The value of training in adverse conditions
My first ironman-distance triathlon was in September of 2014 in Hunter, NY and it included lots of elevation gain and frigid pouring rain. I knew the Mont-Tremblant bike course would be similar to Hunter, with close to 7,000ft of gain, and then when I started checking the weather a week before the race it looked like we’d be getting plenty of rain too. Maybe even all day thunderstorms.
Fortunately I trained in a wide variety of conditions this summer, including two 100+mi rides in pouring rain. The kind of rain where not a single inch of your underwear is left dry and you feel more like you’re swimming than biking. This kind of training was great because it taught me how much extra I needed to wear and eat to stay warm. I learned to pack my Tinderhearth sourdough spelt sandwiches into a few separate plastic bags so that when I ate one the others would stay dry, and to always, always pack my rain-wind jacket even if it felt sort of warm when I headed out the door.
Training in adverse conditions is important because it teaches an athlete how to read their body when they’re distracted. When the external conditions are extreme it can be easy to focus on that and not yourself. At least once in my early training days I realized too late that I was over heating or hypothermic and had to be rescued or limp home.
I had a fantastic experience of managing myself in this way during the Ultra Trail du Mont Albert in the Chic Choc’s this June.
It was hot and humid and the race covers 27 miles and climbs over 5,000 ft to the highest point in Quebec, which turns out to be exposed alpine tundra. There were very few aid stations and I had to keep track of my
nutrition, hydration and electrolytes while also really pushing myself to get up and down the mountain as fast as I could because of a looming afternoon thunderstorm. In the end I felt proud of myself for being able to move confidently over the mountain terrain and was able to finish the race a full half hour before my goal time.
Again, this kind of all-day self-management is an important part of Ironman training. By the time the race came around I felt totally confident that as long as the race wasn’t cancelled (due to fog or lightening), I would be able to handle the conditions.
Ironman Mont-Tremblant, August 21, 2016
When I registered for this race I was incredibly annoyed to discover that I had to check-in Friday afternoon for a Sunday race. What kind of people can take off two days of work for a race?? First the crazy registration fee and now taking vacation days during the busiest time of year? Adding insult to injury, I discovered the Thursday before the race that the traffic around Montreal could add a few hours to my travel time and it was very unlikely that I would make it to check-in if I left early Friday morning and I was going to need to leave Thursday evening instead. That’s how I realized I had three hours to pack instead of 16. Lucy, my 10 year old daughter LOVES check lists and was a big help in gathering everything on such short notice. Finally, having double-checked the epic Ironman gear list which includes such essentials as three kinds of zip lock bags, three kinds of tape, several colors of permanent markers and another random but possibly necessary 300 items, I was ready.
I left my house at 6pm Thursday evening and meandered my way through the moosey back woods of Maine. There really is no other way to get there from here. The tiny border crossing had one women and she waved me through. Good to see Canada won’t be building a wall anytime soon. I spent the night at a funky little college town hostel-type hotel in Sherbrooke and found a great coffee place in the morning with fresh bagels and smoked salmon.
I then made a fatal navigation error – following my car GPS without really knowing where I was going. It turns out the GPS was sending me to the heart of Mont-Tremblant Parc, which is not the same at the ski resort where the race was being held. They are in fact 60 miles apart. Again, insult to injury the road the GPS sent me on had a mysterious road block which sent me on another 40 mile detour. All I could think was thank god I had left the night before and still had plenty of time to make it to check-in. I arrived around 1:30 and quickly realized the scale of the event when I tried to park. Which ended up being three miles and a shuttle bus ride away. Finally I found my cousin Samantha who had been occupying her time with a serving of poutine while waiting for me to arrive. We found check-in, where again, I realized, this was definitely not a “throw my bike over the transition area fence” kind of race. I picked up all kinds of waivers, signed them, weighed myself (still not sure why we had to do this, but man, if you want to fuss up a bunch of triathletes try telling them not to take their shoes before they get weighed).
It took about 45 minutes to wind myself through the check-in maze after which I gratefully followed Samantha to the crepery for lunch.
Samantha and I shared a room at Auberge Le Lupin, a fantastic bed and breakfast only a 10min walk from the start line. We spent Saturday going through our gear and collecting miscalaneous missing pieces – like the straw to my aero water bottle that Lucy had borrowed for a home science project (and filled with mysterious black gunk), and a spare long-stemmed inner tube to use with the super-awesome Reynolds Assault carbon wheels that the Bar Harbor Bike Shop put on my bike for the weekend. We also gave in to the temptation and both bought new swim goggles, which turned out to be a great decision.
I was still debating what shorts to wear since I really wanted to wear one pair through the whole race and not change clothes at all during transitions but when I tried running in any of my tri bike shorts, even the ones with the thinnest padding it still felt like I was running with a diaper. I gave up on finding the perfect tri-shorts and packed my trusty running compression shorts into my transition bag.
The whole transition set up is really fancy and well-organized. We had to drop off our bags and park our bikes in their designated spot by 4pm Saturday afternoon, which means we had to be totally decided on what gear to put in each bag (a swim-to-bike bag and a bike-to-run bag) a full 15 hours before the start of the race. For the average type-A triathlete this kind of loss of control over gear can be nearly debilitating. But I managed to only goof up the placement of my watch, which is not waterproof and thus should have gone into my swim-to-bike bag, but since we were allowed access to our bikes in the morning before the race I stuffed it into the snack bag on my frame. Did I mention they photograph each bike before you roll it into the bike rack area? I’m pretty sure Midnight (my bike) felt like royalty in front of the paprazzi. Don’t tell her, but she’s an aluminum frame Cannondale CAAD10 and she was kind of a Mike Mulligan surrounded by a field of carbon tri-bikes.
With all of our gear taken care of we had a couple hours to enjoy the ski resort festivities which included riding the alpine slide and eating ice cream dipped in hazelnut chocolate sauce.
