Thursday, July 26, 2012

Let's Swim

Cherry Creek Reservoir - sight of the Aquaman swim races
Since bidding farewell for a few weeks to the road and trail race circuit, I actually started having a little no-racing anxiety so thought I'd take advantage of a great series of swim races here at a reservoir near my house called Aquaman.  They are held every Tuesday evening for 6 weeks.

According to the website:
The AQUAMAN Open Water Swim and Aquathlon Series is the perfect opportunity for swimmers and triathletes of all ages and abilities to practice their open water swimming in a fun, competitive environment and at distances not previously offered at other venues. It's also the perfect opportunity for triathletes to practice their open water pacing and swimming in a mass start format with the bonus of an added 5K run.

Each week, the races offer a barrage of events and you can pick and choose any that you desire:
1/2 mile swim
1 mile swim
1.5 mile swim
2 mile swim
1/2 mile swim followed by a 5k
1 mile swim followed by a 5k.

If you're lucky enough to be a gifted swimmer, or one of the uber fit triathletes seen hording the beach beforehand, you can earn lots of points by however may races you enter and where you place, and then win some prizes at the end.  Though I consider myself a fairly "Okay" swimmer, I didn't do the races for the points - I'm a far cry from being in any serious condition like those that will win these prizes.  I swam competitively in college for a couple years - so I have the swim stoke technique skills required to be a swimmer, but since my departure of the college swim team, my time in the pool has been mainly as a great recovery for my achy running muscles and nothing for speed.  My pace in the pool could easily be described as either "slow" or "very slow" - depending on how sore I was from running.
In the blue, swimming for the University of Northern Iowa in either 1981 or 1982.
Sorry for the crappy pic, I have only 3 to choose from and this is about as good as it gets
So I decided to do these races because... and I know this will come as a shocker to most....I'm doing a little triathlon in less than 2 weeks.  Crazy, huh?!

The last triathlon I did was in 1989 (I apologize to all those I mistakenly said 1987...when you're old, you forget dates easily).  I really don't remember much about it other than the run was first, it was hot, and was on some sort of grassy, hilly cross country course.  Next was the bike and since I really never spent much time on my bike (a theme continued to this date), I was just lolly-gagging the bike part and felt super slow (a theme continued to this date.  Hum).  The swim was the finale and in a pool.  Back then, I swam a lot faster than I do now and I remember just being annoyed at all the non-swimmers hanging on the lane rope to survive.  I swam under water a lot just to get around people; there was very little actual freestyle swimming involved.  I have no idea what my split times were or how long the course was (but I do know the run was a 5k), but I finished in 53:30.
I am NOT the spandex red shorts girl with terrible form
Back in the days before triathlons were the "it" thing, bike racks didn't exist.
You either had a kickstand or you laid it on the ground.  Me: white top, aqua shorts...
done with the run and hunting for my lost bike
Official triathlon clothes also didn't exist.  I wore that swim suit
under my running/biking clothes and loved how it rode up my girl bits running!
So, let's recap:

  • My last triathlon I did was 23 years ago.
  • The swim portion was in the pool (and so was the only other tri I did about 3 years earlier); it was last, not first like they are these days.
  • I've never done an open water swim.

Yeah, these swim races are a great idea: the more experience I could get the better (that apparently doesn't hold true for anything related to my bike, since I've rode about 8 times this year).

The first race I did was July 3rd and I opted for just the 1/2 mile swim since I had no clue what I was doing and wanted to mostly just observe and learn.  I opted to also participate in a swim clinic offered beforehand from Carmichael Training Systems. For those of you who are in the uber triathlete classification, you are familiar with Carmichael and how awesome their training and coaching programs are (also ver ex. pen. sive!!).  About the time I showed up for the tri clinic coincidentally was the exact same time a cold front decided to go through and the water was producing some serious swells.

Okay, maybe not THAT bad, but the white caps were intense and I felt like a rag doll just being tossed around.  Nothing like introducing yourself to some of the harshest race conditions on day 1!!

