... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Monday, February 25, 2013

Dabbling in "Ultra Running"

At 7am on Saturday morning, I found myself in a small covered pavilion in the middle of a beautiful park at the base of the mountains, surrounded by lean yet muscle-bound throngs sporting light, fitted shoes that screamed "latest and greatest technology," oddly off-setting the old t-shirts that were equally plentiful. As has become the usual during my training, I realized that I had made the wrong decision; in fact, in this case I had made exactly the opposite choices of those necessary to make me fit in amongst this group. Knowing that we'd be running on trails, I had dug out my old, ratty running shoes and chosen a cheerful fuchsia-colored dri-fit shirt that I figured would make me look like a "real runner."

Wrong again.

I was so wrong, in fact, that when I saw my boss from Hawaii Sport Magazine (doing registration for the race) he immediately asked if I was going to be alright with getting muddy on the course.
       "Of course!" I replied enthusiastically.
       "Oh. Good." He replied, seemingly unconvinced. "It's just that you shirt ... it's so... pretty. And purple."

God damn it.

How did I get myself into this? I kept thinking. The answer, of course, was that my colleagues at the magazine consider this kind of thing normal and offered me free entry and a chance to meet the other members of the running team I'd been talked into joining. (If you've read my earlier blogs, you know how hilarious this is.) The odd thing (and the thing that I am loathe to admit) is that the more I run longer distances, the more I like it and want to do more. Thus the reason I was up at 6am driving to God-Knows-Where to attempt to run over 6 miles in the mountains surrounded by the very fitness gods I mentioned in my very first blog post.

Within a mile of starting, I realized that running on trails is a million times harder than running on roads. My usual 10 minute mile pace had stretched to over 11 minutes, despite the fact that I hadn't walked at all and my legs were already burning from leaping over roots, dodging puddles, and squishing through mud. I have to admit, however, that even from the start I found it oddly exhilarating to be running through the forest and into the mountains with mud slurping around my feet and splashing my legs. Although I was clearly unprepared, I felt like running in the wild brought me a teeny, tiny step closer to the badass triathlete that I had imagined might be inside me somewhere.

Over the river and through the woods...
As we continued on, it became clearer that dodging the mud and water would be impossible. As valiantly as everyone tried to avoid stepping in puddles, inevitably one snuck up on you and your shoe got doused. And, although for the first mile the trail had alternate "high routes" to steer it away from the places where the water running from the mountains had overtaken the path, these disappeared somewhere around mile two and the only option was to run straight through the small rivers in our way. Squish, squish, squish ... with each step my shoes shot water out the sides.

At about two and a half miles, I started seeing the first runners heading back down the hill, and the only way I can describe it is as a work of art. They appeared, at least to me, to be flying down the trail. Rocks, rivers, roots -- none of these obstacles seemed to matter. Were their feet even touching the ground?

When I finally reached the turn-around point, I could not possibly have been more grateful to run downhill. It poured with the kind of fury that is only possible in tropical mountain forests, but the water running down my face seemed to balance the water that filled my shoes. It was cooling and relaxing. As I ran the downhill, the jarring started a horrible side ache. After running half a mile or so doubled over in pain, I remembered the odd posture I'd noticed in the "real" runners as they came down the hill -- arms lowered and slightly extended, held away from their torsos. Figuring it couldn't do any harm (and confirming that there was no one in sight to witness my awkward arm experiments) I tried my best to imitate the position I'd seen. Miraculously, the side ache immediately melted away.

The beautiful finish
I flew down the hill.

The finish was gorgeous, coming back to the open lawn of the park we started at. Typical of runners, there were two options: run around the entire perimeter of the park to the finish, or cut straight across -- riding a tricycle or a hippity-hop. Not wanting to make any more of a fool of myself I opted to run the perimeter, but I definitely enjoyed watching those coming in behind me struggle to balance on the tiny bike crossing the sopping wet grass. If I'm being completely honest, a lot of my enjoyment was probably due to the fact that there actually were people behind me, as I had been fairly certain that I was the slowest in the group.

Double rainbow reward at the finish
Once I made it to the finish, all I could see was my dad. In the runners milling about, in the rain trapping us all under the crowded pavilion roof, and in the snacks laid out on a folding table -- all of these things so oddly familiar, so reminiscent of my childhood when my dad would take me to the trail races put on by the running club in my hometown. All of these were things I had forgotten, yet from somewhere inside me came the memories and I felt like he was near. Even the cookie selection was the same. Although feeling him is always bittersweet, it made me smile.

