Tuesday, September 29, 2009

I am an Ironman!

After so many months of training for the Ironman Augusta 70.3, the day of reckoning quickly approached. My doctor had adjusted my asthma medicine a couple times, and my breathing seemed to be under control, but exerting myself for up to 8 hours would be a real test.

Allyson and I left Richmond after work on Thursday to drive halfway to Augusta. She and I both had been busy at work during the week, and she had thrown her bags in the car without a thorough check. Every hour, she announced another thing she had forgotten. The good news is that these were things she would like to have during the weekend when not racing, including her favorite hat for sleeping, rather than things like her bike helmet. We got to the Hampton Inn in Fayetteville and did a gear check. Both of us had everything we needed for the race.

I had everything, including my trusty Garmin, which I used to determine how fast I was going and how far I had been on the bike and run. Once we got to Augusta the next day, I plugged in my trusty Garmin to charge it up. Ordinarily the charger makes a sound as it boots up. I heard nothing. I took it off and pressed the power button to turn on the device. Nothing. Nada. I wandered into the hallway and ran into my partner Kim, who saw my sad face and suggested her husband take a look. After Chris examined in thoroughly and consulted the Garmin website (where technical support is available Monday to Friday), he concluded that my charger must have a short circuit somewhere. I emailed everyone I knew doing the race to ask if anyone had the same kind of Garmin and could lend me their charger.

I met Holly and Amanda and headed to the expo and to take our bikes to transition to check them in overnight. I saw Dr. Rob Green, chiropractor and crack triathlete, and he said he had a Garmin charger for me. We arranged to meet later in the day for him to lend it to me.

Before bike check in, Team in Training met for a brief bike ride, mainly to make sure our bikes were working. Good thing we did it--Amanda had put her wheel on backwards, so her bike computer said she was losing ground! I racked Ariel and took a deep breath. The moment of truth--or the eight hours of truth--would soon begin. I met Dr. Green outside my hotel and got his charger. "Mine's all charged up," he said, "so just bring that back to me in Richmond." Back in the hotel, I plugged my Garmin in an waited for the sound. Nothing. Nada. I would be racing without knowing my pace or mileage. I took a deep breath, and decided that was okay.

Overnight, a huge storm blew wind, rain and hail all over the place. I was glad I had covered Ariel with plastic garbage bags and hoped they remained in place. The next morning, with the first wave of swimmers set to start at 7:30, and my swim start at 8:38, we awoke at 3:30 and met in the hotel lobby at 4:15. We carpooled and found good spots near transition. In transition, I was pleased that the garbage bags remained in place on Ariel. I removed them and put my shoes and other gear next to her. I had an inhaler on Ariel and a separate one in my running belt. I took my bag with my goggles, swim cap and wetsuit, along with "second breakfast" and got on the shuttle to the swim start, which was 1.2 miles up the river.

At the swim start, I got my timing chip and put it on my ankle, and found one of the few chairs and sat down. It was 5:45. I had almost three hours till my race would begin. I closed my eyes, said a silent prayer, and breathed deeply. Holly and Amanda soon joined me, and the time flew by. I saw Dr. Green, who asked if the charger worked on my Garmin. "Nope." He commiserated with me and said, "if it makes you feel better, I LOST my Garmin this morning. I had it on my wrist and it is gone." This didn't make me feel better, of course. "We're going on feel alone," I said, "and we're going to do great!" He, of course, was going to do great a lot faster than I would. I was planning to get my money's worth!

As professional athletes began their swim at 7:30, I finished my second breakfast (yogurt, cliff bar, banana) and put my glasses in my gear bag and checked it in a truck that would drive all the bags to the finish. I stood in the porta-potty line and periodically held my prescription goggles up to my face so I could survey the crowd. A few minutes later, I found a large group of my teammates, hanging out waiting for their swim starts. While I had been in line, they had met a good friend of a client of mine, who asked for me by name and lamented the fact that his goggles had broken. Fortunately my friends Dee and Emily have loud voices, and they had cried out to the crowd and found a spare set for him.

We put our wetsuits on an prepared for our start. My friends Pam and Robin were in my age group, so they were starting with me. We made our way toward the start where a large group of women in red swim caps awaited our turn. Down at the dock, we jumped in and hung onto the ropes at the dock. Some women let go and floated away beyond the start. A kayaker motioned them back. And suddenly, the gun went off. Right away, I noticed algea encircling my arms and legs. Within a couple hundred yards, I swam into something that felt like a bramble bush. My legs and arms were tangled and I could not shake the bush off me. It was like a science fiction movie! My strategy had been to stay close to shore, where I figured the water would be less crowded, although the current would not be as strong. I noticed that it was not crowded near me at all, probably due to the combination of being amongst a bunch of fast swimmers and being held up by the Loch Ness Monster. So I swam to my left, toward the center of the river, where the current picked up and the algea thinned out. And it was glorious! With the current helping me along, I lengthened my stroke and pulled hard. Soon, most red caps were ahead of me, and I began to see yellow capped ladies. We passed under two bridges and began the last leg of the swim toward the exit. Now a few fast men in flourescent green caps came upon me, quickly passing me. They would have started 6 minutes after me, so it did not bother me that the quick amongst them would beat me to the exit. I kicked a bit harder at the end of the swim to get the blood flowing. I realized the only danger in swimming amongst all these fast men was a greater chance of getting kicked in the narrowing exit. So I carefully navigated the finish chute. And then suddenly I was out. I pulled my wetsuit off my shoulders and around my waist as I ran up a hill from the water and turned toward the transition area. Coach Steve greeted me and said, "You are doing great!" I felt great. And I knew the next thing I'd see would be the strippers.

Now I know what you're thinking. Several men yelled at me "do you want a stripper?" and I said, "you bet!" "Then pull it below your hips!" they yelled, and I complied, removing my wetsuit just below my hips, making sure my tri shorts remained ABOVE my hips, and I lay on the dirty, muddy ground upon which thousands had laid before me. I stuck my legs up in the air, while two men grapped either side of my wetsuit and pulled it off me. That done, I stood up, grabbed the wetsuit, and made my way to Ariel.

I grabbed my helmet, changed my googles into sunglasses, put my socks and shoes on and walked Ariel to the bike exit. My watch said 9:16, which meant that my swim was much faster than the 45 to 55 minutes I had predicted! If I managed to ride the bike course in under 4 hours, I would be ahead of my goal of 8 hours and could relax a bit on the run.

Ariel and I took off, soon crossing the bridge into South Carolina. The first half hour or so was completely flat, which allowed me to catch my breath and get into a rhythm. Then some rolling hills began. A number of fast cyclists passed me, and I passed some people. All moods were upbeat. "What a great day!" It was overcast at this point, but it did not look like it would rain. Every 10 kilometers there would be a sign showing the distance covered. After about an hour I noticed that I was averaging over 18 miles per hour. To go 56 miles in four hours, which was what I predicted I'd do, I would need to average 14 miles per hour, so I was once again ahead of my time goal. Was I going too fast, I wondered? I was careful to follow my nutrition plan, which consisted of drinking gatorade every 15 minutes and eating some cliff bar every 30 minutes, or every 15 if I felt hungry. I approached the first of three "aid stations" and threw my almost empty bottle of gatorade in a large bin marked for this purpose. Volunteers held out gatorade bottles, and I slowed and pointed to a volunteer and took the bottle as I rode past him, placing it in my bottle cage. This would happen twice more on the course--I would drink four full bottles of gatorade and a bottle of water on the bike, and would eat two Cliff Bars and two energy gels while riding the 56 miles.

Then hills began to appear. Nothing any longer or steeper than I had experienced on training rides in Richmond, though. And then the head winds began, pushing me back and sometimes buffeting me about the road. These challenges slowed my pace, but did not dampen my spirit. I passed a man going up a hill and he said, "oh my, this hill is killing me." I said, "it would be too boring if it were all flat for all this time!" And I meant it, and he laughed and agreed. Ariel and I were having a BLAST!

A man passed me and said, "don't worry, it won't be too much longer till you can get off your bike." I shouted back, "I hope you're wrong because I'm having too much fun to stop!" He laughed and gave me a thumbs up. By now the sun was beaming down and in a way I was happy for the wind blowing in my face. As I climbed a hill, I heard a shot, like a rifle, a few feet away. "Is it hunting season in Georgia?" I asked. It was not a rifle, though, but a tire that blew out. A cyclist pulled over to change his tire.

It was probably about mile 45 when I saw a woman on the side of the road next to her bike. Are you okay? She explained that she was having leg cramps and had to stop every so often to massage her calf. She got back on and passed me and said, "I can't wait to get off this bike." For the first time that day, I agreed with this sentiment.

I was tired and hot, and my rear end hurt like crazy from sitting on a bike seat for over three hours. And then the wind picked up, and I felt like Dorothy and wondered when the house would hit me in the head. I had only about 10 miles left to go, but could I do it? I recalled the inspirational speaker we'd heard the night before. He had been diagnosed with leukemia in 2007 and spent many months in chemo treatment. He told us about having to sign a waiver before getting a barium enema. "Just remember when you're out there tomorrow, and feeling low, these words: 'It's better than a barium enema!'" This survivor was out there doing the race along side of us. He promised to let us know which was worse, cancer or an Ironman. I was pretty sure cancer was much worse. And that kept me going. "Better than a barium enema!" Again, I was doing this for a purpose. To help cure cancer, to find better ways to treat the disease. I was doing it for my Dad, who is still, thankfully, in remission from lymphoma.

And as I approached transition, I got a second wind, and knew I'd done it. I was two-thirds through the day's challenge. Once again, Coach Steve greeted me at transition. "How do you feel? You look GREAT!" "I feel FABULOUS!" I said, and it was true.

Back at transition, I put Ariel back on the rack, changed my helmet to a visor and my bike shoes to running shoes, and donned my running belt, complete with water and the all important inhaler. It's always good to have insurance, and even better if you have it and don't need to use it. I breathed deeply and felt great.

