Saturday, January 2, 2021

So, About Ironman...

 In 2020, I swam 58 miles, biked 2374 miles, and ran 859 miles, and so what? I don't care anymore. 

2020 has been a crazy year, not that it looks at least the first part of 2021 is going to be any less crazy. But one benefit of the craziness is that it seems to push people to examine their motives and think about WHY they are doing stuff. I have been doing that with triathlon for months now.

Training was going well. I was in good shape. I had a swim coach for one lesson and improved my swim time to 2:15/100, still a crappy time but hugely better than 2:30/100. Then I flunked a cardiac stress test, and all my training stopped cold until we could figure out why. 

I hadn't really had any symptoms of any problems, but the older I got, the more it seemed like I should have a heart check-up if I was going to continue to do this extreme training and racing. So I talked to my doctor and she scheduled me for routine tests including a stress test. I was positive I would ace the stress test, with my superior level of fitness. Well, I did complete the stress test on the treadmill, even running in a mask. (Was it fun? No. But I completed it.) It felt bad, but no worse than any miserable run anywhere. I was shocked when they told me, essentially, that I flunked it. Well, they didn't say that. What they said was "significant abnormality." And no strenuous exercise until they could do a cardiac catheterization, which is a procedure where they run a tiny tube up your artery to your heart and look for problems. They couldn't schedule it until two weeks after my stress test, so that was two weeks of no exercise. They sent me home with blood pressure meds and nitroglycerin "just in case."

I absolutely did not expect to hear the words "significant abnormality." I've done 59 marathons and I-have-no-idea-how-many shorter races, and surely I would have had some inkling of trouble -- besides the fact that I hated them -- in one of those if something was really wrong? But every time something COULD be wrong, because I am a hypochondriac, the thing DEFINITELY is wrong until I have proof that it isn't. I learned a few things during this waiting period: 

1) If they told me I had to give up Ironman training because of a heart problem, I was not going to miss it even a tiny bit.

2) Yoga, which I was able to do and which I did religiously every day, was not only an okay substitute for, say, swimming. It was exponentially better. I didn't have to leave the house to do it; it made me stronger; it was calming; I could do it while surrounded by dogs; I look way better in yoga poses than I do in the pool. I could go on but you get the point.

3) Not only did I not miss training, in my head I actually did have the thought that I would be grateful for an excuse to not think about doing Ironman anymore. (Of course, I mean I would be grateful as long as the heart problem was something that could be fixed somehow, not something that couldn't be fixed and would just be a time bomb in my chest. I would not have been grateful for that at all.) 

Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that if I was grateful to have a heart problem as an excuse not to do Ironman... maybe I don't really need to do Ironman, even if I don't turn out to have a heart problem. 

Not that this thought hasn't occurred to me before (it has, on more-or-less a daily basis since the first time I started training for Ironman). I have just been too proud of being stubborn -- or, as I called it, persistent and goal-oriented -- to quit. It took the messed-up year that was 2020 to make me really, sincerely think that maybe spending your limited time on Earth messing around with things you don't love and taking time away from things you do love is, maybe, not something to be proud of. 

But... but...

But I spent all this money already! So what? It's just money. I'm lucky; I have enough money and no debt and, other than Ironman, no expensive hobbies.

But I spent all these years working towards it! And I got an amazing body out of it, and excellent physical health, so it's not like I wasted my time.

But I told people I was going to do it! As Will said, half the people I know probably think I already did one, and the other half don't care. 

But I can't not accomplish a goal! Sure I can. It will allow me to accomplish other more enjoyable goals, like dog obedience titles and writing classes. 

But I won't get the experience of crossing the finish line after all this work! True. But remember how NOT memorable it was when I accomplished my 50 states goal? Literally, my thought as I was finishing my 50th state marathon was, "This sucks and I want to stop running," along with, "Okay, what next?" The prize was the journey, not the accomplishment, which was meaningless almost as soon as I completed it.

But that nice expensive bike that I had to have...! I can sell it. If anyone is looking for a nice red Pinarello road bike with disc brakes, size somewhere between 54 and 56 (Pinarello sizes are weird), hardly used at all, let me know! I'll give you a sweet deal. My favorite bike is and always has been the old steel Bianchi anyway. 

So by the time I had the procedure and got the good news -- no blockages, healthy heart, exercise as much as I wanted -- I had pretty much decided I was not going to do Ironman. But I still wasn't quite sure, because this year has finally, finally taught me how to enjoy exercise. I have been marathon/triathlon training for over 15 years now and hated it for most of that time; I just liked not being fat and being able to eat essentially whatever I wanted. But this year was so stressful that eventually classical conditioning did its thing and the activity of running/biking/swimming became associated in my brain with the endorphins that felt sooooooo good after. So I didn't mind the training, not even the long workouts. What I minded was the thought of the race, and any extra effort I would have to put into getting race-ready, like trying different bike seats, learning how to do strength training, taking swim lessons, et cetera. I thought, maybe I will just keep doing the workouts and then do the race in April if I feel like it. That way I would be trained and physically ready for it, and I could do the training without pressuring myself too much. 

I signed up for a swim lane at the Y for this morning. I woke up this morning and thought, "I do not want to drive to the Y." It was the first time I felt like I had to do something I didn't want to do since the stress test. It wasn't the swim I didn't want to do; it was the drive across town and back and the worrying about "how much of the workout will I get done before they kick me out of the pool when I reach the 45-minute time limit?" That little bit of stress was enough. 2021 Me does not want ANY stress, or at least as little as I can reasonably control. Instead of driving to the pool, I cancelled my Y membership. It felt so good. 2021 Me is only going to do things that feel good.

Then I bought two new pairs of running shoes. (New running shoes = good, because I FINALLY like running!) Then I came home and did 45 minutes of yoga, which felt amazing. Then I did an hour on the trainer, which I am NOT going to sell because it feels good. 2021 Me is, so far, an improvement. 

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Pandemic Training Update

I knew it's been a very, very long time since I posted any kind of update, but I didn't know it's been a year. Even now, I don't really feel like writing in this blog, but for some reason I still want a record of the triathlon journey, no matter where it ends up. 