Pierre and Sylvie at Le Lupin made us a great pre-race dinner which we finished by 7pm and after only a little more gear review and anxiety (not much we could do at that point) we went to bed.
We woke up at 4:15am and ate an awesome pre-race breakfast, once again made by Pierre. The morning was warm but not at all foggy and the forecast for thunderstorms had been postponed until at least 11am. This was a great relief because it meant the race would go as planned (instead of altering or eliminating the swim portion).
We walked over to the bike area, pumped our tires, filled our water bottles and headed straight over to the beach. With the huge crowds slowing everything down we had no time to spare. We threw our “morning gear bags” into the giant dumpster truck as instructed and made our way to the water.
I had just enough time to jump-in and get wet before my swim wave was lining up. I kept telling myself “nice and easy” for the swim. No need to rush, no need to breathe hard, it won’t make me any faster and it was crucial that I not re-experience that panicky racing heart-rate feeling that came on when I had my episode of pulmonary edema this spring.
So that’s just how I swam: nice and easy. I took one buoy at a time and told myself I could swim all day if I needed too. The wave never thinned out and I had fun trying to draft off swimmers just ahead of me. I did get kicked a bunch and my goggles even came off once. Also, I still have no good way of managing my three feet of hair in a swim cap and about half way through my cap started flopping about precariously and was barely hanging on by the time I finished. The water got much rougher during the second half of the swim and I could see people bobbing off to the edges of the course and looking pretty green. I watched one guy puke and quickly turned my head back into the water pretending I hadn’t just seen that. I train quite a bit in Blue Hill Bay and it can be very rough with both choppy waves and big rollers and I’m lucky I have yet to get seasick.
Once out of the water I sat down on the red carpet and let the “strippers” pull off my wetsuit, which I then slung over my shoulder and ran the 500yds up to transition. All I had to do was put on my sunglasses, helmet and bike shoes but my transition was a bit slow because I couldn’t find my bike. Volunteers are supposed to bring you your bike (valet-style) but things got mixed up (or I got mixed up) and I had to chase down Midnight before the well-intentioned volunteer wheeled her all the way to the opposite corner of the bike pen.
My mantra for the first few miles of the bike was “don’t go out too fast”. I love to bike and it is by far my strongest of the three legs but I decided to see if going a little easier would give me more for the run. So I rolled along at a comfortable 18mph for the first big stretch of highway. There were some big rolling hills in this section and I hit 43mph a few times. At first this was fine, but as I caught up with the men’s wave it became a constant challenge to not run them over. I weigh at least 20lbs more than the average tri-guy (plus Midnight is a little heftier than her carbon friends) and consequently I overtake almost everyone on the down hills. About an hour into the ride it began to rain steadily and this added to the excitement because it is very difficult, if not impossible to break hard with new carbon wheels. The first lap of the bike ends with a dramatic 8% climb up a mountain with a corresponding descent. By now it was pouring and as I approached the start of the hill I came on a major bike accident pile up. There were a few guys on the ground, one was still in the middle of road with horrific looking injuries to his face and head, another on the side of the road with a friend stabilizing his neck. There were at least a dozen bikes on the side of the road and everyone was yelling to slow down. The riders coming down the other side of the road were barely able to break in time to avoid those of us biking up and around the accident – it was quite sobering and made me wonder if I would be able to adequately control my own descent. As it turns out by the time I was coming back down they had volunteers posted in the middle of the road above the accident and forced all of us to slow way down. I kept my speed below 15mph on the entire downhill and I was relieved when I made it back down safely. I had planned to stop once on the bike at the half way point – here I topped off my water, dumped in Tailwind, peed and headed out for the second lap. I had stuffed a rain jacket into my saddle bag and considered putting it on several times but kept being just not cold enough . . . I had plenty of energy on the second lap and started to regret that I hadn’t pushed it harder on the first. Then just before hitting the final ascent I fumbled (cold hands) and dropped TWO packets of Gu – which left me with no fuel for the climb or the remaining 40 minutes of riding. Oops.
Finally off the bike and onto the run. Have you ever tried to peel off wet spandex and then put on dry compression shorts over wet legs? It’s impossibly tedious and even slower with cold hands. I think I’m glad I did, though all my tri friends claim that running 26 miles with wet bike-padding isn’t as bad as it sounds.
The run was fairly uneventful. It took me about three miles to catch back up on calories but I was staying under 11 min miles and feeling pretty good. If you have trained adequately, the run in an Ironman is almost entirely mental – my mantra on this section was “if you can walk you can run”. I would pick out something ahead and tell myself I could run to there, and once there I would pick a new bench mark. Or I would count runners coming the other way and only after I had counted 50 would I allow myself look at my watch again. In the end I walked very little of the course and was really proud of how smoothly I completed the run. Maybe biking slower paid off?
My goal was to finish during daylight and as I ran down the final hill I could see lovely pink streaks of clouds as the sun began to set. I’m not a crowd person but it was fun to come through the finisher chute and high five all the cheering kids along the way.