The run course was completely flat, but the road was canted, so I had to run in the middle to avoid hip pain. There were to be 10 water stops, one every 1.2 miles. I got in a rhythm and ran to the first water stop in 15 minutes. I drank gatorade and poured water on my head and back. (Careful not to drink water and pour Gatorade on me). A quick calculation revealed that if I kept up this pace, I'd actually do a half marathon PR during this half ironman. But it was after 1pm, and 87 degrees and drippingly humid. I tried just to keep running to the next stop. I spied Holly ahead by 100 yards, but I could not surge to catch her. Instead, I kept up a steady run, and noticed my pace was a bit faster than hers. Eventually, I would catch up if I didn't walk. So I kept running. Finally, I caught her and we began to run together. The sun was hot, and by this time neither of us had much energy left. Somewhere along the course we contemplated walking before the water stop, and then we saw Holly's husband and along with Amanda's husband, cameras in hand, so we had to keep going. Holly's knee began to hurt, and I began just to fall apart with the heat. We walked some, and began a game of, "let's run till we get to that dappled shady spot over there, then we can walk." We spied Holly's mom and daughter Emma, who held up encouraging signs, and that gave us a boost. A few miles later, we saw Team in Training's Amber and Cate, who blasted horns and shook cow bells. I laughed at the cow bells. Holly had reported earlier that as she stood at the swim start, she felt like a cow in a field of race horses. Such an image! Amber told us a funny story that got us giggling, and we soldiered on.

I always say that I have an iron stomach--nothing bothers it. Apparently an Ironman bothers my iron stomach. With 5 miles left on the run, it began to cramp uncontrollably. It made me want to cry. Everyone said there'd be a low point in the race, and this was a low point. But then I remembered that it still had to be better than a barium enema and kept going. Holly and I limped along, running so it would be over faster, and walking because we could not keep going. Someone told me if it hurts to run and you want to walk, run faster and it will be better. I tried this, and it did ease the muscle cramps in the legs, but it didn't do anything for the formerly iron stomach. But eventually we hit the last water stop, and they said we had only 3/4 miles to go. We ran and walked, and then decided to run it on in. Toward the finish, we saw Coach Steve again, encouraging us, and I remembered again why we were doing this, and I felt a surge. As we came toward the finish line, we both began to sprint. We DID IT! WE WERE IRONMEN!

What a fabulous feeling! It was like nothing I have done before. Here are my results:

overall place: 2423 out of 2525
division place: 71 out of 79
gender place: 664 out of 715
time: 7:30:39
swim: 33:55
t1: 6:40
bike: 3:41:46
t2: 4:19
run: 3:04:02

Thanks, again, to everyone, for your support!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

DC Leaves Me Breathless

For six months I have been training hard for the Augusta Ironman 70.3. And this coming Sunday, I'll be swimming, cycling and running, all to help find a cure for cancer.

Ten days ago, I wasn't sure I'd be able to do it. As a "tune up" for the big race, I participated in the Nations Triathlon in DC on September 13th. Several of us drove up the day before, and after getting our race packets, we drove down to the Tidal Basin, near the Lincoln Memorial, where the race would start the next morning. To minimize race morning traffic, we had to check our bikes into the transition area the day before. We learned quickly that there was no parking anywhere near the transition area--the closest parking was about a mile away. After racking our bikes, we got lost on the way back to the car. We ended up wandering through various monuments, including the FDR monument. So, the extra walking was inspirational, but perhaps not ideal for the day before a race.

The next morning, we all got up at 4:00 AM to make sure that we got the "close" parking--only a mile from transition. If we waited later, we feared we'd have to circle around forever looking for a spot to park. Amanda and I rode in Holly's car, and our friend Susan Ann followed Holly, who said, "I know how to get there." After two or three wrong turns, it became apparent that Holly did NOT know how to get there. We pulled to the side of the road, and Susan Ann jumped out of her car and came back to consult with us. As we chatted in the pitch dark, a police car pulled up on the other side of the road and the police officer said, "where are you ladies trying to go?" Susan Ann explained what we were doing, and the officer said, "Well, I tell you one thing, you need to get out of this neighborhood NOW!" Susan asked for directions, and the officer said, "Turn right at the next light, but the main thing I am telling you is to look around you. This is not a safe neighborhood. LEAVE NOW!" I looked around, and realized what the police officer meant. We held our breath as we left the neighborhood.

Soon, we found the "close" parking lot and gathered our things for the mile walk to transition. We walked along the shore of the Potomac River, looking at the Jefferson Memorial reflected in the moonlight, and saw the Washington Monument silhouetted against the sky as the sun rose. I breathed deeply as I contemplated swimming, cycling and running with this background.

I have never raced in a triathlon with this many athletes--there were about 5000 bicycles racked in a huge transition area, larger than a football field. We prepared our transition area so that when we finished the swim, all the things we needed for the bike ride and run would be available. As I prepared my space, I realized that I had left my running belt in the car. I carry water on the running belt because I drink a lot on a run. I also carry, just as insurance, my "rescue inhaler" in case I get asthma. I told Holly about leaving the belt behind, and she offered to give me her car key so I could go get it. That would mean walking two extra miles before the race started. Someone mentioned that there would be water stops every mile on the run--more than usual. And it was not terribly hot, so I decided to give my legs the break and rely on the water provided by the race. (I did have water bottles on my bike for the cycling part of the race, as well as water to drink before the race began.)

At 7am, the transition area closed, and they herded all athletes into a "swim pen." We were divided into "waves" based upon our age group. Ladies my age were actually not starting till 8:24, nearly one and a half hours after the first group. We watched as athletes in various brightly colored caps began their swim. It was chilly, so we put our wetsuits on as we awaited our turn. Soon enough, it was time for me to start swimming.

There were 291 ladies in my wave, so we gathered in the water and awaited the gun, and I realized it was crowded! The gun went off, and we began swimming upstream, toward a bridge. It was so crowded that I ran into people's legs, people ran into my legs, and people slapped me in the face with their arms. For the first 500 meters of the 1500 meter swim, the biggest challenge was to find a place to swim. Then the field spread out, and I was able to get into my own zone. At the turn around beyond the bridge, I looked right and saw the Lincoln Memorial and on my left I saw Arlington Cemetery. Breathtaking!

I rounded the turn buoy and headed downstream to the swim exit. By now I felt great. The water was choppy, so I had to lift my head out of the water more than usual to breathe. Ahead of me, the sun was shining in my eyes, so I could not see the buoys marking the exit, but I could see the Washington Monument beyond the exit, and I headed for it. Soon, I climbed out of the water, peeled the top part of my wetsuit off and ran through a special tent that sprayed disinfectant on me as I ran.

My bike was racked toward the end of the football-field sized transition area, so I had to run quite a bit to find Ariel. After a few in-town loops, Ariel and I headed out the Rock Creek Parkway toward Maryland. The first half of the bike course was a gradual uphill climb, so it was tough going. All along the way, thought, I saw dozens of athletes wearing Team in Training tops. The Nations Triathlon is entirely dedicated to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, and many of those entered in the race were fundraising for LLS in conjuction with this race. In fact, they had raised $2.4 million toward the cause.

As Ariel and I continued the climb, I yelled, and heard others yell, "GO TEAM!"as we inspired one another to keep going. Finally, we turned around, and began the descent.

"WHEEEE!" said Ariel as we flew down one hill. I noticed that my speedometer showed 32 miles per hour, probably the fastest that my nerves could stand. And there were a few climbs up, and I felt strong.

I finished the bike ride and prepared for the run. As I left the transition area, I began to jog, and suddenly I was breathless. But unfortunately, this time it was not a monument, not a glimpse at our nation's history, that made me breathless. It was asthma, a condition that I have had since childhood, but that is usually well-controlled, that was taking my breath. My "rescue inhaler" was in the car a mile away, and of course I didn't have the key to the car in any event.

I tried to jog fairly slowly, and it felt as though an elephant was sitting on my chest. After 50 yards or so, I walked. I alternated running and walking for a bit, and realized I was becoming dizzy. This was going to be a long 6.2 miles. Should I give up? I slowed to a walk and realized that as long as I walked my chest did not hurt. So I walked. Because I was in a fairly late wave, there were a number of people on the run course at this point who had started far earlier than I did. Many of them were walking or jogging slowly with walk breaks. I met a woman from San Diego who was racing in honor of her nephew, who is 6 years old and in remission from leukemia. Another woman was racing in memory of her mother. As you know, I was racing in support of my Dad, who is gloriously still in remission from lymphoma. As we walked, the crowd cheered us on. At the finish, I decided to jog, and I spied a friend and teammate whom I know has asthma. I pointed at my chest and looked sad, and she ran to me and handed me her inhaler. I took it just before crossing the finish line, and inhaled deeply. Whew!

I don't know exactly what triggered my breathlessness at Nations Tri, but I struggled all week with the asthma. My doctor has adjusted my medicine, though, and I was able to have a great bike ride and run last weekend. I think my struggle was just a reminder of why I am doing this. Just a reminder of what patients suffering from cancer must go through just to survive. I am struggling along with them. And together, we will make it! Just five days to Augusta Ironman 70.3.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Pink Power

Last Sunday, I participated in the Pink Power Triathlon--a triathlon just for women. What a fabulous experience! Over 400 women registered for the race, and about half of them were doing their first triathlon. In this crowd, I was an old-timer.

Another old-timer there was my friend and teammate, Holly. She has a terrible cold and should have been in bed, but there she was, with a wad of tissues in her hand, trying to decide what to do about the undeniable fact that tissues get very wet when you go swimming.

