Wednesday, 20 October 2010

October 8k in Amsterdam

I've been teaching myself to run faster by, well, running faster. I am using the FIRST training plan cautiously to prepare for my upcoming 15k and 25k races next month. Three different kinds of runs each week - kick-my-a$$-pace-based training, plus 2-3 cross-training sessions (think bike, swim, row) and weight lifting.  I am having fun and I ran the Amsterdam 8k on Sunday with pleasure in 50 minutes.

I enjoyed walking around the expo the day before the race. I got some new racing flats and some new training shoes. I got the same Mizuno Wave Riders that I like so much and then the Ultima based on the recommendation for my weight range. When I ran 10k last night in the Ultimas my toes hurt a lot at the end of the run. Not good. I don't know whether it was the shoes or simply the intervals on brick.  Plus I got some thermal running tights and a proper waterproof jacket. And some of last year's running clothes at a great discount.

I tried to increase the race distance to a Half Marathon, since I like running that distance. But you can only drop down, not go up. Oh well.

Sunday was clear and quite cold. Eventually it was sunny too.  This was the shortest race I've run since junior high school when I used to run the 440 relay.  Not to state the obvious, but this one was done and dusted in  50 minutes.  I loved the new shoes. They have an incredibly comfortable toe box. I watched the winners of the marathon finish, setting a new course record. Just over two hours. Incredible.  

I found where the slow fat chicks like me run: shorter distances. I  sailed through the crowds.  I should have lined up in the first group, but I thought I was going to be pacing some of my colleagues. They dropped out. I noticed the mental affect of the finish line again. You get closer and your brain starts registering tired and almost done.  I had really good self talk. Day easy light relaxed cruising.  I ran by heart rate and perception of effort and didn't look at my pace very often. This was a bit of an experiment. My splits were very good and since it's an odd distance, I probably could have run a little faster, but I would have to practice the distance to see how it feels.  I was conservative in the beginning and kept pushing the pace up.  I had to wend my way around people which I really enjoyed.  I felt strong and capable.  There was huge congestion at the end. I had worked my way up to the preceding group and they were tightly packed-the business groups, running together

It was hard to find passing room once we were in the last kilometer.  It sure was fun to feel faster than those around me.  It's been tough on my spirit to run last in so many races.  

2010 Tri Training Assessment

I wrote this shortly after the race, when I was still feeling the sting of a DNF. Now I feel pretty good about the effort and proud of myself. I did the best I could. And that makes me a winner in my book.

Swim:   I registered for the Bustinskin Middle Distance race without having any idea how long it would take me to swim the race distance.  In April I did a timed swim session and discovered that I needed 40 minutes to cover 1000m.  If I had appreciated just how much I needed to improve, I might not have registered for this race.  So it’s good I didn’t know.   I identified the swim as a major limiter for me and focused on improving my knowledge and technique. I bought a couple Total Immersion swim videos and several books and taught myself how to swim differently.  I also regularly attended coached-swim practices and got constructive criticism.  

Generally speaking, I did not follow the practice exercises on the MAO training plan other than trying to get in the pool for at least three hours a week. Given my skill level, I decided it was more important for me to simply swim for an hour or so at a time, doing TI drills and/or the coached practice sessions with my club. Maybe next time I will have enough swimming skill to do the practices as prescribed.   

In the beginning, I focused on swimming laps and increasing my distance.  I did not feel like I was getting much better. In August, I changed what I was doing and started to do the TI drills step-by-step.   I didn’t get all the way through the exercises. I was torn between wanting to increase my distance and improve my form. On reflection, I think form comes first. The distance took care of itself. 

Some weeks, I had a difficult time getting to swim practice. Lap Swim Pool hours here in Holland are odd.  My club trains in the late evening on Tuesdays & Fridays, and going to bed late would make me very tired the next day (spoiling both training and paid-work). As a result, I skipped a lot of swim practices.  On Fridays, they switched from the pool to an earlier practice time at a lake and  later the sea. I preferred to hang with my family most Friday nights.

Many weeks, I swam only once during the week and found the North Sea too rough to swim on weekends.  As time wore on, I got better at planning when & where I could pool-swim – making appointments with myself to get to the pool during the times reserved for lap swimming.  

Several of my open water swim practices in the North Sea did not include many free-style strokes: either it was too cold to put my face in the water, or too rough. Etc.  I simply gave myself permission to become familiar with being in cold, rough water and play.  I think this strategy paid off since I raced in similar conditions.

While training one day, I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time to rescue two drowning children. That by itself makes all the effort worthwhile.   

