Friday, May 24, 2013

"Hey Coach"

There are people in life whose wisdom, helpfulness, teaching, and mentoring I value so much that I've ceased to identify them by their given name. Instead, they have become "Coach", "Sensei", "Sifu". In my mind, this is who they are, as much as they might also inhabit their own name, they also inhabit this title like a name. Indeed, when one day I received a phone call from my Wing Chun instructor, he simply opened the call by saying "This is Sifu". Of course. There is no one else who inhabits that name in my world. He simply IS Sifu, and not just to me, to hundreds of people, people who look up to him and honor him. Similarly, my college swim coach will always and forevermore be the one person to me who is just Coach.

So imagine my amazement and delight as, over the years, I've become simply "Coach" to many of my swimmers and athletes. In my race Sunday, which had several out-and-back sections where you could see your fellow competitors, my swimmers hollered out "Way to go, Coach" and other words of encouragement as we passed. At the outdoor pool that just opened this week, I swam with the group - just as another swimmer, not on deck with a workout. Yet still they greeted me with "Hey Coach" and parted with "Goodbye Coach".

To me, this is probably the greatest honor anyone has ever said to me in my life. It means more than any award, ribbon, or plaque ever could. If I go to my grave having passed on a fraction of the encouragement, thoughtfulness, and mentoring that my coaches, senseis, and sifu have given to me in my life, I will be extremely happy.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Guide to Becoming Race Ready

Race #2 of the season is coming up Sunday. The first Olympic distance in a year. How do I answer the question "Am I Race Ready?" Only one part of the question can be answered by training - did I do enough training to complete the race? To compete in the race? Have I tapered off of my training to give myself a full measure of strength for race day? After that is answered (hopefully with a resounding "Yes!"), then comes the details. Triathlon has an abundance of details, and therein, so the saying goes, does the devil lie.

Whether you're a first-time triathlete, or an experienced veteran, nothing says "Not Having Fun" more than letting some little overlooked detail ruin a race for you. As reigning Queen of Obsessive Race Preppers, I therefore bequeath you this Guide to Becoming Race Ready, and ensuring that a lost shoe or broken goggle strap does not derail your day.

Step 1: What Will You Wear? (Determine 1 - 4 weeks pre-race)

Each race has its own characteristics that may influence what you'll be likely to wear on race day. These include: length, temperature on race day, pool swim or lake swim, and your own personal preferences. For myself, I alternate between a one-piece triathlon suit (all pool-swim triathlons, and most sprint and Olympic distance races) and a pair of tri shorts plus a women's tri top. If the race is very long (half Iron, Iron) I may throw on a t-shirt for the run to fend off sunburn and chafing. For some races, especially in the spring and fall, I may add arm warmers or even a windproof vest.

Regardless, you will want to practice swimming, biking, and running with what you'll be wearing on race day.

Rule of Thumb:
The longer the race, the more time you need to take to determine the optimum apparel. A little chafing from a bad pair of shorts won't kill you in a Sprint, but it may make you want to kill yourself by mile 112 of the Ironman bike. For longer races, experiment with your clothing choices until you have the optimal outfit. You don't have to be as obsessive as I am (anyone else have an Excel spreadsheet where they rank their clothing choices?), but some thought and consideration can go a long way toward making race day comfortable.

Avoid these mistakes:
- Wearing the race shirt that comes in your packet: It might be washed in detergent that will give you hives, it might chafe, it might ride up in an unflattering or uncomfortable manner, it might be all-cotton which is a big no-no. Save it to put on afterwards and impress your friends.
- Over-dressing: Sure, it may be a bit chilly on race morning, but a lot of new triathletes drastically over-dress, which leaves them out on the bike course with big coats tied around their waist, flapping in the wind. Figure you'll warm up a fair bit once you get going, and dress appropriately.
- Underdressing: Yes, let's face it peeps. That too-skimpy singlet might look fine on the pros, but it's not made for all of us. Let's keep the egregious wardrobe malfunctions for the MTV music awards shows.
- Wearing bicycle shorts with thick pads: Unless you're in a race like the Ironman, which has changing tents, you'll be wearing those shorts to swim, bike, and run in. Which means that your thick biking pad will first feel like a giant soggy diaper after the swim, and later like a giant pillow between your legs that you have to run with. Invest in some triathlon shorts and make yourself happy. It will take awhile to get used to riding with them, but in the long run most people find them far more comfortable.

