Blogs tagged with "running"

Could 2017 also be the year I decide to blog more regulary? Is twice a month considered "regular"? Well, whatever - I just needed to vent.

In a year of environmental, political, social, and economic uncertainty and my second year focusing on open-water swimming, I already committed (read: paid entry) to two races, both in Maryland and both I've done (well, started) before: the Great Chesapeake Bay Swim 4.4-mile and the Ocean Games 9-mile. Neither was a resounding success last year, and thus, I have two goals so far for this year, i.e., do better than last year.

Speaking of goals, the more I delve into the realm of open-water swimming, the more interested I get and the more pie-in-the-sky goals I tentatively set for myself. I've even become interested in this crazy sport called ice swimming (Google it). But I'm currently struggling with a big mental setback: coping with the physical changes (and challenges) of going from a runner/triathlete to just a swimmer (who runs and bikes occasionally).

With football-player shoulders (30 yrs ago)
With runner shoulders (2 yrs ago)

Let's get the first one out there: the weight gain. Yep, I know, I know. It's muscle (for now - it may very well be fat when I start back into cold water swimming). But I've been longingly staring into my closet afraid to even attempt putting on clothes that might be tight on me. Back in high school and college, I weighed 20 pounds more and the only shirts I could wear were large - I had this crazy, unwieldy, oversized upper body. All my long sleeves were short. I always felt like a freak even though I probably wasn't as freaky-looking as I imagined.

Surprisingly, I'm really struggling to accept that this is what it will take - these body changes - to do what I want as an open water swimmer. My former runner body will not last long in 55-60 degree open water. After all these years and all the positive body image messages out there, why does this still bother me? Why am I struggling to rise above it? Obviously, I have a LOT of work to do before I can look into the mirror and say that I like myself no matter what I look like. But I'm trying. And hopefully, my passion for swimming and drive to achieve far-reaching goals as an open-water swimmer will win out over something as petty as body image.

But I do love this new sport and I can't wait to get back into lake swimming once the water warms to at least 50 degrees. In the meantime, I'm taking cold showers after my pool swims and reading Becoming the Iceman by Wim Hof and Justin Rosales.

I've also been doing a lot of drawing lately, some realistic, some not-so-realistic:

Could 2017 also be the year I decide to blog more regulary? Is twice a month considered "regular"? Well, whatever - I just needed to vent.

Remember this?

I took a few days off after my cold-water revelation last weekend to decompress and to abuse myself by doing a 180 - running in a Midwest heatwave marked by several "heat advisory" days this week. (Note, running is my other zen sport, it's my self-medication.)

When I DID get back in the water, I was reminded of two things: (1) the task at hand, oh so long ago, before the Glastonbury festival, before whipping myself into endurance-racing mode - i.e., re-learning proper technique - and (2) teaching my body how to survive, or thrive, in cold water. Now that I think about it, one of these things may benefit the other.
Here's my thought: if I learn how to swim better, I should be faster, right? And if I'm faster, I will be out of the cold water quicker - right? Yeah yeah, I know I still need to learn how to SWIM in cold water because I certainly haven't forgotten how quickly hypothermia sets in... I'm sure there's an equation for conduction or convection I probably (should have) learned in heat transfer class when I got my engineering degree.
I survived for more than 5 minutes.

I was reminded of my crazy English swimming compadres in London in December (remember that?). They were able to swim in sub-50 degree F water for long periods of time because their bodies had been slowly acclimated to it as the temperatures dropped. If you remember my blog posts about that experience, I noticed a difference in my own ability to withstand cold water even after the second time. And in my previous post, I told you about the advice from Ocean Games race director and open-water swimmer Corey Davis - his recommendations were to take cold showers and extend my open-water swim season into the colder months.


So, that's the plan. But in the meantime, while the water is still warm, I need to determine how to perfect my swim stroke so that I spend less time in that cold water. 

The last thing I did with respect to THIS goal was to get video of my swim stroke underwater. Here it is:


And, whoa, talk about revelations! There's a LOT to improve on. I may have the high-elbow thing going for me, but my underwater pull is ridiculously wide. There's not nearly enough water being grabbed and pulled back. Ineed to get my forearm under my body so I'm moving through a smaller area. I have also recently realized that I swim faster when using a pull-buoy, which I think might have something to do with my right arm not going as wide and breathing on the left.
But I needed more than hunch. I needed data. I'm a scientist after all.
So... here's my (pseudo-)scientific analysis...
I first noted that if I don't think about it, I breathe naturally on my right without a pull-buoy but naturally on my left WITH one. I've been baffled by this for years (since I started swimming again after more than 15 years away from the sport). When I was a competitive pool-swimmer, I could bilateral breathe with no change in my stroke. But now, it's a struggle to breathe on my left. WITHOUT a pull-buoy. I am convinced this means something - like one whole side of my body is weak. 

I started experimenting in the pool in the past several weeks. At the end of my workouts, I swim 50s with and without a pull-buoy and concentrate on what my arms and legs are doing. Here's what I've found (and it's extremely annoying): without a pull-buoy breathing naturally on my right working very hard to keep my body and kick streamlined, my 50-yard time is within one second of my time with a pull-buoy breathing naturally on my left. The difference (i.e., the annoying thing) is the very little amount of effort I have to put in while swimming with a pull-buoy. 

What could possibly be going on here? Are my legs or my kick causing massive drag? It's hard to believe that I'm not getting at least a tiny bit of propulsion from my kick. Is my pull different when breathing on different sides? Am I in a different position in the water?

