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Finding the space, and muscles, for growth

I did the math in my head.

Two weeks of eating donuts and pizza plus two weeks before that enjoying taper time for my final two big events of the season.

That's four weeks of pretty light workouts with two big races -- the Finger Lakes Triathlon and the Run for the Grapes Half Marathon.

So it really should be no wonder that I'm sore.

Actually, I forgot how much training hurt. Until I did my first functional strength training workout of the off season.

My coach had me penciled in for 30 minutes of functional strength training, using resistance bands for squats and arm pulls, hand weights for more squats and arm presses and a balance ball for abdominal work.

Does she think this is Curves for Wonder Woman?

Granted, I probably did too much in my first workout, trying for maximum repetitions on multiple sets. I know better. I should give myself room to grow. Because if I could do three sets of 20 reps, then I probably wouldn't need this exact workout now, would I?

It's more challenging than last year for sure and perhaps even more important. Now that I've got some of the basic skills down in swimming, biking and running, I need to add strength and movement to improve. If more core is stronger, for instance, chances are I can swim a bit faster without really trying. I'll just be in better shape.

But I need to let myself grow into that. That way at this time next year I can have fond memories of "Remember when I could barely ..."

Because aside from the finish line, that's the best feeling in the world.

Well that and a bath filled with the magic sore muscle soak from Crabtree & Evelyn.

Back to basics

For the majority of the past four months, my swim practice has consisted of just swimming. Get in the open water or in the pool and swim laps.

Sounds pretty simple, but was was missing was drill work. Granted, I did some drills, using pull buoys and kick boards and such. But for the most part, all my focus was just on swimming down and back as fast as I could to prepare for the next triathlon on my schedule.

But as I returned to regular training this week, I also returned to basic drills in the pool.

I swam 100-yards five times to warm up. I then swam 100 yards to cool down.

And in between it was nothing but drills.

I ended up doing 750 yards worth of something called the "fish drill" or side balance drill, where one arm is stretched straight in front of me, the other along my side. I put my head down and keep one shoulder out of the water as I kick on my side. I stare down at the bottom of the pool except when I turn my head to breathe.

I had done this drill numerous times before. But it took me about 200 yards to get the hang of it again.

"We are going for repetition," my coach wrote in my training log. "Repetition builds habits."

Hopefully I'm building the right habits, I thought. Because the first few times of the drill I spent more time breathing on my back than in the head-down-fish position. And it took me seemingly forever to get to one of the pool while doing the drill. I will never get this entire workout done, I thought.

Ah, but I did. I finished the entire workout and my technique certainly felt better at the end than it did at the beginning.

This is the time of the year when you get to back to the basics.

Because the basics will help build a better season -- one which I'm getting ready to plot with my coach this week.

Dwell in possibilities

When Sue arrived at Runner's Roost for the Monday evening run, she warned me she would be slow.

"I ran at Chestnut Ridge this morning," she said. "I'm trashed."

I knew that would only mean problems for me. Sue Devlin is a woman who could kick my butt on a run course pretty much any day, even if she ran a 20 mile hill workout before running with me. She was an All-American junior college distance runner at ECC -- in her 40s. A breast cancer survivor, she recently finished the Toronto half marathon in about two hours.

"I used to be able to run that in 1:30," she said during our four-mile run. "Before the chemo and before I got old."

It's all relative Sue. Because my goal was to try to keep up with her.

And that wasn't easy.

The great thing about training with other people -- whether it's a large group or just another friend -- is that it keeps you honest. And pushes you a bit.

In reality, I may have ran too fast for my coach's liking (sorry coach!) but I felt good. I liked the pace. I liked the conversation. I liked the company.

I liked getting pushed around a bit. Two weeks of vacation time after two weeks of tapering made me almost forget what a difficult workout is like. Why do I enjoy the difficult workouts? It forces me to focus. It forces me to let go of negative thoughts. It forces me to see just what it is I may be capable of. Sue had been very impressed with my 2:16 half marathon time and when I told her I did that based really just on my fitness level, she got very excited.

"That means you have a lot of potential," she told me.

Potential often comes with that negative connotation -- as in people who don't live up to their potential. Sometimes, potential also has limiting qualities, kind of like putting a ceiling on what you can do.

But if you frame potential right, it can be synonymous with possibilities.

And to quote Emily Dickinson, right now I'd like to simply dwell in possibilities.

For me, that's easiest when I'm trying to keep up with Sue during a supposedly light run around Orchard Park.

There's nothing but possibilities that come from that.

