Blogs tagged with "speed"

It's always about the watch, isn't it?

Just when I'm smack in the middle of writing up a thoughtful analysis of how I'm fixing my (non-symmetric, right-side-dominant) swim stroke and my (drag-inducing, lack-of-a) kick, I had a revelation in the pool yesterday. It came after about a month of frustration and stressing about why I don't seem to be swimming any faster after weeks of hard, and long, workouts. I've been working on improving so many things using video and drills and fins and my snorkel. And I feel like a different person swimming these days.. I'm working on all the things experts say will help me swim faster (from the best-rated online sources, coaches, and books) but nothing feels natural, and nothing feels "right" (yet?). I do feel stronger. And I feel faster. But my lap-times are slower. 

I pace and shake my head and jump up and down in frustration and discouragement. And I come back to the problem on a daily basis. Yesterday, I got in the pool and tried letting go of all the things I "know" and all the things I've been taught and just tried to swim "natural," without focusing on any one thing.. without thinking about my stroke or my kick or the positions of my hands and feet.

And nothing happened. The. Same. Speed. No faster. No slower. I tried not to cry. It was all I could do to stay IN the pool and not get out and walk away from the workout. Overwhelming defeat was settling in.

I decided to do a set of 100s experimenting with a bunch of different things while giving myself enough rest between intervals to get an accurate assessment. I tried breathing on the right. Breathing on the left. Putting my head down. Kicking harder. Kicking narrower. Bilateral Breathing. No discernible difference. And then.. back to using a pull-buoy to see if it was faster. And, guess what, it WAS. Two seconds faster! (in the swim world, two seconds is a lifetime).

Yep. I was boggled. I tossed up my hands in disgust.

Then, like a bolt out of the blue, it HIT me. I asked myself: "What, besides floating my legs, was I doing different with a pull-buoy?"

The answer: my FLIPTURN! When I use a buoy, I don't dolphin kick off the wall.

Could that be it? Was it possible? They say the underwater dolphin kick is THE second fastest "stroke" - second to all-out freestyle sprint. When I coached, we routinely stressed the importance of a strong dolphin kick off the wall. And if you remember the 2016 Olympic men's 400 free relay, you know it was pretty much won on the Michael Phelps flipturn - he went into the wall in second place and came up ahead after the most phenomenal underwater dolphin kick ever.

I decided to swim my final 100 yards with no dolphin kick off the wall - and wouldn't you know? That was it. My time was almost identical to my 100 with a pull-buoy. Who'dathunk? The one thing I've worked hard to develop in recent years (because back in the olden-days, we flutter-kicked off the wall) was the one thing I'm still not good at. It makes sense to me as I started swimming at age 14 and never had the flexibility and durability most swimmers develop at a young age when they learn to dolphin kick for butterfly. My butterfly every only had one kick - it was mostly shoulders.

Part of me was relieved to have figured out I'm ultra-draggy while making like a dolphin, but the other part of me was really disappointed because I had worked so hard to make it a natural thing - I was secretly thrilled each time I reached a further point underwater off the wall. The dilemma now becomes: should I spend lots of time on my dolphin kick for my pool workouts? Or should I start acting like a real open-water swimmer and just accept it as is?

There is one thing I'm sure of: I am now grateful for no walls in the ocean.

It's always about the watch, isn't it?

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.

My 2013 (new) Specialized Tarmac (my husband Jim referred to this
photo as "transportation upgrades" - the 2014 Outback replaced
my 1999 Rav4 totaled when I was rear-ended last year)

I bought a new bike. Not because I needed one (although this can always be argued). And not because I wanted one (although doesn't everyone?). No I just wanted to find out what it would be like to be a real road biker for a change. And - because I want to get faster and I found out the best way to do that.

So, then, why can I not get faster on my TT bike, you ask? I can. In fact, it appears that I already have. After riding with faster bikers from my triathlon team for several weekends, I went out for a solo 100-miler and found that I covered the distance (and course) faster than I ever have before.
So, then, why do I need a new bike, you ask? I don't. But I want to ride with the fast people and the fast people are road bikers who ride from my the bike shop every Wednesday evening. And they frown on riding in a group with a TT bike. 
So there it is. Reason enough to get a (road) bike.
There were a few conditions. The price had to be reasonable. Let's be serious - if I were going to drop several thousand dollars on a bike, I would be looking to replace my racing bike, the P3 (which I love, so that was not an option). And I wanted to buy it from my team sponsor,

And for those who've not heard of Elbow - well, even for those who have - here's a video I took of the song "The Birds" that might explain why we were (and are) willing to drive five (or more) hours to see them live. I'm still not mentally recovered from it: 
Morning in Pittsburgh

It's been a while since I wanted to write a blog. Or write anything about my triathlon season for that matter. The short version is that I chose not to write about my second most recent race for many reasons. It was a negative experience and I'm trying to stay positive. So many things have been going wrong this season that I couldn't come up with something to write without sounding even more down than I already was. I decided to find the lessons in the failure and get on with it. I made more really bad decisions with nutrition and hydration and had an experience exactly the opposite of my usual problem, hyponatremia. The end result was another DNF (not by choice) and the embarrassment and self-doubt that is now creeping into my waking hours and threatening my sanity.

