Blogs tagged with "goals"

I know I've written about the subject, but my swim kick is the closest thing to dismal as it gets. It's never really been an asset - I've been told it's a liability - but I was always ok with that in the past. I dismissed criticism with a million-and-one excuses for why I didn't kick in the water and why I didn't need to:

  • I'm a distance swimmer!
  • I DO kick, it's just a two-beat kick. (Is that even a swimming term anymore?)
  • I started swimming at 14 and never developed a good flutter kick.
  • I'm a breaststroker, not a sprinter.
  • I have to save my legs for the bike and the run!
  • The more I use my legs in the pool, the more it will screw up my running muscles. (This was a high school myth, I think.)
  • and the list goes on...
Now that swimming is my primary sport, my whole attitude toward kicking has changed. These days, we don't distinguish kicking styles - even distance swimmers need a strong kick. Here's a great article from The Race Club about the importance of kick to overall speed. A good kick supplies 10 to 15 percent of overall propulsive force. My kick, however, did nothing for me. In fact, I'm not sure you could even call what I did "kicking." It was just a vague reference to kicking. My kick had one purpose: to float my legs. When I made a conscious effort to kick, it became a hindrance. It made my stroke choppy and added drag... it literally slowed me down. Have you ever looked out the airplane window and watched the air-brakes pop up on the wings when you land? Well that's what my feet look like in the water.
 
But where to start? I already knew (from video and other swimmers) my kick was wide and un-symmetrical, and it pretty much stalls every time I take a breath. I noticed in longer swims, I have a bizarre tendency to drag my right leg so it's even stiff when I get out of the water. Come to think of it, I do this while I'm running too - it's my right foot that trips me up on uneven sidewalks. Here's a good shot of my crazy-wide kick. (I'm smack in the middle of the photo.) Nice high elbow though.
 
 
I was determined to educate myself on how to fix my kick to make it better and faster even if it meant taking a step backward in training.
 
The first lesson? Have flexible feet. Well.. my first thought was: I'm screwed. I considered throwing in the towel immediately. The very thing that made me a good runner was the thing that was going to sink (literally) my swim kick. I have what's called the "clunk [or rigid] foot" - a term taken from Timothy Noakes' Lore of Running. I spent my running career coddling my feet.. giving them love in the form of high-tech running shoes with lots of cushioning. They were never expected (or asked) to yield or be flexible. No siree! My feet were getting the last laugh. And unless I did something to change them, they would do nothing for my swimming.
 
Flexible feet can be developed, and I've been researching how to do it. It involves stretching and stretching and more stretching. Some say to sit on your feet with your knees off the ground. I found out the hard way I can't get my knees up for more than a split-second. Yep, this may take a while. The photos below are what my foot looks like fully extended (seriously, that's as good as I can do) - before (top) and after a few days of stretching. I've convinced myself they show (an oh-so-miniscule amount of) progress. I'm determined to get my toes to touch the ground if it's the last thing I ever do.
 
 
The second lesson on kicking? Kick from the hip, not from the knees. While watching others kick, the difference is instantly obvious. I've noticed when runners learn to swim, their legs take on the appearance of running in the water - they employ an enormous amount of knee-bending creating a massive amount of drag. And training with a kick-board tends to accentuate and reinforce this type of kicking because of its upright body position in the water. Thus, to work on kicking from my hip, I've mostly ditched the kick-board during kick drills to focus on streamlining my body in the water. I'm using fins to develop strength and better technique, and I'm doing more backstroke to further develop the hip-kicking motion.
 
The third lesson? Kick more narrow. This is one of the hardest things because my foot position is (literally) the furthest thing from my brain while I'm swimming. But forcing myself to kick narrow decreases drag and makes me use my feet more. Think about it: if my legs are taking up a space wider than my shoulders (the widest part of my body (hopefully)), then I'm creating drag. One suggestion was to put a rubber band around my knees forcing me to kick with my feet in a very narrow space. One of my swimmer friends told me he's been "trying to create a propeller motion" with his feet based on what he's noticed in the kicking motion of great swimmers. Cool! But in my current state, with my big dumb inflexible feet, I'll be happy with just a narrower kick.
 
