Triathlon is Not Like an Episode of MTV’s “Made”

I’m not sure if the MTV show Made is still on the air anymore, but here is the premise: a high-schooler wants to accomplish something, like making the cheerleading squad, or losing weight for graduation. MTV swoops in to make this kid’s dream come true by giving them a “professional” to guide them through the steps to achieving the dream. They work at it for a few months. The kid usually gets frustrated by the challenge a few times, threatens to give up, the professional encourages them, and they get back to it. By the end of the 30 minutes, the kid has generally accomplished the goal, and everyone learns the value of hard work and is happy and fulfilled.

I assumed triathlon would be like this. I assumed that if I dedicated myself to the sport – three sports – I would get good fairly quickly. Sure, I could only swim breast stroke and didn’t really ride my bike, but I assumed I was fit enough to get good if I just put the time in. It’s been an interesting lesson in patience because, as it turns out, it can actually take quite a long while to become a good triathlete. It turns out that it can take years.

I was naive about this. I sincerely believed that I could put in the training for a couple of seasons – heck, even year-round – and I would be mixing it up with the best of them. What I didn’t realize is that running and cycling are actually two very different sports that require two different skill sets. It is easier to pick up cycling if you have been a runner and have a good aerobic engine, but that is just a piece of the puzzle. The past two years have taught me that there is much more to being a good cyclist than being fit. Things like power-to-weight ratio, strength, bike handling, and flexibility all come into play. And, as it turns out, some of these things can take years to develop and improve. Just as I did not transform myself from a 3:37 marathoner to a 3:05 marathoner in one season, I realize now that I cannot logically expect to become a great cyclist in a matter of months. While I have made huge progress in my biking, I know that I am still not in the same league as the top age groupers.

Patience is not something I am good at. I am an instant-gratification kind of girl. I’m not necessarily proud of this character trait, but it’s the truth. So, in addition to giving me new skills and fitness that I have never known before, triathlon is also teaching me patience.

Unlike a tidy, 30-minute episode of Made, my triathlon skills will have to be honed over the course of years. There’s no instant gratification.

I have a feeling the ultimate rewards will feel much more satisfying.


40 for Forty

Sometime soon, I will get around to writing my Kona race report.  I think enough time has passed for me to have processed everything that surrounded that race and I have a much better perspective on it than I did right afterwards.  But before the details get fuzzy, I wanted to write about the little adventure I had yesterday – my somewhat impromptu, largely last-minute plan to run 40 miles on my 40th birthday.

The Plan

Boston Marathon director, Dave McGillivray, gets credit for this plan.  He’s been “running his age” every year since he was 12.  It’s quite the streak since he is now 57.  Not to long ago, shetrisall3 asked on Twitter what she should do to celebrate her birthday.  I responded, “Run 40 miles!”  She liked the idea, but celebrated with a party with friends (a normal birthday celebration).  So the notion of running my age had been percolating in the back of my mind as an appropriate way to commemorate a big milestone birthday like the big 4-0.

I really felt like my birthday celebration took place in Kona because I had decided last year that I had wanted to celebrate my 40th with a trip to Hawaii.  As if that wasn’t enough of a reason to go to Hawaii, I decided that it would be an even better celebration to do the Ironman World Championships while there.  Assuming I wouldn’t be able to qualify at Ironman Canada, I entered the lottery for a Kona slot.  Not only that, but I joined the “Passport Club”, which gives you not one, but two chances for a lottery slot for twice the money.  And a DVD.  April rolled around and all I got was the DVD.  I figured that was the end of my “celebrate my birthday in Hawaii” dream.  Life is funny, and I ended up nabbing a rolldown slot at Canada, so it all worked out pretty much the way I had wanted.  We even went out for a “birthday dinner” while in Hawaii, which included a free “birthday” dessert.

Thanks Roy's!

