Friday, March 30, 2012

A Vacation From/For Work/Training

The view from our vacation
This month, I was "forced" to use a few days of work vacation carried over from last year. It's weird to actually get vacation time, and I wasn't aware I even HAD it until late December. At that point, it was too late to use it. Besides, I was ridiculously busy at work during the December holidays (isn't everyone?). Using vacation time has not always been easy for me, and because I only received three days per year for the past five years, the time I DID take off was either to race or get out of town for a couple days. Faced with three days of use-or-lose time, I had NO idea what to do with it - indecision was compounded by the fact I was in the last two months of Ironman training.

My husband Jim and I tossed around many ideas - London, San Francisco, Cape Cod, Arizona. We finally decided that where we went had to meet the following criteria: (1) somewhere warm, (2) close enough to drive to bring my bike, and (3) there had to be a place to swim. Despite my pleading to Jim that Cape Cod in March would be AMAZING (not based on my own experience but on my reading of Henry Beston's The Outermost House), we opted for a place we could both enjoy for the first time: the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Cape Cod or Outer Banks?
The Outer Banks would afford me my "Cape Cod fix" - they're both strips of land with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and a bay on the other, mostly covered with sand and dunes. It would afford my aeronautical engineer husband a visit to the birthplace of aviation - Kill Devil Hills - where the Wright Brothers changed the world. Jim could fly his stunt kites (after all, the WIND is THE reason the Wright Brothers chose the area), and I could bike, run AND swim. This time, we also chose to "take a [real] vacation" by traveling during one of my recovery weeks - eliminating my need to be up by 5:00 am every day or feel guilty about spending the whole time trying to fit my workouts in.

Soon to be shark bait
Thus, it seems, when I don't worry about my workouts, I actually enjoy them. Or maybe it was just the change of scenery. When we woke up on Friday, the first athletic thing I HAD to do (and an obligation as a fish in a former life) was swim in the Atlantic Ocean. After almost freaking myself out by Googling "Outer Banks" and "sharks," (don't do it), my love of the Atlantic still won out - and besides, I felt the need to test my ability to persevere on May 5 in the frigid waters of Sand Hollow Reservoir in St. George. I donned my wetsuit - AND neoprene cap AND neoprene socks - and jumped in the extremely cold water. This resulted in instant disaster: two failed attempts to keep my face in the icy water for more than a minute, and I gave up. It was painfully cold - achy cold. Jim took out his phone and looked up the water temperature online - I assumed he would tell me it was in the 40s.

And that was the day I learned my temperature sensors were in desperate need of recalibration. Just up the coast, at Kitty Hawk, the ocean was 56 degrees F. Realizing it was time to "face" the facts, I reluctantly turned around and forced myself back in the water. About five minutes of swimming in that water gave me some new information - the aching pain in my face DID, indeed, go away. It was replaced by numbness.

The most bothersome effect of the cold, though, was losing control over my fingers. Numbness in my hands resulted in the inability to keep them in a paddle shape after 30 minutes. I decided to call it a day. Based on this swim, I predict that I COULD survive in St. George if the water were 56 degrees on race day (a very real possibility). However, just in case, I have resorted to prayer - for a six-week heatwave to hit southern Utah.

My second athletic endeavor was to run on the beach - one of my all-time favorite things to do. The only thing I did wrong was forget to bring sunscreen. And not wear my hat. My forehead and shoulders were therefore burnt to a crisp, which was advantageous in the greater scheme of things because they now matched the colors on my neck from my wetsuit chafing (yeah, that's from also forgetting to bring Body Glide).

No explanation necessary
By Saturday, the only athletic thing left to do was ride my bike, and since it was my "easy" week, I had only planned a three-hour workout. I got up early to avoid greatly impacting our vacation, and by the time I finished, I figured it would be just about time for breakfast. Before I left, I looked at the forecast to note the wind was from the south - and since there are only two direction options in the Outer Banks - either north or south, I (obviously) chose "into the wind." It would give me an opportunity to see Cape Hatteras National Seashore in the early morning light and hopefully get a glimpse - and photo - of one of its famous lighthouses along the way. Our tourist guide noted that the ride is "good for riders of all abilities" because there was only one hill, and it was man-made - the bridge.

Bodie Island lighthouse
It seemed like a match made in heaven: me, my bike, and two of my favorite things - bridges and lighthouses. I set out that morning with the excitement of a kid on an adventure. Seriously, after many months of tedious ironman training, it surprised me that I was still able to get "up" for a ride. It must mean that deep down I enjoy it, right?

