Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Season of More Firsts (a.k.a. the "Outlaw" Blog)

Me and Steve (does this man look like
a miscreant? read on...)
Last week, after my disappointing performance at the USAT Age Group National Championship, I felt a need to get in some hard long mileage. It was partly driven by the desire to punish myself (old destructive habits die hard). But seriously, I figure if I'm going to specialize in long distance racing, it's about time I accepted it -- and got on with it.

Last week, I also experienced a whole new level of frustration in driving into and out of Cleveland during rush hour when I started my new job at The Cleveland Museum of Art. On a good day (i.e. ONCE last week), I can make it to work in 25 minutes. But the rest of the time, I found myself behind the wheel for more than an hour each way. I suspect I will be searching for places to swim and run near the museum so that I have more time to train and my travel times don't coincide with everyone else who works downtown. But despite losing two hours per day in traffic, I was able to get in some good running, biking and swimming last week with two long sessions on the weekend: a long brick (bike 100+ mi, run 4 mi) on Saturday and a long run (20 mi) on Sunday.

Saturday's brick included my longest ride since Ironman Lake Placid on July 24. I even managed to get my butt out of bed early (6:30 a.m.) to finish in time to clean the house for a dinner party Saturday night. But even with the early wake-up, poor planning delayed my start when I found myself in the driveway at 8 a.m. switching out my race/travel configuration -- i.e., swapping out Zipp wheels, desperately searching for my saddle bag, and re-installing the down-tube bottle cage. By 8:30, I was on my way, determined to cover a familiar 100-mile course faster than ever.

The beginning of the course took me northwest through the hills of Cleveland Metroparks to Rocky River. After that, I continued west on mostly flat terrain along the lakeshore to Lorain County. By the time I reached Rocky River (36 miles), I was surprised to find my average speed was just over 19 mph - the fastest I had ever gone from my house to that point. I contemplated whether I should stay out for six hours or for 100 miles then decided to turn around at 2:45 -- I was sure to slow down on the way back because of the hills near the end. At 2:45, my odometer read 54 miles, and I had been riding well over 20 mph for an hour. When I turned around, the realization hit me of why I was going so fast.

Despite my certainty that the wind was from the north (based on waving flags), I turned around only to find that it definitely wasn't. The wind was from the northEAST -- not a normal occurence -- no doubt because of Hurricane Irene on the eastern seaboard. The return trip along the lake would therefore be a constant struggle to maintain an average speed above 19 mph.

My luck changed when I got back on the parkway and one of my very own BAFF teammates - Steve Thompson - went flying by me. Upon realizing he didn't recognize me, I chased him down. This was no easy feat because he was in the middle of a two-hour ride at half-ironman race-pace -- for him, this meant pushing 280 watts and 23-24 mph. I didn't think I could hang with him, but he pulled me through the next 20 miles at a ridiculously fast pace. Did I mention that he would be finished with his ride before we got to the hilly part of my route?

We were only a few miles from Steve's finish when he would become the latest victim of the Disaster Magnet. As you may recall, the last time I rode with team members in the park, I ended up in a ditch with a broken rib. This time, it was a whole 'nuther type of disaster. And it would be a first for any cyclists I know. Steve and I came upon a four-way stop along the parkway in Strongsville. After the last car had gone through, Steve did a quick check to make sure it was clear and rolled right through the stop sign. I may or may not have yelled "clear!" But that didn't matter.

We were, indeed, breaking the law.

And neither one of us looked back to see the park ranger vehicle behind us.

When I heard the siren, it never once occurred to me that Steve and I were the ones being "pulled over." And dear blog readers, before you get all self-righteous on me, stop and think of how many times you've done the same thing on a bike. Most of us do it. And most of us do it SAFELY. (Which is exactly why we yell things like "[all] clear!")

So yes, Steve and I were pulled over by a ranger -- and he needed his PA because we didn't realize "he was talking to us." And, as Steve noted later, we would rather have been pulled over for speeding.

But we ran a stop sign.

