Saturday, December 28, 2013

The two most important races in my life

The last three months have been among the most difficult of my life.  Physician Assistant school has challenged me in ways for which I was not fully prepared.  Everything that I’ve done athletically doesn’t compare to the constant grind of having 28 hours a week of lecture in Anatomy, Physiology, and Pathology.  Not to mention the incredibly difficult tests.  In undergrad I had a 3.56 – and got all A’s in my pre-reqs that I had to take the last few years in order to get into PA school.  This last semester I took ~18 tests – I got exactly one A. 

Experiences like this make you question yourself.  Am I smart or dumb?  Am I a hard worker or lazy?  Am I a team player or selfish?  Like anybody, I can find examples of my own behavior that could lead me to either conclusion.  In the end I decided that I needed to focus on the positive.  I needed to remind myself of who I really am. 

I needed to find examples of times where I encountered disappointment or even failure and somehow came out stronger for the experience.  I thought about one of my first major disappointments.  Being cut from my 7th grade baseball team.  If you had asked me as a 5th grader what I was going to be when I grew up – I would have said “a professional baseball player.”  I could have even told you what I was going to do with the money I earned – I would have bought something nice for my parents.

Well, a few things happened between 5th and 7th graded.  For one – all the other boys grew – I did not.  Suddenly the pitchers were much stronger and my weak upper body couldn’t swing the bat fast enough to get around on a fastball.  So, I didn’t even make my 7th grade middle school baseball team.  One of my friends could tell how bad I was hurting after I got cut.  He told me how he was running track – and that I should try it since I had done pretty well in the mile we had to run for gym.  I was instantly hooked.  That spring I got 5th in the mile in the city and the next year I not only was city champion for the mile (in a time of 5:08) – I also ran my first half marathon that June.  I won my age group with a 1:29 as a 14 year old.

Although that was a decent example of how I deal with adversity – I remembered two other races that seemed even more appropriate.  Like many young boys – I was an emotional mess as a 15 year old.  It impacted my ability to be successful in school.  Early that semester I got a “D” on a Biology test.  My parents were scrambling for answers – trying to figure out why their son – who had shown some promise academically was doing so poorly. 

They concluded that running was taking too much time and energy away from my studies.  But the truth was that running was the fine string that kept me sane.  It was everything to me.  When my mom told me that she thought I should quit the team I threw a tantrum.  I was hysterical.  Luckily for me, she realized that whatever was going on she couldn’t take running away from me.  My parents asked me if I wanted to talk to a psychologist – but I wasn’t strong enough to do that.  I was a boy – and I thought that it was something only weak people do – although now I know that asking for help when you need it is actually pretty courageous.

Not long after this episode came our conference meet.  Our team was relatively poor that year.  We had lost our best runner the year before – an incredibly gifted and kind kid named Terrance Vaughn.  As I freshman I had looked up to him.  He taught me a lot about how to compete.  I remember that he told me that what separated the best runners in cross country wasn’t how they ran up the hills – it’s how they ran down the other side.  Do they take it easy on the downhill?  Or do they throw caution to the wind and charge down the hill?

The prior spring Terrance had come back from injury sustained during the State Cross Country meet.  He worked his way into being one of the top two-milers in the state.  Unfortunately he had some issues at the State track meet.  The worst part was that two guys from our cross town high school, Huron, had beaten him at the state meet.  They were only a freshman and a sophomore – and they had taken it to my mentor.

I don’t remember much about how I felt toeing the line before the gun went off in that conference meet my sophomore year.  What I do remember is that I was just behind the two boys from Huron, who led pretty much from the start, when all of a sudden at around the mile mark they did a fist bump – as to say “we got this.”  It enraged me.  How could they disrespect me and my teammates like that?  I already didn’t like them because they had beaten my friend.  My rage oddly had a calming effect in some ways.  I didn’t try to pass them initially – I just patiently stayed on their shoulders – waiting for the right time to pounce.  With about ¾ of a mile to go we hit a long downhill – I felt that they were being tentative and used it to my advantage.  I charged past them down the hill and never looked back.  My momentum carried me on the relatively flat remaining part of the course to the finish line.  I won the race.

That race taught me that you can do things that you didn’t even know were possible if you have adequate motivation and a smart race strategy.  It also made me think about what I might be able to do at States this year.  These guys were easily in the top ten in the state – maybe I could be top 5?  Maybe better?

I don’t remember much about our regional meet.  We did well enough as a team to qualify for States – which given the team we had that year wasn’t a sure thing.  Then a really bad thing happened.  A week before States my knee started to hurt.  Knee pain is a weird thing.  Sometimes you can tweak your knee on a run and the pain goes away after a few strides.  Sometimes it lasts for a day or two.  My coach decided I just needed a few days rest.  I was in great shape – a few days of not running wasn’t going to kill me.

I don’t remember doubting for a moment that I was going to run that race.  After all – even if I was in some pain – how much would that really cost me?  About half mile into the race I found out.  My knee hurt so bad that I couldn’t run without a limp.  Later, I found out I had Osgood Schlatter’s.  A condition that happens with boys whose growth plate hasn’t fully sealed.  Basically my patellar ligament was pulling the upper part of my tibia away from the rest of the bone.  Needless to say – it’s pretty painful.

I could have dropped out – I don’t think anybody would have really blamed me – but I just couldn’t do it.  I almost had this sport ripped away from me (because of my own failure in school) I wasn’t going to let an injury rob me of this experience either.  Plus my teammates were counting on me – I figured I could still be in our top 5 runners and score for the team.  But one-by-one my teammates passed me until I was 7th on the team.  I kept fading – but I kept pushing on for some reason.  To be honest I don’t really know why I kept running – but I did.

At the finish line there was a momentary feeling of embarrassment as I realized I had run two minutes slower than I had the week before.  But then I saw my teammates.  They all had big smiles on their faces – pretty much all of them had personal bests that day.  We had even placed pretty well as a team – even with me being injured.  I decided that however sorry I felt for myself I wasn’t going to ruin my teammates day.  They had worked too hard to waste their time feeling sorry for me.  I remember having a big goofy grin on my face for the team picture.

Although I had to use crutches for a few weeks – I recovered in time for track in the spring.  I noticed that two of my teammates were gaining on me.  Todd Snyder was a nice kid – but he didn’t seem to take running all that seriously.  I never even really thought of him as a rival until he beat me the last track race of our sophomore year.  Don McLaughlin was a skinny awkward kid who was a decent runner – but who I was still usually beating.  By the end of my sophomore year Don was starting to show some real promise – running sub 4:30 as a junior.

The next summer we all trained together.  We started to trust each other.  We started to depend on each other.  By the fall of my junior year my days of beating Don and Todd were over.  At the state meet I was 10th in the state – but 3rd best on my team.  Todd was state champion and Don was 4th.  We not only won the state championship – we were ranked the 3rd best cross country team in the country.  We went on to get 2nd place as a team in the Track state championship – where Todd was the 3200 state champ and Don did a miraculous triple – 4X800, 1600, and 3200 – doing an fantastic job in each race.  We won the 4X800 with a time that was the second best ever in the history of Michigan state meet.  It also happened to be the 3rd fastest 4X800 in the country that year.  Then the next year we repeated as cross country state champions.

Of the guys who were on those teams - seven of us had at least partial scholarships to Division I universities.  Don and Todd were the most impressive in terms of what they accomplished in college.  They both ran for the coaching legend Ron Warhurst at Michigan. 

Don trained almost every day with Kevin Sullivan – multiple time NCAA champion and three time Olympian.  Kevin was 5th at the Sydney Olympics in the mile and has the Canadian record at a 3:51.  Don took full advantage of his training partners and ended up running an open 4:00.8 in the mile.  He also ran sub four minutes in a relay.  If you ask Don – he doesn’t consider that running a "sub-4 minute mile" – but the dude did cover a mile under his own power in under four minutes.  Not only that – but he was Big Ten champion in the indoor mile.  He was on multiple Penn Relay distance medley relay champion teams.  The dude is a stud.

In high school Todd ended up with six individual state championships.  He also beat Abdul Alzindani in every race they ever competed against each other.  Abdul was a year younger than us.  In his senior year of high school Abdul won the Footlocker national championship.  Todd continued to develop in college.  He had some impressive training partners at Michigan as well.  His freshman year roommate was John Mortimer – who had been second at the national Footlocker championship.  Todd had a number of successes – but probably his most impressive race was placing 10th at National NCAA cross country meet his senior year to become one of only 20 All-Americans in the history of the Michigan Cross Country program.  He went on to run for famous Hansons running group and qualified for the Olympic trials in the marathon in 2008.  The dude is a stud.

These guys could not have accomplished what they did without a lot of talent and an incredible work ethic.  But, I do feel proud that I was a part of the environment that helped them to become successful.  We had a great coach in Don Sleeman, but a lot of our success was due to the fact that we were a special group of kids.  We were far from perfect.  But we cared deeply about each other.  We put ourselves on the line for each other – and we all put out our best effort because we knew we could count on each other to do the same.

Those two races taught me what was important about being on a team and life in general.  Even in a seemingly individual sport we can’t attain what we’re capable of alone.  The same is true of life.  I don’t know if life has “meaning” – but I do know that we are all here together.  If it does have meaning – then I think it’s that we’re supposed to take care of each other.  That is what’s important in life.  And I was lucky enough to experience what that means with an incredible group of young men – for that I will always be grateful.  And in regards to my struggles in PA school – by thinking about those races it makes me realize that I will be fine.  I am the kind of person who doesn’t give up on myself or anybody else.  I have gone through enough this semester to know that I will be successful in whatever the next chapter of my life happens to be - whether it is PA school or something else.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Training Camp

Pretty much every college cross-country program in the country has their own version of a training camp.  At Loyola we drove north - into south-central Wisconsin.  We stayed at a boy scout camp not too far from the Ice Age trail.  Our lodgings consisted of a large building that had a kitchen - where we took turns making meals and which had plenty of space for us to lay down our sore bodies in our sleeping bags at night.  Training camp was about volume of running over quality.  It was also when our coach sniffed out who had been working out over the summer.  It was a time to bond with teammates and it was also a time to be reminded that the extremely long competitive season of a college distance runner lay before us.

Although this is technically the third week of training for my upcoming season - Wednesday-Sunday has the feel to me of training camp.  During this period I'll be working out 16.5 hours over 5 days - which is a lot more than my body has been doing since about August of last year.  A week from Sunday is also my first "race" of the year.  I'm running the Lincoln Half Marathon on the 5th of May.  It's actually a pretty large race - there are about 10,000 runners.  I'm not going to be running all out - it's still early in the season.  The plan is to bike the 50+ miles to Lincoln on Saturday - stay over night - and run the race on Sunday.  I'd like to start out easy - but push myself just enough to break 1:20.

With cross country that the first month of racing is really about getting prepared for October and November.  And for me - May is really about getting ready for June, July, and August.  My first "real" race will be Kansas 70.3 on the second Sunday in June.  Craig Alexander (multiple World champion) will be there - along with several other top pro's.  I did fine there last year - but I'm excited because I think I can shave off ~15 minutes from my time - most of it from the swim.

Monday: 3 hour bike 30 min run
Tuesday: 1 hour swim
Wednesday: 1.5 hour run
Thursday: Day Off
Friday: 1 hour swim 2 hour bike 30 min run
Saturday: 45 min swim
Sunday: 2 hour bike 45 min run
Total: 7 hour bike 2 hour 45 min swim 3 hour 15 min run 13 hours

Monday: 1 hour swim
Tuesday: 2 hour 30 min bike 45 min run
Wednesday: 1 hour swim
Thursday: 1 hour run
Friday:  Day off
Saturday: 1 hour swim 3.5 hour bike 30 min run
Sunday: 1 hour swim 2 hour run
Total: 14.25 hours 6 hour bike 4 hour swim 4 hour 15 min run

Planned 4/22-4/28
Monday: 1 hour swim
Tuesday: 1 hour run
Wednesday: 1 hour swim 3 hour bike 30 min run
Thursday: 1 hour swim 1 hour 15 min run
Friday: 1 hour swim 4 hour bike
Saturday: 2 hour run
Sunday: 2 hour bike 45 min run
Total: 9 hour bike 4 hour swim 5.5 hour run 18.5 hours

Monday, April 15, 2013


UPDATE: I wrote the following this morning before the tragic events in Boston. Thankfully it sounds like all my friends there are ok. My heart goes out to all of those who were hurt. It's awful to think this could happen at a place that is so special to so many of us. I can't imagine what someone could think they could accomplish by doing something like this.

Many times the start of something has more to do with the calendar than how things look or feel.  It's like when your alarm clock goes off.  You feel like sleeping for at least another hour - but time doesn't care how you feel.  Last week was the beginning because it's 22 weeks from when I hope to be competing in Las Vegas.  I don't feel much more ready to start than I did 5 or 10 weeks ago - but the calendar tells me the time to rest has come to an end - it's time to start building and growing.

The weather certainly isn't nudging me in the right direction.  In fact, there are snow flurries out my window as I type this post.  As I looked at the weather forecast for this week it looks like I'll probably have to ride on the trainer at least once.  Regardless of what it's doing outside - I know that early September will still come just as fast - as will the first week of June - when I'll try to qualify for Las Vegas on the rolling hills just outside of Lawrence, Kansas.

The last 10 weeks or so have been about doing just enough so that I'm ready for this beginning - but, not so much that I peak too early (7-10 hours per week).  I feel heavy.  The governments of Israel and Palestine are closer to coming together than the buttons of any pants I bought last summer.

But I know that this sluggishness and heavyness won't last forever.  The pounds will slide off as the sun starts to shine more brightly.  Soon I'll be searching for shade instead of wishing I had put on an extra layer.  Soon I'll be eating round the clock so that I have enough calories so I don't bonk on my next long ride.

I'm in the middle of another beginning as well.  At the end of February I started my first real job in healthcare.  The day after I found out that I got into PA school I also found out I get a job as a nurse aide/tech at a nursing home.  I think it's great preperation for PA school and beyond - but it certainly isn't going to do my training any favors.  It's physically demanding work - and it doesn't help that the work day starts at 6:00am - meaning my alarm clock beeps at 4:45am.  I've learned that the worst thing I can do is lay on the couch when I get home - I need to just get out and do my workout - otherwise it's very easy to rationalize a day off.

Although I may sound ambivalent about the start of my season - I am excited for two main reasons.  I have a much better bike for this year.  I've already found that I'm going faster than at the same time last year.  The second is that my swimming continues to improve.  I expect to take off at least 10 minutes my swim time at Kansas.

The alarm is blaring - time to wake up!

Monday, January 28, 2013


January is a weird month.  It's like the moment before you put pen to paper on a test.  It's a month where life doesn't seem to be experienced, but rather anticipated.  January 2013 is even more that way for me than usual.  On December 7th I interviewed for the Physician Assistant program at University of Nebraska Medical Center here in Omaha.  I apparently didn't make it into the "don't let that person think for even a moment that we don't want them" group.  I'm more in the "well, let's see who comes to our other interviews before we give this person a slot" group.

That decision will certainly make a difference as to what I'm doing in August - and might change what I'm doing as early as March (depending on whether I decide to apply again next year).  It's stressful to say the least.  I've made a lot of sacrifices over the last few years to try to be a PA.  Of course I understand that it doesn't matter how hard I've worked if they find 50 people who they think will fit better with their program.

Yesterday I finally sat down and planned my next nine months of training.  The funny thing is that my training even seems to have an added level of uncertainty to it this year.  My "A" race is in September and I won't even know if I've qualified for the race until early June.  Last year I decided that I wanted to shoot for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in 2013.  I qualified last year from Kansas 70.3, but it is the same weekend as Wisconsin - so I couldn't do it. 

I assume that I'm going to be faster - on the swim alone I could drop 10 minutes.  I have a new bike (see below) which is a story unto itself.  And I think that with some more quality workouts I can even do a little better on my run.

However, there might be more competition this year.  At least one other 70.3 IM event in this area of the country has been cancelled - which means there might be more people trying to qualify at Kansas.  So, I could be it's possible that in mid-June I might be scrambling to find an early-mid September 70.3 worth doing.

I already had been planning on doing the Omaha Triathlon this year - but it will be even more intriguing than I had thought.  It's going to be a Midwest regional championship for USAT age-groupers.  That means that anybody from Iowa, Minnesota, ND, SD, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, or Wisconsin who wants to make it to Nationals has to get in the top 33% of their age-group in this race.  Nationals are in Milwaukee - which is only 8 hours from Omaha - which would be my "B" race.  Which, yes, means that I have to qualify for both my "A" and "B" races. 

As for my training plan - it's going to be similar to last year - five 4-week periods (13-20 hours per week) with two weeks "easy" at the end.  That makes 22 weeks - which will start April 8th and end September 9th.  Until April I'll be training 8-11 hours per week - mostly easy pace.  I'll fill out the year with a few other road races that will mostly be workouts.  Of course my schedule is up in the air as well - I'm applying for several jobs - some of which are 12 hour shifts at hospitals.  Obviously that could alter my training quite a bit.

Here is my planned race schedule:

"No Frills" Race Series - 5 milers on 2/9 & 2/23 - Tempo pace workouts.

"No Frills" Race Series - 5 miler on 3/9 & 10 miler on 3/23 - Probably Tempo workouts.

Begin 22 week plan
4/28 Drake Relays 10k - Tempo/VO2 workout

5/5 Lincoln Half-Marathon - Intensity will depend on how I'm feeling
5/19 Papillion Half-Marathon - Tempo workout
Memorial Day TBD

6/9 Kansas 70.3
6/16 Papillion duathlon?

7/4 4th of July Race?
7/14 Papillion Mayor's Triathlon?
7/21 Omaha Triathlon
7/27 Bix 7 as workout?

8/10 USAT Age-group Nationals Milwaukee, WI?

9/8 70.3 World Championships Las Vegas, NV?

Lot's of question marks - but I guess that's what January (especially 2013) is about.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Crying for a Dream - Review of 2012

Another year comes to an end.  It's pretty amazing that 2013 will be my 6th year writing this blog.  I haven't always been very consistent (my high number of posts was 77 in 2009 and only 12 in 2011) - but I still enjoy writing about my experiences in endurance sports.  I sometimes struggle with whether writing a blog - or even racing in general - isn't just a sad way of saying "hey, look at me!"  But I get enough comments from people who seem to enjoy reading the blog that it seems worthwhile continuing.  I also just enjoy the process of writing - just like endurance sports it can be a great portal of self discovery.

2012 was a big year for me for obvious reasons.  The simple icon of a circle levitating above a torso/block M that has been on every running watch I've owned since I was 13 became something real.  Running has always included a hint of mystery for me - kind of like the "vision quests" common in Native American tribes.  That same year I got my first Ironman watch I also ran a half-marathon.  The Lakota might end their vision quests on top of a mountain - I ended mine in the back of my parents' min-van in the fetal position.  Yes, I wasn't feeling very good - but I had accomplished something pretty cool.

In some ways not much has changed in the 21 years since that day.  I signed up for Ironman Wisconsin out of the same basic curiosity that led me to register for the Dexter-Ann Arbor Run in 1991. 

2012 didn't start out that great.  I actually took an entire month off of running because I was having a relapse of an injury that had been bugging me since August 2010.  In late January I went to my first real swimming clinic and in February started thinking about my goals for Wisconsin.  In April I went to the Drake Relays where I ran a "controlled" half marathon.  At the end of May I ran the famous Bolder Boulder 10k.

Although I didn't write about it there was a very important moment for me at the beginning of May.  I had my first comfortable open water swim.  Before that day I always had major anxiety when swimming in the open water - especially when I was around other people.  There was a thought progression that was ingrained in my brain.  1) "Wow, I'm terrified - but all these other people look like they were born to do this.  Why am I out here risking my life?  I have no idea what I'm doing.  This is not going to go well." 2) "Oh - I guess people are going in the water now.  I'd like to go in slowly - but CRAP they are just getting in and starting to swim!  I guess I better get going!" 3)  Step 3 was crucial.  I'd put my face in the water and be so freaked out that I would forget to breathe.  I'd start swimming actually pretty strongly - but that would end quickly when I'd start to hyperventilate because I forgot to breathe out for the first 25 yards.  4)  By now I would be at the very back of the group and fading fast.  I'd be hyperventilating so bad that I couldn't keep my head under water - which would lead to my body being at a poor angle - which would slow me down even more.  On a Saturday swim with the local Team Nebraska Triathlon group - that thought progression finally went away for good.

In June came my first triathlon of the year - Kansas 70.3.   Now, given that I just wrote about how I was now "comfortable" in the water you might expect that this translated into "faster" in the water.  Well - you would be wrong.  I'm going to give myself some bonus points because of the conditions.  It was warm and windy - so, no wetsuits and 2-3 foot waves.  It was so bad that one woman panicked on her way out to the starting buoy.  The lifeguard (still in a t-shirt because he didn't think he'd have to save somebody before the start) had to come out and pull her back to dry land.

"Comfortable" for me on that day in June meant starting way to the outside and staying there.  So, I got no draft and I swam more than I needed to - and my stroke was still pretty poor.  But my bike and run went really well - especially given the conditions.  I ended up 4th in my age group which was good enough to make the 70.3 World Championship, which unfortunately I couldn't compete in because it was the same day as Wisconsin.  Overall, the race gave me a lot of confidence that my training plan was going well - at least I was in shape.  And it helped to convince me that I needed a coach for swimming - which would end up being one of the best decisions I made all year.

In June I also went out to Wisconsin for a training session on the IM course.  The organizers were great - as were the other participants.  It was another confidence builder for the IM.  I had a much better sense what I was in for - especially on the bike course.

In July I had some more strong training - including a strong running week at the Great Lakes Relay - where our team won.  In August I had my last race before IMWI - an Olympic distance race in Omaha.  My swim was still a little slow - mostly I think because I didn't stay in the pack.  But the bike and run still felt good. 

In September it was finally here - my first Ironman.  There's really nothing more for me to say about that day that I haven't already written.  It really was one of my most fun days as an athlete.  The weather was perfect, the organization was perfect, and the spectators/volunteers were perfect.

I finished off my year with a couple of great local races - the Corporate Cup 10k and the Market to Market Relay.  Most likely I'll look back at 2012 as one of my best years as an endurance athlete.  I challenged myself with something way outside my comfort zone and ended up being pretty successful.  Thanks to everybody who made that possible!

Of course 2013 is already here - and although I'm currently a little pudgy around the middle I've got some big plans for the year.  I'm going to focus on the 70.3 distance.  I'm signed up again for Kansas in June - where I hope I can qualify again for the World Championships and compete there in September in Las Vegas for the first time.