Monday, March 28, 2011

Going to the well

Six days after the LA marathon, I was still sore and tired.  Very few races in my career have left me in that condition for so long. Before you jump to the conclusion that age is wearing me down, hear me out on another explanation. I believe my post-race torpor stemmed from my actions on the race course: I went to the well.

Going to the well, entering the pain cave, giving it your all. All of these expressions represent the single notion of leaving a part of yourself on the playing field. It means that, regardless of the outcome, an athlete pushed through pain and self-doubt to cross the finish line, usually hobbled and incoherent.

One can go to the well under any number of circumstances: bonking, too hot, too cold, under-trained, over-trained, started too hard, cramping, pushing for a PR, trying for the win, aiming for a Kona slot. You know you have been there if you started bargaining with God or whatever deity you believe in and you promise yourself that this is last time you will ever do this (the irony, of course is that time heals all wounds and we all head right back for the start line just knowing it will be different next time). Yes, this is the miserable feeling of pushing through when your body just wants to collapse.

In my own career, I have been back and forth to the well, withdrawing plenty of water. Thank goodness, my well seems deep and it has been spread out over many years. I have been to the well during Ironman on plenty of occasions, but I have also visited on short races when the intensity and the weather have been steaming hot.

One never forgets their first trip to the well. Mine occurred during my first half Ironman race, the Muncie Endurathon. A combination of factors led to my demise on the race course. I was a newbie trying out a trick usually reserved for veterans; I raced an Olympic distance race the weekend before. I subsequently contracted a sinus infection. Additionally, I was grossly under-prepared for such a long race. Race day was hot enough to melt the pavement and the soles of my shoes. I was so tired entering T2, I wanted to nap underneath the tree outside transition instead of running 13.1 miles. I forced myself out on the course and trudged through the sauna, walking and running until I finally finished. I was bonked, dehydrated and miserable. When my name was called at the awards ceremony to claim a Kona slot I ran hard the other direction and let someone else sweat it out in Hawaii.

Going to the well is usually unplanned. Of course, we all believe that we can “go there” at any race. But, most races do not require such drastic measures. Usually, you can race hard and achieve your goals with some discomfort, but without extreme suffering. Going to the well takes a physical and mental toll. Use your trips wisely, under circumstances that really count. One cannot make multiple trips to the well in a season and only a finite number of times over a career.

And that brings me back to the LA marathon. The driving rain and cold temperatures affected me badly. I became disoriented during the race and my quads were burning. Yet, I pushed through. I went to the well. Interestingly, I did not even realize I was going to the well while I was racing. My brain had shut off and I was running on autopilot.

Next time you approach the well, ask yourself “Is it worth it today?”

Monday, March 21, 2011

A wet day in LA

I knew as soon as the 10 day forecast for Los Angeles was posted that rain was imminent on marathon Sunday. I stalked all week desperately hoping to see a smiling sun in place of the cloud with raindrops. It never happened. It was no surprise, then, that race day dawned cloudy and cold and shortly after the gun fired the rain started.

California rain is unique, more like a deluge than a drizzle. The roads have no capacity for shedding the teeming water, thus, flooding occurs quickly. Some people are impervious to such miserable conditions; the men’s winner broke the course record by 2 minutes in his marathon debut. Others are not so hearty; 2000 people, including myself, were treated for hypothermia at the finish and 30% of the field did not finish.

Despite the misery of the weather, there was plenty about the day that was agreeable.
This photo of the start is from the Huffington post. I circled myself in yellow.
Positive: In 2000 at the age of 29 in the marathon Olympic Trials, I set my PR. In 2011, at the age 40 I came within 60 seconds of that time.

Negative: A guy running barefoot kicked my butt (every time I stepped in yet another puddle, I kept thinking that he didn’t have to worry about his shoes getting wet and heavy).

Positive: I only missed the Olympic trials time standard by two minutes. I am feeling a lot more confident about my ability to run that fast.

Negative: I have to run another marathon this year.

Positive: I got the VIP treatment from race director Peter Abraham race day. I was allowed into the suite at Dodger Stadium race morning. There was food, plenty of comfortable seating and lots of bathrooms. My sister graciously dropped me off at 4:40am and I spent the next 2 hours keeping warm inside rather than having to mill about in the cold. I even did my pre-race warm up along the hallways of the stadium.

Negative: I still had to stand around in the cold for almost an hour. We went to the start line early to secure good positions, and the race was delayed by 30 minutes.

Positive: Race morning, I had nothing with me but some extra clothes, my phone and Ipod.

Negative: Triathlon requires so much time in the morning – setting up transition, warming up three sports, standing in line at the porta-potty – that time flies. Sunday morning, I had nothing to do. Time stood still as I waited for the race to start.

Positive: I ran well. I ran hard. I never gave up even when I felt like I might fall down.

Negative: I am so sore I am hobbled. Last night, at the airport, I tried to run to catch the parking shuttle. I ended up doing a weird, Frankenstein type shuffle instead that actually made people stop and stare.

Positive: I raced for the first time with my Garmin. Instead of focusing on mile splits, I broke the race up into 8x5k. I glanced at my pace periodically, but was most concerned with my 5k times. It made the race go by so much faster.

Negative: I was on pace for the Olympic trials standard until 35k when my race unraveled quickly and dramatically. The last 7k was ugly. The 6:15-6:18 pace jumped to 6:45 and then I just stopped looking. My legs were seizing, I started to become disoriented, and my hands were so red they bordered on purple. The finish line never looked so good.

Positive: I stayed in a very nice hotel near my sister’s house.

Negative: My room seemed to have some kind of auditory anomaly that made every sound from the room next to me VERY LOUD. I was privy to the couple’s evening activities in explicit detail. I acknowledged their exploits by slipping this note under their door:
"Bravo on your performance last night. The entire hotel needed a cigarette afterwards."

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Using my degree at IBG

I am often asked whether I “use” my degree for anything. I find that a strange question. What can a degree be used for? As a credit card? To get discounts on movies? My degree, alas, hangs forlornly on the basement wall.

The degree in question, is my PhD in genetic epidemiology; the study of how genetic and environmental factors affect disease. Since moving to Boulder in 2003, I have been gainfully employed, albeit very part time, at the Institute for Behavioral Genetics (affectionately known as IBG), which is a part of the University of Colorado (affectionately known as CU, which makes no sense, it should be U of C or UC).

IBG focuses on conducting research on the genetic and environmental bases of individual differences in behavior, for example drug abuse and conduct disorder and various related topics. Truly, that is simplifying things, though. There is so much going on at IBG, and so many employees, one cannot keep track of all the projects without carefully perusing the IBG website. At the yearly holiday party, I walk around searching for familiar faces from my department in the sea of people I hardly recognize.

Working at IBG has been fascinating. When I started, I had no background in behavioral genetics. Mostly, I had no knowledge of the “behavioral” part of behavioral genetics. I sat in meetings with a blank look on my face as acronyms for studies were tossed around, various disorders were discussed and people consulted on unfamiliar methodologies. Eventually, I learned the vernacular and no longer felt like a stranger.

Over the years, I have been amazed at the rapid advancement in the field of genetics. Technology is moving so quickly, data is gathering at such a rapid speed and in such copious amounts, the ability to analyze and store the data has lagged behind. It is mind boggling how much computer space is needed and how large the new super computers will be to handle this load.

My work specifically focuses on alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use in adolescents and young adults.  I have studied how various things affect whether an individual will become a user or abuser of a certain drug. Publish or perish is the mantra of academia, and I have been fortunate to author several papers that have been accepted to reputable journals.
My current project melds my two worlds. I am looking at how exercise affects drug use. We have a very unique situation in which we have information on a lot of individuals over a 10 year period, allowing us to follow changes in behavior over time.

Paradoxes abound at IBG. The world of academia is stimulating, but, things also can move at a sloth-like pace. At IBG, we are on the cutting edge of the field, but at meetings we sit on chairs from the 1970’s that have no cushioning left on them.

Women have historically been woefully under-represented in science. Not at IBG. Walk into any meeting or any building, and women will often comprise 50% of those present.

While I thoroughly enjoy my work at IBG, it can be a tough balancing act that requires creativity. I have been known to change for work in the parking lot after a workout and I often dash into a meeting barely on time with my breakfast in one hand and coffee in the other.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Running with Runners

A month ago, I wrote about my excitement over getting back on the bike and riding again. Unfortunately, my elation was short lived. As each week progressed, my discomfort on the bike was more noticeable, culminating in some very painful rides. I tried many variations of bike positions and bikes to no avail. My ribs are just not yet ready to ride a bike.

I have taken this disappointment in stride. What else can I do? I am throwing myself whole heartedly into running and I am still swimming. The would-be biking time has been easily filled with other non-sporting activities.

A large part of my involvement in sport is the social aspect. I decided that joining a running group would help fill that void. My experience in San Diego with the Running Republic of Boulder was very positive, so I decided to run with them on a more regular basis.

Running with runners is a very different experience than running with triathletes. Apart from the actual running motion itself, it is two entirely different entities. Runners are not balancing three sports and are doing fewer workouts each week. This makes a very big difference in the execution of the key workouts.

Let me take, as an example, the track workout I did on Saturday:

We met at the track at 8am. The whole group warmed up together for 20 min. We started at a very pedestrian pace. We reconvened back on the track for 10 minutes of dynamic stretching. After stretching we did some strides. The workout was explained and off we went. In between the reps we had some rest in which we could walk, jog slowly, take a sip of water, and catch some air. After the workout we jogged a very easy warm down. In total, the workout lasted over 90 minutes.

Now, let me describe track workouts with triathletes:

We run to the track like we are being poked with a cattle prod. Once on the track, we start the workout immediately (unless someone needs a potty break, and then we wait). In between the reps, we jog the recovery and then go right into the next rep without a break. I never feel like my heart rate is quite low enough. The workout is over in breakneck speed and we run back to the car at a much too fast pace. There is just enough time to grab a quick bite to eat before the next workout. Phew, it is exhausting.

Treating a speed session as its own entity and savoring the experience rather than dashing through it on the way to the next thing has great advantages. The proper warm up and stretching routine allows for better recovery from the workout. Using the rest time as true rest and stopping to take a breather lead to faster times. The less manic approach to the workout makes it more enjoyable.

The next time you set out for a key run session give yourself enough time to properly carry out the workout. The extra time spent will pay dividends in performance and recovery.