The vacation is officially over

My intention was to do one loop on Grand Island.

The route that my friends have devised takes us around the island for 20 miles. It's flat, with little traffic and only two actual turns.

I did the first loop at a casual pace then met up with the rest of the group at the parking area.

They were going out for a second loop.

What the heck, right? It's a beautiful fall day. I might as well enjoy it.

So I was in the for the second loop and another casual pace.

About five minutes in, I knew I would regret that second loop.

OK, regret may be too strong of a word. The day was gorgeous. The ride was easy. The company was great. What I regret was not being totally prepared for a second loop. And then of course, I regret not properly stretching afterward and being lulled into an hour-long nap on the couch when I got home, creating even more stiffness in my already overworked legs.

It was pretty much a symbol to me of what I knew was coming: The end of my vacation from training.

Today, my "transition phase" of training begins. At least that's how my coach labeled it on my new functional strength training program she emailed over the weekend.

I'm back in the routine with regularly scheduled workouts, focusing on repetition of drills in the pool and general fitness on land. While it's a routine, it's still a bit laid back on the intensity. Then again, I couldn't go a full two weeks without doing some sort of workout. Heck, I didn't make it two straight days without doing something physically active.

The lifestyle change is pretty complete now. I know this because I was looking forward to the start of this week. And secretly, I was actually pretty happy that I did that second bike loop.

Ironman Kona results

The Ironman World Championships in Kona finished up over night.

And again I reiterate -- merely finishing the event makes you an amazing champion athlete to me.

Joanne York and Diane Sardes did Western New York proud this weekend.

York, 47 from East Amherst, finished the course in 13 hours, one minute and five seconds to place 40th out of 59 in her age group.

York completed the 2.4-mile swim in 1 hour, 11 minutes, 14 seconds, the 112-mile bike in seven hours, six minutes and 30 seconds, and the 26.2-mile run in 4 hours, 29 minutes, 21 seconds.

Sardes, 56, took 25th out of 30 in her age group, finishing in 15 hours, 41 minutes and 31 seconds -- just six weeks after completing the Ironman in Louisville to qualify. She finished her swim in 1 hour, 35 minutes, 45 seconds, her bike in 7 hours, 47 minutes, 14 seconds and her run in five hours, 58 minutes and 41 seconds.

Among the professional triathletes, Craig Alexander of Australia won the men's overall title, finishing in 8 hours, 17 minutes, 45 seconds -- three minutes ahead of the second place finisher.

Chrissie Wellington of Great Britain won the women's race in a time of 9 hours, six minutes, 23 seconds.

Just being myself on my cruiser bike

10060818431_5 When I first decided to kick start my fitness routine with a trip to Colorado for a Women's Quest retreat I needed a way to prepare. The week in Winter Park would include hiking, running and mountain biking. I needed to do some training so that I could get the most out of my adventure. And so, I dug out my grandmother's old bike (picture in all its glory on the left). It's an old-school cruiser style bike. No gears. No clipless pedals. In fact, it really should have a basket, streamers and a bell. I road that bike around North Buffalo, Kenmore and Tonawanda. I peddled my way around Delaware Park, complaining about that one incline but mostly enjoying the feeling of freedom being on the bike gave me. The simple bike put me back into the simple joy of movement.

That gift was returned me to me this weekend. My friend Joe took the bike, gave it some TLC and subtle improvements -- like a working chain. And so Saturday morning, I put on my bike helmet and hopped on the bike. No lycra. No cycling jersey. Certainly no heart rate monitor. In my Team USA sweat pants and a t-shirt, I tooted around my neighborhood, went down to the local park, and just enjoyed the freedom of movement again.

Gram_on_bike_002_6

On her old bike (which, quite frankly I'm not sure if she ever actually used) I thought about my grandmother. I thought about the old photo of her (pictured at right) of her smiling on a different cruiser bike. I thought about the opportunities that I have which she never did. I thought about how much stronger of a person, of a woman, I am for the athletic opportunities I had growing up -- and the ones I have now as an adult woman. Chances to not only become stronger physically and mentally but to grow emotionally. It's frustrating for us writers when we have difficulty putting experiences into words but my summer of competition and training (triathlons, 5Ks and half marathons) has allowed me to grow and expand in ways I never thought imaginable. In a very real sense, I feel like I became more of myself, more of my true self. And while I can't ask my grandmother, this picture of her smiling on a bicycle is the image I have of what her true self looked like.

Pondering my grandmother and enjoying my simple cycling freedom, I thought of what Diane Sardes said about what fitness and competition had given her. Sardes, who didn't start running until age 41, is competing in the Ironman World Championships this weekend.

