Monday, November 11, 2013

Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

I've never cried on a training run, but this weekend I can damn near close to losing it.

I was just over the midpoint of my Saturday long run - a workout sandwiched between to other moderate runs, all squished in a 36hr window. Around the 3-hour mark, with another 2 hours or so to go, I pulled out a PB&J sandwich no bigger than a stack of playing cards. It was a bright little joy among the hours of aching and frustration I was experiencing. I unwrapped it from its plastic bag and went to take a bite. But I was clumsy and the plastic was slippery and my sandwich tumbled out of my hands and into a puddle.

To say I lost my will to live at that moment might be a little strong. But the run is long past and I'm still working my way through the five stages of grief. I left the sandwich and grudgingly continued my run. And long after the sun went down and the sandwich sucked up all the water in that little puddle, I finished.

It's been a long (read: challenging) stretch of training the past couple of weeks. I'm now over the halfway point to race day, having just wrapped week 13 on the schedule. My start in August seems eons away. It was a time when the temps touched 90 degrees and the sun stayed out an extra few hours. These days, the air flirts with 70 and the sun's gotten very lazy, clocking out around 5:00pm in SoCal. I'm logged an average of 46-56 miles/week right now, with last weekend's workouts tallying as high as 59. This past weekend dropped me back to 47, though the fatigue of training is hard to shake.

Each weekend for the past two months or so, I've been doing 22-30 mile runs on one day, and an additional 6-16 miles on the day or days around it. No medal, no bagel (except at the Marine Corp Marathon!), just a lot of time on my feet and in my head. What I'm finding out about this whole experiment is that it is very different from Ironman training, and from training with a team. The physicality and single-focus-ness of only running combined with the growing number of hours you have to keep yourself motivated is exhaustion. Interesting? Yes. Challenging? You betcha. Worthwhile? Well, I hope so.

MCM Finish Line. Good training run among 35K other people

I've also learned that not everyone ... in fact, very few people ... can relate to my interest in training for something like this. Someone at work asked me what I was doing, and after I explained (and they stopped laughing) they gave me a once over that said "You've lost a few bolts, huh?" I liken it to watching someone eat ice cream. If they declare they want to take down a hot fudge sundae alone, we cheer their ambition and gluttony. If they declare they want to go for the entire gallon, we pause, maybe back away from them, start whispering about diabetes. As if there is a limit to how high we can set our goals without becoming "that" person. Even my endurance friends look at me a little odd. But no matter. If you want to try and do something impossible, not everyone will understand. No surprise. Plenty of things I would react to the same way. For instance skydiving ... thank you but no thank you have a good day.

So anyway, what exactly does ultra training look like? Everyone has their own method based on minimum needs and what their body can take. Since I've never gone this far, it's all a closely-watched experiment. I'm working with a coach and we go back and forth to develop a schedule that can best prep me for the task of running 100 miles (or 25-30 hours) at a time. My midweek mileage is fairly minimal. I run x2 a week (between 30-90 minutes each day) and cross train once a week. Generally those runs fall on Tuesdays (tempo work or recovery runs) and Thursdays (track workout). Every other Thursday, instead of track, I rest and instead run on Friday.

Friday/Saturday/Sun runs (or Saturday/Sunday runs) are the meat of the schedule. We try to compress my mileage within a 24-to-36-hr window in order create fatiguing conditions. So for instance, this past weekend I ran at 7pm on Friday night, 2pm-7pm on Saturday, and 5:45am-7:30am Sunday morning. Within a a 36.5-hour window, I got in 40 miles. Those distances and windows of time vary, but the trend through January will be to compress the window and up the mileage so I am prepared to handle the race day load.

Why two runs and not one? We're hoping that the slight rest in between offsets injury without giving me too much of a break before I have to start again. And frankly, sometimes starting again is worse than running all at once. The Suck It Up Buttercup factor is high. Will it work? I don't know. But if I am preparing myself to endurance discomfort and suffering, I'm getting a fair amount of that right now.

My body is adapting to the work load okay, aside from a nagging Achilles ache caused by my tight left calf muscle. My mind has been struggling lately. With the exception of some company from my coach Jason and two friends Amy and Dave, I primarily run alone. It's great race simulation since I can't have a pacer until mile 60. And my body awareness is very heightened and attuned when I'm not distracted by conversation.(I am lucky, however, that this particular races has aid stations every 3-6 miles, and my crew can be at 3 of the 5 stations along the loop).

But the hours add up. And maintaining self-propulsion gets hard. And to watch others go off and workout together with a team or with friends is not easy. But I keep reminding myself I didn't sign up for easy. I signed up for struggle-and-survive-and-earn-it. And I will be prepared for moments during the race when I have to deal without any help. Perfect practices makes perfect, and I think I'm getting that.

The approach I'm taking about my race nutrition is inspired by the Feed Zone Cookbook and Osmo Nutrition. I've limited my liquid calories to all but nothing, save for some electrolyte mix that has a few calories. The remainder of my nutritional is solid foods or "real food" ... with an occasional Dr. Pepper thrown in for a quick sugar hit.

The reason I'm tackling my fueling this way is because I don't think my stomach would cooperate if I fuel it with a sports drink and carb supplement for such a long race. Especially one that is only running. In Ironman races, I could rely on liquids to get me through the bike. But that's because there's a lot less jostling going on in the gut. Here, it's all movement all the time. My main go-to's are salted potatoes, peanut butter pretzels, PBJ or turkey sandwiches, squeeze-pack baby food (for quick sugar), string cheese, rice balls and chicken broth. The more I can incorporate slow-burn foods (high fat, high protein) the less likely I will sugar-crash. And that my pacing is a zone 1 HR clip, my body is more attuned to burning fat over carbs anyway.

Fatigued Thoughts
Quite a number of things cross my mind out there. I've certainly shocked myself at some of the funny and stupid things I've used to keep myself entertained.

