Sunday, July 27, 2014

Why You Have To Keep Going When You Can't Keep Going

                “Don’t stop.”
                “But I have to stop.”
                “But it hurts when you stop.”
                “It’s hurting now.”
                “Fine, then stop.  There, how does it feel?”
                “It hurts!”
                “I told you.”
                “Shut up!”

You want to know who is having this conversation, don’t you?  Of course you do, or you wouldn’t be reading this blog, duh.  OK, I’ll tell you.  This conversation happened during my run yesterday between me… and me.

Those of you who don’t run have just decided that I’m completely insane (or you decided that a while ago, and this affirms it), and those of you who do run not only understand but have probably had this exact conversation.

Yesterday I was on my long run.  Still in the first month of my training plan for the New York Marathon on November 2nd, this long run was relatively short at 11 miles (again, non-runners just gasped, runners nodded their heads in understanding of calling an 11 mile run “relatively short”).  And it was a bitch. 

After my great run in an otherwise awful triathlon last week, I decided to go all out on this one.  It started off fine, but somewhere around mile 4 things started to get ugly.  My legs were OK, but I developed a side stitch that decided to keep me company for the next 3 or 4 miles.  It was hard to figure out how long because my watch was apparently possessed since it went backwards by a ½ mile and then kept randomly shutting itself off.  Nothing quite like looking down to find your time and distance only to realize that your watch is paused and you don’t know for how long (and this happened 3 times during the run.  Annoying).

I was also hot.  Really hot.  It was humid when I started, so I brought a little towel with me that I hooked onto my water belt to wipe sweat off me before I drowned in it, but by mile 6 or so it was completely saturated.  I usually need 2 bottles of water for an 11 mile run in the summer, so I brought 3 just in case, and by mile 7 I was almost empty.  At one point I used a person’s sprinkler system that was inaccurately aimed at the sidewalk as a makeshift misting station.  This helped for about 30 seconds, but then I was hot again.   I even shorted out one earbud from my Ipod with my own sweat.   

Because I was so hot, I kept stopping.  I probably stopped at least once every mile, though I have no clue since my watch was being schizophrenic.  But that’s when the problem started.  Have you ever biked up a really big hill, and at the top you stop pedaling and just coast for a few seconds while you make sure that you’re still alive and swear to yourself that you will never ride a bicycle ever again?  Well, during those few seconds, have you ever felt your legs starting to SCREAM?  That’s lactic acid buildup.  The quick explanation of lactic acid is that your body produces it to give you enough energy to pedal over those enormous hills that you swear you’ll never face again.  So, when you stop pedaling, it builds up and has nowhere to go, and for some reason that is extremely painful even if it’s for only a minute or so (and the obvious trick when you’re cycling is to actually keep pedaling when you get to the top of that hill, even if it’s really slow and gentle; that way you use up that lactic acid without it trying to kill you).

Anyway, when I was stopping during the early miles I felt a heavy feeling in my legs, but it didn’t burn.  By the later miles, though, each time I stopped I felt a wave of fire run through my legs. So I’d start running again, but then I’d get so hot that I felt like I was going to pass out. So I’d stop.  The waves of fire intensified.  So I’d run to get away from the pain.  But then I’d feel like I was going to pass out again. So I’d stop.  Pain.  Run.  Pass out feeling. Stop.  Pain.  You get the idea.

With about 1.5 miles left on my run (approximately, of course, since my watch was running only slightly better than the 7 train), I had that conversation that started this whole monologue.  I had to stop.  But it hurt, so I didn’t want to.  But I couldn’t run anymore.  But I couldn’t stop. 

I told myself that I could just stop and walk the rest of the way home, but I didn’t.  At that moment something funny occurred to me.  My run hurt so much because I kept stopping.  The point of a run is to get from the beginning to the end in one fell swoop, but by continually stopping, I was just making it harder.  And isn’t that what happens with pretty much everything? If we dive right into something, it feels too hard and we stop doing it.  And then when we try to start up again, it’s even harder so we stop again.  Bad cycle, bad idea.

2013 NY Marathon.  Just keep going.
So what’s the solution?  Well, it’s actually pretty simple.  First, start small.  If I had started my run at a pace better suited to the heat and humidity (and my athletic abilities), I wouldn’t have struggled so much.  And when the trouble starts – which it will at some point – don’t stop.  Just ease up like those slow pedal strokes at the top of a big hill.  You won’t be moving fast, but it keeps the pain away and you continue to move forward.  And I’m not just talking about running (this time the non-runners are getting it and the runners are totally confused since they’re thinking, “When is something not about running?”).