Today, I hit 100 miles of running since my first training run on December 15th, and I know my dad was with me. This triathlon has given me so many things: new energy, a new physique, new goals, a new sense of strength, new friends, a new job, and another connection to my dad. I can only imagine what the rest of the year's training will bring.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Triathlon Trifecta: Determination, Patience, and Acceptance

Well, despite my best intentions and superfluous motivation, yesterday was a dismal showing.

I put off running hour by hour because it was raining, and by the time I was ready to go I realized it was 4pm and I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast, causing me to feel sluggish and loopy.

"Oh well," I said to myself. "I'll eat a few raspberries before I go."

Now, for a normal person this plan may have worked, but here's a little factoid about me: I have a strange obsession with blueberries, tomatoes, and raspberries and very little control when it comes to these things. So instead of eating a few raspberries, I inhaled the entire pint and then set out running.

It took all of a mile for the food to catch up to me and I was hit with a side ache so bad I felt like a chef's knife was solidly lodged in my obliques, digging a little deeper with each breath. I tried to fight it for a few minutes but soon realized that I was running with the posture of an arthritic 85-year old and that my run would be better served by walking for a couple of minutes until the pain subsided. It took about four minutes -- a huge hit to my pace but certainly more productive and less dispiriting than limping along doubled over and struggling for breath. Sometimes, you just have to accept what is going on and take reasonable steps to make it better.

The run was astoundingly difficult (more so than any run I've done for weeks) for the first two miles, at which point it finally settled back into the not-so-hideously-uncomfortable "ease" that I've become accustomed to. By the time I got to mile 3, I was booking it and managed to get my average mile pace for the 3.3 miles down to a 10:40.

I guess what I learned is that while I ran the Great Aloha Run comfortably and surprised myself with my performance, I am equally surprised by how long it takes for my body to fully recover. Patience and acceptance are the only way to get through; I will not be running a long run any time in the weeks before the triathlon, that's for sure!

After my run I had procrastinated on the swim until I no longer had a choice -- it would be getting dark soon and no one wants to swim in the scary ocean in pitch black. Of course, my procrastination was rewarded by POURING rain that began immediately when I left the house. Great. I was finally ready to test out my new goggles, swim cap, and ear plugs and I was determined to get everything on in the car with the heat blasting so that I could run full speed across the beach and into the water, getting out of the deluge as quickly as possible. It didn't bode well for me that the older gentleman getting into his car as I got out of mine laughed and said, "you poor thing! Good luck!" as I ran by.

The water was cold.

Without my nose covered, I got a thorough saline sinus rinse in the first few minutes. My goggles fogged almost immediately, leaving me in a misty and mostly indecipherable world. I can report, however, that my new earplugs and swim cap make the process of getting ready a million times easier and more comfortable. My Ear Band-It headband now lays flat over the cap and goggles instead of folding over the snorkeling mask, providing a better fit and more protection from leakage, and I felt a lot more free with less of my face covered.

I also felt a lot more tired and awkward as I struggled to breathe and keep water out of my nose each time I plunged my face back into the ocean. It is difficult to know where you're going when your entire visual field is fogged up, and my path resembled a sine curve, weaving back and forth on either side of the straight path I sought to keep. It took about 200m to get comfortable, and although I cut my swim a little short, I was feeling great by the time I made it back to my home buoy. Now I'm actually kind of excited for the next swim so I can start stronger and see how I feel on the full 600m distance.

Yesterday was a study in patience and acceptance. You must find the balance between pushing yourself and realizing that sometimes your body is doing the best that it can, even when it isn't performing quite how you'd like it to. You must accept that some days are not going to go according to plan, and find peace in your best efforts.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Great Aloha Run: 8.2 Miles to Victory!

On Monday I ran the Great Aloha Run, an 8.2 mile race drawing nearly 30,000 people, for the second time. The first outing was two years ago and I walked the first two miles, ran the next two, and staggered the remaining 4.2 in an odd sort of run/walk/shuffle/crawl while telling myself that it didn't matter if I was actually moving slower than a walk as long as I was making the motion of running.

This year, I ran.

I ran from the first step to the last, without walking or stopping and it was -- gasp -- easy. I spent the entire race waiting to feel like I was going to collapse, but mile after mile went by and I felt very little by way of fatigue. My hips hurt a little and my knees hurt a lot, but my breath stayed steady and my muscles felt strong. Every time I felt myself getting a little tired I checked and corrected my posture and form and immediately felt strong again.

I crossed the finish line feeling triumphant and I know that all the credit belongs to the triathlon training I have been doing. It felt amazing.

