Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Walk a Mile (or 70.3) In My Shoes

I wanted to write a post that departs a bit from the “spinster” theme, lest you think that I spend all of my time complaining about society and singles.

Recently I completed my racing season with one of my greatest athletic accomplishments to date and it was a total surprise. Despite a really rocky season with tough training and sub-par finishing times in all of my runs, I improved my performance at the Musselman half Ironman race by 15 minutes. The Musselman totals 70.3 miles – 1.2 miles swimming, 56 miles biking, and 13.1 miles running. I’ve done this race twice before.

In 2006 it was the longest triathlon I’d ever completed in 6 hours and 20 minutes. The following year I shaved 12 minutes off that time finishing in 6 hours and 8 minutes. In 2008 I didn’t do the Musselman because I did the full Ironman race in Lake Placid (2.4 miles swimming, 112 miles biking, 26.2 miles running). This year I decided that in lieu of doing another Ironman I would instead try to break 6 hours in the half Ironman. It was a goal that I was excited about in January when my training began, but I came to loathe in June when I realized that I just wasn’t running well and many of my usual races were completed in disappointingly slow times.

During the 5 hours and 53 minutes that I was on the course at Musselman last month, many things came and went in my mind. Yes, getting a new personal best in a race is awesome – but that isn’t what made it one of my best race experiences. Anyone who knows me well has heard me “metaphorize” training as a template for life in general. It is important to set goals, outline a path to those goals and then pull from your experience in the world to overcome obstacles down that path. Every goal you set and achieve gives you the experience to reach a little further than you did before. There is no easy way to an Ironman finish line – just like there is no easy way to most things sought in life.

And nothing happens overnight.
In middle school I was unable to do the mile test in gym class (you had to be able to run a mile on the track in 12 minutes). So who would have thought that I would end up here?

A runner. A triathlete. A spinning instructor. An Ironman finisher.

Goals are set and accomplished, paving the way for new goals thereafter. They have been scattered along my path in life like a trail of breadcrumbs continuing to lead me to new and exciting places. I learn something new about myself in every race.

Here is what the last 70.3 miles taught me.

Rely on Your Weaknesses, Not Just Your Strengths
Most people approach the sport of triathlon with a dominant “strength.” Many were cyclists or runners before they were triathletes, and while they become proficient at all three disciplines of the sport, they rely on their dominant skill set for the best possible time. For me this has always been running.

My game plan for a triathlon is to be comfortable during the swim and get through it at a moderate pace. On the bike I like to go right to the edge of being aggressive – sometimes crossing the line and hammering it for a few miles, but always backing off the pace to conserve my legs for the run. Having gone from being a sprinter, to a half-miler, to a sub 22-minute 5K runner to a finisher of several marathons, I am used to running while miserable and I’ve always relied on that ability to make up time in my races.

Sunday’s race derailed from my usual game plan. As I stood waist-deep in the water before the air horn sounded to begin the swim, I didn’t think too much about what I wanted out of the day. My goal of finishing in 6 hours seemed really out of the question given how lousy I’d been running for the past few months. I decided to get through each mile feeling comfortable and having fun. If I wasn’t going to get any personal records that day, why not just enjoy myself?

Midway through the swim, I realized that I was doing pretty well. I wasn’t getting tired and I was with a small pack of swimmers in my age group that had caught up to some of the straggling swimmers from the wave that started before us (four minutes earlier). By the time I got out of the water and through Transition 1 (where you go from the swim part of the race to the bike part), I was clipped in my pedals with only 41 minutes on the clock. I recalled my last swim time in this race to be 50 minutes, so I was immediately aware that I was already competing against my previous best times.

This presented a new mindset about the day’s events. I wasn’t anticipating to feel this good, despite how much my swimming had improved this season. Now on the bike, I knew I would feel good for the whole 56 miles because many of my longer training rides were longer than 50 miles and I always felt great the whole time and afterward. None of that changed the fact that my running still sucked – I hadn’t even gotten under an 8-minute mile until very late in the season and I barely count it since the average was something like 7:54 minutes-per-mile.

