Monday, March 28, 2011

Running Flicks and Metric Bricks

This past Sunday, with six weeks to go before Ironman St. George, I scheduled one of the most important workouts of my Ironman buildup: the metric ironman. I had planned it for four or five weeks out, but the sub-30-degree temperatures this weekend forced me off the roads and out of my long ride and back onto the CompuTrainer.

It was time for Plan B, the metric ironman brick, a.k.a., my longest bike-run workout to date.
I never heard the term "metric ironman" until I read an article by Matt Fitzgerald called How to Nail the Ironman Marathon. In this article, the metric ironman is defined as a 2.4 K swim (optional), a 112 K (69.6 mi) bike and a 26.2 K (16.1 mi) run - all done at close to race intensity.

I thought about it. Doing this metric ironman might very well be the best way to tackle my biggest weakness, the marathon nutrition issue. It would simulate race conditions and I could ultimately gain focus on what happens (read: goes wrong) during my run. The workout would likely involve four hours of biking followed by two hours of running - I only hoped that two hours would be long enough to learn how to fuel properly during the marathon.

This metric ironman would also provide one more opportunity to test myself on the CompuTrainer IMSG Real Course Video. The course video covers just over 67 miles, and I would then have yet another data set to compare against my previous rides on the same course. I would finish the workout with a hilly run to simulate the terrain on the St. George course (or so I'm told).

Now that I've defined the brick, I suppose you're wondering what "Running Flicks" is doing in the title of this article. I'm glad you asked.

I'm always looking for new and engaging movies to watch while I'm stuck on the trainer for two or more hours, and recently, one of my work cohorts walked in and handed me what appeared to be an inspirational running movie. It's a documentary called Running The Sahara. It tells the story of three runners who set out with the goal of running across the entire Sahara Desert - over 4,000 miles through six countries - in 90 days.

It was the perfect movie to watch during my workout - but not for the reasons you might expect. Unlike most documentaries about endurance events, this movie was not so much a story about triumph over adversity as it was a harrowing emotional tale. As expected, the physical trials were there, but they were eclipsed by the emotional drive and mental fatigue of people who were on the edge of keeping their sanity.

To a lesser degree, this movie reminded me of the places I go mentally during some of the more trying times of my training and racing. There are days I just want to curl up in a ball and cry at the pressures of my job, my (almost non-existent) social life, and my training and racing. There are times I just want to walk away (from all of those things) and say "never again!" And although I will probably never face the physical and emotional trials that these Sahara runners faced in their expedition, I can appreciate the moments that were so true - the "I quit" moments. Once you push through such moments, it's much easier to do a second time.

My ironman brick went as well as could be expected. I finished the IMSG bike course in the fastest time yet and was able to force myself out the door in bitter cold to do two very hilly one-hour loops. I fueled as I plan to on race day: with one Gu Roctane every 30 minutes and at least one Thermolyte electrolyte capsule an hour. It worked very well until I was 1:30 into the run. Then the problems began - bloating and sloshing in my stomach and a side stitch. I wanted to stop and walk but I kept telling myself it would be the beginning of the end if it were race day. So I slowed down a bit, controlled my breathing, and before you know it, the problems settled and I started to feel better. And that's one of the things I needed to know - how to combat the stomach issues if and when I get them.

I still want to learn how to avoid getting the stomach problems in the first place. But I'm much closer to understanding the proper fueling strategy after yesterday. And I know a lot more about how to motivate myself now that I was able to push through four hours on the trainer and two hours of race-pace running. Like in the movie, I think that's one of the things that training gives us - we learn to hang tough and overcome the bad moment(s) so that on race day, it's not an issue.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Me vs. my Will Power vs. the Weather: First Outdoor Long Ride of 2011

Needs no caption.
March in Cleveland - I've said it all. I'm sure you don't want to hear about it again. The rain. The snow. The ice.

The SLIPPING on ice.

The treadmill. The indoor track. The trainer.

The LONG rides on the trainer.

With seven weeks to go until Ironman St. George, Spring broke in Cleveland this past weekend - but only for a brief moment. That was the moment I managed to get outside for my first long bike ride of the season. My goal was 100 miles. But you need more than a moment to finish a century ride. You need several moments. And a little luck. And I seem to always run out of those things when I need them most.

