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On crossing the street and unconditional friendship

HEMPSTEAD -- I asked the front desk if there was a place nearby where I could go running. The hotel (a Marriott my fellow sportswriters would be pleased to know) has a pretty decent fitness center even while the place undergoes renovations but I wanted the chance to run outside before covering the Canisius softball team in their NCAA regional games.

I was told that Eisenhower Park was nearby but I was greatly cautioned about crossing the intersection. Hmm. I don't feel like playing chicken on something akin to the Long Island Expressway so I'll just start running and see what happens.

Out on the main road, I immediately found a bike path that went both right and left. Perfect. I turned left and ran, easy paced, down the path. About 10 minutes later I came to somewhat of a major intersection with a traffic light. On the other side, right in front of me, was Eisenhower Park.

Think of running along Sheridan Avenue and crossing around Niagara Falls Boulevard. Now subtract a factor of 10. It wasn't nearly as daunting as the front desk person made it sound.

The park was beautiful in the early morning with paved trails throughout. I picked easy simple loops so as not to get lost and found myself loving the ambiance, feeling great, and running for an hour.

After a full day of softball and covering the first win for Canisius softball in the NCAA tournament in eight years I was back at the hotel waiting for two friends to arrive.

It was as if the universe had aligned perfectly so that I could see two wonderful women, Michele and Carolyn, whom I met on a cycling trip in Italy with Women's Quest. They were both in my cycling group and together we struggled through the hills of Tuscany and allowed the experience to ignite dreams and passions and individual quests (like, say, training for a triathlon).

Throughout this process I've leaned on them for support and shared my triumphs. They've become my closest friends though we live hundreds of miles apart and seeing them in person was the boost I needed to get through the final three weeks of preparation for Keuka Lake.

And as if sitting around, chatting over a leisurely dinner wasn't inspiring enough, they said they had a surprise for me -- they were coming to Keuka to cheer me on in my first triathlon. Five women from my cycling trip are making the journey to the Finger Lakes to be my official cheerleading team and enjoy pancakes with me once I beat the wizard at his crafty games.

I excitedly told Sherpa that I would have a Women's Quest contingent at the tri.

"Uh-oh. Pressure," he said.

"No, not pressure," I said. "Support. Fun."

"Just testing you," Sherpa said.

No matter what my time, no matter how I doggy-paddle my way through the swim (though I now think of it as polar bear-ing my way through the water), no matter what I look like when I finally drag my butt across that finish line, Michele and Carolyn and the rest of the gang will be there to cheer for me, to be proud of me and to celebrate with me.

To have that kind of unconditional friendship is a blessing I won't take for granted.

A lesson in failure from Canisius softball

HEMPSTEAD, L.I. -- Mike Rappl, the softball coach for Canisius College, was talking about how his team learned to succeed this year by accepting failure.

"Softball is a game of failure," Rappl said. "If you hit the ball three out of 10 times, you're doing a great job. I've told the players that in softball you're going to fail and you need to do three things: accept it, figure out what you can do better next time, and move on."

Yes, in softball and baseball, you will swing and miss more than you will hit a home run. But those who learn how to deal with the misses are the ones who go on to do remarkable things -- like Canisius making the NCAA tournament for the third time in four years.

It's a valuable lesson as I get closer to my triathlon date. The goal is not to be perfect. If that's the goal, you will not only fail miserably but you'll be miserable as you fail.

Instead the aim is to do your best and adjust to what comes your way. Then, well, all bets are off as to what that final result might just be.

Feeling my way through my first time trial

"You're overthinking," Mark said.

See, Mark just met me recently. Those who have known and loved me for years would have replied, "Duh, squared."

Overthinking is my special gift. Or albatross. It largely depends on the situation though more and more I'm trying to get out of my head and into my heart.

That's actually pretty easy for me to do on the bike which is how I approached my first time trial held by the Buffalo Triathlon Club.

The time trial goes like this -- you ride two loops of the course for a grand total of 12.5 miles. The starts are staggered and each rider gets a number, lines up an goes off 30 seconds apart. You ride as fast as you can for two loops.