It's obvious I needed to finally get scientific in my nutrition analysis, so I gave in and did the sweat rate test - you know, the one where you weigh yourself before you run, then run for an hour monitoring your fluid intake, then weigh yourself after you run. The difference in your weight minus the weight of what you drank is the amount of fluid lost per hour. I used one of those online calculators to do the math.. I put in my weight before, my weight after, and my fluid intake in ounces (not estimated - I drank with a calibrated water bottle). The answer came back - in black and white - and no, I am NOT making this up: "The numbers you entered suggest that your fluid loss was WAY the f*ck off the charts - please check your numbers or retest." I checked my numbers. I even got on the scale again. Yep, the numbers are right. I plan to retest this week.

But.. so.. if the answer IS accurate, I'm so screwed that it won't matter what I eat or drink in my next Ironman. Seriously, it must be a fluke that I've ever even finished one in the first place.

In the meantime, I decided to focus on something much more entertaining and less likely to be screwed up by me - speed work and short racing distances. Thus, I entered an Olympic-distance race I've always loved: the Pittsburgh Triathlon.

View from the Pittsburgh swim start - do you see why I love this race?

The first time I did the Pittsburgh Tri was in 2002. I didn't win - in fact, despite running close to 37 minutes in the 10K, I still got my butt handed to me by a much faster swimmer/biker. But I went back the next year because, not only did I enjoy the race, but I really loved the trophies - they were very artistic and unique welded metal sculptures. I went back despite having been hit by a truck three months earlier. And my fate, interestingly enough, was to actually finish slightly faster than the year before and win the women's race. I went back - and won - the Pittsburgh Tri two more times. But it's interesting to note that every single time, I had to chase down at least one woman (usually more) on the run. And, in 2009, it took me right up until the last mile to catch the leader. Pittsburgh had become a very competitive triathlon over the years and it just kept getting tougher.

I've not been able to go back to Pittsburgh for two years because Ironman Lake Placid fell on the same weekend in July. But this year, I just had to go back to Pittsburgh to race (I ran the Pittsburgh Marathon in 2010). I never go in blind, though - I checked results from the past two years only to find that it had gotten even more competitive, and I didn't stand a chance at winning the women's race. It's easier to know these things in advance, thus I could set some kind of goal - it was to find out how my newfound bike speed stacked up against my times in the past and Pittsburgh's tough bike course.

Downtown Pittsburgh from the North Shore

The other, more important, reason to put Pittsburgh back in the race plan was because my husband Jim and I love taking side trips to Pittsburgh whenever we get the chance - cruising the Strip District and picking up some specialty foods, checking out the great cultural institutions (our favorites: the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Andy Warhol Museum), and eating at two of our favorite restaurants: the Church Brew Works and Piper's Pub. And I know from experience that making a good weekend out of it has a two-fold effect: (1) it keeps my attitude positive, therefore setting up a good race, and (2) it offsets the fallout if I have a bad race.

One of the other great things I've been able to witness by doing this race five times over ten years is the improvement to the Allegheny Riverfront, specifically the North Shore where the race takes place. The original charity supported by the Pittsburgh Tri is Friends of the Riverfront. The first time I did the race, the swim was made wetsuit legal at 80 degrees because of the polluted water, and the run course included a short dirt trail being constructed by Friends of the Riverfront. By the fourth time I did the race, the Allegheny River water had become increasingly clean (dead fish were barely a memory), and all six miles of the run took place on the riverfront trail. It was nice to see such an improvement in an area that had been in a state of severe decay.

Yeah, it's early (and my body-marking was all horizontal)

We got to the race site just after 5 a.m. Sunday morning. I got a great night of sleep - which unfortunately came at the expense of missing the Olympic 400 IM swim finals. I mentioned to Jim that I wasn't nervous at all - he thought that was a good thing, but I worried it might indicate I had stopped caring about racing. Things got a lot better during body-marking when over the PA system came... a Radiohead song ("My Iron Lung"). Jim said that at first (until he heard the music), he couldn't figure out why I was beaming while getting body-marked. In all my years of racing, I've heard just about every type of music imaginable - before, during, and after races. However, I can honestly say that, not once, have I EVER heard Radiohead.

(I hoped it was a sign.)

The race began just below PNC Park (the baseball stadium). We had to swim a short section against the current and then two 90-degree turns would send us with the current to a point directly below Heinz Field (the football stadium). Air temperature at the start was in the mid to high 60s, and the water temperature was barely wetsuit legal at 78 degrees. In the interest of a fast transition, I opted to wear my BlueSeventy swimskin.

Swim start

My wave - the women and relays - started third (and last) at 6:55 a.m. Recent rain and high water was responsible for a very strong current that made it difficult to stay on the line for the deep-water start. Just before the start, we noticed a swimmer from an earlier wave swimming way off course directly at us (little did I know this would become important). Swimming upstream was much harder than I remembered, but I powered through with a few of the lead women. Before the first turn we caught the stragglers from the previous wave. It was a tough swim for everyone and I couldn't wait to get with the current.

