Friday, February 24, 2012

The Nemesis becomes the Savior

Cleveland roads in February
If you've been reading my blog, you know I've spent more time than most contemplating pre-race anxiety, mid-race splits, and post-race fallout inside the blue translucent walls of a porta-john. But on Saturday, during my longest bike ride since Kona, I found an unexpected advantage of what's inside those plastic walls - and it's likely I never would have finished my ride without it. And oddly enough, it had nothing to do with internal distress of any sort.. well, unless you count panic as internal distress.

I scheduled my first outdoor long ride of the year for last Saturday because it was the best weather day of the weekend. By "best," I mean the forecast high was 40 degrees with only a 20% chance of precipitation (in the form of snow). I had an underlying goal to get my first 100-miler in before the end of February. And after several mind-numbing 4- to 5-hour rides on the CompuTrainer, I knew the only way it would happen was if I could get outside. If the temperature hit at least 40, I would grit my teeth and bear it.

There was one major fault in my logic: I didn't consider the wind.

You may ask: how does a person in Cleveland (in winter) NOT consider the wind? I don't know. Seriously. Call it a momentary lapse or just general scatterbrainedness, but I completely disregarded the wind as a factor in my decision to ride on Saturday. I dressed for sub-30 degrees with windstopper mittens and jacket, and I started out with the wind and uphill - it all served to give me a false sense of security. I was already soaked with sweat by the time I headed north/west and into the wind - and I would learn the true meaning of mind over matter while fighting the wind, wet, and cold for the next three hours.

Being a stubborn masochist, I was determined to see this thing through (the usual recipe for disaster). The other option was to turn around early and finish on the trainer. I don't know about you, but getting a taste of outdoor riding then having to go back inside for many hours was even more horrifying to me than suffering in the cold.

So I gutted it out for three hours into the wind - disappointingly slow - while the feeling in my hands and feet came and went with intermittent sun and snow. I continued only with the knowledge of how wonderful it would feel the when I finally turned around to have wind at my back. All the while, I paid close attention to flags just in case the wind direction threatened to change (don't laugh, it HAS happened on more than one occasion).

First major Gu shipment
The only other thing I wanted to focus on was my nutrition. This ride was my first test of Gu's new Roctane Ultra Endurance drink. It wasn't the best day to practice race nutrition, but I did learn some things. Roctane it is the most palatable thing I've ever had on a long ride. The flavor is not too sweet or too strong for the amount of calories you get. And it gets into your system very quickly, saving me on this ride more than once. Suffering and struggling to keep my bike upright in strong wind and cold, the last thing I wanted to do was take my hand off the bars to grab a water bottle. I consumed very little in those first three hours, but thought about it only when I felt lightheaded and fatigued. Roctane brought me back from near oblivion in just a few minutes. It probably also helped that the lemon-lime flavor has caffeine in it. Whatever it was, it worked! I'm looking forward to using it properly on a ride - instead of the "drink-half-the-bottle-once-an-hour-so-you-don't-have-to-risk-losing-control-of-your-bike" method. The one thing I can't comment about yet is whether Roctane tastes as good warm because, for the first time EVER, I still had ice in my bottles when I finished the ride (no, I am NOT making this up).

At long last, after suffering for many miles along the lakeshore while marveling over the whitecaps (waves in Lake Erie?), I was finally heading back and riding with the wind. My expectation to "be going twice as fast once I turn around" was soon dashed to pieces upon realizing my legs and body were toast from the first three-hour ordeal. It was going to be a long day indeed - but the sun came out and I had some moments of warmth.

That is, right up until I got a flat tire. Only ten miles of cruising with the wind at my back and I was sidelined with a flat - just as the sun vanished behind a layer of dark clouds. I was at about the farthest point from home on a miserable cold windy day. There was only one redeeming thing - it happened at Huntington Beach. There might be shelter there. It didn't change the fact that I still had to take my gloves off... or that my hands were already numb. It didn't change the fact that I still had more than 2.5 hours of riding to do AFTER I stopped to change my tire. I walked my bike to the park hoping I could find shelter from the wind next to a building or something - or in the restroom. But the restrooms were boarded up. I called my husband Jim.

Jim's take on this? "By the time I get to you, you'll already be a popsicle [his exact words]. You better at least attempt to change it.... but call me when you're done so I know you're on your way."

I looked up. There was one possibility for shelter from the wind.. in... you guessed it, a porta-john. No, this wasn't just any porta-john. It was one of those huge blue handicapped ones - big enough to have a party in. It was even big enough to... change a tire in. I opened the door and wheeled in my bike. Sure enough, it fit - with room to spare.

Those plastic walls didn't change the fact it was cold outside. They didn't change the fact that I blew out my back tire. And they didn't change the fact that my fingers were numb. But they did keep me out of the wind, and I was able to get the tire changed in about 10-15 minutes. I might even say the cold was a blessing in this case - my nasal passages were so plugged that I was oblivious to any unpleasant odors. My only regret is that I didn't at least take a picture of the whole scene. I just couldn't risk my compromised fingers dropping my iPhone in porta-john nether regions.

I had only 10 miles of hills to go at this point - I still
didn't make it before dark.
But then came the hard part. Shivering and stiff-legged, I still had to get home before going hypothermic. And there was one more thing I hadn't accounted for: the dark. I had begun my ride at midday - and after extremely slow going and now this, getting home before nightfall was no longer a given.

Once I was back on my bike, I rode extra hard to warm up. I even managed to get the feeling back in my fingers for a bit. But, alas, I couldn't outrun the dark. With about 13 miles left, I called Jim to tell him where I was - and ask him to come find me if it got too dark before I made it home. As usual, it did. I don't remember the sun ever going down that fast. But it was winter. In the northern hemisphere. This is what happens. And I was wearing sunglasses.

I took a slight shortcut home to avoid the dark backroads, and when I finally took the turn onto my my street, I stopped one final time to call Jim and let him know I was almost home. He had already left to find me but turned around and managed to get home just as I pulled in the driveway.

I looked down at my odometer. Devastatingly, it read 99 miles. But I was done. Once I saw the garage door opening, neither my body nor my mind could take another spin around the block. I only hope that what I gained in mental toughness (stupidity?) was worth the extra mile.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Un-balance

Cleveland winters usually keep me training inside
(this was my front yard yesterday)
I've been struggling for weeks to write this blog - mainly because of a lackadaisical attitude towards training for many weeks. I've started my training for Ironman St. George, but I haven't been at all excited about it. Being stuck on the bike trainer for many months was easier - and much more fun - last year than this year, and even though I'm not skipping or skimping on workouts, I just haven't been really enthusiastic during most of them and I've been wracking my brain to figure out why. Here's what I came up with.

January was my month to be wholly unmotivated. I now believe that the reason for this was, simply, my job. I love my new job, and the time I've been putting into it (mentally) has taken me away (mentally) from my other great passion, training.

It's ironic that the reason for my return to racing in 2008 after a four-year hiatus, was also, simply, my job. That job (at the Zoo) had become a source of disappointment when I learned that hard work and dedication was irrelevant to my opportunities for advancement. I was "stuck." Eventually, I came to terms with it - because, fundamentally, I loved the work (and it's true, if you love what you do, it's not really work at all). But as always, I needed an outlet for the energetic and goal-oriented side of my personality and I already knew that racing could satisfy that urge. Recommitting myself to Ironman finally paid off three years later,  when I was able to make good on my nine-year-old promise from 2002 to one day return to Kona.

For the last three years, dedicating myself to training was easy because, like clockwork, something coincidentally disappointing at work would happen in January or February and reignite the passion to be a better athlete. But this year was different. This year there was no need to recommit because of work woes. This year I find myself in a very rewarding position at The Cleveland Museum of Art. I am surrounded by like-minded, energetic, and hard-working cohorts. Some of them are also athletes. And instead of fueling my passion for training and racing, my coworkers and supervisors have fueled my passion for my work. I am once again fully engaged in my job and spending more time at it than necessary - not because I "have" to, but because I "want" to.

And because I'm one of those people who can't do anything half-assed, this has once again become a curse as I desperately try to create balance among all the things I want and have to do. I just can't DO everything with maximum engagement. Upsetting the balance this year has actually created a new level of anxiety and stress that I'm currently having trouble coming to grips with.

Since the beginning of February, I've worked to put motivation back into my training but new stresses are revealing themselves. Now that the motivation is back, the gains do not seem to be coming. Or maybe it's too early to tell. I have always worried about a point at which my age becomes a major factor in the "hard work pays off" ethic, and I'm worried I may be reaching that point. In the past three weeks, I'm not seeing gains in power on the trainer despite working myself to exhaustion. The same is happening in the pool. The only place where my training seems to be paying off is on the treadmill where I've seen gains in speed over time by doing intervals. Based on the other two sports, I reason that my running had become very slow to begin with so it's no big deal that I got faster.

The question I keep asking myself is: how much longer can I keep it up if I don't see more positive results? In contrast to my worried assessment, my husband Jim (usually the voice of reason) keeps telling me I said the same thing last year. All I can say now is, I hope he's right.