Lying in bed last Tuesday night, I decided that I wanted to run 40 miles on my birthday.  I should back up a bit and describe my prior forays into ultrarunning.  It’s a short aside.  The only time I have ever run over 26 miles was with my running buddy Steve G, who likes to run the length of the Highline Canal a few days before Christmas.  A few years ago, he ran 50 miles.  I joined late that day and only ran 36.  It wasn’t overly difficult though.  In fact, I remember thinking that it was pretty easy.  The main reason I haven’t tried ultras is that they are usually conducted on trails, and I try to avoid trails.  Yes, it’s crazy that I live in Colorado, which has awesome trails, and I don’t like to run them.  Maybe some day that will change, but for now, I prefer the roads.  Or the Highline Canal, which is flat and dirt.  It’s as close to a trail as I like.

A few days later, when Mark and I were discussing the plans for Sunday, he asked if I was planning to invite other people. I wasn’t. For a few reasons. First, I really didn’t know if I could run 40 miles, seeing as how I hadn’t specifically trained for it and didn’t have any proven track record there.  I wasn’t sure if I wanted an audience for what could possibly be a failed attempt. Second, I admitted that I was afraid to ask people to come, because I was afraid they would say no, and then I was afraid that I would get my feelings hurt.  Mark wasn’t having any of that, so he offered to invite some people for me.  Predictably, since we only gave them three days notice, most people couldn’t join in as they were busy, or out of town, or it didn’t fit with their training.  I was very excited to get one taker for the first half – my friend Audra. And Mark offered to run the second half.  As an added bonus, my coach Sonja, said she would run 6 miles in the middle with us.  The plan was all set.

The Run

Audra met me in Genesee on Sunday morning, and we drove to Highlands Ranch together.  As the defacto run coordinator, Mark had picked the start location, and had calculated the distances to Goodsen Rec Center and Colorado Boulevard, and the times we should arrive at those locations based on an estimated pace of 8:30 per mile for the first 20 miles and 9 minutes per mile after that.  I was a little unsure of those goal paces – 8:30s seemed fast for a 40-mile run – but I went along with it.  Audra and I arrived at a park in Highlands Ranch right on schedule, and went about our race preparation, which for me consisted of stuffing a gel into my handheld water carrier and cramming a package of Honey Stinger chews into my running skirt.  I don’t eat much when I run long (usually only a gel – if that – for a 20 mile run), so I was a bit unsure how to fuel for a 40-mile run.  I figured I would eat a little more than my usual plan.  Thus, the package of chews.  The bottle had EFS.

The only navigational glitch of the day was right at the start.  Audra and I got out of the car and we didn’t know which way to go to pick up the Highline Canal.  We walked over to a nearby trail, but it wasn’t the Highline.  Audra suggested that rather than take the risk of adding on mileage running the wrong way, we should head back to the car to figure it out.  So after messing around with the map on my iPhone for a while, we were off and running in the right direction.  I hadn’t seen Audra since Kona, and she’s done Kona before, so we had a lot to talk about.  I told her all about my race and the trip, and she told me all about 70.3 worlds in Vegas and we talked about our race plans for next year and our training.  We were joined for a little while near Goodsen by another running friend, Steve F, who had been expecting us much earlier, and had run the wrong direction for a while looking for us, and then turned around, figuring he had missed us.  The problem was, instead of Goodsen being 10 miles from the start like Mark had thought, it was more like 12.  So the times and distances were a little messed up, but I honestly didn’t notice or care.  I was only watching my heartrate on my Garmin and my pace for every mile.  I wasn’t looking at the distance because that seemed too daunting.  I had planned to be out there a good, long time, so it seemed easier to focus on one mile at a time rather than how far we had come or how far we had to go,

The night before, I had talked to Sonja about the logistics and she had talked me into letting her put a jug of water for us at Orchard Blvd, which turned out to be a super-good idea as it was an unseasonably warm and sunny day.

The time and the miles flew by (for me), and really, before I even knew it, we were close to Colorado Boulevard, where we were scheduled to meet Mark and Sonja.  I felt badly at this point, because Audra’s knee had been acting up, and she was definitely in some amount of pain, so I had been chatting up a storm, trying to take her mind off of it.  We got to Colorado, and Sonja and Mark were there waiting for us. I grabbed a new bottle of EFS, changed into a short-sleeved shirt, and grabbed another gel and packet of chews.  We said goodbye to Audra, who drove our car back down to the start/finish, and I set off with Mark and Sonja.  Sonja and I both like to chat a lot, so we talked away while Mark mostly just listened.  I had suspected that it was going to get awfully quiet when it was just Mark and I – he doesn’t talk much when he runs – so I had also stashed my iPod in my skirt pocket in case I needed it during the second half.

