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A weekend of triumph

I swam.

Yes, I understand that's part of the whole sport of triathlon -- the first leg involves a swim. But earlier this month at Keuka Lake my first open water competitive swim was spent on my back, floating, backstroking and calling over Ashley, my personal lifeguard.

At the Quakerman Triathlon in Orchard Park on Sunday, there was no floating on my back. Granted, I made friend with the lifeguards on the surfboards during the swim warm up, but I never needed to hang on to board, canoe or member of the Buffalo Underwater Recovery Team.

Green Lake may be the ideal introductory open swim for a local triathlon. There are no waves. There is no current. It's kinda like a big pool.

I started out slow. My breathing was rushed. It wasn't panic but nerves and adrenaline -- like a basketball player who airballs her first 3-pointer at the start of a big game. I wrote notes on my hand before the swim: "strong" on my right hand and "chocolate milk" on my left to help me focus and relax. I started thinking strong and went to my default plan -- count 10 breaststrokes then 10 freestyle strokes. Eventually, I was doing all freestyle. I went back to breaststroke several times -- when I needed a breather, when I needed to site where I was in relation to the next buoy or when another swimmer bumped into me and I had to get my rhythm back.

Several times I was passed by some speedy swimmers. I paused again in breaststroke, let them swim into and on top of each other, then resumed my slow, but steady swim.

My official swim time -- including the run from the beach back over to transition -- was 18:51.

Most importantly, I swam the entire time. I felt smooth and strong.

On the bike I hammered through the second loop, including taking one of the intersections a bit too fast. I made a wide turn and ended up in a pothole filled gravel parking lot. Impressively (at least to me) I negotiated the mistake well, kept my balance and poise and got back on the road. I then said a quick prayer nothing broke on my bike and, thank you higher power, nothing did.

In the end, I averaged 19.7 miles per hour on the 22 mile course to finish in 1:06:54 -- that's more than three-miles an hour faster than my average speed at Keuka.

On the run, I felt like one big plodder. The route through a residential area next to Yates Park was well marked and tree-lined but I felt incredibly slow and heavy. It was a four-mile run and when I heard I had about 300 yards to go I started to kick it up. My timing on the run needs to get better, or my endurance needs to improve, because I try to speed up for the finish a bit too soon. The end, which was very cruel, included a short hill. Volunteers said "up the hill and the finish is there" -- but unfortunately it was still a few feet away.

l found the wizard on the final sprint and couldn't push it across the line, but still, my run pace was 9:19. Really? I ran a 9:19 mile? That's the fastest pace time I've ever recorded.

Final tally: I did the course in 2 hours, five minutes and 14 seconds finishing 131 overall out of 211 registered participants.

But more important than where I finished is how I did and how I felt. My swim was 100 times better while my bike and run were both faster paces and stronger finishes.

While family, friends and Sherpa have some suggestions on improving event management for spectators at the event, as a participant, I had no problems. For a first-time triathlon, things seemed to go smoothly, at least from my perspective.

And the Canisius sports information department will be happy to know that this triathlon did not ruin my appetite and I heartily finished all of my blueberry pancakes.

As an aside, my warm-up event on Saturday was the Ride for Roswell. A great event for a great cause, I got the rain and wind out of my system during the 33-mile ride. It was a light and easy ride for me, completely for fun.

Still, I have to note how disappointed I was in the Ride for Roswell's post-ride party. An event that's meant in part to help promote healthy living and disease prevention had hardly any healthy options in the lunch tent for participants. Worse yet, there was no vegetarian option. The announced rider figure was around 6,000 -- surely I could not have been the only vegetarian on the ride. How hard could it be to have a peanut butter sandwich option in the boxed lunches or offer veggie burgers with the cookout?

Measuring my success

I was feeling relatively unscathed, though I admit I totally went easy on the run.

Thursday was a rather tough brick workout -- a three mile run followed by an 18.75 bike ride followed by another three mile run.

With the Quakerman Triathlon on Sunday and the Ride for Roswell on Saturday I wasn't going all out. Perhaps if there were no races this weekend, I would have pushed harder, but I allowed myself to take it easy, especially on the run where I wanted to make sure my knee discomfort was truly gone. (And thank goodness it is.)

In the grand scheme, my times weren't so bad and, most importantly, I felt pretty good. That's when Mark said to me, "You know you almost did an intermediate distance tonight without the swim. We just have to get the swim better."

The Buffalo Triathlon Club brick course fell short of the intermediate distances of a 40K bike and a 10K run (the swim is 1,500 meters), but the sentiment was right on.

My coach, Mary Eggers, had hinted when I started working with her that the intermediate distance was in my future.

While I was hanging on Lifeguard Ashley's surfboard during the swim at Keuka Lake I had some choice words for Mary about that idea.