The ranger began by asking me if I knew what "that octogon sign was for" (no, I am NOT making this up). He proceeded to tell us what we already knew, that cyclists need to follow the rules of the road. He enumerated them for us:
  • Stop at stop signs
  • Obey traffic signals
  • Do not ride along the side to get to the front in a line of traffic (!)
  • etc...
Then came the unbelievable part. He proceeded to blame us for the large number of angry drivers in the park. (Seriously, I'm really NOT making this up.) "People like [Steve and me] were responsible for drivers pulling up alongside cyclists and harassing them." Then came my favorite quote of the day - he noted that Steve "was a big guy so he probably didn't get harassed very often." By that time, my mouth was surely hanging open in disbelief. This ranger had a LOT to say to us. I got the distinct impression he didn't appreciate the situation between cyclists and drivers in the park. And in his mind, it was very likely the fault of the cyclists (NOT the angry drivers) for not obeying the rules of the road (which, according to him, was precisely what MADE the drivers angry).

I may be going out on a limb here, but when I've been riding my bike and someone throws a beer can (or empty whipped cream container) at me or tries to grab me or yell obscenities at me or flip me off (yes, all of those things really happened)... it never occurred to me that it was because I rolled through a stop sign or disobeyed a traffic light. Could I have been wrong all this time? Could it really be MY fault there are so many pissed-off drivers in the world? Maybe that's why that guy hit me with his truck in 2003 - he was angry because I was running the... um.. GREEN light? All I have to say is: BULLSH*T!

I also must mention the expression on Steve's face (was it horror or hilarity?) when the ranger accused us of "going through a stop sign when there was a cop car behind you" -- and my response was: "well.. we didn't KNOW there was a cop car behind us, or ..." You can guess what Steve was expecting me to say. But I decided not to finish the sentence.

We were notified that we COULD have been given tickets. But instead, we were given written warnings -- the ranger took our names and contact info. Sadly, we were given nothing to sign and no white, yellow or pink slips to take home to pin to our bulletin boards (or post on a blog). It begs the question: did it actually even happen? He did tell us this: the information would not be on our "permanent records," but it WILL be entered into a database.

Just in case we decide to break the law again.

And just like that, the disaster magnet has returned in full outlaw force. Steve finished his ride and I continued on to finish mine, on the hills. I didn't enjoy climbing hills after having stopped for so long, but the laughter and disbelief kept me going strong to the end. I finished all 108 miles in 5:25 (the first 100 in P.R. time).

When I got home, I transitioned to run and dragged my husband Jim along on his bike so I could tell him the story of how Steve and I broke the law that day. Because I was talking and laughing, my four-mile run went by lightning-fast, and with plenty of daylight left, I was done with one of my hardest bricks this year.

On Sunday, I woke up late after too much wine with dinner and friends the night before. By mid-afternoon, after spending all morning checking the Ironman Canada tracker to keep tabs on my friend Ron (Punk Rock Tri Guy - who, I might add, did a major ironman PR!) I forced myself out the door for a 20-mile run. Surprisingly, I was able to hold better than a 7:30 mile pace right up until mile 18 -- then my legs started screaming at me and it was all I could do to finish in 2:32.

And I can now say I feel like an endurance athlete once again. A DEVIANT endurance athlete, but an endurance athlete nonetheless.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

You Win Some: USAT Age Group National Championship Race Report

One great thing about Burlington, VT:
Ben & Jerry's
The title of this article is a lyric from the titular song on Mark Knopfler's 2010 album, "Get Lucky," because after my most recent triathlon, I worry that my successes so far this year may have had more to do with good fortune than hard work or talent. And ever since I crossed the finish line on Saturday, I've been asking myself the following question: what can I possibly have to write about my performance in the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championship in Burlington, Vermont?

The only thing I could come up with is this: do you know that feeling you have when you're rested and all ready to race? Yeah... well, I didn't have that feeling on Saturday. In fact, I didn't have that feeling at ALL the entire week. The days leading up to the USAT Nationals were plagued with fatigue, discomfort, and soreness and I should have dropped my performance expectations early in the week to avoid the potential fallout.

Another great thing about Burlington:
Vermont Brews
But I was naive. I tried to ignore it. I tried to shake it off. I tried to think positive. Even when cold hard facts were staring me right smack in the face: I have two Ironman races' worth of fatigue on my body and I'm in the midst of training for a third. No matter how hard I wished and worked for short-race speed, it just wasn't gonna happen. But I tried anyway, and I tried to convince myself it COULD happen.

Now I'm left to pick up the pieces of my wasted self and my shattered self-confidence. And I wonder how much damage was done. To my endurance training. To my attitude. And to my upcoming Ironman in Kona.