My future plan is to continue swimming with the club once or twice a week during the winter - Friday nights have reverted to the late pool practice, so I can hang with my family early in the evening.  Sunday mornings, I will work deliberately through the TI techniques to develop my hip drive. I could feel during the race the points in technique that I had reached in my training.    I ordered the new self-coached CD and some “fist gloves”.  I will also make more use of the stroke rate timer that I bought but did not use very often. 

The Bike:  Considering the “me” factor and the unrelenting head winds, I think I pretty well.  The “me” factor is this: I live in The Netherlands and did not train on hills. I’ve been at a sedentary desk job for 25 years, raced several  sprint tri’s between six & seven years ago, etc., started running again in December 2008.  I am 46, stand 5’6” & weigh 170. I would like to lose 10-15 pounds, which would put my body fat under 20 percent.  It’s at about 26 percent now.  I did not drop weight while training (except for the five pounds I gained on vacation in July that I lost in August).  (I figured out the weight-loss & train trick too late – or maybe it was the fact I was doing speed intervals that tripped the metabolic switch.)

I followed the training plan very closely. I kept to my heart rate limits, stayed at the middle or near the top of the range and avoided going over. I rode more than 900 miles and more than 80 hours, at least twice and more often three times a week. I missed only two key practices while I was traveling in July. I did all the sessions in the last six weeks. And I enjoyed every ride.  

Did the way I train get me to the 55 km mark in the race? Yes, certainly. Would a different way of training (higher intensity, longer rides) have gotten me further?  That’s the question that I can’t answer.  Some alternatives: train as if for a longer course. That might have helped. On the other hand, I think I maxed out my capacity, given my starting point and other lifestyle issues (full time job, children, and so forth).   

During the race, I dropped out after riding 4 hours, which just slightly exceed the typical length of my long rides (usually between 3 and 3.5 hours). I wonder whether longer rides (5 hrs/90 km) would have kept me going longer on the race. 

The What If’s:  In hindsight, I wish I had asked more specific questions about bike racing and how to prepare for the hills.  I felt unprepared mentally for the sustained effort required for the long hills and short steep hills and the short steep hills that turned into long hills.  They were much harder than anything I did in training.  Rather late in the race, I noticed that the effort for hills was quite the same as doing leg presses. I could have used that strategy earlier!  Also, I didn’t practice standing out of the saddle during a climb.  That might have helped too. 

I also wish I had figured out how to add some hills to my training, even if it meant driving to Belgium for the day.   Here’s the conundrum: if I am training by staying within a specific heart rate limit, how do I also train on hills?  I had to slow for the (very small) hills in the Dunes where I ride. If I work the hell out of hills, how do lay the endurance foundation that I need?  I followed the weight lifting program pretty closely, only rarely missing a planned session.  And I worked intensively on the speed work sessions. 

I resolve this by taking the long view. I won’t be able to accomplish everything that needs to be done in the first half-year of my first HI tri-racing season.   There are no short-cuts, and it takes as long as it takes. High intensity training has a high risk of injury and burn out. 

Finally, it occurs to me that the will to train means little without the will to race.  I want to learn how to ride my bike fast (and safely) without feeling so afraid of cars and downhill screams.  (Maybe that's not possible! :>) )

Lessons learned:  Next time I will ask my coaches  more questions, especially to help me evaluate my training sessions and to plan specific strategies for the race.  I found that my questions got answered, but as a beginner, I don’t even know what questions I should be asking.  And mostly I was pretty content to follow the recipe and bump along.  When I shared my concerns about the swim, Mark gave me good suggestions that I used.  I wish I had focused your attention and mine on strategies for cycling training & racing for this course. It wasn’t enough for me to race with only the thought “stay within your heart rate.”  Then again, maybe it was, and I gave all I could considering me, the day, the course.   

Occasionally I read blogs by other athletes (and write one myself, which I have not done lately since I’ve been so busy training!). One athlete who has trained with MAO observed that he was changing trainers because he found the MAO coaching too passive for his needs - that you were not holding him accountable for missed sessions and forcing him to explain why, etc.  My immediate reaction is that he should grow up & take responsibility for himself and what he wants.  I think of myself as a fairly low-maintenance client, who is a self-starter and resourceful. Did I ask enough of my coaches? Did they ask enough of me? 

I went into the race with the hope that since I had followed the training plan, I had done enough to get across the finish line.   I liked the heart rate training because once I got used to the increased volume, the training felt comfortable & sustainable. But maybe I wasn't working hard enough.  I wish I had asked for some specific feedback.  I certainly felt like I was working to capacity time-wise, balancing all the other aspects of my life.