Feeling tired in a more pervasive way than usual, I gave myself an extra day off from training to let my body recover. Tomorrow I will be back to the normal training schedule, full of excitement and motivation after seeing how far I've come. 35 minute run, 600m swim -- bring it on!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Shrinking, Toning, and Becoming a Bottomless Pit

Well, it’s been a few days since I’ve written, despite the fact that every one of the past three days I’ve been excited to write a post. Sometimes there doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day!

That aside, I have felt really motivated this week and there are several things I really want to write about!

First and foremost, I have lost 7-8 pounds now, depending on what time of day I weigh myself. I find this amazing because I haven’t been trying to lose weight, it just sort of happened. Being a former ballerina I am no stranger to diets, exercise plans, and hours in the gym but having a performance focus rather than a weight focus is a whole new experience for me and it makes the process much, much easier. Each time I step on the scale and see another pound gone it’s a little surprise gift!

The arms of a triathlete are taking form
In addition (and more importantly to me), my body looks different. My butt has lifted and shrunk, my tummy is tightening, my thighs have firmed, and check out my arms. I wish I had a “before” picture to compare to, but trust me, they looked nothing like this. In addition, I spent a week trying to figure out why my lower body was sinking instead of floating when I float on my back in the ocean before realizing that it’s because all the fat on my legs is gone. Noticing these changes is AWESOME, especially when appearance is not your focus. I would be perfectly happy just to know that I can now run a 5k comfortably without walking - getting skinnier and well-toned is just like icing on the cake.

And speaking of icing on the cake, I have to talk about my eating habits, because they have been another surprise while training. Gone are my cravings for ice cream, burgers, nachos, buffalo wings, candy, and French fries. I haven't lost my appetite -- in fact, I have become the proverbial bottomless pit, consuming massive amounts of food, but the things that I crave are blueberries, kiwis, swiss chard, spinach, and whole grain cereal with ice cold milk. I have allowed my eating to go unhindered and blindly followed my body's cravings, allowing it to guide my consumption, and I have to say that I have never felt so connected to my body's functioning. 

It seems, at least for me, that when I push my body with continual challenges, it pulls itself out of the junk food-conditioning of our lazy, inactive world and remembers how to tell me what it needs. It's kind of fun to watch.

As far as my training goes, I hit my fastest mile time (9:36) and fastest 5k (31:21) yesterday and am feeling really confident. I am now swimming the distance I'll have to swim for the first sprint triathlon with relative ease and comfortably running 5k's, which I have to admit I had doubts about ever happening. The biking is pleasant and each day I ride I enjoy the scenery.

I'm sure that my current motivation and body-connection high can only last so long, and that pretty soon some unforeseen triathlon obstacle will knock me back to earth, but for now I am loving the progress I'm making and how cleansed, efficient, and in-rhythm my body feels. The challenge, the pain, the discomfort, the push is all worth it to feel like this.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Strong as a Brick

Today I did my first "brick" workout, in which you do a bike workout -- 5.61 miles in this case -- followed immediately by a run. I ran 3.25 miles, and although I was terrified that I was going to end up on my hands and knees crawling home, the whole things went really smoothly! 5.61 miles is fairly short compared to recent bike distances, but I hit 3 solid hills so I was concerned that my legs would be jelly by the time I made it to the run portion.

I had read about the stiff or numb feeling that can happen to your legs when transitioning directly from biking to running, so I was prepared for some strange sensations, which was good because I knew to keep trying to pace myself when my legs hardly had any feeling. After the first half a mile or so, they felt almost normal. In fact, the biking almost felt like a really thorough warm up because after struggling a little the first mile, my run felt really good and my mile time was 10:40.

A couple of notes about technique:
In the biking I discovered that when going up a hill you can actually "pull" the pedals upward by pointing your toes a little (thanks, ballet training!) and using your hamstrings. Previously I had thought that "pulling" was only possible if you had pedal straps, but doing it this way today provided a great little rest for my legs during the hills.
In the running, I realized that I was pitched forward somewhat in my posture. So, during my run today, I focused on pulling my torso back a little and extending my legs more each time I stride. This made a huge difference in my fatigue level, so it's definitely something that I will keep experimenting with.

My body felt awesome after the brick workout -- tired but super relaxed! If you're training for a triathlon it's definitely worth trying, just to get a feel for how it makes your body react. It made me really excited for the race itself, because if a short bike ride and run makes me feel this great, I can only imagine how I'll be after the triathlon!

