Sunday, September 27, 2009

Elephant Butte

Pack fill.
That's what T calls it.
I'd never heard the term before, but it's when you don't bring up the rear--and you're certainly not up at the front.
It sounds anonymous and generic. No recognition of the effort it takes to finish and no indication of place--just a space occupying reference, which is how I felt after finishing the race today. Pack fill.

Of course, I should know better by now. I'm not, and never have been, an athlete on the sharp end.
Meaning, I don't lead.
I plod, and work, and eke out every minute of gain that I make.
I am a model of economy of success.

Where I live, I sometimes have the opportunity to be a big fish in a little pond--but only because the pond is so small. The big fish don't show up to the little races, because they have bigger ponds to contend with--which makes it easy to forget who and where I am.

But not today.

Today was actually impressive because more big fish showed up to race at one time than I have ever seen in a local race.
What a reality check.
I had actually given up an earlier, smaller race to opt in on this event--the Elephant Butte Triathlon--in order to get more race time in the water, and because I wanted a free weekend for longer mileage just before our foray to Colorado for the Harvest Moon Half.

The Elephant Butte Triathlon is a sort of Olympic distance event with a swim that's longish at 1700 yards (almost Half IM distance), a bike that's 26.5 miles, and a 10k that's short 2/10's for a 6 mile run. Odd. I didn't know it was one of our premier local events. Nor did I know it was that hilly. Or that there was approximately a mile of sandy trail running involved. I was just focused on more swim practice and getting through the swim.

Which I did.
And with NO panic.
The first time this year that I felt OK in the water.

I did start off very slow, in anticipation of the onset of panic. And then every time I started to pull harder and settle into a rhythm, I would bring myself up short and worry that I might get carried away and tip myself into a panic, but in the end, it was just a decent, calm, but longish swim, with a bit of chop from passing swimmers, and some difficulty sighting due to the rising sun, and the lack of a buoy to mark the finishing chute.

I attribute the success of this swim to a number of factors--
-that I had just experienced a nightmare of a swim two weeks prior, and lived through it,
-that the water was exceptionally flat and warm at 74 degrees, which allowed for wetsuits without the corresponding coldness to take my breath away,
-that I took the advice of Shirley to heart about my sighting difficulties and did some preparatory scouting to help me find my way,
-that with T coming home at the end of summer, I've finally been able to get in some open water swim time on the weekends.
But most of all, I think my lack of panic had a lot to do with feeling surrounded by a group of understanding people--people who come in from all parts of the state who I've seen at these races for years; team members and training partners for those longer mileage rides we've been doing; friends who would come to my rescue in any way, shape, or form, if I really needed it. It was like I finally realized that if I didn't make the d*rn swim, it wouldn't matter and my friends (and fellow triathlon and exercise groupies) would be there to pick me up anyway.

It was a nice feeling, and I finished the 1700 yards successfully in a predictably slow time of 46:49, the 7th slowest out of a field of 80 women.

The outcome of the race was another story.

Because I have been doing longer distance training, I forgot that the Olympic distance is still one to be respected. I actually thought of it more as a "sprint" type race, because the distances were so much less than what I have been doing for training. Which meant that I went too hard on the bike and didn't eat or drink enough.

My time for 26.5 miles of some fairly decent hills was 1:23:58 or 18.6 mph, for the 9th fastest female bike. A good showing for the terrain, and I passed a number of people--many of whom passed me back on the run.

My run time for 6 miles of more hills was 1:00:14 hours, not bad for me, but oh so frustrating because I just don't see how people can run so smoothly and fast, passing me with ease, while I plod and fatigue. It was here that my "sprint" perspective came back to bite me--as I realized I had left my legs out on the bike course and I just couldn't pick up the pace the way I wanted to, which told me how tired I was. Several of my AG competitors passed me with ease. Somewhere between mile 4 and 5 I realized I was hungry and subsequently realized I might bonk before I got to the next aid station. It's bad when you're asking for gels to finish the last mile.

In the end I placed 9th in my Age Group. In any other Age Group, I would have placed 1st through 6th. But not my Age Group. Ahead of me were women whom I totally respect and admire and who compete on the sharp end at a level I can only dream of, and they are my age. That speaks volumes to me and on so many levels.

