Tuesday, October 11, 2011

My Most Difficult Challenge

Five years ago I was too out of shape to walk my dog all the way around the block.  This was no surprise to friends who remembered me as "the kid who gets picked last" in gym class, and to my family who remembered my refusing Mom's orders to pull weeds because I didn't want to get dirty or sweaty. Since 2006, I have completed countless running races, including three marathons, several long bike rides, including a century ride (100 miles), two endurance swimming races and countless triathlons, including three half ironman triathlons and, most recently, a full Ironman triathlon, thought to be one of the most difficult athletic achievements one can undertake.  This spring, I was awarded the "triple crown" by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team in Training, celebrating my completion of a marathon, a century ride and a triathlon, all while fundraising to help find a cure for cancer.
And, this fall, for the first time in five years, I wasn't sure what to do next.  I was tired, so so tired, and did not want to do another full Ironman.  Among other things, I wanted to spend more time with my husband, Steve.  At the same time, I realized that I would not be content doing short, local races.  I needed some big challenge.  My challenge needed to be something a triathlon buddy of mine calls "epic."  What was it?  I began to pray for God to tell me what my next challenge was to be.  Please, God, make it something big, I asked.  God answered my prayers. 
I have breast cancer.  This answer was not what I was looking for.  Steve suggested that my mistake was praying to the Old Testament God, the God who turned Sarah into a pillar of salt and sent down the plague of locusts.  He implored me, "don't do that any more!"  I prayed again, more specifically, carefully and pointedly, couldn't my challenge be to run an ultramarathon (a running race over 26.2 miles long), which would be quite enough!  I promised to raise money to fight cancer, other people's cancer, please.  Please.  But it was too late.  My challenge is to fight cancer directly.  And I have come to understand that God has given me this challenge because I am strong enough to take it on and because I am meant to tell this story.  And so I shall.  If you do not want to hear the story, I understand, but consider sharing it with your wife, your girlfriend, your sister.

Discovery.

After a "clean" mamogram in May, I discovered a little lump in my breast in August, while on vacation.  I usually check once a month, but I always have assumed that I could not feel anything even if it appeared.  Or even if I felt it, would it feel out of the ordinary?  Probably not.  Months have gone by when I didn't check.  After all I do get a mamogram once a year.  And breast cancer is not in my immediate family--my great aunt and her daughter, my father's first cousin, are the closest relatives who have had breast cancer. 
But there I was, noticing something different.  Was it there in July?  No, it was not.  I did not think it was cancer, though, but I was scheduled to see my doctor upon my return anyway, so I would show it to her, "just to be sure."  She, likewise, thought nothing of it, and surmised it was a harmless cyst, but she scheduled me for another mamogram and a possible ultrasound "just to be sure."  I rather thought it was a waste of time, but I went, late on a Friday afternoon, to be tortured by the pressing machine. 
This was my 10th mamogram, and by far the worst.  They marked the spot where I felt the lump and squeezed it many times over, admonishing me "do not move, do not breathe."  Time after time, I thought I was finished, only to be told that the doctor wanted another shot.  Finally, this torture ended and I was taken to another room for ultrasound.  A doctor conducted the ultrasound, and without saying anything about what she saw, told me she was working with another doctor, who would be joining us.  The second doctor, older than the first, came in and repeated the same examination.  All of a sudden, I had a really bad feeling.  Why was it necessary to repeat this exam? 
Dr. Ellison, the more senior radiologist, told me it was not a cyst and that she would like to do a biopsy to find out what it was.  "We can do it right now," she said,  "or you can come back next week."  Holy cow, let's find out now!  They performed the biopsy that afternoon, but I would not learn the results till the next Tuesday.  But by Sunday, I knew that it was cancer, and I knew something else.  I knew I would survive.
On Tuesday, Dr. Ellison confirmed my suspicions.  Breast cancer.  "Yes, I know," I said to her.  It is a "infiltrating ductal carcinoma, high nuclear grade," according to the pathology report.

Waiting and Worrying.

The next step, Dr. Ellison explained, would be to have a routine MRI, "just to be sure" that I had no other cancers.  She had scheduled this examination for the next day, followed by a meeting with a surgeon, Dr. Bear.  "We will have preliminary results of the MRI when you meet with Dr. Bear," she promised.
An MRI machine is a loud thing.  Apparently a lot of people freak out when they are rolled into a little coffin-like space and subjected to jackhammering sounds.  Furthermore, if it is a breast MRI, they make you lie on your stomach with your breasts hanging down two holes that look medieval, somehow.  To add insult to injury, they jab you with a needle.
"What kind of music would you like?" the technician asked, earphones in hand.
"Jazz?" I asked, warily.
"No problem. We'll put on the Kenny G." 
Well, not exactly jazz, but you give me a little Kenny G and some loud jackhammering, and guess what I do?  I fall sound asleep.  ZZZZZZ
I had been warned by Dr. Kladder, my primary care physician, that although Dr. Bear is world-renowned, he is not known as "warm and fuzzy."  No teddy bear. He said that he had not received the preliminary results of the MRI, but we could look at it together.  He saw nothing on his laptop computer, but noted that the radiologists have much better views.  He explained that, assuming that the MRI was all clear, I could chose between a full mascectomy of both breasts, or a "lumpectomy" that removes the tumor and leaves the breasts.  With a lumpectomy, I would need a course of radiation therapy, likely to last six weeks. Treatment would occur every day.
My husband asked the doctor, "every day, including weekends?"
Dr. Bear answered, "no, only Monday to Friday."
Steve inquired, "is that because the cancer does not grow on the weekends?"
"Correct," answered the doctor.
Ha!  Not a Teddy Bear, but a man with a wry sense of humor! 
He went on to explain that, statistically, my 10-year survival rate would be the same if I chose a lumpectomy and radiation or if I chose to have a full mascectomy.  If I chose the lumpectomy, though, I might have to undergo chemotherapy too. Whether that would be indicated for me would not be known till after surgery.  He did say that they tested my cancer and learned that it responds, and grows, when fed by estrogen and progesterone, female hormones.  So I cannot take birth control pills or, later, hormone replacement therapy, and in fact I am likely to be prescribed a drug that prevents my body's natural hormones from feeding my cancer. 

So, radiation and hormone blocking drugs, and maybe not chemotherapy. 
"Which is the treatment that makes you lose your hair?" I asked.
"Chemo.  Radiation does not make you lose your hair.'
I decided to go with lumpectomy, radiation, and the possibility of chemotherapy.

But then I realized he said the MRI results were not in.  "Dr. Ellison promised me someone would have read my MRI by now," I reported.  "Oh, she promised, did she? We will call her on that!" He called and got the radiologist on the phone.  And I heard him say, "oh, I see.  Where is it?"  He moved his mouse over the mouse pad, and suddenly we saw it.  Another lump, smaller than the first, but there.  "Is that in the left breast--the opposite breast from the known cancer," I asked, sick to my stomach. 
"Yes.  We need to have this tested, to see what it is."
The "test" would be another biopsy, which could not be scheduled till the next week, and then there would be more waiting for those results.  Somehow, this wait was harder than the wait to hear whether the first biopsy was cancerous.  If I had a second cancer, in the opposite breast, then I knew the doctors would recommend a full mascectomy. I contemplated this option with some dread, until I read something that suggested reconstruction surgery takes place right away, and can result in breasts smaller or larger than the originals. 
Should I go with Dolly Partons?  Having those was a secret dream when I was a teen, though not so much lately.  What about going with flat boobs like Mirinda Cafrae.  Fast Ironman World Champion, but mosquito bites, bless her heart.  Still, she no doubt can go for a run in a T-shirt, no bra.  I did a bit of research, though, and discovered that these options came neither with the honey-like voice nor the Ironman speed of these two ladies.  So all in all, I wanted to keep the originals.  I prayed for no factory recall.  And it wasn't just a cosmetic worry, of course.  How could a second cancer have appeared in such a short time?  It would mean that I had some sort of invasive, aggressive cancer that would be hard to fight.  So I worried, and I had to wait.

Learning Not to Plan.

After dutiful waiting, I got the good news that the second spot was not cancer, not at all.  "It is a Pamploma," I thought I heard the radiologist report to me.

"Good news!" I told Steve that night.  "The second spot isn't cancer, it's a Pamploma!"

"Pamploma is the place in Spain where you run with the bulls," he said quizzically.

"Oh, maybe that's not right.  Well, they said I get to keep the thing inside me that wants to run with the bulls!  Only the cancer is coming out!"

I met with Dr. Bear again the next day, to confirm to him the kind of surgery I am to have to remove my cancer, which he confirmed to me is stage one cancer.  Surgery is scheduled for next Monday, October 17th.
"Can I go back to work the next day?" I asked.
"Absolutely not!  You will be under general anaesthesia and will be loopy and unable to think on Tuesday.  You probably won't be able to work until tthe following Monday."
"Oh, wow.  When can I exercise?"
"Are we talking fitness walking or golf?"
"Triathlons!  Or, put differently, swimming, biking and running.  I ran an Ironman in June."
"Oh, I see.  Well,  I think it will be 3-4 weeks before you can return to those activities.  We will have to see."
"Okay.  When does radiation therapy start?"
"Well, this depends on......"
"Doctor!" I cried, "I want to put all my treatments into my day planner for months going out.  I really need to plan!"
"Yes, I can tell you do," he replied.  But no information was forthcoming.
I am told that I will learn to be patient, to take one day at a time.  hmmm  I am tryng!

Exuberance.

All of this news has been stressful.  I know in my heart of hearts that I can do this. I can and will survive.  But sometimes I feel a bit overwhelmed.  And sad.  I do not like feeling sad.  I always view the glass as half full, and I like to be happy.  Furthermore, I find that if you want to be happy, you can be happy.  Years ago my mother told me that if she telephoned me in a Chinese labor prison, I would report that I was "doing fine!" 

Somewhere before I was diagnosed with cancer, as I cast about wondering what my next challenge would be, I really did think it would be to run an "ultra marathon."  These races are longer than 26.2. miles.  Often they are 50K (which is about 31 miles) or 50 miles long.  Typically, they are on trails rather than on roads. 