Saturday, February 9, 2013

New Mileage Highs!

I biked 10 miles today, all around the Kahala neighborhood then up and over Diamond Head just before sunset. It was truly one of the most beautiful outdoor excursions I've ever had. Everything was bathed in golden light, the mountains were slightly misty, and the colors were incredibly vibrant. The ten miles flew by -- I could have ridden nonstop until it got completely dark.

The view coming over Diamond Head
On a technical note, my mile time on the bike went down by 10 seconds even though the mileage increased by 3 miles, which was a pleasant surprise. I credit a lot of this purely to getting comfortable on the bike and being more familiar with the gears. In fact, I was so at ease that I could almost always reach down for the gears without looking or fumbling or worse yet bobbling and weaving back and forth. Score.

Since I posted the dorky pictures of me in my swim gear, I may as well continue the trend and put up a picture of me all ready to bike! In addition, this should prove that I do in fact wear a helmet, something that had raised some concern when I posted the previous picture of me on the bike. So there you go. Enjoy.

After two official outdoor rides, there are several biking things that I am picking up, and they are as follows:
1. Maintaining the lowest gear possible until you are one step from exhaustion seems to be the way to go on hills. If you shift up too soon, it doesn't provide adequate relief and your legs adjust to the "easier" resistance too fast. If this happens, you'll never make it up the hill. If you wait too long, your legs are so fatigued that no amount of higher gears will save you. Timing is key.
2. Intersections, especially those with turn lanes or stop signs, are scary on bikes. Are you a car or a pedestrian? I am certainly not fast enough to compete with cars, but I am just as easily (in fact much more easily) run over. Should I take up an entire lane if I need to turn across traffic just to avoid getting hit, or should I risk someone not seeing me and try to sneak by between cars? For now, although I'm sure everyone hates me, I am choosing the former, because I look way better in my dorky bike gear when I'm not smeared across the pavement.
3. Wearing bright colors is the only way to go. Halfway through my first ride I realized that my dark brown shirt blended in frighteningly well with the foliage surrounding me and vowed not to make the same mistake again. As you can see from my picture, I've learned my lesson.

Yesterday was another victory for me as I ran 4.76 miles, the first 4 miles of it without stopping to walk once! That is the longest I have run without walking so far, and I ended up at 10:46 mile pace, even with the brief walking break, which is much faster than any pace yet for comparable mileage. I found that I seem to have another plateau point at around 32 minutes, when the discomfort of running peaks and suddenly my breathing calms down, allowing me to continue in much less pain. Good to know, because now I can push myself to the 35 minute mark knowing their is likely some relief awaiting. Couldn't have timed that discovery better, either, because on February 18th I am doing the Great Aloha Run, an 8.2 mile race that is bound to push me to my limits. I did the race two years ago with a team from work without any training, so I'm curious to see how my performance compares this year. I've also made sure that my day off for the week falls the next day so that I can rest my legs, which will no doubt be feeling like spaghetti.

Upping the mileage, expanding my comfort zone! I'll be ready for all three sports at once in no time!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Tipping Point

So, I finally got my bike fixed. While I would love to report that I picked it up from the shop, hopped on, and rode off into the sunset I have to admit that yet again, the triathlon got the better of me.

You would think that after two years of staring at a bike sitting just outside of your front door, you would notice where the brakes and gear-shifters are located. Even if you were so stupid that you failed to see these things while the bike sat stationary, certainly you would notice them while wheeling the bike to and from the car when taking it to the shop! This makes it all the more amazing that the first thing I did when I got on the bike was get going too fast, search in vain for the brakes, then try to jump off only to catch my foot on the crossbar and fall over, bike and all.

Perhaps the most comical part of this ultimate failure in bicycling grace was that I didn't even make it to the street. I was simply trying to ride the bike from its storage place near our door down the walkway and to the driveway, and when I say I was going too fast, I mean that I was getting dangerously close to the wrought iron gate separating our driveway from the street and needed to stop before ploughing into it face first. As I searched for the brakes and began to bobble, I realized there was no way I was going to get stopped in time and made the executive decision that ejection was necessary. Unfortunately for my dignity, not even that could go my way and I made the super slow motion face plant into the pavement, much to Sean's bemusement.

Ouch, my pride.

And so, a new adventure begins. Being accustomed to the mountain bike-style cycle, this road bike, which I affectionately call "vintage" is quite an adjustment. It is a Peugeot and thus decent quality (and cool enough for the staff at the bike shop to get excited about) but it has plenty of "life experience," so to speak. I, on the other hand, apparently have no experience with biking.

