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!