I held my own though and plowed through those waves and actually wasn't all that worried about others around me kicking and fighting their way around the orange buoys - which initially I was terrified of.  I just swam and somehow finished.  Stats: 6/11 female with a time of 12:15 (later we found out the course was shortened due to the bad weather so this time isn't for an actual half).  I swallowed a ton of muddy, murky, e-coli-ridden lake water and felt pretty icky for a few days after.  I instantly went and bought nose plugs for future races.

The next week I thought I needed more punishment so went for the mile swim.  Thankfully, in much calmer waters than the week before.
Before the start.  Never, ever, ever wear a white top in
muddy, gross lake water.

The mile swim was 2 laps and you run through the above shoot after lap one then head back for lap 2.  On the 2nd lap, I seriously thought my arms were going to fall off.  I've never swam a mile without stopping to talk to Tara for awhile or kicking a billion laps in the middle.  So this non-stop 1-mile was uncharted territory for me and I definitely felt it.  I finished 8/14 with a time of 28:44 for 1-mile.

This past Tuesday was my 3rd of the series and again I opted to do the 1-mile again.  I sprained my inner left ankle last week and it was still bothering me at the race (and still is - so not happy about that!) so I wasn't going to push the swim super hard (like that's an option anyway).  There was also a record number of swimmers there - 191, so I knew it was going to be a little more congested than the past races.  I convinced fellow blogger, Katie, to join me since she's dong the same triathlon as me, which just happens to be at the same place as these swim races.  She gave me some great tri transition tips and I was so excited to finally meet her; she's a sweetie and we got along great!
Someone obviously needs to hurry and get their swim cap on!
Myself, Katie and her friend, Audrey
I was a bit worried about the larger start this time but knew it would be great practice for the race.  I tried to jump in the middle of the starters but I really have no clue where I was.  I forgot to start my watch and actually stopped mid-race to start it but ended up getting bounced around too much to figure it out so I just went on my auto-pilot speed and hoped for the best.

I felt a lot better this week than I did 2 weeks ago when I raced last, but my 2nd lap I was tiring and felt like I was drinking half the lake again.  I "tried" to push the pace some but just felt like I wasn't making much progress in the speed department.  I passed a ton of swimmers in the first lap and no one in the 2nd (but it thinned out considerably by now since a lot of swimmers did the 1/2 mile option).  I finished in a much higher position with a much slower time: 6/18 in 30:12.  I later found out that these markers can easily float around and distances are not set in stone and can actually fluxuate in distance from lap to lap as the buoy can move some ... my friend told me later the course was long this week so I felt a wee-bit better about that.  But really, it didn't matter that much to me.

I've learned tons about open water swimming through these races and have had an absolutely great time doing so.

  • I'm not as freaked about the mass start as I once was and the kicking and hitting by other swimmers wasn't as bad as I thought it'd be.
  • Swimming a mile non-stop in open water is a LOT more difficult than swimming a mile in the pool where I can stop and kick laps in between (hum...who'd have thought?)
  • I breathe much differently - almost every stroke - in ows vs the pool where I breathe every 3rd stroke.  I just feel like I can't get enough air every 3rd stroke out there in the open water and it bothers me to breath on my "bad" side.  
  • Looking up frequently to make sure I'm not off course from the orange buoy and repositioning myself takes a lot of practice.  And is a lot harder than I thought.  And it makes my neck hurt.
  • All the fine-tuning my college swim coach did to help perfect my stroke went straight to hell in the open water; I felt my arms were just thrashing and slapping the water with no direct point of entry.
  • Not able to see my arms in the murky water pulling through is a little unsettling.  
  • Drinking half of a disgustingly gross lake is....gross.
  • Swimming in high water chop can make you seasick.  Trust me!
  • Nose plugs are dorky.  But who cares!
  • Swimming a mile leaves my body utterly exhausted a couple hours later.  A full body workout for sure.  I usually sleep well the night after a swim race....I seriously should do a mile race every night!
  • Triathlon clothes you can wear in the water are expensive.  Like $80 for a pair of tri shorts expensive. Holy crap!!  But I admit, they feel fantastic and I think made a good choice - for once.
  • I have a ton of work to do if I ever think I'm going to do a full Ironman for my 50th birthday next year.
  • I look forward to the challenge.  