I had a decision to make. Did I want to continue on with my “joy ride” sense of the morning or did I want to try and make something out of this race? I rationalized that the run was going to be tough for me no matter if I got off the bike with tired legs or fresh legs. I‘ve shown up to plenty of races this year feeling hydrated, zippy and ready to move only to find myself falling apart at paces faster than 9-minutes-per-mile, so there was no way I could make something out of the running leg of this race. Unable to resist the urge to find some success in the morning, I decided that since the swim was over with and a strong run was out of the question, it was go-time on the bike.

I’d only ridden about 6 miles when I made the executive decision to “hammer” the entire bike course with absolutely no worries for what my legs would be feeling like when I got off. For the next 50 miles I kept myself in the aero position, got in the big chain ring and pummeled the road with a cadence that I’d never dared to whip out at a race before. I ended up with a bike time of 3:04 hours and an average speed of 18.3 MPH – definitely one of my best bike legs to date.

When I dismounted to head into Transition 2 (where you go from the bike part of the race to the run), I expected to feel shooting pains through my quads, but there was nothing. I racked my bike and got into my sneakers inside of two minutes and was on my way to the run – just 13.1 miles to go before I could call it a day.

Ultimately, the decision to pursue something with what I would normally consider one of my “weaker” abilities would end up being the reason I was able to meet my goal of breaking 6 hours in this race. If my season had been going the way it normally does, with strong running and fast mile splits throughout the spring, I never would have pushed myself that way on the bike. Now I know that I’m capable of pushing in both areas and that will help me to improve even more in years to come.

My “weakness” provided me with an opportunity, and now I’ll rely on the bike again to lop even more time off this race.

Build Your Mental Arsenal
I began the run with only one thing on my mind: MUST pee. Priority one was getting into the port-a-potty located just after the first mile on the course. Luckily I was in and out and burned away only a minute or two with the nonsense of going to the bathroom.

I was surprised to feel “fresh” on the run after riding aggressively on the bike. Even so, I decided not to make any calculations about a possible run pace yet and to just run however I felt most comfortable. I’ve been fooled by seemingly fresh legs before in long-course races and I wasn’t about to tempt fate by actively pushing the limits of my hamstrings with 10 miles to go.
It was still early.

While I was running, I thought of past race experiences that challenged me to a level of near-quit status. Certainly the Ironman from the previous year came to mind – where I sobbed in Transition 1 as I carefully extracted my numb foot from a wet Pearl Izumi bike shoe and guided it dutifully into the running sneaker.

“I can’t even stand up without pain in my legs – how am I supposed to finish a marathon now?” I remember saying through tears to the volunteer who helped me.

I recall thinking about my whole “I know how to run miserable” mantra and decided that at the very least, I owed it to myself and my $525 registration fee to get out there and try one mile before quitting Ironman. Inexplicably, a second wind came (more like a 19th wind, really) and I felt great for the first 13 miles. The second 13 miles were another story...but I made it to the finish!

There were many other times when I’ve suffered in races, and I let those struggles flash through my mind like a sort of film strip of my athletic "perseverance" as I was about to die with each stride forward.

I recalled images of vomit at the finish line during 800 repeats in college. An image of my own pee running down my leg because I was in too much pain to stop and squat during the run for my first ever Musselman. Flash to the image of my left hamstring during the New York City Marathon in 2005 – with two miles to go to the finish, I recall my leg slowly seizing up into a deep, painful cramp. I picture the muscle tightening like an angry fist beneath the surface of my skin doing everything it can to slow my run to a jog, my jog to a walk, my walk to a DNF (that stands for “Did Not Finish” and in the athlete world it’s akin to Harry Potter saying “Lord Voldemort” at Hogwarts).

But I never quit – not after I puked on the track, or peed on my own leg, or willed my gimpy leg to give me just two more miles through whispered F-bombs in Central Park. Not after 112 wet and chilling miles on my bike with numb feet.