So my focus over the past few months has been two-fold: swimming longer for arm strength and endurance and developing a kick that actually works. The most useful drill seems to be streamline kicking without fins with a swimmer's snorkel. This allows me to keep my head down without worrying about breathing - I can just attend to what my feet are doing. When I do hard 50s after this drill, I can actually "feel" propulsion coming from my kick. The biggest issue will be translating that kick to my longer swim sets. Kicking hard while sprinting is one thing - adding it to distance swimming is something entirely different. But I have to start somewhere or I'll be going nowhere in the water.
 
The bottom line is that a streamlined kick is a just like everything else we do in swimming - it's not so much about strength as it is about perfecting a specific skill. As my favorite coach, John Klarman, used to say: "Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect." Kicking skill is much more important than I previously wanted to believe - certainly orders of magnitude more important than most triathletes believe. And as a recovering triathlete that still loves to run, I also must stop worrying that a strong swim kick will destroy my running. (It won't.) But that's an entirely different issue - or, more likely, rant - for a future post.

I know I've written about the subject, but my swim kick is the closest thing to dismal as it gets. It's never really been an asset - I've been told it's a liability - but I was always ok with that in the past. I dismissed criticism with a million-and-one excuses for why I didn't kick in the water and why I didn't need to.

A week from today, I'll be toeing the line in my longest swim ever - a nine-mile race in Ocean City, Maryland. I don't know what I was thinking when I registered for such a long distance as my second open-water swim race. Well, yes I do. I was thinking: no problem, I'll have plenty of time to train. Go big or go home, right?

However, at the time of registration, I had no way of knowing I would be going to the Glastonbury Festival only three weeks before the race. I didn't factor in the eight-day hiatus from training - or the jet lag. Now, I find myself up against the wall and not at all confident in my current ability to finish nine miles.

Swim first,
ask questions later.

The difference this time is that I don't lack the confidence in myself. I don't have that fear anymore. I'm actually looking forward to this race even if I cannot finish. I'll be doing the thing I love - swimming in the ocean - where I feel most at home. If I don't finish because I don't have the training or racing experience behind me, then I don't finish. It will be because I didn't do what I needed to do to get to the finish line. And it will not define me. I've sloughed off the burden of assuming I'm a crap swimmer or a crap athlete because I don't finish a race.

What I WILL do is kick myself for not thinking ahead. (Obviously, I'm already doing that, but not as an excuse.) In fact, I'm laughing at myself because of how ridiculously unprepared I am for a potentially grueling experience. It's just that it's not the ultimate goal.

One thing is for sure - I would never have missed Glastonbury for all the training in the world. I will happily live with that. The lessons I learned there were more powerful than those training or racing could have taught me.

In fact, the only reason I'm writing this particular blog post is to put it "out there" so that when the going gets tough, I can remind myself I wrote this. It's a commitment for me to honor. To not give up. To tell the story of the struggle. If I don't get to the finish line, I will have to be dragged out of the water unconscious.. or injured.. or sick because of nutrition mistakes. It will NOT be due to lack of will.

I want to finish, but most of all, I want to enjoy the process. I want to make mistakes. I want to learn. Swim races are not the goal for me. Swimming is. The act of swimming, that is. Open water swimming gives me a high and a challenge no other sport has given me. It's me against myself. When I'm out there, I don't feel competition around me. I only feel the water.

And that's what sport should be.

Hopefully I'll look this happy after 9 miles but I'm not expecting to.

The Kona fallout is in full swing. The crying. The insomnia. The questions. The search for answers. The kicking myself. The hating myself. The wondering about the future. The doubts. The fear of getting back into training just to fail again.

I've also had doubts about continuing to blog. I don't get much feedback here so I assume few people are at all interested. I guess I just write for myself. Of late, I've reconnected with a very good friend with whom I hope to run over the winter. He is a scientist and philosopher and I've been encouraging him to write a blog because, selfishly, I want reference material for our future running conversations. I told him my thoughts on whether I should continue writing despite having little impact. He gave me the following huge compliment: "Your stuff is interesting because you dare to try to do stuff that is big and then you 'break.' And you make the breaks sound so interesting."

