... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Thursday, October 31, 2013

43 Mile Peak

Well, we set out yesterday after work to take a ride, and ended up hitting our training peak right on schedule. After what ended up being a much more drawn-out healing process than I had expected for the wisdom tooth extraction, I have to admit I was a little concerned that I wouldn't be able to meet the training goals I had set for myself, which included a peak distance ride of 40 miles this week.

My comeback ride on Sunday was 31 miles, a distance I was very happy with given that I had been mostly inactive for over a week. My legs felt great and I had energy to burn. We even did a mini-brick workout, hopping off the bikes and running two miles on tired legs. It was fairly brutal because there was no wind whatsoever and the temperatures were in the 90's with no cloud cover, but we made it happen. It felt great to get moving again.

The Queen K
For yesterday's ride I made sure to give my body plenty of fuel (in fact, a little too much fuel a little too late ... I ate a turkey sandwich about an hour before starting the ride and it was definitely not quite digested for the first ten miles or so) and once the food settled I could feel a huge difference in my legs.

I can't overemphasize how lucky I am to have a place like the Queen Kaahumanu (Queen K) Highway to ride. Huge shoulders, perfect roads, very few bumps and no potholes, with a good assortment of straight stretches for speed and hills to work your legs. With mountains on one side, the ocean on the other, and lava fields all around it is both barren and beautiful at the same time.

Anyway, we set out without a clear distance goal. I was telling myself another 30 miles but I knew in the back of my mind that what I really wanted to do was go from our start point at the Mauna Lani shopping center to the airport. When we hit the 15-mile point (where we would turn around if we wanted to do 30 miles total) we checked in, confirmed that we both felt good, discussed what to do, and ultimately decided to go for it. We estimated the remaining distance to the airport at about 5 miles. It was more like 6.5, and it's a difficult 6.5 because the airport drive comes into view about 2.5 miles out and looks deceptively close. You then spend 8-9 minutes chasing something which seems to not get any closer no matter how hard you pedal.

We dismounted and sat in the grass in the shade for about 12 minutes, sipping our drinks and stretching before hitting the return. Restarting is always difficult for me, and yesterday was no exception. My legs seem to take about 5 miles to warm up; before hitting that point, they feel rubbery, heavy, and slow. If I allow myself to get discouraged during this period I can ruin an entire ride for myself, so I have learned to expect this phenomenon and just wait patiently for the blood to get flowing. Once it does, it feels like my legs are habituated to hills. The burning dulls a little and I don't feel like I'm fighting at 100% effort to make it up each hill. Climbing a hill begins to feel okay, like something I could do for a while without too much issue.

The problem is that this same thing happens after taking a break, so when we restarted to cover the 21.5 miles back, I felt like my legs were loaded up with bricks. The feeling persisted for the first 6 miles back, then finally dissipated. Once my legs were back, I really enjoyed the feeling of flying down the hills, air on my face, and the beauty around me. When you spend a lot of time swimming and running, there is something magical about the speed of the bike. It feels very freeing.

I'm saying 43 miles because Sean's GPS said 44 miles...
We finished strong and were extremely surprised to see that we had maintained a 3:35 mile pace, with an average speed of 16.66 mph. I was not expecting this because I had been focusing purely on distance, not worrying about my speed. At some points I felt downright slow, so the decent pacing was a pleasant surprise.

There are several things I've done differently on the past two rides that I think have made a positive difference in performance. First, I am focusing on doing a proper warm up and cool down, which I had always slacked on. For the first two miles or so, I take a very easy pace with low gears to warm up my legs, and when I hit that spot on the way back I do the same to finish the ride--slowly decreasing pace and using easier gears to allow my legs to cool down gradually. It feels good and I think it helps with tightness in my legs and overall fatigue.

Second, I have really put the microscope on my pre-and during-ride nutrition. Almost passing out scared me, so it has been a focus. I make sure to eat a good, healthy meal with carbs and protein a couple of hours before the ride, and I pack a Bonk Breaker Bite bar and an energy gel to take with me. For the 30-mile ride I ate the bar at around 16 miles and took the gel at 25 miles (although I think it was unnecessary), and for the ride yesterday I did the first half on my turkey sandwich, taking a gel at the turnaround point. I ate the Bonk bar after the ride to encourage glycogen storage in my muscles.