Unfortunately I learned my own lesson in the last mile (I think) of my 11 mile run.  I also learned this lesson at age 39 when I decided to start my journey of losing 70 pounds and becoming an athlete (albeit an old, crappy one). The good thing though is that I can use it forever.  Here I am, 6 years later (though somehow still aged 39 :-), with the weight off for over 5 years and training for my 5th marathon. 

Next week my long run is 12 miles.  I’ll get through it just fine. I just have to remember my own lessons – and get my watch fixed.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The 2014 Norwalk Mossman Sprint Triathlon And The 5K That Didn't Exist

Remember in elementary school when one kid wouldn’t stop fooling around, so the teacher punished the whole class?  Remember how pissed you’d get at that kid for ruining your good time?  Well, guess what.  Those kids grew up to be adults who still screw up and have everyone pay for it.

Let me explain.  This morning I competed in the Norwalk Mossman Sprit Triathlon. This was my first triathlon in 2 years, so it was a pretty big deal for me.  It will likely also be my only triathlon this season, so there was a lot riding on it.  I have competed in this triathlon twice before, and my times were almost identical at 1:41:01 and 1:41:26.  So, my goals for today were to be satisfied with my performance and beat my old times.

Well, since I’m in such a crappy mood right now, let me spoil the whole thing for you and say that I accomplished neither.  Most of the triathlon was a disaster pretty much from the get-go.  First, I realized that my swim wave was women aged 20 – 49, which meant that it was going to be huge.  For those that don’t know, huge swim waves in triathlon are bad.  That’s just a lot of arms, legs and heads to get around and to make sure don’t slam into your arms, legs or head.  Also, being on the more “mature” end of that 20 – 49 age spectrum, this meant that I’d be swimming with women 25 years younger than me who were going to blow past me and take my confidence with them.   We also learned that we were in the second wave of 5, meaning that there were going to be a whole bunch of people from later waves – and pretty much all men except for the few women over age 50 who still compete in triathlons – who were going to swim right over me.

All of these thoughts started my panic before I even hit the water.  And let me tell you, swimming in open water in your first triathlon in 2 years only increases that panic attack ten-fold.  I was screwed from the start.  I couldn’t catch my breath, and every time I turned my face into the water I felt like I was suffocating.  At one point I tried to stop and put my foot down and take a second to collect myself – and then I remembered that I was in the friggin’ Long Island Sound and not my nice shallow pool at the gym.  The bottom was probably 15 feet below me.  The water was choppy, the taste of salt water was making me nauseous.  This wasn’t good.  I looked around for a lifeguard with a plan of swimming over to them and asking for a “DQ” (disqualification) that would at least earn me a tow back to shore even if my race was going to end about 3 minutes after it started.  But the first lifeguard was far enough away that I figured that if I was going to swim to him, then I might as well just swim the damned course.

Freestyle simply wasn’t working, so I decided to see how strong my backstroke was.  The good news is that my backstroke is pretty good.  The bad news is that it isn’t straight at all.  I was finally moving better, but like a flat tire that pulls the whole car to one side, I kept veering off to the left.  Every few strokes I’d flip over to see where I was, realize that I was wayyyy off course, yell out a bad word, then flip back over onto my back and try to redirect myself.  Finally I got to the last turn and was heading inland and suddenly I could breathe again.  So, I swam freestyle for probably 5 minutes of the entire half mile.

I got through transition and have to admit that I have never been so happy to be on my bicycle.  The course is 2 six and a half mile loops containing one short, evil hill and one long less evil but still difficult hill.  I got through both on the first loop (though on the short evil hill I was pretty sure that my bike was just going to stop dead) and was all kinds of happy until I remembered that I had to do it again.  The second loop was better because it was less crowded since most people had finished, but it was also worse because I kept stressing that I was dead last. Right near the end I passed two guys which gave me a cheap thrill that there were at least 2 people in the race behind me.

