... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

My Experience With Juice Cleansing

There's a lot of conflicting information and perhaps an even wider range of opinions about anything related to health, and the idea of juice cleanses is hotly debated. Some say they are just a scam made up by companies hoping to sell juicers and pre-bottled "miracle" cleanses, some people swear that they are a life-changing detoxifying experience that everyone should experience to have a healthy mind and body.

I land somewhere in the middle. I think that there is some value to flooding your body with micronutrients and antioxidants and giving it a break from all of the unnatural and processed crap most Americans put into it on a daily basis. I am a little concerned about lack of protein, amino acids, and insoluble fiber, and about slowing down my metabolism. Ideally, everyone should just eat primarily vegetables, fruits, and nuts supplemented with lean protein and whole grains, but that's easier said than done in the modern world so if people need a juice cleanse to change their habits then so be it.

My personal motivation for doing a cleanse has several levels. First, I did a (non-juice) cleanse back in 2004 where I eliminated wheat, corn, sugar and sweeteners, cow's milk, eggs, and meat for 3 weeks because I had been getting sick (common cold type illnesses) nearly every month and I was curious to see if it would change anything. After finishing the cleanse, I didn't get sick again for almost 2 years, which made me think that perhaps there is a little something to the whole idea. Second, I have long-standing digestive issues which seem to be particularly sensitive to starchy and processed foods and I'm hoping to "flush" and heal my system.

And third (and most immediate), I have been dealing with a minor skin issue on my fingers for almost a year where my fingertips are dry and cracked, which they think is due to a sensitivity to something I'm touching. To combat this, I was prescribed a topical steroid cream. No warnings were given by the dermatologist who prescribed it, so I have been using it off and on for the past year with little restriction. What was left out at the time of my prescription was that you should never use a steroid cream for longer than a couple of weeks at a time and never ever let it touch your face, Given that the instructions were to put it on my hands before going to sleep, you would think that mentioning to keep it away from my face might have been relevant, but nothing was said. What I found out the hard way is that long term topical steroid use and face contact can cause steroid-induced perioral dermatitis, a humiliating, angry rash that encircles your mouth and looks like a mustache and beard made of fire. There are lots of tiny pimple-like bumps and the skin between them turns bright red and it feels like your face has been rubbed in fiberglass. Because it happens as a dependency, the second you stop the steroid cream it goes absolutely insane, and such was the case with me. For a week my face felt like it was on fire, and of course to add to your shame it is sensitive to makeup, so you are forced to face the world with no way to hide your horrific affliction. I started taking the prescribed course of low-dose anti-inflammatory antibiotics (Oracea) and using Elidel, a non-steroidal topical cream, but I also wanted to see if juicing could calm the inflammatory process that was wreaking havoc on my skin.

I'm including my juicing journey on this blog because it relates to health and my body, which I believe to be relevant to my triathlon training journey. In addition, I've been forbidden from exercising for a couple of weeks because that, too, can stir up inflammation and so I have nothing else to write about. So here goes, my day-by-day experience.

Day T-minus-2:
Kitty's ready to juice
I started out by slowly introducing juice into my diet. I had juice for breakfast and ate a normal lunch and dinner. I juiced whatever I had around the house: cucumber, carrot, beets, and some lettuce -- basically I had a juiced salad. It tasted very neutral, not bad. Nothing too noticeable about this day. I went to the grocery store and grabbed a few veggies to hold me over until I could make a Costco trip. Because it was Sunday and I had to work the next day, I made the juices for the next day and bottled them in glass bottles so that I could bring them easily to work. Clean up was somewhat of a pain -- not so much the juicer itself, but the piles of vegetables, the cutting boards, the wayward drops of juice, etc. My kitchen looked like a hurricane hit it.

Day T-minus-1:
With one day before beginning the full cleanse, I had green juice for breakfast (cucumbers, cilantro, zucchini, apple, pear, and peppers) and red/brown juice (Beets, carrots, red grapes, ginger, and spinach) for lunch, and as a farewell to solid food I had a chile verde burrito for dinner. I stopped at Costco on my way home and loaded up my cart with what felt like their entire produce section. It cost $130 for what was meant to be a week's worth of juice for two people (my fiance and I). They didn't have cucumbers, kale, or cilantro, so those came at additional cost the next day. Still, it wasn't significantly different than what we spend for groceries per week with normal food (we live in Hawaii, it's expensive.) I was feeling optimistic. I made the same juices for the next day and put the bottles in the fridge. Clean up was still a pain.

Day 1:
The official beginning of my cleanse! Juice as breakfast felt pretty normal. It didn't taste great, but I didn't miss having an actual "meal." I sipped on the green juice all morning so it was finished before lunch, when I switched to the red/brown juice. Not eating lunch felt a little weirder. It wasn't that I was hungry, per say, just that it felt bizarre not to eat. As the afternoon wore on it just got more strange. The body's instinct to eat is very, very strong and it works hard to get food into your mouth. It was so intense that a couple of times I actually had food in my hand before I remembered that I wasn't supposed to eat it. My brain tricked me, bringing up thoughts of plenty of healthy food options that I could normally eat without a second thought and it wasn't until the last second that my consciousness kicked in and reminded me that if it wasn't juice, it wasn't happening. I wasn't hungry, it just felt wrong not to eat. As I scoured my memory, I couldn't come up with a single time in my life when I had gone a day without eating something, That seems amazing to me.
With a lot of mental reminders and about a billion thoughts about food, I made it through the rest of the day and back home. I got home late because I had to stop at the store to get the cucumbers, kale, and cilantro, so I didn't have much time between getting home and going to bed. It took me almost 2 hours to clean my jars, juice my "dinner," juice 2 different kinds of juice for the next day, bottle them, and clean everything up again. I went to bed not hungry but annoyed with the whole process.

Day 2:
The pattern continued and got more intense. In the morning, I felt motivated and ready, but by afternoon I was frustrated and all I could think about was food, no matter how full I felt. My lunch juice was so gross, I could hardly keep it down without gagging. I had thrown in a huge variety of ingredients, and somewhere along the line something hadn't "juiced" very well and was catching in my mouth in the form of pulp and little bits of leaves that made me gag. I actually googled "juice cleanse gross" to try and find someone, somewhere who had shared in my misery. To add to my disgust, my tongue was coated in white and my mouth felt raw, presumably because of all the acid in the juices.
Green juice!
I got home and begrudgingly went through my routine of juicing dinner, then juicing for the next day. I remembered how full and clogged with pulp the juicer had looked before juicing my last juice (the disgusting lunch juice) the night before and wondered if that had contributed to the amount of sediment I'd had to choke down. Because of this, I cleaned out the excess pulp before making the third juice, and it made a dramatic difference. It was juice again rather than sludge. A tiny sliver of optimism...

Day 3:
I weighed myself for the first time since the Day T-minus-3 and found that I had lost 4 pounds. I felt conflicted -- happy to be a little lighter, worried that it wasn't healthy weight loss. After all, I'm not doing this for weight loss. My mouth still felt raw and coated. My office ordered lunch for everyone and I had to leave the building to escape the wonderful smells. It was horribly depressing, until (in get another desperate google search) I found that I was allowed to drink coconut water. I immediately went to a natural food store and bought the biggest carton I could find. It tasted like cake, like ice cream, like heaven. I drank my fill of that before returning to the office. The texture of my juice was better with the between-juices-juicer-rinse but the flavor was still disgusting, if I'm being totally honest. I began wondering if I would have more success with themed juices... maybe that would eliminate the "brown sludge" effect. My first experiment, for dinner that night, was watermelon gazpacho juice, made from watermelon, tomato, yellow peppers, one carrot, mint and cilantro. It tasted great and I was encouraged. I vowed to use color-coordinated ingredients so that they were appetizing instead of brown. I made my next-day juices accordingly, a beautiful vibrant green and a beautiful vibrant red.
I was feeling better about the whole process, even though I had developed a huge, angry zit on my cheek. Apparently this is normal at the beginning of a cleansing process.

Day 4:
Despite the pretty colors, the juices (pear, apple, spinach, celery, cucumber, and peppers for green and watermelon, tomato, beets, carrots, and plums for red) were still disgusting and still made me gag as I tried to get them down. My sense of smell seems to be on overdrive and everything smells like vegetable juice. Although I didn't have any of the headaches, dizziness, or energy depletion problems that some people describe during the first days of juicing, I was not enjoying my experience at all. I didn't feel any different, I didn't feel like there was a transformation happening, nothing... I was having a lot of trouble drinking enough water because my stomach felt constantly full and sloshy. My fiance, who was back on solid food, had pasta with tomato sauce that night and after obsessively smelling his food, I decided to make myself a juice version for dinner: tomatoes, carrots, celery, garlic, peppers, basil, and parsley. The first bite was delicious, and the rest of the twenty ounces of raw, cold, watery tomato saucey flavor was the worst thing I've ever forced myself to consume.