The day, and my ride, started out relatively pain-free. It was noon on Sunday and the temperature had warmed into the low 40s. I checked the weather and saw it wasn't too windy and the rain would hold off (rain? what rain? it was a clear blue sky) until 7 pm. I mixed up my nutrition bottles and decided what to wear - concerned about wind-chill, I chose my fleece wind-stopper mittens and jacket.

My husband Jim was heading out for lawn care supplies, but before he left, I asked him to check my bike's wireless computer battery because the display had been blinking. (That meant the battery was dying, right? What else could that possibly mean?) Jim swapped out the battery with one from an older bike computer then pocketed the "dead" one for reference to buy extras.

At noon standing in my kitchen, I was unaware I had just made the first two mistakes of my ride: (1) I made a hugely wrong assumption about the weather (more on this later) and (2) I didn't READ THE MANUAL and therefore made a MORE hugely wrong assumption about bike computers. When I rolled my bike out of the garage, there was an obvious problem with the computer - the display was working but the numbers were all zeroes. I adjusted the sensor and tried again. Nothing. I read the manual. There it was in black and white: if the speed number is blinking, THE SENSOR NEEDS A NEW BATTERY. NOT the computer. And I just sent Jim out with the only other "good" battery.

Jim was treated to a frantic phone call, after which he stopped for batteries and made his way back home as quickly as possible. The bike computer was back up and running by 1:30 pm. At this point, in any other city, I would have looked up at the sky and said "no problem." But I live in Cleveland, and I know better. And I was having a massive anxiety attack about the weather.

I jumped on my bike and began my journey through the hilly west branch of Cleveland Metroparks. The wind had already begun to kick up as my route headed north. By the the time I reached my turnaround near the lake, I had been riding for 34 miles almost directly into the wind.

At this point, it would be a safe assumption that riding out against the wind means you'll be riding back "with" the wind. This is never a guarantee in Cleveland. We truly live by the old saying: "if you don't like the weather in Cleveland, wait 15 minutes - it'll change." I looked up at the blue sky and then whipped out my iPhone to check the weather.

And there it was in front of me - around 4 pm, the wind would change direction. And it did. On my way back, the wind shifted from north to east to southeast. What direction was I headed? South. Then east. In disbelief, I mused that this must be the kind of day that leads us to recall how bad we had it in the "olden days." I could just hear my future self: "..way back when I was a triathlete, we rode into the wind, BOTH ways."

More from the "mad scientist": Weather Underground plots
prove the wind changed direction between 4 and 5 p.m.
By the time I hit 50 miles, my speed was dwindling from the hills AND the wind. The clouds had rolled in and the temperature was fighting to stay above 40 degrees. My wind-stopper jacket had done such a great job that I was soaked through the layer underneath it. I was now starting to feel the cold. I stopped again and called Jim, hoping for some moral support and to ask him to meet me somewhere with dry clothes, another water bottle and the lighter lenses for my sunglasses.

What I really wanted to do was pack it in. I was cold. I was tired. I didn't want to finish my ride in the dark. My legs were rebelling from running 21-miles with hills the day before. And worst of all, my motivation had taken a nose-dive. Jim's moral support came more like a warning: "if you don't do 100 miles today, you'll have to do it next weekend on the trainer because it's going to get cold again." Ouch, the double whammy - slamming my attitude AND the crap Cleveland weather.

But it worked. Ok. OK! I'll finish this thing. He offered to meet me with supplies on the second out-and-back leg. I was about to head into - and subsequently, out of - the Cuyahoga Valley. I had visions of having to walk my bike up those final hills. In the DARK.

Shake it off!

The downhills into the valley were good for some speed, even into the wind. And by the time I turned around, I was feeling better mentally and physically. In the 20-mile homestretch, I would FINALLY be riding with the wind at my back. Jim met me and I was able to quickly change into dry clothes and get back on my way. Would I make it home before dark? Jim gave me a little blinkie light just in case.

