Monday, December 26, 2011

About Freaking Time

Round-number time barriers are a little ridiculous, if you think about it. They seldom correspond to a round-number per-mile (or per-kilometer) pace. Unless you're trying to qualify for something requiring a qualifying time, the difference between just-over that goal time and just-under it is a few meaningless seconds. In fact, I'd go so far as to say the difference between just-over and just-under is generally within the margin of error of the overall time. Like if my students tried to make the distinction between the two on an exam, I'd take off a half point for abuse of significant figures.

But rational analysis be damned, because obviously I'm as obsessed as the next runner about these kinds of goals.

I have been trying to break 21 minutes for a 5K ever since I got serious about running again after having kids. OK, to be honest, my real goal is to break 20 minutes, but even an irrational pursuit deserves a dose of rationality, so at some point early on in my endless string of 21:XX races it occurred to me that I should deal with the 21-minute barrier first. I think I've only broken this barrier twice: one 20:29 cross country race in college (which barely qualified as cross country; I don't know if Wesleyan still has the same course, but it was basically a flat road race), and one 20:04 cross country race when I was running for Boston Running Club and ran in the open division of a college invitational on the well-known-to-be-fast course at UMass Dartmouth.

I am not someone who cares enough about barriers to seek out specifically fast courses to deal with them. Actually, that's wrong; I care so much about the barriers that I won't try to cheese my way through them by purposely picking a fast course. I want to own the barrier, not sneak my way past it.

Which brings me to this year's Hot Chocolate Run, a local 5K that is not pancake flat. The last 3 years I have run between 21:00 and 21:20 at this last race of the season, and for the past two years I've focused on this race. I've done killer track workouts, real tapers, you name it, and then I finish just over 21 minutes. This year for a variety of reasons I decided sort of to cool it--I kept training and did speedwork of sorts, but at my request my coach gave me speed workouts off the track. I felt like I needed more endurance work, and I also felt like I could get enough intensity from timed intervals on the road.

My lead-up to this race was not exactly inspiring--my last race felt fine but was slow, as I whinged on about in gory detail here. I have felt exhausted all fall, and by the time December rolled around I was just hoping to hang on through the end of classes. But don't let that fool you: I still thought I could break 21 minutes, and that was still my goal. The thing is, I have been racing 5k's for. . . yikes, for 27 years. Time for a picture; judging from the uniform and the hairstyle, I am pretty sure this one is 26 years ago, not 27:

No, I'm not leading the race--I'm leading the back of the pack.

While all that experience hasn't made me that fast, it has made me a little bit wise. I think I can break 20 minutes--I know I have to be in tip-top shape, and everything has to come together, but I think I can do it. I am pretty sure I can't break 19 minutes, so that's not even something I think about. I'm not delusional, thank you very much. But I also feel very strongly that I am a person who should be able to break 21 minutes if I execute well even from a sub-optimal starting point. In fact, I hate it when my students say "I feel," so let me restate that: I know that I can break 21 minutes on a routine day. Which sounds sort of cocky, given how many times over the last 3 years I have failed to do just that.

But I did. Which is kind of obvious from all the foreshadowing, because this would be a real buzzkill of a post if I ran 21:03 again. I didn't, though; I ran 20:55. And that 5 seconds has kept me feeling happy and chipper all the way into 2012.

Like I said, I felt kind of physically like crap going into the race. But mentally I was in excellent shape. I had actually spent time visualizing the race beforehand--like serious time. I met up with Lisa before the race, and I made her take a picture before we left our cars to go warm up:

It was excellent to have Lisa to warm up with, because she hasn't done a ton of races, so she had all kinds of questions about where and when to do stuff, and that distracted me from my own edgy self. Before we did our final strides, I changed into my brand new racing flats:

These things feel so fast, I think it's possible I owe 4 of those 5 seconds to the shoes. I love them! And yes, they're on a box of grapefruit (artfully posed in our train wreck of a mudroom). I bought those from the basketball team and have been eating at least half a grapefruit per day for the last, I don't know, 8 years. Or 3 weeks. Back to the race: when I left my running shoes under a tree (I left 3 different piles of clothes and shoes at various random spots as I gradually disrobed for the race, which I think utterly horrified Lisa), an older man said to me, "You just changed shoes!" Without missing a beat, I smiled at him and said, "Yes, I am taking this very seriously." Because I was, and I think part of owning your goal, of knowing you can break 21 minutes, is to be honest about it with everyone. Even random strangers who probably just wonder why you left your shoes under a tree.

The race is big enough that you seed yourself by time, so naturally I seeded myself just in front of the 21 minute sign, somewhere near Lisa, near my friend Greg, and near Linda. There were over 2,000 people doing this race (more in the walk), so I just love how easy it was to find all my friends in that melee. The first mile has a short steep uphill and then a longer more gradual one, and I just ran within myself, aiming to go just under 7 but focusing more on being conservative. A lot of people passed me, and I ignored them. I hit the 1 mile mark in about 6:55, and I felt terrific. I picked up the pace a little bit, but with all my pre-race visualization my plan was to really pick it up once we turned this corner somewhere around the 1.5-mile mark. By that time my breathing was getting pretty Darth Vadery, but I still felt awesome. I ran the 2nd mile in 6:39.

And then you hit the last set of uphills, right through the campus where I teach. I had shamelessly lobbied for the students in my intro chem class to come out there and cheer for me, so the whole way up those hills I just told myself, "Get to the top and your students will be there." Vanity is a powerful motivator--I didn't want to look like a slug when I passed them. I worked the flat between the two hills especially hard, and sure enough, as I started up the 2nd hill, I heard a group of students screaming my name. That got me up the rest of the hill, where we turned onto the final stretch--a long flat followed by a long downhill to the finish. All those students have an A in the class, obviously--I'm not even grading their finals. Kidding. But really, I did make them pancakes at our review session during reading period, as they requested.

Last year I lost too much time on the uphills, but I was pretty sure I had done better this year, and then my plan was just to run as hard as I possibly could from the moment I turned the corner. I didn't check the watch at all--I just ran. As I pounded down the last hill I thought about something blogger Ange posted once about the end of a race: how it hurts so freaking much, but you know that slowing down at that point isn't going to make it hurt any less. The faster you run, the faster you get to stop, so I just leaned forward and kept my legs turning over. Here's the oh-so-attractive shot of me within about 200 yards of the end:

I'm in purple on the side. I kept up about 6:40 pace for the last mile plus, even with the big uphill, which was great for me. I didn't stop my watch at the end, but when I saw the clock time was just over 21, I was pretty sure I'd made it in 20:xx.

And then I think I didn't stop smiling for at least a week. This is such an awesome race--it raises money for an organization that helps women and children who have been victims of domestic violence, and it raised $160,000 this year. They give out wonderful coffee mugs, designed by this cartoonist, filled with super-yummy hot chocolate. And this year the race was won by a guy in a banana suit.

Don't let the banana suit fool you--this guy is fast. Actually, there are a ton of fast runners here; I barely cracked the top 200 with my 20:55. They give out awards for the top age- and gender-graded performances, and this is both inspiring and humbling. It's also very suspenseful, which makes everyone want to stay around--I think more race directors should do this. The overall winner this way was a local 57-year-old woman who beat me by over 30 seconds. Some guy in his 60's ran under 18 minutes. My coach got 4th, and Joellen was 6th, rocking a 19:45 from her late 40's. Lisa and I made Joellen join us for a post-race photo:

Lisa set a new 5K PR as well. I'm calling my time a "PRAK," or PR After Kids. And of course about 20 minutes after the race, I was all, "I totally could have gone under 20:30. . . . "

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Talking Turkey

The title is a little misleading, because no Thanksgiving recipes will be posted here. Although I do strongly recommend you find yourselves one of these next year:

Yes, that's a turkey made of butter. I also highly recommend doing some of this after you've eaten your fill of turkey-shaped butter.

It only took about 3.5 hours of this

to get there from Western MA on Wednesday, which wasn't really so bad.

Onto the Talking Turkey: today I did the 6-mile local Talking Turkey race, which is billed as a "cross country" race but is in fact a very tame (and beautiful) jaunt on gravel/dirt roads around a local reservoir. Last year I ran 7:07's on average. This year I ran 7:17's. Both years I ran conservatively and then picked it up for the last 2 miles, only this year what felt like a big pickup was sort of not, apparently. I did pass a lot of people in those last 2 miles, but in hindsight perhaps that had more to do with them all dying than it did with me being all fleet of foot.

The race was a lot of fun, though. I reduced my carbon footprint by carpooling down with my friend Greg, who unbeknownst to me was ahead of me the entire race until the last 400 yards or so, when I passed him during what I thought at the time was a blistering finishing kick. I felt a little bad about that, because last year when I had a really crappy 5K, he could have passed me in the last 400 yards but didn't, because he thought it would be my emotional undoing at that point. But today he was just collateral damage as I tried to pass back some 16-year old girl with whom I'd gone back and forth about 5 times over the last mile. (Yes, I beat her in the end. But her hair looked way better than mine.)

After the race Greg and I chased down some food and found another faculty colleague who'd done the race:

If I may say so myself, we are a very sporty faculty. Then I made the mistake of leaving my camera in Greg's hands while I finished eating, and later I found these:

I am going to think of these photos the next time I hear him on NPR, explaining current events in Northern Africa.

I haven't really done any local racing this fall, so it was a lot of fun to catch up with many of my running/triathlon friends. Here I am with: Lisa, who kicked my a** in her first race longer than a 5K; Laurie, who claimed she went out too hard but did just fine anyway; and Joellen, who was the first masters woman in the race.

I really miss seeing Joellen more often, so as I was leaving, I suggested we go biking sometime, and I think she literally snorted at me. I take it she's not a big fan of the cold weather.

Here I am with Dena, while we both eat clam chowder.

I understand that, rationally, clam chowder sounds really disgusting as a post-race food choice, but even after I came as close as I have in a long time to hurling in the chute, 15 minutes later this was heaven. I just wish I'd found oyster crackers.

Also, what is up with that rogue curl in the middle of my forehead? (When she was good, she was very very good, and when she was bad, she was unable to break 7's to save her freaking life.)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Zombie fodder

More than a month ago now I did another race, the Tufts 10K. I think (it's a little hard to count, because some races were pre-internet) that this was my 8th one.  The course was changed this year to accommodate construction on the Longfellow bridge, so if anything an already flat and fast course became flatter and faster. Except that there was a surprise heat wave that day, and the race started at noon, so times in fact looked slower than usual. Especially my time, which was only a few seconds faster than my last 10K, which was at the ridiculously hilly (but more temperate) Josh Billings relay.

It's been long enough since the race that the self-flagellation over my time has ebbed away. I wore a heart rate monitor mostly for the postmortem, and what I saw in the data afterwards was a steady climb as I turned up the effort over the last 3.2 miles, so that for the last mile my average was closer to my max than I've ever seen in a race since I started wearing a HRM. And that was consistent with perceived effort, because I was in a world of hurt over that last mile, but still able to turn the legs over. But I do feel a little like this race has become some kind of Bermuda Triangle for me--I go, execute well, push myself hard. . . and end up with a time about 2 minutes slower than what I would have guessed it was. More on that in a moment. Here's the one race photo I have:

This was free, because the un-free pictures a) were ugly and b) weren't free. This is somewhere around mile 2, and I already look like I'm suffering. Because I was, and not just because the sweat was already pouring into my eyes (ouch!) by this point. I also look very pale, but that was true for the whole race (and in fact is true all the time). I am living proof that sunscreen works.

So the slow time thing: I have come to the conclusion that I am doing everything right except for sleeping enough. I have no trouble sleeping when I get to bed--I just have trouble getting to bed. The details are utterly boring, but it's work--I often find myself staying up until midnight or so, not even to get everything done, but just to be slightly less behind on immediate deadlines than if I didn't, and then I have to get up around 6 (or earlier if I'm working out in the morning), and the end result is that I average around 6 hours per sleep of night. This might have sort of worked when I was 25, but it's not serving me so well at the ripe old age of almost-42.

I talked about this with my coach, and I decided on my own that I would start to work on this by beginning to record how much sleep I was getting. The first night of my new sleep plan I recorded "7" on my training log. Not quite the 8 I was looking for, but better than 6. The second night I simply had to finish a batch of grading for my class, so I got to bed around 1, at which point I already had a scratchy throat. I woke up the next morning and was full-blown sick, recorded a feeble "5.5" on my log, and proceeded to skip a week of training while I recovered. So I still have work to do on this.

No more races since then--when I haven't been sick, I've been doing mostly running with a day of swimming and a day of biking thrown in. I did do my yearly alumni meet. Here I am trying to keep up with a fellow alum from the class of '90.

I still felt like crap from being sick here--I was totally short of breath and hacking up an alarming amount of mucus--but I really did try to reel him in at the end. I was totally unsuccessful, and he finished 30 seconds ahead of me. As if dumping me the week before Valentine's Day my freshman year weren't insult enough from him. Here are the alums from the 90's afterwards, all cleaned up and all the better for a beer or two:

I was able to leave Williamstown in time to attend my coach's Jersey Shore party. First I stopped off at the Berkshire Mall, walked into the Deb store, and said, "I need to be at a party in an hour, and I need to look like Snooki." For a grand total of $27 (I already owned the boots, although something tells me Snooki doesn't wear Dansko), the 20-yr-olds who work there totally set me up. They were able to offer sage advice like, "She's wearing a lot of big rings this season." I was the only Snooki who didn't wear a wig, but my fellow Snookis were very supportive of this choice and suggested I deserved extra props for getting my own hair to pouf.

And then we had this little snowstorm and lost power for several days. The title of this post refers to the fact that said snowstorm revealed that my family and I are utterly unprepared for any kind of serious disaster-related adversity. I have read World War Z, The Road, The Passage and all manner of other apocalyptic fiction (they make me feel like my actual life is less apocalyptic than it otherwise seems at times), and I now know for sure: when the zombies come, we are zombie fodder. We didn't even have a heat source outside our non-functioning furnace. Flashlights? We had a couple lying around. Somewhere. But maybe without working batteries. While other residents of New England were out in the early hours of the storm, chopping firewood and buying non-perishables, I went out for an 8-mile run with the second half at tempo pace. (It was a really good run, by the way. So it's possible I will be able to outrun the zombies if I don't starve first.)

Luckily I am also raising children who might outrun the zombies. Earlier that day Charlotte did her 2nd 1-mile cross country race, which was very muddy and cold. She was not so fond of the conditions, as she is illustrating in her post-race photo.

The thing is, what we have done well in preparation for the apocalypse is to acquire awesome friends. The morning after the storm our neighbor helped us coax the tree that was lounging on our garage roof back into a semi-standing posture while Patrick played with his son in front of their cozy woodstove. I shoveled, roof-raked, then retired to bed with a blinding headache while John scoured the surrounding towns for somewhere to buy a cup of coffee for me. He eventually found it about a mile from home at UMass, which never lost power. Later in the day the kids and I left John with the cats in the cold house and decamped to eastern Mass with Nancy and her kids. Nancy's family lives there, and they took us in without a second thought. It was like a fun camping trip, without the actual camping. Here is Patrick, getting ready to go to sleep at Nancy's parents' house.

Funny, in this picture he doesn't LOOK like he would take up 90% of the double bed. Deceiving, says the person who shared it with him for two nights.

While trick or treating was postponed back home, the kids enjoyed Halloween in exile.

They got to trick or treat again the next weekend back at home, at which point I think we were all a little trick or treated out, frankly. Before that we had to endure a week of no school, doled out in the fashion of death-by-a-thousand-cuts with a phone call late each day, telling us there was no school the next day. At the end of the week I had no option other than bringing the kids to work with me. Here they are settling in before the start of general chemistry:

They were actually splendidly behaved--Charlotte read a book the whole time, and Patrick diligently tried to copy down everything I put on the board.

My students were very impressed by these, and I have to say, he got them almost all right. Although this doesn't show the next page, where he tried to stick seven fluorines on his structure for sulfur hexafluoride. Yeah, I know.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Over a month since I last posted. What happened? Work happened. Enough said.

At the end of August my husband, John did his first ironman at IMKY. I took the kids down separately to watch the race and because I've always wanted to go to Kentucky one of my college roommates lives in Louisville. Here Patrick is in the Cincinnati airport, waiting for the bus that was commandeered to take us to Louisville after our plane developed mechanical problems.

The kids were thrilled to ride "a real bus." I was not thrilled to find out it smelled like every other bus, i.e. bus bathroom overlaid with cloying cherry air freshener. But it got us there.

My roommate, Elizabeth, and her husband Dave were excellent hosts, alternating between schlepping me around to see John and entertaining the kids with their 3 kids, even when Patrick became slightly sick. I feel like Patrick is always sick on this blog. Here's a picture of him a couple weeks ago, hiking, just to show that sometimes he's healthy and vigorous.

The morning of the race Eizabeth and I got up early to see John before the start (he wisely stayed in a hotel, away from sick children and chatty spouses). IMKY is of course never wetsuit-legal, so he wore his favorite suit for the swim:

I feel like wearing this suit is a public service, because it relaxes so many other competitors. There were a lot of people taking pictures of him. I am a little scared to try googling "unicorn rainbow suit" and IMKY." Here he is at the start, jumping in by the big red buoy:

Elizabeth and I waited around to see him come out of the swim (in 1:01! what a stud!) and run into T1, then risked getting arrested by an overzealous volunteer when we crossed the race course (with at least 45 seconds' buffer) to see him go out on the bike. Of course he didn't see us either place, as it turns out.

We went home to find a sad and sick Patrick, expertly doped up on Tylenol by Dave (who is, after all, a pediatric surgeon), and we put him back to bed. I didn't want to leave the house again until he woke up, so we alternated between obsessively tracking John's bike splits online and playing piano duets.

This a great shot (courtesy of Charlotte), because it captures not only our intense dedication to the 4-hand version of The Battle Hymn of the Republic but also the super-classy TV Dave was watching in the next room. If I look deadly serious, it's because once in college I hit a wrong note (OK, it was like the 20th time I'd hit this particular wrong note, which was a natural after one of those incidental sharps or whatever you call those), and Elizabeth hit me in the arm. Hard. She was a multiple-time All-American in the 100 and 200 fly, so her hits packed a wallop. I still flinch every time I play that particular piece.

But I think Elizabeth has mellowed with age. Here's our reaction to one particularly challenging passage:

When Patrick woke up, he felt a lot better, so we all went out to catch John coming in at the end of the bike. We got there in time to see some of the top men and the very top women. Still, some of us found it less than scintillating.

Some of us were more interested in mugging for the camera.

Before we knew it, John came by on the bike, looking pretty happy. I even have a picture of this, because after taking several pictures of my hand as he came into and out of T1, I decided to hand the camera over to Elizabeth for the rest of the day.

Post bike we dropped the kids back at the house with Dave, and Elizabeth and I went out to the run course. She stayed to see John go by the first time (it's a 2x out and back), then went home to feed and entertain my children while I stayed out to catch him two more times. Apparently Patrick was feeling fully better by then, because during dinner when Elizabeth asked him what his middle name is, he said, "Booty!"

The run at IMKY was much less hot than last year, but it was still hot, sunny and humid, at least the part where I parked myself. I have to confess I was worried, when I decided to go down and watch John do this, that I would end up with the urge to do an ironman myself. I think it's possible that, had I seen only the start, the bike and the finish, I might well have gotten that urge. But seeing the run--I spent long enough there to see a lot of runners on both their first and second loops--killed any chance of that. I have a ton of respect for everyone who does these races, but holy cow, what a sufferfest. John was actually one of the happiest runners I saw there--he was doing a combination of running and walking, but he was downright chipper whenever I saw him.

Elizabeth came down to pick me up, I went home to say good night to the kids, and we headed back into town so we could see the finish. Here is John within seconds of the actual finish line:

For the record, he didn't see us here, either.

John had a great experience and now of course wants to try it again, so apparently he's doing IMLP next summer. I will train accordingly, because frankly, I got really tired sitting out there on the run course, had sweat stinging me in the eyes, and felt like I didn't fuel properly.

We came home from Kentucky to a horrendous two weeks of work stress. (I actually have no idea if John had a stressful time during those weeks, because I basically ignored my family for the entire time.) My training, which was already kind of dicey during the latter part of the summer as I struggled to get everything done, turned to total crap. The last week before my final race of the season, Pumpkinman, I averaged 4 hours of sleep per night and didn't do a single workout. I seriously considered just bailing on the race, but in a rare moment of lucidity during that time, I decided that the race would be my reward for getting my Big Work Thing done (the race fell 2 days after my big deadline). I would go up to Maine Friday afternoon, get a good night's sleep in a hotel, and just enjoy the race even if it wasn't going to be a peak performance.

Not to pat myself on the back too hard, but 20 years ago, the idea of a race as relaxation would have seemed ridiculous to me. I used to dread races, especially the ones that hurt (which is pretty much everything when you're a middle distance runner, obviously). I suspect this explains my rather limited success as an athlete at that time. But for real, I so look forward to racing now, and I so enjoy even the somewhat painful moments within the race, that Pumpkinman was the light at the end of my work tunnel that kept me going through that last miserable week.

My main goal for this race, other than just enjoying it, was to have a good swim. I warmed up enough beforehand to pick a shoreline sighting goal for the first buoy, which was directly into the sun, so I could avoid the kind of swim I had at AG Nationals. I went out hard on the swim, so hard that after I rounded the first buoy, I felt really, really tired. Like the kind of tired you feel when you haven't slept all week, for instance. But I focused on sighting, swam I think straighter than I have all season, and then slogged my way up the big hill to T1 sounding something like a panting rhinoceros.

The bike felt good. Early on I passed the woman who'd been racked next to me (I had gotten to T1 just a few seconds after her), and then another woman from our AG passed me. I went back and forth with this 2nd woman for awhile, until she dropped me on the only significant climb on the course. I simply had nothing left on that hill--it was one of those times when you look down and feel a little like crying when you realize you're already in your easiest gear.

I felt good at the start of the run and in fact the whole way through it. I passed the woman from the bike within the first mile, and she said, "You just helped me PR on the bike!" which I thought was a very nice thing to say. I offered some encouragement and then tried to pass as many people as I could. In the last mile the first woman I'd passed on the bike passed me back like I was standing still. She cheered me on, and I really tried to pick it up and stay with her, but there was just no way. But I stayed positive, ran as hard as I could into the finish (I felt last year like I lollygagged a bit in the last half mile), and ended up 3rd in my AG (really 4th, but the 1st woman was first overall). I'm not posting any pictures, because I'm too cheap to buy them, but trust me when I say that my face on all the run pictures definitely shows that I was working hard.

Last year I had the race of my life at Pumpkinman, and this year I was less than 2 minutes off that time, which frankly seemed like a miracle given my state at the time. My swim was almost 45 seconds faster. That woman who passed me like I was standing still? She ran exactly 1 second faster than I did the year before, in the process winning the "fastest amateur run split" award I took home last year. I am totally impressed by myself to think I could ever have looked that fast, because that woman was FLYING when she passed me!

And best of all, I accomplished my other less-publicly-stated goal of qualifying for next year's AG Nationals, so I don't have that hanging over my head at the start of next season.

Still reading? Because the next week I took part in a race I've wanted to do since college, the Josh Billings Runaground. My friend Alicia, who has shown up here several times (often puking at the finish line, come to think of it) organized a relay team featuring our super-awesome coach Martha on the bike, Alicia on the kayak (she's an actual kayaker, in addition to her other talents, like biking faster than I do), and me on the run. My big contribution was to come up with our team name, You're About to Get Chicked. Does that sound cocky? Like maybe I was asking for comeuppance? Hold that thought.

This race is a logistical maelstrom. It has a mass bike start for a draft legal bike leg that is frankly frightening, since many of the racers in it have no actual bike racing experience. Martha prepared by watching video of the bike course. Alicia went out the day before to get out race packet, scout the location, and come up with a foolproof plan to get kayak, bike, runner, biker and kayaker all to our separate starting points in one car with time to spare. I prepared by making us a killer playlist for the roadtrip. Martha liked it.

We dropped Martha off in the parking lot of a Price Chopper in possession of our all-important pink relay wristband. My biggest goal for the day was not to drop that wristband during the kayak-to-run transition. Yes, you can guess how that worked out. Here Martha and I are psyching out the competition at Price Chopper. Except none of them were actually looking at us.

Martha did a fantastic job on the bike, avoiding a nasty crash in her pack at about 10 miles (reports of bikes in the air, general horrificness) to finish as the first woman with a slight lead on another (much younger) rider from our club. Here is Martha, preparing to hand off that fabulous wristband:

And here is Alicia, who extended our lead slightly on the kayak, because she is a tremendous paddler, all this while yelling (in a totally supportive and nurturing way, obviously) at the clueless paddlers who cut her off on the 2nd lap:

When she got to shore, Alicia threw me the wristband, first dunking it in the water to improve its torpedo-like qualities. And I dropped it in front of everyone. So I ran off, cursing to myself, while squishing a wet and sandy wristband onto my arm. But I was focused. I knew some of the women ahead of me were wicked fast, and I knew there were some super-fast looking chicks behind me as well. That became more obvious when one of them flew by me within the first half mile--wait for it!--like I was standing still. Come to think of it, maybe that should be the title of this blog post. I soldiered on, though, and I felt terrific, despite the fact that it is a ridiculously hilly course.

I wasn't sure where the finish was--Martha was supposed to park herself 1/4 mile from the end and yell at me (per my instructions), but unbeknownst to me, she and Alicia were rushing to get the kayak and the bike back to the car. So I didn't know it was the end until I saw the finish line, at which point a guy sped past me, I turned to him and said, "No way, man!" and passed him back, laughing. I was so happy-looking that the local newspaper decided this was the shot to run with the big story about the race, with the caption, "Finish strong, finish with a smile." Here's the shot that made me a temporary celebrity in Berkshire County:

Take-away points here: 1) still doing that freakish thing with my hand; 2) still sporting our super-awesome pink wristband; and 3) I, who had just run the 10K for my relay, was laughing about out-sprinting someone who'd done the entire race on his own and still crushed me in overall time on the 10K. But you know, I sort of can't help myself with that finishing kick thing.

We ended up 2nd in our division (all female kayak), with 1st of course going to the team whose runner dusted me with a sub-40 10K. (So yes, running for team You're About to Get Chicked, I got chicked.) Did I mention this was a super-hilly course? She wasn't the only sub-40 woman, either. They grow them fast out in the Berkshires. Plus I noticed that she, and many of the women who ran faster than I did, were sporting the kind of running shorts I will call "hot pants" for lack of a better word. Compression shorts that are short, not tri-short length. Can anyone out there explain to me how these work? Don't they ride up? Because the lesson I take from this is that if I need to be faster (and clearly I do), maybe I need to wear hot pants, but the last thing I need is a giant wedgie.

I was spent after this little 10K jaunt, but I was quickly revived by a chicken wrap:

We received nice mugs for our second place finish, and then just because this race is so awesome in every way, they fill your mugs with free beer. (Or Bud Light to be more accurate, but close enough).

My caption for this photo is "Who's the one-eyed giant?" (me.)

Finally, the Fest: Last weekend was BikeFest, a series of group rides and a lovely post-ride barbecue sponsored by my club. I asked Charlotte if she wanted to try the 8-mile "family ride," and she did, and then we acquired a friend of hers as well. Neither of them had ever ridden more than a mile or two at one time, and Charlotte has a new bike that is still a little, shall we say, challenging for her. Plus I have already documented my near-paralysis when faced with supervising my child riding in traffic.

But I went to my happy place, shepherded them through the ride, and actually we had a terrific time. They were total troopers, with no complaining. Judiciously apportioned shot blox had a lot to do with this. Is it wrong to feed 8-yr-olds something advertised as "margarita flavor?" Don't answer that. We had to walk up part of one big hill, but that was actually fortuitous, because we got to watch a fox in a nearby field:

The runner disappearing up the road is one of my former students. It was fun to see her, too. Here are the girls riding along, right after I yelled at some SUV that flew by us at 45 mph. I didn't let that distract me from taking a picture while riding, though.

We had a lovely time at the barbecue afterwards, while the girls watched BMX stunt riders and I chatted with various friends (including of course the intrepid Alicia).

And thus ends this massive update. I have a few running races sprinkled throughout the fall, much navel-gazing about my evolving goals for next year, and, you know, work.

Monday, August 22, 2011

From the Department of the Blindingly Obvious

This is going to be my Age Group Nationals race report, but since I sense it's going to be kind of long, I figured I might as well put the major bullet points up front, blindingly obvious though they may be:

1) There are a lot of very fast people at Age Group Nationals.

2) If you are swimming in a wave of 100+ people, most of whom are faster than you, one of whom is an Olympic medalist, and at some point during the swim you find yourself swimming a completely different line than the other 99+ swimmers you started with, the odds are not good that you and you alone have identified the best line for the swim.

More on #2 later. Back to #1: I knew this before I went, but there's a difference between knowing something on an intellectual level and experiencing it in reality. What I had never thought about is how different a race would feel with a different level of competition--in other words, I expected to get beat by a lot of people, but I didn't think much about how that would play out during the race.

Before I get to all the self-involved details of my race, here is the end result: 2:35:14, 63rd out of 108 in my AG. In a totally non-thinking, round-numbery sort of way, I wanted to go under 2:30. I had hoped to make the top 1/3 of my AG and qualify automatically for next year, but you don't have to be a math genius to see that didn't happen either. This goal had seemed reachable through some complicated transitive property analysis: I looked at last year's results, saw that the last woman to make the cutoff was 10 minutes behind someone I raced this season, and since I finished 10 minutes behind her in that (Olympic distance) race, I figured I could do it. Two problems with that analysis: 1) I didn't finish 10 minutes behind her this time (more like 16 minutes), and 2) the woman who DID finish 10 minutes behind her still didn't make the cutoff this year.

Based on what I've said so far, if you are still with me at this point, you are bracing yourself for a downer of a race report. But actually, I may have had my best race this year, probably my best Olympic distance race ever (OK, out of 5 tries, but still). Quite a plot twist, isn't that?

One thing I did NOT do well at this race was take any pictures. So to break up the prose here I'm going to have to go back to the day before the race, when I drove up to Montpelier and stayed with my friend Erika and her family. Erika and I met way back in 1994, when we were both in a running club in Boston, the (now defunct, I think) Boston Running Club. Erika is a vet, and she lives in an awesome house on a dirt road with this for a back yard:

What you can't see here is the hot tub on the deck, where we sat and watched the stars Thursday night.

One of Erika's family members is Amy, The Most Awesome Dog in the World:

Amy once visited our house with Erika and her husband (Erika's husband, not Amy's), and she was so well-behaved that our cats literally didn't realize she was there until 12 hours after she'd arrived. This might just mean that our cats are idiots, come to think of it.

Friday morning I had a lovely breakfast in downtown Montpelier, which, if you haven't been there, is way cooler than you think it is. Then I drove up to Burlington and plunged right into Triathlete Central.

Here I have to explain that, since I don't do ironman or even half-ironman events, I am just not used to hoopla. I have done running events with hoopla (Boston Marathon, Marine Corps Marathon, Tufts 10K), but those are relatively easy. You just have to get yourself to the start, and you are pretty much wearing everything you need. Triathlon hoopla is a lot more overwhelming, what with all the race numbers to stick on your equipment, race number tattoos, and of course the bicycle that you have stuffed into the back of your car and that you eventually need to get to transition, if you can ever work your way through all the traffic and find a parking spot.

Luckily, just as I was about to have a complete breakdown about what I was supposed to do with two sticky-backed bib numbers, I got calls from 3 of my teammates who were coming to the race. (I also got a call from my son's camp director to tell me he'd had a bit of a bathroom accident, but I happily forwarded that message to the Parent in Town.)  Two teammates were already in Burlington, and one was on her way, and just like that, we had a plan. I met up with Joellen and John to go ride the run course (seemed like a good way to make sure everything was functioning on the bike) before we racked our bikes. I think I made everything about 3 times more complicated than it needed to be, with various shoes in various cars, but somehow we got our bikes put together, found the run course, managed to ride it AFTER a rainstorm blew through the area, left the bikes in transition, and split up into two cars with 4th teammate Dena to scout the bike course.

In the middle of all of this, while I switched shoes for like the 13th time, I ran into Ange and Mary. They were walking their bikes down the street, one of them said something about my cow bike, and I said something clever like, "Aren't you Mary?" What I really wanted to say, based on Mary's last blog post, was something more along the lines of, "Nice rack," but a) I was too strung out by all the hoopla by that point, and b) I was sentient enough to realize that I'd never actually met Mary before, and maybe that would be sort of a creepy thing to say to someone you've never met.

And then in some kind of freaky twist of bloggy fate, it turned out I had the number right between Ange and Mary, so our bikes were racked next to each other. Which was great, because I got up the nerve to ask them what I was supposed to do with the two sticky-backed bib numbers, thinking this was some normal big-triathlon-thing I'd just never run into, and it turned out they were as unfamiliar with this as I was and were planning to do the same thing Joellen and John had come up with, which was to stick them together and poke holes in them for the race belt. Plus Mary went on at length about how she doesn't leave her shoes clipped into the bike, which made me feel way better about my inability to accomplish this particular goal of mine for the year. (I can't believe I made that goal #1, by the way. What a recipe for public humiliation.)

Driving the course made me realize I'd completely misread the race elevation profile, which looked super-hilly on paper but was, as it turned out, just on a very expanded scale. The course was full of rollers but no massive climbs, and the road surface was better than anything I've ever raced on. So with that comforting thought in mind, I had a nice dinner with Dena and went to bed.

Time for another picture, chronologically inappropriate: here's Dena back at the hotel, after the race:

There is absolutely nothing interesting to say about the time before the race the next morning. Except that when I did a short warmup jog, I got a side stitch. But soon enough I forgot all about that, because I was too busy trying to figure out how the swim course worked. You couldn't go onto the course beforehand (either that day or the day before), and the exact details of the course were not entirely the same as the map, so like many of the competitors around me I was squinting out at the buoys and trying to figure out where the course actually went. Luckily I was in the 11th wave, so eventually the swimmers in the earlier waves mapped out the course like ants on their way to a picnic.

Finally, the race! Although our wave was big (108 of us), it was easy to line up just behind the front, and no one was being pushy. When we started (from treading water), there were more people around me than I've gotten used to recently, but it wasn't bad. I had some stops and starts as I looked for a clear line, and then I just followed the churn ahead of me to the first buoy. At that buoy there was a massive holdup, but once we got around it, things were fine again. Or so I thought. But somewhere in here, apparently, things went sort of haywire. I started to notice that I was on a completely different line than the part of my wave that I could see. When we made the 2nd turn, I couldn't see the next buoy at all (I think no one could, as I learned later), and although I just tried to follow the swimmers ahead of me, after the next turn I again found myself swimming all alone, yards away from everyone else. It got so bad at that point that I started to panic that I'd missed a buoy--I was so far on the lake side of the main group, and oddly close to the kayaks, that I thought they had all gone on to a 3rd buoy, and I'd cut the course. I don't remember exactly what I did here, but I know I stopped enough to look backwards a few times and see if there was another buoy out there. Eventually I told myself that if I'd cut the course, one of the kayakers would have come over to tell me (which is probably a total fantasy, but I needed to believe it at that point!), and I went back to plugging my way toward the next buoy on my own little personal swim course. But I think I let this rattle me. As we entered the cove where the swim exit was, I became aware that swimmers from the waves behind me were passing me, something that hasn't happened to me recently.

Then came the worst part of my day: I ran into transition, where our wave was all racked together, and I saw virtually empty bike racks. I can't remember the last time this happened to me, either, and really, I shouldn't have been surprised. In every race I do, there are always a few swimmers in my wave who completely crush me, and of course Nationals is made up of those people. I just hadn't thought about it beforehand, and it was a shock.

And now it's time for a little meta-interlude. After this race I did some thinking about why I do triathlons, and I came up with this: in the time I've been doing triathlons, I have gotten way better at shaking off disappointment, negativity and just general feelings of crappiness. I felt crappy about the swim, I felt like a total loser as I grabbed my bike off the empty rack, and then as I ran the bike out of transition, I put it all out of my mind. The first five miles of the bike were similarly disheartening--I passed virtually no one and was getting passed by men from the wave behind me, and for a moment I had that evil thought of, "I am at the start of a really bad race." But before I could even get to finishing that thought with its natural conclusion, which is something like ". . . and I still have at least 2 hours of suffering to go through," I told myself that my heart rate was where it was supposed to be, that my coach had warned me that the first 5 (uphill) miles were more about settling in and that I should focus on the middle section of rollers to be aggressive, and that I would just keep at it and see how things unfolded. I used to be the kind of athlete for whom the first mile of a race was all-determining--if I felt lousy, whether physically or mentally (and in a race, it's sometimes really hard for me to tell which it is), that was it. But somehow at my advanced age I've learned the lesson that things can turn around if you stick to your plan. They don't always turn in the direction you want, and sometimes indeed what feels like a crappy race turns out to be one, but it certainly doesn't hurt to assume the best. I don't think I can reliably assess my overall personality to state that I'm generally a sunny or a negative person, but I do think it's safe to say that triathlons have moved me in the sunnier direction of the spectrum. I have to believe that this has implications for how I handle adversity that rises to a level of importance slightly higher than, say, realizing you suck at swimming, relative to your triathlon peers.

Ok, enough of that introspective s***. Back to the race. I hit the rollers and started to feel really good, and somewhere here I started to enjoy myself. I still haven't secured a magnet for my race wheel (although luckily I didn't publish that as a stated goal), so I had no idea how fast I was going, but gradually I started passing some people, and while I didn't really focus on people's calves to read their ages (mostly because it's hard for me to do this without glasses and keep the bike upright), I did see that I passed at least a couple women from my AG. Mostly I was passing women who were old enough to have given birth to me, but I passed the odd youngish guy as well. Again, something I just hadn't given any thought to was that while in small races I pass a lot of guys in their 30's and 40's, those guys don't qualify for Nationals. Duh. Eventually, as we got close to the end of the bike course, I realized I might finish under 1:15, which was a secret goal of mine. And in fact I made it in 1:14:15, just over 20 mph, my fastest Olympic bike pace yet. I got my feet out of the shoes before dismounting, had a trouble-free transition, and headed out onto the run.

By the time I started the run, it was hot, and the first part of the run course is sunny. (Except for the part that's such a steep uphill that people around me were walking.) I felt good, though, and I'd taken lots of electrolytes on the bike. The only issue was--were you paying attention earlier?--a growing side stitch. I get these maybe twice a year, max, so obviously, what better time than my biggest race? I had one of these in a 5K last year, and it's just about the most embarrassing thing ever, because it reminds me of all those whiny girls in junior high track who didn't want to run the 2 mile "distance" workout. I should have paid more attention when it showed up during my warmup, but beggars, horses, wishes, blah blah blah. I tried to get rid of it by doing this breathing trick I learned in junior high, but that wasn't doing much, so somewhere around mile 2 I hopped up onto the curb and bent over with my hand dug in under my ribcage for about 10 seconds. That worked--over the next mile the breathing thing got rid of it, and by mile 4 I could run comfortably. Except for the obvious discomfort of being in the middle of a 10K at the end of a triathlon.

My run was my fastest yet in an Olympic distance race, 47:19. I still think I can go faster (optimistic? delusional? unclear), but improvement is good. Apparently after the first couple miles I was just hitting my lap button at random intervals, but as near as I can tell my pace dropped down to 7:15ish once the side stitch had been laid to rest. Since this is my 2nd Olympic run in hot weather where I didn't completely disintegrate, I am now declaring myself Someone Who Can Run in the Heat. This was the only part of the race that looked sort of "normal" to me in that I was passing men and women pretty regularly, although the abnormal part was all the 20-something women from I think 2 waves behind me who started flying by me in the last couple miles.

I was also feeling good enough here that my sense of humor returned. Early on a 20-something guy came up behind a 50-something man I was about to pass, and the young guy shouted "On your left!" When the older guy didn't move right away, he shouted it again. As I passed the older guy, I said under my breath, "Dude, it's not the bike," and the 50-something guy cracked up. I mean, honestly--have you ever heard someone in a running race shout "On your left?" That's the nice thing about running--you can just weave around people without crashing.

I also got a kick out of the last leg of the run, which was along a bike path. You know how on roads they will paint e.g. "STOP" followed 10 or so yards later by "AHEAD?" Here they had signs saying "KEEP" followed by "RIGHT," but the two words were so close together (I guess because it's a bike path, so you're going more slowly?") that I automatically read them as "RIGHT KEEP," which made me think this guy had painted them. . . .

OK, so here's the synopsis: slow swim (30:51), PR on the bike, PR (in a triathlon) for the run. And you know, once I looked over the results, I'm not sure my swim was as bad as it looks. (Because that looks really bad.) I'll be curious to see what other, better swimmers think, but it looks to me like times were not so fast (choppy water, hard to sight buoys), so maybe instead of being 5 minutes slower than I think it should have been, my swim was more like 2 minutes slower. I'm still not really clear why my swimming isn't better--it's a lot better in the pool this year, I do a fair amount of open water swimming and am totally comfortable doing it, but somehow I'm not executing very well when I do it in the presence of other people on courses where sighting is critical.

I loved this race, even though (because?) it took me way out of my comfort zone. I want to come back next year, but now I have to try to qualify the hard way again. But as my favorite bike path sign-painting guru would say, Try not. Do. Or do not.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Almost there

This weekend is my big A race of the season. Which makes me think I should be doing things like checking the weather forecast obsessively, mapping out my trip, or cleaning the last race off my bike. Nah.

In my last race report I said I was, and I quote, "just so freaking chipper" on the run. And that's true. But in case that makes you think I wasn't working hard, here's evidence from the last mile or so that I was:

Apparently this is what passes for "chipper" on a hot day. Follower #9 (not to be confused with Client 9, yikes), this is what I mean about my end-of-race slump. The photo was taken by Ian Matchett, who got lots of great shots of my teammates and me, and shared them with us--thanks, Ian! He got the long sought-after (by me) sidewaysish shot of the cow bike, too, where you can really see its spots nicely:

Last week we visited my in-laws on the Cape. We spent a lot of time at the nearby kettle pond, where Patrick can avoid such truly frightening things as sharks, big waves and seaweed.

Charlotte and I spent one day farther out on the Cape with Nancy and her family. Charlotte and Greta spent hours swimming and floating around Long Pond in Wellfleet while Nancy and I took turns playing with her younger daughter while the other one of us went for a swim. Doing a swim workout wearing a bikini, I discovered, makes it not feel like a workout. It also makes it feel like maybe you're flashing the kids on the raft with an errant boob, but hopefully this was just paranoia on my part. Here are Charlotte and Greta being specks on said raft:

. . . and here they are trying to tame the oddly-named "Whale Shark," which as far as we can tell is neither a whale nor a shark.

It's also very hard to mount.

They ate a nutritious breakfast (Boston creme pie doughnuts--note, of course, Whale Shark in the background)

. . . while Nancy and I went for an awesome ride around Wellfleet. That's the National Seashore in the background.

In the afternoon we rode some of their family's fleet of bikes down to the ocean. Here's Nancy's husband Bill getting everything set up while Greta does something weird with her arm. This is also a nice shot of Bill's rather flashy swim trunks.

Charlotte had never ridden a bike with hand brakes, nor had she ridden much in traffic, so I had a near panic attack watching her and had to leave it to Nancy and Bill to guide her safely to the beach. She was a trooper, but she is not setting any speed records on the bike. Wonder where she gets that from?

The waves were pretty fierce there, but the girls charged right in, assisted by Greta's older cousins.

Then they got tumbled around pretty well and eventually fled back to the beach. I think Bill is helpfully pointing them in the right direction.

He also gave them some pointers on how not to get clobbered, and they eventually went back in the water until they pretty much turned blue with cold. We also played some beach kickball.

OK, now I'm really just gratuitously posting picture of Bill's swim trunks. Nancy and I were sort of horrified to realize how little our kids know about how to play kickball. They were passing other runners on the baseline, trying to call a "force play" at 3rd on a triple, and all manner of other ridiculousness. The good news is that the little boys who joined the game were no better. But we still agreed we need to run some remedial kickball lessons this fall.

Not that fall is happening any time soon. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.