So I decided to channel my negative energy into something productive involving this blog - a new goal to include in it. My thoughts went directly to the other great (creative) passion in my life - the thing I neglect when I'm training and racing - my art.

My new (and I admit, lofty) goal is to do a drawing a day for one year. Starting today.

I've given myself a little leeway. The drawings can be quick incomplete sketches or large-scale manifestaions in color. On anything from barmats or napkins to acid-free 100% cotton paper.

And so it begins... my first drawing is in a sketchbook, and it is a continuation of a group of drawings that I recently renamed "Catharsis" (at the suggestion of a friend) because it involves working through pain and injury.

And here it is, my first drawing in the series, a representation of how my shoulder feels since I fell on it while running this summer:

The Kona fallout is in full swing. The crying. The insomnia. The questions. The search for answers. The kicking myself. The hating myself. The wondering about the future. The doubts. The fear of getting back into training just to fail again.

The fall marathon season is upon us. And, surprisingly, upon ME. As I vaguely remember, in the midst of a red wine haze on Thursday evening, I declared to my "running" friends that I would indeed attempt a marathon this fall. I call them my "running" friends because they're my awesome friends from my "running only" days who still want to hang out with me even though I went over to the dark side (triathlon).

So... this whole marathon thing got me to thinking about the "olden days" when I used to run a marathon as my goal race of the season. Every year, that was my shot at glory, to get my best time of the season in a race that lasted ONLY around three hours, hopefully (for me). Every year, the disappointment of running great splits right up until the wall, and then begging my body to hang on for five or six more miles. Every year, thinking I could run at least five minutes faster, and then being ecstatic to shave off, maybe, 30 seconds. And every year, wondering what the hell I was doing at the same starting line of the same race. Again.

That "same" race was the Columbus Marathon in Columbus, Ohio. It's a course made for a P.B. (personal best) that used to be held at at a time of year made for a P.W. (personal worst). The time of year was mid-November in Ohio when all hell could break loose, and did, when it came to the weather. One year it was in the 80s. One year it was in the 30s and snowing. One year it was in the 20s with a windchill of 0. Tall tales from THAT year have reported windchills well under -20 degrees F. THAT year was the year I learned that you can, indeed, grow icicles inside your clothing. But despite the weather, I continued to enter the Columbus Marathon many times in the last decade of the 20th century. And it was in the repeat running that I truly learned the importance of taking splits and being a "geek" runner (or mad scientist).

I tell anyone who wants to see their running improve to make a conscious effort to record splits in all their races. Even the bad races. Afterwards, no matter how painful it is, WRITE THEM DOWN. Then, if you must, hide them until you're able to look at them again without crying (kind of like photos of an ex). I've done this religiously for the past 20 years. I have two full "split books," most of which are lists of numbers (mile times) surrounded by textual rantings about how horribly wrong my race went. But even then, when I look back, I find lessons about attitude and what to avoid on certain courses, and sometimes - just sometimes - I figure out how to run that P.B.

And that's what happened in the Columbus Marathon. In November 1998, I decided to run Columbus less than a month after a disastrous attempt at the Chicago Marathon. I needed a pick-me-up (see a pattern here?). I pulled out my split book and Microsoft Excel (this may well be the ONLY time I ever mention Microsoft in a positive light) and plotted my mile splits from 1994, 1995 and 1996. It looked like this:

I've plotted my mile splits for many races, and my best races are the ones for which this chart is pretty much a flat line (i.e., even splits). For Columbus, the first thing I noticed - besides the fact that I run slow first miles, go out too fast, and hit the wall around mile 21 - was something very funky going on around mile 18. Was it just in the Columbus Marathon? I checked other marathon splits... yep, only Columbus. Could it be a hill? Impossible. There ARE no hills in Columbus. In fact, there are very few hills in the entire state of Ohio. I decided I would keep an eye on that point in the race... and try not to go out too fast.

If there's one good thing about being analytical, it's that it takes the emotion out of running. And in Columbus in 1998, I needed to approach the race with no emotion. I had wasted all my emotional energy that year in Chicago in one of my worst marathon performances ever. I had run on less than 3 hours of sleep in the two days leading up to the race. Needless to say, disaster struck.