We also invested in bigger water bottles, because obsessively rationing your hydration is stressful and our previous bottles just were not giving us enough. We've been using one bottle of water and one bottle of HEED carb/electrolyte drink and it seems to work like a charm. I drink half the bottle of water, then switch to the HEED for the middle of the ride, then return to water toward the end.

These changes have definitely improved my performance and nearly erased the pervasive fatigue I had been feeling. You live and you learn. And you ride 40 MILES!

Friday, October 25, 2013

Feed Your Workout (Or Feel the Consequences)

One of the biggest challenges of training seriously for a new, challenging sport is learning how to change your eating habits to fit the increasing demands on your body. Even if you have always been a healthy eater, there are some very specific needs that will have to be addressed. Some of these may seem counterintuitive, especially if you're used to the modern idea that carbohydrates, especially starchy ones, are the spawn of Satan.

I have never been a proponent of the "carbs are evil" mentality, instead favoring an "everything in moderation" state of mind. Carbs, my organic chemistry experience reminds me, are not evil. They are simply a chemical structure, and one that is actually quite necessary to our survival. What is not necessary to our survival, however, are the plethora of disgusting, highly processed pseudo-foods that we have created (e.g. Twinkies, cookies that can be left out in the open air for years without going bad, etc.). Even with this mindset, however, I have had some challenges figuring out how to eat to accommodate my new training schedule. Add to this the challenge of finding things that I can bring to work (even when I leave the house at 5:20AM) and it's basically recipe for a giant nutritional disaster.

What I have been focusing on is eating simply and well. Minimal processed foods, lots of fresh vegetables and fruits. This is a great approach except that fruits and vegetables don't have very many calories. Not such a problem if I'm just sitting at my desk all day, but when I upped my workout intensity in the last week before my surgery I completely forgot to adjust my diet accordingly. I pulled through okay until Wednesday before it all came crashing down.

I started my day Wednesday with a swim, as mentioned in a previous post. I did my usual one mile distance and felt fantastic. When I got to work, I ate a banana (all that I had easily available at home), and on my way to meet Sean for a bike ride after work, I ate a tomato. (I am weird. I eat tomatoes plain, like an apple...) What exactly I was thinking, I don't know; perhaps I wasn't thinking.

An apple has about 95 calories. A tomato has about 16. Swimming vigorously in the ocean for half an hour burns approximately 175 calories and cycling for 36 miles nets 1250 calories burned. How I thought that a caloric intake of 111 was going to allow me to make it through a burn of 1425 I have no idea. It didn't even cross my mind. I am an idiot.

The first signs of trouble started quickly, around mile 10. Sean dropped me and I could not for the life of me speed up. My legs felt dead. I was immensely frustrated, but didn't think to attribute it to anything other than just being weak and lame. By the time we stopped at the turnaround point (mile 18) I was feeling a little woozy and sick to my stomach. Again, I blew it off, assuming I was just tired.

The real signals that something was seriously wrong kicked in on the way back. I started losing my breath, gasping for air in a way I never have before on the bike, even on flat stretches. No matter what I did I couldn't seem to breathe normally. Then the dizziness started. I fought to stay straight and steady for a while, the shortness of breath causing me to feel disoriented and even to cry for no apparent reason. I finally lost control of the bike, wobbling and zig-zagging, almost going off the edge of the road (a 7-inch drop off into sharp lava fields), my leg muscles started shaking when I attempted to engage them, and I knew I was in trouble. I immediately pulled over, got off the bike, and laid down on the side of the highway.

I have never felt like I did lying on gravel on the edge of the Queen K. I was dizzy and nauseated and mentally fuzzy, and although I knew why it was happening, I was scared. It took five minutes for me to feel steady enough to get back on the bike, an idea which seemed unwise but with eight more miles to go to get back to anything resembling civilization, there was little other choice.

