So, How Many Hats Do You Wear?

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Pensacola, Florida, United States
Husband. *Dog Dad.* Instructional Systems Specialist. Runner. (Swim-challenged) Triathlete (on hiatus). USATF LDR Surveyor. USAT (Elite Rules) CRO/2, NTO/1. RRCA Rep., FL (North). Observer Of The Human Condition.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Enjoying The Journey

Athletic events, like life in general, are loaded with surprises. You save, you prepare, you get counsel and advice for every imaginable contingency, and boom shaka-laka (as my wife would say), something else pops up that you certainly did not expect. A water temperature that's much colder than you (or your wetsuit) can handle. A swim distance that's 200 yards longer, or rougher, than you initially suspected for the conditions. Shifting winds. One more flat tire than the number of tubes/inflator cartridges you are carrying.
I guess that's what makes sport - I used factors germane to triathlon, but running has it's own share of possible impossibles, such as floppy shoelaces, blisters, the severe need for a porta-john while the race is being contested, and so on, and so on - so much fun. You train, you plan your races, get your gear set up and tightened up to within an inch of its life...and life (for those of you who know John Lennon's music, I won't go further) happens.
I had my moment of 'oh, my God, if I am swimming like this, how in heaven's name will I get through a swim three times the distance in three weeks?' the other weekend. However, once I got on the bike and past the first 2500 yards of the ride - about the time it takes me to realize I'm back on terra firma (and as they might say in Boston, 'the more firma the less terra') - I begin to relax and know my body and my training wouldn't necessarily let me down.
Sure, I'm a terrible swimmer. But I found I was doing much better than many of my contemporaries in the wave. I was the one pointing out dangerous situations to the rescue swimmers as I breast-stroked by. I began, at that moment on the bike, to enjoy the journey I was taking.
It's something I didn't do last autumn as I trained for the marathon. I was so focused and fixated on that elusive goal of running in Boston in 2008 or 2009 I hadn't tapped into my own well (figuratively) to check whether my source was clear and sweet or brackish. Only in late November had I realized I was drinking from a poisoned well, so to speak. By that time it was beyond too late to fix the damage.
One of my athletes has finished two Ironman-distance triathlons and is presently training for a third. He's meticulous in his planning and his training. His employment, fortunately, allows him a great degree of flexibility in scheduling workouts. He's blessed with a wife who also is smart and athletic, so he has no lack of training partners. We talk on Friday evenings over beer and dinner, sometimes about travel, sometimes about sport, and sometimes we just talk. He reminded me, as I began to lay out my training plan for this spring, to enjoy the journey. It sounds like some sort of cop-out, especially to a guy who is used to picking up hardware at local and regional races if he's in physical and mental shape for racing. But when it comes to endurance events and multisport endurance events, if you're not an elite, the odds are very good you're going out to prove something to yourself. In the grand scheme of things, a 17-hour Ironman-distance triathlon experience is a droplet of spittle in the pool when compared to the nine months or more you'll spend training. Same thing for most marathon plans. An 18-week training build-up will probably total 800-1000 miles, all for a single-day's effort of 26.2.That is a lot of time for things to go right, or to go wrong. You can make it drudgery or fun. It's your choice. Odds are good the fun factor isn't going to adversely affect the outcome, so you might as well do what it takes to make the training fun. Don't judge the success or failure of the training necessarily by the outcome on race day, either. If you do that odds are plenty high you're going to be sorely disappointed.
But I bet if you look at some of the objective stuff on the way from the beginning of training to the race day, you're going to find you're tougher, stronger, faster, fitter, maybe even smarter about your body than you were before it all.
And being smarter about your own body will make you focus and appreciate what you can do more than focus on and kvetch about what you cannot.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Strengths And Weaknesses

It's a nice day today; sunshine, blue waters, a little breeze here and there. Vicious rumor has it the weather won't be so nice over the weekend. That's all right. I'll settle for something close to nice, considering the alternative. I could be working. Worse yet, I could be unemployed and looking for a j-o-b. That's right: As the song in the end of the Monty Python movie, Life of Brian goes, '...always look at the bright side of life.'