Columbus had to be different. I approached it with a level head (read: emotionless) and ran not only my fastest marathon by four minutes, but one of my most even-split marathons (to that point). I ran smart, with a plan based on reviewing mistakes of the past. And not surprisingly, I found out exactly what happens at mile 18. It's a dead zone. It's the only point on the entire Columbus Marathon course with no crowd support. When I realized it, I focused on my pace and got through it with no problem. I plotted my splits on the above chart and now it looked like this (note the purple line):

Sure I hit the wall. But I didn't run a slow first mile. And I didn't go out too fast. And I'm sure you can draw numerous other conclusions about both me and the Columbus Marathon from the graph. But I wanted to focus this blog on the race plan I could formulate to conquer the course based on past "concrete" experience (not just my clouded memory). My advice to my readers: remember to record the data. Then USE the data.

In eight days, I will return to another race I've done more than once, the Firmman Half-ironman in Narragansett, Rhode Island. It's a race I'm very fond of for many reasons: it's near where I grew up (Connecticut), it's the only triathlon my parents ever saw me race (and the last race my dad was ever at), it's the course on which I did my half-ironman P.B. (and, interestingly enough, ran my fastest-ever half-marathon), and it's the site of one of my famous disaster stories (in 2008, the whole race was canceled because of Hurricane Hannah). Will I be reviewing my splits from years past? You betcha. There's lots of history. And lots of opportunity. And hopefully, at least one good blog story.

Seven days to Ironman Lake Placid and I'm well into my taper. I've been sounding like a broken record complaining about how sluggish and heavy I've been feeling (the usual taper doldrums) and how worried I am about all the little aches and pains that are creeping up. Jim says I'm "saying exactly the same thing you always do during a taper." I'll have to trust him on this one.

The last time I was in Lake Placid, I didn't even know Jim. The most, and only, significant thing about Lake Placid was its Olympic history as the site of the "Miracle on Ice." It was a place to which you could never really "go" because the only way to "go" there would be to do it in a time-machine set to February 1980. And at my age, the excitement of seeing Mike Eruzione's goal in person would probably kill me.
But, in 1984, I did "go" to Lake Placid. Not in a time machine, but in a car. AND it was during the summer, when there was no snow -- and no hockey. I was with my college boyfriend and his brother and another guy who had some insane idea that he was going to hike to Mount Marcy, the highest peak in the Adirondacks, carrying nothing but a book of descriptions of "edible plants." We were such a bunch of hippies that we thought it was a brilliant idea. We dropped him at a trailhead, nine miles from his destination, and headed for Lake Placid.
Driving through Lake Placid was not what I expected. Lake Placid was not the "great city in the clouds." It was a little Adirondack village. There was one main road and the Olympic ski jumps rose above it like the towers of a great European cathedral. And just like that, it was gone. A tiny little mountain town that captivated the world by being the site of the ultimate underdog story. As a hockey fanatic, that U.S. Olympic moment was such a huge part of my formative years that I still use it as one of my "I remember exactly what I was doing when" stories. Going there the first time should have been a pilgrimage, but instead, it was just a "drive-by." Besides the ski jumps, the only other thing I remember was a hot dog stand called "Custard, Mustard and Brew."
Going back will be the pilgrimage. This time, I'm looking for my own miracle, my own underdog story. Physically, I'm in the best shape since my 2003 bike accident. But Ironman is mostly a mental race, and I want to do it right, with a good race strategy. Miracles rarely happen without some help from the weather, equipment and smart planning. But at the end of the day, I just want to know I did the best I could.
As most of my friends know, I'm notorious for setting goals based on passion, way above what's achievable, that usually end in failure. This time, I wanted realistic goals, based on logic, that don't depend on anyone else's race. I started out with some goals that were 99.9% reachable and worked downward from there. So without further delay, here are my Ironman Lake Placid Goals:
  • Stop at "Custard, Mustard and Brew" (I Googled it, and it still exists. Failure rate: 0.1%)
  • Make the pilgrimage to the Olympic ice hockey rink. (I didn't Google it, but it MUST exist. Failure rate: 0.1%)
  • Pack clothes for all conditions (even snow) and PUT THEM IN MY SPECIAL NEEDS BAGS. (After hypothermia in June in Coeur d'Alene, I think I've learned my lesson, nonetheless, it's not failsafe, so failure rate: 5%)
  • Go to sleep early, the goal request from J-Team member Jim. (Knowing my history, failure rate: 30%)
  • Smile at least once on the run. (Feasible if I do it at the beginning of the run, failure rate: 32%)
  • Stay focused and go out easy on the bike and run. (Knowing my history, but remembering success at the Pittsburgh Marathon, failure rate: 35%)
  • Enjoy the experience, no matter what happens. (I've been getting better at this, failure rate: 37%)
  • Get a decent finish line photo -- i.e., one where I'm mostly conscious, standing up straight, and my eyes point in the same directions. If possible, raise my arms and attempt to smile if my facial muscles still work. (I've partially succeeded in this in the past, failure rate 42%)
  • Stay out of the medical tent! another J-Team goal (As the Disaster Magnet, I've never successfully done this in an Ironman, failure rate: 70% ... i.e., not impossible)