Transition area.  Note the bright yellow "RUN" sign.
Any slow triathlete will tell you that the second transition is harder than the first.  You see, transition areas are really crowded with everyone’s bicycles and other gear.  When a slow swimmer comes out of the water and into transition, their bike is pretty easy to spot since it’s one of the only ones still there.  When a slow biker rolls into “T2” as it’s called, though, it’s a whole different story.  You need to get back to your stuff to rack your bike and grab your running shoes, but it’s hard to find.  Almost all the bikes are back and racked (and sometimes in your spot, grrr), wetsuits are everywhere, and some people are done and hanging out with medals around their necks while you still have a 3.1 mile run to do.  I had brought a BRIGHT yellow running jacket that I tied to the end of my rack (and which after the race several of my rack-mates thanked me for) so that I could find my row.  Someone was racked in my spot (grrr), but I managed to wedge my bike into place.  A guy near me was done and he said to me, “Hey, just so you know; the run course is only one loop.”  I thought this was an odd thing for him to say.  The race organizer’s website clearly stated that the run was one loop, and the guy with the megaphone at the beginning of the race who went over the details clearly stated that it was one loop.  I smiled anyway, said, “thanks for the head’s up!”, ate a couple of Shot Bloks and went on my way.

Up until now, the race had been pretty hellish.  The swim was so bad that I spent my bike ride considering how the term “duathlete” sounded instead of “triathlete”. The bike ride was fine, but I was still so shaken by the swim that I know I didn’t do that great.  But then the run began.  I started off pretty much by myself, but I turned the first corner and saw a lot of people.  I kept running, trying to shake off the dead leg feeling I had from the bike, and when I looked forward again I realized that I was getting closer to those people who had been way ahead.  And that’s when the rocket boosters came out.  I don’t know how or why, but suddenly I was flying.  I passed one person, then another.  That lifted my spirits and I dug a little deeper.  Before I knew it, I was at the turn-around of the ONE loop out and back course (this will have a point later).  Going back I could see a lot of people still heading out.  Knowing that I wasn’t last, I turned euphoria into energy and passed a few more people.  Finally I could hear the music and announcer which always signals the end of a race, and sprinted over the finish line.

I looked down at my watch and saw pretty much what I was expecting.  My time was 1:52:52, a good 11 minutes slower than either of my previous years.  The bike course was different this year and one mile longer, but that only accounted for about 4 of the 11 minutes.  Bottom line: I sucked.

But wait, it gets worse.  Later in the day when I was home, showered and had eaten anything in the kitchen that wasn’t nailed down (best part of burning about 1300 calories in a triathlon; afterwards you can eat like an elephant.  Hell, you could eat the actual elephant if you felt like it), I checked my email and had one from the race directors.  I opened it and read my official time: 1:24:58.  Now, I know even a genius can make a mistake in math, but being off by almost a ½ hour didn’t make any sense.  Then I read some more: some of the leaders got confused by the run course and did 2 loops instead of 1.  So, they threw out the run times.  Though I now understood why the guy next to me was helping me count up to 1 when he was talking about the run course, I was pissed.  They had the run times posted, but they weren’t part of our final results. And guess what?  My run time was amazing.  I ran a 5K in 26:27, my fastest 5K ever.  My pace was 8:32, also a personal best.  And because some people couldn’t read a website or listen to an announcer clearly explain the only loop of the run course, and because they couldn’t seem to follow the quite clear yellow signs with black writing along the course pointing out which direction to go, and because they couldn’t follow the 10 or so arrows at every freaking turn of the run, my personal records don’t officially exist.
5K from 2013 that counted

That said, I know I had a great run.  One of my 4 marathons was run in a race that got canceled and didn’t officially exist, so now I’ll just add a best 5K and pace per mile to that list of imaginary accomplishments.  Hey, I did do them.  They’re real to me.

So, what is probably my only triathlon of the season is over, but I learned a few things:
  1. Panic does not dissolve in water, and if anything only becomes more powerful.
  2.  Reading is fundamental.
  3. Before each race, officials should make sure that participants can distinguish the number “1” from the number “2”.
  4. A crappy race can still produce some of your best work, even if nobody is going to count it.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Remember Why You Love It

Sorry that I didn’t write my blog last week.  I had a good reason: I really didn’t have anything good to say. 

My blog serves sort of a circular purpose.  I started writing it because I wanted to show people that anyone can do absolutely anything.  The feedback I’ve gotten is that people feel very inspired (and also entertained, which was another purpose of my blog).  That makes me work harder so that I can write about it, which inspires people more.  I keep going so you can keep going, which keeps me going.  Win-win.

And that’s why there was no blog last week.  I did nothing inspirational.  Sure, I did my normal workouts: long runs, bike rides, a cardio sculpt class at the gym that was so intense that I couldn’t lift a tissue afterwards.  But there was nothing in them.  I wasn’t in them.  And writing a blog about just going through the motions and not really giving a crap didn’t seem very inspirational.

So, why am I writing about it now? Well, let’s get back to that circular logic from before, but from a Debbie Downer perspective.  If I don’t write, then I don’t help inspire people.  So, I feel no drive to do the work, which gives me nothing to write about.  Lose-lose.