The second turn buoy sent us downstream and things got easier immediately. I spotted the next orange buoy and swam in its direction. While approaching it, I realized I was WAY off course and actually swimming right toward the starting line - yowza, unfortunately I made the same mistake as the earlier swimmer I mentioned. When I looked up, I saw a line of swimmers about 50 or more yards to my left. This was NOT the way I envisioned my race starting - frantic, I spotted the next buoy, put my head down, and swam my way back onto the course as quickly as possible. By the time I was back in the mix, there were only three buoys left to navigate. Once I was back on course, I reminded myself to have fun, stretched out my stroke and did my best to enjoy the last few hundred yards... right up until someone swam me into the final turn buoy. My hand accidentally hit him in the head and I stopped to say "sorry," but he was angry and yelled at me. I turned and swam away to avoid fisticuffs.

Everyone looks a little confused.

At the finish, I looked down at my watch to see, shockingly, 19 minutes and change. Even with the course blunder, it was my fastest time in the Pittsburgh Tri's 1500m swim. We had to run up a concrete walkway to get to the transition zone in a grassy area between the two stadiums (stadia?). I heard Jim yell "great swim!" as I was chasing down the woman in front of me.

And then it happened again... As I entered the transition zone, I heard... ANOTHER Radiohead song ("15 Step"). What the? Seriously? Am I dreaming? I had to decide what to do - stay and listen? or get out on the bike course? My decision was to get out of transition ahead of the girl who led me out of the water. I'd have to listen to Radiohead after the race.

(But now I was sure it was a sign.)

The Pittsburgh bike course consists of two laps of one big hill - as expected in a city that's built into a (three-) river valley. It takes place on I-279, in the HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) lane - without traffic of course. Bikers must avoid road debris (at an all-time minimum this year) and rumble strips. Although they didn't bother me at all, I overheard angry complaints about the rumble strips after the race.

Finishing the first loop

I tried to keep a high cadence uphill and focus on speed, hydration, and nutrition downhill. My legs felt better this year than in the past, and I found myself remaining in the aero position on much of the hill. Before the turn-around I noticed one woman at least three minutes in front of me. I was so focused, it didn't even occur to me to chase her. I just rode strong and relaxed. But while looping back through the start and heading back out, I made bizarre mistakes that still baffle me even now. For some unknown reason, I took the long way around all the orange cone markers. It was as though I went out of my way to take the corners as slowly as possible. And I have no idea why I did it. Approaching the finish after the second loop, I took the corners much faster (like a normal cyclist).

The second loop was similar to the first in feel and speed, and I made up very little on the woman in front of me. At the turn-around, I did notice another woman only about a minute behind me - she was easy to see as she had a pink bike and a pink helmet. With my biking history, I expected her to overtake me before transition, but I didn't expect the spectacular fashion in which I handed her the lead. When I dismounted my bike, I lost control and almost fell down. My bike hit the pavement, and I did some serious damage to my hip just in stabilizing myself and not falling down.

One of the worst things ever, as a veteran of a sport, is to hear someone (I imagine it was someone's mother) say: "do you need some help?" when you have to pick up your bike and run into the transition zone.

Yeah, my hip was hurting

My bike time was around 1:07 for 40K - another PR on this course. Upon entering transition, the girl in pink was RIGHT BEHIND ME. My transition was ridiculously slow (over a minute) because I fumbled getting into my running shoes once again (Jim said I paid the stupid tax by forgetting to use Body Glide on them). Anyway, where's that shoehorn when you need it? I expected some pain in my hip when I started the run, but it was a non-issue until the day after.

By the time I was running, the pink girl (no longer pink but wearing a Virginia Tech orange tri top) was now in front of me. In transition, Jim gave me the information that the leader was about 2.5 minutes ahead, but if I just relaxed and ran my own race, I "should" catch her. I wondered if he even saw pink-now-orange girl leave T2 in front of me looking very strong and determined.

I told myself not to chase her and settled into a good rhythm. In less than a half-mile, I was running on her heels and (in my mind) it was only a matter of time. I think she knew it too - she kept turning around like she was running scared. I held my pace and passed her before the first mile but not without a fight. She surged several times, and then finally gave up trying to hold me off. I couldn't help but smile to myself knowing I was more than twice her age.

Somewhere near the second mile, I chased down the leader. It happened so quickly that I immediately backed off on my run to avoid burning myself out just in case a really fast runner was still behind me. Conserving energy, I still tried to run a steady pace to the finish. With about one mile to go, I met a young guy named Ryan who was doing his first triathlon. He said he would try to hang with me and so we carried each other to the finish line.

Coming into the finish

Upon approaching the finish, a bike escort gave me the heads-up that I was leading the women. I decided to enjoy the moment and celebrate a little at the finish. Afterwards I was worried I overdid it, so I apologized to Jim for excessive celebration. His retort? "Enjoy it - you never know when it will be the last time you win a race." Yeah, I know it sounds harsh, but he WAS being honest, and we HAD talked about that in the past. I'm not getting any younger, and the kids are getting faster.

The infamous watch check at the finish line.

My 10K run time (41:30) was not up to my standards, but I was surprised to see 2:11:xx still on the clock when I crossed the line. It was surprising in that it was more than two minutes faster than my best on the Pittsburgh course. I do believe my bike time was faster because of all the work I've done on the bike in the last two years. I don't know why my swim was so fast when I went off course and I've also been nursing a shoulder injury from a recent fall while running (Am I the only person capable of slipping and falling on a sidewalk in the middle of summer?).