There are two more swim races in the series - one before my August 5th triathlon.  I think I'll do one more next week before the race but not sure about the other..  I've had a great time poking with my past and  pushing my threshold swimming.  I've become more comfortable with the uncomfortable.  I've become more confident with the uncertain.  I'm a less nervous about my upcoming triathlon in a few short days than I was, but I'm sure it won't be easy and I'm sure I'll make many rookie mistakes along the way.  But I'm excited and feel pretty lucky I've done these races to help get me ready.  

Before I close, fellow blogger, Chris, is looking for pacers for the upcoming Leadville 100 miler on August 18-19.  I will be up there pacing/crewing for a teacher I used to work with so don't think I can help Chris out, but if anyone is interested, please shoot me - or Chris - an email.  Guaranteed fun times and I bet the experience that will leave a permanent mark on those laminated pages in the memory bank!

Until next time...

Swim on, friends!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Leadville Heavy Half Marathon

"When you are in the valley, keep your goal firmly in view and you will get the renewed energy to continue the climb." - Denis Waitley

Last Saturday was the finale of what feels like a bajillion races I've done this year:  the Leadville Heavy Half Marathon (called a "heavy half" because it is longer than a half marathon - 15.74 miles to be exact) to the top of Mosquito Pass and back down.  Don't fret, I'll be racing again in 2012 (I know, what a relief), but I wanted to take the first half of the year running without pinning for any specific race; I just wanted to get my tired, old, crabby body back into some semblance of racing shape after my sabbatical due to the foot! left me in rather pathetic shape. 

Well, the "into-shape" plan pretty much was a failure (a topic for an upcoming post, perhaps), but I had an absolute blast racing this year and Leadville was a great way to end the season before I start back up mid-August.

I'm sure most have heard of the grueling Leadville 100 trail race. Well, the Heavy Half is its little cousin and equally as challenging - just on a shouter course, thankfully!  It was definitely a toughie, that's for sure...but really, all great things should end with a bang, so I was really excited for this race.

Leadville is your country's highest elevation incorporated city, topping off at 10,200'.  Cool, huh?

It is an old silver mining city; one time being 2nd in population only to Denver in the 19th century, and once housed "celebrities" such as Doc Holliday.  Main Street Leadville today looks like you've stepped back in time a hundred years...

This era of time truly fascinates me; I find it absolutely amazing how these people survived (well, some anyway :)) in such harsh conditions with no modern-day luxuries (Yeah, I grew up watching Little House on the Prairie ;)).  The population today has diminished to somewhere around the 2000 range, and the surrounding area is still mined, but Leadville nowadays is more known for it's series of seriously badass tough trail running and mountain bike races than its once thriving mining community.

This race has been on my radar for a couple years now, but you know I had that miserable foot problem which robbed me of racing the past couple years.  So with the foot feeling fantastic, I signed up back in February when the price was cheapest, and I was sure I'd be back in "in shape" business.  Well, best laid plans and all, I wasn't at all in the condition I wanted to be in for this race, but for whatever reasons, I wasn't overly concerned. I mean, look at the profile... piece of cake, right?

I stayed at my aunt's condo in Breckridge the night before so I could shave off an hour + drive on race morning from my house in Denver.  My son and his friend decided to hike part of the Colorado Trail for a couple days, so I dropped them off early Friday afternoon and off they went...

This gave me the rest of Friday all to myself...I didn't even know what to do with all that free time, but somehow I managed :).  I got all my things ready for race morning and I went to bed super early.  But, per usual pre-race evening anxiety, I had a hard time falling asleep, which is just so infuriating.  But thankfully I woke up at 5am feeling really well-rested and ready to race (how did that happen?).

I got to Leadville with plenty of time to get checked in and picked up my race shirt.  Love it!

I wandered around town a bit then went to the starting area, where blogger Hannah happened to spot me. I met Hannah last year at Pikes Peak; she is just an incredibly awesome person.  She is from Kansas and  running the full marathon so lack of oxygen was a concern for her, but she's a badass ultrarunner so I knew she'd be fine (and she did great!!!).

It's really warm at the start and I quickly removed my long-sleeved shirt and shoved it in my Camelbak.  I wish I would have just tossed it as it became a royal pain as it tried to jump ship many times from my pack.  I never needed it at the top, like I thought I might...but you just never know what weather you might encounter in these sort of races.