Step 2: What Will You Eat? (Determine 2 - 6 weeks pre-race). Except for a sprint triathlon, most races will require you to eat and drink something on the course besides water. Everyone's stomach differs in what they can tolerate, and discovering what works for you will take some trial and error. Make sure that comes on practice days and not on race day. Trying different bars, gels, gel blocks, sport beans, and drink mixes in various combinations while going approximately the same effort level as you will on race day will tell you what your particular stomach can handle. Find out what will be served on the course, and practice using that. If you find it doesn't agree with you, you'll need to figure out how to carry whatever you need to supplement it with.

Rule of Thumb:
Again, the longer the race, the more time you need to figure this out. In races lasting longer than 5 hours, you can expect some degree of stomach shut-down. This means you have to be careful not just about ingesting too little, but of ingesting too much over time. It's a delicate balance and may take weeks or months to work out. In shorter races, you may be going at a more aggressive pace, which may mean that you can't take in any solid food. For myself, I like to use Infinit drink mix, because I can change the protein ratio in my custom mix for different race lengths. With enough protein, I don't need to eat any solid food for quite a few hours, which makes it easier to go without bringing bars along on the course.

Avoid these mistakes:
- Drinking only water: This is not only a bad idea, it can be fatal due to a condition known as hyponatremia. Also, the lack of sugar can cause the dreaded "bonk" where you flat out run out of energy. Make sure you're taking in some calories in the form of simple sugars, and electrolytes.
- Using something new on race day: I once had a friend convince me to use her organic drink mix, telling me that the artificially flavored and sugared version popular with athletes were just downright bad for you. Let's just say that fructose-based drink mixes do not sit well with me (nor most people, I have realized). This was the only time I experienced that level of gastric distress in a short race, a mistake I won't repeat. If you haven't used it in practice, don't use it on race day. For Ironman athletes, this includes other things on the course like chicken broth, de-fizzed coke, and pretzels. For my Ironman race prep, I filled thermoses with these liquids and set them on a 1-mile loop. At each mile of my long run, I came by my "aid station" and practiced drinking defizzed cola and warm chicken broth. No surprises on race day.
- Packing too much along. I see competitors in sprint and Olympic races with 60 ounce camelbacks full of water. Or competitors with more packaged food hanging off of their bike than a 7-11. Unless your sweat rate is simply enormous, you probably won't need more than a couple of water bottles in a short race, and if you are going to need to eat that much, you should probably get used to the foods served at an aid station. Many athletes overeat by a large amount. You cannot digest much more than 200 - 300 calories an hour. That includes the calories coming from your drink mix. As you can see, you can't eat a ton of solid foods and keep within that limit.
- Undereating/Overeating: Again, avoid the dreaded bonk or the roadside barf session and figure out how many calories you need to personally take in per hour - take in that, no more and no less.

Step 3: What Gear Will You Use? (1 - 4 weeks)
Same as above goes for gear: helmet, sunglasses, wheels, tires, goggles, sunscreen, glide, bottles on your bike, running shoes, laces, hat, etc. Make sure you test it out ahead of time. Yes, even if it makes you look like a dork biking down the bike path with your race wheels on and your Pointy Helmet of Speed. It's especially impressive if you do this during your taper week when you're biking pretty mellow and all of the roadies can pass you laughing at the silly triathlete who thinks she's fast by wearing all the fancy stuff. Oh well, stuff your ego and just make sure all your gear works.

Rule of Thumb:
Nothing New on Race Day. Practice your race rehearsal a few days out. For instance, my first race of the season this year, I put my race wheels on a few days early, only to discover that when the bike shop tuned up my bike, they tightened the brakes to the point where I couldn't get my wheels on. Lucky I didn't find that out on race morning. I had plenty of time to troubleshoot the problem and get it sorted out.