I hike on trails with Steve on vacation, and I have always had this irrational fear of crossing streams.  It takes me forever!  Plus, I have no experience running on trails.  Years ago, I ran on trails while Steve and I were on vacation because I was training for a marathon and the park ranger told me that they'd spied a Grizzly on the road where I wanted to run, and "he'll think you are prey!"  He advised me to run on a groomed Grandma trail.  That little run resulted in bloody knees, bloody hands, and a bloody chin. 
Despite this, I had spied a 10 mile trail race in December that I thought I might try.  Now, though, with the cancer, I could not do the race.  My surgery is on October 17th, after which I will not be able to run for 3-4 weeks.  That would leave only 3-4 weeks to get back up to running 10 miles, and during that time I would be on radiation, which makes you tired, or chemo, which makes you sick. 
A friend mentioned the race again, and I was a little sad.  And then I realized I needed to sign up for it.  I need to view the glass as half full.
So what if I have never done a trail race before?  
So what if I am clumsy and usually fall down?  
So what if this race has five scary creek crossings?
So what if I am normally slow as a turtle, so I might be the last to finish in normal times?
So what if the cancer treatment will make me slower still?  
So what?  
I signed up for Bear Creek 10 miler, and at last count I talked about two dozen friends into doing it with me.
The glass is half full, and I am filling it to the brim!  I will live life with exuberance.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Videotape of My Ironman Finish!

video

Wow.  After nearly 17 hours, we finished.  Holly and I crossed the finish line together.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Ironman CDA Race Report: Amy's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass

This race report of Ironman Coeur d’Alene is another tome. But, as Lewis Carroll once said, to tell a story you must "Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end; then stop.” And so I shall.

But first, a little detour for those who love numbers, I will report how I did versus my goals. And provide an executive summary for those of us who want the highlights now.  (I am sure they plan to curl up with my good book later.)

Swim: Goal: 1:40:00 Actual: 1:33:29

T1 Goal: 10:00 Actual: 14:56

Bike: Goal: 7:30 Actual: 8:18:44

T2 Goal: 10:00 Actual: 5:51

Run Goal: 5:00 Actual: 6:26:21

Total Goal: 14:30 Actual: 16:39:19

In summary, the swim was a blast, the bike ride was much hillier than I expected, but gorgeous, and why didn’t anyone tell me that a marathon was so much harder at the end of a day after nearly 10 hours of exercise than it is when you start out fresh as a daisy early in the morning?

But I finished! Once upon a time I thought finishing an Ironman was impossible for the likes of me. I didn’t believe. After all, when I ran my first mile, during the Presidential Physical Fitness Test, in school, I swet buckets and nearly died. I cursed Big Bertha, the gym teacher who made me do it. I hung up my running shoes till I was 43, when I took up jogging for my health. That was only five years ago. And here I was trying to complete an Ironman.

"Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying,' she said. 'One can't believe impossible things.'

‘I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’”

So, I have spent the last year believing impossible things every day, and lo and behold, they have come true! I am an IRONMAN!

Pre-Race Calm

Race morning was eerie. I am accustomed to needing deep breathing to calm my frayed nerves on race mornings, but on the morning of the most difficult race I’d ever attempted, I awoke at 3:45 am, and I was completely calm. I got dressed and greeted the rest of my household, all up and preparing for a long day. I drank a strong cup of coffee and ate my eggs, toast and jelly, and a Greek yogurt. Holly, Amanda and Susan Ann were staying out in Hayden Lake, a thirty minute drive away and along the bike course. The arrived at our house, three blocks from the start, just before 5:00 am, and we all made our way to the start. As we walked, I ate a banana.

The day before, we had taken our bikes to transition and had dropped off bags for the swim/bike transition (“T1”) and for the bike/run transition (“T2”). The weather was not hot, so I had loaded my nutrition, including my fluids, on my bike. So, race morning, all we needed to do was to take our “special needs bags,” which we could access halfway through the bike and run, to a truck for delivery out in the field, to pump up our bike tires and to put on our wetsuits and prepare our minds for the swim.

As we put on our wetsuits, I realized that somewhere along the way, I had lost the two gels I planned to eat that morning: I was going to eat one before the swim, and one halfway through the swim, when we were required to step up onshore and walk across a timing chip. I contemplated the hunger that would plague me if I went for over two hours without eating. Luckily, my team saved me: Becca offered me the second half of a power bar to eat before the swim, and Holly found an extra gel, which I tucked in my wetsuit sleeve for the mid-swim snack. I ate the power bar, took a salt tablet, and as a precaution took two puffs of albuterol.

I remained calm, and we made our way to the beach. One of our coaches, Coach Kyle, was racing with the pros. I would have liked to see him start, but it was so crowded, we did not make it to the beach till after the pro start. Once we arrived on the beach, a woman took my prescription glasses and put them in a labeled zip lock bag. They were to be sitting on a table at the swim exit, where a volunteer would hand them to me. Such service! Typically I shove my prescription sunglasses somewhere on the shore and wander back at the end of the day hoping they are still there.

The Swim

I have experienced swim starts in local races, and I have read reports of Ironman mass swim starts, but nothing is like the actual experience of standing on a narrow beach with more than 2400 athletes, listening to U2’s “It’s a Beautiful Day,” hearing the gun go off, and then moving forward, en masse, to swim.

After talking to many people in the days and weeks before the race, I decided not to "hang back" on the beach and wait for everyone else to start to avoid getting kicked. Some people told me that so many people use this strategy that it's crowded in the back too. Who wants to lose several minutes only to be kicked anyway? Also, I decided not to park myself way to the outside, away from the crowd because I would have to swim into the crowd at the buoy to continue anyway. It would be more swimming for only minimal extra comfort. So I decided to situate myself in the middle (front to back) and directly in line with the buoy.  In the "line of fire," as it were.  I stood with Holly, Amanda, Becca, Dorothy and Susan Ann as we waited for the gun to go off one of my buddies said,"Aren't we too far forward?"

I replied quickly, "NO!"

They looked a little worried, though, so I asked a woman standing near us, "How fast do you expect to finish?" We were all targeting around 1:40 or so.

She said "I hope 1:10."

I said to my buddies, "see--perfect!" : )

I did agree to tuck directly behind the 1:10 woman, which turned out to be an error because when the gun went off she paused and held hands with her husband, forming a human chain in front of me. I worried that I would trip and break their marital bond. I didn’t want the responsibility. But soon I realized that it did not matter. Soon, we all would be bonded.

I ran until I could run no more, and without much effort I was horizontal. I would not describe my activity as swimming because there was little room to move my arms around, and certainly no room to kick. I received some Bruce Lee kicks and Muhammad Ali jabs, but I was prepared, like Harry Houdini taking a jab to his stomach during his magic act. I was sure others were panicked, but I remained calm, as I became one with the collective. “Resistance is futile,” I reasoned. I concentrated on finding just enough room for my body to float on the water. The Borg sucked me along faster than I could have swum on my own. In no time, I breathed to my left and saw the first buoy. I had never swum so fast. I tried to sight to determine the location of the next buoy. I could not see it, and suddenly I decided it did not matter. If the Borg was going the wrong way, I would go the wrong way with it. “Resistance is futile.”

Eventually, the Borg thinned out, and I became Seven of Nine: Still part of the collective, but with a bit of autonomy that enabled me to swim. I concentrated on catching and pulling as strongly as I could.  (Thank you, Whitney). I am not good at “drafting” off other swimmers--which means swimming close enough to benefit from their wake--but in this environment one couldn’t “avoid the draft” any more than a male high school graduate without college prospects could avoid the draft during the height of the Vietnam War. And recall that I started with faster swimmers, so I drafted off one after the other at a faster pace than I could have maintained myself. Then I arrived at the turn buoy, and realized I could not get by.

Sorry, you’re much too big. Simply impassible!

Alice: Why, don't you mean impossible?

Door: No, I do mean impassible. (chuckles) Nothing's impossible!

I was directly behind a large man, who decided it was prudent to lift his head up, turtle style, and have a gander. This caused him to slow, and caused me to swim on top of his gangly legs. Uh oh! I could not avoid the inevitable strong kick to get the turtle flat and moving. Ugggg. Finally, though, I was around the seemingly impassible buoy.

I made my way to the beach where we would exit for a moment at the halfway mark. I knew the fastest way to get to shore would be to swim until my hands hit the sand and I could swim no more, but people ahead of me stood and waded too far out from shore. I contemplated swimming through their legs, but decided that was not “on” and stood up with them. I had contemplated running on shore, but a cluster of zombies walked like the living dead ahead of me, blocking the way. So, I ambled along, over the timing mat, as I pulled my gel out of my sleeve, ate the thick, sugary calories, shoved the empty gel packet back in my wetsuit arm, and walked quietly back in the water.

A man announced that we were 45 minutes into the swim. For a brief moment, I thought I was swimming slower than my goal of 1:40, but then I realized that I was on pace for a 1:30 swim! I knew the second loop would be slower, though, because the collective was breaking apart. I began swimming purposefully, with my elbow high, and drafted off people when I could. I finished the swim in 1:33:29, much faster than the 1:40 I had set as my goal. I felt elated: I was not tired from the swim.

All of my focus on swimming for the past year had paid off.  I owe a lot to my excellent swim coaches, Whitney and Tyler, who helped me eliminate my weaknesses and focus on my strengths.  I was ahead of schedule!

T1

But then I realized I was a popsicle. I made my way to the ladies’ changing tent, also known as the “nudie tent.” Looking around for a moment, I knew how it got this reputation. Like many others around me, in this tent, I planned to remove my bathing suit, dry off with a towel, and then put on bike shorts, a sports bra, a bike jersey, socks, bike shoes and my helmet. It was no time to be modest. I tried to untie my bag, and struggled. It seemed impossible! But, you see, so many out-of-the-way things had happened lately (in my quest for the Ironman), that, like Alice, I had begun to think that very few things were really impossible.

Hanging in T1 with frozen fingers is not impossible because every lady aspiring to become an Ironman has a ladies’ maid. My ladies’ maid was named Michelle, and she began to help me as though I were Queen Elizabeth I, the Red Queen. “Would you like to wear this?” “No, not that one, but I do want to wear my arm warmers.” “Shall I turn on your Garmin for you now?” “Yes, thank you!” She was calm and efficient and found a way to clothe me. 

Eventually, Michelle took all the leftover stuff, including my wetsuit, and started shoving it back in my bag, as I headed out of the tent to my bike rack, where I placed my Garmin on Aanjay, grabbed her seat and jogged out onto the street and across the mount line.

Bike

My heart rate was high as I started out on the bike ride. Fortunately, the first 25 miles of the bike ride are not too hilly, so I worked on getting my heart rate down to a manageable level. There was one exceptional hill during this section of the ride--a steady climb of half a mile during the first six miles of the course--a little out and back before starting the main route. I huffed and puffed up the hill, and at the top I was rewarded with a gorgeous view of the lake. The air was crisp and clear, and I breathed deeply. I thought of my friend Beth’s father, who had died of lung cancer just a little over a year ago. He huffed and puffed, but now he breathes the crisp air deeply.

