... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

King's Swim and Big Island Marathon Entries

I'm really excited, and a little scared, to share that I've signed up for my first marathon! 

I've thought about doing half marathons before, and obviously an Ironman contains a full marathon so I knew that one was in my future somewhere down the line, but I hadn't really actively considered pursuing one until I was offered a comp entry for the Big Island Marathon in Hilo. The race is in March of next year, so I have almost 9 months to coerce and cajole my body into the kind of shape it will have to be in to make it through something of that magnitude, and I am excited at the prospect of really focusing on my running, which will in turn have very positive effects on my triathlon performance as a whole. Since I plan on doing Honu, the half-Ironman next June, I think it will be a big confidence/fitness booster to have a full marathon under my belt before that time.

Never, ever in a million years would I have thought this moment was possible if you had asked me about it three years ago. I probably would have laughed at you and called you insane. But then again, I never would have imagined that after finishing a 4.5-mile run the words "wow, I love running!" would ever enter my mind, which they did at the end of my training last night. It's amazing how things change and evolve. I swear, stick with something long enough and your entire outlook might change!

I am also signing up for the King's Swim, a 1.2-mile open water swim weekend after next that starts from Kailua Pier. I have heard about this swim because it's well-known here, with hundreds of people participating, but I didn't really know when it was or any of the details. Since I started going to the coached sessions at the pool, though, I found out that it is organized by none other than Steve Borowski, the coach. The registration sheets were sitting next to the pool, tempting me, so I figured why not. It will be the longest I've swam in a race, but I have done over that distance several times in training (in the ocean) so I think it will be a good challenge. I'm also looking forward to doing a swim race in which I do not have to jump directly onto a bicycle when I come out of the water!

Speaking of swimming, I got my first corrections from Coach Steve when I went on Monday, and found out that my head position was much too high in the water. This is why getting some feedback is so valuable: I knew from what I've read that your head is supposed to sit low in the water, in line with your body, but I thought that mine was in that position. Only an outside perspective could tell me that no, my head was bobbing up like a buoy. I immediately went to work attempting to fix it, and although tucking my head downward felt really bizarre and I swallowed some water trying to re-discover the sweet spot to breathe, he said that it was much better. He also switched me back to breathing every stroke, which is ironic because I just figured out how to bilateral breathe three weeks ago. That's fine, I'm happy to save that one for emergencies only (aka waves crashing over my good breathing side). It was really, really good to get some input and it made me hungry for more. I love learning new things. I also felt like I made some progress keeping track of the workout he assigned; I actually counted the laps and knew when to stop between sets. Small steps, small steps...

So, three races on the horizon, two of those within the next three weeks! It's going to be an exciting time and I'm looking forward to keeping my training going strong after a few days rest post-Hilo tri. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Chlorinated Adventures: My First Pool Workout!

I'm scared of the pool.

It sounds stupid, and it's funny to talk about my first swim in a pool after a year and a half of training since most people learn to swim in a pool, then take nervous baby steps into the ocean. Twice now I've encountered people who swim regularly at the gym but have been too scared to join me in the ocean, yet somehow, I ended up completely backwards in this situation: comfortable in the ocean, swimming three times per week, yet completely terrified of the pool.

I met Steve Borowski at least four months ago. He mentioned that he is a swim coach, that he runs a masters training group in the mornings, and that I should come. Once I looked him up, I knew he was right. Recently inducted into the Hawaii Waterman Hall of Fame, he has held multiple world records, coached Olympians and pro triathletes, and somehow still teaches normal people like me four days a week. Since my swim technique has been built solely on reading articles and watching YouTube videos, I know there is vast, vast room for improvement and what better opportunity is there than to get advice from someone with such an amazing resume?

The idea simmered in my mind for a few months, but I was overwhelmed with school, work, and commuting and couldn't fathom trying to fit another activity into my schedule. I also couldn't imagine getting myself out of bed at 4:45am and out of the house by 5am, which is what it takes to get to Kona by 6:15 when the group starts. As I have re-progressed in training and my morning workouts have gotten longer and longer, however, my wake-up time has progressed with it, and I'm currently getting up at 4:50 four days per week anyway. So when I got a little over-zealous on my bike on Sunday and irritated a muscle in my calf (still not sure how I managed to do that on the bike rather than the run, but whatever) I figured this would be a perfect week to focus on swimming and make it happen.

