Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Defying Gravity: Running on the Alter G treadmill

In running circles, the Alter G treadmill is all the rage. Differential air pressure allows a person to run at various percentages of their body weight all the way down to 20% of full body weight. What a revolutionary idea, and the implications for rehab and recovery are endless. According to the Alter G website, their treadmill is, “a highly effective athletic conditioning tool for both recreational and competitive athletes by allowing the user to train longer, run faster, gain additional strength, and enhance cardiovascular performance while minimizing impact and stress on their joints.” And I thought it was just a cool toy.

A few short months ago, Boulder had nary an Alter G. It was an extravagance normally reserved for professional sports team, the Olympic Training Center and elite running groups. Now, Boulder boasts three of these monstrous machines.

I have had the pleasure on running on an Alter G at Altitude Physical Therapy (thanks Bob Cranny!!). The first time was just for kicks and the second time I ran an interval session. With cross country nationals around the corner, I need to channel my inner speed because at 8K this race is quite short. With marathon training and racing barely behind me, I realize that I am at high risk for injury if I do too much too soon.  The Alter G is a perfect compromise – it gives me the ability to train at faster paces without the dangers inherent in traditional speed work.

Here’s how it works.
How hot are these? I'm thinking about getting some for casual wear.
1.    Put on the neoprene shorts with the funky zipper. This is how you are locked into the treadmill. It is akin to running in half of a wetsuit. Your legs will sweat. A lot.

2.    Zip yourself into the cockpit. Yes, that is what they call it. I looked it up. I had no idea what it was called. Plastic thingy?
Step into the opening...     ...and then zip in.
3.    Stand still while the treadmill calibrates your weight. Fortunately, it does not tell you the weight, so you can remain in ignorant bliss.
I'm getting weighed. 
4.    Increase the speed and/or incline as you would on any treadmill. Choose your desired weight reduction. It decreases in 1% increments. On my first run, I played around with different decrements in weight down to 65%. For my interval run, I chose 80%.

5. Have fun running at paces you would never see on the track or on the road.

Now, I am not a huge fan of treadmill running. It is not the boredom that makes treadmill running unsavory. Nope, it is the fear of falling off the back coupled with how crappy my legs feel due to the fact the treadmill changes my form. I tend to arch my back which causes an anterior pelvic tilt which causes me to over stride which causes my glutes to stop firing.You get the gist. It sucks.

The Alter G combats both my fear of flying off the back and keeps my hips in good position. Being locked in really makes a huge difference. I could grab my drink, wipe my face, and play with my iPod with reckless abandon (and sometimes all at once!) all with perfect form (well, in my mind it was perfect and there was nobody there to refute it). I did not feel like I was over striding and my normally fast leg turnover got a boost.

I'm not coordinated enough to run and hit the
buttons on the control panel.
There are a few drawbacks. The first and foremost complaint is that once you are zipped in you are committed. That poses a problem when you have to use the bathroom. I liken it to a kid getting all dressed in a snowsuit and having to pee. The other issue is that the control panel is difficult to maneuver when you are running at high speed. I felt fairly spasmodic trying to press the button to go slower. Eventually, I had to jump to the side and straddle the belt and lower the speed and then jump back on. But, these are only minor inconveniences compared the huge benefits on offer. I highly recommend you try it out if you get the opportunity.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Houston 2012: Olympic Trials recap

Warning, this is a long one. But there are lots of good pictures, so keep reading!
I think one of the reasons I am so strong mentally is because I can be so fragile physically. Most of my races have been fought with some kind of ailment: asthma, injury, GI distress, dizziness. It has been a rare occasion for me to race with a blank slate, the only concerns being what the day throws at me. Sunday was not a blank slate. My legs felt heavy from the start. My rib injury ached. The aid stations were too far apart. But, I was able to push through and run my goal pace. The discomfort was made easier by the enthusiasm of the huge crowds lining the streets. It was electric. I could not believe how many times I heard my name called, it was inspiring to know I had so many supporters out there.

Ok, so you know how your car has a check engine light that goes on before your car blows up? A warning signal to tell you, get the hell out right now, bad things are about to happen. My body does not have a check engine light. It blows up before I have a chance to make other plans. Out of nowhere, at mile 17, I started to vomit. For the next 2 miles, I continued to run/walk as I alternated between vomiting and dry heaving. That was all fine; I was prepared to run through it. What I couldn’t run through was the accompanying dizziness. I have dealt with paralyzing dizziness before and I have learned that I have two options, (a) stop and lie down until the dizziness passes (which can take several hours) or (b) keep going and pass out and get carted off the course in an ambulance (I have done that and it really sucks). Rather than have an unnecessarily dramatic exit off the course, I chose option (a).

And that is my tale of woe. There is a lot to be happy about, though, and that is what I am focusing on. Against all odds, I qualified for the trials. As I set new goals for myself over the years, I will remember this challenge and use it to get me through the rough patches, to know that it is possible to overcome the seemingly impossible.
This is the very official looking credential.