As soon as I crossed the line a volunteer grabbed my arm and ushered me right into the recovery tent. I wondered if she thought I was going to pass out because she didn’t let go of me for a couple of minutes. The race logistics were pretty amazing at this point. The same bag I had tossed into a garbage truck at 6:30am was immediately handed to me with all my dry clothes in it. I managed to hide behind a space blanket to change while I waited for Samantha to finish. I also attempted to find something edible in the post-race meal, which turned out to be terrible. Cold and very mayonnaisey pasta salad, cold and very dry looking cous cous, and raw cucumbers and carrots. Plus of course poutine. Out of desperation I got the pountine without the pountine (aka plain French fries) and nibbled on cucumbers and carrots. All of the beverages were caffeinated but since I was hoping to sleep soon I stuck to water. Samantha finished an hour and a half after me and was in great spirits. She had also had a great race. I started to offer to help her get food and find her warm clothes when all of a sudden I felt horribly ill. Where was that overly protective volunteer now? All I could do was sit on the curb with my head between my legs getting more and more nauseated. The EMTs did find me and I tried to convince them that really all I had to do was puke and I would be fine again. The problem is that in every endurance event I’ve done my digestion pretty much shuts down after 10-11 hours of racing and it can take several hours for it to start back up. Usually I need to start with warm soups or tea before I can eat anything dense again. Thus the French fries and cold vegetables were just sitting there. But not for long. The EMT’s brought me a garbage bag and I gratefully puked into it, and yes, I instantly felt better. Samantha and I headed out to pick up our bikes and transition bags and walked back under a lovely, clear night sky to our bed and breakfast. I fell asleep on an empty stomach but miraculously was able to sleep all the way through until 7 the next morning.
We woke to the aroma of crepes Florentine and whole grain pancakes with fresh peach compote. Plus bread pudding and espresso. It was a beautiful fresh morning and I realized this little resort town had really grown on me. Or was it just Pierre’s cooking?
The drive home was mostly uneventful. There was no line at the border but the customs man did in fact check my passport card and cheerily told me he had gone to high school in Blue Hill. Also, by trying to avoid buying gas in Canada I ran my tank perilously empty in that 40 mile stretch of wilderness between the border and the first gas station. I’m convinced I only made it because there was a really strong tailwind. Gas isn’t the only thing that runs in short supply in this part of Maine. There is virtually nowhere to buy food (excepting slim jims and cheap American beer). Normally I would not notice such a thing but seeing as I was down a few thousand calories I was fairly desperate by the time I hit the Sugarloaf general store where I bought a box of wildly over priced crackers and a small square of cheddar cheese. This made it even sweeter to get home and discover that for dinner Lucy had made me a hamburger with all the fixings and steamed me a big bowl of green beans. It was the best homecoming ever!
Post Ironman recovery and what’s next
The great thing about triathlons is that they are fairly easy to recover from. At least in terms of soreness. I took the week off and started running the following week. Two weeks later I was still feeling general fatigue but only when I pushed myself. Even so, I had a great time running laps at the Last Man Standing race held at Pineland Farms this past weekend (32.4 miles total).
This week I’m working on my running mileage and plan to hike Mt.Katahdin this weekend. This will be my final training burst before the Vermont 50 (a 50 mi mountain trail running race) on September 25th.
Overall I am very pleased with how well my body is holding up. I think the considerable amount of strength work I did last fall-winter-spring has paid off and is keeping my hip out of the main-line of fire. Another success is that I’m feeling excited about running and being in the mountains. There’s nothing like training 18 hours a week to make a 3-hour run feel down-right relaxing!
I’m 13 weeks into my 24 weeks of Ironman Mt. Tremblant training. I chose to follow Joe Friel’s plan this year and have been enjoying the variety, inclusion of strength training (more on that in a minute) and periodic time trials to check for improvement.
Strength adds resiliency, power and speed
I added strength training to my regular endurance routine about four years ago. I started slow – first Pilates, which was really hard for me and a serious reality check on how weak my gluteus muscles were. Then TRX, another reality check, but very fun because I notably improved my leg balance and strength over a single winter, then this past year I added more dynamic work like box jumps, squatting with heavier weights, high skipping and jump roping. These are all things that I never could have done as a kid because my hips were much too weak and my knees hurt just from walking. It’s quite satisfying to master these simple movements at the age of 41 and have virtually no hip or knee pain.
Beware of the bench
I did have a minor set back earlier this Spring when I attempted to set myself up with heavier weights to do squats. Up to that point I’d been slinging a 25lb dumbbell over each shoulder but on this fateful morning I clipped 30lbs to each end of free-weight bar and then went to sit down to wait for the trainer to give me further instructions. But I didn’t sit down, I tripped on the foot of the bench and fell over backwards jettisoning the bar and weights off to my side as I went. I landed hard on my elbow and sat there dazed, assessing damage while the entire gym turned to in horror at the sound of 80lbs hitting the floor. My foot hurt and when I took off my shoe I found a bleeding four-inch gash on the big toe side of my foot. Maybe one end of the weights had landed there and bounced off? In the moment I was totally mortified because I am still one of those people that doesn’t believe she belongs in a gym. My foot and elbow really hurt and I had to work the rest of the day so I went next door to the drug store and bought a 10-pack of instant ice packs, stuffed them into my socks and shirt and commenced a full day of teaching. That evening at home I had time to fully assess the damage and discovered several more weird injuries – my pinkie toe was clearly broken, I had a large cut and bruise on my upper inner thigh and a spectacular hand-sized bruise on one butt cheek. Plus I couldn’t get the cut on my foot to stop bleeding. I tweezed out the sock fuzz and tried several times to steri-strip it closed. Finally with my 9-year-old daughter’s help I got it zipped up. So yes, if you’re thinking I should have gotten stitches, you are right. It took that dang cut 6 weeks to heal and another 2 for my pinkie toe to stop throbbing after being jammed into a shoe.
Though the accidental weight-lifting incident humbled me greatly, it didn’t slow down my training.
Swimming break through
I was never a swimmer as a kid. The two main reasons being that the Maine ocean is frickin cold and I hate getting water in my ears (too many ear infections as a kid). So I taught myself to swim 6 years ago when I started training for triathlons. I watched a few youtube videos, found ear plugs and goggles that don’t dig into my eye sockets and figured out how to freestyle well enough to get from one end of the pool to another. But no matter how much force I put behind my stroke I never got any faster. So this spring I ventured down to Bowdoin College for a 2hr swim clinic with their head swim coach and had my entire swim-world turned upside down. I learned about body position and how to use more momentum and less force. I went from sort of dreading the effort of tedium of pool time to eagerly looking forward to working on my newly found technique. I’ve shaved 30 seconds off my 500yd time, which may not be huge, but it’s the right direction, and the amount of effort I exert to achieve this time feels like a fraction of the struggle I was putting into my laps before.
