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Feeding stations ... my new open water inspiration

Sherpa has threatened to throw me into Lake Erie this weekend.

Well, not throw me, per se, but have me don my wet suit and get into the water so that I'm prepared for the shock of the cold and waves next weekend at Keuka.

I think I'd rather be surprised on race day ... but we'll see what coach says.

In the meantime, I googled "neoprene swim caps" in an attempt to find some place that could speedily deliver me some head gear that would keep me a bit warmer than my silicone cap.

During the search, I found an article in the Wall Street Journal that described an Olympic open-water swimming qualifier. For the record, Mark Warkentin became the first member of the American swim team when he finished seventh in the race to qualify for a spot at the Beijing Olympics.

This is the first year that open water swimming will be an Olympic event. The "marathon" swim will be 10K -- a distance it takes most Olympic-caliber open water athletes about two hours to complete. (For the record, that distance is about seven times longer than the longest pool event of 1,500 meters).

Of course, there are other distances raced in open water as the USA Swimming National Championships are held in Florida this weekend, including the 5K and 25K distances.

Yeah, I'm still working on .75K (as in not even 1K yet) but there's much hope for me to be gained in reading Warkentin's story.

Like the fact that he was basically a failed pool swimmer who never could master the flip turns well enough to be anything more than an average competitive swimmer.

And the fact that three times during his qualifying swim, he flipped over onto his back at a "feeding station" to get Gatorade and energy gel.

OK, so I'm not swimming any distance that would require me to go through an aquatic feeding station ... but there's something encouraging about knowing that the best open water swimmers often take these breaks. Granted, they only last two seconds, but it's comforting to know that even the best take a rest.

I'll be thinking of that in Keuka Lake when I tread water or do the breast stroke without plunging my face into the cold or do my best Ester Williams side-stroke impression in order to catch my breath.

It's all good.

As long as Sherpa let's me get my wetsuit on first.

On Brian Moorman and birthday bricks

I have to admit, I'm a bit jealous of Brian Moorman.

The Buffalo Bills punter is competing in his first triathlon on Sunday in Pittsford (you can read all about it Saturday's Buffalo News). The event is a fundraiser for Moorman's PUNT Foundation which helps children in Western New York who are facing serious illness and instead of just showing up for the festivities, Moorman and a few of his teammates are actually diving into the events themselves.

While the 15-mile bike ride and 5K run are outside at Thornell Farm Park, the 300-yard swim is in the Mendon High School pool.

Swim 300 yards in a high school pool?

Heck, I can do that in my sleep these days. I swam 300 yards six times yesterday as part of the main set of my pool workout.

Why couldn't this be my first triathlon instead of 750 meters of open water swimming at Keuka Lake where last I heard the surface temperature was 54 degrees?

Then again, I better keep my mouth shut. Knowing my tri coach, she'd have me do the Pittsford tri as a workout and the Keuka Tri as a race.

Meanwhile, I decided that I indeed am ready for my first sprint triathlon thanks to a wonderful birthday celebration. How can you not love the day when the Brickmaster and Brickmistress of the Buffalo Triathlon Club bring cupcakes to the workout?

Yesterday's brick consisted of a three mile run followed by 12.5 miles on the bike then another one mile run.

I finished the entire course, transition time included, in under 90 minutes. I was pretty happy about that.

But I was even happier about where my mind was.

See, when we started the three-mile run, I immediately fell behind the group. Their pace just wasn't my pace. And you know what? I was fine with that.

I am not running their workout or their race. Nor are the running mine. Yes, there are winners and age group trophies, but the real competition is within yourself and if you focus on the outcome, well, that seems to be the best way to bonk midway through the event.

So I happily worked at my speed, finishing the run in under 30 minutes, hoping on the bike and feeling that weird, unusual sensation in my legs. The wind picked up and on the second bike loop. I started channeling my coach who, in a similar wind situation while riding the Ironman Loop at Lake Placid, yelled, "I am a screen! Wind goes through me!"