The experience of the Olympic trials was amazing. The atmosphere was so much different than any of the previous trials I went to. This felt like a big deal. There was media hype. The hotel was decked out in trials posters. The hospitality suite was heavily guarded by armed police who only let in those individuals with proper credentials (ok, they weren't armed, but they were very strict). There were lots of athlete meals and functions. The athletes were made to feel important.

I do have to point out though, with all of the attention given to this race, why on earth didn’t NBC show it live?

Some memorable moments from the weekend:
  • Some of the Boulder crew before the race.
Colleen, JZ, Katie, Amanda
  • Instead of the XXL race shirt they handed out they should have given us shirts that read "I went to Olympic Trials and all I got is a crappy goodie bag"
Shirt, hat, plastic cup, pin, notebook: not very impressive
  • There were very strict uniform specifications. Only one logo per article of clothing and the logo had to fit into a very small rectangle. Everyone had to bring their race outfit and anything else they planned to wear race morning, including sweats, back packs, watches, sunglasses, to the officials so they could be checked. Anything that did not meet their standard had to be taped over. I am talking, tape over the teeny tiny little Garmin logo on my watch and the teeny tiny logo on my sunglasses and the very unfortunately huge Running Republic of Boulder logo on my top (luckily the race number covered it up). 
Very professional looking tape job
    • The athletes seem to enjoy a good arts and crafts project. The decorating of the water bottles was a BIG DEAL. There was a table set up with tape, pipe cleaner, and stickers, although most people brought their own materials. I came prepared with two types of duct tape, hot pink and blue with white polka dots (Target is so handy). I used silver pipe cleaner to make a handle.
    Even Abdi, the guy in red who finished 3rd, got excited about bottle decorating
    My awesome looking bottles
    • The pre-race meeting was immense. Hundreds of athletes and their supporters crowded the large room. They went over every detail. Instead of wasting our time in a meeting, they should have figured out how to get more water on the course.
    A very crowded room! The anxiety was palpable.
    • You know how teachers say there is no such thing as a dumb question? Well, that is not true. Athletes ask dumb questions at race meetings. For example, one guy asked “Can we get outside assistance.” Um, really? This is clearly not your first race, so you should know that is race sin number one. Another asked, “Can we carry our own gels with us.” No comment.
      • I started the race with gloves. Around mile three, I tossed them to the side of the road. I heard a spectator say, “Oh goody. A souvenir.” Please wash them. I used those gloves to wipe my very snotty nose.
      • Just in case you were wondering, which you probably weren't, my last name rhymes with tiger. I heard lots of strange and inventive pronunciations of my last name during the race. I'm thinking of changing it now after hearing some better renditions.
      • The aid stations are not at all like in triathlon or any other race you have done. There were 47 tables with 8 athlete’s special needs bottles on each table. At the very end of the 47 tables there was a table with cups of water and a table with Power Ade. It was nearly impossible to grab the special needs bottle and a cup of water. So, I never had any water. The tables were every 5k, not every mile like in most major marathons.
      Can you see my bottle there, second from the left?
      • I had the best cheering squad of any athlete out there. Mark, my good friends Billy and Lara (and baby Paige) and Russ and Eola Scott (parents of my friend Amanda who was also racing) donned multi-colored afro wigs and held up the funniest signs. Thanks guys, you rock.
      You know how spectators always tell you "you're almost there" at  mile 5? Here is the truth.
      Can't let the ridiculous uniform rules go unnoticed!
      Sometimes you just have to state the obvious.
        The awesome cheering crowd Tebowing. Unfortunately, it did not help me or Tebow on Saturday!

        Wednesday, January 11, 2012

        Tapering Sucks

         Tapering is a necessary evil. In order to race fast, one must shed the heavy training load and freshen up. I realize this conceptually. In actuality, I detest tapering. Taper. The very word is fraught with so much emotion. It means that a key race is around the corner. Every single workout is carefully dissected into minute detail to determine whether that particular workout has any specific bearing on race day. Workouts are shorter and less intense, which is a bummer when you really enjoy the daily grind. Then you start to question every twinge and ache and wonder if it is catastrophe in the making. If you hear somebody cough 6 blocks away there is the fear of contracting Ebola. No question, tapering for an important event sucks and makes me cranky.

        I have been a competitive athlete since the age of 7. That means I have 34 years of tapering behind me. It has not gotten any easier! As a swimmer, taper week meant lots of dives off the starting blocks and tons of sprinting. Since I did not like to do either of those things, tapering was a nightmare. When I was old enough to understand the importance of a taper I did learn a very key piece of information– too much taper meant I would be flat for my races and I would underperform. I was envious of the sprinters getting in the pool for 15 minutes and then spending the rest of the workout in the shower. But,  I knew I was always better off maintaining decent yardage while cutting back on the hard intervals, a taper method I adhere to even now.

