Thursday, November 18, 2010

Right, left, whatever

In my last post I described the goofy behavior of my right hand while running.  Only if you look at the accompanying picture, it's actually my left hand.  Though in an earlier picture it's my right hand.  Conclusion: both my hands look goofy when I run.

Speaking of looking goofy, today I swam early in the morning, before teaching class.  The master's swim group was there, being coached by my college's swim coach (the college where I work, that is).  When I was about halfway through my own little workout, the coach showed up at the end of my lane and said, "Two things."  Then he proceeded to tell me two things I was doing wrong with my stroke.  But he didn't just tell me--he had me stand there and practice some stuff with my stroke, then a couple minutes later he came back and had me do a little swimming while he corrected my form.  And then he gave me some drills to do.  How awesome is that?

My swim is pretty clearly the weakest link in my triathlon, but in the past couple years I haven't given it a ton of thought.  I've worked at swimming, and I've improved a lot, mostly because I started from a position of total ineptitude.  But I think I'm at a point now where I need to be a lot more intentional about it--there's stuff I need to fix, and the returns aren't going to be as big if I just keep plugging away with what I'm doing.

It was really stark for me to watch my last triathlon performance of the season on Zumtri--if you haven't seen this, it allows you to watch yourself race as a little red dot that starts with all the other racers, so you can see how you're faring at any given time compared to everyone else in the race (or compared to specific other racers, if that's your thing).  My red dot started out so happy and peppy looking, and then it got totally spanked by all the other dots in the water.  It looked like my red dot must be wearing a flowery cap and doing the sidestroke.  I wanted to smack it on its spherical red self and tell it to get a move on.

Of course it's not quite that bad--there were plenty of other earnest dots plugging away at paces as pedestrian as mine or even slower.  It's just that all the people I ended up near at the end were leaving me dramatically in their wake.  I could have a very different race if I were nearer to that front pack.

All of this went through my mind as I continued my workout, feeling how much more water I can pull when I don't do the weird foldy-in thing I was doing with my left arm.  But mostly I just thought how nice it was of the coach to take time to help me out.   I suspect it might be hell to stand on the side of a pool and watch the myriad ways civilians like me screw up our swim strokes.  I also suspect that "Two things" really stood for "Out of the 18 obvious things you're doing wrong, here are the two most egregious."

Three more days of work before Thanksgiving break.  This red dot could not be more ready.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The palsied right hand

I referred to this in an earlier post, and I think now is the time to set the record straight.  I run with my right hand in an awkward position that one of my college teammates described, in a totally non-PC way, as "palsied."  I mean no disrespect to any individuals with actual neurological conditions that affect the way they hold their hands.  But in my case, I have no such excuse--I just run with my hand in a dorky position.

The fateful day that this particular running flaw was identified was a lovely, late fall day in the Berkshires.  We were doing a longish run, and as usual I had settled into a pace that put me somewhere well behind the lead pack of runners.  Two of my teammates and close friends were with me.

One of them, Gwen, said, "Have you ever noticed that when you run, your right hand looks kind of palsied?"

I looked down and saw that she had a point.  I corrected it.  I focused on keeping my hand normal.  I tripped over a tree root (we were running on a trail in the woods) and fell.

We were at the midpoint of about a 7-mile run.  Blood was gushing out of a wound on my knee.  I pulled myself together and started jogging back.  Gwen and our other friend, Sue, stayed with me.  Several minutes into it, Sue said, "The blood running down your leg is making me kind of queasy.  Would you mind running behind us?"

I ran behind them, alone with my gushing blood, back to campus.  I hobbled up to my coach, who saw my blood-soaked leg, sock and shoe and exclaimed, "Cool!"  I went to the trainer and got it cleaned out, but the verdict (and I have to say, this was ALWAYS the verdict for my wounds) was that there was not enough skin left to stitch anything too.  I had a gaping wound for a couple weeks, and of course it got infected and oozed green stuff, and I still have a scar this day.  Although it's hard to see, because it overlaps with a hurdling scar.

Is this a story about the dangers of messing with natural running form?  About the timelessness of friendship and how your best friends can cause you to be maimed for life and then get all queasy at the sight of your blood?  I'll leave that to you to figure out.