I pedaled slowly, solely focused on staying upright and steady with steady breathing, without a thought for speed or technique. I stayed in the lowest gears and tried to ignore the hills making life difficult. My legs ached in a deep, dull way I've never felt before and every cell in my body screamed at me to lay down and go to sleep, but I kept moving. I have never been so relieved to reach Waikoloa.

As soon as we got back to the parking lot I laid down in the grass. I knew I needed to eat, but I was so nauseated and shaky that the thought of food sounded horrible. After lying there staring at the sky for ten minutes, I walked slowly into the market. Anything too crunchy or difficult to chew sounded impossible to deal with. Anything sweet sounded like it would make me vomit immediately. I bought a sushi roll and a bowl of chicken noodle soup, both of which sounded manageable, and joined Sean outside.

I tackled the soup first, taking small bites and waiting several minutes between each one to let my stomach settle. Salt tasted amazing. It took 10-15 minutes after eating for me to start feeling better, but eventually I felt less shaky and nauseated and more steady. The mental fuzziness lasted for over an hour. The sushi, with its refined carbohydrates and protein and salty soy sauce, tasted fantastic and acted like medicine.

So what did I learn from my little wayward nutrition adventure?

Fuel fuel fuel fuel.
If you plan on doing a long workout, EAT. It doesn't matter if you don't feel that hungry or you are short on time. EAT. If you truly don't have time to eat, then cut your workout down. It is dangerous to push through. If I had crashed, there's a good chance I would have been out of commission for weeks or even months. It isn't worth the risk, and it's not good for your body to run on empty like that.

It also made me realize that I need to truly reexamine my nutrition plan and food intake, because as I keep upping my mileage I need to be looking more carefully at what I'm eating to fuel the distances. It has become much more clear to me why such tiny differences in food and drink choices can have such dramatic effects on Ironman performance, and when I'm being totally honest with myself I know that I am very ignorant about this aspect of the sport.

Basically, don't be an idiot like me and think you can do ambitious things without any fuel for your brain and the muscles that will carry you through.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Cadence Question

Akoni Pule Highway as dawn arrives
I would like to preface this entry by saying that I have been unable to train for four days because on Thursday the 17th I had three wisdom teeth taken out. While frustrating, it has allowed me some time to reflect upon the previous week of training, in which I pretty much kicked ass, if I do say so myself. Not so much in distances, but definitely in dedication. Knowing that I would be out of commission for several days, I planned ahead to make every workout count. I got up before 5AM every day to squeeze two workouts into the days, and I pushed myself. It was an interesting week in all three of the triathlon disciplines.

Pastels galore.
I tackled most of the swims in the mornings, arriving just as enough light crept into the sky to make things visible. These mornings, although hideously early, became like a meditation for me, a beautiful ritual bathed in soft colors that soothed and calmed me. Perfectly quiet, perfectly clean, with calm ocean and nothing in my mind but peace and solitude ... I sat quietly on the cool, damp sand, listened to the rhythm of the waves, then went through the many steps of getting ready to go in: earplugs, swim cap, goggles, headband. These steps, which were so tedious when I first started training, are now comforting and familiar.

Ready to go, ritual intact.
Because the air still has a little chill so early in the morning, the water felt thick and velvety warm when I stepped into it. The first few times, my stroke felt a little choppy and awkward but as I relaxed and rediscovered the ever elusive "trough," things smoothed out. Post-Ironman, I have been attempting to speed up my semi-leisurely stroke pace. Not focusing on traveling faster, just on moving my arms faster and increasing my stroke cadence. Faster and lighter seems to create less fatigue.

On the last swim before my stupid and annoying surgery, I looked up from the water and saw something moving on the surface of the water twenty yards from me. It didn't look like a dorsal, but it also didn't look like a turtle, so just to be safe I swam to shallow water where I could touch the sand. I stared and stared, trying to categorize what I was looking at. It was huge, first of all--at least five or six feet long--and it covered a lot of surface area. Sometimes it looked like there was a fin sticking up, but sometimes it seemed to just blanket the surface. I knew I couldn't go back into deeper water until I knew what it was.