Since I had never done a time trial, I had no idea what to expect out of my time. Yes, the bike is the easiest of the three disciplines for me because it's the one I've done the longest and the one I love the most. However, that doesn't mean I'm necessarily very fast.

My modest goal was to return within an hour.

I went off in the No. 5 spot and promptly was passed by three riders. I kept plugging along, getting into a rhythm and shifting my gears on feel rather than by thought. (Thank you Women's Quest for teaching me how to use every single gear on my bike!)

The first loop went by quickly. I felt good. I felt strong.

Then I met the wizard.

He came in the form of a stiff wind that kicked up on the first turn of the course.

I changed gears to make the ride into the wind a bit easier, though it cost me a bit of time. Hey, I still had five and half miles to go and this wind would not be in my face the entire way. I needed to conserve something for the short but steep hill and the final leg.

I made the final turn with about a mile and a half to go and pushed myself through the finish line.

The final result: 41:20. My bike computer said that my average speed was two miles per hour faster than my normal pace.

Rock on.

"That's because it's a race," Mark told me. "You could never go that fast on your own, but when get in a race, you get pumped up and can go faster. That's why you'll be fine at your tri."

Ah yes, I'm starting to really believe that.

Or maybe I'm just starting to turn off my head. Finally.

The old lady by the church

I was in the homestretch of my 45-minute run, easily pacing myself through children with their parents waiting for the school bus along with a few older residents of the neighborhood who were walking home after attending morning Mass.

A small elderly woman, strolling away from the church in her spring coat, stockings and "babushka" headscarf, smiled as I ran past her.

"Go get 'em!" she said to me, her voice strong, her face relaxed and happy.

It was an image that stuck with me throughout the day and into the next.

Along this journey I have enjoyed support from plenty of people -- my family, my closest friends and my boyfriend (a.k.a. Sherpa) have been consistent in their support. I've made new friends while training and they have generously shared their stories and tips, or simply commiserated with me when I felt alone and discouraged.

But there was something about that random, spontaneous utterance of support from the woman on the street which lifted my spirit in a new way.

She had no idea that I was training for a triathlon. She didn't know about the last six months, or the panic-filled swim I had the night before. She didn't know about some of the doubts that creep into my head or the simple fact that I'm just a few weeks away from my first multi-sport event.

All she saw was a woman running early in the morning.

And she offered a bit of encouragement.

I thought about her "go get 'em" while in the pool Wednesday night. One of my keys to keeping negative thoughts away is to have words and images I repeat to myself. Sometimes it's rhythmic and keeps me focused in the moment. Other times the words are merely touchstones that put me back into a calm, relaxed and focus state.

In fact, "focus" is one of my words. I also think of chocolate milk, dolphins and polar bears while telling myself, "c'mon, you've got this."

And when it was that last hard 100 yards of the set, I heard the old woman's voice saying, "go get em!"

And I did.

It wasn't the prettiest of swims and I kept my fins on for about three-quarters of the workout. But I used my images and words and worked hard at keeping my form, keeping my head position and swimming hard when the plan called for it. I was still one of the last ones out of the pool, but I completed the entire 2,900-yard workout.

Those sore muscles and sense of accomplishment I felt coming out of the pool, that was for that woman and the smile I can still see on her face.

Chocolate milk is my happy place

Somehow it's fitting I wrote about learning how not to worry.

Because my last dip in the pool resulted in panic.

There could be any number of things that happened. I could have been worn down from consecutive days of training. I could have brought too much of my daily stress to the water. I could just have been tired.

But I knew I was off when I first pushed off from the wall. I had to do a basic floating drill before starting the warm up portion of the workout. It's been a while since I needed to do that.

I got through the warm ups, took off my fins and started the workout.

My mind started to wander and think about the 750 meters I have to swim in just a few weeks. In open water. With waves and people kicking me. In a wet suit I have yet to swim in.

My heart started to race. I started to panic.