Transition was right next to the outdoor pool where we were to swim. Our mission was to swim up and back each lane, for a total swim of 400 meters--longer than the other pool swims I have completed. We lined up in order of our estimated swim time. I was number 205, so half the women in the race started before I did. I realized at the last minute that I had calculated my swim time incorrectly, so unfortunately ladies 206 through 210 had to swim around me. I let them pass and soldiered on, trying to concentrate on my form. As I took my last lap, I heard a friend shout "GO AMY" and it made me smile. At the end of the lap I realized I would have to get out of the pool in very deep water. The volunteer at the end of the pool, looked at me and said, "You can use the ladder!" And I did. Did it cost me a few seconds? Or did it save me a couple minutes? Who can say. I ran to transition to get my bike. Another volunteer, sensing that I must be a first-timer, reminded me to take off my goggles, which you typically do on the way to your bike to save time. "I can't see without them!" I explained.

On the bike ride, there were so many newbies, and lots of heavy mountain bikes, so Ariel and I passed lots of people, especially in the first few miles when it was very hilly. I have never said "on your left" as many times as I did during this bike ride, particularly charging up hills. And at the top of each hill, I would look down, and Ariel would say in her pixie voice, "Don't slow down, Amy! Let's GO!: And off we would go: "WHEEEEEEE!" As I thought about the hills and the turns along the course, I realized how much stronger I feel on the bike than I did at the start of the summer.

Holly had begun her race ahead of me (because she is a faster swimmer) and I did not expect to see her till I crossed the finish line. The end of the bike course consisted of an out and back of about 2 miles. As I went out this road, I was dismayed to see Holly on the side of the road changing her front tire. "My race may be over!" she shouted. Unfortunately, when I came back by, she shouted, "My race is definitely over!" She told me later that as she changed her tire, a woman got off her bike and came up to her. "I can't change your tire, honey, but I can give you a hug!" Needless to say the woman was not worried about winning her age group! Holly did change her tire in about 15 minutes. Unfortunately it went flat again immediately. She walked it about a mile or so back to transition. Then she got on her running shoes and finished the race. Pure determination!

I have been having problems with my Achilles lately, but I think I have nipped it in the bud. Lately I have done more cycling, and less running, and I consulted Dr. Green, who told me I could run Pink Power, but to "take it easy" and "consider walking some." By the time I started running, it was about 95 degrees and 97 percent humidity. I was glad to have a doctor-ordered excuse to take a walk break from time to time. Halfway through the run I saw my friend Travis, wearing his volunteer shirt, which sported the statement, "Triathlete Chics are Hot!" I slowed to a walk and told Travis, "I'd be running at lightning speed, winning this race, but my doctor won't let me do it!" Travis replied, "I'm sure you would!"

So here's how it shook out, with comparisons to a similar race I did in late May:

Swim time: 10:33. This sounds dreadful compared to 8:19 from May, but this race was 400 meters, and the May race was 300 meters, so my pace was faster this time.

Bike time: 41:27. Better than 44:07 from May, and this bike course was harder--hillier and full of turns that slow you down and challenge your bike handling skills, albeit a little bit shorter than the May course (11.8 miles versus 12 miles).

Run time: 39:23. Okay, that's worse than 36:08 from May, but I can blame Doctor Green!

Total time: 1:35:24. Compared to 1:33:11 in May. So slower, but I am happy with it!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Cable Swim

One thing that petrifies me about the Ironman 70.3 is the 1.2 mile swim in the Savannah River. To finish the overall race within the time limit, I need to complete the swim in less than an hour. After all this hard work training in my quest to help cure cancer, it would be humiliating to have my official Ironman 70.3 race result be "DNF," which stands for Did Not Finish. That sounds like shorthand for "After all this Work, She Quit," but it also can mean "She Did Not Finish in Time Because She's as Slow as Christmas!" I can swim 1.2 miles in a pool within the time limit, but this swim is in the river, where I might panic.

My TNT teammates Holly and Amanda were also worried about panic in the river, so we decided to sign up for a swimming race called a "cable swim." There were two options for the cable swim--one mile or two miles. I had never swum 2 miles all at once in my life. Neither had Holly or Amanda. So we signed up for the two-mile race.

We arrived at the lake the morning of the race and realized that we were triathletes--dabblers in swimming, cycling and running. Jacks of all trades, masters of none. And the others on that beach were Expert Swimmers. They swim for miles and miles every day and had spent years working as lifeguards. Everyone's legs were shaved, though half the crowd were men. Some wore what appeared to me to be wetsuits, but I was told they were fancy "speed swimsuits." You know, like they were in the Olympics.

We found my friend Elizabeth, who loves to swim, and I mentioned that I was nervous because I had never actually swum two miles. Holly and Amanda said they hadn't either.

"You mean in open water," she said. "You all certainly have swum two miles in a pool. That is just 144 laps."

"Last week I swam a mile continuously in a pool, and that is the longest swim I have done in my life," I replied.

"Oh," she said, quietly. And then, recovering her enthusiasm, brightly, "You will do fine! Good luck!"

About 96 people signed up for the two mile swim. The race director lined us up in accordance with our predicted swim times in groups of 10. The 10 speediest were in wave one. The next ten in wave two, and so on. Elizabeth was in the third or fourth wave, and somewhere in the middle was my friend Virginia, who had just finished the one-mile swim and was back for more fun. Holly, Amanda and I were in wave 10, along with a wrinkly man who appeared to be 95 years old and two women who remarked that they had failed to predict any time at all on their registration forms and thus were being punished by being placed at the end of the pack.

The swimmers started the race in the waves of ten, with ten seconds in between each wave. Someone had buried a 1/4 mile cable at the bottom of the lake, and a rope with floats on it was affixed. The race consisted of swimming down one side of the cable, back on the other side, to complete 1/2 mile, and then repeating that circle three more times, for two miles. After all the other waves were off, we started our race. I put my head down and concentrated on getting into a rhythm. The faster swimmers had already rounded the far end of the lake and were coming back on the other side of the cable. As I passed them, it felt like someone was going by on a jet ski--the once still lake kicked up a mighty wake. I made sure not to drink the spray created by the fast swimmers' kick. Before I rounded the end of the cable, those same speedy swimmers passed me! And then I felt like I was in Grand Central Station, and all of Manhattan was late for a train. Little groups of two and three swimmers would pass me, all in a knot, apparently vying amongst themselves for a coveted place in the race. After each knot passed, the waters would calm, and I could get back in my rhythm.

As I rounded the cable the second time, to complete the first mile, there was a loud cheer. Was this support for my effort so far? Then I realized that the winners were zooming past me to the finish! I had to chuckle as I started the second half of my race. Amanda had passed me somewhere along the way, and I could see her 100 yards or so ahead of me at each turn. Her cap had slipped up on her head and poofed above it, like a chef's cap. Holly was somewhere very close behind me. The other gals in our wave were long gone, and I couldn't spy Wrinkly Man anywhere.

As I began the last part of my third lap, I realized that my shoulders were very tired and were getting stiff. I decided I should slow my pace a little to shake out my shoulders. As I did so, my right calf cramped up. It was excruciating! I grabbed the rope atop the cable, and thankfully it held up. I hung onto it with my left hand as I used my right hand to massage my leg. The cramp subsided some, but not completely. Would I be able to finish the swim? I looked around and noticed a rescue boat. I was not in danger of drowning--if I wanted to do so I could flag down the boat and be dragged back to shore.

But I did not want a "DNF," especially one that meant "After all this Work, She Quit." So I began to swim again. I experimented with not kicking with my right leg versus kicking normally and kicking like an unbroken horse. Finally I found that if I kicked normally, but flexed my foot up toward my shin from time to time, I did fine. Not the most efficient kick, mind you, but at least I didn't have to stop. So I concentrated on pulling with my arms. And soon, I was finished with the third lap, and I decided to go for the final lap.

After rounding the far end of the cable for the final time, I noticed Holly, catching up to me. We swam side by side as we finished the last lap. At some point, I thought she was trying to draft off me and we collided. Finally, we came within 150 yards of the finish shoot, and simultaneously we began to sprint. I heard friends cheering as we crossed the finish line almost in tandem.

I did it. I finished in 1 hour and 35 minutes, as did Holly. Amanda finished in 1:29, and would have gone faster, but during her final sprint her chef's hat/swim cap fell off. Virginia beat all three of us, despite having swum three miles in total that day. And speedy Elizabeth finished in 55:41. I looked up Wrinkly Man and it turns out he's only 87 years old. He finished the swim in 1 hour and 19 minutes. Maybe if I keep swimming for another fourty years, I can beat his record! And at the end of September, swimming 1.2 miles in the Savannah River should be a piece of cake!

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Holy Grail

I raced another triathlon involving a river swim this past Sunday. As I mentioned in my "Endless Pool" blog, the James River is swollen this year. The triathlon featured in "Endless Pool" included a swim in the river, but when the first wave of young men largely failed to swim around the buoys, the swim was cancelled.

This past Sunday's race included a planned swim of 750 meters, consisting of 450 meters upstream, followed by about 300 meters downstream to an exit. (The exit dock was further upstream than the entrance dock.)

I wore a white cap, a symbol that I was racing in the fourth wave. The first wave were younger men, the second, older men, the third, younger women, and the fourth, older women and relay participants. We were supposed to start at 7 am, but the start was delayed. Soon, the race director announced that because of the strong current, the race would be shortened. We were to swim just a short distance up from the exit dock and then get out. The whole race would be only about 300 or 350 meters. The race director described this as a "gift." Someone who had done a practice swim remarked, "a gift! It will be really hard just to go that far."

I was afraid, but I was determined. You will recall that early on, I told you I had mastered the Superman float. I am completely comfortable in the pool, but I am as slow as Christmas. I have been working on getting fast. One thing I have done to improve my time is to purchase a Superman costume. You can see it in the photographs included in this blog. Don't I look fast?
Well, I had noticed that wearing the Superman Costume made me feel faster. Or at least it made me float better. But what would make me faster in the raging James River?

