Friday, March 28, 2014

Triathlon... If Not Now, Then When? (Subtitle: Why Not This Year?)

I have had this blog for four years now and have only done ONE triathlon, and that was a sprint. Maybe I will never do one and should just give up the idea of it? But no. I only have three things that I would really like to accomplish in this lifetime: publish a book, get an OTCh on a dog, and finish an Ironman. Of those three, Ironman is, I think, achievable with the least amount of effort. I'm not doing anything resembling writing a book, and at the end of a day of training dogs, the last thing I want to do is train ANOTHER dog. At least I am still working out, and not completely out of shape. So what is stopping me from taking the next step towards that goal of doing an Ironman?

Quite a few things, actually!

1) Triathlon is SUCH an expensive hobby. The races are expensive and you have to buy gear for three different sports. Right off the bat, if I were to decide to do a triathlon here, I would have to buy, at minimum, new bike shoes (to accommodate my feet, which have inexplicably grown a size larger in the past year), new running shoes (for the same reason), a bike tune-up (bike has sat in the closet since November), a wetsuit (no open-water swim in a race without LOTS of practice open-water swims beforehand; no open-water swims in Michigan without a wetsuit), and a race entry fee ($275 for the race I'm thinking about, the Steelhead 1/2 Ironman in August). I took a pay cut to come to Michigan and totally do not have that kind of money to throw around! (Unless, you know, it's in pursuit of one of my life goals, in which case, screw it! I could die tomorrow and then wouldn't I regret saving any money instead of using it to do what I want to do.)

2) Open water, oh God. In Arizona open water is hard to get to. In Michigan I think I read somewhere that no one lives further than six miles from some kind of lake. The triathlon club does open water swims all the time. I have no excuse, except that I don't want to! I don't want to swim where I can't see that comfortable blue stripe on the bottom and know I can stand up if I accidentally breathe in water. I don't want to have to learn how to sight. (Maybe I wouldn't have to... at the speed I swim, I should be able to just follow all the kicking legs in front of me, right?)

3) Nowhere to bike without driving there first. It really sounds like everyone just does lots of loops at Stoney Creek. I don't mind Stoney but can't imagine doing that volume of training there. On the other hand, I also can't imagine doing any sort of training on these roads, with their terrifying, wheel-busting potholes that look totally capable of swallowing a bike whole or, worse, swallowing the bike but dumping ME on the road right in front of oncoming traffic. And although I like spin class occasionally, I definitely wouldn't want to rely on any kind of stationary bike for bike workouts. (We will not even say the words "bike trainer". No way, never doing it.)

4) I'm scared of triathletes. Seriously, it sometimes seems like there are no casual triathletes. I mean, really, do you HAVE to have a totally competitive mindset to do even short-distance triathlons? Are the heart rate monitors, the power meters, the intervals, the swim sets, the tri-suits, the aerobars, the obsession with diet REALLY NECESSARY? Can't you just, like, swim and run and ride your bike? The triathletes I have met are very nice; I'm just not sure that I'm one of them the way I am one of the runners.

5) Class. I love teaching class at Leader Dogs, but it throws a giant wrench in my training schedule for one month out of every five. In this case, Steelhead is in August and class goes from mid-April to mid-May, so I'm sure I could swing it, but still, missing that month of training or even just cutting way back definitely affects training for races.

6) My swim still sucks and I still worry about being the last one out of the water.

So those are a lot of reasons why not to do it, but the one big reason to do it is that it's one of my life goals, and I don't have that many, and no one ever knows how long they are going to live, so isn't the time to get started on them always RIGHT NOW?

Friday, March 21, 2014

High Intensity, High Volume Endurance Exercise and Cardiovascular Health: Clarifying the Risk-Protection Paradox

That is the title of the presentation I went to last night at Beaumont Cardiovascular Performance Clinic. The presentation was organized by the local triathlon club, which I just joined (literally just; this was the first meeting I went to and I didn't know anyone in the room). I was really impressed with the whole thing. The doctor who gave the presentation was a great speaker. Even though he works for Beaumont, I never at all got the feeling that he was trying to sell the screenings they perform. (Well, he didn't really have to, the screenings sell themselves.)