These experiences are my “mental arsenal” and they are probably more important for a successful race than any tempo run, time trial or swim drill out there. If you train properly for a race, then you already know you’re showing up to the starting line with the physical fitness for a good performance. Training, rest, nutrition – these are all essential for success. But without a focused mind and a good attitude, you won’t complete the mission.

Think of it this way…You can have the best recipe for bread on the planet – but if you don’t add the yeast, it won’t rise. You’re left with a bowl of well-intentioned ingredients that can’t quite synchronize to bring you “bread.” Your mental arsenal is like yeast. When you know where you’ve been and what you’re capable of, you can rise to the occasion no matter how demanding the occasion may be.

I tapped into this mental arsenal in the last few miles of the Musselman this summer. I was struggling with only three miles to go and was definitely on track to break 6 hours if I could maintain my efforts just…a…little…longer. As anyone who does long-course races will tell you, “just a little longer” seems like time that is measured out in days rather than minutes. When the body starts to deplete and fatigue, the mind is the only thing that will move it forward. I owe my new PR in the Musselman to my mental arsenal, no doubt about it.

Stick to the Plan

The first few miles of the race I was in it to have fun – no worries about anything except for finishing. By the time I was five miles away from the finish line, not only was I sure I would break 6 hours, but I started to get a little arrogant in thinking that I could even run aggressively and pick off some of the women in my age group. (Our ages are marked on the back of our legs so you can tell who is in your age group when you’re on the course).

Around mile 9, a woman passed me with a 34 on her calf. Her stride wasn’t much faster than mine and I could have kept up with her for a while. My usual plan of attack on the run is to run next to someone and match their stride with the smallest little lead – just enough for them to keep up with me and consider pushing past me, but not too much to make them think I won’t let it happen. After a few miles, the person either has to decide to move ahead of you and take a clear lead, or they fall behind you because you’ve drained them of their spirit. It’s rare that they will stay close to you for too long because it starts to feel like an invasion of personal space that needs to be dealt with.

Since I still had four miles to go, I hung back and let the woman pass me. My reasoning was that I was definitely on track to break 6 hours, which was the original goal. I knew that my time wasn’t good enough to place me in the Top 3 of my age group, so picking off women in my age group at this point would have only been for my ego. Risking my possible sub-six-hour time for the momentary thrill of moving up in the age-group rankings seemed like a dumb idea. I had to remember what this race was supposed to be about and be thankful that my body was cooperating with me.

I was tested again in the very last mile of the race – a mile that I cobbled together with the very scraps of my soul as I mustered the strength to move my legs forward. I was really feeling depleted and beaten up by then. Another women passed me with a hefty kick. As she moved ahead of me I read the black marker on her calf – 31. She continued to lengthen the gap between us. It was only about 800 meters from her to the finish line. On a better day I could have trashed her with an all-out sprint to the finish, something I’m normally strong enough to activate in the last two miles of a race. But on this day I knew better than to tempt fate. As she whooshed by, I felt my body naturally pick up the pace to match her speed and my right quad immediately responded with a jolt of nerves that said, “Um, that’s not happening today.”

I took this as a sign that I was smart to stick to my plan way back at mile 9, and that if I had decided to start editing my goals at that point, I would have probably missed the opportunity to finish under 6 hours (pushing my pace to pass people and keep them behind me would have resulted in my having to walk the last few miles of the race, sabotaging the pace I needed to complete the run on time).

So what does this all mean out of the water, off the bike and away from the running shoes?

To me, it comes down to the simple adage, “live and learn.”

If I wasn’t forced to try things differently in this race, I don’t know that I would have willingly pushed it on the bike or ignored my urge to pass people on the run.

The experience has inspired me to play with my strategies and abilities in future races to see what comes of it. And true to my aforementioned metaphor, I’m planning to apply these same principals to my life off the race course, too. Call it “Transition 3” – where you go from the “live” part of the race, to the “learn” part of life.

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