Attempting to race well in an Olympic-distance tri at this point in my season was a disaster in the making. Too bad it started so innocently - as a reason to go back to Burlington for the first time since the Vermont City Marathon in 1993 when my husband Jim and I had a great trip despite a disappointing race performance. We loved Burlington. We even bought our wedding rings there. We looked forward to a great trip back 18 years later. And Burlington in 2011 was everything I remembered from 1993 - an awesome city with great restaurants and shopping.

And the last great thing about
Burlington: Church Street performers
My high hopes began to vanish last Wednesday when I spent my time in the pool fighting the water only two days after having my best swim workout this year. By Friday, I was baffled at why my legs felt thick and heavy on the bike after two days off. Running felt about the same. And my swim stroke had no strength at all.

But despite these issues, I surprisingly slept like a rock the night before the race and my usual anxiety was almost nonexistent. I could only chalk it up to a new level of confidence resulting from a great racing season so far.

(Quick note: When I use the word "confidence" in describing my attitude, disaster is looming on the horizon.)

We drove down to the race start around 6:00 am. The transition area and swim were located at Lake Champlain's Waterfront Park. We managed to find parking above the park and had to walk down a steep hill to the transition. My bike had been racked the day before, so all I had to do was set up my transition and decide whether or not to wear a wetsuit in the 74.5-degree water. I had until 8:40 a.m. to make my decision as my age group, women 45-49, would start in the last wave. No one I talked to understood the reasoning behind the start waves - for instance, men 18-24 were in the second-to-last wave and there was a 10-minute gap before the wave start of women 50+. Go figure.

Pre-race line-up, I was the only one stupid enough to
not wear a wetsuit.
The 1.5K swim would be entirely within a breakwall in a boating area along the shore of Waterfront Park and the swim course was a sort of modified "Z" shape. Because of the water temperature, I decided to go with my swimskin instead of a wetsuit to save time in transition (and after Lake Placid, I was convinced the speed advantage of a wetsuit was minimal). By the time I lined up with my wave, I realized I was one of only a handful of athletes not wearing a wetsuit, none of whom were in my wave. I prayed I hadn't made a critical error by not wearing a wetsuit.

The swim start was in deep water adjacent to a set of boat docks. We were funneled to the start area in waves... It gave me the distinct feeling I was getting on an amusement park ride (like a rollercoaster) - and my pre-race anxiety just added to that feeling. To stay warm, I waited until the last possible moment to get into the water, then swam out to the starting area with the rest of my age group. We had to tread water for about 2.5 minutes, and with only about 100 women in my wave, it was much less exciting than what I'm used to in an Ironman race. I could distinctly hear the starter and everyone was relatively well-behaved and quiet. Until we were swimming.

The swim finish - I look much better than I felt
In the short swim to the first turn buoy, I had almost no problem contenting with other swimmers. But after that, I got clobbered several times by a swimmer behind me who seemed to want to swim right up on top of me throughout the the race. I got so annoyed at her that I finally just stopped and did breaststroke for a minute to try get out of her path. Spotting buoys was not easy because there were only a few of them (that didn't even appear to be in a straight line), and at one point we were headed directly into the sun. After the race, several people I talked to complained that they swam well off course because of this.

Throughout the swim, I never really felt good or strong. Instead, I felt like I was flailing around and my stroke never felt reached a normal rhythm. I'm still not sure why this was after having several great training swims recently. It was as though, overnight, I had forgotten how to swim.

I got out of the water and started stripping off my swim-skin while running to my bike. Volunteers were telling us to take it easy with wet grass and mud in the transition zone. I thought my transition could have gone a little quicker as as I donned sunglasses, helmet, number belt and then fumbled with my gel flask. My shoes were clipped to my bike and I ran through the grass and mud hoping my feet didn't get too much dirt and pebbles on them. I didn't have too much trouble slipping into my bike shoes, and getting on my way.

However, after a few minutes, I looked down only to realize that my bike computer was still in sleep mode. I simultaneously realized that I had also not looked at my watch or taken a single split since the start. I was NOT mentally engaged in this race. I took a watch split and started my bike computer, but the damage was already done. (According to the results, my swim spit was 25:39 and my transition was 1:18.)