So last year, after doing a lot of thinking about what happened in Chattanooga, I decided I was going to make one more attempt, but not tell anyone about it and not bring anyone with me to the race. I know conventional wisdom says, "Tell everyone! That way you'll hold yourself accountable and do the training and get to the start line!" Well, making myself do the training is not an issue for me. I WILL do the training and I have at least gotten to one start line, so I presume I can get to another one. I actually felt all the people wishing me well were draining me psychologically and not helping me. Therefore, I would not tell anyone, except the very few people who need to know. And even those people weren't coming with me to the race. I don't really understand all of the tricks my mind plays on myself, but I think I may be more able to finish if I don't have what I seem to perceive as the pressure of someone watching me. 

So I signed up for Ironman Texas because it meets all my criteria: flat bike, non-scary swim, practically zero chance of cold weather, drivable. (Sort of, on that last one.) Maybe it's stupid to try again, but I'm already $10,000+ into this stupid pursuit so I might as well keep going. Also, no one is as stubborn as me, and that is not really a compliment to myself although it's true that stubbornness has helped me to achieve a lot of other stuff. When I "officially" make something a goal, I'm not going to give up on it unless I die. Or, I suppose, if I become disabled somehow and physically can't do it. But sane reasons for giving up an activity like, "spending my time and money doing stuff I love instead of stuff I don't like" and "being more available for my partner" are not, to me, acceptable reasons for changing course. I had already deferred to Texas once when the hurricane cancelled IMFL, and then decided I didn't want to do it after checking out the swim course while I was there on a work trip and seeing that it ended in a narrow, gross canal with stagnant, green water and lots of ducks. However, Chattanooga has rearranged my priorities and I decided gross water is a fair trade for a flat bike. 

So I was training for Texas, which was supposed to be in April, and training was going pretty well. Physically well, that is. Psychologically, I was still a mess because I STILL DIDN'T WANT TO DO IT. I couldn't shut off the voice in my head that said, "Ironman is dumb, triathlon is a stupid selfish hobby, I should be spending all this money making people's lives better somehow instead of on gear, I should be spending all this time training my dogs more or doing something Will likes for a change," et cetera et cetera. But I was still putting in the miles and turning out decent performance. I was hoping for some miraculous change in my attitude before April. 

Then came March, and the whole world shut down.

One reason I haven't written this whole year is because I feel like focusing on exercise is kind of a shallow and un-interesting thing to focus on while the world goes crazy. But an alternative and equally true viewpoint is that anything that keeps a person mentally healthy during the time of craziness is TOTALLY worth focusing on. Somehow, working out gradually shifted from being the thing I dreaded to the thing I wanted over the last several months. This was especially true in the beginning of lockdown.

Judging from the various triathlon and running Facebook groups I belong to, there were two general reactions to working out during the pandemic: "There's no point since everything is cancelled and I'm not motivated to do any training at all" and "The endorphins from exercise keep me sane so I will look forward to them every day." Thankfully, I was in the second category. It was never, at any time since March, difficult for me to motivate myself out the door to train. My April race was cancelled? Yay! I mean, I'm sorry for the reason, obviously, but they will reschedule it, and in the meantime, the part of Ironman that I dread -- the actual event -- was far down the road. If I could run 9:00 miles in 90 degrees and 100% humidity, then obviously I did not have the 'rona though in my imagination I had it almost every single day from March till about, I don't know, July? August? (My power to imagine sore throats, coughs, and fevers is really pretty impressive.) I stopped thinking about the actual event and just looked forward to having nothing to think about except keeping my heart rate in the right zone. 

I went months without swimming while the pools were closed, but then when they opened I really hadn't lost much swimming fitness at all, which is both impressive and sort of demoralizing (why spend all that time in the pool if I can take five months off with zero regression in my technique, such as it is?). I bought an indoor smart trainer and, of course, then had to get a huge TV to go with it. We have not had a TV the entire time Will and I have lived together, and I didn't have one for almost 10 years before that, but I wanted one for the trainer. For my non-triathlete friends, a smart trainer is a machine that you mount your bike on and then use an app to ride any kind of course you want. The trainer sets the resistance. I use an app called Rouvy which has hundreds of bike courses from all over the world. Literally, I can ride Tour de France stages in the Pyrenees, or I can ride through Mexico City or Kona or even the same bike course in Chattanooga that defeated me! And I do ride Chattanooga, often. I perversely enjoy it even though the immersive experience is so real that I feel every bit of the discomfort I felt when I was there for real. But it's a lot better in the air conditioning with the fan going than it was on the road in the actual Chattanooga, a cool town that sadly is sort of ruined for me now. I enjoy riding on the trainer far more than I enjoy riding on the road. My expensive, practically brand-new Pinarello is sitting in the garage on two flats; I haven't touched it in months. I HAD to have that bike because my old one wasn't comfortable but, guess what, my old one is on the trainer and I ride 100 miles a week on it and it's FINE. Maybe, just maybe, it wasn't the bike that was the problem in the first place? (To be fair to myself, I also bought the new bike because I thought the disc brakes would help with my fear of downhills. They did, sort of, but the biggest help for my fear of downhills was deciding I'm never going to sign up for a race that has them. Problem solved!) 

Right now there are still a lot of race cancellations, but there are other races, even big ones like Ironman Arizona, that are still going on. It's too early to say whether Texas will happen next year or not. I personally think it will, probably with some COVID-related changes that other races have had -- no big gatherings in the merchandise tent, no finish line crowds. Those things would be fine with me. The fewer people and the less spectacle there is, the more I will like it. I'm just going to train for it whether it happens or not, because one thing I'm beginning to understand is that I don't really hate the training. I hate thinking about the race. If the race doesn't happen, it's not the end of the world, it just means I can keep training longer with less pressure. Maybe what I really want is to spend 15 hours a week working out forever for a race that NEVER happens? Lots to think about. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Ironman DNF -- What Happened?