Warmed up and dry now, I was able to get back on the road with newfound enthusiasm.

It lasted about 10 minutes. Then I heard what distinctly sounded like acorns hitting the pavement. Hmm.. I glanced around. No acorns - in fact, no nuts of any kind. And then it hit me - right smack in the face. The SOUND (the one of "acorns hitting the pavement") was not acorns hitting the pavement but RAIN DROPS hitting the pavement. Enormous MONSTER rain drops. Rain drops with attitudes of their OWN. And they were hitting ME now. I heard myself groan. This ride had now entered the realm of the Disaster Magnet.

The rain clouds darkened the conditions even further, and I decided to take the quickest way out of the valley - mostly for safety. I got off the road and onto a paved bike trail for as long as I could. By the time I rolled into my driveway, I was soaked from the outside in, the roads were slick, drivers were yelling at me and it was almost completely night.

And on my (now working) bike computer read the following: 100.2 mi.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Spring Shakedown, the Good and the Bad (with no Ugly)

The P3 steps out in spring
Until yesterday, the last time my bike wheels were on pavement was November 13 in Clearwater, Florida. The last time they were on pavement in Cleveland was over a month before that. I've been riding indoors on my trainer exclusively for over five months. But yesterday, spring broke in Cleveland, as it does every year. With no warning.

The temperature went from a high of 45 degrees F on Wednesday to a high in the mid-60s yesterday. I couldn't get out of work fast enough. When my computer shutdown process lasted one second past 4:30 pm, I was panic-stricken. I had to get home, get my trainer tire switched out, and get out on the ROAD - for crying out loud! This was the most excited I have been about biking since I got my CompuTrainer in December.

All day yesterday, I had dreams of crushing my time from last year on one of my common routes. All that hard work on the CompuTrainer would finally pay off. I would, so to speak, leave myself in the dust this time. I called my husband Jim to tell him I would be out on the bike before he got home from work. He said two things to me: make sure you take a blinkie light with you in case it gets dark and be careful. It. Is. Windy.

Windy. It didn't register. He didn't say it was windy enough to be blowing his car around on the highway. But it was. All I could see was the sun and dry road.

I changed my tire in record time, donned a short-sleeve bike jersey and shorts, and ran out the door with my bike. I had to go back in not once, not twice, but three times. Once for my helmet. Once for my sunglasses. And once more for my water bottle. Yes. I am truly out of practice for this road-riding thing.

As I was leaving, Jim pulled into the driveway. Before I was off, he said it one more time: "be careful, it's really windy."

By the time I got to the first great hill followed by flat road, I understood what "windy" meant. The wind was directly out of the south - directly against me with gusts reaching almost 30 mph. So much for my assessment of how strong I had gotten over the winter. My speeds were about 5-6 mph slower than last year and after 32 minutes of riding into the wind, disheartened, I turned around and headed home. My great breakthrough on the bike would have to wait until some other day.

But the return trip was not without its own surprises. I was now riding WITH the wind. On my way back, not only would I reach speeds 5-6 mph faster than the same roads last year, but my my speed on the flat roads reached numbers I've NEVER seen (almost 30 mph). It brought back memories of the day I rode my first racing bike after 10 years of running only. THIS was what biking was all about - the proverbial "need for speed." It's something I never felt as a runner. Even though it's never the thing that gets me out the door for a workout, it IS the thing that keeps me out there even when my workout goes to hell. The speed. The fun of it.

I felt so good about riding with the wind, I decided to tackle the BIG hill - a three-mile climb out of the valley (Note: Northeast Ohio is far from Colorado. Our ski resorts - and subsequent hill rides - are actually made from slopes into river valleys). With the hill, I finally got my spring payoff.

The last time I climbed the hill in 2010, I had to shift into my lowest gear at least once to maintain a pace above 5 mph. Yesterday, that gear never saw the chain. Neither did the second lowest. By the time I made it to the top of the hill, I was trying to recall my fear in the "olden days" when I dreaded it so much. Today, both my brain and my legs are having trouble recalling any sort of struggle at all.

