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Queasy swimming

If there was a day I was going to throw up in the pool, it would up have been last night.

Not that I was really that close to losing my dinner in the side gutter, but I did get a glimpse of what it must be like to play for Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summit when she's not in a particularly good mood.

Up until yesterday my swim workouts have all pretty much just concentrated on form. I'm thinking about my technique all the time and nearly all of my sets at practice have been endurance based. For instance, at Monday's master's swim practice we did a pyramid workout swimming 100 yards, then 200, then 300, then 400, then 500 .... and then back down again.

Thursday was a different kind of challenging. This was my first day doing a sprint workout.

Holy crud.

After warm-ups (where I got much better at keeping my arms bent, a stroke flaw which was driving my swim coach nuts) we did a series of sprints where you alternate swimming as fast as you can (with no regard to form) with swimming slow.

The purpose of swimming as fast as you can without regard to form is that it helps you pick up your pace when you are swimming purposefully. Which is good, because right now I have two speeds in the pool -- swim and float.

But it's getting better. And surviving workouts like these are the reason why.

The first set was to alternate fast-slow through five 100 yard swims. That's four lengths of the pool.

By the time I got to length No. 3 of swimming fast my abdominal muscles were on fire. By the time I was nearing the end of the set I could taste that pasta I had for dinner in the back of my throat.

We repeated the same concept swimming 50 yards and closed with the same intervals swimming 25 yards. To be honest, I only got through half of the 25 yard sprints. My fast intervals are still pretty slow. But I made it. Each time the sprint got tough I thought to myself, "June 8." That's the date of the Keuka Lake triathlon. That's what all this work is for.

People will point and stare

After winning their conference championship over the weekend, Niagara men's hockey forward Ted Cook talked about how the title was the cumulation of all the work they did since arriving on campus.

"If people saw the stuff we do in September and August they'd say, 'OK, what are these guys doing to themselves?' Tonight is the reason why," Cook said.

On the inside I laughed.

Because on one level I knew what he meant.

If anyone looked at my weekly workout calendar, well, they might question my sanity. If they caught a glimpse at me hammering out lap after lap in the pool, mile after mile on the bike and run, they would probably point and stare.

My 90 minute master's swim practice goes until 10 p.m. at least twice a week. That's in addition to swim workouts I do on my own, usually twice a week.

I'm running three days a week, right now at an easy pace, and hitting spin classes three times a week with a day or two of strength training thrown in for good measure.

And this is just my base training.

In a few weeks my coach says we will "turn the corner" by bumping the intensity in my runs and swims while adding brick workouts (a series of run-bike-run).

Training for the triathlon is done in layers and my coach assures me that  I already possess the fitness I need to complete Keuka Lake. That's what the base training is all about.

The next layer is about intensity and transitioning my workouts from indoor fitness to outdoor training. And along with this layer comes the continued work on getting out of my head and more into my heart.

When I take care of all that, the race, my time and my placing will take care of itself.

Why the calendar scares the heck out of me

Typically, March goes by in a blur for me with the onslaught of college basketball and hockey tournaments. Which means as I look at the calendar I see April is right around the corner.

And then it hit me.

I have a little over two months before my first triathlon at Keuka Lake.

That thud you just heard was my heart sinking into my gut.

It seems like just yesterday I had a nice fluffy six-month cushion. Now I'm an NCAA hockey regional and Women's Final Four away from buying my wetsuit and starting to focus on what it will be like to swim in open water.

But just when the panic starts to creep in I get an email from my coach. It's in all capital letters because she is shouting with what appears to be joy and enthusiasm. She is incredibly pumped about what I did at the RIT Indoor Tri this weekend. The fact that I improved my swim distance in 15 minutes by 100 yards is awesome, she tells me.

And I feel relieved.

Because in a new discipline, sometimes I'm not quite sure what improvement looks like. Obviously I'm looking for better times but what numbers constitute good improvement over just OK improvement? Then again, maybe I'm looking in the wrong place. Maybe my final times aren't as important as how I feel about my performance and how I feel about my training. I know that I'm getting stronger and that I'm improving in all three disciplines, even as my cycling is confined to a spin class at the moment and my swim technique and speed still leave a lot to be desired.

One thing I've learned through this process is that you will go where your thoughts take you. If I think I'm going to struggle during the swim, I will. If I change my thoughts and concentrate on simple things (head down, turn my hips, head down, turn my hips) I succeed.

Originally, my focus about the Keuka Lake Triathlon was something along the lines of, "Oh, that's so far away."

Yesterday my focus turned into, "Oh ... my ... God."

Today I'll change my story from one of mild panic to one of mild hubris: "Bring it on."

I'm not sure where that thought pattern will lead me, but it certainly will be a better end place than any thought tinged with panic and doubt.

