Monday, January 31, 2011

The Athlete's Stopwatch

I can vividly remember when I learned to tell time.  In fact, I can almost vividly remember the room where I learned to tell time.  This whole reading-a-clock thing does come in handy in a life full of splits, intervals, rest intervals, paces, mileage, yardage, meter-age, and total elapsed time.  Although in preparation for a 21st century athlete's life, my pre-school teacher could have saved herself some headaches simply by skipping to the lesson on how to read a digital clock....

But some days (right now Sundays), the hours, minutes, and seconds threaten to overwhelm.  Isn't it enough to run and just know I'm running long?  Isn't it enough to swim and just know that I will prune?  Or to do my first session of the day and just know that I have several more?   So I use another metric, one that doesn't involve watching hands spin or a string of 9s turn into a string of 0s.

On these days I reach even further back in my memory banks, to a point I can't recall with much clarity, to the simplest and most basic math and numbers lesson I have ever learned and can use to essentially tell time: counting to five (5) on one hand.  

I count to five (5) on one hand, placing a gel on the counter for each finger (or each digit and thumb if you're one of those quibblers).  I leave the house with this short stack of carbohydrate-dense nutritional product (oh how I wish I could be saying "whole grain pancakes from Bob Evans"), to be taken at regular and pre-determined intervals, and know that I am not allowed to stop moving - or come home - until they are all gone.  And on Sundays, know that when the gels are all gone and I can come home, then I have one session left and my day can be done.  Finally.

See, before I made the pile I did the math, counted the hours, minutes, miles, and calories.  The due diligence is done.  But the session is not and instead of over-coming the inertia of "I won't be back for 2 (or 3 or 4):xx:xx," I think "I won't be back for 3 (or 4 or 5)."

3 (or 4 or 5) what you ask?  I don't know.  They didn't teach me that in pre-school.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

My Kitchen Remodel

For the past two months, my kitchen has had an island.

Sadly it was not one of those heavy, polished butcher blocks from Ikea or Crate & Barrel.  I did have to step around - or over - it every time I moved from my stove to my sink, or basically every time I crossed to the left side of my kitchen from the right, and to shove it aside slightly every time I opened the refrigerator.  But it was not as heavy (thank goodness!) as a Crate & Barrel butcher block and significantly (!) more expensive than Ikea furniture.  And definitely NOT beige. 

It was hard, black plastic and contained...The Stallion, my trusty carbon steed.  As well as my real trophy from Ironman Cozumel:

My Post-Race "Recovery" Drink: a YARD of nasty margarita

However, as of today, my kitchen is island-free.  Now The Stallion occupies the trainer and the road bike is relegated back to commuting and roadie group rides. 

Not to worry, there has been training occurring on the trainer prior to this auspicious day of home-improvement.  But it was low season and while specificity in training is important, banging out z2 rides in December bent over in a tight, air-cheating position in the wind-less environment of my living room isn't very specific to anything.  Except maybe tearing up the under-carriage and corroding the components of my head set.

And training to spend hours folding my body like origami onto a bike isn't necessary either.  I tell people that your aero position should be comfortable, never a stretch, literally, to get into, and my bike fitter, David at Elite in Philly, agrees.  Two months of not sitting on The Stallion and it was like not a day had gone by: aero position felt natural and effortless, like my favorite lounge chair.

The good news is that The Stallion is still black.  The bad news is I think that the black is now thanks to a thick thick layer of dried nutritional product and Mexican dust.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Low Season

It's January.  Most of the Northern Hemisphere remains buried in winter and the debate rages on over which location is suffering the most.  This also means the Northern Hemisphere racing season is on-hold, at least until the ice melts off the major bodies of water, not to mention the sidewalks, and many triathletes consider themselves to be in the "off season."

Recently I was asked if I had returned to training after Ironman Cozumel, which was eight weeks ago this past Sunday.  The answer is a resounding yes, but it is a different yes than if I had been asked and answered in July.  The difference could be described as an emotional distance.

Having identified this "distance," I've come to believe there are more than the two periods of seasonal preparation: "in season" and "off season"; not just two toggle settings: "mind on/body on" and "mind off/ body off."

Welcome to the Low Season: "mind off/ body on."

Bodies used and abused year-round ultimately give out.  The chassis creaks, the suspension and struts stiffen, the oil thickens and the filter clogs, the nick on the bumper rusts, the carburetor messes up the mixture, and the radiator cap flies off, probably smacking you on the face in the process.

The off season is necessary routine body maintenance: treat and paint the bumper and flush the filter.  When the more cosmetic damage is repaired and the various caps put back in place, the body can once again be put in motion.

But then when least expected and usually most dangerous, the wiring [ppffzzts] and the dashboard blinks out.

Being emotionally "all in" is just as exhausting - and destructive - as being that invested physically.  Day after day, week after week, worrying about pacing, contemplating racing, and analyzing every last aspect of training wears down with its own unique kind of stress.  Even - and especially - triathletes who work an office job are susceptible to this insidious stress because it layers on top of everything else, like a black ice on the rest of your life.  We can only live like that a few precious months a year.

With a car, the wiring (hopefully) is simply a replaced fuse.  But what about in an athlete?

Get the work done without the analysis.  "Mind off/body on."

It's hard to describe Low Season, and even harder to actually find it's sweet spot.  We are told that Every.Single.Workout is important, the building block to the next and the next and the next and eventually the race.  All of this is remains true and the Low Season doesn't mean the freedom to skip sessions or immunity to a hard night out with the boys.  It does mean prepare for the work (eat, pack the bag), get in, get the work done, get out/recover, and move on.  Don't dwell, on how "slow" you are right now or "fast" you should be right now.  Respect the training, but don't let it rule you.  Flog yourself now and you may not have much of yourself left to flog when it truly matters.

Admittedly, my own Low Season is slowly, but surely coming to an end.   How do I know?  Why, because the gods have spoken of course.  Or because I finally unpacked my tri bike.  I'll let you decide.

Monday, January 24, 2011

BEWARE: Roving Band of A Starving Athlete

I'm in one of those stretches where I literally can not eat enough.  I know why: relatively big training load, illness, preparing for that time of the month, recovery from illness, and probably a little bit too much training for being recovering from illness.  But being able to tick off why my stomach raises such a continuous battle cry does not make it any easier to keep it full.  I get in the pool and fantasize about when I can get out and put in more food.  I finish breakfast and immediately start preparing my first snack.  The employees at the Safeway on the way home from the gym are probably quite used to a ravenous beast wearing bike clothes push through the front door and then wander the aisles in search of just the right thing - or just the thing for right now - to take the edge off.  Because that's all every meal and snack right now is, a short reprieve from growling and rumbling and a seemingly empty pit.

Ladies and Gentlemen, there's a roving band of a starving athlete afoot.  If you see a rider who resembles the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, lock your larder, padlock your pantry, and guard your groceries.  She's coming for your food and if her stomach has it's way, there will be nothing left...

Thursday, January 20, 2011

With Drugs, A Week; Without Them, 7 Days

I have so many blog posts I'm in the middle of writing - which is a commentary in itself: so many tasks left half completed, paused so that sleeping can occur A, eating can occur B so training can occur C because it is doesn't occur C then it can't also occur D... - but then this topic exploded across the sky of my world, dominating things and sucking the oxygen from the room so to speak.  So it's what you get first.

I try to live a healthy lifestyle: vitamins, minerals, balanced diet, hand-washing, extra sleep, always overdressing or simply not going outside when it's stupid cold and hurricane windy, flu shots, refraining from licking the weights at the gym, not eating the gum off the soles of my shoes...the list goes on.  [And yes, I realize the irony that I try to lead a healthy lifestyle to support an unhealthy life, which is what I sometimes think this.  Do you know how far above the weekly exercise recommendations professional athletes are?  ...A ways.]  But I can't always protect against the things I can't see, even using a microscope, and wham! SICK! 

And literally on the floor, or close to it last Saturday, when I got so dizzy when I got on the trainer that I almost fell off...of a fully supported piece of training equipment.

But that does not mean I got off.  *sigh*  [forehead hits wall]

As a coach, I always tell my athletes to be aware of how the session is going, how things are feeling, and to pull the pin (aka stop) if sudden pain, injury, or other dangerous situations arise.  But I will be the first to admit that this takes guts.  It takes courage and strength, of a different kind than what gets you to speeds where hamstrings and Achilles snap.

I am not a hero for pushing through Saturday's workout.  I'm not smart for pushing through.  I was not being gutsy.  Nor strong-willed.  Or HTFU.  Or (arguably) getting faster.  What I was was consciously operating with blinders on, hopeful that in the short-term I could bear the burden of a little more risky behavior.

If I had been willing to be fully aware of how things were feeling, I might have seen the signs of illness maybe as early as Thursday night in a few rib-shaking coughs.  I would probably have seen them Friday night during my tempo run - which was far uglier than it should have been considering how I prepared for the session.  So now it was Saturday and I'm practically weaving in traffic in my living room on the trainer and I'm determined to finish my session....because I'm a [cough] determined [hack] and dedicated [cough] tri [cough] [hack] athlete.  I was aware of how things were feeling, trust me, and I still did not pull the pin.

When did I finally pull the pin?  8 minutes into my transition long run on Sunday.  I spent a mile thinking how I was doing something I tell everyone not to do, how stupid I was being, how I could not wrap my mind around running two more hours feeling like this...  One step was a run.  The next was a walk.  It was long, cold, self-pitying way home. 

And considering how utterly bad I felt later on Sunday, I can not summon how much worse I would have felt had I finished that run.  [Shudder] 

I am often the voice of reason and soothing when one of my athletes has to bail on a session, for injury or illness.  Interestingly, my own coach had to fill that role for me.  Just like I couldn't take my own advice about pulling the pin, I couldn't take my own justification that not training myself into a bronchial infection was worth not completing a long run and nearly notching a dastardly "0" in the training log.  I absolutely knew I was doing the right thing - and had been putting off the doing the right thing - but what if I was just being *gasp* weak? 

Now I am wandering through the Hall of Mirrors known as "recovering from illness."  It's almost  as much of a maze as the House of Horrors that is "recovering from injury."  How long should I take off?...I'm getting lots of sleep so I must be rested and ready to go!...My cough is gone and my nose isn't dripping so I can start training again...oh wait, maybe it's because of the cold and cough medicine I just took...My first session after two days of sitting felt great...oh wait, normally I'm not that rested before I train...Hmm, things aren't jumping right back on the rails...maybe my body isn't quite over the on-the-floor-ness of this past weekend....

"With drugs, it takes a week to get better.  Without them, 7 days."  Or so the saying goes.  But oh ho, if I have learned anything from rereading this post, it is that I will surely try to squeeze those 7 days into fewer.

If you have learned anything from reading this post, it is do as I say, not as I do.  And do not lick the weights at the gym.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Fresh Meat

When I begin working with a new athlete I ask them to fill out a questionnaire - sport successes/failures, training excitements/anxieties, past and current training, goals, access to equipment, and "anything else you would like to tell me" - as a base from which to establish the relationship and build the first couple weeks' schedules.

Why the first couple questions?  You can learn a whole lot about an athlete and how they will respond to training, any training, simply from their responses to a few more psychologically oriented questions.  I feel the delivery method is sometimes just as important as the message delivered and when someone (i.e. me) is paying attention, it does not take much to learn each athlete's unique response paradigm.

Today I started working with a new athlete: C.O.  I am always looking for new athletes with whom to work and C.O. reminded me of some of the reasons why: the drive to seek the horizon of our personal potential, the focus of those with a clear-cut goal, and a little bit of good, ol' fashioned enthusiasm.

Case in point, C.O.'s response to the "is there anything else you would like to tell me" question was this.

Little does C.O. know my coaching philosophy does include lots of pounding on scrap metal with sledgehammers...

You think I'm joking.  It's a great sitz-pits core workout!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Day In The Life: In The House Of My Deity

For several years starting after I left for college The Support Staffers would call every Sunday and using a variety of openings, pointedly ask if I was going to church.  About three times a year - when I am visiting The Staffers - the answer is yes.  Otherwise, for the last decade - and before that, when I lived with The Staffers, before or after the church service I did attend - the answer has been I'm attending the Congregation of United Saints of [fill in the appropriate sport].

During my recent holiday in Indiana, The Staffers inquired what a normal Sunday looks like, if not church-oriented. 

Here is the first Sunday I am back in DC...

The overarching theme for today is COLD.  The Clock at the Bank in Dupont Circle said 30 degrees when I rode past at the end of the day.  That is a big, fat, warm lie, Clock at the Bank in Dupont Circle, and you know it.  Go sit in the corner, think about those running and riding in the wind, and come back when you have a more respectful answer.

7:41 AM - Whatever acts as my internal alarm goes off.  Usually this is the no-longer-avoidable feeling that I really have to go to the bathroom now, the serious downside of the constant struggle to stay appropriately hydrated.

7:59 AM - According to my microwave I left now for run #1.  Outside temp: 12.  It's double-running-jacket weather.  I have one for cold, but not so windy, and one for slightly warmer, but windy.  Pulling out both is...saved for special and painful occasions.

8:49 AM - Microwave reports that I have returned.  After sessions there are just so many things to be completed semi-immediately - change, stretch, eat, drink, shower, sit down and recover - and since I have never have enough limbs to do them all simultaneously, I usually feel like I am attempting a Chinese fire drill.  In this case, under-caffeinated with swollen fingers and snot frozen on my face. 

8:50 - 10:30 AM - Chinese fire drilling.  From spandex to sweats - and warmth - ASAP.  Stretch while I "cook" oatmeal, coffee, and water.  I pass up my first opportunity in the day to shower; there will be others, trust me.  Sit and eat and email, with TV on in the background, and set up bike for next session.

10:30 - 11:00 AM - Ride, not surprisingly inside.  In retrospect, this may be the warmest I am all day until I crawl back into bed tonight.

11:00 - 11:24 AM - More "cooking" in the form of a smoothie and eggs with salsa.  What I lack in cooking skills I more than make up for in eating skills: everything is gone before I move away from the kitchen counter.  Rinse off - still not a real shower - in the shower and sweats back on. 

11:25 - 12:43 PM - More sitting and emailing.  I start writing this blog (how meta is that?).

12:43-12:58 PM - I pack up for the gym and "cook" even more smoothies, this time with yogurt and bananas and without strawberries and chocolate protein powder.  Yeah, I know, I'm crazy like that sometimes.

12:58 - 1:12 PM - I ride to the gym.  I wear six layers on the top and two on the bottom.  Have you ever seen the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man ride a bike?  Well, you missed your chance today in NW DC.

1:12 - 1:21 PM - Prepare for run #2 with a gel, debating to the last moment whether to do it inside or out.  It's COLD.  I did my hill workout last week on the treadmill and it went great.  I've done all of my second runs on double run days on the treadmill.  I have lots of upcoming runs that will need to be done on the treadmill. 

1:21 - 2:42 PM - Well bundled - jacket count: 1.5 since I ditched one for a vest - I head to, and hit, the trails west of Georgetown, searching out the hills I need.

2:52 - 3:26PM - More Chinese fire drill and smoothie drinking.  I am not ashamed to say I hid out in a hot shower for a good 10 minutes, using no soap, and then decamped to the sauna to stretch and change.  At the peak I was occupying - and hanging wet clothes on the doors of - four lockers.  Next time I'll just bring some home appliances and a cot.

3:26 - 4:26 PM - Strength - and last - session of the day. 

4:26 PM - The sweaty part of my day is over.  My prize: an orange and a yogurt.

4:26 - 4:51 PM - Layer up and head home.

4:51 - 6:24 PM - I sit down and simply do not move.  Full disclosure: I may have said a few prayers asking for a Diet Coke, some peanut M&Ms, and the ability to walk tomorrow.

6:25 - 7:10 PM - How I put this delicately?  I smell.  Most of the clothes I wore today smell.  I set about the business of undoing the destruction of the day, to my body, to my wardrobe...to my apartment. A REAL shower, like with soap, a few snacks, some stretching and self-massage, clean-ish sweats, and despite wanting a pizza or something fried for dinner, start lentils and chicken.  Let's not confuse this with cooking, ok?

7:10 - 8:03 PM - Food is ready.  Eat food.  Another food is ready.  Eat another food.  See, I don't sit down and eat a complete meal.  I want food now, well actually I want it five minutes ago, so when one part of the meal is ready, it disappears.  Between starting, finishing, and eating mini-meals I field emails from some of my athletes and The Staffers and work on finishing up a project.

8:03 - 8:04 PM - Chicken is ready.  Chicken is gone.  Chicken wasn't half bad.

8:05 - 9:03 PM - With stomach finally sated, actually focus on and finish project for my athlete.  Send.

9:03 - 9:28 PM - Finish this post and pack up for tomorrow.  To bed for a 6 AM external alarm so I can get to PT by 7 AM.  

So that's the story: multiple offerings on the alter of sweat, stretching, and smoothies, my deity or false idol or whatever you want to call it.  I have faith that these sacrifices are worth it, in the long run, and I make sure to pray extra hard when I get the chance to join an actual congregation.  Until I find a church with a trainer or treadmill in the back, you can find me among the Congregation of the United Saints of SBR.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Some Days

Some say the world will end in fire.
Some say in ice.  [Frost]

This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
Not with a bang but a whimper. [Eliot]

And some days end with me sitting, dripping wet and naked, on a bench in a run-down community-center pool's locker room calmly, but ever so efficiently, inhaling a Potbelly's sandwich.

There is a meaningful difference between having enough calories in your system to hit your sessions and prevent a bonk, and having enough substance in your system to prevent a growling stomach.  Each day I keep one-and-a-half eyes on the former interest and only half-an-eye on the later one, and even then with respect to what not to put in the garbage disposal, so to speak.  No solid food 2.5 hours before a run, no dairy until after the last run of the day, as little gluten as possible before any high heart rate work, as much time as possible between consumption of fiber and high heart rate work, yadda yadda yadda...mostly because I like the tops of my shoes to be free of vomit and my stomach absent of pain.

This afternoon, with three sessions in four hours, including transit and changing, I could consume only purely liquid and gel-based calories.  I can consume only so many gels until my body says NO MAS!, especially if I am mixing my citrus.  It was time for real food, stat, or else my arm was in danger of gnaw marks.

But today also ended with a bit of fire and ice.  My sandwich had jalapenos on it, the oil from which of course got on my hands so when I applied lotion there was a bit of a tingle.  Naturally flavored IcyHot.

Monday, January 3, 2011

I! U!

The Support Staffers and I celebrated the arrival of 2011 by attending an Indiana University Hoosier basketball game, versus the Ohio State Buckeyes.  It was just about all the New Years Eve partying we needed.  A Big Ten, err 12-ish, sporting event is one level of beer consumption, body painting, and tailgating.  A Big Ten sporting event when that event is a basketball game in Indiana is a whole other level of fanaticism...I mean dedication...well, sometimes it's a thin line.

An example to better make my point: the day after Redskins games, men in DC stand around saying things like "I really wish Shanahan had chosen the option package on that second third down of that first drive in the third quarter.  You know the one I mean.  The one where McNabb flubbed his drop step slightly."  The day after Hoosiers games, they say things like "Odi must have stubbed the middle finger of his right hand because his free-throw shooting was more off than usual.  The stress must be getting to Tom, I could see he's had to let out his suit belt a notch.  The team really needs to work on the dribble drive defense and the move on the pass, not the catch anticipation.  It's handing the other team 22% from the field, on average."  In Indiana these things are whispered in church.  During the sermon.  By 70-year-old women. 

I wish I could record the rise of irreverent cries and impassioned boos and hisses that instantaneously follows an aggrieved foul so that I could play it back after an aggrieved foul of my own.  Imagine it: [Age group male drafts off me then sling-shots past me.] "Bo-Hiss-ooo!Hiss!Hi-Boo-ss!Bo-ss-o!" [The age group male is hit by little drops of spittle spraying from the recorded fans' mouths as they shoot out of their seats, frantically gesticulating first toward the ref and then at the antagonist, imitating his irresponsible behavior, and then back at the ref, showing him just what he can do with his attempt to blame an innocent triathlete.]  Triathlon refs would be no match for invested Hoosier fans. 

Anyway, we had a good time and IU lost by only 18 points to the current #2 - and only undefeated - college basketball team in the country.  Going in we were pretty much assured not to break that streak, unless we cashed in all of the Santa's Wish Lists for Christmas 2011 before 2011 had even started.  Instead I decided to do a little anthropological research study of Big Ten/Hoosier basketball as it compares to triathlon.  Here goes...

Big Ten/Hoosiers arrive to a lit court where team employees shag their balls and stretch their legs.  Also, there is a lit sign bigger than my house counting down to tip-off.


We arrive to a barely lit, eh we shall graciously call it a park.  Toilet paper in the port-a-johns in a luxury.  And getting to the start line before the gun goes off is your responsibility.


Big Ten/Hoosiers get a laser show to introduce the starting line-up, but only after a video montage of iconic Indiana Hoosier basketball moments.  [Side Note: Any mention of Bobby Knight gets rousing applause.  Tiger Woods, there is hope for you yet.]


We top out at this.


Big Ten/Hoosier tip off.


IM Louisville 2010 tip off.  Seriously, I'm down there somewhere swimming.


Big Ten/Hoosiers break approximately every 2-4 minutes for 30-60 secs - "TV time outs" - during which good looking females in tight, short dresses and strapping men in gym clothes dance for the entertainment of the spectators, and probably the competitors too.


We get a "see you in 10 hours, we'll be at the bar, good bye" kiss.  And we're the ones wearing tight clothing.  TV time-out?  Is that like when they stop filming the race while the leader uses the port-a-john?


Big Ten/Hoosiers get big flags and human pyramids.



Ok, we get flags, finish arches, and the occasional sand castle (one race in Florida).  But I got nuthin' for human pyramids.


Big Ten/Hoosiers get large cardboard cut-out faces to distract them in moments of great concentration - and sometimes embarrassment.


We get this to look at in transition.  Imagine how much I would enjoy looking up while putting on my running shoes and seeing Borat, Justin Bieber, or Dumbledore.  Especially Justin Bieber...NOT!!  [Side Note: My mother actually knows who Justin Bieber is.  Her response when I squeaked in surprise, "Of course I know who Justin Bieber is, I read the internet."  Loyal readers, there is either something utterly wrong with this or utterly cool about this, though I haven't decided which yet.]



And I will not even go into the band.  I love all the little ditties and call-and-responses and associated arm movements and fist pumps.  But for triathlon, a boom-box blasting out some AC/DC on the run course would be just fine with me, just fine.

It just goes to show you that legitimate sport can occur anywhere, under any circumstances.   Many of these players probably - and Odi definitely - honed their skills on one-hoop courts and in high-school gyms from the Hoosiers era, long after the Hoosiers era was over.  We do not require laser shows.  We require no dancing hotties, aside from our family.  As many swim starts have proven, we barely require light.  We require some advance notice, a kit, some goggles, a pair of running shoes, and a bike.  And come to think of it, I might just start requiring a human pyramid.
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