Eventually I was back in transition and running out for my final mile.

"Do I still have legs?" I asked the official timers. "Because I can't feel them anymore."

Slowly and steadily the feeling came back and I pushed myself hard across the finish line.

Oh, I earned a big cupcake.

And I thoroughly enjoyed my birthday.

Happy Birthday to Me

In previous years, my birthday would have been spent inviting friends, family and associates to the gin mill of my choice for happy hour.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

But that part of my birthday celebration will have to wait until after the Keuka Lake triathlon. There's too much work to be done today and there will be plenty of time for a few glasses of wine and some really bad-for-me bar food in a mere two weeks.

Instead, I'm celebrating my birthday with an early morning swim workout and ending it with a Buffalo Triathlon Club brick workout.

Because really, what better way to celebrate your birthday than with swimming 3,000 yards, running three miles, biking 12.5 miles then capping it all off with another mile run?

Sandwiched in between those events will be an interview with Buffalo Bills Brian Moorman and Rian Lindell about their participation in Sunday's Pittsford Triathlon (check The Buffalo News this weekend for that complete story), pancakes with Sherpa and pasta with my parents.

Yeah, it's a full day.

And I'm glad.

I find that birthdays are the best time to make any sort of resolutions. Sure, anyone can make a list at the start of the new year, but birthdays are the start of your new year. It makes the resolutions that much more meaningful when it's about yourself and not part of a mass trend.

So my birthday resolutions include:

1. Strive to be "in the moment." I know it sounds all new-agey, but really, isn't it important to give what you're doing your full attention? If I'm in the pool and start thinking about how I'm going to manage to swim 750 meters in Keuka Lake when the water temperature last I heard was 52 degrees, well, I'm going to panic and clutch the pool gutter with white knuckles. There's no need to think about what's going to happen when I have a task in front of me right now, which is to swim three sets of 500 yards. And if I focus only on that, the swimming in Keuka Lake in cold water will take care of itself when the time comes.

2. Worry less. I know this goes against my genetic makeup and the people who know me best just spit coffee out their nose at the thought of me trying to not worry. I can't necessarily stop it, but I can start to ignore it. Anytime my mind starts to wander to "what if?" I will call on the wizard to bash it out of my skull. Or, you know, just start thinking about happy things, like chocolate milk.

3. Let go of judgments. This falls into the "stop-being-so-hard-on-yourself" category. It includes ignoring the part of my mind that wonders what other people think about me and judges my accomplishments by some outside standard. It also includes letting go of judging other people by comparing myself to them which serves only to screw with both our minds.

It all boils down to one simple request -- be kind to yourself.

And there's no better time to remember that than on your birthday.

Wincing my way through a run with the wizard

I haven't had to look for the wizard on any of my runs lately. Knowing my luck, that probably means my coach forgot to change some of my easy-paced runs into interval runs.

The wizard has a type of universal meaning about pushing yourself through pain, making yourself work hard when you'd rather just walk into an ice cream parlor and get an obscenely large waffle cone with mint chocolate chip.

The wizard also takes on personal meaning, probably because your brain starts hallucinating at certain points in long, hard workouts. My coach wanted me to "chase the wizard" and I wanted to know what the wizard had that was so valuable I should chase him. Pancakes? Coffee crisps? (As an aside, what good is free trade if I can't get my favorite Canadian bars in a U.S. grocery store?)

Of course the wizard is also like the commercial for sour patch kids ... first they're sour, then they're sweet. Because before you get those pancakes or candy bars or ice cream you have to endure the pain the wizard dishes out.

And while I was on that hike with Sherpa in Lake Placid, the wizard apparently used his scepter to repeatedly whack my quadriceps muscles. Oh yes, I am still sore from that jaunt.