After studying it the best I can (it's not easy to study with detachment from an internal state), it does, indeed, feel like I'm getting more from my pull when I breathe on my left. I come up with two pieces of evidence: being right-handed/right-dominant, my right arm is stronger, and when breathing on my left, I rotate in a way that keeps my right arm under my body instead of way-wide like in the video. Further study Also revealed to me that I turn my head to breathe at a different point in the stroke cycle on each side. Breathing right, although it "feels" natural, it's more awkward to the stroke and there's an obvious momentary lapse in my kick.

And therefore, this week, while I recover mentally from the failed race finish, I've begun doing drills to fix my bilateral breathing and sync my kick. It's not natural just yet, and it probably won't be for a while, but hopefully I'll have something to show in a month or two.
Cloud Gate (Anish Kapoor)
The giant reflecting "bean" in Chicago's Millennium Park

I found out I was a runner when I was ten years old.

Throughout the years, running has been my go-to therapy for all that ailed me. It was the one sport I fully understood. I knew how to train. I knew how to race. And I knew how to get injured. When I switched to triathlon after my fifth stress fracture, I had a distinctive advantage as a fast runner. My race didn't start until I was off the bike. I rarely worried about getting passed on the bike because I knew I would be feeling good when the great cyclists were struggling to get to the finish line.

But that's all in the past - when I was young. And fast. For the last three years, I've been struggling with an injury that threatened to once and for all end my days of being a (good) runner. I've been told my hamstring tendon will never be 100%. And despite working like crazy on the bike, I can never keep up with the really fast women in my age group. I've gotten a little closer to them, but never close enough to put me within striking distance on the run. It doesn't help that I haven't looked forward to the run leg either. Coming off the bike has been akin to a funeral march and I've lost the killer instinct that made triathlon racing so enjoyable. I have been going through the motions hoping something - anything - would change.

And finally, this year, I entered a new age group, and things were on the verge of getting better. I was ready to train hard. All the painful and difficult therapy had finally begun to pay off, and my running became mostly pain-free. I started to enjoy running for the first time in three years, and my speed was slowly coming back. I was thrilled.

Then came my infection, surgery and down time - right at the beginning of racing season - and all my hopes for this new age group year evaporated. I damned myself as the disaster-magnet I was and wrestled with throwing in the towel on the whole year. Dropping out of several already-paid-for races, one of them the ITU Long Course World Championship, and the fear of throwing money away was weighing heavy on my shoulders - especially after giving up my full-time income for a career as an artist (read: no income). Stress got the best of me, and I suffered with insomnia and anxiety for many weeks.

By the end of July, my surgeon still hadn't given me the green light to get back in the pool, but I was still entered in the ITU Age Group Standard Distance Worlds in Chicago on September 19. I was panicking. I kept asking my husband Jim, "How am I going to race a World Championship in the shape I'm in?"

I secretly hoped he would say "drop out," but his answer? "Speed work."

I couldn't come up with a better idea, so I decided to suck it up and make my best attempt to speed up my 10K run with weekly short hard intervals in August. Time was running out and my expectations were low. Two weeks after I started swimming again, I raced the USAT Age Group Nationals in Milwaukee. The snail-like swim pace didn't bother me nearly as much as my run time. I couldn't get a single mile under seven minutes. It was embarrassing to know I once ran a marathon at 6:30 pace.

Although I had been working hard on the bike, I didn't hold out hope to ride with the "big girls" in Chicago. All I wished was to avoid losing time on the run, and at the very least, I knew I could speed up my swim time from Milwaukee's all-time-slowest. This had become a rescue mission. For my mental health, I needed to salvage something from this triathlon season and prove to myself I could still work hard and get results.

When I toed the line in Chicago last Saturday, I knew it would be an all-out effort. I would race with everything I had that day and be happy knowing I did as much work as I could with the hand I was dealt this year.

As usual, my legacy as the Disaster Magnet was on the horizon.

It started with rain and wind in Chicago that was bad enough to alter the races on Friday and move our bike check-in to race morning. My wake-up time and morning nutrition was already less-than-ideal because of a wave start at 12:20 pm. Now I would have to be up and in downtown Chicago for more than seven hours before my race. Ugh.

Race morning was beautiful.

The only thing that made race morning enjoyable was the ease in which we could get into transition and prep our stuff. On the way in, I was met by a smiling volunteer who I failed to recognize as our USAT Mideast Regional Vice-chair Mike Wendorf. I must have looked a little anxious and he said to me "Today, you ARE Gwen Jorgensen." (I would see him again at the finish line where he recognized me and gave me a huge hug. It's always amazing to connect and reconnect with people all over the world in this sport.)

After bike prep, I had to figure out how to spend the next several hours and plan my nutrition to avoid stomach issues during the race. Jim and I relaxed in the car, in the Team USA hotel lobby, wandering around the race site, watching start waves, and figuring out where to hang out between bathroom stops. It seemed like forever. Finally it was time to put on my wetsuit and make my way to the staging area.

Disaster number 2 came - yep - just in time for my start wave, age group women 50-54. We were herded into the start corral, given final instructions on the swim course, and marched toward the starting dock. Except..... WAIT! Something has gone wrong with the pontoon dock! We were herded backwards into the corral, and along came a forklift to fix it. No, I am NOT making this up. We waited, and waited, and waited... trying to laugh about baking in our wetsuits in the sun.