Everything has been new. The handbars, the thin tires, the seat position, the gears, riding in traffic, hills, et cetera... it is all an adventure. I took it out on the first actual ride today and promptly went flying down one of the steepest hills in Honolulu, realizing too late that I probably should have checked the brakes beforehand. They managed to keep me from getting out of control, but a sudden drop-off in the pavement right before a stoplight forced me to re-try the emergency dismount that sent me into the pavement yesterday. This time, thankfully, I landed on my feet instead of my face.

Once I made it past the hill, I really enjoyed my ride. It's amazing how much ground you can cover on a bike in very little time! I enjoyed the scenery, the new territory, and I relived my childhood by letting the wind whip my face while coasting full speed down hills. It took me 38 minutes to ride 7.25 miles -- a starting point I can call satisfactory.

The swimming portion of the training got upped again today to 550m, and my technique continues to improve steadily. Funny how just as one discipline settles in, another presents new challenges. It keeps me on my toes. Or, in some cases, face first into the pavement!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Practically an Olympian...

Yesterday was a good day.

I re-ran my Diamond Head route (see my 5 Mile Marathon post for background info on that fiasco), this time cutting off about half a mile to make it a more sensible 50 minute run and starting out walking up half the first hill so that I could run the remaining 3.75 miles without having to stop. Conquering what had been somewhat of a disaster several weeks ago felt good, and coming up and around the mountain and running down the back with the deeply blue water to my left was invigorating. I even passed a few other runners- a definite first for me! I can't believe that just a month and a half ago I was struggling to run eighteen minutes and now feel confident heading out for fifty. It is truly a testament to our bodies and their incredible plasticity.

After my run, Sean and I headed to the beach for a 500m swim. I struggled to get my ear plugs to seal correctly, and made it out to 25 foot deep water before realizing that they were on their death bed. It appears that the lifespan for silicone ear plugs in ocean water is approximately just over a month when swimming ever other day or so. Luckily I had a new pair waiting and could quickly switch them out. Since Sean had started swimming and had a solid 150m lead on me, I began my swim at a much faster pace than normal. Oddly enough when combined with my miraculous mouth-shape discovery (see previous post) the speed seemed to help keep my body in a straight line and greatly facilitate my stroke. I have never felt so comfortable! In fact, I easily swam the entire distance without even having to switch breathing sides.

I emerged from the water feeling graceful and accomplished, a female Michael Phelps in my own right. Okay, maybe I'm not quite to the world-record-breaking, bazillions-of-medals-winning point yet but swimming yesterday made me feel like I am well on my way, at least to completing my half mile swim with very little trouble. It's a good feeling.

On a slight aside, there are several self-help-ish ideas that I am exploring right now that may or may not assist with my training. Most of these come from fit girl magazines like Self, Oxygen, and Women's Health, so they're bound to be a little bit cheesy, but if any of them could help then why not give them a try? (If you're wondering why I read so many chick fitness magazines, remind yourself that I have been spending 4-8 miles on the stationary bike at the gym every other day for almost two months. A girl's gotta read something!)

1. If you're feeling tired, look at the color green for at least ten seconds.

Staring like a weirdo at anything green
Supposedly, according to "science," staring at the color green activates centers in your brain that increase energy and creativity. I've been trying this during my runs when I'm feeling drained and it seems to be working. Whether the emerald-colored foliage around me is actually activating specific brain centers or I'm just getting distracted from the pain of running by the whole thought process, however, I have no idea.

2. Eat to fuel
This is a fairly basic concept and one that I'm familiar with already, but I am noticing an interesting trend in the last two weeks of training. As my workout time increases, my cravings for pasta, pizza, and all things gooey and fatty seem to decrease. I am attributing this inverse relationship to my awesome body knowing what it needs to get through training, but whatever the reason I will happily accept the outcome.

3. Focus on the now
Luckily in Hawaii the "now" tends to be gorgeous!
Like I said, cheesy. However, my favorite magazine, Oxygen, rarely steers me wrong so I'm going to give this one a shot. Whenever I am getting tired, I try to refocus my mind on everything around me at the particular moment. Rather than zoning out and inadvertently focusing on my burning lungs while running, I pay attention to the flowers next to the road, the ocean, the sky, the smells, and the feeling of my legs. I haven't decided yet whether this one is getting me anywhere good or not. Sometimes when I'm running I think that focusing on the one-hour-from-now-when-I'm-lying-in-a-hot-bath might be a better self-help strategy, but I'm trying to stay open-minded.