My fueling in this race was simple and effective: one Gu Roctane and 12 ounces of water before the start, one 24-oz bottle of Gu Roctane drink on the bike, and only water during the run. The reason I took only water during the run was because I couldn't decide whether to drink or pour it on myself. I think the air temperature had reached near 80 degrees by the run. For the middle of summer, the weather was mostly perfect for this race.

Reminiscing with Pittsburgh media
who waited for me to come out of "Mr. John" Flushing Unit

Jim and I spent enough time after the race for me to get interviewed by the Pittsburgh Tribune (that was a first) and pick up the cool fish trophy at the awards ceremony. Like I said before, this race has always given out the best awards, and this year's did not disappoint.

It was a good weekend: Radiohead, a triathlon win, and a course PR. The only way to top it off was to get ourselves over to Carson Street for my other favorite thing to do in Pittsburgh - order the English Breakfast and a pint at Piper's Pub.

With a season like the one I'm having, I needed it. All of it.

See? Awesome. Fish. Trophy.
(anti-fashion Gu Energy socks)
(wicked cool Punk Rock Racing visor)

South Haven Beach, early a.m., June 23, 2012

My 2012 triathlon season has gotten off to a rough start, but I'm determined to get it back on track before August. I don't have much choice because August and September will find me with my back up against a wall facing three very important races all within four weeks of each other: the USAT Age Group National Championship (Olympic distance), Ironman Louisville, and the Ironman 70.3 World Championship.

The first thing I wanted (had) to do to convince myself that last year was not a fluke was to finish a race. And so I did (finish a race). It was the South Beach Triathlon in South Haven, Michigan, on June 23. An Olympic-distance race that served as a special qualifier for the USAT Nationals, it would surely produce fast times and I would have to push myself.

Race support would have preferred
sleeping in.

The venue for this race (South Haven Beach) was fantastic - it's on the shore of Lake Michigan but looks more like an ocean beach than a lakefront - the water was crystal clear and there's even a sandbar. I was almost expecting to taste salt water when I got in to warm up.

I had no idea what to expect out of myself in the swim, so I started wide to avoid getting clobbered in the first 50 meters. The 1500-meter course started about 500 meters up from the finish and made a strange almost-triangular shape. Before the first turn buoy, I was out of the mix and swam mostly alone for the entire course. I had very little trouble sighing buoys and navigating around people because the water was very calm and it was a beautiful clear day. The air temperature at the start was between 65 and 70 degrees, and the very shallow water (I swear, you could have walked the entire swim course) felt much warmer than the quoted 66 degrees. I wore my wetsuit anyway because I needed practice getting out of it (In Ironman races, I let the wetsuit peelers do it).

In fact, I had practiced getting out of my wetsuit and getting into my running shoes (the two slowest parts of my transitions) in the week leading up to the race. Which made it appropriate, then, that I would have problems with the things I DIDN'T practice. Like getting my helmet on. And running.

When I reached the swim finish, I heard my husband Jim yell "great swim." Considering I've been managing only two swims per week, I was surprised to look down and see 23 minutes on my watch. My swim speed may or may not be attributed to something I tried for the first time in this race. Yes, I KNOW I should NEVER do this, but it was a harmless adjustment: based on a little video I wandered across the night before the race, I tried to lengthen my stroke by rotating my hips instead of my shoulders (something I could never get right, but the video demo turned on a lightbulb). I felt the effect immediately, which was good because after going out too hard, I was able to get my heart rate back under control. I'll be practicing this as soon as I get back in the pool.

You try running in the water and checking your watch
at the same time.

Then came transition - from a wetsuit standpoint, it went well. From a helmet standpoint, not so well. I never thought to practice putting my aero helmet on with my new sunglasses, and wouldn't you know, it was havoc. I lost at least 30 seconds if not more, but the lesson is clear: practice EVERY aspect of transition no matter how small of a deal it seems.

The 40K bike started on a short uphill from the beach. I wasn't sure how my legs would react to being pushed for speed on the bike for a change, so in the week leading up to this race, I did a hard speed session on the road to reacquaint myself with traveling faster than 20 mph. (This is not something I recommend in "taper" mode, but I wasn't tapering for this race, and I needed something, anything, to help me get a grip on "speed").

The bike course was relatively flat with some rolling hills, but I was able to hold 21-22 mph for most of it. I beat one woman out of transition and I passed two other women on the "out" portion of the bike course. But at the turnaround, I noticed two women right behind me (not the women I already passed). My legs weren't screaming, but I was working them hard, and although I had a fast swim and was faster on the bike this year, I was certainly not stupid enough to think I could hold off the inevitable faster female bikers. I was still leading through 25K, when I was passed by the only woman who covered the course faster than I did that day. She didn't really blow by me, so I figured all I had to do was keep her in sight and hopefully catch her on the run. I tried to stay behind her, albeit out of her drafting zone.

The reason I wrote "out of her drafting zone" was because right after she passed me, something extremely odd happened. We both passed a pack of men, and one of them swerved to the left as I was passing him (apparently he didn't hear me). My knee-jerk reaction was to say "sorry."