And though completely content to have words like Ironman and Half-Ironman absent from my vocabulary, there is a possibility that next summer I could do a few Intermediate distance races.

I say that, in all likelihood, only because it's the Ride for Roswell weekend.

Cycling was the sport that kick-started my fitness routine three years ago. I did my first Ride for Roswell in 2006 -- the 33 mile distance. I had to ice various parts of my body for the next two days.

But the following year I signed up for the 62.5 mile distance. I trained for it. The charity ride (which they stress is not a race) became my "A" race of the season. I wanted to do the distance in good time -- which I did. I finished strong. I finished in my personal time frame. I finished absent the need for ice packs or pain relievers. (I also finished too late to get any of the healthy food  and special perks for the top fundraising group I was in, but that's a bitter digression.)

Though this year I'm bumping myself down in mileage to keep my body sane for the triathlon on Sunday, the Ride for Roswell has become a sort of fitness marker for me. It's a baseline of where I started. It's a reminder that small changes in my diet and exercise plan can show huge results.

It's a tangible refresher that my fitness goals are always in my reach.

A good lesson to remember as I prepare to tackle my second triathlon on Sunday.

Note that the distances for all three events at Quakerman are completely different from my first triathlon at Keuka so there's no point in comparing overall time. If anything, I can compare my paces for each discipline, but even that can be moot.

If I swim a bit better (i.e. not on my back), bike strong and run steady then I'll have not just a good race, but a great race.

Check back on Monday for updates about my weekend events.

The steep open water learning curve

I admit I felt a little too good about my swimming abilities after I seemingly mastered an open water swim session on Saturday.

So Wednesday, I jumped in Lake Erie ready to knock out about 600 meters of free and easy swimming when I ran into a problem.

Waves.

While the temperature was fine, both in the air and the water, and the sun was out, the wind had picked up causing, you guessed it, waves in the lake.

I warmed up a bit, doing breaststroke mostly, then putting my head down for a few freestyle strokes.

Then I tried to swim.

And I was stopped every time.

I couldn't get much more than 10 strokes in without getting a whole lot of water in my mouth and up my nose. I didn't so much panic as I felt this surging weight of disappointment. Didn't I just swim this four days ago? Didn't I nail it down already? What's wrong with me?

Buffalo Triathlon Club member Sergio, who was with me on Saturday, reminded me that I didn't have to deal with choppy water and waves in my last swim. This was different. My friend Jenny made the bike analogy -- it's like cycling into a headwind. You're not going to go as fast and it's going to be more difficult.

Which of course then meant that coming back, I would have a tailwind.

The goal on the way back as I swam with Sergio and Joe was to make it back to the trees. I found my smooth stroke and kept going all the way back to the ladder -- 200 meters.

"What was THAT?" Joe asked.

"That," I said with some sense of relief, "was what I did on Saturday."

We continued on for another 100 meters (though I needed to catch my breath at one point). Then came the turnaround -- back into the waves for at least another 100 meters back to the ladder.

The key, it seemed, was to just put my head down -- way down actually. My instinct was to lift my head up in the choppy water to get air, but in reality that just gives the waves something to crash into. Keeping my head low, I would get less water in my mouth and if I looked back, the waves would crash over me instead of into me.

Sergio told me to be angry at the waves and think about hitting them to power through. This, quite frankly, is a lot of work, but I did better. I swam against the waves 25 meters at a time, stopping because I needed a rest.

In the end, the workout was great. I swam just fine with the current and improved in my battle against the waves.

Afterward, in the post-swim analysis, Jenny asked me what I was thinking about when I was having trouble swimming against the waves.

Nothing really. There wasn't much in my mind at all. And maybe that was the problem. As I get used to swimming in open water, mantras are great for keeping my mind focused, keeping it from wandering and, most importantly, from overthinking. But I didn't use my mantras -- confident, strong -- against the waves the first time. Come to think of it, I didn't use mantras in my backstroke-swim at Keuka, either. It showed both times.

On the bright side, the waves probably won't be too bad in self-contained Green Lake in Orchard Park on Sunday for the Quakerman Triathlon. Ah, but even if it is a bit choppy, I know I can handle it, if I punch the waves and remind myself how strong I am.

The pressure at Track Town

I remember my Uncle Leo talking about going to watch big track meets at Madison Square Garden. He would talk about the majesty of the event, in almost reverent tones, discussing the competition among the runners and the atmosphere of the meet.

My experience with track and field remains a handful of high school events and the pre-packaged highlights that grace our television sets once every four years.

But this weekend's Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. will have a different sort of tone that will likely draw me to my couch for a few hours in between my own whirlwind of athletic events. The place proudly is known as Track Town and as Ken Goe of The Oregonian explains, the Olympic hopefuls in Eugene this weekend will be treated almost like rock stars.

