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So much better than Dear Abby

In preparation for my first road race on Saturday I solicited advice from pretty much anyone and everyone who has either (a) completed the Shamrock Run in the past or (b) has compete in any type of running event.

Today, I'm reviewing the words of wisdom I received and noting that almost all of it revolves around relaxing and having fun.

Pam at the gym gave me some tactical advice. She told me not place myself too far in the back, since I won't be as slow as I think I am, and to run a bit to the outside to avoid feeling boxed in. That also will give me a chance to fall in line with people who are running my pace.

Matt at Canisius told me to look over the course so I'm not surprised by any hills. (Are there hills in South Buffalo?)

Allen who works with the JP Morgan Chase Corporate Challenge told me to trust my training and push myself a bit because I'll be able to do more than I think possible.

This week I also ran into Blaise MacDonald, the former Niagara hockey coach and current coach at UMass-Lowell. He has run several marathons so I asked for his advice:

"Enjoy it," he told me. "People can get all caught up in it being a race. It's fun. Just enjoy yourself."

And that's pretty much what everyone told me. I have a "race plan" from my coach which is pretty basic: I start off "easy and cheesy" and let anyone pass who wants to. I should gradually pick up my pace and aim to have my fastest mile be my last.

Oh, and did I mention before she won't let me run with my iPod?

Other than that, the goal is simple: Just run and have fun. That's what the actual racing is all about anyway.

Motivation on a cold February morning

This is the type of week that makes quitting look a viable option.

OK, maybe not quitting entirely, but certainly cheating.

It is so tempting to find that couch coma position and convince myself that indeed no one will know or care if I skip that spin class today.

There are plenty of reasons: The 17 degrees outside, the new car shopping, the pile of laundry to be done, the endless to-do list for work.

Then there's the practical excuse I make up, which goes along the lines that running in the Shamrock Run on Saturday means that my swim and spin workouts really aren't all that important right now.

Yes, this is a week where excuses are readily available and even justifiable to a certain extent.

Which makes fighting the urge to use one all the more important.

When I've discussed racing with triathletes they say how much fun the actual race is. All the hard work, preparation and suffering are about to pay off. Training, they told me, is the hard part. Racing is the fun part.

These are the weeks that build that base that will get me through my first triathlon. Heck, the chaos will probably get me through Saturday's run since I haven't had the time or energy to obsess much about the 8K this week. (Although I have found time to whine about not being able to use my iPod per my coach's rule.)

So as I take my time with an extra cup of coffee this morning, I go through a bit of a mental check list. First, I see how my body feels. Is my lack of motivation a stress signal from my body? It would like a bit more sleep, but I don't feel sick or overworked. If I'm still a bit fatigued by the time spin class rolls around, my plan is to decrease the intensity a bit and make it more of a recovery ride than an aggressive training ride.

Then, I see how my mind feels. In a way, this week is a gut-check time. How much do I want it? How much do I want to be prepared for my first triathlon? How much do I want to succeed at this endeavor?

That's usually enough to push me through those first few minutes of a workout when the justifiable reasons for stopping come flooding to my mind. After I get started, it's much easier to keep going, especially when I hear my friend's voice say, "Why would you want to stop now?"

And I don't want to stop. I want to achieve my goal. I want to put in the work to get there. I want to remember this cold, crazy, stressful week when I'm at Keuka Lake in June, basking in the glory of my first completed triathlon.

Sometimes that end goal is the best motivation for days like today.

Finding my zen in downward dog

The past seven days have been a whirlwind blur. Such is life when your car breaks down on the 190 and attempts to resuscitate it go for naught. Not having transportation merely increased my stress levels which at this time of year really don't need any extra provocation.

So when I put out my yoga mat to do my practice after a run, it seemed doubly rewarding. I got my usual great flexibility workout and eased tension and stress.

I have been practicing yoga off and on for years now. While I've attended classes, I'm not a regular nor have I worked in my yoga DVDs into a standard rotation in my training program. Instead, my yoga is pretty basic do-it-yourself stuff. After taking classes and practicing along with videos, I know the poses I like and will put together my own sequence. It's not an every day occurrence, but doing a few of my homemade sun salutations can help loosen me up in the morning (and calm me down, if need be, before an early morning swim) and help me cool down after a workout, particularly one that involved running or biking outdoors.