Then came the announcement - the dock was fully broken, and conditions were deemed unsafe to proceed to the start. There would be a modified swim. We waited some more. Then came another announcement. The swim had to be shortened to less than sprint distance. There were outcries. One woman even asked if we could swim further by getting in the water upstream of the start. The slow swimmers were ecstatic. And we waited again.

Disappointment set in. I wanted that 1500m swim. I needed as much help as I could get, and the longer the swim, the better it would be for me - I was born a distance swimmer. But there was nothing to be done. It would be a 700m swim.

See? I wasn't kidding about the forklift.
Waiting... waiting... and waiting.

We had to wait while officials prepped the altered swim course, and around 1:00 pm, about 40 minutes after our official start time, we were finally in the water. The start horn signaled a mad all-out sprint unlike any race I've ever done. The course followed the marina wall at the edge of Grant Park. I did the best I could with my one-speed distance stroke, but I knew I was well-behind the leaders. Jim said I started catching people in the final yards - probably because everyone else went out sprinting. Oh, how I wished we had the whole 1500m.

It was a long run to transition - almost 400m - and I got out of my wetsuit faster than usual and was on the bike course in about three minutes. I knew I had to go hard from the start - so that's what I did.

The 40K bike course was underwhelming for a world championship. There were four hairpin turns and much of the course was in the underground tunnels known as Lower Wacker Drive. Low light made it hard to see road hazards, but I still rode as hard as I could and played leap-fog with the same few women for most of the bike. My speed on the flats was 24-25mph - really fast for me - and surprisingly (to me), I managed to keep myself in the race on the bike. The bike course was slightly short, and the finish came quickly after one turn-around. There was such a frenzy at the dismount line that a woman in front of me went down hard with her bike. I stopped for second to make sure she was ok, then took off on another long run to transition. Transition was a bit slow when I struggled to rack my bike from the handlebars (usually not a problem), but my shoes went on quick, and I was about to find out the worth of a month of speed training.

On the bike course when it wasn't underground.

Except, NO! Instead of hitting the split button, I hit "stop" on my Garmin out of transition. I didn't realize it until mile 2 of the run because I was intent on running down all the women I was with on the bike course.

For the first time in three years, I felt good - really good - on the 10K run leg. That killer instinct came back and I just ran. I WAS Gwen Jorgensen. Once I restarted my Garmin, I was clocking well under a seven minute-per-mile pace - without any of the usual fatigue. I don't know how many women in my age group I ran down, but at the finish, I was only 11 seconds behind fourth place, and I heard the announcement for third.

So. Close. (If only I had another K. Or that 850m back in the swim.) But I wasn't going to lament this. Live and learn. My run was back.

I got that feeling... you know? That feeling you get when you're running well? Like you've broken through some kind of barrier. I had it the year I ran my first sub-2:50 marathon in Duluth, MN. I had it when I ran the eight-mile leg of Hood to Coast at a sub-6-minute pace. I had it the day I ran down the previous-year's champ to win the Quad Cities Marathon. I had it when I ran down all the age group leaders off the bike at the 2011 Ironman 70.3 World Championship. And I had it Saturday in Chicago. No, it wasn't my fastest 10K, but felt damn good not to be crawling my way through the fog of fatigue for the first time in a very long time.

The finish.

Imagine my surprise when I looked up the results to see my run leg at 45:45. How could that be? Was my Garmin wrong? I KNOW one of my miles was a 6:32 - and the last four were sub-7. Could I have run the first two over a minute slower? My elation turned to devastation. How could it feel so fast when I was running so slow?

I was in a daze. The walk back to transition to pick up my bike was now the funeral march. Jim was desperately searching for something to say - to cheer me up. I don't remember much until I heard the the question... Someone in transition.. asked.. "Was the run...... long?"

THAT'S IT!

Others had the GPS run distance of 6.7 miles. That would put my pace at... 6:49! Devastation turned back to elation. I couldn't wait to tell Jim! The drive home that night would be long, but it wouldn't be tough. My run was back. And next season looks a lot brighter.

My "Glory Days" gang

I have a running friend who used to declare: "You're only as good as your last race."

Granted, it was mostly in jest, but sometimes I actually used it against myself to support my claims of unworthiness - to bolster my my argument during the times I saw myself as a complete failure in my sport of triathlon. My claims are usually met by my husband Jim cursing the ground that said friend walked on, declaring that this was a complete fallacy, and: "Why do you even listen to him?!?" But I want to point out the following: according to this declaration, one can never hang his/her hat on the "Glory Days."

And yes, I mostly agreed with that sentiment... until yesterday.

Yesterday started out as an ordinary day. I got up, went to work, came home, started making dinner... and was just about to sit down to eat when my phone rang. It was buried somewhere, vibrating away. I would have let it go to voice mail, but Jim went digging for it. Before he handed it to me, he looked at the caller-ID, looked at me, and said: "Debbi Kilpatrick-Morris." I grabbed the phone immediately, afraid that I when I put it to my ear, Debbi wouldn't be there because she had been diverted away... to voicemail-land.

To my delight, she WAS there. Her first words: "I was expecting your voicemail." I don't know if that meant she wanted my voicemail or if it was just a statement of fact, like, "it rang so many times, surely the voicemail will pick up." She was obviously unaware of my frantic phone-grabbing-and-answering.

Why does this all matter?

I guess it starts with this: I don't have the opportunity to talk to Debbi much, but she is an integral part of my past.

