Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Race Like No Other

The 2007 New York Marathon changed me in two unexpected ways - it made me remember why running is a great sport and it caused me to have affection for a city that, being a proud midwesterner, I had been raised to hate. Let me make one thing clear - there are still a lot of things I don't like about New York.  I don't like the Yankees.  I don't like that people call it "The City".  I don't like how many people who live there don't think that anything else worthwhile happens in the US.  

However, it's impossible to run the New York Marathon and not come away feeling privileged to run its streets.  The crowds are even bigger and better than Boston.  The incredible diversity of the neighborhoods of Brooklyn, the vistas of the city from the bridges, the goose-bump producing roar of the crowd on 1st Avenue and the unmatched conclusion of the race in Central Park.  Liz Robbins 2008 book title says it all - it truly is "A Race Like No Other."

Robbins' book is organized by telling the story of the same race I ran back in 2007.  She does a great job of weaving stories of the top runners in the race, the middle packers (many time have truly inspirational reasons for running the race), the people of the community who have embraced the race, and the history of the race.  The book makes clear that the race owes so much of what makes it great to one man, Fred Lebow.

There are several stories about Lebow's incredible energy and determination to make his marathon the best in the world.  That New York would host a great marathon seems obvious today.  But it took years of Lebow's persistent pressure on Mayor Ed Koch and other politicians and leaders in the city in order for the marathon we have today to come to fruition.  Despite early concerns from community leaders about how the marathon would disturb their neighborhoods - Lebow convinced them to have pride and ownership in the race.  People who had never run a step in their lives eventually became some of the marathon's greatest supporters.

I have a lot of memories from that day in 2007 - but I think my favorite was running along 1st Avenue near mile 16.  The people are 6-8 deep for at least a mile and their cheers bounce off the buildings to create the loudest noise I've ever heard at any running event in my life.  It's the closest a distance runner can come to know what it feels like to score a touchdown in a full stadium of people. 

Marathons are completely unique in sports because our venue is the city.  As runners we need to remember that what makes our sport unique includes a lot of planning and resources beyond what are needed for other sporting events.  Even though they are much more popular sports - a game at Madison Square Garden or The Meadowlands has nowhere near the same impact on New York that the marathon does.   

Believe me - I know the pain of having months of training ruined by something completely outside of your control.  But the cancellation of this year's race isn't just about this year - it's about making sure that the incredible work of Fred Lebow isn't ruined.  It's obvious that the people of New York didn't want the marathon this year.  As runners we might think that the race would have been a great way for New York to recover from the storm, but that's a determination for them to make - not us.

There are many great arguments for why marathons and other races are good for cities - and in any other circumstances I would be right along side voicing my full throated support.  But I imagined myself on race morning - I imagined being dropped off by a bus and walking almost a mile through the neighborhood on Staten Island near the start of the race at Fort Wadsworth.  I thought about the fact that many of the people in that neighborhood would be awakened by the hum of generators at Fort Wadsworth while they hadn't had power or maybe even a warm meal in almost a week.  I thought about how angry I would be if I lived in that neighborhood - and how any good feelings I had about the marathon would be completely erased.  Running is a great sport - but our greatest events depend upon the support and commitment of many people who couldn't care less about the sport other than the one day a year it comes through their neighborhood.  Make them angry and what makes this race great would have been ruined for at least a decade if not forever.  It simply wasn't worth it.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Future of Cycling

LIGGETT: Welcome to the Tour de France – the most epic race in the world!  With the new rule changes this year’s edition promises to be one of the most exciting ever.  I’m Phil Liggett – and I’m proud to welcome my new commentating partner, Lance Armstrong!

ARMSTRONG: Thank you Phil.  I’m very happy to be back at the Tour.

LIGGETT:  We’re happy to have you back.  I think the whole cycling community owes you an apology for how you were treated a few years ago. 

ARMSTRONG: Well, that’s all in the past.  I just feel fortunate that the public has supported me through some difficult times.

LIGGETT:  Not only did the public support you – but I think everyone would agree that we have your popularity to thank for the new exciting racing we have this year.

ARMSTRONG: Cycling surely is more popular than ever Phil.  As a fan of the cycling – it’s great to see UCI taking a leading role in showing how science can help give us a more exciting and entertaining sport.

LIGGETT: That’s for sure.  It was only a matter of time before everyone realized how outdated and biased our anti-drugs in sports views were.  How can you possibly be against substances that improve health and performance?

ARMSTRONG: Absolutely Phil.  Many of these drugs are simply substances already found in the human body.  They just give these guys a helping hand and makes the sport more entertaining for everyone.

LIGGETT:  Entertaining is the word!  Why, these boys travel up these mountains nearly at the speed that you used to go down them!

ARMSTRONG: Ha! (laughing) You aren’t kidding Phil.  It’s pretty incredible what these guys are doing this year.  Unbelievable performances.

LIGGETT: Of course – no changes come without some controversy.  Today at the start the peloton was blocked by a group of protestors claiming to be former cyclists who refused to continue to compete under the new rules.  They say that they don’t think it’s fair for them to risk their “health”.

ARMSTRONG: These people are the worst.  To borrow my friend Bradley Wiggins’ word – they are truly “wankers.”  These medications improve health!  They are just a bunch of bitter and jealous people – who don’t have what it takes to compete in the world’s toughest sport.  They should just shut up and get out there and train!

LIGGETT: Well said Lance.  If they love the sport so much, than maybe they should spend more time on their bikes instead of running their mouths all the time.

Enough of that rubbish – let’s get back to what matters – today’s stage.  We have our first mountain stage of the Tour today – which should be interesting because it will be the first time we see use of the new “Easy-IV’s”.

ARMSTRONG: Yes.  Earlier in the year we saw some riders have a difficult time injecting epinephrine directly into their hearts during the climbs.  I’ve tried it Phil – it is really difficult to provide enough force while on a bike to get that needle all the way into the heart.

LIGGETT: I bet!  Now, if I’m not mistaken – you’ve got one of these “Easy-IV’s” installed on yourself – right?

ARMSTRONG: That’s right Phil.  As you can see (unbuttoning his shirt) – it’s a simple lightweight plastic tube.  It’s hardly noticeable. All you need to do is take off the top – wipe with some alcohol and inject the epinephrine.  It’s goes straight to your heart.  What’s really nice is that with this new system there isn’t the need for any needles.

LIGGETT: Yes, that was an early complaint from the environmental crowd.  They worried about all the syringes the boys were throwing off into the weeds.  I always said – don’t worry about them – the fans will gobble them up in no time!  What a great souvenir!    

ARMSTRONG: (laughing) Well – regardless Phil – folks don’t have to worry about that anymore.

LIGGETT: I heard that you also had a pace maker installed?

ARMSTRONG: That’s right Phil.  It’s great to have that little bit extra control over heart rate – the medications are helpful – but it’s hard to make small changes to heart rate.

LIGGETT: Although the drugs are powerful stuff!  I followed your advice and had a consult with Dr. Ferrari.  I haven’t felt this good in years!  I tell you – I might be out on the tour next year! (laughing)

ARMSTRONG: The man is a miracle worker.  I’m so glad he’s been welcomed back into the sport – he has so much to teach these young men.

LIGGETT: Lance, let’s answer some questions from the fans.  Ted from Seattle writes – “I have son who loves to ride his three wheeler in the neighborhood.  Racing is obviously several years away, but I was curious when I should start him on EPO?”

ARMSTRONG: Great question Ted.  I know many parents are nervous about medicating their children from an early age – but, that’s exactly when you need to do it.  The developmental stages of life are when these medications can make the most difference.  EPO is a great one to start with.  As everybody knows – EPO is a substance your body makes anyways – it’s completely natural.  And the younger you start – the more of a chance your body has to get used to pumping thicker blood.  Back when I was riding we were told to keep our hematocrit under 50 – well, some of these guys who have been taking EPO since they were kids can safely get close to 60.  Pretty amazing stuff.

LIGGETT: Agreed.  Well Ted  - there’s your answer.  The sooner the better.  And remember – all the other smart parents of future Tour winners are doing the same.

AMSTRONG: Absolutely.

LIGGETT: Frank from Houston writes, “One thing I’ve been disappointed with the new rules is that we don’t know what these guys are taking.  I was hoping to find out what the latest and greatest drugs are so that I can kick some butt in my local 5k!”

ARMSTRONG: (laughing) Well Frank – I certainly understand your frustration.  But, you have to remember that there’s a lot of money and prestige at stake for these teams.  They can’t just make their specific medication cocktails public – it’s what gives their guys an edge.  However, the science is changing so quickly – whatever the guys are using this year will be considered like “water and bread” on the tour next year.  I’m in talks with some of the teams to make the cocktail of the winning team available to the public after the Tour.  That way guys like you can “kick butt” at your local 5k’s and the teams can keep their secrets.

LIGGETT: I think it’s obvious that the main winner with these new changes is the general public.  Scientists are learning incredible new things about the human body and our ability to improve it through these competitions.

ARMSTRONG: That’s right Phil.  It might sound crazy, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the cure for cancer came directly from research done on these bike riders.  It’s all about overcoming the limitations of the human body.  Truly inspirational stuff.

