Friday, November 30, 2012


Much ado has been made about the weather forecast for this weekend’s California International Marathon. I peeked at the 10 day forecast last weekend and saw that rain was imminent. As race day approached and the three weather sites I visited insisted that rain, wind, flooding and cold temperatures were almost 100 percent certain, I made the tough decision to cancel my plans to race.

My first reaction when I saw rain in the forecast was to carefully review my race from the LA marathon in 2011 which saw torrential rain and 50 degree temperatures. I was miserably cold that day and my hands were a color purple not normally seen in nature. I desperately wanted to stop at one of the many Starbucks on the route and pour a hot coffee over my head.

With that experience behind me, I hauled ass to REI and had an in-depth discussion about gloves with a knowledgeable and patient employee. I settled on a pair that is wet-suit like in nature and promised to make my hands pucker. I added a multitude of clothing options to my race-day attire, none of which would ultimately keep me warm or dry. With a wet-suit on my hands, I did consider using one for my body as well, but that is just crazy talk.

With race day looming closer and the weather looking more and more evil, I has some tough conversations. I decided to stay home instead of toeing the line. The rationale being this, with a limited number of really good marathons left in my legs: why waste one on a day that is already starting off unfavorably?

This is certainly not the attitude of most diehard runners. In past years when CIM experienced horrible conditions, only an additional 3% of racers were no-shows over the normal rate. But, my goal is not to simply finish the race. I want to run as fast as my training has dictated I can run. Running a PR in a marathon is difficult under ideal circumstances; the rain, wind and cold make this endeavor less probable, especially for someone like me who hates being cold.

It was not an easy choice, one that has left me awake at 2am and sent me to the computer to write this blog. But, Mark astutely pointed out, “At least there is nothing wrong with you. You aren’t sick or injured.” Ah, very true. In the past I have been faced with this very decision, race or not, because I was unsure if my body was up to the task. After months of rehab after rib surgery, there is no doubt about my fitness and health. And, no matter what, a DNS (did not start) is way better than a DNF (did not finish).

I can say unequivocally, the training for this race was fun. I relished the hard work it took to come back from surgery and start running fast again without pain. The marathon was meant to be the culmination of all of this hard work, a symbol to end this chapter of my life.

Now, I will take a small break from structured training and enjoy some jaunts around the trails with Diesel the Dog.

To all of the racers at CIM this weekend, stay warm and good luck.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The numbers game

Are you numbers obsessed?
On Sunday I am running the California International Marathon in Sacramento. I have a goal time, 2:40, which I have broken down into pace/mile, 10k splits and the half marathon time. Any way I look at it, the times are intimidating; I need to hold 6:07/mile, 38:00/10k and hit the half way point in 1:20. Just writing this makes my heart race a little. It is hard for me to wrap my head around these times for that long, even though my training and racing tells me this is not an impossible task.

And that brings me to my point. As athletes, we tend to get caught up in the numbers, creating a phenomenon that we have all experienced: number anxiety. The numbers can come from anywhere: the watts you want to hold on the bike, pace on the swim or run, a time standard that needs to be achieved, a finish time that will put you in contention to qualify for Kona or Vegas, breaking a barrier, such as a 3 hour marathon.

A concrete goal with an appropriate action plan has positive and negative ramifications. On the positive side, a tangible goal directs your training so that you can train with properly and race accordingly. The negatives? Well, that is the over planning and over thinking that invariably occurs.

There are ways to manage number anxiety in training and racing so you get the most out of your electronic devices without making yourself crazy.

The foremost way to prevent number anxiety is by not becoming number obsessed. By this I mean, don’t constantly stare at your numbers during a training session or race. Once you have established your number goal, look at your GPS or power meter periodically to make sure you are on target, but do not constantly check. The numbers are going to vary depending on the terrain, stride rate and pedal stroke. Take a peek now and then, but don’t fixate. It is distracting and can ultimately derail your workout or race. There is no way to hold the exact number, the best you can do is keep it in a tight range.

Download your power files and GPS data and analyze them after your workout or race. Since you only get a snapshot of your numbers during the workout or race, it is imperative to look at the whole picture afterwards. You can determine if you put out too many watts up the hill or if you ran a certain section too fast. Look for peaks and valleys in your workout or race and then try to smooth it out next time. There is a lot to learn from a data file and this is a process most athletes overlook.

If you are doing a longer race or workout, number anxiety is exacerbated by the very fact that you must hold those numbers for a very long time. A way around this daunting task is to break up the race or workout into intervals of a predetermined length. For example, an Ironman bike leg can be broken into 30 minute segments at a particular goal wattage with a 2-3 minute reset in between at 20-30 watts less. This short rest period is mentally and physically reinvigorating and should not have a detrimental impact on your overall bike time, especially if you can prevent the inevitable fade that happens to most people at the end of the bike.

