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?
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.
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:
--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.
--Hard one-hour bike ride, after which I jump off and immediately go for a 25 minute run.
--Easy bike ride
--Speed work on the running track
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.