Still, I had a successful swim, which really was the whole point of the race, and most of all, I enjoyed seeing everyone and all the hugs. I can't say that I don't wish I was faster, and leaner, and taller--because I do--but in the end, it's really all about myself and what triathlon training and competition means to me--not how I compare to every other human out there. On another note, I can't believe I only earned 2 points towards the SW Challenge series, when Mark B so kindly pointed out before the race that I "only" needed 3 points to make the podium!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Harvest Moon Triathlon

This year, driving up to Colorado, getting ready for our general annual long race, I felt like I didn't know what I was doing.

Like I hadn't done a long race in so long, I couldn't remember how to prepare or what to expect.

I couldn't remember what clothes I usually wear, or what nutrition to use, or how to pace myself.

My last long race was the Longhorn 70.3, a year ago in Austin. A long, hot, miserable affair with a mis-marked swim, a pretty but draft happy bike, and an unappealing run. I know others liked it, but it just wasn't the race for me.

This year, I haven't been racing much. Nothing longer than a sprint (except the F1 which was twice the distance of a sprint)--6 races spread out over 8 months.

We signed up for the Harvest Moon Half as a training race--just a day in between our other training days, to give us a benchmark in terms of our training for a race later in the year. We didn't taper or rest much--a day off for the drive, a light "lets check out the swim and pick up our packet" day, then the race:

Part 1: In which I can't swim.

You would think that I could by now, since I started swimming after a gymnastics injury in college, lived in Hawaii and swam almost daily before going to work, and have been doing triathlons fairly consistently since 2001.

You would think.

But, I can't.

During a triathlon event, the combination of a timed course, my own expectations and apprehensions, and what I tend to think of as a primitive psychological revolt against swimming out into the middle of a large body of water, all come together to make what is quite possibly the worst experience of my life--what I tend to think of as my own personal hell on earth--which I seem to do repeatedly, and by choice, year after year.

This year, in an effort to improve and mitigate the panic, I have spent more time in the water--ramping up the yardage since March, but being somewhat stymied lately by time constraints.

While my sprint race swims have definitely improved, and on these familiar courses, the panic has decreased, large bodies of water and open water swimming continue to throw me into fight or flight overdrive.

It is a truly grim experience.

For the Harvest Moon, I was in the first wave, with the pros, Athena's, and masters women. I felt fine during the warm up. Even the line of buoys looked doable--I could count 4 large orange buoys straight out into the lake to the turn around and figured I could just swim buoy to buoy and count them down without too much difficulty.
But then the gun went off.
I always wait a minute to let the roiling of the water from the other swimmers quiet down before I start. Then I start a little ways back and out to the side, so I am in the quiet water and the next wave doesn't mow me down. But those pros disappeared quick. And in a few strokes I was by myself, and suddenly those buoys looked really far away, and somehow I swam too far to the right, and I felt pretty isolated and tiny.

So I looked up, in my isolated, tiny state of mind, sighted, and tried not to panic.

I put my head down, and swam as slow as I could and took gentle, quiet breaths, to try and prevent the hyperventilation that comes with the panic. I started aiming at a leftward angle to get to the first buoy. I didn't want to take my head out of the water to sight, because once I do, there is this overwhelming urge to keep my head above water, and it is very difficult to start swimming again. Getting my head out of the water and into unlimited air feels good, but of course, it doesn't get me out of the middle of the lake. So, I swam and tried to control myself.

I continued angling slightly leftward--or so I thought. Instead, I made a 90 degree turn and swam parallel to the shore. I was still not lifting my head and trying to get my breathing under control. When I did lift my head, the Police boat was idling nearby, and I could see I was directly in line with the first buoy--I just hadn't made any headway out towards it. T tells me that initially, as soon as I swam off course to the right, the Police boat started following me. I was still feeling pretty tiny and isolated and a bit disoriented, but I was thankful the buoy was a straight shot in front of me, so I put my head down and started swimming directly out toward that large orange marker.

By this time, I'd spent the first 5 minutes of the race not going anywhere, and I was so close to shore that I could hear the verbal "go" for the next wave. Of course, all the good swimmers wanted the same line I was taking, and shortly thereafter, I was engulfed by large people, focused swimmers determined to give it their best, and the water got choppy and I got hit--all while still trying to get my breathing and panic under control. All I wanted to do was stop. I was still close enough to shore I could have sat up and breast-stroked back. I wanted to call it. Wave my arms in the air. Take my head out of the water. Stop the fright, turn off the alarm in my body, get a normal breath of air and stop the shallow panicked breaths which made me feel like I suffocating.
But I didn't.
And I still don't know why.
Some bull-headed part of me continued to lift one arm out of the water and then the other, while mentally, I fought a battle that felt like it's going to tear my head in two. Somehow, I didn't let myself stop.
And some how, I continued against every instinct and physiological signal from my body--waiting for that time when I would finally settle in and smooth out, and begin to swim in comfort.
But for this race, that never came.

I swam, using short breaths, short strokes, barely moving, just surviving. I watched the yellow swim caps go by, then the light blue, red, and bright orange. Every now and then I'd start feeling better, and then someone would nail me with a stray stroke, and I'd start all over again. At one point, after the turn-around buoy, I did another strange 90 degree left hand turn (which is strange since I always pull to the right), and I looked up to wonder why everyone was swimming in such an odd direction. I started to turn left to join them, then realized I had crossed mid line and was about to join the crowd still making their way out to the turn-around buoy. I had this image of being caught in this endless maelstrom of swimmers going round and round the course and never reaching the end. I almost smiled, but I was also getting tired, and the water was getting more choppy and I still had a long ways to go.

Two buoys out from shore, over 40 minutes into the swim, I just wanted out of the water. I was tired. The adrenaline has kicked my butt. I felt like I couldn't move well. I was swimming like a snail. Somehow, people kept passing me--although I was sure that by now I was the last swimmer--and the water never quieted down.

When I did exit, there was almost no one around. My fingers were so cold I couldn't get my wetsuit off. Literally, I couldn't get my fingers to close or grip. I asked a nearby person to give me a hand, not knowing if they had strippers at this race, but knowing that I was stuck. He pulled the suit over my shoulders and up around my head and left me to try to get if off. Now I was even more stuck than before, since my hands weren't working. He watched me for a moment, while I was stuck with this rubber strait jacket around my head, and then (finally) asked if I needed more help (you can laugh if you want, my sister and I were rolling when I told her). I walked up the longish hill to transition, exhausted. I have never walked a transition before. My swim was 53 minutes for 1.2 miles. 338 of 339.

Part 2: In which I pass 5 women minutes into the bike.

Which is a good thing, since it boosted my morale and brought my head squarely forward into the bike portion of the race.

The bike started out nice. An out and back spur which flew by despite rolling hills. I kept waiting for a headwind but it never came. After the spur the course had a 40 mile loop, so that I turned several corners, and still no headwind. I was wet and freezing when I first got on the bike and kept waiting to warm up, but even after I warmed up, I was only marginally comfortable. The cycling felt smooth and strong, and then I started to fatigue. I hit mile 39 in two hours and remember thinking, "I just have to do 17 miles an hour to make a 3 hour bike, so maybe I'll go sub-3..." and then I turned a corner and went headfirst into the wind--at 12 m.p.h. Along with the rolling hills. Some of which were real hills. It was brutal, and I started getting colder, and felt like I just wasn't going to make it to the end. My right adductor started complaining--which says something about my bike style--and I started surviving rather than pushing. In the end, I didn't drink enough, more than likely because I was so cold, and my stomach felt completely empty 4 miles out from the finish, so I ate half a protein bar, which probably wasn't enough. Despite the demoralizing wind, I still finished in 3:01:55 for 56 miles, which, despite hoping for a sub-3, still put me in the ball-park of a good finish.

Part 3: In which I replay Idaho over and over in my head, and wonder if I can still manage a 10 min/mile average pace even after that exhausting swim...

In Idaho, 2008, I ran a 2:12 half marathon, after a 3:04 bike. It was my best half Ironman half marathon time ever. At that time, the weather had been cool, and I was fairly fresh, because I hadn't done the swim. It was my first inkling that my half marathon distance running was starting to get better--and I'd upped my mileage this year so maybe, just maybe, I could pull off another good run.

But, I was tired and cold getting off the bike.

I picked up a caffeinated gel and headed out of transition wearing one bike glove. Luckily, I wasn't wearing my helmet--although I did feel on my head, just to make sure.
So the glove went into my back pocket, where it bounced around for the entire run, and I proceeded to try to get my legs under me. A real sweetheart of a runner, in my age group, tried to encourage me to get on her heels, but I couldn't do it. It took a couple of miles before I felt like I was moving well--and when I checked the watch I had 21 minutes including a quick bathroom break--so 10 min/mile it was. And that's the way it stayed. I had a few 9:40 miles, but those were followed by 10 plus miles, so it all evened out. The weather just got colder and colder, which made for good running weather, but then it got almost too cold. 9 miles in, I started to get tired. 2 miles out I just wanted the whole thing to be over. The last mile.1 seemed endless and I wanted to walk. Later when I looked at that endless time, it was 11:57, which wasn't nearly as slow as I felt. It felt especially cruel when the run went onto trail and uphill, but the finish was 100 yards of concrete, and it felt so good to be on solid ground, running slightly downhill to the finish, that I stretched out my legs and had a big smile on my face, and was just happy, happy, happy to be done.

In the end, the race was a PR at 6:16:28, by 17 minutes.
Which, is the same amount of time T took off his time to PR also at 4:55.
From last female out of the water and my worst swim time ever, to 8th in my age group, to a PR.
Not bad.
But it would feel a whole lot better if I didn't have to go through that terrifying swim.

Before the race, T checked the Duathlon participant list and there was only one woman in my Age Group--so I could have switched over, placed, gotten an award and a gift certificate AND missed the swim--but it wouldn't have been the same story, and I wouldn't have gotten my PR.

After the race, the rain started, and the temperature dropped, and even though we put on warm clothes, and were wrapped around each other, we couldn't stop shivering. So we bagged the raffle, went home, took a warm shower, and went to a family get together for dinner with T's grandmother, auntie and uncle, and cousins.
We had to--T's auntie makes the BEST home made pastries.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Warm, Fuzzy Car Breakdown

My car stopped working today, and because of it, I ended up with a warm, fuzzy feeling. How often does that happen?

My car had been working fine, all day, all week, all month--zipping around Albuquerque neighborhoods to the tune of mucho miles each week.

Tonight, just after I thought, "What a nice evening with no overhanging commitments and I can do whatever I want," I turned the ignition in my car, felt the briefest of jolts, and then everything went dead.
No sickly err-err as the car tried to turn over. Or lights dimly turning on.
I couldn't even get the car to shift out of gear--it's an automatic, and it was stuck firmly in Park.

So I called my car insurance in confidence, because I always carry Road Service--and was told that my other car was covered--but not this one. I am generally not a pushy consumer--and am, in fact, a pushover consumer--but the light was going fast, and I was stuck in the remote corner of a large parking lot, and my car was supposed to have Road Service. Why would I cover the car I am not driving, and not cover the car that I am driving? Which is what I patiently told the rep, as well as bringing up the fact that I had been a forever customer, and that I had been carrying Road Service for years--or so I thought.
After hemming, and hawing, and talking to supervisors, I got my Road Service--effective immediately. How cool is that?

Initially the wait for the tow was 45 minutes, putting my arrival at an auto shop at past 9:00 pm, but when I explained to the dispatcher that most auto shops were closed, and that I really did not want my car sitting on the street overnight, she empathised, and got the tow immediately.

When the tow truck driver arrived, he figured out that the terminal connector on my battery had cracked, so that I wasn't getting power, wiggled it, turned my car on, shook my hand and wished me a good night. Just a very pleasant, smiling man doing his job, and making my day.

Then, at the cusp of 9:00 pm, I drove over to Pep Boys to drop off the car for the night, so they could fix it in the morning (already planning on what car I was going to drive tomorrow)--but they said, "Pull it in, we'll fix it right now."

So after removing the offending part, stripping the wires with a razor, making my car good as new again, they comped the job and told me to have a good night.

Which I did. Compliments of all the people I interacted with tonight. Simple, I know, but what I great, big, wonderful world we have.

So, if you're going to have your car breakdown, then this is how to do it.