I have been asking myself how this happened ever since the moment it happened. In case anyone missed it, I had to DNF (Do Not Finish) shortly after I got in the water because I couldn't breathe. Here is what happened on race morning:

Everything went fine with my gear, with getting to the start, with catching the shuttle bus to the swim start. No issues with anything, and no nerves. I can't say I was excited -- I was not. I can't say I was actively dreading any part of the event, although I certainly was not looking forward to it. (Especially not the bike -- I hate the bike. Even my new, faster, better bike. I hate it less than my old bike, but I still hate it.) At the swim start I hung out for an hour or so, then got in line. This swim start is self-seeded, meaning you put yourself in line based on your predicted finish time. I put myself in line at about one hour 45 minutes, even though I did this exact same swim at Tri Nooga camp a month ago in one hour exactly. No need to be at the front where I might get kicked in the face or have someone swim over me, was what I was thinking. I wasn't afraid of those things -- they both happened at Tri Nooga and neither one particularly rattled me -- I just thought why risk it if I could avoid it. It took a long time to get to the start line -- about 40 minutes. I was not nervous. I also was not feeling the energy that everyone claims is present at an Ironman start. I would describe my feelings as a combination of boredom and vague annoyance that I would be working so hard all day (the same way I felt before the start of every one of my long training days).

Slowly we all made our way down to the dock, our jumping-off point. The river was beautiful just like it was last month. I felt slightly relieved that finally I could start, because the sooner I started, the sooner I could finish and be DONE. I didn't jump in because I didn't want water in my goggles like I had last time I swam here. I sat on the edge of the dock and slid in. The water temperature was perfect -- cool and refreshing, not cold. I swam about 50 yards and couldn't get my breath -- this has never, not once, happened to me. I stopped doing freestyle and started dog paddling. The kayakers saw that I was in trouble and one of them asked if I was okay. I said yes and waved her away. She didn't believe me, and continued to follow me. She asked if I wanted to hang on for a minute. I said yes. You are allowed to take rest breaks on the kayaks as long as you don't make forward progress. My chest was still tight even after a couple minutes of hanging on, and I still couldn't breathe normally. In every way I felt fine. The water still felt comfortable. I didn't have any panicky thoughts in my head. I really thought it was impossible that I wouldn't be able to keep swimming no matter how I felt, so I shoved off from the kayak and started again. I told myself to just move my arms and breathe, the way I have done religiously three times a week since March and never once needed a rest break while doing it. I swam about three strokes, sucked in a little water, and started gasping and coughing. Another kayaker was there instantly. I grabbed onto his kayak and held on. "Take as long as you want," he said, so I did, about three minutes. I said I felt better and could keep going, but I could not -- I still couldn't breathe. The kayakers knew I wasn't in good shape and followed me as I swam a few more strokes with the same result -- water in, no air where I needed it. I had to stop and grab on again. I could see Will and my other Sherpa up on the river path watching me. I knew they would be worried about me. I didn't want to disappoint them. If I was riding or running I could force myself to keep moving even if I was slow, but if you can't breathe when swimming, you sink. I told the kayaker, "I might have to stop. I can't breathe." He said, "Let me know if you want to stop. You can come back and try another day." I thought about it for about thirty more seconds and then called it. I was in the water for eighteen minutes total and swam less than 200 yards.

I really wasn't that upset for myself, other than wishing I hadn't lost $800 AGAIN. I have never DNFd before in over 100 races, but I always knew I would do it some day if I did enough challenging events, and my ego isn't so fragile that I could be destroyed by a DNF. As I crawled onto my rescue boat, I was mostly sorry for my Sherpas who spent all this time and money to come up here and expected to see me finish. I thought my mom would probably be bummed for me but secretly relieved that I didn't die of heat stroke on the bike. Let me be completely honest here -- while my predominant feeling was feeling sorry for letting my Sherpas down, an EXTREMELY CLOSE SECOND was relief bordering on joy that I did not have to be out in the heat all day. God, what a relief. I was almost grateful to my brain for whatever trick it played on me by shutting down my ability to swim.

After three days of mulling over what could possibly explained what happened in Chattanooga on Sunday, I am almost sure I have the answer. I think that what happened had almost nothing to do with the swim. I think it happened because I didn't want to do the bike. Since I wouldn't decide for myself not to do the bike, my subconscious took over and made the decision for me.

Let me explain: I have not had one single good long ride this entire training cycle. Every single ride I have done that was longer than three hours (and plenty of shorter ones, too), I have spent miserable, uncomfortable, afraid of traffic, and desperately wishing for it to be over. This improved slightly when I bought the better bike, because it was more comfortable and at least I didn't feel like I was undergoing physical torture when I rode it. (Yes I had a bike fit, and tried multiple seats, but I never did feel comfortable on that bike.) The new bike is at least comfortable. I gave up on aerobars because I could never get comfortable riding in them (started practicing in October -- gave up in May). I could ride in that position for up to 40 minutes on the trainer, but on the road, every time there was a curve, or a car, or a hill, or a possibly uneven patch of road surface, or a gust of wind, I panicked and grabbed onto the regular bars and usually was so twitchy about it that my bike swerved. Also, I am just not a good cyclist. Despite 10+ years of riding on the road, much of it very long rides, I still can't descend hills without braking due to fear of losing control. This is a legitimate fear given how unsteady I am on the bike. I also can't drink or eat while still moving -- I swerve into the road and drop bottles. These things are the reasons I do not enjoy the bike.

I did one 105-mile ride a few weeks ago, up in the hills of San Antonio. (Florida, not Texas. San Antonio is a town an hour north of me with a 52-mile loop course that has the same elevation gain as Chattanooga.) It was a nightmarish experience -- 94 degrees, 7.5 hours of overheating, hating the cars, hating the hills (downhills -- I enjoy the uphills), half an hour of lying in the grass trying to cool off. That ride was one of the most miserable experiences of my athletic life. I consoled myself after with these thoughts: I still would've made cutoff time (barely); I forced myself to keep going so I'm mentally tougher; I now have this ride in the bank so I'm stronger than I would have been without it; and the biggest thoughts -- it won't be this hot in Chattanooga and the roads will be closed to traffic. Those were the two thoughts I held onto throughout this last month of training, where I forced myself to ride hills every weekend. Each ride was slower and left me feeling more miserable than the previous one. But, I did them all and everyone says, "trust the training." I did all the training, without skipping any of it -- except for a two-hour run and a couple swims in the second-to-last week -- so I trusted it.

