Monday, August 29, 2011

I Can't Take This Swimming Suckiness Anymore... I finally hired a coach.

I've read all kinds of books on swimming, but it appears that swimming, like sex, dog training, and lots of other things, is something that you just can't learn from a book. You have to just jump in and do it. And if you suck enough, you have to pay someone to help you get better. (Here's where the sex analogy sort of falls apart, although the dog training one is still valid.) I've been swimming for almost 3 years and my 800-meter time has stubbornly stayed right around the 17:00-18:00 mark. That is embarrassingly bad, if I want to call myself a triathlete. My bike time is mediocre, which I can live with. My run time is usually good. But my swim time is lousy and will reliably put me at the bottom of my age group every time. So there was nothing left to do but get a coach and start taking lessons.

This is one of the best sport-related decisions I ever made, although it is pretty darn expensive. Sometimes, to amuse myself, I think about what else I could buy with money spent on a half-hour swim lesson: eight weeks worth of dog obedience classes; not one but TWO chicken-and-waffles date nights (for both me and Tim!); four movie tickets, a stack of books at Bookman's... or else I think what this half-hourly rate equates to in hourly, and then in yearly, income, and I compare it to my income and wonder why I bothered getting a master's degree. But I have looked around and this is, in fact, the going rate in Tucson for good coaches. (I've had a cheaper, less-than-good coach in the past who was essentially worthless, so at least here I'm getting something for my money.)

The best thing I get from this coach is structure. Being a good teacher myself, I can recognize another good teacher no matter what he's teaching, and he is a good teacher. He has broken down the stroke into lots of separate elements, and each week we work on a new one and he gives me homework emphasizing that new element. When I feel like I have mastered that element, I schedule another swim lesson and get a new element. For example, the first week my assignment was to work on my breathing. He wanted me to breathe only at a certain time. He assigned me a drill that is kind of like the catch-up drill I learned (and hated, and didn't practice) in my Swimming for Triathletes class. The first few times I practiced I was sure I would never be able to do it, ever. But in reality I was doing it automatically within  a week. So I came back and got my next assignment, which was to bring my arm all the way back when I finished a stroke. Then the third week my assignment was to roll more with each stroke. It's really neat the way it works because each element adds on to the previous one. That's more or less exactly the way I teach the mechanics of using a cane and crossing a street to my blind students, and their success rate says it works!

Let me also mention here, apropos of nothing, that the coach is also very hot. Almost hot enough to be a distraction, but not quite, because usually during the lessons I am too worried about getting enough air to be distracted by his hotness. Nevertheless, it is there and by itself practically justifies half of the cost of each lesson. It's a good thing he can't read my mind (or my blog) because sometimes, honestly, while he is talking about the catch-this and recovery-that, my mind is saying, "Mmmmm-hmmmm, and if you're not getting laid every night, I'm sure it's not for lack of opportunity."

I am still not a good swimmer. I have a long way to go and can only speculate on how much it's going to cost by the time I have a decent swim (and on how many hours I will have to spend in the cruddy YMCA pools), but it's worth it! I always have to remind myself that I want to be able to say, "I am an Ironman" some day, and if I want to say that, I have to put in the work to make it happen. It's just like when I hated trail running (oh, wait, I still hate trail running) but decided that completing the Pikes Peak Marathon was worth suffering through a summer on the hot, rocky trails.

Now I just can't wait for the weather to cool off a little so that the entire population of Tucson isn't in the pool when I'm trying to do laps, and I will be SO much happier.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Oxygen Is So Overrated, AKA Pikes Peak Marathon Report

Confession: I freely admit that I was not sure if I would finish this race or not. That had nothing to do with the average 11% grade or the weather or anything else; it was more that I really didn't know how my body would do at elevation. The highest I can get in Tucson is 9300', and once in New Mexico when I drove up to the top of a 12,000' peak I had major trouble (dizziness, trouble breathing, etc). I had this fear going into the race that my heart would explode as I got up to 14,000'. Oxygen is available on the trail if you need it, but you're disqualified if you use it. I was determined to keep moving unless I was physically incapable of putting one foot in front of the other. Now, without further delay, the report:

Saturday morning. According to the wisdom of the message board for the Pikes Peak Marathon, there are only two ways to deal with the altitude of the race if you are a flatlander: either arrive three weeks early and give your body time to adjust, or arrive as close to the race start as possible and just do the race before your body has time to realize what happened to it. I picked the second one.