Bike finish (I look desperate for it to be over)
The 40K bike course was a modified out-and-back along rolling terrain that even encompassed a part of the freeway, I-89. But trust me, in Vermont (or anywhere in my homeland of New England for that matter), it could have been a LOT worse than it was. From the very start my quads felt like they were on fire and no matter what I did, I could not shake it. I tried high and low cadences and nothing could rid me of the feeling that I was in a major state of lactic acid buildup. I went into survival mode and although I passed quite a few people (remember, I started in the last wave), I got passed by several women in my age-group who were out of sight in a matter of minutes. I worked the downhills the best I could but unlike Ironman Lake Placid (IMLP), I was unable to roll by anyone on the uphills. I went into survival mode on the bike and my mind turned hoping I could pull something out on the run. At one point, a woman in my age group passed me and said "there are a LOT in front of us" (assuming age group? who says that?).

Because of the bike computer/watch fail, I didn't know how far I had gone or what my time and average were, so I ignored it and rode as hard as I could to the finish. I didn't think my average would be much faster than 20 mph, but the official split had me at 21 mph. Once I was off my bike, I ran as fast as I could to the rack and tried to stretch out my legs a little for the run. My transition was slow because I struggled a little to get into my shoes, but I did remember to grab my hat and run with it. I wasn't sure where the transition ended and the run began, so once again, I did not take a split until I was actually ON the run course.

Run start - already suffering.
The 10K run started on a very steep uphill right after leaving the transition zone. I didn't feel great running up it, but getting into shuffle mode, I was running much faster than everyone around me so I just went with it. By the time I reached the top, I felt pretty good, decided to lengthen my stride and try to catch as many people as possible. When I started the run, Jim yelled that he thought I was eight minutes behind the age group leader. I knew at that point that I didn't stand a chance of catching her, so I settled on just wanting to have a respectable run.

After the hill, the run course was pretty flat, along residential roads and on a bike path - the same path I remember running on in the 1993 Vermont City Marathon. After the first mile, I was able to hang onto a 6:30 pace for three miles, but by the time I hit mile five, my legs were dead from that overall fatigue, and I had slowed to a 6:45 pace. By the time I crossed the finish line, I was angry, confused and disappointed in myself for not being able to run down more women in my age group. My 10K time was well over 40 minutes, and Jim told me I had finished somewhere around 6th in my age group (it was actually 7th). But what bothered me the most was that it was the first time in three years I was unable to break 2:20 in an Olympic-distance triathlon. (My official run split was 40:53 and my finish time was 2:20:01.)

I paced (both physically and mentally) for a long time afterwards - going over the race in my head to determine what went wrong. The only thing I can come up with is that both my head and body were not ready to race this distance. And I didn't treat it like the "B" or "C" race that it was. My whole season has been focused on Ironman and half-ironman. But I made the mistake of assuming I could perform well at short races when even when training for long ones. (In my running-only days, this was almost always true.) Last year, my 2:14 performance in an Oly-distance race two weeks after IMLP could have been nothing more than a fluke.

So, Burlington, Vermont, would once again be the site of a disappointing race performance, and now I have to determine how to view it as a non-disaster and get on with my season. If it weren't a national championship event, I think it would probably be a little easier. I guess I learned a valuable lesson - not to go to a "big" race and make it a "B" race. It was hard to sit through the awards knowing I could have done better if I had given myself half a chance (like, if I tapered, for instance).

Hanging out after the race with someone
I have great respect for - teammate, blogger,
and Punk Rock Racing Revolutionary,
Frank DeJulius
But there were several good things that came out of the weekend. Jim and I had a wonderful time in Burlington. I got to spend some valuable time talking to two of my Bike Authority Fleet Feet Multisport teammates: Frank DeJulius and Aaron Emig. For various reasons, Frank and Aaron didn't have their best races in Burlington either. After talking with them about their training and racing, I didn't feel so alone in my disappointment. Aaron will be representing the USA at the ITU Age Group World Championship in Beijing on September 10, and he convinced me to sign up for a spot to do the same thing in 2012 in New Zealand (the top 18 in each age group can sign up for Team USA).

So, now I have some big decisions to make for next year - like should I turn my focus from Ironman to short distances for a year? It's an exciting thing to think about, and I know it will be hard for me to give up the long distance training I love. But I have a little bit of time to think it through.