Juices ready to come to work with me
On the upside, my face was getting significantly better. It was less inflamed, and although the bumps were still there the skin between them was no longer red. Because of this, and my pure, stubborn nature, I kept going.

Day 5:
I decided to see if mixing fewer flavors together might improve the taste of the juices. I had also realized that tomato juice and watermelon juice are just not something I can enjoy. For breakfast I had green juice of just cucumber, cilantro, zucchini, apples, and spinach. It was better. The lunch juice was simple carrot and beet, and dinner was peppers, carrots, peach, and yellow beets. This was seeming more promising. I didn't feel quite so frustrated, although my mouth still felt awful. I also noticed that I was sleeping a little more soundly and that my hair seemed softer than usual.

Day 6:
Encouraged by my success with simplifying my juices (also easing the clean up aspect), I realized that I don't really enjoy vegetable juices mixed with a lot of sweet fruit juice. For whatever reason, it just grosses me out, so I changed my approach: vegetable only juices for the majority of my meals, with a small glass of pure fruit juice twice a day. This was so much better for me mentally - deal with the mediocre vegetable juice and then really, really enjoy apple juice or -- my best discovery yet -- the deliciously textured creamy peach concoction that results from juicing a ripe peach by itself. I still felt about the same... not bad, but certainly not "transformed" as so many converts claim, and I was on the fence about how long I wanted to keep going. Also, my body had started putting off a weird, vegetable-esque scent whenever I sweated, so that was a little weird. Not crazy about that.

Day 7:
I had promised myself at least a week, so this was an important day. I ignored the doctor's advice and swam in the ocean. I figured if I had my face submerged in cold water the whole time, exercising couldn't cause that much inflammation! I weighed myself again and had lost another 3 pounds for a total of 7 pounds. I wasn't overweight to begin with, so that's a pretty significant weight loss (whether that is good or bad I will leave open to interpretation.) I had planned on this being the last day since I wasn't really seeing any drastic changes or results, but this was the day when my intestines started gurgling and moving so I got curious about what was going on. The mouth coating had finally gone away, I was sleeping really well, and my outlook felt more positive than it had all week, so I decided to keep going. I must admit that my stomach felt light and clean like it hasn't for a while. My office ordered lunch again and I had no problem saying no. I picked up a few more vegetables (so many cucumbers!) and headed home, telling myself I'd just do one more day and be done with it. I also decided that the green juice was a little to bland and bitter with no fruit, so I found middle ground: half a pear added in made it perfect.

Day 8:
The skin on my face was almost completely healed and I'd been able to wean the topical cream down to once a day without any problem, which I was pretty excited about. The gurgling and such finally culminated in an, um, "elimination" that seemed to include things other than what I'd been juicing, so I was pleased and take that to mean that there was in fact some stuff that had accumulated in my intestines that could stand to be flushed out. I felt vindicated for this whole juicing thing and hope that it will translate into some improvement in my digestion. Thank goodness for that, because other than that, this day was a disaster. I had been excited to try a cold-pressed juice shop in town so I planned on that for lunch, but when I got there, it was closed for no apparent reason. I went to every hippy-ish cafe I could think of, but none had fresh juice. I was 30 minutes from my house and my juicer. I finally went to the natural food store and discovered that they had fresh carrot juice and fresh, fruit only smoothies. I got a small smoothie and a 14-oz. carrot juice and mixed them together. Close enough, I guess. I had planned on starting on vegetable broth that night, but I figured that since I went to such lengths to stay on juice for lunch I may as well finish out the day.

Day 9:
To be honest, this has gotten pretty easy. I see why, at days 8-10, people decide to just keep going for a while. Do I feel some profound transformation? No, I don't. I'm going to be straightforward here. But I do feel good, normal good, like when I eat normal clean food. Mentally clear, energetic, and I really do think my hair is softer and my skin is starting to look really good. However, it hasn't been some big life-changing experience, because I have the same feelings when I eat vegetables, fruits, and nuts supplemented with lean protein and whole grains. I feel even better when I'm exercising regularly, which I'm ready to start doing again. I think the only thing I feel that is unique to a juice fast is the feeling of clear, "flushed" intestines, and that is pretty awesome after years of trouble. My food cravings are also completely gone and either by my recipe tinkering or taste bud changes, the juice actually tastes pretty good to me now.
I will be slowly re-introducing solids to my system over the next few days, with lots of mild, easily digestible food and plenty of soups.

I couldn't bear to take a photo at its worst - this is 2 days
after it started healing (day 3 of juicing) compared to today.
So what did I learn?

Well, I learned a lot about the technicalities of juicing, mixing flavors, and the logistics of what it takes to do something like this. I learned that it certainly does feel beneficial, at least to me, to clear your stomach and digestive system of processed food for a little while. I learned that I still fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between "juicing is just a scam" and "juicing is the answer to everything."

I think that for someone who eats a regular diet of unhealthy food and doesn't exercise, this could be the incredible, life-changing experience that so many people talk about. I know how I feel when I eat junk food on a regular basis, and it makes me feel mentally foggy, tired, lethargic, bloated, and heavy. Going directly from that to this would truly be a revelation. However, because I regularly eat a ton of vegetables, fruits, and healthy foods and limit my "indulgence" food to a minimum for the vast majority of the time, the experience wasn't as dramatic. For me, eating clean, whole foods and exercising regularly are still the best way to find my ideal balance of well-being. However, I totally reject the notion that juicing is a useless scam, because I can see the benefits myself.

Day 3 of juicing vs. today
The only negative thing I have to say about the experience is the possible imbalance in your body -- low protein, low fiber, electrolyte levels... other than that I don't have any major worries. And if you're doing it for 10 days or less, I don't think this is a major issue.

As far as the positives, although my results weren't dramatic, they were definitely there:
Cleared up the rash on my face (along with prescribed meds)
Abundant energy
Better/sounder sleep
Softer hair and skin, less itchiness on my itch-prone scalp
Reduced/eliminated food cravings
Overall feeling of lightness
Knowledge of a new way to supplement a healthy diet

I plan on incorporating juicing into my daily routine, probably for breakfast. That way I'll get my nutrient and antioxidant burst but still get regular food. I'm glad I had this experience, glad to start training again, and most of all, glad to have my face almost back to normal!

Have you done a juice cleanse? Tell me about it in the comments section! Helpful tips for others who might want to try one, thoughts, observations, suggestions, and questions are welcome!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Ironman 70.3 Hawaii 2015 Race Recap

After so much preparation, it's tough to put a big race into words that adequately describe the experience. Such is definitely the case here. Although I've done several triathlons and races in the last year, including Hilo triathlon, XTerra, and the Hilo Marathon, none of them have had that feeling of being BIG that I got before my first sprint triathlon and Lavaman Keauhou. Perhaps that is the nature of moving up in distance.

All my gear, ready to go
I had trained pretty impeccably. I didn't skip workouts (except for one bike ride when we were so exhausted we could barely think and just knew our bodies needed rest more than training) and I've been eating well so I went in feeling like I'd done pretty much everything I could, but the days before the race I still ended up with significant butterflies darting around my stomach. This race was important to me, and it felt like it. I was also ridiculously excited, and spent Thursday and Friday driving around blasting pump up music and dancing in my car to Ariana Grande, Pharrell, and LMFAO. Please don't judge me.

I scheduled my bike check-up for Wednesday before the race, but got an unfortunate call from BikeWorks that night saying that my brakes were about to go out (news to me, although they had felt awfully flimsy recently) and my deraileur was bent nearly beyond recognition (this I knew, but had been avoiding it -- Rich at Bike Works had bent it into submission so that it wouldn't stick but did rob me of my highest gear). At their strong urging I told them to go ahead with the repairs, and they promised to have it done in time and bring it to their Waikoloa store from the Kona one so it would be easier for me to pick up. Big thank you to Bike Works for making that happen.

The logistics of race day were much different than what I had done before, with bike check-in the night before, and dropping off T2 bags at the athlete check-in on Friday because there are two different transition areas. It seemed really complicated until I did it, and then it all fell into place pretty easily. I picked up my bike in Waikoloa, tried it out (holy cow, brakes! Extra gear that hadn't worked in 2 years!), and headed over to Hapuna to dorp off our bikes. The T1 transition area was bigger than any I'd ever been in before, and I marked and re-marked where I'd put my bike when dropping it off so I wouldn't get lost the next morning. Then, we headed home to rest, eat, and get to bed early. I started sipping Gatorade the night before in hopes of loading up on electrolytes.

