... my journey from ballerina to triathlete

Monday, November 28, 2016

Ironman Year

Almost four years have passed since I first decided that I was going to pursue my secret desire to complete a triathlon. At the time I made that decision, I didn’t know how to swim, I didn’t own a bike, and I absolutely hated running. In fact, I don’t really know where my gnawing desire to see if I could do it came from. It floated around in the far reaches of my mind, resurfacing occasionally to remind me that even though I didn’t consider myself even remotely athletic, something in me wanted to try. My first event was a sprint distance – 750 yard swim, 16-mile bike, and 3.2-mile run. Six months later was my second outing – a .93-mile swim, 25-mile bike, and 6.2-mile run. This was as far as my initial goal went. I just wanted to complete a triathlon, and I figured a sprint would get me started and the Olympic distance would really be my big accomplishment. Check that goal off the bucket list! I really had no plans to make this an ongoing hobby.

Then I went to Kona.

Watching two thousand people of all shapes, sizes, ages, nationalities, disabilities, and professions cross the finish line of the Ironman World Championships hammered home for me the most valuable lesson that triathlon has taught me: your limitations are only what you allow them to be. True, I’m not a classically built athlete or a naturally fast runner, but certainly if an 84-year-old woman or a man with an amputated limb and a history of cardiac cancer can do it, so can I. Too busy? The head of a surgery department who has 3 kids under age 8 did it, so what’s my excuse? It lit a fire in me, and I remember the moment when Sean and I looked at each other, standing on the sidelines at the finish, and said, “do you want to do this? I want to do this.”

Well, now is the time. I am officially registered for Ironman Coeur D’Alene and on August 27th, 2017 I will (if all goes according to plan!) become an Ironman! This means a year of intense and focused training with little room for laziness or complacency. Since I’ve been mulling this over in my mind for so long I’ve already picked out a training plan and for the past few months have been familiarizing myself with it and its demands. It covers 36 weeks, so I will begin my dedicated training on December 19th, although I plan on doing maintenance training consistently until then to make sure I’m ready once it’s go time. I’m scared and excited and since triathlon has already given me so much, I can’t wait to see what the next year brings.

I am also excited about another project that I’ve been thinking about for a while but finally want to see take shape: I would like really like to share with others the joy, confidence, and sense of strength that endurance sports has given me. Triathlon has completely changed my body image and how I look at myself mentally, emotionally, and physically. Whereas before I felt like I was always in a battle with my body, I now see it as an amazing and beautiful vehicle capable of carrying me through the incredible challenges I’ve given it. I am grateful for it in a way I never was before, and the benefits are not limited to the physical domain: the discipline of learning to feel pain, push yourself, and expand your boundaries spreads into life outside of the sport. Because of this I feel a kind of strength in my body and mind that I never knew I had. I feel happier, more energetic, and less anxious because it has taught me to accept moments of physical and emotional discomfort and anxiety for what they are, quiet my mind, and keep moving forward. I truly believe that endurance exercise is an amazing tool to manage anxiety and depression. 

First sprint triathlon: look at that awkward run!
As I’ve navigated this journey, I’ve had a lot of friends tell me things like, “That always sounded interesting to me, but I don’t know where to start,” or “I’ve always wanted to do a marathon, but I’m not really the athletic type.” Or, the most common, “I’d really like to exercise more, but I’m just so busy.”

So, here is my offer: As I train for my first Ironman over the next year, I would be honored to help anyone who would like to register for a race happening any time between now and August 27th, 2017. If you have ever dreamed of doing a triathlon, considered running a half marathon, or a 5k, or doing a swim or bike race but you don’t know where to start, let me tell you with absolute confidence that you can make it happen and I would love to help get you started and keep your training consistent. I will help you find or create a training plan tailored around your specific race, I’ll help you navigate what type of gear you need, nutrition and fueling for longer races, and I’ll be here to help you stay motivated and on track throughout your training. If you’re a total beginner, even better. I’d be happy to help you with any running, cycling, swimming, or triathlon race up to a marathon or Olympic distance. If you already have experience, I’d be happy to assist with a half-Ironman as well (I’m not comfortable encouraging beginners to do a half-Ironman – better to start with a more manageable distance and go from there!)

First Olympic distance triathlon -- showing some improvement
I don’t want to call this “coaching” because I don’t feel like I’m even close to accomplished enough to provide that for anyone yet, but what I do have is a ton of experience in is starting from scratch, learning all of these sports from square one, researching and learning and finding the right resources to help, finding ways to stay excited and motivated, and figuring out what works for each individual person, and I would really love to help you navigate the logistics of the sport to reach your goal. I am also happy to share what I do know about running form (which has taken me from miserable, tortured, and slow on the run to happy, energized, and average!), swim technique, training strategies, etc. but only with the understanding that my advice in these areas is from personal experience and shouldn’t be taken as cut-and-dry coaching.