Saturday evening: packet pickup in Manitou Springs. At this marathon you don't get the shirt unless you finish the race, i.e., no shirts were being handed out with the packets. I like this! You should have to EARN that finisher's shirt. This marathon has a time limit of ten hours, with various cutoff times throughout the race. I am a crappy trail runner but surely I can make 26.2 miles in 10 hours, right? RIGHT? The Ascent race was today and all the returned runners are milling around Memorial Park talking about how much fun they had. Everyone looks to be in good shape so maybe I am scaring myself unnecessarily about the difficulty of this event. (I don't really consider it a race so much as an endurance event, since I will be mainly trying to survive as opposed to racing.) Then I look up -- and up, and UP -- at Pikes Peak, all rocky and bare of trees and impossibly high above the town, and it is incomprehensible that I will be getting up there on foot tomorrow.

Saturday night: Dinner is the pre-race pasta feed in Memorial Park, all-you-can-eat watery spaghetti, baked potatoes, and carrot cake. Tim and I stuff ourselves and listen to Marshall Ulrich speak. He is one of those crazy ultrarunners who did all the prerequisite "normal" crazy stuff like Badwater, all the 100-milers, etc, a long time ago and has now moved on to the super crazy stuff like running across America and running the Leadville 100 one day and then the Pikes Peak Marathon the following day. I'm a sucker so I buy his book, since his theme is: "You can do more than you think you can." I look up at the Peak, now all covered in dark, scary clouds, and hope that is true.

Sunday morning: Race day! I've had my McDonalds Egg McMuffin meal and I'm ready. (Don't laugh. All my best races start out with McD's.) Last night was a violent storm with torrential rain and thunder and lightning. It was nice to listen to while lying in the comfortable bed in the Victorian B&B we stayed at, but I couldn't stop wondering what was going on up there at 14,000 feet.

Start Line: There is no line for the Porta-Potties, something I have never experienced at any marathon. The Ascent had double the number of runners that the marathon has; that probably explains the abundance of Porta-Potties. It is a bright, sunny, warm morning and race officials report that the temperature at the top is 44. That's not bad at all. I take deep breaths of the wonderful, cool, dry mountain air and listen to local runners complain about the heat. That makes me want to laugh. The high temperature for today will be upper-80's to low-90's but that is the coolest weather I've experienced for months. Lots of other things may be problematic for me today, but I am willing to bet heat won't be one of them.

Race Start: I wave at Tim, who is holding the video camera, as we head out of Manitou Springs. The road goes up but not steep. It is easily runnable, even for me who stinks at hill running. Then we hit the little road that leads to Barr Trail and everyone en masse stops running and starts walking. My God, this is steep. I didn't even know roads could be this steep. I don't know what the grade is but I'm sure it's at least 15 or 16%, maybe even more.

Onto the Trail: Mercifully, that steep road ends and we get to the trail part. It switchbacks up the mountain and is slightly less steep than the road was but is so narrow that passing is difficult. The grade there is probably close to the one on the Aspen Trail going up to Radio Ridge. The trail itself is practically pristine compared to gnarly Tucson trails like Phoneline and Blacketts. Hardly any rocks to speak of although there are plenty of roots. Most people are still walking. Every so often someone squeezes by and passes. I do pass a couple people but not many. Most people seem content to just walk, and that was the advice given for people who just want to make sure they finish and are not racing for time.

Mile 3(ish): We finish the switchbacks and can look down on Manitou Springs. My God, it is tiny! Hard to believe we've come so far up in just a few miles. Pikes Peak, on the other hand, looks just as far away as before. I look at my watch and we're at just about 8000'. I decide not to look again in case the sight of the elevation numbers triggers anxiety. The trail gets really nice here. Still climbing, but lots of room to pass and not quite such a horrendous grade.