Here's a more recent picture of Sue.  Note her perfect, unpalsied running form.  B****.

Oh, OK, here's my bizarre hand again, in the same race Sue is running above (our alumni meet):

Apparently the form holds even when I'm waving to my fans.

And on an unrelated note, here is a still shot from my sideline interview Saturday with Charlotte and her friend.  The NESN reporter is named Katie, and I really liked her coat.  She confessed that she had to wear the scarf no matter how hot it got, because she'd contracted a horrible rash from her perfume.  Stories like that make me glad I'm not a television reporter.

Plus, you know, hard to hold a mike with that palsied hand and all.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


I am kind of a closet football fan.  I don't watch it much any more, but I watched a lot of football in my youth, and apparently this has a lasting effect.  I grew up in Central PA, about 2 miles away from this particular monstrosity of steel and concrete (although it wasn't quite this big when I was a kid):

The population of the town I live in now would fit into this stadium, and there would be lots of leftover seats.  I have lots of memories of working outside with my dad on Saturdays in the fall, listening to the game on a round, yellow Panasonic transistor radio.  (Which, it only occurs to me now, is apparently named to distinguish it from the "vacuum tube radio."  Which you have to admit is kind of hilarious.)  We would hear the cheers for a touchdown on the radio, and then several seconds later, we'd hear the soft roar from the actual stadium.

When I was in high school, against the better judgment of our cross country coach, most of my teammates and I also played powderpuff football in the fall.  I was a safety, and this is the only thing that has ever caused me to regret my gender, because after a taste of playing safety in flag football, I wanted nothing more than to be an actual defensive back.  I knew that, "When the linebackers screw up, the chains move; when the secondary screws up, the scoreboard changes."  (Do people actually say that?  Apparently, yes, at least in Central PA, and I'm guessing in Texas as well.)  My hero was Ray Isom, the 5'10" safety for Penn State who was a phenomenal hitter.  He was once quoted in the local paper as saying that he knew a particular hit had been really good, because it took the receiver awhile to get up.  I understand on a rational level that this is sort of a horrific thing to say, but on another level, I wanted to be just like him.  And for what it's worth, the most efficient way to get a receiver's flags in flag football is to knock her to the ground first, take the flag second.  Just saying.

So today I went to a totally different kind of football game, the annual Williams/Amherst game, aka "The Biggest Little Game in America."  It was a perfect day--almost too warm for football, actually--and the game had the perfect outcome, i.e. Williams won.  The game was a lot closer than the final score of 31-16 suggests--Williams didn't put it away until the 4th quarter.  There was a lot of hype (in a relative, Division III kind of way) this year, because Williams came into the game undefeated.  They also have a new head coach, who by all accounts is pretty awesome.  And I'm not the only seemingly normal person who becomes transformed a little bit in the heat of an exciting football game.  Sometime in the 4th quarter my friend Traci, a generally mild-mannered mother of two and all-around upstanding citizen, observed that, "It's not enough just to beat them--we need to break their spirit."  Here is Traci in the stands with my face-painted daughter:

My daughter had a major thrill at the start of the game today.  Through a random series of events I was scheduled as one of the sideline interviews for the game--every year they pick a couple people related to each school and interview them during a lull in the game.  I brought Charlotte and a friend of hers along, and at the end of my brief interview, the NESN reporter asked them each who they were rooting for (she knew that Charlotte's friend was an Amherst fan).  So they shouted out "Williams!" and "Amherst!" and then the reporter said, "Back up to you, TC."  (All you good Red Sox fans know who TC is, obviously.)   The girls were thrilled to be "on TV" (though it's debatable whether or not NESN really qualifies), and I was relieved they were there to class up my interview.  I am actually unable to watch the interview, because I start to vomit just thinking about it, but I made my husband watch it, and he says I came off as "earnest and boring," which is probably the best I can hope for.

And in other, less media-friendly, athletic news, both the men's and women's x-country teams at Williams qualified for nationals today. Go Ephs!

Thursday, November 11, 2010


The off season is time for goal setting, but technically I'm not in my off season yet.  I'm aiming for one more running race (with another one thrown in beforehand more as a training exercise).  But as I read other triathletes' blogs and reflect back on my own season, I can't help but start thinking about next year.  I have some goals forming in my mind, but for now I thought I'd post what I'll call goal-lets: little goals.  You could also call them "goalkins," or "goalitas."  Or not.

1) Perfect the shoeless bike mount: This year I learned to get my feet out of my shoes on the bike.  I have practiced the reverse, getting them into the shoes on the bike, and I'm reasonable at it.  But I haven't developed enough confidence in my mount to do this in a race yet--all my practices (and by the end of the season I started every ride this way) consist of stopping, making sure the shoe is in exactly the right position, then mounting.  I want to get that down (without the stopping part) so I can do it in races. This will just require oodles of practice--I am not the most coordinated person, and I have what I like to think of as a rational fear of falling.

2) Learn a reasonable beach start: When a swim starts off with us on the beach, my approach is to saunter in behind the first line of swimmers in my wave, wait for a spot to open up, then sort of flop into the water.  I sense something a little more aggressive might help me here.  Again, I'll need some practice, and I'll need to round up other people to practice this with.  So if you're a local and reading this, get ready when the ice thaws. You know, like the middle of May.

3) Don't cut corners on swim workouts: I am a total rule follower, and as I discussed in my last post, I follow my coach's orders kind of like an automaton.  But sometimes (I'd say about half the time) on swim workouts, I don't have time to finish--I'm squeezing it in between meetings, so to make my meeting I cut 100 or 200 yards off the workout.  This is lame.  Or, as Kara Goucher would say, "Sha-lame."  So this year, I'm planning better, getting my a** to the pool when I say I'm going to and not 15 minutes later because I stopped to answer an email, and I'm doing the whole workout.

4) Know the race course: One of my larger goals for this season is to do a better job of identifying ahead of time which are my A races.  But once I've done that, I'm not doing an A race without having previewed the bike course.  My best bike last season--arguably my only good bike last season--was at Pumpkinman, where I drove the bike course the night before.  (I actually rode one other bike course a lot before that race, but although I see that USAT thinks this other, local race was a better one for me than Pumpkinman, I rode part of that bike with my rear brake rubbing on the wheel, so I'm leaving that out of any analysis of relative bike performance.  Except that I get a pretty low mark there for careful pre-race mechanical examination of the bike.)  Most of my races are within an hour of so of home, so there's really no excuse not to take a short trip on some weekend before and actually bike the course.  Besides, my husband is training for an Ironman, so what's he going to say, "No, you can't be gone that long for a workout?"

5) Do more time trials: My cycling club runs a weekly time trial.  I always intend to do lots, and this year I did 3.  That's lame.  I want to do every time trial that's not right before an A race (or when I'm out of town), and if I need to switch up the rest of my training schedule to accommodate this, I think I just should.  I think my biggest limiter on the bike right now (OK, other than the fact that my maximum sustainable power is frighteningly close to my weight) is that I'm inexperienced at biking hard for a long time.  I felt like I finally got it right at Pumpkinman, but I need to get it right before September next year. So more time trials.

6) Race in a tri suit that doesn't make me look like a cow: OK, I know that's a slight exaggeration. Also, by designing myself a cow-spotted swimsuit that says "MOO" on the a**, perhaps I've lost some credibility here.  But I've said it to a couple teammates, and now I'm putting it in writing: next year's tri suit needs to not have the light color on the outside of the hips.  Here's exhibit A:

I understand that guys don't want to have anything but a dark color on the inside part of the shorts.  But honestly, spend 5 minutes with any fashion magazine, and you'll learn that this colorblocking scheme is quite the opposite of slimming.  Or just look at a few of us on the team who have actual hips.  Which are easy to spot, because they're highlighted in light blue.  So this is a plea to the 110-pound men who apparently design our club kit: how about navy shorts and a mostly-light-blue top?  Thanks!

Friday, November 5, 2010

The dreaded Mile Repeats, or Why I Need a Coach

Yesterday's workout was 4 x 1 mile repeats at what I hope is my actual 5K pace or maybe even a little slower.  Mile repeats scare me--they take long enough that I have time to think during each effort, and that's not always a good thing for me.  But anything that scares me, workout-wise, also excites me a little bit, because it's a chance to see what I can do.  So I headed into this workout with sort of pre-race jitters.

The weather was dismal.  I don't mind cold, and I don't mind rainy.  But cold and rainy, I mind.  I would have preferred it just dip a few more degrees lower and start snowing.  Snow it did not, so at the last minute, as I walked over to the gym to change between office hours and a meeting, I decided to do the workout on the college's indoor track.  To me this is a step up from the treadmill, but only just.  An indoor track is great for racing 600 meters (or even better, 600 yards) on, and that's about it, in my mind.  I gave myself 2 minutes to hate the indoor track, and then I got over it and focused on the workout.

The best part was that, just as I was finishing my warmup, my Santa duathlon friend (who works here part of the time) showed up at the track.  He had no plan, and like the crazy endurance athlete he is, said "yes" to the question, "Do you want to join me for some mile repeats?"  He warmed up while I did the first one, then joined me for the middle two, then toddled off to ride the stationary bike for awhile.  It is good to have friends who will jump over their lactate threshold with both feet at a moment's notice.  The company really made a difference, and the workout kind of flew by.  I hit my pace, kept my form under control, then toddled off myself to a meeting where I supplemented my recovery drink with the refreshments provided: cheese and crackers plus little cannoli.  Not the best recovery meal, but the working athlete sometimes makes compromises.

What did I think about during those mile repeats?  I thought that this is why I need a coach.  Not everyone does, and not everyone needs the same kind of coach.  Some people like to write their own training plans.  I certainly like to understand what my training plan is supposed to accomplish, and I like to read about training to see if I can get ideas for how to improve.  I like being able to develop a plan with my coach, so I can put forth my ideas when I have them.  But I really, really need someone to tell me what do to.  I need to trust that person, so I can go into a workout like yesterday a little nervous but with the faith that I really can do what she's told me to do.  If it were up to me, I don't think I would have come up with 4 repeats instead of 3, and I am not sure I would have thought I could hold that pace.  But what's even more critical for me is that, even if I had come up with that workout, when things got hard partway through, I would have had doubts.  Doubts that I could keep it up the whole time, doubts that maybe I'd overestimated my fitness, my toughness, whatever.  Having a coach I trust eliminates that.  I just accept that she knows what I can do, and I do my best to do it.

The trust thing is, I suspect, the hardest part.  I've been lucky to have a lot of great coaches, from high school through college through running clubs until now.  For me the best coach is always someone who believes I'm capable of a little more than I think I am.  But the coach can't just be a pollyanna--s/he actually has to be right, and there's certainly a way to be wrong here.

The other thing I need a coach to do is to tell me when to rest and how much.  Left to my own devices, like I suspect the vast majority of endurance athletes, I would overtrain.  I feel guilty taking rest, but if my coach tells me to do it, I do it.  And she tells me to rest a lot.  This has actually helped me get better at reading my body, so that now sometimes I take rest on my own initiative, but it's important to have that feedback from someone I trust.

All of this makes me laugh, because in most areas of my life, there is nothing I dislike more than having someone else tell me what to do.

And just to clarify, I'm pretty sure (though I haven't asked her) that my coach would not advise me to refuel with cannoli.

OK, speaking of laughing: in my race report about the Tufts 10K, I said that I laughed when a woman I passed near the finish passed me back.  In case you didn't believe that, here's the photographic evidence, taken right after I reacted and started to pass her back:

OK, it's sort of a combination laugh/grimace, but work with me.

Here's where it really crossed the line into full-on grimace, I think:

. . . and here's where I gave my slightly-too-vigorous high five to Joanie:

Nice palsied-looking right hand for me, but we'll leave that for another day.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Glowing skulls, gale force winds and errant body paint

This weekend I did a duathlon that involved all the items in the title.  I'm going to give away part of the ending and tell you that, sadly, the skulls didn't actually glow as advertised.  The glowing is really more of a "serving suggestion," to use a cereal box analogy.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.  First, let me set the stage for this race.

On Thursday afternoon I took the train down to New York for a chemistry symposium.  A colleague in my department went as well, and our trip can best be described as "The Keystone Cops Go to New York."  Typical exchange from our trip down: "There are two train stations in New Haven?"  "It looks that way."  "Do you know which one we want?" "No."  I took out any number of pedestrians in Manhattan with my poster tube (this is after the poster tube spontaneously disassembled and somehow managed to goose me in the middle of Grand Central), we followed my iphone to the wrong address, and yet somehow we arrived at our opening reception only 40 minutes late.  We spent all day Friday in a meeting room with this view:

The symposium was fantastic, and we wisely latched onto someone from Yale to guide us back to New Haven Friday night.  I got home around 11 pm, following a solid 24 hours of a diet based on hors d'oeuvres and white wine.  (I thought avoiding the hard stuff was a rather notable sacrifice in honor of my upcoming race.)

Saturday morning my kids did a fun run in our hometown.  Patrick did the "kids' dash," which had eerie overtones of a bad concert stampede.  He stayed upright around the dicey corner, though, and here he is (yellow and green shirt) storming his way to the finish:

Charlotte did the kids' 1-mile fun run.  She saw this last year and asked to do it, so starting a few weeks ago I took her out in the neighborhood for a couple jogs.  We started with run/walk and progressed over three outings to jogging a 1 mile loop.  I am not a big fan of actual training for young kids, but I thought it would be useful for her to know how long a mile feels and how to pace herself.  Honestly, I figured she would finish but be dead last or close to it.  I prepared her a lot for this.  And wouldn't you know it--she was near the front.  Here she is kicking it in to the finish:

She was actually the first girl , and she came in ahead of most of the boys.  I think I underestimated her competitive streak.  Best of all, she finished with a huge grin on her face.

Saturday night our friends' son had his bar mitzvah.  The last time I went to a bar/bat mitzvah I was 13, and like all the other girls there, I was wearing a Gunne Sax ensemble.  Suffice it to say, the 13-year-old set is a little less demure these days.  The kids had a fantastic time at the afterparty, but it was not exactly an early pre-race night for me.  When the alarm went off at 5 the next morning, the whole duathlon thing seemed a little less inspired than when I'd first signed up.

So why did I sign up?  For fun.  Or pHun, as we like to say in the chemistry department.  This is a race that encourages costumes.  A friend of mine wanted to do it.  And they were giving out skulls as prizes for first in your age group.  The skull thing nailed it for me, so I signed up and came up with a costume.  I figured if I wore a costume, I would remember that I was doing it for fun, and maybe I would also forget that I haven't been on my tri bike since my last triathlon in early September.  I think I went 1 for 2 on those goals.

For the costume I succumbed for the first time in my life to the heinous trend of "sexy fill-in-the-blank" and bought a form-fitting firefighter's dress.  You say sexy, I say aerodynamic.  I wore it over my tri shorts and running bra, and in a true stroke of destiny,  I already had day-glo skeleton socks that matched the trim on the dress.  I painted flames on my legs at about 6 am, but tragically the face paint I used wore of on the pants I was wearing when I warmed up, leaving me with just a few random orange streaks that looked suspiciously like a bad self-tanner application.  (Or so I have learned from careful study of the self-tanning literature, aka US Weekly.)  As you can see for yourself, I think I managed to de-sexy the costume pretty well.

My friend went as Santa.  He probably lost himself 2 places in his AG by pausing in T2 to swap tights for his Santa shorts, which he didn't want to wear on the bike.

Enough about the costume--onto the race!  It was freaking windy.  I have never been so scared on the bike.  That is really all I want to say about the bike, except to note that not riding in aero position for about two months really does make a difference, and it's not a good one.   Also, while I very much appreciated my friend's insistence on taping over the valve holes on my tri-spoke wheels, I suspect that aerodynamic advantage was negated (and then some) by my flapping skirt.

The runs went great.  There's a little timing weirdness at this race, which doesn't use chips, so that I think they folded T2 into the 2nd run.  But by my own watch I was only 15 seconds slower on the 2nd 5K than on the first, and even better, my combined 10K time was faster than my actual 10K time at Tufts last month.  I got passed on the 2nd run by a woman I had passed at the end of the bike--I tried to stay with her but utterly failed.  It turned out she passed me for 3rd overall, so I ended up 4th, but in the best stroke of luck in a long time, I still got 1st in the AG for the skull.

My friend is making an angry face because he only got a medal.  Shouldn't have done the costume change, dude.