And the track and field Olympic trials are even more exciting than other U.S. testing events. Unlike some other sports, like gymnastics and diving, there are no chances to get placed on the team if you have a bad trials -- even for injury or illness. The U.S. Olympic trials in track and field are a do-or-die meet where you have to finish in the top three in the final heat in order to make the cut. In some ways, the trials can be more stressful for American athletes than the actual Olympics.

There's a different kind of pressure for Western New Yorker Mary Lou Hoffman who won a spot in the Lake Placid Ironman in four weeks from the Cadence Kona Challenge. She was one of six semifinalists who won a coaching package in the hopes of getting a spot in a qualifying Ironman (such as Lake Placid) with the idea of attempting to qualify for the Ford Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.

Performance enhancement

Ah, get out your puns and double entendres.

A story in the London Times over the weekend notes that an increasing number of athletes are testing positive for Viagra during their random drug tests.

Viagra is not banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) but according to the story, the drug is nearly always found in combination with other banned substances.

Ah, because what is an Olympic year without new twists in the WADA and performance-enhancing drug storyline?

But if you suspend your cynicism for a few moments (and there are plenty of reasons to be cynical especially when such health monsters as McDonald's and Snickers are official Olympic sponsors) this is one of the best times to be a sports fan. And it's one of the best times to be a recreational amateur athlete. You don't need to go far to find inspirational stories and motivation to kick your coach potato rear into gear.

Sponsor AT&T has launched Blue Room Tips and Training from Olympic athletes. You can watch bios on a dozen Olympic athletes from beach volleyball duo Kerri Walsh and Misty May to gymnast Nastia Liukin to swimmer Michael Phelps and get their training tips. On days when I'm just not in the mood to do my training, watching Michael Phelps talk about motivation can get me out the door.

On Lance Armstrong and open water success

Next week the Tour de France begins.

It's one of my favorite times of year when I enjoy the ability to telecommute, work via phone and Internet while sipping coffee and watching the colorful peleton ride through France on my TV screen.

Sherpa thinks I'm nuts. (Well, he thinks that in general, but this is one specific example.) In turn I will randomly shout out names of Tour riders -- "Alberto CONTADOR!" -- just to get that quizzical look.

I am a Joanne-come-lately to the sport of cycling and while I had heard of Lance Armstrong's feats on the bike, didn't really pay attention until his seventh and final Tour de France win.

Armstrong put cycling on the American sports radar. His triumph over testicular cancer and his passion for cancer research and helping those with the disease through his Livestrong Foundation have made him a household name. His yellow bracelets helped spark the message band phenomena and he has helped bring healthy living to the forefront of many American's lives.

But, he just can't seem to stay out of the tabloids.

This weekend The New York Times ran an article about Armstrong, wondering if his penchant for getting in the gossip columns, most notably through the high profile women he dates, hurts his ability to be a serious spokesman and fund raiser for cancer research.

Sometimes, I'm not sure where I fall on the Lance Armstrong pendulum. I respect and awe the cyclist. I can get completely nauseated by the celebrity. But that's par for the course in the sports-entertainment industry.

On a much more mundane level, I had an extra open water swim session on Saturday as I coaxed some Buffalo Triathlon Club members out to Lake Erie.

For the record, I swam 200 meters continuously -- on three different occasions. My head was down in the water. I was gliding in my freestyle motion. I was in a rhythm.

I was swimming and it put me on an endorphins high for the rest of the weekend.

I make no promises about Sunday's Quakerman Triathlon in Orchard Park, but I'm pretty confident that the backstroke won't be in my repertoire.

Neither ran nor floods stop Olympic qualifier

The severe floods in Iowa this week caused a raucous in the triathlon world.

See, there are spots on the U.S. Olympic Team up for grabs and the Hy-Vee ITU Triathlon World Cup, scheduled for Des Moines, Iowa this weekend, is the final qualifying event for athletes to get to Beijing.

Flooding forced race officials to move out of downtown Des Moines for two reasons -- first, so authorities could concentrate on clean up efforts and second, and more practically, because the transition area was under 17 feet of water.

Moving to West Des Moines, the swim portion was still a problem as rain and floods caused bacteria levels to be too high to make the open water safe for competitors. Officials thought of canceling the swim for the age group, youth and junior races and there was a chance even the elite athletes would be forced into a duathlon -- which would not help them in Olympic qualifying points.

But officials said that bacteria has dropped to safe levels for all swimmers and the race, for all categories, will go on as planned this weekend.

The third and final spot on the women's and men's teams will largely be determined this weekend. The women's race comes down to Sarah Haskins Kortuem and Sarah Groff while the men's spot will be battle among four -- Andy Potts, Hunter Kemper, Doug Friman and Brian Fleischmann.

From zero to hero ... how best to injury yourself

I had the discussion with my triathlon coach, Mary Eggers earlier this week.