At the start of the swim, I had the advantage of seeing three waves go out before me. The young, yellow capped men got in and awaited the gun. Some were treading water, and they were swept swiftly downstream. They began to swim, deparately, even before the gun went off, just to maintain their positions. Bang! The older men got in and began their swim, and yellow and red caps mixed together, with many men unable to make any progress at all. Endless Pool!

My friend Steve (one of my "comfort" buddies from Endorphin Fitness open water swims) came out of the water before the ladies began, and said the current was too strong! My other two comfort buddies were Lenora, who was doing the bike segment of a relay on this day, and Holly, who was nearby. I looked at Holly and my other friends. Everyone seemed to have the same look of fear in her eyes that I felt in my heart.

The race director said, confusingly, "even if you don't finish the swim, you can still ride the bike and do the run." What did this mean? Should we not attempt the swim?

My husband Steve recently remarked that most of my training partners are in their 20s. Although this is not entirely fair, I realized when looking at my purple capped girlfriends that they are mostly in their 20s or 30s. To get a white head in this race, you had to be over 40. Susan Ann said to the group, "I guess I'm the only old lady with a white cap." I pointed to my head and said, "Let's stick together, old lady!"

Susan Ann began to panic as she watched people making no progress. Susan just finished a century ride, so she's been cycling non-stop and doing relatively little swimming of late. I said, "Listen I need this as much as you do. We're going to focus on getting to the first buoy. Just head for the first buoy."

"That's less than halfway through the race. What then?" she said.

I said, "we worry about that later. Just focus on the first buoy."

We watched the purple caps go off, and I said, "Susan, let's not get in till the gun goes off." And let's go off to the left here, near the shore, so we don't get swept down." Just before the gun, Susan Ann jumped in. I waited, and let the gun go off and allowed some space to emerge between me and the last swimmers. Then I jumped in, off the left hand side of the dock, and began swimming. I was starting at the very end of the pack. Every train needs a caboose. And today, in my Superman costume, I was the red caboose.

And the swim was hard. Fortunately, I naturally breath to my left, so every other stroke, I could see the shore. Essentially, I was trying to get farther and farther up the shore. It was a struggle! I began to calculate that I had to stroke about 40 times to get 10 yards. I tried to did deep and pull hard. Every once in a while, I would sight the orange buoy ahead. It took forever, but I got to the orange buoy. Yeah!

I kept going. Once I passed the orange buoy, the current seemed to get stronger. It took much more effort, and more strokes, to make any progress. I tried to remember to pull hard on each stroke. Now my target was a yellow buoy, and I would need to swim around it and then go to the shore. To see it, I looked up ahead just a bit, before breathing to my left. I was having trouble seeing the yellow turn buoy because there were so many caps of different colors in front of me, including the yellow caps of the young men. Why do they use caps the same color as the buoys? Was it the buoy, or just a boy in yellow?

I swam what felt like 7 minutes past a dock halfway between the start and exit docks, and then I looked up to see where I was going. I was tired, so I turned and did about 10 backstrokes. I turned back over, took a stroke, breathed, and noticed I was all the way back at the middle dock! Seven minutes of progress, GONE. poof.

I thought of the scene in Monty Python in the Holy Grail in which King Arthur rode his horse toward a castle. Every time he looked up, the castle was further away. After a few rounds of that, he just rides and suddenly is there. Powered by coconuts, if I recall correctly.

So I just hunkered down and swam, swam, swam, figuring at some point my head would hit the castle wall. I took it on faith that I was going more or less straight. It was exhausting. I saw a kayaker on my left as I breathed, and asked him if I could hang on and rest. You are allowed to hold onto a kayak as long as the kayaker does not make forward progress or otherwise help you. I held onto the nose of the kayak for about a minute, and said, breathlessly, to the kayaker, "I can't make any progress." He said, "everyone's having trouble; some people are having success with backstroke." I knew that wouldn't work for me, even though the backstroke was the one event for which I would get 5th place ribbons, instead of 6th place ribbons, when I was on the swim team at age 9. (There being only 6 possible ribbons to be awarded in each heat.)

But the rest on the kayak helped return my energy, and I got a good look at the turn bouy. As I sat there, I thought for a minute that I might not have the energy to bike or run, but then I reflected that I had ridden the bike course twice in the last month, and that I could come out any day and run through the trails. I decided then that maybe I wouldn't have energy to do anything but swim, but I wanted to finish the swim. So I took a deep breath, thanked the kayaker and took off as strongly as I could muster.

I practiced some of the drills that emphasize a strong pull--Superman is one. I was wearing the Superman costume, and I stroked like Superman. It seemed to help. Superman goes fast, it appears, because of hard work. It's not just the trick photography.

When I got to 25 yards of the turn buoy, I noticed a kayaker on the other side of the buoy. I looked up again, and the buoy was further than it had been. I stroked another 10 strokes and looked up and was even farther away from the buoy. Was the kayaker being a jerk, dragging the buoy upstream? Was he some sort of sadist turned loose on the triathlete community? Then I realized the current was just really strong; he and the buoy were staying still, but I was going backwards. So I really hunkered down and pulled like there was no tomorrow, like I was doing a sprint swim. I finally got to the buoy and grabbed it. The rope on it went taut and my arms were dead. I yanked on the buoy and tried to somersault over it. The kayaker, no doubt fearing I would take out the buoy, said. "You did it, you don't need to go around. It's too hard." I looked at him and wondered if he was telling me to pack it in. He said, "no, no, you are good. You did it! Swim to the dock." I muttered a thanks and swam toward the dock, trying to shoot upstream from it to account for the drift. But I did not sight enough, and when I looked up I was downstream from the dock. I swam back upstream toward the dock, but thankfully this was easier to do so much closer to the shore. I got to the ladder and realized the first run was at the surface of the water. I had no strength left to pull up my body. A volunteer gave me his arm and helped hoist me up. When I got out, I breathed deeply. The volunteers shouted, "don't run too fast, it's slippery." "Not an issue," I replied. I walked back to transition, catching my breath--I couldn't run for anything. And as I came through the trees, I heard the announcer on the PA system:

"And here comes number 404, our last swimmer out, Amy Williams." I thought, "what? The last swimmer?" I was sure there were people still out there after me. As I came into transition, they announced, "and here's the leader coming in from the bike!" Sure enough, the race leader came screaming to the chip mat at the same time I did. I stepped aside so I wouldn't break his pace. And then Michael Harlow of Endorphin Fitness came into transition too. I had to laugh--they were 18.8 miles ahead of me! The last swimmer. That was a bit deflating, but I had done it.

I entered transition, wiped off my feet, put on my helmet and shoes and slowly made my way out of transition with Ariel. The race leader and Michael Harlow were gone on their run.

As I mounted the bike and began, I realized that my shoulders were tight as a ball. I was so tired that I think I crawled along the bike course. Ariel sensed that I was in no shape to be bothered with her banter, so she was silent as we dragged along.

The bike course was an out and back, and it featured a humongous hill just before the turnaround. As I approached the big hill, I realized that I did not have the energy to cycle up. I would have fallen, I think. I didn't think I could take the pain and humiliation, so I opted for humiliation alone. I unclipped from my pedals and got off my bike and walked up the hill. At the turnaround, a volunteer said, "Good job, you are halfway done." I said, "I'm a lot further along than that if you count the swim!"

And this notion gave me some energy. I turned around and powered down the big hill.

WHEEE! shouted Ariel. Or maybe I was squealing for joy. Now it was getting fun. WHEEE!!! I noticed some bikes coming up the hill as I went down. The riders were all pushing the bikes up the hill. A couple of the bikes were mountain bikes, heavy, and impossible to get up such a large incline without pushing from the ground.

As I continued back to the transition, I passed an exhausted friend and a couple more mountain bikers. I got back to transition and started on the run. I enjoyed the run, because by then it really didn't matter what my time was, it was just a pretty run through the park. I believe it might have been the slowest I've done on a 5k, but it didn't really matter. I had done it!

At the finish, the volunteer who took my chip from me asked, "did you finish the swim?"

I was confused why she asked me this. "Yes," I replied. Why did she ask?

I found some friends and learned why she asked. Most of my friends did not finish the swim. Some got out almost immediately when they realized they were not making forward progress. One friend got to the exit dock and realized she had to swim a bit further, and just couldn't get there. Those last 25 meters had been the hardest. Holly (my other "comfort" buddy) wanted to finish, but when the time was almost up she was closer to the middle dock than the exit dock, so they told her she had to get out.

Suddenly my "last swimmer to finish" designation was not so lame. I had FINISHED. Nevermind that it took me 45 minutes and 46 seconds to swim 300 or so meters, a distance I can cover in the pool in less than 9 minutes. I am victorious! I am Superman! One further step toward a cure for cancer.

My time was as follows:

Swim 45:46
T1: 3:22
Bike: 1:17:17
T2: 2:23
Run: 37:38
Total Time: 2:46:24

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Why Do I Rely on Equipment Anyway?

I recently confessed that I am a Luddite, so you may wonder why I wear a Garmin Forerunner 305 when I bike and run. Well, I was singing its praises to my TNT teammate, Amanda, on Sunday as we prepared for the Powersprint Triathlon.

"Look," I said, "I set it up for 'multisport' and put it on the bike, and then I turn it on as I get on the bike and leave transition. It tells me mileage and cadence and other things."

"What about when you run?" Amanda asked.

"I have this velcro strap on my arm, which I wear from the beginning of the race. After the bike ride, I snap the Garmin off the bike and stick it on the velcro strap for the run. One push of the button and 'voila' the cycling Garmin becomes the running Garmin."

Triathlon is the only sport I know of that calls something that takes over an hour a "sprint." And, really, it was going to take me hours and hours to do this triathlon because it involved a "pool swim" instead of an "open water swim." In an open water swim, the race director might divide the participants into a few waves, but basically dozens of people begin swimming at the same time. It is absolute chaos.