I still have work to do though. I have yet to do my first outdoor 100-miler (planned for this Sunday). But, thanks to the CompuTrainer, I feel I've made progress on the bike this winter. And, to my extreme surprise, I'm developing just the tiniest bit of confidence going into my next race. Which just happens to be my first race of the season. Which just happens to be an Ironman. Which just happens to be in mountainous terrain. Talk about tempting disaster. I'm gonna need all the confidence I can get.

Here's a neat little chart of yesterday's weather, to prove (mostly to myself) that I wasn't being a wimp. Yes, the engineer in me still loves graphs.:

Weather Underground: Akron, Ohio, March 17, 2011
(my ride took place between 5:30 and 7 pm)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Music is to Running as...: Joys and Pitfalls of Running with Tunes

This is my iPod, I call it the "Blueberry"
note the dent (from the road) and the Yurbuds
Yesterday while on my long run, I used the time to listen to my newest music purchase: the album "Build a Rocket Boys!" by the band Elbow. Not only is it a fantastic album from start to finish, but it's also a great album to run to. It got me to thinking: what makes good running music? The answer will be different depending on who you talk to. And you may think that a "good beat" is a necessity, but that's not the case for me. For me, great running music is like great driving music - it keeps you engaged and makes the miles fly by.

There was a time I didn't believe in running to music. It was a dark, unenlightened time. It was back in my hard-core running days when I judged people who ran with headphones - they weren't "serious runners." (How could they be?) How could they run and pay attention to the road at the same time? How could they focus on their workouts?

I will always be the first to stand up and admit I was wrong. But not without a struggle.

My road to being wrong began in 2004 in a hotel in Chicago. I was at a training class for work. It was January. The temperature outside was 1 degree F, and the hotel was in an industrial area. I had planned to run ten miles, and the treadmill in the hotel's fitness center appeared to be the safest option. At the time, I couldn't fathom running ten miles on a treadmill. There was absolutely NO WAY - I would surely go insane if I had to do that.

A (terrifying) thought occurred to me. What if... I... used............ MY iPOD!!! No one - especially not my hard-core running friends - would ever have to know. It would be my little secret. There was only one problem. I needed headphones I could run with (more on this later) because earbuds don't like my ears, even when I'm NOT running.

Luckily, my hotel was near a mall and I was able to get a relatively inexpensive pair of Sony "sports headphones" - the ones that stick sideways in your ear and are designed so your sweat drips off them and away from your ear. I rationalized that these were good ones because could hear what was going on around me while wearing them.

The next morning at 5:30, I snuck down to the hotel's fitness room, constantly checking over my shoulder to make sure no one was watching. Even though I didn't know anyone in that hotel in Chicago, I was paranoid of being a hypocrite - a "serious runner" running with headphones. THE HORROR!

If that weren't bad enough, there was something else to worry about. WHAT THE HECK AM I GOING TO LISTEN TO? I don't have any "running music." The music on my iPod was mostly acoustic-y mellow indie bands, and I didn't trust the shuffle mode of my iPod to make the right choices for a run.

In times of music confusion like this, there is one thing to do: choose Radiohead!

And there it was - my first favorite album to run to: Radiohead's "The Bends." It's no Chumbawamba, but it worked perfectly for me. It ebbed and flowed and kept me going to the bitter end (of my workout). I enjoyed it so much that the next morning, with considerably less fear of being caught, I was back on the treadmill for another run with "The Bends" in my ear. Call me a creature of habit or call me a die-hard Radiohead fan, but if it works, why mess with it?

And seriously, I thought those two days would be the beginning AND end of my foray into "running with headphones." Boy was I wrong! That winter was a real struggle and I started using music to get me out the door (yes, now I was running on the ROAD with headphones).

Nowadays, the only time I run without music is when I'm doing track workouts, non-treadmill intervals or racing. I used to think that running with music would make it harder to race without it, but that's not the case. I have many opportunities to practice being alone with my thoughts - like when I'm riding my bike for many hours or swimming (both of which are likely to be dangerous with music).

I've been through a few generations of iPods and more earbuds and headphones than I can shake a stick at. The iPod shuffle is, by far, the easiest and lightest gadget to run with. I've dropped mine, thrown it several feet and even had it detach and bounce across the road to be lost for several hours. It came back dinged up but still working.