For example, two weekends ago I was in the Santa Monica mountains for 7 hours. I ran 4 loops of the La Jolla Valley trail, 7+ mile course that requires a fair amount of climbing and descending at its bookends. I did the first two loops alone, the third with Amy, and the forth alone. During the second loop, I started naming parts of the trails. The first part was 'Soul Crusher', the second was 'Matchsticks", then onto "the Hidden Valley Ranch Commercial" and over to the "Nature Valley Granola Bar Commercial". After that you run past "The Eye of Mordor" and up to "King of the Mountain". You descend along the "Mountain Goat Ridge Run" and back to the car. In other words, I became a crazy tour guide rambling on about made up landmarks. So when I ran with Amy that third loop, it was more of a tour of my habitat rather than just another loop.

Clockwise from the right: King of the Mountain; Hidden Valley Ranch Commercial; Nature Valley Granola Bar Commercial; Soul Crusher; The Eye of Mordor (aka Boney Mountain)

This Saturday's sandwich-less run had my brain going into 'survival mode'. Now, the way I train is by doing loops on paths that SAG back at my car. And in this case, I was never more than a few miles away, and always right in civilization. Yet, tired and traumatized by losing my snack, I decided when I returned to the car that I would always carry an 'emergency potato' with me. I packed up a tiny fingerling potato which become my source of light and happiness for the rest of the run. And the phrase, 'emergency potato' delighted me inexplicably. If I wanted to quit (which, boy did I have my moments), I remembered I was carrying my emergency potato and everything would be okay.

Sounds crazy ... because it is. Running alone and running in the dark can do that to you. The folks who will pace at the race are probably in for some comedy. So long as I don't drop my food on the ground. Then they are in for tears. Curse words and tears.

Though this past week was a struggle, I'm deepening my resiliency. This training is a masters class in 'embrace the suck'. I even woke up this morning a little bummed it's a rest day. With proper rest, focus and a fair amount of ice and icy hot, I'll be ready for the build next weekend - 2 runs. 24 hours. 42 miles total. And without a doubt I will be packing at least two sandwiches for that one. An appeasement for the gods of trails and puddles, and a little bit of joy (and peanut butter) for me.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Point Mugu Trail Race and La Jolla Valley Run

I signed up for the Xterra Point Mugu 18k a few weeks ago. It was a good excuse to get out in the mountains and some climbs on my legs. I ran the race back in 2008 (wow, five years goes by very fast!) so I had some lingering knowledge about what the course was like. I'd remember it for its long climbs to the sky and its final miles of speedy switchbacks.

Per my training schedule, I was required to do 23 miles. Since an 18k is only about 11 miles, I still owed 12 more. Luckily, there was an 11k option offered by Xterra, so my coach suggested I run the 11k loop prior to the 18k race, and then run another 11k loop following the race. I knew this would be a tough training day, but sometimes we need the mental challenge just as much as we need the physical challenge. And while Rocky Raccoon will not have nearly as much climbing, running on fatigued legs will surely be an issue. So, extra loops plus a 3.5hr Saturday workout are beneficial fatigue-inducers.

Point Mugu is located North of Malibu, technically in Ventura County, CA. It was about a 45min drive in the dark along PCH. I arrived at the race start at 5:35am. Some race volunteers were already milling around the parking lot, setting up the expo area prior to 7am packet pick up. It was completely dark, so I wore my Go Motion Sternum Kit as well as a clip-on LED light for my visor. I had the course map downloaded to my phone and I carried a paper map as well. But again, I was lucky that the race had already marked the course with flour and arrows, so I didn't have a problem finding my way. Sort of. The lights I wore were great for illuminating the trail, but the first few miles were so technical, did a lot of climbing and hiking as opposed to actual running.

Once I got out into the La Jolla Valley, around mile 2.5, I was on a wide dirt road in the field. I could see evidence of the Spring Fire that decimated the area. As the sun rose, more damage was revealed. The valley smelled like charcoal and the trees and plants still had layers of black soot, making the the scenery look like an odd and creepy Halloweenland.

The sun rose around mile 3, just as I made the turn west, back toward the ocean. I was along the Overlook Fire Road and snapped some photos of the sun rising over Boney Mountain.

You can see the outline of black tree limbs in the forefront of two of the photos. It's not a trick of the light - they are colored pitch even in sunlight. They look like frail skeletons of the trees they used to be, and yet after the sweeping fire, they still stand. Nature rewards perseverance.

With the sun up around mile 4 (50mins into the run), I shut off my light and enjoyed the remainder of the loop. Temperature was in the 50s, so my long sleeve shirt was a good choice. It was an overcast morning, boding well for the race, but the clouds dampened the light and the mountains before me were muted brown. Still pretty, though.

This is the view of the mountains, from Overlook Fire Road looking north. The Ray Miller trailhead is somewhere down by the water. It's crazy to see exactly how high you have to climb to get here. Of course there are higher points, to be sure. But to be able to stand on top of a mountain and have a clear reference point of where you came from is really neat.

The final 2.5 miles of the loop are switchbacks the run the ridge of the mountain. They used to be lined with vegetation, but as you can see ... all gone.

I descended the mountain, quads on alert during the speed portions, and clocked my watch at the base of the hill. A good warm up and good fatigue inducer.

7.28 miles / 1hr 17mins.


I had a 40-min break before starting the organized race. I went back to my car to refuel (potatoes, pretzels, water) and met up with my friend Adam who was also doing the race. Grabbed packet and bib and got in line for the race. What I like about trail races are the lack of fanfare. Usually there is a guy with a megaphone cracking jokes and counting down the waves - if there are any waves at all. Yesterday there were.

I self-seeded toward the back of the pack, knowing I'd take this loop as slowly as I could manage without walking the whole thing. And once I started, I realized just how helpful running that first loop was - the 18k and the 11k share a lot of the same course, so I knew what was coming. Additionally, my legs were tired so my ego had no problem letting many people pass me along the trail. I went on my merry way without a thought to "racing" the actual course.

What the 18k has the the 11k does not is a gnarly climb from mile 2.5 to 3.5 that seems to go on forever. Because of the burn out, it was easy to see the runners, like a parade of ants, crawling up the side of a mountain. I took a moment mid-climb to take a picture of what was behind us.