His reaction, on the other hand, was bizarre: he immediately started screaming at me. I couldn't hear what he was saying, but he hung beside me and continued to yell. With profanity. I though maybe he was angry and blamed me for the near-collision, but I just wanted to get past him and get on with my race. Then I realized he was saying something about drafting. He was yelling "don't you know there's no drafting in triathlon?!?!" Did he think I was drafting off him? I dropped back, waited and then passed him again. He started screaming at me again - I was able to make out: "ride your own race." That hurt. If there was one thing I WAS doing on Saturday it was riding my own race - of which he only witnessed a microcosm.

He chased down the woman who passed me and started saying something to her. It was THEN I realized he was accusing me of drafting off HER. Seriously?? I was working quite hard to stay OUT of her draft zone because she kept speeding up and slowing down. The angry self-appointed referee dropped back to yell profanities at me again - this time saying he was going to "yell out my number."

Having never experienced this before, I didn't know how to react. USAT has conduct rules, and the last thing I wanted to do was violate them. I wanted to defend myself. I wanted to point out that HE was actually the one guilty of drafting. In the end, I decided the best course of action was none - and continued my race. But I'd be lying if I said the whole experience didn't rattle my mental and physical state. It took several minutes to calm down and regain my focus.

By the time I was out of his anger zone-of-influence, the bike leg was almost finished, and I would soon find out what my running legs were capable of in a short race. I finished the bike leg just over 1:05, had a relatively quick transition into my running shoes, and I was off, chasing the female biker who passed me.

The 10K run started on the same hill as the bike, and it was similar to the bike course - gradual rolling with one other hill at the turnaround. The temperature was probably approaching 80 degrees at this point, but the air was dry so it was pretty comfortable. My only problem was that I had NO SPEED in my legs. I almost stopped to have a conversation with them: "Why are you doing this to me? You used to be fast! What's the deal?" But no matter how hard I tried, my leg turnover just wasn't there. The only gait my legs seemed to know was the marathon shuffle.

Awkward doesn't begin to describe finishing on a beach.

After passing the one woman, I had no idea where I was in the race, and I only knew who was behind me and never saw the one woman who remained in front of me - even at the turnarounds, I never saw her. The final few hundred meters of the race was on the beach sand, and when I hit the beach, I heard the announcer say that the top two women were now "on the beach" - I turned around to check if there was one just behind me, but unfortunately, the winner was about 30 seconds in front of me. I never knew she was there. Even if I did, I don't think I could have caught her.

I ended up with a run time just over 42 minutes. It was several minutes slower than my best and even though I felt like I was maxed out on the run, I was disappointed that I maxed out at such a slow pace. Seriously, I don't want to blame this one on age, but something in me fears that sub-40 10Ks are a thing of the past.

Mentally, I'm fighting it.

Even two days later, I'm still fighting it.

Yeah, I'm smiling - I finally finished
a race.

But back to race day: I was mostly satisfied with my final time of 2:14:27. When I went to pick up my bike in transition after the race, I may have found a new calling. There was a young woman sitting in transition next to her stuff. She was on the phone and broken down in tears. It was heartbreaking. After she got off the phone, I felt compelled to help. I asked her if she was ok and if there was anything I could do. She said, and I quote: "No, I'm ok, I just had a really. bad. race."

Did she know who she was talking to? I thought to myself: YES! Now HERE was something I KNEW I could help with.

I told her I was sorry, and I knew exactly how she felt. Then I told her about the beginning of MY season. About Ironman St. George. And Mooseman. And that I had yet to FINISH a race this year. Within 5 minutes, she was standing up, talking, smiling and thanking me.

It felt good. Almost like everything happens for a reason.

And now, here I stand, with the knowledge that my usual bugaboo - biking - is not nearly the enigma it's been for the past ten years. And the only things standing between me and a better season are the very two things that I know I have the ability to excel at: swimming and running.

Getting there is going to hurt. But I can't think of a better position I'd rather be in right now.

Me and Steve (does this man look like
a miscreant? read on...)

Last week, after my disappointing performance at the USAT Age Group National Championship, I felt a need to get in some hard long mileage. It was partly driven by the desire to punish myself (old destructive habits die hard). But seriously, I figure if I'm going to specialize in long distance racing, it's about time I accepted it -- and got on with it.

Last week, I also experienced a whole new level of frustration in driving into and out of Cleveland during rush hour when I started my new job at The Cleveland Museum of Art. On a good day (i.e. ONCE last week), I can make it to work in 25 minutes. But the rest of the time, I found myself behind the wheel for more than an hour each way. I suspect I will be searching for places to swim and run near the museum so that I have more time to train and my travel times don't coincide with everyone else who works downtown. But despite losing two hours per day in traffic, I was able to get in some good running, biking and swimming last week with two long sessions on the weekend: a long brick (bike 100+ mi, run 4 mi) on Saturday and a long run (20 mi) on Sunday.

Saturday's brick included my longest ride since Ironman Lake Placid on July 24. I even managed to get my butt out of bed early (6:30 a.m.) to finish in time to clean the house for a dinner party Saturday night. But even with the early wake-up, poor planning delayed my start when I found myself in the driveway at 8 a.m. switching out my race/travel configuration -- i.e., swapping out Zipp wheels, desperately searching for my saddle bag, and re-installing the down-tube bottle cage. By 8:30, I was on my way, determined to cover a familiar 100-mile course faster than ever.

