Sunday, August 29, 2010

100-Mile Endurance Spectating Report Part I

I am almost embarrassed to be worried about my upcoming Ironman after watching some friends do the Angeles Crest 100-mile Endurance Run. These guys are just simply nuts.

I've spectated a fair number of races, from 5Ks to Ironmans, but I was clueless how to watch this race. They had a 70-page race booklet with confusing maps and complicated charts and I didn't understand how any of it would come together. But in hindsight, it was actually one of the easiest races to watch that I've ever been too.

Well, easy may be oversimplifying things. For starters, I had to get myself to Wrightwood, CA for a 5:00am start time. Wrightwood is a tiny little mountain town about 75 miles away, in a place where you can actually see the stars at night and breathe the air without burning your lungs with smog. I wanted to get there early because I was worried about parking and being able to find everybody: HA! I parked about 100 feet from the starting line. This was not your typical corporate race- it was Hippies Running Through the Woods.

I quickly found racers Rich, Gil, Jesus, and Mike V, and about 100 other crazy people who signed up to do the race. The entire start was kind of anti-climactic; there was no welcome speech, no national anthem... at 5:00 some guy said "Go!" and off they went.

As amazing an undertaking as the 100-mile run may be, I have my own upcoming race to worry about. So I packed up my bike, and my plan was that I would see everyone come through the checkpoint around 7:00, then do a 4-hour bike ride along the Crest and meet up with them again around 11:00 a few checkpoints down the road. Well, we did see them all come into the checkpoint looking strong... but it was FREEZING. I think it may have been in the 40s, with some nasty winds, and I was completely unprepared for a cold bike ride. So I delayed my start for a couple hours and wound up just doing about 80 minutes later in the morning. I did stop by the Mt. Waterman ski lift and sat on the chair just because.

Back to the race... Most of the run is along trails in the Angeles National Forest, and every 5-10 miles or so the trail would cross the Angeles Crest Highway. (Sidenote: people in SoCal really need to head up there and take this drive. It is absolutely beautiful and you'll be amazed just how close it is to the big city.) All of those crossings were "checkpoints" in small parking lots where they had basic aid stations, and friends and family could resupply their runners with food, clothing, or whatever. In triathlon terms, they were basically public Transition Areas. This was my first time ever seeing a "crewed" race and the whole thing fascinated me. At each checkpoint, there would be two dozen cars set up like tailgate parties, with each car loaded with supplies for their runners. Stephanie and Adriana were on official crew duties, and then myself and Annie were there for general moral support.

Funny thing about giving support: Stephanie had the idea that we should try to make it easy for Rich to spot us when he came into each checkpoint, so she suggested we all wear the "SuperSteph" T-Shirts that we wore when she did her Ironman. Throughout the day, people kept asking us who Steph was and how she was doing along the run, and we would just say "oh Steph isn't doing the race. We're just supporting her while she's supporting her husband." After all, it WAS a lot of work for her to be crewing all day long, right?

Our guys came through the first checkpoint looking and feeling great. Maybe a little TOO great, because Rich as way ahead of schedule and was going out too fast. Pretty much same thing at checkpoint two, everyone looking good. But then things got interesting for Rich at checkpoint three.

Oh, the nasty scrape? Nothing to do with the medical help. He fell in the woods. Instead, he had a big blister on his foot that he needed to have popped. He was the first victim - errr, client - at the checkpoint, and the medical team wasn't quite ready to handle people. It was very chaotic. Not only did we have trouble finding a medic for Rich, but when we did find them they didn't have their bags and boxes of supplies ready. I would hate to know what would have had happened if there was an actual emergency.

"Deb" tended to Rich's blister, and as she was looking at his foot she suddenly handed me something and said "here, take this." I thought maybe she needed me to hold some gauze or bandages while she worked on his foot, but no: she gave me her camera and wanted me to take pictures. I don't know what kind of scrapbook she's working on, but she wanted to make sure i got good shots of her slicing open a foot. Freaky hippies. Of course, all the best shots are on her camera.

Unfortunately, at Checkpoint four around Mile 30 MIke V. was dropped off in a pick-up truck; he missed the cutoff time at the last checkpoint by 4 minutes. Now then, I fully understand and support the need for cutoff times: Big-city marathons have to deal with complicated street closures and the midnight deadline for Ironman adds to the mystique. But those are big, corporate events with computer chips calling the shots. This weekend was Hippies Running in the Woods. Those 4 minutes shouldn't have mattered. But they decided to play the "rules are rules" card. Fine. But then they just made matters worse for Mike V. There was no mechanism in place to get him back to civilization. He asked if they had a cel phone he could use: no, there was no coverage in the mountains. (Which was true, but all of the checkpoints were in radio contact with each other so with the slightest amount of effort, they could have done something to help him out.) Mike asked "what am I supposed to do?" The race worker told him "well, you want to help us clean up?"