It wasn't until the last few miles of the race that the sun came out. Temperatures stayed similarly in the high 50s and low 60s. I plodded along with the rest of the pack, walking a lot and enjoying the view. It was around mile 7 (mile 14 for the day) when the distance and climbs really started to set in my body. Doubt creeped into my mind - "Can I really do another loop after this? I'm really tired." The early wake up (4am), running in the dark (intense focus) and general activity was building up like lactic acid in my brain. This was good - as much as I didn't want one, I needed a good mental challenge.

Down the switchbacks once again and toward the finish line. I took the decent very easy, letting handfuls of folks pass me. Many said 'thanks' or 'sorry' as if their speed was a downer for me. Nope, not at all! I usually answered, 'good job' or 'go for it!' and continued to run. I chatted with another runner for about 20 minutes. She's signed up for a 100K in March and has her eye on Javelina Jundred next year. My spirits were lifted after talking with someone, and once I crossed the finish line, I was resolved to finish my workout and do one more loop.

10.98 miles / 2hrs 6mins


I was so focused on the post-race food, I forgot to get a finishers medal. Oh well, the breakfast tacos were reward enough!

My new trail shoes gave me a hell of a blister on the left side, so for the final run, I swapped them out...and cleaned up my legs a little. Changed my shirt to short sleeve, a quick bottle refill, nutrition load up, and off on the 11k course one last time. The race course closed at 11:30, so the signage was gone. But by now I was fairly familiar with the route. Temps stayed cooler - 64 degrees.

It was rough going. My quads were sore from the switchback miles. I was solo, so my head was left to do what it will - which is wander and wonder why I am doing this. My heart rate felt extremely high, so I hiked the majority of the first four miles. There were few quick distractions, like running into fellow TriTrain teammates Patrick, Charlie and Vince, who were adding more miles after the 18k. But for the most part, I pushed myself to just walk and get the miles done. Mentally difficult.

All the walking allowed me time to take some photos. This one above is around the first half mile of the course. That light-colored rock in the center is a dry waterfall which both the 18k and 11k course scale. I'm not sure how I did that the first time with my light vest on. But I did! Seeing it in daylight was shocking and really pretty. It's a rocky climb though. Nothing like using your hands during a running race!

Between miles 1-2 of the 11k loop is like running through a haunted forest. Just below this photo on the left side was a small valley covered in white ash, as if it had snowed. I remember thinking it looked like pictures I'd seen of the Chernobyl remains. Though none were there, I would not have been surprised to see some abandoned children's playground toys. Though in that case, I would have turned around, convinced it was haunted.

My lowest moments came while taking this picture. I was almost an hour into the run and approaching mile 4. I couldn't see the ocean yet, but just the low stretch of sky and land on my side. The road seemed to climb forever and while the grade wasn't steep, my body did not want to challenge it. So I hiked hard and shuffled along. I moved passed a group of hikers who were cursing the trail as well - but with 20-lb packs on your back, you're allowed to.

Finally, I reached the downhill section. Seeing the ocean was like seeing the sunrise after time in the dark - it shatters the sense that the experience is infinite. It offers hope of a finish and a nice bottle of water and handful of food.

I took the trail gently because my legs were barking at me. I even threw in a few lengths of walking to reduce the pounding on my knees and hips. And during the final miles, more runners started to make their appearance. I passed at least three of whom were running up the switchbacks - crazy! Reaching the bottom of the hill and hitting the stop button on my watch was a very relieving thing. Done for the day!

7.21 miles / 1hr 34mins

Totals for the day were somewhere close to: 25.5 miles / 5:00 hours / 4000ft of elevation

This was a hard day. But this was also a good day. Like, in the world of amassing 'toughness' and building 'grit' maybe I earned myself a penny or an inch or an ounce. I'll take it. Thank you to the XTerra folks for running such a great race, and to the Santa Monica Trail Council for keeping the trails clear and free of dangerous debris. There are 108 more days until my first 100-mile attempt. Between mountains and mole hills and no hills and rest days ... I've got to make the most of them.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Running for a While and the Questions You Ask

My month of August ramblings...


With Ironteam life in my rear view mirror, I've had some time to recalibrate my workout life. And rest of my life, too. But this is mostly about my workouts. No longer needing to survive a 2.4-mile swim, I've cut back my swim to once each week. Mostly pool time, though Christine did manage to lure me into the ocean for a sunrise swim once. It was pretty. But popping my head up every two minutes to say, "Don't let me be dragged out to sea!" doesn't make for an efficient workout for either of us. So, for now I will go to the ocean to play in the waves and boogie board. Maybe touch the buoy once in a while. But no extended time there for me. I just don't find the happiness there that other people do.

I've also decreased the time an intensity on the bike to 1-2x each week. Casual riding on the weekend if it fits in. Preferably chased with a breakfast plate of eggs and cheese and coffee. Midweek workouts are for spinning out tired running legs and resting my cranky Achilles. It's still warm enough and light enough to enjoy some morning miles before I head off to be a desk monkey.

The bulk of my training has been running - back to the basics. I really do like the triad of triathlon sports. It just takes extra effort to string them together. When reduced to just running, my schedule is freer and my mind is less cluttered. It fits into my life well.

I have two events on my schedule - Marine Corp Marathon and the Goofy Challenge. Both I am planning to use as training days for a longer race I have my eye on. Right now I'm about five weeks into a plan that puts me at the start line of a century run in February. I have not put the money down to save me a spot at the start. I'm still debating the merits of committing to another enormous feat less than 7 months after a nine-month Ironman season. But the prospect of trying for something new, challenging and almost impossible (in my mind) is tempting. Just over a month into this phantom ultra training schedule, and I've already logged more miles - 138.5 - in August (per month) that I have in about a year and a half. And aside from my Achilles pain, I feel good. My weekend runs have ranged from 16-20 miles on Sundays, backed by occasional single digit (4-8miles) workouts the day before. It's territory that immediately brings me back to 2009 and American River 50 training. Slow, steady mileage and time on your feet. Learn to move for hours on end. Learn to love the sound of your own footsteps. Those miles and hours will soon creep up into the mid-20s to low 30s. All local grocery stores and restaurants - you have been warned.