First 1/2 Ironman -- practically a real athlete!
So if, like I did, you have that little voice in the back of your head wondering if you can do that certain run, swim, bike, or triathlon that caught your eye, comment below, email me at crystalmbanning@gmail.com, send me a private Facebook message, and let’s figure out how to get you started!

Here’s to a great upcoming year of training, learning, and growth.

Monday, October 10, 2016

It Takes Heart: Incorporating a Heart Rate Monitor Into Training

Back in June I signed up for Ragnar Hawaii, a large team relay race where each runner does three legs, lengths of each leg varying between 3 and 8 miles. Altogether, the race goes all the way from the east side of the island up around the Hamakua Coast to the northern tip, then down the west coast to Kona and back up to finish at Hapuna. It runs all the way through the night from Friday afternoon until Saturday afternoon! Back in June this seemed like an easy enough proposition, but that was before my unfortunate foot accident and then a subsequent slip on the garage stairs leading to a nasty tailbone bruise. What can I say? It’s been a very clumsy summer for me.
So, 5 weeks out from Ragnar, my tailbone still aching a little, I decided pain or no pain I have to get going on training or I’m going to end up walking all three legs. If this were an individual race I wouldn’t really care, but since I’m part of a team I don’t want to be “that person.” Looking at my Ironman training plan, which uses heart rate zones for almost all of the run training, I decided to keep experimenting with my fancy Garmin watch and begin using the heart rate monitor during this training so that I will be very familiar with it once I get to the official Ironman training starting in December.

What I’m realizing very quickly is that heart rate training may be the solution to my slow running!
Up to this point, I have always done run training by simply trying to keep running for as long as possible without walking. At first it’s a few minutes, and eventually it’s an hour, but I have always felt like my speed hits a wall that I simply can’t push beyond because my lungs and heart can't do any more. My exertion levels are often to the absolute max, and my training is focused on conditioning to that level and learning to push through the pain of it. This new training plan, however, starts out with nearly five months of aerobic run training, keeping the heart rate between 60% and 75% of max with only occasional anaerobic sessions. For running, max heart rate is defined as 220 minus your age, plus 5. I had no idea what range my heart rate had been in during a run until I started using the monitor, and oh my holy hell was I in for a surprise! Turns out, my previous “run til you drop” approach had me working in the 85%-95% range for most of the time! No wonder that I couldn’t get any faster!

One of the things I love about the Ironman training plan I’ve chosen is that it has a Q&A portion, and one of the first questions is: “What if I have to walk to keep my heart rate down?” The answer?  ”I don’t care if you have to lie down in the snow and make snow angels – your body needs to learn how to process energy in an aerobic state and this kind of low intensity training is the only efficient way to get this done. Year after year, my athletes are surprised and amazed at how quickly their bodies adapt to this new approach… you will be able to run at a nice clip – even with your heart rate stuck right at 75%!”

This was kind of an epiphany to me, because the feel of 60-75% of max heart rate is extremely manageable. “Easy” isn’t quite the right word, but it’s close. Right now I have to alternate intervals of jogging and walking to stay in that zone, but if I can indeed train my body so that I can feel that same ease while running, it will be a major, major turning point. If 70% can become a steady run instead of a fast walk, I can only imagine how much speed I can add at the more anaerobic levels added later on in the training plan. I’m excited to see where this goes.

So, for the past 4 weeks, I have been alternating runs in which I do a pre-determined ratio of walking and running (for example, I started out walking 2 minutes and running 1, and now I'm up to running 4 minutes and walking 1) and runs in which I go strictly off of heart rate, walking or running as needed to keep it between 60% and 80%. The first week I did three days on, one day off twice, and when I felt the fatigue on day 5 I realized that I have never in my life run three days in a row, much less 6 times in 7 days! My triathlon training was 6 days a week, but I arranged it so that each of the three disciplines was spread out throughout the week, with no more than 2 days in a row of any one thing. I could definitely feel the difference, and when I reached my day off today I was pretty relieved.