Really? REALLY?! This guy just ran more than a marathon, you're pulling him off the course against his will, and now you want to put him to work? Seriously? Mike was able to find some guy with a pick-up to drive him to the next checkpoint where we were waiting for him, so I was able to drive him home. He was understandably bummed, but is already talking about next year. In the meantime, he has a crazy swim to Catalina Island he's organizing so I think he'll be just fine.

The race is obviously very long, so a bunch of stuff happened while I was gone. For the last section of the race, the runners have pacers join them along the course. Gerald, Heather, Leah, Gary, Zubin... they all met up with our warriors in the middle of the night to run though the woods and help keep them alert and focused. I haven't been briefed on all of the adventures they had, but I DO know they did an AMAZING job bringing our boys home. They could not have asked for better support.

More to come.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

How to Gain (and Lose) Bodyfat

I have one of those horrible, horrible Tanita scales. For the un-initiated, with the Tanita scale you pre-program it with your age, height, zodiac sign and favorite pet's name. Then when you step on the scale, it sends a small electrical current through your body and generates a random number as your bodyfat percentage. You would think that with a random number sometimes it would be good, sometimes it would be bad. Yet with the Tanita, somehow - defying all laws of mathematics and logic - it is always bad news.

Now I don't delude myself to thinking that the Tanita gives an accurate absolute reading of your bodyfat. (An anonymous friend recently did the full submergence test and it was WAY off from her Tanita reading.) But I HAVE deluded myself into believing that it can show relative progress: ie losing fat or gaining fat overall.

I had not used the scale in maybe a week and thought I'd check up on myself. I haven't gotten down to my race-day goal but I've been hovering in that area for a while so I haven't been worried about it. I turned 42 in July and never re-programmed the Tanita so I finally updated it. I was excited to check my bodyfat, because I assumed that the older you got, the more forgiving it would be. Sort of like going up in age-group for races. I stepped on the scale and Tanita told me I was seven percentage points HIGHER than I was last week. SEVEN POINTS?! That's just crazy.

I waited a few minutes, went back to the scale and tried again. It HAD to be a false reading, right? Nope. Same result. Fortunately I don't trust voodoo magic (Tanita) and I went back and re-reprogrammed the scale. I stepped back on, and this time I was pretty much right where I was last week. I'm not sure what I did the first time, maybe I told it I was 4 feet tall and that's why it thought I was so much fatter.

So my advice to all you Tanita owners: the machine CAN be beat. You just have to figure out how to program it correctly. I think I'm going to try telling it that I'm 8 feet tall and see if I can get it to tell me I have a negative bodyfat percentage.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Sink or Swim

Yesterday I had a one-on-one swim lesson with our Swim Coach Steve (It's worth clicking the link, I'll wait.) Now then, Steve is a good swimmer, and may be a good teacher, but I'm not a very good student. The problem is that whatever triathlon has done for me, I am still the same spaz I was 30 years ago. The only difference is that now I spaz out 140.6 miles at a time. Of the 3 tri disciplines, swimming requires by far the most coordination and is my therefore my worst leg.

Steve offered to give me some swim pointers because, well, it can probably be best explained by this exchange last night in the pool:

Steve: "Where did you learn how to swim?"
Me: "Um, I didn't."
Steve: "I kind of thought so."

I was never really "taught" to swim. And for the past 5 years on the tri team I've basically just been doing the swim workouts while reinforcing all of my bad habits. So Steve hopes to fix that.

Steve's big thing, what he tells everybody every week in our group workouts, is that proper head position is critical. If you can get that right, then everything else becomes much easier. And he has a simple exercise to determine proper head position: while standing up, raise your arms straight overhead, place one hand on top of the other, and have your arms cover your ears. That should be the correct alignment when you're horizontal in the water. Here's the problem: the bigger your arms are, the easier it is to line them up with your ears. My arms don't really touch my ears when I reach overhead without kind of pushing them inward and so I was always kind of guessing where the right position was. But Steve set me straight and now at least in theory I know where my head should be.

The other problem I have (well, the next of many) is my kicking. Someone long ago told me that "you don't really need to kick in a triathlon." The logic is you don't get a lot of propulsion out of your legs compared with your arms, and you're better off saving your legs for the bike. Since you're wearing a wetsuit, your legs should be floating up by the surface anyway so they're not dragging. I've just clinged to this philosophy ever since. Well, in Hawaii it will be too warm for a wetsuit so I'll have to kick my legs properly to keep them from dragging. That was Steve's lesson #2.

