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.
“Today will be difficult, but tomorrow good riding.” --Lawrence of Arabia
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?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.
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.
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.