Ahhh yes, peace.
A runner on the beach behind me had stopped and was also studying this mystery creature. Then, it made one fluid motion and its triangular edge became clear.
"It's a manta ray!" He called from the beach, and immediately I knew he was right.
I also knew that I wanted to swim with it. I waved to him and put my goggles back on, but by the time I reached the spot where it had disappeared, it was gone.

The rest of my swim I half-expected to touch a gentle giant creature each time I reach my hand out in front of me, but he never reappeared. It made me smile, however, being reminded that I do not swim alone.

My running experiences this week were an exercise in new techniques. Since mastering (okay, not master ... I will never completely master any of these things) the forefoot strike running style, I haven't made any huge changes to my form. After watching Ironman, however, I was inspired to play around with some observations I had made during the race. There were several key differences I noted that I wanted to experiment with:
1. Cadence!
The most consistent thing that I noticed amongst the Ironman athletes that is definitely not present in my run was their quick, light leg movements. Rather than longer, powerful strides, they ran with very fast strides that were shorter and lighter.
2. Lack of arm movement
Contrary to what I had read instructing runners to use a fair amount of arm movement in a forward-back direction (avoiding side to side movement) I saw that a lot of the athletes kept their arms relatively still, moving very little from their shoulders to elbows. Arms were held very close to their bodies with little to no swinging motion.
3. Slight forward lean
When I first started running, I had a fairly pronounced tendency to lean forward, especially as I fatigued. I broke this habit and now run fairly straight up and down. What I noticed at Ironman, however, was a very slight tip forward at the hips. Not a whole body position, just a subtle forward hint.

With these things in mind, I set out ready to experiment. Since my natural tendency is to keep my arms fairly still at my sides, this was the easiest to accomplish. I just like how it feels better and it seems to save energy. I tried to keep my upper body, in general, very still. (Not stiff! Very important difference). The forward lean was a little more challenging, because once I tip a tiny bit my natural urge to list forward kicks in and it's difficult for me to control. Focusing on relaxing my upper back a little and moving my chest lower rather than forward seemed to do the trick. As an added bonus, I noticed decidedly less muscle soreness in my back the next day.

The cadence question is a totally new one for me. I have never really paid attention to how fast my strides are unless I am trying to speed up or slow down. Looking at cadence, however, almost ignores these factors. In fact, what seemed most effective was to attempt to speed up my stride cadence without running faster overall, thus forcing me to focus on using light, short strides. What I quickly discovered was that this new way of moving uses completely different muscles than I am used to, and causes much less overall fatigue. While these new muscles felt weak and unsteady, the difference in breath was astounding--I felt like I could run much further this way without getting winded, especially when going uphill. In addition, using this technique allows my legs to feel more independent from my upper body, as if from the waist up I am floating on a steady line while my legs, like in a cartoon, move in speedy circles beneath me.

Astoundingly, using this theory over the course of 3.5 miles cut my average mile time down by over a minute and a half. Dramatic improvement for such a tiny change!

The same idea--cadence--was what I was working on during bike workouts this week. I have been reading about how successful cyclists keep their revolutions up rather than simply powering their way through hills on pure brawn in high gears. My philosophy up until this point has been "hold your high gear until you can't move your legs, then shift," which I am beginning to believe may not be the best approach ...

I've been trying to spin more, to stay in lower gears and to avoid fatigue in my legs. Much like upping my cadence while running, I have discovered that it uses a very different set of muscles and that although they fatigue in a different way, they definitely do fatigue. It feels more like a burn and less like  exhaustion, so between getting stronger and adjusting to this new burning feeling I think that I'll soon be convinced that it's a better way to go. I'm also fairly sure that it will help my run coming off of T2.

Between swimming, running, and biking cadence I have my work cut out for me. New timing, new feeling, new muscles ... this is what training is all about!

Give me another day or two and I'll be back out there (minus a few wisdom teeth but full of new wisdom)!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Kona Ironman Championships Weekend

Sometimes, you are lucky enough to experience something that will keep you motivated for years and years to come. For me, this was Ironman Kona.