As I swung back to town on the way to the main route and spotted my teammate Susan Ann. She was heading out to the hill, and thus quite a ways behind me. She must have had a tough swim, I reasoned, but I was comforted in the knowledge that she is a strong cyclist, so I was sure she’d catch up. I reasoned that other teammates would catch up to me, too. Dorothy, a very strong cyclist, but a slow swimmer, would catch up at some point. And Trish, another strong cyclist, has something called Reynaud’s, a hyper-sensitivity to cold. She would struggle to warm up after swimming in 58 degree water, but I was sure she’d catch up.

I continued on, and I was fast. My goal of 7:30 would require me to average 14.93 miles per hour. By mile 25, my average was 16 miles per hour, and I felt great. Maybe my bike ride would be faster than predicted, as my swim had been? 

Then came the hills. The first, just past a beautiful golf course, was an ugly climb. As I climbed, I thought of my friend and fellow triathlete, Ed Stone, who survived leukemia 20 years ago, and is currently battling cancer. I got up the hill for Ed. After that climb came the descent that some of us practiced a couple days earlier. My teammate Greg, who is fast and skilled at going down scary hills, took a turn on the descent too quickly and fell. Fortunately, he landed on a bush that apparently was made of pillows. I couldn't spot the pillow bush, so I descended the portion of the hill where he fell carefully and thereafter more confidently. What followed was a killer climb. Thereafter, I saw hill after rolling hill. Typically, I would fly down a hill and I'd see a climb before me. I'd be convinced that my momentum from the downhill would carry me almost to the top of the next hill. But then, I'd either find a “kicker” at the top of the next hill, or a “false flat” hill that went on and on and one. Either way, my heart rate would spike.

Each time I felt my heart rate spike, I took inspiration from someone. I had asked for friends to give me the names of loved ones to whom I could dedicate miles of the race: people who had died of cancer or who were battling cancer. Among those for whom I dedicated miles on the bike were Richard Stewart, who underwent cancer surgery just one week before the race. I prayed for good post-op news for him and his daughter, who describes him as "the most adorable, precious, perfect dad I could have asked for." I thought of those who had lost their lives to cancer, including David Rejean Favreau, who died of lymphoma, the same disease that my father has, nineteen years ago, when his daughter Missy was a girl. Although he wasn't there to tell her, I know he would have been proud of her on Sunday, as she completed the Ironman with me, just as my father is proud of my accomplishments. Well, to be fair, Missy finished long before I did. I think her father gave her some fast genes. My Dad admits he was a back-of-the-packer like I am, but he did teach me determination. And, as it turns out, determination can get you anywhere you want to go.

It just might take you a while to get there. As soon as I hit the hills, I knew my original 7:30 goal wasn't achievable, and I doubted my revised 7:50 goal that I set while driving the course. My average speed dropped and dropped, but I paid more attention to my heart rate. I didn’t want to spike my heart rate higher than it should be. After all, I was going to be out there all day. By the time I got through the hills, I figured my bike time would be 8 hours, possibly more. Sigh. I looked out on the blue water of Hayden Lake and remembered a story my Mom told me about our family’s long-time employee, Mary, who loves to fish in Alabama’s Lake Purdy. Her fishing buddy Jessie is sick with breast cancer, so Mary’s been fishing alone. I thought of Mary fishing out in the lake and was a little blue.

But soon I got a pick-me-up as a bike whizzed by and its rider shouted an encouraging: “AMY!” It was Coach Kyle, one of my coaches and a professional triathlete. He had lapped me and was finishing his second loop. At the end of the day, he would place eighth overall among the male professional trithletes competing. As for lapping me, what can I say: he had a 35 minute head start on me. ; )

I did pick up some speed during the fast part of the course the second time around, but the second loop's hills were killers because by then I was pretty tired despite trying to stay in my proper heart rate zone throughout. Lots of people had cooked themselves during the first loop: I saw many apparently strong people pushing bikes up hills. I was tempted, but I thought of Sharon Neville, who died of leukemia five years ago; Sharon’s husband and their daughter Kelly are now riding their bikes across the country with Kelly’s brother driving a support truck. With that kind of inspiration, I could not get off and push.

But the clock was ticking, and it was taking me a long time to get anywhere. I started worrying about the bike cutoffs. Not only did I need to finish the entire race in 17 hours, but I also had to complete various portions of the bike course by set times. The bike cutoff times actually were much stricter than the overall time limit of 17 hours. Although I had been confident I would not need to worry about the bike cutoffs, a couple of my teammates had been worried and had discussed them, so I knew what they were. But I was so tired I had trouble doing the math to figure out if I truly was in danger of getting cut off.

By this time, I also was tired of the lemon lime sports drink they supplied on the course, but I had no alternative but to drink it. I did put water in the smaller of my two reservoirs on my aero bottle. I needed the calories from the sports drink, but my mouth was so sick of lemon lime that the plain water tasted good. I was careful during the bike ride to eat enough, too, whenever I felt the least bit hungry. I ate mostly cliff bars for the first quarter of the ride, and then I alternated between cliff bars and gels. It wasn’t very hot, so I only took three salt tabs during the bike course.

With about 20 miles to go, Holly caught me, and then Trish passed us both. Holly’s cycling has gotten so much stronger in the last couple months since the Kinetic Half, which took her half an hour longer than it took me. Today, her swim was about 30 minutes slower than mine, although we normally swim at the same pace.  She got vertigo on the swim, apparently.   Notwithstanding that, she had made up the extra 30 minutes it took her on the swim by cycling fast to catch me. She had crushed the bike! She explained that the slow swim got her worried she’d miss the bike cutoffs, so she’d been pedaling harder than she’d planned to make up for the time loss. She told me she’d heard that Susan Ann had trouble with her bike and missed the bike cutoff. Neither of us had seen Dorothy, which we took as a very bad sign because if she’d finished the swim at all, she surely would have passed us on the bike. Together, we did the math to figure out how fast we had to go to make the final cutoff. We struggled. We weren’t on drugs, but our brains were fried eggs.

"Pooh," said Rabbit kindly, "you haven't any brain."

"I know," said Pooh humbly.

In the end, it was about belief. Did we believe we would make it?

“Well, now that we have seen each other," said the unicorn, "if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you. Is that a bargain?"

We believed. And we made the final cutoff with about 20 minutes to go.

Grooms and the Nudie Tent (T2)

I crossed the “dismount” line and began to get off my bike. What greeted me were grooms. No, I was not getting married, but I once again was Queen Elizabeth I and my horse grooms were hell-bent on taking my horse from me. Two strong men held my bike by either side forcefully. I tried to pry the bike back from them, but they would have none of it. “What can we do for you?” they asked. “Would you like something from the bike, some water, perhaps? “You can lean my bike over a bit so I have leverage to remove my shoe from the pedal,” I replied, my leg bent helplessly over the top tube of the bike. They looked a little embarrassed and complied, and I finished getting off the horse and ran to the nudie tent.

I thought of my friend Robin, who lost her leg to cancer last year. She is an inspiration: she has learned to walk on one leg, to swim with one leg, and has cycled on a stationary bike. She plans to ride on a new tri bike she has outdoors, with the goal of racing a triathlon later this year. The hardest part of cycling with one leg, apparently, is getting on and off your bike. I need to tell her--she needs to get some grooms!

As soon as I entered the tent with my bag, I shed my bike clothes and a volunteer helped me into my little black dress. Holly had a matching little black dress. We had ironed Endorphin Fitness logos on our little black dresses. Of course, we had no idea whether we’d be anywhere near one another as we ran the marathon. Now it appeared we would run it together. As I prepared to leave the tent, Holly, who was still changing, shouted, “I’ll catch up to you!”

The Run

As I left transition, I saw my teammate Jack Martin amongst the spectators. Was he that far ahead that he’d already finished the run? That didn’t seem right, and then I noticed his arm was in a sling. OH, Jack!! I shouted. He replied “Finish strong for me!” As it turns out, he fell and separated his shoulder on the bike.

My plan for the run from the beginning was to run at an 11:30 pace for the first half marathon, and then consider speeding up if I felt great. The first few miles were fast, and included a stretch along a wild block party. My friend Bronwen had asked me to run a mile in memory of a friend’s young son, John, who died of cancer at age 3 ½. He loved for his mother to run with him in the stroller, and I imagined pushing him past the block party. Everyone was dancing and cheering. I almost joined a limbo line but decided maybe I should save my strength.

It was then that I felt fatigued. Where the heck was Holly? I began to doubt whether I could keep up the pace necessary to complete the marathon in 5 hours. I had to stop at the porta potty, but Holly was nowhere to be found. I ducked in. About a quarter mile further, I saw Holly’s family, wearing Cat in the Hat and EF gear. Emma said, “Amy, don’t run too fast: I want to get your picture!” I paused for the photo and asked “where is your Mommy?” Of course, she had passed me. Now I had to speed up to catch her.

Huffing, Puffing, I caught her. I asked what she thought about the five hour marathon goal. She said “I still think I can do it.” By then I was hurting, but I vowed to keep up with her as long as possible. Because the run course was a two loop course with a long out and back, we saw some of our fast teammates passing by: Marco and Jay Crabtree, with such focus. Will Turner, who was doing his second Ironman and had run Boston this year, passed us looking strong. David Murray was running with his son, which warmed my heart. Imagine finishing an Ironman with your child at your side! Later we saw Jay Markiewicz, a seasoned ultra runner, walking the marathon. It was odd to see him walking. We saw friends finishing their second Ironman--Bethany, Missy--all smiles.

Then Holly said she was going to throw up. I suggested walking some. My stomach was fine, but I was exhausted. Holly didn't throw up, but the feeling hung over her for the rest of the run. We ran and walked, the walking getting longer and longer each time we did it. I began to eat everything placed before me. At the aid stations, every mile, they offered not only gels and power bars, but also chocolate chip cookies, oreos, pretzels, potato chips, oranges and bananas. I had something different at every stop. Holly looked at everything at every stop, ate very little, and felt ill. One stop was manned by volunteers dressed as pirates, including two teenage girls who shouted “ARRRRG!” as we arrived. It takes very little to make you belly laugh when you are this tired.

I told Holly about those who had asked me to remember them on the bike and run, and we dedicated miles to their memory and support. It helped get us through to think about those who struggled so hard. There was my Aunt Ellen, who died of cancer, and Holly’s own daughter Emma, the little girl who made me stop for a photo. Emma was diagnosed with leukemia at 10 weeks of age. She received the miracle of life and is now a happy pre-teen. There was my lovely cousin Susan. Susan lost her life to cancer as a young woman, leaving behind a wonderful husband, a Christian minister, and their three girls. My friend Julia and I had dedicated the hardest mile during our first marathon to Susan, praying fervently for Susan to receive an experimental treatment for which she had applied--a last chance. The prayers were answered, and she received the treatment, but alas she succumbed to the disease in the end. Now Holly and I ran in Susan’s memory.