It’s very interesting to run just by heart rate. I’m starting to get a feel for what the various percentages feel like in my body. 70%, or about 136 beats per minute, feels very comfortable, and on flat ground in cool weather I can maintain it at a jog for about 4 minutes before my heart rate gets too high. If there are hills, my heart rate jumps faster. I did one run at Puako around 10AM which means HEAT, and got to see for the first time the havoc that heat wreaks upon heart rate. I see now why so many people struggle and collapse when they face higher temperatures for the first time. I had to walk an embarrassing and frustrating amount to keep it under control, and toward the end of the 40 minutes it was impossible to get it below 68% or so, even while walking! I could have actually used some snow to make snow angels in like it said in the Q&A section of the training plan!
Now I’m up to 6.5 miles, as well as doing a couple of 2-a-day workouts to simulate the 3-leg nature of the Ragnar race. It’s a short time period to train and I know I won’t be at my very best, but I have already noticed huge improvements with the new focus on heart rate! When I first started I had to walk the majority of the time to keep my heart rate in the target zone, with my average pace landing around 14:45 minutes per mile (Yes. Really.) Now I'm all the way down to 12-minute miles and I can run for a mile at a time without my heart rate going above 70%! Plus, when I do pace runs, my pace is improving much faster than usual! It should be a fun, different format for a race so I’m looking forward to that.
As I continue with the heart rate training, I am really excited to see the progress I know is coming. I feel like perhaps I’ve found the missing piece in the “Crystal is just a really slow runner” puzzle and I can’t wait to use it!

Monday, August 8, 2016

Bone Contusion Blues

Yet again I managed to hurt my poor right foot, this time falling off (or, technically falling with) a ladder from about 12 feet up. The immediate pain was enough to bring tears to my eyes and dizziness and nausea to the rest of me, but it wore off significantly faster than when I broke my foot before so I was optimistic from early on that it was going to be okay. I immediately put ice on it, and was horrified 15 minutes later when I took the ice off and saw the ridiculous looking egg-sized swelling on the top of my foot where the ladder had landed. It looked like the type of thing that happens to the Coyote after the Road Runner drops a piano on his head in the cartoons.

I got an x-ray the next day (limping badly) and it didn't show a fracture, which I was thrilled about until my doctor examined it, diagnosed it as a probable "bone bruise" (bone contusion) and casually mentioned that it might be a Lisfranc injury. After googling Lisfranc injuries (basically an injury that means you can never run again) the nausea came back and I spent an entire afternoon sitting at my computer at work accomplishing nothing but compulsively trying to find a story of someone, somewhere who had a Lisfranc injury and recovered enough to do an Ironman. The doctor said there was no way to know until it started to heal, and that if the healing stopped, then it would be time to do an MRI.

Now, when I heard "bone bruise" I thought that a bone bruise is just like a normal bruise: broken blood vessels in the and around the bone. It wasn't until 3 weeks in (still swollen, tender, and all kinds of shades of black, blue, purple, and green) that I started freaking out and researched how long it takes for bone bruises to heal. News to me, but a bone bruise is actually a partial fracture of the bone -- some of the bone fibers break but not all of them, so it takes just as long to heal as a broken bone. Oh goody.

So here I am, just over 8 weeks later and finally beginning to exercise again. I've been able to walk normally since about week 4, but no jumping allowed and nothing tight across the top of my foot. So frustrating since I was all pumped and motivated, but such is life...

Anyway, I have been doing some walks for the past 2 weeks with little tiny increments of easy jogging, just to test the waters (and also my Garmin heart rate monitor, since my Ironman training program uses heart rate quite a lot). I've also been starting to swim again, which feels great despite being badly out of shape. It's been really fun to play with my Garmin watch (Forerunner 920 XT) and all the crazy stats it tracks when paired with the heart rate monitor. Granted I was walking for most of my workouts so far, but I can see that once I'm up and running again (get it?) the info will be really useful. It's really incredible to get real time feedback about heart rate. Amazing how quickly it jumps when I jog a little, and how little activity it takes at this point to get me to my target heart rate.

The walk/run itself was beautiful as well, as we went to Mana Rd. in Waimea. The air was clear and cool and Mauna Kea was in full view towering over us. I even ran past an owl sitting on a fencepost and he didn't even fly away, just swiveled his head all the way around to keep an eye on me as I went by.

I also used the Open Water Swim function for the first time, and I'm kind of obsessed with the satellite view of my workout. How bad ass is it to see your track headed through the breaking waves and out into the ocean?! Anyway, clearly my swimming has been very short and very slow, but I'm really just trying to get back into the habit or doing it, reawaken my muscles, and establish a routine so that when I'm really ready to start training, I can skip the whole bumbling-missteps stage. Plus, it's freaking gorgeous at Hapuna in the mornings and there is seriously no better way to start a day than letting the ocean push you around a little.

