line, I only completed about 56 miles of the 67-mile course (also known as "getting to the top of the BIG hill").

Power (upper data) and Heart Rate (lower data) vs. Miles for rides on same CT course (click on image for larger version)
 Note: data was smoothed by simple averaging of nearby points
In comparing the three sessions, I try not to focus on speed because it depends on the CompuTrainer calibration, which might change from one workout to the next (note in the table below that my average speed on Feb. 12 is lower than on Jan. 22, and yet my average power output is higher, and on Jan. 15 my speed would likely have been higher had I made it to the downhill portion of the course). Still, my ride averages were as follows:

AVE:Power (Watts)Heart Rate (BPM)Speed (mph)
Jan. 1515713915.6
Jan. 2215614517.0
Feb. 1216313716.9

So, then, the big question: does this graph and table indicate progress on the bike? I'd like to think so and here's why:
  • My latest ride, Feb 12 (red line), shows the highest power throughout the ride, especially in the late stages (close to 4 hours effort). In comparison, the first two rides were only a week apart and even though they were different in length and time, my average power for each ride was almost identical.
  • The heart rate plot shows that on Feb 12, I was able to maintain this higher power/wattage over the distance/time at a lower heart rate than in January. Even during the hardest climbs (between 35 and 55 miles), my heart rate was lower in my latest ride. I'm guessing this indicates an improvement in my cardiovascular fitness.
Other than these rides on the CT IMSG course, my regular workouts have not been as taxing (or next-to-impossible) as they were in the first few weeks. It will be interesting to find out if and how much the increase in FTP will be when I do my next time trial. Or better, if and when I ever get out on the road again (assuming winter 2011 comes to an end before April), I am very interested in seeing how fast I can go on my old tried and true road courses.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Idiot Set

Yesterday, I started thinking about my swim workout well before I got in the pool. This is never a good sign. Especially because I was thinking about it in the car. When I allow my mind to do specific thinking in the car (as opposed to just driving), I do stupid things - things like panicking because I can't write down what I'm thinking. Thankfully, I my iPhone has an app for taking notes. And, NO, I didn't use the notepad.. I used the voice memos. I'm not an idiot.

But, incidentally, the swim workout I was thinking about was called the "Idiot Set" by my college swim coach. I never knew why he called it the Idiot Set. Was it formulated in the minds of idiots? Would only an idiot do it? I never asked - I usually just groaned. It was not something we did often, and we usually forgot what it was and made him explain it every time. But on days like yesterday, when I'm tired of doing the same old sets of 100s and 200s, I unlock dark things from memory - like the Idiot Set.

The Idiot Set was a set of 13 75-yard repeats (three laps in a 25-yard pool). The 75s were done individual-medly order in the following progression: (1) three laps butterfly, (2) two laps butterfly, one lap backstroke, (3) one lap butterfly, two laps backstroke, (4) three laps backstroke, (5) two laps backstroke, one lap breaststroke... on through freestyle and ending with the final three laps butterfly. It was not a lot of yardage for a single set, and for butterfly specialists, it was probably cake. But for me, every lap was torture. By the time I got to the final 75, I assumed WE were the idiots. The joke's on us. I can't remember ever making it through that last 75 without resorting to the one-arm butterfly stroke.

So why would I EVER do this workout by choice? I'm still asking myself that question. I could say it offered a nice change-up to my usual boring pool workouts. I could say that it would be a challenge to see if I could actually finish it. But I think the main reason I would choose to do this workout is to prove I can mentally handle it.

Memories of the Idiot Set then conjured up all the "idiotic" things done through the years in the name of endurance. Like the time I ran a 30+ miler in my marathon training. Like the time my swim team did a 24-hour relay for fun. Like the time my high school swim coach made us swim in sweatshirts, jeans, and sneakers. Or like my friend Bob who once did, as a single workout, FOUR repeats of 25 miles on the bike followed by 5 miles running. Looking back, many of these workouts are borderline idiot sets -- did they really do anything but potentially injure us?

Yes, they gave us mental fortitude. I was reminded of a guy I met during the bike leg of Ironman Lake Placid last year - he said "I hate to tell you, but we STILL have a MARATHON to do after this." I felt like screaming "YOU IDIOT!" (the key to the Ironman is NEVER going to that mental place.) The most important thing these "idiot workouts" do for us is idiot-proof us - by building mental strength. If you can make it through them, then half way through the Ironman, you won't have one of those "oh-my-God-what-am-I-doing?" moments. When you have to reach deep down inside and pull out that mental strength, you KNOW you CAN. Because you've already done it. And I think that's what the Idiot Set is all about.

(Would love to hear others' idiot sets in the comments)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Finding Perspective or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Day Off

My cat's manifestation of today's general feeling
Sometimes I get ahead of myself. And that's how anxiety and panic begin to take hold. For instance, this weekend, I conquered the monumental task of spending five hours on my bike trainer. But I didn't see it as an accomplishment. Instead, based on my "trainer" speed and distance, all I could think of was: "I just had the crappiest bike ride of all time that proves no matter how hard I work, I still suck on the bike."

The truth is, I've been training my arse off on the bike. But I'm getting ahead of myself. After the Disney Marathon, I dedicated myself to complete a three-month workout plan known as the "ComputTrainer Challenge" in my circle of training cohorts. It started with a time trial to determine my FTP (Functional Threshold Power) -- which I did four days before the marathon -- and continues with three workouts weekly, designed to increase our sustainable power output. The one thing I've not told anyone (in that circle) is that because I'm racing Ironman St. George in May, I've been doing a really long ride (obviously, now up to five hours) every weekend (this was not advised). But in reading others' assessments of the training plan and improvements in their fitness levels, I realize I'm not making the same gains. Instead I'm tired and cranky and my legs are screaming with fatigue. And I'm sick and tired of doing all my workouts indoors during this horrible winter.

So today I called my good friend and fellow athlete, Ron, to complain, and he helped put it all in perspective. I WAS getting ahead of myself. He reminded me that my trainer speed and distance has no comparison to that of the road and I need to just focus on power. He reminded me that I have to deal with stresses at work in addition to training. And he reminded me I'm doing exactly what I need to do. And I need to stop comparing myself to others.

But then I was still doing it. Affording a CompuTrainer was a stretch, but I determined it was the best option (and nothing speaks louder than "guaranteed to make you faster"). But here I may also have gotten ahead of myself. I'm now hanging out with a group of "CompuTrain"ing athletes, and I've fallen back into that behavior pattern of comparing myself to other triathletes -- this time financially.

It reminded me to address the third bullet in my Seasons End article from December: "Where on earth will I scavenge up the cash to pay for ever-increasing race entry fees, gear (including necessities like running shoes, nutrition and supplements) and travel expenses?" Every time I turn around or read other athletes' blogs or forum posts, I feel like I'm the cool triathlete's poor relative -- the one riding a purple ten-speed, running in cotton sweats and (white) Chuck Taylors, and wearing a stop-watch around my neck. Remember those people? Oh my God, I've BECOME one of those people!

But seriously, what is a financially-challenged athlete to do? (Um.. figure out how to make more money, or) put things in perspective, of course! My friend Ron got an earful on this front as well. Me: "All these triathletes I know have unlimited funds, multiple racing bikes, Garmins, treadmills in their basements, Newton running shoes, compression wear - you name it." I can't keep up. If it's marketed toward triathletes, everyone else seems to have it and I can't afford it. I know, I'm getting ahead of myself once more. Ron came to the rescue, again, with one simple line: "Steve Prefontaine didn't have any of those things."

All it took was a look back, and I'm no longer getting ahead of myself. When I got home from work today, my husband Jim reminded me that I know what I'm doing. And that I needed a day off. From the mental stress. From the physical stress. From the fatigue. And, in the midst of a massive winter storm, from the weather.

And right now, everything is back in perspective.