We finished the first loop in town, passing cheering crowds. We took a walk break up a small hill and spied our teammate Dorothy on the sidelines. She confirmed that she had missed the swim cutoff and that Amanda (who was one of the Three Musketeers) had missed a bike cutoff. So had Susan Ann, who apparently had some sort of brake malfunction.

Dorothy also had good news to report. Coach Kyle had finished strong--eighth among the pro male triathletes. The pro leader, Craig Alexander, had set a course record that day.

Among the fastest age groupers were Coach Renee and teammate Greg (who managed to avoid falling this time), who both had PRs, and Coach Michael, who had a great first Ironman race. Coach Michael finished fast, Dorothy said, but he collapsed at the finish line and had to be taken to the medical tent. Later I learned he figured out he was ahead of many people on the bike, and so he kept up a fast pace to maintain his position. Eventually four cyclists, all illegally drafting off one another, passed him. By then he was tired, and he’d end up paying for his extra efforts on the run, and others had passed him. He had remembered the proverb “The early bird gets the worm,” but forgot its companion, “the second mouse gets the cheese.”

Holly and I ran, and we walked. We walked some in memory of my Grandmother, who used to walk slowly a few steps behind you, regardless how fast or slow you might travel. We tried to walk fast, to power walk.

“Do you think we could finish if we walked the rest of the way?” I ventured to Holly. “Not that I’m advocating that we give up running, mind you. We are, as Miracle Max would say, Mostly Walking. But there’s a big difference between Mostly Walking and All Walking.”

If Mostly Walking became All Walking, would we finish the Ironman before midnight? It depended on the pace. "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!" So, we adjusted our Mostly Walking to All Walking, but All Power Walking. We used our tired brains to figure out the math, and in the end we reckoned that we would finish this thing no matter what.

Then we arrived at the foot of the giant hill. We knew it was coming, but boy was it daunting. We dedicated climbing the hill to VG Starling, a career military officer who served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, earned 2 purple hearts and died from cancer tied to exposure to Agent Orange in 1981. He drove his son, our teammate DeWayne Starling, to his first half marathon when DeWayne was 13, and encouraged him to run, though running was not as popular then as it is now. VG’s grandson, Robbie, is a teammate and one of the young crowd I call “firecrackers,” because when they take off running, it’s fireworks. Before we knew it, VG Starling had shepherded Holly and me over the huge hill. Thank you! We met  our teammate Becca at the foot of the hill, as she was going up.  She looked worn and ragged, and she asked us to tell her fiancĂ© if we saw him that she didn’t think she could make it.  We tried to encourage her as we went on our way.

By this time it was pitch dark. I had hoped to finish by 9:30 or 10, but it was after 11. I was wearing prescription sunglasses with dark brown lenses. I had planned to grab some yellow lenses to change into from the dark brown ones, but somehow in doing a quick transition at T2, the yellow lenses were left behind. The race officials had placed temporary lights on the street about every ½ mile, but that left the vast majority of the course dark. We were on a paved trail that paralleled a road. From time to time, a car passed and the headlights revealed the path to us. Thankfully Holly was with me because I often had to hold her hand while she informed me of useful facts such as “Amy, there’s a huge cone in front of you.”

“What’s truly amazing, Holly, is not only that I am going to finish this Ironman, but that I am going to be the first person ever to finish an Ironman while completely blind.” They will wonder “how did she do the bike ride?” And I will say, “Holly shouted whenever there was a cone.”  And they will marvel.

Just then, an SUV squealed to a stop beside us and the door swung open, as though we were criminals caught in an episode of Cops. Becca’s fiancĂ©, Joe, was driving, and what hopped out of the car was Coach Michael, who asked how we were doing.

"I am blind and Holly wants to throw up," I declared. "Other than that, we’re doing fabulously!”

“Good,” he said, “can you speed it up?”

“What on earth for?” I retorted. “We will finish at this pace.”

“You were going at a 20 minute pace for this last segment, though, which kinda scared me.”

Uh oh. “Okay, we’ll pick up the pace. Y’all go look for Becca.  She doesn't think she's going to finish.”

"We'll go make sure she does!"

Joe and Michael sped off, and Holly and I power walked a little faster than we had before. A few minutes later, Joe and Michael returned, asking how far back we thought Becca was. She had disappeared. Did she fall off the cliff, I wondered? But it was I who was wearing dark sunglasses. Coach Michael got out of the SUV and walked with us, leaving Joe to continue the search for Becca. As it turned out, after Becca got over the giant hill to the turn around, race officials saw her walking wounded look and calculated her pace and the distance to the finish. They concluded that she would not make it, and disqualified her. Then they suggested that she walk back.

“If you’re DQing me, I am surely not walking another step! You are driving me back to the finish.”

And so they drove her back to the medical tent, where she was treated for blisters all over her feet.

Meanwhile, Michael joined Holly in pointing out obstacles along the path to the finish. “Amy, watch the manhole cover!” And then he suggested that we might consider some running.

I grunted, but Holly said, “maybe a little shuffle.” And we shuffled. She shouted, “I said shuffle, Amy, not speed work! You must be running a seven-minute mile!”

Having never run a seven-minute mile in my life, I disagreed with her assessment, estimating the pace at something like a thirteen and a half-minute per mile pace. But I agreed to desist, and resumed walking.

After a bit more walking, Holly would shout, “Shuffle!” and then “Not so fast!  That's a blistering pace.”

Those we passed at this blistering pace giggled at Holly's assessment of speed.  And they encouraged us.  At this point, everyone we saw was walking.  The runners were all finished.

Finally a light shone on us, and I realized that not only were Holly and I suffering through the shuffle, but so was Coach Michael, who would normally run a seven-minute mile without breaking a sweat. But today, he had completed an Ironman, collapsed at the finish, and, after that he ate two large slices of pizza and a gigantic dish of ice cream. So the thirteen-minute per mile shuffles, though they lasted but a few minutes at a time, were hard on him.

“That ice cream wasn’t such a good idea before this effort,” he moaned. Suddenly I realized I was running with two people who wanted to throw up. My stomach was still fine, though I was hungry! I continued to eat potato chips and cookies at the aid stations, set out every mile. Weeks before the race, I had asked teammates who finished before me to bring me a hamburger.  Alas, they thought I was kidding and no burgers were proffered.  If someone had given me a hamburger, I would have asked for more ketchup and chowed down.

As we got closer, our friend Kelly joined us on the run. Kelly had been training for this race, but had a spill on her bike in April, so she did not get to race after all. But on this day, she looked great, and she was so encouraging. She noticed my sunglasses, and said she was going to be cool too. She put on her non-prescription sunglasses, and decided that cool was dangerous! Coach Michael and Kelly ran with us all the way until we turned left on the approach to the finish line.

“How far is it?” I asked.

They said we had about a quarter of a mile, downhill, to the finish. Holly asked how we should finish--one at a time or what.

“Let’s finish together!” I said. So we began to run, and I could see a little from the city street lights.  I dedicated the race to my Dad, and thought of him as I ran.  I thought of the rest of my family, too: my wickedly funny husband, my loving mother, and my wonderful siblings and their families.  I am the luckiest person in the world!

Can you see the finish line?” Holly asked.

“No! I can’t see it.”

But suddenly, it was revealed. The crowd was roaring. I actually thought I might cry, it was so emotional. There I was, running to the finish line of an Ironman, with literally thousands of people cheering me on. I was wearing sunglasses, as though I was a movie star. Very close to the finish, were all of my teammates, wearing red and shouting for us. And then we crossed the timing mat. Ding, Ding.

I did it. Holly did it. Each of us was an IRONMAN! It was an indescribable feeling.  I paused a minute to think about all the people who helped me get where I was.  I had incredible coaches, who taught me to push myself, who taught me to believe in myself.  My teammates were so supportive and helpful in getting me there.  And my family--well, they think I am crazy, but they love me anyway.  Thank God for that!

And I was so hungry! Volunteers hung a medal around my neck and gave me a shirt and hat. I said, “I am starving!” and they directed me to the food tent. At the food tent, I ate two large pieces of pizza, which were so hot they burnt the top of my mouth. I didn’t care. I was an IRONMAN!

After getting my fill of pizza, I got a little dizzy and asked to be taken to the medical tent. Strangely, I was told the medical tent was closed, but that I could lie down for a minute.

All I can say is, thank goodness it wasn't the food tent that closed early!

What’s Through the Looking Glass?

Well, I have great memories of training for this race, and actually accomplishing the Ironman. What next, you ask? What will the future memories bring?

"It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards," said the White Queen to Alice.

I agree with the White Queen, though I do not want to make any decisions right now. I do know that whatever I do, it will be exciting. And it will involve eating.

Pooh and Piglet walked home thoughtfully together in the golden evening, and for a long time they were silent.

"When you wake up in the morning, Pooh," said Piglet at last, "what's the first thing you say to yourself?"

"What's for breakfast?" said Pooh. "What do you say, Piglet?"

"I say, I wonder what's going to happen exciting today?" said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully.

"It's the same thing," he said.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A big one down, and an even bigger one to go. I finished my 120 mile Century ride. In ten days, I will be competing in the Ironman competition: 1.2 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile run.

In these quests, Amanda, Holly and I are the Three Musketeers. (I leave it to you to decide who is Aramis, Athos and Porthos: see attached photo). All for one, and one for all!


The Three Musketeers Conquer A Cardinal:
Fletcher Flyer Century
We Musketeers have been training together for Ironman Coeur d’Alene, which is only TEN DAYS AWAY, and at the same time, for Fletcher Flyer Century through Team in Training. Fletcher was to be our first Century Ride (bike ride of 100 or more miles) and would earn each of us the “Triple Crown,” awarded by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to the rare few who complete a marathon, a triathlon AND a century while fundraising to help cure cancer.

When we signed up for the century, I told Elliot, a member of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society staff, that we were the Three Musketeers. We trained for our first Half Ironman through Team in Training, and here we were two years later doing the Century followed by a full Ironman. I asked him if we should wear our fencing swords during the century ride to signal to everyone our identities. Elliot promised something more practical and less likely to cause bodily harm. He said he had something PERFECT. I couldn’t wait to see what he might cook up. He left LLS just before the century ride, but I was not disappointed to see what awaited us in lieu of the Musketeers’ swords.