All in all, there was very little yelling and very few tears so I think the lesson went well. Even if I don't swim faster, if I can be more efficient in the water and less tired when I get out, all the better.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Let the Boycott Begin

A couple weeks ago I sent a letter to Mars, Inc. complaining about some damaged m&ms. They replied:

Now then... I wasn't expecting a HUGE response from them, but I was hoping somebody at Mars would have put a little thought into it. After all, even if you they didn't know a thing about triathlons, my letter had to be at least a welcome change of pace from the countless "I found rat droppings in my candy" complaints that I'm sure they get all the time.* The perfect response in my opinion would have been for them to send me some small bags of individually colored m&ms. I told them which colors I was using, and it would have been a creative reply. They did not do that. They sent me coupons for six bucks worth of candy. That doesn't even cover the cost of the original crappy bag that I bought in the first place. At the very least, they could have personalized the letter with a quick "good luck with your race" note. They did not do that.

Therefore, I NO LONGER ENDORSE M&M CANDIES AS PART OF AN IRONMAN TRAINING DIET. You should switch to Reeses Pieces instead.

*I do not have substantial proof that every bag of m&ms candy contains rat droppings.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

LAVA makes my blood boil

Dear LAVA Magazine:

Congratulations on your premiere issue, but you completely dropped the ball with your response to "Disappointed Joe" who missed the bike cut-off at Ironman St. George. He wanted a comp entry to a future race because he felt the Ironman organizers misrepresented the difficulty of the course . You put on the kid gloves and calmly explained the (many) logical and factual errors in his letter. I understand wanting to be supportive of fellow triathletes, but some people, like Disappointed Joe, just need a good swift kick in the ass.

As a back-of-the-pack Ironman finisher, Disappointed's letter offends me. He doesn't have an inspiring story of going from couch potato to triathlete; he's a self-proclaimed lifetime athlete who felt compelled to list his many athletic accomplishments, and who finally got humbled by a race. Welcome to land of the mere mortals, buddy.

I was with a friend at Ironman Arizona when she missed the cut-off for the third lap of the run. (Disappointed Joe would call her a "failure.") She signed up for the race knowing she would be fighting the clock the entire time, and attempted it anyway. As she left the course, she handled it with grace and dignity and didn't look for excuses. Disappointed Joe, in contrast (and by his own admission) wouldn't have even tried doing an Ironman if he knew how hard it would be. He can't seem to understand how an athlete of his caliber could possibly receive a DNF - the problem MUST be with the race itself. When my friend returns to Arizona some day and crosses the finish line, she will become twice the Ironman Disappointed Joe can ever hope to be, because she understands that becoming an Ironman is all about the journey.

Disappointed Joe says he never wants to do another triathlon again. You want to be supportive? Why not tell him "good idea" because it's pretty obvious he has absolutely no idea what the true heart and spirit of Ironman is all about.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Swimming the Channel

Vacationing on the North Carolina shore is not good for bike training; I'll be off the bike for a week. But it IS great for high-humidity runs, perfect for Hawaii, and swimming. Sunset Beach is a barrier island and there is another island just north of us. They're separated by an inlet channel that is maybe a couple hundred yards. This is a fantastic place to do open-water laps. Sometimes.

The eastern seaboard has a very shallow shelf, which creates very dramatic changes based on the tides. I remember trying to swim the channel a couple years as the tide was going out and almost being washed out to so this time I thought I would be smart and do my laps right before high tide, so if I did get caught in any current it would simply bring me inland. Unfortunately, in addition to the high tide there were high winds blowing and the inlet was a maelstrom. I stepped 5 feet off shore and could barely stand up straight because the current was so strong.

I was with my friend Alan, who is known for having more courage than skill (although is certainly very athletic) and he thought we should try to swim across anyway. The logic was that if we could just get through the rough current along the shoreline, it would be smoother near the middle of the inlet. And again, if the current swept us away, it would dump us in a marsh.

We jumped in, and yes the current swept us down a bit but we got through the worst of it pretty quickly and the water was much calmer 25 yards out. Alan doesn't have as much experience as I do in open water and was struggling a bit to move against the current so we decided to just surrender to it instead.

We went back to the stronger current and At times I felt like Nemo's dad Marlin riding the East Australian Current. We were brought around to the back of the island very quickly and cruised by a bunch of party boats docked right off the beach. Swimming with a good current is a good way to get a quick tour of the island.

We cheated and walked our way back to where we started. Although we covered a fair amount of distance, I felt that I was cheating in terms of getting a workout so I'm only crediting myself for half the time.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Snakes on a Road

I am on vacation in North Carolina, spending a week in a beach house in Sunset Beach. It's tough to get all your training hours done when you're out of town, so I'm planning an squeezing them in whenever I can.