My first observation was this: you know you're in trouble when the plants and grasses along your route are so badly windswept that they have been permanently bent in the direction opposite to the one in which you're riding. With only one quarter of the ride finished, my nerves were almost completely fried from non-stop fighting with the wind. The ridiculously flat road was beckoning for speed - it was taunting me! But the wind had other plans. Reaching a decent speed on the bike (I managed to hit 21 mph, big whoop) meant I had to force myself to remain the aero position. Don't get me wrong, this was excellent aero training for Ironman. But not so good for sightseeing - and yes, I DO enjoy looking at sand dunes.

You should also realize that the wind will be a factor in a place where all the telephone poles have to be anchored with guy-wires. And yet, when I think back to it, the most annoying thing of all was that the wind, at 8-10 mph, wasn't even blowing that hard! I stopped a couple times to take photos, but for the most part, the first half of my ride was basically 30 miles into the wind averaging a dismal pace of less than 19 mph. I KNEW the ride back would have to be somewhat faster - ok, I HOPED it would be faster because I didn't want to spend the rest of my (our) day sulking in my slowness.

The one hill on route 12
I decided to turn around when I reached 30 miles, just before reaching the town of Rodanthe, about an hour and forty minutes after I started.

That's when everything changed. The next one hour and twenty minutes of my life served to eradicate the memories of all those agonizing battles with the wind when it changed direction with me on the Erie lakefront. I was no longer in the midwest and I was finally able to truly experience the exhilaration that is a direct tailwind. In just a few seconds after turning my bike around, I hit 25 mph. I rode that wind all the way back, comfortably in the aero position, averaging 22-23 mph with a max speed on the flat road of 28.5 mph. It was with very little effort at all. 

On my return, I mused about this ride - it was absolutely devoid of potholes and angry drivers. The biggest hazards for bikers (and drivers) along the Outer Banks is blatantly listed on road signs: "Caution Sand on Road," "Caution High Crosswinds [on the bridge]," and "Caution Coastal Flooding." What I wouldn't give to see two of those signs on a regular basis. You can guess which one I would happily do without.

The rest of our vacation was spent watching the Ohio State Buckeyes make it to the NCAA Basketball Final Four and enjoying local food and brews. All-in-all, it was not only a respite from work and working out hard, but it also renewed my faith that I still love my chosen sport(s). Now all I need to do is remind myself of that - on race day.

The Wright Brothers proved anything is possible.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Dreaded Plateau

The Colorado plateau, near the edge of southern Utah.
When I was a kid, I loved the word "plateau." It was something huge, expansive, and awesome. It was something I dreamed of seeing someday - the great plateaus "out west." In fifth grade, I even chose to write a report about the state of Wyoming because it had cool things like buttes and plateaus (note: I still have never been there).

Then, at the age of 14, I became a competitive swimmer, and the word plateau took on a whole new meaning. My happy association of the word plateau with an awe-inspiring rock formation was lost forever. The plateau became the point at which I couldn't go any faster in the water, and I entered the seemingly-never-ending struggle to break through whatever was holding me back from reaching my goal times. The plateau was maddening. The harder I worked to get past it, the more frustrated I became. And then, like clockwork every year, our coach would taper us - and I wouldn't just break through the plateau, I would crush it by several seconds (in a 100-yard race, that was a monumental feat). And it was always perfectly planned so that it happened in the most important meet of the year.

Indeed, in spite of the many plateaus I have faced as an athlete, I had almost forgotten the true meaning of that word until yesterday. I was talking to my good friend and fellow athlete, Ron, about training for Ironman St. George. He mentioned that he was making progress at running, but he was having trouble getting any faster on the bike.

I couldn't help but smile to myself and think: "welcome to the plateau."

After years of celebrating only the finishing of endurance events (his endeavors hilariously-documented on his blog), Ron has recently discovered that he enjoys getting faster. Last year he clocked several PRs and has been thirsty for more in 2012. And now that he's been getting faster almost on a daily basis, it was inevitable that he must deal with the dreaded plateau.

Thus, I'm writing this blog in solidarity. To tell my friend that the plateau is not necessarily a bad thing. That there will eventually be a breakthrough. That even when the training appears to be "not making [him] any faster," there are gains being made. It will all become clear. Because that's really what the taper is all about. Muscles will adapt, and this particular plateau will become a memory left behind in the dust. New ones may rise in its place, but hopefully not.

And there are more than just athletic plateaus. There are things like weight-loss plateaus as well. My husband Jim is coincidentally experiencing one of his own. He has recently added strength training to his regular aerobic workouts, and his weight loss seems to have hit a plateau (much to his discouragement). All I have is those same words of wisdom: hang in there, the body just needs to (and will) adjust.

I'm sure there are all sorts of physiological explanations to clarify what a plateau really is. But I'm not a physiologist. I'm just a person who has worked hard and seen them fall, again and again. And believe me when I say that those moments are the sweetest of all. Because it seems like you didn't have to do anything. It seems like it just happens. And that makes all the hard work worth it.

In closing, I'd like to point out that St. George is, geographically, also surrounded by plateaus. And it's about time for a breakthrough.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Road to St. George 2012 is Paved with Data

Time to put on my goggles and look at data.
It's that time again - time to go all "mad scientist."

Choosing to do an early-season Ironman when you live in the northern U.S. is a huge commitment. It means many weekends of indoor long rides and runs. Mostly alone. It means if you run outside, you spend most of your time running in the dark. Alone. It means frozen hair after every swim. It means very few opportunities to race before the Ironman (unless you have the budget). And it means difficulty in simulating race conditions during training. But if you tough it out, you stand at that starting line knowing that you have developed not only physical strength, but a new degree of mental strength because of the harsh training conditions.

Because I spent January through April training for Ironman St. George last year, I already knew I had the physical and mental fortitude to tough it out. What I didn't know was whether I WANTED to do it all again. But I made the commitment before thinking it through because Utah was good to (and for) me. Now there's no turning back and nine weeks separate me and my early-season Ironman.

The difference this year is that I know what to expect from the terrain and the weather in St. George. This can be a blessing or a curse. I know how to race St. George, but now I have expectations for my performance. And despite a decent performance, things did go wrong last year - there's that problematic nutrition thing hovering over my head like a storm cloud.

To give myself the best chance for a good race in St. George, I need to keep my anxieties in check. There are two things that will help me do that: I must define realistic goals and expectations about my race and I must formulate an intelligent race plan. Yesterday, I started digging for my realistic set of expectations.

Expectations should be simple and based in fact: I should know what I'm capable of from experience and by testing my limits in training. Despite this, emotion almost always gets in my way - and it goes BOTH ways: my expectations can become hopes (of good performance), or my expectations can become self-fulfilling prophecies (of poor performance). So I must go back to the egg, to the only way I know to remove the emotion from my racing - data! I needed something concrete - a one-to-one comparison. And I knew exactly how to get it.

On March 4, 2011, nine weeks before Ironman St. George 2011, I rode a loop of the Ironman St. George RacerMate Real Course Video. Saturday was March 3 - exactly nine weeks before Ironman St. George 2012. If I were to ride the Ironman St. George Real Course Video this past weekend, I would HAVE my one-to-one comparison. Same weekend, same course, in training for the same race - this would surely be excellent data to compare and draw conclusions from.

So that's what I did. On Saturday, without looking at last year's performance, I got on the CompuTrainer, warmed up, and pulled up the St. George course. To be totally fair, there were some differences:

  • I rode earlier in the day than I did last year (yep, the stats file was date- and time-stamped).
  • I was not using the same nutrition regimen as last year - I have switched to Gu Roctane drink, and I am still in the process of determining my electrolyte needs with this new fuel.
  • And finally, I was watching different movies. This year, as TV scheduling would have it, I was treated to Goodfellas, and I can't say this didn't affect my ride intensity - although I don't know what I watched last year or even if it was a gangster movie (which, I argue, trumps all film genres for long trainer sessions).
Sunday morning, I plotted points - this year's ride vs. last year's. After Excel threatened to make the data analysis harder than the ride itself, I called in my husband Jim, the Excel-whisperer, to finish up, and here is the result - a set of comparison graphs of speed, power, heart rate, and cadence. The first plot (top) is the St. George bike course profile (the start plus one loop).

I was looking for notable differences. In the case of power and speed, I wanted the blue line (this year's ride) to be higher than the red line (last year's ride). And for heart rate and cadence, I wanted the opposite to be true. Although it wasn't overly notable, I was relatively successful in three of the statistics and horribly unsuccessful in one: heart rate.

The heart rate stat was confusing for more than one reason. While I was riding, my perceived exertion was relatively low but I noticed (and wondered why) my heart rate seemed high. I don't know if sustaining a higher heart rate (even with a lower perceived exertion) is something to worry about. I'm happy I could ride with my heart rate so high for so long and not be seriously affected by it, but I find myself wondering if it's a sign of overtraining - or something worse. What's more confusing is that usually my heart rate and cadence go hand in hand (pedal faster - heart rate goes up). This is the exact opposite of what happened in the two rides. I've also read that dehydration can raise your heart rate, so that's also an avenue to explore. I need to figure out what's going on with my heart rate before race day.

Another confusing stat was the lower average power output and higher speed over the last ten or so downhill miles of the course. Both Jim and I got hung up on that one. If you think about it, in the real world, coasting downhill is speed without power, right? But on the trainer, there must be power to make the wheel move at all and more power = more speed, right. I feel like an idiot here, but it's baffling me. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense - higher speed at same power (= higher gear?) = good, right? Ok, now that I wrote it down.. the more I think about it, the less it makes sense. If anyone has a clue, help me out. I was calibrating the CT every half-hour - so, unless it's broken (eek), that wasn't the problem.