I haven't touched my bike (save for putting on and taking off my race wheels) at all this week; no spinning class and no ride since Sunday morning. I'm not that concerned about the bike, because right now it's probably the most confident discipline I have. I'll need to have a decent swim and a strong run in order to have a better finish than last year. It would be nice to finish a little higher in the age group, but if I finish with a better time than last year and don't score any hardware, that's all right, too. My goal is to put all three disciplines together without looking stoopid.
One of the uber-gods of triathlon/coaching/mental and spiritual aspects of athletics, Mark Allen, wrote a really neat piece for this week's on-line version of Triathlete magazine, talking about how to fix your weakest link in the sport. The biggest thing I take away is to, as he said, work on your weaknesses to make them strengths. If you can take your race, regardless of the distance, and work it backwards to the beginning, you will probably find where things begin to go awry. At that particular point is where you can find the weaknesses in your own training.
I've talked about some of this before. Often we train our strengths and try to overcompensate so our weaknesses don't (we hope!) show on race day. If you (like me) tend to peter out in the latter stages of a 10-K run, it might mean looking at more 20-to-30-minute tempo runs. Other folks may go out too quickly in the first half mile of a 5-K, and that's all she wrote during the remaining 2.6 miles of the race. Some 500-to-1000-meter repeats at a consistent, sustainable pace, with brief rest intervals might do the trick. Lack that acceleration to get away from a pack in the middle of the race, or you're not able to kick at the end? How about some acceleration drills of 150-to-350 meters?
One area that can't be trained on the road or the track, or the gym, or the pool, is that gray area between our ears. Some coaches are great at tapping into the mind of the individual athlete, making them believe they are capable of great things. Others like to use tools like (as Mark Wetmore was quoted...) "ridicule and sarcasm..." to influence the athlete to think, 'well, I'll prove that blankety-blank wrong by succeeding where they think I can't.'
It takes honesty on both the athlete and the coach to look at a performance and ask the question, 'okay, where did things go wrong?' Not that every performance needs to be picked apart with a fine-toothed comb; some days nearly everything goes right and you say 'cool, I think we're on the right track.' However, more often than not we can find something to work on if we look hard enough.
Just make certain to enjoy yourself; there's plenty of folks who can't get out to do what many of us are blessed with by opportunity or physical ability. As for me, my thoughts will be with my sister this weekend, especially as I try to turn the scenery along the southern Alabama coast into a blur on my triathlon bike.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Mini-Taper and Some Cool Thoughts For Today

First of all, I am SO glad my wife is back from her two weeks on the road. While I am functional when she is out doing all the cool stuff her business demands of her in order to thrive, survive and all that, it's not all that fun. I'm good for a window of 12-to-36 hours, after that it's pretty bad. I felt, most of the time, like someone (or thing) had beaten the daylights out of me with a rubber stick (under-recovered), even with multivitamin supplementation and whatever extra rest (sleep) I could snatch. Even taking an easy week of training (which I schedule) at the end of the month didn't seem to do the trick.
However, I think I figured it out the other day, after Chinese food at lunch and salad with chicken and strawberry slices at dinner. Because I'm less likely to cook or eat good food while she was out, I wasn't getting either the right stuff or the right amount of stuff to refuel my body. Contrary to popular belief, the furnace may burn whatever you put in it, but it might not burn as well or as long.
So, this week is basically what I would call a "kinda-taper" to prepare for this weekend's triathlon. The goal is to relax and let the body store up energy, but not to get too lazy. Since I did a bike ride yesterday (nearly twice the distance I'll ride this weekend) at about 55 percent of my maximum effort I won't do much else outside of cleaning and tweaking the bike. I'll swim one morning workout and do one race-distance (~600 yards) time trial over the next couple of days; my running will consist of an easy-paced one-hour run tonight, and a four-mile run at high 6:00-to-low 7:00/mile pace - the tempo I'll probably run this weekend.
I haven't taken the time to look at the water temperature for the Gulf of Mexico this weekend, though. I suspect the water is going to be cool if not chilly. However, a ~600 yard swim is not going to merit using a wetsuit. I think if the distance was anything over 800 yards I would consider it.
