Tuesday, April 27, 2010

St. Anthony's Tri

Last weekend, I traveled to Florida to take part in St. Anthony's Triathlon. I was there as part of Team in Training--I didn't fund raise, but I helped others with their fundraising and trained along with them. (My father's lymphoma continues, happily, to be in remission). Now it was time for the actual event: the reward for all the hard work!

The challenge for this event would be the swim, which was to take place in Tampa Bay. This would be just the third time I had swum in open water this year. Tampa Bay is salt water, which would be new for all of us, but the bay is not an ocean. A bay does not have waves, but is calm salt water. Or so I thought.

The race was on Sunday, so on Saturday we donned our wetsuits for a practice swim in the bay. My Team in Training teammate, Amy S, and I swam together. Instead of the smooth water we expected, we faced something like I faced when swimming in the ocean as a little girl. Those childhood swims did not really involve swimming, but rather wading out far enough to ride the waves into shore on a raft (or "draft," as my sister famously said). Each morning and afternoon, we'd take to the waves, coming in during the heat of the day to avoid the sunburn that inevitably came anyway, despite the zinc oxide and T-shirts I wore as a precaution. As she saw the waves, Amy S stood still and I saw panic setting in. I told her of my childhood memories and announced, in my best six-year old voice, "this is fun!" Whee!!" And it was fun because we didn't have to go too far and because I was concentrating on making my friend feel better, which calmed me. But far out in the water I saw little specks of orange and yellow. They were the buoys set up for the race, showing how far we'd have to swim on race day. On the outside, I was exhuberant. On the inside, I was trembling.

Race morning, we set up our transition and made our way to the swim start, on a beautiful white beach called "Spa Beach." Spa Beach sounds like the place to sip blue drinks with little umbrellas in them while reading a lazy novel, but there were hundreds there donning black wetsuits, determined to go out in the water. As I awaited my turn, I put my wetsuit on and went in the water to take a few strokes to calm myself. The water was much calmer than it had been the day before. Have you ever heard the expression "calm before the storm"? TNT Coach Steve bucked us up. It is so much smoother than yesterday, he said. And, based on the current it appeared that the the 1st leg (of 3) would be hardest. Once you get past that first turn, the rest of your swim should be smooth sailing.

I went to the edge of the beach for the onshore start to the race. The announcer said something and a horn blasted. We were off! I ran out into the water and when it got deep enough, I began swimming. Several ladies around me were still wading, and I wondered if I'd started too soon. But I was able to swim, so I kept going. I was really pleased because the current wasn't too bad, and this was the hard part! I turned the corner to leg 2 and began surfing. The waves were HUGE and splashed over my head. I tried to lift my eyes out of the water like an alligator (this is how they teach you to look for the buoys). I couldn't see anything but waves! I was moving, but where was I going? I prayed that it was toward a buoy! Then I realized to lift the alligator eyes at the crest of a wave. This caused the entire head and neck of the alligator to rear up, but I could see a buoy! I was off course, out to sea, so I corrected course. The waves buffeted me about like a toy boat in a huge sea. I began to sight at each wave and correct course almost every time, sometimes left, sometimes right. The sea was so rough, and what was falling on my head? Was it raining?!? The drops were really hard. Was it hailing? Or is this just strong spray from the waves? In any event, I was wet and rain wouldn't make me any wetter, so I decided whatever it was could be tolerated. On each side of the swim course there were orange "sight" buoys, designed to help you stay on course, and yellow "turn" buoys, marking places you were to make a turn. I was expecting just one more orange buoy, and I saw yellow! I rounded the yellow buoy to begin the return to shore, and the fun started.

The waves were Waikiki waves! I tried breathing to my right (which feels wrong to me) and lost my rhythm and couldn't sight. But the waves were breaking left to right. I tried sighting and breathing left and realized it was fine, as long as I timed it right to breathe before the crash of the new wave. I was able to see the sight buoys. I recalled the Monty Python scene where the castle never gets closer. Unlike the Tavern race I did last year, where the river current was so strong I had to bear down and swim upstream without stopping for anything, for this swim, I had to lift my eyes enough to sight every cycle or every other cycle, and each time I had to correct course somewhat because of the unevent current and the waves. It required a good bit of thought. Finally, I passed the last sight buoy and spied the exit stairs. Someone had placed a bright pink marker on the stairs, which helped me sight to the exit. As I got closer to the stairs, I realized the pink marker was a pink swim cap, and inside it was a very tired woman, lying on the stairs, as flat as a flounder. There appeared to be very little room to get around the flounder. I swam to her left and a teen aged boy grabbed my arm and pulled me over the flounder. I stood up slowly to avoid dizzyness and began the jog back to transition.