A pool is more organized, with each swimmer starting at a different time. You predict the time it will take you to swim 300 meters, and then they line you up in order of your predicted time. I predicted that I would swim 300 meters in 8 minutes. If you are slow swimmer, as I am, you don't start for more than an hour after the race begins. Unfortunately, this does not entitle you to sleep late.

I woke up at 4:30 AM and arrived at the Shady Grove Y at 5:30. We had been told that we'd have to have our bike, helmet, shoes, and everything else we needed, set up properly in transition by 6:30. The race would start at 7 am, though I would not start till around 8:30 am.

At transition, I learned that Amanda had predicted 8 minutes for her swim too, so she set her bike up right next to mine. This was Amanda's first triathlon, but she was not new to endurance events. She and another Team-in-Training teammate, Holly, have completed not only marathons, but a 50 mile trail run called the JFK. Holly soon finished setting up her bike in a faster swim zone and joined Amanda and me to inspect our transition areas.

And then it began to rain. And rain and rain. Holly had some extra plastic bags, which Amanda and I used to cover our shoes. Another teammate, Kim, came by with more plastic bags, and she put her shoes inside her bag. I couldn't believe the rain! I had not originally planned to do the Powersprint Tri, but I had been disappointed not to be able to swim at Rocketts. The weather for Powersprint was expected to be sunny, but the sky was black and the rain began to fall in buckets. I heard a huge "crack" of thunder. Would the swim, in the indoor pool, be cancelled? An announcement was circulated through the crowd: the start of the race would be delayed till the storm cleared.

We ducked inside the Y and waited. In the end, the storm blew over, and the race began. Competitive swimmers zipped up and down the lanes, exiting the pool only a few minutes after entering it. Time went on, and Kim and Holly, who predicted the same time for their swims, took their turns. And then Amanda started her swim, and finally it was my turn. I jumped in the pool and waited for the countdown.

"Go" the starter shouted, and off I went.

Immediately, I knew something was wrong. The velcro strip for my Garmin was coming loose. Only a few yards from my start, the velcro came undone and the strip fell off. I caught it between my fingers.

What to do? Should I put the velcro strap in my back pocket? I reached, but the pocket seemed to have been sewn shut. Should I put the velcro strap on the side of the pool and come get it later? When? Would the pool deck be slippery and so might I fall and break my leg? Maybe I could come get the velcro strip after the race? What if it was gone? Should I stop at the wall and put the strap back on my wrist? But then slower swimmers might pass me, and to get around them I'd have to use more energy than I might have. As I thought about the options, I swam with the velcro strap between my thumb and forefingers.

There's a swimming drill that you do where you swim with your fingers in a fist. It's called "fist drill," and it teaches you how important your fingers are when you swim. One armed-Amy couldn't do as well as predicted, and I realized that 8 minutes, which I had thought a really conservative estimate, might be a pipe dream. Really, I can't blame that all on swimming with one hand. It was only my thumb that was useless, pressed against the Garmin strap and my palm.

"I have nine good fingers" I reflected. And a flapping Garmin strap for a bonus!

I noticed the man behind me was making pretty good time, and at the wall I shouted, "GO!" and he passed me. Then I noticed he was DOING THE BACKSTROKE! Everybody knows that a backstroke is not as fast as a forward crawl. However, some people are really good at backstroke. For my part, when I was on the swim team at age 9, my best stroke was the backstroke: six girls to a heat, I would get a sixth place ribbon every time, or, if the contest was backstroke, I would get a fifth place ribbon!

And, at age 46, my one-armed front crawl did not rival Mr. Backstroker's determination. He moved ahead, creating no impediment to my progress. The lane behind me was empty, with nobody trying to pass me, so I began strategizing again what to do with the Garmin strap. Leave it, Toss it, Put it in my Pocket? uggg.

Finally I resolved to keep it with me and try to catch up to Mr. Backstroker. That was not in the cards, but soon I finished the 300 meters and emerged from the pool, Garmin strap in my hand, and ran toward transition.

At transition, I found Ariel. She looked sad and wet, having spent the last three hours in the soaking rain with no cover.

"You could have put the plastic bag over me, Amy, but nooooo."

Under her sat the plastic bag, covering my shoes and other articles to wear on the bike and run. Sadly, the rain had been accompanied by a strong wind, which pushed the bag aside, allowing rain to penetrate everything. I put on my helmet and picked up my socks. Soaked. I put them on anyway, added my bike shoes and then looked at the Garmin snapped on Ariel's handlebar. Yikes! I should have covered Ariel and the Garmin with the bag! Garmin's face was steamy, and I could see specks of water under the glass. I pressed start, and heard a beep, a good sign. But I couldn't see what effect the beep had on any numbers. Oh well. Off I went.

By this time, the rain had stopped and it felt steamy and hot. Later in the day, I'd be sorry I hadn't slathered sunscreen on my shoulders during the thunderstorm. But the bike ride was gorgeous. I passed a few mountain bikers during the first few miles, but had most of the road to myself. Ariel enjoys a ride in the country, and she began to sing. Everything was looking up. My Garmin's face began to clear up during the ride, too, and I saw that I was halfway home. I pushed harder.

Then, I heard "on your left!" and a cyclist passed me. Ariel wanted to go faster, but once a cyclist passes you in a triathlon, the rules require you to let them get 3 bike lengths ahead of you. If you ride too close behind another bike, you can get a penalty for "drafting." So I slowed my pace and hung back, and dad gum if another cyclist didn't pass me. When the passing cyclists emerged ahead of me, though, they slowed down.

I soon saw why. We were now all in a line of 10 bikes, each only 3 bike lengths apart. And cars were passing us. I settled in for a bit and breathed deep, but soon I realized that I was simply going too slow. Ariel sensed an opening.

"Get around them, Amy!" Ariel said, "What are you waiting for? Are you trying to get a Nice Lady Award or complete a triathlon."

So I dug deep and began passing, shouting "Oh your left!" to a few of the bikes ahead of me. I thought I'd have to pass many bikes, but then I realized that two slow bikes had made everyone bunch up. I cleared these folks and was on my way.

"Whee!" exclaimed Ariel. "That is more like it. Let's finish STRONG!"

I spied a woman wearing pink ahead, and Ariel shrieked, "LET'S GO GET HER AMY! YOU CAN BEAT HER!"

I noticed her age written in indelible ink on the back of her thigh. 36. A much younger woman. A few people vie for the "overall win," but the vast majority of triathletes really compete only against other people within their age group. So it did not matter, really, whether I passed this woman or not. But in another sense, it did. I wanted to try hard, to dig deep, to do my best, for myself and for everyone supporting me in this mission. I wanted to do it for Dad and for everyone else struggling with blood cancer.

I passed Miss Pink and Ariel squealed, "GOT YOU GIRLIE!" as we passed.

Thank heavens I am the only one capable of hearing Ariel. She needs to go to charm school, but so far I have found nothing suitable.

Back at the transition area, I removed the Garmin from Ariel and strapped it on my wrist. I must have pushed some strange button because the Garmin began to beep, beep, beep, beep, uncontrollably. The face indicated that I had run 32 miles in 6 seconds. Yet, I actually had not moved an inch. Finally, it shut down, so I had to run the old fashioned way. No equipment, just me and my legs!

Of course, you don't really need to know how far you have run when your mission is to run 1.5 miles out and turn around and retrace your steps, particularly if you've been told in advance that volunteers will hand you water at mile 1. And you don't need to know how fast you are going if, really, you could not go any faster even if you knew. So I tried to keep a steady pace and after a bit asked a volunteer why they had eliminated the water stop at the 1 mile point. "It's on up ahead!" she shouted, and I despaired. I thought I was near the turn around, but clearly not. I needed to walk, but I was determined not to walk before I completed the first mile.

I remembered why I was doing all these crazy things, how I was helping to cure cancer. This helped me to keep going, and suddenly the water stop appeared in front of me. I felt better after drinking some gatorade, but nonetheless, I had to walk a little before mile 2 and again during the final mile because my heart rate was racing. It is not easy to run after riding a bide, but I am resolved to get better. After all, this was merely 3.1 miles running after 12 miles biking; in September, I'll have to run a half marathon after riding 56 miles!

I approached the finish line, and heard friends cheer me through the finish line. I got a second wind and sprinted through the finish chute with a smile on my face. I can do this!

My overall time was 1:33:11, and my overall rank was 12th out of 21 ladies in my age group (45-49). Not bad!

My swim time was 8:19, so I think if I use all 10 fingers next time I can get under 8 minutes. This was 14th out 21.

The time it took me to transition from swimming to biking was 2:23, pretty good considering it was 6th out of the 21 ladies in my age group.

My bike time was 44:16, which ranked me 11th out of 21.

The second transition was 2:07, rather slow, and representing the fact that I got dizzy and had to sit down to put on my running shoes. Rank was 18th out of 21.

My run time was 36:08, too slow, and the rank was 15th out of 21.

Do you think I would have run any faster if my Garmin were working? Maybe. I'm still not interested in an IPod, though!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Endless Pool

You can buy something called an "Endless Pool" and put it in your backyard, or even your basement. It is essentially a treadmill for swimming: You crank it up, and stroke, stroke, stroke, but never get anywhere. If you get tired, you just stand up, grab your towel and go grab a beer. I've never tried swimming in one, but I've always been intrigued.

I wasn't thinking about Endless Pools when I planned my race season. One of the races that caught my eye was Rocketts Landing, a new race in downtown Richmond. It is an "Olympic Distance" triathlon, which means that the first part, the swim, is 1500 meters. This particular swim, according to the race website, would consist of swimming upstream 800 meters, rounding a small island, and swimming across and down current to an exit further upstream than the exit.

