Monday, October 29, 2012

Gotta be slow to be fast the right measure (with apologies to Nick Lowe).

I am tapering for the Pensacola Marathon on November 11, and as always, I am stressing about whether I will be able to meet, or even come close to, any of my goals, which, of course, are all based on time. I want to, at least, run faster than last year's Rocket City Marathon (4:20), and I would be over the moon if I could beat my 2005 Richmond Marathon time (4:10).

But my training of late has been heart rate based, which always makes me not only feel slow, but also convinces me that I have forgotten how to be "fast" ("fast" being a relative term).

Heart rate training begins with a test. It's no wonder I hate it from the beginning. I hate tests. I have taken these "tests" a few times over the years. This time, it was a "step" test. On paper, it doesn't look so bad. 

  • Step 1: go to a track, warmup really, really, really slowly. 
  • Step 2: run 800 #1 at a heart rate that is barely perceptible. At the end, record the time it took to run the 800 and the RPE. This first 800 required me to walk, stop, take a nap, and took a few hours to complete. 
  • Step 3: run 800 #s 2 through 8 at progressively higher heart rates, trying to achieve max heart rate on the final one (estimated max based on history...races, etc.). 800 #2 was a wee bit faster and more active than #1. Numbers 3, 4, and even 5 were not too bad. I started to feel as if I was running and as if it was something natural to do. Then came the final 3. Apparently, I peaked on #6. After that, my heart rate barely budged, yet I felt like I was running so hard I might fall down. By #8, my average heart rate was actually lower than #7, but I finished slightly faster and was wheezing so hard it took me a long time to get my breath back enough to write down the results. 
  • Step 4: Transcribe results to table and send off to coach.
  • Step 5: "Voila," new heart rate training zones.
For some strange reason, I was feeling confident that my updated zones would make running "easier" because, well, I had "grown" into my heart rate. Yeah. That's the scientific approach. It appears, however, that my version of "science" doesn't fit with the real, hard data. New heart rate zones look something like this:

  • Zone Recovery (ZR) - Get out of bed. Make a cup of coffee.
  • Zone 1 - Walk the dog.
  • Zone 2 - Run a little bit, but make sure to take walking breaks to get the rapidly rising heart rate back down where it's supposed to be.
  • Zone 3 - Run all day.
  • Zone 4 - Race.
  • Zone 5 - Blow up.

Debi has been patiently listening to me whine and complain about heart rate training ever since I first started using heart rate 5 years ago (per her direction, but, heck, that's why I hired a coach--to direct me). I recently came across a March 2007 log entry that read, "Okay. Really. The HRM just sucks." 

But, here's the thing. It works. I know it works. If nothing else, the results of the other athletes Debi coaches are proof that it works (because I am fairly certain she is using the same training approach with them as she is with me). Most of them have experienced significant improvements in their training and racing. Even if you compare my 2007 heart race/pace with my current heart rate/pace, it is obvious that I am running quite a bit faster at lower heart rates now than I was then. In fact, I have this sneaking suspicion that all of the 11 minute/mile and 12 minute/mile pace groups I led for the Fleet Feet marathon training program a couple of years ago have had a major impact on my more recent PR race times. And I have to confess, I told many of those participants (as well as other running/tri friends) that it's okay, and it's even very good, to run slow most of the time.

On the other hand, it's so darn frustrating. I allow myself to get sucked into staring endlessly at the readout on my Garmin, freaking out when I see the number go 1 beat above the prescribed zone or lamenting my overall sluggish pace. None of my friends is really interested in working out with me because most of my workouts are "too slow." Sometimes, it's as if the data is whispering to me, "you're doing it all wrong."

For now, I am sticking it out. The new heart rate zones are recent. We set them up only a few weeks ago. So, I have had to work on the adjustment while trying to simultaneously recover from a half ironman in September and train for a marathon in November. The only goal that matters at this point is getting through the training and to the finish line in one piece, uninjured, and relatively happy. 

That doesn't stop me from grumbling, though.

"Baby, you've gotta be slow to be fast."

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


When you ask me how I am doing, and I tell you "I am fine," I am lying. Two years, 2 months, and 3 days ago, Richard died, and I haven't been "fine" since.

I am the one person who is always supposed to be "fine." I am the eldest child. I have moxie, practicality, and resolve. "Karen will be okay." "She is so strong."

I have none of those things, and I am not okay; nor am I strong.

Every single day takes every single bit of willpower to get out of bed. And then to stay out of it. Sleep is my refuge. In a dreamless sleep there is nothing, and, for now, I am kind of a fan of nothing.

I cannot say why we never had a family. It's not as if we didn't consider it; it just wasn't something that worked out for us. We were our family. The 2 of us. And we were content with that. But, now, there is only 1. I belong to nobody and nobody belongs to me. I am achingly lonely.

"She acquires momentum as she advances." (Virgil)

Momentum gets me through each day. I run because it is momentum. 

In the span since "after," I have added approximately 15 miles per month to my running totals. I have to keep running. When I run, I do the laundry, go to the grocery store, play with KC, clean the house, make dinner. Then, and only then, do I allow myself the luxury of stopping to read, watch TV, or take a nap, because, once I stop, I am done.