Meditating on 20 Tough Miles

This weekend I made it through one of the hardest 20-milers I've ever done. Not because the course was all that challenging. In fact, it was fairly flat and very familiar. What got me was the baking sun (90 degrees, no shade) and the lack of music/friends/fellow runners around me. It was just me, two water bottles, a few salted balls of rice and my own feet and brain. It took me 12.5 miles to "warm up" - meaning, I stopped paying attention to the heat and finally felt awake and engaged with my workout. I chowed on rice, dark chocolate espresso beans and one ginger candy. When things got tough and I wanted to quit, I reduced my interval. I downed a cold coke at mile 16.5 for a much needed sugar injection. I randomly ran into Anabel along the beach path just before I was turning around for the final 3 miles. Seeing a friendly face was a saving grace and good mental boost. I finished - soaking wet, exhausted and tired of my own thoughts in my head. One of which was - why the hell are you doing this?

It's a good question. It's one that needs an answer. Why? Why go for a 3hr run? A 5hr run? A 25hr run?

The more I read the wisdom of seasoned ultramarathoners, the more I realize the significance of answering that question. They ask, "Why do you want to do it?" They don't care about the specifics of the answer. Instead, the message is ... have a reason to run. Have a reason to go for 100 miles. Have it in your back pocket. Have it tattoo'd on your skin. Have it ready and available because if you do not have a true, burning reason to test yourself at that distance ... don't do it. You won't make it.

I had a spoonful of this friction on Friday during that run. The voice that asks "Why?" spoke up, loudly at some points. And when it does, you have two choices - find an answer or quit. Have one fiery reason or ten of them. See the goal in your mind and make sure your sharp-sightedness is stronger than the noise trying to distract you. When you pack your water bottles and your nutrition and recovery for your workout, don't forget to pack your reasons, too. In the middle of your own workout, the choice is on you: answer and move forward or quit and get off the road.

Admittedly, I did have a lollipop later that day

It's good to have tough training runs. As a coach, it makes me more understanding of the struggles my athletes face. In good timing, I coached a workout two days following that run, and spent the last four miles of an 18-mile day with one participant who was struggling. Being able to emotionally tap back into Friday's run definitely shaped the way I interacted with her. Hopefully helpfully. Completely tough training runs - regardless of its distance - are good litmus tests of how badly you want something. It's a measure of Grit. And grit is good. It's also a measure of how crazy you are. That's also good because you need to be at least a little looney to be exceed your own limits. In running and in life, as Jerry West points out, "You can't get much done in life if you only work on the days when you feel good."

I'm still not sure I will sign up for this ultra, though I'm certain at least one or two of some distance are on the horizon for me. I'll continue to train to my schedule, check out the necessary gear and logistics required of the run, and meet with my coach to make a final decision and solid plan for success. It's all one giant, sometimes-expensive, frequently-rewarding, precipice-seeking , adventurous experiment. Sometimes referred to simply as Life.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Weekend of Biking Without a Plan

First weekend without a training plan or team practice since last October. Untethered and free to do what I chose … I chose to swim and bike. Stockholm Syndrome, perhaps?

But instead of holding myself to certain routes, distances and paces, I embraced a ‘choose your own adventure’ style of outdoors fun and went on a few adventures, deeming it an Escape from the Bike Path!

Saturday morning was an early wake up – 6:30, so I could swim at 7am. The pool was quiet, and I swam for 30 minutes very slowly but very happily. 1500 yards or so. Post-season swim means never having to do 100m interval repeats! I think I might start liking swims again. Afterward, I hopped on my bike and headed over to Santa Monica to meet my friends for a ride. I took the bike path from Culver City to Marina Del Rey, cut through Venice and to Santa Monica. About 13 miles.

Arrived at the popular meeting spot, and to little surprise, I was greeted by one of the TNT Campaign Managers who was out shepherding her Fall team. Then, a few other Summer Tri team folks arrived for their ride. And I heard that another group of triathletes had just passed on their Hood-to-Coast training run. Basically, whether you are in or out of season, if you want a workout buddy – head to this spot. It’s like a weekly reunion!

Took off with my friends for a “golf course loop” and “Amalfi loop” which means a 5-6mile warm up and then a 5-mile set of climbs through some of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city. My legs felt good one week out from the ironman. I didn’t push, but just rode along for the company. I split off when they headed to go to hill repeats (Mandeville Canyon, a 5 mile climb popular with city cyclists). Decided to ride back home via city streets instead of the bike path. I wanted to get the feeling of riding among the morning traffic and check out the state of the pavement. I’m confident enough in my bike handling skills to do this, so it felt like a nice little adventure.
I rode 26th Street / Olympic / Westwood / Pico / Motor / Venice avenues.

One big loop!

For the most part, it was low traffic (10am on a Saturday). It wasn’t the smoothest ride through Olympic and Westwood – the roads are pocked and pitted as much as any urban avenue. Pico and Motor were much better, but the sheer number of stop signs through the Cheviot Hills neighborhood had me braking just as often as I pedaled. Took about 45 minutes to get home. 31 miles for the day, and a lot of fun to see something new. Me and Oatmeal are on good terms right now. No flats, good handling, no odd noises. Good day to be a biker.

I almost ditched the bike on Sunday for the team’s ad hoc open water swim. But I woke up and the sky was grey and I felt like going for a ride again. So off I went for an unplanned spin. The first part of the ride was a mental low. I began to dwell on the fact that I skipped the open water swim because I was nervous about it, and out poured the self-criticism. And I also mulled over the thought – “why would I go and do the swim? I’m not training for a triathlon … I’m not training for anything at all.” And there was the ton-of-bricks, post-ironman-blues, unmoored-from-the-dock floating feeling that I don’t like. No structure. No challenge/reward. Uh-oh. Well, something I have to figure out.

Self-talked my way down to Dockweiler State Beach and over to LAX, where I watched the airplanes take off and land for a while. Headed along the route our team did at our very first bike practice. Memories of ‘way back when’ were nice to think about. Returned to the beach, and got a text from a friend I was meeting for breakfast. Decided I was closer to the food place than to home, so I decided to bike there. Skipped the bike path once again and took some new city streets into Santa Monica in search of some bacon!