My old friend Chuckie V wrote on his blog some really neat thoughts about training he picked up from three-time Ironman world champion Peter Reid, at their advanced camp. My take-away from Reid's teaching at Solvang are:
1. Don't mask your fatigue with drugs. Caffeine in particular...but this can also be other stuff (adult beverages, for example). I like coffee, particularly for it's warming effect first thing in the morning. But there have been occasions where I've had my cup and crawled back into bed for a little more sleep instead of trying to slog through my morning workout. Fatigue in one area leads to (over-)compensation in another, which leads to injury.
2. Efficiency outweighs raw speed. While a single 71-second 400 meters on the track is fairly sprightly, it's another thing all together to tie four together into a 4:50 mile...or 12 and a half of them into a 14:50 5K. There's speed in the short, short term and there's speed over distance, a function of efficient, comfortable running.
3. Long runs are underrated. Even short distance racing improves from aerobic fitness.
4. Race day starts long before the starting gun is fired. A single mis-step on eating, drinking, clothing items, the drive, the porta- and warm-up can mess up an entire day.
5. Patience. No race was ever won at the first 100 yards, but plenty of races have been lost there.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Ask the Coach - April 8, 2008

Summer is almost here and it's going to be hot. All of us know to drink more fluids and avoid running in the heat of the day. How should the heat effect our mix of intervals and long runs?
I don't presume every runner knows to drink more fluids; more importantly than this, what fluids to drink. While your kidneys are good at controlling the amount of electrolytes passed in urine, your sweat glands are going to push out electrolytes as well as fluid as part of thermoregulation. This means plain water will do you fine while you're at the workplace, if you have a job where most of your day is spent at the desk. However, plain water can be a little, er, boring to the palate; you're not going to drink what doesn't suit your taste. Sports drinks, such as Gatorade, Powerade, Propel, and so on, are good at making certain you have sufficient hydration; the down side of these drinks are that they have a great deal of high fructose corn syrup, a cheap sweetener, and not so much in sodium, potassium, chloride and other electrolytes, which are the things you need most to be replacing.
Oh, contrary to popular belief, the carbohydrates in most beer are countered by the toxicity of the ethanol. Your liver has to work to process the alcohol and remove it from your system before it can assimilate any carbs. Since alcohol can only be passed through the system by urination, sweat or respiration, like that of caffeine, you'll lose more fluid by drinking alcohol or caffeinated beverages (iced tea, iced coffee, energy drinks) than you would sugary drinks, which take longer to pass through the gut.
You can run during the daytime, but understand that the fluid you lose through cooling your body (sweat) is taken from your blood circulating through your capillaries; that's why you'll see folks looking quite red on a hot day when they've been active. The water loss from your blood as part of the cooling process makes the blood thicker and more difficult for the heart to pump through the circulatory system. Think of it like trying to suck honey through a thin straw, compared to sucking water through the same; it's much harder. Since the blood flows slower through the vessels, it takes more pumps of the heart to move it the same distance it would travel with full fluid volume...oh, did I mention the fact your blood is going to the areas of the body needed most at exercise? That means your leg muscles are probably getting the most blood sent to it, next to the brain. That's a long way to go.
So, hotter and more humid conditions of summertime running mean your perceived effort at a particular pace is going to increase. That's bad news. The good news is there aren't many "important" summer races here. The best thing you can do is continue to run through the year, listen to what your body is telling you, and adjust your effort accordingly. As for track workouts and long runs, I suggest finding a sports drink that replaces the minerals and electrolytes you lose through sweat, and keeping a bottle or two available. You can stash bottles on a long run or get your favorite drink at the local convenience store if carrying a bottle is too much of a problem. If those don't work, then adjust your workout times to take advantage of conditions, or run at places where there are water fountains.Swimming or biking may be a good way to get some exercise this summer since it will be so hot. What's the best mix of swimming, biking and running?
Swimming and bicycling are great cross-training, I like them a great deal because of the reduced impact to the musculoskeletal system. The best blend of cross-training activities depends on your fitness level and amount of time you have available to ride or swim. Borrowing the old phrase "the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing," there is a limited degree of transfer between swimming, bicycling and running; you need to run if you want to be a good runner. If you bicycle, make certain you wear a CPSC or ANSI-approved bicycle helmet, follow *all* the rules of the road, and (please!) refrain from wearing headphones *in your ears* (there are devices that will allow you to listen to music in your helmet AND hear surrounding traffic).I may want to run a marathon this fall. Is it too early to start training this summer?