We left Hawi the night before, knowing that getting to the start line with all the road closures before 6:30am Saturday morning would be nearly impossible if we weren't already nearby. Since all of the hotels in and around Kona have been booked for this event since about last year, and having the healthy sense of adventure that we do, we took Sean's truck, threw a tent in the back, and parked in the location we deemed least likely for us to get cited and arrested for trespassing for the night. The first couple of hours were blindingly hot, so much so that the only way to stay sane was to lie perfectly still and focus every ounce of mental fortitude present on the tiny hint of air movement coming through the tent's "window." Sleeping was out of the question. Luckily for us, it only took a couple of hours for the evening to cool and it ended up being quite pleasant sleeping in the night air looking up at the stars through the tent's netting.

We were up at 4:15am, ready for some Ironman action. After washing our faces and brushing our teeth int he pool deck bathrooms at the Sheraton Keauhou (awkward!) we set out for Kona. As had been the case for several days, it was unusually still with very little trade wind. We parked above down and walked down to Alii Drive where sponsors, athletes, and supporters gathered.

Let me tell you: if you want to get a good view of the swim start, you need to be there at about 5am. By the time we arrived at 6:10, the entire water line was lined three people deep. To get a spot where I could see, I ended up wading through thigh deep water and climbing up onto the underside of the concrete sea wall, where despite having to dodge incoming waves I had a decent view.

There were a lot of things I didn't know about this race,  right off the bat and although I had no idea what to expect, everything was beyond what I thought it would be. There were tons of volunteers (5000 in all!), the finish line was set up with a huge archway, the palms were beautiful against the sunrise, there was music playing, and everyone was excited. It was the kind of excitement that you could feel in the air, the kind that was almost tangible.

The swim start was a surprise as well. I didn't know that the athletes actually started from the pier, not from the beach by the pier, so rather than running into the water at the start the competitors slowly file into the ocean and slowly swim out to the start point, gathering as a huge bobbing mass in the water. The male pros were the first to start, their white swim caps quickly disappearing into the distance. Their arms moved faster than I knew was possible. The female pros took off next. There was a lull between the pros and the age groupers, and while they got into the water and started warming up, the atmosphere got even more electric.

Ironman baby!
Age groupers often work for years in order to compete at Kona. The qualification process is long, arduous, and exceptionally confusing. The short version is that for each official full length Ironman race (and a few of the 70.3 distance races) throughout the year there are a set number of Kona qualification slots, divided equally among the various age groups. For example, if a race has 50 Kona slots with male and female age groups 18-24, 25-29, 30-34, 35-39, 40-44, 45-49, 50-54, 55-59, 60-64, 65-69, 70-74, 75-79, 80-84, the 50 slots are divided according to how many people are are in each age group. If there are 75 participants who are males between ages 30 and 34, they may get 3 Kona slots--thus the top three finishers in that age group will qualify for Kona. In contrast, the female 70-74 age group may only have one participant. This age group is still guaranteed a slot, so that one competitor automatically qualifies for Kona. The general idea is to allow the same percentage of people from each age group to qualify, but as you can see it's a little easier said than done. Like I said, it's a brain twister. This website offers a good explanation as well, if you care.

Crazy spray as the age groupers take off
The point of this is that it's really, really difficult to qualify and that people often spend years and years trying. Those who are in the water swimming out to the age groupers start line are about to conquer a goal decades in the making, thus the excitement level is through the roof. It was an honor just to be around so many badass, determined people.

I think that somewhere in all of my reading I had learned that aside from the 17-hour overall race cutoff, there are also cut offs for each individual discipline, but I had forgotten. For the swim, you must be out of the water in 2:20. The bike leg's cut off time is 8:10, and the marathon must be done in 6:30 or less. This year there was only one who didn't make the swim cut off, and it was heartbreaking. I quickly realized that this day was going to be more emotional than I had expected. I also realized (after hearing about a 78-year-old competitor who was racing after making it to the finish last year just 12 seconds before the 17-hour cutoff) that although we had planned on only staying until 4pm or so, that was going to have to change: we needed to stay until midnight.

Look mom, no shoes!
The first people off T1 were streamlined and incredibly fast. The bikes ... oh the bikes. They were beautiful. All different shapes, sizes, brands, and colors, but all undeniably gorgeous and aggressive. I took particular interest in watching how they jumped on the bike barefoot, shoes already attached to the pedals, and pulled them on as they went. I had heard of this seemingly impossible show of coordination, but this was the first time I got to see it in practice.