"It's important, no matter what age, to search out your passion," Sardes said. "Try to have supportive people around you as you life your life ... but when it comes down to it, it's up to you to do what it takes to get through this very tough life. Being fit helps an awful lot."

Her sentiments echo much of what I feel about this athletic journey I'm on. The supportive people in life, past and present, along with a strong belief in my own ability to face fear and obstacles and take a leap of faith when needed have allowed me to achieve the most important task in my life -- just being myself as completely and authentically as possible.

Breakfast treats and reflection time

I sat down at the table and didn't even need to look at the menu.

I already knew what I wanted. I had been savoring the idea of it for weeks now and I was finally having my well-deserved victory breakfast with my good friend Maria.

"Be prepared," I told her. "My volume of food and the rate at which I eat it may leave you slightly disgusted."

This did not faze Maria, who is a pretty impressive mountain biker in her own right.

"Um, did you just meet me?" she replied.

So I piled it on. Well, piled it on for me. L.A. Cinnamon Bread French Toast and a side order of home fries, please.

I finished two pieces of french toast before Maria got through her one slice of grilled cinnamon bread.

"But you're still burning extra calories," she rationalized for me.

Only, I didn't need rationalization.

My two weeks of vacation from training are rapidly coming to a close and I'm enjoying every last moment of non-structure, including a slight gluttony in my diet.

Which leads me to one of the discoveries in my assignment from my coach.

She wanted me to think about three things I accomplished this year and three things I accomplished that I didn't expect.

Let's start with the easy ones.

What did I accomplish?

1. I learned how to swim. Seriously. Those who have been along this journey may recall that I started from scratch. I took beginner adult lessons at the Town of Tonawanda Aquatic Center. I literally started in November last year simply bobbing up and down along the side of the pool and getting comfortable floating on my back. Now I can do a 3,000-yard workout.

2. I learned to run. Seriously. Again. At this time last year I was going to the gym and doing intervals on the treadmill -- two minutes of running then five minutes of walking. When I ran for 10 straight minutes I immediately emailed friends and family to revel in my accomplishment. Now, I've run several 5Ks, a 15K and a half marathon.

3. I finished a triathlon. Technically, that was the goal. Actually I ended up finishing six sprint distance tris this summer. Suffice it to say I'm hooked.

Now, for three things I accomplished that I didn't expect:

1. I overcome some of my eating hangups. All right, so my mother still things I eat weird things. And granted, as a vegetarian who gets her protein from non-traditional sources, I probably do have some unusual diet habits. Generally speaking, I'm a pretty healthy eater. But during the course of training for my triathlons, I stopped counting calories. I knew what healthy foods were and I learned what my body needed and when. I learned how to listen to the cues my body was giving me. And I no longer became obsessed with the numbers -- only the feelings. It seems to have worked so far in the happy, healthy and strong departments while allowing me to enjoy that special french toast.

2. I learned that doubt comes at me all the time, but I can overcome it. There was some point in nearly every tri I did (usually in the swim) when I entertained the notion of a DNF. What would happen if I just called for a water rescue right now? Or called it a day after the swim? Or just took a nap on the run? Did it really matter to anyone what I did? Every race I was smack up against a fear -- and every time I was able to get through it. I was stronger than the bad thoughts in my head. And if I relaxed, I learned I could change my thoughts to something more positive or productive or calming. I learned that the pain was indeed temporary. And I've learned that any pain -- whether it's the wizard beating my abdominal area with a hockey stick during the end of a 5K or the emotional turmoil of lost love -- will make me stronger on the other side.

3. I made new friends. OK, granted, I expected to meet new people, but I didn't realize what great friends I would make and how much they would help pull me through tough times. Bob took me aside at my first triathlon at Keuka Lake when I was completely freaking out and gave me a very calming pep talk. Sergio made special trips to the Lake Erie swim site and sacrificed part of his own swim time to help me gain comfort and confidence in the open water. Laurie made me laugh on training runs and helped me keep my sense of humor. Carolyn motived me by being a rock star in the pool lane next to me and inspired my chocolate milk happy place. Mark was more concerned about my swim times than I ever was, but so matter-of-factly thought I could accept bigger and better challenges that it silenced much of my self doubt. Joe was so determined that I would close out my season with a half marathon that he gave up trying for his own PR (which he could have easily gotten) to see me through the 13.1 miles. Those are moments I'll never forget ... and moments I hope to pay forward.