That all sounded fine in January, when I figured I'd have plenty of time in the lazy ole river before race day. Also, I figured it would be really good practice for my half ironman, which will include a swim of 1.2 miles, which equates to 1931 meters. If I can swim 1500 meters in Open Water in May, then surely I can swim 1931 meters in Open Water in September. This race would give me confidence, I figured. So I signed up.

And then it started raining. And raining. And raining, and raining. All this rain is great for the grass and flowers, but it has made the James River, which passes through Richmond and Rocketts Landing, fast and furious. I had signed up for a series of "practice swims" in the James River. I received one after another cancellation notices about these swims:

"We're sorry, the swim is cancelled because we fear for the safety of the swimmers, who might be swept away in the strong current."

"We're sorry, but we can't do the swim practice because there is a lot of floating debris and we fear one of the swimmers may be bonked on the head with a floating tree."

"We're sorry, we'd like to take you out on the river, but the law will not permit us to do so because the water level is so high."

Then someone got smart and read the law more carefully and discovered a loophole. Turns out, the law will permit you to swim when the river is high if you are wearing a "personal floatation device." We were offered the opportunity to buy such a device, and invited to come out for a swim last Wednesday, less than a week before Rocketts Landing. I was expecting water wings, and figured they might keep me afloat, so I ventured to the river. But when I arrived at the river's edge I was given a belt from which hung a rip cord. Apparently, the personal flotation device was to be deployed only if needed.

Twenty five brave soles donned our PFDs, now legally permitted to swim in the raging river. Permitted, perhaps, to be swept away or bonked on the head by floating debris. Coach Michael spoke to the group, announcing that we'd be divided into four groups. The first will swim very fast, VO2 max, the second will swim at threshhold speed, the third will simulate race speed around the buoys. Group assignments were given. I held my breath. "The fourth group," Michael said, "is what I call the 'Comfort Group.'" I raised my hand wildly, "Pick me!" "There are only three spots for this group," said Coach Michael, with a devious gleam in his eye. "If you want to join the Comfort Group, please meet by the tree." Four of us sprinted to the tree. Thankfully, he relented on the three-person cap, and we got ready to be "comfortable" with open water swimming. We got in and attempted to tread water for a moment. This was when the "sweeping away" occurred. We started upriver from the dock, and quickly found ourselves downriver. For the next half hour, though, Coach Michael patiently got us more comfortable with the raging river.

Then he suggested as a finale that we all swim around the buoy placed 50 meters from the shore. So, it was a swim of 100 meters, 1/15th of what I would attempt later that week. I remembered why I was doing all of this, and the struggles cancer patients go through, and I knew I had to do it. I went for it, and got caught in the current. I began to panic, and to hyperventilate. I turned over on my back to catch my breath, and was swept even further downstream. So then I began to swim back, quickly, and more panic and dizzyness set in. I could not see where I was going.

And then an angel appeared, in the form of Emily, on a kayak. I held on, and she talked to me soothingly, and rowed me to the shore, where I stood up and felt the cold mud ooze through my toes. Terra Firma. Well, sorta firma. And no head bonking.

I called it a day, and over the next few days stewed about the Sunday swim. And it rained. And rained. On Saturday, the clouds lifted, and I attended a seminar called "Tackling Your Fear of Open Water." It had to do with taking deep breaths, and envisioning victory. I saw Coach Steve and Coach Dave, both of whom coach me in swimming. They assured me that I could do the swim, though it would be hard. Coach Steve, who has been encouraging me to strengthen my "pull," said it would be important for me to focus on that strong pull throughout the swim, and said if I did that, I would be fine. My friend Lee White suggested that the entire Triathlon was really about getting through the first 800 meters of the swim. After that, it would be easy swimming to the shore, followed by a fabulous bike ride and run. The bike ride was the same length as the Duathlon Nationals, which I had completed three weeks before, but the Du Nationals bike course was much tougher, with more hills and turns. I began to relax and to believe in myself. "I can do this!"

The next morning, at 2:00 AM, thunder struck, and I looked out of the window to see a huge storm. By the time the alarm went off at 4:00 AM, though, it was merely sprinkling. I made my way to the race site, where I set up my transition area. I placed Ariel on the rack and put a towel down next to her. On the towel, I put my bike shoes, running shoes, socks, helmet, sunglasses and race belt, all of which I would need after the swim. I made my way to "body marking," where a woman wrote my race number on my arms and thighs and my age on my calf. I found Holly and we ventured down to the river to plan our swim strategy.

I looked at the river, and it hit me. This was an Endless Pool, except there was no opportunity to stand up and grab a beer! I shared this thought with Holly, who reminded me that after the swim, bike and run, we could have a beer. I took some deep breaths. After consulting with various swimming experts, including Coach Dave, we decided we'd have to swim toward the opposite shore and make our way up the edge of the river, where the current might be bearable.
The swimmers were divided into three waves. In the first wave, men under 40 would swim. Three minutes later, older men would start the swim. Finally, all ladies would start. The younger men were preparing to race, when an announcement was made. The swim was being changed because of the strong current. Instead of 1500 meters, including 800 meters upstream, the swim would consist of only 300 meters, basically going a little upstream, and then across the river, and back. People discussed new strategies. As the young men prepared to enter the water, the sky opened up and a deluge began. The men jumped in and began to swim. The river was an Endless Pool! A few strong swimmers rounded the buoys as required, but the vast majority were not strong enough to fight the river's current. Some grabbed onto kayaks, as I had done just a few days earlier. Others floated downstream, where they were rescued by a speedboat. The race director announced an end of the swim.

And just like that, the competition was a Duathlon. Instead of the swim, we would start with a two-mile run, and then do the 25 mile bike and 10K run as planned. Back at transition, everything was soaked. Fortunately, I had some extra socks, so I prepared for the race. Some people began to panic about the rain and how it would make the bike ride difficult. I had not thought of that. My friend Beth, who had planned to do the Duathlon at this race all along, told me she was leaving because she didn't want to ride in the rain. I sprayed my glasses with swim goggle de-fogger and resolved to go on.

As it turns out, it isn't easy riding a bike in a storm. And, ironically, Ariel does not like a Tempest. This particular tempest brought not only rain, but also howling winds, which buffeted Ariel back and forth on the road. I had to try mightily sometimes to keep from crossing the double yellow line (a two minute penalty) and to keep control of Ariel. I gripped her tightly. She greeted this treatment with stony silence. And there were no complaints when I took the downhills cautiously. The course included one huge downhill, followed immediately by a right hand turn. Normally you would want to fly down the hill to gain speed, but I feared a wipe out, so I proceeded at a granny's pace. Still, the volunteer at the corner urged me to slow down more. "Slick corner!" she shouted. I learned later than many of the faster cyclists wiped out at this corner. But I cautiously proceeded. All in all it was a great ride, but it was rather lonely because I was by myself with the exception of Ariel, who was quiet as a mouse.

After the bike was a 10K run, which included parts of the canal walk and flood wall-really a beautiful run, with some challenging steps and a big hill in the midst. My run time was a little slower than my recent 10Ks, as would be expected following the long bike. In the end, my total time for the race was 3 hours 18 minutes, and some seconds. Another step toward my ultimate goal of the Half Ironman, and toward the goal of helping to cure cancer!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Duathlon: Hills and Heat

A duathlon is a race involving two sports. I wondered the other day why they don't call it a "biathlon," and learned that a biathlon is a race where you go cross country skiing and shoot a rifle at the same time. Woah! I grew up in Alabama, so you know I've done only one of these sports. I decided to stick to duathlon. Turns out duathlon's two sports are HILLS AND HEAT.

My mission, should I choose to accept it, would be to slay these two terrible dragons while running 10 kilometers, cycling 25 miles and then running another 5 kilometers. I know, it sounds crazy, but I knew it would help me toward my ultimate goal of completing a half ironman in honor of my Dad. Besides, they were giving away a really nice backpack, running shirt and hat, according to the website. So, I signed up (non-refundable). Then I studied the course map. This turned out to be the wrong order of business.

Every day, I drive to work down a huge hill, right in front of the headquarters of Ethyl Corporation (now called Newmarket). After signing up for this race, I learned that I would have to ride down this huge hill on my bike THREE TIMES during this race. Really, it is a mountain. Good thing Moses didn't have a bicycle, I thought, or we might not have the Ten Commandments. It is the sort of hill that Ariel loves, and the sort that makes me want to sit down and cry. Ariel and I had practiced the three-loop bike course twice before the race, but I had cleverly reduced the number of times I had to go down the hill by deviating from the course. Ariel doesn't have a good sense of direction, so she didn't know to complain. But on race day, I knew I had to stick to the course. Every morning leading up to the race, as I drove my car down the hill, applying the brakes to avoid certain death, I thought "I am going to die on this hill on April 26th." I tried to calm myself by figuring that the odds of actually dying on the Horrendous Hill were probably pretty small. And I knew that this race was just another step in the journey to help in the fight against cancer. So, in spite of my fear, I decided I would conquer the Hills.

Then, a couple days before the race, the warning emails began. Turns out, the Hills weren't going to kill us. Temperatures were predicted to go into the mid-90s, so the HEAT was going to make us all die of dehydration, unless we were very careful. Coach Michael took a scientific approach and explained electrolytes: "In normal conditions, assuming you are not a super heavy sweater and deal with heat well, the recommendation is 600-800 mg of sodium per hour. If it is super hot (which it will be) and/or you are a heavy sweater, the recommendation is more like 800-1000 mg/hour." I didn't understand all of this, but I immediately began to sweat. Coach Sean took a more lighthearted view of race day, dishing out this Lovin' Spoonful:

Hot Town, Summer in the City
Back of my neck gettin' dirty and gritty
Been down, isn't it a pity
Doesn't seem to be a shadow in the city
All around, people lookin' half dead
Walkin' on the sidewalk, hotter than a matchhead

I was grateful for all the support from my coaches and my teammates, and I began hydrating to get ready for the race. The night before the race, Steve and I attended a progressive dinner==a fundraiser for the SPCA. I politely turned down all the cocktails and drank lots of water.