My coach is a yoga teacher and the first time we met, she asked if I did any yoga.

"I try to," I said. "But honestly I don't practice as much as I'd like."

"Where do you go?" she asked me.

"Actually, usually just my living room," I responded.

"Perfect," coach said. "I don't care if people do yoga in the bathroom, it can be so helpful."

What's so great about yoga for athletes? First of all, it's a strength training and flexibility workout rolled into one. While experts themselves have different theories on the usefulness of flexibility workouts, almost all agree they are important. Flexibility may help prevent injury and yoga specifically can help with balance, alignment, strength and concentration.

For me, I've found that five minutes of yoga after running or biking keeps me from suffering tight muscles later in the day.

The website Beginner Triathlete has a three-part video series to give examples of a yoga practice along with explaining some of the benefits of adding it to your training.

And for any guys who think yoga is too girly for them, check out the man's guide to yoga from Men's Health magazine.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some downward facing dogs to do before I go car shopping.

Becoming a master of the pool

After my basic swim lessons were completed, my triathlon coach decided that I really should look into joining a Master's Swim program.

Yikes.

The idea was a bit daunting, even if master's swim teams aren't only for strong, accomplished swimmers. Beginners are welcomed, too. It's pretty much an all-level team practice where swim coaches structure workouts while helping you correct things in your stroke.

I decided to try the master's program at East Aurora High School run by Greg Murnock, a USA Triathlon Coach and an XTERRA event director.

We exchanged emails and I felt pretty comfortable and Mary, my tri coach, thought it would be a great fit. So off I went Monday to my first master's swim practice.

Greg explained the set up. Monday's are long days. The warm-up is 300 yards of swimming. Then 500 yards worth of drills. Then 200 yards of swimming.

Yes, the warm-up is 1,000 yards.

I started to feel parts of my body seize up. The scheduled workout was about 3,000 yards for that day.

Ok. Go and start.

I jumped in a free lane. (This master's program has no advanced and slow lanes. We are all equals.) I started off on my first length and .... floated on my back. I must admit, the skill of turning over, onto my back and then back into swimming position, is my most honed skill.

I knew what was wrong. I was nervous. Very nervous. About a new coach. About new people in the pool. About being in a new pool. I was jumping-out-of-my-skin kind of nervous. I'd make the analogy to Megan Lyte of the Canisius women's basketball team before they won their conference tournament a few years ago, but only about three people would grasp the comparison, such is the obscurity of my life.

But back in the pool, I got myself together. I pushed off the wall and did a few underwater fish drills to acclimate myself to my new surroundings. I took off on a nice and easy lap. And I was fine.

I didn't swim 300 straight. In fact, I spent most of the 90 minutes doing 50 intervals. But I did it. And I enjoyed it. Greg gave me pointers to work on: My head needs to hang straight and my hips need to rotate more on my right side. I concentrated on those issues for the rest of practice.

It was challenging and hard and I got winded pretty fast.

"So, there's hope for me?" I asked Greg as I was the last one out of the pool.

"There's hope for anyone who gets off the couch," he said.

A lesson in confidence from the Bonnies

On Sunday afternoon, I was in Olean to cover the St. Bonaventure women's basketball team's game with Saint Louis.

The Bonnies, for those of you not keeping score at home, have put together one of the best seasons in program history, including a win over nationally-ranked George Washington. They followed it up by pulling out a dramatic win over Saint Louis yesterday.

The win was dramatic because Bona spent nearly 10 minutes of the second half on autopilot. They settled for jump shots that hit the rim. They stood around on offense. They got caught playing conservative on defense.

Then something clicked and with around four minutes left they once again started playing like the team that had won 17 games. They were aggressive, in control and smart and with six seconds left made a heady play to win the game, 63-62.

I mention this because what stands out most about the Bona women's basketball team is its unwavering confidence in their ability and their trust in each other.

Oh, that can drive a coaching staff nuts. Believing that you can coast for long stretches of the game then pull out a win is dangerous territory to be treading.

But on Sunday, St. Bonaventure believed it would win the game. Saint Louis was desperately trying not to lose the game.