The ride was unremarkable until I came upon a closed off section of Main Street (letting bikers through, thankfully. I assumed it was a result of the Saturday Night mayhem along the boardwalk. But a few minutes later I learned that it was not part of the crime scene, but rather part of the Hari Krishna parade …heading straight toward me. So, me and my bike edged over to the side, riding salmon against hundreds of paraders and floats. Did not expect my Sunday to be so … colorful and celebratory!

Tail end of the parade

The parade soon passed. I arrived and I achieved bacon. Good conversation with friends about triathlons, running, training programs and local clubs. Hopped back on Oatmeal and took another, non-bike-path route home. Flying along at 22mph with some slower cars felt good. Sun was starting to come out as I pulled into my street. Another 31 miles in the books. No route slip or data analysis in sight. Just another good bike adventure with Oatmeal, Mario (see below) and the voices in my head. I think we will be having many more of these two-wheeled explorations in weeks to come. Happy off-season.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Vineman Full Triathlon - Race Report

These are the Vinemen. We trained together - with 50 other teammates - for 38 weeks. On Saturday, we raced the Vineman Full Triathlon, the oldest ironman-distance race in the country. Through the hills and valleys and vineyards of Sonoma County, CA, we swam, biked and ran for an entire day. Not just for the sake of a challenge, but also to support the Leukemia and Lymphoma society find a cure for blood cancers, and all cancers.

The Vinemen: Rona, Lisa, Tiffany, me, Marissa, Alex, Amanda, Beth, Marianthe. (Not pictured: Rene, Elissa, Solange, Ben, Naomi)

Back in October, I dedicated my season to my friend, Fern. She's one of my biggest supporters and cheerleaders. I know other folks who can say the same. Despite her multiple bouts with three types of cancer, she shares her warmth, spirit and charity with everyone she knows. And though she does not do marathons anymore herself, she's the first to yell your name on twitter on race day. She deals with insurance and doctors and extreme weather in Colorado. I deal with steep hills, little sleep and temperate Southern California. If she can do it. I can do it. That's why I race for her.

I was especially nervous in the days leading up to the race. When you train for something for nine months and sacrifice important parts of your life for a goal ... that one day that it all boils down to becomes very, very important. And sometimes daunting. As Christine described, I had ants in my pants all week. It was a relief to stop juggling work and packing and my general well-being and just head up to NorCal on Wednesday. Holly and I made the long car drive in 9 hours. We definitely did not PR that trip. But we got there, joined the team, and settled into a few days of light workouts and race prep before the big day.

Pre-Race Thoughts:

The coaches (Holly, Dave, Jason, Amy, Adam and Quinton) would check in with me now and then to make sure I wasn't overly nervous. Simply asking, "How are you feeling?" was helpful. I chatted with Coach Brad, too, about performance anxiety and the pressure I felt. Easy conversations helped keep my butterflies from morphing into monsters. I used a few phrased to help myself get through the lead up time.

"It's just pain." I've been telling myself this for the past couple of weeks, mostly to calm my nerves. When I think about why I get anxious in the time leading up to races, it partially comes back fearing the pain that race brings about. Sure, no one likes to be in physical pain, and I know that I have many years of experience dealing with it. But the anticipation of it nags at me. So I spoke to myself directly about it. It's just pain. It's not fatal. I've survived it up until this point of my life. I will make it through no matter how badly it hurts.

"Identify the problem. Make a decision. Move forward." This is the strategy I try to take with me in any endurance race. We try to prepare so that problems do not arise during an event. We aim for a perfect day. But realistically, shit happens. The approach I've found works best for me is to figure out what's wrong (my stomach hurts or my legs are cramping or my sunscreen is getting in my eyes...etc), make a decision about it (do x or y), and keep going. Reevaluate if necessary. Indecision and wallowing don't get you through the miles. So I mentally prepped myself to be ready for this ID/decide/move strategy. And I definitely used it on Saturday.

"Race hard. Make it hurt. It is for others."
Amazing words from Georgia Ironteam member Adam Heiser. He donated to my fundraising page and left those thoughts in the comments section. They capture so much. I wrote this on my right leg right under my race shorts so that every time I pedaled, I could read it. I repeated it throughout the day.

Race Morning:
Normally I'm a ball of nerves before the race. This time was a little different. Our schedule was methodical so I just approached each task individually (check bags one last time, meet team, ride bus, retrieve bike, check gear, set up transition) and staved off any overwhelming feelings. For the most part. I admittedly spent 5 minutes during the bus ride not fighting back some tears that I was probably harboring for the past couple of months. But other than that, all went smoothly.

My nerves that morning were channeled through my bladder - holy hypo-hydration! I was in the bathroom (or river) at least four times. That's not usual for me. And I learned a valuable lesson about dark port-a-johns that hopefully will save you in the future: The toilets have lids. Make sure the lids are up before you pee. Because if you don't, you will pee on your socks and shoes. You're welcome.

Saturday 5:15am. Time for a Wetsuit Adventure of sorts

Oatmeal and his rented wheels

Some final tunes

After finalizing my area, checking my brakes for rubbing and going for a warm up jog, I hung around with our team at the edge of the water. A quick warm up swim and a few last minute hugs were in order. Oddly, my heart rate never rose in anticipation of a long and grueling day. I stayed very calm, probably in denial that today would be as long as it was. My teammate Marissa and I waded into the water together and hung out before our wave went off. No fireworks, no big count down. Just the announcer sending us off.

Good luck hug from Coach Dave. Marissa's Disney princess hair stealing our moment

The swim is a two-loop out and back section of the Russian River. You swim against the current going out, and with the current coming back. Man, that turnaround buoy seemed so far away! It was only 0.6 miles away ... but it felt like an eternity! I suppose that was slightly due to said current (because the way back felt faster). I got elbowed and kicked a couple times - expected. But I found my rhythm quickly, and the only thing that threw my off is that it felt like I was swimming through hair. Yes, hair. I kept lifting my arm up and looking underwater to see if i was bringing along a glut of seaweed with me. But I saw nothing. Just felt this creepy sensation (particularly up river) that I had spiderwebs caught on my arms and face. Gross.