Finally, it is important to learn to pace yourself by “feel”. With enough training by the numbers, you should be able to dial in your pace without even looking. Today I ran 2x2 mile race pace tempo efforts during my run. I checked my watch two or three times during each interval, but mostly, I wanted to make sure I could feel the pace without looking. My efforts were within 2 seconds of each other and were directly on goal race pace.

I recently went back and looked at my data from when I raced the California International Marathon last year. During last year’s race, I mentally broke it into 5k segments and checked my time and pace roughly at those intervals. I felt like I was holding a constant, comfortable pace throughout the race, and when I checked my watch it seemed like I was holding between 6:10 and 6:20.
My run file from CIM last year. Lots of ups and downs, but ultimately, I kept it fairly tight.

When I finally looked at the data file, I was amazed by the way my pace jumped around. Even though my 5k times were right on target, there was quite a bit of variation in my pace. Many of the low troughs are when I ran through a water stop; I took my time and made sure I had enough to drink. The other peaks and valleys correspond to the hills. The point is this: prior to the race I knew the pace I needed to hold to achieve my goal. I dialed it in with my training and on race day I ran the pace that felt right, periodically checking in with my GPS to make sure I was on target. Had I been a slave to the numbers, I would have been incredibly frustrated by the constant changes in pace throughout the race and this might have undermined my race. I avoided number anxiety by having confidence in my race plan, not relying on my GPS to carry me through the race, and breaking the race into manageable segments.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

10 steps to a perfect race

I am a crossword puzzle and Scrabble fanatic; I love words. For that reason, the other day, for no other reason than mild curiosity, I entered “cool words” into Google to see what might pop up. To my utter surprise, there are actual websites dedicated to “cool words”. Some of the words are unusually long, while others just sound funny. Upon perusing one of the lists, I came across this word: syzygy. I was unfamiliar with this strangely spelled and hard to pronounce word and was interested in its definition. Syzygy, in astronomy, is a straight line configuration of three celestial bodies, the sun, the moon and the earth during a solar or lunar eclipse.  I thought more about this word and its relationship to triathlon and I realized that a perfect race requires syzygy.

Perfect races truly are as rare as an eclipse. In my career, part of what keeps me coming back for more, year after year, is the search for that perfect race. My count of perfect races is two. Two! Those are terrible odds when you consider the hundreds of races I have competed in over the years. However, when you consider all that can happen during a race –flat tire, GI distress, crappy weather, feeling tired, injury, illness, poor training, poor pacing – it is surprising that any race ever goes right. But, the notion of a perfect race is tantalizing and so I persist, yearning for a perfect day, a day where exogenous factors do not derail me and my body carries me through to the finish line in a personal best.

My first perfect race was the Chicago Triathlon in 1998. It was my rookie season as a professional and I had yet to attain a big result. On that humid August day, I had a breakthrough performance. I swam and biked with the leaders and started the run feeling like I was floating. As I reached the finish line area after the first lap of the four lap run, such was my anonymity, the announcer said “We have our first lady coming through. I’m not sure her name.  I’ll look that up and get back to you.”  Three laps later, I cruised across the line with my arms in air and a huge smile on my face. Yes, syzygy propelled to my first win as a professional. Nothing stood in my way that day, everything was in alignment.

That day seemed so easy. I had no idea, naïve as I was, how incredibly difficult it would be to match a day such as that one. My career was dotted with big achievements and other wins, but none were accompanied by syzygy.

It took ten years to find another race that would unfold with the flawlessness that leads to perfection.  That race was the 2008 Ironman 70.3 World Championships. An early season assault on qualifying for the Beijing Olympics ended prematurely when I didn’t make the team. I switched my focus to 70.3 races, arguably my best distance. With a few mid-season 70.3 wins under my belt, and a long stretch of confidence boosting workouts, I toed the line in Clearwater ready to race. Similar to my perfect day in Chicago, on this day, I swam and biked at the front of the race. Ten steps into the run I knew I was going to win. It never entered my mind otherwise, and I sailed through the race with that assurance. It was a record breaking day for me; there was no way of knowing that it was the harbinger of a career ending injury. Fortunately, though, no longer the naive rookie from a decade ago, I savored every single emotional moment of crossing the finish line first in a World Championship.

Here are 10 steps to achieve your perfect day:
  1. Make sure you are well rested on race day
  2. Get all of your equipment checked out
  3. Decide on a nutritional plan and practice it in training
  4. Don’t race sick or injured
  5. Don’t get greedy in training and start overdoing it thereby leaving your race at home
  6. Come up with a race plan and stick to it
  7. Don't let nerves get in your way
  8. Know the course
  9. Mentally prepare for the perfect race through visualization
  10. Have confidence
And, of course, it helps to have some race day syzygy on your side.