Monday, June 25, 2012

The (Dis)Comfort Zone

South Haven Beach, early a.m., June 23, 2012
My 2012 triathlon season has gotten off to a rough start, but I'm determined to get it back on track before August. I don't have much choice because August and September will find me with my back up against a wall facing three very important races all within four weeks of each other: the USAT Age Group National Championship (Olympic distance), Ironman Louisville, and the Ironman 70.3 World Championship.

The first thing I wanted (had) to do to convince myself that last year was not a fluke was to finish a race. And so I did (finish a race). It was the South Beach Triathlon in South Haven, Michigan, on June 23. An Olympic-distance race that served as a special qualifier for the USAT Nationals, it would surely produce fast times and I would have to push myself.

Race support would have preferred
sleeping in.
The venue for this race (South Haven Beach) was fantastic - it's on the shore of Lake Michigan but looks more like an ocean beach than a lakefront - the water was crystal clear and there's even a sandbar. I was almost expecting to taste salt water when I got in to warm up.

I had no idea what to expect out of myself in the swim, so I started wide to avoid getting clobbered in the first 50 meters. The 1500-meter course started about 500 meters up from the finish and made a strange almost-triangular shape. Before the first turn buoy, I was out of the mix and swam mostly alone for the entire course. I had very little trouble sighing buoys and navigating around people because the water was very calm and it was a beautiful clear day. The air temperature at the start was between 65 and 70 degrees, and the very shallow water (I swear, you could have walked the entire swim course) felt much warmer than the quoted 66 degrees. I wore my wetsuit anyway because I needed practice getting out of it (In Ironman races, I let the wetsuit peelers do it).

In fact, I had practiced getting out of my wetsuit and getting into my running shoes (the two slowest parts of my transitions) in the week leading up to the race. Which made it appropriate, then, that I would have problems with the things I DIDN'T practice. Like getting my helmet on. And running.

When I reached the swim finish, I heard my husband Jim yell "great swim." Considering I've been managing only two swims per week, I was surprised to look down and see 23 minutes on my watch. My swim speed may or may not be attributed to something I tried for the first time in this race. Yes, I KNOW I should NEVER do this, but it was a harmless adjustment: based on a little video I wandered across the night before the race, I tried to lengthen my stroke by rotating my hips instead of my shoulders (something I could never get right, but the video demo turned on a lightbulb). I felt the effect immediately, which was good because after going out too hard, I was able to get my heart rate back under control. I'll be practicing this as soon as I get back in the pool.

You try running in the water and checking your watch
at the same time.
Then came transition - from a wetsuit standpoint, it went well. From a helmet standpoint, not so well. I never thought to practice putting my aero helmet on with my new sunglasses, and wouldn't you know, it was havoc. I lost at least 30 seconds if not more, but the lesson is clear: practice EVERY aspect of transition no matter how small of a deal it seems.

The 40K bike started on a short uphill from the beach. I wasn't sure how my legs would react to being pushed for speed on the bike for a change, so in the week leading up to this race, I did a hard speed session on the road to reacquaint myself with traveling faster than 20 mph. (This is not something I recommend in "taper" mode, but I wasn't tapering for this race, and I needed something, anything, to help me get a grip on "speed").

The bike course was relatively flat with some rolling hills, but I was able to hold 21-22 mph for most of it. I beat one woman out of transition and I passed two other women on the "out" portion of the bike course. But at the turnaround, I noticed two women right behind me (not the women I already passed). My legs weren't screaming, but I was working them hard, and although I had a fast swim and was faster on the bike this year, I was certainly not stupid enough to think I could hold off the inevitable faster female bikers. I was still leading through 25K, when I was passed by the only woman who covered the course faster than I did that day. She didn't really blow by me, so I figured all I had to do was keep her in sight and hopefully catch her on the run. I tried to stay behind her, albeit out of her drafting zone.