Around mile 24 or 25, my left lower leg started to hurt.  Badly.  At first, I didn’t want to say anything about it because I was trying to ignore it, but finally, I told Mark and Sonja, and they suggested walking for a bit.  We took a little walk break and my leg felt ok while I was walking, which I took to be a good sign.  It wasn’t like every step hurt.  Just the running steps.

Sonja had planned to run 6 miles with us, so we said goodbye to her at Orchard.  Now it was just Mark and I, and it was quiet.  These miles were a little less easy.  My leg hurt, and I didn’t really feel like making much conversation anymore.  We took some intermittent walk breaks when I needed a little break from the leg pain, but other than that, we carried on at a pretty good clip.  We got back to Goodsen and filled our bottles again.  I decided at that point to treat myself to my iPod, with 10 miles left to go.  Miles 30-37 were the hardest.  I asked Mark a few times if I was going to make it, and he reassured me that I was.  When I was running, I was running well, but every 2 miles or so, I stopped to walk for a bit because of my leg.  Actually, I think by that time, both legs may have hurt.  I kept saying, “if my leg didn’t hurt this would feel easy.”

In the last 5 miles, I had to dig.  I was waiting for my watch to beep each mile and I realized that I was getting more and more impatient to hear that sound.  Mark was being really supportive at this point, quietly saying things like, “most people can’t run 40 miles under a 9-minute pace.  That’s pretty special.”  And telling me I was doing really well.  It was just the right encouragement at the right times.

Around mile 37, a switch flipped.  I turned up my music and decided to crank up my pace.  Surprisingly, my leg seemed to hurt less when I ran faster, and I was pretty eager at that point to get to the finish, which was added motivation to run fast.  Then it hit me.  Why I was out there.  It wasn’t really so much about my birthday or the significance of running 40 miles for my 40th, but it was about Kona and my run at Canada and about proving to myself that I still had it.  I was still a runner, first and foremost, and I could still dig deep and run hard when it mattered.  I was having the run on the Highline Canal that I wanted, but wasn’t able to deliver in Penticton or Kona.  I pretended I was on the Queen K, and then Ali’i Drive.  I actually said out loud, “I am leaving it all behind.”  And I was. I knew after the run was over that I was done feeling bad about Kona and wallowing in disappointment.  It was over and I was leaving it behind. I was doing something that felt hard and meaningful, and I was doing it well.  I still had, as Mark calls it, “the gift.”

With tears in my eyes, not from pain, but from emotion, I ran that last mile in 7:50 and it felt just as good, if not better, than running down Ali’i Drive.

Total run time: 5:47:17 (not including water or bathroom stops)

Total blisters = 0

A birthday pic with my run partner, training partner, and life partner

Usted es un Ironman!

We traveled to IM Cozumel as a family, and my sister, Dana, also joined us from Chicago, which was really fun.  Normally, we like to travel to an IM venue on Wed or Thur of race week, but because this race was right after Thanksgiving, and I wanted to have Thanksgiving at home, we decided to leave on Friday.  This made for a hectic two days before the race, but it was totally do-able and I don’t think it negatively affected things much.  I admit there was a bit of stress as I sat by the window on the plane counting them load the bike boxes at DIA.  If the bike didn’t make it on Fri, things would have been screwed up for bike check-in the following day and it would have been stressful, to say the least, but none of those things happened and all was smooth.

Cozumel is a really fun IM venue.  It is an island, so that was fun, and the people were super-friendly to us.  The whole town seemed to really get into the spirit of the race.  This is particularly noticeable on the bike course, when you ride through some smaller villages and people are sitting in lawn chairs outside cheering on all of the racers.  Just a very welcoming feeling.

Also in Cozumel was Kree, a friend of mine from Denver who was doing her first IM.  The first order of business on Saturday was leaving Mark in the hotel room to build my bike and watch the kids while Kree and I went down to check out the water and have a swim.  Cozumel is a little unusual in that T1 and T2 are in separate locations.  The swim was about 1.5 miles from our hotel in some type of aquatic park.  The water is warm in the Gulf of Mexico, so the swim is not wetsuit legal.  This caused me no small amount of anxiety before the race.  Although I had planned to really work on my swim for this race, I did much of the same stuff I did for IMCdA, which mostly consisted of getting in the pool 3, maybe 4 days per week and swimming something very easy to remember, like 500s.  I am counting-challenged in the pool, so when I first started to swim, I had to swim intervals that were easy for me to count, and I can count to 10 and 20 pretty well, so I mostly swam 500s and 1000s.  Counting laps took all of my mental energy, and I couldn’t possibly also figure out how to use the pace clock too, so I mostly just swam using my running watch to time intervals.  I made up the workouts when I got to the pool, sometimes (usually) mid-swim.  I tried to go long at least once a week, and I may have also tried to go fast one day per week, but looking back on it now, I think it’s fair to characterize most of my swims as “flops” (which is swim lingo for an easy swim).

A few words about my love affair with the pull buoy.  Not too long after I started swimming, Mark introduced me to the miraculous device known as the pull buoy.  Its a big piece of foam that you wedge between your legs while swimming and, viola! you can swim faster and easier.  This device seemed like genius to me and while I knew, of course, that I couldn’t use something like that in the race, it sure didn’t stop me from using it when I was swimming.  Like all the time.  As in, I really couldn’t swim without it very well.  Once you become reliant on some type of swim aid like fins or a pull buoy, rather than helping you learn to swim better (like you try to tell yourself), the device actually hurts you and impedes your progress because you are not really learning to swim better.  You are just floating around in the water pretending to swim better.  So that’s what I did in the fall 0f 2010.  I got in the water a fair amount, but it was almost always with a pull buoy.  Or fins.

Around this time, my friend Kelly hooked me up with Cameron Widoff up in Boulder to give me a few swim lessons.  Cameron is a former pro, and before that, he was a really good swimmer, so he seemed like a good person to get some tips from.  Kelly was renting a house in Boulder that had an Endless Pool in the backyard, so Cam would come over and film each of us in the Endless Pool, and then we would watch the videos and chat with him.  We did a lot of chatting, more than swimming.  But it was pretty fun and it seemed productive, so I kept it up.  Cameron told me I was swimming with one arm basically, because my left arm was pulling so far to the side, so much of our work focused on me trying to get that arm to pull straight back and then pull right down my mid-line.  He gave me some drills and with a little form work, I improved to about a 2:00/100 time, but my times from last fall are a little unreliable because I didn’t always indicate if they were with the pull buoy or not (but they probably were).  Nonetheless, I was improving.  A little.

I also remember swimming 4000 leading up to Cozumel.  It was Mark’s idea, and I think he suggested that I do it at least twice.  So I did, but most of it was with pull buoy.

Back to the race.  Kree and I practiced swimming the course, and the water was really great, about as great as open water can be.  Very calm, smooth, warm and tons of pretty fish to look at.  The only issue is that there were tiny jellyfish that would sting you as you were swimming.  The stings were quick and the pain didn’t last long, but it was a little jarring to get stung while you were swimming.  It seemed like a small price to pay for the calm, warm water though.

Race day dawned and we headed down to the start early.  It was a water start and it took a while to get everyone down the dock and into the water, so we started that process early with the trade-off of having to tread water for a bit before the start.  I hung onto a boat and tried to remain calm.  I had a lot more confidence than I had at IMCdA, but I was still a pretty weak swimmer by anyone’s standards and was looking forward to getting that part of the day over with.

The start at IMCoz was nice and I think there may have been a dolphin show or something before the gun went off, but I was bobbing around in the water, trying not to waste too much energy, so I didn’t see it, or if I did, I don’t remember.  The gun went off and we started swimming, and it really wasn’t too bad.  The swim course is one loop instead of two, so by the time we go to the first turn, the field had already spread out a lot and it wasn’t too scary.  The swim down to the south end of the course seemed to take forever, as usual, and so did the time from the final turn back to the pier, but I eventually made it out of the water in 1:33!  I was pretty excited since it was about 10 minutes faster than my IMCdA time and 1:30 seemed like a good goal.  After a bit of confusion in locating my bike bag, I changed into my bike gear, found my bike and headed out.  I saw Mark in transition, and I yelled, “I swam 1:33!”  I was proud.

The bike course at Cozumel is unremarkable and a little monotonous as it is three (3!) loops of the island.  There is a short part with a little uphill, a longer flat part on the windier side of the island, a fun, fast part along the top part of the island, and a longer part back through town and back past all of the hotels on the other side (where the swim was).  It was hot, but not especially windy.  I had made it a point to train on the flats east of Denver to prepare for the flat, windy course at Cozumel, but honestly, I think our training rides were windier.  Plus, because of the lay-out of the course, it was only windy on certain sections.  So if it was windy, you knew you would be turning in a while and would have a tail-wind.  A lot of people would be bored silly, but I thought it was pretty and went by fairly quickly.

I cringe a little looking at my set-up on the bike for this race. Not even sure why I have aerobars?

I wasn’t sure what I was going to bike at Coz, but I came into T2 at 6:08, which was super-exciting as that was about 30 minutes faster than my CdA time.  I grabbed my bag, threw on a running skirt, and headed out on the run course.  The run at IMCoz was like magic.  I was running along at a sub-8:00 pace, my family was all over the course cheering me on, and the hardest part of my day was done.  I always feel like that once I ditch my bike – I am home and this is the part I can do.  So I was chugging along, grabbing the little freezy pop-like things of water at aid stations and just doing my thing.  The run is also three loops, but that didn’t bother me one bit.  I liked running through town every 8 or so miles and soaking up all of the energy from the crowds there.  There were also good crowds at other parts of the course.  It was never very deserted.  So I just kept plugging away at it and picking people off.  By the third lap, I knew I was having a really good run, and Mark started yelling at me to go get all of the girls in my age group.  I yelled back that I couldn’t tell who was in what age group, and he responded that it didn’t matter.  I should pretend like they were all in my age group and hunt every single one of them.  So that’s what I did, and it worked pretty well.  I don’t know how many people I passed on the run, but it felt like hundreds, and I ended up running 3:37, which was one of the best run splits in my AG.

Approaching the finish was surreal.  I was breaking 11:30, which had been my stretch, dream goal for the day.  I don’t usually buy finish pics from races because they usually aren’t that great, but I bought this one because I wanted to remind myself of that moment.  There were quite a few international athletes, so they were announcing names in English and Spanish

“Usted es un Ironman!”

The time would have been good enough for a Kona slot the year before (the first year of the race), but the second year is never as easy, and I was 14th, which we decided was not close enough to bother with going to roll-down.

After Cozumel, we enjoyed the island, came home, and plunged right into holiday craziness and the ski season.  I had no race plans after Cozumel.  I don’t like to plan too far ahead because I am never sure how I am going to feel after a race or what I am going to want to do.  That was probably a bad idea after this race because I had the winter blues and started feeling unmoored in life.  I had been training for Ironman for a year, and without that goal, I had nothing to structure my time around and no goals to aim for.  There was only one thing to do to cheer myself up.  So on a cold, snowy day in March, I hopped on the computer and figured out how to get a slot for IM Canada in August.  I was already planning to go to this race since Mark was already registered, and one of my good friends and training partners was signed up, too.  I hadn’t been that interested in the venue, but I knew how I would feel if I went to the race, but only as a spectator.  So with that in mind, I bought a spot through and started thinking about how I would train.

Starting to tri

Many of you know the background of how I got to the start line at Kona, but for the sake of starting at the appropriate start point – the beginning – here’s my story:

I was a runner.  A fairly decent runner.  I never ran in high school or college, but I started running distance when I was in law school as a way to stay fit and relieve a little stress.  Right away, I was drawn to the marathon, and I discovered I was pretty good at it.  On not a lot of training (by my current standards), I could pretty easily run in the low 3:30s.  I did that a bunch of times, traveled all around the country to races and inspired my husband to start running marathons too.  A few years ago, I hooked up with a group of fast runners in Evergreen, and with their help and guidance, I got myself into the low 3s, running 3:05 in 2009 and 3:10 at Boston that same year, which was probably my best performance.  It was fun, but when I knew I could reliably run under 3:10, I started to crave a new challenge.  Breaking 3 hours in the marathon was the obvious next step, but that seemed really hard.  I wasn’t really sure I could train that hard and get there.

Instead, I began wondering if I could do an Ironman.  Mark started doing Ironman in 2003, and I had stood on the sidelines at four Ironmans and envied those people.  In his first IM (Wisconsin in 2003), I stood at the finish line, enthralled by what those people were accomplishing.  It seemed significant and I longed to be one of those finishers, digging as deep as possible in a single day, laughing and crying as I ran down the chute.  I loved watching it.

There was a problem though.  I couldn’t really swim.  Well, technically, I could swim, but I definitely could not swim freestyle very well and certainly not for 2.4 miles.  It seemed impossible.  I also hated it.  I hated getting wet, being cold, having to blow dry my hair after swimming (this was a real issue as I usually blew out my hair).  So the swim was enough of a deterrent that I didn’t seriously consider triathlons, although I remember watching and contemplating if I could make the swim cut-off (2:20) swimming breast-stroke, which was my only stroke.

Then, in January of 2010, after a night out with Mark, and perhaps a cocktail or two, I went home, sat down at the computer, and bought a community fund spot for IM Coeur d’Alene that June.  It seemed like the logical place for my first tri since I was already going to the race – Mark was registered – and I had been there in 2009 (he raced that year, too), so I had seen the course.  In fact, at IMCdA in 2009, I took the first steps to becoming a triathlete by demo-ing a wetsuit and swimming in the lake (for about 10 min, but I was super-proud), and riding a bit of the bike course on a demo Cervelo.  That was scarier.  I had never ridden a tri bike – I barely road my road bike – and it was a brand new bike.

First time in a wetsuit

I pushed the “register” button for IMCdA 2010 and immediately got down to the business of learning to swim.  I started at my local rec center with the woman who had been giving my kids lessons.  She didn’t teach adults, so she didn’t really know how to start with me, but she taught me a few drills and gave me a few pointers.  I started going to the pool at least three times per week (that was my goal), and took a few more lessons at SwimLabs in the endless pool and two with Mark’s tri coach in Boulder.  Oh, and I read a few books about swimming and watched some YouTube videos.

June rolled around pretty quickly, and before the race, I think I swam 3000 yards maybe once or twice.  I definitely did not swim 4000.  When we got to CdA, all I could think about was the swim.  It occupied my every thought.  To make matters worse, we had booked a room at the resort right on the lake, with a lakefront view, so I sat and watched the water all the time, becoming more and more nervous.  As if I wasn’t scared enough just dealing with the mass start and the distance, it turned out that the lake was rough.  And it was very, very cold.  Yes, I was pretty scared leading up to that race.  This is probably the time to mention that I had only done two triathlons in my life prior to arriving in CdA.  One was a sprint distance with a pool swim in Aspen about 10 years prior, and the other was another sprint distance near our house in May.  So yes, it was scary times in CdA in 2010. I had lots of confidence in my ability to do the running and biking, but it was not at all a given that I would make it out of the water.

Swim start at IMCdA 2009

The CdA swim lived up to my fears – there was a lot of contact.  Trying to turn at the first buoy is still one of my scarier athletic memories.  It was unbelievably cold, and it seemed to take forever.  Hours and hours seemed to pass until I rounded the final buoy and turned towards shore.  More hours seemed to pass until I climbed out of the water.  But in reality, it was 1 hour and 44 minutes.  Abysmal by IM standards, but I was ecstatic!  I had survived!  I had not drowned!  I would actually be permitted to ride my bike and do the run!  The rest was uneventful and I finished in 12 hours 32 minutes.  Mark and I were excited.  I felt like the day had been a huge success.  And I couldn’t wait to do it again and see if I could get faster.  Well, I knew I could get faster, but I wanted to see how quickly and by how much.

Just a few short weeks after CdA, I registered for IMCozumel that November.  I felt like I was just getting started with this triathlon thing, and it seemed silly to take time off after I had just begun.  So with Mark’s blessing, we all headed down to Cozumel the day after Thanksgiving 2010.

Next up, IMCozumel!