I was prepared to wince my way through my 45 minute easy-paced run yesterday and it turns out the run wasn't so bad. Actually, my legs kind of felt like the start of a brick workout -- a bit like jello and difficult to feel. But quickly I found a rhythm and the discomfort melted into the run.

Today I'll see how my body reacts to spin class and swim practice. I'm sure it will be just fine. Because the other thing the wizard leaves you with is knowledge that you're much stronger than you thought.

Gearing my way to the top

I was riding with Amy and Erin on the final leg of the Lake Placid Ironman bike course. By this time, I was pretty loopy (I know, it's hard to tell the difference), screaming about how I love chocolate milk, singing Ricky Martin songs and then eventually making up my own songs. A long, hilly course will do that to you.

Luckily for me, I had only one loop to finish. Amy and Erin still had another to go, so they were working on a different pace.

There was a slight downhill and I geared low into the big ring and gained momentum. I passed by bike mates confident they would catch me on one of the ensuing hills. But they never did as they kept a good, solid pace and I tore through the final 11 miles as hard as I could.

Helping that cause, though, was using the gears on my bike. Some people will brag: "I made that climb in the hardest gear possible." Great for you but, uh, that's why there are gears on the bike.

And I use every single one of them.

The blog Canadian Triathlete has a good post on how to use your gears while climbing. I learned a lot through trial and error and while terms like "big" gears or "low gears" tend to confuse me, I basically think of my gears this way: the farther away my chain is from my bike, the more resistance I have while the closer my chain is to my bike frame, the easier it is to pedal. It's not very scientific, but it gets me through the climbs.

If you're new to playing around with the gears on your bike, check out this video which explains what cross-chaining is and why it's bad for your bike. That will save you many headaches.

The wizard lives on Whiteface Moutain

LAKE PLACID -- Saturday was the big day of training camp for the Train This! team. We were riding the Ironman Loop.

The main reason why my coach does a training weekend at Lake Placid is because so many of her athletes are training for Ironman Lake Placid and it gives those people a chance to run through the course. Those of us not doing that event, well, it's just a good, challenging course.

I was the only person not training for an Ironman or half-Ironman distance so on Saturday, I merely had to do one loop of the course -- or 56 miles. I realize that qualifying my workout with "merely" is all wrong. But I had to get to that point on the bike where I understood that enough to live it. Others were doing two loops, or 112 miles, and then running.

I got to finish, go back to the hotel and gather Sherpa for lunch and a trip to the Olympic Ski Jumping Center. I had felt a bit guilty about that.

But that guilt would go away by the end of training camp.

The Lake Placid bike course is hilly. After a short climb, you descend into Keene. Actually, it's a series of descents. And yes, you go fast and yes it is a bit scary for those of us who fear the downhills. But the road is wide and you can see the curves in the road pretty far ahead. Frankly, it was the most confident I had ever felt on the descent.

The ride to Upper Jay and Jay along route 9 is nice. This is where we were told to hold back. If you kill yourself here, you won't have much left. I had a good pace going, but kept it under my hardest effort.

A handful of people from my group passed me during the climb to Wilmington. I wasn't smart about taking in some nutrition before the climb, so I tried to squeeze a gel during a false flat on the climb. It made me lose my rhythm a bit, but I knew I needed some calories to get me over the hump. And I shook off thoughts about not being as good as others on the ride. I am not riding their workout plan nor am I running their race. Focus on yourself. What are you trying to do? I got up the hill and enjoyed some of the rolling hills for the next 14 or so miles of the course.

The last 11 miles are tough. There are a series of hills with names painted on the shoulder: Little Cherry, Big Cherry, Mama Bear, Baby Bear and Papa Bear. I used all the gears on my bike to get through it, gaining momentum when I could then gearing into the small chain ring and spinning up the steepest part of the hills.

Whew.

Of course, once you get to the top and make a right hand turn to finish the course there still is a bit more of a climb left. Oh, and then there still is that hill to get back to the hotel. But that didn't matter. I had confidence. I had skill. I had chocolate milk chilling back in the room.