I swam 50 yards (two lengths of the pool) and took a breath. I went again. I tried to swim 100 yards but I couldn't catch my breath.

Whoa.

I hung out at the end of the lane in the shallow end. On a rest interval Carolyn, who swims in the lane next to me, asked if I was OK.

"I'm struggling today."

"Are you sick? Do you need to get out and rest?"

"No," I shook my head. I was determined to not leave the pool. "I just panicked."

"Well, why don't you float for a while?" Carolyn suggested. "And go to your happy place."

Good idea. I pushed off from the wall on my back and floated down the lane. I turned over to my stomach, put my face in the water, blew some bubbles and flipped back. I put my fins back on and slowly took off on a regular swim. Slow and easy. Happy place, I thought. Go to my happy place.

What is my happy place?

Chocolate milk.

I have no idea why chocolate milk came to my mind, but at that moment, chocolate milk was my happy place. When a negative thought, a panic thought, would enter my mind I changed my thinking: "Happy place. Chocolate milk."

I didn't complete the workout but I did swim 2,500 yards.

There are several things to learn from tough practice days, days when you don't perform the way you want.

First -- you can't appreciate good days, or success, without bad days, or failure. You need the lows to understand the highs.

Second -- the important thing is not that you encountered difficulty but in how you choose to respond. Remember that curve ball I was talking about? Yeah, I got a big, wet curve ball tossed at me in the swim this particular practice. My adjustment wasn't perfect, but I faced it, took a deep breath and got back to work.

I learned that I can face panic, go to my happy place and get through it.

And I have more first hand evidence that my actions follow my thoughts. Fear and negativity brought me to a difficult swim which only means relaxation and confidence will bring me back to solid, effective swims. 

"You are not allowed to worry."

The instructions from my coach were clear as bell:

You are not allowed to worry.

It reminded me of the edict she gave me back in March that I was not allowed to wear an iPod while running a road race.

This particular proclamation came when I emailed her Monday morning with drastic changes to my schedule. See, the Canisius softball team advanced to the NCAA tournament which means another road trip for me -- this time to Long Island and Hofstra University for weekend games. Luckily, Friday was scheduled as a day off from training anyway but Saturday was a 45-minute run and an hour bike ride.

The run I can do pretty much anywhere. The bike ride wouldn't be feasible so I asked if I could move that ride to today instead.

So my instructions were to move the bike ride and not worry.

And actually, not worrying has become much easier for me. It's a by-product of my training. Because one of the first things you realize as you start to learn a new skill (like swimming) or try to improve your fitness (like running a 5K) you quickly learn that things never go as planned. Some say there are no setbacks in training, only lessons. But whatever your semantics may be, things will not follow the plan. I have had days where I thought I couldn't swim the length of the pool, days when I thought I couldn't run another 10 seconds and days when I wondered if I even knew how to use the gears on my bike.

But I plodded through each workout. I heard the words of Women's Quest staff member Jacqueline Stanford echo through my brain: "Why would you want to stop now?"

And I kept on going. I trusted the process. I knew my coach would get me to where I needed to go. I knew that curve balls only meant changing my plan, not abandoning it.

I still get frantic from time to time. Frantic is how I vent. Let me be crazy for about 15 minutes and I'll settle in.

Perhaps I learned this most from swimming. You can't fight the water. You will lose every time. You have to learn to work with the water in order to move through it. I'm not the greatest at this yet (see the fact that I still create too much resistance with my head position) but I'm learning.

It's the same with anything else in life. The go-with-the-flow mentality is overused and can get a bad rap. It's not necessarily about completely surrendering yourself to the whims of the universe (after all, if you do absolutely nothing in the water you'll still probably drown, just more slowly). Instead it's about working with what exists in that moment and trusting that if you take care of the little things, the bigger things will fall into place.

A math tutorial

For the record, math has never been my strong suit. It's likely mostly a mental block, which triathlon is teaching me is the primary block for so many things we think we "can't" do. Still, my brother and I have always been much more verbally inclined, which is also probably why people stay far away when we get together.

