Saturday, September 8, 2007

Chicago Triathlon

.9 mile swim
24.5 mile bike
6.2 mile run

Before nearly every race I've done this season - whether sprint or half ironman - I've experienced tremendous nervousness. Inability to sleep the night before. Insane butterflies. Restlessness. I'd go over the race again and again in my mind and imagine the outcome I was hoping for - the speed, the smooth transitions - the overall placement I hoped to achieve.

So it was with a bit of wonder and curiosity that I approached the Chicago Tri with not a bit of nervousness whatsoever. Nothing. Nada. The only worry I had in my head was that god awful swim start and speculation on how I was going to position myself to mitigate having the same kind of disasterous, energy draining swim I'd had last year (granted, I wasn't in the best of shape last year what with my back situation and the fact that I hadn't been able to train any of the relevant distances - I was truly lucky just to finish the race at all).

Perhaps part of that lack of nervousness can be attributed to my focus on Rich and the race(s) he was planning to do. He had signed up for the "triple threat" - an inaugural offering that included a super sprint race on Saturday followed by the sprint race on Sunday and, upon completion of that race, nearly immediate immersion back into the fray to compete in the Olympic distance race. The super sprint race on Saturday seemed like a throw in just to be able to make the intimidating name "triple threat" but was really not presenting any particular challenge in our opinion. When we woke up incredibly early on Saturday and saw that it was raining, Rich opted not to drive all the way into the city for what would amount to be a ridiculously short race and went back to bed. The real challenge was the back to back races on one day. I had no doubt he could do it and excel - but I could tell he was getting more and more nervous as the race grew closer.

When we woke on Sunday morning in the hotel, Rich was more nervous than I've ever seen him. I moved quickly through my preparations and was ready to go -- still not at all feeling pre-race nerves except for the normal anxiousness of wanting to get into the transition area well before the cut off time. While Rich paced the room, I sat on the arm of the sofa in the junior suite we were somehow upgraded to, forcing myself to eat something and waited until he was ready to leave. I wished I could offer him something more than just my confident assurances that he was going to rock the race. I truly had never seen him so nervous! I knew that the intensity of his nerves meant that he was going to do even better than I could imagine, but, as usual, he wasn't ready to accept that when I told him so.

When we got to the transition area, we split up to find our respective sections. As he was part of the Triple Threat, he was in the very first wave out on the Sprint and so had the benefit of having his bike rack/transition space positioned at the very top of the transition area and on asphalt to boot. I, however, found my transition space well within the grassy hilltop enclosure. With the incredible amounts of rain the area had received over the last 2 weeks, the ground was very wet and soft. There were several soon to be very well traveled areas that I could tell would become mud pits in short order.

After getting set up, I found my way to where Amy was setting herself up in the Sprint transition area. Having thought she had signed up for the Olympic and only realizing the night before that in fact she had signed up for the sprint, I hoped she was not too upset with the situation and would have a great race regardless of the mixup. I was glad to see that she seemed in good sprits and we chatted about where we would meet up later before I headed out to find Rich and make our way towards the swim start.

As Rich lined up to start, I started my watch to coincide with the gun going off. I jogged down the lakefront as he swam trying to see which black, neoprene clad body was his without much luck. At the swim exit, I counted the swimmers as they exited and as I saw him emerge, yelled "Sweetie - you're twelfth out of the water!" He didn't look my way, but I hoped he heard me. He looked great - strong, fast and focused as he always does. I ran back to find where I had left Amy and to cheer her on in her race. She also looked strong and confident as she lined up in her wave, and I just hoped she wouldn't have to battle the swim demons that sometimes threaten her but knew that one way or another, she'd emerge from the water victorious. No one can fight - and win - like Amy.

After she went off, I had about an hour to wait til I went off. As I waited in the incredibly long line for the port-o-potties, I saw Rich go past on the run portion of the sprint race. Again, he looked great! I shouted for him, but as I was far away, knew there was no way he could hear me. The crowd was cheering for those first runners coming by and it was so amazing to see Rich in that group. He has become such an amazing athlete.

Finally, my turn came around! I jumped into the water and felt the breath just get knocked out of me. The announcer had said the water temp was about 68 degrees, but I swear it had to have been even colder. I looked to my right and saw a girl treading water next to me who did not have the benefit of a wet suit. Her lips looked like they were turning blue. I hoped the gun would go off soon for her sake! As it did, I felt gratified in my choice of swim start position. For the first time ever in this race, I was not subject to that energy draining blender of neoprene. I had space around me and could swim freely - that is until I past the turn around and had to deal with walls of slower swimmers in front of me. Who knew - me of the tortise-like swim pace would be frustrated by slower swimmers?

