Thursday, May 23, 2013

Terre Haute "Thunder in the Valley"

This weekend, I traveled to among the most glamorous places I've been so far:  Terre Haute, Indiana.  I made a very, VERY last minute decision this week to go ahead and jump into a triathlon and finally get this 2013: Phase II Season underway.

Terre Haute (I stole this from the Internet.  Work with me, my writing's not good enough to survive without some pictures)
I had planned to race several weeks earlier, but I've had a bit of a rough go since Ironman New Zealand in early March.  As I've recounted in varying amounts of detail here, I went into that race slightly injured, took two weeks completely off post-race to go on a bender in Australia and heal, then started to build back into things.

Which went well for a couple weeks, until, BAM, achilles/calf pain.  We cut back significantly on the running mileage for a while as I got treatment, but things just kept getting worse and worse while I no longer felt like I was running or even jogging, but instead was hobbling through my training.  After a few weeks of that, I waved the white flag and stopped running altogether for 8 days or so.   When it no longer hurt to walk around, I eased back into things.  And I mean, seriously eased.  As in... starting with 15 minutes of EASY running at a time.  I've only been easing back in for about two weeks now.

The time off was a good call.  Once I got back into running, I finally felt like I was actually running, not just surviving. Last weekend, I did a 5ish mile run with Blaine (my "long" run, his taper run the weekend before Ironman Texas) and felt about as good as I had in months.

So for some reason that still eludes me, once I got through that run feeling like I was actually running (finally!) I started trying to find a triathlon to do the following weekend, knowing that conditioning-wise the run could be ugly but trying to convince myself that I didn't care.   Time to get back in the saddle again.

The really competitive race in the area this weekend was Galena, a hilly, beast of a course that always attracts the top Chicago talent.  Honestly, I wanted no part of it.  I'm not afraid to admit that at this point, I wanted to dodge the competition as much as possible.  With my still-healing leg, the hills weren't enticing, either.   And then, of course, that race was sold out.  Phew. 

Instead, I looked into the Terre Haute "Thunder in the Valley" Triathlon, a long-standing triathlon (this was it's 28th year!).  Chris was heading to Terre Haute, as were a couple of other people I knew from Well-Fit, and it's always nice to see some friendly faces at a race.

On Wednesday night (like as in 2.5 days before the race), after I'd gotten the medical OK from my physical therapist, I completed the online entry and quietly set about trying to get myself in the right frame of mind.  Season kick-off races are always a little nerve-wracking.  Season kick-off races when you've been injured and inconsistent and have no sense whatsoever as to whether you'll even be able to complete the run, much less in a speedy fashion....a lot nerve-wracking. 

Chris and I made the 4 hour drive to Terre Haute together, leaving on Friday afternoon for a Saturday race.  We checked out the course (nice, in a state park), then headed out to dine at the best Italian restaurant we could find in Terre Haute -- the Olive Garden-- and then checked into our $60 dollar rooms at the Quality Inn, which hadn't been updated in seemingly decades and in which my "non-smoking" room smelled distinctly like an ash tray.  Glamour, all the way.
Flash backs to high school, which is pretty much the last time I ate at the OG
Race morning came quickly.  Gotta say, it felt pretty awesome to suit up in my new kit  (seriously, go buy your goods and use my code).  We arrived at transition early, set up our gear in the free-for-all transition area (yay small races) and then just milled around a little, socializing and killing time before heading over to the lake to start.

Terre Haute's a weird distance tri--- an abbreviated Olympic distance, or something like that.  800 meter swim, 40K (24.6 mile) bike, and then a 5 mile run.  Here's the run down:

The Swim
There was an elite wave of 25 people or so, based solely on projected swim time, with the rest of the field going off in the time trial fashion.  I put myself in the elite wave and was only one of 2 or 3 girls to have opted to do so.  Being surrounded by fast dudes, I knew the start would be rough and I'd probably get pummeled a little.