Each of us was issued a “CARDINAL.” The Cardinal is the state bird of Virginia, and we were told that by wearing this bird on our helmet, everyone else at the Century would know that we were from the Virginia Chapter of Team in Training. But also, as you may recall, Cardinal Richelieu was the arch enemy of the Three Musketeers. We were riding all day to fight cancer. We would not see our nemesis as we rode, but he would never be far away. I thought it was a fitting reminder of why we were on this quest. 

I am very proud of what the Musketeers have accomplished in training and races this season, but I am even prouder that collectively we have raised thousands of dollars in the quest to help cure cancer.  Many of you have been instrumental in getting us to those goals.  It is so important, and I thank you.  I race in honor of my father, who is in remission from lymphoma, and in memory of my grandmother, who lost a battle with leukemia.  If you'd like to make a donation, the site is still open, and will remain so at least for a little while after the Ironman.

The Seventeenth Century Three Musketeers went farther than most, and the Twenty First Century Three Musketeers are cut from the same cloth. At Fletcher, most people were riding 100 miles, followed by a celebratory feast. We Musketeers were riding 120 miles, followed by a one-hour run. To get it all in before the end of the day, I awoke at 4:15, and met the other Musketeers for an early ride. A man told us “you know you can’t start till the start.” We promised him we’d RESTART at the start at the start time, and were off. After our “warm up ride,” we circled back to the start line, as promised, met the rest of our group and began the official ride.

The ride was gorgeous--mostly rolling hills, with some nice climbs. Most of the climbs were steep but not too long, or long but not too steep.  Goldilocks hills.  But there were climbs here, there and everywhere. There were some technical bits--sharp turns at the bottom of hills, one sharp right followed immediately by a steep climb, and several descents with stop signs at the bottom, which is quite difficult to manage on a bike. The weather was hot--topping out at 90, and extremely humid.

During the run that followed, those who had finished their Century rides kept asking “why are you running? Haven’t you had enough?” After hearing this dozens of times, a woman shouted, “SO, what Ironman are you training for?” I guess she knew that the only crazy people who would run for an hour after a century must be triathletes going long--very long. We told her we were training for CDA, in Idaho, and she said “I’ve been there twice--gorgeous!” We asked whether the hills compared to Fletcher, and she said, “Uhh. There’s some big hills out there!” GULP!

EATING

As I have noted before, in races I have to overcome the fact that God did not give me any speed. I am lucky in other respects, though. One that comes in handy as the events get longer is that I have an iron stomach. Everyone around me is always talking about how things don't sit well on their stomach, or they cannot eat this or that, or just generally worrying whether their stomachs are going to get upset. They set timers to remind them to eat, and they force themselves to eat even if they think it might make them puke. I don’t have to set a timer because I am often hungry, when I am hungry I eat, and I couldn’t puke if I tried.

And that’s great because training for a Century and an Ironman means you get to eat a lot. For those of you interested in food, I’ll document what I ate: The night before the Century, I ate a large plate of pasta with meat sauce, plus a boneless breast of chicken, a large portion of roasted veggies and a wheat roll with butter. And I had a brownie. I hard boiled some eggs to eat for breakfast at home and stored them in the hotel fridge. When I awoke, the eggs were frozen solid! Covered in a layer of ice. I tried to thaw one in a cup of coffee, but the result was an coffee scented ice cube. So I ate a banana and some Greek yogurt for breakfast. And my usual two pieces of multigrain bread and jelly. I had a second banana before the ride.

I drank a lot of gatorade on the bike ride. I used my new "double" aero drink holder on the front of my bike and had three other bottles. I refilled my bottles at every stop and downed lots of extra gatorade. Full test gatorade has many calories, but riding a century is no time to go for the low calorie alternative. I ate 3 ½ cliff bars and 3 gels (if you aren’t a runner, I’ll tell you that a gel is a packet of thick sugary stuff that has about 100 calories in it) while riding, and at the stops I ate a total of 4 full peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a banana and an orange, a chocolate chip cookie and two Strawberry Newtons. To maintain my salt intake, I ate pretzels, trail mix, potato chips and some salty boiled potatoes. When we finished the ride and prepared to run, I wasn't hungry, but I knew I couldn't run for an hour with no food, so I ate a gel before starting on the run. I ate half a cliff bar on the run. I had a recovery drink afterwards and when we got back to the hotel, I remarked to Holly that I was not hungry. She looked at me and marveled, “I think that’s the first time I have ever heard you say that!” It took me a full hour before I was famished, and ate a Greek yogurt before we headed out for dinner. Good thing I did that long ride and run: I needed to work off all the calories!

What Lies Ahead

So, my century is complete, and now I am focused exclusively on the upcoming Ironman race. I shipped off my bike, Aanjay, today, and I fly out next Tuesday. We fly out ahead of time to adjust to the altitude and to preview the swim course (where the weather is supposed to be frigid--in the 60s), the bike course (to see if the hills are as steep as people say) and the run course (to see what obstacles that marathon will throw our way).

I have decided on goals for my race, which I’ll share with you. I must finish the race in 17 hours--it starts at 7 am, and I must cross the marathon finish line no later than midnight. Imagine waking up early and starting your workout at 7 am, and continuing all day, literally. But I would like to finish a bit earlier! I hope to finish the swim in 1 hour 40 minutes, the bike ride in 7 hours 30 minutes, and the run in 5 hours. There are transitions between each event, during which I will change clothes. If I take no more than 10 minutes at each transition, and meet my other goals, then my total time would be 14:30. That is right: fourteen and a half hours.

You can track me on race day (Sunday, June 26th) by logging onto www.ironman.com and plugging in my name or number. My number is 640. The “athlete tracker” there will tell you whether I have crossed some timing mats along the course--there will be one at the end of the swim, and several during the bike ride and run. If you cannot stay up till I am finished, you can check the next morning to see how I did versus my 14:30 goal. In any event, after I get back home, you’ll hear from me.

Thanks so much to everyone for your support to me in this journey! If you would like to make a donation to help cure cancer, the fundraising site is still open. Thanks!

Monday, May 23, 2011

On May 14th, I raced the Kinetic Half Ironman. This race consisted of a 1.2 mile swim, a 56 mile bike ride and a 13.1 mile run, and this was my third time doing this distance. It took me more than 8 hours to do the Augusta Half Ironman. Last September, I did the Patriots Half in 6:59:05. So, my goal was to beat that time, in spite of my bum knee, which had sidelined me from running and cycling for a time.  In my last race, I couldn't run at all because of my knee. This time, I would do the full race, which would give me a chance to test my race strategies leading up to Ironman CDA.  The swim, bike and run for Ironman CDA each will be twice as long as the swim, bike and run of the Kinetic Half. 

Swim--- I had three things I wanted to accomplish on the swim at Kinetic. First, at my last race, Bumpass, my calves cramped like crazy, and I wanted to overcome cramping. Second, at Bumpass, I swam right past the exit as though I were a salmon heading upstream to spawn, and this time, I wanted to swim straight! Third, I wanted to try out something that I will need sorely when I comes to my 2.4 mile swim at Ironman CDA. If you are squeamish, skip to the next paragraph. I wanted to learn to pee while swimming. After all, the Ironman swim should take me more than an hour and a half and will be followed by a day of exercise.  What could be more efficient than peeing in a large lake while swimming?

The day before the race, we had an open water practice in the James River. We practiced swimming in a knot, getting used to the notion that others may accidentally hit or kick you as they struggle to get space to swim forward.  Unbeknownst to me, Bruce Lee had signed up for triathlon training. I thought he was dead. One thing is for sure, he still has a kick!  And kick me he did, in the calf. After I got home I had to walk the dogs and could not convince them that it is customary to go "on a walk" and not move more than 4 feet past the door. OWWW

Race morning, I still felt the bruise from Bruce Lee's kick, and I worried it would make me cramp up. I tried several strategies to prevent this. First, I took a salt tablet before getting in the water. Thank goodness it was warmer than the water had been a month ago at Bumpass.

Most open water swims begin in deep water. This swim started on the beach: when the gun went off, we were to run into the water from the shore until it was deep enough to swim, at which point we were to do a shallow dive and begin swimming. This is the same format that will be used at Ironman CDA, so I was glad to get some practice. There will be one difference, though. At Kinetic, my swim wave consisted mostly of ladies over 40. Most would be much faster swimmers than I am; nonetheless, I placed myself in the middle of the crowd toward the front. Doing so scares some people because faster people will jostle you to pass you.  But it allows you to benefit for a time from the “draft” of the fast swimmers without much effort.  I take a risk, usually, and start out front.  For the Ironman, though, everyone (men and women, young and old) starts at once. When old ladies hit you, they tend to say “sorry!” I do not think the same is true for 20-something men trying to achieve their fastest time ever on an Ironman race. But for Kinetic, I started in the front, ran into the water and dove and swam right away. I was going super-fast for me, trying to draft of the naturally fast. Then I realized I was going way too fast, as though I were racing 300 meters and then going home. But I had to swim for 1.2 miles, followed by a long bike and run. So I slowed and got into a rhythm. This made me lose my draft off the fast lady, but I still felt good. I sighted well and kept in a straight line!

And what about the calf? Miraculously, once I got in the water it felt fine. I didn't cramp and I swam in a straight line. Two goals accomplished. And, about 300 meters from the exit, I accomplished the third goal. Hey, it was a really big lake and what do you think the fish do? I promise not to do this at the Y.

Result on the swim: 44:58. Improved by almost 15 minutes over the Patriot's Half I did on 9/11/10, in which my time was 59:21.

Bike.   At T1 (the first transition, between the swim and bike), I saw Holly and we rejoiced and exited together. I got on my bike and started up the hill, expecting Holly was right behind me. Finally I heard her approach. “Just think,” I said, “our husbands are probably just now getting out of bed and making a cup of coffee.” A deep voice answered, “actually, my wife is 3 minutes ahead of me. I think I’ll go catch her.” So, Holly was not there to keep me company on this long ride. I was riding alone.  And, to answer a question I was asked recently, I do not wear "ear buds" in my ears and listen to music.  Doing so is not permitted in a triathlon.  Besides, I like to drink in my surroundings with all my senses!

I especially like to see.  But this morning, it was misting pretty steadily, which fogged and clouded my sunglasses, which I wear rain or shine because they are prescription sunglasses. After a few miles of near blindness, I figured out that I could wipe the front of my glasses off with a finger and still see. Whew!