Pizza, pancakes and the post-race party

Recently I read a quote from a runner who said he doesn't eat before a road race because there's so much good food the post-race party.

It's a variation on a theme that is very popular, particularly in running circles -- pick your races based on the quality of the party afterward. And there are various ways to rate the post-race party: Quality of food, logistics, availability of beer, number of people who stay to mingle.

I personally don't have much post-race party experience. I had to leave the Shamrock -- one of the best post-race parties in the area -- immediately upon crossing the finish line to get to a women's basketball game.

But I did get to stay a bit after the Bengal 5K at Buffalo State on Saturday and I started to get the idea. Post race is a great time to meet new people, chat about almost anything and most importantly, eat.

This is where the post-race party becomes curious to me.

After getting fruit, bagels and yogurt the line proceeded to offer a variety of pizza and hotdogs.

At 10 o'clock in the morning.

I haven't eaten pizza that early since I pulled all-nighters at the college newspaper. Plus, well, I gave up pizza for lent and as a vegetarian I don't eat hotdogs. That wasn't a problem for me as bagels and yogurt are part of my usual nutritional fare. Still I remember the word "brunch" in some promotional publication for the run and that translated into pancakes for me. Not that I thought they would have pancakes, but the idea was stuck in my head so after mingling and eating my yogurt and bagels I went home, called my boyfriend and said let's go out for breakfast.

I get asked occasional about how I approach nutrition while training. In general, nutrition is a huge part of the triathlon world -- mostly for those involved in Ironman and Half-Ironman distances. Why? In an Ironman you are competing for, say, around 10 hours and you have to figure out how to fuel your body through that. After faithfully completing all the scientific training in the world, poor nutrition that day can cause you to drop out of the race.

For people like me working on short distances (sprint and intermediate) every day nutrition is a bit more important than fueling during the race (although you still do fuel during the race). Is it difficult to eat well? Of course it is. Particularly when it comes to trying to be a healthy eater at work.

Some people have the problem of donuts in the break room at work. For sports writers, it's the odd hours (try finding something healthy to eat after covering a late game and punching out at midnight) and the unhealthy options (press room pizza only goes so far and when was the last time you saw healthy options at the concession stand?).

My coach talks about getting as much color on your plate as possible, that way you know you're eating a variety of food and getting good nutritional value. I also tend to eat constantly throughout the day and favor fruit, dairy, carbs and natural almond butter.

Oh, but that does not mean I'm perfect. Not by a long shot. Pizza? Still a favorite in particular because it's so easy. Chocolate? Well isn't that a food group? I try to convince myself that Nutella has real nutritional value. I also try to find all the research I can to support the health benefits of a glass of wine with dinner or a few beers after work.

I'm not an expert by any means but it seems logical that you have to allow yourself some wiggle room in your diet in order to, well, have a life. And if that means calling up my friends to go have pancakes after a race, well then, bring on the maple syrup.

Overcoming slow starts to finish strong

My second indoor triathlon has come and gone and ... after overcoming a slow start I'm pretty happy with my improvement.

I don't have my official results or where I placed yet in Sunday's RIT Indoor Triathlon but thanks to my Sherpa and the volunteers, I know my end results were better.

In the swim, I had the opportunity to warm up before my wave started but alas, my first two laps were a bit of a struggle. I took in water at one point and had to do a brief turn on my back. I had to pause 20 seconds on the lengths of my first 100 yards.

But that quickly passed.

I swam a 50 (which is one lap or two lengths), stopped for five seconds, then repeated a few times. Then I was swimming continuously.

Once I found my groove I actually thought about the Niagara hockey team's start to its conference semifinal the night before and found my swim analogous -- I started flat, found my pace, then finished strong. Of course, correcting that slow start is high on my priority list but consider what happened last time I swam in an indoor race: I continuously paused, I floated on my back all the time and I even stood up in the middle of the pool.

Slow start? Yeah, sure. But the slow start didn't define my entire race.

At the end of the 15 minutes I swam about 500 yards. Not bad at all, also considering I had one swim practice in a week of travel.

The bike was a bit more challenging this time. Spin bikes have different resistance levels and in races like this the resistance is preset. At RIT on Sunday, it was set at a pretty heavy resistance. I managed just over six miles after doing over seven at the Y-Tri in February. Ah, but no worries. Two other guys in my wave had done the Y-Tri and commented that this bike set-up was much more difficult and they too went a shorter distance. Plus, in general, the distance you achieve on an indoor bike has no correlation to what you can achieve on an actual road bike. I pushed myself, went strong, and did well.

The run was on an indoor track and I paced myself at the start. I went out moderately and slowly picked up the pace. I did just over a mile and a half in the 15 minutes, which was a shade better than my previous run, but better nonetheless.