I'm going to have to spend a significant amount of time figuring out how to do this, because much as I love imitating a tap dancer clicking around in my shoes and cleats, running from T1 to the point where I can get on the bike in them is just straight up impractical. Something tells me this will include falling over a lot.

For the next few hours, we wandered around Alii Drive enjoying the sponsor tents, the jumbotron coverage of the bike race, and, perhaps most of all, the people watching. A funny thing happens when Ironman comes to town: all of the douchey athletic wannabes come crawling (trotting, biking, etc.) out of the woodwork to strut their super lame stuff around the finish line. Never mind that all the real Ironman athletes were out on the course, thus the chances of impressing anyone were zero to none ... that didn't stop tons of morons from decking themselves (and often their very out of shape bodies) out in dri-fit, spandex, and strutting around as if they were someone important. I wanted to explain to the guy in corduroy shorts complete with belt that wearing compression socks isn't just a style choice, and it won't magically make him able to run longer than four minutes, or tell the people wearing full one-piece cycling suits for no reason whatsoever that they weren't fooling anyone ... but I held my tongue. Anyway suffice it to say, people are really douchey. And entertaining.

Next up was T2. The cyclists came in hot, jumping off their bikes and practically throwing them to the volunteers before jogging in to put on their running shoes. Miraculously only one bike (probably four times more expensive than my car) got dropped. As they came out the chute to the run we enjoyed seeing the varying run styles. Longer, fluid strides for some, short, quick strides for others, but all powerful and fast. We could also start to see cracks in some. The woman in 4th place out of T2 came out throwing up. Not stopping, mind you, just throwing up with each stride. Hours later when we realized she never came across the finish line, we found out that she collapsed halfway through the run due to hyponatremia, too much water and a lack of electrolytes.

It is worth mentioning that Mirinda Carfrae had an epic run. Despite coming out of T2 behind, her beautiful, smooth run overtook leader Rachel Joyce and won her both the championship and a course record. It was one of those things you feel lucky to get to watch.

Winner Frederik Van Lierde
We claimed our spot at the finish line over an hour before the first athlete came in. Determined to be able too see, we were lucky to be just about 50 yards from the finish. And oh, the things we saw. The pros came in triumphant and still mindblowingly fast, waving the flags of their countries and celebrating. But much to my surprise, this was not the most amazing part. As the hours wore on, and more and more people came in, emotions ran high.

It is easy to focus on the pure speed of the pros, their shiny equipment and perfectly tuned bodies until you reach the finish. The finish is where you see the true heart of the sport, what makes it unique--the thing that called to me and, for six years before I did my first race, whispered in my ear that I should do a triathon. You see ordinary people push through an unimaginable challenge and accomplish something that has been a dream for years. You see every grimace, every look of pure determination, and the smile, relief, and joy that takes over when the finish line is in sight. These people are all ages, come from all walks of life, but they share that one thing: the desire to find out how far they can push their bodies and minds.

An emotional Mirinda Carfrae takes the win
The mental strength we witnessed was the thing that stuck out the most. Several athletes came down the final stretch at a walk, barely putting one foot in front of the other, weaving back and forth in disorientation but absolutely determined to make it to the finish line. How a person can be strong enough to keep their ultimate goal in mind even while so broken down that they can't consciously remember where they're going and their body is gone I don't know. One girl was so done that she had forgotten how to walk. She clung to the fencing, trying to stand, laughing nonsensically and talking to no one about things that weren't there. She attempted to take a step, but couldn't figure out how to make her foot meet the floor. She started going the wrong direction, and despite the crowd yelling for her and directing her, she couldn't get straightened out. When the medical staff attempted to help her she held onto the fence and wouldn't let them because that would nullify her race. In the end they had to pick her up just ten feet from the finish. When I checked her race number in the online results, however, they had given her a finishing time.