Race day came, and almost time for me to begin my run. I spied Joe Zielinski, confident runner (overall assistant coach for the marathon training team) and novice cyclist, and we compared worries. I feared the crash and burn, and I think Joe feared dehydration and flat tires. Neither of us feared the runs too much, though we knew they would be hard because of the terrain and the weather. The men in my age group went off 5 minutes before the women, so I watched Joe take off, in his running element.

There were 39 women in my age group doing the race, so after the men disappeared we adies crowded in a single lane on the street at the top of the Horrendous Hill. We would begin our 10K with a descent on foot down the same hill we'd have to travel three times on the bike later in the morning. All of us were aglow with sweat==the heat was already unbearable. I got in the back because I am a very slow runner, even compared to ladies my age. Two women stationed themselves near me, toward the back of the pack, and discussed their usual pace==one said 9 minute miles and the other said 10 minute miles, but they agreed they would go a bit slower today because of the heat. On a good day, my pace for a 10k race is about 11 minutes per mile, assuming that I didn't have to do anything after running the 10K except eat a bagel. This would be a bad day and the bagel wouldn't appear for many hours. The gun went off, and down we went. Some hills are great for running because your speed picks up, but hills that are too steep require lots of work just avoiding falls. This was the latter type. The little pack of ladies spread, and I was left behind quickly.

But soon a woman who had stationed herself in the front of the pack found herself being overtaken, and I had myself a running buddy. Donna was from Franklin, North Carolina, and she said she planned to run for 9 minutes and then walk for 1 minute throughout the 10K run. I had not planned to take walk breaks, but suddenly it seemed to be a fabulous strategy. The key, after all, would be not to go too fast, nor too slow, but to run the 10K at a Goldilocks pace. We both ran with water belts around our waists. Donna pointed out that we therefore could avoid stopping at the water stops and just drink what we carried. In the end, we drank what we carried, we stopped at the water stops and drank what they had too, and we took a cup of water at the stops to pour over our heads. Everywhere we went, I seemed to know someone. Some were marathoners who trained with me, and called out, "You're doing great, Maymont Amy!" I saw Tommy, who is a regular at the Wednesday night runs from the church, who encouraged me. Lee White, whom I know from marathoning, Endorphin Fitness, and really everywhere, passed us going the other way on the run and cheered us on. At a water stop, someone yelled, "Hey Coach Amy! You were my coach for the 10K at the Downtown Y." Donna remarked, "you know everybody!" It felt great to hear my name and an encouraging word throughout this run.

At the end of the 10K, we knew we'd be parted for the bike course, so I asked Donna for her last name so I could look her up in the results. "My name is Donna McDaniel," she said. "I am Amy McDaniel Williams," I said. AMAZING! Here I was doing this race as a training race for the big one, which would be dedicated to my Dad, Ben McDaniel, and someone sent to me a distant relative (by marriage) to keep me sane. Later, I learned that I completed the 10K run in 1 hour and 10 minutes, which matched my time for the Monument Avenue 10K (a race that ended at the finish line of the 10K run).

But I still had to do the biking. So I smiled as Donna McDaniel and I parted, and I contemplated my next moves. I found Ariel, put my helmet on, drank some powerade, changed my shoes, and took off, walking toward the bike exit. My heart was racing, thinking of the BIG HILL. I took off and went up a pretty steep hill to get to the front of the Ethyl building, took a deep breath, and began my descent. I did apply my brakes most of the way down, but toward the end I let go. "WHEE!" said Ariel. " Thank you, Amy!" She had been pretty upset with me for not taking her out very often lately. I had been sick, and then working late, so she hadn't seen much action.

After a bit, I got into the rythym of the ride and began to enjoy it. The loop includes not only the killer hill in front of Ethyl, but also some pretty challenging ups and downs on Riverside Drive, a winding, hilly road with gorgeous homes, plants and flowers, and views of the river. Just before turning around on Riverside Drive, we had to travel up a killer hill. With my legs sore from the 10K run, it was harder than ever to get to the top! UGGGGG! During the bike ride, I was careful to drink whenever I had a flat moment. As I finished the first loop and came through Ethyl the second time, to approach the Killer Down Hill, my friend Beth was there to cheer me on. That made me feel better and the Killer Down Hill didn't seem that bad. Third time through, Coach Michael was there, and he said earnestly "Amy, you are doing great! Keep up the good work!" I knew I wasn't doing great compared to others, but I realized at that moment that I was doing well for myself, and of course that's all that matters for me. So the third time down the BIG HILL wasn't bad at all. "WHEEEEEEE!" said Ariel (and maybe Amy said so too).

But then I realized something terrible. My water bottle was nearly empty. Plus, my right calf was cramping up terribly, something I had not experienced before, but which I understood came from dehydration. I had a second water bottle with me, but I had never had to remove the back water bottle from my bike while riding on it. I reached for it, and realized I wasn't sure I could do it without falling off the bike. Even if I got it off once, I was not convinced I would have the confidence to remove it often enough to drink the whole bottle. I debated what to do for a mile or so, and I became very thirsty. Finally, I pulled over, jumped off the bike and switched the bottles. A kind teammate passed me and asked if I was okay, "Yes, just adjusting water bottles!" I shouted. I lost a minute or two making this adjustment, but it was worth it because, in the final six miles of the bike ride, I drank the entire 16 ounce water bottle I had rejiggered. And suddenly, the bike ride was over.

What greeted me, of course, was the thought of running another 3.1 miles. My leg was still cramping, so I massaged it and drank some more powerade. One of my teammates, Nick, complained that his legs were cramping. Apparently it was some sort of epidemic. I tried to shake it off and started running. A slow jog was about all I could muster. I decided not to take walk breaks, but to jog at a steady rythym. After about a mile, a woman appeared from behind and told me that rumor had it the 5K course was not really 3.1 miles, as advertised, but a bit short. I said a little prayer of thanksgiving. The run ended with a cruel, rocky hill back to transition. Pointing me toward the finish line was one of my duathlon coaches, who shouted an outrageous white lie: "You look strong!" he shouted. I crumbled at the finish line, and Coach Dan (one of my original marathon training coaches, and the head Monument Avenue 10K coach) handed me a cold washcloth. He told me to put it on my neck. I did, and a surge of strength came back to me. I had beaten the Hills and the Heat, and the Duathlon got me one step (or maybe two steps) closer to that goal of helping to cure cancer!

I was 38th out of 39th in my age group: angel Donna McDaniel collected the "tuna."

My overall time was 3:35:53, consisting of 1:10:16 run, 3:24 in the first transition, 1:46:49 on the bike, 2:16 in the second transition, and 33:10 on the last run.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Monday's Maymont Fun Run

Every once in a while, you need a break from intense concentration. So Monday I went on a scavenger hunt run with some friends at Maymont. It was a hoot! I think possibly it was the slowest run I've done in a long time, but also the most fun. We learned a lot about Maymont as we traveled up and down the hills. (There's a reason it's called May"MONT." Please let me know if you would like a copy of the running route (which is also a great walking route if you are a walker) and scavenger hunt. Maymont is a FABULOUS place==go check it out. www.maymont.org

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Tuesdays with Tickle-Me Ariel--April 2nd

Those of you who have known me for a while will remember that the first "adult" bike I bought was Agnes, a comfort bike. Agnes is designed for "tootling around the neighborhood." I also commute to work on Agnes sometimes. She's not fast, so when I decided last year to do a triathlon, I got Ariel, "Lion of God." She is so fast that her frame is covered with flames of flickering fire.

Every Tuesday, Ariel and I meet a group of cyclists under the supervision of Endorphin Fitness for a really fast ride. The purpose of these rides is to go so fast that your heart rate is elevated to a specified level and is maintained at that level for the duration of the workout. The workout is done in a loop that is about 1000 yards long, with the first part of the loop a series of downhills with twists and turns, followed by a steep uphill climb and then a very short flat portion. The idea is to go as fast as you can the whole way, up and down, finishing several loops, with your tongue hanging out. Many of the other cyclists are so glad at the end of the hour because they are exhausted and want to rest. I am glad because I am still alive.

Ariel loves to ride fast. Have you ever watched a three-year old at the ski slope? No fear. That is Ariel all over. She loves the Tuesday rides more than anything. But lately, Ariel has become dissatisfied with her rider. Because of her disappointment, she has developed a voice. I wish I could share her voice with you, but to give you a good sense, imagine what "Tickle Me Elmo" would sound like, if Elmo were a girl.

Tickle-Me Ariel: Amy! We've got the downhill as our advantage. Go faster. You can't be breathing hard enough. I can go faster==millions of miles faster. Faster! Wheeee!!

Amy: Are you crazy? Don't you see that corner coming up?

Ariel: You got it. Just go wide before the turn, like they taught you. You can do it!

Coach Dave: Amy, you can do it. Trust yourself! You don't need to brake now.

Ariel:Yeah! Trust yourself. Or better yet, trust me. Trust meeee, Amy!

Amy: (Softly, aloud to Coach Dave): I'm scared...

Amy:(to Ariel): I'm applying the brakes.

Ariel: Nooooo. Not the brakes. oh..... That's sooo sad...

Amy: Well, we are alive.

Ariel: If you call this living.

Amy:Here comes the uphill.

Ariel: I'm okay going slower here.

Amy: No, now we've got to work! Work, work, work!

Coach Michael: Great job, Amy. Keep it up all the way to the line.

Amy: (softly, tongue hanging out) uggggg.

Ariel: Okay, now it's time to go downhill again. You are so chicken. This is Agnes's fault, isn't it? Didn't she make you crash? Not much of a comfort bike, if she throws you off as though she were a rodeo bull! Do you call that comfort?

Amy:Ariel! That's not nice. I don't know if it was Agnes's fault. I hadn't ridden her since November, and forgot how well her brakes worked. That's why I went straight over her handlebars and hurt my hand.

