... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Overcoming Inner Obstacles: Fears and Distance

I have a confession to make.

After the shark sighting incident, I got a little nervous. Not nervous enough keep me out of the water, but enough to make my heart beat out of my chest at every tiny shadow in the periphery of my vision, enough to make me sit on the sand staring at the water for a few minutes before collecting the nerve to go in. Now, I have never been one to be afraid of swimming in the ocean. In fact, I am more comfortable in open water than in a pool. I know the statistics: that I am more likely to die in a car crash driving to work than I am to be attacked by a shark, and that while hundreds of millions of people swim in the ocean each year, only a handful will encounter one. These statistics comforted me until about three weeks later when Sean and I were standing--standing--in shallow water up to our chests and saw something triangular and thin moving through the water twenty-five feet away.

At first I didn't say anything. I was convinced that my fears had finally progressed into full on delusions, that what I saw could not possibly be a dorsal fin. It disappeared for a moment as I kept my eyes trained on the spot it had disappeared. Sean was also suddenly silent, seemingly staring in the same direction. When it appeared again, I knew it was like nothing I had seen in the water before. Sean and I's "what is that?"s came at the same moment--the moment at which we decided to get out of the water.

If it was indeed a shark, it was a small one. Somehow, though, this failed to comfort me, and although I kept planning swim workouts, I kept finding excuses to skip them. The weather was bad, I didn't have time, et cetera. The truth was, I kept imagining huge, teethy creatures ascending from the deep. Since I have always been fearless in the water, I was ashamed to admit that I was scared.

This same phenomenon had also manifested in my running. I had been so afraid of re-injuring my foot that I hadn't wanted to run for longer than ten minutes without stopping to walk. There hadn't been any symptoms: no pain, no stiffness, but I was so scared to push to far that I was stuck in my walk-run-walk-run pattern. This week, I took control of both of these problems.

First, I did my first pre-dawn run. The moon was still bright and stars punctuated the sky as I dragged myself out of bed at 5am. The first five minutes felt horrible, but once the cobwebs cleared from my mind, it was fun to be up before the rest of the island. I put my running clothes on, then bundled myself in baggy sweats and fluffy socks. Even in Hawaii, 5am is chilly. I did some warm up exercises and sipped a hot mug of green tea, then set out just as the first light entered the sky.

At first, it was scary to run in the near-dark. I worried about cars and pot holes and all the things I couldn't see. But as I kept going, I felt empowered. I loved the feeling of starting my day moving, with nothing but birds and wind in my ears. I ran three miles without stopping once to walk, with a not-so-shabby post-injury mile time of 11:19. By the end of the run, I didn't want to stop and I couldn't wait until my next early morning.

Today, Sean and I went for the week's long run -- one hour and five minutes for a total of 5.3 miles, by far the longest I had gone since April. We walked the first half mile, then ran the next three, walked another .3 before running the remaining 1.5, enjoying watching the cyclists, many of whom are professionals gathering for the Ironman World Championships in Kona in two weeks, pedal like crazy up the hill, then fly back down minutes later.

It was hard... Very hard, especially when we turned around and had to run over a mile uphill against sustained 15mph winds. It felt like I was running against a wall, and my breathing got so strained that I was gasping for a full breath and had to switch from my normal in-2-3, out-2-3 pattern to a two-count. My legs felt like they weren't even moving despite pouring every ounce of strength and energy I had into each stride, but I determined not to walk until I hit three miles running and by sheer stubbornness I managed to keep my legs moving until then.

I walked until I got my breath back, then Sean got me running again and although I had planned to walk once more before the end, I did not. I ran. It didn't feel fast, but it did feel good and strong. When it began to rain with .2 miles to go, I basked in the cool water washing me clean. I even managed to finish with a speed burst as I reached the endpoint. I never would have guessed, until I looked at the GPS tracker, that I had cut my fastest mile time down by another minute.

And my foot? It is stiff, but not sore. the muscles were definitely pushed, but how can I find my limits without pushing? It still feels steady, strong, and doesn't hurt, and I know that with a few days rest, it will be better and stronger than before. It seems that I am ready to progress.

The swim issue was more of a mental game--a decision to move past my fear. I recalled what Cheryl Strayed said in Wild, one of my favorite books. In order to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone, she made the conscious decision not to be afraid, to change the story in her mind to one where she was safe. This was what I had to do. The fact is that I am going to swim in the ocean whether or not there is a risk, so what good does it do to focus on being afraid?

My first swim back was with Sean at Hapuna, the same place we had seen the shark and had the shark warning. I used a snorkel, as I've been doing, and refused to be afraid. It felt good enough to encourage me to move on to the next step--swimming alone again. Since I have been having trouble finding time for my workouts and the pre-dawn run was such a wild success, I decided to take the same approach with the swim. I got up at 5am, gathered, my things, and hopped in the car. I went to Mauna Kea beach, arriving at 6:07, the first person on the beach.

It was placid and perfectly calm, barely a ripple in the perfect mirror of pale blue water. I sat at the edge of the beach and chose several things onto which I could redirect my thoughts should I feel scared--happy things like weddings and Ironmans, then took out my goggles, swim cap, ear plugs, and yes, the Ear BandIt. I hadn't worn them since the triathlon in April, and their familiar presence reminded me of a time when I wasn't afraid. After all, the last time that I put them on was when I was at the peak of my training confidence, ready to begin my first triathlon. The ritual of getting ready calmed me and comforted me, and when I stepped into the water I was ready.

I had forgotten how much I love the feeling of the water rushing over my face, unobstructed by the snorkeling mask. I love breathing real breaths, not sucking air from a plastic tube, and I love seeing the water and the sky with each couple of strokes. My rhythm came back and I was lulled into the same sense of comfort as I remember from swimming. Whatever I had lost came back to me. I swam two thirds of a mile, then took off my goggles and floated face up, watching the clouds turn beautiful colors in the sun rise. I sat on the beach and soaked up the calm before showering and heading to work.

What I found this week is that while injuries and the wildness of the ocean are legitimate concerns, much of what was holding me back was in my mind. Once I let go, I rediscovered the joy that had been missing in my training. Whatever your fears are, allow yourself to be free of them and the possibilities become endless.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Mastering the Master Schedule

After struggling with sticking to my workout schedule for the past month, I finally gave in to reality and admitted that with my current work schedule, a 3x/week schedule in which I do three workouts per discipline per week (for a total of nine) is just straight up unrealistic. I start at 7:30am and three days per week I work a 9-10 hour shift, leaving only about an hour after I get off before the sun goes down. As much I I keep trying, fitting a "short" ride (which are now 18+ miles) in on those days before it gets dark is impossible. I knew when I started training that it may become necessary to switch to a training schedule in which I do each sport two times per week rather than three, but that didn't make admitting it any easier.

The other issue I had been having was a mental game. In the training schedule for the sprint triathlon, swim and bike workouts were listed in distances -- for example, 10 miles for the bike or 750 meters for the swim. The run workouts were the only thing listed in minutes. On the training schedule I've been using for the olympic-length, all three were listed in minutes. Now, much as I enjoy swimming and biking, I quickly found that looking forward to a 48-minute swim and 115-minute bike is not easy. It just sounds tedious, and it doesn't give the same kind of goal to look forward to as when you have a distance to aim for. For whatever reason, thinking about running in minutes doesn't bother me.

I had been thinking about this for a few weeks (or every time I was facing down a triple-digit long bike ride), the only thing keeping me from fixing the problem being the prospect of guessing and doing a lot of number crunching to make the time/distance conversion. Finally, I bit the bullet and broke out my calculator.

I followed the template laid out by the schedule I've been using: three weeks of increasing intensity by 10%, then a week of 40% reduced intensity for recuperation. The next week returns to the same intensity as the week before the -40% week and the cycle begins again. I started at the peak week with 40 miles (because I want the 25-mile ride in the race to feel like eating cake while relaxing at the beach) and go backward from there. As you can see to the left, it took a couple of tries to come up with numbers that made sense. The numbers on the far left are in month-week format showing the training month and week, the "S" column is the short ride, the "L" is the long ride, and the "+X" is the difference in intensity from week to week. I hate crunching numbers and I was really, really mad when the first round of calculations yielded numbers that were absurdly high and I had to start over, but the end result was a much more motivating and satisfying schedule, one that I look forward to completing rather than dreading. It's all mental, I know, but whatever makes it happen is worth doing. When I re-did the swim schedule in the same manner, it made me realize that I'm way ahead of schedule distance-wise on the swim training. An added bonus!

After doing this I could get around to putting together a 2x/sport/week schedule together. The long ride, of course, had to be on a weekend, and I put the short swim on Friday because every other Friday I go to ballet (gotta upkeep that skill, too!) and I can add it on to Saturday if I need to.
This is what I came up with -->
After a week, I am quickly realizing that putting a bike ride on a Tuesday was a huge mistake, because I tried to fit it in and I only made it 7.35 miles before it got dark. I am trying to decide how to switch things around to fix that issue, but I can already tell that doing each sport two times per week rather than three is much more realistic and doesn't leave me feeling frustrated and disappointed at missing workouts each week. Swim and bike workouts are in distances, runs are in minutes, and I feel motivated and empowered. It was worth all of the math.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Kawaihae--Hawi and Back Again: Take Two

The first ride I did after my move, and the one that informed me in no uncertain terms that cycling on Oahu does nothing to prepare you for cycling on the Big Island, was the 34.75-mile stretch from the harbor at Kawaihae to the town of Hawi, nestled against a mountain at about 1200 feet. When I started out I had imagined a 35-mile ride akin to the rides I had been doing on Oahu -- mostly flat with a few short but steep hills. I quickly learned how wrong I was. When I made it back to my house, my legs felt like overcooked spaghetti and all I could do was lay on my living room floor and gasp for air, so you can imagine the pervasive feeling of fear that was creeping into my consciousness when Sean and I decided to do it again.

This time, rather than start in Hawi and end on the horrible, soul-killing 7-mile-long hill leading up to it, we drove down to Kawaihae, parked the car, and started from there, thus getting the ugly part out of the way before ending on a satisfying downhill. Since I have been riding shorter 13-16-mile portions of this road in the past few weeks it had a familiar sense that made it less daunting. More importantly, I found that knowing that there was a 7-mile hill coming up made it much more manageable, if for no reason other than that I knew to abandon all hope of reaching a point of relief. In fact, any time I started hoping I was near the end I just repeated "you're going to be going uphill forever. You're never downhill again" to myself, and although that mantra seems depressing it kept my mind in the right place and allowed me to focus on pushing through rather than hoping for relief.

The ride down, as I remember it from before, is deceptively difficult. The first seven miles are (obviously) a glorious downhill, but at mile eight you quickly realize that long downhills can be a curse of sorts as well because your legs relax and feel unprepared for the uphills that are still plentiful on the return route. Whereas during the 7-mile hill your legs seem to eventually become accustomed to the reality of the situation and reach a new level of consistent strength/power/numbness, the up-down-up-down of the descent allow no such adjustment.

There are several observations that I think are important. Well, how important they are is debatable, but I want to write about them so here they are:

1. Bike fitting is incredibly important. I know, all of you cycling aficionados are rolling your eyes at me right now because obviously bike fitting is important, but as I mentioned in my last post my approach to triathlon up to this point has been more of a "take what you can get for free, make it work" philosophy. Now that I have a beautiful bike, it seems disrespectful to its engineering to not to have it in prime working order, which includes the fit. I had been having pretty severe amounts of back pain since I started using the bike, but I am happy to report that it has completely disappeared since they moved the aero bars closer to the saddle. Weird how stretching your back and neck too far for hours at a time results in pain... now I'm free!

2. I would like to once again sing the praises of clipless pedals. I did this ride faster than the first time, largely because of my new pedal/cleat/shoe set up. About ten miles into the ride I figured out how to hold my foot to really take advantage of the "pull" (upward) portion of the pedal stroke and my oh my, did it ever make a difference! Immediate speed change.

3. I have a very strange, borderline obsessive love of grape Gatorade. Outside of exercising, I think Gatorade is kind of gross. Watered-down and slightly salty is not my idea of a good beverage, but put me on a bike and suddenly it is the nectar of the Gods, the liquid embodiment of all things satisfying and delicious. I don't know how to explain it, but it's definitely weird.

So there you go. I am quickly learning that being familiar with a route is an invaluable tool, because mental preparation is hugely important. My next step is to go ride the Lavaman Keauhou course a few times. Perhaps by November I can have it conquered.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Welcome to the new visitors joining this blog from Swim.Blog.Run! I am very excited to be listed on this great resource for triathlon training blogs and I hope you enjoy exploring my blog. Please feel free to comment with any thoughts or suggestions, or if you have a triathlon training you'd like to share!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Heart vs. Gear: Clipping In to Your Inner Strength

Speedplay X series pedals ("lollipops") and cleats
Today I get to report that I finally have clipless pedals. Well, technically I've had the pedals for almost a month, but I was missing the most important part: the cleats and the shoes! That's right, I've been riding my beautiful new bike on just the tiny round Speedplay X series pedals, or "lollipops," as they're semi-affectionately called. (The level of affection and amount of rain are inversely proportional.) This interesting and highly un-triathlete-kosher technique worked in a pinch, but it was definitely making life harder. I was constantly worried that my foot would slip off of the pedal and I would crash, especially during the North Kohala downpours that are so common. In fact, I did slip off a few times, but luckily never when I had a lot of weight on the foot. This makes it extremely frustrating to make it up a large hills, which are even more plentiful than the rain. In addition to the practical problems, I was completely certain that each of the many finely trained cyclists who saw me during a ride was making snide comments and spreading rumors about the pathetic girl wearing running shoes on a Cervelo all over Ironman Town.

This switch in gear marks a transition that for whatever reason I have been a little hesitant to make. From the beginning of this triathlon adventure, it has been me forging brazenly (and often cluelessly) ahead, finding my own training schedules, doing my workouts alone, and discovering things the hard way -- through experience. When I started out I never knew that triathlon would be a sport I would want to stay involved in, simply that I wanted to find out if I could complete a couple of races for the sake of doing them. Because of this mindset, I have pretty much ignored the plethora of fancy gear available in favor of seeing what my own body, unaided by technology, can do. I took a little backwards pride in my beloved vintage bike, my sports bra swim top, and my EarBandit ridiculousness ... these untrendy things being indicative of my self-made triathlon journey, of each moment I realized that I was doing something completely wrong and found the way to work through it. My triathlon interests were simple and unadorned.

Unadorned, however, is not a word that comes to mind when I look at my new bike. Gorgeous, sleek, aggressive, elegant... but not simple. My $35 helmet is suddenly looking out of place. When they told me that I should get a new base bar and gave me a choice between the $80 standard bar and the $245 carbon fiber version, I actually paused to think about it.

So let's reevaluate here.

I have been given amazing things. From the magazine, I have seemingly endless amounts of triathlon shorts, tops, and suits, and from my employer, this wonderful bike. It is fast and mean and beautiful, and in order to do it justice, I have to incorporate some gear that wasn't necessary before. But in my heart, I am still doing this to see what my body, not my gear, can do. Whether I'm on a 1980 Peugeot or a Cervelo P2, I will be gasping for air and feeling my legs ignite in searing fiery heat when I climb a hill. It is the same willpower that will get me through it regardless of whether I'm sitting on steel or carbon. My joy in this sport is not dependent on the latest trends of technology.

All that said, clipless pedals are pretty fucking fantastic.

After spending two and a half hours at Bike Works Waikoloa on Wednesday getting the bike fitted and having cleats installed on my new shoes, I was excited to give it a try. Thankfully, they insisted that my first endeavor be on the grassy field outside of the shop so that if I tipped over before I could unclip, I wouldn't break my legs or otherwise mangle myself. I have to say, however, that once you get a feel for these cleats, they're pretty easy to manage. It just takes a little forethought when you plan on slowing to a stop.

Clip foot in. Pull leg up. Hop on bike. Pedal, pedal. Clip other foot in. Ride... Ride... Slow down. Clip foot out. Weight on other leg. Slow, slow, lean to free leg side. Land. Balance. Clip other foot out. Precariously swing leg over bike while balancing on cleat without toppling over...

These are my new instructions, which I repeat to myself over and over each time I come near the bike. To be honest, the hardest part for me is not the clipping in or out, it's the balancing on one wobbly cleat to get my leg over the bike. If I end up falling, I think it will be from a stand still.

I am amazed by the difference this system makes on hills. Whereas before I struggled to keep my speed up, wobbling all over the place and seemingly going nowhere, pushing the pedal down violently with each rotation only to lose all of that momentum as it came back up, my pedal strokes are now a complete and smooth circle, I am moving forward in a fluid motion rather than a series of lurches. In places where I'd falter before, I can now keep going strong. I had feared that the "pull" portion of the revolution would require muscles that I hadn't used before, but instead it seemed that the new circular motion engaged the larger muscles of my legs more effectively, thus making it easier.

Basically, whoever though of this was a goddamn genius.

And so here I am, taking the next baby step into being a "real" triathlete, reminding myself all the while to never forget that whether I'm riding a thirty-year-old clunker or the most advanced bike in the world, what makes a triathlete is that inner warrior. No amount of carbon fiber can change that.