I half-slept, half imagined myself racing most of the way through the night. I've long since given up on getting a good night's sleep the night before a race, so I tried to just relax and picture positive outcomes. We were back up at 4AM to eat (half a cinnamon raisin bagel, yogurt, and part of a Naked Green Machine smoothie, my go-to race morning meal), gather our things, catch the shuttle bus, and go to our transition area to prepare. Since I've had trouble feeling woozy and getting cramps on the bike in several races, I was determined to fuel more before the start, so I kept drinking my Gatorade and had 3 Clif chews, including 2 with added salt.

Starting at Hapuna, where I've done countless early morning swims, was surprisingly comforting. It felt like visiting an old friend, and as the sun rose I walked down to the water to take it all in. The sky and water were bathed in purple and pink, and the sand felt familiar between my toes. I looked out over the water, thought about all of my workouts there and how many beautiful mornings I'd spent with the ocean brushing over me as I swam, and felt a nice calm settle over me. I took a deep breath and walked back up to the transition area, just in time to grab my swim cap, goggles, one more chew, and kiss Sean goodbye and good luck as he headed to the start chute. (Young men start first, then older men, then young ladies, and finally the older women.)

I swear, this is my normal smile!
The next part is a little fuzzy. Somehow I got down to the start chute, where I smiled for what I thought was a cute photo but now laugh about because you can see the nervousness written all over my face. Before I knew it, I was in the water. As always, I seeded myself about a third of the way back from the front of the pack. There was a cheer as the countdown began, and then, with a cannon blast, we were off!

The swim is also a bit of a blur. I remember seeing someone backstroking in the midst of the mob kicking and flailing around the first turn and thinking it was weird (I found out later, after asking around, that it is a technique that is highly unnecessary if you're just an average age group athlete not vying for a podium spot designed to help you make a clean turn -- back stroke just past the buoy, then flip over onto your stomach facing the correct direction). I remember seeing a lone white swim cap far, far below me on the ocean floor, and wishing there were some fish around to look at (so weird, the things that cross my mind during a race!). I remember when I passed my first male competitor, and the rush I felt. And I remember elbowing some All World girl as hard as I could because she and her other All World friends had intentionally created a V-shaped line up in the water, to prevent people from passing them. Yeah, I was mad. It made me feel better when I beat them out of the water. Otherwise, my memory of the swim fades into "go, go, go, go, keep up the pace, keep up the pace..." My arms and lungs felt the burn but I swam hard because I knew it's my strong area and I wouldn't need my arms for the rest of the race. By my count after the race, I came out of the water 17th in my division of 56. I was happy.

T1 went smoothly -- I doused myself in sunscreen and ran my bike up to the mount line, which was placed cruelly on a short but steep hill. Volunteers were helping athletes get balanced on their bikes and then pushing them to get enough momentum going so as not to just tip over. I felt the push, pedaled hard, and off I went. A big thank you to everyone who volunteers, as I probably would have ended up on the ground without you!

The first part of the course is an 8-mile total down and back in the opposite direction as most of the ride. I was getting passed quite a lot during this portion, and I couldn't decide if I should be disappointed in how slow I was biking (that all these people were faster than me on the bike) or extremely happy about how fast I swam (that all of these people were slower than me on the swim). I tried to choose happy but was a little frustrated.

As we completed the out and back and headed up toward Hawi, things settled in. I was feeling good -- none of the nausea or dizziness that has haunted my previous bike starts. I attribute this to fueling more before the swim. I stopped getting passed which made me feel better, too. For quite a while there, it seemed like everyone was riding at nearly identical pace, which very little movement in the order of riders. The wind was manageable, for which I was incredibly grateful.

The rest of the ride up to Hawi was uneventful except for one unfortunate fellow who seemed have completely missed all discussion about passing rules, as he blissfully rode out of line to the left, in the passing lane, with no intention of passing whatsoever. He was slow, but I was unwilling to take the risk of getting a penalty for going triple-wide to get around him so I tried yell as politely and quietly as I could, "excuse me! Passing on the left!.... excuse me, I need to pass.... sir, you're in the passing lane..." until I realized I was running out of breath and patience and just screamed "get the fuck out of the way!!!" which sure enough, did the trick.

Mile 25 ish
As we reached The Hill, the 7-mile uphill stretch into Hawi, I was incredibly grateful for my intimate familiarity with the course. All of those hideously painful rides through that area were suddenly worth it as I watched athlete and after athlete struggle to choose a gear, as I sailed past them in my perfectly rehearsed gear routine. Right around this time I also started looking for Sean coming downhill the other direction, figuring the timing would be about right. I started feeling nauseous about 2 miles from the turnaround, but didn't realize it was because I was riding looking sideways for Sean until it was too late. Luckily at the halfway point my landlord, Don, and former neighbor, Evelyn, were waiting for us with signs, cheers, and encouragement, which perked me up at least temporarily.

This was where we approached the first aid station, something of an X-factor for me on the bike. I didn't know a) how to grab a water bottle while moving except for what I'd read online and b) whether the water bottle would fit into the cages on my bike. I decided to gamble and grabbed a bottle, tossing one of my own (crappy) water bottles into the trash area. It did fit into the cage, but much to my chagrin the well-meaning volunteer had completely ripped off the top of the cap, presumably to make it easier for me to drink out of but actually making the water trickle out as soon as I put it into my horizontal bottle-holders. Once it reached the point where the water level was below the cap when horizontal, it seemed to be okay except for big bumps, so I tried to focus on conserving a little and decided I'd be fine.

At this point, unfortunately, my nausea was hitting me full force. All I could do was push through, but I couldn't stomach the thought of eating another gummy block or drinking my electrolyte drink. I don't remember much else on the way back down the hill, just nausea (but no cramps!).

Surprise T2 reunion!
As I reached the turn off to the Fairmont, my stomach finally eased up a little and I got a nice second wind of energy. I went in to T2 focused and ready to run, and when I heard my name and turned around to see Sean's parents waving and pointing downward, I was briefly perplexed before I realized that they were directing my attention to Sean, who was sitting up against the fence in T2 getting his running shoes on. He was extremely sick, but headed out of transition as I racked my bike, put on my shoes, and put my number on.

I had planned to run between aid stations, stopping to walk through them and perhaps a minute more before returning to running. Just before the first one, I saw Sean's back and new he was in rough shape. I flirted for a moment with the idea of going on ahead because I was actually feeling pretty good at that point, but couldn't do it. I knew we had to finish together since we had the chance to do so, and I'm so glad I made that decision. Together we slogged through the long, hot run. Around the resort, through condo roads, all over the golf course... I kept pushing us to run more, he'd tell me when he needed to stop. He somehow managed to not vomit.

The aid stations in the run were an absolute delight and godsend. Sponges soaked in icewater to cool us, water and gatorade, and buckets of ice... oh my! This 13.1 miles actually felt significantly easier than most of my training runs because I wasn't ever overheated! I didn't eat a thing the whole time, but each aid station I alternated water and Gatorade, and my stomach stayed under control.

Again, I enjoyed covering familiar territory around the Mauna Lani area where we'd done part of our long training runs. It was fun going all over the golf course where we usually aren't allowed, and the grass was short and beaten down into a path of sorts, nothing like the long, squishy nightmare grass of the golf course we had to run on at the Keauhou Lavaman that had struck fear into my heart. That was quite a relief. At one point, near a pond, was a herd of at least 30 wild goats who seemed perfectly content to watch us in our efforts as they lounged about in the (unreachable) shade.

Around Mile 11 I started getting excited. All of our work, all of our training was about to come to fruition. Barring disaster, we were going to finish! And, to my surprise, I was going to finish in under 7:30 if we kept up our pace. I told Sean of my time goal and he gamely kept running despite being sick. As we crossed the lawn headed toward the finish his dad appeared and ran with us a little ways. All of my tiredness dissolved and I just felt elated. The last quarter mile I could not have been happier, and as we reached the finish line together I couldn't stop smiling. What a wonderful, powerful feeling it was.

The next wonderful feeling came when we hit the showers and I felt the strong stream of cold water wash over me, sweeping away at least a couple of the layers of sweat and grime that covered me.

So there it is: I have finished my first half Ironman, and all I want is more.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Timing is Everything: Obsession with the Clock

My first Ironman 70.3 is just 8 days away, and I'm feeling nervously prepared. I have done everything in my power to be fit and ready, but the butterflies are still fluttering away in my stomach. I suppose that any time you're reaching a new distance there are bound to be nerves involved, but this race in particular feels like a big leap -- from the can-maintain-the-proper-fitness-level-on-a-casual-commitment Olympic distance to the big leagues, where training is hard-fought, time-consuming, and difficult to maintain without constant work.