What mattered most to me though was how I felt during and after the race. Yes, my distances were better and I'm happy about that.

But I felt stronger. I was confident in the swim after I shook out that first 100 yards. I was strong on the bike, even with it at a tough resistance. I sprinted out the final minute of the run with a steady increase of my pace.

Generally I felt like I was in a better place physically than I was a month ago. Like the parts are starting to come together. Like all the work really is starting to pay off.

The struggle of that second race

Last summer my friend Julie and I were talking about distance events. She had run her first marathon and I was preparing for the 65-mile Ride for Roswell.

Julie mentioned that she had heard the second marathon is actually more difficult than the first. After you finish your first marathon, all you remember is that euphoric feeling when it was all over. You forget the struggle and the painful parts.

It made sense to me.

Made even more sense after Saturday's Bengal Run 5K.

I remembered the joy I felt after finishing the Shamrock 8K a few weeks ago, that runner's high which lasted well into the next day.

I forgot how hard I actually ran.

And this time, my coach wanted me to run faster.

Passing the first mile marker, the volunteer was yelling out times around 9:45. Good pace. Actually faster than my coach wanted me to run.

Maybe that was my problem. I started out a bit too quickly. And I was fooled by the dampness of the morning and wore an outer layer that proved too heavy.

But I kept plugging away. Frankly, somewhere around 2 1/2 miles I was starting to think about walking. Starting to think "I can't." Then I remembered a line from the autobiography I'm reading by women's basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer. She hates the word "can't." She doesn't allow her players to say, "can't" and would banish them from thinking it if possible.

Forget, "I can't." Why would I want to stop now anyway? There's Coyer Field. The finish line is just around the corner.

With a about 100 yards to go a gentleman was on the sidelines urging the runners to finish. "Go strong. Go strong," he said.

I sprinted across the finish line.

It felt like someone had punched me in the gut.

My travel from the last week, the chaos of basketball and hockey championship season, my poor wardrobe choice and the damp air all contributed to making this a difficult run.

Ah, but I finished. In 29:50 giving me a mile-pace of 9:37.

That means indeed I ran the last 2.1 miles faster than my first mile. It means I did what my coach asked of me -- to run sub-10 minute miles.

I trust my training to get me where I need to go.

Today, I'll get to see where the work of the last month has taken me as I compete in my second indoor triathlon.

I'm a little nervous for sure. And yes, I'm still nervous about the swim.

But I also can't wait to see what happens.

I've been through this before so I know what to expect. And how to enjoy it.

Turning race crazy

With two competitions already on my resume, I have been bitten by the race bug.

And so this weekend I'm in not one but two races.

First, today I'll enter the Bengal Run 5K at Buffalo State College. The atmosphere will likely not be quite as festive as the Shamrock 8K but then again it won't be as long, either. Nor will I be changing in the back seat of my car as my Sherpa drives me to cover a women's basketball game.

However, my coach has given me my marching orders for the race: To run the first mile at a 10-minute pace then run the next two under 10 minutes. Yikes. Good thing I didn't pack on too much extra weight on my road trips and that the forecast appears to be devoid of the strong winds I faced at the Shamrock. No promises, but I'll go after it.

Sunday marks my second indoor triathlon, this time at RIT. I'll be able to compare these results to what I did in last month's competition at the Rochester YMCA. And while I'm not sure how much different the run and bike will be, I'm pretty confident in my ability to vastly improve my swim.

And for the record, Sunday will include a wardrobe change on the fly as Sherpa takes me from RIT to Niagara for the men's College Hockey America conference championship game.

I've been told that changing in my car means I have fully embraced the running culture.

I like that option much better than the insanity defense I've been preparing.

The practice light finally clicks on

By the second set of 200s I was about ready to die. Or fall asleep. Whichever came first would have been fine with me.

But then again I knew that master's swim practice Thursday night would be challenging. Learning the technique is one thing, but the type of cardiovascular conditioning needed is a whole other ball game. Realistically, I knew that I would not forget how to swim in my week away from a pool. I also knew that I would probably get tired pretty quickly.

My workout from Coach Greg was to do the short warm up: swim 150 yards, then do five different drills for 50 yards and close with two 50s.

Then my particular task for the rest of the night was to swim 200 yards alternating with a pull buoy and without. My main technique flaw at the moment involves my stroke: I enter the water with arms too straight and I tend not to finish my stroke. My emphasis then was on my upper body, but there wasn't a part of me that wasn't a little bit achy after the workout.

By the time I was on my fifth set, my mind and body were pretty tired and I started snaking through the lane. The disappointment I may have felt at waning through the workout was overshadowed by the fact that I had plowed through and did a good job anyway. I worked at it. I gave it my best. And I left the pool feeling completely confident about the 15 minute swim portion of Sunday's RIT Indoor Triathlon.