I also really liked the doctor himself. He is obviously passionate about the topic of cardio health for athletes. Listening to him talk about the effects of exercise on the heart was like listening to me talk about guide dogs. Let me tell you, people who work all day at something and can then talk about it after work with enthusiasm are lucky people, I should know. He has been in this field for a long time and has all kinds of academic and professional credibility, but is also one of those people who is really, really good at dumbing stuff down for those of us who aren't in the medical field. (Although, this being a group of triathletes, the number of highly educated people in the audience appeared to be a little disproportionate based on the vocabulary of the people asking questions. It's possible that I was the only one in there needing anything dumbed down.) I got the feeling this guy could hold his own in conversation with any leading cardiologist anywhere in the world, but at the same time he also said things like, "I could tell you you need to have the screening done every three years, or every five years, but I'd just be bullshitting you; the answer is we don't really know how often anyone needs it done," and also, "It's true that there are more people participating in marathons every year, but it's also true that there's more people sitting on their asses at home every year, because there's just more people every year." I love a speaker who is not afraid to talk like real people talk and who isn't afraid to say "I don't know" when the answer is "I don't know."

I wish I had taken better notes while I was there, but the main points I remember from the talk are:

*There aren't really that many deaths from exercise-related cardiac arrest. I think the average he said was 4 per year in marathons and half-marathons.
*The majority of deaths in people under 35 are from, I think, enlarged heart-something-or-other (see? I should've paid more attention) and the majority of the deaths in people over 35 are from cardiovascular disease, and most of those things are detectable by routine screenings.
*You do have a higher chance of having a cardiac event when exercising, but it's still pretty low compared to a sedentary person's risk of a cardiac event with any exercise at all.
*There are actually physiological reasons for doing a cooldown post-exercise. (I don't remember what they were, but I remember looking at the Power Point slide and listening to the doctor's explanation and saying to myself, "Oh, shit.") I have always disregarded the advice "do a cooldown", but maybe I will just go ahead and do one from now on.

The cost of the screening is $300, which seems like a lot, but I actually think you get a lot for that price, including an ECG, an EKG, and a stress test, including measurement of VO2 max. (Not that I particularly care about VO2 max, but it seems to be one of those things that it might be interesting to get at some point in my life.) I have had a cardio screening once in my life, five years ago, but the difference with this one is that it includes a focus on athletics and training. So, probably worth the $300.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Corktown 5k Race Report

St. Patrick's Day always reminds me of that joke: Someone asks you, "Got any Irish in you?" to which you respond, "I did once!" Okay! Off-color joke dispensed with, race report commencing.

From now on I am not going to sign up for any races anywhere other than the Southwest or California that don't take place between April and October. It's just not worth it! The chance of freezing your ass off is too great.

This morning it was a balmy 12 degrees at the start line of the Corktown 5k in Detroit. 12 degrees real temp with a 0 degree windchill. It could have been worse -- at least there was 0% chance of snow! I had to get there early because I wasn't sure about parking. The start line was right in front of Detroit's most famous abandoned building, the Michigan Central building. This:

It was also surrounded by lots of Detroit's less-famous abandoned buildings. Altogether a bleak and depressing scene. I did my homework before the race and found out that Corktown is Detroit's oldest ethnic neighborhood. First Irish, then Maltese (really! I always thought that was just a dog breed, not a nationality; shows what I know), then finally Latino. I couldn't tell what it was today other than empty. The St. Patrick's Day parade follows the race but it would take a braver and hardier person than me to stand out in that cold for any longer than I had to.