I made it. All 56 miles with hills in about 3 hours and 45 minutes. Others did a second loop. The half-Ironman people did a run afterward. I went to lunch with Sherpa.

This was my race I was preparing for and my workouts were just fine.

On Sunday, I did 14 miles on the bike before going to breakfast with Sherpa. We decided to do a day hike before heading back home and heard that the hike up to the top of Whiteface Mountain was about 2 1/2 hours. Doable for us, we thought.

Well, that time frame probably gets you to the top of Whiteface from some trail ... just not the one we found.

The first four miles of the trail was pretty flat and easy. Then came the climb. The rocks were a bit slippery in places and the route got steeper. Eventually, it got vertical and we were rock climbing to the top.

Three hours and 45 minutes later we were at the summit.

Honestly, I think I found the home of the wizard.

While I did just fine taking in enough nutrition on the bike ride, I didn't take in enough nutrition on the hike. Near the top I finally stop and pulled out a gel from my backpack and chased it with my water bottle.

Once we got to the top and took in the view we hustled to the tourist gift shop (because you can also drive up to Whiteface Mountain) and ate two Fig Newton bars and washed it down with a regular Coke. Soda-pop never tasted so good.

But I still was a bit out of mental sorts and started to rush the hike back down the rocks. I slipped a few times and cut my hand. (Sherpa was prepared though and had a band-aid for some quick first aid.)

It only took us three hours to get back to the car but facing a six hour drive home, we didn't stretch. Sherpa's legs were on fire and the front of my ankles started to ache.

At a certain point I didn't care anymore.

I was tired and sore and triumphant.

That's what training camp is all about.

Miracle on ice ... or on the bike

LAKE PLACID -- There really is something special about walking into the Olympic Center in downtown Lake Placid.

Granted, there's nothing particularly interesting about the rinks. The 1932 rink is tiny and the 1980 rink is minuscule by today's standards with the upper deck seating wooden bleachers. While there is memorabilia on the walls and a small museum in the basement, it's basically still a functioning office space for Olympic development and the home of the U.S. women's national teams.

But there is an aura that's hard to shake. The 1932 rink was were Sonja Hennie won her Olympic medal launching her into stardom. It also was the first winter Olympics to have an indoor facility.

And then there is the 1980 facility which, as signs continuously inform you, is the home of the "Miracle on Ice" -- the greatest sports moment of the century. (Well, that's how the Lake Placid people frame it anyway.) It's the site where the American hockey team, average age 22, upset the Soviet Union then went on to beat Finland to win the gold medal. In a game that had significance both in sports, cultural and political circles the triumph lingers in the building, like a ghost that haunts the hallways.

Just taking in the rink, meandering through the hallways, watching the staff clean the glass, was inspirational. It makes you feel like you can be part of something bigger, even if what you're doing is simply what you've always known.

Sherpa and I took in the Olympic experience in the afternoon when our hiking plans got rained out. I took advantage of a break in the clouds early in the morning to get in my Lake Placid brick workout. I was scheduled to ride for an hour then run for 30 minutes.

The bike ride was to be an out-and-back riding part of the Ironman loop backwards out of town. Going out, I felt fantastic, taking the rolling hills with ease. I soon learned why -- I had the wind at my back and even though I was rolling, I was mostly rolling downhill. The turnaround, well, stunk. I was going against the wind and those rolling hills were steeper coming back. It took me about 15 minutes longer to get back the hotel than I planned (Oh, and that hill coming back into town? Well, that's just cruel!) and I switched into my running shoes.

This was the hardest brick I've done. My legs felt like jelly particularly as I had to run that hill back into town. (Did I mention that it was uphill, both ways, from our hotel into town and back?) I was plodding along rather slowly but I kept going. I ran the whole time and got feeling back in my legs.