My GPS report of the swim

Made the full loop turn for one more out-and-back. Peeked at my watch. Felt like 60mins, but was only 35. Swim, kick, swim, kick, all the way down and back. Second time seemed shorter and soon I was heading toward the Swim out arch. Popped up, got my barring and went on my way. My teammate and amazing photographer, Pai, saw me first and cheered me on. Moments later, at the wetsuit strip station, my other teammates were yelling for me.

One sport down. Two to go.

Swim Time: 1:10:26

Things you rarely hear from strangers on a Saturday morning: Volunteer, "Can I help you lube up?" Me, "You know, I think I'm all set." She decided helping me sunscreen was a little less invasive. I wanted to improve on my 10-minute transition from IMCDA '10. So I sped through my checklist, only forgetting to wash my feet with my water bottle. A dirty towel casualty but it worked well enough. I racked at the end of the setup, right next to the rug leading to Bike Out. So soon enough, I was on my way.

PR'd my transition! Never thought that would happen

Transition Time: 4:36

Bike: The theme of the Vineman bike for me was gambling. I didn't set out to gamble. I set out to 'race my plan' as Coach Dave and I had chatted about. I aimed to keep my pace between 17.5-18.5 mph for the first loop, which would hopefully ensure fresh legs for the second half and for the run. Play it safe.

But once I got out among the vineyards, I changed my plan. This was partially fueled by the wheels I was riding. I'd decided to rent some Zipp 808s from Podium Wheel Rentals (which, by the way, I HIGHLY recommend. The owner, Tony, is a great guy and did everything he could to make sure my bike and the wheels were in top shape before the race). I didn't rent them because I wanted to win by any means. But, as Holly put it, "Whatever will get you off the bike sooner." Hey, the less I have to sit there and pedal, the better. So I rented them and figured I'd buy some speed. Oh boy, did they feel great! I felt lighter and faster with the same effort I normally grind along in. I hadn't ridden with these wheels before, so it took me a few miles to adjust to handling them (ie - you need to be more mindful and gripping of the steering), but I easily fell in love with the discs by mile 15.

All morning these guys would pass me on the bike

Trying not to chase the stranger

So, me and Oatmeal and the new wheels arbitrarily decided to go for my 'A-Race" / non-conservative time which in my head was two 3-hour loops, an 18.6mph average for each. I very well knew during the ride that I was pushing pretty hard without the safety-net-knowledge that I could run a consistent and 4:30-ish marathon after this bike. Every couple of minutes, I reminded myself of our coaches words, "Chess not Checkers" meaning that this wasn't a balls-to-the-wall race to win here. Every move you make in the swim and the bike sets you up for the run. Be strategic.

I chugged through the first section of the course - River Rd and Dry Creek - all alone. Some of the faster guys with aero helmets whizzed by me and I fought to keep my cool and not chase. One guy who saw my leg pedaled by and said, "29 and looking fine!" which made me laugh. After climbing Canyon Road - which I didn't realize was a climb so I started to get worried my brakes were rubbing or my legs were shot - I descended into Geyserville. Rode by Jason and Dave at mile 28 - quick cheers from them. Onto Route 128 and eventually Chalk Hill.

I didn't see anyone I knew for a long time. All I saw was a slew of 40- and 50-year old men speeding past me. I'd chase them for a minute, and then return to my "Checkers not Chess" mantra. I saw one woman pass me too. I didn't have a death wish to chase her, so again, I sat back and rode.

Chalk Hill is a .75-mile climb at mile 44 and mile 100. I knew my teammates would be there at the top to cheer us all up. Unfortunately, I arrived a little too early and they had hit traffic getting there from the swim location. So up and over Chalk Hill I went to the clapping of a few strangers. I didn't have any problems on the climb, and a few miles of a descent that followed it cheered me up. More rollers through the last section of the loop.

As I pulled into mile 56 at Windsor High School, I saw a crowd on the sidewalk. And there was my teammate Lindsay cheering me on. It was a little moment that boosted me up big time. Arrived at Special Needs (mile 57) and saw Holly standing across the road. Can't remember our conversation other than I felt okay and proceeded to shove a ball of salted rice into my mouth. A great break from my Cliff Bar bite every 20 minutes. Unbeknownst to me, she was updating facebook and twitter all day with my progress for my friends. That was cool to come back to and read after the race.

Shoveling a rice ball and quietly celebrating the end of loop one

About 15 miles after special needs, I saw two sets of Cheer Squads - in superhero costumes - along some lonely stretches of the course. Not only were they cheering me up, but a few riders thanked me for bringing 'the cool kids out on the course'. I can't say that I went to a 'dark place' during the race, but if I were to pinpoint my low moments, they were here on the second loop. 1) The rough roads started to piss me off. Very few sections of the ride were paved smoothly. Mostly, it was pitted, pocked asphalt that rumbled under the tires. After 3+ hours of trying to steer on the smoothest parts of the grooved road, I was cranky.

Speaking of cranky, my neck and left shoulder were exactly that. I'd been riding mostly in aero and straining my neck. I had to keep rubbing my shoulder so it wouldn't mutiny on me.

And then there was my stomach's refusal of Gatorade around mile 85. I had grabbed the lemon-lime drink at an aid station right before mile 85 (Geyserville, where Jason and Dave were waiting). I drank it without a problem for a while. But as I approached the station, I took the last two sips to finish the bottle and prep for grabbing a replacement. Those sips kind of doomed me. My stomach went sour immediately. It hurt enough that I couldn't get back in aero. Cramped, bloated, uncomfortable. So, I made a decision - water and solids only if I could help it. Kept going.

That pretty much worked. After an hour, my stomach settled. My legs were getting tired and I was ready to be done with the bike. I looked forward to getting up Chalk Hill again because it meant I'd get some downhills and be heading into transition soon. Coach Amy was standing at the aid station before the hill - great to see her! She yelled something about being number 2, but I wasn't sure what she meant and I was tired, so I just kept going. Luckily, the cheer squad was working their magic the second time I arrived. So amazing to see them in costume and running up the hill as we biked. I high fived them, got to the top and sped down and away.