Avoid these mistakes:
Doing Anything New on Race Day! 'Nuff said

Step 4: Practice Transitions (3 - 5 days before the race)
If you've been doing Brick workouts, you may have gotten some transition practice in already. But during race week, take an hour or so and use the specific gear you'll be using in this specific race and practice your transitions. I like to do a workout where I go three repititions of a 10 - 15 minute bike ride and 5 - 10 minute run. Just going over smooth transitions and working out any gear issues.

Step 5:  Packing It All Up (1 - 7 days before the race)

I like to use a checklist (Here's my basic one) to make sure I have everything I need for race day. I pull it out a few days before, just to make sure there's nothing I need to buy. Have all my gear assembled, cleaned, dried, and ready to roll. Make sure I have food, drink mix, glide, goggle straps, all the little details in place.
For longer distance races, especially Ironman, or races you travel to, you may need to pack and ship your gear, or place it in transition bags a day or more ahead of time. Planning everything out in advance can save you those moments in the hotel room where you panic about what you will need and when.

Rule of Thumb:
Don't wait until the last minute. Get your gear together, make sure everything's working right.

Avoid these mistakes:
- Not being organized: I was at a triathlon once where a man was running up and down the transition area yelling "Does anyone have a Left Size 9 Running Shoe?". Apparently he had multiple pairs of shoes, and packed two right shoes. Laying out your gear ahead of time, inspecting it, and packing it carefully will help you avoid race day nightmares like this one.
- Not checking over your gear while packing. Look for pieces of glass in your tires, rips in your wetsuit, goggle straps on the verge of breaking. Bring extras if possible, especially of small stuff.

This might seem like a lot to think about. For your first triathlon, perhaps a bit overwhelming. The big take-away I think is that a bit of time spent in planning and prep can make your race day go smoothly and allow you to have fun, the best reward of all. Taking the stress and putting it up front reduces the amount you have to feel on race day, so you can just go out and do your best.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Big Moments and Small Victories

I think the thing I like best about individual sports is the bravery it brings out in people. Whether it's toeing the line at your first Ironman, as my pal John did at Ironman Australia this Sunday (at the age of 68!!!!!), pushing the limits of a long ride as another friend did in training for her first cycling century,  overcoming a lifelong battle with eating disorders, or combating a chronic disease or debilitating injury to come out healthier in the end, a sport like triathlon enables people to find their own best self.

I feel like I'm surrounded by people who each have an incredible story to tell, who have each triumphed over numerous small and large obstacles in their path. The more I get to know them, the more I am impressed by what they have faced to get where they are today. I got the opportunity to do a wonderful ride this weekend with a group of friends (more on that in another post), but what I took away from it was just what a journey it is for each of them.

For me, the week has been an accumulation of small victories. Nothing big or important. Not even big enough to merit a Facebook post for the most part. Just little things that give me faith in my own journey. In my Wing Chun class, I was able, for the first time, to complete 1,000 straight punches without having to stop and rest my arms. That means two things: one is that my conditioning is better, and two, that I have been able to hold better technique and punch from my core instead of my arms or shoulders. Although I am still very much a newbie in this martial art, it has, for the first time, started to give me glimmers of fluidity. One drill feels a little bit easier here, another technique flows better there. Once in awhile, our instructor walks by and just nods instead of coming over to correct. Just little glimpses, but it's a start.

On another day, I rode my bike up a hill I tackle regularly, and only realized at the top that I had never had to stand up out of my saddle. That's a first, for that hill. Nothing big, but perhaps significant (especially considering how much climbing I'll face in the epic Leadman Triathlon at the end of the summer). At swim practices, I've been able to move up the lane in some sets, not always following, sometimes leading. After several years of injuries, I'm feeling my full fitness return and it feels great.

Whether the sport brings a big triumph or a small moment, it's almost always a benefit to my life. Sometimes on the Paleo or Crossfit blogs, I read about how much endurance training tears you down, wears you out, weakens you. But it's been almost 30 years of this kind of training for me, and it still energizes me, brings me joy. That's a victory in itself.