So far so good with my foot. We'll see how it goes as I add in more running!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Running for Mangos

Officially Mr. and Mrs. Triathlete
I've been itching to get back to triathlon training lately, after taking time off to marry my partner in life (and triathlon training!), buy a house together, move, and change jobs. It has been an extremely busy past 6 months and I know that life comes in seasons, so I fully enjoyed the transitions and didn't worry that we didn't really find time to train. This season was on of change, not of fitness, and that's okay. We had a beautiful and intimate wedding surrounded by the people we love, I started really dancing again (the "ballerina" part of this blog's title had really fallen by the wayside for a couple of years), and we are now settled into *our* home, a little plantation style cabin sitting on 1.6 beautiful acres out in the country.  It has awesome vaulted ceilings and tons of potential, and a quiet, lovely yard surrounded by tall trees that rustle and sway in the breeze. It also has lots of little roads and trails around it that I can't wait to run on...

So a couple of weekends ago, after a week of thinking about nothing but triathlon, I decided it was time to get back out there. My plan was to head down to Hapuna, swim a little, then run. As is customary for my first workout back any time I've taken a break, nothing went smoothly in trying to get ready; having moved 50 miles since my last workout only compounded matters. I didn't know where my running shoes were. Finally found those tucked away in my triathlon bag, which was itself tucked away in the attic. I dug through it hoping to find my swim bag, but of course it couldn't be that simple. It took me almost an hour of digging through boxes in the garage before I found the swim bag, and I was both amused and embarrassed to find my goggles inside, tangled up in lengths of Christmas ribbon, a cruel reminder of exactly how long it had been since they were used.

By the time I made it out of the house I no longer had time to swim, but was still pretty pumped about running. I had already decided that I wasn't going to push myself too much, just get back out there, get moving, get excited. I hadn't really thought about the fact that it was exactly one week before Honu, the half Ironman, so it was an added bonus when I arrived at Hapuna and found it swarming with triathletes preparing for the race.

On a side note, I have finally given in to wearing visor hats. I used to associate them with golfers and scoff a little under my breath when I saw people wearing them, but with the rim blocking the sun from your eyes and the absent back allowing the wind to cool your head, I just can't deny their practicality anymore. They're too damn comfortable! So, although I am somewhat out of shape (not too bad, thanks to ballet kicking my ass) I fit right in with all the spandexed, visored athletes.

My pace, however, did not fit in, and that was okay with me. I had decided prior to arriving that I was going to do 4 minutes walking, 2 minutes running, alternating, so as not to overdue it in the heat my first time out. This comfortable pace felt a little bit too comfortable, so after about a mile I switched to 3 minutes walking, 2 minutes running, which had the added bonus of landing on nice tidy 5-minute increments of time. It was so nice to back out there that it is beyond words. Like returning home I was reminded of all the little things I enjoy so much -- the feeling of breathing deeply and rhythmically, the view of the ocean off to the side, the cute little Franklin grouse scuttling across the road, and the smell of kiawe wood heated up in the sun. It was truly lovely.

I was surprised and somewhat entertained to see an aid station along the side of the road about a half-mile in, as if they had set it up just for me to sustain me through my first run back! In reality, it was for the free practice triathlon they always have the week before Honu (another thing I didn't think about!). For most of my run, the athletes were out on their bikes, but around the 3-mile mark I started seeing them, and at about 4 miles they started passing me. It was fun to see some familiar faces and extra motivating to be out there with them even if I wasn't part of their race.

Sweaty but happy!
Exactly at my turnaround point (2.5 miles), a man working in his yard and carrying a large bucket called out to me, asking if I'd like a mango. Being minorly obsessed with mangos, I said yes enthusiastically. He was wearing a Lavaman triathlon shirt so we talked briefly and before I started back the other direction he offered me another mango which, of course, I accepted. I had to giggle picturing what I must look like, carrying a mango in each hand as I sweated my way back to Hapuna! Some people carry weights while I power walk, perhaps this is just the Hawaii version!

Things felt pretty good up to about the 4 mile mark, when I started to get tired, or maybe just overheated. I hadn't brought water because I was thinking "5 miles isn't that long, I don't need water," but neglected to consider the fact that walk-running 5 miles takes longer than running the whole way, so as the time neared the 1-hour mark I got increasingly uncomfortable. By the time I got back to the aid station, I actually asked if I could have a cup of Gatorade. Luckily, runners are generous people and they were happy to share. I gulped the Gatorade (had to set my mangos down to down to this -- again thinking about how silly I must look), dragged myself up the last couple of hills, and made it back to Hapuna in good spirits.The 5 miles took me 1 hour and 11 minutes.

It was a lovely little reminder of what triathlon always teaches me: even when things start out a little rough and don't go quite as you planned, keep pushing through and you will be rewarded with mangos. Okay, maybe not always mangos. Sometimes you may have to settle for a personal sense of triumph, but either way, it always puts a smile on my face. I am excited for more.