And it goes back to the beginning: Debbi was my running inspiration from the day I first heard her name (this was well before I became a triathlete). At that time, all I knew - all I wanted to know - was running. In the late '80s and '90s, Debbi was one of the best runners in the U.S. She ran in three Olympic Marathon Trials, finishing 6th - an alternate to run in the Olympics - in 1996. That same year, she won the US Women's National Marathon Championship in Houston. And, perhaps most importantly, she was (is) a Northeast Ohio native - a local girl.

Being the hero-worshipper that I am, meeting Debbi was beyond anything I could imagine. RUNNING with her was, well, something I could never even dream about (or comprehend). But one day, in late 1997, when I started running on Saturday mornings with the Cleveland West Road Runners, I was invited to run with a group starting early from a different location. Debbi would be there. The scene that Saturday morning was chaos - a near-disaster in my as-yet-to-be-nicknamed-Disaster-Magnet existence. Strangely enough, I can't even recall the details. It involved my car - either not starting or not being able to navigate a snow-covered driveway hill. What I DO remember was frantically waking Jim up to help me. I remember panicking - and probably hysterically crying - I couldn't dare miss this. I may never get a second chance. "I'm running with Debbi Kilpatrick today! I have to get there!" Yeah, I made a big fat scene, man. At 6am.

But that's how I felt. And I made it just in time. And I never regretted it. Because knowing Debbi has been one of the great things that has happened to me in this life. Not because she was a great runner, but because she is a great person. She proved to me that it's ok to put people on pedestals - that they can and do live up it. She proved to me that injury is not the end - and showed me how to never stop trying. During the years we ran together, her career as a runner was in decline because of a chronic hamstring injury. Yes. That's right. A hamstring injury. Similar to what I'm currently dealing with.

I call those days - the days I ran with Debbi - my running "Glory Days." She inspired me to work harder. To train smart. To race smart. To rest hard before races. And to shoot for the Olympic Trials. And after I qualified, she even threw the send-off party (in 2000).

I remember stretching myself to my limits to hang with her on hill repeats and muddy bridal trails. I remember being in oxygen debt for all 20 miles of a 20-miler, wondering in who's universe is this "conversational pace"? I remember comparing where our legs got got muddy (she always had mud where her heels hit the inside of her legs). I remember sitting in freezing cold water in a wading pool to lessen the pain in our legs after those ridiculously-hard long runs. And I remember one of my fastest-ever 10K races with Debbi right on my shoulder, actually letting me set the pace, coaching me through the turns ("run the tangents"), and, of course, blowing me away in the final mile. I still loved her, even for that - it taught me the importance of having a finishing kick. And until yesterday, the biggest compliment I ever got was when one of her friends mistook me for her while I was running in one of our local hilly-workout locations.

I admired her so much and was so thankful for our friendship that I made sure I was involved in planning and throwing her first baby shower. I even personalized the invitations with a drawing I made just for her:

The original drawing for Debbi's baby shower invite

All of this only begins to explain why I didn't want Debbi to "go to voicemail." Its been many years - more than a decade since we ran together. One of the last times we ran together, I remember her son being fast alseep in the running stroller. Yeah, now he's in high school. When I do get to see her, it's usually a gathering of that "Glory Days" group of runners at someone's 50th or 60th (70th? 80th?) birthday party.

Then, a few months ago, out of the blue, she texted me about getting together - and brought her son, her daughter and a friend, and mother-in-law to my workplace - the Cleveland Museum of Art. We met for lunch and a stroll through some of the galleries. I would have liked to take the rest of the day off and spend it with them. I was very impressed with her son who is interested in everything and incredibly bright. I texted her afterwards to let her know she has a near-if-not-genius level kid on her hands and I loved her approach of exposing him to many different experiences, including art. I must have said more, because it was one of the reasons she called me yesterday.

So the conversation began with great advice about hamstring rehab (again, passing on her wealth of knowledge) and then an admittance of not being exactly why she called. She called to thank me for something I said at the museum that day.

I must have mentioned the lessons I learned during my own soul searching for a career - that in choosing a path, we need to consider our interests in addition to our skills. My parents and teachers did only the latter in pushing me into an engineering degree - because I was excellent at math and science and, of course, I'd could "make a living" as an engineer. I wanted to study astrophysics - a theoretical science - but in the end, terrified of disappointing everyone, it was easier to foreclose on what my parents wanted and pursue a skills-based career. The result? Seven years after landing a job as a wind-tunnel test engineer at NASA, I left in search of an art career.

Debbi was calling to thank me for that advice... that she should consider her son's interests in addition to his skills in helping him choose a path for higher education. Whether it was true or not, she felt she and her husband were "pushing" their son in a certain direction based on only half the information. She's changed that approach and wanted me to know how big an influence I was.

But there was more... the trigger to call me was a reaction to a Facebook post I made after a bad race. Something about being a failure. She wanted me to look at things differently - to realize I had succeeded in other, more important, realms. And then she said something many MANY people have said to me in the past, and for the first time in my life, I actually HEARD it. She said:

"Jeanne, do not tie your sense of self-worth to your athletic achievements."
And just like that... my perspective changed. Forever. How do I know? Because a great weight was lifted off my shoulders. I've heard this phrase said in so SO many different ways, but I continued to do exactly that - judge myself by my performance in my last race. Assume that the only reason people will ever "like" me is because I'm a good athlete. It's just. Not. True. Hearing it from Debbi was the snap-out-of-it wake-up call - it was important enough that she went out of her comfort zone to tell me.
The Glory Days may be past, but we CAN hang our hats on them. We were young and we didn't "get it" at the time, but they didn't make us better people because we were great athletes. They made us better people because we learned about our strengths and our weaknesses. We learned how to approach life daily with everything we have. We don't remember the splits. Or how many time we won races. What we remember are the smiles. The shared joy. (The shared misery.) We have the stories - of those hours and hours grinding out miles together in all weather conditions. We have those friends for life. Friends we always look up to - who will always have an impact. Friends who know exactly what we're capable of.
And that's why they're the Glory Days.
Pre-Olympic Marathon Trials 2000,
with two of the greatest athletes I've ever known:
(left) Peggy (Fortune) Yetman and (middle) Debbi Kilpatrick-Morris
One of my favorite things to see at Lake Coeur d'Alene:
Seaplanes!