Some of my "this is a really big deal" feelings are coming from the fact that for the first time in my triathlon life, there are cut off times for each leg that I may actually have to focus on. So far, the cut off times have been well beyond what I would consider a threat, like 5 or 6 hours allowed to finish an Olympic distance that I do in 3-3.5 hours. This race, however, asserts its "serious athletes only" intentions with a total cut off time of 8 hours and 30 minutes. Up until this point I have known that I would be somewhere around the middle of the pack, give or take a little, but this race eliminates the bottom 1/3 of the pack in most races with its cut off times. I guess they figure the bottom 1/3 of the pack in most triathlons wouldn't put in the time necessary to train for these distances anyway, which moves me from solidly in the middle to scraping to finish in time. It is twice the distance as the Olympic triathlons I've done so far, but only gives 2-3 hours more time.

The cut off for the 1.2-mile swim is 1 hour and 30 minutes, which won't be a problem. The bike cut off is where I start feeling a little hint of stress. We must be off the bikes and running at five and a half hours after the start.

My predictions for myself (assuming nothing goes horrifically wrong) are:
Between 40 and 45 minutes for the swim
5 minutes transition (run from water to T1, get T1 bag, unpack it, inevitably forget something important, etc.)
4 hours for the bike... this is where I get nervous.
2 minutes for T2 (change shoes, stuff pockets full of energy chews, remember to put on hat!)
3 hours for the run... again this could go horribly wrong

That means that if all goes smoothly and well, I should be coming in at around 7 hours and 50 minutes, with 40 minutes to spare.

However, here are the many things that are freaking me out:
1. I am unfamiliar with the T1 bag/change tent format and feel like it's going to take me a long time to make sure I have everything I need.
2. In order to do the bike in 4 hours, I need to maintain a pace that I think is reasonable (4:15 minute miles) but not easy.
3. If there is significant wind on the bike course, I don't know if that pace is possible.
4. If I don't eat enough early on, I don't know if that pace is possible.
5. If I get a flat (especially a rear flat, god help me!) it's going to take me about 6 years to change.
6. I've never used a bike aid station. What if I fall/miss the bottle/get the wrong thing/miss the trash drop zone and get penalized?
7. On the run, I have no idea how my body will hold up. I could finish in 2:45, or it could take me 3:45. My runs have felt pretty decent (all relative, of course!) but who knows in the heat after 4 hours on the bike?
8. The heat is going to kill me.
9. The trails are going to kill me.
10. The grass is going to kill me.

So where does this leave me? It leaves me calculating endless scenarios with different times on the 3 legs to see if I would make it or not. These are the things I'm thinking about on 5 hour bike rides and three hour runs. In fact, oddly enough, I've found that doing mental math calculations is one of the most effective distraction tactics I have during long or especially difficult workouts. I spent most of the Hilo Marathon doing repeated calculations figuring out exactly what time I would finish down to the second if I kept various paces, not because I needed to but because it kept my mind off the pain yet focused. My mind rattles off something like this:
If I do a fast swim (40 minutes), a decent transition, (4 minutes), fast bike (3:40), fast transition (2 minutes), and fast run (2:45), I'd be in at 7:10 ish. Let's be honest, that isn't going to happen.

If I have a decent swim (44 minutes), a bad T1 (5 minutes), bad bike (4:15), bad T2 (4 minutes), and bad run (3:25), I don't make it before the cut off. I come in at about 8:34, incredibly pissed off. (I do think, however, that if I was that close to the cut off I could power through the torturous minutes required to speed up and get in on time.)

Somewhere between these two scenarios is what I'm aiming for. Perhaps a 43-minute swim, 5-minute T1, 4-hour bike, 3-minute T2, and 2:50 run. That would be 4:15 minute miles on the bike and 13 minute miles on the run, which is doable barring disaster. It would bring me in at 7:40, which I would be ecstatic about. Realistically, if I come in under 8 hours, I will be thrilled. Just finishing within the cutoff will make me happy. Despite my training, so much depends on the wind, the heat, and how well I adjust to the new factors introduced in this race.

So there they are, my fears laid out for all to see. If I've learned anything in this process, it is to acknowledge fears and work through them with steadiness and patience rather than attempting to circumvent them and I hope that by examining my nervousness, I can stay true to my mantra: Calm. Strong.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Bad Tans and Aching Eyes: Weird Triathlon Side Effects

When I started triathlon, there were some things I expected. Sore muscles, changes in body composition, fatigue… I was ready for these side effects. The deeper I go into tri training, however, the more strange and surprising things come up. Sinking in water instead of floating, increased appetite, and adjusted circadian rhythm were the beginnings, now I’m full on into triathlon-related oddities that I never would have thought of.

The first, most obvious, and entertaining, is tan lines. Oh my god, the tan lines. Living in Hawaii for nearly 5 years, I have some pretty well-cultivated bikini lines, but since increasing my training distances, shit has just gotten ridiculous. Triathlon apparel serves its purpose and, I suppose, has its own version of fashion, but the resulting tan lines are not pretty. Racerback lines permanently emblazoned on my back and shoulders, zebra stripe tramp stamps where my top rode up slightly from my shorts, and mid-thigh farmer-style shorts lines… my reflection in the mirror after a 5-hour workout is laughable. You lose all the excess jiggle on your body and replace it with beautiful, lean muscles, but those tan lines will keep you humble!
Terrible tan!

The second thing is a complete and utter mystery to me. I lose more weight the more I eat. When I’m not training seriously, I eat very little. A lot of vegetables, some fruit, a little lean meat, a tiny bit of whole grains, and a dessert each day. This is mostly because of my picky digestive system. As I exercise more and more, I am forced to increase my eating proportionally to avoid getting dizzy and light-headed. It seems inevitable that each time I up my training, I fail to up my calorie intake as much as is needed. At the beginning of this round of mileage increase, I was baffled because I wasn’t losing any weight despite the longer distances I was running, swimming, and biking. After my week of delirium, I started eating more. In fact, I started eating almost constantly, and oddly enough, it took only two days before the weight started coming off. Even now, two weeks later, if I eat more on a particular day, the scale goes down the next morning. Bodies are weird.

How I spent much of my week, avoiding bright light
The third and most painful thing was the discovery that if you squint for 4-5 hours on the bike, you can get strained eye muscles. DON’T EVER GET STRAINED EYE MUSCLES. Sore legs, sore arms, even sore abs I expect and understand, but sore eye muscles? You’ve got to be kidding me. For a week after our 50 mile ride my head hurt around my eyes, and it felt like whatever connected my eyes to my brain was aching and damaged. Every time I looked up or down or at a bright light, it shot pain behind my eyes. Closing them didn’t help. Sleeping was difficult. Watching TV, reading, or looking at the computer was awful. The sun felt like it was out to get me. Words looked a little blurry and tough to see. For several days I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on, until I got back on the bike and realized that the aero position, head somewhat down while looking up at the road ahead, aggravated it more than anything else, especially when I squinted through my sunglasses. Once I noticed my squinting, I caught myself doing it all the time. I didn’t even realize that I had a weird habit until it made my life miserable, but I immediately set out to break it. It took about 5 days, but after a lot of conscious effort to relax my face and move my head to look around rather than just my eyes, the pain eased. When we did our 60-mile ride, I focused the entire time on keeping my face slack and not squinting. I also started wearing sunglasses on the run (instead of just a hat) to keep my squinting to a minimum. These steps seem to have solved the problem, but I still have to catch myself all the time to keep my face relaxed. So there you go – eye muscle strain is a little-known side effect of triathlons.

I never cease to be surprised. If you need me, I’ll be at the beach trying to counteract my bad tan lines, eating excessive amounts of food wearing three pairs of sunglasses to prevent eye squinting. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

No Rest for the Weary - A Tough "Recovery" Week

I've said over and over again that triathlon has a way of building you up while reminding you in no uncertain terms that you still have a lot to learn. There is no room for ego, no room for complacency. We were reminded of that the hard way this past weekend during what were supposed to be our recovery workouts -- a 9-mile run on Saturday (along with a 1200m swim) and a 45-mile bike on Sunday.

I have been looking forward to this weekend for about 10 days, ever since my week-long "bonk" in which I felt dizzy, tired, and confused for several days due to lack sufficient nutrition. It is tough to stare down an 11-mile run while feeling like you might pass out, and one of the things that got me through was focusing on the "easy" week coming up. It was like a beacon of hope. The problem was that my "short" workouts weren't actually short. They were still pretty brutal lengths for someone at our level of training.

We woke up Saturday at 7am, luxuriously late for us, and took our time getting up, eating, and relaxing a little. By the time we ate and left the house, it was 8:30. We arrived at Hapuna, our starting point, at a little after 9am. I know that in some places April is still fairly cool, but on the Kohala coast such is not the case. The sun was already blazing and the temperatures were upward of 80-85 degrees. Armed with chews, rice cakes, my bottle of electrolyte drink, and two dollar bills in case I needed to stop to refill it, we set out.