The first 2.8 miles are on a steep gravel dirt road.

And pass by numerous old abandoned mines...

And spectacular scenery...

I felt pretty good and managed to run quite a bit, but it was slow going as we climbed higher.  Around mile 1.25, the marathoners split off and go another direction so us heavies continued on upward until we hit the first aid station at mile 2.8.  Then we got a reprieve for about 1.5 miles with a nice downhill section. The road became rockier here, but not terribly so, and I was able to run it all and felt actually quite well.

About mile 4.4, I reached the next aid station - and last until we reach the top of Mosquito Pass at mile 7.8ish.  This aid station was amazing.  Somewhere there must be a road to get to this station because it's the only place along the course where there were actual spectators cheering, and the feast here was outstanding.  I downed a couple Fig Newtons and sipped some Diet Coke and was in a very happy place.

The marathoners now merge back in with us heaviers but so far, I've managed to stay ahead of the front marathon runner (this was their mile 9.8) so I'm thinking I'm pretty doing pretty dang good.  But this happy place I was in was short-lived; the serious climbing was about to begin, and along with the crazy steep stuff also came my nemesis: large, unstable rocks!  Bleh!

But it was really, really, really pretty....


By far, most scenic than any other trail race I've ever done (even Pikes Peak).  I tried to amp up my awareness of my surroundings by looking at everything to distract my mind from how hard this was about to get.  But it wasn't easy and the higher I climbed, the slower I was getting.  Somewhere around mile 5.5 for  me, the first marathoner whizzed past me like I was standing stiff.  Well, because I was, but that's beside the point.  I tried to keep smiling to trick my mind that I was having a great time...but my love/hate for the trails was beginning to lean towards hate.

Around Mile 5.5.  Even if you pretend you feel good, you still don't
Everyone around me seemed to be hating this section, actually....faces of agony were prevalent all around and tiny tidbits of words overheard were not necessarily rated PG.  I've done a couple races higher in altitude before but nothing as seriously steep on rocks that were just killing my ankles with every step.  The higher you climbed, the worse the pitch got (someone told me it was close to 19% - this explains a lot) and the second to last mile to the top I cranked out a wicked 34 min/mile pace.

As I slowly slugged along at my 34 min/mile pace, people were passing me both going up and coming down from the top.  I had been having this odd on-again/off-again side stitch thingie high up on my left side for a couple weeks; I'm not sure what it is and what causes it but it decided to rear its ugly head at this point and aid in my misery.  Whenever I tried to take a deep breath at 68% less O2 to get some air, my side would scream.  Awesome!  I stood there questioning my sanity and suddenly had a fairly serious dark, dark moment.

Sometimes when things get difficult in races - or in life - I have a few moments where negotiations with God start happening (you know: Please God, keep me moving forward and I promise to never roll my eyes at my kids again...), but I was too tired to think of anything good I could negotiate (I probably should have told God I promised I would never run a race like this again without properly training for it!); all I could think of at this point was Get to the effing TOP! (you are allowed to swear on this course...I think it's in the waiver you sign).

The last mile and some change is one straight shot - no switchbacks to help ease the pitch.  People were were coming down kept saying to us still climbing that we were "almost there" - we ALL know how dreadful it is to hear this (especially at a 34 min/mile) - "almost there" is taking for....flipping...ever!!!  Darkness had invaded and the earlier just-keep-smiling me was long, long gone.  As I climbed higher, I saw a few people sitting on the side with sprained ankles or blow out knees (one always asks if a down runner is okay when you pass, so you always know their ailments) and I just prayed I wouldn't share their fate.

FINALLY, to the top of Mosquito Pass, the half way point, at 2:45.  To initially think I could possibly make it in 2:10 - 2:20....I obviously grossly underestimated the mountain's demands.  I got my butt handed to me big time the last few miles, but I was thankful to be at the top, and I knew I could do this thing.  Eventually.