Aid Stations: They rock. I cannot imagine the logistic difficulty of getting all this water, Gatorade, food, garbage cans, etc out onto this trail. The organization is as good as at any big-city marathon, better than many. And these people know what runners want. Every aid station we pass through has all of the following: water, Gatorade, pretzels, Goldfish crackers, M&M's, grapes, oranges, and bananas. I have never seen a more impressive buffet line at an aid station. I am especially glad that they have plenty of salty foods, although eating them proves to be a little hard. I grab a handful of Goldfish because they look delicious but then discover that chewing them takes a lot of energy, energy that is better used putting one foot in front of the other. So instead I just hold them in my mouth in a gummy lump and wait for them to dissolve. I stick to my salt tablets after that.

The Middle Miles: It is actually possible to do some running in the middle. There is even some downhill! The trail is wide and beautiful here. It meanders through pine forests. There is plenty of shade and it's not hot at all. Who needs oxygen when the trail is this pretty?

10,000': The trail turns narrow, and almost technical for the first time. The grade gets steep again. I still don't have a headache, and am not nauseous or having any more trouble breathing than I do on any steep trail at 4000' or 5000' back at home. I'm in better shape than a lot of people and pass them pretty easily. No one is running now though. If you have energy to talk, you're doing pretty well. Somewhere in here we hear loud cheers and screams coming from above us. It is Matt Carpenter, the King of Pikes Peak, cruising downhill to his umpteenth victory. This provides a much-needed boost to all of our spirits as we start looking forward to seeing more downhill runners. Matt is so far ahead that we don't see another runner for about 20 minutes after he passes.

Timberline: One second there are trees all around me, and five steps later I am out on the rocks looking down at the trees below me. Suddenly I am at the bottom of Pikes Peak looking up at the top of it. Just 2.5 miles to go; I might actually make it!

To the Top: The trail switchbacks through a boulder field with about 1800' to gain in 2.5 miles. Here is where the notorious "zombie line" starts -- a long line of "runners" now just shuffling along, gasping for air, staring at the ground. If you look up you can see an impossibly long zigzag line of brightly-colored running clothes disappearing towards the top. I only look up once and do not do that again. I'm still in pretty good shape compared to most people. I'm not running, but I don't feel like I can't breathe. I pass a lot of people in the zombie line. Nevertheless, it takes me 35 minutes to do the last mile. This is partly because I'm slow but also because the trail is narrow and every time a downhill runner comes by the uphill runners have to pull over and let them pass. This is an argument for going out a little faster next time. There are hundreds of downhill runners passing so even though I am grateful for every tiny rest break, it really slows me down.

Summit! 14110'. Tim is out there with the video camera, having driven up to the summit after dropping me off. It is so good to see him. I get to the top and the volunteers are yelling, "Turnaround here, rest behind us." Rest sounds pretty good so I go and hang out by the aid station, eating grapes and pretzels. I am not in a hurry. I take a picture of my Garmin showing the elevation, and even try to upload it to Facebook (but can't because of no Internet). Finally after about 5 minutes I decide it's time to go.

Racing Back to Timberline: The clouds at the top, which had been brilliantly white and puffy earlier, are now dark and there isn't much sun left at all. I wave goodbye to Tim and head down. It is nice to have all the uphill runners yielding to me. The trail is so crowded (and slightly technical at this point, really calling for some rock-hopping skills) that I still can't settle into a good pace. This is too bad because we're starting to hear thunder, and soon after that it starts to sprinkle. I know they have called off this race because of lightning in the past and don't want to be caught up here if they do it again, so I run as fast as I can. It seems to take forever to get to timberline. I pass quite a few walking wounded, and some not walking. There are a lot of people just sitting on boulders with their heads in their hands, some being tended to by Search and Rescue. I don't know why some people get altitude sickness and some don't, but I just feel lucky that I feel basically fine. My only problem is that I really have to pee. I have had to since the start, actually, and somehow forgot to during my leisurely rest at the summit 100 yards from a bathroom. I remembered within two switchbacks after starting the descent that I had to pee, but there was no way I was going back up for that and nowhere to discreetly duck out of sight in a boulder field with no trees. Guess it will just have to wait.