Transition was a mess of sand, so I put on socks, shoes and sand, grabbed my helmet, and off I went with Ariel, my bike. The wind was relentless. Everywhere I turned it was a head wind so I had to stay aero, or strong cross winds blowing so hard I couldn't stay aero for fear of losing control. Just a week before the race, I had been riding with my friend Holly, who had announced at a red light: "Go really slow and the light will turn green and we can go on." I had gone so slow that eventually I stopped and, still clipped into my shoes, I had fallen over. I remembered that sensation as I struggled mightily to ensure some semblance of forward movement in spite of the wind. It was embarrasing enough to fall on a practice ride (and a man in a car was nice enough then to sit on his horn so I would realize that I wasn't supposed to fall over into the street), but I wanted to avoid falling in a race. Was the wind really so hard I would fall over? A couple times I looked at the speed on my garmin and I worried. I pedaled harder. I said, "Ariel, I'm sorry we're going so slow. I know you like to fly." She replied in her "Tickle Me Ariel" voice (think Tickle Me Elmo, only female): "I prefer tail winds myself, Amy! Or at least some big down hills! Florida sucks!" There were no hills, just relentless wind. A training buddy, Kelly, had told me that Ironman Florida, thought to be one of the "faster" Ironman races because of the flat bike course, was difficult, mentally, because of the relentless wind. I was having a hard enough time riding 24 miles in those conditions, so I thanked my lucky stars I wasn't attempting 112 miles! Finally, in the last 6 miles, conditions eased up. I couldn't feel the wind at my back, but my garmin showed I was riding 22 miles and hour, on flat ground, with little effort. Tail wind!

Back at T2, all the bikes in my area were racked except for Ariel. One of the bikes was in Ariel's spot with the wheel down on top of my running shoes, hat and water belt--in short all of the stuff I needed to run. I said to myself, but out loud, "someone's bike is on my stuff!" A voice from the ground on the other side of the rack said "oh, that's mine; don't worry about it." Don't worry about it? I convinced her that she had racked her bike backwards and would receive a penalty for getting this wrong, so she moved it, freeing my bike shoes, visor and running belt, though leaving much sand all over them. I changed as quickly as I could and headed out for the run. The run was hard, especially the first couple miles. The sand in the shoes didn't help, nor did the heat. I sipped the water in my water belt and wondered if anyone had an Earl Grey tea bag. It was SO hot, and I wondered if I should pour water on my head, but Coach Michael had warned recently that doing this could throw off your body's ability to regulate temperatures, causing you to slow down. I was going pretty slow already. Wasn't there a humidity exception, though? This is Florida, humidity capital of the US. I was thinking through this issue when someone I recognized as TNT's New York City coach advised me "Be sure to pour water on your head. It's hot out here!" I said thanks and continued to weigh this option when suddenly a volunteer poured ice cold water over my head and neck. Immediately, I went from boiling hot to shivering. "There you go!" After the initial shock wore off, the water bath appeared to help, so I believe there is a humidity exception.

I continued on and at about mile 2.5 I caught up with a younger woman who was struggling to keep going. I tried to encourage her, and thereby make both of us feel better. "Come on, we've got this!" She replied, "oh, this run is really hard! It is so hot. I am doing the relay; did you do the whole race?" I tried not to laugh. She said, "Also, did you do the whole long swim or did you start after they shortened it up?" HUH?????

As it turned out, just after my wave started to swim, the officials decided it was too dangerous to expect people to finish the whole 1500 meters. The people behind me were older folks, novices and a special wave for Team in Training (who often are doing their first triathlons). So, most of my training buddies doing the race were in the TNT group and ended up swimming 1000 meters.

As for me, I'm glad I did the full 1500 meters. It gives me an excuse for going so darned slow on the bike and run. I was tired!

But the truth is, as things go, I did pretty well. Most of the triathlons I've done were shorter, sprint tris. St. Anthony's actually was only the second time I've done an olympic length triathlon (1500 meter swim, 40K bike and 10K run). The first time was at Nations last fall. I had a great swim and bike there, but had a terrible run because of asthma. Here is a comparison of my times then and now:

Total time: St. Anthony's 3:48:01; Nations 4:05:01--a PR (personal record) by 17 minutes!