Earbuds and headphones, on the other hand, have been nothing but trouble. After my Sony sports headphones died, I tried every brand of earbud under $30, but my ears have never played nice with them. Apple earbuds fall out if I take a deep breath, the Nike ones (specifically MADE to work for runners) fell off after three steps, and the JVC Marshmallow ones (which were a little better) were impossible on warm days or long runs because they fell out as soon as sweat dripped onto my ears.

I was about to give up when I found myself standing in front of the Yurbuds table at the Detroit Marathon expo last year. Yurbuds are little plastic sheaths that go over your (Apple) earbuds and hold them in place in your ear. They come in custom sizes and they allow ambient sound to get through. After a demo, I bought a pair instantly and haven't had a single problem since. (If you have problems with earbuds, you might want to try them -- and no, I am not being paid to tell you this, they just work for me.)

So, now fitted for sound, I will try to periodically write a blog about my favorite albums to run with. And unlike the rest of this A.D.D. world we live in, I still enjoy listening to albums from start to finish. At least the first few times. I like to respect the song sequence chosen by the musicians. Oh, sure, I often run in "shuffle" mode, but ANYONE can give you a list of great single songs to run to. Like my all-time favorite that I play when the going gets rough, the "treadmill song" by OK Go (also known as "Here it Goes Again").

But have you ever listened to that whole album while running? Now THAT'S what I'm talking about.

OK Go on Treadmills (from the album Oh No) - don't try this at home:

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Weather Woes and Race Preparedness

Yesterday's drive on the highway
March in Cleveland is a very trying thing for an endurance athlete. And I know "everyone" is complaining about the winter blahs right about now, especially in the midwest, but this is one of those years when March - the "spring" month - has been especially bad for us runners/bikers/swimmers with weekly nine-to-five jobs. The weekday weather has been great, but the weekends (Friday through Sunday) have been slammed with cold, snow and, at times, blizzard conditions. And if it's not snowing, it's 32 degrees and raining.

Normally, the unpredictable March weather wouldn't be a problem, as I usually start my really long stuff in April or May. But this year, in my infinite disaster-magnet wisdom, I registered for an Ironman - Ironman St. George - the first week of May. I swear I was being completely rational when I hit that "submit" button last July. But it was warm and sunny. My thoughts were: "No problem! I can get outside in March for my long rides." What was I thinking? How could I forget the year we had three blizzards in three successive March weekends? (I remember it because my running friends were out in horizontal snow training for spring marathons.)

In my defense, this winter I've tackled my indoor training with enthusiasm and without going mad. I've maintained my sanity through several five-hour trainer rides and weeks straight of indoor workouts. But I'm now at the point where one long run (2:30+) on the treadmill will surely push me over the edge. And for more than just mental reasons. After an nine-miler on the treadmill at my fitness center three days ago - my first time back on the 'mill since the great treadmill disaster of 2011 - I realized that, unlike the bike trainer, the treadmill compromises my form. My stride is shortened and my hamstrings were still screaming two days later (note: stumbling stiff-legged down the road on slush and ice yesterday was not the smartest thing to do but luckily didn't end in disaster).

This weekend in the snow and slush, I have to tackle a long run and a long brick. I can't keep putting them off hoping for "better weather." With eight weeks to Ironman, it's do or die time. And although my training volume is decent, my race-specific workouts have been severely lacking.

Which brings me to my other point in this blog. This spring is the first time I'm going into an Ironman without any race experience in prior months. My last triathlon was in November and I've only run a marathon since. I feel completely unprepared for racing, and, unfortunately, I can't get to a race in the next two months due to limited funds and the inability to take any vacation time. The only thing I will do is a race "simulation" to test my abilities and nutrition. But I do feel like I'll be going into St. George cold (no pun intended).