I sat in the car wrapped up in my giant, puffy jacket -- more like a comforter with arms and a hood -- running the heater until twenty minutes to start time. I spent the whole time berating myself for thinking one pair of threadbare tights was enough for a 0-degree windchill and wondering if I should just go home. But if I went home I would have nothing to blog about. Plus I was curious to see what my 5k time would be. It's been so long since I did a 5k I really didn't know.

I left my jacket in the car and stepped out into the icy cold wind and wanted to cry, but instead I just got in the porta-pottie line and began jumping up and down, running in place, and cursing the cold like everyone else was. I wanted to say this was the coldest I had ever been at a race start line but I knew that wasn't true. Nothing will ever be colder than the 3 hours in Hopkinton at the Boston Marathon start line. At least here I only had to be outside for 20 minutes before the race started.

Once I had gotten in my corral -- this is a huge race, and they had 4 waves -- the announcer said there were still lines at the registration table so the start was going to be delayed by 5 minutes while we waited for those people to finish registering. This generated a mass "Booooooooo!" from the runners and liberal use of the F-word as well as generalized grumbling. Come on, people, preregister or get here on time, seriously! We hopped, jumped, and ran in place while waiting. At least the Irish music booming through the speakers was exciting.

Finally we started. The race is an out and back down Michigan Avenue. The icy wind was straight into my face. I was wearing a neck gaiter but it promptly got wet with condensation from my breath and then froze stiff. The air was so cold my teeth hurt even with the gaiter covering my mouth. I consoled myself with the thought that it would be a tailwind on the return. My feet felt like blocks of ice clumping on the cobblestone street but I was making good time. I think Corktown might be a cool place to visit in, say, July. Not today.

When we got to the turnaround it was immediately obvious that the wind was still blowing just as hard. That HADN'T been a headwind at all, it had been a crosswind the whole time, and still was. I swear that often in my Michigan workouts the wind blows out in all directions from the center point of my workout loop. This was one of those times. But by this time, I didn't care because I was more than halfway done. As I got within sight of the finish line, I was passed by a guy running shirtless. I swear that no matter what the temperature, there will always be someone wearing hardly any clothes and claiming to run better that way.

I finished in 24:18, a 7:38 pace, which was about as good as I could've hoped for. I would've been happy with anything 8:00 or faster. Considering my winter fat, 7:38 is a respectable pace. As I crossed the finish line, it started to snow, big, fat flakes, and I wondered for not the first time why any Michigan forecaster would ever say 0% chance of anything weather-related. I say there is always a chance, for anything at all! By the time I got to my car, I could barely even see Michigan Central because of the snow. But by the time I pulled out of the parking lot, the snow had stopped and the sun was shining again.

This week's forecast looks much more promising, with nothing in the teens and a couple days in the 40's. I'm hoping for some good outdoor running!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Well, not today, of course, as anyone in any part of the country that was violated by this late-winter blast of nastiness knows. This is the blog post I meant to write on Friday, or maybe it was Thursday, whatever that day last week was that it was WARM. (Not Tucson-warm, but Michigan-warm.) I'm writing it today instead of when it happened because when it happened I was outside enjoying it, not inside writing about it. Today, on the other hand, I have just returned from walking the dogs, a miserable slog through the latest 8 or so inches dumped on top of the grimy, pitted remains of the rest of the winter's unmelted snow. (At least it looks fresh and white again! There are few things more disgusting than late winter's leftover snow when most of it has melted and all the frozen trash and dog crap buried underneath are reemerging.) It's cold again too. The Carhartt snowsuit, the wader boots, the heavy gloves, all had been put away and had to be pulled out again. But even though today is an awful day (albeit made slightly better by an early dismissal from work), it is inevitable that spring is coming and soon, soon, soon! I can play outside again.