The beginning of the course took me northwest through the hills of Cleveland Metroparks to Rocky River. After that, I continued west on mostly flat terrain along the lakeshore to Lorain County. By the time I reached Rocky River (36 miles), I was surprised to find my average speed was just over 19 mph - the fastest I had ever gone from my house to that point. I contemplated whether I should stay out for six hours or for 100 miles then decided to turn around at 2:45 -- I was sure to slow down on the way back because of the hills near the end. At 2:45, my odometer read 54 miles, and I had been riding well over 20 mph for an hour. When I turned around, the realization hit me of why I was going so fast.

Despite my certainty that the wind was from the north (based on waving flags), I turned around only to find that it definitely wasn't. The wind was from the northEAST -- not a normal occurence -- no doubt because of Hurricane Irene on the eastern seaboard. The return trip along the lake would therefore be a constant struggle to maintain an average speed above 19 mph.

My luck changed when I got back on the parkway and one of my very own BAFF teammates - Steve Thompson - went flying by me. Upon realizing he didn't recognize me, I chased him down. This was no easy feat because he was in the middle of a two-hour ride at half-ironman race-pace -- for him, this meant pushing 280 watts and 23-24 mph. I didn't think I could hang with him, but he pulled me through the next 20 miles at a ridiculously fast pace. Did I mention that he would be finished with his ride before we got to the hilly part of my route?

We were only a few miles from Steve's finish when he would become the latest victim of the Disaster Magnet. As you may recall, the last time I rode with team members in the park, I ended up in a ditch with a broken rib. This time, it was a whole 'nuther type of disaster. And it would be a first for any cyclists I know. Steve and I came upon a four-way stop along the parkway in Strongsville. After the last car had gone through, Steve did a quick check to make sure it was clear and rolled right through the stop sign. I may or may not have yelled "clear!" But that didn't matter.

We were, indeed, breaking the law.

And neither one of us looked back to see the park ranger vehicle behind us.

When I heard the siren, it never once occurred to me that Steve and I were the ones being "pulled over." And dear blog readers, before you get all self-righteous on me, stop and think of how many times you've done the same thing on a bike. Most of us do it. And most of us do it SAFELY. (Which is exactly why we yell things like "[all] clear!")

So yes, Steve and I were pulled over by a ranger -- and he needed his PA because we didn't realize "he was talking to us." And, as Steve noted later, we would rather have been pulled over for speeding.

But we ran a stop sign.

The ranger began by asking me if I knew what "that octogon sign was for" (no, I am NOT making this up). He proceeded to tell us what we already knew, that cyclists need to follow the rules of the road. He enumerated them for us:

  • Stop at stop signs
  • Obey traffic signals
  • Do not ride along the side to get to the front in a line of traffic (!)
  • etc...
Then came the unbelievable part. He proceeded to blame us for the large number of angry drivers in the park. (Seriously, I'm really NOT making this up.) "People like [Steve and me] were responsible for drivers pulling up alongside cyclists and harassing them." Then came my favorite quote of the day - he noted that Steve "was a big guy so he probably didn't get harassed very often." By that time, my mouth was surely hanging open in disbelief. This ranger had a LOT to say to us. I got the distinct impression he didn't appreciate the situation between cyclists and drivers in the park. And in his mind, it was very likely the fault of the cyclists (NOT the angry drivers) for not obeying the rules of the road (which, according to him, was precisely what MADE the drivers angry).

I may be going out on a limb here, but when I've been riding my bike and someone throws a beer can (or empty whipped cream container) at me or tries to grab me or yell obscenities at me or flip me off (yes, all of those things really happened)... it never occurred to me that it was because I rolled through a stop sign or disobeyed a traffic light. Could I have been wrong all this time? Could it really be MY fault there are so many pissed-off drivers in the world? Maybe that's why that guy hit me with his truck in 2003 - he was angry because I was running the... um.. GREEN light? All I have to say is: BULLSH*T!

I also must mention the expression on Steve's face (was it horror or hilarity?) when the ranger accused us of "going through a stop sign when there was a cop car behind you" -- and my response was: "well.. we didn't KNOW there was a cop car behind us, or ..." You can guess what Steve was expecting me to say. But I decided not to finish the sentence.
We were notified that we COULD have been given tickets. But instead, we were given written warnings -- the ranger took our names and contact info. Sadly, we were given nothing to sign and no white, yellow or pink slips to take home to pin to our bulletin boards (or post on a blog). It begs the question: did it actually even happen? He did tell us this: the information would not be on our "permanent records," but it WILL be entered into a database.

Just in case we decide to break the law again.

And just like that, the disaster magnet has returned in full outlaw force. Steve finished his ride and I continued on to finish mine, on the hills. I didn't enjoy climbing hills after having stopped for so long, but the laughter and disbelief kept me going strong to the end. I finished all 108 miles in 5:25 (the first 100 in P.R. time).
When I got home, I transitioned to run and dragged my husband Jim along on his bike so I could tell him the story of how Steve and I broke the law that day. Because I was talking and laughing, my four-mile run went by lightning-fast, and with plenty of daylight left, I was done with one of my hardest bricks this year.