Everyone gets in a rut.  We all have that thing that we love to do, but after a while we forget why we loved it so much.  We get bored, and that thing we loved so much gets less attractive.  Wow, this sounds like a lot of my romantic relationships (umm, except my husband Wil who is probably the only romantic partner I’ve had who actually reads these.  You rock, honey.  Love you!)

So, what do you do when you get in a rut?  What happens when the flame starts to sizzle out, when that relationship starts to get tedious (again, Wil, not you.  It’s all been one exciting moment after another for the last 19 years :-)?

Today I figured out the answer to that question.  This morning I did a 4 mile race in Central Park.  To be honest, it was kind of a pain in the ass.  I’ve started my training for the 2014 NY Marathon, which meant that I had to do my 9 mile long run during the week so that I could do a 4 miler on the weekend (and if you’re interested, running 9 miles before sitting down at a desk for 8 hours really sucks).  This run was #8 of the 9 I need to qualify for next year’s marathon.  Honestly, I’m not sure that I want to run next year’s marathon.  Hell, I’m not entirely sure that I want to run this year’s marathon.  But I keep thinking that some morning I will wake up and running and working out will once again become my drug of choice (along with caffeine) and my exercise addiction will start up again.  And if that happens, I need to be trained and get all my qualifying runs in. So there I was, at a pain in the ass 4 mile race in Central Park early on a humid Saturday morning.

I got there just before it started (and thank you to Metro North for having your second train of the day run 15 minutes late.  Nothing like being panicked before starting a run that you don’t really want to do).  I was only in my corral for a few minutes before the race started, and I started thinking about this race.  My first race ever was a four miler in the middle of July in Central Park 5 years ago. The race had a different name, but it was the same course.  I remembered how I felt that day.  I was nervous, but also so excited. I remembered looking around at the other people in my corral and thinking “wow, they all look like runners”.  I remembered struggling through the course, and the absolute rush of crossing a finish line for my very first time.  I remember leaving the park and realizing that I was a runner, too.

Brooklyn Marathon, 2013
And that’s why I love this so much.  It’s hard.  It’s time consuming.  It hurts, both body and mind, and sometimes even your heart.  But, it also makes you realize what you can do.  It gives you control, power and confidence.  It gives you a sense of accomplishment that you didn’t know was possible.

I did today’s race. I’ll be honest; I wasn’t swept off my feet.  Like any relationship that needs work, it can’t be fixed in an instant.  I started nervous and excited, but by mile two I was melting in the humidity and trying to talk myself out of continuing.  I oscillated between love and disdain, and in the end I finished with a 9:38 pace, my fastest race since 2011. More importantly, though, I started to remember why I love running. And I also had something to write about and a way to remind you that you can absolutely anything.  Just make sure you love it.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The LGBT Pride Race, Babe Ruth, and The Tappan Zee Bridge

Who here likes baseball?  If you do, then keep reading this blog because it’s sort of about baseball.  If you don’t, keep reading because it’s not really about baseball.  And if you don’t like or understand baseball you’re still OK because I want to talk about Babe Ruth, and everyone has heard of him (and if you haven’t, then this will be a great history lesson).  And if you’re a Red Sox fan, keep the whole “we were cursed because we traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees” thing to yourself.  You weren’t cursed.  You sucked. 

Babe Ruth
OK, for whoever is still reading this (which I’m guessing is nobody from Boston), Babe Ruth was one of the greatest ball players of all time.  He is 3rd on the list for the most career home runs.  Babe Ruth retired from baseball in 1935, which means that in 79 years, only 2 other players have beaten him in career home runs (Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron).  Two players in 79 years.  The only active player in the top 10 is A-Rod, so the Babe has nothing to worry about this year.

Once Babe Ruth was asked what he attributed his 714 career home runs to.  His answer: “I never let the fear of striking out get in my way.”  Now, I didn’t know about this quote until I looked it up a few minutes ago, but that thought was in my head all weekend. 

This was a big sports weekend for me.  I had the LGBT 5 Mile Pride Run on Saturday, and an 11 mile bike ride at Harriman State Park on Sunday.  The LGBT Pride race is my favorite of the year, and as I wrote on my Facebook status would only be better if I was running in a country where every citizen had the same rights as each other.  But I don’t want to get into politics here, so let me talk a bit about the race.  I have run this race several times, and it’s a lot of fun.  Thousands of people from all walks of life put their inhibitions down and are just have fun.  It seems to always be a warm, sunny day, and when you finish you get a rainbow Popsicle which is really how every summer race should end.

Since I’ve run this race many times and since it is always my favorite race of the year (and since I knew that a mere 5 miles was the only thing standing between me and a rainbow Popsicle), you’d think I was all excited to do this race.  Nope.  Far from it.  I didn’t want to do it at all.  I didn’t want to do it when I woke up that morning, when I took the train into the city, even when I was standing in the corral waiting for the starting horn to blow.  Hell, I didn’t even want to it when I was half way around the course.  I wasn’t sure why, but something was gnawing at me.

A few times during the race I wanted to give up.  At about mile 4 I thought about walking the last mile, but then I did a quick check in with myself.  My legs felt fine.  My breathing was fine.  I wasn’t overly hot or feeling dehydrated.  Finally I decided that the only problem was my head, so I ran the last mile and ended up with my 2nd best time for that particular race.  As I walked out of the park sucking down my rainbow Popsicle, I decided it had been as much fun as it always was.

This morning I got up wicked early to get to Harriman State Park for my bike ride with my friend Jeff.  Because he is so much faster than me, I start about 20 – 30 minutes ahead of him so that we theoretically end together.  That way we’re in the same general area, so if one person gets back and is waiting for anything that feels to long for the other, they get in their car and find the other one with either a minor problem like a flat tire, or a major problem like a painful introduction to a deer or motor vehicle.

I was in a tizzy for the entire drive up, which was only exacerbated when I had to drive over the Tappan Zee Bridge.  For those who don’t know, I have 2 phobias: rodents, and driving over bridges.  Rodents weren’t too much of a problem this morning, but the Tappan Zee Bridge is about 3 miles long, which means that I can feel my heart beating in my ears for three miles as I picture the car flying over the side and plunging into the Hudson River.  I of course got over it just fine, and as soon as I was safely on the other side I knew how ridiculous it is to be afraid of bridges (though I was just as scared on my way home).  Anyway, I was not at all calm, cool and collected when I started my ride, and my fears just got worse along the way.  Please understand that Harriman is the perfect place to ride, especially early on a Sunday morning. The roads are wide, usually have shoulders, and there are no blind turns.  There are very few cars, and in an 18 mile ride you will encounter 1 stop sign and zero traffic lights.  Also, it’s gorgeous up there; mountains, lakes, lots of wildlife.  You’re thinking “Ali, then what the hell were you scared of?”  Great question.  The ride itself was great.  It was calm and without incident.  I even got to see 8 deer and 1 wild turkey.  So what was so scary?  No idea.

Anyway, my pulse was racing and I knew it wasn’t from the hills.  I was terrified.  Up hills are fine, but picking up speed on down hills are where I get the most nervous, and I had to talk myself through a few of them (yes, I’m afraid of mice and bridges, and I talk to myself when I ride my bicycle.  I am a psychology student’s graduate thesis just looking for a place to happen). 

About 8 miles into the ride, Jeff caught up with me.  We road together for a bit, and just chatted.  While Jeff was talking I realized how incredibly relaxed he was on his bicycle.  He is a MUCH better athlete than me, but we were on the same part of the same course.  He was doing it, but so was I. 

After a mile or so Jeff road ahead.  I realized I only had a couple of miles left and was suddenly thrilled with the ride.  I got back to the parking lot and as I was changing shoes for my 2 mile run, I realized that my blood pressure felt a lot lower.

During my run, I thought about it. Even though I’ve been doing this for a few years, I still don’t feel like an athlete, or at least not all the time.  During the race on Saturday and the ride on Sunday I realized that I was scared that I couldn’t do it.  I kept thinking of the old me that I refer to as “Fat Girl”, who would NEVER face a challenge like doing a hilly 11 mile bike ride one day after a hilly 5 mile running race.  Hell, I would have quit the minute I learned that I was going to have to drive over a bridge.  But I'm not "Fat Girl" anymore, even if I forget that once in a while.  

If you let your fears get to you, then you never get a chance to do anything great.  Babe Ruth struck out a LOT.  But he didn’t get scared and now has been in the top 3 of career home runs for almost 80 years.  Ability isn’t what makes a person an athlete.  An athlete is a person who can stand up to their fears and run or bike right through them. 

I’ll probably go for another ride at Harriman with Jeff next weekend.  If we have more time we’ll do 18 miles, which adds in some very tough hills along with the challenge of the 7 extra miles.  I think the part of the day that I’m most excited about is driving over the Tappan Zee Bridge.