Sometime last year (I can't remember when), my husband Jim said something akin to: "If you're going to do another Ironman, we should go back to Coeur d'Alene." In considering this, I'm not sure we fully appreciated, or recalled - exactly - what happened last time we were in Coeur d'Alene.

It was 2009. I was 44 years old. It was my first attempt at the Ironman distance (2.4-mile swim/112-mile bike/26.2-mile run) in six years. In my previous attempt - 2003 - I had dropped out of Ironman Florida. Thus, in 2009, the goal was to finish. But I don't remember anything after mile 20. Wait, I don't remember anything after mile 15. I can go back and read my race report to pull out details, but here's the short version: it was an eleven-mile descent into hypothermia-fueled delirium.

Photographic evidence of my 2009 run to the finish

I DO remember a medic stating my temperature had fallen to 90.3 degrees F. After that I was in a tunnel. People were talking to me, asking me questions, but my responses didn't seem to be getting back to them. The next thing I remember was sitting up shivering and being fed warm fluids (once my temperature had INcreased to 97 degrees, I could "shiver" again). When they finally let me out into the arms of the J-Team - Jim and my friend Julie - it was dark outside. I had no idea how much time had passed. On the way back to the hotel, Julie said: "Jim stood out in the rain for 2.5 hours waiting for you. No one would tell us anything."

2.5 hours. Gone. Lost. Did I even finish? Did Mike Reilly say my name?

Indeed. I had become an Ironman for the second time. Jim had the evidence - my medal. And there was photographic evidence as well.

This time, the only thing I sought in Coeur d'Alene was to see that finish line and remember it. Because Coeur d'Alene is such a beautiful place to traverse 140.6 miles. And the community is so supportive. And I DON'T remember it.

But, crikey! It was cold there. Mind-numbingly cold for a late spring/early summer triathlon. But I listened to Jim and registered anyway - extremely happy to find out the race was no longer in early June. Ironman CDA now took place at the end of June - the 29th! Surely, it would be warmer.

Get me out of this freakin' cold water.

Fast forward to Friday, June 27, 2014. Two days before race day.

Lake Coeur d'Alene was still like ice water. People were getting out saying "oh, it's not so bad, just a little choppy" -- WHAT?!?! Ok, ok, it was 61 degrees. I've been in colder water. And I'm not sure I would call it choppy. It was much choppier in 2009. In fact, IMCDA 2009 was one of my slowest 2.4-mile swims. So I gritted my teeth and swam some laps. And I got out when I could no longer feel my fingers. Did I mention the air temperature was in the 50s? Yeah. It took at least two hours for my fingers to fully regain any sensation.

Bike check on Saturday - it was sunny. 
Discussing last time with one of the volunteers.

We took to spending waking moments checking the race-day weather. And on the evening of June 28, things started to look up. The sun came out. It got warm. The wind died down. And the predicted race-day high had become 70. With lows in the mid-40s. With winds about 10mph.

That was Saturday night.

At 4:30 am Sunday morning, we headed out the door of the hotel, and the following words came out of Jim's mouth: "Don't freak out at the wind."

Don't. Freak. Out.

How bad did it have to be for Jim to worry that I would "freak out"?

It was bad. The lake would certainly be (what I would call) "choppy." Yes. I started to panic.

I was a couple hours from starting a 140.6-mile 11- to 12-hour grueling endurance event, and panic had set in before I even reached the starting line. To understand fully, maybe you had to be there in St. George in 2012. Or at Ironman Utah in 2002. Wind is a triathlete's sworn enemy. Because of what it does to the water. Because of what it does to lightweight people on lightweight bikes.

Jim reminded me that I'm a good swimmer. Friends texted me that it would be everyone's problem, not just mine. Jim also reminded me to stick with the race plan. Do NOT look at my speed on the bike and.. um.. freak out.

Race morning. Cold. Choppy.

I only glanced peripherally at the water to confirm: the chop was worse that morning than Friday. Worse than 2009. Ok. em… The water is my friend… I'm not afraid of the water... I love the water... I'm a fish... People always called me a fish... My high school swimming nickname was … fish... Don't look at the water... Everyone else will be freaking out more than me... The water is my friend… The water is my friend. The water. is. my. friend.

Why now? Why was Sunday the first time EVER that I panicked and reconsidered entering the water at an Ironman start? I've been clobbered and kicked a countless number of times in Ironman swims. I survived four-foot swells in Utah Lake for an hour. I've spent numerous hours near-suffocating in huge waves off the Cape Cod coast after thunderstorms - and enjoyed it! Why was I panicking?

I suppose I was tired of being the disaster magnet. I wanted a good weather day and a smart race. I didn't want bad weather to cause bad judgment. I went through every possible scenario of dropping out, and I couldn't come up with a good reason to walk away. So I put on my wetsuit, said goodbye to Jim, and entered the swim queue. I tried not to notice people shivering (in their wetsuits) and jumped in for a minute warm-up swim.