One question is whether I raced frequently enough (the answer is probably no) and whether I should have programed into my plan some “simulated” races.   Perhaps that would have helped me develop more speed and power.  
Perhaps I should have also asked for some more specific direction as to how to train for hills while living in a flat country. I looked back at our correspondence. I identified that need in the beginning but did not follow up with additional requests.  The website certainly identifies the need to train in race-like conditions. I think I had a beginner’s blind-spot and overlooked this in my training. (But that takes me back to the conundrum I discussed above - heart rate limits vs. intense intervals).  Maybe I just did the best I could, giving it what I could.
Maybe it’s just post-event blues, but I’m feeling a bit incomplete. Doing a Half Tri was "my goal" for the year, and I didn’t make it. That stings.  I always have finished what I started.  I don’t fail. And it feels a bit hollow to have to redefine the goal and the event.  I’m wondering if there was something more I could have done to make me faster and stronger. I guess everyone who wants to improves asks that question!  Of the three disciplines, I focused my time and attention on improving my swim technique. I found a lot of information that I applied in the race from the book that goes with the video Swimming Outside the Box.   I have some books on cycling that I simply did not have time to read. So, all things considered, I gave it my best throughout the training period and got myself as far as I could.
Nutrition: I will use the next four months to slim down. I’ve figured out how to do this while continuing to train. Being lighter will make racing easier. I will keep some records of how my speed changes with my weight, so I can confirm this notion.

There’s a poem that goes something like “love like you’ve never been hurt, dance like no one’s watching.” I have to add a line: race like you’ve never lost.

My friend Judy’s already registered for the IM next June in Nice.  My initial thought is that I don’t want to do the IM Nice since (a) it comes too early in the year given the weather where I live ( I don’t know how I could train for it during the winter here), and (b) it has a lot of hills (and as we know, I suck at hills).  On the other hand, I really enjoyed having a virtual training partner focused on the same race, and if not now, when.  I have held the desire to do a the IM since I did my first sprint tri six years ago.  I don’t know what kind of time commitment is required to train for the full distance, compared to what I just did - which I really enjoyed.  And I’ve thought that the time required to train means I ought to wait until my kids are older (and I am fitter/thinner/stronger, whatever else I lack).  (I thought the same thing after running my first marathon - that the training time required was too long, but I’ve registered for another one in April anyway).

: This year I joined The Hague tri club, but only swam with them (they also offer coached running and cycling training). And I did only one local tri (the Beach Challenge) - partly because of the language barrier - but now I am more familiar with the local calendars and how to find out about races. (I also balked at a June Oly distance tri in Amsterdam because of the time limit on the swim.)  I could do more local races next year.  For example, there are several local half and quarter distance races that I choose from (in July & August)(and then a half in Cologne, Germany in Sept. But it’s an ugly urban course).
I’ve mused that I could go back to Weymouth UK for a week in the summer to practice on the hills while camping with my family, and have a second go at the course in September 2011. That still gives me a bit of a fright.  :>) (My son suggested training for a full IM distance to prepare next time.)

In all, I want to keep racing. I now have all the gear (quite a thing in itself) and I have learned how to plan my time & training week to week - I do still have to figure out how to carry enough water and deal with eating on the bike.  I also need to resolve some stressors in my personal life and ensure solid finances.
I have several running races lined up between now and January - repeats of events I ran last year and a couple new ones.  (17 October: Amsterdam: 8k fundraiser; November - 15k hill run; 25k dune run; December 16k beach run).   I have to say that I don't really call what I do when I run “racing” - I’m usually bringing up the rear of the crowd, playing beat the clock. But that’s okay.

I’m also planning to teach myself how to use the TRX trainer, which I got this summer and used a couple times while traveling.  The club also trains on All-Terrain bikes in the winter. I might like to try that, but would need to buy a proper bike. 

So, there’s the good, the bad & the wishful thinking. 

Friday, 1 October 2010

Bustinskin Middle Distance Weymouth, UK 26/09/2010

Hats off to race director Mark Steen and his fabulous crew. They put on a great race. This was my first attempt at a middle distance triathlon, returning to the sport after five years of idleness.  I had a great time and gave it my best shot. Life lesson from this race? I can try and fail and not feel like I failed.

After completing the 1.9km swim, I finished more than half the 90 km bike course before climbing in the van. The hills were more than I could do this time, and I threw in the towel after cycling 55 km. The long climbs were so tough for me that I walked some of them. The screaming down hills were unnerving. I reached a maximum speed of 55 km/hr several times.