Seven days to Ironman Lake Placid and I'm well into my taper.

Who would have thought that at the age of 45, I would develop what appears to be asthma. Yes, I've been dealing with three or four sinus infections per year and seasonal allergies that began later in life... like, in my 30s. But asthma? That's just a disease that "other" people have -- my husband, my mother-in-law... Asthma? It would surely ruin me. I'm an endurance athlete. I LIVE to breathe large.

Alas, not only have I suffered what appears to be an allergy-induced asthma attack, but, being the Disaster Magnet, it happened in the worst possible way (for me) -- DURING a race.
The race was the Kinetic Half (Ironman) at Lake Anna State Park in Spotsylvania, VA. I had several goals for the race, none of which included an asthma attack. I had written them down before the race in my trusty split book:
  • practice nutrition for Ironman Lake Placid
  • practice transitions (or, as the case may be, learn how to do transitions again)
  • have a decent run leg (taking into account the Pittsburgh marathon six days earlier)
  • assess my bike training

The day started out like most race days... no - wait! The day started out BETTER than most race days. Why? Because I got about five or six hours of sleep the night before. No panic. No anxiety. Just sleep. We got to the site early, I picked up my chip, got body-marked, and set up my stuff in transition. Athletes were discussing the weather -- the wind was expected to pick up to about 20 mph by the time we were on our bikes. The one thing to remember: it's everyone's problem. This race was windy last year too.