LIGGETT: Well, that’s all the time we have for e-mails.  The boys are just about at the base of the big climb.  Join us after this word from our sponsor Easy IV’s  for what promises to be an epic conclusion to today’s stage!

(cut to commercial)

LIGGETT: (off mike) Let’s just hope for no more heart attacks!

ARMSTRONG:  (off mike) It’s all part of the race these days.  Guys always took risks on descents.  It’s the same thing.  Although some of these guys are technically having “myocardial infarctions” – it’s not like they’re 55 years old and 300 pounds.  They’re healthy enough to take it.  And it sure does make the racing exciting!

LIGGETT:  I’ll say it does!  I think I about had a heart attack the first time I saw I guy just plop down off his bike on the middle of a climb! (laughing)

ARMSTRONG: (laughing) I know – it almost seems normal now.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Top 10 Reasons I was sub-10 at Ironman Wisconsin Part II

5. Course Preview: Back in June I was looking at the Wisonsin Ironman facebook page when I saw a comment wondering who else was doing the "Wisconsin Ironman Brick Adventure."  That sounds interesting - I thought to myself.  I found out that it was organized by a local triathlon club in Madison.  The weekend included a dinner on Friday with full course preview and a talk about "power" on the bike.  On Saturday there was a morning swim in Lake Monona and then a bike ride out in Verona - where the 40 mile loop begins.  On Sunday was a chance to do one-loop (13.1 mile) of the run course.

I had been thinking that I needed to get out to Madison to look over the course.  I had heard that the bike course was especially difficult and that it helped to know what was coming up.  When I saw they were offering this all for free (a word you never hear in triathlons) I knew I had to jump on it.  Luckily I didn't have anything planned for the next weekend - so after a brief talk to my wife - I signed up and found a cheap hotel room.

The guys from Team Evotri, SBR Coaching, and Rocket Bicycle Studio who organized WIBA did an awesome job.  They gave us just enough information on Friday night to be helpful without overwhelming us.  Getting a chance to get in the same body of water with close to 100 people definitely helped me feel more comfortable on race day.  The bike course preview though was key.  I ended up doing two of the 40 mile loops plus ~10 miles out and back on the stick portion.  So, I ended up with around 100 miles and saw everything except for the first/last 6 miles of the bike course. 

I started out riding with a seemingly strong group of guys.  By around 30 miles it was evident that these guys were good riders who weren't in their best shape.  It's one interesting thing difference I've found between runners and cyclists.  Strong cyclists are much more worried about proving how great they are on training rides.  Even if they are out of shape they will kill themselves the first part of a ride - eventually they usually blow up.

One guy who was with the group initially, but fell off came back to the group as we stopped at an intersection.  The two of us ended up riding the last 70 miles of the ride together.  He was a marketing guy from Chicago and had never done a group ride - he wasn't comfortable sticking on our wheels (you need to stay ~1 foot off the guy in front of you to get a decent draft) which is why he fell off early.  This guy obviously had some decent cardio - but he hadn't competed in any sport in college.  He was just one of those talented type A guys who get the most out of what they have.

Luckily he also wanted to get a little run off the bike.  I felt pretty good for just having biked 100 miles, but I'll be honest, he pushed me on the run - we were probably going close to six minute pace in the first couple of miles.

He had to go back to Chicago that day - but, I found somebody else to run with on Sunday.  The guy who had talked about "power" on Friday night ended up running the course on Sunday.  For those of you who don't know - "power" is related to the bike.  Basically it's a measure of how hard it is to get your pedals to move.  If you never changed your gear you would be putting out a much higher power going up hills than you would going down hills.  The secret to riding a smart race is keeping your power (i.e. effort) as even as possible throughout the race - especially on an up and down course like Wisconsin.  You want to minimize any power spikes - which means going into a much lower gear when you are climbing.  Too many guys feel like they have to "win" every hill and it ends up costing them over the long run.  So, I got to pick his brain for over 90 minutes.  He was a Kona qualifier at a previous IM Wisconsin - so, I certainly came away with some great information.

 I didn't mean to write this much about WIBA - but, it is a testament to just how important that weekend was in my success a couple months later. 

4. Weather: If you go on right now - click on the monthly weather forecast for Madison - go back to September and you'll see that September 9th had a low of 51 and a high of 72 degrees.  I'm not sure I need to say anything more than that.  In previous years they've had highs close to 100 degrees and they've had highs in the 50's with rain all day.  Both of these conditions take a lot of energy out of you.  What I got was pretty much perfect and I would be a fool to not admit that those conditions played a big part in getting under 10 hours.

3. Moving to Omaha: People from the coasts are probably chuckling to themselves right now, but Omaha was a perfect place to train for IM Wisconsin.  I signed up for Wisconsin while Kendra was being recruited for her job in Omaha.  I saw that it was within driving distance (flying with a bike is a pain).  I also saw that the terrain was remarkably similar.  People think of Nebraska as the flat state before you get to Colorado.  Yes, much of the western part of the state is flat - but Omaha is in the Missouri River Valley.  East coast folks - think about the land near the Patapsco River or the Susquehanna and you'll know what much of the land around Omaha is like.

The night we got to Omaha I needed to stretch my legs - so, I went on a little 15-20 minute run on the trail behind our house.  Something felt so right.  I've never lived so close to a trail before.  It's not that long of a trail - but it's indicative of what there is in the rest of Omaha.  The city has 40-50 miles of paved trails - mostly on top of levees along side streams.  Many of these trails are out in the open, so you get the full effect of summer Nebraska winds (15-20 mph is not uncommon) and they are relatively unused - so, you can push yourself for long periods of time without running into any traffic and there are hardly any crossing of intersections - so, you don't have to worry about cars.

The day after we drove into Omaha I met our first neighbors - Niki and her kids Ryan and Hannah.  Somehow the conversation turned to running - it turned out that both Niki and her husband Gerald ran in college.  Not only that, but Gerald had been doing triathlons for close to 10 years and he organized track workouts and open water swims in the summer.  Gerald isn't just another triathlete - he has gone very close to breaking 2 hours for the Olympic distance.  Not only did he tell me about all the local stuff going on - he ended up being a great training partner for swimming.  We swam together 2-3 times a week at 6am for close to eight months.  Jim certainly helped me a lot with my stroke, but swimming with Gerald meant that I was strong enough to take advantage of Jim's coaching.

2. Man of Leisure: Back in college my coach used to say that the best distance runners are lazy.  This sounds like a contradiction - but what he meant was that the best distance runners focus on pushing themselves in training and racing.  The rest of their life is rather boring.  Most people competing in an Ironman have a full-time job and other responsibilities - like being a parent.  For those of you who don't know I'm in the middle of career change.  I'm hoping to get into school as a Physician Assistant.  I quit my job in August of last year to focus on my classes.  Right now I'm finishing up my last two pre-reqs and waiting to hear about interviews this December.

During the summer the classes I needed weren't available.  I actually did try to find a job - but, I didn't even get interviews for the jobs I wanted.  Although the money would have been nice - it did leave me with a lot of free time.  My only activities this summer were applying to PA school, searching for a part-time job, and training.  This meant that I could do all of my training during the day - I could eat at normal times - and I was able to get a lot of rest.

You cannot reap the benefits of training if you don't have time to recover properly from workouts.  It's really that simple.  I knew I would have some extra time this summer, which is part of the reason why I signed up for an Ironman after only a year of doing triathlons.
1. My Lovely Wife: The first Ironman book in our house was not purchased by me.  Way before Kendra and I ever met she had caught the Ironman bug.  Now, Kendra had never taken swim lessons - she didn't even own a bike - but, she was enthralled with the idea of the Ironman and read a few books about it.  Having a supportive spouse when you are training 20 hours a week is incredibly important.  There are many days when you don't want to go out for a 3 hour ride followed by a 45 minute run - if your spouse keeps complaining about how they never see you anymore it makes it just that much more easy to not push yourself on your training.

Kendra likes to joke that she's my "stage mom" when it comes to running and triathlons.  It's almost a little scary how accurate that is.  She wanted me to do an Ironman before I even wanted to do one.  The only way that I could convince her that I should do the JFK 50 miler back in 2009 was that it would be good preparation for an Ironman. 

Watching an Ironman can be really boring.  So, Kendra decided that she was going to volunteer at Wisconsin.  She helped out in the female changing room during the swim to bike transition and then she gave out transition bags to participants from the bike to the run.  She made sure that she was stationed in the right place to hand me my bag.  I had no idea where she would be - so, it was awesome to see her in the bag room, jumping up and down while she was holding out my bag to me.  The transition room has about 20 volunteers in it (mostly female) and there were only about three participants in the room when I came through.  So, pretty much all attention was on us.  I gave her a hug and kiss as she handed me the bag - and the whole room went crazy.  Then I heard her yell "crush the run!" as I headed over to the changing room. 