View West from the top of Mosquito Pass
Sign at the top of the pass.  Something about how covered wagons crossed this area once.  Some quote thingie.
I was far too tired to really care what it said, Little House on the Prairie lover I was or not.  I just wanted
to snap the pic and get the hell down!
View to the East from the top.  See the gravestone????
At the top, I took a few pictures, grabbed my newly beloved Fig Newtons, a bit of whatever electrolytes they had and quickly headed back down.  My head still wasn't in a particularly good place and I knew I have a lot of issues running downhill on loose rock, so my pace was going to be slower than most around me so no time to waste up here.
Thanks, Rebecca, for the stolen pic :)
These 3.5ish miles were miserable for my poor ankles.  I probably looked like a pansy with my arms flaring everywhere as I tired to stay vertical.  One time I came close to tripping over some rocks but somehow managed to catch myself and not fall (miracles do exist!).  A guy behind me stopped me and told me that instead of thinking to pick up my entire foot as I ran over the rocks, I needed to think picking up my toes; this would lift my entire foot off the ground whereas when you think lifting just the foot, the toes tend to still point downwards and you trip with the toes.  Makes sense, but I was so dead tired at this point that I didn't even have the strength to practice much.  Soon after this toe picking up lesson, I arrived back at the heavily stocked aid station and relief was instantaneous.

Some woman spectating told me that we just had 4.4 miles left to go and I breathed a sigh of relief.  I knew the next 1.5 miles were uphill and I just decided to use this time to recover from those torturous rocks and reestablish my good mood. 

The trail now heads back into tree-line so shade was much welcomed as temps started to soar.  Once at the top of this last climb, I reached the last aid station and I downed several pieces of watermelon.  My stomach was starting to bother me so I couldn't eat anything solid, but the watermelon was going down great.  The aid station guy said we just had the last 2.8 downhill miles left (on a gravel road...NO rocks!!).  I knew what I had to do: run, and run hard.

I flew down those last 2.8 miles (for me anyway) - on very tired legs; aching feet; a sunburned neck; slight stomachache; and tired as hell.  I was passing people like it was my job and felt remarkably well.  First mile was 8:34.  Second was 8:11.  Last was 9:00 (because I had to stop and tie my shoe and had problems getting the legs to move again after I stopped - bleh).  I had nothing to prove to anyone and my finish line time was going to be far worse than I ever thought at the start of this thing - even running the last few miles - but I just felt I owed it to myself to see what I had left in me and wanted to push myself to the end.

This race is deemed one of the "Toughest Races in the Nation" (according to one pole anyway...I'll go with it).  I looked back at the finish line after I crossed, smiled, and thanked God (and promised Him I'd actually train next year for this thing :)).  There are some moments when His majesty is utterly undeniable, and this was one of those times.

This is the biggest damn medal I've ever received, and super heavy.
I had to remove it from my neck right after the picture, it was too heavy
on my extremely tired body (and sun burned neck).
Though I do feel very good about my accomplishment at Leadville, it also confirmed what's been eating at me for the past few weeks: That I am SO NOT ready to race the Pikes Peak Marathon in a mere 6 weeks.  So sadly, I'm crossing it off my list.  I'm not sad I'm not doing the race, I'm sad that my sweet e-friend, Ewa, is coming out from California to race it and I won't be able to tackle the mountain with her as we originally planned.  But I'll be with her in spirit every step of the way and I will be waiting with a huge hug (and beer and pizza :)) after.  

So with Pikes Peak out,  it was time for a little heart-to-heart with myself and what it is exactly I do want.  I'm not really entirely sure long term....but Chicago is sitting out there tugging at my heart a little.  I haven't trained for a specific marathon for well over 2 years, and I've sort of enjoyed being on a no prescribed schedule ... but I also miss how marathon training makes me feel pure and whole and... strong.  I don't have a lot of time, definitely not enough time to get into prime marathon shape (I'm okay with that, all I want is to feel strong finishing it), but I think it's still inside me; I'm feeling really, really good and I'm excited to see what changes I can make in the next few weeks (please God, if you make me strong for Chicago, I promise I'll go to bed every night at 10pm (that was for you, Jason!)).  

So I guess it's now time to enter a building phase.  Not only just mileage, but a better - stronger - me.  Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually.  Let's see what I got left in this aging body....

Until next time,

Run Strong!