Ariel: So badly you didn't ride me for days and had to go get your hand, the size of a cantelope, X-rayed. For heaven's sake, stop riding that big girl. Ride me; I am an angel. I won't stop too quickly for you!

Amy: Angel my foot. You are a pixy!

Ariel: I am not into mischief. But you are doing a Half Ironman! I don't think you can do it if you are so chicken that you wear out my brakes! Aren't you doing this to help cure cancer. For that, you gotta take a few chances.

Amy: Oh, my. Raising the ante, are we? You are going to make me cry. I will try harder, but I must be realistic. I am not three; I am forty-six years old.

Ariel: Okay, we'll compromise. You go safely, but work hard riding me till you feel comfortable going faster and know you will not crash.

Amy: Well, the workout is over now, so let's talk to our teammates.

Coach Michael: Great workout. Is everyone appropriately exhausted?

Crowd: Oh, my, I can barely breathe I am so tired! I am in pain!

Amy (bewildered, raising her hand): Maybe it's just me, but...

Ariel: Oh, my God, you are going to tell them what a wimp you are. Put your hand down! This is not law school and you are not the free space in bingo.

Amy: Umm. Well, I am not particularly tired because I can't go very hard down those hills.

Coach Michael: Why is that? Is there something wrong with your bike?

Ariel: Holy cow, you aren't going to blame this on me, are you? I can go as fast as lightening down the hills if you'll let me.

Amy: No, the bike is great. But I feel that, if I go any faster, I will crash and die.

Crowd: HO! HO! HO! Hee Hee Hee. HA HA. Amy is so funny.

Amy: Umm. I'm not kidding.

Ariel: I am so embarrassed.

Coach Wendy: It is very important not to crash and die. (You may remember Wendy coached
me through last year's triathlon, and I did not crash and die).

Coach Michael: It may be that your fitness is ahead of your bike handling skills. This just means that you have to push even harder going uphill or in the flats, and you have to practice your bike handling skills more.

Ariel: WHEEEEE! I LOVE COACH MICHAEL. MORE BIKING!! MORE FUN!! And, Amy, I'll help you get ready for the Half Ironman. And help you to support those who are curing cancers. Together, we're a team. We can do it!!!!!!!!

Saturday, March 28, 2009

10K Races with Many Pebbles

Well, as you know, before I started cycling and swimming I started my adult fitness regimen with running. So you'd think I'd be getting faster, huh?

Two years ago, I ran the Monument Avenue 10K in 1 hour, 6 minutes and 55 seconds. Last year, I wanted to run it in under and hour, but I got a horrible cold and finished in 1 hour and 5 minutes. So this year, I felt great. So, what was my time? 1 hour 10 minutes, 32 seconds. Perhaps that should be a great disappointment, but instead it is indicative of my relatively light running load of late. Because of the stress fracture last year, I have not been running much, and I most of my running has been slow. I did have a lot of fun, though, running the race with my friend Julia amongst a giant gaggle of cave women. You are probably thinking Wilma and Betty, but these were decidedly Pebbles. Beautiful pink Pebbles with bones tied in ponytails on their heads. Eventually, the cave girls outpaced Julia and me, and we finished the race sometime in the 21st century.

I had not planned another 10K for a while, but the Saturday immediately following the Monument Avenue 10K, my friend Beth persuaded me to come to her house near Ashland, where we rode our bikes 6 miles to the start of a 10K running race, ran the race, and then biked back to her house. We agreed not to take the race seriously, since we both had run the Monument Avenue 10K the week before. So we did it, and lo and behold, I did BETTER than I had at Monument. Still not a PR, but okay. 1 hr, 8 minutes, 32 seconds, precisely two minutes faster than Monument. I knew things were going well, when I passed a Pebbles. She was wearing her cave girl costume from the week before.

Anyway, as you know, my ultimate goal this year is not to run a fast 10K, but to manage somehow to finish a half marathon after exhausting myself with a long swim and a long bike ride. I'll never be a fast runner, but I can endure: all to help cure cancer.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Super Heroes

Over the years, I've had many heroes, mentors, coaches, and one Super Hero. My Dad, who has always been there for me, is my Super Hero. When I was five years old, my favorite pastime was watching cartoons on Saturday mornings with Dad. Let me take you back with me.
Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote appear on screen. As the cartoon begins, Wile E. Coyote unwraps a new device from Acme Corporation, with which he certainly will catch the Road Runner ( Beep Beep ). He sets it up, and he waits. But something odd happens. He doesn't catch his prey. No, instead, he ends up burnt to a crisp, squashed flat, at the bottom of a canyon. But then, mysteriously, in the next scene, the Coyote is all better. He's walking around and plotting his next trap. Daddy! I say, How did they do that? And Daddy replies, I don't know honey. It must be trick photography. Trick photography. This trick photography exchange becomes a ritual for Daddy and me, in many contexts. Daddy, was that trick photography again? Yes, honey, I do believe it was.

(If only trick photography worked to cure cancer the way it revived Wile E. Coyote!)

Following the trick photography, we are inundated with commercials for sugary cereal Mom refuses to buy us. Apple Jacks, Cap'n Crunch, Lucky Charms, Trix. All just out of reach==on the TV screen. She made an exception for vacations and birthdays. Once, the day before we were scheduled to go to Florida for vacation, she bought a box of Kaboom! cereal (the ! is part of the name), and said we could eat it before we got in the car the next morning. My brother loved Kaboom! so much he took it to bed with him so he'd be sure to get some the next morning. We got up and the Kaboom! was nowhere. Mom and Dad snapped a picture of Ben in bed, the Kaboom! cereal clutched in his arms. Kaboom! was advertised every Saturday on Road Runner.
Anyway, back to my days of watching cartoons with my Dad: After all the Kaboom!, the next cartoon starts. A crowd of people look up in the sky and say, "Look in the sky. It's a plane! It's a bird!" A woman wearing large black glasses exclaims, "It's a frog!" Another onlooker responds, "A frog?" To this, Underdog replies with these words:

Not plane, nor bird, nor even frog,
It's just little old me, [sound of Underdog's crash==Kaboom!]

Yep, my hero, Underdog. Underdog, Shoeshine Boy's heroic alter-ego, appears whenever Sweet Polly Purebred is in trouble.

I continue to get inspiration from the memories of watching cartoons with Dad. He is still my Super Hero. As an Underdog, I need all the help I can get to achieve my goal of completing a Half Ironman in honor of my Dad and in support of his struggle with lymphoma. So, I have other important mentors and coaches to help me in my quest.
This winter, I took a series of swimming lessons from Som Sombati, who emphasized the need to swim like a fish in water, comfortably, instead of like a woman who has been thrown in the deep end of a swimming pool and is attempting not to drown. He taught me a number of drills to make me feel slippery. And then Som inspired me by telling me he was about to finish his sixth Ironman competition for the year. Six Ironman competitions? I couldn't believe it. Six marathons in a year is crazy enough, but six competitions where you swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and then run a marathon? He went on to explain that he had turned 60, so for a birthday present to himself he was treating himself to six Ironman races==one race to celebrate each decade of his life. Wow!

So, he inspired me. Accordingly, as you know, I am doing a Half Ironman, to celebrate the fact that I am five years old.

Well, in a way it's true. I am celebrating the love that I have for my Dad, which goes way back to my childhood, and that wonderful feeling I had watching the cartoons with my Super Hero at age five.

More recently, I began taking swimming lessons (and cycling lessons) from Coach Dave at Endorphin Fitness. I decided I liked Coach Dave right away the night he taught us all to do Superman. I didn't tell Dave, but I had a bit of an advantage in this exercise, because Superman is a regular exercise that I do with my personal trainer, Tina Tucci. Tina is one of my many coaches. She promises to help me get through the Half Ironman uninjured. That seems important.

Superman consists of lying on your stomach, arching your back and lifting your arms and legs up as though you are Superman flying through the city to fight crime, or maybe stamp out cancer. Coach Dave explained this maneuver, and we all tried it on the deck of the pool. I pretended to be a natural, secretly glad to have done this pose many times before. Then, Dave kicked it up a notch. Get in the pool, he said, and do Superman in the water.
Say what? I tried. Without the pool deck to hold my body flat, I found my legs were sinking like anchors. Coach Dave noticed.

Amy, Dave asked pointedly, in a stage whisper designed for all to hear, does Superman stick his butt out when he flies?

What an image. I contracted my stomach muscles and pulled in my rear, and suddenly I was floating on the water, emulating Superman's position during flight. I felt great. Dave explained: Superman helps you feel balanced and comfortable so the swim feels easy.
Competitive swimmers can wear themselves out in a race because when they are done, they just go eat their Wheaties. On the other hand, for a triathlon, feeling comfortable during the swim is key. If I wear myself out during the swim portion of the Half Ironman, the first leg of the event, trying to go fast and therefore improve my time, I could emerge from the water exhausted. That could be bad given that at that point, I will have to ride for 56 miles on my bike and then run a half marathon. I don't want to blow up that early in the race. Can you say Kaboom!? Come to think of it, I am going to celebrate the end of the Half Ironman with a bowl of Kaboom! I think Mom will let me.

But to make sure I get to eat Kaboom! rather than blow up, I practice my comfortable swimming, Superman style, at the Downtown YMCA. But I've noticed I am very, very slow. There are fast swimmers at the Y who swim near me. Andie, who has swum across the Chesapeake Bay, said to a friend of mine, Amy doesn't swim fast at all, but her stroke is gorgeous. So far so good, but I do have to finish the Half Ironman in eight hours, and if I am in the water hours after the start I will be in trouble!
So I told Dave I felt great about floating in the water, but when would we learn to propel ourselves forward as fast as Superman? How does Superman do that, anyway? I asked.

Dave hasn't answered the question yet, but I know the answer. As Daddy would say:
"It's trick photography."