... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

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...