Good for you. A marathon will teach you a great deal about yourself; your perceived limitations, strengths and weaknesses. Training for a marathon, especially a first marathon, takes at least 18, and up to 26 weeks, depending on fitness level and goal. If your plan is to do LaSalle Bank Chicago Marathon, around the first week of October, this would be the time to begin marathon training. Before you mention heat as an obstacle, let me remind you of a painfully obvious fact: Chicago in the first week of October can range in temperature from the high 80s (last year) to the high 30s (about five years ago). You never know what conditions are going to be like on the day. There are good training plans available, several of which have been used by ECRT athletes to run personal best times and qualify for Boston. The biggest challenge is not so much choosing a training plan, but to follow it through and make certain you toe the line on the day as healthy as possible. A personal note: Running a marathon while injured is not a good idea.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Entering The Swamp

Two weeks out from my first triathlon of the spring season, and the first triathlon ever for my buddy Scott, I decided to ask last night what equipment he had together for the tri. He's not blissfully ignorant of the equipment triathlon demands of its participants, but it seems he hopes to get through it with as low an expense as possible.
Our discussion went from informative to almost a debate, as his (well-meaning) girlfriend added her opinions to the mix. My consigliere and I, who have participated in a number of multisport events, remained adamant on this point at the end of the discussion: While there are some pieces of equipment that are absolute, there are other items that make doing all three disciplines a lot more comfortable.
I found an article from the Beginner Triathlete web site that went in a little more detail than I would have, and missed a very serious piece of mandatory equipment - the helmet - but provided some of the source material from which I have borrowed. Thanks to Javier Gomez for writing the source material from which I will shamelessly rip-off:
What do you need to start in triathlon?
First you need to determine what type of triathlete you really are or want to be. The age-group triathlete (amateur) can be divided broadly into two types of athletes: non-competitive and competitive. This is really determined by what your goals are for doing a triathlon. Are you doing this for the fun of it? To get in shape? For the adventure? Then you probably fall into the non-competitive type. If you are doing triathlon for all of the above but also have a very competitive personality, who likes to see yourself on the podium often, then you are the competitive type.
To get ahead in racing, the equipment you use really does make a difference. However, if you are a non-competitive type you can pretty much ignore most of the advertising material in a triathlon magazine, (I like to call it tri-geek porn) such as Triathlete, Inside Triathlon, 220, and so forth.
So what do you really need? I will go through the different skills involved in triathlon and list what I feel you need to start.
Most folks find the swim the hardest, not because it is more physically difficult, but because it is the most unnatural for land-dwelling animals. It also is the most dangerous part, due to the very real possibility of drowning.
If you are non-competitive, all the equipment you will need is a good pair of goggles and a bathing suit. A wetsuit is not required, but it helps in dealing with cold water and aids buoyancy, making the swim a little easier. You may want to get triathlon-specific shorts. These have a thin padding so you can hop on your bike after the swim and saves time spent changing to cycling clothes.
The non-competitive type can use ANY bike they want. However, try to get a bike which suits the distance. A fitness bike (road bike with an upright cross bar instead of racing handle bar generally seen on road bikes) will work fine; mountain bikes also work if you switch the tires to ones made for road riding. Entry level road bikes can be obtained for a few hundred dollars. You may want to borrow a bike from a friend and try it out first before taking the (often-expensive) plunge. If you do like triathlon, you may want to invest a little more; the higher-end-priced bikes are really better equipment. A few hundred dollars more in cost can greatly improve your bike selection. Lighter bikes and/or bikes with tri-specific geometry can run from a bit over a thousand dollars all the way up to the price of an entry level car (however, lighter doesn't always mean faster - the bike is only as good as the engine powering it).
There are three pedal types: basic pedals, cages (or clips), and clipless. The basic pedal is the platform you push down on with your foot; functional, but not very efficient. The cages are basic pedals with a cage-like structure that keeps the foot from sliding forward off the pedal. This allows you to put more force on the pedal without fear of your foot sliding off. You can also put force on the pedal through more of the pedal cycle. The clipless is the most efficient type of pedal, and allows you to use your energy and force on the whole complete cycle of the pedal stroke.
Make sure your bike is the correct size for you, and properly fit to save you from wasting energy or injuring yourself.