Once I had the idea in my head, I realized that while it sounded great in theory, I was about to expose all of my inexperience and lack of preparation to a pool full of serious swimmers. Out all alone in the ocean at 6am no one has to know that I still don't own a real training suit and still swim in a bikini, that I don't know how to turn at a wall, or that when I read about swim workouts I had no idea what the ____by_____ format ("4 by 100," "6 by 200," etc.) meant. Yes, there are currents and waves and sharks and jellyfish but it is quiet and beautiful and the motion rocks me into relaxation like a baby. I love the ocean.

Makeshift workout suit
Knowing that I couldn't show up in my faithful string bikini but unwilling to buy a $100 workout suit without shopping around a little, I did the next best thing: I went to Target and picked out the cheapest, most non-frilly-looking bathing suit bottom I could find and hoped that it could masquerade as an athletic swim bottom. (It couldn't). Next step was to have Sean, who was on swim team in high school, explain the whole mysterious ___x____ workout thing to me. And finally, I got everything ready and together so that when I awoke in the morning I wouldn't have to do anything but grab and go. I slept fitfully, waking often to tense, anxious thoughts about lanes and intimidating swimmers making fun of me, and weird pool water, sans ocean salt, that I would sink hopelessly in. Yeah, I was seriously that nervous.

I almost talked myself out of it several times. It has been quite a while since something in triathlon scared me as much as this and made me so uncomfortable. In fact, because triathlon has made me so much more willing to take on uncertainty in all parts of life with a certain amount of pleasure, it has been quite a while since anything has made me so uncomfortable. Once I realized this, however, I knew I had to go, because if I've learned anything in the past year and a half it is that facing down the things that scare you is one of the sport's greatest gifts.

When my alarm went off at 4:45, I was resigned to my fate. The sunrise drive was beautiful, and by the time I reached Kona I was prepared for whatever. I knew I'd be out of my league, but I was ready to just have fun and learn. I certainly have no illusions at this point about taking myself too seriously.

Beautiful morning for a first pool swim!
My first surprise was that the pool is outdoors. I don't know why I was thinking a pool in Hawaii would be indoors, but I felt much more at ease in the open air. There were a lot of people, approximately 35-40, which also put me at ease because I knew I wouldn't be on display. I did, however, quickly notice that I was the only woman wearing a two-piece suit. Guess I'll have to work on that. Everyone started getting into lanes, which at first I thought were randomly assigned. Thank goodness I didn't just pick a lane and go for it, because I would have gotten run over by some of the fastest swimmers in the world. By a stroke of luck and good judgment, I found Coach Steve and he showed me which one was the "fun" lane and deposited me there. At the end he walked me along the lanes, pointing out Bree Wee (pro triathlete), the girl who just won Honu, the fastest man over age 65, and various other athletes whose names I know. Plenty of inspiration there, and perfectly spaced several lanes away so that they remain inspiring rather than intimidating.

Workouts were assigned by lane. To be honest, I don't even remember what ours was because I knew I'd never be able to keep track of how many laps I was swimming because I'd be too busy focusing on not being a total spaz in the pool. Everyone was really, really nice and gave me the run down of which corner to go to to rest, what to do if someone needed to pass me, etc. And then, we swam.

It was a really interesting experience. The taste of non-salt water in my mouth was bizarre, and the 25-yards, turn, 25-yards, turn format was very different than the long haul alone in the ocean feel that I'm so used to. Having other swimmers around me didn't feel as foreign as I thought it would because it fit with the pool atmosphere, and within a couple of minutes the whole environment felt pretty natural. It was definitely not the terrifying nightmare I had imagined. I tried to focus on swimming in the same manner as I do at Hapuna: slow and steady with a little faster burst now and then. Speed-wise, I fit in fine.