Excited to see my teammates!

Lindsay and Pete and the best cheerers ever

Jared wearing my new favorite T-shirt

Cheer Squad with one of my teammates

Saw another section of cheerers a few miles later. Coach Brad screamed words of encouragement and off I climbed on the last little hill (Faught Rd, I think). An easy 2-mile downhill into town after. Before hitting downtown, I saw Megan and Bobbi cheering. They, too, yelled, "You're number 2" as I passed by. I assumed that meant either I was in second for women, for my age group or for Team in Training participants. Since I was alone almost the entire second loop of the bike (a few guys around, and only two girls), I had no idea where I was in the field. Nor did I care. I didn't show up to race, so I just stayed focus on holding off the pain and fatigue as long as possible. I decided that I'd put placement thoughts aside and just stay within myself.

That smile says: "Oh my god get me off this bike! I'm chaffing! I just peed on this bike 10 minutes ago and I really want to change my socks!

By mile 112, I was ready to be done with the race. But there were plenty of miles to go. I pulled up to the dismount line and breathed out, "It's about time." Another watch glimpse showed I'd pretty much met my A-goal. For better or worse. I had no idea how this run would go.

Bike Time: 6:01:22

T2: The jog from bike in to my actual transition area took about a minute in bike shoes. I heard Holly yell to remind me where I'd set up my Mario Kart cinch bag the day before. Once found, I dumped the contents, made some quick decisions (no new shorts, definitely new socks, no hydration belt, yes nutrition belt, OMG I need vaseline stat!) and got all dressed up for the final legs of the race. She pointed me to the Run Out arch and reminded me to pour water over my head at every aid station and to stick to my interval. As I jogged forward I registered that my Achilles were not on fire, as I anticipated. Happy to be on two feet instead of two wheels!

Transition Time: 4:52

Run: It was a happy run. That's pretty much it. Three loops out and back through some farmlands and vineyards. Less hilly than I remember it being when we ran this course on training weekend six weeks ago. I completed my first loop feeling pretty great. I knew I couldn't have the Gatorade, so I stuck with water, cola and a few shot blocks. In hindsight I could have eaten a little more to ward of some cramping at mile 21. And thanks to my teammate Anabel for suggesting we carry ice in ours hands to keep our temperatures down. I carried ice for more than half of the run. Every aid station (each mile or so) I'd refill. Lifesaver move!

Happy runner!

The cheer squad appeared on my second loop, and having a group of friends to loop forward to seeing - at the finish and at the middle of the loop - was invaluable. Since I don't normally race with people I know in the crowd, the whole spectator-cheering-for-me concept was a little new. But it was so great, and I'm really grateful they made the trip up and staying all day (16+ hours) to cheer us all on.

I ticked off each mile steadily, my pace hovering between 9:20-10min/mile. I walked the hills I needed to, and walked through the aid stations. Other than that, just kept moving forward. I was in great spirits, laughing and smiling and chatting with the volunteers. I returned back to town to start the final loop. I eyed the race clock (total time) for the first time all day. It read 10:13:15. I did some quick math. I had 1hr50mins to go about 8.5 miles. I figured if I didn't blow up, I had a shot at a sub-12hr time. In the least, I felt pretty confident I'd best my IM CDA time (12:42).

Out on the last lap and despite the miles behind me, I still felt good. It wasn't until mile 21 when I hit a steep hill that my left quad screamed with a cramp and I went dead stop. Uh-oh.

Decidedly less happy runner. Muscle mutiny imminent

I was with my teammate Lisa, and she handed me some salt pills. It was too late for them to do me any good then, but I swallowed them anyway. I gritted my teeth and walked through the cramp. Okay, so this is the pain I had been fearing. Hurts like hell, but it's manageable. After a few minutes the seizing ceased. But for those last 5 miles, my body crept toward the edge of total spasm. Calves, quads, hamstrings, ankles even! I made it to the turnaround for the last time (4.8 miles to go!) and headed to the finish. I passed the cheer squad and asked Bobbi to text someone at the finish line that I'd be arriving with all of my cramps ready to take over.I adjusted my gait and slowed my pace just a little. I'd see some Ironteammers from San Francisco, or some of my own teammates, and would cheer them on at a whisper or give a thumbs up. Things were turning south for me and I needed to finish soon.

Still clocking 9:50-10min/miles when I made it to mile 25. I was taking an interval walk break when Brad saw me and yelled at me to run. So I did. Well, I hobbled. Down the street and toward the finish. I took a minute during that stretch to let it hit me that this journey was over. My breathing hitched a bit but I kept my head about me and motored on. My quad cramped with 0.4 miles left to go. I grabbed it with my left hand and kept running. Hell if that quad was gonna make me stay out there any longer! Two turns through a throng of spectators and suddenly I was alongside my teammates Clare, Riz, EWS and Raul. Had to delicately negotiate a speed bump with almost-cramped legs. Approached the volunteer directing folks either to the turnaround or the finish. I told him that I was heading to that finish and he high fived me along. Heard my name, ran as best I could, and crossed the line. My Campaign Director Rachel was standing there to medal me. And then Jason and Dave on either side welcoming me in. Kind of a perfect end to the season.

Down the finisher's chute

Stupid Happy Finish Grin

Run Time: 4:17:24

Finish Time: 11:38:39

By the numbers, I improved over IMCDA by 64 minutes: 7min on the swim, 5min in T1, 42min on bike, another 5min in T2 and 5min on the run. Oddly enough, I thought more 'went wrong' here than at CDA. Stomachache, sore neck and cramping. But no matter, it all worked out fine.

The race continued for hours. I called my parents, ate some chicken soup, and cheered in all of my teammates. In the time between finishers we swapped stories and hugs and I checked my phone to see a billion great messages from friends and family. One in particular, some emails from my Dad, made me laugh. He started this string of emails about 45mins before I crossed the finish line. He and my mom were tracking me on the Vineman site from back home in CT. These made me laugh.

Click to enlarge

Yeah, I finished second in my age group (25-29) and the 9th female overall. Cool? Sure. Do I want to train harder to 'up' those placements? Hmmm...I appreciate balance, so I think the answer is 'not right now.'