The first mile and a half is very, very hilly. They are short hills, but they definitely get your heart pumping with steep ups and your knees aching with steep downs. The first time I tried to run this stretch I almost died. Now I look forward to it with a kind of sick enjoyment. It is pleasant and quiet, away from the main highway with an ocean view some of the way and devoid of cars except for a few tourists who look at you like you have completely lost your mind for choosing to run it, and a few locals who come flying around the corners causing you to scramble quickly off to the side. The road is rough, but there are Franklin grouse and turkey in the bushes, the smell of warm kiawe wood is strong, and there is something I just like about it. Plus, I finally ran all the way up the biggest, steepest hill without walking for the first time on Tuesday of last week, so I'm feeling pretty awesome about it.

Puako Beach Drive, our running route, from above
At the end of this road, we turned down the hill onto a bigger street which runs through the beachfront neighborhood called Puako. Puako is an odd mix of very wealthy mainland transplants and local holdouts who lived there before it became expensive and, wisely, held onto their land, creating a place in which humble homes and sometimes run-down shacks sit next to manicured 8-bedroom mansions. It is quiet, flat, and the road is bordered by plentiful and colorful flowers of all kinds. It's a great place to run, especially to work on pacing. Conveniently, there is also a small general store that can serve as a refueling stop if need be. I ran by it during my last 9-mile run, desperately angry that I hadn't thought to bring money to buy water, every cell in my body screaming for more hydration. This week, I went prepared, and thank goodness, because it was every bit as hot.

Wild turkey at Puako!
I ran all the way to the turnaround point (4 miles) and back another 3/4 mile without walking. In the heat, with the hills, I was pleased with that. It was the farthest I've made it on that particular route. Right before I walked, however, I got overtaken by the heat. My body started freaking out, including those weird shivers that happen even when you're boiling hot, and my heart rate started to rise. Instead of slowing down, I kept going. Mistake. When I did stop to walk, I felt woozy and strange. I knew I should eat something, but couldn't. I did manage to drink my electrolyte drink, and focused on relaxing and slowing my heart rate. I was irritated that I had to walk so far (probably a quarter mile), but it was definitely the right move, because once I did I could eat a little, my heart was better, and I felt ready to continue. I ran back to the store, jogged inside, bought my precious water, and kept running.

I made it another mile or so, at which point the road becomes an ugly, long hill. I ran the first quarter mile or so, then gave in (again, heart rate!) and walked for a while. Compared to two weeks before, however, it was a success, because I only walked for about 2 minutes before running the rest of the way up, around the corner, and onto the highway. Last time I had to walk the entire hill. My "run" was hardly more than a bouncy walk, but it whatever, I kept going.

Almost the entire remainder of the run was on the highway, which I generally hate because of the wind, the car noise, the exhaust smells, and guys who like to yell things at girls while they run. The wind was bearable, and I was determined not to stop again. I ran, and ran, and ran. It could only have been about 2 more miles, but it felt like years. I was hot and coated in grimy sweat, and my legs started to feel ungainly and strange, but I kept going. It was terribly painful and wonderfully validating. Again, I reminded myself that my desire to stop was more mental than physical. As I turned the corner I knew I was almost there and couldn't quit, and it truly felt great to know that I stuck it out through that last stretch once I made it to the car. Although the run itself felt very rough, I felt better afterward than I had for the past two long runs, and my recovery was significantly faster.

Sunday brought our recovery week long bike, clocking in at 45 miles. Not having learned our lesson the day before, we waited until 10am to get started. (It's playoff season for the NBA and in Hawaii the games start at 7am!) We figured it would be okay because it was our easy week. The first 18 miles, down from Hawi into Kawaihae, flew by. We felt good, there was very little wind, and I was reveling in my good fitness and how painless it felt. Pride goeth before the fall. Just after Kawaihae there is a hill. It is a sneaky hill, one that doesn't appear to be long nor steep when you drive it in a car. It doesn't even look too intimidating when you approach it on the bike, but beware -- it is a killer. It is just the right combination of steep and long to knock the wind out of your sails. The steepness alone isn't bad. The length by itself wouldn't phase you. But put the two together, and it just seems to cause problems for me.

I felt every pedal stroke, but didn't give up. When I finally made it to the top, I thought it was just that hill that would cause me problems given how great I'd felt up until then, but sadly I was mistaken. We rode to the turnaround point just a few miles farther along before heading back the way we came. Unfortunately, the way back means re-gaining the elevation difference between Kawaihae and Hawi, so it is significantly more difficult. To make matters worse, the wind picked up into a fair headwind and my legs appeared to have turned to lead.

The Akoni Pule Highway - dry side
The Akoni Pule Highway - the green part
Each hill felt like a mountain. I was in embarrassingly low gears on every single one, and still struggling. The scenery is nice along this ride, with the ocean on one side, blue as blue can be, and the Kohala mountains on the other. I tried to focus on that, but all I could see was the shimmering heat waves oscillating over the road in front of me. It felt like being cooked in a broiler. There were pockets of slightly cooler air coming off the ocean, but the relief was short-lived before we were plunged back into the oven-like heat. As is always the case, the first sign that I needed more calories and/or hydration was that I started to get mentally foggy and emotional. I felt negative and suddenly my focus turned on me, wrapped up in frustration. I tried to power through for a while before giving in and stopping for a few minutes. Just getting out of the aero position helped, and I stretched my legs, back, shoulders, and neck while downing a couple of energy chews and a few drops of my precious water.

I can't say that I felt much better when we restarted, and when Sean passed and dropped me on the beginning of the long hill to Hawi, I almost cried, but I kept going. I told myself that I could stop again if I needed to once we made the turn around the north edge of the island, where the surroundings become green and beautiful. I rewrote the negative script in my head into just two words: "Calm... strong... " and repeated them over and over, pushing all other thoughts away. Oddly enough, it worked. As I reached the beginnings of the fields of green grass that run to the ocean on the left and to the mountains on the right, the air seemed to cool, my mind seemed to clear, and I knew I could keep going. I can only guess that this was the effect of the chews I ate hitting my muscles.

Then, suddenly, my legs were light and strong.

I powered up the hill like it was nothing. I kept shifting into higher gears, amazed that I could keep up my cadence on this hill with more and more resistance. I rode the next 5 miles of hill faster than I ever have before, amazed the whole time at what my body was doing. As we neared Hawi, I caught up to Sean. When we finished, like the day before, I was so glad I hadn't stopped again. I would have missed out on the incredible turnaround that happened. I didn't feel nearly as wobbly and tired after the ride as I did in previous weeks, despite the "bonk" in the middle, so although a large chunk of it felt horrible, I still felt fairly positive overall. It did, however, leave me at a loss for what to do about nutrition during my rides in order to avoid reaching the point I did. More work to come there...

This weekend reminded me of all that triathlon training is and can be. There is the kind of training that is difficult but doesn't push the boundaries of your mental capabilities, and then there is the kind that takes your limits and, with mind-blowingly difficult steps, expands them beyond where they've gone before. It takes real pain and real fight to get through it, and it had been a long time since I'd felt so far past my comfort zone. Oddly enough, it left me feeling more confident despite my poor performance, because I remember once again how much I can handle, how much I can push, and the seemingly infinite feeling of possibility that opens up.

This coming weekend, I will be ready, mentally if nothing else.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Hardest Week of My Training Life

I have so much to write that I don't know where to start!

This week has been tough, no getting around it. We did a swim and an 11.4-mile run on Saturday, a 60-mile bike ride on Sunday, I swam 1.2 miles in the ocean on Monday, ran 6 miles Tuesday, and this morning I swam 1.6 miles and biked for an hour. Tomorrow I run another 6 miles before my rest day on Friday. If it sounds like more than I've done before, that's because it is. I realized yesterday that this week is the hardest training I've ever done. In my entire life.

This realization actually made me feel better, because it reminded me that it's only natural to be tired. As I write today I am actually feeling pretty good, but such was not the case for a large portion of last week. After my previous post, which was bursting with energy and good vibes, my energy took a nose dive. Wednesday and Thursday I felt tired and mentally foggy, so much so that it was really freaking me out. I was so tired coming home from work on Thursday night that I drove in the wrong lane for about 200 yards before realizing my mistake. Luckily I live in a tiny town and there was no oncoming traffic. Once I got home, I proceeded to ask Sean the same question several times, not remembering that he'd already answered it.

Because I was so woozy, I got nervous. Was I messing myself up permanently? Despite being exhausted, I got so anxious that on Thursday and Friday nights I couldn't sleep, instead lying awake in bed with my dazed brain running in worried circles. I did not feel at all prepared for the 11.4 mile run on Saturday, but I just told myself to do my best and push through.