As race day got closer, the predicted temperature kept going up -- 98 degrees was predicted on the 7-day forecast. That is hotter than I've ever worked out in in Florida, but I told myself, "It's fine, I like the heat, I'm acclimated, all my training was done in the heat." Secretly I was hoping they would cancel the race. The hurricane saved me from Ironman Florida last year; maybe the heat would save me from Chattanooga? But no. The predicted temperature dropped slightly, to 95. It felt like 100 when we got to Chattanooga on Thursday. I spent Friday and Saturday relaxing and spending as much time inside as possible. I did do a short bike and short run on Saturday. Both were fine. I was not excited about the race. I was expecting to feel inspired, but all I felt was hot and annoyed that all of the events in Ironman Village were outside. Couldn't they put them INSIDE? And why was the merchandise tent so hot? By the way, I could not find one single thing in the merchandise tent that I wanted. Was I thinking about not finishing? No way. I knew I might not make a cutoff, but I also knew (or thought I knew) that I would keep moving until they stopped me.

I got plenty of sleep the night before the race. No nerves, no tossing and turning. I wasn't anxious, but I wasn't excited either. On race morning, I methodically went through my checklist.  I still wasn't excited. Physically I was fine, mentally I was blah. Here is a true statement -- I don't enjoy triathlons. I like what the training does for my body, and I am determined to be able to say "I am an Ironman," but the actual training and racing? I hate all of it. Unfortunately I want the Ironman just a little bit more than I hate everything required to earn that title. This is a problem with no obvious solution.

All of this is leading up to my conclusion that my brain stopped me from doing the swim subconsciously because I wouldn't do it consciously. My brain was like, "You won't listen to me? Watch me take away your ability to breathe. Then you'll listen to me." And that is exactly what happened. I have swam 3500 yards three times a week -- in the pool and in the ocean -- for the past ten weeks. That's almost a full Ironman swim three times a week. I've never quit, I've never shortened a workout. I've never once been nervous in open water. I am not a fast swimmer, but I'm steady as can be. I had no hesitation when I swam in the Tennessee River a month ago -- it was a beautiful swim, and I was fully confident and swam like a machine. The swim was the ONE thing I never worried about, up to the second I got in the water. I thought it was going to be a nice way to ease into a long, crappy day. I had read about people panicking in the swim at all types of races and thought, at least that's one problem I don't have. Group start -- not scary. Not being able to see the bottom -- not scary. None of it was scary. It wasn't even like I was having a panic attack! I wasn't consciously scared at all -- just astonished that this was happening.

So that's what happened. How to fix it? Good question. MAYBE more races at shorter distances, but I honestly don't think lack of race experience was the problem. I don't worry about shorter distances so I am nearly positive I wouldn't have the same reaction, plus I don't want to spend any more money than I have to, and race registrations are expensive (and I HATE RACING!). I will keep up triathlon training because it has given me the body of an Amazon warrior, but I really think I am not going to be an Ironman unless I have not only the easiest possible course, at least on the swim and bike, but also good weather conditions. I don't even know which one to aim for. Not Florida -- the water is too cold. Even with a wetsuit, I won't put my face in water that's cold. Nothing with hills unless I miraculously learn to have confidence descending. Nothing too expensive to travel to. Something that's warm but not as hot as Chattanooga. Something that doesn't sell out so I can wait till the long-range forecast to sign up (better to pay Tier 4 pricing than to lose the whole thing because I don't like the weather). I know a lot of people say that Ironman is about being tough and adapting to conditions -- well, for me it is about covering the distance in as near to perfect conditions as possible. I just don't want to do it any other way, and am not going to. That's what I'm thinking right now.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Ironman in One Week

One week from today, I will be standing on the banks of the Tennessee River (or more likely standing in a bathroom line), ready to start what is going to be a very long day of suffering. (Unless I don't make a time cutoff, in which it will be a shorter but still too-long day of suffering.)

Am I ready? This question has a complicated answer. Yes and no. I have done almost all of the training -- 95+% of it. I did skip a few workouts in the last week, but although I have a tendency to get paranoid about missed workouts, even I can't worry too much about missing these. Ever since March I have trained consistently and completed every single swim and every single long workout with the exception of one two-hour run I was supposed to do last weekend and did not. My training plan didn't call for any 100+-mile rides, but I did one anyway. My training plan also didn't call for any runs after my very long rides, but I did one of those anyway too -- just two miles after my 105 miles on the bike, but still, enough to prove my legs worked. (My legs were fine that day, but my "run" was still more of a run-walk due to extreme heat and the feeling that I was about to spontaneously combust from that heat.) I have done the training, although I think most people worry that they haven't done "enough" training no matter how much they've done.

I have had so little time for anything besides training and working that I haven't updated this blog in ages, so here's a quick summary of what happened since the beginning of August when I wrote last:

*I took my bike to Chattanooga the second week of August and rode one loop of the course. The hills kicked my ass. I have not ridden hills since I lived in Tucson. Uphills were no problem -- downhills are terrifying. I ride the brakes the whole way down. That's a problem because Chattanooga bike course is almost ALL hills, rollers of the type that good cyclists refer to as "fun" and I refer to as "torture." Based on my ride that day, I was not going to make bike cutoff in the race.

*There ARE hills in Florida -- I just have to drive over an hour north to get to them. Fortunately I discovered that I suck at hills with seven weeks of training time left -- and I have ridden hills every single weekend since then, including 105 miles of them on that one miserable occasion.

