Tuesday, November 12, 2013

On Artistic Inspiration, H. R. Giger, and Dr. Seuss

For most of my life, I've intermittently asked myself the question: how can I make it as an artist? The answer always comes back quickly: I can't.

But before you string me up by my toes for being "negative," hear me out. I do NOT believe it's impossible to "make it" as an artist. As the eternal idealist, I feel quite quite the opposite - I believe that if I work hard enough, I actually COULD make it as an artist - and by "make it," I mean, generate enough income to be self-sufficient.

Unfortunately, defining success this way and making it a goal is self-defeating in a field as subjective as visual art (except in rare cases like that of Andy Warhol). For many artists, including me, expression comes from within and rarely serves the masses (again, with the exception of rare cases such as Michelangelo or Jacques-Louis David who produced incredible inspired commissioned work). And feel free to debate "what IS art?" for the rest of your years, but when it comes to creating art, let me simply quote Albert Pinkham Ryder: "The artist needs but a roof, a crust of bread, and his easel, and all the rest God gives him in abundance. He must live to paint and not paint to live."

Mind you, few artists have the ability to live according to Pinkham Ryder's ideal. My personal artistic inspiration is a very powerful feeling. It can make me deliriously happy. But sometimes I think it will drive me insane. If I deny it, I will start to feel sick. I won't be able to sleep. Or eat. Or focus on anything else. But then, it comes and goes. And when it goes, it leaves me with gobs of unfinished work, curled up in a heap on the floor, depressed, hating myself, crying, and confused. It's quite a vicious thing. Especially because I'm not even trying to make a living with my art.

Recently, I've been riding a new wave of inspiration - both to draw and to explore various printmaking techniques - notably, intaglio with plastic (acrylic) plates. I'll write about that in a subsequent blog. But what I really wanted to write about is my latest drawing and the story from which it came - involving a long-ago search for elusive inspiration.

It was back when I was in college - studying engineering. I was a die-hard sci-fi buff, and I saw a contest in a magazine to create an image for something called "the supreme intelligence" from the upcoming remake of "Invaders from Mars." Until that day (and well after, I might add), all of my art fit into the category of realism. But part of me longed to draw something mind-bogglingly creative. Something that had very little resemblance to earth or human or animal. You know, something like H. R. Giger's Alien... yes, that's it, I wanted to design something totally unique, yet horrific, and I was haunted by this one thought for many days.

Drawing a mental blank, I had almost completely given up hope while mulling it over before bed one night. That night, I had my scariest nightmare to this day. I was in a cave, and something terrifying crawled out of a hole in the ground in front of me. Something completely unreal and unearthly. And within a matter of seconds, this unfathomable horror was out of the ground and racing toward me at breakneck speed. It had no legs and I couldn't figure out how it moved forward, it just did. Unable to get away, I woke myself up instead - with a scream on my lips. I didn't sleep the rest of the night. And I chose never to draw it. I was too frightened.

Until this year.

My first attempt has already been posted (without explanation) in one of my drawing-a-day blogs, but here it is again. It was way too cartoony and almost comical - nothing like the horror in my dream. My physical therapist would describe it "like something from Dr. Seuss." (He says most of my drawings look like scary Dr. Seuss.)

This weekend, I tried to draw it for the second time. This one is a much more accurate depiction of it. I'm still baffled as to how it moved in the dream.. maybe I'll figure that out in another drawing:

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Seven Weeks, Running is Go

Finishing (and winning) the
Sylvania Tri in 2010 may be the last
time I wasn't in pain running
It's been seven weeks since my PRP injection. During this time, the thing I've longed for most is the feeling I get when I'm out on the pavement with only my heartbeat, my running shoes, and my thoughts. I solve problems when I'm running. It's the only time I can let go of the damaging self-critic. It's the only time I can be myself without being terrified of what everyone else thinks. I need to run.

Unlike before, this time off from running has been one of inner reflection and fighting demons. Because I wasn't sure I would be able to run again. That fear was always there. What will I do if I can't run? I turned to introspective stream-of-consciousness drawing - the only other thing that gives me similar peace. But the fear continued. What will I do if I can't run? My physical therapist quoted the medical report ".. you have SEVERE tendinosis .. seriously NOT good" (as though I didn't fully grasp the severity of the injury). He said my hamstring tendon was "breaking down" - made it sound like it was actually disolving. The fear grew. Seriously. What. will. I. do. if. I. can't. run?

The fear made me ok with taking seven weeks off without a single step in a running gait. Sure, I was an emotional wreck (further compounded by a car accident). I became religious about my physical therapy. Heck, I became religious. I prayed. But I never stopped worrying. I frantically searched the internet for hamstring PRP success stories. Six weeks went by with not much improvement. And I had pretty much given up hope.

Then, in what seemed like an overnight miracle, this week the familiar always-there pain faded. And today I got the go-ahead. To run. It's been a rough year so I'm not celebrating just yet. But I will run. And it will not be far. It will not be fast. But there is running in my future. And unfinished business - with a finish line.

All I can do to explain is offer this (and stifle the tears):

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Rain is not Forever (Saved Again by Music)

Singer/songwriter Mark Dignam
at the Barking Spider Tavern
Once again, I shift gears to write about music. And once again, where I usually discuss running, swimming, biking, and less frequently, visual art and technology, writing about music will be very uncomfortable. It's not necessarily something want to do, but today, it's something I am inspired to do.

You may already know through social media that I've been muddling through a really bad year. A hamstring injury continues to threaten (and potentially end) my ability to train and compete in a sport that I not only love but one to which I've dedicated many many years. And in disaster-magnet fashion, a few weeks ago I was in a car accident. I was rear-ended by another driver, my 14-year-old car was totaled, I suffered additional injuries, and my emotional well-being, already hanging by a thread, was further pushed to the limit by being given only three days of a rental vehicle by the other driver's insurance company. Stressed out with new aches and pains, frantically searching for a new (or used) car or come up with alternate work transportation, I found myself crying a lot and drawing for mental relief (having lost the stress-reducing factor of running that I've so relied on in the past).

So what does this have to do with music, you ask? Well, although it shouldn't happen this way, last night I had to be reminded of one of the great uplifting, anxiety-relieving things in this world - something I can get lost in that gives me hope and makes me want to get up the next day - something that gives me an appreciation of beauty and good in the world. That thing is music.

The musician is Dublin-born, Pittsburg-based Mark Dignam. The first time I heard him was in 2010 supporting the Swell Season at The House of Blues in Cleveland. He has a storied history having grown up busking on the streets of Dublin with the likes of Glen Hansard. And like Hansard, he truly embodies the spirit of the singer-songwriter. If you want to know more, Google him like I did the first time I heard his music. I watched every video I could find... the more I found, the more I wanted to kick myself for not having heard of him earlier than 2010 (seriously, it was embarrassing). But the most amazing thing about Mark Dignam is that he IS his music. When he performs, it seems like every molecule of his body is belting out the song. (Note: I stole this description from my friend Andy - an artist and occasional musician - who seems to have made it his mission to turn me onto good music. In the past, he's described some of his favorite musicians in this way - they "are their music.")

Mark Dignam is one of those musicians. Watching and listening to him, I can't imagine he could ever have done anything else with his life. It's an all-incompassing talent that I would proverbially give an arm and a leg to have (especially in my art). It's a talent that rarely sees the light of day in this world - a world in which we have American Idols crammed down our throats and are force-fed monotonous pop "music" via uninspired corporate-owned radio stations.

The only thing about it that makes me sad is that Jim and I were two of only about ten people there to witness Mark's performance in Cleveland, a city that claims to have great cultural institutions. It would have been easy to pack the place - a small bar called the Barking Spider - because it was a free gig right smack in the middle of a big university (Case Western Reserve). Unfortunately (in fact, it was a damn shame) only a few people were there to see it. A very lucky few, but in the end, only a few.