Our route went from Waikoloa to the Mauna Lani hotel and back, winding through both resort properties. It was a nice run -- challenging winds on the highway, a few hills here and there, and pretty scenery most of the way. It also allowed me to refill my water part way through, which was great given the distance. I was surprised and pleased that I ran the first nearly 6 miles without stopping to walk. I actually felt surprisingly strong. I could have gone on longer except that I wanted to refill my water, after which I ran another 3 miles without walking. My breathing and lungs stayed strong, and my heart stayed under control, which is completely new for me at such long distances.
Our 11.4-mile run course
I was amazed that what finally slowed me down was actually my legs! I don't know that my lungs have ever outlasted my legs before! This is a big step, because it means that my fitness is taking big steps forward.

Unfortunately, my digestive system was not as cooperative, and I started getting abdominal cramps around mile 9. They only happened if I walked, so in theory if I can just keep running I may be able to hold them off until the finish, at which point I melt into a moaning, cramping blob. I'm not sure what set this off, given that I haven't had that issue since the Great Aloha Run in 2011. The only thing I can think of is the during-run fueling, which consisted of saltine crackers, chews, and HEED energy drink with chia seeds. Maybe the saltines and chia seeds are to blame? I'll have to keep experimenting before Honu, but the bottom line is that if abdominal cramps are the worst thing I get, I'll be thrilled. My SI joints, miraculously, have been causing me very few problems. They go out of place, but are not causing much pain.

After the run, I was beat. I went home and slept, which I think was a great thing to do to avoid the weird pseudo-drunk feeling I had the prior week. Finally, exhausted, I could pass out with my mind at ease. I also made it a point to eat more after my long workouts, since I have a history of under-eating and suffering the consequences (see my near-passing out on the bike episode for more on that!) and I believe that may have been another serious culprit of my brain fog.

On Sunday, we awoke to cold rain and huge gusts of wind. It was not an inviting situation for a ride. However, since we only have one day a week to get our long rides done, we gathered our gear, fears, and determination and hopped on the bikes. The first seven miles were wet and cold. I could feel the moisture kicking off the back wheel and soaking my entire back and head. Around mile 8 we emerged from the clouds just in time to get hit with wind gusts that threatened to knock us off our bikes. Now, there's normal trade winds, problematic wind, serious wind, and extreme wind, and I think this landed in the "serious" category. It was enough to make it scary to ride, because the side gusts were strong enough to move my bike a foot or two over at a time, making me bobble and wobble and get way too close to the guard rail or the road. Not my cup of tea.

60-mile bike route
I've read that in order to optimize your handling in wind, you're supposed to stay loose. Now, of course this is easier said than done because when a gust hits you and makes you lose your balance, your first physical instinct is to tense up stiffer than a board and hold onto your bike or dear life. It's a leap of faith to allow the wind to buffet you around a little without fighting back, but it does seem to help.

We rode a kind of reverse-Honu plus some route: from Hawi down to just past Waikoloa and back. By the time we reached the Queen K highway, the winds were variable and less scary. Once we turned around to head back up the hill, much to our dismay, they became a steady headwind. Fighting our way up the elevation gain was not fun. At about 45 miles, both of us were getting a little dizzy and not thinking clearly. We stopped for a few moments to eat a little something and clear our heads. I can't say we felt much better once we started again, but we kept going.

When we reached the long hill leading up to Hawi, I reminded myself to take it slowly and stop if I needed to. My determination got the better of me and I did not stop. I pedaled, slowly against the wind, for what seemed like forever. With my conditioning where it's at it has become more of a mental game than anything else. My legs, although tired, were fine. They were not burning or exhausted. There was still power left there. My lungs were good, my breathing under control. I wasn't gasping for air. And yet, I wanted to stop so badly I could hardly stand it. Every few minutes I checked myself - "legs? Yes, they are okay. Lungs? Yes, they are okay. Heart rate? Yes, it's okay." and as long as the answers continued to be "okay," I kept going. I know now that losing the mental game is the worst feeling you can have. Knowing that your body could have kept going but you let yourself quit is excruciating, even more excruciating than the millions of uphill, wind-hampered pedal strokes.

For the second time now, I made it all the way up that horrible hill and to the end after a long ride without stopping. I was full of relief when we reached our finish line at Sean's truck. Again, I went home, ate well, and slept for an hour before doing anything else, willing my body to heal itself, be strong and healthy, and continue to carry me along in my training.

This is the hardest I have ever pushed my body. That is an amazing thing to wrap my head around. Yes, Xterra and the Hilo Marathon were harder in an acute sense, but this is the most difficult week I have ever done -- the most endurance I have ever asked of myself. It reminds me to stop and thank my body for what it's doing, and to be easier on myself when I feel tired. It also makes me appreciate each of the fitness gains I see happening, despite the fatigue. I mean seriously, I used to feel after a 3 mile run like I now do after 11 miles.

The upcoming week is a recovery week, meaning that the mileages go back down a little for 7 days. Then, there is one more push -- the final push, the hardest push -- leading up to the race taper. Our longest run will be 14 miles, and the bike will be 65. I don't feel it now, but I know when the time comes I'll be ready to face it down.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Five Mile Miracle

Today, something miraculous happened.

I looked at my training plan, realized that I had to run 5 miles, not the 4 I had expected, and did it without thinking twice. And it was easy.

Okay, so easy probably isn't the correct word, but it felt like one of my normal, everyday "short" runs, not a major undertaking. I know this seems small, but it isn't. Three and four milers have been my standard for the last year. My long runs were 5 and 6 miles. I would prep for a 5-mile run, mentally prepare, and get ready to really "push through." After four weeks of upping our mileage in preparation for Honu, however, it appears that my internal odometer is finally resetting!

This is also monumentally exciting because over two years ago I wrote a post called Five Mile Marathon about an instance in which I failed to properly plan my route and ended up trekking through a five mile "run" only a month into my couch-to-triathlon training on a day when I was only supposed to go for 35 minutes. It took me over an hour, and I remember every aching second of it. In the comments section, a friend and fellow runner told me that I would eventually be running 5 miles easily, and I held onto that hope enthusiastically throughout my early training, dreaming of the day when 5 miles would be no big deal.

Today is that day.

Now yes, it took two years. Although I have run frequently, I really haven't done much by way of upping my mileage. A few 6 or 7-mile runs here and there, several 5-milers, and a lot of 3's and 4's. That has gotten me through the Olympic distance triathlons just fine, so that's what I stuck with, but with Honu looming, it has been really exciting and fun (and hard and painful) to increase the miles I do. Two weekends ago I ran 7 miles in the heat. This past weekend I ran 9. Suddenly, 5 doesn't seem like such a major undertaking. Two years, many races, and countless running form adjustments later, five miles is an easy day.

When I got back to the car, I allowed myself to bask in how far I've come.

My legs didn't hurt.
My breath was under control the entire time, despite doing speed intervals and hills.
I feel energized, not tired, even at the end.
I didn't have to bargain with myself to keep going.
I felt light and strong.

These are such gifts for me, the ballerina who couldn't even run a mile. I am so excited to continue this training process, knowing the strides I've made (no pun intended) and looking forward to what I may be able to accomplish in the future! If you're just starting out, don't give up. Keep going, keep pushing. I promise you will not be disappointed with the results.

Speed Interval Training

For as long as I've been training, my focus has been "just get through the distance and gradually try to increase your speed." I never gave much thought to controlling my speed within a run. In fact, it seemed more like my speed was controlling me -- I would run as fast as I could maintain, throughout each workout. Over time, I got slightly faster. I mean let's be honest, I was just glad I could get through the run, I wasn't trying to get fancy with my pace.

When I started looking at training schedules for the Hilo Marathon, every single one of them had "pace runs" and intervals, and this idea started to sound interesting. Being completely forthcoming, I never really picked a training plan and really didn't do any actual training. I kept running my 3-5 miles three to four times a week, and once I ran 8 miles. That was my marathon prep. It was terrible and stupid and intervals or speed work never crossed my mind.