Back in the Trees: It is now raining hard. I have to stop and rearrange the contents of my pack so that my iPhone is stuffed inside my hat and gloves. (Fortunately the rain is not cold enough for me to need hat and gloves.) You all know how I feel about rain but it's not like I had much of a choice but to keep going. A bit further down the trail some guy takes a header onto a rock. He has a wound on his head and there is blood. Everyone stops running and a bunch of people stop to help the guy back up onto his feet. He decides he can keep going so they help him on down to the next aid station. I'm not sure whether he made it out on foot or not. I do pass a guy from the mounted SAR division, riding one horse and leading another, heading up the trail towards the aid station I just passed, so I don't know whether that guy got a ride out or someone else did.

The Next 10 miles: Downhill, wet. Pretty much sums it up. I am running by myself so much of the time that I almost think I took a wrong turn somewhere. I finally have to stop and pee in the woods. I hate doing that; I will never be one of those outdoorsy girls who just pees anywhere without giving it a second thought. I like toilets, thank you very much. But I do feel much better afterwards.

Best Aid Station Volunteer Ever: As I stumble into the Mile 22 aid station, a crew of cheerful volunteers in rain slickers offers me all the usual good stuff. "Something salty? Or a banana?" one girl asks. "Oh, banana, I guess..." I mumble. Then the girl says, "How about some salt ON the banana?" Oh my God! Yes! That's EXACTLY what I want and no one but a runner would understand that. She peels my banana and sprinkles salt on it and that salty banana tastes awesome. Thank you, anonymous volunteer!

The Finish: It stops raining and the last couple miles of trail are beautiful and easy. Then the course hits pavement for the last mile and that is a brutal shock to the body after all those miles of soft dirt. I really want to slow down or maybe even walk but it is impossible; there are too many cheering spectators. So instead of walking I go faster. The announcer reads off the name of every single finisher, which is awesome. Then it's all over and into the usual routine of trying not to throw up on the person hanging the medal over my neck. Finish time is 7:12. I predicted seven hours but was totally okay with 7:12. At least it wasn't ten hours!

*Altitude not only did not kill me, it barely even affected me. (Although, interestingly enough, we drove to the summit the day after and I was very short of breath then. So I guess I can run up to 14000' but driving there is a bad idea.)
*Tucson trails are steep enough to provide plenty of good training for this marathon.
*Long-sleeved shirt and shorts with gloves and hat in my pack was absolutely the right choice for this marathon.
*I could've done better. I trained lazy (walking whenever I felt like it) so, as usual, my performance on race day reflected my training. Funny how that works. When I get home I am going to dig that heart rate monitor out of the drawer where it's lived for the past three years and use it, so I don't lie to myself anymore about how hard I'm working or not working. With the heart rate monitor I will know.
*I am definitely hooked on trail running, even though I still hate it, too. I said before this marathon that my feelings about it would determine whether I signed up for the OP 50 next year. Needless to say, I'm going to.
*Everyone should step out of their comfort zone once in a while and do something like this. After having "run" up Pikes Peak and run down it, I really feel like anything is possible.
*Colorado is a fantastically beautiful place. It's hard to leave.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Last Long Trail Run Done

Mt. Wrightson seemed like a good trail to end my Pikes Peak training with. It's short, by marathon-training standards, only just a little over ten miles out and back, so it fits into the taper plan, but it gains 4000 feet in elevation in those five miles up, so it is hardly easy. I thought that would be good for one week before the Pikes Peak Marathon, just so my body doesn't get too used to being comfortable and having enough oxygen.

I told myself I was going to run the whole way up, but, of course, I did not. I don't know why I even bothered telling myself I would. It's not like I ever have in the past, or have ever even come close. I managed to run most of the first mile (albeit at 12:00 pace) but after that switched to my trail running specialty of jog till I can't breathe, or until I get to some big rocks or a downed tree that I have to climb over, and then walk until I can breathe again, at which point I can break into a shuffling jog, which starts the cycle over again. I did this until well into Mile 3. At this point I was at about 8200 feet.