All I can say is, like the way we deal with the weather in Cleveland, I'm going to make the best of it.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

More Data-mongering: Long Rides, Cycing Cadence and Nutrition

Yep, that's the course profile, and yep,
we have to do that mountain twice
On Friday, I did my third five-hour CompuTrainer ride in preparation for Ironman St. George (IMSG). This time, four hours of it were using the IMSG Real Course Video - my third time through the full 67.4 mile course. I expected to once again see improvement in my power output and heart rate for the IMSG course, but that wasn't what actually happened. Instead, I gained a completely new set of data. And I had to figure out how it fit into the grand scheme of things that is my Ironman training.

The last time I rode the IMSG course, my average power increased while my average heart rate decreased - a good indication that my hard work on the bike was paying off. But two data points don't make a trend, so of course, I had to follow it up with another data set. Unfortunately, the third data set - Friday's ride - did not continue the trend. But it DID give me some new information to work with.

I don't like to make excuses for why this long ride wasn't better than the last because we all have off days. What I will say is that the night before my long ride included two- and one-minute repeats at anaerobic power levels. To date, it was the hardest (read: most painful and muscle-fatiguing) workout I have done on the bike, and I spent most of it out of the saddle to stop my quads from screaming. (Seriously, I hate myself for saying this, but if I were on a hill, I would have got off and walked.) Less than 24 hours later, I was back on the bike for my five-hour ride.

And, surprisingly, my legs didn't feel massively fatigued when I started. I kept an eye on my power and heart rate during the ride, but to avoid getting psyched out from the upcoming hills, I spent the rest of the time watching food shows on the Travel Channel. It's a strange choice of programming, I know, but I actually enjoy watching Man v. Food while I'm on the trainer because nothing makes me want to ride harder than watching Adam Richman destroy his body. It also helps that I don't eat meat so it doesn't make me hungry (unless, like one of the episodes this time, he eats blueberry pancakes - grrr! and he was in Hawaii while doing it!).

By the time my ride was over, to my dismay, the important variables had gone in the wrong direction:
  • average heart rate increased by 4% over my last ride on this course: 143 compared to 137
  • average power decreased by almost 2%: 160 compared to 163
Poor performance numbers were accompanied by change in another variable to which I've not paid much attention: cadence. The reason I've not paid much attention to it is because it changes very little during my long rides - it always hovers around 95-97 RPM. On THIS ride, it changed. A LOT - my cadence value remained over 100 and sometimes went as high as 110 for the duration of my ride (except on the climbs). By the end, there it was, an average cadence value of 101 - a major increase over my last three rides (see chart below).
Cadence per mile on the IMSG course
(Green line is most recent ride)
Why, all of a sudden, was I spinning at a much higher RPM? Was I in a hurry? And of what importance is cadence? Is there an optimal value? What cadence SHOULD I be riding at? (Face it people, I've never claimed to be a cycling expert.) I went to Google and found these:
So, yes, I learned that cadence is important (duh!). And to get back to analyzing my training ride, I think that not being rested and tearing up my quads the night before might explain some of what happened. My quads were more comfortable in a state of fast spinning and my body naturally drifted to that state. Higher cadence kept my speed up while my power was down and caused my heart rate to go up (apparently, something I can handle for five hours).

But here comes the real learning experience. I noticed one more effect during this ride - and this is perhaps the most important thing given my history of nutrition disasters. I fueled the way I've been practicing: about 250 calories per hour with First Endurance's EFS liquid shot and drink and SportQuest Direct's CarboPro. I also took one Thermolyte electrolyte capsule (330 mg sodium) and drank about 20 ounces water per hour. Unlike my previous rides, by the time I reached four hours, I was having trouble taking in more carbos and my stomach was distressed, as if nothing were digesting. I was sweating much more than usual and by the end, my knees had become miniature salt mines.

Thus, assuming my digestive problems had nothing to do with what I was watching on TV, I am relatively sure now that in addition to not getting enough sodium, my nutrition problems are directly linked to my heart rate. So I'm defining a new heart rate zone. I'm calling it the "digestive zone." And it seems to be somewhere below 143. If I keep my heart rate in the 130s or lower during the Ironman bike, I will likely be able to fuel without difficulty.

Well, that's my take on it anyway.

Finally, this winter in Cleveland has been very harsh, especially on the weekends. And with nine weeks to go, hopefully my next long ride will be more than five hours and outdoors.