And so that serves as a premise to this: I was wrong about my first brick workout.

See, I thought that I would need to do three loops of the Buffalo Triathlon Club bike course to roughly equal the distance I would be doing in my Keuka Lake Triathlon.

But as Mark from the club pointed out to me on a Sunday ride, I was wrong.

The Keuka Lake sprint distance on the bike is 22 kilometers, which equals about 13.6 miles. At my first brick workout, I completed about 12.5 miles, then ran three miles.

Basically, I did two-third of my sprint distance triathlon.

While the brick wasn't easy, it didn't kill me either. Granted, I didn't swim 750 meters before hand, but the bike-run didn't leave me longing for a pint of ice cream, a Law and Order marathon and the fetal position.

I really can do this thing after all.

While I take some time this Monday morning to study my metric conversions, check out this video of a Merman swimming competition. (Think Mermaid only with guys.) If only I could use a fin like this in competition -- the open water swim would certainly be  more interesting.

Encouragment for that final push

As I sifted through my mail, a collection of catalogs and bills, there was a card from my sister-in-law.

Curious, I thought. Maybe she was getting a jump on my birthday which is at the end of the month.

Hmm.

Nope. She sent me a congratulations card as a way to send me off into my final four weeks of training before my first triathlon. She and my brother will both be at Keuka to cheer me on -- and more importantly to eat pancakes with me after I finally catch the wizard.

That note of encouragement made me dance around my kitchen and it literally helped pump me up for Friday night's race.

See, I am not a good night person, which I know is detrimental since I am a sports writer and sporting events tend to take place at night. I'm a morning person. I like to get up, get going and start my day. Maybe that's because I'm not awake enough to fully understand everything I'm undertaking. Also, that lack of patience rears it's head and I just don't like waiting around for things to start.

So that card helped get me through the afternoon until it was time to leave for the Lisa's Legacy 5K in Lackawanna. I also got an email from my friend Jenny who asked if I was looking to run a specific time. Under 30 would be great, I replied, but I really was just looking for a strong run.

Go for it, Jenny told me.

So I decided I would.

But this time I would be smart about it.

I took the first mile through the Holy Cross Cemetery slow. I basically ran at my easy pace and allowed others to fly past me if they wanted to. No worries on my part. I got to the one-mile mark in about 10 minutes. Perfect I thought, especially since I did not realize the back part of the cemetery was a bit hilly.

Then, I picked it up for the second mile and passed a few of those people who sprinted out the start. (Hey, if you can sprint 3.1 miles, I have nothing against you, but it's just not the way I roll. And as some of my new triathlon friends pointed out, people don't realize that 3.1 miles is a long way to run hard.)

I felt strong and steady and caught a glimpse of Sherpa as I rounded the corner for the second half loop. At the second mile mark, my time was somewhere around 19:10. Good, I thought. I picked up my pace. I kept as steady as I could because the wizard was about to show up. He always does at this point.

But I knew I could battle through the blows. I knew I could catch the wizard. On the final turn I picked it up a bit and felt pretty good. I even helped a younger boy out who was running and grabbing his side.

"Are you cramping?" I asked him.

"Not yet," he said.

"Try putting your hands on top of your head and see if that helps," I told him.

He grabbed the sides of his head with hands.

"Wow, that feels better," he said. "Gee, thanks!"

"No problem. We're almost there!"

And I kicked it up again. I was running strong. I wasn't going to catch the people in front of me but I could see the clock ticking.

I sprinted through the pain. The clock read 29:52 as I crossed the finish line.

Yes.

All those baby steps are paying off.

Brick by brick

In journalism school, you are taught to avoid  jargon at all times.

In the world of sports, this is fairly difficult. The line between jargon and sports-specific terms can be blurred and add to that the proliferation of catch phrases from ESPN and ESPN-wannabes and athletics often has its very own language that's not easy to decode.

I bring this up because Thursday night I did my first brick workout.