Triathlon swimming is about more than your stroke
Thus I arrived at last weekend’s Sebego Olympic Triathlon excited to try out my new skills. The lake water was a mere 54 degrees but I didn’t think much about it. Heck, every summer I swim 2.5-3 miles across Blue Hill Bay, and I’m pretty sure Frenchman Bay never gets above 56. I love my wetsuit, and usually after I get my face wet a few times I’m good to go. But on the morning of the race I got into the water to warm up and oddly struggled with keeping my face in the water. It wasn’t just the usual reticence to get started, it was more like a visceral aversion – even after swimming 100 yds or so I kept wanting to get my face out of the water. What was weirder is that my body didn’t feel particularly cold. I got out and said to my cousin Samantha “Wow, that’s pretty cold on the face!” and she said “Yeah, but it got better once I got swimming”. There wasn’t much time to think about it as the race was just about to start. We were funneled knee deep into the water and just a few seconds later the race started. I didn’t have time to position myself off to the outside and back where I typically like to be so I ran-walked through the water to get myself out of the kicking fray and started swimming. Usually I start with a minute or so of same side breathing and then after the initial sprint I settle into a more sustainable alternate breath pace. After a few minutes I tried a few slower strokes and alternate breaths but I kept being forced to breathe every stroke – my heart just wasn’t slowing down. This went on for a bit and I figured I was just amped up from the fast start and the cold water and I figured things would settle down shortly. But they didn’t.
SIPE – Stress Induced Pulmonary Edema
I had to take more breaths, not less. Until finally I decided, ok, I’ve just got to stop completely, relax, float a bit, get my bearings and start again very slowly. I’ve never had to do this in a race before but I also realized I had a long ways to go and hacking my way through the water in a panicked state wasn’t the best way to get there. Even as I floated calmly, sculling on my back, looking at the clouds, thinking chill thoughts and reassuring myself that I was totally fine, I still couldn’t take a deep breath. I backstroked my way to the furthest bouy, the waves were getting bigger and every time the water hit my face I had to stop and catch my breath all over again. I thought about letting the lone kayaker out there know that I was struggling but then decided that once I turned the bouy and started going in the same direction as the waves I would be fine. A few friends passed me – also struggling to put their faces in the water and I told one of them I thought maybe I was having a really hard time breathing and it might be dangerous for me to keep going. I don’t think she heard me because of her earplugs.
When I was halfway between the two furthest buoys I heard my lungs gurgling. I thought about asking the swimmer next to me to stay close but when I tried to talk I started coughing with the effort, My wetsuit suddenly felt much too tight and I desperately wanted to rip it off. Then my vision got weird. Or I thought it did. The thing is, it’s really hard to feel or think clearly when you’re bobbing around in the middle of a very cold lake having a hard time breathing. Finally, I got to the point where I could only catch my breath if I floated still on my back. Any stroke or kick immediately made me cough and gurgle. That’s when I decided to call for help while I still could. The kayaker saw me – but he was several hundred feet away helping someone else. I knew I wasn’t about to sink so I just floated and waited. When I got picked up by the recue motor boat I had zero regrets. It was the smartest thing I’ve ever done in a race. We picked up two more swimmers – one who was suffering from the same gurgling and coughing as me. I tried not to puke into the boat, though I did cough up some really nasty foamy pink stuff onto the fake grass at my feet. I was still convinced I was fine and assumed I was having my first ever asthma attack that would surely resolve now that I wasn’t in the cold water. But an hour later, still on the boat, I felt worse not better. Finally deposited on shore I went back to my rental cabin and took a hot shower (though I wasn’t that cold) and tried to lie down to rest. Sadly I discovered that I could not lie down without feeling like I was drowning so I walked slowly over to the EMT tent, trying to breathe and calm my heart rate. They offered me an Albuterol inhaler, which I refused because I had talked to my asthmatic husband and decided this wasn’t asthma. I opted for oxygen instead which made me cough up more pink foamy nastiness but also made me feel much better. I couldn’t remember the name of what was happening to me but I remembered the symptoms from my days as a Wilderness EMT. The weird thing is, none of the race medical staff knew what was going on either. Now I know it’s called SIPE – Stress Induced Pulmonary Edema. A condition caused by increased pulmonary artery pressure due to cold water immersion and increased heart rate (from exertion). According to a study published in the American Journal of Emergency Medicine
“Symptom history compatible with SIPE was identified in 1.4% of the population [triathletes surveyed]. Associated factors identified … included history of hypertension, course length of half-Ironman distance or greater, female gender and use of fish oil supplements. Of the 31 cases reported, only 4 occurred in the absence of any associated factors.”
I don’t take fish oil, my blood pressure is very low and I experienced symptoms after swimming less than 500yds. So that leaves me with being a female, a risk factor that is unlikely to change anytime soon.
What is dead can never die
I began to recover after a few hours and after cheering on all my friends at the finish line and eating lunch I decided to head out on a recovery bike ride. I biked 30 miles up to Norway in hopes of finding a snack at the Nomad Café (closed on Sundays!) and 30 miles back to my car where I had some hearty Tinderhearth bread waiting. I felt ok, kept my heart rate below 130 the whole ride and stopped coughing up foamy stuff after an hour or so. The next morning I felt horrible – like I had drowned the day before. All week I’ve been tired, my legs are slow and I feel under-recovered. The results of my time trials over the last two days were disappointing and I’m wondering if I need another very easy week in preparation for next weekend’s trail marathon up Mont Jacques-Cartier. http://ultratrailma.com/sky/skymaraton-2/?lang=en
Most worrisome is that after my 500m swim time trial in the pool this evening I could feel my lungs rasping – something I’ve never experienced before. More investigation needed . . .