The reason I wrote "out of her drafting zone" was because right after she passed me, something extremely odd happened. We both passed a pack of men, and one of them swerved to the left as I was passing him (apparently he didn't hear me). My knee-jerk reaction was to say "sorry."

His reaction, on the other hand, was bizarre: he immediately started screaming at me. I couldn't hear what he was saying, but he hung beside me and continued to yell. With profanity. I though maybe he was angry and blamed me for the near-collision, but I just wanted to get past him and get on with my race. Then I realized he was saying something about drafting. He was yelling "don't you know there's no drafting in triathlon?!?!" Did he think I was drafting off him? I dropped back, waited and then passed him again. He started screaming at me again - I was able to make out: "ride your own race." That hurt. If there was one thing I WAS doing on Saturday it was riding my own race - of which he only witnessed a microcosm.

He chased down the woman who passed me and started saying something to her. It was THEN I realized he was accusing me of drafting off HER. Seriously?? I was working quite hard to stay OUT of her draft zone because she kept speeding up and slowing down. The angry self-appointed referee dropped back to yell profanities at me again - this time saying he was going to "yell out my number."

Having never experienced this before, I didn't know how to react. USAT has conduct rules, and the last thing I wanted to do was violate them. I wanted to defend myself. I wanted to point out that HE was actually the one guilty of drafting. In the end, I decided the best course of action was none - and continued my race. But I'd be lying if I said the whole experience didn't rattle my mental and physical state. It took several minutes to calm down and regain my focus.

By the time I was out of his anger zone-of-influence, the bike leg was almost finished, and I would soon find out what my running legs were capable of in a short race. I finished the bike leg just over 1:05, had a relatively quick transition into my running shoes, and I was off, chasing the female biker who passed me.

The 10K run started on the same hill as the bike, and it was similar to the bike course - gradual rolling with one other hill at the turnaround. The temperature was probably approaching 80 degrees at this point, but the air was dry so it was pretty comfortable. My only problem was that I had NO SPEED in my legs. I almost stopped to have a conversation with them: "Why are you doing this to me? You used to be fast! What's the deal?" But no matter how hard I tried, my leg turnover just wasn't there. The only gait my legs seemed to know was the marathon shuffle.

Awkward doesn't begin to describe finishing on a beach.
After passing the one woman, I had no idea where I was in the race, and I only knew who was behind me and never saw the one woman who remained in front of me - even at the turnarounds, I never saw her. The final few hundred meters of the race was on the beach sand, and when I hit the beach, I heard the announcer say that the top two women were now "on the beach" - I turned around to check if there was one just behind me, but unfortunately, the winner was about 30 seconds in front of me. I never knew she was there. Even if I did, I don't think I could have caught her.

I ended up with a run time just over 42 minutes. It was several minutes slower than my best and even though I felt like I was maxed out on the run, I was disappointed that I maxed out at such a slow pace. Seriously, I don't want to blame this one on age, but something in me fears that sub-40 10Ks are a thing of the past.

Mentally, I'm fighting it.

Even two days later, I'm still fighting it.

Yeah, I'm smiling - I finally finished
a race.
But back to race day: I was mostly satisfied with my final time of 2:14:27. When I went to pick up my bike in transition after the race, I may have found a new calling. There was a young woman sitting in transition next to her stuff. She was on the phone and broken down in tears. It was heartbreaking. After she got off the phone, I felt compelled to help. I asked her if she was ok and if there was anything I could do. She said, and I quote: "No, I'm ok, I just had a really. bad. race."

Did she know who she was talking to? I thought to myself: YES! Now HERE was something I KNEW I could help with.

I told her I was sorry, and I knew exactly how she felt. Then I told her about the beginning of MY season. About Ironman St. George. And Mooseman. And that I had yet to FINISH a race this year. Within 5 minutes, she was standing up, talking, smiling and thanking me.

It felt good. Almost like everything happens for a reason.

And now, here I stand, with the knowledge that my usual bugaboo - biking - is not nearly the enigma it's been for the past ten years. And the only things standing between me and a better season are the very two things that I know I have the ability to excel at: swimming and running.

Getting there is going to hurt. But I can't think of a better position I'd rather be in right now.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Pulling a Season out of the Ashes

All systems are GO for it
Since my last post, more disasters are brewing, but I refuse to go down for the count. Procrastination and general malaise contributed to my next failure - to register for the USAT Age Group National Championship in Burlington, Vermont. And, wouldn't you know it? The race sold out this year (earlier than ever before). I had the option to do one of three things: drop back 15 yards and punt, find another means to qualify, or sign up on a waiting list (and pray - ok, that's a fourth thing).

This decision was much more difficult than you might think...

In addition to illness, my current racing slump, and overall funk, there were other reasons I waited so long to register for Burlington. Last year - well before deciding on Ironman St. George again - I registered for that other Ironman the last weekend in August: Ironman Louisville.

But by mid-winter, Ironman St. George entered into my plan after noticing Louisville was only two weeks prior to the IM 70.3 World Championship in Vegas. With that "one-two," I couldn't possibly expect good performances in both races. So I added St. George as an early-season and best-potential Kona qualifier (having done well there in 2011), with Louisville as the back-up.

But now - unless I change my 2012 goals - Louisville has taken center-stage, and Vegas (where I'll be the returning champ in my age group) is beginning to look like the sacrificial lamb. The only positive spin I can find is that training for Ironman has always made doing a 70.3 seem easy. And in all seriousness, I fully expect to be faced with a difficult decision while I'm in the midst of Ironman Louisville - to choose which race is more important.

If this weren't enough to deal with, another question loomed: what about Age Group Nationals?

Yes, with my ever-present lack-of-foresight, a few months ago I realized the following two things:
  1. The 2013 ITU Age Group World Championship will be held in one of my favorite cities on earth and a place where I have many friends - LONDON! And the way to qualify for it is.... 
  2. The USAT Age Group Nationals in Burlington, scheduled to take place the weeked before IM Louisville.
I was really screwed. If I wanted to go to London (which I do, perhaps even more than Kona), I would have to race in Burlington (and do well). Did it even matter that it was only eight days before Louisville?

And so what did I do when Burlington sold out? Isn't it obvious?

I maximized my chances of getting in.

I added myself to the waiting list (duh!), AND, after pondering the situation for more than a week and hearing nothing from USAT re: the waiting list, I made a desperation registration - a special qualifier next weekend in Michigan - the South Beach Triathlon. It's an Olympic-distance race in South Haven, Michigan, that qualifies the top five in each age group to race in Burlington. It was the only qualifier even remotely within driving distance from my house (just over five hours).

Then, wouldn't you guess? Only a few hours after I registered for South Beach, I received an email from USAT that I was no longer on the waiting list, and I had, indeed, been officially registered for Burlington as well.

It figures.

Then the reality of it hit me: I'm now looking down the barrel at my three most important races of the season - three races of vastly different distances and training requirements - all within four weeks of one another.

OK, I'm game. I'll give it a go. I'll be forced to do speed work and it will make me really strong. And if nothing else, it will be a learning experience. Besides, can it get much worse after two DNF's already this year?

Wish me luck. Or just pray (with me). If you remember, that was an option in the list too.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Agrajag (a.k.a., Return to the Status Quo)

Oh No Not Again!
(Like in 2010, the Mooseman transition
was a flood zone on Sunday.)
One of my favorite fiction passages ever written is a scene in Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in which a sperm whale and a bowl of petunias are improbably called into existence high above the planet Magrathea. It was one of those (very few) teenage moments during which I found myself not only reading but in hysterics behind a closed bedroom door at 3 am. I remember my mother bursting into my room to find me not only NOT crying, but - the horror! - still awake, and READING... and - even more horror! - it was an UNASSIGNED novel. Anyway, to get back to the story, the hilarious passage finds the sperm whale proceeding to fully come to grips with its existence in the brief moments during which it falls to the surface of the planet. But what about the bowl of petunias, you ask? Here's the quote:
"Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as it fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the Universe than we do now."
(Note: SPOILER ALERT if you've not read but plan on reading The Hitchhiker's Guide series, skip the next paragraph)

Readers find out two books later in Life, the Universe and Everything that this scene introduces one of the great "minor" characters in the more-than-three books of The Hitchhiker's trilogy. It's also one of my all-time favorite characters, the "tragic" figure Agrajag. Agrajag's fate is to be continuously reincarnated and subsequently killed (accidentally and unwittingly) by Adams' protagonist Arthur Dent.

Why am I telling you this? Because I became more-than-intimately acquainted with the "Oh no not again" sentiment as history repeated itself - more than once, even - this weekend. On Sunday, I was the victim of nightmarish déjà vu - an almost uncanny duplication of circumstances in both events and symptoms (as the case may be). Unfortunately for me, the déjà vu was of two events from 2010 combined into one.

My husband Jim would say I didn't need to, but as usual, I did a desperate search for some kind of redemption race after Ironman St. George. We decided the Mooseman 70.3 fit the bill and planned a quick (12-hour-drive) New Hampshire weekend trip. Mooseman was a race I knew and loved, not only because it takes place in my beloved New England, but because I had performed well there in 2010. It was a race that might also, perhaps, allow me to capitalize on all the bike hill training I had done before St. George. Mooseman was so near-and-dear to me that I had also planned to race it in 2011, but a bike crash and resulting broken rib kept me from the starting line.

Had I raced last year, I might not be telling this story. Because the lessons I learned this weekend would have been last year's lessons and would have (hopefully) already been rammed home, burned into memory, and part of the process. But they weren't. And so, on Sunday, I was forced to relive a painful and identical experience from my racing past - from a DIFFERENT race even - the Kinetic Half in Spotsylvania, Virginia.

The 2010 Kinetic Half (read the race report) was the race that taught me about my allergy issues. Not just any issues, mind you, but full-blown asthma that can be triggered by spring tree pollen. I had my first (and at the time, only) asthma attack at (what appeared to be) the beginning of the Kinetic 13.1-mile run. A never-before-experienced shortness of breath on the bike leg was replaced by a desperate gasping for air when I started the run. I ended up in an ambulance. Later that day, it occurred to me that even my swim had been compromised by the allergic reaction - during the swim I experienced an uncomfortable struggle to breathe that I had chalked up to: "Jeanne, you went out WAY too fast."

Panicked by the whole experience, I saw an allergist who did a complete work-up only to conclude: "You are allergic to Spring." "Anything about spring in particular?" "No, just Spring." It turns out that all the tree pollens of spring are allergens to my body. She recommended training indoors all spring long and aggressive treatment for a few months every March starting in 2011. But her treatment plan was revoked by her replacement who had a different diagnosis. The new allergist concluded my asthma was a one-time thing, more likely the result of a "perfect storm" of conditions that day in Virginia. She wanted to wait and see what happened in spring 2011 instead of dosing me up with inhalers and drugs before we knew more.

The only race I did in Spring 2011 was Ironman St. George, to which she gave the green light because it was a race in desert conditions with minimal, if any, tree pollen. Right after St. George, I crashed my bike and my spring racing season (and thus my Spring allergy assessment) was forever lost in the wake of a broken rib.

Cue up Spring 2012. The last time I did Mooseman was 2010. It was only a few weeks after the Kinetic Half. Needless to say, I was in full-blown allergy-scare mode. Allergy meds and inhaler were now part of my race checklist and transition gear. Asthma didn't stand a ghost of chance. But as of this weekend, I have been without an allergy-induced (or any) asthma attack for over two years. For all practical purposes, asthma was a distant memory barely registering when I got a glimpse of my inhaler in my purse. And the only time I've taken over-the-counter allergy medication is to treat mild symptoms.