I didn't expect much by way of instruction because there were so many people, so I was really pleasantly surprised by how effective the coach was at giving personal notes to every single person in the pool, me included. He came to talk to me three times, and from what I could see this was consistent with everyone. Very impressive. Because he knew I was nervous, he abstained from any corrections, but did mention that he has several notes in mind for me for next time that should help to make my swimming more efficient. Being me, I am really looking forward to getting some feedback and corrections so that I can improve. I think ballerinas are prone to perfectionism, and since we are so used to getting physical corrections, this type of critique is something we come to desire. And, since the swim is the only part of the triathlon that I am naturally decent at, I would love to get a little faster and start myself off with a little more of a head start on the run-prodigies who will inevitably mow me down.

Overall, it was a great experience. Although I'm not really a group workout kind of person, it was fun to be around so many people excited about the same thing and full of energy. In addition, it was oddly beautiful to stop for a moment and look down the lanes, seeing and hearing so many people swimming in perfect lines. The laps really break up the swim, making time go by more quickly. I swam 48 minutes versus the 30 I usually do in the ocean and didn't really feel much of a difference fatigue-wise, although I notice it did make me ravenously hungry. I see now why people work out in pools, because it definitely lengthens the distances and amounts of time you can swim without current and waves to tire you out and mess with your technique. I think it will be a valuable thing to integrate into my swim workout regimen (although I'll still be going to Hapuna two time a week to swim as well. I just love the ocean.)

And, once again, I am grateful to triathlon for teaching me to find pleasure in facing my fears rather than trying to avoid them. It has been so long since I felt so inadequate--probably since I very first tried to swim at Waikiki and couldn't even make it 25 meters. It was a familiar and welcome feeling to feel that twinge of nervousness in my gut, to know that I was vastly unprepared, yet know that by taking the first step I was moving toward a day when I will inevitably feel comfortable in yet another new situation. It is so empowering.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Why Ballerinas Should Run: Making a Case Against Everything I've Ever Been Told

When I decided a year and a half ago that I was going to do a triathlon, my fears were different than many multisport athletes'. Although I hadn't attempted freestyle stroke since I was 5 and I didn't own a bike helmet, I knew that with training, the swim and the bike would come to me. The thing that worried me was running, and the reason is right there in the title of this blog.

You see, ballerinas don't run.

This is hammered into our heads from the time we are little. Our teachers tell us, our peers tell us, our mentors tell us. There are several reasons that ballerinas have been discouraged from running. In fact, if you Google "ballerinas running okay" you will come up with a whole preponderance of articles discussing the topic. The tide seems to be changing a little, with more people whispering that maybe a 5k now and then won't actually make your ballet skills immediately shrivel and die, but there is still a lot of resistance floating around in the dance community. Anyhow, here is what I was told growing up:

Flexibility at work.
1. It builds the wrong muscles.
In theory, ballet muscles are very specialized, and in order for them to be strong, you don't want other, larger muscles taking over. If you run, you build up these "other" muscles, which will interfere with your "ballet muscles." (In-group out-group shaming at its finest).

2. It promotes heavy movement.
Ballerinas are supposed to be light and airy and look like they're flying. Running's repetitive pavement pounding will rob you of your light aesthetic and make you look like you're dancing while carrying 100 lbs. of cement.

3. You will lose your flexibility and turn out.
Running tightens up your hamstrings, quads, calves, and back, and you will lose all of your Gumby-like flexibility, being left with reduced range of motion. Building muscles with your legs turned in (rather than turned out, the aesthetic of ballet) will reduce your ability to turn out from the hip and ultimately harm your technique.

4. Injuries.
You will get injured and will never be able to do ballet again. If you go running, you might die.

5. All that aerobic training will ruin your anaerobic fitness.
You won't be able to do the relatively short but very intense bursts of activity required for ballet class and performance because your fitness will have transitioned to aerobic only.

6. You will get BIG.
The most important message of all: If you run, you will develop huge man muscles and you will no longer look dainty and nymph-like. Company directors will scorn you, Balanchine will roll over in his grave, etc.

When I decided to start doing triathlon, these warnings played and replayed in my head. I didn't want to get hurt or turn into The Incredible Hulk, and even though I'm no longer dancing seriously, I didn't want to affect my ability to go to a ballet class and dance well. I decided that it would be worth it to at least do one tri since it's something I'd always found intriguing, and if new leg muscles somehow began to interfere with my life (... my God, how ridiculous) I would just stop.

Since I was semi-out of shape when I began the triathlon training, nothing on me got bigger. Everything got smaller and more toned. After eight months of training, I found a new ballet teacher and took my first ballet class in over a year. In the past, going this long without a class has meant that my extensions (how high I can lift and hold my leg in the air to the front, side, and back) are pathetic, my legs feel heavy, and my jumps feel like I can't get more than a few inches off the ground. I was ready to be weak and lame. Imagine my surprise, then, when I went to my first class and my legs soared easily upward, my jumps felt like I was flying, and there was no loss in flexibility whatsoever. I was amazed.

Because of this experience, I would like to respond to what I've been told my whole life and perhaps shed light on why running may actually be exactly what ballerinas should be doing.

1. It builds muscles that complement ballet muscles.
While it is true that running and ballet use different muscles, cross-training can provide support for the muscles integral to ballet movements, giving you more stability. Increased stability reduces fatigue in the working ballet muscles. In addition, building running muscles greatly improve your jumps and your explosiveness as well as keeping your extensions high.

2. Increased musculature allows for better jumps and an overall lighter aesthetic.
Prima ballerina and Balanchine muse Gelsey Kirkland once wrote that in order to achieve a light appearance, dancers should try to feel heavy, as if they are constantly pushing against the floor with all their might. While the conventional wisdom says that running makes your dancing appear heavy, you can use your new muscles, especially those in the booty and upper legs, to push against the floor and fly like the lightest of all Balanchine's nymphs.

I think my back flexibility is doing okay...
3. All of these new complementary supporting muscles can actually improve your turn out and avoid injury caused by twisting while forcing turn out from the knees. Your feet will even get stronger. If you're a serious dancer, just make sure that you and concentrate on rolling through your foot while running and do arch-strengthening exercises to maintain your arch height. In addition, as long as you stretch regularly after running, flexibility shouldn't be affected. I haven't noticed any deficits developing.

 4. Injury prevention.
Running isn't the only activity that causes overuse injuries. A shockingly high percentage of ballerinas are taken down by acute and chronic use-related injuries each year, and while it's true that running carries some risk (like any sport), building those stabilizer muscles I mentioned above can actually drastically cut your risk of ballet injury.
My kryptonite in ballet was an unstable knee cap, which, due to a muscle imbalance, started tracking sideways instead of upward when I straightened my knee, causing extreme pain as it rubbed on the tendon next to it. I did physical therapy, took time off, nothing helped. That is, until I started running. Running has strengthened the opposing muscle, which can now hold my knee cap on the correct track, eliminating the problem completely. I hate to admit it, but running was the solution to my ballet injury.
As long as you build your mileage up slowly and learn to run with proper form, the risk/benefit ratio is decidedly in favor of running.

5. Aerobic and anaerobic fitness are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
There are plenty of dances in which aerobic fitness can be a major benefit. As long as you are also doing ballet on a regular basis, you will not lose your ability to dance in intense segments. Improving one type does not have to harm the other.

Tell me again how runners have such bulky body types?
6. Endurance runners and ballerinas actually have very similar body types.
The whole myth that if you run you will develop legs like Godzilla is just stupid. If you do direct comparisons of endurance runners to ballerinas, their overall shape is not so different. Strong, tiny arms, strong abs, lean, muscular legs, etc. Add to this that running may help dancers take off a couple of pounds, and the body type paranoia just becomes ridiculous. If you're looking at a professional sprinting career, you may have some concerns, but otherwise, the fear is unfounded.

So what is a ballerina to do?

Well, start slow. Start with a couple of short runs each week at an easy, comfortable pace. Ballerinas have a great head start because we are used to being hyper-aware of our body positioning. Educate yourself on proper running form: use your good ballet posture to "pull up" and out of your hips while you run, make a conscious effort to use a midfoot or forefoot strike rather than a heel strike, run with a quick, light stride, try to maximize forward motion rather than bouncing, and don't overstride. Read all you can about  running form so that you can maximize benefits and minimize risk. Just like in ballet class, be aware of each part of your body -- its angles, position, and which muscles you are using. Increase your distances very, very slowly. Most importantly, enjoy!

Running can offer ballerinas a great way to get outside, use their bodies in a new way, and enjoy a new challenge. My experience has been so freeing and empowering, and my dancing is better for it. So get out there, because ballerinas should run!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Triathlon Birthday Weekend

The last week I felt a little inertia in getting going again after the Training Tri. I took the Monday afterward off, then sort of restarted on Tuesday with a very short run on the beach before work. I also solved the mystery of why all of the swims I've done have felt longer than I thought they should: Hapuna is not a half-mile long like all the tourism website insist it is. According to my GPS, it is barely squeaking in at .4-miles, maybe even more like .39. Damn. Maybe it was better just not knowing.

My work schedule was switched around because of Memorial Day and the doctor I work for being gone for a day, so my normal workout schedule got flipped around a little, too. It was kind of a weird week, overall. On Wednesday I swam, Thursday I re-ran the course from the Training Tri, this time running the whole thing instead of walking up the hills, which felt good. Friday I was off work, so I did a fairly easy 20-mile bike, which did not feel easy at all because of some nasty wind. Saturday I did a 50-minute hill run, which I was really excited about because I felt fast and awesome, at least until I measured the distance and realized I was averaging almost 13-minute miles. Again, damn.

Saturday was Honu. I couldn't figure out at first why there were twenty people in the water with me during my swim the Thursday before until I realized this. Once they put the buoys out to mark the swim course (Friday), it was really cool and slightly intimidating to see. The half Ironman distance starting at Hapuna Beach going all the way up to Hawi and back to finish at the Fairmont Orchid hotel was, for the second time, fun to watch. Although I had been really disappointed that I didn't sign up in time, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise because I know that I would not have been in my best shape for it this year and the outcome would have been disappointing. This year I have money set aside and I am ready to register the day the 2015 registration opens, and I will be able to really dedicate the right amount of time to training so that my first half Ironman can be a success. It was inspirational to watch the athletes tame the tough course, and it was fun this year to actually know some people in the race (congratulations to Helgi Olafson and Jason Nixon!)

Creepy birthday beach
The week after an Ironman event on this island is like January 1st everywhere else in the country. Full of resolutions and freshly inspired to transform their flab into muscles and grit, people flock to the ocean, roads, and their bicycles, optimistic but wholly unprepared. My morning swim, during which I am always the only person in the water, is practically crowded with people who are notably awkward getting in and out of the ocean. I watched a girl in spotless new dri-fit and spandex struggle to get started with her clipless pedals, fall over three times, then give up and forlornly walk her new bike up the hill. I sympathize, because I have been there oh so many times, but I also take my trial and error history as a pass to giggle a little under my breath. Because, you know, I'm laughing with them. Sort of.

Monday was my birthday, and again I started my day with a swim. When I got down to the beach, I was almost intimidated away because the water looked strange, like either a storm was coming in or one had just passed. The usually glassy water was churned, the beach was wet much further up than usual and covered in sediment, as if the ocean had been recently angered, and the sky was dark. There were two people in the water, however, so I ignored my wavering confidence and waded in.

It was only minutes into my swim that I saw the manta ray, hovering on the surface. It was about 40 feet away, and although I immediately tried to swim toward it, it disappeared and didn't resurface. Oh well, I thought, and kept swimming. I did about a third of a mile, then turned around and headed back. Suddenly something told me to stop and look around, so I did, and there it was again: a beautiful, huge, 6-foot manta ray on the surface just 5-10 feet from me. Oh, how I wish I carried an underwater camera with me. I immediately dove down and swam toward him. He didn't move. He hovered there, slowly moving his gorgeous fins with perfect grace. For five minutes I floated next to him, admiring him and thanking the ocean for this wonderful birthday gift, before he swam gently away into the blue.

Yet again, triathlon gave me something beautiful. It never fails.