I took the red-eye from Los Angeles Thursday night, and stayed with friends in Raleigh (who are part of the beach-house crew). My hosts had some errands to do around lunchtime Friday, so I decided to take advantage of the free time and do a one-hour run.

I had to run along a fairly busy highway (there's pretty much only one road there.)   I ran facing traffic, on a five-foot shoulder, hugging the grass as closely as possible. Every few hundred yards there would be some form of road trash in front of me: a piece of a blown-out tire, some rubber piping, strips of unknown plastic. At one point I saw a large piled of coiled-up debris in the middle of the shoulder. When I got about two feet in front of it I realized it wasn't trash but a snake. A HUGE snake.

Now I know what you're thinking: I tend to exaggerate snake stories. But I really mean it this time; this snake was BIG. I later found out it was a Black Rat Snake, which can grow to be 6-8 feet long. That's a lot of snake.

Naturally the snake didn't do anything, but I was completely freaked out. From that point out, every shadow looked like a snake to me. So instead of running along the edge of the shoulder, I started running in the middle of the lane of oncoming traffic. I would go back on to the shoulder if, say, a truck was coming my way but pretty much I tried to stay as far away from the grass as possible.

Of course when I got back to the house, I told my friends "ohmygod you wouldn't believe the snake I saw!" They were very non-chalant about it. "Sounds like a Black Snake. We have one living under our porch." They have a six-foot-plus serpent living with them and they can get to sleep every night?! These people are freaking crazy.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Complaint Department

Monday, August 02, 2010

"Going Long" AND a "Blast from the Past"

This weekend was the beginning of high-mileage territory: I had a 90-mile bike ride on Saturday and a 15-mile run Sunday.

The bike ride was all about the mental game. I've been doing short mid-week rides and after 30 minutes or so I've been getting bored out of mind thinking "man, this is taking forever!" So I needed to recalibrate what it means to go for a long ride. I met up with Steve, Teresa, Gary and Chris in Duarte and we hit the river trail.

We started off with the 10-mile climb up to East Fork Road. Gary, bless his heart, was being very helpful and giving me good advice about the bike. (He qualified and raced in Kona in 2005.) But for some reason I thought it was very funny HOW he was giving me advice. I honestly don't remember the numbers, but at one point as I was charging up the hill he told me something like this: "OK, I'll do an Ironman bike in about 5 hours, and right now I'm putting out 250 watts. So if you're passing me, you may be overexerting yourself." My counter-argument was basically "maybe, but my way we get to top sooner." Point: Wedgie.

Of course, Gary was right. We went back down the hill and then continued along the slight-downhill all the way to Seal Beach. And all the time, I KNEW I was going too fast and that I was going to pay for it later. Sure enough, around mile 57 when it was time to turn around and do a 35-mile slight incline back to the cars, I wasn't too happy.

I remember the exact moment when my ride fell apart: I glanced down at my odometer and it said 64 miles. And it immediately clicked in my head that I was just past the halfway point of the 112-mile Ironman ride. (Yes, I didn't realize until the NEXT DAY that the halfway point of Ironman is at 56 miles, but I guess I was getting loopy and in my mind 62 was one-half of 112.) ANYWAY, that's when the demons hit. "Oh my god, I could never do what I just did twice. I hate this wind. My shoulder hurts." And once I stop caring, then I start to slow down, which makes me feel worse because I can't believe how slow I'm going, so I care even less... It was just a very long ride back.

Now here's the odd part: I thought the 90-mile ride would take me 6 hours. That's slower than what my race pace should be, but I thought at this point in my training 6 hours would be good. I finished in 6:02:00, and it was actually 92.5 miles. So that should have been a great result, but I was just so - not depressed, but something one step less severe - during the last 90 minutes of the ride it just left a bad feeling inside. But, the entire purpose of the ride was to start getting used to long rides so mission accomplished.

Sunday's 15-mile run was mostly uneventful. I felt no noticeable fatigue or soreness in my legs from the ride the day before. Last week I had a bad 15-mile run because of a pretzel hangover, and this time I was only about 8 minutes faster. I thought I should have been faster, but when the run was over I didn't feel sore or dead. Could I have gone another 11 miles? I don't know, but I certainly felt I had 5 more miles in me. With a bit over two months to go, I'm comfortable with that.

I said the run was MOSTLY uneventful; there was one very cool moment: I ran into Iron Monica! Without giving away all of her personal secrets, she has a cool new job in the fitness industry which will either further ignite her passion for endurance sports or burn her out completely. I suspect it's the former. She's still under the impression that we Disney Tri Team folks are cool so hopefully we'll be seeing her again soon.