Just after I crossed the finish line I saw Kendra again - she ran up to me and gave me a big hug.  Tears were running down her face as she told me how proud she was of me.  It was an incredible moment.  Nobody can do an Ironman on their own - you have to get support from a lot of people - there is no way I would have done this well (or maybe have even attempted an Ironman) without the love and support from Kendra.  Thank you Love.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Charles Pierce

For those of you who don’t know him – Charles Pierce is a sports writer.  He writes for Grantland and sometimes appears on NPR.  Usually I really like him – but he’s written a few articles recently for Grantland that appear to glorify drug cheats.  As I am apparently the only person who cares about doping in sports – I thought I’d write a reply to his most recent article on Ben Johnson and the “9.79” documentary.
In his attempt to glorify, or at least de-stigmatize, known dopers, Pierce is doing a great disservice to all athletes.  The question of whether drugs in sports should be condoned is very different than whether drugs in general should be condoned in society.  In the context of competition there will always be pressure to come up with a new drug that improves performance, with little to no pressure to make sure it’s safe. 

There was a survey a few years ago that showed many Olympic athletes would take decades off their life in order to medal in the Olympics.   Yes, there are performance enhancing drugs that can be used safely under the care of a doctor – but, do you really think that the most competitive people on the planet are going to be satisfied with the “safe” drugs when they know everybody else is taking the same thing?

Pierce says that he “saw Ben Johnson win an Olympic gold medal on the track and then lose it in the laboratory.”  He misses an important step – Johnson won it in the laboratory, then won it on the track, and finally lost it again in the laboratory.  Does Pierce not understand how much these drugs improve performance?  In many endurance event the effect is said to be 10% - if that were true of the 100m that would be a full second.  Basically it would close to impossible to be competitive and drug-free at the same time.  Don’t  our best athletes deserve better than to be treated like race horses?

Most world class athletes have learned to listen to whatever their coach tells them to do – it’s one of the things that makes them great. I have empathy for the incredibly difficult choice that athletes must make when someone they trust tells them that “it’s ok to take this” – “everybody else is doing it”.  However, that empathy does not extend to not holding them accountable for their bad decisions – especially when they made the same decision hundreds of times over decades.

Pierce is not the only sports journalist who seems to either not care about doping (Michael Wilbon).  They see that sports fans don’t seem to care – so why should they?  The answer is that we need to save athletes from themselves.  As a society, we need to make sure that athletes don’t have to take unnecessary risks in order to compete.  Our journalists should make an effort to remind the public why they should care.  With all the recent hubbub about doping (Armstrong etc) – I have yet to see a lengthy article talking to athletes who have had major consequences from doping – or from family members of those who have died from doping – not to mention athletes who were cheated out of glory because they competed clean.

I hope that this open condoning of doping athletes is a passing fad – I just hope that an athlete doesn’t have to die to remind us why drugs have no place in competition.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Top 10 Reasons I was sub-10 at Ironman Wisconsin Part I

10. Patience: Endurance training and racing is about timing when your hardest effort is going to be - and knowing how long you can sustain that hard effort.  My first lesson about how peak fitness has a shelf life came when I was in college.  In the early spring of my senior year everything finally seemed to come together.  I won both the 3k and 5k at conference for indoors.  About 3 weeks later I ran my PR of 29:59 for 10k at the Alabama Relays.  In that race I actually had a huge negative split - my first 5k was 15:14 and my second was 14:45.  My coach was yelling at me with 600m to go that I had a shot at going under 30 minutes.  I ran a 65 second last quarter to just get under.

Another few weeks later I ran the 5k at the Sea Ray Relays in Tennessee.  I don't remember the time, but I remember being disappointed.  Then came the Penn Relays 10k.  I went out too fast (just over 14:40) and paid dearly for it.  I ran close to 16:00 for my second half.  A few weeks after that was conference.  The same guys who I dominated in February had no probably dispatching me in May.  Nothing had changed in my training - I hadn't gotten injured - I just didn't have anything left after a long year of racing and training.

Since it worked so well for Boston in 2009 (my PR year - 2:32.35), I've tried to stick to around a 22 week training cycle.  I do low volume and low intensity training most of the rest of the year - but nothing too hard.  This year I was still coming off an injury to my hamstring/glute that had given me problems since just before my Chicago marathon in 2010 - so, I gave myself some extra time.  I hardly ran a step in January of this year - of course I was swimming and riding a trainer - but I stayed off my feet.

I also had very few true race efforts over my training cycle.  I only had three triathlons - Kansas 70.3 in June, an Olympic at the Omaha Triathlon at the beginning of August, and Ironman Wisconsin.  I ran a couple of half-marathons and some 10k's, but always as training runs.  I didn't run all out at a road race in all of 2012.  I also very rarely went to the track.  I did 3-4 track workouts all summer.  My reasoning was that track workouts help with V02 max.  You don't need to work on your V02 max for an Ironman.

I also did only three training rides over 4.5 hours.  Most of my rides were in the 3-3.5 hour range with 30-45 minute run off the bike.  However, I was doing these at least 3 times per week.  I didn't have to squeeze a bunch of training in on my weekends.  More on that later.
All of this holding back meant that I peaked exactly when I wanted to peak.  There are advantages to having raced for over 20 years.

9. Nutrition during training and during the race:  When I was an exchange student in Germany I was friends with a Ukranian-Canadian named Orest.  He claimed that "a meal isn't a meal unless there is meat."  At the time I laughed him off - but, I have to say that I have gotten into the habit of making sure that I get protein at every meal.  I started doing this back in Baltimore after meeting with my friend and nutritionist Melissa Majumdar.  Of course - she gave me lots of other great advice as well.  Most important is getting nutrients from a variety of sources - and making sure you are getting enough calories to support your training.

I peaked at 20-22 hours per week of training - usually split into 50% bike, 25% swim, 25% run.  It is a struggle to make sure you are getting enough calories, especially given the hot summer we had.  Anytime I biked more than 2 hours I took in calories on the bike and downed a muscle milk right after I came in the door after my run.  Not only did this help me to not get behind on calories, but it helped my body to learn how to metabolize food while I was exercising.

In terms of nutrition during the race - I learned a lot from running the JFK 50 miler in 2009.  Alyssa Godesky, an accomplished ultra runner and triathlete, helped me to put together a nutrition plan for that race.  She helped me to understand that when it comes to events longer than a marathon "the stomach is more important than the legs."  My nutrition plan for Wisconsin was very similar to what I did for JFK - except that I bumped up my calories.  I learned that smart endurance athletes use their watch to see if it's time to eat or drink - not to check mile splits.

8. 21 years of endurance racing: I'm now 35 - I ran my first half-marathon when I was 14 years old.  I ran 1:28:06 and ended up in the fetal position in the back of my parents' minivan.  I remember watching the adult runners drink beer and dance to a live band afterwards - I thought they were crazy.  But I also fell in love with the long distance race on that day.  The race was from the small town of Dexter, MI along the Huron River to my hometown of Ann Arbor.  Running on foot from one town to another - it was like an adventure from a fairy tale or something.

About three years after graduating from college I ran my first marathon in Los Angeles (I was going to grad school in San Diego at the time).  It was an awful experience.  I didn't do much marathon specific training - I kind of just cobbled together training I had done in college and made sure I ran long runs at least once per week.  It was a warm day and I don't think I took in any calories except for gatorade.  Around mile 17 I had to stop and pour water over my head to cool off.  I heard an ambulance in the distance - I was sure they were coming for me.  My parents had decided to make the trip all the way from Michigan.  I'm glad they did.  There was no way I could have driven myself from LA back to San Diego.  Again I found myself in the fetal position in the back of a car driven by my mom.

I won't go through my entire marathon career (I've run ~9), but suffice to say that I've had my share of "learning experiences."  All that time has also allowed me to put a lot of money in the bank in terms of my fitness.  Many people don't peak in longer events until their mid-thirties.  You simply need that amount of time of constant training for your body to realize its full potential.

7. Swim training/positioning: Before 18 months ago I had never taken a swim lesson that didn't focus mostly on blowing bubbles.  On a cold day in February of 2011 I tried my first swim.  After about 5 minutes in the pool I realized I'd need a lesson just to learn how to breathe correctly (I guess all that bubble blowing hadn't helped).  I eventually could swim pretty comfortably for an hour in the pool, but when the day of my first triathlon came in May of 2011 - it was another disaster.  The guys around me all seemed to know what they were doing.  I felt completely out of my league.  Then the race started - looking back, I'm not sure that I remembered to breathe until about 30 seconds into the race.  The result was that I completely hyperventalated.  I couldn't put my head in the water because it felt like I was getting water boarded.  Eventually I calmed down a little - but the damage was done.  It was a victory for me to get my head together enough to do a decent bike and run.

I swam a lot with my neighbor Gerald since I've moved to Nebraska last November.  I even took another lesson last February, which helped to give me a little power on my stroke.  More importantly, I found a group of folks who swam once a week in open water.  I started this year still not feeling comfortable in the water - and these folks were fast - so, I got left behind a lot.  I can still remember a swim in May when I finally felt comfortable.  It was a huge turning point.

Unfortunately, I couldn't translate all this progress and work into a race.  In June I swam a disappointingly slow 42 minutes at Kansas 70.3.  I thought I had been in shape for a time in the low to mid 30's.  The conditions were pretty bad.  We were 1 degree fereignheit on the wrong side of the temperature cutoff for wetsuits.  There was also a 20 mph crosswind, which led to 2-3 foot waves.  Still, I felt like I should have gone faster.  So, I finally got a coach.  Jim met with me once a week - giving me lots of pointers on my stroke. Here is a list of all the parts of my stroke that needed help -I wasn't sculling at the beginning of the stroke (this led me to bring in my arm close to my body too early), poor arm angle at point of entry into the water, poor arm extension, arm hesitation at the top of my stroke when I was breathing, not kicking from my hips, not pointing my toes, no body rotation, not pushing all the way through on the bottom of my stroke etc.  At first I felt slower, because it was hard to coordinate all this new information.  But, after about 4-5 weeks of working with Jim it started to feel more natural.
Jim also told me I should watch the 1500m freestyle final in the Olympics.  I did - and watching Sun Yang changed the way I thought about swimming.  First of all - he hardly kicks.  All of his power is generated on his stroke and body rotation.  Also - he glides pretty long between each stroke.  It's not like running - where you need to have good turnover to be efficient.  In swimming you actually are more efficient when you take less strokes.  Here is a video of Yang's 1500m world record from the Olympics this year.

Let's get to the actual day of the race.  As I wrote in my race report, I went in the water very early.  I had at least 25 minutes of floating/treading water before the start.  All that time meant that I didn't have to hurry into the water - it also meant that I could scout out the best place to start.  The swim was my biggest worry of the day next to having a mechanical on the bike.  As the cannon boomed I had plenty of space, but I was also in a great position to take advantage of the all the fast swimmers in the few rows in front of me.  Another benifit was that they changed the swim this year to 1 lap from 2 laps.  This meant that there was a long ways for people to spread out before the first left turn.  I did get a kick to the goggles on that turn - but it wasn't anything too bad.  My 1:03 was certainly still surprising to me - I had planned for a 1:15 - even though I thought that I could go around 1:07-1:08.  It was my first successfull swim in an actual race ever.  Pretty good timing.

6. Not having a major mechanical on the bike:  If I could put all these factors into different domains they would be "things I did well that I knew would help me", "risky things I did which could have turned out either well or poorly", "things I should have known, but didn't until it was too late" and finally "just dumb luck."  This one obviously falls into the latter domain.  My garage is littered with old tubes that went flat on rides this spring and summer.  I don't know why I had these problems - but it made me pretty nervous about making it through 112 miles without another issue.

I did have my front derrailuer crack on me - but, in the end I think that helped me to save energy for the run.  There are many things about the triathlon that make it more complicated than just running - but, learning to understand how to care for your bike and keep it running well is probably one of the hardest things to learn.  I'm not a gear head.  I do my best to keep my bike in the best possibe condition - but, it's been a long learning curve for me.  So, I have to be happy in the end that I made it through 112 miles upright and within 8 minutes of my goal time. 

In part II I'll write about how the course preview, weather, moving to Omaha, my lovely wife, and being a "man of leisure" helped me attain my goals.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Why there should be no place for Lance Armstrong in the public sphere

Last week it was announced that Lance Armstrong will be participating in a triathlon.  The immediate message from the racing series Rev3tri was that this race was under the control of their charity partner Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, and that neither Rev3tri nor Armstrong was going to be paid any money from this event.  As if, how can you possibly disagree with any decision that will raise money for young adults with cancer!

Here is where the case against Armstrong is currently.  Less than a month ago Armstrong gave up his fight against the agency responsible for drug testing of US athletes in hundreds of sports - USADA.  His reasoning was that after over a decade of fighting he simply came to the conclusion that "enough is enough."  He felt like the arbitration process was unfair to him and that USADA was out to get him in an "unconstitutional witch hunt."

I'll leave it to the legal experts to discuss the details of the USADA process - but, a federal judge did throw out his case against USADA just before Armstrong gave up his fight.  So - according to the US legal system - the arbitration process that Armstrong signed onto as a professional cyclist and triathlete is fair.

The outcome of Armstrong ending his fight with USADA is that he has a lifetime ban from all cycling and triathlon competitions.  He can't even coach or be part of the management of a professional cycling team.  So how is he able to race at a Rev3 event - a company that is trying to position itself as a rival to Ironman events?  The event can no longer be an official USAT (the official governing body of the triathlon in the US) - which means they had to find alternative insurance for the event and anyone who was racing the event to get USAT points is now out of luck.

But it's all for the kids with cancer!  Some things are bigger than doping!

Just doing a brief count - I have known at least 7 close relatives or friends who have had cancer.  I even had a teammate and friend in college who died of cancer when he was in his Junior year at the age of 21.  He was just a year younger than me.  He was one of those people who you knew would have done a lot of good in this world. His name was Sean Earl - the Loyola cross-country invitational is now named in his memory.

Since Armstrong gave up his fight in August there have been many articles asking whether he is a villain or a hero - or maybe both.  Rick Reilly of ESPN came down solidly on the hero side.  He even asked people all over to wear yellow the Friday after this all went down in honor of Armstrong.
Nice sentiment - but I think that people who think this way are not understanding the depths of lying, threatening, and slandering that Armstrong has done over the last 20 years to keep the truth from coming out.  So which Armstrong is the real Armstrong?

I was listening to This American Life on NPR a few months ago.  They were talking about a psychological measurement on sociophathic disorder.  They talked about how many sociopaths live very normal lives.  CEO's even score higher on the scale than the average person.  Here is a list of common behavioral traits of sociopaths (from  -  checklists of H. Cleckley and R. Hare

  • Glibness and Superficial Charm
  • Manipulative and Conning
    They never recognize the rights of others and see their self-serving behaviors as permissible. They appear to be charming, yet are covertly hostile and domineering, seeing their victim as merely an instrument to be used. They may dominate and humiliate their victims.
  • Grandiose Sense of Self
    Feels entitled to certain things as "their right."
  • Pathological Lying
    Has no problem lying coolly and easily and it is almost impossible for them to be truthful on a consistent basis. Can create, and get caught up in, a complex belief about their own powers and abilities. Extremely convincing and even able to pass lie detector tests.
  • Lack of Remorse, Shame or Guilt
    A deep seated rage, which is split off and repressed, is at their core. Does not see others around them as people, but only as targets and opportunities. Instead of friends, they have victims and accomplices who end up as victims. The end always justifies the means and they let nothing stand in their way.
  • Shallow Emotions
    When they show what seems to be warmth, joy, love and compassion it is more feigned than experienced and serves an ulterior motive. Outraged by insignificant matters, yet remaining unmoved and cold by what would upset a normal person. Since they are not genuine, neither are their promises.
  • Incapacity for Love
  • Need for Stimulation
    Living on the edge. Verbal outbursts and physical punishments are normal. Promiscuity and gambling are common.
  • Callousness/Lack of Empathy
    Unable to empathize with the pain of their victims, having only contempt for others' feelings of distress and readily taking advantage of them.
  • Poor Behavioral Controls/Impulsive Nature
    Rage and abuse, alternating with small expressions of love and approval produce an addictive cycle for abuser and abused, as well as creating hopelessness in the victim. Believe they are all-powerful, all-knowing, entitled to every wish, no sense of personal boundaries, no concern for their impact on others.
  • Early Behavior Problems/Juvenile Delinquency
    Usually has a history of behavioral and academic difficulties, yet "gets by" by conning others. Problems in making and keeping friends; aberrant behaviors such as cruelty to people or animals, stealing, etc.
  • Irresponsibility/Unreliability
    Not concerned about wrecking others' lives and dreams. Oblivious or indifferent to the devastation they cause. Does not accept blame themselves, but blames others, even for acts they obviously committed.
  • Promiscuous Sexual Behavior/Infidelity
    Promiscuity, child sexual abuse, rape and sexual acting out of all sorts.
  • Lack of Realistic Life Plan/Parasitic Lifestyle
    Tends to move around a lot or makes all encompassing promises for the future, poor work ethic but exploits others effectively.
  • Criminal or Entrepreneurial Versatility
    Changes their image as needed to avoid prosecution. Changes life story readily.

  • Other Related Qualities:
    1. Contemptuous of those who seek to understand them
    2. Does not perceive that anything is wrong with them
    3. Authoritarian
    4. Secretive
    5. Paranoid
    6. Only rarely in difficulty with the law, but seeks out situations where their tyrannical behavior will be tolerated, condoned, or admired
    7. Conventional appearance
    8. Goal of enslavement of their victim(s)
    9. Exercises despotic control over every aspect of the victim's life
    10. Has an emotional need to justify their crimes and therefore needs their victim's affirmation (respect, gratitude and love)
    11. Ultimate goal is the creation of a willing victim
    12. Incapable of real human attachment to another
    13. Unable to feel remorse or guilt
    14. Extreme narcissism and grandiose
    15. May state readily that their goal is to rule the world
     Now - I don't know Armstrong's sexual proclivities or whether he got in trouble as a child.  I also don't think that he's a parasitic individual or has stated that its his goal to rule the world - but the rest seems to fit pretty well.

    Being a sociopath also explains how he could both ruthlessly manipulate teammates into keeping this doping secret and at the same time create a huge organization committed to fighting cancer.  Both of these activities had the same goal - to show his greatness to the world. 

    He has used the raw emotions of people with cancer for 20 years in order to "seek out situations where his behavior will be tolerated, condoned, or admired."  That is sick.

    All of this always has been and always will be about Armstrong.  Cancer fundraising won't collapse with Armstrong out of the public eye.  Foundations will continue to thrive - hospitals will continue to flourish.  People give money for cancer research because they have intimate experience with the disease - not because of Lance Armstrong's "character."

    I will always remember that when Lance Armstrong was at his lowest - Rev3tri partnered with him and helped him to improve his image.  Overall they seemed like a pretty cool racing series - but, I know that I'll never race at one of their events.  They say that they are all about the athlete.  Just think about the pro's (some who have spoken out against Armstrong) having to race past the "Go Lance!" signs.  Think how that will make them feel about how seriously the public takes their health and safety.  The message is clear - dope up - and maybe one day the fans will be holding up signs with your name.


    Monday, September 10, 2012

    The Joy of Sisyphus

    The day in Madison started with a checklist.  Hand in special needs bags.  Check air in bike tires.  Put bottle of Gatorade on bike.  Check on transition 1 bag.  Turn on myathlete gps.  Check on transition 2 bag.  Get body marked.  Apply body glide. Put on wetsuit.  Turn in morning clothes bag.

    For a runner who only recently transitioned into triathlons I'm still not used to all the rigmarole associated with the sport, but I was able to make the rounds with plenty of time to spare.  I had heard the entrance to the swim is narrow - and that some people who wait too long find themselves just getting into the water as the cannon booms.  So, I went into the water just a few minutes after it opened up at 6:30am. 

    I had almost 30 minutes in the water before the race start, but with the buoyancy of the wetsuit you actually don't have to expend much effort to stay afloat.  I tried to channel my grandfather who could float on his back in his pool.  He was so relaxed that sometimes he would even fall asleep.

    As I calmly treaded water - I noticed I kept getting pushed out to the center of the lake by a current.  The effect of the current was that the 50 meters closest to the red buoy (marking the inside of the course) was packed with people.  About 5 minutes before the start I found myself in that mess.  There were people bumping into me on all sides.  Thank goodness I'm not claustrophobic, but I knew that I needed to at least try to find a less congested area.  I waded my way through people towards the shore and within 25 meters it thinned out.  At the start I was about 4th row from the front and nobody was within an arms length of me.

    The announcer yelled "Today you will be an Ironman!" - we all cheered and about 30 seconds later we were off.  My last minute positioning change was key.  Yes, I certainly bumped into a few people at the beginning, but I didn't get any hard elbows or kicks.  In fact, there were only two incidents in the entire swim that were scary.  On the first turn (the turns are always more crowded) I got a pretty firm kick to the goggles and I also took in a bunch of water down the wrong tube a little later on.  Trying to cough out water from your trachea and swim at the same time is not exactly fun. 

    I didn't check my watch the entire swim.  I decided it would mess up my rhythm and I might not like what I saw.  So, I was completely surprised and overjoyed to see 1:03 and change coming out of the water.  To put this in perspective, in June I swam over 40 minutes for the Kansas 70.3 (half the distance of an Ironman).  To be fair - the conditions were pretty bad at Kansas.  The temperature of the water meant that we couldn't wear wetsuits and there was a 20 mile per hour wind - which resulted in 2-3 foot whitecaps and a pretty brutal cross current. 

    It was such a poor showing though that I decided I needed a coach to help me with my stroke.  Luckily the president of our local triathlon club also coaches a few of the athletes with swimming - so, he agreed to meet with me once per week.  He completely overhauled my stroke.  At first there was so much to think about that I was really uncomfortable.  But slowly I started to put it together - and the results are undeniable.  Thanks Jim!

    Inside my mind I was jumping up and down at this point - but I tried to stay calm - I mean, I did have close to 9 hours left to go!  Madison is unique in that the transition areas are actually in the Monona Terrace building (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright).  The first transition is very long.  You have to make your way up a helix that is usually for vehicles to get to the parking lot.  The entire helix was filled with people cheering. 

    As you enter the building they direct you to the room with your gear for the bike.  You pick up your bag and then make your way to the male changing tent.  In the changing tent there are people waiting to help you with whatever you need.  I took off my swimsuit and applied sun block - which stung a bit because the wetsuit tends to rub you raw in a few places.

    The bike was relatively uneventful for the first 40 miles or so.  My goals had been 1:15 for the swim, 5:30 for the bike, and 3:00 for the run with 15 minutes for transitions etc for a total of 10 hours.  Since I was over 10 minutes faster on the swim than planned I was pretty relaxed at the beginning of the bike.  Although some people had told me to delay taking in gu's on the bike, I decided to load more of my calories early on the bike.  Overall my nutrition plan was to take in one gu every 30 minutes and a bottle of Perform per hour (basically gatorade with more salt) with water as needed.  I figured that since I had no calories during the swim that I should over compensate for the first few hours of the bike.  Instead of gu's every 30 minutes I took gu's (100 calories per) every 20 minutes for the first 2 hours of the bike.

    The bike course is a stick and loop.  From Madison you make your way 16 miles to Verona where you begin a 40 mile loop - which you do twice before heading back to Madison.  Madison is known for having the second hardest bike course of any Ironman race in the U.S.  There are courses with longer hills - but there isn't a course with more consistent hills coming one after another.  Although there are hills all along the course there are three hills in particular that are infamous.  People even drive out, or take buses, to cheer people up the hills.  It's like a Tour de France atmosphere - with people in weird costumes - sometimes even running alongside the cyclists.

    The oddest thing I saw was actually on the second lap.  About a mile a way from one of these hills I heard some strange horn noise - I looked over to the side of the road - and there in the bushes was a man dressed as a clown squeezing a clown horn with a very strange smile on his face.  I'm still not sure whether I just imagined the whole thing.

    On my first lap I felt good - I powered my way up the hills pretty easily - making sure to stay in a small gear.  On the top of each hill I would quickly change to my big chain ring to take full advantage of the downhill.  On the 3rd hill I just made it over the top - as I tried to change gears I hear the sound of metal snapping.  I looked down in horror to see the picture below.  My front derailleur was split in two.

    I had a good minute or two of panic - but then I quickly accepted my predicament.  There was a very small likelihood that the bike tech support on the course would have a front derailleur - and even if they did it would take more time to fix it than I would probably lose being restricted to my small chain ring.  I even tried to tell myself that it might be a good thing.  "On a course like Wisconsin that big chain ring can only get you into trouble!" I tried to convince myself.  This happened around mile 50 - so, I had over 60 miles to go with my bike in this condition.

    On the flat and slight downhills I got passed constantly.  On the uphills I would pass people and on the steep downhills I didn't lose much time.  Overall though it was a little depressing - to know that I was getting passed because I didn't have my big chain ring was frustrating.  There wasn't much use in getting too upset - I still had a marathon to go - and since running is my strongest event - I figured I would pass most of them back. 

    The only really scary moment on the bike involved a dog.  People - why do you bring dogs you can't control to a bike race?!  Did we learn nothing from the Tour de France this year?  I was heading down a decent hill on a wooded stretch of road at ~30 mph when I saw a loose ~70 lbs Dalmatian sprinting in my direction on along the right side of the road.  I veered toward the middle of the road and put on my brakes a little - just then one of the people with the luxury of having a big gear was passing me.  I didn't mean to - but I veered into her line - and without some good bike handling on her part we probably would have both gone down.

    Having survived the dog my main concern now was a flat tire.  I had a string of flats in the late spring this year.  I think I was over inflating my tires - but, how often it happened certainly was in the back of my mind.  To make me even more paranoid the front race wheel that I had borrowed from a friend somehow went flat during my drive from Omaha.  Luckily I had brought my regular wheels in case something happened.  My road bike with clip-on aerobars, an aero race wheel on the back, and a regular training wheel on the front probably looked a little ridiculous compared to what everybody else was riding.

    I limped my way back to Madison - coming in at 5 hours and 38 minutes - 8 minutes off of my goal.  Considering I was missing my big chain ring for half the race it wasn't awful.  Plus, I was feeling fresh from my forced coasting (there was no reason to pedal over 24 mph) and a little pissed from getting passed so often.  I also knew that I had a little bonus time from my swim.  At the start of the run I was at 6 hours and 55 minutes.  I needed to run a 3:05 marathon to meet my goal time.  Since my PR is 2:32 at Boston and Madison is a relatively flat course - I felt like that was doable.

    I decided to not look at my watch the first few miles of the run.  I just wanted to get into a rhythm.  The first mile is almost completely downhill - although it's a gradual downhill - pretty much perfect for running fast.  I was passing people pretty quickly.  I finally looked at my watch at mile 4 - I was under 24 minutes.  It took me a second to do the math - but I soon realized I was well under six-minute pace.  I was feeling good - but I knew that was probably a little quick - so I dialed it down a notch.

    The marathon course is two loops.  I knew that I would be one of the better age-group marathons of the day.  At Kansas I had the 7th fastest run of the day - 2nd fastest non-pro.  I thought I would stack up around the same place with the top pro's going about 10 minutes or so faster than me.  I had no expectation that I would be going at a faster pace than the leader.

    Although it seems stupid looking back - that's why I didn't realize that I passed the leader on the Observatory Hill.  The official on the bike or the police motorcycle probably should have clued me in - but, I was kind of in mental autopilot.

    The first thing I noticed was that more people seemed to be shouting my name.  I did have my name on my bib - I had heard a few people yell - "Go Benjamin!" early on in the run - since I go by Ben I knew they must be reading my bib.  Then I hear someone yell "Go Ben!" - only it was from so far away that there was no way he could have been reading my bib.  I thought - well, I know a few people who are spectating - they must know me - so I waved back in their direction.

    Finally I put two and two together.  I ran past some college girls - and they said - "hey, they're both named Ben!" - then the bike came by and said "Lead runner coming through!".  I thought - I'm an idiot.  The guy I passed on the hill was in the lead - and apparently his name is Ben. It turned out to be Ben Hoffman - a top pro.  As he passed he muttered something under his breath - he was probably wondering what the hell I was doing waving at people cheering for him.

    I decided to back off - I didn't want to impede him.  So, I just ran about 10 feet behind him.  I heard the lead bike radio-in that we were hitting 6:30's per mile - which was fine with me.  It also gave me someone to key off of - which makes keeping a pace much easier.  Around mile 22 for him (about mile 9 for me) - he started to slow.  I read an article today that he started to get some cramping around this point. 

    I still wanted to keep my pace - and I started to overtake him, but I felt a little foolish for taking so long to recognize that he was winning the freaking race - and waving to people who were cheering for him - so, I decided to make a joke.  As I passed him I said - "if you take over 5 hours and 30 minutes on the bike - the run is much easier."  I think he chuckled.  I then sheepishly added - "my name is Ben too" - trying to explain why I was waving to fans clearly cheering for him.

    He rode 4 hours and 38 minutes for the bike - a full hour faster than me.  The pace he averaged on a hilly course over 112 miles I would be lucky to average over 10 miles on a flat course.  Truly amazing.

    The rest of the run went relatively smoothly.  I took perform, water, cola, and wet sponges at pretty much every stop - which are about once per mile.  I took a few chomps and one or two gu's.  The cola and perform seemed to keep my calorie count up sufficiently - plus I think my frontloading of calories on the bike probably helped.

    Being a good runner in a triathlon is awesome.  Good swimmers do their thing away from the crowds and then have to get passed the rest of the race.  Good bikers also usually don't have many people to cheer them on - and even if they do - most spectators probably can't tell the difference.  By the time I was on my second lap I was passing people on their first lap who were shuffling or even walking.  It was especially fun near the bars - people seemed to pick up on the fact that I was running pretty strong - kids wanted to give me a high five - it was awesome.

    I did have a tough spot around mile 21 - but by mile 23 I was thinking - "I just have a 5k - I can do anything over 5k".  With a mile to go I found myself very emotional.  I was going to make my goal of 10 hours with over 10 minutes to spare.  I was also going to kill my 3 hour goal in the marathon.  Over the last mile you start thinking about everything that has led you to this point.  You think about people who have inspired you, people who support you, people who have taught you things that made it possible to accomplish your goals on this day.  Over 20 years of racing I've never found myself choked up during a race until yesterday - that's why the Ironman is special.

    In his book The Myth of Sisyphus, the philosopher Albert Camus discuses how the myth of the man forced to roll a rock up a mountain for perpetuity speaks to the absurdity of life.  In very stark terms Camus says there are several ways to react to the absurdity of life, but the only one that allows us to accept this absurdity and still see life as meaningful was "revolt".  The revolt happened not by overthrowing whatever power forced Sisyphus to roll that rock everyday - but rather by embracing his effort.  Camus wrote - "the struggle itself is enough to fill a man's heart.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

    The transformative effect of the Ironman is that you become Sisyphus in a very tangible way.  Over the months of training you are rolling a rock up a hill everyday - sometimes with friends - but many times all by yourself.  On race day it might be a bigger hill and a bigger rock - but there is a great amount of joy to be found in all the people supporting you along the way - family, friends, and mostly strangers.  You don't have to imagine Sisyphus as happy - in the Ironman you find his smile on your lips.

    Sunday, September 2, 2012

    One week to my first Ironman

    It really feels weird typing that.

    One week from today I will most likely be an Ironman.  I say "most likely" because complete confidence in an ironman only invites the wrath of the gods.  That being said - I feel like I'm in as good of shape as I could have hoped in order to have a successful day next Sunday.  What does successful mean?  Let's go through each discipline.

    The Swim

    The swim is a mass start - meaning that all ~2800 participants start the race at once.  From what I hear there is only a small entrance into the water - which means that you should try to get in around 20-25 minutes before the start of the race.  Yes, you might have to tread water for awhile (or hold onto a kayak) but it's worth it to be in better position.  I've also heard that the majority of the time you should expect to be slowed down by the people in front of you.  Periods of swimming in open water are few and far between.  To emphasize this there is a tradition of everyone yelling "Moo!" as they go around the first turn - feeling like cattle. 

    I think the key is to not get too excited at the start of the swim.  It's a long day and I'm not the fastest swimmer anyways.  Better to go with the flow and remain calm during the first few minutes of "washing machine" craziness.  My goal for the swim is 1 hour and 15 minutes - which is pretty much in the middle of the pack. 

    Transition 1 and the bike

    If I do come in around 1:15 I'll have a lot of company.  My plan is to let the wetsuit strippers help me ( you basically flop down on the ground with your legs in the air and they literally strip off the wetsuit for you).  However I've been told that there might be a line - so, I'll have to play it by ear - I can always try to take it off myself while I'm hopping along in line.  The Wisconsin Ironman is a little different than most in that you have to run/jog/walk up a parking structure "helix" to get to transition.  I don't exactly want to be hitting V02 max at this point - so, I'll have to be ok with a few "motivated" people passing me.

    The dressing rooms are in convention halls that are part of the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Monona Terrace.  Instead of wearing the same thing all day I'm going to go with comfort - I'll be wearing my normal bike shorts and a plain red/white cycling jersey with deep pockets in the back.  I most likely will put on some sunscreen as well.

    The bike course is a 16 mile stick out to a 40 mile loop that you ride twice.  The first part of the bike is technically a no-passing area - so, again I will need to just keep my cool.  The bike course is generally rolling with a few "climbs".  I am so glad that I rode the course back in June.  I've seen everything except for the first/last six miles of the course.  As many people say - it's a course where you are constantly making choices.  I'm going to be paying close attention to my pedal rpm's - I'm most efficient ~90 rpms - much less than that and I should down shift.  There will be at least 3-4 times per loop where I'll be in my small ring.  It's not worth killing yourself up the hills - much better to sit back and spin up them.  Again - this requires a certain amount of patience - especially if you're getting passed by people.  But again - the mantra of the first half of the bike should be - "they'll come back to me on the run".

    As for nutrition I'm planning on taking gu's every 30 minutes and downing a bottle of perform (similar to gatorade) plus some water every hour.  The aid stations are every 15 miles - which means I should be hitting them every 45-50 minutes - so, I should never be getting too low on my perform.  I will put some gu's on my belt and in the jersey pockets - but I'm also going to pick them up on the course.  This seemed to work out fine at the Kansas 70.3.

    Even though the swim is going to be scary - I'm most worried about some kind of technical problem on the bike.  I'm going to be using some borrowed racing wheels that have tubular tires.  These tires are tough - but they are also glued on to the rim of the wheel - which means if you flat your day is done unless you can get a replacement wheel.  I've also had some issues with skipping gears when I'm shifting etc.  I took my bike to a shop yesterday and they tuned it up the best they could - so it should be fine - but there's always the chance something weird could happen. 

    My goal for the bike is 5 hours and 30 minutes.  I went 2:35 at Kansas - so, I feel like that's doable. 

    Transition 2 and the run

    If I make it to the end of the bike relatively unscathed I'm going to be a happy guy.  The run is my strongest discipline and there is much less that is out of my control.  The second transition is a little quicker.  Everybody will be more spread out and you don't have quite as far to travel.  I'm going to change into a running singlet, running shorts, and training shoes.  Again - the name of the game at the beginning of the run will be patience.  There are huge crowds in Madison on the run course.  I just need to get into a rhythm. 

    The run course is very flat.  There is one little rise on Observatory - but, it will only feel like a hill if I'm really hurting.  The course is on a mixture of roads, paved and gravel trails.  You even do a lap of the football stadium during each loop.  I've been told that the constant changing of surfaces can mess up your rhythm a little - but I don't think it should be too bad.

    My goal for the run is 3 hours.  Yes, that seems a little quick - maybe even foolishly quick.  But I have a lot of confidence in my running right now. 

    So what does that add up to?  1:15 swim + 5:30 bike + 3:00 run + ~15 minutes for transitions/bathroom breaks etc = 10 hours.

    When I signed up for this race a year ago Kendra was in the middle of interviewing for the job in Omaha.  I picked Wisconsin because I knew Omaha would be a good place to train - regardless of what you may think Omaha is hilly.  It's not like the plains of central and western Nebraska - it's in the Missouri River Valley.  I also knew that this summer was going to be a relatively quiet time - I was between taking pre-reqs for physician assistant school.  So I had a lot of time to train.  In fact I'll probably never have that much time to train ever again.  In some ways I feel like I'm in the best shape of my life AND I don't have any nagging injuries for the first time in a long time.

    I'm ready.

    Sunday, August 26, 2012

    "Show me a hero and I'll write you a tragedy"

    F. Scott Fitzgerald may have been a glass half empty kind of guy - but he had a point.  Heroes are set up to fall.  It's no accident that the culture which contributed most to western society was obsessed with heroes, tragedy, and sports.  Whether because of hubris or merely the passing of time - the hero can never stay in our mind as they were when they were great.  Can you picture Ali standing over Liston without also thinking of him trembling as he struggled to light the Olympic flame?  It was a great moment - but it was also a sad moment - as we were reminded that even the greatest athletes among us are susceptible to the ravages of disease.

    I've written and talked many times about my contempt for dopers in sports, but even I will admit that Lance Armstrong accomplished a lot of positive things in his life.  I may question his motives, but nobody can question the results of raising $500 million for cancer research and inspiring millions of people. 

    Another Armstrong was also in the news this week.  Neil Armstrong could have turned his first "small steps" into a political career or at least a lucrative endorsement/speaking career.  Instead he stayed out of the limelight - dedicating himself to pretty much exactly what he did before those first steps - as he put it "I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer."  Armstrong seems to be one of the few examples of a hero where there was no tragedy.  He seemed to understand the perils of trying to hold on to his moment for the sake of celebrity or fortune. 

    It's hard to say whether there are any lessons to be learned from either of these men.  Maybe Neil could have done a lot of good in the world if he had been a little more hungry for fame and fortune.  And maybe the world would have been worse off if Lance had just said "no" to drugs - never won a Tour de France - and silently slipped off into obscurity.

    I guess the world may need people like Lance - someone whose drive to be great pushes him to acts that are both good and bad - but a healthy society, IMHO, is one where we still hold him accountable for the bad and prefer our heroes to act like Neil.

    One last quote from Neil Armstrong - of his first step, he said, "It was special and memorable but it was only instantaneous because there was work to do. We weren't there to meditate. We were there to get things done. So we got on with it."

    If only I can remember that as I'm bobbing up and down in Lake Monona in a couple of weeks. 


    Tuesday, August 7, 2012

    Last Tune Up

    After my poor swim at Kansas I decided I needed some more lessons.  I asked the president of Team Nebraska Triathlon, Jim, if he knew of anybody who could help me out.  He said that he was actually coaching a couple of guys already - and would be willing to help me out on a weekly basis.  I had already done a clinic with Jim and he gave me some great pointers - so, I was thrilled that he could help me out.  And when I asked how much he charged - he said he's do it for free! 

    We've been meeting weekly for about six weeks by now.  My times in pool workouts have been getting progressively faster - but I knew that didn't always translate into fast times in an actual race.  So I was excited to test myself at the Omaha Triathlon Sunday morning. 

    The main way in which I've improved since last year is being comfortable in open water with other people around.  In my first tri last May I almost hyperventilated.  I couldn't even swim with my head down without taking in a lot of water.  Jim suggested that I was probably holding my breath the first few strokes instead of exhaling fully - which was leading to me eventually being out of breath. 

    The other major issue was my stroke.  Last year I was pretty much straight arming my stroke - which is very inefficient over longer distances.  In February I learned the "S" curve - where you push out at the beginning of the stroke and then sweep around and eventually bring your hand in just below your rib cage and push down (similar to the motion when you get out of the pool).  When I first started with Jim he noticed that I wasn't doing the first part of the stroke at all - I was bringing my hands close to my body way too early.  I needed to emphasize the sculling out part of the stroke at the beginning.  I also wasn't rotating my torso at all - which means I was generating less power with each stroke.

    As the swim started on Sunday I felt pretty good - but after my first spot or two I could tell that I wasn't swimming in a straight line.  The week before I had noticed the same thing while swimming in Lake Manawa - where we train once a week  For some reason I was now swimming crooked.  That's the frustrating thing about learning to really swim.  Two steps forward and one step back.  After the race Jim suggested that maybe I was pushing off with my left arm - instead of using my abs to rotate my body when I was breathing on my right side - which caused me to veer to the right.  We're going to head out to the lake this weekend so that he can take a better look.

    All of that is a long way of saying that I still wasn't happy with my swim on Sunday.  I ended up at 28:43 - which is certainly better than the 34 minutes that I swam last year, but I'd really like to be a consistent sub 25 minute 1500 meter swimmer.  My goal for Wisconsin is still 1:15 for the swim.  The challenge will be staying comfortable swimming with 2800 people in the mass start - but all those people might help me with a decent draft and keeping me in a straight line.  I'm also assuming that the swim will be wetsuit legal.  Wetsuits are especially helpful for remedial swimmers like me. 

    Bottom line - learning to be a decent swimmer takes years.  Luckily biking and running have been going well for me this year - and very few triathletes are great at everything.  Suffering through at least one sport where you struggle seems to be a common theme. 

    I was hoping to take it easy on the bike on Sunday - but with two of my training partners a few minutes up the road my competitiveness took over.  I love the bike.  There are constant adjustments to make on a hilly course such as Omaha's.  I usually keep track of how many RPM's I'm pedaling.  If I'm under 90 RPM than I probably need to get into an easier gear.  I've also learned that stamping on your pedals up a hill is usually a waste of energy.  Better to gradually spin up the hill - and then push a little at the crest.  The aero wheels help a lot too - being able to get a little more speed on the downhill means you don't need to work as hard up the next one.

    At the turn around I could see that I was still a minute or two down to Gerald and another guy in our group - Caleb.  I also saw that the course was a little long - I was already at 13 miles - meaning the course was closer to 42 km than the traditional 40 km.  The way back was a little lonely.  Omaha Triathlon is only in it's 3rd year, so it's not very deep.

    I wasn't sure what to expect on the run.  Based on how I had done at Kansas, Great Lakes Relay and the few track workouts I've done I knew I was in decent shape - but it had been awhile since I had really tested myself running.  Unfortunately there were no mile markers - so I just ran a pace that felt right.  I have to say that being a stronger runner is pretty fun in a triathlon.  If you're a great swimmer - there might be a few more cheers when you get out of the water first - but then you have to endure getting passed by people the rest of the race.  On the bike there's almost nobody on the course, but on the run (especially an out-and-back) you get all kinds of support from spectators and other participants. 

    My run split ended up being slightly under my goal of 35 minutes - or sub-5:40 pace.  I even got the best running split of the day by over two minutes.  I ended up in 5th place overall.  I was just out of being in the top 3 Nebraskans - but the next place was 5 minutes in front of me - so I didn't feel too bad.  Overall it was a success - even with the slow swim.  I've learned that for me a successful swim sometimes just means identifying the problems so I know what to work on for next time. 

    Expectations for a first Ironman can be a tricky thing.  I certainly want to take advantage of all the time I've had to train this summer.  With most likely starting school next year and then a full-time job - I might not have this much time to train ever again.  At the same time I want to have a good experience.  I definetely don't want to put myself into the red on the swim or bike - and I want to enjoy the run as much as possible.  Anything can happen in an event that long that you've never done before - but I feel like I've at least given myself a shot at having a successful day with my training so far.  My July totals were 34 miles of swimming, 629 miles on the bike, and 168 mile of running.

    Monday: 1 hour swim 30 min run
    Tuesday: 1 hour run (3 X 1 mile - 5:20; 5:10; 5:01)
    Wednesday: 1 hour swim 2 hour bike 30 min run
    Thursday: 1 hour
    Friday: 1 hour swim
    Saturday: 30 min swim (OWS) 2 hour bike with 13 mile TT 2 mile run (11:10)
    Sunday: 1 hour run 1.5 hour swim
    Total: 13.5 hours - 4 hours bike 6 hours swim 3.25 hours run
    Monday: 1 hour swim 3 hour bike
    Tuesday: 1 hour swim 30 min run
    Wednesday: 4 hour bike 30 min run
    Thursday: 1 hour run & weights
    Friday: 1 hour swim
    Saturday: 30 min swim (OWS) 2 hour bike 13 mile TT & 2 mile run
    Sunday: 1 hour 45 min run 1 hour 30 min swim
    Total: 18 hours - 9 hours bike 5 hours swim 4 hours run
    Monday: 1 hour swim 3.5 hour bike 45 min run
    Tuesday: 1 hour run
    Wednesday: 1 hour swim
    Thursday: 3.5 hour bike 45 min run 30 min swim
    Great Lakes Relay Friday - Sunday
    Friday: 1.5 hour run 10 miles in two legs at 5:30-5:45 plus warm-up and warm-down
    Saturday: 1.5 hour run 10 miles in two legs at 5:30-5:45 plus warm-up and warm-down 20 min swim
    Sunday: 1 hour run 5 miles in two legs at 5:05-5:30 plus warm-up and warm-down 30 min swim
    Total: 17 hours - 7 hours bike 3.5 hours swim 6.5 hours run
    Monday: 1 hour swim 3 hour bike
    Tuesday: Day off
    Wednesday: 3 hour bike 45 min run
    Thursday: 1 hour swim 45 min run
    Friday: 5 hour bike
    Saturday: 1 hour 50 min run 40 min swim
    Sunday: 40 min run
    Total: 18 hours - 11 hours bike 3 hours swim 4 hours run
    Monday: 1 hour swim
    Tuesday: 1 hour run
    Wednesday: 1 hour swim 3 hour bike 30 min run
    Thursday: 1 hour 10 min swim
    Friday: 1 hour swim 2 hour bike 45 min run
    Saturday: 1 hour run
    Sunday: 30 min swim 2 hour bike 2 mile run
    Total: 15 hours - 7 hours bike 4 hours 40 min swim 3 hours 30 min run
    Monday: 1 hour swim 45 min run
    Tuesday: 1.5 hour swim
    Wednesday: 1 hour swim 2.5 hour bike 30 min run
    Thursday: 45 min run
    Friday: 1 hour swim
    Saturday: 1 hour bike 15 min run
    Sunday: 30 min swim 1 hour bike 45 min run + 30 min swim in afternoon
    Total: 12.5 hours - 4 hours bike 5.5 hours swim 3 hours run
    This week
    Monday: 1 hour swim 3 hour bike
    Tuesday: 45 min run
    Wednesday: 1 hour swim 3 hour bike 45 min run
    Thursday: 1 hour run & weights
    Friday: 1 hour swim
    Saturday: 30 min swim (OWS) 4 hour bike
    Sunday: 2 hour run
    Total: 18 hours - 10 hours bike 3.5 hours swim 4.5 hours run


    Monday, June 25, 2012

    It's a Human Thing: We Run Hot

    In the weeks leading up to the New York marathon the Times usually runs a long-form story on the sport of distance running.  You might think that those pieces are meant for the tens of thousands of runners who descend on "the city" that week.  But the articles are too disdainful and ignorant to appeal to actual runners.  My theory is that the articles are actually meant for millions of New Yorkers who are pissed off that their city is taken over for a few days by the marathon.  It's their chance to chuckle at the schmucks who are crazy enough to do one of these things.

    Aware of this propensity to cast endurance athletes as crazy, I read most of the first paragraph of a NYT article on the life and death of Micah True with the pointer over the close button, anticipating that the author might take his death as a lesson that distance running was dangerous or some other garbage.  For those of you who don't know - Micah True was the central character in the book "Born to Run" - probably the most popular book on running ever.  Actually I liked the book a lot - it's a good read for runners and probably even non-runners too. 

    The NYT article on True was actually fair and pretty good overall.  It centered on the attempted rescue of True in the Gila wilderness of New Mexico in March and is interspersed with the story of his life - there were both stories included the book as well as how his life changed as a result of the book.  True was a bit of a recluse and oddball, but you get the feeling that running saved him in many ways.  Running gave him meaning, fame, a little money, and even a girlfriend.

    The idea which is highlighted by the title "Born to Run" is that the anatomical structure of humans cannot be explained except that long-distance running must have been greatly important to the survival of our ancestors.  We couldn't beat a gazelle in a sprint - but we could track the animal for 5-6 hours until our prey literally fell at our feet in exhaustion. 

    Humans have been anatomically consistent for about 200,000 years.  It took 190,000 years of being distinctly human and surviving as hunter gatherers before the advent of agriculture.  Another way of looking at it is that for 95% of the history of humans on earth there were no couch potatoes.  As Thomas Hobbes said, life was "nasty, brutish, and short."  It may not have been pleasant, but the cruelty of nature had left us with bodies that could do astounding things.  Insanely amazing actions were necessary to survive, reproduce, and protect offspring - so, only the humans with bodies capable of performing those insanely amazing things had offspring who survived.

    I'll never be one to say negative things about the comforts of modern life.  I love that I'm typing this in an air-conditioned house and that once I click publish somebody from the other side of the planet could potentially read it.  I love that I could be anywhere in the world in less than 24 hours or that I could have access to almost any piece of music that's been recorded or any movie that's ever been filmed in a couple minutes.  The flip side is of course that modern life has allowed us to be very, very lazy with no real immediate consequences. 

    To take a metaphor - they say that the easiest way to ruin a high-performance race car is to only use it to go get groceries or commuting.  The car is designed to go fast for long periods of time - and it can actually damage the engine if it doesn't do what it was designed for.  The same is true of our bodies.  The challenges of the natural world gave us our bodies.  In order to keep our bodies running well we have to recreate the types of challenges that our bodies would have experienced 50,000 years ago.

    I feel lucky.  I knew how natural and important running was to my body way before I ever read a word of "Born to Run."  I've probably told this story before, but when I was 6 or 7 years old I was one of those kids who had more energy than I knew what to do with. My mom - in part to make sure I'd go to sleep at a reasonable hour - would suggest "why don't you run around the outside of the house for awhile?"  So that's exactly what I would do.  I would go dashing around the house feeling the wind through my hair, taking the corners tight and hard, and getting a little runners high before finally collapsing.

    One time we were on vacation visiting some family friends.  I hadn't had one of my house runs in awhile - so I asked my mother if I could run around their house.  Even though the other family looked askew at my bizarre request I was given permission.  Unfortunately I went full bore into my first lap - without checking the course for obstructions - I think I just assumed the layout would be similar to my house.  I didn't see the dog house coming around the corner until it was too late.  I ended up with some butterfly stitches on my cheek and an important lesson - always do a course preview before any race.

    In that spirit - I was in Madison this weekend for the Wisconsin Brick Adventure.  WIBA, as they call it, is put on by the Evotri team - with a couple of local sponsors.  They charged $0 (shh - don't tell them how much money they could have made!).  About 120 people showed up.  On Friday there was a dinner and course talk.  On Saturday morning there was a swim - it wasn't on the actual course - but it was in the same lake very close to the actual start. 

    We then went out to the near town of Verona which is where the bike loop starts.  The Wisconsin bike course heads out to Verona from Madison and then there are two loops of a 40mi course out in the Wisconsin farm country.  The loop is rolling - with at least 3 decent hills.  The main reason that I was out there was to see the bike course.  Everyone I had talked to said that riding the bike leg intelligently is the key to having a good day.  For Wisconsin this means anticipating hills and turns so that you can be in the right gear.  It also means knowing which sections you want to coast through and which sections you might want to push it a little bit.  Finally - it means understanding that a couple of the hills are so long that you need to just get into a small gear, sit down, and spin your way up as efficiently as possible.

    I ended up with a little over 100 miles on the day.  I did the loop twice and then 10 miles out and back on the "stick" part of the course.  During the first loop I ended up going back and forth with a friendly guy from Chicago - so, we ended up riding the rest of the way together as well as running 30 minutes after the bike.

    On Sunday we ran one loop of the run course.  Except for one gentle rise (it might seem worse on race day) the run course is pretty flat.  There are a lot of turns and changing of surfaces - but I don't see why I couldn't run a fast time if I paced the bike properly and kept on top of my nutrition.  The other key to the run course is that there is a lot of cheering support - I don't care who you are - it helps.

    I feel really good about my chances of a successful race in September at this point.  I wasn't sure how my body would react to 20 hour weeks, but I feel great.  99.9% of people think even the training for the Ironman is harmful to your body, but I've never felt or looked (so my wife tells me) better.  Maybe our bodies were made for this level of activity - maybe we were made to run hot.

    Week after Kansas 70.3
    Monday: 1 hour swim
    Tuesday: 1 hour bike
    Wednesday: 1 hour swim 3 hour bike 45 min  run
    Thursday: 1 hour run
    Friday: 1 hour swim 2 hour bike 45 min run
    Saturday: 4 hour bike 30 min run
    Sunday: 2 hour run 1 hour 20 min swim
    Total: 19 hours - 10 hours bike 4 hours swim 5 hours run

    Monday: 1 hour swim 3.5 hour bike 30 min run
    Tuesday: 1 hour run (4X1200 4:02 3:58 3:36 3:47) 90 degrees/windy
    Wednesday: 1 hour swim 30 min run
    Thursday: 3 hour bike 1 hour run
    Friday: 1 hour swim (2X500 yards both in 7:18) 30 min run
    Saturday: 1 hour swim 5.5 hour bike 30 min run
    Sunday: 1.5 hour run
    Total: 21.5 hours - 12 hours bike 4 hours swim 5.5 hours run

    Monday: 1 hour swim 30 min run
    Tuesday: 1 hour run (mile repeats)
    Wednesday: 1 hour swim 2 hour bike 30 min run
    Thursday: 1 hour 40 min swim
    Friday: 1 hour swim 30 min run
    Saturday: 30 min swim (OWS) 2 hour bike hour run (probable brick workout)
    Sunday: 1 hour 50 min swim
    Total: 14.5 hours - 4 hours bike 7 hours swim 3.5 hours run