I have ten weeks before Ironman Mt. Tremblant but I think the hardest part of recovering from this will be in re-gaining my confidence and not worrying about whether it will happen again.
If I had to sum up my advice to my future triathlete self it would be
- Don’t over hydrate before the swim
- Warm up thoroughly – swim at least 200yds of free style before the start
- Start slow and stay slow. Slow is better than not at all!
In case you don’t know my brother here’s a little background. First off, we’re mirror-image identical twins. And the first thing most people want to tell us is “But you can’t be identical, you’re not the same gender.” Or, maybe they’ll tell us “But you can’t be identical, you look so different”. (By which they really mean, “Why is he so much shorter and rounder than you?”). So let me explain. My brother is transgender and I am cisgendered. He also had childhood Leukemia before doctors really knew what they were doing with radiation and chemotherapy (but happily they knew enough to save his life) and those treatments changed how he grew. So here we are, an identical matching set that now looks more different on the outside than the inside.
How we got into running
When we were 24 years old my brother decided to run a marathon with Team in Training which raises money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. I joined him and together we flew to Honolulu for our first ever marathon. Since then we’ve run many more – some together but mostly on our own.
Last fall my brother texted me that he had just signed up for the Antelope Canyon half marathon in northern Arizona. I had so much fun running around Page, AZ last February during a family trip that I was eager to go back. Plus, I couldn’t let him go out there alone. I signed up for the 50 mile race.
A training buddy is invaluable when it comes to running through the winter. Even though we live three hours apart we regularly texted each other pictures of frosted eyebrows, complained about getting slushed by 18 wheelers and whined about getting up in the dark to run long weekend miles.
My brother had a knee replacement a year ago so every injury-free run was a huge success for him. As for me, my training went really well, just running is so easy (compared to training for an Ironman). Plus, I love running in the winter despite the slush, dark and cold. Something about the stark landscape, the openness of the winter sky and the lack of people feels so easy and spacious, like I can be fully me and not worry about what anyone thinks. I had some of my most pleasant long runs ever and was able to stay off the roads almost entirely because of the thin to non-existent snow cover.
My favorite training runs were going up the Cadillac Mountain Road looking for snowy owls. I made this video during one of those runs when I was trying to figure out how to use my GoPro camera. Some might say this video is a bit tedious and uneventful, but that’s exactly what I love about running and nature – mostly it is deeply soothing and non-eventful!
There were a few stumbles in our training – I had some nagging achilles pain where a thick lump appeared after this fall’s Vermont 50 but I visited a PT weekly to keep it in check. Thankfully the most painful days coincided with the weather and there was enough snow to skate ski instead of run.
A week before the race my brother fell hard on the ice and bruised his knee and shin so badly that by the time I met up with him it looked like it should be amputated! His knee remained stiff right up to the race but besides worsening his pre-race jitters it didn’t cause him any problems.
The Road Trip
We flew from Maine to AZ the Wednesday before the race and commenced our first twin-only-trip in over 15 years. If you don’t have an identical twin I am sorry. There’s something about hanging out with a different expression of yourself that is both supremely comfortable, like wearing your own skin, and hilarious, because if you can’t silly with yourself, who can you be silly with?
The first night we drove north to the Prescott National Forest and found a nice little patch of desert dirt to camp on. The coyotes woke us up shortly before a local rancher rumbled by in his diesel rig and the sunrise was spectacular. From there we drove north to Sedona to check on the vortex and get breakfast. The town itself was unremarkable but the canyon was gorgeous. We stopped in Flagstaff to stock up on groceries for the rest of our trip and then headed north to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
There’s a reason our thru-hiking trail names are Turtle and Hair. My brother is slow and
methodical and visiting a new place requires a good deal of orienting and planning. I prefer to leap into things and figure it out experientially. Even so, we do ok, like that evening at the Grand Canyon when took off from our campsite on a 6 mile run along the rim trail while my brother drove around in loops looking for the parking lot where we were going to meet to watch the sunset. He made it there eventually as he always does and we caught the last few seconds of the sun sinking below the horizon.
Camping that night was freezing. Literally. In an effort to avoid checking luggage I had left my down coat in Maine so I spent most of the night doing sit ups in my sleeping bag to stay warm while my brother happily and loudly snored away next to me. I woke him up in time to join me for a brisk warmup walk down to Yaki Point to watch the sunrise, which was spectacular as expected. For breakfast we ate our fourth meal of sandwiches and headed north toward Page, AZ.
We derived to spring for a hotel room the night before the race, albeit a very cheap one. When we arrived I had to remove the left over food from the mini-fridge, the hair from the bathroom sink and the dried leaves from the towels. (This explains why I almost always prefer my tent to hotel rooms). My 50 mile race started at 6am so my brother graciously got up with me even though his half marathon didn’t start until 8am.
My run started in the dark, but soon we were running straight into the sunrise greeting
the new desert day. It was a lovely race, even with all the sand. I never quite know
what to tell non-trail ultra runners what it’s like to run 50 miles in a day. It’s a little like the days I birthed my two babies. A mix of knowing and not knowing, bliss and pain, boredom and expectation, skillful body and mind management, and of course, beauty, lots of beauty. I love the solitude, even when there are other runners nearby we’re all having our own experience, we’re all getting through in our own way. Mostly in trail races like this, at least where I am in the pack, no one is trying to beat anyone else so there is an easy camaraderie and the shared joy and gratitude for getting to do what we love.