Training for a triathlon is more demanding, a good running shoe will help prevent injuries. (Note: Javier went into excruciating detail here, but since most runners wouldn't make the same mistakes he did I'll pass on his commentary.)

Some things Javier missed I consider of utmost importance:
Helmets are mandatory in triathlon. Price doesn't matter, only the fact the helmet is approved by the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) or the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). Here, again, price can be an issue. If you feel your brain is worth $35, then buy a $35 helmet. However, a $35 helmet is better than no helmet.
Even the shortest distance triathlons will have you moving for at least a solid hour, so hydration during the bike and run (outside of established aid stations) will make the difference between a trip to the hospital and sitting on a bench quaffing your beverage of choice after the event. Make certain you can carry at least one 18-ounce water bottle on your bike, either in a frame cage or a seat-mounted cage. Some participants have taken to use Camelbak hydration systems which are worn like a small rucksack or fanny pack. These are also good, too.
Two types of straps fall into the realm of optional but highly recommended: The ankle strap for the timing chip, and the waist-cinched number belt. While your race number is inked on your arms and legs, your bike, and your helmet, the race number can get in the way while riding (if you are wearing it in the front) also makes it harder for race referees to know who you are if they approach from behind to enforce drafting rules. I use the ankle strap and number belt for road racing now, which saves the unlacing or unpinning hassle at races.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Another Year on the Job

...okay, so there are worse jobs. Actually, I saw something posted on the work area of one of the training division's officers that made my job seem pretty good in comparison. While not one of those Discovery Channel, Mike Rowe Dirty Jobs, definitely food for thought: I guess every one of Johnson & Johnson's rectal thermometers are tested and inspected to determine they are of the highest quality. How would you like to be the person who works in rectal thermometer quality control? Oh, I heard this song and dance before...and so have many coaches. Didn't Jack Daniels call these kind of athletes coach frustrators? Actually, I'm blessed to have motivated athletes - most of them are exceeding my expectations, almost all of the rest are meeting them.
I think everyone has at least one or two athletes who prefer not to (or choose not to) tap into those deep wells of desire, and there's only so much a coach can do for them. With those athletes, it's maintenance of the fun factor that's most important. They don't really want leadership, just a lack of bother. Today marks my fourth anniversary as a married man, and the beginning of my third year as a coach. Yep, that means the warranties on both counts have expired and I can't be returned to the manufacturer for replacement.
Both have been learning experiences. Both have humbled me and shown me (regularly) the limits of my knowledge, my patience...and the worth of continuous improvement. So, thank you, Suzanne, for not deciding to trade me in on two twenty-something guys. Thank you, ECRT, for not (as a whole) resorting to on-line coaching. This always happens to me, especially on the weekend. After a while a guy can get a little cranky about any phone call. I had a couple of beer mile participants comment about my flat affect on the phone, to which I responded, 'well, if you had as many (stoopid) phone calls as I've had, you would have a flat affect, too.' I always thought (otherwise rational) adults were capable of reading instructions and following directions. I've learned otherwise in the past year. However, I keep holding out hope...maybe they will once I do. Gee, you think? Last month of training and racing for the locals before the weather gets too awful...and they go into the Florida version of hibernation: Tuesday night music on the beach, Thursday night music downtown, Saturday or Sunday out on the water in the boat (for those who have boats). Since most of my folks are training with an eye toward a couple of triathlons in May/June, we've decided to not field a team in the local major race here. I haven't heard much disappointment, either...some of the group will run with other teams (and have in the past), others will probably run independent (or not at all). As for me, I won't be around to see the action. I get to go to Cincinnati. Sometimes I think the national organization decides to switch between cool cities and not-so-cool cities (in my humble opinion) for their national convention. My first convention was in New Orleans - cool city. The first convention I was slated to go to as a rep...Houston - not-so-cool city. First convention as a rep, Chicago - cool city. I hope, sincerely, that Cincinnati is a better city than I suspect. Come on, I like gumbo...deep dish (Chicago-style!) pizza...but I can't seem to get my stomach to jones for Skyline Chili. Oh, next year is in San Francisco, a city I've only been to in utero. That's going to be an expensive endeavor, but well worth the visit. I've got some running friends there who are dying to get together.
I might even get the missus to take a week for that one.