After the first half mile or so, my arms warmed up and I no longer felt the cold except for the persistent numbness in my feet. The water was calm and, but for the occasional slower swimmer in front of me, I felt I moved fairly well through the water. When I exited though, I realized that once again my actual time had been a minute or so slower than my goal time. After the long run into transition and navigating through the mud pits, I was off on the bike. I must say, there is no other bike race that makes me as nervous as that which is part of the Chicago Tri.

The potholes, the water bottles and other materials littering the course, the infernally clueless newbies who don't know which side of the road to stay on (or even that there IS a side of the road they should stay on if not passing) -- all while biking alongside traffic on Lake Shore Drive. Nervewracking is an understatement. Nonetheless, I managed a 22 - 24 mph average on the first loop and was feeling great -- passing people right and left. Then on the second loop, fatigue started to set in and the wind picked up at the same time. I unfortunately could not hold that pace and saw my pace read out fall somewhat over the course of the last loop.

As I moved towards the finish of the second loop, I started looking at racers coming the opposite direction to see if any had the word "Triple" written on their arm -- I was sure the triple threat group that Rich as part of should be starting to come by on their second bike section of the day. But no dice.

Out on the run, I felt the heat really starting to pick up and wondered where Rich was on his race(s) and how the heat might be affecting him. I felt the beginnings of side cramps/stitches and hoped that they would stay mild or dissipate quickly. I resolved to take as much water as I could at each water station to keep the intense side cramps at bay. I had hoped to keep an 8:30 pace if I could, but once again felt that that was unlikely. By my estimations, I was running closer to a 9 minute mile and getting discouraged. As I made my way back again past the turn around, I started to look for Triple Threat competitors in hopes of seeing Rich. Once again, I only saw a couple before the race course shifted towards the finish line and the path diverged from the oncoming racers.

Turning the last corner, I managed to kick into a respectable sprint to the finish. Final time: 2 hours 44 minutes 56 seconds -- top 16% of my age group, so not too bad all in all. And the run pace wasn't quite as bad as I had thought - an 8:45 pace vs the 9 minute pace I had suspected.

More importantly, after crossing the finish line and finding Amy in the crowds (actually, she found me), we made our way back to the finish to see Rich cross the line for the second time that day. He looked great and finished with times I would envy for a single race let alone two back to back. He never ceases to amaze me. I said it before and will say it again, what an incredible athlete! I knew he'd have a spectacular race -- even if he didn't want to believe me when I told him so! Amy had a great race as well and was victorious in battling her swim demons as I knew she would.

All in all it was a great day and so much fun to share it with two of my very best friends! It's a bit sad though to be on the tail end of summer and know that after one final race, soon I'll have to go back into off season training and content myself with my dreams of what 2008 will bring. I'm dreaming of a big red "M" with a circle dot above it...

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Naperville Sprint 7-12-07

400 meter swim
12.4 mile bike (though my computer read 13.5)
3.1 mile run

Rich and I were both very much looking forward to this race, not the least of which was because of the huge disappointment of pulling out of the Lake Zurich race the week prior due to weather conditions. After enduring 2 hours of chilling rain and uncertainty, we decided to pull ourselves out even though it looked as though the race would still go on albeit delayed.

The rain had turned the sloped, grassy transition area into a muddy, slippery morass with huge, ankle deep puddles throughout. What was supposed to have been Rich's "A" race and my prelude to the Chicago Tri would've been something far less and potentially dangerous. So we decided to pack it up and head home. It was a tough thing for me to swallow feeling as it did as if we had just up and quit before even hitting the starting line. As penance for that huge transgression, I put myself through a 5 1/2 mile run in the hottest, thickest, steamiest part of the day that left me dripping and still disappointed in myself but at least feeling that I had done something.

So it was with a sinking heart that I woke with a start at 3:30 am on Sunday morning to the sound of wind screaming around the house and the sight of the big tree outside our bedroom window violently being whipped back and forth til it seemed it would break in half. There were glimpses of lightning in the distance and thunder rumbled it's announcement of the storm that was bearing down.

At the sound of my uttered expletive, Rich sat up beside me and, taking in the situation, added expletives of his own. Then, proclaiming that with winds moving at that rate, the storm was sure to pass quickly, he promptly went back to sleep. I, however, was not so confident and tossed and turned as the angry sounds of the storm held me captive and reflected my disposition. By the time we woke again at 5am, however, Rich's words proved true and the skies were wonderfully clear and the roads rapidly drying in the warm air.