Well, the Hilo Marathon was free, but the Ironman 70.3 Hawaii, aka Honu, is not, and for the $350 I paid to enter the race, I am sure as hell not going to go in unprepared. My first step, which I went into more detail about in my previous post, was to pick a training plan and work it around to fit my schedule. The one that I settled on, like the ones for the marathon, includes frequent and consistent speed work, not only in running but in all of the disciplines. It has taken me this long to consider integrating speedwork into my workouts because I really felt like I was still just trying to get the basics down, but two years into my training, it's time. I am officially at the point where I feel like I have enough control over the basics that I can wade into the next pool of uncertainty and challenge. The basic layout (with my adjustments) is something like this:

Short (with intervals at "race pace" -- still working on finding my race pace!)
Medium (pool workout - at Steve Borowski's mercy)
Long (consistent, moderate pace)

Short (warm up easy, intervals of high effort, cool down)
Long (consistent, moderate pace)

Short (warm up easy, few short sprints with easy recovery intervals, cool down)
Medium (warm upeasy, longer sprint intervals, sometimes including hill sprints, cool down)
Long (consistent, moderate pace)

The first adjustment I had to make was to slow down a little. Up until this point, I have been doing everything except swimming at maximal effort, 100% of the time. I push my run pace until I lose my breath. I push my bike pace until my legs give in. The idea of backing off took some getting used to. My first project was the run, and I tried just starting out slow. I had noticed during the Hilo Marathon that although I could only run 3 miles or so during my workouts before my breathing got labored, that distance stretched considerably during the race when I went in with a "just finish, don't kill yourself" mentality. In fact, I made it up to about 8 miles before I felt fatigued.

When looking at interval training, then, I decided to try and recreate that slower "jog" pace that gave me 8 bright-eyed and bushy-tailed miles, inspired by an article on ironman.com which described an "easy" pace as the following: "if people aren't giving you weird looks and asking why you're going so slow, it means you're going too fast." I chose to run on Lalamilo Farm Road in Waimea, remembering that it was long, straight, and beautiful. It is bordered on either side by farm after farm, lots of green fields and animals to look at, and views of the Kohala mountains in one direction and Mauna Kea in the other. I forgot that it is also one giant hill, gradual at the beginning, then not so gradual as it continues. I did the first 10 minutes of the run at a laughably slow pace, then ran as fast as I could possibly maintain for about 30 seconds before taking it back to a jog. By 30 seconds, I mean the distance it took me to pass 3 telephone poles, because I didn't actually have my watch. Here in rural Hawaii, we measure distances by telephone poles. As soon as I got my breath back to baseline, I repeated this. It was a very interesting feeling to sprint, then go back to a jog and feel my breath, heart rate, and legs recover while still running. As far as I can remember, I have never sprinted without coming to a stop (or at least a walk) afterward until this workout.

Lalamilo Farm Road
At this point, the grade of the hill was starting to get severe, so I just ran normally, hoping that it would eventually level off. It didn't, so I turned back. I did one slight pace increase interval going up the hill, but decided it was pointless when I realized that the hill basically served as one giant interval as I was unable to recover my breath. I did two more sprint intervals once I got to the flatter part of the road before getting back to my car.

It definitely felt different. Something about it was invigorating in a way that my all-one-pace runs are not. Perhaps the child-like "run as fast as you possibly can" feeling takes over, or perhaps it just wakes up your heart a little, but whatever it was, I liked it. Lalamilo Farm Road, however, is not an ideal route, both because of the hill and because of the plethora of farm workers on golf carts dodging me and shooting me wordless less-than-impressed-with-my-presence stares.

Since then, I've done at least 5 runs with intervals worked in, and they are gradually getting more sophisticated than counting how many telephone poles I can sprint past (although after arriving at work minutes after my first attempt at hill sprints my boss told me that I "looked like I just got chased by a wild animal"). My latest addition is Fartleks -- yup, laugh away -- in which I jog for a warm up, then do several intervals of slow-moderate-sprint sets, and I can say with absolute certainty that I am seeing a difference in my stamina. I am not timing myself on mile times right now, so I'm not sure if my pace is improving, but my endurance definitely is. I can run much longer at a slow-to-moderate pace than I could just weeks ago, and the ability to control my speed is very liberating. I am also noticing big gains on control of my heart rate, which was something I was struggling with. It feels like my heart, legs, and breath are all getting on the same page, finally!

Friday, April 10, 2015


The Ironman 70.3 Hawaii, aka "Honu," is just 7.5 weeks away and our training is in full swing. This will be the longest distance triathlon that Sean and I have done to date, so this is truly new territory for both of us. Up until now I've been able to sneak by with regular 3-5 mile runs, a pool swim per week, and occasional bike rides of between 12 and 30 miles, enough to jump into shorter distance races with no extra preparation, but no more. At 9 weeks out it was time to reinstate a full-blown, official training schedule and I have to admit I was pretty excited about it. It's been quite a while since we've ventured into new triathlon territory and I've missed the schedules that used to run my life.

This schedule was from Competitor.com, originally set up to be a 16-week plan. I jumped in at week 7 since we'd been doing ongoing base training (if you call hobbling through the Hilo Marathon base training!) and modified it to fit my work schedule and needs. I settled on three swims per week -- one pool workout and two ocean swims, three runs -- one long run and two shorter ones with speed intervals worked it, and two bike rides -- one long, one shorter with speed intervals. I had to cut one bike session from the original schedule because I just don't have time in my week, but I plan on doing a quick loop including a nasty hill by my house whenever I get home from work early. I think overall that this will be an effective way to go about my training.

I arranged how I wrote down my schedule a little differently this time. In fact, each time I've done a race I've put the schedule in a slightly different format. For my very first race, it was day by day, each day with its own page. This was great because I was new to it all, but very time-consuming to keep up. Also, as I got more familiar with the workouts, I found that it's helpful to My next version was monthly, with the entire month on a page so that I could just check off a box for each day. This was nice because it gave me a good idea of what was coming up for me, but for whatever reason it was easier for me to miss a day when I could constantly see so many days of training represented. This newest iteration is by week. Seven days, six workouts, and feels right for where I'm at right now. It allows me to see and plan for each week, check off each day, and give me a weekly goal to shoot for: checking off each day, all seven days in a row. It also feels awesome to turn the page to the next week and makes me look forward to what is to come instead of feeling overwhelmed by it. The bottom line is, whatever works for you and makes you feel motivated, do it, and if it stops working for you, try something new!

Saturday's workout was a 40-mile bike ride. I am starting to get used to these distances in my head. 40 miles no longer seems so long, despite only having ridden that far twice before. I guess once you run 26 miles, riding 40 doesn't seem so bad. Anyway, we set out around 8am from a resort area called Mauna Lani. The road out to the highway faces northeast, and we were immediately met with wind like I've never felt before. I am used to moderate steady wind or higher speed gusts, but this was a brutal, constant force. As soon as we turned onto the highway, it improved dramatically. The ride out (to the Kona Airport) felt amazing. My legs felt light and strong and I couldn't believe how high of a gear I could stay in while still keeping my cadence up. Even the nastiest hill on the route didn't feel so bad. Somewhere in the back of my head I knew I must be benefiting from a tail wind, but I couldn't feel it at all. When we made it to the airport, I was feeling awesome. In fact, when we turned around, the first ten miles back felt good too. It was a good day.

We hit the top of the nasty hill, and I got ready to fly down -- one of my favorite parts of the ride -- but as soon as I went over the crest the wind hit me like a wall of unmovable bricks. It was unrelenting in its ferocity. Instead of racing down the hill, I was having to pedal, and HARD, to even move forward. It's hard to describe the frustration caused by a downhill being so difficult, but something about it gets into my head and turns my thoughts into negatives, leaving me to fight not only the physical battle but also a mental one. Knowing that we had ten miles left didn't help, either.

The best thing I have learned to do for myself is just to erase the "maybe I could stop" line of thought from my mind. This is the first response when things get hard -- the possibility of just stopping, of coming up with an excuse as to why you shouldn't keep going. This is also one of the most valuable skills that triathlon has taught me: the ability to identify that sneaky little notion and banish it completely. First, I ask myself "am I really going to give up because of this?" Sometimes, the answer should be yes, like in the case of a serious injury that could be further damaged by continuing. Most of the time, however, the answer is no. Once I've established that, then I consciously remove that thought from my internal dialogue, because what I've discovered is that the inner quit-or-not-quit bargaining process is one of the most exhausting and non-productive things you can think about. Along with it goes feeling bad for yourself or internal complaining, because they have the same effect, and if you're not going to stop then there's no sense in whining about the conditions. Instead, I replace it with "this is really, really hard, but you can do it." I find that this effectively acknowledges my situation but empowers me rather than breaking me down.

And so, along I went albeit very, very slowly, achingly pedaling through the wind, aware of every movement. With about four miles to go I had to stop to eat. I am finally getting good at recognizing the earliest signs of fuel shortage in my body, which, oddly enough, is most often a general feeling of negativity and frustration. Before I feel the physical signs, I notice the mental fog, and I've learned to immediately eat something when I feel it. After downing a few more Saltine crackers (new workout food discovery!) I got back on to finish the ride. It was terrible, and I hated every second, but I did it, and when I turned back onto the road connecting the highway to Mauna Lani, this time with the wind at my back, I finally got to fly. It was such a relief.

We weren't timing ourselves, so I don't know how long that last ten miles took, but it was horrifically slow and demoralizing. It gave me a tiny taste of what it would be like if the winds decide to turn on us for Honu, or, worse yet, what the Ironman competitors feel like when the wind is out of control for the entire 112-mile ride. I can't even imagine the physical strength and mental fortitude it would take to get through a ride like that. It tells me that I cannot possibly over-prepare for the possibility of unknown complications, and reminds me that training is as much mental as physical.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Sacroiliac Joint Dysfunction: My Kryptonite

Triathlons make you feel a little bit like Superman.
Once you make it past your initial stumbling, bumbling, embarrassingly awkward beginnings, nothing makes you feel stronger. Not only does your body become like steel, but your mind becomes unstoppable. You know that you can run for miles and miles without a problem if your car breaks down. Some current at the beach? No biggie, you can swim for hours. Because you've pushed yourself so far beyond where you thought your limits were, you know that you can stay calm and focused in the most difficult of circumstances, and discomfort becomes a non-issue. You feel pain, but it doesn't stop you.

Unfortunately, injuries can.

My experience was sacroiliac (SI) joint issues isn't so much an injury as an ongoing state of being. For as long as I can remember (I'm talking middle school here), long walks have caused a strange, tight pain in my right hip. It was never severe, and I never thought much of it, although once I got up to about 10 miles, it was very noticeable. My mom has bad hips, so I just assumed I'd inherited her problems. When I did the Xterra 21k trail run in December, however, that familiar pain just got worse and worse. By mile 6, it was bad enough that I was stopping to stretch my butt and hip muscles every 5-10 minutes with little relief. By mile 8, it was in both hips. By the end of the race I could barely walk, and for the next week I was absolutely convinced that I had somehow dislocated my hips, because they felt out of place. My gait was an odd, wide waddle, and I noticed that if I support my butt and hip with my hand as I walked, it felt a little better. Clearly, something was off.

Curious and uncomfortable, I went to a doctor, who examined me and suggested that sacroiliac joint problems were causing my symptoms. He sent me to a physical therapist who he considers an expert in this area.

My first PT visit was a revelation. After his initial consultation and examination, he told me that yes, my SI joint was badly out of place and he was going to do a maneuver designed to put it back in. In the strangest feeling I've felt in a while, my entire back and hip clunked into the correct position, and for the first time in over 15 years, I walked with my spine, sacrum, and pelvis correctly aligned. It felt like walking on air. My entire gait felt different -- smooth, light, and painless. I was absolutely in awe that one quick adjustment could give such dramatic improvement.

For about three days I luxuriated in every step I took. Then, the joint slipped back out.

So that you can understand a little more about how this issue happens, take a look at the diagram to the right. What manifested in the form of hip pain was actually a secondary response to my sacrum and ilium (which connects to the leg via the hip joint) being out of alignment, specifically the ilium riding too high on the sacrum. If you're wondering if this may be causing your issues, here are the symptoms I experienced:

- A tight, muscle-soreness-type pain around my hip and radiating into my butt area. At the time I would have identified it as the gluteus maximus muscle, but I have since learned that it is actually the piraformis muscle that is most involved.
- Sciatica-like pain shooting from the bottom of my sacrum down the back of my leg
- Extreme muscle stiffness after long distances on the affected side
- A feeling of the hip being dislocated or out of place
- Modified gate, particularly having trouble bringing the affected leg directly underneath the hip, instead swinging it slightly to the side with each step.

If you are having pain in your hip that radiates to the front rather than to the back, the cause is more likely hip dysplasia, a very different problem with very different treatment.

Unfortunately for me, my SI joints (yes, both) have been out of place for so long that the ligaments have stretched to the point that they cannot seem to hold it in place after an adjustment. Even non-impact movement causes it to go out again. I have now been in physical therapy for three months, and every week my wonderful, talented, and patient therapist (thank you John at BodyPro!) cla-clunks one or both back into place, only to have them slip out within days, despite the exercises I've been doing to strengthen the surrounding muscles. The next step for me, due to the ligament issue, is an SI Belt, which is worn tightly around the sacrum at all times, holding the joints in place long enough that the ligaments can heal and tighten.

What the exercises have done, however, is lengthen the amount of time I can run before the pain forces me to walk. When I began PT in January after Xterra, I could only last 3 miles. I am now up to about 7. The joint/s can go out of place, but using the muscles I'm strengthening I can somehow hold it close enough to avoid serious pain. I am hoping that after Honu, the half-Ironman in May, I can take a break from running long enough to let the SI belt do its job. In the meantime, I will continue to work on the supporting muscles.

Exercises to strengthen and support the SI joint:

1. Clamshells: Laying on your side, place a circular (or tied) resistance band around your legs, just above the knee. Stack your legs and bend your knees so that your thighs and lower legs are at a 90 degree angle. Then, keeping your hip perfectly still and your feet together, lift the top knee. I do three sets of ten daily.

2. Side stepping: standing up, place a circular or tied resistance band around your legs, just below the knee. Bring your feet to shoulder width apart, and bend your knees. Keeping your upper body and hips as even and still as possible, take a step out to the side with your right foot, then take a step (in the same direction) to return to your original position with your left foot. I do this across the room and back, three times, several sets per day if possible.

3. Off-box lunges: standing on a 6-inch platform, get a set of very light hand weights, like 1-3 pounds. Extend one leg as far behind you as you can reach to touch the floor with your toe while bending your standing leg and reaching your arms in front of you with the weights, one in each hand. Return to standing position but keep all your weight on the standing leg. Do the same thing, but this time extend the working leg at a 45 degree angle between the back and side, then return to standing. I do 15 sets on each side.

4. Squats: Stand in front of a box that is comfortable to sit on with a fairly large dumbbell placed evenly between your feet, just in front of them. Your feet should be just wider than shoulder-width. Keeping your back as straight as possible, lower yourself into a squat until your butt touches the box and immediately pick up the dumbbell. Do not allow yourself to rest on box, but immediately push back up to a standing position still holding the dumbbell, making sure to keep your back upright. Lower back down, touch your butt to the box and set down the weight, then push up to standing. Repeat this. I do 10-15 reps, 3 sets, with a 35-lb dumbbell.

5. Planks: Apparently, the deep abdominal muscles work in conjunction with the booty muscles, so it's beneficial to work on those too. Make sure to keep your back straight and don't let your hips sag. Most people know how to do a plank, or so they think. What I wasn't aware of, however, was that you are supposed to keep your belly button pulled in as far as possible and your glutes fully contracted during the plank. This was a total game-changer for me, making them a million times harder. They make me feel like I'm dying. In theory, I do three 60-second planks. In reality, I rarely make it that far.

There are also a couple of stretches and an adjustment that you can do at home to keep yourself in alignment, although I can tell you from experience that the home adjustment is more of a "help keep it there" kind of thing, rather than a "it's totally out, fix it" solution.

The self-adjustment goes like this:
You will need a bar, stick, or thick dowel at least three feet long. I use a dowel I bought for $5 from the hardware store, the largest diameter available. Lay on your back, and bring your knees up so that they are bent at a 90 degree angle. Your thighs should be perpendicular to the floor, your shins should be parallel to the floor. There should be about 6 inches between your knees. Weave the dowel through your bent knees -- you want it to to be touching the back of your leg just above the bent knee on the side that is affected, and resting against the front of your leg just above the knee on the opposite side. Hold one side with your hand to balance it.
Simultaneously, contract your hamstring on your affected side and your quad muscle on the opposite side. With your affected leg, push the bar toward your toes as hard as you can. At the same time, push the bar toward your face with the opposite leg as hard as you can. Make sure to hold the bar steady with your hand so it doesn't actually move. Push for 10 seconds, then relax your muscles. Do it three times.
I can't say I fully understand how this works, but it's something about the opposing muscles that pulls one side of the pelvis downward toward the correct position. I find that it makes a definite improvement in my symptoms, at least for a while.

Another issue that comes along with SI joint issues, due to the misalignment, is muscle stiffness, which then in turn continues to pull the joint out of place. The stretches that I do are a piraformis stretch in which I lay on my back and draw the affected leg, knee bent, toward my chest as far as I can. I pull the calf area toward my body and push the knee outward to get the most of the stretch. The other good one is for the front of the hip flexor, in which I stand facing a couch or chair with the affected leg on the ground, slightly pigeon-toed, and the opposite foot up on the chair with the foot directly in front of the foot of the affected leg. Then, keeping my butt as "tucked under" and in line with my leg as possible, a push my hips toward the chair.

Between the stretches and the self-adjustment, my symptoms stay pretty well under control.

More than anything else, if you are having symptoms similar to what I was experiencing, GO TO A DOCTOR! Don't try to tough it out, because for most people, it's something that can be fixed very easily! I am seeing consistent improvement and hoping that eventually I'll be good as new. For now I guess I have to settle for being Clark Kent...