On Sunday, I woke up late after too much wine with dinner and friends the night before. By mid-afternoon, after spending all morning checking the Ironman Canada tracker to keep tabs on my friend Ron (Punk Rock Tri Guy - who, I might add, did a major ironman PR!) I forced myself out the door for a 20-mile run. Surprisingly, I was able to hold better than a 7:30 mile pace right up until mile 18 -- then my legs started screaming at me and it was all I could do to finish in 2:32.

And I can now say I feel like an endurance athlete once again. A DEVIANT endurance athlete, but an endurance athlete nonetheless.

One great thing about Burlington, VT:
Ben & Jerry's

The title of this article is a lyric from the titular song on Mark Knopfler's 2010 album, "Get Lucky," because after my most recent triathlon, I worry that my successes so far this year may have had more to do with good fortune than hard work or talent. And ever since I crossed the finish line on Saturday, I've been asking myself the following question: what can I possibly have to write about my performance in the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championship in Burlington, Vermont?

The only thing I could come up with is this: do you know that feeling you have when you're rested and all ready to race? Yeah... well, I didn't have that feeling on Saturday. In fact, I didn't have that feeling at ALL the entire week. The days leading up to the USAT Nationals were plagued with fatigue, discomfort, and soreness and I should have dropped my performance expectations early in the week to avoid the potential fallout.

Another great thing about Burlington:
Vermont Brews

But I was naive. I tried to ignore it. I tried to shake it off. I tried to think positive. Even when cold hard facts were staring me right smack in the face: I have two Ironman races' worth of fatigue on my body and I'm in the midst of training for a third. No matter how hard I wished and worked for short-race speed, it just wasn't gonna happen. But I tried anyway, and I tried to convince myself it COULD happen.

Now I'm left to pick up the pieces of my wasted self and my shattered self-confidence. And I wonder how much damage was done. To my endurance training. To my attitude. And to my upcoming Ironman in Kona.

Attempting to race well in an Olympic-distance tri at this point in my season was a disaster in the making. Too bad it started so innocently - as a reason to go back to Burlington for the first time since the Vermont City Marathon in 1993 when my husband Jim and I had a great trip despite a disappointing race performance. We loved Burlington. We even bought our wedding rings there. We looked forward to a great trip back 18 years later. And Burlington in 2011 was everything I remembered from 1993 - an awesome city with great restaurants and shopping.

And the last great thing about
Burlington: Church Street performers

My high hopes began to vanish last Wednesday when I spent my time in the pool fighting the water only two days after having my best swim workout this year. By Friday, I was baffled at why my legs felt thick and heavy on the bike after two days off. Running felt about the same. And my swim stroke had no strength at all.

But despite these issues, I surprisingly slept like a rock the night before the race and my usual anxiety was almost nonexistent. I could only chalk it up to a new level of confidence resulting from a great racing season so far.

(Quick note: When I use the word "confidence" in describing my attitude, disaster is looming on the horizon.)

We drove down to the race start around 6:00 am. The transition area and swim were located at Lake Champlain's Waterfront Park. We managed to find parking above the park and had to walk down a steep hill to the transition. My bike had been racked the day before, so all I had to do was set up my transition and decide whether or not to wear a wetsuit in the 74.5-degree water. I had until 8:40 a.m. to make my decision as my age group, women 45-49, would start in the last wave. No one I talked to understood the reasoning behind the start waves - for instance, men 18-24 were in the second-to-last wave and there was a 10-minute gap before the wave start of women 50+. Go figure.

Pre-race line-up, I was the only one stupid enough to
not wear a wetsuit.

The 1.5K swim would be entirely within a breakwall in a boating area along the shore of Waterfront Park and the swim course was a sort of modified "Z" shape. Because of the water temperature, I decided to go with my swimskin instead of a wetsuit to save time in transition (and after Lake Placid, I was convinced the speed advantage of a wetsuit was minimal). By the time I lined up with my wave, I realized I was one of only a handful of athletes not wearing a wetsuit, none of whom were in my wave. I prayed I hadn't made a critical error by not wearing a wetsuit.

The swim start was in deep water adjacent to a set of boat docks. We were funneled to the start area in waves... It gave me the distinct feeling I was getting on an amusement park ride (like a rollercoaster) - and my pre-race anxiety just added to that feeling. To stay warm, I waited until the last possible moment to get into the water, then swam out to the starting area with the rest of my age group. We had to tread water for about 2.5 minutes, and with only about 100 women in my wave, it was much less exciting than what I'm used to in an Ironman race. I could distinctly hear the starter and everyone was relatively well-behaved and quiet. Until we were swimming.

The swim finish - I look much better than I felt

In the short swim to the first turn buoy, I had almost no problem contenting with other swimmers. But after that, I got clobbered several times by a swimmer behind me who seemed to want to swim right up on top of me throughout the the race. I got so annoyed at her that I finally just stopped and did breaststroke for a minute to try get out of her path. Spotting buoys was not easy because there were only a few of them (that didn't even appear to be in a straight line), and at one point we were headed directly into the sun. After the race, several people I talked to complained that they swam well off course because of this.

Throughout the swim, I never really felt good or strong. Instead, I felt like I was flailing around and my stroke never felt reached a normal rhythm. I'm still not sure why this was after having several great training swims recently. It was as though, overnight, I had forgotten how to swim.