I finished somewhere in the top third for women, but more importantly I met my goal of
finishing before sunset. There is great satisfaction being able to run 50 miles before dark! As has happened in these longer races, after 11 hours of drinking Tailwind and squeezing down the occasional Gu my stomach totally lost during the last hour and not even the bacon quesadillas the local cross country team kids were cooking up at the last aid station could tempt me!
The following day we headed south back toward Flagstaff. It’s a lovely drive because Arizona is a lovely state. I’ll leave you with this portrait of our drive together. There’s nothing better than taking a road trip with a good friend.
More pictures from our trip and the race – Ultra Adventures Antelope Canyon 50 miler in Page, AZ. And if you want to know what it was really like to run this race you should watch this guys very funny but horrifyingly accurate video of the day.
I technically still have a few races left this season – the Mount Desert Island Marathon next weekend that I get to run with Jerome because it’s his first ever marathon(!), and the Downeast Double Trouble trail series that I’ll run with my girls at the end of the month. But mostly this season is winding down and it’s been a really good one. You might recall I suffered from plantar fasciitis for most of 2014 – and then it mysteriously healed during my full Ironman race last September. Well I am glad to report that I’ve only had the slightest twinges of achilles pain since then.
Pain-free, I had one of my best xc ski seasons ever, and finished it by winning the women’s 40k Maine Huts and Trail’s race. I also got really strong at skate skiing and was able to skate 12-15 miles at a time around Acadia’s (perfectly groomed) carriage roads. Skate skiing seems to be great physical therapy for me because it helps me strengthen my external hip rotators. I think the peril for runners who skate ski is that it can aggravate and tighten the tibialis anterior muscles along the front of the shin which can definitely be a precipitating factor in plantar fasciitis. This is a good example of why its important to know the cause of your chronic injury – one athlete’s medicine could be another’s poison.
My first long run of 2015 was a huge success, I finished the Antelpe Canyon 55k feeling like I could easily continue another 15 miles and even though it was a slow run with lots of deep sand, I finished in the top third. The race was a great ending to a great family vacation.
I went from that into a few more ski races followed by a couple rest weeks and then straight into a 15 week Ironman training plan. This put me in great shape Memorial Day weekend when I ran the Pineland Trails 50k 45 minutes faster than I did two years ago. Two weeks later I ran 34 miles at the Great Cranberry Island “Great Run”. One of the great things about the Great Run is that it’s a whole bunch of running back and forth on a small island so you end up passing everyone a couple dozen times and by the end you kind of feel like one big happy running family. Seeing Mike Westpahl run past me every half hour was awesomely inspiring, if you haven’t yet watched this video of his incredible run that day, please do. It was also amazing to watch the women’s champion Leah Frost run with such impeccable form right to the very end. I keep an image of her perfect kick in my head when I’m running now and I swear it’s making me faster. (Thanks Leah!) I also had a lot of fun dancing to the music at the end of each lap.
The weekend after the Great Run I headed to South Berwick, ME for the Sea to Summit sort-of-ironman. The night before the race I slept at the start line in my brother’s sedan. I do not recommend this pre-race strategy. Anyway, soon enough I was wading into the murky waters of a tidal river starting the weirdest triathlon swim ever. We ran through mud for a a big chunk of the swim on the way out and then dodged some pretty nasty slabs of slate on the way in. The 100 mile bike ride up to Mt. Washington was nice. I flip-flopped with a fellow female rider which kept me motivated and focussed during the five and a half hour ride and especially up that last mountain climb to Wild Cat ski area where the run up Mt. Washington starts from. I crushed the run/hike up the Lion’s Head trail and though I was hoping to make it up in under two hours I was happy with 2:20. I’m positive I could do under two on fresh legs.
My next race was the Norway Sprint triathlon. Having not learned my lesson I slept in the car the night before the race again. I’ve slept in my car before races for the last 20 years, but I had forgotten why I borrowed my brother’s car the month before – which was because the backseat of my car is broken and doesn’t fold down anymore. Sleep is a generous term for hanging out in a sleeping bag in the front seat of your car waiting for sunrise.
The race went well despite the sleep deprivation. Once again I had a good female competitor in the bike ride and we averaged over 19mph going up and down the hill together. I do have a new bike this season and I absolutely love it but in triathlon world it is still an aluminum clunker and the fact that I can beat a super aero carbon bike is infuriating to high-tech riders. Thus even though I beat my competitor back to the transition she was very relieved when she passed me on the run. We ended up first and second in our age group, and I’m glad she beat me or she might have beat me up!
After Norway my summer was filled with glorious long runs and bike rides. I discovered the Graham Lake loop north of Ellsworth freshly paved and about as scenic as Maine gets. I ran some great mountain loops around Acadia in preparation for the Vermont 50. I hiked Katahdin several times in search of elevation and had my 9 year old daughter join me on one trip. My family also joined me in hiking several sections of the Maine Appalachian Trail which was great fun. I remained injury-free except for some mysterious and sudden low back pain that my amazing chiropractor was able to cure with just one visit. Thus I landed at the start of my last two big races in great shape.
This year my cousin and I opted for the Pumpkinman half ironman in place of the Lobsterman Olympic length race that we’ve done for the past six years. It was a little sad to miss the Lobsterman which was once again blessed with perfect late summer weather. Instead we arrived at the start of the Pumpkinman the following day in a cold gray drizzle. But I thrive in cold wet conditions, partly because I have to bike really hard to stay warm. I averaged 20mph on the 58 mile course and ran the 13.1 miles in 2 hours – my best time in nearly two decades!