        Tapering as a triathlete almost feels like a crap shoot. How on earth is it possible to get three sports to feel good on the same day? For starters, you cannot taper all three sports the same way. You may need more rest for running than swimming and cycling, for example.

        I have been known to do some crazy things during a triathlon taper, such that a friend once dubbed my particular mode of tapering “the JZ taper”. Here’s why. I once did a century ride the day before a sprint (I was second by 3 seconds and my coach never let me live it down). I rode the entire bike course the day before I won the Buffalo Springs triathlon many years ago. I have also been known to pound out a master’s workout a few days before a race. For the bigger races I would not participate in such bad behavior, but you get my gist. I tend to do a little more than the average Joe.

        I would never be so cavalier with running though. Running, by its very nature of increased pounding is much harder on the body. This week, as I prepare for the Olympic trials marathon, my run volume and intensity has been chopped dramatically (yet, I am still so damn hungry. What’s up with that?), but I am not sitting around doing nothing. Our interval workout yesterday consisted 4x5 minutes at race pace which is about half the amount of intensity of a usual workout (and also, 5 minutes is a much shorter interval time). In case you were wondering, which you probably weren’t, I did swim master’s yesterday; some habits don’t die.

        The bottom line is even during taper week, to include some short, race pace intervals. Do not go out on your regularly scheduled group ride and kill it for two hours as that will most certainly kill your race. If you feel tired or your legs hurt, shorten your workouts, but do not cut it out entirely unless you are sick.

        I am never sure how many days out from the race is the ideal day to start feeling good. Is the Sunday before too early? Is two days before too late? I guess, really, it doesn’t matter how you feel before the race as long as you feel good race day! So don’t fret about how your body is reacting to the taper until the gun goes off. If you still feel like crap then, start worrying.

        Wednesday, January 4, 2012

        Field Filler: 2012 Olympic Trials Marathon

        The 2012 marathon Olympic trials in Houston are a mere 10 days away. I thought this would be a good time to address a question my good friend Lara raised to me over the summer, “What do the Olympic trials mean to you?”

        Each Olympic trials event has offered me an opportunity to compete against America’s best. Not even a National championship garners such a competitive field. I have borne witness to the nervous excitement of my fellow competitors, relished the undertones of “it could possibly be me making the team”. I have seen (and been) the walking wounded. Everyone is there riding on the coattails of hard work, heart ache, and supreme dedication. 

        The Olympic trials are a spectacle, qualifying is an honor, competing is exhilarating. Like any sporting event, there are pre-race predictions, athletes are hyped, and experts pontificate on how the races will unfold. The beauty of sport, and the reason why races are contested, is that nobody has a crystal ball and ultimately surprises happen on the big day. I love being a part of all of that.

        My own experiences at the Olympic trials have been varied – the purposes of each race have been different, yet each one has helped me grow as an athlete.

        When I competed in the swimming trials in 1988, my motivation was to gain national experience and observe firsthand the inner workings of making an Olympic team. I had no illusions that I would place in the top 2 of my events; I was there solely as field filler. If it were a ballet, I would be in the company. If it were a movie, I would be an extra. My role at the trials was an important one; certainly nobody wants to attend a swim meet with 10 people in each event. Hence, the majority of the field is there to round out the events. And in typical American dream fashion, perhaps a field filler athlete would defy the odds and catapult onto the world stage by making the Olympic team.

        I viewed the 2000 marathon Olympic trials as a dress rehearsal for the triathlon Olympic trials which were 3 months later. It was a chance to shake off the cobwebs and learn from the mistakes of the top contenders. While I was intent on running a personal best, there was no pressure. I lapped up the enthusiasm of the spectators, riling up the troops that were lining the section of the race that went through Fort Jackson by getting them to cheer me on. And, on this occasion, a field filler athlete won the event, toppling the pre-race favorites.

        I competed in three triathlon Olympic trials. They could not have panned out more differently. In 2000, I improbably qualified for the Sydney Olympics. I hobbled into the 2004 trials with an ongoing back injury. I ended up pulling out during the bike. After a 2 year hiatus from ITU-style racing, I decided to make one final attempt at qualifying for the Olympics in triathlon in 2008. While I missed the team, I finally got the needed closure from that style of racing and later that year I won the Ironman 70.3 World Championships, softening the blow of not competing in the Olympics.

        And that brings me to the 2012 marathon Olympic trials. Once again, my role is that of field filler. A record number of women qualified for these trials, a testimony to the growing long distance running talent in the US. And, for the first time ever, the men and women will be competing on the same course on the same day. The Houston marathon and half marathon take place the day after trials – built in spectators? The looped course makes viewing the race friendly (although all too easy to step off if the day goes awry). 

        My two objectives for the race are simple: 1. run the best race I possibly can on the day and 2. savor the moment, because you never know if you get another chance.