*I also bought a new bike. While a new bike doesn't make anyone a better cyclist, carbon frame compared to aluminum frame improves my physical comfort substantially, which means I will be less likely to quit when the suffering gets extreme, which it will because -- here is a truth I have discovered -- I just don't really like cycling that much, at least not when I'm trying to go fast. Also, I bought a road bike, not a tri bike. I never learned to ride comfortably and efficiently in aero bars if any of the following were present: vehicle traffic, curves, rough road surface, other bikes, hills, or wind. While I might have kept trying if I was doing IM Florida, which is straight and flat, I figured it was smarter just to get a road bike I liked for the hills of Chattanooga since there is no way I would be confident enough in aero bars to use them while descending all those hills.

*On Labor Day weekend, I attended an event put on by the Chattanooga triathlon club called TriNooga. It was a FREE event designed to familiarize race participants with the course, and included a swim, bike, and run. That was overall a positive event for me. The highlight was the swim. Longtime readers of this blog know that I have dreaded the swim for as long as I have been dabbling in triathlon. I worked so hard on the swim this time around. I have been swimming 3500 yards three times a week since June, with emphasis on intervals and drills. Still, I have only improved my time in the pool a little bit, so I was expecting a two-hour swim in the race. (Cutoff time is 2:20.) I was still planning on using a wetsuit until TriNooga. We swam almost the full swim (full swim is 4224 yards; my Garmin read 4056 yards), and my time was exactly one hour. This was the fastest swim of my life by over 40 seconds/100 yards, and I was in my tri suit, no wet suit. Talk about a confidence builder. Even better, I enjoyed the Tennessee River. It was pretty, the water was clear and clean, there was plenty of room for lots of people, and I knew approximately where I was on the course because of landmarks -- the island and the three bridges. The run course was also not so scary as people make it out to be. Yes it's hilly, with one particular hill -- the notorious Barton Hill -- that you have to do four times on the double-loop course, but I am not afraid of hills when running. And this particular hill is only 3/10 of a mile one way and half a mile the other way, so although it's a grind, it's not really that long. I have historically done well on hilly marathons (most people don't BQ in Atlanta, especially after training all winter in flat Michigan, but I did), so I am not too worried about the run. The bike is another story. Even on my new bike, I still suffered horribly on the downhills. I just hate them! I ride the brakes on every single downhill. I also do this when driving a car, and for the same reason -- fear of losing control. I still would've made the bike cutoff, but barely, and I only did one loop instead of the two loops I'll have to do in the race. That was the one bad thing about an otherwise confidence-boosting weekend.

All in all, though, I was feeling pretty optimistic about completing the race and meeting cutoff times. And then we got close enough to race day that we started to believe that the long-range forecast might actually be accurate. What's happening is that race day temperature just keeps creeping up and up. It was 96, then 97, now 98. Full sun (and that bike course is VERY sunny). Am I worried? YES. I'm good in the heat compared to other people. But even though I have done virtually all of my training in heat, I have never biked or run in anything over 94 degrees, let alone biked longer than I ever have in my life, let alone followed that with a marathon. I have always told myself after a bad training day (of which I have had several), "At least it will be cooler in Chattanooga." But now -- HOTTER? How is this even possible?

I know that I don't have a very good handle on my fluid/electrolyte intake. This becomes really important in a long, hot event. Not enough fluids and you get dehydrated, obviously. Too much fluids without enough electrolytes and you get hyponatremia. Either one can put you in the hospital or kill you. I have always just guessed at amounts and always survived, but often in pretty rough shape. I guess I'll be guessing again next Sunday.

There is also the possibility of the course being shortened or cancelled. There is precedent for this in all types of endurance events from marathons to Ironman to shorter triathlons. If the race directors feel that they aren't equipped to provide a safe experience for athletes, they can cancel the race. (I don't think shortening the course in this case would help. That would just put more runners out in the sun during the hottest part of the day. It's never really too hot to bike, but it is definitely sometimes too hot to run.)

So what is my plan? Keep going as long as possible on Sunday. What if I miss a cutoff? Undecided. I can't get it clear in my head whether, if I complete the course with an official DNF, I can convince myself that I "did" an Ironman or not. I'm not worried about whether I'm "allowed" to continue or not. It's on public roads and they can't stop me. I can just get Sherpa to bring me my wallet and I'll make my own aid stations along the way. Of course, if I get pulled off the course and forced into an ambulance, I guess I'm done for the day. So if I DNF for a medical reason, what then? Do I sign up for Ironman Florida? I don't know, I don't know, I don't know. The Ironman itch will not go away until it's scratched. For now I am just planning on starting Chattanooga and going till I can't anymore.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Tampa 70.3

I have been registered for a 70.3 race -- 1/2 Ironman distance -- before. I backed out because I was afraid of the swim and because, deep down, I was afraid of the distance. That doesn't really make any sense -- I've done an Ironman-distance ride, plus added 8 miles onto it by biking to and from the start line, because 112 miles vs 120, what's the difference really? I've swum more than twice as far, I've "run" for 15 hours+ in ultras. But for some reason 70.3 combining all three sports was fearsome to contemplate. Nevertheless, it was a beast that must be slain before I could think I was worthy of taking on 140.6, AND it was on my training plan for this week, so I did it.

There are no official 70.3 races in Florida or anywhere in the Southeast, as far as I know, in August. Why? Well, duh, because this is weather that can kill people. Also because an 8-hour block in any day has a huge possibility of race-ending thunderstorms. Both of these were factors I had to take into consideration when planning my own personal 70.3. The location was a small beach off of the Courtney Campbell Causeway. The causeway has an 8-mile long bike path running between Tampa and Clearwater. The bike path is almost entirely unobstructed, with only a few parking lot entrances to be careful of, so it's a perfect place to just get miles without thinking too much. While the swim was definitely not going to be ideal -- bay water rather than ocean -- the other logistical advantages made it the best choice for a 70.3. The plan was to start my swim around 2:00 pm on Saturday IF the radar looked decent. If there were thunderstorms, I would reluctantly move it to Sunday morning. Why such a late start? Because if I started at the crack of dawn, I would be heading out on my run at midday, and I was afraid I wouldn't be able to handle the heat.