"A body in motion tends to stay in motion." (Current ad for a popular arthritis drug)

It has been 795 long and excruciating days. I am not fine, but I am an optimist. So, I believe that one day I will reclaim some sort of joi de vivre; until then: p = m * v 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Accidental Runner

I have come to enjoy the triathlon lifestyle in the 10 or so years I have been involved, but, at the end of the day (and, coincidentally, at the end of the race), I am a runner. 

Just as I became a triathlete by accident (I never thought I would combine 3 sports, especially cycling, and I couldn't even imagine doing an Ironman...I thought that was downright nuts), I am an accidental runner.

I will blame it on my dad. He was the runner. He and his brother. They did crazy things like marathons and trail runs and 10k races...whatever those were. I rode horses. That was about it. One day, though, he signed me up to run a 1-mile race at an elementary school field day/track meet event. And then he coached me to run that 1-mile race. It was one of those things in life I will never forget. I was 12. The boys and the girls all ran together. Someone said, "go!" and it was a mad dash as if the race were only 100 yards rather than 4 times around the track. My dad said, "go slow"; so, I went slow and, before long, I was at the complete back of the group. Unhappy and grumpy. But he was right. Somewhere around lap 3, I began to pass people. By the last lap, I had passed everyone, except 2 other girls. That's right. My 12-year-old, bad-ass self had passed all the obnoxious, disgusting, cootie-filled boys. In the end, I was 2nd in that race, and I was officially a "runner."

That was a very, very, very long time ago. I wasn't always consistent, but I was officially and forever "a runner." I ran cross-country in high school and walked onto my cross-country team in college (I was the slowest person on the team...I think I run faster now than I did then...we were not known for our athletics). I ran my first marathon in 1985. I got a job, got married, got sick, didn't run very much. Then, started the cycle all over again. Ran a couple more marathons, local races, discovered trail running, worked mega hours, stopped again, started again, got sick again, started all over again.

But no matter what, I was always a runner and no matter where I was, I could always run. It was easy. Put on my shoes. Step out the door. Go.

Usually about August/September, I get tired of swimming and biking and measuring and calculating and logging and analyzing. I can't wait for the triathlon season to be over, so I can put up the goggles, pull buoy, paddles, bike shoes, and helmet and just put on my running shoes, step out the door, and go.

Running is my sanity. It gives me 30 minutes or a few hours of simply moving forward, breathing, and letting my mind wander. Nothing gets done. There are no light bulbs or moments of enlightenment. I just exist in the moment.

Yesterday, I ran through the streets of Orlando, Florida. Going wherever the sidewalk led me. Out, back, and around. It was easy. It was simple. Just a pair of shoes, out the door, and I went.

Friday, October 5, 2012

2012...the year I qualified

Up until about 2 years ago, I was content to be a mid-/back-of-the-pack, somewhat underachieving triathlete. The occasional age group award was nice, but never expected. Then, everything changed. My focus changed, I trained harder and more consistently, and I got faster. Go figure. I began placing, sometimes winning, and, for the first time in my life, I felt as if I were actually racing.

It's a whole different world, this racing stuff. I started feeling the pressure. I felt as if I had to perform each time I stepped in the water or up to the start line. By the end of the 2011 season, I wasn't sure I really liked it very much and swore off the whole "racing" idea. I wanted to return to having fun.

So, I didn't train as hard, and I wasn't as consistent. But I was enjoying the process again. I started to get slower (go figure), except for running. Somehow, I got faster. I be-bopped through the 2012 Mississippi Blues Half Marathon and still managed to run the crazy hilly course within a few minutes of my most recent best time (I no longer count PRs that occurred more than 20 years ago). I ran one of my fastest 5k times, and was only about a minute off my fastest ever (which was most definitely more than 20 years ago). I managed to not just once, but twice, set an Olympic distance tri 10k PR. And I was still often earning an age group award...mostly by chasing people down.

Not sure if that's the best way to race a triathlon.

Oh wait. I wasn't racing.

Then, I started to qualify for certain national-level championships.

To be honest, last year, my time at the May Gulf Coast Triathlon (half iron distance) was fast enough to qualify for the USAT Long Course Nationals (HalfMax) race, but I decided not to go. This year, Gulf Coast was a special Long Course qualifier, with the top 30% of each age group qualifying for Nationals. And this year, there is no way I would have qualified based on time. We had waves. Big ones. And a rip current near shore nearly took me to Destin. Then, the last 6 miles of the bike were into a screaming headwind, punctuated by vicious crosswinds between the beachfront condos. What had initially been a pretty good bike quickly turned into a dismal ride that I was just thankful I survived unscathed. I recovered okay for the run, but the damage was done, and I was a good 20 minutes slower than I had been in the previous year. I was still in the top 30% of my age group, though, and qualified for the 2012 USAT Long Course Nationals in Oklahoma City. I decided maybe I should go...just in case I never got the opportunity again.

So, I re-hired my favorite coach again. And I started training harder and more consistently again.