And pummeled I was.  It was a really rough start, and especially after not having done any open water swimming for a really, really long time, it startled me a bit.  I'm rusty, and that initial 200 meter sprint-while-trying-not-to-get-too-beat-up really took a lot out of me and left me questioning, as always seems to happen at some point in a race, why exactly I do this sport.  But I just chugged on forward, trying to keep a good effort, and got out of the water in a pretty good position-- second female behind a younger gal, who I think is a very recent college swimmer, and within 10-20 seconds of Chris, who'd I'd been chasing throughout the whole swim.   The swim was either short or I've suddenly gotten really close to swimming at a sub-minute/ 100 meter pace.  I'm going to go with a very, very short swim, as much as I'd like to tell myself I've suddenly become world-class.

We had a long and rocky run from the lake and my achilles hurt with every step.  Bad sign.  I tried to ignore it, figuring that being barefoot wasn't helping matters, but it was in the back of my mind that I might not be able to run today.  So I committed to having a strong bike and keeping my fingers crossed for the best.

We set out on a 24.6 mile ride on country roads outside the State Park.   I had chosen a power range for the bike that I wanted to try to hit, and I immediately started watching my power and trying to get it into that range.  No dice.  My legs just weren't there, and it was taking a effort that didn't seem sustainable to hit the range.  So I backed off a bit, hoping the legs would come around.  They never really did, which surprised me since I've really been cycling a lot recently and figured the bike would be my strongest leg today.  Triathlon's unpredictable like that, I'm learning.

The course was nice, albeit a bit lonely.  There were some rollers, but nothing horrible, seemingly a head wind in both directions (but maybe that's just me).  Mostly, the bike just felt hard.  24.6 miles is long, but not that long, so you gotta go hard, and the effort level required at the Olympic distance just straight up hurts. 

Anything fun to report?  Not really.  There were some pretty flowers along the side of the road.  I puked a little in my mouth at one point.  I got sort of stuck behind a car, which was stuck behind the rider in front of me, for a stretch.  But other than that, not a lot to say.  It hurt, and I was ready to be done.

OK, season kick-off lesson?  Just because it's a last minute triathlon that you're trying not to get too worked up about...don't skip the small stuff!  Like scoping out the transition area and figuring out where the run starts.  I got into transition, which was pretty darn empty, did all the stuff you do between the bike and the run in a somewhat non-frantic fashion (see? Rusty), and then set out to run, but really, had no idea where to go.  I spun around a little confused, looking for the exit, until a volunteer kindly pointed me in the right direction.  It's not like this was a big or terribly confusing transition area, either.  That little pre-race reconnaissance really matters.  And spoiler alert...this wasn't the last time in this race that I had to ask for directions.  What a rookie.

I was nervous about the run....kind of a lot nervous.  The five miles we were to run was pretty much the longest I'd run since my downtime, and I hadn't done any fast running yet.  I knew it could be ugly.  I had a decent lead at that point, so I tried to really start the run gently in the interest of preventing a massive blow up, or worse, walking.  The leg felt fine (phew) and actually, it felt pretty good to be out there running.  This wasn't feeling anywhere near as horrible as I thought it would!

I rolled through the first four miles, flat out-and-back on a bike path, trying to build the effort with each mile.  Miles 1 and 2, I just sang to myself (not out loud, in my head, and the song was "Fifty Nifty United States" for those of you who are interested, which is pretty much my go-to I'm trying not to think about the fact that I'm doing something uncomfortable song), ran smooth, waved and shouted to Chris, over a mile ahead of me, when I saw him on the out-and-back (no response or acknowledgment, awkward, but like most people, Chris seems better able to fully focus on the task at hand than I can), and stayed pretty well dissociated.  At the turn around, I allowed myself to pick it up a bit and start chasing guys and when it got a little tougher, I started practicing my mental tricks, mantras, etc.  It's going to be a long summer of practicing mental toughness, so best to get a start on it now.