At some point in the course, I made a sharp right at a country store and then zipped fast down an incline. I was FLYING. On the pre-ride, Holly had complained about a dip in the road around this spot. I had missed it then, but this time I hit it with such force in my seat it knocked my breath away. OWWWW. All I can say is it is a good thing I am not a man!

The bike course was not hilly compared to where we normally ride, but it was hillier than the Patriots race I did last September. There was really only one fairly steep and long hill. Because of my knee, I remained seated on this hill and took my time climbing. Others stood on this hill, which gives you more power to go faster, but can stress your knees. I let them pass me.

On the second loop, I was determined not to hit the dip. Darn it, when I came upon it, someone passed me so I could not get over. I could do nothing but go right over the dip. I stood and braced myself. WHOMP! It felt like whiplash! Soon after that, I realized my overall pace was almost 17 mph--very fast for me. Unfortunately, the second half of the loop is slower than the first, and I was slowing fast.  I started doing calculations in my head. I was determined to beat my time at Patriots, which was 3:23:28. I increased my effort to beat my prior time.

Bike Result: 3:21:34 versus Patriots of 3:23:28.  That was close.

Run. The run was the toughest part of this race. It was a three loop course, containing a number of hills, starting with a very steep hill. The hills made it a difficult course for everyone. It was worse for me because of my knee injury. Because of the injury, I had been instructed to walk up the steep hill at the start and down a steep hill at the end of the loop, but otherwise to run for 9 minutes and walk for one minute.  Because I had increased my effort on the bike, I was relieved to have a "good excuse" to walk up that initial hill.  People were cheering me on, encouraging me to run, noting the look of total exhaustion on my face.  "Gotta walk this hill!" I shouted.  "Doctor's orders!" 

As I did the first loop, I realized that there was another horrible hill on this route--not quite as steep as the initial hill, but probably three times as long. I tried to run up this hill, but my knee twinged. Ouch.  I decided to walk up this hill too, to save my knee. I noticed many other runners walking up this hill, with no bum knee on which to blame the decision.   When I got to the downhill at the end of the loop, I had a hard time walking.  Obviously I was giving up speed by doing so.  Would it really hurt my knee to run?  I was a good girl for two laps, but by the third lap, I decided to risk it, and I ran down the hill and onto the finish line.

My run time was 2:23:04. I was very happy because this was more than 6 minutes faster than my time at Patriots, which was 2:29:29. That was pretty amazing given that the Patriots run was flat as a pancake and I didn’t have the bum knee last September. It was only about 10 minutes slower than my time at the Shamrock half marathon (which was a stand-alone half marathon, and not a half marathon that followed a 1.2 mile swim and 56 mile bike ride.

Overall--6:35:51. I was faster than Patriots by more than 23 minutes, despite a bum knee and a harder course.  I was quite pleased.

My goal for the Ironman is to finish before the course closes. The race starts at 7:00 a.m., and you must finish before midnight or you get a DNF, for “did not finish,” regardless if you cross the finish line. This gives you 17 hours to complete the course. At one time, I worried about this limit. I am slow at all three sports, and what happens if I am having a bad day?

Conventional wisdom says that you can predict your Ironman time by taking your Half Ironman time, doubling it, and adding 10%. If you do this with my Kinetic time, you end up at about 14:32. However, the Ironman course will be harder--the bike ride is much hillier. So maybe 15 hours is more realistic, if all goes right. It does make me feel better to think that I have a little cushion built in, just in case something goes wrong.  I am trying hard to eliminate variables that could make things go wrong, to the extent they are in my control.  And, in the end, I will be happy if I finish in fewer than 17 hours!

My next big challenge is the Fletcher Flyer Century. It is a 100 mile bike ride in the hills of North Carolina. To sweeten the pot, Holly, Amanda and I will be riding an extra 20 miles before the official ride begins, for a total of 120 miles. It will be by far the longest bike ride any of us have ever done. And it will be rewarding because Holly, Amanda and I will receive the coveted “triple crown” for finishing this ride. The “triple crown” is awarded to those who have raised funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society by completing a marathon, a triathlon and a century with Team in Training.

If you have wanted to make a contribution to my fundraising goal, now is the time to do it! My event is coming up soon, and I need to meet a minimum goal by then.  Every dollar you contribute helps meet the goal to cure cancer and to improve the lives of cancer patients and their families.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Channelling Lawrence of Arabia, Bilbo Baggins and Lance Armstrong

“Today will be difficult, but tomorrow good riding.” --Lawrence of Arabia
As you know, I have been struggling with something called “IT band syndrome,” which causes knee pain when I run or bike a long way. When I took up running in my forties, my mother said, “oh, your knees! Promise me you’ll stop running if your knees hurt!” She knew that running on arthritic knees can cause permanent damage. The medical professionals tell me, however, that running or riding when your knee hurts from IT band syndrome will not cause permanent damage. It just hurts like the dickens.

But I am training for a century ride (100 mile bike ride) and an Ironman (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile run), so I have to ride and run a long way. The doctor tells me to go as far as my teammates, if possible, but stop if it hurts and stretch, and if that doesn’t work, just stop for the day.

But what if you are miles from your car when your knee hurts? For a while, I solved the issue by biking on my trainer in my exercise room. The trainer turns my own outdoor bike into an indoor stationary bike. By riding indoors, if my knee hurt, I can stop riding and do some stretching and then hop right back on to try again. One Saturday in early April, I announced to my husband that I would be riding for six hours. I started at 9 am and did not finish until after 6 pm. He pointed out that my math skills appeared to be lacking. I had forgotten to account for the myriad stops to stretch and ice my knee. While I rode and stretched, I watched Lawrence of Arabia, one of the greatest movies of all times. I was inspired by Lawrence’s heroism and his strength in the face of adversity. The dialogue from the movie dazzled me:

Mr. Dryden: Lawrence, only two kinds of creature get fun in the desert; Bedouins and gods, and you're neither. Take it from me, for ordinary men, it's a burning, fiery furnace.
 T.E. Lawrence:  No, Dryden, it's going to be fun.
Mr. Dryden:  It is recognized that you have a funny sense of fun.
I am no Lawrence of Arabia, but neither am I ordinary. Many of my friends who do triathlons have natural talents: they are Bedouins or gods. I am neither. But I do have a funny sense of fun.

Rumpass in Bumpass

Disraeli once said “Circumstances are beyond human control, but our conduct is in our own power.” I had to remember that concept on the morning of April 16th. That morning, I found myself shivering as a 15 mile per hour wind blew driving rain under the thin cover of a flimsy tent.

It was an hour before the “Rumpass in Bumpass,” a triathlon at Lake Anna. I planned to swim and bike this triathlon, but upon doctor’s orders, I would not attempt the run for fear of blowing out my knee. My official result of this race would be “DNF,” which stands for “Did Not Finish.” It usually spells failure. But today it spell success.

Coach Michael suggested a long warm up, but I couldn't stand the thought of getting on my bike in this rain. Then I realized I had to bike twenty-five miles in this rain, only to receive a DNF. As I stood and shivered, I wondered if it was worth it. But I reassessed my goals, One of my motivations for doing this training is to raise money to cure cancer. Those with cancer must soldier on when conditions are adverse, often much more adverse than riding in the rain with a bum knee. So, in response to the circumstances, I shouted, at the top of my lungs:

"What a great day for a race!”

My teammates groaned, either because they lacked my enthusiasm or because they were struggling to pull on wetsuits, which in the best of circumstances is like putting on control top pantyhose and suddenly discovering that you’re putting on a size extra small. Today, the task was doubly difficult because the suits were soaking wet. We got in the water to warm up. What a shock! The water temperature was in the low 60s. After a few minutes, I could no longer feel my feet, so I did some fast aqua jogging and showed a bunch of people how to do it. Handy skill!

When the gun went off, I started swimming and, immediately, my calf cramped. I shook it off. Then the other leg cramped, and I shook that off. Even without the cramps, the swim would have been hard. There was a lot of chop, so I had to lift my head higher to see where I was going. I realized that whenever someone hit or kicked me I cramped. For those of you who do open water triathlons, you realize that I was getting hit or kicked frequently. For those of you who read this with concern (including many of my family members), please remember that I lived to write this, and also know that there are many safety features to these races. If you ever want to quit, you raise your hand and a kayak or boat comes over to drag you to shore.

But I did not want to quit. I did not want to be dragged to shore; I wanted to finish the swim and ride my bike! So finally I moved away from the cramp-inducing crowds and swam my own swim, sometimes stretching my calf to forestall more cramping. I was sighting to a yellow buoy, and didn't worry that nobody was around. Alas the line of swim I selected was not on the actual swim course! The yellow buoy was, as it were, a red herring. I had swum past the exit. The swim-capped crowd of swimmers looked like ants making their way to the exit: far away and behind me. I must have been 200 or 300 meters farther than I needed to be. I had to swim back to the exit, and go around a pier.

I was so mad! I really have been working on my swimming, and I wanted to do well. I wasn't sure what my time was, but I was sure it must have been awful. I assumed I was nearly last out of the water. Later I looked at the results. My swim time was 41:22. My best open water swim of this distance was about two minutes faster. Later Coach Michael, who raced the same race, told me the course (meaning, the actual course if you swam it straight) was longer than it was supposed to be. His time was three minutes slower than he would have predicted. For the swim leg I was ranked 6 out of 13 in my age group. Imagine how I could have done if I didn’t have cramps and if I stayed on course!

By the time I got to my bike, the rain had turned to drizzle. I was really tired from the swim and took some time to go slowly, catch my breath and eat a very soggy Cliff Bar. (Note to self: it's a good idea to open your nutrition and leave your bento box open if it's not raining. If raining, rethink.) I knew I needed to take it somewhat easy on the bike to avoid knee pain, but, after getting warmed up, I felt good and went out really hard. Too hard. I felt some knee discomfort, so I had to back off the intensity. After a bit, I increased the intensity somewhat, but I didn't hammer it like I had done at first. I had to back off once or twice more during the ride, typically when I was going too hard in a hard gear. I tried to focus on keeping my cadence high.

I came into T2 (transition from the bike to the run) and took my time getting off my bike and making my way through a muddy field. My official bike time was 1:29:53, which is my fastest bike time for this distance race by 3+ minutes. Not so shabby for a gimpy old lady who had to drop intensity a few times to save the knee. My rank on the bike in my age group was 6 out of 13. Top half!

My T1 was ranked 5 out of 13, even though I didn't really try to do that transition fast because I knew I wasn't competing overall.

So, although I didn’t do the run, if I had, I would have ranked in the top half. Pretty good for the gal who was always picked last in gym class, huh?