First age grouper to cross the finish

I had assumed (yet another triathlon rookie mistake) that the largest crowd would be gathered for the pros’ finish, and indeed, people lined the finish line five people deep. As I expected, the mob thinned somewhat for the next four hours, but then something strange happened. People began to gather again. As the time went by, it began to rain but the crowd only got bigger. Athletes finished the race, bandaged themselves up, and joined those gathered on the sidelines to cheer on those still on the course. Music pumped, people danced, and each finisher was welcomed home with a roar of applause. The energy was unbelievable. Winner Mirinda Carfrae joined race sponsors in handing out samples and prizes and personally greeted each of the incoming athletes, many of whom had stories poignant and inspirational enough to bring anyone with a soul to tears.

Gordon Haller, who won the very first Ironman race in 1978, finished in 15:37:47. Luis Alvarez crossed the finish line in 15:54:50 to complete his 100th Ironman race. Some staggered, some did cartwheels, and many broke down into tears. As the clock neared the 17-hour mark the crowd grew thunderous, and with just over three minutes to spare the oldest contestant, Harriet Anderson, the oldest competitor at age 78, came around the corner to a frenzy of screaming spectators. She crossed the line in 16:56:51, over two minutes faster than her finish last year.

78-year old Harriet Andersen, kicking ass
One contestant remained on the course. After losing a foot in an accident while cycling several years ago, Karen Aydelott has been on a mission to finish at Kona. She made it to the run in 2012 before having to drop out, and this year was ushered into the home stretch by thousands of supporters screaming and chanting her name. She missed the cut off by just forty-eight seconds, completing the course in 17:00:48. Despite the near miss, she was all smiles as she stood at the finish line. I imagine that we will see her again in 2014.

These stories are why I love the sport of triathlon. There is no feeling like overcoming whatever holds you back, and the Kona Ironman Championships are the culmination of this fight. To see the determination on each face as they neared the end and the pure exhilaration of competing such a monumental challenge was a wonderful reminder of how strong we can be, regardless of age or setbacks. The crowd, only growing in size and energy as the hours wore on, welcoming those who struggled to the finish line with even more vigor than those who won, is a prime example of the welcoming and communal spirit of this sport. My first Kona experience, though only as a spectator, was one that will never be forgotten. As I progress in my training and face each new race I am reminded that I am surrounded by a community of incredible strength and that everything I need, I have inside.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Glimpsing Greatness

Yesterday was cycling and swimming day. I got up fairly early and was out riding by 8:30, tackling the 34.7 miles from Hawi to Kawaihae and back again. My legs, from the moment I got on the bike, were completely shot. Whether it was from the long run the day before or some other factor I don't know, but I did know that I was in trouble. I fought my way through the entire ride down, managing not to get passed by any of the numerous Ironman superhumans on the route. Each hill fought me back with impressive effort.

At the bottom I ate a protein bar (Nature Valley Protein granola bar--best thing ever when you're working out hard) and drank a--you guessed it--Grape Gatorade, feeling like the awkward friend who somehow ended up at a party they weren't invited to as the professional athletes gathered in a swarm in the convenience store parking lot talking and laughing. Everyone I encountered was extremely nice, but I couldn't help but feel self-conscious and clumsy. (The clumsy feeling may or may not have been related to almost crashing in front of all of them when I failed shift correctly, lost my momentum, and barely had time to clip out before tipping over while pulling up at the convenience store.)

Testing a triathlon top from DeSoto Sports
The ride back up was tough. Every time I felt like I was doing okay I got passed by someone going at least twice my speed, and before long my legs felt like huge, heavy blocks of cement. I knew long before I hit the 7-mile hill that it was going to be horrible, and horrible it was. I was in the very lowest gear for 80% of the time, intent only on making it back to my car. After 6 miles of hell, however, something wonderful happened.

After over an hour of watching athletes fly by me, their pedaling revolutions mind-blowingly fast even on the toughest portions, my legs came free. I don't know how to describe it, but I suddenly went from my slow, tortured 1--2--1--2 pattern of pedaling and breathing to a quick, light 1--2--3--4 pattern. It was as if my feet were percussive, tapping hard onto the down stroke and pulling up with twice the momentum. Each stroke felt easier, the pedals less resistant. 

Similar to the moment in which my legs became light and independent from the rest of my body while running, I wondered: is this how it feels for really fast athletes? Is this how they do it?