It was a lesson I'm taking to my training this week and the upcoming Shamrock Run.

In listing my goals for my first 8K, "not stopping to walk" was one of them.

Not any more.

Because even entertaining the notion of what happens if I walk undermines the belief I want to cultivate -- that indeed I can run an 8K. I've put in the training. I've worked hard for three months. I've got a pretty good base and I suspect that my fitness level is a whole lot better than I give myself credit for.

There's no reason for me not to believe that I can run the 8K.

So this week I'll be tweaking my goals for the Shamrock Run to reflect a more positive attitude. There's no reason to believe otherwise.

Putting the kibosh on my iPod

Oh Britney. I'll have to leave you behind. You too Maroon 5, whom I've become very fond of.

See, in my training plan for this week, my coach scheduled the Shamrock Run for Saturday with the big capital letters NO IPOD.

That message came through in several other emails. I am not to wear an iPod at the Shamrock Run. She says it's time for me to harden up. OK, I paraphrased her exact wording but you get the idea.

And I get the idea, too. There are no iPods in the triathlon. I need to run my race and learn to focus without the help of my musical selections. And actually, I will probably enjoy the experience a lot more if I'm not in total sensory deprecation. At least that's how I'm consoling myself on the loss of hearing "Stronger" by Kayne West at the mid-way point of my run.

Oh, but that doesn't mean I've abandoned my iPod for training runs. Saturday was my longest jaunt of the season -- 45 minutes outside. It was difficult at points, but I found if I just plugged through for another minute, it would get easier again. I pushed away the negative thoughts that would come up ("You really think you can run 8K?") and concentrated on what I could do: Control my pace, focus on my breathing, think about my form. Before I knew it, I was turning down my street to "Girlfriend."

Ah, so long, too to you, Avril Lavigne. I won't be hearing you next week, either.

Getting my cycling fix

During the month of July, when summer has finally come in full gear to Wester New York, I spend at least a good two hours a day, holed up in front of my television set.

You see, I have become addicted to the Tour de France.

It's how I learned a lot about cycling to begin with -- the strategy, the technique, the lingo. And, well, it's just good soap opera fun. Each stage has its own drama of the actual race, then throw in the drama of doping scandals and questionable decisions by the grand poobahs of cycling federations and it's pure spectator entertainment.

This week, I got a glimpse of the glorious month of July (which will also include warm weather to run and cycle in during the height of my racing season) while keeping track of the annual Tour de California. The final two stages will be broadcast on Versus at 5 p.m. tonight and tomorrow. And you can bet if I'm not fixed in watching it live, I'm recording it on VCR. (Yes, I am still old school with a VCR.)

For those who are curious, Levi Leipheimer is leading the race and will likely hold on to win it. Of course, there is Tour de France drama already in motion as Leipheimer's new team, Astana, has been banned from participating in the Tour this year.

And if that drama is too confusing for you, check out the cycling education page on the official Tour de California website. It gives you a 101 guide to everything from maintenance to history to jargon. 

A trial run with Britney and Company

Last year, USA Track and Field created quite a debate in the running community when it announced it would ban headphones at road races. The USATF sanctions road races across the country and generally sets the tone for the sport. The rule was created out of safety and liability issues.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for safety. But at the moment, I can't imagine running very far without my iPod.

I know I won't be able to use it when I race my triathlon. I know I shouldn't let it become a crutch.

But I consider it extremely helpful in keeping me motivated, interested and distracted from that voice in my head that says, "Why don't you just stop in that pastry shop you passed for a quick boost of sugar and fat!" When it comes down to it, I consider my playlist a training tool.

In soliciting advice for next week's Shamrock Run, I asked Buffalo News running columnist Budd Bailey if race officials will rip my headphones off if I dare show up with my tunes.

Unlikely, he told me. Most race officials aren't concerned with heavy enforcement of the headphone ban.

Big sigh of relief. Now the question is: What songs do I program for my first road race?

I created a temporary playlist that I can test on one of my upcoming runs. Finding the right playlist isn't an easy task. Too much "pumped up" music at the front end of the mix will have me running a pace that's too fast for me to sustain. Too much music with a slower beat toward the end and the push to walk will feel greater.