Swim time: St. Anthony's 45:35; Nations 46:05 -- a faster swim despite the oceanic conditions!

T1 (swim to bike transition): St. A's 5:45; Nations 5:46 -- one second faster! (Gotta work on transitions).

Bike: St. A's 1:34:23 (avg. speed 15.8 mph); Nations 1:40:07. Speedy Ariel despite the winds

T2: St. A's 3:24; Nations 3:53 (Improved despite sandy girl's crushing my run stuff with her bike).

Run: St. A's 1:18:55 (12:44 avg pace); Nations 1:29:55 (I need to work on a faster run at the end of a triathlon. This was faster only because asthma plagued me at Nations).

So, faster overall and faster on each element, despite the elements! And another step in helping to cure cancer through Team in Training.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sevens and Eights

I learned to swim as a child, and even joined the swim team for a couple summers, along with my little brother, Ben. Ben is a talented athlete and quickly got awarded "guppy of the week" and later "minnow of the week." I was skilled at blowing bubbles and patiently waited to win "whale of the week." Although that did not occur, I did win many ribbons in races--each a sixth place ribbon (there being six lanes of girls competing).

I took swimming up again over two years ago. Now I swim regularly with a group that is divided into eight swimming lanes, based upon speed. I have labored long in lane one, designated the "beginner" lane. I think the theory is that "beginner" sounds better than "slow," and this is true for a while. But a beginner at three years? Well, the good news is that I recently was upgraded to swimming in lane two. I no longer am a beginner! I am now a "novice." I am at the back of the novice pack, and I am determined to work hard so I am not demoted back to beginner.

I have daydreamed lately about what it must be like to swim in lanes seven or eight. Those in these lanes swim so fast, covering three or four times the distance I do in the same alloted time, but when they are finished, they do not look tired. Will I ever be promoted to lane seven or lane eight? I would be satisfied with seven, where the swimming is slippery, as though the swimmers are fish rather than human. If you are a scholar of the Bible, you know the importance of seven. Seven days of Passover, seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, seven loaves and fishes. And of course, seven days to create the world, with the seventh day reserved for rest, or perhaps for some slippery swimming. Seven means completeness. Eight is a whole other dimension, another zone. Turn an 8 on its side and you have infinity. Those in lane eight are so fast that I question whether they really are human, or perhaps space aliens sent here with really good disguises. The water is no barrier for them; it is as though they swim through space.

This week, I arrived at swim practice a little early, and another class was still swimming. I noticed they were swimming in lanes seven and eight. Although they appeared human in some respects, they were somehow different. For one thing, they looked very fast. Suddenly, Coach Michael called my name, "Amy, come swim. We need another swimmer for this relay." I grabbed my swim cap and lined up, in lane seven. My daydream was coming true! For fifty yards, I was going to swim with the slippery sevens, trying to best the infinite eights.

I looked around at the space alien swimmers, like me in some ways, different in others, and recalled an episode of the Twighlight Zone called "To Serve Mankind." Do you remember this episode? Short beings with giant heads pilot to earth in a spaceship that looks like the Markel Building out near Willow Lawn. They appear benevolent and say they want to help humans. They even have written a book called "To Serve Mankind." A group of humans agree to visit the alien planet and begin to board the spaceship. As the door closes, a woman runs out and shouts, "Don't go! Don't go! 'To Serve Mankind' is a . . . cookbook!"

But it was too late; I was already in the water, in the boiling cauldron. Coach Michael shouted, "GO!" so I swam was fast as I could in lane seven. Down and back. When I hit the wall, I looked up to see whether I had beaten the female alien in lane eight. She was finished, relaxed. She looked like she'd had time to eat a peanut butter sandwich while she waited for me. Perhaps this was good--nobody appeared to be hungry, so I was allowed to leave gracefully, congratulating the winning team as I exited.

It was a great experience, swimming with the sevens and eights, if only for a brief moment. I got out and asked Coach Michael a bit more about the identity of these space aliens. It turns out there were no sevens there, only eights: Eight-year olds from Endorphin Fitness's youth group. Perhaps one day, if I work really hard, I will be as fast as they are. But I'll settle for seven.