There were a few big, dark clouds in the sky during the drive to the beach, but the skies were clear once we got a little farther west. I was running late, naturally, having worked that morning and also dropped off dogs at various places because Will isn't home and I knew it would be a long day. So I didn't actually get in the water till 2:30. It was a bright, sunny afternoon and the water felt like a hot tub. Also, this beach is apparently a popular place for jet skis. There were lots of them. The warm water was full of seaweed, jet ski fuel, and, probably, flesh-eating bacteria and brain-eating amoebas. (I feel fine today and none of my various Florida skin inflammations look infected, Mom, so please do not worry.) Nevertheless, I started my 1.2-mile swim. My plan was to go out parallel to the shore .6 miles, or 1075 yards, and then turn back and finish. After 300 yards, I swam out of the public beach area, dodging jet skis and rednecks on floaties drinking beers, and right into a huge seaweed forest. I had been swimming through seaweed the whole time, but the density of this was just too much. Also, I saw a large black swimming thing off to my right. I'm sure it was not a shark, but despite the fact that I had just bragged, "I'm not afraid of no sharks," as we parked in the parking lot, I realized that I was, in fact, afraid of sharks. So I turned around and swam back and resigned myself to the idea of making this an out-and-back, out-and-back, out-and-back swim, and that is what I did. Over and over again through the seaweed and jet skis and rednecks. You would not believe how hot ocean water can feel under direct sun. It felt like I was boiling. I felt like it was going quick, but actually it was 58 minutes. Longer than I wanted, but I knew all the obstacles and the disgusting water had slowed me down. I also knew that a wetsuit and a downstream current would be two huge helps in Chattanooga. So I was overall OK with my swim and just happy to be able to get started on the bike.

I ate a PB&J sandwich and sprayed myself with Tri Glide where I thought I felt a chafe under my arm. Then I put on bike shoes, helmet, and gloves and headed out. My T1 time was an unimpressive 7:25. I wasn't hurrying, but neither was I purposely dawdling. One thing I realized was that there were a lot of decisions I should have made BEFORE T1. Like, what do I need in my pockets? (Answer: a Gu, BASE salt, chapstick. I got the GU but not the other two, and was desperately wishing for the other two by the time I hit my first turn-around.) Also, it's really not a good idea to be hunting through your food bag in T1 deciding what to eat. I should have known that beforehand. But today was designed to be a trial prep day for race day, so I'm not getting mad at myself; I will just take that information and use it to do better on race day.

I set out on the bike at 3:33 p.m., and it was HOT. I knew it would be hot, but I did not know it would be this hot. Probably being boiled alive in the ocean previously was a contributing factor, but there were other contributing factors: 1) the causeway is in full sun, no shade at all, 2) it's August in Florida on an almost cloudless day, 3) I was starting dehydrated. Although I had eaten a sandwich, I just plain forgot to drink anything at all. That was stupid, and another mistake I hope not to make again next month. Nevertheless, I had a tailwind riding east, the views were new and gorgeous, there was just one climb -- a nice little bridge right in the middle of the 8-mile stretch -- and my legs felt totally fine. As soon as I hit the turn-around, though, it started to suck. I was now riding into the wind and into the ball of fire that was the sun. I was feeling chafing starting in both my other armpit, the one I hadn't sprayed, and both inner thighs, where my sleek wet trisuit was bunching up somehow. Ouch. Also, I had totally and completely underestimated how much hydration I would need. Normally on my long rides of around four hours, I can get by with one bottle per hour. Sometimes it takes me two hours to drink the first bottle if I start when it's dark and cool. This time I got through almost all of both bottles on the first 16-mile out-and-back. (One bottle of Tailwind, one of water.) I was dragging and burning up when I finished the first out-and-back. I probably lost 5 minutes refilling bottles, spraying Tri Glide everywhere, unzipping my trisuit and rolling it down so my upper body was uncovered except for sports bra, picking through the food bag looking for BASE salt and chapstick, and kicking beach sand out of my cleats so I could clip in again.

The tailwind on the way out, the relief from the TriGlide, and a little BASE salt revived me for the second out. But when I turned around, it was back into the blazing sun and headwind. I was very hot again, and again drinking almost non-stop. I tried riding in aerobars for a while, but I could not get up my speed even though I felt pretty comfortable using them. I thought you're supposed to be FASTER in aerobars, but I was not. So I gave them up. My speed on the first out-and-back was 16 mph, exactly one hour. The second time it was 15.3, so I was losing time. My legs really felt fine; I was losing motivation. I look at this picture and feel like I can see the redness emanating from my burning skin. (Another thing I forgot? Sunscreen -- leading to an extremely messed-up tan line on my back, ruining the perfection I've been cultivating this whole summer.)

Out-and-back number three. This time I was cheered by two things: 1) the sun was starting to go down, and it was slightly cooler, and 2) this was my last full out-and-back; my last one would only be a partial. The turn-around is just past the "better" Courtney Campbell beach, Ben T. Davis, and there were a thousand people out there drinking, blasting music, and generally having more fun than I was. I didn't know whether I should envy them or they should envy me for doing something badass and difficult. I never did make up my mind about that.

For my last out-and-back, I only had to go out four miles. I dropped two bottles of Tailwind at Mile 2 and a bottle of ice water at Mile 4. I was hoping it would motivate me to get through the run if I knew I only had to go 2, then 2, then 2.5, then turn around. That's how I break up distances in my head when it's a very long distance. I can't think 70.3 or even 13.1 or I will shrivel up with fear and drive to a movie theater instead.

I finished the bike in 3:43 with an average speed of 15.1 mph. I really wish I would've been faster than that. While it's still within the time limit, I had NO excuse for a slow ride today other than the heat. My legs weren't tired, my chafing was an annoyance rather than actual pain, I didn't have any street crossings or vehicle traffic to worry about, the course was flat other than the bridge, and I could use my aerobars relatively comfortably. I felt like I was in the right gear and everything. I really do not know why I am such a relatively crappy cyclist. Swimming I understand, but biking shouldn't be this hard. IS it my bike? Do I need a new bike?