Two weeks later I headed to Vermont for what I hoped would be my reward for a great, injury-free, rest-filled, well-nourished training season. I did not sleep in my car the night before even though this fall I finally traded in my decrepit old honda for a Mazda5 with excellent seat-folding capacity (a pre-requisite for any car I own.) I did however sleep in my tent at the start line. I love it when race directors provide start-line camping, it makes everything so much more relaxed. I rolled out of my tent at 5:30, made tea and toast and strolled down the hill for a 6:30 start. Alas, I quickly realized I’d made a fatal error. I was wearing shorts I’d never run in before and suddenly they were giving me a huge wedgie. Panicked, I ran back up to my car, switched out the offending new shorts for my old standbys and sprinted back down the hill to the start line with a minute to spare. Nothing like a little pre-race warm up!
The Vermont 50 was an almost perfect race for me. I still have a hard time focussing on speed on more technical terrain (tight switch backs, rocks and roots) and this is particularly true on longer races when I’m more apt to be alone on the trail. I can practically slow to a walk without even realizing it – I guess I’m still a thru hiker at heart. The other thing that really slowed me down in this particular race was that I had to mess around way too much at the aid stations. I thought I had it all figured out but what happened is this: I had made a cute little laminated card with my projected pace on it that would double as a funnel for pouring Tailwind drink mix into the inconveniently small mouth of my platypus water bottle. This plan worked perfectly until I misplaced the card/funnel at an aid station. I even ran back a few hundred feet to check the aid station trash but gave up in the end, truly confounded about its disappearance (two days later it was discovered in the top pocket of my vest).
The consequence was that at the next three aid stations I had to find some kind of something to roll into a funnel. The volunteers tried to help by ripping up cardboard coke boxes and creatively folding tissues. After a final and impossibly frustrating attempt to get Tailwind into my water bottle I headed out of the second to last aid station on a seven mile section that has been really hard for me the last two years. This year I made sure to bring an extra quart of Tailwind so I wouldn’t crash two thirds of the way through. But then about a mile out I pulled my water bottle hose toward my mouth to take a drink and all of a sudden I felt water pouring down my back. I quickly tore my pack off, flipped it upside down and rescued the remaining quart of Tailwind. It took me some time to get the water bottle hose reattached and there was nothing I could do about my soaking wet, sticky shirt and shorts. Fortunately it was cool enough that a single quart was sufficient to get me through the rest of that section.
The last part of the VT50 a real highlight. I had been passing back and forth with three guys for the last 20 miles and I ended up pacing them the final three miles. This can be a rough section because you basically climb up Mt.Ascutney and run down the ski trail to the lodge to the finish. Most people walk a good chunk of the uphill and often can’t run the downhill because their quads are shot. But I felt strong enough to run the whole thing and the guys refused to pass me, which of course made me run even faster. By the time we got to the final zig-zag downhill I felt awesome! My quads were strong and I was able to really fly down to the finish. Or at least that’s how it felt. The guys all high-fived me at the finish and I though to myself “maybe I really am a runner!”
I had very little soreness the following days and the hardest part of recovering was forcing myself not to run despite feeling “rested”. I know myself and I know that I probably need way more rest than I feel like I need. In the past I haven’t taken that rest and I’m sure that has contributed to my plantar fasciitis and hip arthritis. So I’ve been running easy the last week or so, no more than 6 miles at a time, nice and slow. I feel a little nagging in my heels and achilles and I hope I can get some good myofascial work soon to help break up the adhesions I feel building up in my calves. Incidentally, I’ve learned that stretching does nothing for this issue and strength work while still recovering might be a really bad idea. I’ve also learned that while Tailwind is awesome for preventing stomach issues and keeping my muscles fueled on long runs, I need to recover my gut as quickly as possible afterwards. This means lots of probiotics, fermented vegetables (my favorite is ginger kohlrabi) and as little starch as possible.
Overall it’s been a great season testing out some new training ideas: more intuitive training, less by-the-book schedules, way more strength work, more rest days, more sleep, and little or no food on long runs (just Tailwind). I’m looking forward to another winter of strength and coordination (I love Annie Grindal’s class at the Blue Hill Y!), more slush running and skate skiing. I’m thinking a few 50 mile trail races next season (Antelope Canyon, Cayuga Trail and VT50) and maybe a full Ironman . . . Mt. Tremblant? I hear Ironmen are cheaper in Canadian dollars . . . If any one knows of a good parking lot in Montreal, let me know.
The back story . . .
When Lucy was born nine years ago I gave up my yoga studio in Vermont and moved back to Maine. I’ve been a nomadic yoga teacher ever since. Over the last nine years I’ve taught in at least a dozen different studios from Portland to Eastport. I taught a Monday evening class in Belfast for a few years but finally ended it when I was having trouble staying awake on the drive home. I taught a Wednesday evening class in Ellsworth – and enjoyed that drive home much more thanks to WERU’s Drive Thru and Carlton’s local humor. I stopped teaching evening classes that required a longer commute sometime after the black ice episode when I slid off the road on the way to class and had to have my students come rescue me (thanks John and Anita!).
Bringing together the power of yoga and Pilates
Four years ago I was having a hard time finding a yoga class that fit my schedule so I wandered into Wendy Hay’s Pure Pilates studio to see what going on. I was perplexed by Pilates – why would one want to do 50 mins of sit-ups? But Wendy’s easy laughter, precise teaching and clean space quickly became addictive. So did getting stronger. It turns out that many of my aches and pains were coming from being too flexible and Pilates helped me maintain my mobility while greatly increasing my stability.
Then, a year and a half ago Wendy decided to take on a new baby (her boutique store Mae) and I decided to take a Pilates Mat training course in hopes of maintaining our group’s weekly practice. And over the past year I have done just that and while I can’t duplicate Wendy’s expert class rhythm, I’ve enjoyed integrating the anatomy and alignment I’ve learned from my 20 years of teaching yoga.
A permanent home
When the lease for the studio became available last month it seemed like an obvious place to anchor my weekly classes. No more shlepping mats, forgetting the box of class-cards, squeezing my classes in around other people’s schedules or remembering which key unlocks which door!