Intellectually I understand that practice is supposed to be harder than competition. That's how practice prepares you for competition. Not that the race or game or event is easy necessarily, but the work leading up to it has been difficult and challenging to prepare you for anything you might encounter. Training is about becoming so prepared that on race day, there is really no opportunity to fail. All that is left to do is to execute what you've spent months practicing.

That little tidbit finally clicked with me last night.

Which makes me even more eager for Sunday's race.

Swimming back from Cleveland

Whew.

Today I am on my way home from college basketball conference tournament mayhem. In a week I've been to Albany, Cleveland and now back to Buffalo. My friend Brian had suggested I could turn my trip into my own triathlon -- run from Buffalo to Albany, bike from Albany to Cleveland and swim back home along Lake Erie to Buffalo.

After countless hours in the car and sleeping in hotel beds, my body feels like it may have well done just that.

Which of course had me a bit concerned.

On Saturday I'm running the Bengal 5K. I figure after running nearly five miles in 50 minutes I can do 3.1 miles if not easily without much fear.

Then on Sunday I have my second indoor triathlon, this time at RIT. It's the exact same format as my first one  -- 15 minutes of swimming to 15 minutes on a spin bike to 15 minutes of running around an indoor track. I'll be able to see how I improved from the indoor tri I completed last month.

Ah, but the "what ifs" started creeping in.

What if my body is too tired from the travel? What if I lost valuable base fitness on the road? What if a week out of the pool caused me to forget how to swim? What if I ate too much and gained five pounds which will automatically make me slower?

Welcome to the inner recesses of my mind or what I like to call the land of irrational thoughts.

There are things I can't control. The weather is one. The workout facilities available to me is another.

I could list a number of things which in the realm of my training (and beyond) are out of my control.

It reminds me of a scene from the movie "28 Days" with Sandra Bullock where Eddie, the baseball pitcher, is trying to teach Bullock's character how to pitch. The count, the batter, the umpires, you have no control over that, Eddie said. But you can control your stance, your balance, your release, your follow through. Once you let go of the ball it's somebody else's job. Worry only about the little things you can control.

That's my personal goal for the rest of the week. My coach has told me what holds me back, what holds a lot of people back, is being too much in my head. I think too much. I analyze. I ask "why" and "how." I ask for a set of instructions to get me from point A to point B.

But sometimes there are no instructions. You have to go on feeling. You let go of all the silly things your brain conjures up and go with your gut instead.

My goal is to approach the RIT triathlon with my heart and not my head.

To let go and just swim. To let go and just bike. To let go and just run.

To let go and just do instead of hold on and think.

Have I forgotten how to swim?

I am starting to feel normal again -- well, what's considered normal for me anyway. I've been in the same city for three straight days with no snow storms and no basketball games involving local teams which have started past my bedtime. There are no annoying guests carrying on absurdly loud conversations outside my door at 3 a.m. and yesterday I ate meals which closely mirrored how I normally eat at home.

I am even feeling strong in my workouts, which have all been run-based in the early part of the week, reflecting my travel schedule.

Still, I have some concerns. (Well, don't I always have some concerns?) Mostly it involves being away from the pool for over a week. I have not had a pool available to me for a lap swim since my Master's session last Wednesday. If all goes as planned, I can be in the pool again tomorrow, but will I have lost a lot of skill? Will I be able to swim a lap or will I regress back to swimming half a length and floating on my back?

My guess is that, yes, I'll be a bit rusty and my endurance won't be what it was but that, no, in one week I will not have totally forgotten how to swim. And the key for me will be to take that pressure off myself, forget about "performing" and just swim.

Pressure is a key ingredient in March Madness. For college teams it's win and advance or lose and go home. For seniors, it's even more epic -- lose and be done with your competitive athletic career. Media types (myself included) love to wax poetic about teams and players who can handle the pressure and those who crumble under its crushing weight.

But then again, maybe the idea of a "pressure situation" is all in our heads. If a player steps to the line to shoot a free throw at a critical junction of the game and thinks about all that is at stake, I'm guessing he or she is more likely to miss the shot. But if they think about all the times they've hit free throws before -- in practice and in games -- and take the stage and setting out of the mental equation, it becomes a much easier task.

Granted, I have no training in sports psychology, but it seems rather fitting to me. When I get back in the pool I can tense up and think about how I haven't practiced in a week and worry that I won't be in swim shape for the RIT Indoor Triathlon on Sunday or I can trust my training, ease back into the water and gradually build back up to my slow but steady pace.

I can create pressure for myself or I can enjoy the experience.

And in so many things in life, the more emphasis that lies with enjoyment the better the performance becomes anyway.

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