I am sure Mark Dignam made fans out of everyone sitting in the audience last night. One customer - engaged in conversation with him when we arrived - had no idea he spent the better half of his time at the bar talking to the performer. Having to leave half way through the set, the still-shocked new fan walked up mid-gig and asked to buy Mark's one CD. (Note that upon finding out he brought only one CD to Cleveland, this was the one I had set my heart on leaving with.) My point is, it's hard not to be blown away seeing Mark Dignam live. And if you didn't already know about it, he will introduce you to the catharsis of the sing-along. I don't know about you, but it's hugely fun (and stress-busting) singing out loud with (not quite) a roomful of people.

As we did last night. And hopefully will again. And again.

So, because I sometimes make it my mission to turn people on to good music, I have to share some of it. The title of this post is a line from this, one of his more well-known songs, "Stormy Summer" (since I had a pretty bad summer, hearing this live was my personal catharsis). Here's the video I took of it (with his permission):

And here's another song from last night - this one is called "Build":

Friday, October 11, 2013

Daily Drawing - I'm Drawing Daily... Again

Here are some new daily drawings.

5 October 2013:

6 October 2013:

7 October 2013:

8 October 2013:

9 October 2013:

10 October 2013, I actually titled this one, "Negative Space":

That's all I got for today.

Friday, October 4, 2013

With Pain Comes New Drawings

Here are my latest two drawings - the first one was made on the airplane to London. The second one was made yesterday (because it was the first block of time I had to draw since getting back from London).

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

We ARE Here

Turin Brakes' Olly Knights
16 September 2013
Every once in a while, I have to stop writing about my training and racing to write about my favorite musicians, Turin Brakes. It's not something I WANT to do, it's something I HAVE to do. Their music affects me in a way that it has become impossible for someone to know me and to NOT know about Turin Brakes.

Yes, I understand that music is subjective. My musical taste is not necessarily the same as yours. I get it. But I'm passionate about the music I like (just like I am about triathlon). And isn't that what's great about art? If you don't like it, you don't have to listen to it (or look at it).

What I DO have a problem with is the music "industry," and how we are force-fed music through all channels - radio, tv, internet - and told what is good and what is not good based on some kind of corporate money exchange. In the current radio climate, bands like Turin Brakes suffer greatly because they rarely get airplay - the only way to hear them is via non-traditional channels. And the non-traditional channels have become jam-packed with every single aspiring musician there is. Not that there's anything wrong with that.. it just makes it extremely hard for people to find the music that appeals to them. Thank heavens for services like Spotify in making honest attempts to suggest music similar to what you already like.

But, let me tell you about "this band I like" for one moment. I'll be brief.

Turin Brakes' Gale Paridjanian
16 September 2013
Turin Brakes released a new album on Monday (to be released in the US on October 8). It's their sixth studio album. People are saying (yes, by "people" I mean I read Twitter) it's their best album since their first - the Mercury-Prize-nominated The Optimist Lp. There's a LOT of buzz surrounding it. But my biggest fear is it will never be heard by the people who need to hear it in THIS country. If it makes it to the airwaves, it will be in two places: public radio stations KCRW in Santa Monica and WXPN in Philadelphia. And that's a BIG "if." I am almost positive it won't be heard on my favorite local FM public radio station, The Summit, 91.3 in Akron - or in other local markets --thus banning it to oblivion in the U.S.

So, I'm here to tell you about it.

The album is called "We Were Here." In the words and music, I hear a group of musicians saying to us exactly that: We. Were. Here. We made this. This is US. This is our expression that we offer up to music history in hopes that someone will take notice. It's downright heart-wrenching to hear singer Olly Knights actually sing that phrase in more than one song on the album - especially in the song "No Mercy," one of the most melancholy songs he has ever written.

But, don't get me wrong - Turin Brakes is not a melancholy band. They're full of life, and full of ideas - both musical and visual, and I, for one, never get tired of it. My husband Jim and I have attended many concerts of popular-in-the-UK-but-relatively-unknown-in-the-States bands like Elbow, Travis, and Athlete. We've had the opportunity to meet many of them after gigs -- and, like a broken record, I usually mention Turin Brakes. Wouldn't you know - most of them have the utmost respect for Turin Brakes, using terms like "massive" and "epic." No, I'm not making this up. I've heard it from their own mouths. Turin Brakes is a band that OTHER bands talk about. And I think it has to do with recognition of sheer talent. These guys have it. They deserve to be heard by a wider audience. (Listen to We Were Here online - the whole album is streaming at Paste Magazine.)

I've been lucky to have had the opportunity to see and hear Turin Brakes play on many occasions, both here and in the UK. And, as karma would have it, they played an exclusive gig showcasing the new songs the day after I raced in the London ITU World Championship. Jim and I were also extremely fortunate (and grateful) to have been invited to attend. That night, duo Olly Knights and Gale Paridjanian were accompanied by their long-time collaborators, drummer Rob Allum and bassist Eddie Myer. I took some videos just for myself to remember it by, but I wanted to share a couple of them with you - hopefully you will find something you like about them too. (Forgive my crappy video-taping.. there were professionals taping that night also, so my little Panasonic is embarrassing compared to the footage they got - you can see it at http://www.dailymotion.com/thehospitalclub#video=x14w7r7).

The first one is a showcase of guitarist Gale Paridjanian's "massive" (or is it "epic"?) slide guitar, reminiscent of Pink Floyd - it's called "Blindsided Again":

And this is the song "Stop the World" and it has a really hilarious intro about where the song came from:

Thanks for listening. Or reading.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Undoing Disasters: The Injury Rehab

This past Friday was the official beginning of my injury rehab. It's both a relief and agony to finally know exactly what was wrong after three years of gradually-increasing-but-never-bad-enough-to-stop-training pain. It's a relief because I can start to fix it. It's agony because I have to fix it (and therefore take more time off).

After the phone call the day I left for London, I was sure that the pain was coming from two different sources - the findings on my left hip MRI: (1) a labral tear and (2) a hamstring tear. This would most definitely explain why I was getting pain in so many places and at times would hurt all the way down to my ankle. But I found out last week that I was likely wrong. I was wrong about which "tear" was actually causing my pain. My Orthopod, Dr. Patterson and I discussed this in my first visit after returning from London.

It went something like this...
Dr. P: You are seriously messed up.
Me: Tell me something I DON'T know.
Dr. P: (explains how MRI images were taken and then shows me the longitudinal slice images from the outside of my hip inward). The good news is there is no problem with the ball joint, the bone.... (points out the labral tear) and here's the labral tear - it's in the front
Me: But I have no pain in the front...
Dr. P: (continues the slide show)
Me: EEEK! What's that?

I knew there was something seriously wrong with it as soon as I saw what turned out to be my hamstring tendon - the tendon that connects your hamstring to the sit-bone.

The diagnosis was severe tendinosis (I've never heard of that either) and partial-thickness tear of the tendon. It was a chronic condition likely the result of never rehab-ing the first hamstring tendon injury (and who knows how long ago that was?). It had gotten so bad that it would probably not heal on its own. In olden times, surgery would have been my option. But these days, there's a new therapy available: a PRP (Platelet-rich plasma) injection to force the healing components of blood into damaged (connective) tissue. Google it if you're interested in ways doctors are using PRP - it's a pretty promising therapy.

Here's how it works. My own blood would be extracted, then spun in centrifuge to obtain mostly platelets, then injected into my tendon. Because it's my own blood, my body will recognize it, and because it's platelets, it has a high concentration of growth factors. It should start rebuilding my tendon tissue as soon as it gets in there. The post-procedure protocol would have me in physical therapy and back to training in about 4-6 weeks.

There are several issues I can now report on - because I had this done three days ago.

First. IT HURTS!!! Like white hot pain for an instant and then imagine the worst pain that you had from the injury and triple it. The doctor who performed the procedure also confirmed via ultrasound that: "yeah, your tendon is seriously messed up" just as he stuck the needle full of fluid right into it. In his defense, he SAID it would hurt.

His next question was: "does it hurt like the injury did?"

"You bet your sweet bippy it does!"

He said: "good, that's what we want." It was the exact pain I'd been experiencing while running -- except I wasn't doing anything to induce it.

Second. It gets worse before it gets better. By that night, although the initial white-hotness had gone away, I couldn't walk or stand without pain, and I felt like I was sitting on a rock for many hours to come - through the next day, in fact - before things settled down and I wasn't hobbling around. This is supposed to happen.

Third. You must grin and bear it because YOU CAN'T DO ANYTHING FOR THE PAIN. No ice. No NSAIDs. Oh, yeah, Tylenol is ok (like Tylenol works - come on!) Why? Becasue the inflammation is necessary for the healing process. I always prided myself on my ability to tolerate pain, so now it was time to walk the walk.

Three days later, the aching pain has subsided, and I only get pain if I sit on my sit-bone. I've happily become a couch potato in hope that healing is underway. Heck, what I was doing wasn't working. I'm ready to try anything that might mean a pain-free run in my future. It's been way too long.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Finding the Fun: 2013 ITU World Championships in London

It's over. My triathlon season, that is. It ended with a race in my favorite urban green space: Hyde Park in London, England.

It wasn't the fairy tale ending I dreamed about last year when I qualified to race in London. In fact, on another day in another time, I would have considered it a disaster. But based on the situation I found myself in race morning, my last event of the season was actually bittersweet.

The bitter part came in the form of my thoughts of what could have been. What could have been if I wasn't training and racing injured all year. What could have been if they hadn't shortened the swim leg. What could have been if our travel had gone smoother with less stress. And, most importantly, what could have been if I had known in October what I found out the day we left for London: an MRI showed a labral tear in my left hip and a chronic torn hamstring. Had I known THAT, things might have been different in London.

But after I spew out all the things that conspired against me in London, none of them would take from me the thing I was determined to take back - my love for my sport and my love for the city of London - specifically my very favorite running spot in the whole world: Hyde Park. This was the "sweet."

I can't count how many times I've wished to swim in the Serpentine. Or how many times I've run circles in the park and wondered what it would be like to race there. When I watched the Olympics in 2012, biking along the approach to Buckingham Palace looked almost too good to be true. When I got my chance to race in London, I would take it all in and enjoy it - seriously, this WAS a once-in-a-lifetime thing.

I will say that it was easy to adopt that attitude with an injury. My physical therapist said I should have no expectations besides "just finishing." Of course I had expectations. I haven't been working hard while injured for nothing. I hoped for miracle podium finishes just like anyone else out there. And I have friends in England to impress. I also wanted to race well for my team - Team USA.

In the end, I had to settle for smiles and small victories.

It was my first time racing an ITU race. There were endless rules and rigamarole to follow. Uniform rules. Bike helmet rules. Bike racking rules. Transition area rules. Even wetsuit rules. Bike check-in for me was Saturday at 6pm where they read us all the aforementioned rules and went over the transition area layout.

The transitions included 1.8K of running - this was an official measurement made by someone on the Canadian team. We were told not to do anything stupid - i.e., get hurt or injure someone else just for an extra ten seconds - that we would NOT get a personal best time on this course. We were informed of crashes and where to slow down on the bike course. Slippery spots in transition were pointed out - including the place where a competitor fell and broke his hip the day before.

In my mind, the biggest issue facing us was the weather. Several days of rain wreaked havoc on the sprint race (20 people ended up in the hospital from bike crashes) and the women's pro race (top contender Gwen Jorgensen crashed and had to withdraw). In addition to the rain, we would also have to endure the cold (air temperatures in the 40s and water near 60 degrees F). Thank heavens the USA uniform included an ITU-approved jacket (the uniform rules are very strict).

In transition, we were not allowed to have anything except race equipment. All towels and transition mats (including rags to wipe your feet) are outlawed in ITU racing because they are regarded as "markers" for your location. This was hardcore stuff - no unfair advantages allowed.

I racked my bike, walked through the transition routes, and then my husband Jim and I made our way back to our hotel. I didn't get much sleep - travel woes and jet lag were screwing up my entire system. In what seemed like a few moments, we found ourselves hustling to make the half-hour jaunt in the dark down to transition on race morning. Transition closed promptly at 6:30 am for waves starts at 7:00. With about 2.5 hours to wait for my start, the key would be keeping warm as I foolishly forgot gloves and a winter hat. Many athletes were donning their wetsuits early to stay warm.

Keeping warm pre-race
While we waited, we found out the swim leg had been shortened to 750m because of cold water and concerns for hypothermia, and wetsuits were no longer optional. After an icy swim in the serpentine the day before, I was not looking forward to even colder water. But this year, swimming has been my strongest leg, and the shortened swim would likely cost me several places.

By the time my wave was called, I had given up trying to wake up my digestive system in the (flushable with sinks and soap and an endless supply of toilet paper) porta-johns. I grabbed a shower room (did I mention they had portable showers on-site?) to squeezed my huge body into my abnormally-small womens-medium-size Tyr Team-USA tri-suit. On the flip-side, because it was cold, I didn't have to struggle with a sweaty body getting into my wetsuit.

Jim and I said our goodbyes, he told me to have fun, and I joined my age group in the queue.

Time gaps between waves were very generous, but we were able to pass the time by watching finishers (the race was over for some before it even started for others) and talking about how it was "warming up." Miraculously, the sun had stayed out and it was burning bright in a clear sky... in London! We were hustled onto the start dock in what I later learned was (in proper English lingo) "two shakes of a donkey's tail." The in-water start was as fair as could be - everyone held onto the dock until we got the horn.

I started my watch with "take your mark," and we were off. As soon as I started swimming, it felt just like every other Olympic-distance race - i.e., everyone was relatively civil (unlike Ironman where I get viciously clobbered by non-swimmers). Except something wasn't right - I felt the athlete wristband wrapping around the "heel" of my left hand. The same wristband had been on the opposite side of my watch about ten seconds earlier (when I hit the start button).

Trying not to get distracted, I assumed my watch had slipped a notch and slid down. I felt good in the water (surprisingly the cold was a non-issue) and was mostly alone with no feet to draft. Spotting the very tall buoys was easy even with the sun in our eyes for the longest stretch of water. When I rounded the second-to-last buoy, I almost slammed into the stragglers from the previous wave. I took a second of breaststroke to regroup - and used that second to inspect my left wrist.

Swim exit, sans watch
Horrified, I noticed my watch was gone. In true Disaster Magnet fashion, my new touch-screen watch - a birthday present from Jim - had become a victim of the Serpentine. (My extreme reaction would have much more light-hearted had I known the watch sacrifice would become a running joke for everyone in my circle of English friends for days to come.)

The swim exit was about 20 yards away and there was nothing I could do - short of panic. On the long run to T1, I heard Jim yell "nice swim," to which I replied "I LOST MY WATCH!" Like he could do anything about it.

I kept running. And running. And running. I had no idea what my swim time was, but I found solace in the fact that my bike time didn't require the watch as it would be firmly registered on my bike computer. My wetsuit came off in record time, and I saved more time by deciding it was warm enough to ride without my jacket. Then I foolishly lost time to OCD while trying to tidy up my ground space. The run to bike-out was thankfully short.

The two-loop 40K bike course was nothing short of spectacular. It did a quick out and back through Hyde Park then exited via Hyde Park corner, through Green Park, past Buckingham Palace, along St. James Park, then loosely followed the Thames river to a turnaround near the Tower of London. It was flat as an English pancake (more like a crepe), and the only thing that slowed us down was the wind that kicked up on the second loop.

During the bike leg, several near-crashes kept me alert. A wind gust reminiscent of Kona nearly blew my bike out from under me near Hyde Park Corner, and when I swerved to avoid another competitor who cut me off in Hyde Park, my back wheel caught air. There was also woman with a death wish who disregarded a crossing and had to be pulled out of the way by a crossing guard just in the nick of time - with two female cyclists traveling 25 mph bearing down on her and screaming for her to get out of the way (I was one of them).

Yeah, I'd have to say she was drafting.
A funny thing that happened on the bike was when another competitor passed me near the end of the leg and turned around to yell to a German woman behind me to stop hanging in my slipstream... then she said "you're cheating" in a very matter-of-fact tone. What cracked me up was how politely she said it. I think I might like this ITU thing after all.

The bike course was awesome for spectators - I saw Jim no less than three times, and he never had to leave Hyde Park. It's also worth mentioning that crowd support was phenomenal on the streets of London. The throngs lining the streets cheering was comparable to those of the New York City Marathon.

My bike time was slower than expected - based on speeds I was clocking - but I felt I rode as hard as I could without aggravating my hip. A couple of severe twinges of pain made me step back a bit so that I could (hopefully) run without limping.

I pulled into T2 slightly downtrodden at my slowness but happy only a 10K remained between me and the pub. Again, the run was quite long to the bike racks, and by the time I reached mine, I understood my earlier OCD folly. The transition zone had become a war zone, with equipment carnage everywhere. My running shoes were not where I left them - thankfully they were close by. I was able to get into them despite having muddy frozen blocks of ice where my feet used to be.

During the long trek to run-out, I gave the slip to the draft-guilty German girl - she obviously didn't pay attention to the course talk about the hairpin turn in T2 and tried to cut the course by exiting at bike-out. Some people never learn!

The 10K run was comprised of three loops completely within Hyde Park. The crowd support would blow my mind - people were constantly yelling my name and "U-S-A!" It didn't matter what country we were from - we got cheered.

Now came the real problem of being without my watch - taking run splits. Jim to the rescue! On the back stretch of the first loop, he held out HIS watch and I grabbed it. I was feeling relatively good compared to other races this year. But it was almost useless because there were no distance markers on the run course. Without mile markers, I was forced to do math - I assumed a loop was about two miles, and after the first loop, I started the watch.

The run passed the finish line three times
On the second loop, I stopped trying to figure out who was in my age group - no body marking and numbers worn on front. A British woman who looked about my age passed me at a decent pace, and I decided to hang behind her.

I struggled to stay with her and took a split at the second loop - 14:44. I was doing 7:20s. Not great, but my hip was still working and I actually still felt pretty strong. So I decided I wanted to run down the British chick.

Half way through the second lap I caught her on an uphill and maintained my lead for about 30 seconds, then she re-passed me. I noticed her breathing was more labored than mine, so I hung back for a minute and then made my move. With about a mile to go, the mantra of an old running friend came back to spur me on. He used to tell himself: "You can do anything for a mile.. you can hop on one leg for a mile if you have to."

It was the final mile of my final race, and if I had to go down, I would go down fighting. I passed the Brit and ran with everything I had. I never saw her again. I completely forgot about my time, and as I came to the turn into the finish chute, I was handed an American flag from a spectator. I sprinted for the finish line.

My first race on international soil had ended. It wasn't my best. It wasn't my worst. But it WAS the most fun I've had in years.

By the time I found Jim, the weather had turned foul (rain, cold, and wind), and I quickly packed up my stuff as soon as we could get into transition. Then Jim bought me the coolest new Timex watch ever - it's white with the Union Jack on it.

Monday night we attended an intimate gig with my favorite musicians: Turin Brakes. After they played a brilliant gig showcasing their amazing new album (check 'em out at turinbrakes.com), we spent time catching up. It's been an agonizingly-long three years. The biggest story of the night? How hilarious it was that I would be leaving my watch in London at the bottom of the Serpentine.

Monday, August 26, 2013

This isn't the Race: USAT Age Group Nationals

What can I possibly say about my race at USAT Age Group Nationals? That my time was embarrassing? That I was seriously disappointed? That it's just par for the course of this year?

It's taken me two weeks to regroup and sit down to write anything. The rest of the time I think about it, I end with the emotional equivalent of a shrug. I don't really know what happened that day. I thought I was ready to put in great swim and bike times to make up for (what I thought would be a) 44 minute 10K (based on other results this year). Why shouldn't I expect that? I've been training my butt off on the bike and swim this summer - specifically to make up for my injury-ridden running.

At least I was smiling at bike check-in.
But despite all my preparation and fantastic weather in Milwaukee on August 10, I still came up well short of my goals. What were my goals? To finish with a better time than I did in the last two USAT National events (around 2:20). Both of those races were with Ironman training on my legs and no taper on a hilly course.

And THIS year has been all about training for Olympic distance. Short. Speed work. Lots of rest.

In the two week lead-up to Milwaukee, even my running was starting to look decent. I was able to put in two speed sessions. My tibia stopped hurting. My hip was loosening up. And I could run without pain and full range of motion for the first time since October of last year. I wanted to enjoy myself at this race distance. It's not like Ironman when I'm constantly assessing what's going on with my body, how I'm feeling, and what I'm drinking and eating (my biggest issues at long distance) for 11 hours or more. I would have to work pretty hard to ruin my nutrition in an Olympic-distance race. Heck, I could survive it just on water.

Pre-race body marking.
But in the end, this isn't the race that would give me new-found confidence. I would eventually have to chalk this one up as yet another (learning) experience leading up to the ITU World Championship in London and try not to let the fallout set me up for more failure.

In looking back, I searched for the few positive things that happened in Milwaukee. They started with the swim. The 1500m swim in Milwaukee is an out-and-back loop that starts along the wall at Discovery World on Lake Michigan. The swim course is in a protected area so the water is calm. The course has a "neck" that goes under a walk-bridge, takes a little turn to the left, and then comes back on the other side, back under the bridge, and finishes just a walk down from the field of the transition zone. There were 17 waves in the start. My wave was 7th, starting at 8:21. Everyone was delayed by about 30 minutes because of technical issues with clearing the course. It just gave me more time to use the restroom, then get my wetsuit on and warm up.
My swim was the one part of the race that went very well. Water temperature was about 65 degrees which is perfect with a wetsuit. I got a good, fast, start and was immediately up in the front pack of swimmers in my age group. I felt strong the whole way and had no trouble navigating the buoys because it was a clear day and the sun was high enough to not be in our eyes. In the final strokes to the finish I raced alongside another swimmer and was excited to beat her out of the water (this doesn't usually happen because my arms are completely spent by the end of the swim). My husband Jim was right there to let me know I was 4th out of the water in my age group. That made me very happy.

W45-49 swim start
T1 bike out: I swear I was trying to move fast
Transition didn't go as well as I would have liked. I was able to get my new wetsuit stripped down to my knees pretty quickly but then my bugaboo - getting it off around my heels - came back to bite me. I struggled just a little less than usual, grabbed my helmet and number, and hustled to the exit. I barely stayed in front of the woman I beat out of the water, but once I was on my bike, I was ready to attack.

Too bad my legs didn't come along for the ride. From the very get-go of the bike leg, my legs were burning and screaming like I had just ridden up a mountain. Did I tax myself too much in the swim? (I swam harder than I'm used to, but this was a short race and I planned on that). I shifted down to spin but it only managed to make me slower. The aforementioned woman passed me and I tried to keep up, but I had nothing. After pushing hard to catch and pass her, she then re-passed me - and I repeat: I had NOTHING. It was about that time the eventual winner of the age group blew by me like I was standing still. My heart sank. I kept hoping my legs would come around, but it just got worse, so I backed off to give them a break.

Through first loop of bike course.
Just after that, a USAT referee on motorcycle pulled up alongside me and was writing something on her pad. Oh NO!! I looked in front to make sure I was out of the draft zone of the woman I had played leapfrog with. She kept slowing down and I kept trying to back off, but maybe I didn't do it in time - and now I had a drafting penalty. The ref pulled away after about 30 seconds.

This was NOT the way I wanted to start my bike leg. I tried to shake it off. Remembering Clearwater in 2011, getting angry would ruin my concentration. I regrouped and rode hard despite continuing to be passed by women in my age group.

The 40K bike course should be (well.. is) really fast. It is a short out-and-back loop followed by a longer out-and-back loop, mostly flat on well-paved roads. It has a long gradual hill - a bridge - and the final few miles included the bridge and were against the wind. Near the end of my ride, I did see a LOT of uncaught and ridiculously-obvious drafting - which made me a bit angrier - but that's what happens on flat, fast courses.

I don't remember being this happy, but apparently
I WAS still having fun at the bike finish.
Pulling into transition, I had no idea where I was in the grand scheme, but I knew it wasn't good. My bike time - 1:10 - was even slower than my time on the mountain at the Pittsburgh Tri. And this was without the two-minute drafting penalty added in. I was discouraged and now I had to make something up in the run - currently my worst discipline. As is customary, Jim let me know the age group leader was about six minutes ahead (like there was any chance at this point). But I'm glad he had hope.

Transition 2 was also slow. I had a long run with my bike and had to stop a couple times to avoid running into other athletes in transition. The good thing was I think I finally figured out how tight to keep my stretchy shoelaces - this was the first time I didn't have to stop and adjust. And I remembered to run with my visor and sunglasses instead of putting them on first.

The 10K run course goes out on a paved path along the lake and comes back on the road to finish on grass between the Art Museum and Discovery World. The beginning of my run was nothing short of shocking: I had NO pain in my hip, NO pain in my shin, and my legs were moving better than they have in a long time. I had hope.

I thought I was the only one, but you can't really tell who
was hurting more - the girl in front or me - in this photo.
I passed a couple of women in my age group and settled in behind a third who was running a very even pace. My first mile split - 6:57 - was very encouraging. The next few were all over seven minutes and although I was ok with it, I became acutely aware of the fact that I still had no speed or pick-up in my legs - at all. I felt like I was trudging along even though I was trying to run hard. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get my pace back under seven minutes.

Then, somewhere between mile 5 and 6, real disaster struck. It felt like someone had stuck an knife in my left hip. I think I actually turned around to see if this had, indeed, happened. I instantly lost the full stride in my left leg and had to take abbreviated steps while wincing in pain. I didn't know whether I should stop and walk, or fight to the finish. It was only about a half mile away and there were 18 Team USA slots for 2014 on the line. I decided to fiught for one of them. When I could see the finish line, I managed to limp my way past one last woman (not in my age group) to finish.

After crossing, I immediately fell on the ground. All I wanted was for the pain to stop. As usual, volunteers tried to push me along ("keep walking") but I asked for help. Medical personnel picked me up and carried me to the medical tent. I told them my symptoms but that all I probably needed was some ice and I'd be on my way. I was eventually able to stand and walk and they wrapped two ice packs against my hip with a huge roll of plastic wrap. I slowly made my way out of the tent to find Jim.

Screw this pain! I pushed the final few steps.
Jim was right across from the medical tent waiting along the finish chute. It was then I realized I didn't have my finisher medal. I told him I needed to get my medal and he yelled: "get it from Chrissie!" and pointed to someone in the crowd. WHAT? I turned to see Ironman champ Chrissie Wellington handing out medals. I waved off the other volunteers and made my way over to her. She put the medal around my neck and gave me a hug and a kiss. I floated away down the chute, forgetting for a brief moment, the agony of my day.

It would soon come flooding back. Jim helped me walk slowly to the food tent and told him about the pain in my hip and my drafting penalty. This isn't the race I was supposed to have here. I sat down to replenish, wondering what would be my final time and place. My watch said 2:23. Jim went to check the results - when he came back, he said the penalties were not recorded yet, but that I finished 11th in my age group. Then it also occurred to me that I probably wouldn't make Team USA this time.

Thus began the long walk to the car via transition to pick up my bike. I just wanted to be on my way home and forget the whole thing. And I didn't want to walk one more step. I was tired of pain. Tired of trying to get through a sub-par injury-ridden season. I felt like crying but I was just too tired. I wanted to crawl under a rock and hide. This isn't the race I was supposed to have at USAT Nationals.

Jim went back to the finish line one more time to check the results. When he came back, he told me they still didn't have the penalties added, but with a drafting penalty added, I'd be 18th. And so I would make Team USA by a hair. Relieved, we got on the road - and I had seven hours to ponder my race, my season, my year, and, perhaps, my next year.

Thanks to technology, on the way home we found out I DIDN'T get a drafting penalty (whew!), and I DID make it onto Team USA - for the ITU Age Group World Championship in Edmonton, Canada in 2014. (As a hockey fan in the 80s, this is another place I've always dreamed of seeing.)

But that doesn't change the fact that this wasn't the race I was supposed to have. I  feel like I'm clutching at straws. Despite my running not being up to par, my biking and swimming are alive and well (very well if I compare training numbers) - and I couldn't even perform in those legs. I may not be getting enough sleep, but I don't feel like I'm overtrained. My physical therapist says that the problem is that I'm trying to heal DURING the season and that's just not a good combination. What choice do I have?

I've given up designs on placing well in London, but I'm still going to toe that line on September 15th. Even if I weren't racing, we'd still be going.  A vacation is in order and the plans have been made. There are way more reasons to go to England than just a race. I just want to swim in the Serpentine in Hyde Park (my very favorite urban park). We have great friends in London and Exeter. And it seems miracles also happen because my favorite band, Turin Brakes, just announced an intimate London gig during our time there. (For those who know me, you know I'd choose Turin Brakes over a race any day). And who knows, hope springs eternal - maybe miracles travel in twos.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Patience and PT: Pittsburgh Triathlon Race Recap

Ah, Pittsburgh. What can I say? I feared my sixth attempt to defy the "age" odds at the annual Pittsburgh Triathlon - my favorite Olympic Distance race - would not go as well as it had in the past. In four out of the five times I've done the Pittsburgh Tri, I've been able to run down the leader(s) for the overall win. In fact, in this race, because of my lack of skill and prowess on the bike, I fully expect to fall behind in the quad-burning mountain-climb of a bike leg.

And I've always had my run speed. I was always determined to go down fighting on the run in this event. I would make the massively-quadded bikers who crushed me have to earn that win by running scared when they saw me at the three-mile turn-around.

That all ended on Sunday. To my dismay, I didn't go down fighting. In fact, if you were listening Sunday morning, I think I went out with a whimper. And now I sit in front of my computer trying to fight off the demons of Pittsburgh that are trying to kill my spirit of the comeback.

After all, it was the Pittsburgh Tri (and win) that marked my return to racing in 2003, just two months after being hospitalized as a trauma case. It was the Pittsburgh Tri that got me back on my feet after a four year mental layoff from said accident. And it was the Pittsburgh Tri that I registered for as soon as I made my decision to go to the ITU World Championship in London this year. It's a barometer. I can usually tell exactly where I'm at based on my performance in Pittsburgh.

And now - let's just say I'm having a hard time putting things in perspective.

My husband Jim says I need to be patient. That I'm expecting too much. He has a point. After several months of very little running, I've started the hardest part of my build-up (in all three disciplines) for London. I did a 40K time-trial in training last week. I also had my first run of longer than 50 minutes the next day. And I'm in a desperate struggle with my physical therapist to make my both my legs work - with strength and without pain - by September 14.

The problem is that we're in the midst of triathlon racing season and I'm running out of opportunities to have the proverbial something-to-hang-my-hat-on if (when?) all goes awry in London. Every year older I get, the more I wonder if this is my last chance to really feel strong. Or "fast." Or just "good."

There it goes - the snowball...

To back up a bit, to before the race... I was, indeed, feeling upbeat about my progress last week. Especially in physical therapy. As of last weekend, I could run - regularly - without a cast and without fear of "scary" pain in my right tibia. However, an attempt to run fast reduced me to hobbling from pain in my left hip (this was probably the thing that did me in last year - and the thing that caused my stress fracture).

The next day, I had to have my hip seriously worked on by my physical therapist. He was able to "put more space" in the joint, and, miraculously, I was able to run on Thursday with a freedom of movement (and lack of pain) I hadn't experienced in a long time (maybe years). I'm not sure why what he did worked this time, but it did.

With this new-found pain-free hip-movement, I apparently expected immediately results. No. Patience is NOT my middle name.

Swim start, last wave: women 40+ and relays, and my
right "high" elbow.
So, there I was, at the starting line of the Pittsburgh Triathlon - the defending champ. And before the gun, last year's runner-up approached me to tell me she suffered a broken pelvis two weeks after the race last year. Then she commented on my running speed - last-year. I related my current stress-fracture woes - my running was non-existent this year. Although I secretly thought (hoped?) I could pull something fast out on the run.

Race day started out cloudy and rainy - the transition area was all but under water - but the Allegheny River was strangely unaffected. In fact, the current was almost non-existent. The 1500m swim of the Pittsburgh Tri starts upstream, and besides a short swim upstream, it is mostly with the (said) current and parallel to the shoreline. It's great for spectators because they can watch their athletes during the entire swim (Jim managed to capture on camera my swim and all its idiosyncrasies - especially my asymmetric stroke). When we got in the water, I found it odd that I lacked the familiar adrenaline rush at the start. With no warm-up, it took me about half the swim to "find" my stroke, but by the time I reached the swim finish, I got a mental boost by catching several of the relay swimmers who went out much faster than I did.

The "low" (read: nonexistent) elbow.
After the swim, athletes have to run up a concrete ramp to transition which is in a small grassy area on the river's north shore between Heinz Stadium (home of the Steelers) and PNC Park (home of the Pirates). It was not a wetsuit-legal race, which made the long run to transition much easier. I took a split when I crossed the timing mat - it read about 20 minutes (almost the same as last year's time). I didn't chase anyone, I jogged to my bike, got out of my speed suit quickly - which wasn't easy with the spongy wet footing - and got out of there.

Swim exit: no, I can't walk and chew gum at the same time

The bike leg is basically a two-loop hill. It's in the HOV lane of I-279 so there are no cars to contend with, but it's just one giant hill. Last year was my best time on this course, and this year, I swore I would be faster because... well, because I'm faster on the bike.

Or so I thought. I rode hard and felt great through the bike leg, but when all was said and done, I got my butt kicked on the downhills. Which begs the question, after I was flying by people on the uphills, how does EVERYONE ride faster than me on the downhill? My aero position is good (I checked my shadow when the sun came out). My bike is supposedly one of the fastest (Cervelo P3). And yet, I end up losing all my gains on the downhills. And yes, I am pedaling, not just coasting.

Bike photos - at least I was smiling in my slowness:

Oh well. So I rolled into transition at around 1:08 for the 40K bike course. I didn't need Jim to tell me how far behind I was. I knew it was over six minutes at best. I racked my bike, jumped into my shoes and grabbed my hat and sunglasses. I knew immediately there would be a problem with my shoes. In an attempt to refine my horrible bike-to-run transition, I adjusted my running shoes too lose this time. The ground was puddles, the grass was squishy, my shoes were flopping all over the place. This has injury written all over it. So I stopped and tried to adjust.

Not once, but twice.

No, I was not focused on my run. I'm not sure what I was focusing on. But it wasn't running. I heard Jim yell not to chase anyone.

As though I would. Or could.

Maybe I do look a little distressed.
I think I gave up early. Right around the one-mile marker, I realized I just didn't have the killer instinct. I thought my run would be faster than the week before, but when I looked down at my watch, it showed a 7:40 first mile. That's when the negative talk started. What the hell was wrong with me? I feel good. My legs are working better than they have in years. My form is good. What then?

Who knows. I ran hard, but not hard enough to even work my way into second place. I finished third overall, five minutes slower than last year, with a very disappointing 44-minute 10K, and a lot of questions.

A little better? Starting to smile
because it was almost over.
When I got up on the podium, the winner (the girl I talked to at the starting line) said "I saw you out there running. You looked like you were in a LOT of pain." Really? This threw me for a loop. I didn't remember feeling much pain. Until I saw my splits, I actually felt balanced and strong on the run - and certainly not limping along in pain. Hmmm.... Jim said my form looked good.

Was he telling the truth? Is my perception of my situation different than what's actually happening? Am I expecting too much? Seriously, have I reached that age when I can no longer make big improvements in short periods? More importantly, do I care anymore? Could it be more mental than physical? Is this what it feels like to be washed up? And - omg, the horror - should I find another sport? Something more along the lines of shuffleboard? (I always thought curling might be fun.)

Lots of questions. And no answers. I hope they're out there. Because I'm (literally) running out of time.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Eight Weeks Out: Tri del Sol Race Report

As of yesterday, eight weeks stand between me and toeing the line at the ITU Age Group World Championship in London. The spring and early summer have not been kind in terms of injury and training. I have been trying to make up for my lack of run training with harder swim and bike training, but I can't say I'm ecstatic with it. I'm now on the flip side of my usual race situation. I find myself looking over my shoulder in fear of being chased down by faster runners.

To be brutally honest, I hate it. I hate that I no longer possess my former secret weapon - my running speed. I actually don't like to be leading races - I secretly enjoy coming off the bike behind the leaders with the knowledge my run can and has (in the past) erased up to a 7-minute lead in a 10K.

But eight weeks won't afford me the gains I've lost while recovering from a stress fracture and I must adjust my goals going into London - I must put together the best swim and bike legs I can. And I MUST speed up my painfully-slow transitions.

I was able to gather more data in my second Olympic-distance race of the season, the Tri del Sol in Grand Rapids Michigan. There were several reasons for choosing this race, none of which involved the travel situation (more on that in a bit). I thought the competition would be good because the top three awards involved cash. I also had a prior commitment on Sunday so I needed a Saturday race. And, last of all, my husband Jim has always wanted to visit a famous guitar shop in Lansing called Elderly Instruments that is never open on Sunday (usual race day).

But as mentioned, I was facing a travel "situation." The race was Saturday, June 20, and Jim was flying home from a business trip at 2:00 pm Friday. I would pick him up and make the five-hour trip to Grand Rapids Friday night. If his plane was late, we would deal with it. Guess what! Mechanical problems delayed his flight, and we ended up leaving Cleveland around 5:30 pm. It was going to be a late one.

We managed to find a decent meal at a rest area and rolled into the hotel close to 10:30 pm. I was pretty wound up and unable to relax that night, thus my usual anxiety coupled with a lack of pre-race wine resulted in a completely sleepless night.

But this was not an Ironman - or even a half. It was a short do-able-on-no-sleep race - so I shook it off and focused on what needed to be done. The plan was to hammer the bike and see what happens (this is a theme of late). Mentally, I'm still a slow biker, so "hammering" the bike is a difficult concept. All I knew is my legs had to hurt (bad) coming off the bike.

As recommended in a pre-race email, we arrived at the race site 2.5 hours early. I checked in and quickly grabbed the end spot on the transition rack (this was one of the rare races where "first come first served" actually mattered) - by the time transition closed, people were begging for space on the racks and many of us had to be vigilant to make sure our bikes were not moved or flipped around.

This was one sign of an inexperienced race staff. The bike racks were not numbered and no one was helping people properly stagger bikes. I noticed many people racking adjacent bikes in the same direction. Jim recommended I baby-sit my bike until transition closed to make sure things stayed put (I've been at races where helmets end up on the ground and transition areas disrespected).

No wetsuits at this race - the water was a whopping
84 degrees F. Here we were discussing
the buoys (or lack there-of).
Right before 8 a.m., we walked down to the swim start for the pre-race meeting. The swim start was the second - and biggest - indicator of an unprepared race staff. There was no "pre-race meeting." Despite maps of what the swim would look like, it looked completely different (read: rectangular course with only three turn buoys), and no one could explain to us the exact swim course. There were two distances - the sprint consisted of one loop, the Oly-distance, two. We watched in horror as the sprint triathlon began and the buoys started moving. This was not good. There was a speedboat racing around the outskirts of the swim course repositioning buoys WHILE WE WERE SWIMMING.

Swim start - that's my elbow you see.
My race started out fine - within a few hundred yards, I knew I was leading the women in the 1500-meter swim. I suspect an advantage came in the fact that I'm very good at spotting buoys because of my slightly heads-up swimming technique. By the time I reached the far end of the swim course, the two triangular turn buoys had come together, making the course more of a triangle. Swimmers were scattered all over the place, and I was alone for most of the swim. During the second lap, I was hit by rough water from the speedboat, making me swallow a couple gulps before turning toward the finish. Not seeing any other women and dealing with unreliable buoys, I lost focus and slacked off during the swim. I was surprised (and upset at myself) when another woman came out of the water right behind me going into T1. My watch time showed 25 minutes at the chip mat.

That other woman beat me out of transition (did I mention how painfully slow my transitions are?), and now I knew this would be a race. Why? Because I recognized her - three weeks earlier, this competitor had beaten me by about four minutes (but lost her second-place finish after being docked time for drafting - TWICE).

Within the first few minutes of the bike leg, I noticed she was on the sidelines spinning her bike wheel (mechanical problems) but appeared to be getting right back on her bike. I used the opportunity to make the pass and hope I could hold her off. I already knew she could run faster than me (from the previous race).

T2: Oh no, don't forget the helmet.
I hammered the 40K bike course as I had planned. Despite some issues with traffic control, the bike course was beautiful - with rolling hills and only a few rough areas. The biggest surprise was that it was marked MILE BY MILE - and very accurately too. I rode as hard as I could and with tired legs but holding my lead in the women's race, I pulled into transition only to see the same time on my bike computer as my last race (1:07 - 1:08). It was a harder course, but I was still disappointed. (I later found out that other bike course was more than a mile short according to a race report by an athlete who had GPS on it).

Proof that I ran with my sunglasses in hand.
My T2 was also slow because I still struggle getting into my running shoes faster than a snail. Being OCD, I also have to reposition and adjust the tongue, which usually ends up at my toes (yes, despite the laces going through the tongue lace "holder"). I usually also take time to pull the laces tighter. It IS a disaster. At least I remembered to take off my helmet. AND to put my hat, sunglasses, and number belt ON while running.

Having ridden hard, I was surprised how good my legs felt out of transition, but the 10K run starts on dirt and wood chips and then features a pretty formidable hill. I was shocked to see 6:38 on my watch when I went through the first mile (it HAD to be a short mile). I tried to hang with a guy named Mark who was running a great pace (we were trading greetings when he passed me near the end of the bike leg, but I beat him out of transition).

Yay, finish line.
In the second mile, I had to back off to avoid a serious blow-up on the run. Mile 2 also showed a sub-7-minute pace, and I found myself wondering what WAS going on. Were the markers wrong? I certainly didn't expect to hold a pace like that with only a few weeks of run training.

At the turn-around I realized I never got a split at mile 3, but I looked down at my watch, noted the time, and started my lookout for the second woman. I finally saw her just over one minute from the turn. This meant I was about two minutes ahead with about three miles to go. But I was feeling it. The run course was rolling and I was crawling on the uphills. I tried to run the downhills hard to get as much speed as I could. My splits at miles 4 and 5 were well over eight minutes - prompting the hope that they were marked wrong. If they weren't, I was in trouble. But somehow I managed to hold on to my lead and was relieved to see the finish line (and Jim) after another stint on a wooded trail.

Yeah, I was pretty happy knowing I could still win
a tri at 48 years old - and that I would be $200 richer.
My new friend Mark confirmed that his GPS on the run course measured 6.5 miles, so my final time of 46:13 landed me a mile-pace of about 7:06 (overall time 2:20:49). My progress in the run has me feeling encouraged at the possibility of a half-way decent run in London.

But as they say, my work will be cut out for me.

Yeah, I'm up for it.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Electronics Disaster: USAT Mideast Regional Championship

Best race t-shirt ever.
What can I say? I'm rusty - in both blogging and Olympic distance racing. Actually, in racing altogether. And definitely in my pre-race preparations. If I weren't so rusty, my return to racing may have been disaster-free.

But it wasn't.

After 10 weeks of dealing with a difficult-to heal tibia stress fracture, my doctor finally gave me the go-ahead to race without my aircast. Personally, I think he did it to avoid having me lapse into a psychotic episode. I think my words to him before he said "ok, you can race" were: "I CANNOT D.N.S. ANOTHER RACE." And yes, I actually said it in ALL CAPS. This injury had already cost me three races this year: the Boston Marathon, the Ohio Triple-T, and Ironman 70.3 Eagleman. The only things left on my schedule now are Olympic distance races. And I'm still not pain-free, but if a 6.2-mile run is ok with the doc, then it's ok with me (*end of discussion*).

However, in the last two weeks, I managed only two runs longer than 30 minutes, thus, I wasn't even sure I'd be able to run the entire 10K (holy hell, did I really say that?). Enroute to the race, my husband Jim and I discussed that my swimming and biking would have to be enough carry me. I think his exact words were: "you'll have to hammer the swim and bike and just see what happens." See. What. Happens. This race had now become a shakedown. My goals? Get back into short racing (from Ironman), put myself in a race situation, make mistakes... and perhaps the hardest one of all: deal with it.

Let's be honest - the proverbial "it" here was one thing: my running. For the first time in my triathlon career, I would have to deal with the inability to use my run to its advantage. My run would not only be sub-optimal - it would probably be my slowest 10K ever. I might have to walk. I might have to WALK. Walking in a marathon is understandable, but walking in a 10K? How much mental pain would I inflict on myself after that? But it had to be done. The 10K, that is. Not necessarily the walking. Let's just say the walking part was my demons surfacing (,climbing up onto land, and beating me senseless).

Which brings me to the race - it was the USAT Mideast Regional Championship. As a qualifier for the USAT Age Group National Championship in August, this race was meant to be good competition for me to prepare for the ITU Age Group World Championship in London in September. But it certainly helped that it was only three hours away in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Medal with a second life.
We quickly learned there were other way more awesome reasons to do this race. It started with my favorite race shirt of all time (see photo at top) designed by Frazz himself, Jef Mallett (who also raced). And for finishers, it came with one of the best medals of all time - it doubled as a bottle opener (do I have to explain why that's cool?).

And, yes, there were trade-offs as well. Despite the amazing work that Epic Races does with their events, this one suffered a bit because of the venue. It was held at Portage Lake Beach in the Waterloo Recreation Area, and upon checking in, we became acutely aware of one very annoying thing about this place: mosquitoes. Everywhere. Especially in transition. I was bitten to death before the race even started. (There were additional negative aspects of the race I will discuss shortly.)

But let's get back to the positives. For me, there was an unexpected perk that came with getting to the venue the day before. Tired of listening to me gripe about wanting to replace my old DeSoto two-piece maddening-to-strip-off wetsuit for two years, Jim convinced me to talk to the Aquaman dealer (a very nice Frenchman named Emmanuel Millet - website aquamantri.com). Not only did he tell us why his suits are number one in Europe, he let me take one back to the hotel to try on and bring back the next day. Astonished, I took him up on the offer. Unfortunately, I was disappointed to find the suit (the "Bionik") had an amazing fit only to be negated by a neck gap [that would no-doubt cause it to fill up with water]. I almost cried because this suit did not restrict my shoulders AT ALL, and it came off instantly because of the high cut arms and legs.

Instead of focusing on my race that night, I spent the time researching Aquaman wetsuits (don't. there is very little information out there.) because the price was about $250 less than comparable name-brand suits. My only hope was that the women's small would actually fit and be available to try the next day. And it was. After a decent night's sleep (surprise, no sleep disaster despite all my worries), I bought an Aquaman Bionik the next morning. The fit is as close to perfect as it gets.

For the race, I had decided not to wear my wetsuit because the water temp was (a balmy) 75 deg F. Then, about an hour before gun-time, I changed my mind and decided to learn the ins and (more importantly) outs of this suit in real time. Heck, this was a shakedown - why shouldn't I do something untested on race day?

For once I didn't have to stop to pull my
DeSoto T1 wetsuit top off over my head
The 1.5K swim was a two-loop course with a deep water start - or, more aptly, a "deep seaweed" start. By the time I reached the first turn buoy, I became intimately aware of something grabbing my feet - not hands, but a cling-on. I tried to shake it off several times, but it had firmly adhered itself to the gigantic timing chip (you know, the ones that look like trucks attached to your ankle). I carried my stowaway through the second loop, but by the finish, I had become more concerned about how hot it was in my wetsuit and took no notice when it finally set me free. I'm subtracting at least two seconds for the extra drag.

Getting out of the water was followed by one of the other trade-offs of this race: THE longest transition I've ever seen in a race - it was even longer than the Chicago Triathlon. Looking at it, I had a tiny inkling of what it was like to storm the beach at Normandy. We had to run up the beach, up a hill, down a paved path and around several turns. By the time I got to my bike, I had almost forgotten why I was there. I wasn't surprised to find at the top of the hill, the guy in front of me stepped off the path to vomit. (Embarrassingly, I took solace in his misfortune - THAT guy was almost surely in for a worse race than I was.)

Panoramic vista, a.k.a. the swim exit
I did remember to look at my watch as I came out of the water and saw the number 20 on it. I was happy with that. The official results added in the run to transition, giving me 22:34 minutes. (Note: I would have been happy with that as a swim time too.)

My wetsuit came off without a hitch. However, I was about to ride smack into the major disaster of my day. My rustiness bit me in the first mile of the bike leg. I looked down at my bike computer only to find the sensor was not registering. (Because I had not checked it while setting up in transition. Even though Jim asked me if I did.) I had to stop for a minute or two to fix it. That was electronics disaster part one.

Heading into T2, happy to be on smooth pavement
Electronics disaster part two followed shortly thereafter. The bike course was a teeth-chatterer - mostly due to road patches and cracks - and turned out to be another drawback of this race. There were only two small stretches of road that were smooth. And I had just received one of those touch-screen 250-lap Timex watches for my birthday only to find that touching the screen wasn't the only thing that took a split. Every. Single. Bump. caused my watch to take a split. I started focusing on that and not paying attention to my ride. And seriously, I had no idea how hard to ride for a 40K. I got into a leap frog with another woman and tried to gauge my speed based on what she was doing. It also helped to have someone to watch in order to navigate the bigger bumps and rattlers. My speed stayed mostly over 20 mph with a couple of flat stretches that I got up to 26. My legs felt fatigued for most of it but not burned out.

I rolled into transition with absolutely no clue what my time was (note e-disaster part 1&2 above). Jim yelled that I was the fourth woman and: "don't chase, just take it easy!"

Yeah right.

I settled immediately into a comfortable pace that felt more like a marathon shuffle. I could not stretch out my stride (have I mentioned an additional hip problem that is still undergoing therapy?). The run started on a paved park road but very quickly turned into seriously rolling hills on dirt roads and trails. Great! My slowness would be compounded by slowness of surface.

The last two miles of the run were on wooded single-track trail that was so winding and rolling I couldn't see anyone in front or behind. At one point, I truly believed I was no longer on the course. There wasn't anywhere to have gone OFF-course, but running alone for that long in a short race can play tricks on my mind. Did I say "running"?

I told you my run was ugly.
YES, I was STILL running. At mile four. I never saw a marker for mile five. I WAS taking splits just in case I ever wanted to go back and upset myself by looking at them. Mostly I was relieved to find that even though they were all over 7 minutes, they were under 8.

Finally, a guy came up behind me and when I turned around to look, he said: "yeah I'm back here - I've been trying to catch you the whole trail." I had no idea what distance was left, but there was NO way I was going to let THAT guy beat me. I tried to pick up it up, but my body's response was dismal. And just like that, we were out of the woods (in theory and in practice) and back onto a paved parking lot with people yelling that the finish was right around the corner. (It wasn't.)

We still had about a half mile to go, so I just hung on. I don't know where my chaser was but he wasn't with me at the finish line. I grabbed a flag (did I tell you that one of the race participants - a veteran - brought American flags from Afghanistan for us to run with across the finish line to show our support of US Troops? well, that's what the flag was for) - and ran across the line with people yelling that I was the third woman finisher.

I barely kept my balance
grabbing that flag (it was huge). 
As it turns out, I was the first over-40 finisher and won the overall female masters award. I tried not to care about my splits right away (Jim will tell you different) - and I was pretty happy to find out that my official finish time was 2:16:55. I was also pretty happy to find that the masters award came with some pretty cool swag from USAT (free year membership and a vest), Rudy Project (free sunglasses), and the supporting bike shop, Transition Rack ($25 gift certificate). I'm not complaining.

In the car on the way home, I tried to make sense of my splits and finally gave up. The final electronics disaster was finding out that my new watch only saves 50 splits per event (wtf, Timex?), and that none of my run splits were stored. I'll never really know what happened out there, but I do know that my 10K was 44:37 (I refuse to calculate the pace). My transitions were slow. But my bike split was 1:07:22 - which includes the stop to fix my sensor - so there's THAT.

And because there's everyone's lingering question: "what's up with the stress fracture?" Here's what happened: during the first three miles of the run, I forgot I had a stress fracture. During the last three miles, a low-grade worsening pain reminded me of it. But then, shortly after I finished, the pain strangely ramped up to a fear-inducing level. I slapped on the aircast, wore it the rest of the day, and prayed. By this morning, it was gone.

And just like that, my hope for salvaging a triathlon season looks much brighter than it did yesterday.

UPDATE: We found out today that my third place overall finish was actually second place because the second place woman was given six minutes in drafting penalties. Wow.

The guy I'm shaking hands with is Michael Wendorf, USAT Mideast Region Vice-Chair,
Michigan Rep, and Youth Development Program Chair, but MOST importantly,
he's in his mid-50s and he BLEW BY ME on the run like I was standing still.