My biggest problem with Mt. Wrightson today is that it was wet. It wasn't raining, although there was some light cloud cover that kept it from being too hot, but it apparently has rained there A LOT lately, because everything is green. I hate green plants. Really, I do. I wish everything in the desert was dry and brown all the time. I am allergic to everything green except cactus and paloverdes. On both sides of the trail were tall, leafy plants and grasses that hung into the trail and went "swish, swish" against my legs. Just like in Bear Canyon last week, my legs started itching and my eyes started watering, and my nose ran like a faucet accidentally left on. When I got to Bellows Spring at Mile 4, the spring was running with more water than I've ever seen there. All of the numerous rocks on the trail were covered with a thin sheen of moisture that made them very slippery. And every one of the thousands of plants that overhung the trail had its own little load of water on the leaves, which it was more than happy to dump on me. Going up through the switchbacks to Baldy Saddle, I got more and more wet and more and more cranky. Did I mention bugs? They were there too, in force. Mosquitos flew into my eyes and mouth. Have I mentioned I hate moisture in the desert? I can't wait till everything is dry and sunbaked again. I passed one hiker coming down, and he said, "Your feet are going to get wet!" Well, duh. Going to? They were already soaked and I couldn't imagine getting wetter.

On the last climb up to the peak, the rocky part of the trail was running with water like a small creek. I remember getting up to this point once in March or April and finding it still covered with a frozen blanket of snow. Even though I was less than a quarter-mile from the peak, I turned back that time, not wanting to end up like a victim in a SAR scenario. This time I kept going, but through the wettest part I would not take a step without four points of contact -- both hands, and both feet. I made it up to the top in one piece. I hung out there and ate an orange and decided not to linger because it was too cold.

I envy people who can actually run down that first quarter-mile descent off the peak. I can't. I'm too afraid of heights and shifting rock under my feet. So I picked my way down slowly until I got past the wettest part and onto the lovely, soft pine needles. My feet were wet but no wetter than they had been on the switchbacks by Bellows Spring. This was the first time I have actually run down Old Baldy Trail. Usually I run down the Super Trail, both to get the extra mileage and because it's an easier grade. But today I was in a hurry and just wanted to get back to town (okay, back to my bed if we're being honest). The descent was so much happier than the ascent. I was still wet, and still itchy, and my feet were starting to hurt from stepping on rocks (again with the princess and the pea feeling), but I was actually able to run fast-ish, for me running down a mountain, that is.

I never cease to be amazed at the high number of almost-falls I have running down mountains and the low number of actual falls I have (zero, knock on wood). I hate those moments when my toe catches a rock or root and I stumble and almost go down and then somehow, miraculously, manage to stay upright and get my balance again. When that happens I usually make some inadvertent, unappealing noise kind of like the dog makes when you accidentally step on it, a sort of human "Yipe!", complete with pinwheeling arms to add to the spectacle.  Luckily there were only other hikers present once when this happened, so the embarrassment factor was low.

I got to the bottom almost exactly three hours after I started. I was hoping for faster but will go ahead and blame my slowness on the wetness of the trail. Can't possibly be my own fitness level that's responsible, no, of course not. Once at the bottom I had a long drive home to think about whether I love trail running or hate it. I definitely have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, there are so many things to hate. Rocks. Dirt. Mud. Allergies. Snakes. Mountain lions. Falling. Slow speed. Longer drive times to trailheads. But on the other hand, nothing makes me feel like such a badass as running up and down a mountain. There is something primal and exciting about feeling your heart exploding in your chest. and gasping for every breath, and drooling, and letting your nose run and not caring, and pushing through bushes and over rocks and knowing that even if you do see a snake, you are going to keep going, and finally getting to the top of the mountain and then turning around and running back down and watching hikers step aside to let you pass because obviously the rule of "downhill yields to uphill" does not apply when the downhill is a runner. I don't know. It's miserable yet addictive. I guess we'll see how Pikes Peak goes. In the meantime, I just have the feeling that there is still a 50-miler out there somewhere with my name on it.