In transition, I miraculously got the end
of the rack - I knew then, absolutely,
that my luck was about to run out.
And by Sunday morning, it was the weather - not my allergies - registering as a major problem at Mooseman. It was cold and rainy without a break in sight. Coincidentally, except for a temperature difference of about ten degrees, the weather in New Hampshire on Sunday was IDENTICAL to Mooseman in 2010. Oh no, Not Again! I was having race flashbacks - unfortunately, they were the WRONG race flashbacks. My brain was given over to preparing mentally and physically for a race in cold, wet conditions and avoiding hypothermia (one of those memories that actually HAS been rammed home and IS part of the process). When I did Mooseman in 2010, I remember being so miserable in the rain that I fought back tears during the last part of the bike ride (read the race report).

So, why on earth would I consider allergies at a time like this? I mean, seriously. I proceeded to ignore the obvious signs. Seriously. What was that yellow stuff floating in all the puddles? What was the deal with my eyes being all puffy? Did Jim just say: "Don't forget your inhaler"? Even up to the point after the gun went off and it felt like someone was jumping up and down on my chest and trying to smother me in the water, it still NEVER occurred to me that my Spring allergy was rearing it's nasty head.

What did I do in the water? (Isn't it obvious?) I chalked one up to: "Jeanne, you went out WAY too fast." (Instead of the more appropriate "Oh no not again.") The writing was all over the walls, but I wasn't looking at the walls. I was looking down the hall. At the finish line. I so badly needed this race as a pick-me-up that I threw common sense out the window.

And despite a decent (if suffocating) swim, by the half-way point on the bike, I was getting that "old familiar" shortness of breath. The only thing different than what happened in Virginia was that this time I KNEW what was happening. When I started coughing, I knew it was too late. And the phrase DID pop into my head: "Oh no NOT AGAIN!"

While climbing the mountain on the second loop, my quads were already starving from not enough oxygen, and I couldn't breathe deep enough to get them any. My bike speed on the hill was so slow I was afraid I would take a deep breath, start coughing, and fall off my bike (talk about a disaster!). I considered walking up the hill. And crying. And although it wasn't likely, I hoped that by the time I reached transition, Jim would still be carrying my backpack. The backpack containing my inhaler... because, we all know, IT WASN'T IN TRANSITION. My inhaler, that is.

By my own estimates of my capability, my bike time was dismal. Upon dismount, I yelled to Jim that I needed my inhaler - told him where it was. What the hell was he supposed to do? I was the one who made the mistake and all I did was make him feel guilty for not carrying a heavy backpack around all day in the rain.

Remembering Virginia, I dreaded the run. But I still made an attempt. And by mile 1, I had already stopped three times to catch my breath, asked countless people if they had an inhaler, and alerted the medical staff. By the time the ambulance got there, I was angry, sad, AND scared. I borrowed a phone to call Jim, only to find he was making his way up the run course to find me. I was trying to breathe, trying to reconcile what was happening, trying to decide if I could deal with dropping out (like I had a choice), and trying to get the information to the medics that my husband is trying to find me. I even took a mental snapshot of how much distress I was in to avoid overanalysis of the DNF.

But most of all, I was trying to breathe. And coughing. And panicking.

After being treated with a nebulizer and convincing medical personnel not to take me to the hospital, Jim and I made our way to the car for the long drive home. When I wasn't coughing, I spent most of the drive asking myself (and poor Jim) the same questions over and over again and cursing my terrible luck - and stupidity - at my first two attempts at racing this year. As an aside, I was also trying to figure out why the side of my head has now broken out in hives. (More allergies? The same allergies? Panic? Something entirely different?)

I almost forgot to mention how my wetsuit got destroyed. Yes, yet another disaster. But believe me when I say I'm not sulking. I'm embracing what now feels like the return to Disaster Magnet status. It's a comfortable place for me and the stories are much more amusing to tell.

To end this maddening story on a positive note, I will leave you with a very appropriate message: