Saturday, December 28, 2013

Below the neck

They say you shouldn't run when you have symptoms "below the neck." I have known this for a long time, and Runner's World even recently ran a helpful article about this. But when you have had bronchitis for over 2 weeks and haven't been working out at all, and you're gradually feeling better, and all you have left is this tiresome, hacking chest cough, isn't it tempting just to start working out again? Why, yes it is, and so I did, and so I now find myself lying in bed feeling like someone is stabbing my right lung with sharp knives, because I have pneumonia. Lesson (re)learned.

Back before I caught that initial hacking cough (thanks, 7-yr-old son who caught it first and hacked in my face countless times!), we did finish up that USATF-NE cross country series, and our masters team did win both the final championship event (out of 7 teams) and the whole series. One of my teammates won the individual series as well. Our open team ended up a close 2nd in the series--not bad for the team's first year!

This shot shows me (slightly blurry in the back) doing my best version of pack running with my super teammate Karin, the blond with black compression socks. I make this next observation, I swear, not in some cloud of body dysmorphia: as a triathlete, I look like kind of an amazon around all these little distance runners, especially in the upper body. I can't look at this picture without thinking that it looks like I'm trying to chase them down for a snack. Back to pack running: my version of this consisted of merely trying to keep Karin in visual range, something I did better in this race than in all the previous ones. Maybe because she had just run a marathon the weekend before. In the end Karin was our 3rd scorer, and I was our first displacer, with another teammate Janet right off my shoulder to displace the heck out of our competition, but you can read all about it in the Nov. 10 article on the USATF-NE homepage.

Oh, no, wait--you actually can't read anything about our team there, because they named the winning masters men's team but not the winning masters women's team. Which is consistent with the fact that their coverage was totally uneven by gender--named the 1st and and 2nd place open men, but only the 1st place open woman; named the top 3 masters men (plus the winning team) but only the top 1 masters woman. USATF-NE is hardly the only entity to be guilty of this gender bias in reporting, but I sort of feel like, as the governing body of the sport, they should do better. And just to be clear, I'm not saying masters coverage should be as extensive as coverage of the open competition--the people who win outright should get the most press. But women who win the women's race should get the same treatment as men who win the men's race.

A much better article, but with the same gender issue in the masters reporting, appeared on Level Renner. One of my teammates and I both wrote to the Level folks, independently, to express or disappointment. To their credit, they got back to us and were gracious about it. Ironically (in hindsight), one of their excuses at the time was that the editor was suffering from pneumonia.

After cross country season ended, I did a Thanksgiving weekend 5K out on the Cape. My plan here was to hold back the first mile and then gradually pick it up, and while that may or may not be the route to a PR, it sure is the route to feeling good in a 5K. I spent the last 2 miles passing lots of people, including the only women I could see. Turns out (of course!) there was one I couldn't see, which made me 2nd woman overall.

Right about this time was when I developed the hacking cough. Coincidentally, it's also around the time my family decided we needed to do a polar plunge in Cape Cod Bay.

My favorite part about both these pictures is how my husband and I, after running into the water hand in hand with our children, left them to fend for themselves while we got the hell out. Ironically, the only member of the family who seemed unscathed by this experience was the 7-yr-old, who has approximately 0.5% body fat. I spent half an hour afterward rocking back in forth in front of my in-laws fireplace while my circulation-challenged toes thawed out in the most painful way imaginable. (How painful? Sort of like your lungs feel with pneumonia.)

Not long after the Thanksgiving 5K my cough turned bad enough that I stopped running or working out completely. The Hot Chocolate Run, my yearly last hurrah, fell right in the middle of this period. In my somewhat compromised physical state I decided to focus more on the costume than on my running performance:
I can take credit only for the silver lame leggings and arm warmers (although everything appears rather white in this shot); the shirt (silver zebra/tiger stripes, hard to see here), sparkly headband and bow are all courtesy of Karin, who outdid all of us:
Some of our speedier teammates swept the women's podium, a remarkable feat for what is always a suprisingly fast (for a winter, small-town 5K) field. The men's team did the same, and so the local paper had a nice front page article about the race, in which they interviewed both the men's and women's winners and mentioned that our team also raised over $1,500 for this great fundraiser.

Oh wait, that's not exactly true. They did run a front page article, and they did name the top 3 men and say they were all from our team and explain a little about the team, and they did interview the winner, and then they just named the first-place woman, ignored the rest of the women's podium, and failed to mention that they all ran for the same team. Something that was actually more obvious on the women's side, since they all stood on the podium wearing matching team singlets:

As opposed to the men's team, God love 'em, who got up there looking like some random group of fit 20-something men (two of whom happen to be identical twins):
I got annoyed enough, and saw this article close enough to my morning caffeine hit, that I dashed off a letter to the editor. I know I'm sounding like a very grumpy middle-aged woman, but I just feel like we should be past this in 2013. And I'm not the only one.  Check out this year-end wrapup about trail running in Running Times, plus the 2nd comment after the article. (Yes, I may have a little too much time on my hands, what with all the sitting around and hacking up a lung.)

Where was I? The Hot Chocolate Run. I didn't feel great, so I didn't push it, and I definitely felt no worse afterwards, but I got serious about another full week completely off from all aerobic exercise. At the end of that week one of my teammates was doing a monster trail run, so I broke my running fast by joining her for any easy 20 minutes, plus 20 minutes back to the trailhead. I was too stupid to get a picture of her running, so here's one of me on the way back, trying to capture what was truly a beautiful, silent, snowy day:

After that I slowly eased back into running, biking and even swimming. I went back to masters swimming and had to cut the workout short, which was my first inkling things weren't going so well. Two days later I tried to do a 50-minute easy run with a friend and could barely catch my breath, went to the doctor the next day, had a chest x-ray, and Bob's your uncle: pneumonia.

I have promised not to even think about exercising until all my drugs and all my symptoms are gone. For now, my right lung is making me sort of feel like this. You're welcome.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

It ain't about the money

. . . or is it?

The USATF-New England cross country series awards $250 to the first place overall masters women's team, and going into the final race of the series next weekend, it looks like my team is the favorite to win this massive payout. This is mostly because:

1) I have a couple super-speedy teammates.

2) We're the only club to have fielded a full team at all the series races so far.

The third race in the series was--come to think of it, like 4 out of the 5 races--out in eastern MA. (So much for "New England.") When I saw there was a kids' 3K race, I asked my kids if they wanted to go. Patrick was a definite yes, but Charlotte was on the fence until I suggested we stop at the Natick Mall on the way home, at which point even a massive head cold couldn't keep her home. (The girl, who up until recently wouldn't wear anything but jeans and baggy t-shirts, has become a fashionista overnight.)

I figured there might be 20 kids or so, so I was as shocked as anyone to see the hordes of children there when we arrived. Not just hordes--organized hordes, in actual cross country uniforms, wearing spikes. Yes, even in the 10-and-under race. My kids, who don't actually train for running, were pretty nervous when they saw the competition. Charlotte put on her game face:

I tried not to stab Patrick with safety pins:

They both did great. Charlotte ran wisely, starting conservatively and moving up the whole time. Here she is finishing up on the track:

 Patrick took off at pretty much a dead sprint, so I fully expected to see him having been spit out the back when the race re-emerged from the woods. I think I underestimated his competitiveness.

 He dusted his sister, and his average pace for 3K was faster than my own pace for the middle mile of my 5K. He was exhausted after the race. . . for about 5 minutes. Then he spent the next hour playing soccer while he waited for my race to be done.

The 5K was run with all men and women together, which was great, because there were always people around me. My coach told me to "go out hard and hang on." I got the first part right, but my execution was a little more "go out hard and die." This shot of me coming into the track for the last 300 meters proves mostly that I am the least photogenic runner in my family.

I did manage to pass a couple people in the last mile, including one woman who looked like a masters runner. She was strong and had beautiful running form, and she said something encouraging as I went by her. And then I heard her name called out as she finished: Karen Smyers. Like the huge dork I am, I turned around in the chute and said, "You're KAREN SMYERS?!" I'm sure she was really happy to meet an excited fan at the end of a 5K.

The mall was nearly as exhausting as the race. I picked out a pair of cool and edgy suede ankle boots, only when I went to try them on I realized they were Dansko, just like all the sensible and non-edgy clog-based shoes I own. The salesman tried to make me feel better by saying, "They're really making a lot of more stylish shoes these days." I'm sure he says that to all his middle-aged customers.

Two weeks later we headed back east, to the Mayor's Cup in Franklin Park in Boston. This is our team after all the races, minus a couple women who had to leave early, and plus one of the team babies:

 At this race they held a separate women's championship race and relegated the masters to the open 5K. This seemed like a really good idea once we mature ladies watched the championship race, which was ridiculously fast. Here's a shot from the start:

Triathletes reading this might recognize the woman in the white shirt--that's Sarah Groff, 4th place in the 2012 Olympic triathlon. She got 2nd in this race. And yes, again because I'm a total dork, I had to go meet her. She was extremely nice, so if it's possible for me to be an even bigger fan of hers, I am now. Oddly enough, I seemed to be the only person in Franklin Park who knew who she was--I was kind of running around like a tween at a Justin Bieber sighting, telling all my teammates, "I think that's SARAH GROFF!" and they were all--even the cyclists among them--like, "Who?" None of the official race coverage (which to be fair is all on fringe running sites) has mentioned her Olympic awesomeness, which I take as a sign of how marginal a sport triathlon is to the rest of the world. Even the rest of the marginal-endurance-sports world.

For my race I went with the same strategy as the last one, hoping that at some point all this "going out hard" business might translate into enough fitness to sustain the "hang on" part of the plan. I think I did better--it's always hard to compare different courses, but my 2nd mile was less sluggish than last time, and my overall time was significantly better even though rumor has it the course is a tad long. It appears our masters team won in spite of there being two other actual teams there, although USATF seems in no hurry to post actual results. It's like they don't understand that there's $250 on the line, or something.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Actually, that was pretty bad

All that worrying I did about swimming into someone at masters' swimming, and here I should have been worrying about simpler stuff, like staying vertical while running.

This is the immediate aftermath of a tumble I took while on a really lovely early morning trail run with two of my super-speedy running teammates. We had headlamps and everything, but I wiped out anyway, landing first on the knee and then bouncing onto my butt.

There wasn't a lot of blood, but the bruising was pretty impressive. The fall was on Friday, and here's the knee again on Monday:

Luckily, the knee was totally runnable and bikeable. Just ugly.

I have been back to masters' swimming 3 more times, and each time I set some new kind of PR. First I swam more butterfly in one workout than I have swum altogether in my entire adult life. I'm using the word "swam" pretty loosely there. Also, "butterfly."

Next time we alternated IM-minus-the-fly sets with hard 100's and 200's, and then finished with a 500 for time. I set a new PR for the amount of lactic acid circulating in my blood while swimming. Also probably a pool record for slowest breaststroke, which some quick YouTube research showed to be the result of me swimming something that vaguely looks like breaststroke but isn't. I was going off whatever I learned in swimming lessons when I was 10, when my teacher (I still remember this, and I still remember her name, which I won't publish here) told me that she was going to pass me, but she really shouldn't, because I swam breaststroke "like a [disabled] frog." Only she said something more offensive than "disabled," because this was 1980.

Tonight we did some ladders and kick sets, and my legs were so trashed from the kicking that I had trouble pushing off the wall on turns for the 2nd half of the workout, another first.

In non-athletic news, I've also started taking piano lessons. I played for 8 years as a kid, then quit when I started running year-round in 9th grade. When my 7-yr-old started taking lessons this fall, I finally got our piano tuned, and when I found myself playing for up to an hour a day I figured I might as well get some instruction. My daughter asked me if I was having a midlife crisis, between the swimming and the piano. I told her I probably am, but that these seem like comparatively mild ways to express it. Also, how does a 5th grader know about midlife crises?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

That wasn't so bad

I finally went to masters' swimming! For years various friends, coaches, and husbands (OK, just one husband) have been pushing me to do this. I finally gave it a try, and of course it was great, and now I am hooked. Huge thanks to my friend Suzanne for encouraging me to join and then being the nicest and most welcoming lane-leader ever. And for not laughing at me. At least not while I was around.

Just in case any readers are considering a similar move, here are the things I was afraid of, and how reality compared:

Swimming into someone: Turns out swimming with random people and their weird-a** strokes at the YMCA is good practice for this. I am OK at sticking to my side of the lane. Although I think I brushed up against someone in the next lane a couple times--sorry about that.

Flip turning smack into someone: I think this would have been a bigger deal two years ago. I've been flip turning for 3 or 4 years now (I've lost count), and it really is natural to me now, so it wasn't too hard to do it with other people coming and going. Also, from the occasional times I've had to circle swim at the Y, I've gotten so annoyed by the people who don't know the way to do this that I think I learned by strong counterexample how to do it reasonably. Although if you're reading this and you were there, and I was being annoying, please let me know!

Not being able to do anything other than freestyle: Well, that is pretty much still true. My instruction in other strokes dates back to Red Cross swimming lessons when I was about 10, and I'm still coasting (or not coasting) on that. We had some "short axis" drills, and while I mostly got in theory what I was supposed to be doing, when I tried to do it I was very, very slow and probably very, very painful to look at. But the drill sets were short enough that I didn't get lapped. Worse than that was the set of 4 x 150 kicking on back with fins. The kicking part was fine, but up to now my method of turning when on my back is to kick or swim until my hands bump into the wall, stop, turn around, have a cup of tea, and go. When I got about 25 yards behind the leaders in one lap, I stopped to watch what they were doing, and I realized (duh!) that they were doing flip turns. Like real backstrokers. I attempted to mimic this for the rest of the set, but I definitely need more practice--I had trouble ending up on my back (I tend to turn toward the side automatically during the flip, I think) and once or twice had to do some emergency flailing around to get back where I was supposed to be in the lane. Plus I snorted/swallowed a ton of water. But I just sat out another 50 at one point to catch up, and all was good.

Not being able to keep up when doing freestyle: I expect this is all about lane assignment, but I was fine any time we just swam, even on the longer sets. Of course that is easy to say from the position of 3rd or 4th in line, because I was riding a nice big draft the whole way--thanks again, Suzanne!

Getting yelled at by other swimmers: I won't lie--I know other people who have gone to this group and have encountered less-than-friendly lanemates. I was totally prepared to deal with that, but then as I said, the coach put me in the nicest lane ever, so it wasn't a problem. In general, though, my anxiety about this and just generally about whether or not I'd be able to cut it made me understand a little more why new people who want to come to our tri team track workouts are so nervous about it. It is always scary to join a new group of people doing something you're not sure you're very good at, but really I think it's the job of those of us who are veterans to help those people over their fear.

The cockroaches: Turns out we swim in the pool that does NOT have a cockroach-infested locker room. My husband swims in the other pool at the university, and his cockroach stories have made me fairly squeamish. But apparently they leave that pool to the kids' swim team. Kids are much better equipped to handle cockroaches.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

L'homme de citrouille

I actually had to look up how to say "pumpkin" in French. Seven years of French and I never learned that, and yet I can still rattle off a scintillating dialogue about a failed bouillabaisse.

Pumpkinman was its usual awesome self. This was my 4th year in a row racing the sprint here, and the 4th year in a row of perfect weather. It is pretty clear that the swim was a little shorter than usual here (no, I didn't take 1:30 off my last year's swim time!), but I am choosing to believe that it was not over a minute short, and therefore this counts as my best time in 4 attempts.

While the swim course might have been short, I did my best to lengthen it by swimming an oddly wide arc to the first buoy. I kept correcting every time I sighted, then finding myself wide again. Other than that, though, the swim felt great, and I could see I wasn't too far off some of the lead caps from my wave. During my endless pre-race obsessing over my previous years' performances, I decided I had lollygagged pretty seriously up the big hillclimb to T1 last year, so I focused on keping that quick this year. My focus netted me something unimpressive like 7 seconds' improvement, but at least I felt better about myself at the time.

Onto the bike: I rode so hard I thought I might puke, passed tons of people (because I was in the 2nd-to-last wave), and for my efforts ended up with almost exactly the same bike split as last year. The only thing I can think of is that I had to spend a lot of time passing people who were not super experienced at racing--some of the roads are a little dicey on the side, so these folks were often riding pretty far out to the left, which made passing challenging. I'm still not convinced this could have lost me that much time, but who knows? Anyway, it wasn't a big deal, and everyone in my AG had to deal with the same situation. Also, it's one thing when you see a guy in an aero helmet riding a disc wheel engaging in this behavior (which I did earlier in the season), and quite another when it's some person on a mountain bike. They just didn't know, and it wasn't going to help anyone to get frustrated with them, so I just called, "please move right" when I had to and thanked them when I passed.

I saw the 1st place amateur about a quarter mile into her run when I was coming in on the bike, which I knew translated to a deficit I couldn't make up unless she decided to sit down on the side of the road, but I took off anyway, not really knowing who else was ahead of me (especially from the earlier waves). I felt great this year on the run; my time wasn't as fast as a couple years ago, but it wasn't as bad as last year either, and I pushed pretty hard the whole way through. I want to thank in particular one of the volunteers, a teenage girl standing at the last corner of the run around transition--she was yelling at everyone to kick it in, and she was seriously motivating when I went by.

In the end I was the 4th amateur woman, 2nd in my age group (because yes, the same woman won it again--she is a rock!), but awarded 1st because of that whole bumping-up process. The downside to this was that I had a bigger climb onto the podium than I'm used to, and that is one tall podium.

And look--I won a visor, along with my lovely Pumpkinman coaster! I love prizes I can use. (I also love those coasters; I'm not 100% sure they're supposed to be used as such, but they work really well.)

I was joined in Maine this year by two teammates, Cindy and Kevin, who both had great races as well.

Cindy's partner took the photos, and although it looks like she added a fake backdrop here, that's really what a beautiful day it was. Also, I'm not standing on a podium here--I don't think of either of these folks as short, but apparently I'm kind of a giant.

The day after Pumpkinman was my running team's home cross country meet. We are trying to score in both the masters' and open categories for the women's USATF-NE cross country series, which means the more meets we can score in, the better. Since our club was hosting one of the scoring events, it just seemed bad form not to show up for it, even 24 hours after a race.

The start was just like I remembered--fast, with me at the back.

I felt pretty good, at least until about 800m from the end, when the wheels kind of came off. But who feels good 800m from the end of a cross country race, anyway? We won the masters' team race, primarily because we were the only full masters' team, but a win is a win, and I was the 3rd scorer for that group, having finished a rather sobering 24th out of 29 women in the race. My team also won the open race, no thanks to me. Here we all are, post-race and victorious:

A more typical post-race shot:

Me, wiping my sweaty face off. I think I am both the tallest and the sweatiest runner on my team. Also, I tend to run into scratchy things a lot during cross country:

The next weekend was another road race in the USATF-NE grand prix road race series. Are you keeping up here? There is both a road race and a x-country series. (Also a mountain series, I think, but I'll leave that alone.) This one was a 10K in Gloucester. The first thing I realized, a couple days out, is that Gloucester is really far east. I had to get up at 4:15 to meet my carpool for the 9 am race. I had a dark moment when I spilled most of my coffee in the car, but I recovered emotionally and had a lovely day. Gloucester is beautiful, the weather was beautiful, and the race wasn't half bad. Our master's team finished 7th and our open team 6th, and I scored for both after one of our actual fast runners was stricken with calf cramps partway through the race. I felt bad for her, but when I passed her on the side of the road (and yes, I checked to make sure she was OK first!), I knew that made me the 5th scorer for the open race, which was highly motivating. I kept thinking that I owed it to the other 4 not to embarrass myself on the uphills. And despite what this picture looks like below, I actually ran hard the whole way.

Really, it looks like this picture is missing the oxygen cart I was pulling along with me. And this was less than a half mile from the finish, so in theory I was running faster than average.

I love that there were so many free pictures available from this race. I just wish they had edited them to give me better running form.

What is with that hand? I actually ended up outkicking this women, who looks like she's about 25 but turns out to be 38. I felt prouder when I thought she was 25.  Anyway, surely the hand position is just an artifact of this particular shot.

Or not. I think my running form is pretty good when I'm not tired, but there's no denying the photographic evidence--I am a huge cross-body arm swinger when I'm tired. Not to be confused with a plain old swinger.

The other great thing about this race was that my college friend Sue, who lives a town or two over, showed up to do it. We found each other, out of the 1,000 or so runners there, in line for the bathroom, and we finished just over a minute apart, taking 9th and 10th in the 40-49 age group for women. I'm not posting any of her race pictures here, because she thinks they're hideous, but as usual they just show that she has much nicer running form than I do.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A year or so

I figured no one was really reading this, and then this summer at the pool a friend said, "I was reading your blog the other day!" So Suzanne, this update is for you!

Since I last wrote, I ran the local 10-miler in February.

My main strategy this year consisted of wearing a Smith basketball shirt, so that people would think, "She's not that fast, but hey, for a basketball player, she's doing great!" The picture above is about a mile into the race. Below is a shot from near the end, where I look decidedly less happy.

After running this race I lay on the couch, sore and wanting to throw up, for the better part of the day. At which point I decided, having done this 4 times and finished in the same time plus or minus 4 minutes each time, I am crying uncle on this race. Next year I will partake of the terrific atmosphere, the sense of seeing all one's running friends after a long lonely winter, by volunteering at a water stop. I'm writing this here so that someone can remind me of this if they see me with a race application in my hand. Although since then I've joined a running team and may end up having to do this as a team event. Bah.

Speaking of Smith basketball, I spent much of my winter being a super basketball fan. Smith made it to the Div III NCAA tournament for the first time ever, so Patrick and I road tripped to Maine to see their game.

The reason he looks so happy here is that, unexpectedly, Smith won their first-round game, beating the #8 seed on their home court. And now basketball season will be starting again before you know it.

Triathlon season started for me in May this year, when I road-tripped to New Jersey with Alicia to do Devilman. This year I opted for the sprint, which is really more of an Olympic Light. Last year the big story was the vicious biting bugs at the race. This year it was the 42-degree air temps at the start. I pretty much had hypothermia before I even started, and things didn't really get better until the run. The low point of the race for me was being unable to unbuckle my helmet in T2; I eventually found an official to take it off for me. 

At this year's finish I looked a lot less haggard (having only done the sprint) and a lot less bug-covered. After the race we hightailed it to Ocean City to hang out with Martha and some of her new NJ triathlon buddies. A neighbor lent me a beach cruiser to go to the boardwalk and buy saltwater taffy for the kids.

Other races this season included:

1) A ridiculously hilly Olympic tri in June, which was fun mostly because several of my teammates made the trip to eastern MA with me. 

I shared a hotel room with Lisa, who was doing her first Olympic race, and I can now say with confidence that she is even more obsessive than I am. For instance, she insisted on wading out into the lake the night before to take the water temperature.

2) My super-favorite local race in late June, where I tried really hard to get 3rd but didn't really get that close, ending up 4th behind three fabulous women who are all older than I am. This simply makes me optimistic for my next decade.

3) Back to NJ for the New Jersey State Tri, my A race. It is a long and not that interesting story how I ended up picking this race, but in the end I think it was a great choice. The obnoxious heat wave sort of broke, so air temperatures weren't that bad, although the water was a balmy 89.5 degrees. I still had my best Olympic swim ever, even sans wetsuit. My bike was great, and I pretty much imploded in a sea of cramps on the run, but I had a blast and ended up 5th in my AG. 

Also, that's not my time--I started about 45 minutes after the first wave. I want to go back next year for redemption. Two friends of mine did the sprint, and another one did the Olympic with me. Here we are post-race, after taking about 5 minutes to figure out which way to face so we could actually see ourselves in the picture.

4) A 5-mile running race! As alluded to above, I joined a local running team that wants to field a master's team in both the USATF grand prix races and the fall cross country series. I distinguished myself in my first race for them by being the slowest member of my team, but it was incredibly fun. I am such a dork that I was just thrilled to wear a team singlet. 

As a triathlete I often forget what a bad runner I am, relatively speaking, compared to people who only run, but in the end I think this will be good for my running, if rather humbling.

5) A local sprint tri to shake off the cobwebs after summer vacation. I went into this race hoping to win and didn't really come all that close, but I did come in 2nd woman, and once again Alicia and I proved we are the ideal road-tripping pair. (Although if you want to take a road trip and know the water temperature, Lisa is your gal.)

Next up: Pumpkinman sprint, my favorite way to cap off the season! And maybe since I'm on sabbatical this year, I'll actually update this blog occasionally.