What did me in finally however was the road traffic -too many speeding cars and caravans-plus a healthy fear of the very steep descent that awaited me near the end of the ride - 17 percent downhill, ending in a curve to the left. I stopped racing when I had had enough. (My friend Judy quipped, She who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.)

Before riding on a course like this again, I will have better bike handling skills and hill training. Navigating the course was made more difficult by the traffic traveling on the left side of the road. Sometimes I had to come to a complete stop at intersections because I just couldn't predict from which direction the cars would be coming.

The good news is that I did the whole 1.9 km swim and enjoyed it. I was not last out of the water. There were five behind me. I was really cold all day, even with the coat I borrowed. The wind chill factor put the air temperature at freezing (32 degrees F).

Clothes, equipment, nutrition all were good. I was nauseous on the end of the bike ride. But I feel really proud of my effort, particularly because I DID NOT vomit. Other competitors' race reports proclaim the course as amongst the most difficult ever. blah blah blah. They vomited. In the water, on the bike and on the run too.

I feel a mixture of pride and disappointment. However, reading other race reports, this course is considered among the most difficult in the world, and I give myself high marks for the willingness to take it on. The views of the Isle of Portland were memorable, and I did my very best on a tough course under tough conditions.

At the bed & breakfast I met a couple other competitors, which was simply great. Of the three of us, only one finished the whole course. I met a lot of other nice people during the day. There was another woman my age who climbed in the truck with me. She was very nice. And I followed the progress of a third woman who completed the bike course, but missed the time cut off for starting the run by three minutes. And a woman collapsed and lost consciousness on the run. She did not eat during the race and apparently ended up hypoglycemic.

My family also had a great time. The race was located at the Olympic Sailing Center in Weymouth. They rented a boat on Sunday while I was racing. And afterwards we visited a real pirate cemetery.  On the way home, we stopped at Stonehenge. The ferry from Holland to Harwick was great - and the chunnel a very interesting & efficient way to travel home. I particularly liked having a celebratory meal in Calais - French beef stew with chocolate crepes for dessert!  In all, a great weekend and a tough race to finish the season.

Thanks for reading this far. The long, maudlin version is below. 

Start where you are: I am a beginner, with a little experience in both triathlons and running. No experience in bike racing. The Weymouth course is reputed to be more difficult than most. The other folks I talked with were surprised that I had chosen this race for my first try at a middle distance race and shook their heads.  I am of two minds about this – having no prior experience, I had no way to evaluate whether it was a “reasonable” first choice.  Maybe this ignorance is what allows me to try something really big and difficult: fearlessness in its purest form.  If I don’t try something because I think I can’t finish it, then perhaps I’ve missed the point entirely.  

I count the race as a success because I got to the starting line healthy and fit, did my best, and raced injury-free.   On the other hand, it hardly needs saying that one of my goals was to finish. On reflection, my training plan served me well. I trained as much as I could absorb.  I've gathered my thoughts on what I learned. I'll post those next. But first, the gory details. 
The Swim. The race started before dawn.  The strong NW wind brought the temperature down to freezing.   It takes a leap of faith to enter the water in the dark and swim away from the safety of shore.   On the way out, the water “bounced” in the head wind.  The cold water made it difficult to breathe at first. Like many others, I stopped and sat up in the water to catch my breath.  When I stopped choking, I continued swimming and looked ahead for someone to draft behind.   This gave me a chance to collect my thoughts and find my stroke.   I saw someone ahead who had the worst swim form I’ve ever seen. That gave me confidence too, thinking to myself, “If he can do it, so can I.”   Unfortunately, he was too slow for me to continue drafting. I kept bumping his feet. And he wasn’t particularly good at sighting the turn buoy and was going off course.  So I passed him and swam by myself.   
Often I felt a little nervous because the kayaks often were quite distant from me and checking on other swimmers. I saw quite a few in distress.  But I just put my head down and kept going. Bilateral breathing was quite useful since on the way out, the chop made right-sided breathing impossible. At one point, I inhaled a wave and had a pretty good choking fit. But that passed and I kept swimming.

I followed Mark’s advice to count to four repeatedly. And I used my experience from the North Sea, which was rougher and colder, to just keep on going.  I was glad I trained in conditions similar to the race, that is, open water swims in the North Sea. This experience helped me quite a lot - I knew what to expect.  The water was very clear and after the sun rose, I could see the bottom. I took the time to enjoy the colours in the sky and to be present in the experience.  

On the way back, the waves cut across the course at an angle, making it possible to surf so long as you corrected for the drift right.   When I cleared the turn buoy, one of the kayak guys told me how much time had passed and how many swimmers were behind me.  He commented that my strokes were really looking pretty good - that gave me a boost.