The feeling of the first not-miserably cold day is hard to describe. Giddy, joyful, glorious, alive with a sense of possibility, all come close. Last year the first snow that stuck and left no doubt that the terrible WINTER was here happened on November 22. On November 23 I layered up and set out, determined not to let weather stop me just like I didn't let 110 degrees stop me from running in Arizona. After having run less than a mile, I slipped and fell on a sheet of ice buried under the snow. I wasn't hurt, but the fear was now there, and if it was freezing at any point during the day* I could not run anything like fast, because I was too afraid of the ice monster hiding under the snow. (*It was always freezing at some point during the day. We've had well over 100 days this winter where it never got above freezing, and on most of them, to the best of my recollection, we've never even gotten close.) Anyway, I picked myself up from that fall and ran the rest of that 13-mile run, and haven't run outside since then, other than during vacations to California and Arizona, which seem like they happened in dreams. My reality now is cold and snow and biting wind and thermals and Carhartt and boots and gloves and running on the treadmill.

But on Friday there were none of those things. Oh, sure, there were huge... puddles is not the word, more like half-block-long lakes of frigid meltwater to splash through, but there was no ice anywhere at all on the sidewalk, and on the east side of the road where the sun hit in the afternoon the sidewalks were bone-dry. The air wasn't cold enough to freeze snot (that happens!) or hurt teeth just by breathing it in. I started with gloves but took them off in less than a mile. I passed lots of other runners and every one of them waved and smiled and I did the same back. We're free! Released from the prison of the treadmill! I was supposed to run four miles but ended up doing six just because it felt so good to be outside and not freezing. Best of all, I was able to average 8:05 pace. Not great by any means, but considering my 20 pounds of winter fat and the fact that I've been on the treadmill for months and this whole run was made of hills, I was pretty proud of it! I am sure at least some of the reason I had such a good run was that in my head I was yelling, "Take THAT, winter! Die, evil bitch, die! You have ruled for a long time but Mr. Sun is going to VANQUISH you! See Mr. Sun over there? Feel his warmth on your face? I DO!!" and other things of that nature. (I think I was only yelling them in my head. I may have been yelling out loud. I'm not sure.)

I can't wait till I can run outside every day in just one layer, and the gym is a thing of the past except for swimming. I can't wait till I can bike again! Although, looking at the shape these roads are in I'm not sure I can EVER bike again. Talk about potholes... these are more like sinkholes. Giant, axle-busting, car-wrecking sinkholes that eat up entire curbside lanes. (See, for example, article here and video here.) How or when these will ever be fixed is impossible to know, but until they are, I'm probably not going to bike anywhere except at Stoney Creek, and that's after I drive my bike there in my car. That is where all the triathletes train on the bike anyway. Oh, Michigan, you suck so much for road bikers...

Anyway, spring is almost here even though I am in thermals again sitting in front of the heat dish trying to thaw out from walking the dogs, and looking at a low of 0 for tomorrow and a range of 10-27 for Sunday, 5k day. It's worth it to be here, it's worth it to be here, it's worth it to be here! Right?

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Some Day This Blasted Winter Will End...

...and I will have something to write about again. I can't wait for that day! I have hope that it will come, even though last night, the first night of March, it snowed 4 more inches, and today, the second day of March, we only briefly made it into double digits and only for a very short time. Surely this has to stop soon, right?

And surely I have to want to do something athletic again, right? Some day? Oh, it's not that I haven't been doing anything. I belong to the nice gym and because it's so expensive, I am there at least four or five times a week or else I start thinking I'm not getting my money's worth and if I'm not going to get my money's worth, maybe I ought to just stop paying for it and accept that I live in the Midwest now and can get fat...NO! Unthinkable! Anyway, I'm going to the gym regularly and listlessly plodding through an hour on the elliptical or on the treadmill or in the pool or in spin class, but talk about no passion whatsoever. I don't know if I will ever get it back or if it's just something that was part of my Arizona life and isn't part of my Michigan life. I can explain it a few different ways, thusly:

1) THE WEATHER. Well, obviously. It's super hard to feel like busting ass when the weather busts you every day. We have had by all reports the worst winter in recent memory, both with snowfall and with the crazy, bitter cold. Last year I came for my interview in January, and it was 55 and rainy. I remember running in one layer and thinking, Yes, this sucks but it is doable. I wish I could get mad at someone for false advertising. I really have nothing more to say about this winter; everyone knows it sucks, and the whole country has heard about it for several months now and doesn't need to hear about it anymore. I will only add that I have to work outside in it (if I want my dogs to get trained for class next month) every day and that leaves me with no energy at all to spend any more time outside in it at the end of the work day. Also, it's not the cold that stops me from running so much as it is the ice. If I slip and break an ankle, I can't do my job anymore, period. And that would be very bad. So, no running and no riding till there's no more ice. Which might not be until April, the way it's been lately.

2) THE "WORK-LIFE BALANCE" IS ALL WORK. This is not really a bad thing. My job in Tucson was the place I went to recover from my grueling weekend workouts. While the people I worked with were nice (mostly), I had little in common with them outside of work and almost never, with only two exceptions that I remember, voluntarily did anything social with them after work hours. (One of those exceptions being biking 50 miles, with an unspoken agreement to never ever mention work during those 50 miles, and the other exception being something currently unmentionable on a public blog.) The people in WOG and TTR were the cool people in my life, the interesting ones, the ones who I wanted to spend time with. I did not see those people at work, so I had to see them outside of work. Here, it is completely different. ALL my friends in Michigan are work friends. I don't know if it's just that I work with cooler people to begin with, or if it is shared passion for the job (as opposed to shared enjoyment of high salary, non-taxing workload, and job security that I had in Tucson), but the people I work with all day are simply more interesting than any other people. I don't have any desire to go outside of work and meet new people or get involved in any local athletic community because, why should I? I have everything I need right there at Leader. And my coworkers work out, too. Lots of us (grudgingly) go to the gym right after work. But it is just something we do because we should and because we don't want to be fat and because we don't (most of us) want to change our eating habits. Actual enjoyment of it? I don't think anyone would actually go that far. (Long-time readers of this blog know that I have NEVER claimed enjoyment of running, triathlon, or any other form of workout. But they have always been part of my identity in a way that they just are not right now.) Don't get me wrong -- it is great to have a job so engrossing and fascinating that it's not just a job, it's a hobby. But it doesn't leave room for much else.

3) NO CONNECTION TO THE LOCAL OUTDOOR SPORTS COMMUNITY. This is related to #2 and is totally my own fault. There are all kinds of outdoor sports groups here. There is an awesome running group right there in Rochester. I ran with them off and on through the summer and fall. That group was full of great people, and the dynamic reminded me so much of ComeRun that I am kicking myself for not continuing to run with them. What happened? It got dark and cold and I got to feeling guilty for leaving the dogs in the kennel for such a long time and I felt like I should be going to the gym because I was paying for it and... and... I haven't run with the group since November. Not that they're doing much running either. But still, going back there as soon as it gets warmer might be a good idea.

4) I'M HAPPY. My best training has always taken place when I was trying to get over something or channel life-related stress into something more productive than sitting home drinking. When life is happy, there is so much less motivation to try to change anything. I'm glad I'm happy (or as happy as I can be, not living in Tucson). But why do happiness and motivation seem so mutually exclusive?

I have exactly one race on my calendar, the Corktown 5K in Detroit March 16. I haven't run a 5K in a long time, except for the Meet Me Downtown 5K in Tucson, which I ran every year just because I loved downtown Tucson so much I couldn't NOT run it. I registered for this one because it is a huge race and because they have a cool shirt. The first year I was in Tucson, I ran practically every local race just to see what they were all about. Maybe I need to do the same thing in Michigan; maybe I will magically become interested in the community again and make new running friends and start signing up for marathons again and get the missing piece of myself back? But then again, I would not want to trade that missing piece for all the other missing pieces I've found here, either. I guess we will just have to see.