The last mile went a little XTerra-ish on us, with a run up a steep and unmowed grass hill followed by some real up-and-downs on a trail around the lake.  I didn't want to do anything stupid that'd set back the leg healing, so with the hills and uneven surface, I took the effort down and just cruised in the last mile.  Sometimes it's great and really important to finish a race feeling like you gave everything you had.  But what I'm learning is that sometimes it's important to be smart, too, and in this case, holding back a bit and not attacking hills with a somewhat sore achilles made the most sense, so I did that, and certainly crossed the line feeling like there was a good amount left in the tank.  That's OK.  For now.

I ended up as the first female in this race, which made me pretty darn happy.  This was only my second overall win, I'm still getting used to the idea of going out there and actually racing for the win in the right circumstances, and it felt pretty sweet.  I was riding back to Chicago with Chris (who was second overall in a stacked men's field), and he was pretty eager to hit the road as quickly as possible, even if it meant missing the awards ceremony.  No way, buddy, I told him.  I'm not skipping out on any awards ceremonies....this doesn't happen that often for me and I wanted to savor it!
Damn right we stayed for awards
But aside from place, I ended up very happy to get out there and get back into the rhythm of racing.  My run, which I worried so much about, actually ended up going well, much, much better than I anticipated.  I wore a Garmin but didn't look at any of my splits until after the race, and was really pleasantly surprised to be running at a pace faster than I raced at last year, despite all the inconsistencies, set-backs, and limited run training lately.  I've never been one to bounce back from injury downtime very quickly when it came to running.  But I've also never spent injury downtime busting my ass on the bike and swim, and the fitness transferred over a lot better than I expected.   Hooray for happy surprises. I truly think I'm back on track.  Relief.

Oh....the highlight of the day, without a doubt?
Yup.  It's been WAY too long and that Roast Beef hit the spot. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

California Dreaming

I spent the last several months traveling around the world, looking for that elusive “perfect” place, and lo and behold, it turns out that the one of the best spots out there was just a quick Southwest flight across the U.S. – San Diego.

I know that I live in Illinois, and I know that I pretty well skipped the worst part of winter and hung out in New Zealand instead, thus giving me really no right to complain about cold weather, but since my return to the States in March, I’ve whined about the cold with the best of them.  “Another trainer ride?  Oh, COME on!”  I’d moan, with a complete lack of self-awareness about the fact that I’d been spared months of trainer riding that my Midwestern friends had to endure. How annoying.

It was on one of those cold early (maybe even snowy) April days when Liz suggested heading out to San Diego for a weekend of warm weather training.  I hesitated about half a second before agreeing.  I needed the sun!  


 Liz is my coach and has been for the roughly 1.5 years that I’ve been taking triathlon seriously (that actually sounds like a really short amount of time when I write that).   In that time, she’s also become a friend, role model, mentor, etc. etc., and, together with her husband and kid, have really generously welcomed me into their home for a couple stints this year when I’ve found myself back in Illinois, but lacking access to my own home, which is rented out.  I train well with Liz… she’s a speedy little booger, so I always need to up my game to stick with her.  We definitely push each other but don’t really get competitive in that catty way that can happen sometimes.  It works, and I think the training I’ve done with Liz has made me a much better athlete.  The San Diego weekend was no exception.  


We left Chicago at o’dark-thirty on Thursday morning.  My plan for the trip was basically to ride my ass off for four days, swim a little, and enjoy getting to know San Diego (and its beers) between workouts.  Liz and her husband have been to San Diego for training vacations many times, she clearly loves the place, and the excitement with which she talked about all of her favorite spots (both riding and drinking) was infectious.  Liz’s plan incorporated running, too, but while I’m not going to use the dreaded “i” word here, I will say that I did not run a step in San Diego, nor had I run for a few days prior (and it’s a stretch to really call the hobbling around I was doing in the preceding weeks “running,” either).  Another blog entry, maybe (probably not) but that's that.   