“Out and back” made the distance seem shorter than the straight line along the coast that I swam in practice.  I finished within the one hour time limit and ahead of five others (out of about 85 swimmers).

The bike:  When I drove the course on Saturday, I saw that it was probably beyond my current abilities.  Apart from the distance, which I had never ridden in training, the hills were quite intense. I had the thought that there was no way I would be able to do the course within the five-hour time limit. Leading up to the race, I was confident (perhaps over-confident) that I could do the course. When I saw it though,  I felt like bolting. I said nothing about my doubts. When we talked after the race, my husband told me that he shared my view. He didn’t say anything before hand to avoid discouraging me. 
view from top of Isle of Portland
Anyway, I bravely mounted my steed and rode to do battle.  The first hill shot my heart rate through the roof, into the red zone, but I recovered and kept on. 

I am really proud of my effort and how far I got, particularly the next day when we drove around, covering parts of the course again - I couldn’t believe I had ridden it.  Photos of other people’s races can only be as tedious as looking at photos of other people’s grandchildren. But in case you’re curious, here.  Of course, the pictures can’t do justice to the elevation changes. But the look on the faces of the athletes says it all.
Bike Route Hill Profile
The race marshals played leap-frog with me. They had motorbikes and would wait for me to pass, check in with me, and then zoom ahead another five kilometers or so and wait. They were great, offering words of encouragement, big smiles and Thumbs Up!  

There was a cold headwind from the North throughout the race. I was very cold. My feet were numb.  My nose ran continuously, and my eyes watered from the wind.  As the day progressed, I felt fairly nauseous. On one downhill section, I nearly vomited.  I think it was from fear. I never went so fast on my bike before this day.    I drank and ate at the rate I had planned. I was so cold I never felt thirsty.  I think I’m happy with the nutrition - I used Hammer products from a German distributor.  I practiced some long rides with the endurance formula. I’m not sure I really like it.  But I think nearly any product would have upset my stomach on race day.  

Done. I left the course when I had had enough, about 20 minutes before the guys trailing me in the wagon were going to tell me time was up (at 13:00).  I debated with myself for a long time and used every trick I could think of to get up the hills and to handle the downhill sections with strength and courage. I counted fence posts, imagined the scooters pulling me uphill, thought of cyclists denied the opportunity to race because they had been killed training, thought of the suffering of young girls around the world. I yelled with each push. I thought about the fact that there’s always more even when the body’s telling the mind to stop. I reminded myself I wanted to finish, that I could do it, and then, I just didn’t want to be in the race anymore. And I stopped behind the truck when they pulled over to pick up another sign.

What wore me down finally was the amount and speed of the traffic on the course. With a large number of campers passing me, I was afraid I was going to get clipped, particularly because I was riding alone. I was also worried about my ability to handle the 17 percent descent that still lay ahead of me. The hill ended in a fairly sharp turn, making it even more difficult. I had practiced nothing like it.  

And I was simply tired of the hills - one more very long climb remained. Also, the cars traveling on the left side of the road in the UK increased the degree of difficulty for me. I didn’t have the instinctive confidence that I needed in order to cross intersections and make turns safely. It was hard to tell in a split second in which direction danger lay. So when I felt unsafe, I lost the will to continue.
The truck drove the remaining 30 km as they picked up the race signs and tailed the other stragglers.  Looking at the last hill I felt like I had made the right decision.  The medic made me a hot drink with black currant juice. The driver is training for the Ironman in Canada next August. We traded stories. I felt good.

The truck then picked up another woman my age. She was in great spirits and invited me to run together when we got back to the transition zone.  I was up for it, albeit reluctantly, since I had already adjusted my mind-set to being “Done.”  However, when we got caught in a traffic snarl, she hopped out of the truck to walk back.  When the traffic cleared, we passed her.  By the time we met up at the transition zone, we had both found our waiting families and our enthusiasm for heading out on a difficult run had cooled.
I turned in my chip and collected my stuff. I felt proud of the swim and disappointed with the ride, even though I gave it my best effort.  When the announcement came that the time limit had expired, my younger son said my stuff in the transition zone looked a little lonely with my shoes lined up waiting for me to return.  I had a hard time sitting in the cafeteria, watching all the finishers eating lunch. They  were sporting new hooded sweatshirts with the word Finisher across the chest in big orange letters.   (My appetite didn't return for several hours.)

Here is a link to what the bike looked like on my Garmin. The Zero Cadence marks the point where I climbed in the van. My watch kept running as we drove the remainder of the course.

The next installment will be lessons learned.