I changed into running shoes, ate another PB&J and had a Dr. Pepper. I had no idea if I would regret that later, but the fizz and sugar were amazing right at that moment. Also, I had had to pee since T1. Amazingly, even after drinking almost 6 full bottles, I still only sort of had to pee, which tells you how much fluid I needed for this workout. There were two outhouses on this beach and both of them were occupied. I waited... and waited. Banging and thumping sounds were coming from the inside of one of them. Finally, after 5 minutes, the door opened and a guy came out. He wasn't carrying anything to give me any idea what all the noise was caused by. Because of the long outhouse wait, my T2 time was pretty terrible too -- nine minutes and three seconds. I comforted myself by thinking that if it wasn't for the line, I would have been under five minutes.

You know what you most likely DON'T want to do after an almost five-hour-long workout? Run 13.1 miles. There was some good news, though. The sun was fully setting and it was much, much cooler. Also, my legs still felt almost perfectly fine. My breathing was a little ragged and my heart rate was higher than it should've been, and I don't think I'll drink a soda on the start line of the marathon in Chattanooga (I'll save that for Mile 18 or so), but I did feel basically fine other than the usual "I don't want to be here doing this" feeling, which is present in all endurance events for me. So I set out knowing I only had to go 2, 2, and 2.5, then turn around and be done with all this. I kept 10:00 pace/mile till the turnaround, at which point I lost a lot mentally and was like, "I don't care if I run or walk. All I need to do is get back to the car." And although I had long stretches of decent running in the last 6.5 miles, by which time it was full dark and there were fireworks going off in Clearwater, I walked a lot and my performance was pretty unimpressive. I finished in 2:19 with a 10:40 pace which is not great but I guess is acceptable for my first stab at the half-Iron distance.

I felt really, really good after. No nausea, although I wasn't hungry either. Very little soreness. Not exhausted. No ill effects from the heat other than a nasty heat rash on my upper thighs that is still there today. No queasiness from jet ski fuel/Gulf bacteria. Best of all, I know the answer to the question, "Could you have kept going if you had to? Could you have run that distance twice?" Yes, I could. Nothing but my mind was stopping me. And although I wish my mind wouldn't stop me, and that I wouldn't let it, I also know that my mind is much more focused in the real event than in any training, no matter how "real-life" the training is meant to be.

So, was this event a success? Yes. I learned some great lessons for the real deal, and I added a layer of mental toughness just knowing I can finish within the time limits. Also, I got a medal so I know I did something. (This wasn't an official event; there is no 70.3 Tampa -- but I can tell you, if you're ever helping a friend with a really, really long training day in preparation for a big event in the future, and you see fit to make up a medal for them, they will think it is the coolest thing ever and you are the coolest person ever.)

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Ironman Training Journal, Fourth Month

I'm actually well into the fifth month, because this was a 30-week training schedule. In my head it's always been a six-month schedule, but six months would only be 24 weeks. Well, math was never my strong point.

Things are going... not too bad! I've made it into the third ten-week training phase, the peak phase, with two previous ten-week phases completed. This is when the workouts get longer. Still, I think I am in good enough shape to handle them. I have mostly good news to report on the training front:

THE SWIM: I'm getting better, slowly but surely. I started off at almost three minutes per 100 yards, which is a terrible pace and just barely under the cutoff pace for the Ironman swim. Yesterday, in my longest workout of this training cycle so far (3500 yards), my pace was 2:24 per 100. It had just recently dropped into the low 2:40's, but to have it drop to 2:24 on my longest workout yet was nothing short of amazing. (And I REALLY didn't want to go to the pool yesterday. I woke up dreading it, almost bailed on leaving the house, almost turned around and went home when I got to the Y at 5:30 a.m. -- but I stayed and had an awesome swim instead.) I've been watching YouTube videos, doing 600-700 yards of drills every time I swim, and even finally posted a video of myself swimming in the Pathetic Triathletes Facebook group. I got lots of helpful feedback, some of which I concentrated on implementing yesterday and some of which I have to go back and review a few more times. But I'm now feeling pretty confident about the swim. I will be swimming 3500 three times a week, and the Ironman swim is 4200, and it's downstream, and I'll have a wetsuit. So, can I do it? I think I can!

THE BIKE: No real improvement in speed, and I still can't ride comfortably in aerobars. But -- I CAN CHANGE A FLAT NOW!! I know people will find this hard to believe. I still need more practice before I can change it fast. But I have practiced quite a few times and now believe I could actually do it if I had to. Big and sincere thank you to the person who finally was the right combination of teaching me and pushing me to do it myself. As for improving my speed, one thing I will say is that all of my long rides so far have involved riding through places like downtown Bradenton, Tampa, and Palmetto, usually twice (out and back), and the traffic lights and stop signs inevitably slow me down quite a bit. Even so, I'm usually around 14-15 mph. A fast ride is 16-17 mph. I have promised myself that when my long rides get up over four hours, which is starting this week, I will go to more fun and bike-friendly places, like back to the Pinellas Trail and the Legacy Trail and Longboat Key. Hopefully I will be able to be just a little bit faster in those places, and hopefully I can get some decent practice with aero bars without having to worry about traffic.

THE RUN: Nothing really to report here. I'm anywhere between 9:00 and 10:00 miles depending on how hot it is. I'm still running well off the bike. I hope that continues. I mean, it's not like 10:00 miles is an awesome pace, but neither is it horrible in heat and humidity. Let me just say one more time -- it's easier to run well when you run in beautiful places. I think everyone has seen enough of my sunrises and sunsets and dolphins and palm trees and sea birds and beautiful, vacation-blue Florida skies to know that I live and run in a beautiful place!