Each time my head started thinking "Oh, you've got to be kidding me!" I brought myself back to more positive thoughts. Does this stink? At times, yes. Can I do this? Oh yeah. I can do this.

I didn't exactly feel like an Olympian as Sherpa and I took in the stories from the 1932 and 1980 Olympics after I successfully completed that brick. But I did feel like an athlete.

And somehow, I felt a small part of it all.

Practicing getting dressed and undressed

Wednesday was my first official wetsuit practice.

With water temperatures pretty darn cold, it doesn't look like I'll get any open water swimming in before the June 8th triathlon. But I needed to practice swimming a bit in my wetsuit and more importantly how to get out of it.

Getting into the wetsuit is actually the hardest part, but luckily you do that before the race so I can make the 10 or so family and friends gathered to watch me give me assistance.

First, you grease yourself up. You can use a product called Body Glide, which is really made to help with chaffing issues, or you can use cooking spray. Yes, cooking spray. Think of yourself as one big muffin tin and spray. It helps you get the suit on and, more importantly, slide off in transition.

So at the pool Wednesday night I brought my suit and wiggled my way into it. Swim master Greg zipped up the back and in the water I went.

I know that everyone told me I would float but I didn't think I would feel so spongy. I felt much lighter in the suit (even as it was a bit constrictive in my chest). I went for the full body suit, although several people urged me to get a sleeveless suit. While I appreciate their stories and input I went with the full body wet suit because (a) I am ALWAYS cold and value warmth and (b) I need all the extra buoyancy I can get.

Surprisingly I didn't feel all that restricted in my arm movements. I pretty much felt like I could do a full stroke and swam probably about 800 yards or so in the suit.

Then we practiced getting out.

At first, I did a fast 50 yards then hopped out of the pool.

"How did you feel?" Greg asked me.

"Considering it took me three minutes to climb out of the pool and finally stand, a little dizzy."

"You were disoriented, right?" Greg asked. "Get back in, do another 50 and this time, kick like hell the last 25 yards."

I did that and it made a huge difference. My legs were kicking like crazy and when I jumped on to the deck I didn't feel so lightheaded.

One more time, only this time I was going to actually get out of my suit.

I kicked like crazy, got out of the pool and thought about what I was doing. I opened the Velcro enclosure around my neck with my left hand then grabbed the zipper cord with my right and pulled up.

The top half of my wetsuit easily came down. I then worked it down over my hips. Once it was below my knees I stepped on the suit to get my feet out.

The whole process took only about 90 seconds. Getting out was pretty easy.

Ah, but then I had to get back in the pool without the wetsuit and swim some more. And that was a challenge. I didn't float as easily. I didn't glide as easily. In fact, I spent the rest of practice concentrating only on the first part of my stroke -- the glide and the catch. The more efficient I can become with my stroke, the less energy I'll expend, which will be key since not only do I have to survive the 750 meter swim but bike and run afterward.

Still, that wetsuit will go a long ways to making me feel more comfortable in the water. I already feel a bit like a superheroine in it.

Accepting where I am

Through the first sun salutation I felt pretty good. After all, I have been doing basic sun salutations at home after a run or bike ride as a post-workout flexibility session.

I have enjoyed yoga for many years, long before this whole biking then running and swimming thing started. I loved the combination of strength and flexibility and the life lessons that easily came out of each session.

But in all honesty, it had been a few years since I had taken a yoga class. Most of my practice had been sporadic, at home, sometimes with a DVD and sometimes just five minutes of my favorite poses. I knew that whatever yoga practice I did would be beneficial, but I also knew that going to a class would be much better.

My friend Carly had recently asked me if I'd like to go to a class with her. It's been years now, but we had taken some classes together before and I was elated to not only reconnect with a friend but be prodded off my lazy Law-and-Order watching behind and get to a proper class.

There are many good studios in the Buffalo area but we ended up at Buffalo Yoga because the class fit the description we were looking for and the time frame we could both attend. (For a good overview of yoga and the different types of yoga click around the website of Yoga Journal.)

The practice we chose was Ashtanga, which is a rather vigorous form of yoga which loves constant movement. The yogi teaching the class was patient though, always allowing for modifications or for rest from poses if need be.

The class was challenging and wonderful. See the benefit about working out in a group -- whether it's a yoga practice, spin class or club run -- is that it forces you to try things you otherwise might just skip. It's easy to fast forward the DVD through poses I don't like, but in class, that's not always an option. Plus the vibe of "give it a try" gently allows you to go into the difficult pose, get repositioned by the instructor, and make peace with it. At home, I pick my favorite poses and do them over and over again. In a yoga class, I'm given different poses, which not only keeps me from getting bored but challenges me both physically and mentally.

What I love about yoga is that with the right class and the right instructor, yoga accepts who you are and where you are. And where I am on Tuesday night may be vastly different from where I am on Saturday morning. One day, I may stretch back into child's pose for a rest while another day feel like trying to get into that headstand position. And if I do get into that handstand position this class, I may not next class. While you do progress in yoga, I find it's not totally linear. You honor where your body and mind are at that point in time.

The rest will come.

It's a lesson I'll take with me this weekend as I head to Lake Placid. My coach and members of her Train This! team (including yours truly) will take to the region for three days of cycling and running. The big test is Saturday when we bike the Lake Placid Ironman Loop (which for me is once around, or about 56 miles, while the Ironman folk will be doing two loops for the 112 miles). There will be climbs and descents (and I am terrified of descents).

But not one of us is racing on Saturday. We're training. It's about learning how to get through the course, get through difficulties mentally, physically and mechanically.

Maybe on Saturday I'll be channeling Alberto Contador as I climb the hills. Maybe I'll be singing songs of desperation to relax my upper body as I try not to fly out of control on the descent. Maybe I'll do both.

The key is to honor where I am. I will challenge myself but I also will know that whatever happens, it is where I am supposed to be.

Namaste.

Kicked out of the pool on a good day

My swim had been going fairly well. OK, I was still a wiggle worm and my hands were too stiff during the "grab" part of my stroke but I felt like I was making corrections. I felt comfortable moving through the water and no longer cared about my speed.

The main set of the workout consisted of swimming 800 yards twice. On every fourth 50, you had to swim hard, then continue with the workout without stopping. It was kind of like an interval run -- easy paced swim, then kick it up, then easy paced, then kick it up. The idea, swim master Greg told me, was to get your body used to recovering in the water without having to stop.

The first thing I had to figure out was how to count it out. I broke it down to four sets of four laps with the final lap being the gun-it lap.

I know I swim slow but I can't imagine how much I crawled on that first lap after each sprint. It was hard, but I found it manageable by breaking it down into smaller segments. I wasn't swimming 800 yards at once with sprint intervals. I was swimming 200 yards and building my speed -- four times in a row.

Greg came over to correct a few things on my stroke and I took off on my second 800 confident that I was going to improve my technique this set and finish the entire workout.

At the end of lap two it came.

A cramp.

My right calf tightened up and I started hopping around on one foot in the shallow end quickly grabbing my leg to massage out the knot.

Greg looked over at me.

"Just a cramp," I said.

"In your calf?" he asked.

"Yeah."

"Get out of the pool. You're done."

Of all the days when I would loved to been kicked out of the pool, I'm tossed when I'm anxious to get back to work.

I was bummed, but I understood. When your calf cramps, you're done swimming for the day. If I started swimming again, Greg said, my muscles would just ball up on me and I wouldn't be able to kick and, well, then he'd have to jump in the pool and drag me to the deck.

So today I'm working on stretching out my calf muscles. And it just so happens I was planning to go to a yoga class with a friend tonight. The universe has some foresight, doesn't it?

In the meantime, I'll be researching some recovery drinks to see if I can prevent the episode from happening again.

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