Once the clock wound down to 16hrs 30mins, 11:00pm, the Ironteam got together for one last photo and cheer. Transition bags and bikes retrieved. Car loaded. Headed to the hotel. And with that ... the season ended.

Tunnel of Love for Tiffany

Final 'Go Team!'

Final Photo Op

Final Thoughts: I believe you should get a starter's medal at the beginning of race day. Because making it to that start line, through the training and through the stress and through life in general, is a feat. It does not matter how fast you can propel yourself through 140.6 miles. To practice doing so over and over again for so many months in a row is deserving of its own award. Each one of my teammates - Wildflowers, CDAers and Vinemen, did this, regardless of what the clock said on race day.

I have sworn up and down that I'm not a triathlete. I still kind of don't think I am. I'm a bit of an imposter, a runner who happens to go to the pool a few times a week and a little kid who likes to climb mountains on a bike that costs more than most things I own. I'll concede, however, that I'm an adventurer and an endurance junkie. Okay, if my fun comes in three flavors like swim, bike and run ... well then, sure, call me the T word. I can get used to that.

Thank you everyone who cheered me on throughout the day. I read facebook and twitter and text messages on the ride home from the race, and they made me smile knowing that across the country there were people rooting for me to keep going.

Three years ago I was a very different kid. When I completed CDA, I knew I had done something life-changing. I had proven to myself that, with enough effort and desire, I could go after the things I wanted. No barriers. And in the years in between then and now, I realized that what I wanted was more balance in my life. More fun. More love. More kindness and charity. Cheesy, of course, but I stand by it. Perhaps my Vineman race time isn't 'proof' that I've accomplished those things. The clock doesn't measure your quality of life. But looking back on this season as a whole, with the race being a bookend to the whole journey, I am confident that I have made strides. After all, aren't these sports just one big metaphor for life? Year by year, you work hard to get a bit better. Well, I have. Cheers to progress and to the next adventure.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Race Brain

Race Brain. It happens often during the week prior to an event. Luckily, I don't race all that often, so I don't deal in this kind of stupidity frequently. But when I do approach an event weekend, inevitably the important parts of my brain take a quick holiday. My abilities to do math, read, sit still, make sound decisions and feed myself go on hiatus, and I end up in odd situations, like standing in my kitchen, staring at the microwave, trying to calculate arbitrary pace per mile stats or applying for jobs on crab-fishing fleets outside of Anchorage, AK.

I haven't felt the shadow of the impending event on me recently. The taper has felt normal, complete with heavy legs and odd knots in my quads. Since we're traveling north (by car) for this one, I don't have any added "pack for the plane" pressure. I was all good, humming along last week and this weekend without a race nerve in sight. Well, I thought I was but everyone around me may beg to differ. But last week was fun, and I had extra time to be social - go out during the week and on the weekend and after practice. Then yesterday had to come along and remind me that it's time to start thinking ahead to next weekend.

Before and after our wonderfully funny team send-off dinner, I began the packing process. I remember packing for IMCDA three years ago. I was clueless, but managed to get all my stuff together. I vividly remember having to sign off of twitter for the week, though, because I was so overwhelmed with race chatter. I didn't want to read or talk about it - it stressed me out. My living room became a tornado of gear and clothes. It all got thrown in a bag - and off I went.

This time - because I am with a team that is very methodical and specific and plan-oriented - I have a different approach. I have a list - a couple drafts of it. I have piles of things based on days and workouts. (We race on Saturday, but will work out multiple times Thursday and Friday). I have a lot of gear because we're driving and it all fits, so why not pack extra.

And so I sit and stare at this list that says things like, "Buy rice" and all I can think is, "Where do I get rice from? How does someone 'buy rice' as my list is suggesting that I do?" And suddenly I'm once again an amoeba of a being who, instead of understanding our national currency system and the logistics of a grocery store, chews on the dollar bills because they feel funny in your mouth.

So I let my stress level - or, ants in my pants, as my friend calls it - rise. And in reaction, I turn my brain to something else completely random in avoidance. ("I could be a lumberjack. I like to be outside.") And the stress subsides. And then I turn back to the task at hand, which still hasn't gotten accomplished because of the mental ebb and flow that's been tidaling inside my head.

The coaches provided race notes and an itinerary for the weekend, which I read through this morning. Some people are comforted by knowing how a course is laid out (exact aid stations, hills, hot stretches, etc.) I'm finding out I am not one of these people. I like to know the macro view - where's the big hills? About how many miles to the aid station? What are they serving there? But reading through an extremely thorough (bravo to the coaches who compiled this!) description of the course did not do well for my race brain. I don't want to anticipate tough stretches because optimistically I hope that I won't have too many of them. I'm not being naive to think they won't happen. But I'd rather try to turn my focus on all the good that can happen instead of the suck.

In the moments I rise out of my own head and garner some perspective, I'm able to appreciate this experience (this season, this week, Saturday) for what it has been and will be for me. Keeping my expectations in check is something I've managed all season. I didn't train with individual improvement in mind. I trained with this group to learn how to coach swimming and biking and the entire trifecta together. That goal I think I achieved, and there is no medal or finish line for it. Saturday is for fun and a celebration of not only the training we've all done, but the fundraising impact we've made. Over $450,000 our team raised for LLS. I won't win, but as long as I finish, then I won't call it a disappointment. I'll think of my friends, my friend, one of my heroes Fern (@sitbones) and all the choices I've made in life that have lead me to sitting on that bicycle seat for many, many hours. I look forward to the challenge and hope it's not too painful. But when the day drags on and my legs hurt or I'm low on energy and spirit, I can remind myself that it's just pain: it's temporary and it sucks. But it's just pain. Nothing new. Just that same old feeling to work through.

So hopefully Race Brain will recede soon and excited energy will take over. Full focus will turn onto the event on Wednesday. Until then, I have to use my race brain at work. Which is difficult enough in itself, and I'm considering bringing in this little champ as replacement for the rest of today and tomorrow. Not sure bosses would even know the difference.

Don't worry Goofy, go do your race. I goat this.