My biggest accomplishments this past month:
*Buying a trisuit. It fits me so perfectly it's like someone painted it on me, and like it isn't even there at all. Yes it was expensive, but what is it worth to find something that comfortable to work out in?
*Finishing my solo Olympic tri in reasonably good shape.
*Posting my video for critique. I know I suck, but it's never fun to find out specifically how and how much you suck. Still, everyone was really nice about it, and I got some good tips.
*Learning how to fix a flat -- an accomplishment ten years in the making.
*180 workouts done, 90 to go. Still haven't missed one and I'm still ahead of schedule by 3-4 days.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Olympic Distance Triathlon -- Solo

Today I had a new, fun adventure. I did an Olympic-distance triathlon by myself, before work.

My training plan calls for an Olympic distance race-- 1500-yard swim, 25-mile bike, 10K run -- this weekend. And I had originally planned to do one at Fort DeSoto. I thought I had registered already, but it turned out I accidentally didn't. Once I realized that I hadn't registered, I didn't want to spend the $150 to do a race when I could do it for free on my own. (Especially when I had just spent almost $300 at the triathlon store on a tri suit, a sleek new sports bra to wear under the tri suit, and a new swimsuit.)

I am not a planner, but I planned this out pretty thoroughly. While I still consider this a relatively short-distance triathlon, it would still take me at least three hours, so I had to start as soon as the pool opened, at 5:30 a.m. It had to be on a Tuesday or Thursday because on Monday, Wednesday and Friday a master's swimming group swims there at 5:30 and takes all the lanes. I couldn't do it on the weekend because the pool opens so late on the weekends that I would be doing my run in the midday heat. And Tuesday had bad thunderstorms in the morning. So Thursday it was. I measured bike mileage and planned my run route around water fountains in Lakewood Ranch. I was ready! I was out of my house at 4:50 a.m. At 5:15 a.m., I was in the parking lot of the Lakewood Ranch Y, finishing my coffee and relaxing. I went in at 5:25... and the woman at the counter told me the pool was closed. "They're rebalancing the water," she explained when she saw the look on my face. "Because of all the storms."

I was kind of a jerk. I turned around and walked out without saying anything further. All my planning... this was the only day I could do it... should I go back to bed? No. I was wide awake from coffee and dread and anticipation. There was only one thing to do -- drive all the way to the Bradenton Y, almost half an hour west. I don't like the Bradenton pool; there's no bike lane on the road the Y is on; there are water fountains but they aren't ice cold like the ones in Lakewood Ranch. Oh well. Part of Ironman training is being adaptable, right? So across town I went.

As I shoved my bag in a locker and rushed to the pool, half an hour past my scheduled start time, I thought vaguely, "Maybe I should pee?" followed immediately by, "Nah, only 1500, I can wait." Every time I've made that decision in any race, it's been the wrong one. Every time! From the time I started my swim till the time I got to 300 yards, all I could think was "Oh my God I love this trisuit so much and I'm the fastest one in the pool right now and I look like a triathlete and it was totally worth all that money." Then from 300 yards on all I could think of was, "I have to pee." I should have just done it in the pool like apparently everyone else in the Pathetic Triathletes Facebook group does with no shame, but deep down I still believe what I was told as a kid -- that if you pee in the pool a red ring will form around you and the lifeguard will know. I have never peed in the pool and probably never will. Instead I had a miserable -- but relatively fast -- swim.

This time around I had googled how to use my fancy triathlon watch for triathlon (unlike last time when I didn't bother). So I knew which button to hit to start and stop transitions. Walking into the locker room, I thought how great it was that I didn't have to change out of a swimsuit like I usually do, but quickly realized that getting a wet one-piece trisuit unzipped in the bathroom to pee was about as much fun as putting on a sports bra immediately after a shower when your skin is wet. 10-minute T1 -- shameful. And all because I couldn't pee in the pool.

I ate most of a Clif bar while putting on my bike shoes at the car. I had decided to ride out to Anna Maria Island and back for my ride. I was flying on the way out with a sweet tailwind. Something was rattling big time on my bike and I could not figure out what it was. I stopped riding and tapped on various parts of the bike and everything seemed tight. Oh well; I kept going and stopped worrying about the rattling. I had also been worried because the padding on the trisuit was so light and I have such a history of bike seat problems, but I had NO problem today. Everything felt exactly right. My ride was perfect until I got to my turnaround point on Anna Maria. Suddenly the tailwind was a headwind and I was staring into very dark clouds to the south. Uh-oh. The radar had been basically clear this morning except for a few very tiny dots of green. Those tiny dots of green are totally fine UNLESS YOU ARE RIDING THROUGH ONE OF THEM!

I made it over two of the three bridges leading back to Bradenton before it started sprinkling. Everything to the south and east was an angry dark grey, and the headwind was bending the trees and grasses in half. I kept riding; what other choice did I have? It sprinkled, then it dumped, a torrential downpour that soaked me in seconds. I rode through it and came out on the other side with 5 miles left to ride back to my car at the Y. At least there was no thunder and lightning!

Back at the Y, I put my bike in my car and was changing shoes when the downpour started again. I sat on my tailgate chugging Tailwind and looking at the rain. To run in it, or to go inside and do 6.2 on the treadmill? What the hell. I was already soaked. Besides, at least it wasn't hot, with all these clouds. I headed out with a T2 time of four minutes (would've been two-something if I hadn't sat there hoping for the rain to end for an extra two minutes)

I ended up having a pretty amazing run, 8:30 pace for the first couple miles and just a little slower after that but still well under 9:00 miles. The rain stopped and the sun came out and the humidity cranked up several notches for the last mile, but by then I was so close to being done I could taste victory and didn't care. My legs felt surprisingly springy. The trisuit was great -- the most comfortable piece of athletic apparel I've ever owned, like a second skin. I was happy with just about every aspect of my solo Olympic:

*I was able to change plans at the last minute and pull it together.
*I rode and ran in the rain without too much bitching.
*My trisuit fits!
*My bike seat doesn't hurt anymore!
*Despite burping coffee for my whole swim and almost peeing in the pool, I still had an OK (for me) swim time.
*My legs off the bike felt way better than I could have expected.
*I could use my fancy watch.

The ONLY thing I wasn't happy with was my T1 time -- but I will have no problem peeing in the river at my Ironman, so that should get better.

Up next -- my solo 70.3 in August.