Of course, there's also the shout-out to Mary, my coach, who endured my frantic text messages when I was convinced I was regressing in my run or failed to swim a complete lap. She soothed me when I was overanxious (despite her claim that she doesn't handle freak outs, her naming it a "freak out" to my face immediately put me in a better, more rational place) and celebrated my victories with me. I am grateful that she was there to guide me along this season as I muddled my way into defining myself as an athlete.

On Ironman results and Matt Damon

At the end of his email messages, Sam Pasceri has the quote: "I refuse to tip-toe through life only to arrive a death safely."

I'm not sure about the death part, but Pasceri certainly isn't tip-toeing through life.

The Lockport resident completed the Virginia Double Ironman this past weekend. That's 4.8 miles of swimming, 224 miles of biking and two marathons to finish it all off.

Pasceri finished in 34 hours and 48 minutes -- one hour and 12 minutes away from the cutoff.

While the double Ironpeople recover from their exploits, the Ford Ironman World Championships in Kona get underway on Saturday.

The website will have a webcast (the event will be broadcast on TV at a later date) and you can follow Western New York athletes Diane Sardes and Joanne York through the websites athlete tracker.

Meanwhile, celebrities continue to get into the triathlon game. Well, sort of. Matt Damon was a surprise entry at the recent Escape to Miami Triathlon. But Damon did the event as part of a relay team, doing the 6.2-mile run in 59 minutes, 54 seconds.

My first real "no"

I'm not sure exactly what I was thinking, but someone had mentioned the Niagara Falls International Marathon to me the other day in passing. I got to thinking (which is always dangerous for me) that maybe I could do the half marathon at that event on Oct. 26.

I emailed my coach and asked her if I could do it.

"I'm going to say no to this one," she replied.

What?

This is the coach who had never said no to me ever. The only other time she kept me on the sideline was when I wanted to run the St. Gregory the Great Great Race in June. I was having some knee pain so she wanted me to rest instead.

I then asked about a few races in October.

No to those, too.

Welcome to the official end of my first season of racing.

My coach put the kibosh on those races for very solid reasons. First, she didn't want me to risk injury. We threw that half marathon in at the last minute because I had the fitness to do it -- not because I trained for it.

I'm in rest and recovery mode right now and there's no need to push the limits, to risk an injury which might sideline me.

Because apparently we have some work to do. Which leads us to the second reason -- becoming more deliberate in my training and racing.

This season was about experience. Sure, throw me in a race! I needed the practice. I needed to know what it felt like to line up for a run with nerves and anxiety. I needed to practice learning how to relax in a crowd of people. I needed to get in and get dirty.

But now, it's about more structure than experience. It's about setting different kinds of goals. I'm pretty sure that my first A race will be the Buffalo Marathon in May. And in order to prepare for that, there has to be a plan and races which fit into that plan.

And while I've got plenty of time to prepare and build my distance base, the time has to be well-spent and a bit deliberate.

I recall that line from the end of the movie All The President's Men where Ben Bradley tells Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to to go home, take a bath and rest up for 15 minutes. Then they had to get their butts back in the office and back to work.

Without the implications to the Constitution of the United States and a free press, I feel a similar mandate from my coach: Rest up these two off weeks. Because then we're back to work. Hard.

I'm actually looking forward to it.

Taking the lessons of teachable moments

My friend Jane often sends me links to health and fitness articles in the New York Times.

This one came with the caveat: "This is why I'm not an athlete."

See, the article is all about relaxation as a key to athletic success.

And Jane doesn't see herself as the very relaxing kind of gal.

Heck, it's tough for me, too.

As my coach likes to remind me, constantly, the most difficult distance you will ever face is the one between your ears. And it's difficult because there are so many things that can go through your mind -- negative thoughts, pressure, the feeling that the harder you run the faster you'll go.

All off that is counterproductive in athletic contests.

When I let go of trying to run hard and fast (or swim that way, or bike that way) I actually go faster than when I'm thinking about my time and effort. The less I think, the better the race goes.

Perhaps that a key lesson I need to translate into the rest of my life. When we talk about teachable moments in sports, we often think of children, or high school kids or even college kids. But the teachable moments don't end after age 21.

No, sometimes, those teachable moments come faster, harder and more intense at older ages than at younger ages.

This week, as I go through my non-structured workouts (surely coach you didn't expect me to do nothing at all this week) I eschew my watches and timers and try to let all those lessons of the past summer sink in. My homework assignment for my coach is almost due ... and reflecting on what I accomplished, and what I accomplished that I didn't expect, comes naturally when I'm running for joy.

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