But for now, I have to focus on my new job and my two most important races of the year, the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Las Vegas and the Ironman World Championship in Kona.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Baby Steps, Stepping Stones and Destinations

It's over when the lemur sings.
(AKA: my last great photo as a Zoo employee)
I'm going to veer off my usual topics of training and racing to write about one of the other big aspects of my life. Yes, I'm going to write about "work."

Even though I don't write about it much, my work has always been an important part of my life. I've been through more than one career change (from engineering to art and design to programming to marketing and back to programming) and many employment changes in my 46 years on the planet. The employment change I'm going through right now has been the most stressful and heart-wrenching of them all.

As of yesterday, I am no longer employed at one of my favorite places in the world, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. After five years of working in the Zoo's Marketing department, I've accepted a position as a web developer at the Cleveland Museum of Art. With my background in art history, the museum is, perhaps, the only place in Cleveland for which I would have left the Zoo. It is also, perhaps, a better fit for me -- to be in an information technology environment as opposed to a marketing environment.

For five years at the Zoo, I had hoped to make a difference. A difference that would be noticed by those who loved animals as much as I do. A difference that would be obvious to my employer. And for five years, I felt like I was banging my head against a wall. As a web marketer, I kept trying to push the envelope, and I kept getting my butt kicked for it. I was in a constant state of stress about what I was doing because I never quite "got" the role of being a marketer. I struggled to compete with news organizations for my own news. I begged to institute new technology in an organization that was saddled with the inertia of an outdated mindset and I was tired of hearing everyone use the expression "baby steps." And I finally gave up because I was stuck. I wasn't going anywhere. My supervisor once said to me that we worked in a place that "rewarded mediocrity" -- and in the end, that just wasn't good enough for me.

However, I don't want you to think I don't respect the organization I worked for. I have a deep respect for the institution that is Cleveland Metroparks and Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, and I feel that with the new executive director, the future is wide open and bright. There are positive changes going on internally, and I'm sad that I won't be around to benefit from them. Five years ago, when I accepted the job offer at the Zoo, I was beyond thrilled to have a coveted position working for a place that was, is, and will continue to be, a great source of civic pride. For those reasons and more, leaving my job at the Zoo was one of the hardest decisions I ever had to make.

In my five years at the Zoo, I had an opportunity to learn about animals from the people that love them and work with them most, the animal keepers. Working with keepers to photograph and videotape animals was the most personally rewarding work I have ever done. It became my mission to show the world what a great Zoo we have in Cleveland. And it was my mission to connect people with animals. But I didn't ONLY learn about animals.

In my five years at the Zoo, I learned about people. I made friendships that will stand the test of time, and I found out what true friendship is all about. When I announced my resignation, instead of being sad to see me go, my friends at the Zoo were happy to see me break free of my shackles and hopefully prosper in a different location. I will miss being close to them on a daily basis.

But in my five years at the Zoo, I also learned there is no such thing as the perfect job. I had thought this was it -- to do what I love in a place that I loved. But marketing wasn't the best fit for me -- a passionate idealist who wears her heart on her sleeve and cannot lie. The Zoo's animal care staff dubbed me: "the most non-marketing person in the marketing department." To state it simply, I found the "hard work pays off" ethic does not work in a marketing environment. It was one of the hardest lessons I ever learned. And to this day, I don't think it has truly sunk in.

I leave behind work that I can hang my hat on. I was able to institute several projects that received positive feedback from our Zoo visitors and audience: blogging, video podcasting, a big social media presence, and an iPhone application. I was also able to utilize and refine my creativity with writing, photography and video shooting and editing. I leave knowing that I can visit the Zoo (and my friends there) anytime I want, and I will continue to support its programs though membership and donations.

Now I look to a future in which I may finally reconcile my two seemingly divergent passions (and college degrees): art and computer programming (via engineering). Giving up a marketing position for an IT position will send me back behind the scenes. I made peace with it by reminding myself that my job is not the only creative outlet in my life. I'm also hoping that less stress at work will translate into less stress out of work -- and thus, less stress in my ironman training. And although money was never part of the equation, with increased wages (and a real salary for the first time in ten years), I will be able to afford some of the things I couldn't before -- I may even feel less stressed out when traveling to races because of the huge monetary expenditures they require.

Finally, one of the things I am looking forward to most is getting back into the art world. Being around great art has always been a source of inspiration for me. And I can finally stand up and tell the world (and my parents) that my art degree was not a waste of time.

It was a very round-about way of getting there, but I think I may finally be there.