First, the explanation. A brick workout is a combination of events, most typically a run-bike-run. The distances vary based on your workout but you are most definitely completing two disciplines back-to-back.

So why is it called a brick workout? I Googled the question and found, as expected, no consensus. One reason is that the events are stacked or linked immediately after one another. Another thought is that it lays the foundation for your training.

Still others at the Buffalo Triathlon Club workout thought it was called a brick because that's how your legs feel when you get off the bike and start running.

For me, it might as well be called the wizard workout because that guy appeared with a full body blow the first mile into my run.

Since this was the first brick workout of the season for the club, it was an "open brick" meaning that there was no formal workout or timing. You designed your own and for this inaugural brick of the season many of the members took the time to pace the newbies through the course.

I did a simple brick -- two laps of the bike course which totaled 12.5 miles then ran the three-mile course. (There also is a one-mile course). The bike was nice. The route was all right turns, pretty simple, with one hill. My speed was pretty steady and I so could have gone faster, which made me feel good and strong.

Then back in the parking lot I swapped my helmet for baseball cap and my cleats for running shoes.

Off for a three-mile run.

And that was hard.

My legs didn't seem to bother me all that much to be honest. They were a bit rubbery to start with, but I felt I got into a groove pretty quickly.

But as I made the first left hand turn on the run course through a nearby cemetery, the wizard punched me in the gut.

Whoa. I am slow. I am getting tired. And I really, really want that chocolate Luna bar I have back in my car.

Another newbie passed me and asked if he was the only one ready to collapse.

Oh no, I assured him. If I could, I would. But the last I thing I wanted to do was walk my first brick.

The three miles actually went rather quickly and soon enough I was back at my car, catching my breath and feeling rather happy. See, the whole "I'd-like-to-collapse-right-now" feeling is more mental than physical and once I relaxed into the run, into my pace, I could keep on going despite the occasional smacks from the wizard.

Later that evening I realized that I was one bike loop short of doing the same basic distance of the sprint triathlon. Yes, taking on another 6.25 miles will increase the challenge, but ultimately, I'm learning that I really can do this.

Today's tip: Avoid getting hit

Here's the scenario: I'm running at my slow, easy pace down a side street that can get a fair amount of traffic. I'm taking precautions, running on the correct side of the road (against traffic) and hugging the shoulder.

Still, as I approach the driveway to a plaza entrance a car leaving the parking lot barely slows down and begins to make a right hand turn without ever looking in my direction.

That's twice I almost got hit by a car. Once the driver apologized for not looking.

It's a bit interesting to me that my near-misses have come while running rather than while riding my bike. Then again, I trust no one while I'm riding my bike.

May is actually Bicycle Safety Month and as the weather gets nice (eventually it will get nice again) it is a good time to review safety while riding. I know, when I was growing up no one wore bike helmets and my circle of friends all survived. I won't take that chance now. My friend Maria refuses to go for a bike ride with anyone who won't wear a bike helmet. It's not necessarily so much her concern for safety as the fact that she feels her time is limited and doesn't want to waste her bike riding time waiting for the paramedics to come after you fell and split your head open.

Cynical humor aside, the issue of finding peace between motorists and cyclists continues to be a topic of concern. The city of Niagara Falls will be holding a Ride of Silence on May 21 to honor those who have been killed in bike accidents and raise awareness about sharing the road. The ride is free with no registration, sponsors, t-shirts or party -- just a silent, slow-paced ride.

If you want to add a bit of history to your bicycle month celebration, visit the Peddling History Bicycle Museum in Orchard Park. This month they are sponsoring their Spring Rust-Buster ride. The ride covers six miles in two hours with historical stops along the way and hot dogs afterward.

To take it one step further, check out the great fashion debate of the late 1800s when the bicycle was considered to be an amoral vehicle for women. Most notably, the problem was that women started wearing bloomers (slacks? egad!) blurring the line between male and female. There were all sorts of other problems with cycling for females but women found the activity to be emancipatory and it became a marker of the suffrage movement.

Class dismissed.

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