I am very happy to claim Mountain Studio as my home base. It’s nice to have a permanent home for my yoga and Pilate’s props and of course my reformer, and it’s wonderful to finally have my own space for private lessons.
It’s been a bit of a whirlwind and it will take another month or so for me to pull together some of the stray pieces (website, signs . . . ), but my new weekly classes are already filling up. I’m also excited to have new class offerings from other teachers coming soon (make sure you’re on my email list to hear more).
Now, a quick note about next week’s schedule – the girls and I are headed to Fiddle Camp (for Lucy’s ninth birthday!) so I will be out of town June 14-19. However, Lane Lucas (who attended the Pilates Mat training course with me) will be teaching the Pilates Mat class on Tuesday and Thursday morning, and Jerome will teach the Monday evening yoga class. The Wednesday morning Creative Core class and Thursday morning beginning yoga class will be cancelled this week. I will be back to teaching the regular schedule on Saturday June 20th.
I am looking forward to sharing Mountain Studio with you, be sure to come by if you are in the area.
I’ll be leading my 7th annual Spring Cleanse April 17- May 7, 2016. I still call it a cleanse, even though the word shift would be much better.
I wrote this post last spring to address the reason why the term cleanse is misleading.
The whole idea of cleansing and detoxing is off-putting to many people. Not just because anyone with a science background can tell you that the human body is well-equipped with natural and effective detoxification pathways and that these pathways work whether you will them to or not and that purposely speeding up or otherwise enhancing these pathways is neither necessary nor helpful to your health. But also because the yoga world of cleansing and detoxing has become enmeshed with the less than healthy world of fasting, rapid weight-loss and body-perfection (read this funny and sadly accurate post about “Thinspiration” on yoga-beast.com)
So about the first point, yes, it is true, your liver works 24-7, performing 500+/- complex biological functions, including moment to moment detoxification. Your kidneys are amazing detoxification/elimination organs too, as is your colon, and to a much lesser degree, your sweat glands and lungs. Daily detoxification is like doing the dishes, sweeping the floor and putting away your clothes. It is a necessary daily task that keeps the system running smoothly.
About the second point. Fasting, cleansing and detoxing are indeed marketed as a body-positive way to loose weight while also getting that slim, fresh-eyed, yoga-glo look. But having tried so many of these (juice fasting, raw foods, sawdust and moss . . .) I can tell you that no rapid-weight loss plan is body-positive or healthy. Juice fasting and/or nutrient and calorie restricting “cleanses” can seriously mess with your metabolism (which takes weeks if not months to recover from). In addition, these fasting detox diets don’t help you develop real-life eating and relaxation skills and they can seriously undermine your own body-wisdom and self-esteem.
Over the last decade I have come to understand that the “cleanse” that most of us need most of the time is a simple, nutrient dense rest and renewal. What we need are a few weeks to remember how good good food tastes and we need a little structure and support to get us back on the vegetable wagon. New, simple recipes, new spices to inspire us and a menu plan to help us prepare more meals at home. A few guidelines to help cut out the junk calories and stimulants so our organs and glands can get a break. That’s it. You might loose weight, you might not. You will very likely feel better either way.
House cleaning versus house resting
It’s not that you need to do more housecleaning. Most of us can get away with several months (even years) of cursory daily house cleaning before the ring around the toilet bowl or the dust bunnies under the bed seriously impacts our quality of living. But if a cursory pick up is all we have the energy for at the end of the day then when do we repair the broken chair leg or the clogged toilet?
A healthy body follows a similar strategy. Regular daily detoxification cleans up most of the mess. If all goes well we get sick once or twice a year and feel pretty good in between. We sleep soundly and feel rested in the morning, our skin is clear, our elimination is regular and our mood and energy patterns are stable.
But if we don’t take regular breaks from the common stressors in our life (diet and lifestyle) we leave little time for restoration and repair. Over time we start to feel the effects. Our digestion gets cranky, we get sick more frequently, our joints ache, our breath smells . . .
A good cleanse is a good break
And that’s when a seasonal cleanse can help. Ideally a Spring Cleanse and Sugar Detox is a way of taking the load off your system so that not only can your body perform it’s normal, natural everyday detoxification, but it can also start to repair and heal your otherwise neglected gut, skin, hair and joints.
The less stressful a cleanse is, the more repair can happen. That’s why my cleanses provide an easy to follow, satisfying, anti-inflammatory diet complimented by stress-reducing daily practices. That’s also why I don’t use a one-size-fits all approach. For some simply eating three regular meals a day is a huge relief for their system, while for others that schedule feels too restricting and causes a good deal of hunger-fear – which totally defeats the purpose. Some love the comfort and simplicity of a Kitchari monodiet while others gag at any mention of the K word.
Probably the biggest obstacle I face when leading my group cleanses is convincing people that it’s ok to make and follow their own rules. We have been trained to rely on experts and we’ve lost trust in our bodies and our own wisdom. It’s tricky because external boundaries and rules are helpful for getting us back on track until we can start to feel our own way again. So yes, my cleanses include rules – they are the rules that I have found help most people feel better most of the time. They are rules to help get you oriented, to provide structure and support, to free you up. They are not meant to be permanent, punitive or self-limiting.
Clear the way for self-empowerment
There you have it, my cleanses aren’t about cleansing or detoxing. I mean, those things are going to happen – if you’ve been eating a lot of sugar or drinking a lot of coffee and then you suddenly stop doing those things, you will trigger a natural detoxification response.
But really, my cleanses are about taking the load off. They are about reducing the “noise” of inflammation and reactive mucous so you can start to clearly feel and hear your own body’s wisdom. They are about exploring how you respond to different stressors in your life and giving yourself the time and perspective to shift those things as needed. I believe that you know exactly what you need to do, and my job is to help you hear it.
If this sounds good you can read more about my upcoming Spring Cleanse here.