Too Many Adventures, Bilbo

After a successful long ride on a trainer, followed by the 25 mile ride at Bumpass, my coach decided I could try to “pre-ride” the course we would be riding for the Kinetic Half Ironman. This half ironman will be a training race for me--to see how ready I am to do the full Ironman.

Coach Michael wanted me to “pre-ride” this course for 90 miles, on the multiple loop course. He instructed me that, at the end of any loop, I should quit if my knee hurt. My doctor approved this plan. The course was shaped like a lollipop: you rode up the stick of the lollipop and then took streets that formed a loop, like rounding the sucker part of the lollipop. The group debated whether to return on the stick for each loop or just to circle the candy and return on the stick at the end of the day. I advocated coming back on the stick so I could quit more easily if need be. Ironically, the “stick” road was named “Lawyers,” so I declared I was quite comfortable visiting Lawyers over and over again. Others suggested seeing Lawyers only if there were no other choice.

This ride turned out to be an adventure. As Bilbo Baggins once noted, adventures are “Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can't think what anybody sees in them."

About 20 of my friends started out on the adventure, covering the first 18 mile loop. We loaded up just enough food and drink for this initial stage. The course was full of rolling hills, and then, toward the end, we began to climb a huge, steep, long hill. I had been instructed to take my time on the hills, rather than to stand up and power over hills. As I crested this hill, I saw Coach Michael and some of the fastest riders coming back: “We missed the turn!” they announced. We had climbed a “bonus hill” and tacked on some extra miles.

We turned around and made our way back to Lawyers. I was riding with Jack, an engineer and a stronger cyclist than I, when he inquired where our friends Becca and Holly were. They were behind, so he dropped back to check on them, and I continued alone, presumably only a short distance behind our other friends Dorothy and Lilo. Without Jack to guide me, I was on the lookout for the intersection with Lawyers because I tend to get lost. After passing through a large intersection, I began to look for the turn.

Suddenly I noticed something wrong with the tubing coming out of my hydration system. When I exercise I sweat more than most people, and consequently I drink more than most people. On the run, I carry my trusty fuel belt no matter the distance we plan to cover. Please laugh at me, but I do not like a cotton mouth. For my bike rides I bought a 100 ounce hydration system, which is mounted underneath my seat. A tube leads from this location along the seat tube to my handlebars, where I sip the liquid from the other end of the tube. It is a great idea in theory, but once before on a long ride it had sprung a leak, while Holly was riding directly behind me. Seeing the yellow Gatorade washing all over my rear wheel, Holly squealed “Amy, you are peeing on the bike!”

And today, the tank itself was all askew, threatening to fall off. I messed with it, unprofessionally, and caused the screws to come off completely. For a moment, the system held on by the tubing, but as I watched, helplessly, the tubing came apart and the yellow Gatorade sprayed all over the ground, the very life of the system letting go. Sadly, I took the dead soldier, and lay it on the side of the road. Road Kill. Then I remembered that Jack, the engineer, was behind me. It was merely a matter of waiting, patiently, for him to catch up and then he would fix it! It didn’t have any liquid left, but I could refill that back at the car. So I waited. And waited. And waited. Then I realized, in a panic, that nobody was coming. I was lost with no hydration other than a tiny bottle. I realized then, too, that I had very little food, and that I was hungry.

T.E. Lawrence: There's no time to waste, then, is there?
Sherif Ali:  There is the railway. And that is the desert. From here until we reach the other side, no water but what we carry with us. For the camels, no water at all. If the camels die, we die. And in twenty days they will start to die.
Quickly I flagged down a truck and asked the young driver for directions to the State Park. Sure enough, the directions started with “turn around and go the opposite way; when you get to the big intersection turn left.” I followed the directions, and realized that the large intersection was Lawyers, and it was only after passing through this intersection that I had begun to look for the turn. I was almost back to home base when I met up with the team. Some had feared I was injured; Holly persuaded them I was merely lost, and to support this theory had told everyone the story of my journey in the car from Richmond to Baltimore, which I took via Emporia, VA. We set out again for a thirty mile loop without my being able to restock my nutrition.

Too many Adventures, and no provisions for the Hobbit’s Second Breakfast! We had a cue sheet of directions, but the turns were listed by street name, and the signs showed route numbers. I stayed with others to avoid getting lost in the wilderness. Holly is an excellent navigator, and I followed her lead. We were looking for Robert E. Lee street, and somehow, she knew, instinctively, that we had found the intersection, despite the lack of any street signs whatsoever. Perhaps it was the Confederate Flag? Despite her uncanny ability to find the right turns, we got lost half a dozen times on this loop. When my total mileage reached 60 miles, my knee began to hurt. We weren’t far from the cars, so I slowed down. Holly and Becca waited for me at each corner, certain that I would get lost.

After 65 miles, we refueled at the cars. With my mouth full of food, I sent my friends off for their third hilly loop, while I stretched my knee. After some stretching, I felt better. My goal was to ride 90 miles, but I had only covered 65. I decided to go for it, but in a different way. I wouldn’t ride the hilly course again, but I would ride 25 more miles. As the sausage king from Varina once said, “I can't change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination.” I needed to ride 25 miles, but I wanted to avoid climbing hills that would hurt my knees, and getting lost. So I rode slowly and steadily up and down Lawyers, a fairly flat 3 mile stretch of road, for almost two hours. And I felt no pain!

Once I reached my 90 mile cycling goal for the day, I got off Aanjay and checked out the lake where we would swim during the Half Ironman. I spotted a hilarious sign that suggests that swimming is prohibited, but wading is permitted. (See photo section). This Half Ironman might not be so bad! I took off my shoes and waded in the frigid water. A natural ice bath. ahhhhhhhhh
Spinning Up Like Lance

"But I don't want to go among mad people," said Alice. "Oh, you can't help that," said the cat. "We're all mad here." Last weekend, I joined a group of stark raving mad people who paid good money to be tortured. We drove to Wintergreen, Virginia, to swim, bike and run in the mountains as part of a triathlon camp. Some people go to baseball fantasy camp. I go to triathlon fantasy camp.

On a gorgeous Friday afternoon, we donned our wetsuits to swim in a freezing cold lake. I put on two caps--one under my goggles, and one on top of my goggles. The layering provided warmth, and protected me from the risk that someone would kick my in the face and knock my goggles off into the water. I waited till someone dove in before I stuck my toe in. For it is the early bird who gets the worm, but it is the second mouse who gets the cheese. Rewarded with my cheese, I joined the others in honing our skills at sighting (the practice of figuring out where the heck you are in a lake so you don’t swim past the exit), drafting (the practice of swimming so close to someone that their effort sucks you along and you merely glide), avoiding (the practice of ducking when you are trying to draft and the other person elbows you). It was great practice for me because at my Ironman race we will swim in a lake with a temperature likely to be in the sixties. It is especially important for me to swim strongly in the Ironman--I cannot get lost or the day is lost. Drafting off someone seems ideal, as long as he doesn’t kick me or hit me. Or at least not too hard.

After two hours of swimming, those planning to compete in the Ironman began our second half of their 22 mile run. I cheated a little. I still had the bum knee, so I had aqua jogged for the first half of the run--2 hours in the pool in Richmond. And even now, I kept on my wetsuit and ran in the water for another hour. Only then did I emerge from the lake like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I stripped off the wetsuit and began my land running. Every four minutes, my watch beeped to remind me to walk for one minute. This was the compromise that would save my knee so it could be ground to a pulp the next day on the bike ride.

And the next day, we awoke, apprehensive to have before us an all-day ride in the mountains. Before climbing up any mountains, we were to descend a huge mountain--Wintergreen mountain.

Coach Tyler taught us that if we held our grip firmly on the brakes the whole time, then the brakes would heat up and lose their power. Then we would resemble an “asteroid hurtling toward the center of the earth.” In the alternative, he explained, we could use the brakes, particularly the front brakes, on the straight parts of the descent, and then “feather” the brakes at other times. Then he taught us what to do if a car darted out in front of us unexpectedly while we were hurtling down the mountain. Praying was bound to be part of it, but, as you know, God helps those who help themselves, and Tyler taught us to sit way back on the seat and brake quickly.

Having learned these tips, we hurtled down the mountain. I was not riding Ariel this time, but my new triathlon-specific bike, Aanjay, which means “the unconquerable.” Aanjay is not as chatty as Ariel, so as we hurtled down the mountain, the only “WHEE!” I heard was from my friend Holly, whom I had instructed to squeal “WHEE” three times during the descent, because she was afraid.

At the bottom of the steepest part of the hill, we continued down the mountain until everyone met at a country store for a brief break before our ASCENT. See the photo section for a photo of our large group before the hilly stuff began.

The climbing started almost right away, but the first long hill was just an appetizer for the big climb known as Crabtree Falls. Following doctor’s orders, I ascended the hors d’oeuvre slowly, spinning my legs fast rather than standing and powering up the hills. In that respect, I channelled Lance Armstrong, who is famous for spinning up hills at a high cadence.  Of course, even among my fellow amateur athletes, I was not in the running for a yellow jacket.  No, I continued to be the red caboose.  Every train, though, needs a caboose.

I did the Wintergreen Camp last year, and I couldn’t even eat this appetizer hill without crying I had to get off and push Ariel up this hill. By contrast, this year, Aanjay (whose name, after all, means "the unconquerable")and I were confident. We climbed and climbed, knowing there was more to climb, but we were in no hurry.  If I felt like getting off, Aanjay just kept going, refusing to let me stop. It helped that I knew the terrain because I had walked up the road before. At the top of the hill, we waited for everyone to gather briefly, and took off toward Crabtree.

The climb up Crabtree Falls is arduous: a steep climb that goes on and on for miles until it flattens out at a country store. Last year, I was crying hysterically, but trying not to blur my vision too much with the tears, hoping I was near the end, when I spied a sign that said “Five Miles to the Country Store,” I broke down completely and could go no further. This year, my coach and doctor instructed me to get off the bike at the same sign, so that I could save my knee for the ride on the Blue Ridge to follow the arduous climb. The climb was difficult, but this year, when I got to the sign, I was disappointed that I could not continue. I was a good girl, though, and got in the truck.

As we rode up the mountain, checking on folks as they climbed, I heard everyone moaning “ugggggg” as they struggled to get up the hill. Once I was released on the Blue Ridge to ride again, I told Holly our mantra was “MORE WHEEEE, LESS UGGGGGG!” And the ride on the crest of the Blue Ridge was gorgeous! We climbed up and down hills, but they were not as arduous as Crabtree, so I did not need to worry about my knee. The training day ended with MORE WHEEE--a screaming descent down Reeds Gap. WHEEEEEEEE!!!!