These strange discoveries give me hope, because while I cannot yet find that feeling on demand, I now know that it exists and that there is a different level of technique that is far less painful than the skills I use now. I can keep seeking the key to be able to unlock the feeling of light, strong, independent legs whenever I want to. 

I made it back to the car quickly after that, and had managed to maintain the exact same pace as the last time Sean and I did the ride despite my weary legs. I would rather see improvement, but given how little I've been able to ride and how tired my body was from the beginning of the trek, I was happy. 

The swim went well. I switched back to my old goggles and after two adjustments, had no problems with leakage. The water was a little rough and I had a couple of close calls in which I almost took a mouthful of water, but somehow managed to avoid that fate. 

There were, however, tons of little no-see-ums that were stinging both Sean and I all over. At first I thought I was imagining it because I never saw the source of the stings, but as we got out he commented on it and I knew it wasn't my imagination. I have no idea what on earth they were... stinging mystery beasts aside, we swam a mile in fairly decent time, my stroke felt good and smooth, and my goggles behaved themselves. All in all a good workout. 

I did rediscover the importance of not opening my mouth too wide for breaths. For whatever reason, gasping for air with an open mouth throws my entire stroke off balance and makes it choppy, slow, and uncomfortable. Reminding myself to relax, take calm, slow breaths with a low head and my mouth barely open does wonders for my speed and grace. Strange correlation, but hey, whatever works. 

It was a good weekend. I feel accomplished and successful and my slightly sore muscles remind me how good it feels to push through some long, difficult training sessions. This coming weekend is Ironman Kona Championships and I can't wait to get even more inspired!

Progressing Toward Perfection

Well, since my last post I have had both a great and not-so-great week, exercise-wise. I got up on Wednesday ready to do my super early run, but got talked out of it by my very concerned boyfriend, worried about my safety running alone in nearly dark conditions. I spent the hour before I had before work fuming about how unfair it is that women have to live in fear of being attacked any time they're alone--in fact, there will probably be a separate post about that at some point in the near future--but for now I don't want to dwell on it because I'll get riled up and upset all over again.

I did the only thing I can do... I bought a can of mace. I suppose that if you can't actually fix the issue, the best option is to react to it in the best way possible. It is extremely sad to me that this is necessary, but whatever. Such is the world. I won't stop running.

My early morning swim was also not without a hitch. Although I have gone to Mauna Kea beach in the extremely early morning several times with no issues, this week's gate guard decided that he was a very important person who needed to exert his power by not allowing me in until the exact minute of sunrise, which this week apparently happened to be 6:14am. I arrived at 6:08am (with the sky completely light, for the record), and thus could not possibly be allowed to go down to the parking lot. Determined not to be bitchy, I glared at the guy and then decided to just go to another beach. What a douche.

It actually turned out beautifully with glassy, clear water and the sun gently climbing in the sky while I swam in the sea of pastels. I was trying a new set of goggles called "mask" style in which there is no nose piece between the two eye covers (wow I don't know anything about goggles... sorry about the very incorrect terminology here) but rather one large piece, snorkel-mask style. I was excited to try them out but I quickly discovered that while they feel wonderful, putting very little pressure on my eyes, the seal around the nose was very problematic. By problematic I mean that every three minutes or so I would have to stop and pour the water out of my nearly full lenses. Dang it. I guess the goggle search continues...

Saturday, we ran. And ran. And ran. We knocked out six miles, and I ran the first 3.63 miles without stopping to walk. I am trying to increase my running distanced by .25 miles each time I do a workout. Then I walked for .52 miles before running the rest of the way back. The first few miles felt dramatically better than last time, but I feel like I faded more dramatically than last time as the miles wore on. Then again, six miles is the longest distance I've done since breaking my foot, and I was doing a faster mile time. In addition, the head wind was making me want to lie down on the pavement and cry.

All these things considered, the run actually went really well. I did an 11:57 mile average, fifteen seconds faster than last week, with a fastest mile time of 10:05, again 15 seconds faster than my previous best time. My 5k time was also the fastest since my injury.

It's not perfection, but it's definitely progress.