I'll gladly take suggestions of your favorite running songs, which might even bump a Britney song off my playlist.

At the moment, my starter's pistol song is "O-o-h Child" by the The Five Stairsteps and my closing victory song is "Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana.

Why yes, I am a wimp

Everything looked rather calm yesterday morning. The sun was bright. The sky was clear. The neighborhood was quiet.

Then again, the peace probably had something to do with the eight inches of snow that fell the night before the lack of a plow to clear our street.

Still, I knew I should stop complaining, get in my cold-weather workout gear that I purchased with my Christmas money and get out on the road for my 30-minute run.

Yeah, but ...

It was cold. My street wasn't plowed. And even though the main roads probably were clear, my newness to the run on the pavement would mean a greater likelihood of hitting a patch of ice and falling. Heck, I've injured myself playing miniature golf before. And right now, I can't afford an injury.

At least, that's how I justified it to myself as I got in my car and drove to the gym to do my scheduled run on the treadmill.

Yeah, I'm a wimp.

At least I know it.

On the treadmill I increased my pace (as per the instructions of my coach) and added some slight incline. The changes made it challenging, but I noticed a difference. The run wasn't a piece of cake, but it was still felt like an easy pace, even though it was faster than what I'm used to. I actually felt stronger.

I spent my runs on Monday and Tuesday battling a cold wind which reduced me to looking like a Looney Tunes character when it gusted in my face. At the time I was pleased with my focus and with just finishing the run though I secretly had negative thoughts pop up in the back of my head:

"If you're struggling for 30 minutes around your neighborhood, what are you going to do if it's cold and windy at the Shamrock Run next weekend? Do you think you'll be able to run for five miles?"

One seed of doubt can ruin a performance. I know. I have my swim at the Y-Tri earlier this month as my personal life lesson in that regard.

But the doubt faded yesterday when I noticed the improvement in my run. Yes, running outside in the winter stinks. Yes, I probably could have successful run outside yesterday without suffering injury.

But incrementally, I am getting better. I proved it to myself, the only arbitrator that really matters at this point, and gave myself a shot of confidence that I can tackle that 8K Shamrock Run next weekend.

Trendy gear does not an athlete make

The woman who was setting up the bike in front me intimidated me quite frankly.

Why?

She looked like she had just stepped out of a Nike commercial.

She had "the look" and if you've ever spent time exercising, whether at the gym or just walking a loop at Delaware Park, you know what I'm talking about -- a person who is beautiful, thin and wearing the latest gear so effortlessly they might as well be on their way to a catalog photo shoot.

So I was mentally prepared to spend spin class with my eyes closed most of the time so that I could concentrated on my workout instead of comparing myself to this woman.

But once class started I noticed that, well, she ... stunk.

She kept up during each segment, though I don't think she touched the resistance knob once. Not even when she set up her bike. When each segment ended and the instructor was changing the music, she stopped pedaling. She stopped pedaling? In spin class you always pedal, even if its slow, light and easy while you recover and take a drink of water.

The episode reminded me of a yoga class I went to with a friend a few years ago.  We were awed by the look of this one woman who, again, apparently stepped out of a Prana catalog. But catch a glimpse of her while coming out of a pose and it was clear she didn't know her downward-facing-dog from her upward-facing one. We joked about it afterward, then realized it was kind of mean and that we had probably wrecked any good karma we established from going to the class in the first place.

My point is this: Looks can be deceiving.

We're all guilty of the proverbial "judging a book by its cover" no matter how much we strive to be above the vanity fray. We even do it to ourselves as triathlon blogger Iron "Geek Girl" Misty recently pointed out when she wrote about beginning her journey partly to become thin but found herself becoming an athlete instead.

After all, being athletic, isn't that what we're in this for? Whether it's to compete or just get healthy, this isn't all about the look.

You can buy all the cool, trendy athletic gear you want. You can buy the cool expensive training gadgets that include GPS tracking systems just in case you get disoriented on that jog around your neighborhood.

I don't hold fancy gear and gadgets against anyone. I myself have some pretty cool gear and a few gadgets here and there.

But the gear and gadgets don't make you an athlete. The work does.

And right about now, I should be on my way to do my strength training exercises before plowing a path in snow for today's 30-minute run.

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