... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

1st Annual Hilo Triathlon

Almost 2 weeks later, and I'm finally getting this post finished! Life is too busy sometimes... Anyway on July 13th I did the first annual Hilo triathlon, the first triathlon on the east side of the island and my second Olympic distance race.

Bikes are ready: off to Hilo!
Because it was the first year of the Hilo Triathlon, it was somewhat of an X factor, with no one knowing what to expect from the course. The Hilo side of the island is much cooler and wetter than the west side where I usually train, and since I haven't spent any time in the ocean over there, I was completely unfamiliar with the water conditions. However, I was excited about this triathlon because I thought that a change in weather would be fun, and the scenery along the course is some of the most beautiful anywhere on the island.

I didn't do nearly as much self-reflection prior to this race as I have before races past. I also didn't do nearly as much freaking out. It feels like I am finally settling in to triathlon being a part of my life -- that the lack of reflection and freaking out was due to comfort level, not an indication of how important this race was to me. Having done my first Olympic distance race -- 1500m swim (.93-miles), 40k bike (24.8-miles), and 10k run (6.2-miles) -- in November before my office moved and my training habits went to shit, this race has been a beacon of hope for me getting back into shape and being ready for this kind of physical challenge. I haven't mentioned much about it because I keep meaning to write a post about nutrition, but since I restarted my training in May I have lost 14 pounds. I have also been putting some pretty intensive effort into my run technique and how often I run (another separate post I have all written in my head but haven't gotten typed out yet...), and I felt better, stronger, and I ready for this race than I did for the Lavaman in November. I was really looking forward to seeing how the experience compared.

The Inn at Kulaniapia Falls
We left for Hilo the morning before the race. Sean's parents and aunt and uncle were visiting, so we all stayed at my favorite hotel/inn/B&B on the island, the Inn at Kulaniapia Falls. I don't often go into endorsements, but if you are looking for wonderful, relaxing accomondations on the Hilo side and you don't mind being outside of "downtown" (and c'mon, it's Hilo. "Downtown" is mostly just a figure of speech), this is an amazing place. There are many different guest rooms as well as a small house you can rent and have all to yourself, a lush and relaxing bamboo garden, and, best of all, a 110-foot waterfall and natural pool that are open to guests of the inn only. I love it there, and it made for a great place to stay prior to the race. Nothing is better to soothe muscles than water from a natural waterfall pool.

Friday afternoon we went to packet pick up and attended the pre-race meeting, all of which were very well-organized. The water, however, struck fear into my heart. Far from Hapuna's glassy aquamarine, the ocean looked dark and angry. There were waves breaking and the water was gray and rough. Similar to the odd "this can't possibly be part of the course despite it being right in front of me and clearly the only option" response I had to the bike hill on the Keauhou triathlon course, I couldn't quite get myself to believe that this was truly the location of the swim. Sean and I (and seemingly all of the other participants) wandered over and asked some of the official-looking people who were finishing up the temporary dock that would serve as our starting point where we were swimming, and their answer -- a finger pointing straight out into the steel-colored waves -- was clear and concise enough. Okay then.
"Don't worry," said the man. "It's glassy like a lake in the mornings."

I have come to realize that sleeping the night before a race is nearly impossible, and that if you want rest, you'd better get it in the nights prior. Because I had done this, I didn't care that I woke up every half hour feeling like it must be time to get up and going, and when my alarm went off at 4:15 I was itching to start the preparations. I ate an oatmeal/chia seed combo with a little honey and coconut oil, which has become my go-to breakfast. (My eating habits have undergone some very weird changes in the past few months. My morning oatmeal started out as actual oatmeal with cow's milk, brown sugar, salt, and cinnamon, and has slowly morphed into what it is today: mostly chia seeds heated with a few steel-cut oats, then moistened with raw coconut oil, a dab of raw honey, and sprinkled with cinnamon. It looks really disgusting but it's actually quite delicious.) We double-checked our bags to make sure we had everything, then we were off to the start.

I love transition areas on the morning of the race. Part of it is the energy and excitement of the competitors, but more of it is the part where I unpack my bag, see that I did in fact remember everything I need, and stop worrying. I'm learning that if you've trained properly, the distance isn't what scares you; what scares you are the logistics, the minutiae, and the long list of things you might forget.

The wild waters (photo courtesy of David Cotter)
Ten minutes before the start, it started to rain. It was a soft, fine rain, more like a mist than actual droplets, but very effective at cooling you down. Unfortunately, since we were all in swim attire and it was 6:45am, it made us shiver instead. On the upside, the ocean, which was mixed with spring water coming up from its floor and thus icy cold in places, felt like a bath tub when we finally got to go in. I'm not going to lie, it looked terrifying. Far from the glassy lake look that was promised to me the previous afternoon, dark waves broke in our path and currents tugged at our feet as we treaded water waiting for the start. Camaraderie, luckily, was every bit as high as the waves. Nothing encourages bonding like fear!

I was relieved when the countdown came and we started swimming. I had been told to ride the current straight out and swim a little to the left of the finish on the way back in so that the waves could carry me a little, but other than that I knew that there was no strategizing my way through the surf. I was just going to have to swim, search for water-free breaths, and not allow myself to get freaked out. The hardest part of the first 300 meters or so were the pockets of spring water that were, for lack of a more proper description, fucking freezing. It was hard to keep my breath regular when the intermittent icy bursts hit my chest. The current did help on the way out, and it wasn't long before I hit the waves. It was a wild ride. Up up up the face of the wave I'd go, then doooowwwnnnn the back, like gliding over the surface of a mountain with no resistance. I looked up often to spot my destination, and each time I did I was mesmerized for a moment watching the swimmers ahead of me fly up the front of the waves and then disappear over the edge as they went down the back. With a little timing and careful observation, I managed to avoid taking too many mouthfuls of water, and eventually I made it past the surf break and into calmer waters.

I started passing red caps (men!) about 100m from the turnaround boat, which was encouraging for me. I had no idea what speed I was going through the waves relative to other swimmers until that point. It was really hard to see the boat in the choppy water, so I just followed people and hoped they knew what they were doing. We turned right at another buoy and were headed back to shore. I got into a pretty good rhythm at that point, and focused on staying pointed toward just left of the finish line. In a flash of brilliance, the race director had rented two of the inflatable "dancing guys" (often seen at car lots) and placed them at the finish so that the swimmers could see where they should be aiming. The whole "ride the waves in" idea worked like a charm -- perhaps a little too well, because suddenly I realized that I was about 25 feet from a bunch of rocks and the waves were crashing on my head. I got hammered several times as I tried in vain to swim back toward the finish and away from the scary rocks. Finally I seemed to be going in the right direction again, and it was only minutes until I reached the ramp.

Sean and I share the first transition
To my great surprise and happiness, I crawled up onto the stairs, looked at the person next to me, and it was Sean! (A small miracle given that we started 5 minutes apart and were by so many athletes). We got to high-five and run into the transition area together. I took my time and tried to get my head straight before getting on the bike, although I don't think it worked. I stuck with Sean for a mile or two, then he dropped me on the first hill. The first few miles on the bike felt good. I was feeling like maybe my post-swim bike haze problem had finally been conquered when things started to go south. The course is a beautiful out and back, bordered by lush greenery and lined with supportive people. It is also almost all uphill on the way out and all downhill on the way back. It was pouring at this point, making it difficult to see. There were tons of people getting flat tires, and I just prayed that my bike held up. About 9 miles in, I got my first cramp. Similar to the one I experienced at Keauhou but on the left side, it made it nearly impossible for me to pedal. My entire left butt and outer upper leg were useless. I massaged it, rubbed it, punched it, and downed electrolytes and food, to no avail. I started feeling weird: unfocused, wobbly, and a little sick, but forced myself to keep going, using just my right leg muscles to move the pedals. Finally, right before the turnaround, the cramp let go and I rejoiced that I could fly down the hill and make up time. Flying down hills, after all, is where my bike excels.

No such luck. As soon as I turned around, my right side cramped. Every pedal stroke was painful, so I basically coasted while punching my butt and leg, still trying to get more electrolytes into my system by chugging my drink. I felt horrible. I got passed four times on the way down the hill, which is super irritating because downhills are where I usually make up time. I was mentally foggy and out of it, and by the time I made it back into town I was wondering if I'd be able to do the run. It sounded impossible. I had been jockeying for position with one particular girl -- passing her, getting passed, passing her, getting passed -- and I was thrilled when she ended up ahead of me for the last four miles so that I could just follow her without having to think.

"Running! I love running!"
I hit the transition area and immediately searched for food. The real food that I had packed for myself (rice patties filled with peanut butter and banana) were too thick and intense for my iffy stomach. My brain only half working, I grabbed the gummy fuel squares that Sean hadn't eaten before heading out on the run. Thank God our bikes were racked next to each other so that I could steal his unwanted food! I know you're not really supposed to eat at the transitions, but I downed the entire package, then stumbled to my feet to head out on the run. I walked out of the transition area, still trying to get un-dizzy, and suddenly I was overcome by intense joy at being off the bike and able to move freely. I started running and everything got better. My head cleared (probably the nutrients hitting my bloodstream) and everything was okay again. I have never been so happy to be running!

The stride I've worked so hard on
The run course was a flat, scenic jaunt along the water. It was still pouring, which felt great, and there were aid stations every mile, allowing me to keep the electrolytes flowing. I felt surprisingly good. My goal at the beginning of the race had been to run the whole 6.2 miles without walking. During the bike leg, as I faded rapidly into a nutrient-deficient blob, that goal was downgraded to "just finish." When I felt the pure joy of running, however, I struck a bargain with myself. Just run the first three miles, then do whatever you need to do to finish. Somewhere in the first three miles, I re-passed my bike nemesis/friend. We exchanged a fond greeting and farewell. When I hit the 3-mile marker, I told myself "just run to the 4-mile point, then you can walk." I got to the 4-mile point and I told myself I just had to make it to the 5-mile point before I was allowed to walk. I reached the 5-mile marker, still running, I told myself "well you've made it 5 miles without walking and you only have 1 mile left, you can't stop running now!" And thus, I made it to the last .2-miles, still running.

When I looked at my watch and realized I had a chance to make it to the finish in under 3:05, I gathered all that I had left in me and picked up the pace. I crossed the finish line in 3:04:15.

The sky unleashed a downpour, but spirits were high under the tent at the finish line. We ate the great food that was provided, we laughed, we talked, and yet again got to enjoy the victorious post-race feeling. I placed 79th overall, and 6th out of 12 finishers in my division. Basically, middle of the pack. Interestingly, among the women, I was 33rd out of 71 on the swim, 28th out of 71 on the bike, and 36th out of 71 on the run. I would not have guessed that the bike was my most successful leg, given how awful I felt. I am incredibly pleased with my run, at the middle of the female pack, NOT the slowest in my division, and 9:45 average miles. This is improvement!

I also learned several things, the most important of which being that I need to reevaluate my fueling strategy. To feel that bad on the bike means that there was a significant lack of nutrition going on, so I'm going to have to work on that. Cramps on the bike two races in a row means I need more electrolytes early in bike leg or even prior to the start. I think I'll try drinking a sports drink in the morning before the race rather than just water, and I'll make sure to have both real food and the gummy chews available for myself because apparently my stomach is not consistent with what sounds good under duress.

Overall, I loved this race. I loved the community energy, I loved the course (even the wild swim!), and running in the rain felt wonderful. Finishing strong and accomplishing my goals helped too. As I always do after a triathlon, I'm a little sad it's over and I am looking forward to the next one!

Thank you to my mom, Donna, for listening with great enthusiasm as I talk endlessly about triathlons. Thank you to Sean, for working out with me and sharing this journey. Thank you to Steve, my new swim coach, whose tips are already making a difference. To my dad, whose memory inspires me and whose presence gets me through the tough times when I'm out there training and racing, to Cheryle Hirst for providing support (both emotional and food-based :) ), and to Chris Hirst and Kristy and Tim Evans for braving the rain to cheer us on at the finish. Thank you to Joe Wedeman and Hawaii Sport Magazine for my comp entry to this event, to Dr. Marko Reumann for my beautiful bike, and to DeSoto Sports for supplying my triathlon suit.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The King's Swim: Many Lessons and an Amusing Surprise

On July 5th I had my first venture into non-triathlon competitive swimming. The 20th annual King's Swim, held at Kailua Pier in Kona, is a 1.2-mile open water swim that I thought sounded fun. I knew I could swim the distance, but I had never gone quite that far without stopping for a breather, and I was determined to get through this course with no water-treading or float breaks. Having just become an official member of the Kona Aquatics Masters team (that's right, three pool workouts and they brought me over to the dark side), I was really looking forward to doing a swim surrounded by the people I have met in the past month and knowing that afterward, I do not have to immediately bike 25 miles.