A week after Gulf Coast, I drove up to Tunica, MS, to do the famed "Memphis in May" triathlon (not sure that race has ever actually been in Memphis). It is a "5150" (Olympic distance) race, under the auspices of the WTC, and apparently, if you finish in the top 15 of your age group, you qualify for the Hy-Vee 5150 National Championships held in Des Moines. This was probably my best race of the season. I had a very good swim (for me), despite swimming all over the lake (a theme for the year). My bike started slow into the headwind, and my legs were protesting they had just raced 56 miles the previous week. But I made up a bunch of time on the way back with the wind at my back. Whee! Run was pretty good. Sure 'nuff, a week later, I got an email congratulating me on qualifying for the Hy-Vee 5150 U.S. Championship (I think I was 14th).

Well, heck. Now, it seemed, I should be racing.

My next race, our local Heatwave tri, didn't qualify me for anything, not even an age group award. (I would rather not talk about it. <pout>)

Then, it was a long time before the next race. I was focused on getting ready for the Long Course Nationals (Redman Triathlon). I picked up an Olympic distance race, the Gator Bait triathlon in Vicksburg to see how training was going, and I really wanted to "race" this one. Swim was okay...not the best. All over the lake, again. My bike was just terrible. But the run... Thank God for running. This. This, I can do. I ran myself up into first in my age group with a third overall master's place. It's not official yet, but my Gator Bait age group first should qualify me for the 2013 USAT Age Group Nationals.

Finally, the A race was here. However, the month before, I had taken a trip to Florida and Ireland and ended up off the bike and out of the pool for 2 weeks. When I got back, I had 2 weeks until the race, so was simply extending a taper that had already begun. I got a cold. I didn't ride longer than 90 minutes or hardly swim at all. At least, I had been running. I still had high hopes for a strong race, aiming for meeting or beating my previous fastest time at the 2011 Gulf Coast.

The Redman Triathlon is held at Heffner Park, just outside of Oklahoma City. The lake is actually pretty nice (it's a drinking water lake, so usually no swimming is allowed), but the drought this year had severely affected its level, and we had a longish walk through the lovely Oklahoma red clay to the middle of the lake. Luckily it was cool enough for wetsuits. I started well enough, but once again, ended up swimming all over the dang place. I even got far enough off course to get shooed by one of the canoe supporters. My time wasn't nearly what I had hoped for (when I looked back at results, though, it was certainly within my "parameters" based on others' times), and my bike was a bit lonely on the rack when I finally got there.

Transition took a little bit longer than usual since I had to scrape mud off my feet, but once I got on the bike, I was feeling pretty good and relaxed. The Redman course is rolling, but not hilly, by any means. Just enough to shift a few gears and to enjoy the occasional downhill coast. The roads, though, were rough. I do not do well with rough. My bike doesn't do well with rough. I started to get uncomfortable and unhappy. My overall speed started to drop...precipitously. Two hours in, and I was done. This was not the bike ride of someone who should be "racing." I was depressed and angry at myself for allowing a little trip to Europe to completely derail my bike fitness. Then, it occurred to me that not everyone can have a good day all the time, and I had certainly had my fair share of good races over the last 2 years...when it would have been easier to just give it all up, anyway. About then, I burst into tears.

Good thing I had a helmet and sunglasses on.

I spun my way through the final 8-10 miles, giving it up. Not giving up, but giving up the need to be my absolute best that day, the need to show everyone I could function on my own, the need to prove myself a survivor, despite it all. Because, in reality, I had already done that.

So, I got ready to run.

Leading up to the race, the OK City forecast had been pretty good...not too hot. Then, as the days went by, it was getting warmer. But, still, a high of 85 is relatively mild after a hot MS summer. In reality, it was about 10 degrees hotter. No shade on the two-loop run course. In other words: brutal. But I ran. And I ran hard. I took every ounce of remaining energy and channeled it to my legs...and to my heart. When I finished, some 6 hours and 17 minutes after I started, I was satisfied and content. I didn't place. I wasn't even in the top 10 (my goal). I was off my best time by more than 17 minutes. But I felt as if I had a race to be proud of on a day that was physically and mentally tough.

A week later, the official email came: "Dear Athlete, Congratulations! You are being contacted because you have earned a spot on Team USA for the 2013 ITU Long Distance Triathlon World Championships because of your outstanding performance at the 2012 USAT Long Course Triathlon National Championship."

Triathlon season is officially over for me. I am running a marathon in about 5 weeks. Then, I am hoping Coach Debi gives me a little break before we start training for Ironman Lake Placid next year.

And I have decided that I am not racing again next year. 

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Hitting Restart

It's been a couple of years. I thought I might try this blogging thing again. I figure I am ready now to "put it all out there" and do some public sharing of how I am coping with widowhood. Mostly, I figure I'll write about training and racing, like I did before, with a little bit here and there about I am fitting pieces of my old life into an entirely new life. Writing helps me figure things out. Believing that someone is listening (or reading) and actually cares makes me think hard about the path I might take.

For now, the site is "under construction," as I figure out what to add and how to do it. It will become more interesting (I hope). In the meantime, I am going to post regularly. I think my first real post to get us started will be a reflection on this year's triathlon season. Maybe tomorrow.