My thoughts? Start this thing before I start crying!

That's relief you see in my facial expression.

The 2.4-mile IMCDA swim is two loops with a short beach run between them. The swim start is now a rolling self-seeded affair - it's like a marathon start: faster swimmers up front, slower swimmers in the back. Each athlete's race started when their chip crossed the timing mat. I squeezed in with the 1:01-1:15 group and in a couple minutes, people were yelling at us that our race had indeed "started." I jumped in the water and swam immediately for the outside line.

The way out was a mess because we were swimming into the swells. I couldn't get a rhythm going with my breathing, but I was making progress even while stopping to choke on water and spot buoys. Being on the outskirts, I managed to avoid getting clobbered and the way back with the current was much smoother. I tried to "surf" the waves when I could. At the beginning of the second loop I saw 31 minutes on my watch… this was a huge surprise that put me much more at ease. I had to get to the turn, and things will get better. For the first time in a race, I noticed people grabbing onto the support kayaks. Yes, it was a rough day.

Running through transition to get warm.

I was never so happy to be out of the water. My swim took 1:04 (faster than 2009!) - although I lost any advantage by struggling through transition because my fingers stopped working in the cold. This year, I was determined to thwart the cold with wool socks, gloves, hand warmers, a bike jersey, and arm warmers. After what seemed like forever to get all these things on with numb fingers and wet skin, I sprinted for my bike. I could tell from the full bike racks that most of my age group was still in the water.

Ok, then, I had no time to lollygag. It was time to find out what this wind was all about.

Somehow I found a smile.

The IMCDA 112-mile bike course has changed three times. The last time I did it, there were some brutal hills. But now the course consists of two loops of the following: starting in downtown CDA, a short out-and-back with a tough 6%-grade hill along the lake (part of which is also the run course) followed by a long out-and-back with long (really long) rolling hills on US 95, a four-lane sometimes-divided high-traffic route. This second part went out into the wind (the 

I'm only sharing this photo because Jim
actually managed to catch me in the middle
of a snot-rocket.

My goal on the bike was to go easy and not feel anything for the first four hours. I think something went terribly wrong with my taper because I NEVER felt good on the bike. My legs were fatigued almost from the start and my injured-but-healed hamstring was hurting like it had only been partially rehabbed. I backed way off against the wind hoping my competitors would make the mistake of going too hard. I tried to rest my legs on the downhills hoping to save something, anything, for the run. I was passed by one of my age-group competitors in the first five miles, like I was standing still, but I let her go. Seriously, this course had the potential to burn people out - even without wind.

Heading out on the second loop, I saw Jim. He raised three fingers - indicating third in my age group. I wasn't happy, but I wasn't surprised, and all I could hope was that my conservative riding would pay off. I tried to take solace in the fact my nutrition plan was causing no stomach issues whatsoever.

I was easy to spot in my But to do that, I needed to get my head on straight. The Ironman marathon can be undone in the first mile, and for months, I had promised myself that I would not - under ANY circumstances - go out faster than an 8-minute pace. I settled into an easy run and relaxed. Unexpectedly, the soreness and fatigue in my quads dissipated, and my spirits rose. The day had warmed a little and the sun was out.

I saw mile marker 1. I looked at my Garmin: 7:30.

I said, out loud, but to myself: "SLOW THE F DOWN."

I slowed. I took baby steps. I saw the age group leaders. I passed them both. Neither gave chase. I realized this was now my race to lose.

I saw mile marker 2. Garmin said: 7:12.

SLOW THE F DOWN!

I finally got the run under control around mile 4. I was feeling good. No stomach issues. No cold issues. I jogged the aid stations and drank Ironman Perform. As planned, I didn't drink too much. Could this possibly last?

The 26.2-mile IMCDA run course is two loops that snakes through the town before a picturesque out-and-back along the lake with the same 6% hill that's on the bike course. The turn-around is on the flip side of the hill - almost mile 7. On the way back to town I noticed I had put over ten minutes between me and second place, but my legs were starting to feel sore and cramp. My stomach was still ok, so I took a salt capsule and stuck with the plan.

After 13 miles, I started to tire of Ironman Perform and sweet gels, and I couldn't wait to get my special needs bag to change up the drink option to Gu Brew. When I got back downtown, I saw Jim. He told me I had a 15-minute lead and was running a minute-per-mile faster than everyone else in my age group. He told me NOT TO PUSH IT. Just get to the finish.
Mile 14. This marathon was more than half-finished. But my legs were starting to scream at me. And my stomach was not far behind. By mile 18, I was in a state of controlled non-vomiting. It involved walking the aid stations and stopping for a toilet break. My mile pace went over 10 minutes, and I was coming mentally unglued. How do I fix this?? What is wrong with me?? My usual go-to remedy, flat cola, wasn't helping the situation or giving me a boost. I thought about drinking Red Bull (yes, they now have that on course at Ironman).
Then I remembered the words Jim kept repeating in the weeks leading up to the race: when things start to go badly, STOP. Figure out what's wrong. Take a moment or more to fix it. And get back in the race.
He was right. I had time. This WAS my race to lose. Or WIN. There was absolutely no reason to panic.

I thought about it…. and then I did something I've never done at an Ironman: I. ate. solid. food. Pretzels. Just two. And I grabbed water, some ice, and a cola. My mouth went dry, but the nausea vanished. I was able to run the entire last hill (slowly - in Jim's words, I lollygagged the hill, but, also in his words, so did everyone else).

Somehow, I put my race back together - and by mile 23, I was back to 8:30-ish pace on my Garmin. And, wouldn't you know.. the weather had one last trick to throw at us. I was at the third-to-last aid station dumping ice down my tri top when the temperature dropped, the wind kicked up, and it started to rain. I had only one reaction. I started laughing. The runner next to me glanced over and I groaned: "Really?!?!"


Looking for Jim in the crowd. Not delirious this time.
Note to Julie: ARM WARMERS!

A few minutes later, I took the turn leading back downtown and a runner opposite me pointed behind me and said "There's a rainbow behind you!" I almost fell down trying to turn around to see it (hey, YOU try pivoting after running 24.5 miles after biking 112 miles after swimming 2.4 miles). I remembered the sign I saw in a sandwich shop the day before: "Expect a miracle."


I think I got my miracle. I was ready to cross that finish line. At mile 25, I focused on letting the crowd support carry me through the final minutes and ran as fast as my legs would go. When I rounded the final corner and saw the finish line, I felt tears. It was a long day. I searched for Jim in the crowd. He waved to me from the bleachers along the finish chute. Right then and there I did my victory cheer. 

Found him.

Then, I crossed the finish line. And I heard Mr. Reilly say my name this time. My time - 11:08:55 - was only six minutes faster than 2009. But I remember every second of it. And I won the W45-49 age group at the ripe old age of 49.

20 months ago, I never thought I'd see another Ironman finish line, let alone an age group win and a Kona slot. And I will always be grateful to my physical therapist, Mike DeRubertis, and my orthopedic doctor, Sam Patterson, for getting me to the starting line in Coeur d'Alene. I also owe huge debt to my husband Jim, my friend and sponsor Ron (Punk Rock Racing), Julie (J3), and Nick for logistical and informational support on race day - Jim showed me the string of texts on his phone back and forth with them all day long. Final thank-yous to my good friend Kevin, who tirelessly dragged me through my long rides despite his own injuries, and all the friends who were sending good vibes - especially my awesome new teammates from the Spin Second Sole Multisport Team. All the positive energy carried me through those really tough miles.
Metal (Steel?) Medal

Running the Pittsburgh Marathon this year was never about time. It was never about place. And it certainly was never about money. I know those things as motivators in past races. And no, this year, running the Pittsburgh Marathon was about the demons.

Everyone who knows me knows I have demons. The demons tell me I'm not good enough to toe the line with other athletes (or even be in their presence). They tell me I'll never be better than a mid-packer at best. They tell me all my good performances were one-off flukes. Simply put, they make me hate myself. And they have owned my soul for the last two years. I wanted it back.

I chose the marathon as the race distance in which to wrestle back my soul. And I chose the Pittsburgh Marathon because it's a race and a city that are very near and dear to me (despite the scorn of my Cleveland-based social group). I've always loved Pittsburgh races: I ran the marathon once before (race report from 2010) and I've even won the Friends of the Riverfront Triathlon a few times. One of the great things about the marathon is, by far, the crowd support. I don't know how they do it, but it's like the city informs all of their residents to be out cheering and holding up posters that make runners laugh (more on that) along the entire route.

I registered for the Pittsburgh Marathon even before I considered the training. Since the beginning of 2014, my training has been focused on increasing time and frequency without re-injuring my severely messed-up hamstring tendon. I had two PRP treatments and have worked with a physical therapist for a year and a half. I've spent many hours on my bike and bike trainer and my fitness level was getting there, but with the marathon approaching, I needed more time on my legs just to feel a tiny bit of confidence at the starting line in Pittsburgh. But my running has seriously lacked distance - as my running partners of late have been doing hilly trail runs (read: slow.. well, slower than marathon pace for me). What made things most difficult was the atrocious Cleveland weather this winter - unbearably cold and snowy. If it weren't for those friends, I never would have gotten out the door. Even so, my longest run this year (and since March 2013) was only 18 miles. My second-longest was 14.


This mileage doesn't bode well for the marathon distance, and I knew I couldn't possibly go to Pittsburgh with a time goal. I fully expected to walk the last 6-8 miles. In fact, it's exactly what I told my physical therapist. He agreed that I could cover the distance and by covering the distance, I would prove something to myself that I needed (for sanity? for my upcoming season? for my return to ironman distance? all of the above?). I guess the most important thing was to not DNF.

Good Morning Pittsburgh! Land of bridges.

Of course, I made it a little more difficult for myself because I also went to Pittsburgh without a taper. I mean, like, NO taper. This was a first. I couldn't afford to break my triathlon training for the possibility of a fast marathon. No, I had to get in a decent-length bike ride the day before (which actually turned into a tough 50 miles of fighting wind and rain). To say the least, I wasn't giving myself much of a chance on May 4 in Pittsburgh. Yes, I had accepted that from the moment I hit the submit button in the race registration form.


But toe the line I did. At 6:50 am, on very little sleep and tired legs, I stood in my start corral behind the 3:15 pace group and hoped (prayed) I hadn't made a serious mistake. Spectators, including my husband Jim, were not given access to the starting area, so I had no one to help beat down the rising fear - the demons and their constant chatter of "oh my God, what have I done?" and "you are SO screwed, it's really not funny." I tried to shake them off with my own positive thinking: "this is going to be FUN!" and "I love Pittsburgh!" but the fight was on - and it would surely haunt every step.

Then, it started to rain.

Demons: 1
Me: 0

I took in the scene. There were helicopters and loud speakers. It was cold (50 degrees) and raining and dark. There were people jumping up and down trying to keep warm. People stretching. People saying their own silent prayers. There was a drone hanging in the air over the start line. Weirdly, it was a familiar feeling (well, not the drone part). I truly missed the marathon starting line. Just runners, pavement, and running shoes. No bikes. No wetsuits. No transition zones. No goggles. No caps. No tires to inflate. No wet grass. No mud. No worries.

Me in my new team 
At least Jim got photos of some fast people.

Take that! All tied up.
Demons: 2
Me: 2 ("I'm still smiling, the hill was surprisingly easy thanks to hill training!")


The 3:20 pace group kept me going for a bit, but I decided to pick up the pace around mile 15. It was another huge assumption - that picking up the pace wouldn't be a mistake. I noticed that my form is better when I run faster and with that, the increasing pain subsided a bit too. Expecting to hit the wall at 18 miles (since that was my longest training run), I thought it was nothing short of a miracle that I was still running well at 20.

Woo.
Demons: 2 ("You'll be walking at 18!")
Me: 3 ("Bite me!")


I can see the the finish line.

My first-half splits had been 7:30-7:45 pace, and my second half splits were looking a little better until about mile 22. That's really when everything started to hurt. Bad. There was a considerable amount of pain (not cramps) in my legs and my hips. I kept running at least until the downhill at mile 23-24, but the leg pounding had really taken a toll. I was barely hanging onto a 7:45 pace after mile 24, and I could tell I was starting to drag my left leg - the hamstring-injury side. During the last four miles, I ran with two guys who were also struggling, but we supported each other to the finish. I kept telling myself that if I couldn't keep running in THIS marathon, what chance did I have in my next Ironman run? Then I saw on a poster that age-old expression - you know it - it starts with "Pain is temporary..." And it was all I could do to roll into the finish at a barely sub-8:00 pace. It was far from my best. My watch said 3:20:something. It was officially my third-slowest marathon ever.

Demons: 3 ("Here comes the pain!")
Me: 4 ("Oh yeah? I've run through much worse pain and fatigue - including vomiting - in Ironman!")
WIN!


Rewards.

I purposely didn't look at the results because I wanted to celebrate the accomplishment while Jim and I immediately made our way to our favorite place, Piper's Pub, to have breakfast - and a beer. I now know my official time was 3:19:33, I finished 3rd (of 129) in my age group (W45-49), and 24th woman (of 1789) overall. Years ago, this result would find me kicking myself for all the things I didn't do to prepare for the race. But no one was more surprised than I was that I was even under 3:20. In reviewing my splits, I found a fairly even-pace run from start to finish. I didn't walk, I drank at every aid station, and I had no nutrition issues. During the race, I adjusted my goals according to how I was feeling and the bottom line was: be happy with a sub-3:30, finish running, and enjoy the day. Yep, goals accomplished.

The hard part may be yet to come. I have to kick the demons out of my head and not re-evaluate and overanalyze this thing to death... or to the point where I DO start beating myself up over what could have been.


But for now, once again, the demons are at rest.
Post race team festivities with beer and Pringles

The athletic world as I see it shifted slightly from its axis this weekend. No, it has nothing to do with the Cleveland Indians (who, in classic fashion, have shown signs of brilliance and signs of not-so-brilliance, as is expected in the life of a Cleveland sports fan). Instead, it has everything to do with a new group of training friends (in fact, my new team), the

With teammates Jen (with poster) and Mark (yes, that's a kilt)

All I can say is... Wow. By the time we found the Aarons, my appreciation for trail running was in full swing, and my mind's view of running had been permanently altered. We ran through rivers. We ran through rivers of MUD. I slipped. I tripped. I fell. I got covered with mud. I had scrapes and bruises. My shoes were soaked through. By the time we finished, there was mud in places that I never saw mud before (like, how did it get caked INSIDE my socks?). I had nearly vomited at the top of the steepest hill (because someone challenged me to RUN up it while everyone else walked). And I had also reached a new level of appreciation for beer and Pringles. My only regret is we didn't take a picture of our "after" and how much mud had latched onto us. In Krol's words: "I never saw clothes come out of the washer as dirty as they went in."

But most of all... the biggest pleasure came from knowing I had helped my teammates finish this grueling event. I was there to be their foot guide, their voice of motivation when their own inner voices betrayed them. And I understand now what it is to be part of a team (something I only ever experienced once before, in high school track). Although they were saying the thank-yous for saving them, I couldn't thank them enough - for saving ME.

And, as if that weren't enough, the next day, I learned what it was like to have training partners to get ME through a grueling day.. my first 100-mile bike ride since September 2012. Unlike Saturday, Sunday was somewhat ugly for anyone on two wheels. The wind was brutal and I certainly would have packed it in early if it hadn't been for Krol and teammate Anne Callahan. They met me about 25 miles into my ride and pulled me through wind that almost knocked me off my bike. By the time I was alone again, I only had about 35 miles to go - only about 13 of it into the wind. It was easily do-able, and even though I would have been happy with 90 miles, I managed the whole 100 because I was in such good spirits. It was my fastest ever first-100-of-the-year (surprising considering the wind). My favorite part of the ride was when another rider passed us, and we let him go... then I told Krol I wanted to catch the guy, and he responded the way any training partner would after trashing his legs fighting wind for 50 miles - he kicked it into high gear and dragged me at some ungodly speed until we caught and decisively overtook the guy.

And so I say it again.. Wow. It looks like 2014 is gonna be a great year - if it doesn't make me a faster biker and produce podium finishes, it certainly will be fun trying. And isn't that really what it's all about?

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