Back at the house we rented for our group, we celebrated Coach Tyler’s one-year anniversary with Endorphin Fitness with some bubbly. I had previously sworn off bubbly (other than sparkling spring water) with my friend Kelly. You can see a photo of us chugging Pelligrino. But I made an exception for real bubbly for this celebration after such a long day! Then Coach Camille, the strength coach, helped me stretch out my IT band. Pretzels are great with champagne!

I’m gearing up for the Kinetic Half Ironman, scheduled for May 14th. My knee is feeling better, and my coaches and doctor say I can swim 1.2 miles, bike 56 miles and run 13.1 HILLY miles. All to test whether I can do twice that come the end of June.

I know I can do it. Some would say “it is written.” I say, “I will write it.”
Truly, for some . . . , nothing is written unless they write it.

Friday, April 8, 2011

The Journey to Aqua Jogging

Aqua Jogging

The other day, I went to the Downtown YMCA swimming pool.  In lanes 1 and 2 were efficient lap swimmers.  Occupying the remaining lanes were a gaggle of grossly giant gals, all doing "water-robics."  Each of these gals tips the scales at more than 300 pounds, and comes to the Y three times a week to burn off calories.  These gals carried floating barbells, designed not for use in weight bearing exercise, but for fun floatation.  They bounced to the rhythm of hip hop music, dubbed over in Muzak form. 

I do not weigh 300 pounds, and I do not "try" to exercise three days a week.  Instead, I've trimmed down lately, shedding 33 pounds, and I look forward, daily, to training for my upcoming Ironman.  But on this day, I was not joining my trim triathlete teammates for a session of swimming, cycling or running.  I was joining the stout for some simulated running.  I put on my light blue "Aqua Jogger" belt and ran happily in circles around the Large Ladies, like a collie dog rounding up sheep.  I did not nip their heels, mind you, but I smiled and waved, which apparently had the same effect. Irritated them to no end. The Leader of the Large Ladies announced "let's do some crunches now," and then leaned over to me and said, "if you aren't going to do crunches with us, you must go over into the lap swimmer lanes."  I started to object, and she said, "if you stay here, we will kick you!"  I never ran so fast in my life!

Now, you ask, how does aqua jogging fit into Ironman triathlon training?

Most Improved

Flashback:  Last year, almost every time I raced, I would finish faster than ever before, achieving a new "personal record," or "PR."  At Endorphin Fitness, I do running "speed work" every week, and that seemed to pay off: my running got much stronger and faster than ever.  At the Marine Corps Marathon, I ran so fast that I achieved PRs within the race as I arrived at the 5k and 10k marks, and also got a significant PR overall.   During the winter, I focused on my cycling, and became much faster and stronger at cycling.  And lately I've been working hard on swimming technique, and now I can swim faster with less effort than before. Swimming with less effort is a great thing if you are training for an event that requires you to bike and run after swimming: you don't want to wear yourself out swimming. 

In January, I received an award from my training group.  Of all the adult athletes at Endorphin Fitness, I was selected as the "Most Improved."

When I was growing up, the gym teacher would pick two fast, fit girls to be team captains.  They chose team members, one at a time, looking above my head at anyone, anyone, but me, while I sat on the bench looking pale, sickly and skinny.  (I had asthma). Soon, nobody would be left but me and my friend Agatha Pihakis.  At this point, the captain would waver between us, looking mildly disgusted.  She would choose, seemingly randomly, between us.

So, accepting that award was a bit heady.  I looked at it a couple more times to make sure it didn't say "Miss Congeniality" on it because I am a nice girl.  But it really was "Most Improved."  Now, I know this is not the Miss America CROWN.  I am still super-slow compared to others, but compared to Old Amy, New Amy is quite speedy.  By the way, does Miss America have an award similar to "Most Improved"?  When I was a little girl, all my girlfriends wanted to be Miss America.  Beauty pageants were not for me, nor did I want to be any kind of athlete.   And now I AM an athlete.  Much better than pageant contestant.  Among other things, I think "Most Improved" sounds better than "She Ain't as Ugly as We Thought, Bless her Heart."

After receiving the award, I realized what a great burden it was.  Now I had to keep improving, didn't I?  Coach Tyler gently reminded me that, having improved by leaps and bounds last year, I might not improve by such dramatic margins this year, and not to get discouraged.

Shamrock ON!

With that admonition in mind, I prepared for the Shamrock Half Marathon.  My friends, Holly, Amanda and Tiffani, and I all decided to do the "Dolphin Challenge," meaning that we would run the 8K on Saturday, and follow that with the half marathon on Sunday.  Coach Michael was worried about this challenge: traditional training lore would suggest that the day before a half marathon one should run for 5 minutes, not 5 miles. 

But we convinced Michael that we would run the 8K very slowly, thus saving our speed for Sunday, and not taxing our legs.  It took great discipline to run the race slowly.  Holly and I stuck together, and from time to time would shout, "that's too fast!"  We came across the finish line in 55:46, which is a pace slower than 11 minutes per mile.  We were happy to have run it slow enough!

That evening, everyone from Endorphin Fitness went to PF Changs in VA Beach.  We had a great time, and I grabbed a fortune cookie, which I planned to open at breakfast the next day.

The next day, we awoke for the real challenge--the half marathon.  I opened my fortune cookie.  "If you can tolerate small annoyances, you will have great rewards."  What a great race-day mantra!

We drove to the race start.  It was cold, dark and extremely windy! We debated about what to wear because the temperature would rise with the sun. In the end, I wore a skirt, a sleeveless top and arm warmers, on the theory that I could take the arm warmers off whenever I needed to do so.  I decided not to wear a hat on the theory that the wind would take that off whenever it wanted to do so. 

Holly and I waited in a porta potty line and listened to some speeches and the National Anthem, saddling up to a tall man who kindly blocked the wind.   We were freezing.  "Small Annoyances--Great Rewards!"  Governor McDonnell wished everyone an "effortless half marathon," which made us laugh out loud.  I don't think he's a runner.  Effortless?  We were prepared for effort, and for some small annoyances, too.

My previous half marathon PR (personal record) was 2:29, and I achieved that PR at the tail end of the Patriots Half Ironman.  In other words, it came after a 1.2 mile swim and a 56 mile bike ride.  Thus, in spite of Tyler's warning that I might not improve as much in the future, I felt pretty good about beating this record.  Holly and I set out on a pace that would cause us to finish in 2:11.  That was our goal, but the truth is, we set out a bit faster.  It was a great race, but about halfway through, my hip began to bother me a bit.  I could feel myself slowing down because of it, and I was dismayed to notice that mile 9 was almost a full minute slower than the earlier miles. I began repeating the mantra from my fortune cookie--small annoyances lead to great rewards. At some point, my arm started to itch uncontrollably, and I realized that something wonderful happened because that got my mind off the pain in my hip.  Small annoyances--great rewards!  I kicked myself and kicked back into gear. 

My finish time: 2:10:55.  This time was five seconds faster than my goal, in spite of the hip issues!  And it was almost 20 minutes faster than my previous PR.   The total of the two races (for the Dolphin Challenge) was 3:06:40.  (55:46 + 2:10:55 = 3:06:40)


After the race, my hip was fine.  In fact, I felt so great I danced for hours at the ShamROCK ON party.  Check out the photo section for a picture of my finishing the half marathon, as well as photos of our post-race celebration!


Calm Before the Storm


As the week went by, I forgot all about the pain I had in my hip.  I went through my normal weekly training routine, which includes:


Monday,
--One-on-one swim lesson in an "endless pool," which is like a swimming treadmill, equipped with a camera to help me see what I do wrong (or sometimes, right).
--Class that emphasizes "stretching" (yoga style moves) and "core" exercises--that is, exercises such as crunches, for your abdomen and other core muscles.


Tuesday:
--Hard one-hour bike ride, after which I jump off and immediately go for a 25 minute run.
--Strength Training


Wednesday
--Easy bike ride
--Group Swimming


Thursday
--Speed work on the running track
--Strength Class


Friday
--Swimming


OUCH!!


Then it came to Saturday, when I had an 85 mile bike ride on the schedule.  Because the Ironman we're doing is quite hilly, Coach Michael prepared a bike course including some of the largest hills in Goochland (which is just outside Richmond), including the infamous "Three Sisters."  I am riding a new bike now, Aanjay, a beautiful tri-specific bike.  She is fast as the wind, but not nearly as chatty as Ariel.  Together, Aanjay and I had climbed some hills lately with strength.  My friend Kelly told me one of those days, "Amy, hills are your strength."  I decided that was another of my mantras.  Anytime I came to a hill, I would say "Hills are my strength!"  Amazingly, it helped me up the hills much better than the phrase I used to use, "HOLY COW, LOOK AT THAT GIANT HILL.  HOW CAN WE CLIMB THAT??!!!???"


Aanjay means "unconquerable."  I contemplated the hills of this particular ride, and together Aanjay and I decided they would not conquer us! 


We set out on this hilly course, delighted to attack the big hills.  At mile 30, I noticed that the outside of my knee hurt just  a little. Hmm, I said, that's new. By mile 50, during some flat ground, it began to kill me.  It was as though someone had taken a sharp knife and was stabbing me.  The only way back to my car was via the car.  No short cuts were available.   And most of the monster hills were ahead of us. I braced myself for more pain.  I began to cry a little, but the tears blurred my vision, and I realized I needed to see clearly to avoid falling off Aanjay.  "Small annoyances lead to great rewards," I told myself.


And then the hills began.  "Hills are my strength."  I braced myself for increased pain as we went up a hill.  And, weirdly, my knee felt 100 times better.  On the flat ground, the pain returned.  I prayed for hills.  "Hills are my strength!"  In the end, we rode 88 miles.


I got an appointment with Dr. Green first thing Monday, and he diagnosed my problem.  As I suspected, I have something called "IT band syndrome."  It is very common amongst runners.  In my case, it results from a weak muscle up in my hip area--the area that was hurting at the Shamrock race.  That weakness transfers to pain in the knee.  As a result of this pain, I cannot run, and my cycling has been reduced dramatically.  Just a couple days after the hilly ride, I tried riding again and had to stop in 10 minutes.  On Tuesday, I rode for an hour, quite and improvement, but a long way from the 6 1/2 hours I am supposed to do this weekend. 


So, I am aqua jogging.  And I'm swimming more often than before.  If all else fails, I'll go to the Ironman race and swim for 2.4 miles and then go get myself some eggs, bacon, toast and mimosas! But I am hoping I can ride 112 miles on Aanjay and then run a marathon, finishing all that before midnight. 


Then we'll pop the champagne corks!  Hold the orange juice.