Anyway, upon arrival, we made what we thought were respectable efforts at assembling our bikes, with only a few fruitless searches for how-to videos on YouTube, and then set out for a fairly easy ride along the coast.  Holy bike lanes, Batman!  I’ve never seen a city so accommodating to cyclists.  It was awesome.

Well over an hour into the ride, we stopped in at Nytro Multisport to have our bike assembly double-checked.  Turns out, our efforts were maybe not so respectable.  The skewer for my back tire, for example…not adequately tightened.  Meaning I was lucky that my back tire never just fell right off and rolled into the ocean, and confirming that which I’ve known for months—I should not be allowed to have nice things, and when it comes to bikes, I’ve got just about no clue.  I need a mechanic on staff.   


Since Friday was forecasted to be quite hot, we decided to use that day to climb Palomar Mountain, which would be a bit cooler and more shaded than the other routes on the agenda.    Now this whole mountain-climbing thing is still pretty new to me.  I did climb some mountains during my little training trip in Spain last fall, and they pretty well killed me, but Palomar was a bit longer and steeper than any of those climbs.  Add to that that I wasn’t terribly confident in my bike fitness or my ability to haul my self up hills, much less mountains, with any sort of speed, and I was more than a little nervous about that climb.  Liz didn’t make it a whole lot better when she started in on the trash talk, asserting her proven prowess over Palomar Mountain and making it clear that I had “no idea what I was in for.”  

 And she was right.  I had no idea what I was in for.  

 I haven’t had a whole lot of breakthrough workouts lately as I’m still just trying to get back into the swing of things and manage my aches and pains, but I’ll give this Palomar ride the “breakthrough” title because for me, it started really, really badly, but I managed to turn it around and have a very good day.   I don’t know if I wasn’t ready for the climbing or just a little overheated or what, but once we got on Palomar Mountain and started climbing the initial, very steep section, I was just about to throw in the towel and head back to the car.  We were only 10 minutes into a climb that would take a bit less than 90 minutes, I was out of gears, I was rapidly going through my water, and it was all I could do not to start making dying animal noises as I gasped for air.   The idea of continuing on like that for another hour + seemed, well, impossible, and when we got stopped briefly by a construction worker, I turned to Liz and said, completely seriously and a little on the verge of tears, “I don’t think I can do this.”  Mentally, I was done before we’d even started. 

But Liz is smart, blunt, and I think as a coach has learned how to deal with me and my way-too-frequent moments of self-doubt.  “Yes, you can do it,” she said simply.  “It doesn’t have to be fast, just get up the mountain.”   End of discussion.

So I did.  I stopped thinking and just rode. I took in some salt, I sucked down a gel, I hydrated myself, and I got back to work and accepted my fate for the next hour+.  Pretty soon I was in a rhythm (2 gasps in, 2 gasps out), climbing well and actually enjoying myself.  The road was steep but the views were spectacular, I was hurting, really, really hurting, but I knew I was having a good, confidence-boosting ride and that propelled me forward.  

 What seemed like a million switchbacks later (actually 21), I’d gotten to the summit, my legs feeling a little jello-like and the hamstrings on both sides cramping up as soon as I got off the bike.   The sign of a good ride.  

A little more climbing to the Palomar Observatory, and then it was a long, hot descent.  I enjoyed every minute.  The best part of climbing a mountain?  Descending back down that mountain.  No question. 


From there, my day further descended downhill, in terms of health & responsibility, with the “vices” piling up on my end while Liz continued to do everything right.   Liz went running; I drank a beergarita in the shade.  Liz was ready to head home; I coaxed her into a casino, throwing down money at the craps table that I don’t really have.  After dinner, she spent the evening laying in bed with her computer, working and recovering and preparing for the next day like a good, responsible athlete and person.   By contrast, I took at nap at 7 PM (who does that??) then went out and walked all over La Jolla, checking out the ocean and the barking seals and then treating myself to a massive frozen yogurt.   I may not have recovered as well as I could have from the ride, but that frozen yogurt and those sunset views?  Worth it. 

This is how I "recover" from hard rides

By Saturday, Liz had figured out two of my weaknesses -- 1. breakfast food 2. ability to shift between my big and small chain rings without dropping my chain --  and absolutely exploited them, first suggesting a “proper” (read:huge) breakfast before leading me on a ride heading towards and through the Elfin Forest with numerous short, steep climbs that required the skilled shifting that I lack.   After the first hour+, when I’d already overextended myself a bit on the early climbs and cursed that big breakfast about 27 times, we hit Elfin Forest.  Liz owns Elfin Forest.  She sprinted onwards, taking me a little by surprise, and started really attacking the hills, getting out of her saddle, hammering each one and then taking the next one even harder, while I followed suit and just tried to hang on, to keep her in reach, to make up time on the downhills where my size is of benefit.  At one point, I wondered if Liz was trying to kill me; death by hill sprints.   She might have been.  I’m still not sure.  But it was an amazing workout, and I was pretty proud of myself for ignoring the rapidly accumulating lactic acid and powering through. Day 3 of California riding, down.

La Jolla
And then there was this.

I squeezed in one more ride on Sunday, doing some repeats of the famous Torrey Pines hill until I got to a point, about 90 minutes in, when I was completely spent, just totally over the edge in terms of fatigue.  I struggled to get home, downing gels like candy, willing my legs to keep turning over, and when I staggered back into the hotel room, I knew my work was done.

The Good Stuff 

Between all the riding was the really good stuff:  4000+ yard swims in two different pools, which for those of you playing along at home, brings my 2012-2013 World Travel pool total to 39.  Amazing craft beers, chosen from a menu that was completely overwhelming due to its sheer size, and enjoyed while sitting outside around a fire pit at Stone Brewery.  Brunches.  Coffee, lots of coffee.  Barking seals.  Beach walking.  Shopping.  Carb-filled, but mostly healthy dinners.  Outdoor seating.  The aforementioned casino.  Good conversations, lots of laughs.  Sunshine.  Basically all of my favorite things (well, except running, but we’re getting there) squeezed into four days.  It was fantastic.

Masters at the UCSD pool
I do really love these little occasions to just get on my bike, take risks, race up hills, go hard when I want to go hard, then set the bike away and do it again the next day.  I’ve now had three of these little “bike” vacations – (1) RAGBRAI, last July in Iowa, when I rode my bike with reckless abandon from small Iowa town to small Iowa town, breaking up the rides with beer and pork chops on sticks (hardly performance food) but still really putting it all out there on the bike;  (2) my bike week with Vamos Cycling in southern Spain last fall, when I chased British roadie boys up and down mountains, breaking up the rides again with junk food, this time in the form of sausages and fried fish; and (3) this weekend’s San Diego trip, where the rides were most certainly NOT punctuated with consumption of junk food, unless you count Power Bar Gels and salt tabs as junk food, which I do not.   We won’t talk about that one orange soda I bought on the top of Palomar Mountain.  That doesn’t count.  

Every one of those little bike trips has been a good opportunity for me to really test my limits as a cyclist.  Each time, I’ve used my road bike (a cheap-o that I bought on Craigslist), which has none of the bells and whistles of my tri bike, meaning no access to power data, or really, any data other than miles per hour, (a metric that means approximately nothing to me when doing the sort of climbing we were doing.)   As a result, I’ve thrown away any sort of notions of pacing, and just gotten out there and worked hard, hammered when I wanted to, risked blowing up early in rides, just had fun with it.   And each time I’ve seen a pretty nice bump to my bike fitness, which I’ve already observed in the days that I’ve been back in Illinois.  

Heading out to San Diego was just what the doctor ordered, and I arrived back in Illinois to warmer temperatures (didn't last long), feeling stronger and more motivated.   Now, I just have to start figuring out the next adventure!