There's me in the purple swim cap
There were approximately 280 participants. The check in and body marking was full of laughter, smiles, and the pre-race excitement that I have become addicted to and my new coach, Steve, was welcoming as always. For the $15 entry fee we got a really nice dri-fit T-shirt, which was a great surprise. We would later discover that it also included a wonderful banquet of potluck food that hit the spot after a long swim. Basically, I was impressed with the organization of this race.

At 7:55 we waded into the water and yet again I attempted to guess where on earth I might fit into this pack. I figured that these would be an even more serious subset of swimmers than what we see in triathlons, so I started a little farther back than what usually seems to work for me. I think my choice was pretty good. I got passed by several, I passed several. I got kicked a few times, et cetera, but felt pretty good with the speeds of those around me.

I have learned many things (including that my goggles are to tight
and make it look like I had horrifically botched plastic surgery...)
The course went out at an angle to the shore, through clear blue water, yellow coral, and plentiful fish. The conditions were good and I was able to employ the corrections that Coach Steve has given me throughout the majority of the race. Head down, head down, head down. I tried to keep my stroke long, stretching my arms, abs, and obliques and focusing on the water rushing over me, which for whatever reason seems to illicit a smoother stroke for me. About a third of the way in, just before the turnaround, I really started to feel my fatigue. I kept reminding myself that I am definitely capable of completing the distance, but that I just needed to stay patient, not focus on going fast or where I was in the pack, and not think about how much further I had to go. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming... head down! Just keep swimming... When we reached the boat that marked the halfway point and turnaround, something re-set and the way back in felt much smoother and I didn't feel as tired or tense. I can't say that I'm very familiar with the currents in that area, so that may have had something to do with it.

Making the (possibly inappropriate) pass at the finish
Anyway, I kept swimming and before I knew it I was getting close to the buoys marking the channel to the finish. At the pre-race meeting it had been repeatedly stressed that we must swim between the buoys because of shallow water outside of the channel, but when I got closer I couldn't tell how to do that because of the angle of my line of sight. I had to rely on following people, and somehow I ended up taking the turn a little wide. When I realized my trajectory was off and cut inward, I saw that somehow in the confusion I had passed a large group of swimmers who I had been struggling to catch from the halfway point. Bolstered by this development (and realizing that they were right on my tail and I was about to get absorbed into the mass of kicking legs and flailing arms), I swam with all my might toward the sandy shore.
When I made it to the sand, I stood up, placed my hands on my knees and stood still to make sure I had my balance and wasn't going to topple over, then ran past someone on my way up to the finish line. I'm not sure of the etiquette of swim races... my passing someone on the run to the finish either demonstrated a healthy sense of competition or the fact that I'm a douchbag.

Anyway, somewhat comically, I actually placed third in my age group! Granted, there were only 5 people in my age group and I came in 204th overall, but it still felt pretty good to get my awesome King's Swim mug and hear my new coach say "Crystal! You placed!" as I went up to get it at the awards ceremony. It was such a foreign idea that I got really excited. I am used to being the worst at running, so being moderately okay at swimming was a nice change. After a year and a half of very humbling triathlon training, I have learned to push through the tough times and really enjoy each accomplishment, and laugh frequently. Placing in my age group allowed me to both enjoy an accomplishment and laugh at the absurdity of it. Plus, I really like my mug. 

The King's Swim was a great experience, one that I'm glad I did despite it being new territory. It motivated me to keep improving on my swim, and it made me proud to be a part of the vibrant West Hawaii swimming community. We are so lucky to have such beautiful ocean to swim in and such an enthusiastic and talented group of people who are excited about it. And, like always, the new experience was one that I will treasure.