The other thing I learned on this ride was more about my nutrition requirements (and, something that might back-up the theory of elevated heart rate due to dehydration). After the one IMSG loop was finished, I kept riding because I had a longer ride planned. I did no additional electrolyte supplementation because I needed a starting point for the Roctane. Near the end of the ride, I got really nauseous. I took two Thermolytes - it took a few minutes to recover, but I did recover, and then I felt much better. In my upcoming long rides, I will further refine these needs, and, perhaps, warm up the temperature in the room because, on race day in southern Utah, it could be 90 degrees or worse - and the heat seems to be where everything falls apart nutritionally for me.

Now.. about that swimming and running data...

Friday, March 2, 2012

Trying to Reason with Yesterday's Season

My 2011 season, in metallic form.
The post title was taken from my favorite Jimmy Buffett song (don't judge me, punk rockers): "Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season." But unlike the singer, I can't just stumble next door to the bar for a bloody mary and make the memory of my 2011 season go away. (Well, at least not long-term.)

But seriously, this morning, my race watch was staring at me. It hasn't been on my wrist since October, and it occurred to me that I still haven't looked at my splits from the marathon portion of last year's Ironman Kona. This is in total opposition to my obsessive-compulsive nature. I record my splits after ALL races - even the bad ones. In the case of the bad ones, I eventually review them with a clearer (read: less emotional) mind. And I usually do it right after the race in case I accidentally clear the watch - or worse, in case the watch battery dies.

But after Kona, I stopped wearing that particular watch. I couldn't even look at it - or those splits. Looking at the splits meant I had to relive the unraveling of my Kona marathon, and even now, it's still too much to bear. And so, like a broken record, I ask myself the question once more - why am I dwelling on the ONE race that went (horribly) wrong after so many went right?

Maybe it's BECAUSE so many went right - my expectations had finally risen. Maybe it's because I (mistakenly) viewed Kona as the most important race of the year, disregarding all other performances as "just warm-ups." You'd think I'd be used to it by now, being the Disaster Magnet an' all. But for me, disaster fallout, like speaking in front of a group when you have stage fright, never gets easier. Today, when I look in the mirror, I see someone who is always one step away from the the brass ring. I also see someone who is tired, and confused, and feeling her age - and trying really hard not to "be too hard on myself" and not to give up.

And if I eventually succeed with having that great race at the end of the year, will that be enough?

I suppose not, but it's not entirely out of the question. I HAVE reached goals in the past that allowed me to put things to rest. After running a sub-2:50 marathon, I realized I couldn't run much faster with my genetics and training time. Trying harder would have been a losing battle. I let it go to avoid more scars, more injuries, and more reasons to hate myself. I accomplished my running goal - I ran in the Olympic marathon trials. I was never delusional enough to think I could finish any better than almost last. I managed one more marathoning feat after that - I proved to myself that the sub-2:50 wasn't a fluke. Then I hung up my marathoning shoes (so to speak.. I still run marathons, but not with the zeal I had in the late 1990s).

I wish my trip back to Kona in 2011 was good enough. But I can't help but view it as another missed opportunity. I expected more out of myself, especially after a great year of learning how to race and how to approach racing. When I try to look back at a season of successes, I lapse into just reliving the mistakes and embarrassment of Kona. For crying out loud, I've become the embodiment of the the oft-spoken-in-jest expression: "you're only as good as your last race."

Then there's that growing-up-background-mental-programming thing. I was raised in a family of overachievers. The more my brothers and I accomplished as athletes and students, the happier my parents were. And when "winning" was down, the atmosphere hung heavy over my house. Whether it was us kids or our parents that took losses the hardest, it never really mattered in the long run. Winning was good. Not winning was bad. It was the same for grades. A's were good. B's (and lower) - bad.

I grew up thinking if I wasn't the best, I was a failure. No one remembers who came in second, right? Seriously, it's like a joke - like that line from Talledega Nights (yes, I AM going to quote Ricky Bobby): "If you're not first, you're last." I LIVED that. Every time I didn't win, it gave me one more reason to hate myself. And I assumed everyone else hated me too. I spent most of my formative years apologizing to my family, friends, and coaches for being a disappointment. Sometimes it seems like the only thing I know how to do.

But what really matters at this moment is if and how I can let go of last season so it doesn't continue to haunt me. I need to look it in the face and tell it to go away once and for all.

And along came a glimmer in the distance that might just be the shovel I need to bury 2011 once and for all. USA Triathlon announced their age group athletes of the year, and I somehow managed to garner an honorable mention in the master's category. I keep thinking it must be a fluke. Did they see how poorly I performed at Kona? Or at the USAT National Championship? Someone must have missed something in the details. Isn't it like the Oscars? Doesn't the end of the season matter more?

Maybe things are a little different in the real world - you know, the one outside my head.

And it may just be time to go write those splits down.