The 1.2-mile swim was a single loop in a triangle shape. My wave, the over-40 women, was second to last -- that took a little pressure off. The water was 74 degrees. I warmed up in my wetsuit and decided to keep it on just in case the water further out was colder (it was). Jim mentioned I was smiling at the starting line -- my response was that it was the first time in ages I wasn't mentally frazzled from lack of sleep at a start. I lined up in the front (mostly because the women in my age group were not jockeying for position), the start horn blew, I hit my watch, and we were off.
I should have known in the first few strokes that something wasn't right. As usual, I went out fast to get a good position in the water, but within a few strokes, my lungs felt like I was swimming all-out. You know that feeling you get when you swim a whole pool-length underwater and just barely make it? When you come up for air and your body is screaming for oxygen? THAT'S how I felt. It was very scary, weird, and confusing and I slowed down to try and catch my breath. Not knowing what to do, I eased back and pressed on. At that point in the race, I thought the mistakes were all in my pacing and never considered that something was physically wrong.
The last leg of the swim was directly into the sun. I stopped several times to spot the buoys and shoreline only to realize I was the one people were drafting off. It went by quicker than expected, and I got out of the water second in my wave.
My transition was a disaster. I should have expected that with no practice. I had to sit down and struggle with my wetsuit at my ankles for what seemed like hours. When I was finally free, I took the quickest way around the racks and out of transition. Atypically, I ran in my bike shoes because the T1 exit was on gravel. It was an uphill bike mount, and mine felt like a comedy of errors (note to self - PRACTICE which side to run on and which pedal needs to be UP).
The two-loop 56-mile bike course is very rolling with some great downhills but the wind was a huge factor on the bike -- we went out and finished against it. Getting speed and rhythm on the bike was hard with the lingering (hilly) marathon fatigue in my quads. During this race, I wanted to get comfortable with my new bike and aero position and practice fueling. Because it was hot and dry, I drank 20-24 ounces per hour with about 250 calories/hour from E.F.S. Liquid Shot (which includes electrolytes) and Carbo-Pro. Bike fueling was dead on -- no dizzyness, no feeling of dehydration.
It was my lung problem that came into focus on the bike. About halfway through the first loop, I took a deep breath and found myself coughing. Thinking I had sucked in a bug, I was surprised that the sensation continued, and I felt the need to cough every time I breathed deep. After considering dropping out at the end of the first loop, I decided to keep going, take shallow breaths and hope it went away. I wondered if it would affect my run. I also kept getting "stuff" in my eyes and tried to wash it out with water but couldn't (I would find out later that there wasn't "stuff" in my eyes).
I knew my bike leg was slow, but I passed many women and I knew I was winning my age group. I would make it up on the run. If I COULD run. But I was losing concentration on the race with growing concerns about my breathing problems. Coming into transition, I forgot my navigational route, went the opposite way and overshot my bike rack. I had trouble getting into my running shoes (note to self -- FIX the insoles of racing shoes), then fumbled with my hat and gel packs before getting on my way.
I started the 13.1-mile run out of breath on the first short jog out and back before the three-loop course. My immediate breathing difficulties centered around the inability to get a lungful of air. When I saw Jim, I stopped and told him I couldn't catch my breath. I started coughing. A race volunteer asked me if I needed help. I did, but my biggest concern was dropping out. In a moment, medical personnel were there to help me assess what was wrong. I was coughing. I couldn't stop. I was almost choking by the time they put me in the ambulance. Someone said "emergency room" and my worries skyrocketed. I was still hoping to finish the race at that point. (I was leading my age group for crying out loud!) I answered a bunch of questions about medication and my lungs and after about 30 minutes of breathing-coughing-breathing-coughing I decided, with their urging, to end my race. One of the EMS personnel informed us that because of the dryness, the pollen count that day was close to 4000 (whatever that means) instead of the usual 250. They think I may have had an asthma attack triggered by allergies and that my body was unprepared for the difference in Latitude. The only relief from coughing came when I was given humidified air through a breathing mask. Even the oxygen tube didn't help (but that might have been because I couldn't breathe through my nose). So much for spring races in the "south." I had noticed the blooms were MUCH different in Spotsylvania than in Cleveland this weekend.
After I got out of the ambulance, I went to the bathroom and noticed my eyes were swollen and I had the dreaded hives on my eyeballs that I get when I go running in the first two weeks of spring blooms. That explains what felt like sand in my eyes on the bike. We got back to the car and to find it covered with pollen. It still bothers me and I keep wondering if I did the right thing or if I should have just backed off my pace and toughed it out. And why me? Why didn't anyone else have this problem?
The questions persisted on the drive home with one respite. Jim wanted to stop and see the Civil War battlefield of The Wilderness. And we got lucky because a National Park Service historian was just about to give a short tour describing the battle. Before I went to last year's race, my friend Curt told me that the area in and around Spotsylvania played a huge part in the Civil War but I didn't know about it until yesterday. Walking the field and hearing how thousands of Americans lost their lives in a horrific battle has a tendency to put everything in perspective. If I weren't so concerned about breathing, I might have broke down in tears. It was humbling and spine-tingling and sad. The photo at right is a memorial to one of the Union volunteer brigades that charged into battle first.
It took many hours before I was able to breathe deep without coughing -- the coughing stopped on the drive home when the weather changed to wet and colder. Another data point in the disaster chronicles. Jim says it's better we know now than to find out in a more important race. (And maybe my spring training will benefit.) I'm still struggling a bit with the disappointment, but I know he's right. And I did learn some other lessons from this race like what I need to work on (transitions) and what is working (bike nutrition). So all is not lost. But my first order of business for the coming week will be to see an allergist.

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