I got out of the water and started stripping off my swim-skin while running to my bike. Volunteers were telling us to take it easy with wet grass and mud in the transition zone. I thought my transition could have gone a little quicker as as I donned sunglasses, helmet, number belt and then fumbled with my gel flask. My shoes were clipped to my bike and I ran through the grass and mud hoping my feet didn't get too much dirt and pebbles on them. I didn't have too much trouble slipping into my bike shoes, and getting on my way.

However, after a few minutes, I looked down only to realize that my bike computer was still in sleep mode. I simultaneously realized that I had also not looked at my watch or taken a single split since the start. I was NOT mentally engaged in this race. I took a watch split and started my bike computer, but the damage was already done. (According to the results, my swim spit was 25:39 and my transition was 1:18.)

Bike finish (I look desperate for it to be over)

The 40K bike course was a modified out-and-back along rolling terrain that even encompassed a part of the freeway, I-89. But trust me, in Vermont (or anywhere in my homeland of New England for that matter), it could have been a LOT worse than it was. From the very start my quads felt like they were on fire and no matter what I did, I could not shake it. I tried high and low cadences and nothing could rid me of the feeling that I was in a major state of lactic acid buildup. I went into survival mode and although I passed quite a few people (remember, I started in the last wave), I got passed by several women in my age-group who were out of sight in a matter of minutes. I worked the downhills the best I could but unlike Ironman Lake Placid (IMLP), I was unable to roll by anyone on the uphills. I went into survival mode on the bike and my mind turned hoping I could pull something out on the run. At one point, a woman in my age group passed me and said "there are a LOT in front of us" (assuming age group? who says that?).

Because of the bike computer/watch fail, I didn't know how far I had gone or what my time and average were, so I ignored it and rode as hard as I could to the finish. I didn't think my average would be much faster than 20 mph, but the official split had me at 21 mph. Once I was off my bike, I ran as fast as I could to the rack and tried to stretch out my legs a little for the run. My transition was slow because I struggled a little to get into my shoes, but I did remember to grab my hat and run with it. I wasn't sure where the transition ended and the run began, so once again, I did not take a split until I was actually ON the run course.

Run start - already suffering.

The 10K run started on a very steep uphill right after leaving the transition zone. I didn't feel great running up it, but getting into shuffle mode, I was running much faster than everyone around me so I just went with it. By the time I reached the top, I felt pretty good, decided to lengthen my stride and try to catch as many people as possible. When I started the run, Jim yelled that he thought I was eight minutes behind the age group leader. I knew at that point that I didn't stand a chance of catching her, so I settled on just wanting to have a respectable run.

After the hill, the run course was pretty flat, along residential roads and on a bike path - the same path I remember running on in the 1993 Vermont City Marathon. After the first mile, I was able to hang onto a 6:30 pace for three miles, but by the time I hit mile five, my legs were dead from that overall fatigue, and I had slowed to a 6:45 pace. By the time I crossed the finish line, I was angry, confused and disappointed in myself for not being able to run down more women in my age group. My 10K time was well over 40 minutes, and Jim told me I had finished somewhere around 6th in my age group (it was actually 7th). But what bothered me the most was that it was the first time in three years I was unable to break 2:20 in an Olympic-distance triathlon. (My official run split was 40:53 and my finish time was 2:20:01.)

I paced (both physically and mentally) for a long time afterwards - going over the race in my head to determine what went wrong. The only thing I can come up with is that both my head and body were not ready to race this distance. And I didn't treat it like the "B" or "C" race that it was. My whole season has been focused on Ironman and half-ironman. But I made the mistake of assuming I could perform well at short races when even when training for long ones. (In my running-only days, this was almost always true.) Last year, my 2:14 performance in an Oly-distance race two weeks after IMLP could have been nothing more than a fluke.

So, Burlington, Vermont, would once again be the site of a disappointing race performance, and now I have to determine how to view it as a non-disaster and get on with my season. If it weren't a national championship event, I think it would probably be a little easier. I guess I learned a valuable lesson - not to go to a "big" race and make it a "B" race. It was hard to sit through the awards knowing I could have done better if I had given myself half a chance (like, if I tapered, for instance).

Hanging out after the race with someone
I have great respect for - teammate, blogger,
and Punk Rock Racing Revolutionary,
Frank DeJulius

But there were several good things that came out of the weekend. Jim and I had a wonderful time in Burlington. I got to spend some valuable time talking to two of my Bike Authority Fleet Feet Multisport teammates: Frank DeJulius and Aaron Emig. For various reasons, Frank and Aaron didn't have their best races in Burlington either. After talking with them about their training and racing, I didn't feel so alone in my disappointment. Aaron will be representing the USA at the ITU Age Group World Championship in Beijing on September 10, and he convinced me to sign up for a spot to do the same thing in 2012 in New Zealand (the top 18 in each age group can sign up for Team USA).

So, now I have some big decisions to make for next year - like should I turn my focus from Ironman to short distances for a year? It's an exciting thing to think about, and I know it will be hard for me to give up the long distance training I love. But I have a little bit of time to think it through.

But for now, I have to focus on my new job and my two most important races of the year, the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Las Vegas and the Ironman World Championship in Kona.

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