We got to the transition area and were greeted by familiar and friendly faces almost immediately. That is definitely one nice thing about hometown races - there's nearly always a supporter either in the crowd or as a fellow participant.

Lining up at the time trial swim start, Rich decided to go off earlier with a faster time group, while I hung back a bit - not feeling as confident in my swim time even though the distance was so short. The frustration of this tactic was having to wait so long to get going into the race, but the benefit was being able to see Rich as he exited the water - looking strong, fast and focused.

Finally hitting the water after what seemed an interminable wait, I enjoyed the empty space around me that the time trial start afforded. That swim start format is one of the joys of this race - particularly as it is held in that tight quarry setting. The women's Subaru sprint race that's held there every year earlier in the summer is a nightmare of a swim with the swarms of people, novice racers and tight quarters. This swim felt effortless and I was amazed at each turn at how fast it seemed I was reaching those markers.

Exiting the swim and moving through transition, I was off onto my favorite section - the bike! Grabbing the Blue Demon (yes, I have named my bike - if you saw her, you'd be inspired to do the same) off the racks and running to the mount area, I was just hoping the streets had dried to where I would not have to worry about compromising speed for safety. As I got underway, I realized there was no worry there, the streets - save a puddle or two - were nearly bone dry.

I felt as if I was sailing through the bike, putting up speeds of up to 26-27mph in some areas, at least momentarily anyway (on a downhill with wind behind me), and feeling great. At one point, as I entered the final leg of my second lap and saw that I was holding a 24mph pace, an orange streak blazed past me. Glancing over at the speed demon jetting by, I saw the "69" number marked on his calf denoting his age. Wow - how cool is that - I wish I could achieve that kind of speed now let alone when I'm his age!

Coming off the bike at the entrance to transition, I hear Coach Joe yell encouragement and while running through transition area, I hear a voice yell "Go White Seat!" from within the small enclosure. Lifting a hand in acknowledgement but without looking, I assume the voice belongs to Chris from The Bike Shop as he cleans up his area after already obliterating the course and getting ready to head out. After he patiently helped me try out most - if not all - available bike seats to find the perfect fit once I purchased my new bike and, after a long ride upon bringing it home, realizing that the seat I had selected was simply NOT going to work - he and my husband, I suppose, are justified in making fun of the perhaps unorthodox, yet quite striking in my opinion, color of the final selection. Hey - I like it and it also helps me find my spot in transition a bit easier amidst all those black seats!

Embarking on the run and feeling the familiar Jello-leg sensation that begins any triathlon run, I hear Rich's voice in my head telling me he's confident I can do a sub-8 run today. I'm not so sure, but I pump my arms just like Barb Lindquist told us to do back in that tri-clinic I took back before the season started, in hopes that my legs would follow in speed and turnover. I have a nagging feeling, despite the effort, that my run pace is not on target with my goal.

Coming through the Naperville River Walk area towards the finish and all the crowds of people lining the course, I see Rich, Steve and others from the ET coaching/training group and, hearing them cheer me on towards the finish, kick into my final sprint to end the race.

Final time: 1:15:50 (5th in my age group)

All in all, not a bad race. I had really hoped to finish a little bit better, but am overall happy with my performance. Regardless of race distance - whether sprint or half ironman, I know the areas where I need to improve. For me, the sprint races are a chance to truly exhilarate in the sport. An opportunity to give yourself permission, each time, to go a little farther, push yourself a little more to see JUST HOW FAST you can go -- maybe what might amount to be an all out effort for that day, all the while knowing the total expenditure of energy will be completely manageable - little to no soreness or tightness the next day.

Sprint races are like candy. Those little treats/indulgences you grant yourself while you're working on that really hard goal - whether half or full ironman or whatever else. Next year's goal of Ironman will be something completely different. Can I do it? Can I keep up with the training? Can I prevent myself from burning out in the process? Do I have the will, the determination and the spirit to finish it on that day despite whatever conditions are thrown at me? That is a much different test and one I am so excited (and nervous) to face. Yet, in between now and then, it's good to indulge in a little candy.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Racine Half Ironman Race Report

July 22, 2007
1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run


On Sunday, July 22, I wake before dawn breaks – having tossed and turned all night, anxious and restless in anticipation of the day ahead. The nerves have plagued me all the week prior creating a nearly constant feeling of butterflies swarming inside my stomach.

Today is the day I have been working towards for over a year and for which I have been in some kind of training for nearly the same time frame – from research, strengthening, and physical therapy to address the back injuries that prevented me from participating in this event last year, to actual race specific training once my back was in good enough shape to handle the physical stress. Now the day is here. I’m nervous, excited and scared all at the same time. Will my back hold up? Did I train enough? Will the water be calmer than yesterday when Rich and Amy both battled thru 2-3 foot waves and strong currents for a very tough ½ mile swim on the sprint race?

At the race site, after the usual transition area set up and preparations, I squeeze myself into my new wetsuit – this being the first race of 26 prior triathlons to actually wear one – and make my way out the transition exit to find Rich. As we walk the mile down the beach to the swim start, he tells me how excited he is to watch me race, how well he knows I’m going to do and how proud he is of me. Over the months of training and the year and a half of pain, frustration and setbacks with my back situation, he has been unfailingly supportive and loving. For his tolerance and understanding of my craziness and emotional outbursts during the ups and downs of trying to understand and fix my back basically on my own as the counsel of every physician – specialist or otherwise – was to stop “abusing my body” with such rigorous activities – I can never appropriately or fully convey my appreciation. I think of the race ahead, his faith and belief in me, and I hope I don’t let him down.

As we near the swim start, Amy calls on Rich’s cell phone – I don’t know if I’m imagining it, but her voice sounds a little shaky like she’s almost close to tears as she tells me she’s just getting off the highway and promises she’ll make it to the start to see me off. I am so touched by her support and so very grateful that she will be here to see me race today. I tell her to be careful driving – even if she doesn’t make it to the start, I know I can look for her at the swim finish. She too has been an incredible support and we have been through so much together in our more than 10 years of friendship. I feel truly blessed.

Eventually, we get to the start and, after a good luck kiss, I leave Rich and make my way to the staging area. Lining up “on deck” behind the two waves in front of me, I look up and see Amy standing on the rocks scanning the crowds of neoprene clad bodies to find me. She made it! With the starting “gun” just moments away and two of my strongest supporters on hand, my nerves finally start to dissipate.

The Swim

The “gun” goes off and my race begins. The water is calm today and after the usual early jockeying for position amidst the roiling sea of churning arms and legs of the other swimmers around me, I find my space and my groove. I am not a fast swimmer, but a steady one. I can sometimes let my anxiety about the swim get the better of me, so I have changed my approach. I tell myself, “My swim time is my Zen time. Just be calm and enjoy it.”

After making the turn around the first buoy, sighting becomes easier as we are no longer heading into the sun. I count the orange buoys as I move steadily past them, knowing that when I get to seven, the next buoy marks the turn towards shore. When I feel my fingertips touch sand, I stand up and make my way through the additional 30 yards or so of shallow water. Running up the sand, I see Rich and he tells me I’m going great. Further up is Amy and as I pass her, she starts running with me towards the transition area giving me encouragement along the way. “I was slower than I wanted to be,” I tell her breathlessly and she tells me I’m still doing great regardless.

In transition, I thankfully get my wet suit off without any problem and, after putting on my bike shoes and helmet, grab my bike off the rack and run to the bike mount area. I consider the bike portion to be my strongest element so for me, bike time is go time. Now the race really begins!

The Bike

The course is pretty much flat and fast, if a bit bumpy with the uneven pavement, and I keep my eye on my bike computer to ensure I am keeping at least 21 mph or higher. My legs feel strong and I’m cruising along, passing other racers along the way and being passed with a bit less frequency. By mile 20 though, my back is starting to ache with an intensity I did not feel during any of my long training rides.

Just as I counted buoys on the swim, I start to break up the distance by focusing on timing my nutrition intake with the approach of each aid station – spaced 10 miles apart. As the miles pass, my back ache escalates, my legs feel the first effects of fatigue setting in and my pace starts to slow a bit. When the ache gets unbearable, I stand up off my saddle and do a mini back stretch that provides some relief.

As I try to get my mind off the ache and fatigue, the song “Manic Monday” pops into my head and I begin to make up my own, rather awkward, lyrics:
“It’s just another Sunday bike ride (whoa, whoa),
I can ride all day (whoa, whoa),
My legs feel great now (whoa, whoa),
And I’ll still have something for the run (whoa, whoa),
It’s just another Sunday bike ride….”

As the odometer creeps closer to 56 miles, I force myself to wait until I have just one more mile to go before switching the display to the trip clock. The reading tells me I may yet be in position to meet or beat Rich’s bike time from last year’s race. Woo hoo! I knew I could get close to his swim time, but would likely come in a bit slower and since there’s no way I can compete with his speed demon run pace, my only hope to come close to his awesome race performance from last year was to put in a good bike time.

Making my way down the hill into transition, I am excited about my performance on the bike, but from the heaviness creeping into my legs, am fearful for what it may cost me on the run. Getting back to my transition area to rack my bike, I see my carefully laid out Egel packets scattered across my towel with huge gobs of splattered gel everywhere. What the hell happened here? Did they just explode in the heat or did the racer racked next to me carelessly step all over them? I take extra precious seconds to find useable packets and to wipe the gel off my hat and race belt before starting off on the run.

The Run

Rounding the bend out of the run start, I see Rich and Amy and my spirits lift. They tell me I look strong and that I’m doing well, but with the fatigue in my legs come the initial pangs of doubt. Coming up on the first of two hills that Rich warned me about, I try to make it all the way to the top at a run pace, but with legs screaming, fall short and walk the rest of the distance to the top before resuming a run. At the base of the 2nd big hill, I slow to a walk again to reduce the drain on my legs. No more walking after this hill! Well, at least not until I hit these hills again on the second loop…

Making my way along the first loop, the mile markers for the second taunt me – my legs feeling at times okay but at others completely drained make me wonder if I’ll make it back this way again. I take another Egel and hope the effects kick in quickly. Between miles 3 and 4, I see Greg from masters swim coming towards me on his way to completing the first loop – it’s good to see a friendly face.

Coming up on the 2nd turnaround back towards the transition area, I see Rich and Amy again – they tell me I still look strong, but I feel like crap and really just want to cry. At this point, my dead legs have brought me to a pace that feels like a shuffle, a pain/numbness in my left toe that has been with me since the start of the run refuses to dissipate and I feel a painful blister steadily forming on my right foot. But I have never not finished a race – even though there have been many where I wanted to – and I am not about to start now. The only direction to go is forward.

As I trudge slowly past the photographer stationed at that nasty second hill, I hear his camera clicking away and tell him, “No pictures of walking!” Topping the hill, I run on and, after passing Greg for the third time as he makes his way the other direction towards the finish, finally hit the 10 mile mark at the last turnaround. Only 3 more miles to go!

On the way back, I pass some spectators standing along the sidewalk – music by Meatloaf blaring from their boom box – the same album as was playing the other three times I passed them. Aren’t they tired of that by now? The song playing is “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” – not a good song for this part of the race as I adapt the lyrics in my head to:
“And now I’m praying for the end of this race
So hurry up and arrive
Cause if I have to spend another minute out here
I don’t think that I can really survive…”

Definitely not good. Needing to go change songs quickly to enhance my frame of mind, I go back to my earlier chorus with a new adaptation:
“Just another Sunday long run…”

Coming up on mile 11, I fall into pace besides another racer – a gentleman with the age of 57 marked on his left calf. I strike up a conversation to take my mind away from the fatigue. I learn that over the last 20+ years he has competed in something like 200 triathlons including two trips to Ironman Wisconsin – one of which he finished and in the other was pulled off the course at mile 60 of the bike due to hypothermia brought on by extreme weather conditions. Incredible. What an inspiration. As we come up on the water station, he tells me he’s going to walk through it – yelling after me as I keep running, “You go girl!”

One more mile to go! Coming down the last hill, I see a woman holding a sign that reads, “Pain is only temporary.” Indeed! I grin and give her the thumbs up as I run past. I’m almost there.

Rounding the bend to the finish line and finding the last little bit of reserves to kick into a final sprint, I see Rich – smiling, clapping and yelling “You did awesome!” as I run past. Further up I see Amy cheering and clapping as well and next to her is Rich’s coach, Joe, holding up a camera as I pass by.

I cross the finish line and double over, completely spent. A volunteer takes me by the arm, hands me a bottle of deliciously cold water and as she walks with me asks if I need the medical tent. I tell her I’m okay and, after picking up my hard won finishers medal, go to find Rich, Amy & Joe.

The Finish

I am so excited to have finished – there were many times both during the race and in the previous months when I doubted I could do it. I am so grateful for the support of my friends and family, but most especially for Rich who has been through so much with me, never doubted me or questioned my need to find a way to keep racing and always knew how to pick me up when I needed it.

Final race time – 5 hours, 39 minutes, 51 seconds.

I have more races to go this year, but the half ironman was the biggest. I now look forward to next year’s challenge: Ironman Wisconsin. If this race was hard, I know that one will be exponentially harder, but I am excited to tackle it and take myself farther than it seems is possible. Better yet, I’ll be training for it and racing it alongside Rich – each of us supporting and helping each other through – along with the expert guidance of Joe.

I can’t wait -- for while the pain that’s surely coming will only be temporary, that victory, like this one, will be forever.