With discomfort in my knee after my incredible personal best at the Race for the Cure, she told me to take a bit of a break from running. I would run only twice this week, emphasizing cycling and swimming instead. Note that my overall workload didn't decrease, just my running workload.

As we chatted on the knee update phone call, I told her it was feeling much better. There was barely any discomfort anymore and I worked on stretching my hamstrings and calf muscles to keep my knee happy.

Still, she said, no 5K on Friday night.

I was hoping to do the St. Greg's 5K tonight. I really wanted to run it. I had done so well with the 5K the week before and, by miracle of miracles, I'm near the top of the Buffalo Triathlon Club point standings for my age group. I would get a point for just showing up and finishing the race. Who wants to give away free points?

But I know that Mary is right as, unfortunately, she always is. (Which leads me to wonder sometimes if she isn't a witch.)

Ah, but then I caught a post from the sports science experts that training errors are the root of most running injuries. These docs believe that it's not so much biomechanical problems (your shoe, for example, or the angle of your thigh bone) that cause running injuries but training errors.

The most common training error seems to be the "zero to hero" concept. You either start running, or start running after an injury, doing too much intensity and too much volume too soon. Running is hard on the body. Your body can adapt. But you need to give it time to adapt.

I've got too much on the horizon with the Quakerman Tri next week and the Broome County Parks Tri in Binghamton the following week (yes, that's two sprint triathlons two weekends in a row) to risk a bigger injury on a 5K. And apparently Coach Mary has a bigger plan for me, too, which simultaneously excites and frightens me.

So if I show up at the St. Greg's 5K, it will be to walk it, not run it, and enjoy the post race party ... as much as on the inside I wish I was racing.

Choppy water

I walked around the swim site and started complaining.

I don't want to get in the water.

This stinks.

Look at those waves.

It's starting to rain.

The joke on one of my listserves this week was that while there is no crying in triathlon there is whining.

And I did more than fair share of it before this swim.

Ah, but then I said enough of this whining. Sometimes you just have to put your face in and go.

So I pulled up the wet suit, climbed down the ladder and got into the choppiest water I had ever been in. OK, granted, it was only my fourth time in open water, but still, the veterans said that on a scale of 1 to 10, this was probably close to a 7 in choppiness.

The water was warmer than the air temperature, so at least I wasn't dealing with waves and cold. Sergio, true to his word from last week, spent the majority of his workout swimming with me. We did a short distance, probably about 150 yards or so, taking it 10, 15 then 20 strokes at a time. He gave me tips and let me grab on to him once when I caught a wave in my face and needed a moment to cough it out.

Oh, it wasn't pretty. But it was better. As with pretty much anything in life, the more you practice, the more comfortable you become. My technique stinks, but I'm not worried about that right now. I want to get used to swimming with no wall every 25 yards in a wet suit that restricts my movement (but helps keep me warm and buoyant, so the trade off is worth it). I decided that even if I finish last in the water again at Quakerman next week, it's just fine. My goal -- to do more freestyle and sidestroke than backstroke.

Other things I learned in this open water session:

1. The sidestroke really is rather effective.

2. A combo of aqua jogging with a breaststroke motion with my arms is a better alternative to my doggy-paddle stroke.

3. Sherpa will threaten to throw my keys into the lake if I call him for a rescue because I locked myself out of the car.

Hey, Map my Run!

In the communication mode of choice, I was emailing my tri friend Jenny yesterday to discuss my knee pain, which I decided was really more discomfort than pain.

Jenny is new to triathlon but not to competitive running or cycling. In fact, going for a bike ride with her turns into a cycling tutorial, which is good considering that nearly everything I learned about how to ride my road bike came from watching the Tour de France on television.

She asked me about my knee then asked about my shoes. I'm three months into my new pair of running kicks, which I got by going to one of the local specialty running stores, having them look at my feet and tell me I needed a stability shoe.

Then she asked how many miles I have on my shoes.

And I have absolutely no idea.

I train by time. My runs and bike rides are scheduled for time frames (run for 45 minutes, intervals every 4 minutes, cycle easy for an hour, etc.) not for distances. My watch merely computes time and heart rate information, not distance, and I don't have the Nike-iPod system to track my runs.

That's when she sent me the link to Map My Run. You can plug in your starting location and draw your route and the program will automatically calculate your distance. You can also search for other routes that people have devised.

I had to shutdown my computer and physically walk away yesterday or else no work would have gotten done. The site is kind of addicting, and you can use it to map bike routes and walks, too. I discovered my go-to, simple neighborhood route is 3.66 miles and found other routes and distances for Chestnut Ridge Park and Delaware Park

And the even better news is that my knee feels about 95 percent today. Still, the workouts will be cycling and swim based to take some of the pounding off my joints.

In the meantime, I can map my runs and find all new types of routes to try.

This could be addicting.

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