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Race Report: Heart of the Valley Triathlon

There's nothing I like better on my birthday weekend than to do two things: One: grab an open-water swim, the first of the season. And two: get the first race of the season going. Luckily I got to do both this year. I chose to race at the Heart of the Valley Triathlon, a sprint set in the hills out of Corvallis. The last time I did this race was 1988, I guess it's been awhile!

A bunch of my fellow AquaDucks headed up to Beaver (OSU) country to do the race, we had a really fun group going, even though it meant getting up at the crack of dawn, something I'm not particularly good at.

As with all of the early-season sprints in the PacNW, this one has a pool swim. Luckily for me, it's a 750m instead of 500m like some of the early season races. More swimming is always better for this Duck. My swim time put me in the fastest lane, along with two guys who figured they were going to go sub-10's. I had a bit of a verbal altercation in the transition area with a young man who thought it would be fine to stick a crate to sit on right in the middle of my transition area. I asked him to please keep it off of my stuff and out of my area, he seemed to figure that I wouldn't be out of the pool anywhere near his awesome self so it wouldn't matter if he was all over my stuff. Grrrrrr.

I've started doing long and longer warmups before sprint races, and this time we were there with plenty of time to spare so I took the bike out and also got some running strides in. We got plenty of time in between heats to warm up in my lane of the pool, which was a bonus. Then we were off, the first race of the season. I was sandwiched between two pretty fast swimmers, both young men. The one behind me thought it would be fine to swim right over the top of me instead of passing at the wall, and he banged up my bad arm in the process. Not cool. Then did a fast flip turn and crashed right into me. I wonder if he was the same guy with the crate in the transition area. In any case, the timing mats outside the pool clocked me at 10:02. Although the swim didn't feel great, that's nice and fast for a 750m for me.

When I got to the transition area, crate boy was in my space. Grrrrrr again. He got up and unracked his bike, leaving the crate sitting in my way. I kicked it out of the way, probably a little angrier than I should've been, maybe from getting swum over. Other than that, the race went off without a hitch. The bike course was hillier than I remembered, not rolling hills but little sharp up-and-downies that kind of kicked my butt. Haven't done enough hills yet this year, for sure! Two women passed me on the bike, and one of them was really smoking fast. Since I was pretty sure I clocked the fastest women's swim time, that left me in 3rd place, at least in my wave.

When I got to the run, I really felt great though, and I got a good turnover going and just felt strong. This was welcome news for me after the winter of not running much at all due to my knee injury, I was happy to be running on pavement and still feeling fine. I turned in a fairly respectable (for me) 25:30, two minutes faster than the 5k I ran in a sprint triathlon at this time last year. With as little running as I have done, that made me happy! I kept looking behind me, expecting some runners to come up and pass, but other than a couple of guys, no women passed me on the run. That's always a good thing for me.

As it came out, I ended up 4th in the women's overall, and as I head into my 48th year, I've got to be pretty darned happy about that. They had a terrific swag bag for the overall winners and also for the overall Masters winners, so I got to take home all kinds of lovely Kind bars (my favorite!) and Muscle Milk. There was a little scare after I crossed the finish line as Crate Boy's mom actually filed a complaint against me! His mom, really? Dude, when you're in college, maybe you ought not to let your mom fight your battles for you. In 27 years of triathlon, I have never gotten a penalty or a complaint, so that was pretty frustrating, but I explained to the race officials what had happened with the crate, and all was fine. Best of all, this Duck beat the entire women's Beaver triathlon team, all of whom have to be 25 - 30 years younger than me. YES. Okay, so that's a petty little collegiate competition, but I can't help myself but be happy about it.

I got to watch a lot of my Aquaduck friends finish the race, everybody looking strong! And my friend Kristen brought a birthday cake along (dense, dark gluten-free chocolate - triple Yummmmmm) and they all sang Happy Birthday to me. I can't think of a better way to celebrate - one year older, surrounded by friends, still feeling strong.

Final Numbers: